"As God Is My Witness"

by
Zenon


Logline: Unconscious Heath is the only witness able to save Nick from the noose

Set-up: Heath has been with the Barkley for only six weeks. There is no Eugene. Based on an idea by Creepy Crawler in the inspiration box

  It was late afternoon when bone-weary Heath and Nick rode into Allerbee. Six weeks had elapsed since Heath’s arrival at the ranch and the tension was still palpable between the two men, as Nick would stubbornly refuse to recognize the young blond as a full member of the family. Victoria had vehemently suggested his dark-haired mule to take Heath on this horse-buying trip, hopeful that alone on the trail with no outside influence, the two would bond.

The two beaten cowboys tethered their mounts to the hitching post in front of the hotel in restrained silence. Heath would occasionally throw curious glances at stone-faced Nick to catch any hint of his wanting to engage a conversation.

“Come on, Nick!” Heath heaved out in exasperation to sever the unbearable silence. “You know that stallion was a worthless piece of flesh.”

“DON’T YOU TALK TO ME, BOY!” Nick blustered with an angry finger to give emphasis to the word ‘boy’. “Now I agreed to let you tag along on that horse-buying trip on MY mother’s insistence. I’ve been wanting that prized stallion for weeks and you open your big mouth and ruin the deal for me. I don’t wanna hear a peep outta you for the rest of the trip, you got that BOY?”

“Don’t you be calling me Boy,” Heath spat back with teeth set in suppressed fury.

Both steely stares locked in a piercing scowl, neither one wanting to be the first to relent. Nick finally huffed out the smoke from his flaring nostrils and broke the stare to slung his saddlebag over his shoulder. He then marched over to the hotel with Heath threading on his heels.

While Nick scanned the hall of the hotel, Heath made his way to the front desk to ask for a room.

“TWO rooms,” Nick’s churlishly insisted.

Heath cast Nick a sidelong glare then turned back to the clerk to nod in his brother’s request.

Once they settled in their respective rooms, the two estranged brothers went down to the dining room to eat at separate tables. Skipping dessert to escape the hostile environment, Heath paid his bill and moseyed on down to the salon for a whiskey. Barely fifteen minutes later Nick swung open the batwing doors and with spurs jingling, he strode to the bar to ask the bartender for a whiskey. He would not acknowledge Heath sipping his drink a few inches away. Leaning ungainly against the counter, he turned his attention to the room in full swing, spotting an empty place at a poker table. Before he could amble over to join in the game, Heath spoke.

“We’ve got a two-day ride back to the ranch. Don’t you think we’ve had enough of that silent treatment?”

“I told you, boy, never to speak to me again or…” Nick spat angrily before Heath interrupted him brusquely.

“Or what?” he turned to stare Nick square in the eyes, “You’re gonna shoot me?”

“Don’t tempt me.” he grinded the words between clenched teeth, then broke the glare to walk up to the poker table. “Mind if I join you, fellas?”

Eyes widened and mouths drooled at the wad of bill Nick tossed onto the table. All three men nodded their approval of the new player they knew would bring the stakes to a fever pitch.

“Not very friendly, is he?” The bartender remarked to Heath.

“We got off on the wrong foot, is all,” Heath replied almost absentmindedly while sipping his drink.

“A friend of yours?”

“Worse. He’s my half brother.” Heath informed with a touch of regret as he quaffed down his drink and plonked the glass down on the counter before heading out of the saloon and back to his hotel room.

The clock chimed midnight. The streets were deserted and deathly quiet. Not a creature was stirring. Inside the saloon the stakes were high with only two players left: Nick Barkley and Jay McKay. With a seven-thousand-dollar jackpot and a profitable business thrown in the mix, the tension was unbearable. Jay’s girl kept dabbing at the beads of perspiration pearling on his forehead while Nick distractedly chewed on his cigar. Occasional glances were exchanged between the two players to try to read the other’s poker face.

After an excruciating five-minute of pondering their next move, Jay called it. He knew he had a winning hand with his four of a kind. His hands were already on the heap of money, sliding it towards him when Nick’s hand grabbed his wrist.

