Victoria was left alone in the dark with her youngest son. Though he had come round in her arms, his moment of consciousness was all too brief, enough only to say a few words and comprehend that he was free from the mud and the wagon which had held him captive for the last five hours. His mud caked head now lay asleep in his mother's lap, resting peacefully. In contrast, Victoria, who whilst he was awake, had offered him only reassurance and love, now worried fretfully over what to do next in her efforts to save her son.
Thinking back, she did not know how her small frame had found the strength to pull her son free from the wagon. All she knew, was that she would not see her son die. She had fought Dixon long and hard to get him to help, and he had fought her back every step of the way before finally agreeing. When he finally lifted the wagon off Heath, she found hers son was pinned down by the suction of the mud. Her efforts to free him seemed hopeless. Then something happened. From somewhere deep inside her she found the strength to pull him free. With bounty hunters still roaming the woods, gratitude had been swift and within moments Dixon had escaped into the woods to avoid recapture. Once again, mother and son were left alone, their ordeal far from over and just as dangerous as before.
Victoria did not consider herself either a feeble-minded woman or, one easily beaten. For such a small woman, she had stature and presence and was known for being fiercely protective of her family, her shooting of Evan Miles during his brutal assault on Audra was evidence of that. Now her newest son needed her protection and for a fleeting moment a sense of fallibility ovewhelmed her and made her doubt. Tired and exhausted, tears ran down her cheeks, coursing their way from mother to son and dampening his now far from blond hair. A smile broke through the tears as she dabbed his muddied locks, remembering their more usual washed appeal. Seeing the sweet, gentle face lying in her lap, she couldn't help but be reminded of her late husband, Tom. "You are your father's son, never doubt it Heath and I am glad you eventually became mine. Knowing and loving you as I do now, I would not have wished it any other way," she whispered as she bent down to kiss him on the lips in the way she did with all her children. In that respect Heath was no different.
A chill brought her back to the present and the danger Heath was in. She moved out from under him, carefully lowering his head to the ground and set about checking his injuries. A soft groan escaped his lips. She worked swiftly against time and the cold to check what damage had been done. It wasn't easy. The lantern was dying and the light was poor. Unbuttoning his shirt and the long johns he wore underneath she could see his abdomen was a mass of bruising from the ribcage down, but as far as she could make out it was mercifully free from signs of internal swelling. She prayed that her assessment was correct and that there was no hidden injury. A woman out West learned to become skilled in doctoring out of necessity, but there were some skills beyond her, she knew that. For the moment it would appear that the soft bed of the mud on which he had been thrown had served to cushion the impact of the wagon falling onto Heath, pushing him down into its suction rather than offering up resistance, which would have made his injuries worse.
Feeling down his lower body she could detect nothing broken and when Heath gave out no sound as she pressed down for injury, she allowed herself to believe that bruising was all that he had suffered. Again, she gave thanks for the mud. Reaching for Heath's knife, she cut away at his pants and tore them from the top to bottom so that she could check out both his legs. Heath's right leg showed signs of bruising, but proved injury free. Not so his left, which under the ripped pant leg lay awkwardly at an angle. There was no denying it was broken. A piece of bone jutted out from beneath the skin. "My God, Heath! What do I do?" Victoria pleaded to her unhearing son.
There was no way she would be able to get him on to one of the horses and even if she could, there was no way he would be able to stay in the saddle with his injuries. And yet she couldn't leave him out here in the open whilst she rode off for help; he would be dead by the time she returned with Nick and Jarrod and a wagon. She was running out of options and tiredness was slowing her ability to think. She knew she needed to splint his leg and yet also find him shelter, and though they were near the lodge, she had no means of getting him there. But wait, there were supplies in the wagon, weren't there? Couldn't she fashion a shelter with what they had brought with them for the lodge? There was only one way to find out.
An hour later she stood back from her handiwork. It didn't look pretty but then that didn't matter. It would do for the moment as long as the rain held off. Salvaging what she could from the wagon, she made ready the improvised tent with blankets and pillows before setting about to pull Heath towards it. Like before, she pulled from under his arms confident that she could do it again. He slipped from her grasp and despite her repeated efforts to pull him towards the tent, she could not move him. She sagged down into the mud, bending her head low to his, hoping some of his strength would return so that he might help. She would not give up. She tried again, pausing only briefly to catch her breath. Again, her attempt failed. She was almost defeated when a drawl not unlike her son's, gave her hope. "Let me take him." the voice said.
"Harry? Harry is that you?" Her tired mind thought she was hearing things, then when he answered her, she sighed with relief. He had come back to help them, risking his freedom and his chance to escape. With no further words she watched as he lifted her unconscious son effortlessly to the makeshift tent.
"Thank you Mr. Dixon," she spoke quietly. "Thank you for coming back."
Together they worked to get Heath out of his damp and mud-caked lothes. Taking the heap of blankets, they covered him with several layers, leaving the broken leg exposed.
Harry rubbed his brow and drawled. "That's a bad. By the angle of it and the break in the skin, it could easily turn gangrenous if left unattended. No saying we can save it, even then." His words offered no emotion, just facts.
"I've fixed broken legs before, it won't be the first time, it won't be the last." she replied, running a soothing hand through Heath's hair. It was true, but the broken leg she had fixed had been Tom's, nearly thirty years ago, and had not been as bad.
"Those scars on his back." Dixon said unexpectedly. "Never expected to see them on the back of one of yours."
"Why?" replied Victoria, continuing to tend to Heath.
"Him being from a wealthy family and all. I mean who'd take a whip to a rich boy? His daddy, do that?"
Victoria was offended by the suggestion and replied brusquely, "My son received those scars from being a prisoner in Carterson, Mr. Dixon. You have heard of Carterson?"
"Yes ma'am. I've heard of Carterson? But it can't be! Your son can't be more than twenty-five. The war's was only ten years ago! He'd be just a boy!"
