Fate. Kismet. Coincidence.
Three words of explanation, three words to describe why some events may occur, the order they may occur in. Three small words with the ability to cause life changing events.
Fate. Kismet. Coincidence.
It wasn’t fate, kismet or coincidence which rained down on the solitary rider, it was the glorious California sunshine. The streams of light bathing the traveler with the warmth of the early morning. He’d been on the trail since before sun-up and would not be leaving the trail til he reached his destination.
The string of mares he lead followed along as if the group of animals were stepping in tune. Their coats shimmering under the rays of sunshine, their hooves pounding on the hard packed trail. The animals didn’t know where they were going but put their trust in the man before them.
His strong callused hands and soft voice, his cooing more familiar to them than their own animal language. The grooming of their coats, a delightful necessity the animals relished in. They welcomed a grooming as much as eating. It was made to be a part of them, a part of their routine, a part of the life the man was carving out for himself, his future was in his talent with horses.
His life consisted of simple pleasures. A watching of sunrises and sunsets. A small section of land at the base of the Sierra mountain range. A small cabin which appeared to be a shed compared to the barn and corral where he spent his time doing his work. The ranch far enough away from the town he grew up in but close enough to check up on the elder members of his family on a regular basis.
Some would call him a hermit, a man who kept the world around him at arm’s length, not needing human company. Some could call him eccentric in his desire to find solitude in a place where many would feel isolated and abandoned.
He called it home. He called it a haven from the cruelties of the human race. He called it his castle.
A place of quiet and serenity. A place which had calmed his raging soul, soothed his inner demons. It was his sanctuary.
Lonely? Yes, it could be lonely. A man was still a man with physical needs. He was a man who if necessary knew where to have his physical needs taken care of, when he needed to feel the release only a female body could give.
Love? No, that wasn’t love. That was a need. That was a quenching of a thirst. No, love was something more beautiful, more precious, more solid. He’d known it once, a long time ago in another place, another time.
Having grown up without any siblings and very few friends, he’d sometimes have to shove down the longing which would arise in him when he sat alone in his small home at night. Sometimes the desire for a family would almost rise up and choke him. If there was one thing he’d yearned for, asked for ever since he could remember…it was for the warmth of a family.
One day he knew he would have it. One day he would find the person who’d help him fill the empty space in his heart and soul. One day it would happen but until then, he spent his time training his horses, working with them, building up his reputation through word of mouth, through repeat customers.
For now, he could handle filling the requests for his well-trained animals. For now, he could keep building his revenue, allowing interest to grow on his deposited earnings while it sat in the bank at Pine Crest. For now, he was a one-man operation.
Stopping at a small stream, Heath Thomson climbed off his modoc and allowed the horses a respite from the trail. Bending down, the young blond man cupped his hands and brought water to his mouth, drinking his fill and dousing his head before he put his hat back on and lead his animals over.
Pulling the horses away from the water, he took his time and spoke with each one before working his way back to his mount.
“Well, Gal. You and me may have to expand quicker than we wanted if this ranch likes what they see. The foreman says they need quite a few horses.” drawled Heath, smiling at the shaking of the modoc’s head, before climbing back in the saddle.
Riding down the main street of Stockton, the blue eyes spotted the office of the local lawman and saw the badge on the man who exited the office.
“Sheriff, I was wondering if ya’ can give me directions to the Barkley ranch?” inquired Heath looking down at the man from his place on his horse, nodding his thanks before leisurely walking his horses through the town.
It wasn’t fate, kismet or coincidence which lead Heath Thomson down the trail to Stockton, California.
Perhaps, it was destiny.
Gray eyes allowed the tears to spill from their corners before a small hand reached up to wipe them away. Today was the anniversary of the day responsible for darkening the lives of all who resided in the white pillared mansion.
It was a year, three hundred sixty five days since the hired guns of the railroad stolen him from his family, from her. A year and the wound in her heart was raw, still slowly oozing with loss.
Turning onto her side, she reached out with her right hand, pulling the pillow and hugging it against her. Wishing for the return of the warmth in the man she’d married at sixteen. Wishing he was there to smile and wink at her across the dining room table, hold her in his arms in their bedroom enjoying their entwined lives, their happiness and their love.
Some days, the pain threatened to overwhelm her in her moments of privacy, the moments away from the watchful eyes of her children, the eyes of the community. She knew she was late in rising, late in dressing and meeting this day. She knew her responsibilities as the head of the family. She knew her strength helped her children through a dark time, a time she put her own grieving to the side to help them find a light in their shattered souls.
Victoria Barkley knew behind the closed door of her bedroom was the place for her tears to show, away from those who needed her guidance, her strength. Today, she would breakfast with her family before seeking solitude with her memories, memories as fresh in her mind as the day they were created.
Throwing back the covers and sitting on the edge of the bed, the tiny silver haired lady ran her fingers over his picture on the bedside table, his smiling blue eyes welcomed her every morning and bid her adieu every night. Taking a deep breath, she wiped the last of her emotions away and walked to her closet, scanning the dresses hanging neatly in a row.
Jarrod finished buttoning his shirt, his eyes closed for a moment at the angry male voice he heard through his open window before the front door of the mansion slammed.
