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.
“Audra, what are you so quiet for?” Heath inquired of his sister as they rode from town towards the Barkley ranch. Overhead the sky was a clear blue, while around them wind whispered in soft splendor, the air clean and crisp, bright the smell of flowers and wild grass. They had been working at the orphanage all morning, buying food and playing with the children. Now they were enjoying a quiet companionship, although Audra was unusually silent. Heath held Charger’s reins lightly while Audra rode with her mind obviously somewhere else.
“Sis!” Heath urged. “You there?” Audra came back to her brother with a smile. She blushed a little, her face turning a surprising red which only piqued her brother’s curiosity.
“Sorry, Heath. I was just thinking of the dance social. Did you know Will Howland asked me to the dance?”
“I think you may have mentioned that fact…about a hundred times.”
“Oh, you,” Audra sighed. Heath chuckled, his grin plastered across his face so that even Audra couldn’t help but laugh. Her brother’s silly smiles were so contagious she couldn’t help her own giggles.
“I didn’t tell you though,” he went on. “I asked Hallie Katz to the dance.”
“Really?” Audra asked. “Did she accept? I mean you’re such a long legged cowboy, she might have to think twice.” She gave Heath her own grin as she teased him. Heath ignored her as he replied.
“Of course she said yes. Told me she’d be honored.”
“I do wonder if I should have a talk with her, let her know what she’s getting into,” Audra went on. She was rewarded with Heath’s laughter.
“Try it, Little sister,” he returned. “You won’t get anywhere. She thinks I walk on air.”
“Poor deluded child as Mother would say. Come on, I’ll race you back to the ranch.”
“You can try,” Heath chortled back. They had been so intent on teasing each other they missed the group of men who were riding across the range towards them. Heath saw them first three men he didn’t recognize. He unclasped his holster, making sure his gun was ready to grab if needed.
“Sis, wait,” he warned as the men approached. He took Willow’s reins, and pulled the horse behind him something telling him this could be trouble. At the same time, maybe it was nothing. Maybe the men just wanted directions to Stockton or something. The blond cowboy was just a cautious man.
“Howdy,” one of the men said as the trio pulled their horses in coming to a stop in front of Audra and Heath.
“Afternoon,” Heath returned.
“We were wondering. We’re new around here. We were looking for the Barkley ranch.”
“What do you need there?” Heath asked, looking the three men up and down. Their clothes were unusually clean for having been on the trail, he noticed. They couldn’t have come from far away, which meant they should know the area.
“We were looking for work. Heard they were hiring.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Oh, over towards Fresno way. We stayed in Stockton last night.” Heath felt a little more reassured. Maybe they had cleaned up at the hotel. But then why had they been coming from the hills instead of town?
“As it happens, I’m Heath Barkley. This is my sister, Audra. We’re on our way back to the ranch, but we’re full up. I’m sorry you’re too late for hiring.” Heath watched the men’s reactions, ever alert, his reflexes ready to defend himself.
“Too late huh?”
“Well, I’m right sorry to hear that,” the man said sharply. “We done come a long way.”
“Can’t help it,” Heath replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, my mother is expecting us.” The man lifted his hat and the three of them moved out of Heath’s way. Heath took Willow’s reins and led his sister past the men. He was about to breathe a sigh of relief and talk to Audra when the man called out to him again.
“In that case, Mr. Barkley, I wondered if you could suggest another spread to call on. The boys and I need jobs something terrible. We’re just about broke.” Heath turned around to find the men still in front of him. They all had their guns drawn.
“Now, Sir, if you so much as move the wrong way, I’ll plug your pretty sister, and then you.” Heath let Audra’s reins loose behind him, the better to let her escape if at all possible. The movement wasn’t missed by any of the men. One of them positioned his horse close to the girl’s. Audra was sitting very tightly on Willow, terrified to move. Still her Barkley pride made her want to fight. She wondered if the same rebellious look that was on Heath’s face was on hers.
“What do you want?” Heath ground out, his mind already telling him he was a fool to have let them get caught like this. His instincts had told him this could be dangerous. Why hadn’t he listened to himself? Nick would never have got caught like this.
“What do we want? Well, I’ll tell you, Mr. Barkley. You’re about to find out. I’d come along quietly if I were you. Could save you a whole lot of trouble.”
“Like hell,” Heath answered. “If you leave now, we’ll forget this ever happened. We won’t press charges.” Heath was bluffing and he knew it, but how could he get out of this mess? If he was alone, he would have bided his time and jumped the men when he had a chance. But with Audra, he had to be careful. He was considering his options when the leader of the men rode up beside him.
“I can see you need to learn a lesson. That’s exactly what we had in mind for you and the girl.” He flung out his hand sideways chopping Heath in the neck, hitting his trachea effectively cutting off his airway. With a surprised gag, Heath fell to the ground hitting it sharply with his right side. Audra jumped off her horse and ran to her brother.
“Heath! Oh, Heath.” She looked up at the man as her brother writhed on the ground in pain.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded. “He’s hurt. I need to get him some help.”
“Oh, he’ll be all right, Missy. I didn’t break his trachea, just bruised it, probably his ego too.” All three men got off their horses. The leader grabbed Audra, pulling her to her feet. Heath struggled to get up, but he still hadn’t caught his breath.
“Let me go!” he heard his sister cry.
“You are surely one of the most beautiful women in the valley,” the man told her. “I sure would like a taste of you.” His taunting words reached his target. With a cry of rage, Heath was on his feet pushing the leader to the ground. It was the reaction the man had been looking for. He enjoyed the tussle on the ground as he fought with Heath for a few minutes. Heath didn’t know the man was a professional fighter and never lost. Heath sustained several hits falling to the ground more than once. Each time he got up. The third time he looked at Audra as the two other men grabbed his arms. He didn’t say a word, but Audra got the message. She made a beeline for her horse. The leader saw her as Heath struggled.
“Missy, you run now and he dies,” the man yelled. Audra stopped by Willow, not daring to move further. She was petrified for herself, but she couldn’t ride off to leave Heath to certain death. She would never be able to forgive herself. Instead she had to watch helplessly as Heath was beaten almost senseless. With each hit to her brother’s stomach, Audra felt a knife stabbing her in empathy.
“Stop it,” she cried. “For the love of God, you’re going to kill him.”
“Not yet, pretty lady, not yet,” the man promised. He delivered two more punches to Heath’s stomach. Heath’s body hit the ground again. Audra raced to his side one more time. Again she was held back as the leader took her turning his violence on her. Heath was holding his knees to his chest trying to protect himself as the other two men kicked him with their boots. The blond cowboy could do nothing to save himself. He heard his ribs crack and felt the exquisite pain, his mind overcome with his sister’s cries. He wanted so hard to get up, but he couldn’t. Finally he stopped moving at all, but still he heard every word that went on.
“Your brother is strong, Missy. I didn’t expect him to last so long under such a test. I wonder how you will do.” Audra stared into his blue eyes. They were cruel. She was so afraid.
“Please,” she begged. “Please let us go. I have to get help for my brother. Please.”
“You beg so prettily.” He provoked, enjoying her reaction as she realized how close she was to being further compromised. She tried to back away.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She couldn’t give into her fear. But the situation was so desperate. She tried to get to Heath, but was pulled back while the two men watched. Heath was either unconscious or unable to move on the ground. She couldn’t know the fight that was going on inside the man as he struggled to help his sister, but couldn’t.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” the leader said.
“David, it was just supposed to be the man. You promised to let her go,” one of his men said. David, a man of medium height with a well muscled body gave his companion a scathing look.
“Shut up, Rob. This is between me and the Lil Missy here.” David forced his advances on Audra, slapping her as she pulled away from him. His hand ripped her dress, then pulled her too him again. Her screams made the other two men shift uncomfortably. This was not what they had signed on for.
“David, stop,” the third man cried out. “She’s just a woman.”
“She’s Tom Barkley’s get, that’s enough for me John,” David answered. One more time, Heath managed to get up. The two men did nothing to stop him. David threw Audra with considerable force to the ground in order to defend himself. Audra couldn’t help the scream that came out as she tumbled to the ground. The sickening crack of Audra’s head hitting a rock made all four men stare in disbelief as the young woman came to a halt exactly where she had fallen. His heart in his mouth, Heath raced to his sister. Please God, help her, he prayed silently.
“Audra!” he cried. “Audra, answer me.” He lifted his sister up, her body falling flaccidly into his arms. His hand touched the back of her head and came away bright red with blood. “Sis, Sis can you hear me.” The blond leaned down to listen to the girl’s chest, then tried to find a pulse. His face contorted in a rage as he shook his head in denial. Looking up at David, Heath Barkley cradled his little sister in his arms.
“She’s dead! You’ve killed her. You’ve killed my sister!”
“It’s no more than she deserved,” David returned without remorse. Heath took some deep breaths, his guilt and horror eating him alive. He had to make them pay. They had let Audra die. He had to make them pay.
“I’m sorry, Sis,” he whispered to her, kissing her on the forehead. “I’m so sorry.” He laid his sister’s body gently down on the ground, brushing her blond hair, then leaning down and whispering to her as if she might hear him. Then he turned to kill the man who had killed his sister. Instead he came face to face with the butt of a gun. His head exploded as the butt made contact with his temple. Falling backwards, Heath Barkley hit the ground for the last time.
“Well, boys,” David said as Heath lay motionless on the ground. “Time to finish this job.”
“The girl is dead. How are we going to use her now?” Rob asked.
“Simple. Put her on the horse, and take her back to the ranch. Attach the note to her and let the horse take her in. There’s plenty of hands to find her.” He took a piece of paper out of his satchel as well as a pencil. He wrote a few words on the bottom of the page, adding to the note that was already written. He gave it to John. “Now you’re ready. In the meantime, Rob and I will take our prisoner. He’s in for a heck of a treat. I only hope we can keep him alive until we get the ransom.”
“David, I’m serious. We’re not going to kill him too are we?” Rob asked. “No one was supposed to get killed, especially a woman. This was supposed to be easy money.” David looked from where John was lifting Audra, her blond head soaked with blood from her apparently fatal wound, on to Willow’s back. She was tied down with some rope so she wouldn’t fall. The man turned back to David.
“Are we going to kill him, David?” he asked.
“The girl is dead. We’ll be hung for her murder. He can identify us. What do you think?” The two men were obviously not happy.
“We could leave now. No one will ever know.”
“We’ve come this far, Rob. If we back out now it will all have been for nothing. Tie him up. We have to get to the cabin. John, you know what to do.” Heath heard the words. He was fighting the darkness that was threatening to consume him. They were going to kill him. Obviously this was a kidnapping, but why? Why did it have to be so brutal? His mind was filled with confusion as his arms and legs were hogtied and he was thrown over a horse’s back. He screamed in pain as his ribs hit the horse’s flesh, finally giving into the inky darkness. David and Rob got on their horses. Heath’s body was in front of David. They went in one direction while their friend, John took Willow, Charger and Audra back to the ranch. It was a good day’s work, David thought. It was too bad he had to kill the girl, but what was done was done. Que Sera Sera, what will be will be, he thought. Now all he could do was enjoy tormenting Tom Barkley’s son until they got the ransom and then he would relish his last task, sending the kid into hell after his old man.
It was the third kidnapper, John who took the two horses, one without a rider, one carrying Miss Barkley and led them on a path near the road where he wouldn’t be seen by anyone who might pass by. When he got as close to the house as he dared, he slapped Charger twice with the bottom of his wide hand. The horse took off at a gallop towards the barns. Next he looked down with regret at the body of the young woman who he believed had died so needlessly. He wasn’t sure if he could really return to the hide out given what had transpired. He wasn’t a murderer or he hadn’t been…until now. She had been a feisty little thing he thought regretfully. He sent Willow on to follow Charger. The Barkley family would surely get David’s message, but what would they do with Heath being held for ransom and their sister’s death? John knew there was going to be hell to pay from a family with as much clout in the valley that the Barkley’s had. David was a fool, but revenge was turning his mind. Being more afraid of his boss than he was of death, the man turned around, riding back to what he was sure was going to be more of a nightmare than the one he had just witnessed.
In the yard outside the long low barns of the Barkley ranch, Charger trotted around until he found the door to his barn. He stood nearby under a tree grazing on some grass as Willow joined him. Willow pranced nervously. She would have drawn attention from someone soon if Nick hadn’t come out of the barn first. Nick Barkley had been working with a stallion in one of the corrals and just washed up in the barn. He walked past the stalls where Audra and Heath’s horses should have been stabled already. The sun was lower in the sky and it was getting late. Where were his brother and sister he wondered? He shivered a little trying to ignore the premonition he had felt earlier that something was wrong. He had been leading the stallion around the corral, gently getting him used to the lead the way Heath liked when he thought he heard his brother’s voice.
“Help us, Nick,” the older man thought he had heard, but when he turned around he hadn’t seen anything. The stallion had whinnied anxiously and Nick had a time calming him down. The horse had taken up his attention until he could stand the feeling no longer, so he quit for the day. Now, walking past the empty stalls the foreboding returned. He burst into the yard, planning to get Jarrod and ride into town to look for his brother and sister. Instead the gruff cowboy stopped in cold icy shock at the sight that greeted him. In all his 28 years, Nick Barkley had seldom witnessed a sight that traumatized him in such a disturbing manner. Forcing his feet to move, his body devastated, he took four steps and screamed his anguish to the skies as well as anyone who was within hearing distance.
