The smile on Jarrod’s lips froze as he realized the rider approaching the Barkley gates was not his brother Heath. The rider was built like his brother and even dressed like him but as he approached the Barkley mansion at a slow, steady pace, Jarrod could see that the blue eyes, though just as intense as Heath’s, were not the same blue eyes that he’d become so familiar with these last few months. The set of the rider’s jaw, though just as strong and stubborn as Heath’s when his brother was determined to get his way, was not quite as square as his brother’s. The rider removed his hat as he approached and wiped the sweat from his brow on his shirtsleeve. Jarrod noticed the blond locks of hair that fell down carelessly over the rider’s eyes and he casually swept them back under his hat as he placed it back on his head. Walking across the yard to greet the stranger, Jarrod looked up into the man’s steady, blue gaze.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I hope so,” the man drawled, “I’ve ridden a long way ta find the Barkleys.”
“Well, you’ve found them,” Jarrod said cautiously, “what can I do for you?”
The rider gave Jarrod a crooked smile and dismounted. Walking over to Jarrod, he extended his hand in greeting and said, “Howdy, my name is Thomson. Heath Thomson.
“Boy howdy, I wish somebody would turn down the heat,” Heath said as he lifted another plank for Nick to nail into the post. Nick was just as hot, cranky and tired as Heath was but his brother’s complaining brought forth a smile to his lips as he hammered a spike into the plank of wood Heath was holding in place.
“Oh come on now, we got at least two more hours before quittin’ time!” Nick happily informed him.
“Thanks for remindin’ me,” Heath said miserably, “I don’t mind the work big brother, but this heat’s enough ta sap every ounce a energy ya got.”
“Heat!” Nick jested, “Boy you ain’t felt heat ‘til you worked down in Flatbed Canyon at the height of the summer! That’s just about as close to Hades as you can get without burnin’ up!”
Heath rolled his eyes and stifled a chuckle. He knew the more he complained, the more Nick would make light of the situation. They’d been at it all day and the harder and longer they worked, the hotter it got. With the sun beating down on them and the humidity rising every second, it was all they could do just to stay hydrated. Passing a canteen back and forth between them, the cold, crisp water slid down their parched throats as they quenched what seemed like a never ending thirst. They looked around, taking stock of what they had accomplished that day and what still needed to be accomplished.
The two of them alone had gotten the holes dug and the fence posted around most of the property bordering the north section of the Barkley ranch. They worked companionably together, chuckling and teasing each other back and forth, discussing the ranch and the family and sometimes just lapsing into comfortable silences. No one would have guessed that just three short months ago, they hadn’t even known each other. To see them together now, one would have thought they’d known each other all their lives, for the chemistry and closeness between them was that obvious. In just the last ninety days, they had gone from calling each other enemy to calling each other friend and then, to calling each other brother. Their trust for each other and acceptance of one another had grown slowly but it had grown steadily. Heath noticed that whenever Nick introduced him now, he didn’t pause or stutter right before he said, “my brother” the way he’d done in the beginning.
Thinking back on it, Heath’s cheeks flamed as he thought of the way he’d told the family who he was and what he wanted. There wasn’t one second of the day that he didn’t wish he could take those hateful words back and do it all over again, differently this time, kindly. But when he’d found out about them, gone to them and was rejected by them, he found he'd wanted to hurt them for denying him, and boy howdy did he ever. The fact that they now believed him, accepted him and embraced him as their own was testament to the fact that they were fine, upstanding people. They could have fought him tooth and nail on the matter but for his looks and that newspaper clipping that he’d shown them. But for that, they might have turned him away without a second thought. And when Victoria, Mother, he corrected himself, had ridden out to Strawberry for answers, that too could have been his undoing. Matt and Martha Thomson were cruel people, willing to say or do anything to line their pockets with someone else’s gold.
He thought back to how bitter he’d been that day and how he’d made the last minute decision to ride out after her before any real harm was done. Whatever Matt and Martha told her, they were unable to change her mind about who he was and her acceptance of him. And now, standing there with his older brother, working hard and chewing the fat about everything and nothing, Heath honestly believed that life couldn’t get any better. After everything he’d experienced in his young life, he almost felt guilty that out of all the people on the face of the earth, he was the one who had ridden up to the Barkley ranch that day, spoke his piece, demanded his rightful place and ended up with a kind and loving family for his trouble. It sometimes made him question his own self worth. Did he really deserve to be here with this understanding and caring family? Was he entitled to all they’d worked so hard for and accomplished? Was this place and these people really his birthright simply on his say so or was he taking advantage of their kindness, generosity and love? Did he have a place here or was this just another “thing” he were trying just to see how it fit? He decided that none of that mattered now. The only thing that mattered was that he had a home and a family and he would do whatever it took to keep them.
The time passed quickly and before he knew it, he heard Nick saying, "Well, that's it for today. We'll get a early start in the mornin' and get this done by noon time."
