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Awoken, Part 2
By Yelena
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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. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.

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Chapters 10-17
hapter 10      

Victoria Barkley raised her head, as she heard the front door opening, and immediately got up from the couch, where sheís been sitting for the past hour and a half. She was now ready to face whatever questions Audra and Heath could have had in store for her. During that time that sheís been sitting down here all by herself, all kinds of thoughts were going through her head, and she could no longer escape that sense of guilt. Was she doing the right thing by not telling them the truth? This was her husbandís wish on the first place, and at the time she understood his reasons, but now her doubts on whether or not this indeed was the right thing to do were becoming unbearable.

"Mother, are you still up?"---Audraís voice reached her, and Victoria saw her daughter walking towards her with a smile on her face, as she bending over and kissed her on the cheek.

" is late, and two of my children are not at home, when we have a big party planned for tomorrow. Nick said that you left in hurry, and I hope that nothing bad has happened,"---Victoria explained, putting her arm around her daughterís waste, and trying her best to sound cheerful.

"We are sorry,"---Heath said, yawning, as three of them were now walking into the living room, and continued.

"Nothing bad happened. We just had to see someone about Audraís jewelry, and we didnít think that it would take such a long time for us to get back."

"May I ask where you went? Was that the lady, who sold you those gem stones yesterday?"---Victoria inquired, as she and Audra sat on the couch, and Heath took his place on the chair, stretching out his legs. Both her children looked exhausted, but Victoria could see that they were in a pretty good mood.

"Yes. I finally made up my mind about the necklace, but we wanted to talk to you about something very important,"---Audra quickly answered, while taking off her riding gloves.

"Hm..."---Victoria Barkley managed a smile, full of attention, and knowing exactly what question was going to be asked next. She had given Tom her word, and now all she had to do was to keep it.

"Mother, was there ever anybody in our family with the name of Abigail?"---Audra asked looking at her mother seriously, as Heath helped out with some guesses.

"Any cousin or distant relative or someone, whose last name was also Barkley? We asked Nick, and he said that there wasnít any."---He explained, relaxing his back. It was sure a long day after one sleepless night for him and his sister.

Victoria was prepared for that, and managing an obvious surprise, she quickly answered.

"No. Not that I know off."

"Are you absolutely sure?"---Audra frowned, looking at her mother. Ramona seemed very honest, but if Victoria Barkley was denying this... Her own mother wouldnít lie to her, would she?

"Well, dear, Iíve met your father almost 37 years ago, and Iíve never heard about any...Abigail,"---Victoria said, pausing shortly before pronouncing this name. Everything that this woman has done to her family was still so fresh in Victoriaís memory that it wasnít easy to talk about her, but this pause went unnoticed. Quickly, she continued:

"Neither I nor your father had any relatives with this name. Why do you ask?"---She inquired calmly, but inside she was anything but.

Heath looked at Audra, who seemed rather lost after this brief and clear explanation and sighed, explaining.

"We just talked to that woman, whom Jarrod mentioned last night at dinner, and she insisted that somebody by the name of "Abigail Barkley" was haunting our house this past day..."

"Haunting?"---Victoria frowned. Was she hearing things now? She wouldnít have been surprised if she had heard this from Audra, but Heath?

"Mother, Heath didnít mean haunting. He meant that I thought that someone, who is now dead, was haunting us. I even dragged him and Nick in the attic to use the planchette to talk to it, and thatís when this name appeared. I was so scared that I wanted him to come with me to see that woman about this ..."---Audra quickly explained, and Heath looked at his sister with astonishment.

Why was she doing that? She didnít drag them into the attic, and she didnít make him to go to Ramonaís antique store. One reason for her covering up like that was, probably, that she didnít want him to look like an idiot in front of their mother, and before he could object Audra went on.

"I was so paranoid after last night that I insisted on returning the jewelry, but now we went back there and asked her about Abigail, but she didnít know much herself. Remember, that Jarrod told us that she was a witch? I guess that it just got into my head."

Victoria swallowed hard, listening to her daughterís explanation, not even noticing Heathís story being retold from her daughterís point of view. This was a good opportunity for her to change the subject.

"Heath, while you were away, Nick and Jarrod moved some things in the yard to make a space for dancing. I am afraid that you will not be able to find some of your stuff. Címon, I will show you where it is, so that you know where to find it if you need it tomorrow morning."---She took her son by the hand, and both of them, getting up, started walking towards the door.

As soon as they disappeared from her view, Audra sat down on the chair, noticing Silas entering the living room, and bringing some ornaments into the hall, which with all the decorations vaguely resembled its old self:

"Mother wouldnít lie to us, would she?"---Audra thought again, staring in front of her, not knowing what to think. She did everything in her power for Heath not to look foolish in their motherís eyes, but she also felt that he gladly accepted Victoria Barkleyís explanation, and was ready to forget everything that two of them were discussing on their way home.

"I believed that Ramona was telling us the truth, but then why is Mother saying the opposite? Iíve been thinking that maybe Abigail was our older sister, someone whom I was too young to remember, but Mother would have told me..."

Silas headed towards the table, holding the polished candlesticks, bought by Victoria in Stockton, in his hands, and Audra now looking at him suddenly got an idea. Of course, he would have known about Abigail -- after all, heís been with a family long enough.

"Silas, how long have you working for us?"---Audra inquired, getting up and approaching him, determined to get the truth out of the old servant.

"Since Mr. Jarrod was a baby, Miss Audra,"---Silas smiled at her question, putting candlesticks down and reaching for the candles.

"That means that you are, practically, a Barkley, and you must know all about our family,"---Audra smiled sweetly.

"Why do you ask, Miss Audra?"

"Have you ever heard about Abigail Barkley?"---Audra started, seeing how suddenly, startled Silas looked, that same moment dropping the candles on the floor and now staring at Audra, unable to speak.

"Silas, I asked you a question. Have you ever heard about Abigail Barkley?"---Audra repeated, feeling that inside she was losing her patience with him. She was sick of hearing about this woman and not knowing who she was, and if Silas was reacting this strange way, it could only mean that Mother wasnít telling the truth.

"I...I havenít heard about any woman named like that,"---Silas said, stammering.

"You know about her, donít you?"---Audra looked at his eyes, feeling that all this was finally getting to her. What was going on in this house?

"I ainít gonna tell you nothiní about Miss Abigail,"---He finally uttered, and turning away quickly walked towards the kitchen.

"Silas...Silas, wait!"-Audra, yelled, but the old man didnít stop, and for a moment Audra was startled at seeing him practically running away. She had no idea that he could walk that fast.

She sighed, approaching the window and putting her face against the glass, looking down, and thinking:

"Itís no use -- he wouldnít tell... Mother is not telling us the truth, Silas is afraid talking about her, Nick also knows about her, and if he does then Jarrod does for sure. Heath believed Mother and is no longer on my side. Silas was all shaking after I mentioned her name, and I feel like I am living in the mist; and itís getting thicker and thicker..."

Suddenly, with a corner of her eye she noticed a white figure outside the widow. Slowly turning her head towards it, Audra felt that this was her again: a woman, that same woman in a long white dress with her long dark hair flying in the wind, who was dancing in the yard, dancing in the strange circles... Startled and unable to breath, Audra was seeing the lady raising her head and looking directly at her. As their eyes met, the vision started slowly disappearing in the air, and a second later it was gone. Fascinated, Audra kept staring outside as if she was waiting for her to re-appear and tell her the truth, but to no avail. It was gone, but its presence has brought Audra some unexplainable peace: she wasnít scared anymore, not of Abigail and not of anyone else.

hapter 11      

He must get out of the attic, while there is still time left... Audra was in there with him just minutes ago. Did she leave already? He must hurry: the roof is going to fall down in several moments and block the exit, and house walls will start shaking in a minute or two. He needs to tell everyone to leave. Where are Mother and his brothers? Are they sleeping? He has to wake them up! This isnít going to be a serious earthquake, but the attic is sure to be destroyed. Audra is probably somewhere behind him in here...He canít see her. Oh, no... Whereís she? He has to find her before it is too late...

Heath Barkley quickly opened his eyes, getting up from the bed that same instant and as fast as he could. Once his feet touched the cold floor, just when he was ready to run out of the room, looking for Audra, Heath stopped realizing that this was only a nightmare. He slowly sat down on his bed, with his hand wiping off the sweat from his forehead, and sighed, looking outside. It was still very early...probably, four or five oíclock in the morning, and still dark. Why could he still feel the agony of his search? What could this earthquake that he dreamed about mean in his real life? If everything was back to its places then why did he feel like nothing was really resolved?

He never believed or cared about his dreams -- in fact, until yesterday morning, he never even remembered his dreams, not since he was a child. Slowly Heath stood up, bending over and putting the old shoes on, ready to be heading towards the door... Something was telling him to check on Audra. Was he becoming like her? He didnít want to take this chance, and as he walked into the corridor, he stopped. His eyes still hadnít adjusted to the dark, and he wished that he had taken a candle with him, since he could barely see his feet in the darkness. Slowly, as his eyes were beginning to recognize objects around him, Heath started walking towards his sisterís bedroom.

"Why didnít she close her door?"---Heath thought, seeing that the door was open, and as he walked inside, he stopped suddenly, seeing in the moonlight that her bed was empty.

Attic... Heath backed towards the door, and started walking towards the end of the corridor. There was a short ladder, leading to the third floor, not really a third floor - just some storage place under the roof. Heath could feel that his sister could only be in there, and as he started going up the ladder, sure enough, he noticed a light underneath the door. Was she again playing there with her planchette? He had to talk to her about that.

"Audra, what in the world are you doing in here at four in the morning?"---Heath announced, entering the room and immediately noticing how messy it was.

Four chests that were standing in the right corner, covered with dust, always closed were now standing in the middle of the room with their tops open, and his sister was sitting in front of one, with her back turned to him, probably, going over its contents. What on earth was she doing here in the middle of night and with these old boxes?

As soon as Audra heard him calling her name, she jumped, obviously not expecting to be hearing his voice behind her back. She was wearing a long robe over her nightgown, and considering her reaction, she was so pre-occupied with whatever she was doing in there that she hasnít heard her brother climbing up the stairs.

"Oh my God, Heath... You scared me to death. What are you doing here?"---She asked, exhaling, relieved that this awful frightful moment was over.

"That was my question for you. Last night, you were screaming that you would never sleep at night, because of the ghost haunting us, and the last thing where I hoped to find you was in here, in the attic in the middle of night!"---Heath blurted out, approaching her and looking at various items scattered around the room.

"She is harmless,"---Audra answered calmly and closed the chest, in front of which she was sitting.

"Who?"---Heath frowned, afraid that he knew the answer.


"You know, you are the one who is scaring me. I thought that we decided that there was no Abigail..."---He started reasoning with her again, but his sister didnít listen.

"That is exactly why I havenít woken you up. I saw her dancing outside in our garden and then I got this idea that maybe..."---She tried to suggest, hoping that he would listen, but he didnít let her finish this time.

"Audra, you have become delusional. I am not saying that you are crazy, but maybe itís a good idea to check with a doctor?"---Heath put his hand on her shoulder, but she threw it off.

"Why donít you tell everybody what you think? Why donít you put me in asylum somewhere, and announce everybody that I have lost my mind?"---She turned away from him, and opened the chest, standing next to her, probably, because she hasnít looked there yet.

Heath bit his lower lip, seeing the determination in her sharp movements. He didnít understand her in these past few days: one minute she was afraid to step outside in the hall at night by herself, the next one she was sitting alone in the attic with one burning candle, going through some old forgotten things. He failed her. Somehow he failed her, and maybe thatís what this dream was about? His sister wasnít crazy, all she wanted was to get to the truth, and he was the one, who found an easy way out by accepting the words that he heard from their mother.

"What is it that you are looking for?"---Heath walked towards her, lowering down on the floor: maybe he could still gain her trust back?

Audra didnít answer, taking some old yellow papers out of the chest and not even looking at him, now sitting next to her. Heath couldnít blame her for such reaction -- out of all people, she turned to him for advice, and he pushed her away with his words, which were making sense but it didnít make them less hurtful.

He picked up some papers -- old business documents, in an unfamiliar handwriting and quietly asked:

"Audra, I want to know what are you doing in here in the middle of the night?"

