Heath had been seeing an increasing number of white flashes for the past three weeks. His family nurtured high hopes these were encouraging signs that he was recovering his eyesight.
However time tried their patience as the flashes of light remained colourless and their intensity unchanged.
A restrained silence filled the living room as Nick, Victoria and Audra were anxiously awaiting news on Heath’s latest condition. Nick kept glancing up the stairs in hopes to see Dr. Merar exit his brother’s bedroom. His patience was wearing thin; he found it hard to stay rooted to one spot. Each would take turns looking at the grandfather clock, worrying about the length and wondering whether is was a good sign.
The sound of a door closing at the top of the stairs roused them out of their thoughts. They hurried to the foyer to meet the doctor at the bottom of the staircase, their faces registering a mixture of bliss and fear.
“So? What’s the verdict? Will Heath see again?” Nick asked in a single breath, his sharp tone implying that he would not stand for negative news.
Dr. Merar’s dejected expression conveyed the grim diagnosis. After drawing in a deep breath, he spoke soberly. “I can’t say.”
“What…what do you mean you can’t say?” Nick barked.
“Nicholas, lower your voice,” Victoria admonished with a warning glare. “Let Howard explain.”
“I believe Heath is actually responding to heat and not to light. He said he could see a white steady light whenever he stood near a window or when he was outside. To test my theory I drew the curtains and told him that the room was now dark. Then I shone a lamp directly in his eyes, one that didn’t generate intense heat, and asked him to describe what he saw.” Merar shook his head. “He said he couldn’t see anything anymore. I planted the suggestion that the room was dark and consequently his mind didn’t produce the image of a white light. It’s the power of suggestion brought on by the intense heat from the sunlight, nothing more.”
Victoria’s heart quailed at the news. She held out such high hopes that her son was slowly regaining his eyesight.
Dr. Merar placed a hand on the woeful mother. “I’m sorry Victoria. I wish the news was more encouraging, but it’s not hopeless yet.”
“I want a second opinion,” Nick volunteered with a defiant stance, one that cautioned anyone against objecting to his request.
“I was about to suggest it myself,” Howard agreed. “I’m just a general physician and not highly skilled when it comes to one particular part of the human body. I recommend you bring Heath to see an eye specialist in San Francisco. I could wire Dr. Mason and ask to expect you at his and yours convenience.”
“Do it” Nick said.
“Now Nick I’d rather prefer you discuss it with your brother first. He might not agree to that second opinion.”
“What are you talking about? Of course he’ll agree,” Nick scolded. He was appalled that the doctor would even doubt it.
“Nevertheless Nick, I think you should ask his opinion. He’s the one with the affliction.”
Victoria nodded in acknowledgement. “We will, Howard. We’ll discuss it with Heath.”
“You let me know what he’s decided so I can wire Dr. Mason as soon as possible.”
“All right.” Victoria walked Howard over to the front door. Before crossing the threshold, he turned to her with a solemn expression. “By the way, Heath knows.”
“How did he take it?”
“It’s hard to tell with your son. He did ask me to tell you not to disturb him just yet. He wishes to be alone for the time being and said he would come out of his room when he’s absorbed it all.”
“Thank you for telling us.”
“He’s a strong man, Victoria.”
“I know,” she sighed with a heavy heart as Heath’s past hardships flashed before her eyes.
Once Dr. Merar left, Nick started up the stairs to Heath’s room. Victoria stern warning severed his knees. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared pleadingly at her. “Mother please, he’s holding it all up inside. He needs to let it out. I’m a good listener.”
“I agree but not now. Leave him be.”
Nick’s pained eyes swivelled back and forth between his mother and Heath’s bedroom door, his mind engaged in a tug-of-war between Victoria’s wish and his own. He wanted to be by his little brother’s side in his moment of need, to assure him that he was walking alongside him in his dark world.
Hours cascaded down and still Heath remained cloistered in his room. Victoria was standing at the bottom of the staircase, looking up at her son’s closed bedroom door when the sound of jingling spurs drawing closer brought a fleeting half-hearted smile to her face. Refusing to draw Nick’s attention to the fact that she was worried about Heath’s quietness, she quickly turned to head to the living room.
“Nick! You’re home for lunch?”
“Yeah. I figured best to stick close to the house in case he needed something, ya know,” he said a bit sheepishly. He glanced up the stairs. “Hasn’t he come out yet?”
