The small town of less than one thousand inhabitants resided at the base of the Shoshone Mountain range, the ore was no longer free flowing in the high elevated town hidden and protected by the large peaks in the background. The coolness of the early morning air would be a sharp contrast to the desert between Berlin and the town which lay beyond the state line.
Frank Sawyer scowled and pushed the feline to the side when the ball of gray fur jumped on his desk to lay on his newspaper. “Why does it do that! I don’t even like cats.”
“That’s exactly why.” chuckled the younger man as he loaded the rifle in his hands, stopping to pet the cat as it rubbed against his tan boot suspended in the air from his perched position on the desk. “Ain’t that right, Henry?”
“If that thing’s name is Henry…why do we have a batch of kittens in the back? Stupid name for a girl cat!” scoffed the older man before folding the paper.
“Now Frank, if ya’ hurt Henry’s feelings, she’ll leave ya’ some nasty presents while I’m gone.” smirked the blond, filling the loops of his gunbelt and talking softly to the gray animal, sitting on a chair and staring at the man behind the desk.
“Tell it to stop staring at me! Gives me the willies!” protested the older man, glaring back into the green eyes before pointing a gnarled finger and threatening, “There’s a big lake not too far from here. Watch it cat!”
Arching suddenly with fur standing on end, a low growl and hiss filled the room as the green eyes narrowed and each muscle under the fur shook. Laughing at the look of horror appearing on the older man’s face, the blond shook his head and reached over, stroking the bristled fur, chiding through his laughter.
“Cut it out Henrietta, ya’ll give him a heart attack!”
Jumping suddenly across the desk, the feline sent the older man flying backwards in his chair to escape what he thought were claws seeking to latch onto his body and not let go, letting out a sigh of deep relief when the animal passed him by mere inches, heading to the back where her batch of kittens lay asleep, their small bodies intertwined in a basket.
“Why don’t you take it with you?” suggested the man, standing and walking to the window, the incoming sun glistening on his sheriff’s badge before he looked back at the smiling blond.
“And take away the only lady friend ya’ got, Frank?” teased the blond, his grin lop-sided as he packed his saddlebag. “Nah, couldn’t do that to ya’ boss.”
“Yeah, like that would break my heart.” snorted the older man, sitting back in his chair and watching his deputy ready his provisions for the trip.
The smiling young man before him was definitely a vast improvement over the short tempered man, he’d met just shortly over a year ago. Letting his mind wander, Frank Sawyer wasn’t sure how the blond came to their area of this vast country, this young man who filled out physically during his time in their elevated community, added muscles to his slim frame by working hard during the day.
Somehow the lawman had felt the brash youngster who was living on the edge, on the wrong part of town wasn’t hiding from the law, he was leaving behind a life which caused him great pain.
He wasn’t even sure when the first time he saw this young man was. Was it the first time he arrested him? Was it the first time he jailed him after breaking up the saloon? Was it when he saw him at the livery with his modoc horse?
He was the only man he’d ever arrested who when sobered looked haunted by his actions while drinking, almost as if he’d fallen off the wagon and was unable to get back on or unwilling, preferring to drown whatever was in his mind or heart.
Sure, most people would feel bad about breaking up the furniture but this young man often felt guilty and deeply saddened to the point where he was a body of contradiction to those who observed him. During the day he was respectful to the citizens he encountered, kind to the children and widows but each night he’d fall back to the same pattern.
A volatile temper, a short fuse and the mixing of alcohol were not a good match. He didn’t actively seek trouble but he didn’t side step it either. The locals soon learned to leave him to his nightly ritual and only when an outsider appeared in their small world could there be trouble.
It was when an outsider tried to rob the bank during the day which brought the young man to be his deputy. His quick action saved the life of the teller the outlaw sought to use as a human shield and saved the citizens of the community from losing their meager savings.
It was Frank Sawyer’s decreasing desire to ride the rough trails of the county he watched over and his increasing desire to know about this younger man who willingly stepped forth, undaunted by the possibility of death and calmly dispatched of the threat, which brought them together today.
“When you get to Dardanelle and get Finch from the sheriff there, send me a wire on your way out and I’ll contact the circuit judge so he can put us on his next stop.” stated Frank, leaning his arms on the desk. “Got everything?”
“Yep.” nodded the blond, shrugging into his coat and picking up his saddlebags. “I’ll catch the train at Hawthorne in a couple days and from there, I expect it won’t take more than one or two days to Dardanelle.”
Standing on the boardwalk, Frank watched the young man tie his saddlebags in place and mount his faithful modoc before giving him a wave.
“Watch yourself.” warned the older man as the blond flashed a grin and turned his horse down the street, wondering why he suddenly felt a chill up his spine.
