The Teams and players mentioned are real baseball teams and individuals from the mid to late 1800’s.
The positions played by Joe Start and Richard Pearce are from history;
The positions of Charles Smith and Tom Pratt are unknown, so with this, I took liberty.
From “Not Again!” – Real Men Don’t Ask For Directions”
The brothers headed down the trail. Shortly, the trail started to widen and a beautiful meadow lay before them. They were now able to ride side by side instead of in a line. As they got closer to the crowd that had gathered, all three stopped their mounts and took in the scene before them.
Nine men in white uniforms stood in what looked like the center of the meadow. In a different color uniform, a man holding a wooden stick at a strange angle was trying to hit a ball being thrown at him. As he swung and missed, the crowd cheered. Nick won the bets. The men were just warming up. The game hadn’t started yet.
“What is this called again?” Jarrod asked. His face had a wondrous look to it.
“Boy Howdy, can we play?”
“Do you want to play, Heath?” Nick asked, showing a toothy Barkley smile.
“Sure would! Are we allowed? Can we ask?” Nick smiled at Heath’s enthusiasm. Heath was sitting up in his saddle, leaning forward, with his hands resting on the pummel. He looked like a little boy ready to jump off his horse and grab the nearest bat. Nick felt the same way the first time he saw a game being played; he was drawn to it.
Jarrod looked over at his blond brother and smiled big. He pushed his hat back on his head and chuckled at Heath’s exuberance. Never forgetting that his young brother’s childhood was not filled with the same playtime opportunities he and Nick had, he totally enjoyed it when Heath let his barriers down.
“Well, I have a surprise for you, brothers. We are playing in several of the games over the next few days. I arranged the whole thing with the manager of the Brooklyn Atlantics*. They’re the guys in the colored uniforms up at bat. The team is touring out here from New York.”
“We’re gonna be here a few days, Nick? I thought we had to get back to our workin’ ranch tomorrow.” Heath drawled his tease toward his older brother.
“Yup, we’re here all weekend. I had this arranged for weeks and Duke’s handlin’ things at home. This is our weekend, boys, so let’s just relax and play some ball.” Nick’s heart was full. He wanted to share this with his brothers so badly, it almost hurt.
“Well, Brother Nick, I have underestimated you once again.” Jarrod didn’t hesitate to voice his appreciation.
Nick looked like he just swallowed a canary. “I sincerely hope you learned your lesson.”
“I certainly have.”
“Where do we go to get started?” Heath was about to burst.
Nick pointed to a short man sitting on a chair behind home plate, wearing his hat off to the side of his head. “That’s him, Joe Start*. He’s the temporary manager, but he’s really a fielder.”
“A what?” Heath and Jarrod asked in unison.
“A fielder, someone who catches the balls in the outfield.” With Jarrod’s questioning look, Nick waved his hand indicating to wait.
“Hold on Jarrod, and you too, Heath. All of this is going to be explained by Joe. He’ll go through all the details of the game so you understand how to play.”
“Well, let’s get goin’, Nick! We only have the weekend, right?” Heath’s smile was infectious as he led his brothers toward the barn to stable their horses. He was busting to get his hands on that bat.
Usually, Heath insisted that he curry and put his beloved Charger to bed himself. However, today he couldn’t wait to get onto the baseball field. He gratefully handed over Charger’s reins to the stable boy, as Nick and Jarrod did the same with their mounts.
Heath felt an inward excitement that he hadn’t felt in a long time. He heard about baseball years ago when he was a deputy in Spanish Camp from a man that was arrested for stealing. But seeing a baseball game being played is a lot different than just hearing about it. The anticipation of being able to join in was already growing.
“Let’s go see Joe. He’ll get us going.” Nick put his arm around Heath’s shoulder to lead him out of the barn. Jarrod looped his arm around Heath’s shoulders from the other side.
“Will we get uniforms, Nick?” The three men walked out of the barn toward the baseball diamond, shoulder to shoulder. The two older men laughed. Heath knew he was going to be ribbed plenty about his obvious zeal, but he didn’t care. He just felt too good.
“Absolutely. I’ve got it covered, little brother.”
“I think that I shall look the most handsome in mine,” Jarrod declared.
“Don’t make me nauseous, Jarrod. It’s still early in the day.” Nick countered back.
“The last uniform I wore was during the war,” Heath mumbled.
“None of that today, runt.” Nick brought his hand up to squeeze Heath’s neck from behind. “This uniform is being worn for brotherhood, got it?”
Heath smiled sheepishly and looked at his brother. When was he going to learn? Hazel eyes met blue ones. “Got it, Nick. Sorry.”
“No sorries.” They had reached the chairs behind home plate. Dropping their arms, Nick was able to wave to Joe, who then returned his wave. He signaled for them to wait.
