“Heath!” Nick shouted from the foyer, his gruff booming voice drifting up the stairs. “Heath!”
Victoria rounded the corner from the parlor. “Nick, stop shouting. Audra is still sleeping.”
“What? It’s seven thirty!” he bellowed.
“Lower your voice. She was out late last night.”
He sighed with a thick annoyance. “Well her beau better not have slept in. We hired him to work in the orchards today.” He turned his attention back to Heath’s room. “Heath!”
Heath crossed the front door. “I’m right here, Nick.” Nick swirled round. “Whatcha hollering about?”
“I thought you were still asleep.”
“At seven thirty in the morning? That’s more your style, Nick,” he teased with a wink directed at Victoria.
Nick’s eyes narrowed with scorn. “Ha, ha, very funny.”
Heath hung his head to stifle a laugh. “Nick, what’s the matter? You’re as jittery as a man with jumping frogs down his pants.”
Nick’s thrust his fist on his hips and bulged out his chest. “I’m not jumpy!” he barked, then lowering his voice, “I’m just anxious.”
“About the order?”
“Don’t fret about it none, Nick. We’ll fill it out.”
“This contract’s mite important to us. If we nail it it’s…”
“I know, I know. It’s a half a million for the next three years.” Heath gave a bolstering tap on Nick’s tense shoulder. “Relax, we’ll make it. We’ve even hired extra men to double production.”
Nick’s wince gradually fashioned into a toothy grin. “Yeah, you’re right,” he admitted with a hearty squeeze at the back of Heath’s neck.
“Did you boys eat breakfast?”
“Just finished,” Nick said.
“Ate an hour ago and went to the stable to saddle the horses.”
“Then let’s go!” Nick slapped Heath on the back and followed him out the door.
“Have a good day!”
“Thanks Mother,” Nick and Heath chorused.
Nick’s spurs jingled loudly as he stomped to the barnyard while slipping on his gloves. Heath was lagging behind, having to remove a pebble from his boot. “Hey Nick, wait up!” He hooked Nick’s shoulder to slow his brisk pace. “Ease up, Nick. We’ll make it.”
Nick heaved a long-drawn breath. “I know.”
“I was thinking, Nick. After I lay out the work for the men, I could swing by the north range and help you with the broken fences?”
“I’d love nothing more Little Brother, but I’d feel better if you stick with the peach pickers. We’re got new men who might be tempted to taper off if the boss isn’t there, watching. We need those hundred bushels by four o’clock or the deal is off. “
Heath nodded in agreement. He dipped his hat below one eye before straddling his mount.
Nick swung onto Coco’s back. “I’ll try to head down to the orchards later on this afternoon, maybe give you a hand with the haulage.”
“Sounds good. See you later!”
Both spurred their horses out of the yard and galloped away in opposite directions.
Heath arrived at the peach orchard and reined back his mount as he neared the command post, where a dozen able men were gathered, mingling, getting acquainted with each other, while awaiting instructions from their supervisor.
“The boss is coming.”
“Half a boss,” sniggered on of the men.
“Shut your face, Joe,” Luke Whelan rebuked with a glare.
“What’s he talking about?” Payton Wells asked innocently. He was Audra’s new beau who had been hired specifically for the job.
“He’s the old man’s mistake,” Joe continued despite Luke’s warning.
“You mean he’s a bastard?” Payton surmised.
“He’s Heath Barkley and don’t you forget that, kid.” Luke warned sternly. “I advise you to swallow that word hard if you don’t want his brother Nick to cram it down your throat.”
Heath walked over to the men. “Luke, everyone here?”
The name Heath rang a bell. Payton raked his brains trying to recall where he heard it before. Then, the face struck him. He stood riveted to the spot, adrenalin coursing through his body.
“Did Frank tell you about the work?” Heath asked Luke.
“No, just that we had to show up here at seven thirty and wait for you. “What’s up?”
“We need a hundred bushels by the end of the day.”
The men glanced at each other with eyebrows raised in bewilderment.
“A hundred? You’ve got to be kidding?”
“Nop. This big shot merchant that Jarrod defended over a litigation involving his former supplier who couldn’t respect the deadlines, agreed to give us a shot. If we can bring in a hundred bushels of peaches and a hundred of oranges by sundown, he’s giving us the contract, which means permanent jobs for you all at double wages.”