Frowning, the sheriff entered the office and sat in his chair, absently petting the ball of fur which meowed and jumped into his lap. “Heath’ll be back before you know it, Henry.”
The deep throbbing, the deep ache in his lion heart was as strongly felt today just as he’d first experienced it early on that dreadful day. Looking upwards, hazel eyes searched the heavens, searched for the resolve again to push the pain back down, back into the deep recesses of his soul.
Over a year and nothing. No word, no sighting, no sign of the teenager fleeing from the group of people who’d been more concerned with the rage inside the teenager, instead of the reason for the rage itself. The reason of the young blond which justified his rage, his anger.
Not until they’d forced him into a corner, forced him to cut his losses at the insurmountable task they’d challenged him to do….not until he made his choice and left did they finally understand.
Destiny had made his little brother who he was, destiny decreed the person inside from the past he’d been forced to live, forced to struggle through.
Destiny played its cards in his life and destiny dealt them cards. Dealt them cards, given them a hand to play. There was no bluffing in this game of cards. This was a game of life and death.
They laid their cards on the table for his blue eyes to see and he folded under their unwillingness to understand the hurt inside him. He folded and he walked away, his hand played the only way he knew how….he left before they could break his spirit.
“This one is special, Mr. Barkley. If you break his spirit, he’ll be no good. He can be trained but it’ll be a challenge. He doesn’t like to be manhandled. This one won’t be broken through normal means. If he is, you may as well put a bullet in him, now cause you’ll lose what makes him special.”
Shaking his head and moving his large hand to squeeze his temples at the aching behind his eyes, Nick heard the words Heath first spoke of Charger, the red stallion once full of spirit and spunk. Those words describing a wild stallion fit the teenager to a tee. He’d left before they could break him and lose what made him special.
With the blond’s departure, the red stallion felt its own loss, his spirit was no longer fiery as the coat of red he wore. When Heath left, he took the soul of the big horse with him. No other man on the ranch could touch him, he wouldn’t allow a hand to offer condolence, to scratch the sensitive area behind his ears. He became a danger to himself and everyone on the ranch with the departure of the teenager he trusted.
Audra argued and cried but deep inside understood when Nick released the horse back into the wilds. He ran from the family just as his human counterpart had done. He ran and he wasn’t coming back.
Closing his eyes against the tears wanting to escape at the look of hurt and painful disappointment in his sister’s eyes today, Nick took a shaky breath. The look the same as when Audra returned after spending the night at a friend’s house, returned to a home frantic with worry, frantic with concern.
Her eyes flared with disappointment and anger at what they’d done. Her brother was gone and she’d not been given a say in what they’d challenged him to undertake. They’d made a decision which changed her life and her destiny without asking, without understanding the boy inside her brother. Today as she looked at her family around the dining room table, the same disappointment shown in her depths and the blonde girl ran from the table, her sobs filling the mansion which no longer seemed like a home.
A hand found its way to his shoulder and Nick welcomed the strength offered by his big brother as his body shook with his unbridled anguish. The eloquent lawyer, stood by his brother’s side under the carpet of black velvet, sprinkled with glitter.
Today’d been a hard day for the family, a day all were again forced to examine the wrongness of the hand they played that fateful morning. Never was he far from their thoughts or their hearts. Never had they ever considered they wouldn’t be able to find the fleeing teenager and right their wrong. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, they felt the hope within them chipped away like a pick to a block of ice.
Today they stood together but not as a family for one of them was missing. They stood together linked but the gap between them left open for the missing member to fill.
Today the dreaded underground stream that had one time nearly stole their blond member from them was finally made into a lake by the Core of Engineers, their eyes were bright with unshed tears as they remembered the blond they pushed too far.
He should have been there with them. He should have been allowed to see the successful venture of the community. The venture which was originally born from his mind and his concern for others after what occurred with Terry and himself.
Yes, Heath should have been there but he wasn’t because they’d pushed him too far, they’d forced him to make a drastic decision.
“God, I miss him Pappy.” whispered Nick, his voice low and tense.
Biting back the emotion choking his own throat, Jarrod moved his arm to rest across the broad shoulders and pulled the dark head to lay against his shoulder. “I know, Nick. I know. I miss him too.”
Victoria watched her boys from her bedroom window, her own eyes filled with a self loathing and deep regret, sadness filled her every day, filled every part of her soul and some mornings it was all she could do to not cry at the empty seat around the expansive dining table. The empty chair, missing the slim teenager with twinkling blue eyes and lop-sided grin. The chair was empty because she’d given him no choice.
No choice only a challenge hurled at his boots.
Closing her eyes, she could see the deep rage in the blue eyes after she ground out her challenge. Only after he’d fled during the night and she searched her mind had she seen the abandonment, the betrayal under the anger. She’d betrayed him and left him alone against the odds when she gave him no choice. She knew he’d do anything for her and she played her cards, losing more than just the ante.
