“Awwwhhh gaaawwwd!... Noooo... That hurt... Not a good idea to move... Not yet... What’s going on?... Where the blazes am I?... Not in bed that’s for sure... Think Heath Barkley... think on it.
“With Nick... Yep, that’s right. I was with Nick. We were searching. Yeah,... was following a trail, a hoof print. A horse with a cracked shoe on the off foreleg. It was pretty easy tracking. That’s it. We’d tracked the cloven hoof prints of the rustled steers and found where they’d been stashed up in the small box canyon. Them rustlers weren’t none too smart. Not then anyway. Nick sent the few men we had with us back with the cattle and told them as soon as they had the cattle back in the right pasture to get fresh horses and get back to us pronto. Them being Nick’s prime beef stock an’ all he was good and mad when he found they’d gone a wanderin’ especially when he realized they’d been helped on their way.
“No that’s not right... You’re fuddled boy. That was the other week... We got them cattle back. We didn’t get too far tracking the rustlers then either. It’s the sheriff this time. That’s it. Billy came round to say Fred had been shot and we joined a small posse to try and track the gang. Yep, that’s right. They’ll more than likely be the same lot who were hightailing it off with Nick’s beef. They’ve been raiding in the valley. Doing quite a lot of damage. A couple of the ranchers have been killed and horses and stock have been taken.
“When our cattle was taken Nick kinda had a bad feeling and made his way out to check on those particular beef. There was some heat comin’ off of him when he realized. Don’t laugh boy... That didn’t do you any good... Where’s Nick now?
“Oh yeah, I remember now. We tracked the gang or rustlers up to the Low Peaks beyond the East Range. Then the tracks kinda scattered. Billy and the boys went the other way and Nick and I came up into the Low Peaks. It ain’t too easy trackin’ up here. Ya find a track and then ya lose it. Ya see the odd kinda chalk mark on the rock left by an iron shoe and then you lose them when they hit the sand and the wind blows across and smoothes it over. Ya have to keep your eyes peeled for dents then in the sand. I figure they have it right if they’re hid out up here. There bein’ somewhere to hide an’ all. They sure were right with that idea... like looking’ for a needle in a stack of hay.
“Nick and I weren’t doin’ too well and so we decided to split up and search. Seemed a good idea at the time. I guess I musta been kinda close to the hide out if they thought on shootin’ me. At least we have a good idea they’re holed up in these here rocks somewhere. I think we should have stayed together Nick. I reckon this is what they were after... to split us up. I hope you’re okay big brother... Lookin’ at the sun I reckon I’ve only been out a few minutes... best keep still for a while in case they’re still hangin’ around. Hopefully they’ll think I’m up there above the clouds makin’ new friends, wearin’ a new frock and peacefully learnin’ how to pluck on a harp.
“... only heard the one shot. Mind there may have been more when I was out. Though I reckon I’ve only the one hole in me. I’ll just lay here a while longer playing dead just to make sure they’re not around any more. I guess Nick is gonna be none too pleased with me. I’ve muffed up again. I was too keen on tryin’ to spot them horse shoe marks on the rock I didn’t notice the sun shinin’ off of that ironware until it was near on too late. If I hadn’t have moved when I did then I reckon I’d have been buzzard bait for sure. Pretty good shootin’. I have to give you that fella.
“Haven’t seen or heard anything. I guess it’ll be okay to move. Right Heath you’re best turnin’ on your belly and getting’ up from there. Here goes. Awwwww! Can’t. That wasn’t a good idea. Must be worse than I thought. Blast it. The blood’s running down the top of my shoulder now. It’s throbbin’ something’ awful too. I think I need to stop it bleedin’. Use my neckerchief. Thank goodness it’s only a loose knot. There... not too easy one handed... get my finger through the middle. Done it. Now pull. Got it. Now pull out. Give it a quick shake to get the sand off of it. Right. Hold it between my teeth. Don’t want to drop it. Now screw it up small. Okay done. Now push it through the collar and under my shirt. There now, that’s in place. Now hold it firm boy and soon it should stop bleedin’. Feels more blood than I thought. I won’t try movin’ again ’til it’s stopped.
“I’m sorry Mother. I reckon I just messed up this new fleecy jacket ya gave me. We could always patch it, but I’m not sure we can get all the blood stain out of it. When I get home we’ll have to soak it and hope for the best.
