“Come on, Heath! Stay with him now! Attaboy!” Nick cheered his brother on as he watched him break an ornery black stallion in the corral. “Almost got him!” So engrossed in the show was he that he did not see nor hear Jarrod walking up to him.
“Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” He whooped with excitement, clapping his gloved hands. “Ya got him, Heath. Ya got him!” With bubbling effervescence he grabbed Jarrod’s head with both hands and planted a smack on his forehead. “He did it!”
First taken aback by the sudden gush of ecstasy Jarrod then let an amused smile cross his face. “Why Brother Nick, what has you so exuberant today?”
“We finally broke that bucking bronco.”
“We?” Heath mocked with an arched eyebrow. “What d’ya mean WE?” Heath continued to tease as he strode up to his two brothers standing behind the fence.
“Nothing broken, Brother Heath?” Jarrod asked somewhat rhetorically.
Heath slapped the dust off his pants and fashioned a lopsided grin in answer to Jarrod’s question. “Nah! Piece of cake,” he boasted proudly.
“Some cake! Halfa dozen wranglers bust their hides trying to break that ornery stallion.” He flashed Heath a toothy grin and clapped him on the back. “That boy’s got some gift.”
Heath regarded the effusiveness of Nick’s praises with great suspicion. “Boy Howdy, Nick. Ya sure are bubbly today. What gives?”
“Can a man congrats his brother on a job well done without anyone suspecting an ulterior motive?”
Heath patted Nick’s shoulder in repentance. “Sorry, Nick. Didn’t mean anything by it. Just teasing ya.”
Nick hung his lip in a feigned pout. “Apology accepted. But just for that I am gonna ask ya for a favour.”
“Uh-oh! Here it comes,” Jarrod joshed.
“What d’ya want, Nick?” Heath asked in an exasperated sigh.
“Patricia Darwin.” Nick Cheshire-Cat grin was self-explanatory.
“No! Forget it, Nick. Anything but that.” Heath flung his arms in the air as he made his way to the barn. “I told ya before I’m not gonna help ya.”
“Awwwwwwww come on, Heath,” Nick whined as he treaded closely on his brother’s heels with an amused Jarrod following at a lesser pace. “You’re the one who can convince her how great a guy I am.”
“Nick, I don’t wanna lie to her,” Heath retorted with a devilish hint of tease in his voice, eliciting a chuckle out of Jarrod and earning a glare from Nick.
“Heath, come on!”
“Brother Nick, hasn’t ever occurred to you that Heath might be interested in courting the pretty lady?” Jarrod stated amicably.
“No I’m not, Jarrod. Pat and me are just good friends. We don’t got much in common aside from our love of horses. But I’m not so sure Nick’s a good match for her either.” He eyed Nick from head to toe. “But since I’m a good brother,” he signed resignedly, “I’ll try to put in the good word for ya.”
Nick smiled appreciatively. “Much obliged, Little Brother. Much obliged. I’ll owe ya one.”
“And I’ll think of sumpthin’,” Heath teased with a wink.
“By the way,” Jarrod reached inside his breast pocket, “this telegram arrived for you today.” He handed the wire over to Heath who glanced at it inquisitively. “It’s from Sacramento.”
“Well? What does it say?” an impetuous Nick queried as he leaned in to steal a peek at the letter Heath was reading.
“It’s from a George E. Benson, Attorney at Law. Says here he wants to meet me next week to discuss an important matter.”
“What important matter?”
“Doesn’t say,” Heath shrugged. “Just that he’ll be arriving by train next Monday.”
“George Benson is a prominent lawyer. He travels for no one unless it’s of the utmost importance and highly profitable for his firm.”
“What does that mean profitable for his firm?” Heath gulped nervously. “Am I in trouble?”
“Benson specializes in bequeath of property assets and estate successions,” Jarrod explained to his brothers staring at him perplexedly. “It’s very likely that you have come into a sizeable inheritance, Brother Heath. How’s that for trouble?” Jarrod finished on a teasing tone.