She lost a son that day, a child not born to her but so much like her in some ways. Stubborn, defiant and proud. Gentle with a fierce protectiveness. She above all else was responsible for a parent should protect their children and she’d made a conscious choice to make a lamb face the wolf of his nightmares. She’d played her cards and lost a piece of her soul, cast a darkness over her family, a darkness of loss.
Laying on her large bed, the petite silver haired lady curled her body around a pillow and let her tears fall, sending the same prayer again for a chance.
A chance to redeal and play another hand with destiny.
California. The Golden State
Heath threw the last dregs of his coffee onto the fire and let out a loud sigh of frustration as the liquid sizzled on the open flame. The blond had grown steadily uneasy from the knowledge he’d soon step foot in that state again.
Placing his cup on the ground, he walked over and checked on Gal before taking the short path to the stream. Reaching into his vest pocket, he took out his makings and rolled a cigarette, the darkness around him disturbed for only a moment from the sudden harsh flaring of the match before he shook it out.
Sitting on the bank of the stream, he inhaled on the calming habit and closed his eyes, letting the night sounds wash over him for several minutes. He opened his eyes and stared at the blanket of stars, the sky clear and crystallized, the windless night was the perfect temperature.
He loved being out in the open, out in nature’s wonderland, enjoying nature’s gift of beauty. This trip was really no different than any others he’d made in the past year, no different than his route through the county where he worked with Frank Sawyer. This was not the first time he’d dragged a prisoner from one point to another.
This was the first time though he’d be back there and he scowled at himself. Chastising himself thoroughly for acting like an old woman walking at night, passing by a gang of ruffians.
It was only a state.
A mass of land with borders, split into counties, beaches that ran into the ocean. It was the same as Nevada or so he tried to reason in his mind but he was unsuccessful.
It wasn’t the same because they lived there, in the mansion on the ranch.
He hadn’t been there since…how long was it since he’d turned his back?
Fifteen months, two weeks and three days.
So long ago and yet not long enough. Not long enough to erase them from his mind, erase them from his heart.
Falling back into nights of excessive drinking of alcohol to numb the pain in his heart hadn’t helped and only succeeded in making him feel guilty in the light of day. The light of day would reveal the truth, the devastation he was capable of in a drunken stupor. It’d been too easy to fall back onto the crutch, too easy to use it to avoid his thoughts at night but in the light of the day, they would return and the pain would start again.
Shaking his head and grinding the stub of the cigarette into the rock, the lone man made his way back to his camp, taking time to speak to his faithful horse before laying on his bedroll. Clasping his hands under his head, he turned his thoughts to the older man he worked beside and respected, Sheriff Frank Sawyer.
A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth and a low chuckle escaped when he remembered Henry and Frank’s morning encounter. The cat always bothering the older man, seemingly picking on him, teasing him in ways only a feline can.
The gray ball of fur had shown up one day outside the jail, half starved and needing attention. Unable to hurt any animal and much to Frank’s chagrin, Heath nursed the sickly cat back to health and was rewarded with its friendship and loyalty.
The older lawman had grumbled, cursed and muttered all along about the sick cat in his deputy’s presence but Heath had seen Frank feeding the ball of fur with an eye dropper. The grouchy old man was soft inside for an injured animal as he was but would never readily admit it, not to his deputy or anyone else. The older man preferred to keep his gruff image intact in the town where he resided and made his living as the law.
Moving his hands from the back of his head, Heath took his hat off and put it to the side, running his fingers through his hair, his tips running over the two inch scar on the side of his head.
What if he saw them? What would he do?
Cursing at the sudden rampaging thoughts, the blond wrapped up in his blanket and closed his eyes after he reasoned he was only going to be forty six miles into the state of California. Just across the eastern border while they resided in the western section. There was no reason to get all worked up for the chances were slim and next to none of a chance encounter.
Was he hoping to see one of them, all of them? Would it be so bad after all? Could he handle it after all this time? Can you really go back once you’ve left? Was he wrong to have left before? Was he a coward for not facing his past?
Unable to fall into sleep, the blond rolled onto his back and sighed, his eyes studying the pinpoints of light above him, searching for the answers, searching for something but he didn’t know what it was.
‘No, you can’t go back. You can only go forward.’ thought the blond firmly before groaning when his mind wouldn’t stop and he could’ve sworn he heard their voices in the still night air calling to him.
Eight days. Eight days before he was back in Berlin and he would be back to the normal comforting routine, a routine without turmoil.
‘Eight days’ thought the blond repeatedly, his eyes slowly closing as his weary body overtook his wandering mind.
The night shone down on the lone man sleeping by the dwindling campfire as the hand of destiny picked up the cards and shuffled the pieces of cardboard, the suits intermingling several times before four hands were dealt.