"Why? So that you can go on proving that I lost my mind?"---She shrugged, putting some old clothes on top of the chest, which was standing near by, and at that moment Heath realized that his sister has probably, been sitting here for hours, going through these old unknown to him things, but why?

"I want to help. Please, tell me what it is?"---Heath asked, hoping that once he knows what exactly she is doing, he will be able to talk her out of it, even if she wasnít talking to him.

"These are Fatherís things."---Audra answered in a simple way, taking last papers out of the chest, and making sure by looking inside that nothing else was left in there.

"Mother and Jarrod put these things away, after he died. Nobody has really looked in them since. I went through some of his clothes, business papers, old books and others. This is the last chest, and this is also my last hope." -- She explained, nodding at the open box.

"What do you mean, you went through?"---Heath frowned, glancing at the papers scattered around him.

"I am trying to find something that may explain us something about this Abigail person. Heath, you can leave if you want, but I am staying here."---Audra said, taking some papers in her hands.

"What are those?"---Heath asked, also picking up some lists.

"I donít know -- there is a whole bunch of these documents, dated back years and years ago. There are business agreements, travel papers and some letters, nothing personal. Mother keeps all personal letters with her -- these are the ones, dealing with purchases and sales, mostly the duplicates. I am sure that Father kept all the originals in the bank, and I donít think that Jarrod actually went through these."---She explained, still looking at the papers.

Heath got comfortable at the floor, picked up the stack of papers and laid them out in front of him on the floor. There were a lot of them, and Heath selected few, carefully looking at them, knowing that the sooner he helps her out -- the sooner they will be able to go back to sleep. Rental agreements, bank loans, copies of checks, bank letters, some papers stuck together were almost flashing in front of his eyes, as he was trying to look for this name that had caused his sister to stay awake and look through these old documents.

Several moments later, Heath, who was almost done with the first stack and ready for another one, glanced at one of the last unchecked papers and froze, staring at the yellow list in disbelief.

"Heath, are you all right? Have you found something?"---Audra asked, noticing how Heathís face expression changed as he was staring at this document in his hands.

Heath swallowed hard, still not looking at Audra. Could it be that she was right from the beginning? He had to tell her now, what he discovered:

"This is your birth certificate."---He slowly said, but Audra shook her head, disagreeing.

"There must be some mistake. My birth certificate is downstairs at the library safe, along with all other documents. This is probably something that looks like it."---She suggested.

Heath looked at her. Was she ready for this?

"What is your middle name?"---He asked, trying his best to sound calm. He sure hoped that all this was just one big mistake.

"I donít have one."---Audra shrugged, and added.

"Jarrod and Nick do, but with me parents decided that Audra Barkley was good enough. Why do you ask?"

"Itís not what it says,"---Heath frowned, extending her the paper, which he was still clutching in his hands, and Audra taking it from him, quietly read.

"Audra..."---She suddenly stopped, looking at this piece of paper with her eyes wide opened, slowly continuing:

"Audra Abigail Barkley."

She looked at Heath, feeling that finally there was something in her hands, something that her mother and brothers could no longer deny. This woman, whoever she was indeed existed!

"I was named after her...but why...."---Audra was again staring at the document, hoping to get more clues from it, but there werenít any.

"Why did Mother lie to us?"---Heath frowned, understanding it with his heart that his sister was right from the beginning, but Victoria Barkleyís behavior now seemed more mysterious to him than ever. She never lied to anybody, in fact, she despised lies, and yet her answers to his and his sisterís questions this past evening were telling them the opposite.

Audra looked up at Heath and suggested:
"What if I am not hers?"

"What do you mean?"---Heath frowned.

"I mean that there is absolutely no reason for Mother to lie about something that happened in our familyís past, unless she was protecting us from learning the truth about something horrible, about this Abigail. What if..."---She couldnít finish with her thought, since Heath knew exactly, where she was going with it and already considered it an absurd.

"Audra, stop it. You are your parentsí daughter. Now, there are some letters in here. Letís put the end to this mystery. Look through his half and I will take care of this one, before we can guess any more about why Mother didnít tell us the truth. Címon..."---Heath ordered, dividing the stack and pushing the papers towards his sister.

Minutes were passing one after another, while brother and sister kept turning the pages written in Tom Barkleyís illegible handwriting. Just like the others, they were primary his business letters, and duplicates of some financial records. Finally, done with her stack, Audra picked it up and was ready to put it back into the chest, when something drew her attention:

"Heath, take a look the bottom!"---She called him, looking inside the box with an interest.

"What bottom?"

"The bottom of the chest -- look, thereís something sticking out, some white cloth. Can you pull it out of there?"---She asked, unable to do it herself, and Heath reached inside, noticing the piece of light material that she was talking about, visible at the side.

"Here..."---He took the entire bottom out effortlessly, and was now looking down at the stuff, which was lying under it, seconds later holding in his hands something carefully wrapped in the white piece of cloth. Audra took it from him and slowly unwrapped, and both siblings saw that this was a small oil painting, which for a single moment captivated brother and sister...

Three adorable young children were looking at them from this painting. Two innocent blond boys were wearing identical outfits, and looked like siblings. Younger boy was leaning on the chair, appearing extremely bored, while his older brother was sitting on this same chair, appearing rather serious. The person, who was making this picture look lighter, was a toddler, a dark haired girl, sitting on the laps on her older brother. All three of them looked so much alike, for the exception of the hair color, and their clear blue eyes were truly striking, especially, of a little one, whose dark curls were bringing up her eyes in a special way.

"Do you know who they are?"---Heath whispered, noticing that year, written on the pictureís front: 1815.

"No,"---Audra said, slowly taking the picture from her brotherís hands and looking at its back.

"Wait, somethingís written right here..."---She whispered, taking a closer look at this writing, and a second later read out loud.

"It says: Thomas 8 yrs., Jim 6 yrs., Abigail 2 yrs."

Audra stared at Heath, who was also looking, where she was pointing, knowing that Audra was probably thinking what he was thinking. A moment later, she echoed his thoughts:

"Heath, she was our fatherís little sister."

As soon as she pronounced these words, both of them felt that the floor that they have been sitting on started shaking violently, and unprepared both siblings couldnít keep their balance even sitting on the floor. Different items were falling from the shelves on the floor, and the first thing that crossed Heathís mind was what he felt, when he had this dream: to get his sister and himself out of there fast.

"Audra, itís an earthquake. Letís get going and quickly!"

Heath helped his sister to get on her feet, still with a picture under her arm, and as both of them headed towards the door, the large part of the ceiling heavily fell in front of them, blocking their way and leveling them to the ground.

"Heath... Heath..."---Audra was calling her brotherís name, trying to overcome the irritating dust in her throat, nose and eyes. Pieces of hard plaster were falling from the ceiling, and when she finally felt Heathís arm, she crawled close enough to him to see that her brother was lying unconscious:

"Heath, wake up!"---She tried to revive him up, wiping off the white dust from his face and hair, praying that he wasnít hurt, and when Audra was finally ready to pull him up, suddenly, everything around her went black, as the heavy dust from the falling plasters had covered her face and her body...

hapter 12      

Victoria Barkley ran out of her bedroom, putting on the robe over her nightgown in a hurry, only to bump into Jarrod, heading towards her room in a full speed:

"Mother, itís an earthquake. Nick is downstairs already. Címon..."---He took her by her hand, leading her towards the stairs, but Victoria resisted, interrupting her son:

"Is everybody out of the house?"---She quickly inquired, and after seeing him nodding in a positive way, Victoria let him lead her towards the staircase; and as they were going down the stairs, Jarrod quickly explained:

"Nick checked on the rest. Heath, probably, woke Audra up, because they are not in their rooms, and they couldnít have gone anywhere else at four in the morning. Címon, we have to get out of here..."---He urged her, as both of them reached the first floor, and then Jarrod made an attempt to cover his mother from the plaster falling down from the ceiling.

Nick Barkleyís loud voice reached them, as Victoria and Jarrod were about to go through the front door; and Jarrod quickly reacted, seeing Nick and Silas running towards them from the dining room:

"Are you still in here? I thought that you were outside already!"---Jarrod addressed his brother in a harsh voice.

"The back door is blocked, ceiling in the kitchen just collapsed, and we couldnít get out..."---Nick tried to explain.

"Later, Nick..."---Jarrod interrupted him, practically pushing his mother out of the house, with him, Nick and Silas just several steps away.

As soon as they were outside, the ceiling blocks fell heavily right behind them, blocking the front entrance and taking the door off the hinges. Jarrod got a hold of Victoria, with Nick and Silas right behind them, and all four of them, still being so close to the house, and unable to keep their balances, fell on the ground.

"Oh My God..."---Victoria whispered, raising her head and looking back at doorsteps, where they were standing just seconds ago. She was still hearing things breaking and falling down inside the house, and the glass in the windows on the first floor has already been broken. All this was so unbelievable to witness, that her only solace now was that all her children were out of the house safe.

"Mother, donít worry -- we will just have to cancel the party and spend the rest of the day cleaning things up around here."---Jarrod tired to release the tension, noticing the concern, with which his mother was looking at their house that has nearly trapped them inside.

Nick was the first one to get up, quickly extending his hand to help his mother on her feet.

"Where are Heath and Audra at? I donít see them..."---Victoria looked around, noticing men running towards the stables and leading the horses out, as the panic was quickly spreading around the place.

Several wooden houses, where their ranch hands lived, were leveled with the ground, and those lucky ones, who managed to get out of them just in time, were now helping not so fortunate ones, still strapped inside. For the exception of this chaos - stables, most of the houses for hired workers seemed on their places. Still, Victoria Barkley couldnít see her other two children.

"They are, probably, helping to get all the horses out of the stables."---Jarrod said, getting up on his feet, and feeling his mother, suddenly, clinging to him, and addressing them with a voice full of worry.

"I donít see them... Are you sure that they were not inside?"---Her voice was now reaching the high notes. She might not have recognized Heath among the other hires, all looking so alike form the distance without their shirts and with their dirty faces, busy emptying up the stables, but she would have distinguished Audra for sure.

"Mother, calm down: I checked their rooms -- they were definitely not there. Hey, bring that trough over there..."---Nick suddenly, yelled, forgetting all about his motherís question, and heading towards the man, who was holding an empty trough in his hands.

"Nick!"---Victoria called her sonís name.

"Yeah..."---He quickly turned to his mother, making a gesture for the man to go towards the horses, now gathered right outside in the yard.

"Find Heath and Audra, I need to see that they are safe,"---Victoria ordered, feeling chills going through her body, even though, Jarrod was embracing her tightly. She looked back at the house, recognizing the sounds of breaking glass and falling objects in the hall.

"Yeah...all right!"---Nick quickly answered, and the next second yelled, addressing the group of men, standing and looking aimlessly at the leveled with a ground cabin:

"Hey, you three, donít just stand there. Damn it... Mother, I will find them."---These were Nickís last words to her, as he ran towards the stables, screaming something towards those men, and ordering them to start moving.

"Jarrod,"---Victoria turned to her oldest son, as he was taking his jacket off, which he managed to grab running out of his bedroom, and putting it around her shoulders -- this was one cold night.

"Yes, lovely lady."---He tried to sound calm, but just like her -- his hopes were with Nick, now disappearing in the stables, expecting that in a minute or two he will see Audra and Heath at his brotherís side.

"Something just isnít right,"---Victoria Barkley said Jarrodís thoughts out loud, biting her lower lip and looking at the house. Ground no longer seemed to be going away under their feet, but the noise from the inside of the Barkley mansion was still very difficult to listen to. With her motherís intuition, she could feel that something was wrong.

"Of course, something isnít right -- itís an earthquake and a big one, but all of us are out of the house safe, and shaking has stopped. It will probably take several hours for us to get back inside -- the front entrance is blocked and weíve got to be careful. Also, you heard what Nick said -- the back door is also out of our reach..."---Jarrod started explaining, trying to sooth his motherís and his own fears, when, suddenly, both of them saw Nick running out of the stables and heading towards them, yelling:

"Mother! Jarrod!"

That same instant, Jarrod could feel how strained his motherís arm became in his embrace. He could sense by the look on his brotherís face even in this darkness that the news that Nick was about to tell them could not be good.

