"Crossroads"


by
GabyforHeath
and
Hayley44


Logline: An alternate version of the episode ‘Palms of Glory’ with an unusual twist

  Our utmost gratitude goes to Winimari for graciously allowing us to use her character Mary Nicholls in our story


‘My heart quailed as they lowered Tom’s casket into the dark, cold ground. My head hung in a despairing silence; tears freely streamed down my cheeks. For a brief moment I was back in Strawberry on that fateful day when I found Tom in the back a dark alley where he had been battered for a measly sum of money. I closed my eyes and pictured vividly the moment he enlaced me in his strong arms and brushed his lips against mine. My heart was captured and my body surrendered to his powerful magnetism. That night he shared my bed and blessed me with my golden child. How many were the times I applied pen to paper to tell Tom of Heath’s existence, but the letters would remain blank, I could have saved him from a wretched life of having to drudge in draughty old mines as a powder monkey. The mere thought of my young boy handling explosives at such a young age chilled me to the marrow. Situations such as these would often goad me to write that crucial letter to Tom. I would go as far as the post office with the envelopes in hand but to no avail.

Was I selfish to deny my son the life of wealth he deserved? Maybe. I kept apprehending the dreadful repercussions of such a staggering revelation for both Heath and Tom’s family. What if he had taken Heath away? I would not have survived a day without my angel child beside me. He is my life; my reason for bearing and grinning my drunkard brother and his bitchy wife on a daily basis.

I lifted my teary sad eyes to peer at the grieving widow flanked by her three children. She was the main reason I kept quiet about Heath. She was an innocent victim, as I was, of unforeseen circumstances. Pawns on the chessboard of life, we wait for Destiny to make its move. We can only follow the path she has laid out for us. I have to believe that what occurred in Strawberry had already been mapped out for us and that the O Mighty had a purpose for bringing Tom Barkley to my doorstep.

I bitterly regret having denied Heath the safety of a wealthy, loving home with siblings. Looking at Tom’s beautiful children I can only wonder what Heath would have become growing up within their bosom. Will my reason for keeping silent ever stop haunting me?’

“Oh mama. I’m so sorry.” Heath deplored in a whispering, quavering voice. He closed Leah’s diary and laid it on his lap; an errant tear trickling onto the old worn-out cover while his stare dwelled on it.

“Heath? Are you okay?” The melodious soothing voice was a welcome lifeline that saved him from the raging torrent of emotions he was drowning in. He glanced up at her angelic face; her fetching smile striking the match needed to revive the flickering flame of passion for life within. With tear-glistened eyes he watched her pad up to him and put a tender hand on his shoulder. His hand reached out to clasp hers.

“I’m glad you’re here, Sissy. I don’t know what I would have become if you hadn’t been here with me.”

Mary sat on the edge of the windowsill, facing Heath; her grateful beam speaking louder than words. “I’m happy to be here, Heath. Leah was like a mother to me. I grieve her loss as much as you do and together we will muddle through.”

“This is the diary she begged me to read.” He distractively brushed his hand against the cover to feel the emotions emanating from the book’s content. “I felt like an intruder spying on my mother’s innermost thoughts.” Mary could only offer a compassionate smile and a friendly hand on his shoulder to Heath’s affliction. “From what I read I’m entitled to part of the Barkley heritage.”

“Do you want it?” She stared at Heath expectantly, cocking her head to the side to will his eyes to hers. “Heath?”

“I don’t know.” Heath sighed despondently; his head hanging low with the burden of desperation. “I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m confused, lost and hurt.” His face crumpled and his chest tightened as the memory of his mother’s death came floating back to the surface. He looked up at Mary with pleading eyes. “Mary, what should I do?”

Her friend’s distress acted like a mallet knocking down the floodgate of her emotions. She swallowed hard the lump lodged down her throat before she leaned forward and cupped Heath’s chin in her hand. “You are a Barkley.” She spoke softly with a wide beam that conveyed a message of hope and not of doom. “The son of the wealthiest man in the valley. But you also are Heath Thomson, the man I am proud to call my best friend. Don’t lose sight of who you are before you choose who you want to be.”

“I was thinking of going to Stockton to find out just who they are.”

“Are you planning to tell them?” Mary’s eyebrow arched in concern; aware the shocking revelation was likely to cause more heartache.

