“That’s it Heath, I’m calling it a day,” a sweaty Nick huffed and puffed as he made his way to the water pump to splash cool water onto his face.
“Whatever you say. I’m plumb tuckered out myself.” He led his horse into the stables and headed for the bunkhouse.
“Hey Heath, the house’s the other way.” Nick indicated.
“I know bos…I mean Nick, but I thought I’d sleep with the guys tonight.”
“You’ve been sleeping in the bunkhouse for five days now. A rough cot doesn’t beat a warm soft bed.”
“I know Nick but I feel better sleeping with the guys. Helps with the bonding.”
“You’re way past that, Heath. You’ve earned the men’s respect a long time ago.” Seeing how the young blond wouldn’t budge on his decision, Nick yielded. “Aw okay. You go ahead. But tomorrow you’re sleeping in your own bedroom. I need to get my revenge at pool and win back those thirty-two dollars you ripped from me.”
“We’ll see, Nick,” he answered with a slight embarrassment. “ Good night.”
“Good night Heath. See you in the morning.”
The young blond made his way to the bunkhouse, stopping at the door to cast a last glance at Nick he watched entering the main house. He sighed heavily and shook his head in disbelief before stepping inside where the men were getting spruced up for a night on the town.
“Hey Josh, want to join us tonight?” Jim Anders, one of the ranch hands, asked the despondent blond.
“No thanks. Don’t feel like it.”
“You look like you could use a bit of fun.”
“Thanks anyway,” the blond declined as he slumped heavily on his cot.
“Why the long face? Boss still calling you Heath?”
“Yeah,” he heaved out dejectedly.
“Why do you let him?”
“How can I help it if he calls me Heath?” Josh replied curtly. “I don’t like it but what am I to do about it? I need this job. If I tell Nick that his brother’s dead and that I’m not him, what do you think he’ll do?”
“You could talk to Jarrod or Mrs. Barkley about it.”
“I’ve tried. But they don’t seem to make a difference either. I’m sorry I look like him but I’m not about to tell them off.”
“Do you want me to do it for you?”
“NO!” Josh hissed with a smouldering stare. “Just let it be. I can handle it just fine.” On that waspish note, he turned to his side to close the conversation.
The men exchanged concerned stares before heading outside, leaving the young blond with his grief.
The next morning found Nick searching for the young man who he was told had already left for the field where he was to mend some fences.
Josh made a slight detour to Heath’s grave to seek advice on how to handle the delicate situation with Nick without anyone getting hurt. He squatted down before the tombstone and removed his hat.
“Mister Barkley, I need help. I never got to meet you but I was told I look like you. For reasons no doubt driven by grief your brother just won’t accept that you’re dead. I don’t know how to go about telling him that I’m not you. I don’t want to hurt him anymore than he already is, but, “ he started fiddling with the rim of his hat, trying to find the right words, “I just can’t go on pretending. I’ve tried talking to your brother Jarrod and your mother, even your sister but they can’t or maybe they won’t do anything. I don’t rightly know. All I know is that it’s got to stop. Not only for me but for them as well. They need to bury you once and for all.” He paused to heave a long shuddering breath and listened to the tiny voice in his heart instructing him to follow the dictates of his conscience. He smiled gratefully and stood to return to mount his horse.
A few minutes later, he was hard at work mending a fence when Nick rode in. “There you are, boy. Why d’you leave without me?”
“I got up early so I thought I’d come work on this fence. It’s got lots of breaks. Might take me all day,” he explained plainly without making eye contact with Nick.
“It won’t take you all day if I help you.”
“S’okay boss. I can do it by myself, I want to do it alone.” Josh replied on a rather sharp tone that wasn’t lost on Nick. He slanted his head with a puzzled look.
“Hey Heath, why the sassing?”
“I’M NOT H….” Josh started to snarl but reined in his temper when his eyes witnessed the sorrow reflecting in the dark hazel ones. “I’m sorry,” he repented. “I just would like to be left alone today.”
“Why? Is this something I said? Something I did? Why you don’t want me around?” Nick probed.