"My son is just twenty-four. And yes, as a child he saw the inside of Carterson. He turned fourteen in there."
"You let your son go off to war?"
"You assume quite a lot Mr. Dixon. For instance you assume because we are rich we are immune from suffering, as if suffering discriminates between rich and poor. It is true that wealth cushions life Mr. Dixon, but life isn't always that clear cut. Heath didn't always enjoy the privileges of being rich; he was raised with his mother in the mining town of Strawberry where life was hard come by. He did things as a child, including going off to war, that no child should ever have to do."
"His mother? Then you're not his ........."
"You ask a lot of questions, Mr. Dixon. Heath is my stepson. We were unaware of his existence until six months ago when his own mother died and he discovered who his father was."
"Yes, my late husband. Heath and his father never met."
Harry whistled. "Wowee! Ma'am, I figured you had to be the boy's mother, the way you fought for him, but no way on earth did I take you for a woman who would take in her husband's bastard son."
The word bastard speared Victoria deep in her heart. "Understand this Mr. Dixon. I love Heath just as much as if he were mine. He is my son, my son, you understand?"
Dixon knew he had crossed a line and nodded, a wry smile playing across his face that was just on the edge of being a smirk. "I can see that ma'am."
"Interesting, isn't it?" continued Victoria.
"What's that, ma'am?"
"The choices we are each given."
"Choices? Sorry ma'am, I don't get what you mean."
"Well, the way I see it, you can't be much older than Heath and born in equally poor circumstances from what you were telling me. You chose a life outside the law, he chose to keep within it. Interesting isn't it?"
"I guess so, ma'am." Dixon grew quiet. She didn't need to say anything more, she could see her words had registered with him; her point had been made. Heath was her only concern now. With help from a less talkative Dixon, they set about cleaning and then splinting Heath's leg. The twig placed in her son's mouth to stifle the sound of his pain was soon dislodged through his teeth, and the night air fast became filled with his anguished cries as they completed their task.
"Mother?" Heath's words were barely above a whisper.
"Yes darling," Though tired, she had been watching him carefully and was quick to his side, offering him much needed water, which he drank.. He turned and looked at her with pain-exhausted eyes.
"I know darling," she said understanding his thoughts. "We had to set your leg. It is badly broken. I'm sorry, Heath, I have nothing to give you for the pain" Despite what she felt was the inadequacy of her words, he offered her a grateful smile which was so like him. "S'okay." He said, when clearly it was not. When his face blanched suddenly she knew he was riding out another bout of pain. Since setting the leg, Heath's sleep had been increasingly fitful "You said we," he slowly continued as for a few brief moments the pain became more tolerable. He kept his gaze steady on her.
"Mr. Dixon and I. Mr. Dixon, that is Harry, helped rescue you from the wagon. Without his help, you would have......"
"Died?" Heath answered for her, a note of anxiety entering his voice as he continued. "Where is...?"
"He's outside darling." Victoria could see his agitation and tried to steer the conversation away from the way his mind was working, "Heath, sweetheart. I have to get you home. I'm going to have to ride for help soon."
"Noooo. Don't leave me. I..... I'll.... I'll be alright with some rest. Don't wan't ya.... Don't want ya.... ya going alone. Need me to go....go with ya, Mother."
Victoria smiled at her son, ever her protector. "Sweetheart, I know nothing would stop you under normal circumstances, but you are not fit to ride. I can be back with Nick and Jarrod within a few hours. You need help, Heath."
Heath blinked furiously, fighting to keep awake, he knew he was losing the battle. "Nick and J...Jarrod c...come here?"
"Yes, dear. I will bring your brothers back, and Howard too. Now, Heath. Listen to me, dear. I want you to sleep, do you understand?"
Heath nodded. He suddenly reached out for her arm. "Can't you send this Dixon fella?"
Victoria smiled. "There are reasons why I can't. He will stay here and look after you whilst I am gone. He has promised me that." She saw his questioning look, but chose not to answer it, hoping that sleep would overtake him soon. "Sleep, Heath," she encouraged, wanting him to fall asleep before she went, "I will be back before you wake up, I promise."
Her son nodded; he no longer had any more strength to uphold his part of the conversation. She bent down and kissed him as he drifted off into a pain filled sleep, mouthing the words "Mo..th..er... be careful." They were said with such love, she held him for a moment longer, before getting up to leave.
Outside, Dixon having witnessed the scene walked away, a stab of jealously entering his heart. Why couldn't his mother have loved him like that? That boy wasn't even the woman's son, just some bastard son of her husband's and yet she loved him as though he was her own. He could feel all the pent up grievances and hurts of the past rise up and almost choke him. He couldn't have a mother's love and it killed him that Heath Barkley did.
"Who... who are you?" Heath asked waking up.
"Name's Dixon, Harry Dixon." Before being able to ask anything more, Heath felt his head lifted and a tin cup pressed to his lips. He drank the water gratefully. His leg and body burned as if on fire.
"I remember. I th.. think?"
"Nope, you probably don't. You have been well out of it." Dixon said, sitting back on his haunches, surveying the younger man.
"She's alright She rode out of here an hour ago. She wanted to make an early start of it so she could be back here before mid-day with your brothers," he offered by way of explanation.
"Nick and Jarrod," Heath sighed, sinking back on the pillow. He tried to escape the swathe of blankets pinning him down. Dixon moved to stop him. "Best not be doing that. You got a busted leg, some bruised ribs, and besides you ain't wearing a stitch of clothing underneath. Your mother's idea, not mine."
Heath didn't hear him. "Too hot," he moaned, "need air. Need to get out of here."
"And just how do you reckon on doing that? Better face it boy, you aren't going anywhere without my help". Dixon laughed. It was a disconcerting laugh and contained an air of menace. "Besides, I reckon anyone your mother is likely to come across out there is bound to come off worse from the encounter." Heath shot him a look, wondering what had passed between Dixon and his mother. "As to the heat you are feeling, boy, more than likely that's the fever talking."