One for the family drowning in their loss in California.
One for the lone man sleeping on Nevada soil under the brilliant night sky.
One for the man who awaited extradiction in a jail cell.
One for the player hidden in the shadows, waiting in anticipation.
Destiny watched the players pick up their hands and waited for the game to begin. This time Destiny was content to sit back and speculate on who would bid, who would raise, who would call and who would check.
Who would fold? Who would lose? Who would win?
The black locomotive slowed coming into the depot, the large engine limping slowly. Waiting til the iron machine slowed significantly, a blond man jumped down and reached up, pulling the platform to the livestock car down and entering. Brown eyes rolled when he approached and Heath chuckled.
“I don’t like them myself either Gal. Let’s go and rent you a friend.” cooed Heath softly, stroking the powerful animal before picking up the blanket and proceeded to saddle his friend. There were a day late in arriving from the mechanical failure of the iron horse. Tempting as it would have been to leave the train and start to Dardanelle across country, the deputy knew he’d have made it in about the same time frame and decided to save Gal and himself the additional trail time.
Leading the Modoc to livery, the blond deputy worked out a deal with the livery owner and within fifteen minutes was headed down the street with both horses, tying them to the rail in front of the sheriff’s office.
Entering, Heath nodded and shook the hand of the large man who introduced himself as Sheriff Macon Jacobs.
“Deputy, you’re not gonna ride the train back?” asked the balding man as he lead the blond to the back cell.
“Train’s busted.” stated Heath quietly, “We barely made it here. Only take two or three days longer this way.”
“Rough country between here and there, Deputy Thomson.” informed the other man hesitantly, unsure if the younger man would be up to the task.
Shrugging, Heath met the inquiring gaze and nodded, “Yeah, I know. I been through it a time or two.”
Satisfied by the younger man’s knowledge of the area, the lawman shook his head, “Over a year ago, a pinkerton man came through and couldn’t wait til the next day for the outgoing train. He was looking for some kid that run off or something from home. Damn fool got snowed in up in the Sierra’s and got himself killed. Just cause it was May doesn’t mean it’s the same up in the higher elevations as it was here. Prospector brought what was left of his body in, only knew it was him from the wallet in his jacket.”
“Guess he won’t make that mistake again.” suggested Heath listening to the sheriff’s chuckle and eyeing the full cells of the jail. “Kinda busy, ain’t ya?”
Smirking, the lawman waved to the group of sullen looking men as they passed, “Typical Saturday night for this bunch. Right boys?”
A subdued murmur of ‘that’s right’ reached Heath’s ears and he smiled slightly to himself. Hard working men played hard and sometimes a cooling off period was more useful than a long term jail cell. Most of them only looking for a way to spend their day off and not really looking for any problems. Decent men who worked for every hard muscle, every scar, every bruise on their bodies and quite unlike the man whose cell they stopped in front of.
Bradford Finch, born in the back of a saloon, sat on the bunk and played with the deck of cards in his hands. The pasty faced man, slim and wiry, ignored the two badged men outside the bars. His pale looks gave him the air of a man unable to protect himself against a fight with a butterfly but both lawmen knew differently.
The man in the cell, looking like he belonged in an eastern city and not in the wild lands of the western states, thrived on the edges of humanity. He thrived on earning his money through crooked cards, bottom dealings and thievery. Not stand up thievery…but stab you in the back from a dark alley and steal your money thievery, shoot you from behind a rock and pick your carcass clean thievery.
Never caught before, it was his misfortune to have been identified by the broom pusher at the Golden Hour Saloon in Berlin as the person responsible for the death of mayor’s son. A man whose grave mistake was to be the winner at cards and leaving to walk home, the last walk he ever took. The ending of the man’s last walk witnessed from the storeroom window of the saloon. The murder happened before Heath’s tenure as a deputy but when word was received Finch was captured, a hearty cheer could be heard through the streets of the town who immensely liked their deceased citizen.
“Finch, get over here.” ordered the sheriff gruffly, clenching the handcuffs tighter in his hand as the prisoner took his time. Heath calmly watched, his eyes studying the sallow skinned man, the dark eyes beady and shifty.
“Time for dinner, Sheriff?” asked the prisoner as he leaned on the cell bars, his eyes taking in the newcomer before sneering. “See you have a new trained dog by your side.”
“Shut up Finch.” snapped the older lawman in disgust glancing at the calm deputy beside him. “His mouth nev’r shuts up, maybe you should gag him for the trip back.”
“Might not be a bad idea.” admitted Heath with a nod, not liking the sudden gleam appearing in the man’s eyes.
“Why didn’t you say we were leaving deputy?” exclaimed Finch, his happiness flowing freely as he shrugged into his frock coat before putting his hands through the rectangular opening, offering his wrists to the sheriff. “I’m ready!”
