It had been a month. A long, surly, aggravating, grizzly of a month. And he was through. Finally he could give in to logic, to the itch that was apart from logic, and move on. Oh, he’d spent longer times in worse hells, but if those times had served to teach him anything it was that life was too short for this.
He knew that he was just stubborn enough to satisfy part of what he’d come here for, though, and so he stopped at Jarrod’s room first. He hesitated before knocking on the door, twisted his head sharply to the right for the satisfying, somehow calming sound of his neck popping, twisted the brim of his hat in nervous hands. And just why the hell was he nervous, why were his guts dancing and twisting inside him? He was right. But then, right wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t easy when he came here, and it wasn’t easy now that he was leaving.
But leaving he was. He sucked in a ragged breath, rapped gentle knuckles on polished wood. “Enter,” Jarrod’s steady bass called. And he was stepping in. The room was full of rich red wool rugs, deep brown leather, shining gold drapes—it was, well, resplendent. A ten dollar word, sure, but one that fit Jarrod and his lodgings. It was like this whole house, and it all still took his breath away.
“Good morning, Brother Heath,” Jarrod boomed a greeting in surprise. He didn’t recall Heath ever paying him a visit in his "den" before, was glad that the young man was feeling more and more comfortable in this, his new home. There was a beat, but the stiff man before him did not yield. Then Jarrod squinted closely at the figure still hovering just inside his doorway. A quick glance took in the hat clenched in the work-hard hands, the jacket hooked through the loop of one solid arm, the saddle bags thrown over the other shoulder. “Or, should I say, bad morning?”
“Depends on who you’re asking, I s’pose,” Heath sighed. “I came to ask you a favor.” And then he bristled. Favor be damned. This was his due. “Not a favor, no. I came to finish some of what I started here for in the first place.”
“Before you leave?” Jarrod asked, his head cocked to the side, deep blue eyes unflinching. Courtroom eyes. Somehow not accusing the blond, but tearing through his churning guts nonetheless.
Heath raised a defiant chin. “Yeah. Through here. Had about enough of Nick, of his men, to last me some time to come. Thought I could stick it out. And I could,” his eyes flashed blue ice at Jarrod, “if I wanted to.” And then he sighed again, through with anger, and not wanting to direct it at the wrong person. “It’s just, well, it’s come to not be worth it anymore. I’m sick of the brawling, what it’s doing to the rest of the family,” he ran a hand through his short hair, unconsciously spiking it, “hell, what it’s doing to me.” And then he was trembling, sucking in a ragged breath, his eyes tearing up. What the deuce was wrong with him?
Nick was what was wrong with him. Why the hell Nick’s opinion mattered he’d never know. But there it was, and he was leaving before it mattered any more. Embarrassed, he swiped an arm over his eyes. “I don’t know what I want, Jarrod. Not money, that’s not what I want. I think I deserve… deserve isn’t the right word either. No man deserves what he didn’t earn.” He was rambling, he knew it. It certainly wasn’t the polished, angry speech he’d been running through his head for the long hours of another sleepless night. A speech about legalities and names and percentages owed.
And then he knew. These people owed him nothing. Even his father, if he were alive, owed him nothing. Life was a gift, a divine accident. This was his life. And he was wasting it, moment by moment, in a place where he wasn’t wanted. And he was leaving. It had been a month.
Jarrod looked genuinely forlorn, which made Heath’s throat burn, made him blink again, furiously. “I don’t imagine there’s anything I can say?”
Heath smiled sadly, stuck out his hand in a gesture of friendship. “Goodbye, Jarrod. I’ll write to you. That’s only fair.” And he left before he could second guess himself, before he could let emotion overrule logic as he’d done when he came here in the first place.
I write to you in good health. I withdrew some small cash from my account and noticed that the sum there is quite larger than when I left you. Please do me the courtesy of removing the extra funds, as I did not earn them. As it stands, I have a great deal more than I ever have had, but for family.
You may post return letters to this address. I will pay the man to store them for me here as I hope to take to the woods for a time. I will pen you while I am there, but I will obviously not post until I return to town, although I cannot say when that will be. It is not a good time to hire on, as you probably know, and, to be honest, I think I can afford for once the luxury of time to myself.
Do not be concerned. I am feeling rightly tired and nature always calms my soul.
It is with much pleasure that I received, finally, a letter at least hinting of your whereabouts, if not your full state of mind. I know that you may not find this post for some time, but I will continue to write as I wait for further word from you. Indeed, I have been most restless for some correspondence. My heart is very glad for it.
It has been a long, worrisome few weeks since you left. Mother and Audra are in a constant state of agitation, asking me what more I know, making me repeat our short speech of that morning over and over. Nick pretends not to care but he is a veritable nuisance lately. If he is not hollering at the men, he is underfoot, sighing and grumbling. But I imagine you of all people can picture Nick at his very worst. I tell you all of this, not to impress upon you a sense of obligation, but to let you know that you do indeed have family—even if family only means those who miss you when you are gone. If you should ever decide to return, we will be here for you. And this time we will, as a unit, try even harder to make you feel as one of us.
I vow that even if I have to step on Nick’s stubborn neck to make it so. Perhaps you would loan a boot to the endeavor?
I will remove the funds, but know that all you need do is ask and even the ranch is yours, within my power to allow it! You are my father’s son, and my brother, and I do find myself missing you terribly. Your calming presence was a balm to my soul in the evenings, and I was just coming to learn of your wit and wisdom. Please be careful, and please consider hurrying home.
I pray for your safety and your peace.
Fondly, Your brother Jarrod.
I was able to gather your post before I headed out. I was asked to join a posse that was searching for a few missing renegade Modocs. I did so, but reluctantly. Sometimes I find my heart on their side. No man likes to be penned, to be belittled. However, no man has the right to harm others either.
You, as a lawyer, understand the conflicting emotions such thoughts may cause, I have no doubt.
In sum, it went well, but only in the sense that we didn’t find who we were searching for. The posse quickly became a cruel and heated bunch, fueled by their anxieties, their tongues, and too many hidden flasks. I had come to fear that I would have to put myself between them and a lynching if we had indeed found our foe.
Thank you for righting the banking situation, and for the kind words. Again, the beauty of nature always calms my soul, so perhaps I will find myself better able to contemplate your offers while there.
Kiss your mother and Audra for me. Heath.
Jarrod was stunned but pleased to retrieve a thick packet of letters from Heath a mere few weeks later. They had been delivered to him from town. He headed towards the study, head dipped and hands shuffling through the dated entries—all dated but the last. He settled himself in, delighted, with a warming drink and a cigar. He was going to hear more of Heath’s adventures in the wilderness and he would, in turn, add to and then forward the letters he’d written his brother in the brief interim.
