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.
“Nick, could you pass the biscuits, please?” Amy asked at
breakfast the next morning. Her brother-in-law passed her the basket, and she
smothered a still-warm biscuit with butter and some of Victoria’s homemade
strawberry preserves. She took a bite and couldn’t stop a pleasurable sound
from escaping her lips. Heath looked amusedly at his wife and turned to Audra.
“Big party tonight, huh, Sis?” he asked her.
Audra nodded. “Mm hm, it’s promising to be great fun. Caroline has the most wonderful menu planned, and I’m sure the dancing will go on ‘til dawn with that new band she’s hired.”
Nick looked at her. “And just who’s taking you to this thing?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.
She pursed her lips, slightly annoyed. “Drew Carson, if you must know” she answered. “I hope he meets with your approval, big brother,” she added.
“Jarrod…” Amy interrupted, gesturing toward the biscuits. He passed them over with a smile and she quickly devoured another one.
Nick nodded slowly, his fork stopping in mid-air. “Not a bad guy…but I’ll still be waiting up for you tonight, young lady,” he said, trying to sound stern.
Audra smiled at him smugly. “Well, it’s going to be a long wait,” she said. “Several of the girls are spending the night at Caroline’s after the party- including me!”
“Ah, a regular hen party,” Jarrod teased. “I’m glad I’ll be safe at home, away from all the cackling!”
His sister sighed and shook her head. “And just what excitement do you have planned? Let me guess- billiards!”
Heath nodded. “That’s right, Sis. It’s the championship,” he said, chuckling slightly.
Amy looked at Nick. “Nick, could you pass the-“
Nick interrupted her by holding up a silencing hand. Without a word, he put the basket of biscuits in front of her. Jarrod quickly moved the butter and preserves next to the biscuits. “Now you’re all set,” he said, winking at her.
Everyone at the table laughed, including Amy. “It’s like I said last night- eating and sleeping,” she said ruefully. Heath gave her hand a gentle squeeze under the table.
“My niece or nephew’s gonna come out weighing twenty pounds, the way you’re going,” Nick kidded with a smile.
“Now, Nick, don’t tease her,” Victoria admonished her middle son. “It’s perfectly normal for an expectant mother to have a big appetite. Why, when I was carrying you, I put away enough food to feed an army- I never ate so much Chicken Creole in my life! You were quite the hungry baby,” she remarked.
“And he still is,” Jarrod chimed in- motioning to his brother’s mouth full of eggs, causing the table to erupt in laughter once again.
Later that morning, Nick found Heath in the barn. “Been looking for you, brother,” he said. “This just came- it’s got your name on it,” he added, holding out an envelope.
Heath took off his gloves, his brow creasing. “Who’d send me a telegram?” he wondered aloud.
“Only one way to find out,” Nick remarked.
His brother opened the envelope and read the contents, his face breaking into a smile. “Well, whaddaya know,” he said. “Otis Folsom’s ready to sell us that stallion!”
Nick looked at the missive over his brother’s shoulder. “That’s wonderful, just wonderful,” he said happily. “That’s some of the finest breeding stock I’ve seen in ages.” He looked at his brother. “You know, Heath,” he remarked. “Could be that our bid wasn’t the highest- I think Old Otis just wanted to do something nice for a good buddy- or maybe get a chance for a game of poker with his favorite opponent.”
Heath raised an eyebrow. “Could be,” he agreed. Otis Folsom was one of the most successful horse breeders in Northern California, a position that belied his humble beginnings. He’d grown up poor as a church mouse, and his father had run out on the family when he was a boy. Otis had fought tooth and nail to become the wealthy man he was now. He and Heath had clicked from their first meeting, their similar pasts providing them with common ground, and Otis had grown quite fond of the younger man over the past few years. “But whatever the reason, I’m glad we’re gettin’ that horse. And seein’ as how he made a point of puttin’ my name on the wire, I guess I’ve gotta be the one to go Brewster City and pick it up,” he said, turning quiet.
“Heath,” Nick started, “I’ll go if you don’t want to leave Amy, I-“
But his brother shook his head. “Thanks, Nick, but you’ve done that too many times for me the past few months. I’ll take this one.” He thought for a minute. “I could leave right after lunch, get there before dark- be back early tomorrow afternoon.”
Nick nodded. “Good idea. I’ll wait on branding those Herefords ‘til you get back,” he said, clapping his brother on the shoulder.
After lunch was over and good-byes had been said to the family, Heath got up and took Amy’s hand. “Walk me out,” he said. On their way to the door he picked up the bedroll he’d prepared earlier and put on his coat. Before he could fasten it, Amy reached around his waist, under his coat, and hugged him tightly.
Heath put his arms around her. “I’ll be back before you know it, darlin’,” he said softly, stroking her hair.
She looked up at him and nodded. “I know,” she said. “It had to happen sooner or later- your being gone overnight. I’ll just miss you,” she added.
“Me too,” he answered her, holding her more tightly.
“That bed will seem so empty without you,” Amy whispered, smiling slightly. “And I hate to think of you sleeping all alone, too.”
He gave her a lopsided grin. “Lucky for me, I’ll have the memory of last night to keep me company,” he said.
“Heath!” She looked around quickly to make sure no one had heard and slapped him lightly on the chest. “You’re terrible, you know that?”
He chuckled. “I know,” he said. “But you love me anyway, right?”
Amy looked into his eyes and nodded. “Yes, I do,” she said softly. “I love you more than I can say.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” he answered, looking at her tenderly before kissing her forehead. “And remember- I don’t want you doin’ anythin’ harder than liftin’ the fork to your mouth, understood?”
She laughed. “Understood.”
Heath opened the door and they stepped outside. “You’d better get inside, it’s cold out here,” he said.
His wife shook her head. “As soon as you leave.”
He gave her a long, lingering kiss and then went to the barn. After mounting up, he rode Charger past the front of the house, turning to wave at Amy. She smiled and waved back before he turned and rode off into the distance.
A sudden gust of wind picked up, making the outdoors even chillier. Amy shivered as she drew her shawl more closely around her, then turned around and went back into the house.
“Jarrod!” Nick bellowed as the front door closed behind him. “Where the devil is he…Jarrod!” he shouted again.
Amy and Victoria looked up from their seats in the parlor. “Nick, what is it?” his mother asked as Jarrod emerged from the study and entered the room.
“Yes, I’d like to know, too,” Jarrod said. “What’s got you in such an uproar?”
Nick took a deep breath, trying to compose himself. “That was Judson Boulder at the door just now. He’s got some of our brand-new Herefords roaming around his property, and he thinks some of them may have even gone farther, out his boundary line near Peck’s Creek where some of his fence is rotted through.”
Jarrod looked puzzled. “But how could those beeves have gotten out? Weren’t they fenced in-“
“Of course they were fenced in!” Nick said angrily. “They were grazing in the north pasture, and I checked that line fence myself just the other day. I must have missed a spot…” He shook his head. “Point is, they’re out there, unbranded, and I’ve gotta go try and herd ‘em in. I could use some help, big brother.”
“Me?” Jarrod asked, amused. “You’re asking me to go round up stray cattle? How about some of the hands- oh, it’s Saturday night,” he realized, nodding, answering his own question.
“That’s right,” Nick said. “Not a man around, and I’d rather not go out there on my own after a dozen head. With you there, it shouldn’t take all that long, Jarrod.” At his brother’s hesitation, Nick’s tone turned more conciliatory. “Aw, come on, Jarrod- those beeves cost me a pretty penny, and not being branded and all, they’re found treasure for anyone out there. Lucky for us Boulder’s a good neighbor, not the thieving kind.”
Jarrod sighed and nodded his head. “All right, all right, I’ll go with you. It’s almost dark, though- and I’m a little out of practice at this sort of thing, you know.”
Nick smiled. “Aw, you and your lily-white hands’ll do just fine, believe me. And we’ve got a good hour of light left- should be enough time to get most of ‘em, if not all. Come on, let’s not waste any more time talking about it.”
The two men got ready to go. As they were walking out the door, Jarrod called back, “Mother, make sure Silas has some strong coffee waiting when we get back.” He glanced over at Nick and grimaced slightly. “After an hour of chasing strays with this one, I’m going to need it.” Nick grinned broadly in response.
Victoria nodded. “Coffee- and food- will be waiting,” she promised.
As the men left, Victoria looked at her daughter-in-law. “Well, I guess it’s just the two of us for a while,” she said, smiling.
Amy nodded, strangely quiet.
Victoria looked at her sympathetically. “It’s hard being away from your husband for the first time. Believe me, I know,” she said.
Her daughter-in-law sighed. “Oh, I don’t mean to feel sorry for myself, but…I have to confess, I do miss him,” she admitted ruefully.
The petite matriarch nodded and put her hand over Amy’s. “I know, dear, I know. But he’ll be back tomorrow, and you’ll appreciate each other all the more for having been apart, even for just a short time.”
Amy reached over and gave her mother-in-law a hug. “How did you ever get to be so wise?” she asked.
Victoria laughed. “Years of practice, dear,” she said. “Have I told you lately how excited I am about becoming a grandmother?”
The pretty brunette nodded, smiling. “Only about twice a day,” she said good-naturedly.
“Well, I am,” the older woman stated emphatically as they both laughed. She suddenly clasped her hands together excitedly. “That reminds me, there’s something I want to show you, something for the baby,” she said.
“What’s that?” Amy asked, intrigued.
“A christening gown,” Victoria answered. “Jarrod, Nick and Audra all wore it- and I’d be so proud if my grandchild would, too,” she said hopefully.
Amy looked at her happily. “Mother, that would be wonderful,” she said. “Where is it, I’d love to see it.”
Victoria thought for a minute. “I think it’s up in the attic- I’ll go get it,” she said before getting up and walking to the stairs.
Amy looked around for her book to read while she waited for her mother-in-law to return before remembering that she’d left it in the study. She went into the room and spent a few minutes looking at the myriad of books on the shelves before reaching for her own. The booted footsteps behind her made her smile as she turned around. “Nick, did you forget something-”
She stopped, gasping with fright when she found herself looking into a pair of black eyes she’d thought she’d never see again.
Their owner’s mouth was twisted into a smile. “Evenin’, ma’am.”
“Jarrod- get that one over there, he’s getting away!” Nick
called out impatiently. His brother obligingly twirled his lasso and threw it-
“Dammit, Jarrod, you haven’t gotten one since we’ve been out here. What’d you come along for, anyway?” Nick said angrily.
His brother looked at him in amazement. “ ‘What did I come along for’?” he repeated. “Nick, you badgered me into this- I told you I’m out of practice! And the light isn't’ exactly optimal, either.”
“All right, all right,” his brother said, contrite. “You’re right, I forgot this isn’t your thing.” He expertly tossed his lasso and roped the Hereford, bringing it into line with the others. “I figure we’ve got most of them, let’s keep going.”
Jarrod sighed. “Nick, it’s almost dark, can’t you and some of the hands come back in the morning?”
Nick shook his head. “By then those beeves could be halfway to Frisco. Come on, Jarrod, just a little longer, then we’ll head back.”
Another sigh escaped Jarrod. “All right, but if we haven’t found any more by then-“
His brother held up a placating hand. “Then I’ll try again in the morning, I promise.” The two men rode off, continuing their search.
Amy looked at the man in front of her, too scared to even move. “Betcha didn’t think you’d ever see me again, huh?” Luke Haggerty said, leering at her.
She shook her head. “What are you doing here?” she asked quietly.
“Unfinished business, ma’am,” he answered. He gestured with his revolver to the door. “If you’d be so kind as to go into the parlor,” he said with exaggerated politeness. When Amy remained where she was, his voice turned cold. “Now,” he ordered. She obligingly walked past him into the parlor, where she was horrified to see his brother Wade, standing at the drinks table. He put down the bottle he was drinking from. “Ma’am,” he greeted her with a smile.
“Amy, it’s too dark up there, I’ll have to get a candle-” Victoria stopped mid-sentence from where she stood near the top of the staircase and looked at the intruders.
“Ma’am,” Luke said as he looked up at her, tipping his hat. “I’d appreciate you joinin’ us down here, if’n you don’t mind.”
Any thought Victoria had of running back upstairs was dashed when she realized that her daughter-in-law was alone with the two men. She slowly descended the staircase. “Would you mind telling me what you’re doing in my home, Luke?” she asked coldly.
“Not ‘tall, ma’am,” Luke answered, smiling. “Just as soon as I help myself to some of your fancy liquor. Wade- gimme that bottle.”
