What if Victoria had succeeded in pulling Heath out from underneath the wagon, but…
“Listen, there’s some…there’s some rope in the driver’s box. You can loop it around the wagon and up around that tree and get one of the horses to pull,” Heath instructed with a grimace.
“All right I’ll try.” Victoria went to work while Heath made one last attempt at freeing himself.
“Go ahead!” he encouraged, steeling himself for the moment of truth.
She kicked the horse onward to pull at the rope. Albeit with difficulty Heath managed to wiggle himself free from underneath the wagon. “You can let go, Mother. I’m out. I’m out,” he shouted with relief.
Victoria reined back her horse and leapt down to hurry over to Heath who was lying on his side taking a breather. “Heath, anything broken?” she asked, frantically groping her son for any sign of a serious injury.
“I…I can’t tell,” Heath breathed out, heedful not to draw in deep breaths that he knew would hone the pain already burning his chest. “I think I may have a couple of bruised ribs. Hurts like hell when I breathe.”
“Maybe if you were sitting, it might help.”
Victoria took a firm grip of her son’s waist and assisted him into a sitting position; her heart breaking with each wheezing gasp. She gingerly eased his back against the furled rug and proceeded to wash the caked mud off his face.
“I’m starting to get some feeling back in my legs,” he chuckled lightly, relieved that his legs were not broken.
“We’ll take it easy for a while and then I’ll ride out for help.”
“I think I can ride, Mother. Just might have to take it at a light amble but I’ll make it back to the ranch.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not really, but I’ll have to. Can’t very well stay here. It’s going to be dark soon.”
Victoria smiled responsively and continued to dab at the dirt on his face. Heath closed his eyes to allow his mind to drift back in time, lolled by Victoria’s motherly touch that was reminiscent his mama’s; soft and gentle. He wished to freeze that moment for eternity afraid it might vanish when he opened his eyes. When he did, his mother was still there, smiling at him. It was no dream.
Once he was well rested Heath felt strong enough to undertake that long trek back to the ranch. He knew by the smart in his chest that it would an arduous journey but he had seen worse. He summoned of his energy and renewed strength to keep astride in the saddle.
Victoria brought the horse closer to the edge of the mud pond to save Heath from having to plough through the sludge to get to his mount; a labour that was sure to sap all of the strength he desperately needed for the ride. With one arm around his waist she assisted him to the horse where she gave him a hoist up. The once fluid motion into the saddle was replaced by a sluggish painful climb onto a horse that seemed ten feet tall. With Victoria’s help he finally straddled the bare back and sat motionless as he tried to regain the might that this chore took out of him.
Victoria went to her mount and swung on its bare back. She pulled on the reins to back the horse next to Heath’s. “Do you want me to take the reins?”
“No I’m okay, I’ll follow you,” he said breathlessly with a slight painful twitch that gripped Victoria in an icy clutch of dread. She nevertheless nodded in acknowledgment and took the lead at a light amble.
There were halfway down the road when Victoria realized Heath was dragging behind. She turned her mount around and rode up to her son bent over the horse’s mane. “Heath, what is it? What’s wrong?” she cringed at the sight of the face distorted in pain. “My God, you’re in pain.”
“No…no I’m all right. I just need to rest up a bit.” He lied, the beads of perspiration on his forehead revealing the depth of his agony.
Victoria ran a hand over his forehead. “Heath, you’re burning up.” She dismounted and held her arms up at Heath, beckoning him to dismount. “Come on, let’s rest. You can’t go on any further.”
“Mother we have to,” he tried to argue but the pain was just too unbearable for him to conceal it any longer.
“Heath Barkley, you get down from that horse NOW!” she commanded authoritively with a glare that Heath knew better than to defy. He slowly slid down the horse and into Victoria’s awaiting arms. She held his dead weight a few feet before easing him down on the soft grass. She hurried back to her horse to get the canteen and proceeded to help Heath get a few sips down his throat. He coughed it up but managed to hold some of it down. Each cough sent a wave of agonizing pain through his abdomen. His stomach was revolting at the torture.
