Victoria glanced at the clock which graced the mantle of the fireplace in the parlor. The clock a gift from her children to their parents on their wedding anniversary, many years ago. The sight of the clock always brought a smile to her face except for tonight.
The pacing of Nick in the room from his place in front of the fireplace to the window was wearing on everyone’s nerves in the room. The room was large but Nick’s anxiety filled three quarters of the room.
“I don't understand why he's not here yet.” stated Nick for the fifth time in twenty minutes. “He should’ve been back two days ago and why hasn't his aunt wired us back.”
Jarrod schooled his features to keep the worry out of his eyes and said calmly, “Nick, maybe one of the horses came up lame. There are not a lot of telegraph places between here and Pine Crest. Maybe his aunt went out of town. There are lots of plausible reasons, Nick.”
Standing at the window, Nick sighed and leaned his arms on the window frames, his mind going over the past few months. He and his little brother, Heath, were finally partners on the ranch and in their hearts. It had taken a while for each of the strong men to come to an understanding and knowledge of each other’s ways.
The trip to Pine Crest was to be a two week event. Heath was going to visit his aunt, who had married the town doctor, John Martin. While in the area, he was going to visit a couple ranches and look over the horses they had for sale.
Over the months, Heath trained two other men to work the horses in the training area which was built away from the main ranch site. The quiet of the area allowed the men to focus on the horses only and increased the demand for the gently broken horses, opening the way for more contracts.
A knock on the oak door found Nick rushing to the front foyer. Opening the door, he stepped back and let Fred Maden into the foyer.
“Fred, kinda late for a ride, ain't it?” asked Nick shaking the lawman’s hand.
Nodding, Fred sighed, “Fraid this isn't a social call, Nick.”
The rest of the family entered the foyer and nodded their greetings to their family friend. Looking at Victoria, Fred stated, “Mrs. Barkley, it seems there was a bank robbery in Pine Crest.”
“That’s terrible, Sheriff. Was anyone hurt?” inquired Victoria, a sense of dread filling her being.
Shuffling his feet, Fred returned Jarrod’s intense stare before turning back to Victoria, “Heath was in line at the bank. According to a witness, four men came into the bank. Heath may have recognized one of the bank robbers but before he could say anything, the man knocked Heath out and when they left the bank, they took him as a hostage.”
The shock of the news drained the color of the four faces looking back at him. Nick regained his voice and demanded, “Where’s Heath? Have they found him?”
“Sheriff Moreland and a posse are out looking for him. They haven’t found anything yet.” informed Fred quietly. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Barkley. The longer it is, the less chance we have of finding Heath.”
Fred Maden left the mansion after relaying all the information he’d been given from Sheriff Moreland by wire and left the stunned family standing in the foyer. Audra burst into tears and Victoria felt salty droplets leaving her eyes while she comforted her daughter, leading the distraught girl upstairs.
Jarrod didn’t remember walking back into the parlor but found himself in front of the small bar, pouring a drink, his hand shaking uncontrollably. Setting the crystal canister back onto the tray, he grabbed hold of the edge of the cart and took deep breaths, fighting the tears which threatened to explode.
Nick stood rooted in his spot, his stomach twisting and churning, guilt crawling up and stealing his breath away. Four nights ago, he’d woken from a nightmare, wide eyed, drenching of sweat and rushed into Heath’s room, only to find the bed made, the room empty.
It had taken him a few seconds to remember where his brother was and why he wasn’t sleeping in the room next to his. Relief flooded through him when he came to the realization it was only a nightmare. It’d taken another hour before sleep would claim him, the vision of the nightmare still flashing before his eyes.
While waiting for sleep to come, he remembered the terror he felt upon waking and wondered if his own awaking compared to the terror of the horrible nightmares he’d seen Heath through many nights. He had a feeling it didn’t even come close to what Heath experienced in his mind at those times.
Heath Thomson Barkley, his blonde little brother, rancher, friend and confidant. The man who would have walked away from all it meant to be a Barkley at one time was now firmly encased into their lives, into their hearts and their very souls. The man who reminded the family every day what it meant to be Barkley.
Leaning his head against the oak door, Nick’s body shuddered, his thoughts screamed out at him.
The nightmare was telling you something.
The nightmare you didn’t listen to.
The nightmare which left you trembling with fear.
The nightmare was your brother telling you he needed you.
Wiping his face of the tears, Nick took a deep breath when he felt Jarrod’s hand on his back.
“You coming with me, Jarrod?” whispered Nick, his voice a shadow of it’s former volume.
“Let’s tell Mother and start out tonight.” suggested Jarrod anguish reflecting in the light blue eyes in his pale face, turned his brother and wrapped his arms around him. If the eldest son hadn’t been so distraught by the evening’s events, he’d have caught the haunted, guilty look in the hazel orbs and wondered about the cause.
Accepting the gesture of comfort, Nick led the way up the staircase, the concern of one foremost in both the brothers’ minds.