"Where..." Heath still found difficulty talking. "Where did you come from?"
Dixon looked at Heath long and hard, thoughts criss crossing his mind before speaking. In his life he had grown used to being guarded with information. Dressed in a set of hers son's clothes which the boy's mother had lent him, he no longer looked the escaped convict the he was, nevertheless he remained wary. Realizing the lad was too sick to do anything about anything he said, he chose perversely to say little, knowing it would unsettle the man more. "Around," was all he said.
Even in his confused and fevered state, it wasn't enough for Heath. "Around? Where exactly?"
"Well, I don't reckon that's important right now, do you? I mean the way I see it, you need me more than I need you. Reckon it can be a dangerous thing to explore a man's past. Like these scars on your back. Carterson your mother said."
The comment rankled Heath. "It was a long time ago," he sighed. He did not want to talk about it and was surprised that the man knew of their origin. There was something strange and unsettling about Dixon, something disturbing which he couldn't trust. Trouble was, he was in no position to do anything about it. Fever consumed him and within moments he felt himself drift off into the blackness from where he had come.
Dixon left the tent and looked around, watching for movement in the woods. This area was too exposed and those damned bounty hunters would be back searching for him. He looked back at the tent and thought of the man inside. It would be slow travelling, but Barkley would be his insurance. He made ready to make up a travois on which the injured man could travel.
Nick and Jarrod had been travelling since first light, following the trail to the lodge. With growing unease they noticed how the land had not recovered from the winter. Worry for their mother and Heath's safety occupied their thoughts. It became clear that the spring trip to the lodge had been a mistake and would have been better delayed by a few weeks.
"Thinking what I'm thinking?" Nick finally asked..
Jarrod said nothing, but instead continued looking around him for any signs of his mother and brother and the wagon they had been traveling in. A dull ache pounded in his chest at the thought of what they might find, and yet not knowing was worse. Nick knew better not to say anything more. When Jarrod offered no reply, he knew his older brother was worried, and that worried Nick more. After a long night, during which neither brother had slept, Nick could sense that the day would be equally long.
The pain was unbearable. Every jolt in the road coursed through his leg and threatened to send him toppling from the travois. Through clenched teeth he uttered slowly, trying to form words punctuated with pain, "Wh... where are we going? Why... why have we moved away from the wagon? My...fa...family, th.. they will be looking for me. Gotta to go b. back."
Dixon walked on without responding, jostling Heath further in the process. Facing the other way, Heath tried to turn round to see his face. The effort almost killed him. "Te.. tell me!" he shouted. Then when a thought struck him, desperation born of fear entered his voice, "Wh.. what have you d.. done to my mother?!"
Dixon brought the travois to a halt immediately and set it down roughly on the ground, making Heath cry out in pain as the travois hit the dirt. Heath felt himself grabbed roughly from behind and a hand clamp his mouth shut. "For God's sake, shut up, will ya? Keep yacking and moaning like that and you'll get us both killed? I tell you Barkley I ain't dying for the likes of you. Scream like that again and I'll kill you right here."
Heath fought against the restraints of Dixon's hand, his eyes moving wildly, his only thought was for his mother and what Dixon had done to her.
Dixon stood up, his eyes equally wild.. "Shut up I tell ya!" The butt of his rifle did the rest. Heath lay silenced and gravely still, blood oozing from his head..
"Mother!" Victoria heard the cry and brought her horse to a sudden halt.
"Oh Nick... Nick, thank God it's you," she cried, overjoyed to see him and doubly so when she saw Jarrod and a wagon come into view. Nick dismounted and was quick to his mother's side. She almost fell into his arms, tiredness and relief overcoming her. "I'm alright Nick," she assured him seeing his concerned face. When his face clearly registered doubt, she reassured him again. "It's not me.... It's.... It's Heath that is hurt." She saw Nick suck in a sharp breath. "There was an accident. The wagon got stuck in the mud. Heath got down to help move it and the wagon.... Oh God, Nick! The wagon... it overturned and pinned him underneath."
"How bad?" said Jarrod as he joined their side. His voice was clear and rational but thick with emotion he couldn't disguise. Nick still holding his mother in his arms was unusually silent. Normally, by now his voice would have been filling the air, but he couldn't form the words to speak. His decision not to ride out the previous day when the brothers had heard about Dixon's escape, played heavily on his mind. Jarrod felt the same way too. They had been certain Heath could handle things. A wave of failed responsibility towards their younger brother occupied their thoughts.
"Thank God," Jarrod breathed out. Nick followed suit, neither aware that they had been holding their breath.
"But," She felt Nick's arm's tense around her.
"His left leg... is very badly broken. We managed to splint it but he was unconscious when I left. Jarrod, Nick, we need to get him to shelter and a doctor. I managed to make a shelter of sorts but ......"
"We? Mother, you said we?" questioned Jarrod, bringing a canteen of water to his mother's mouth. She drank from it for a few moments before continuing.
"A man called Dixon, he helped free Heath from the wagon.
Jarrod and Nick looked at each other. "Dixon! You mean Harry Dixon?! "Mother! Do you know who that man is?"
Victoria should have expected his volatile reaction. "I do Nicholas. I know he is an escaped convict. He told me everything about himself. I assume you know too. I would remind you Nicholas, that without his help your brother would have died. We were only minutes away from him being sucked under the mud."
Jarrod knew he had to keep calm for both his mother's and his brother's sake. In the first instance not to alarm his mother with information he knew she couldn't yet be aware of from the way she spoke, and secondly because Nick looked like he was about to explode at the danger his mother had knowingly exposed herself and his little brother to.
"Mother. Where is Dixon now?" Jarrod asked, indicating to Nick to keep his temper under control. "Please Mother, it's important that you tell us."
