Stop it Heath. What’s wrong with you?” Nick grabbed hold of his younger brother. He’d been completely unprepared for the unprovoked attack Heath made on their guest. Matt Toddman had been working for the Barkleys for years. He had always done an excellent job supervising their timber operation. All Jarrod had done was bring the timber camp boss to the Barkley home to discuss his idea of building a flume. Everything had seemed fine. Victoria had taken Lucinda Toddman upstairs to show her the guest room, leaving Nick and Jarrod to share a
drink with their foreman and entertain him until Heath arrived to make the family complete for dinner. When Heath arrived home he came into the house seemingly good humored. Matt Toddman rose from his chair and raised his hand in greeting and it was in the moment that he locked eyes with Heath that recognition passed between them and caused Heath to lunge at the man and punch him squarely in the jaw. Toddman fell back onto the settee and Heath had him by the collar of his suit coat hauling him up for more. “Heath! What’s gotten into you, boy!?” Nick pulled Heath away from Toddman.
Jarrod joined Nick in breaking up the one sided fight. They were both shocked and worried about their younger brother’s behavior and did their best to restrain him. Heath fought against their hold with strength neither Jarrod nor Nick anticipated and they barely managed to keep Heath a short distance away from Toddman. With their combined strength the older brothers pushed Heath farther away. Something snapped inside Heath and he had infinitely less strength to carry out what seemed like an ancient promise inherited from another man. A debt to collect that he no longer needed but promised to collect for others now dead. Unconsciously he succumbed to the futility of revenge. Nick grabbed him hard around the arms and was able to restrain him. Jarrod stepped between his brothers and Toddman. Nick could feel Heath’s heart pounding against his chest, and his body shaking violently as he fought to free himself. Heath twisted and turned and tried to jerk free but Nick held even tighter making every breath difficult for Heath. “Heath, get a hold of yourself. Heath!” Nick was getting increasingly worried about his brother’s lack of response to his calls for attention.. Nick arched his chest in order to look at his brother’s face. What he saw was a raw readiness to go into battle, to fight to the death. There was a focus that narrowed Heath’s view to the presence of only two and Nick was not one of them. “Stop it Heath!” Nick saw his brother struggling to breathe without notice and relaxed his grip. Nick held Heath by the shoulders and shook him until Heath gave him a puzzled and tormented look.
Heath blinked and came back to the room, his brothers and the man he hated. “That’s Matt Bentell.” Heath spat catching his breath and shooting Nick a look of anger and betrayal. Victoria and Lucinda chased after the shouting that rang throughout the house. Victoria gave an exasperated look to Audra who had heard the ruckus as well and was coming down the hallway. Audra understood that her Mother would take care of the situation with the men and she returned to her room. The two older women were halfway down the stairs when Heath’s voice rang out clearly. “Wirtz of Andersonville and Matt Bentell of Carterson, they were two of a kind. What that animal did to us, I swore if I ever found him again, I’d kill him.” The name stunned the whole of the family and there was a moment’s silence as each one present integrated that information with what they knew about that place.
Nick was stunned. Matt Toddman had been on the Barkley payroll for years. Heath had told the family he’d been in Carterson Prison at the end of the war. He’d read the horror stories of that place and he’d shaken Heath screaming and wild eyed out of his nightmares. Other than that, Nick hadn’t heard much from Heath about Carterson. He never asked for details and Heath never offered much on his own, keeping most of it private. Nick only knew the fear Heath displayed upon waking. The fear would turn into shame and then an apology for waking him and sometimes the rest of the house. Heath would then make some corny wise crack that sent everyone back to bed. Somehow that made it alright for awhile but Nick learned that the nightmares were not isolated. The nights they came, they came repeatedly. And they followed days of sullenness. Despite what Nick knew about the hard life his father had abandoned Heath to, Heath was haunted by Bentell much more than all else put together. Heath hated Bentell, feared Bentell and he was still tormented by Matt Bentell the Commander of the civil war prison where he had spent seven months as a teen-ager. Nick wondered and not for the first time, what horrors his brother was hiding and what he was still willing to let Heath keep buried.
Nick pulled Heath along into the closed study beyond the parlor, following Jarrod’s lead. Victoria apologized to her guests and then followed her overwrought family. Toddman took his wife’s hand and she led him up the stairs to the guest room they had just been given.
She began packing what she had just unpacked. “Why can’t they let it alone?” Lucinda Bentell complained and roughly folded shirts he’d hung in the closet minutes before.
“Now Cinda, I’ll find another job.” Matt Bentell assured his wife and he was sure of it. Matt Toddman had earned great respect and admiration for his logging expertise while working for the Barkleys and with his new flume design he knew he could get any job he wanted, as long as no one in the employer’s family had been at Carterson. Bentell was amazed at the odds of circumstance.
“I know you will. Oh, Matthew why can’t it be over. Sometimes, I wish they’d all died.”
“Matthew, they have no right to hurt you, to chase you from this job. Heath Barkley and all the others had their chance. They gave their testimony. You were released. You did nothing wrong. They deserved what they got. It was war. Why can’t they accept that? They have no right, Matthew.” Lucinda Bentell held on to a court decision and never again doubted her husband’s actions during the war. She had been terrified when the charges were brought against him. Wirtz had been hanged. But, her husband had been cleared. He had done no wrong. The prisoners deserved the punishments her husband had dealt them.