Eyes narrowed in suspicion on the two men’s faces before the sheriff clamped the metal bracelets on the slender wrists and unlocked the door, taking hold of the arm held out for him.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” hissed the sheriff as he yanked on the prisoner’s arm with Heath following.
“Nothing, Sheriff.” smiled Finch with a shrug. “I’m just happy to be anywhere but in that cell. Nothing like riding a train and letting it lull you to sleep.”
“Sheriff Jacobs, I’d appreciate if ya’ could wire Berlin and let them know I’m on my way back.” stated Heath receiving a nod before putting the prisoner’s hat on his head. Taking the handcuff key from the sheriff, he smirked, “Hope you feel the same about sleeping on the back of a horse, Finch?”
“Horses are not my favorite.” sighed the prisoner as they stepped out onto the boardwalk and he was lead to one of the horses, and helped into the saddle. Watching the deputy mount before he glanced down the street from his bowed head the prisoner smiled, flaring suspicion in the blue eyes of the lawman. “Nothing like riding in the fresh air and sunshine, Deputy Thomson. Lead on!”
If the blue eyed deputy hadn’t been focused on wondering about the prisoner’s gleeful disposition and the steady gleam in his eyes, he may have questioned how the murderer came to know his name.
Nursing a drink of his imported scotch, Jarrod moved away from the French doors, the pounding rain on the glass made it impossible to see out into the night. The howling wind pushing the unexpected summer storm through the area drowned out all sounds with its announcement of the weather it brought.
Taking a seat behind the desk, Jarrod set the crystal holder down and stared at the umber liquid, taken back in time. Back to a time where his missing brother sat in this very chair drawing up plans for the orphanage, using his hands to make the building the lost children call home, a safer place to live.
‘You did that for them, Heath and yet, when push came to shove, we made your home a dangerous place, didn’t we? We made it a place with only one exit, not allowing you a choice or chance to find another exit, didn’t we?’ thought Jarrod rubbing his hands over his eyes, replaying again the very scene which occurred in the room.
Leaning back in the chair, the first born shook his head and closed his eyes, wanting to erase the memory of what’d happened but knowing it’d never leave. While Heath was never far off in his thoughts, today for some reason his youngest brother’s face overshadowed everything, took center stage in his mind, keeping him from working and focusing. Unable to concentrate, his secretary hadn’t been able to keep the surprise off her face when he closed the office early and left Stockton, making it to the ranch before the storm hit.
The eldest son was relieved his mother and sister were gone, visiting some family friends in Sacramento. Two weeks passed since the ceremony of the new lake and Jarrod hoped the time away from the ranch would help both of the ladies in the family with the melancholy settling over them.
Truth be told, Jarrod was relieved they were out of town for he knew his mother would have picked up on his disconcertion and would have expected him to relay what was on his mind. The silver haired lady would do anything for her children, but there were some times when even he wanted to wallow in self-pity and sidestep her good intentions.
Good intentions, born out of love, he knew could hurt as much as bad. For their own good intentions born out of their love for Heath, their concern over the rage he carried inside was the reason they had felt their way was right.
‘Boy howdy, were we ever wrong, little brother.’ chastised Jarrod mentally. ‘I wonder if you heard we let Bentell go after you left. If you heard, I wonder if it made a difference in your heart and your soul about us?’
The sound of the front door slamming could only mean Nick was in from working the ranch and Jarrod scowled, trying to remember the last time he’d heard Nick announce his greeting with a bellow. The thunderous noise capable of reaching to the rafters in the mansion, the thunderous noise which was so Nick.
It hadn’t been since Heath left.
The departure of their youngest brother had lessened the thunderous noise to a hoarse whisper. Heath had taken more than just their hearts and souls when he left, he’d stolen the spark within each of them. It seemed they went through the motions but really didn’t find joy in what at one time they thrived on or excelled in.
‘Where are you little brother?’ asked Jarrod studying the portrait of his father above the mantle. ‘Can you see him Father? Can you see the son you never knew?’
Blue eyes burned into the eyes of the departed patriarch of the family as if he felt his father were hiding the blonde from them, as if the oil painting held the hidden clue to the missing piece of their family.
Nick slammed the door shut against the strong wind driving the soft raindrops and making them into small pellets. The pellets pushed by the hard movement of the air beat down on man, land and beast. Leaning against the door for a moment, he caught his breath and took off his slicker, handing it to Silas who in turn handed him a towel.
“Mighty pow’rful, Mr. Nick.” stated Silas quietly, worried over the family and the loss of light in their eyes. “Ya’s got time ta clean up ‘fore din’r.”
Nick used the towel to wipe his face before heading up the grand staircase and offered his old friend a shadow of a smile, “Thanks, Silas. A warm bath’ll take this chill outta my hide.”