“Hardly think so,” Heath scoffed. “Don’t know anyone who’d wanna gimme anything of value.”
“I could wire him and ask for details,” Jarrod proposed, but Heath shook his head negatively.
“Don’t bother, Jarrod. We’ll know when he gets here.”
Nick gave an emboldening clap on Heath’s back. “Come on. Let’s grab some grub before we head out to ride fenceline.”
‘What does he really want with me?’ Heath’s mind wondered while he followed her brothers toward the kitchen door.
At the station, Nick and Jarrod flanked a fidgety Heath on the platform as they anxiously awaited the arrival of Benson’s train. As the whistle grew louder so did the drumming of Heath’s heartbeat in his ears. Noticing the twitchy man fiddling with the rim of the hat, Jarrod placed a calming hand on his arm.
“Relax Heath. I told you Benson’s not coming here to prosecute you.”
“I’m not nervous,” Heath replied bluntly with an edge of indignation.
“Then how come you’re ripping your hat to shreds?” Jarrod remarked with friendly sarcasm.
Heath looked down at his hat with the crumpled edges. “Well maybe just a bit.” Heath’s face puckered with embarrassment as he smoothed out the creases. “I just can’t figure out what he wants with me.”
“We’ll know soon enough. Here comes the train.”
The three brothers sidled along the platform to the last private car until the train came to a complete halt. Heath tried hard to keep his wits about himself with silent deep breaths. In spite of Jarrod’s assurance that Benson was not a prosecuting attorney, Heath nevertheless felt that a noose was about to be looped around his neck. One last gulp and lick of the lips and he was ready to face the daunting man.
“Mister Benson? I’m Jarrod Barkley,” Jarrod greeted with a shake of the hand.
“Mister Barkley, of course. Finally we meet.”
“This is my brother, Nick.”
“How do you do?”
“Mister Benson. Please to meet you,” said Nick with a handclasp.
“And my brother Heath.”
“Ah! The young man I came to see,” Benson spoke on a dark implying tone that made Heath’s blood run cold. “It’s an honour to shake your hand Mister Barkley. You and I have lots to discuss.”
“If you don’t mind I asked my two brothers to sit in on the meeting.”
“Not at all. In fact I was to insist upon having people bear witness to the reading of the will.”
“A will?” Heath exclaimed in surprise
An amused smile danced on Benson’s lips at the expression of utter shock etched on the young man’s face. “Shall we go?”
“Mister Benson I made my law office available for the meeting. I thought we would be more comfortable there.”
“I appreciate it Mister Barkley. Let me just settle in my hotel room first and I will follow you.”
Benson beckoned his porter to follow him to the awaiting surrey that drove him to the town hotel with the three brothers following on their mounts.
Barely an hour later the four men settled in Jarrod’s office with Benson, briefcase in hand, seated in Jarrod’s leather chair and the three brothers lined up in front of the desk.
“Heath, may I call you Heath?”
“Heath, did you know a mister Clayton Washburn in Virginia City, Nevada?” Benson began while thumbing through the documents in the open folder before him.
Heath raked his memory of his last vivid recollection of Mister Washburn. “Yes I did. He hired me to work on his ranch a few years back.”
“Can you describe him?”
“Offhand I’d say he was about my height, dark haired, brown eyes. Grey around the temples. Probably in his mid fifties. I recall his kindness and generosity. He gave me a job when no one else would. He took a gamble on me and for that I will be eternally grateful.”
“That’s him alright. It appears he held high regards for you too for he willed you his entire fortune.”
Heath’s jaw dropped to the floor. “What?”
“When you worked for him, when would you say that was?”
“It must be well over five years.”
“Back then his estate was worth thousands. Today it’s estimated at five million dollars. His property is the largest in Nevada with Ben Cartwright’s Ponderosa coming in a distant second.”
Heath tried to speak but no sound would come out. The breaths caught in his throat. As opposed to Nick who sat equally dumbfounded at the news Jarrod was grinning ear-to-ear. He clapped Heath on the back.
“How about that, Brother Heath. I told there was nothing to worry about.”
