Not a person breathed, not a person shifted on the hard seats in the room. They watched, they waited, they were fascinated with the scene which’d been played out in the public forum of the courthouse. The room sparsely decorated, justice’s arena didn’t need to be lavish, it didn’t need to be loaded with grandeur. Justice only needed the bare necessities to carry out its duty.
Sitting at the table, eyes staring forward were lost and full of shock, the man on his right side spoke in his ear but his audience didn’t hear him. The eyes stared at the brass lady holding the scales of justice, the scene on the wall behind the bench of the judge had been his focus the past three days.
Three days since the parade of family, friends and witnesses to the brutality displayed, the scene horrific to them, the blood spilled played over and over in their minds. Today was the culmination of an act which sent the entire town reeling.
The entire room save the defendant stood until he was pulled to his feet, his handcuffed hands in front of him when Judge Howard Finster entered and seated himself behind the bench. The man in the black cloth watched the jury of twelve peers refile back into the room, their faces unreadable, their eyes staying away from the two tables in front of the crowded room. The honorable judge ran his eyes over the jury and across the two tables, the shocked eyes of the defendant again leaving him wondering.
Taking the paper the bailiff handed him, the man practiced in the art of schooling his features read the word on the paper before nodding. The bailiff nodded to the defense attorney who again pulled his client to his feet, the man hadn’t spoken a word since the trial for justice began.
All eyes turned towards the bailiff and all ears listened for the decision.
Clearing his throat, the bailiff opened the paper and held it in his trembling fingers. His eyes blinking to fight back the emotion as he felt his heart shrivel at the sentencing of a man who’d befriended him, a man he couldn’t believe was capable of such an act.
Taking a deep, shaky breath his voice filled every inch of the courtroom as he spoke.
“Heath Thomson, this court finds you guilty of the attempted murder of Jarrod Thomas Barkley.”
The room filled with a dull roar of disbelief, cries of anguish from the silver haired and blonde haired ladies in the front row, a cry of loss from the hazel eyed man seated beside his mother, his hands clenching in anger, brown eyes of the grandfather teared and the old man’s body shook.
Judge Howard Finster banged his gavel bringing the roar to silence, his brown eyes softened for a moment at the blonde blue eyed man who hadn’t moved, hadn’t given any indication he was aware of all going on.
“Heath Thomson, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers. Have you anything to say before sentencing is passed?”
“Heath?” questioned the defense attorney, Jack Quinn. His words again not recognized by his client, the hand he placed on the muscular arm had no effect either.
Shaking his head, he glanced back at the family before stating, “No, your Honor.”
“Your service to society as a former marshal who was intimate with the laws of man, the laws of society is recognized and appreciated. Your standing in the community of Stockton has been firmly established, your treatment of your fellowman highly exemplary. It is because of these and the pleas of your family which have swayed me to not sentence you to death.”
Pausing and banging his gavel again to bring down the roar, the judge waited before turning his eyes back to the man turned criminal.
“Heath Thomson, you are hereby sentenced to life in the California State Prison. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Heath couldn’t get the nightmare out of his head, his mind replayed the horror when his body responded without his knowledge. Jumping down from the train to greet his family, his eyes were void of everything except the numbness in their depths. His arm lifted slowly, the pistol appearing in his hand, steady and unwavering causing shock to spread across Jarrod’s face before the color red stained the side of his head after he moved, shifting to the left moving the bullseye the dead eyes saw on his forehead.
The screaming of everyone around him drowned out everything else, his fall onto the ground from the men who tackled him and stopped any further assault on his family went unnoticed. His mind shut down, the shock of the nightmare wouldn’t leave. He was in a cloak of darkness.
Lifting the former marshal to his feet, Fred and Billy each held an arm firmly, making their way to the pair of waist high swinging doors, the prisoner’s eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking and uncaring.
Victoria and her other three children stood at the end of the aisle, her small hand raising and stopping the sheriff. Moving in front of Heath, she again felt the kick in her stomach. Her son was there physically but he was somewhere else in his mind.
“Heath!” pleaded Victoria, her eyes filling with tears, their family was crumbling and she could didn’t know what to do, how to bring her sons back. “Please talk to us, Heath. Please!”
Nick saw his mother’s lips tremble and he wrapped his arm around her small body, hazel eyes bearing down on his younger brother. He, too, like all the other family members knew something was dreadfully wrong with the man before them.
This wasn’t him, this wasn’t the man who’d fought for them, fought for Jarrod all those months ago at the mission by the sea, fought to bring himself and his oldest brother out of the darkness. This wasn’t the brother who’d lay his life down for any of them.
This was a stranger. This was a stranger who’d stepped off the train and pulled a gun on his family waiting for his return on the depot.