At the trial there had been many testimonies to acts even he could not quite understand. He had committed the atrocities the prisoners described. He had been consumed with hate for those who opposed him. That hate had been even harder than Heath’s. Bentell had the opportunity to kill the enemy and he had done so, many times, in the name of a lost war, a lost way of life and a lost pride. He had killed intentionally many times in order to diminish the number of those that threatened him. Any belief his prisoners held in equality was destroyed. Bentell proved that to each prisoner as he stole their dignity as men and showed them the animal they had become. Death came easy for so many because their spirit had been stripped from them anyway. Men accepted death even awaited it to release them from what they had become under the command of Matt Bentell.
“I know Martha, it’s hard for some to accept that those deaths meant nothing. They were the enemy and I did exactly what they did as soldiers on the battlefield. You can’t win a war by keeping the enemy alive and strong. I succeeded in my duty as a soldier and also in proving to the prisoners that our cause was just. The prisoners were men of weaker substance and they got what they deserved. They should feel gratitude for a chance to live among real men and serve them. That’s why some, like Heath Barkley, want to kill me. They can’t accept their weakness or forget their own wretchedness. They blame me, the courts, the war, but it comes down to them and they can’t take the truth. I was released and they remain imprisoned by and accountable for their own inadequacies.”
Heath paced the floor in the study and took in the familiar smell of leather. The room held books bound in leather, chairs exquisitely upholstered in leather, a billiard table with pockets made of leather. There was nearly as much leather on Jarrod’s desk as there was in the tack room. Satchels and folders and briefcases all stitched out of softly tanned leather held facts, papers and documents that Jarrod considered true and they were the foundation that assured him of what was the good, right and just course to pursue. The decisions he made in life came from the ideas and decisions others had made and written down on those pages all wrapped in leather. Heath knew that for Jarrod it was the piece of paper he and each of the other Barkleys had signed, that had made him a brother.
Only Audra remained missing from the family that gathered in the study. Audra had not gone to her room as Victoria intended her to. She listened from the hallway to the shouting below, much as she had that first night that Nick had dragged Heath in the house to make his claim. She always cried when the subject of his past came up in a way that brought everyone’s emotions to the surface. When her family excused themselves from their guests Audra ran to her room ashamed that she’d been deliberately left out of the coming discussion. She was ashamed that she ran to her room instead of to Heath’s side. She prayed that one day his past would disappear so there would be no part of him to scare her.
Heath was glad Audra wasn’t there. The discussion was going to center on the past, Heath’s dark past in Carterson prison and the mere mention of that time put everyone over the edge. “Seven months in Carterson Prison. You *know* that, seven months in the Hell Bentell made.” Why did those words mean so little to his family, to outsiders? It was enough he was there. What hadn’t happened to him directly he either witnessed in action or the results of the action. The individual horrors that were Carterson Prison were bound so tightly together that Heath dared not reveal even one atrocity for fear they would all escape and consume him. He had no paper to prove what had happened. No document to describe and outline what had taken place in that prison. He only had his memory of being there and the nightmares that still haunted him. Heath always assumed his internment at that place was enough for anyone to see the damage done, that injustice had prevailed and crimes too terrible to tell had been committed. Heath assumed his mere presence in Carterson would be enough for his family to understand his hate for Bentell and gather up their support against his enemy.
“Heath the war has been over for years.” Victoria didn’t understand what he meant his words to convey. She tried to help her son gain a reasonable perspective.
“Well not long enough to forget.” Heath did not get the support he expected. “How do you forget mealy food and putrid water, beatings, whippings for no reason?” Those were the words he could say though his memory held much more. The worst acts against him and the other prisoners had stolen their dignity, humanity and self control. If spoken, those memories would expose the disparity he’d fought every day in Strawberry to over come and in Carterson learned to believe was a futile pursuit. He was of weaker substance and no one, especially the Barkleys of Stockton could ever know.
“Maybe you don’t want to forget,” Jarrod broke in ready to take over reasoning with his newest brother.
“Everyday Jarrod, Oh I want to forget everyday,” Heath was incredulous. “But some things won’t go away. I can’t just burn the pages or close the book on this one Jarrod… I...I swore I’d kill him for what he did and not just for me, for others Jarrod. For others who are dead.” Heath wondered why he hadn’t just reached for his gun. “Bentell is a cold blooded murderer and the men he murdered deserve justice.”
“Heath. I’m not just closing a book, but killing Toddman would be murder.” Jarrod was explaining the law and Heath was hoping to convey the circumstance and neither was getting through to the other.
“His name is Bentell” Heath shouted. The new name did not erase what he had done or who he was.
“Alright, Bentell,” Jarrod acquiesced still frustrated, “but what will killing him do besides getting you hanged?” Jarrod pushed on hoping Heath would see the ultimate result of his desire to kill Bentell.