“DAMMIT, BARRETT! I TOLD YOU NO ONE GOES NEAR THAT STALLION!”
Taking a deep breath, Jarrod wondered if the crew knew what day it was, would they understand the volatility in their boss, his anger was a release of the pain in his heart. A pain all in the family felt and dealt with in ways they knew was right for them.
Tucking his shirt in his pants, the son who’d spent more years than his younger siblings by the man whose presence, values and morals reflected in all his children, the eldest son prayed the day would pass quickly. Jarrod Barkley, talented with a razor sharp mind for details, a man of eloquent speech in the court of law, prayed for the sunset which was hours away.
Audra wiped her tears from her eyes and ran a brush through her hair once more and took several breaths. The light blue eyes staring back at her were filled with sadness and yet determined. Determined to do whatever she could to help her mother and brothers through this day. Determined to be there as they were for her when she was drowning in despair after the vicious act of a year ago.
The only daughter of the family. She was a Barkley through and through. The blond possessed the same fiery spirit of the generations of Barkleys before her, a long line of people fighting, leading and building an existence in a world which was not civilized. She was comprised of the Barkley strength, the Barkley compassion, the Barkley caring. These were her gifts to those around her. These were the traits which lead the only daughter to use her name, her status for the good of the community, for the good of the children and the elderly.
Today was a day which would test her strength, stretching it to see how far it would go before it broke. Today was a day which would be forever seared in her memory, simply because of one small piece of lead ejected from a hollowed barrel faster than the eye could see. Today, she would be strong for those who needed her strength. Her family.
Nick glared at Barrett, hazel eyes pinning the man in his place before he turned and strode to the mansion, the slamming of the door sending a clear message to all those within earshot. Today was not a day to be on the wrong side of the boss’ wrath. Today was a day each man on the crew hoped they’d find themselves working anywhere but by his side.
Climbing the staircase and entering the water closet, Nick Barkley, the man who ran the Barkley ranch, who oversaw the orchards and the horse operations leaned on the counter of the wash basin and stared at his reflection in the mirror.
Sleep had been long in coming last night, his reluctance to wake up on this day and remember the sight of a year ago left him trembling with dread. Not that he didn’t see it everyday in his mind at one time or another…but somehow the knowledge it was the anniversary of the heinous act…made the pain too real again.
The memories seemed to be heightened today. The distinctive scene replaying again of when he’d found his father’s lifeless body, cold and still, covered in blood from the single bullet to the chest. Never again to work the ranch with him, never again to ride the range and discuss the future of the Barkley empire. Never again be the first to sample one of the new wines, greet the returning harvesters or spend time together on the trail.
Somehow, he’d always thought of his father as invincible, larger than life, taller than the clouds. Somehow, the son who’d seen death in the war between brothers, never imagined the older Barkley would leave him alone. Would ever leave his family behind.
Today was not a day he wanted to face.
Already in a foul mood when he’d risen, his hackles raised even further by the over eagerness of Barrett. Too eager to prove what he was capable of and Nick wiped a hand over his face. Barrett had gotten it in his head he was in line for the job of foreman if Duke was to retire but the youngest son of Thomas Barkley scowled.
While Barrett’s skills at the necessary tasks of the ranch were first rate, his lack of respect for others always bothered the dark haired son. Without respect for others, why would the man feel he was ready to fill the shoes of any foreman? In order to get respect, you had to give it. Barrett wasn’t giving and the lack of that trait was his downfall.
Taking one last look, Nick shook his head and took a deep breath before heading downstairs for the morning ritual. Breakfast with his family this day would be like no other of the past year.
Not since the hand of destiny changed all their lives with one swipe.
The blue eyes in the youthful face sparkled with admiration as he rode steadily down the trail after entering through the outer gate bearing the name of the Barkley Ranch. The well-known brand displayed on both ends of the large sign.
Young in years, however, old in life’s experiences, Heath Thomson could see the evidence of dedication to the land, foresight of planning in the visible spreader dams, the stock he’d seen was healthy and thriving. The miles of fencing strong and steadfast. The grass plentiful and he could detect a wisp of hay in the air from somewhere, perhaps from a nearby field.
No sign of overgrazing, no sign of a ramrod spread. No, this was a thriving operation. This was a ranch run with care and hard work.
Topping a small hill in the trail, he stopped for a moment and whistled, his eyes widening at the ranch which was spread out before him. The buildings from this distance spoke of the same care, the same dedication. The house was the largest he’d ever seen and he nudged his modoc, the man and his horses sensed this was a special place.
Duke saw the rider making his way to the ranch and he smiled, rushing into the barn to get his boss. Coming out, Nick’s eyes studied the rider leisurely making his way to the ranch yard, hazel eyes scrutinizing the horses spread out behind him and he felt excitement rise up in, overriding the sadness and foul mood he was in.
Heath stopped Gal and dismounted, ground trailing the leather reins and holding the lead rope in his left hand, nodding and extending his right, “Mornin’ Mr. McCall.”
“Mr. Thomson.” greeted Duke with a wide smile, before turning the blond’s attention to the larger man beside him. “This is Nick Barkley. Nick runs the ranch.”