I have settled some ways in, hope to get another half day’s travel between me and most of those city folk tomorrow. The Truckee will be a beautiful place to rest myself awhile. The fish and game will be “flopping and hopping,” as the saying goes. Even now, lounging by my warm fire, I can breathe more easily. It’s as if I’ve recently forgotten how.
Although we have never talked of it, truly, I want to say that my mama’s death was a knife to my belly. I should have been, somehow, more for her. If I wasn’t so young, my mind screams, or poor, she would still be with me. In a child’s heart a mother is eternal and yet my heart feels that she depended on me to keep her alive. I failed her badly. If nothing else, I didn’t stay always with her, and life’s hardships always seemed to make it so that I couldn’t send her that ONE dream stake that would allow her to simply rest.
Just as I am resting by this fire, she would sit in her small chair then, and finally let heal those always water-chapped hands. Instead of toiling she could sit and rock and sing, and in so doing she would be provided with years on years of more time. She could be as lively and carefree and as beautiful still as your mother, not the wrung out woman who I buried… can it really be some four months ago now?
But every day her loss is a small animal let loose in my belly. It chews there and won’t let me any comfort. She died and I could have made her life easier but for the hardships of my own.
When your father died, did it get better? How, and when? And will I ever feel free of the guilt? That is a selfish question. Mama is the one who suffered so, and here I am wanting to be free from the distaste of my responsibility for it.
How cruel is God that I finally did find all that she may have needed to keep herself alive—my "grand stake"—but only because of her death. That is blasphemy, I know, but some nights, I must confess, I find myself even raging at God. I’ve been so often told that bastards don’t go to heaven anyhow, that they are born with a taint too dark to cleanse. So, in times like this, I rage and I laugh.
Born from sorrow, into sorrow, living a life of sorrow, to an eternity that will make that sorrow seem as a distant joy; this must be my lot.
I am mated with melancholy indeed, I feel it, and I’m glad you will probably not receive this post.
I am sure you would not want such a sorry soul as a brother.
Yours anyhow, Heath.
It is morning now, and although the air is crisp with chill, I am warm. I have shifted from under my blanket only to reach for the makings of a smoke and this correspondence. It occurs to me, I can use this in the way a friend once encouraged me to… as a journal, of sorts. I can pen all the darkest parts of me, with no intention of mailing it. Perhaps, in so doing, I can lance the melancholy that so often grips my heart so deeply. (I must wonder; perhaps truest melancholy is only a companion in the dark. In the day it must feel the need to tuck farther away, to torment you less often.)
Regardless, if anything were to ever happen to me, these words, this some small part of me would be left behind, entrusted to you, my oldest brother.
Perhaps it is only the small pleasures that make this dreary life worth it in the haul. I need to stoke the fire, put on some coffee, but in the meantime I remain wrapped neatly in my warm blankets, listening to the spirited rousing of the birds. Every so often I remember, again, how to smell the pine. Isn’t it a funny thing, pine? Its smell is crafty, only letting you find it in sudden happy bursts.
Oh well, to the day. I will catch a fish for you later, and lie about how large it is.
It is evening again, and with it comes my mistress, melancholy.
My mama is dead and I will never see her again.
I came to you all just after she was “laid to rest.” I hate that damned term. If she’d been allowed once to lay in rest in her lifetime she might have had some reserves left to fight against her death. I came to you all in a rage because I couldn’t come in sorrow. I was too frightened to let you see my fear. Yes, I fear being always alone, like every man might, I suppose.
But I do apologize. I didn’t want to disrupt the family. And then, after catching Nick’s fists, I did. I wanted to blow up the world. Your damned father killed my sweet mama with his neglect and his hypocrisy and his lies. My life hasn’t been no careful filled picnic basket neither.
Damn you, Nick, for pulling out the rage in me. Damn you, Nick, for treating me like the dung on the bottom of those fancy boots. I am a man and I have fought hard to stay on this earth. And why in the hell does your venom towards me make me seethe… but then make me want to cry? It’s as if you are him. It’s as if you are Tom Barkley, not Nick Barkley, as if you are showing me what he would have undoubtedly felt for me. Loathing, distrust… you act as if I turn your stomach. I am sorry you and Father feel that way.
Yes, those are the words, simple but true. Your deep dislike for me surprises me and makes me sorry that I cannot be the sort of man you could respect—even though you can manage plenty of respect for some of those mongrels wasting spots on your payroll. If they matter more than me, what must I be?
I have forever lost the love of my mama, and in you, Nick, I seemed to have lost the only chance of finding the love of my father. Aw melancholy, you make me into a sorry simpleton. And a lonely one.
So what am I doing here, I wonder, if I fear being always alone? Do I always do the thing that will harm me the most, I wonder. So far I’m pulling a bang up job of this thing called living.
Don’t let her know, but I’m going to trick melancholy just now with a bit of humor. That fish I caught, Jarrod, was near on 18 feet long. Had to plain fist-fight a grizzly, single-handed, for the right to eat it. I toyed with him a long while, then laid him out with a smart uppercut. Tell that to Nick; maybe that’s the sort of thing that earns a man his respect. It obviously isn’t blood ties, or hard work, or obedience, or giving back as good as I got.
Maybe, Jarrod, someday you’ll tell Nick about me. Tell him that I had a heart too, and that it could be wounded, and that he did a fine job of adding to its already full collection.
I’m going to sign off so I can pull a snort and calm down. Who knew letter writing could set you on edge even more than a good fight?
Your brother, Heath.
Boy howdy! Looking over what I wrote last night reminds me never to marry a gabby woman! I am truly glad that you won’t receive these, not in this, their full form anyhow. I would be embarrassed to ever show you my face again. And if I could work through all of this sadness, because it is such a heavy cross, maybe I could see your face again. If I only had to deal with the one sadness of Nick, not a whole lifetime’s worth at once, I might be just fine indeed.
But again, it is morning, and with the new sun comes, well, newness. With THIS morning comes quite a surprise as well. I am bent so casually over this letter as to give me a cramp in my neck. I am being watched, and have been for some while, by a young man. He looks to be Indian, or some part of Indian at least.
I awoke a bit slowed up. I meant to take one snort last eve and think I took 12. Thus, it took me until well into breakfast to notice the change in the patterns of the noises of the birds. Someone was with me. My first silly thought was that I hoped this someone hadn’t been with me since the evening before, because I’m pretty sure I even bawled a bit then too.
What a fool does when he thinks no one can see or hear!