“No. I just want to see them.” His eyes welled up with tears at the bitter regret of being denied a normal childhood with siblings. “I can’t help wonder what my life would have been had mama told Tom Barkley who I was. I don’t blame her one bit for keeping silent about me. Maybe if she had said something, he would have taken me away from her.” His words were laced with a tinge of resentment.

“Do you want me to go with you?”

He clasped both her hands and smiled, “Thank you but I must do this on my own. I promise to be in touch with you to let you know how things are going. I don’t expect I’ll be there long. I just want to see them.”

“Okay. I respect your wish.” She breathed out in a gentle whisper that caressed Heath’s soul and soothed the anguish within. She leaned forward to lay a tender kiss on his forehead. She brushed a thumb against his cheek, tracing the jaw line as she gazed into his soulful eyes. “You know that I’ll always be there for you no matter what.”

Heath’s hand reached out for hers and clasped it to kiss its palm. “I know and it’s that abiding friendship that kept me sound of mind for the last three weeks. I know I can count on you to keep me solidly grounded.”

“Any time, friend.”

Mary graciously extended the hospitality of her humble abode to Heath on his last night in Strawberry, aware that the recent startling discovery about his parentage was bound to disturb his sleep. She rushed to his bedside at first sound of a whimper to allay his grief and fear of the unknown. The night was long and plagued with nightmares, but those didn’t dissuade Heath from making this trip into Stockton.

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Bright and early the next morning, Heath rose and slipped into his travelling clothes before grabbing his bedroll and saddlebag to head down to the barn to saddle his horse. He walked back to the house to find Mary preparing breakfast in her night robe.

“Good morning, Blue Eyes,” she greeted with a fetching smile. “Hungry?”

“Famished.” He removed his hat and hung it on the coat rack by the door. He then stepped up to the kitchen sink to pump water into a bowl in which he washed his hands. “You didn’t have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Get up and whip me breakfast. I was planning to grab a cup of coffee and some buttermilk cookies.”

“Nonsense! You need some sustenance. It’s a long ride to Stockton.”

He bent down to brush a grateful kiss on her cheek.

“What’s that for?”

“As if you didn’t know?”

“Nervous?”

“Yep!” He ambled up to the table and took a seat. “I was seriously having second thoughts about going there. Maybe I shouldn’t stir up the past. I might not like what I find.”

“The reason why your mother told you about your father is because she wanted you to seek out his family so you could belong and not be alone.”

“I’m not alone. I have you.”

“That’s not enough, Heath. Besides I may not always be here.” Seeing Heath’s head hung in despair, Mary regretted having spoken so harshly. To make amends she added, “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded, I’m sorry. You know you can always count on me to help you, but you need more.”

“So what you’re saying is that I should tell them who I am?”

“Only when you’re ready.”

“What if they resent me for destroying Tom Barkley’s image of the perfect man? That’s bound to happen and I’ll wind up worse than when I first came.”

“Trust your instincts, Heath. And let the chips fall where they may.”

Heath pondered her words of wisdom as she finished preparing breakfast. After eating and saying their goodbyes, Heath mounted up and headed towards Stockton. Ten miles down the road, he decided to rest both rider and mount near a gentle stream where he settled on a flattened boulder to dig into the bountiful lunch that Mary had lovingly prepared for his long winding journey.

Munching on a biscuit, he watched his horse quench its thirst, unaware of the two strangers sneaking up to him from behind. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the town bastard.” The man spoke with crushing spitefulness; his cynical laugh fuelling a fury that had been simmering beneath the surface. Heath clenched and unclenched his fists, his eyes glancing down at his gun in his holster. He was poised ready to whip it out of its sheath and strike should these men choose to push their luck.

“Clem and Clint Hoskins, the doofus brothers.” Heath reciprocated with a similar sarcasm. “Better head back home, boys. Your mommy will be looking for you.”

“Don’t be smart, Thomson,” Clem sassed back with a glare.

“You ain’t thinking of leaving us, are ya?” Clint teased as he stepped closer to Heath calmly eating his biscuit.

Heath’s boiling anger prompted him to discreetly slip a hand on his holster to release the leather latch.

“Just taking a trip. Don’t worry, I’ll be back.” Heath eyes narrowed in contempt as his fingers slowly wrapped around the butt of his gun.

“Got some money?”

“Why you asking?”