Taking the gloved hand in his, Heath nodded, “Mr. Barkley, nice to meet ya’.”
“You too, Mr. Thomson.” acknowledged Nick, staring into the blue eyes and puzzling, “Have we met somewhere before, Mr. Thomson?”
“No, I don’t believe so, Mr. Barkley.” drawled Heath with a shake of his head. “I know I’m a day early, hope that’s not a problem for ya’.”
Shaken out of his scrutiny of the younger man, Nick waved off the other’s concerns, “Course not. Those are some fine lookin’ pieces of horseflesh. Mind if I take a closer gander? In the corral?”
“Sure, Mr. Barkley.” agreed Heath following the two men to the corral, leading the horses in and taking off the ropes, allowing the animals some freedom. Turning and walking over to the corral, Heath leaned against the rails, talking to the black coated mare who came over to nuzzle his shoulder.
“How long it take you to train these three? Six months?” questioned Nick, his eyes filled with admiration as he studied the horses.
“Three weeks.” informed Heath jumping slightly at the startled bellow.
“THREE WEEKS!” shouted Nick, his loudness scaring the man and his horses. “THAT’S ALL?”
Heath nodded while Duke smiled and clapped his boss on the back, “Told you, Nick. I heard this was the right man, the miracles he could work with horses and they weren’t wrong!”
Nick knew the astonishment must have shown on his face, the disbelief as he stared into the blue eyes of the man standing in the corral. Neither gaze wavering from the other and Heath released his eyes when he was once again nudged by one of the animals, taking the moment to let the rancher gather his thoughts from the unexpected time frame, turning his back and running a hand over the velvet coat, murmuring to the equine.
Nick watched as the other two horses stopped when the blond spoke quietly to the horse in front of him, amazed at the effect the younger man who appeared to be around twenty, had on the animals, the trust they showed him spoke volumes for the type of person he was.
Lowering himself into the corral, Nick ran his hand over the coat of the appaloosa, his trained eye looking for flaws and not seeing any. Taking off his hat, he ran a hand through his thick black hair and smiled.
“Three weeks, Duke. Boy, I wish we’d known about you sooner!” exclaimed Nick, puzzled at the cold look which came into the blue eyes for a brief moment before it was forced out and calm once again settled into the mirrors.
Duke saw the flash of emotion and suddenly felt his stomach turn over, he’d seen such an expression before and the foreman took a closer look at the stranger before them. Nick opened the gate and motioned to the wrangler, waiting til he left the corral before closing the gate.
“Name your price for these three, Mr. Thomson.” suggested Nick, not blinking at the price asked before extending his hand which was taken, the deal sealed.
“I’m glad you like the horses. You can just wire the funds to the Pine Crest bank, Mr. Barkley.” informed Heath quietly.
“Consider it done.” stated Nick firmly before smiling. “How about a drink and then we can discuss how many more horses we need and how many you can get for us?”
“Coffee would be fine, Mr. Barkley.” nodded Heath, whistling at Gal who trotted over, allowing her master to tie her to the corral rail. Nick shook his head, his eyes filled with wonder at the talent the man seemed to possess.
Walking beside the blond to the house, Nick looked when the man beside him stopped in his tracks, his eyes wide with appreciation at the stallion in the other corral. Nick glanced towards the corral and tilted his head, catching the brown eyes of Duke who nodded.
“That’s one mighty fine lookin’ horse, ya’ got there Mr. Barkley.” whispered Heath tearing his eyes away after a moment. “First rate, I’d venture to say.”
“Yeah, he is but we haven’t been able to break him yet. He sure is ornery.” snorted Nick turning and walking to the corral, the blond in step beside him. Nick hid a smile at the excitement oozing off the younger man who climbed up on the top rail and slid into the corral before the gloved hand could stop him.
“Thomson, he’s already tried to stomp three of my men!” warned Nick nervously, his words stopped by a quiet reply. “Broke the arm of another by throwing him out of the corral.”
“I’ve no doubt about that, Mr. Barkley.” whispered Heath, his eyes not leaving the red muscled animal, the horse’s edginess and nervousness making the animal skittish.
Taking three steps into the corral, the blond’s attention was focused on the animal across the clearing, his voice low, his words soothing. All sounds were drowned out, the concentration and focus of the man in the corral mesmerizing the humans watching, even stopping the skittish movements of the seventeen hands high horse.
All eyes were on the pair in the corral, the calm demeanor, the steady nerves of the man who’d spent a half hour in the same area with the red devil. Suddenly, the young man smiled and turned on his heel, stopping just inside the corrals seeing the widening in the eyes of the rancher and foreman at the charging horse coming up behind him.
Nick’s eyes widened with fear then blinked in disbelief at the calmness in the blue eyes staring at him, the blue eyes which winked and a lop sided grin appeared on the man’s face. The horse stopped its charge at the last second, turning and running around the corral. Blue eyes never left hazel eyes and Nick Barkley again felt in his gut he’d met this man before, somewhere, someplace.
“Are you crazy?” retorted Nick when he’d gotten over the tense moment.
