The Grand Compromise

Interlude 19 -- Parts 1-10

by Lindabrit





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.





This story grew out of some thoughts I had about the episodes Guilt of Matt Bentell, Judgement in Heaven, Hazard and They called her Delilah. In Bentell and Hazard, the rest of the Barkleys take a strong line with Heath, forcing him to accept their view of the situations in which Heath finds himself. He has to confront the hatred he feels for Matt Bentell and then for Gil Anders and the Barkleys give him little choice in these matters.

In the episode Judgement in Heaven, Nick is firmly opposed to Maybelle being allowed to stay because her lover Billy Joe Gaines had shot dead Dave Ross, a bank executive friend of Nick's, during a robbery. Heath backs him against Jarrod in the matter, because he can understand how Nick feels.

In the episode Delilah, Nick and Heath are both of the opinion that Julia Saxon killed the theatre manager but they know Jarrod believes her to be innocent. After Jarrod is attacked the ranchers put aside their doubts and investigate, ultimately proving the woman innocent.

These episodes led me to consider the ability of the three brothers to compromise and trust in one another and to decide that after Matt Bentell and Gil Anders, maybe it's time Heath got his own way for once. This tale is the result, I hope you like it.




Part 1

In the time that Heath Barkley had been a member of the family, he had made it his business to learn the many aspects of ranching and business in which the Barkleys had an interest. As these ranged from businesses as diverse as the Barkley shipping fleet, mining and logging interests to ranching, crop growing, fruit orchards, a winery and even a small transportation concern, the blond rancher had set himself a formidable task.

His eldest brother Jarrod watched the quiet, diligent progress of his new sibling with deep satisfaction. It had not taken him long to realize that what Heath lacked in formal education, he more than made up for in intelligence and he had observed that the newest Barkley was extremely quick on the uptake. Jarrod offered help when it seemed needful, but with tact, he was morbidly anxious not to appear to patronize his new brother.

At the season of the year when the Barkley peach crop was nearing the correct stage of ripeness for picking, Heath expressed an interest in knowing what happened to the fruit after harvesting. Nick was away on business for a couple of days so it fell to Jarrod to tell Heath about the peach crop. The lawyer explained that the Barkleys produced about half the total peach crop of the whole valley, while a number of smaller farmers produced the rest between them.

"We're the only outfit big enough to want to cover the expense of shipping our crop to the city, the other farmers sell their crop locally and we never tread on their toes, we sell our whole crop to a dealer from San Francisco. He has an option on our entire crop and we've never had a problem with him, so much so that we signed a binding contract with him last year."

As he spoke, Jarrod handed a copy of the contract to his brother and Heath took it with a smile and gave it a cursory scan. As his amiable blue eyes absorbed the information on the pages, his expression suddenly altered to one of frowning intensity, his whole body went rigid and he sat motionless for long seconds, his gaze locked onto the name of the man to whom the Barkleys sold their annual peach crop.

Jarrod noted the sudden tension and his own brow wrinkled in puzzlement, "something wrong Heath?"

With an effort, Heath dragged his gaze away from the name on the contract and raising his head, he glared at his eldest brother. Jarrod noted the stormy eyes and the grim mouth and wondered what in the world Heath had seen in a prosaic contract to put him in a rage.

Carefully keeping his voice even, Jarrod remarked lightly, "you look as though you've seen a ghost."

Heath made a huge effort to relax his tense muscles and let out a shaky breath. He spoke in a quiet but intense tone, "no Jarrod, not a ghost, just the name of a man who created a good few ghosts, a cold- hearted, ruthless killer!"

Jarrod's frown deepened, "are you speaking of Tatton Hall?"

Heath nodded wordlessly, the contract papers trembled in his hand and he laid the pages down upon the desk.

Jarrod stood up, anxiously observing his younger brother's very real distress, as yet, the lawyer had no idea what Heath meant, but clearly he was utterly sincere and what he said sprang from deep conviction. Jarrod crossed to the drinks tray and poured two glasses of scotch. He brought the drinks back to the desk and handed one to Heath. The lawyer perched himself on the corner of the desk and raised his glass in salute, "cheers."

Heath sketched an answering salute and then drank deeply.

Jarrod said quietly, "it's always my practice to check the background of anyone the family decides to do business with Heath, I certainly did so before we signed the peach contract with Mr Hall. The only things I found out about him were that prior to establishing himself in San Francisco as a fruit wholesaler, he used to have mining interests down near the Mexican border. No-one he had done business with had a bad word to say about him and no skeletons fell out of his closet, if they had, I would have rejected him as a suitable person to do business with."

The lawyer paused, waiting for Heath to offer some sort of evidence to the contrary but the younger man didn't respond in any way. There was a set, guarded look on his face and it gave Jarrod pain to see it. It was the closed off expression that had been habitual to Heath once and in the time that he had been with the Barkleys, Jarrod had seen it vanish, to be replaced with an open, amiable look, that blossomed readily into a lop-sided smile. It was sad to see that clear and confiding expression alter back to its old guarded look. Heath's eyes too, usually so gentle and placid, were glittering with hatred, as they had been when he first arrived to claim his birthright, ready and willing to fight for it if needs be.

The lawyer tried again, "you used the words ruthless killer, I think you'd better tell me exactly what you mean."

"Why?" The sharp response was uttered with considerable venom and it took Jarrod by surprise. He fought to keep a grip on his own temper and said with some asperity, "what do you mean why? Obviously, if we're doing business with a killer we want to know!"

Heath's burning eyes bored into the lawyer, "why?" he repeated, "so you can tell me to forgive him, tell me to stop hating him, not this time Jarrod! I won't, I can't do that again." The agitated rancher set his glass down with a crash and sprang up from his chair, pacing restlessly to the fireplace.

Jarrod didn't pretend to misunderstand his brother, the memory of the painful scene when Matt Bentell's true identity had been revealed, was still vivid in the lawyer's memory. He had felt for his younger brother, for Heath had confided enough details of his incarceration in the notorious Carterson prison camp, to more than explain his antipathy to Bentell.

Jarrod was uncomfortably aware that what Heath had said was true, the family had compelled him to confront the hatred he harboured for Bentell. They had done so with the best of intentions, fearing that if they didn't persuade Heath to let go of his hate, he would possibly kill the man he held responsible for the deaths of so many of his comrades.

Heath had resisted the idea, but Victoria Barkley's powerful personality had won the day. She had challenged Heath to show enough courage to do as she wished and because he loved her he had done it. The result had been happier than any of the Barkleys could have dared to hope for. Heath and Bentell had been forced to work together to defeat a common danger and each had achieved a measure of understanding with the other.

If Heath could never forget the sufferings of himself and his comrades, he found that he could forgive the man he had always deemed the perpetrator. He had learned that Bentell had been less to blame than he had thought and even managed to regard Bentell as a friend.

Jarrod had felt very proud of Heath, as did the rest of the family but the lawyer had shrewdly realized that the whole affair had cost Heath a great deal. His brother's haunted eyes had betrayed him, he had been forced to face his innermost demons and many evil memories had re-surfaced. Jarrod knew from Nick that Heath had experienced dreadful nightmares for a time after the Bentell affair, Jarrod regretted that they had ever made Heath revisit the horrors of Carterson, even briefly.

The second time the Barkleys forced Heath to deal with the burden of hate he carried in his soul had occurred when the stranger Gil Anders rode in to the ranch one spring afternoon from the Stockton road. The man had encountered Jarrod and had enquired for Heath politely enough, saying he had known him years ago. Before he could say more, two bounty hunters had shot him down in cold blood and showed every sign of gunning down Counselor Barkley too, when he tried to prevent them from dragging the wounded Anders away with them.

Fortunately for Anders and Jarrod, Nick Barkley was close at hand and he got the drop on the bounty hunters, sending them packing. Together, Nick and Jarrod carried the severely injured Anders indoors and despatched people to find both Doctor Merar and Heath. The doctor arrived first and told the family that Anders was slipping fast and the only thing to try was a blood transfusion.

Heath arrived later, summoned home from a day's hunting and he swiftly made his family understand the nature of his feelings towards the stricken Anders. When told that a blood transfusion represented Anders only hope of survival, Heath had said quietly, ‘let him die!' Nick had stepped in, rolling up his own sleeve and the doctor had administered the transfusion.

The reason for Heath's obvious hatred of Anders had quickly been explained. Anders, Heath and another, younger man had been stranded in the desert, with one horse and one water canteen between them. Anders had fled in the night, taking with him both the horse and the water. Heath had made heroic efforts to save the younger man but he had perished in the desert, leaving Heath to struggle out alone, barely alive.

For the second time, since his arrival at the ranch, Heath had faced the Barkleys and told them he had vowed to kill a man. As they had with Bentell, the Barkleys set about the task of convincing Heath that he needed to conquer his hate but this time he strongly resisted their efforts, even going so far as to move out of the family home for a time. He would not, he said, sleep under the same roof as Gil Anders, they could send for him when the man had died or left the house.

While Anders slowly recovered, Jarrod had set off for Coreyville to disprove the charges against the man. A trip which could easily have resulted in Counselor Barkley's death, had not Nick and Heath come to his aid. Ultimately, the three brothers had returned home, to tell a recuperating Anders that he was no longer a hunted man. Yielding a second time to the wishes of his loved ones, Heath had agreed to see Gil Anders and had accepted the man's confession of his own cowardice and sense of guilt. Once again, the family had been proud of Heath for relinquishing the hate he had nurtured for so long.

Now, it seemed, another bitter memory from Heath Barkley's past was about to tear him apart emotionally and Jarrod's heart went out to his brother. At the same time, if the fruit wholesaler Tatton Hall was, as Heath seemed to be asserting, a ruthless killer, Jarrod wondered what impact this matter might have on the family's business interests. His next task was clear, he needed to persuade Heath to tell him the whole story, then it would perhaps once again be time for a Barkley family conference.




Part 2


When Nick Barkley arrived home the next day, he knew at once that all was not well. As soon as he walked in the front door, his sister ran to his arms, hugging him warmly and lifting glowing eyes to his face.

"Oh Nick, I'm so glad you're home," she whispered earnestly.

Nick was accustomed to a warm welcome from Audra but he correctly interpreted her degree of pleasure at his return and smiled his best reassuring big brotherly smile at her.

"I'm mighty glad to be home and whatever's up, I'll take care of it, all right Honey?"

For answer, Audra twined her arms around his neck and hugged him hard. He patted her back and then taking her hand, advanced with her into the foyer. A smiling Silas took his hat and coat from him and promised to feed Nick within the hour. Still holding Audra's hand, Nick walked with her into the big living room.

His mother rose from her chair and came to greet him. "Nick! Home two days early, how lovely." She kissed her son tenderly and Nick smiled at her lovingly, noting the shade of worry in her eyes.

Nick shook hands with both his brothers, mildly surprised to find either one of them in the house at this hour of the day. Jarrod was outwardly his usual urbane self, but to Nick's experienced eye, Counselor Barkley was tense and wearing what Nick always thought of as his long-suffering face. Which usually meant he wanted to steer the Barkley empire in a particular direction but the rest of the family were putting obstacles in his way.

As for younger brother Heath, he had smiled and welcomed Nick home with genuine sincerity, but Nick could perceive both trouble and sadness in the younger man's soft blue eyes. Yep thought Nick, there's plainly something up with the boy!

