Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
Halting his hurried steps, Heath paused briefly at the front door of the Barkley home, making a quick attempt to brush the morning’s dirt off his well-worn chaps. He had not planned a midday return to the mansion and was mildly piqued at his forgetfulness. Audra's morning bluster had sent them all scrambling early and in his haste to get out of her way, he had left his pocketknife on his dresser. His sister had something up her sleeve these days but there was no telling what it might be. Smiling to himself and hoping to get in and out unnoticed, he made his way towards the stairs as silently as his boots would allow. He had almost reached the stairs when his eyes drifted towards the parlor. He stopped in his tracks, puzzled by what he saw.
Audra, normally a whirl in perpetual motion, was sitting quite still, surrounded by numerous pieces of silver, evidently in the process of being cleaned. Heath had his suspicions of what she was up to. But something about the way she was sitting, shoulders set and hands lax in her lap, compelled him to put those aside and approach her. As he got closer, he saw that she was facing the portrait above the fireplace, her gaze fixed and unseeing. All was not well.
Startled from her mental wanderings, Audra jumped and turned sharply, to see Heath watching her with concern. She swiped at her cheeks, and looked down at the cloth in her hands, as if seeing it for the first time. Avoiding his gaze, she moved nonchalantly back to her polishing. “Heath, you caught me wool gathering. What are you doing home?”
Heath wasn’t fooled. Hat in hand, he approached her gently, reaching for her chin. As he turned her face towards him, he saw tears glistening in her eyes.
“Audra, what is it?”
For a moment, she simply looked at him, and he held his breath, unsure of what her response would be. To his surprise, she gathered him in a fierce hug and held onto him tightly. Heath, not a demonstrative man by nature, nonetheless had been raised in a house full of women and knew when to hold fast. After a beat, Audra let go and with an embarrassed chuckle and an unladylike sniffle, dried her eyes.
“So Sweetheart, ya gonna tell me what this is all about? What’s goin' on in there?” He gently tapped her forehead with his finger. Smiling ruefully, Audra sighed. “So much of nothing, Heath, so much of nothing.” Taking a deep cleansing breath, she stood, putting aside her work, offering her hand. “Walk with me?”
With his hat placed back on his blond head, Heath took her arm and they moved out through the French doors to the garden beyond. Audra remained quiet, unusually pensive as they strolled, connected through the light touch of hands and comforting arms. Heath, ever mindful, allowed her this silence. They walked, sharing their thoughts with the birdsong, the humming of lazy bees in the roses, and the distant lowing of cattle, as they soaked in the late summer sun’s warmth. Feeling a strong sense of need in Audra’s touch, Heath led them to a garden bench overlooking the western skyline. Settling down, he leaned into her, gently prodding, as he might a frightened filly, “So Audra, gonna let me in?”
Holding tight to his arm, she looked out to the horizon. “Heath, do you know that tomorrow marks one year since you have been with us?”
Slightly taken aback that her feelings concerned him, Heath answered. “Ah . . . actually, no. Knew we musta been closing in on a year or so, but never really paid much attention to dates and such.”
“A year, Heath. Three hundred and sixty five days.” Looking around at him now, she continued. “Yet you are so much a part of who we are now, who I am, that I forget you haven’t been here my whole life. And then a word, a memory surfaces and reminds me of all the time lost to us, as children, as . . .” She sighed with a tinge of sadness. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be melancholy, in fact I had been thinking about my own childhood and got sidetracked – seems to happen to me a lot these days”
Lost in thought for a moment, Audra absently fondled something in her hand, something that she had carried with her from the parlor. Focusing now on the coin held in her hand, she began again.
“Father was so good to us Heath. I know that what he was to you is different and sometimes, I am just so angry with him for that . . .” As she fingered the coin, Audra shook her head. “I remember he was gone a lot or it seemed so when I was little. He was building the ranch, expanding the businesses, growing the family – his responsibilities to us took him away from us more than any of us liked. But he always found time for each of us when he was home. Family times were evening meals or Sunday services and picnics. The ranch was the bond he shared with the boys, although he and Jarrod would often sneak down after bed to be found late evenings reading by the fire. For me, well, I was his Little Princess. He would bounce me on his knee, tickling me, always stroking my hair . . .” Absently reaching for a blonde tress, Audra twirled it in her fingertips. “He was such a terrific storyteller, Heath. Mother used to tease him about his “tall tales”; you know that’s probably where Nick gets his Irish blarney. Father shared his world with us in his stories.”
Holding up the worn face of the silver coin, she paused, momentarily caught in the past. “After one of his trips up North, I think I was about seven, he gave me a gift – this coin –a turn of the century silver dollar. He told me this was a magic coin, full of mystical voices and it would lead me all around the world, to the past, to the future. He would hold me in his lap, wrapping his arms around me so snuggly the whole world was held at bay and he would tell me of the coin’s travels.
“See this dent near her hair ribbon, Princess? Well perhaps that was marked there by the bite of a gunslinger’s bullet . . .See how worn her face is? Many hands have held her smoothing those finely etched ridges. If we listen, maybe we can hear the clacking of wagon wheels as some family crossed the plains to homestead, or the tinkling keys of a player piano on a gambler’s river boat down the Mississippi . . .”
