The wind picked up briskly, nearly blowing Nick’s hat from his head and like Heath and the other men on the cattle drive, he pulled his neck kerchief up over his mouth and nose to keep from inhaling the blowing sand. Verbal communication was nearly impossible over the roar of the wind in their ears, so they resorted to hand motions and flailing arms to communicate with each other as they steered the herd of Herefords they’d purchased in Modesto down to the Barkley ranch.
The trip had been one of the easiest ever and Nick and Heath were happily surprised that the cattle drive had taken just over four weeks and not the six weeks they had expected it would. Like always, they were looking forward to getting off the trail and getting back home to their loving family. Cattle drives were a necessary part of the life of a rancher but the boys never looked forward to them and had even been thinking of following their neighbor’s lead and start transporting cattle by way of the railroad. It was a costly venture but it would cut their time away from the ranch in half.
“Boy howdy, where’d this wind come from?” Heath asked, riding up beside his older brother and shouting to be heard over the roar of the wind.
“I don’t know boy,” Nick said, shouting just as loud. “But I’ll sure be glad when it dies down!”
“What the heck was that!” Heath asked suddenly, pointing off into the distance.
Following Heath’s outstretched finger with his eyes, Nick looked off into the distance and after a few seconds, he too saw a strange light in the sky.
“Lightening,” he said. “We better get these cattle out of the area or we’re gonna lose a few of ‘em to it.”
Nodding, Heath started to head back to his point position on the drive but the flashing lights in the sky seemed to have him transfixed and rooted to the spot.
“I think it’s movin’, Nick!” he shouted over the ever growing sound of the wind.
“Movin’?” Nick shouted skeptically. He was ready to refute Heath’s statement but then he saw it himself and a feeling of disquiet settled over him.
“I think you’re right!” he shouted. “Tell the men to steer ‘em East and fast! We’ll have ta try ta go around it!”
“Alright!” Heath said, riding off quickly and giving Nick’s instructions to the other men on the drive. Nick watched as his brother showed the men the flashing lights in the sky and he watched as the men all hesitated at first as they caught sight of the lights and then quickly went into action. Both the men and the cattle seemed frightened as the lights bared down on them.
They changed the direction of the herd, pushing them hard, away from the lights and looking fearfully over their shoulders the entire time. Nick rode drag, bringing up the rear and hearing the distressed call of a baby calf, which had gotten lost in the frenzy, he turned and saw that the calf was tangled in brush and trying desperately to free itself. Nick immediately turned to go back for the calf, but the sight of the flashing lights bearing down on him brought him up short. The speed at which the lights moved towards them seemed almost impossible and Nick stood transfixed in its wake until once more, the braying of the baby calf brought him out of his reverie. Nick’s throat went dry and his heart pounded in his chest as the lights bore down on him. He wanted nothing more than to turn and hightail it out of there, but he couldn’t leave that calf there on its own. Hopping from Coco’s back, he ran over to free the entangled, frightened calf.
Turning just in time to see his brother jump down from his horse, Heath’s breath caught in his throat as he watched Nick run towards the flashing lights. “Nick, don’t!” Heath yelled, fear for his brother’s life coursing through him as he spurred Charger and headed after Nick. Running towards the calf, the wind nearly knocked Nick over and he had to lean into it to finally get to the terrified animal. He worked frantically, never taking his eyes off the lights as he tried to free the calf.
“Nick!” Heath shouted desperately into the wind. “Nick! What are ya doin’!” He rode up just as Nick finally freed the calf and looking at the flashing lights rapidly approaching his brother, Heath’s eyes widened in horror. “Hurry Nick!” he cried, trying to force Charger over to his brother, but the frightened horse refused to go any further. Terrified, Heath jumped down from Charger’s back to get to Nick. Nick struggled towards him and Heath reached out his hand to his brother just as Nick reached out his. Their fingertips mere inches apart, Heath cried out in terror just as their fingertips touched and the light engulfed Nick, surrounding him and consuming him.
“NICK!” Heath shouted, just as the light brightened, nearly blinding him as it swallowed his brother and then, Nick was gone.
