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.
My sister Audra, who was nineteen years older, had three children—all of them boys. She said it was all right because I was her little girl. She had, after all, been responsible for introducing me to my future parents by virtue of being the guiding force behind the Stockton Orphanage. If they hadn’t accompanied her there on Christmas Eve in 1880, I might never have found my way into their hearts and home.
Mother liked to tell the story that Audra, tomboy though she was—riding and scuffling with her brothers—loved to play dolls and would periodically lock the door to her room to pursue that more ladylike pastime.
When we brought you home, she had a real live doll to play with. We hardly got our hands on you until we took you home to New Orleans a week later.
It was true that Audra loved to dress me and comb my hair as if I were one of her dolls—but she always knew that I was a flesh-and-blood child, and she attended to my emotional turning out as well as my physical appearance. Unlike my brothers, who overlooked my small sins, Audra always addressed them firmly and immediately.
KatieBee, darling, that’s not the sweet thing to do. . .KatieBee, always think before you say something when you’re angry. . .KatieBee, when you’re told to do something, it’s important to do it without arguing. . .Don’t sulk, KatieBee—it’s not attractive.
We visited the ranch twice a year—for three weeks at Christmas and again in the summer for two months. Mother said I began to ask for Awdee as soon as we boarded the train. And it was Awdee who snatched me up as soon as my little feet were planted on the platform, wrapping me in a warm embrace and scattering kisses from forehead to chin.
As I grew older, I followed her about the big house constantly. She let me take naps in her soft four-poster bed and watch her fix her hair and dress for the many social functions that made up a good part of her life. Next to Mother, she was the most beautiful person I’d ever known.
* * * * * * * *
Then, when I was four, she became engaged to Don Erskine, a young lawyer who had just hung out his shingle in Stockton. The town was growing and was well able to provide a good living for many professionals. My oldest brother, Jarrod, introduced Don around town and recommended him to potential clients when his business kept him in San Francisco.
In time, Jarrod introduced him to Audra. It was love at first sight. They didn’t even wait the conventional engagement period of a year before they were married in the church in Stockton the summer after I turned four years old.
Audra wanted a big wedding, and of course, she had it. Six bridesmaids and one flower girl—me. I wore a pink dress and matching shoes and carried a white basket filled with rose petals from Mother’s garden. Papa said I would be the most beautiful flower girl ever. Mother said I should pay attention to getting down the aisle properly and not scratching during the ceremony. (Unfortunately, I was sweet meat to the mosquitoes that swarmed by the creek every summer—and ultimately found their way into the house to feast on me.)
It was a beautiful wedding, perfect in every way. I walked carefully down the aisle, scattering rose petals with dignified precision. The fresh mosquito bites on my legs clad in white silk hose itched maddeningly—but I only scratched once. I kept my eyes fastened on my beautiful sister and her handsome bridegroom—who had done a good job of courting me in the days immediately preceding the wedding and finally persuaded me that he wasn’t stealing my sister forever.
It was a long ceremony, at least for someone four years old, and when Don finally lifted her filmy veil and kissed her lingeringly, I quivered with happiness—and relief. The new pump organ pealed out the wedding recessional, and the bridesmaids began pairing up with the groomsmen to march out. I remembered I was supposed to march out, too, but I didn’t like the idea of going alone. Besides, I was all out of rose petals. So I simply slipped between the bridesmaids and took Audra’s hand.
She looked down, a little surprised, and then she smiled. The three of us went up the aisle together. I thought I heard Mother whisper loudly, “Kate—no!” as we passed her pew, but Audra just squeezed my hand and kept walking.
There was punch and cake and tiny sandwiches from which the crust had been trimmed, mints in three colors, and funny little brown things that Papa said were cashews. They sounded like a sneeze to me, but I accepted one from him and asked for another.
Mother was busy making sure that all the guests were served, so I wandered around by myself for awhile, looking at all the ladies’ pretty dresses and accepting their smiles and caresses as my due. Except for one.
Did you ever see the like? How she could let that child ruin everything is beyond me! I think Victoria went dotty when she married that man anyway. Adopting a baby at their age! And that one! Who knows where she came from? If she doesn’t turn out badly, it’ll be a miracle! She’s already showing her lack of breeding, if you ask me!
I suppose I didn’t understand all the innuendo—not at four years old—but I knew that she was talking about me and that I must have done something terrible. I looked around frantically for Mother and Papa, but they were nowhere in sight. Jarrod, Nick, Heath, and Gene were drinking punch in a corner and pouring something into their cups from a flat silver bottle. Audra and Don were shaking hands with some people I didn’t know. With no refuge in sight, I headed for the nearest corner, plopped down on the floor, and began to sob softly.
