Sitting at the base of a tree, Heath listened to the water in the stream trickling over the rocks, the birds singing a tune just for him, the wind rustling the leaves gently while the sun shined across the land. Rereading the letter in his hand, he pushed his hat back up on his forehead, sapphire eyes full of wonder gazed out upon the beauty of nature.
Cassidy Jackson, the gangling teenager had grown into a beautiful young lady. The girl whose young admiration he brushed aside so many years ago, the admiration hadn’t disappeared, it merely simmered since he’d left Texas. The woman who greeted him with her brother had taken his breath away and was slowly working on his reluctant heart. Since Melinda Rankin, the former lawman made it a point to steer away from members of the opposite sex. His two stepping moves out of the clutches of Stockton females was a means of self-protection.
Carefully folding the paper, he held it up to drink in the scent again, closing his eyes at the fragrant perfume assaulting his senses. In the quiet of this place, his closed eyes brought forth her face, the sienna color eyes, his fingers tingled remembering the softness of her skin and his lips burned from the kiss.
Remembering the last letter he received from Melinda, Heath sighed loudly and carefully tucked the paper into the envelope and tucked it in his shirt pocket under his vest. Bullets, knives, cannons, weapons didn’t scare him but to look in the eyes of a woman and lose yourself, frightened the hell out of him.
Matters of the heart were not his strong suit and he didn’t know if he could afford to lose in that game again. The last time had nearly ripped him apart. Remembering the time spent on the Jackson ranch over five months ago, Heath felt uncertainty rise up in him. With each letter Cassidy sent, he felt as if he knew her a little more, her thoughts and dreams were in those letters, her wishes and wants displayed for only him. Walking over to Charger, he untied the reins and frowned at his reluctance, his hesitancy.
Shaking his head and mounting, he turned the red stallion towards the line shack, urging the horse into a gallop. The wind on his face and the powerful horse beneath him were two of the blessings he received everyday.
It was almost three years since he’d come to Stockton hauling a prisoner and ended up finding his father’s family. Three years of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, happiness and sadness, a love found and a love lost. Three years and he wouldn’t trade any of those days, not a one. For even during the hardships faced over the past three years, he’d known he had a family to rely on, one who supported and loved him unconditionally. A mother, sister and brothers at the ranch and a grandfather in Stockton.
Yes, he was a man who was well aware of his blessings, well aware of what he had to lose and he’d gamble for money but never with what he valued most. The love of his family and for this reason he turned down the request for his help from Jack Larkin.
Slowing the powerful stallion, Heath let Charger walk and leaned forward to scratch behind his ears, “Jack was none too happy was he, boy?”
Heath sighed remembering the refusal was accepted graciously by his old friend in front of the other family members, but the blonde knew the look behind the forced smile on Jack’s face. Taking a deep breath, he shoved down the flash of guilt at his refusal as his destination came into sight. Reminding himself again, he was a rancher not a marshal.
Dismounting in front of the line shack and taking out a small notebook kept in his pocket, he walked around the wooden building. His assigned task was to visit each shack and inspect their condition, the contents inside, the food supplies which would need to be replenished. When he returned to the ranch, he’d sit down with Nick and Duke to work out a plan of action to take care of the repairs and restocking. Just one of the many chores which needed to be completed in the springtime on a ranch.
While the line shacks were his main priority right now, the sapphire eyes also examined the Barkley lands he rode upon. The rancher in him taking note of the fences needing repair, the condition of waterholes, pasture lands and any larger animals seeking to help themselves to a buffet of a Barkley piece of beef. The former lawman in him casting an eye on the ground for tracks of any human guests. The winter had been tough and long, cold and wet. When spring peeked around the corner, it had brightened everything it looked upon and the valley came back to life.
Thankful this was the last shack to check, Heath let a smile spread across his face and he hummed to himself while he checked the exterior of the small building. His mood as bright as the orange ball in the sky, his thoughts barely on the job at hand before he took a deep breath and refocused, electing to whistle off tune instead.
Opening the door, he entered and froze at the cold metal pressed against his forehead, his right hand on the latch of the door. Standing still, his eyes adjusted to the darker interior of the shack and he roughly stated.
“Boy howdy, ya’d best have a damn good reason for holding a gun to my head. Cause if ya’ don’t, I’m gonna take it away and ya’ won’t like what’ll happen then.”
A dry chuckle filled the small cabin and Heath smiled at the twinkle in the brown eyes despite his anger at the unexpected greeting.
“Damn, I miss working with you, Heath.” sighed Jack Larkin putting his pistol back in its holster before moving to sit at the table rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“Things change, Jack.” informed Heath quietly taking a chair across from his former boss. “There was a time nobody’d be able to surprise you. You getting too old for marshaling, Larkin?”
“Sorry, I was dozing and hadn’t heard you ride up.” smirked Jack with a shrug, his exhaustion showing in his face. “I’ll be a marshal til someone puts a bullet in me, Thomson.”
