It started out as a beautiful, spring day. It was meant to be a special bonding trip between a mother and her newest son, the first for each of them. Heath had never been to the family lodge. It was a tradition that each son took a turn taking their mother up to the family mountain home to open it for the spring vacations. Since Heath was new to the family, it was decided amongst Nick and Jarrod that Heath would do the honors this year.
What started out as a beautiful, spring day certainly didn’t end like one.
Four weeks prior
As Heath sat in the gunroom, his right leg propped up atop several pillows on the coffee table, he let his head rest against the back of the settee. He was tired; both his ribs and his ankle still hurt something fierce, even though the injuries happened over two weeks ago. He didn’t want to go back to bed yet. He had been resting and asleep most of the day and he wanted to spend some time with his brothers. But his eyelids were telling him something different, and he knew that he was losing his battle to stay awake.
Nick sat with Heath on the settee, while Jarrod set the pool table up for a game. Nick and Jarrod were explaining to their sleepy sibling about the lodge tradition, and how they felt it was a good idea for him to take Mother up to the lodge when the trails dried out. His injuries would heal within a few weeks, just in time to help their mother open up the infamous Barkley lodge for the season. Heath had readily agreed. He was already looking forward to joining in on another family tradition.
Two weeks before, Heath had received an unexpected battering helping Duke move a few horses from one holding pen to another. As Heath led a horse through the gate, the gate rope unhinged and swung back to hit the horse in the rump. The startled animal bolted forward causing Heath to lose his balance and twist around on his right ankle. He was able to keep his hold on the horse, but at the cost of severely straining the tendons. At the same time, the horse slammed Heath up against the gate rail, causing his ribcage to make contact with an unmoving post. Duke yelled to Heath and ran over to help him, but it was Heath’s cry of pain that brought most of the hands out to see what had happened. Nick had just returned from the South Pasture and had practically leapt off Coco to assist his brother. So severe were Heath’s injuries that his big brother had to practically carry him inside the house. At first, everyone tho>ght that the ankle was broken, the swelling was quite brutal. Dr. Merar assured everyone that it was just a very bad sprain on the ankle, but unfortunately, two of Heath’s ribs were broken. His prognosis was that Heath would be up and around in a week or two. Full recovery would take over a month.
“So when did this tradition get started?” asked Heath. He bit back a yawn. Nick tousled Heath’s hair as he rose from the settee. Heath batted his hand away. “Stop fussin’.” He didn’t tell Nick, but he was always warmed by the gesture.
Nick snickered, picked up his cue and walked around the pool table, carefully looking over the scattered balls to find his shot. Jarrod stood on the side of the pool table, holding his cue stick in front of him.
“It started the year that Father built the lodge. Jarrod, being the oldest, had the honor to take Mother up to the lodge to get it ready before the rest of the family arrived,” Nick explained. “Father and I were finishing up a well to help prepare the orchards for spring, so Jarrod was really the only one available to help Mother.” Nick leaned over the table, positioned his cue stick, and took his shot. He missed.
“Gee, thanks, Brother Nick, for that fine show of support.”
“I guess you missed, Nick?” Heath yawned openly this time. He couldn’t see the table from where he was laying down.
“Yeah, but it was a hard shot to try and make,” Nick quickly defended himself. He turned back to Heath and continued talking, despite Heath’s drooping eyelids. “But a tradition was born. After that, because Mother said how special it was to just spend time alone with Jarrod, she wanted the same opportunity for her other children. So I took Mother up to the lodge the next year. The rest of the family came up a few days later.”
Jarrod quickly assessed the balls on the table and made his move. “Brother Nick, take a look.” Jarrod had just performed a beautiful bank shot, but he was nodding his head toward Heath. Heath’s eyes had finally won out and he was sleeping soundly.
“Do you think his ankle and those ribs will be healed in time to make the trip to the lodge?” asked Nick. He looked fondly at his little brother. He didn’t like the idea of his brother taking up the heavy wagonload of supplies to the lodge without help. In fact, he was downright concerned. Should anything happen on the way to the lodge with just Heath and their mother, Heath’s injuries might prove to be a detriment. More so than that, Nick was just protective of his little brother. Maybe he should go with them? But he dismissed this idea reluctantly because of the family tradition.
“Dr. Merar said they should be. What’s got him worried is that the ankle hasn’t continued healing the way he thought it would. But we had asked him about Heath going up to the lodge at this last visit, and he said that Heath would be okay in a few weeks.” But Jarrod was a little worried, too. The ankle was taking it’s time healing, and causing his little brother to remain housebound for longer than anyone thought possible.