“Audra? Audra! Oh my God!” He untied and ripped off the rope that held his sister down, depositing it on the ground as if it were burning him to touch. Very carefully, he lifted Audra’s small lithe body down off the horse, not noticing the piece of paper fluttering in the wind as it settled to the ground. His little sister looked as though she had been through a war. He sat cradling her, tears glistening in his eyes. She didn’t appear to be breathing.
“Audra!” he screamed again. Nick couldn’t move. He couldn’t deal with what was happening. With his sister in his arms, the dark cowboy rocked back and forth in excruciating grief. He was so certain she was dead just by looking at her face that he didn’t bother to check for a pulse. Her head rested against his chest, her face looking forward, mute testimony for all to see what she had suffered. The hands came running. One of the men picked up the piece of paper while another raced towards the house unnecessarily. Both Victoria who had had the patio doors open as she worked on some books in the parlor and Jarrod, reading the Stockton paper nearby couldn’t help hearing the commotion. Nick’s cry was absolutely heartrending sending chills down their spines. Victoria turned to her son.
“Jarrod?” Her face was white as Nick screamed again. Jarrod braced himself and took his mother’s hand, holding back his own disquieted fear. With Nick’s second cry, he knew something disastrous had happened to his little sister. He ran outside with Victoria beside him all the way. They stopped cold when they saw Nick holding Audra in his arms, keening back and forth. Victoria felt a stab in her heart that threatened to shatter her soul. This then was how it felt to lose a child she said to herself, her child, her baby. The woman’s hand went to her mouth while Jarrod tried to accept what the scene was telling him. It was clear to him that Nick believed Audra was…that…The lawyer shook his head even as his mother spoke, her voice barely audible there was so much ragged angst in it. Nick and Jarrod cringed at the sound.
“No! Audra? Nick…Nick…let me see her. Let me see her.” When Nick didn’t answer, Victoria managed to put one step in front of the other to get to her son and daughter with Jarrod right behind her. Victoria knelt down, her eyebrows narrowed, her heart pounding with an agony that threatened bury her. Her head cocked sideways as she gasped.
“Audra. Ohhh Lord.” Victoria fought to hang on to her sanity. She touched her daughter’s bruised face, then took her hand in hers, and kissed it. Next she spoke to Nick, hoping to reach him wherever he was.
“Nick, look at me,” she ordered very softly. At first it was as if he didn’t hear her. She touched his cheek the way she had Audra’s pulling his face till he saw her. Nick’s hazel eyes spoke volumes in his grief. He stopped moving, but didn’t release his hold on his sister. The pure horror of how he felt was relayed as he spoke in a guttural animalistic rage that sent further shivers throughout the assembled group.
“She’s gone, Mother,” he announced. “I can’t…She’s not breathing any more. She’s DEAD!”
“No!” his mother flatly denied. She leaned over putting her head on Audra’s chest. While doing that, she took Audra’s wrist in hers. Her heart started to sink further than it already had as she held the wrist tightly, and found no sign of life. Her own scream was ready to be released when she started to loosen her grasp on Audra’s wrist. Then…faintly she felt a pulse. It was weak and rather unsteady, so that it was hard to palpate. She listened again to her daughter’s chest. Victoria realized in frank relief that her daughter was taking in air. Her breaths were barely discernable, but she was alive! Victoria sat up, and spoke with the authority that her sons were accustomed to, still very worried and anxious, but no longer drowning in grief.
“Take her up to her room, Nick. Now, do as I say.” Victoria ordered. Nick still overwrought, hugged his sister to him as if she weighed nothing and fled into the house. Victoria turned to the men.
“Ciego, run to town for the doctor. He’ll need to see my daughter. Jarrod…” Ciego immediately disappeared into the barn to get a horse. Jarrod followed his mother hoping against hope when she started to take action.
“Mrs. Barkley,” one of the hands cried. The men all came towards Mrs. Barkley, one of them holding Charger by the reins. The other gave Mrs. Barkley the piece of paper that had fallen off Audra when Nick pulled her off Willow. Jarrod realized first that this wasn’t just about Audra, not if Charger was here. He looked around the yard for his brother then at the man who held the reins of the horse.
“Dom, where is Heath?” he demanded. The Mexican cowboy looked uncomfortable as he faced his boss.
“I dunno, Mr. Barkley. The animal, he came in with Miss Audra’s horse. There was no rider.”
“Dear God,” Victoria breathed. She looked at the other man. His name was Phillip, and he had been with the Barkley’s for several years. He handed the paper to her with a rather angry and sad frown that she could empathize with. She handed it to Jarrod after reading the first few lines.
“I found it on the ground by Willow. It must have been…with Miss Audra.”
“Thank-you, Phillip,” Victoria replied. “Thank you all for your help. Excuse us.” She took Jarrod’s hand and the two hurried into the house, and up to Audra’s room. Jarrod was reading the letter rather haphazardly as he ran. His blue eyes widened in shock as they raced up the stairs and came to a stop outside Audra’s door.
“Mother,” he started.
“Not now, Jarrod,” she warned. She entered the bedroom with Jarrod, then shut the door behind her. Nick was sitting on the side of the bed, trying to get some of the blood out of Audra’s hair with a cloth and some water. He looked up at his mother with a grim face, but one that held at least some optimism.
“I was wrong, Mother. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. She’s alive.”
“She’s what?” Jarrod cried.
“Yes, she is,” Victoria agreed. Nick stood while Victoria sat on the bed, touching softly each of the bruises on her daughter’s face. “What happened to her? How could this have happened to my children?”
“Children?” Nick cried. “Wait a minute. You mean Heath…”
“Charger is in the yard. We received a ransom letter,” Jarrod informed his brother. He gave Nick the note, and went to the other side of the bed. Nick read the letter out loud.
“To the Barkley’s
If you want to see Heath Barkley alive again
Take $100,000 to Hawthorne and wait at the hotel.
We will Contact you on Friday. The money must be in
$20 bills or less. If the Sheriff shows up, we will
kill Heath. If anyone does not do exactly as we say
he is a dead man.”
The first part was written with ink.
The next part was written in a different hand in pencil.
“The girl was not supposed to die, but you are witness
to what will be done if our instruction are not obeyed.”
“My God,” he breathed. Victoria sat stoically, her face unreadable while Jarrod clenched his fists. For once he felt like losing his temper as freely as Nick. This was an injustice that made no sense at all. At the same time, knowing their reputation in the valley, Jarrod was rather surprised it hadn’t happened before.
“Mother, how is she?” He asked trying to see signs of life in his sister. He could barely see her chest rising and falling.
“I don’t know, Jarrod,” Victoria answered with an edge to her voice that Jarrod had seldom heard in his lifetime. He exchanged looks with his brother.
“We have to get through this,” Victoria mumbled. “We have to find Heath…and Audra…” She shook her head. “I can’t do this now. I can’t give in.”
“Mother, you’re not giving in,” Jarrod said in his gentlest manner, the manner that made him Pappy to his brothers and sister. “You’re just reacting the way any mother would in these circumstances.”
“CIRCUMSTANCES?” Nick barked. He was about to go into a tirade when Victoria held up her hand.
“Nick!” she snapped. “This isn’t the time or the place. Sit down with your sister. Jarrod get some water. We need to wash out Audra’s hair and get her out of these clothes. I need to check her wound.”
“What about the note, Mother?” Jarrod asked as Nick sat down still stewing.
“We’ll take care of it in the morning. I don’t know. Is there a way to find Heath before the kidnappers are supposed to meet you, and the other question is, can we get that much money by Friday?”
“We could track them,” Nick offered. “I could take Ciego and some of the men.”
“What would that do, Nick, except put Heath in danger? We already know where they’re headed. Hawthorne is what a half day’s ride, not far from Strawberry if I remember. It may be that Heath knows that area, though the kidnappers may not know that. That could work to our advantage. Heath has a good head on him.”
“If he’s still alive, Jarrod,” Nick put in. Silas knocked on the door as Nick spoke. He stood in the doorway, his concern for Audra intense and written all over him.
“Mrs. Barkley, I just heard about Miss Audra. Is there anything I can do?” Jarrod nodded for his mother, reluctant to leave his family at a time like this.
“Silas, we need some hot water and bandages. Will you get them for us please?”
“Right away, Mr. Jarrod. I shore will.” The dignified houseman rushed off to do as Jarrod asked. Jarrod turned back to the conversation at hand.
“What makes you say that, Nick,” Victoria was asking, her antennae raised Nick’s comment that Heath might not still be alive.
“I’m not sure, Mother. It’s just a feeling I have.” Jarrod closed his eyes. He hated his brother’s premonitions. He was always right.
“What, Nick. Tell me.” Victoria encouraged.
“He’s hurt, Mother. I know he is. I can feel it. I felt something was wrong before I came out of the barn and found Audra, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
“Is he dead?” Victoria’s voice cracked while she looked into her son’s anguished gaze. Slowly he shook his head.
“I don’t think so. He’s fighting, where ever he is.”
“Good,” Victoria smiled. “Good. As long as he’s fighting” Her voice still cracked while the words came out haltingly, her heart bleeding for Audra and Heath, and for all of them. This was a nightmare that she had never contemplated, although why even she wasn’t sure. Kidnapping wasn’t new in the valley, and they were wealthy. Her sons seemed to have experienced more than their share of injuries, whether it was inflicted by a bullet, a beating or a horse, or just a simple accident. But Audra, Audra had never been abused or hurt so seriously, except when Evan had almost choked her to death. She had to kill Evan to save her daughter then. What were they going to have to do to save Heath and Audra now, she wondered.
“You think because Audra is so desperately hurt, Heath must be as well?” she asked.
“Hell, Mother, you know Heath. Do you think he would have sat by and watched them…hurt her?” Nick bellowed. Jarrod nodded his agreement, knowing Heath would sacrifice himself any way he had to save Audra. Victoria sighed knowing her sons were correct. She could even see Heath fighting back. Only he must have lost the battle because he wasn’t here and Audra…Dear God. She took a deep breath.
“Thank-you for telling us, Nick. It’s better to know the truth,” she sighed. Silas came hurrying back into the room with a porcelain bowl of hot water and some towels on his shoulder. He put it down and then waited for further instruction. Victoria stood. She took Nick’s hand in hers and then Jarrod’s holding them together.
“I know you both are frightened and upset. So am I. We have to accept what has happened to Audra and Heath. Only if we stand together can we bring them both back to us. They will come back to us, if we fight for them as hard as they are fighting for their lives. I would expect nothing less from them or from you. We have to make your father proud and save this family.” The mother with her two oldest sons hugged tightly fortifying themselves against the possibility of losing the two youngest members of the family. They fought against the catastrophic emotions that could so easily have bowled them over. Instead they came away surrounded by that veneer of invisible steel that constantly gave them strength.
“We’ll make you both proud, Mother,” Nick promised.
“We won’t rest till Heath is home and Audra is on the road to recovery, Mother,” Jarrod added. “You can count on that.” Victoria didn’t answer. She simply kissed each son on the cheek, then sat down to clean her daughter. Jarrod and Nick helped her knowing that after Dr. Merar came they would have time to make their plans related to Heath and the ransom. In the meantime their mother and sister needed them. Jarrod said a silent prayer for his brother and sister, a prayer that would have been echoed by Nick if he thought of it. Instead, he concentrated on giving his mental and physical energy to both Audra and Heath.
“Fight, Audra. Fight, Heath,” he whispered. “Fight for all you are worth.” He remembered what his mother had said to Heath when she sent him off to work with the infamous Matt Bentell at their logging camp. Heath wore the scars of Carterson Prison on his back. He despised Matt Bentell. He wasn’t about to work, much less support slime like Bentell. Victoria had grabbed her son’s arm as he tried to ignore her orders. Victoria was a woman no one ignored. She forced Heath to listen to her. Standing only feet away from his family, Heath met the iron will of his new mother.
“You go Heath,” Victoria ordered. “You go and hope to God to rid yourself of the hate inside you. This isn’t supposed to be easy for you. Show us what you are made of. Show us some of Tom Barkley’s guts!” Heath’s blue eyes filled with his loathing of the assignment had met his mother’s steely gray gaze. He had done her bidding. He had shown the courage and strength he had inherited from his old man. Now Heath and Audra were both going to do the same or Nick would want to know the reason why not.
“You fight, you two,” he said so only he could hear. “For God’s sake, show us the guts Father and Mother gave you. Don’t you dare give up.” He sighed and returned to his work, not certain he had reached his brother and sister, only hoping and praying that he had, so that as his mother said, they would come back to their family again.
Heath moaned as he came around. The pain in his head and ribs was merciless. He remembered his predicament when he woke to find himself handcuffed and chained to a post that held up a small lean to next to some other kind of building. His only chair was the hard ground beneath him and his only warmth the dirty blanket that covered his bloody torn clothes. For a few minutes he felt disoriented, his headache beating any hangover he could remember. He wondered if he looked as bad as he felt. Nick would tease him unmercifully when he got home if he dared to complain…It hit him. He wasn’t going home, not now not ever. Besides which even if he got home it would never be the same now that he had let Audra die.
“Hey look at the kid. He’s actually awake,” David taunted coming through a door to stand above his prisoner. “You want some water, Kid?” Heath looked up and nodded. David took the liquid in his cup and threw it Heath. He yelped as the hot coffee hit his bare chest, burning him before he could wipe the hot stuff away.
“What’d ya do that for?” he managed to gasp. “What’s this all about?”
“I was just throwing some coffee in the garbage,” David told him. Heath didn’t dignify the comment with a reply. The words told him what David thought of him, not that his opinion mattered. What mattered was how dangerous the man was. Heath Barkley remembered times when he had been treated worse than garbage, at Carterson and in Risley’s prison. He knew instinctively this was going to be a similar experience…one that he wished he could forego, he thought with his own quirky sense of humor.