Fred apologized before pulling Heath forward leaving the family behind. Stopping briefly before Victoria, Hiriam held her hand.
“Victoria, has there been any change at all?” queried Hiriam, his face seeming to have aged twenty years since the horrific afternoon. “Anything?”
Shaking her head, Victoria dabbed at her eyes, unable to speak from the mind boggling events. Nick took a deep breath and placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder.
“Jarrod’s still unconscious, Hiriam. Can you go with the family to Dr. Merar’s?” informed Nick, his eyes filled with sorrow and anger. “I’m going to try talking to Heath again. Maybe I can get through. We need to get him to talk. I can’t stand here and let them haul him off to prison. He wouldn’t harm Jarrod like this! It’s him but it’s not!”
“I agree, Nick and I hope you can reach him. I’ll stay there til you come back.” replied Hiriam.
Placing a kiss on his mother and sister’s cheeks, the strong rancher followed the path of the lawmen and prisoner, his brother. Fred and Billy held Heath’s arms, the blonde rancher, their friend hadn’t uttered a word since he felled his brother. He’d been an example of a dead man walking, no emotion, no faltering.
The nightmare kept flashing in his mind, the screams sounded in his ears. Suddenly, at the edge of the nightmare a face showed itself and he felt a chill of fear rise up, choking him. The face on the edge of the crowd smiled, the dark eyes in the midst of beauty were anything other than loving, they were the ultimate of evil, the ultimate of revenge.
Fred and Billy stumbled when the blonde fell to his knees and grabbed at his throat, his struggle to breath startling them. The oxygen seeking gasps the first sound he’d made since he opened the side of his brother’s head with a forty five bullet. The panic in his eyes the first emotion he’d shown.
Standing on the edge of the gathered crowd, the dark eyed watcher smiled slyly and cast a last look at the chaos in the hallway before turning and slipping out the side door of the courthouse. Walking down the alley, she was helped into a coach, the windows covered with dark curtains and her laughter could be heard over the sound of trace chains and horses hooves as the coach moved away.
Pushing through the crowd in the hallway, Nick’s heart twisted in his chest at the yells of Fred, his eyes seeing the lawmen holding Heath upright on his knees, restrained hands holding onto his throat.
“HEATH!” screamed Nick kneeling in front of the blonde, hazel eyes widening at the stark panic in the previously void orbs, the lips of his brother turning blue.
Pulling on his brother’s wrists, Nick was surprised at the power of the unexpected shove which threw him back off his heels, the hands returning to their position, the gasps loosing volume as his air intake decreased. Pushing himself back up, anger flared up and Nick grabbed onto his struggling brother’s face encasing it in his strong hands.
“DAMMIT, BREATH HEATH!” shouted Nick several times afraid his brother’s life was slowly ebbing away in front of him, the blonde’s eyes rolled upwards and he suddenly slumped forward into his brother’s arms. “HEATH!”
Fred quickly laid two shaky fingers against his prisoner’s neck, the officer removed his hand and took a deep breath before placing his digits back on the pulse site. Nick held the blonde in his arms, his eyes pinned to his brother’s face, unable to see any rising of his chest. Hearing a murmur in the crowd, Nick looked up into the fearful faces of his family before hearing Fred sigh with relief.
“I can feel a weak pulse, Nick. Help me take him to the jail. Billy, get the doc.” ordered Fred, taking the unconscious man’s feet and Nick took the upper half of his brother’s body. The crowd parted amid whispers at the drama they’d witnessed and the family followed the men cross the street and enter the jail, heading to the back and placing Heath gently onto a cot.
“Take off these damn cuffs.” said Nick, kneeling by the bed and running his hand over the blonde hair, the sight of his brother in locks sickening him.
“Nick, Heath’s not himself and I can’t take the chance. Sorry.” said Fred, looking up at the sound of running feet. Howard and Billy rushed into the room, the physician asking what happened, the puzzlement on his face deepening as the examination progressed.
Nick stood outside the metal bars, one arm around his mother and one around his sister. Hiriam stood holding onto one of the cool pieces of metal, his eyes not leaving the young man who’d taken up all of his heart. Brown eyes blinked away the tears of frustration, concern, worry and anger. For not the first time in the past week and a half, the older man found himself searching for his gentle strong grandson who left Stockton in the monster who’d returned.
Howard sighed and ran a hand over his face before closing his black bag and leaving the cell. Fred unlocked the handcuffs from the strong wrists, placing Heath’s hands by his side and squeezing the closest one before locking the door behind him.
“Victoria, there’s nothing wrong with Heath.” sighed Howard with a shake of his head.
“What do you mean? He couldn’t breath!” blurted Nick stepping over and gesturing into the cell at the still man. “His lips were blue! I thought he was gonna die right in front of me!”