“I was comfortable with the idea of Heath going up to the lodge with Mother before the accident. Now, I’ve got a bad feeling about this trip, Jarrod. I think we should all go up together this year.”
“We don’t have to decide tonight. Let’s see how Heath does over the next week or so and then we can talk about it again.”
“Well, we can follow them up then, to make sure they get there okay.”
“Let it go tonight, Nick. We still have to wait for the trails to dry out.”
Nick took another shot and missed again. “Dammit. I made all those shots the other night we played!”
“Ah, it’s my night, Brother Nick. Watch and wonder.” Nick looked on with a growing scowl on his face. It just wasn’t his night for pool. Jarrod made another beautiful shot, finishing the game in his favor. Jarrod smile beamed.
Nick snorted, and put his cue stick away. “Lucky shot.”
“Skill, my brother, only skill.”
“Skill, my a—,“ Nick started to say as he motioned for Jarrod to join him at the couch. Jarrod’s laugh cut him off.
“Hey, little brother, let us help you upstairs to bed,” said Nick, as he leaned over Heath, and gave him a little shake. Heath cracked open his eyes to see his big brother hovering over him. He gave a small smile and let himself be lifted up into the well-muscled arms.
Between Jarrod and Nick, Heath made it upstairs to bed. As had become the nightly ritual, it took Nick and Jarrod’s combined effort to get Heath into his nightclothes, washed up, and into bed. Heath’s ribs were still giving him some discomfort, but it was the ankle that still didn’t allow Heath to put any weight on it.
“Okay, Heath, slowly now,” Jarrod coaxed, as he and Nick gently placed Heath in bed, pillows propping up both his chest and his foot.
“Hurts.” A very sleepy Heath complained almost to himself.
“Easy, little brother. We’re here.” Tonight, a small dose of laudanum was needed to help Heath fall back to sleep.
As usual, one of the brothers stayed with Heath to make sure he didn’t require anything during the night. Nick settled back in Heath’s favorite chair, with his feet propped up on the end of Heath’s bed. He hoped that his inevitable snoring wouldn’t wake his younger sibling out of any well deserved dreams.
The Night Before
Heath’s recovery was slower than expected, but the ankle finally was in its last stage of healing. Heath walked with a very slight limp, only noticeable to his family.
During his convalescence, Dr. Merar had restricted Heath to light duties and no riding. Typical of Heath not to remain idle, he decided to get the wagon ready for the trip to the lodge, which was now scheduled for this upcoming weekend. In remembering that the wagon was a special one, built by his brothers and father, he decided to give it a little extra attention.
“A new paint job,” thought Heath as he gathered his supplies. “I’ll surprise everyone and especially Mother.” He was feeling better everyday and looked forward to this vacation so that he could get back to work with Nick when they returned.
He smiled to himself. Who would ever have thought that he’d miss fence mending so much? But Heath knew that what he really missed was the time spent with his brother.
Dinner that night was not only delicious, but the conversation around the table was spirited and lively. Victoria herself cooked Heath’s favorite meal in honor of Dr. Merar’s final visit. Dr. Merar had just given Heath a clean bill of health, and although he cautioned against a full work schedule for another week, he did approve of Heath taking the trip to the lodge with Victoria. He was still to be careful about putting too much overdue stress on his ankle, however. Everyone had smiles on their faces at the news, but none bigger than Heath.
“Well, big brothers, I hear that the trout in that lake up at the lodge weigh in at over 20 lbs. Any wagers on who will get the biggest fish?” Nick almost choked on his food. Jarrod steepled his hands together, and waited for the show to begin. Audra and Victoria looked at each other and let their eyes sparkle at the voice they knew would rattle the windows.
“TWENTY POUNDS!!?? There are no 20 lb fish in that lake! Who told you that?”
“Why, you did big brother,” Heath calmly explained. “I do recall you tellin’ us how much fun you had fishin’ in the lake by the lodge last year and that the fish that you almost caught was well over 20 lbs.”
Nick finished swallowing his mouthful, and carefully looked around the table. “Well, I, uh, I…..did almost get a 10 lb fish the last time I was up there. ‘Course that was a while ago.”
Jarrod couldn’t help getting in on the fun. “Nick, as I recall the story as well, that fish was only one of many that got away. Am I right?” Jarrod leaned on his arms to look directly as his younger brother across the table.
Nick became indignant. He slammed his hands down on the table. “Of course there are 20 lb fish in that lake! I’ll take you up on that wager, Heath! No problem! Hah!”