“I’m going to see if I can build a travois,” Victoria said, hoping to reassure Heath that there was an alternate way to get him safely back to the ranch.
“Even if you can find enough wood, it will take hours, Mother. It’s better if you ride out to the ranch and get Nick and Jarrod. I’ll wait for you here,” he winced through a painful breath.
“I can’t leave you here alone, Heath.”
“I’ll be all right, Mother. You just hurry back.”
“Okay. But I’ll leave the rifle with you.”
“You might need it along the way.”
“I don’t think so. Besides I expect I’ll be back after dark. You’ll need it to keep away wild animals.”
“Assuming I don’t conk out.”
“You’d better not do that, Heath Barkley, you hear me,” she warned. “You are going to be just fine. We’ll have Dr. Merar waiting at the ranch.”
Heath gave a feeble nod and cracked a weak smile in return. “I’ll try. If I don’t, I won’t ever hear the end of it, right?” he teased.
Victoria smiled and bent down to give him a kiss on the cheek. She removed her coat and spread it on Heath’s chest to keep him warm. “You hold on, son. I’ll make it back as soon as possible.”
“I know you will,” he said with a fondness in his heart that was not lost on Victoria.
Victoria outraced the wind to establish a record time getting to the ranch. She burst into the foyer, panting and exhausted, shouting for her family to rally in. The shouts startled Nick and Jarrod out of bed. They hurried downstairs while putting on their bathrobe.
“Mother?!” Nick asked perplexed, squinting to make out the dishevelled appearance. “My God, what happened? Where’s Heath?”
“Oh please, Nick, Jarrod, I need your help,” she begged frantically. “Heath…Heath is,” she paused to catch her breath. “The wagon fell on him. He’s hurt bad.”
Nick and Jarrod exchanged terrified glances. Nick spoke first. “I’ll hitch up the team.. You take the first aid kit and blankets and ask one of the men to ride into town to get Doc Merar.”
“Got it,” Jarrod acknowledged.
All three strode up the stairs to change clothes and then hustled to their respective task without wasting a precious moment that could cost Heath’s life. Audra was asked to prepare Heath’s room to receive the injured party and have all the necessary implements ready to accommodate Doc. Merar.
Meanwhile, Heath was fighting a loosing battle with unconsciousness. His coughing had worsened and his stomach was revolting from the water he had swallowed a few minutes before. A bout of coughing forced him to turn on his side to vomit. He gasped in horror at the bloody phlegm he had expelled. “God!” He rolled back in a prone position and drew in a couple of deep breath that stung him in the chest. “Mother, please. Hurry!” He begged weakly before darkness engulfed him.
A few feet away escaped murderer Harry Dixon was trudging away. His shackles were burning holes in his ankles but he knew that stopping now would allow the two bounty hunters hot on his trail to get closer. The full moon was the only light that shone in the pitch-dark woods. Exhaustion was catching up with him but he refused to slow down, wanting to widen the gap between him and his pursuers.
He hobbled his way to a small clearing where he screeched dead in his track when his eyes came upon the lying figure on the ground. He scrambled to find a place to hide, choosing to leap into the nearby bushes where he waited, hoping he hadn’t been seen. When a deadly silence lingered he risked a peek at the inert form. Looking both ways to ensure the man was alone, he slowly roused out from his place of concealment to get a closer look; his eyes kept shifting from the wounded man to the rifle lying next to him on the grass. He padded up to Heath and slowly reached for his rifle; sighing in relief when his hand grabbed the weapon without any incident. He checked it for ammunitions and then bent down to check for a pulse. He rummaged through Heath’s pockets and took out his wallet.
He then sat on a nearby boulder to sever the chain at his ankles. The unconscious man didn’t even flinch at the report, suggesting that he was in a deep sleep and knocking at death’s door. Dixon couldn’t care less about this dying man but was concerned about company soon arriving to rescue him. Surprisingly enough as he stood on his feet the shackles around his ankles clicked open and dropped to the ground. Dixon couldn’t believe his luck and had to chuckle out loud, though careful not to rouse the man lying next to him. Knowing the bounty hunters only had a description of a man in shackles, he decided to clap the iron constraints around Heath’s ankles and laid the remains of the chain at the blond’s feet, after which he hobbled into the woods and mounted Heath’s horse, taking rifle and canteen with him.
