In the hush of night, Nick is startled awake by a bloodcurdling scream coming from his brother’s bedroom. He flung his covers aside and leapt out of bed, not bothering to don his night robe as he dashed to Heath’s room. He dashed to the bed and tried to shake his frantic brother awake.
“Heath! Come on Heath! Wake up!” Nick urged, pinning Heath’s thrashing body to the mattress. “Come on!” he shouted to pierce through the thick mist enfolding his brother’s mind.
“No, no, leave me alone!” Heath wailed; his head tossing, his back arching. “Please I can’t take it anymore. Please!”
“Heath!” Nick yelled, giving his brother one last shake before resorting to drastic measures with a slap across the face. “Heath, come back.”
The nightmare finally lost its grip on his host and allowed him to surface to reality. “Nick?” Heath breathed out through a choked cough.
“Yeah.” Feeling the muscles relaxing underneath his fingers, Nick gradually released his hold on Heath’s shoulders. “You okay?”
“What’s going on? We heard screams,” A flustered Victoria queried as she, Jarrod and Audra appeared in the doorway.
“We’re fine,” Nick reassured. “Go back to bed.”
Victoria approached the bed and recoiled at the terrorized expression mirroring in her son’s eyes. “Did you have another nightmare?”
Heath simply nodded and looked away, shamefaced. Victoria perched herself on the edge of the bed and ran a soothing hand through his damp hair. “This is the third night in row, Heath. What is troubling you, son?”
“I don’t know,” he sobbed. “I just don’t know what triggered those nightmares.”
“Are they about Carterson?”
Heath closed his eyes and nodded weakly. “I’m sorry for being such a nuisance.”
“Heath Barkley, don’t you ever say that!” Victoria chided with a stern expression that sent the young man blushing with embarrassment. “We’ll help you sort things out; find the root of the problem so you can rid your mind of those horrible nightmares.”
“I hope so.”
“Well, we’ll talk about it in the morning. Would you like me to stay with you until you fall sleep?”
“No it’s okay. I think I can manage on my own.”
“Okay,” Victoria smiled and leaned forward to drop a motherly kiss on Heath’s forehead. “We’ll see you in the morning.” She pulled the blanket up to Heath’s shoulders and brushed a loving hand against his cheek before rising from the bed and crossing to the door with the others in tow.
“Nick,” Heath hailed from the bed. Nick stopped and turned to face his brother “Thanks.”
“For being there as always.”
“Get some sleep little brother. You need me I’ll come running.”
Heath flashed a grateful smile and shifted to a comfortable position to allow sleep to claim him.
At cock’s crow the next morning, the two brothers headed out to the south pasture to mend some downed fences. Halfway through the chore Nick went to the wagon to get more barbed wires. He returned barely two minutes later and, to his surprise, found Heath dozing with his chin resting on top of a pole. A grin graced Nick’s lips at the amusing sight, but it was soon washed over by a worried frown. He approached the slumbering man and gently nudged him awake. “Hey Heath, why don’t you sit against that tree over there. You’ll be more comfortable.”
“You were sleeping Little Brother.”
“I was not!” Heath defended. “I was just resting my eyes.”
“Uhn, uhn,” Nick said incredulously. “Want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?” Heath asked innocently, though he knew what problem Nick was alluding to.
“The nightmares? Why have they suddenly come back? There’s got to be a reason.”
“I know. Trouble is I can’t think of any,” Heath deplored in a sigh fraught with despair.
“Could be someone you saw in town?”
“I’ve thought about that, but who? They’re the same townfolks. Then I thought maybe something I heard, but if it is I don’t remember it.”
“Maybe Doc Merar can help.”
“What can he do aside from plying me with laudanum to keep me stoned out of my mind?” He glanced up at Nick who stood mute with discomfiture. “I’ll be okay Nick. I just hate to jerk everyone up in the middle of the night ‘cause of my screaming. I was thinking maybe I ought to sleep in a line shack tonight”
“Now don’t be a silly, Heath. If anywhere you’ll be sleeping in my room so I can be there to wake you when you start moaning.”
“I hate to be a bother.”
“I won’t hear any argument about it. I’ll have Silas bring a cot into my room and you’ll take the bed.”
“If you don’t mind Nick I prefer the cot. I was thinking maybe a hard mattress might keep the evil spirits away.”
“No. But I’ll try it anyway. Can’t hurt.”
“All right” Nick gave a hearty clap on Heath’s back and ruffled his hair. “Let’s get back to work.”
“The hair Nick!” Heath protested.
“Well don’t be removing your hat when I’m near ya. I see that tuft of hair and I just wanna mess it up.” Nick chuckled with a broad triumphant smirk that elicited a lopsided grin to curl on the blond’s lips.
In the hush of night, not a creature was stirring save for the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clocks. The stillness was broken by a weak moan that failed to drill through the thick mist of Nick’s subconscious. Deep in a dream big brother’s mind turned a deaf ear to the meandering wafting from the window where Heath was tossing and turning on his cot. The moans grew into groans and finally a gag. Nick’s eyes shot wide open. He swung around and bounced out of his bed to kneel besides his brother’s cot.
“Heath, wake up!” Nick shouted frantically while tapping his brother on the back. “Come on, snap out of it!”
“Nick, what’s going on?” Jarrod asked as he dashed into the room.
“He’s choking, Jarrod. He can’t breathe!”
“My God, what’s happening?” Victoria gasped at the horrific sight before her.
Jarrod grabbed Heath by the shoulders and laid him down on his side hoping to ease his breathing but that too failed to bring relief to the suffocation. Finally Nick slung Heath over his knees and kneaded his fists against his back. His efforts were rewarded with a sharp intake of air and with it a bout of coughing that expelled vomit caught in the constricted throat.