“What’s the matter, Barkley? Can’t speak?” Heath drew his legs up close to his chest, protecting himself. Still he didn’t cower from the man. He looked him right in the eye while not saying a word. In that instant he saw the hollow evil that lived in David. Heath shuddered realizing the true depths that lived in this person. Heath had witnessed the man killing his sister without hesitation. Oh some would argue that it was an accident, but it was clear David had no remorse. This…this creature in front of him was no better than a rabid animal that attacked without inhibition or conscience. The animal grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him to his feet. Heath knew better than to fight. He was chained to a wall. Fighting would only antagonize his aggressor.
“You think you’re too good for us, don’t you, just like your old man?” David punched Heath in the stomach once, then twice. When Heath managed to keep standing, David punched him again. On the fourth hit Heath collapsed to his knees. David kicked him in the ribs that were already broken. Heath couldn’t help the cry of pain that was emitted from his lips. He didn’t move but tried to catch his breath as waves of agony washed over him.
“Still can’t talk, Barkley. Tell me what you think or it will be my pleasure to show you what real pain is,” David growled. Heath pulled himself to a sitting position, knowing he was setting himself up. It didn’t matter. He was through being cautious.
“I think,” Heath gasped, holding on to his stomach. “You’re a murderer, that’s what I think.” Heath’s mind was seeing his sister’s lifeless body lying on the ground. David socked him across the face. Heath hit the wall with his head. He tasted blood from a busted tooth in the back of his mouth. That’s all he needed was a busted tooth, but if he was going to die, he might as well go down with a fight. David shook his head.
“You’re just asking for it, Barkley. You got till Friday to live. I’m going to enjoy every minute we get to spend together.” David left him sitting on the floor. Heath sat back in relief. He wondered how many times David would attack him. Then he wondered why David hated the Barkley’s so much. He had never heard Nick or Jarrod talk about a man who hated their father so much, but then Heath knew his brothers. They would never decry the Barkley name. Heath wondered if David knew his true history. If he did, would he treat Heath differently? Did it matter? Heath pulled the dirty blanket close to warm his shivering body. He was so cold and in so much pain. It was Wednesday afternoon when he and Audra were accosted. It was dark now. It must be night. Heath couldn’t keep his sister out of his mind. David had thrown her away like trash, and she had paid with her life…Audra! Heath’s anguish was palpable in the small dark room. It was barely large enough to hold more than two or three men. Through the chinks in the wood, he could see the black night outside. Only the full moon gave him a little light. He tried to take further inventory of his prison, but it was hard to see. He could hear the sound of rats skittering around the room. He knew he wouldn’t dare to sleep in case a rat tried to bite him. He was in hell again. It was no less than he deserved for what he had done.
“Nick, I’m sorry. I should have protected her,” Heath apologized. It was as if he could feel Nick’s anguish. Nick knew. He knew Audra was dead. Heath was certain of it. His brother’s grief in addition to his own was unbearable. Heath remembered so much about his sister. He thought of the first time he met her over their father’s grave. She was using her crop to whip him. When he brought her down off her horse, she was still fighting. He admired her then as he had admired ever since. She came off as being flighty sometimes, but the truth was, she just hadn’t had a chance to spread her wings. Her mother and father’s courage and strength, shone inside her. She had never shied from any challenge. She had done more for the orphanage and the children than almost anyone else in town, and her name was respected, not just because it was Barkley but because of her. Now…now she would never have a chance to show her true potential. Tears fell down Heath’s cheeks.
“I’ll fight for us, Sis,” he vowed as he sat in the darkness. “I promise I’ll take a few with me when I go, especially David. I don’t care what it takes, but he won’t live past Friday either. If I go, he goes. I promise, Sis.” Strangely, Heath didn’t feel any better. He felt fear. He felt anger. He felt loneliness. He shivered again and pulled the one thin dirty blanket close. Slowly the hard cold steel of hate entered his soul as he thought of David and saw his sister…over and over again. In his besieged condition, with his entire body overwhelmed by pain, Heath Barkley was gradually losing his reason. Isolation was feeding a growing frenzy. It wasn’t the love of the Barkley clan that motivated the blond cowboy to survive anymore. It wasn’t the inspiration of the two women he called Mother, nor was it the bond he had formed with his brothers that gave him incentive to get through the long night and the days to come. It was one thought that gave Heath Barkley all he needed to survive when other men might have died. With the thought and the feel of Audra’s lifeless body in his arms all night long it was the only thing he could thing of as the fever crept over him. It was REVENGE.
* * * * * * * *
As the early evening turned to night, Dr. Merar had come and gone. He had completed his neurological exam, dressed her wound and then turned back to the family as they waited anxiously. His grim face was not comforting.
“Howard just tell us,” Jarrod had begged before his mother could. Victoria sat down on the bed by her daughter. Audra’s hair was clean and dried, now lying luxuriously on the bed, her innocence written across her angelic face. She wore a white nightgown that her mother had dressed her in. Only a white dressing on the back of her head reminded them that she wasn’t just sleeping after a long day.
“Victoria, Jarrod, Nick, I won’t lie to you. If it was anyone else other than one of you Barkley’s I’d tell you there wasn’t a prayer. Since its Audra, I’ll give you a little hope.”
“What does that mean?” Nick hollered. Dr. Merar gave Nick a sad smile then redirected his speech to Victoria as the head of household, but his gaze wondered to Nick and Jarrod every once in a while.
“It means that when Audra struck her head, I think she fractured the occipital bone. The area is rather soft and mushy. It seems to me she is bleeding inside.” Victoria sat down on the bed, giving a soft gasp of horror.
“This means that there is pressure building inside of Audra’s head. As it presses on the brain, the brain will slowly die until the impulse for breathing dies as well. The only way to for the pressure to stop building is for the bleeding to stop.”
“You mean you can’t do anything?” Jarrod stated flatly. The darkness in the room along with Dr. Merar’s prognosis seemed to be destroying the family. “So why would you give us hope?”
“Well, Jarrod, Audra has several good things going for her. One is that she is young. Two is that the injury is in the occipital region where there is a little room for the blood to pool without causing damage. If it was anywhere else, well…”
“And?” Nick asked.
“And last but least is your family. I’ve never seen you give into anything. Sit with her. Talk to her. Right now, she’s in what is called a coma. She may never wake up again. She may wake up tomorrow or she may die. But you are the best medicine I can offer her, that and my prayers that she stops bleeding.”
“Howard, are you sure?” Victoria asked. “If we took her to San Francisco, could they help her?”
“Well, I thought about that. We do have one more option.”
”Which is?” Nick cried leaping at anything to save his sister.
“There’s a Dr. Marlowe in San Francisco who calls himself a neurologist, specializing in studies of the brain. He’s the only physician I know who might be able to help, but Audra isn’t strong enough to tolerate a trip to San Francisco. Such a trip would kill her in her present condition.”
“What do you suggest, Howard,” Victoria asked, working hard to maintain her calm appearance, and failing miserably as her sons saw through her anxious voice.
“If you like I can telegraph him. If he leaves in the morning he can be down here tomorrow night, if he will come. But I think I can convince him.”
“Does Audra have that much time?” Victoria went on. Jarrod and Nick held their breaths. Dr. Merar looked at all three Barkley’s.
“Let’s just say the sooner Dr. Marlowe gets here the better. Keep her comfortable and keep someone talking to her. It’s your best bet. I know there’s more to this with Heath being kidnapped, Victoria. I’m assuming Jarrod and Nick will be going after Heath?”
“There is no choice,” Victoria said quickly knowing what Dr. Merar was getting at. If the boys hesitated to leave her alone on the ranch, and Heath died, Victoria knew she would never get over it. “My sons are their brother’s only hope.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Victoria. Just the same if you don’t mind I will come back in the morning and stay here, just in case.”
“Thank you, Dr. Merar. We would really appreciate that,” Jarrod said. “Let me see you out.” Jarrod followed the doctor out of the bedroom. Victoria sat down on the bed, taking Audra’s hand in hers. Nick sat down on a chair next to the bed and his mother.
He let his hazel eyes settle on his sister in his fatigue. He couldn’t help the slow rage that came over him, allowing his hand to slam on the chair in anger as he counted the bruises she had sustained and those were just the ones he could see. Victoria’s body, already stressed beyond endurance, jumped.
“Nick!” she hissed in exasperation. Nick waited for the barrage of scolding he deserved. Instead he looked up to see his mother’s gray eyes searching for his hazel ones. She took his strong wide hand in her small one. Nick let his guard down at the gentle caring he saw in his tiny mother’s gaze.
“I guess it doesn’t matter how loud you are. It’s not like she’s sleeping.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. I just get so angry.” Victoria sighed heavily. She wore the same day gown she had been wearing when they found Audra hours ago now. It was rumpled, and her white hair was in disarray, not that she cared. She was more concerned with all of her children right now than her own person.
“Oh, Nick. Don’t you think I feel the same way? Remember how we all felt when your father…? I thought I had rid myself of the anger and hate I felt then…but now, now…I don’t know if I would hesitate to kill the man who did this to Audra and Heath.” Nick Barkley was stunned by his mother’s admission.
“Don’t, Nick. Don’t tell me she’s going to be all right. Don’t tell me we’re going to get Heath back. I know all that. This will all be a distant nightmare someday I keep telling myself. But the truth is that Audra may never wake up…and your brother is at the mercy of a mad man.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Nick said. He leaned forward, brushing a tear away from his mother’s face.
“Well what then?” Victoria asked with further exasperation.
“I’m scared,” the gruff man admitted. He shook his head as his own tears fell down his rugged face. Victoria nodded.
“I know, Nick. Remember what I said before. We’re all scared.”
“I think I’ll join Jarrod downstairs. Ciego went to get Fred. He’s going to bring him by the back trail so hopefully he isn’t seen. We need to have a plan in place before we go to Hawthorne tomorrow.” Nick stood up. Victoria stood with him. She cupped her son’s face with her hands then kissed him on the forehead. He hugged her, trying to give his mother some of his own strength. Instead it was the other way around. Victoria’s hug gave him more courage and incentive to find his brother and bring him even though he had more than enough of that inside himself. But feeling his mother tremble, knowing how much she loved her children, Nick knew he had to bring Heath home, alive if possible. He stepped back. She looked up at him answering his unasked question without him speaking.
“We all love him, Nick. No matter where he came from, he’s a part of us now. Our lives can never be the same without him.”
“I know, Mother.” He couldn’t reassure her. He couldn’t tell her what she so longed to hear that he was certain he could save his brother. In his heart, he knew Heath was injured and knowing that boy’s penchant for catching cold, it was likely he was getting worse. Beyond that, there was no telling what his abductors were going to do to him. He left his mother behind, knowing the nightmare they were living in was just beginning…and where it would end; Nick Barkley hated to even think.
Thursday Morning dawned warm and sunny. Jarrod and Nick’s horses were saddled and ready to go. Silas was sitting with Audra so Victoria could say good-bye to her sons. They stood on the verandah, the two men both tired but determined to do what was needed. Victoria prayed her sons would bring their brother home…
“Jarrod, do you know what you are doing?” Victoria asked. “Suppose you are seen in Hawthorne?”
“We won’t be,” Nick answered. “Not till tonight. It’ll take a half day to get there. Several deputies are going to be at the church. Fred says he spent some time in Hawthorne and he knows the area. He’s going to have several deputies wait at an abandoned house at the edge of town. They’ll follow us when the time comes and hopefully we’ll get Heath back.”
“See, Mother, we’ve got a logical plan,” Jarrod smiled, trying to reassure his mother.
“Who said the kidnappers were logical,” Victoria snapped. She put her hand up apologizing as soon as she spoke. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to lose my sons to these…these monsters. Be careful out there, please.” The woman hugged both her oldest sons to her. She spoke briefly to Jarrod while Nick checked the horses to be sure they had all their gear. The family said a silent prayer, and then Jarrod and Nick got on their horses. Victoria watched them go as Dr. Merar drove up in his buggy. He got out with his black bag, and came over to Victoria. She looked at him, then the receding backs of the two men who were riding away from her.
“Howard. Good morning. Thank-you so much for coming.” With firm dignity, Victoria Barkley gathered her skirts and led the doctor into the house. Only Victoria knew that the part of her heart that wasn’t with her daughter had gone with all three of her sons.
* * * * * * * *
Near Hawthorne, in a lean to, chained to a wall, Heath Barkley was awakened from a troubled sleep when someone threw a bucket of cold water over him. The shock of the cold water left him breathless for a minute. Standing up to get the water off him, Heath stared at his tormentor who had a smug sadistic grin on his face.
“Morning, Barkley.” Heath simply stared up at the man.
“Still not talking much huh? Probably should have taken your brother Nick. He’s got a temper I heard, not like you. You’re just a wimp aren’t you?”
“You talk like this is a game,” Heath answered. “How long you been planning this?”
“Barkley, you don’t know how long,” David answered.
“Why?” Heath ground out. His face was hidden a bit in the darkness of the lean to. David couldn’t see the slow rage that Heath felt, not unless he got close, and he hadn’t done that yet. In fact he hadn’t gotten close to Heath at all. Basically, David was a coward, Heath could see.
“If there was a reason for me to tell you that, Barkley, I would, but I think I’ll wait.”
“For what?” Heath demanded, sounding more like Nick than himself.
“You always want answers, you Barkley’s.”
“So?” David shook his head.