“Hold on a sec, chum.” Nick laid out his Royal flush for everyone to see. Loud exhales ran through the emotionally charged atmosphere. The crowd of onlookers congratulated Nick, whereas sore-loser Jay sat back prostrated of having lost his entire fortune in a blink of an eye. His saloon girl Sally who had been his moral support began whispering sweet nothings into his ears, going as far of offering her services for free tonight, this to appease the temper of the man she knew to be one of the fastest guns in the side of state.

With a sly grin flickering on his lips, he slowly rose from his chair and left the saloon with Sally on his arm. Outside he asked her to go get a room at the hotel while he checked the livery stables to ensure his horse was bedded down for the night. He left her with a kiss and a tap on the buttocks, licking his lips at the anticipation of the night of passion awaiting him.

As he made his way to the stables, he caught a glimpse at the lucky winner staggering out of the saloon. A few too many drinks mixed with exhaustion contributed in his lack of coordination as he shuffled onwards to the hotel. Jay was a heavy drinker and could hold his liquor better than any tough guy. He saw in Nick’s dizziness a golden opportunity to retrieve what was his. Glancing both ways of the streets to spot any prying eyes, he walked up to Nick and thrust his gun at him.

“Hand over the money, pal.”

Nick looked down the barrel of Jay’s revolver and scoffed with a giddy laugh.” Like hell I will. I won it fair and square.”

In his hotel room, Heath was lying awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling. As hard as he strived to loathe Nick for his obvious antipathy towards him he found it hard to go to sleep while his brother was probably foolishly gambling away the ranch. What if he won and was followed back to the hotel by the sore loser? The tormenting images urged him to leap out of bed and buckle his gun belt. He cast a fleeting look out the window to see Jay training a gun on Nick. Heath dashed out of his room, ran down the stairs and exited through the back door, hoping to take the gunman by surprise.

“You want to die for a lousy sum of money, Barkley?” threatened Jay in the middle of the deserted street.

“It’s my money, McKay and I intend to keep it.” Nick spat, slowly unsheathing his gun.

“Drop it!” ordered Heath as he sprung forth from the darkness of the alley he’d been hiding.

With half his senses numbed by liquor, Heath’s warning registered danger in Nick’s dull mind, prompting him to swirl on his heels and shoot at the bearer of the threat. No sooner had he realized his fatal mistake that Jay winged him in the left shoulder. Nick returned fire and gunned him down.

Alerted by the gunfire, Sally ran out of the hotel and screamed at the bloody sight before her. She hurried to Jay and knelt beside him. “You killed him!” she vociferated at Nick, numbed with fear at the sight of his brother clutching his chest.

Nick dropped his gun and bolted to Heath to hold him before he crumbled to the ground. Notwithstanding the searing pain in his own shoulder, he lowered himself down and cradled his little brother in his arms. The sight of his Heath’s dull eyes and the blood seeping through his fingers sent Nick into a state of utter despair. Gently he peeled off the fingers from the chest to peer at the bleeding wound. He then pulled at his neck cloth and balled it up into a neat bandage to apply onto the bullet hole to stem the haemorrhage. “Somebody get a doctor,” he shouted frantically at the curious onlookers rooted to the spot. The hotel clerk snapped out of his numb horror to dash down the street to Dr. Hammond’s office.

“I…I knew you hated me bu…but I never thought you’d… you’d go this far,” Heath slurred weakly, with drooping eyelids. The pounding of his heartbeat in his ears combined with a deafening ringing growing more intense threatened to send him into oblivion. He struggled for breath that the searing pain in his chest kept very shallow.

“Don’t be a jackass!” Nick chastised, appalled that Heath would believe he could shoot him in cold blood. “You got me by surprise. I thought ya were with that scum, trying to corner me.”

“Sorry,” Heath breathed out.

“Don’t talk. Save your strength.” In a frantic jerk, he tossed his head back up to bawl out at the crowd. “Where’s that doctor?”

“Niiiiiick?”

“I said don’t talk! Aren’t you ever gonna listen to me?” An instant twinge pricked at Nick at the bad choice of words. “Sorry, didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

“Betteeeeeeeeeeer thiiiiiiiiis waaaaaaaaaaaaay.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Be outta…outta of the waaaaaaaay.”