Even then, I knew this was not a spending coin; it was special for me, Father’s Lil’ Princess. I kept it with me all the time, under a pillow, wrapped in a hankie in a pocket, safely tucked in the flap of my prayer book. I would take it out and hold it and the magic would take me to all those places only dreamed of. And Father’s arms would wrap around me and share the joy of our secret worlds, even when he was far away. Even after he was gone forever. When Father gave me this beat up old coin, he really gave me the world.”
At this, Audra grew silent. Reaching behind her, Heath gently stroked her hair and then rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. One did not have to know the man to know the sorrow and pain of loss. Audra’s fist tightened over the coin. “Heath, I hate that you never knew our Father and that he never knew you. I can’t fix that. I can’t change that. I believe that he would love you as we do, as I do – that he would be so proud of the man you are. I think, Heath, Father might have been a lot like you, when he was younger. I know Mother thinks so . . . I hope that as time goes by, you’ll let us share some of what he was to each and everyone one of us, with you.” Audra glanced at Heath as she spoke, her own eyes full, “but I can see how hard this is for you now. Ah well, listen to me babbling like a brook – heh, there actually is a point to all of this.”
Reaching over, Audra took Heath’s hand, placing the warm coin in his palm, and closed her fingers over his. “Heath, I can’t change the past, I can’t right a wrong just ‘cause, in fact there is precious little I can do. This, though, this I can do. This is for you Heath – a piece of our father, a piece of our history and life for you to hold onto.”
The warmth of the coin held firmly in place by Audra’s hand on his fought its way to his heart. Silent, Heath stood and, leaning forward, placed a gentle kiss on Audra’s brow. Turning away, he paced the enclosed garden – to and fro, to and fro, rolling the coin in his hand. Not certain how her words and gift had been received, but committed to waiting this out, Audra watched her brother of one known year, giving him the time and space he so clearly needed. At that moment, so in tune to her father’s memory, she saw her father in Heath – the tilt of his head, the stance of his pacing, his quiet thoughtfulness and the depth of his feelings.
As he stopped to lean against the garden wall, Heath tilted back his hat and faced Audra. Smiling that self-deprecating lop-sided smile of his, Heath spoke softly. “My mama was as strong and as beautiful and sometimes as prickly as these old rose bushes here. She gave me everything she was – her love, her heart, her laughter. I grew up loved, Audra, in that cabin in Strawberry. She would tell me stories of my papa, how good he was, how much he loved us. It wasn’t until I grew old enough to ask the hard questions that he became someone I could not abide. My home, my life became a lie.” Quietly, he began pacing again, gazing out to the horizon.
“So I left. I went . . . to the four winds, anywhere they would take me, traveling to but always, always away from. By the time Mama died, well, all I thought I had left in me was pain – of loss, of hate, of anger. Of fear. Fear that I might never again be wrapped in the arms of unconditional love. Home was not a word that meant anything to me but emptiness.” The sounds of the garden were still now as if even the birds were listening.
“But my mama, she was one smart woman, and when she died, she sent me on a journey that I most likely could’na gone on before – a journey I could’na ever imagined. She sent me here, Audra.”
Heath crossed the garden and settled back down on the bench, shoulder to shoulder with his sister. Grasping her hands in his, coin again palm to palm, Heath continued.
“Your father gave you the world in this coin. He opened your eyes to all that is out there and beyond. This is a piece of your history with him – it is yours and yours alone. I can not accept this – it is yours Audra”
A softly placed finger against her lips stopped Audra’s escaping words. “Audra, this is your gift from your father to you. But, my beautiful sister, you have reminded me that I have been given something remarkable by your. . my father, our father. . . I have been given you. I have been given a family – such brothers and a sister this child only dreamed of, and a woman who embraces me with a mother’s arms - something that I knew I had lost forever. I have been given a home and a legacy that is beyond words. A place to rest when my travels are done.”
“Our father gave me that gift by giving me y’all. And you, you Audra, you have opened my eyes today to something that I thought I could never have. And that is a gift I will never let go of.” Wrapping her fingers now around the coin, Heath pulled her to him, surrounding her not only with his arms, but with his soul. Pulling back, he raised her hands, coin and all, to be kissed gently, loving blue eyes seeking the same eyes looking back. Playfully, he tweaked her nose. “Gotta love you for that, Sis’. And while I can be hopin’ that Father might be thinkin’ kindly on me, I know Mama would be loving you.”
Her eyes dropped to the coin now back in her hand; Audra’s face glowed with an embarrassed but satisfied smile. With a wink at Heath, she flipped the coin in the air. Deftly catching it, she tucked it safely into her apron pocket. Arm in arm once more, they turned to leave the garden. Walking back to the house, Heath looked over his shoulder and then sheepishly leaned into Audra.
“So, uh . . .would it be too much to hope that even though I gave back your wonderful gift, I might still get some of that chocolate cake you and Silas have been hiding from me all morning? Maybe we can even use some of that fancy silver you’ve been polishin’ fer no reason?” Heath winked back.
Audra’s laugh rang out, the lilting joy warming Heath’s soul. Family indeed, Heath thought to himself, a legacy to hold hard.