Smirking, Heath shrugged, “Ya’ wouldn’t be the first to ask, Mr. Barkley.”
Turning to look back at the stallion, Heath glanced over into the hazel eyes, “This one is special, Mr. Barkley. If you break his spirit, he’ll be no good. He can be trained but it’ll be a challenge. He doesn’t like to be manhandled. This one won’t be broken through normal means. If he is, you may as well put a bullet in him, now cause you’ll lose what makes him special.”
Frowning, Nick studied the stallion, the animal was of the finest quality but if he couldn’t be broken, he was of no use to the ranch. The two men headed into the house, entering the kitchen where Silas greeted the stranger and poured coffee for both men. Eating bear signs and drinking coffee, the deal was sealed with a handshake.
Heath politely declined the offer to stay for lunch, anxious to be miles down the road before night fell. Nodding and promising to be back within two months, the young wrangler left the ranch behind, a smile on his face and his mind filled with plans of the upcoming work.
Halfway between the ranch yard and the gate marking the boundary of the Barkley lands, he reined in Gal, his eyes bulging at the sight of the runaway horse and the woman holding on for dear life.
Letting out a yell, Gal flattened her neck, her legs quickly eating up the space between them and the horse in a full out run. The small black horse suddenly jumped a deadfall, the rider falling to the ground and rolling before lying still.
Jumping off Gal, Heath rushed over running his hands over the arms and legs of the lady dressed in black riding gear, her silver hair falling out of its comb from the unexpected fall. Turning her gently onto her back, the blond took off his bandanna and dabbed at the cut over her eye which was quickly turning into a large bruise.
Stirring under the pressure to the painful area, Heath saw her eyelids flutter and he assured the older woman, while he held the cloth to her head, trying to stop the bleeding. “Just lie still, now. You’ll be fine.”
“Tom…Tom?” whispered the woman, her lids half open.
“No, ma’am. My name’s Heath.” corrected the blond not liking the paleness of her skin.
Dazed gray eyes filled with confusion before the lids closed, her whisper puzzling him.
Heath frowned at the weak whisper from the tiny woman, her body collapsing limp on the ground.
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” called Heath his words not waking her into consciousness.
Her face had paled from the loss of blood, the blow to her head sending a quiver of fear through the blond. Jumping to his feet, he retrieved his canteen and a cloth from his saddlebag, kneeling by her side he washed the blood away from the gash, showing the three inch opening. Her breathing wasn’t steady and rhythmic, it was shaky and uneven.
Working quickly, he cut the cloth and folded it into a pad, placing it on the still bleeding wound and tore a long strip of cloth from the bottom of his shirt which he yanked out from his pants. Binding the padded compress tightly in place, he gently wiped the remaining red off her cheek. Reaching down with a shaky hand, he undid the top two buttons of her shirt, releasing the tight collar from its place while murmuring an apology for the ungentlemanly act.
The petite body started trembling and he undid his bedroll from behind his saddle, gently covering the small woman and running his hand lightly over her hair.
“Ya’ll be fine, ma’am.” soothed Heath, unsure if the words were reaching her. “I’m take ya’ to the Barkleys, ma’am. I imagine that must be where ya’ came from.”
Hearing the whistled command, Gal moved to her master, reins trailing on the ground. Putting his arm under the small shoulders, he raised her upper body, the blanket falling down to her lap and he put his right arm under her knees. The sound of horses reached him and he stopped, laying her back on the ground. The arrival of two men on horses bearing the Barkley brand was a relief and the blond stood beside his unconscious ward.
“Hey, mister, this lady..” stated Heath gesturing and looking down towards his patient was blindsided by the attack.
“That’s Mrs. Barkley.” snarled Barrett, lashing out when the stranger’s eyes were downcast, his right sending the blond flying backwards and he followed his punch with a kick to the side of the fallen, stunned stranger. “You bastard! What are you a pervert?”
Heath’s jaw exploded in pain and he was catapulted backwards, his eyes seeing only stars and his mind was thrust into a fog. Rolling and pushing himself to his knees, the blond shook his head and gasped from the boot caving in his side, his stomach lurched into his throat and he felt the pain in his ribs.
Dazed and shocked the younger man was unable to protect himself from the steel hard hands and he was pushed into oblivion from the viciousness of the attack, laying still on the ground while Barrett stood over him, sneering.
“That’ll teach you to touch our boss’ mother. Lucky for you, it was me and not one of her sons.”
Recently hired onto the Barkley ranch, Tim Jenkins, age eighteen was sick at the beating the loud mouth braggart of the crew doled out. He was sickened by the blood on the man’s face from the attack which was over in minutes. He’d never seen such a display of brutality and he stumbled over to where the mother of the Barkley family lay.
“Mr. Barrett, we’d best get Mrs. Barkley to the ranch.” stammered Tim, his eyes wide in his pale face.
Tearing his eyes away from the stranger, Barrett nodded, “I’ll hand her up to you. You take her and I’ll tie this mongrel into his saddle. We don’t want him escaping before we get him to the sheriff.”
