“Good morning Brother Nick,” Jarrod greeted jovially upon seeing Nick entering the dining room.
“Aha humph,” Nick grumbled hoarsely as he dragged his weary body to the table and flopped down on the chair.
“Hang over?” Jarrod teased, winking at Victoria who gave him a disapproving look.
“Geez, you think so?” Nick railed, shooting Jarrod a scorching look with red-puffy eyes at half-mast.
“You look like something the cat dragged in,” Audra observed shockingly. “What did you do last night?”
“Me and the boys decided to give Heath a bachelor party.”
“I thought we scheduled it for next week?” a perplexed Jarrod queried.
“Yeah, but this one was kinda on the spur of the moment. It was pay day and the guys were feeling their wild oats so…”
“Spare us the details, Nicolas,” an embarrassed Victoria admonished, wiping her mouth dry of coffee drips.
“Heath isn’t down yet?”
“I expect he’s still sleeping it off,” Jarrod offered amusedly. “ You realize he and Abby have an appointment with yours truly this morning to see about legal documents? It is imperative to have a clear head. I doubt that will be the case.”
“Give the kid a break, Jarrod. He’s getting hitched in two weeks. You should have seen him last night at Barbary Red. He was sight drooling like an idiot and acting like a pompous ass,” Nick recalled wistfully.
“Nicolas!” Victoria chided.
“Sorry Mother,” he hawked, lowering his eyes in mocked repentance, aware that his bold expression had already elicited an amused chuckle out of the present company. He finally conceded defeat to his bobbing leaden head that he dropped on his bent arm.
“Well, I must take my leave now,” Jarrod announced. After taking a last sip of coffee he wiped his mouth dry and pushed back his chair. He laid a hand on Nick’s shoulder to draw his attention. “I trust you will deliver Heath and Abby safely to my office at ten?”
“We’ll be there, Counselor,” Nick mumbled unintelligibly underneath his arms neatly folded on the table.
“See that you do. It’s very important.” He waited for tiny sign of acknowledgment from Nick before rounding the table to go brush a wonted kiss on his mother’s cheek. “Goodbye Lovely Lady.”
Once Jarrod out the door Nick struggled to lift his aching body off the chair. He staggered to his feet, swaying with the motion of dizziness washing over him. A few deep cleansing breaths later the room stopped spinning and the nauseas dissipated. “I’ll go see if Heath’s alright. He was pretty out of it when we came home last night. I promise I won’t wake him up.” He shuffled onwards to the foyer where Jarrod was on his way out the door.
“You need some help getting upstairs?” Jarrod offered facetiously, trying hard to suppress his laughter.
“I can make it on my own. I’m no invalid.”
“Are you sure?” Jarrod rubbed it in with a whimsical grin.
“Go on! Get out of here!” Nick gestured in a loud booming voice that made him wince in pain. Once his witty brother out the door, he trudged up the stairs to Heath’s room. Instead of knocking he nudged the door open and poked his head in. His brows furrowed at the empty unmade bed. He scanned the room for any sign of his brother, then turned to head down to the bathroom. He knocked on the door and when no answer came he entered to ensure the room was not occupied before retracing his steps to Heath’s bedroom to check the bottom of the closet, where he would often found his brother curled up in a ball after experiencing a nightmare.
Nick went on to inspect every room in the house before making his way to the barn.
“Duke, have you seen Heath this morning?”
“I didn’t think I would until noon from the looks of him last night,” Duke gibed, his humor winning him a scorn from Nick. “Sorry boss. I forgot you got in on the fun as well. I hope it was worth it?”
“I’ll tell you later when my head clears up.” Nick squinted to make out Charger in the end stall. “His horse is here. He couldn’t have gotten far.”
“He must in your mother’s flower garden. You know how he likes to sit there and watch the sunrise?”
“Yeah, I’ll go check. And Duke, under the obvious circumstances…”
“Don’t worry Nick,” Duke smiled obligingly. “I’ll take over today. You and Heath just take it easy.”
After scouring the garden for any sign of Heath, Nick returned to the house, puzzled and worried. He made his way to the dining room where Victoria and Audra were finishing breakfast.
“Nick, something wrong?” a concerned Victoria queried.
“I can’t find Heath anywhere. I searched the house, the barn, the garden…Charger’s still in his stall. His bed is unmade. His working clothes are gone. His gun belt is still in his room.” Nick put his elbows on the table and leaned his chin on his fists in deep concentration. “It’s not like him to take off without telling us, or at least leave us a note.”
“My guess is he must be at the creek taking an invigorating swim,” Audra assumed. “I wouldn’t worry too much Nick.” Little sister’s assurance failed to allay Nick’s qualms that something was definitely amiss with this troubling disappearance.
“I’ll ride into town to see if he’s at Abby’s,” Nick announced as he stood from his chair and gulped down his orange juice.
“At this time of the morning?” Victoria remarked. “I strongly doubt it.”
“Then where could he be?”
“Nick I just told you,” Audra chimed in. “He’s probably at the creek.”
“And what if he’s not?” Nick retorted offhandedly, his outburst taking his sister aback. “I’m worried, Mother,” he repented on a softer tone. “ I’ve got this gnawing gut feeling that something’s not right. If he did wander off in the state it’s safe to assume he could have gotten himself into trouble. You know how that boy is?”
“All right Nicolas. We’ll help you find him. You ride into town to ask around while Audra and I will look around the ranch.”
“I’d ask the hands to see if anyone’s seen him, whether last night or early this morning.”
“We will Nick.” Nick breezed out the door, leaving the two women to seriously ponder the weigh of Nick’s concerns.
“Mother, do you honestly think that something happened to Heath?”
“Let us not get overwrought about something that may not be” Victoria mollified with a soothing hand on her daughter’s arm. “Heath has been known to disappear for short spells in order to be alone with his thought. After all he is getting married in two weeks. He must have a lot on his mind.”
“I guess you’re right, Mother. He’ll turn up soon I’m sure.” Her crooked smile matched Victoria’s whose inner alarm advised her to heed Nick’s angst.
The debilitating hangover considerably slowed Nick’s pace but the stubborn brother steadfastly refused to kowtow to his pounding head and kept Coco at a steady trot into town.