“You said it, Quinn.”
“We won’t let you down, boss,” Luke assured with a hearty tap on Heath’s shoulder.
“I’m not worried about that. I’ll even give you a hand.”
“You? Climbing in trees?” Luke teased.
“You’ll be surprise. Come on, let’s get to work!”
The eleven men followed Heath down the path leading to the first peach tree where they broke into teams of three. Payton stood transfixed after his encounter with the man he recognized as his brother’s killer. The blond’s features had been seared on his mind since that day, never to be erased until their paths would eventually cross, providing him with a chance to finally exact vengeance for his brother’s death.
“Hey kid! Let’s go! You’re on my team,” Luke urged on.
“Coming!” Payton shambled along with his eyes blazing murderously.
Towards the end of the day, the peach pickers had successfully managed to fill the hundred bushels. Heath and the men were loading the crates onto the buckboard when Nick rode up.
“Heath, how’s it going?” he asked as he eased down his horse.
“We did it. A hundred bushels ready to be hauled into town.”
“It’s barely four o’clock!” Nick was astounded. “Are you sure?”
“Yep” Counted them myself.”
“What about the oranges?”
“Frank sent one of his men to tell us they’d make great time. He’s just finishing loading.”
“Heath, do you know what this means?” Nick asked ecstatically, gripping Heath’s arms to face him square in the eyes. “We’re gonna make it!”
“We’d make better time if you’d help us load,” Heath chaffed.
Nick shook his head clear of his euphoria. “Ah! Right!” He marched down a few feet down the path to take the crate Luke handed him.
“We did it, boss.”
“You sure did, Luke. Great job!”
Once all the crates were stowed at the back of the wagon, Heath and Luke hopped in the front while two other men sat in the back to insure the safety of the precious cargo during the jostling journey into town.
"We still got a full hour left to take the load into town before deadline. Heath, why do you go on ahead to save time. I’ll ride with Frank.” Nick suggested.
"Okay. See you there." Heath flicked the horses at a steady pace while Nick headed towards the orange grove.
Satisfied with their work, the remaining men slapped each other on the back as they licked their chops at their imminent good fortune.
As they walked to their horses, Payton casually approached Joe with questions about Heath.
“He showed up at their front step about a year ago claiming to be the old man’s bastard son,” Joe explained. “At first, neither of the Barkleys believed his story, but he somehow wormed his way into the family, mostly because of them women folk. The sister was first to accept him. Why? I don’t rightly know.”
“The sister, that would be Audra, right?”
“Yeah. Then the mother warmed to him. She’s apparently swept her husband’s affair under the rug and accepted the boy as her own. He even calls her ‘Mother’,” he said with an air of disgust. “Then there’s his brother Nick who held him in contempt the longest as he couldn’t knock his old man’s off the high pedestal. That man was a saint. But now, he’s the one who’s the closest to him. If you so much badmouth Heath or touch a hair on his head, he’ll wipe the floor with you. Believe me, you don’t want him to sink his fangs into you.”
“They’re mighty forgiving folks. What was his name before he arrived?”
“I heard sometimes about Thom…”
“Yeah.” Joe knitted his brows, dubious at Payton’s prompt reply. “I’m getting the feeling you know him?”
“No!” Payton answered curtly “I don’t. I was just curious, you calling him a half boss and all.”
“Ah that! I’m still uneasy about taking orders from him.”
“I got that impression today.”
“Yeah, well, promise you’ll keep this under your hat, kid. Despite all I love my job. It pays well.”
“Don’t I know it. Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”
Joe clapped Payton on the back. “You wanna go into town and grab a beer? It’s on me!”
“Thanks but I have to get ready for my date.” He straddled his mount. “Guess we’ll see each other again.”
“If the Barkleys land the deal, I guarantee it. Later Payton!”
Payton tipped his hat and kicked his horse at a full gallop.
In town, Jarrod was in his office drinking whiskey with Al Brandon, the chain store owner. He nurtured the conversation, questioning Brandon about his business dealings and occasionally refreshing his drink in order to keep him focused on his thoughts and not on the clock. It was still early but nevertheless Jarrod was starting to entertain a few qualms.