“Silas!” Victoria suddenly remembered. “Where’s Silas?” At Luke’s grin, a look of fear passed over her face. “No, you didn’t-“
“Don’t you worry none about your fancy butler, ma’am- he’ll be fine. Might have himself a little headache when he wakes up, but he’ll be none the worse.” He and Wade shared a laugh. “You didn’t think we killed him, ma’am? Naw, we ain’t that type- we don’t go around killin’ for the fun of it. Not like that bastard you call your son.” Victoria started to retort, but he interrupted her. “The two a yas- whyncha go set yourselves down right there so’s I can keep an eye on yas,” he said, pointing to the settee. The two women looked at each other before silently complying.
“There now, that’s better,” Luke said, putting a foot up on a chair. He looked at Amy. “Where’s your husband, ma’am?”
She wasn’t sure exactly how much to reveal. “He’s…he’s not here,” she said.
Luke shook his head. “Wrong answer, ma’am,” he said, sighing. “So I’ll ask ya again- where is he?”
Amy answered him more firmly this time. “I told you he’s not here, and that’s the truth- go look in the barn, you’ll see that his horse is gone.”
The oldest Haggerty scratched his head with his revolver. “That a fact,” he said, thinking.
“It is,” Victoria answered. “And my two other sons will be back any moment, so I suggest you leave as quickly as possible,” she added tightly.
Wade let out a short laugh. “That ain’t true, they ain’t comin’ right back- right, Luke?” he asked.
His brother shook his head. “’Fraid not, ladies.” He took a pair of wire-cutters out of his pocket as the two women looked on in horror. “Chasing down them cattle’ll take a while.”
“You cut the line fence,” Amy whispered in shock.
Luke took another swig from the bottle before smiling at her. “That’s right, ma’am,” he said. “Knew none a the hands’d be around this being Saturday night- figured we’d ambush your man when he went out looking for them beeves- we hid and waited, and whaddaya know, only the two of 'em come ridin' out. We figured on them bein’ there, but seein’ as how we’d have the upper hand, surprisin’ them and all, it’d be easy to take ‘em all out if need be.” He got up and walked over to the drinks table, examining the selection more closely.
Amy looked around the room, her eyes desperately seeking something she could use as a weapon. The only thing nearby was a table lamp- but could she get to it and hit Luke over the head with it before he stopped her? For she knew it would have to be Luke- he was much more dangerous than his brother, much more menacing. Wade was obviously little more than his brother’s lackey. She realized with dismay that it wouldn’t work- she’d never manage to get up, get to the lamp, and hit him before he or his brother would stop- and probably harm- her. And even if by some miracle she could…what if she didn’t hit him hard enough to knock him unconscious? She might only hurt him, and this would anger him even more.
For the first time, she wished she had let Heath teach her how to use a gun. He’d tried to, several times, telling her that it was important that in this part of the country she know how to protect herself. She’d always begged off, telling him to wait for another time. She hated guns; her father had been murdered with one and she was loath to even touch the things. But now she was bitterly regretting her procrastination. Anyway, even if she knew how to use a gun, she didn’t see how she’d be able to make it all the way to the gun cabinet. But maybe her mother-in-law would be able to, and she did know how to use one.
Amy looked at Victoria. The older woman put her hand over her daughter-in-law’s and squeezed it tightly. When Amy saw that the brothers’ attention was on the liquor, she murmured quietly, “Gun cabinet.” Victoria sighed and nodded, thinking the same thing, realizing that it would be almost impossible for either of them to reach it. And even if one of them did, the other would be at the brothers’ mercy. The only thought that comforted her right now was that Audra was staying over after the party and wouldn’t be back until morning. She only hoped this whole sorry mess would be over long before that.
Luke walked over and sat down in a chair. “But the only one we really want is that mongrel husband a yours, ma’am, so suppose you tell me when he’s comin’ back.”
Amy wasn’t sure how much she should give away. If she told Haggerty that Heath wouldn’t be back til morning, there was a chance he and his brother might simply leave- but then again, they might not. They might take out their revenge on her or Victoria instead. Perhaps it would be better to let him think that Heath would be back soon. True, they wouldn’t leave, would instead stay and wait for him- but Nick and Jarrod wouldn’t stay out past dark, which wasn’t far off- maybe if she could keep the man calm and talking until her brothers-in-law returned, they’d take care of these awful men.
So instead of answering his question, she stalled. “Why, what do you want with him?” she asked coldly, even though she already knew the answer.
“To kill ‘im, of course,” Haggerty said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “He done killed my brother, and now it’s up to me and Wade here to get our revenge, in his name.”
“But your brother shot at him first,” Victoria stated firmly. “And it was your own actions that led to him doing that. If you three hadn’t started drinking in the bunkhouse, you never would have been fired-“
Luke’s laughter interrupted her. “That’s what they told ya? That we got the sack for drinkin’ in the bunkhouse?” He and his brother laughed louder, causing a cold chill to go down Amy’s spine. She had the most horrible feeling she knew what he was about to say.
“No ma’am, we was let go cause someone done heard us…admirin’ this little lady here,” he said, gesturing toward Amy’s suddenly white face. “Now don’t ya go thinkin’ for one minute that we weren’t bein’ right…compli…compli-mentry of all your fine features, ma’am,” he added with a leer.
And finally, there it was, Amy thought. For somehow she’d always known, deep down, that their dismissal had had something to do with her, no matter what story Heath had told her. She couldn’t be mad at him for lying to her- he must have known how much it would upset her and had just wanted to spare her that. In fact, she would have been happy to go on not being sure, and that’s how it would have been, if the Haggertys hadn’t come here tonight. She was all the more frightened now, but tried to make herself relax and not show fear.
Victoria was stunned, this was the first she’d heard of it. “Then your dismissal was more than justified,” she said disgustedly, wishing her sons had warned her, though immediately understanding that they hadn’t wanted to worry her. “And your brother had no right to take a shot at my son- and you don’t have that right, either, to just shoot him in cold blood with no justification.”
Luke didn’t answer her right away. He made a show of looking around the room. “You know, ma’am,” he addressed Victoria, “you sure got a mighty fancy house here. Why, you know, this here’s the first time we ever been inside, ain’t that right, Wade?” Wade finished the last drop from the bottle of port he was holding and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before nodding in agreement.
“Yep, a real fine house, fine things,” he said thoughtfully. “Now, me and Wade here- and our little brother Denny, who that bastard done murdered- we come from nothin’. But we had ourselves a Ma- a good woman, she was. And she taught us the Good Book- and I remember, plain as day, them words “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He nodded. “So ya see, ma’am, I got all the right in the world…all the…what was that fancy word ya used- justification- to avenge my brother’s death. The Good Book done says so.”
Victoria shook her head in exasperation. “But that passage isn’t meant to be taken literally, not in this day and age,” she stated firmly. She continued in a quieter tone, trying to make Luke see reason. “Luke, it sounds like your mother was a very good woman. Do you really think she’d want you to go after Heath this way, gun him down in cold blood? I can’t believe that,” she said. “And how will your becoming a killer do any honor to Denny’s memory?” She shook her head again. “No, Luke, the best way to honor both of those people who you loved so much would be to forget this whole thing, to go on with your lives and try to live decently.”
Luke laughed bitterly. “Live decent? And how is we supposed to do that, ma’am, when none’ll hire us? We done spent this past month goin’ up and down the coast, lookin’ for work. Word’s out- the Barkleys done fired us, so no one’ll touch us now.” His smile was wry. “Course, it weren’t a total waste of time- a month away was enough time for you folks to forget about the Haggertys, not be on your guard worried that we might up and come back to kill your husband’s bastard.”
Both Amy and Victoria realized, to their dismay, that the man was right. After Heath had been forced to shoot Denny, everyone on the ranch had been on their guard against the very real possibility that the remaining Haggerty brothers might come back and cause trouble. But as the weeks, and then a full month, had gone by, their precautions had dropped by the wayside, something that had obviously been a mistake.
Victoria tried another tactic. “If our family has caused any problem with your getting work, then I’ll be happy to compensate you. I can give you enough cash to get a fresh start- provided that you leave immediately.”
Luke smiled at her, nodding slowly. “Well, ma’am, that’s kindly of you, right kindly. And I may just take you up on that offer- right after we done what we come to do.” He glanced at the clock. “We done wasted enough time talkin’. Now I’m gonna ask ya again, little lady,” he said, looking straight at Amy. “When’s your man comin’ back?”
“I’m really not sure,” she answered slowly. “It could be ten minutes, it could be an hour.”
But Luke Haggerty was smart, cunning. He’d had to be in order to keep himself and his mother alive in the face of his abusive father. He knew people, could read them – and right now Amy’s face might as well have been an open book. He smiled evilly. “He ain’t comin’ back tonight, is he?” When she didn’t answer, he laughed. “Well, don’t that beat all. After all my plannin’, he ain’t even here.” He finished the bottle he’d been drinking from and threw it into the fireplace, its loud shatter making both women jump.
“I’ll ask you again to leave,” Victoria warned. “Leave now before my sons come back and we’ll forget this ever happened. There’ll be no need to even call in the sheriff-“
“Aw, lady, you must think I’m plumb stupid if ya think I’d fall for that,” Luke sneered at her before breaking open a bottle of the Barkley’s best whiskey.
“No,” Victoria said, shaking her head. “No, Luke, I don’t think you’re at all stupid. And I know you’re too smart to think you can possibly get away with this- or with harming two innocent women.”
“Now who said anything about harmin’ any defenseless females?” Luke asked. He looked at his brother. “Well, Wade, looks like we done wasted our time, comin’ here.” He gulped down half the whiskey before turning back to the women. “All right, we’ll be on our way. Wouldn’t do to have your boys gun us down before we get the chance to kill the one we come to kill. But we’ll get him another time- we’re real patient.”
Amy and Victoria were each starting to feel a bit of relief when Haggerty spoke again. “But I reckon we got some time til it’s dark, and they ain’t gonna be back afore then. I’m hungry- you hungry, Wade?”
“I could eat, Luke,” his brother answered.
Luke nodded. “All right, then. I reckon we got just enough time for some a your fancy victuals. Go in the kitchen and fix us a bite.”
Wade looked worried. “But Luke, maybe we oughtta just leave now-“
“I said somethin’, Wade! I give the orders around here, and doncha forget it!” he said angrily. Looking at the women, he said, “Now.”
Amy and Victoria both started to get up when Luke shook his head. “Uh uh, just you, ma’am,” he said to Victoria. “Gotta keep yas sep’rat, wouldn’t want yas tryin’ nothin’.”
Victoria’s voice was cold. “If you think I’m going to leave you here with my daughter-in-law –“
“Now, ma’am,” Haggerty said, deceptively gently, “Either you get in that kitchen pronto, or I’m gonna feel the need to give that butler a yours another whack with my piece here to make sure he’s still out. And sometimes I don’t know my own strength- I might just kill ‘im- by accident, a course,” he said with a slight grin.
“Mother,” Amy spoke softly. “Go ahead, I’ll be all right. The sooner you come back, the sooner these men will leave. Isn’t that right, Mr. Haggerty?” she asked him, trying to sound calm.
Luke nodded, smiling. “Word of honor, ma’am.”
Victoria realized that she had no choice. She took one last look at Amy, who nodded at her reassuringly, before making her way into the kitchen, Wade’s gun pointed at her back. She was shocked to find Silas lying on the floor, but was relieved to see that he was coming to. “Silas, are you all right?” she asked, bending over him. The servant nodded, grimacing as he put a hand to the back of his head. Victoria helped him to a sitting position. With an angry look at Wade, she quickly started taking food out of the cupboard while their captor held his gun trained on both of them.
“Nick, that’s it- I’ve had enough,” Jarrod said firmly.
“But Jarrod, there’s still a little light left-“ Nick started to entreat.
But his brother stood his ground. “I mean it, Nick- I’m going back- with or without you,” he said, turning his horse around.
“Jarrod, wait up,” Nick said, resignedly. “All right, we’ll go back. I’ll go after the other three in the morning, just hope they won’t have gotten too far,” he said, as the two men started herding the recovered Herefords back to the ranch.
As they neared the portion of the fence where the cattle had broken through, Jarrod stopped suddenly. “Wait a minute, Nick.” He turned to his brother. “We didn’t check that fence on our way out.”
The lanky rancher shook his head. “Nope, I was in a hurry to start looking for these guys, I figured I’d take a look in the morning, when I can see better.”
“Maybe we should check it now,” Jarrod said thoughtfully. He bent forward, but there wasn’t enough light left to see well. “Got a match?”
“Yeah,” Nick said, his brow furrowing with realization as he reached into his pocket. “Jarrod, you don’t think-“
“I think we should find out,” his brother answered. Nick lit the match against a fence post and they examined the wire closely.
Nick swore under his breath. “Well I’ll be…” He looked at his brother, both of them thinking the same thing. “We’d better get the hell back to the house.”