“You didn’t pay your allowance this month, bastard. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your pretty lady friend?” Clem’s taunting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. With swift motion, Heath whipped out his gun and swirled to face Clem head on, In the next second, his world collapsed, plunging him into total darkness. A smirking Clint stood behind Heath holding the branch with which he clobbered his victim. He dropped it onto the ground and squatted beside the unconscious man. “Perfect score,” he crowed with a malicious grin.

“Lucky you were faster on the draw, so to speak,” Clem said, relieved that his brother had the sharpness of mind to knock his opponent down before he had a chance to shoot. “Now we have some fun with him. Ain’t nobody’s gonna be looking for him. His mama’s dead.”

“His girl might.”

“Who cares?” Clem walked up to the body sprawled on the ground and began kicking him, with his brother following suit. Heath was yanked out of unconsciousness and awakened to a world of agony. All he could do was curl up in a ball to protect his insides and his face.

“Hey!” A tall man sporting a mustach shouted to stand the two brutes to attention. “Do you have a good reason for beating this man to death?” He trained a gun on the two stunned brothers, his jaw clenched in suppressed fury. “Well, I’m waiting?”

“This ain’t none of your business, pal, He wouldn’t fork over the dough he owes us.” Clem spat.

With a composed stance, the man shot a bullet at Clem’s feet, making him shrink back in fright. “I don’t take too kindly to pea brains who insult my intelligence. Now get the hell out of here before I make mince meat out of you.”

“Yeah. I like to see you try it, jackass.” Clem sneered, winking to his brother who joined him in a cynical laugh.

With lightning speed, the tall stranger shot both hats off the brother’s heads and grazed Clem’s hand holding the gun. “The next ones will be in your guts if you don’t clear out of my sight.” His voice dripped with disdain; his dark eyes boring a hole into his targets who stood rooted to the spot. “Drop your guns, mount up and ride out of here.” He kept his hawk eye trained on the two brothers who dropped their weapons onto the ground before sidling to their horses. “That’s it. You ride on out of here. Do not double back if you care about breathing.”

Clem and Clint kicked their horses in a huff, leaving billowing dust behind them. Once he deemed they were safely out of sight, the man thrust his gun back in the holster and knelt down beside Heath. Gently he rolled him onto his back to check for broken ribs. His crumpled face told of a grim diagnostic. He rose to his feet and stood behind Heath to drag him bodily to drier grounds. He eased his head down on a tussock of grass, heedful not to brush against the bleeding gash at the back of the skull. He pulled at his neck cloth that he balled up to apply pressure onto the wound, after which he walked up to his horse to reach into his saddleback for a wad of bandages. After cleaning the head wound with water and swathing it with gauze, the stranger removed his jacket and spread it on Heath’s listless form. He gazed at the blond cowboy for a moment, looking somewhat peaceful, before he stepped up the dying embers to revive the flame. He then sat on a log next to the insentient man to keep a vigil.

Twenty minutes wore on before Heath gave signs of responsiveness. “Woa, easy there, fella.” The man dropped his work on a travois to swiftly dive to Heath’s side to put a hand on his shoulder. “Lie still.” Heath groaned and mumbled a few unintelligible words that the stranger translated as curses. “Lucky I rode by when I did. These guys did quite a bashing number on you.”

Heath struggled to pry open one eyelid at a slit to peer at his savior hovering over him. “Dammit that hurts!” he hissed between clenched teeth, his hand slowly reaching up to his chest.

“You’ve got a couple of busted ribs. Friends of yours?” The stranger’s question dripped with a sarcasm that was hard to miss.

“You might say that.” Heath held out a hand to the stranger to seek his assistance in getting him into a sitting position.

“I wouldn’t advise it for now, friend. You wouldn’t want to shove a rib right through your lungs?”

“I can’t stay here.” Heath heaved out with difficulty.

“I’m building a travois so you can travel in style. By the way I’m Bob Jestings.”

“Heath…Heath Thomson. I guess I owe you for saving my hide.”

“Think nothing of it. Where were you headed?”

“Stockton.”

“You still have quite a long ways to go and in the shape you’re in I’d say you won’t make it the next five miles. I’ll take you to the ranch where I work. We can fetch for the doctor there.”

“No thanks. I’ll manage.” Heath’s stifled a groan of pain at the searing pang that shot through his chest as he tried to sit.

“You’re a stubborn cuss, aren’t ya?”

Heath flashed a knowing grin the man and let out of chuckle. “More than you think. That’s what kept me alive all these years.”