“He’d been late with the deliveries for the second time in a month. I will overlook it once but not twice. So I fired him on the spot.”
“I bet that made his day.”
“I want results, Barkley. I can’t afford mistakes or delays. I pay my suppliers top price to have the deliveries on time.”
A knock on the office door intrigued Jarrod as to the identity of this late visitor. “Come in.”
“Your order is ready, Mister Brandon,” Heath happily informed.
“It’s not nearly five o’clock yet.”
“I know Jarrod.” Heath stood with a broad grin across his face.
“Well, let’s go see.” Brandon swigged down his glass, stood from his chair and crossed to the door.
Heath waited for Jarrod to put on his jacket before exiting the office with him.
Nick had suggested to the men accompanying them to mosey along to the saloon while he waited for Heath to return with their potential client. It was a ploy to get them to leave him alone to thus avoid the customary ribbing regarding his anxiety habits. Nick was on tenterhooks, wringing his clammy hands and nervously striding up and down the boardwalk.
As he saw Brandon and his brothers come down the steps, he straightened up his oilskin leather vest, raked his hair back and took a deep breath.
“It’s all there, Mister Brandon,” Heath indicated with a motion of the hand towards both buckboards.
Brandon assumed his best imperious businessman stance: he puffed out his chest, stuck out his chin, pursed his lips and knitted his eyebrows as he began inspecting the cargo. He picked out a peach, rubbed the fuzz off the skin and sank his teeth into the fruit. All three brothers stood close to each other, holding their breath and quaking in their boots in anticipation of the man’s verdict. Brandon took another bite, chewing carefully. His eyes swivelled back and forth as he savoured of the sweet nectar. He looked at the three brothers, staring at him expectantly.
“Barkley, let’s go up to your office and sign that contract.”
Nick was the first to bounced down the footpath and wring the man’s hand. “Thank you Mister Brandon. You won’t regret it.”
“I’d better not, Barkley. Now let’s get those signatures out of the way and stow that commodity in a safe place before I treat you all to a round of drinks.”
“Sounds great!” Heath exclaimed.
The three brothers gave each other a congratulatory elbow on the side before following Brandon up to Jarrod’s office.
Before supper in the Barkley household, corks popped and champagne fizzled out of the bottle as the family celebrated the successfully transacted deal.
After filling up the glasses and passing them around to the company present, Nick raised his in a toast. “Here’s to the biggest, most important deal the ranch has landed in the last fifteen odd years, thanks to brother Jarrod who convinved this man to give us a shot, and to Heath and Frank for whipping their teams into shape. Couldn’t have done it without you, guys!”
They all clung glasses and took sips. The drone of blending voices drowned the knock at the door, which would have remained unanswered had it not been for Silas returning to the kitchen. He walked to the door and invited dashingly dressed Payton in.
He removed his hat as he was being ushered by the butler into the living room. The family interrupted their lively conversation to congratulate the boy on a job well done. Audra draped her arm over Payton’s and led him further into the livingroom. “I don’t believe you know everyone? This is my mother, my brother Jarrod, brother Nick and of course you’ve met my brother Heath?”
“Yes, of course,” Payton muttered peevishly. He deliberately extended his arm to shake Heath’s hand so to stare him in the face, hoping to elicit a reaction. Heath never saw past the hard working hand that helped the family clench the deal, which enraged Payton. He corked up his vials of wrath he deemed preferable under the present circumstances. He wanted to await the proper moment to pour them out over the man he held liable for his brother’s death.
Payton turned to Audra. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes. Just let me get my shawl.” She rounded the corner to the parlor where her shawl was draped over the back of the settee.
“Don’t stay out to late. You’ve got your work cut out for you tomorrow,” Nick warned the seemingly sheepish man who was seen fidgeting with the rim of his hat.
“I won’t sir, Mister Barkley.”
Audra wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and tucked her arm in her suitor’s. “I’m ready.”
Payton cast a swift glance at Heath before he put on his hat and ushered Audra out the door.