As he arrived at Heath’s fiancée’s house, he sluggishly slid down his mount and rested his head against the animal’s neck to take a breather before making his way to the front door.
“Nick!” Abby squealed with delight. “Come on in.” She waved his guest in and beckoned him to follow her to the living room. “What brings you here so early? I thought Heath and I were due at Jarrod’s office at ten?”
“Yeah, that’s not why I’m here. I’m looking for Heath. Is he here by any chance?”
“No he’s not,” she answered, troubled by Nick’s troubled expression. “Something wrong?”
“We can’t find him anywhere.”
“What do you mean you can’t find him? Has he left?”
“That’s just it, we don’t know. His bed was slept in but there’s no sign of him. Charger’s still in his stall at the ranch. Mother and Audra are going to check around the ranch. I though maybe he’d come here. I know how he can’t keep his eyes and hands off you and who can’t blame him. He’s the envy of every guy in town, including me.”
“Oh Nick,” Abby blushed up to the eyes with embarrassment, though Nick could see she was flattered by the compliment.
“Well I’ll continue my search. You let me know if you hear from him.”
“Nick, you’re worrying me. Where could he be? It’s not like him to take off without telling you.”
“He did a couple of times but that was when he was new at this family stuff.”
“Nick, be honest,” Abby stepped up to him with a tormented look. She placed her hand on Nick’s arms to draw his eyes to hers. “Your instincts, what are they telling you?” Over the past year the young woman had learned to appreciate the mystifying six-sense bond between Heath and his brother and knew never to mock any apprehensiveness, regardless of how ridicule and unfounded the fear might be.
“I think he’s in trouble, but don’t go jumping the fence. I may be over reacting.”
“Nick you know how I trust your intuition when it comes to Heath. Just give me a few minutes to put on my pants and I’ll join you.” She waited for Nick to nod his consent before hurrying to her bedroom.
They decided to drop by the sheriff’s office in the event that an accident or death might have been reported in the last few hours.
“Sheriff ! Anybody here?” Nick called out upon entering the empty office.
Fred Madden appeared from the backroom, a rifle in hand. “Nick! Miss Preston,” he bowed his head in deference for the lady present.
“Fred, we’re looking for Heath. He’s missing. Heard anything?” Nick asked straightforwardly, causing the lawman to blench. “What’s the matter?”
“I just got word of a dead man’s body near the old Atkins Place.”
“Oh my God, Nick,” a terrified Abby exclaimed in horror, her hand clawing at Nick’s arm. “That’s the property Heath is thinking of buying. You don’t think…?”
“It was a traveling salesman who spotted the corpse,” Madden informed grimly. “He described him as blond, wearing a blue shirt with a tan vest.”
Abby buried her face into Nick’s chest where she dissolved into tears. Nick tightened the clench and whispered in her ear, “It could be anybody, Abby. Don’t assume the worse.” He pulled back gently and removed one glove to dab at her tears. “You want to stay here?”
She shook her head vigorously. “No,” she sniffed. “No. I want to go with you.”
“Okay.” Nick wrapped a comforting arm around her trembling shoulders and escorted her out to the awaiting wagon.
An icy clutch of dread tightened its hold around Nick’s and Abby’s heart as the neared the area. Fred halted the horses in front of the abandoned house and alighted from the wagon. He grabbed his rifle and waited for Nick and Abby to summon the courage to follow him before he made his way out back near the well where the body had been spotted.
From a distance they could see a badly battered bloody cadaver sprawled on the ground. Fred took the lead while Nick and Abby trailed behind, their hearts pounding out of their chess at the impending macabre discovery.
With the tip of his boot, Fred rolled the body over to expose the face. One look was enough to send Abby collapsing in Nick’s arms and Nick’s eyes to drop like lead.
Time stood still as Nick attempted to collect his shattered soul. He exhaled the breath he’d been holding and risked one eye on the corpse to make positive identification. “Thank God it’s not him,” he breathed out, burying his face into Abby’s hair to steal an invigorating whiff. “Oh God, where could he be?”
The news of Heath’s mysterious disappearance spread rapidly through Stockton and neighboring towns. Friends and neighbors took turns volunteering their time to take part in the search for the missing Barkley. Along with Sheriff Madden Jarrod led an investigation on Heath’s whereabouts in the hours following his return home with Nick. Townsfolk interrogated offered very little clues and all statements corroborated Nick’s own of two drunken brothers leaving the Barbary Red saloon in the wee hours of the morning.
“I told you Mother, I’m not going,” Nick spoke harshly to Victoria quietly entering his bedroom. “You might want to bury Heath but I don’t ‘cause I know he’s still alive.”
“Nick it’s been six months…” the black-clad bereaved mother began with a light choke in her voice.
“I don’t care if it’s been ten years. I’m not giving up on him. My gut feeling tells me he’s alive somewhere and I aim to find him. I’m going to find my brother and bring him home.” Nick secured his gun belt around his waist, after which he picked up his bedroll and rifle.
“Nick, please don’t do this to yourself,” Victoria beseeched.
“I’m not. You are, Mother.” He stepped up to her to drop a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll give word of where I am once I get there. Duke will handle the ranch for me while I’m gone.” Sorrowful eyes locked onto each other, searing this harrowing moment into their minds as a sense of impending doom crept up on them. “Goodbye Mother. I’ll be back when I find Heath.”
“Be careful Nick. I couldn’t bear lose another son.”
“You won’t lose me. And you haven’t lost Heath either. He’s just mislaid and I’ll find him.”
Nick’s foolhardy determination hit Victoria’s panic button. She worried about it clouding his better judgment and blinding him to danger while on the road to finding his missing sibling. She raised her eyes upwards to appeal to Tom’s guidance in this trying time. “Please watch over our son, Tom.”
“Nick, think about what this is doing to the family,” an irate Jarrod berated, a voice tinged with menace as he followed Nick to the barn. “Mother is already at the end of her wits. Heath’s death has…”
Nick swirled round and with eyes blazing murderously, barked at Jarrod, “DON’T say it,” he cautioned angrily. “Heath is NOT dead.”
“Nick for God’s sake, Stop this!” In his anger, Jarrod gripped at Nick’s arm, only to have his hand ripped of in a sudden jerk.