Jarrod nodded, worried. “Lets go.” The two men rode like the wind, the cattle forgotten.
Luke holstered his gun and sat on the settee next to Amy, noticing how she nervously moved farther to her side. “Aw, ma’am, I ain’t gonna hurt ya,” he said. “We’ll be outta here soon enough, and I’d like to get me one last look at a fine, high-class woman like yaself.” He looked her up and down lasciviously, his gaze unnerving her. Luke finished the bottle of whiskey in his hand and let it fall the floor. Amy realized with dismay that the man had had too much to drink, making him all the more dangerous.
Her eyes fell on the bottle lying near her feet. If she could just get to it, pick it up, she’d have no compunction at all about smashing it over his head- this filth who wanted to kill her husband and who was looking more threatening by the moment. But as if he could read her mind, Luke smiled evilly and kicked it out of her reach.
“Wouldn’t want ya to be tempted to knock me out, ma’am,” he said. Suddenly his gaze softened. “Ya’ll sure do smell nice,” he remarked. “And I can’t rightly remember seein’ such pretty hair on a gal.” He reached out a hand and touched her curls before Amy jerked her head away, looking at him angrily. She tried to get up but his hand on her shoulder pushed her back down. “Come on, lady, you wanna stay on my good side.”
The leer on his face frightened her. “No reason why this trip should be a total loss,” he muttered. To Amy’s horror, he ran his fingers through her hair again; a wave of nausea washed over her as he moved closer to her and buried his face in her neck.
Making a sound of disgust, Amy managed to push him away with both hands and got up. She tried to get away, but Luke leapt to his feet and caught her arm. “Guess ya think yer too good fer the likes a me, huh?” he asked, looking slightly angry. “That’s just somethin’ I don’t ken, lady, seein’ as how you married a product of sin.” He pulled her against him and pressed his lips against hers. Repulsed, Amy twisted her head away, but that was all she could do as his hand still had a death grip on her arm. She wanted to scream, but managed to stay silent, afraid of scaring Victoria.
“You dare touch me again and my husband will hunt you down…he’ll never let you get away with this,” she said, trying not to show fear though inside she was scared to death.
Luke laughed bitterly. “I’m countin’ on it, lady,” he answered, still holding her arm. “Let Ol’ Heath come lookin’ for me- then no one’ll say it wasn’t no fair fight when I kill ‘im.” He suddenly had a thought. “Ya know, you can make thing’s a whole lot better for that bastard husband a yours- I’m feelin’ real gen’rous today…so I’m willin’ to forget about killin’ him if’n ya don’t fight me- not too hard anyway,” he laughed as he pulled her close again and ran his hands over her body.
“No!” she whispered, trying to squirm away. She could smell the liquor on his breath as his lips once again pressed against hers. “Please, no,” she begged. He looked at her and smiled maliciously, enjoying the fact that Heath’s wife was begging him. He’d never felt so powerful. The high it gave him sent a burst of adrenalin through his veins as he suddenly put his hand to the neck of her dress and pulled, ripping it down the front, leaving only her camisole to cover her.
Terrified, choking on her tears, Amy tried to think of a way to stop him. The thought of what he wanted to do to her was too much to bear. She was loathe to tell him something so personal, but quickly realized that she had no choice. “Please,” she begged again, trying to push him away. “Please, don’t…I’m with child,” she said desperately, trying to reach some human, compassionate corner of his sick, drunken mind.
But to her horror, the grin on his face grew broader. “Well, whaddaya know?” he marveled. “I wouldn’ta thought that mongrel husband a yours woulda had the stuff.” The idea of having his way with Heath’s pregnant wife, ruining her for the bastard before he killed him, was too delicious to ignore, and it pushed every ounce of reason out of his head. All the liquor he’d just downed didn’t help matters any.
“Well, I’ll tell ya what, ma’am,” he said, holding her tightly against him as she unsuccessfully tried to free herself, “I’ll be extra gentle with ya- and we can go in there and lock the door so’s no one bothers us,” he added, gesturing toward the study as his fingers dug into her hair once more.
Amy was unable to stay silent any longer. “No!” she screamed desperately, struggling against him. Luke started toward the study, half dragging his unwilling victim. “No, stop!”
Victoria heard her daughter-in-law scream and threw down the plate she was holding, moving towards the kitchen door. “I wouldn’t, ma’am,” Wade warned, taking aim at her with his gun.
She looked at him disgustedly. “Go ahead, then, shoot me in the back,” she said, running out the door with him behind her.
“Make it easier on yaself, lady,” Luke was muttering to Amy, almost managing to pull her into the study.
She couldn’t let him do this to her. Screaming again, she clawed at his face, her nails digging into his skin. Luke inhaled sharply with pain, not even noticing Wade’s and Victoria’s arrival. He put a hand to his face and touched the three red lines there, then examined the blood left on his fingers by the wounds.
Luke looked at the petrified girl, his black eyes blazing with anger and malice. “Bitch!” he hissed, and she let out a final terrified scream as his hand raised high in the air before he backhanded her cheek with all the force he possessed. The blow propelled her towards the stairs where she slammed against the banister before falling down, the back of her head hitting the floor with a sickening thud.
“Amy!” Victoria cried, running over to her. She lay unmoving on the floor, her eyes closed.
Wade looked nervously at his brother. “Luke!” They hadn’t
planned on this- at least, Luke hadn’t said anything to him.
Luke stood there, looking at the girl on the floor with the weeping older woman bent over her, gently rubbing her cheek. He ran a hand over his mouth, the enormity of what he’d done sinking in, sobering him up as no amount of sleep ever could. He hadn’t planned on trying to have his way with the girl- hell, he thought they’d kill the bastard out by where they’d cut the fence and never get near the house. But he just hadn’t been able to resist Heath’s woman, and now he cursed his stupidity.
Dying in a gunfight with Heath Barkley was a possibility that he’d entertained and had decided that he was willing to chance in the pursuit of revenge for his brother’s death. But this…he looked again at the motionless girl and swallowed hard. If he’d killed a Barkley woman, and her being with child yet…he knew that his last moments on earth would be spent hanging from the end of a rope. Even if she didn’t die…he didn’t want to think of the consequences.
“C’mon, Wade, lets get the hell out of here,” he muttered, anxious to leave.
The door suddenly burst open. Nick and Jarrod ran inside, stopping as their eyes quickly surveyed the situation.
Luke panicked, thinking again of the rope that surely awaited him. He dove into the doorway of the study, reaching out a hand to pull his brother in, but didn’t quite manage. Wade, terrified, struggled to aim his gun at the Barkleys and was hit by Nick’s bullet before even getting off a shot. Luke watched as he fell to the floor.
Jarrod turned to his mother. “Mother, she’s not…”
Victoria shook her head, the tears running down her cheeks. “No, she’s alive, but-“
The two Barkley men looked at each other. They both had the same thought: one of them had to go for the doctor, but not before Luke was taken care of. Time was of the essence. “Haggerty, get out here! First I wanna see you throw your gun on the floor!” Nick yelled. When there was no answer, he continued. “I’m losing patience. You don’t have a chance and you know it! I’m giving you all of five seconds to get out here before the two of us come in there!”
Luke slowly came out into the entrance hall, his hands raised in the air. He smiled nervously at the two gun barrels pointed at him.
“I know when to give up,” he said amicably. “I’m gonna throw my piece down, nice and easy-like,” and started to lower his arm. He suddenly raised it and aimed his revolver at the two men. But only one shot was heard- that of Jarrod’s gun. Luke’s face was an agonized visage as he landed next to his brother.
Knowing that he was the faster rider, Nick was already running out the door. “Going for the doc,” he called over his shoulder.
Jarrod stood looking at his sister-in-law lying on the floor, her unmoving form all too familiar, all too similar to the way his own wife had looked on that terrible day almost two years ago. His heartbeat quickened, and he quickly shook his head, forcing himself to push the horribly parallel memory to the side. He couldn’t let himself get lost in the past, not when Amy’s life was at stake, here and now. He moved to the entry hall table and removed the cloth from it, modestly covering Amy where her dress was torn down the front.
A sudden movement from the floor caught Victoria’s eye. “Jarrod!” she shouted.
Jarrod quickly turned and saw the gun in Luke’s shaky hand, pointed in his direction. Grimacing, Haggerty was just about to pull the trigger when Jarrod’s revolver stopped him- this time for good. He got up and examined the two men to be sure. “They’re both dead,” he muttered, returning to his mother and kneeling down next to Amy’s still inert form.
Silas came out of the kitchen, his steps still wobbly. He took one look at Amy and gasped, putting a hand to his mouth.
“Silas,” Victoria said. “Nick’s gone for the doctor- why don’t you get things ready.” The faithful servant silently nodded and went to start collecting items that the doctor would need, his own pain forgotten.
Victoria put a hand on her son’s arm. “Jarrod, lets get her upstairs,” she said, her voice urgent.
He nodded, gently lifting Amy into his arms and making for the staircase. She suddenly moved her head and opened her eyes slightly, squinting with pain. “Ja…Ja’d…” she murmured, her voice barely audible.
Jarrod put a smile on his face. “You just relax, honey,” he said soothingly, his calm exterior belying how anxious he really was. “Everything’s going to be all right, I promise.” But her eyes were already closed again. He slowly made his way up the stairs holding Amy’s limp form, his mother right behind them.
Just another mile or so and he’d be home. Heath was glad to
see his journey come to an end, though the trip to Otis Folsom’s horse farm had
been a good one. He and Otis had spent an enjoyable evening drinking and
playing poker while catching up as well as reminiscing. He turned his head and
looked admiringly at the black stallion whose lead he was holding. Otis had
surprised him by announcing that he wouldn’t accept a dime for the horse; that
Heath should consider it a belated wedding gift. Heath had protested, knowing
how much money the older man could have gotten for the animal, but Otis had
It had been a profitable trip, but Heath missed his wife. Otis’s guest room had sported a large, comfortable bed, but Heath was glad that tonight he’d be back in his own bed with Amy. He hadn’t liked going to sleep alone and waking up alone, and was relieved that it had only been the one night. This was the longest they’d spent apart since they’d been married, and he was anxious to hold her in his arms and hear about what she’d been up to while he’d been gone. He knew as well that she’d be interested in hearing all about his trip. Heath thought he might just take the rest of the day off and spend it with his wife after getting some lunch. The thought of it made him smile.
He wondered if the baby would have started moving by the time he got back. He knew he was being silly; he’d only been gone a day and it was unlikely that such a big change would have happened, but he couldn’t help himself. He was eager to put his hands on his wife’s middle and feel their child moving and kicking. He didn’t know much about women being in the family way, but he figured it was still too soon for that. Still, that day couldn’t be too far off, and he couldn’t wait.
It sometimes still boggled his mind that he’d found his soulmate, his other half, in that smart, beautiful young woman who suited him like a glove. And that they’d have a child, a product of their love, in just five months…he couldn’t believe his good fortune after a life so full of hardship and misery. Only one cloud marred the horizon: his Ma wouldn’t see this baby. Not her, nor Aunt Rachel. But he vowed to move heaven and earth to make sure that Hannah would finally come to the Valley and see his firstborn. She, the sole remaining female of the triumvirate who’d raised him, who’d taught him to stand tall and be proud no matter what cruelties life threw at him.
He’d tried repeatedly to get her to come for a visit, but she’d always refused, saying it wasn’t her place. He’d finally been successful before his wedding, had finally convinced her to come, but at the last moment she’d taken ill and hadn’t been able to make the journey. But he was determined that she would come after the baby arrived. All the money he’d sent her in the past had been given to charity, to his chagrin. This time he’d send her a train ticket, and woe be unto her if she tried to refuse him. He’d make the trip to Strawberry and bring her back himself, if need be.
The sight of the Barkley brand on the sign in the distance made him all the more anxious to get home, and he urged Charger to move faster, holding more firmly to the lead of the stallion next to him.
The sound of horses’ hooves made Nick and Jarrod look up from where they sat in the parlor. Nick went to the window and glanced outside before nodding at his older brother. Jarrod looked down at Audra next to him on the settee, his arm wrapped tightly around her as she wept bitterly into his chest. “Go upstairs, honey,” he said gently. She nodded silently and complied. As if by some unspoken agreement, the two men walked to the front door and went outside, waiting. There was no way they could let their youngest brother go into the house unprepared, unwarned.
Heath saw one of the hands near the corral and waved him down. “Parley!” he called. He dismounted and handed the stallion’s lead to the man. “Take care of the both of ‘em , all right?” he asked. So eager was he to get in the house that he didn’t notice Parley’s silence, his downcast eyes.
Parley nodded and started leading the two horses away, stopping for a moment to watch as his boss walked to the big house. All the hands had been given strict instructions: not a word to Heath about what had happened. He sighed before turning and moving the animals toward the barn.