Victoria sat on the bed while Audra dried her tears, “Oh, Mother. What if they can’t find Heath? I feel awful, just horrible.”
Stroking the long silky blonde hair, Victoria murmured, “We all feel awful Audra. No one ever expects to receive this kind of news about someone they love. Don’t worry, they’ll find Heath in time. We have to keep hope and pray for his return.”
Shaking her head, Audra’s tears started again and she grabbed her mother’s hand, “Mother, they have to find him! I was horrible to Heath before he left.”
Puzzled, Victoria saw the fear in her daughter’s eyes, her voice soothing, “Whatever it is, Heath loves you. I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think, honey.”
“It is and it’s all Mary’s fault. I accused Heath of playing with her emotions. Mary said he was leading her on.”
“WHAT?” shouted Nick angrily from the doorway. “HEATH WOULD NEVER DO THAT!”
Shame flew across Audra’s face and she stammered, “I know, Nick. When I asked Heath he didn’t deny it and I assumed that meant he was guilty. I found out after he left she was exaggerating.”
“Oh, Audra. Heath was probably so embarrassed by what Mary was saying and didn’t know how to respond. He’s never really cared for her since he’s met her.” explained Victoria. “Mary can be very overwhelming.”
“OVERWHELMING! THAT GIRL IS A MENACE AND A MAN CHASER!” exclaimed Nick causing Audra to burst out in tears again.
“Audra, we’ll find Heath. Then you can straighten all this out with him.” assured Jarrod softly. “Nick and I are leaving tonight, Mother.”
Looking into the two determined sets of eyes, Victoria nodded. “I’ll have Silas help me pack some provisions for the trail.”
Two weeks prior…
Whistling as he put his clothes in the bedroll, Heath shook his head at the giddiness he felt rising within him at the thought of heading to Pine Crest. He hadn’t seen his aunt in five months and the upcoming visit put an extra spring in his step.
A knock on the door interrupted his whistling and he grinned after he opened the door.
“Boy howdy, Nick. I didn’t expect ya’ to be up and see me off.”
“Boy, how many times do I have to tell you this is a working ranch.” growled Nick, smiling when Heath rolled his eyes and groaned loudly from his personal motto. Standing in the doorway, he watched his little brother gather the rest of his stuff, grabbed the saddlebags and walked down the stairs by the blonde’s side.
“If I don’t see any horses at the ranches, I could see if there’s any wild ones left in the mountains at Strawberry.” suggested Heath, sitting across from Nick in the kitchen after the brothers finished their breakfast.
“No!” barked Nick loudly, his cup banging down on the table, causing Silas to jump slightly on his way to the dining room.
Heath sighed, “Nick, we need more horses for the contract. What difference does it make where we get them?”
Pointing his index finger at his brother, Nick snapped, “It matters cause he’s there! I don’t want you going there alone!”
“My mama and Hannah are there too, Nick.” replied Heath softly. “Not just Uncle Matt.”
The anger in the hazel eyes faded and was replaced with concern at Heath’s reminder of his mama and Hannah’s final resting place.
“I know, Heath. I’m sorry. I don’t like the idea of you going back to Strawberry alone. Promise me you won’t go alone.” pleaded Nick beseeching the blue eyes and remembering the worthless vile man who’d have shot Heath if he hadn’t been there to stop him from reaching for a gun after the blonde almost choked the life out of him by his mother’s and Hannah’s graveside.
The black eyes which burned with hate for his little brother, a hate Nick found out later, Heath’s uncle held for him since birth. How can anyone hate a baby? A baby born into circumstances he couldn’t control? A defenseless baby?
“Okay, Nick, I promise.” pledged Heath, his heart full with the concern and love in his brother’s eyes.
Heath looked over at the tense man across the table and grinned slightly, “Probably be good if I don’t strain myself chasing wild horses considering all the work I’ll have to do when I get back.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” retorted Nick following Heath out the back door with Silas shaking his head and smiling at the two brothers.
“Now, brother Nick, you know I do more work in one day than you do all week.” teased Heath, grinning at the shout of indignation coming from his side.
“Boy, I think you musta smoked some loco weed or something.” gruffed Nick, hazel eyes sparkling.
Chuckling, Heath saddled the bay stallion while Nick took care of Coco. Leading the horses over to the house and tying them to the hitching rail. Nick grabbed the blonde by the back of the neck and gave him a little shake.
“I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Nodding, Heath clapped the strong black vested back. “Peace and quiet for two weeks? Boy howdy, my ears can’t wait.”
Laughing, Nick wrapped the blonde in a quick hug before gathering the crew and heading out to work.
Heath headed back into the barn to check one last time on his modoc’s leg. Running his hands over the right foreleg, he frowned. “Another pack for you girl, then I’ll head out.”
Entering the tack room, Heath threw the items together and walked out of the room with his hands full, his progress stopped abruptly by the appearance of Mary Dorley, a friend of Audra’s who had spent the night.
