Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
A missing scene from The Other Face of Justice. Nick joins Heath as he reminisces over the times he has been shot. [I have taken liberty with Heath’s shooting in The Other Face of Justice. In ‘Hurt’ he is shot from the front not from behind.]
“Awwwhhh gaaawwwd!....... Noooo.... That hurt..... Not a good idea to move.... Not yet.... What’s going on?...... Where the blazes am I?....... Not in bed that’s for sure..... Think Heath Barkley.... think on it.
“With Nick..... Yep, that’s right. I was with Nick. We were searching. Yeah,.... was following a trail, a hoof print. A horse with a cracked shoe on the off foreleg. It was pretty easy tracking. That’s it. We’d tracked the cloven hoof prints of the rustled steers and found where they’d been stashed up in the small box canyon. Them rustlers weren’t none too smart. Not then anyway. Nick sent the few men we had with us back with the cattle and told them as soon as they had the cattle back in the right pasture to get fresh horses and get back to us pronto. Them being Nick’s prime beef stock an’ all he was good and mad when he found they’d gone a wanderin’ especially when he realized they’d been helped on their way.
“No that’s not right.... You’re fuddled boy. That was the other week.... We got them cattle back. We didn’t get too far tracking the rustlers then either. It’s the sheriff this time. That’s it. Billy came round to say that Fred had been shot and we joined a small posse to try and track the gang. Yep, that’s right. They’ll more than likely be the same lot that were hightailing it off with Nick’s beef. They’ve been raiding in the valley. Doing quite a lot of damage. A couple of the ranchers have been killed and horses and stock have been taken.
“When our cattle was taken Nick kinda had a bad feeling and made his way out to check on those particular beef. There was some heat comin’ off of him when he realized. Don’t laugh boy....... That didn’t do you any good...... Where’s Nick now?
“Oh yeah, I remember now. We tracked the gang or rustlers up to the Low Peaks beyond the East range. Then the tracks kinda scattered. Billy and the boys went the other way and Nick and I came up into the Low Peaks. It ain’t too easy tracking up here. Ya find a track and then ya lose it. Ya see the odd kinda chalk mark on the rock left by an iron shoe and then you lose them when they hit the sand and the wind blows across and smoothes it over. Ya have to keep your eyes peeled for dents then in the sand. I figure they have it right if they’re hid out up here. There being somewhere to hide an’ all. They sure were right with that idea... like looking for a needle in a stack of hay.
“Nick and I weren’t doing too well and so we decided to split up and search. Seemed a good idea at the time. I guess I musta been kinda close to the hide out if they thought on shooting me. At least we have a good idea that they’re holed up in these here rocks somewhere. I think we should have stayed together Nick. I reckon this is what they were after..... to split us up. I hope you’re okay big brother........ Looking at the sun I reckon I’ve only been out a few minutes..... best keep still for a while in case they’re still hanging around. Hopefully they’ll think I’m up there above the clouds making new friends, wearing a new frock and peacefully learning how to pluck on a harp.
“.....only heard the one shot. Mind there may have been more when I was out. Though I reckon I’ve only the one hole in me. I’ll just lay here a while longer playing dead just to make sure they’re not around any more. I guess Nick is gonna be none too pleased with me. I’ve muffed up again. I was too keen on trying to spot them horse shoe marks on the rock I didn’t notice the sun shining off of that ironware until it was near on too late. If I hadn’t have moved when I did then I reckon I’d have been buzzard bait for sure. Pretty good shooting. I have to give you that fella.
“Haven’t seen or heard anything. I guess it’ll be okay to move. Right Heath you’re best turning on your belly and getting up from there. Here goes. Awwwww! Can’t. That wasn’t a good idea. Must be worse than I thought. Blast it. The blood’s running down the top of my shoulder now. It’s throbbing something awful too. I think I need to stop it bleeding. Use my neckerchief. Thank goodness it’s only a loose knot. There.... not too easy one handed.... get my finger through the middle. Done it. Now pull. Got it. Now pull out. Give it a quick shake to get the sand off of it. Right. Hold it between my teeth. Don’t want to drop it. Now screw it up small. Okay done. Now push it through the collar and under my shirt. There now that’s in place. Now hold it firm boy and soon it should stop bleeding. Feels more blood than I thought. I won’t try movin’ again ’til it’s stopped.
“I’m sorry Mother. I reckon I just messed up this new fleecy jacket you gave me. We could always patch it but I’m not sure we can get all the blood stain out of it. When I get home we’ll have to soak it and hope for the best.
“You should be used to this by now Heath boy. You got more holes in you than the colander in the kitchen. I went all through the war without so much as a graze and then sometime after I was released from Carterson I went off fighting another blasted war out New Mexico way. Since then lead and me sure seem to have kept good company with one another. That was when Handy Random shot me. We were supposed to be fighting on the same side. Well I reckon the only side he was on was his own. I was out with him that day and the same thing I got caught up with tracking. I forgot to keep my eye on him. I always knew he couldn’t be trusted. He was a guy who always shot his quarry in the back. Ya can’t trust a guy like that no matter if he calls ya a friend.
“The first thing I heard was that shooter of his going off. Made a different sound to our regular firearms on account of the buck shot he used. I knew what was coming but I had no time to move out the way. The most part of my back was good and peppered with horse shoe nails and carpet tacks. I was blasted clean out of the saddle. I lay on the sand not knowing which world I was in ’til he came along to finish me off. I knew I was still alive when I saw his ugly mug sneering down on me. He had that mean and hungry smile on him telling me he was thoroughly enjoying his self. Wetting his lips he wiped his blade against his sleeve, I guess out of habit, afore he made to finish me off. It gave me time. I managed to get my gun into my hand and slammed it into the side of his head real hard. It was enough to knock him senseless. Managing to pick myself up I staggered off aways into the mesquite to hide. I lay there hours thinking I was a goner for sure. I knew it was just a matter of time. My back was on fire and exploded every time I moved......
“Random didn’t bother following me. He just helped his self to my saddle and chased off my horse. That was the mistake he made. My horse took itself back to the homestead where the rest of the guys where and so they knew something had happened to me.
“....’cepting for Random, regular guys they were them being the nearest I had to family at the time. Of course I still had my mama but she was way back in Strawberry. Well they came out searching for me. They didn’t find me ’til sun up the following day. I was froze stiff and parched like the devil by then. More dead than alive. Somehow they managed to get me back to headquarters and Doc took to digging the nails and tacks out of my hide. By then I was out of it but I felt every damn time he cut into me with that blamed knife he had for skinning. He weren’t a real doctor he just liked playing around with his skinning knife. He was the one that usually did the doctoring and dug out the slugs when any of us boys were shot. I could have sworn he was just out to skinning me at the time. I can’t remember anymore after he emptied the bottle of whiskey over my back ’til I came round about four days later. I’m not sure which was more painful paying for the whiskey or having it poured over my hide. It sure did sting. Anyway Doc saved my life and my back healed up real good. You have to look real close if you wanna see the scars.
“Now let’s see if I can get up? I reckon that it’s stopped bleeding. This ’kerchief is pretty much soaked through but I’ll leave it in place. Right here goes..... roll over. Geez that didn’t help matters. I’m on my belly now but still not on my feet. I’ll try again... Can’t use my left arm.... it’s pretty useless. Take a deep breath and push...... on my knees now.... hold on a moment boy...... just wait ’til the rocks stop spinning by...... there that’s better. Geez it’s hurting something awful....
“Now where’s Charger? He wouldn’t run off. I reckon them rustlers must have taken him. Aw heck Nick I reckon you’re gonna be good and mad with me this time. Well I might have lost my horse, but I’m still here and I didn’t lose my hat. It’s stuck real hard on my head.... Now getting up took more out of me than I thought.... Hold on boy everything’s spinning again..... Drat I’m back down in the dirt again.”
“I’m not sure if I can get back up....... and if I do get up... I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to walk too far, if at all?....... Nick must have heard the shot..... surely he’ll be on his way...... as long as they didn’t get him too. Right here goes again.... up on my knees.... right I’ll see if I can make it over to the rocks..... rest there a while..... ready.......up.... here goes...... boy howdy I made it...... I can’t stay standing ..... just get over to them rocks..... here I go.... that’s it...... one foot in front of the other..... In front of the other, I said boy..... ya not listenin’ to me..... nearly there.... stay up.... one more step..... done it..... I’ll sit here....... rest up against the rock...... If the trail will just keep still I can see it from here.... and watch out for Nick...... I know he’ll come..... I know he’ll come..... he’ll be all right.... I know he will.... won’t let me down.......
“When I was shot by that jerk Evan Miles Nick was there for me. That’s when I knew for sure he cared about me. Like a brother that is. I kinda knew he cared afore then but that was the sealing of it. He was good and mad then all right. Not with me that time but with the Miles. We were just trying to get some of our cattle which had strayed through the fencing on to the Miles’ land. Wally Miles had his men firing at us only to scare us off. But Nick wasn’t having any of it, tall and proud he just kept walking toward the men and I stayed with him. Then that fool lad did for me in the arm. Of course he’d had it in for me right from the start when I had to pull him off of Audra at her birthday party. He was just biding his time. I knew it was him ’cause I’d been watching him and I saw the way he was aiming. After, I couldn’t tell Nick even if I wanted to..... ’cause I reckon he’d have killed him there and then. Mind you thinking about it..... it might have been better if he had.... Well I went down like a poll axed steer. I wasn’t too sure what was going on then. It all seemed kinda far away and yet Wally was standing over me apologizing and Nick was holding onto me for grim death and yelling back up at him.
“I kept trying to tell Nick it didn’t matter but nothing was coming out. Nick took care of me. He tied his neckerchief round my arm making it kinda tight, to try and stop the bleeding. Some one fetched our horses and he gave me some water from his canteen. It didn’t stay down long it came right back up and I spewed over Nick. Gawd I was mortified but could only say sorry with my eyes. I tried but my mouth wouldn’t work. Nick wasn’t bothered he just told me to hush up and washed it off with the rest of the water and wiped me down too. He and Wally managed to get me up on my feet and into the saddle on Coco. I kept trying to tell Nick it was the wrong horse but somehow I was too far away and he couldn’t hear me.
“........next thing I knew Nick was nestled in behind holding me steady with his arms around me keeping me safe. He’d hitched up Charger to the saddle horn and he kept talking to me real quiet all the way home. Telling me Charger was okay and I was gonna be all right. He kept giving slack to his neckerchief on my arm. I just felt like one of Silas’ jellies. I was no use to Nick or myself. I settled back into Nick resting my head on his shoulder knowing he would take care of me. That’s what I remember most about the ride home. Nick taking care of me. I knew I’d never be on my own again. I had finally made it. I was his little brother and he knew it, he let me know it and everyone else too. I don’t remember much after we went through the gates at home I reckon that’s when I blacked out happy in the knowledge that Nick was my big brother and he was there for me.
“When I came round I was laying on my bed covered with a blanket and Nick was sitting in a chair just looking at me with those big puppy dog eyes of his. If he’d have been a dog he’d have been sitting with his chin resting on my bed looking up at me. I couldn’t help but smile at him. “There I told you you were gonna be all right little brother,” he said smiling back at me. That was the first time he ever called me that. ‘Little brother’ it felt good, real good.
“It seems Nick had managed with help from Jarrod to get me up to my room and settled on the bed, removed my vest and shirt, and left me in the more than capable hands of Doc. Merar. Funny no one thought on removing my gun belt. Anyhow the doc. reckoned Nick had more than likely saved my life that day by tying his neckerchief round my arm.
