"To Die Game"

by
Layla


Logline: Heath's sharp-shooting skills are put to the test when he is 'hunted' by an old foe

  “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

- Ernest Hemingway


Jim Hansen was good at his job. When it came to extracting information from the sprawling bureaucracy that was Washington D.C., the Pinkerton Detective Agency had no one better. Years of cultivating key contacts throughout the city had paid off for him time and again. This time was no different. Ira Taylor was his man in the Department of Defense U.S. Army Records Division. This was by no means a straightforward case, but Ira had come through. If the U.S. Army had skeletons to hide, Ira either knew exactly where they’d be buried or the most likely place to start digging.

Records of the hearing that resulted in the Dishonorable Discharge along with stripping of rank, commendations and medals were easily located. The rest of the files had taken some digging. And no wonder...it wasn’t the U.S. Army’s finest hour.

What a sorry mess this is... Jim had thought after poring over the records that Ira had produced. Jim made copious and detailed notes. The boy had joined the Union Army out in California at age “18”. He was assigned to Company C, 2nd California Infantry but had immediately set himself apart on the rifle range. The talented novice quickly won Expert Marksman honors and had out shot his fellow recruits in competition. Thus the hard-shooting young private had come to the attention of Col. Hiram Berdan and had been transferred at Col. Berdan’s request to his elite United States Sharpshooters Regiment.

The list of accomplishments as a sharpshooter was extremely impressive. The young sharpshooter had been sent off on dozens of dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The young soldier would work his way into position to make a shot on his target and then he was on his own to try to make it back to the Union lines and his own Unit. This could take days... Sometimes a “spotter” accompanied him, but mostly he was alone. With each mission that he managed to pull off, his reputation grew within the elite unit. 57 confirmed kills - couriers carrying intelligence reports, orders and dispatches, Confederate officers, and even a couple of Confederate spies before they could rendezvous with their contacts. Col. Berdan also sent out these elite sharpshooters in advance of the regular infantry to engage the enemy in “skirmishes”. They sniped the enemy, pinning them down and slowing their forward progress.

The impact on the enemy through loss of leadership and access to communications had been severe enough that the boy had been brevetted in rank to Sergeant, earned numerous Commendations and ultimately had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

The boy had been taken prisoner in mid-December, 1864 near Nashville, Tennessee as the battle raged between the Confederate troops under Gen. Hood and the Union forces under Gen. Thomas. He had ended up in a prison for Union POWs in Louisiana - that hellhole known as Carterson.

There were no records as to what exactly had occurred during the months prior to the war’s end and the prison camp’s liberation. But Jim Hansen knew all about Carterson by reputation and through the staggering death toll that had occurred there. The boy’s medical records from his 6-month stay in a U.S. Army Hospital after the war were graphic enough to fill in the blanks. The boy had well earned his Purple Heart.The doctors at the Army Hospital had known immediately upon examining the boy that the stated age according to his Army records was obviously wrong. They were appalled that such a young boy had been allowed to join the Army in the first place. It was the formal complaint filed by several of the doctors and request for investigation into U.S. Army Recruiting policies and procedures that had opened a real can of worms. Despite the doctors’ good intentions, the Army managed to escape any accountability in the matter. The official inquiry ruled that the boy was at fault for “deliberate falsification of eligibility status”. It was well known that the recruiters rarely challenged these boy enlistees and almost never requested the required signature of parental consent.

Tail-coverage was the order of the day and these boys were often chewed up in its wake. This boy had been mangled… busted back down to private, stripped of all commendations as well as his medals. Lastly, he was dishonorably discharged and therefore rendered ineligible for further hospitalization or rehabilitation in any U.S. Army facility.

Thus the U.S. Army had officially closed the books on young Heath Aaron Thomson. What a terrible injustice… Jim thought as he closed his notebook and rubbed his eyes.

Ira Taylor had read the records with growing interest and his mind was now churning as well. What had it been? Probably six or seven years ago but Ira had always been blessed with an excellent memory. That’s why he was so suited for his present position in Records.

Ira thought back on that long-ago conversation with Jack Donahue. He’d located the records of the four men Donahue had been interested in and had made notes from each which he had given to Donahue. Easiest $200.00 Ira had ever made.

“What do you want with these fellows, Jack?” Ira had asked.

“A little unfinished business…” the enigmatic Donahue had replied. “Your little side business is selling information for a price, Ira… it’d be safer for you not to concern yourself with what I do with it.”

They had started to part but almost as an afterthought Donahue spoke again. “ Listen Ira, there’s one man I’d like to find … I’d pay double the usual.”

“Well what’s his name?” Ira asked.

“I don’t know his name.”

“So how am I supposed to identify this nameless soldier?” Ira threw Donahue an incredulous look.

“ I don’t know… every sharpshooter kept a sniper’s log and had to submit a situation report to his officer in charge after each mission. He killed Gen. Stark several days before the battle at Franklin, Tennessee. I was a sharpshooter myself, and a damn good one. Gen. Stark was a military genius … I would have given my life for the man. Gen. Lee said after Gen. Stonewall Jackson was killed ‘I have lost my right arm’. Gen. Stark was Gen. Hood’s ‘right arm’. He believed we should keep retreating; doing hit-and-run raids along the way but ultimately beat Sherman to the mountains and cross over into Virginia and join forces with Gen. Lee. The other generals favored going on the offensive against Schofield’s forces. We lost badly at Franklin. In a series of reckless charges, we lost over six thousand men, including six of our generals. Defeat at the Battle of Nashville two weeks later was a foregone conclusion. Gave that bastard Thomas one of the biggest victories of the war! What was left of our army had to retreat into Mississippi.” Donahue paused, his steel gray eyes flashing with rage. “Like I was saying, this Union sniper snuck into our perimeter – my perimeter – and shot Gen. Stark dead! I was sitting just outside my tent with my binoculars within easy reach. I knew as soon as the shot was fired where I’d be if I had been the shooter. I scanned the knoll and I saw him just before he disappeared into the woods. He turned and looked back toward the camp for just an instant. Hell, he was just a boy! Couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old. A golden blond-haired, blue-eyed… for a moment, a vision of a Botticelli angel came into my mind.”

Ira snorted, “Sounds more like the Angel of Death to me. My guess is this was some kid running around out there without enough sense to be scared, who just happened to pull off the luckiest shot of his life!”

