My Brother, Heath
The Kate Chronicles
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.
Excerpt from the Memoirs of Dr. Katherine Barkley Wardell
I never minded that my four brothers and my sister Audra were so much older than I was. When I was small, it was hard to understand, however, so Mother had to explain it several times. Jarrod, Nick, Heath, Audra, and Eugene were the children of my first husband, Tom Barkley.
The explanation I was most interested in, however, was my own appearance into the family. That the Christ Child had brought me was entirely believable and acceptable even as I left childhood behind. It wasn’t until I heard a chance remark at school one day that my secure world threatened to shatter.
Kate Wardell—she’s adopted, you know.
Yes. You know what that means, don’t you?
Of course! She’s a. . .”
Their voices sank to a whisper, but I heard the ugly word. Just how I knew it was ugly, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps it simply sounded rough and nasty. I’d never in all my twelve years been called by anything except loving names. I was KatieBee to my brothers and sisters and their children; Kate precious to my darling Papa; Kate darling or just plain Kate to my no-nonsense Mother; and the angel girl to our housekeeper, Mrs. Bonds, who was quite sure I could do no wrong even if I did it under her very nose.
No secret had ever been made of the fact that I was adopted. New acquaintances always mistook Papa and Mother for my grandparents, and their explanation was automatic and easily given. I’d assumed that my friends knew, since their parents knew mine. The two girls talking, though not intimate friends, were both daughters of Papa’s business acquaintances, and we’d shared a good relationship at the Beauville School for Young Ladies.
As soon as I could, I went to the library and looked up the word in the large dictionary that lay open on a stand near the back wall. What I read made me hot and cold by turns and also sick to my stomach—illegitimate birth, of unknown origin—and several other definitions I understood even better.
Without asking leave of the headmistress, I left school and ran the five blocks home, heading immediately for my lovely, safe, blue and white room, where I threw myself weeping onto the bed. Mother found me there a few minutes later and managed to extract the story from me.
She must have sent for Papa, because he came long before his usual time. Together they comforted me, assuring me of their love, their pride in being my parents—reminding me that how I came into the world was of no importance when measured against how I lived in the world.
Mother kept me home from school the next day, and when Papa left for the office, she brought me tea and toast served in her lovely blue-sprigged dishes, then brushed my hair and said firmly that it was time for us to have a talk.
First she explained how I came to be in the orphanage—how it was a miracle that I hadn’t frozen to death in that deserted line shack. She described how she and Audra had held me on Christmas Eve and how Papa had been persuaded to hold me despite his protestations that he knew nothing about babies.
With a secret smile hovering around her lips, she recalled the morning that Papa had been drawn back to the orphanage, and how, when he came back to the ranch, she’d known exactly where he’d been—and why.
We went upstairs to our room and talked for a long time. When we came down to dinner, we knew in our hearts that you were meant to be ours.
But—how did you know?
I can’t explain that, Kate darling, just as I can’t explain how I knew that I was in love with Royce Wardell. I just knew.
Am I—am I—that word?
I expect that your mother and father weren’t married.
You’re my mother! Papa is my father!
I expect the young woman who gave birth to you was unmarried.
Then I am a—
Her lovely long fingers touched my lips in silent admonition.
You are Katherine Barkley Wardell, our beloved daughter—the miracle we never expected—the light of our lives.
There were other questions I might have asked that morning, but I didn’t—even though Mother seemed as if she were waiting for me to do so. Some part of me wanted more information—another part of me wanted to push the entire ugly episode far, far away.
There is one more thing I must tell you, Kate. It concerns Heath.
I thought of my tall blonde brother—the one who looked so much like Audra that they might have been twins. All four of my brothers were unique, but there was something about Heath that was even more so. He was quieter than the others, and consequently I always sought him out when I had a great deal to say and needed someone to listen to me.
What about Heath?
He is Tom Barkley’s son—but he isn’t mine.
It took a very long moment to fully understand what she was saying.