"He is no danger, Jarrod." She assured him. "I told you he helped me. Your brother would have died without his help. He told me what happened. He told me he shot the man in self-defense."
Jarrod was insistent. "Mother! Where is Dixon now? Where is Heath?" He tried to keep the rising fear from his voice.
Victoria, freed herself from Nick's arms. She sat up and looked at her sons squarely. Her heart thumped loudly with growing panic. "He's.... he's with Heath. I left him alone with Heath."
"Where Mother?" Jarrod asked.
"At the bend in the road. I should have waited. I thought I could manage the horses."
Nick was on his feet instantly. "Jarrod! Bring Mother, I'm going on ahead." Within three strides he was at his horse and had swung into the saddle in a manner reminiscent of his younger brother, speed being of the essence.
"Jarrod, what is it? What are you not telling me?" Victoria's cried out, not hiding her fear.
"It's Dixon, Mother."
"What about him? Jarrod I demand that you tell me. Who have I left Heath with? Tell me!"
"Mother, Dixon killed a guard when he escaped from jail. And a ....."
"And a fellow convict he escaped with. I'm sorry Mother. He lied to you. He's a cold-blooded killer and now he's got Heath."
Nick raced ahead as promised. He rode Coco without thought or care, his only purpose to get to Heath as fast as he could. "Please God, let him be alright," he offered up in silent prayer, tears falling down his face.
Back at the clearing, Jarrod helped his mother up on to the buckboard. As he walked to the other side and climbed up to join her his attention was caught by two riders coming into view. Victoria leaned forward and pressed Jarrod's arm in alarm. "Jarrod, they're the bounty hunters looking for Dixon! If they know he has Heath they won't stop to think about his safety in their eagerness to recapture Dixon. They want him dead or alive."
Jarrod squeezed his mother's hand. "It's alright Mother. I'll deal with it." Continuing to climb up on to the wagon, Jarrod sat down on the seat and took up the reins, a hand on the break, ready to release it and follow Nick with haste up the road. "Morning gentlemen. Can we help you?"
One of the men leaned forward in the saddle and stared intently at Victoria. "Ain't you the woman whose son was injured. Seem to remember you asking for our help last night."
Victoria bristled remembering the way they had ignored her plea and had continued riding on, leaving her son almost to die. She would not forgive them for that. "And I remember you didn't give me any and that you left my son to die."
The other one now leaned forward spitting out a piece of baccy on to the wet ground. "And did he?"
Victoria was off her seat in an instant. "No! But, no thanks to you and your friend. My sons eventualy found me. I remember the callous way you just rode on and I will still remember it when I report you to the authorities."
"We were looking for an escaped convict, ma'am. We had no time to be helpin' you and your son."
"And did you find him?"
"So, you could have helped with my son." Victoria challenged, contemptuous of them both.
Jarrod interjected. "Well I can tell you we have just come down this road and we saw no sign of him. Might be best to try further into the woods from the direction you came in."
Not taking too kindly to being told how to do their jobs, one of them brought his horse up to the side of the wagon and peered in. "Mind me askin' what you have done with your son? Kinda expected him to be in the wagon if he was seriously injured."
Jarrod thought quickly. "We took him to our lodge about two miles up the road. My brother is with him now. We are just going for the doctor. His leg was badly broken last night."
"This is Barkley land you are riding on. My name is Jarrod Barkley and this is my mother, Victoria Barkley. We have a lodge up in the hills. The fact that this is our land should give you a good indication that we know it well and that maybe you should heed our advice. It is not likely that this Dixon fella will be traveling this road. He is more likely to stick to the higher ground and keep out of sight."
Both bounty hunters clearly considered the point. They had been criss crossing the woods in vain since late afternoon, the previous day. "We might just do that. No need to tell you that Dixon is a dangerous man. You'd best be getting your Mother home and a doctor for your brother."
"That's just what we intend to do," said Victoria sharply. She no longer wished to waste any more time on the two men who had abandoned her and Heath last night. She no more trusted them than she trusted Dixon and only Heath's safety now occupied her mind.. "Jarrod, please let's get going. Heath needs us to get the doctor."
Jarrod nodded, "Yes, of course, Mother."
The two bounty hunters made a poor attempt at doffing their hats and rode in the direction Jarrod had suggested. Jarrod and Victoria allowed them to get out of sight before continuing up the road after Nick.
Heath felt himself being forcibly shaken and awoke to find himself staring into Dixon's face.
"Tell me where this lodge is that you were traveling too."
Heath was silent trying to bite back the pain in his leg. Dixon mistook his silence and shook him again. A cry of pain escaped Heath's throat. "Lo....lodge? I don't know, I.... I've never been there before." Tears were coming down his face as the pain concentrated all his attention. He knew he was done for and could go on no further. Dixon would either have to kill him or leave him there.
"Oh that's right, pretty boy. You haven't always been a part of your family, have you? You lived with your own mother first, then found yourself another one. Sounds to me like you're a man greedy for mothers."
Heath's attention was caught by the bitterness of the remark. "Seems to me you know everything and yet nothing, Dixon." he breathed out in truncated gasps.
"Well, may be that's because I didn't have the benefit of even one mother, let alone two, so I'm kinda curious as to how you managed it, and from such a wealthy family too. Gotta hand it to you Barkley, that was some achievement. Here am I robbin' and cheatin' my way through life and you just turn up and claim a rich widda as your new mother and dang me if she don't fall for it and take you in. And now here you are. No doubt your mother and family are scouring the woods for you, worried out of their minds. Make you feel good, that? Knowing that someone cares for you that way." The words were spat out with bitterness and hate.
"What do you want with me Dixon? I can't go on any further, you can see that. I'm only slowing you down. You could make better speed without me. Why don't you leave me here?"