“Mother,” Heath wailed in his sleep, taking Dixon by surprise. He stopped and cast a look back at the dying man crying out for his mother. A wave of anger burst forth at the though of his own mother forsaking him and yet a sense of compassion snuck up on him at the pitiful sight before him. For a brief second he dithered whether to go back and helped the blond, but the thought of freedom was stronger and he opted to leave him there, knowing that someone was bound to come for him.
It was twenty minutes later when the bounty hunters found Heath. Approaching circumspectly the man rambling deliriously in his sleep, they smiled upon noticing the chains at his feet. “Guess we got our man, Swain,” One of the hunters said to his partner.
“Looks like it, Cort,” he crowed back, checking the prisoner for any concealed weapon. “He’s clean.”
“What the hell’s the matter with him?”
“He’s burnin’ up. We cain’t lose ‘im, Cort. He ain’t worth nothin’ dead.”
“I know. We’ll have to get ‘im to Doc. Petticord.”
“That’s miles away. From the looks of ‘im he ain’t gonna make it that far.”
“Then what d’ya suggest we do?” he hissed.
“You’re right. We certainly cain’t leave ‘im here.”
The two men proceeded to get Heath on Cort’s horse after which he swung in the back of the saddle to hold the swaying man as he rode to the closest town. Heath started coughing blood, scaring the daylights out of Cort who was afraid to lose the sweetest reward he would ever know. They had to keep the escaped convict alive at all cost.
“Heath!” Victoria shouted, her heart leaping to her throat upon seeing the empty spot. As she picked her coat she gasped in horror at the smudges of blood She looked down on the grass to notice a mass of caked blood. “My God, he’s coughing blood.”
Nick and Jarrod swept the area for any sign of their brother they assumed had wandered off. “He couldn’t have gone far in his condition,” Nick surmised. He beckoned Jarrod to take one side while he took the other to look for their brother. Minutes later all three converged back to their original point. “No sign of him, Mother.”
“He has to be here. He couldn’t have walked away by himself. He was too weak,” the mother said frantically.
Jarrod approached her and took her firmly by the shoulders. “It’s okay Mother. Calm down. We’ll find him.”
“His horse is gone,” Nick informed. “My guess is my stubborn brother tried to make it back on his own.”
“If he did, wouldn’t we have crossed him along the way?” Jarrod opined.
All three were at a lost for options.
Cort and Swain we compelled to make several stops along the way as Heath kept hacking his lungs out, coughing a greater amount of blood.” I’m ‘fraid we’re losin’ ‘im, Swain, He ain’t gonna make it to Roseville.”
“It’s only a couple of miles away. He has to.”
“Well tell ‘im that,” he replied sarcastically. “His belly feels kinda swollen. He’s drownin’ in his blood. I tell ya he ain’t gonna make it.”
“Well we ain’t got no choice, ain’t we? Either we leave ‘im here to croak and we can kiss the reward goodbye or get his corpse to Roseville and get at least half the reward.”
“Yeah, Guess half’s better than nothin’.”
Once Heath’s bout of coughing had subsided, the bounty hunters resumed their trek.
Back in Stockton a search party was already hot on Heath’s trail. Willing neighbours had answered Fred Madden’s call to form a dozen teams to comb the countryside. Two days of fruitless results dashed the hope of ever finding the young Barkley alive.
One late night, Fred dropped by the ranch to bring Victoria the grim news.
“The men have searched everywhere, there’s just no trace of him, Victoria. No word from the sheriff of the neighbouring towns I’ve wired either.”
“He just couldn’t have vanished,” Victoria sobbed. Audra wrapped a comforting arm around her mother’s shuddering shoulders.
“Anson Detrick thinks that…”
“What? What does he think?” Victoria asked anxiously.