"They are not in there. Men didnít see them coming out of the house... Mother, stop...where are you going?"---Nick started explaining, and seeing his mother, suddenly, turning away and running towards, what used to be their front door, yelled.


Jarrod reacted fast, not letting his mother to get too far away, and grabbing her by the hand just in time, as they both fell on the ground. Victoria tried to throw his hand off her, and pull away from her son, but unsuccessfully, as tears of disparity were now streaming down her face:

"Let me, go, Jarrod, They are inside, and they are trapped!"

"Mother, we donít know if they are inside. This is not safe to go in there right now, and even if we want to - we canít, the aftershocks will most likely follow. Mother, are you listening to me?"---Jarrod hoped to make her understand, but in his head he was trying to come up with some plan to get into the house. He wasnít sure about the second floor, but the first one could be easily accessible through the windows.

"He is right,"---Nick lowered down on the ground next to them, also looking at their mother with concern, and quickly continued:

"You donít understand..."---Victoria tried again to pull away from Jarrod, but he wouldnít let her, and so, unable to get away, she collapsed crying.

"Mother, we understand - I will call the men up, and we will figure out something. If you go in there right now, and have a ceiling falling down on you -- this will not save them. We donít know where they are. They werenít in their rooms -- I checked!"---Nick tried to calm her down, feeling so helpless and knowing that, at least, several more minutes they will not be able to do anything about it.

"They are inside! I know it... I can feel it!"---Victoria interrupted, trying to pull herself together. Nick was right -- she had to stay out of the house, until it was safe to go inside and look for Heath and Audra, but the thought of them lying buried under the heavy blocks, bleeding and calling for help was simply unbearable.

"Mother, we have to wait for at least some time, because of the aftershocks..."---Jarrod attempted to reason with her, feeling that inside he was screaming.

"No!"---Victoria shook her head, looking at one son and then at another.

"Itís the middle of the night. Where can they be? Could they try leaving through the back door?"---She suggested, wiping off the tears and hoping to find some answers.

"No, this is impossible,"---Nick shook his head and quickly explained.

"Thatís where Silas and I headed. The way was clear, when the blocks started falling down. If they were in there, we would have seen them."

"What about the balcony?"---Jarrod guessed.

"It was empty. My room is next to it, remember?"---Nick answered, trying hard to think about all the places in the house, where his brother and sister could have gone to.

"What if they were in the attic?"---Victoria suggested, still in Jarrodís arms, but finally overcoming her first impulse to run in the house and look for her missing children.

"I sure hope that they were not in the attic... The first thing that I heard was the roof falling down in there, as I ran towards you..."---Nick said in a hoarse voice, immediately regretting these words, after seeing how dark his motherís face had become.

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His sister is unconscious and is lying right under the large block of plaster that is hanging from the ceiling, ready to fall down very soon. It is suddenly so light around him, and he can see everything around the room, all the rocks and dust, mixed with the items taken out from the chests. It is dark again... Aftershocks will hit real soon, and then this piece of plaster, hanging over Audra, will fall on her. There will be no chance for her to survive, if she doesnít move to the side in a few seconds. He has to help her to get of there, but he cannot move. Pain in his right leg is excruciating, and he cannot breathe in this dust nor can he see in this darkness. This ghastly blackness is surrounding him now, but if he doesnít help Audra to get away from that place, this heavy piece of plaster will kill her -- there is no chance that she will live if he doesnít find her in time...Heís got only few minutes to save her, but he cannot move...

Slowly, Heath turned his head, regaining consciousness and coughing loudly to get all the dust out of his mouth and throat. What was that? Was it a vision again? He was trying to open his eyes, but couldnít- the dust was still flying in the air around him, and he felt the pieces of plaster falling down. What happened? How did he end up here, partially covered by a chest and thick layer of dust? The last thing he remembered was running to the door with his sister; then something, probably, the blocks of plaster started falling down and the blackness afterwards was all that he could remember...then this dream... Was there still roof left over their heads? He couldnít see, but considering that the air was still thick with dust made him doubtful. What was it that he saw right now, when he was lying unconscious? He saw Audra, somewhere in the middle of the room, all covered with dust and rocks, and the block of plaster, hanging right over her head, which was about to fall down. Where was his sister?

He swallowed hard, trying to move his fingers, and, suddenly, feeling the streams of blood running down his face. In his heart he felt that Audraís life was in danger -- he just saw her lying under this block, and he had to move her away from it, but where was she? She couldnít have made it outside, because he remembered the falling stuff blocking their way out. This was his fault -- had he reacted fast enough, they would have never been trapped inside, and had he recognized that his dream was a premonition before he came inside, this would have never happened. If this was a premonition then he couldnít take any chances this time -- he had to find Audra...What about the rest of the family? Were they all right?

Heath tried moving his legs under the blocks of the ceiling and turned over chest, but a sudden sharp pain in his joints made him silently moan. His right leg was broken, but the left one seemed all right. Whatever had fallen on him had probably fractured his ribs -- he couldnít move and it hurt to inhale... Audra was somewhere in here, somewhere near him in this darkness, and he had to save her life before it was too late.

"Audra..."---Heath whispered, feeling that his mouth, still full of dust and dirt was barely moving - he couldnít even hear himself. He turned on the side, pushing away the chest with his left, functioning leg, and feeling the pain piercing his body. Unable to scream, Heath squeezed his fists, trying to free himself under the chest, and hoping to overcome this pain. He had to find Audra, while there was still time left.

Finally, as he crawled from under the blocks of plaster, with his right hand, Heath tried to fell his sister, somewhere on the floor, but all that he was able to feel were the rocks and various items.

"She is, probably, in the middle of the room. I have to get to her,"---Heath thought, moving the rocks away, feeling that tears, streaming down his cheeks, his reaction to this awful pain in his body, were now mixing with blood. This dream just like these other two that he had, was trying to warn him of what was about to happen, and even though, he still didnít believe in this, he couldnít take any chances now, when his sisterís life was at stake.

"Audd-rra..."---He made another attempt to call her, but again only a moan came out of his mouth, with Heath not even recognizing his own voice. He was suffocating badly in this air full of dirt and dust, but he had to get to his sister in time.

As he was pushing the stones away, Heath finally felt something hard under his hands, something different -- he couldnít open his eyes, still covered with dust, and blindly all he could do was to feel this hard object under his hands. This was the picture...probably, that same picture, which they discovered seconds before the earthquake hit. He remembered now that when they were running towards the door, Audra had it under her arm.

Pushing it away, Heath slowly thought:

"She must be somewhere around here, somewhere under these rocks..."

Seconds passed, as he was working his way through the stones, unable to see or speak, and tightening his teeth as hard as he could, to fight the pain in his leg and his ribs. Thank God, his hands were functioning, even if the rest of his body was not doing so well - he had to find Audra before it was too late.

Finally after several seconds, which seemed like an eternity to him, Heath felt his sisterís arm, and with both of his hands, and as hard as he could, he tried to pull Audra up from under that everything that was on top of her, a mix of rocks and old items, praying inside that she was all right.

"Auudddra..."---Heath managed to utter, only ending up coughing in this ghastly atmosphere, unable to move her. He has to give it another try, because if he doesnít - then both of them will be buried under the blocks of plaster, which is still about to fall on them.

As he was holding his sister by the shoulders, Heath pulled her up and to the side as hard as he could. The pain of the strain that went through his body made Heath open his eyes widely, and yet he was unable to see a thing around them, yet realizing that they were safer now, since with this forceful pull up, both brother and sister were thrown back, ending up just feet away from the rocks, under which Audra was trapped seconds ago. The moment Heath felt his head hitting the floor; a hard blow from the ceiling started coming down, where split of a second ago he and his sister were lying. Realizing that, Heath managed a smile, feeling that Audra was now just feet away from him, unhurt by the fallen rocks. He had recognized this sign just in time...

As the new layer of dust started covering their bodies, Heath tried with his hands to reach for his sister and pull her closer to him, so that he could see if she was breathing, but the pain in his body was just too much to bear. No longer could Heath control his movements or his thoughts, as slowly he was falling somewhere into the deep darkness, relieved that he had found her...

hapter 13      

Audra slowly moved her head to the right, feeling how small pieces of plaster, stuck in her hair, started falling down her face. Her body was aching, and for a moment all she could feel, was this dull and lasting numbness. Gradually, she tried moving her fingers, but this slight attempt caused such a pain in her hand that Audra tightened her teeth, feeling that her eyes were now watering with tears. A nasty taste of plaster and dirt was down in her throat, her mouth and all over her face, and as she tried to swallow, she realized that she couldnít. What was this sound that brought her back to reality? Did she pass out for a moment? Her eyes were itching badly, and as she tired opening them, the sharp pain in her left arm made her realize that it was also, probably, very badly fractured.

She couldnít open her eyes, but even so, she could still see that there was a light somewhere in this room. Where was Heath? Was he all right? Audra remembered him lying on the floor, unconscious, as she was trying to revive him, when something had fallen on her head and her back, and after that all she could remember was this long lasting darkness.

"Heath..."---She turned her head, making an attempt to call him, but all that came out was a very hoarse whisper, which made her cough. Her throat was full of this awfully smelling dust, and it was a miracle that she was still able to breath. Slowly, Audra started spitting out the dirt, overcoming the cough that was shaking her body, as she was wondering, where all this noise was coming from.

Menís voices from the outside were reaching her ears, and she could now clearly distinguish Nickís voice, so loud and demanding -- she would have never mistaken it with anybody elseís, yet she couldnít make out his words. Audra moved her head, feeling the dull pain in her neck, something that she could still bear with, unlike the pain in her arms, which were probably broken, the left one was for sure. She had to scream for help now, if she wanted her family to know that they were in here, buried under the blocks of plaster and suffocating from all the dust.

"Hheeelp..."---Audra tried to yell, but a very quiet moan came out. They will never hear her from up here. She opened her mouth, hoping to get enough air, and giving it one more shot:

"Hhhe..."---This time she couldnít even finish her word as that awful cough started shaking her body. Unable to speak or see, Audra felt the sudden cold going through her joints. She and her brother were going to die in here, if Heath wasnít dead already. All she had to do was to let her family and people down there know that they were still alive, that she was still alive...but how? If Heath is dead then this will be her fault, because he came in here to talk her into going back to bed, and she...she was so cross with him.

Silently sobbing, and unable to move, Audra could still feel this light around her, somewhere very close by. This wasnít possible -- there was no fresh air in this stuffed room, buried under the fallen roof. This couldnít be moonlight, and yet even with her eyes closed she could see that this lightness was surrounding her. Every movement or even a thought about it is causing a pain, but if she wants to get out of here -- she has to act...

Slowly, Audra made an attempt to bring her left hand, resting on her stomach, up and closer to her face, and fighting the pain in the upper arm, she could how feel it touching her face. Her wrist wasnít broken, which meant that she could still try rubbing her closed eyes, and then start wiping off the layers of dust from her face. She has to see where this light was coming from...

"I should be able to see something..."---Audra thought, turning her head to her left and trying to open her eyes.

Everything around her seemed so blur, as if she was looking at this under the water, and even though, her aching eyes were not yet fully opened, blinking had helped her to see some things clearly: fallen rocks, large pieces of plaster, papers and papers everywhere, and even think dust, still flying in the air -- all this in a light, source of which was somewhere on the other side, behind her back. Slowly, Audra tried to look down and what she saw, for a minute filled her with hope: Heath was lying just feet away, probably, unconscious, with his head turned to her.

"Heaaath..."---Audra attempted to call her brotherís name, overjoyed at seeing him so close to her, but not even a whisper came out of her mouth.

From where she was, Audra couldnít see whether or not her brother was breathing, but simply the idea that he was still in one peace in this wonderful warm light of the cold dark morning had filled her with hope. Light... It was coming from somewhere behind her, but from what kind of source? It couldnít be a candle burning, but then what was it? Biting her lips and closing her eyes tightly, in order to deal with a pain, which was about to come, Audra sharply turned to her right side, unable to suppress the sobs, because of the excruciating pain in her arm. It took her several seconds to hear her own short breath, and as she opened her eyes again -- the minute the picture in front of her became clear, what she saw made Audra feel chills going through her body.