"You're my insurance Barkley," Dixon scowled. "My ticket out of these woods. And who know's, maybe mother dear will pay handsomely for your return." Dixon caressed Heath's face as a mother would a child and then grabbed him roughly by the throat. "So don't even be thinkin' of dying on me today, boy!. Everything has a price, even a mother's love and I mean to exact it."
Nick reached the site of the upturned wagon and dismounted. He ran to the makeshift tent and found it empty and for a moment his hope emptied too, knowing Dixon had indeed taken his brother.
The trail taken by Dixon with his brother was easy to pick up and Nick, not waiting for Jarrod and his mother to catch up, was quick to follow it. The concerned brother calculated that by the freshness of the tracks the pair had no more than an hour's head start on him. Dragging Heath would slow Dixon down, a fact that would stand in Nick's favor. But Nick was not a fool, he knew that holding his brother hostage ultimately gave Dixon the upper hand. There was no way Nick would endanger his brother's life. He followed carefully, staying sufficiently far back so as not alert Dixon he was on his trail. He prayed silently that Heath would not pay the price for his caution.
Dixon trudged on slowly. The ankle injury caused by the leg irons and exaggerated for the boy's mother was beginning to hinder him in reality now. Behind him Heath moaned with every jolt. Dixon knew the boy's leg had to be killing him, but the hate he felt for Barkley stopped him from feeling any sympathy. Bitterness eats up a person and it had long swallowed Dixon up, along with any chance he had of making something decent out of his life. He had been abandoned by his mother and effectively by his father too, but their absence became a well-worn excuse for everything that went wrong in his life, Dixon never accepting any responsibility.
He had a silver tongue, a gambler's instinct and he lived life according to their rules. He knew he had persuaded the boy's mother that he was innocent of his crimes. She had been difficult to persuade, but playing the mother card had swung it. He could tell that she loved her son and the fact that his own mother hadn't loved him, pulled at her heart. Dixon had cynically counted on it doing so. The sudden change of heart to help her injured son and stop resisting her had worked too. Dixon was no longer an escaped murderer in her eyes, but a victim. And so he worked with her to free the boy and even helped to tend the injuries which were grave, all acts calculated to win her over and gain her trust. And trust she finally gave him. Understanding that he could not ride for help, she made the decision to go herself. She entrusted her son's life to his care, not knowing that at the first opportunity he would turn tail and abuse it.
But rather than concentrate on his escape, Dixon allowed his bitterness to confuse his thoughts and cloud his thinking. Tired and fearful he tormented the Barkley scion with constant suggestions that his family did not love him; that he had foisted himself upon them, so they had no choice but to take him in. Dixon had no reason to believe that any of these events were true but he meant to twist the knife of jealousy and make the boy doubt.
In his ramblings it was not clear the boy understood. Heath could barely take in what was happening to him. He was shivering with cold and showing signs of a fever, his body trembled and his leg ached to the point that he wished someone would cut it off. At least then there would be no more pain. Every now and then he would hear Dixon's spiteful words and though reason told him to ignore them, a part of him listened and fostered in him a seed of doubt that previously wasn't there. Did he force his mother to love him by turning up and claiming his heritage? Did the rest of his family feel the same?
All of a sudden he felt him self lowered to the ground on the travois. Looking around he could see they had reached a clearing. He didn't recognize the place.
Dixon whistled. "Sweet Jesus! You call this a lodge?! Where I come from this would be considered a palace. Barkley, you may not have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but you sure as hell acquired it along the way. I take my hat off to you boy, you just didn't pick a family, you picked a rich one!"
Heath felt himself released from the bounds of the travois and roughly hauled over Dixon's shoulder. The pain caused to his leg made him tense and cry out in his agony. His cries carried across the woods. "Shut up, dammit! I ain't brung you this far for you to tell them where we are now," censured Dixon as he quickly got Heath into the lodge.
"You'll not get away with it Dixon," Heath's breathed out through clenched teeth, lucidity returning with the pain. "There ain't no way you'll get out of these woods alive."
Dixon smiled as he looked around the darkened interior of the lodge. "Well now, don't be so sure about that boy," He patted Heath's rear. "Remember I brung me a little insurance along the way."
Nick heard the anguished cry echo through the woods and recognized it as his brother's. It was close by. Recognizing the lie of the land he made for the direction in which it had come from; he headed for the lodge.
Heath woke up to find himself lying in a bed in a room on his own. He did not remember falling asleep, or was it unconscious, he was no longer sure. His body was not his own any more; robbed of the ability to move he was as helpless as a babe and controlled by the man who held him hostage. His mouth was dry and he attempted to lick his lips to moisten them. No moisture came. His tired mind could no longer remember when he last had any food or water and his body protested, needing both. Trying to take his mind off the idea of food that wasn't going to appear, he tried to look around the room. It was too dark to distinguish anything. All he knew was that he was in the lodge.
Attempting to turn his battered and bruised body he welcomed the soft mattress which assisted in cushioning his painful movements, even his leg was no longer protesting; in fact he could no longer feel any sensation coming from it any more. He lay strangely becalmed, seduced into a feeling of warmth and protectiveness by the bed in which he lay. If he thought hard enough he could almost imagine it was the one he used at home. Home, he mused wistfully, comforted by the word and all that it had come to mean to him.
This was his first visit to the lodge and he remembered how he had felt privileged to be chosen to be the one to accompany his mother, his brothers promising to join them in a week's time. The first week was to be his first alone with his mother and the family seemed to sense the importance of the trip to them both. It had been Nick and Jarrod's joint decision to find themselves busy and unable to travel in the first week, allowing mother and youngest son this special time on their own.