“I reckon I’m gonna need you again Nick.... The track looks a mite hazy.... don’t know whether it’s my eyes or the sun.... feeling kinda hot too.... can feel blood trickling down..... going under my arm..... I reckon it’s bleeding again.... I’ll push that ’kerchief into it more... have to stop it bleeding.... just keeps hurting....
“Might have been better if I’d stayed out cold. I wouldn’t be feeling anything then. Like the time I was shot by them raw-hiders. A right slimy lot they were. Sure did hum too. The first time I knew I’d been shot was when I came to in the guest room. Well I really didn’t know where I was and if things weren’t confusing enough Mother has a habit of changing rooms round..... there I was all cozy like and entwined and smoo.... well.... let’s just say I was having a real hot time of things..... with Lupe...... boy howdy she sure had some great assets.... everything just right ... and then a full blown chain gang working twenty pounders were trying to force their way out of my head.. and there was this dark haired gal mooning and a fussing over me. She wasn’t Lupe... I could tell that... Well I didn’t know where I was, who she was, why I was in bed nor why I wished my head wasn’t on my neck. I sure was sorry I’d come round. Kinda scared I was I suppose.
““Who are you?” that’s all I could say. She told me Allie Kay but it didn’t mean a thing to me she may as well have been a fly on the wall. She tried to explain I’d been creased with a slug by some rustlers. I listened but as she trebled up I was soon back snuggling up to Lupe on a bed of straw inside of them mud walls.
“Everything was kinda vague I just seemed to be spending my time between Lupe, Allie Kay, Mother, Audra, Doc. Merar and this raw-hider fella. I was having difficulty in making sense out of any of it especially how many folks there were. And all the time these twenty pounders were slugging away at me. There was no let up.
“At one time Audra and Mother were coming toward me. It was kinda comforting to know I was home and they were there. At least I thought I was home. The doc. appeared at some time and spoke telling me I had to take it easy. He was telling me I’d have a bad head for a few days as if he didn’t think I’d know it. Boy I couldn’t move my head without feeling my brain was gonna explode. I was in a kinda stupor when this scruffy raw-hider fella started toward me coming out of nowhere. Everyone’s faces became blurred and mixed in together and multiplied. I heard him telling, how he’d come by rescuing me. I sorta remember thanking him but I know I had a bad feeling about the fella. The doc., Mother and the raw-hider all drifted away and I think Allie Kay helped me to a drink of water before I drifted back to Lupe. I always felt safe with her.
“Then each time I was back with Lupe, Allie Kay would start harping on about her. I figured she must have known her. I remember being crotchety with Allie Kay on account of her keep interfering with Lupe and me. I have no idea what I’d been saying but I knew there was plenty I could have said that wasn’t fit for a lady’s ears. I felt better once I realized I’d been speaking in Spanish. I didn’t mean to hurt her none, it was just that she kept rubbing me up the wrong way going on about Lupe all the time. When I was a little more clear headed I can remember telling her that I never said I’d spent my days in a cave and then I realized I wasn’t being fair to her after all she’d more than likely saved my life. With my head about to explode I promised to make it up to her when I was feeling better. That seemed to do the trick and she never mentioned Lupe again.
“Now there was never any let up in my head and all the time I had no idea what was going on in the house. It was Allie Kay who made me aware of the danger we were in with the raw-hiders. She called me to look out of the window. There was a bunch of these raw-hiders and I didn’t really need to ask Allie Kay what they were about for I could tell they were up to no good. I turned on her sorta mad and I guess I kinda scared her ’cause she blurted out that she wasn’t like them and told me that it were them that shot me. I believed her, I had to. It must have been the fear for myself and for Audra and Mother because I could feel my senses coming back.
“I asked Allie Kay to help me by finding out what was going on. She left me struggling to get my boots on. Thankfully except for my shirt no one had thought on stripping me. They’d just laid me on the bed with the covers over me.
“A short while and Allie Kay was back and the smart girl was toting a hand gun. I hadn’t been too good at getting my boots on on account of my head still throbbing. I managed to get the second boot on and took the firearm from her as she explained how they planned on killing us. I knew we needed to warn Mother and Sis and Silas and so I pushed Allie Kay out the door and along the hallway only to bump into Mother and Audra at the end. They had realized we were in danger and were coming to warn me.
“Well I ended up gazing out the bedroom window to guard over the women folk and Silas while they escaped out to the barn. It was then I heard a gun being cocked behind me and my gut took over. I turned round and in that split second recognized an enemy and fired. It was kill or be killed. I learnt it a long time ago during the war and in the blink of an eye I had to make the decision. It was second nature to me. One raw-hider lay dead.
“My head was still pounding and my belly was churning and all about was spinning. All I can remember next was dropping from the balcony, the thunder in my head and hearing the shooting iron being cocked. I turned, I saw, I fired and another raw-hider was dead.
“I knew I had to reach the barn but I couldn’t see it, only Daddy Cade as he was known, the raw-hider I’d first seen up in the room was looming toward me. Suddenly there were two of him and I knew I had to shoot them but I couldn’t lift my gun hand. I grabbed out for the wooden support and slid down to hit the dirt. A rifle fired. My head exploded. But I wasn’t dead. Mother had done for Daddy Cade straight between the shoulder blades.
“I can’t remember much more after that. I finally woke up in my own room. Feeling better than I had thinking on everything like a bad dream. It wasn’t ’til Audra explained it all to me a few days later that I realized the only dreaming I’d been doing was about Lupe. I was right grateful to Allie Kay for a whole heap of reasons but most of all for not telling any of my family about Lupe. Heck if Nick had ever cottoned on to knowing about her he’d have never let me live it down. Thanks to Allie Kay I was alive and I still had my family intact.
“Dropping off the balcony I guess I musta strained my ankle ’cause I had to use a cane to aid my walking for a while. Nick and Gene were back from the drive and were enjoying ragging me. Gene had taken a shine to Allie Kay. I could tell. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. I gave her a kiss when she was leaving. She was off to do some nursing work for one of the ranchers whose spread is on the way into town and I went a visiting her a few times but she wasn’t really for me. Having seen Gene mooning over her I gave him my blessing. They made a right good pair both being interested in medicine an’ all. Gene and her were hitched the following year and when he’s finished his training they plan on moving East.
“Get my handkerchief out and wipe the sweat off of my face. That’s better. It was running in my eyes. It’s hot... I’m hot.... I’ll take my jacket off..... one huh. two huh... three huh.... four... the buttons are undone.... get my good arm out first now lean forward to free my back. Fine. Now slow boy, real slow, pull down from the wrist. Geesh. I wish I hadn’t done that. awwwgggghhh ! Feels cooler but my shoulder’s paining something awful again. Hold on Heath every where’s spinning again.... rest back against the rock and close my eyes.... nope, I’ll keep my eyes open... I’d sooner the rocks spin than me.....
“That’s feeling better. A bit cooler now. Thirsty. Could do with a drink. Could do with a good rain shower. How about a real toad floater like we had the next time I took another bullet? That was when the dam was about to burst and Sheriff Frank wanted one of us to go down to Salt Springs, a small town below the dam and keep a guard out for looters. Seeing as my back had been aching me some lately I volunteered to go thinking it was an easier option than filling sandbags.
“Well it should have been but with my record for trouble it wasn’t. Of course I ended up holed up in more ways than one in the livery stable with two females Fay Kelly a down and out music hall singer and a mute Indian gal. All the townsfolk were supposed to have been evacuated and I found myself with these two females a pair of life’s no hopers much as I used to be. Fay was drunk and missed the evacuation. Somehow I was hoping I could get them out of town but the fellas who were supposed to be protecting the town turned to looting it when another fella showed up.
“I was able to get the females safely to the livery stable hoping to send the two of them off to safety on one of the horses but it was no good ’cause the fellas had realized where we were. So I had to hit that idea on the head. I knew the looters needed the horses to get their loot out of the town which was the reason I hid in the livery. As long as I could hold on in the livery they weren’t going anywhere. I got my rifle from my saddle and stood guard. I had to use a few bullets to ward the fellas off. Using bullets I could ill afford to waste.
“When the fellas backed off I busied myself making a hole through the planking to the building next door hoping I’d be able to get some more ammunition. I was down to my last four bullets and I knew the fellas would be back.
“Sure enough they were when I was busy. I heard Fay shout and I turned round to find the ground straw ablaze. A lighted paper had been thrown through a gap in the planking setting the ground straw alight. No time to think I rushed over to stomp on it. Pretty useless really. While I was stomping I heard the gun go off and felt the lead burn into my side and with the force of the bullet I spun round backwards automatically blasting out twice with my rifle straight at the timber wall.
“Gradually everything went hazy and I collapsed forward. When I came round I could vaguely remember what had happened. I didn’t feel too good. I knew I had a slug in my side and I was laying back against some sacks. The womenfolk had seen to me the best they could. It appeared I’d killed the guy who shot me and the Indian gal had doused the fire with a blanket. The slug had to come out before too long ’cause I knew I’d be getting weaker and would not be able to help the women or myself.
“The Indian girl was gonna try to get the slug out and she found my knife in my saddle bags. We had no whiskey or means of cleaning the blade so she sucked on it and then began digging. I told her to do it that I’d be all right hoping to give her courage. I think it was me trying to find the guts ’cause I really wanted to tell her to go easy but there really was no point. I had to trust in her. That was the first time I had a slug dug out from my side but experience told me I knew what to expect. I don’t know whether she’d ever done anything like it before but she was good. She quickly found the slug and then the real pain began. I wanted to scream but didn’t. As she dug with my knife I held on to the scream until I passed out.
“I was dreaming of unicorns and angels. Weird dreams really but when I came round I knew why. Fay kept calling me angel ’cause I was helping them and unicorn on account of my honesty. I’d given her some money earlier for her to go buy some stuff that they needed. She was quite tickled with the idea ’cause she said there was no one to pay. I just said leave it there and they’ll know and she said I sure was a unicorn.
“When I came round I can’t say I felt much better but the slug was out and they’d bandaged me up real good with a strip of Kay’s best petticoat. I felt too weak to get up and Kay made me rest. It’s amazing what a small lump of lead can do to ya.
“Anyway before the trouble was over three of the fellas were dead. Fay had given the girl one of my last bullets and sent her through the hole to next door to find some ammunition and the next thing we knew was the fellas had her. There was nothing for it but for me to go through the hole and see if I could do anything. I know I wasn’t feeling too good but I couldn’t not do something otherwise I couldn’t be sure we wouldn’t have all ended up dead.
“I managed to climb on a wagon bed and sneaked up on the young’n and tried throttling him with my rifle rammed back against his wind pipe but I didn’t have the strength and he ducked hurling me over his head on to the side walk. We scuffled together for a while. It was my fast reaction which saved me as he went for his gun. My rifle was by me and I grabbed it and fired my last bullet and he was thrown back dead before he hit the mud and dirt.
“Then after staggering up the side walk I found myself facing the barrel of a handgun. The new fella was using the Indian gal as a shield. I was a goner for sure but before he squeezed the trigger one of the warning rockets over at the dam went up and as he looked to see it the girl knocked his gun hand and I was able to jump him. We struggled but again I was too weak to take him and found myself facing death looking back up the barrel of his gun. I was sure I was a goner but as I braced myself ready to meet my maker another gun went off and he fell back to die in the mud of the street. Fay had helped herself to the gun from the young’n and had made no mistake with her aim. She had saved me. Her and the girl then rushed over to help me up, for we knew what one rocket meant. We had to get out of there fast ’cause the dam was giving way.
“Before we made to move a second rocket went up and we knew its meaning and felt sorely relieved. We knew the dam was gonna hold. I’m not sure we’d have made it out of the town before the waters came if the dam had given.