“I believe you, Nick.” assured Howard glancing back into the cell, turning his eyes back to the family. “There’s no obstruction in his throat, his heart is strong, his color is back. I don’t know why he couldn’t breath, there’s no medical reason for it that I can find. I can’t give you answers for what I don’t understand. I’m sorry.”
Placing a hand on her friend’s arm, Victoria wiped the tears from her cheek and nodded, “Howard, we know you’d do whatever you can to help Heath and Jarrod. We appreciate everything you’ve done for our family, for the boys. If we can get through to Heath, then maybe we can get to the bottom of why this is happening.”
Patting the hand on his arm, the physician took a shaky breath, “I’ll go back and sit with Jarrod. Do you want me to send Gene here?”
Shaking her head negatively, Victoria held Audra’s hand, glancing towards her son. “We’ll come with you, Howard. I want to see Jarrod.”
Nick nodded his agreement and held onto the bars with clenched hands, his eyes watching the rising of his brother’s chest, his forehead against the bars, a chill climbing his spine. Two brothers, both in dire straits, both in need of help.
Hiriam reached over and squeezed Nick’s shoulder, his eyes full of empathy and sympathy.
Fred called to Nick and Hiriam, the men reluctantly leaving the cell area and entering the office where Jack Quinn, Phil Archer and Hank Finster were waiting. Nick shook the men’s hands and informed them of his brother’s condition.
“Nick, have you heard from Nate or Jack?” asked Phil Archer.
“No, not yet.” admitted Nick, running his hand through his hair. “I want to thank you again for agreeing to this fake trial. If we can find out who’s behind this, we can find out a way to find out what they did to Heath.”
Waving off Nick’s thanks, Hank smiled slightly, “Anyone who knows Heath can see he’s not himself. Everyone knows he wouldn’t harm anyone in his family at least not willing. Besides, even when Jarrod wakes, I’m sure he’s not going to press charges. I just hope having this public trial has helped.”
Frowning, Nick’s reply was stopped by the arrival of Nate Jackson. Entering the jail, the marshal nodded to the men before looking at Nick.
“The only person I saw who looked like they didn’t belong at the courthouse was a beautiful chinese girl standing on the edge of the crowd.” said Nate with disappointment, all the men had pinned their hopes on the culprits wanting to see the trial and its results. “Sorry, Nick.”
Grabbing onto Nate, Nick shouted, “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?”
Mia Ling, daughter of Sam Ling, deceased Tong leader smiled with satisfaction at the man sitting across the table. It had taken months of preparation, months of planning, months of endless waiting. It had taken months to perfect the meticulous plan of revenge. It was well worth the wait and the aggravation, the desire to seek revenge.
The man across from her was a student of human traits, a student of human tendencies. He was a man who watched people unobtrusively, blending into his surroundings, a master of his craft. He was a man who’d spent months learning all he could for his employer about the wealthy Stockton family. He’d spent months learning their habits, their friends, their passions. No names were exchanged between the two in the business arrangement. She simply called him Tracker and he called her Miss.
“Miss, as you can see here, Heath Thomson has an appointment with a specialist in Houston the fifteenth of next month. His doctor’s name is Matt Stiles and his practice is at Houston General Hospital. Your contact confirmed Thomson’s acknowledgment of the appointment by wire. Thomson also sent a wire to a man named Nate Jackson stating he was coming for a visit the week before his appointment.”
“Who’s Nate Jackson?” asked Mia before taking a sip of her tea.
“Nate Jackson is a US Marshal and friend of Thomson. He’s on leave from the marshal service to run his family’s ranch in Garwood, approximately halfway between Houston and San Antone. His father had an accident and is unable to work at this time.”
Nodding, Mia took an envelope out of her bag and handed it to the man across the table. “Good work. I may need you again after I have read what you learned.”
“Certainly, Miss.” agreed the man taking the payment and leaving the house, not liking the two pairs of eyes watching him before he closed the door behind him. He was never a person to take chances and something told him tonight would be a good time to view the sights of a neighboring town instead of returning to his hotel room.
Mia bade entrance at the knock on the door, looking up in the lifeless eyes before her and simply stated, “Kill the Tracker.”
Bowing slightly, the man left the house intent on the duty his mistress decreed. While the tracker was good in observing and his instincts correct, he wasn’t as fast as the man dogging his heels and quickly catching up.
Mia carefully read each piece of paper, each note the tracker left behind with her. The meticulous nature of the weasel like man proved to be his greatest asset. Putting all the papers away, she opened the door and motioned to the man sitting outside.