“Excuse me.” apologized Heath politely, stepping back and to the side of the girl. Mary’s brown eyes took in the handsome face of Audra’s brother and she stepped into Heath’s path, blocking his way.
“Heath, don’t you like me?” asked Mary assured her pretty features and figure were the desire of all men, even rich bastards such as this one. She tried to capture the attention of Audra’s other brothers in the past, but none of them rose to the occasion.
An image of red flags being waved in front of a bull flashed in his mind and Heath stated firmly. “Pardon me, but I have to get this pack on my horse’s leg, Miss Dorley. I’m already running behind schedule this morning.”
Inching closer and running her fingernail across his hand, Mary smiled, her words dripping with sugar which didn’t reach her eyes, “I think I’m more interesting than a horse, wouldn’t you agree?”
Many who knew him would say Heath Barkley had the patience of a saint. However, there were times when even the most patient person could be stretched to the limit. Heath didn’t like people who played games with other’s emotions and good name. He also didn’t like women who flaunted themselves outrageously or threw themselves at men’s feet.
“Actually, Miss Dorley, if I had to choose..” paused Heath, watching her eyes lit up with anticipation at the rest of his statement. “I’d choose my horse over you any day of the week.”
Shocked, Mary took a step back and sneered, “To think, I thought a half bastard Barkley was worth my time!”
Heath shook his head to clear the girl’s furious words out of it, inwardly chastised himself for losing his temper and entered the stall. His sure hands placing the pack around the tender leg. Leaving the barn, he stood by the horse trough and washed his hands under the pump.
Hearing the swishing of skirts, he steeled himself for a continuation of the barn conversation with the menace of Stockton’s singles club. Audra’s voice greeted him instead and he turned in surprise.
“Morning, sis.” grinned Heath, his grin fading as Audra started talking.
“Mary’s in the house crying her eyes out, Heath. She said you’ve been leading her on. She said you told her she wasn’t good enough for you. Is that true?” asked Audra firmly.
Heath stared at his sister, stunned at what she was asking, his mind sent reeling over the idea Audra’d think he was capable of such a thing . Audra waited and grew angry when Heath didn’t respond to her questions, not realizing the other blonde was shell-shocked at the unexpected barrage.
“I can’t believe you, Heath. How could you? That’s a horrible thing to do!”
Turning, Audra rushed back to the house, not stopping when Heath called out to her. Staring at the fleeing back of his sister, a small flame of anger crept up within him. He couldn’t believe Audra would think such a thing. After all the time they had spent together, she let the word of that trollop take over her common sense and throw away all they’d built up as siblings.
Clenching his fists, he stalked angrily over to Charger. Untying the reins, he mounted and rode out at a gallop, angry over his little sister’s accusation. Heading down the trail, his mind turned the problem over and he grew more sure when he returned Audra would have come to her senses. Once Audra thought clearly about it, she’d realize the trouble Mary Dorley was trying to cause.
Reaching Pine Crest, Heath enjoyed the visit with Rachel, John and Hope. Four days later, he rode to the designated ranches to look over the animals for sale. Heath purchased some horses and made arrangements for the animals to be shipped to Stockton by railcar.
Returning to Pine Crest, he bypassed the home of his aunt knowing she and her husband were on their way to Nevada to visit John’s sister. Hope would be working and Heath thought he could perhaps persuade her to have dinner with him later. Stopping at the sheriff’s office, Heath looked forward to visiting again with his friend, Jonas Moreland but he was out of town and the deputy stated he’d be back later on that afternoon.
Entering the bank, Heath stood patiently in line to cash a check when four men burst into the bank, bandannas around the bottom of their faces, only their eyes and foreheads were exposed. Startled from his thoughts, Heath’s eyes narrowed and his hand moved at the sight of the man on his right.
The man’s eyes widened in surprise before he quickly swung his rifle, the butt connecting with the side of Heath’s head, sending him down to the floor unconscious, his ears not hearing a woman scream at the sight of the large gash and flowing blood.
“What the hell?” yelled one of the bank robbers at the unexpected move from the dark haired man.
“He’s coming with us.” ordered the leader, his cold tone leaving no room for argument. “Pick him up.”
Two of the men grabbed the still man between them and dragged him out to the waiting horses. Putting him in the saddle, the robbers mounted and left town at a frenzied ride down the street, sending bullets flying at the deputy and any citizens brandishing a weapon.
Riding hard for several miles, the men rode into the mountains through the maze of canyons and wild animal trails. Reaching an abandoned mine entrance, the red head holding the unconscious hostage in front of him, dropped the blonde to the ground before dismounting.
“What’d we need him for?” asked the redhead while he and another dragged Heath into the mine.
The leader smiled while he tied Heath’s hands behind him around a post, “This is one of the rich Stockton Barkleys.”