“Shut up!” With unshed tears raring to spur out, Nick tightened his grip around the agonizing man; his heart aching at the thought of losing him. “Just shut up. You’re being stupid.” He pressed his cheek against Heath’s to whisper in his ear. “Now you listen to me, Heath.” he spoke authoritatively. “You hang on, you hear? I won’t let you die on me. You hear me? Heath?” His heart caught in his throat at the feel of his brother going limp in his arms. “Dammit Heath! I thought you said you weren’t a quitter? Prove it!” Nick barked through clenched teeth. “Heath!” He shouted, shaking him to elicit a response that never came.

“What happened?” queried the doctor as he came running onto the scene.

“He got shot in the chest,” Nick informed in abject fear, his voice bordering on terror. “It’s pretty bad.”

“Let me see.” Nick slowly peeled the bandana off the wound to allow the doctor to study the extent of the damage. “Can you carry him to my office?”

“Sure.” Nick gingerly lifted Heath in his arms while Dr. Hammond kept his hand pressed against the hole to prevent further blood from oozing out. Both men crossed path with the sheriff hurrying onto the scene to collect witnesses’ accounts of the shooting.

“Did anyone see what happened?”

“I did, sheriff,” Sally piped up from where she was kneeling beside her dead companion. She had discreetly slid the gun back in the holster with no one being the wiser. “He shot Jay in cold blood.”

“Can anyone vouch for that?” He asked, his eyes roving over the dispersing crowd of people choosing to ignore his question for fear of getting involved. He beckoned his deputy to help him carry the corpse over to his office. “Ma’am. I’m going to need you to come with me to make a deposition.”

“Gladly.” Sally wiped the last of her crocodile tears and followed the two lawmen down to the sheriff’s office.

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Once his wound was taken care of, Nick sat by the examining table, clenching and unclenching his fist over his mouth as he studied his brother’s facial features for any sign of his coming around. He wished for a tiny moan to escape Heath’s lips as a sign that he was proving responsive to the doctor’s prodding and poking. As he watched the listless patient lying deathly pale and barely breathing Nick cringed at the thousand lashes coming down on his grieving conscience at the costly mistake he made. He could feel the life ebbing away from his brother’s body as he cradled the limp hand in his.

“Mr. Barkley. I’m going to have to ask you to wait in the outer room while I operate on your brother. Better yet why don’t you go back to your hotel room for a few hours?”

“No,” Nick shook his head vehemently. “I’m staying right here, doctor. I don’t wanna leave him.”

“Mr. Barkley,” the doctor spoke on a soothing tone with a hand on the repentant man’s shoulder. “This is a delicate procedure. The bullet is lodged near the heart. I expect the surgery will take a few hours. There’s nothing you can do here. I’ll send my nurse to the hotel to notify you when it’s over.”

“Sorry doc. No can do, I’d rather stay here in case somet…”Nick’s voice faltered at the thought of a sudden turn for the worse.

“Okay,” the doctor smiled responsively. “I suggest you go make yourself comfortable in the other room. There are three beds. One will be your brother’s once surgery’s over. So you’ll know.”

“Thank you, doctor.” He turned back to Heath with pained eyes. Then leaned forward to murmur in his ear, “You fight this, you hear? I wanna a chance to make up for my foolishness. I mean it, Heath. You’d better not give up.”

Once Nick recovered his composure, he left with the nurse who showed him the way to the recovery room. “You can take the bed on the left. I expect the doctor would want to settle your brother in the middle to have easy access on either side of the bed.”

“Thank you… euh?”

“Emma. Emma Rovers.”

“Nice to meet you Miss Rovers.”

“Call me Emma.”

Nick cracked a strained smile in agreement. Under normal circumstances he would have leapt at the chance to engage in a lengthy conversation with the lovely brunette, but at the moment his main focus was on Heath and his dread of his dying on the operating table.

Dr. Hammond and his nurse were prepping the patient for surgery when the sheriff entered the office. Emma volunteered to see what owed them the honor of his visit this late at night.

Sheriff Manley removed his hat out of respect for the lady present in the room. “Miss Rovers. Sorry to bother you this late. But I was wondering if Nick Barkley was here?”

“Why yes. He’s the gunshot victim’s brother. Why do you ask?”

“Can I see him?”