Handing him the papers on the former marshal turned rancher, the dark eyes read the account of the man’s life, his struggles in the confederate prison, his will to survive in conditions that would have killed lesser men. After a half hour, he calmly straightened all the papers into a neat pile, placing them back on the table.
“What do you want him to do?” asked Liu Wong.
“I want him to take from his family what they took from me. Their father is gone, but this one, the eldest son stepped into his place. He is the father figure of this family. I want, Heath Thomson, the man who hid the delivery boy, who helped bring about my father’s arrest and steal him from me when he was killed in prison….I want this man to kill his brother.” stated Mia calmly handing the two pictures to Liu Wong.
“When he leaves us, I want him to go home and kill the eldest at first sight.”
“It will take time. Based on his history, his mind is strong, very strong. He is also very dangerous.”
“How much time?” demanded Mia.
Thinking, Liu Wong replied quietly, “At least two weeks, maybe more. First, we will need to weaken his mind by weakening his body. We cannot leave marks on his face and we cannot beat him into submission. We have other ways to do this. When his body is weakened, exhausted and he will be unable to form thought for his mind will be weakened. Only after this will he be susceptible and the drugs will further bring him to us. The suggestions will stay in his mind after the drugs have left his body.”
“Will he remember?”
“He may but not until after the deed is done. By then it will be too late. He should be as close to where you want the deed to happen. The closer the higher rate of success.” suggested Liu tentatively.
“In one month, we will have him at this address.” stated Mia handing the small man a piece of paper. “If you cannot cloak his mind with your darkness, I will consider it a failure and will take it personally.”
“Yes, Miss Ling.” agreed Wong leaving the room, his insides trembling from her last words. A failure on his part would ensure his own death and to run would be useless. This woman and her men would track him to the ends of the earth.
Dark eyes filled with anticipation and she smiled while her eyes gazed at her father’s portrait. Yes, Heath Thomson would be the one to destroy his brother, Jarrod Barkley. Once the eldest fell, the family would be in chaos as it was after the death of their father. At the death of the father, Jarrod Barkley had stepped in and saved his family from self destruction. Upon the death of the eldest son at the hands of one of his brothers, there would be no one to save the family.
The shock of the killing by the man pulling the trigger would destroy the family and her thirst for revenge would be quenched.
Victoria smiled at the teasing between her children, her gray eyes filled with happiness and love at the scene before her. Heath pushed back his chair, he walked to his mother’s seat, bending and kissing her cheek, his hand squeezing one of hers.
“I’ll see you in two weeks, Mother.” whispered Heath, winking before standing. “Hurry up, twit brain!”
Rolling his eyes, Nick growled and pushed back his chair, placing a kiss on his mother’s upraised cheek, mumbling to himself as he followed his brother out of the room. “Sure’s gonna be nice and relaxing around here for two weeks.”
The remaining family members laughed and shook their heads at the two close brothers, their good-byes said the night before. Heath was buckling his gunbelt when Nick walked into the foyer.
“Dang, Nick. Ya’ move like you’re a hundred.” teased Heath grabbing his hat.
“Smart ass.” retorted Nick, fighting to keep the smile off his face. “We got plenty of time til the train leaves.”
Nodding and picking up his bag, Heath flashed a lop-sided grin. “Guess I’m maybe a tid bit excited about seeing Nate. Not that I don’t want to be here at the ranch with you, Nick.”
Snorting, Nick opened the door and lightly shoved his brother’s back to help him outside, “Just get in the wagon, smart ass! I need a vacation from your constant talking.”
Laughing, Heath threw his bag in the back and climbed up, waving to the family who appeared on the outer porch to watch the two brothers head into town. The drive passed quickly, the temperature of the spring day perfect and the sun shining on the two men.
Reaching town, the sight of the saloon made Nick wince and he said, “I’ll leave all the pleasant jobs for when you get home, Heath.”
Hearing the words, Heath groaned, “How many more fences you gonna make me mend til you’re not mad? Gees!”
Eyes wide with innocence, Nick asked, “What are you talking about?”
“You know damn well what I’m talking about!” growled Heath crossing his arms and sitting back on the bench seat. “Can I help it if you haven’t learn to play poker yet?”
“PLAY POKER?” shouted Nick loudly. “YOU PRACTICALLY WIPED OUT MY BANK ACCOUNT! I’M YOUR OWN BROTHER!”
Shrugging, Heath bit back his smile and shrugged. “If you can’t play with the big boys, then stay out of the saloon brother Nick.”
Nick rolled his eyes and pulled the surrey to a stop at the train depot, climbing down and following Heath inside.
“Ten minutes, Nick.” sighed Heath placing his bag on the platform and taking off his hat to wipe his sweatband.