“Just leave it be, okay?” Josh warned as he felt the tension mount within him. He took a deep breath and continued his work.
Nick shrugged and returned to his horse. Josh waited for his boss to be out of earshot to heave a sigh of relief but his release was short-lived, knowing that wound was still festering.
A week passed with Nick still pestering young Josh. More annoying was his insistence to follow him wherever he went and partake in everything he did. Josh tried once more to seek advice from the Barkleys but they were no help as their sorrow over the lost of Heath was blinding them to Nick’s destructive behavior.
“I’ll talk to Nick,” Duke offered to the young desperate man who didn’t protest as he used to.
“Thanks. I really am at the end of my wits. I don’t want to hurt Nick, but…”
“I understand, kid. This has gone long enough. The family needs to face the sad reality of Heath’s dead if their hearts and souls are to heal. I’ll talk to them when Jarrod gets back from San Francisco on Friday.”
“Maybe if I went away for a while, just until the dust settles so to speak?”
“I don’t think it’ll do any good. In fact it might make it worse, for Nick that is.”
“Awright,” Josh nodded in acquiescence. “I’ll do as you say. Thanks Duke.”
“No problem, kid,” Duke smiled obligingly.
Early next morning pandemonium erupted when a wild stallion instigated a herd of mares to jump the fence. Quickly Nick and several ranch hands saddled their mounts to go round up the valuable merchandise before it was too late to retrieve it.
One mare broke free from the drove and galloped toward the woods with Josh on her tail. He succeeded in cornering the skittish animal and tried to gentle her before looping a rope around her neck. Instead of riding back to the group he tethered the horse to a branch and sat against a tree to catch his breath.
“Your gift with horses never ceases to amaze me, Heath,” came the voice from behind. “Taking a breather?”
“Yeah,” Josh breathed out, trying hard to keep his temper in check.
“Mind if I join you?” Nick asked, waiting for a sign before sitting underneath the tree beside the blond. “We still haven’t caught that darn stallion. We did all the mares, though.”
“That’s good,” Josh said monotone.
Nick turned to Josh and frowned. “Heath, what’s wrong? You’ve been so distant lately. I can’t help but think I did something to upset you.”
“It’s nothing,” Josh replied between gritted teeth.
“You’re not being honest with your big brother.”
“I AM NOT YOUR BROTHER DAMMIT!” Josh lashed out, bolting upright to walk away.
“Don’t call me Heath! I am not your brother. I am Josh Whelan,” he shouted angrily with tears flooding his eyes. “Why can’t you accept that your brother is dead?”
Nick began stewing in his own juices. His dark eyes took on a murderous look as he glared at Josh. “What’s the matter with you, boy?”
“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? I just can’t take it anymore!” Josh swirled on his heel and ran as fast as his legs would allow. Nick took off after him, catching up with him at the site of Heath’s grave. He pounced on Josh who tried to wrench himself free from Nick’s strong grip but to no avail. “I asked you a question, Heath!”
Josh craned his neck to the side to motion to the tombstone erected to his left. “Heath is over there, Nick.” Nick followed the blond’s stare to the head stone engraved with his brother’s name and froze. “Heath is dead. I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry.”
Uncontrollable shivers swiftly assaulted Nick’s body as the realization of Heath’s death began sinking in. Slowly he crawled over to the grave and ran his fingers over the engraved letters. “No, he was okay. The doc said so,” he whimpered. “I found him just in time. I brought him home. He was going to be fine. He was going to be fine.” Suddenly a flood of tears started gushing out and Nick threw himself on the grave, sobbing. “Why? Why?” Overwhelmed with compassion for the bereaved brother, Josh inched up to Nick and risked a hand on his shoulder. “He can’t be gone. Oh please, say it isn’t so. Please!” he glanced up at Josh and through pained eyes drowning in a sea of tears, he begged. “Please, help me. I can’t bear to live without him. Please make the hurt go away.”
Josh held Nick in a tight clench, allowing the aching soul to release the penned up emotions. “I’ll help you, Nick. Don’t worry. I’ll be there for you.” Josh glanced over to the tombstone and smiled gratefully. “Thanks,” he whispered to the wind.