“Thank God,” Nick heaved out, wiping the beads of perspiration on his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Let’s ease him back down on the cot,” Jarrod instructed as he and Nick each took a firm hold of their brother to gingery lay him in a prone position. Victoria poured some water into the basin and dunked a hand towel that she applied to Heath’s sweaty forehead. “He doesn’t have a fever.”
“It’s those nightmares of his,” Nick said as he tried to recover his bearings. “They are getting worse. They actually made him choke. What will it be next time?”
“I’ll talk to Howard in the morning. Perhaps he knows a remedy that would…” Victoria’s sentence was interrupted by a lament. “Heath, it’s okay. You’re fine now. Wake up sweetheart,” she coaxed gently until Heath cracked open his eyelids to focus on the figure hovering over him. “Heath, can you hear me?”
With a bemused expression Heath’s gaze shifted from one face to the other. “What’s… what’s going on?” Then it suddenly dawned on him. “Oh no. Not again?”
“Afraid so, Little brother,” Nick informed grimly. “This time you were choking.”
“I remember something about…” he frowned at the foul taste forming in his mouth. “About maggoty food. They were forcing it down my throat and…” His eyes shut tight to block the horrific visions that began taunting him. His hands went to his face as the tears gushed out. “The memories are back with a vengeance and…I try but I can’t control them,” he sobbed, prompting a distraught mother to run a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Victoria pulled Heath to her chest to enfold him in a warm motherly hug. “Don’t be Sweetheart. Don’t be. Together we’re going to help you find the source of these nightmares.” She turned to Nick and Jarrod who stood with desperation in their eyes. They were both at a lost as to what to do to help their troubled sibling.
At dawn’s break, Nick quietly slipped out of his bed, grabbed his clothes and padded out of his room to grant Heath a few more hours of sleep. Once fully dressed he strode downstairs to the dining room where the family was gathered discussing last night’s terrifying episode.
“Nick, can you delegate today’s chores to some of the hands?” Victoria asked
“I suppose I could. Why?”
“I would like you to sit with Heath this morning while I ride into town to get Howard. I don’t want him out of bed before the doctor has a chance of examining him and I can trust you to heed my request?”
“Sure Mother. You honestly believe Doc Merar can do something about those nightmares? He may be a good healer when it comes to bullet wounds but this is deeper and more complicated. He may be out of his league on this one.”
“Maybe but we must do something for Heath. He cannot go on this way. You saw what happened last night.”
All heads nodded in agreement.
Later that morning as Victoria was getting ready to go into town, Nick went to see Duke to delegate the chore assignments for the day. He then returned to the house and up the stairs to check on Heath who was still sleeping soundly. He quietly shut the door and went back downstairs to the parlor. A knock at the front door made him retrace his steps to the foyer.
“Yes? May I be of some assistance?” Silas asked the tall man standing on the front porch.
“I’m Matt Toddman. The lumber camp foreman. I need to speak with Nick Barkley. Is he in?”
“Matt! What brings you out here? Is there a problem?”
“You might say so,” the man informed grimly.
“Well, come on in.”
Matt stepped inside and removed his hat. “I need your permission to fire two men.”
“The Comdon brothers. Jarrod hired them two weeks ago but they’ve done nothing but drink and sleep on the job.”
“Well if you think…” Nick’s thought was cut abruptly by a scream coming from upstairs. “That’s Heath!”
Nick dashed up the stairs, striding two steps at the time with a befuddled Toddman on his heels. Nick breezed into his bedroom and lunged at Heath thrashing on his cot, his legs getting entangled in the sheets.
“No, get him away from me!” Heath yelped, his arms flailing about wildly.
“HEATH! Wake up!” Nick grabbed his brother’s wrists to keep him from injuring himself. He applied his weight onto Heath’s body to pin it down to the mattress. He beckoned Matt to lend a hand in subduing the hysterical man in the throes of a nightmarish agony. “Get a hold of his legs,” Nick ordered bluntly.
Matt did as instructed, pressing his hand down on Heath’s legs to fasten them to the mattress, which proved a much arduous task than anticipated.
Nick momentarily released his hold on Heath’s left wrist to slap him across the face. “Damn it, wake up!”
The third slap snapped Heath out of his hysteria. Huffing and puffing, the young blond blinked open his eyes to focus on the hazy form gazing down at him. “Nick?”
“Oh God, not again?”
“I’m afraid so. Are you okay now?” Heath nodded. Nick removed his hands from Heath’s wrists, and as he did, had a clear view of the man who was holding his legs. The vials of wrath instantly rose within, eyes darkened and narrowed in hatred. Without any warning, Heath leapt out of bed and pounced on Matt to pummel him to the floor. “You dirty bastard! I’m going to kill you!”
Nick lunged at the wild animal to get him to retract his fangs from the victim’s throat. “Heath, dammit! Get off him!” Nick struggled against a formidable adversary whose fury could not be restrained. Alerted by the screams Jarrod dashed to Heath’s room and barely had time to register a look of horror that he hurried to lend Nick a hand with the mad man.
“Heath, calm down, dammit! Heath!” Nick yelled to the ferocious beast intent on slaughtering its foe.
“Lemme kill him!!!!!!!!” Heath sputtered angrily, thrashing about wildly in an attempt to wriggle himself free from the vice-like grips. “Lemme go!”
“Heath dammit, stop this!” Nick commanded. His warning falling on deaf ears, Nick resorted to cuffing Heath in the jaw, knocking him senseless on the bed. “I’m sorry Matt,” Nick panted out his apology. “I don’t know what can over him. He’s been having nightmares and they’ve gotten worse lately. Can’t figure out why nor do I know why he took it out on you.”