Nick felt a sense of sadness as he waited beside his brother, the two men looking down the tracks at the sound of the whistle from the oncoming train. Heath shifted his feet, his heart clenching at the goodbye he was about to do, it was only for two weeks and he didn’t know why it seemed like it would be longer.
The train operator pulled the handle applying the brakes, letting out the steam, slowing the iron beast’s progress to a stop. Turning, Heath smiled slightly and took a shaky breath.
“I’m gonna miss ya’ Nick.” admitted Heath. “I probably won’t be able to sleep without having a donkey braying. It’ll be too quiet.”
Cuffing the blonde head, Nick smiled and wrapped his arms around his younger brother and whispered, “Make sure Dr. Stiles doesn’t put any woman’s undergarments on you.”
Laughing, Heath clapped the black vested back, “If he does, I’ll be running all the way back to Stockton. I won’t even stop to catch a train.”
Holding the back of Heath’s neck, Nick winked, “Say hello to Nate for me and have a good time. Don’t forget where home is though.”
Nodding and picking up his bag, Heath drawled, “Sure thing, twit brain!”
Nick stood on the platform, watching til the car holding his brother passed by, turning and watching the black train til it was no longer in his view. Climbing back into the surrey, he headed back to the ranch, not looking forward to having to spend two weeks without the man who’d become attached to his hip.
Heath watched the landscape passing before reclining back and placing his hat over his eyes, electing to sleep and try to ignore the peddler sitting across from him. Two transfers later and Heath jumped down from the passenger car.
“HEATH!” shouted Nate leaping from the platform and grabbing his friend into an enthusiastic hug. “Boy, you look great!”
Returning the warm welcome, Heath smiled widely, “Ya’ look about the same, Nate!”
“Oh shut up!” snapped Nate with a smile, gray eyes sparkling as he winked, “How’s that beautiful sister of yours?”
Poking the other man in the chest, Heath accentuated his words with a gentle poke, “Hey, you stay away from my sister. I think I told you that already.”
Laughing, Nate clapped the strong back and directed Heath to the buggy waiting for them. Frowning at the mode of transportation, Heath groaned, “Damn, Nate! All I’ve been doing is sitting on my ass for three days!”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to have hurt it any.” stated a feminine voice turning the blonde’s face red with embarrassment. Nate chuckled and motioned to the woman standing behind Heath.
“Heath, of course you remember Cass?” suggested Nate watching the sapphire eyes open wide and his mouth drop at the sight of the woman by his side.
“Cassidy?” whispered Heath, his mind whirling at the beauty before him, blonde hair pulled back and hanging with ringlets around her oval face. Sienna colored eyes sparkled at the impact she had on her childhood crush. “What? What happened to you?”
Laughing, the woman took hold of Heath’s hand and smiled, “Seems I grew up while you were away.”
“Boy howdy!” smiled Heath, pulling Nate to the side to help Cassidy into the surrey. “I guess so!”
Nate smirked to himself as he moved the surrey towards his family ranch. Listening to the two talk, Nate wondered if Heath Thomson, former US Marshal and friend would be the man who would finally capture his wild sister’s heart. She was now all grown up, no longer a lanky preteen girl which followed the sixteen year old Heath around like a puppydog.
A tomboy through and through, able to ride and shoot as well as any man. Nate knew his parents finally breathed a sigh of relief when she started wearing more dresses at least when going into town at their insistence. Up until now, Cassidy hadn’t shown any desire to get to know anyone of the other species which made their homes in the area.
One week later, Heath stood on the platform with Nate and Cassidy, his appointment at Dr. Stiles scheduled for later in the day. Smiling at the brother and sister, he sighed, “I sure had a great time, Nate. I still can’t believe you’re related to this wonderful family.”
“Ha! Ha!” retorted Nate, scrunching up his forehead at Cassidy’s mouthed words behind Heath.
“What’s the matter? You got a headache?” questioned Heath watching his friend’s face.
“Yeah! Yeah, I do. I’m gonna see if they got anything for it inside the station.” stammered Nate. “Be back in a minute.”
Heath shook his head and glanced at the woman next to him, her eyes level with his, her smile lighting up her face. Reaching up, Heath rubbed his thumb over her cheek bone, the skin soft and smooth at his touch.
“Will you write me, Cassidy?” asked Heath, his eyes gazing into hers.
“You can count on it.” assured Cassidy holding his hand to her face. “I’ll look for a letter every week.”
“Every week?” repeated Heath with a wink. “I can do that provided Nick doesn’t work me to a frazzle when I get home.”
“They sound absolutely wonderful, Heath. I’m so happy for you.”
“I’m a lucky man, Cass.” smiled Heath warmly, the sound of the approaching train drew his eyes from hers. Looking around the platform, Heath brushed his lips softly across hers. Pulling his face to hers, Cassidy placed a lingering kiss on his lips only stopping at the clearing of her brother’s throat.