With her teary, irritated from all the dust eyes, Audra could see this young woman - this vision that kept appearing to her during the last couple days. Just before the earthquake hit, with Heath she was looking at the picture of a little girl with dark curly hair and piercing blue eyes, Abigail, probably, her fatherís sister... Right now this young woman, Abigail, was sitting there in font of her, smiling, and with her hands on some dark object. Her smile was warm and friendly in this light, which was surrounding her and lighting up the rest of the attic, or whatever was left of it.

"Helppp..."---Audra gasped, staring at her and not being able to move. With her left hand still on her chest, Audra could suddenly feel something hard underneath her gown. This was her necklace... Instinctively, she grabbed it with her fingers, not afraid but praying that this woman, her aunt, will help them. For a moment, she couldnít even feel the pain as the eyes of this young woman, dressed in white and sitting just feet away, were looking at her with such concern. She had to try calling for help just one more time...

"Heeelp..."---Audra whispered so hoarsely that she could not even make this word out herself, and as she closed her eyes, Audra Barkley could feel the warm streams of tears running down her cheeks.

Suddenly, there was with unexplainable warmth all over her face and hair, and just now Audra realized that up until this moment, she was freezing in here, but not now... As she opened her eyes, she could see the woman in white, right in front of her, stroking her face and her hair, and then slowly putting her hand over hers, which was still clutching the necklace.

"Remember..."---Abigail said, looking deep in Audraís eyes, and that same moment, Audra noticed her slowly backing towards the hill of rocks, at which she was sitting moments ago.

Seeing her leaving like this, Audra tried controlling her tears: if she leaves now, then she and Heath, if he was still alive, will die for sure; if she leaves now then there will be absolutely nobody in here to help them out; if she leaves now then they will freeze or suffocate to death... Audra was almost ready to open her mouth and try pleading with this vision, when what she saw at the Abigailís feet made her realize, why this woman was in here with them. An old rifle was lying on the floor, just feet away, and as the attic was now becoming darker and darker, Audra kept staring at it, afraid to blink, and trying to remember its exact location.

This was what Abigail was trying to tell her all along, when she was touching this object with her hands, right prior her approaching Audra. If she now manages to crawl close enough and pull the trigger, her family will hear it! If only she manages to fire it, then she and Heath will be saved... The light, brought in with Abigailís presence was now almost gone, and she was no longer there, but right now Audra was determined to get to this rifle. She has to start crawling closer to it, even if her every movement could bring back this awful pain.

For the first time, since she regained consciousness, Audra tried moving her legs, realizing that she could still feel them, which was a good sign. They were aching, but she could control their movements even though this pain. The light was now completely gone, just like Abigail, and deciding not to waste another minute in this darkness, Audra tried moving her legs, tightening her lips to overcome the aching in the right side of her body. The only chance, a chance for life that Heath and she had, was now in her hands, and she had to get to this rifle as soon as possible. It was just feet away, but they felt like miles...

To Top

Nearly an hour passed since the earthquake, and during this time only one large aftershock followed. Neither Jarrod nor Nick could stay away from the house, knowing that their brother and sister could be buried somewhere on the second floor. With their hired menís help, the Barkley brothers were working, clearing out the stairway, partially buried under the fallen debris. The hall was very pitiful to look at: dust, blocks of plaster, broken glass were scattered everywhere, even the piano, on which Audra used to play every evening was now covered with the thick layer of dust and rocks. The entrance to the kitchen was completely blocked. It was easy to get inside the house through the windows, and once they were in, both Jarrod and Nick realized that to get to the second floor would be a challenge: the staircase was nearly impassable. Few men were working on the clearing out the entrance way at the house front, and Victoria joined her sons in the hall, helping them and other men to clear the way to the second floor, but eventually, she gave up, unable to stop her hands from shaking...

She leaned against the wall, seeing that three men finally managed to clear up the way towards the top of the stairs with a lot of work still in front of them, in order to get to the end of the corridor, where the attic ladder was. Victoria sighed, realizing her usefulness and inability to help -- she could no longer control her nerves, knowing that Heath and Audra were somewhere on the second floor, alive or dead, most likely, covered with the layers of stones and dust.

"Mother, Nick is thinking of trying the roof -- itís quite dangerous, and we donít know for sure if they were in the house. If only they could signal us in some way...the way to the second floor is covered up completely, and it may take longer than we expected to get there..."

Jarrodís voice brought Victoria back, making her think of whether or not next few hours would decide her missing childrenís lives.

"I know for sure -- they are in there, trapped..."

"Mother, we donít know how stable the roof is, but this is the only way to get to the blocked areas. They would have called for help if they were in there, and the only rooms that were not checked are the guest rooms and the attic."---Jarrod explained, trying his best to sound calm.

"Mrs. Barkley,"---Victoria suddenly heard some man, standing at the door and immediately, turned to him:


"I donít want to give you any false hope. I survived two mine collapses, which were just as bad as this quake. I just looked outside - attic is destroyed, so if someone was in there, the roof had, probably, killed..."

"Shut up, and go back to work!"---Nick yelled, overhearing manís words, and also approaching Jarrod.

"Mother, if only we knew where they are..."- He started out saying, but Victoria raised her hand, as if asking him to stop, and she slowly turned away, whispering:

"This is the worst day of my life, Nick... If they are not alive..."

With these words, she started walking towards, what used to be their front door, wanting just one thing -- to get out. She could no longer stay inside this house -- she couldnít cry or scream, feeling so numb that it was becoming unbearable.

It was chilly this early morning, and it wasnít even dawn yet. Victoria Barkley was slowly walking towards her garden, the only place that ironically, remained the same, untouched by the horror of the passing night. Some white dust was covering her flowers, but other than that it stayed unharmed. Slowly, she lowered down on the bench, aimlessly looking in front of her at the bushes of roses. She loved sitting here, when something was on her mind, but right now she would have rather seen it destroyed, abandoned, wiped out, if only this could bring her Heath and her Audra back...

What did she tell them the last time she saw them? She showed Heath, where Nick had moved some of his things to make more space for dancing for the party, which Audra has been planning during the last month. Heath was so silent, when they walked into the yard, and she knew that he was very tired from the long day, looking forward to be finally going to bed. He kissed her good night, and walked upstairs, yawning and stretching out his arms. She went back into the living room, looking for Audra to tell her goodnight, but her daughter wasnít there already. An hour later on her way to bed, Victoria looked inside Audraís room, making sure that she was asleep, and after kissing her daughter on the cheek, headed towards her own bedroom to get some rest. Why didnít she feel any danger, which was about to threaten her childrenís lives? Why didnít she wake up earlier to get to them, wherever they were in time? Would she ever know what happened?

Sitting on the bench and staring at the space in front of her, Victoria Barkley was realizing what was so difficult for her to comprehend. Why did she lie to them at the end? This was the end, if they were in the house. She has been through many earthquakes in her life, and she had seen the casualties of this type of disasters. If Audra and Heath were indeed in the attic, then there was a little hope left that they were still alive... That man was right, because she had also seen that part of the house -- it was near squashed and completely destroyed... Would it have made any difference had she told them about Abigail? Why did she lie to them?

As soon as this thought crossed her mind, Victoria looked down on the ground, feeling such an unspeakable pain in her heart that for a moment she didnít think she could breath.

"It does hurt, doesnít it?"

A female voice behind her back, suddenly, made her froze. This couldnít be happening to her -- all of this couldnít be happening to her this very night, which had changed her life in one instant just like the night she still couldnít forget. Out of all voices of all people she has ever met, she still remembered this one, and slowly Victoria Barkley looked up, even though, she didnít have to...

"Déjà vu - and here we meet again..."---The woman addressed her, approaching and finally stopping just feet away. Her long red hair was loose, covering her shoulders, but her face was just the way Victoria Barkley remembered -- this was one of those things she wished that she could forget...

hapter 14      

Several seconds passed in silence, as Victoria Barkley, still startled, kept staring at this womanís face, so very familiar to her. She didnít believe her eyes or her ears for that matter -- how was it possible that after so many years they were destined for this encounter again in this difficult time? Itís been so long since their last meeting, that still speechless, Victoria kept looking at her, waiting for some explanations.

"Yes, it is I...a little older, perhaps, since the last time I saw you. You look very different, my dear -- slimmer now, but your hair is white. Whatever happened to those long fair curls of yours? You are staring at me as if I am a ghost or something. Have I changed so much that my dear friend isnít recognizing me anymore?"---The woman smirked, lowering down on the bench next to Victoria, but not taking her eyes off her.

Overcoming her initial shock, Victoria Barkley had no more doubts left: this was she all right, but what in the world was she doing here?

"You are not one of my dear friends,"---Victoria uttered in a lifeless voice, for a second forgetting all about her misery and fear.

"Ahh...but I certainly used to be. Twenty-two years is a long time or was it longer than that since the last time we spoke?"---The strange lady said, as she finished straightening her skirt with her hands, and threw her long hair back.

"Twenty-two..."---Victoria echoed, realizing that it seemed much longer to her now, and yet not long enough, if the events of that fatal night were still so fresh in her memory.

"Why did you come here, Maria?"---Victoria Barkley asked looking at this woman directly, and feeling that with this meeting, the world seemed to be falling apart. Last time, when she saw Maria, the circumstances were similar.

"Victoria, I donít go by that name anymore: Ramona Santiago is how everyone calls me now. I told you that I would start a new life, and I did."---She explained calmly.

Victoria Barkley frowned, hearing this name, and feeling that the sound of it was very familiar - where had she possibly heard it before? She couldnít remember. In any case, she didnít wish to see or talk to this woman, and especially, now.

"What are you doing here?"---Victoria repeated her question, staring at the ground and feeling so indifferent to everything and everyone at this moment, everyone but Heath and Audra. Where were they?

"I thought that I would pay the Barkley mansion a visit and meet the notorious Victoria Barkley, the matriarch of this household, and this valley. I havenít planned on seeing you that early...nevertheless, I have already met your children: that is everyone except Nick, and I couldnít miss the opportunity of seeing you..."

"My children?"---The sound of these words brought Victoria back to reality, and she looked up at her. Why was she talking about her family?

The woman paused for a moment, and a smile touched her thin lips:

"You were a bit feistier the last time I saw you -- you almost killed me then. Yes, my dear - your children: the blond cowboy and his sister. I have seen them couple times over the past few days, and Jarrod -- some time ago..."

"I want you out of here this very minute,"---Victoria interrupted her coldly, tightening her fists. She didnít want to sit here with her, when she finds out... There was no chance that Heath and Audra could have survived this earthquake, if they were on the second floor of the house, and she had to start accepting this now. She needed some time alone.

"Sorry to disappoint you, my dear Victoria, but I am already here and I will leave, when I think itís time for me to leave. What was I saying?"---Ramona frowned, trying to remember, and quickly enough went on in her low voice:

"Oh, yes -- your children... The girl has grown up to be a real beauty -- I would not have recognized her in one hundred years. Remember, how Abigail was fond of her?"

"I wish I could forget..."---Victoria muttered, feeling so numb inside - the last thing that she needed now was this woman talking about her daughter, but Ramona went on.

"She doesnít look anything like you, I am afraid. There is quite a lot of Abigail in her -- if her hair was dark, we wouldnít have told them apart if we had to."-Ramona laughed hoarsely, choosing to ignore Victoria Barkleyís obvious distress.

"Did you have another child? I saw that hansom blond son of yours. I thought that Nick was your youngest..."---She asked, only to be cut off by Victoria rudely.

"Get out of here!"

"Why so hostile, darling? I am not finished yet, what I came here for."---Ramona smiled sweetly, but it was not a kind smile.

"You are, as far as I am concerned. You know exactly why I do not wish to see you, not now, not ever, and I want you out of my property!"---Victoria turned to her, feeling that by expressing her anger in this way, she was letting some of her emotions out.

"I have already said that I will go, when I feel like it, my dear Mrs. Barkley. What a nice way to greet a friend, whom you havenít seen for over twenty years and who came here to help."---Ramona said.

"Help? You? You are menace... You and that dead friend of yours..."---Victoria whispered, realizing that she could no longer hold it together.

"This dead friend of mine saved your daughterís life."---The woman protested, still as calm as she was in the first minutes of their conversation.

"If it wasnít for her -- Audraís life wouldnít have been in danger, and Nick wouldnít have had to suffer those wounds!"---Victoria Barkley argued, feeling that the only way for her to get rid of Maria...or Ramona was to let it all out of her system.