But back to my tale. As I glanced in his direction, he knew he’d immediately been caught and began a quick rip backwards, but backed into a tree. He stood there, poised between frightened and mad, and I merely lit the smoke I’d been rolling, gave him a nod, and went back to my food. I took a few more lazy bites, then left it set out. I gave the young man a hand gesture of welcome, indicated eating with my mouth, and moved very slowly away.
Here I sit, on a rock at the edge of the Truckee, listening to him sit behind me. He ate every bit of it because there were tinned peaches, fresh bread, bacon and coffee. A man can survive easily in a place like this, but it doesn’t mean he has to like it. This man probably wants fresh bread and bacon and that blessed treat coffee just like the next one.
After he ate I rolled a second smoke, set it some ways behind me on a rock. He has now moved forward close enough to retrieve it and is smoking it quite casually, as if this were an everyday occurrence. I sit writing, and he sits smoking and looking off into the river. She’s a lively river, jumping and singing and making the words we two fools should be speaking to each other.
Let’s see, what else can I write? The spot that I am just now enjoying is nature’s best handiwork indeed. I named it God’s Hand yesterday evening when I came upon it, because it looks like a huge, welcoming palm, surrounded by upright rocky fingers, with a pinky that has fallen over and dangles lazily in the water. This flat “palm” rock I’m seated on is perfect for catching all of the warmth of the morning, so flat and wide and long that it would rest four stretched out men easily. It would be just as fine a rock in the afternoon, after one had taken a swim that was cold enough to shrink a body. Then you’d stretch out on its sun kissed heat and just bask.
What else? The river herself is a dangerous thing right now, or at least where I am. I’d gladly fish her, but I’d never ford her. You’d cascade along, lazy enough at first, but then you’d be ripped under, no doubt, and wonder how such a beauty had left you drowning and breathless, then dead.
I’m going to stop my pen now. I think it’s time my companion and I maybe met. Oh, and not to worry, Jarrod. He isn’t one of the crew the posse was searching for a while back. I saw the drawings of them, and even one tintype. This young man is weary and rather pretty. He isn’t the renegade type, I promise, or he wouldn’t be sitting so quietly at my back.
Until next time, Journal Jarrod, your brother, Heath.
Jarrod set the letter down carefully in the stack beside him. He felt strangely heavy in the heart, wishing he weren’t alone in the house so that he could rouse his family—so that he didn't have to be housing his sudden fears and sadness alone. If Heath had not intended him to see these quiet confessions, why were they here in his hand? And as he’d read them he’d known they weren’t truly intended for him. These were bared heart thoughts, the kind rarely shared.
What clamped an iced hand around Jarrod’s heart was that there was only one more letter, and it was written on paper that seemed to have been doused by a river and then dried by a fire. He lifted the last letter, opened it reverently, and, with much trepidation, read on. Heath’s handwriting was now a scrawl and got more and more weary as the letter slid down the page.
I have been sorely injured. I do not recall the matter and cannot tell the cause. The wound is in my back. The fellow is still with me and is treatin it, Modoc medicin. He has suggested that we are in a bind and that I pen for help. I do not wish to bother you with trubles, but fear I must.
I do not know the day or how long I have been insentient, but I do know that I will probly not rally without your aid. The young man here is kind, but he cannot take me to town. I do not even know rightly where I am. I hear the water, so I must be still near the Truckee. In a cave, it seems.
This fellow must intend to mail this, so perhaps you can check with the post man when you arrive.
If I do not see you, I think it only fair to say that, given time, I would have deeply loved you all. Heath.
When Jarrod stood he vaguely heard the chair tumble behind him with a crash.
My presentation of Grey Bear John is an accumulation of a lifetime’s worth of collected knowledge about various tribal cultures, but is in no way pure to any one. Indeed, much of the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Modoc has been, unfortunately, lost due to annihilation and assimilation. No insult is intended in this mishmash of details… indeed, one of my own sets of great grandparents was a Creole buffalo hunter who met and loved a Blackfoot woman. They married and lived in a communal tepee for much of their life together. Even their children, however, did not know what it meant to be a Blackfoot.
Although he had the wisdom of the elders, he had the face of a child. He was indeed, as Heath had observed in his letter to Jarrod, an oddly pretty young man: a narrow face with sharp cheekbones and a strong jaw, dark flashing eyes, one stray dimple, longish rumpled black hair. He was tall and lean, dressed in the garb of some civilized wild man—leather breeches, moccasins, markings and beads—but he also wore a cowboy hat, a neckerchief, a clean shirt much like Heath’s but in bright reds, and a faded rosary.
Grey Bear John rocked back and forth over the prone figure, singing quiet prayers. Horse Heath’s fever had risen again, even though John was using all of his extensive herbal lore, even though he had danced for hours each day. It was finally time to use big arrow medicine. He clutched a handful of the carefully crafted miniature arrows that he’d been making for the last several days, and then began his slow, crawling journey around the fitfully conscious man. He carefully planted each arrow deep into the rocks and dirt all around Heath’s bed of blankets so that the blonde’s soul would be held still and steady, so that the disease would finally fear for itself and flee.
When the ritual was finished John leaned back against the cool rock wall of his den, one hand resting casually on Horse Heath’s exposed back so that he could read the fever. The mud and ochre paints on his face were drying and itched. Indeed, Grey Bear John was bone weary, but he still needed to keep watch. Keeping watch was his life, a blessing and a chore. It would soon be time to go get more clean, clear water. While he waited he unconsciously pulled off his rosary with his free hand and raced a steady finger rhythm up the beads, but this movement seemed more an act of relaxation than true prayer.
His mind drifted back to nights and nights ago, when he’d decided who the blond man was. He had watched the stranger from the comfortable shade of a shelf of trees as a day turned into dusk. The man took time to worship nature, stroking and admiring her beauty. He was one-soul with his pony; horse was clearly some of this man’s own medicine, just as bear was John’s. Inescapable and gorgeous and dangerous at once, this was bear and this was horse. And in little quirks and ways Grey Bear John could see the “savage” in this one. He chose to watch, not to steal away.
He was rewarded with a vision into another’s soul, allowed obviously by Grandfather, this night, the moon. The young man before him had settled in to write a letter. He worked laboriously over it, a posture John remembered from his own enforced confinement in the missionary school. But this man was writing more than words. He was writing soul.
The blond even hollered aloud into the night at one point, a sound of sharpened grief. And he cried the tears of the angry warrior whose battle had left him behind. Grey Bear John decided to keep watch over this one, to make sure that he was safe from the others around, both white and Modoc… indeed, safe from the darkness in his own stomping horse soul.
