Leaning against the weathered boards of the depot, the hat was pulled over the man’s eyes, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt. Looking at the young man, one would never think he was capable of lightning fast reflexes. Looking at his gun, one could see the exceptional care his hands treated the cold steel to. If one saw the eyes, hidden under the hat, you would see the coldness in them.
The coldness coming from years of violence, years of training and years of survival. Rarely had anyone seen laughter in them or a light of love. At least, not most people. Only his close friends saw that, in his mind only they warranted that display of affection.
Hearing the whistle of the oncoming train, he straightened and the sun glistened off the metal pinned to his vest. Looking closer, the words Marshal were etched into it.
Taking off his hat, he ran his fingers through the almost shoulder length hair and replaced the stetson. Rolling his head around on his shoulders, he worked on alleviating the kinks built up from lack of sleep. ‘Need to get a haircut one o’ these days.’
The brakes of the train squealed and the steam was let loose as it slowed coming into the station. The conductor jumped down before the iron beast stopped completely, carrying a small wooden base, he placed it under the steps of the passenger car.
Seeing the badge on the man’s chest, the conductor gestured for him to follow. Stepping down off the platform, the man’s walk was as lithe as a mountain lion. His muscles rippling beneath his blue shirt, his tan jeans conformed to his body.
Reaching the caboose, he climbed the stairs and opened the door.
“Boy howdy, Frank! Can’t Spanish Creek afford for you to ride in the passenger car?” teased the Marshal, shaking the hand of the Sheriff.
“Great to see you boy! Your package was scaring the passengers.” replied Frank, returning the handshake, indicating to the man handcuffed to the chair on the side of the car.
The prisoner glared at the two lawmen and cursed them. His black hair falling in his eyes as he shook the chair he was chained to. His words and actions ignored by the two old friends while the Marshal signed the release papers.
Handing over the key, Frank clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “Make sure you stop in on your way back. Theresa and the kids would love to see you again.”
“I’ll see what I can do about that.” grinned the Marshal stepping over to the prisoner.
“Luke Croker, this is Marshal Heath Thomson.”
Looking down at the man and staring into his black eyes, the marshal informed him in a cold voice, “You can go sitting or laying across the saddle all the way to Stockton. Don’t matter much to me. I only have to get you there to stand trial for that rancher’s murder a few years back. No one said what shape you had to be in when you arrive.”
Nodding slightly, Croker realized the futility of causing problems now. It was a long way to Stockton from Carson City. All he had to do was wait, a circumstance would surely present itself.
Jerking Croker to his feet, Heath pushed the man ahead of him through the door of the caboose, watching as he descended the metal stairs. Landing lightly on the balls of his feet beside his prisoner, he held onto his arm with his left hand and led him to the horses tied to the hitching rail.
Helping the man into the saddle, Heath tied his hands to the saddle horn, grabbed the lead rope and led the way out of town. Croker’s eyes burned a hole in the back of the lawman riding in front of him.
“You’ll never get the chance Croker.”
“What chance lawman?” snarled Croker.
Heath firmly replied, “The chance to put a bullet in my back.”
Grunting, Croker kept working at the leather bindings on his handcuffed hands. His efforts only caused a strain on his wrists from the tightening of the leather bonds.
Releasing a sigh of agitation, the prisoner stopped his movement and resigned to resting in the saddle. His eyes watching the trail around them, his face frowning deeper as the day wore on.
Marshal Thomson didn’t stop until night had fallen, the darkness fell around the two riders and the moonlight graced their faces. Wanting to put as much distance between him and the railroad, he had pushed the horses and himself on further. His eyes constantly moving under his hat, his gun never far from his hand.
He was on this detail cause he had drawn the short straw. Nobody in their right mind would want to be responsible for this prisoner all the way to Stockton. Luke Croker, cold blooded killer, deadly with a rifle or pistol was brother to none other than John Fremont.
Fremont was worse than Croker, he killed whenever he felt like it, no one was safe from that waste of humanity. He was as elusive as a rainbow, slippery than an eel and he placed great stock in his family, only the lord up above knew why.
Knowing his brother was in shackles and headed to Stockton, it was almost certain Fremont would try to stop the law from delivering him to what was to be a hanging death sentence, if he was found guilty.