“No, Barkley, it’s not time for the fun yet. Tonight. Tonight, we’ll have your last meal. By the way, any requests? Oh, I forgot you’re not eating much these days are you?”
“Go to hell,” Heath spat out. David stood walking a few feet towards Heath. He took a piece of shaggy wood from the nearby woodpile. With one swing he clipped Heath in the stomach. Heath collapsed in a silent heap of horrific pain. Now the man stood over him as Heath rolled back and forth trying to keep the pain away. David’s foot stopped Heath from moving, holding his body taut on the ground, his legs drawn up protectively.
“You should think about what you say, Barkley. You’re the one in hell. You need to remember that. Or do you need reminding?” Heath bit his tongue to remain silent, but his anger and fear threatened to take over. He had to find a way to stop David. The other men hadn’t hurt him at all since he had gotten here. In fact, maybe, just maybe the others were gone. Maybe this was the time to take the man out. Then he could be free. Logic was overcome by the need to defend himself as David’s foot came towards him to kick him in the stomach again. He pulled the foot out from under the man, and then jumped on him, pummeling David’s face with all the energy he had which wasn’t much. It was too bad; David got a hold of himself and quickly subdued Heath. Now it was David’s turn to pummel Heath’s face, letting loose his own insane hatred for a man he didn’t even know. Heath took blow after blow until one vicious kick on the head gave him blessed release. His body lay still but David continued to kick him until a woman came running into the lean to.
“David, stop it. You’ll kill him. Stop it!” She pulled at his arm until he quit, the froth at his mouth dribbling down his chin. The woman was rewarded for her caring by the back of David’s hand. She wasn’t very big, small boned and passably pretty with dark brown hair and brown eyes. She fell back against the wall, but quickly gained her footing.
“What are you doing in here, Willa?” he demanded.
“You were going to kill him. What good is he to you, dead?” she went on, rubbing her face.
“No problem. I’ll just go and get me another Barkley. There’s plenty of em.”
“David, this vendetta of yours has been going on too long.” She went back into the adjoining cabin. He followed her. The larger cabin was a one room structure probably built about ten years before. The woman knew it was a temporary structure that they were staying in, only till Friday David said, but she hated it. She hated everything about what was going on. Not that she had a choice.
“I thought you were making breakfast,” David whined. “It’s almost nine.”
“Not my fault you slept in.” she snapped back. She took the fried eggs she had in the frying pan on the wood stove with some bread and butter and gave it to him on a plate she put on the table with a fork. He looked at the plate distastefully but ate it anyway; sloshing the food with a chase of the cold coffee she gave him.
“What were you doing all morning?” he asked. “That was a poor excuse of a meal.”
“If you must know I was trying to find John and Rob. Have you seen them?” David looked at her as if she were nuts.
“You know, you sure are stupid. They’re still in Stockton making sure that Jarrod and Nick Barkley do as they’re told. Knowing the Barkley’s they’ll pull the law in just for fun.”
“And if they do?”
“I’m prepared for that. In fact I’m off to the telegraph to see if they’ve sent me a message.”
“They’d telegraph you? Isn’t that a little dangerous?” she asked. His slap hit her across the face again.
“Willa your questions are the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. We used certain words. Course we wouldn’t say the sheriff was on his way to Hawthorne to join the Barkley’s. There are ways. Honestly, your father should have told me how stupid you were when I married you.”
“He didn’t have to,” Willa answered. “You tell me often enough.” He raised his hand again. She grabbed the frying pan. It wouldn’t be the first time the feisty dark haired woman had clobbered her husband and it wouldn’t be the last she knew, until he ended up killing her which wouldn’t be surprising to her.
“All right, I don’t have time to teach you a lesson now. I’ll be in town. Watch him. It’s not like he can go far, even if he does wake up, but if he gets away, I promise I will kill you.” Willa shivered. She didn’t doubt the man. Determined to do something to help the poor man in the lean to, Willa got a bucket and went to the well outside. Drawing a bucket of water, she went back in the house. She poured some into a basin that she could heat up on the wood stove. While the water was heating, she went over to the corner of the room where she kept linens. There wasn’t much, she realized. She took two old towels that she normally used as rags and threw them into the water to get hot and maybe to clean them a little. Then she got some soap. When she was ready she went out to the lean-to to take care of the man her husband was so intent on killing. She only hoped David didn’t beat her when he found out what she had done.
* * * * * * * *
“You’re pretty quiet, Nick,” Jarrod said as the two brothers rode towards Hawthorne. Their horses trotted at a good clip, but they didn’t rush. There wasn’t much need. Fred was behind them, but he was taking a different road. They were hoping their plan would work, and they could get Heath home safe, but there were no guarantees. Both men felt anxious and tense. It was hard not to.
“I’m thinking what I’m going to do to those no goods when I get my hands on them.”
“Oh that will help. You going to kill them before or after we find Heath?”
“Look, Nick, I know you’re upset. Just because I don’t lose my temper doesn’t mean I’m not as angry as you are. Audra is my sister too. How do you think I felt when I saw you holding her and we all thought…” Jarrod shook his head. His brain shook away the memory. Audra was still alive. God willing this doctor from San Francisco could help her if she still needed it.
“It’s not just Audra. I’m worried about what they did to Heath. It’s a feeling I have Jarrod. He’s hurting…and it’s getting worse.”
“You’re kidding?” Jarrod asked. Nick’s look told him he wasn’t. Jarrod appreciated the link between his brothers but sometimes it scared him, like right now. He still remembered when he rescued the boys from Risley’s prison and the pain he saw in Nick’s eyes related to Heath’s injuries. He was seeing that same look now, and it sent shivers down his spine.
“We’ll just hope we find Heath as fast as we can,” Jarrod comforted. Nick took a deep breath. He meandered his horse over to a stream they were passing giving his brother a silent message to join him. Jarrod got down off his horse and led his own animal to water, enjoying the walk to stretch his legs. The two men drank from their own canteens. Nick took some jerky out of his pack and threw some to Jarrod who held out his hands.
“Nice catch, Brother Jarrod,” he complimented.
“Thanks,” Jarrod answered. While they munched on the jerky and the horses grazed, Nick scanned the countryside. It was dry rough country, sparsely populated. Not too many ranches out this way even. The country was too rocky and hilly for ranches. Nick didn’t see anything suspicious but that didn’t mean a thing.
“Jarrod, you see anything?” he asked his older brother.
“No, I don’t, Brother Nick.”
“But you think…” Nick asked.
“We’re being followed.”
“Yeah, I feel it too.”
“Near or far, do you think?”
“Near enough I can smell em,” Nick answered. “One of them is smoking a cigarette I think.”
“That’s it,” Jarrod cried. “I knew something was funny. Don’t they know they shouldn’t ride upwind?”
“Probably not. So if we’re being followed, do you think they have Heath?”
“They wouldn’t ride in broad daylight with Heath hurt. Draw too much attention from passers by.”
“Want to wait for them?” Nick went on. Jarrod gave it a lot of thought. He wasn’t sure.
“What do you think?”
“We could ambush them. Problem is, we might not feed Heath then.”
“What are we about ten miles from Hawthorne?” Jarrod wondered.
“How about if we hang back and see what they do?” Jarrod suggested logically. “Better yet, let’s run the horses in the stream and go upstream. Let’s see if we can follow them into town.”
“Won’t they come looking for us if they lose us?” Nick asked his lawyer brother.
“Maybe. I doubt it. How would they find us if we’re behind them, and who would think of that?”
“You would, but then you’ve got the college education, not me, I’m just your basic cowboy” Nick laughed. “Since I haven’t got a better idea, Jarrod, I’m game.”
“Let’s make it snappy then. We don’t know how far behind us they are. It might not be much.”
“I’ll follow you, Jarrod.” Nick deferred to his brother because he obviously was more adapt at playing cat and mouse that Nick had thought. The men had chased outlaws before, but they never had men following them and never had they pulled off a stunt like this. However, in this instance, finding Heath was of the utmost importance. They took their mule which carried the trunk with the ransom for Heath and the two horses and rode upstream, hiding in the bushes until two men rode by on the road. Then they followed them downstream, still riding in the stream until it was too easy to be seen from the road. Then Nick followed them on foot, coming upon them as the got to the spot where Nick and Jarrod had turned back. The two men looked at the tracks in puzzled confusion.
“Where’d they go?” John asked.
“The tracks lead off into the stream. Great, now we can’t tell which way they went. I’m no tracker.” Rob answered.
“Fancy Barkley’s” John scuffed. “Don’t do nuthin the way you’re supposed ta.”
“David is goin to be awful mad,” Rob went on. “I don’t fancy telling him we lost the Barkley’s.”
“I don’t know what the difference is anyway. They didn’t talk to the sheriff. They’re coming alone and they’ve got the money. I say we go into town and get a drink, then go out to the cabin and let David know what’s goin on. What can he do? He won’t kill us. He’s our brother.”
“Half-brother,” Rob reminded the other man. Nick listened, hoping the men would continue to talk so he could figure out as much as he could about the men and maybe something about Heath if he was that lucky. If only, he thought.
“This is David’s vendetta, Rob, not ours. I don’t know how we ever got talked into this. Wasn’t supposed to be no unnecessary violence except to Heath. As far as I’m concerned he deserves what he gets and his no good brothers too, but killing a woman, well that’s not what I signed up for. I was like to throw up when he killed the girl. She didn’t do nuthin except defend her brother.” Nick’s eyes narrowed in anger as he forced himself to stay where he was. If he moved or breathed wrong, he knew he’d be detected. Jarrod would give him what for, verbally and mentally if nothing else. Jarrod wasn’t above swinging his fist either. So Nick cooled his boots and just stayed where he was.
“She was a pretty gal, weren’t she?” Rob asked, licking his lips. “But you’re right. She didn’t deserve to die. We don’t have a choice, John. We leave now and he’ll hunt us down. I don’t know about you, but I don’t intend to be on the wrong end of David’s temper. He can be right mean when he wants to be.”
“Yeah, well I just wish this whole mess was over and done with. The sooner we get the money the better. And now I guess it doesn’t matter if David kills Heath Barkley like he said he would.”
“Why not,” Robe asked as John got on his horse. Nick just barely heard the answer as the two men went on their way. The man’s words turned him cold. He waited a minute till the men had gotten down the road a piece, then scuttled back to his brother. Jarrod wasn’t far, Nick found to his relief. He got back on Coco and took the horse’s reins from Jarrod, starting off down the road without saying anything to Jarrod.
“Whoa, Brother Nick, what’s the rush? We don’t want to follow too close. They’ll recognize us.”
“Heath is waiting for us,” Nick raged.
“Nick, we don’t even know where Heath is in Hawthorne. He could be anywhere.”
“One of the men said something about a cabin. Maybe we can find it. Jarrod, they’re going to kill him!” Jarrod was quiet as he rode beside his brother. When his lawyer brother didn’t react the way Nick thought he would, he grabbed Jarrod’s reins. Nick’s hazel eyes narrowed dangerously as he tried to face his brother down.
“Didn’t you hear me, Jarrod? They’re going to kill Heath. They said since Audra was already dead, they didn’t have anything to lose. Heath is running out of time.” Jarrod took his reins back. He looked sadly at Nick, the truth in his gaze. Nick fumbled a little with Coco’s reins as he looked away, then back at his older brother.
“Jarrod?” The words that Nick heard from Jarrod cut him to the quick as he finally had to face the possibility of Heath’s demise at the hands of the animals that had them.
“Nick, you knew from the beginning that Heath’s life was on the line. These men have proven they have no conscience. They think they killed our little sister. By the grace of God, they didn’t, but they think they did. They’re right. As far as they’re concerned they’ll hang just as high from a noose for one death as two. Why are you mad at me?” Nick continued his ride without answering. Jarrod kept up until finally Nick looked at Jarrod. Jarrod sighed.
“Nick, I need an answer,” Jarrod told him. “Why are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you,” Nick finally blurted. “I’d like to kill them. Do you hear me? I could kill them in cold blood and not feel a bit of remorse. I don’t like that feeling. Worse, I don’t like being scared to death that I’ll never see my brother again thanks to the likes of them.”
“Well, I’m with you, Brother Nick,” Jarrod replied to Nick’s surprise. “They’re animals. You can’t help the way you feel, but you need to keep your cool. I’m serious. If you lose it, Heath could pay with his life.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“Just thought I’d mention it.”
“Well thanks for nothing,” Nick answered in his gruff tone. Jarrod smiled, chuckling just a little as they trotted on to their destination. Both men were somber with their worry, not just for Heath, but for Audra fighting for her life at home, as well as the ever present danger they were in. They wanted nothing more than to bring Heath home safely to their mother and Audra, but there might be a price to pay to accomplish that feat. The one hundred thousand dollar question, literally, was could they bring Heath home without one or all of them getting shot and killed or worse? Victoria’s voice echoed in Jarrod’s mind as he remembered her words to him on the verandah. Her words were heavy on his shoulder, and though she hadn’t meant to put too large a burden on him, he was feeling the stress. He couldn’t get the picture of his mother, desperately worried about her children, out of his mind as she pleaded with him.
“Jarrod, I just have one thing to tell you and Nick. Since Nick is upset, I’ll tell you, but please tell him before you meet those bandits. I want him to remember how much he’s loved before he does something foolish.”
“Mother, Nick doesn’t always fly off the handle,”
“Jarrod, listen to me,” Victoria ordered urgently.
“I’m sorry, Mother.” Victoria’s hug told Jarrod how frightened his mother was, and she so seldom let him know her fears. He looked down in to her pale face, giving her a sad smile.
