It was a nippy October morning. Grey skies heralded the coming of rain. On this day the Barkleys would have preferred sunny skies to perk up the sagging spirits engendered by the recent tragedy.
Victoria padded downstairs and went to the kitchen where Silas was busy preparing breakfast. After exchanging a few genial words Silas motioned her to the window. Puzzled she cast her eye out to see her blond son, prostrated, arms folded against the corral fence, blankly staring into the distance.
“He’s been out there since before I got up, Miz Barkley.”
“I suspect he hasn’t been getting much sleep since the tragedy.”
“It’s sad. He still blames himself.”
“Lord knows we tried to reason with him. Make him see that it wasn’t his fault; that he is not to blame for what happened.”
“He can’t go on this way. It’s not healthy.”
“I know. I’m afraid if we don’t do something soon we’ll loose him.” She placed a caring hand on Silas’s shoulder and headed out the door. She paused to collect her thought and garner her courage before ambling over to Heath she could see reaching out to a horse to scratch its muzzle. The animal responded by nuzzling him in the arm; the gesture eliciting a crack of the lip that made Victoria’s heart flutter and pleased that the once impregnable wall had now been weakened by the mare’s touch.
“Mind if I join you?”
He smiled responsively in compliance to her request. She settled close to the distraught blond and joined him in petting the horse.
“She’s a beautiful animal. You chose well, as usual.” She engaged in small talk to alleviate the palpable tension radiating between them.
“Actually she was Nick’s choice. I just put my seal of approval,” he asserted with a disarming aloofness as he raked his fingers through the horse’s mane.
“What are you going to name her?”
His drooping shoulders gave a heavy shrug. “I haven’t figured out a name yet.”
“How about Stardust? On account of the white star on her head,” Unbeknownst to her the trivial suggestion had triggered a rush of tears to Heath’s eyes that he tried to conceal by burying his chin in his chest but to no avail. The mother sensed the turmoil brewing inside her son.
She cupped his chin and willed his dewy eyes to hers. “Heath, talk to me,” she begged with every fibre of her being aching to heal the troubled soul. “It’s not healthy to keep it all bottled up inside.”
“There’s no more than can be said, Mother.”
“Heath, it’s okay to grieve but it’s another to blame yourself for something you had no control over”
“I can’t help feeling the way I do mother. I feel this is my entire fault. Perhaps if I hadn’t insisted; if I’d planned this better. If I had he wouldn’t have…” he choked out with a sob cutting his sentence short.
“You couldn’t have known he was following you.”
“I should have,” he argued with virulence, intent on thwarting his mother’s effort to convince him otherwise. “I knew he was violent. He swore vengeance and he did. I can’t help feeling the way I do, Mother.”
“’There’s no sense dwelling on something you had no control over.’ Those are the words you spoke to your brother Nick when he was beleaguered with guilt over what your endured as a child.”
“But I did. I knew this was coming and…” he insisted with a noticeable quaver in his voice.
“I don’t believe that. You did everything you could.”
“Look Mother, I don’t want to talk about it,” he sputtered insolently as he brushed past her to go walk off the mounting exasperation. Suddenly realizing his petulance toward his mother, Heath repented and turned to her with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean to snap at you. Forgive me.”
She stepped up to him and with a meaningful smile, conveyed her understanding though a kiss on his cheek. “You don’t need to apologize, Heath. I empathize with your pain, we all do.”
“It’s just going to take some time. I need to sort things out before I can make peace with what happen…if ever.” He strained a reassuring smile and placed a half-hearted kiss on her cheek before walking over to Charger tethered to the corral fence.
“Where are you going?”
Heath fashioned an elfish grin and winked. “This is a working ranch, Mother.”
She watched him amble away with a pang in her heart. Crossing the gate he then nudged his horse at a canter toward the fields.
Reaching the North Range he followed the fence line, absentmindedly checking for breaks along the way. A downed fence caught his eye and roused him from his reverie. He lazily slid down his mount to go investigate and found himself suddenly repulsed by the work he once dearly loved. He closed his eyes in despair; a faint hope of rekindling the feeling still flickering within, but quickly faded as the daunting memory of that tragic day surfaced.
He sat under a tree and brought his knees up to his chest. Staring blankly into the distance his mind numbly roved back on the events prior to the tragedy that altered his life.