“Mr. Jarrod’s in ta study when ya’s through.” said Silas as the young man passed and wearily climbed the staircase as if his feet were mired in deep mud.
Climbing the flight of stairs, Nick felt every bone in his body, every muscle screamed from fighting the elements and shoring the dam on the north slope. Returning to the area where his blonde brother saved his life sent a hand inside his chest to twist his heart with loneliness and bitterness. The strong man needed several minutes before he could join Duke and the others, the memories hunching his body in the saddle before he got hold of himself. The day spent trying to keep Heath out of his thoughts while he fought along his men against Mother Nature’s temper tantrum.
Stopping outside the door, he slowly reached down and turned the knob, pushing open the plank of wood and leaning against the doorframe. Taking in the room where everything was just as his little brother left it. He knew without looking the furniture didn’t have a speck of dust on it, the windows were spotless inside and the bed had fresh sheets. Silas missed Heath just as much as they did and he kept his room ready for his return.
Closing his eyes, Nick leaned his head against the oak doorframe, fighting to squelch the emotions waiting to be unleashed. He took several deep breaths and exhaled slowly.
‘Where are you, boy?’ repeated Nick over and over, his thoughts broken into by the hand on his shoulder.
“Nick, you’d better get some dry clothes on or you’ll catch a chill.” suggested Jarrod softly receiving only a nod before his brother crossed to the watercloset and shut the door. Jarrod looked over the room of his youngest brother before he pulled the door closed and went to his own bedroom.
Silas placed the dinner on the table between the two men, quiet and deep in contemplation. Leaving the two brothers in the dining area, the older man made his way back to the kitchen, sending his thoughts upwards into a silent prayer for the family torn apart from the one lost to them. While he waited to clear the dinner table, Silas took the dry slicker and black hat out the to foyer, putting them by the door ready for the next morning.
A knock on the door could barely be heard over the still surging wind. Opening the door, Silas waved Fred Madden in and rushed to get him a towel. Handing the lawman the white cloth, Silas left him standing in the foyer and several minutes later, the two dark haired brothers were greeting their unexpected visitor and leading him into the study for a shot to warm up his inner core.
“Fred, it must be important to get you out on a night like this.” suggested Nick taking the glass handed to him by Jarrod after he’d handed one to their guest.
“What seems to be the problem, Fred?” questioned Jarrod watching their old friend reach into his pocket.
Looking at the two men, Fred opened a paper and hesitated for a moment, “I got this wire from Sheriff Tucker in Pine Crest.”
“Pine Crest?” repeated Nick, his head snapping up at the mention of the town. Jarrod stiffened and watched Fred nod to his brother’s question.
“What’s it about, Fred?” queried Jarrod, his voice laden with questions.
“Sheriff Tucker received a notice of a missing man and he forwarded it to me. I don’t know for certain, mind you.” said Fred quietly, handing the paper to Jarrod who looked at Nick before reading out loud.
Sheriff Fred Madden
Sheriff Frank Sawyer, Berlin, Nevada wired. Deputy bringing prisoner from Dardanelle. Overdue three days.
Blond hair, blue eyes, six feet tall, two hundred pounds. Name Heath Thomson.
Please notify Barkley Family.
Sheriff Brad Tucker
Pine Crest, CA
After Fred left the mansion, it had taken all of Jarrod’s powers of persuasion and the skill of his silver tongue to get his headstrong brother to wait til the pre-dawn of the next morning before heading into town.
Reluctantly and grumpily, Nick saw the good sense in not riding out in the raging storm and waiting at the depot for hours to catch the first train heading east. The hazel eyes sparking with hope were suddenly tempered with worry at the prospect the missing deputy and their little brother were one and the same.
If they were the same man, where was Heath now and why was he three days late in arriving back in Berlin? The questions ran through each man’s mind and neither wanted to fully consider the obvious reason.
No, they would latch onto the hope brought by the unexpected wire. This was the first break they’d had since that night. No, they would keep hope alive. Each man knew and promised to themselves, they’d find Heath one way or the other.
The brothers stood at the pool table in the study, leaning over the felted table and examining the maps of California and Nevada, trying to decide the path to take. Start at the beginning in Dardanelle or the end in Berlin?
“Nick, we know Heath was here…going there and logic decrees, he’s somewhere in the middle. That’s a large area to search if he ran into trouble.” stated Jarrod, pointing to the maps. “Be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Scowling, Nick nodded in agreement, “I know but I don’t see what sense it makes to head to Berlin. We know he’s not there but I wonder if that sheriff in Berlin…”
“Frank Sawyer.” said Jarrod offhandedly, his eyes looking sideways to the strong profiled face beside him.
