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.
Yawning, Audra entered the dining room and looked around. Alone again. She had hoped by getting up early she could at least join Heath for breakfast. But, once again she was alone. It certainly had been lonely this past week with everyone out of town. Nick and most of the hands were on a cattle drive, Jarrod had extended his stay in Sacramento to speak at a State Lands Commission hearing, Eugene as usual was away at Berkley and mother had gone to Philadelphia to visit an ill cousin.
And Heath might as well be gone too as much as she'd seen of him this week. He was up before sunrise and didn't drag in until after dark. She knew he was trying to do the work of all four Barkley brothers. She smiled at the thought - amazed that any of them could have ever doubted Heath was a Barkley. Not only did he look like father; he had the same drive, determination and stubborness of all the Barkley men.
Well, she thought, breakfast was no fun without her brothers there to tease her. She helped herself fo some eggs from the sideboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. Even Silas seemed to have vanished.
Carrying her plate and cup to the table she didn't notice as Heath burst into the room. "Boy howdy, I'm hungry enough to eat a mule!" he exclaimed.
Audra jumped, spilling her coffee on the floor. "For heaven's sake, Heath, you're worse than Nick - look what you made me do!"
"Sorry sis," Heath smiled at his younger sister. "Got a heap of work to do today and ---say-- what are you doing up at this hour anyway?"
"Well, she pouted, it's no fun eating alone and since you're always working I figured this would be the only time I could enjoy your company."
"Well", he said, as he started eating before he even sat down, "I gotta get going. The fence is down again in the north section and some cattle have strayed off. Third time this month too - I thought Nick said he was going to fix that break before he left", he muttered, more to himself than to Audra.
He looked up from his food at his sister. "Why don't you go into town and visit with your new friend Sarah? I'll probably be late again this evening.'
"Oh, I've been to town three times already this week, and anyway Sarah is busy with the paper." "Why don't I come with you? she asked impulsively. "I could look for those strays while you mend the fence."
Heath put down his fork and stared at his sister. "You've got to be kidding? That's a hard day's work I'm talking about, not a shopping trip.'
Audra, annoyed, pushed back her chair. 'Heath Barkley - you think that's all I'm good for--shopping?! Why I don't see anyone in this room that I can't outride or outwork!"
"Is that so", he retorted. Audra couldn't tell if Heath was smiling or smirking at her. "Well sis, finish up and saddle up, it's going to be a long day."
By midmorning, Audra was beginning to think she'd spoken a little hastily. It was hot and dry for early October and she hadn't seen a single stray all morning. Well, she thought, she might as well head back to where she'd left Heath working on the fence. Maybe he was ready to take a break. Coming out of a copse of oaks above the fence line, Audra could see Heath below. His shirt was off and he was working up a sweat with the post-hole digger. Yep, she thought - definately looked like he could use a break. She started to holler down to him, when she noticed a group of riders behind Heath. Who could that be? There's nothing back that way but a narrow slot canyon. She reined up watching from the edge of the trees.
Heath obviously heard them too, for he turned around. He instinctively reached for his gun but realized he had left it hanging ten yards down on a fence post. Not recognizing the riders, he casually walked towards his gun. He didn't quite make it however. One rider quickly covered the distance between Heath and his gun. "Just you stay where you are Barkley and don't try nothing and no one has to get hurt", said the stranger.
Heath was worried - he now recognized the man. Dutch Hanlon, a hand Nick had fired last month as much for his quick temper and smart mouth as his laziness. Dutch had said then the Barkley's hadn't seen the last of him. Heath had seen Dutch a few times recently in town, hanging out in the saloon with some other no account losers - probably this bunch with him now. Heath's mind shot back to the present. Audra! Where was she? Oh God, he never should have let her come along. "Please don't ride up now little sister," he thought.
Heath turned to Dutch, "What do you want here? Nick told you to get off and stay off Barkley land". "Well, MISTER Barkley," Dutch drawled, "I reckon that's a mite hard to do when I've been helping myself to your cattle this past month." "Right under your high and mighty Barkley nose too". "The boys and me have made off with near 25 prime head," he boasted.
Heath thought, why is he telling me this? His concern for Audra and himself was mounting. He had to get his hands on his gun. But how? As if Dutch read his mind he looked down at Heath and sneered, "But why bust our butts stealing cows when we got prime Barkley stock right here?"