Joe Start smiled. It wasn’t hard to spot the Barkley’s, he thought, as he saw the brothers approach arm in arm to the baseball field. Nick Barkley was a threatening presence, especially in that black leather outfit he sported. He remembered Nick describing the brothers that would accompany him this weekend, and knew that the dark haired man was his older brother, and the blond cowboy, his younger one.
He turned back to his task at hand….getting Harry to adjust his stance. His batting was in a slump.
“C’mon, Harry, lean into a little more….that’s right….hold the bat a little higher….okay…..that’s better.”
As Harry missed the next two pitches, Joe swore under his breath, and yelled for everyone to take a break. “Rich, c’mere.” He motioned for the shortstop to join him as he walked over to the Barkley’s.
“Nick!” Joe walked over and grasped Nick’s outreached hand. “Good to see you! Have any trouble finding the field?”
“No, no trouble at all.” Nick looked back at both his brothers, giving them the evil eye not to say anything. Jarrod and Heath just smiled at each other. Heath looked down at his boots to keep from laughing.
“Joe, this is my brother Jarrod.” Joe extended his hand to the lawyer.
“And this is my younger brother, Heath.” Joe and Heath shook hands.
“Glad to meet you both. Joe Start, acting manager.”
“I’ve been telling them of the weekend we have planned. I think younger brother here is itchin’ to get a hold of a bat.” Nick grinned, enjoying the blush creeping into his brother’s face.
Joe smiled back. Three athletic cowboys. It was either going to be easy, or very difficult, to teach them the game. Well, Nick Barkely paid top dollar for the honors. He was going to get his money worth.
“Fabulous! We need some good hitters. Harry, and a few others, are in a slump.” The medium built man stepped forward to introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Richard Pearce*. Just call me Rich.”
“Good to meet you.” The three brothers exchanged handshakes with the ball player.
“So, did you keep your surprise, Nick?”
“Yes, Joe, I did. I just told them about the planned weekend a few minutes ago.”
”Good, good. We’ll have a helluva time, boys. Baseball gets under your skin. By the end of the weekend, you’ll be wantin’ to join up, I guarantee you!”
Jarrod laughed out loud. “Well, I don’t know about that! Can’t keep my brothers too far from those cows!”
Heath and Nick exchanged glances. “They’re cattle, Jarrod.” Nick always found the cow joke from his older brother tiring.
“Well, you boys can battle it out. Rich take care of them, okay?”
“Sure thing, Joe.” He turned to three ranchers. “The first thing we have to do is get you changed. Can’t play ball in those boots. Joe, I’ll take them over to the tents where they can stow their gear. I’ll get them some equipment, too. Uniforms and such.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Okay, boys. See you in a bit.” Joe walked back over to his relaxing players, clapping and barking at them to get back to practice.
“So, you guys cowboys?” Joe asked, as they all followed him to what a series of tents set up about 50 yards in back of the field.
“Well, you can say that,” Nick answered. “Our family runs a ranch just outside of Stockton. Jarrod over there, keeps his lily white hands clean pushing paper all day.”
At Rich’s questioning eyes, Jarrod simply stated, “I’m a lawyer.”
“A laywer, huh?” Jarrod nodded.
“Good for you. All that ranch work will make you old before your time.”
If Nick and Heath heard, they didn’t acknowledge the good natured comment. All four men entered the tent marked “Barkley.”
“Joe put up this tent for you, but some of the players will be sharing it with you, if that’s okay.”
The tent was rather large, and had a table in the center, with almost a dozen chairs lined up against the sides. Three cleanly folded grey pin-striped uniforms had been placed on the chairs, along with hats, socks, and shoes. Some of the other chairs had discarded clothes, open suitcases, and gun belts, obviously from some of the players sharing the tent. The table held pitchers of water, basins, hand-held mirrors, and clean towels.
“You can leave your clothes here along with your gun belts. Nobody will touch anything. After the game, you can clean up in here, but when you need a bath, you’ll have to do that at the house.”
Heath, who had been fingering one of the uniforms, looked up. “House?”
Rich nodded. “Yes, you boys won’t have to camp out tonight. Joe wants you to stay up at the main house, with the Henderson family. That’s the family who owns this field, and invited us to stay.”
Rich bent down and picked up a uniform. “We didn’t know your sizes, so you’ve got a one-size fits all here.” Rich looked each of the brothers over. “They’ll do fine.”
Rich handed each brother a uniform. “The trick to getting the uniform on easy is to get the socks on first; then pull up the pants.”
Nick and Jarrod started undressing, but realized that Heath was hesitating. The reminder of Carterson on his back always put him ill at ease when strangers were around.