“Ya should be used to this by now Heath boy. Ya got more holes in ya than the colander in the kitchen. I went all through the war without so much as a graze and then sometime after I was released from Carterson I went off fightin’ another blasted war out New Mexico way. Since then, lead and me sure seem to have kept good company with one another. That was when Handy Random shot me. We were supposed to be fightin’ on the same side. Well I reckon the only side he was on was his own. I was out with him that day and the same thing I got caught up with trackin’. I forgot to keep my eye on him. I always knew he couldn’t be trusted. He was a guy who always shot his quarry in the back. Ya can’t trust a guy like that, no matter if he calls ya a friend.
“The first thing I heard was that shooter of his goin’ off. Made a different sound to our regular firearms on account of the buck shot he used. I knew what was coming, but I had no time to move out the way. The most part of my back was good and peppered with horse shoe nails and carpet tacks. I was blasted clean out of the saddle. I lay on the sand not knowin’ which world I was in ’til he came along to finish me off. I knew I was still alive when I saw his ugly mug sneerin’ down on me. He had that mean and hungry grin on him, tellin’ me he was thoroughly enjoyin’ his self. Wettin’ his lips, he wiped his blade against his sleeve, I guess out of habit, afore he made to finish me off. It gave me time. I managed to get my gun into my hand and slammed it into the side of his head real hard. It was enough to knock him senseless. Managin’ to pick myself up I staggered off aways into the mesquite to hide. I lay there hours thinkin’ I was a goner for sure. I knew it was just a matter of time. My back was on fire and exploded every time I moved...
“Random didn’t bother followin’ me. He just helped his self to my saddle and chased off my horse. That was the mistake he made. My horse took itself back to the homestead where the rest of the guys where and so they knew somethin’ had happened to me.
“...’ceptin’ for Random, regular guys they were them bein’ the nearest I had to family at the time. Of course I still had my mama, but she was way back in Strawberry. Well they came out searchin’ for me. They didn’t find me ’til sun up the followin’ day. I was froze stiff and parched like the devil by then. More dead than alive. Somehow they managed to get me back to headquarters and Doc took to diggin’ the nails and tacks out of my hide. By then I was out of it, but I felt every damn time he cut into me with that dad-blamed knife he had for skinnin’. He weren’t a real doctor, he just liked playin’ around with his skinnin’ knife. He was the one who usually did the doctorin’ and dug out the slugs when any of us boys were shot. I could have sworn he was just out to skinnin’ me at the time. I can’t remember anymore after he emptied the bottle of whiskey over my back ’til I came round about four days later. I’m not sure which was more painful, payin’ for the whiskey or having it poured over my hide. It stung like hell. Anyway Doc saved my life and my back healed up real good. You have to look real close if you wanna see the scars.
“Now let’s see if I can get up? I reckon it’s stopped bleedin’. This ’kerchief is pretty much soaked through, but I’ll leave it in place. Right here goes... roll over. Geez that didn’t help matters. I’m on my belly now, but still not on my feet. I’ll try again... Can’t use my left arm.... it’s pretty useless. Take a deep breath and push... on my knees now... hold on a moment boy... just wait ’til the rocks stop spinnin’ by... there that’s better. Geez it’s hurtin’ something awful....
“Now where’s Charger? He wouldn’t run off. I reckon them rustlers must have taken him. Aw heck Nick I reckon you’re gonna be good and mad with me this time. Well I might have lost my horse, but I’m still here and I didn’t lose my hat. It’s stuck real hard on my head... Now gettin’ up took more out of me than I thought... Hold on boy everythin’s spinnin’ again... Drat I’m back down in the dirt again.”