“Just the same, if you come across an incident report that mentions Stark…”

“Jack” Ira cut in, “it just doesn’t work that way. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack! I need a name … if you don’t have that then you’ve got nothing for me to work with. Sorry.”

Ira’s mind snapped back to the present and he looked at the photograph on the inside jacket of the file. A blond boy of about fourteen, clean and clear faced. The eyes seemed to him to be the dominating feature in the handsome young face. Yes, very handsome… angelic even.

Ira cleared his throat as he pocketed the $20 gold piece Jim Hansen gave him. He tried to sound casual. “Is this boy in some kind of trouble?”

“No, not that I know of, Ira. A lawyer out on the west coast asked for a background check. Seems the boy showed up at the family ranch claiming he’s a long lost relative. The family is rather well-to-do so naturally they intend to check out his story thoroughly.”

“And what does Papa say?” Ira chuckled.

“Well that’s a problem. The patriarch, Thomas Barkley, has been dead for six years.”

“Let’s see…” Ira rubbed his forehead absently. “Barkley Ranch. That’s in Texas, right?”

“No, Ira. It’s near Stockton, California.”

“Oh,” said Ira. “I guess I was thinking of somebody else.”

Jim smiled. He really shouldn’t have divulged any client information at all. But he needed to maintain a kind of backslapping, friendly relationship with Ira. After all, he needed Ira’s help fairly often. Anyway, Ira was just being Ira – a little bit too nosey. He’d forget the little tidbit of gossip there at the end soon enough, Jim felt sure. After all, what could it hurt? There was nothing Ira could do with the information.

Ira Taylor sent the telegraph that same afternoon. He had prepared some notes from the files. As soon as Jack Donahue wired the money, Ira was ready to send him all the information he had. Ira tried to shake off the recollection of the “Death Notice” that had come through his office within months on each of the four Union Army veterans that he had helped Donahue locate. But hell, those notices trickled into his office on a daily basis. It could have all been just coincidence. He couldn’t concern himself with that. He had other worries. He needed to make a pay-off on the gambling debt he owed. And soon

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THREE MONTHS LATER:


“You’re not as slick as you think, Pappy.” Nick said as he poured himself some whiskey from the decanter and eyed his older brother. “You know I was planning on taking Ben Timmons with me to buy those horses. I’ve been picking the breeding stock for this ranch for years and I’ve never heard any complaints about the quality! I don’t need Heath to go with me.”

“No,” Victoria broke in, “you don’t need Heath to choose the breeding stock. We all know that you are perfectly capable of doing that on your own. You’re right, Nick. Jarrod and I do have an ulterior motive…”

“Oh, I knew it, Mother!” Nick began to pace.

“Come on, Nick.” Jarrod said. “Heath is a member of this family now. I know you’re both stubborn but it’s time for the two of you to stop butting heads and try to become friends.”

Nick stopped his pacing and shot Jarrod a defiant glance. “I was outvoted when it came to that boy living under this roof!” Nick seethed. He still wouldn’t refer to Heath as a ‘member of the family’. “But know this Pappy, I pick my own friends!” Nick began to pace again. “Ben could use the experience…”

“Nicholas!” Victoria’s tone was stern. “You will take Heath with you on this trip!”

“But, Mother…”

“No buts, Nicholas. This is what I want.”

“Oh, all right!” Nick put his glass down and strode out the door grumbling under his breath.

Jarrod took a sip of his Scotch. “Well, I wouldn’t exactly call that getting off on the right foot but at least Nick has agreed to let him go.”

Victoria sighed. “They both have so many good qualities in common, and so many more that could complement the other. You know I have always believed that it’s hard to dislike a person once you get to know them. I believe these two weeks on their own - just the two of them - well, it could begin a whole new chapter for them.”

Jarrod chuckled. “I’m not sure that two weeks is enough, but I defer to your unfailing mother’s instinct and keen insight.” He walked over to where she sat and kissed her cheek.

“Thank you, Jarrod. We both know that my record isn’t perfect but I do hope and pray that I am right about this.”

Nick stomped up the stairs, spurs jingling. Outvoted again, he thought, well, they’d better not start meddling too much. This is my ranch to run and my men to rule. I’ll decide what part that boy will play – if any. When it comes to the daily running of this ranch… it’s a democracy of one!

He stopped at Heath’s door and rapped on it sharply. In a few moments, the door opened…only partially. The blond just stood there silently. He didn’t ask Nick in.

“That horse-buying trip I’m taking day after tomorrow. You’re going with me.”

“Nick, I thought you said…”

“I know what I said and now I’m telling you different.” Nick responded as he saw a hint of suspicion in those easily read blue eyes. “I’ll get everything lined out for McCall tomorrow. That way we won’t have to waste any time getting an early start out of here before daybreak.”

“Okay, Nick. Whatever you say.” Heath sighed. “That all?”

Nick nodded and Heath closed the door. Heath walked over to the bed and began to undress. Sounds like one of Jarrod’s ideas, he thought, I’m sure it wasn’t Nick’s.

Both Nick and Heath had the same idea the next morning. Get a quick bite of breakfast in the kitchen and head on out to work. They each had things they wanted to do today before starting a two-week trip. Heath was just putting his empty plate in the sink when Nick came down the back stairway. He gave Nick a quick nod, picked up his hat off the table, and walked out the back door. Two weeks on the trail with him for company, Nick thought, I might as well be by myself. “Hell, I’d rather be by myself!” Nick said to no one there.

Heath walked out to the corrals and the adjoining round pen. There were five 3 year-old remuda horses in the corral that he’d been working with. They were barely green broke. Heath had decided to use his morning giving them each a good workout since he was going to be away for two weeks.

Nick met up with McCall. They planned to ride around and check the progress of several of the projects going on around the ranch. McCall knew Nick would tell him exactly what he expected to be finished by the time he returned and that Nick relied on him to keep the men on task.

At lunchtime, both Nick and Heath returned to the house. Victoria smiled as everyone took their places at the table. It was a rare treat to have everyone home for lunch.

“This is so nice!” Victoria said and smiled at her youngest sons. “It will certainly be lonely around here the next two weeks with you two off buying horses and Jarrod going to San Francisco.”

“At the very least it’ll certainly be quieter while Nick’s gone.” Jarrod said.

“That’s for sure!” Audra giggled.

Nick shot them an unamused glare. Heath took a sideways glance at Nick but didn’t crack a smile.