Jarrod nudged Nick and nodded his head toward their younger brother. They both instantly noticed his reluctance about changing his clothes in front of Rich. Nick didn’t hesitate.
“Rich, could you go ask Joe about these shoes of mine? I think they’re a little small.”
“Absolutely, Nick, be right back.”
As Rich left the tent, Heath visibly relaxed. “Thanks, Nick. Sorry.”
“Hey, no sorries I said. C’mon, let’s get dressed.”
Just as they finished getting ready, Rich returned with another pair of shoes for Nick.
“How do these fit?”
Nick tried them on and nodded. “Perfect. Thanks.”
“Son, I noticed you have a small foot,” Rich walked over to Heath. “I got you another pair, too. Try these instead.”
“Thank you, Rich. These are better.”
Jarrod picked up a mirror off the table. “I told you, Nick, I do believe I am the most dapper of us!”
“Y’know, Nick, he does look mighty handsome in this getup.” He turned to Jarrod. “Big Brother, maybe you should wear it to the dance next Friday. Help you get some cute dancin’ partners.”
Nick laughed. “Heath, doesn’t Nick tell you you’re not funny?” But Jarrod and Rich laughed too.
“Times awastin’!” Nick put on his baseball cap, and opened the tent flaps. “Little brother, I do believe that there is a bat with your name on it.”
He didn’t know how right that statement would end up to be.
As the brothers approached the baseball field, a photographer finished setting up his equipment off to the side of the tents.
“I have one more surprise for you,” Nick said. “We are going to have our pictures taken.”
“Well, you are full of surprises, Brother Nick.”
“Actually, this is a gift from Mother. She wanted a picture of us in our baseball suits for the mantle.”
“Mother knew about this?” Heath questioned.
“Uh huh. And she reminded me to tell you to smile.” Nick walked over to the photographer, and talked over details while Heath and Jarrod watched the players shake hands for the start of the game.
“Nick, can we take pictures later?” Heath asked. “I think the game is goin’ to start. Don’t wanna miss anything!”
Just then Joe signaled the brothers to join them. Nick waved back to Joe, pointed to the photographer and held up two fingers. Joe indicated his understanding.
Nick turned to his brothers. “Nope, he’s gotta leave after this. Let’s hurry and take a few and then we can get to the game.”
The boys posed together and individually for several portraits. One picture in particular would have their Mother grinning from ear to ear. The three brothers posed side by side, each having one leg up on a bench, with their bats out in front of them…Jarrod, Heath and Nick.
The pictures didn’t take long, and soon they were able to join the team. Joe had been able to delay the start of the game for his high paying guests.
The umpire held up his black hat to signal everyone to be quiet. “Play Ball!”
As the first player from their team walked over to home plate, Joe started to explain the game to three very happy men. The brothers sat with the players waiting for their turn at bat.
“Welcome to the Brooklyn Atlantics, boys,” Joe announced. “Everyone, these are the Barkleys. Jarrod, Nick and Heath. They are our guests for the weekend, so treat them right.”
Lots of hellos and welcomes were exchanged.
Nick spoke up. “We’re mighty glad to be here. But treat us like ball players, not guests.”
“Sounds good! We could use a few players that aren’t in a slump!” one player teased out loud. He walked over to the Barkley’s. “Hi, I’m Tom Pratt.*”
“Hi, Tom. What position do you play?” Heath asked.
“Pitcher.” Pointing to a friend of his, he waved him over. “This here is Charlie Smith.* One of the best catchers you’ll ever see.”
“Nice to meet y’all. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Charlie, Rich and Tom are going to help you boys learn the fine art of batting and catching, and also your designated field position. Once I see some of your moves, we’ll decide which position you’ll play,” Joe explained.
Rich spoke up. “Joe, after you explain to them the rules of the game, we’ll take our new ball players over to the side to practice.” He pointed to an area behind the tents. “Let them get the hang of batting and catching; using a mitt.”
“Sounds good,” Joe answered. “Just in case you didn’t know, we’re playing the Philadelphia Athletics this weekend.
“These are the basic rules to the game. It’s very easy. There are two teams, let's call them the Starter Team and the Ender Team, and each tries to make more points than the other. In baseball, however, we don't say "make points". We say score runs. Today we’re their Starter Team, and the Athletics are the Ender Team. The Starter Team begins the game playing offense. Its players take turns being the batter, the only offensive player allowed to touch the baseball. And he can touch it only with his bat. The Ender Team begins the game with its 9 players on defense. Most of the time the focus of attention is on a two-man battle: the Ender Team's pitcher and the Starter Team's batter.
Rich will go over each position with you in detail later.
With me so far?”