“I’m not sure if I can get back up... and if I do get up... I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to walk too far, if at all?... Nick must have heard the shot... surely he’ll be on his way... as long as they didn’t get him too. Right here goes again... up on my knees... Right, I’ll see if I can make it over to the rocks... rest there a while... ready... up... here goes... boy howdy I made it... I can’t stay standin’ ... just get over to them rocks... here I go... that’s it... one foot in front of the other... In front of the other, I said boy... yer not listenin’ to me... nearly there... stay up... one more step... done it... I’ll sit here... rest up against the rock... If the trail will just keep still I can see it from here... and watch out for Nick... I know he’ll come.. I know he’ll come... he’ll be all right... I know he will... won’t let me down.…
“When I was shot by that jerk Evan Miles Nick was there for me. That’s when I knew for sure he cared about me. Like a brother that is. I kinda knew he cared afore then, but that was the sealin’ of it. He was good and mad then all right. Not with me that time, but with the Miles. We were just tryin’ to get some of our cattle which had strayed through the fencin’ on to the Miles’ land. Wally Miles had his men firin’ at us only to scare us off. But Nick wasn’t havin’ any of it, tall and proud he just kept walkin’ toward the men and I stayed with him. Then that fool lad did for me in the arm. Of course he’d had it in for me right from the start when I had to pull him off of Audra at her birthday party. He was just bidin’ his time. I knew it was him ’cause I’d been watchin’ him and I saw the way he was aimin’. After, I couldn’t tell Nick even if I wanted to... ’cause I reckon he’d have killed him there and then. Mind ya, thinkin’ about it... it might have been better if he had... Well I went down like a poll axed steer. I wasn’t too sure what was goin’ on then. It all seemed kinda far away and yet Wally was standin’ over me apologizin’ and Nick was holdin’ onto me for grim death and yellin’ back up at him.
“I kept tryin’ to tell Nick it didn’t matter, but nothin’ was comin’ out. Nick took care of me. He tied his neckerchief round my arm makin’ it kinda tight, to try and stop the bleedin’. Some one fetched our horses and he gave me some water from his canteen. It didn’t stay down long it came right back up and I spewed over Nick. Gawd I was mortified, but could only say sorry with my eyes. I tried, but my mouth wouldn’t work. Nick wasn’t bothered he just told me to hush up and washed it off with the rest of the water and wiped me down too. He and Wally managed to get me up on my feet and into the saddle on Coco. I kept tryin’ to tell Nick it was the wrong horse, but somehow I was too far away and he couldn’t hear me.
“... next thing I knew Nick was nestled in behind, holdin’ me steady with his arms around me keepin’ me safe. He’d hitched up Charger to the saddle horn and he kept talkin’ to me real quiet all the way home. Tellin’ me Charger was okay and I was gonna be all right. He kept givin’ slack to his neckerchief on my arm. I just felt like one of Silas’ jellies. I was no use to Nick or myself. I settled back into Nick, restin’ my head on his shoulder, knowin’ he would take care of me. That’s what I remember most about the ride home. Nick takin’ care of me. I knew I’d never be on my own again. I had finally made it. I was his little brother and he knew it, he let me know it and everyone else too. I don’t remember much after we went through the gates at home. I reckon that’s when I blacked out, happy in the knowledge Nick was my big brother and he was there for me.
“When I came round I was layin’ on my bed covered with a blanket and Nick was sittin’ in a chair just lookin’ at me with those big puppy dog eyes of his. If he’d have been a dog, he’d have been sittin’ with his chin restin’ on my bed, lookin’ up at me. I couldn’t help but smile at him. “There I told you you were gonna be all right little brother,” he said, smilin’ back at me. That was the first time he ever called me that. ‘Little brother’ it felt good, real good.
“It seems Nick had managed with help from Jarrod to get me up to my room and settled on the bed, removed my vest and shirt, and left me in the more than capable hands of Doc. Merar. Funny no one thought on removing my gun belt. Anyhow the doc. reckoned Nick had more than likely saved my life that day by tyin’ his neckerchief round my arm.
“I reckon I’m gonna need ya again Nick... The track looks a mite hazy... don’t know whether it’s my eyes or the sun... feelin’ kinda hot too... can feel blood tricklin’ down... Goin’ under my arm... I reckon it’s bleedin’ again... I’ll push that ’kerchief into it more... have to stop it bleedin’... just keeps hurtin’....
“Might have been better if I’d stayed out cold. I wouldn’t be feelin’ anythin’ then. Like the time I was shot by them raw-hiders. A right slimy lot they were. Sure did hum too. The first time I knew I’d been shot was when I came to in the guest room. Well I really didn’t know where I was and if things weren’t confusin’ enough Mother has a habit of changin’ rooms round.... there I was all cozy like and entwined and smoo... well... let’s just say I was having a real hot time of things... with Lupe... boy howdy she sure had some great assets... Everythin’ just right ... and then a full blown chain gang workin’ twenty pounders were tryin’ to force their way out of my head… and there was this dark haired gal moonin’ and a fussin’ over me. She wasn’t Lupe... I could tell that... Well I didn’t know where I was, who she was, why I was in bed nor why I wished my head wasn’t on my neck. I sure was sorry I’d come round. Kinda scared I was I suppose.