“No,” she answered sombrely.
“Well I think I should go up and tell him that lunch is ready,” Nick proposed with the hopes that his mother would approve.
She placed a hand on his arm and nodded her approval. “I think you should but don’t force him. If he doesn’t feel ready to come down, let him be,” she warned on a gentle tone.
“All right.” Nick strode up the stairs and rapped on Heath’s bedroom door. “Heath?”
“Come on in, Nick,” came the muffled invitation from inside the room.
Nick opened the door to a somewhat disturbing sight. Heath was sitting in a chair by the window, staring directly at the intense sunlight beaming directly onto his face, his eyes unblinking. “Euh, Heath, lunch is ready if you wanna join us?”
“Yes of course. I’ll be right down.” Heath’s prompt answer threw Nick for a loop. He was curious as to the reason for his brother’s cheerful mood.
“Want me to wait for you?”
Heath cracked a lopsided grin at Nick’s solicitude. “Thanks for the offer, Big Brother, but I can manage. I have for months now,” he stated amicably with no bitter resentment about his voice. He rose from his chair and mentally counted the steps to the door where Nick was standing.
“I didn’t…I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” Nick stammered embarrassingly.
Heath gave Nick a friendly tap on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Nick. I know. I’m really fine.”
Nick frowned as he searched the mirrors of Heath’s soul for the truthful answer. Despite his vacant stare, Heath’s eyes reflected a deep appreciation of life, unlike his. “Well I’m not okay with it. I think it stinks,” Nick said sullenly.
“Because you get to do much of the ranch work now?” Heath teased.
“How can you keep a sense of humour about this?”
“Why not? I can’t change what happened and neither can you. I believe there’s always a reason for everything. We just haven’t found it yet.”
Nick marvelled at his brother’s fortitude. “You know, although you never stare directly at us, there’s something about those eyes of yours; a light shining through. The sparkle’s still there.”
“Nick, I’m blind and not dead,” Heath mocked good-naturedly with a shake of the head. “Come on! Let’s go to lunch.”
A broad grin crossed Nick’s face as his heart welled up with pride. He couldn’t resist tousling Heath’s hair.
“Awwwwwww Nick don’t mess up my hair. Takes me forever to comb it back just right.”
“You look great.”
“Yeah, sure. Don’t forget, you’re the one who has to look at me.”
Nick wrapped his arm around Heath’s shoulder and led him out of the room and down the stairs to the dining room.
In early afternoon, while Audra was in her room getting ready to drive into town, Victoria snuck into the kitchen to discuss the preparations for her daughter’s birthday bash with Silas. With the big day drawing closer, she needed to insure that everything was proceeding satisfactorily.
Silas was handing Victoria a list of items required for the feast when Audra surprised them.
“Mother, I’m all ready to go into town for my dress fitting. Is there anything you need?”
“As a matter of fact there is.” She gave the grocery list a cursory look to check whether any item could arouse suspicion before handing it over to Audra. “We are short of those items. You’d be a dear if you could drop by the store and pick them up.”
“Sure Mother. Anything else?”
“No that’s all. Thank you.”
“Mother, do you think it’d be okay for me to ask Heath to drive into town with me? While I’m at the seamstress he can run the errands. That way we’ll go twice as fast.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea Audra. It will be good for him to feel useful.”
“Have you discussed going to San Francisco with him?”
“No, not yet. We will tonight after dinner.”
“I want so much for him to see again,” Audra quavered with a tear threatening in the corner of her eyes.
Victoria pulled her emotional daughter into a warm hug. “I know. We all do, Sweetheart.” She rubbed Audra’s back in a soothing motion and gave it a few taps before disengaging the embrace. “You go on now. Heath is out back with Nick.”
Audra nodded and left to find her brother.
“Nick, do you think it’s wise for you to go busting broncos so soon after your recovery?” Heath asked worriedly, alluding to Nick’s recent recovery from paralysis. Walking alongside his big brother with a firm grip on his arm, Heath tried to maintain a steady poise as he was being guided toward the horse paddock.
“It’s alright. Doc says I need to exercise those legs.”
“I don’t think breaking wild stallions is quite what he meant by exercise,” Heath stated with a mocking grin.
“Here we are!” Nick placed Heath’s hands on the fence.