“Hey, what’s this, the welcomin’ committee?” Heath asked upon seeing his brothers on the porch.
“Heath…” Nick started.
“Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait, brother. Wanna say hello to my wife,” he answered, heading for the front door. Jarrod’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. “Just a minute, Heath,” he said firmly.
Their younger brother looked at them, at their solemn faces. “What is it?” he asked, worry starting to prick at him.
Nick took a deep breath. “Heath…there was some trouble while you were gone,” he said, wishing he didn’t have to tell him.
And in an instant, Heath knew. “The Haggertys,” he said in a low voice.
Nick looked at Jarrod. The lawyer nodded. “They cut the line fence last night when all of the hands were in town…some of the cattle got out and when Nick and I went out to chase them down…” He paused. “The two of them came into the house…”
“Amy,” Heath said suddenly, sounding anxious. “Where is she? And what about Mother?”
The two brothers looked at each other again, only heightening Heath’s worry. He started again for the front door but Nick stood in his way. “Heath, you’ve gotta listen to us before you go in there, please.”
Heath’s steely gaze fixed on his brother, his anxiety growing by the second. His voice was an icy hiss as he spat out the next words. “All right, you’ve got one minute to tell me what happened before I go inside- even if I have to tear you in half to do it.”
Nick hurried, knowing that his brother meant it. “Look, Heath…Mother’s fine, nothing happened to her, but it seems that Luke was…” it was excruciatingly hard for him to say, so he spat the words out as fast as he could, “was trying to have his way with Amy…but he didn’t, Heath, he didn’t,” he was quick to reassure his brother when he saw the look of anguish mixed with cold fury on his face. “She fought back, Heath, and he…he slapped her…she fell and hit her head, lost consciousness…” He put his hand on his brother’s arm. “Heath, she’ll be all right, the doc’s still up there with her, she-“
But his brother had already shaken off his arm and was storming into the house. “Heath, wait!” Jarrod called as he and Nick ran after him.
Heath didn’t even hear him as he saw Dr. Merar descending the staircase. He ran up and met him halfway. “Doc,” he said anxiously. “My wife- is she all right?”
The kindly physician nodded. He’d been up all night and was absolutely exhausted. “She should be fine, Heath. I was worried about the blow to the back of her head, but there doesn’t seem to be a concussion…”
As his voice trailed off, Heath knew. He supposed he’d known, deep down, since he’d seen his brothers’ faces outside, but he had to ask anyway. Maybe, just maybe….”Doc,” he said tentatively, “what about the baby?” His hand clutched tightly at the banister, his knuckles white.
But Dr. Merar was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, son. Not this time.” Heath took a step backward, almost as though he’d been struck, and barely noticed Nick’s strong hand on his arm, holding him up. “From what your mother told me…it was all too much, Heath.” Amy had miscarried soon after he’d arrived last night. But it hadn’t gone smoothly; her body hadn’t completely rid itself of what should have been kept inside for another five months. “Heath…there were some complications. Nature didn’t finish the job, and I had to make sure of it myself so as to prevent infection.” He spared the frightened young man the details of just exactly how he’d done that; the evil-looking tool already packed away once again in his medical bag. “Thing is, this kind of procedure lends itself to infection as well…so we’ll have to watch her very carefully over the next few hours, make sure she doesn’t start a fever.”
Seeing Heath’s pale, shocked face, the doctor put a hand on his shoulder. “Now you listen to me…Amy’s young and she’s strong. I don’t see any reason why she shouldn’t make a full recovery…and there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. You can have as many babies as you want, once she’s well enough.”
Heath nodded absently, the agony racing through him. It was all so unreal, like some horrible dream that he couldn’t wake up from. “Can I see her?” he asked quietly, his voice hoarse.
Dr. Merar nodded. “Go on up, your mother and sister are sitting with her while I take a break. She’s still sleeping from the laudanum, so she won’t know you’re there,” he said, turning his head to look up at the man who was already at the top of the stairs.
“Doesn’t matter,” Heath muttered as he reached the bedroom door.
The doctor sighed and made his way down the remainder of the stairs. “Jarrod, I could use some coffee,” he said to the dark-haired lawyer.
Jarrod nodded. “I think we all could, Howard.” None of them had gotten much sleep the night before. They started for the kitchen. “You coming, Nick?”
Nick stood there, remembering something. “In a little while, there’s something I’ve gotta do first,” he said, on his way out the front door.
Nick walked purposefully toward the barn, anxious to get the task over with. He entered the dark building and went into a corner containing implements used only in warm weather, a corner Heath would never have gone to this time of year. Lifting up a tarp, he found what he was looking for and held the object in his hands, the mere sight of it bringing an ache to his heart.
He’d been working on the cradle for weeks, during stolen moments when Heath wasn’t around- usually at night by the light of a lantern. He’d known there was plenty of time until the baby, but he’d been so excited about becoming an uncle for the first time, he hadn’t been able to wait to start work on this very special gift. He’d chosen the wood himself, picking the finest oak he could find. He’d outdone himself with the carving, and it was almost finished, save for some extra embellishments he’d planned to add.
Without ceremony, he found an ax and chopped the object beyond recognition, his anger and sadness increasing with every swing. Why hadn’t he realized that it had been the Haggertys who’d cut that fence? He’d been so intent on recovering the damned cattle that he hadn’t given a thought to how they’d been able to escape in the first place. His guilt was overpowering, and he knew he’d never forgive himself, not even if Amy recovered and-
When, he corrected himself. Not if, but when. She’d recover, she had to. His brother couldn’t lose his wife, not after all that he’d been through in his tormented existence. He’d deserved more than his share of happiness, and the whole family had been thrilled when he’d found this wonderful girl to call his own. The couple’s enjoyment of one another, their contentment, had affected them all, had made the house that much nicer of a place to be. And the anticipation of the baby had filled the house with joy.
But now…Nick angrily swiped the tears from his eyes before taking one last swing of the ax, the gift he’d worked on so lovingly now reduced to several sticks of wood. He was comforted by the fact that at least now Heath wouldn’t happen upon his ill-fated handiwork and have his wounds opened all over again. Heath and Amy would have another baby someday, Nick was sure of it. And when that happened, he’d build them a new cradle, an even better one. But this one would be placed in the woodpile. The one it had been meant for wouldn’t be able to use it.
Jarrod stood next to the fireplace, leaning heavily on the mantle. Of all the injustices he’d been witness to in his years as a lawyer, he’d never seen anything so malicious as what had been wrought on his sister-in-law. How someone so utterly undeserving of such evil could have it forced upon her…the thought of it made him almost physically ill.
She’d been nothing but nice to him since the day they’d met, and had in time become a sister to him, almost as much as the one who was tied to him by blood. Ever-concerned about his long hours spent working, always a worthy partner in discussions on every topic under the sun…she’d been the one who’d finally gotten through to him about letting go of the past and trying to find a future. He’d geared himself up and had invited her friend Colleen Ferguson, the pretty redhead they’d bumped into on the street that day, out to dinner. It had been a pleasant enough evening, but as the hours had worn on, it had become painfully obvious to both of them that they weren’t right for each other.
Oddly enough, the failed date had given him hope. So he’d tried and things hadn’t worked out- the sky hadn’t fallen, nothing terrible had happened. It had given him courage to try again someday. In fact, Colleen had mentioned that her sister Bonnie was really more Jarrod’s type than she was. He’d thought he might just ask for an introduction…but it wouldn’t be anytime soon, not with what the whole family was going through right now. He prayed that Amy would recover quickly, that they’d all be able to help her and Heath put this whole tragic affair behind them.
He looked up to see Nick entering the parlor. The lanky rancher looked around before asking, “Doc go back up?” At the look on his brother’s face, Nick asked, worriedly, “What, Jarrod… Amy?”
Jarrod nodded, the heel of his hand pressed against his forehead. “She’s burning up with fever.”
Nick closed his eyes in despair as each brother sent his own silent prayer upward.
For the next few days, Heath hardly left his wife’s bedside.
It was only when his mother and Audra insisted that he leave the sickroom for a
few minutes to regroup his energies that he reluctantly went outside for a
smoke. For the most part, however, he insisted on sitting on a chair next to
the bed, placing endless cool compresses on Amy’s forehead, sponging her body
with cool water and rubbing alcohol, trying to bring down the fever that was
ravaging through her. Her skin was like hot, dry parchment, and he was
frightened beyond belief that it wouldn’t cool down for more than a little
while at a time, after which he’d doggedly try to lower her temperature again.
Amy hadn’t really regained consciousness save that brief moment in Jarrod’s arms. The blow to her head had seen to that, and then the repeated doses of laudanum after Doctor Merar’s ministrations had kept her sleeping afterwards, free of pain. And now the fever that had taken hold of her had her alternately sleeping fitfully or thrashing around, mumbling incoherently, not aware of her surroundings. She did open her eyes once in a while, but Heath could tell by the glassy stare that she wasn’t really seeing him. Still, he forced himself to put on a pleasant countenance for her sake, keeping up a stream of chatter as if she were conscious and listening, just in case some part of her could hear him.
And he prayed. Not since the ride to Strawberry after he’d gotten word that his Ma was on her deathbed had he prayed so fervently. It hadn’t helped then, and now he sent one entreaty after another to the heavens that this time his prayers would be answered, that his wife would recover.
Aside from the anguish over Amy’s suffering and the loss of their baby, there was also the guilt that he hadn’t been there to protect her, the nasty bruise on her cheek ever-invoking his shame. When he’d first seen this evidence of Luke Haggerty’s monstrous cruelty, he’d felt a rage he’d never known he was capable of. Every time he looked at the discoloration he almost wished that his brothers hadn’t taken care of the Haggertys so that he himself could have the pleasure of ridding the world of their sorry existence.
Doctor Merar was a frequent visitor to the house in those days, helpless to advise any further action other than what they were already doing. He did stress the importance of trying to get some liquids into the girl, and Heath and his mother and sister took turns trying to coax broth or water past her parched lips, even as she was unaware of their actions.
It was one night when Heath was on the porch that he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to see Jarrod walking toward him, his hands in his pockets.
“You’ve been hitting those things pretty hard lately,” the lawyer said, gesturing toward the cigarette between his brother’s fingers.
Heath shrugged. “You know how it is when I’m worried,” he answered quietly.
Jarrod sighed, wishing he knew what to say to make his brother feel better. “She’s going to get well, Heath. Once this fever runs its course…”
“Course she will,” Heath answered firmly. “Cause I can’t imagine my life without her if she doesn’t.” The look on his brother’s face immediately made him contrite. “Jarrod, I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinkin’-“
Jarrod interrupted him with a shake of his head. “It’s all right, Heath, I’ve finally made my peace with it, more or less. It’s the future we should be concentrating on, not the past. You have to believe that Amy’s going to come out of this just fine.”
The younger brother leaned heavily against a post. “You know, Jarrod…she’s like…like the last piece to the puzzle. And I didn’t even know that piece was missin’ til I met her.”
His brother smiled gently. “Very poetic, brother,” he said. “And very beautiful.”
A wry smile twisted Heath’s lips. “Been hangin’ around you too long- your fancy talk’s startin’ to rub off on me.” But his attempt at humor couldn’t hide just how frightened he was.
“Heath,” Jarrod started. “It’s like the doctor said- Amy’s young and she’s strong. And she’s got something else going for her.” At his brother’s questioning look, he continued. “The love you two share- it’s a powerful force. She wants to come back to you, and it’ll make her fight that much harder.”
Heath nodded. “I hope so, Jarrod.” He looked down at the ground as he mashed out his cigarette. “Better get back up there,” he said, heading for the door. Jarrod stood there for another moment before going inside as well.
Finally, on the third day, Heath woke up from a fitful sleep- sitting in his chair, his head on the bed, as was the norm these days. He looked at Amy and it seemed that she was resting easier. A hand placed on her forehead touched skin that was damp and cooler instead of hot and dry. He ran to the door and called downstairs for Dr. Merar to come up.
A cursory examination proved that the fever had indeed passed and that the girl seemed to be out of danger. “But why hasn’t she woken up, then?” Heath asked worriedly.
The doctor put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Her body’s been through a lot these past few days, Heath. She’s worn out, the rest is good for her. I’d say she should wake up later today sometime.”
Heath sighed with relief. His mother put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “Now that you know she’ll be all right, why don’t you leave for a while- and I mean for more than ten minutes this time,” she admonished.
But Heath shook his head. “No, I want to be here when she wakes up. If she holds out a hand to me and I’m not there…”
“Heath,” Nick’s voice came from the doorway where he’d been standing since he’d come upstairs with the doctor. “You heard the doc, it’ll be a while. Now are you gonna leave this room or do I have to drag you out bodily? Shave, take a bath. One look at you and Amy’ll close her eyes again,” he teased.