Heath shook Nate’s hand and stumbled down the platform’s steps, blushing at the laughter from the siblings. Waving from the train steps, Heath walked through the train and stood at the back, his eyes watching until he couldn’t see her any more. His lips tingled from the kiss and his heart pounded in his chest.
The memory of the kiss passed the time he spent being re-examined by Dr. Stiles. The kind specialist was happy with Heaths’ health, his progress and relieved no problems had arisen. Heath spent the afternoon with the man and his colleagues, enduring the one-time examination in hopes it would further the research occurring on back injuries.
Leaving the hospital and walking to his hotel, the blonde entered his room and freshened up. Heading to the hotel dining room, he had dinner alone and read the latest Houston Gazette before returning to his room.
“Excuse me, sir?” queried a bell man in the hallway outside his room.
“Yes?” asked Heath curiously.
Feeling a prick in his neck, his face became hot, his left hand reached out for the wall when he became dizzy. Heath’s eyes blinked to try to clear the fuzziness in his head and the man before him wavered in his sight. His right hand brought up his gun, only to be stopped by a hand on his wrist. The hand holding his wrist exuded pressure, forcing his hand to open and drop the weapon. Heath’s eyes closed and they rolled back into his head.
Two strong arms caught the falling rancher and carried him into his room. Placing him in a laundry cart, all his personal items were thrown in and the cart wheeled to the back dock where an enclosed handsome cab waited.
Liu Wong stood at the doorway of the barren room where the subject had been thrown in, unconscious from the drug he received. The old man’s dark eyes saw the movement beneath the eyelids and he summoned the two men behind him.
The room was bare of furniture, the width of the room and length of the room sufficient for the conditioning needed to make the former lawman’s mind pliable and susceptible. Placing the box with his custom made drug on a table outside the door, he waited calmly, smiling at the two eyes which opened and blinked.
Heath instinctively felt eyes upon him during his rise to consciousness, the hard floor beneath his body caused him to shiver with cold. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled the more awake he became. His eyes opened and he rolled away from the three men who stood across the room. Leaning against the wall from a moment of dizziness, he looked down and saw he was unclothed except for his underwear.
A motion of the old man’s hand moved the two younger, stronger men towards Heath. Shaking his head to clear the last of the cobwebs, the blonde watched them near, not understanding what was going on but not wanting to stay around to find out.
Liu Wong felt an admiration in him at the coolness and readiness of the subject. Yes, the paperwork was right, this man was highly dangerous. He had survived many trials based on the scars over his lean muscular body. This little test was devised to test his reflexes and strengths, designed to give him an idea of how next to proceed.
Heath dismissed the old man from his mind, concentrating on the two younger ones slowly edging towards him. One on the left, one on the right. Suddenly, Lefty lunged and Heath dove forward, rolling and hunching on his legs, sweeping with a leg and upending Lefty, sending him falling forward on his face. Instantly, Heath rolled back and onto his feet, standing to meet the rush of Righty.
Ducking the fist headed for him, the blonde missed his swing, catching the man with a kick to his leg causing a groan to be heard when Righty’s leg buckled. Stepping back, Heath jabbed with a left which split the man’s cheek open and sent him to the floor.
Lefty lunged and pushed the subject back into the wall, Heath’s air taken out of his lungs and he found himself thrown through the air, landing on his back, seeing momentary stars but his will had him rolling over and lunging to his feet.
Liu watched the battle in the room, the blonde loosing ground before regaining it against his two adversaries. Liu Wong was puzzled, this man was familiar with some of the fighting techniques known only to those from the East. It appeared the Tracker did not discover all of the subject’s past history.
Clapping his hands suddenly, Liu saw the puzzlement on the blonde’s face, his chest heaving from the struggles he’d been forced into. Liu found himself being studied intently with sapphire eyes and he smiled.
Heath watched the older man, wondering at the smile on the wrinkled face, his sixth sense telling him…this old one was more dangerous than the young ones…this man was not afraid even though Heath towered over him by inches.
“What do you want?” asked Heath calmly, his breathing back to normal, his demeanor relaxed, ready to pounce.
Liu Wong ran his eyes over the subject, the body showing red marks where blows had been struck, the red would turn to bruises in a matter of time.
“What I want you will not readily give.” stated the old man, his voice soothing, his hands held out in a nonthreatening manner. “Therefore, I am afraid I have to take it.”
Keeping the three men in his view, Heath moved slightly to his right, the men moving with him but keeping their distance. The blonde looked quickly around the room he was in, his eyes taking in the lack of doors, the lack of windows. It was empty except for two metal bracelets which hung from the rafters above, the sight of the devices reminding him of Carterson prison, the whipping stance he’d been forced into as a boy.