““Who are you?” that’s all I could say. She told me Allie Kay, but it didn’t mean a thing to me, she may as well have been a fly on the wall. She tried to explain I’d been creased with a slug by some rustlers. I listened, but as she trebled up I was soon back snugglin’ up to Lupe on a bed of straw inside of them mud walls.
“Everything was kinda vague I just seemed to be spendin’ my time between Lupe, Allie Kay, Mother, Audra, Doc. Merar and this raw-hider fella. I was havin’ difficulty in makin’ sense out of any of it especially how many folks there were. And all the time these twenty pounders were sluggin’ away at me. There was no let up.
“At one time Audra and Mother were comin’ toward me. It was kinda comfortin’ to know I was home and they were there. At least I thought I was home. The doc. appeared at some time and spoke, tellin’ me I had to take it easy. He was tellin’ me I’d have a bad head for a few days as if he didn’t think I’d know it. Boy I couldn’t move my head without feelin’ my brain was gonna explode. I was in a kinda stupor when this scruffy raw-hider fella started toward me comin’ out of nowhere. Everyone’s faces became blurred and mixed in together and multiplied. I heard him tellin’, how he’d come by rescuin’ me. I sorta remember thankin’ him, but I know I had a bad feelin’ about the fella. The doc., Mother and the raw-hider all drifted away and I think Allie Kay helped me to a drink of water before I drifted back to Lupe. I always felt safe with her.
“Then each time I was back with Lupe, Allie Kay would start harpin’ on about her. I figured she must have known her. I remember being crotchety with Allie Kay on account of her keep interferin’ with Lupe and me. I have no idea what I’d been sayin’, but I knew there was plenty I could have said that wasn’t fit for a lady’s ears. I felt better once I realized I’d been speakin’ in Spanish. I didn’t mean to hurt her none, it was just that she kept rubbin’ me up the wrong way goin’ on about Lupe all the time. When I was a little more clear headed I can remember telling’ her I never said I’d spent my days in a cave and then I realized I wasn’t being fair to her, after all she’d more than likely saved my life. With my head about to explode I promised to make it up to her when I was feelin’ better. That seemed to do the trick and she never mentioned Lupe again.
“Now there was never any let up in my head and all the time I had no idea what was goin’ on in the house. It was Allie Kay who made me aware of the danger we were in with the raw-hiders. She called me to look out of the window. There was a bunch of these raw-hiders and I didn’t really need to ask Allie Kay what they were about, for I could tell they were up to no good. I turned on her sorta mad and I guess I kinda scared her ’cause she blurted out she wasn’t like them and told me it were them that shot me. I believed her, I had to. It must have been the fear for myself and for Audra and Mother because I could feel my senses comin’ back.
“I asked Allie Kay to help me, by findin’ out what was goin’ on. She left me strugglin’ to get my boots on. Thankfully except for my shirt no one had thought on strippin’ me. They’d just laid me on the bed with the covers over me.
“A short while and Allie Kay was back and the smart girl was totin’ a hand gun. I hadn’t been too good at gettin’ my boots on on account of my head still throbbin’. I managed to get the second boot on and took the firearm from her as she explained how they planned on killin’ us. I knew we needed to warn Mother and Sis and Silas and so I pushed Allie Kay out the door and along the hallway only to bump into Mother and Audra at the end. They had realized we were in danger and were comin’ to warn me.
“Well I ended up gazin’ out the bedroom window to guard over the women folk and Silas while they escaped out to the barn. It was then I heard a gun bein’ cocked behind me and my gut took over. I turned round and in that split second recognized an enemy and fired. It was kill or be killed. I learnt it a long time ago durin’ the war and in the blink of an eye I had to make the decision. It was second nature to me. One raw-hider lay dead.
“My head was still poundin’ and my belly was churnin’ and all about was spinnin’. All I can remember next was droppin’ from the balcony, the thunder in my head and hearin’ the shootin’ iron being cocked. I turned, I saw, I fired and another raw-hider was dead.
“I knew I had to reach the barn, but I couldn’t see it, only Daddy Cade as he was known, the raw-hider I’d first seen up in the room was loomin’ toward me. Suddenly there were two of him and I knew I had to shoot them, but I couldn’t lift my gun hand. I grabbed out for the wooden support and slid down to hit the dirt. A rifle fired. My head exploded. But I wasn’t dead. Mother had done for Daddy Cade straight between the shoulder blades.