Jarrod’s eyes met his mother’s. It was obvious to them both that Nick’s mood hadn’t much improved. Maybe Heath would be more receptive.

“Well Brother Heath, while we’re enjoying a little peace and quiet, don’t let Nick talk your ears off.”

Heath looked up from his plate. “Don’t think that’ll be a problem.” he said.

“It’s not like he’d hold up his end of the conversation anyway.” Nick muttered.

Victoria shook her head slightly at Jarrod. Best to let it drop for now…

Heath and Nick finished their lunch quickly in silence and started to leave.

“Oh, Heath…” Jarrod said. “Let me know when you start into town to go to the bank. I’ve got to pick up some paperwork at my office. I’ll ride in with you.”

“Sure, Jarrod.” Heath smiled. “It’ll be nice to have the company.”

Nick and Heath walked out together and before Heath headed back over to the round pen to work the last remuda, Nick caught his arm.

“Don’t waste any time getting back here after you finish up at the bank. It looks like there’s a cloud coming in and I’ve got two wagonloads of feed sitting over by the barn that need to be unloaded.”

“I won’t be gone for long, Nick.” Heath said as he turned and walked away.

Heath and Jarrod headed for town under increasingly overcast skies. They packed a poncho in their saddlebags and headed their horses toward Stockton at a canter. They did not notice the man who had been watching from the cover of some nearby woods mount up and follow them.

Jack Donahue had arrived in Stockton a little over two weeks before. Probably the only person even vaguely aware of his presence was the hotel clerk. And the fellow at the General Store… he’d bought some things there after he arrived. He left the hotel very early in the morning and came back into town quite late in the evening, when he came back at all. Donahue had kept a very low profile. Perhaps the only thing about him that would arouse suspicion was the rifle scabbard that hung behind his saddle. It was of unique design, fitted to house a sharpshooter’s rifle complete with scope.

He rode in right by them as they stood in front of the bank entrance chatting. Donahue reined his horse in to a nearby hitching post, swung down and tied the reins slowly. He discreetly glanced over at the two men. He quickly studied the blond. The years had brought about a transformation. He had grown into a six-footer with a muscular, athletic build. The hair had darkened a little. The boyish face was mature and ruggedly handsome now. But the eyes…the sky blue eyes had not changed at all. The other man was raven-haired but had the same clear, piercing blue eyes. Must be the lawyer brother, Donahue thought, I’ll be sure to send him a little thank-you note.

Just then another man exited the bank. “Jarrod, I’m glad that I ran into you.” The short dark-haired man extended his hand to Jarrod and nodded quickly toward Heath.

“What can I do for you Phil?” Jarrod asked.

“Well, Jarrod, I’d like to move Thad Sutton’s trial date up a couple of weeks. I ended up dropping the indictment against Calvin Langer and that opened up some time on the court calendar.”

“Well, I don’t know, Phil. I could use the extra time preparing my defense and I’ve also got some court obligations in San Francisco.”

Jarrod never missed an opportunity to remind him that he had a high-power law practice in the big city, Phil Archer thought. “I’ll remind you, Jarrod, it’s the District Attorney’s office that sets the trial dates.” Archer said.

Jarrod sighed. “I’ve got to run over to my office for a little while. But when I’m finished there I’ll drop by your office. I’ll bring my calendar and we can hammer out the dates.”

Archer nodded, “See you then…” and walked away.

“Well, Heath, it looks like you’ll be on your own riding back to the ranch. I trust you won’t get lost without my expert guidance. Nick mentioned that he had your afternoon’s activities already planned.”

Heath gave Jarrod a lop-sided smile. “No problem. Now don’t let that jaybird Archer jerk you around. Ya hear?” He turned and walked into the bank and Jarrod headed off toward his office.

Alone… at last… Donahue thought as a smile toyed at his lips. He was a patient man, like any good sniper, but it seemed to him this moment had been far too long in coming. But patience, planning and preparation always paid off in the end.

He walked briskly across the street and into the Hotel. He didn’t acknowledge the desk clerk’s courteous “Good day, Sir.” Donahue took the stairs two by two up to his room. He hurriedly stuffed a few articles of clothing into a carpetbag. He didn’t bother to check the desk in the room or even take the razor and comb that laid on the dresser. As Donahue laid the hotel room key and money on the desk in front of the clerk, the man smiled pleasantly at him.

“All finished with your business in Stockton, Sir?” Donahue looked up and the clerk was taken aback by the hard, cold look in the steely gray eyes.

“Just about…” Donahue said and walked out.

The eyes were so cold and serpent-like that the shaken clerk didn’t even get out his usual “Come back soon!”

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Nick looked up at the sky. There was definitely a storm brewing. Dark gray clouds were moving in and the sky was beginning to look dark and threatening.

He went back to the task of unloading the wagon and stacking the 100lb. sacks of horse feed in the barn. Every time he walked back out to the wagon to remove another sack, he did the same thing. He paused and looked out through the front gates and gazed as far as his eye could see down the road that led into town.

They should have been back by now. Or at least Heath should have been. Didn’t he make it clear to Heath that he wanted him to come straight back? Nick’s frustration was growing by the minute. A confusing mix of emotions was churning within him. Anger – yes, he was certainly angry. Nick hated it when his orders weren’t obeyed and it surely did not sit well with him that Heath was trying to duck out on his chores. Especially when it meant that Nick was left to do the work alone. The anger was explainable. But what Nick couldn’t reason away were the other emotions and impulses that kept fighting their way from his subconscious mind into his thoughts. He felt a deep sense of unease and gloom. Something felt very wrong and he had the urge to act. But to do what? An impulse continued to compel him to saddle up Coco and gallop off down that road that led to Stockton.

“Crazy.” Nick muttered. He had another wagonload of feed sitting there that would go moldy if he allowed it to get wet. He let the practical, rational part of his mind take control. He focused all his nervous energy into unloading the wagon at an even faster clip. He resisted the urge to even look toward the front gates. Nick had just gotten the last sack stacked in the feed room when the first drops of rain began to fall.

It was almost time for dinner and the family members that were home were gathered in the Sitting Room.

Victoria looked up from her cross-stitch at her two children. Audra was curled in a big leather wingback chair contentedly reading a Jane Austen novel. Victoria smiled. The contrast between the two could not have been more striking. Nick was pacing again. Drink in hand, he would walk over to the French doors, stare out through the glass panes for a few moments, and then he’d try to wear a hole in the rug again. Victoria did not ask him about what accounted for this particular display of restless energy. She simply assumed it was all due to his irritation over having been coerced to take Heath along on the trip in the morning.