Nick and Heath each nodded, but continued to watch the game. Jarrod listened intently to Joe, only occasionally glancing at the game. The lawyer in him felt compelled to understand the rules completely.
Joe continued. “Okay. The Starter Team scores one run each time a batter moves completely around the bases. See those four square pillows? Sometimes he does so all at once if he can bat the ball out of the field area, and this is called a home run. Most of the time he goes from one base to the next, where he stops until his team mates, taking their turns as the batter, create chances for him to advance around the bases.
“Sooner or later the Starter Team will accumulate three outs and the two teams change positions. Outs are like mistakes. The Ender Team will then begin to play offense, and the Starter Team will play defense.
“Now, this is important. Since a game can't end in a tie, and the Ender Team always gets the last chance to play, AND there's no clock and no time limit to a baseball game, some games have been known to last all day. Most games last about three hours. The usual baseball game has nine innings. Each inning gives one team a chance at bat to score runs.
“And one last rule. You can only score runs while you are playing in the offensive mode.” Joe took a breath.
“That’s pretty much it. Any questions?”
Heath didn’t hesitate. “When can we bat?”
Joe smiled and spread his arms to the baseball diamond. “By my guest, young man.”
Jarrod smiled. “Heath, shouldn’t we practice first?”
“Yeah, we’ll practice. But I’ve been watchin’ and I think I can do it.”
Heath grinned back at his brothers, stood and walked over to where the bats were lined up. Rich came over and helped Heath choose a bat, and started to give him some hints on batting when his name was called.
“Hey, Blond Barkley, you’re up!”
Heath walked over home plate, and after a minute of inner thought, adjusted his cap and took a stance like he had seen some of the other batters do. The first ball pitched to him caught him off guard and so he didn’t swing.
Wow! The ball was fast! Okay, Heath thought. You can do this. Just concentrate. Don’t take your eyes off the ball.
The second ball pitched to him was low. In remembering how Rich described strikes, balls and outs, Heath knew that this ball wasn’t a good one. It didn’t go into the “pitcher’s box.”
The next two pitches were wide. Heath didn’t take the bait. He was already learning that part of the strategy of pitching was to give false hope to the batter. If the batter thought he could hit it, then the batter would go after a bad pitch, causing needless strikes.
“Ball three, Strike one!”
Heath looked over at his brothers, and saw big smiles coming from both of them. Nick gave him the thumbs up. Great!
The next pitch was perfect. Heath’s trained eye saw it come straight down the center of the pitcher’s box. He swung his bat, and it connected with the ball. CRACK!! Home run!
The players directed Heath to run the bases. Everyone cheered, including the Athletics. The players on that team were pleased…they loved competition.
“Boy Howdy, little brother, I think you can rival the best of them!” Nick hollered the loudest, so proud of his younger sibling.
Heath ran to home plate and was instantly surrounded by his brothers and new teammates. A huge smile played on his handsome face. “Thanks, Nick!”
“Okay Nick, you’re up, or do you want to practice first?”
“I think I can handle this,” Nick said to Joe. “Can’t let baby brother here have all the glory, now can we?”
While Nick went to bat, Jarrod pulled Rich over and asked for some quick practice. Rich and Jarrod walked over to the side, where Jarrod received a quick one-on-one lesson on batting.
Heath, beaming from his exceptional play, sat with his team, cheering on Nick.
“C’mon, Nick! Hit it out of the field!”
Nick sauntered over to home plate, and remembered all he learned last year. He adjusted his cap, turned the bat around in his hands a few times, and took the familiar batting stance. The first ball pitched to Nick was straight down the middle. Trying to get a feel for the pitched ball again, he hesitated.
That’s fine, he thought. Watch the ball….watch the ball. The second ball pitched to him curved. He swung and missed.
The Atlantics were on their feet. If the blond could hit the ball, then this bigger man should be able to do it. Everyone started yelling out encouragements while Nick took a minute to compose himself. Once he got into his batting stance, everyone quieted down.
The next two pitches were wide. His hazel eyes bore down on the pitcher, and he was definitely getting a good read on how the balls were going to be pitched.
“Ball two, Strike two!”
“Good job, Nick!” Jarrod rejoined the team.
The next pitch was the one Nick was waiting for. Perfect in height and speed, Nick swung and hit a perfect fly to the outfield, where no Athletic was able to get it. It bounced, too, which gave him time to run to second base. A double!
Cheers went up from the Atlantics, but not the Athletics this time. They liked competition, but they didn’t like to lose.
“How about you, Jarrod? Want to try?” Joe asked.
“I think I need to show my brothers a thing or two about batting,” Jarrod snickered. He said a silent prayer that he wouldn’t strike out his first time up.
Jarrod took a batter stance as the first pitch came in. A little anxious, he swung at the pitch and missed.