“DON’T touch me. And don’t try to stop me or you’ll be sorry.” Nick’s waspish warning rung more as a threat to Jarrod who knew better than try to reason with his brother while in this state of implacable rage.
Jarrod suppressed his mounting anger and once composed, he asked calmly, “Where will you be?”
“I don’t know yet,” Nick answered curtly in a shrug while tightening the cinch on Coco’s saddle. “I told Mother I’d let word of where I am once I get there. I’ll just let my instincts lead me.”
“This is foolish.”
“And burying Heath isn’t?” he sassed, steering Coco out of the barn where he secured his bedroll to the saddle before mounting. “You go have your wake. I’m out of here.” He turned his horse toward the gates and kicked him at a full gallop.
“God be with you, Nick.”
Lying exhausted, curled up in a ball on a small dirty cot in a damp room reeking of excrement and vomit, Heath waited for death to claim his soul. He clung to a thin cold blanket in a futile attempt to appease his uncontrollable shivers that would often trigger bouts of wheezing cough. His skeletal body yearned for solid food and fresh cold water that was never provided. An undying faith of having Nick rescue him from this hellish nightmare was the tiny thread that prevented him from falling into the beckoning dark abyss. He nourished that hope for six months, rising every day with the notion that today his savior would come and break him out of this floating jail, but the setting sun would once again nibble a bite out of dream of being reunited with his family.
“Hey boy, you awake?” came the soft whisper from behind. “I brought you some fresh water.” The man sat on his cot and proceeded to gently turn him over. “Come on, kid. Drink up before the guard sees us.” He slid a hand behind Heath’s neck to help him raise his head enough to put the sprout of the canteen to his lips.
Heath was reluctant at first, having been fooled too often about the quality of the water served to the slaves. Upon his roommate’s insistence that this was no putrid water, Heath risked one tiny sip. Soon he was grabbing the canteen to gobble down the cool refreshing liquid.
“Hey, hey, hey, not so fast or you’ll spew it all out. You wouldn’t want to waste good water after all the trouble I went through to steal it?”
“Thanks Harry,” Heath croaked. “How did you get it?”
“Never mind how. What’s important is that I managed to get it.” He put the cork back on the sprout and slid the canteen under the cot, after which he got up and poked his head out the door to spy any prying ears.
“What’s going on?” Heath asked feebly between coughs.
“We’re busting out of here tonight when the ship docks to reload. Me and the boys have been planning this break for weeks. We want you to come with us.”
“I want to but I don’t think I can’t. I’ll just slow you down.”
“Kid we’re not leaving you here to take the wrap. They’ll kill you for sure. I’ll take care of you. You just follow my lead and everything will go smoothly.”
“Thanks Harry. I don’t what I would have done without you.”
“You kept me going, junior. You’re tougher than you give yourself credit for. You’ll see your family again. And don’t be too hard on your brother Nick. I’m sure he left no stone unturned trying to find you. Shanghaied men are never found ‘cause they’re always on the move.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
Harry reached for his blanket that he mantled over Heath’s shoulders. The young man’s dark-circled vacuous eyes, sunken cheeks and heavy breathing were warning signs that the end was near. Time was of the essence. It was now or never.
As the curtain of night began to fall Nick rode in the small town of Elliot. After bedding down his house in the livery stable he made his way to the hotel to rent a room for the night. He had been on the trail for nearly two weeks, searching high and low for any sign of his brother. Although all prospects looked bleak, Nick sternly refused to forsake his quest for the truth behind Heath’s disappearance, regardless of what he would find. He needed a tangible reason for bringing his journey to an end and finally bring closure to this horrific chapter in his life.
He shut the bedroom door and tossed his saddlebag onto the bed where he proceeded to lazily remove his booths before lowering his bone-weary body onto the mattress. Lacing his fingers behind his head he stared blindly at the ceiling, his ears ringing from the deadly silence around him. “Heath where are you, boy?” he heaved out in a long shuddering breath. “Am I crazy to think you’re still alive? Are you? If you are, please give me a sign. I can’t do it alone, you’ve got to help me,” he pleaded with a voice broken with sobs. He turned on his side and hugged his pillow, his eyes dwelling on the moonlight rays dancing in the light breeze blowing through the silk curtains. “I know you’re out there, dammit! I just know it.”
For some unknown reason he was brought to the window to take a peek at the street below which was deserted save for this lone staggering drunk wobbling out of the saloon. The scene was reminiscent of his many orgies he’d indulged in with Heath, particularly the one on the eve of his disappearance. His heart ached at the raw memory the scene below evoked. As he drew the curtain back he noticed a saloon girl creeping up behind the man and cajoling him to follow her in a dark alley. Nick frowned suspiciously, and stood waiting to see them both emerged from the shadows, but only the woman did. He followed the dictates of his conscience instructing him to keep vigil by the window. His patience was beginning to wear thin when suddenly a paddy wagon pulled up in front of the alley. He squinted to make out the unconscious drunkard being carried to the back of the wagon and tossed in like a sack of potatoes.
“Shanghaied,” Nick deduced, the mere word sending chills creeping up his spine. “Could it be?” His eyes widened in horror at the inference that Heath might have met with a similar fate. “Nah, that couldn’t be.” He stood and paced the room, searching deep within his heart and soul for the tinniest hint that would confirm his fear of that possibility. “Why would they take him at the ranch? That doesn’t make any sense.” He sat on the edge of the bed and raked his fingers through his hair as he cudgeled his brain for a tangible answer. He then recalled the pretty brunette at Harry’s saloon that kept ogling Heath. Had she set her designs on his little brother? When he stepped in to prevent Heath from following her upstairs had he just delayed the inevitable? Had the gang followed them home and then snuck into the house during the night to kidnap Heath?
Nick shook his head in disbelief, brushing off this outrageous notion, but his nagging instincts kept pushing him back on track. “It’s all I have to go on. But where do I begin?” He closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his fists in deep concentration. “Come on, brother. Tell me where you are. I’m listening. Talk to me.”