“Yeah, Sawyer. Did he wire every town in between or just the bigger ones? The next town listed on this map after Dardanelle is Kennedy Meadows, did he wire them? Do they have a telegraph office? Has he heard anything from his wires? Is he even looking for Heath?” puzzled Nick, his mind trying to go over all the questions and not liking some of the answers he was coming up with.
“Nick, we don’t even know if this is our Heath.” replied Jarrod, his statement earning him a furious glare. “If we go right to Berlin, we can get those answers and perhaps narrow the search even further. This way we can eliminate parts of the area and establish a pattern of search.”
Sighing deeply, Nick reluctantly agreed, “Well, I reckon that makes sense too. I just want to see him, talk to him, Jarrod. I don’t like the thought of him out there, hurt or worse.”
“I know, Nick.” whispered the older man, his hand squeezing the nearest shoulder. “Let’s just speculate Heath were hurt and able to get away, I’m betting he’d take to the mountains. After we talk to Sheriff Sawyer and narrow down the possibilities, I’d say the hills are where we should start.”
“What about Mother and Audra?” asked Nick quietly. “Should we wire them?”
“Not yet.” replied Jarrod with a negative shake of his head. “I say we wait til we have something more concrete. You know Mother, she’d search the area on foot if there was a possibility she’d find Heath, even if it were an area ten thousand miles square. No, let’s wait before we send word to Sacramento. When we do wire, I hope it’ll be on the way back to the ranch with our little brother.”
Nodding, Nick offered his big brother a slight smile before returning his eyes to the maps on the table. The enormity of the area between Dardanelle suddenly seemed to be larger than the state of California. Exchanging what each knew of the eastern landscape of the state by knowledge of hearsay, both men felt a shiver climb their spine.
The search would be like looking for a grain of salt amongst the sandy beaches covering the western coast of their country. It was a task of daunting proportions but neither would have considered not searching. The impossibility of the mission was thrust from their minds, replaced with focus and purpose.
Climbing the grand staircase after explaining to Silas and Duke the time they’d be away from the ranch, both brothers retired to their respective rooms. Neither able to find solace in sleep, their stomachs churning in anticipation and dread. The dawn was approaching slowly, the rising of the sun in the east seemed to be slowed by invisible hands holding onto the ball of fire, stopping its upward progress and lengthening the night even longer.
The next morning with passage booked for themselves and their horses, Nick and Jarrod fought the overwhelming eagerness inside as they rode the black train to the east, the wheels rumbling over the tracks, taking them closer with each passing mile. Slumping in their seats, the men who hadn’t slept the night before let the consistent lullaby of the iron beast replenish their stores of energy and pass the time with sleep.
Their dreams tinged with happiness of a reunion, tinged with love as they were able to look into the light blue eyes again. In sleep, their faces smiled as they wrapped their missing member in their arms, encasing him in their brotherly love.
Watching the long black snake weave its way over the landscape, around hills, cross flat plains and over rivers, the hand of destiny moved, stirring up the cards in one fluid movement waiting for the fall out from the choices to be made.
The dream was so real it woke him from a state of complete darkness, the faces of those he’d left behind seared into his memory were brought forth, fresh as the last time he’d seen them.
His eyelids closed when he realized it was no more than a dream, no more than his mind playing a wishing game with him, torturing him with longing, tempting him with what he knew he’d never have again.
‘Crazy! He’s gonna drive me crazy!’ thought Heath, his prisoner’s mouth running nonstop since they’d left Dardanelle the day before, the man was a bottomless pit of words. The only time he’d not heard Finch’s voice was when the mouth was closed in sleep and then the small man snored enough to shake the leaves off the trees. ‘Probably even scared the grizzlies outta the area.’
“So deputy, it’s mighty hot today, you think we can stop soon.” whined Finch, his words not turning the lawman’s head towards him. “Com’n, we been riding all damn day! I need to stretch my legs!”
Rolling his eyes, Heath stopped Gal and turned in the saddle, his eyes taking in the flushed face of the man, the beads of sweat rolling down the sides of his face before replying. “Finch, if ya’ weren’t working your jaws so much, ya wouldn’t be sweating bullets right now.”
“I can’t help it!” protested the flushed man before snapping. “I like to talk! It’s not my fault you can’t hold your end up in this conversation!”
“I didn’t know we was havin’ a conversation.” stated Heath simply, “All I’ve been hearin’ is complaints and whinin’.”
“I haven’t complained all the time, deputy. Admit it!” challenged the sallow face man, his temperament about as cool as the rocks being baked by the sun’s rays.
“Really? Let me think….” frowned Heath, deep in thought before he snapped his fingers and slapped his thigh, “You’re right, Finch. There was a span of about two minutes when ya’ didn’t complain. Damn, I owe you an apology!”