Having hauled a few prisoners over the years, Marshal Thomson took no chances and asked no quarters from anyone. Purposely, he avoided the railroad, the fastest mode of transportation to Stockton.
Riding on horseback would not be a picnic but at least he’d be doing it on familiar ground. Having grown up in Strawberry, which lay halfway between Carson City and Stockton, he knew the back trails to take.
Thinking of Strawberry caused an ache deep within his heart. It was the place of his birth, the place where his mama lay in her eternal sleep. The woman who raised him with the help of two friends, without a father to assist her and guide him.
Growing up labeled a bastard was a life he’d never want any child to be subjected to. He hadn’t been back there since her death five years ago. Laying her in the ground beside Rachel and Hannah had been his last act of love for his mama.
If it hadn’t been for Frank Sawyer and his offer of a deputy’s job, he may have been the man the law was dragging to trial. After the war, he was wild and angry, looking for anyone to take him on and hopefully take him out of this life. Carterson had sure messed with him as a boy and it had taken the guidance and caring of tough Frank Sawyer to set him on the path of justice, help him find a reason to keep living and functioning in the somewhat civil world.
Pulling off the trail, he climbed down and tied the horses to some bushes. Stretching his back, he walked over to the horse, dodging the boot aimed at his face.
Untying the leather, he grabbed the prisoner and threw him over his head onto the ground. Stunned, Croker gasped for air while the irritated lawman stood by hands on his narrow hips.
Picking up the prone man, the lawman dragged him away from the campsite waiting in the bright moonlight while the call of nature was answered. Escorting him back, the prisoner stared at the piece of jerky thrust into his hands.
“Jerky! What about coffee and some real food?”
“Jerky and water’s all we got.” informed the lawman coldly sitting across the clearing, watching the prisoner carefully. “Don’t matter to me if you don’t drink or eat on this trip.”
Cursing loudly, Croker’s hate and anger was simmering waiting to be released. Mumbling about killing all the lawmen, his jaws chewed methodically on the piece of cured meat. Taking a healthy swig of water, his hunger was not even close to being quenched from the supper ration.
“Can’t you get a rabbit or something!” shouted Croker. “I’m starving!”
“Shut up or I’ll break your jaw!” growled Heath lashing the cursing man tightly to a tree. “Night!”
His head pillowed on his saddle, he pulled out his pistol and held it in his hand while sleep came quickly.
Ten days later, Nick Barkley strode purposely down the boardwalk, his spurs twinkling out a lively tune from his footsteps and entered the office of Sheriff Maden. Closing the door behind him, he called out at the empty desk. “Fred, you here?”
“Coming, Nick.” yelled the sheriff from the holding area. Smiling to himself, Fred shook his head and thought, ‘Thought he’d be here at sunrise.’
Walking into the outer office, he poured both of them a cup of coffee. Handing one to Nick, he sat in his chair and took a sip. “What’s on your mind, Nick?”
“WHAT’S ON MY MIND?” asked Nick incredulously. “YOU KNOW WHAT I’M HERE FOR!”
“Uh huh. Where’s Jarrod?” inquired the sheriff calmly.
“He’s on his way, Fred.” sighed Nick. “Where’s the murdering snake?”
Jarrod opened the door and walked in, interrupting the response. “Morning, Fred. Got another cup?”
Tossing a tin mug to the lawyer, Fred smiled inwardly at the differences between the two men.
Jarrod, the attorney and eldest son, seemingly unruffled by the pressures around him. His suave, sophisticated manner hid the cowboy that lay beneath his skin. He was at home in a court room as he was on the range of the family ranch. He could be as explosive as his younger brother, but managed to keep a tight rein on his inherited temper.
Nick, younger by four years, always seemed to be a volcano, the explosion constantly simmering beneath the surface. When he let go, watch out! Nick could be dashing and sophisticated but preferred to leave that to his older brother. He ran the Barkley ranch and other investments with experience and an iron fist. Never asking anyone on his payroll roster to do what he himself wouldn’t do.
“How’s your mother?” inquired Fred seeing the tension flowing in Nick.