He rose at the crack of dawn to ready himself for his new journey to wherever the whispering wind would take him. He skipped breakfast and went straight for the livery to saddle Coco. Then it was onward west towards his next unknown destination
Nick’s path led him to the teeming harbor town of San Adorno, a few miles off the coast of San Francisco. As he rode down main street he began to question his purpose for going forward instead of returning to Stockton and investigate at the Barbary Red saloon.
He halted Coco in front of the telegraph office and tethered him to the hitching post. He felt guilty for putting off notifying the family of his whereabouts, but knew he had to get as far enough from Stockton or risk anyone following him.
As he wrote down his message, the sound of pounding boots against the boardwalk caught his attention. He followed the sound to the sheriff’s office one block down the street where he saw the lawman and three deputized citizens escorting to jail what appeared to be a marine officer. “What’s going on down there,” he asked quizzically to the telegraph operator.
“There was a shootout aboard a ship last night. Apparently the crew was all shanghaied men who attempted an escape. All of them were killed. That bastard Captain will be hanged for this and I say good riddance,” he explained with bitter resentment. “Two members of the crew were mere boys. Sixteen and seventeen. What a waste.”
The words ‘shanghaied’ and ‘death’ gripped Nick in an icy clutch of dread; his heart raced and throbbed at his neck; his guts twisted in knots; cold shivers coursed through his terror-haunted body. Voices began blending in the background in a deafening humming sound as he focused on the Captain being shoved inside the sheriff’s office. In a trance-like state he started down the street, homing in on his one destination, oblivious of sound, smell and passersby he would rudely shoulder out of his way. Why was he numbed with such horrifying fear?
“Sheriff?” Nick greeted upon marching into the office.
“Son, whatever business you’ve got I hope this can wait. I have me plenty on my hands as it is,” the lawman slashed as he slammed shut the cell door behind him, locking the captain inside.
“Yeah I heard about the massacre on the ship. How many died?”
“Twenty-three in all, except for that varmint back there” he motioned to the cell, “The bodies are being hauled off to the undertaker.”
“Could I take a look at them? I think I might know somebody who was on that ship.”
“Go ahead. It’s two blocks down the street to your left. Can’t miss it. The bodies are piling up in a wagon outside.”
No sooner had Nick turned to exit the office that the deputy sheriff breezed in with news of a survivor. “He’s barely alive but he’s breathing, Sheriff,” he informed excitedly between pants. “We’ve taken him to Doc Pettigrew.”
Nick dashed out and outraced the wind to the doctor’s office. He twitched open the door and bounced in, his eyes darting both ways to spot the patient. “Doc? Anybody here?” he bellowed, the booming voice bringing the nurse out of the examination room in a rush.
“Mister, whoever you are, please, don’t shout,” she scolded, her fingers cutting through Nick’s flesh as she forced him to sit.
“I heard you had a survivor in there. I wanna see who it is,” Nick insisted, grabbing her by the shoulders to shove her out of the way.
“Please, sir, you mustn’t go…” her warning had little effect on the grieving brother who erupted in the room just as the doctor was removing a bullet out of the patient’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry Doctor, “ she apologized, her anger directed at the intruder. “I couldn’t stop him.”
“That’s okay, Emilie,” he waved her concerns off and beckoned her to resume her work by the patient’s side. Doctor Pettigrew wiped his hands dry on a towel and smiled responsively at Nick’s silent request. “Come closer.” He watched Nick inch his way to the table, gulping nervously with a heart pounding at his throat. “Do you know him?”
“Oh my God,” he choked out, his breath catching in his throat. “Heath. It’s my brother.” At that very moment he felt his body crumbling and his knees buckled.
The doctor quickly scooped a chair under Nick to prevent his fall. “Easy there, young man.” He gently peeled Nick’s hands off his brother’s arm. “I know you want to reach out to him but I can’t allow you to touch him just yet. He’s fighting a losing battle with infection. In fact you being here is not helping.”
“Doc, tell me. Is he going to be all right?” the careworn brother quavered with terror-filled eyes scanning the doctor’s expression for a ray of hope.
“I won’t lie to you Mister…?”
“Barkley. Nick Barkley. This here is my little brother, Heath. He went missing seven months ago and although everyone claimed him for dead I never gave up o finding him alive. Don’t tell me I’ve found him to watch him die before my very eyes because I won’t accept that. Tell me anything else.” Nick beseeched with a strangled voice.
The doctor placed a comforting hand on Nick’s shoulder and led him out of the examining room to discuss Heath’s condition. “He has two bullets in him. I removed one from his right shoulder and I’m about to remove the second one lodged in his chest.” Nick’s eyes squinted shut, his chin dropping on his chest in utter despair. “Now you saw how skinny he was. It’s obvious he has been malnourished for quite some time. He has no strength left to fight. Now I won’t lie to you, son. I don’t think he’ll survive the next twelve hours, but…” the doctor raised a hand in protest to Nick’s counterargument before he could voice it, “I promise to do everything humanly possible to keep him alive. You have my word. The rest will be up to him and God.”
Nick nodded and strained a grateful smile in return. “Can I stay here with him? It can’t hurt him to know I’m here.”
“I agree, but not before you shower and change clothes.”
Nick gave himself a once over and chuckled in agreement. “You’re right. I look like hell. I’ve been riding forever in this get up. But it was worth it.” He reared up his head to let his drawn features clueing the doctor as to the emotional ordeal he’d suffered. “I’ve found my brother.” Nick dropped his chin to his chest as a flood of tears began stinging his eyes. “I’ll be back in an hour.” One deep inhale later he pursed his quivering lips and stared the doctor pleadingly in the eyes. “Do everything you can for him. He’s precious.”
The doctor sympathized with the man’s grief with a comforting hand on his shoulder and smiled obligingly. “I will.”
Nick returned to the telegraph office to wire his family with the good news, after which he crossed the street to the hotel to rent the only available room left, a spacious two-bedroom suite. He figured his hard luck was a blessing knowing that his room may be occupied with members of his family before long, including Heath once he regains his strength.
Barely forty minutes had elapsed that the beleaguered brother was seen making his way back to the doctor’s office. The nurse eased his qualms with the news of the successful removal of the second bullet. “You’re brother is holding his own, Mister Barkley. Doctor Pettigrew says he came through the surgery fine given the circumstances.”
“Can I see him?”