“The last fella, not being a threat we left in the street nursing his dead brother the young’n and went over to the saloon. Three men were dead and all of it senseless. I remember while I was in the livery with Fay her asking me why I helped her and the girl. There really wasn’t an answer ’cepting it was the only thing I could do.
“I slept in the backroom through ’til morning with the sharp pain in my side driving my dreams. Dreams about being desperately lost in the high country and finding a sign which some fella had put there to direct those unfortunates stupid enough to get themselves lost as I had. I told Fay about it and how I reckoned he’d have said the same as me, ‘it seemed the right thing to do’ and somehow I knew the guy who had left the sign would have done the same as I had that day too.
“The next day saw the return of the town sheriff and some of the town folk and I was wanting to get home. I know I wasn’t up to it but I was determined to go. The lure of my home and family was too great. To think for years after the war I wandered aimlessly having no real place to call home. I still had my Mama she being the only family I had back then but Strawberry was not a place I called home and I never had the inclin’ to go back there. But at that moment I was desperate to get home, to get back to the ranch, to get back to my family.
“The two women folk came along with me Fay saying that having found a unicorn in the guise of an angel she’d be right silly to let it go. I never thought on myself as an angel let alone a unicorn but Fay had a kindness about her and I couldn’t help but take to her. I’d tried to save them but in the end it was them who saved me.
“And so it was that together the three of us set off. Half way home I was struggling to stay aboard Charger not daring to stop for fear of not getting home. Fay was forever begging me to stop and rest. As I was getting to the point where I knew I couldn’t stay in the saddle much longer and would have to give in to her begging along came my angel and unicorn in the guise of my big brother.
“I heard the voice first and held tight on to the saddle horn and smiled through the haze at Nick. ’cause I was late back he’d been worrying like a dog with a bone and had come out looking for me. His face said it all, he didn’t need to be told what had happened. He didn’t need to ask. Next I knew Nick was mounted behind me supporting me in his arms and telling me to steady. We were going home. I fell back against him dreaming of horned unicorns, of angels singing in music halls, of dead looters, of pretty young Indian gals who never spoke, of a loving family and a dark haired brother with a heart much bigger than his voice.”
“Come on Nick where are you?.... You’re scaring the heck out of me...... I thought you’d be here by now.....The luncheon party is almost ready.... The buzzards are gonna beat you to me....... they’re already gathering up there..... It must be coming up to noon...... the sun is high now..... should be warm......... I’m starting to feel cold..... I’ll try to get my jacket on again..... aaaahhhhgg!...... no good..... can’t do it..... can’t move my arm..... I’ll pull it up and cover my front.... still sweating though..... this ain’t good..... Nick come on brother......... I need ya.... buzz off birds I ain’t meat yet.
“Them birds are almost as bad as Homer Roberts and the posse he sent after me when I went on that horse buying trip. He was supposed to have been a friend of Mothers and the family. It worked out in the end but not until I’d been chased half way across the county and hunted like a rabid dog. Of course we weren’t to know before that he had a loopy daughter who would take a fancy to me. I’ve been in some scrapes in my time but that sure beat all...... Or did it...? Don’t know really.
“I’d completed the business and left their ranch and thought I’d call on Sarah at the mission before returning home. Sarah had been a past girlfriend of mine. In many ways I reckon she’s probably the only one I really loved. I know I still hold a special place in my heart for her but it’s no good. She is married to someone of a higher station than I’ll ever be. She made that quite clear to me. Even when we were together I knew she’d never be mine. Her heart was always promised and no way could I compete. That’s not to say I didn’t try.
“We were good for each other. She was fun to be with and to have around. It wasn’t long after I’d returned from New Mexico and I was working a spread her way. I was young, wild and reckless and she was a calming influence on me. We enjoyed each others company and I wanted desperately to marry her. I couldn’t offer her anything except my devotion but I was willing to settle down and try and make something out of my life if she’d have had me. I know I was broken hearted at the time but I suppose she was right with her choice. I’d have probably messed up and we’d have ended up hating each other instead of still having the relationship that we can share now.
“Well I’d only just arrived and happily amused myself watching her struggling with Herman the mule before I said howdy. We’d hardly managed to get reacquainted when Homer Roberts comes riding along, jumps off of his horse and strikes me square on the jaw knocking me to the ground and accuses me of practically raping his daughter. The whole idea was preposterous. Even if I’d have been desperate there was no way I’d have behaved like that. However proclaiming my innocence didn’t save me from being locked in the jail pending a trial on trumped up charges for which, if found guilty I’d have served the minimum of a ten year prison sentence .
“Sarah or Sister Jacob as she was now known came visiting me, bringing me a meal and even in jail she managed to lighten my load and we laughed together as we used to do. She always had a good sense of humor a little wicked truthfully. She even found humor in laughing at a man’s last meal before facing the gallows and had me splitting my sides.
“Well I tried explaining to her what had happened with me and Carla Roberts but she didn’t need to hear. She said she knew I would never do anything like that. It felt good to know she trusted me.
“But Roberts now was something else. He seemed to have had that town under his control, mind it was called Robertsville. Well he arranged for the trial to be held before Jarrod could get there knowing it takes a good two days to get from home. Sarah got wind of it and there she was holding the sheriff at gunpoint and breaking me out of jail. I suppose there couldn’t be a better camouflage for me than leaving town with a nun. Sarah sure had spunk.
“Before things turned nasty we were able to have time together and reminisce on times gone by and to catch up on what we’d been doing since we were together. I was able to tell her about the wonderful family I had found and how I’d learned to belong and how I’d finally settled down. That’s when I realized I still loved her. That she could have been a part of my family. We camped out most of the first night and I chuckled at her counting her rosary beads asking for forgiveness for what she had done. I really don’t know what God would have thought but I’d have been happy if he’d have divorced her.
“I heard a sound and took the handgun Sarah had used to break me out of jail but found it was only a coyote snooping round. It was after that that I found out that the gun was empty. I knew all this could have only been happening to me. Only Heath Barkley could be broken out of jail, not only by a nun but by one threatening a sheriff with an unloaded handgun. If Nick had been there I would have been a running joke. It was bad enough explaining it to him when I was home.
“The next morning we tried to distance ourselves further from the town and Sarah sought refuge with an old missionary, name of Paco. She hoped we’d be safe there and it would give enough time for Jarrod to get to town.
“It was while at Paco’s that I made the mistake of telling Sarah that I still loved her. I don’t know why I said it. At the time it seemed right and it just kinda came out. It only opened up old wounds for the both of us. I’m afraid she made sure I understood my position in her life.
“Well the time we’d hoped for wasn’t to be. Of course by escaping I hadn’t made it any easier on myself. Paco saw the posse coming in the distance and I had to make a run for it. I didn’t want Sarah or the old man getting caught in any shooting. I raced out to the coral and jumped on the carriage horse and escaped with the posse pounding after me.
“There was no way I could run forever the horse didn’t have it in it. I needed to stop and hide but I also needed a gun and ammunition. I hid up in the rocks and was able to jump one of the deputies, steal his gun belt, gun and horse and make another desperate run for it. I took a slug to my shoulder which threw me off the horse. I was able to fire off a couple of shots from the deputy’s gun and warn off some of the posse but I knew time was running out for me. All I could do was hide up in the rocks and ward them off. I reckon I was pretty desperate by then.
“I had had time enough to reflect on prison life and there was no way I could face it again. I could tell there was no way these fellas were gonna take me alive and that suited me. But there was no way I was gonna give in and stop fighting. Fighting for my freedom. Fighting for my life. I would fight to the end. The ultimate end. The only trouble was the pain in my shoulder was wearing me down. I thought that if I could manage to last ’til dark I might have a means of sneaking away but the way I was feeling chances of that was starting to seem slim. I needed to stay clear in my head. I needed to think and to stay awake. The sun was burning down on me and adding to my hopelessness and desperation. I was scared.
“I’d been running and hiding for most of the day and I was tired and weary and sick when I heard Mother’s voice. I thought I was dreaming. I could not imagine what Mother was doing out there. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. The posse were coming in for the kill and I knew I couldn’t hold out much longer and readied myself to die fighting.
“Before I knew what was happening the gun fire had ceased and Mother was there holding me or was I holding her? I can’t remember. She had put herself between the men and their bullets and forced them to give up the fight. She had made them doubt the truth of what Homer Roberts was saying. I still was not sure I wasn’t dreaming though. It just seemed so unreal that Mother would be there. I was weak and thankful and held on to my tears. I was grateful for the bravery of two women who were both dear to my heart, Mother and Sarah.
“It wasn’t ’til the next day that Mother explained what had happened. I hadn’t been up to it the night before. I can remember being able to ride and insisted on going back to the mission. I was anxious about Sarah. The Mother Superior was very understanding and took us in for the night. Sister Jacob had arrived back safely earlier in the day and the Mother Superior thought that her worry for me was penance enough for her crimes. I had my wound cleaned and dressed. The bullet had not done much damage. It had struck and glanced off the bone and exited. I was sore and bruised but after a restful night I felt almost good again, well enough to ride out that day with my arm in a sling.
“After his short stay in jail Jarrod joined us in the morning and Mother explained about Carla, Roberts’ daughter. Apparently Roberts appeared relieved that it was out in the open and was sorely sorry for his behavior. He made a promise to build a new school for the mission. I reckon Jarrod had something to do with that. Jarrod’s real smart and likes keeping his halo polished.
“We said our farewells and I said mine to Sarah dearly wanting to take her in my arms and kiss her but knowing that I couldn’t. Well I didn’t get to ride home with Nick but I did accompany my eldest brother and a beautiful brave lady, my Mother. A sad and sorrowful cowboy like myself couldn’t wish for better company or family.
“Now Sister Jacob......”
“For crying out loud boy do I look like Sister Jacob? I know I wear black but there is a subtle difference.” Heath had been rambling and as he slumped further down the supporting rock face he had not realized his thoughts were being spoken out loud. As his brother’s loud voice penetrated his mind he opened his eyes and squinted up against the noonday sun.
“What.... kept......ya?” he managed to say. “Was worried.”
Nick stooped down to get nearer to his younger brother and quietly replied as he removed Heath’s covering jacket to reveal his blood soaked shirt now stiffened with the cold. “I’m here now Heath don’t be worrying about me. Why’d ya take your jacket off? It’s freezing today and your shivering.”
“Was.... hot,” his weak voice escaped between his chattering teeth.
“Well ya ain’t hot now. Here I’ll help ya get your jacket on.” Nick said concerned for his teeth chattering brother whose face was glistening with a sheen of sweat.
“Can’t.... hurts,” like a small child petulantly Heath objected.
“Hurting or not you’re having your jacket on before ya get any colder or older and we do anything else. Understand?” With one raised eyebrow Heath frowned but recognizing the determination on his brother’s face nodded in submission and Nick started to carefully get his brother’s right arm into the sleeve. When it was in he pulled Heath forward being mindful of his left shoulder and placed the jacket behind. Not bothering to put the left arm in its sleeve he drew the jacket together across the front ready to fasten the buttons.
Gently Nick pulled at the neck of Heath’s shirt but was stopped by a restraining hand. “Don’t.....Nick.... Not bleeding..... Best leave it......be.” Nick understood and did not try any more.
“How bad is it ?” he asked not being comfortable with the amount of blood on his brother’s shirt nor that soaked into the fleecy jacket or his brother’s deathly pallor. Since Nick had finally accepted his younger brother, Heath had always been a source of worry to him. If there was lead flying about he knew Heath would catch it.