"Abigail made a mistake -- everyone has a right to make a mistake!"---Ramona protested.

"Not with my children!"---Victoria answered furiously, getting up. She would call for help to get this witch out of here, if she wasnít willing to go away on her own.

"This was always just your problem, Victoria -- you never listen!"

"And I am not going to listen to you now!"

Victoria Barkley turned and started walking away, realizing that she didnít have any strength left inside to fight now. Where did she hear this name? Ramona... Ramona... It sounded so familiar, and yet she couldnít put her finger on it. Several steps away, Victoria suddenly, stopped, remembering... Of course, Jarrod was the one, who mentioned it that night at the dinner table... Was it her, who sold Audra and Heath those gem stones?

Victoria turned back, and approached the bench, where Ramona was sitting all this time.

"It was you, wasnít it? It was you, who sold that jewelry to my daughter."

Ramona nodded, strangely looking at her old acquaintance up and down.

"It took some time for you to figure it out, Victoria. I have come back to the valley to find her, but she had found me instead. Several minutes ago, I saw two men at the front door of the house. Were they Jarrod and Nick? Iíve met Jarrod couple years back, when they were trying me for the witchcraft -- those idiots... He didnít know me that well -- he grew up too fast, and when I came back to the valley he was already in college. Youíve got yourself a very charming son and an intelligent one too."---Ramona said, seeing how slowly Victoria lowered down on the bench next to her.

"Please, tell me why you are here, Maria, and then go away..."---Victoria whispered, hoping that this woman would hear her out, but Ramona went on as if she hadnít heard this plea.

"Your Nick was the one I have always been very fond of. He would drive Abigail crazy, and she would rather sit with a baby. Nevertheless, he and I would always find a common language -- he is a fighter, just like I am."---Ramona smiled, pausing, and quickly continued:

"It is strange seeing him now, so grown up -- I remember Nick as that loud ten-year-old, running around this house...Victoria, you didnít tell me -- who is that young blond man? The moment I saw him, I thought that it was Tom Barkley in front of him, many years younger..."

"This is none of your business. I am asking you again: why did you come here? What do you want?"---Victoria insisted, not letting her finish her sentence.

"I have already answered -- to find and give something to Audra Abigail..."

"Her name is Audra."---Victoria said in a harsh voice.

"It that so? You havenít even told her about your poor sister-in-law, have you? Abigail visited and asked me to give your daughter something to keep her away from danger, and Iíve done just that. Abigail still cares..."---Ramona stopped, seeing how much pain there was in Victoriaís eyes, and asked:

"Arenít you going to ask me what is it that I had given her?"

"I think that I know."---Victoria answered, looking at this face and not knowing how much longer she could take it. It was that necklace, wasnít it?

"On the contrary, I think that you donít. Abigail loved your family, adored your children, and the way you paid her back..."

"Is that what it was? Is that why my children have become the target? I trusted her with the lives of people, most precious to me, and she betrayed that trust. A devil worshiper..."

"She wasnít, if you could only hear me out ..."---Ramona tried to explain, but Victoria shook her head not letting her to continue.

"It sure looked differently then. Tom and I have forgiven and accepted her, but never did we give her any permission to take our children to those gatherings...Sabbaths..."

"Those were not Sabbaths - you donít know what you are talking about!"

"I know what I saw, and what Nick had told me!"

"He was a ten-year-old with a vivid imagination... Victoria, listen to me. I was there the night those men broke into the suite. They were after Abigail, and children were what they were threatening her with. She thought that Nick was dead, and hoped to save Audra by taking her with us, afraid that they would come back to finish their jobs. Instead, your husband hired people who went after us and hanged her!"

"Tom never ordered those men to hang her -- she was his sister. All we wanted was our child back whom she took and you were her accomplice. I would have gone with them if Nick wasnít so hurt -- I didnít think that he would survive those wounds at his age, but if it wasnít for that I would have gone there with those men and looked for my daughter that two of you had stolen from us!"---Victoria passionately fired back.

"We saved her!"

"Get out of here, Maria or Ramona or whatever you call yourself now, and stay away from my family!"---Victoria Barkley warned, losing her patience.

Ramona looked at her, and slowly rose:

"I am in no mood to argue now, Victoria. I came here to tell you that both of them will be all right. Audra and...and..."---She stumbled.

"Heath..."---Victoria whispered, listening to her words.

"Yes, him..."

"Why are you saying that?"---Victoria asked, suddenly feeling so much easier -- there must have been the reason, as she quickly asked.

"They are not inside the house, are they?"

Ramona put her hands in the pockets of her dress and answered in a calm way:

"They arenít well now but they will get better. Abigail took care of them. Thatís all you need to know."

With these words, Ramona Santiago started walking towards the gate in a slow pace, away from the house. This visit hasnít exactly turned out the way that she planned, but at least, she delivered the message. Suddenly, she stopped and turned to Victoria:

"Just one more thing..."

"Tell them the truth: they deserve to know, even if itís your side of the story."

After saying that, the woman quickly disappeared behind the bushes, leaving Victoria alone in the garden. Unable to control her tears anymore, she kept sitting on the bench clutching her robe with her hands, trying to suppress the sobs that were shaking her body. Why was this happening to her again? Where was Heath? Where was Audra? Why this day, which was only beginning, had already brought her so much grief. She had to pull herself together if she wanted to get through its remainder...

"They are going to be all right,"---Victoria whispered, getting up and wiping the tears off her face, trying hard to control her short breath. She had to get back inside the house and see if there was anything she could do to help...

The moment this thought had crossed Victoria Barkleyís mind, the loud sound of the rifle somewhere on the second floor, suddenly went off...

hapter 15      

"Jarrod...Jarrod, have you heard that just now?"---Victoria screamed, practically racing into hall and stopping as she saw her eldest son, quickly running towards her.

"Yes, we heard -- it came from the end of the corridor, near the attic. Men have almost finished taking all the debris out. Nick is already on the roof. Címon..."

With these words, Jarrod took his mother by her hand, and both of them hurried outside, to the backside of the house, where some workers had already gathered. The first thing that Victoria saw was Nick, slightly bended, slowly walking towards the destroyed part of the house, where the attic used to be. His every movement was very careful, as he was trying to maintain the balance. There were few meters still left for him to walk in order to get to the attic ruins...

"Jarrod..."---Victoria whispered with fear in her voice, taking her son by his arm, looking at Nick, who was walking towards the crashed part of the Barkley mansion, and feeling every strain in his accurate movements.

"Calm down, Mother... He is almost there..."---Jarrod gently squeezed his motherís arm, as if he was trying to give her some reassurance. She was scared for Nickís life right now, as Jarrod did his best trying to sound calm, and yet Victoria knew her son long enough to understand that he was just as nervous as she was.

"I donít think that I can stand it..."---She said, suddenly looking away, and with her eyes now closed, she began praying silently.

If this was Audra or Heath who had given them this signal, then it was worth for Nick to take this risk; still her nerves were so strained that the thought of Nick taking one wrong step aside was just too much to bear. She leaned on Jarrod, now looking down and feeling how strained his arm around her shoulders was. The next several moments seemed like an eternity to her.

Finally, she heard Jarrodís voice full of relief, as he addressed her softly:

"Mother, he is fine -- he got there..."

Victoria exhaled, looking up at where Nick was just seconds ago, and thankful that he had gotten safely to what used to be the attic window, disappearing inside. It was an hour after the dawn, and the dark cold morning now seemed warmer. Suddenly, all of them who gathered on the ground could hear among all the noises, coming from the house, where men were still working on clearing the path on the second floor, the sound of Nickís cough, as he was now trying to find his way inside the attic.

"When will the men get in there?"---Victoria Barkley quietly inquired, holding on to her sonís arm, and feeling that the longer Nick was out of her sight, the more she was worrying.

"Hopefully, in the next five or ten minutes -- we have cleared out more than the half of the corridor on the second floor, just before we heard the shot."---Jarrod answered her question, staring at the atticís broken window, but his mother quickly asked.

"If you got that far, you must have cleared the way to yours, mine and Audraís bedrooms..."---She couldnít finish her sentence, as she saw Jarrod shaking his head.

"Mother, our bedrooms are fine, but we couldnít get into Audraís -- it seems that the room is fine since the roof seems even from here, but the entrance is completely blocked. Maybe, itís best that she wasnít inside -- the plaster block was so heavy, it would have killed her instantly if she was underneath..."-He slowly answered, wondering what was taking Nick so long. Itís already been couple minutes since he disappeared inside.

Victoria Barkley heard her sonís response, and that same minute Mariaís words stood out in her mind:

"Abigail took care of them..."

What did she mean by that? Could that be that somehow, the spirit of this woman was indeed guiding her children through these awful hours? Jarrod was right - maybe, it was best that Audra was not in her room. Victoria didnít know anything anymore, as the other thoughts of Audra and Heath up there in the destroyed by this strong earthquake attic, trapped and hurt were going through her mind. Where was Nick? What was taking him so long up there? Something was, probably, wrong if he still didnít let them know, whether or not he had found his brother and sister. Now both Victoria and Jarrod were staring up, waiting anxiously for the next few moments...

Finally, at long last, they saw Nickís silhouette in the window, and soon enough heard Nick shouting from the attic.

"I need help in here! Too much dust..."

Jarrod stepped in front, yelling back:

"Nick, men will get there soon... How are they?"

"I need them here NOW! They are breathing... Need towels, water. Send for the doctor immediately!"

With these words Nick again disappeared inside, and Victoria quickly turned to Jarrod, saying:

"Jarrod, letís get inside -- the men must be finished by now. Címon!"---She quickly ordered, back in charge, as they were now running back to the front door. They were breathing... Thatís what Nick said, and to her, these were the most wonderful words, which were giving her with so much hope.

Once they reached the main entrance, both mother and son ran up the staircase, towards the men, working at the other end of the corridor:

"Silas, get the towels and hot water ready."---Victoria quickly ordered the servant, standing near by.

"Are they in..."---Silas tired to ask, only to be interrupted by her.

"Yes, they are. Now, please, do it quickly. Jarrod, how much longer?"---Victoria finally reached the top of the stairs and ran towards her son.

"Almost there... Mother, please, step aside..."

Jarrod asked, as he and several men moved the large block that fell from the ceiling, so that finally in the stuffed and thick with dust air, they could see the broken ladder, and other things scattered around from the attic, which was now on the same level as the second floor. Instantly, everyone backed out, nearly suffocating from the flying dust and debris.

"Jarrod..."---Nickís voice finally reached them from the inside, and Victoria could hardly see her sonís figure in this ghastly atmosphere. How could he possibly breath in there, if they were barely able to do it standing just feet away... How could Heath and Audra stay alive in there all this time?

Before she could react in any way, Jarrod quickly disappeared inside, and all she could see now was his back just feet away.

"Jarrod...Jaarodd... How are they?"---Victoria tried to ask, coughing loudly, and barely being able to breath.

Finally, she saw her eldest son turning to her, and immediately, she gasped: Jarrod was carrying Audra in his arms, who was barely recognizable from all this dirt on her face and clothes, and who was still unconscious; and Nick, two steps behind his brother, also all dirty and coughing, was holding Heath, whose face was incredibly dark from the dry blood mixed with the pieces of plaster...

hapter 16      

Heath, slowly awoke from his dream, and smiled with his eyes still closed: they were gone... All his nightmares and wild premonitions, predicting the disasters of the coming day were now gone, and he couldnít feel happier, because of that. He wasnít sure why he saw them, but in his heart he felt that Abigail might have had something to do with it. Was she trying to warn him to be careful and take care of Audra? Why has she chosen him and not his brothers for this task? Heath wasnít sure, but he still remembered how he pulled Audra from under the ruins just before the large piece of the ceiling fell in there, and then everything went dark. The next thing he remembered was the shot, and then Nickís arm pulling him up and his brother saying some words that he couldnít make out.

Heath yawned, feeling that bright sunny rays on his face, and slowly turned his head to the right: itís been two days already, since he and his sister were rescued under the ruins of the attic, and now both of them were slowly recovering. Since Audraís room needed much cleaning and re-modeling after that fatal night, both Heath and his sister were placed in his room with two beds, standing parallel to each other, so that it was easier for their mother and brothers to take care of them. Audraís left arm was broken, and the shoulder dislocated, but other than that she seemed fine, and in Heathís case - his right leg was broken and one of the ribs was badly fractured.