Moaning in agony, Nick tried unsuccessfully to open his eyes but found even that simple act was too daunting a task. He sighed gratefully as he felt someone place a cool, damp cloth on his heated forehead.
‘Mother,’ he thought to himself with a smile. ‘That’s Mother’s touch.’
He heard muffled voices but couldn’t make out what was being said, or who was saying it. Every inch of his body felt as if it was on fire and the slightest movement caused him the most severe pain he’d ever imagined.
He felt another cool, damp cloth wiping down his torso and he wanted to thank whomever his savior was for knowing what to do, but he couldn’t seem to open his mouth. He felt as if he were burning up from the inside out and every time he felt that cool wetness against his hot skin, he could do no more than sigh in contentment.
‘Thank you, Mother.’
He wanted to say the words out loud but could only manage to speak them in his mind. He now realized how Heath must have felt on those many days when the fever had its grips on him.
‘Heath!’ he thought suddenly. ‘Oh God! Where’s Heath! The light took him! It took him! We have ta find him! We have ta find Heath!’
The words were only in his mind but he thought he was shouting them aloud. The last thing he remembered was his brother’s hand reaching out to him after he’d freed the calf and then the lights had come. It had surrounded Heath and taken him away. The next thing Nick remembered was waking up to his Mother’s touch.
Nick felt strong hands pushing him down on the bed and he realized he must have tried to get up.
“I….I have ta…..find him…..” he croaked.
“Find who?” a voice asked.
“My…..my brother….” Nick rasped weakly. “I have ta…..find him.”
“Lay back son,” the voice said. “If your brother’s out there somewhere, we’ll help you find him.”
The voice sounded familiar to Nick but he couldn’t place it.
“Is he gonna be alright, doc?” Heath asked.
Hearing that last voice, a smile came to Nick’s face as he recognized his brother speaking. ‘And “doc” must be Dr. Merar,’ he thought to himself as he felt himself slipping into unconsciousness.
‘Heath is alright,’ Nick thought to himself as he gave in to the darkness. ‘That’s all that matters.’
Looking up at Heath, who was standing there looking worriedly down at Nick, Dr. Merar said, “He said he had a brother out there somewhere. Did you find anyone else around?”
“No,” Heath said. “I didn’t see anybody else out there but him.”
“And you say you don’t know who he is?” Dr. Merar asked.
“Nope,” Heath said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “I’ve never seen 'im before in my life.”
Nick blinked sluggishly and turning his head to the side, he felt the sunlight shining on his face through the window as he slowly opened his eyes. Judging from the position of the sun in the sky, he figured it must be about ten o’clock in the morning and realizing he had overslept, he quickly tried to get up but was immediately pushed back down on the bed. He moaned as his head began to spin and he shut his eyes tightly to fight off a dizzy spell. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes again and looking around at his surroundings, he asked groggily, “What am I doin’ in the guest bedroom? Did I tie one on last night and lose my way?”
“Well uh, we usually put guests in the guest bedroom,” Heath drawled.
Turning his head quickly at the sound of Heath’s voice, and instantly regretting it as his head began to spin again, Nick said, “That ain’t funny boy. I’m perfectly capable of findin’ my way to my own room.”
“Well that’s gonna be kinda hard ta do without a horse,” Heath said from the chair beside Nick’s bed.
Staring over at him in confusion, Nick asked, “A horse? Now Heath I may have had a few too many last night but I’m not THAT hung over!”
“Well I don’t know how else you’re gonna find your room without one,” Heath said, pulling his tobacco pouch and rolling papers from his vest pocket. “Lest you walk, that is.”
“Boy, just what the devil are you talkin’ about?” Nick asked, looking at his brother as if he’d lost his mind.
“I think we were talkin’ about your room,” Heath said quietly, sitting back in his chair and resting his right ankle on his left thigh.
“I know what I’m talkin’ about!” Nick shouted, quickly grabbing his head as a sharp pain coursed through it. “I’m tryin’ ta figure out what you’re talkin’ about!”
“Your room,” Heath said again. “Is it in town at the Cattlemen’s Club?”
Nick looked at him in shock as he started to roll a cigarette. “The Cattlemen’s Club?” he asked.