“Well I’ll have you know that I outrank just about anybody in that department and I say we head to the ranch.” The stranger’s imperious tone left no room for argument. Heath started to rebuke but clam up at the sight of those dark seething eyes burning a hole through him. He was in no condition to debate the issue.

“I’m so busted up that I’m not gonna argue with you.”

“Good.” The man’s gloating elicited a small snicker out of Heath, one that painfully reminded him of the urgency to seek medical attention.

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After caring for Heath the best he could with little medical supplies he had in his saddlebag, Bob helped him to his feet and assisted him to the makeshift travois.

“Thanks for the stretcher, friend, but I’d rather ride in the saddle.”

“I wouldn’t advise it.”

“It’ll be quicker.”

“Alright.” Bob turned Heath around and helped him to his horse. “You want a leg up?”

“No, I can manage.” Heath tried to sound convincing but his pained eyes and clenched teeth were telling a different story. However Bob stepped back to give Heath plenty of room to swing in the saddle. The task proved harder than he originally thought. He opted for the second best alternative, which was to put his foot in the stirrup. The results were the same.

Bob shook his head in disbelief. He had to give the boy credit for perseverance. “Stubborn cuss. Here,” he laced his fingers together and bent down. “Put your boot in there and don’t argue about it!”

Heath exhaled the breath he’d been holding to suppress the agony of defeat. He swallowed his pride and accepted Bob’s help. The hoist up caused a broken rib to nick at his lung. He yelped at the searing pain, but managed to keep a straight face in front of his rescuer. Little did he know that Bob had already picked up on the signs. His lying eyes were blindingly obvious.

Bob insisted they make several stops along the way to give Heath a breather. Evidence that the pain from his broken ribs had increased was written in the deep wrinkles in his brow. “Only a few more minutes to go,” Bob announced. “You’ll be able to make it? You look like you’re about ready to drop.”

“I’m fine,” Heath hissed, though his statement failed to convinced his riding partner who thought it best to make another brief stop. “No! Let’s keep going.” Heath insisted with annoyance. “I can make it. Just getting harder to breathe, is all.”

They continued on at a lighter amble until they reached the gates of the Atkinson Ranch. The spread may have been half the surface covered by the Barkley Ranch but that didn’t dwarf its beauty or its productivity.

“Mighty impressive spread,” Heath commented to engage in a conversation that would veer off the subject of his injuries.

“It’s not THAT impressive but it’s big enough to have a great three dozens men run it.” Bob halted his horse in the barnyard and dismounted. Heath tried sliding down the saddle by himself, but was caught by two swift hands before his feet could reach the ground. “You want to shove those broken ribs right through your lungs?” Bob chided good-naturedly. “And I thought I was stubborn. I may have found my match.” The light-hearted joke wrung a weak grin out of Heath who was striving to slow the process of agony rapidly creeping over him.

“Hey Bob,” greeted a co-worker. “Who’s that?” he enquired of Heath.

“His name’s Heath. I was riding by when I saw two thugs beating him senseless. Do me a favour Nate.”

“Sure thing.”

“Ride into town to get Doc Miller. This guy’s got broken ribs and a nasty bump on the head. Don’t know of any other injuries but as you can see he’s close to conking out.”

“I’m on my way.” Nate strode up to his horse tethered nearby and swung into the saddle to take off at a full gallop towards town.

Bob was leading Heath to the bunkhouse when his boss approached him from behind. “What’s going on here, Bob?” The man cocked his head to get a better look at the stranger’s face creased in pain. “Who is this man? What happened to him?”

“I happened to ride past in the nick of time to stop the two thugs beaten him up. His name’s Heath. Heath Thomson. I asked Nate to fetch Doc Miller. I’m going to lay him down in one of the bunkhouse cots.”

“By the looks of him he’d be more comfortable on a softer mattress. Bring him to the house. We’ll settle him in one of the guest bedrooms.”

“I thank you, sir, but I’ll be all right in the bunkhouse.”

“No arguing, young man, You are to stay at the house until the doctor deems it okay for you to be up.” Atkinson said authoritatively, though with a touch of humour that gave Heath a sense of security and not one of apprehension.

It wasn’t long before the doctor arrived at the house to examine the patient. He diagnosed a mild concussion and some bruises but thankfully there were no signs of internal injuries. His main concern was the fractured ribs and the nicked lung. He patched the ribcage and left strict instructions with Bill Atkinson that his guest was not to leave the bed for a good week. “It is imperative that he stays in bed or he’ll risk perforating his lung. He was lucky to get here on his feet.”