“She’s well, Fred.” grinned Jarrod winking at their old friend, enjoying the tormenting of his younger brother.
Pacing the room, Nick waited impatiently. “Is he here yet?”
“Not yet, Nick.”
Nick slapped his gloves against his black jeans, his pacing continuing and his face darkening. “Do you know when he’ll show up?”
“Like I told ya’ before Nick, sometime today. At least that was the estimation of Frank Sawyer, the sheriff in Spanish Creek. That’s what he said in his letter.”
Realizing he may have to wait the whole day for a glimpse of the man who stole his Father away three years earlier, Nick’s pacing stopped and he perched himself on the edge of the desk. Sighing, he ran his hand over his face and nodded. “Guess I’d better get back out to the ranch.”
Walking outside, Fred stood talking to the brothers, his words ceasing at the sight of the two men coming towards them. “Looks like them coming now.”
Turning, Jarrod and Nick watched the riders coming up the street. From this distance, the exhaustion could be seen on the horses and men.
Seeing the sign indicating the Sheriff’s office, Marshal Thomson turned his stallion towards his fellow lawman. Dust covered the clothing of the two men, their eyes red and rimmed from lack of sleep. Stubble on their faces, the star on his chest dulled with dirt and grime.
“Sheriff Maden. Marshal Heath Thomson. Got a minorly bruised prisoner for ya’.” informed the weary man as he dismounted and stumbled slightly.
Tying off the horses, he undid the bindings and dragged the prisoner from the top of his horse. Croker’s legs gave out under him, numb from the hours upon hours of riding in the saddle, muscles complaining from lack of use.
“Get up, Croker.” growled Heath. “I ain’t carrying your worthless ass.”
“You’re a sonofabitch, Thomson. You’re also a dead man!” shouted Croker from his knelt position, a blackened eye and split lip clear for all to see.
“You had your shot and missed. Now walk.” chuckled the Marshal dryly, the words accented with a not so kind jerk on the man’s handcuffed limbs, propelling the prisoner onto his wobbly legs. Heath followed the Sheriff into the building, stopping just inside at the request of the suited man.
Turning, he pushed his hat brim up and looked at the two men. Nick and Jarrod’s words were cut off in their throats from the familiar blue eyes looking back at them. The face, a replica of their Uncle Jim in his younger wilder days.
“Something you want, boys.”
Jarrod recovered his bearings and held out his hand, “I’m Jarrod Barkley and this is my brother, Nick. We want to thank you for bringing this man to Stockton, Marshal Thomson. He will be going on trial for the murder of our Father, Thomas Barkley.”
Taking the outstretched hand in a strong clasp, the Marshal nodded and yanked the prisoner along towards the holding cell. Jarrod and Nick glanced at each other and walked to the inner doorway.
“Croker, if you so much as move a muscle while I’m taking off these cuffs, I’ll break your wrists. I’m not in the mood for any of your games.”
Leaning his head against the cold metal bars, hands held out through the bars, the prisoner snorted, “Hurry up so I can get some sleep and a decent meal. There should be a law against how you treat prisoners.”
“It’s your own fault, Croker. You get what you get when you break the law.” smirked the Marshal freeing the encased wrists. “Sheriff, Croker here loves jerky and water only.”
Grabbing the bars of the cell, Croker cursed wildly, his freed hands reaching for the dusty marshal. Following the marshal out into the office, Fred signed the release papers.
“Where’s the doctor’s office, Sheriff?” asked Heath quietly.
“It’s the building down the street with the blue trim. Does the prisoner need to see him?” asked Fred.
“No, Croker put a knife in me. I need him to check it out.” gruffed Heath putting the release paper in his pocket and shaking the sheriff’s hand. “I’ll be back later. My orders are to stay and assist you until the trial’s over.”
“Be glad for your help, Marshal.” admitted Fred fully aware of the prisoner’s not so friendly family.
“Marshal, I’ll show you the doc’s office.” offered Nick looking sideways at Jarrod, catching his questioning look. “It’s on my way outta town.”
“Thanks, Mr. Barkley.”
Jarrod followed the two men onto the boardwalk watching as they went to their horses. Marshal Thomson dusted his clothes off with his hat, slowly pulled himself into the saddle and rode beside Nick down the street to Dr. Merar’s office. Turning on his heel, Jarrod walked to the telegraph office and entered.