Heath’s mother was a young woman named Leah Thomson. Before Audra and Gene were born, Tom went to check on a mine he’d bought in a town called Strawberry. While he was there, he was injured, and Leah took care of him. He left not knowing that she was carrying his child. Heath was grown before he knew who his father was—before he came to us.
I stared at Mother. Her meaning was all too clear. I’d grown up listening to Nick and Heath discuss every aspect of ranching. I knew that livestock could breed at will or be bred selectively—but not people! Certainly not people!
Tom Barkley was my husband, the father of my children, and I loved him. So, I forgave him, and our marriage continued—actually, it even grew stronger.
But—but Heath calls you Mother!
He is my son, Kate—the son of my heart, just as you are my daughter. Love and kinship are more than just physical.
I went back to school with my head held high. The girls who’d discussed me so casually seemed unaware that my absence had to do with them, and we fell into an easy companionship once more. I tried not to think of what Mother had revealed to me about Heath. But as Christmas approached, and we prepared for our semi-annual journey to Stockton, I could think of nothing else. Would he know, just by looking at me, that I knew his secret? Would he mind? Would things be changed between us?
* * * * * * * *
Papa’s business detained him in Nashville later than usual, so we arrived in Stockton just six days before Christmas. Audra and her family were already there, and she was busy with preparations for Christmas Eve at the orphanage—and quick to put me to work, too.
The next afternoon, she ran out of flannel for the stockings she was making for the four newest residents. Overhearing her dismayed comments, Heath volunteered to pick up what she needed in town.
I have to go in anyway to take the bill of sale for that bull calf to Jarrod. He wants to look it over before Nick finishes the deal with Walt Lowden.
He caught sight of me. Wanta come with me, KatieBee? Audra’s had you working since you got here.
I saddled Daisy and met him in the front. The winter sun glinted off his blonde hair and made the lines in his tanned face seem even deeper.
So, how’s my girl? he asked as we started up the road.
I’ll be thirteen in a few days.
Thirteen? Nah—can’t be! Our KatieBee’s still just a little girl!
Oh, Heath, I’m not!
Sure you are! You’ll always be our little girl! Say—what did you wheedle out of Royce and Mother for your birthday?
My birthday was always a huge occasion at the ranch. Though we didn’t exchange Christmas gifts, we made up for it at birthdays, and mine was no exception. This year I was hoping for the new, longer dress I’d seen in the window of Belk’s Department Store. I was becoming dissatisfied with short dresses and cotton stockings. I told Heath what I wanted.
Next thing ya know, you’ll be puttin’ your hair up and wearing fancy silk dresses and big hats—and even getting’ your ears pierced!
Oh, no, Papa won’t hear of it! I asked, and he said it was barbaric!
Yes—he said if God meant for women to have holes in their ears, He’d have put them there to begin with!
Hmmm. Maybe I better let him explain that to Leah.
She’s only six.
Yeah, but she wants ‘em just like her mamma has.
Well, I do hope I get the dress. Some of the girls at school are already wearing longer dresses and silk stockings.
Not very warm, I reckon—the silk stockings, that is. Seems to me a sensible girl like you would want to be warm instead of fashionable.
“Oh, Heath, that isn’t it at all!”
He chuckled, and we rode on in companionable silence. Our first stop in town was the dry goods store where we purchased enough flannel for more stockings than there were children in the orphanage.
Don’t want Audra to run out, now, do we?
Mrs. Semple, the storekeeper, smiled and winked at me. And what else for you, Miss Kate?
Nothing, thank you, Mrs. Semple.
She has to save room in her trunk for all her birthday presents!
That’s right—it’ll soon be your birthday! Why, it seems just the other day that Victoria came in her to buy flannel for your diapers!
I flushed as Heath’s laughter filled the store.
I’ll be thirteen, I said with as much dignity as I could muster.
Thirteen! Why, you’re practically a young lady!
Her words salved my injured feelings a little.
Next we stopped at the livery where Heath paid a bill for boarding the two horses he and Nick would leave there when they went to Modesto on the train in January.