Nodding gratefully, he followed Nick over to their horses, mounted up and headed home.
Jarrod leaned back against the heavy, mahogany desk in the library with his arms folded over his chest. Victoria sat stiff backed and silent as they waited for the stranger who called himself Heath Thomson to continue his story.
“I met them down in Lodi,” the stranger was saying in a slow drawl. “There were five of them. Seems ta me they’d just pitched camp for the evenin’ when I came across ‘em. They invited me ta some coffee and beans and me and that Dawson fella kinda struck up a conversation.”
The stranger finished the coffee that Silas had served him earlier and nodded his thanks to Victoria as he sat his empty cup on the table before him. Sitting back in his chair and crossing one long leg over the other, he said, “Dawson seemed a pretty likable fella. He was ridin’ with the pack but I kinda got the impression he was a loner. Kinda the quiet type, ya know what I mean?” Jarrod nodded his head almost imperceptibly as the stranger continued.
“Well, one a them fellas broke out a bottle and we all started passin’ it around, if you’ll pardon my sayin’ so Ma’am,” he said, bowing in deference to Victoria.
“Please, continue with your story Mr…….Thomson,” Victoria said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
“Well, Ma’am, I kinda got ta talkin’ a bit myself and I guess I let it slip about findin’ out about you all. I told Dawson how I’d just learned about ya and how I was headin’ out ta find ya. Them other fellas was half drunk, but that Dawson fella well, he was hangin’ on my every word. I didn’t think much of it at the time, that is, not until I was fixin’ ta leave. Dawson walked me over to my horse and as I mounted up and rode away, he drew his gun and pulled the trigger. I don’t know what he told his friends or even if they were in on it all along, but they left me there for dead. When I came to the next mornin’ I had a bullet in my back and my horse and saddlebags were gone. A miner, name of Johnson come along and found me. He nursed me back ta health these last few months and, well, here I am.”
Pushing away from the desk and walking over to the stranger, Jarrod asked, “Just what do you mean, “Here you are, Mr……Thomson?”
Looking up at Jarrod, the stranger said, “I don’t know just what this Dawson fella has told you or how you feel about ‘im, him being here these last few months and all. I do know that he looks a lot like me but there’s one thing you need ta know Mr. Barkley. Luke Dawson ain’t your brother. I am."
“Looks like we got company,” Nick said as he and Heath rode up and spotted the horse tethered to the hitching post in the front yard.
“Yep,” Heath said as he followed Nick into the barn.
Nick waited for Heath to say more but was not surprised when only silence greeted him. He chuckled softly at his brother’s lack of response and he didn’t think he’d ever get used to the one-word replies Heath was becoming so well known for. Dismounting, they unsaddled their horses and put fresh hay and water down for them. Picking up the curry brushes lying next to the stalls, they began to brush the sleek coats down before heading into the house.
“That’s quite a story Mr. Thomson,” Jarrod said as he went over to the serving cart and poured three glasses of sherry. Handing one to his mother and another to the stranger, he picked up the last glass and took a small sip before continuing. “But I’m afraid there’s one problem.”
“Oh?” the stranger asked as he watched Jarrod warily. “And what might that be?”
“It’s a matter of proof,” Jarrod said. “You’ll have to forgive us but we’ve heard this all before, only the first time we heard it, you were the one doing the shooting and my brother Heath was the one who ended up with the bullet in his back.”
A smile graced the stranger’s lips but Jarrod noticed it didn’t reach his eyes. On the contrary, the stranger seemed saddened by Jarrod’s news.
“Do you find this particularly amusing Mr. Thomson?” Victoria asked sardonically, noticing his smile.
Looking over at the graceful lady seated across from him, he said, “No Ma’am, it’s just, well, Mr. Barkley here is right.” Placing his glass on the table, he stood and looked over at Jarrod, “Your brother is the one who ended up with the bullet in his back.”
“Then you agree that things happened the way my brother says they did?” Jarrod asked.
“I agree with the part about there bein’ a shootin’,” the stranger said, “I just don’t agree with the part about who got shot.”
“Which brings us back to my original question,” Jarrod said, “where’s your proof?”
“What proof did Dawson give ya?” Thomson asked testily.
“Mr. Thomson,” Victoria interrupted, “you’ve come into our home claiming to be family. I would think the least you could afford us is something to back up your story.”
“I told ya Ma’am” Thomson said, trying to calm his breathing, “Everythin’ I own was in my saddlebags. When they took my horse they…..”
“How convenient for you Mr. Thomson,” Jarrod interrupted. “So all you have is your word and nothing else.”
“What do want, my life story?” Thomson asked angrily.
“I want proof Mr. Thomson!” Jarrod yelled, “Proof that you are who you say you are and not just some tramp trying to take advantage!”
“I’m afraid Dawson already beat me to that,” Thomson drawled.
“Mother!” Nick shouted as the front door flew open and footfalls fell loudly on the carpeted floors. “Mother!”
“In here Nick,” Victoria called from the library.