“Yeah, probably.” agreed Heath, pushing up his hat before leaning back and crossing his arms. “Alright, out with it.”
Clearing his throat, the older man leaned his forearms on the table. “Marshal Thane’s been asked to investigate one of his men. They think he’s dirty.”
“Sorry to hear that.” replied Heath, memories of Dan Nichols springing into his mind, before asking. “Does Thane have to do with you showing up here two weeks ago?”
Nodding, Jack yawned and rolled his head on his shoulders. “Yep, you didn’t give me a chance to explain then but he asked for someone to help find out what they could, see if they can find a paper trail or any associations with the wrong people. He needs someone to get close to him.”
“So, no one else in your office can do this?” asked Heath. “All your men are quite capable of an assignment like this. Why me?”
“None of my people have any experience in this area and I’m not sure if they have enough of a meticulous nature or the ability to look at the situation with a fully professional eye. You do.” stated Jack firmly. “You handled finding the evidence on Nichols and the important thing is, he was convicted of his underhanded dealings. Your work certainly saved lives when he was put away.”
Frowning, Heath shook his head in denial. “I’m a rancher, Jack.”
“Heath, you can’t tell me you don’t miss it a little.” winked Jack.
Heath thought for several minutes before responding, “I never said I didn’t miss it, Jack. I can still remember my first assignment, my first arrest. I saw the difference my job made on the lives of the citizens in my territory. The rush of adrenaline in a fight, the satisfaction of a guilty verdict, those feelings make you thirsty for more.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Jack with a banging of his fist on the table.
Looking into the brown eyes, Heath emphasized, “I don’t miss dealing with the scum of the earth, the cold nights on watch, the long days of trailing someone waiting for a bullet to make an extra hole between your eyes. The loneliness, the fear of dying on the trail and no one ever knowing except for the buzzards scavenging on ya’. The crap you get from people when you show up at their door looking for their relative or friend. The loss of personal relations, the loss of yourself in the badge. Those are just a few of the things I don’t miss.”
Jack shifted in his chair, the blonde speaking more words of cons than pros, his brown eyes reluctantly reflected their agreement. “I agree, Heath. It’s not a soft life, never has been or ever will be, I’m thinking. It’ll always take someone special to be a lawman.”
Sighing deeply, Heath nodded, “Anyway, I’m not gonna give up what I’ve found, Jack. You’ll have to get someone else.”
Sitting back, Heath studied his old boss’ eyes and suddenly felt a chill run through him. “I ain’t gonna like this, am I?”
Shaking his head negatively, Jack took a deep breath. “It’s Nate Jackson.”
Jumping up, Heath shouted, “NO! HE’D NEVER! THEY’RE WRONG! HE’S AS PURE AS DRIVEN SNOW!”
Several hours later, Heath rode up to the barn and dismounted, his bright cheery mood in the morning was a sharp contract to the darkness on his face as he curried the stallion.
“Hey, Heath.” greeted Duke with a smile, leaning on Charger’s stall door. “I expected you back earlier this afternoon.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Something came up.” apologized Heath knowing he’d been expected earlier. Taking out the notebook, he opened the stall door and handed it to Duke. “Everything on the line shacks are written in here. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Sure.” replied Duke, his eyes studying the blonde carefully. “You okay, boss?”
“Huh, yeah.” sighed Heath, patting the other man on the back as he walked by, mumbling to himself, leaving a puzzled foreman behind. “I’ll be okay til Nick finds out I’m leaving. I’ll be lucky I got any eardrums left after he’s done yelling.”
Entering the mansion, Heath placed his gunbelt on the table with his hat before walking up the staircase and entering his room. Closing the bedroom door, he opened the closet, taking out his bedroll and saddlebags. Quickly grabbing only the items he’d need, he was packed in a matter of minutes. Taking off his vest, he pulled out the latest letter from Cassidy and frowned, eyes full of worry as he stared down at the white paper.
Sighing loudly, he sat in the chair by the window, his eyes drawn to the two new horses prancing and playing in the corrals, the sight making him smile. Feeling the start of a headache coming on, he leaned back and propped his boots up on the windowsill, running over the conversation with Jack in his mind, his stomach tightening further from the realization he had to go. He had to find the truth to save Nate.
‘That’s why I’m going to help Nate, not put him away.’ thought Heath, satisfying his reason in his mind. ‘He’d never do what they’re accusing him of. Not him and I’m gonna prove it.’
Watching the lower ball in the sky, the former marshal found his inner being tortured with his thoughts, wondering how Nate would react when he finally learned why his old friend was there. Wondering how his parents and Cassidy would feel? In performing his newly revived job, would those who’d been like family turn their backs when his deception was revealed? When the reason for his time in Texas exposed?
‘Could there be anyway he’s guilty?’ questioned the blonde in his mind, scowling for several minutes, the lack of trust displayed by the question making Heath hate himself for thinking it. ‘No, not Nate. Please don’t let it be him.’