“Right this way.” With a wave of the hand she showed him down the hall to the recovery room.

Nick was lying supine on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling as the haunting scene of the shooting danced before his eyes. How he wished he could rewind time to the moment Heath shouted his warning. Why had he been so fast on trigger? As hard as he tried to convince himself that it was the liquor that numbed his senses and therefore had no control over his actions, Nick wouldn’t allow his conscience to rid itself of the guilt it bore.

The sound of footsteps broke into his thoughts, Quickly he bounced out of bed and went to the door as Emma ushered the sheriff in. “Something wrong?” he asked in a fluster.

“The sheriff wishes to speak with you.”

“About the shooting? Look can’t this wait, sheriff? My brother’s on the operating table.”

“I’m sorry Mister Barkley but I must arrest you for the murder of Jay McKay.”

Nick’s jaw dropped to the floor. “What?” Sheriff it was self-defence. The man drew on me first,” he argued forcefully.

“There was an eyewitness who swore McKay didn’t have a gun in hand when you shot him.”

“He’s lying!” Nick blustered with his good arm flailing about.

“He’s a she. I checked myself. The man’s gun was in his holster.”

“And what do you call this?” Nick angrily pointed to his arm in a sling.

“Did the doctor dig out a bullet from your arm?”

“No there was none. Just a deep gash. McKay’s bullet grazed me.”

“Could be that you scratched yourself?” the lawman asked incredulously.

Nick ran a hand through his damp hair in frustration. “I’m telling you sheriff the man was about to put a slug in me when my brother…” Nick faltered at the word that triggered a flood of emotion. He paused to inhale a shuddering breath before continuing, “when my brother shouted that warning. He’d come to save my sorry hide. Only I thought he was that guy’s partner and I…I…I shot him.”

“That girl also said that there was bad blood between you and your kin. She even heard you threaten him to shoot him if he didn’t get out of your hair.”

“I didn’t say that,” Nick grinded the words between gritted teeth.

“Then what exactly did you say Mr. Barkley?”

“I admit I was peeved at him but for goodness sake I wouldn’t have gunned down my own brother!” Nick stated, appalled by the very suggestion.

The sheriff pondered the rationale behind Nick’s admission as he eyed him warily, trying to see the real man behind that defiant stance. Unfortunately for Nick his words carried little weight for reasons of his being a stranger in this town. The all mighty Barkleys were known by reputation only and that wasn’t enough justification to let the suspect easily off the hook.

“I’m sorry Mr. Barkley. Until we can find another eyewitness to corroborate your story I have to lock you up and wait for the circuit court judge to get here.”

“When will that be?”

“On Friday.”

“Am I allowed to send a wire to my lawyer?”

“Of course. First thing in the morning I’ll send it out for you.” He gripped Nick by the arm to steer him out of the office while keeping a hand on his holstered gun for precaution.

“Please,” Nick addressed Emma standing by the door, “would you get word to me when my brother’s surgery is over?”

“I will, Nick,” she assured, her voice cracking with emotion as she watched the grieving brother being hauled off to jail. Although she hadn’t been a witness to the shooting she could sense decency and respect exuding from in the dark-haired man, two attributes that were contradictory to the crime he was accused of.

Nick sat on the cot inside his cell and prayed. His shoulder was acting up; a searing pain was radiating down his arm but the only stinging he felt was the tightening in his chest at the thought of Heath dying on the operating table from a gunshot wound he inflicted. Haunting images of that fateful moment when his bullet found its unexpected target danced before his teary eyes, squeezing his heart of all its blood.

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Early in the morning Nick jogged down a message for Jarrod explaining the circumstances of his arrest and Heath’s condition. Emma had delivered the good news of a successful surgery a few hours before dawn, which boosted Nick’s spirits to some degree, though he knew Heath had a few ways to go. He requested permission to visit with his brother. The sheriff granted him his wish providing there was a deputy by his side at all times. Once given Nick’s solemn promise to behave, the lawman let him out of his cell and put him in the hands of his young assistant.

Upon entering the doctor’s office Nick was greeted by Emma’s reassuring smile that Heath was now resting comfortably. At the sight of Nick’s haggard expression and drawn features she refrained from elaborating on his brother’s condition, deeming it best to leave such grim details to the seasoned physician.