Heath’s eyes were bright. He felt good. He looked at his mother and sister and gave them a wink.
“How much?” Heath asked.
“How much what?” Nick’s hazel eyes bore into Heath’s blue ones.
“How much you want to bet?”
“How much you got?”
“Wait a minute, younger brothers, let’s not get too hasty here. Remember, I’m going to be fishing, too.”
“And me, too,” Audra chimed in. Victoria tried to hide a laugh with her napkin.
“YOU!? Girls don’t fish,” Nick bellowed.
“Oh, really now! Well, I think otherwise, and I want to bet, too!”
“Um, Audra,” Heath stammered; he leaned over to try and get her attention without letting Nick hear. Heath tried to whisper, “There really are no 20 lb fish in the lake….”
But Audra didn’t hear him as she was still seething from the initial insult.
“So? Afraid to lose to a girl, Nick? Especially your little sister?” Audra wasn’t about to back down. Her face was getting a tinged red with her anger.
“Well, Brother Nick, looks like you got yourself quite a challenge.”
Nick started to sputter, thought better of it, and changed his frown into a smile. He sat back in his chair. “Alright then, family, then let’s make it official. Mother, you can hold the bets. But it’s not money that we’ll be betting on.”
“Oh, no, Nick,” Heath was already worried. What did Nick have in mind?
“We’ll bet on chores. But that means, Audra, when you lose, you’ll be digging fence posts.” Nick felt vindicated. He could definitely beat Audra!
“That’s okay, Nick. When you lose, you’ll be cooking dinner.” Audra wasn’t fazed by Nick’s blubbering.
Heath and Jarrod looked at each other and laughed. Heath rolled his eyes. Well, it was going to be an interesting lodge visit to say the least.
Victoria kept her silence no longer. “Well, I hope you all win, because then we’ll have crooked fences and burnt dinner. Now, let’s have our drinks in the family room.”
The family all adjourned to the family, where Victoria and Audra settled down on the settee, each picking up their current sewing projects. Nick and Heath positioned themselves by Jarrod’s desk, while Jarrod made his way to the liquor cart.
“Nick, drink?” Jarrod asked. “Heath?”
“Yes, thanks, Jarrod.” Nick accepted the filled glass.
“No, not for me, Jarrod, thanks,” Heath said. “In fact, I’m headin’ to bed. Tomorrow mornin’ will come awfully fast. Good night all.”
“’Night, Heath,” Jarrod said.
Nick clapped his hand on Heath’s back as he passed his brother. He noticed his younger brother was slightly favoring his injured ankle.
Audra got up to give her blond sibling a hug. “Sweet dreams.”
“Good night, Heath. Sleep well, sweetheart. I’m looking forward to our trip tomorrow.” Victoria accepted a kiss on the cheek from her blond son as he headed out of the room.
“Me, too, Mother,” Heath called back.
“Well, Heath’s right. Tomorrow morning will come fast. Good night everyone.” Victoria’s skirts swirled as she rose from the settee.
“How about you, Audra?” Victoria turned back from the door and waited for her daughter. She knew her sons wished to have some private time alone.
“Yes, I’m coming upstairs, too. Good night, brothers.”
“Good night, honey. Pleasant dreams.”
“Yeah, good night.” Nick was staring at his drink, his brows furrowed in thought.
Audra turned back when she reached the door. Her face took on a wistful look. “I think I need to decide what dinner Nick is going to cook for us when I win the bet, Mother. Do you have any recipe books I can look at?”
Nick broke out of his reverie to shout back. “I think you need a book on how to dig fence posts holes instead!”
“Oh, Enough! Good night,” Victoria firmly stated, taking her daughter’s arm and leading her up the stairs.
“I’m still not happy with that boy going up to the lodge by himself,” Nick complained. “He’s still favoring that ankle.” Nick leaned back on Jarrod’s desk, nursing his drink. He swirled the contents around as he spoke.
Jarrod sat in the desk chair, his feet propped up on the desk’s edge. “He isn’t going up by himself, Nick. Mother will be with him. Besides, Howard said he was fit, Nick. And you saw how happy he is. He can’t wait to get going on this trip.”
“He’s just feeling good now. How is he going to unload all those heavy supplies by himself, anyway? It would be hard enough if he was feeling perfect, let alone with newly mended ribs and a still sore ankle.” Nick scowled down at his feet. He downed his drink in one gulp.
“What do you propose, then? Tell him he can’t go?” Jarrod didn’t even want to try and envision what that conversation would sound like.