“That he might have stumbled into the river and…” he needed not finish a sentence that was self-explanatory.
Victoria turned away towards the livingroom where she hoped to regain some of her composure. At that moment Nick and Jarrod entered through the front door.
“Fred! Any news?” Nick queried expectantly.
“Like I told your mother, we couldn’t find your brother.”
“Mother?” Jarrod walked up to her, curious as to why her back was facing the present company. He gently laid his hands on her shoulders and turned her around to face him. Her eyes were puffy red and her bedewed cheeks told him of the throes of agony the news had plunged her into. He pulled her to him to encourage her to give way to her penned up emotions.
“Why couldn’t I’ve waited to open the lodge?” she berated herself. “Why didn’t we just double back when we saw the mud? Why?” she wept, gripping Jarrod’s lapels for strength.
“Mother, don’t do this to yourself,” Audra reasoned, laying a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known. No one could.”
“That’s right, Mother,” Nick piped in. “Had I been in Heath’s place I would have done the same.”
“No you wouldn’t have,” Victoria retorted. “You were the one who told us to wait a least another week. I should have listened to you.”
Nick was at a lost for words. His pained expression travelled from one sibling to the other; his heart breaking at the sight of his repentant mother.
“We’ll resume the search in the morning,” Fred said obligingly. “We’ll find him either way, Victoria.” He assured with a hand on her arm. She in turn placed her hand on his and smiled her gratitude.
“I’ll walk you back,” Nick offered. As they neared the door, Fred turned to Nick, “There’s one place I want to look. Roseville. The lines are down over there and I haven’t been able to get a wire through.”
Nick looked over at Jarrod who was seen walking towards them. “Roseville? That’s near the lodge.”
“It’s an awful long way for him to go. At least two hours from where he was last seen,” Nick explained.
“I think it’s worth the shot. You know your brother might not have ridden anywhere. Someone could have seen him and taken him to a doctor and my best bet is Roseville.”
“It’s worth the shot. We’ve looked everywhere. Thanks Fred.” Nick expressed, then closed the door behind the sheriff and locked eyes with three renewed confident expressions. “Jarrod, what d’ya say you and me travel to Roseville?”
“I’m coming with you,” Victoria announced.
“Mother, you’re exhausted,” Jarrod observed. “You need your rest. We’ll be in touch with you if we find him.”
“You heard what Fred said, the lines are down. You won’t be able to wire us. No I’m coming with you and that’s final. We’ll take the train to go faster,” Victoria snapped, tabling the discussion; her steely eyes warning her children against challenging her decision.
Nick and Jarrod looked at each other and shrugged, knowing there would be no arguing with their mother.
Early next morning Ciego drove the Barkleys to the train station while Fred and his men resumed the search for Heath, though their hearts were not in it anymore as they felt the young Barkley had met with an early demise. But they humoured the family who enticed them to keep the spirit with generous bonuses.
Victoria, Nick and Jarrod alighted the wagon the minute the train came to a halt. A porter was hired to handle their luggage and rent two rooms for the night while they proceeded to locate the sheriff’s office.
“Sheriff Walters?” Victoria queried upon entering the office.
The sheriff flung his legs on the floor and stood from behind his desk “That’s right ma’am. What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for my son, Heath Barkley. He went missed two days ago and we have reasons to believe he might have come here.”
The offhanded reply took all three by surprise. “You mean he’s here in town?” Victoria exulted.
The sheriff’s forlorn expression quickly cast a gloom over the ecstasy of joy. “You with her?” he asked of Nick and Jarrod.
“That’s right. She’s our mother.” Nick replied with a defiant stance, afraid to be left out of the parade.
“Come with me,” The sheriff said solemnly. He led the threesome across the street to the undertaker. “Norman,” he addressed the undertaker. “These people want to see their relative, Heath Barkley.”
With a dismal look, the man took them to the back where he pointed to a wooden casket “There he is.”
“No!” Victoria wailed, her heart crashing down her throat. She turned to Jarrod closest to her and dissolved into tears in his arms.