“Or maybe it’s at the hotel?” Heath offered, seeing the confusion on Nick’s face.
“The hotel?” Nick asked.
“Boy howdy, somebody musta let a parrot in here,” Heath chuckled.
“Boy, have you lost your mind?” Nick yelled.
“Now there’s no need ta git all riled up,” Heath said, puffing on his cigarette.
Sighing, and sinking back on his pillows, Nick said, “Sometimes I worry about you Heath, I really do.”
His left eyebrow rising, Heath looked at him curiously and asked, “How’d you know my name by the way?”
Nick lifted his head and looked at him, “How’d I know your name?” he asked incredulously. “Well now, I’d be a little foolish if I didn’t know my own brother’s name, now wouldn’t I?”
“Your brother?” Heath asked.
“That’s right! My brother!” Nick yelled. “And don’t think I’m gonna let you get away with this just because I’m laid up right now!”
Looking at him and cocking his head to one side, Heath asked, “You think I’m your brother?”
Sighing in exasperation, Nick said, “No, I don’t think you’re my brother, I know you’re my brother!”
“I think we’d better get the doctor back out here for ya,” Heath said worriedly.
“I don’t need ta see Dr. Merar!” Nick snapped as he tried to sit up again. “Just help me up outta here!”
Heath quickly rose and gently pushed him back down on the bed. “How do you know Dr. Merar?” he asked. “You from around these parts?”
“Boy, one of us has lost his mind and I can guarantee you it ain’t me!” Nick snapped.
“I think you’d better rest for a while,” Heath said. “I’ll have Ciego send one of the men for the doctor.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Nick said, suddenly exhausted from his exertions. “And make sure he examines that head of yours thoroughly,” he mumbled as sleep began to claim him again.
Standing up, Heath pulled the light coverlet up to Nick’s chin and tucked him in as he watched him doze off.
“Poor fella,” Heath said, looking down at him. “Don’t worry. If you can’t find your family, you can stay here with us for a while. I always did want another big brother,” he said smiling down at the sleeping stranger. Turning, he walked out the room and left the door open so that they could hear Nick if he started to stir again. Heath wasn’t sure who this man in their guest bedroom was, but he instantly took a liking to him and somehow, it didn’t bother him that the man seemed to think he was his brother. Heath smiled at that thought and walked down the hall and down the stairs.
“He seems ta think I'm his brother,” Heath told the family as they sat around the table, eating lunch.
“His brother?” Jarrod asked. “Where’d he get that idea?”
“I’m not sure,” Heath said slowly. “He must still be out of his head with the fever.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s it,” Victoria said. “Once his fever breaks, he’ll be in his right mind again and we can find out who he is and where he came from.”
Nick threw his cover back and sat up slowly. Waiting for the dizzy spell to pass, he gently eased his feet over the side of the bed and sat there for a second as he waited for his head to clear.
“Where the heck are my pajamas?” he wondered as he looked down at the white, cotton pajamas someone had dressed him in. “If that boy thinks this is funny,” he fumed, “then he’s gonna find out the hard way not ta pick on his big brother!”
Standing unsteadily on weak legs, Nick slowly made his way over to the door and taking a deep breath, he started down the hall. Coming to his own bedroom, he turned the knob and pushed the door opened. His mouth dropped open as he stepped into the room and found that it looked exactly as it had when his mother and father occupied it years ago, before his father’s death.
“Yes, can I help you?” the large man sitting in the chair in front of the fireplace asked.
Nick’s face went white. “Father?”
The man looked at him in confusion as he stood up. “No I’m not your father,” the man said gently. “I’m Tom Barkley. My son, Heath, found you out on the south pasture and brought you here.”
“You’re alive,” Nick said, in shock.
“Are you all right, son?” Tom asked worriedly.
Tom barely had time to reach Nick and catch him in his arms as Nick’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
“Heath! Jarrod! Silas!” Tom yelled. “Get up here! Now!”
Nick moaned in his sleep, mumbling over and over as he tossed this way and that.
“Still no change?” Tom asked, coming up behind Victoria and placing a strong but gentle hand on her shoulder.
She was wiping Nick’s brow with a damp cloth, trying to bring his fever down.