Bone weary brothers had been riding a long winding road back to Stockton following a cattle drive to the market where they made a killing selling their prime beef. The herders opted to squander their bonus money whereas Heath and Nick preferred heading back home. Riding by train would have been an option hadn’t been for the mudslide that blocked the tracks, making the route inaccessible. Instead they rode on their equine companions, making several stops along the way to stretch out their legs and fill up their canteens. Their last stop was the bustling town of Dawesburg.
“You go bed down the horses. I’ll rent us a couple of rooms,” Nick said as he handed Coco’s reins to Heath.
“Sure thing, Nick,” Heath replied obligingly, waiting for Nick to grab his satchel before steering both horses across the street to the livery.
“Anybody here?” Heath called out as he entered the barn.
“Right here, sir,” wafted the diffident voice from behind bales of hay.
“I’d like it if…” Heath’s words caught in his throat at the sight of dishevelled woman before him.
“Yes?” she insisted, taking the reins from a dazed Heath.
“Sandra? Sandra Heller is that you?” he hazarded a guess.
Her brow knitted warily at the sound of her name leaving the mouth of a total stranger. She cocked her head and squinted to better make out Heath’s features. “Heath Thomson?” she reciprocated, her eyes widening in bright ecstasy. “My God, it’s really you!” Out of the blue she flew herself into his arms.
“Feel good to hold you again, Sandy,” Heath droned out, with every fibre of his being shuddering in pleasure as he pulled her into a tight embrace. “Where have you been?”
“Here and there,” she answered evasively, reluctantly pulling back from the clench. “Are those both yours?” she asked, motioning to the two horses.
“Yes. Well one is my brother’s.”
“Brother? But you told me you didn’t have any sibling.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Perhaps over dinner tonight?” he asked rather forwardly, causing her to wince.
“I wish I could Heath but you see, I’m married now.”
“Oh!” was all that Heath could utter as the news left him mute with consternation.
“Would you like the works for your friends?” she asked, veering off subject.
“Yes I’d like a nice rub down and an extra helping of oaths for both horses. They’ve been on the road forever.” Heath asked hesitantly, uneasy with having to ask a woman to do what is typically a man’s job.
“No problem.” She turned to the horses and ran a soothing hand across their necks. “They sure are friendly.”
“They normally don’t take that kindly to strangers. You definitely have a gift,” he praised, edging closer to join her in patting the animals.
“I love horses. Grew up on a farm, remember?”
“I remember,” he mused as he gazed at her with a wistful smile. “If you don’t mind my asking but what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“Why not? Something wrong with that?” she snapped rudely, Heath’s question apparently hitting a sore spot.
“No, not really. It’s just that…”
“Women’s place is in the kitchen, tending household chores, right?” she retorted spitefully.
“I didn’t say that…” Heath defended, bemused as to her sudden outburst.
“No but you were thinking about it,” she continued to spike before realizing her blunder. Shame-faced she cracked a remorseful smile and softly apologized, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I lashed out at you.”
“You scared me there for a minute.”
“I’m sorry. Actually I do both. My husband takes care of the farm and I tend to the business. We own this livery.”
“You mean you work here during the day and do the household chores at night?”
“You’re doing it, Heath,” she warned with eyes squinting in contempt, cautioning him to carefully weigh his next sentence. “Did you come here to sermon me or have your horses taken care of?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Why don’t we start again?” He stepped up to her and pulled her into a tight clench, “It’s so good to see you again, Sandy.”
“Hummmmm I like that better,” she purred seductively, allowing herself to drown in the soul-stirring hug that caused her to momentarily forget her marital status. With great reluctance she slowly disengaged the embrace to resume her work. “I’ll treat your equine friends as though they were my own.”
“I can see they’re in good hands.” Glinting blue eyes fastened onto hazel and suddenly, time stool still. They silently drowned in each other’s pool of memories, neither one wanting to break the spell. Although she was looking bedraggled, she was the most beautiful sight around. “My brother and I will be at the hotel.”
“Okay,” she answered timidly, flashing him a coy smile as she watched him walk back to the hotel across the street. Her hopes for a rekindled romance dashed to the floor with one cursory glimpse of her wedding ring.