Tim nodded, the lump in his throat wouldn’t leave. The young man had seen the bandage on the head of the older woman and he wondered if Barrett had jumped to the wrong conclusion. Not liking his riding partner, Tim Jenkins knew deep inside he was afraid of the man who appeared to have no shred of decency, no compassion for human life and a streak of viciousness wider than the crevice in Arizona.
Carefully holding the unconscious woman in his arms, the young hand nudged his horse and started for the mansion, glancing backwards and seeing Barrett following, leading the stranger who was tied to the other horse.
Nick and Duke were talking in front of the mansion, their eyes looking over to the stallion in the corral.
“Let’s leave him for now and when Thomson brings the horses, maybe he’ll consider taking the time to work with the stallion.” suggested Nick.
“MR. BARKLEY!” shouted Tim, his calls turning both men towards him.
Running over to the horse, Nick gasped at the sight of his mother in the hand’s arms, “MOTHER! WHAT HAPPENED?”
Duke took one look and shouted for someone to fetch the doctor.
“I don’t know. This stranger was standing beside her when we found them.” informed Tim handing the tiny woman down to the hands of her son. “Barrett beat the crap outta him. He’s bringing him tied to his horse.”
“WHAT!” shouted Nick and Duke, their faces turning furious then turning pale at the sight of the beaten wrangler tied to his modoc.
“THAT’S THE WRANGLER FROM STRAWBERRY!” exclaimed Nick, looking down at his mother in his arms and back at the unconscious blond.
Duke and Nick both saw the bandage tied around her head of silver hair, the binding matching the blue of the shirt on the young man. Duke cut the rope off, gently pulling the blond off his horse, his eyes burning with anger at the beating the man endured, the moan of pain coming from him. Holding up the end of his shirt, Duke snarled.
“BARRETT, WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO!”
“I’ll deal with you later!” growled Nick, hazel eyes filled with contempt for the hand who was unsure of why he seemed to be the bearer of bad news instead of a hero. “Jenkins, help Duke bring Thomson into the house.”
Nodding, Tim gladly helped the foreman carry the blond upstairs and placed him on a bed in the guest room indicated by Nick. Duke sent the hand for water and towels knowing Nick and Silas, the houseman would care for the Barkley matriarch.
Nick tenderly laid his mother on the bed, Silas placed extra pillows on the bed and covered her with a blanket. Her face was pale and still, a stark contrast to the red they saw which had soaked into the compress when they removed the binding, the two men sighing in relief at the bleeding which had stopped.
“Missus Barkley needs da doctor.” stated Silas wringing a cloth and softly wiping the face of his employer, the small strong dark hands wrinkled with time cleaned the area of the wound with a feather like touch.
“One of the men went for him.” said Nick, his words unusually quiet, the fear could clearly be seen in his eyes.
Silas reached over and placed a hand on the large shoulder of the child he’d helped to raise. “Mr. Nick’s good ta bleedin’ stopped. Yes’m real good.”
Holding one of his mother’s hands, Nick nodded and glanced over to the keeper of the family. “Silas, could you see if Duke needs help with Mr. Thomson? Then let me know how he is. He’s the one who stopped the bleeding of mother’s wound. All he got was a beating for his help.”
“Yes’m, Mr. Nick.” said Silas, shaking his head at the guilt ridden voice of the youngest son before leaving the room.
Self preservation was slowly waking in the unconscious man, a sense of danger rose through the fog of pain, through the dark curtain hovering in his mind. He’d endured through impossible odds in his past, sometimes his life saved when his inner voice spoke, shivering his soul and sending red warning flags up.
The inner voice had saved him from a deadly cave in as a child working to help his mama put food on the table. It saved him during the dreadful experience of war where he utilized his uncanny skill with a rifle to eliminate leaders on the side of the enemy, by sending a shiver up his spine saving him twice from deadly ambushes. His inner voice had served him well over the years and it was screaming inside of him now.
It happened in a blink of an eye and caught both the foreman and hand offguard as they tended to the wounds on the battered blond. Duke would have never thought it possible the injured man could move with such strength and agility.
The previously still blond moved from a prone position on the bed to become a knife wielding wild-eyed cornered mountain lion. The long bladed knife appeared from nowhere slicing through the sleeve of Duke’s shirt drawing pain and blood from the nonlethal cut. Only Tim Jenkins’ startled backwards yank on his boss’ vest at the flash of steel saved the foreman’s life that day.
Nick pulled Silas back into the room when the shouts were heard coming from down the hallway and he hurried to the guest room, stopping and staring at the picture before him.
“Easy now, son.” said Duke calmly, the blond weaving on his feet shook his head and kept his eyes on the two men in the room, the knife held firm in his right hand. “Put the knife down, Thomson. Let us get you cleaned up.”
Nick held his breath, afraid to move from his spot in the doorway, afraid a wrong move would set the cornered man off. His eyes not moving from the bruised face, the blue eyes glazed with pain and confused. Duke quietly urged the blond to sheath the knife. The wrangled seemed to be moving further into the corner of the room, his hand reaching up and wiping the trickle of blood off his cheek.
“Son, put the knife down.” stated Duke firmly.