They heard the front door shut and seconds later Jarrod entered the room while stripping off his poncho. “Sorry to drip on the floor Mother, but it’s a real soaker out there!”

“Is Heath taking care of the horses?”

“No, Nick. I left Jingo in Ciego’s capable hands. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I just thought… Where is he anyway? Didn’t he ride back with you?”

“No, he didn’t. I haven’t seen him since I left him in front of the bank. I ended up getting tied up with Phil Archer and then Judge Burke. I assumed he was coming straight home after he made the withdrawal. He should have been here a couple hours ago.”

“Well, he never showed!” Nick slammed his whiskey glass down on the bar.

“Easy, Nick. Maybe he stopped by the saloon for a beer. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same thing if you had been in town today knowing it’ll be two weeks before you’ll get another one. Perhaps the rain started while he was there and he’s decided to wait it out a while. You know, see if it slacks up or quits before he heads home.”

“Maybe…” Nick decided to grasp Jarrod’s theory even as the afternoon’s uneasiness continued to gnaw at his mind. “I’ll tell you what! He’d better not be playing poker with those fifteen hundred dollars! Just let him lose any of that money in a card game and I’ll take every red cent of it out of his hide!”

“Now, Nick!” Victoria interjected. “I don’t believe Heath would do something that irresponsible.”

“Well, if he’s not playing poker I wouldn’t put it past him to have snuck over to Big Annie’s…”

“Nicholas, please! Come, now. Let’s have dinner. I’m sure your brother will have a reasonable explanation for his tardiness when he gets home.”

The family had finished their dinner and was headed toward the Billiard Room when there was a rapping on the front door.

Jarrod opened the door, surprised to see the Sheriff. “Fred! What are you doing out on a night like this?”

Jarrod stepped back and extended his hand toward the foyer. “Come in Fred… Gentlemen…”

The sheriff stepped inside along with the two strangers who had been standing at his heels. “Jarrod, this is Edward Logel and Samuel Ferguson, Federal Marshals. They’d like to have a word with you.”

“Certainly.” Jarrod said confidently although he was somewhat perplexed. What business could these U.S. Marshals have with him? Guess he would know soon enough. He turned to the other members of the family. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take these gentlemen into the Billiard Room.”

“Of course.” Victoria said. “Audra, why don’t we go to the Parlor? Good evening Fred, gentlemen.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Barkley.” Fred replied and the two strangers simply nodded. She put her hand on her daughter’s elbow and they turned and walked away.

Nick had not moved, but continued to eye the two men with a suspicious gaze. He watched as Jarrod ushered the three men into the Billiard Room. Their eyes met briefly as Jarrod closed the wooden doors. Only then did Nick move. Might as well go up to his room and pack a few things.

Nick had joined Victoria and Audra in the Parlor when the men emerged from the Billiard Room some 45 minutes later. They continued to converse in hushed tones as Jarrod saw them out the front door.

Jarrod closed the door and then leaned back against it, closing his eyes. He dreaded the task that lay before him. But it had to be done. He had to go and face the music. And if what the Marshals had told him was true, he had to prepare the family to expect the worse. Jarrod was not a man to put off even the hardest of tasks.

As he walked into the Parlor, his mother was the first to read the solemn expression and the distant, haunted look in his eyes.

“Jarrod?”

He didn’t answer but strode over to the whiskey decanter and poured himself a double with slightly shaky hands. He took a long swallow and squeezed his eyes shut as the whiskey burned the back of his throat. By now, all eyes were on him, waiting for him to finally speak.

Jarrod took a deep breath. “The two Federal Marshals that were here tonight came to Stockton with a warrant for the arrest of a man named Jack Donahue.”

“Don’t know him…” Nick’s brow was furrowed and he frowned as he searched his memory.

“No, you wouldn’t.” Jarrod continued. “Donahue isn’t from here in the Valley. He’s from Alabama. According to the Marshals, the Justice Department believes he has been involved in a series of crimes dating all the way back to the months following the Civil War. Some of these crimes were committed as a part of his involvement in a secret society in the South known as the Ku Klux Klan. This secret society has been involved in the murders of Negro leaders, Yankee carpetbaggers, and former Abolitionist leaders as well as an ongoing campaign of intimidation and terror. The Marshals have evidence that Donahue has been waging his own private war as well. Col. Walter Burnham, a former Union Army officer, was killed about six months ago by a long-range rifle shot while visiting Montgomery. The State Attorney General’s office was investigating the murder and the case was at a standstill until about a week ago. A man had been arrested in an unrelated case and he offered information on the Burnham case in exchange for a plea bargain. The prisoner claimed he was attending a Klan rally several months ago and overheard Donahue bragging to the Grand Wizard about the Burnham murder. Donahue also said he had paid a contact in Army Records in Washington D.C. named Ira for some information and was planning another ‘hunt’ as soon as he got it. The ‘Ira’ turned out to be a man by the name of Ira Taylor. He works in the U.S. Army Records Division and apparently is a poor gambler in his spare time.”

“I still don’t see what this has to do with you, Jarrod.” Nick was getting impatient.

“It has to do with all of us, Nick. Heath, in particular.”

“Heath?” Victoria was the first to voice her surprise.

“Yes, Mother.” Jarrod locked gazes with her for only an instant and then stared down into his whiskey glass. “A Federal Marshal in Washington picked Taylor up for questioning and he spilled his guts pretty quickly. Donahue had been trying for years to identify one particular United States Sharpshooter.”

Victoria could feel her throat constricting; in her heart she knew where this was heading.

“Donahue had given Taylor some facts to work with but Taylor had never been able to match them to a name. When a Pinkerton detective by the name of Jim Hansen paid Taylor to pull Heath’s Army Records, well, Taylor realized Heath was the man that Donahue was after. He ended up selling the same information to both Hansen and Donahue.”

“And why was Pinkerton’s investigating Heath?” Nick’s eyes were starting to flash.

“Because I asked them to, Nick.” Jarrod said quietly.

“Jarrod, no!” Victoria’s eyes were filled with pain.

“YOU WHAT?” Nick exploded at full volume.

Audra simply stared at him, her eyes now wet, brimming with disappointment.