“Well, if you wanted to kill me you could have in the hotel or anywhere.”
Liu did not verbally respond, preferring to just intently watch the subject.
What do you want?” repeated Heath. “Why am I here?”
Mia Ling stepped into the doorway and Heath’s eyes formed with hatred at the sight of the woman.
“You!” hissed Heath, the venom rising in his blood at the sight of the nightmarish woman.
Smiling, Mia spoke in Chinese and handed each of the men a whip. Heath waited, his body was familiar with the weapon, his scars on his back tingling at the sight of them. The two men advanced towards him, the whips testing the air around him. Liu watched as the subject didn’t move from the close snapping of the whips. The blonde simply glared into the black eyes of the female tong leader.
“You should have stayed away. Now I will be forced to kill you.” stated Heath harshly, his words sending scorn through her and her shouted voice was loud in the room of wood.
Striking out at the same time, the whips wrapped around his left arm and pulled him off balance while the other wrapped around his right leg and moved it from under him. Falling to the floor onto his side, Heath reached over with his right hand and pulled on the whip around his arm.
Righty moved forward when the attention of the blonde was diverted for a moment. Heath felt the lessening of the whip on his leg and glanced over, rolling out of the way and rising to his knees, only to be brought forward onto his stomach with a sharp yank on the leather weapon.
Working together, keeping the blonde off balance with each tug of the leather, Heath fought against the restraints being put on his legs. His fight while admirable was not to be won. With his legs out of commission, his arms soon followed and were held by two strong pairs of hands behind his back.
Mia Ling smiled and walked over to the kneeling man, his body perspiring from the confrontation, the hatred in his eyes plain for all to see. Running her fingernail across his chest, she yanked his head back with a handful of hair.
“By the end, you’ll wish for death.”
Snapping her fingers, Heath gasped as a fist to his kidneys took the air and strength out of him for a moment, long enough for the men to wrap the bracelets around each wrist, pulling on the chains and raising him slightly onto his tip toes. His arms held outward, the pressure on his shoulders immense, the pressure on his legs was only beginning.
Liu Wong nodded at Mia on her way out of the room. The men secured the chains and returned with lamps which they placed all along the room, lighting the wicks and turning the flames up higher. The brightness a sharp contract to the shadows which had filled the room.
Heath placed his heels on the floor and felt a blow to the back of his legs, his automatic response was to raise himself at the onset of the sharp pain. Taking a breath fighting to stay calm, he closed his eyes and reopened them, receiving another strike.
Liu Wong sat at a table in the doorway, watching the blonde struggle against the chains, fight the light which burned his eyes. With each closing of his eyelids, each lower of his heels, pain would greet him from a bamboo cane stick.
Heath fought against the metal holding him, he cursed his captors and the vile female leading them. His throat became hoarse, his words silent. His mind left the room and Liu motioned, the strike bringing Heath from the memories he’d been in and he cursed again, his bellow of rage loud in the room, his anger keeping him strong.
Liu watched two men replace the first two and Heath’s eyes took in the changing of the guards. He didn’t understand why they didn’t whip him, beat him or just kill him. He wondered what Mia Ling had in mind and felt fear creep into his soul.
Whatever it was, Heath knew he had to find a way to stop it at all costs. She must not be allowed to carry out what she wanted. She must not be allowed to continue walking this earth.
While the reconditioning of one brother was in full progress and into its sixth day, another brother opened the oak door of the Barkley mansion, took the wire addressed to the family and handed the delivery boy a tip.
Closing the door, Nick made short work of opening the wire and reread the words several times, each time a shot of anger made his hazel eyes darker. Jarrod entered the foyer and inquired, “Someone at the door, Nick?”
“Damn right there was! Read this!” growled Nick, handing the paper to his older brother. “What is that boy thinking? Heath didn’t say anything about unfinished business before he left! He say anything to you?”
Puzzled, Jarrod shook his head, “No, nothing. Maybe something came up with Nate and his family?”
Slapping his gloves against his black jeans, Nick growled, “He knew we had all the branding to do, the drive’s only four weeks away! We have a lot to finish before we leave. How can he put someone else over the ranch?”
“Nick, it must be important. You know Heath wouldn’t leave you in the lurch at a time like this. He’s never let you down before.” scolded Jarrod firmly, placing a hand on his angry brother’s back. “I’m heading into town and I’ll send Nate a wire to find out what’s going on.”
“Why don’t you see if he told Hiriam anything while you’re in town.” suggested Nick, pulling on his gloves and hat, his anger was still evident from the oak door slamming behind him on his way out. Jarrod read the wire again and frowned before placing it in his pocket and leaving the mansion behind.