“Not too...good.... can’t move.... my arm....... think........ the bullet is still.....there.... trapped.... in the joint.” This was what Nick feared. He knew he needed to get Heath home to get the bullet out before lead poisoning set in. There was no time to wait for Billy and the posse to meet up with them and send someone back for a wagon. Somehow he would have to get Heath mounted on to his dun horse.
“We gonna.... ride tandem.... again?” Heath asked reading his brother’s thoughts.
“Yep I reckon Heath.” Nick turned and reaching out for the ground rein grabbed it and pulled his horse closer to them.
“Folks’ll........ be thinkin’.......” Heath commented with a slight pained smile on his face.
“Thinking what Heath?” Nick queried with a frown.
“’bout time..... we tied......... the knot.” Heath grimaced this time.
“Folks can be thinking what they like Heath ’cause I’m gonna be getting you home the only way I can.” Nick was too worried to respond to his brother’s levity.
“Dry.....” between chattering teeth Heath spoke again.
“You want a drink?” Nick acknowledged.
“Please,” was the pained response.
Nick stood up and took his canteen from his saddle and removing the cap stooped back down to Heath. “You’d better not puke on me boy.” He threatened as he put the rim of the canteen to his brother’s lips and lifted it carefully so that Heath could drink.
“S’okay.” Heath said after swallowing a few mouthfuls. “I’ll.... be...... careful.”
“Yeah well, I’ve heard that before. Now do you think you can stand?” Nick replaced the cap and put the canteen to one side concerned that he would not be able to get Heath off the ground knowing his brother was no mean weight.
“ ’ll try....... you help me....?” Heath asked as Nick busied himself fastening the buttons on his brother’s jacket.
“..... lost Charger....” Heath mumbled thinking he had better own up before too much longer.
“No you didn’t. I found him grazing just behind that rock. You wouldn’t have been able to see him from here.” Heath looked beyond his brother and could see his horse standing on the far side of his brother’s dun.
“S’good Nick,” he smiled and readied himself to stand his left arm folded and firmly trapped inside his fleece jacket.
Nick positioned himself and told Heath, “put your arm around my neck.” The younger man complied and Nick placed his left arm under his brother’s and around his back ready to support him as he tried to rise. “Ready ,” Nick said as they both pushed into each other and combined, their joint force lifted Heath off the ground.
“Wait..... feeling dizzy.....” Heath’s right hand grasped into Nick’s shoulder as he tried to steady himself as the rocks spun around him. “Better,” he said before making the one step which took him to the dun. Heath took his right arm from around his brother and grasped hold of the saddle horn and lifted his left lower leg behind him. Nick knew what to do and bent to take a firm hold of his brother’s lower leg.
“Ready Heath? Right go.” They both worked as one, Heath pulling on the saddle horn and Nick lifting and pushing upwards on the left lower leg supporting his brother’s body weight. Heath went up and forward over the saddle horn and Nick took his hands from the left leg to the right and pushed it over the cantle of the saddle. Once in place Heath remained collapsed along Coco’s crest, his shoulder throbbing unbearably as he waited for Nick to mount up behind him. Nick picked up the canteen and looped the strap over his neck, slipped his foot in the left stirrup and pushed his left hand under his brother to hold the saddle horn and mounted behind Heath. Once in place he reached forward for Charger’s rein, put the right foot forward into the other stirrup and pulled Heath back to lean against him now sharing his brother’s tremors.
“Told ya Nick...... folks’ll be talkin’,” confused Heath started up again.
“Look Heath I’ve told ya before you just ain’t funny,” he replied brushing his spurs against his mount and moved forward at a walk to get his injured brother home.
“Remember Dilly?” Heath began with a slight chuckle. “She had.... designs on me too.”
“Mm hum.” Remembering Dilly a cynically smiling Nick acknowledged but never heard any more from Heath as the two made their way together out of the
“Like Carla, Dilly was another girl who took a right shining to me and was deadly dangerous but in a different kinda way. I can’t seem to understand why it would happen but Dilly was deadly serious about me and I mean deadly. I first met her when she was holding up the stage I was traveling on though I didn’t realize it was her at the time. She was the leader of the gang and the one who ended up by killing the driver. She made us passengers remove our boots and walk into town in our stocking feet. Boy howdy did I have sore feet for a week after that.
“Next I came across her in the saloon or rather she came across me when she invited herself over to play a game of poker with a few of us guys. I gave her the pack telling her to deal expecting to catch her out but from the time she started there was no doubting she knew how to play all right and how to handle herself by later on pulling a small derringer out on one of the guys who accused her of cheating. Real cool she was sticking with it ’til he apologized. I couldn’t help but be fair tickled by her. That’s how she made me feel most of the time. Later on I remember telling mother that Dilly was as ladylike as a rebel yell. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe her.
“She was small, right pretty too, thick blond hair and sparkly eyes and I reckon I could have fallen for her if she hadn’t been so brash and forward and taken to chasing after me. As I said to her I liked to do the courting but not to be courted. She tried most ways she could to get me interested. Pretending her horse was running away with her so as I’d chase after it to rescue her. Then she goes falling off so as I’d pick her up. Then she told me the horse was a right wild critter but when I looked at it quietly standing there grazing I didn’t have to be as smart as Jarrod to realize what she was up to. I dropped her literally straight down to earth. Mind I did take her into town after to kinda make up for her bruised butt and I bought her a drink.
“She had a confrontation in the dress shop with Audra over me after having seen us together. I’m not sure what went on or what was said but I could imagine she was trying to ward off Sis. Of course what happened with Audra only made me the laughing stock at the breakfast table being the brunt of my sister’s and brother’s jokes. I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d put my pants on or not that morning. They never gave me chance to explain any of what was or was not going on with Dilly and by the time Nick started on me I wasn’t sure whether I was sprinkling sugar or salt over my eggs. Thankfully mother could see the tiz I was in and came to my rescue.
“I had no real interest in Dilly I was only trying to be sorta neighborly and so when she said she and her brother were interested in buying a property in the area I showed her around the old Webster place. This is where she started harping on about whether I was married. Now I know it ain’t a good sign when a girl starts jawing on marriage but I wasn’t quite set for what was to come. Like everything about Dilly she’d just come out and say it and so she starts telling me she intended that I was gonna be hers. She reckoned she loved me, she wanted me and she was gonna have me and then she kissed me. Now the kiss was right sweet but I didn’t start it. Now I reckon Dilly was quite used to having her own way but with me she was out to lose.
“Next she bought me a real fancy saddle, musta cost her an arm and a leg, being black engraved leather, real top quality hide all ornamented with silver studs. It wasn’t my type at all ’cause I don’t go for fancy stuff. I like a saddle ya can feel at home in when you’re working. I don’t know how many times I put it in the wagon to take it back to her and then took it out again because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So I guess at the time I mighta had some thoughts toward her. I did get a chance to talk to Mother about her and of my thinking toward Dilly and how she made me feel. I know she did make me happy and wanna laugh a lot but it was mainly ’cause she was childlike and I was laughing more at her than with her. It was then with talking to Mother I really knew I didn’t love her and would never have the right feelings for her.
“I did know I’d never met anyone quite like her before but just how I wasn’t sure at that time. It wasn’t ’til I cottoned on that she was the leader of the hold up gang that things really went pear shaped and I knew she was something different. I had a dinner date with her and had finally decided to take the saddle back and packed it in the back of the buggy. On the way I was ambushed and shot at and while I was shooting back trying to defend myself doesn’t Dilly come along and the attackers flee real sharp leaving her with me. Things just didn’t seem to add up and that’s when I noticed the way she was cleaning her shooting iron, the same way the fella did who held up the stage and killed the driver.
“I didn’t have to be a smart city lawyer like my eldest brother to realize who she was. I accused her and she confessed but then started promising to turn over a new leaf if only I’d have her. To her it was so simple. If I’d marry her she’d give up all the robbing and killing. Now there was no way I could stomach that. Heck I was not only dealing with a thief but she was also a cold blooded killer and I turned her proposal down knowing I would have to turn her in to the sheriff. And boy howdy that’s when I learned that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I’m not sure I understood the meaning then but I sure did later on.
“First I was kidnapped, then I found myself tied up in her cabin, next I was gonna be used when the gang held up the bank in Stockton but before that she tried having her way with me. I suppose anything was worth a try as far as Dilly was concerned. One of her brothers as I now knew them to be had dropped a lighted cigar which I was able to get hold of and so while she was smothering me with kisses I managed to burn my way through the cords and free myself. I grappled with her, ramming my hand over her mouth to quit her squawking and dragged her outside when doesn’t she go and bite into my arm. I’d had enough and just let go of her, jumped on a horse and hightailed it out of there before her brothers joined in knowing there would be time for a reckoning later.
“I wasn’t far from home when I heard hoof beats pounding after me I turned off the road and sure enough the Dilly gang were making their way to the Barkley Ranch. I didn’t know what her game was but I knew she’d be up to no good. I followed them but kept my distance and by the time I arrived she’d set the straw in the barn alight and I had no idea where her brothers were. I was worried for the horses and rushed into the barn. I should have rung the fire bell but stupidly I thought I’d try to douse the flames but Dilly started threatening me and then shot me in the leg. I fell back cracking my head and everything went black when I passed out. When I came to the straw was blazing good and I knew I couldn’t fight it so I made to rescue the horses instead. They were spooked and pretty panicky by then. I managed to release them and chase them toward the door out of the barn and at the doorway they collided and trampled on Dilly as she was coming back in. I had no idea why she was coming back.
“There was nothing I could do. I picked her up and carried her outside to safety. She died there in my arms.
“By the time I’d kinda recovered myself the ranch hands were in the barn and dealing with the fire. They managed to get it out before the timber started up. I managed to pick up Dilly and carry her to the house. Somehow it didn’t seem right to leave her out there. I’m not sure Mother knew what was going on when I appeared in the house but she had me lay the body on the settee in the sitting room and she covered it with a blanket. Nick was sitting on one of the chairs holding his head and started cussing when he saw the body. This was all happening in the early hours of the morning and quite a ruckus had started up. The family had gotten up and Jarrod had come outside after Nick when he’d come out looking for me and found our loud brother sprawled out on the way to the barn. Nick was suffering from a mild concussion and I was shortly gonna be suffering from acute embarrassment.
“Dilly’s bullet had glanced through my thigh. Mother sent one of the hands to fetch the doc. then she insisted on inspecting the wound herself. I reckon that was the first time a disagreement between Mother and me nearly turned into a full blown argument. Mother was not used to anyone saying no to her. She wanted my pants off and I said no. She said I hadn’t gotten anything she hadn’t seen before and I said she hadn’t seen me before and that’s the way it was gonna stay. For a tiny woman she sure had a strong will. I could see her getting all wound up and was waiting for the mother talk about changing my three cornered pants when I was a babe but I had the answer ready for that for there was no way I was giving in to her demands this time. I’d have sooner gone with Bentell again.
“Eventually a deal was struck before I bled to death in the foyer. Well really it was that smart lawyer brother of mine, ever the diplomat who came up with the deal. Jarrod appeared with a pair of kitchen shears and started cutting the leg off of my pants saying, “I assume you have no objection to Mother viewing your naked leg.” That broke the tension and we both started laughing thinking how ridiculous we were being. Mind I still wasn’t gonna remove my pants and that’s where I draw the line to calling Mother Mother.
“Doc. Merar arrived a short while later and after Jarrod helped me to my room he inspected the damage and gave it another cleaning and dressed it. He was pleased with the job Mother had made and no infection set in. As it was my leg was sore and stiff and I was confined to the house for a few days while it was healing and managed some paper work as well as keeping brother Nick company while he nursed his concussion. Nick can’t half be grouchy just like an old grizzly with the toothache and I still reckon he blames me for the blow to his head.