In the morning the blond man had spotted him. Grey Bear John had felt a moment of fear. He was no fool, after all, and but for a great knife he was unarmed. But Horse Man had broken bread with him, and then set out an offer of tobacco. They had become quiet friends. John had stared into the lovely waters of the river and mused on the moment. An odd but delightful pairing, bear and horse.
Bear was hibernation, introspection, learning through death about rebirth. Bear was about slowly moving inwards and back outwards again to find the answers to all of life’s questions. Horse stomped and galloped his way along the same route; indeed, he often let the shaman ride upon his back so that the shaman could head further and faster into wisdom. So bear offered the quiet wisdom of death in life; horse was life in death and would take you on a journey towards more. Both were about the wisdom that comes through the knowledge of this world—through full measures of its joys and sorrows both. And here they were together, on the edge of the Truckee river, sharing tobacco and bread.
The blond finished his letter, set it down with others on the huge flat rock he’d chosen as a roost, and then turned to the Indian with a frank and welcoming blue gaze. Grey Bear John gave him a nod and fished into his pocket for his own tobacco pouch. While the blond waited, John rolled them a new one, lit it, took a drag, and passed it over. The blond grinned and so did John. Yes, some days were glorious indeed, bright spots of bead in the middle of a long string of dark ones.
They spoke in long, quiet tones together for a time. Their dialogue was a slow dance, each line punctuated by languid pauses, the merry laughter of the river, the cawing sounds of day.
“I’m Heath Barkley.”
“Grey Bear John.”
“Mostly. Got some Piute and white in me too. And bear.” The young man flashed a charming dimple.
“Figured that from the name.”
“Bit of lizard too, pesky dreamer.”
“Prone to lizards myself,” Heath drawled, trying to think through the various animals who haunted and delighted him, the ones he’d decided might be his totems when he’d first learned about the notion of animal spirits as personal guides—as medicine shield. Everybody wanted to claim the courage of eagle, but there was nothing wrong with the gentleness of deer, the camouflage power of fox, lizard who could dream his future.
“Nice breakfast,” John offered as a thank you. Then he teased, “What you serving for lunch?”
“Opposed to fish?”
“Was just gonna suggest it.”
The two men settled in happily for a bit of fishing, each cutting his own pole and providing a hook. John’s was removed from the hem of his shirttail, Heath’s from where it had been snagged inside the flap of one saddle bag. They fished casually, quietly, carefully, sharing another smoke and enjoying the cool of the morning as it crept into the hazy warmth of early afternoon. When they had precisely enough bounty, but no more, they quit with an almost eerie unity.
Heath settled in to clean and gut the fish at the edge of the river, tossing the remains back in to feed more fish. The cycle. John moved back to the site of the breakfast fire, piled kindling then branches, knelt and blew, worried it and stoked it. He lifted his head to watch through that burst of growing smoke that is a lazy fire mad at its rekindling, as Heath approached him to present the fish, pausing only to croon a few bits of affection at his horse.
Then John squinted past the blond and the smoke and the halo of sun behind Heath, across the river. They were there, almost suddenly, but John somehow knew it hadn’t been sudden at all. It was Bear Stink Charley and Delilah’s Man Charley.
“Heath!” he called out a warning, just as Bear Stink Charley let loose the arrow that had been notched in the taut string of his bow. Heath whirled to turn, then seemed to jerk and fall before the missile could have possibly hit.
Wasn’t that the way of arrows, Grey Bear John mused darkly. He scrambled forward, breaking the death of the moment, closing on Heath’s prone form and yelling at the two idiots in Modoc.
“Back off! This one is good medicine. This one is not a killing one!” Even as he hollered he was checking Heath, who sprawled face down in the grass, a shaft neatly buried low beneath his shoulder, almost rounding near his armpit, as if he were sprouting woody roots into the earth. But the heart still beat strong, and if the heart beat the soul did too.
“His horse is ours!” Bear Stink Charley hollered back across the water, but he had visibly relaxed his bow. The Charleys were both a little afraid of Grey Bear John. He was known as a shaman, and powerful for one so young.
“No, he is Horse. This is his soul-pony. You may have the rifle or the food. Not the animal. And you may not have any more of him.”
“We will take both rifle and food!” Bear Stink Charley bartered back.
“I will leave the rifle here, on the shore, with all of its shells. He and I will be gone by the time you cross. If you follow us the spirits will follow you.” It was hollered so as to be heard, but it wasn’t delivered as a threat. It was merely a matter of fact.
A cloud, running sudden across the sky, cast a shadow on the feet of Delilah’s Man Charley. He nudged his partner, nodded an assent at Grey Bear John’s words. The two headed slowly down the shore to find a calmer place to cross. They had no intention of following the shaman or this horse man he had chosen as a friend.
Grey Bear John worked quickly but carefully. He had no true fear of the two men who would eventually reach their site. They were desperate and hungry—hungry for food and the pride that comes from just being a man. But Bear Stink Charley was a mockery; he was strong enough to lead but not to follow. He was odious, like the musky parts of a young male bear in season. Delilah’s Man Charley was hollow. Delilah had died of abuses and starvation and a bad birthing on the rez, and that was the final blow that severed the two from the broken group that was once their tribe and sent them floundering with a few others.
Their group’s recent arrival had made Grey Bear John’s quiet home on the river quite dangerous lately because sometimes they sought the raw release of revenge for all their sufferings. As a result, John too had to avoid all of the society being revenged upon… which was, in fact, all of the surrounding society as it stood. Indeed, the pair had demonstrated that they had no problems killing any perceived enemy—take Horse Heath, for example. However, Grey Bear John doubted that Bear Stink Charley had seen in Heath a white man that he had simply decided to slaughter for fun. It was because they were hungry and wary and, perhaps, even protective of John himself. Still, the deadly arrow had flown.
On his knees, John studied the wound. He could picture what was happening inside this strong man’s body. The arrowhead might have missed all the killing parts, but it had been carefully crafted for just that possibility. It was a blunt razor, slid into a notch at the end of the shaft, and then carefully secured with dried tendons as opposed to twine or something more easily available. The tendons were used because, as they ideally became saturated with blood and fluids, they would soften and loosen. Eventually, they would come apart completely, depositing their dark gift, the arrowhead, deep in the body of the victim.
This was, no doubt, what was just now happening to Horse Heath. John had to move him—just in case he was wrong about the bravado of fools—and so he glanced around, making rapid decisions. He rested his blade at the edge of the now-burning lunch fire, then gathered all of their stray supplies as it heated. He took the rifle and casings to the rock Heath had been lounging on earlier, centered it there, retrieving the letters left in a stack. A lone piece of blank paper—maybe Horse Heath’s last—drifted to the river, but John used nimble fingers to snatch it back again.