Rubbing his temples, Heath glanced over at the clock and saw he had twenty five minutes to clean up before dinner. Pushing himself out of the chair with a groan, he grabbed some clean clothes and headed to the watercloset. Thankful he hadn’t run into any of the family members.
Slowly descending the grand staircase, Heath heard the sound of happy voices from the parlor and headed in. Nick glanced over at his missing brother from the afternoon and raised an eyebrow at the darkened countenance showing on the blonde’s face before Heath consciously lightened his expression.
Jarrod nodded and listened to Audra, his eyes watching his younger brother entering the room, his keen eyes observing the same as Nick.
“Heath, drink?” offered Nick not waiting but thrusting a drink into Heath’s hand. “I was waiting for you this afternoon, little brother.”
Sipping the brandy, Heath nodded, “Yeah, sorry about that. Duke has all the information on the line shacks. I don’t reckon it’ll take too much time to restock and repair any winter damage.”
“That’s good.” replied Nick tersely, “Guess it must’ve been too much to ask for all three of us to sit down and decide that.”
Clenching his jaw, Heath sighed, “Something came up, Nick. I don’t want to talk about it right now.”
Heath stepped away from his irritated brother and greeted the ladies of the house with a quick peck on the cheek. Victoria smiled and placed a hand on the blonde’s face, looking into his eyes with concern.
“Are you feeling okay, Heath?” queried his mother. “You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine, Mother.” smiled Heath enjoying the maternal touch of the tiny woman who’d become so important to him. “Just been a long day, is all.”
Satisfied with his reply, Victoria nodded and allowed him to help her up when Silas announced dinner was ready. Holding onto his arm, they lead the procession into the dining room and Heath held her chair for his mother.
The conversation was animated and light throughout the family dinner. The siblings and their mother listened to Audra’s excitement over the upcoming spring dance, the booths they were having, the decorations the committee had decided on.
Nick ate and complained between bites, teasing his little sister about which of her beaus she was going to force to take her to the dance. The laughter in his hazel eyes fading at the deep thinking blonde brother across from him, the food on his plate barely dented and the furrow on his forehead reflecting unpleasant thoughts of some nature.
Nick kicked his brother under the table when their mother’s call to him went unanswered two times.
“Ouch, Nick! What the hell?” growled Heath, reaching down to rub his bruised shin, realizing what he’d blurted out at the dinner table making his face turn crimson. “I’m terribly sorry, Mother and Audra. I didn’t mean to swear in front of ya’.”
Gray eyes studied the quiet man down from her and she smiled, accepting his heartfelt and sincere apology. Audra reached over and squeezed his hand, beaming a radiant smile his way.
“Sorry, Nick for snapping.” sighed Heath placing his napkin on the table and glancing at the faces of his family. “I’m not real hungry, Mother. Excuse me.”
Everyone watched as Heath pushed back his chair and departed from the room quickly, all eyes turning to Nick for explanation. The rancher returned their stares and he shook his head, holding his hands up, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”
“Please do, Nick and let us know if there’s anything we can do.” stated Victoria watching her dark haired son nod before following after his brother.
Jarrod excused himself and quickly caught up with Nick to help him search for the blonde. The two men saw his hat and gun on the table, headed to the study where they saw the opened french doors into the garden. In the black of the night under the moon kissed sky, the end of a red glowing cigarette gave away his hidden position at the edge of the garden on a bench.
Flanking the blonde on either side, Nick nudged him playfully in the arm and smirked, “Thought you gave that up, brother.”
“Haven’t had one in months.” admitted Heath staring at the end of the red ash before taking a final drag and crushing the rest of it out. “Sorry to ruin your dinner, I got something I need to talk to you about.”
Jarrod reached over and placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder after Heath stood up and walked away a few feet. His touch stopping the questions he felt rising up inside Nick.
“You didn’t ruin anyone’s dinner, Heath but your own.” stated Jarrod calmly. “You were thinking so hard, you didn’t notice Nick had three helpings.”
Smiling at Nick’s retorted comment about working men and appetites, Heath sighed and took a seat in front of his brothers.
“Nick, I want you to hear me out before you say anything.” warned Heath.
“ME! What about Jarrod? Why does everybody think they have to talk to me about stuff like that?” complained Nick, his words causing Jarrod to snicker. “Shut up, Pappy!”
“I didn’t mean it to sound like you run off at the mouth, Nick.” apologized Heath. “Sometimes you get a tad bit excited.”
“Oh.” replied Nick. “I’ll wait til the end before I say anything.”
“Me, too.” agreed Jarrod quickly, clapping Nick on the shoulder.
“Jack Larkin was waiting at one of the line shacks today.” said Heath. “He came to tell me why he was here two weeks ago, the job he has for me.”
“YOU ALREADY HAVE A JOB!” exclaimed Nick the words leaving before he could stop them. “Sorry, Heath. I won’t do it again.”
Jarrod bit his lip to stop the chuckle hovering inside his throat and leaned back against the bench encouraging the younger man to finish. “Go on, Heath.”