“No worries, Jarrod! You can do it! Just keep your eyes on the ball!” Heath shouted encouragement.
The lawyer took a step back and adjusted his cap. Okay, okay. Heath’s right…just keep my eye on the ball. Look for one that is the proper height and speed. Jarrod adjusted his cap again, and retook his batting stance.
The ball came in a little lower than before. Jarrod didn’t swing.
Feeling better, the eldest brother once again took his batting stance.
The ball was pitched and Jarrod swung. CRACK! The ball went straight up into the air. As it came back down, the catcher ran to catch it, but it bounced off the end of his glove and dropped to the ground.
“You’re supposed to hit it into the field, Counselor!” Nick bellowed from second base. “C’mon, Jarrod, you can do it!”
The Atlantics were on their feet. “Batta, batta, batta, SWING, batta!” The first inning was the most exciting one they had in long time. These Barkley’s were pretty good!
“Don’t let Nick bother you, big brother! Just keep your eye on the ball!” Heath yelled his encouragement.
Jarrod nodded, keeping his concentration. This time, the ball came in just where he wanted it. CRACK! The ball didn’t sail up as Heath’s or Nick’s had, but instead, ran along the ground right through the legs of the shortstop. Jarrod ran to first, and was waved to second base by Joe. He stood on second, a little sweaty and winded, but exhilarated. The team cheered.
Nick ran around third and hit home base with both feet! Score!
As Heath and the Atlantics greeted their newest hero with back-slapping praise, two men stood off to the side and watched the scene before them.
The time was getting close. They waited for their opportunity.
The Barkley’s played the rest of the day, and enjoyed the time at bat immensely. Between all three brothers, several home runs, doubles, and singles would be added to the Atlantics score card.
When the Atlantics played defense, Heath was assigned shortstop, Nick was assigned third base, and Jarrod became the catcher. Since Jarrod wasn’t a runner, he excelled in the stationary position, and greatly enjoyed collaborating with the pitcher and the coach on strategy.
Heath and Nick played well off of each other, something Joe picked up on immediately, and used to his advantage. He quickly saw, too, that the two eldest Barkley’s demonstrated a little protectiveness to their blond brother. He wondered why…the blond could definitely take care of himself, he thought wistfully. But he dismissed any concern. They were here to have fun.
The men watched all day, looking for weakness, looking for a needed opportunity.
They saw their target….the blond cowboy. The information provided identified him to be the most vulnerable.
They noticed that the dark rancher playing third base was having fun teasing his brother. The other brother, also, seemed to watch the blond’s back.
They talked….they made their decision….the first time the cowboy was alone, they would make their move.
That night at dinner, changed and bathed from the day’s events, the Barkley’s sat down to eat with Joe and the Henderson’s.
Sam Henderson was a tall man, standing over 6’2” with graying hair and a big mustache. His wife, Ellen, also very tall, but lithe in stature, complimented her husband sweetly.
“So, you boys did well today, I hear,” Sam Henderson said. The Henderson family consisted of Sam, Ellen, and their four children, Jack, age 16, Sarah, age 14, Billy, age 9, and Christy, age 5. Sarah, a striking brunette, was practically drooling at Heath, causing the blond to shift uncomfortably in his chair. Jack, noticing his sister’s newest love craze, elbowed his brother. They whispered to each other and unsuccessfully tried to stifle their laughter.
Ellen, noticing her guest’s unease and her daughter’s staring, asked Sarah to get the dessert. “Sarah, did you hear me? Please go get the cake that we baked today.”
“Yes, Mama.” Sarah stood and purposely walked behind Heath so that her skirts would swish against his chair.
Jarrod chuckled to himself as he leaned back in his chair. Truly endearing was the fact that Heath never really understood how good-looking he was, making him that much more attractive to the opposite sex, at any age.
“They are good. Really good. I have to tell you that I’m very surprised, and incredibly pleased,” said Joe. “We won, 9-4. We haven’t won in this fashion in quite awhile.”
Christy slid off her chair and walked around to where Heath sat. She climbed up uninvited into his lap and tapped his cheek. She whispered, “This will drive Sarah crazy.” The child then laid her head on the cowboy’s shoulder. Christy’s brothers bent down to hide their laughter. They loved putting their sister up to no good.
Heath held the child loosely in his arms, and looked to his brother for help. Nick savored his brother’s predicament and gave an “I don’t know what to do,” gesture. But he made the mistake of looking at his brother’s eyes, and he melted. He could really never say no to Heath.
“Christy, how old are you now?” Nick’s question brought her mother’s attention to her youngest child.
“Christy, leave Mr. Barkley alone.” Ellen walked over and gathered up her youngest daughter just as Sarah walked back into the dining room. Her eyes were wide as she watched her mother lift Christy off of the cowboy’s lap.