Heath managed to fashion a light lopsided smile at Jarrod.
“His estate comprises a forty-thousand-acre ranch with orange, citrus, grapefruit and olive groves, apple and peach orchards, two vineyards all of which are profitable exporting businesses to top markets; a horse trading business with the Army; an in-house meat packing company for the shipment of beef; a stagecoach company, a general story in Virginia City and a gross capital of more than one million dollars and the list goes on.”
“Any debt?” Jarrod queried.
“None whatsoever. I’ve been his lawyer for over ten years. Along with his accountant we would review Mr. Washburn books once a month to ensure every transaction was in order. He was a proud man. Never buying on credit. What he couldn’t afford; he wouldn’t purchase. He made sound investments and from the money he made off those, he would extend his businesses.”
“But why me? I barely knew the man,” Heath explained bashfully. “I must have worked for him for only three months.”
“That may be so but you made quite an impression on him, especially when it came to handling the horses. He would marvel at your ability to gentle them as opposed to breaking their spirits. He was able to gain from your remarkable skills. What you achieved in a week others would in a month and it allowed him to sell more horses in less time. You helped made his horse business what it is today. You would be amazed how often he spoke of you.”
“Doesn’t he have any family?”
“He was never married. Therefore he has no children to insure the legacy. No relatives to speak of. He considered you like his own son. He was heart broken when you left but he understood that you had to move on. Later when he heard that you had become Heath Barkley he wanted to wire you to share his joy but he figured you’d forgotten all about him.”
“How could I? He was the father I never knew.”
“I’m sure he would have loved to heard that.”
“I…I don’t know what to say,” Heath stuttered, glancing Nick’s way for support which came in the form of a hand on his arm.
“He knew how shy you were about money when you first came to him, reason why he didn’t lay you in his will right away. It was until he heard of your newfound wealth with the Barkleys that he had me alter it to put you sole beneficiary. He figured that you were used to it by now,” Benson ended in an amusing tone.
“What about his foreman…huh…Charlie something?”
“Charlie Rutter? He died two years after you left. He hired a new man. Good worker lives on the ranch. Mr. Washburn left a little something for him.”
“Why didn’t he will everything to him?”
“He didn’t want to entrust him with the entire estate. He may be an efficient worker but Mr. Washburn never trusted him when it came to handling business of this magnitude.”
“What made him think that I could?”
“You’re a Barkley, aren’t you? You must be used to it.”
“This is…this is way too much for one day,” Heath sighed heavily, rubbing his hand against his forehead.
“I assume it would, Heath.” Benson closed the folder and rose from the chair. “And I certainly don’t expect you to sign anything today. I will give you a copy of the entire will with the list of all assets. I presume you’ll want to go over it with Jarrod and your family before you decide on whether or not you wish to accept the inheritance.”
“That I would. Thanks.”
Benson handed Jarrod the folder. “You study it very carefully and get back to me whenever you’re ready to discuss it further. Or have Jarrod do it for you; either way is fine with me. I will be at the hotel until the end of the week.” He closed his briefcase and followed Jarrod to the door. “I strongly encourage you to take it, Heath. It was Mister Washburn wish.”
Jarrod opened the door and ushered Benson out. “We will be in touch.”
Benson tipped his hat before leaving.
“Well Brother Heath, why don’t we all go down to the Cattlemen’s to celebrate this inheritance of yours. There we can review the lists and discuss the legal formalities?”
“Sounds good to me,” Nick agreed, clapping Heath on the back before wrapping his arms around his little brother’s shoulders. “You need plenty of nourishment little brother. Look at ya, you’re white as a sheet,” Nick teased good-naturedly.
“I shouldn’t wonder. All the blood drained outta my face when he told me.”
“First thing I want to ask Benson is to visit the property before we sign anything.”
“You think it could be a hoax?” Nick asked, concerned.
“No I don’t think Benson is in the business of cheating people. He has an unblemished reputation and aims to keep it spotless. But given the sizeable estate, I highly recommend a thorough inspection. Not so to uncover flaws but more to take in stride everything that’s at stake. That property is way bigger that ours.”