Remembering his mother and his family made Heath grow sad and tearful and though alone in the room he sought to hide his tears in the depths of his pillow. Though twenty-four years old he was as much in need of a mother's love as any man, and alone, hurt and vulnerable, he needed her now. He wondered why Dixon kept going on about her. He never let the subject alone. In vulnerable moments such as this, it now played on Heath's mind. For some reason Dixon was trying to create a wedge between Heath and his mother and he couldn't understand why. And why had he taken a crippled man such as he, hostage? It didn't make any sense. "Mother!" he cried, much as he done so in the woods, "Mother, why don't you come?"
Dixon watched from the darkened window. For the last twenty minutes of their journey he had felt they had been followed. Now he knew it was true. "Damned bounty hunters", he sneered, bitter at his latest misfortune.
Nick patted Coco, leaving him behind whilst he continued on foot, cursing the snapping of twigs underneath his feet, their very sound threatening to give his presence away. Suddenly he hid behind a tree as the familiar lodge came into view. There was nothing to indicate the presence of Dixon or his brother, but instinct told him they were in there. He had followed their trail for the last hour and this was where the heavy tread of the travois had led him.
Now he was here he had to think carefully. He needed to know where his brother was and to do that he had to get inside. He would need to overpower Dixon by stealth and surprise and he would need to do it alone, knowing that his brother would not be able to help. He prayed the boy was still alive. He counted on him being so. Nick Barkley didn't give up those that were closest to him and for some months now that had included Heath.
He was still thinking of his next move, when his head turned at the sudden sound of a noise to his left and the next thing he knew was the blanket of darkness which entered his world.
Heath opened his eyes, awake again from either sleep or unconsciousness. His eyes blinked open several times, his leg quiet before now made its presence felt and he let out a groan, his hands seeking to clench the bed sheets as he rode out the pain. His eyes opened wide as he felt the presence of someone else on the bed. Ignoring the pain, he turned quickly. "Nick?!" he cried out. Just as he did so, the door opened and in walked Dixon carrying with him Victoria Barkley's shotgun and an air of menace. He seemed both nervous and arrogant; his movements twitchy, his eyes wide and fixed like a cornered animal through fear and lack of sleep. He walked over to the bed and roughly jerked Nick's head upwards by a handful of black hair. Nick came awake immediately, cursing at the sudden pain to his head..
"Wake up, dammit!" Dixon demanded, dropping his hold of the hair and taking a step back with his gun. "You one of those damned bounty hunters been trailing after my hide?"
Nick growled and slowly turned over to look at his captor. He held his aching head as if the act alone would help suppress the pain. Immediately he saw his brother lying next to him, covered in grime and mud, his eyes sunken and dulled from his own pain. He was alive! Nick attempted a small smile at his brother which Heath tried hard to return. A wave of pain suddenly swept aside the attempt and the younger brother's face and body creased up in agony. Nick put an arm out to reach out to him.
"Stay right where you are!" Dixon ordered, coming closer to the bed. He prodded Nick with the gun pushing him away from the other man and then brought it to rest against Heath who was too far gone to care.
"I'm his brother, dammit! Let me help him!" Nick pleaded.
"His brother!" Dixon let out an ironic laugh. "Well if this ain't me a day for Barkleys! First the mother, then pretty boy here and if that ain't enough, now you! I got me damned Barkleys coming out of the woodwork!"
"Well now what do you expect?! You're on Barkley land, on Barkley property and you've kidnapped my brother!" Nick growled out as he made to get up and tend his brother. Heath was still creased over in pain and right at that moment no threat of any bullet was going to stop Nick from tending him.
Dixon stepped back amused at the older man's bravado. Not stopping him, he allowed the older Barkley to tend his sibling, watching with jealously how the brothers interacted. "Pretty boy here sure must mean a lot to you."
"He does." Nick replied, sharing no more. He pulled back the blankets and saw his brother's reason for doubling over. His eyes took in the broken leg, the splints and bandages covered in mud, infection sure to set in. He cursed the hurt done to his brother and the man who had added to it. Heath was barely aware of his brother's presence he was in so much pain. Nick felt his brother's brow, confirming the fever he knew would be present.
"I need water and bandages. I can get them, if you let me." Nick stated, ignoring the gun Dixon had trained on them both..
"Seems to me you ain't the one giving the orders around here." Dixon snarled back, taking an instant dislike to the man.
"You want the boy to die?" Nick shouted back. "Why the hell did you drag him all this way then?" He continued, his rage making him inch forward. "You knew darned well the boy had a broken leg! You were there!" He said accusingly. "What the hell did you think he was going to do? Run for help? On a broken leg?"
Dixon's anger was level with Nick's and still rising. "I reckon you know the reason I brung him." he spit out. "You ain't no fool, Barkley."
"No, I'm not, but you sure as hell are, because where's the sense in letting him die! He represents the only insurance you have of getting out of here!"
"Not my only insurance, Barkley. Seems with two Barkleys I can afford to leave one behind. I'm sick of dragging your brother's sick hide behind me. I'll move faster without mummy's boy here now that I got me a hostage that can walk on two legs. Now git moving Barkley! I'm done wastin' time."
"You sick bastard! I'm not leaving my brother!" Nick screamed as he lunged at Dixon with all his might, knocking the convict backwards, complete surprise registering on his face. A shot fired and then silence fell.
Time is a strange thing. It can mess with your brain. Seconds can seem like minutes and minutes like hours. It seemed an age before Nick realized he was still lying prostrate over Dixon. Coming to, he registered surprise that Dixon didn't fight back. Something was wrong. Nick looked more closely. Dixon eyes were rolled back in their sockets; his head lolled to the left and his mouth gaped open, words silenced, breath absent. Very soon, Nick felt a damp, sticky substance form beneath his hand. He raised it briefly and found Dixon's blood pooling there. He looked again at Dixon's face and found Death staring back.
Slowly, Nick raised himself up off the dead man. It was only then he could see how Dixon's head had hit the grate of the fire. Aside from the wound to his head, his neck was also broken. Standing up, Nick shed no regret. Only thing Dixon was headed for was a hangman's noose. He cursed the lifeless body and quickly returned to his brother.