Heath looked over at his big brother. Thanks, Nick, his eyes conveyed.
“I’m five years old!” Christy announced.
“If you want to make six you’ll behave yourself,” Ellen scolded, as she placed her daughter back into her chair.
“As I was saying,” Joe continued, bringing the conversation back to his favorite topic, even though he enjoyed the brotherly banter. “We did really well today, thanks to our newest players.”
“Well, thank you very much,” contributed Nick. “Brother Heath, here, started off the day with a home run.” He also noticed Sarah’s attention to his younger brother, and although he would tease him later on the subject, he tried to make the situation less uncomfortable for the blond.
“Heath, you never held a bat before today?” Nick asked.
“Uh, no, never.” Heath swallowed to get his voice back. “I heard about the game when I was in Spanish Camp, but never thought more of it. Now that I’ve played it, I can understand why y’all love it so much.” Since he was feeling put on the spot, his drawl was very pronounced.
Sarah walked to the table and placed the dessert right in front of Heath. “Would you like a piece of cake, Mr. Barkley?” Sarah sweetly offered as she batted her eyelashes at the handsome cowboy.
Sam and Ellen exchanged glances. ‘She’s at it again!’ their eyes silently communicated.
Jarrod and Nick practically had to stuff their napkins in their faces to keep from laughing. Joe smiled broadly. These brothers were a riot.
Sarah’s brothers and sister snickered and mumbled to themselves.
Heath’s face blushed deeper.
Ellen had enough. “Sarah, I’ll serve the cake. Children, you each take a piece of cake and go sit outside for awhile. Let our guests relax.”
“But Mama,” Sarah started to complain.
“I said.” Ellen delivered her statement emphatically.
“Listen to your mother, Sarah. Children, do as your mother asked.” Sam’s tone was no-nonsense. He didn’t need his daughter scaring up any trouble with his guests. They were only here for a short time. He said a prayer that Christy wouldn’t give him this kind of trouble when she got older, but his instincts already told him otherwise. Sarah was too boy crazy for her own good. Girls!
As the children left, the table collectively let out of sigh of relief. “I’m terribly sorry, Heath. My daughter is at that awkward age. I hope you understand.” As Ellen handed Heath a piece of cake, she smiled. Her daughter was right….he was cute. And the blushing was just too dear.
“I understand, ma’am,” Heath said. “This cake looks mighty delicious.” He hoped to redirect the conversation.
“I’ll take that big piece right there,” Nick said. He winked at his younger brother.
Jarrod also helped out. “And I too, would like a piece. I’d like to tell Sarah later that her baking skills were very much appreciated.”
“How long to you boys plan to stay?” asked Ellen. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you like. Or as long as you can tolerate our children.” Everyone laughed.
“We were planning on staying all day tomorrow, and heading out early Monday morning,” Jarrod offered.
“That’s great,” said Joe. “You can get in some practice after breakfast. The game will start tomorrow in the afternoon, one o’clock.”
“Excellent! Jarrod, I think you should be the first in line for batting practice,” Nick challenged.
“Oh, is that so? Well, if I recall Brother Nick, you struck out a few times yourself today.”
Heath smiled and relaxed, and sat back in his chair. He knew what his brothers were doing and he was grateful. “I could help you both, if you want me to. Joe said I was a natural.”
“A natural, huh? Yeah, you’re a natural alright!” Nick teased.
“He is, actually,” Joe interjected, taking advantage of the turn in conversation. “Heath, you have a natural feel to the ball and bat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone take as quickly to the game as you have without any instruction.”
Heath smirked. “See?”
“Well, if you ever do decide to try your hand at baseball, you just let me know. We could use some good players.” Joe’s offer was serious.
“Why, thank you Joe. I’ll think on it.”
“No he won’t, Joe. He’s a Barkley…that makes him a rancher.” Nick didn’t even want to joke around. Just the idea of Heath leaving, even in jest, was enough to make him nervous. Nick’s eyes told Heath everything. Heath reveled in his brother’s caring.
“Wouldn’t want to make a little side bet on our batting averages, would you, Brother Nick?”
“Well now, Pappy, that sounds like a good idea to me! Like I said, you could use the practice tomorrow morning.”
“Brother Heath, care to join in for that $50 you lost?”
“Big Brother, I certainly would. How about double or nothing?”
“Oh brothers, I hate to take your money!” Nick laughed. “Double it is!”
Joe shook his head and laughed. “Well, this certainly is going to be an interesting weekend!”
Sam Henderson spoke up. “How about we take our smokes and drinks out on the front porch? I’d like to share with you why baseball means so much to me, and why I asked Joe to bring the team here.” Everyone nodded in agreement. Jarrod was looking forward to a smooth cigar and a glass of cognac. Being a catcher was hard on the knees.