“I can’t remember much more after that. I finally woke up in my own room. Feelin’ better than I had, thinkin’ on everythin’ like a bad dream. It wasn’t ’til Audra explained it all to me a few days later that I realized the only dreamin’ I’d been doin’ was about Lupe. I was right grateful to Allie Kay for a whole heap of reasons, but most of all for not tellin’ any of my family about Lupe. Heck if Nick had ever cottoned on to knowin’ about her he’d have never let me live it down. Thanks to Allie Kay, I was alive and I still had my family intact.
“Droppin’ off the balcony I guess I musta strained my ankle ’cause I had to use a cane to aid my walkin’ for a while. Nick and Gene were back from the drive and were enjoying raggin’ me. Gene had taken a shine to Allie Kay. I could tell. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. I gave her a kiss when she was leavin’. She was off to do some nursin’ work for one of the ranchers whose spread is on the way into town and I went a visitin’ her a few times, but she wasn’t really for me. Havin’ seen Gene moonin’ over her, I gave him my blessin’. They made a right good pair both bein’ interested in medicine an’ all. Gene and her were hitched the followin’ year and when he’s finished his trainin’ they plan on movin’ East.
“Get my handkerchief out and wipe the sweat off of my face. That’s better. It was runnin’ in my eyes. It’s hot... I’m hot... I’ll take my jacket off... one huh... two huh... three huh... four... the buttons are undone... get my good arm out first now lean forward to free my back. Fine. Now slow boy, real slow, pull down from the wrist. Geesh. I wish I hadn’t done that. awwwgggghhh ! Feels cooler, but my shoulder’s painin’ somethin’ awful again. Hold on Heath every where’s spinnin’ again... rest back against the rock and close my eyes... nope, I’ll keep my eyes open... I’d sooner the rocks spin than me....
“That’s feelin’ better. A bit cooler now. Thirsty. Could do with a drink. Could do with a good rain shower. How about a real toad floater like we had the next time I took another bullet? That was when the dam was about to burst and Sheriff Frank wanted one of us to go down to Salt Springs, a small town below the dam and keep a guard out for looters. Seein’ as my back had been achin’ me some lately, I volunteered to go, thinkin’ it was an easier option than fillin’ sandbags.
“Well it should have been, but with my record for trouble it wasn’t. Of course I ended up holed up in more ways than one in the livery stable with two females, Fay Kelly a down and out music hall singer and a mute Indian gal. All the townsfolk were supposed to have been evacuated and I found myself with these two females, a pair of life’s no hopers, much as I used to be. Fay was drunk and missed the evacuation. Somehow I was hopin’ I could get them out of town, but the fellas who were supposed to be protectin’ the town turned to lootin’ it when another fella showed up.
“I was able to get the females safely to the livery stable hopin’ to send the two of them off to safety on one of the horses, but it was no good ’cause the fellas had realized where we were. So I had to hit that idea on the head. I knew the looters needed the horses to get their loot out of the town which was the reason I hid in the livery. As long as I could hold on in the livery they weren’t goin’ anywhere. I got my rifle from my saddle and stood guard. I had to use a few bullets to ward the fellas off. Using bullets I could ill afford to waste.
“When the fellas backed off I busied myself makin’ a hole through the boardin’ to the buildin’ next door hopin’ I’d be able to get some more ammunition. I was down to my last four bullets and I knew the fellas would be back.
“Sure enough they were when I was busy. I heard Fay shout and I turned round to find the ground straw ablaze. A lighted paper had been thrown through a gap in the boardin’ settin’ the ground straw alight. No time to think, I rushed over to stomp on it. Pretty useless really. While I was stompin’ I heard the gun go off and felt the lead burn into my side and with the force of the bullet I spun round backwards automatically blasting out twice with my rifle straight at the timber wall.
“Gradually everythin’ went hazy and I collapsed forward. When I came round I could vaguely remember what had happened. I didn’t feel too good. I knew I had a slug in my side and I was layin’ back against some sacks. The womenfolk had seen to me the best they could. It appeared I’d killed the guy who shot me and the Indian gal had doused the fire with a blanket. The slug had to come out before too long ’cause I knew I’d be gettin’ weaker and would not be able to help the women or myself.