“Well-l-l,” Nick thought out loud, “what if we were to casually follow them up to the lodge, say five or so hours behind them. That would give them enough time to chit chat all the way to the lodge, but we would be there to help him unload the wagon and get things settled.”
Jarrod had to admit it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. The brothers, and Audra too, had already decided that they wanted to get up to the lodge much sooner than they had originally planned. Since it was Heath’s first year at the lodge, everyone wanted to enjoy the time with him as much as possible.
Plus, there was that fishing bet….
“Okay, Nick, good idea. We’ll head out at noon tomorrow. I’ve already anticipated your decision, anyway, and cleared my desk next week. In fact, I’m already packed.”
“We’ll tell Audra in the morning.”
“She’s already packed, too.”
“I hope she doesn’t have too many trunks,” Nick stated. He wondered if there would be any room in the wagon for his fishing gear. Hmmm….where was Jarrod’s fishing gear?
“I hope Heath is happily surprised at our early arrival,” Jarrod thought out loud.
As the wagon was wheeled to the front of the house, Victoria quickly started loading the smaller packages and suitcases into the wagon bed. Heath stood on the front stairs, feeling a might proud at his wagon refurbishing skills.
“Boy Howdy, what a fine lookin’ paint job.”
“Boy Howdy, it sure is! Did Ciego do it?”
“Come to think of it, I did.”
“Oh, well come to think of it,” Victoria snickered.
“Well I knew I was goin’ to be ridin’ with a beautiful lady on a fine spring day. Couldn’t have a wagon that wasn’t fit.”
“Ah, ready to go you two? I hope you didn’t forget my fishing gear.” Jarrod stepped out onto the front porch.
“It’s wrapped safely in that rug.” Victoria pointed to the rolled carpet.
“Ah, you think of everything,” Jarrod smiled broadly as he gave Victoria a kiss on the cheek. Couldn’t win a fishing bet without good equipment, Jarrod thought. Then he smiled. He hoped that Nick didn’t notice that his rod had mysteriously lost an important piece. He had looked for Heath’s rod and couldn’t find it.
The sound of spurs caused everyone to turn around. Black leather came into view as Heath helped Ciego lift the big black trunk into the back of the wagon.
“Let me help you,” Nick said to Heath, as he added his strength to Heath’s end of the trunk.
“I’m fine, Nick, but thanks,” Heath countered. His ribs did feel a little sore this morning from all the wagon packing. But it was his ankle that was really starting to throb.
“When are you two and Audra going to join us?” Victoria looked at Nick and Jarrod.
“Well, we were thinking of tomorrow, if that’s okay with you?” Jarrod asked.
“That’s wonderful, Jarrod. I thought you weren’t going to join us until next week.”
Heath turned around. “You’re welcome to come with us now if you want to.”
Nick tried to look bothered. “This is a working ranch, Heath! With you gone, we’ll be lucky to get up there for a day or two. Then I’ll win the fishing bet, and have to get back here to keep things in line.”
Jarrod and Victoria each had a big smile on their faces. Nick....well, Nick was Nick.
“Suit yourself. Y’know, that work could be reduced to a few days if you work smart, big brother. ‘Course that don’t apply to everybody.” Nick gave Heath a scowl.
“Heath, I have just a little work to catch up on, and then we’ll be up to see you and Mother. I’ll see you later, Nick.” Jarrod winked at Nick as he headed to the barn.
“Ready, Mother?” Heath asked.
“Ready. Let’s go!”
Nick helped his mother up into the wagon, and noticed that Heath favored his ankle as he climbed into the wagon seat. The bad feeling that Nick had felt continued to grow bigger. At least, Nick thought, he, Jarrod and Audra were headed up to the lodge this afternoon.
Heath picked up the reins and got the horses moving.
Nick waved them goodbye, and went into the house to finish his packing. As soon as Jarrod came back from town, he wanted to get going. He had an overwhelming need to be with his little brother.
As he climbed the gold carpeted stairs, he let some of his tension go. The family would be all together soon enough. He smiled at that thought. His smile got broader when he thought that Jarrod was going to be mighty surprised when he discovered a piece missing from his expensive fishing pole.
Now, where was the pole Audra was going to use? He hadn’t been able to find Heath’s….
“Jarrod! Wait up a minute!” Fred called to the lawyer from across the street. “I’ll be right there!” Fred waited for the stage to go by and then crossed the street.
“Hello, Fred.” Jarrod stood by Jingo instead of mounting. He pushed his hat back on his head and smiled at his friend.
“You leavin’ so soon? Only workin’ a half day?” Fred teased.
“My family is going up to the lodge today. Actually, Mother and Heath already left. Nick, Audra and I are going to leave as soon as I get home.”