The day passed and Jarrod arrived home, stopping and dismounting in front of the barn. Leading Jingo in, he unsaddled the chestnut and curried him. Stopping beside Charger’s stall, he opened the door and talked to the stallion while he scratched behind his ears.
“Bet you miss him as much as us, huh?”
Jarrod chuckled when Charger nodded and shook his mane out, the large horse rolling his eyes at his master’s brother. Patting him one last time, Jarrod left the stall, greeting Duke on his way out the door.
“Jarrod, if I was you I’d give Nick a wide berth tonight.” suggested Duke quietly.
Stopping, Jarrod sighed, “Long day, Duke?”
“Yep.” replied Duke. “Nick assigned me Heath’s crew. His bark is worse than his bite today.”
“I’m sorry about that. He must still be put out about a wire we received.” apologized Jarrod, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder and walking beside him to the door. “Hopefully things will be better tomorrow.”
Stopping outside the large barn door, Duke shook his head. “Only if Heath’s back by his side, Jarrod. Night.”
Frowning Jarrod made his way to the house, placing his hat and gunbelt on the round table, preparing himself when he caught sight of Nick descending the stairs.
“Well?” questioned Nick.
Shaking his head, Jarrod lead the way into the study and poured two drinks, handing one off and sitting in a chair. Pulling out two wires, he gave them to Nick and sipped his drink.
“He’s not at Nate’s and not in Houston! Where the hell is he, Jarrod?” asked Nick dropping onto the settee and leaning back in defeat. “Where could he have gone? What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know, Nick.” admitted Jarrod. “I’m sure Heath has his reasons and we’ll find out in time.”
“Reasons for what?” asked Victoria, catching the tail end of her first born’s statement with Audra by her side.
Greeting their mother and sister, Nick handed his mother a sherry while Jarrod filled the ladies of the house in on the telegrams.
“It’s not like Heath.” worried Audra. “Do you think he’s in trouble? Maybe it has to do with Jack Larkin?”
“LARKIN!” shouted Nick jumping up and pacing. “He promised no more marshal business. If he’s doing something for Larkin while he should be here working, I’ll...”
“Nicholas, stop pacing.” commanded Victoria, interrupting his rant and waiting til her large son leaned against the mantle of the fireplace before stating. “I agree this is not like Heath but perhaps he couldn’t elaborate in the wire. At least we received a wire. I feel reassured knowing he’s not planning to be away too long. If he was in trouble, he wouldn’t have been able to send word.”
Nodding, Jarrod and Audra smiled, agreeing with the logic, “Of course, Mother. You’re right.”
Turning her eyes to Nick, Victoria smiled slightly, “I know Heath’s being gone longer than planned will affect the ranch, Nick. Perhaps we should hire a man to replace him for the two weeks.”
“No, Duke can handle the one crew and I’ll take the other. We’ll just have to work harder and longer to get everything done in time.” sighed Nick in resignation. “I’ll manage but when that boy gets back, he’s gonna get an earful!”
Winking at his mother, Jarrod replied, “I’m sure Heath will explain to your satisfaction, brother Nick. Provided of course, you give him a chance.”
Eyes wide with innocence, Nick pointed to himself, “Why brother Jarrod, I’ll give him as much chance as he gave me when he sent the wire.”
Chuckling, Jarrod shook his head, not wanting to be in his younger brother’s boots when he returned to Stockton.
While the family conversed, dined and enjoyed the company of each other…their absent family member was fighting against the shackles, his strength fading, his body weak from exhaustion…he was losing, they were winning. Six days of nonstop conditioning, six days of no sleep, six days of struggle, six days of cursing and wondering.
Heath fought to stay coherent, his mind felt as if it were stuck in quicksand, his eyes moved sluggishly in their sockets. The sight of the old man approaching him with a needle sent a surge of adrenaline through him. The needle brought full force from his memory, the condition Jarrod had been in after he’d been held by Mia Ling for those days.
Liu Wong nodded and a blow to Heath’s midsection stole his breath away, his weak legs gave out and he faltered to his knees. Crying out as the fall pulled on his shoulder muscles, the entrance of the needle in his arm not felt from the other physical pain he was suffering.
Liu Wong watched the drug take effect, the blonde’s mind was betraying him with its fogginess and inability to hold thought, the inability brought on by pain and exhaustion. The sapphire eyes blinked and the special concoction worked its way through his body. Wong spoke soothingly and clearly, the blonde shook his head in denial at the suggestions, his hands clenched into fists and he shook his chains in anger.
Heath thought he’d shouted his words of denial at their wants. The blonde didn’t know his denials came out of his mouth as mere whispers, the drug and constant torture had already allowed entry into his mind.
He would not do what they wanted.
He would never take the life of a brother.