“You can,” the doctor replied as he exited the recovery room. “I must say that boy in there is a fighter. But I don’t want to give you false hope either. He’s still not out of the woods.”
“I hope to be the one to guide him out of there, Doc,” Nick said confidently.
The doctor bade Nick enter in the dim-lit recovery room. “I’ve set up a nice comfortable armchair for you to sit in next to the bed.”
“Talk to him, Mister Barkley. Let him know you’re here. Get him to fight. I’m sure he has a lot to live for, especially now that he’s free from the hellish nightmare. He needs your strength.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks again.”
“No problem. I’ll be in my office if you need anything.”
The sound of the closing of a door brought the sheriff to his feet. “I hear you’ve got a survivor.” He asked expectantly, meeting Pettigrew halfway down the hall.
“That’s right sheriff, but I doubt he’ll stay that way for long. He’s at death door.”
“You realize he’s the only witness who can testify against Captain Burns? If he dies there ain’t no way we’ll get a conviction.”
“I’m aware of that, but I’ve done all I could for him. The rest is up to God. His brother’s with him. He might be able to prod the kid to fight.”
“Can I see him?”
“Not now sheriff. There’s nothing you can do. We must wait and see if he makes it. Then when he’s better I’ll let you question him, not before. Surely you can hold Burns in jail for that long?”
“That depends. How long are we talking?”
“I don’t know. A week, perhaps more,”
A loud sigh of exasperation was all it took to convey his frustration. “That’s too long,” the sheriff groused, sensing embarrassment from the doctor who could only shrug.
“I’m sorry, sheriff. That’s all I can say. It’s a short of a miracle that this boy survived the massacre.”
“You’re right,” the lawman atoned. “You keep me posted?”
“Sure will, sheriff.”
In the hush of night, Nick was ensconced in the armchair, his head resting against his fist to prevent it from bobbing forward as he fought a loosing battle with the Sandman. He shifted to find a more comfortable position and once found, he surrendered defeat to his laden eyelids, satisfied with the notion that any emergency would be attended to by Doctor Pettigrew.
As sleep claimed him a murmuring drone yanked him back to consciousness. Skipping the yawn and stretch Nick bounced out of his chair to dive to Heath’s bedside where he lit up the night lamp on the table. He slid it closer to the patient’s face and listened intently for the sound he hoped was no figment of his imagination.
“Heath, can you hear me?” Nick whispered gently near his brother’s ear. “Heath it’s me, Nick. You’re safe, boy. Doc’s taking good care of ya. Come on, give me a sign.”
His response came in the form of a wheezing moan and brows furrowing in harrowing pain. Nick brushed his hand ever so lightly against his brother’s shoulder to convey his presence through his touch. “I’m here, Heath. I’ve found you. “
“Nickkkkkkkkkkkkkkk,” came the feeble reply.
“That’s right.” Nick’s euphoria carried him a step further as to take Heath’s hand to cradle it in his.
“Whyyyyyyyyyyyy. Whyyyy don’t you commmmmmmmmmmme?” he whimpered in his comatose state.
“I’m here, Heath. Feel me.” He squeezed Heath’s hand. “I’m real,”
“Nickkkkkkkkkkkkkk, can’t…can’t hold on much lon…longer. Please commmmmmmmme. Pleeeeeeeeeeeease.”
Heath’s pleas were sheer torture. His eyes clamp shut and his jaw clenched; his body stiffened and his chest tightened as he felt his whole body tear apart and the life drain out of him.
“God’s sake open your eyes and look at me!” he bellowed in spite of himself, the agony becoming unbearable.
“What’s going on?” Doctor Pettigrew asked as he breezed into the room while slipping on his bathrobe. “I heard you shouting.”
“It’s my brother. I…I don’t know what to make of it doctor. He’s talking in his sleep. I can’t wake him up.”
“And you’re not supposed too,” Pettigrew admonished on a light tone, aware that the careworn brother meant no harm. “You said he spoke?”
“He was mostly mumbling. All I could make out was my name. He was calling for me. I tried telling him I was here but he couldn’t hear me.” Nick gripped his hair to gain control over the raging anger consuming him, knowing how close and yet so far he stood from his sibling. Heath hung on the bridge spanning the two realms; reaching out to Nick’s hand that never materialized. Having failed to respond to his brother’s cry for help, Nick wondered if Heath had begun his descend on the other side. Perhaps those heart-wrenching pleas were a sign that all was not lost; that his brother was endeavoring to establish the connection once last time before falling into the dark abyss.
Following a night of anguish, Nick finally found sleep in the late hours of the morning. Doctor Pettigrew padded into the room, heedful not to disturb the emotionally spent brother, as he walked past him to get to his patient. He lifted one eyelid to study the corneal reflex, then took the pulse. As he finished inspecting the dressings on both shoulder and chest, his nurse walked in and whispered, “Mister Barkley’s family is here.”
“I’ll be right there,” he wafted back, his hushed voice eliciting a soft murmur out of the slumbering brother. He winced at the obvious disturbance, pausing to re-establish a complete silence in the room before stealing out of the room quietly to meet with his visitors.
“This is Doctor Pettigrew,” the nurse introduced, then slipped away to tend to her duties.
“Doctor, how is my son?” Victoria jumped in, disregarding the small talk.
“Right now it’s touch and go. He is fighting an infection but remarkably well I must say. I didn’t expect him to survive the night and he’s still with us.”
“My brother’s a fighter,” Audra chimed in proudly.
“That he is Miss Barkley. But you must understand that the battle is far from being over.”
“May we see him?” Jarrod asked.
“Your brother Nick is sleeping by his bed,” Pettigrew explained rather embarrassingly as he felt caught between a rock and a hard place. “I don’t want to disturb him since he’s hasn’t had a wink of sleep all night.”
“We won’t disturb, doctor,” Victoria assured, the sharpness of her voice leaving little room for argument. “Know that he’s been missing for seven months and we need…”
“I understand,” the doctor cut in with an obliging smile. “But I must warn you of what you’ll see. He is very thin; his body’s covered with bruises and his breathing’s erratic.” Each nodded their understanding with a nervous gulp. “This way.” He led the foursome to the recovery room where Nick was seen stirring.
Victoria approached the chair and bend down to brush a feathery kiss on Nick’s cheek. “Hi sweetheart.”