“I agree, Jarrod. I guess you’re hired as my adviser. And best part of it is that I don’t have to pay you for your services,” Heath teased.
“What do you mean you’re not going to pay me mister five-million-dollar’s worth?” Jarrod chaffed back as he gave a giggling Heath a light shove out the door.
Prior to signing any form, Jarrod insisted that Benson gave them the grand tour of the Washburn property. The lawyer obliged the claimants and proposed that they meet at the Virginia City train station on Friday morning. Nick delegated Duke the responsibilities of the ranch while Jarrod cleared his agenda for the entire weekend in order to offer their little brother moral support. Heath was still shaken by the sizeable fortune he was to inherit and needed his brothers’ input and sound advice before making any decision.
The Barkley brothers arrived in Virginia City two hours ahead of Benson’s train and therefore proposed to grab a bite to eat the Steakhouse before returning to the station to meet with the lawyer.
As he and his brothers were being seated at their table, Jarrod caught a glimpse at Ben Cartwright entering the restaurant. He stood from the table and walked over to him. “Ben Cartwright. Long time no see,” Jarrod greeted with a firm handshake.
“Jarrod Barkley. Now what are you doing in Virginia City?”
“I’m here sort of on business.”
“What does ‘sort of’ mean?”
“The Washburn property. The owner willed lock, stock and barrel to my younger brother Heath. We’re here to tour the place before we sign the papers.”
“Is that so?”
“Want to meet him?”
Jarrod ushered the grey-haired patriarch over to the table where his two brothers were already browsing through the menu.
“Nick you remember Ben Cartwright?”
Nick stood to shake the man’s hand. “F’course. Ben, how are ya?”
“Fine Nick. Just fine.”
“And this is our young brother, Heath.”
Heath awkwardly rose from his chair and gave the imposing figure a bashful smile. “Hello.”
“Heath,” Ben extended his arm to clasp Heath’s hand. “It’s an honor to finally meet you. Your brother Jarrod tells me that old man Washburn bequeathed you his estate?”
“That’s right. But I’m not sure I’ll accept it.”
“What he means is that he won’t make any decision until he sees the place,” Nick rephrased his brother’s statement matter-of-factly.
“I hope you’re planning to stay awhile? It’s forty acres you know.”
“Washburn’s lawyer told us.”
“That’s the one.”
“Nice fellow. Well I hope you decide to become the new owner, Heath. I’d rather deal with a Barkley than with Washburn’s foreman.”
“What do you mean?” Jarrod asked quizzically.
“Didn’t Benson mention the agreement I had with Clayton about our cattle drives through his land?”
“Yes he did mention it. I don’t see why this has to change, right Heath?”
“Of course not.”
“Good. It might have been different had Stoker acquired the place and I believe if you don’t agree to claim the inheritance, everything goes to him. If that happens I foresee trouble in negotiating a handshake deal with him. He’s been known to be greedy.”
“Benson told us Washburn didn’t trust him implicitly.”
“Hence the reason why he didn’t make him sole beneficiary.”
“D’ya think this Stoker fella could be a problem?” Nick queried with a tinge of suspicion.
“I don’t believe so. He just likes money. You pay him good and he won’t overstep his ground. Say when are you going to visit?”
“As soon as Benson gets here by the twelve-twenty train. Want to join us, Ben?” Jarrod offered.
“I wish I could but I’ve got to be at the ranch to supervise a shipment of longhorns. I expect that if you take possession of the estate we’ll see a lot more of each other.”
“That goes without saying,” Jarrod agreed with a beaming expression that was in complete contrast with Nick’s whose face suddenly registered deep concern.
The Washburn ranch’s foreman Roy Stoker was busy hammering a fence post into the ground when a ranch hand came riding up to him. “Roy! Are ya ‘bout finished here?”
“Not yet. Still got three more posts to fix. Why d’ya ask?”
“Benson wants ya back at the main house. He’s got some people with he wants us to meet. Says it’s important.”