“The Indian girl was gonna try to get the slug out and she found my knife in my saddle bags. We had no whiskey or means of cleanin’ the blade so she sucked on it and then began diggin’. I told her to do it, that I’d be all right, hopin’ to give her courage. I think it was me tryin’ to find the guts ’cause I really wanted to tell her to go easy, but there really was no point. I had to trust in her. That was the first time I had a slug dug out from my side, but experience told me, I knew what to expect. I don’t know whether she’d ever done anythin’ like it before, but she was good. She quickly found the slug and then the real pain began. I wanted to scream, but didn’t. As she dug with my knife I held on to the scream until I passed out.
“I was dreamin’ of unicorns and angels. Weird dreams really, but when I came round I knew why. Fay kept calling me angel ’cause I was helpin’ them and unicorn on account of my honesty. I’d given her some money earlier for her to go buy some stuff they needed. She was quite tickled with the idea ’cause she said there was no one to pay. I just said leave it there and they’ll know and she said I sure was a unicorn.
“When I came round I can’t say I felt much better, but the slug was out and they’d bandaged me up real good with a strip of Kay’s best petticoat. I felt too weak to get up and Kay made me rest. It’s amazin’ what a small lump of lead can do to ya.
“Anyway before the trouble was over three of the fellas were dead. Fay had given the girl one of my last bullets and sent her through the hole to next door to find some ammunition and the next thing we knew was the fellas had her. There was nothin’ for it but for me to go through the hole and see if I could do anythin’. I know I wasn’t feelin’ too good, but I couldn’t not do somethin’ otherwise I couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t have all ended up dead.
“I managed to climb on a wagon bed and sneaked up on the young’n and tried throttlin’ him with my rifle rammed back against his wind pipe, but I didn’t have the strength and he ducked, hurlin’ me over his head on to the side walk. We scuffled together for a while. It was my fast reaction which saved me as he went for his gun. My rifle was by me and I grabbed it and fired my last bullet and he was thrown back, dead before he hit the mud and dirt.
“Then after staggering up the side walk, I found myself facin’ the barrel of a handgun. The new fella was usin’ the Indian gal as a shield. I was a goner for sure, but before he squeezed the trigger, one of the warnin’ rockets over at the dam went up and as he looked to see it the girl knocked his gun hand and I was able to jump him. We struggled, but again I was too weak to take him and found myself facin’ death lookin’ back up the barrel of his gun. I was sure I was a goner, but as I braced myself ready to meet my maker another gun went off and he fell back to die in the mud of the street. Fay had helped herself to the gun from the young’n and had made no mistake with her aim. She had saved me. Her and the girl then rushed over to help me up, for we knew what one rocket meant. We had to get out of there fast ’cause the dam was givin’ way.
“Before we made to move a second rocket went up and we knew its meanin’ and felt sorely relieved. We knew the dam was gonna hold. I’m not sure we’d have made it out of the town before the waters came if the dam had given.
“The last fella, not bein’ a threat we left in the street nursin’ his dead brother the young’n and went over to the saloon. Three men were dead and all of it senseless. I remember while I was in the livery with Fay, her askin’ me why I helped her and the girl. There really wasn’t an answer ’ceptin’ it was the only thing I could do.
“I slept in the backroom through ’til mornin’ with the sharp pain in my side drivin’ my dreams. Dreams about bein’ desperately lost in the high country and findin’ a sign which some fella had put there to direct those unfortunates stupid enough to get themselves lost as I had. I told Fay about it and how I reckoned he’d have said the same as me, ‘it seemed the right thing to do’ and somehow I knew the guy who had left the sign would have done the same as I had that day too.
“The next day saw the return of the town sheriff and some of the town folk and I was wantin’ to get home. I know I wasn’t up to it, but I was determined to go. The lure of my home and family was too great. To think for years after the war I wandered aimlessly having no real place to call home. I still had my Mama, she bein’ the only family I had back then, but Strawberry was not a place I called home and I never had the inclin’ to go back there. But at that moment I was desperate to get home, to get back to the ranch, to get back to my family.
“The two women folk came along with me, Fay sayin’ that havin’ found a unicorn in the guise of an angel she’d be right silly to let it go. I never thought on myself as an angel let alone a unicorn, but Fay had a kindness about her and I couldn’t help but take to her. I’d tried to save them, but in the end it was them who saved me.
“And so it was together, the three of us set off. Half way home I was strugglin’ to stay aboard Charger not darin’ to stop for fear of not gettin’ home. Fay was forever beggin’ me to stop and rest. As I was gettin’ to the point where I knew I couldn’t stay in the saddle much longer and would have to give in to her beggin’ along came my angel and unicorn in the guise of my big brother.