“Well, then I have some news for you. You might want to rethink your little vacation right now.”
“Well, I just received word from Tamarack Prison that a convict just escaped. He’s heading north.”
“That would be near the lodge.” Jarrod rubbed his hand on his chin. This wasn’t good news at all.
“Are you still going to go?”
“Well, we’ll all be together. I’ll talk to Nick as soon as I get back. I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Be careful and be watchful. From what I understand, this convict, Harry Dixon, is a convicted murderer. And he killed a prison guard for no reason on his way out. The guard wasn’t even lookin’ in his direction. But Dixon killed him anyway.”
“How did he kill him?”
“With his bare hands.”
Jarrod whistled under his breath and looked at Fred with understanding. “Thanks.”
“Jarrod. One more thing. There are bounty hunters after him. Give them a wide berth, too. They’re a nasty bunch.”
“How long do you plan to stay up there?”
“Not too long. About a week.”
“If I hear any more news, I’ll send someone up to the lodge to let you know.” Fred extended his hand to Jarrod’s in a warm clasp. “Be careful, I said. Listen to an old friend, okay?”
“Will do. Thanks.”
“Hey, maybe I’ll bring you the news myself!”
“Sounds good! If you do, bring your fishing pole. There’s a family fishing bet going on. If you win, it would probably be good for everyone. Especially Nick. He can only cook over an open fire.”
“Never mind. Thanks, Fred.”
As Jarrod pulled himself onto Jingo, his mind was going in a thousand directions. But his first and foremost worry was for his Mother and blond brother. He decided to never dismiss Nick’s unearthly premonitions again. He spurred Jingo to hurry home.
On the Trail to the Lodge
Victoria and her newest son reveled in the quiet and beauty of the forest. The sun shined through the trees in spectacular yellow and orange bursts. There was the most delicious warm breeze coming through the trees, causing them to softly sway in the early morning hours.
Heath held the reins loosely in his hands. He was content. He could not remember feeling like this for a very long time. When was the last time he felt totally at ease? He was a very young boy, he knew that. Before he went into the mines; before he felt the strap from his uncle; before he experienced the horrors of war. Maybe at different times with Mama, but they were all too fleeting.
Now, with this family, HIS family, he felt a sense of belonging he never thought he’d ever experience. He looked over at the woman he now called Mother. How alike Mrs. Barkley and his Mama were, and yet how different. They were both beautiful; they were both warm and loving; they both held strong ideals and convictions. He felt doubly blessed for having had two mothers in his life, when many people never knew even one. God did answer prayers.
They had a few differences as well. The most obvious one was in their physical strength. His birth mother would never be able to drive a team; she was always too frail. But his acquired mother loved to feel the power of the horses in her hands. He smiled. She sure was a spitfire.
The wagon hit a slight divot in the road. The axle started to crack.
As they turned a corner, he saw that the road became flat and even. He stopped the team.
Slightly surprised, Victoria looked over at Heath. “Would you like to take them?” He questioned.
Victoria smiled warmly. “Just waiting for you to ask.” She took the reins without hesitation and yelled “He-ah!” With a quick flick of the reins, the horses started in motion.
“You should do this kind of thing more than once a year, Mother.”
“Really? Why Heath?”
“Because you seem to enjoy it so.”
”I do. I really do. You know Heath, your father built this lodge so that we not only had a place to relax and have fun, but also to have a place to be together as a family. It was very important to him that the family bond remained strong.”
Heath didn’t say anything, and Victoria wondered if she shouldn’t have said that. But she wanted him to know how much Tom would have loved for his blond son to have shared in the lodge’s happy times.
“He would have loved to have you in his life, Heath.”
“I’m sorry if….”
“You have nothing to be sorry about, Mother. When you speak of him, it helps me to understand him a little more.” Heath paused and took a breath. “Sometimes I feel that I judge him too harshly, and I don’t always know how to handle that. Nick talks about him usually when we’re workin’ alone. I think Nick needs to tell me stories so he feels as if I have memories of Father, too.”
“I think you’re right, Heath. Nick loves you and wants you to have everything he has, and the lodge certainly is one of them.”
They rode awhile in silence. Victoria looked over at her son and rejoiced in the fact that she had another child in her brood. God answered her prayers. She lost a child many years ago, and God sent her another one. Her heart was full. She honestly couldn’t remember being this happy and peaceful since Tom was killed.
The wagon was jarred by yet another hole in the road. The crack in the axle grew.