“Now, listen to me everyone…” Jarrod began to pace: the same stride he sometimes used in the courtroom when presenting his case. “When Heath rode onto this ranch and made the claim to be Father’s illegitimate son, I believed it was a lie and an attempt to extort money from the family. I tried to buy him off but he refused. The next morning when he fought beside us at Sample’s farm… Well, I knew he either sincerely believed he was a Barkley or that he was one of the shrewdest operators I’d ever run across. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and voted to let him stay on. But, I suppose it’s the lawyer in me. I needed to be convinced beyond all reasonable doubt. I retained the Pinkerton Detective Agency the next day to launch a full-scale investigation.”

“Jarrod!” Audra’s voice was tremulous with anger. “How could you? You know Heath is our brother!”

“Yes, Honey, I have no doubts about it now but at the time we knew nothing about him. I was only trying to protect the family.”

“And in doing so, you have endangered Heath. Isn’t that why those Marshals were here tonight?” Victoria’s question stopped his pacing.

“Yes, Mother. Logel and Ferguson are in Stockton under orders from Washington, D.C. They arrived by train today from San Francisco in the hopes of locating and arresting Jack Donahue. He was to be taken back to Washington for Federal prosecution. They questioned the clerk at the Cattlemen’s Hotel and learned that a man who fit Donahue’s description had checked out an hour or so earlier. They were allowed to search the room the man had occupied and found that he had left some of his personal effects behind. They found a copy of Heath’s Army Records as well as some notes Donahue had made about the lay-out of the ranch in a desk drawer.”

“Do they have any idea where this man is now or what has happened to Heath?”

“No, Mother. And there’s no way we can mount a search tonight in this storm. If Heath doesn’t return tonight we’ll begin searching in the morning. Fred is going to get some men together from town and the Marshals want to be involved as well. Along with our hands, we’ll have search parties all over the ranch tomorrow.”

“This man, Donahue…” Nick said. “Is he former Confederate Army?”

“Yes, Nick. He was a Confederate sharpshooter.”

“Where is it?” Nick’s face was expressionless and his eyes as hard as iron.

“Where is what, Nick?”

“The file, Jarrod.”

“It’s in the safe.”

“Get it.”

Jarrod did not argue and went straight to the safe and retrieved the file. Nick’s tone had been somewhat low, his delivery slow and even. Nick loud and fierce could strike fear in most anyone, but Jarrod knew that when Nick’s voice became low and controlled he was at his most dangerous.

Jarrod silently handed over the file to Nick. Nick said nothing either but his jaw muscles were tense and contracting and the hazel eyes were still as hard as iron. Nick stormed out of the Parlor and up the stairs to the privacy of his room.

Jarrod looked at the stricken expression on Victoria and Audra’s faces. A gloom had descended on the household. He knew this would be a long and sleepless night; spent in fear, anxiety and prayer.

Nick closed his bedroom door with a slam! He strode over to his desk and laid the somewhat thick file down. He walked over to the window and gazed out into the dreary, wet darkness. He ran his fingers roughly through his dark hair. Nearly four months…four months they had lived under the same roof and worked side by side. He hardly knew any more about the man than he’d learned that first night. He had not tried to learn any more. He had not wanted to know any more. What was the point? Hell, he’d spent every day trying to keep up a not so subtle wall of hostility, hoping the man would get the message that he’d never gain Nick Barkley’s acceptance. Never let up on him, make it tough, and keep the pressure on every day and then maybe he’d decide to leave the Valley for good. He’d had no intention of getting to know this man who claimed to be his brother. Why? It dawned on Nick there had been the danger of actually starting to like him, becoming friends, starting to care… Nick sighed.

He walked back over to his desk, sat down and opened the file. From the beginning, it was not an easy read. Heath’s life had been one of poverty, hardship, bigotry and struggles.

It began with interviews of some of Strawberry’s few remaining citizens. They remembered Leah Thomson as a beautiful, quiet, hardworking young woman. She had enjoyed a stellar reputation among the townspeople and could have settled down with any of the eligible men. Folks had been shocked when she had turned up pregnant. Local gossip at the time had alleged that she had found a man robbed and beaten in a back alley and had taken him home and nursed him there. Everyone had considered this highly improper…and the suspicions had obviously been right on target given the little bundle that arrived nine months later. The handsome man was from out of town, definitely not a local. Some thought he had owned an interest in one of the mines. One thing the interviewees were adamant about; no one had ever known of Leah having any type of romantic involvement with any other man following Heath’s birth. Her family, her work and her faith consumed the remainder of her life.

Nick rubbed his eyes. He thought back to some of the insults he had thrown Heath’s way in his anger. He’d intimated on several occasions that Heath’s mother was a promiscuous woman – little more than a slut. Heath had rode in and knocked Tom Barkley off his pedestal in the minds of many. All Nick knew to do was retaliate in kind. But Leah had no doubt been a good woman, just as his father had been a good man. They had both simply been all too human. Nick had always held his father in absolute admiration and awe. But Tom Barkley was a man like all others – imperfect – with his share of mistakes.

At this moment, finally accepting this truth about the man Nick viewed as larger-than-life surprisingly did not pain him. The realization didn’t diminish Tom Barkley in Nick’s eyes as he once feared it would have. Nick was a passionate, impulsive man with a natural proclivity toward temptation. His father had feet of clay as well, and strangely enough, Nick found that comforting. He read on.

Leah and two other single women also trying to make it on their own had thrown in their lots together, forming a tight little “family”. Treated as outcasts by most of Strawberry’s townspeople, Leah and young Heath had worked hard just to eke out a meager existence. Heath had worked as a “charge boy” in the mines beginning when he was age six and had taken a second job at the Livery when he was eight. The town began to die as the mines played out. At age fourteen, and with limited options, Heath had joined the Union Army.

