The three men watched the path that wound around behind the small hills to the north of them. While Nick, Heath and Charlie waited patiently for the signal from Steve up on the ridge that the wild horses were heading their way, Heath pulled his big bay gelding over closer to his brother and slapped him on the back.
"Hey Nick, do ya think ol' CoCo can keep up when we start chasin' them horses, he's not gettin' any younger ya know."
Charlie rolled his eyes and shook his head at the young man, thinking, 'everyone else runs when Nick starts yelling and stomping around but not Heath, oh no, he gets him going on purpose, then sits back and laughs at him.'
Heath dropped his hand to rest on his thigh while he waited for the explosion - it wasn't long in coming.
Nick looked over at his brother with a ferocious scowl that would have made a lesser man cringe and
shouted, "OL' COCO CAN KEEP UP WITH ANYTHING ON THIS RANCH AND DON'T YOU FORGET IT!" He leaned over to run his gloved hand down the liver chestnuts neck, his voice dropping to a croon, "why, ol' CoCo here's just in his prime, got a lot of good years left yet don't ya boy?"
Heath looked over at Charlie and gave a sly wink, "I thought he was twenty-three this year Nick?"
The voice rose again, "NEVER MIND HOW OLD HE IS ... SHOULDN'T YOU BE WATCHIN' FOR THAT SIGNAL?"
Heath pulled his hat lower to better shade his laughing blue eyes. Boy howdy, did he ever love having a
brother, he just wished they could have grown up together. But, like his Mama always said, 'there's
no sense wishin' for something that's gone.'
Nick's urgent words broke into his thoughts."There's the signal Heath. Charlie, you go to the left and Heath and I'll go right and we'll try and keep 'em from breaking off. If we can keep 'em runnin' straight they'll head right into that box canyon and we'll have 'em. Get ready, here they come now."
All three leaned forward in their saddles and shook out their lassos as the mustangs being chased by the
Barkley ranch hands came racing around an outcropping of rocks and careened past them in a cloud of dust.
"Let's go," Nick shouted over the sound of pounding hooves and frenzied whinnying as he spurred CoCo
to race alongside them.
The men fanned out along each side giving the horses no choice but to keep a straight path which sent them right into the small canyon Heath had picked out as a tailor made trap. The entrance was narrow enough that a wide gate had been rigged up and as the mustangs streamed into the enclosure, the Barkleys newest hand, young Billy Watkins, jumped out from behind the scrub brush where he had been hiding and slammed the gate shut with a triumphant shout.
"Wow, did ya see that?" Billy was fairly dancing with excitement as he approached Nick and Heath who had
pulled up hard outside the gate and were now dismounting. "I coulda reached out and touched 'em they was
so close!!" The light green eyes in the young boyish face were as big and round as saucers. Billy had lost his hat rushing to close the gate and his dark blond hair was sticking up at all angles and falling forward into his eyes.
He drew himself up, hooked his thumbs in his belt and tried to look older than his seventeen years as he nodded at the two older men and boasted confidently, "but I wasn't scared none, no sir, I just waited till they was all in, then I jumped up quick like and slammed that gate shut."
Heath looked over his horses neck, winked at his brother and tipped his head slightly to indicate Billy, whose statement would have carried more weight if he hadn't been visibly shaking from head to toe.
Heath thought back to the day three months before when he and Nick had been in town picking up supplies.
Coming out of the feed store bantering with Nick they had caught Billy stealing sacks of flour and sugar
from the wagon. Nick had grabbed the boy, cursing as Billy had pummelled his shins with booted feet and
struggled to get free. He was no match for an angry Nick Barkley though, who dragged him across the street to the sheriffs' office. Heath followed them inside as Nick shoved the boy into a chair in front of Sheriff Madden and loudly demanded he charge him with theft. Fred sat forward, resting his arms on the desk and frowning at the boy while Heath took up a position against the opposite wall where he could observe Billy. He didn't like what he saw, he guessed the boy to be about fifteen or sixteen but it was hard to tell he was so thin. He had on a pair of ragged faded blue dungarees that were two sizes too big on the smallish frame. They were rolled up a few times and nipped it at the thin waist with a piece of binder twine. The dirty brown shirt was ripped and torn in many places and both he and the shirt hadn't seen a wash in some time. Heath felt a sudden twisting in his stomach.
Fred glared at the boy from beneath lowered brows and stated, "you're that Watkins boy lives in that old
shack with your pa on the edge of town, aren't ya?"