When Heath had first come to the ranch, Nick had called him ‘Boy' continually, he had done it deliberately and with the sole intention of needling Heath. A lot had changed since those early days, now when Nick called Heath ‘Boy', it meant no more than little brother, or kid, a simple endearment that reinforced both their kinship and their friendship.

But in his mind, Nick always thought of Heath as ‘the boy'. The boy who had ridden up to the Barkley front door, bold as brass, demanding what was his. The boy who had slowly become Nick's ranching partner and best friend. The boy whose troubled past, Nick had tried to help him overcome, now it was clear to Nick that some aspect of that past had intruded into Heath's serenity.

Directing a stern frown at Counselor Barkley, Nick wondered how much Jarrod knew about whatever was upsetting Heath. He made a mental note to himself that if the lawyer was responsible for Heath's present state, then there was going to be a showdown between Nick and Jarrod Barkley!

Dinner was an awkward affair, Victoria, Audra and Nick did their share of talking, but Jarrod only joined the conversation when he was directly addressed and Heath scarcely spoke at all. Nick bided his time, he would get to the bottom of this soon enough and in the meantime he was hungry.

After dinner, the family adjourned to the library and Silas set a coffee tray in front of Victoria. Audra seated herself on the settee beside her mother and Nick dropped into one of the two armchairs. Heath sat opposite Nick and Jarrod took up a position beside the crackling fire, leaning his arm along the mantelpiece.

"Jarrod spoke quietly, "we need to have a family discussion about something important, something Heath has brought to my attention. It affects our peach growing business."

The Barkley ladies exchanged worried glances but neither spoke. Nick's frown was puzzled, the peach business, what in the world was going on?

Jarrod looked at Heath, who sat morosely, staring into the fire. "Do you want to tell them?" The lawyer asked quietly.

"No," said Heath tersely.

Jarrod sighed slightly, he was becoming exasperated with Heath's attitude but he kept his irritation in check and said mildly, "all right, I'll start then." His gaze encompassed the family, "as you know we've been selling our peaches to a particular wholesaler in San Francisco for some years now."

Nick nodded, "Tatton Hall, I've met him, he's a good businessman, I've never had cause to doubt his word." He looked sharply at Jarrod, "didn't we sign a contract for this year and next?"

"We did," confirmed the lawyer, "and that's rather the problem."  His eyes flickered in Heath's direction, "because Heath doesn't want us to do business with Mr Hall any more."

In a flash Heath exploded into action, springing to his feet and saying vehemently, "what I want is for this family to acknowledge what kind of a man Tatton Hall is!"

Nick's eyes widened, the boy was mightily upset, there was some story to all this, that much was as plain as day. He got to his feet and came to stand beside Heath, who was standing rigidly, confronting Jarrod. Nick laid a pacific hand on Heath's shoulder and spoke in an uncharacteristically reasonable tone.

"All right now, take it easy, I can see this is something you feel strongly about and you'll get a fair hearing, you should know that right?"

Heath had locked gazes with Jarrod but he responded to his ranching partner's question, looking into Nick's concerned hazel eyes and saying more mildly, "yeah, I guess I do know that, sorry Nick."

Nick squeezed his younger brother's shoulder and said cheerfully, "that's better, I'm the guy that loses his temper around here, remember?"

Nick silently noted that the apology had been extended only to himself, Heath had not included Jarrod. Heath's lop-sided smile dawned and died again only a moment later. Nick encouraged Heath to sit back down and himself took centre-stage, smiling sympathetically at his younger brother and asking, "so, are you going to explain how you know Tatton Hall, or do you want Jarrod to carry on?"

Heath's face clearly showed his conflicting emotions and he directed a look at Jarrod of mingled apology and entreaty. Jarrod's irritation vanished and he nodded at Heath, "I'll tell them," he assured the younger man. "Why don't you go and get some air, come back in a while?"

Heath nodded, "I think I'll do just that."

He went swiftly from the room and Nick exhaled a long slow breath. "I haven't seen the boy upset like that in a long time," he remarked. He directed a fierce look at Counselor Barkley, "any special reason he's cast you in the role of chief villain?"

Jarrod said quietly, "I think you'll find it isn't just me, but all of us as a family, he's just focusing his anger on me at the moment. I'm afraid this matter has raised some old and painful memories for Heath, I think the best thing would be if I tell you all what Heath told me yesterday."

Nick disposed his long limbs in a chair, "I'm all ears, Counselor."

Jarrod sat opposite Nick and gave his mother and sister a brief smile of reassurance.

"Heath came across Tatton Hall in the days when he worked in and around the mines, down near the Mexican border. Hall owned several mines and Heath tells me that he was something of a tyrant, he didn't maintain his mines properly and had a bad safety record. He hired very particular types of people apparently."

Nick frowned, "what types?"

Jarrod drank some of his coffee before he replied. "Heath tells me that Hall drew his workforce from amongst the most vulnerable. Desperate Mexicans, coming across the border to earn much needed money for their families. Young kids who ought to have been in school but who were the only breadwinners for their families. Men who were really too ill to do mine work, anyone in fact without a realistic prospect of working anywhere else."

Nick gestured impatiently, "well I can see Hall isn't the compassionate type but I don't see what there is in that to get Heath so stirred up."

Jarrod's face and voice were grave, "Heath tells me that Tatton Hall had an arrangement with a local prison camp, they provided workers for him too, little better than slave labour, the conditions under which those people worked were brutal, a lot of his workers didn't survive."

Audra was looking distressed and her mother patted the girl's hand comfortingly. Victoria said, "Jarrod, I'm sure you looked into Mr Hall's background before we did business with him."

"Yes I did Mother, none of what Heath has told me showed up in the investigation."

Nick scowled at Jarrod, "you saying Heath's wrong?"

"No Nick, I'm not saying Heath's wrong," answered Jarrod with commendable patience, "but Hall has certainly done a good job of covering his past."

Victoria had been thinking hard, "which would make it difficult to bring the man to account in a legal sense?"

Jarrod was grateful for her swift comprehension, "exactly Mother, I can try of course, but if Hall is as smart as I think he is, he'll have made sure that his name doesn't show on any of the companies that caused these deaths."

Nick asked, "what's Heath's involvement in all this?"

Jarrod shook his head, "he hasn't shared the details with me, but I'm quite certain that he's been concerned in some personal sense. I think he'd like to tell someone, but it's obviously hard for him." The lawyer smiled at Nick, "you may be able to draw him out more successfully than I've been able to."

Nick saw the rueful smile in his elder brother's eyes, "since when have you had any trouble getting Heath to confide in you Jarrod?"

Jarrod sighed, "since he stopped trusting me Nick."

Victoria frowned, "why should he do that Jarrod?"

The lawyer said quietly, "I'm afraid Heath sees me as the protector of the Barkley interests in this case."

Nick was impatient, "well that's your job, he's not stupid, he should know that!"

Victoria said calmly, "take it easy Nick, this matter clearly means a great deal to Heath and we as a family must try to understand his feelings." She looked at Jarrod, "Is there more to it than mere business interests Jarrod?"

The lawyer's eyes acknowledged her shrewdness, "yes Mother, he's referred to the two occasions on which we've forced him to confront experiences from his past."

"What occasions?" demanded Nick.

"The time we made him work with Matt Bentell and the time we made him meet Gil Anders."

Nick was at a loss, "well what were we supposed to do, let him kill Matt, wind up with a rope around his neck?" The rancher sprang up and prowled restlessly to the fireplace. "As for Anders, Heath's own hate was eating him alive, were we supposed to just watch? I've got a good mind to go outside and straighten Heath out right now!"

"No," said Victoria firmly, she had a pretty shrewd idea how Nick would proceed to straighten out his younger brother.

She looked at Jarrod, "you said Heath had stopped trusting you, but in those two situations from the past, we acted as a family, why is Heath acting as though you are to blame?"

Jarrod shook his head, "I'm not sure Mother, I'm pretty certain It's not about Anders or Bentell as such, I think that whatever's eating him is more bound up in this new matter with Hall. Heath wants us to stop dealing with Hall and he knows I have concerns about that. If there's something else between him and me, then I have to say I don't know what it is."

Victoria could see that Heath's attitude was hurtful to Jarrod and she said "don't be upset, I know Heath's attitude to you seems hurtful, but he's wrong to see you as being opposed to him in this affair, we'll show him that's the case."

Jarrod's voice was grim, "actually Mother, I'm not so sure he is wrong, there's a lot at stake here, besides Heath's feelings."

The Barkley matriarch nodded and said decisively, "very well Jarrod, thank you for your honesty, this is obviously a situation we need to resolve and for that the whole family needs to be present. Audra, please go and get your brother, the sooner we get to the bottom of this the better."




Part 3


Audra stepped outside into the warm night air, she couldn't immediately see her brother but this didn't trouble her, for she knew exactly where to find Heath. She made her way to the fenced in meadow behind the big barn where some of the older animals lived out their days in honourable retirement. As she had expected, Heath was standing beside the fence-rail, petting his beloved little Modoc mare Gal.

Audra came to stand beside her brother and watched as he drew one of Gal's sensitive ears through his hand over and over again. The mare ducked her head toward him and nickered with pleasure as the rhythmical stroking continued.

Audra smiled, "she sure loves that."

Heath smiled at her but didn't reply.

Audra said apologetically "Mother wants you to come back in so we can all talk Heath."

Heath gave Gal's ear one last pull and sent the little horse trotting away across the meadow. He watched her frolicking and kicking up her heels and then reluctantly dragged his gaze away from the horse.

"Back into the lion's den huh?"

Audra tucked her hand into his arm as they started back to the house together, "oh Heath it isn't like that! I'm on your side, I promise you I'll support you, whatever you want to do."

Heath patted the hand on his arm, "thanks Sis, that means a lot to me."

Brother and sister went indoors together and rejoined the rest of the family in the living room. Victoria smiled a welcome and spoke directly to Heath.

"Please come and join us Heath, we're discussing the position related to Mr Tatton Hall, in light of the facts that you've shared with Jarrod."

Heath could never refuse Victoria Barkley anything and he came and stood beside the marble fireplace, resting one arm along the mantelpiece. Nick took up a similar position at the other side of the fireplace, the two brothers often stood thus, Victoria thought they resembled a pair of exceptionally stubborn book-ends at times.

Nick's hard hazel gaze bored into Heath, "you sure of your facts are you?"

Heath raised his head and met Nick's penetrating glance fearlessly, "dead sure Nick," he answered quietly.

The gazes of the two brothers held for a long moment and then Nick's lips relaxed into a slight smile, "well that's good enough for me," he declared.

Jarrod glared at Nick, "I don't think any of us doubt that Heath is telling us the truth, the question is, what do we do about it?"

Nick ignored this for the moment and asked Heath, "did you tangle with this Tatton Hall yourself once?"

Heath kicked moodily at the massive log on the fire, "Yes," he admitted reluctantly, "but I don't want to talk about it Nick."

"Fair enough," said Nick, thinking to himself that he had a far greater chance of extracting Heath's story from him when the two of them were alone.

Victoria said, "Heath, Jarrod tells me that Mr Hall has covered his tracks rather well, which would pose considerable difficulties in bringing him to justice."