Heath’s eyes were closed and his face was turned toward the sun. He looked angelic. She smiled. She knew that her cherub could wield havoc in the house with just a few pointed words toward Nick. He loved to rile his older brother. He was both quiet and strong, and a spitfire, too.
As they took the next turn, Victoria and Heath both saw the mud covered trail at the same time. It looked deep, too.
“I was sure the roads would have been dry by now,” Victoria almost moaned.
“Well, I guess we could have gone by way of Calaveras Pass, but I reckon it’s just as wet this time of year.”
Victoria shrugged, and reined the horses to go forward. He-ah!! She pushed for them to go as fast as they could through the thick mud, but they struggled for their footing as the wagon sunk deeper.
“Want me to take them?” Heath asked.
“No, I can manage. He-ah!!” Victoria’s experience in getting the horses motivated was good, but the mud was just too thick.
“Hold up a second, Mother. Let me take a look.” Victoria called for the horses to stop.
Heath jumped down into the mud and felt a sharp pain go up his leg. He forgot about his ankle, since it had been feeling good during the wagon ride. He gasped and felt his leg give way, but held onto the side of the wagon to keep himself upright.
“Heath, are you okay?” Victoria’s voice was full of worry.
“I’m okay, Mother. Just jumped down wrong. Give me a minute.”
Heath got his breath back, and the pain in the ankle began to recede. He hunched down and took a look under the wagon. He didn’t think he could get behind the wagon and push with his ankle feeling the way it did, so he opted to stay on the side of the wagon and give the horses a hand. He knew he wasn’t getting the leverage he wanted, but at least it would help a little.
“When I yell, whip ‘em up and keep ‘em movin’!” Victoria nodded.
Heath got a grip on the wagon and braced himself. “Okay, now!”
Victoria yelled to the horses and flicked the reins. He-ah!! The horses dug their hooves into the mud trying hard to get some traction in the slippery dirt.
It was at this moment, as the horses fought to gain their footing in the muddy ooze, the axel broke in two. As the horses lurched forward, the wheel fell off the axel, and the wagon bed turned toward Heath. Unable to lift his feet out of the mud fast enough to move away, Heath was helpless as the broken wagon fell on him and Victoria was thrown clear.
On the Trail to the Lodge, Noon
As Heath saw the wagon bed falling toward him, he tried to move back, but it was too late. He felt his ankle snap as he twisted his foot in the mud, and the next thing he knew was the excruciating pain of being pinned under the fully loaded wagon.
“Heath! Heath!….Oh, my God!!”
Victoria crawled over to her son, fighting back both panic and fright. “Heath, is anything broken?”
Heath gasped in pain, and already his breaths were short and labored. “I’m not sure…everything is….kinda numb.” But that wasn’t really the whole truth; Heath did know that his ankle had broken, and was pretty sure that his hip had dislocated. His ribs screamed in agony. The barrel that was sitting right on top of him dug into his stomach, causing him to be both nauseous and lightheaded at the same time.
On top of all of that, the mud was cold….he was already starting to shiver despite the adrenalin still coursing through his body.
“Don’t worry, my son. I’ll get you out.” Victoria ran a shaky hand over his cheek. She gave Heath what she hoped was a confident smile, and turned away. She stood up and instantly sank in the gooey dirt. Victoria started to pull the smaller items off the wagon and toss them to the side. In an attempt to determine how heavy the wagon really was, the tiny matriarch tried to lift it. All she got for her effort were sore arms and a defeated spirit.
“You can’t….lift it, Mother. It’s too….heavy.”
“I’m not strong enough!” Victoria lamented.
“Mother, listen. There’s some rope in the driver’s box.” Heath had to stop to take in a few short breaths. The barrel was pressing down too hard. “Maybe….you can tie….tie it through the wagon….and loop it around…..that tr…tree over there….and get one of the horses to pull.” He suddenly felt very dizzy. He had to lay his head down.
“Okay, I’ll try.” Victoria walked as best she could over to the driver’s box. The mud was deep and it cost the tiny woman lot of energy to pull her legs out of it each time she took a step. She saw the rope and decided to take a moment and think. The rope was not thick at all. The theory was a good one, but she knew that if she tried to use this rope as Heath suggested it would break. Causing the wagon to fall back on him again could compound his injuries.
“Heath, it won’t work. The rope is too thin.”
She looked down at Heath and saw that he had closed his eyes. His face contorted in pain. His breathing was in short gasps.
“Let me think a second of how to do this. I’ll get you out, I promise.” Heath gave his mother a faint smile.
Victoria looked around and took inventory of what she had at her disposal. If she panicked, Heath wouldn’t stand a chance. Victoria took a deep breath and regained her composure.