She ushered Nick into the examination room where the doctor was busy looking over his patient’s medical chart. He smiled his acknowledgment at Nick’s presence and with a hand on his shoulder he led him in the back room where Heath was settled on a large bed.

“He’s sleeping right now. I don’t expect him to rouse for another four to six hours,” the doctor explained in hushed tones.

“Will he be alright?” Nick asked apprehensively, his dull eyes fastened on the insentient patient before him.

“The next few hours will tell.” Nick shifted his gaze to stare quizzically at the doctor. “It’s lucky you’re a bad shot Mr. Barkley. Had the bullet hit him a few inches to the left, there wouldn’t have been a thing I could do. The bullet was lodged near the heart and to retrieve it I had to crack a few of his ribs. Still there’s the matter of infection and that could be fatal is there’s swelling in that particular area. There were traces of dirt and pieces of his shirt that were driven into the wound that hopefully I managed to clean. But did I get it all?”

Nick’s heart sank at the detailed account of the surgery, but he needed to know everything in order to be prepared for the worse. “He looks so pale,” Nick observed as he sat on the edge of the bed to place his hand on top of Heath’s. “And cold,” he added from the feel of icy skin under his touch.

“That’s to be expected. He’ll warm up as his body gradually replenishes its blood supply.”

“You didn’t need a transfusion?”

“No. Thanks to your quick intervention he didn’t lose too much blood. Just enough to drain the energy out of him. We’ll see how he holds up and I’ll call on you if we need one.” The silence that ensued told the doctor of Nick’s wish to be left alone with his brother. He smiled inwardly at the silent request and acknowledged with a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“Thanks doc.”

The doctor beckoned the deputy out of the room, assuring him that he would take full responsibility should the prisoner attempt an escape, which he seriously doubted.

Nick scooted closer to Heath and gazed into the still face, wincing at the deathly ashen complexion that was staring back at him. “I’ve been a jackass, Heath,” he confessed in a heavy-laden sigh. “I wanted that prized stallion. Had heard a lot of good about that animal. I ached to have him all to myself. No one was going to tell me otherwise.” He paused to scanned Heath’s haggard features for a sign that he was listening. He drew in a deep breath and continued, “But you did and that’s made me so mad. Ah hell Heath! One look at that horse and I knew he was a worthless piece of flesh but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. I wanted him. I needed to have him. I turned a blind eye to what he really was, tying to convince myself that once at the ranch I could do something with him.”

He closed his eyes to curb the wave of emotions rising within him. “God I hated you for being right; for speaking a truth that my conscience was goading me to see. I vented my anger on you. I had so many penned up emotions since you showed up at the ranch. The bubble finally burst. The vials of wrath poured in on you…Little Brother.” Nick shivered at the name, one he hadn’t used until now.

“I don’t hate you. I just…well…I always thought my father, I mean, our father, was the perfect man. The thought of his having cheated on my mother disgusted me. I couldn’t look at you without seeing him and your mother. I don’t have anything against your mother. From what I heard you telling us about that woman taking care of you in this crummy town of Strawberry, I can understand father falling in love with her. The fact that he was amnesiac helped lessened the anger I felt towards him. But I didn’t let up on you.” Nick gently laid his hand on top of Heath’s, hoping to converge some of his heat through their skins. “Please be all right. You’ve got to give me a chance to make it up to you, Heath. I think I can make it. You fight. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

He sniffed back his tears and wiped his bleary eyes with the back of his hand. “Ah hell! I’m not good at this mushy stuff. You get better, you hear?”

The doctor returned to advise Nick of a very nervous deputy telling him that his time was up. Nick strained a smile and nodded, casting one last glance at his brother before following the doctor out the door. “Doc, you tell me if there’s any change, you hear?”

“I will Mr. Barkley. You have my word.”

Nick clasped the doctor’s hand in a grateful handshake and then nodded to the deputy who escorted him back to the sheriff’s office.

Emma stepped up to the doctor standing by the door with a forlorn expression etched on his face. “Uncle, are you all right?” she asked worriedly.

“I told this young man that his brother was going to be okay.”