“Jarrod, please do me a favor. Make sure all my sons come back to me,” she begged. Jarrod kissed her forehead, a dead weight hanging in his stomach as he thought of the odds of that happening.
“I’ll do my best, Mother. Nick, Heath and I, we’ll all come back to you. We love you.” She looked up at him, her gaze filled with faith, hope, and that nagging fear that hung over them all. As much as they wanted this to end happily, that was the problem with conflicts like this. There were no guarantees…and there never would be, not even for the Barkley’s.
Nick Barkley shuffled restlessly as he hid between two buildings watching the saloon. He’d have given anything to be in the saloon drinking a whiskey with Heath and Jarrod, laughing at his brothers’ antics and getting quietly drunk without a care in the world. Instead he was waiting for Jarrod to come back. Inactivity being an anathema to Nick Barkley, he wondered if he could stand still long enough to go undetected.
He wondered where Jarrod had gotten to. Probably at the Sheriff’s office, which is where he said he’d be going to get Jeb, one of Fred Madden’s deputies to relieve Nick and watch the saloon. It wasn’t that Nick didn’t want to stand watch. It was more to the fact that the brothers were worried they would be recognized by the men who had kidnapped Heath.
“Come on, Jarrod. Hurry up!” Nick muttered to himself watching the saloon, and his back carefully. The narrow opening between the two buildings across from the saloon was an idea place to hide, but it offered little space for maneuvering if someone came up behind him. He watched with an eagle eye as he recognized Jeb walking into the saloon, then walked out within about ten minutes. The man walked across the street, then disappeared between another set of buildings down the block. Nick’s mind worked quickly. He wasn’t surprised when Jarrod and Jeb came around the corner and joined him.
“Bout time you got here,” Nick snapped at his brother. “Jeb, it’s good to see you.” Jeb, a shorter man than Nick shook Nick’s hand. He was older too, more seasoned. Both Nick and Jarrod respected the man. He’d been with Fred for several years.
“Couldn’t let you boys have all the fun. Heath’s a friend of mine you know.”
“I suppose. You’ve arrested him enough.” Nick smiled sheepishly.
“All three of you when you’re cutting loose. You three make a good team when you’re soused.”
“We make a good team anytime, right Brother Nick? Jeb, we’re grateful for your help.”
“There’s five more men camping five miles out of town on the ridge. If we find Heath on our own, we won’t need them, but Fred wanted reinforcements just in case.”
“We know. We asked for the reinforcements,” Jarrod answered. “You’ll be okay here, Jeb?”
“I guess so. Got nothing better to do.”
“The lawless can just take over Stockton while you’re gone, Jeb,” Jarrod teased. Nick bit his lip. He wished he could stay and see if he could follow those morons to his brother, but he knew better.
“Be careful, Jeb. These are dangerous men,” Nick warned darkly.
“I heard, Nick. Jarrod filled me in. I’m sorry about your sister.” Nick simply nodded. Jarrod patted Jeb on the back.
“Jeb, if you’re still here in a few hours, we’ll see if we can’t flush those fellas out. We can walk in to the saloon just as serene as you please. I bet we make them mighty uncomfortable. Hopefully they’ll leave. Then it’s your turn to see where they go.”
“Soon as I do, I’ll let you and Nick know.”
“Jeb, I know you’re a deputy, but we don’t want anyone getting killed over this. I don’t think Heath would either. So by all that’s holy, be careful.”
“Jarrod, this is my job. I promise, I won’t take any unnecessary risks.”
“Jarrod, I can stay with him,” Nick ground out. “There’s no reason I can’t wait here and watch for those animals…”
“Nick, I’m not going to argue with you,” Jarrod snapped using a tone that Nick seldom argued with. “The risk of you being seen, even from here is too high. The longer we stand here, the more likely we are to be seen. Worse, Jeb could be connected to us. Now do you plan to blow everything we’ve worked for so far, or are you going to come with me?”
“What do you think?” Nick muttered. Jarrod gave Jeb another pat on the back, then walked away with Nick. Nick clenched his fists. They had tried to think of every contingency. Jeb being available in town in case they needed him was the first plan. They hadn’t known they would be able to follow the thugs who had Heath, but now that they knew who they were, Jeb was their ace in the hole. The men outside were the next contingency. Nick would have preferred handling the situation himself, but these men had proved they had no scruples. He wasn’t going to get his brothers killed for scum like that and neither was Jarrod.
The two men walked silently up to their hotel room. Like Hawthorne, the hotel was old and rather decrepit. Jarrod opened the door, his eyes going to the trunk that they had hauled up to their room earlier. Nick’s eyes followed his. They had taken a risk leaving it, but supposedly no one knew what was inside, unless the kidnappers had big mouths. They both breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the lock was still clasped.
“You okay, Nick?” Jarrod asked as Nick collapsed on the rickety double bed they would have to share that night. Nick sat up and looked at his brother.
“What do you think?” he asked again. Jarrod paced back and forth. Nick was rather amused. Usually he was the one who would pace. After a few minutes he couldn’t resist making a comment.
“You got a problem, Pappy?”
“What? I’m thinking, can’t you see?”
“You’re pacing. I can see that. What are you thinking?” Jarrod turned to Nick, the lawyer’s blue eyes narrowing with his intent.
“I’m thinking that I’m no better than the men who took Heath.”
“What?” Nick’s surprise and indignation was clear as he almost yelled. Jarrod used his hand to wave Nick’s dramatics away.
“What are you talking about, Pappy? I’m the one with the hot head as Heath says,” Jarrod shook his head. He leaned against the wooden desk that took up part of the small room.
“You don’t understand, Nick,” Jarrod returned, his voice showing the desperation and frustration he felt. “I haven’t felt this angry since Beth died. Those men…”
“So it’s getting to you too,” Nick said. “Jarrod didn’t we already talk about this a while ago on the road?”
“I suppose,” Jarrod admitted. “But I feel even more strongly now. Why is that I wonder. I’m supposed to keep you and Heath in line.”
“You care about him, Pappy.”
“Yes, yes, I do. Why don’t you get some rest? In a few hours we’ll have to head out again.”
“Jarrod, someone needs to stay here and watch that trunk. If it gets stolen, we’re sunk.”
“You want to go out alone?”
“I don’t see as we have a choice.”
“Nick, if you get into a fight with those men…that’s not going to help us any.”
“Me?” Nick asked feigning surprise. Jarrod laughed.
“Go to sleep, Nick.”
“Yes, Sir, Pappy,” Nick answered. He lay down on the double bed while Jarrod continued to pace. Jarrod stopped by the bed every few minutes, until he thought Nick might be asleep. Then he slipped out of the room shutting the door after him. Nick, not asleep at all, sat up and went to the window of his room which looked out on the back alley. His brother appeared outside within a minute, then disappeared down the street. Nick sat down on the bed totally confused. He grabbed his key off the desk and locked the door behind him, determined not to let his brother wonder alone in a town that could get him killed. As he rushed outside he came to the end of the alley and saw immediately that Jarrod had disappeared somewhere. He was no where in sight. He went over to where Jeb was still standing guard. He didn’t see Jarrod there. Looking through the back streets, Nick finally had to admit defeat. He returned to the hotel with a smoldering look on his face. In the hotel he sat on the bed, finally verbalizing his anger to the empty air.
“Pappy, you better have a good explanation for this,” he ground out. “Cause if you get hurt out there…we’re going to have a good ole talking to that Father would have been impressed with.”
* * * * * * * *
Carrying the bowl of warm water and towels Willa had gathered, she knelt on the dirt floor to see how badly David’s victim had been brutalized. The man was lying on the floor completely motionless. Small wonder, she thought, still shivering from seeing David attack the man. Pushing him on to his back, she grabbed a burlap bag that was a quarter filled with potatoes and emptied it. Folding the bag, it was slipped under Heath’s head to give him some comfort when he woke up. For a minute she gazed at his face, appalled at the number of bruises there were. He had a day’s growth of stubble as well. In addition he was pretty warm to the touch indicating that a fever had set in. The woman was scarcely surprised the way Heath had been beaten. She’d seen men die from less.
“Mr. Barkley you should have just left well enough alone,” she muttered while washing the cuts. “Fighting with David is like taking on a wild animal. Once he gets started, he don’t never stop.” A sudden movement from Heath grabbing her wrist with one of his hands frightened her. She fell backwards, pulling her hand away in an instinct to protect herself. Heath sat up, moaning unconsciously with pain, holding his left side, looking around in a confused state. Willa moved back a few feet, waiting till she figured it was safe to talk.
“You gonna just sit there or are you going to let me help you?” she demanded finally. “We ain’t got all day you know.” Heath’s quizzical feverish eyes snapped to her in attention. He looked her up and down, and then leaned towards her.
“Who are you?” he asked his manner urgent and anxious at the same time.
“Names, Willa. I was trying to help ya until you jumped me. Not that I could blame ya after what David did. I promise, I won’t hurt ya.”
“Where are we?” Heath went on. He pulled at the chain that held him as hard as he could, but David had made sure it would hold.
“We’re in Hawthorne,” Willa said not knowing she shouldn’t tell him.
“Hawthorne…why that’s…” Heath looked around the lean to again, then let his eyes rest on his benefactress
“It’s what? Listen Mister, you don’t want to try and escape or nuthin. David will kill you in a minute. He don’t stand for nuthin getting in his way.”
“Lady, I’m not just in his way. I’m his punching bag. As for killing me, we both know I’m a dead man as soon as he gets what he wants.” Willa sat back again, contemplating the man in front of her. He was a smart one that was sure, good looking too. Familiar in a way.
“Where you from, Mister?”
“I dunno. You just look like someone I knew once, a long time ago when I was a little girl. Course you coming from such a high and mighty family, it couldn’t be you. David told me about that fancy house you lived in…them nice clothes your womenfolk wear…and well, I just know you ain't that boy. Why he was poorer than we was.”
“Willa…” Heath appeared to thinking. Willa started to get up. The water was cold now, no use to helping clean up David’s prisoner. Starting back to the cabin, she froze when Heath went on, his voice lighting up with some hope. “Willa Case, that’s your name? Weren’t you that little kid who used to tag after your brother and me in Strawberry? You used to scare away the fish when we were trying to catch us a few for dinner.”
“I did not…” Willa started with indignation. Her forehead wrinkled in a frown as she thought, then sat down on the step leading to the cabin obviously thunderstruck by Heath’s recollection. “Heath?”
“Willa…” Heath started, his spirits obviously lifted by the sheer coincidence of his knowing the one person who might help him out before he met the almighty.
“Heath, last time I saw you, Jake and you were swinging off trees in the swimming hole. You weren’t more than ten or eleven years old. That was when you weren’t down in the mines…” Willa’s voice trailed off, a tear glistening in her eye. Heath took up where she left off.
“Strawberry seems like a lifetime ago,” Heath sighed. “Your brother was my best friend in those days. When I heard about him dying in the mines…well, I was right sorry.”
“That’s the day my life ended,” Willa admitted, and then tried to pretend she hadn’t said the words. She suddenly remembered where they were and what was happening. Heath might be befuddled by his fever, but she wasn’t. “Heath, how in the world did David mistake you for a Barkley? He’s not going to be happy when he figures he’s got the wrong man.” Heath hesitated for a second.
“Heath, you can trust me. You can’t get into worse of a situation than you’re already in,” she encouraged smiling a little, despite the anxiety they both felt now. Heath looked down at his handcuffed wrists, then at Willa.
“I reckon that’s a fact. The truth is, Willa, David didn’t get the wrong man. My father turned out to be Tom Barkley.”
“Tom Barkley!” she exclaimed. Willa’s face was filled with her amazement.
“If that don’t beat all,” She exclaimed. “Heath Thomson turns out to be the son of one of the wealthiest ranchers in the valley. What wouldn’t my daddy have given to know that?”
“Why, Willa. What does it matter? Or should I ask what did it matter?”
“It’s not important now. My daddy’s dead and gone these six years.”
“I’m sorry, Willa. What are you doing here? What kind of hold does someone like David have over a rough and tumble kid like you?”
“Rough and tumble. Yeah I remember you using those words with me when I was little.” Willa smiled as she quoted a young Heath. “Jake what’s that rough and tumble gal doing chasing after us again. Don’t she have no chores at home to keep her busy?” Both Heath and Willa smiled at the recollection. Neither laughed. Willa went on, her words filled with a bitterness that Heath understood only too well.
“My daddy never got over Jake’s death. He drank himself to death literally. He never was the same man that you knew, the one who went fishing with you and Jake. Anyhow, when I was 14 he sold me to David. Then David made sure I wouldn’t leave him by forcing me to marry him.”
“How? Heath, I was a little girl. My father was no help. Jake and my mother were gone. Who could I turn to?”
“Willa, I am sorry,” Heath said for the third time, stressing the word am.
“So am I. He’s a dirty rotten excuse for a man. If I could figure a way to earn some money and get out of his clutches I would. Problem is he’d just follow me and then I’d be better off dead after what he’d do to me.”
“Willa, Jake would be the first one to tell you, you deserve better than this. Listen to me. If you get me out of here, my family can protect you.” Willa thought quickly. What Heath proposed was tempting. She remembered the boy he had been, fiercely proud and honest as the day was long thanks to his Mama, but she didn’t know if she could really trust him, not against David. She eyed him suspiciously.
“Why would the great Barkley’s want to help me?” she wondered out loud. Heath’s response was not what she expected. She was taken aback by the sorrow that showed on Heath’s face as he spoke. His eyes glistened with his tears and emotion.