Payton’s leer left Heath with a stinging sensation in his spine. He took a sip of champagne and absently twirled the glass between his fingers as he summoned his memory of his past acquaintances, rapidly thumbing through the recent list. He couldn’t shake the feeling he’d seen that kid before today. He sighed heavily and shrugged it off before re-engaging in the conversation.
Three days later at the crack of dawn, Nick and Heath headed to the horse paddock to break some stallions before riding out to the orchards to lend a hand in filling out another large order for Brandon.
Nick strode out of the house through the kitchen door, spurs jingling as he stomped towards the corral while slipping on his gloves. Heath was seen hurrying out the door, a biscuit clenched between his teeth. He closed the door and hurried after Nick.
“What held you up?”
“Grabbed another biscuit. My stomach’s growling.”
“We’ll get a hearty breakfast once we break those two stallions.”
“I get the first one.”
“Fine with me.”
Nick leaned against the fence to prepare to admire his young sibling in action. Heath stuffed the last morsel of biscuit in his mouth and gagged. Nick slapped him on the back. Heath coughed out the piece stuck in his throat and drew in a deep breath. “You okay there Little Brother?”
Heath nodded. “Fine,” he croaked between coughs.
“Don’t you go choking to death on me. I need my partner to share in the workload.”
“Thanks. And here I thought you were concerned about my health,” Heath joshed, elbowing Nick playfully in the side.
“Arrrrrg,” Nick growled, grabbing Heath by the belt to give him a friendly hoist up the fence. “Go on! Get out there and show me your style.”
Heath straddled the fence, tipped his hat and jumped down in the corral.
Up on the hill facing the horse paddock, crouching behind thick foliage in a spot that allowed a clear view of the corral below, was Payton with a rifle in hand, his finger on the trigger. Unbeknownst to Audra, she’d been his fountain of information regarding the daily activities of his brothers, particularly Heath’s. Payton had been posted there for over an hour, patiently waiting for his prey to come out in the open.
He aimed at the moving figure, licking his lips and swallowing hard to steady his nerves so not to miss.
The barrel of the rifle glinted in the sun, a spark that Nick was quick to notice below. “Heath, get down!” he yelled but all too late. Payton fired one shot, hitting his target who swirled around on his heel before falling backwards.
No time to wallow in triumph, he had to scamper off, knowing full well the men would be swarming the spot in no time. He took to his heel toward his horse tethered to a tree a couple of feet down the hill. He flung his rifle into the holster, leapt on his horse’s back and spurred him at full gallop a few miles down the road leading up to the ranch.
“Heath!” Nick shouted, frantically hurdling the fence and bolting to his injured brother writhing in pain on the ground, his right hand clasping his bleeding left arm.
“Heath, let me see.” Nick knelt down beside Heath and clawed at his brother’s hand to peel his bloody fingers off the wound. He glanced up the hill as he rolled up Heath’s sleeve to better examine the extend of the injury. “The shot came from above. Clay, you John and Paul hightail up there. Get that son of a bitch!”
“Sure thing boss.”
The three men dashed over to their horses.
“Hoyt, ride into town and get Doc Merar.”
“Right away Nick.”
Nick untied his neck cloth and began to dab at the excess blood to locate an exit wound. He slowly turned Heath’s arm to peer at the back and sighed with relief at the tiny bullet hole. “The bullet went clean through.”
“Great,” Heath gasped.
Nick made a makeshift bandage with Heath’s neck cloth. He bound up the wound to stop the bleeding. “Come on, let’s get you inside.” Nick slipped his hand behind Heath’s neck and pulled him toward his chest. He slung Heath’s right arm around his neck and wrapped his arm around his waist to scoop him up. “Lean on me.”
Heath winced in pain. “I’m okay Nick.”
“Sure you are,” he answered tersely, paying no mind to his brother’s words as he focused to get him safe into the house.
They enter through the kitchen door. “Silas, get mother to come up to Heath’s room.”
“Yes Mister Nick.” Nick hurried out the kitchen and to the parlor, while Nick helped Heath up the back stairs to his bedroom.
“Do you think he was aiming for me?” Heath asked as Nick was easing him down on his bed.
“I don’t know.” Nick replied, removing Heath’s boots. “But we’ll find out once our men nab him.”
Minutes later, Payton heard the distant thud of hooves drawing closer. He cracked a sneer before crouching beside his horse and pretended to examine his leg.