“Isn’t he?” she asked expectantly, her heart sinking at the rueful shake of the doctor’s head.

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Later that day Jarrod and Victoria’s train pulled up at the Allerby station. Jarrod hailed a porter to carry their luggage to a cab that drove them to the hotel. Once in their room, they set their suitcases down by the door and went straight to the sheriff’s office to see Nick.

After enquiring after her son’s general health, Victoria hurried down to the doctor’s office to visit with Heath while Jarrod remained at the jail to take his brother’s account on the circumstances of his arrest.

“Me and Heath rode in late yesterday afternoon. I was peeved at him for making me lose that prized stallion.”

“Why would he do that? I thought it was a done deal with the owner?”

Nick huffed out a sigh thick with frustration and raked his fingers through his hair as he began pacing the cell in front of Jarrod. “It was but Heath threw a wrench in the negotiations. What’s worse is that he was right. You should have seen that eyesore. The worse piece of horseflesh I’ve seen in my life. Talk about putting one’s nose out of joint.”

“Then why be mad at Heath? The way I see he prevented you from making a bad deal.”

“I know!” Nick blasted, the anger directed at himself. “I vented my rage and frustration on him. When we got here I warned him to stay out of my hair. Down at the saloon when he continued to pester me I threatened to…”

“You threatened what?” Jarrod’s brow wrinkled at the expected answer.

“To get out of my sight or else…”

“Nick! For God’s sake what did you do to him?” Jarrod insisted, his right fist tightening around the cell bar.

“I didn’t. Heath said it. Or else I would shoot him.”

“Dare I assume saloon patrons bore witness to that threat?” Keeping his eyes downcast Nick simply nodded. Jarrod’s eyes dropped like lead at the confession. “So I take it everyone thinks you shot him?”

“Jarrod you got to believe I didn’t do it on purpose,” Nick bawled, his booming voice bouncing off the walls.

“Simmer down, Nick. Of course I believe you,” Jarrod replied unconvincingly, an inflection that raised Nick’s hackles.

“No you don’t. I can hear it in your voice,” Nick snarled.

“Nick I know you aren’t capable or gunning down a man in cold-blood but admit that you didn’t hide your antipathy for Heath ever since he came to us,” Jarrod stated emphatically.

“It was an accident.”

“Explain.”

“It was after midnight. I’d just won big at poker.”

“You? Winning big at poker?” Jarrod scoffed. Nick shot him a glare that urged him to retract his snide remark. “Sorry,” he hawked in repentance.

“I had a few drinks in me and was feeling good about my feat. I stumped out of the saloon and ran into the sore loser who threatened me to fork over his money. I had my hand on my gun when I hear someone shout ‘drop it!’. My mind was numbed. I didn’t think before I acted. I just heard the warning and thought this guy had back up. I swirled on my heels and sh…” Nick’s voice faltered at the word. He inhaled deeply to dam up the flood of tears rushing to his eyes.

“Anyone saw what happened?”

“The man’s girlfriend. I think her name was Sally. She’s the reason I’m here. She was hysterical. I don’t rightly know what happened after that. All I could see was Heath clutching his chest and slumping to the ground.”

“Do you know where I can find her?”

“Yeah. My best bet is the saloon. She was on duty last night if you get my drift?”

“I’ll have me a talk with that girl,” Jarrod said resolutely, already pondering his next move.

“Don’t waste your breath, Brother. She won’t tell you any different.”

“You said she was with the man that shot you? What was his name?”

“McKay. Don’t recall his first name.”

“So from what you tell me only Sally and Heath were witnesses to the shooting?”

“As far as I can figure.”

“Should I fail to get anywhere with that woman we’ll always have Heath to vouch for you.”

“I guess. That is if he comes to. Doc said he’ll be alright but,” Nick shook his head dejectedly, “I’ve seen dead men looking better than he does. F’course that was early this morning. He could have picked up colours since. I asked that they tell me when he’ll be awake. So far I haven’t heard anything. You and Mother have been my only visitors.”

“I’ll go see him and come back to tell you what’s happening.”

“Appreciate it.”

Jarrod frowned quizzically at the apparent genuine concern mirroring in Nick’s eyes. “Am I to understand that you’re worried about Heath?”