Nick directed the Marshal to the building, received a quiet word of thanks from the man before he dismounted and entered. Nick sat on Coco contemplating what to do next, the lawman’s face flashing in his mind.
The blonde hair and shape of face were not hard to miss to another Barkley. It was a strong trait in those family members who inherited more of the Barkley genes. It had been unmistakable in his Father, his Uncle Jim and Audra.
Those eyes! Nick knew he would never forget what those eyes looked like - those were his father’s eyes.
Nudging Coco, he headed back up the street and stopped in front of Jarrod’s law office. Greeting the secretary, he opened the door and closed it behind him.
Returning to the office, Jarrod looked over at his brother, sitting in a chair deep in thought, a frown his only show of expression.
“Nick, I sent a wire to Uncle Jim. If Father, uh, had any other acquaintances, well, he’d know about them.” stammered Jarrod unsure of his brother’s volatile temperament.
Snorting, Nick looked up. “Hell, Jarrod. I already know Father was no saint. With that long hair, all we have to do is put a dress on him and the Marshal would be Audra’s twin. What more proof do you need?”
Jarrod leaned over the desk and stared intently at his brother, his words laced with anger, “You know Father was no saint! How do you know that, Nick? Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me!”
Dr. Howard Merar had been Stockton’s town physician for almost twenty years. In those years, he and his wife, Helen were considered family to a lot of citizens in the area. Never having been fortunate enough to have children of their own, the Merar’s liked to think of all the children in Stockton as theirs in some small way.
Victoria and Tom Barkley had been the first to welcome the Merar’s into the area. Over the years, the couples remained steadfast in their friendship with each other, spending a lot of time together at each other’s residences, meeting each other’s extended families on the holidays.
He’d set a lot of bones, taken out a lot of bullets, stitched a lot of wounds, seen the violence people were capable of towards each other and delivered a lot of babies in the span of his career here. He’d seen a lot, therefore, it took a lot to shock him.
When the unknown lawman entered the building, took off his hat and shirt as requested, Howard stared into the face of a Barkley sitting on his examination table. The blue eyes looked at the physician staring at him.
“Something wrong, Dr. Merar.” stated Heath breaking the silence.
The words shook Howard out of his state of wonder. “Sorry, Marshal. You just look so familiar, that’s all.”
“I’ve been called lots of things – familiar ain’t one of them.” His sarcastic comment earning him a quick grin from the physician.
Stepping over to the table, Howard examined the jagged knife wound in the front of the muscled left shoulder. Walking around to examine the back, he sucked in his breath from the crisscross of scars across the tanned back. To the trained physician’s eye, he knew the savagery needed to create wounds of this type.
At the physician’s intake of air, Heath unconsciously tensed. He had lived with the scars for a long time, sometimes he was even able to forget they were there, but someone or something always brought it back to the forefront of his mind. The Marshal concentrated on suppressing his groans of pain from the physician’s probing fingers.
“How many days ago did this happen?”
“How did you clean it out?” asked Howard opening a bottle of laudanum.
“Whiskey and soap. All I had on the trail.” shrugged Heath, eyes spying the bottle in the physician’s hand. “What’s that, doc?”
“Laudanum. I’m going to have to clean it thoroughly and you’ll need some stitches to keep the wound closed, otherwise, the healing process will be slowed down.” explained Howard.
“No pain killer, just sew it up and I’ll be on my way.”
Noting the whiteness around the Marshal’s lips, Howard sighed loudly in resignation at the stubbornness the man was exhibiting.
Stepping closer, he said quietly, “Marshal, you’ve lost blood, the wound shows a small amount of infection and you’re exhausted. I know you’re in pain, take the laudanum. It’ll help you get an uninterrupted rest.”
The lop-sided grin on his lips didn’t quite reach the blue sapphire eyes, “I can’t be twitter-brained by some medicine. Just stitch it, doc and I’ll handle the pain.”
Howard shook his head and prepared the tray, mumbling about stubbornness of the western man in general. Starting the cleansing, a sheen of sweat coated the face of his patient and the tanned face couldn’t hide the fast draining color, the hands gripping the edge of the table were turning white.