“Ellen, in deference to our guests, please round up the children and get them upstairs before we go out.”
“Good idea, Sam,” she said as he walked toward the front of the house.
Once the children were inside with their mother, the men gathered on the front porch. Smokes, drinks and laughter, filled the night air as tall baseball stories were starting to spin.
The Henderson house was big, but not quite as large as the Barkley mansion. Heath sat on the porch railing and leaned back against one of the columns. He basked in the evening sun, and let himself relax. He looked away from the golden rays of the setting sun, to watch his brother Nick command his audience. Tom, Charlie, Rich and several other players had joined the small crowd, happy to be enjoying the Henderson’s hospitality. Nick stood tall, chattering away while he walked back and forth on the porch, carrying a drink in one hand and puffing on a cigar with the other. Dressed again in his black ensemble, he looked larger than life.
Ah, Nick. Yes, his brother.
Nick was something else. Confident, boisterous, animated. But also very caring and protective of what was his. He smiled. He was part of what Nick protected, and he liked that very much. He never thought of himself as belonging to anything, or anyone, let alone an entire family. He remembered as a small child he would ask his mother for a big brother. When his mother would laugh, hug him, and explain that just wasn’t possible, he often felt that he was at his most vulnerable.
He looked over at Jarrod and smiled again. Jarrod had a contented look, as he puffed on his cigar and swirled his cognac. Confidence oozed off of the lawyer. He commanded an audience in a different way than Nick, but equally just as effective. With a smooth delivery and a piercing gaze, he projected the message that Jarrod Barkley was a formidable opponent. Heath was so proud of both of them. He felt blessed to have them as brothers.
Heath looked back at the swirling golden colors of the sunset and closed his eyes. Today was one of his best days. The dazzling beauty of the early evening and the closeness of his brothers made him feel warm; made him feel safe. He relaxed a little more.
The baseball players bid their goodnights. As they walked down the porch stairs, Rich reached over and patted Heath on the leg. Heath opened his eyes.
“Don’t forget. We’ll meet at the field at around 7. Is that okay with you?”
“Fine. Thanks, Rich. Lookin’ forward to it.”
Heath put his ear back to the conversation on the porch. The subject had turned from baseball to cattle. Sam Henderson had purchased a large number of cattle from the Barkley’s just over a month ago, which was how Nick found out about the baseball game Sam had arranged. Sam was explaining to his guests the dispute that was going on with those purchased cattle. Nick and Jarrod listened intently, while Heath was content to listen instead to the nighttime serenade of crickets and nightingales.
“Well, there’s a family down by the river yonder who feel that the cattle I put there is grazin’ on their land. They planted a whole bunch of different crops this past spring sayin’ that they own it. The cattle pretty much trampled and ate it. But that land is mine, and has been part of this ranch since I can remember. My grandfather purchased those acres when he settled here more than fifty years ago.”
“What do the courts say?” Jarrod was intrigued.
“Ah, you know as well as I do that the courts are lookin’ for me to produce the original land grant, which I can’t find. The family, the Murphy’s, came to squat on it almost two years ago, and I’ve been filing injunctions to get them off ever since. We keep bickering between us. Can’t seem to get the law on my side in this.”
“Who are they? Murphy’s you said?” Nick asked.
“Yeah, some strange mountain family who came down from the high country. They settled in on the opposite side of the river stating they bought those acres fair and square from some land company in Sacramento.”
Nick was losing interest in the conversation. It was too technical for his liking tonight. His thoughts turned to the day’s events. He glanced over at his younger brother, who was leaning back on the porch post, eyes closed, simply enjoying the sunset.
Nick thought that he had one of his best days today. He relished his time with his brothers, and knew that he had totally surprised them with the unexpected baseball weekend. Although his purpose was to share the game he came to enjoy with both his brothers, he was also motivated to do something special for his newest one. He knew that Heath’s upbringing was downright poor, and the frivolous spending of money on pleasure was not part of his childhood. He truly enjoyed giving his younger sibling a piece of brotherhood that he had unfairly missed.
As Jarrod talked details with Sam, Nick walked over, grabbed his brother’s neck, and shook Heath out of his reverie. Heath turned his head and found himself looking into hazel eyes.
“Ready to turn in, little brother? We have a big game ahead of us tomorrow.”
Heath stood up and stretched.
“And I have early batting practice with Rich, too.”
“I really don’t think you need practice. Jarrod on the other hand….” The two brothers laughed as they walked inside the welcoming house together, leaving Jarrod and Sam engrossed in their legal discussion.