Heath felt someoneís stroking his hair, and as he opened his eyes, still red after all those dust, he saw his mother sitting at his bedside.

"Howís Audra?"---He whispered in a low voice, which just like his sisterís still sounded very hoarse.

"She is still asleep. How are you feeling, dear?"

"All right,"---Heath answered, and tried coughing to clear his throat, but sharp pain coming from the ribcage made him stop.

"Heath, donít try to cough -- you will only hurt yourself. You and your sister breathed in so much dust that it will take couple days for both of you to speak in a normal voices."

Heath looked at Audra, who suddenly made some sound, turning her head on the pillow. For the past two days, they didnít have a chance to talk about what happened: when Heath was awake, Audra was asleep and vice versa, and now he hoped that she would also wake up.

Hearing her daughterís coughing, Victoria moved her chair to the middle, so that she was now sitting between her children, and reached for Audraís hand:

"Look, who is awake..."---Heath whispered, realizing that it didnít hurt to talk, but it sure didnít sound that way.

"What time is it?"---Audra also whispered hoarsely, trying to turn to her left side, but feeling the sharp pain in her shoulder.

"Darling, lie still."---Victoria ordered, adjusting the covers on her daughterís bed, and making herself comfortable on the chair between the beds of her sick children.

"Both of you -- try not to make sharp movements. Heath, one of your right ribs is fractured, so it may hurt if you are trying to cough, and Audra -- your left shoulder is dislocated, so it will hurt if you try turning on this side."---She warned, looking at her son and then at her daughter.

"You scared all of us -- there was a moment, when I thought that I had lost you."---Victoria Barkley confessed looking at them, listening to her, and trying to give each of them equal attention.

"Sis, how are you? How did you find the rifle in that hell?"---Heath whispered to Audra, smiling at him.

"You will never believe,"---She whispered back, winking at her brother. This whole experience has brought them so much closer together, and they now shared something that was still a mystery for the rest of their family.

"Was it her?"---Heath raised his eyebrows, and seeing Audra closing her eyes as a positive sign, quietly said.

"I believe you, and I am sorry that I ever doubted."---He uttered, relieved that there was no longer any misunderstanding left between them.

"Thank you, Heath..."---Audra whispered back, melting in a wide smile.

Victoria, witnessing this coded conversation between her children, now felt that she couldnít stand this suspense any longer:

"Would someone mind letting me on this?"

Heath and Audra, both looked at her instantly, and Audra was the first one to ask:

"Mother, why didnít you tell us about Abigail?"

Victoria looked at her, suddenly stopping for an answer, not knowing what to say -- so thatís what it was all about. At this very moment she could hear Mariaís words so clearly in her head:

"Tell them the truth: they deserve to know, even if itís your side of the story."

"We know about Abigail. We found the picture of her as a child with her brothers, as well as Audraís birth certificate."---Heath said, noticing his motherís obvious uneasiness upon hearing this.

"She was Fatherís younger sister, wasnít she?"---Audra joined her brother, hoping that now they would get some answers.

Victoria looked at them, waiting for her to say something, and nodded, inhaling to get enough air in her lungs to tell her side of the story. Maria was right -- her children had a right to know, they had a right to know that all she did was trying to protect them.

"Yes, she was. I am sorry that I havenít told you the truth, but it was your fatherís wish that her name would never be mentioned in this house, and that this part of our family history would never be brought up again."---Victoria said nervously.

"Why?"---Heath asked, seeing that she stopped.

"Abigail and I were about the same age, when I met her. She was very beautiful young girl, and when Tom and I got married, she came to live with us, but stayed for a year, just when Jarrod was born. The valley was different then, there werenít so many people around at the time, and your father and I were just starting out. She adored Jarrod, and treated him as her own -- it was a big help to us, because we were trying to build the ranch and get on our feet."---Victoria paused, remembering.

"Why did she leave?"---Audra asked this time.

"She met a young man -- he was married, but they fell in love, and nothing else mattered to them. His name was John, and he lived in the East Coast, and was just visiting California. Your grandfather, who was still alive at the time, threatened to disown Abigail, if she stayed with a married man, but she didnít care. When Abigail made this choice, Tomís father kept his word taking her name out of his will, and he died very soon afterwards. Abigailís father adored her, and in a way her decision and disobedience had broken his heart. Your Uncle Jim has never forgiven her for that, and your father and I were the only ones who still kept in touch."---Victoria reached for the glass of water and after taking a few sips, continued.

"Abigail and John were living in different places all over the country, often not having enough money to buy essential things, so Tom always tried to help her out financially whenever she turned to him. Jarrod adored his aunt, and we would let him go and stay with them, when they were doing all right. They were spoiling him rotten -- Abigail never denied him anything, but she and John rarely visited us. I suspect that Abigail was afraid that people would judge Tom for still caring and talking to her, when everyone else turned their backs. Anyway, then Nick was born -- she wasnít that fond of him, always preferring Jarrod to keep her company whenever they came here. Couple years later, John was killed. This was a shock to Abigail, because nobody really knew how or what happened -- one night, he was just walking home after playing a poker game with some friends, when someone had shot him. Abigail was expecting at the time, and three months later she gave a birth a girl, who was a stillborn."

"How awful..."---Audra whispered.

"Tom and I were devastated that she had to go though this nightmare of losing her loved ones, and we wanted her to stay with us. She came here, but never really left the house, and I am sure that our neighbors didnít even know that she was living here, not that we wanted it this way. Nick was a toddler, but Abigail wasnít really taken by him -- Jarrod, 10 or 11 was still her favorite, and he helped her a great deal through that rough time, but he was still a child... Then I introduced her to a friend of mine, Maria, a woman who has been through a lot in her own life -- she lost her family and her young children, when some sick men got into her house and robbed them. She survived many wounds, and always kept her head up. I hoped that Abigail, who was in her early 30s at the time, would get to know Maria, would get out and realize that there were so many reasons for her to continue on living. This was, probably, the worst decision I have ever made. Both of you have met Maria; she came back to this valley recently under the name of Ramona Santiago."

"What?"---Suddenly, Victoria looked up and saw Nickís standing at the door. She hadnít noticed him until now, and answered in a simple way.

"Nick, she was here, when you and the men were trying to clear your way towards the attic ladder."

Nick slowly walked into the room, and sat down on the chair at Heathís bed, with a serious face expression on his face.

"Oh My God..."---Audra whispered, frowning and looking at Heath, who slowly uttered.

"Is she the one, who Jarrod said was tried as a witch?"

"Yes, but you are getting ahead. In the beginning, she was a very positive influence on Abigail. They would spend a lot of time together, talking about people they lost and how they were coping. Maria would often visit us and stay overnight. Nick absolutely adored her, and nothing seemed to predict the trouble. Maria decided to visit her relatives, who lived in New Orleans, and she invited Abigail to go there with her to take her mind off things, so they left. Couple weeks later, we got a letter from Abigail, where she said that she wanted to stay there, and we didnít think much of it at the time, until much later, when her letters became very...strange."---Victoria said, finding the most suitable word.

"What do you mean by strange?"---Heath asked, seeing how carefully his mother selected the word.

"They became very spiritual. Abigail often wrote about higher powers, spirits and how they were guarding us, about different spells... We didnít know at the time, not until she and Maria visited us a year later, what has happened. They looked different too -- as far as they explained to us, both of them have discovered Voodoo. They talked about worshiping their gods and communicating with the spirits."

"What is Voodoo?"---Audra asked.

"All I know is what Iíve been told by Abigail -- blacks, and especially salves, brought their religion and rituals in here from Africa and Haiti. New Orleans was a center for Voodooists, and both Abigail and Maria were even introduced to their queen, who as far as I understand was the most well known priestess of all. Tom and I disapproved of their fascination with this...with this cult -- we had nothing against either one of them, but we had given both Abigail and Maria an ultimatum that if they wanted to come and visit us, they were not to fill your heads with this nonsense, and they agreed. For the next three years, Abigail visited rarely, but we received letters from her quite often. Finally, when you, Audra, were born, she came over, overjoyed that Tom and I had finally had daughter, and she was simply wonderful with you. She lost her baby, a girl, and I think that in you, she saw a daughter she didnít have a chance to bring up."

Victoria became silent for a moment, thinking about it, and Nick jumped in to help his mother out:

"Abigail couldnít stand me, but she sure adored you. Maria would often come for a visit, and she would be great with me -- we would run around and do various things, whereas Abigail would coo over you all the time."---Nick said, catching the grateful look from his mother.

"Your father and I decided to honor her devotion to you and thatís why your middle name was Abigail. She called herself your godmother, but because of her new beliefs she wouldnít go to church -- she worshiped other gods. We didnít mind her being so involved with it, as long as she wasnít bringing it to our home. I told her that I would forbid her to see you otherwise, and Abigail agreed to it. She and Maria visited us often over the next several years, and finally, when Jarrod came back from college after the first year, Tom and I decided to go to New Orleans, and visit Abigail, because she was begging us to come over there for many years. Coincidently, this was also our 18th wedding anniversary."

"Did you stay with them?"---Heath asked, noticing that Victoria was getting closer to the difficult part of her story.

"No, we had a suite in the hotel. Both Abigail and Maria were overjoyed to see us, and while Jarrod was exploring New Orleans with a college friend of his, who was from there, Tom and I had fun, going to fancy restaurants and spending time together, leaving you and Nick with them. One night, when we came back a little earlier -- there was a strange ceremony, taking place in our hotel room, which was one of those rituals. All I know that there was a snake, and both of them were dressed strangely, and Nick was crying on the background."---Victoria said, turning to Nick, and he continued for her.

"Maria explained to me that they worshiped the Snake god, and they had to dance with snake wrapped around them. Earlier that evening, they took us to one of their gatherings - I still remember some of their rituals. Anyway, I was scared that it would bite me -- it sure looked big enough."---He said, letting his mother go on with her story.

"I took you and him away from there to the bedroom, leaving Tom with his sister and Maria alone. He was furious with them, but I donít know exactly what he told them, and when I finally managed to calm Nick down, Tom entered the room and announced that he no longer had a sister."---Victoria stopped again, remembering her husbandís face, and quickly continued, before either Heath or Audra had a chance to ask her to do so.

"Your father was crushed, because despite everything, she was his baby sister, the one that he took care of, but it was difficult for him to accept her behavior. Two days later, during our last day in New Orleans, Abigail showed up at our doors, begging for forgiveness and pleading with me not to take this joy of seeing you, Audra, out from her life. We hired a babysitter for that evening so that we could go out, but Abigail seemed so remorseful, and it was our last night in the city before going back, so Tom and I agreed to give her another chance. This was a mistake -- Jarrod joined us in the restaurant, and when we came back, which was around a midnight, our suite was filled with hotel personnel and doctors. Nick was injured with blood all over him. He was stabbed, and nobody hoped that he would make it. Abigail was not in the suite and you, Audra, were also not there."

"Nick, what happened?"---Heath asked, seeing how gray his motherís face had become. He was no longer blaming her now for not telling them about that.

"I donít really know -- I was sleeping, after Abigail put me to bed, and then I suddenly heard the screams in the room, and when I got off my bed and ran towards the corridor, there was a sharp pain in my back, and I fell on the floor. I canít really remember anything else -- it all was so fast. Abigail was the only one in the suite with us, and I donít know why she did it..."---He explained, shrugging, and Victoria continued.

"There were several men outside the suite, who started explaining to us how dangerous Abigail was and that she was the one who stabbed Nick, and went completely insane, taking you with her. They offered their help, and while I stayed with Nick, trying to revive him, Tom joined these people and led them to the place, where Abigail and Maria lived. I donít know what happened then -- your father never talked about it, but when he came back next morning with you, sleeping in his arms, I was too happy that you and Nick have survived that night, too happy to think of anything else. You were unharmed, and Tom explained that he took you from her arms, and rode away immediately. We had to stay in New Orleans for the next week until Nick got well enough to travel back home. Couple days after the incident, we learned from the newspaper that Abigail was found hanging. She had probably committed suicide, at that same place, where your father and those men found you."