Later that evening, Nick was sprucing himself up for dinner while a dazed Heath lazed around on the bed, fingers laced behind his head. The deafening silence that befell the two brothers was grating on Nick’s nerves.
“Something bothering you?” Nick finally spoke up, unable to bear the stillness any longer.
“Why d’ya ask?”
“You’re quieter than usual. You barely said two words to me in the last hour.”
“I was just thinking,” Heath sighed.
“I gathered this much.”
“I met with an old friend this afternoon.”
“In the livery when I went to bed down our horses.”
“She. Her name is Sandra. Her husband owns the place and she’s helping out.”
“Strange place for a woman, especially a married one.”
“That’s what I told her. But she nearly bit my head off when I did. She sounded like she was defending him, but I gathered she dislikes working there.”
“I can understand that. Although some women appreciate this kind of work.”
“She’s not the type, believe me,” he said dreamily, turning on his side with his head resting on his fist. “I can’t stop thinking about her Nick and it’s driving me nuts. She’s married.”
“How close were you?” Nick probed carefully so as to fish for information without overstepping his boundaries.
“Very close. Nearly asked her to marry me,” Heath revealed unabashedly.
“What kept you?”
Heath rolled back into a prone position and huffed out a heavy sigh. “I was yellow-bellied I guess. Well I was only eighteen and she was sixteen. Kind of young and her folks didn’t like me too much.”
“Why is that?”
“Didn’t like the wayward wandering type. They were afraid that I’d dump her for a more mature woman.”
“At that age, it can happen.”
“Yeah, well, perhaps it was for the best. But when I saw her just then, my heart just beat out of my chest. It was like the past six years had never happened.”
“Take advice from older brother. Cast her out of your mind. Fooling around with married women is asking for trouble you don’t need.”
“I know,” Heath sighed dolefully. Although his mind was willing to heed his brother’s counsel, his heart was steering him in the opposite direction.
“Go on!” Nick tapped the tip of Heath’s boot. “Get dressed. I’m starved.”
Heath chuckled. “You’re always starved.”
Later that night at a small farm a few miles away from town, Sandra was brushing her hair at her vanity unaware that her insanely possessive husband Stanley’s steely eyes were boring a hole into her. Out of the blue he ground out, “Who was that man you were talking to?”
“What man? When?”
“At the lively stable. And don’t lie because Charlie saw you.”
“Just a man who came to bed down his horses,” she replied composedly, her skin breaking into goose bumps at the icy tone of voice that portent of evil.
“You seemed to know him well,” he implied though gritted teeth. “He stayed for nearly ten minutes.”
She closed her eyes, fear mounting within her as she sensed her husband’s jealousy hitting the roof. “Stan, the man wanted special treatment for his horses and I just described what we provided and for how much.”
“You called him by his first name.”
“Charlie told you that?”
“Yes. He was listening at the door.” He set his book aside and with a menacing look walked up to her. She turned around to face the mirror, hoping her would not touch her.
“You lying bitch!” he spewed out, grabbing her by the hair and pulling to force her to stand shivering in fear before him. “WHO WAS HE?”
“No one, I swear,” she cried, pleading with him not to hurt her.
Heath rose at dawn and was heedful not to wake his slumbering brother as he headed out the door and down to the bathroom to wash. As he turned the doorknob his eye caught a glimpse of Sandra down below in the street walking toward the livery. His knowing smile turn to a worried frown as he noticed her unsteady gait. He hurried back to his room to grab his shirt. He buttoned it and stuffed it inside his trousers as he hurried down the stairs and out of the hotel to the stables across the street.
“Sandra?” She jumped out of her skin at the call of her name. “Hey, are you okay?”
She buried her chin in her chest in shame and stepped up to a horse to conceal her face. “Everything’s fine, Heath,” she feigned with a timid voice, in which Heath could detect a hint of tremor.
He edged up to her and delicately placed his hands on both her shoulders. With a loving touch he nudged her to turn to him. “My God, Sandra!” he gasped at the many nasty bruises on her face. “Who did this to you?”
“I had…I had a…a bad fall last night,” she stuttered, striving to recover her poise. “Fell down the stairs as I climbed down to the cellar. It’s nothing,” she dismissed, waving Heath’ hand off her face. “Don’t worry about it. I’m a strong girl, remember?” She wriggled herself free from Heath’s grip to go tend to the horses. “Are you here for your horses?”