“Willa, the Barkley’s are good people. They took me in. They gave me a chance, believing in me when half the town shunned me. Mrs. Barkley, well she’s as close to me now as my own mother was.” Heath let those words sink in. Willa’s face softened at the thought of Heath’s gentle mother, the same kind of woman her own mother had been. Her parents and Leah Thomson had been friends until her mother died. She listened as Heath went on with his story, his broken heart showing on his sleeve.
“David killed my little sister, Audra. She was just about your age, and she was defending me!” Heath clenched his fists in such anger, he reminded Willa of the times she had seen him fight the miners when they taunted the young boy for being fatherless, and that was a polite term.
“Heath,” she whispered, realizing Audra was the woman David had bragged of killing. Heath spoke fervently as he finished his plea.
“My brothers are probably on their way here, Willa. They could get killed facing David and whoever else is in on this. Don’t you think my mother has suffered enough thanks to this whole sorry mess?”
“Oh, Heath,” Willa answered. “I’m scared.”
“If you help me now, how much worse will you be off?” Heath wondered. “This isn’t a life, Willa. We both know that. I know for a fact, Jake wanted better for you.” For a minute, Willa looked at the man askance. How dare he tell her, her life was worthless? How dare he use her dead brother against her? Gazing in to those empathetic blue eyes, Willa felt all her reservations melt away. Heath was right. All she had left to lose was her life…and that wasn’t worth salt.
“You always could argue Jake out of anything,” She admitted. Shaking her head, she stood up. “But I’ll tell you, Heath Thomson…er Barkley, if I get killed in all this, it will be you wishing I’d left you right where you are cause I’ll come back and haunt you.” Heath was about to say,
“And you would too,” when the door to the lean to from the cabin was thrown open. David stepped into the lean to, bellowing in a voice that made Willa shudder in dread of what was to come.
“What the hell is going on out here?”
Hurrying away from the hotel, Jarrod Barkley was careful to watch his back. He didn’t want anyone following him, especially Nick. The lawyer didn’t like what he was doing, but in this instance there was no choice. Jarrod had memorized the note he had been handed by the desk clerk upon his arrival in town. When Nick asked what it was about, he said it was just a note from the sheriff. Nick had accepted the ruse while Jarrod had wondered how he could slip away from his brother without him being the wiser. His going to sleep was a lucky break for the lawyer. The words in the printed note danced in his head as he walked towards the place where the note said to meet him, an old deserted church at the end of town. After fifteen minutes, Jarrod located the structure, just as fancy as the rest of the run down town. He entered the abandoned church, his mind on alert. Sitting down at the confessional, he opened the window and waited. He couldn’t help shivering at the first sound of the voice of the man he believed had his brother.
“Mr. Barkley how nice to see you,” the voice asked in a rather sarcastic manner.
“The feeling is not mutual,” Jarrod bit back.
“Touche, Mr. Barkley. I see you followed my instructions to the letter. That’s a wise move on your part.”
“What do you want?”
“You are a blunt man, aren’t you? I remember your father. He was much the same way, unless he was bellowing about something or other.”
“Listen, I don’t have much time. My brother will get suspicious. Why did you contact me? The original note said that you would contact my brother and me tomorrow.”
“I wanted to make sure you knew the stakes of this game, Barkley. You and Nick always take risks you shouldn’t. If you pull something, I guarantee your brother will die a slow, agonizing death. My friend has a penchant for torture.” Jarrod winced involuntarily at the man’s cocky speech. It was obvious he didn’t care a bit about Heath.
“If your friend gets overzealous, we will have nothing further to discuss,” Jarrod replied, his own tone low and dangerous.
“Don’t threaten me, Mr. Barkley. My friend carries a grudge that has festered for many years.”
“A grudge against the Barkley’s?”
“But you don’t?” came the insightful reply with the mystery deepening around Jarrod’s ears.
“I don’t have time for grudges. Do you?”
“That’s hardly the issue.”
“Oh, but it is.”
“Did you contact me to meet for chit chat or do you have something relevant to add to the conversation,” Jarrod snapped, starting to lose his patience. He didn’t feel comfortable in this situation.
“Let’s just say I know that you have help, Barkley. My associates are foolish men, bent only on revenge for their father’s death. I, on the other hand don’t intend to end up six feet under. I didn’t go through the war to bite the dust now. So I’m telling you, if I see anyone come to pay the ransom other than you and Nick, I will kill Heath…and I will make it my mission to destroy all the Barkley’s. Your family is already bereft of the beautiful Audra I understand. If you don’t do exactly as I say, your family will be crushed.” Jarrod’s hand crashed on the seat he was sitting on at the man’s callous threats.
“How dare you?” he demanded, his voice outraged and filled with his disgust.
“I dare much, Barkley. I must admit, you hold your temper admirably. Nick would have reached through the screen and ripped me limb from limb.”
“If Nick were here, I would let him,” Jarrod returned, getting control of his temper, knowing he was being goaded.
“But you won’t?”
“No, I won’t, but only because you are a coward and not worth the aggravation or the trouble it could cause.” This comment did not make Jarrod’s adversary happy. He had a moment of satisfaction in hearing the man swear under his breath.
“One more comment like that Barkley and you can join your brother in his prison.”
“Your threats are becoming boring,” Jarrod said standing up.
“I don’t make threats. Nick knows that. He’s a good man, Nick is. I wouldn’t mind doing business with him if he wasn’t so partial to Heath. Sit down. I am not finished.” Jarrod sat down, and not necessarily for the reasons the stranger thought. He listened to the men intently as he went on.
“Now I will ask you once and only once. Your brother’s life is in my hands. If you do not do exactly as I say, he will die and your family with him. Do you understand what I am saying, Mr. Barkley?” The man had lowered his voice, attempting to put the fear of God into Jarrod. While Jarrod was wary, he was not afraid of the man. In fact, his entire attitude was starting to change.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“I understand what you are saying. Nick and I will meet you on your terms, as long as you can assure me that Heath is safe.”
“The last I heard, he was still alive, not that I’ve seen him.”
“That doesn’t seem like good business sense,” Jarrod hinted in bemusement. “Not to see the merchandise? Not a wise move. Now you need to understand me. If Heath is injured further, or if he dies, Nick and I will hunt you down and you will hang.”
“In a court of law,” the man taunted. “Of course the lawyer would use the law against me. I’m terrified.”
“You should be. You are on borrowed time where the law is concerned.” The man’s silence on the other end was enough for Jarrod. He nodded in grim satisfaction until the man spoke again.
“You can say what you want, Barkley. I asked you here to make sure the odds would work for me and not against me. I’m not afraid of you. Let’s just see this thing through peaceably and when we have the ransom, Heath will be returned to you.”
“If he isn’t returned ALIVE,” Jarrod stressed, “I promise you are a dead man.” The man didn’t answer. There was a slight movement and Jarrod’s first thought was that the man was gone. He tore around the confessional only to find the other compartment empty.
“Damn,” he swore. Suddenly someone grabbed Jarrod around the neck. The man’s voice hit him as he felt a piercing hot poker like sensation burst within his mind. It was a knife he realized as the pain slammed into him again. The man’s grip tightened around his neck for an instant.
“Just evening the odds, Barkley. We’ll be watching when you come.” He let Jarrod go. Jarrod’s hand went to his back, and came away bright with blood. He grabbed the wood confessional, pulling the entire structure down with him, crashing to the floor in shock. His vision blurred so he couldn’t see the man standing over him. Trying with all the strength he had to get up as the world turned upside down around him, Jarrod Barkley fell back with another crash. The floor came up to meet him and he knew nothing more.
* * * * * * * *
Meanwhile at the Barkley Ranch, Victoria was waiting impatiently for Ciego to return with Dr. Marlowe from the Stockton train station. Victoria hoped and prayed the doctor would be on the afternoon train as promised. She paced through the large empty house as Dr. Merar sat with Audra. While Victoria was feeling guilty at not being in the sickroom, hours of worrying over her daughter’s stricken condition had taken its toll. She was exhausted. Dr. Merar had finally shooed her from the room urging her to get some rest. The mother in the woman couldn’t do that either, not while her sons were facing danger and Audra was fighting for her life. Instead she walked through the second floor hearing her children, even though they weren’t anywhere near.
“Heath! Time to rise and shine,” she could hear Nick bellowing. “This is a working ranch you know. No time for slug abeds.”
“Did you say something Nick?” Heath’s voice called back. “I just finished mending that fence up in the north pasture. Boy howdy I worked up an appetite for breakfast. What did you do this morning, Nick?”
“Look out, Brother Heath; Nick doesn’t like to be shown up by anyone, not even his brothers.”
“Heath isn’t what Nick has to worry about, Jarrod,” Audra’s voice laughed prettily. “It’s Jenny Hall who kept him out late last night, teasing him all the while.” Nick’s growl would meet the brothers and sister and they would all burst out laughing. Victoria’s ears strained to hear those beloved voices, the voices that comforted her especially now. She could help smiling as she thought of her late husband. Her Tom would have been so proud to have witnessed the love all their children had for each other.
Stepping into Nick’s room, the Matriarch couldn’t help rolling her eyes. Nick’s room was typically a mess. Clothes strewn around, the bed unmade, his spurs on the dresser. Nick’s room was a mirror of the man he was, a man filled with jumbled emotions that needed to be put in order. In Nick’s world the disciplined ranch boss fought with the disorder of his empathetic heart. Even the youngest and newest of the ranch hands knew that Nick’s temper was far worse than his bite. Nick was a man in the making, learning from Heath often enough that showing emotions didn’t mean you were a weak. In fact it often took courage to show your true self, Victoria mused. Nick had courage aplenty. She hoped he would come home soon, his spurs singing, his voice yelling and his laughter ringing through the house.
Jarrod Barkley was an organized lawyer. His room held the memories of her eldest. The mother’s pride overflowed at Jarrod’s accomplishments. His college textbooks still lined the shelves of one wall of his room. A few newspaper articles about successful cases that he won in San Francisco were framed, but there were hidden in the closet, Victoria knew. Jarrod always showed her the articles, but then put them away, not wanting to show off. He was a power to be reckoned with both in the big city and in Stockton. Still he was more than willing to help the poorest client or fight for the weak and down trodden. Most of all, she was proud of how he had taken care of the family after his father died, intent even then on making sure his siblings and mother were safe against the men who had murdered her beloved husband. She would have survived after Tom’s death, but Jarrod, Jarrod brought peace and forgiveness to her heart during the long nights they sat together, sometimes talking, sometimes sitting silently in front of the fireplace, sharing a soothing companionship that saved them both. She didn’t know what she would have done without her oldest son, or what she ever would do if she lost him.
In Heath’s room, Victoria found a comfortable compromise. Heath treasured every possession he owned. His four-poster was perfectly made with its old fashioned patchwork quilt and fluffy pillows. Victoria could have bounced a quarter on it. She sat down on the bed, remembering the hours she had nursed Heath in this room. He was injured or sick so often it seemed he spent more time in bed than out. When he was active though, her youngest son was hard to keep up with. He worked harder than any two men, could outshoot any man on the ranch, except perhaps Nick and he could out ride everyone, including Nick. Victoria shook her head picking up the picture of the family that Heath kept by his bed on the bedside table. Could there have been a time when the family didn’t know Heath? It didn’t seem possible. She could see Heath comforting Audra, breaking a horse, or sitting down to the dinner table just waiting for the right moment to tease his brothers and make them laugh. Her home had already been blessed with the ebullience of her sons and daughter’s presence. When Heath arrived, the family had become complete. Now her heart and home was bereft of the comfort of her children, and she was terrified that events would contrive to keep them all from coming back to the mother who cherished them above all else.
* * * * * * * *
In the lean to shack, Heath and Willa had just agreed to help each other get away from David when he entered the lean to. His gaze went from Heath sitting on the floor to Willa standing a few feet away from the door with a basin in her arms. A cold, angry man, his temper always just simmering below the surface, David could smell a rat from 20 paces. He took out his suspicions on Willa and Heath almost immediately.
“What the hell is going on here?” he demanded. “Willa?”
Willa shuddered at the sound of her husband’s voice. Thinking quickly she knew getting defensive would not work. It would only raise David’s suspicions. She stood as tall and strong as she could to face her husband down.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she demanded. “I was trying to clean him up a bit. He’s not too trusting, not that I blame him. Too fancy for the likes of us, I guess.”
“Insulting you, was he?” David snarled.
“Nah, he hasn’t got the strength. I told you you practically killed him, David. He can barely move.” Willa wasn’t exaggerating. Heath’s fever gave his forehead a fine sheen of sweat, even though it wasn’t especially warm in the lean to. He was holding his side because of his broken ribs, and his face was covered in bruises. He stared with a glaring wrath at David, but had the good sense to be still. Willa hoped Heath didn’t take David on. At this point he was in no condition to try. David gave the pair a wicked grin.
“Well it’s no more than he deserved. Get back in the house and make my lunch. It’s way past noon. I need something better than the slop you gave me for breakfast.”
“There’s hardly any food in the house. If you give me some money I can go into town and get some supplies to make something decent.”
“No!” David thundered. He took two steps towards Willa, pulling down on her hair. She couldn’t help emitting a yelp of pain as he twisted her head towards him maniacally.
“David, stop!” she cried.