“Of course I am! What kind of stupid question is that?” Nick spat indignantly at Jarrod’s implying tone.

“Sorry for asking,” Jarrod shot back, “but you were adamant about wanting him off the ranch.” Nick kept silent as he felt the guilt slowly creeping over him. “Let’s hope he regains consciousness soon or I fear we’ll have a tough time proving your innocence.”

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At the doctor’s office, Victoria sat at Heath’s bedside, rubbing his icy cold hand in hope of restoring some of the lost warmth. She smiled reminiscently at the first time he called her ‘Mother’. She remembers her heart soaring as he approached her with teary eyes and heaved out the word she longed to hear. The soul-stirring embrace that followed brought her to a whole new level of elation, until Nick’s smouldering stare sent her crashing back down.

Victoria was roused out of her stream of consciousness when Emma approached her and spoke softly, “That son of yours is a fighter, Mrs. Barkley. The doctor didn’t expect him to live the first twelve hours.”

Victoria gazed adoringly at her pride and joy. “That he is. The Barkleys are tough. They don’t give up easily.”

“His brother sat with him early this morning. I could tell he was ravaged with guilt over what happened.”

Victoria frowned in puzzlement. “What did happen?”

“His brother Nick shot him.” Emma reacted to Victoria’s shocked expression. “You didn’t know?”

“The telegram we received just said that my son had been shot. That’s all.”

“I’m not really the one to ask for details. All I know is that Heath is lucky his brother was a bad shot that night. The bullet was lodged inches from the heart.”

Victoria closed her eyes in despair and then turned her attention back to Heath as the doctor stepped into the room to give his patient a cursory examination. Taking the pulse he shook his head ruefully before facing the worried mother with the dreadful news. “He’s not gaining any strength. His pulse is weaker and he still ashen.”

Victoria’s heart sank at the diagnosis. She searched the doctor’s eyes for a glimmer of hope that not all was lost.

“Doctor, what about that blood transfusion you mentioned earlier? It might help him,” Emma suggested much to Victoria’s relief.

“Couldn’t hurt to try. We’ll have to get consent from the sheriff to let his prisoner out of jail for that duration.”

“I’ll go ask him right away,” Emma volunteered.

“No. It’s better if I do it.”

“If not my son Nick then my other son Jarrod can do it,” Victoria stated. “He’s with Nick at the sheriff’s office right now.”

The doctor nodded in acknowledgement before addressing his nurse, “Would you check the bandage and spread another blanket on him?”

“Sure thing, doctor.”

“And Emma,” he pulled her closer to him to speak out of Victoria’s earshot. “ Don’t give her false hope. He’s definitely not out of the woods.” She nodded her understanding of the delicate situation, reassuring the doctor that she would keep her words of encouragement to herself for now.

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At the doctor’s urgency, Sheriff Manley authorized his prisoner to leave the jail cell for the duration of the blood transfusion. His deputy was assigned to escort Nick to the doctor’s office with orders to keep him within sight at all times.

Meanwhile Jarrod ambled down to the saloon hoping to have a chat with Sally regarding the shooting. The place was half full seeing how it was still early in the evening. He addressed the bartender who pointed to a room on the first floor.

“She’s getting ready for her shift. Don’t hold her up. She’s got customers waiting,” the bartender spoke caustically, leaving no room for argument. Jarrod simply bowed his head in agreement and made his way up the stairs.

“Who is it?” Sally inquired of the knock on her bedroom door.

“Jarrod Barkley,” came to muffled voice from behind the door. “I’m a lawyer representing my brother Nick Barkley, the man involved in Jay McKay’s shooting. I would like to ask you a couple of questions.”

Caught unawares by the surprised visit, Sally quickly weighed of options. “Mr. Barkley. I’m about to start my shift downstairs. Can you come back later?” she improvised to avoid having to speak with Jarrod before mentally reviewing the answers she gave in the deposition.

“I promise it’ll only take a few minutes.”

In a deep sigh she summoned her courage to face the man head on. She dreaded having to lose countenance before the all mighty Barkley whom she knew was going to grill her to find evidence as to his brother’s innocence. She moved to the door and took a few second to smooth out her skirt before bidding Jarrod enter.