“Marshal Thane needs an outsider to investigate one of his marshals. A man they think is dirty like Nichols was. I’ll be leaving in the morning for Texas.” sighed Heath, feeling the anger inside Nick waiting to be released. “Understand, I have to go cause I need to find out what’s going on. I need to know if it’s true or not.”
Nick’s anger suddenly dissipated at the torture in his brother’s voice, the pain thickening his words and he sat forward, “What is it, Heath?”
Jarrod leaned his elbows on his knees, his upper body moving closer and he heard the name of the marshal Heath’d be investigating. Both brothers sat stunned on the bench, unable to believe what they’d heard. Both men thought the man in question had integrity of the highest quality, he oozed honesty and truth.
“Nick, I know it’s a bad time but I can’t let anyone else do the investigation. He’s my friend and needs my help to clear him or if he is guilty, I’ll do what the law decrees I must do.” explained Heath quietly, climbing to his feet and moving away to lean against a tree, rubbing his forehead and wishing his brain would stop thinking for a second.
“I can’t believe it.” whispered Nick to Jarrod. “Not Nate!”
Shaking his head, Jarrod agreed, “Neither can I, Nick.”
Running his hand through his hair, Nick walked over and stood by Heath, his hand on his shoulder. “Hey little brother.”
“Hey.” sighed Heath. “Know what scares me the most, Nick?”
“What?” asked Nick puzzled.
“I trusted Nichols too. What if I’m wrong about Nate? My heart and gut tell me not to believe what they say but my head says I was wrong before. Maybe I’m wrong now.”
“Wish I could tell you everything would be fine, but I can’t.” stated Nick simply. “If I were in your boots, I’d go. Just don’t get hurt or anything while you’re gone. Don’t worry about things here, we’ll get by. Maybe our lawyer brother will have to pitch in and help, get some calluses on those baby soft hands of his.”
Jarrod smiled at the small chuckle Heath let out and agreed to lend their brother a helping hand in Heath’s absence. Glancing over, Heath nodded before turning his eyes back to look into the darkness all around them. “Thanks for understanding.”
“That’s what family’s for smart ass.” teased Nick placing an arm over the broad shoulders, his teasing helping take away some of the fear in his heart.
Sitting in the leather chair, Heath leaned his head back and stared upwards at the portrait of the man who was his father. The striking oil portrait loomed above the fireplace mantle, old sapphire eyes, his mouth upturned into a smile as the eyes of the family leader stared down upon the study.
Younger sapphire eyes didn’t leave the painting while his hand reached down and lifted the crystal glass to his lips, the brandy warming him after it cascaded down his throat. His quiet midnight reflections were shaken by a small hand touching his cheek and a petite body lowering itself beside the chair.
“Mother, it’s awfully late.” scolded Heath softly. “You should be sleeping.”
Smiling into the eyes of her late husband’s son, Victoria squeezed the large hand she took hold of. “The same could be said for you, son.”
Chuckling, Heath helped her onto her feet and moved to the divan with her, sitting sideways and sighing. “I couldn’t sleep. Too many things going through my mind.”
Victoria ran her fingers through the blonde hair, her eyes filled with softness, her voice low, “Were you thinking about Nate?”
Heath shook his head and turned his gaze upwards to the picture above the mantle. Victoria questioned him silently.
“Actually, I was just wondering how things could’ve been different had we known each other.” admitted Heath with a shaky breath.
Tilting her head slightly, Victoria was puzzled by the admission. “I had no idea those questions were on your mind, Heath. You always told us not to look backwards because it wouldn’t change what happened.”
“I did, Mother.” agreed Heath with a shrug. “Sometimes things make me wonder though. Like tonight, Nick’s understanding with what I have to do. He explained his, uh, our Father said family always comes before business. Businesses you can replace but relationships with people and family cannot be recaptured.”
“Yes, your father believed in that philosophy, he lived his life by that rule and taught his children the same.” smiled Victoria rubbing her thumb over his large knuckles. “He’d have been so proud of you, Heath as I am. I wish you two could have known each other, bonded as father and son. I’d like to turn back time and give you the opportunity, the chance to look him in the eyes, the chance for both of you to spend a single day together.”
“Yeah, such is life though.” sighed Heath sadly, gazing at the portrait for several minutes. “Mother?”
“He was very lucky to have you by his side.” smiled Heath warmly. “Your sons could only hope to one day find someone to stand by them in such a way.”
Tears sparkled her gray eyes and she welcomed his arms entwining her in a hug, the sincerity in her blonde son, a trait similar to his father, a trait not learned but came from within his soul.
“Perhaps you’re closer to finding that someone special, Heath, than you realize.” smiled Victoria knowingly. The entire family was well aware of the correspondence back and forth between the two blondes.
“Time will tell.” mumbled Heath, the emotionless tone in his answer flagging the inner sense of the older lady, her eyes spotting the apprehension in his and clarity flew into her mind.