“I heard the voice first and held tight on to the saddle horn and smiled through the haze at Nick. ’cause I was late back, he’d been worryin’ like a dog with a bone and had come out lookin’ for me. His face said it all, he didn’t need to be told what had happened. He didn’t need to ask. Next I knew Nick was mounted behind me supportin’ me in his arms and tellin’ me to steady. We were goin’ home. I fell back against him dreamin’ of horned unicorns, of angels singin’ in music halls, of dead looters, of pretty young Indian gals who never spoke, of a lovin’ family and a dark haired brother with a heart much bigger than his voice.”
“Come on Nick where are you?.... You’re scaring the heck out of me...... I thought you’d be here by now... The luncheon party is almost ready... The buzzards are gonna beat you to me... they’re already gathering up there... It must be coming up to noon... the sun is high now... should be warm... I’m startin’ to feel cold... I’ll try to get my jacket on again... aaaahhhhgg!… no good... can’t do it... can’t move my arm... I’ll pull it up and cover my front... still sweatin’ though... this ain’t good... Nick come on brother... I need ya... buzz off birds I ain’t meat yet.
“Them birds are almost as bad as Homer Roberts and the posse he sent after me when I went on that horse buying trip. He was supposed to have been a friend of Mothers and the family. It worked out in the end, but not until I’d been chased half way across the county and hunted like a rabid dog. Of course we weren’t to know before he had a loopy daughter who would take a fancy to me. I’ve been in some scrapes in my time, but that sure beat all...... Or did it...? Don’t know really.
“I’d completed the business and left their ranch and thought I’d call on Sarah at the mission before returnin’ home. Sarah had been a past girlfriend of mine. In many ways I reckon she’s probably the only one I really loved. I know I still hold a special place in my heart for her, but it’s no good. She is married to someone of a higher station than I’ll ever be. She made that quite clear to me. Even when we were together I knew she’d never be mine. Her heart was always promised and no way could I compete. That’s not to say I didn’t try.
“We were good for each other. She was fun to be with and to have around. It wasn’t long after I’d returned from New Mexico and I was workin’ a spread her way. I was young, wild and reckless and she was a calmin’ influence on me. We enjoyed each others company and I wanted desperately to marry her. I couldn’t offer her anythin’ except my devotion, but I was willin’ to settle down and try and make somethin’ out of my life if she’d have had me. I know I was broken hearted at the time, but I suppose she was right with her choice. I’d have probably messed up and we’d have ended up hatin’ each other instead of still havin’ the relationship we can share now.
“Well I’d only just arrived and happily amused myself watchin’ her struggling’ with Herman the mule before I said howdy. We’d hardly managed to get reacquainted when Homer Roberts comes ridin’ along, jumps off of his horse and strikes me square on the jaw, knockin’ me to the ground and accuses me of practically rapin’ his daughter. The whole idea was preposterous. Even if I’d have been desperate there was no way I’d have behaved like that. However proclaiming my innocence didn’t save me from bein’ locked in the jail pendin’ a trial on trumped up charges for which, if found guilty I’d have served the minimum of a ten year prison sentence .
“Sarah or Sister Jacob as she was now known came visitin’ me, bringin’ me a meal and even in jail she managed to lighten my load and we laughed together as we used to do. She always had a good sense of humor, a little wicked, truthfully. She even found humor in laughin’ at a man’s last meal before facin’ the gallows and had me splittin’ my sides.
“Well I tried explainin’ to her what had happened with me and Carla Roberts, but she didn’t need to hear. She said she knew I would never do anythin’ like that. It felt good to know she trusted me.
“But Roberts now was somethin’ else. He seemed to have had that town under his control, mind, it was called Robertsville. Well he arranged for the trial to be held before Jarrod could get there knowin’ it takes a good two days to get from home. Sarah got wind of it and there she was holdin’ the sheriff at gunpoint and breakin’ me out of jail. I suppose there couldn’t be a better camouflage for me than leavin’ town with a nun. Sarah sure had spunk.
“Before things turned nasty, we were able to have time together and reminisce on times gone by and to catch up on what we’d been doin’ since we were together. I was able to tell her about the wonderful family I had found and how I’d learned to belong and how I’d finally settled down. That’s when I realized I still loved her. That she could have been a part of my family. We camped out most of the first night and I chuckled at her countin’ her rosary beads askin’ for forgiveness for what she had done. I really don’t know what God would have thought, but I’d have been happy if he’d have divorced her.