“Nick, I’d really think twice about going in there. You just got your legs back. Give it a bit more time.”
Nick rolled his eyes and huffed out a loud sigh dripping with exasperation. “Heath, I’ll be fine. This isn’t the first time I’ve ridden a wild mustang. I know how to handle it.”
“I know. It’s just that you were lucky enough to get your…” Heath’s quavering voice faltered when a lump caught in his throat. He needed not continue. The sorrow reflected in his eyes spoke his thought.
Nick’s face crumpled as tears began welling up in his eyes at the grief conveyed in the broken sentence. He playfully gripped the back of his little brother’s neck, giving it a firm squeeze in appreciation for his solicitude, before he strode over the fence. “You just watch my style, Little Brother.”
Heath flashed an amused lopsided grin at the word ‘watch’. “Go get him Nick! Show him who’s boss.”
Nick tightened his gloves, swirled on his heels and marched over to the restless black stallion penned up in the holding box.
Audra was ambling over to Heath when she caught sight of Nick approaching the ornery animal. “What is Nick doing? He’s not actually going to ride that wild horse, is he?”
“He is. Couldn’t talk him out of it. Says it’ll be good for his legs.”
“I know, but isn’t insane Nick’s middle name?” Heath teased. “Where is he now?”
“He’s near the box.”
“Hey Nick!” Heath shouted to catch Nick’s attention. “Let him smell your hand.”
“Let him get a whiff of you. That should calm him down a bit.”
Nick shot a peculiar look up at a couple of ranch hands straddling the fence.
“Well why not Nick? Can’t hurt. Heath does it all the time,” opined one of the hands.
Nick’s face crumpled at his brother’s suggestion. He was never one to take the gentle approach and felt somewhat embarrassed.
“Nick, remove your gloves first.”
“How did he know that?” Nick complained to the hand. “I’m beginning to think he’s faking his blindness.”
“I wish,” Heath replied.
“Wait a minute!” Nick turned to face Heath still standing by the fence a few yard away. “How could you have possibly heard that?”
“I just did.”
“Audra, what did I just say?”
“I heard you grunting something but I couldn’t actually make out the words,” she said with a shrug.
“You forget Nick that since losing my eyesight, I can hear a pin drop on a bale of hay.”
“You’ll have to be more careful what you say around Heath, boss,” teased one of the hands.
While Nick was settling on the stallion’s back and readying himself for the wild ride, Audra broached the subject of the town errands with Heath.
“I need to go into town to see Idanell about a dress fitting and was wondering if you’d like to go with me? Mother gave me a list of items to pick up at the general store and, well, I thought that maybe you could fill out the order while I’m at the seamstress in order to save time.”
“Hum, I’m being conned into doing the dirty work again, aren’t I?” Heath chaffed.
She playfully swatted him on the arm, which elicited a chuckle out of her mischievous brother. “Heath, that’s not true! I like having you ride along with me. Besides you haven’t been into town for nearly two weeks.”
“I’ll be happy too, Sis.” His obliging smile was soon washed over by a grimace at the sound of a loud thud. “Was that Nick’s butt making hard contact with the ground?”
“Right you are!” Audra chuckled.
“Is he alright?”
“Oh yes but he’s fuming. I’d say his pride took a beating.”
“Stay with him Nick!” Heath shouted enthusiastically. Hearing his brother grumbling underneath his breath brought an amused grin to his face.
Audra draped her arm over her brother’s and led him away from the corral.
“Hey Heath!” Nick shouted as he walked over to the fence. “Where are you going?”
Heath slowly turned around to face the sound of his brother’s voice. “I’m driving into town with Audra to pick up some supplies for Mother.”
“Ah geez right now? I kidda like you here when I bust that bronco.”
“Nick you don’t need my help to get thrown off that horse,” Heath chuckled.
“Ha, ha, ha very funny,” Nick growled. “Heath I told you before you’re not funny!”
“When I get back from town I expect you to have that horse broke.”
“Don’t you fret your little blond head none. By the time you get back I’ll have busted five!”
“If you say so Nick,” Heath humoured.
“I say so, now go on! Get out of here! Ah and Little Sister, be sure you get him back at a decent hour?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Barkley.”
Audra drove the wagon into town and halted the team in front of the general store. As she assisted Heath down the wagon, three shady characters observed their very move from across the street.