Sitting beside the blonde, Victoria felt a flash of anger and wondered why was it deemed this gentle man be placed in this position. Why couldn’t he be allowed the luxury of not worrying about ramifications? Why couldn’t he be allowed a chance to build and nurture a fondness without fear? Why did his believing in all the silver star stood for make his heart an open target? Why couldn’t this gentle man be allowed to give his love without concern? Placing a kiss on his cheek, Victoria knew no answer would be forthcoming to her unspoken questions.
“Time for bed, son.” ordered Victoria standing and pulling him to his feet. Walking to the second level of the house with an arm wrapped one another, Heath escorted his mother to her bedroom and placed another good night kiss on her cheek before continuing down to his own room.
Sitting on her bed in a dressing gown, Victoria picked up the picture of Tom, her manicured finger lightly caressing his cheek. “He’s such a wonderful man, Tom. I wish you could’ve known him. He so much needed a father growing up.”
Sleep didn’t come to the blonde after escorting his mother to her room and entering his. Time was spent laying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, his mind not letting his body rest. Succumbing to the knowledge of his wakefulness, Heath swung his legs over the side of the bed and opened the top drawer of his bureau. Taking out the packet of letters carefully placed in a cloth lined box, the former lawman took a deep breath and sat at the table, the stack of mail in front of him. The smell of her perfume lingered about the paper, her handwriting neat and flowing.
Starting with the first letter, the blonde spent the rest of the night reading, his eyes slowly drank in each word, each sentence, each paragraph. The letters contained accounts of the Jackson family, their trials and tribulations, the events going on in their lives at the time the letters were penned. Working from earliest to most recent, Heath tried to determine if there was any indication of anything amiss, any sign things were not as they should be.
The morning sun rose, it’s arrival watched through the window, his mind wondering over his future. The anticipation of gazing into the sienna eyes again, the eyes which smiled at him in his dreams was overfilling him with dread. Those beautiful sienna eyes were sure to blaze with anger and disdain when his purpose for arriving in Garwood, Texas with a silver badge on his chest was revealed.
Suddenly the blonde was overwhelmed, his nerves stretching taunt as a wire. When the truth came out, he wondered if the outcome would matter to the family in Texas. When they found out about his trailing of their beloved family member, his search for evidence against his friend…even if Nate was found innocent from his efforts, would the Jackson family, especially Cassidy, be understanding? Would they greet him with open arms back into their small family?
Or would he lose what his dreams had shown his future could be? Would he lose any possible future with the duckling turned into a beautiful swan? Would his chance at possible happiness once again become a victim to his silver star?
Jumping down from the passenger car, Heath glanced over the waiting crowd before making his way to the stockcar and opening the large door. Climbing up, he greeted his stallion, murmuring in his ear before untying the reins and leading him to the door and out the ramp the conductor pulled down. Charger’s hooves clopped on the wooden plank and he followed his master from the train to the street, the gathered crowd not affecting the powerful horse as he was lead to a water trough.
Heath felt the perspiration start to flow off him from the heat of Texas. The weather in the area he’d left was drastically different and the rancher in him wondered if this part of the country was in for a drought this year. Allowing Charger his fill, the blonde walked him down the street and stopped in front of the sheriff’s office, taking a few moments to enter and inquire as to the whereabouts of the Marshal Thane. Receiving his information, he mounted and rode to the edge of town, studying the buildings, the businesses Wharton had to offer.
At the far northern edge of town, the blonde found what he sought and dismounted, entering the one level faded wooden building, the windows spotted with dirt. A young woman sat at a desk in the immaculate outer office, writing in a ledger and smiled when she spotted the handsome man before her.
Taking off his hat, Heath nodded and stated, “I’m here to see Marshal Thane, ma’am.”
“May I tell him your name?” asked the receptionist, the low soft voice answering before she knocked and entered through the closed door.
Heath sighed and looked around the rest of the building, his eyes looking past an open door on his left, the room was a kitchen and dining area with another door beyond it.
Several photographs hung on the wall and he studied the men in print, his sharp eyes picking out some well known outlaws, their bodies on display flanked by the men responsible for bringing the dead men in. The proudness of the pictorial display of death leaving the blonde shaking his head. In all his years of being a lawman, he never saw a reason for flaunting someone’s death, criminal or not.
“Thomson, come in!” exclaimed the older man, his hair more silver than when Heath’d last seen him. Gesturing with his hand, John Thane welcomed the younger man into his office, requesting fresh coffee before offering the blonde a seat at the round table. Hanging his hat on the chair next to him, Heath thanked the receptionist for the cup of coffee and watched Thane close the door.
Sitting on the other side of the table, the older marshal greeted the younger with a firm handshake, his green eyes relieved to see the blonde.
“How was your trip?” questioned John before taking a sip of his coffee.
“Fine.” replied Heath. “It was long and quiet.”
“I want you to know how much I appreciate your agreeing to help with this matter.” stated Thane sincerely. “There’s been some talk of creating an internal organization for matters such as this but most of us don’t know if it’ll happen anytime soon. You’re the only marshal I know who’s had experience in this type of, uh, situation.”