"What are you talking about Dutch", Heath queried. "You - I figure that high and mighty mother of yours will pay a pretty penny to get one of her precious boys back."
At that moment Audra's horse whinnied. As Dutch turned in her direction Heath lunged for his gun. He almost made it. Almost. Dutch slammed his rifle butt down on Heath, narrowly missing his skull, but smashing down on Heath's shoulder. Heath both heard and felt his collarbone snap. He cried out in pain, dropping to his knees, another glancing blow catching him along side his head. Mercifully he passed out. His last thought was of his sister--"God, I hope they didn't see Audra...."
Audra pulled her horse further back into the trees, repressing an almost overwhelming urge to ride down to her brother. "Heath, oh Heath, what should I do?" Her mind was in a whirl. More than anything she wanted to go to her brother's assistance. But, instinctively she knew it was better to stay back. At least for now. She watched as the man who had clubbed Heath looked her way. Audra unconsciously held her breath, but he eventually turned his attention back to Heath. He motioned to his men and two of them dismounted and threw Heath over his horse belly down, tying him into his saddle. They remounted and headed towards the mouth of the narrow canyon.
Audra was torn. Should she go for help or follow them? Stockton and the ranch were both several hours ride there and another several back. Lord knows what those men might do to Heath in that time. She couldn't leave her brother. Audra decided to follow them. She had no plan, she just knew it was up to her to help Heath.
At the mouth of the canyon one of the four riders stayed behind - probably to act as guard Audra thought, and another lit out in the direction of the ranch. The other two, including the man who had beaten Heath, headed deeper into the canyon.
Audra stayed to the high ground and circled to the east. She knew that canyon was boxed in, but she also knew there was an old, steep trail down from the northeast side. It was very steep, but Audra was positive her sure-footed mare could make it. And if she hurried she should make it down there before they got that far. That was assuming they were going all the way back, she thought.
The trail was even steeper than she had remembered and well grown over with manzanita and sage. The little mare was a dream though. Got them both down without a single slip. Audra tethered the animal well back in the tall brush and sat down to wait.
She had almost dozed off there in the hot, afternoon sun, when she was startled into wakefulness by the sound of horses heading her way. Peering out, she too recognized Dutch Hanlon and another man she'd seen around town.
Dutch glanced her way and her heart nearly stopped-but he kept riding. Leaving the mare behind, Audra followed on foot, staying concealed in the dense chaparral. About 100 yards further on the riders stopped. A crude corral had been erected and inside were their missing cattle. The men dismounted, cutting Heath loose and yanking him off the horse onto the ground. The impact caused Heath to let out a quiet moan.
Audra's heart went out to her brother. "Please Lord", she mouthed silently, "give me the strength to help him out of this. " She listened as the two men talked.
"$10,000? Do you really think they'll pay it Dutch? After all this one ain't really a Barkley, just the old man's bastard offspring."
"Sure they will", Dutch answered. "I've seen em all together - tighter ticks on a coonhound. All of em. They'll pay, no doubt about it."
"But Dutch, how will we get the money?"
"Joe's gonna ride in to the ranch, hand the note to that old servant and ride back out. He'll be gone before they know what's happened. The note'll tell them to leave the money west of the ranch by that old silver mine. And tomorrow night we'll ride over there, come in through that hidden, back entrance - grab the cash and hightail it to the Nevada line. It'll work just fine."
"What about him?" the other man said, pointing at Heath's prone figure?
"Him? We'll kill him." Dutch said flatly. "By the time they realize he ain't coming home, we'll be long gone."
"Why don't we just kill him now, then and be done with it?"
"Cause I want to make sure Joe gets through with the note. Now quit jawing and tie him up. He may come to soon."
Audra tried to think. It would be dark soon - long before the rider sent off to the ranch could get back. Maybe once it was dark she could somehow get Heath loose without being seen. And, maybe she could get him up on the mare and lead him back up the narrow trail. And maybe from there she could get him into town and to a doctor and the sheriff. But maybes weren't going to help Heath. These men meant to kill him and they'd do that to her too, probably worse if they caught her. Audra shuddered. "Oh Nick, Jarrod, I need you." They'd know what to do. They'd always been there to look out for her. Her big brothers - her protectors. Now it was all turned around. Nick and Jarrod weren't here and these men would soon kill Heath if she didn't do something and do it soon.