Heath looked gravely at her, "I know that Mother," he said quietly. "I wasn't expecting Jarrod to prosecute Hall, his crimes were a long time ago and they were committed against the kind of people who don't matter much to the rest of the world."

Jarrod was sitting in his chair, ostensibly relaxed, but at Heath's words he stiffened and nailed Heath with a penetrative flash of his intensely blue eyes. "Is that how you believe I think Heath?"

Heath looked honestly into Jarrod's eyes, "no, of course not, but I don't expect you to take on such an impossible task, I know that Hall will never be brought to book for what he's done, I don't kid myself that he ever will be."

Victoria leaned forward slightly, "what exactly do you want of us Heath?"

Heath turned to her, speaking with quiet but vehement sincerity, "I can't live with the idea that the Barkley family trades with that man, I can honestly say that I'd rather burn our peaches on the tree than sell them to Tatton Hall!"

"So would I," declared Audra stoutly, bestowing a dazzling smile on Heath.

Victoria considered the matter for a moment, "I understand how you feel Heath and I'm bound to say I agree with you."

Heath flashed the ladies a grateful smile, "thank you Mother, you too Audra."

Heath looked at his ranching partner and best friend, "Nick?"

Nick heard the note of hope in the interrogative from the young man who had, in so short a time, become his best friend, as well as his brother. Involuntarily, Nick's glance flickered at Jarrod, but he could read little in the lawyer's bland expression. Nick had worked with Jarrod on the Tatton Hall peach contract and knew its provisions and clauses every bit as well as the lawyer did. For the Barkleys to terminate their business with Tatton Hall, they would have to confront some hard choices.

Nick thought rapidly, he had not had the chance to talk to Heath in depth himself yet, but Jarrod had said that Heath had made reference to the Bentell affair and also to the time when the injured man Anders had been at the ranch. It therefore seemed plain to Nick, that Heath was drawing a parallel between those situations and this one. On each of the other two occasions, the family had urged Heath to a course of action against his will. As it turned out, both matters had been resolved in a satisfactory manner, but that really wasn't the point. Here they were now, faced with a direct request from Heath and to say no to him, was going to be perceived by him as a third rejection.

Heath's eyes were fixed on Nick's face and meeting his brother's gaze, Nick knew that he couldn't do it to him, not again, not this time.

With a swift apologetic glance at his elder brother, Nick nodded to Heath, "I agree too."

The glowing look from Heath's expressive eyes was all the reward Nick needed and it reinforced his decision, he could not in all conscience, have taken a stand against Heath on this matter. Nick promised himself that he would have the full story out of his younger brother first chance he got!

All eyes were now on Counselor Barkley as the rest of the family waited for him to declare his position. Jarrod had not been at all surprised by the decisions of the rest of the family, but he was acutely aware of his function as the Barkley family attorney and he knew he had an obligation to put the counter arguments to the others.

Jarrod drew a resolute breath and encompassed the rest of the family in his gaze. "Before I tell you how I feel about this matter, I think I should tell you a little bit about the contract we currently have with Tatton Hall. Nick is already familiar with it, but the rest of you need to hear this." The lawyer leaned forward in his chair, using his shapely hands to tick off the salient points of the contract.

"Firstly, we are contracted to give Hall the first option to buy our peaches for the next two years. This doesn't mean that we actually have to sell them to him, but it does mean that we can't sell them to anyone else.

Secondly, we need to be aware that the sources in San Francisco to whom Hall would normally sell our produce are going to find out that we are to blame if no fruit is forthcoming. This may well have implications for our future sales in the city.

Thirdly, as grand a gesture as refusing to do business with Hall is, there is nothing to stop him obtaining all the peaches he needs from the rest of the farmers in this valley. He'd have to pay for the shipping, but he'd no doubt be prepared to do that, to thwart our efforts to freeze him out of business. In the meantime, our own fruit will rot on the trees."

The lawyer smiled slightly, "does everything I've said make sense to you all?"

The Barkleys all nodded and Jarrod noted that Heath was now looking very torn, on the one hand still determined to persuade his family not to trade with the evil Tatton Hall, on the other, aware now of the wider implications of his actions. Jarrod looked at his younger brother for long seconds, they had asked a great deal of Heath both over Bentell and Anders. They had asked and he had acceded to their wishes. They could argue that they had done it for him and that they had been right, but that didn't minimize the effort that had been required from him.

Now it was Heath, asking something of them, something that clearly mattered a very great deal to him. Jarrod was now experiencing pretty much the same emotion that Nick had, the businessman and lawyer in him might be screaming that this was madness, but just as Nick had found, Jarrod felt unable to refuse Heath. The lawyer's gaze swept the faces of his other relatives, they were all sticking with the decision they had come to and Jarrod made his own decision.

The lawyer smiled, "as you all know, when Eugene is away from home at college, his proxy vote falls to me to exercise. So I have two votes to cast here." Jarrod paused, but no-one protested, the practice of his exercising Gene's vote had been in place for a long time now and none of the family had ever had cause to question it.

Jarrod said lightly, "I think that if Gene were here, he'd be as reluctant as the rest of us to do business with a man of Hall's reputation." He smiled wryly at the surprised expressions on the faces of his family. "I don't know why you all look so astounded," he protested, "I'm the family lawyer, playing devil's advocate is my job, but it doesn't mean that I'm the enemy, or that I disagree with the rest of you. I think Gene and I both want to make this thing unanimous, as of today, the Barkley family has no more dealings with Tatton Hall. As to the consequences for our future trade in the peach market, we'll no doubt weather the storm somehow."

Heath's face worked for a moment, then he regained control of himself again. He smiled lopsidedly at Jarrod, "Thanks big Brother."

Victoria rose, shaking out her skirts, "well, I'm glad that all this is settled, I think I'll turn in now, come along Audra."

Her sons all stood courteously as Victoria left the room, followed by Audra.

Heath said quietly, "I reckon I'll turn in too, good night."

"Night Heath," said Nick.

"Sleep well Heath," said Jarrod softly.

As Heath got to the door, He turned back, "Jarrod, Nick, I...well...I'm sorry, I mean...I know this is going to make things difficult..."

Nick waved an expansive hand, "difficult is the Barkley family's middle name little brother, don't worry about it!"

Jarrod's smile was understanding, his voice gentle, "Nick's right Heath, we thrive on a challenge, go get some sleep."

When Heath had gone, Nick poured drinks for himself and his brother. He handed Jarrod a glass and said briefly, "sorry Jarrod."

The lawyer shook his head, "don't be Nick, I felt exactly the same as you, my head knew it was a foolish thing to do, but my heart knew that Heath needed to win this one. Tell me, do you think you'll be able to get him to confide in you?"

"Oh yeah, leave it to me," answered Nick confidently, "I'll talk to him tomorrow."




Part 4


In the welcome solitude of his bedroom, Heath Barkley lay stretched, fully dressed upon his bed, arms behind his head. He was wide awake and knew there would be no point in going to bed, he would not find sleep this night. His mind and his heart were too full to let him rest. He was aware of a feeling of deep content. His family had asked him his wishes in the matter of the contract with Tatton Hall and he had unequivocally told them what he wanted.

He had been realistic, a legal prosecution of Hall would have been difficult at best, probably an impossibility, but there was one thing the Barkleys could do and that was to cease their dealings with Hall at once. Heath wasn't sure what he had expected, but his honest nature acknowledged that he had feared the worst. To his intense joy they had voted one and all to do as he wanted and the Barkley family would now sever all connection with a ruthless, cold-hearted tyrant.

Heath wondered if he had perhaps been wrong to draw comparisons between this situation and the times he had followed the family's wishes over Bentell and then Anders. This was an entirely different scenario, but his heart had told him that he was owed, that he had done as the rest of the Barkleys wished and now it was their turn to return the compliment.

Heath harboured no resentment over either Bentell or Anders, he had acceded to the family's wishes and didn't repine over doing so. His honest heart even acknowledged that he had gained a certain inner peace from his decisions. Hate is a corrosive and bitter thing, it can poison a good man's soul and Heath knew that he was both a better and a happier man for the shedding of the burden of hate he had carried around within him for so long.

All the same, it gave him huge satisfaction to know that his feelings were important enough to the Barkleys for them to take what was, in reality, a disastrous business decision. Heath was acutely aware that he hadn't had any actual proof to show to the family, indeed he hadn't even shared his own history with Hall. They had simply accepted what he alleged as the absolute truth and acted accordingly. Nothing could dispel the warmth in Heath's heart tonight, he knew himself to be respected and loved by his nearest and dearest and to him, this was priceless knowledge.

Heath's heart was warm, but there was no denying that his head was crowded with thoughts and some of these were distinctly uneasy. Until Jarrod had actually laid them out, Heath had given no thought to the ramifications of the decision to cut all ties to Tatton Hall. The Barkleys were willing to accept the consequences, but Heath couldn't help but feel a pang or two of guilt. Because of him, the plentiful Barkley peach crop was going to be left to rot on the trees. The family's reputation as reliable growers would be severely, perhaps irreparably damaged.

Heath sat up on the bed as a further, unwelcome thought struck him, how would this decision affect the smaller peach producers in the valley? Jarrod had told him that between them, the smaller outfits produced approximately the same amount of peaches as did the Barkleys. By common custom, the Barkleys went to the expense of shipping their fruit, amply recompensed for their trouble by the higher prices obtainable in the city.

Jarrod had also said earlier that Hall's likely response to being shunned by the Barkleys, would be to make a deal with the smaller valley outfits. Thus, Hall would have the produce he required to fulfill his customers needs and he could shrug off the Barkleys with little or no impact to his empire.

Heath's handsome face was grave, his brow frowning in deep thought, did he regret the action he had urged his family to take? No! He couldn't regret it, but that didn't mean he had to like the consequences either. Into Heath's mind, for no special reason that he could figure, a memory of the past came into sharp focus.

In his mind's eye he was again standing in the Barkley library, Victoria Barkley's tiny hands gripping his arm, her hazel eyes fierce as she challenged him to work alongside Matt Bentell. Her harsh words were imprinted on Heath's brain, "show us some of Tom Barkley's guts!" His slow smile curved his lips, God she was a little spitfire when she wanted to be! He had done so then, but it wasn't guts that was needed here, thought the blond rancher ruefully.

Brains, it was brains that were needed here, only a clever solution could salvage anything from the wreck that he had created. For an instant Heath's spirit sank, Jarrod was the clever Barkley brother, his legal and business experience were immense and no easy answer had presented itself to Counselor Barkley it seemed.

Nick too, not a natural businessman perhaps, but like Jarrod he had a lot of experience in business dealings, contracts and the like. Heath had seen Nick visibly wrestle with his decision to back his younger brother. Nick knew the consequences, if he had any ideas on avoiding them, he had not said so. Did this mean that there was no solution? If so, Heath was uneasily aware that he would have to live with the fact that because of him, the family's interests had been badly damaged and its reputation tarnished.

Heath stood up and began to pace slowly up and down the floor of his bedroom. If it had to be so, then he would accept and live with it, just as the rest of the family had already decided to do. But did it have to be so? Wasn't there any other way to handle this, without abandoning their principles? Not for the first time, Heath regretted an early life so harsh that he had been deprived of all but the most basic of educations. Suddenly, he stopped in mid-pace. There was an arrested expression on his face, as he listened to the strong inner voice of his own spirit.