“Mother,” Nick yelped like a wounded pup, flinging his arms around her. “I’m found him,” he sobbed in her warm embrace. “I told you I would.”
“You did. I never should have doubted you and your sixth sense.”
“It’s okay. I never listen anyway when I get that scorching gut feeling about Heath.”
Nick stood and brought Victoria closer to the bed. “Doc says he’s hanging his own.” Both gazed at the drawn features that spoke volume on the agony the young man experienced aboard that ship. Thankfully the rest of his skeletal body was covered by a thick blanket that prevented Victoria from witnessing the extent of affliction that plagued every inch of his body.
Abby sat on the edge of the mattress and gingerly cradled Heath’s hand in hers. “I’m here, my love. I’ve been waiting for you to return to me. Don’t leave me now,” she implored, her heart busting at the seams from a blend of relief and sorrow.
“I’ve rented a suite at the hotel,” Nick began. “It was the only available room when I checked in yesterday. It’s got two bedrooms and a large living room. Perhaps someone checked out today and we could rent that room for the girls?”
“Good idea,” Jarrod agreed. “I’ll go see to it right now.” Before leaving he turned to Victoria. “I’ll be back.” Victoria nodded and watched him go.
“Oh My God!” Abby gasped in horror after peaking underneath the covers. “How can anyone do this to a human being?” She slid an arm around his chest where she gently lowered her head to feel him breathe.
“Easy Miss. He’s very tender in that area,” the doctor cautioned without insisting on the immediate removal of her arm that he deemed a soothing medicine for the patient. Abby heeded the doctor’s advice and resumed her former position.
“I must insist you don’t stay long. One person I can tolerate, but there’s too many of you.”
“Of course, doctor,” Victoria acquiesced in hushed tones. “Just a few more minutes and we’ll be on our way.” She waited for the nurse and doctor to leave the room before perching herself on the edge of the mattress to delicately roam her fingers over her son’s bruised arm. “How could this have happened? Where could he have gone that night?”
“I don’t think he went anywhere, Mother,” Nick offered. “Remember that night when we were at Barbary Red to bury Heath’s bachelorhood?” She nodded. “Well I recall there was a saloon girl that kept ogling Heath all night. At first I thought nothing of it. I mean he’s a good-looking guy. Naturally girls swarm around him. I also caught sight of two shady men looking our way but then again I thought it was because we were making quite a racket. We were all pretty out of it.”
“I think they followed us home, waited until the lights were off, crept into the house and kidnapped him with no being the wiser. That’s the only explication I can think of. We’ll have to wait for Heath’s version. Hopefully he’ll remember what happened. Right now the sheriff is anxious for him to get better so he can testify against the ship’s captain. If he dies, then he’ll walk ‘cause they have no substantial proof that his crew were shanghaied men.”
“Maybe Jarrod can ask around at the Barbary Red saloon?” Audra ventured a suggestion.
“Right now our main concern is little brother, here. The rest I couldn’t care less.”
Days wore into weeks with Heath’s physical condition improving slightly but not enough to Doctor Pettigrew’s liking. His patient’s eyes would pry open in the morning to idle the day away by staring into nothingness and then shut close at night to withdraw into his own world of darkness where he felt protected against the demons without. Not even Nick’s voice could break through the thick mist shrouding his soul. He was completely lost, adrift on a sea of serenity and peace with the waves rocking him further away from the shore where his family was crying for his return. He wouldn’t acknowledge their lament, believing they were the enemy in disguise luring him back into his shackles.
“Nickkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk, where are youuuuuuuuuuuuu?” Heath wailed in his sleep, prompting Nick to leap out of his chair to sit on the bed.
“I’m here Heath. Come on, brother. Open your eyes. It’s time for you to come back to us,” Nick emboldened, rubbing both his hands against Heath’s.
Victoria stirred in her chair and focused on the scene before her. “Nick?” she asked worriedly as she stood and approached the bed. “Something wrong?”
“He spoke again, Mother. It’s always the same thing. He’s calling for me but he doesn’t know I’m here,” Nick scorned with bitter resentment. “If he would only wake up and look at me, dammit!” Victoria placed a soothing hand on Nick’s shoulder to allay some of the anguish that has been escalating for the past three weeks. “I know he blames me for not finding him sooner. I just know it.”
“Nick don’t believe that for one second.”
“You hear him call my name? It’s killing me ‘cause I can’t reach him and I can’t turn back time,” Nick lashed out at himself. “How long is he going to stay like this?”
Victoria could only offer a despondent sigh to a son carrying the woe of the worlds on his shoulders.
“I’ve seen this in men during the war. Their brain just can’t take anymore and it shuts itself out,” Doctor Pettigrew offered as an explanation to Heath’s condition. “It speaks of the death throes he must have experienced aboard that ship.”
“Will he ever be the same again?” Nick asked.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“What kind of an answer is that?” Nick scorned, his voice raising an octave.
“Nicolas!” Victoria admonished. “Please!”
“It’s okay Mrs. Barkley,” Pettigrew reassured composedly. “I understand how your son feels and I wish I could give him a definite prognosis but I can’t. The brain is very complex. We doctors have yet to fully comprehend all the mechanisms and we probably won’t, ever.” He paused to approach the bed and gazed at the slumbering patient. “I’ve done all I could for him, physically that is. It’s a psychological disorder, which is a totally different realm. I would suggest admitting to an asylum where…”
Nick bolted upright and blustered, “No way!”
“That would be best for him.”
“Ain’t no way we’re putting my brother in a loony bin.”
“Mister Barkley,” Pettigrew hissed. “This isn’t what you think. The asylum is not a loony bin as you say, but a highly regarded…”
“I don’t buy that. My brother is not going and that’s final.” Nick glowered at the doctor to table the discussion. He then glanced his mother’s way to gain her support.
Pettigrew interpreted Victoria’s constrain smile as a request to close the topic for now. “I was merely offering a professional opinion.”
“Thank you Doctor. We will consider it,” Victoria said, holding her hand up to forbid Nick from objecting.
No sooner had the doctor left the room that Nick jumped down his mother’s throat. She countered vehemently about his lack of respect for other people’s opinion and his stubbornness in recognizing the best care possible for his brother. “Nick, this isn’t about you. We must consider what’s best for Heath.”