“Lucky me.” sighed Heath with a shake of his head. “Marshal Thane, I want you to know I don’t believe these allegations against Nate Jackson. I’ve known him for a lot of years and he can’t be bought.”
Thane nodded before opening a file laying before him, glancing upwards into the blue eyes before him, his words firm and crisp.
“I didn’t want to believe it either, Thomson. Nate Jackson has always shown himself to be a man of honesty and integrity. He’s my top man and all the other men look up to him, trust him with their lives. That’s why I requested your help. Even though you’re his friend, you have proven yourself to be fair, honest and tenacious. In the matter of Dan Nichols, you found ways to reveal his duplicity, evidence no one else could.”
“I wasn’t alone in Nichols’ investigation. I had help from a friend.” informed Heath.
“Yes, I’ve read the report you filed and was impressed with your methods as well as Sheriff Sawyer’s contribution. I need you to look at the evidence, hound dog around and see what you can come up with. Good or bad, Larkin and I both agree you would deal with the information in a professional manner.”
“Why not have one of your men investigate Nate? They’re sworn to uphold the law also.”
“Quite frankly I’m not sure my men would willingly give me any damaging evidence they found. To them, Jackson walks on water.” sighed Thane grimly. “I hope the allegations are false and come to nothing, Thomson. However, I need to know. I won’t have a bad apple hiding amongst the others. I won’t have that on my watch. A lawman in the wrong is a man who has the potential to do more damage than any known criminal could. He’s a blight on our profession which we cannot afford, which society cannot afford.”
Heath retorted, “You don’t have to explain it to me, I understand the importance of having honest men doing this job.”
“Sorry.” apologized Thane with a slight smile. “I know you understand, Thomson. I get fired up when I hear about dirty lawmen.”
Nodding, the younger man held the side of his cup, letting the dark contents warm his suddenly cold hands. “Thane, I’ll do what I can to get behind the truth but I won’t lie to Jackson about why I’m in Texas. He’ll figure it out anyway when I start asking him questions to determine the route I need to take.”
“How you conduct the investigation is up to you. I will expect you to keep me informed. Let me show you what I have gathered on my own and then we’ll see the judge who’ll swear you back in. He’ll also give you a blanket warrant to use however you need to in regards to Jackson’s activities.”
“Alright and I’ll want access to the paperwork on Nate’s past cases.” instructed Heath sitting forward in his chair. “I’ll need to review the files before I leave here and head to Garwood.”
“Miss Baker can show you where they are stored.” said Thane curious at the request before taking the papers out of the file and handing them over to the other man.
Later alone in his hotel room, Heath plowed through the files, the past work of his friend. The blonde filled with pride at the accomplishments of Nate, his old friend proving himself time and time again. The state of Texas a safer place to live with people like him doing their jobs.
Sitting at the table, pencil in hand and jotting down notes in his small book, the blonde took a few minutes to lean back. Rubbing his hands over his closed eyes, he was surprised at how easily he fell back into the old habits he’d lived by as a lawman. The way his mind worked, the extra care he took when he walked down the street, the heightened awareness, sapphire eyes taking in everything around him. The jotting down of notes, the method used in the past to capture those who thought they were out of the reach of the law.
Shortly after midnight, Heath rose and stretched the kink out of his back muscles from hunching over the table. Rolling his head on his shoulders, he repacked the files in the boxes except for two. One unsolved and the most recent case Nate’d been working on. Both cases seemed to strike something within him and Heath couldn’t get them out of his head.
Thane had informed Nate he was on leave until a full investigation into the allegations by an outsider was completed and a report filed. The two cases were added to the anonymous note Marshal Thane received pointing in the direction of the bank in Eagle Lake where a sum of missing money was deposited under the name of Nate Jackson. The newly reappointed lawman had a starting point and his stomach was still nauseous from this damaging information. Appearances could be deceiving and Heath hoped to hell this information wasn’t true.
Blowing out the lamp on the table, the blonde moved to sit on the bed, his hand reaching over and picking up the family picture he usually carried in his wallet. The smiling faces of his family looked back at him and he ran his finger over each profile, his eyes filling with happiness with each thought of them, wondering how they’d spent the last four days.
Turning down the smaller lamp by the bed, Heath lay with his head on his locked hands, looking up at the plastered ceiling, his stomach churning acid. His mind wondering what tomorrow would bring when he arrived in Garwood, Texas. The home of the Jackson family, the home of the friend he’d either free or incarcerate with his investigation.
All their lives would be changed by what occurred in the near future and Heath wondered if he’d hate himself for the rest of his time on earth for the pain about to be brought to his friends. The family who welcomed a battered, beaten teenager into their home and wrapped warmth around him. The family who tried so hard to combat the anger, the rage left behind by his experiences in Carterson prison by bringing him into their fold.
Would this family understand he was doing a job? Would they understand the powerful pull the search for truth created within him? Would he ever be able to make his own soul come to terms with the reality of his search?