“Don’t stand there and defend him to me.” Heath felt himself come under attack. His very center was being rocked. His family had him cornered and for the life of him he didn’t understand why. Jarrod was his brother and wasn’t listening. Heath thought surely he’d want justice too. He thought surely they’d all want that for him. Justice, peace at last an end for a past that would not rest without it.
“I’m not defending him; I’m trying to protect you.” Jarrod proclaimed vehemently.
Heath didn’t want protection, he didn’t need protection. He wanted justice and Jarrod couldn’t see that. Heath realized that this whole new family didn’t understand what had happened at Carterson because they still didn’t understand him. They didn’t understand what Carterson had done to him, that it was a large part of him. Heath hadn’t told them all the horrors he’d suffered, he couldn’t. He hadn’t wanted to hurt them with the truth of who he was, who they had taken into their home and who he thought they had begun to love, but he thought he had told them enough to understand. “There has to be a file, Jarrod. Don’t you have it? I was there. If you read it you’ll see the monster he is.”
There had been many reports. Less than a third of Bentell’s prisoners survived. The families of the soldiers, surviving and deceased, made criminal allegations against Bentell. Some had discovered their son’s or father’s tortured bodies in a mass grave rotting with degrees of time. Others found their loved ones alive with bodies and souls mutilated and disfigured beyond recognition. Jarrod had read them, they all had, even Audra hoping to help. But they remained words easily forgotten for those who didn’t live them everyday. The words were too ugly to dwell on. The words played no part in their life except as a sad memory they never had.
Heath didn’t know why he had to say it again or how many times it would take for his family to understand the words were real to him. The name had been enough to burn hate into his mother’s heart. She knew her son and understood what the boy was forced to believe. She had brought his young body back to health but she cried at the lie her sweet boy would have to fight to deny for the rest of his life. She hated Bentell for convincing Heath that he was less than others. He had never believed the evil lies of the townspeople but Bentell had broken him. She knew and quietly accepted the possibility her son could kill out of hate and revenge. His mother had understood justice. Heath wondered why this new family didn’t? Was it because they hadn’t been there at his release, because they were not witnesses to the crime, or because he was different, less than equal and they knew that?
Heath remembered Bentell had slowly killed the men he’d fought beside. Heath was convinced that neither his youth nor his inexperience distorted his understanding of what was right and wrong and no matter what the circumstances, Bentell had abused his power and position and was guilty of mass murder.
The Barkleys told themselves that they were so very lucky that Heath had survived his imprisonment relatively unscathed. He was strong, healthy, even happy they’d thought. But Heath was not unscathed by the horrors of war that had passed unnoticed, to the rest of the world, behind the walls of Carterson Prison and that still existed for its survivors. The screaming that rang in his ears night and day, did not end when he was carried from his cell nor when he walked away from the hospital with the release papers that stated he was healed. Heath remained at war fighting for a small bit of peace inside himself and for the men, both living and dead, who could not. And Jarrod now told him that he didn’t want to forget.
“Those files are closed Heath.” For all the terrible truths spoken at Bentell’s inquest, Bentell had been cleared of any wrongdoing but Heath and every prisoner at Carterson knew he should have been hanged. Wirtz had been hanged for what he had done at Andersonville and apparently that had satisfied a government whose most urgent responsibility was to heal the deep wound that still threatened to divide the country. For the men of Carterson and their families, justice was denied. The men who had served their nation so bravely were made to sacrifice more. Justice, as Heath saw it, was abandoned for the sake of healing the nation.
“Then listen to me. I was there. He was guilty Jarrod. Don’t you see?” Heath realized they could not. He had spoken of all of this before but never in all honesty or openness, he couldn’t. He wanted blind faith, acceptance, love. He wanted what his mother had been able to give.
Heath thought about the expression he saw in each one of their faces when they’d wake him from a nightmare. Did they think it ended when he awoke? Did they not take his past to heart? Was he only the man that worked with Nick and sat at their table and shared his sibling’s blood? They hadn’t listened, they didn’t understand and they didn’t want to know. He told them all he could, but they each heard only what they could accept.
Jarrod listened, always playing the other side of the story right alongside in his mind as Heath told his. Jarrod knew better than to believe only half the story. He’d been made privy to some of the report. He had contacts in high places. Much of Bentell’s innocence lay on the defense Wirtz had tried to build. It was war, supplies were scarce. The prisoner’s attempted escape. It was his duty. It seemed reasonable. Supplies to prisons were short on both sides. Claims of deliberate starvation and denial of medical treatment rang hollow in view of the limited supplies. Wirtz was hung for the atrocities committed in every war camp. The country had to move on, unite and forgive. Perhaps Heath could do the same.
With every word Heath uttered or nightmare he endured, Victoria blamed herself for never wondering about a child born of her husband’s weakness. She accepted the blame for his deprived youth and promised herself and her dead husband to do what she could to make up for the difficulty of his past. Carterson was a secret he still kept and Victoria let him. She prayed for answers that never came when he’d wake in terror. She allowed him to reassure her that he knew it was over and only a dream and let his eyes tell her he was happy and loved.
Heath became quiet. He distanced himself from the discussion. The message had gone too deep to continue. His Mother, his new mother, no, it was Victoria Barkley who began speaking to him, telling him it was wrong to hate. That she had overcome her hate toward the man who’d killed her husband and that he needed to overcome his. She was wrong. She was lying to him, to her sons and to herself. She hadn’t needed to overcome hate. Justice had overcome hate for her.