"Ni...ck! Are you okay? I heard a shot." Heath gasped out. "Think I passed out for a moment. Everything fe...feels kinda whoozy and strange and I hurt.. Te.. t... tell me you're okay!" The last words were struggled out. It was all Heath could manage before darkness claimed him again. "I'm fine Heath," Nick breathed out, struggling to know what to do to help his brother. The broken leg was beyond him. To touch it could make it worse and yet Heath was in so much pain. Several times over the next hour his brother woke up, only to pass out again due to the unrelenting pain. Nick simply had no choice. He had to leave his brother and go for help.
Heath woke to find himself alone. This time he didn't pass out. He wished he could. His leg was on fire and a raging fever burned within. He was completely helpless. "Where was Nick? And Dixon? Was Dixon still in the cabin? In desperation he called out his brother's name. A door handle turned and a door creaked open. Footsteps ran across the floor and a cool hand found his brow. A kiss found his cheek and a voice told him to hush.
"Yes, dear I'm here."
The next few weeks Heath remained very sick. His ribs were badly bruised, his left leg broken, with an open fracture which had caused infection to settle in. His carers became Victoria and Jarrod as Nick had need to return to the ranch to oversee a sale. He promised to be back as soon as he had completed business and also given new instructions to Duke about the ranch. He knew Jarrod had a case that was coming to court shortly and promised to be back in time to relieve him of the care of their little brother.
Heath, for the most part, remained unaware of time passing, or the comings and goings of the family. Apart from brief moments of being awake to eat and to see to his needs, for which he needed help, he mostly slept. Victoria was grateful. Sleep was healing and that's what her son needed now.
Heath was by nature and circumstance prone to nightmares when ill and the family had become well-versed in how to handle them in getting Heath to calm. The subject of the nightmares never varied and were, without exception, always about Carterson. They would hold Heath prisoner until finally unable to take anymore he would woke up screaming, or a family member, mostly Nick because his room was closest, gently shook him awake and stayed with him until he realized he was no longer in that God forsaken hole that belonged to his past and no more. It always took him a while to come fully to from his nightmares and he didn't always remember them, or what he said, but the family did and they found it hard to forgive the war, or the men who had created such fear in the fourteen year old boy he was then and the man he was today.
This time though the nightmares took on a different theme. For Victoria they were particularly painful to hear and yet she forced herself to listen. She listened as her son's voice cried for help, recalling the long hours spent alone under the wagon, believing he was about to die. She heard him talk about his brothers and how they were good men, a childish hero worship evident in his voice. She heard him fight off a wolf about to strike and a southern, sweet voice sing a hymn in praise of the Lord. But what affected her more, was the cry for help that invoked her own name, asking her why didn't she come. If he was conscious he would have spared his mother the detail, choosing instead to lock it away deep inside, but listening to his fevered ramblings, Victoria got an unedited account of how alone and afraid he had actually felt. Never was it more apparent than at that moment, how much Heath needed his family. She learned things that her very private and guarded son would not have divulged otherwise, but for his illness and vulnerability at the time.
She ran a tiny and yet strong hand through his washed and brushed hair. Touch was natural to her, but less so to her Heath. He remained shy of it, and whereas his gregarious brothers would freely embrace their mother and sister, Heath held back; fearful of taking that step.. What the body does consciously and unconsciously though are two different things and Victoria had noticed that when Heath was asleep, or hurting like this, he would lean into the hand that was touching him. He was doing it now. Smiling, Victoria stopped gently fingering his hair and cupped the side of his face as he leaned into it more, allowing him to feel the comfort of a mother there and the knowledge that he was not alone. For several minutes they remained like that with Victoria gently rubbing the side of his face with the soft underside of her thumb.
The leg had been set by Doctor Merar who had come out to the lodge at Jarrod's request. Howard had advised against moving Heath back to the ranch, the boy was simply too ill to withstand the journey. He left them medicines for the pain and instructions for his care. With all the injuries the Barkleys had received between them, a broken leg hadn't counted among them until now. The long recovery time meant that they would be up at the cabin for several weeks. They managed to salvage most of the supplies from the wagon and combined with the medicines Howard had left and what was already there they discovered that they had everything necessary to see to Heath's care.
Nick took Dixon's body back to town and made a statement to the sheriff. Asked if he wanted the bounty, Nick instructed it to be paid to the orphanage where it would receive better use. Dixon's death might as well benefit some good. Eager to get back to his brother, he rode out to the ranch to settle things there.
"You're not doing it right?"
"Oh and how would you know? You ever break a leg? You ever use crutches? Well, did you?" Heath's frustration was less to do with getting to learn how to use his crutches and more to do with the fact that Nick was taking them away from him every five minutes to show him how to use them correctly. Watching Nick hop around , using one crutch might have been amusing to the blond haired cowboy had he not being trying to negotiate the difficult task of getting downstairs for the first time under his brother's critical eye.
"Why are you here?" Heath cried out, snatching his crutch back whilst holding on to the banister.
"I'm here to see you don't fall. Don't want you messing up the carpet. Mother just got it cleaned last week."
"The only thing likely to end up in a heap down the stairs is you, Nick." threatened Heath, preparing once more to work out how he would get down the stairs. It was the last obstacle and he was darned if he was going to be carried up and down them again. Nick was very fond of telling him that there were 22 stairs up and 22 down and he had counted every one of them whilst carrying his little brother and his busted leg. "Well not anymore, " Heath promised to himself. Tonight I walk down under my own steam."
Turning to Nick he said, "Okay, let's get this over with."
"Now you're talkin' Heath. We got an hour to go before dinner, think we can get there before then?"
"Before when?" Heath said giving him a skewed look.
"Before dinner. The smell of Silas' cooking is making me hungry."