“That’s her, boys.”
“Hummmmm mighty fine specimen,” purred one of the men.
“I’ll say. I wouldn’t mind having a taste of that,” agreed the third man.
“She’s forbidden territory. The boss wants undamaged goods. He insisted that the merchandise has to be delivered unspoiled, you got that?” he warned with a stern glare that immediately cast a gloom over the men’s ecstasy.
“Should we take her now?”
“No. Too many witnesses around. Instead we wait till they head back out of town and we follow them. When they take the fork to their ranch, we bust them.”
“What about the guy she’s with? He’ll put up a fight for sure.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him causing us trouble. That’s her brother and he’s blind.”
“Really?” He doesn’t look like it.”
“Trust me, he is. Now you boys keep your eyes peeled while I go make a small transaction.”
Audra tucked her arm in Heath’s to guide him to the entrance of the general store. “I shouldn’t be too long at Idanell’s,” she said confidently.
“Mmmmmmmm when you say not long it usually means two hours,” Heath chaffed.
“Nick is right, Heath. You’re not funny,” she said with an exaggerated pout.
Heath threw her a smirk. “After I finish here I think I’ll mosey on down to the saloon.”
“Will you be okay alone? You usually go with Nick”
“I’ll be fine, Sis. Harry will keep an eye on me. I’ll meet you back here in let’say…an hour?”
“Okay.” She leaned in to kiss him on the cheek and then pointed him toward the right direction. “Do you want me to walk you in?”
“Thanks but I can manage by myself,” he reassured with a light squeeze on her arm.
Despite Heath’s assurance, she was beset with doubt. She waited until he had crossed he store threshold before sidling away with a clear conscience. Since losing his eyesight, Heath had become physically dependent on his siblings, including Audra. Once her valiant guardian and protector, Heath had to unwillingly relinquish that role to his sister, one she assumed with great responsibilities but often with an ebullient exuberance that would end up smothering him, but he knew she meant well.
“Heath, good to see you!” the store manager greeted with buoyancy.
“Wish I could say the same,” Heath replied on a light-hearted tone.
“Ahhhhhhhh, here’s that sense of humour again.”
“Who says I’m joking?” Heath answered innocently before breaking into a sly grin.
“How ya doin’?”
“Can’t complain, Charlie,” Heath said as he mentally counted the steps up to the counter with the aid of his cane.
“We haven’t seen you in a while. What happened?”
“Nick’s been keeping me real busy at the ranch. Feels good to be doing something besides learning how to move around and count steps.”
A doleful smile crossed the heavyhearted Charlie’s lips at the thought of his friend’s misfortune, but quickly perked up in fear of Heath picking up on his vibrations. “What can I do for you?”
Heath rummaged through his shirt pocket to pull out the grocery list.” Here, my mother wrote everything she needs on this list.”
Charlie gave the list a cursory look. “Sure thing, Heath. We have all in stock.”
Andy, Charlie’s twenty-three-year-old son, spotted Heath as he came out of the back store. “Hey, Heath!”
Heath moved to the sound of the familiar voice and broke into a smile. “Andy? Is that you?”
“Yep! Came back yesterday.” He stood inches in front of Heath to clasp his hand into a hearty handshake.
“How was Boston?”
“Pretty much the same. Say, come with me in the back store. I want to show you something.”
“You go ahead, Heath,” Charlie approved with a tap on his shoulder. “Meanwhile I’ll fill out your order.”
Andy assisted Heath to the back store where he stood him by a shelf where sat a black velvet box. He picked it up and opened it to reveal a costly pearl necklace. “I saw this gem in Boston and immediately thought of Audra’s birthday.”
“What is it?”
“A genuine pearly necklace. Feel those jewels, Heath.”
Andy placed Heath’s hand on the necklace. “They could be marbles for all I know,” Heath joked.
“Marbles worth fifty dollars.”
“Fifty dollars? You wouldn’t be trying to swindle a blind man, now would you?” Heath asked teasingly with an eyebrow raised in suspicion.
“Heath, would I do that to you? You’re my friend.”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say when they want to sell you something.”
“Alright, thirty-five dollars.”
“Thanks Andy but I’ve already got Audra’s birthday present. Me and Nick are going to give her a California sorrel, beautiful reddish gold horse, complete with a shiny new saddle.”
“Ah,” Andy sighed in dismay.