Heath slowly regained consciousness. He was face down in the dirt. When he moved, the bones in his collarbone ground together almost causing him to pass out again. His hands were tied in front of him and his feet seemed to be bound. The pain was almost unbearable. He turned his head to the side and saw Dutch and another man drinking and talking. Heath shut his eyes, both from the pain that small movement had caused and because he saw no sense in letting Dutch know he was awake. His throat was dry as cotton and he badly needed a drink of water. But he knew it was best to keep quiet. He needed to think. Where was he and more importantly where was Audra? Did she know what had happened to him? Was she able to get away? How was he going to get out of this? These thoughts tumbled in his mind as he drifted back into unconsciousness.
Audra looked at Dutch and the other man for at least the six-dozenth time. Both had drunk a lot of whiskey and one had fallen into a noisy sleep. Dutch too seemed to have fallen asleep. He was sitting up with a bottle in his hand, but his head had drooped down to his chest and his regular breathing would indicate that he too was asleep.
She knew she had to act now. Summoning all her courage she crept up to Heath. Covering his mouth with her hand she gently shook her brother. His eyes opened and slowly focused on her. She held her finger to her lips and removed her hand from his mouth.
"Audra!, what are you doing here?" Even through the pain, Heath's concern for his sister showed both in his voice and his eyes. "You've got to get out of here - NOW", he hissed. She shook her head an emphatic NO and pulled on his good left arm trying to help him up.
One of the men stirred and Audra froze, supporting Heath. The man soon resumed his snoring and she again allowed herself to breathe. "Come on," she whispered. "I have a horse. We are getting out of here - together."
She supported her brother's weight as best she could as she helped him back into the brush where the mare was tethered. Using both her and Heath's belts she managed to fashion a crude swathe and sling for his arm. And by using a rock as a stepping stone she managed to get Heath into the saddle. He clung to the horn with his good hand, swaying slightly in the saddle.
So far so good she thought, leading the mare as quietly as she could to the back of the canyon wall where the trail steep began. They started up the steep slope. They had made it almost three-quarters of the way up when the mare stumbled, sending a shower of stones tumbling below.
Dutch was immediately awake. "Where is he!?" he shouted. "Dammit Jack, wake up", he yelled, kicking his partner. "He's gone."
But how?, Dutch asked himself. Just then the mare sent down another shower of rocks.
"Up there!", Dutch cried, pointing up the canyon wall. "Somebody's with him".
The two men grabbed their horses and set out after Heath and Audra.
There was no reason for quiet now. Now it was a race to get to the top before they caught up with them. Audra ran, leading the mare on towards the crest of the canyon. The men were mounted however, and were making better time than Audra could leading the mare and Heath. In desperation, she turned and pushed on some of the larger loose rocks on the side of the trail. To her amazement several gave way starting an avalanche of rocks below her. She heard one man's scream and saw a shadow tumbling below her. The second man continued to climb although temporarily slowed by the jumble of rocks now on the trail.
At last she pulled the tired, frightened mare over the top of the canyon edge. "I'm sorry girl," she whispered in the horse's ear. "You're not through yet." With that, she pulled herself up in the saddle behind Heath and spurred the horse to a gallop.
With no moon, she knew running in this rugged terrain was dangerous. But, compared to what was behind - and maybe - in front of her, it was worth the risk. She held the reins in one hand and kept her other arm wrapped around her brother's waist. "Hold on Heath", she comforted him.
As the horse flew around the canyon's mouth, she almost ran down the rider left behind to guard the area. The man's horse reared in surprise tossing the startled rider to the ground, then galloped off without him. Audra was too terrified to even notice.
Glancing behind her she saw Dutch Hanlon gaining on them. He passed right by his partner, not even slowing down to see if he needed help.
Audra's little mare was tiring fast. Her sides were heaving and she was beginning to slow. Audra knew in her heart that they weren't going to make it. Then she remembered the barbed wire fence. "Come on girl," she urged the horse. She ran her right up to the fence, leaned forward gripping Heath with all her might - and jumped. The little mare barely cleared the fence. Audra felt the horse's hooves brush against the wire.