Billy returned the glare with sullen eyes and refused to answer but Heath looked beyond the act of bravado and saw nothing but a scared and lonely boy, too young to be trying to make his own way in the world.
Nick's impatience grew as he stood beside Fred with his fists on his hips and snapped out, "ANSWER THE QUESTION BOY."
They all waited for the boy to speak, but no answer was forthcoming and Fred heaved a sigh, rose from his chair and came around to pull the boy up, "fine then, you can spend the night in a cell and see if that gets ya talkin'."
Heath watched Nick pace the small office for a moment then turned toward the other room , listening to the keys jangle in the cell door lock. It was the same sound he had heard every night for seven long months in
Carterson ... his stomach twisted again.
"Jail is no place for a boy."
He realized he had spoken out loud when Nick crossed to him and flung his arm in the air. "YOU WANT TO JUST LET HIM GO? HE WAS STEALING OUR SUPPLIES FOR CRYING OUT LOUD."
"I know that Nick, but there's got to be a better way."
His quiet voice brought a halt to the angry tirade and Nick made a disgusted sound and threw himself into
the seat in front of the desk as Fred came back into the room and eased his large frame into the creaking
swivel chair behind his battered desk.
Heath pushed away from the wall and came over to settle on the corner of the desk and Nick looked up at
him from beneath his hat when Heath cleared his throat and asked, "so what's gonna happen to him Sheriff?"
Madden let out a huge sigh, "look Heath, that kid's bad news. He's been stealing from all the shops in town
since he and his pa moved here two months ago but I've just never been able to catch him. He set Denby's
horses loose from the smithy and I don't know how many windows he's broken."
He glanced over at the dark haired cowboy slouched in the chair across from him and shrugged, "do ya want to charge him Nick? He's nearly seventeen, he'll serve some time and maybe that'll straighten him out."
Nick rubbed his black gloved hand over his chin and glanced up at Heath who was looking at Madden with
a frown, "what about his pa, can't he do anything?"
Fred gave a negative shake of his head and snorted in disgust, "his pa's a drunk. From what I hear any money he earns from doing odd jobs around town he spends on booze. The shopkeepers say he rarely buys food. That shack they live in is worse than a pig sty and I'm told the old man beats on the kid pretty regular. Maybe he'd be better off in jail."
Heath had picked up a pencil and was running it back and forth through his fingers. He looked up and pinned the sheriff with his steady gaze.
"What if someone took responsibility for him, would you let him go?"
Nick slammed his hands down on the arms of his chair and barked, "OH COME ON HEATH, DON'T
TELL ME YOU WANTA TAKE THIS KID ON!! WHY??"
Heath looked down at Nick's scowling face and his blue eyes begged his brother to understand, "I
know what it's like to be poor and I know what it's like to be a prisoner. Behind that tough exterior he's
showin' the world is nothin' but a scared kid. I can't let that happen to this boy when I can give him a
second chance ... please Nick."
Nick knew he shouldn't look at those eyes, knew what he would see, sadness, despair, hurt and that gentle
pleading that would be his undoing, but he did look and finally gave in with a wave of his hand as if to say, 'do what you will.'
Fred got up and went back to get the boy. When he brought him out he looked at Heath and said with a shrug, "I hope you know what you're doing Heath."
In the three months since then Billy's whole attitude had changed. Under Heath's gentle guidance
he had worked hard to become a better person. Oh, it had taken a few weeks and some angry outbursts
to figure out Heath just wanted to help him. Heath bought him new clothes, gave him a horse and gear
and worked with him whenever he could to teach him how to be a ranch hand. In turn, Billy idolized Heath,
and would do anything he asked of him. He was so grateful for this chance, for Heath's friendship, and
Nick found it secretly amusing to watch him following Heath everywhere. Why, the boy was even starting
to pick up some of Heath's mannerism's.
"Ya did a right fine job young Bill. Why that there was the most important part of this whole roundup,
ain't that right Nick?" Heath's eyes pleaded with his brother to say something nice to the boy.
Nick wasn't given to handing out compliments, but the kid was kinda growing on him and he knew Heath
was trying to build the boy up, so he looked over and gruffed out, "yeah, Heath's right there Billy. If ya
weren't quick gettin' that gate shut, why they'd of just turned around and pushed their way back out again
and we'd of wasted all day."