Jarrod reach for Matt’s hand to hoist him off the floor. “You all right?”
Visibly shaken Matt gave a shy nod of the head as he toiled to regain his composure. “What’s your brother’s name?” he hazarded to ask upon seeing the familiar face on the bed.
“Oh my God. Could it be?”
“Could it be what?” Nick insisted.
“Never mind. Well I’ll be going now.” With his head hanging low to hide his shame he turned to cross the door when Nick’s booming voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Just a minute here! Toddman what is it you’re not telling us?”
Nick and Jarrod stood with bathed breath as seconds wore on. “Well? I asked you a question? Why did my brother attack you like a wild animal?”
“I’ll let him tell you,” he answered apathetically as he motioned to the inert form sprawled ungainly on the bed. He then flashed an apologetic crack of the lips before leaving the room.
“Jarrod see if can you worm something out of him. I’ll stay with Heath until he comes around.”
Jarrod cast one last rueful look at his unconscious brother before heading downstairs where Victoria was coaxing Matt to share his mental burden with her. “Jarrod, is Heath all right?”
“Nick had to knock him out.”
“Oh my goodness,” she gasped with a hand over her mouth. “Mr. Toddman is visibly disturbed by what happened. He says that Heath tried to choke him? Is that true?”
“That’s right mother,” Jarrod confirmed rather embarrassingly. “When I got in the room, Heath was trying to kill him,” he said nodding to Matt. “I had to lend Nick in keeping Heath still. He had the strength of thousands.”
With a brow deeply furrowed with worry Victoria turned to Matt for an answer. “Mister Toddman, would you care to explain?” she asked rather authoritatively.
“No ma’am. Like I said before, your son will explain.” On that bitter tone, Matt put his hat on and headed out the door.
Jarrod started after him when a hand on his arm pulled him back. “No. He’s right. We’ll ask Heath first.”
Upstairs in Nick’s room, under big brother’s concern gaze, Heath slowly emerged from the surface, cracking open an eye to assess the surroundings as either friendly or hostile before prying open the other eyelid with a loud groan.
“Why did you hit me?” Heath groused while rubbing his aching jaw.
“Why did I hit you?” Nick bellowed sarcastically. “You were like a man possessed. I had to knock you out to stop you from remodelling this place not to mention the man’s face.”
“You should’ve let me kill him,” Heath snarled, his threat taking Nick by surprise.
“Suppose you start by telling me why you want to choke the life out of him?”
“Start by telling me what he’s doing here,” Heath countered with a matching cynicism.
“He’s our new lumber camp foreman.”
The news sent Heath’s senses reeling. He was livid. His once haggard expression refashioned itself into a dark scowl. “What?”
“He came to see me about two men who…”
“You told me you hired Matt Toddman,” Heath stammered with rage.
“Nick, that man is Matt Bentell!” Heath railed with veins throbbing at his temples.
“Matt Bentell? The prison warden at Carterson? That Matt Bentell?”
“The same. Now you know why I wanted to kill him?” Heath sassed with his baby blues turning into fiery balls of rage that burned a hole into his penitent brother until the hazel orbs gradually became scorching embers of their own. “Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna have me a few words with that Bentell guy before I send him packing.” He marched out of the room with a homicidal scorn that gripped Heath into an icy clutch of dread.
“Nick! It’s not your concern. I’ll deal with it.”
“The hell you will! Not without me you won’t.” He gently shoved Heath aside to stamp down the stairs where he met with Jarrod and Victoria in the living room.
“Nick, how’s Heath?” Victoria queried.
“He’s fine. Well he will be anyway once I kick that sadist off the ranch. Where is he anyway?”
“What are you talking about Nick?”
“Jarrod that man’s that was just here is the infamous Matt Bentell from Carterson prison.”
Both mother and son stood flabbergasted the news. “That can’t be,” Jarrod managed to utter in complete shock.
“Heath says it’s him. That’s why he turned into a wild cat when he saw him. Wouldn’t you? Probably how the nightmares got started. Heath must have sensed Bentell was in Stockton like a prey smells its hunter.”
Nick snatched his gunbelt off the coat rack and buckled it around his waist.
“Where are you going?”
“Told you, Mother. I’m gonna hurl Bentell off the ranch after I’ve had me a few words with him if you get my drift?”
”You’ll do no such thing, Nick” Victoria scolded. “Promise me you won’t to touch a hair on Mister Toddman’s…”
“BENTELL!” Nick snarled loudly.
“Mister Bentell. And don’t you dare raise your voice to me, young man!” she reproved with a steely glare.
Nick hung his head in repentance “Sorry.”
“I want to talk to Heath,” she announced with a determined stance that warned both sons to refrain from arguing. She smiled in appreciation of their compliance to her wish before hiking up her skirt to head upstairs.
She rapped gently on the door to Heath’s bedroom and waited for permission to enter. Her roaming eyes came to rest upon the distraught man sitting quietly in a chair by the window. She padded up to him and laid her hands on his shoulders. “Nick told me what happened.”
“What were the odds of Matt Bentell coming to work for us, heh?” he quipped, shaking his head at the irony.
“We had no idea who he was, you must believe that.”
“I do, Mother,” he assured, reaching for her comforting hands, “I do.” A disturbing silence fell as he attempted to purge his mind of loutish thoughts he hated nurturing in the presence of a lady. “I sworn I’d kill him if we ever crossed path again.”
Startled by this heartfelt confession, Victoria let one hand slide down to his arm and came to sit across from him on the windowsill. “Do you still want to?” she asked rhetorically already knowing the answer.