“Not yet. In about an hour. My brother and I will have breakfast first.” He stood transfixed, eyeing her from her toe to spot any other injury. The purple bruise across her neck caught his eye. “You didn’t fall down the stairs, did you?”
“Of course I did,” se defended fiercely, but not enough convincingly for Heath.
“That bruise on your neck. Looks like you were almost strangled,” he observed, reaching out to touch the injured area, only to receive a stinging slap. “Who did this to you, Sandra?” silence was his only answer. “Answer me!” he insisted.
“Heath, please. Don’t get involved. For your own safety. Just leave me be.”
“My own safety? What are you talking about?”
Again she tried to avert from his slicing gaze, but Heath wouldn’t allow her to pull away from him. He held on to her shoulders, taking one hand to place under her chin. He gingerly lifted her head to level her dewy eyes to his. The genuine concern mirroring in his eyes provided the support she needed to finally let go of the hurt and pain bottled up inside. “I can’t stand it anymore. I just can’t,” she cried, dissolving into tears in his arms.
“Sandra, tell me. I want to help you,” he pleaded as he pressed to her shuddering body to his, in an effort to sop up part of her anguish. “You’re scaring me.” Holding on to her until the sobs subsided, he then gently pulled her back to dab at her tears pearling down her cheeks. “Tell me everything.”
She complied with a weak nod. Sniffing back the tears, she pulled away from the comfort of his arms to go stand by a horse, whose presence provided serenity as she began relating her tearjerker. “It’s my husband. He…well he’s very possessive of me. Whenever he sees me talking to other men he goes berserk and…” she faltered, pursing her lips to keep them from trembling, “and he beats me black and blue.”
“Your husband did that?” he asked, alluding to her fierce bruises. She nodded. “How long has this been going on?”
“Well over a year now. When I married him he was so charming and attentive. Then for some reason he started treating me like more like a butler than a wife. He has me catering to his every whims.”
“I suppose he’s the one forcing you to work in this stable?” Again she nodded, lowering her head in shame. “I thought so. I knew something was wrong when you nearly bit my head off when I said that this was not a place for you.”
“Heath, I don’t know what to do. He doesn’t believe anything I say. He even has his brother spying on me to report to him my every move. That’s how he found out that I’d been talking to you. He flew into a rage and….”
“You mean he saw us together?”
“Yes, yesterday when you came in to bed down your horses.”
“But I could have been a regular customer? Why did he assume I was someone you once knew?”
“Because he eavesdropped on our conversation.”
Heath’s creased brows deepened at this troubling disclosure. She too frowned in puzzlement as she saw him slowly take a few steps backwards. Suddenly he bounced out the barn to surprise a man eavesdropping, who swiftly make a mad dash across the street. Heath bolted after him, but a wagon cut his run short. He waited for it to pass and pursued his course only to realize the man had disappeared out of sight.
He returned to the stables to find Sharon pacing nervously, wringing her hands of all its blood. “He saw us. He’s going to tell Stanley,” she wailed hysterically.
“You’re coming with me. I won’t let you go back to that tyrant.”
“But Heath, he’ll hunt you down,” she quavered with terror. “I don’t want you to get hurt on account of me.”
“I won’t. And he won’t hurt you either,” he said reassuringly with a lopsided smile that brought warmth to her heart.
She nestled close to him as he enfolded her in his arms, squeezing her with all of his might before escorting her to the hotel.
“About time you showed up, boy!” Nick bellowed a frosty greeting at the bedroom door.
“Sorry Nick,” Heath apologized sheepishly with an infectious crooked grin that mellowed the mother bear’s temper. “ Had a little business to take care of before breakfast.”
“I see,” Nick answered with an arched eyebrow, eyeing the woman suspiciously. “I assume this is Sandra?”
“Yes. Sandra this here is my brother Nick Barkley. Don’t be frightened. His bark is worse than his bite.”
“Hey, hey!” Nick protested, playfully cuffing Heath in the arm “Don’t listen to him. Little brother here just thinks he’s funny. It’s nice to meet you, S…,” he gasped in a breath at the pitiful sight slowly coming into focus. “What happened to you?”