Chuckling at the face now red with anger, Heath turned and nudged Gal along, his prisoner mumbling under his breath with swears thrown in for good measure, just enough for the man in front of him to hear. Shaking his head, the lawman sighed and studied the area around them.
He’d been in the process of finding a suitable place to spend the night when they had the brief respite. The sun would be down in a couple hours and he planned to have them settled with Finch secured before darkness fell.
They’d descended into the valley a little over an hour ago and the deputy was glad they wouldn’t be spending another night in the higher elevations. Even at this time of year, the night air was cold and crisp higher up even with a fire to sleep by.
Spotting a likely grove of trees, Heath steered Gal towards the natural seclusion and looked around in satisfaction. Dismounting, he tied the reins off and patted Gal on her muscular shoulder before heading to the other horse with a length of rope in his hand, untying the leather thong holding the prisoner’s handcuffed wrists to the saddlehorn. Pulling the smaller man off the horse, Heath held him by his arm until Finch got his legs under him and walked him to the stream.
Sighing gratefully after the first cool water hit his skin, Finch closed his eyes and let the heat of the day be swept away with each scoop of water over his head and groaned, “Damn that’s pure heaven. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted better.”
“Finch, can’t ya’ keep quiet for ten minutes?” asked Heath from his spot four feet away, far enough away to keep watch on the man but close enough to stop any trouble he may try to start. “Just wash and drink. No talking or I will gag ya’.”
Heath observed the smaller man out of the corner of his eye, keeping him in sight as he dunked his handkerchief in the water and ran it over the back of his neck, the coolness shivering his warmed body. Finch’s mouth was closed but that didn’t stop him from moving, a foot, a hand, his fingers….one part of the man always had to be moving almost as if he had fleas jumping in his britches.
‘Just like Nick, he can’t stay still for more’n five minutes.’ mused the blonde, frowning suddenly at the unexpected comparison, not able to understand why they seemed to be occupying his mind more lately.
Scowling to himself, Heath tied the blue cloth around his neck and stood, catching sight of Finch’s eyes moving around as if looking for something.
“Don’t even think about it.” growled the lawman, yanking his prisoner to his feet and propelling him to a tree, lowering him to the ground. Securing Finch to the tree with the rope, Heath arched an eyebrow at the venomous complaining and questioned, “Ya’ want to eat tonight? If so, shut your trap.”
Snapping his jaws closed and leaning his head back against the rough texture of the tree, dark eyes followed the deputy’s every movement as he unsaddled the horses and watered the equines, taking time to let each animal roll on the ground before picketing them in a patch of grass. Gathering wood, a fire was soon blazing and Finch felt his eyes drooping from the day’s ride until he felt the rope loosen around his arms and a plate thrust into his hands.
Eating heartedly of the fish on the plate, the prisoner smiled in satisfaction and willingly let the lawman lead him to the trees to do his business. With a full belly and a body full of strained muscles, Finch lay on the bedroll and was asleep before the knots on his bindings were finished.
Heath sat on a log and studied the man on the ground, frowning at the complacency of this man, this man who knew a gallows awaited him at the end of the trail. It seemed like Finch didn’t think he be convicted of the murder even though there was an eye witness or perhaps he knew he wouldn’t be convicted because he wouldn’t be showing up in Berlin.
‘Maybe he wasn’t lookin’ for something to use as a weapon but someone.’ thought Heath, throwing the rest of his coffee on the ground before checking on the horses and moving them closer to camp.
Building the fire up with several pieces of wood, the flame burned brightly and the lawman checked his prisoner’s bindings once more before setting his bedroll at the edge of the light in the shadows. Placing his hat on the saddle, he bunched up the blankets and took his rifle into the trees surround the hidden glen. Sitting down in between two trees with a clear view to Finch and a view of his bedroll in the darkness, Heath closed his eyes and held the rifle in his lap, trusting the horses to alert him if anything or anyone strange wandered too close for their comfort.
His chest felt constricted as if a great weight were sitting on his sternum and his eyes flew open, his face perspiring and he wiped off his forehead with an arm, stopping at the whinnying of a horse. Standing he stood behind the tree in front of him, his eyes scanning the campsight in the light now a small flame.
One figure stood over Finch and another walked soundlessly towards where his bed was. Raising his rifle, he opened his mouth to shout when he felt a shiver crawl up his spine at the whispered words behind him and to his right.
“You took from me and the Barkleys are gonna pay for the return of your body.”
Slowly lowering his rifle to the ground, the lawman started turning slowly then suddenly spun, knocking the pistol pointed at him away but not before an orange flame flashed, his eyes only seeing spots from the surge of brightness in the darkness as the slam of the projectile turned him, his left hand striking upon the flesh before him, freeing a clear path.
The shouts of the men at the campsite sent him plunging into the night, his hand holding onto his side and melding in with the darkness.