Heath heard the sharp inhalatoin behind him and turned around. He'd imagined the shocked look in his father's face was similiar to that of his own when he'd arrived that day.
"...real kick in the gut..."
"My God," Tom whispered, his eyes paining at the sight of things that had once been famliar twenty-five years ago. It was like stepping back in time, right down to the smallest detail.
The elder Barkley walked over to a small rocker, how many nights had he watched her rocking, a large basket of items to be sewn and returned to the laudry in the morning where she'd get paid for her repair work. He picked up a pertty rose pillow with flowers embroidered on it.
"Your grandmother's," he said and saw the blond head dip. "Leah...your mother spoke of her so fondly."
He didn't recognize the blanket but it's pattern of soft pastel colors would indicate it was for a baby. A painful image of a infant with golden hair and a sunny smile invaded his thoughts.
Tom couldn't get over how Gavin had recreated the parlor of Leah Thomson's home. His eyes caught the 'Home Sweet Home' sign and that what it had been for that time he'd stayed there. He moved to the hearth, stopping at a small table and picking up a pewter mug that had been Leah's father's.
It still hurt. Heath thought he'd prepared himself before coming through the door again. But, that famliar feeling of a knife in his gut remained. He moved to the trunk and saw the large yellow envelope on top. His fingers acted on their own accord, forming a fist. The wall of tension that started to build in his back was deterred by a pair of strong hands that massasged the back of his neck
"I'm so sorry, son," Tom said, seeing the raw agony on his youngest son's face.
"I was gonna come for them, after Hanna died," he said, shaking his head. "But I took time off to bury her and had to get right back to work. Then Aunt Rachel's letter came..."
"At least he didn't destroy them," Tom soothed, "Whatever you need done, Heath. Packing , shipping or storing them, I'll help if you want."
"Thanks," Heath managed. He wasn't ready for that yet. His eyes moved to the envelope on top of the trunk. "She wrote ya a letter, it was hidden in the Home Sweet Home frame. She figured my Aunt would sent it, after she died, marked it that way."
Tom was startled, he didn't reply or move for a moment. Then he gently tapped the envelop and a smaller one came out, sealed and addressed to him. He moved away to the window, using the new light to help him past thw old words. He could hear her voice as he read the words and the pain in every one of them. As if sensing his guilt, she spoke in a shapter tone midway through the letter, warning him to 'stop crying in his beer', that it was her decision, Heath was her child to raise.
"I'm so sorry, Leah," Tom rasped, his eyes burning. He understood why she hadn't told him of Heath but that didn't ease the pain of the years she's suffered. "A gift from God."
"Heard that a time or two," Heath remarked, watching his father gently fold the letter and put it back in the envelope and inside his jacket. "I asked about ya..."
"Of course you did," he answered, turning back to face Leah's love child. "It's no consolation, Heath but that time together, it was special. I'm sure that in her heart as she raised you."
."He was a good man, honest and smart, but he's gone now," Heath's voice began to grow hard. The anger was simmering again. "That's what her answer would be, every time. And it was on her face, she loved ya...and ya just rode off and left her."
"Yes, I did, and I can't change that, Heath. I can't take back the twenty-four years you were without a father. But I'm here now."
"Then why did ya ride out again five years later?" Heath snarled, blue eyes flashing.
"Five years later?" Tom frowned, his features puzzled up. "What are you talking about?"
"When ya came back and sold the mine. Guess makin' a nice profit was more important t'ya. All that new money and a big new house, couldn't afford t'embarrass ya."
"Look, son," Tom started, reaching out to grab his son's arm which was an active part of the wayward rant.
"Don't!" Heath shoved him away, sending him into the wall. "We got by most of the time, Uncle Matt worked her lke a dog, 'til I was old enough to fight back."
"He's a cowardly drunk and I'm sorry for..."
"STOP SAYIN" THAT!" Heath growled, "sorry' don't cut it. It don't make up for all the times she bought food instead of medicine. That she worked extra hours instead of restin', sewin', scrubbin' her hands raw in cold water doin' laundry and fightin' off gropin' hands waitin' tables." He was seething, "She knew, she had a choice..."