“Dammit, they’ll have all the law looking for us!” stated a man name Hatch angrily. “What the hell are we gonna do with him?”
“The Barkleys will pay a lot of money to get him back, even if he’s only half a Barkley.”
Puzzled, Hatch looked over at the others, “How do you know he’s only half a Barkley?”
“I know cause he’s my nephew.” stated Matt Simmons bending down, examining the bruising on the pale, bloodied face. “After we get the money, we’ll kill him. He should’ve been drowned at birth twenty five years ago anyway.”
The words crept out of his mouth like a snake, hissing his intent, his black eyes gleamed with anticipation, the ransom money would only be an added bonus. The others stared at each other as their leader’s words shivered their souls.
Small snatches of conversation, spoken words reached into Heath’s mind before he was aware enough to remember what happened to cause the melody of pain playing the unknown song in his head.
A moan escaped when Heath slowly lifted his head up and leaned it back against the post. Struggling to open his eyes, he found he was unable to open his left eye and his right lid crept slowly open.
The brightness of the fire ten yards away burst through his pupil, causing sharp agonizing pains to shoot through to the back of his head. His insides lurched, the bile rising up from inside him. Closing his eye, he turned his head to the side losing his battle to stop the retching and emptying of his stomach.
The heaving stopped and he was unable to move away from the smell of sickness hovering around him. His head rolled to each side while he tried to make sense of what happened, why he couldn’t move his arms. His shoulders screamed from the unnatural position forced upon them, he couldn’t feel his fingers, they felt numb like when his leg would fall asleep.
Keeping his head turned to the right, Heath slowly opened his eye and stared, his eye widened at the glistening rock wall, a sign of where he was being held. The terror quickly rose up and choked him, his legs moved, he tried to stand, tried to force his way away from the post.
A sheen of terror formed sweat covered his face, his movements from the panic rising within left him gasping for air and control. His efforts stinted by his lack of freedom, his heart raced in his chest while he came to the realization he was unable to escape the nightmare he’d been thrust into, the blackness of mines and tunnels which caused his deepest fear.
He took deep breaths to counteract the rising terror, forcing his mind to latch onto something else other than the blackness, rock walls and putrid air. Listening, he could hear words being spoken towards the entrance and he closed his eye, seeking the sounds of the voices, trying to hear all the words to keep his panic in check.
Hatch glanced across the fire, between Red and Matt, his eyes catching the movements of the man in the shadows outside the ring of light. Lowering his eyes, he stared into his coffee cup while he listened to Matt Simmons talking about his only living relative.
“The bastard somehow convinced ‘em he was a Barkley.” stated Matt with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how he done it.”
Red frowned, “If he ain’t a Barkley, then whose his pa?”
Shrugging, Matt smirked, “Hard telling, but I’m guessing Charlie Sawyer, my no good brother-in-law. Everyone thought he died, but he didn’t. At least not til after the bastard was born. He’s his pa, not Tom Barkley.”
Boyd, the fourth man walked back into the mine and knelt by the fire. “No unusual sounds. Everything’s quiet.”
“Good. Did you deliver the note?” inquired Matt.
Nodding, Boyd poured some coffee, “Yep, I left it at the sheriff’s office like ya’ said to.”
Matt smiled, “Now all’s we gotta do is wait.”
“What if they don’t pay?” asked Red. “What if the Barkleys’ won’t pay?”
“Nah, they’ll pay. After all, they think he’s one of them.” assured Matt firmly, glancing backwards at a gesture from Boyd.
Heath’s head was pounding, his body nauseous and quivering while he tried to digest what he’d heard. Closing his eye, he winced in pain and clenched his jaw tightly.
The sound of steps approaching turned his head slightly towards the front. He was careful to keep the light from his eye, not wanting to invite the additional burst of pain the light caused.
Matt walked over, slightly to the side of his nephew and saw the opened eye. Grabbing Heath’s chin, he forced the blonde to turn his head and chuckled at the gasp of pain when the light filtered into the pupil before the lid closed over it.
“You’re not lookin’ too spry nephew.”
“Go to hell.” replied Heath angrily.
“Well, now, I’m guessing you’re already there.” sneered Matt releasing the blonde’s chin, studying the pale face in the light.
“I’d almost forgotten how much ya’ like dark places.” taunted Matt in a cool voice.
Heath turned his head away and stated, “I should’ve killed you long ago.”
Smiling, Matt ignored the threat, his deep voice filling Heath’s ears, “Places where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Places where it’s dark as coal. Places where you can’t walk cause you can’t see where you might fall. The darkness is all around you. The darkness wants to grab you, almost like it’s gonna suffocate ya’.”
Heath trembled uncontrollably while he tried to control his panic from the voice in his ear. He tried to shut out the feeling of despair and focus on anything but the descriptions of darkness. Unable to reach his uncle with his hands, he pushed the man away with a thrust of his leg and kicked out with his boot. Howling in pain when the boot connected with his side, Matt’s shouted curses filled the mine, echoing down the tunnels.