“It’s about time. They’re probably associates coming to discuss the legacy.” He dropped the sledgehammer onto the ground and wiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. “Hey Luke!” he shouted to a hand working nearby. “Can ya finish up for me? I’m needed back at the ranch.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Stoker got on his horse and followed his long-time friend and co-worker, Pete Granger, to the ranch where Benson had already begun taking Heath and his brothers on a guided tour of the lavish three-story mansion. Stoker and Granger rode into the barnyard as the guide and his visitors were exiting through the back door.
“Ah! That’s the foreman. Let’s go meet him,” Benson beckoned the three brothers to follow him. “Mister Stoker.”
“Mister Benson,” Stoker greeted jocundly with a firm handshake.
“I would like you and Mister Granger to meet the Barkley brothers.”
“Barkley? From Stockton?” Granger asked.
“That’s right,” Nick confirmed.
“Please to meet ya fellows. Came to see how the other famous ranchers live?” Stoker teased.
“Heath Barkley,” Benson motioned to Heath with his hand,” here, and his brothers have come to tour the property and its assets before deciding on whether or not to accept the inheritance.”
“Inheritance?” Stoker’s brow wrinkled in concern. “What are ya talking about?”
“Mister Washburn bequeathed his entire estate to Mister Barkley.”
“He did?” Stoker exclaimed in utter surprise. “But I thought…”
“You thought what?”
“No. Never mind.” He begrudgingly extended his arm to shake the new owner’s hand. “Congratulations Mister Barkley.”
“Congratulations may be too premature. I’ve yet to decide if I’m gonna take it.”
A fleeting worried glance passed between the two men, one that went unnoticed by the visitors save for Nick who dismissed the look as one of sheer surprise.
Benson and his guests pressed on to the horse paddocks where the young Barkley stood agape at a fine array of purebreds ranging from Appaloosas to Sorrels. “Fine horse flesh he’s got there,” Heath commented.
“You mean YOU have. Those magnificent animals are all yours Mister Barkley.” Benson allowed Heath to admire the stock before beckoning him away from the fence. “Come with me. There’s an old friend I think you’ll be happy to see.”
Heath glanced back at Nick and Jarrod to ensure his brothers were following. Halfway to the stables, Jarrod noticed that Nick was moving at a snail’s pace with a slightly troubled expression across his face.
“Something bothering you, Brother Nick?”
“What? No. Nothing,” Nick answered nonchalantly, shrugging off his big brother’s concern. “I’m just a bit overwhelmed by everything, that’s all.”
Inside the barn, Benson lead Heath to the far end box where stood a majestic bay. “I don’t believe it,” Heath squeaked with delight as he entered the box to pat the animal. “It’s Thudder.”
The horse started stomping his hoof to the ground at the sound of the familiar voice.
“I won’t ask how he got his name,” Jarrod remarked.
“I thought you’d recognize him. Mister Washburn kept him all these years. He never let anyone ride him. He would care for the horse himself and said it helped him feel closer to his son as he so affectionately referred to you.”
“I had no idea the man missed me that much,” Heath mused.
“He did. Much as you considered him a father, he considered you his son.”
“Why is Thudder cooped up inside?”
“He has a lame leg.” Heath’s eyes instinctively went down to the bandaged hind leg. “He took a bad stumble on the wet grass. Nothing serious but they’re keeping him inside until it completely heals.”
While Heath related the story behind his affection for this particular horse, Granger finally broke the ominous silence that had fallen between he and Stoker.
“Roy, did ya know about this?”
“NO!” Stoker spat angrily between clenched teeth. Spasms of irritation crossed his face at the thought of old man Washburn’s willing his entire fortune to a stranger. “I’ve slaved for the man for three years and this is the thanks I get?”
“What are ya gonna to do?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ve worked too hard to just let everything go to this kid. He’s a Barkley for God’s sake. He doesn’t need another empire.”
“I’m sure Washburn gave ya something.”
“Like what? A pocketful of silver dollars?” Stoker scoffed. “This ranch was supposed to be mine and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let a Barkley take it from me.”