“One of the men took Dilly’s body into town where it was laid to rest. Without Dilly, the brains of the gang, it wasn’t long before her brothers were captured and serving their time out in prison.
“It was a few weeks before my leg was up to working again and I rode out with Mother for the first time using the new saddle perhaps in a final memory of Dilly. That was the only time I used it. I gave it to Audra for the Orphanage Auction Sale. It had been bought out of ill gotten gains and in all good honesty I couldn’t live with that nor keep the saddle. I didn’t need it and I wanted it to be put to good use.
“’cause you have a pretty hard head big brother you were back to work by the end of the week .
“How’s your head Nick?” Vaguely aware Heath asked. This was the first time Heath had addressed his brother directly since he had asked Nick whether he remembered Dilly.
Hearing his name Nick responded, “What ya say boy, how’s my head what?”
While Heath had been mumbling through his reminiscences over Dilly Nick had come by Billy and the posse. Nick relieved at seeing them had asked one of the posse to ride to Stockton to fetch the doctor to the ranch and then to return to the house to warn Victoria Barkley. Billy and the rest of the men, now sure that the gang where holed up in the Low Peaks went back to do more scouting. Having seen Heath the posse were forewarned as to the danger they would be in and accepted Nick’s warning not to become dead heroes. Billy hoped he would be able to get an idea as to the hideout before he made proper preparations to go in after them.
“The concussion.” Heath replied concerned for his big brother. Since leaving the posse Heath had stopped shivering and was comfortably nestled in his brother’s arms.
“What concussion Heath? I don’t have a concussion.” In his turn Nick frowned showing concern for Heath realizing his younger brother’s confusion. “You’re rambling Heath,” he stated.
“Did you ....find them?” Not realizing what Nick said again Heath changed the subject and asked another question confirming to Nick his opinion about his brother’s confused state.
“Find whom?” Nick replied almost certain Heath was not talking about the rustlers.
“Find... Dilly’s brothers?” Heath responded with a touch of annoyance knowing how ornery Nick could be and was sure then that he felt it in his brother.
“Heath I ain’t been out after Dilly’s brothers we sorted that mess up months back. Gawd, you sure know how to pick some girls. You had one that was hitched up to God and then you get one that’s more a kin to being hitched to the devil. Comes along wreaks havoc, nearly burning down the barn and gives me one gawd almighty headache.” Nick was not sure how much Heath was understanding so at this moment he thought he would take the opportunity to pretend annoyance and was glad to feel and hear Heath give a little chuckle.
“Where were you........ then?” Heath continued vaguely remembering waiting for Nick but not understanding why.
“I was out chasing after rustlers.” Nick answered believing it best to humor his brother while he was talking.
“Did you...... find any?” Heath asked wondering why Nick would be out chasing after rustlers when he knew Dilly’s brothers were robbers who held up stage coaches or banks but did not take animals.
“No. But you did.” Nick replied emphatically.
“Did I?” Heath asked now very confused not remembering any rustlers or why he was sitting on a horse in front of Nick or why his shoulder was distressingly painful.
“Yes you did. That’s why you have a slug in your shoulder.” As the cheer he felt earlier waned and because of the manner of the conversation and his growing worry for his brother Nick could feel his mock annoyance changing and growing into real annoyance. “Come on Heath surely you remember,” he found himself irritably spitting out at his brother.
“Can’t remember Nick...... It’s no good...... Paining Nick.......... Hurts.... a lot........”
Heath’s faint voice began to mumble again. He thought he had only been trying to help Nick when he heard the curtness and felt the tension coming from his brother. He could not understand the reason for it. He knew his brother’s temper was rising and thought to try and soothe it. Fighting through the pain in his shoulder for the right words to say, “Vern Hickson!” came tripping smoothly off his tongue. Heath sighed feeling pleased with himself not sure what he had said.
That name did it for Nick. Immediately he became contrite understanding that it was his worry for Heath that was driving his annoyance which had been sending negative vibes through to his brother. He now realized that Heath had no idea what was happening and that there was no reason for him to start taking his composite of worry and annoyance out on his young brother. “Vern Hickson? Aw gawd, I’m sorry Heath. It has nothing to do with Vern Hickson. You have a slug in your shoulder which was put there by some rustlers we were tracking. I’m taking you home so that the doc. can get it out.” Finishing speaking he put his hand up to Heath’s forehead to feel the presence of a hot flush of fever.
“ ’see.” A slight nod of his head and Heath responded feeling his brother’s anger dissolve as he puzzled over what Nick was talking about. He knew Nick was aware that Vern Hickson had nothing to do with rustlers. “ ’m dying? Rance Kendell. He had me cold. ’m gut shot.”
“No Heath. You’re not gut shot. You’re going to be all right.” Nick tried to be reassuring remembering the weeks of anguish the family went through after Heath had shot and killed Rance Kendell’s son. As Heath began thinking about the incident Nick once again prayed for the safety of his brother.
“My shooting of Rance Kendell’s son was the start of the mess with Vern Hickson. Of course I didn’t kill the lad deliberately it was self defense. If I hadn’t shot him he’d have killed me. The law abided by self defense not that it made me feel any better about it. Now I know I’ve done my fair share of killing but it’s never easy knowing you’ve killed someone.
“Rance Kendell couldn’t accept self defence and until things quieted down some Nick thought on getting me away for a while so he bought a stallion he said we desperately needed to improve our breeding stock and sent me to collect it. I felt like I was running away but I know Nick was only doing what he thought was right for me and right for all of us.
“Well I brought the stallion back and Vern Hickson too. I met up with him on the trail back home and then later when he’d gotten himself shot in the arm. That’s when I learnt who he was. I’d heard of him. I knew what he was, a hired killer. Still, I couldn’t leave him on the trail I had to do what I could for him and then I brought him home. Nick was none too pleased about having a killer in the house but there wasn’t much else I could do. It wasn’t in me to leave him out on the trail to die and I know Nick, even with his mouthing off an’ all, he would have done the same as me.
“It wasn’t ’til Hickson was well enough to leave, when he asked the way to the Kendell’s spread that Mother and I suspected what he was doing in Stockton . Much to Nick’s chagrin I rode out that night to find Vern and find out what the score was. As we suspected he was out to kill me. Rance Kendell had hired his services. He challenged me there in the bar, slapping my face a coupla times trying to goad me into pulling my gun out on him. I’m more than sure he’d have been happy for me to draw on him then and there making the job that much easier for him.
“Well I had no intention of making his job easy and went into town the next day with Audra but I wasn’t toting my shooting iron. I knew Hickson’s code. He’d never shoot an unarmed man ’cause it would leave him wide open for a murder charge. I dropped Audra off and unbeknown to me doesn’t she go on up to Vern’s room to plead with him not to kill me. Well this just fell into his hands. He assaulted her knowing that I wouldn’t stand for it. He expected me back the next day to respond to the assault on my sister’s virtue.
“I told Mother and Audra that I had to face him and it wasn’t ’til later that night that I learned from Mother that Vern had called it off. I didn’t sleep much that night wondering what had happened. I realized that Mother must have bought him off because there was no way he would forfeit his earnings. There was no way I could allow Mother to buy him off because we were in the fortunate position to do so. Before breakfast I asked Mother how much she’d paid Hickson. Boy howdy she told me and to think the folks in Strawberry reckoned I’d never account to much. I was worth six thousand dollars.
“I didn’t have breakfast that morning I just told my family what I had to do and why I had to do it. I had to try and stop Hickson because if it wasn’t me then another day it would be someone else he was out to kill. Someone who didn’t have the means to pay him off. I knew that if I didn’t go out and face him then I would never have been able to live with myself. Nick and Jarrod were all for coming with me but I said it was something I had to do. I was sure I had that right and they seemed to understand and they let me go alone.
“I met with Vern way up on the high road. I don’t reckon he expected to see me again. He sure was a smooth talking fella. I told him to get down off of his horse and face me. He wasn’t gonna do that because he’d been paid not to. I told him again and he was amused by the idea. He reckoned he was ninety nine percent certain he could take me but there was always the one percent which he couldn’t bank on. No he was gonna take the money and ride. It was then that things happened too quick. Vern turned as if to ride off but then suddenly went for his gun, I instinctively went for mine and there was the sound of three guns going off all at the same time. I felt the slug burning a hole straight through me from back to front, that was all, there was no pain, not then. With the feel of it I clutched my side as I watched Vern with my slug in him slowly slide fatally wounded to the ground. I turned to see Rance Kendell fall from the scrub and roll down the slope.
“I knelt down to Vern and apologized to him because I thought he was drawing on me. Vern said that Kendell had him cold but I knew it was me Kendell had cold. Vern took out the money Mother had given him and breathed his last. I took the money and stuffed it in my pocket. I went over to Charger and mounted and rode over to Kendell to check on him. I didn’t need to dismount I knew he was dead by the way his eyes were staring vacantly up to heaven. There was only one thing I had to do and that was get home while I could. I could feel the throbbing in my side. The pain had started.
“I must have been half way home when the pain became unbearable. I was getting hot and I could feel the blood running from me, down my back and front. Many times I’d seen men gut shot during the war and the ending had always been the same. A few days of excruciating agony and then death. I needed to get home. I wanted to get home. Oh how I wanted to get home. I wanted my family with me. I wanted to be with them. But it was no good. Soon I fell from the saddle and lay in the brittle grass the sun burning down on me and the buzzards gathering in the sky.
“I don’t know whether I lost consciousness or not but when the sun was at its highest and hottest Nick was there and Mother and Audra and Jarrod too. I was lifted into a wagon and Nick sat with me wiping my face and talking to me and trickling small amounts of water into my mouth but not enough so as I could drink. I was awake all the way home and I can remember being carried up the stairs and laid on my bed. I remember having my clothes removed and the doc. being there. He cleaned me up and put a bandage round my middle and I could tell by the silence in the room and the look in his eyes that he didn’t hold out much hope for me. He’d done all he could. I could hear Nick in the distance giving a tirade but could not tell what he was saying. I could hear Mother calming him.
“From then on I was never really in tune with any of them. From then on the hurt ruled my life. The pain was incessant and with me all the time, eating away at me and clawing into me, twisting and tearing at my guts. I was beyond control. I could not stop myself from crying out, I screamed or I cried, the tears ran freely but there was no relief. I could find no escape.
“In my dreams I seemed to be floating, twisting, and twirling encased in a myriad of shocking colors with my mama or my father or with my army buddies a long time since having left this world all there by my side. I was searching for peace but could never find it. Over and over a high pitched screech was shrilling through my head. At times there was a bright light which offered hope but it would disappear before ever I could reach it. Always I dreamt the same and agony was forever my companion.
“There were times when I could see my family sitting round my bed and I could see myself there so clearly in their midst curled up tight and yet I was removed and apart from them grimacing against the torture. I could see them and myself from any angle, high up, low down but always the scene was the same. When I was more aware I would look up at each of them, into their faces. I was glad they were there. Always one of them was with me and within reach yet still they might as well have been a million miles away because I could never make contact.
“In their own way each of them was different. Audra kind, soft and gentle with tears in her eyes telling me to stay. I tried to say I wasn’t going anywhere but no words came out. Jarrod, a face of reason and concern telling me that I belonged and not to leave. I wanted to tell him I knew I belonged I had long past leaving but I couldn’t. Nick with a frown of worry telling me it was a working ranch and I was needed and that he could not manage without me. If I’d heard it once I’d heard it hundreds of times. I tried to tell him I knew it was a working ranch and that whatever, I would always be there to help him but he didn’t understand. And Mother, a face of love telling me I had my father’s guts and never to give up, that I had fought my way into the family and I was going to have to fight my way out. I tried to say ‘I love you’ but I had no voice only a scream.