Nick read Jim Hansen’s notes from the Army Records with astonishment. Nick was well aware of the role Col. Hiram Berdan’s famed 1st and 2nd Regiments of United States Sharpshooters had played in the war effort. Col. Hiram Berdan was loyal to the Union and a millionaire as well. The former engineer from New York had been the top sport rifle shooter in the country for the fifteen years prior to the start of the Civil War. He believed that snipers could be critical in the Union war effort. Col. Berdan believed the best Union marksmen should be identified through shooting competition and merged into elite regiments, which would be supplied with the finest rifles money could buy. The two special regiments of crack marksmen organized by Col. Berdan were said to have killed more Confederate soldiers than any other two regiments in the Union Army. Casper Trepp had been in charge of the Sharpshooters specialized training. Hansen had copied excerpts from Heath’s commendations. “Pvt. Thomson is exactly the type of young man we are after.” Trepp had written. “Pvt. Thomson is an excellent marksman with exceptional outdoor skills. But he is no hotshot, nor is he a loudmouth or braggart. Those types tend to fold when the going gets tough and their precious lives are on the line. Pvt. Thomson is quiet, intelligent, courageous and dedicated. The young man is of the highest moral fiber. Pvt. Thomson epitomizes what a United States Sharpshooter should be.” The words that were written about his brother who was just a mere boy filled Nick with pride. And to be awarded the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action”… This boy was indeed something very special. His eyes were hot and flashing and his fists clenched in rage by the time he finished reading the medical reports and the “Official Findings” from the U.S. Army Inquiry fiasco. Nick’s passion for fairness and justice ran as deeply as Jarrod’s. He cringed at the thought of the brutality and injustice Heath had endured.

The next section was rather sketchy. Following his convalescence, Heath had apparently wandered around almost non-stop. He drifted from town to town and odd job to odd job. His wanderings had taken him pretty much all over west of the divide and even down into Mexico.

Was Heath running from the trauma of war or the ghosts of Carterson prison? Nick remembered a look that sometimes crossed Heath’s face. Nick recognized the look now, that ‘thousand miles away’ stare. The look men sometimes get that have seen their fill of combat.

Perhaps Heath wasn’t running from something as much as he was searching for something. He had fought hard for his place in the family. He had been willing to put his life on the line that day at Sample’s farm to prove that he belonged. And despite whatever Nick threw his way, he had continued to hold on tenaciously.

Nick walked back over to the window. He stared out into the blackness, not really seeing. His mind was a million miles away.

Nick had come to appreciate this night that fate had brought an extraordinary young man into his life. Regret was a hard emotion for Nick to grapple with. He was a man of action. And he always acted with the strongest of convictions. Always sure, at least at the time, that what he was doing was right. Heath’s arrival had triggered Nick’s protective instincts. He wanted to protect his mother, his father’s memory and the ranch that represented so much of his father’s legacy. It had felt so right at the time to try to run Heath out of the Valley. Even when the rest of the family chose to accept Heath, Nick had stubbornly clung to his position on the matter. Nick was not a man who set out deliberately to cause anyone added pain. No, his was a sin of omission. He simply had not reached out the hand of brotherhood and friendship when the opportunity was there. He wondered if he’d ever have the chance again.

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The rainstorm that had swept into the Valley was gone by dawn. The day looked like it was going to be bright and clear. A dark cloud still hung over the Barkley house. Heath had not returned home. While the family tried to keep up a hopeful front for each other, each one silently believed that Heath and Donahue had crossed paths and foul play was involved.

The family gathered at the breakfast table. Although Silas brought in the usual platters of food, no one touched a thing. Heath’s empty chair was yet another reminder of the sense of loss they were all feeling right now.

“Judging from everyone’s appearance, it doesn’t look like anyone got much sleep last night.” Jarrod finally spoke. Only Audra, who eventually cried herself to sleep, had gotten any at all. But she looked as tired and worn as everyone else. “I was up all night wishing to God that I’d never requested that damned investigation. I wish there was a way to turn back time and change things. I can only say that I am truly sorry.”

The look of remorse was clearly evident on his features, conveyed most clearly through his eyes. No one doubted the sincerity of his words.

“I know that, Jarrod.” Victoria tried to be of some comfort even as she dabbed her own eyes with her napkin. “We all do.”

Nick bore a haunted look as well. “I spent the night finally getting to know my brother.” He said. He placed his elbows on the table and his head in his hands, the dark hair sticking out between his fingers. “I know what you’re all thinking. Well, it’s about time, Nick! You’ve got regrets, Jarrod? Well, I got a few of my own. At least you did come to accept Heath. Hell, I was still holding out after all this time like some pig-headed fool when it was as plain as the nose on your face that Heath was a Barkley! I was still hoping that by ignoring him except for working the hell out of him that he’d finally decide to leave. You might have made a bad decision that first day, but I’ve been making the same wrong decision every day for the past four months. Talk about taking the prize for being a blind, stubborn…”

“Nicholas, stop it!” Victoria interjected. “Beating yourself up is not going to solve anything. If Heath is found alive, and I pray to God he will be, you’ll have the chance to make amends. And I know you, Nicholas, I know that you will. If he is not…” Her voice began to catch, “if he is not then the guilt and responsibility lies with an evil man by the name of Jack Donahue, and Jack Donahue alone.” Although she had been addressing Nick, Victoria locked eyes with Jarrod for a long moment as well.

Nick got up from his chair and began to pace the room. “Well, I’m ready to get out and get started, Jarrod. I know this ranch like the back of my hand. I don’t need anybody else to start MY search!”

“Nick, Fred and the Marshals will be here just as soon as they can gather up some more men from town.”

“Well, I could take some of our men and get started!”

“Nick, I promised those Federal Marshals that we’d wait! The Marshals are the only ones with an arrest warrant. There is no evidence yet of a crime in regards to Heath…”“You mean we haven’t found a body!”

“I mean if we find Donahue the Marshals are the only ones with the legal authority to deal with him right now. We’re going to have to leave it to them!”

“Well, if we find Heath and that fiend Donahue has – DONE ANYTHING – TO MY LITTLE BROTHER…I’VE GOT THE AUTHORITY TO DEAL WITH HIM HANGING RIGHT HERE ON MY HIP!”

“Simmer down, Nick! You are NOT going to play vigilante! The law will deal with Donahue. Now, we’ll wait on Fred and the Marshals and then decide how we’ll split the men to do an organized, coordinated search. I’m as anxious to get started as you are, Nick. I know how you feel!”

“No, you don’t Jarrod! You don’t know how I feel!” Nick shook his head sadly and his voice softened. “Do you remember how I was the one who found Father after he was killed by that assassin the railroad hired?” Jarrod nodded. “Well,” Nick sighed, “that day I had started to go check on a crew doing some branding in the South Meadow when I had the strangest urge to ride to that grove of trees near the North Road. It was more than an urge… I felt compelled to ride to that grove as hard as I could go. But it was too late. It had just happened a few minutes before. I never told anyone about the premonition I had, but that’s why it was me who found…” Nick closed his eyes and tried to push away the memory of the vision that greeted him in those trees. “I felt it again yesterday and it was just as strong. I had that same compulsion to saddle Coco and head out down the road to Stockton as hard as I could ride. I might have made it in time if I had listened to that feeling. But, God help me, I just ignored it! I would never have imagined I could have the same kind of connection with… Heath. I never…” Nick’s voice trailed off. I never… His mind seemed to overload for an instant with images of all the things he’d never said, and all the things he’d never done. The dark head dropped and he rubbed his eyes. “I’m going out to the barn. I’ll have the horses saddled and ready to go.”