Heath Barkley had known a great deal of suffering in his young life, he had experienced hardships and privations, tortures and traumas that would have broken a less remarkable young man. He would not have survived some of the incidents in his past, without the strongest and most confident of personalities. He was outwardly a quiet and unassuming man, but he possessed a steely inner core and a strength of spirit, powerful enough to sustain him through all of his life's ordeals.

His inner voice was speaking to him now and with crystal clarity. And it told him that Jarrod Barkley's legal mind and Nick Barkley's business acumen were not the answer to this problem. Heath himself, uniquely perhaps, had the ability to turn this unpromising situation to the advantage, not only of the Barkleys, but perhaps of all the small farmers in the valley as well.

Heath crossed to his little desk and sat thoughtfully in his chair. His inner voice had given him the germ of an idea and as he pursued it, he was conscious of a glow of excitement that built steadily into a bright flame of hope that burned in his mind and spurred him to greater effort. Reaching for pen and paper, Heath began to write down his thoughts and ideas, there were things he didn't know and he could check these with his brothers, as to the rest, well that was down to himself!

Nick Barkley wasn't having any more luck catching his sleep than his brother Heath. He didn't and couldn't regret siding with Heath over this matter and he didn't think older brother Jarrod regretted it either. But both men had striven throughout their adult lives to run the Barkley empire as their late father would have wished it to be run. Young and vulnerable when they stepped into Tom Barkley's formidably big shoes, both the lawyer and the rancher had worked tirelessly to live up to Tom's larger than life legend.

Nick was proud of their accomplishments, he had been totally devoted to his father and he believed that Tom would have expressed himself well-satisfied with all that Jarrod and Nick had been able to do. So it was painful to have to take a step which was going to have such a detrimental effect on the standing and reputation of the family. Nick Barkley possessed indomitable courage and he would face the consequences of what the family had decided to do, but like Heath, he was very concerned about the impact on the valley and its smaller farmers. Nick loved this valley dearly and anything that cast a shadow on it, also cast a shadow on him.

Nick was still dressed and had paced moodily and for some time around his magnificent room. He was thirsty, but shunned the drinks tray on a table in the centre of the room. Alcohol was the last thing he needed in this case, he wanted to keep a clear head, not that he could see any solutions yet, but Nick Barkley never gave up easily.

Deciding that he would like a cold glass of milk, Nick left his room and padded down the landing towards the stairs. He saw the ribbon of light under Heath's door and shrewdly guessed that many of the same questions currently troubling him, were also keeping Heath awake. He smiled, make that two glasses of cold milk.

Nick was famous for his ability to make noise, but he procured the milk without making any sound to disturb the sleep of the houseman Silas, whose quarters were behind the kitchen. He came back upstairs with a glass in each hand and kicked lightly with his toe on Heath's bedroom door. Heath raised his head from his paperwork and called softly, "yeah?"

"It's me, open the door," said Nick quietly.

Heath rose and crossed to open the door, he smiled when he saw the glasses of milk Nick carried.

The older brother smiled, "I saw your light, guessed you couldn't sleep either, can you use one of these?"

The smile was returned, "you bet! Come on in Nick, I'm real glad you're awake, I need to talk to you."

Heath took one of the glasses from Nick and almost pulled his brother into the room and shut the door again.

His enthusiasm startled Nick slightly, he glanced at the scattered papers on Heath's desk, what in the world was the boy up to?

"Are you all right? I don't want to disturb you if you're busy," said Nick hesitantly.

Heath grinned at him, "we're both going to be busy big Brother! Leastways we are if you think my idea makes any sense. Of course there are things I don't know, but you will and if you don't Jarrod will, so that's all right. Anyway, I think I've covered most things, but you may say none of it will work but..."

"Whoa there boy!" laughed Nick. "I've never heard you babble with excitement like that in all the time you've been here, you sound like Eugene!"

He indicated the paperwork, "what the heck is all that?"

Heath's dazzling grin gave Nick his answer and the older brother's own face split into an identical grin. "Don't tell me you've come up with some way to salvage this mess?"

Heath's voice was proud and joyous, "you know what Nick, I think I may have done just that!"




Part 5


Victoria Barkley slept fitfully and awoke with a heart as heavy as the grey dawn that had hardly begun to break. Last night, she had found it impossible to spurn Heath when he asked for her support and she did not regret her decision. She had been aware of a thrill of pride in her children, she had admired each and every one of them.

Audra for her impulsive instinct to side with Heath, the girl didn't truly care if he was right or wrong, her brother needed her help and he got it, without qualification or quibble. Nick, for setting aside his natural shrewdness and business acumen, in favour of demonstrating his loyalty to the sibling with whom he shared both his ranching life and his power.

As for Jarrod? She admired her clever lawyer-son most of all for his actions of the previous evening. He knew what the decision to break the peach contract would mean to the family, to its reputation and its standing in the commercial world. He had worked hard to establish the Barkley name as one of the most reliable to be met with in business and in this one gesture he had agreed to sacrifice it. Perhaps only his mother knew what the decision had cost him and she respected him for paying the price.

They had done it, her children, for the same reason she had herself. They had done it because it was necessary to affirm their allegiance to Heath. It was necessary to demonstrate to this the most loving, faithful and staunch of men that the loyalty he gave would unfailingly be given back to him when he needed it. Which was all very fine but poor Victoria couldn't help but be wistful about a course of action that would damage the life's work of her late husband, her beloved Tom.

She was too restless to remain in bed, even though it wasn't even properly light yet and rising, she thought she would make haste and join the rancher brothers for breakfast. They were busy at the moment and had taken to breakfasting very early and getting a head start on their day. Victoria washed her hands and face, dressed quickly and brushed her silver hair into elegant neatness. She closed her bedroom door noiselessly and made her way down the back stairs into the kitchen. She would help Silas cook a substantial breakfast for Nick and Heath.

At the bottom of the stairs, Victoria came to a halt, gaping slightly as she surveyed the extreme disarray of the kitchen. The Barkley houseman Silas had been with the family for twenty eight years and unfailingly performed his duties to a high standard of excellence. No doubt, when Silas retired to bed last night, the kitchen had been spotlessly clean and in apple pie order, but it was not so now.

There was a profusion of used crockery and cutlery scattered across the big kitchen table and it also bore most of the easily accessible ready cooked food from the larder and cold store. There was the remains of a baked ham, the huge joint of beef that had been intended for the evening meal and the remains of a big chicken pie, baked only yesterday by Victoria herself. The two fresh loaves baked by Silas for use at the breakfast table had been hacked into and there were breadcrumbs everywhere.

As Victoria stood bemused amidst the wreckage, the perpetrators of the devastation came through to the kitchen from the foyer, where judging by the bulging hat each carried, they had evidently been raiding the big fruit bowl. The two men were laughing as they came into the kitchen, but coming face to face with their mother, both fell guiltily silent and they stood sheepishly in front of her, for all the world like two overgrown schoolboys.

"Good morning Boys," said Victoria with commendable calm.

"Morning Mother," chorused the ranchers in unison.

"You're up kind of early aren't you Mother?" said Nick.

"I could say the same about you two," returned Victoria.

Heath's sparkling grin surprised her, "we haven't been to bed," confided the blond rancher.

"Sorry about the mess," said Nick.

"We're kind of in a hurry," added Heath.

"So I see," agreed Victoria blandly. "Too pushed for time to fix yourselves any breakfast, or let Silas do so?"

"Yeah, that's it," nodded Nick giving Heath a push toward the back kitchen door and freedom.

"Is there some urgent problem with the ranch?"

Heath's smile dazzled his mother and gladdened her heart, "oh no, we're not doing any ranch work today," he confided.

Nick propelled Heath nearer the door and glanced back to Victoria to say, "there's a note there for Mac, telling him what I want him and the boys to get on with today."

Heath plucked his sleeve, "Jarrod," he reminded Nick.

"Oh yeah! Mother tell Jarrod to stay put, on no account is he to go running off to San Francisco, or even Stockton! We're going to need him. Bye Mother."

Nick had managed to open the back door and thrust Heath through it and he almost made his own escape before Victoria's ominously quiet, "Nicholas?" stopped him in his tracks.

"Yes Mother?"

Victoria spread expansive hands to indicate the incredible mess in the kitchen, "what is going on?"

Nick looked at her in bewilderment, "Heath told you, we're in a hurry!"

Heath had come back into the kitchen, "Nick we should get going."

Victoria's hazel gaze nailed him to the door, "Heath Barkley! You and your brother aren't going anywhere until you tell me precisely what you're up to."

The blond rancher's face was a mask of dismay, "I don't want to do that," he declared.

Nick looked at him in horror, it was not the practice of Victoria Barkley's children to give their mother a negative answer like the one Heath had just uttered.

Victoria raised an eyebrow at Heath, "I beg your pardon?"

Heath made haste to save his neck, "I mean...of course we want to tell you...but only if it works and..."

"Of course it'll work!" Nick's voice was emphatic. He grinned at his mother, "the boy genius here has come up with a scheme to save the peaches, the family reputation, benefit the rest of the farmers in the valley and stick a knife in Tatton Hall all at the same time! Pretty good huh?"

Heath had edged toward the back door again and now he darted through it, virtually dragging Nick out by the scruff of his neck.

Victoria opened her mouth to speak again but stopped as she realized she would be addressing only the empty space where her two sons had been. Slowly, a smile dawned on the Barkley matriarch's face, spreading into a broad grin and by the time a sleepy Silas had entered the kitchen from his quarters in the rear, she was laughing so hard that there were tears running down her face.

The elderly houseman looked sorrowfully around his domain, noting the chaos that had succeeded the order in which he had left it last night. Then he turned reproachful eyes on his mistress.

"How come I never felt the earthquake when it hit Ma'am?"

With an effort, Victoria pulled herself together, mopping her eyes with her handkerchief. "Oh dear, I'm so sorry Silas, those two rogues have left all this awful mess!"

Silas had no trouble in identifying the two rogues she referred to as Nick and Heath Barkley. "So I see Ma'am, I'll tidy it right up," he said resignedly.

Victoria reached for her apron, "I'll give you a hand Silas, otherwise the rest of us are going to starve this morning!"

In a remarkably short space of time, Victoria and Silas managed to restore some semblance of order in the kitchen and by the time Jarrod and Audra made an appearance, breakfast was on the table.

Victoria gave Counselor Barkley the message from his brothers and derived a measure of grim satisfaction from the fact that Jarrod was just as surprised as she had been. Characteristically, Jarrod saw the funny side of the devastation in the kitchen and he was curious as to what on earth the rancher brothers were up to. He listened to the scanty details his mother was able to give him and was particularly interested when Victoria told him that both Nick and Heath had been up all night.

"Well," said Counselor Barkley ruefully, I didn't get a lot of sleep myself, but I'm afraid I can't say I came up with any masterly solutions during the night."

Victoria thought she could see a shadow of hurt in her eldest son's eyes and she said gently, "I don't think your brothers are deliberately excluding you Darling, if I read the situation correctly, Heath is the one who dreamed up whatever the scheme is and then shared it with Nick. They want to test out their theory this morning in some way and then they said they would need to talk to you."