Bill turned to Bob and smiled his answer. “Thanks to Bob, here. He took care of him.”

“Well I did what I could with little I had. I wanted him to ride on travois but he insisted to sit in the saddle. Stubborn cuss.”

“Sounds familiar,” Atkinson teased. “Anything else we should be made aware of?”

“Not at the moment. But I’d keep an eye on him. Check if he doesn’t develop a fever. That would be an indication of possible internal bleeding or an infection.

“Will do.” Bill put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder and gave it a grateful squeeze. “Thanks for coming by, Harry.”

“I’ve never seen this man before. Friend of yours?”

“No. Bob here saved him from getting beaten to a pulp while he was returning to the ranch. Good thing he rode by when he did.”

“I know what you’re thinking, Doc,” Bob answered the question mirroring in the doctor’s eyes before he could voice it. “But I don’t sense he’s dangerous. I’ve got a nose about these things. Beside if I’m wrong I’ll be sure to deal with him personally.”

“I have no doubt about that.” The doctor was all too familiar with Bob’s temper. He was a force to be reckoned with when back-stabbers showed their true colours.

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Rosalie, the housemaid, took the first shift in keeping a vigil at the patient’s bedside. Thereafter Bob came in to relieve her in the early hours of the morning and in spite of himself he dozed off in his chair an hour before dawn. His snoring broke into Heath’s subconscious and roused him from the foggy world he was plunged into to break to the noisy surface. He groaned awake, peeling his heavy eyelids from his misty blue orbs to search for the disturbing nuisance. “Hey Bob!” he whispered weakly, blinking heavily as he felt himself drifting off again. “Bob!” he spoke louder, finally startling the man awake.

“What? What?”

“You were snoring.”

“You must have been dreaming, friend. I don’t snore.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say. You didn’t hear yourself. Why do you think I’m awake?”

Bob glanced out the window at the bright sunny skies. “Because it’s morning?” Heath failed to see the humour in Bob’s answer. He tried to elbow himself into a sitting position, but Bob stopped him. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I gotta go send a telegram,” Heath hissed between clenched teeth as he struggled to raise himself into a sitting position.

“No can do, friend. You are not to leave this bed for a least a week. Doctor’s orders.”

“A week!” The considerable length needed for his convalescence appalled Heath. “He’s crazy. It’s only a couple of busted ribs. I’m not dying.”

“Got to follow orders. I tell you what. You write that telegram and I’ll ride into town to send it for you. How’s that?”

“Isn’t this a working ranch? Don’t they need you to do your share of the chores around here? You can’t be gallivanting about to do my job. I can’t ask you to do that. You’ve already done plenty for me.”

“You didn’t ask; I offered. Besides I’ve got to go into town to pick up some supplies.”

Heath heaved out a sigh of defeat that pleased his host, who displayed his satisfaction through a wide smirk,

“Ah wipe that smug off your face, will you?” Heath sneered with a mock annoyance. “And get me a pencil and paper.”

“Yes sir. Right away, sir. Anything you say, sir.” Bob mocked with a salute before heading down his room to fetch the necessary item. Both men chuckled to themselves at the bantering they engaged into, feeling good about the bond that was unmistakably forming.

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At Heath’s request, Bob remained in town to wait for the answer from Mary. She was grateful for the news that Heath was fine and happy to know he was in good hands.

With no evidence of internal injuries or infections, Doctor Miller deemed Heath’s condition satisfactory enough for him to get out of bed. The young blond was raring to escape the confinement of his bedroom and breathe in some fresh air, but was forbidden to walk around without any supervision. Bob offered to act as physical support while he showed Heath around the property.

“You’re lucky to be living here. It is beautiful country.” Heath’s comment somehow elicited a frown out of Bob instead of the expected musing smile. “I said something wrong?”

“No, you didn’t. I agree,” he said in a long melancholic sigh, “I’m lucky to have found this place. Like you I had been busted up pretty badly and Nate found me lying in a pool of blood. They nursed me back to health and Mr. Atkinson gave me a job on the ranch.”

“Do you have any family?”

“Bill Atkinson and the guys ARE my family. The rest, I don’t know,” he lamented. He hung his head to avoid making eye contact with Heath he could feel staring at him with a sorrowful expression.