Clay reined in his horse next to Payton. “Hey kid, what’s the matter?”
“My horse threw me when he heard the shot. I think he might have cast a shoe.”
“Did you see anyone ride through here?”
“As a matter of fact I did,” he affected convincingly. “He outstripped the wind past me, heading that way,” he pointed in the direction.
“Thanks.” Clay beckoned John and Paul to follow him.
“You’re welcomed, boys.” Payton smiled with malicious glee.
Later, Payton casually rode in the deserted barnyard and tethered his horse to the hitching post. His face lit up with triumph, knowing that the reason for the hands’ absence was the tragedy that had befallen the Barkleys. It was safe to ascertain that they were all inside supporting the grieving family in their moment of sorrow.
He stepped up to a fellow worker who was seen coming out of the barn. “Where is everybody?” he asked, a bit short-winded.
“Payton! Why are out of breath?”
“My horse threw a shoe when we heard a gun shot. So I walked,” he fibbed with conviction. “Where did that shot come from?”
“From here. Somebody shot Heath.”
Payton acted shocked. “Is he dead?” he asked with feigned concern.
“No. Luckily the bullet got him in the arm. The kid should be alright.”
“That’s good news.” Payton toiled to conceal his deception. The rage was consuming him, eating away at his mask of innocence. He had to make due on his promise to his brother to avenge his death before his volcanic anger exposed him for who is really was. Heath Barkley had to die but he couldn’t afford another mistake and risk getting caught. So he figured the second best way to strike him down was through his Achilles’ heel: his sister Audra.
Nick hurried back to Heath’s room to bring Victoria towels and hand cloths as she hastened to stem the haemorrhage. She removed the blood-drenched cloth, threw it into the washbowl and quickly swathed her son’s arm with a fresh one, heedful to keep pressure on it.
“What happened?” Nick asked, somewhat disturbed by his brother’s stillness and pallor.
“He’s unconscious. He’s lost too much blood.”
“Is the blood still gushing out?” Nick asked worriedly as he knelt down beside his mother to relieve her at applying pressure on the wound.
“It’s more of a trickle.”
“That means the bullet didn’t sever an artery,” he sighed with relief.
“It’s a huge hole, Nick.”
“I know. High-calibre gun. Must have been a rifle.”
“Who could have done this? And in our own yard?” she deplored with a bemused shake of the head as she stroked Heath’s cheek.
“I sent some of our men on his tail. They’ll nab him.”
Silas entered the room with a jug of cold water that he set on the dresser. “Mister Nick, there are men in the foyer waiting for news on Mister Heath.”
“Alright. Them tell I’ll be right down.”
“Sure thing Mister Nick. Mrs. Barkley, is there anything more you need?”
“Perhaps another washbowl to pour in the fresh water.”
“Do you wish me to clean this one?” he asked, pointing to the basin filled with soiled cloths.
“Leave it for now. Thank you.”
Silas crossed to the door and glanced back to see mother and son hazarding a peek at the wound.
“Seems the bleeding has finally stopped, Mother.”
She held a hand to her heart before reaching for another clean hand cloth. “Go informed the hands that Heath will be okay.”
“Alright.” He stood up and watched his mother apply a new cloth onto the wound. He bent down and tapped her on the shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Nick plodded down the stairs to the five men anxiously waiting, including Payton.
“Nick, how’s Heath doing?”
“The bleeding stopped. He should be alright.”
A chorus of sighs of relief filled the air.
“We’re waiting for the doc to tell us when he’ll be fit to bust those stallions.”
“Speaking of which, Nick…”
“Hold on to them for now. I’m sure Heath’ll want to break them himself.”
“Sure.” The man tapped Nick on the shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. “Take care of that brother of yours.”
As the men exited the house, Nick noticed Payton lagging behind. “Hey Wells! What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be peach picking this morning?”
“I was on my way there when about two miles down the road I heard a shot. Spooked my horse. I thought someone was gunning for me. Came here to fix my horse’s shoe.”
“Is it alright now?”
“Eldon’s putting a new one on right now. When I heard about Heath I came here to get some news.”