Audra's brow was wrinkled, "do you really think Heath has come up with something? It seems almost too good to be true."

Jarrod nodded, "I know what you mean Honey, but if I've learned anything about Heath Barkley in the time I've known him, it's never to under-estimate him!"

Audra wasn't convinced, "but Heath hasn't had your education Jarrod and he doesn't know as much about the law or business as you do, so if you couldn't see a way out, how can he?" She smiled lovingly at her brother, "I mean, you're so clever Jarrod."

Her brother took her hand and gallantly kissed it, "why thank you young lady, you're doing my bruised and battered ego a power of good. You're right of course, Heath hasn't had much of an education but he's smart as a whip and very resourceful and whatever he's come up with seems to have Nick pretty fired up."

There was a note of hope in Victoria's voice, "so you think perhaps Heath and Nick may be on to something Jarrod?"

Jarrod smiled at her, "lets just say I'm looking forward to hearing what my brothers have to say."

Nick and Heath Barkley saddled their horses and took the path that led down through their own fruit orchards towards the Mexican border. Many of the smaller fruit growing outfits had their land in this part of the valley. Neither man had slept, they had spent the night discussing and refining Heath's idea into what they hoped might be a workable plan.

They had made several kitchen raids for sustenance during the night and had foraged for a hasty breakfast before going back upstairs to change their shirts and shave. They had helped themselves liberally to the fruit in the big bowl on the foyer table and made the mistake of returning to the kitchen for one last foray, which was when their mother had caught them.

Heath couldn't help wishing that Nick hadn't told their mother anything, at this stage his whole plan could collapse completely and it was wrong to raise her hopes. In his heart though, he was cautiously optimistic that his plan had merit and he was feeling both energized and excited, despite his sleepless night.

Nick too was showing no signs of fatigue, his mood was ebullient and he cantered through the early morning gloom with his customary zest. As the two men rode past their own peach trees, Nick looked appreciatively at the bountiful fruit, now almost ready to pick. He was just as excited as Heath and hoped with all his being that they could pull off this coup, it would be a crying shame to let this magnificent fruit go to waste!

Nick glanced at Heath, "what's our first port of call?"

Heath consulted the list he had penned last night, "the Kirby farm, I'm pretty well acquainted with Abe Kirby."

Nick frowned in puzzlement, wondering when and how his hard- working brother had gotten acquainted with the humble farmer.  He could ask him of course, but as Heath took an inordinate amount of pleasure in teasing his elder brother, Nick was unlikely to get a straight answer so he didn't bother asking.

Nick was also longing to find out from Heath just how personal his involvement with Tatton Hall had been. He had tentatively broached the subject during the night, as the two brothers worked together, but Heath had been reluctant to share the tale. He had however promised to tell Nick the whole story at a future time when they had settled the current business in hand.

The two ranchers received an enthusiastic welcome at the Kirby farm, Abe shook hands warmly with Heath, "good to see you again young fella, how are you Boy?"

"I'm good Abe, I'd like you to meet my brother Nick."

Abe offered his hand again, "nice to meet you Mr Barkley."

Nick grasped the farmer's outstretched hand, "The name's Nick, glad to meet you."

Harriet Kirby smiled at the two young men, "come along in Boys, the coffee's good and hot."

A half hour later, Heath had finished outlining his plan to Abe Kirby and the older man let out a long slow whistle, before leaning back in his chair and considering the blond rancher's words carefully. Nick had let Heath do most of the talking and now he watched the farmer, waiting for Kirby's reaction.

At length, Abe Kirby grinned at the two Barkleys, "that's one hell of an enterprise you two have cooked up!"

Nick couldn't stand it any longer, "so what do you think Abe," he demanded eagerly.

Heath shot Nick a ‘leave this to me' look.

Abe nodded his head, "there are too many growers producing and trying to sell locally, with the result that we just cut each other's throats and slash the price so low we can't make a decent profit. If your scheme gets off the ground I can see a healthier future for all of us."

Heath grinned, "then you're in?"

Abe looked at his wife and Harriet nodded decisively.

"I'm in," confirmed the farmer.

Heath's eyes were shining with gratitude, "I can't thank you enough Abe, I'll find it a whole lot easier to persuade the others when I tell them you're a part of this."

Abe's eyes softened as he looked at Heath, "one good turn deserves another Son!"




Part 6


By early afternoon Nick and Heath had visited every farm on Heath's list and the two brothers were riding for home. Their proposals had met with varied responses, some eager and enthusiastic, others a little more cautious, but still willing to listen to what Heath outlined. In the end, every one of the ten farmers on the list had agreed to attend an 8pm meeting at the Barkley mansion.

Nick was in jovial mood on the ride home, slapping Heath heartily on the back, "gotta hand it to you Boy, you said you could swing the farmers into line and by God you did it!"

Heath shook his head, "they listened Nick, but so far that's all they've done, there's a long way to go yet."

"Don't you worry about it little Brother, Counselor Barkley will sweet-talk them the rest of the way, you can count on it."

Heath was forced to laugh, "Nick, we haven't even discussed the plan with Jarrod yet!"

Nick's confidence couldn't be dented, "plenty of time for that, they're not coming until eight o'clock."

Heath was still worrying, "we haven't checked the legalities yet, this thing may not work, only Jarrod can tell us that."

Nick laughed aloud, "Heath Barkley you're the biggest killjoy I ever met in a long day's ride! This plan is going to work I tell you."

Heath sighed, his earlier excitement had died down and he was starting to feel weary from lack of sleep. "I hope you're right Nick, I'll feel happier when we've talked to Jarrod."

Nick spurred his horse forward, "well come on then Boy, let's get home!"

As soon as the rancher brothers walked in the door Nick set up a powerful shout for his older brother.

"Jarrod? Jarrod! Where are you Counselor?"

Counselor Barkley emerged unhurriedly from the library.

"You bellowed Nick?"

"Oh there you are, for a minute there I thought you'd gone to the office."

Jarrod raised a humourous eyebrow, "would I dare? My instructions were to stay at home and here I am. I might point out that I had a ton of paperwork to clear at my office this morning so I hope it was worth my while staying home!"

Nick grinned at him, but Heath looked almost ludicrously guilty and hurried into speech. "Jarrod, I'm really sorry! I guess we should have talked to you before I ever started all this, only we wanted to see if the farmers would go for it first and they did! So that was all right. Only, I meant to check the legal side with you too, so..."

Jarrod couldn't help laughing and held up a pacific hand, "easy Heath, slow down a bit, believe me if you have any sort of plan to salvage something from this mess, I'm all ears!"

An hour later, Jarrod packed his brothers off to the dining room to partake of a late lunch while he stayed in the library, seated at the big desk, re-examining the scribbled notes that Heath had made during the night. At length, the lawyer sat back, thinking hard for a few minutes. He leaned forward again and picked up the list of names Heath had drawn up. The ten names on the list represented the most prominent of the valley's smaller farmers and more significantly they represented the bulk of the valley's peach production, aside from the Barkley crop.

Jarrod took out his watch and glanced at the time. It was two o'clock, in six hours every farmer on Heath's list would be gathered in this very room all hanging on the words of Counselor Jarrod Barkley. A wry smile curved the lawyer's lips, he needed to do some hard work between now and then, drafting Heath's proposal into decent legal shape. By the time the meeting began tonight, he needed to have a draft contract ready for the consideration of the new company.

Jarrod had to hand it to Heath, as a plan it was simple, workable and ought to prove very effective. The only flaw that Jarrod had perceived in the plan was that it depended for its success on the goodwill of the farmers. Counselor Barkley didn't see why these men would be willing to abandon their long-established market here in the valley, for a new, untried venture with the Barkleys. The lawyer had said as much to his brothers, but Heath had shaken his head.

"They'll do it for me Jarrod, I guarantee it," the blond rancher had quietly said.

The words had been devoid of conceit, he was just absolutely sure that the farmers would comply. Nick had been able to cast a little light on that aspect, murmuring to Jarrod when Heath wasn't listening, "he has at least one of them under some sort of obligation to him, but he's not saying what."

Jarrod had been intrigued by that, he knew Heath well enough now not to be surprised by anything that he did, for he had a high opinion of his younger brother's resourcefulness and talents, But if he knew anything about Heath, it was that he was not the man to call in a debt. If Heath did another man a good turn, he did it willingly and without thought of personal reward, yet clearly, in this instance, he was looking to one or more of the farmers to repay a past favour.

There could be only one explanation and Jarrod Barkley thought he knew what that explanation was. Heath was doing it for the Barkley family, if they had affirmed their allegiance to him in the matter of Tatton Hall, he was now returning that faith in full measure. A thrill of excitement ran through Jarrod, if they could pull this coup off, nothing but good could come of it. It was a bold, daring manoeuvre, a far-thinking and shrewd idea, just the sort of scheme in fact that had made Tom Barkley's name and fortune. Jarrod's glance flickered to his father's portrait above the fireplace, the old man would have been proud of Heath, no doubt about it. Jarrod reached for his pen, it was time he got started on the legal paperwork, eight o'clock would be here soon enough.

By eight fifteen that evening, every farmer on Heath's list had arrived at the Barkley mansion and all were seated in the Barkley library. Silas moved among the assembled men, supplying each with generous measures of whatever spirit they fancied. Jarrod stood in front of his father's massive desk, facing the attentive gathering, his papers in his hand. He was flanked by his brothers, each perched on a corner of the desk.

Jarrod smiled pleasantly and raised his voice slightly to ensure that everyone could hear him clearly.

"Good evening Gentlemen, I want to thank you all for agreeing to come here this evening and listen to our proposals." The lawyer indicated his younger brother to his right, "I should say immediately that this plan is the brainchild of my brother Heath, but he's asked me to lay it out for you this evening and also to fill in the background a little, if that's all right with you all?"

There was a murmur of assent from the assembled men and Jarrod continued.

"As you know, by time and custom, the Barkleys ship their peach crop to San Francisco every year and sell them to a wholesaler who distributes them to his many sources. It's a healthy market, demand usually outstrips supply and we've made a handsome profit for a good few years now. We've never sold our fruit locally, we took the view that your own production took care of the local market and we didn't trespass."

An argumentative man called Jonas Hoylake spoke up, "mighty kind of you Counselor," he said sardonically. "I suppose you didn't make a lot more by shipping your fruit to the city neither."

Nick Barkley stiffened but obedient to a flash of Jarrod's expressive eyes, he didn't intervene.

"You're correct Mr Hoylake, the profits from shipping the fruit are greater than can be made from relying just on the local market," said Jarrod pleasantly. "I didn't intend to imply that our leaving the local market to you smaller growers was any sort of philanthropy on the part of my family, I'm just stating the position as it stands now, before I tell you what has changed for us and why we want you to join us in this new venture."

Hoylake folded his arms, "well, I agreed to come and hear what you have to say, but I ain't committing myself yet you know!"

The lawyer inclined his head courteously, "fair enough Mr Hoylake, may I continue?"

"You may," said Hoylake with a grim smile, "just don't be using that high-falluting lawyer talk!"

Jarrod grinned, "it's a deal!" His eyes swept the faces sitting attentively before him, the lawyer knew most of these men at least by name and he conducted legal business for a good few of them, he should be able to convince them of the merits of the plan, he had to, the family were depending on him to do so.