“I know what’s best for him and that’s being with his family back in Stockton. Not here. That place will be a constant reminder of that night of hell where he was almost killed. We must take him back to the ranch,” Nick beseeched with imploring eyes that tore at Victoria’s heart.
“I don’t know Nick.” She stepped up to Heath’s bed and pushed a lock of hair back on his forehead. “Do we know what to do? If he returns to Stockton in the state he’s in we might make it worse.”
“I doubt that Mother. He can only get better over there in familiar surroundings,” Nick insisted, knowing he held the ace that would make his mother fold.
Doctor Pettigrew reluctantly yielded to their request to bring Heath back to Stockton. Two days prior to the family’s departure he had wired a colleague in San Francisco to consult on Heath Barkley’s condition and that whether or not he could allow his family to care for him at home. The psychiatrist offered no objection; contrariwise, he endorsed such treatment.
During the train ride, Heath remained silent with his vacuous eyes riveted on the ceiling. The occasional blink would break the deathly lethargy but offered no optimism as to a positive change in his present condition.
Nick insisted on keeping a vigil during the night. He sat watching his brother sleep, praying for a nightmare-free slumber mostly for his own peace of mind. He hated when Heath cried out his name in a desperate plea for help that never came. How his failure to find his brother overwhelmed him and weighed upon his conscience, and adding to his grief was the inability to reach out to Heath and explain the situation as it were.
Once the train came to a full stop at the Stockton station Nick and Jarrod carried Heath to the awaiting wagon that Ciego had driven from the ranch. He made one last inspection of the makeshift bed set up in the back before meeting with the family halfway down the street. “Senor Barkley. It’s good to see you back.”
“Thank Ciego. Has Doctor Merar been notified?” Nick asked.
“Si Senor. He’s waiting for you at his office.”
Ciego assisted the two brothers in carrying their load to the doctor’s office where Howard assessed Heath’s condition. Once satisfied with his results he allowed the family to bring the patient to the ranch where he was to be remain in his room until his next visit.
Clenching his fists was all Nick could do to refrain himself from smashing everything in sight. Heath’s silence was like a clock ticking in his head, building up the madness to a fever pitch.
Days wore on and still no significant change. Nick began to seriously question his belief that being at home was the best medicine for Heath, but refrained from sharing his qualms with any one for fear they might consider following Doctor’s Pettigrew’s advice and admit Heath to a psycho ward.
One afternoon, Nick decided to call it a day early to come sit with Heath. He relieved Audra who had been reading to her listless brother, with the hopes that some passages of his favorite books might trigger a response.
“Nick, you’re home early,” she observed, shutting the book close and placing it on the nightstand.
“Yeah. Not much to do today so I thought best to come here and sit with him. Any change?”
“None. Just a few blinks, that’s all. I’ve given him a few drops of water. He managed to swallow them.” She turned to Heath and pursed her quivering lips as tears began gushing to her eyes. “Nick there’s no use. He’s just lying there, staring at the ceiling. I tried talking to him. I’ve read to him and even yelled. Nothing works.”
Nick pulled his woebegone sister to his arms and enlaced her in a comforting hug. “Don’t give up, that’s all we can do right now. I know he’s in there somewhere. It’s just a matter of time before we pull him out of this dark place where he sought refuge. What he went through is unspeakable. Don’t despair. He’ll come back to us.”
She disengaged the embrace and stared into her brother’s eyes to search for the genuineness behind his words. “Are you sure? It’s been two months, Nick.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said resolutely, trying hard to mask the doubt looming in the back of his mind. He brushed his thumbs against her bedewed cheeks and kissed the top of her head. “Go on. I’ll sit with him.”
She left him with a kiss on his cheek. As she neared the door, she turned to cast a last gloomy look at her blond brother before exiting the room.
Nick scooted the chair closer to the bed and sat with a fist over his mouth in deep concentration. “Tell me what to do, Heath. I don’t know anymore. You won’t let me in.” He stood and paced the room, raking his hair with his fingers in suppressed fury.
“Come on Heath! Talk to me, brother. If you want to punish me, fine! But think of the others. This is killing mother.” His frustration grew with each of Heath’s heavy blink. “Dammit Heath!”
“Nickkkkkkkkkkkk,” came the weak reply.
Nick dove to the bed and held his brother’s hand. “I’m here Heath. I’m here.”
“Wheeeeeeeeere are youuuuuuuuuuu? God why don’t you come?”
This was the last straw. Nick couldn’t bear anymore. He stood and walked to the window to breathe away his torment. In the background Heath continued to droned out pleas, each one tearing one more piece of Nick’s heart until he had no more to give.
“Dammit I tried! I tried to find you,” Nick spat, feeling the vials of wrath pouring out of him. “Why can’t you believe me?”
“Nick, what’s going on?” Victoria asked in a fluster after dashing down to Heath’s room, alerted by Nick’s shouts.
Nick slapped both hands against his ears, squinting his eyes shut to block out Heath’s cries. “Stop it! Just stop it!” he implored with a face distorted in pain. His guilty conscience exploded, shattering his mind and sending him into the throes of mental agony. Unable to bear the burden any longer, Nick darted out of the room and out of the house to run as fast and as far as his legs would take him.
It was late in the afternoon when Heath’s eyes shot wide open, a pained terrorized expression crossed his face. “Nick?” he cried out, startling Abby out of her chair.
“Heath, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?” Without acknowledging her he proceeded to haul himself out of the bed only to be pushed back down. “No, lie still Heath. You’ll hurt yourself,” she begged, garnering all of her strength to keep Heath in bed.
“Nick. Nick he’s…”
“He’s all right. He left for a few minute but he’ll be back.”
His strength waving fast Heath finally conceded defeat and eased his head back on his pillow. “Where? Where am I?” he panted, his head tossing from left to right, trying to establish clear focus on his surroundings. He turned to Abby and furrowed his brow. “Abby?”
“That’s right, Heath. I’m here. You’re home, alive,” she cooed with a heart bursting with joy and relief. She took his hand and sandwiched between hers.
Heath fashioned a weak smile. “Home? Nick came?”