“I…it…I just,” Sandra stuttered with sheer embarrassment, her hand unconsciously going to the fierce bruise in the corner of her eye.
“A bad fall Nick,” Heath interceded on her behalf. “Nothing to worry about. I asked Sandra to join us for breakfast. You don’t mind, do you?”
Nick sensed the question was more in the nature of a request. “Ehu…no…sure. I don’t mind.” His stunned expression melted into a teasing grin. “In fact I’d love nothing more than to have a lovely lady such as yourself as my dinner companion,” he wooed as he gallantly kissed her hand, sending the blood mantling to her cheeks.
“Ahem!” Heath hawked, casting his brother an evil eye. “OUR dinner companion,” he corrected, winking at Sandra who smiled coyly.
“Sandra, why don’t you freshen up in the bathroom. That’s down the hall. We’ll wait for you.”
“Okay. Thank you.” She turned to Nick with a thankful smile. “Nice meeting you, Nick.”
“Likewise, Lovely Lady.”
Barely was she out the door that Nick buried Heath under a dark scowl, “What the heck are you thinking? You are really asking for trouble?” He snarled with gritted teeth.
“Nick, her husband beats her,” Heath countered tersely, wiping Nick’s glare off his face. “She didn’t get those bruises falling down the stairs.”
“Are you sure?”
“She just told me. I even saw the guy who’s spying for her husband to report her whereabouts. That’s how he found out about me. She really took a licking because of it. I told her I’d protect her.”
“Oh crap!” Nick cursed, heaving out his frustration at the dilemma facing them both .“You realize her husband won’t let that happen.”
“That goes without saying Nick. But if we hightail it now he won’t have a chance to find her.”
“We can’t leave now!” Nick bawled out.
“I wanted to drop by Myers’s place to see about some mares.”
“Surely you can go without me? I want to get her back to Stockton as soon as possible. That guy saw me with her just then. I chased after him but he got away.”
“Then you can’t chance it in the wild, kiddoh. Not with a mad man who’s gonna be gunning for you. Change of plans. We’ll catch a ride on the train instead.”
“Nick you forget about the mud slide? That’s why we didn’t hitch a ride on the train to begin with.”
“I’m sure they cleared the track by now. Look, I’ll head down to the ticket outlet to find out. If the line’s working I’ll get the tickets and make arrangement for the horses. In the meantime you and the lady are not to wander outside, understood?” he warned sternly, jabbing a finger into Heath’s chest for emphasis.
“Yes, sir!” Heath riled with a mock salute. “Are you coming with us?”
“You don’t expect me to just leave you without a watch dog?” Nick huffed out, trying to sound upset.
“And I know for a fact that this one’s got sharp fangs,” Heath teased before flashing a grateful grin. “Thanks Big Brother.”
“Argh, little brothers!” Nick groused, flinging his arms in the air. “They are a real pain in the ass.”
“And you love it.” Nick’s nose crinkled in answer to that remark and crossed to the door. “While I’m down there I’ll see if I can buy some grub for the road. I say breakfast is definitely out of the question under the circumstances.”
As Nick headed down to the hotel lobby, Sandra returned to the room all spruced up for a knight willing to whisk her away from this nightmarish life.
“Feeling better?” Heath asked, pleased by the metamorphosis.
“I do,” she replied waveringly, the slight tremor in her voice not lost on Heath.
He cocked his head sideways to read her eyes. “Something wrong?”
“Heath there’s something I haven’t told you about me.”
“I…I,” she faltered, unable to word her thought.
Heath stepped up to her and cupped her chin to tilt her head up. “What is it? You can tell me anything, you know that,” he said with imploring baby blues that melted Sandra’s heart.
“I have a three-year-old son,” she managed to blurt out, giving Heath a jolt that he laboured to conceal in his expression. “He’s staying at my mother’s right now because Stan couldn’t stand the crying and I sure didn’t want to risk his venting his anger on an innocent child,” she wailed, with tears welling up in her eyes.
“I can understand that. Where does your mother live?”
“In the next town of Carlisle. I can’t go without him, Heath.”
“I don’t expect you to. We’ll drop by your mom’s place and pick him up. Thereafter hopefully will be able to catch the train back to Stockton. That is if the track’s clear. It’ll be safer than hitting the trail.”