Nick thrust his fists on his hips and eyed Payton suspiciously when a gnawing feeling suddenly crept over him. “Yeah, well, he’ll be alright. Best head on down to the orchard. The men’ll be waiting for you.”
John bumped into Payton as he entered. He held him by the shoulders to steady him. “Sorry about that, kid.”
“John, where is he?” Nick asked with expectancy.
“Sorry Nick, we lost him,” John said, eyes downcast, removing his hat sheepishly as he awaited Nick’s vials of wrath to pour over him.
“Dammit!” Nick spewed between clenched teeth, thudding his heel against the floor.
In the back, Payton smiled inwardly and stuck out his chin in triumph.
John turned to Payton. “The kid saw him.”
Payton gulped as Nick stamped over to him. “You saw him?”
“I just…just saw a rider whizzed past me,” he stammered, wiltering under Nick’s fierce gaze. “He was riding a blood bay with a blaze. I think he had dark hair and was wearing a tan shirt and a black leather vest. That’s all I could make out.”
“I don’t think it’s one of our men.”
“It better not be!” Nick barked, his anger simmering. “Alright, you go on back to work. I’ll notify the sheriff.”
“I’ll make it.”
As John and Payton headed out the door, Hoyt ushered Dr. Merar in.
“Doc, thank God you’re here.”
“Hoyt told me what happened to Heath. Is he conscious?”
“He was when I first brought him up to his room. A while later he went out like a light. He’s looking awfully pale.”
The doctor quickened the pace up the stairs ahead of Nick who stayed behind to assure Hoyt that things were under control and to resume work. He then strode up the stairs to Heath’s room.
Payton made his way to the barnyard where Elton was hammering the last nail into a horse’s hoof.
“Hey Payton! I checked your horse’s hooves. Ain’t nothing wrong with them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep! Examined the legs too. No scatch marks, no bruises. He’s fine.”
“My mistake. I didn’t want to take any chances after he threw me. He appeared to be limping.” Payton ran his hand down his horse’s front leg with a feigned concern.
“Thanks anyway, Elton.”
“No problem.” He threw the hammer aside and took a hold of the horse’s halter to steer him into the corral. “Come on Pat, let’s try on those new shoes.”
Payton patted his horse’s neck as he watched Elton with a complacent grin.
Meanwhile in Heath’s room, Victoria and Nick were standing side by side, anxiously looking on as Dr. Merar examined Heath’s arm.
“First I’ll need to disinfect the wound before infection sets in. Then after closing it up, I will have to give him a blood transfusion.” He ran his hand across Heath’s forehead and cheeks. “He’s extremely weak but the good news is that he doesn’t appear to have a fever.”
Victoria heaved a silent sigh of relief. She clutched her heart with one hand while she clasped Nick’s with the other, giving it a grateful squeeze.
Dr. Merar gingerly peeled the rest of the cloth off the arm and threw it in the washbowl. He felt the swollen area around the trauma, hoping to elicit some response from his patient, but Heath remained motionless. He walked over to the dresser to wash his hands in the basin of fresh water. “Victoria, I’m going to need you to boil lots of water and bring additional towels and hand cloths.”
“Of course, Howard. Anything else?”
“Maybe dispose of the dirty rags and rinse the bowl. I may need it if the wound starts oozing blood when I suture it.
“Right away.” Victoria picked up the bowl and walked out of the room
Nick stepped up to the doctor with a nervous gait. “Doc, anything I can do?”
“Yes, I’d like another basin to sterilize my instruments.”
“I’ll get it.” Nick hurried out the door and down to his room to borrow the washbowl on his dresser.
Victoria was halfway down the stairs when Audra caught up with her. Her eyes widened in horror at the sight of the blood-drenched rags. “Mother, is that blood?” she gulped, steeling herself for the inevitable answer.
“Yes. Heath was hot.” Victoria informed grimly. Before Audra could run back up the stairs, she hooked her arm. “Don’t Audra! The doctor’s with your brother right now.”
“How is he?”
“He’s unconscious. He’s lost a lot of blood, but Dr. Merar seems to think there’s no cause for alarm. The bullet doesn’t appear to have done any serious damage to his arm.”
“Yes. Would you be so kind and help me in the kitchen. We need to boil some water.”