Wharton was a ways away from Garwood by horse, however, by the rail system it was only a few hours time. Rising early and taking the first train, Heath found himself in Garwood by ten the next morning and mounting Charger, pointed him in a easterly direction. The town hadn’t changed much since he’d last seen it over five months before. No new businesses and the people of the small town took notice of the lawman riding amongst them. He was familiar to some, familiar to those who’d met him briefly on his last visit. Stopping at a restaurant, he left town ten minutes later after putting some sandwiches in his saddle bag.
Stopping at the ranch boundary, Heath took out a sandwich and ate it while studying the no trespassing sign posted on the wooden gate, his eyes looking towards the main house in the distance. Topping off his lunch with a long drink from his canteen, he reached over and patted the neck of his stallion before dismounting, opening the gate and leading his horse through.
‘Why the new sign?’ wondered the blonde mounting and nudging his mount towards the buildings. ‘Interesting.’
Stopping Charger at the riders coming cross range towards him, he pushed back his hat and rolled a cigarette, sapphire eyes intent on the welcoming committee. Lighting a match, he drew a drag on the white cylinder and used the old habit to calm his jumpy insides.
“Heath!” exclaimed Mark Jackson, the eldest son, his brown eyes filled with surprise, recognizing the blonde instantly. The other two men nodding their greetings to the returning family friend of their employer. “We didn’t know you were coming. The family’ll be so happy to see you!”
“Mark, you’re looking well. Been a long time since I’ve seen you.” greeted Heath smiling slightly, taking the hand extended towards him in a firm shake, sapphire eyes studying the shifty eyes in the face of the man before him. “I’m here to see Nate. He around?”
“Nate’s working up at the barn. Go on up.” invited Mark, studying the younger man before him, his eyes taking in the sun glistening off the badge. “We have to finish the branding. I’ll see you later.”
Nudging Charger towards the main buildings, Heath scolded himself for feeling as if he were a weasel in a hen house. Entering the ranch yard, he glanced around and found he was hoping Cassidy wouldn’t be in the vicinity, fervently wishing only Nate would be around.
Dismounting in front of the large red barn, Heath lead Charger to water before tying him to the corral. Entering the doorway of the building, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the difference in light and made his way down the walkway towards the voices he heard.
“Heath!” screamed a female voice loaded with excitement, his arms suddenly full of the slim body which lunged itself at him, making him take a step backwards forcing him to wrap his arms around her to prevent them both from toppling over. The feel of her in his arms taking his breath away, the moment sending a rush of desire and happiness through his soul.
“Cassidy.” whispered the blonde, his voice hoarse from the warm welcome, his eyes looking past her into the warm male gray ones, his arms falling away and back to his side.
“Gees, Cass, let him be.” scolded Nate, his smile fading at the badge appearing on the broad chest when his sister stepped back. “Returning to the old profession, Heath?”
Smiling slightly at Cassidy, Heath took off his hat before turning his eyes back to his friend, “Nate, I need to talk to you.”
“Heath, why are you wearing a badge?” asked Cassidy, her sienna eyes scrutinizing the handsome man, her hand holding onto his muscular arm. “You’re not a marshal again, are you?”
“Yes, I am. I’ve been brought in from California.” stated Heath with a knowing look into Nate’s gray eyes, the other man nodding in understanding.
“Not you.” whispered Cassidy. “You’re not the outsider? Say it’s not you, Heath.”
Nate put a hand on his sister’s back when she dropped her hand from Heath’s arm and staggered backwards. The betrayal in her whispered words filling his friend’s blue eyes with pain for a brief moment before the blonde brought out his formidable poker face.
“I’d like to speak with you privately, Nate.” suggested Heath, his words spoken with professionalism and his manner shifting accordingly. The blonde ignored the pain in his heart and focused on the man before him, keeping his eyes from the girl, knowing one look into her beautiful eyes would make him falter.
“Sure, Heath.” agreed Nate. “Cass, why don’t you let the rest of the family know Heath’s here for a visit and we’ll have an extra person for dinner.”
“No!” growled Heath with a harsh denial before stating in calmer voice. “I won’t be staying for dinner, Cassidy. Please extend my apologies to the rest of your family.”
Overcoming the shock of his appearance and the reason, Cassidy felt a flash of guilt for her tone towards this gentle man and smiled. “Please stay Heath. We’d love to hear how you’ve been.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” stated the blonde firmly. “Please excuse us, Cassidy. Nate, I’ll wait outside.”
Turning on his heel, the blonde put on his hat and walked to the outside, stopping beside Charger and patting the stallion’s neck. Cassidy glanced sideways at him, her eyes full of questions before continuing onto the house and Nate appeared leading a black dun.
Mounting, the two men left the ranch yard, heading to a place of solitude, a place where they’d meet as lawman and suspect where once they met as friends. The hill with the lone tree was waiting for them, the spectacular view of the ranch the same and taking the blonde back in time while he dismounted. Heath sat beneath the tree and dug out a pencil.