“Hey, why don’t you give her the necklace?”
“Me?” Andy exclaimed in shock.
“Yeah. I’m sure she’d love that.”
“Heath don’t you think it’s a bit forward. I mean me and her aren’t courting.”
“Why don’t you ask her out and then you’ll have a reason.”
“She’s not interested in me. She’s with that Wheeler fella.”
“Carl Wheeler? Didn’t you know? They broke up.”
Andy broke into a large satisfied grin at the news.” No, I didn’t know.”
“There’s your chance.”
The silence that ensued told Heath he would need to give the young shy man a confidence boost. “I tell you what. I’ll ask her.”
“Let me finish. I’ll casually introduce the topic in a conversation and see what she thinks of you. Then you’ll do whatever is right.”
Andy heaved a sigh of relief. “Thanks Heath. I really do like your sister.”
“I figured that out some time ago. I may be blind but I’m not blind.”
Andy chuckled at Heath’s witticism, then placed the item back on the shelf before leading his friend out of the back store.
“Heath, I just finished your order. Want me to load it into your wagon outside?” Charlie asked.
“Not yet, Charlie. I’m going to go down to the saloon first to grab a beer and then I’ll come back. I’ll give Audra time to finish up at the seamstress.”
“Hey dad, can I go with him?” Andy asked expectantly. “I’ve got a few things to talk over with him.”
“Alright, but I want you back here to finish organizing the back store. Don’t go gallivanting about.”
“I won’t,” Andy assured as he assisted Heath out the door. “Be back soon.”
Nearly an hour later, Audra met with Heath at the general store as he, Andy and Charlie were securing the supplies in the back of the wagon. Her gleaming eyes glanced Andy’s way, briefly locking with his. His smile made her blush and bow her head shyly. After assisting Heath up the front seat, Charlie turned to Audra to take her hand but his chivalrous son had already beaten him to it.
“Thank you, Andy,” Audra said sheepishly.
“You’re welcome, Audra.”
Charlie and Andy waved to the siblings as they drove away. Watching from across the street, the three men untied their horses.
“We follow them, boss?”
“No. I’ve got a better idea. Mount up and come with me.”
On the ride back to the ranch, Heath was deep in thoughts listening absentmindedly to Audra rambling on about her dress while wondering how he would broach the subject of Andy Cryer without arousing his sister’s suspicion. He was surprised when Audra, herself, casually introduced him in her one-way conversation. He would flash occasional lopsided grins at her descriptions of the man he suspected had captured her heart. Her feelings were obvious.
They were about five miles off to the ranch when they came across the three men. One was squatting by the second man sprawled on the ground by the side of the road, whereas he leader was checking his horse’s front leg.
“Heath, looks like someone’s in trouble,” Audra informed as she craned her neck and squinted her eyes to better focus on the three figures drawing closer.
“What is it?”
“One man is obviously hurt. He’s lying on the ground. We should help them.”
“What do they look like?” Heath asked suspiciously,
“All I can make out is the colour of their hair. One is blond and the other two are dark brown. One is wearing a black leather vest.”
“A bay and two black. One has a white blaze.” She reined in the team beside the three men.
“Thank God you rode along,” the leader, Chad, exclaimed as he stepped up to the side of their wagon. “Our friend’s hurt bad. He needs to get to a doctor.”
Audra quickly alighted from the wagon and rushed to the injured man lying senseless on the ground.
“What happened to him?” Heath queried.
“His horse threw him.”
Once Heath had methodically climbed down from the wagon, he stumbled on purpose, counting on Chad to catch him before he fell to the ground.
“You okay, friend?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Heath groped the man’s leather vest, after which he grabbed a firm hold of his hands to feel for any distinctive marks or features. On the right hand, he felt a signet ring with an emerald cut stone set in the center.
Chad waved a hand in front of Heath’s eyes to confirm his blindness. His face lit up in bitter triumph before he nodded to his partner to spring into action. On his boss’s command, Alan grasped Audra’s by the neck and held a hand over her mouth while the supposed wounded man, Pete, jumped to his feet and doused his bandana with chloroform. Alerted by his sister’s muffled cry, Heath’s hand instinctively went for his gun.
“Don’t be foolish, Blind Man!” Chad warned. He cocked his revolver and pressed the barrel against Heath’s back while he slowly pulled his weapon out of its holster.