A small measure of relief flowed through Heath at the halted descriptions until he felt his unprotected ribs cave in from the blows to his side. Stars floated in his vision and Heath wondered how that was possible for a brief second before he succumbed to a place of unawareness.
Sheriff Jonas Moreland’s shoulders sagged with weariness and disappointment. The posse followed behind the man they elected to protect their town from the scourge of society. The trip back to Pine Crest found the group of men not conversing, their thoughts kept to themselves, their bodies and horses exhausted, their efforts ineffective.
Jonas had returned to Pine Crest ahead of schedule, a scant thirty minutes after the robbery occurred. His deputy had gathered a posse and was in the midst of deputizing the group of citizens when the sheriff returned to town.
The man had been stunned to learn of the hostage taken and his name. Heath was a friend from many years past, the quiet man had earned the older lawman’s respect and friendship, when he was a deputy under Frank Sawyer. He couldn’t believe the turn of events in his friend’s visit to their quiet town.
Before heading out, he stopped the group in front of the telegraph office and wired the sheriff of Stockton. The Barkley family would have to be made aware and Jonas hoped he’d be able to return their son and brother to them, alive and well, in short order.
Now, his stomach churned from the thought Heath was still out there somewhere. The group of men lost the trail in the vast mountains which stretched from Pine Crest to Strawberry. The hills were full of box canyons, gullies and passes. It was the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack. It was frustrating and disheartening.
Stopping at the outskirts of town, the sheriff thanked the men in the group for their part in the search and the group disbanded going their separate ways. Riding up and dismounting in front of his office, Jonas’ eyes glanced briefly at the two horses tied to the rail bearing the well known Barkley brand.
Taking a deep breath, he entered his office and nodded to the two brothers who stood up from their chairs. Handing his things to his deputy, Jonas shook the hands of the brothers. “Jarrod. Nick. I’m sorry. We lost the trail in the mountains.”
The sheriff could almost feel the despair which jolted through the two brothers at the news. The lack of progress hit them hard and both men sank back into the chairs, their eyes haunted with their thoughts.
Several minutes passed before Jarrod looked up, “Jonas, your wire said Heath may have known one of the bank robbers.”
Nodding, the sheriff opened his drawer and took out a report of the eye witness account.
Handing it to Jarrod, Jonas replied, “Mrs. Timms. She’s our school marm. She was waiting in the line next to Heath. She said she could tell by Heath’s eyes he recognized the leader even though they had bandannas wrapped around their faces.”
“I wonder if it’s someone from before we knew Heath or after?” spoke Nick outloud, his face darkened with worry and fear.
“Could be anyone, Nick.” sighed Jonas sorting through the mail on his desk. “JACK!”
Both brothers jumped when Jonas bolted from his chair and screamed for his deputy. The younger man rushing into the office from the back room.
“How’d this envelope get here?” asked Jonas holding the white object in his hands.
Looking it over, the deputy’s face scrunched up with puzzlement, “Sheriff, I ain’t seen that before. I don’t know.”
“What is it?” demanded Nick not liking the look on the older man’s face. Jarrod sat still, his heart beat he was sure could be heard outside his body.
“It’s addressed to the Barkley family.” informed the sheriff holding the object out to the brothers.
Nick reached up and took the paper from the sheriff, his gloved hand trembling as his fingers grasped the paper. Opening it, he and Jarrod read the note their faces draining of color.
“They want $500,000 ransom for the return of Heath.” stated Nick.
“$500,000.” repeated Jarrod incredulously.
“They’re gonna kill him.” agonized Nick, staring at the note in his hand.
“Nick, we’ll pay anything to get Heath back. We will get him back!” urged Jarrod grabbing Nick by the shoulder.
Shaking his head, Nick’s voice cracked, his hazel eyes glittered with tears, “They can’t let him live. He can identify one of them. Jarrod, they’ll have to kill Heath to keep their identities hidden.”
“He’s right, Jarrod.” admitted Jonas, turning to stare into the hazel eyes. “Nick, they’ll also have to keep him alive to ensure they get the ransom. We still have time to find Heath.”
Standing, Nick paced the small office, his movements fraught with emotion. “We only have three days. How are we gonna find where they have Heath in three days?”
Pointing to the report in his hand, Jarrod suggested, “We have to find out who this man with black eyes and a jagged scar on his forehead is. That’s how we find our little brother.”
Nick’s frantic pacing stopped and he grabbed the report out of Jarrod’s hand. His eyes read the description again and he swallowed to clear his throat of the lump of fear threatening to choke him.
“It’s him.” gasped Nick staring at the paper.
Jarrod jumped up and grabbed his stunned brother by the shoulders, his cries to Nick not reaching his ears through the roaring sound.
Shaking him by the shoulders, Jarrod shouted, “WHO NICK? WHO IS IT? ANSWER ME!”