“Nate, I have a few questions to ask you.” informed Heath opening his notebook.
Nate asked curiously, “Why you, Heath? Why’d they ask you?”
“Because they know no matter what the truth may be, I’ll report all I find. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation.”
“Do you believe me to be on the wrong side?” queried Nate, gray eyes studying sapphire eyes intently, knowing this man didn’t know how to lie.
“Personally, I believe you’re innocent.” admitted Heath firmly returning the strong gaze. “Professionally, I’ll wait til my investigation is complete to draw any legal conclusions of wrongdoing.”
Nate nodded, gray eyes filled with friendship, his smile genuine. “That’s why you’re the right man for the job, Heath. I want you to know I’m innocent although for the life of me I have no idea how to prove it.”
“What about this bank account?” asked Heath casually, opening the small notebook in his hands, scanning the words he’d written the night before.
“When Thane told me about the account with the money in it, you could have pushed me over with a feather. If I had kept embezzled money from the Hawkins case, I sure as hell wouldn’t set up an account under my own name IN my own community!” snorted Nate with disgust. “I ain’t the brightest star in the sky but only an idiot’d do something like that!”
Chuckling, Heath grinned before clearing his throat, bringing himself back to the matter at hand, “Nate, I’m your friend but until this is done, you know our friendship must be put to the side, don’t you?”
“I know, Heath.” assured Nate, feeling infinitely better at their choice of an investigator. The thoroughness of the blonde, the sharp mind and the hawk-like eyes wouldn’t miss a detail and the Texas born native welcomed the good feelings rising up within him.
“I’ll try to help any way I can, Heath. What do you want to know?” offered the brown haired man.
“I got some questions to ask. First, when’d Mark get out and why’s there a no trespassing sign posted on your ranch.” stated the blonde firmly.
Heath watched the gray eyes turn chilly and the man before him unconsciously bristle at his firm demand for information. Taking the stare in stride, Heath met its intensity, second by second.
“Well?” pushed the blonde. “You wanted to help and offered your assistance. Can’t you answer those two questions?”
“Mark’s got nothin’ to do with this!” snapped Nate angrily. “Maybe we just don’t cotton to visitors! Anyway, its none of your damn business!”
Heath stood on his feet and staring down at the agitated man, he stated brusquely. “Fine, Nate. It’s only your life, your future on the line. I have a future in California that I’ll be going back to. If you don’t want to help by answering any questions I have, I’ll go it alone.”
Not receiving a reply, Heath mounted and stated, “I’ll be at the hotel in town if you change your mind and wanna save your own neck.”
Gray furious eyes watched the blonde ride towards town, his fist clenching and striking the tree beside him. It took several minutes for the man to calm down, the clear meaning of the words spoken reaching him through his haze of red. Stomping to the dun, he mounted and galloped back to the barn, dismounting and tying the animal up.
“Nate, where’s Heath?” asked Cassidy, searching the horizon.
Sighing loudly, Nate shook his head and smirked, “I’ve forgotten what a cool customer Heath is when he’s wearing the star and on a trail.”
“What happened?” worried the blonde, catching the look of censure in the eyes of her older brother. “Did you two argue?”
“Not really. I’m the one who flew off the handle. He started off by asking when Mark got out and it got my fur up.” admitted Nate. “I’m so sick of people saying things about Mark. He’s done his time and it was the last thing I’d ever thought Heath would ask.”
Shaking her head, Cassidy drew her brother into a warm hug before her hands held his face and she smiled, “You can’t fight Mark’s battles, Natty, not when you’re in the midst of your own. Mark’s a grown man who’s made mistakes but he’s paid his debt to society and if he wants to live here, he’ll have to learn to deal with the whispers and finger pointing. You can’t protect him twenty four hours a day, Nate. Let Mark figure it out on his own.”
“When did you get to be so smart, sis?” teased Nate warmly, his eyes full of pride at the beautiful woman in front of him. “Are you sure you’re related to me?”
“Well, someone has to have brains cause my brothers usually think with only their fists.” retorted Cassidy with a wink. “Tomorrow, why don’t you go into town and see Heath? I’m sure he’ll have forgotten you making a fool out of yourself today.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Cass.” agreed Nate. “Heath’s my best hope at being cleared, especially since Thane threaten to arrest me if I tried to do my own investigation. That old man would do it too, he’s sure a hard case. I just hate the pain this is causing everyone in the family. You shouldn’t have to suffer cause of me.”
“Nobody’s suffering cause of you, Nate. WE know you haven’t done anything wrong and that’s all that matters.” stated Cassidy firmly. “Get off your pity wagon, suck it up and meet with Heath tomorrow, big brother.”
Laughing, Nate nodded and helped his sister mount her modoc, Lady. Stating she was heading to her friend Mary’s house, Nate waved and watched her ride out of the yard. Shaking his head in amazement at how much his sister changed and her inner strength, he lead his dun into the barn and unsaddled him.