"T'ain't nothing new. Ask me, you could do to lose a few pounds or two. You've been getting fat, Nick."
"I ain't the one been lying around doing nothing. That fencin' on the south pasture? You know? The one you were going to do? Who do you think fixed it? Yours truly, that's who!"
"Maybe's Nick, but I ain't the one getting fat."
It was true, Heath was downright scrawny looking, rarely touching his food, thought Nick. More reason than ever to get him moving on those crutches and down to dinner. "C'mon Heath, I got a vested interest in you doing this."
"Yeah, I know. 22 stairs up and 22 stairs down, I seem to remember you tellin' me more than once."
"You do, huh?" Nick hadn't realized he had mentioned it so many times. He hadn't meant to rile the boy, just wanted to get him moving around. "Okay, Heath, best foot forward."
Heath looked up incredulously. "You being funny?"
"Well, you know what I mean." Nick replied somewhat apologetically.
Heath readied himself and took a deep determined sigh. "Okay, here goes nothing."
Fifteen minutes later, after a few threatened tumbles, Heath finally made it down stairs.
"Told you, you could do it." Nick shouted, beaming with pride for his brother.
"You were wrong Nick," Heath said quietly in that dry way of his, still trying to catch his breath."
"Wrong, what do you mean wrong?" Nick protested.
"You miscounted. There's twenty-three stairs. I counted everyone of them." Heath's deadpan face broke into a crooked smile.
"Well, if I told you there was twenty-three, you might not have done it." laughed Nick. "C'mon Heath, let's go into dinner. I think you earned it tonight. Only one thing, Heath."
"What's that," said Heath, finally having caught his breath.
"Just make sure you eat it tonight."
"Sure thing, Nick. Now about that diet of yours ......"
It had been a long recuperation for Heath, firstly at the lodge when he wasn't fit to travel and subsequently back at the mansion. The break in his leg had been a bad one, and even though he was no longer having to use crutches, and walked for the most part without any trouble, his leg often ached when he was overtired, or he had walked too far. Howard had indicated that whilst there could be some more recovery, it was likely that Heath would always have some trouble with it.
He walked with a slight limp, nothing to discernible, but Heath and the family knew it was there. In his middle years the limp would become more pronounced, but that was years off into the distance. For the moment, Heath was glad to be alive, glad to still have his leg and glad to be rid of those crutches. Eager to get going, he called to his mother. "Mother, are you ready?"
Victoria noted his impatience. Holding a basket to drop off at the Laughtons's on the way to the orphanage, she gave him a firm look. "Well, when my most patient of son's is pushing me to hurry along, I know I am in trouble. Please promise me Heath, you won't grow into another Nick. It's more than my own patience can stand."
Heath smiled as he helped her up on to the buckboard. "Oh, I don't know mother, I'd kinda like to have some of my brother's traits. He stands tall in my eyes, only don't tell him I told you that otherwise I'll be after buying him a bigger hat." The words were playfully said but genuine in their meaning and not without a touch of hero worship. Victoria smiled and put out her hand to his. "He does that, but mind, he has two brothers who stand just as tall and make me very proud too." Heath blushed, it was a trait that he couldn't control and it was very endearing to everyone else but himself.
"All righty," he said, trying to cover it. "First stop the Laughton's and then to the orphanage."
"All righty," Victoria mimicked and they both laughed.
"Another cup of tea?" Mrs. Barkley. Eliza Laughton offered.
"Oh no, thank you, Mrs. Laughton. Heath and I were just passing by and wanted to welcome you to the valley. You have done wonders with the old Lindquist place. I'm sorry we couldn't meet your husband and son today, but we will drop by again, if that is alright, and you must, of course, come up to the ranch. We are having a small reception next Saturday and it would be a great opportunity to meet the other families who live hereabouts."
Eliza Laughton was gratified. She and her husband were newly arrived from England and had made the trek out west to the consternation of their family back home. "Fifty-one is no time to be setting on a new life, thousands of miles away from home," Samuel Laughton's elderly father had remonstrated with him, but Samuel had harbored a dream for thirty-five years and nothing was going to stop him now. He had saved frugally and earned them a passage out on the Victoria Star and had made the journey out west. Two of his sons had decided to stay back in England, but he brought with him his wife, middle son and youngest, a daughter, named Eve who was just twenty years old. Eliza noted how Eve was fussin' over Heath Barkley and whilst he blushed with the attention, he wasn't rejecting any of it. "I wonder," she smiled, speculating on a romance between the two, and then remembering Victoria's question, she answered a little flushed, "Oh yes, that would be lovely, Mrs. Barkley. We should be glad to come, and yes do drop by anytime."
"Good Mrs. Laughton," Victoria responded, placing her cup down and then standing up. "And do call me Victoria. We shall expect you on Saturday around six."
"Eliza, please, and yes we will be there."
Victoria noticing Heath's interest in Eve, smiled. "I have some things that might help you settle in. If it's alright I will send Heath round with them tomorrow."
Eliza smiled knowingly. The young ones were completely oblivious to their mother's attempts at matchmaking. "I think that would be very much appreciated, Victoria. Now let's see if we can rescue your son."
"I'm not sure he wants rescuing," Victoria joked.
"Look's mighty fine sis," Heath remarked as he looked up at the new roof on the orphanage. "Nick and the hands did a fine job."
"We used the bounty money on Dixon," Victoria added, suddenly feeling a chill at mentioning his name. She saw Heath tense slightly and look thoughtful.
"He was bad through and through Mother, there ain't no way you can change it."
"Yes, I know Heath," Victoria sighed, remembering how she had been taken in by the convict and his story about his own mother, "but at least the money can go toward making some amends." she reflected. "Now, let's get home. Oh, did I tell you the Laughton's will becoming this Saturday."
Heath felt all eyes descend up on him and knew that he couldn't stop the blush sweeping across his face.
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