“No, and I’m getting worried,” Victoria said. “He keeps mumbling something about lights,” she told her husband.
“What kind of lights?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know,” Victoria said. “He keeps saying "the lights took him.”
“Took who?” Tom asked.
“His brother,” she said, turning and looking up at her husband. “He said the lights took his brother, Heath.”
“Ya can’t watch ‘im day and night, son,” Tom said, as he looked in the guest bedroom and saw Heath standing vigil at Nick’s bedside.
“I know, Father,” Heath said softly, looking over at the one man he loved and respected above all others. “I’m just worried about ‘im. Seems he’s gettin’ worse, not better.”
Tom walked into the room and looked down at Nick who was sleeping soundly after having taken a large dose of laudanum, administered by Victoria.
“You get anythin’ else out of ‘im before he finally calmed down?” Tom asked.
“Not much,” Heath said. “Only that his name is Nick and he says he’s from the San Joaquin Valley. Father, he still thinks I’m his brother and that you and mother are his parents,” Heath said worriedly. “He wants ta know why we have ‘im here in the guest bedroom instead of in his own room.”
Sighing with concern, Tom said, “I just don’t know what kinda trauma he could’ve faced ta unhinge his mind this way. You usually don’t see this type of thing in one so young,” he said.
“I know,” Heath said thoughtfully as he slowly nibbled his thumbnail. “He’s just so sure about everythin’, Father.”
Looking over at his blond son, Tom asked, “What do you mean, son?”
“I don’t know,” Heath said, exhaling loudly. “I mean, how can you explain the fact that he knows all of us by name and not only that, he’s described the entire layout of this house and the ranch to me. The only thing he got wrong was how a couple of the rooms are decorated.”
“He could have found those things out by listenin’ to our neighbors,” Tom suggested.
“Maybe,” Heath said, skeptically, “but I think there’s more to it than that. He seems ta think your room is his and he thinks…..”
“Go on, son,” Tom urged gently.
“He thinks you’re dead, Father,” Heath said softly. “He thinks you were murdered in a dispute with the railroad.”
“What?” Tom asked, looking from Heath, down to Nick.
“Says it happened years ago,” Heath said. “He thinks he’s been runnin’ this ranch ever since then.”
“Well,” Tom sighed, “I guess there’s nothin’ else we can do for ‘im here, son. I’ll have Dr. Merar ride out tomorrow and he can take ‘im back to town with ‘im when he leaves. They have places where they put people with his kind of problem.”
“You mean a sanitarium?” Heath asked fearfully.
“I’m afraid so, son,” Tom said. “We don’t want ‘im to become a danger to himself or to any of us. I think it’s best he leave with the doctor tomorrow.”
“I don’t know,” Heath said, gripping the railing at the foot of Nick’s bed. “I don’t think he’s crazy, Father, I just think he’s…..confused or somethin’.”
“Well, the doctors at the sanitarium can figure that out once they examine him,” Tom said, placing his hand on Heath’s shoulder. “Now lets get goin’ son,” he said with a smile. “This is a workin’ ranch you know.”
“Alright,” Heath said sadly as he walked over to the door with his Father. He turned and looked back at Nick and wished there was something he could do to keep him out of the sanitarium but he couldn’t come up with anything. Pulling his gloves from his belt, he slid his hands into them as he followed his Father down the stairs and out the front door. He would think on it some more while they worked the ranch, and hopefully he would come up with something before Dr. Merar arrived tomorrow.
Nick opened his eyes and noticed the room was dark except for the oil lamp burning low on the table beside his bed. The sun had gone down hours ago and the rumbling in his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in over twenty four hours. Turning his head, he smiled as he saw Heath sitting in the chair beside his bed, his feet propped up on the bed and his chin resting in his palm as he snored softly. Nick didn’t want to wake him but he needed food and if he didn’t get some soon, his loudly rumbling stomach would wake Heath anyway. Throwing back the covers he gently pushed himself up and feeling him stir, Heath instantly came awake and looked over at him. “Whoa!” Heath whispered as he sprang up and pushed Nick back down on the bed. “Just where do ya think you’re goin’?”