"For the past two years, the Barkley peaches have been sold to a wholesaler in the city called Tatton Hall. His reputation in San Francisco is good and we've had no cause for complaint in our dealings with this man. In fact we are currently contracted to sell our peaches to him for this year and next."

The lawyer indicated his younger brother again, "my brother Heath has brought some details about the past activities of Tatton Hall to the attention of our family. I can't go into those allegations, because I can't prove what we know about Mr Hall in any legal sense. I will simply say that the Barkley family accepts as fact, everything my brother has told us about this man's past. As a result of which, the Barkley family has made an irrevocable decision to cease any and all business dealings with Tatton Hall immediately."

Abe Kirby spoke up, "Heath mentioned that to me this morning Counselor, I was just wondering how you can take that decision if you have a contract with him for this year and next."

Jarrod smiled wryly, "we can do it only one way Abe, by losing a great deal of money! Under the terms of the contract we don't have to sell our peaches to Hall, but we can't sell them to anyone else either. So, we either fulfill our contract or let our fruit rot where it is."

There was a ripple of talk through the room as the financial implications of Jarrod's words struck those present. It was again the devil's advocate Hoylake who spoke up again, "so to save your necks, you want us to sign up to your new deal instead huh?"

Both Nick and Heath Barkley's faces registered their anger at Hoylake's remark and they were both about to demur when Jarrod's calm reply surprised them.

"Yes, Mr Hoylake, that's just what we want you to do, but not for the reasons you may think. Our motivation is not a financial one, we're more concerned with protecting the business reputation of our family for the future."

Another farmer, Bick Newman said, "I can understand you wanting to do that and I admire you for it, but if we throw our lot in with you, are you going to cast us aside when your contract ends?"

"No Sir, absolutely not, as the proposal will show," rejoined Jarrod with unruffled placidity.

Heath caught the eye of his friend Abe Kirby and the farmer nodded briefly, raising his voice to say, "what say we let Counselor Barkley outline the proposal to us without any more interruptions and then ask any further questions at that stage."




Part 7


To a now largely silent audience, Jarrod proceeded to describe the proposed plan.

"The proposal is that this year and next, all of you contract to sell your peach crop to the Barkley family. We will pay a more than generous price and we will undertake to ship the fruit to San Francisco and find buyers there.

After next year, when our contract with Hall is at an end, we propose the setting up of a new company, to handle the distribution and sale of all the San Joaquin valley peaches. They would be sold not just in San Francisco but locally here in the valley too. Also, we would expect the local market to expand outward and thus, all of you should find yourselves pretty prosperous and able to build up your fruit production if you wish.

The profits of both local and city sales would be pooled and shared proportionately between each partner. The bigger your contribution, the bigger your share. In my opinion, this is a forward thinking and intelligent plan for the future for us all."

"Bick Newman said diffidently, "no offence Counselor, but are you and your family going to feel the same about a joint venture when you're free of the Hall contract?"

Jarrod smiled slightly, "I understand your concern Sir, we are willing to sign a legally binding agreement to join the new company in due course. I assure you we are not seeking merely to use your fruit as a stopgap to get us through the Hall contract, we're thinking beyond that to a joint venture that we hope will benefit us all."

Newman nodded, "you've always played fair with me as my lawyer and I know your brother Nick there has a reputation as a straight arrow and of course we farmers have every reason to be grateful to Heath. Speaking for myself, I'm happy with the assurances you've given us, count me in."

"Me too," confirmed Abe Kirby heartily, "if it's what Heath wants, that's good enough for me."

This sentiment was echoed by several other men in the room and Jarrod and Nick Barkley exchanged surprised glances, in due course, they would have to have a little talk with younger brother Heath and find out just why he was held in such high regard by the farmers in the valley.

Kirby spoke again, "there are only three things that worry me about your plans, may I lay them out for you?"

"Please do," invited Jarrod.

"First thing is, if we sell all our peaches to you this year and next we're going to disappoint all our local outlets here and maybe lose their trade for good. Second is, what is going to happen to your own fruit, leaving it to rot won't do your trees any good. Last thing is, this scheme of yours for the joint venture, it's going to need transport, if we're going to open up the possible markets, we don't have it and can't afford it."

Nick gave an approving nod to Jarrod, signalling that he liked the straight talking and frank Kirby. Jarrod was inclined to agree, there was something appealing about the man's honest approach.

"If I may answer the first two points together Mr Kirby," said Jarrod smoothly. "None of you will have to lose your local customers for the next two years, because you will have fruit to supply them with."

"Where from," asked Jonas Hoylake sceptically.

"From the Barkley orchards," said Jarrod calmly.

Abe Kirby said, "but you can't sell your fruit, you told us that."

"We're not selling it, we're giving it away."

The room erupted in sensation, as the amazed farmers came to terms with what Jarrod had said. When at last the noise died down, Jarrod spoke compellingly, "my family will accept the loss of revenue from our peach crop both this year and next and will undertake to pay generously for your fruit for the same period After which, there will be a whole new start for all of us in the form of the new company.

To answer Mr Kirby's third point, about the need for transport if we are to expand our future markets, I can tell you that my family recently acquired a small freight firm. We intend to build that firm up and it will provide low cost transport to the new enterprise."

Nick Barkley's hazel gaze swept the room, he could see the suppressed excitement ion the faces of the farmers, they were going to go for it!

"Are there any more questions Gentlemen?" Counselor Barkley asked.

Abe Kirby had clearly been elected chief spokesman for the farmers and he nodded, "one more, a question for Heath."

Heath had sat quietly throughout the meeting but he raised his head as Kirby said his name. "Ask away Abe."

"I guess I want to know about this man Hall, I mean he is the reason you're doing all this isn't he?"

Heath stood up, moved slightly forward and into the centre of the room and stood with his hands dug into his vest pockets.

"Abe's right, I'm the one who thought up this whole plan and while I'm glad that it can profit any of us, that wasn't why I came up with the idea. I want to bring Tatton Hall down and this is the way to do it."

The blond rancher's clear gaze was frank and his voice was sincere as he went on. "Years ago, I believed that the only way to deal with a man I hated was to kill him, I feel differently now, my family have taught me that. I know that I can't bring Hall to justice for the crimes he's committed in the past, but I aim to take his customers from him, cut his business links and destroy him." No-one listening to the quiet steel in his voice or seeing the implacable will in his eyes, could doubt that Heath Barkley meant every word he said.

Nick Barkley leaned over to his brother Jarrod, "He's got ‘em, it's going to work!"

Nick was right, before the farmers left the Barkley mansion that night, all ten of them had signed an agreement in principle to sell their peaches to the Barkleys and to join the new venture in due course.




Part 8


As the farmers filed out of the library at the end of that memorable meeting, Heath Barkley yawned massively and stretched like a cat. His lack of sleep had caught up with him and he was dog tired.

"I reckon I'll turn in before I fall asleep right here on the carpet.."

Nick was escorting the guests to the front door but he turned back as Heath spoke, jabbing a finger in his brother's direction, "you're not going anywhere Boy! Not until you tell me a few things."

Nick followed in the wake of the departing farmers and Heath turned rueful eyes on Jarrod, "hasn't there been enough talking already tonight?"

The lawyer smiled, "go on to bed, I'll pacify the old Bear, see you in the morning."

"Thanks Jarrod, good night."

Counselor Barkley watched his younger brother leave the room, the lawyer's eyes were thoughtful. What had Abe Kirby said? ‘If it's what Heath wants, then that's good enough for me.' Other men had agreed with him, Jarrod was conscious of a deep desire to know the story behind the farmers obvious trust in Heath. There was also the story of his personal encounter with Hall, Jarrod didn't doubt that there had been one, it was as plain as day. Heath was not a vindictive man, but he was utterly determined to bring down Tatton Hall, there had to be a good reason, aside from the man's bad reputation in the mining world.

Nick saw Abe Kirby to his horse and shook hands with the older man.

"Mind if I ask you a question Abe?"

Kirby smiled, "I expect you want to know why some of us think highly of your brother?"

"That's it," smiled Nick.

Kirby nodded, "come and have coffee and cake with me and Harriet tomorrow, I'll give you chapter and verse."

"I'll do that Abe, thanks!"

Nick rejoined Jarrod in the library, "you didn't let him sneak off to bed!"

"He's worn out Nick, so should you be," laughed Jarrod.

Nick crossed to the drinks tray and poured drinks for both of them, "no, I got my second wind now."

"Good," said Jarrod, "I want to run an idea past you."

The brothers dropped into armchairs, standing again almost immediately as their mother glided into the room.

"Sit down Boys, I just couldn't go to sleep without finding out how it went."

Victoria was in her elegant dressing gown an she came to sit on the settee between the chairs of her sons.

Jarrod smiled at her, "they signed up," he said simply, "every one of them is going to join us."

The Barkley matriarch smiled, "that's wonderful, I wondered if they would."

Nick shook his head, "well, we have Heath to thank for it, some of the farmers seem to be in his debt, Abe Kirby has promised me chapter and verse if I ride over there tomorrow."

"Do that Nick," said Jarrod. "I'm curious about that. Mother? I'm glad you've joined us, I want to discuss something with you and Nick."

"Very well Dear."

The lawyer sipped his drink, "the next step in this campaign is to snap up Hall's San Francisco customers, before he knows what we're up to, so I'm going to be leaving for the city tomorrow. I was thinking of asking Heath to go with me, let him help me see this matter through."

Victoria was enthusiastic, "I think that is an excellent idea Jarrod! It will give Heath more business experience and confidence, do you think you can get him to go with you?"

Jarrod looked at Nick, "I think he might, if he thinks Nick can manage without him."

"Take him," said Nick yawning, "I'll find out from Abe why the farmers think the sun shines out of him and you get him to tell you how he tangled with Hall."

"It's a deal Nick," laughed Jarrod.

Next morning, Heath met the suggestion that he should accompany Jarrod on the mission to steal Hall's customers with a mixture of eager pleasure and doubt.

"Sure I'd love to go with you Jarrod, if you think I can be any help, I mean I've never done this sort of thing before, but I'd like to learn."

"That's settled then," smiled the lawyer.

Heath cast a deprecating look at Nick, "you sure you can manage without me Nick?"

Nick bent a mock-glare on him, "I was running this place before you ever came here Boy!"

Heath grinned, "and you're sure you don't mind me going instead of you?"

"Are you kidding? I hate all that legal stuff, give me a herd of ornery cows any day!"

Nick drove into Stockton with his brothers and saw them off on the San Francisco train, then he pointed the buggy in the direction of the Kirby farm. He got a warm welcome from Harriet and Abe and before long was seated at the big pine table in Harriet's spotless kitchen. Nick hadn't eaten for almost two hours, not since he put away a huge breakfast, so he was close to starvation and Harriet served him a big slice of her apple cake. Nick devoured the cake and flashed his most captivating grin at his hostess, who promptly cut him another piece. Harriet smiled benevolently on him, he surely was a handsome devil, she had heard that one half of the gals in Stockton were hopelessly in love with Heath Barkley and the other half with Nick, she could certainly see why.