“You’re not thinking….” Granger implied.
“Kill him? Now that would look conspicuous, wouldn’t it?” Stoker mocked his friend’s presumption. “No, I have a better plan,” he crowed with a malicious grin.
Back in Stockton, the boys were welcomed with outstretched arms and showered with kisses upon their arrival home. Victoria had requested Silas to prepare a small feast; one she hoped would turn out to be a celebration dinner in honour of Heath’s wealth.
“Welcome home boys. How was the trip?”
“Just fine, Mother,” Heath enthused with an atypical elation that aroused Victoria’s curiosity. She tucked her arm into his to lead him to the livingroom.
“We’re anxious to hear all about it.”
Jarrod offered his arm to Audra and followed at the same pace while a downbeat Nick lagged behind. He was miles away, lost in his thoughts about his little brother’s good fortune. He strived to understand the sudden aversion he felt toward the man that made Heath his heir. Why couldn’t he feel happy for his little brother? It couldn’t be jealousy for he had nothing to envy Heath. He drew in a lungful of air to root out the blues and instead, plant in a festive mood.
Victoria and Audra sat on either side of Heath on the sofa while Jarrod handled the pouring of liquors. He handed a jigger of whiskey to Nick standing to his left before ambling over to the threesome on the couch with a glass of sherry for his mother and a whiskey for Heath.
“So? What’s it like?” Audra asked with eyes shining in eager anticipation.
“It’s huge,” Heath mused in a loud sigh. “The house, the stables, the groves, everything. And the responsibilities are twice as big.”
“If anyone can handle it it’s you, Heath,” Audra encouraged with a tug on his shoulder.
“I don’t know, Audra. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Nick felt a guilty pleasure at Heath’s apparent hesitation. He stared at his brother, remorsefully relishing every ridge in Heath’s wrinkled brow.
“Brother Heath is just overwhelmed, that’s all. I admit I was also taken aback by the size of the estate and all its businesses. Benson has agreed to allow Heath two more weeks to digest it all before making his final decision.”
“If I do agree to take it, it won’t be my estate but ours, all of us.”
“Heath, Mister Washburn willed his fortune to you, not the Barkleys,” Victoria pointed out amicably.
Heath clasped her hand and gazed into her eyes. “Mother, I am a Barkley and therefore anything I have goes to this family, my family,” he spoke sternly and yet his inflection carried no threat, thus leaving room for argument. But he received none. Instead Victoria offered a smile full of pride and clenched him into a motherly hug.
“I’m very happy for you, Heath. This is what you always wanted. Your own property.”
“Our property,” Heath corrected amicably.
“Excuse me,” Nick rasped in a choked voice before crossing to the foyer and disappearing behind the corner.
“Is Nick feeling okay?” Victoria asked with concern.
“Probably just tired from the trip.”
“He’s been unusually quiet in the three days we were there, Jarrod,” Heath observed. “That’s not normal for Nick. Has to be something more than just him being tuckered out.”
“I’ll go find out.” Jarrod set his glass on the table and walked to the kitchen where he found Nick standing by the window, nursing his drink. He padded up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You want to talk about it, Nick?”
“What’s been bothering you since we arrived on the Washburn property.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nick quaffed down the last gulp of his drink and turned away from his brother’s inquisitive stare. “I just came here to get some fresh water,” he fibbed, putting on his act by drawing water out of the pump to fill his empty glass.
“Come on, Nick. Who are fooling here? What’s wrong?”
Nick plonked his glass down on the counter and clenched his hands in fists of rage. “I don’t know, Jarrod. I just don’t know why I feel this way.”
“I hate to say it but I don’t want Heath to get that ranch.”
Heath was about to push his way into the kitchen when he heard Nick’s startling confession. He stopped at the door and eavesdropped on the conversation.
“What? That’s ridiculous!” Jarrod snorted in disbelief.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Nick lashed out, his anger mostly directed at himself than at Jarrod.
“I’ve agonized over that question. Why? WHY? Could it be jealousy? What do I have to be jealous about? I’m happy for him, Jarrod. My God this is a dream come true for Heath. Then it hit me.”