Looking back she saw that Dutch had been concentrating on them and had not seen the fence. Until now. His horse abruptly planted his feet refusing to jump. Dutch flew over the saddle into the strands of wire.
Audra stopped just long enough to see that Dutch seemed to be caught up in the wire. She turned and headed, a little slower now, for Stockton.
They had slowed to a walk. Audra was trying to hold on to Heath and the reins with one hand, while helping Heath take a drink of water from her canteen with the other. "I think we're safe now, Heath", she murmured. "But, we've got to keep moving. I've got to get you to a doctor". She wanted to get Heath down so she could get a better look at his injury, but she was none to sure she could ever get him back up in the saddle again. So, they kept on.
Audra was supporting more and more of Heath's weight and each time the horse stepped forward Heath groaned through gritted teeth. "Hang on Heath," she kept repeating - "it's only a little farther."......sure enough as they rounded a bend in the trail, she could see the lanterns from the bars on Stockton's waterfront glowing in the distance.
Yawning, Audra made her way downstairs and into the dining room. Isn't this how yesterday started, she thought to herself? But, what had happened in between the past two mornings (my God had it only been 24 hours!) was almost too much to think about.
They'd made it into town. The doctor had set Heath's collarbone and bound his arm tightly to his chest. The doctor said he probably wouldn't be using that arm for a couple of months. Well, she thought, being laid up for a while was certainly preferable to what she had feared in her heart would happen only a few short hours ago. She still couldn't believe she had got them both out of there. The dear lord certainly had been on her side last night.
The sheriff had seen her ride into town with Heath. He told them Silas had ridden in only an hour earlier, in a panic, with a wild story and a ransom note. He had been rounding up a posse when they'd ridden in. He shook his head in disbelief when she told him the whole story.
"We'll head out right now, Miss Audra- we should be out there by morning and I promise you we'll round those men up. They won't be bothering you or your family again."
She and the doctor had wanted Heath to stay in town - at least until morning. But Heath, stubborn as ever - had insisted on getting home.
Audra shook her head, thinking to herself that she was sure Heath was actually thinking of the work he thought he needed to be doing. Well, she'd darn well make sure he did nothing of the kind. She'd keep him in bed if she had to tie him in.
It had been almost daylight when they'd arrived home. After seeing Heath settled in bed and resting comfortably she'd taken a long bath,trying to soak away all thoughts of the past night. Now she was in need of a cup of coffee. Truthfully though, she was pretty proud of herself. Her brothers' might tease her about her clothes and her beaus but she now knew, what she'd always known deep down inside herself - that she could be just as brave as any Barkley - man or woman.
Lost in her thoughts, she didn't see Heath slowly make his way into the room. He stopped, leaning tiredly against the door. Audra looked up. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT OF BED!", she scolded as she went to his side.
"Audra", he said quietly and earnestly. "I had to thank you for what you did. You saved my life last night." He rushed on as she helped him to a chair. "You were amazing but I'm so sorry for getting you into all of it, I should have never let you come along, you could have been killed."
"Oh for heaven's sake Heath, hush", she cut him off before he could embarrass her further. "What are you talking about? I didn't do anything you wouldn't have done for me - it's what family does - look out for each other". I'm glad I was there. I love you, and Nick and Jarrod. I'd do anything for my brothers. And anyway, I told you yesterday that I was tired of eating breakfast alone. Now I've got you here for all three meals", she smiled brightly at her brother.
Anything else Heath might have planned to say to his sister was drowned out by the front door banging open and Nick's booming voice yelling, "Audra, Heath I'm home"! "Silas, where's breakfast?!"
Audra smiled, shaking her head. "In here Nick, and quit that bellering, you sound like a fishwife." Nick ambled into the dining room.
Seeing Audra first he rolled his eyes and said, "still in your nightgown Audra?" "I suppose you've just been lazing around the house since
I've been gone. He stopped when he saw Heath. "What happened to you?" he said with obvious concern.
It's a long story. Get us some breakfast why don't you, and quit picking on Audra." Nick looked perplexed but went to the sideboard to fix them plates of food.
Audra smiled happily to herself. Things were back to normal.