He packed the letters and all stray supplies on the horse, leaving the fish for the two fools. (If they paused to eat that would perhaps allow him more time to head home with this man.) Finally, Grey Bear John gathered every blanket he could and spoke in calming tones to the horse about what he had to do just now to its master. Because what he had to do just now would make the horse part of his new friend’s soul rear in terror and pain.
Thankfully Heath remained unconscious through the miserably unsuccessful arrow retrieval. Because, just as Grey Bear John had predicted, with a mighty tugging the shaft came out cleanly but the arrowhead remained. The bleeding was extensive, but firmly pressing a clean shirt from Heath’s saddlebag gradually stopped it. John didn’t even need to cauterize it with the knife… yet. He judged the blonde’s status—his breathing, the steady (if desperate) thrum of his heart, his insentient state—and decided that, if he had to be moved, now was perhaps the only time.
It was a great struggle but John’s was a lean, wiry strength. He hefted Heath finally over the saddle of his mount, tucked him snugly all around with blankets, securing him with a careful rope, then led the pair away at a steady walk. He kept his ears tuned backwards for sounds of trouble from the Charleys, but it never came. Although he didn’t trust it to last forever—it was clear that the blond had quite a goodly bit of supplies to pick through for someone as desperate as a renegade Indian off of his reservation and hiding from the law—but he was glad the peace lasted for now.
“Well, Horse Heath,” he murmured aloud as he picked his way across the clearing and towards the trees. “Let’s see if we can make your spirit gallop back home.”
For several days he had tended the horse man, using all of the herbs he’d collected and heading stealthily out to regularly collect more. Poultices and teas helped with the pain and had mostly worked thus far against the fever... but they could not fix the problem. Neither could Grey Bear John. He needed a thin, precise blade, not the cumbersome one he wielded. Indeed, he was “schooled” enough to know the difference between his magic and that of the white doctors. Horse Heath needed both.
In between the prayers, the dances, and the labor, he spoke often and long to Heath in a voice that was a smoky chortle from disuse. He spoke of a small boy, son of a Modoc shaman woman and a white soldier who was also one quarter Piute. This small boy, who would come to be known as Grey Bear John, had lived some time on the reservation, and then had wandered away in search of his fraternal grandfather some time after his parents had died: Grandpa John—who was too old to care for the boy and who saw that he was safely ensconced in a catholic mission’s “boarding school.”
Grey Bear John had already learned the wild dances and ways of his mother and was tired of the constant disappointment he was to the nuns, so he finally left. He had no true tribe remaining—they’d been relocated several times since he’d last been among them—and he set out finally, fully on his own. He was comfortable with the white man’s world, as long as he could also be immersed in nature. He had finally migrated to this spot, finding it bountiful and breathtaking. He could trade nicely with many of the people in Landers, the small community on the edge of the Truckee. He would bring them fresh fish and herbs, game and pelts, and they would barter for tobacco and preserves, bits of whiskey, sweet baked goods, a deck of cards… all those small wants that make a solo life richer.
That all ended when the group—originally five desperate men, now down to two—had migrated in this direction as well. They raided a farm for its goods; the farmer went after with some friends and shot Sam of the Morning. Brash Jack went out with fire in his teeth and ice in his eyes, and killed the man who’d killed his friend. And it was the beginning of the end for the small group, who couldn’t even decide if they were here to murder or steal or try to simply settle down and live again in some quiet pocket of the world. That is what Delilah’s Man Charley wanted, at least.
What it all meant to Grey Bear John was sadness. He was sad for these, his people, both that they had to act this way to survive and that they chose to act this way to survive. He was shaman, not warrior, and his was a different sort of path. He had even tended Bear Stink Charley when he’d caught a posse’s bullet once. But he refused to participate… this wasn’t his battle.
And then it became his. The posse came after him, easily tracking him to his den because he’d never made a secret of it. They were no doubt sure that Grey Bear John had to be with the renegades… had probably betrayed the people of Landers by somehow calling them to this wilderness surrounding their city. He’d had to leave his first den and scout another one, carefully moving his belongings under the cover of dark until his second den was just as much home as the first had been.
And here, spread out among furs and blankets in this second den, was Horse Heath, benefiting some from Grey Bear John’s spirit medicine, but also needing the medicine of the white doctor who could cut out the offending arrowhead that made the body fight itself constantly, that made the soul afraid. But he could not safely take Horse Heath to town. Such a long move now would damage him, maybe kill him. And John could not safely bring the town here. If he went in to get the doctor that would most likely lead to Grey Bear John’s own death due to the climate there just now—and still Horse Heath would lie here, but now his only friend would be long since able to care for him.
The spirits had put them together for a reason, John mused. To hibernate, and to come out again, that was bear. So did this mean John’s self-imposed hibernation was over and that it was time to come out into the big world around? And now that he was with bear, what was Heath so clearly hibernating from? Would this “death” lead to rebirth?
To take the shaman on his journey to knowledge, that was horse. And white stallion in particular, John reflected as he took in the bright features of the blond, was the wisdom of balanced power, the caution against abusing power.... Or being abused by it. Heath was clearly out of balance, being abused by power... as was John. But maybe, Grey Bear John pondered, he was to borrow from the Heath’s horse energy so that he could fight the unbalanced powers around them. They were paired, trading medicines. He felt more firm about taking the chance.
He smoked a bit, chanted some, and made himself settle into a dream sleep. There Heath’s Modoc pony was pawing the bank of the river, a huge black bear pacing on the other side. The bear stood up on its back paws to its full height and bellowed its importance. In the river were the letters, floating and swirling and glinting white in the bright sun. And circling it all was a shining black crow. His sharp, warbled caw woke Grey Bear John to the sounds of morning. Heath slept on.
John relaxed into the comfort of knowing. Finally he roused, stoked the fire and set out some coffee, some of yesterday's broth and tea, then went to the carefully preserved packet of letters he’d retrieved some days ago from the hand rock. They would no doubt lead him to Crow, who was Sacred Law, and who could purge the grip of aloneness that had been working to paralyze John. Settling down carefully beside his friend, who was sleeping the leaden sleep that his teas had offered, Grey Bear John began to read.
After a time he leaned back and thought, reflecting on his dream as he mused on the words in the letters. This man, Jarrod, was crow. He would know how to bring past, present, and future together… cross-eyed Crow could see them all at once. Maybe Nick was the powerful bear on the other side of the river. John’s own bear was silent and grey, not tall and bellowing and black. If Horse Heath and John could get help from these brothers, crow and black bear, then John could help them all to get Heath home.