She had two horses, a thin rope, a rifle, a lantern, a blanket, and tons of supplies for the cabin. Maybe she could use the horses to help pull the heavier items out of the wagon, and then try Heath’s suggestion. If the wagon wasn’t as heavy, then maybe the rope would hold; especially if she doubled it up.
Victoria pulled herself through the mud back to where Heath lay. “Heath, I’m going to get one of the horses to help me unload the wagon. It will take some time, but I think I can do this to lighten the wagon’s weight. Once I’m done, we’ll try lifting the wagon. Okay? You think you can hold out while I do this?”
“Yeah. It’s not too clean….but it’s soft to….lie in.”
“That’s my boy. Just relax and breathe as easy as you can.” She bent down to give him a light kiss on the lips.
Victoria took the blanket and placed it under Heath’s head. He smiled up at her gratefully. The mud was cold. He involuntarily shivered again.
“Want me to put your jacket over you?”
“No….m’okay….just get the wagon emptied. This….barrel….is mighty heavy.” Suddenly, a wave of pain shot up Heath’s leg and hip causing him to cry out. He grabbed the wagon edges to try and control the pain. Victoria was by his side in an instant, not sure of what to do.
“Heath, how can I help?”
“Just get goin’, Mother. Hurry….please.” The feeling of nausea and dizziness continued to grow. He shivered.
“I’ll do my best!”
Victoria started planning her moves. The first set of items that she needed to remove from the wagon bed were all the smaller ones. She needed to move them away from wagon so that the larger items had a clear path out of the bed. Slowly, so she wouldn’t tire her legs out, she started going back and forth from the wagon bed to drier ground.
She stopped a few times to take some water, and give some water to Heath as well. She was getting worried. He didn’t speak to her that often, and his breaths were definitely short and labored. He seemed to drift in and out of a light sleep, and she had to rouse him twice to take water. He shivered almost constantly now, too.
As she worked, she listened to him recite a quiet soliloquy regarding his brothers.
“Who invented the wheel? Should know who invented the wheel. Don’t know half as much about the world you live in, Heath Barkley. Need to study.
“Jarrod studied law. Nick studied. Gene, too. Good men. Fine brothers for a man to have.
“Nick would have checked the wheel.
Where was Nick? Mentally, he called out to his brother. Nick! Please hurry! Mother needs help! Nick would get him out. The pressure from the wagon was agonizing. Pain now continually shot up his leg and into his gut. He couldn’t feel his legs. He couldn’t move his toes. He was so cold. He was nauseous. It was difficult to breathe.
Already, he had been held in his muddy prison close to three hours.
Back at the Ranch, Noon
All the way back to the ranch, Jarrod’s trepidation about the family’s little vacation grew. Fred was right. They needed to be careful and watchful. He felt a sense of relief that he had followed Nick’s instinct to get on the road today.
He looked down at Jingo and saw that he had pushed his friend to go a little too fast. Jingo had started to form a lather and was breathing hard. Jarrod reined him slower and gave his neck a pat. “Sorry about that, Jing, but we need to get home as soon as we can. We’ll take it a little slower now. We’re close to home.”
Jingo tossed his head and snorted in agreement.
As Jarrod and Jingo came through the main gate, he saw another wagon all ready to go. Nick was sitting on the front steps tapping out his impatience with his feet.
“Well, where the hell have you been?” Nick didn’t hesitate to yell.
“Nick, meet me in the barn. I need to talk to you right away,” Jarrod called back.
“Is that Jarrod, Nick?” Audra asked from a top floor window.
Nick looked up at his sister. “Yes, so finish whatever it is you’re doing and get down here fast. I want to leave as soon as Jarrod changes his clothes.”
“Okay Nick, I only have one more bag to bring down.” Blonde hair disappeared back through the window.
“Another bag!” grumbled Nick under his breath. “Where are we going to put it?” Already the wagon was piled high with trunks and packages. He ran his hand through his hair, and sighed. Little sisters could drive a man crazy.
Nick took large strides to the barn, his spurs jingly loudly, announcing his arrival. Jarrod was dismounting from Jingo, and handed his horse’s reins to Ciego.
“Take good care of him, Ciego. He deserves a good rub down this morning!”
“Si, Senor! Yes, yes, no problema!”
“So what is it, Jarrod? You need to get changed quick. I’ve already been waiting close to an hour.”
“Nick, just before I left Stockton, Fred gave me some disturbing news.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nick motioned with his hand for Jarrod to speak faster.