“I..ain’t..nobody’sson.” hissed Heath, his jaw clenched against the throbbing, pulsating pain, his eyes blinking rapidly and he put his left hand up on the wall to steady himself.
Three sets of eyes watched as the confusion lifted and the blond looked at the knife he had in his hand, as if seeing it for the first time. Looking up, the blue eyes filled with regret and he raised his arm, the knife finding itself back in its rightful home under his vest.
Shaking his head, the blond sank to his knees on the floor, his hands clenched into fists, his arm coddling his side, the tormented whisper tearing into Nick’s heart. “My…horse…need…to…go.”
“Thomson, you can’t leave.” protested Nick moving into the room and kneeling in front of the blond. “You’re hurt! You helped my mother and you’re not going anywhere! The doc will be here soon.”
Terrified blue eyes stared into the hazel eyes and he fought the shakiness in his whole body from the trauma, stammering against the pain, his breaths starting to come in gasps. “Can’t…coulda…killed..’em...not…safe.”
Nick caught the blond as he slid sideways losing the fight he was in. Reaching under the tan blood-stained vest, Nick handed the knife to Duke and together the blond was placed back on the bed. Patting the unconscious man down, Nick looked over at the white faced hand and sighed, “Jenkins, what you saw in this room stays in this room. Got it?”
Nodding, the young hand swallowed and met his boss’ eyes. “Yes, Mr. Barkley.”
“Duke, do what you can for him.” requested Nick, running his hand through his hair as he studied the man lying on the bed, sending the hand downstairs for some more water.
Waiting til Jenkins left the room, Nick asked quietly, “What the hell was that?”
Shaking his head, Duke frowned, “Don’t know, Nick, but it sure scared the hell outta him when he realized what he’d done. Not to mention taking bout twenty years off my life. How’s Mrs. Barkley?”
Fighting the helplessness he felt, Nick sighed, “She hasn’t woken yet. Her wound isn’t bleeding anymore. I sure like to know what happened.”
“Me, too.” agreed Duke, his hands finishing the doctoring he could before he stood and stated, “Two cracked ribs, too many bruises and a cut on his cheek. Looks like Barrett tied to kick him into next week.”
Lifting the blond’s shirt, Nick scowled at the dark bruises already formed on each side of the slim body. Pulling the blanket back up, the rancher sighed.
“When Jenkins gets back, Duke, find out exactly what happened.” ordered Nick, the foreman nodding before turning his attention back to the younger man, studying his face and wondering, leaving the room to return to his mother’s side.
Jarrod and Audra rushed into the mansion with Dr. Merar following their flight up the grand staircase after the foreman directed them to the bedroom of their mother. Howard nodded to Nick, the youngest son’s face full of worry and concern as he stepped away from the bedside of his mother, placing the tiny hand on the bed.
“Nick, what happened?” asked Howard lifting the compress and eyeing the wound before lifting each of her eyelids.
“Not sure, Dr. Merar. She was brought in this way and hasn’t woken up.” stated Nick quietly, his reduced volume letting those in the room know how upset he was. Jarrod frowned at the lack of information.
“Who brought Mother in, Nick? Didn’t you ask?” questioned Jarrod firmly, the disbelief in his words snapping the hazel eyes upward.
“How could I ask? Barrett beat him!” snapped Nick. “He’s unconscious in one of the guest rooms!”
Holding up a hand to ward off the angry glare of his brother, the attorney took a deep breath and calmly replied, “Nick, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m only wanting to know what happened.”
Audra sat on the side of the bed, her eyes moving between the three men, two locked in a confrontation and the other busily performing his profession.
“Start from the beginning, little brother.” suggested Jarrod, placing a hand on the broad shoulder and squeezing it. “First, who’s he?”
Running a hand through his hair, Nick sighed, “Heath Thomson, the wrangler from Strawberry. He was a day early and brought three horses with him. We made a deal and then he left. Bout an hour later, Jenkins comes in with Mother and Barrett’s got Thomson tied to his horse. Both Mother and Thomson were unconscious.”
“So, this Thomson did this to Mother?” exclaimed Audra, her hand flying to her mouth, the tears spilling out onto her cheeks.
“No, Audra. Jenkins said Thomson was standing beside Mother when they rode up. While he was looking down at Mother, Barrett attacked and beat him. Thomson didn’t have a chance cause he wasn’t looking.” informed Nick, his hazel eyes darkening with anger, the sucker punching of this man and the subsequent beating was the last act the hand would perform on Barkley range.
“Jenkins said he didn’t even give Thomson a chance to defend himself. When Barrett handed her up, Jenkins saw the bandage wrapped around Mother’s head and she had a blanket on her.”
Howard shook his head as he listened while he readied his thread and needle.
“So until Thomson or Mother wake up, we won’t know how she came to be like this.” stated Jarrod with a deep breath. “What was Barrett thinking?”
“I don’t know, Jarrod.” growled Nick. “Whatever it was, it’s no excuse! I’ve had enough of that man. I should’ve fired him long ago. There’s no human decency in him. Jenkins was scared to death from the viciousness in Barrett. I kicked him off the ranch, sent him packing.”
Jarrod nodded in agreement and patted the strong back of his brother, leaving his hand on the black vest. Howard looked up into the eyes of the children gathered around the bedside.