Heath almost laughed for the first time in days. Rubbing the stubble on his face, he nodded. “All right, I reckon I should clean up some.” He turned to his mother. “But if she wakes up-“
“I’ll get you, I promise,” Victoria said firmly. “Now scoot!”
Heath was coming out of the bathroom, fastening the last of the buttons on a clean shirt, and was greeted by the sight of his mother helping Amy sit up in bed, adjusting the pillows behind her. “I was just about to call you,” Victoria said, heading him off before he could get mad.
Her son walked slowly to where his wife sat looking out the window. “Amy,” he said softly, gently sitting next to her on the bed. She didn’t turn to him, but kept looking out the window. “Amy, I’m so glad you’re-“
“The baby’s gone,” she interrupted flatly.
Heath was taken aback by her statement, as well as her tone, and he didn’t know quite how to answer. At his hesitation, she spoke again, in that same wooden voice.
“You don’t have to tell me. I know. I feel empty.” She still hadn’t turned to look at him.
Heath turned to his mother, who was also having trouble knowing quite what to say. He put an arm around his wife’s shoulders and was puzzled and saddened to feel her stiffen. “Darlin’, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Amy didn’t answer. Victoria sensed that she might want to talk to Heath alone and decided to give them some privacy. “I’ll just go get some broth,” she said, smiling to Heath encouragingly before leaving the room.
“Amy…” Heath put his other arm around her as well and tried to hold her, again not understanding why she cringed. What did that bastard do to her, he couldn’t help wondering. Seeing his wife like this made him wish yet again that he’d been granted just five minutes alone with those pathetic creatures.
He took his arms away from her, not knowing why she didn’t want him to touch her but deciding to lay off a bit. He struggled for something to say. “The doc…the doc says your gonna be just fine, darlin’…you had a rough couple of days, but the fever’s broken.” He unconsciously touched her forehead and was again dismayed to see her move her head even farther in the other direction. Removing his hand, he continued, desperate for her to look at him, to talk to him. “Amy…he said once you’re feelin’ up to it, we can try for another baby- we can have as many as we want-“
At this, she finally turned to look at him, and he almost gasped aloud at the dead look in her eyes, the lifelessness in her pale face. “And that’s supposed to make everything all right?” she asked, her voice hard. “Forget about this baby, just have another one? Is that what you think?”
Heath swallowed hard, cursing himself for his insensitivity. “No, I didn’t mean that at all…I just meant…” but she had already turned away from him, and was once again looking out the window.
“I’d like to be alone, please,” she said quietly.
Heath nodded, bewildered at the way she was acting, then realized she couldn’t see him and said, “All right- I’ll come back in a little while, then.” She didn’t answer, and he got up and left.
He met his mother in the hallway carrying a tray. She put it down on nearby table and touched his worried face. “Heath?”
He shook his head. “Mother- she’s…she told me she wanted to be alone, and she’s actin’ so…it’s like it’s not even her, Mother…”
Victoria sighed. “Heath, she’s been through a terrible shock. Losing the baby when she was almost four months along, and through such violence…” She shook her head, still not believing it all. “She’s going to need time, son.”
“I know, I figured on that,” Heath answered, his brow furrowed with concern. “But I didn’t expect her to be like this…I thought she’d cry, scream, but not…”
“She only just woke up,” his mother reminded him. “Why don’t I give her this broth, and you go get something for yourself. You’ve barely eaten in the past few days, son,” she said gently.
“All right,” Heath agreed. “I’ll come back up later…maybe she’ll have adjusted a little, feel more like talkin’ to me.”
But she didn’t. For the next few days, Heath was upstairs several times a day to check on his wife, but to his dismay, she didn’t warm up to him at all. She answered his questions as briefly as possible and never initiated any conversation. She could at least look at him more now, but he almost wished she wouldn’t- seeing those eyes that had once been so warm and full of life, that were now like hard green bottle-glass- it saddened him greatly. He kept reminding himself that she certainly needed time to get back to her former self- time and support. The problem was that she wouldn’t let him give her any of that support. He was desperate to help her, would have done anything to make things better for her- but she rebuffed his every overture. Worse, she treated everyone else in the family the same way.
After a week had gone by, he decided that perhaps it was time to get her to talk to him about what had happened.
He stopped in mid-morning and found her lying in bed, her eyes open. “Amy,” he said softly, sitting down next to her, dismayed at her lack of response. “I think it’s time we talk about…that night…and the baby.” It hurt him to say those words, but he forced himself, for her sake.
She looked at him, her face expressionless. “Why?” she asked.
Heath struggled to find the right words. “Because I think it would help, I think-“
“Help who?” she asked. “Me? I don’t think so,” she said, turning her eyes toward the ceiling.
“But you’re keepin’ it all inside,” Heath insisted. “I can see the pain you’re in- talk to me, let me help you-“
“Reliving every terrible moment would help me?” she asked, sitting up. “If that’s what you think, you’re sadly mistaken.” And with that, she got up and went into their bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Heath sat there, dumbfounded. In all their short married life together they’d never had a problem communicating or sharing, and he didn’t know how to deal with this. He figured that it still must be too soon, that he shouldn’t have brought it up yet. There was no way he’d push her, not after what she’d been through.
He sighed. She just needed more time, he thought. In time, she’d surely come around.
He didn’t want to even think of the alternative.
“Heath, it’s like I told you before- there are no timetables
for this kind of thing. People recover at different rates, and we’ll just have
to wait until Amy is ready to talk about what happened,” Dr. Merar said.
Heath sat in the chair opposite the doctor’s desk, his hat clutched tightly in his hands. “But Doc, it’s been two weeks, and she’s nowhere near to gettin’ back to her old self.” He paused. “I hate to say this, but she reminds me of some of the men I seen after the war.” A pained look crossed his face.
Dr. Merar spoke gently. “I know, son, and I wish I had some better news for you, but I’m afraid the medical community hasn’t any solution for these kinds of problems. There’s no medicine I can prescribe….look, Heath- physically, she’s fine. But you must remember the trauma she experienced that night- it could take her a while to get over that. It would also account for her not wanting you to touch her right now.” He sighed. “And she lost the baby at a relatively late stage. Most women miscarry much earlier, before they’re three months along. She was already at the end of her fourth month, and was most probably very attached to that baby.”
Heath nodded slowly. “So was I,” he said quietly. “Doc, you’re not telling me anything my mother hasn’t said to me over and over these past few weeks.”
“Your mother is a very wise woman,” the doctor said with a smile. “Heath, you’ll just have to give her more time. One of these days she’s going to have to face what happened- and when that day comes she’ll need all the love and support you can give her.”
“She’s got that,” Heath answered determinedly. “All I can give her, and then some.”
He had already learned not to touch her anymore, much as he wanted to comfort her in his arms. And his further attempts at talking about what she’d been through were rebuffed. The few times he’d gently tried again to bring up that fateful night, or the loss of the baby, she’d given him different versions of the same answer: “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I can’t talk about it”. He wished she’d shout or cry- anything but that stony mask that was really starting to worry him.
He’d gone back to work full-time by then, and did what he usually did when he was upset- poured himself into his work, trying to concentrate on something other than his worries. Nick told him to take it easy for a while, to take some more time off, but he didn’t want to. It was the only way he could get through those frightening, lonely days.
But if the days were hard, the nights were even worse.
Their bedroom, once a cozy oasis; their own private, wonderful little world, had become the loneliest room in the house for Heath. And their bed, once the center of that oasis, once the most welcoming, inviting place he could imagine, had become nothing more than a sad, pathetic square where his wife’s silence was amplified to the fullest.
She wouldn’t even change in front of him anymore- every night she’d go into the bathroom and put on a nightgown that covered every inch of her. He’d never even seen the things before and supposed they’d been what she’d worn before their marriage.
He knew she wasn’t sleeping well; he knew because he wasn’t sleeping well either. Many a time he’d wake in the middle of the night and find Amy sitting in the window seat, staring out into the darkness, as if she was keeping watch, making sure whatever demons threatened her stayed on the other side of the glass. Or he’d find her huddled on her side of the bed, so close to the edge it looked as though she might fall off.
He’d thought more than once about sleeping on the chaise lounge- or maybe in another room altogether. Maybe it would relax her, give her some measure of relief. But something wouldn’t let him do that- for he sensed that if he did, there’d be no going back. He knew that that one step on his part would send them down an even more horrible road than the one they were on now- it would indelibly change their marriage, set a course for things to come. No, he wouldn’t move. He just wished his presence didn’t upset her so- and he wished he knew why it upset her.
At the beginning, he’d tried to comfort her at night. He’d go to where she sat on the window seat and put a tentative hand on her shoulder- he should have become accustomed by now to her cringing, her moving away from his touch, but he knew he’d never get used to it. “Amy, come back to bed,” he said.
She shook her head. “Not yet. Soon.”
One night after they’d gotten into bed, he decided to try again. As he slowly moved across the bed to where she lay, he could almost see her tense up, but he kept going. “Amy,” he said softly, putting his hand on her arm.
She turned over on her side so that his hand fell away. “I’m tired, Heath,” she said shortly.
He almost moved away, but something made him try once more. He carefully put his hand on her shoulder. “Amy, I know you feel all alone, but you’re not. I’m here, darlin’- let me help you through this.”
She didn’t answer, and it emboldened him to continue. He bent down and pressed his lips into her hair. She jumped suddenly as if she’d been scalded, moving as far away from him as she possibly could. “Heath, please…I don’t want to…please.” She said the words with fear in her voice, and this shocked him.
“Amy…you don’t think I’d force you…” just the thought of such a thing was repugnant to him. “I…I know you’re not ready for…for that. I just want to hold you, to comfort you- why don’t you come here and lay in my arms, darlin’- fall asleep that way.” He prayed that she’d answer in the affirmative, but it was not to be.
“I’m fine, Heath…I’m going to sleep now.”
He sighed, moving back across the now huge chasm to his side of the bed.
And so the weeks went by. Heath’s one victory during that time was that he’d finally convinced Amy to come downstairs and take her meals with the family. He’d had to play dirty and get Nick and Jarrod to come badger her as well- but he didn’t care, so long as she’d finally acquiesced. She hadn’t left their bedroom for two weeks, and he knew it couldn’t be good for her to shut herself away. He’d hoped that being with the family would lighten her mood, get her back to her more cheerful self, but so far it wasn’t working.
Mealtimes, which had previously been so lively and full of conversation, were now somber and awkward. Amy would sit there, picking at the food that Silas had so painstakingly prepared in the hopes of whetting her appetite, her eyes on her plate, looking up only if someone asked her a question. She wouldn’t join the family in the parlor or billiards room after dinner- she’d beg off, telling everyone she was tired and was going to bed. Heath knew that she was lying, that she still didn’t do much sleeping during the night. He knew from his mother and sister and from his stops in at the house that she took naps on and off during the day. It didn’t sound right to him, her sleeping so much during the day and then staying up most of the night, but she needed to sleep sometime, and if she felt safer doing it under cover of daytime, when the house had noise and action, then so be it.
When she wasn’t sleeping or confined in her room, she was in the kitchen with Silas, sitting quietly doing whatever chore he gave her. She no longer had any interest in cooking lessons, but seemed content to snap green beans or shell peas. It seemed to give her some measure of comfort to be in the kitchen, and Heath always felt relieved when he came home and found her there instead of in their bedroom. At least it seemed a more normal daytime pastime than sleeping or reading in their room. The two of them would sit there quietly, with the normally taciturn butler initiating most of the conversation.
She wouldn’t see any of her friends who came to call on her. The only person she would see was her Uncle John. They’d sit in the parlor as he desperately tried to get her to open up to him- to no avail. He could see that his niece seemed to be soothed by his company, and he came over as often as he could, though it saddened him greatly to see her in this condition. It was worse than when her father had been killed- then, she’d also been subdued, but there had still been some life about her, an occasional smile. This…this was something John didn’t understand, didn’t know how to deal with.
Her work with the expansion of the library came to a halt. Victoria had tried to convince her to continue with it, but she’d told her mother-in-law that she just didn’t have any interest in it anymore. She wouldn’t leave the house for that or for any other reason, and this caused great concern to the whole family. Audra kept suggesting outings in town or to the orphanage, but always received the same negative answer. Heath practically begged her to go to town one night for dinner, but the answer was a firm “No”.