“Seems that there was a prison break the other night from Tamarack jail. A convict by the name of Harry Dixon escaped. He killed a prison guard on his way out, too.”
“Tamarack? That’s up by the lodge, isn’t it?”
Jarrod and Nick walked out of the barn toward the house.
“Yes, it is. Closer than I’m comfortable with.”
“Well, all the more reason to get going.”
“I’ll be ready to go in less than ten minutes. Are my bags in the wagon?”
“Yes, but there isn’t too much room for anything else. Do you see how much our sister has packed? You’d think she was going to Paris for a month with all this stuff!”
Jarrod laughed. “Well, women do tend to over pack, don’t they?”
“Over pack is an understatement. Tell Audra to hurry up, will ya? The more we wait the more she packs.”
Jarrod left a very impatient brother on the steps. As Jarrod entered the house, he saw Audra coming down the stairs, smartly dressed in a pair of matching riding pants and vest, carrying a small satchel.
“Jarrod! I’m ready to go!” Audra almost skipped down the stairs, so happy she glowed.
“Glad to hear that, honey. Nick is going to have an aneurysm if you keep putting suitcases in the wagon.” Jarrod’s blue eyes sparkled. He loved his sister, and he loved to tease her.
“Oh, that ole’ bear. Doesn’t he realize that I need all these things?”
Jarrod chuckled. “I guess not.” He paused. “Nick’s very anxious to get started, so just go along with him right now. Once we get on the trail, he’ll feel much better.”
“Okay, big brother!” She smiled and bounced out the front door.
“AUDRA!!! That had better be the last bag!”
Jarrod’s thoughts were running a mile a minute. As he changed out of his suit and into his traveling clothes, he thought about the possibilities that they would encounter Harry Dixon or the bounty hunters. Well, he had confidence that Heath could handle things, even with a sore ankle. But his gut was telling him something else…something wasn’t right. He finished dressing and almost ran out of the house.
Harry Dixon stood up after his short rest. His ankles were starting to swell from the leg irons. Damn these things, he thought. If it weren’t for these irons, I’d be miles away by now.
He had already tried to break the chain with a rock, but that proved useless. All it did was give him a tired back and sore hands.
He looked down at his hands and smiled. They were good, strong hands. He had to be careful. He couldn’t afford to injure himself; then he would really be in more trouble than he was now.
He started to walk through the forest, looking for the easier steps to take. Too many times already, the chain holding his legs together would snag on some bush or branch, causing him to lose his balance. He already fell a number of times since his escape, and wondered for the hundredth time, how lucky he was he didn’t break anything.
Harry Dixon looked up at the sky and squinted. Mid afternoon by the height of the sun he surmised. He was very hungry, not having eaten anything but berries and a few pieces of saved bread since his prison break over four days ago. He should have planned his escape a little better, but when the opportunity arose for him to go, he took advantage of the distracted guard. He probably didn’t need to kill him, but he was taking no chances. He was going die in prison anyway, so the risk of getting caught for another murder was one he was willing to take.
He licked his dry lips. He needed to find water, too.
As Harry lumbered through the forest, he stopped short of an interesting scene before him. He quickly hid himself behind a tree. A wagon had overturned in the mud and a silver-haired woman was using a horse to pull a trunk off the wagon bed. She had already made a neat pile of suitcases, bags, rugs, and other items off to the side. He furrowed his eyebrows together. Why in the world is she trying to right up the wagon? Even with the horses help, she couldn’t get that heavy trunk back into the wagon bed again. Curiosity pulled at him, but he erred on the side of caution. He needed to find out if there was anybody else about. His heart already was beating faster. He saw food, two horses, water…..and a rifle.
Harry ducked back under the cover of the lower tree branches and circled around to get another view of the scene. It was then that he saw a blond head laying in the mud. He smiled. So, that’s what this is all about. The woman needed to empty the wagon in order to try and lift it. Hmmm…he could definitely take advantage of this situation, as long as no one else was around.
The blond head moved, and the woman stopped what she was doing. She knelt down by the boy and braced his shoulders. It was obvious even from this distance that the boy was in a lot of pain. As he heard a moan of discomfort out of the blond, the woman rubbed his shoulders until he settled down, and then reached for the canteen. She took a drink and then offered one to the boy.
Harry surveyed the area and saw no one else around. He was very thirsty and very hungry. The canteen was looking mighty good. But instead of going straight for the water, he decided to make sure he had the rifle first. When the woman stood up and returned to her work on the trunk, he burst out of the tree line and headed straight for the rifle, which was propped up against the neat pile of baggage.