Nobody but the Barkleys pay in advance. Gus, the grizzled old man who had owned the livery for more years than anyone remembered, stuffed the bills in his pocket and shook Heath’s hand. I could hear him coughing and wheezing as we left.
Why did you pay him in advance, Heath? We headed down the street to the general store.
Old Gus’s getting along in years, KatieBee, and the doc says he’s gonna have to hire some help soon. He just about breaks even as it is. Jarrod told me to stick a little extra in there so he could see his way clear to getting that help sooner than later. ‘Sides—it’s Christmas.
The general store was full of people shopping for Christmas. Just about everyone recognized Heath, and some of them knew me, too. Two ladies I didn’t know looked me up and down familiarly. It made me uncomfortable, and I did what Mother was always chiding me for—I lifted my chin haughtily.
Young ladies who give the appearance of believing themselves to be above other people are disliked, Kate darling. You have more advantages than many people, but it isn’t polite to act like you’re aware of the difference.
One of the women smirked and nodded in my direction. Barkley. Biggest ranch in the Valley.
Pretending to examine a doll—for which I was much too old—I edged closer to them, watching out of the corner of my eye.
Victoria Barkley. . .that man. . .Southern sympathizer. . .got her out of the orphanage. . .
Just then, Heath approached me.
Old Tom Barkley’s. . .of course. . .wrong side of the blanket. . .both of them.
I felt my face flame, and I wanted to fly at them in a fury. Heath had overheard, too, and grasped my arm firmly. KatieBee, Mr. Bonds wants to give you some candy for the children at the orphanage.
You get it. I didn’t look at him.
He asked for you.
You get it.
That’s not how you’ve been taught to act.
I don’t care. The women moved off with an air of satisfaction, like cats licking the cream from their whiskers.
Go get the candy, KatieBee.
Something in his voice told me I shouldn’t argue any more. I approached the counter where Mr. Bonds—who had given me my first licorice stick when I was just walking—stood waiting.
Merry Christmas, Miss Kate! He smiled at me warmly.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Bonds.
The women came up beside me just then to pay for their purchases.
I asked Heath if he knew if Miss Audra had enough candy for the children’s stockings this year. He said you’d know.
I suppose we could always use more, Mr. Bonds. They don’t get treats too often.
One of the women snorted inelegantly. They should be glad to have a roof over their heads and food in their bellies—all at the expense of the county!
Mr. Bonds ignored her even though she thrust several items in front of him.
What do you think, Miss Kate? Peppermints? Cinnamon drops? Licorice? I seem to remember that was your favorite.
Whatever you want to send, Mr. Bonds.
How about some of everything?
That would be very nice, thank you.
I stood there, trembling with rage, as he scooped the candy into separate bags.
There you go, darlin’! And you tell your sister to bring her babies in to see me while she’s here.
Thank you very much, Mr. Bonds. I’ll tell her.
Merry Christmas, darlin’!
The cooler air outside did little for my hot cheeks. Old cats!
Heath frowned at me. They’re just ignorant, honey.
They’re everywhere. Get used to it. Want a sarsaparilla?
I want to go home.
Well, I got a few more things to do in town.
Then I’ll wait for you in Jarrod’s office.
Can’t run away from it, KatieBee. I’d be disappointed if you tried.
I stamped my foot, something else that Mother had warned me against. In fact, I’d felt the business end of a wooden spoon the one and only time I’d done it in her presence. Unfortunately, Papa hadn’t been home at the time to reason with me—as he always put it.
There’s reason and there’s reason, Royce! You reason with words, and I reason with a wooden spoon! The result is the same!
But Mother wasn’t around, so I stamped my foot again, and several passersby looked at me oddly.
That won’t help. What’s said is said, and it’ll be said again.
I felt angry with him, too. Did you learn to live with it? I regretted the words as soon as they’d escaped my lips, but it was too late.
Some indefinable emotion flickered in his blue eyes. You know, huh?
I nodded, but I couldn’t look at him.
He blew out his breath tiredly. Yeah, honey, I learned to live with it, and so will you. He took my arm again. Come on—we’re goin’ to get that sarsaparilla and have a talk.