A faint flush colored the fair cheeks at this praise from the older of the two Barkley brothers. He liked Nick,
he was just a little in awe of him. The loud voice, gruff manner and the scowl that were often on his face
scared him a little, but Heath had said his brother was one of the best men he had ever known so that was
good enough reason for Billy to like him.
He reached out for both horses reins and asked, "would ya like me to take care of 'em for ya while ya look
over the mustangs?"
Heath handed over Chargers reins with a nod, "sure Billy, that'd be great. Give 'em a little drink at the
water hole there ok, ol' CoCo looks like he needs it."
Nick had finished loosening CoCos' girth to give him room to breath. The old horse was blowing like a freight train and stood with his head lowered in weariness.
Heath felt sorry for the animal. He had tried to talk his brother into retiring the old cutting horse a couple of times, but Nick was adamant that he could still do the work. Heath knew it was just because he couldn't bear to part with him, he had been given the horse for his thirteenth birthday and they had been a team ever since. It was hard to let go of something you loved and even though he would see him everyday, to Nick it wouldn't be the same. Heath was afraid the old horse was going to collapse under his brother one day and he wanted him to retire him before that happened.
As Billy walked away with the horses, the two brothers joined the rest of the men at the gate to look at what they had captured. Nick squeezed in beside Steve while Heath climbed up onto the fence alongside Rory and squinted his eyes at the horses milling about at the far end of the canyon about two hundred feet away from them. There was a glorious mix of colors, bay, brown, chestnut, grey, paint and a beautiful deep reddish brown Appaloosa with a snow white blanket across her rump that Heath would dearly love to add to their broodmare band.
He turned to Nick, "good lookin' bunch Nick, seems to be about thirty-three near as I can tell. Do ya wanta' cut out the ones we don't want here or wait till we get home?"
"We'll wait, I'd rather get them home where we can take a closer look, it's too hard to see here."
"All right, let's let them settle down a bit before we bring 'em out, our horses need a rest anyway." Heath
jumped down from the gate as Billy came over.
"Boy howdy Heath, ain't they beautiful, I've never seen wild horses before."
Nick let out a muffled laugh and thought, 'he's sounding more like Heath every day'.
Victoria took her seat as Jarrod held it for her before making his way to his place at the opposite end of the table. Audra, Nick and Heath were already seated and Nick was reaching for the platter of steaks when a quiet, 'ahem', arrested his hand in midair.
"Nick, we do not start until grace has been said, as you are in such a hurry, you may say it." She nodded
to her middle son, unfolded her napkin and placed it across her lap.
"Sorry Mother. Ummm ... thank you for this food, amen. Pass the steaks Jarrod."
Victoria raised her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head.
Jarrod looked over to his brothers as he passed them the steaks, "I see you two finally managed to catch
those wild mustangs. I saw them in the far corral as I came in tonight. When do you intend breaking them?"
Nick gave a shrug and waved his knife at Heath, "ask our little brother here, he's in charge of picking the ones we want and breakin' 'em. I'm just there to pick him up when he gets tossed." He gave the blue clad arm a playful nudge, a wide, teasing grin spreading across his face.
Heath's gaze fell on his brother and he countered mockingly, "I've picked you up outa the dust more times than I can count. Remember that black stallion ya bought when Vern Hickson came here? That horse musta thrown ya 'bout a dozen times. Ya never did get him broke, we had to sell him for half what we paid for him."
Audra's blonde hair fell forward to hide her face as she let out a giggle and Nick scowled across the table at her. "WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING ABOUT, LITTLE SISTER?"
Her head came up and her blue eyes danced merrily, "you should have seen yourself Nick, covered
in dirt, limping around, hair sticking up all over," she let another snicker escape.
The other three couldn't stifle their chuckles as Nick glared around the table at each of them before
attacking his steak with a grumble. Heath reached up, squeezed the back of his neck and gave him a little shake. Nick turned his head to scowl at him and Heath winked and smiled his lop-sided grin, silently asking forgiveness for the teasing.
His scowl melted away and a smile lit his eyes as Nick shrugged and muttered, "I guess it WAS
kinda funny." His good humor restored, he looked around the table and nodded knowingly, "we'll see how funny it is when little brother here is the one layin' in the dirt and limpin' around."
Jarrod addressed Heath with raised eyebrows and inquired, "so when is this show going to be?"