“Well I was goin’ ta get somethin’ ta eat if it’s alright with you!” Nick said irritably.
“No need,” Heath said, walking over to the cart in the center of the room and picking up a large tray. He carried it across the room and sat it down on the night stand as he leaned over and helped Nick sit up, fluffing his pillows behind him.
“Thank you,” Nick said, smiling in anticipation as Heath placed the tray on his lap and removed the cover.
Nick’s smile faded instantly as he looked at the bowl of warm broth on his tray. “Just what the devil is this?” he asked angrily.
“Silas’s own chicken broth with extra celery,” Heath informed him as he took his seat.
“And just what am I supposed ta do with it?” Nick asked angrily.
“Well, now,” Heath said sitting forward in his chair, “You see that shiny thing beside your bowl there?” he asked.
Nick looked around in confusion trying to figure out what Heath was talking about. “My spoon?” he asked bewildered as he picked up the spoon and held it in his hand.
“That’s right,” Heath said in all seriousness. “Now, you put that thing in your bowl of soup, ya lift it, slide it in your mouth and swallow the soup down.”
Heath thought Nick was going to explode as his eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched and his face turned bright red.
“OUT!” Nick ordered, pointing toward the door. “Get out of here and don’t come back ‘til I send for ya!”
Heath was doubled over with laughter as he quickly made his way to the door and closed it behind him just as the bowl of soup crashed against the other side of it.
“What was that, Mr. Heath?” Silas asked, stepping out of the linen closet.
Still laughing, Heath said, “I think you’d better prepare somethin’ else for our guest other than broth Silas. It didn’t seem ta sit too well with ‘im.”
Looking skeptically at the closed door of the guest bedroom, Silas said, “But Dr. Merar says he’s ta have soup, Mr. Heath.”
“I know that Silas,” Heath said with a smile as he walked over and placed his hand on Silas’s shoulder, “but I’ll take full responsibility if it gets back to the doctor.”
“Well, if you say so, Mr. Heath,” Silas said. He gave the bedroom door one more look and then he turned and walked down the stairs to prepare something else for their guest as Heath leaned against the sturdy banister with his arms crossed over his chest and waited for Silas to return. He didn’t have to wait long and this time, Silas handed him a tray and on the plate, there were two hot roast beef sandwiches, a large helping of mashed potatoes smothered in mushroom gravy, corn on the cob, some vegetables and a large glass of cold milk.
“Thank you Silas,” Heath said with a smile. “If this don’t settle that mean old bear down, nothin’ will.”
Silas walked over and opened the door to the guest bedroom for him and Heath walked inside with the tray to face Nick’s wrath. Silas closed the door behind Heath and shaking his head and mumbling to himself, he said, “That boy’s always adoptin’ strays. First it was bullfrogs and worms, then dogs and cats, now he’s gone and adopted himself another brother. Lordy bee,” Silas said, shaking his head and walking down the stairs.
“I thought I told you I didn’t want ta see ya again unless I sent for ya!” Nick said, glaring angrily at Heath.
“I know ya did, Nick” Heath said with a smile, “but I brought ya a peace offerin’,” he said, holding up the tray.
“Hmmm? What’s that?” Nick asked, curiously.
Heath walked over and placed the tray on Nick’s lap and was rewarded with a beatific smile from the hungry stranger.
“Well now,” Nick said happily, as he picked up a sandwich and took a large bite from it. “This is more like it!”
Heath sat down and watched him eat. “Now don’t say I never done nothin’ for ya,” Heath said, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.
“Heath, you’re the best little brother I guy like me could ever hope ta have,” Nick said, gulping down his roast beef and spooning a hefty helping of mashed potatoes and vegetables into his mouth. He was enjoying his meal so much, that he didn’t notice Heath’s smile fade at the mention of the word “brother.”
“I think you and I had better have a talk,” Heath said.
“Go on, I’m listenin’,” Nick said, biting into his corn on the cob.
“It’s about those lights you keep mentionin’,” Heath said.
Nick froze for a moment and then slowly, resumed his eating.
“What about them?” he asked.
“Where did they come from?” Heath asked.
Swallowing his food and taking a large sip from his glass of milk, Nick said, “I told ya, they came from the sky.”