Abe sipped his coffee, "I said I'd tell you why it is the farmers around here have a high regard for your brother, first let me tell you why I do." The farmer sat back reflectively in his chair, as Nick listened intently, the rancher was deeply curious and wanted badly to hear what Abe had to say.

"I met him, his very first day in this valley, early dawn, I was out inspecting my trees and I saw someone loitering around my gate. I was far off, so I couldn't see him too clear, when I got closer, it was plain enough what he was at. He'd stepped onto my property to fill his canteen from my well and water his horse at the trough I have out there. The gate was off one of it's hinges, I'd been too busy to mend it, I was short-handed around here without...without my boy."

Nick silently noted the hesitation, what had happened to the Kirbys son he wondered.

Abe smiled, "as I got nearer, I could see Heath had no shirt on and he was occupied in mending my gate."

Nick smiled inwardly, it sounded very like Heath, take a drink of a man's water, mend his broken gate for him.

Abe shook his head, "I didn't think there were any young men with that kind of courtesy left in the world. I thanked him and thought no more of it, but the next I heard, Heath had been accepted into your family and I said to myself, I'm glad of it, he's a good man. Next time I saw Heath he was doing me a second good turn, I keep a small herd of milk cows and unbeknown to me, their pasture fence was down after a storm and they'd run off. Heath found them and rounded them up single-handed. He got them back into their pasture and helped me mend the fence."

Harriet smiled fondly, "he was a Barkley by then and I said to Abe, that boy don't give himself no airs and graces, he don't think his new family means he's too good for us ordinary folks."

Nick smiled at her and nodded, what he was hearing was what he already knew of his brother.

Abe's face had grown grave and he spoke now in a quiet, sorrowful tone. "My son Wes, he don't cotton much to farming, he left home a while back and got himself tangled up with a bunch of no-good hoodlums that make their living by robbing the likes of me! Me and a few of the other farmers, we send some of our fruit south to a town called Rockliffe. Only the payment for the fruit was robbed, not once but a few times. I told Heath about it and he wrote to the Sheriff of Rockliffe for us. Seems Heath was his deputy once upon a time. Anyway the Sheriff did good, he caught the gang doing the raids and...and..."

"Your son was involved," suggested Nick gently.

Abe Kirby met Nick's sympathetic eyes, "he was and he's serving his time for it right this minute."

Nick's voice was gentle, "that must be very hard for you both."

Harriet flashed him a grateful smile.

Abe said, "it is hard, but we hope to get him back home in a year or so and please God he's mended his ways." The farmer shrugged off his gloom, "anyway, the recovery of that money prevented a few of us from going under, so you understand our gratitude to your brother Nick."

Nick was aware of deep pride in Heath, he grinned at Abe Kirby, "right this minute Abe, I'm feeling mighty grateful to you! Heath isn't one for blowing his own trumpet, I'd never have gotten this story out of him, so thanks, thanks a lot."

Jarrod and Heath spent a few days in San Francisco and by the end of their trip, both men were weary and ready for home. They had kept a low profile in the city, not wanting Hall to get wind of their presence and to Jarrod's satisfaction they had succeeded in their efforts to lure Hall's principle customers away from the wholesaler.

Initially, Heath had left the bargaining to Jarrod, but quickly gaining confidence, he soon started taking a hand in the negotiations himself and to Jarrod's pleasure, he acquitted himself well.

By the time the two men were on the train home, they had signed agreements with enough of Hall's customers to make a serious dent in his distribution network. Wavering customers had been won over by the Barkley name, which Jarrod had used to powerful effect. The lawyer had been careful not to slander Tatton Hall, but he really didn't need to. Making it clear to the customers that doing business with the Barkleys entailed signing an agreement that they would have no further dealings with Hall whatsoever told them all they needed to know.

Heath asked Jarrod if they had done enough damage to Hall. The lawyer hastened to reassure him, "he's finished in the fruit business Heath, we've lured away all his best customers and he won't have any fruit to supply the rest with anyway, believe me Heath, Tatton Hall is ruined."




Part 9


Heath sat in silence for some time staring out of the window as the train rattled towards Stockton and home. At length, He turned his sombre gaze on Jarrod, seated beside him, and smiled the familiar lop-sided smile, which faded almost as soon as it had dawned.

"I guess I must have seemed very...very vengeful about Hall."

"A little perhaps," acknowledged Jarrod, "but I flatter myself I know you well enough to realize there must be some reason...some more personal reason for your hatred of Hall than you've shared with far."

Heath nodded, "I figure you and Nick won't let me off the hook until I tell you, it's just not something I find easy to talk about."

Jarrod's voice was gentle, "the last thing I want to do is rake up any bad memories for you Heath, I know you've got enough demons from the past to wrestle with already, but sometimes it actually helps to tell someone. It can be a way of healing an old hurt, even if you do have to scratch it open again first."

Heath looked into the concerned eyes of his eldest brother. He had been somewhat in awe of Jarrod when first they met, the lawyer's sharp intellect and clever tongue had been a little intimidating. It had not taken the perceptive Heath long to learn what manner of man Jarrod Barkley was and to learn that here was a man he could truly respect and admire. He confided in Jarrod too and asked his advice when he needed it. He had found his older brother to be a wise guide and friend. Suddenly, Heath felt Jarrod was right, he needed to confide in someone about Tatton Hall and he could ask no better confidante than Jarrod Barkley.

"All right Jarrod, I'll tell you, but I can only do this once, it...well it just hurts too much to be gone over more than once, So if you want Nick to hear it, it's going to have to wait until we get home."

Instinctively, Jarrod realized that if the story was not forthcoming straight away, the chances were that they were not destined ever to hear it, The lawyer smiled and shook his head, "you leave brother Nick to me, tell me all about it now."

Heath looked at his brother with grudging respect, Jarrod had seen through his attempt to delay matters further and he wasn't having it, so be it then, he would share the nightmare, just this once. The two men were private enough, in the luxurious Barkley private rail car, perhaps it was for the best.

Even though Heath had made his mind up to tell Jarrod all about Tatton Hall, he still sat on in silence for a few minutes and Jarrod waited patiently beside him, sensing that his brother was struggling to find the words to begin his narrative.

Eventually Jarrod sighed and produced his silver hip flask, handing it to Heath with a smile, "how about a little dutch courage?"

Heath returned the smile and took the flask, drinking some of the fiery liquid and passing it back with a word of thanks. Jarrod helped himself to a drink and set the flask down on the table in front of them. For another minute, Heath resumed his study of the passing landscape and then he caught Jarrod's sympathetic eye again.

Heath laughed self-consciously, "boy howdy, I'm as shy as a girl at her first dance!"

Jarrod grinned and lightly punched his brother's shoulder, "out with it Heath, you'll feel better, believe me."

The fair head nodded and fixing his eyes firmly on the window and the passing vista, Heath began, slowly and haltingly to tell his tale.
His voice was soft and sad and it trembled slightly now and again.

"I think you know that I worked in and around the mines a lot when I was growing up. I was washing the miners clothes when I was five or six and by the time I got to fourteen, fifteen, I'd done lots of different jobs actually in the mines themselves. I didn't have a lot of friends in those days but one or two of the older men thought I was a pretty tough kid and they took me under their wing, One of them, Bill Porter, was the closest thing to a leader that the miners had and he used to look out for me.

"In those days Tatton Hall was a big owner down in the southern mines, he buried his ownership in fake companies, but it was well known among the miners that he was the one calling the shots. He wouldn't waste a cent on decent equipment or safety procedures, he extracted every ounce of ore from his mines and spent nothing on upkeep.

"I already told you that he had a deal going with a prison camp in the area, he was a buddy of the warden and he got all the labour he needed and didn't pay the workers a bean, just a fat backhander to the warden. Those men were treated worse than animals, I lost count of the number killed in stupid, avoidable accidents and that's not counting the men who just got sick and died from neglect and there were plenty of them!"

Heath paused, staring out of the train window without seeing the rolling country, his mind was reliving dark days of his past.

"Did you ever work for Hall yourself?" prompted Jarrod gently, anxious that his brother continue with his story.

Heath shook his head, his lips curving in a tiny smile, "no, Bill Porter wouldn't let me, he knew what kind of conditions we'd face if we did. One day there was a cave-in, a very bad one, a dozen of the men from the prison camp were buried in the collapsed portion of the tunnel."

Heath's voice shook slightly and he gripped his hands tightly together, fighting for control. He felt a warm gentle pressure on his shoulder, as Jarrod's hand gripped and then gently squeezed it.

"Go on with your story Heath," ordered the lawyer softly.

Heath drew a shaky breath, grateful for the brotherly hand that remained comfortingly on his shoulder.

"Hall wasn't there of course, he was never there! His foreman sent a messenger asking what they should do and the answer came back double quick, do nothing."

Heath turned agonized eyes on Jarrod, "do nothing," he repeated, "a dozen men, left to slowly suffocate so that Hall could cover his tracks."

Jarrod understood, "leave the collapse alone and no-one can pinpoint how the rock-fall started."

Heath nodded, "Bill Porter was wonderful that day, he got all the other men organized, the ones who didn't work for Hall and he mounted a rescue operation. They didn't have much explosive and Hall's men refused to give them any, so the rescuers used what they had and blasted a hole in the solid rock at the side of the tunnel."

Heath's strained eyes bored into Jarrod, he wanted the lawyer to understand the heroism of those attempting the rescue. "These were men who had next to nothing but they gave what they had and did their best to save the trapped men."

Jarrod's smile was warm with love, "and you were one of them," it was not a question.

Heath shrugged self-deprecatingly, "I just did what Bill told me to do."

Jarrod could imagine it, a group of impoverished miners, decent men, men with a conscience, straining every nerve to rescue the trapped prisoners, all thinking there but for the grace of God go I." Jarrod could picture Heath too, virtually a child still, but tall and powerfully built, tousled blond head and sleepy blue eyes, sticking close to his mentor Bill Porter, doing whatever the older man ordered him to as they strove desperately to perform a miraculous rescue.

Jarrod's voice was very gentle, "what happened Heath?"

Heath cast one embarrassed look at the lawyer, as tears rolled down his cheeks, then he looked away again, head bent, his voice barely audible.

"We damn near pulled it off and we would have, but for that evil heartless monster. He broke the habit of a lifetime, came to the scene himself and finally he authorized the use of explosive."

Heath laughed bitterly, "not to complete the rescue, but to bury the shaft."

Jarrod was horrified, "with the men still in there!"

Heath's voice was shaking uncontrollably and Jarrod passed him the flask again. Heath drank and soldiered on with his account. "We'd broken through into the tunnel beside the one containing the prisoners. We knew they were alive, we could hear them begging for help. Bill made the rescuers keep digging, we were so close to saving them Jarrod..." He broke off and Jarrod's hand tightened on his shoulder.

"Easy Heath, do you want to stop for now?"

The blond rancher shook his head decisively, "this needs telling, for my own sake as much as anyone else's." His pain-filled eyes looked deep into Jarrod's, "Bill and I were in the lead, working side by side and it was him who saw the charge that had been set by Hall's men. He moved so fast, I couldn't stop him, he shoved me back through the hole we had made and dived forward to try and rip the wires free. I was flat on my back when I heard the blast. When...when I looked again, Bill Porter was a bloody mass of bone and charred cloth and the other tunnel was...was buried under tons of rubble, every man in it perished that day, courtesy of Tatton Hall!"