The law hadn’t dealt the punishment for his father’s death. It had been a mercenary who took the opportunity to ingratiate himself to the Barkleys by answering their cries for vengeance with a resounding bang and a well placed bullet to the back of Tom Barkley’s murderer. That man had become a friend to the Barkleys, not a back shooting murderer. Yet the Barkleys maintained that such justice for him and the prisoners of Carterson would be murder.
That justice was all Heath wanted for himself, since the law hadn’t provided it. He would lose his hate when a well placed bullet found its way to killing Matt Bentell. It didn’t matter whether it was his or not. She should know, of all people, this whole family should understand that one thing. They had condoned and embraced a bullet named justice. How could *they* forget?
Heath withdrew. He was alone again, still, it had always been that way. He’d deceived and overestimated himself again. Heath hated Bentell for proving over and over that he was not equal to the worth of others and would never be equal to Bentell, not even in his own home. “There’s some horses up at Inez. I’ll take a look at them this afternoon.” He left the room needing to think.
The Barkleys stayed in the study and listened to the front door close. “Nice day wasn’t it.” Nick crossed the room with determined strides and sat on the desk. Nick trusted Heath to know danger and he would fight alongside, to the death if necessary, to protect himself and his family from it. Any man whose presence caused the pain his brother’s face and demeanor displayed, most likely deserved whatever he got. If they had been in a saloon or on the trail Nick wouldn’t have held him back. Nick would have joined him with his fists immediately but they were in their home, a place of civility and reason. It was in the house that his Mother and older brother ruled. Heath had wanted Nick to stand by him in this but Nick remained silent, torn apart by both brothers’ convictions to the same ideal.
“Ironic isn’t it. The war’s been over for years and now it’s Matt Bentell who’s a prisoner of war at Carterson.” Jarrod mused.
“And his poor wife. You only have to look at her to know what she’s been through all these years.” Victoria sympathized.
Nick didn’t care if Matt Bentell and his wife suffered still. Heath did too, still did. Nick had learned to tune in to Heath’s night terrors while the rest of the family slept. He had seen his brother’s suffering too many times to count. Nick ignored his mother and brother’s sympathies and spoke from his heart. He wasn’t at peace with the discussion he’d just heard or his own silence. “Matt Bentell has been working for us. Well, soon as we pay him off, he won’t be.”
Jarrod had another idea. “Not so fast Nick.” He’d been thinking about the war that had caused so much pain. He explained the difficulty in hating a man given a chance to know him. Once united in a single cause Heath and Bentell would heal as surely as the nation was healing. Jarrod believed the answer to the whole problem could be solved by Heath working with and getting to know the man that, years later still lived and tortured his brother’s waking and dreaming hours.
Victoria found merit in Jarrod’s plan. She shared a love for the regimen of proper civilized living with her eldest. She’d raised all her children to value education, be fair and solve their problems reasonably. Nick had always been the roughest around the edges and she supposed Heath would need more guidance given his background. Even Nick admitted that if Jarrod was right, Heath might free himself of the horrible nightmares that still plagued him. He wasn’t sure it would work or even could work, but he wanted it to work, perhaps most of all. The Barkleys dissolved the discussion with that plan.
Having the support he needed, Jarrod offered Bentell the opportunity to stay and work for them, to build the flume and increase revenues from the timber camp five fold. He offered Bentell the opportunity to make peace with the past and show Heath he was not a man to hate.
When Heath had left for Inez, he half believed and half hoped that he would return home to find Bentell gone. Heath used his time alone to work through his vengeance and put it in perspective. He decided it would be enough for Bentell to be gone. To kill Bentell would put him on the same level as the man who had killed Tom Barkley’s murderer. Heath couldn’t deny the cowardice that act involved. The man had shot Tom Barkley’s murderer in ambush and in his back. He had no reason other than greed for the Barkley’s reward and indebtedness. He suffered no legal consequence for the shooting. Nick had spoken of him as a friend. The act of murder made Handy Random an ally and Heath a murderer to the Barkleys.
Heath decided he was willing to let Bentell go and prayed the Barkleys would too. When Heath returned, his heart slammed to the ground. Bentell’s carriage was still at the house. At dinner, Heath sat at the table in a silence only Audra did not understand. Victoria and Jarrod allowed Heath his moodiness and Nick had a rising feeling of dread. Heath did not want to go and the reasons he was going were becoming less and less important to him than the fact that Heath did not want to go. But Nick forced himself to keep his eye on the prize. Heath and a past that no longer threatened to destroy him or scare his family, a brother without a difficult past, the brother he’d always wanted.
After dinner, Audra was asked to see to their guest’s needs, while the rest of the family rejoined in the study to tell Heath the plan. They told him he was to go to the timber camp with Bentell. That Bentell would reveal his identity to the lumberjacks and that Heath was to protect their foreman from repercussions, from others who might try to kill him. Bentell was still left in charge of operations so the hired men would see that all the Barkleys supported him.