Audra found me first.
KatieBee, what’s wrong, darling?
I didn’t mean to spoil things, Audra! Truly, I didn’t!
Spoil things? What are you talking about?
She said I ruined everything!
I pointed in the direction of the woman, but she was gone.
I don’t know. My sobs were beginning to sound more like a howl.
Don’t cry, darling. You didn’t ruin anything! You were the perfect little flower girl!
By now I was quite worked up. It wasn’t that I was really spoiled—Papa insisted that no child could be loved too much—but I wasn’t accustomed to hearing that I’d been anything but good. Even Mother hadn’t told me I was bad before she paddled me with the wooden spoon for stamping my foot at her. Then, when she’d finished whacking me, she’d gathered me into her arms and told me how much she loved me.
And that’s what Audra did now. Heedless of her wedding finery, she scooped me up and held me close.
Don’t cry, darling! When I remember my wedding day, I’ll think of you most of all! Why, it’s not every bride who can walk up the aisle with her brand new husband and the sweetest, most beautiful little sister in the world!
* * * * * * * *
By the next summer, Audra was expecting her first baby. Whenever she sat down, I was right there with her, marveling at the nice round lump under her dress. Several times she took my hand and placed it on her stomach, and I’d feel something moving around. It fascinated me.
When will it come out, Audra? Can I hold it? Will it be a boy or a girl? Will I have babies in my tummy someday? Are you sure?
I must have driven her crazy with all my questions, but she never let on.
The second and third time, I was smug in my knowledge of what Mother called the birds and the bees. But I still loved sitting beside Audra and feeling the baby move inside her. Mother said it was one of life’s miracles, and I was sure she was right.
* * * * * * * *
My sister was always my sister. I could tell her anything, and she shared the wisdom of her experience with me. When I first became aware that boys were good for something besides throwing mudballs and pulling my braid, Mother said she was quite glad that Audra was around to shed light on the subject.
It’s been too long since I was fourteen—and things were very different then anyway.
Papa said he hoped Audra didn’t shed too much light on things—that he wanted me to be his little girl for a while longer. Audra just laughed and said that if he figured out how to stop time, she’d like to know, because her boys were growing up too fast.
As I matured, I aspired to be like my sister—soft-spoken, gentle, the perfect lady. I was sixteen or seventeen before I saw another side of her.
We were home for the summer, and the orphanage, though taken over by the county, had fallen on hard times. Audra was working to correct that situation, and she enlisted my assistance on her mission. Everyday for a week, we rode from ranch to ranch, farm to farm, soliciting donations of supplies—flour, sugar, salt, dried beans, cast-off clothes, outgrown shoes—whatever might be put to good use for the children. There would be a dance on Saturday night, and everyone was asked to bring their donations as the price of admission.
On Friday, we rode to the farthest ranch, a large spread that rivaled our own, run by a newcomer named Gibbons. We met him on the road a little distance from his house, and Audra introduced herself—and me—and made her case.
He scowled. “You ask me, the whole place should be closed down. Nothin’ but trash anyhow. Hired one of th’ boys to help me last summer, and he run off with one of my best horses and a saddle.”
Yes, I heard about that. He brought it back, I believe.
Yeah, with some trumped up story about goin’ ta look for his sister.
She was only five, Mr. Gibbons. She’d wandered away from the orphanage because she thought she could find her parents. They died of diphtheria, you know.
Yeah, well, he took it.
There are fourteen children there now, Mr. Gibbons. They need so much. Surely you could spare something.
He shook his head. Ain’t givin’ a dime—not for those kind. He looked past Audra at me, including me in those kind.
I’d long since given up being offended by ignorance—though it did hurt my feelings somewhat. I lifted my chin defiantly and heard Mother’s voice. Kate, your chin, darling. Don’t appear to be haughty.
I heard about you Barkleys—and those that think they’re Barkleys! He drew his lips back over his teeth in an ugly sneer. You can always tell the stock by the breedin’!
Audra’s face flushed angrily, and I heard the whistling sound as she raised her riding quirt. For a long, paralyzing moment, I thought she might actually strike him.
Don’t, I said between my teeth. He’s not worth it.
Mr. Gibbons wheeled around on his horse and rode off, leaving us in his dust.
I was more shocked by my sister’s near-violence than by the man’s ugly words. Never had I seen her raise a hand to person or animal. Audra, it’s all right.
He had no right. . .
I reached for the quirt and took it out of her hand. It’s a free country.
We started home in silence. Just in sight of the ranch, she pulled up. I’m sorry you found me out, she said softly.
Found you out?
Nick’s not the only one with the Barkley temper.
Well, I guess you came by it honestly then.