I busted these knuckles more than I want to remember, fightin’ to prove I was as good as anybody. Fightin’ to keep people from bandyin’ my mamma’s name around, callin’ her names. She was worth ten of all of ‘em.
I don’t really remember when I gave all that up, but I did. Guess I finally figured out that bustin’ my knuckles didn’t prove anything—but bustin’ a gut being a Barkley did.
You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, KatieBee. You know who you are, same as I do. What do people like those women in the store know about you anyway? They don’t have any idea who you are—how smart you are, everything you can do—that you’re gonna be the best doc in the state of Tennessee one day.
I smiled a little.
So what’s it to ya if they wanta get their jollies makin’ dumb remarks, huh? Did Mrs. Semple? Gus? Mr. Bonds? No sir, you were an honored guest in their places of business! You know why?
I shook my head.
It’s ‘cause you walk in there like the little lady you are. You’re a reflection of Mother and Royce—of all of us for that matter. All of us’ve poured our hearts into raisin’ Katherine Barkley Wardell—our little sister. You got somethin’ more important than Barkley blood or Wardell blood—you got the best that’s in all of us.
He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.
And, yeah, you got brother Nick’s temper, too.
I couldn’t help laughing. Don’t tell Mother how I acted, Heath. She’ll say I’m not too old yet for the wooden spoon.
He put his finger to his lips. Our secret.
On the ride home, I thought of everything Heath had said. He’d had a lot more years to suffer the thoughtless remarks and hurtful words of ignorant people than I had. You’d never know it though. He was gentle as a newborn calf. Come to think of it, I’d never heard him say an ugly word about anybody.
Nick was working on the house they were building for Silas when we rode in. About time! He hollered as we dismounted. This is a workin’ ranch, ya know!
I mouthed the words silently and giggled behind Heath’s back.
Yeah, I know, big brother, but I had me an engagement this afternoon.
What kind of engagement?
With a pretty girl.
Heath reached behind him and brought me out. Now, tell the truth, brother Nick, wouldn’t you slack off a little to spend the afternoon with this little lady?
Nick tried not to grin, but he couldn’t help it. Okay, okay, but I need some help settin’ this door!
I took the candy out of my saddlebag and headed inside. Mother and Papa were in the library helping Audra stuff the stockings.
There’s Papa’s princess. I went to kiss him, then Mother.
Mr. Bonds sent more candy for the children.
Audra, her blonde hair falling loose from its accustomed French roll, looked up. You didn’t forget the flannel?
No, it’s right here. I’ll cut out the stockings now.
I unrolled the flannel on the table we’d cleared earlier and began to pin the pattern.
Papa, can I put up my hair like Audra on Christmas Eve?
I don’t think so, Kate precious. You’re a little young for that.
Mother touched my single braid, which reached the middle of my back. There’s plenty of time for being grown up, Kate—the rest of your life, as a matter of fact.
But I’ll be thirteen day after tomorrow.
And you’ll be fourteen the next year. Don’t hurry your life, Kate. It hurries itself enough.
I sighed. There would be no longer dress for my birthday. I realized that now.
* * * * * * * *
Later, I went outside where Nick and Heath, having finished work for the day, were washing up.
Thank you for today.
Heath smiled that slow, lopsided smile of his. You’re welcome.
Nick caught the look between us. I miss somethin’?
He miss somethin’, KatieBee?
I shook my head. I don’t think so.
As Heath walked down the hill to dinner at his house, Nick and I headed for our own.
So you had a good time in town today?
What’s that mean?
It means not exactly, Nick.
So what’d you do? What happened?
We did errands—and we had a talk.
Talk? What kind of talk?
Just a talk.
About things. Things that concern Heath and me.
I could tell by the anger that darkened his face that he caught my meaning. Now you listen to me, KatieBee—if anyone. . .
It’s okay, Nick. Heath explained things.
I won’t have anybody sayin’ anythin’ to upset you, honey!
It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, but it’s okay, Nick, really.
You sure about that?
And suddenly I was—thanks to my brother Heath.