Anguished hazel eyes met frantic blue eyes.
“Matt Simmons. Heath’s uncle.”
“Simmons, the drunk?” questioned Jonas in surprise after hearing the name.
“My god, this is bad. Heath’s in real trouble.” whispered Nick shrugging out of Jarrod’s hold.
Nick sat down when his knees threatened to dump him onto the floor, his elbows on his knees, hands rubbing his tanned face. Jarrod and Jonas looked at each other with confusion, waiting for the reason for the fear in the hazel eyes.
“Jarrod, remember when Heath and me buried Hannah James?” asked Nick quietly.
Thinking, Jarrod perched himself on the edge of the desk and nodded, “I remember, Nick. Heath and his uncle tangled by the graveside. Right?”
“Yeah. After Heath realized he was choking the life out of his uncle, he rolled off him and lay on the ground. Heath was stunned, he didn’t know he was choking him. He was so full of rage those days.” relayed Nick quietly. “Anyway, afterwards Simmons got this look in his eyes and reached for his gun. I stopped him, but I’ll never forget that look. It bothered me for a long time.”
Leaning forward, Nick stared into his brother’s blue eyes, “When Heath was recovering from Barrett’s attack, I asked ‘em about his uncle and that look. I knew sometimes his uncle was in his nightmares, but he’d never talk about them. I kept after Heath and he finally told me when Matt wasn’t drinking, he’s the most dangerous man he knows. Sober, he’s cold as the northern wind. Heath’s always suspected his uncle changed his last name to Simmons because he killed someone.”
“Matt Simmons?” repeated Jarrod. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure!” snapped Nick angrily, jumping to his feet and clenching his fists. “Now, he’s got his hands on our little brother. Simmons used to beat Heath when he was a boy, just a boy! What the hell do you think he’s gonna do with him now he’s got his filthy hands on the boy turned man? One he still hates with a vengeance!”
Jarrod’s face paled, his blue eyes tearing, “Nick, I don’t want to consider the possibilities. We send a wire for the ransom and then we head to Strawberry.”
“Jarrod, we don’t have that kind of money.” snapped Nick running his hands through his hair.
Jarrod wrapped his explosive brother in a hug, his words of reassurance not dousing the flame of fear, “Not in cash, but they don’t know that and hopefully we won’t have to prove we have the ransom. At least, not if we find Heath in time. I’m betting he’d take Heath somewhere familiar, close to his stomping grounds. Somewhere around Strawberry.”
“Let’s get going.” muttered Jonas grabbing his hat and rifle, heading to the door with the brothers following.
Time ceased to exist in the darkness of the mine which surrounded the confined man. The fire burned no more, the light taken away from him. His existence was based on pain and fighting off the terror reawaken with the blackness. Old memories merged with recent memories, names formally left in the past were spoken out of bruised lips amidst the battered face of the battered man.
Hot and cold flashed through him quickly, one after the other, deep breaths couldn’t be taken, the action would send screaming amounts of pain through his chest and sides. The lack of deep breaths, the air of the deathtrap, the lack of care and the cruelties of his only living relative forced the blonde’s body to revolt against him.
Falling into pain free oblivion was looked forward to and anticipated with great welcome. The fevered man thought he’d been tied to the post for several weeks, he’d have been shocked to learn it’d only been six days. He had long since gave up in his mind the thought of possible escape, his body too weak for it now after the beating from the last attempt.
In his brief moments of lucidity, he still defied his captors, earning the respect of three but never any such emotion from the fourth. That one would never give his bastard nephew anything other than pain and terror.
In the longer moments of delirium, his past would haunt him, the violence would rush back and the battles would be fought again. His words mumbled in his fevered delirium of the time spent in the renown Carterson prison sent a chill through three of the watchers. The scenes dredged up by the snatches of conversation caused the three to compare the nephew to the uncle. In two of their minds, the uncle fell short by several miles when compared to the blonde hostage.
In the longer moments of delirium, his mind wondered who exactly he was. How could he have forced himself into a family that wasn’t his? They accepted him and gave him love, but he wasn’t one of them. His whole being would be overcome with despair and humiliation. The sense of loss left him gasping for air from the physical pain it created.
During his time of captivity, the man didn’t know he was being sought by those who called him brother, son and friend. He didn’t know men were moving heaven and earth to find him. He didn’t know how long he could hold on, how long he could keep the terrors from taking him into the past and not releasing him to the present day.
Heath struggled against the hands pulling him upwards, his struggles were no more than tremors in his arms and legs. Hatch and Red held Heath up between them, the man unable to support his weight.
“Dammit, Red. He’s sicker than I thought.” whispered Hatch, the two dragging the blonde out of the mine to the waiting horses.
Red’s eyes dodged around the outside of the mine seeking the other two men of their group, afraid they’d return before they could leave with the man they were jeopardizing their lives for. The man who even in his delirious state proved he was more of a man than their chosen leader.