“Never was I on my own and always the message from them was the same. “Fight! Fight!” I heard the word wracking through my brain. I didn’t know why I had to fight or who I had to fight but I knew I had to fight. And day ran into night and night ran into day and I screamed and the tears ran, the torment never ending.
“Then one morning, I believed it was morning for the night lamp was still lit though I could hear the birds singing outside, I came to and there was a dull ache in my gut. Suddenly all seemed real. It was bearable and I opened my eyes and there was Mother looking at me with red rimmed teary eyes, a drawn and haggard face but she was smiling and bent forward and kissed me saying, “Welcome back Heath.” I didn’t know I’d been anywhere.
“It was a miracle the doctor said. For two whole weeks my family had battled while I had lain close to death. The way I felt I could believe it. Vern Hickson was dead and buried. Rance Kendell was dead and buried. But I had been spared. I was alive. Not well, I was sore, tired and exhausted but alive.
“From then on in I slowly recovered. My family there to see me back on my feet. The wound healed and eventually I was well enough to move out of the house though not quite up to working. I had a good laugh at Nick’s expense watching him trying to break the stallion he so desperately needed, the one that I had brought home. It was a critter more ornery than Nick. Even if it was a plug fit only for the glue pot Nick was determined to keep it because he reckoned but for that stallion we might never have been forewarned about Hickson. I wouldn’t have known him ’til the day he drew on me and that more than likely I owed my life to the animal. Forewarned was to be forearmed as far a brother Nick was concerned.”
“I had..... to give you that....... didn’t I Nick?” Heath opened glazed eyes and through the haze stared vacantly down at the three gloved hands two in black and one in tan and tried to remember what he had said and why he had said it and wondered where the other hand was.
“Look Heath you’re not starting this again.” Although Nick did not want to get embroiled in these disjointed remarks his brother kept coming out with he was already curious to know what Heath was referring to this time. “I know I’m going to regret this but what did you have to give me?”
“When Nick?” Heath responded pertly glad to hear his brother’s voice always strong and comforting to him.
“Right Heath I’m gonna keep calm. Right here goes. You just said you had to give me that?” Taking a deep breath Nick waited for the answer.
“Give you what Nick?” Heath asked wondering what it was Nick expected to be given.
Nick was not the most patient of men in fact he knew he was renowned for being anything but. He also knew how his younger brother could play on this knowledge and work him into a frenzy just for the shear hell of it and at this moment in time he could not be sure but he questioned whether Heath was deliberately setting him up again. He knew that even in this sickly condition the capability was not beyond his brother. Taking another deep breath he decided to give Heath the benefit of the doubt and play along with him. He managed to keep his voice down and responded to Heath’s question. “No Heath. It’s what you said. You said “I had to give you that.”
“I said........ You had to...... give me what?” It was no good Heath had tried to understand what Nick was talking about but he could not make sense of it. He did so want to understand Nick because he was not feeling too good and these mind games were not helping the pain in his shoulder or the throbbing that had started in his head.
Another deep breath and Nick raised his voice but managed to keep his patience already regretting the first response to his brother. “No Heath. I didn’t say I had to give you that, you said ‘I had to give you that?’”
“Did I?” At last Nick felt relieved thinking he had broken through the wall of confusion.
“Why did I say that Nick?” With blind faith Heath knew that Nick would help him understand.
“For crying out loud Heath how the hell should I know? You’re the one that started this conversation.” Exasperated Nick just managed to hold on to his temper reminding himself that Heath was not feeling too good and was probably unaware of what he was saying and that he was not being deliberately cantankerous.
“Was it? Why’d I do that?” Just as Nick had thought, Heath was unaware of what he was saying and just felt he should respond to Nick to let his brother know he was listening to him.
Nick decided not to answer the last question and for a while all went quiet as Heath became mesmerized by the three gloved hands before him. Eventually his mind began to dwell on a horrific pile of discarded amputated limbs he had seen outside a military hospital during the war. Heath started up again with a voice of panic and utter confusion. “Where is my other hand? I can’t find my other hand.” What he saw in his mind’s eye transpired to his thoughts but he began to speak sounding more like a distraught child who had mislaid his favorite comfort toy than an amputee victim.
Any other time Nick might have been amused but not now, “Awww Heath it’s all right. Your arm is safe inside your jacket.” Compassion rippled through his voice.
“Oh,” Heath said wondering why his arm was inside his jacket.
Seeming to understand his brother’s thoughts Nick continued to explain maintaining a calm facade for the sake of his alarmed brother. “You have a bullet in your shoulder and your arm is safer inside your jacket.”
“’see... I didn’t..... lose... it then?” The younger man asked relief evident although he could no longer remember what he thought he had lost.
“No. Of course you didn’t lose it.” Nick allowed himself a small smile and answered.
“What didn’t I lose?” Heath felt compelled to ask another question.
“You didn’t lose your arm.” This time the elder brother gave a slight shake of his head to ward off a sharper response.
“Who lost it then?” Another question from the younger Barkley was forthcoming.
Nick could liken Heath’s questions to those of a young child and surprisingly the elder brother was now feeling comforted by them. It gave him reassurance that his brother was still with him albeit at a different level. “No one lost anything Heath.”
“We did...We lost something Nick...... don’t ya..... remember?” Seriously Heath posed another question.
“No Heath.” Nick gave his brother an affectionate squeeze knowing that there was more to come.
“We lost the rodeo.” Giving a nod of agreement Nick wondered where Heath’s thoughts were going to.
“I won’t..... be any good....... at the rodeo........ will I.....? .....Sorry Nick.” Heath worried.
“The next rodeo isn’t ’til next year. That’s if we have one? We have plenty of time. I think your arm will be fine by then.” Nick reassured Heath. He could tell that Heath’s thoughts were in a shambles and knew that another half hour would see them home and sooner to having the bullet removed. Putting his hand in his pocket he found a clean handkerchief. One handedly he removed the cap from the canteen, deftly tipped some water on to the handkerchief and letting the canteen slip began wiping away the beads of sweat from his brother’s face. “There you are Heath. That feel better?”
“ ’s good Nick.” Feeling refreshed Heath went on to ask, “will Joshua be there?” Joshua Watson was an ex slave who had worked for the Barkley’s and had proved himself a capable bronc rider.
“Not next year. I’m afraid not Heath.” Heath sighed and closing his eyes exhausted with talking leaned back against his big brother. Feeling his brother relax into him Nick urged his mount to extend its walk stride thereby shortening the journey home.
“ ‘Ain’t a rider can’t be throwed and ain’t a horse can’t be rode.’ That’s what Joshua said when he picked his self up off the dirt after having been thrown by Abadden. I wasn’t too keen on him riding the horse it having already injured two of our hands but Nick had come home all fired up as though the forge bellows had sparked life into his backside about the rodeo with the Mortons and he wanted to find out how good Joshua was.
“Nick had let himself fall for it again and had ended up this time wagering five thousand dollars on our winning the rodeo. At that moment in time Nick knew it was pretty useless and yet he had fallen for the Morton’s taunting. Along came this ex slave stating that he was the man that could win it for us. Nick had told him the horse was his if he could break it. He remounted Abadden again and after the second ride the horse was his. Of course Nick was thrilled.
“Now the rodeo had been started a few years back as a friendly competition for us and the Mortons to find common ground to becoming more neighborly. Well it was supposed to be friendly. It was a sparring ground for our rivalry. But previous times had shown the Mortons weren’t ones to take to being beaten and were none too keen on becoming neighborly either. They would go to any length to win. Even though they had hired all the best wranglers and champion bronc riders Nick had it in him that everything was on target for us winning this time all because we had Joshua.
“Things started heating up. Nick had the men practicing and training under Joshua’s guidance and the men were getting right fired up and started to wager on Joshua and us winning too. And then before we got as far as the rodeo one of our guys was shot by the Mortons on some pretence of spooking their cattle. Nick goes charging over there and I had to bring him home after he gets himself all beat up and stomped on by the Morton boys. There he was sporting a real humdinger of a black eye worthy of grilling the best prime steak. Jarrod, ever the voice of reason takes himself round to the Morton’s ranch to try reasoning with them and don’t he come back with his backside scorched too, more fired up than Nick he was. Boy howdy have I got me two of the most bull headed brothers a little brother could have. I did tell big brother there was no reasoning with Rufus but Jarrod knew better.
“Now the Mortons had sussed out what we were up to and they found out about Joshua. They were even out there watching him through glasses. Sure enough they wanted him as part of their team but it wasn’t ’til he turned them down and beat J.R. to the draw that they really became sour. I was with Joshua that day and he sure knew how to handle his self.
“Seeing how fast he was with the shooting iron they’d decided that Joshua must have been an outlaw and before coming round they’d gone as far as to find out who they thought he was. They had no intention of losing the rodeo and arrived to tell the family to turn Joshua over to the law. Well before we knew what was happening near enough a full blown range war was starting up. If we weren’t gonna turn him in then the Mortons were. They reckoned he was the black man who’d ridden with Colman’s raiders and was wanted in Phoenix and that there was a wanted poster out on him.
“I’d staked out the boys on the North and East Ranges and rode out to meet Nick and the rest of guys on the West. Sure enough along came Rufus and his boys and his men and the shooting began. There was no reasoning with anyone, their lot or ours. We were exchanging bullets but no one was making any headway. I told Nick I was going to get the other men and leaping on my horse I rode off.
“Of course there was only one casualty on our side that day and that was me. As I rode out I caught a slug in the back of my right shoulder. I felt it rip into me paining down my right arm. I managed to hang on and ride out of there. About ten minutes later I met up with Joshua. I was hurting some but I didn’t think it was too bad so I sent him over to the North range to fetch up the men to help Nick while I made my way over to the East.
“I never did get over to the East. I reckon I musta fallen off shortly after leaving Joshua. I can’t remember much about it ’cepting starting to see the world swirling around me. I know I did try hanging on in there but sometimes it just don’t work. Next thing I knew I was sitting a front of Nick again on the dun horse of his. The earth had stopped spinning but my shoulder was sure paining me and my ears were kinda pounding with the sound of Nick’s voice.
“When Nick has something to say he sure does let ya know about it. I can remember Nick blathering to me all the way home telling about how Joshua had come riding up and said he was the fella the law was after and that he was gonna give his self up. Nick seemed quite accepting of it and he told me he’d promised Joshua the job of foreman when he’d served his sentence. He told how the Mortons stopped their fighting satisfied that Joshua would not be a contender for the Barkleys and rode off back to their ranch. And then ’til we were home I was given the full works on how we were still gonna beat the hides off of the Mortons at the rodeo.
“I was kinda hoping the rodeo would have been called off, but no, both Nick and Jarrod seemed more determined than ever. I don’t know about reasoning with the Mortons there was no reasoning with my brothers. The truth was the Barkleys didn’t know how to quit either and I guess I had to go along with that too. I have to give it to that loud mouthed brother of mine he gave it every shot he could. He improved his riding skills no end.
“Of course I was neither use nor ornament at the rodeo. It wasn’t long after getting home that Doc. Merar arrived and removed the bullet. It hadn’t really done much damage. The doc. reckoned it had ricocheted off of a rock and had carried grit and cloth into the wound. He cleaned it up best he could and bandaged it with a poultice. By the middle of the night I was running a fair fever. My shoulder was paining me something bad and my bedclothes were soaked. I couldn’t think why I was in a wet bed. It’s weird how you can remember some things but not everything. I know I was real hot and then I’d be freezing, sweating and shivering even and every time I pushed away the sheets someone would put them back. I can remember battling but I don’t know who with. I remember keep telling them to leave me alone and a loud voice telling me to hush up. I reckon that musta been Nick. I can remember them trying to drown me. Of course they were only trying to get me to drink but it didn’t seem like it at the time. Then someone would be washing me down, real cool it was, felt real good but I don’t like to think who that might have been.