Heath felt his world collapse. “Listen to me! Why don’t you listen? I was there. I can’t protect him. I can’t be near him. Listen, I won’t hurt him, just make him leave, now!” Heath panicked, he never dreamt of the scenario that now played out before him. Heath knew Bentell. Heath knew him more personally than he knew his new brothers. Bentell had stripped him of his humanity and exposed the scared, desperate, shameful being that lives in everyone. Heath knew the power of that kind of knowledge and that Bentell would be consumed by that power again. Heath was numb with the living nightmare that was being laid out in his path. He looked to Nick, his brother, his friend, the man who held his trust. “Send, Nick.”
“YOU have to go. You’re the only one who would recognize the men from Carterson.” Nick demanded. Immediately, the words that left his mouth tore through his gut. Heath turned away, unwilling to meet Nick’s eyes. It wasn’t necessary as Nick had already dropped his head and walked away.
“Listen to me Heath. You can do this.” Victoria grabbed Heath by the arm and swung him around to face her. Heath didn’t hear most of the words. He was paying attention to Nick’s silence. Jarrod, Heath was sure, had found a logical solution to cure him of all that haunted him. He knew Jarrod had convinced the others and that there was no undoing it. Heath heard the drone of Victoria’s convincing speech. He saw Nick stare into the absent fire. Suddenly, Victoria grabbed him by both arms and shook him. Then she said it. He didn’t hear all the words but he knew what they meant. If he didn’t follow the plan, he would lose his place in the family. He listened, he understood. If he couldn’t do what they wanted, he wasn’t really a Barkley. She stopped talking and Heath nodded, a hurt, a mother hopes never to see, flashed across his eyes. Heath left the room to discover for himself what he would do. Jarrod and Victoria were satisfied and sure that Heath would finally begin to heal.
Only Nick was in doubt. He wanted his brother to put the past behind him. He needed Heath to be free of the pain that separated them. Jarrod’s idea sounded good. It could work. If Heath would only try, he could heal the past that scared and worried his family. He needed to talk to Heath alone and found him currying Charger in the barn.
Without greeting, Heath began the conversation. “Why do I have to go?”
“Because you know the men who might try to kill him.”
“And I made a promise just like they did.” Heath stopped brushing and let his arm drop down along his side. He turned around. “Listen, I’ll leave for a while. I won’t kill him. I don’t want to anymore. I don’t think I ever really did. I coulda shot ‘im if I wanted. Just get rid of him. I can’t do this.” Swallowing the small bit of pride he had summoned. “Please Nick.”
“You can Heath, you can do it. You have to. Don’t you see, you have too much to lose if you don’t.” Nick put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Heath stood still as stone. He had a choice. Protect Bentell or lose. Lose what? “Nick,” it was pushed past the wall that threatened to break and unleash the truth of the most horrible place a 15 year boy could find himself. “Listen to me.”
Nick couldn’t listen, not at that moment. “Heath it’s for your own good. You can’t go on carrying that hate around.” Nick didn’t want to listen. “Are you willing to trade everything you have right now, just to hang on to your past?”
There was a threat in those words, just as clearly as his in his mother’s. “Would I lose everything, Nick?” Heath met Nick’s gaze and wished his eyes were windows to the past so Nick could see, really see what he could not express.
“Give it a chance.”
“Just get rid of him.”
“You need to do this, for the family. We need you to work through this, end this”
“What if I can’t?”
Nick shook his head not understanding the depth of his brother’s question or the abandonment he felt. “Heath, give it a try. You’ll see. Jarrod’s idea makes sense.” Nick softened his voice which Heath knew was because the truth behind the coming words was painful. “Mother needs you to stop hating. It scares her. It seems right that if you could make peace with Bentell you could get rid of the rest of your hate, not just for Bentell but for the damn past that hurts you. It’s the hate that hurts her. She loves you Heath and can’t for the life of her take away the past, only you can leave it there. It’s so hard on her every time you show it. It hurts all of us.”
“Nick, I can’t help what happened, but it was wrong. I do know what’s right the same as Jarrod, I just don’t have the papers to prove it. Why are you doing this?”
“It’s for your own good. If you can’t do this” Nick took a deep breath, he wanted Heath to do this, survive this, overcome this. It was for his own good as well as the rest of the family’s. “You can do it.”
Heath wanted to punch some sense into Nick. Why didn’t he listen? No one listened. No one heard. No one saw. No one cared. No one loved. Where was Audra? They had dismissed her too. “Doesn’t Audra have a say in this family discussion?”
“You really want her to know about this. I think you hurt her most when you show your hatred of the past our father left you with.”
Heath was defeated. He wasn’t ready to give up his new life and the love he thought it offered. He prayed that he could bury his old one. “Alright Nick, I’ll try.” Heath turned back to brushing Charger with an uneasy hand.
Nick clapped Heath on the shoulder, and felt him slightly pull away. Nick left, before either one had a chance to change their mind. They all wanted it to end and put their faith in a plan that could never work. Somewhere deep inside each of them, they all knew it.