“Thank you Heath,” she cried, throwing herself into his arms to clasp him in a tight, soul-stirring embrace. “Thank you. Praise the Lord for sending you to save me and Jason.”
Heath buried his nose in her neck to drown in her intoxicating fragrance. “You’re very welcome, Sandra. You know I never stopped loving you,” he gently whispered in her ear, with every fibre of his being standing to attention at her answer.
“Me neither Heath,” she breathed out, closing her eyes at the tingling sensation his warm breath was leaving on her skin. “When I saw you yesterday my heart soared.”
“Mine did too.” He pulled her back to lay a feathery kiss on her forehead. “You’ll love it at the ranch and I’m sure your little boy will too.”
“Anywhere is fine as long as I’m with you. I know Jason and me will be safe.”
Again her pulled her to his chest and hugged her for all eternity.
Charlie outstripped the wind to his brother’s farm to warn him of his wife’s indiscretion with her male friend.
“What?” Stanley fumed, boring a hole into his brother who cowered in fear. “Are you sure?”
“He even chased after me but I managed to give him the slip.”
Stan clenched his jaw and in a fit of fury, pounced his fist against the fence post. “She’ll pay dearly for betraying me.” He pulled out a small pouch from his shirt pocket and dug in to retrieve a silver dollar that he flicked in the air toward his brother. “Good job, Charlie. I want you to continue following her and report to me her every move. I wouldn’t want her to lose her way, if you get my drift,” he crowed triumphantly, already basking in the sweet juices of revenge.
“What if she decides to follow this Heath guy?”
“Kill him and bring her to me.”
Following a quick trip to the doctor’s to treat her minor injuries, Sandra hitched up a team to a wagon borrowed from the livery stables then she, Heath and Nick drove to Carlisle, unaware of the shadow following at a safe distance so not to get spotted by the two pairs of scanning eyes. Once they reached destination, Charlie headed back to inform his brother of his wife’s projects.
“Mom!” Sandra squealed with delight as her mother opened the door.
“Sandra!” she reciprocated, welcoming her daughter with outstretched arms. “Oh my baby! Come in.”
“Mom, this is Heath Barkley. You remember him?”
Mrs. Heller was rather ill at ease of inviting the man she vividly recalled labelling him as a philanderer. “Yes I remember him,” she said brazenly.
“Mom, he’s here to help me. I cannot live with Stan any longer. Look what he did to me?” she said, pointing to her face.
The mother gaped in horror at the dark bruise on her daughter’s face, brushing her fingers lightly against her cheek. “My God, Sandra.”
“I’ve come for Jason. Heath is taking me away from Dawesburg and I want to take him with me to start a new life.”
“Of course.” She turned to the dark-haired man with a puzzled frown.
“This is Nick. Heath’s brother. He’ll be travelling along with us for protection.”
“Protection?” her frown deepened in concern as her gaze shifted from one face to the other. “You think…you think your husband might actually…?” she faltered as the grim thought that crossed her mind.
“When he finds out I’m gone…chances are he will come after me,” Sandra explained, trembling at the likely possibility.
“I’m happy that you finally decided to leave him.”
“I wouldn’t have hadn’t it been for Heath,” Sandra said, turning to Heath with a loving smile.
“Mommy!” Jason exulted, running to his mother’s inviting arms. Sandra lifted him and embraced him in a soul-stirring hug. “Mommy, I’ve missed you.”
“So have I, Son,” she purred, pulling him back to place a smacking kiss on his cheek. “I’d like you to meet two friends of mine, Jason.” She turned to Heath and Nick. “This is Heath.”
“Howdy Pardner!” Heath greeted, grinning at the boy’s shyness.
“And this is Nick. Come on Jason,” she coaxed her son whose face was buried deep in her neck, “they are not going to hurt you. They’re friends.” At her mother’s reassurance Jason peeled his face from Sandra’s neck and risked an eye out. Nick’s Cheshire grin instantly put him at ease and he threw a coy smile at the dark haired man. “That’s better.”
“I hate to rush you, Sandra, but we really must get a move on,” Heath stressed. “Nick has tickets for the eleven fifteen train.”
“Mom, can I ask you to help me throw a few things in a suitcase for the trip?”