Heath shot her a quizzical look. “You heard what happened?” he replied insolently in spite of himself.
“Yes I did. But I know you Heath. You are incapable of hurting another human being.”
“Bentell is not human, Mother,” he hissed through gritted teeth; his implacable anger driving him to act disrespectful to his mother. He closed his eyes in penitence, silently asking Victoria to forgive his outburst although he could not bring himself to apologize.
“What do you want us to do, Heath?” she fired at him resolutely.
Caught off guard by her straightforwardness Heath rose from his seat and began pacing the room to carefully weigh the options offered to him. “What do you intend to do?” he threw back at her, unable to answer the question.
“I want to help you rid yourself of that hate.”
“Well it’s easy to see which side you’re on,” he scorned.
“I’m on the side of making sure this is not going to haunt you for the rest of your life.”
“What do you really want me to do?” Heath challenged her acridly as he felt the vials of wrath about to spurt out in an uncontrollable torrent.
“Make peace with it.”
“This isn’t something you can switch off at will, Mother. That man… that devil’s spawn,” he corrected with a look of utter disgust, “was merciless. What I, what we prisoners had to go through in there is unthinkable!” Heath spewed out in an unbridled fury. “I thought I was going to die in that hell hole. Are you saying I should sweep seven month of sheer agony under the carpet?”
“When your father was killed I hated too,” Victoria began on a composed tone, sending Heath stewing in his own juices. He pinched the bridge of his nose to refrain from bursting. “Oh I hated those men for shooting your father in the back,” she seethed with eyes ablaze with rage welling up with tears. “I cultivated a hatred that blinded me to the point of neglecting what was important to me; my children. They needed me but I wasn’t there for them. I was consumed by a vengeance I wanted to assuage at all cost and nearly did. Jarrod, Nick and Audra suffered on account of it.” She expelled the last speck of memory in a heavy sigh and edged up to Heath to lay a friendly hand on his arm. “Hating is a disease that destroys its host; not its foe.”
“Meaning no disrespect mother but I don’t think you’d be readily forgiving had father experienced seven months of hell!” Heath blasted. He flung his arm free from her gentle grip and went to resume his place by the window. “He died from a bullet wound. Ah hell I’m sure he cried in pain for just a few minutes then it was all over.” Heath exposed with a cynicism that sliced through her heart and left her mute with consternation. Although irked by his harsh words she could no defy the rationale behind his statement. He turned to her with imploring eyes still filled with anger. “Don’t ask me to forgive and forget, Mother. Because I can’t and I won’t.”
Victoria’s scowl melted into a meaningful smile as she nodded her understanding to her son who acknowledged with a curl of the lips before crossing to the door. There he stopped and cast a last look at the grand lady who appeared defeated and lost. He flashed one last grin on his way out.
Jarrod’s chatter blended in the background as Nick’s mind drifted back on the day of the fishing trip he took with Heath, during which his little brother had confided his martyrdom at Carterson prison. The mere vision of the various implements of torture Heath had been subjected to churn his stomach and turned his blood cold. Never had he been so eager to do a man serious bodily harm. So intense was his yearning to ring Matt Bentell’s neck that he considered defying his mother’s wish not to interfere. He couldn’t see himself sitting idly by, waiting for his little brother to purge his demons. He doubted he could annihilate them all without outside assistance and that’s what he aimed to do. Whatever it took he was prepared to go to great length to see that Heath was free from his haunting past.
Heath remained cloistered in his room to the remainder of the day while Nick took on an ornery wild stallion to blow out some steam. At the end of the day neither horse nor man had been tamed and they both stomped back into their respective abode.
At the dinner table, few words were exchanged as the family patiently awaited the arrival of the missing member. The clanking of Nick’s fork against his plate was grating on everyone’s nerves until Jarrod grabbed a hold of his brother’s wrist and shot him a scowl.
“Sorry. I’ll go see what’s keeping Heath.” Nick stood and marched out of the dinning room.
Seconds of silence lingered before Audra spoke up. “Do you think Heath is all right?” she asked with an anxious frown.
“I’m sure he is, sweetheart,” Victoria assured with a hand on her daughter’s arm. “He is dealing with some pretty fierce demons from his past and I expect it’ll take time to eradicate them all.”
“Having Matt working with us isn’t going to help Heath rid of them,” Jarrod chimed in, his harried expression speaking volume on his dread of losing Heath to the insane asylum. “Nick is right. We should fire Matt,” he said resolutely, wiping his mouth dry as he pushed his chair to rise.
“You’re wrong, Jarrod. Firing the man isn’t going to solve the problem,” Victoria opined, wiping her own mouth dry on the napkin. “Granted, he is the triggering element that stirred up old memories of Carterson, but in order for Heath to be free of them is to confront them once and for all. Too long had he shoved them in the back of his mind hoping they would not resurface but as long as he keeps denying their existence they will haunt him for the rest of his life.”
“What do you suggest we do, Mother?”
Nick came stomping into the room shouting, “He’s gone!”
“What do you mean he’s gone?” Jarrod asked.
“I went to his room and saw a couple of drawers had been rummaged through. He grabbed a change of clothes, bedroll and the pictures on his dresser. That means he’s not coming back. He’s gone for good,” Nick inferred from the evidence shown. He turned to Jarrod. “I’m going after him. You coming?”
“Yeah, I’m with you.”
As they started for the door, Victoria issued a word of caution on their likely means of convincing Heath to return. Both sons agreed not to resort to drastic measures as far as both Bentell and Heath were concerned.