“I already gave my account to the sheriff,” she groused. “I don’t know what more I can tell you.” She resumed her seat at her vanity and picked up her hairbrush.

“I know I read it.”

“So? Why are you here then?”

“To ask you questions of a more personal nature.” Jarrod realized he hit a nerve when she suddenly stopped brushing her hair and looked straight in the mirror before her. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked sarcastically.

“That all depends. How personal?”

With a casual stance Jarrod began to stride up and down the room. “How close were you with the victim Jay McKay? Would you say you were more than just friends?”

“Yes. We’d been seeing quite a lot of each other outside business hours.”

“I see. And I supposed that’s what you were doing on the night of the shooting? You were going to meet privately at the hotel?”

“That’s right,” she retorted coldly, miffed by Jarrod’s implying tone.

“I heard McKay lost quite a bit of money to my brother that night. The kind that would drive a desperate man to kill to retrieve it.”

“I don’t think I like what you’re implying Mr. Barkley,” she warned with a glare. “I assume Jay tried to convince your brother to give him back some of the money he’d lost but drunk as he was he probably figured Jay was threatening him.”

“Was he?”

“I don’t know I wasn’t actually there at the time. I was at the hotel getting a room.”

“So you said.”

“Check with the desk clerk Charlie. He’ll vouch for me.”

“Oh will.”

“Mister Barkley. Jay’s gun was still in his holster when he got shot. So that proves he hadn’t been threatening your brother.”

“Then how did he get that gash on his shoulder?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged in a huff. “Maybe he scratched himself?”

“Nick said he got it when McKay shot him.”

“I’m telling you he was drunk,” she insisted with annoyance. “He obviously didn’t know what he was doing.”

“My brother did say he had a few drinks in him but assured me he was in possession of his senses when he walked out of the saloon.”

She swirled in her seat to shoot him a withering look. “For God sake! Nick Barkley shot his own brother!”

“That was an unfortunate accident. Nick thought his brother was one of McKay’s men.”

“If he hadn’t been plied with liquor he wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on his brother, now would he?”

Jarrod stood mute at the rationale behind Sally’s statement. She seized her moment of victory to throw Jarrod out of her room. “If you’ll excuse me I have work to do.” She twitched open the door and stood waiting.

“I advise you not to leave town until the matter is settled,” Jarrod said crushingly, his eyes warning her to heed his bidding.

“Don’t worry I won’t. I’m here to see that your brother hang for what he did to Jay.”

Jarrod frowned at her spoken hatred for Nick, puzzled as to why she would feel this way about a perfect stranger. He bowed his head and exited the room.

After pausing in the hallway to register the details of the conversation in his mental file for future reference, Jarrod made his way to the doctor’s office to find Nick resting on the bed next to Heath with Victoria sitting between the two, holding Heath’s hand.

“So?” Nick asked expectantly.

“So I spoke with her.”

“What did she say?”

“Nothing more than what she said in that deposition. I found disturbing the fact that she wants you to hang.”

“I bet she does,” Nick snorted.

“Why this hatred of you?”

“Haven’t you heard? I killed her man!”

“No, there’s something more.”

“Alright maybe she’s peeved because I snubbed her advances.”

“You mean she came on to you?” Jarrod exclaimed, the revelation coming as a complete surprise to him.

“Yeah?”

“Was McKay present when she did?”

“F’course not! That was before he showed up at the saloon. Figured she could snatch a wealthy Barkley. When that didn’t work she went after the second richest man in the room.”

“It’s obvious she’s a fortune hunter.”

“Who cares! That won’t get me off the hook.”

“Maybe it will,” Jarrod mused as he set the mental wheels of justice in motion. “I have to play that card since it’s the only one we’ve got so far. You being under the influence that night is certainly not going to go in your favour.”

“I wasn’t drunk!” Nick hissed.

“Enough to cloud your judgement as to shoot Heath,” Jarrod sassed back. He paused to let Nick realize the implication of his act before continuing on a softer tone, “The circuit judge is scheduled to arrive a day after tomorrow, which doesn’t leave me much time to build a defense case.” He glanced Heath’s way and sighed heavily. “He’s the only other witness whose testimony could get you off the hook. Let’s hope he regains consciousness soon.”

...Continued