“Of course I will.”
Sandra let Jason slid to the floor and gave his hand to Heath to hold. “Can I leave you two alone to get acquainted?”
“We’ll be fine, won’t we pardner?” Jason hung his head and gave a timid nod of the head.
While Sandra and her mother headed toward the bedroom, Heath led the boy to the living room to a pile of linking logs on the floor.
“Heath, I’ll ride into town and see if we can board the train here instead of Dawesburg.”
“Good idea, Nick. Watch your back, Brother. We need you.” Nick flashed a heartening grin at Heath who reciprocated with a lopsided one of his own.
Both ladies made good on their time for barely twenty minutes later, the suitcase was all packed. Mrs. Heller rummaged through her pantry and icebox to whip up a large snack for the trip to Stockton.
Sandra hugged her mother and kissed her goodbye. “I promised to write to you once we reach Stockton.”
“I’ll be waiting.” One last clench and then she turned to Heath with a warning look. “My girl’s been through a lot, Heath. Please take care of her,” she pleaded with teary eyes.
“I will. Mrs. Heller. I promise she and Jason will never want for anything.”
Sandra’s hand was on the door latch when Heath snapped it away. “DON’T! Let’s wait till Nick returns.”
They waited in silence for what appeared an eternity. Ten minutes later Nick came within sight and Heath risked a peek outside.
A gunshot rent the air and to Heath’s horror, Nick’s horse bucked, throwing its rider off the saddle to smash to the ground, unconscious.
Before he could dash back into the house, a gun was pressed against his temple. “Barkley I just want the girl. You won’t suffer that man’s fate over there if you cooperate,” snarled the assailant into Heath’s ear.
Startled by the gun report, Sandra rushed to the window to peer outside. “My God, it’s Stan. He’s got Heath!” She swiftly turned to her mother who stood rooted to the spot with protective arms around the child. “Mom, take Jason down to the cellar and hide beneath the trap door,” she instructed, giving her mother a light shove toward the basement door.
“What about you?”
“Stan wants me, not the boy.”
“Sandra you said it yourself if he ever found you he’d kill you.”
“He knows I’m here anyway. If I don’t show up he’s liable to kill Heath.”
“Mom, do as I say!” she snapped; then on a softer tone, “Please.” She waited long enough to allow her mother time to hide beneath the basement floor before opening the front door.
“Don’t hurt him, Stan,” she pleaded with the man possessed. “I’ll go back with you if you let him go.”
“Sandra, don’t!” Heath begged, his heart torn between Sandra’s life and his own brother’s. The veins began throbbing at his neck at the sight of Charlie hunching by his brother’s body sprawled on the ground. A small curl of the lip lifted in the corner of his mouth at Nick’s hand seen slowly reaching for his gun holster. He had to create a diversion to allow Nick to grab his weapon and turn the tables on their foes.
“Hey there! It’s Charlie, isn’t it?” Heath hailed to distract the man from groping Nick’s neck for a pulse. As predicted, Charlie looked up at Heath.
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” spat the man who let his guard down long enough for Nick to kick the gun out of his hand but not before a shot rang out. In the commotion, Heath slogged one powerful fist into Stan’s gut and twitched the gun out of its hand.
“Don’t try it, friend,” Heath snarled at the man bent over in agony. He briefly turned to Nick whose gun was trained on Charlie holding his sprained wrist. “Nick, you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah I’m fine, Heath.” His eyes caught a glimpse of Sandra slowly slumping to the ground. “My God, Heath!” Nick exclaimed in shock. He hurried over to his brother to take his gun and keep an eye on the two men while Heath went to Sandra now lying on the ground with a bullet wound in her stomach.
“Sandy,” he whispered quaveringly, tears welling up in his eyes. He gently lifted her limp body and cradled it in his arms. “Sandy, please. Hold on. You’re going to make it.”
“Good for her!” Stan spewed out, raising Heath’s ire.
“Nick, make him shut up or I will.”
Nick cocked his gun and leered at Stan. “My pleasure, Heath.”
“Hey!” Stan protested with his hands up in the air. “Easy with that gun.”
Nick arched an eyebrow and fired one shot at the man’s feet. “You clam up or the next one will be in your gut. Both of you.” With a wave of the gun he ordered Charlie to come stand by his cohort.