His morning’s task would be to rouse Heath a bit from the herb-induced restful stupor… just long enough so that he could pen an addendum to his packet of letters, letting the brothers know of his situation. In fact, John might add a scribbled bit of his own. Then John would take the rowdy courage of horse and head just to the edge of town. He would wait for Billy Handy, who delivered packages for his mother, then pay him the necessary bills from Heath’s stash to take the letters to post. He would further pay him with a harmonica, a whittled coyote, and a spare bill to be as quiet as the tomb about having seen Grey Bear John.
Jarrod had to get moving, had to do something mindless until the rest of the family returned from their various tasks and travels. Meanwhile, Heath was injured. He tucked the letters neatly—reverently—away in his inside jacket pocket, and dashed upstairs to pack a travel bag. How should he best deal with this? A wire to Landers, which is where the letters were posted from, to alert the sheriff of their approach would seem prudent. Meanwhile, Heath was injured.
But that could also possibly prove a dangerous thing. If Heath was currently with an Indian, but in some small way safe, alerting a posse—what had Heath said? The posse he was with had been in a lynching mood? Well, that would not necessarily be wise for Heath’s benefactor’s health and could put Heath in even more danger. Meanwhile, Heath was injured… or worse.
Perhaps they could leave the key members of town out of their search. They would be their own law and they would take their own doctor with them. They would find Heath somewhere along the Truckee, make him well, and bring him home.
Take their own doctor? Ridiculous thoughts from a frustrated brain. Because there were no such things as “spare” doctors, even in large cities like Stockton, much less in most of those fledgling towns that were laced between here and the Truckee. And meanwhile, Heath might be dying.
Jarrod found himself seated on his bed, clutching and twisting a fine shirt in a tight fist, just as his stomach was clenched and twisted inside of him. Calm down Jarrod. One thing at a time. Pack yourself then pack Nick, because dammit, Nick was coming along on this trip. He would help Jarrod find THEIR younger brother, he would help Jarrod care for THEIR younger brother, and together they would bring him home.
But meanwhile, Heath could be dead.
Jarrod shook a frown at the icy black void of emotions threatening to pull him under and struggled back over again to the cool marble steps of logic. He topped off his travel bag, all the while circling and re-circling each possible step of the journey ahead. Then he made his way forcibly into Nick’s room and took the liberty of packing a bag for his stubborn middle brother. Even in his franticness, he noted with a wry eye that the bag was better packed than Nick would have normally managed.
Finally, as he was setting the duffels down on the marble entrance table, he heard the front door slam open and then closed. His heart jumped, almost as if he were the one in danger (and meanwhile, Heath was injured), and Jarrod thought about taking several shots of bourbon before this encounter. As he realized that, just as he had assumed, it WAS Nick that had just entered, he mused that the shots might prove most necessary.
“Evenin’ Jarrod,” Nick grumbled, slapping the dust off of his black clothing with his hat. It was only after he’d made himself a margin more presentable did he look up, curious, at his older brother’s lack of response.
Jarrod stood, head hung, a hand resting on each of two travel bags. Nick squinted. One of them was his.
“What’s this all about, Pappy?”
Jarrod’s voice was low and steady, his gaze still focused downwards, seemingly at nothing. “I’m going to get the private rail car set up, then you and I are taking a trip.”
Nick waved dismissively, headed towards the tray in the parlor that held the welcoming decanters of amber fire. “Got too much to do. Short handed as it is.” But Jarrod grabbed his bicep. Firmly. Fingers sinking into the hard muscle there.
Nick was about to break the grip and set off on a royal rant about rude brothers and ruder greetings, but something was truly off. He opted to keep the grumble but let go the true annoyance at Jarrod’s strange behavior. “A trip, you say? Where to? And, more importantly, why?”
“We’re headed to Landers.”
“That’s a bit town… northeast of here, right? Near the Truckee. Nothing’s in Landers, Jarrod.”
“We’re not going for something, we’re going for someone.” Jarrod raised his head and captured Nick’s eyes with a steady, piercing stare. “We’re going there so you can finally meet your little brother.”
At that Nick forcibly jerked his arm away from Jarrod’s firm grip. “The hell we are! What’s that bastard up to now?” In some pocket of his brain he knew he meant bastard in the “incredibly, damnably irritating” sense, not in the “born of sin” sense, but there it was.
“Your brother, HEATH, is injured. I even have this choking fear he may be dying. We’re going to see that that doesn’t happen and to bring him home.”
If Nick really wanted to counter Jarrod’s lightning blue gaze, just this once he opted to be quiet. Jarrod’s face was a carving in stone, one that expressed passion, compassion, anger, and killing love. And one that dared any man, even Nick Barkley, to cross him just now.
As if to seal the deal, Jarrod reached carefully into his inside jacket pocket and retrieved a brace of letters. He contemplated them for a second, and then passed them to the glowering man before him. “Read these, Brother Nick. Read them and chew on every single syllable. I think you deserve it. I’m going to leave a note for Mother in case we miss her on the way to town, then we’ll be on our way.”
As their train car jolted, clacked, and swayed towards Landers, Nick leaned on a scant sill and glowered out the window into the traveling night sky. He wanted to discuss this insanity with Jarrod—hell, he wanted to holler and smash his fist clean through something—but after taking all the clear and precise steps to get them on their way, Jarrod had simply buttoned up, absolutely refusing to say anything more until Nick read the damned letters. His older brother was stretched out long on a comfortable berth, arms crossed and eyes closed. Nick knew, however, that Jarrod wasn’t sleeping. Rather, he was engrossed in thought. The kind of deep, calculating thought that he usually reserved for his most difficult court cases.
Nick was just an inch away from marching forward through the string of cars, making the engineer stop the train, grabbing Coco from the car that held their mounts, and heading right on out. Leaving seemed the best option because Jarrod refused to rise to any of his grumbles, blusters or bellows, and Nick had no intention of actually decking his ornery older brother over that… that what?
Right now, his strongest suspicion was that they’d be fighting over a scheming blond drifter who’d come up with yet another way to ruin Nick’s family. This was, no doubt, a means to some strange end, perhaps even financial. At the least, it was a way to get them all dashing to his side so that Heath could force them into reconciliation. Jarrod might fall for it, but not Nick Barkley. No, Sir.