“I’m sorry, Bob. You and me are the same. I’m looking for my family…well…rather my father’s family.”

“Oh?”

“You know the Barkleys?”

“Stockton Barkleys? Sure. Only by reputation, though. I’ve never actually met them. I hear they’re the most powerful family in the valley.”

“So I’ve been told,” Heath scoffed. The thought of his father’s wealth repulsed him. He resented the fact that his children basked in riches while he and his mother had to scrap up just to keep alive. “My old man died a few years back. Shot by the railroad thugs that wanted to take over his ranch. I found out in my mother’s diaries that he was Tom Barkley.”

Bob’s eyes shot wide open at the revelation. “My God!” he gasped. “What do you intend to do?”

Heath winced as he leaned his arms against the fence. “At first I thought of confronting them. Tell them who I was and demand a part of what is rightfully mine.”

“But now?”

“I ain’t so sure that’s the right way to go about it. His family’s not to blame for his mistake. I’ll only be hurting them if I speak of his infidelity. I just want to see where they live; how they live. I need to know.”

“Do you really? It might bring back painful memories.”

“I know,” Heath sighed, resting his chin on his arms as he distractedly watched a black stallion nuzzling a bay mare. “Looks like you’re gonna have a foal pretty soon,” He remarked, motioning to the courtship in progress.

“Yeah. We’ve been trying to get those two together for months now. Looks like it’s finally gonna happen,” Bob smiled triumphantly. After a brief silence, he turned to Heath. “Say, I can go with you to the Barkley Ranch if you want?”

“No need. I can do this on my own.”

“I know you can, but I kinda want to see that spread for myself. I could make up an excuse to the boss that I want to check out their prime stock for our own benefit.”

“You sure you want to do this? It’s still a long ways from here?”

“Yeah, I do. I need to broaden my horizon and see what’s going on outside our little community. Besides I think it’s in our advantage to make friends with them.”

Heath flashed a meaningful smile at Bob’s offer and nodded his answer. “Okay. If it’s okay with you. I’d love the company.”

“It’s settled then. I’ll talk to my boss tonight and we’ll head out as soon as you’re fit to ride.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“How about in three days?” Bob argued. “Doc Miller did say you could walk but he didn’t say anything about riding in the saddle for long stretches. We’ll see what he has to say first.”

“Mother hen!” Heath groaned in mock annoyance, eliciting a smirk out of Bob.

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Once Doctor Miller gave Heath the green light to travel, Bob gathered enough supplies for half-a-day trip and saddled the best horses in the stables. To ensure that the two riders would not go hungry on the trail, the house butler whipped them both a hearty lunch to sustain them until they reached their destination.

Bob could sense Heath’s mixture of anticipation and apprehension at the thought of meeting his step family. He swore to offer any moral support his new friend might require during this trying time. He felt a pinch in his heart at his own family that was lost forever in the deep recesses on his mind. He sighed wistfully at what he had lost then smiled at the thought of Heath finding his family.

Late that afternoon, the two friends reached the main entrance of the Barkley Ranch. They halted their mounts outside the iron gates and contemplated the impressive white mansion standing majestically before them.

“Well I guess this is it. The Barkley Ranch.” The bitterness in Heath’s voice told Bob that his friend was not that impressed by the view displaying before his eyes, unlike him.

“This is impressive.” He frowned at the gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach. “Something about that house that is familiar.”

“You said you’ve never been here before.”

“And I haven’t.” He shrugged it off. “Guess it’s what they call dejà view.”

The two nudged their horses onward and stopped at the front door. They dismounted and tethered their mounts to the hitching post. Heath removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.

“Well, here goes nothing.” He put this hat back on his head and glanced over at Bob who, for some reason, stood transfixed. “Something wrong?”

“No, no. I’m okay,” Bob fibbed, drawing in a deep breath to recover his stance. “You go ahead. I’ll wait for you here.”

“Maybe I should just wait until one comes out and ask if they have a job opening.”

“Go on!” Bob egged on with a light shove in Heath’s back. “Ring the bell. Introduce yourself and state your business. The worse they can do is say no.”

“You’re right.” Heath let out the breath he’d been holding and stuck out his chin as he rang the doorbell.

A few seconds later, a black man answered the door. “May I help you sir?”

“Yes.” Heath removed his hat and nervously began fidgeting with the edges. “I’m here to see Mister Barkley. It’s about a job.”

...Continued