It was late in the evening when the two brothers returned home without the missing sibling. Victoria and Audra met them at the front door. The forlornness of the boys’ appearances and the drawn features staring back at them dashed the hopes they’d been nurturing all night.
“You didn’t find him.”
Nick shook his head dejectedly while Jarrod wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “He must have gotten a head start this afternoon when no one was paying attention. We asked some of the hands if they’d seen him ride out but no one did.”
“What have I done?” Victoria cried with a bottom lip trembling in fear. “It’s all my fault.”
“Mother now come…”
“No Jarrod, it’s me. I drove him away. Things I’ve said to him about hatred. He was right. There are no comparison with your father’s tragic death and what he went through at Carterson. I actually made light of it.” Falling prey to a sudden surge of remorse, she raised a hand to her mouth and sobbed pleadingly, “Oh Heath forgive me. Please, forgive me.”
Heath greeted the dawning of a new day with a stretch and a yawn. He remained on his back, staring at the pink-tinged clouds hovering above as if searching for the divine hand to snap the book close on the horrific chapters of his life. Shutting his eyes in despair he sent a silent prayer to the heavens hoping it will grant him his wish. With a heavy heart he rose to his feet and walked to a stream to splash some of that invigorating cold water onto his face. Soon his mind drifted back to his family, his mother and siblings; his home where he had grown spiritually in the comfort of its bosom. His heart ached at the thought of having to tear the protective sheath they had enfolded him into; the loving embrace he had sought after his mother’s demise that Victoria Barkley had so willingly and unconditionally offered him, but the demons within had now emerged as his pitiless masters, severing all bonds with the entities responsible for their awakening.
After packing his bedroll and utensils, he mounted Charger and started down the path. He swayed in the saddle to the hoof beat of his horse, distractedly watching the scenery go by until a gun report rend the air, jerking him out of his daze. He reined in his mount and held his breath with ears flapping to determine which direction the shot came from. A second shot brought his gaze to the right and the third one spurred him into action. He kicked Charger at a full tilt up the tiny hill toward the sound still echoing in the misty morning air. Reaching the top he witnessed two riders scampering away as a man laid unconscious in the middle of the road.
His breath caught in his throat upon identifying the victim. “Bentell.” He stood over his torturer, watching, almost relishing in the life ebbing away through a bleeding hole in his chest. He couldn’t bring himself to kneel down beside the prone body to stem the haemorrhage. He was rooted to the spot feeling the vials of wrath pouring out of him, grateful to the gunmen who had done Bentell in once and for all. He cringed at the sight of the man’s face staring back at him, taunting him, daring him to leave him bleed to death. He struggled against his mother’s words freshly echoing in his mind, telling him how he was incapable of willingly hurting another human being. However Bentell didn’t fall into that category. He was a monster, a vermin that needed to be squashed to profit humanity.
“Oh my God! Matt!” shrieked the voice from behind. Heath stretched his neck back to see a hysterical woman running towards him. “Who shot him, you bastard!” she hurled at Heath, pummelling his chest and slapping him in the face before diving to her knees to tend to her husband’s wound.
“I….I didn’t shoot him,” Heath stuttered, still reeling from the initial shock. “I was riding by and I heard the shots.”
“Shots? Oh my God, there was more than one?” she yelped as she frantically groped her husband’s body to locate the other wounds.
“I think the other two were stray bullets ma’am.”
“Please, you have to help me. I beg of you. Help my husband.”
“I c….I c…” Heath fought to utter the words stuck down his throat. Why was it so hard to say ‘I can’t’ and just ride away from this nightmare?
“Please,” the desperate wife beseeched, tears gushing out of her eyes.
His entire body shuddered to the war raging between good and evil. He felt his tortured soul releasing itself of its dark shell to seek asylum in a peaceful climate, leaving behind a mere skeleton of a man deprived of a once formidable resilience.
Images of Carterson began dancing before his eyes, invading his mind, driving him to the brink of insanity. He clawed at his head to prevent it from exploding as he slowly backed away from the horrific sight before him. Quickly he swung in the saddle and kicked his mount at full tilt down the path, without so much of a glance at the woman screaming and hurling threats at his retreating back.
He absentmindedly followed the path leading to town where he stopped in front of Dr. Merar’s office. He dismounted but suddenly remained rooted to the spot as the demons swiftly emerged to stamp out the better judgment that had managed to slip through during their host’s frenzied ride into town. Taking a deep breath to quell the little evils’ fervour he unglued his feet from the ground to walk into the office and informed the good doctor of the shooting a few miles up the road. Together they rode to the scene of the crime and rode past the bloody stain still visible on the ground to reach the lumber camp where Bentell’s wife was tending to her dying husband inside their cabin.
Once Dr. Merar had he situation under control, Heath snuck away to outstrip the wind toward an unknown destination. He pushed Charger to the limit of the poor animal’s endurance until he could no longer bear the exhaustion and collapsed. The sudden halt propelled the stunned rider toward a large tree where his head smashed against the trunk with a hard thud; the force of the impact rendering him unconscious.
At the same moment at the ranch Nick dropped his fork into his plate and grabbed his head in pain, startling the occupants at the table who were seized by an icy clutch of dread.
“Nick, what is it? What’s wrong?” Victoria gasped.
“Oh God,” Nick whimpered between two breaths. He pinched the bridge of his nose to quell the searing twinge in his brain. He then thrust his chair back and stood from the table. “Excuse me.”
“Nick,” Victoria called out as he lurched out of the room. She in turn stood from the table and hurried after her troubled son. “Nick, tell me what’s wrong? Should we get Dr. Merar?”
“No, it’s nothing. Just a twinge, Mother. Nothing to worry about.” He inhaled a deep cleansing breath to stamp the remnant of the pang and flashed a contrived grin that failed to allay her qualms.