So Heath contented himself with the fact that at least she was spending some time each day out of their room, if not out of the house. He hoped that perhaps now she’d start paying more attention to her appearance. Ever since she’d been physically well enough to get out of bed and dress and bathe herself, she’d started wearing the plainest, least feminine clothes she had. She kept herself scrupulously clean, bathing often, but would always put her hair up into the most unattractive knot at the back of her neck. Heath missed the days of seeing it flow down her back in all its curly glory, but didn’t know how to broach the subject- and knew that it wouldn’t do any good anyway. So he did what the rest of the family did- waited patiently for her to come around.
One Sunday afternoon, about a month after Amy had lost the baby, the family was sitting down to lunch. Gradually, with the passage of time, things had gotten less awkward at mealtimes. Amy still didn’t speak unless spoken to, but at least the other members of the family were feeling more able to talk amongst themselves, even laugh, though they were all still sad that Amy wouldn’t join in, and all desperately hoped that she’d snap out of it.
“So how much did you lose at poker last night, Nick?” Jarrod asked his brother.
Nick looked indignant. “And who says I lost?” he demanded.
Jarrod laughed. “You did, you big buffoon- the way you stomped in here in the wee hours, mad as a wet hen. I thought you were going to wake up the whole house.”
“All right, all right,” Nick conceded. “I lost big- that Dave Winchester’s just too good a player for me.”
Heath snickered. “Dave’s six-year-old brother’s too good a player for you, Nick- especially when you’ve had too many beers and you’re makin’ eyes at a saloon girl,” he joked, as everyone but Amy laughed. Nick glanced quickly at her and sighed inwardly. Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to make her laugh in ages.
“That reminds me,” Audra said, “I need to go into town tomorrow and buy Dave’s sister Claire a gift.” She didn’t see her mother’s warning glance, the slight shake of the petite matriarch’s head.
“Why, is it her birthday?” Heath asked.
“No, no, a baby gift,” Audra went on happily. “The christening is next week and….” Suddenly her voice trailed off and her eyes and mouth opened wide in horror as she realized what she’d just said. “Oh, Amy,” she said miserably. “I…I’m so sorry, I forgot…” Realizing that she was just making things worse, her eyes started to shine with unshed tears.
“It’s all right, Audra,” Amy said quietly, looking up for the first time since they’d sat down to eat. Her face was even more wan than its usual paleness of late when she asked, “What did Claire have- a boy or a girl?”
Audra swallowed hard. “A girl,” she said in a very small voice.
Amy nodded slowly. “That’s wonderful, I’m very happy for them,” she said without a trace of joy in her voice. “Please send her my best wishes when you see her.” She suddenly got up. “If you’ll all excuse me, I’m finished eating,” she said, leaving her nearly full plate behind as she started to walk away.
Heath got up, too. “Wait, darlin’, I’ll come with you,” he said, worried.
She shook her head on her way to the stairs. “There’s no need, I just want to be alone,” she said, going upstairs.
Heath sank down heavily back into his chair, silently running a hand through his hair.
“Heath, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Audra pleaded, the tears now running down her cheeks. Her mother put a comforting hand on her arm. “It’s all right Audra, you mustn’t blame yourself,” Victoria said.
“Mother’s right, Sis,” Heath said. “Nothin’ wrong in what you said. We’ve got to start gettin’ back to normal around here, talkin’ normally, not walkin’ on eggshells…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Things can’t just keep goin’ on like this forever.”
“And they won’t, Heath,” Jarrod said comfortingly. “Just give her some time, I know-“
“Time?” Heath repeated bitterly. “You know, if I hear that word once more, I think I’ll lose my mind,” he said, exhaling heavily. An awkward silence ensued.
“I’m sorry, Heath,” Jarrod finally said, quietly. “It’s very easy for me to sit here and tell you-“
“No, Jarrod, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Heath said, contrite. “I didn’t mean to lash out at you like- I just…I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“Don’t give it a second thought, brother- I can take it,” Jarrod said, reaching out and squeezing his arm.
Nick’s brow furrowed with concern. “Yeah, Heath, it’s you we’re worried about- you and Amy.”
Heath nodded. “I know, and I appreciate that…. you know, I think I’m done eatin’, too…” he said, getting up.
“But Heath, Silas made an apple pie for dessert- won’t you have some?” his mother asked.
He shook his head. “No, you all go ahead. I’m gonna go get some fresh air.”
He was standing on the porch a little while later when he felt a small hand on his arm. “I thought you could use this,” Victoria said, handing him a cup of coffee. He smiled gratefully at her took a sip. He looked up at her in surprise. “Irish coffee?” he asked, amused.
His mother shrugged, smiling. They stood there in silence for a few minutes, each with the same worries.
“Heath,” she started hesitantly. “I know you’re tired of hearing this, but things will get better. It’s going to take time, son, but I know in my heart Amy will come back to us.”
“If I just knew that for sure, Mother, I’d feel a whole lot better.” He turned to look at her. “You know, I was just thinking about what you told Jarrod when he lost his sight- about time being his worst enemy, how time would just ask for more time.” He turned away again. “That’s how I’ve been feelin’ lately about Amy.”
“Heath, look at me,” she said firmly. When he did, she continued. “I told Jarrod that because there was a very real possibility that he’d never get his sight back, and the sooner he learned to live without it, the better off he’d be. His situation was totally different than Amy’s. There’s no chance she’ll stay like this forever, and we shouldn’t get into the habit of thinking that way. I think time is exactly what Amy needs.” She paused, thinking. “I’ll admit I was hoping for some change by now, but none of us can say when she’ll start getting better- we didn’t go through what she did.” She put her hand on his arm once again, trying to give her son some measure of comfort.
Heath took a long drink of coffee. “Have you seen Amy cry since…since it happened?” He asked suddenly.
Victoria thought for a moment. “Come to think of it, no, I haven’t.” She looked anxiously at her son. “You don’t mean to say…Heath, you aren’t telling me she hasn’t cried one tear in all this time?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think she has. Never around me, anyway, and I don’t think by herself, either- her eyes haven’t been red, not once.” He paused. “That’s not good, Mother. It can’t be.”
Victoria reluctantly agreed with him. “No son, it’s not.” She sighed, shaking her head, not knowing what to say.
Heath looked at her. “Mother- would you mind talkin’ to her? Maybe you could reach her somehow…I know I can’t,” he said, his voice filled with sadness.
“I’ve tried, Heath, several times- but she doesn’t seem to want to hear what I have to say.” Seeing the pain etched on his face, she said, “But I’ll try again, son. I’ll do whatever I can, you know that.”
Heath gave her a hug. “I’d appreciate it.”
Victoria’s knock was answered by a faint “Come in”. She found Amy sitting in the bedroom’s window seat and pulled up a chair to sit beside her. “I thought we could talk, dear,” she said.
Amy looked at her. “About what?”
“About what’s going on with you…” She decided not to beat around the bush and come right out with it. “Amy, Heath is so very worried about you, do you know that? We all are.”
Amy shrugged slightly. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to worry anybody.”
Victoria shook her head. “That’s not the problem, dear. The problem is that you seem to be bottling up all of your pain inside of you and that’s just not good. Amy….have you cried at all since…” She forced herself to say it, hoping to provoke a reaction from the girl. “Since you lost the baby?”
Her daughter-in-law shifted uncomfortably. “I’d rather not talk about it, Mother.”
“But you must talk about it,” Victoria insisted. “How will you ever heal unless you deal with it, once and for all?” Upon getting no reply, she continued, more softly. “Amy, I think of you as my own daughter- and it’s so hard for me to see you like this. Won’t you please talk to me? If not to me, then Heath, or your uncle…anyone, just as long as you get all that grief out in the open. Amy, it’s important, can’t you see that?” she asked almost desperately.
Amy shook her head. “Mother, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I don’t want to talk about it…I…I can’t,” she said quietly. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d really rather be alone, please.” She turned back to the window.
Victoria sighed. Seeing that any further talk was useless, she got up. “All right, Amy,” she said, turning to leave. She stopped at the door. “But if you don’t care about yourself, you might think about Heath, about what he’s going through. That was his baby, too, and I’m sure it would comfort him to have a wife to turn to right now. The two of you should be drawing closer together, not farther apart. Think about that, Amy,” she said gently before closing the door behind her. She started for the stairs, sad that she wouldn’t have any good news to report to her son.
In the bedroom, Amy drew her knees against her chest and put her arms tightly around them.
Heath was working harder than ever these days, trying
unsuccessfully to take his mind off his troubles. Nick found him in the barn
one day, loading bales of hay into a wagon. “Need any help?” he asked.
His brother shook his head. “I got it,” he answered.
Nick sighed. “Heath, you haven’t taken a break all day. Why don’t you come inside with me, get some coffee, this can wait-“
“No,” Heath interrupted abruptly. “I wanna finish this, then there’s those piles of mesquite to burn.”
The lanky rancher watched his brother work, frustrated. “Aw, Heath…”
Heath turned to look at him. “I know, Nick, I know.” He closed his eyes for a moment. Finally he opened them, forcing a half-smile to his lips. “I’m all right - you go on, I wanna get this done. I’ll be in later, I promise,” he said.
Nick hesitated, then nodded, feeling helpless.
After his brother left, Heath sat down heavily on one of the bales, wiping the sweat from his brow. He couldn’t admit to Nick, could barely admit to himself, that he had started to truly dread going to the house, going to their bedroom and finding Amy- or that shadow that used to be Amy- either sleeping or sitting there like some kind of statue. He had started spending more and more time working, anything to avoid going home- and felt horribly guilty about it. Each day that passed made him even more depressed, more devoid of hope. He’d gone to see Doctor Merar again, but the man hadn’t been able to give him any reassurance as to when Amy might get back to her old self.
He sighed, deciding to do something about his guilty feelings and go check on Amy. It was with a heavy tread that he climbed the stairs to their room, reluctantly preparing himself for his wife’s disinterested greeting or for her sleeping form. But as he opened the door, nothing could have prepared him for the sight that met his eyes. His mouth widened in shock.
Amy sat at the vanity table, a pair of shears in her hand, cutting off the last of her dark curls. Her hair lay in a messy pile on the table in front of her. She caught Heath’s eye in the mirror, then looked back at her own image without a word to him.
“Amy!” Heath whispered loudly, his voice hoarse with emotion. “What the…..WHY?” he almost hissed.
She didn’t seem to notice how upset he was as she calmly answered him. “It was too hard to take care of,” she said. She ran her fingers through her newly cut hair, which now fell to only a few inches below her chin, barely covering the back of her neck. She hadn’t done an even job, and strands stood out at horrible angles.
Heath was breathing hard, so angry that for the first time ever his hand itched to slap her face. “Don’t you ever do that again,” he managed to get out from between his clenched teeth.
She turned to look at him. “Why should it matter to you?” she asked, seeming not to understand. “It’s my hair, I can do what I want with it.”
Suddenly Heath couldn’t get out of the room fast enough. “I’ll see you at supper,” he managed, turning and slamming the door behind him as hard as he could.
He ran down the stairs and almost didn’t see his sister through the red haze of his anger. “Heath, what’s wrong? Is it Amy?” she asked, full of concern.
“Go up and see for yourself,” he said shortly on his way to the front door. “And tell Nick I’m takin’ the rest of the day off,” he added as he left the house.
Audra knew that something terrible must have happened if her brother was cutting out early- she ran up the stairs and anxiously entered the room, not bothering to knock. She couldn’t help gasping aloud at the sight of her sister-in-law’s shorn locks. It looks horrible, she couldn’t help thinking. She didn’t understand why Amy would have done such a thing- she’d always had the most beautiful hair, so long and thick and curly. It made Audra want to cry, seeing it this way.
Slowly she walked over to the vanity table. “Amy…would you like for me to even it out a little for you?” she asked. Surely she wouldn’t leave it this way, the pretty blonde thought.
Amy shrugged. “If you want to, I don’t care,” she answered.
Audra picked up the shears and began trying to fix the damage. She started talking to cover her nervousness, not caring that she wouldn’t get any answers. “I was in town today- I had lunch with Sarah Turner. She’s got a new beau, and…”
Heath rode Charger as fast as the animal could go, pushing him as the wind whipped past him. He didn’t even slow down until he had put a good five miles between himself and the ranch- or, to be more precise, between himself and Amy. All he wanted to do just then was get as far away from her as he could, even for just a short time. Never would he have even imagined wanting such a thing before, but his disgust over what had just happened was so great that he pushed his heels into Charger, begging him to take him away from that horrible place.
As always, he made sure not to ride past the building site of their new house. It hurt him too much to look at the unfinished structure that seemed to encompass all their lost hopes and dreams. There hadn’t even been a mention of their moving out since Amy had lost the baby, and he didn’t have the heart to continue working on it, not until his wife was better.