“What for?” he taunted. Willa defended herself as she always did against her husband. She took her bucket and hit him in the side, pleased to be released immediately. She ran out of the lean-to to safety. David would have run after her except Heath, taking a deep breath and moving as well as he could reached out to grab David’s leg with his shackled hands. David wasn’t even pulled off his feet by Heath’s grip, but he was effectively stopped from following Willa. Heath knew his split second decision was going to cost him, but he couldn’t just sit and watch a woman be abused. He could never have faced either of his mothers again, in this life or the next. He faced David head on as David’s hand hit him hard across the face. Falling backward, he managed to come back swinging with his hands, hitting David across the face so he fell down. Heath looked around the room wildly for any type of weapon. In his desperation, Heath couldn’t find anything. David proceeded to punch the blond in the stomach, using his abdomen like a punching bag till Heath collapsed on the ground, crying out in agony. David lifted his head, pulling on his hair as he had his wife’s. Heath’s eyes shot open to look at his attacker’s savage face.
“You’re a damn nuisance Barkley,” He was saying. “I should have killed you the minute I laid eyes on you. Too bad it was just your little sister.” At the mention of Audra, Heath’s temper flared.
“David, Please,” Willa’s voice called out as David lifted Heath, placing him against the wall. The desperation in her tone wasn’t lost on either man. David’s wolfish grin, his eyes bugged out told Heath his attacker had completely lost it and was going to kill him. In one last attempt to save himself, Heath raised his harms and used his remaining strength to put his arms around David’s neck and threw him against the wall. David hit the wall, and stood there till Heath let him go, then fell to the ground. Unable to keep standing, the blond cowboy collapsed in a mixture of anger, fear and desperation. His mind was overcome with the sharp shooting pain that was engulfing his body.
“David no!” Willa cried. Heath looked up to see Willa jump on David’s back as he drew his gun. David shook the woman off as if she were a pesky fly. She fell back on the ground, hitting her head on the woodpile. Heath’s heart bled for the woman even as David put the gun to his victim’s head. Heath’s blue eyes met the man he considered to be nothing better than a coward. For Audra and Nick and Jarrod and his mother, he intended to meet death bravely. David didn’t even see the blond’s courage. He cocked the pistol. With the cold steel against his head, Heath couldn’t help his involuntary shudder as the rickety little shack trembled with the thunderous roar of gunfire.
Two hours had passed since Jarrod had left the hotel where his brother was waiting for him. Nick Barkley was becoming increasingly upset, not angry, just plain worried. No matter what Jarrod was up to, he had promised to relieve Jeb and he should have been back by now. Nick, strands of his dark brown hair falling across his forehead, finally gave up the ghost of waiting for Jarrod. With one brother already kidnapped, having another missing was not what the doctor ordered, Nick thought as he grabbed the key to the room and went to talk to Jeb. Leaving behind the trunk with the one hundred thousand dollars in it was nothing when his brothers’ lives were on the line. He was just locking the door behind him when he saw Jeb walking down the hall. Quickly he stepped back inside the hotel room. In a minute Jeb had joined him. Nick shut the door behind them.
“Nick,” Jeb greeted holding out his hand.
“Jeb, you look tired, Boy. What happened out there?”
“Nick, I’m sorry. I don’t think we got anywhere. The two men are staying right here in the hotel. They’re in a room down the hall.”
Nick’s hazel eyes gave Jeb a look that said he didn’t believe it. Jeb held up his hands in mock surrender.
“I swear, Nick.” Nick shook his head.
“So they’re watching our movements now, aren’t they?” Nick speculated. “I’m guessing that’s why they’re staying here.”
“Well, I hadn’t rightly thought of that. I guess you’d be correct.”
“Whoever thought of all this seems to be smarter than I gave him credit for.” Jeb looked around as Nick spoke, then gave his friend a quizzical look.
“That’s another problem. My big brother seems to have disappeared. He sneaked out of here a few hours ago and hasn’t come back. Look, Jeb, can you pull double duty?”
“I’ll do what I can, Nick.”
“I think Jarrod is in trouble. Don’t me ask me any questions, just listen. I’m going to go and see if I can find him. I can enlist the sheriff if I have to.”
“What about Heath. Won’t you be putting him in harms way?”
“Jeb, I don’t know!” Nick exploded, his anguish evident. “Am I supposed to choose between my brothers?” Jeb didn’t say a word. He just listened.
“They’re both out there, Jeb, Jarrod and Heath. I have to take first things first. Right now Jarrod is the priority.”
“Well, looks like you made your decision. What can I do to help?”
“Stay here. Watch that trunk, and watch the alley. If the men come out, follow them.”
“What about the trunk?”
“Locating my brothers is a heck of a lot more important than what’s in that trunk, Jeb.” Nick’s eyebrows narrowed in his frustration and worry.
“You look like you could jump out of your skin, Nick. I’ve seen that look before on you. You gotta calm down my friend, else you lose your temper and you get hurt.” Nick’s concern changed to a grim look of intent.
“I’m not the one you should worry about, Jeb,” he countered. “Can you do this?”
“Course I can, Nick. Like I said before, it’s my job.”
“You’re a good man.” Nick replied shaking the man’s hand, then hurrying out of the room. This time he went down the front stairs of the hotel, no longer concerned about being seen in public. He stopped at the front desk to talk to the desk clerk, remembering a note Jarrod had received when they arrived. The note was the only clue he had to his brother’s disappearance.
“Can I help you, Mr. Barkley?” the desk clerk asked as Nick approached the desk, his spurs announcing his advance. Nick nodded.
“As a matter of fact, you can. When my brother and I arrived a while ago, you were here weren’t you?”
“Yes, Sir, sure was. Getting just about to the end of my day now as it happens.”
“Well you handed my brother a note. Do you remember who gave you the note?” The clerk, a young man in his early 20’s with sandy brown hair and a relaxed attitude thought for a few seconds.
“Well, let’s see,” he pondered finally. “It was just after noon, weren’t it? I don’t rightly recollect who brought it by.”
“Come on, Man,” Nick encouraged. “There aren’t that many people in and out of here are there? This is a matter of life and death?”
“My brother’s!” Nick snapped. “Look I’m losing my patience, and I guarantee if you don’t take this very seriously right now, you’ll regret it.”
“Whoa, Mr. Barkley. I’m just a desk clerk. I’m just trying to make a living.” Nick rolled his eyes. He took a silver dollar out of his pocket and threw it on the desk.
“Does that help your memory?” he demanded angrily. The desk clerk picked up the silver dollar. He handed it back to Nick.
“I wasn’t trying to bribe you, Mr. Barkley. I’m just not sure who it was brought the note. Sorry I can’t help ya.” Nick shook his head and refused to take the coin. He burst out of the hotel growing more frantic. The day had grown a little warmer and the sky was a perfect blue, a perfect day. There was no rhyme or reason to any of the events that were unfolding. Trying to get a grip, Nick realized he felt completely lost. His sister was terribly injured. His brothers were missing, and he was alone. Always before he had had someone to lean on, first his father and mother, then Jarrod and finally Heath. The gruff cowboy didn’t even know where to start to look for Jarrod, except with the sheriff. He took his usual broad steps across the street and down a few blocks. He was walking past the doctor’s office when he decided to knock on the door. Nick hoped he wasn’t there, but he’d feel better if he was satisfied Jarrod didn’t need the attention of a doctor yet. It took awhile for the door to open to Nick’s eternal frustration. When it did, he was greeted by a woman who appeared to be in her 40’s, dressed in a dark blue dress made of jersey material, covered with a white apron. What caught Nick’s eye was the red blood that covered a small part of white material.
“May I help you?” she asked pleasantly, flashing a gentle smile. Nick shuffled uncomfortably.
“Er, I didn’t mean to bother you, Ma’am. I was looking for Dr. Abbott? That’s what the shingle says out here.”
“Dr. Abbott is my husband. He’s in his surgery working on a patient who was injured. Won’t you come in, unless you have an emergency? He can come in about fifteen minutes.”
“No, no, it’s not an emergency, yet,” Nick answered. “I can come back. I was on my way to the sheriff’s office when I saw the doc’s shingle.”
“Well, if you tell me your name, maybe I can tell him you’re here and what your problem is.”
“Well, the name is Nick Barkley. I was wondering if…”
“Nick Barkley! What a coincidence. I was just going to come and get you. Your brother is here.”
“What?” Nick exclaimed looking around the room he was standing in. It was one large room actually, part of it a reception area, the other an examining table and equipment the doctor would use, but Jarrod was no where in sight. Neither was the doctor. “Where?”
“In the surgery,” the doctor’s wife explained patiently, obviously used to distressed relatives of her husband’s patients. “The sheriff brought him over. Now I can see you’re getting upset. It won’t do you any good. My Walter doesn’t cotton to just anyone being in his surgery with him. Your brother’s not going to die. His wound isn’t that serious, not that I could tell anyway. So why don’t you just have a seat out here in one of our nice chairs, and I’ll go see what’s going on?” Nick, half fuming at the woman’s condescension and half out of his mind with worry was overcome. Without replying, he plopped himself down on a chair, then got up and tried to follow the woman into the surgery which was apparently through a doorway that the woman stopped at.
“Now, now just wait here. It’ll be only another little while.” She disappeared into the room, firmly shutting the door in Nick Barkley’s face. His indignation was quickly swallowed by his fear and anxiety for Jarrod. What had his brother gotten into, he wondered. The woman said he wasn’t going to die. Could she be sure about that? Nick’s thoughts were close to driving him quietly insane when Mrs. Abbott finally came through the door. She beckoned to Nick.
“You can come in now, Mr. Barkley.” Nick didn’t need to be asked twice. He sprinted across the room in seconds, barreling into Dr. Abbott’s surgery with a loud cry.
“Jarrod! Jarrod!” He came to a full stop so fast Mrs. Abbott bumped into his back as she followed him. Nick stared at Nick sitting on an examining table or perhaps a wider surgical table with a man who looked quite a bit younger than their own Dr. Merar, wrapping Jarrod with a white bandage, going around and around the lawyer’s lean girth until he was satisfied with his work.
“Nick,” Jarrod cried. “Lower your voice. You don’t want the doctor here to think you’re a loud mouthed cowboy do you?”
“Jarrod, I have half a mind to strangle you,” Nick yelled, not lowering his voice one bit. “Do you know how worried I was?”
Jarrod had the good grace to flush a little as the dark cowboy’s hazel eyes bore into him with a barely restrained fury.
“Would saying, I’m sorry help?” he tried. “Honestly, Nick. I didn’t mean for this to happen.” Jarrod’s remorseful façade melted Nick’s anger.
“What the heck happened to you?” Nick exacted. “More important, are you all right?”
“Well, I guess you’d have to ask Dr. Abbott here. He’s the one with all the medical knowledge. Me, I’m just a dumb lawyer who doesn’t know how to keep himself from getting into a fool situation.”
“I’ll second that,” Nick hissed. Dr. Abbott burst out laughing while his wife smiled.
“You two are a hoot,” he grinned. “I haven’t been so amused in a coon’s age.”
“We’re happy to oblige, Doc,” Nick replied with evident sarcasm. “Now would you please tell me what happened to this dim witted brother of mine?”
“Dim witted, now just a minute, Brother Nick.”
“No, you wait a minute Jarrod, while the doc tells me if you’re going to live or die.” The doctor chuckled again.
“Oh he’ll live all right, long as he’s careful and doesn’t bust open my stitches. He lost a bit of blood that’s for sure, but he should be right as rain in a week or so.”
“A week,” Jarrod and Nick cried simultaneously. Dr. Abbott, a tall rather cachectic man who bore a passing resemblance to President Abraham Lincoln scratched his brown beard at the disconcerting faces of his patient and Nick.
“Well, I would guess it would take that long. Mr. Barkley, in all seriousness, you could have been killed. It’s a lucky thing you were able to get to the sheriff and he got you here. If you had waited another half hour or so you could have bled to death.”
“Bled to death?” Nick bellowed as Jarrod rolled eyes. “What happened?”
“It’s a long story, Nick. Let’s go back to the hotel, get some supper and I’ll tell you over a stiff drink.”
“Doc, give us the truth. Has he told you why we’re in town?”
“Well now, I reckon not. In fact, I’d like to know what happened as well. Why don’t you folks stay for supper? I have a feeling this is one story I’d like to hear first hand.”
“Doc, we’d like to, but we have some rather urgent business,” Jarrod said. “Besides which, when Nick does find out what happened, you might lose a few lamps to his sorry temper.” Jarrod flashed Nick a wicked grin to which Dr. Abbott chuckled again.
“Guess I won’t argue, but why don’t you let my Martha make you something to take along with you? I can’t have one of my patients eating the food they’ll give you at the hotel. It’s poor slop at best. Now Martha, she’s the best cook in these parts if I do say so myself.”
“Oh, Walter,” Martha replied. She had been making herself busy by putting away some of her husband’s instruments and taking away the dirty towels and bandages. She blushed at her husband’s praise.
“It’s the truth, Martha and you know it. She’s makes biscuits that melt in your mouth and that’s a fact.”
“Now there’s an offer I won’t refuse,” Nick answered. “We haven’t had anything but hardtack and jerky today. It’s getting to be worse than Heath’s beans.” Jarrod laughed despite himself, holding on to his side. “But we’ve got a friend at the hotel who is helping us. We can’t just sit down and eat in front of him.”
“Martha, you know what to do,” Dr. Abbott ordered. The indomitable woman hurried away to do her husband’s bidding. It was easy to see the couple were very much in love, kind hearted people who were most likely a great asset to the community. Nick and Jarrod exchanged glances. This was a man they could trust and no mistake.
“Dr. Abbott, I do have a few questions,” Nick started. Jarrod held his tongue as Nick went on.