The family watched Nick exit the Dining Room. The change was unmistakably evident in his demeanor and words. “My little brother”… He had never even breathed those words before. Nick was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said. When he claimed possession of a thing, it became his in every way. “My search”… They all knew that Nick Barkley would take charge of this search and that he would leave no stone unturned to either find Heath or to bring Jack Donahue to justice.

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Heath awoke to a pounding headache and the sound of rain falling on the rooftop. It was a hard rain at the moment: it sounded like hail hitting a barn roof. He was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, with his ankles bound and his wrists tied firmly behind his back. His clothes were soaked through from the ride in the rain. He lifted his head to survey the room. He recognized where he was immediately… in one of the Barkley line shacks. He had been up here about a month before. Nick was a well-organized man and he wanted each line shack inventoried and well stocked before winter weather arrived.

A man sat at the square table in the center of the sparse one room shack. Directly behind the man, set in the back wall, was a stone fireplace. Two low cot-type beds sat beneath the windows on opposite walls on either side. There was a washbasin sitting on a small table in one back corner. Heath was sitting against the front wall, just a few feet from the door.

The lamp on the table illuminated the room and the stranger’s features. The man was of average height and slim, muscular build. The man had a somewhat thin face with sharp angular features. His hair was wavy black and he sported a small moustache, which turned up slightly at the ends. The eyes were flint gray; so hard they seemed to pierce and flash. Heath had a good memory for faces. He found it hard to believe he’d have forgotten those eyes if he’d tangled with this man before. They eyed each other in silence. Donahue pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it, and began to smoke leisurely.

Heath thought back on the events of the afternoon. He’d been riding back to the ranch from Stockton after making a cash withdrawal from the bank. He had been somewhat preoccupied with the worsening skies. Heath could see the approaching gray haze off in the distance and the breeze carried the scent of rain. He had pulled his horse under the canopy of a stand of trees and dismounted. Might as well pull out the old rain slicker and put it on now, he had thought. It was rolled up in one of his saddlebags. As he pulled up the strap and started to open the saddlebag, his Modoc nickered and fidgeted. Just nervous about the coming storm, he figured. It wasn’t until he heard the hammer click behind his right ear that he realized he wasn’t alone.

“Hands up… slowly… and don’t turn around.”

Heath did as he was told and turned his head just slightly to try to see the man on the other end of the Colt. He believed he knew what the man was up to. Must have been in the bank, he thought, must have seen me withdraw that fifteen hundred dollars. Heath believed the man was after what he carried in the other saddlebag. It was a lot of money, but Heath had no intention of doing something stupid. It ain’t worth dying for… he thought.

“Listen, Mister… if you’re planning on robbing me…” Heath began but the impact of the gun butt on the back of his head drove him forward against the Modoc’s flank and into a world of darkness. He had fought his way back up through the darkness only once briefly. He knew he was draped face down across his saddle, feet and wrists tied to the stirrups. He could feel the cold rain pelting his back. He tried to lift his head and see where he was, but the lingering grogginess and the wetness that dripped down onto his face obscured his vision. The effort of trying to hold his head up seemed to revive the pain in the back of his head and he succumbed to the darkness again.

Now, as he reflected on his present circumstance, he knew his initial assumption was wrong. There were plans for more than a simple robbery behind those cold, calculating gray eyes. Donahue seemed to read his thoughts.

“I’ve waited a long time to see your face again, Heath.”

“Again? I’ve never laid eyes on you in my life, Mister!” Heath’s voice was rising with anger and confusion.

“No, that much is true.” Donahue’s voice remained level and controlled. “I suppose you only had eyes for General John Stark that day.”

“Stark!” Heath knew instantly. He’d kept a little 3x5 inch notebook in his pocket for his sniper’s log. He always submitted the required “Incident Report” following a mission. Not that he’d ever needed the notebook to remember every detail vividly. And like all the others, this day too was stamped indelibly in his memory.

As the sun sent its rays across the Confederate encampment in the wide clearing, he lay in the grass on a knoll some 400 yards away. His eyes searched through the scope on the Sharps M59 rifle for his target. He watched for signs of wind which could change the trajectory of his bullet – trees rustling, smoke drifting from the cooking fires below, the grass and weeds swaying between him and his target. All was calm. When the general stepped outside the tent, he waited for him to turn face-on. Get him standing still with either his face or his back to you, he thought. The general was walking in his direction. He placed the rifle’s sight-post on the general’s chest. Now stop! he thought. The general paused, speaking to a young Confederate officer standing to his right. Heath’s mind had raced through all the marksmanship principles that he had been taught. They had practically become second nature. Good firm grip, watch the target through the scope, squeeze the trigger gently, wait for the recoil. Don’t hold your breath, just breathe naturally and relax, let it come at exhalation… squeeze gently. The Sharps’ recoil sent a kick through his shoulder. He blinked through the scope and saw that his target now lay flat on his back. Blood gushed from the man’s chest and his lifeless eyes stared unseeing into the clear blue sky. The young Confederate officer dove for cover. The camp was a scurrying mass of confusion as he took one quick look back and disappeared into the woods.

“Stark!” Heath knew instantly.

“My name’s Jack Donahue and I was in that Confederate camp that day, Heath. I spotted you before you disappeared off the knoll. I knew exactly where that shot came from because I was a sharpshooter myself.” Donahue’s nostrils flared with anger. “You stinking bastard! I bet you think that kill was the high point of your miserable life!”

“I never got pleasure out of killing anybody! I just did my job.” Heath looked Donahue straight in the eyes.

“And you didn’t enjoy it? You didn’t love the thrill of the hunt? I’ve seen your Army Records, boy. I know how many missions you took and how many kills you had. Enough for the Yankee Congress to award you a Medal of Honor! I got more kills unconfirmed than confirmed, and so did every other sharpshooter out there, including you.” Donahue cast a rueful smile at Heath as if disbelieving that there could be any other motive for killing the enemy.