Heath leaned back, breathing hard, tears forcing their way between his closed lids and rolling down his face. He brushed a shaking hand across his eyes and found the courage to meet his brother's gaze.

"Bill Porter's death has haunted me for years," confessed Heath, "I wasn't worth that man's death."

Jarrod's loving smile embraced him, "he thought you were Heath."

Heath thought this over, nodding eventually, "yeah, I guess he did." A fresh wave of weeping overwhelmed him and Jarrod slid an arm around him, sitting silently beside his brother, waiting for the grief to pass.

Henry the private rail car steward opened the door to bring in a pot of coffee, took in the scene at a glance and went silently away again without the slightest fuss.

When Heath grew calm again, Jarrod gently compelled his brother to meet his gaze and spoke with quiet sincerity, "Heath, I'm glad you shared that dreadful experience with me, I know it wasn't easy for you, but perhaps it may help you to put it behind you now. One thing I do know is this, your friend Bill Porter thought enough of Heath the boy to want to save his life, I can tell you that he would have been mighty proud of Heath the man."

Heath managed a wavering smile, "thanks Jarrod and thanks for listening."

Jarrod rang the bell and Henry reappeared with the coffee. The two brothers drank their coffee in quiet companionship and then Jarrod said to Heath, "I want you to know that I will leave no stone unturned to bring Hall to book for what he's done in the past and for the present, what you've told me makes me absolutely determined to ruin him beyond any chance of recovery."

Heath nodded, "I want you to know how much that means to me Jarrod and how grateful I am to the rest of the family for backing me over this."

Jarrod smiled, "I'd say this...this grand compromise of yours more than repays us, the future of the peach business in the valley is bright, not just for the Barkleys but for all the other producers as well." Observing signs of acute embarrassment in his brother, the lawyer made haste to change the subject, "not long to Stockton now, Nick should be waiting for us and we three need to talk over the security of the family."

Heath's face was grave, "you're expecting trouble out of Tatton Hall?"

Jarrod's vivid eyes were sapphire hard, "we're taking his good name, his business and his life away from him, if I'm sure of anything in life, it's that we haven't heard the last of Tatton Hall."




Part 10


By the time the train pulled into Stockton, Heath's spirits had recovered their tone and he was well in command of himself again. Jarrod was struck by how little he and Nick really knew about Heath's life before he appeared to claim his inheritance. The three men had talked very intimately to one another in the past, but it had come as a shock to Jarrod to realize that much of Heath's tumultuous past was still a mystery to his family.

The lawyer shrugged off his slightly sombre mood as he descended from the train to see his brother Nick bearing down on him. The rancher's face was split in a huge grin and as he always did, he enfolded Jarrod in a bear hug, lifting him clear off his feet. Jarrod felt his own spirits lift as Nick's ebullient zest rubbed off on him, who could stay down-hearted for long around Nick, he thought.

Nick looked at Jarrod's weary face as he released him, "everything all right?"

Jarrod sighed, "yes, Heath's been sharing what he knows about Hall with me, it wasn't an easy conversation Nick."

Nick saw Heath, who had retrieved the luggage, coming towards them, "tell me later and I'll tell you what Abe Kirby shared with me," he said quickly.

Nick greeted Heath in customary fashion, a brief handshake and a slap on the back, he looked narrowly at his tired younger brother.

"You all right Boy?"

Heath made a valiant effort to lighten his own mood, "just fine Nick, how did you get along without me, is the ranch still standing?"

Correctly divining that Heath was pretty down in the mouth, Nick responded to the mild jest, mock-wrestling the younger man and saying threateningly, "now don't make me teach you to have respect for your elders little Brother!"

Jarrod watched this by-play appreciatively, it was one of Nick Barkley's most endearing traits, he possessed the ability to pass his own confidence and zest for life to those around him. As Jarrod watched, Heath seemed to revive like a desert flower after rain, under Nick's rough treatment and by the time the three men were seated in their favourite saloon, both Jarrod and Heath felt insensibly cheered by the presence of their brother.

Nick agreed with Jarrod's assessment of the likelihood that Hall would want revenge and he jabbed a finger in the lawyer's direction.

"Seems to me it's you he's going to be coming after Counselor!"

Heath's handsome face darkened into a deep frown, "why Jarrod?"

Nick spread explanatory hands, "well did Jarrod do most of the talking in San Francisco?"

Heath nodded, "I guess so," he admitted. Adding, "I don't think Hall would remember me from the old days, I was only a kid." Heath looked gravely at Nick, "you're right, it's Jarrod he'll have in his sights, we're going to have to stick close for a while."

The blond rancher stood up and gathered the three empty beer glasses, "another?"

Heath walked away to the bar and Jarrod smiled at his departing back, "I didn't by any means do all the talking in the city, he's a natural Nick! I was proud of him, he argued his case with people like he'd been doing it all his life."

Nick gave an approving grunt, "yeah, he's a chip off the old block all right. His history with Hall, is it bad?"

"Very bad," answered Jarrod quietly.

Nick's heavy frown deepened, "I figured it must be, he sure wasn't finding it easy to talk about!"

Jarrod sighed, "I tell you Nick, there is so much we still don't know about that brother of ours."

"Don't I know it! Wait until I get a chance to tell you why all the farmers in the valley think the sun shines out of his ass!"

Jarrod glanced at the bar, Heath was gathering three foaming glasses into his hands. The lawyer spoke rapidly to Nick while Heath was still out of earshot.

"One more thing Nick, let Heath run the ranch for a while, bodyguard me yourself, he could use some fresh air and freedom."

Nick nodded his comprehension and as Heath returned he glared at the younger man. "If you think you're going to spend the next few weeks babysitting Jarrod in his nice dry office forget it Boy! There are a thousand calves out on the range awaiting your delicate touch with a branding iron. It's my turn for a holiday!"

If Heath was surprised at Nick's turning the ranch over to him, he kept it to himself, more than pleased at the prospect of some long hard days in the saddle. It would not be the first time he had exorcised demons from his past by immersing himself in the work he loved so much.

Tatton Hall received the formal notification that the Barkley family were terminating their business links with him with immediate effect on the morning that Jarrod and Heath Barkley left for home. He was taken totally by surprise and initially found it hard to take in. The terse letter had been delivered by special messenger and was signed by Jarrod Barkley. Hall sent his secretary scurrying off to fetch his attorney and sat back in his big leather chair, lighting a cigar and carefully re-reading the letter.

Tatton Hall was a tall, powerfully built man, with a face that might have been severely handsome, if it had been less fleshy. He had crisp dark hair and slightly craggy eyebrows and eyes the colour of storm-clouds. He was a clever, cold and calculating man who had crawled his way out of the gutter by sheer determination and total disregard for his fellow man.

Forced from the lucrative world of mining by the more respectable owners, he had turned his attention to the very different world of commerce. His sharp intelligence had helped him carve out a whole new empire, a very legitimate one and he had done business with the ultra-respectable Barkleys for the last three years. The clipped business-like tone of Counselor Barkley's terse notification had given no clues as to why the Barkleys had chosen to pursue this inexplicable and potentially costly course of action. Hall wondered if his lawyer could enlighten him further.

Counselor Samuel West was able to assist his client to an extent. "I made some enquiries with friends of mine before coming to see you Tatton and I gather that the Barkleys are letting it be generally known that you are not a fit person to do business with."

"Hall spread questioning hands, "for heaven's sake why Sam? I've distributed their peaches for the last three years, they've contracted their fruit to me for the next two years and so far as I know there's never been the slightest friction between us."

Counselor West looked searchingly at his client and chose his words with care, "I'm given to understand that this has nothing to do with your present line of business, but rather your past involvement in mining."

Hall frowned, "I see." He thought for a moment and then asked, "is Jarrod Barkley slandering me, I mean is what's being alleged actionable?"

West shook his head, "they don't seem to be actually saying anything very much, just implying that your past doesn't bear examination."

Hall frowned, "hold it Sam, you said they, isn't this Jarrod Barkley's work?"

Counselor West shook his head, "Counselor Barkley has made it clear that this is the decision of his whole family and his brother has been saying the same thing."

Hall smiled grimly, "I've dealt with his brother, tall, dark, gravel- voiced, his name's Nicholas. He's a pretty tough man," there was a grudging note of admiration in Hall's voice.

The attorney shook his head, "no, not Nicholas, I understand this is another brother, well half-brother to be more accurate. His name is Heath Barkley."

Tatton Hall searched his memory, he had not, to his knowledge encountered Heath Barkley before. Suddenly his mouth tightened to a thin, hard line, no, not Heath Barkley, but there had been a Heath long ago and it made many inexplicable things clear at last.

Counselor West was speaking briskly, "I expect you want me to write to Jarrod Barkley reminding him of his family's contractual obligations?"

Hall's smile was faintly contemptuous, "Oh I think the Barkleys know that quite well enough Sam. This is clearly an attempt to ruin me, try to find out how many of my customers they've enticed away will you?"

"I can tell you that now Tatton, I made some enquiries about that too, the short answer is that you have very few left and none of your major outlets is trading with you now."

Hall nodded, apparently unsurprised and his lawyer sought for words of reassurance. "I wonder if the Barkleys fully understand that they can't trade their fruit with anyone but you for the next two summers."

Hall laughed shortly, "they know Sam, they know, doubtless they've locked up the alternate fruit supplies already, this is a very impressive coup don't you think?"

Counselor West was amazed at Hall's placidity, "you're very calm for a man well on his way to ruination Tatton!"

Hall's smile was grim, "oh I'm finished in the fruit business but my personal fortune is still pretty impressive, I don't think I'll be begging on the streets any time soon Sam."

The lawyer was doubtful, "trouble is Tatton, the Barkley name counts in California, if they shun you as it appears they intend to do, they won't be the only ones."

Hall shrugged, this is a big country, I can move, start again if need be."

"Then you have no instructions for me regarding this matter?"

"Just one Sam, take the necessary steps to liquidate my business interests in this city, I'll be moving away when this matter is...resolved."

When the lawyer had gone, Tatton Hall sat quietly for a long time, a grim, wry smile playing about his mouth. Heath, what had that gangly child called himself back then? Oh yes, Thomson, that was it, Heath Thomson. Hall recalled a tall, overly thin youth, with tousled fair hair and defiant proud eyes. He had been the lieutenant of that agitator Bill Porter and after Porter's death, Tatton Hall had marked Heath Thomson down as a potential threat.

So the skinny brat from the mining camp had been accepted into the powerful Barkley clan had he? Evidently the Barkleys thought the world of him too, they would hardly have taken such a huge financial loss if they didn't hold Heath in the highest regard. All to the good, thought Hall. When I kill him, I'll be getting my revenge on him for doing this to me and hurting the rest of them because they love him. He stood up and crossed to the walnut cabinet in the corner of his office, extracting from it his prized hunting rifle.

All his days, all the time he had fought his way out of poverty to riches, Tatton Hall had been careful to keep his own hands clean. He had always found other, weaker men to do his dirty work for him, but not this time. A wave of corrosive bitterness coursed through him, so strong that it hurt, Heath Thomson should have perished in that smoke-filled mine twelve years ago. Well he was surely going to die soon and just as surely, it will be my hand that strikes him down vowed Tatton Hall.