“But what happened to them after that?” Heath asked.
“How am I supposed ta know,” Nick said, growing irritated again. “The last thing I remember was those lights swallowin’ you up and the next thing I know, I wake up here, in the guest bedroom by the way,” he said, waving his spoon disapprovingly at the walls.
“What do you remember right before the lights came?” Heath asked.
Sighing and sitting back against his pillow, Nick said, “You, me and the boys were out on a cattle drive. We’d been away from home for a few weeks and we were just returnin’ when you first spotted those lights…..”
“I spotted them?” Heath asked, leaning forward in his chair.
“That’s right! You spotted them!” Nick said, taking another bite from his sandwich.
“Then what happened?” Heath asked, thoughtfully.
“Nothin’,” Nick said. “We told the men about the lights, I went back for that blasted calf and when you came ridin’ over ta help me, that’s when the lights got ya! I tell ya somethin’ boy,” Nick said, his voice growing quiet and soft as he looked into Heath’s worried blue eyes, “for a minute there, I didn’t think I was ever gonna see ya again.”
A moment passed between them and they sat there looking at each other. Heath felt his chest constrict and his breath caught in his throat. Nick looked away and began to eat again but Heath knew that Nick felt it too. This man wasn’t crazy and somehow, Heath believed every word he was saying even if it didn’t make sense to him. This man wasn’t a lunatic, nor a liar and Heath knew that he had to find a way to prove that before Dr. Merar came and took him away tomorrow. Standing, Heath said, “You’d better get some rest now.”
Nick nodded and Heath took the empty tray from his lap.
“Thanks for dinner little brother,” Nick said with a yawn as he lay back on his pillows.
Smiling slightly, Heath said, “You’re welcome….” and the words “big brother” almost escaped his lips before he bit them back with a mighty effort. He turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
“I can’t let Father send ya away tomorrow,” Heath said to himself as he carried the tray down the stairs. “I don’t know where ya came from or where you’re goin’ but I know you don’t belong in a sanitarium. I have ta make Father realize that. I have ta make him understand that I need more time with ya ta figure this all out.” Leaving the tray in the empty kitchen, he walked out the back door and rolled a cigarette as he contemplated tomorrow. One way or another, Heath was determined to keep Nick there at the ranch with him.
Heath smiled as he stood in the doorway of the guest bedroom with his arms folded over his chest as he watched his mother fuss over Nick.
“You’ll do nothing of the kind!” Victoria scolded. “You’re going to lay right here and get well and that’s all you’re going to do!”
“The boys need me out there!” Nick complained loudly. “You can’t expect this ranch to run itself, now can you?”
“My husband has been running this ranch for the last thirty years,” Victoria said, placing a cool, damp cloth on his fevered forehead. “And he’ll continue to run it. Now if you wish to stay on here and help out after you’re feeling better, you may do so, but until then, you’re staying in this bed until that fever goes down!”
“But Mother!” Nick protested, instantly wiping the grin off of Heath’s face. ‘He still thinks he’s related to us,’ Heath thought to himself miserably. ‘If he keeps that up, I don’t know how I’m gonna keep ‘im out of that sanitarium Father’s been talkin’ about.’
“Don’t try to talk your way out of it!” Victoria said. “And don’t think calling me “Mother” is going to change my mind! I’d do the same thing if it were one of my own children so don’t think you’re going to get any special privileges from me!” she said with a chuckle.
“Huh?” Nick said, looking up at her in confusion.
“You just lay there and don’t give me any more arguments,” Victoria said, fluffing his pillows.
Nick laid back on his pillows and looked up at her. What did she mean her husband, his father, had been running the ranch for the last thirty years? Father’s death was a terrible blow to all of them but over the course of time, they had come to terms with it and had moved on. And now here she was, six years after Father’s death, talking about him as if he never died. Nick looked past her and over at Heath who was still standing in the doorway. The expression on Heath’s face was one of confusion but also of fear.
‘What’s goin’ on here?’ Nick asked himself. Looking back up at Victoria, he said, “Mother, is everythin’ all right? I mean, are you feelin’ all right?”
“Don’t worry about me, young man,” Victoria said. “You just concentrate on getting well.”