"She did what any good woman, loving mother would do to raise a child. She loved you that much.."
"...don't..." Heath warned in a hostile tone, "...talk about her bein' a mother..."
"Heah, I never came back to Strawberry," Tom defended, "I sold the mine through an auction by the State. As God as my witness, if I knew you had been born, I would have taken care of you." He wasn't sure why Heath would think that, but had two suspects. "If your Uncle told you that..."
"He spouted a lot, but not that," Heath answered.
"Gavin?" Tom's voice didn't hide his disdain. Heath didn't reply, he didn't have to. And then the Barkley temper heated up. "And you believed that spineless cretin?"
"I knew ya sold the mine, didn't know ya were my father." Heath recalled hearing about that when he worked there. It sounded as weak as it was; he might have not know better than but in the brief time he'd spent with his father, he knew better now. But he needed someone to lash out at at and his father was right here
"I wasn't aware of you until Rachel contacted me," Tom reported, "You have my word on that."
Heath and his father shared a long , hard look and then Heath turned away, walking to the hearth and bending down next to it to pick up the pewter mug. How many times had he asked if when it would be his?
"When you're a man, when you're grown."
Being a man meant growing up and he'd done it faster than most, the war being involved in that. But there was a lot to being a man, inside and out. And he was still learning and growing. And finding out by this unwelcomed trip to the past that he had a different future was testing him. And forgiving her was a part of that. His father might not have known about him, but his mother knew. And he was trying to understand that choice.
"I can't tell you what to Heath, but know this," Tom's tone was colored with the warmth that only fatherhood can bring. "You're a Barkley now. I rode into this Valley over thirty-tive years ago with a new bride, a pocket full of coins and a dream. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into every inch of that land, Barkley land, your land. And now that stretches far beyond anything I could have imagined. . But as vast as it is, it’s would mean nothing without my family. Everythig I stand for, that your brothers work at every day, to protect and enrich , feed it and watch it grow, for their sons, that's a part of you now."
It was overwhelming. As much all of it was everything he'd dreamed of, suddenly it was almost too much. The room felt smaller and he couldn't breathe. He put the mug down and went to the doorway, opening the door and moving outside. A hertiage, a family, a future.
Tom gave him a moment and then joined him. He saw a look in his son's eyes that was familiar. "I know you want it, son. That look in her eyes, it's the same one I see in Nick's. It's something you can't define as much as you feel, deep inside. It's a part of you now and it won't be easy to leave behind. You speak your peace with your mother, that's first. I can't make up for the last twenty-four years, but I'll be by your side for all that come from this day forward. There's a place in my heart with your name on it now. And I'm not used to losing,"
That sounded so much like Nick he almost turned around. "No, sir, I can see that." Heath found a small smile. " Nick and Jarrod don't take t'it either."
Tom saw the boxes in the wagon, good sized crates. "You want some help with that?"
"I will in about ten minutes," Heath offered. His father nodded once and made his way to a small clearing. Heath packed as much as he could into the crates. All that was left was the large trunk and rocker. He got the rocker onto the wagon and tied it down, just as his father reappeared.
Together they got the trunk on the back.
"I''d like Aunt Rachel t'hold onto 'em for a bit."
"Alright, son. I'll arrange for a special courier to meet us at Cutter's Point. I promise you they'll get there fine."
"Barkley's words as good as done," Heath teased.
"Damn straight," Tom chased, then embraced his child. "Stay well, son, take as much time as need. " He pulled away and left one hand on his son's shoulder. "When you find the road home, we'll be there will open arms."
He’d thought about the man who fathered him at different points in his life. Mostly in his early teens, and during the war, when he was in prison, a selfish part of him wished harm on the man who’d created him, blaming him for being in the horrific hell hole. Over the last few years he’d moved on, the man in him gently silencing the lost boy in side still yearning for the hand of a father on his back.
Now as Heath watched his father drive the wagon away, he was left with a rush of warmth coursing through him that he'd never experieced before. An emotional wave washed over him, making him feel taller, better, stronger. Not just any touch, something he'd never felt before that now gave him an insatible appetite for more
A father's touch.