Entering the room, Nick headed straight for his mother and placed a kiss on top of her silver head. “You know we practically got that fence up by ourselves today!” he boasted.
“Nick, this is Mr……Thomson,” Victoria interrupted. “I think you’ll want to hear what he has to say.”
Nick turned and looked at their guest. He did a double take thinking at first he was looking at Heath.
“Thomson………” the stranger said, “Heath Thomson.”
“Hea……Now just what the devil is goin’ on here!” Nick shouted.
Heath walked into the library and saw the stranger standing there. His blood ran cold as Thomson turned to face him.
Thomson turned and faced Heath and the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. He knew that the man looked like him but he hadn’t realized they looked this much alike.
They stood staring at each other, measuring each other, sizing each other up. Blue eyes stared into blue eyes. Time stood still at first and then it seemed as if everything was moving in slow motion. Victoria gasped, as quick as lightening, two guns were drawn and pointed. Nick’s hand got only half way to his own gun by the time the two blonds had theirs drawn and pointed at each other. Jarrod made a move toward them and suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“Wait a minute!” Jarrod shouted.
Nick finally drew his gun and pointed it at Thomson, “I would advise you to put that gun away mister,” he said in a low, even tone that let Thomson know he was deadly serious.
“You’re makin’ a mistake,” Thomson said, “I’m your brother, not him!”
“Put those guns away!” Jarrod shouted. “All of you!”
There was a slight hesitation and then, Thomson slowly holstered his colt.
Heath holstered his gun as well but kept his hand on the butt of it.
“I want some answers and I want ‘em fast mister,” Nick said, still pointing his gun at Thomson.
“Ask your mother,” Thomson said, his eyes never leaving Heath’s.
“I’m askin' you!” Nick said, “Start talkin’.
“Well, Dawson,” Thomson said, a slow smile gracing his lips, “you wanna tell these fine people here how ya misled them or you want me ta do it.”
“You never shoulda come here,” Heath said.
“Why not?” Thomson asked. “Afraid I might mess up your plans?”
“What’s done is done,” Heath said. “Just leave it be.”
“Leave it be?” Thomson asked sarcastically, “You put a bullet in my back and you want me ta leave it be!”
Victoria, Jarrod and Nick turned to face Heath as they awaited his answer. None of them realized that they had in a sense, stepped back to see how this would play itself out.
“My family and I want you outta here,” Heath said coldly. “I won’t say it again.”
“What are you gonna do Dawson?” Thomson asked. “Shoot me in the back again?”
“My name’s Barkley,” Heath said. “Don’t you ever forget that.”
A crooked smile graced Thomson’s lips. “First you steal my horse, then you steal my family. Now it seems you’ve stolen my name,” he drawled.
“I took nothin’ of yours,” Heath said. “I only accepted what was given ta me.”
“By shootin’ me in the back and pretendin’ ta be me!” Thomson yelled, “You think these people deserve the likes of you!”
“You think they deserve the likes of
you?” Heath asked quietly.
Thomson reeled back as if he’d been hit in the face. Tears filled his eyes as he fought back painful memories. Memories of working in mines at the tender age of five. Memories of being physically, mentally and emotionally abused for so long he thought it was a normal part of life. Memories of lying about his age to fight in a war he was too young to understand. Memories of being captured and taken to Carterson where a prayer to die had become his daily mantra. Memories of being whipped and starved and used in ways no man should ever be used. Memories of his mother’s confession as she lay on her deathbed and handed him a bible. Memories of riding to Lodi and meeting up with a group of men he didn’t know. Men he shared a meal and a bottle with and a gunshot wound to the back as he rode away from them.
He looked over at Victoria, the strong matriarch he so wanted to get to know. Her eyes brimmed with tears. ‘Tears for me?’ He wondered, he hoped. He looked at Jarrod whose blue eyes watched him curiously, asking questions he now knew he could never answer. He looked at Nick whose face was in a scowl but whose eyes beckoned him to tell him why he suddenly wanted him to stay. Finally, he looked over at Heath whose blue eyes pleaded with him. “Just let it be,” they seemed to be saying, ‘please, just let it be.’
Taking a long, shaky breath and fighting down the lump in his throat, his voice was soft and so quiet, they had to strain to hear him. “No,” he said, fighting back emotions that threatened to consume him, “They don’t deserve the likes of me. No one does.”
Turning, he picked up his hat and walked quickly to the door. Stopping briefly and without turning back to face them, he said, “I’m sorry ta have bothered you all.”
He hurried out the front door and mounted up, thankful that darkness had fallen and no one could see the tears he could no longer hold at bay. Pulling on the reins, he turned his horse and slowly rode out the Barkley gates. He’d suffered a lot in his young life and this was just one more indignity he would suffer at the hands of fate. He didn’t look back as he heard the family gather at the front door to watch him leave. For there was nothing back there for him. The road he traveled was long and lonely but he would travel it as he always had, forever alone, forever a stranger.