Glancing into the blue eyes, Howard saw the far away look and heard the quiet humming, almost in the form of a chant, coming from the man. Working quickly, the physician’s sure hands completed the task and wrapped a white bandage over the area.
“Marshal, I’m finished.” said Howard quietly, repeating his words a couple times. The humming abruptly stopped and the blue eyes blinked several times before he received a slight nod of acknowledgment. “Let’s get your shirt back on.”
Grabbing it, Howard helped the man dress, watching the shaky fingers work the small buttons. Taking deep breaths, Heath held onto the table after his feet hit the floor, closing his eyes to counter the spell of vertigo. Steadying himself, he paid the physician and thanked the man before heading out the door.
Taking care of his horses was the next priority for the morning and the lawman rode to the livery he spied on his way into town. Grabbing his saddlebags and rifle, the lawman walked up the street to the sheriff’s office.
Checking on Croker, he spoke with the sheriff and deputy for several minutes before checking into the hotel. Closing and locking the door behind him, Heath stumbled to the bed, asleep before his body hit the quilt.
“I’m asking you again, Nick! How do you know that?” grilled Jarrod, agitated at his brother’s hesitation in answering the question.
“I’M NOT ONE OF YOUR WITNESSES. STOP BADGERING ME!” shouted Nick angrily.
Taking a deep breath, Jarrod nodded and sat in his chair. Leaning backwards, he rubbed his forehead and waited for the forthcoming explanation.
Nick stood up and held onto the back of the chair. “Remember when Father ran into those rustlers up by the north line shack?”
Nodding, Jarrod leaned on his desk. “I remember, Nick. You found him and brought him home. We almost lost Father that time.”
“He was all feverish and talking out of his mind on the way back.”
Looking into the hazel eyes, Jarrod asked quietly, “What was he talking about?”
“Another woman. Her name was Leah.” said Nick quietly feeling the anger and repulsion rising up in him again from his Father’s lack of faithfulness and indiscretion.
“Jesus.” whispered Jarrod, his legal mind running through the implications of his Father’s act. “What else?”
Running his hand through his dark hair, Nick sat back down in the chair. “He talked about Mother too. How much he was sorry and guilty for what he’d done.”
Covering his face with his hands for several minutes, Jarrod looked over at his brother after he clasped his hands together and placed them on the desk. “Did you tell Father what he’d said during his fever?”
“Yeah, we had a huge fight over it when he was back on his feet. Father said she’d taken him in when he was injured and things got out of control. He left and sent a letter to her explaining everything. Telling her he had a family and he was sorry. Jarrod, he never went back to check on her. He couldn’t have known he left her with child.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s okay!” snapped Jarrod regretting his words as soon as they left his lips and the wounded look in his brother’s eyes appeared. “I’m sorry, Nick. I know you don’t condone those sorts of actions. I just can’t believe this is happening.”
“I know, Jarrod. What are we gonna do about it?” asked Nick unsure of the next step.
A grin flitted across his strong face, “The marshal sure don’t seem too friendly. I don’t know if I wanna be there when we tell him we’re fairly certain he’s our half brother.”
Chuckling, Jarrod agreed, “It does appear he may have inherited the famous Barkley temper, among other things.”
Getting up from his chair and looking out into the street, the man of their discussions was leaving the sheriff’s office. Jarrod watched him enter the hotel and turned back to his younger brother.
“I’d say the next step is to tell Mother before someone else does.”
Standing, Nick put on his hat. “No time like the present, Pappy.”
Walking outside, the two brothers mounted and headed back to the ranch. Their unspoken thoughts mirrored each other, their concerns over their Mother’s reaction the same.
It appeared they had another brother by a different mother. Both silently wondered, if true, how this man would change their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
Victoria rose at the opening of the front door, walked into the foyer and smiled widely, “What are you two doing here? This is a lovely surprise.”
Putting their hats and guns on the table, they kissed their mother and followed her into the parlor. Stopping on the outskirts of the ranch, the brothers had talked out their approach. Both concerned, knowing they were about to destroy their mother’s fond and loving remembrance of their father.