“Nick you’re scaring me. Something is wrong.”
“I don’t know yet. But I aim to find out.” He ran a reassuring hand over shoulder and kissed the top of her head.
“Is it about Heath? You know where he might be, don’t you?” she surmised from the frightful episode in the dinning room.
“Not really but I know he’s hurt,” he sighed ruefully with a harried look that curdled her blood. She pressed a hand to her mouth to curb her emotions.
“Find him, Nick. Oh please, find him,” she beseeched, her grey pools searching the mirror of her son’s soul for a glimmering flame to revive her withering hopes.
“I will Mother.” A smile flickered on his lips as he himself drew the strength needed to embark on what was likely to be one of the most emotionally taxing journeys of life.
Heath slowly emerged from the soothing darkness to a world of searing pain. He risked prying open one leaden eyelid to establish his surroundings, then the other. He squinted against the blinding sunrays shooting daggers into his vacuous eyes but he fought the formidable foe with all of his might. The mere effort of staggering to his feet exhausted his last ounce of energy and he found himself sliding to the ground once more. A few deep breaths later the dizziness subsided and he gambled on a second try to remain on his legs, however wobbly they might be, to head down the road on an aimless trek to find help.
One mile later, his shattered body gave out from the strain and Heath collapsed face down onto the ground and would have willingly resigned to his fate hadn’t been for a muffled voice wafting in the near distance. He cracked open his eyes and titled his head sideways hoping to identify its owner. He crawled on all four toward the source of the sound until he came to a small farm. His face lit up with relief upon seeing a teenager treating his pony to an apple. Heath managed to raise his hand in the air to draw the boy’s attention but caught the animal’s instead who reared up his head and pricked its ears in fright.
“What is it, Licoriche?” The pony neighed in response and nodded his head toward the battered man. Jimmy spotted Heath who crumbled to the ground in total exhaustion. “Hey Mister? You okay?” he knelt down beside Heath and nudged him awake. “Hey Mister. You dead?”
“N…not…yet,” Heath breathed out. “He…help me get…get up.” he asked as he reached out his hand to the boy who grasped it.
“Maybe you shouldn’t mister. You don’t look so good.”
“I’m…I’m okay. Just a ..a little tired. Help me, please.”
Jimmy did as told and assisted Heath to his feet. “You can sit in the barn. There’s lots of comfy bales of hay.”
Once the task done, Jimmy grabbed a saddle blanket from a nearby stall and spread it over Heath’s lap. “You just stay there. I’ll get my mom.”
Heath flung his arm forward to grab the boy’s arm. “No!” he shouted. Then on a softer tone to calm the frightened boy, he reiterated, “No. I’ll be okay. Just need to rest and I’ll be on my way.”
“Mister you’re hurt. “Your head. It’s got caked blood on it,” he observed worriedly as he brushed his finger delicately against the wound, making Heath wince in pain. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Say, what’s your name?”
“My name is…my name is.” A deep frown crossed Heath’s brow at his failure to recall his name. “I…I don’t remember my name,” he cried in a panic.
“Guess you don’t know where you live either?” Jimmy surmised on a light bantering tone. “You really need help.”
“I can’t let anyone see me.”
Heath searched his memory but drew a blank as to the reason why he feared anyone seeing him. “I don’t know.”
“Are you a wanted man or something?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“You don’t look like no killer to me, mister. All right, you stay here for the time being. You can hide in the loft up there. I’ll bring you some food after dinner.”
“Thanks. I could use a drop of water.”
“I’ll get it from the pump. You just climb up there and lay low.” He assisted Heath to his feet and gave him a hoist up the ladder. “You sure you can make it on your own?”
“I’ll manage. Thanks.”
The boy shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ll get a good whipping for sure.”
“I don’t want to get you into trouble….”
“It’s Jimmy. Jimmy Cramer.”
“Thanks Jimmy. I just need to rest for a while and then I’ll be on my way.”
Heath was at a lost for answers. He simply closed his eyes in despair and flumped down in the hay. “I’ll figure it out.”
Nick gave free rein to his sixth sense that placed him on the path to Matt Toddman’s cabin. Though suspicious of this destination, Nick had learned never to blindly dismiss his gut instincts when it came to his little brother. He would usually obey without reservation. With his blood boiling beneath the surface, Nick marched up to the front door and banged on the door.
“Mister Barkley,” Cinda Bentell’s exclaimed with surprise.
“I’m looking for my brother, Heath. Is he here by any chance?”
“No he’s not. But we did see him early today. My husband got shot and he rode into town to get the doctor.”
“Heath did what?” Nick bellowed in spite of himself, befuddled by the woman’s statement.
“Not so loud,” she shushed with a wave of the hand. “You’ll wake my husband.”
“Is he all right?”
“He will be, thanks to your brother.”
“Where is Heath now?”
“After he brought Dr. Merar he left. I don’t know where he went. He didn’t say.”
“Thanks.” A sinking feeling of hopelessness formed in the pit of his stomach at the thought of his little brother battling evil on his own. He leapt into the saddle and nudged Coco down the road, holding him at a light amble as he focused on his brother’s face to establish a telepathic connection. “Come on Heath, where are you boy? I know you’re close. I can feel you. Come on, talk to me, kid. Talk to me.”
“Hey mister, you’re still here?” Jimmy called out in a hushed voice so not to draw attention. “Mister?” Heath emerged from his concealed place from under the straws to greet Jimmy who brought some leftovers from his dinner. “I brought you some food. You hungry?”
“You bet. Thanks.” Heath took the plate offered and began wolfing down the food.