“But, but Father,” Nick said, apprehensively. “You said Father’s been runnin’ this ranch for the last thirty years.”
Sighing in resignation, Victoria said, “Oh all right, if you insist on referring to my husband and I as your father and mother, I don’t suppose there’s any harm in that. I’m sure your own parents would rest easy knowing you’re well taken care of and that you’re being treated like family. But yes, my husband, Tom Barkley, built this home and the ranch thirty years ago and has been working it ever since. I’m sure he can manage a few more days without your help,” she teased.
Nick again looked over at Heath who avoided his eyes by looking down at his boots. “Can you tell me what’s goin’ on here, boy?” Nick asked him.
“I think it’s just your fever, Nick” Heath said, unable to admit what he feared might be true. “Sometimes a fever can make things seem…….different than they really are.”
Unconvinced, Nick said, “And what about Father? Is my fever makin’ it seem like he’s alive when we all know he was murdered six years ago.”
Victoria’s hand went to her chest as she gasped in horror. “Oh. I’m so sorry,” she said, taking one of Nick’s large hands in her own. “It’s a terrible thing to lose ones parents. Were you very close to him?”
“Of course I was close to him!” Nick said, looking up at her incredulously. “You know I was close to him!”
“I don’t understand,” Victoria said. “I don’t see how you could think I knew your father or how close you were to him.”
“Oh now come on!” Nick said in exasperation as he pushed himself up into a sitting position and leaned back on the pillows. “This little practical joke of yours has gone far enough!”
Victoria looked at him in astonishment and looked over at Heath, her eyes full of questions.
“Maybe you should let me sit with ‘im for a while, Mother,” Heath said, walking into the room and placing his hand on Victoria’s shoulder.
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Victoria asked, looking up at her blond son.
“I'm not sure,” Heath said. “I think he’s just upset right now.”
Victoria looked back at Nick who was scowling darkly at her. “You should rest now,” she said, soothingly. “I’ll bring you up some breakfast in a little while.”
“I don’t want any breakfast!” Nick said stubbornly. “I want some answers!”
“I’ll sit with ‘im for a while, Mother,” Heath said softly.
“But your father’s expecting you to help him on the north pasture today,” Victoria said, still watching Nick closely.
“And I will,” Heath promised. “I just want ta make sure Nick’s all right before I go.”
Breathing in deeply and exhaling slowly, Victoria said, “Alright son, as she stood up and let Heath take the chair beside Nick’s bed. “But you’ll call me if…..you need anything,” she said, her eyes straying back to Nick.
“Yes, I will,” Heath said as Victoria leaned down and placed a kiss on his head. “I’ll tell your father you’re going to be a while,” she said.
“Thank you Mother,” Heath said. I won’t be long.”
Victoria walked from the room and closed the door behind her. She stood there for a moment, replaying the conversation with Nick, over and over in her head. ‘It’s as if he thinks…….no, that can’t be possible. But still……the way he looked at me just now and the things he said……Heath said it was his fever making him talk that way but I think it’s more than that. I think he truly believes in his heart and mind that Tom and I are his parents, and for a second there, I felt as if……no! It’s too fantastic! And why does he think Tom will be murdered? Is that a threat or a premonition?’ A chill ran through her and she rubbed her hands over her arms as she looked back at the bedroom door. ‘It’s strange but even after everything he said, I somehow feel drawn to him,’ she thought to herself. ‘It’s as if I’ve known him before and yet, I know I’ve never met him before Heath brought him to the house.’ Shaking her head, she walked down the hall and down the stairs, her troubled mind still puzzling over the stranger in her guest bedroom.
“You wanna tell me what that was all about?” Nick demanded as he stared over at Heath.
“I’m not really sure Nick,” Heath said, sitting forward in his chair and folding his hands.
“Well what the devil was she talkin’ about?” Nick asked loudly. “What does she mean Father’s been runnin’ this ranch for the last thirty years! She knows good and well that….” his words trailed off as he suddenly found himself unable to speak about his father’s death. “Well, she knows!” he said stubbornly. “And the whole valley knows I’ve been runnin’ this ranch for the last six years, just as Father would have wanted me to!”