The odour of ether permeating the air told Heath of Audra’s fate, one of which he believed would befalling him as well. He felt helpless; standing there motionless while Chad’s partners carried Audra to the back of the buckboard to lay her on a heap of blankets. Suddenly, an excruciating pang invaded his head as Chad’s revolver butt connected with the back of his skull. He crumbled to the ground where he lay unmoving, but not unconsciousness. Playing possum provided him with the opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation that would otherwise be kept confidential between the three partners in crime.
“Cover her body,” Chad instructed his partners. “She can’t be seen by anyone or people will ask questions. And remember, the man specified no damaged goods. Be sure you deliver the merchandise in perfect condition.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?”
“No. I need to go back into town to spot our other three lovely bundles. I’ll see you back there.”
“When will we get paid?” Pete asked as he and Alan tethered their horses to the back of the buckboard.
“He’ll pay you on delivery. Be sure to ask for him specifically when you get to his house. Can’t have the butler know anything about this. He’ll show you where to put her. Once you’re done, hide the wagon and set those horses free.”
“What about him? Should we kill him?” Pete asked of Heath’s body sprawled on the ground. He walked over to Heath and picked up his gun.
“No. I don’t want any murder on our hands. It attracts the law’s attention.”
“He’s bound to come to and alert his family. They’ll be on our tail.”
“You forget he’s blind. He can’t identify any of us. Now you two get before it gets dark.”
Alan flicked the team at a light trot while Chad mounted his horse. He steered him near Heath’s insentient form and sneered. “So long, friend. Thanks for stopping by. You made it a whole lot easier for us,” he taunted before spurring his horse at a full gallop.
With the three men now out of range, Heath heaved himself off the ground and teetered to his feet. His knees buckled when a sudden fainting spell washed over him. Burying his chin in his chest, he breathed away the dizziness. A crushing sense of doom crept over him, sending his body into shivers. Never had he felt so helpless.
Refusing to wallow in self-pity while his sister was in jeopardy, he pricked himself up and staggered back to his feet. With his hands groping the empty space in front of him, he shuffled towards the setting sun reflecting upon his face. He stopped when his right foot hit a broken tree branch lying on the ground. He crouched down to feel the shape of the obstruction before picking it up to use as a walking stick. He crawled on all four the rest of the way until grass made way to the road’s sandy soil. He stood on his shaky legs and with the aid of his makeshift cane he shambled onwards.
At the ranch, Nick was pounding the floor in the foyer while nervously twirling the whiskey in his glass. He would occasionally interrupt his pacing to take a peek outside for any sign of his siblings’ wagon crossing the iron gates. He quaffed his drink and stomped to the liquor decanters to pour himself another glassful. “Where are they?” he ranted. “They should have been here two hours ago!” He heaved a long aggravated sigh. “I knew I should have gone with them.”
All heads jerked towards the foyer at the loud thud on the front door. Nick plonked his glass down and strode over to answer it. Horror struck him upon seeing Duke carrying his unconscious brother. “Heath! My God Duke, what happened?” Nick asked frantically. He and Victoria led the way to the living room.
“I found him by the side of the road about a mile off the ranch. He collapsed in my arms after mumbling something about Audra and three men.”
“Where’s Audra?” Victoria asked apprehensively.
“I don’t know Mrs. Barkley. She wasn’t with him.”
No sooner had Duke laid Heath down on the couch that Nick was by his brother’s side gingerly feeling his body for any injury. He winced at the touch of a nasty bump on the back of his head. “We’d better send for Doc Merar.”
“Already did, Nick. I asked Jim to fetch him.”
“Other than the egg on the back of his skull he appears to be alright.” Nick turned to face Duke. “You said you found him wandering by…” his sentence was abruptly interrupted by a muffled moan escaping Heath’s parched lips. He bent over his brother to coax him back. “Heath, can you hear me?”
Heath’s moans grew into groans as he strived to focus on the distant voice acting as a guiding light amidst the pitch darkness. “Auuuudra,” he drooled with a face contorted by pain and grief. His head tossed back and forth restlessly, his arms flailing about until Nick gripped them.
“Hey Heath, wake up! Come back Little Brother.”
“Nick?” Heath gasped out, springing up in a panic.