“Yes he did, sweetheart. He found you.”
Suddenly Heath’s elation turned to terror, putting the fear of God into Abby. “Heath, what’s wrong? You’re in pain?”
“Nick. Must go to him.” Again he tried sliding out of bed only to find his struggle hindered by four pair of hands.
“And where do you think you’re going, Brother Heath?” Jarrod warned sternly.
“Jar…Jarrod!” Heath breathed out, clasping at his brother arm. “Nick…”
“Nick will be back. Just relax.”
“No, no.” Heath thrashed in bed, his head jerking back and forth. “Needs help. Go…go to him. Needs help.”
Jarrod shot Abby a quizzical look. She in turn responded with knowing expression. “I think he senses that Nick is in danger. Do you know where Nick went?”
“I don’t know. He left in a hurry without so much of a hint as to where he was heading.”
Abby glanced down at Heath who was slowly drifting off. “Heath, tell us, do you know where Nick is?” He only response was a faint moan and a wince.
Jarrod breezed out of the room and hurried down to his mother’s bedroom to tell her the good news about Heath. She bounced out of bed without so much of a yawn and a stretch.
“He is crying something about Nick needing help,” he said as he escorted his mother to Heath’s room.
“Audra told me Nick was sitting with Heath.”
“He was. But I saw him dash out of the house about an hour ago.”
“Why would he do that? “
Jarrod shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t say anything. But he did seem pretty upset.”
“Mrs. Barkley. He talked,” Abby enthused upon the matriarch’s entrance.
“How is he?” Victoria asked worriedly as she made her way to the bed to gaze at the sleeping form.
“Weak. He just drifted off to sleep.”
“I’m going to find Nick,” Jarrod cut in, giving Victoria a kiss on the forehead.
She in turn gripped his arm and with an imploring expression, “Be careful Jarrod.” Once her son out the door, she turned back to Heath and perched herself on the edge of the mattress. “He’ll be fine now,” she emboldened the careworn lady sitting across from her.
“I have to believe he will,” Abby sighed.
In early evening, a loud bellow reverberated through the house; one that usually shatters Victoria’s eardrums was now music to her ears. She stood from her chair and cast one last look at a slumbering Heath before making her way down the hall hoping to meet with Nick half way but instead she found herself continuing down to the top of the staircase.
“Oh my God!” she gasped, flinging a hand over her mouth at the sight Nick bloody ankle. “What happened?”
“Arrrrrrr I got stuck in a stupid bear trap,” Nick groused. “Thanks to Jarrod here,” he motioned to his big brother holding him steady, “I’ll be all right.”
“I’ve sent Jake to fetch Dr. Merar.” Jarrod said.
“Okay, let’s get you settled in your room,” Victoria started but Nick shook his head vehemently.
“No, not before I see Heath. Jarrod tells me he’s awake?”
“He is,” she smiled. “He’s been asking for you.”
“Has he? Then he doesn’t hate me?” Nick queried with a touch of trepidation that Victoria’s shake of the head quickly melted into a sigh of relief. “Jarrod, help me up to the boy’s room, will you?”
Jarrod glanced at Victoria to seek her approval. She responded with a light nod of the head, knowing it was useless to force Nick to lie down before he had a chance to visit with his brother.
Jarrod assisted a limping Nick to the bed where he sat. The jostling of the mattress spurred Heath out of sleep. A few blinks later he was able to establish focus on the familiar endearing grin. “Nick?” he breathed out with a frown, unsure whether the figure was real or not.
“Yeah, I’m here Little Brother. Long time no see.”
“Nick, you okay?”
“I’m fine, Heath. You’re home and you’re safe now. Yeah I’m just fine,” he quavered, striving to retain his tears in front of Heath. “I’m so sorry it took so long to find you but you must know that I…”
“I know Nick,” Heath interjected with a reassuring a smile. “I know everything. Mother and Abby told me. I’m the one who’s sorry for putting you through this agony, thinking I hated you for not showing up. I’m sorry Nick.”
“Don’t be. It’s over now. Jarrod here assures me he’ll do everything in his power to put Barbary Red out of business forever. ”
“I’ve tried Nick but I just can’t recall a single detail of how they kidnapped me. All I remember is waking up on a cot aboard a ship that had already hit the sea. And that awful taste of chloroform,” Heath recalled, crinkling his nose in disgust at the memory.
Nick turned to Jarrod with a knowing look. “That’s how they did it.”
“I tend to concur,” Jarrod agreed. “Problem is it’s unlikely we’ll find any eyewitness to corroborate our assumption.”
Nick raised an eyebrow in suspicion. “What does that mean? You said you were going to put them all away for good.”
“I will. But I expect it’ll take some time. I have to proceed accordingly or I’m liable to get the case thrown out of court.”
“He’s right, Nick,” Heath chimed in through a yawn. “I’ll try my best to help you in your investigation, Jarrod.”
“Thanks Heath,” Jarrod said with a hand on his brother’s shoulder. He then glanced up at Abby and veered off subject. “Right now Brother Heath your main job is to get well so you can make this beautiful woman my sister-in-law.”
“Hear, hear!” Nick enthused, prompting the blood to mantle over Abby’s cheeks.
Heath flashed his trademark lopsided grin at his fiancée. “That’s the best incentive.” He reached out to clasp her hand. “Unless she changed her mind about me.” His lighthearted joke won him a swap on the arm.
“Heath Barkley!” Abby scolded.
“Well, we’ll leave you two alone.” Nick said, cueing Jarrod to help him rise from the bed. “I believe you have lots to talk about.”
“Nick, what’s the matter?” Heath asked worriedly. “Why are you wincing?”
“I had a little run in with a bear trap, that’s all. Don’t you worry none about me. Just concentrate on getting better.”
“Yeah Little Brother?”
“Don’t mention it.” With a heavy heart he turn to Jarrod for emotional and physical support. He leaned on his big brother as they exited the room. Halfway down the hall they met with Victoria who lent a hand in helping Jarrod with Nick. Instead, Nick broke free from Jarrod and fell into his mother’s arms.
“He’s back. God he’s back,” the emotionally spent brother sobbed, his whole body shivering from the tremendous strain of the past weeks. “Thank you God. Thank you for bringing him home.”