Then it occurred to Nick. In an odd turn of events, Jarrod was just now being ruled by some defect of the heart; somehow, logical Jarrod was being ruled by emotion. So Nick, admittedly the more reactive of the two, would trade places and pick up the logic. He would read the blasted letters and punch through every single last lie there, and then convince Jarrod of all of it. By the time the pair reached Landers, they’d be a unified front against a common foe. But he knew his big brother well enough; the debate could not occur until he himself was fully informed about all of the “facts.” He ran an exasperated hand through his thick hair, replaced his hat, and settled down in front of Jarrod’s “precious packet”—which, he had observed, Jarrod had added to with a few more thin letters, obviously from earlier posts.
He skimmed the first brief pens, oddly dissatisfied that Heath had asked Jarrod to remove offered money from his personal account, rather than to forward more. But then, Nick had to admit, Heath had never seemed to be immediately after the Barkley’s holdings. In fact, Heath had SEEMED truly convinced that what he was after—the glittering wealth of the Barkley name—did indeed belong to him. Nick sighed. There was a sadness about that notion that he only allowed in at the quietest times. What kind of life must a man have led to have been willing to trade his own good name for someone else’s?
Nick skimmed on. He was merely curious about the posse, although he found that he begrudgingly agreed with a man who would be willing to stand up to a pack of other men against the ragged wildness of a lynching. Nick closed his eyes and cast back to remembered news about the Modoc war in… what was it? ’72? Captain Jack leading his malcontents to the lava-beds, where they literally shredded the soldiers for a time. It had been a valiant fight, but a sad one, doomed from the start. The few renegades that Heath had joined a posse to gather might just be the very last bits of spirit of those once-proud people. Ah well, that was neither here nor there. He read on.
Some time later Nick looked up again, now unconsciously, almost tenderly fingering the pages in front of him. The clacking and swaying of the train must have sometime faded into a quiet nothing in the background, because now they crept back into his sensibilities. This train was taking him and Jarrod to Landers on the Truckee. And there was Heath. And for once Nick didn’t doubt the young man’s story. Heath’s injury had to be severe for the mule of a boy to actually ask for assistance.
Nick looked to Jarrod, ready to discuss this all, to rage and flounder and feel, but he saw at a glance that Jarrod’s silent repose had turned into a restless bit of slumber. He could tell by the way Jarrod’s brow creased, the way his mouth twitched, that his dark thoughts had followed him down into sleep.
He stood, stretched, pulled a blanket from an overhead, and tucked it quietly around his brother. “Rest well, Pappy. You’re gonna need it.” Then he moved to Jarrod’s duffle, retrieved a bit of paper and his “fancy lawyer” pen and ink. After pouring a drink, he settled down and stared at the blank page for a time. Then he bent low and began in his own scrabbly scrawl.
I’m not writing this letter for you, just like you didn’t write yours for me. But if you think writing soothes the soul, then so be it. Mine could use a bit of soothing just about now. I have a couple of things to say to you, and maybe if I jot them down first my mouth won’t take off and get me into trouble later like it so often seems to—or at least that’s what the family is always telling me.
So here we go. First off, whoever that man is you’re with best keep you safe until we get to you or there is going to be some hell to pay. You can’t look after yourself just now, but your big brothers can, and if he’s hurt you—or made whatever hurt you do have worse—he’s going to find himself in some bad way. I’ll personally form a posse of one and see to it. I may have laid a fist into you in my day, but I’ve never wanted to see you truly harmed. It’s hard to admit that my gut is worried for you, Heath, but there it is.
So when did the mighty Nick Barkley change his mind about you? Let’s just say, Heath, that you write a whole passel better than you talk. And when I read your words instead of hearing them I don’t find myself getting all riled at those glaring eyes and that stubborn chin of yours. You can sure infuriate a man! And you said I pushed YOU into a rage when you found us? I’ll see you and raise you, Heath!
Sure, we have a lot of anger between us, but one thing I do want to apologize for is not seeing right off how you felt about the loss of your mama. The loss of my father was a gouge to my soul that couldn’t be filled. I was infuriated at my tears! How can a grown man cry so many tears? And here you come, marching up to us, demanding your rights. Well, that’s all I could hear. I couldn’t hear the sobbing of a boy who just lost his mama… not behind those eyes, that defiant chin. But it was wrong of me not to consider it. And I’ll confess, I really never did until just now.
I am sorry for your loss, Heath. Truly I am.
And I’m just as sorry that you feel to blame for not making her life better. You were the son, Heath, not the parent… a young man, poor and struggling and alone. Even I could tell by your clothes, your pony, your scant supplies, that all you had was all you’d ever gotten out of life… so how could you have gotten enough to cover yourself so thinly and still have enough left to cover someone else too?
It hurts to be a man sometimes, though, doesn’t it? I would die if I couldn’t take care of my mother, of Audra, but I’ve never even had to really worry about the possibility. You told Jarrod he would find you a sorry soul for a brother because of how badly you feel about “your part” in your mama’s death. I think that is when I decided you are my brother… a bit misguided about your role in the way life goes, but a powerful soul, not a sorry one.
So, as your brother, I have to also apologize for one other thing. Father would have welcomed you, Heath. Later I’m going to argue with you firm about you feeling he killed your mama with, may I quote, his “neglect and his hypocrisy and his lies,” because that is NOT something Tom Barkley would ever do. Ever. But another thing he would never do is treat you like I did.
So when I find you, and I will find you, I’m going to start new. I’m going to show you what Father was, what I am, and you can show me more of who you are.
And I promise you from my boots, you won’t be lonely any more.
Respectfully, your older brother, Nick.
When Nick and Jarrod strolled from the train depot into Landers they couldn’t help but be darkly impressed with the powerful beauty there. Whereas the Valley was flat, often dry, this place offered brisk lung-fills of crisp air, redolent with pine. And the entire landscape seemed sweeping and majestic and green. Tall and ancient conifers seemed to hover over everything, as if they intended to slowly swallow the town back up and restore the area to a raw, gorgeous wilderness. It was somehow a dangerous beauty, this place.
After Jarrod secured the Barkley car and Nick retrieved their mounts, they gathered together. No words were spoken for a long few moments, as if each man had been struck with a sudden crippling malaise of uncertainty or fear.
Finally, Nick broke the silence. “Sheriff first?”
“Don’t think so,” Jarrod pursed his lips, a frown creasing his brow. “I’m nervous about that option. If the posse was as inflamed as Heath reported…”
“And if Heath IS with an Indian…” Nick nodded, seeing the stark wisdom there. He sighed. “So who?”
“Postmaster, I guess. We’ll talk to him, grab a few rooms, and then telegraph Mother that we arrived.”