“Hey slow down or you’ll choke,” the boy chastised as he took a seat beside the blond. “Still don’t remember who you are?” Heath shook his head dejectedly. “I reckon it’ll come back to you. I wish you’d let me tell my mom so we can fetch the doctor.”
“I said I’ll be all right. I’m feeling better already. Once my stomach’s full I’ll be on my way.”
“If you say so.”
The familiar expression struck Heath like a ton of brick. He turned to Jimmy with a quizzical look. “What d’you say?”
“I said ‘if you say so’. Why? Something wrong?” The faraway look in Heath’s eyes brought a chill to Jimmy’s spine. “Mister, you okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I…well I was just on the verge of recalling something but I lost it.” Heath cracked a light smile as he dismissed the vision and resumed eating. “It’s nothing.”
“Well I got to go. I have to do my homework. If I stay here too long my mom will come and get me.”
“You go. I’ll be all right. Like I said I’ll be on my way as soon as I finish eating. Thanks Andy.”
“My name’s Jimmy.”
“You called me Andy.”
“I did? Sorry. It’s just that you look so much like someone I know.” He said dazedly as he studied the boy’s features.
“That means you’re starting to remember” Jimmy exulted, trying hard to contain his enthusiasm to avoid drawing attention from outside.
“Maybe,” Heath chuckled proudly. “I reckon all that good food is jogging my memory some.”
“My mom is the best cook in the whole world. I’ll try to sneak in some more a little later. That is if you’re still here?”
“Chances are I won’t. I just need me a horse than I’ll be on my way.”
“I wish I could lend you one of our own but if my brother sees one missing he’ll….”
“Don’t worry. I’ll just walk to the nearest town and rent one at the livery.”
“If you wait for me I’ll take you to town. It’s a good five miles down the road. You’ll never make it on foot. Not with that bump on your head, you won’t.”
“Thanks, maybe I’ll take you up on that offer.” Heath smiled gratefully, though he did not intent to stick around and risk landing the boy in trouble with his parents.
With eyes shut tight Nick remained in deep concentration; his body swaying to Coco’s hoof beat as the horse ambled along the pathway. A sudden halt abruptly roused him out of his meditation. “What is it, boy? You hear something?” Nick observed his companion’s head rear up and his ears pricking up. “What is it Coco? Show me.” Nick’s release on the bridle encouraged the horse to follow his own lead toward the familiar scent. They found Charger grazing a few feet away. Nick dismounted and went to check Heath’s horse for any sign of blood. He ran his hands against Charger lean frame down to his legs to assess his condition. He noticed some swelling in the right front leg. “You hurt yourself friend? He returned to his faithful company and gave him a hearty pat on the neck. “Good job, boy. You’ll get an extra apple for that.”
Nick grabbed Charger’s reins and mounted his horse. “All right, Heath. You can’t be that far. I’m listening, boy. Where are you?”
Nick continued down the road at a very light amble to avoid aggravating Charger’s injury. A small farm came into view and he decided to go check it out.. He swept the place over with a wary eye before dismounting and tethering both horses to a hitching post. Casting a last look around he walked up to the door and knocked.
“Howdy ma’am,” Nick greeted as he removed his hat. “My name’s Nick Barkley.”
“One of THE Stockton Barkleys?”
“Well come on in Mister Barkley,” she enthused, biding her visitor enter. “Something I can do for you?”
“I’m sorry to bother folks but I’m looking for my brother who went missing. He was seen in this area not long ago and I saw your house. I thought maybe he could have come here?”
“We haven’t seen anyone,” she said truthfully, turning to her two sons for their answers.
“No. It’s been pretty quiet around here,” replied the oldest. “About you Jimmy?”
“Nop. Didn’t see anyone either,” he fibbed convincingly without flinching.
“Is he hurt?” the woman asked.
“I think so ma’am. That’s why I need to find him quick. Well if you see him, would you let us know at the Barley ranch? His name is Heath, tall, light-brown hair, wears a blue shirt with a tan vest.”
The description fit the stranger to a glove, putting Jimmy in a tight spot. He dithered whether to speak up or keep quiet as he suspected this man’s story to be contrived. Was he really Heath’s brother or just a hoodlum seeking to exact revenge? He listened to Nick speak of his brother; his eyes shining with admiration and glistening with tears at the thought of losing him forever.
“Thank you and again, sorry to have bothered you.”
“No trouble at all, Mister Barkley. We’ll keep a lookout.”
As Nick crossed the threshold, Jimmy stood from the table and asked to be excused. He walked outside to hurry after Nick. “Hey mister, can I talk to you?”
“I think I know where your brother is,” he said with some apprehension.
“You do? Where?”
“I want to be sure you are who you say you are because….”
“Because what?” Nick grabbed a hold of the boy’s shoulders. “Please tell me. He’s hurt, isn’t he?”
“How did you know?”
“We’re brothers. We can sense when the other’s in pain.”
“Guess that answers my question. Come with me. I’ll show you.” Jimmy beckoned Nick to follow him to the barn. “He has a bump on the head that’s causing his amnesia. He doesn’t remember who he is.”
“Show me where he is.”
“He’s up there,” the teen said, pointing to the loft. “Mister? Mister it’s me,” Jimmy called out to bring Heath out of his hiding place. “I brought someone who knows you.” Silence was their only answer. “Mister, are you up there?” Jimmy proceeded to climb the tiny ladder up to the loft where he noticed that Heath was gone.
“I told him to wait for me; that I would bring him to town, but I guess he didn’t. He couldn’t have gone very far.”
“What’s going on?” the suspicious older brother asked as he joined them into the barn.