Heath thought for a minute before replying, "well, now we've got the fall cattle drive over with, we can take
a little extra time to decide if we wanta keep the yearlings in the bunch or let em go and pick em up again next year." He took his last bite of steak and pushed the plate away to lean his forearms on the table.
Nick did the same and added, "if we keep them, we have to feed them through winter and they can't be broke 'till next fall anyways. I say we let them go. What do ya think Heath?"
"That's what I thought. There's a dozen good two and three year olds out there and a couple of nice broodmares we can keep, the rest we'll let go. We can start breakin' 'em at the end of the week, that gives us four days to decide who to keep."
Silas had entered the room with the silver coffee pot as Audra turned to her Mother with excitement lighting her face. "Oh Mother, can I help the boys?"
Victoria held her cup out for Silas to fill and answered, "no Audra, I don't want you around those horses until your brother's have them gentled."
"Can I get you anything else Mrs. Barkley?" Silas cleared the table and brought dessert from the sideboard.
"No, thank you Silas, that will be all," the dignified servant nodded and left the room.
Audra tried another tact, "I won't get in the way, I'll just watch, I promise."
Nick gave an exasperated sigh, "you're not going down there little miss. The men don't need the distraction and Heath and I can't be worrying about you getting hurt." He banged his coffee cup down to end the discussion.
"Nick's right Audra. Besides, I have something more important for you to do this week." Victoria cradled her cup and sipped the hot brew.
"Oh Mother, what is it?" Audra voice rose in anticipation.
Victoria was pleased to be able to distract her headstrong daughter so easily. She placed her cup on it's delicate rose patterned saucer, leaned forward and addressed the whole family.
"Remember my friend Elizabeth Trent, she came for a visit about three years ago?" They all remembered
Mrs. Trent, a short, plump, matronly women about their mother's age with twinkling blue eyes and a jolly
laugh. Victoria waited for the affirmative nods before continuing. "I received a letter from her today asking
if we could do her a favor."
Nick and Heath leaned forward eagerly, a look of anticipation on both faces. Nick was the one to ask, "is she coming for another visit?"
Jarrod shook his head in disgust. He pointed a finger at his younger brothers and admonished, "you two only want her to come because she stuffs you full of all those pastrys and what not you have her baking all day. I swear you two hardly left the kitchen the last time she visited." Jarrod looked down the table with an amused expression in his deep blue eyes. "You remember Mother."
The silver haired lady gave an amused laugh, "I remember. I've never seen them take such an interest in baking. But to get back to the letter, Elizabeth has a son, John, who is working for a magazine in Sacramento and would like to stay with us for a few days to take pictures of life on a large ranch. He is experimenting with color photography, which is quite new and he'd like to try it out here. If it works out, he'll publish the pictures along with a story in the magazine. Now, he'll be arriving on tomorrow's train and you two can meet him." She nodded at her two youngest sons.
"OH FOR CRYING OUT LOUD MOTHER, WE CAN'T HAVE A TOTAL STRANGER WANDERING
AROUND HERE FOR DAYS ON END!!"
Victoria gave her hot headed son a stern look , "that's enough Nick, Elizabeth is a good friend of mine and
we will welcome her son here. Am I making myself clear?"
Heath placed his napkin on the table and stood up, "may I be excused Mother, I want to check on those mustangs."
Heath slapped his brother on the back, "you comin' Nick?"
"Yeah, might as well see what we've got."
Jarrod rose also and with a slight bow to the ladies excused himself to go work on some legal papers in the
Victoria turned to Audra and touched her hand, "now, this is where I need your help dear. John needs
someone to show him around and help him with his equipment. I'd like you to do that for me if you will."
Audra nodded eagerly, "oh this is so exciting, I can't wait. What's he like?"
Victoria put down her cup and thought for a moment, "well, Elizabeth showed me his picture when she was
here last. He's thirty-one now, tall and thin, with black curly hair, grey eyes and he wears spectacles. Elizabeth says he's a very studious young man ...and he's getting married in a few months."
Audra sat back and folded her arms, "he sounds boring."
The grandfather clock in the foyer was just striking ten when Victoria came through from the library
on her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Jarrod had gone to the living room to get the new novel
he had left on the coffee table and Victoria was curious as to why he was standing at the entrance to the room, partially hidden behind the heavy folds of drapery.
He looked down at her as she rested her hand on his arm and whispered, "what are you looking at?"
Jarrod nodded his dark head toward the occupants of the room. "Look at those two, thick as thieves...