She shook her head. It didn’t come from Father—I know you’ve always thought he looked stern and a little frightening, but it wasn’t him. It’s from Mother.
Never in my life had I seen my Mother angry. I’d seen her impatient, irritated, even a little harried—but not angry by any stretch of the imagination.
She recognized it in me when I was very small, and she told me it was a battle I’d have to fight all my life—and I have—and so has she.
She smiled sadly. Have I fallen from my pedestal?
I edged my horse close enough to lean over and kiss her still-flushed cheek. On the contrary, you’ve just made me want to be more like you—and Mother—than ever.
It was the only time I ever saw her angry, but it was a lesson in humility that I never forgot.
* * * * * * * *
Mother’s diagnosis of cancer came on the heels of two other family illnesses—Jarrod had a stroke, and Audra found herself unexpectedly in the family way for the fourth time. It was a tubal pregnancy, and it almost took her life. It did take her health.
When Mother died six months later, however, Audra summoned strength that even I never knew she had, and took charge of all the arrangements when Papa and I brought Mother home for burial.
Though we’d had two nurses around the clock, I’d insisted on caring for Mother myself whenever I wasn’t working at the hospital or teaching a class at the medical school. Between those duties and the impossible task of comforting Papa, I was exhausted physically and mentally. Audra saw it immediately.
You’re my baby, KatieBee. I’ll take care of you now. And she did.
She was there for me again when Papa died scarcely a year later. When I married the next summer, she helped me plan everything. People who didn’t know me well thought she was my mother. I think I’d begun to look at her in that role. So, when she lay dying a few months later, I was devastated.
Putting aside my medical career—and even my new husband (though with his encouragement and understanding)—I traveled to Stockton to spend whatever time we had left together. Though the long weary days and nights of her silent suffering, I rarely left her side. Even then, she was still taking care of me.
Mother left her journals with me, KatieBee, but she wanted you to have them in the end. They’re in my desk—the second drawer with the lock. The key is in my jewelry case. I divided the family pictures—the ones of the boys and me when we were younger—so you’ll have some of all of us. They’re in the drawer, too. Don knows they go to you.
She liked for me to read to her—it helped take her mind off the pain. But sometimes she’d interrupt me with, KatieBee, do you remember when… or Mother said…
She told me things I’d never heard before—stories that made me laugh, and some that made me cry. She had, after all, lived part of a lifetime before I was born. I’d only known Mother as Papa’s wife—but Audra had known her as Tom Barkley’s wife—and his widow.
I was so happy when Mother fell in love with Royce. She’d been alone for four years, and she wasn’t a person who flourished in a solitary existence. When I visited them after they married, I could see how very devoted to each other they were. And then there was you, darling—you’ll never know what a gift you were to all of us!
I don’t think I’d ever realized before just how much Audra was like Mother. At the last, she even looked a little like her. In a way, being there was like having Mother back again. And, it was like losing her again, too, the afternoon that, with Don holding her in his arms, Audra finally gave up the fight.
* * * * * * * *
Someone said to me once that I must regret having had an older family because I lost most of them when I was still young. To be sure, the losses were difficult—but if I could go back and choose, I’d want each of them in my life just the way they were—and for as long or as short a time as they were.
The boys, as Mother, Audra, and I always called my brothers, used to tease Audra about being flirty and flighty until she married—and perhaps that’s how they saw her. They adored her of course—petted and protected her just as they did me. But I saw beneath all that—to her very core—strong, unyielding, courageous.
One of my favorite things to do, when I was younger, was to stand behind Audra at her dressing table as she combed and arranged her hair and experimented with the dozens of bottles and jars of creams and colors and perfumes. I liked to stand so that our faces almost merged into one in the mirror. There was no family resemblance, of course—but in her face I saw a reflection of myself.
More than anyone except Mother, Audra instilled in me the proven, time-honored wisdom of womanhood. She acknowledged that true beauty had to come from inside. She understood that, as a child of wealth and privilege, she owed something to the world outside.
I never forgot the afternoon that she almost hit Mr. Gibbons with her riding quirt—the afternoon she confessed her most grievous fault to me, her little sister, who idolized her. The honesty she displayed somehow offset the shock of realizing that she, as everyone, had feet of clay.
* * * * * * * *
Audra Barkley Erskine was forty-nine years old when she died. She was eulogized as a devoted wife, a loving mother, a champion of children who could not speak for themselves. All of that was true. But there was more—much more.
Audra was my sister and my friend. I didn’t say goodbye—there was no need. She’s as much a part of me now as she was the day Mother and Papa brought me home from the orphanage. Throwing open the door, she’d snatched me away and begun a lifetime of love and devotion to her baby sister.
And sometimes, when I think of her now, I know she’s still waiting for me—just inside the door.