In the small town of Lyell, a throng of people was gathered in the middle of the street to witness the hanging of Nick and Heath Barkley. They had been tried and sentenced to die for the murder of the town priest. Jarrod fought tooth and nail to have them absolved of the heinous crime they had been so readily accused of, but his efforts had come to a naught. Even the appeal had been denied.
With their wrists bound behind their back, the stone-faced prisoners were escorted by the sheriff to the platform were two nooses were waiting. Victoria and Audra were in their hotel rooms, sleeping. On Jarrod’s recommendation, the doctor had administered them a strong sedative to spare them the morbid spectacle.
Once the sheriff looped the nooses around their necks, he asked if they had anything further to add. Nick remained mute, fear registering on his face as he resigned to his fate. For his part, Heath searched the crowd for Jarrod. He stared at him pleadingly and stated sternly: “We’re innocent. We didn’t kill that priest.”
The forlorn hope etched on his brother’s face slashed Jarrod’s heart to pieces. It bled at his crushing failure to avert the tragedy. The sorrowful look in Jarrod’s bleary blues told Heath that the appeal had been denied. Heath strained a lopsided smile at his downcast brother and closed his eyes to make peace with his inner self before psyching himself up for the inevitable.
An enigmatic black-garbed figure standing amidst the crowd momentarily caught Jarrod’s attention. The face was shadowed by the large cowl hanging loosely on the head. His quizzical eyes swiveled back to his brothers as the sheriff gave his deputy the signal to switch open the trapdoor underneath the prisoners’ feet. Their bodies dropped like dead weights, the rope snapping their necks.
Jarrod sat up abruptly in his bed, panting and drenched in sweat. He hauled himself out of bed and slouched to the dresser to splash water onto his flushed cheeks. He wandered downstairs to the kitchen to fix himself a cold glass of milk. He sat at the table and twirled the glass between his fingers, staring down at the milk for answers.
Nick and Heath had been wrongfully convicted of a murder in a town that welcomed the Barkleys like the plague. A hostile jury had turned of deaf ear to his convincing arguments, rendering a verdict of guilty on the first day of witness testimony, including the sheriff who had found Heath and Nick in the church, kneeling by the corpse with the crime weapon in hand.
“It’s hard to sleep, isn’t it?” Victoria said as she entered the kitchen in her night robe. She walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder.
He put his hand on hers and tugged at it lightly. “I’m surprised I managed to catch some shut eyes at all. Then I saw Nick and Heath and…” his voice faltered as the words caught in his throat.
“I know.” She bent forward and gave him a kiss on top of the head before walking over to the counter to fix herself a glass of milk.
“Where did I go wrong, Mother?” he lamented, burying his face in his hands. “I keep going over the trial in my mind, What did I miss?”
“You did everything you possibly could, Jarrod. I will not have you shoulder the blame for that verdict. There has been bad blood between that town and the Barkleys since before you were born. Jealousy, greed…call it what you want. It was somehow passed down to the next generation. It was just a matter of time before they got their revenge.”
“I can’t believe that people would hate us so much as to send two innocent men to their death.”
“Not all of them are prejudiced. The town sheriff is on our side. He has to abide the law but at least your brothers are well treated in his jail. The governor’s reprieve will allow you time to prove your brothers innocent.”
“Let’s hope I do receive that telegram before the hanging tomorrow afternoon.” He took a sip of milk. “I had a nightmare about the hanging. Just before it happened, I saw a mysterious figure standing out from the crowd. She seems to be beckoning me. I couldn’t see her face with the large cowl over her head but it seemed she had two bright empty holes instead of eyes.” He exhaled a sustained breath. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re tired. You’re not thinking clearly. Besides it was just a dream.”
“Or that it’s telling me I’ve missed something, somewhere. A surprise witness that I haven’t looked up.” He drained his glass and stood from the table. He walked over to Victoria and kissed her on the cheek. “Goodnight, Mother. Try to get some sleep.”