Jarrod glanced at Nick and said quietly, “Mother, a marshal brought in Luke Croker today.”
Nodding, Nick stated, “Two weeks til the trial and then it’ll be over, Mother.”
Victoria nodded, “Is this what you came home to tell me? I was here when Fred told us he’d probably be arriving today.”
“Mother, the man that brought him in, well..” paused Jarrod searching for the delicate words to break his mother’s heart.
Putting his elbows on his knees, Nick cleared his throat, “His name’s Marshal Heath Thomson, Mother.”
“Heath, that’s an unusual name.” said Victoria, her heart unexpectedly shuttered at the last name.
Sensing the underlying current flowing between her two sons, the hesitation, the guarded looks at each other, she inquired firmly, “What is it you’re not telling me?”
Jarrod looked into her eyes, “It’s not certain yet, Mother, but we felt we should warn you about something.”
“Warn me about what? Do you think Luke Croker may be found innocent of your father’s murder?”
“No! That’s not it, Mother.” assured Jarrod quickly. “There’s three eye witnesses and enough evidence to render a guilty verdict.”
“Mother, we think this Marshal Thomson, well, he could be our half brother.” blurted Nick foregoing softness with his usual directness.
Nick’s statement was greeted with a wide eyed stare from his Mother. Turning her head to Jarrod, he nodded his agreement to Nick’s statement. Closing her eyes, Victoria’s mind went back to the time her husband had disclosed his indiscretion to her.
The admission had stolen the trust between them, threatening the destruction of all they knew about each other, the sin erected a wall between the couple. It had taken years of working and rebuilding to regain the trust they had before his straying from their marriage vows.
Jarrod and Nick’s worried eyes never left the face of their mother. Her silence concerning them as it grew, her shaking body a sign of the emotional turmoil and shock.
Suddenly, her gray eyes looked outward at her sons. “Why do you think he’s your brother?”
Listening to the tale of the morning, Victoria sat back in her chair and let the news digest in her mind. She knew her two sons were puzzled by her reaction and she smiled slightly.
“I knew about your father’s indiscretion a long time ago. Nick, you would’ve been too young to remember the fights. It was right after Matthew died as a child. Jarrod, you might have heard our angry words.”
“It was your father’s and my error. We should have made sure the woman was not left with child. We didn’t. It was a very difficult time for both of us and especially, for me as a woman. Perhaps we didn’t consider want to consider the possibility of a child just so we could put the whole sordid time behind us and look ahead.”
“Perhaps, neither of us really wanted to know.” Standing, she looked into the empty fireplace for several minutes. Turning around, Victoria informed her sons, “Her name was Leah Thomson. I want to go to Stockton and see this man for myself.”
“Why don’t you let us handle it, Mother?” asked Jarrod, his blue eyes pleading. “We can see him and find out if he suspects anything, what he wants from the family.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a better idea.” agreed Nick rapidly.
Lifting her chin, Victoria’s voice rang through the lower level of the mansion, “You will either take me or I will ride in myself. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mother.” The deep voices stated in unison, defiance of this small woman was not tolerated in any fashion.
Victoria informed her sons she would meet them outside in a hour. Entering her bedroom, she sat heavily on the bed and stared at the picture of her husband smiling back at her. Picking up the item, she outlined his face with her finger and threw it across the room as tears escaped from her eyes.
“Tom, what am I supposed to do about this man, your son? What?”
Waking from a sound sleep, Heath looked around in confusion wincing from the pain in his shoulder. Remembering where he was, he took out his watch and opened the case. Only eight hours had passed since he collapsed on the bed. He felt as if he had slept for days.
Opening his saddlebags, he took out some clothes and headed to the water closet. Thirty minutes later, feeling refreshed and cleaner he returned to his room. Sitting at the table in his room, he spent extra time cleaning his weapons of all the dust and grim.
Wiping his badge, he belted on his gun, grabbed his rifle and headed down the stairs. Entering the desk clerk’s recommended restaurant just down the boardwalk from the sheriff’s office, he sat in the corner where he could watch the comings and goings. Habits engrained over years are hard to break. Self preservation forced him to act out the habits without thought.
He knew of too many men dying from bullets received in the back through an open window. In his line of business, there were plenty of criminals who would like the open target of his back.