Putting Heath into the saddle, Hatch climbed up behind him and wrapped his arms around the unconscious man, whispering in his ear. “I’m taking you home, boy.”
“GO!” shouted Red slapping the mare on the backside and pulling his pistol at the returning Boyd and Matt.
There are times in one’s life where decisions are made for you. There are times when you make the decisions. Decisions based on events, occurrences, emotions, reactions and fact.
When Hatch left the farm of his parents many years ago, he’d made the decision out of his desire for a life away from boredom, away from the simplicity around him. His desire for adventure created a wanderlust in him, the emotion carrying him away from the small rural community in Ohio.
Hatch hadn’t made a conscious decision to follow the criminal path, it had been made for him by the acquaintances he held with others, the desire to show he was more than a simple farm boy from Ohio. Ohio was sure a far cry from the mountains and the situation he was currently in.
In the late afternoon of the fifth day, while trying to coax water into the feverish blonde, Hatch and Red were startled into stillness by the whisper of a single name.
The nickname Hatch had given to his younger brother who mimicked his every move while tagging after his idolized older brother on the farm. His younger brother who had died from injuries received during the war. Red who’d grown up in the same community with Hatch knew the nickname well.
The spoken name flashed the face before each of the men’s’ eyes. A smiling youthful face with deep brown eyes. Eyes which always held friendliness and laughter in them. Eyes, Hatch missed looking into and the smile which warmed his heart. His younger brother’s life torn away by the war which split a country.
Heath’s head turned away from the cup and he shivered uncontrollably. “Hatchling, they’s comin’. Get ready, farm boy.”
Both men listened in, their ears shutting out all sounds except the rambled words out of the man locked back in time, in his mind. “Ya’ keep your head down.”
“Ya’s makin’ me old, farm boy.” drawled Heath with a slight smile before a grimace flew across his face.
Hatch felt a fleeting jolt of disappointment when Heath’s mind shifted to another time and he moaned. “Okay, Nick.”
Red put a hand on Hatch’s arm and pulled him back from the mumbling man, “Mama? Was it a lie? Why, mama? Nick? Nick?”
Keeping his voice to a whisper, Red gestured to Heath and stated, “He knew Sammy!”
“How many Hatchlings could there be? How many were farm boys?” whispered Hatch, a catch in his words signified his emotions. “He’s got to be the kid sharpshooter Sam wrote mom and dad about in his letters. My god, what’ve we done?”
Matt’s voice sounded from the entrance, “What the hell’s taking so long?”
“We’re coming.” yelled Hatch turning to his friend, “Not one word to him or Boyd, okay?”
Agreeing, Red followed Hatch outside where the others waited, “He’s real sick.”
Simmons sneered, “What’s the difference? He’s dead anyway. Tomorrow, we pick up the money and get rid of him.”
Shrugging, Hatch sat and leaned against his saddle, “Makes no difference to me. Just making conversation, is all.”
Red sighed and lay down on his bedroll with his hands behind his head. Even outside the mine, they could hear Heath in his delirium, although his ramblings seemed to be broken by longer periods of unawareness, the condition of the blonde was deteriorating.
Looking over at his friend, Red stared into the brown eyes and nodded slightly. The decision taken out of the hands of both men with a simple name spoken in a moment of delirious ramblings.
The man who befriended and stood beside another’s brother in the middle of chaos creating horrific scenes of war.
The man who in his mumbling held affection for a brother who was deeply loved by another brother.
The gratitude of the time spent with one brother would be repaid to another’s brother.
The man in the mine had to be taken back to his family.
This man had to be saved at all costs.
The two friends waited until Matt and Boyd rode out the next morning to look over the meeting place where money was to be exchanged for the blonde. After the backs of the two men were no longer visible, they rushed into the mine and freed their captive.
Red’s shout and slap across the mare’s hindquarters startled both man and beast. Digging his spurs into the side of the horse, Hatch held on firmly as the horse jumped forward, his muscles moving under the riders.
Shots sounded behind him, but Hatch didn’t look back. He kept his eyes on the trail, his breath was taken away when a red hot searing pain in his back almost toppled him out of the saddle. Determination and fear kept him hanging on, kept his eyes open, his hands clinging to the saddlehorn.
The shots echoed through the mountain pass stopping the searchers heading up the trail to reach the drop off point. Urging their horses on, the men hastened the pace anxiety flowing through them at the sounds of the reports.
Several pairs of eyes stared at the horse galloping down the trail, watching as two bodies fell off the horse and tumbled down the side of the mountain.
Satisfaction flowed through Heath briefly remembering the kick he delivered to his uncle’s body. He didn’t remember all the blows afterwards but knew the one moment of satisfaction ended up costing him dearly.
The terror of the darkness and blackness which surrounded him left Heath taking great shuddering breaths. His right eye was open, he felt the spasms of pain from his deep breaths and he couldn’t stop the groans from escaping.