“Go ahead, Mr. Barkley.”
“It’s Nick. Nick Barkley. Jarrod and I are looking for a man who is very dangerous. He’s kidnapped our younger brother, practically killed our sister and led us on a bit of a chase. Do you know anyone in town who is that ornery?”
“Ornery, Brother Nick?” Jarrod queried. “There’s a word. I’ve got a better question. The man Nick is talking about is working with a polished gentleman who I believe will stop at nothing for money. I met him tonight. He…” Jarrod hesitated while his blue eyes met his brother’s then went on. “He knifed me to prove a point.”
“Which was?” Nick countered darkly, the edge on his tone making Jarrod uncomfortable. Nick was not happy. When this was over, he was definitely going to have some explaining to do. He spoke honestly, hoping Nick could see past his hurt and anger to solve this mystery.
“That we shouldn’t try to do things our way. He told me he was evening the odds. The truth was, he wanted me to be afraid of him and not fight back.”
“Well he sure called that wrong didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did,” Jarrod said. “Doc, you have any ideas?” Dr. Abbott, his own forehead creased as he thought sat back in a chair. He appeared perplexed though there was a slight change in his demeanor. Jarrod and Nick saw the doctor was much more serious, but they put it down to what they had told him.
“I know most of the people in these parts. I can’t say I know anyone who fits your description.”
“Anyone at all?” Nick urged. The doctor finished cleaning up the surgery while Nick and Jarrod watched and waited. Several minutes later the doctor came back to them. Mrs. Abbott came back into the room. Jarrod made one more plea for help.
“Dr. Abbott, we need your complete honesty here. Do you know anyone in town who ever had a grudge with our family?”
“Well now, Jarrod,” Dr. Abbott said. “Not so’s I could say directly. I’ll think about it, ask around.”
“We don’t have much time, Doc,” Nick said. “This is urgent.”
“There isn’t anyone I can say specifically. The town is run down. People are hurting for money. My Martha and I are thinking of moving back east. I haven’t had a lot of patients lately.” Mrs. Abbott stepped forward.
“Walter, these men have to go. They don’t want to hear about our problems. You’ve been in here forever.”
“Good Lord,” Nick exclaimed. “Poor Jeb is waiting at the hotel. Jarrod, you ready? Doc, you never did answer my question. We’re going to have us a rough day tomorrow. Can he ride?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” the doctor started. One look at Nick and Jarrod’s faces told him Jarrod was going to ride anyway. He went to a glass cabinet near his surgery table. Taking out more bandages and tape, he wrapped the supplies in a clean cloth and gave them to Nick.
“You change his bandage in the morning, and keep these on hand. If the stitches rip, bring him back to me. I guess if my brother was out there, I wouldn’t stop at anything to get him back either.”
“Thank you for understanding, Walter,” Jarrod said. “Anytime you need a lawyer’s services you look me up in Stockton…if we get back there.” The last three words were muttered under his breath showing Nick his brother had been through a far more traumatic ordeal than he was letting on. Jarrod got down off the table with a little help from Nick. He stood on his own, and walked across the room with a wince. The three men adjourned to the front admitting room. Mrs. Abbott handed Nick the picnic basket she had prepared for Nick, Jarrod and Jeb.
“You can leave the basket with the hotel. I’ll pick it up in the morning,” She told Nick. She handed Jarrod his gun, and gun belt. Jarrod put it on immediately and checked the gun for bullets. Nick was picking up his brother’s tension. He put his hand on Jarrod’s shoulder.
“Pappy, you all right?” He asked, his concern in his voice. Jarrod let his hooded eyes look up at his younger sibling, his fatigue as evident as if he had said it. He just shook his head.
“No, Nick. I guess I’m not, but once we’ve got Heath and Audra is on the road to recovery, I’ll be fine.” Dr. Abbott took his wife’s hand squeezing it protectively. The room was electric with the Barkley’s anxiety.
“Nick, Jarrod, if there’s anything we can do for you, you just knock on our door,” Dr. Abbott said.
“You find anything out about those men, you come to the hotel,” Jarrod reminded him. Dr. Abbott nodded.
“And you be darn sure my stitches don’t come out,” the doctor called after Jarrod. Mrs. Abbott shut the door after the men, then turned to her husband.
“Why didn’t you tell them?” she asked softly going up to her husband, and hugging him lightly.
“Tell them what?” came the knowing question.
“That David is the source of their trouble?” Dr. Abbott looked at the closed door and shut his eyes.
“Because I was afraid,” he admitted.
“It is David, isn’t it?” she queried with her own fear screaming out to him. Dr. Walter Abbott held his wife, the most precious woman in the world to him. He nodded as she looked up to him.
“I think so, but I can’t be sure. I might have said something if I knew who he was working with. David is bad enough. He’s convinced his brothers that they should hate Tom Barkley ever since he killed their daddy in self defense. The way David tells it, their daddy was murdered. If they’ve aligned themselves with someone who is “polished,” like Jarrod Barkley says, then they’re doubly dangerous, and I don’t want you in the middle of that.”
“If we don’t help them…you may be taking bullets out of them and not just cleaning knife wounds, Walter,” the woman warned ominously.
“Martha, we’re not just talking about David. I’m betting Rob and John are involved in this. David has probably sucked them in. I can’t just tell the Barkley’s my sister’s sons might have their brother. If they find out, who knows what will happen?”
“If we don’t step in, someone is going to get killed over this, Walter. It could be the Barkley’s. It could be David or Rob and John. Tom Barkley was a crack shot. You know that! I saw the way Jarrod put on that gun belt. He was confident. I’m guessing the Barkley’s are good shots. Rob and John are good boys at heart. We’ve helped raise them since their daddy died. Rob was only eight years old. Walter, I can’t stand to see them hurt much less killed. We have to do something.” Walter Abbott sat down again in the nearest chair. He stared at his wife, a trapped look on his face as he spoke his stomach lurching with a sick feeling of defeat.
“If you have an idea Martha, I’m all ears.”
* * * * * * * *
Heath’s brain roared with the thundering gun shot that filled the tiny shack he was chained in. When the sound drifted away, he opened his eyes surprised to find he was still breathing. With his fevered foggy mind, he couldn’t figure how he had survived David’s murderous intent. A man’s threatening voice told him that while he had apparently been given a reprieve, he was definitely not out of harm’s way.
“David if you don’t step away from Barkley in two seconds, you’ll be a dead man,” the voice threatened. Heath tried to focus to see who had just saved his life. His body revolting against the agony that tortured him had to fight just to stay aware. He couldn’t focus on the people around him. Instead his eyes lit on David’s gun that fell to his side as he turned to face the man. Heath’s heart leaped in daring hope. The gun was so close to the young cowboy, he couldn’t resist the urge to grab for it. He lunged at David, hitting his hand with his handcuff, then dropping to the ground to grab the gun. Unfortunately his reflexes weren’t quite as fast as normal. Before he could grab it, David’s accomplice was across the room, stepping on Heath’s hand. Heath yelped in further anguish.
“Mr. Barkley, I can see why David had a gun pointed to your head. You are apparently trying his patience as much as you are mine.”
“He’s a damn insect,” David taunted. “Irritating just to look at.”
“He’s also no good to us dead.” The man lifted his foot. Heath moved back to the wall, his vision finally clearing. He saw that the man was vaguely familiar but he wasn’t sure how. The man shook his head as he took stock of Heath’s condition.
“No more beatings, David. He’s half-dead now.”
“We still got tonight and tomorrow morning before his brothers come. He can take a lot. After all, he’s a Barkley isn’t he?”
“I said no more.” Heath took note of the man’s command. David seemed to cower a bit in front of him.
“What makes you a friend of the Barkley’s all of a sudden?”
“Who said I was? It’s just that Jarrod Barkley has made it clear that he won’t pay a ransom for a dead man. He’ll want to see his brother alive and walking when he pays the ransom. You’ll still be able to kill him, but not until the ransom is paid.” Kneeling in front of Heath, the man slapped Heath on the face. Heath came around. He realized he had been losing consciousness which was why his captor slapped him.
“David really did a number on you, didn’t he, Barkley? Well he’s right about one thing. You Barkley’s can take a lot. At least I hope you can. I look forward to seeing your brothers tomorrow. If Jarrod can sit on a horse, he’ll prove himself as worthy an adversary as Nick was during the war.”
“What…what are you talking about?” Heath gasped. His mouth was dry. He was burning up, and still he felt all his protective instincts come to the surface as the man mentioned Nick and Jarrod.
“Just that Jarrod and I met tonight. He suffered a rather nasty knife wound, but don’t worry, I made sure it wasn’t fatal. I think he might have learned his lesson.” Heath moved as if to attack his captor. The man laughed, grabbing the chain and pulling Heath back to the ground.
“You’re just like him and Nick, aren’t you? Your mother must be one hell of a woman for Tom Barkley to whelp such stubborn, hot-headed boys.” Heath didn’t answer, proud to be mistaken for Victoria Barkley’s flesh and blood instead of just her adopted son, though he knew she would never think of him that way. He simply waited.
“I remember Nick from the war. He was a good officer, but he cared too much for the men. Almost got us killed one night in enemy territory. There we were, out in the open brash as you please and Nick has to make sure each of the injured has two men to help them get back to camp. Some of them were as good as dead, but would Nick leave em so we could get out with our own lives. Of course not Nick Barkley. He has to be his own man. Course he wasn’t the one got hit in the back by a sniper. That little present was given to me. I almost died.”
“Nick wouldn’t put any of his men in danger,” Heath objected.
“No? Well you ask him about it some day. In the meantime, I think it was a rare coincidence that brought me to the valley. I was looking for Nick, but ended here first. Guess I wasn’t surprised to find a grudge against the Barkley’s growing here too. They have a knack for getting under a man’s skin.”
“You can save your breath. You can’t bad mouth my brother to me. He’s a better man that you or I will ever be.”
“Really? You think that highly of him, putting him above yourself? You’re a fool, Barkley. David, put that damn gun away. Our guest isn’t going anywhere.”
“Yeah. Well my wife was defending him. Maybe I should just end her sorry life.” Heath tried to keep the alarm out of his eyes. Willa hadn’t moved during the entire incident. Now the stranger looked over to her. To his surprise, the man hit David across the face. David fell to the floor, the gun falling with him, landing in the dirt. He got up to face his partner, and a fight would have ensued if Willa hadn’t moaned. The man threw David to the ground again and went over to the woman.
“Willa? Willa, come on now. Wake up. You’re not really hurt too bad, are you?” Willa let herself be helped to a sitting position. Heath watched her as she collected herself. He was finding it hard to stay awake himself. He wasn’t even thinking of escape in his confused state, only his relief at seeing Willa alive and moving.
“My…my head,” Willa moaned. “Oh, Joshua. I’m so glad you are here.”
“Sure you are,” David sneered. He was about to go on when a scathing look from Joshua’s cold eyes cut him off. Frustrated, the man stomped out of the shack. Joshua gathered Willa in his arms.
“We can go into town. Doc Abbott can give you some headache powders and check you over.”
“Dr. Abbott? I haven’t seen him since I was a little girl,” Willa answered. “Oh, Joshua, why are you doing this? This man hasn’t done anything to you and look what David has done to you.”
“Willa, we’re asking for a hundred thousand dollars from the Barkley’s for their brother’s safe return. Do you know what we can do with that money?”
“We? David is my husband,” Willa replied. Heath almost threw up at seeing Joshua kiss Willa on the lips, melting her heart by holding her close as the tears ran down her face.
“David won’t be a problem, Willa,” he promised. “It will be just you and me, and we will be free to live a life that you could only dream of until now.” Heath stared at Willa. Her eyes met his in defeat. Now Heath knew the truth. She couldn’t help him. She couldn’t even help herself against a man like Joshua. He was promising her the moon and an escape that was practically guaranteed in her mind. Heath closed his eyes feeling equally vanquished by the odds. He was about to pull his legs up and let unconsciousness take him away from his agony when his eyes opened to light upon the gun David had dropped lying just feet away. He thought of Jarrod and Nick. He thought of Willa and Audra. He had to stop David and Joshua, at any cost. Using his foot, he pulled the gun towards him. To his amazement, he saw Willa stand up, blocking Joshua’s view of him.
“Joshua, I’m afraid,” she pouted prettily. “If David comes back, he’ll kill me sure.” Heath whisked the gun behind him.
“I’ll stay here tonight, Willa. This will all be over tomorrow and we can leave Hawthorne forever. You’ll never have to see it again.”
“You promise, Joshua?” she begged. He suddenly grabbed her arm, twisting it cruelly. Her cry stabbed at Heath’s sense of honor. He started to get up, but fell back, overcome by dizziness, pain and fever. Joshua pulled Willa’s arm and walked over to Heath. He kicked Heath in the ribs. Heath couldn’t help verbalizing his pain with a cry. He moved to his other side as the sharp knifing misery of his broken ribs slammed into his brain. Joshua bent down and picked up the gun. He raised it in the air bringing it down onto the side of his victim’s head before he could defend himself. Heath’s battered mind could take no more. He collapsed on the ground unable to keep the darkness from finally releasing him from the shattering insult to his head while Joshua turned to Willa. He slapped her across the face, his eyes growing dark and evil. Willa had barely recovered from the assault when Joshua’s hands clutched her shoulders in a dire pinch. His entire countenance promised dire consequences if she didn’t answer his question to his satisfaction. She swallowed in pure terror as his ice cold jealous voice whispered in to her ear.
“You were covering for him. You better tell me why or our relationship will come to a sudden tragic end.”