“I was just telling Mister Barkley that his brother was here.”
“What? And you didn’t tell us?”
“He swore me not to tell.” Jimmy defended.
“Where is he now?”
“We don’t know,” Nick said. “But I’m going to find out. When did you see him last?”
“Less than an hour ago.” Jimmy informed, his gaze shifting from one worried expression to the other.
“He must still be in the area,” Nick surmised, his nagging gut feeling confirming this assumption.
Jimmy and his sibling volunteered to join the search on foot. They treaded on Nick’s heels as the tall, dark and careworn brother let his instinct be his guide. They arrived at a small clearing where at the bottom of a tree laid a crumpled figure.
“Heath!” Nick yelped upon seeing his brother in a heap.
The loud bellow jolted Heath back to his feet. “You…you stay away from me,” he threatened with a knife in his hand.
“Heath, it’s me. Nick. Look at me.” Nick placed his arms in front of the two boys to keep them from moving any further while he tried to reason with his insane brother. “Give me the knife, Heath,” Nick begged with an outstretched arm as he inched forward, careful not to upset the delicate frame of mind brandishing a knife before him. “It’s me, Nick. Your brother Nick.”
“You…you stay away from me. I’m busting out of this place and you ain’t gonna stop me. I hate you! You and all of them!” Heath spewed out.
“Who, Heath? Who are you talking about?”
“Oh my God, Heath. Heath Thomson, is that you?” Jimmy’s brother exclaimed in bewilderment upon recognizing his cellmate from Carterson.
Heath responded to the voice and squinted to make out the face. “An…Andy?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” The young man stepped forward, regardless of Nick’s warning that he politely waved aside.
“Andy, you come with me.” Heath grabbed his arm and yanked him away from Nick. “You and me, we’re busting out of this hell hole.”
“Heath, listen to me. The war is over. We’re free. Carterson is no more.”
“No, no, no” Heath shook his head violently. “I saw him. I saw Bentell. He’s here. He’s looking for us,” he said, looking about wildly with a hunted look.
“No, he’s not. Look at me Heath.” Andy clawed at Heath’s shoulders to swing him around and commanded, “Look at me!”
“Andy, he’s here. I know,” Heath whimpered imploringly; his cries shooting through Nick like and arrow to his heart. While Little Brother’s attention was momentarily diverted by Andy’s plea, Nick lunged at Heath in an attempt to disarm him, but the hawk eye had already spotted the move. Heath swiftly dodged out of the way as Nick came springing on him like a wild cougar. Nick landed face down in the dirt but bounced back on his feet just as Heath pounced on him with the knife; the blade grazing Nick in the arm.
Nick yelped in pain and quickly pressed a hand against the wound to stop the bleeding. “Dammit Heath!”
“Nick?” Heath cried as the sight of Nick’s wound yanked him back to reality.
“Yeah, Little Brother. It’s me.”
Befuddled by his feral behavior alien to his character, Heath looked down at the bloody knife in his hand. “My God! What’s happening to me?”
Nick inched toward Heath and gingerly removed the knife from his hand. “It’s okay Little Brother. You’ll be all right.” Seeing Heath sway dangerously he slid a hand around his waist and knelt down on the ground to support the falling weight of his brother. “It’s okay, Heath,” he soothed while gently rocking the shuddering body. “I’m taking you home.” With tear-glistened eyes he glanced up at the two young men standing bewildered at what they witnessed. His look of utter despair prompted Andy to squat down beside then and hazard a hand on Heath’s shoulder.
“Heath, my friend. It’s over now. We’re both free and alive.”
Heath’s head tilted up at the familiar voice. “Andy, I thought…I thought you were dead,” his cried in a sob-broken voice. “I vowed to kill Bentell for what he’d done to you.”
“Look at me. I’m here, alive. Let it go, Heath. Let it go or the hatred will destroy you. That man is long gone, perhaps even dead, God willing.”
“No he’s not. He’s…” Heath faltered, swallowing his intention of revealing the truth to Andy when Nick shot him a cautious stare. “Yeah, maybe he is,” he retracted to prevent his friend’s demons from re-emerging like his did.
No sooner had Heath been assisted back on his feet that Andy fell into his arms in a spine-tingling hug. “It’s good to see you again, friend.”
“Likewise, Andy. This feels good to know you survived that hell.”
“It took time and lots of soul searching before I finally quelled the haunting visions. My family helped a lot.”
“Yeah,” Heath turned to Nick and smiled, “I know exactly what you mean.” Nick reciprocated with a Cheshire grin of his own and playfully tousled Heath’s hair. “Awwwwwww Nick!” Heath griped.
“I love this kid,” he chanted with a brotherly neck grip.
Both Andy and Jimmy chuckled in unison.
“Heath, I would very much like it if you could stay a bit. Not so much to reminisce over the bad times, but…” Andy hesitated in stating his request, seeing how his friend had barely regained his bearing.
Heath placed a friendly hand on Andy’s shoulder and smiled his acquiescence. “I’m sure my big brother can spare me for a while?” He winked to Nick who nodded in agreement. He favoured this kind of soul-cleansing therapy to the professional psychologist approach. “And Nick, I’ll be okay with it,” he hinted to Nick whose frown reflected befuddlement as to its meaning. “Don’t do anything yet. Leave it be for now.”
“Okay Little Brother. I won’t make a step without discussing it with you first.”
“We’d better take care of that knife cut, Mister Barkley,” Jimmy piped in as he noticed more blood tainting Nick’s sleeve.
“Sorry about what I did Nick,” Shame-faced Heath deplored.
“Don’t worry about that scratch. It will heal. And so will you.”
“Will I ever?”
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