"What about Maria?"---Audra asked,

"I havenít heard or seen her ever since until two days ago, when two of you were trapped in the attic; she came here to let me know that you were going to be all right. I believe that she changed her name, and moved from New Orleans after Abigailís death. Thatís all there is to this story. Your father asked me never to tell you what happened, because no one knew, why Abigail stabbed Nick, and took you away. Tom destroyed everything that could remind him of her, and this was a difficult thing to do. I didnít know that he left that picture or birth certificate as a reminder. We got you a new one, with no middle name. Your father loved Abigail very much, but this was his family that he felt he had to protect. I am sorry, Audra and Heath, for keeping it away from you, but that night is still so fresh in my memory that it hurts even thinking about it..."---Victoria Barkley said, trying to sound calm, as inside she was fighting her emotions.

Now with silence in the room, she quickly rose from the chair, and addressed Heath.

"Itís time for you to take your medicine. I have to bring it from the downstairs."---Victoria said, walking towards the door, past Nick. She needed to get out of this room, for at least several seconds to get her strength back. She was doing the right thing now, but then why did she still feel as if nothing was really resolved?

Once she left the room, Nick turned to his siblings and quickly said:

"You shouldnít blame her for not telling you the truth. Mother wanted to spare you from the heartache and hell that everyone went through that night."

"We understand."---Audra answered calmly, trying to smile at him, sitting so close by.

"Where did you see Maria?"---Nick asked seriously, looking at them. He needed to know that.

"She sells antiques right outside Stockton, by Mrs. Walkerís drug store. Why do you ask?"---Audra answered, looking at him.

"I will be back."---Nick quickly said, rising from the chair, and heading towards the door in a fast pace.

"Nick, wait!"---Heath tried to call him, which was difficult, considering that all he was capable was a whisper.

"Heath, let him go. She was close to him, and maybe, this is something that he has to do,"---Audra suggested, with her functioning hand reaching for the necklace that was still around her neck. Somehow, the idea of Abigail trying to hurt them wasnít settling in her head, and she hoped now that Nick could dig up some answers on why her aunt had done it.

hapter 17      

Nick Barkley quickly tied Coco to the tall wooden post, and started heading in a very fast pace towards the large gray tent, standing lonely several feet away. Itís been over twenty years, since the last time he saw Maria, and very often he couldnít help but go on wondering about whatever happened to her. Mixed feelings were overwhelming him at the moment and with his mind racing, Nick didnít know exactly what he was doing here.

When he finally approached the tent, and slowly drew the drapes away, walking inside, he stopped, noticing a woman, who was standing at the table and glancing at him with a smile. It looked as if she knew exactly that he was about to appear at her front door this very minute:

"Hello, Nicholas."

Nick frowned, looking at her very carefully, and suddenly remembering that she was the only one, who used to call him by his full name, and at the time, it sure meant a lot to a ten year-old boy. She was not Maria that he had in his memory -- she changed over the years, and now Nick wasnít sure if he would have recognized her, if they were to meet in the street. The woman, standing in front of him, was older, and her face features seemed somewhat different, and her hair was not that long or that red, since the last time he saw her. However, her voice and her light eyes, sharply contrasting with her bright hair, stayed exactly the same.

"Maria?"---He uttered quietly, looking at her. This woman, who was now standing in front of him, used to be a part of his childhood, always treating him like an adult, and seeing her again after so many years was suddenly bringing so many memories back.

She slowly walked over to him, still with this warm smile on her face and asked:

"Give me a hug, Nicholas."

Nick smiled, stepping forwards and embracing her tightly. He closed his eyes for a minute, remembering that the last time they hugged, he was barely reaching her shoulder, and now she suddenly, seemed so much smaller than him.

"It is so good to see you, Maria."---He whispered, as she looked at him, carefully studying his face.

"Look at you... Who knew that this loud, unbearable, little kid would grow up to be such a gorgeous cowboy? What happened to all those scratches on your face and elbows? You hair stayed the same, though -- that same old mess,"---She squeezed his right hand, and with her left hand was trying to smooth Nickís disobedient dark curls.

Nick smiled, recognizing these old and familiar notes in her voice -- she used to tease him all the time about his hair. Her or his auntís names were never mentioned in his family over these past years, but he had never forgotten.

"Címon, Kid, sit down for a minute and give the old lady a chance to look at you!"---She said, leading him towards the chair at the long table.

"You havenít changed much, Maria."---He finally said, taking a seat and looking around: several large chests were opened, and various things and boxes were scattered around -- it looked like she was packing to go away.

"You are still a lousy liar, Nicholas, but thanks -- finally, a gallant gesture from you. Tell me, have you gotten a wife?"---She winked, taking her seat on the large chest right across from him.

Nick shook his head, smiling:

"No yet, but I am working on it."

"Good -- I expect that you will invite me to your wedding, son."---She suggested, dusting off the table with a sleeve of her dress.

"Be sure of that,"---Nick nodded, still looking around, and asking her something that was already very obvious to him.

"Are you leaving?"

"Yes, always on the road... You look wonderful, Nicholas, and I felt a little sad for not having a chance to look at you before my departure from Stockton. I saw you and Jarrod not up close, busy at the house two days ago, trying to rescue your brother and sister. By the way, how are they? "---Maria inquired.

"Better, thanks for asking. Heath will probably stay in bed a while longer -- one of his legs is broken, but Audra will be back on her feet in no time."---Nick answered.

"I am very glad to hear that. Victoria never told me -- who is Heath? Did she and Tom adopt a child? He looks very much like your father."

"He is -- itís a long story, but he is my fatherís son. Father didnít know about him, and Heath came into our family years after his death. Mother treats him as her own son."---Nick explained, suddenly feeling so comfortable, by simple sitting here and talking to her like that.

"I donít doubt, and I admire your mother. I have always had..."---Maria uttered, putting her hands on her knees, and leaning forward, asked him in a low voice.

"How are you, Nicholas?"

Nick nodded, feeling so light and easy with her -- it almost felt like the old times, and if up until this point he still was not sure, now he was immensely glad that he had come here.

"All right, I suppose. What have you been doing all these years? Why havenít you ever visited us? You just disappeared..."---Nick had finally a chance now to ask her everything that was bothering him all these years.

"How could I, Nicholas, after all that happened? Your parents would have never allowed me close to you or to this house."---She shrugged her shoulders.

"I would have listened. I know that you had nothing to do with what happened. I have never forgotten you or how wonderful you were!"---He protested, knowing in his heart that she was right.

She smiled, pleased to hear these words and quietly said:

"Thank you, Nicholas - you donít know what that means to hear this. Itís nice to know that there is, at least, someone in this world who thinks of me sometimes, despite, everything."

Nick felt her hand on his, and slowly asked her several questions that have been on his mind for so many years:

"Why did she do it? Why did Abigail hurt me and ran away with Audra. Was that true that she has gone insane?"

"Is that what your parents told you?"---She asked, and seeing him nodding, went on:

"I suppose that I canít really blame them for that - they didnít know any better themselves, and were too afraid too look closely in what had really happened that night."

"What are you talking about?"

"Nicholas, I tried to tell Victoria, but she wouldnít listen. If she still cannot bear hearing me talking about your Aunt after all those years - you understand, of course, that I could have never approached her and your father before."--- Maria explained, rising from the chest and walking towards the other table.

"Your Aunt and I...we had many friends in New Orleans and just as many enemies. My relatives refused to have anything to do with me after I had accepted Voodoo, and were ashamed of me practicing it so openly. Most of our friends were slaves, for whom Voodooís rituals were sacred - very few whites were sharing our beliefs, and especially, as openly as Abigail and I did. This was in the mid 1850s, before the war started and the Confederate States were formed. Most of our black friends were treated badly by their owners, who considered our religion very primitive and savage. Remember, I took you to one of our ceremonies -- there were a lot of white people there, who came to see that spectacle in the Congo Square? I am sorry that snakes have scared you, Nicholas, but they are considered divine creatures in Voodoo. Anyway, it helped Abby and me to find the spiritual piece, which turned your parents permanently against us...."

"Maria, they werenít against you or Abigail, they simply were not agreeing with your religious...callings."---Nick interrupted, defending his parentsí actions.

"Donít apologize for them, Nicholas, because the part of who I am is to accept others no matter what their own beliefs are. Anyhow... Abby and I, we helped some people...some families to become free."---Maria pronounced the last sentence very slowly, and Nick right away understood what she meant.

"Are you talking about families of slaves?"

"Yes. In the beginning our close friend was very distraught, because she was going to be separated from her daughter and granddaughter. She was an old woman, treated without any mercy, just because of her skin color, and we helped all three of them to escape. They stayed in our house, which was outside the city for several weeks, and left soon afterwards. In a very similar way, we managed to help several other unfortunates, but not as many as we would have wanted too, though, enough for some slave owners to become very concerned."

"I had no idea."---Nick whispered, looking at her. Maria had never lied to him, and he felt that she was telling him the truth now.

"To make the long story short: someone had spread the word about us, and Abigail and I were under suspicion. We were questioned, but nobody had any real evidence to imprison us. One of the slave owners, however, didnít give up - he hired several men to watch our every step and warned us..."

"Warn?"---Nick asked, slowly comprehending everything what was being said.

"Threaten will be more like it. They didnít have any proof and couldnít legally do anything, and since neither Abby nor I had any immediate families in New Orleans or anywhere else for that matter, we were told by these men, that if we were to help anyone else to escape, then you and your sister would suffer. Abigail was fond of Audra, and someone must have seen two of you with us, when we took you out on those walks in the city. Abigail told me that she made a mistake by inviting your parents and you to New Orleans, but I tried to calm her down -- we werenít helping anyone to escape, since we had already been followed. Still, both of us felt awful, and afraid for you and your sister, but what happened next wasnít supposed to take all was just one big misunderstanding."

"What do you mean?"

"I wasnít at the hotel that evening, and can only guess what had really happened. Abigail came home running later that night with your sister in her arms -- she was crying, and Audra was also in tears. Abby explained quickly that two men broke into the suite, once she put you to bed and was entertaining Audra, who was still awake. Obviously, several slaves escaped that night -- I wish that we had something to do with it, but we didnít, because by that time we were in their black lists already. She said that they accused her of hiding them, and stabbed you to prove that they werenít kidding, demanding for her to tell them where the slaves were. She thought that you were dead, because of so much blood, and I donít know how, but Abby managed to lock them in the rooms and ran away from here with Audra."

"Why didnít she run to the sheriff?"---Nick asked the first thought that crossed his mind, relieved at knowing after all this years that his aunt was not the one, who hurt him.

"Nicholas, Abby and I werenít like everyone else -- people werenít approving of our beliefs, rituals and the ways that we had been practicing them. We stayed in the house, not really knowing what to do, when finally, Abby decided that we had to leave New Orleans, and bring Audra here. She was afraid for your sisterís life, more than her own. We couldnít go back to the hotel, and we were too well known to stay in the city, but we didnít make it far, or should I say Abby didnít make it..."

"She didnít really commit suicide, did she?"---Nick asked, feeling that at this very instant everything that he has ever felt about what happened was changing.

"Did your parents believe that story in the paper? No, Nicholas -- your aunt learned to love and appreciate every minute of life. Truth was much more awful... She and Audra were ahead of me and we were several miles away from the city, when some men reached us. We hid behind the trees, but when Abigail saw Tom, her brother, among them, she came out from the hiding, hoping to clear things up, and give Audra back to him, but Tom wouldnít listen. I canít really blame him -- he had probably come back to the hotel, horrified at what he saw, but he could at least listen... He took Audra from her arms, and without saying anything, left her, surrounded by those men."---Mariaís voice became hoarse as she was remembering this episode, and Nick felt that what she was about to tell him was extremely difficult for her.

"They were calling her names...a witch...a devil name it...and accusing her of helping those slaves to escape... I was just feet away, knowing that she wouldnít get away from them alive. I was crying and now I have no idea, how I managed to keep it down, so that they wouldnít discover me. They got what they wanted -- she was in their hands, and she wasnít telling them where I was. They hanged her soon afterwards...and rode away... The wind was strong that just kept on twisting and twirling the rope... This was the most awful sight of all."---Maria stopped for a moment, inhaling deeply and continued.