The men continued to watch. They discovered the blond was going to batting practice with one of the players in the early morning. Maybe they would see him at the house. Hopefully he would be alone.
They had waited long enough….the time had come.
Heath rose early, and tiptoed past his two sleeping brothers. He had a date with Rich at seven to practice batting, and he was looking forward to it. He wanted to see the sunrise before he headed over to the field, so he quietly dressed and slipped out of the room undetected. He paused as he closed the bedroom door and gave a thought to retrieving his gun belt. But he didn’t need it, and so, left without it.
The house was quiet with everyone still sleeping. It was still dark outside, and there was a slight chill in the air. Heath had left his jacket upstairs and didn’t want to take the chance of retrieving it; he didn’t want to wake his brothers. He wouldn’t have minded the company, though. Nick might have liked to see the sunrise with him today, but he was sleeping so soundly that Heath didn’t want to disturb him.
The blond cowboy walked outside onto the front porch and stretched. Another beautiful day was ahead of them today. Boy Howdy, did he like to play this game! Joe was right….it got under your skin.
He smiled and recalled the previous night’s dinner when Joe actually offered him an opportunity to play baseball professionally, and how Nick ended that conversation rather quickly. He chuckled out loud. He didn’t want to leave the ranch, and he didn’t feel at all offended at Nick’s reaction. It took him too many years to find his place. He wasn’t about to give it up for a game, no matter how much fun it was to play.
Heath stepped down from the porch and walked over to the corral. The sun was just coming up and the colors were spectacular. He rejoiced at the beginning of a new day when a blinding pain hit him in the small of his back.
WHAM! Again! and again!
His back was on fire. Before he could cry out, he saw the fat part a bat coming right for his face. He turned as best he could and the bat connected instead with his shoulder. Padded muscle didn’t have a chance against the wooden object; red hot agony shot down his arm and he found himself fading.
In an instinctive move, he reached up and yanked off his gold medallion, and dropped it on the ground. He prayed his attackers wouldn’t see the powerful note left for his brothers.
“Nick!” Did he actually call for his brother? Was it just a whisper?
The last blow delivered was to his upper thigh. WHACK! The pain was unbearable and Heath collapsed to the ground, never seeing or hearing his attackers.
He was dragged away.
Nick sat up in bed and looked around the room. Jarrod slept soundly, and Heath’s bed was empty. He looked at the window and saw that the sun was just rising. He smiled. He knew where he could find his brother and started dressing to go join him.
As he buttoned his shirt, he could swear he heard Heath call for him. But it was so faint, so he dismissed it.
Just then a feeling of foreboding came over him.
He had originally thought he’d let Jarrod sleep, but changed his mind. Something was wrong and he might need his older brother’s help. Why, he didn’t know…at least not yet.
He said a prayer that this feeling was just a mistake.
“Jarrod, Jarrod, wake up.”
“Huh? What time is it?”
“I dunno, but Heath is not here and I’m getting a feeling that something is just not right. I’m goin’ out to look for him.”
Jarrod sat up. Nick never woke him up unless it was important. From Nick’s actions alone, he was instantly awake and on the alert.
“Give me a few minutes to get dressed too, and I’ll join you.”
“I’ll meet you downstairs.”
Nick was careful not to be too loud as he strode purposely down the stairs. He hadn’t put his spurs on, so he didn’t jingle as he walked.
He saw that the front door was slightly ajar. Yup, little brother came this way. He opened it and stepped out onto the porch. Looking around, he saw no signs of Heath. Maybe he already went over to the field to meet Rich? It was still well before seven; maybe he went to the tents to get a fresh uniform.
Nick waited a few moments and stepped down off the porch. He strode to the corral, and noticed definite scuff marks in the dirt. His stomach clutched as he recognized a struggle had happened. What?! Heath’s boot prints could be clearly seen. He had a dent on the side of his left boot when he nicked it on a fence post nail last week. He didn’t have chance yet to get it repaired.
Something shiny caught Nick’s eye as he tried to make sense of the marks on the ground. He bent down to find a chain.
His blood ran cold as he picked up Heath’s gold medallion. Ironically, Nick himself had just replaced the chain for his brother. During a recent brotherly wrestling match, Nick inadvertently pulled the medallion and broke the clasp, not more than a month ago. Looking at the new chain, he saw that the clasp was broken again.
Someone…or maybe Heath?....pulled this off his neck. Was it meant to be a sign from his little brother?
He clutched this treasure until his knuckles turned white and knew instantly that something terrible had happened.
Off to the side were additional etches that showed someone had been dragged away. The marks ended at what looked like hoof prints.
“JARROD!! JARROD!!! Hurry up!! Get down here!!!”
Nick knew that his yell shattered the morning stillness. He didn’t care; his little brother was in trouble.