“Your Mother has a mild concussion and this deep laceration. As you know, head wounds can bleed substantially. It’s a good thing for Victoria, this Thomson fellow was there to put on this compress. Your mother is not a young woman and could have bled to death if she hadn’t been found quickly.” explained Howard, the idea paling the faces of the three children, the idea of such a thing happening on this particular day was especially sickening.
“Will she be alright?” asked Audra, wiping her tears from her eyes.
“I believe she’ll be fine, Audra.” reassured Howard with a smile. “I’m going to stitch up the wound and cover it while she’s unconscious. If she were awake, I wouldn’t be able to give her any pain medicine cause of the concussion.”
In unison, the three children swallowed the lumps in their throats, the fear in their eyes matching each others. Howard calmly suggested the three leave and send in Silas, not sure how they would react to witnessing the stitches being put into the forehead of their mother, the woman who held her family together, the foundation to their base.
“Why don’t you see if Mr. Thomson’s awake? I’ll see him after I’m done with your mother.” stated Howard firmly, watching as the three hesitantly left the room and Silas entered after a few minutes from the guest room where he’d been staying with the unsung hero of the day.
Standing in the hallway, Audra shivered and hugged her arms across her chest, her bottom lip trembling. Pulling her into his arms, Nick let her cry into his shirt, her tears seemed never ending and at last the sobs stopped.
“Mother’ll be fine, honey.” whispered Nick, wiping the tears off his sister’s face. “She’s tough or didn’t you know that?”
Giggling, Audra nodded, “Tougher than nails.”
“That’s right, little sister!” agreed Jarrod pushing a stray blond hair behind her ear. “Why don’t you go to the water closet and get yourself pulled together? Mother would be very upset if she saw you had red puffy eyes and been crying. Okay?”
“Okay.” sighed Audra, placing a kiss on both their cheeks. “I’ll be right back.”
Waiting til she entered the water closet and closed the door, Nick stopped Jarrod before he entered the guest room.
“Pappy, don’t do anything to startle him.” warned Nick quietly. “I got a feeling that boy’s been through some rough times.”
Puzzled, Jarrod studied the face of his brother before nodding, then adding with a smirk, “You’re the loud one in the family, Nick. Are you planning on toning it down too?”
Rolling his eyes, Nick snorted, “Believe me when I tell you, I don’t want to yank this tiger’s tail. I’ve seen what’s on the end of it already.”
The hazel eyes seemed to be a mix of emotion before they pulled away from his and Nick opened the door, standing in shock.
“THOMSON, WHAT ARE YOU DOING BOY?”
Heath’s head snapped up from where he was standing against the dresser, the short four steps having sapped his strength. Blue eyes met hazel eyes, the fury in them lashing outward.
“I…ain’t…your…boy!” snarled Heath, turning towards Barkley and the man who stood by his side. “Don’t…call...me…that!”
Nick stared in wonder at the battered man, the shaking in his body evident from the lack of power in his legs, the blond standing only by sheer grit and determination. Hazel eyes filled with admiration and he nodded.
“I’m sorry, Thomson.” apologized Nick sincerely. “Dr. Merar is here and he’ll be in shortly to patch you up.”
Shaking his head, Heath knew his mistake when the room started to spin, he was powerless to hold himself up and two strong hands caught his arms. Jarrod stepped to Nick’s side and helped him lay the blond back on the bed. Heath’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut, his jaw clenched against the pain, taking shallow breaths the pain of expanding his lungs to full capacity overwhelming.
Sitting on the bed, Nick watched Jarrod take a seat on the other side before inquiring, “Mr. Thomson, do you know what happened to our Mother?”
“Runaway..horse.” whispered Heath. “Small…black…she..fell..off.”
The lids of the young man opened slightly and Nick patted the arm closest to him. “Thank you for taking care of our Mother. I’m sorry for what our hand did to you. That shouldn’t have happened.”
The eyes closed, the pain ridden voice replied, “Not…your…fault...Barkley.”
“Your…mother?” whispered Heath suddenly.
“Doc says she has a concussion and is alive thanks to you.” informed Jarrod who found himself being scrutinized by puzzled half opened blue eyes and he smiled, holding out his hand, “Jarrod Barkley, attorney at law mostly, sometimes a rancher, but always an all around good guy.”
Nick rolled his eyes while Heath shook the extended hand and offered a lop-sided grin which faded when his breathing shot pains through his side. Closing his eyes, he clenched his jaw, not seeing the concerned look pass between the two dark haired brothers.
Nick opened his mouth, the words never leaving when the physician appeared in the doorway and walked to the bed.
“Afternoon, young man.” smiled Howard taking hold of the nearest wrist. “Dr. Howard Merar.”
“Heath…Thomson.” offered the blond, blue eyes watching the man of medicine with suspicion before shifting to the hazel eyes at the end of the bed, not sure why he felt the rancher would ensure all was fine.
The look in the blue eyes reminded Nick of a mouse cornered by a cat and he felt a sudden urge to reassure the injured younger man. “Dr. Merar is the best doctor in Stockton. Right, Jarrod?”