Heath rode ahead of the Bentells on the way to the logging camp. He didn’t speak a word; he was wrapped up in his own thoughts. His voice hadn’t been heard by a single Barkley so he didn’t waste the effort on Matt Bentell or his wife Lucinda. Heath remembered Mrs. Bentell. She had been there at the prison as well. She had been able to laugh. It had never sounded right, not joyous nor happy but something else. Pride maybe. She was proud of her position and power. The way she sat in the buggy, the looks she gave him when he turned back now and again, he knew it gave her pleasure that he’d been shamed by his family.
He could hardly believe he was on a horse riding lookout for Matt Bentell. It was not that he was there, there had been a time when he set out after Bentell and had made it his goal to find him. Now they were together and the desire to kill him was gone. For all that he had endured and witnessed, the chance he now had to see the man pay for the lives taken and maimed, he wasted. He did not want to kill. The part of him that made promises and kept them was lost. Heath rode with Bentell to protect him in order to retain a place in his father’s family and prove himself worthy of the name. But that was impossible because in being there, he was no longer true to himself. With all of his heart, Heath wanted the comfort and love he’d thought he had with the Barkleys. But his voice rang empty in their home. Even Nick, his brother, bonded by more than the one blood they shared was letting him go. His brothers, his sister even his new mother had heard him tell what he could of the horrors he’d witnessed Matt Bentell commit. The Barkleys had cried with him, sympathized with him, mourned with him and still they were sending him off alone with the man who had first taken his innocence and now the integrity he’d worked so hard to build. He was ashamed to be riding with the man he hated. He was ashamed that he was going to protect the man. He was ashamed that his new family knew he would do it.
Heath rode ahead of the man whose many crimes now weighed less heavy than the abandonment he felt from his family, from the Barkleys. He wasn’t what they wanted. It was easier to face Bentell than the faces of those he had allowed himself to love, allowed himself to believe loved him back, but they had only allowed him to stay as long as he played by their rules. The decision for him to go with Bentell had been made for him. He was riding away from his house, his home, his family and back into the nightmare of Bentell’s prison. He had not even been granted the power of ownership. Bentell was in charge. He admitted to himself that this time he had allowed himself to be captured, he had surrendered, yet he held on to the hope that whatever security or comfort his new family was willing to provide, would be enough for him to live with.
When Heath Barkley and the Bentells arrived at camp, the first thing Bentell did was unmask his true identity. Heath had awaited the moment with dread. He was not only with a man he’d been dispatched to protect but that man had openly made himself a target. He wondered if his family expected him to die trying to do their bidding. Heath recognized some of the men who’d had family that had survived or died at Carterson. They resigned and gave Heath a look of disgust and betrayal. Heath was ashamed but glad they could keep their integrity. Others left on principle, because they would not work for the man whose crimes had been told. Heath was ashamed he no longer held to his principles. But he had a family to go home to as soon as he could forgive Matt Bentell and put his past forever behind him.
Jarrod had anticipated the drop in labor. He took it upon himself to find replacements for the men who left and went to surrounding towns to offer top pay for a days work. He sent scores of men to the timber camp with a signed voucher. Jarrod was bound and determined to see his plan work and he had to work harder than usual. It wasn’t the flume he wanted to build but a bridge to his brother. It seemed that every time their paths crossed he ended up widening the gap between them. Nick had established his relationship so had his mother and sister but he felt left out. As his older brother he should be there to help him with his problems and now was the time for Heath to put the past behind him. He had to defend himself with his fists for even attempting to sign men on to work with Bentell. Men he’d never met, dressed in dirty work clothes challenged his endeavor. He found those to fight with him and signed enough men on to fill the work crews.
Heath sat next to Bentell as the new men approached the table to be signed onto the Barkley payroll. Heath signed man after man on to work for Bentell. He felt sick but continued to sign men on to make up for those more honest than he, who refused to work for the likes of Matt Bentell.
A man named Morely; gave his name and voucher to be signed on. Heath recognized and dismissed him. His brother had been in Carterson and died there. Heath didn’t think the man was a danger but he had decided to take no chances and dismiss any man he knew had suffered in some way from Bentell’s control of Carterson prison. For some reason or other Morely pleaded with him to reconsider. Heath was surprised that Morely was as desperate as he and wanted or needed to work for the man they both hated. Heath thought about his own reasons and couldn’t find any good ones, yet he stayed, denying what his heart told him. He was not loved. Still he refused to sign Morely on. He refused to let anyone else sink as low as he.
Two prisoners, brothers, Aaron and Gil Condon wanted work and had helped with Jarrod’s efforts to recruit men. They had their vouchers and soon stood next in line and asked for work. Heath turned them down flat but Bentell interrupted and overrode Heath’s decision and hired the brothers on himself. Bentell assured Heath that they posed no threat. The brothers assured Heath as well and explained that Gil had received good care from Bentell. His leg had been saved by the medical care Bentell had given him. Heath was in disbelief and questioned again his own experience by such news. Heath wondered if it had been a dream. Had he only imagined, with young eyes the horrors in that hell? He was doubtful of any truth and decided to keep an eye on the brothers.