“I think it was about three days before I was back to reality. The wound had settled down and the poultice that they’d kept replacing had been effective and had cleaned out what the doc. couldn’t.
“When I was up and about I went out to cheer on Nick and the men in their training. Well the rodeo eventually came by and the Mortons won again but I was proud of Nick. He put his all into it and he won some of the rounds but I’m afraid our team were no match for the Mortons. Nick took it graciously and so did Jarrod. Yep I was proud of Nick, I was proud of both my brothers. One day we will win perhaps when Joshua is with us. I look forward to that day. Of course our relationship with the Mortons hasn’t improved none. So much for a friendly competition to manage the rivalry between both the families.”
“We’re home.” With his voice Nick nudged his brother back to awareness.
Heath responded and opened his eyes and looked at the big white mansion before them as together the brothers rode through the gate. “Home... we’re home.... glad Nick. ’m.... glad to... be...... home.” Nick clearly heard the pleasure and contentment Heath expressed in those few words. “Never... had a... home for all... them... years.. after the war..... just wandered... aimlessly... much like... a tumbleweed.... blowing in... the wind, ’til.... I came here.”
Nick nodded, “I know Heath you told me before.”
Heath took no notice of Nick and continued to talk remembering back to when he first arrived at the ranch. “When my mama... died... and I found... out who... my father was.... I was good and mad.... and I came here.... I wanted to see.. where... the great... Tom Barkley lived.... And I wanted.... to see his family... and my family.... ’cause you was mine too.”
Nick responded, “you found us” he said pleased.
“Yes... I found you..... But.. it wasn’t right.” Heath felt the need to explain.
“What you mean it wasn’t right?” Nick asked affronted by the remark and thinking his brother was rambling again although not in the same fragmented way he had earlier.
“I only... wanted to see...... was all..... ’ had.. no intention of.. telling you..... I thought I could... get a job... and then after.. a month or so.. I’d move on.” Heath confessed.
“I see.” Nick was hearing this for the first time and his eyebrows came together in puzzlement as he too started remembering back to when Heath had come to them.
“I hadn’t..... counted on you.” Heath stated. “You can’t.... half get mad,” he chuckled.
“What you mean counted on me?” Nick asked.
“You... coming into the bunkhouse... and dragging me off to the barn... ya know... and getting me.. all riled up an’ all.....so as I’d spout out to you.... who I was.” Heath explained.
“Are you telling me that you weren’t hankering after anything?” Nick was bemused by the confession.
“Yes..... I didn’t.... want anything... I never gave staying...... a thought.... ’cepting to work as a hired hand....” In the few years he had lived with his family he had never mentioned this and but for the condition in which he currently found himself it would not have been disclosed at this moment either.
“Well it didn’t sound like that the way you went on in the study with Jarrod, Eugene and me. You sure were making some demands then all right. ” Nick objected not understanding what he was being told.
“I know..... Nick.... But that..... was ’cause... you made me.. good and mad.” Heath continued to explain.
“Now hold on here you came back later that night to get that money Jarrod offered ya. The money ya stuffed in a glass. If ya didn’t want anything then what was that about?” Nick could not believe what Heath was telling him.
“I’d been... with Audra.... and she knew who I was.... and I’d said I was gonna use... the name..... none of you..... could stop me from using that...... was all I wanted..... and... while I was out... there watching the fire... I got to thinking.... it was a mistake... my leaving the money...... It was just my stupid pride..... I needed it....... hadn’t two cents to rub together..... That’s why.... I came back... To get it.... I was leaving..... and I wouldn’t be seeing you again.....” As he heard himself it seemed ridiculous that he should have thought that way then.
“You mean if I hadn’t attacked you that night then the possibilities are that you’d have stayed a short while and then one day you’d have ridden off and we’d have never known who you were and I’d never have known that you was my brother. Is that what you’re telling me Heath?” With quiet astonishment Nick finally understood what his brother was saying.
“That’s the way of it.” Heath nodded slightly. “Yep... that’s the way of it,” he repeated. “Thank you Nick..... for beating it out of me...... for giving... me a home,.. for taking me in.... being my brother.... for being here for me... ’s good.... real good.”
Nick had not realized the significance of his attack on Heath that night and grunted as Heath due to the way he was feeling started thanking him in a maudlin way.
“Well Heath if that was the result then I’m only too glad I did. To think if I’d kept my hands to myself at the time I’d have more than likely got what I was after and gotten rid of you. I never learn do I? Act first and think later.” He laughed out loud and gave Heath a brotherly squeeze as the pair of horses halted outside the front door. “Ya sure are plenty free with your jawing when you’re toting a slug around inside of ya. Takes a lump of lead to get ya greased up enough to fess out information. Well brother we’re home and we have to get you into it.”
It was not the first time he had been brought home sitting in front of his brother on his horse and Heath allowed himself to fall forward over the saddle horn knowing the procedure. Nick dismounted and walked round to the other side of the horse and pushed Heath’s right leg up and back to rest on the animal’s rump. “Ciego,” he called out but no one responded. “Never here when you need him,” he complained moving back round to the near side. “Right Heath, hold on. You ready?” He had his left hand ready and pulled with his right hand at Heath’s right leg bringing it towards his left and then held onto the body as it slid downwards until his brother was standing. “Right Heath put your arm over my shoulder and we’ll get into the house.” Heath complied and with Nick’s arm round his brother’s back together they made it into the house.
“Mother, Silas.” Nick yelled leading Heath towards the stairs.
“No... Nick.... Too tired..... in the sitting room....... please,” Heath quietly expressed his desire.
Silas appeared as Nick and Heath made their way toward the sitting room. “Mr. Nick, Mrs. Barkley is not in and the doctor was on a call at the Wallace’s and will be here shortly.”
“Thank you Silas. Can you fetch a pillow and a cover, oh, and some warm water and a cloth please.” Nick intended making his brother comfortable and clean before Dr. Merar arrived. Silas took it on himself to remove Heath’s backward slanted but firmly fitting hat before rushing off to deal with Nick’s requests.
Nick removed his own jacket and hat and threw them on to a chair before removing the fleecy jacket from his brother. Then he began to carefully peel away the bloodied shirt from Heath as he sat on the settee. “Don’t forget.... my gun belt.” Heath winced.
“No Heath.” Nick immediately responded by undoing the belt.
“’cause it’s not the first time..... you’ve forgot it.” Heath feigned seriousness.
“Any more of this back chat and you can do it yourself.” Nick glowered at his brother with his hazel eyes full of concern. “How’s it feeling?” with a slight nod of his head he indicated toward Heath’s shoulder.
“Hurts,” was all Heath said as Silas arrived carrying a bowl of water.
“Thank you.” Nick took it and Silas went off to fetch the bedding.
“Okay. I’ll try not to hurt you more.” Nick began to gently wash away the dried blood.
“You’re always..... taking care of me.” Heath stated drowsily with trust and contentment as his leaden eyelids closed. “You remember Midas?”
“Do I remember Midas? How could I forget it ?” Nick replied remembering only too well the two nights and a day worrying and wondering where his brother was. Silas returned with the bedding and realizing Heath was no longer with them together they laid him down and made him comfortable on the settee and Nick continued with his gentle ministrations looking at the small angry hole which was no longer bleeding knowing too well the damage it could cause. When he finished Silas fetched more clean water and Nick wiped and refreshed his brother’s face before sitting to watch over him while waiting for the doctor to arrive.
“There had been a cave in at the Midas mine. Twenty five men had been killed. I was riding out there to meet Nick. I’d been away a week on business and Nick had wired me letting me know what had happened. I’d left Marinet and was half way to Midas. I decided to spend the night camping and to get to Midas to meet Nick in the morning. I was quite settled when Charger started getting restless. I knew something was up but couldn’t figure it. Then this fella walks on into camp as large as life leading his lame horse. He’s right friendly in a way I couldn’t trust. He starts on about wanting to buy my horse and he wasn’t for taking no for an answer. Well before much longer he was lying dead with a couple of my bullets in him and I was passing out not feeling too good with one of his slugs in my side.
“When I came to I knew I had to get to Midas or there’d be no hope for me. For some reason I was determined to take the Dutton pay roll money with me that the fella had obviously stolen. Nick wasn’t there to help me this time and I don’t know how I did it but I managed to get a top of Charger and made my way toward Midas. I know I wasn’t in a good way but somehow I managed to hang on in there ’til I reached the town. If I thought I was in a nightmare before, it was nothing to what was gonna be happening next.
“I passed out as I rode up the high street and after that all I can remember is a real bad pain and bad dreams. I can vaguely remember hearing Nick’s voice though I was not sure what he was saying. I tried to call to him but someone covered my mouth so as I could hardly breathe. I know I wasn’t feeling too good. Then I can remember more voices a man and a woman. I was being lowered from somewhere ’cause I can remember the pressure on my chest and the pain and pulling on my side. Then I was being half carried and dragged at one stage.
“I know I had a fever at some time too ’cause I always remember the weird kinda dreams that torment me. I’m never quite in control of things and my head’s always swimming in a sickly kinda way. I can remember seeing Audra but for some reason she had dark hair. I kept hoping she would help me escape but from where I didn’t know. Then there was the fella who tried to steal Charger he was dead but he was still wanting to buy him. I couldn’t find Nick anywhere. I had the shakes real bad at one time an’ all.
“I did come to but I had no idea where I was besides being in a bed. There were two women looking at me. I was real confused. I wasn’t sure where I was ’til one of them said Midas and it came back to me. I knew I had to meet Nick but one of the women kept going on about hiding me and that she knew who I was and what I’d done. I was getting frightened ’cause I knew who I was but I didn’t know what I’d done or what they were going on about. I didn’t feel too good. I wanted Nick.
“I told them who I was. “Heath Barkley” I said. I could tell that didn’t go down too well. I started crying out for Nick. I couldn’t tell what was going on then. I just knew I needed to get out of there. I tried I know I tried. I managed to get out of the bed but only took about one stride before passing out. Can’t remember too much after that. I seemed to have been dragged down some stairs and I can remember waking up and being shaken. I was traveling in a wagon I knew that much. I could tell by the sound, the smell and the jostling of it. I don’t know how long I was in the wagon ’cause I lost what senses I had.
“The next time I woke up I was in a mine shaft. No mistaking that. I could smell the dank air and the rotten timber before I opened my eyes. Someone had thought on leaving a lighted lantern otherwise I know I’d have panicked. Never did like being down them dark mines.
“My side was still paining though it was kinda numb now. I couldn’t rightly think what had happened to it. I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t been caught in a cave in down the mine. I know I had the desperate feeling I had to get out of there. Managing to get to my feet and using the wall for support I made my way towards the air toward where the light was coming in. I found the entrance but was blinded by the sun light. Next I knew there was shooting and it seemed as though I was the target. Panic took over then. I managed to force myself back inside the mine. It was dark beyond the lantern and I grabbed it to light my way. Then there was more shooting and bullets passing by me bouncing off the walls. I smashed the lantern and made my way further and deeper into the mine. It was dark and I was barely able to see. Stumbling into an ore truck I hid behind it and listened. I listened real hard. I knew my life depended on it. My heart was beating real loud I was sure it would be heard.