The light from the lantern caused pain in the blonde’s head. Heath closed his eye, his mind saying the pain from the light had either lessened or the other injuries were speaking louder than his head.
Matt watched the sweat break out on his nephew’s forehead, the facial features were deepened by pain and blotted by bruises, blood was dried on and blood ran freely.
Heath sensed the repulsive man’s nearness while he fought to control the bolts surging in his upper body. Realizing, he couldn’t breathe deeply, he took shallow breaths of the stale air.
“I always thought you were on the right side of the law. How’d you con the Barkleys to thinking you’re kin?” asked Matt quietly.
“What are ya’ talkin’ about?” mumbled Heath keeping his face turned away.
Black eyes bored into the weary blue eyes as he turned the bruised face, his hand causing Heath to gasp from the pain of the hold.
“Barkley didn’t whelp you, Sawyer did. He was there long before Barkley.”
Jerking his chin out of the larger hands, Heath’s eyes blazed with fury, “You’re a liar! I’d never believe anything ya’ say.”
Standing, Matt smiled, “Believe what you want. I ain’t got a reason to lie about it. Sawyer was married to your whore mother.”
“You’re a sonofabitch.” spat Heath furiously. “I’m gonna kill you!”
“Ask Rachel Caulfield.” suggested Matt, kicking an extended leg causing Heath to grunt. “I guess you’ll have to take my word since you’ll never get a chance to ask her. Before long, you’ll be in hell with your mother.”
Heath’s eyes burned a hole in the retreating back and he lay his head back against the post. Anger flew through him and he struggled against his bonds, the effort a futile one, only earning him more pain. Closing his eye, he took shallow breaths to calm himself. He had to keep a clear head if he wanted to get outta here.
Hearing footsteps, he opened his eye and watched a man approaching him. Boyd cut the ropes and hauled Heath onto his shaky feet to lead him outside to the river as Matt ordered. Falling to his knees, Heath wrapped his arms around his stomach, seeking to curtail the jolts which left him gasping.
Bending over to grab Heath, Boyd grunted when an unexpected fist caught him in the groin, his knees giving out when he fell over and called out, his eyes seeing only a curtain of red. Heath grabbed for the pistol in the moaning man’s holster, his numbed hands fumbled for the item.
Matt ran into the mine after hearing the painful shout from inside. His black eyes narrowed at the sight of Heath trying to bring the gun around. Kicking out, the gun flew from the wooden hands, clanging against the wall before it fell to the dirt.
Picking up the already injured man, Matt slammed two fists into the unprotected stomach, his blows stealing away the small amount of air in the blonde’s body. Boyd had risen to his feet, his eyes filled with rage at the sight of the escapee. Heath was on his hands and knees, gasping for air, fighting the retching which wanted to start.
“He’s mine.” roared Boyd, pulling Matt back and picking up the limp blonde.
Blue eye filled with pain and confusion, widened when he was pulled upright by the infuriated man. Backhanding the blonde, Boyd pushed him back into the rocky wall. Stars danced around again when his head hit the rock wall, his knees bent and his progress towards the dirt was stopped by the mammoth hand grabbing hold of his shirt.
Reaching upwards, Heath pushed at the hand holding him in place while the other left their marks on his body. Matt stood across the way watching the angry punishment Boyd was handing out, leaning casually against the wall with his shoulder. Boyd stepped back, letting Heath fall to the ground. Matt shouted a warning when the blonde lunged to his feet with his left hand holding the gun.
Boyd grabbed the slower man’s wrist and bent til the gun was dropped. The snapping of bone filled the air and the scream of pain ringing out in the mine was silenced by a right which stole the blonde into a merciful pain-free darkness, his fall into the filth on the mine floor unnoticed by the damaged body.
Placing two kicks into the still man, Boyd was pulled back by Matt and stopped. “That’s enough. We can’t kill him, not yet. We still got a few days to go.”
Boyd grunted and wiped his forehead, “Bastard’s got some spunk in him.”
Dragging the unconscious man back to the post, Matt tied the bonds around the hands again. “If he’d caught you with a bullet, there’d only be three of us to split the ransom.”
Heath didn’t know how much time passed each time he was able to force his eye open, making himself wake up to the pain which caressed him with its greeting. He wanted to stay in unawareness but knew if he did, he’d never return. It’d never been in him to quit, but he knew he was losing the battle and the war.
Each time it was harder to wake, each time it was harder to welcome the pain which signified he was still in the living nightmare. His mind was slowly stealing his sanity away, the fever high, stoking his delusions, his thoughts of Carterson stronger than they’d been in a long time.
In the darkness, his uncle’s voice mixed in with the voices of his family. Nick’s baritone pleading for him to hold on. He and Jarrod were close. We’re coming! Hold on, little brother!
He’s not your brother. You’re not one of them.
I’m a Barkley.
You’re a Sawyer.