“Hey,” Nick finally lit up, feeling his vitality returning with even these sparse beginnings of a plan. “Then we can lay coin down in the saloon, snoop a bit. If we can’t figure something outright, maybe we can find somebody who can guide us along the Truckee so we can get a feel for the land?”
“Excellent thinking, Brother Nick,” Jarrod winked. The wafting smell of the pine, the cool bite of the air, were easing inwards, loosening the dry dread he’d been feeling in his soul for so long now.
After asking directions they found the postmaster. He was a barrel-chested man, rather squat in height, and his left arm had been sometime removed above the elbow. His shirt sleeve was pinned to hide the stump there. Jarrod took it all in with a surreptitious sweep, then proceeded to try to charm the man.
“Greetings,” Jarrod smiled, reaching into his breast coat pocket for a coin. But the man wasn’t watching Jarrod, he was watching Nick, who stood solid and strong, arms crossed, behind his brother—and who was unflinchingly watching him back.
“Whatsa matter? Never lost your arm in the war?” the man asked lightly, but his eyes were dark.
“Can’t say as I have,” Nick offered dryly.
“Me neither,” the man shrugged, leaning forward on his remaining elbow. This was all seemingly a supreme joke to him, one that never tired in the telling. “Got all the way through that damned war without a mark just to lose it from a run-in with some cussed Injuns a time back.” He waved his stump like a wing, enjoying the tiny quirk of displeasure the act caused Jarrod, and seemingly seeing through the stone face Nick offered the gesture. “You here for the posse? Theys some Modocs out on a little spree, what’s left of them, and the sheriff is gatherin’ the boys again.”
“We’re not interested in a posse,” Jarrod said, sliding the coin further forward and finally catching the man’s eye with it. “We’re looking for our younger brother.”
The man sized up the coin for a long second, then craned his head this way and that, pretending to peer into the corners of his shop. “Nope, no brothers here.”
Jarrod smiled tightly and produced another—but held it under a firm finger, away from the man’s reach. “Could be a matched pair. Now, about our brother. He mailed a pack of letters from here maybe a week or so back.”
“He did, or someone did it for him,” Nick interjected darkly, producing the letters. “Recognize these?”
“Hmmm,” the man squinted at the packet. “Look like… yup…. Look like letters.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “See a lot of those in my business, so I’m pretty sure about it.”
Nick took a slow step forward and reached a firm fist out to clutch the man’s shirt at the throat. Jarrod laid a calming hand on his younger brother’s tightly muscled arm, but his stark blue eyes suggested that the steadying hand might be removed in just another whiff of a second. The man understood it all in one sweep. Joke time was over for these two strangers.
“Those letters were dropped off to be mailed. I was even a bit overpaid for ‘em. That’s all I know. Truly. Sorry I can’t tell you more.”
Jarrod sized him up through a narrowed gaze, decided he was telling the truth. “Keep the change,” he fairly hissed, and then turned to head out.
“Wait,” the man called, waving his piece of arm… but this time not intentionally. “If you’re looking for somebody missing, I mean really, there’s a body at the undertaker’s. Brought in this morning. Best we can figure, damn Modocs dropped him a few days back with an arrow.”
Nick bodily recoiled while Jarrod stilled to a crouch inside. This was not what they had traveled all of this way to learn. This was not it by far.
“Where?” Nick heard his own voice; it was a broken whisper.
“Center of town, next to the sheriff’s office. Caskets leaning out front. Can’t miss it.”
The brothers avoided each other’s eyes for a moment and then, as one, set out. Jarrod’s legs wobbled a bit in the walking, but he failed to notice. As they headed into the stark sunlight they heard the postman call after them. “If he is yours, I hope you’ll join that posse. Join the posse and kill those damned Modocs. I can’t kill ‘em. But I hope to hell you will.”
As they neared the sought-for building, Nick found himself needing something he hadn’t in years. He staggered at the ferocity of it. Jarrod turned to him, confused for a second, then he saw the look in Nick’s eyes. He remembered it, felt it in his belly, from years and years of knowing and loving his little brother.
Jarrod reached a steady hand out. Nick took it, sucked in a painful, hidden sob, gave it a tight clasp. Holding hands, the two men entered the dark building adorned with its boxes of death.
“So help me, Jarrod,” Nick hissed, working to pull his ragged and odd emotions together, “if the undertaker is even half as annoying as the postmaster, I’m gonna kill him.”
“It seems the right place for it,” Jarrod soothed, but they had yet to release hands.
Even after a seemingly endless wait, nobody came forward to help. Their terror at finding their brother began to ease into the odd terror of not finding him.
“Hello?” Nick finally bellowed. Jarrod went to shush him but found the action ludicrous. Who was here for Nick to bother? He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at that thought.
There was another beat, then Nick shrugged. “Nobody’s around… nobody talking, anyhow.” He let out a raggedy sigh, gave Jarrod’s hand a squeeze, and then let go. “I’m ok now. Let’s see if… if the boy is here.” Then he turned a careful gaze at his older brother whose head was now dropped. “You need me to do this? I can…”
“We’ll do this together.”
The building seemed to darken, to chill, as they moved deeper inwards. Finally they reached a small room that housed a collection of caskets on the floor. To their knowledge, this room could only be one of several things: a sales display, a crafting area… or filled wooden shirts. And a sweet sickening odor was the clue that pushed them towards the final choice.
Forward momentum was all they had now as, one by one, the caskets were opened. Finally, Nick found the one that was malodorous, worrisome, even stained at the bottom with black fluids. “Jarrod,” he whispered, “help me.” But they both knew that he wasn’t asking for help to open the box.
Together they did so, both recoiling at the stench. In front of them, certain enough, was a young man’s corpse, well into its early waltz with death’s rotting arms. They both pressed hands to mouths, trying not to wretch, but flashing quick eyes over the figure. The size was mostly right, but the coloring was off… although death did that to a man.
Then Jarrod decided, firmly. He had to. “It’s not Heath.”
Nick readily agreed. “Those aren’t his clothes. I’ve never seen those clothes.”
“It’s not Heath,” Jarrod murmured, and the brothers dropped backwards in unison to sit on a closed coffin behind them all the while reverently studying the dead and stinking stranger before them.
Finally Nick spoke. “If that’s not Heath, he’s still out there.”
“With an Indian,” Jarrod nodded with a dark whisper.
“And with a posse forming to head out looking to lynch Indians.”
The brothers met eyes in a long gaze, then nodded. Together, they carefully replaced the lid on the dead man’s coffin and then headed for the sheriff’s office a few doors away. It seemed now as if they were going to be joining a posse after all.