“I heard a sound and took the handgun Sarah had used to break me out of jail, but found it was only a coyote snoopin’ round. It was after that I found out that the gun was empty. I knew all this could have only been happenin’ to me. Only Heath Barkley could be broken out of jail, not only by a nun, but by one threatenin’ a sheriff with an unloaded handgun. If Nick had been there I would have been a runnin’ joke. It was bad enough explainin’ it to him when I was home.
“The next morning we tried to distance ourselves further from the town and Sarah sought refuge with an old missionary, name of Paco. She hoped we’d be safe there and it would give enough time for Jarrod to get to town.
“It was while at Paco’s I made the mistake of telling Sarah I still loved her. I don’t know why I said it. At the time it seemed right and it just kinda came out. It only opened up old wounds for the both of us. I’m afraid she made sure I understood my position in her life.
“Well the time we’d hoped for wasn’t to be. Of course by escapin’ I hadn’t made it any easier on myself. Paco saw the posse comin’ in the distance and I had to make a run for it. I didn’t want Sarah or the old man gettin’ caught in any shootin’. I raced out to the coral and jumped on the carriage horse and escaped with the posse poundin’ after me.
“There was no way I could run forever, the horse didn’t have it in it. I needed to stop and hide, but I also needed a gun and ammunition. I hid up in the rocks and was able to jump one of the deputies, steal his gun belt, gun and horse and make another desperate run for it. I took a slug to my shoulder which threw me off the horse. I was able to fire off a couple of shots from the deputy’s gun and warn off some of the posse, but I knew time was runnin’ out for me. All I could do was hide up in the rocks and ward them off. I reckon I was pretty desperate by then.
“I had had time enough to reflect on prison life and there was no way I could face it again. I could tell there was no way these fellas were gonna take me alive and that suited me. But there was no way I was gonna give in and stop fightin’. Fightin’ for my freedom. Fightin’ for my life. I would fight to the end. The ultimate end. The only trouble was the pain in my shoulder was wearin’ me down. I thought if I could manage to last ’til dark, I might have a means of sneaking away, but the way I was feeling chances of that was startin’ to seem slim. I needed to stay clear in my head. I needed to think and to stay awake. The sun was burnin’ down on me and adding’ to my hopelessness and desperation. I was scared.
“I’d been runnin’ and hidin’ for most of the day and I was tired and weary and sick when I heard Mother’s voice. I thought I was dreamin’. I could not imagine what Mother was doin’ out there. I thought my mind was playin’ tricks on me. The posse were comin’ in for the kill and I knew I couldn’t hold out much longer and readied myself to die fightin’.
“Before I knew what was happenin’, the gun fire had ceased and Mother was there holdin’ me or was I holdin’ her? I can’t remember. She had put herself between the men and their bullets and forced them to give up the fight. She had made them doubt the truth of what Homer Roberts was sayin’. I still was not sure I wasn’t dreamin’ though. It just seemed so unreal that Mother would be there. I was weak and thankful and held on to my tears. I was grateful for the bravery of two women who were both dear to my heart, Mother and Sarah.
“It wasn’t ’til the next day that Mother explained what had happened. I hadn’t been up to it the night before. I can remember bein’ able to ride and insisted on goin’ back to the mission. I was anxious about Sarah. The Mother Superior was very understandin’ and took us in for the night. Sister Jacob had arrived back safely earlier in the day and the Mother Superior thought her worry for me was penance enough for her crimes. I had my wound cleaned and dressed. The bullet had not done much damage. It had struck and glanced off the bone and exited. I was sore and bruised, but after a restful night I felt almost good again, well enough to ride out that day with my arm in a sling.
“After his short stay in jail, Jarrod joined us in the morning’ and Mother explained about Carla, Roberts’ daughter. Apparently Roberts appeared relieved it was out in the open and was sorely sorry for his behavior. He made a promise to build a new school for the mission. I reckon Jarrod had something’ to do with that. Jarrod’s real smart and likes keeping his halo polished.
“We said our farewells and I said mine to Sarah, dearly wantin’ to take her in my arms and kiss her, but knowin’ I couldn’t. Well I didn’t get to ride home with Nick, but I did accompany my eldest brother and a beautiful brave lady, my Mother. A sad and sorrowful cowboy like myself couldn’t wish for better company or family.
“Now Sister Jacob......”