“Heeeeeeeeeeath,” Sandra breathed out as she gradually regained consciousness.
He shushed her with a kiss on the lips. “Don’t talk. Save your strength.”
She insisted, drawing a deep breath that made her wince in pain. “Jas…… Mom. Bas…basement. Trap...trap door in floooooooooooooor,” he voice trailed as she went still in Heath’s arms.
“Sandra, oh God please. Don’t leave me,” Heath wailed, rocking the listless form gently in his arms. “Hold on. We’ll get you to a doctor. Please, Sandy. Think of your son.” Heath risked a finger against her neck. A loud sigh of relief came upon feeling a faint pulse. “Nick, she’s not dead.”
“That’s good, Heath. Now let’s get those bozos inside and tie ‘em up while we get the others.”
Heath lifted Sandra in his arms and walked inside to gingerly lay her on the sofa. Nick ordered the two men to sit at the kitchen, keeping his gun trained on both as Heath momentarily left Sandra’s side to grab some rope lying on the front porch to bind Stan and Charlie hand and foot to the chairs.
“Nick, you keep an eye on them while I search for Mrs. Heller and the boy.” Nick acquiesced with a nod of the head and leisurely leaned against the doorframe with one foot on a chair.
“What are you going to do with us?” enquired Charlie.
“If it were up to me I’d gun you down right now,” Nick growled with seething dark eyes. “I’d be doing people a favour instead of having you stand trial.”
Down in the cellar, Heath had a hard time finding the trap door until he tripped on a rug. Curious he squinted his eyes into focus to notice a furrow in the floor. He hunched down and searched for the tiny handle and pulled. “Anyone down there?”
“Heath? Is that you?” wafted the timid, trembling voice from below.
“Mrs Heller? Yes, it’s me. Is Jason with you?”
“Yes. Is it all right to come out now?”
“Yes, come with me. My brother is keeping an eye on Stan and Charlie. They won’t hurt you.” On that reassuring note Mrs. Heller came into view and lifted the boy up to the ladder and climbed behind him. “Where’s Sandra?” Heath closed his eyes and hung his head. “Oh no. Don’t tell me she’s…”
“She’s not dead. She’s bleeding pretty bad, though. We have to get her to a doctor.” He instinctively gave the woman a light shove up the stairs and followed behind with Jason in his arms.
With Nick in the driver seat and Heath in the back to mind the cargo they headed toward town. Once there, Nick dropped Charlie and Stan at the sheriff’s office while Heath carried Sandra to the doctor’s office.
Thirty minutes glided by before the doctor came out of the examining room with a forlorn expression.
Heath was roused out his trance by the sound of horse hooves drawing closer. He sniffed back the tears and blinked away the fog before regaining his poise as the rider approached him.
“So that’s were you are. Mother was worried about you,” Nick said with concern. “Are you all right?”
“I needed some time to myself.”
“I understand. I know it’s barely been ten days but you have that little boy to think of now. You can’t let this drag you under. He needs you now more than ever. You’re the only one he’s got left.”
“I don’t know if I can do it, Nick,” Heath confided. “I should have left Jason with his grandmother.”
“She wouldn’t let you, remember? She’s dying.”
The word speared Heath’s heart. His head lolled forward, his chin resting on his chest as he opened the dam of tears. Nick stepped up to his distraught brother and wrapped a sympathetic arm around his shoulders.
“I loved her, Nick. I loved her so much,” he whimpered.
“I know you did,” Nick whispered as he squeezed his brother’s shuddering shoulder. “Her memory will live on in her son. She wouldn’t want you to cry over her death and neglect him.”
“So you say I should stop wallowing in self pity?”
“I’m saying it’s okay to grieve, Heath. We wouldn’t want you to cast Sandra aside and act as if she never existed. You should keep her in your heart and not let the bad memories interfere in your life. It’s not healthy.”
“I’ll try,” Heath sighed with a half-hearted grin. “I’ll try for Jason’s sake.”
“Speaking of which he’s been asking for you. That’s why I came here to get you.”
“Just that he misses you.”
Heath briefly reflected on that statement and smiled wistfully. “I guess I’m a father now.” He glanced heavenwards to send a silent prayer to the woman who blessed him with a special gift.
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