Heath pressed his ear closer to the door, eager to hear the reason for his brother’s distress.
“D’you realize that if Heath acquires that property he…”
Nick banged his fist against the counter. “It’s so selfish of me.”
“Nick, tell me,” Jarrod egged on.
“I won’t see him anymore. He’ll be working over there. I’ll miss having my partner, my brother, my friend around, THAT’S what’s bothering me.” Shamefaced, Nick averted his gaze from Jarrod and went to sit at the table. “Told ya is was selfish.” Nick quavered, putting a hand over his eyes.
“Not so, Brother Nick,” Jarrod sympathized as he took a seat by his brother to place a comforting hand on his arm.
Much as a part of Heath’s heart ached for his brother’s torment, the other half swam in bliss. He leaned his back against the wall, his eyes brimming with tears as he looked heavenwards to silently thank Providence for blessing him with a wonderful, loving family.
“Jarrod, tell me; how do I stop this?”
“First what makes you think that Heath will leave the ranch? He might spend a few days there to familiarize himself with the workings of the ranch and its businesses but when this is done I’m sure he’ll will be back.”
“Jarrod is right,” Heath agreed, making his presence known to his two brothers.
“Dammit Heath!” Nick scolded to hide his embarrassment. “You’ve been eavesdropping.”
“I assure ya it was totally by accident.” Heath’s eyes beckoned Jarrod to leave him alone with Nick, which he acknowledged with a nod of the head.
“Well, I’ll leave you two alone to talk.” He patted Heath on the shoulder and leaned in to whisper in his ear, “Go easy on him.” Heath smiled his response, assuring Jarrod that he would follow his instructions.
Heath straddled a chair across from Nick and waited for him to lift his eyes from his hands he’d been wringing for the past two minutes. “Nick, talk to me.”
“What can I tell ya that ya haven’t already heard behind that door?” Nick jeered without disturbing his stare.
Heath brought his folded hands to his lips in deep thought. A restrained silence fell between the two brothers before Heath spoke in a solemn tone, “I’m not taking it.”
Nick’s head jerked up, his eyes narrowing in suspicion at Heath’s crestfallen expression. “What?”
“You heard me. I’m not accepting the inheritance. It will go to Mister Washburn’s foreman like it should’ve in the first place,” Heath stated defiantly as he stood from the chair to walk over to the counter.
“Now wait just a minute here.” Nick blasted, pushing his chair back to walk up to his brother. “I won’t have ya toss aside a golden opportunity because of me.”
“It’s not just because of you, Nick.” Heath paused to exhale a long shuddering breath. “I’m scared. I can’t handle it all by myself.”
“But ya won’t be by yourself. You have dozens of people there who’ll help ya out.”
“They’re strangers. How will they react to having a twenty-five-year-old kid for their boss? One who worked on the ranch some five years ago for three short months? I’m not qualified, Nick. They’ll eat me alive.”
“Then I’ll help ya,” Nick blurted out, much his surprise. “That is if ya want me to.”
“Nick I can’t ask ya to do that.”
“You’re not asking; I’m offering. I won’t have ya backing out because of your inexperience, let alone your age. Heath you’re the toughest man I know. You’re not afraid of hard work and challenges. Ya just need a little shove. That’s what I’m here for.”
A grateful lopsided grin crossed Heath’s lips as his heart overflowed with emotion at his brother’s offer. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much but ya can’t leave here. I expect we could be gone for weeks.”
“I’m sure Duke can handle it. Besides it’s time I delegate more responsibilities to his new assistant Jim Farnsworth. We’ll split our time between here and there. Could be fun.”
“I don’t know, Nick. We might be biting more than we can chew.”
“So we’ll spit it out and start over and again. But if you feel YOU can’t handle it, there’s always the option of putting the property up for sale.” Nick broke into a toothy grin. “What d’ya say, partner?”
Heath reciprocated with a teasing grin of his own. “Deal!” He offered his hand to Nick who clasped it into a hearty handshake.