Finally, he took pity on his horse, slowing down near a stream and dismounting so the animal could drink. He sat down heavily and leaned on a large boulder, shaking with tiredness and anger. “It’s my hair,” she’d said. But that wasn’t the way he saw it. It would have sounded silly to anyone else, but he thought of her hair as something that belonged to both of them. It seemed like he’d never been near her without putting his hands through the curly locks, inhaling the lavender smell that rose from her head. He’d always loved to run his hands over her back while they were enjoying each other physically, delighting in the feel of the silky tresses against the velvety softness of her skin. And how wonderful her hair had always felt moving down his chest, tickling him, as his wife bent over him in the night, sitting astride him. And Amy had known how much he loved her hair, yet she’d cut it anyway, without a thought to how he might feel…
But more than that, Amy’s act was the last straw in his being able to keep himself together. Heath had been so busy worrying about his wife all this time that he hadn’t given a thought to his own grief, his own loss. Did Amy think she was the only one who mourned that baby? He had been so looking forward to being a father, to showering a child with all the love and guidance that he’d never received from Thomas Barkley. He’d imagined the day he’d be able to put his son on the saddle in front of them, riding around the ranch together as he showed him his legacy, his birthright. Teaching him to fish, to shoot, to ride…and if it would have been a girl, he’d have done all of those things with her as well, he knew. He wouldn’t have minded having a little princess he could cherish.
And he missed his wife. Not just the physical part of their marriage, but also his soul mate, the one who he could talk to about anything. She was his best friend, in a different way than his brothers were, and the lack of her companionship, her easy chatter, her laughter- it left a huge hole in his life. The silence emanating from her day after day, night after night was starting to get to him, and he didn’t know how much more he could take. He needed someone…someone alive, someone to make HIM feel alive.
How many mornings in the past had he woken with Amy curled up next to him, her back against his chest, his arm looped around her? Each morning had started wonderfully, a promise of the day to come. Now he woke each day and it only took a moment until he remembered, until he saw his wife on her side of the bed and he realized that this day would probably be as hopeless as all the others.
He’d been so concerned about the fact that Amy hadn’t cried since it happened…but he’d never given a thought to his own need for release. All the weeks of grief and worry mixed with some uncharacteristic and reluctant self-pity finally overflowed, and for the first time since he’d arrived home that terrible day and had gotten the worst news he could imagine, he allowed himself to cry.
The tears came quietly at first, but soon great heaving sobs left him, seemingly without end. He cried for the loss of his child, and for what seemed to be the loss of his wife- and, not least of all, he expelled hot tears of anger for the savagery that had been worked on Amy that terrible night, the terror and pain she’d been made to endure. It was unimaginable to him that all of these things had happened when just a short time ago they’d been so happy, so looking forward to the future, and he continued to weep until it seemed that he’d never have a tear left to shed ever again. He wiped his eyes and felt somewhat better, but still with a bitter pit of sadness remaining inside him.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, but he finally noticed that the sun had shifted and that it must be almost sunset. He sighed and got up, mounted up on Charger and rode slowly back to the house.
The sudden knock on the front door caused Amy to jump, and
Nick looked at her sympathetically before getting up to answer it. Heath was
disappointed to see that she still hadn’t gotten over this other remnant from
that terrible night. Ever since it had happened, sudden noises or movements
scared her, caused that frightened look to take hold of her features. “Just
Duke, letting me know that Sally’s colic seems to have passed,” Nick said on
the way back to the dinner table. He’d been worried about the mare and had told
the foreman to come to the big house with any updates on her condition.
As everyone resumed eating, Jarrod seemed to hesitate for a moment. He finally decided to try, hoping for the best. “Amy,” he said, forcing her to look up from her plate. “I saw Harriet Reynolds in town today. She was wondering whether you’d like to help her plan the next fundraiser for the library.” He almost crossed his fingers that this time she’d answer in the affirmative, but was not rewarded. “Please tell her that I’m sorry, Jarrod, but I can’t,” she answered.
Victoria, looking pained, decided to try as well. “Are you sure, dear?” she asked. You had such a good time working on the last one, and you did such a wonderful job-“
“I said I don’t want to, Mother,” Amy answered quietly before looking back down at her plate. Heath caught his mother’s eye, and she shook her head at him, smiling slightly, trying to reassure him that nothing terrible had happened.
Heath sighed quietly. For the past two weeks, ever since he’d walked in on Amy cutting her hair, hardly a word had passed between the couple. He’d taken an occasional stab at making her talk to him, but had given up easily at her usual rebuffs- too easily. He didn’t like what was happening to them- or to him. He wasn’t usually the type to just let a problem grow and grow and hope for the best.
But something had happened to him that day when he had walked into their bedroom and found her with that hideous pile of hair on the table in front of her. Something in him had started to give up, to realize the futility of the situation- and it scared him. He felt as if he were trying to keep from drowning in the middle of the ocean, and the effort of treading water was proving to be too exhausting, too draining, and he was about to just give up and let himself go under.
But what scared him most of all was that Amy seemed quite content with the way things were between them. It was painfully obvious that she’d be quite happy to go on being strangers to one another indefinitely. If neither of them was going to do anything about this, what chance did they have?
He looked at his wife picking once again at her food and something took hold of him. This couldn’t go on anymore- not one day more. And he finally realized that it was up to him to do something about it. An idea had come to him earlier that day, but he was hesitant to act on it without at least trying once more to draw her out of herself.
As they were finishing dessert, Heath turned to his wife. “There’s a full moon out tonight. How ‘bout I take my best girl for a walk?” he asked, the lighthearted tone he’d forced into his voice belying his pessimism.
And as he’d feared, Amy shook her head. “No, I’m kind of tired. I think I’ll just go to bed. Goodnight,” she bade the family, and walked to the staircase without so much as a glance at her husband.
Everyone looked down at their plates, not wanting to see the hurt on Heath’s face, or for him to see the discomfort and sadness on theirs. When they looked up, they saw him sitting there with his jaw clenched, looking almost…angry. He suddenly got up, almost knocking over his chair, and went outside without another word. A few minutes later they heard the unmistakable sound of the ax hitting the chopping block.
They listened for a while until Nick finally got up and walked out the door. He found Heath with his shirt off, doggedly chopping wood, ignoring the full wood box. He swung the ax, muscles straining with his efforts, a slight sheen of sweat on his upper body despite the cool night air.
“Heath,” Nick said hesitantly, coming to stand next to him. “Heath, tell me…just tell me what I can do…”
Heath stuck the ax into the chopping block and leaned on the handle, breathing heavily. “There’s nothin’, Nick…nothin’ anybody can do. It finally hit me…she doesn’t want to get better. She’s plannin’ on spendin’ the rest of her life…our lives…inside that wall she’s put up around herself.” There was a catch in his voice as he spoke. “Nick, it scares the hell out of me.”
Nick ran a hand through his dark hair, desperately searching for words to comfort his brother. “Heath…you know, when that cat had at me, I felt a little like Amy at first. In shock, not really a part of things. It was like I was seeing everyone through…oh, I don’t know, through glass or something.” He unconsciously touched the spot on his arm where, under his shirt, lingered the faint remains of the mountain lion’s scratches. “Not that I’m comparing what happened to me with what happened to her. Hell, what that girl’s been through…” He hurried on at the sudden look of anguish on Heath’s face. “Point is, Heath, my scars healed pretty fast. I figure hers are the kind you can’t see. They’re deep, and she’s just gonna need more time, is all…”
“But how much time, Nick?” Heath interrupted. “It’s been, what- over a month and a half, and she’s no better. Do you know she still won’t let me touch her? And I’m not even talkin’ about…” He paused for breath, too upset to be embarrassed at touching on such an intimate subject with his brother. “I can’t even put my arm around her, just to comfort her, without her stiffenin’ up. So I just don’t bother anymore. We’re like two strangers who live in the same house. I’ll tell you the truth, Nick, I’m scared for my marriage. I don’t know what’s gonna happen to us. I…I just miss my wife, I want her back…”
Nick was taken aback by the tears in his brother’s eyes. In all the time he’d known him, he’d never really seen him cry before. Those tears scared him. For Heath’s strength, his indomitable spirit, was a constant, a bulwark of support in Nick’s own life. To see him like this, eyes wet, devoid of hope, turned Nick’s whole world upside down, made it less safe, less secure.
Nick put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. “Heath…I…I wish I had the answer for you, honest I do. I guess all I can do is…be here, for whatever you need, whenever you need it. Just know that,” he urged.
Heath nodded, feeling a bit of relief after getting some of his feelings off his chest. It did help him to know that he had a brother, two in fact, who’d be there for him no matter what. He stood there, almost imbibing Nick’s strength and support as though it were passing from his brother’s hand to his own shoulder.
He turned to his brother. “Actually, Nick, there’s somethin’…I don’t know if it’ll do any good, but I’ve been thinkin’ about taking Amy away from here for a while. I figure maybe if it’s just the two of us alone somewhere…Oh, I don’t know, it’s probably a long shot, but I just don’t know what else to do.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I was thinkin’ about takin’ her back to the cabin in the mountains.” He stopped, realizing the burden he was about to place on his brother’s shoulders. “Look, I know I got no right tellin’ you I wanna take off now, not when things are so busy here. I don’t even know how long we’d be gone.” He sighed. “I hate leavin’ you high and dry like this.”
But Nick was already nodding his head, eager to give Heath his blessing, happy that his brother had a plan, that something was finally going to be done. “Heath, I think that’s a great idea. You do that, that could be just the thing.” Not for anything in the world would he have told Heath how difficult his sudden departure would make things for him on the ranch. “Look, Heath, that girl’s not just your wife or my sister-in-law. She’s a part of this family, and we all love her.” He looked at Heath and smiled. “Don’t get your head swelled up thinking you’re so important that I can’t manage around here without you. We’ll be fine.” He squeezed his brother’s shoulder again. “You just bring our girl back to us, you hear?”
Heath smiled back at him, feeling better himself now that he’d finally decided on a course of action. “Thanks, brother. And I’ll try my damndest, believe me.” He put his shirt on and two men walked back into the house.
When Heath opened the bedroom door, he found Amy sitting on the chaise lounge, a book in her hands. He could tell, though, that she wasn’t really reading it.
He sat down next to her, making sure to keep his distance. “Amy, I’ve been thinkin’…” he started gently. “It might be a good idea for us to get away for a while, just you and me. I thought we’d go up to the cabin where we had our honeymoon. How does that sound, darlin’?” he asked hopefully, though he knew full well what her answer would be.
But Amy had a look of horror on her face. “No, I don’t think so. I…no.” He saw the fear in her eyes, fear at leaving the safety of the house, and, he saw to his dismay, fear at being alone with him.
But he wouldn’t back down. “Darlin’, I don’t know what else to do. I’m worried about you…about us.” Forgetting himself for a moment, he took her hand in his but she silently removed it. More firmly, he said, “We tried it your way. Now we’re gonna try it mine. Some time away from here might be just what you need.”
The fear in her eyes was even more palpable as she answered, “Heath, I said I don’t want to go,” a bit more loudly this time.
Heath’s voice, in contrast, lowered slightly, but stayed firm. “Sorry, but I’m not askin’ you, I’m tellin’ you. We’ll be leavin’ first thing in the mornin’.” He got up and started walking to the door.
“I won’t go!” she almost shouted.
Heath hesitated, his hand on the doorknob. He was disappointed in her reaction to his news, though it’d been what he’d expected. He was heartened at least that she was displaying the first bit of emotion he’d seen from her in a long time.
“I’ll send Mother up to help you pack,” he said, opening the door and leaving the room. Amy knew that tone. He’d never used it with her before, but she’d heard him talk like that on the rare occasion that one of the hands decided he didn’t want to obey an order, or did shoddy work. It was a tone that brooked no argument, that told the listener he meant what he said and heaven help anyone who dared challenge him. It was almost frightening in its quiet ferocity. She knew that it would be useless to argue with him further, and turned over resignedly on the chaise lounge.
“Heath, you’re all set. Wagon’s all loaded,” Nick said, testing one last cord to make sure it was tight.
“Thanks,” Heath said, clapping his brother on the arm. “I mean that, Nick…for everything.”
Nick nodded at him, words made unnecessary by the look that passed between the two brothers.
Victoria stepped forward to give her daughter-in-law a kiss good-bye. It saddened her to see the look of misery on Amy’s face, when the prospect of what could have been a romantic getaway with her loving husband should have made the young woman so happy. “Have a good time, dear,” she said, hugging her tightly. Amy tried to smile at her but couldn’t quite manage, so she just nodded.
Nick turned to his sister-in-law. “Don’t you let my brother forget how lucky is, getting a vacation like this while the rest of us slobs have to work for a living, huh?” He smiled broadly at her, and was rewarded with a small twist of her lips. “Good girl,” he said, giving her a hug.