“I could hear the fella coming after me pass by and move further along the shaft. I could see the light coming from his torch. It could only be a little time before he found me. I grappled with the brake on the truck. I knew what I had to do. I don’t know whether it was ’cause I was weak or the brake was rusted but it was real hard to release. It creaked and the fella heard it. I could see the light coming back toward me. I was panicking. The brake finally gave and I fell into the truck starting it off down the track further into the mine toward the torch.
“I heard the rumble and fall of rocks and timber as the shaft caved in and then all went quiet. The dust settled. There was no light and I hoped that the fella had been trapped by the fall. I thought to get myself out of there but I heard more rumbling and then the timbers around me started falling. There was no escape. As the dust settled I was trapped. I could feel the timber lying across me. Not heavy so as I was injured but enough that I couldn’t move. Almost for as long as I can remember this is what I dreaded being trapped, alone and dying slowly in the dark below ground. I wanted to cry out for Nick but knew it was useless. “Why couldn’t it have killed me?” I thought and resigned myself to fate.
“I thought I was dreaming. That I was imagining it. I heard my name. I heard the voice. I felt my tears. I felt his hands. Nick was there. It was real. He was real. He started to move the timbers and managed to release me. He didn’t check to see if I was okay he just lifted me and together we made it out of the mine before the mountain moved again burying us both.
“I could stand no longer and he lowered me to the ground. My eyes cleared. “Thanks Nick,” I said looking at him. I was safe. My fears were over. I knew Nick would take care of me and I let sleep claim me.
“I woke. A dull ache gnawing at my side and a sound I knew only too well from camping out during cattle drives or round ups was drawing me to awareness. I was lying on my side and I opened my eyes. The drapes had not been drawn and I looked out through the window at the stars in the clear night sky glad to know I was no longer trapped in the mine. The night lamp was lit and the sound of grunts and sniffles were coming from behind me. With care I turned to look at my brother in a chair his hands on his belly, his legs stretched out and his head lolled back as he drove the cattle home. The sight looked good. This time it was me who watched him only too thankful that he had gotten me out of the mine and thankful that I had a brother like him. I knew I was safe. At peace, shortly I fell asleep.
“Next time I opened my eyes I knew I was in a Doc.’s and that it was probably in Midas, clean and comfortable and warm in a bed with that dull ache in my side, a few aches and pains else where, a mite light headed and Nick sitting there looking at me. Those big soft puppy dog eyes questioning me. “S’okay Nick I managed to utter.” It was what he wanted to hear and he smiled.
“It seems after I passed out Nick had tried to get me to drink some water and then with help from some fellas who were gathered outside the mine he had gotten me on to the dun and ridden with me back to Midas and to the doc’s.
“The doc. was in the room and seeing that I was awake came over to check on me. He explained that I still had a bullet inside of me but that he was loathe to take it out for fear of causing more damage. The wound seemed clean and had started to seal up. I had lost a fair amount of blood which would make me tired and light headed and I would need to drink plenty to make it up. Any fever I may have had was more or less gone and he felt sure the wound would heal well. He was satisfied with it but intended that I should stay at his surgery for a good few days so he could keep his eyes on it. Seeing Nick frowning I asked more questions as much for his sake as mine. “The bullet will be all right.” “You will feel it now and again.” “It might work it’s way to the surface.” “No it’s not in a position to cause lead poisoning.” “Your fever is way down I think it will settle now.” “Yes you should check up with your own doc. when you get home.” He told us.
“I wasn’t too sure about carrying this bullet around but I’m still here and it’s been fine ever since. ’ just get a twinge now and again.
“Nick explained the nightmare to me saying how Hannah Kendall had thought I was the guy who had stolen the Dutton payroll and had intended on hiding me from Dutton. Then when she found out who I really was she’d dumped me in the mine and left a note for Dutton telling him I was the robber and letting him know where he could find me. She was grieving for her dead husband and wanted to take her revenge out on the Barkleys. In some way I could understand her but Nick wasn’t having any of it. That was Dutton that was shooting at me in the mine. It was him who was killed when the shaft caved in. Somehow I can’t say I was sorry about that.
“Nick had been worrying and searching for me having ridden all the way to Marinet and back throughout the night before finding the camp site, my gun and belongings and sussing out what had happened to me. Hannah Kendall owned up and told Nick where I was. Nick was only too glad to find me and alive too. I can’t say I was sorry either.
“I could tell Nick had really gotten his self all wound up and it took him a while to wind down. We stayed in Midas ’til I was feeling stronger and was up to traveling. When I was feeling better we moved into the hotel and I rested up there, taking the time to discuss and decide what to do about the mine and getting to know Nora, Hannah Kendall’s sister who had tried to help me. When I was up to it Nick still fussing over me like a mama cow with her new born calf drove me home in a buggy. Thanks to Nick I was going home and boy was I glad. There was a time I might have been the twenty sixth grave in Midas.
“Twenty six graves ... or is it.... twenty seven?” Startled by his own voice he opened his eyes and wearily stared through a fog at his brother. Eventually as his eyes focused he could not help himself from speaking. “Always looking out.... for me...... aren’t ya Nick?” His voice was quiet and faltering.
“What ya say boy?” Nick woken out of a trance boomed out watching as Heath grimaced.
“Just thinking Nick..... was all.....just thinking,” he uttered and smiled at his brother the crooked smile which could say so much. “Good job...... I was awake,” he teased.
“Some time, some day, some where I must have done something good to deserve all this. A home, a family and a brother like Nick.”
Heath heard himself saying, “Thank you Nick....that’s all.... just thank you..... for being my brother...... is all,” For the first time in hours his mind seemed cognizant.
“Quit ya maudlin Heath. I’m your brother and that’s all there is to it.” Nick responded with awkwardness putting his hand to his brother’s forehead to monitor the fever he was sure his brother was harboring and was pleasantly surprised when he felt it much cooler than it had been. As it was he still felt bound to give Heath another refreshing wipe and took the cloth from the water and began squeezing it out when there was a knock at the door. Silas quickly answered it and saw the doctor into the sitting room.
“Afternoon Nick,” Doctor Merar said approaching the settee while putting his hand forward to shake that of Nick Barkley. “Heath” he nodded toward the younger Barkley. “I’m sorry I’m late I got caught up at the Wallace’s.”
Nick placed the cloth back in the water as the doctor turned to inspect Heath’s gunshot wound. “How are you feeling Heath?”
“All right,” came the quiet expected reply.
“All right!!?” Nick exploded and Dr. Merar would have been startled had he not been forewarned by the exasperated intake of air before the voice rang out. As it was Heath flinched while managing to give the doctor a faint apologetic smile. “And Charger’s a prime Hereford bull and I’m your sainted aunt.” Nick boomed moving forward and glowering down at his brother who now displayed a pitiable mask. “He’s been rambling most of the way home and if he wasn’t rambling to me he was out of it gabbling to god only knows who else. ’til we arrived back here the boy hasn’t known who he is, where he is, or even what he is.”
“Is that right Heath?” The doctor composed himself and rephrased his question and Heath giving a small nod displayed a faint crooked smile of remorse.
“He’s cooled down a lot now but I reckon he had a good fever going earlier and the bullet’s paining him too although I doubt he’ll admit that either.” Nick continued articulating as the doctor checked Heath’s vitals.
“Nick could you find me an upright chair to sit on. I may as well take the bullet out now.” Doctor Merar said pulling a small table over to his right and took out from his bag the instruments he needed for the operation. “It’s all right Heath we’ll soon have you right.” He said reassuringly, aware of the volatile Barkley agitatedly hovering behind him. Silas as always prepared had brought in a bowl of warm water and a towel so the doctor could wash his hands. Soon the physician began digging for the bullet with his alcohol cleaned instruments. Fully occupied Nick held a glass chimney over his cotton gauze covered brother’s mouth and nose ready to deposit extra drops of chloroform if Heath started to show signs of coming round.
Less than half an hour and the doctor was dropping the small lump of lead into a jar pleased with the extraction. Nick removed the chimney and while his patient was out the doctor cleaned the wound, swabbed away the recent blood and stitched up the enlarged injury leaving a small drain hole at the lowest part. Then having completed the bandaging he started tapping his patient on the cheeks trying to elicit a waking response.
In a short while Heath was awake and gradually becoming more aware and opened his blurry eyes. “Right Heath the bullet is out. It was not quite in the joint but not far off so the joint fluid is intact you’ll be pleased to know. It went in at an angle and was wedged under the joint. You’ll be sore for a while but so it doesn’t seize up I want you to move your arm without working it. You still have a bit of a fever and it’s hard to know which way it will go. I think any confusion or shivering and sweating you’ve been having was partly due to that and probably your body’s reaction to the bullet and blood loss. You have lost a fair amount and so you’re going to feel weak and tired for a while. You must rest up for a few days and drink plenty of fluids to make up your blood. I’ll call in tomorrow and check on you.”
“Thanks doc.” Heath murmured and Nick grunted.
Doctor Merar picked up the jar which held the offending bullet and held it out to the two younger men. “I have a feeling this here is the very last bullet I have had to dig out of you son. I don’t think there will be any more. I think it was the last bullet you’ll have felt here in the big valley. I suggest you frame it or put it in the glass cabinet,” earnestly the good doctor said handing the jar containing the small lead item over to a perplexed Nick.
Both brothers thinking the doctor might be contemplating retirement asked, “what makes you say that?”
“Trust me boys I have a feeling about these things and I’m seldom wrong, ” he said giving a knowing look.
“I hope you’re right.” Nick responded without giving it much thought but Heath was already musing over the doctor’s prophecy which to him portended impending doom.
“I think I’ll be looking elsewhere for my money in future. You Barkleys have sure kept me in pocket especially since you came to live here Heath.” Dr. Merar made to laugh and then told his patient to take heed of his instructions before making toward the door. “All right Nick. I will show myself out. Good day to you.” And with that the doctor left the brothers thinking on his words.
“What the doc. said.” Heath began with a frown.
“What you reckon........ he meant Nick?” continued Heath looking worried. “I have.... a bad feeling in the gut.... about it........ I get the feeling...... something bad is..... gonna happen with me.”
“ Bad? Am I hearing this? What do you think has been happening to you most of the time? Just as far as this last year goes, you’ve been shot in the leg by that damned dangerous Dilly woman not to mention the crack I got on the head, then you flaming well nearly died with a lump of lead through your gut from Rance Kendall, then you’re the only one who gets his self shot by the Mortons. All them fellas we employ and you’re the only one who gets hurt. Not satisfied with that you get yourself shot and disappear for a couple of days when you was supposed to be meeting me in Midas and had me worried half to death and now you’re laid up again after attracting another lump of lead. If you’re not going to an early grave you’re driving me to one. No little brother I’m more than happy with what the doc. said. Perhaps I’ll get some peace after this?” Nick made his statement relieved and wanting to believe that Heath was going to be all right from then on. “Look Heath I’m more than happy to believe what the doc. said.”
“I guess so...... I do hope so too.... I suppose I have had me a year.” Exhausted and sore Heath relaxed back into the pillow not altogether satisfied with Nick’s response for he still had a bad feeling niggling away at him.
A short while later the front door opened and Victoria Barkley arrived home followed by Stockton’s ex sheriff Harry Bodine. Immediately her eyes fell upon the bandaged and prone body of her blond son lying on the settee. “Heath,” she called out as she approached concern obvious on her face. “Hea...”
“Aw, I’m all right just lost a little blood is all.” Giving a small crooked smile Heath reassured his concerned mother.
And the rest is history.
The episodes covered:-
The Death Merchant
My Son My Son
Days of Grace
Hell Hath No Fury
The Profit and The Lost
Twenty Five Graves of Midas.
The Other Face of Justice
Adult Only: If you want to read about ‘Heath and Lupe’ please email me at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. You must be over 21. Thanks.