“Nick, I don't know what’s goin’ on here,” Heath said softly, “But somethin’s happened. Somethin’s makin’ ya think you’re a part of this family when you’re not. Now as much as I would love ta have ya for a big brother, it’s just not true. I have one brother and his name is Jarrod. Jarrod Barkley and he’s……”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about, boy!” Nick demanded. “Has everyone in this house gone crazy? First Mother, and now you! I guess next you’ll be tellin’ me that I don’t have a sister named Audra!”
Sighing, Heath said, “You don’t have a sister named Audra, Nick. I do.”
“Boy, I’m about two seconds away from layin’ you flat!” Nick threatened.
Reaching in his vest pocket, Heath pulled out and old black and white photo that he carried with him where ever he went. “This is a picture of me and my family, Nick,” he said handing the photo to Nick.
Nick smiled as he reached for the photo. He knew it well because he carried the same picture in his own pocket. He looked at all the faces in the picture and his heart filled with love as it always did when he looked at it, and suddenly, his heart went cold and his breath caught in his throat.
“Where am I?” he asked, the fear in his eyes matching that in his voice as his head snapped up quickly and he looked over at Heath. “Where am I? I’m supposed ta be in this picture! I’m supposed ta be right here!” he shouted, pointing to an empty space at the far end of the photograph. “What have you done, boy!” he demanded. “You playin’ games with me? Erasin’ me out of a picture for your own amusement? Well let me tell ya somethin’! It’s not funny!”
“It’s no game, Nick,” Heath said softly, his heart breaking for the man he’d come to care so much about in such a short period of time. “That’s all of us,” he said. “That’s me and my whole family. There is no one else, Nick.”
“Get out!” Nick yelled, throwing the picture at him. “Get out of here and don’t come back until you’re ready ta stop playin’ games!”
Heath leaned over and picked the picture up from the floor. Standing, he placed it back in his vest pocket and walked slowly over to the door as he placed his hand on the knob. Turning, he looked back at Nick, who was staring out the window.
“I’m sorry Nick,” Heath said softly.
“Get out of here,” Nick said coldly, still refusing to turn and look at him.
Opening the door, Heath stepped out into the hall and closed it quietly behind him. “I believe ya Nick,” he said to himself. “I just don’t know how ta make anybody else believe ya.” He walked down the stairs and out the front door where he mounted Charger and rode over to the north pasture where his father and the hands awaited him. Heath was quiet as he worked beside his father, wondering the entire day what would become of Nick if he couldn’t help him. Sunset brought their work to an end and the tired, hungry men mounted their horses and rode back to the house.
Walking in the front door, Heath bounded up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“What’s your hurry boy?” Tom asked, walking up behind his son.
“I’m gonna check on Nick and then I’m gonna grab me a hot bath,” Heath told him.
Tom looked up at him curiously, his left eyebrow rising as he regarded his son. “Well, you can have the tub first,” Tom said, “but you needn't bother about Nick.”
“Whatdya mean?” Heath asked.
“He’s gone,” Tom told him. “I had Ciego send for Dr. Merar this mornin’ and they took ‘im away.”
“They who?” Heath demanded walking back down the stairs to face his father.
“Ciego rode out earlier and told me the doc and a couple of men picked him up and took ‘im ta town. They’re gonna put ‘im somewhere safe son,” he said softly, “where he can’t hurt himself or anybody else.”
“An asylum!” Heath yelled angrily, his blue eyes flashing.
“That’s right son,” Tom said. “It’s for his own good.”
Brushing past his father, Heath walked quickly down the stairs and over to the front door.
“Where ya goin?” Tom called after him.
“I’m goin' ta get ‘im!” Heath said, opening the door. “I’m goin’ ta get ‘im and bring ‘im back here!” He slammed the door behind him, leaving Tom standing there bewildered. “I just don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Tom said, as Victoria walked over to the foot of the stairs and looked up at him.
“It’s Nick,” she said softly. “Nick’s gotten into him and I’m afraid he may have gotten into me as well.” She turned and walked back into the library, wondering if Heath would be able to find Nick and bring him back. Deep down, she hoped he would.