"She was more than a friend to me, and even more than a sister. Once they left, I managed to take her down, but couldnít bury her -- I had to get away from there, because from then on they were after me. I changed my name since, and even my appearance a little, but you can never run away from your memories. They just keep on haunting you for the rest of your life..."---She paused again, now looking down.

Nick slowly rose from his chair and approached her, putting his hand on her shoulder:

"I am sorry, Maria. You have to tell Mother about it..."

"I wanted to, but not anymore -- she wouldnít listen to me, Nicholas, even after all these years; and at first, it was making me mad, but not any more. I saw you and know that if you were mine, and someone had hurt you the way they did, I would have wanted to blame someone, and I wouldnít have listened either. I am glad that you know now what happened -- that is like a huge mountain off my shoulders."

"I will tell them -- be sure that I will."---Nick confirmed.

"Thank you, Nicholas. I am afraid that I have to start going."

"Where are you going?"---He asked.

"I donít know yet. This is a bit sad, isnít it? Though, Abigail keeps me company. She is always around. One more thing that you have to know -- sheís been very persistent in the past weeks, sensing that Audraís life was in danger with this recent earthquake, and thatís why I came here."---Maria explained, looking at him.

"Her room was nearly destroyed by the quake - itís a good thing that she wasnít in there."---Nick said, nodding.

"I am glad that Abby succeeded. In a way, your sister has a guardian angel with a rather strange way of taking care of her. Make sure that she keeps that necklace -- it will protect her from ill things."---Maria advised.

"I will tell her."---Nick nodded, and quietly asked:

"When will I see you again?"

"On your wedding, remember?"

Nick grinned:

"How will you know?"

"Oh...I have my ways, Nicholas."---She winked at him, as he approached her and leaning forwards placed a kiss on her cheek.

"Thank you for everything that you...both of you had done for us."---He said with an unmasked sincerity in his voice.

Maria looked up at Nick, so grateful for him coming here and listening, and nodded at a lot of stuff, scattered around her room.

"Cí me out with this heavy things, will ya?"

Nick smiled, rolling up his sleeves as he approached the large chest and nodded:

"You bet."

hapter 18      

Victoria Barkley rose from the sofa, trying not to make any noise, and just as quietly walked over to Heath and Audraís beds, to check on them. It was well past the midnight, and she still felt uncomfortable letting her children, whom she almost lost, out of her sight, afraid that they might still need her help and attention sometime during the night. After spending nearly an hour sitting on the sofa, and thinking about everything that Nick had told her tonight over dinner, unwillingly in her thoughts she had to go back to the events of that fatal night that changed all their lives. Nick seemed to believe Mariaís every word, and in a way, she was glad that he had gone to her place, and that both of them had this chance to reminisce about the past. More than ever, Victoria now wished that her husband, Thomas Barkley, could be here right now, so that two of them could talk and remember that difficult time, and maybe, decide whether or not they could accept Mariaís story. The reason for such wishful thinking on her part was that no longer did Victoria Barkley know what to believe in or whom to trust.

Inhaling deeply, she approached Heathís bedside and reached out to adjust the covers on his bed. Her youngest son was sleeping now, and by the calm and relaxed expression on his bruised face, she could see that this was a very peaceful sleep. He looked so much like Tom this very minute, that she suddenly felt chills going through her body. Heath was a gift to her, a gift that she never dreamed about, and if in the beginning she still felt bitterness, because of her husbandís betrayal, very soon this feeling was permanently replaced with one lasting sense of gratitude. He was now her son, and very often, just like in the past few days, Victoria would forget that in reality, she was not the one who had given birth to him. She looked at Heathís right side of a body, where one rib was very badly fractured, and listening to his even breath, she knew now that it was slowly healing. Especially, during the past day, staying in bed was very hard on Heath, who wanted to get out and go on with his ranch work, and the next few days were going to be just as difficult. Victoria gently touched his blond hair, and bending over his bed, she kissed him on the cheek. Heath suddenly sighed so bitterly in his sleep, that she quickly stepped back, trying to hide her smile, amused at his reaction to her goodnight kiss.

She then turned to her daughter, who was asleep, on the neighboring bed. Her eyes were closed, but she was smiling, probably, seeing a wonderful dream. Victoria stopped for a moment, noticing that with her hand on her chest, Audra was clutching the necklace, which was still around her neck. Quietly, Victoria took her daughterís hand in hers, hoping to release it from holding on to the necklace, but something had stopped her from doing that. Maria had told Nick that she hoped that Audra would keep it with her, because was protecting her:

"Maybe, she should wear it, if she likes it so... After all, sheís been wearing it all this time in the attic, when we were frantic searching for her and Heath."---Victoria thought, putting her hand back.

She could still see that her daughterís left arm and shoulder were giving her some pain, but other than that, nothing else seemed to be wrong, and knowing Audra, Victoria was certain that she would, probably, be out of this room by tomorrow. After her condition was stabilized, Audra told Victoria about Abigail, who had lightened up the attic so that she could find that rifle. She didnít say that to Audra, but she didnít believe in Abigailís ghost being there -- it was probably, an illusion that gave her daughter just enough strength to go on fighting. In any case, she was glad that it happened, because in the end it did save Audra and Heathís lives. The party, so carefully planned by Audra, had to be cancelled, because of the disaster that shook up the valley, and her daughter felt sad about this. Luckily, nobody died during the earthquake, with by itself was a miracle, knowing how close Heath and Audra had come to it, but several families still lost their homes. Victoria bended over, placing a kiss on her daughterís cheek, and trying not to wake her up, slowly walked towards the window.

Maria was leaving Stockton tonight... Victoria was relieved, thinking about it, as she leaned on the windowsill, but at the same time, she still felt a little uneasy about this womanís departure. Nick offered to take her to Mariaís tent so that two of them could talk, but she refused. Perhaps, everything that Maria had told her son was the truth, but too many years had already passed for them to start rebuilding something that was destroyed to its foundation so long ago. Victoria didnít mind her son seeing this woman, who meant so much to him, and maybe, it was all for the best. Deep inside, she had forgiven her, as well as Abigail, but Mariaís beliefs, however, were no longer something she could respect. With her mind Victoria understood that everything that had happened here in the past days was pure coincidental, but her youngest son, and especially, her daughter seemed to be thinking otherwise. There were no ghosts or spirits in their house or visiting their house... There was no Abigail, trying to warn her children about the upcoming disaster, and Audraís absence from her room during that quake that destroyed it, was again a lucky coincidence. How did Maria know what was happening, when she came here? How did she know that her children, trapped under the ruins in the attic, were going to be all right? Heath wasnít too keen on talking about it, probably, afraid to be ridiculed, but Audra openly went on telling her all the details about their experience with a planchette, and rope twisting... Nick was also there, and he mentioned how Maria described Abigailís awful death by hanging, which convinced Audra that this was the missing piece of a puzzle, which was explaining all that twisting that preceded the disaster.

Victoria put her face against the window glass, closing her tired eyes for a moment - all of this was pure nonsense, and with her mind she understood that there had to be a perfectly good explanation for it all. Nick could have subconsciously moved the planchette, after all, he knew about Abigail from the beginning, and all that rope twisting and necklace twirling was, probably, very exaggerated -- ropes and necklaces cannot twist all on their own, can they? She opened her eyes and looked down at the small table, standing near by: the oil painting of Tom, Jim and little Abigail was lying there. Heath mentioned that they found it in one of the forgotten chests in the attic, where she put all her husbandís things right after his death, as well as Audraís original birth certificate. Some men managed to get this picture out form under the ruins, but they couldnít find the birth certificate, and Audra was a bit upset, because of it. Little children were looking at Victoria from the picture, saved by Tom as the only remainder of his sister, and now her daughter wanted to keep it in her room. Victoria looked away, knowing that she couldnít object to it -- she shouldnít have kept Abigailís story a secret from them to begin with, and the only excuse that she had now for doing so, was that this was her husbandís wish. Heath and Audra understood her reasons, and she was thankful but she couldnít forgive herself.

Finally, she reached for the curtains, slightly shaking her head from all the thoughts that have overwhelmed her in the last minutes, ready to draw the curtains in, when whom she saw outside the window made her stand still: there was someone in the backyard, some young woman, dressed in white, with long dark hair, who was slowly walking away from the house towards the gates. Victoria knew this walk and this long hair, this arms and even this hands... She still remembered them all to well, but this couldnít be... Could Audra be right? Could all of this be for real? Unable to speak, Victoria kept staring at the figure, going away, and her mind was racing:

ĎThis is a vision...or a dream... Abigail is dead, she is long-long gone, and whoever this is...this cannot be her!"---She thought with her eyes widely opened, and as this thought crossed her mind, the young woman, suddenly, stopped almost at the end of the path, and turned to the house.

Despite the large distance between them, their eyes suddenly met as Victoria kept staring at her, still not accepting it with her mind that this was indeed happening. If Abigail was dead, then why was she seeing her in the backyard? This was all reminding Victoria too much of Abigailís last visit to the Barkley Ranch, when she used to walk at nights just like that, and dance in the garden not intimidated that anybody might look. She always made up her mind to leave at night, after putting children to bed, to make the good-byes less painful and sad. Victoria remembered now, how she waved her good-bye that last time, ironically from this same room, which then used to be her daughterís nursery. Right now, she was leaving them just like she did then many years ago...years before they had met again in New Orleans and years before her death. Was she really here all the time? Was it really her who was taking care of Heath and Audra? Was it her who saved her childrenís lives?

A second passed at most, but it seemed so much longer, as Victoria kept staring at this woman outside the window quite far away, and very slowly, she saw Abigail raising her right hand and then waving to her. Victoria froze, knowing now in her heart that this was Abigail. She always waved her good-bye like that, once she was at the gates, and this night she was again biding her farewell. Very slowly, Victoria raised her right hand, putting it against the glass, feeling sudden tears appearing in her eyes. She couldnít wave to her now, since all of this seemed too surreal to be true, even if it was making sense. Abigail smiled at her gesture from the distance, and turning away resumed her walk, finally disappearing behind the gates. Victoria couldnít see her anymore, and with her something deep inside of her was now also gone -- some pain or wound that had never healed was no longer there. This chapter of her life was closed, and as she inhaled the fresh night air, hoping to gain enough strength to look away, she suddenly felt someoneís arm around her shoulders, so unexpectedly that it made her practically jump.

"Oh...Jarrod... My God, you scared me!"---Victoria uttered, turning to her son, and blinking in hope that he wouldnít notice her teary eyes, and he didnít.

"I am sorry, but I thought that you heard me entering the room. Are you all right? You look as though, youíve just seen a ghost."---He asked with concern.

"Of course not... I just havenít heard you coming,"---She lied, glad that he was now here with her. She couldnít tell him about this vision.

"Are they asleep?"---Jarrod nodded at his siblings.

"Yes, and I think that I will stay with them for a little while longer."---She said quietly, glancing at the window, as if making sure that nobody was there. The backyard and garden were indeed now empty, beautifully lightened up in the moonlight.

"I will keep you company,"---Jarrod winked at her, and quietly added:

"Címon, letís get some coffee..."

Victoria nodded, and as both of them started walking towards the door, Jarrod glanced at his sister slowly turning her head on the pillow in her sleep and stopped:

"I have noticed that Audra was pretty upset that we had to cancel the party. She put so much effort into it. Her birthday is next month, and she should be well enough by that time...maybe, we can throw a real big party then..."---He suggested.

"And I know just the present to give..."---Victoria looked up at her son, smiling. She felt better now, finally letting go off something that has been haunting her for years, and in a way, Abigail was the one who helped her to do that. Now, all that she had to do was to make some things right...things reminding her of Abigail.

"Are you thinking, what I think you are thinking?" - Jarrod frowned, looking at his mother with some suspicion in his blue eyes. He knew her so well that sometimes it wasnít that hard for him to guess what was on her mind.

"Well, that depends on what you are thinking I am thinking."---Victoria smiled widely, and seeing his motherís canny smile and twinkle in her eyes, he then quietly asked just to be sure.

"Her birth certificate, right?"

"Hm..."---His mother nodded, taking her son by his arm, and as they resumed their walk, she whispered.

"Our Audra Abigail Barkley will like that."

These were Victoriaís last words before she and Jarrod walked out of the bedroom, quietly closing the door behind them, and finally realizing that things were slowly getting back to normal.

On to Part EEEEE Return to the Library Catalog