“Hey! It’s okay. Take it easy. You’re home,” Nick reassured his frenzied brother with a firm hand squeeze. “Lie back.” He slid his hand in the back of Heath’s neck to ease his head back onto the cushion. “Take slow breaths. That’s it. Easy does it,” he coached his panting brother until the erratic beat subsided. The terrified fixed look in Heath’s eyes chilled him to the bone. “Want some water?”
Heath moistened his dry lips then gave a slight nod of the head. Having anticipated his son’s need for liquid, Victoria was already standing by Nick with a glass in her hands. Nick assisted Heath in taking a few sips and then gently lowered his head back onto the cushion.
“Thanks,” Heath breathed out.
“You’re welcome Little Brother.”
“Heath, can you tell us what happened?” Jarrod queried.
Heath scrunched up in face in disgust as the horrific episode played on his mind. He breathed in a lungful of air to collect his thoughts before he began relating their encounter with the kidnappers. The death grip Heath had on his hands worried Nick that the incident might have dangerously shaken the very core of his kid brother’s self-confidence, thence strengthening his belief in his vulnerability.
“I couldn’t stop…stop them,” Heath quavered between sobs, his eyes welling up with tears at the thought of his failure. “If…if I hadn’t been blind….”
“If you hadn’t been blind those men would have killed you,” Nick stated bluntly, the imperviousness of his tone leaving little room for argument. “We’ll find Audra, don’t you worry. We just need you to recall details that can help us track those smooth operators.”
Heath accessed his mental computer for the list of smells, sounds and shapes he seared on his memory the moment he was told they had company on the road. “One whom I think was clearly the leader wore a leather vest, much like yours Nick,” he explained as his hands instinctively went to Nick’s vest.
“Okay, what else?”
“He…he spoke with an accent. A light Spanish accent. Kind of registered as Don Alfredo Montera’s.” A brief silence ensued, one that suggested that the Spanish nobleman was regarded with suspicion. “I know what y’all thinking but that wasn’t him. I’m sure of it. He also wore a signet ring in his right hand, one with a stone in it.”
“Do you recall hearing that voice before?” Jarrod probed further.
Heath gave a negative shake of the head. “It didn’t sound familiar.”
“Anything else?” Nick added.
“Two were dark-haired, one was blond. They had a bay and two black horses, one with a white blaze. Audra described them to me before we got closer to them. After one hit me on the head, I played possum and listened in on their conversation. They talked about delivering the merchandise to a client living in a house with a butler.”
“Oh no, it’s happening here.”
Nick turned to Jarrod with a confused frown. “What are you talking about?”
“The White Slave Trade. Rings are in operation all over the state of California, but I would never expect them to establish their business in a small town like Stockton.”
“After they chloroformed Audra, they carried her into the wagon and headed east to bring her to their client. The leader returned to town. Said he had three more picks up to make.”
“Okay now, well you just rest until Doc Merar gets here to check you over. Me and Jarrod will ride into town and tell Fred everything you just told us.”
“Nick I wanna go with you,” Heath said as he elbowed himself up.
“You stay right where you are, Little Brother,” Nick protested. He pushed a stubborn Heath back down before he could swing him legs on the floor.
“Nick, it’s too late to do anything tonight.”
“Jarrod for God’s sake, we can’t waste a minute. These guys may be taking Audra out of the state as we speak.”
“No they won’t, not now. Heath heard one said he had three more women to abduct for his client. Whoever is calling the shots is not likely to skip town until the job is done, unless he senses trouble looming near. We have to approach the situation very carefully or we’ll lose Audra. First thing tomorrow morning we’ll head into town and have Heath do a little eavesdropping, see if he can recognize the voice among the town folk.” He bent down and leaned over Heath to place a hand on his shoulder. “Do you think you can do that?”
Heath drew in a confident breath. “Yes. I’ll do anything to find Audra.” Sensing Nick’s concern, Heath squeezed his hand in reassurance. “You can iron out those wrinkles, Big Brother. I’ll be fine. We’ll nail these guys.”
Nick shook his head in disbelief. “How do you do that?”
“See what I’m doing?”
Heath flashed an amused lopsided grin at Nick’s question. “You’re so transparent, Nick. The signs are blinding.”
Nick rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Heath, I told you before you’re…”
“I know, I’m not funny.”
Victoria and Jarrod briefly joined in the laughter before grim thoughts of Audra’s kidnapping washed over them.