With legs numbed from the shock Nick slouched over to the casket with a blenched expression. The news of his brother’s tragic death had knocked his senses out cold. He felt like a rag doll deprived of emotions. He dropped to his knees and clenching his fists he pounded them against his brother’s casket. “Damn you!” he cried.
As for him Jarrod strove to hold his bearings long enough to enquire about the situation as it happened. “How?”
“He was shot at the saloon.”
The news brought Victoria and Nick to stand to attention. “What?” she asked in shock.
“He was playing poker last night and apparently won big. When he tried to cash in the money, the players accused him of cheating. They went into a fistfight and it ended with him getting a bullet in the chest.”
“That can’t be,” Victoria argued fiercely. “There must be some mistake.”
“No mistake ma’am. We found his wallet and ID. It was your son.”
“That’s impossible. He was barely alive when I left him. He was too weak to even walk.”
In the background, Nick risked a peek at the body inside the casket. “It’s not him, Mother. It’s not him,” Nick laughed hysterically. “Take a look!”
Jarrod and Victoria hurried over to Nick to take in the face of Harry Dixon. “That’s not my son.”
“It’s not?” The sheriff asked, perplexed, turning to the undertaker for answers.
“He was brought in last night, sheriff,” the undertaker explained. “The wallet was his only identification.”
“But that’s not Heath,” Victoria claimed.
“What does your son look like ma’am?” Victoria proceeded to described Heath’s features down to the clothes he had been wearing. “You know, two bounty hunters brought an injured man to the doctor’s office a few days ago. They told me they had found escaped murderer Harry Dixon and claimed the ransom. I had to wait if he survived before handing them the money since the man is worth more alive than dead. He sure does fit the description you gave me.”
“Please, take us to him,” Victoria begged.
They walked down the street to Doctor Petticord’s office where they were met with reticence from the doctor’s wife. “I can’t let you go in there, folks,” she warned with her hands pressed firmly against Nick’s chest.
“Please Angie, we need to talk to the doctor about that patient we brought in a few days ago. It’s important.”
At that moment the doctor walked out. “If you came for the patient Sheriff I’m afraid it’s still touch and go.”
“This is Mrs. Barkley and her sons. They swear the man you have in there in their relative.”
“I thought his name was Harry Dixon, the escaped convict?”
“That’s what we thought at first, but we ain’t so sure anymore. Mistaken identity. That would explain the bruises around the dead man’s ankles. Can we go in?”
“I will allow only the family for just a few minutes.” He escorted Victoria into the room and instructed her to pad up to the bed where the patient laid unconscious.
“Oh my God, Heath,” she cried, putting a hand to her mouth to suppress her overwhelming emotions. “How is he, Doctor?”
“I didn’t think he would survive when they first brought him in. He was suffering from internal bleeding and several fractured ribs; one nicked a lung. But he came through the surgery well and made it thus far. He hasn’t regained consciousness yet which is what worries me.”
“Can we talk to him?” she asked pleadingly.
“Of course. In fact it might help to hear a familiar voice. Try to get him to open his eyes.”
Victoria sat on the edge of the bed and gently cradled Heath’s hand in hers. “Heath, son. It’s Mother. I’m here and so are your brothers. You’re safe, Heath. Please open your eyes for me.” There was no reaction. “Heath, I’m so sorry for what happened. It’s all my fault. If you die I’ll never be able to forgive myself.” She wept, bringing Jarrod and Nick to border on tears. She leaned forward and kissed Heath’s forehead and ran a gentle hand through his damp hair. “Son, please hear me. Please I beg of you. Come back to me Heath.”
A slight muffled moan startled everyone in the room. The doctor approached the patient and took the pulse. He smiled at Victoria emboldening her to continue, which she did until two blue vacuous orbs managed to peer through a slit.
“Yes Heath. I’m here.”
Victoria dropped her head onto Heath’s chest and cried her heart out. “Thank God, Heath.”
“Guess...guess next spring…we’ll… have to wait a lit…little longer to open the lodge,” Heath managed to joke with a weak lopsided smile that sent everyone’s heart brimming over with delight.
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