The waitress placed his dinner before him and refilled his coffee cup. All of Stockton was whispering about the capture and return of Tom Barkley’s murderer. All of Stockton knew the trial was in two weeks. All of Stockton knew the family connections of the murderer and they waited with bated breath.
Normally, the young lady would have been surprised to see a marshal at one of her tables, but the gossips had already decreed why the man was there. Hoping to catch the eye of the good looking marshal, she walked away disappointed when he pointedly ignored her.
Heath Thomson knew the effect his looks held on some women. He liked women but never got involved when he was on a job or in a strange place. Back in Ely, Nevada where he was based, he had escorted some of the area’s most beautiful women to the socials. Never anything serious though. His work was too dangerous to get involved to that degree.
His high respect for the opposite sex, he surmised, came from being raised by three strong women. He would never put a woman in the position his mama had been forced in by the lack of a husband. Working before the sun rose to after the sunset, for pennies a day. Forced to struggle all her young life cause she loved her son above all else.
Heath shook his head, turned his thoughts away from the past and back to his current job and his dinner. Finishing the last of his coffee, he placed some money on the table and made his way to the door.
The sound of shots hastened his steps to the door. Opening it slightly, his eyes took in the men firing at the jail from across the street, hidden by boxes of freight in front of the general store. A stray bullet shattered the window of the restaurant, sending the other diners scampering on the floor for safety.
Movement caught his eye from a woman ducking behind a black carriage in the street only five yards from the sheriff’s office. Cursing, he judged the distance down the boardwalk. Opening the door, the marshal sprinted towards the innocent bystander.
Victoria’s shocked eyes stared at the younger version of her brother-in-law running towards her, a ray of sun glistened briefly off the badge on his chest.
Heath jumped and rolled to a spot beside the woman. Shouting, the men across the street turned their guns towards the new target.
Opening the carriage door, he looked down at her, “Ma’am, crawl up here and lay flat on the floor. NOW!”
The harsh tone of voice left no room for thinking, Victoria shimmied up and onto the floor of the carriage curling into a fetal position. The carriage door slammed behind her. Breathless, Victoria winced each time a bullet flew overhead. Cutting the reins with a sharp knife, Heath slapped the horses on the rump and let out a wild yell. The frightened horses lunged in their harnesses and pulled the carriage down the street.
Working the lever on his rifle, he sprayed the boxes across the street where the men were hiding, sending them further behind cover. Ducking behind a water trough, the marshal saw someone jump out and grab the horses of the runaway carriage.
Pushing bullets into the chamber of his rifle, Heath lay on his side in the dusty street. Looking at the buildings behind him, Heath spied the alleyway and called out. “John Freemont, you over there?”
“Who wants to know?” was the answering shout.
“Marshal Heath Thomson.”
“Out of your area, aren’t you Thomson!” yelled Freemont cursing at the sound of the marshal’s voice.
“I wasn’t expecting you so early. What’s your hurry?”
“Just give me my little brother!”
“I’ll trade him for you!” chuckled Heath after several bullets hit the water trough. “Is that a no?”
“I’m gonna kill you yet, Thomson.” bellowed Freemont, his face red with anger behind the crates.
Grabbing the shirt of his nephew, he snarled. “Why didn’t you tell me Thomson brought Luke here? That bastard’s crazy! If he wasn’t the law, he could be in our family!”
“We didn’t know who the marshal was, Uncle John.” whined his nephew, fear blazing in his eyes, the men around them shifted uncomfortably at the fury on their leader’s face, their eyes drawn away from across the street and at each other.
Taking a breath, Heath jumped up and dove into the alley four feet away. His back tensed for a bullet that never came. Running up the alley, he stacked a couple boxes and climbed onto the roof of the building next to the sheriff’s office. Taking off his hat, he looked over the edge of the roof and smiled.
Glancing upwards, John Freemont’s eyes widened and he swore loudly at the marshal’s advantage point. Jumping, he ran past the men and around the corner of the building towards the horses, bullets flying past and around him. Freemont spurred his horse into action and out of the town. Looking around at his men, he noticed three didn’t make it.