I wonder what they're up to now?"
Victoria looked more closely into the room that was lit only by the roaring blaze in the marble fireplace.
The sofa had been pulled around in front of the fire and Nick and Heath were sitting on it shoulder to shoulder, boots tossed aside, stockinged feet on the round table stretched out to the warmth on this chilly October night.
"Oh Jarrod, I'm sure they're just relaxing after a hard day's work and discussing ranch business." She
looked at the scene and felt a happy warmth inside at the sight of the two, one dark and one fair, their
heads bent close as they talked and laughed quietly.
The dark brows shot up in skepticism, "don't kid yourself Mother." He nodded knowingly, "those two
are up to something, make no mistake. Nick may think up the schemes but Heath works out the details.
Remember what they did last time?"
She patted his arm, "now Jarrod, that was an accident, the frame on your bed had come loose and
that's why it collapsed. I'm sure the boys had nothing to do with it."
He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his grey silk vest, tilted his head down to look into his mother's
eyes in disbelief and hissed, "the screws had been loosened!!"
"Now Jarrod, I'm sure my sons would never do anything like that."
Jarrod held up his hands in surrender, "all right Mother, all right, but when it happens, and it will,
I get to say I told you so."
"Agreed, now let's go have our tea."
The next morning Nick and Heath came in earlier than usual for breakfast, Silas poured them each
coffee and asked, "do y'all want to eat now or wait for the others to come down?"
Heath blew on the steaming brew and answered with a small smile, "we'll eat now Silas. Is Jarrod up yet?"
"Mr. Jarrod should be gettin' up any time now, it's past seven."
Nick got up and filled two plates full of bacon, eggs, pancakes and toast. He slid one in front of his brother and settled into place beside him. "We better eat fast, we don't have a lot of time."
Both were shoveling food down as fast as they could when their mother glided into the room in a rustle of silk.
"Morning Mother," they both greeted her and Heath got up to help her with her chair, kissing her cheek before returning to his seat.
"Well, good morning." As she took her place and spread her napkin on her lap, she commented, "you boys are in early, you must have been hungry to start without the rest of us."
Nick shrugged his shoulders and flashed her a smile that dimpled the cheeks in his handsome face. "Well you know Mother, me and Heath here, we've got a lot to do today if we gotta pick that fellow up, gotta get to it."
Heath nodded in agreement and asked, "so what time's his train get in?"
Victoria picked up a piece of toast and liberally spread homemade strawberry preserves on it, "noon. Maybe
after you pick him up, you two can meet Jarrod for lunch. He should be down any minute and you can make
arrangements with him to take John to The Cattleman's Club."
A quick look flashed between the two and Nick answered quickly, "no, no, we've got too much work to get done, no time for lunch."
All three jumped when a bellow to rival Nick's was heard from upstairs, followed by the slam of a door and the sound of hobbled footsteps descending the back stairs. As Victoria jumped up to go see what was wrong, Nick and Heath abandoned their breakfast, hastily scrambled out of their seats and headed for the front door.
They could hear Jarrod shouting from the hall outside the kitchen, "WHERE ARE THOSE TWO?? WHEN
I GET MY HANDS ON THEM THEY'RE GOING TO BE SORRY!! MOTHER!!"
Victoria rushed into the hall to see her eldest son red-faced with anger and carrying one of his boots in his hand.
"Jarrod, what's wrong?"
"WHAT'S WRONG?? WHAT'S WRONG??" He took a deep breath to calm down and rubbed his forehead
where a sudden headache had taken up residence. "Look at this," he thrust his boot out for her to examine.
She looked at the offending item and shook her head in confusion, "I don't see anything wrong with it."
Both eyebrows shot up and he tilted his head forward slightly, "NO... well look inside."
She leaned forward and looked inside the boot warily, after a slight pause she inquired, "what is that?"
"Now I have to change. I don't have another pair of brown boots to wear with this suit so I'll have to wear a
blue one and now I'll be late for my nine o'clock appointment ..." his brows drew together in a frown as
he pulled his watch out of his vest pocket and checked the time, "oh those two, wait till I get a hold
of them." His tone boded ill for his wayward siblings.
"You go change, and take off that sock, you've left a trail of cream all across the floor." She made a shooing
gesture with her hands. "I'll speak to your brothers when I see them."
Jarrod started back to the stairs but turned around after a few steps, pointed at her and stated quite firmly, "I told you so."