Men kept arriving and when the last was put on the books, they had more than enough men to complete the flume Bentell had designed. The Condons were assigned to work constructing and raising the supports that would hold and direct the flume. It was only a matter of a week before the Condon brothers had the opportunity and carried out an attempt at taking Bentell’s life. Bentell stood directly beneath the huge scaffolding that would support the flume, having inspected it carefully. He looked out over the whole operation and saw the men working for him, controlled by him, making his dream come true. There was a rustling of limbs in the tree that secured the unfinished support with a thick rope tied to its trunk. Heath’s attention was drawn to scan the branches. Gil was cutting through the rope holding the heavy structure temporarily in place. Instinctively Heath responded to the dangerous situation and raced under the insecure flume knocking Bentell out of the way of the suddenly collapsing structure. Heath sprang back to his feet after realizing he and Bentell were uninjured. He dusted himself off and saw Gil’s brother, Aaron, disappear into the trees. Heath bolted after him. The whole situation was muddled, confused. There was too much tension, too many veils of truth that he could not sort through. He needed proof that his memories were real.
Gil still had both legs but the one Bentell had allowed him to save was weak and sometimes useless. The brothers couldn’t go far. They hid behind a big pine tree hoping to evade detection.
When they saw only Heath had followed them, they showed themselves. Heath’s mind was racing trying to understand what they had done and why. Bentell had saved Gil’s leg. Gil had said so. It was the only humanitarian act he had ever heard to have occurred in that prison. The Condons were the only two men he thought might not have reason to hate Bentell. They had said so.
“You told me he saved your leg.” Heath needed confirmation. The whole terrible situation was taking on the chaotic feelings of a nightmare.
“You think that makes up for everything?” Gil snarled. Yes his leg had been saved but at a cost too dear.
“Well Heath, what now?” Aaron asked calmly, remaining next to his brother.
“He ain’t gonna turn us in.” Gil sneered. He knew Heath. They all knew each other. Hate, shame and degradation made them transparent to each other and were a force to confront everyday.
“What makes you so sure?” Heath asked, knowing Gil spoke the truth.
“ 'cause you remember, same as we do.” Gil had the answer. Heath did remember and closed his eyes to see it.
“From what we heard you tried to kill him yourself.” Aaron put in.
Gil’s voice brought Heath back. “What he done the night of the escape attempt sticks in your craw, same as it does ours.” Gil saw the memory written on Heath’s face and was determined to set him straight.
“Eighteen men Heath, eighteen men shot down in cold blood, and you was almost one of 'em.” Aaron started.
Gil was determined to gain Heath’s support. “I coulda been one of ‘em too, if it hadn’t been for my,....leg.” Gil was wound tight with anger and had to work to spit out the bad taste of those words . “So coulda' Aaron if he hadn’ta stayed with me, but we weren’t one of ‘em.” He turned his disgust on himself and glared at Heath, daring him to call him a coward.” They knew each other. “We lived and we swore some day he’d pay for what he did.”
“You swore he’d pay too.” Aaron reminded him.
“You swore on the blood of the men you fought beside, he’d pay.” Memories, promises and blood all echoed in Heath’s mind as Gil spoke of a mission he had vowed to complete but no longer had the heart to do.
“Well Heath, what about it?”
Heath looked at Aaron unsure why the question had been asked. He simply turned away to go back to camp and the brothers disappeared further into the trees. Heath’s world finally crumbled and he became violently sick. His body objected to his own actions. All he had needed to do was watch the flume fall and the man he hated would have certainly died. What had he done? He’d done what his family had asked. Without regard to his own safety he had risked his own life to save Bentell’s. His stomach continued to rebel against the betrayal of his commitment to the justice he sought. He condemned himself again for his weakness. What Bentell had not been able to do, he had done for himself. He surrendered justice, his dignity and his life for something that did not exist. There was no love in being sent here to die in Bentell’s place.
Heath returned to camp and sat on the bunkhouse steps. Mrs. Bentell watched him from her porch. He swallowed often trying to quell the nausea still threatening him. He needed to get a grip on the world spinning wildly around him, confusing him and bringing up the past. Lucinda Bentell caught his eye. His stomach clenched again and he saw the edges of his world go dark. He shook his head. He couldn’t go on with this any longer. Heath made up his mind and walked with deliberate determination to the barn to saddle his horse. Mrs. Bentell saw him go, then with the faintest of smiles, followed. Heath’s hands were shaking as he tossed the horse blanket onto Charger’s back. He pressed them firmly onto the blanket to steady them. Lucinda Bentell entered the barn and closed the gate behind her
“Mr. Barkley.” She hissed.
“What is it?” Heath couldn’t stand her voice.
“I came to.....”
“You came to what?” Heath cut her off. She disgusted him. He’d found his voice, his strength and himself. He was angry and knew what he had to do. He was choosing to leave and he damn well was going to leave. Bentell had not died that day, not under the Barkleys’ watch, not on Barkley land and not by his own hand. But that was all he was willing to concede that moment.
“I came to thank you for saving my husband’s life.” She mocked him.
“Well, it was the sorriest thing I’ve ever done and to make sure it doesn’t happen again, I’m pullin’ out.” Heath spat angrily.
As those words left his mouth, Mrs. Bentell’s hand slapped hard across his face. He was surprised by the sting but not the act. Bentell’s wife took to assault the same as her husband had. He glared at her for the contact, the violation. He stepped into her space and pushed her roughly out of his way with his shoulder as he passed by to settle the saddle on Charger’s back.