Climbing down from the roof, Heath ran across the street. His eyes catching sight of the fleeing mob’s dust. Running back to the front, he grabbed a horse and jumped in the saddle waving to the sheriff as he galloped by, leaning over the neck of the horse.
Jarrod and Nick watched their half brother gallop down the street after the fleeing criminals. They had been in the sheriff’s office when the shooting started, unable to get to their mother crouched behind the carriage.
Their half brother had unknowingly saved their mother’s life, the woman who was married to his father, the man he probably felt nothing but hatred for and rightly so.
“Com’on Jarrod!” shouted Nick rushing to Coco, taking off after the blonde. Jarrod jumped on Fred’s horse and followed, ignoring the shouts from the Sheriff.
Heath let the horse have full rein in his effort to catch up to the men who had a head start. Riding over the meadow grasses, the horse stumbled and pitched it’s rider over his head. Surprise flashed across the marshal’s face before he met the ground, rolling to a stop and laying still among the plush green carpet.
The horse climbed back on it’s feet, sides heaving, limping from the injured leg. Nuzzling the human with it’s nose, shook it’s head at the smell of blood and walked away a few steps.
Nick and Jarrod saw the standing horse and pulled to a stop. Jumping down, they knelt by the side of the still man. Jarrod ran his hands down the limbs and sighed with relief. “Nothing’s broken, Nick.”
Turning him over, they saw the cut on his forehead and the flowing blood. Holding a handkerchief on the wound, Nick put pressure on it to stop the flow of the red liquid. Heath moaned slightly and moved his head.
“Marshal Thomson!” called Jarrod. “Marshal!”
Nick watched the eyelids flutter, his gut twisting, waiting for the eyelids to open. Groaning, Heath pushed at the brick holding his head still. Feeling a hand, he tensed, his right hand was stopped as it reached for his gun. Striking out with his left fist, he pushed the hand off his head.
“Heath, it’s the Barkleys!” shouted Nick and Jarrod seeing the wildness in the now open blue eyes.
Stopping suddenly at the name, Heath put a hand on his forehead and rolled onto his side and slowly up onto his knees. Sitting back on his heels, he fought for control over his revolting stomach. Nick pushed the cloth back under the marshal’s hand and over the wound.
“Dammit!” growled Heath. “What are you doing here?”
Nick replied, “You’re lucky we’re the ones that found you.”
Glancing at the larger man, Heath nodded slightly regretting the move when it caused pain, “You’re right. Sorry about that, Mr. Barkley.”
Looking at the man who was his half brother, Nick grinned, “It’s a good thing you got a hard head.”
Laughing softly at the scowl from the blonde, Jarrod stood and held out his hand. Heath took the offered hand and the world spun around out of control when he was pulled to his feet. His legs went limp and his eyes closed on their own, unaware of the support his two brothers gave him, keeping him from falling onto the ground.
Putting an arm over their shoulders, Nick and Jarrod walked him to Coco. Lifting the unconscious man into the saddle, Jarrod held him while Nick climbed up behind him. Picking up the rifle and hat from the ground, Jarrod mounted and grabbed the reins of the injured horse.
Victoria and Fred watched the brothers coming up the street with the injured man. Billy ran down the street and returned with Dr. Merar. Handing him down, Fred and Jarrod carried him in and laid him on the cot in one of the cells, ignoring the joyful laughter coming from the prisoner across from them. Victoria stared at the face of the young man and looked into the compassionate eyes of Howard Merar.
Smiling gently at her, Howard wiped the blood and cleaned the wound. Stitching the wound, he wrapped a bandage around his head. Checking the pupils, he looked at the sheriff.
“Fred, he has a mild concussion. I’d leave you some laudanum for the headache he’ll have when he wakes again, but he won’t take it. This is some aspirin powder, mix this with water. Don’t tell him it’s medicine, just make him drink it.”
Nick and Jarrod looked at each other with curiosity while Howard closed his bag and left the cell with Victoria following.
“I’ll come back in a couple hours to check on him. Try to keep him on his back for a few days, if you can.” advised Howard walking to the outer office.
Stopping by her sons, Victoria whispered, “Let’s get rooms at the hotel for tonight. I want to see your brother in the morning when he wakes up.”