Jarrod looked at Nick and teased, “I didn’t realize you were such a fan of our only physician, little brother.”
“He should be with all the fixing I’ve done on Nick. Especially his hard head.” replied Howard winking at his patient before running his hands down the slim body of the blond and frowning at the stark look of pain which flew into the blue eyes. “Two fractured ribs, Mr. Thomson.”
The fist clenched the bedsheet and he fought to control his breathing, keeping it shallow. Howard’s gentle, knowledgeable fingers probed over the rest of his chest and stomach, satisfied he didn’t feel anything else injured. Opening the eyelids fully, he scrutinized the light blue eyes.
“Dizzy?” asked Howard, receiving a slight nod. “Mild concussion, I’d say along with a wide variety of bruises which will make you very colorful and the cut on your cheek. It shouldn’t need stitching though.”
“Bind..the..ribs..I..gotta..ride.” said Heath through clenched teeth.
Shaking his head, Howard sighed while Nick slapped his hand on the footboard. “Listen bo…uh, Thomson. You can’t ride in your condition.”
“He’s right, Mr. Thomson.” agreed Howard keeping the blue eyes locked onto his and his words firm. “You could become dizzy and fall off your horse or you could push one of those fractured ribs through your lung. Either way, young man, you’d be worse off than you are now.”
Frustration and confusion were abound in the blue pools, the tightening of the jaw this time was from determination not pain and Jarrod tilted his head slightly.
“Mr. Thomson, are you expected somewhere?” questioned Jarrod, then offering. “We could send a wire to notify your family, if you’d like. They wouldn’t be worried then. Or wherever you need to send word.”
“No...wire…in…Strawberry.” replied Heath reaching up to rub his eye, afraid to stay and yet afraid to ride, not wanting to injure himself further but afraid of again waking in a confused state of mind.
Nick moved to the side of the bed and offered, “Why don’t you let doc bind your ribs and give you some pain medicine? Tomorrow, if he gives the okay, I’ll take you back to Strawberry in the surrey.”
“Too..much..trouble.” protested Heath.
“FOR PETE’S SAKE!” snapped Nick flinging his hands in the air, his sudden movement startling Heath who jumped and held onto his ribs, gasping in pain.
“NICK!” shouted Jarrod and Dr. Merar in unison, glaring at the rancher.
“Gees, I’m sorry Thomson.” apologized Nick, his eyes filled with worry.
Laying back onto the pillows, Heath waved off his apology and offered in his pain, “’m..jumpy..like..old…woman.”
Chuckling, Nick shook his head and took a deep breath before trying again. “Listen, you lent our mother a helping hand. Let us give you one now. We’d like to repay you for saving her. Okay?”
Jarrod watched the ponderance in the blue eyes and he felt a moment of deja vue
from the expressive orbs, as if he’d seen them somewhere before. Heath sighed and nodded, rolling his eyes at the physician who was mumbling about stubborn cowboys.
Nick winked at the young man, his smile wide and full of relief. Howard poured a dose of laudanum and handed it to his scowling patient who reluctantly drank it down. Jarrod hid a smile behind his hand, the blond’s scowl reminded him of Nick when he was a patient.
Howard smiled his approval at the taking of the pain medicine and then glanced over to the brothers. “I can bind his ribs myself. You’d best check on your mother, boys.”
Jarrod nodded while Nick hesitated, unsure til he looked into the blue eyes and a slight nod sent him out of the room. Howard walked over and shut the door, returning to the bed.
“I’ll need to take your shirt off completely, Mr. Thomson.” stated Howard quietly, his sensitive fingers having already felt the scars on the young man’s back. “I didn’t think you’d want an audience.”
The pain medicine was working quickly and Heath sighed, his words slightly tinged with drowsiness, “’preciate..it..doc.”
The vest and knife sling removed before the blood stained shirt. The scarring on the back of the younger man shaking the physician who thought he’d seen almost all of the cruelties one person could inflect on another. Working quickly, Howard bound the injured ribs and taped the binding in place.
“Do you have another shirt?” inquired Howard.
“Saddlebag.” whispered Heath, gesturing to the leather bags the Barkley foreman had set on the dresser and finding it harder to keep his eyes open from the strong medicine. Taking out another blue shirt, the physician helped the blond into it before buttoning it and propping his patient up against more pillows.
Drowsy blue eyes filled with thanks and Heath grasped the older man’s hand, “Thanks.”
Howard patted the hand and smiled, “You rest now, young man. I’ll be back to check on you later. No riding, no leaving this bed without help.”
The words and instructions not heard as the medicine pulled the blond down into sleep, his head rolling to the side as his body relaxed. Howard checked his pulse once more before closing his bag and opening the door, almost walking into Nick who appeared in the doorway.
“He should sleep til later on tonight. Keep him in bed, Nick, if you can.” instructed Howard. “I’ll be in your mother’s room if you need anything.”
“Okay, doc.” stated the rancher, entering and stopping beside the bed, pulling the blanket up further on the sleeping form, wondering at the urge of protectiveness and wondering how this boyish looking young man could have been the knife wielding haunted being of a couple hours ago.