“Why did I think it all could change?” Mrs. Bentell bemoaned.
“Mrs. Bentell,” Heath paused to control his emotions. “Your husband started it all the day he took over that prison camp. It’ll never change.”
“My husband was more of a prisoner of Carterson than you or any of the others.”
Heath was appalled, he didn’t believe that for a minute. “Held there by armed guards with orders to shoot if he stepped over the deadline?”
“Held there by his duty.” She spat back.
“And his duty was to put us in chains and starve us and beat us and treat us like animals?” Heath was still shocked that the woman could not see the abuse of power her husband committed at Carterson. ‘All is fair in love and war,’ Heath thought but didn’t believe. There were lines in love and war that shouldn’t be crossed. He had found them both and was leaving.
“The war was almost over, the south was losing, now what did you expect him to do, give what little food there was to you, instead of his own men? He had to keep you prisoner anyway he could, but how did you treat one another, you prisoners? You fought like animals, over what food there was, over scraps of clothing over a place to sleep. You even fought over,” Mrs. Bentell paused and followed with words of contempt for the prisoners “over a place to die,” rather than horror for the cruelty with which her husband brought them slowly to their deaths. She saw the prisoners stripped of all humanity as they whimpered and begged for dignities she thought beneath them. They were animals in the eyes of the enemy and their pitiful behavior only supported that belief. It made life at war bearable, the inhumanity of torture and starvation irresistible and hate, justified.
Heath flushed. He knew the animal inside him. He also knew Bentell was the same. They’d witnessed each other’s fall from grace and had become less than men. “You’ve got all the answers haven’t you?” Heath couldn’t take any more and realized she would never see the truth. She hid behind the lie she’d created to continue loving her husband. The same kind of lie he’d tried to hide behind in order to be what the Barkleys wanted him to be. He was done hiding and ready to get on with his life.
“All I have is the other side of the story.” Mrs. Bentell suggested to knowing more.
“Well tell me the other side of the ambush where eighteen men were shot down in cold blood.” It always came back to that night. The truth of that night held the secrets that tortured his nights.
“Oh,” Mrs. Bentell closed and opened her eyes like waking from a dream. “I remember that night. I remember what that did to my husband.”
“To your husband?” Incredulous, Heath couldn’t fathom why everyone was concerned about her husband. Was that man’s life worth so much more than the prisoners’ or than his own? When would people worry about the men who survived his cruelty or the families of those that had not? He could not make sense of it.
“Part of him died with those men. He didn’t want that to happen.” Mrs. Bentell spoke softly. It was true but Lucinda never knew whether it was because the necessary deaths weighed heavy on his heart or that he’d sold his soul in order to exterminate the enemy. After that night he was never again able to make her feel whole.
“He let eighteen men crawl out of that tunnel. He waited until they got out in the open before he gave orders to open fire.” Heath accused, wanting answers wanting justice, wanting the terrible truth to be heard.
“He called out for them to go back. He waited until the last moment and ‘then he opened fire!” Lucinda shouted. She remembered the story. She’d supported her husband’s account during the inquest.
“I was there, I was in that tunnel, I didn’t hear anybody calling out.” Heath was losing control. He needed to leave before he fell apart.
“You didn’t hear anybody calling out because you were ‘in the tunnel!’ But if you had heard him yelling out would you have surrendered?” she questioned him further.
“No.” Even after the guns went off, he remembered pushing the man ahead of him, wanting to go through.
“Neither did the others and that’s why they died.” The air itself seemed to go out of the barn.
“Like I said, you’ve got answers for it all haven’t ya?” Exhausted and with no resolution in sight he was leaving. There could be no peace until the truth was told but there were so many truths, so many lies, so much love, so much hate they were all fighting for life, for control inside him to the point he could not breathe. What was it he needed to do? Fight injustice, forget the past, accept love unrequited, remember the dead. He needed to get away from everything and everyone until he could find the self he’d lost along the way.
Lucinda Bentell was not finished though. “Yes, enough…. enough to advise you to save some of your anger for the man who informed on the men who were trying to escape. Yes one of your fellow prisoners informed.” She was smug with the knowledge that it was a prisoner who had betrayed his own. “I don’t know who it was. I never found out.” She added quickly and quietly.
“That’s convenient, isn’t it?” He had wondered. There had been talk. Bentell had been so well prepared for the massacre.
“Oh, oh I don’t care whether you believe me or not. This is the first time I’ve ever spoken of this to anybody and it doesn’t make any difference if you believe me or not. Just speaking of it has made it easier for me.” She truly seemed relieved, lighter.
Heath wanted that feeling, the security of knowing or at least believing that he knew what he believed, but he wasn’t sure anymore what really happened or who to trust, not even himself. ‘What she said might have happened, but if Bentell knew, why didn’t he stop the escape before it happened? Why didn’t he collapse the tunnel? Why did he wait with the information until eighteen men were out in the open?’ Heath cinched his saddle securely, puzzling over the questions that boiled down to one answer. Bentell had opportunity to prevent the escape but instead he chose to lie in wait and kill.