Audra and Jarrod said their good-byes, with Jarrod quietly reciting a few words from one of Amy’s favorite poems. “’Patience and fortitude’, honey”, he said, squeezing her hand. “You just remember that.” She silently prayed for a reprieve from having to go, but soon Heath led her to the front of the wagon and helped her into the seat.
He turned to his family, heartened by their love and support. “Like I said, I expect we’ll be gone a week or two, but if it’s gonna be longer than that, I’ll get over to Maryville and wire you.” But they all prayed that it wouldn’t take that long for him to find his wife again. They waved as the wagon rode off into the distance.
Heath slowly bent down and picked up a few of the chopped logs to take into the cabin. He looked at the front door, not wanting to go in.
They’d been there for three days, and things were worse than ever. At least back home, there’d been a few words exchanged between them, an air of civility. Of course, he’d always been the initiator, and Amy’s responses weren’t much more than what politeness had required. But ever since he’d told her about this trip, she’d barely said two words to him. It had been a long, silent ride to the mountains. Amy’s anger at him over making her take this trip had been palpable, and still was.
One reason Heath had chosen the cabin was because it was one large room, with no place to hide. He’d figured she’d have to talk to him sooner or later, but so far it wasn’t working. If anything, it made their situation that much worse, confined together in such close quarters. She’d sit looking out the window or reading a book she’d brought along, completely ignoring his every attempt at conversation. Not once had she offered to help with any of the chores, and while she obediently carried out every task he gave her, she did it silently, her resentment over being there obvious.
Maybe this trip had been a mistake, he thought. But he hadn’t known what else to do. He picked up the last piece of wood and started back for the cabin. Not for the first time, he’d come outside on the pretext of chores when what he’d really wanted to do was escape the tense atmosphere. Supper had been a gloomy affair, and he’d desperately needed some fresh air.
Heath suddenly felt a drop of rain on his face, and he looked up at the sky to see a gathering of black clouds moving over the waning daylight. It was clear that a storm was coming, and soon. He took a deep breath as he adjusted the firewood in his arms, and opened the door.
Heath entered the cabin accompanied by a low rumble of
thunder. “Storm’s comin’” he said over his shoulder as he dumped the firewood
in the bin. He poked at the hearth’s burning logs with a stick, not anxious to
turn to his wife just yet.
“Heath.” Her voice was low. Heath looked at her, surprised. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d initiated a conversation with him. But the slight uplifting of his mood was tamped down by her next words.
“Heath, I want to go home tomorrow.”
He sighed and shook his head. “No way. We just got here.”
She spoke again, this time more insistently. “We’ve been here three days. How long will it take until you realize that this trip was a mistake? A week? Two weeks? Nothing’s changed, nothing is going to change. I want to go home.”
“I said no, Amy, and I meant it,” he replied, his jaw tightening.
She went on as if he hadn’t spoken, watching the droplets of rain as they started hitting the windowpane. “And when we get home, I’m going to pack my things and stay with my uncle for a while until I decide what I’m going to do.”
“What do you mean, ‘what you’re going to do’?” Heath asked warily.
Amy looked at him. “I mean where I’m going to live. I’ll probably go back to St. Louis, I’ve got family and friends there. There’s plenty of money from the sale of my father’s business for me to buy a house.” At the slack-jawed look on her husband’s face, she continued. “Don’t worry, when I have an address, I’ll send word to Jarrod so he can mail me the papers.” She went to the bureau, opened a drawer, and started taking her clothes out of it. A sudden crash of thunder broke the silence that followed her words and he saw her cringe at the noise before returning to her task.
“Papers?” Heath spat out. He knew what she meant, but he couldn’t say the word.
She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him. “Divorce papers,” she said quietly.
That did it. Heath quickly walked over to her, threw the clothes back into the drawer, and slammed it shut, startling her. “So that’s it? You decide that our marriage is over and I’m just supposed to go along with it? Just like that?” He was trying to control his anger, but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s not what I’ve decided, it’s the way things are,” she answered.
The calm way she said it infuriated him. Didn’t she care, didn’t their marriage matter to her? “Not from where I’m standin’, they aren’t,” he said angrily. “You’re willin’ to just walk away without givin’ us a chance, without even tryin’ to make things better?” He shook his head. “I don’t understand any of this. Tell me, just tell me why you think I’d want a divorce!”
She sighed. “Heath, please, don’t make this any harder than it is. Lets just go back tomorrow and be done with it and-“
“No!” he pounded his fist on the table. “You give me one good reason why our marriage isn’t worth fightin’ for. Go ahead, I wanna know!”
His uncharacteristically loud anger was starting to unnerve her. “Heath, stop it! I don’t want to talk about it anymore, please-“
His voice grew even louder, as much out of anger as to be heard over the increasingly loud claps of thunder. “We haven’t talked about it at all! That’s the whole problem!” He suddenly grabbed her arms, determined once and for all to get to the bottom of things, no matter what. All this time, he’d always brought up that night as gently as he could, not wanting to push her- maybe that had been a mistake. “What makes you think I’d want to divorce you, that I don’t love you anymore?” His voice lowered slightly. “Do you…do you blame me for not bein’ there when it happened, for not protectin’ you from…him? Is that it?”
She squirmed, trying unsuccessfully to free herself from his grasp. She didn’t like the turn this conversation had taken, didn’t want to even touch on this subject. “Please, let me go!” she insisted.
“No!” he shouted, his voice rising again. “Not until you tell me why you think our marriage is over!”
“I said let me go!” she shouted back.
His grip on her arms only tightened. “Tell me!” he insisted.
Her voice rose even louder. “Don’t pretend you’re not relieved!”
Heath just shook his head. “I’m still waiting!” he yelled.
“Why are you doing this, why do you even care?” she yelled back without thinking. “Why would you want to stay married to me after I…” she stopped, shocked at what she’d almost said. She started trembling, her face filled with fear. She had managed to protect herself all this time and now he was getting dangerously close.
“What?” Heath hissed.
She shook her head, trembling harder now. “No, please…” she said unsteadily.
“Say it!” he insisted. “Just say it, once and for all!”
She tried again to get away from him, tried to keep from looking at him but he jerked her back roughly and made her face him.
“After you what?” He was almost hoarse by now from shouting. “Dammit, tell me, after you what?” he demanded, shaking her, his face almost touching hers, finally pushing her to her limit.
“After I killed our baby!” she screamed.
He stood there, shocked into silence, and as his hands loosened his grip on her she took the opportunity to run past him, out the door and into the pouring rain.
He ran out after her. “Amy!” he yelled, not seeing her in the dark storm. “Amy!” A flash of lightning illuminated the scene and he spied her running ahead of him. He tore after her, ignoring the sheets of rain that immediately soaked him to the skin. He caught up to her and grabbed her from behind.
“No!” she shouted. “Get away from me! Leave me alone!” But he wouldn’t. She started screaming and wouldn’t stop, and he finally picked her up in his arms and carried her back to the cabin. The trek was made difficult by the rain and by her pounding her fists against his chest and arms, still screaming.
They finally got back inside the cabin and he put her down, kicking the door shut behind him. “Amy,” he said softly. She leaned against the wall and wrapped her arms around herself, shaking, unable to stop the high-pitched wails of anguish. He wanted to take her into his arms but was afraid she would quiet down, and as much as it hurt him to see her this way, he knew that she needed to get it out- all of it.
Finally her screams subsided, more from exhaustion than anything else and she stood there, breathing heavily. “Amy,” he said again, gently, barely noticing that he was soaked through. “Sweetheart…you didn’t…you didn’t kill our baby…why would you think that?”
“I did,” she insisted in a hoarse whisper, tears pouring down her cheeks. “It was my fault. My fault,” she said, unable to look at him.
“No,” he said, still afraid to hold her, wanting her to say what had been preying on her all this time.
“Yes!” She cried suddenly, closing her eyes, going to another place. “I told him that I was pregnant. I thought it would make him… leave me alone but it didn’t…all I did was make him more determined to...” The words came out in a rush, pouring out as if she couldn’t get them out fast enough, accompanied by her sobs. “And then…when he tried to…,” she sobbed again and squeezed her arms even tighter around herself as her tears mixed with the rain that was dripping from her hair.
“I…I fought him, scratched his face…he got so angry…that’s when he hit me and I fell, and our baby…our baby’s dead, all because I was so worried about my…my precious virtue…” she said with self-loathing. She opened her eyes but couldn’t see anything through the tears. She couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t catch her breath enough to go on.
Heath stood there, his heart breaking at her words and anguish, his hands unconsciously clenched into fists. Finally, she was able to speak again. “I was so scared…the way he touched me…all over….” She unconsciously put a hand to her hair and in a flash, Heath understood why she’d cut it all off. “But maybe if I’d…if I’d let him…our baby wouldn’t have died. It’s my fault, my fault, can’t you see that?” she demanded as her sobs started again. “How can you not hate me…how can you even stand to look at me after what I did? I failed you.” Her last words were a tortured whisper as she covered her eyes with her hands, crying her heart out.
Heath couldn’t bear it any longer. He grabbed her and folded her into his arms, holding her tightly. “Shh,” he soothed into her wet hair. She tried to move away but he wouldn’t let her, and they stood there for a while until he gently pulled back from her. He took her hands down from her eyes and forced her to look at him. “You listen to me,” he said firmly, his own eyes wet. “What happened was not your fault, do you understand that?” At the shake of her head he repeated, “It wasn’t your fault. It was…it was his,” he said, not wanting to utter that creature’s name. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t blame you and I never have.”
Amy shook her head again. “No,” she whispered. “Maybe if I hadn’t told him, if I’d tried harder to reason with him instead…and if I hadn’t fought him he wouldn’t have hit me…the baby wouldn’t have…” she couldn’t say it again.
He let go of her hands and gently took hold of her shoulders. “And if you hadn’t…he would have had his way with you- no, listen to me!” he insisted as she turned her head away. “And he might have hurt you even worse than what he did…the baby could have…could have died anyway and maybe you too…and then I’d have lost both of you…no, Amy," he said emphatically. "I’m glad you fought back. You saved yourself. Yes, you did!” he insisted again as she shook her head. “And nothin’ you said or didn’t say would have made any difference. There’s not a doubt in my mind about that.” He closed his eyes for a moment, stunned to find out that she’d been carrying so much guilt around for so long.
“Darlin’…listen to me…I mourned the loss of our child…I still do,” he said quietly, sadly. “But we can get through that…together. I’m not sayin’ it’s gonna be easy, but…” He sighed. “And I’m not sayin’ we have to forget about the baby…but…but we can move on, we can have a life again, we can survive.” He looked at her as the tears fell from his eyes. His voice was hoarse with emotion as he spoke.
“But one thing I couldn’t survive would be losin’ you. If you decided to leave me…or if somethin’ had happened to you, if he’d…Amy, I don’t think I could go on. I…I’d have no reason to get up in the mornin’ if you weren’t there next to me. You’re my life.” There was a catch in his voice as he continued. “I can’t have you spend the rest of your life blamin’ yourself for somethin’ that wasn’t your fault…and I can’t let you throw our marriage away…don’t you know how much I love you? You’re in my heart, you’re a part of me…”
They stood there in silence, looking at each other, until he gently pulled her into his arms again, praying that she wouldn’t resist.
“Heath, I…” she murmured against his neck.
“Shh,” he whispered, carefully rubbing her back. Suddenly he stopped, shocked.
She was embracing him.
Her arms were around his waist, holding him tightly. Slowly, carefully, he led her the few steps to the bed and sat them both down on it, still holding each other silently.
After a while Amy lifted her head and looked at him. “Heath…I’m tired, really tired.” And for the first time in almost two months, he believed her. He could see that she was having trouble keeping her eyes open, and she looked exhausted from her ordeal.
He looked down and suddenly realized that they were both still wearing their wet clothes. “Lets get you out of these wet things first, you can’t go to sleep like that, you’ll catch a chill.” She nodded as he got up and found her nightgown. He hesitated, and then started taking off her clothes, undressing her as though she were a little girl. She let him, as she sat there practically numb with fatigue, and finally he put her nightgown over her head and she managed to get her arms into the sleeves. He found a towel and squeezed most of the excess water out of her hair.
Heath helped Amy settle into bed, and as she put her head to the pillow he lifted the blanket up and tucked it around her shoulders. He stood there for a moment, just looking at her as her eyes finally closed. He went to the fireplace, adding enough wood to keep the cabin warm and cozy for the next several hours before removing his own wet clothes and replacing them with dry ones. Carefully, he lay down on the bed, not wanting to wake her, but her deep, even breathing told him that he didn’t have to worry about that.
He lay there, listening to the receding thunder and the rain pattering against the windows, and watched her until sleep finally overtook him as well.