Heath shook his head vigorously. “No! I never looked at it like it was some sort of ‘shooting match’ where the man with the most kills wins. I knew my job and maybe I was one of the best there was at it. But I never went on any mission with anything in mind other than winning that damned war. The sooner the better to keep more Americans on BOTH sides from dying!”

Donahue rose from the chair and shook his fist in the air. “Hate! Hate, I tell you! Hatred for the enemy is the only driving force in war!” The gray eyes looked wild for a moment and then Donahue beat back his demons and took his seat again, breathing heavily. “We should have followed Gen. Stark’s strategy and gone on into Virginia and joined forces with Gen. Lee. The combined forces could have pushed past Grant and joined Gen. Johnston in North Carolina. It would have drawn Sherman out of Georgia… It could have all been so different! After Gen. Stark was dead, the other generals had Hood’s ear. They convinced him to go on the offensive. Four days later we were crushed at Franklin.”

“No, Donahue. The war would have gone on longer, but the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt. Gen. Lee knew that as well several months later when Gen. Grant blocked his way into North Carolina. Gen. Lee could have chosen to fight, but he knew it would only result in thousands more useless deaths. It was an honorable man who chose instead to surrender his troops at Appomattox. I respected Gen. Lee for that decision.”

Heath watched the wild gray eyes grow cold again. On the battlefield, hate can eventually destroy any man – and a sharpshooter quicker than most. This man is insane, Heath thought; hate has destroyed his very soul. Any humanity he might have had was probably long dead, but Heath felt he had nothing to lose in trying to reach him.

“Respect and honor on the battlefield was the ethic that Col. Berdan insisted on and it was the code I lived by. Col. Berdan wanted good, strong-minded moral men – the best! Scalp collectors had no place among the United States Sharpshooters! They were weeded out and sent packing. Gen. Stark was targeted because our Intelligence had learned of his strategy. The Union brass believed Stark’s strategy would prolong the war by months. I believed in what we were doing – that these efforts were defeating our enemy and that our selected kills of Confederate officers and key personnel were preventing death and carnage that the enemy would otherwise bring on my comrades. The war was a terrible tragedy for the entire nation. I welcomed the day that the war ended and I could embrace my Southern brothers once again.”

Donahue’s eyes did not reveal even a glimmer of comprehension. “No! The war is not over! Even now, another great Southern Army is rising! Robed in white, we will never surrender and give up the cause! We won’t be forced to live as equals with our inferiors. We will prevail!” The voice had risen and the eyes looked wild and maniacal again.

Heath had heard stories about the terrible crimes committed by evil men who hid their identities behind masks and robes of white while they terrorized under cover of darkness. No, all that was once human in this man was dead.

“What do you intend to do with me?” Heath asked.

“You threw down the gauntlet that day you killed Gen. Stark. You came in behind Confederate lines and killed my commanding officer. I have an old score to settle with you, Heath. I intend to do just that tomorrow morning. It will be sniper versus sniper in a fight to the death! Second place in this ‘shooting match’ will be a shallow grave. I have been waiting to complete this mission since November 26th, 1864. I chose this area on your ranch because it is perfect for the hunt I have planned for tomorrow. The ridges behind this shack are covered with trees, plenty of undergrowth, rocks, a stream… a sniper’s paradise. We are two gladiators and those ridges will be our arena. Don’t even think about trying to leave my happy hunting ground, ya hear? If you try and double back and get to the ranch there is not enough cover to keep me from seeing you and picking you off on the way. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t bother with you right then at all. Deprive me of my hunt and I’ll ride straight back to your ranch and shoot the first member of your family I get in my sights. Maybe it’d be that pretty little sister… Don’t make me have to drag your family into what only has to be our business.” Donahue took another drag from his cigar. “This rain sure could ruin my plans though. I’d be mighty disappointed if this rain doesn’t stop and I have to end up shooting you right here.”

Heath closed his eyes and focused again on the sound of the rain on the rooftop. He didn’t want to look at or listen to the lunatic seated at the table anymore. The rain slackened and the rhythmic patter on the roof finally lulled him to sleep.

He dreamed first of boyhood days in Strawberry. Every day in the late afternoon, he’d take a little time to play before supper. “Heath!” his mother shouted, “supper’s gonna be ready soon. Don’t go runnin off and getting yourself all dirty. You hear me, Heath?” “Yes, Mama,” Heath called back. “I’ll be right out here.” He made his way to the woods and once behind the dense, green cover of the bushes and trees, Heath dropped to his knees. He was a Patriot fighting for America’s independence and there were Redcoats everywhere! They hid behind every tree, stump, log and rock. He used his stealth and skill to avoid them. Crawling behind logs, ducking behind trees and rocks, and inching silently through the underbrush he avoided being seen by them. He was sneaking up on a British officer when his mother’s voice sang through the woods, “Heee-ath!” He jumped up. The squirrel aggravatedly flicked its’ tail and chided him angrily before it abandoned the treasure it was burying and ran off. “Coming, Mama!” he answered apprehensively. Muddy circles outlined the knees on his pants and his shirt was a mess as well. He frantically dusted off the loose soil, but the muddy stains remained. He’d be in trouble for sure. Mama just didn’t understand the importance of not falling into the hands of the Redcoats…

Dreams of pleasant childhood memories blurred into a dream of making his way across the countryside behind enemy lines during the war with his friend Charlie Whitehorse. Whenever a mission required a scout he had chosen to be paired with Charlie. Charlie was an Indian and excelled at scouting and woods craft. It was from Charlie’s teaching that he’d finally mastered the art of stealth and concealment. Charlie viewed sniping as a complex craft that required not only skill, but also total self-discipline, and an absolute awareness of every aspect of one’s environment. “Every one of your senses must always be on the alert, Heath. Keep your eyes open for any movement or anything unnatural that doesn’t fit the lay of the land. Keep your ears open for even the snap of a twig. Stop and smell the air for the slightest sign or scent of another human being. If you don’t Heath, one day you’ll run smack into a Reb scout patrol out there.”

Heath dreamed of the lessons he’d learned and the habits he’d established that were a major key to his survival and success in many a desperate situation.

Donahue leaned forward on the table and rested his head on his forearms. Soon, he too succumbed to the patter of the raindrops as visions of a bloody revenge whirled like a cyclone through his brain.

...Continued