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.
Jarrod Barkley, Esq.
19 August 1874
I am writing to ask your advice. I own a small ranch one day southeast of Strawberry, maybe two northwest of Stockton, near a small town called Sturbridge. I bought the land two years ago and live here with my family. Got some cattle and horses that I’m real proud of and worked hard for.
But I’ve got trouble. Seems my ranch, the Cana, and the ones surrounding it are in the way of a railroad link-up. I knew bout your family and thought perhaps you’d help me out. I’m willing to pay for it. My problem is I got the farmers and ranchers to stand up but they all backed out on me after one got himself shot. He was drunk and pulled on a stranger. They are all convinced it was the railroad. I was there and I know it was just his intemperance. But they won’t listen to me anymore. I’m not asking you to come. Your family has already lost someone to the railroad and I don’t want that to happen again. I hope you will be able to give me some advice as to what I can do. Thank you for your time.
“Well, Mother, what do you think?”
“Seems sincere enough, Jarrod. I would certainly write back to him.”
“I wouldn’t do any more than that if I were you,” Nick advised loudly. “Certainly wouldn’t go. What if it’s a trap to get you to come? Could be a railroad scheme. Can’t trust nobody these days. Your bleeding heart could getcha into trouble.”
“Nick’s right, Jarrod,” Audra piped up.
“Now, Nick, what if he is not a railroad spy and really is fighting them?” Victoria asked. “Have you looked into his background, Jarrod? When did you get the letter?”
“I got it today. I’ll wire Pinkerton in the morning. If his story checks out, I’ll ride to his ranch personally. Fair enough?”
“Alright, Pappy, you win,” Nick conceded.
“Alright, that’s settled. Now, everyone to dinner.” Victoria herded her children to the dining room.
* * * * * * * *
––Dinner, A Few Nights Later––
“I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Sturbridge,” Jarrod announced.
“You found enough information, Jarrod?”
“Yes, Mother. It’s in the safe.”
“I’m still not sure about this,” Nick began. “What do you know about him? You seem pretty set on goin’. I’d kinda like to know why.”
“Nick, out of respect for Mr. Thomson, I will not discuss it at the dinner table. You may look at the file, and I think you should. That boy’s had a rough time of it and I am certain it will change your opinion.”
“Why do you call him ‘boy,’ Jarrod?” Audra asked.
“Well, I guess he isn’t a boy per se, but he is only twenty-four and it’s a thick file. I don’ think you should read it, Audra. Very little is easy and several parts are quite difficult.”
“What do you think of him?” Victoria questioned.
“Seems to be a man of character. Has worked hard since he was young, has a wife and two children. Pinkerton’s sent an agent over. Apparently, he was quite impressed.”
“That’s good, Jarrod. But wire if you suspect anything, and not just concerning Mr. Thomson.”
“Don’t worry; I’ll be careful, Mother.” Jarrod planted a kiss on her cheek before leaving the room. Nick rose as her heard Jarrod’s footsteps on the stairs.
“Think I will have a look at that file. Excuse me, Mother.” Nick also kissed her cheek briefly before leaving.
* * * * * * * *
Victoria rose from her bed. She heard a familiar pacing from downstairs. Putting her robe on, she quietly descended the stairs. She reached the gun room and watched Nick traverse the same path again before entering. He looked up upon hearing steps besides his own.
“Did I wake you, Mother?"
“I was only half-sleeping anyway. Now, can you tell me what’s got you making a path in my floor at one-thirty in the morning?” Nick was silent for a few moments.
“I think Jarrod was right when he said Audra shouldn’t read this. Those Army medical reports––whew, is that tough stuff.”
“Army reports? I thought Jarrod said he was twenty-four.”
“He did. Apparently, from years fourteen to sixteen he was eighteen. Fifteen when–– Well, like Jarrod said, it ain’t right to be plastering his life all around. You can read it yourself if you're interested. Think I’ll be headin’ to bed. ‘Night, Mother.”
“Goodnight, Nick. I’m going to stay down here a bit longer.” Nick left. She waited to hear his door close before walking swiftly to the sofa and retrieving the file. At times she wanted to close it but felt compelled to continue reading. When she had finished, she was in tears, but they had long since stopped being tears of sadness. She held his photo in her hand.
“You are a good man, Heath Thomson Barkley. Take care of him, Tom. I pray you can take care of him now like he needed you before.” She whispered these words to herself as she returned to her bed.
* * * * * * * *
––The Next Morning––
Jarrod groggily descended the back stairs to the kitchen, thanking God he didn’t have to get up so early on a regular basis. He was surprised to see Nick standing at the stove. Nick always got up early, but not that early.
“What are you doing up at this God-forsaken hour?”
“Huh? Oh, I figured we’d need to get an early start.”
“We?” Jarrod asked. Then it dawned on him. “You read the file. After all your words of caution I find it hard to believe you think it wise to put both of us into the railway’s path.”
“Well, maybe it’s not,” Nick began slowly. “But you’re right about the file. And we were railroad targets too, the last time. If he’s anything like that file I’d be proud to stand with him. Sounds like he’s doin’ the same thing Father did, and in this situation, I believe this is what Father would do. And, we were older than his wife and kids.” Jarrod smiled at Nick's turned back. Who’d expect it from him?
* * * * * * * *
––A Few Days Later––
Nick knew they were nearing the Cana Ranch. From the sun, he judged it to be just about one-thirty. They had decided to ride straight through today to try to make it before nightfall. Nick pulled up and shaded his eyes to verify that a mounted figure was approaching.
“You see him, too, Nick?”
“Yep. Hopefully it’s Thomson come to meet us. Should be pretty close to the Cana by now.”
The rider stopped, removed his hat, and motioned for them to come forward. They nodded their understanding and rode towards the crest the man had disappeared behind. When they reached it they spotted the man, dismounted and waiting under a tree. They dismounted upon reaching the spot where he was.
“Yes. Mr. Thomson?” Jarrod responded.
“Yes, sir. Pleasure ta meet you.” Heath shook his hand and then extended it to Nick, who clasped it firmly.
“Nick Barkley. Figured I might be of some use. Nice lookin’ spread ya got here.”
“Thanks. She does pretty well. One of many blessings. Got your wire. You didn’t have to come all the way here.”
“Well, Mr. Thomson, I think I speak for Jarrod and myself when I say that we’ve had more’n our share of Coastal and Western run-ins. We’re a lot more experienced now than we were when Father died and, well, you just might need it.
“Well, probably right, but it might be dangerous for y’all. Now, it’s just about dinner time. If you’ll follow me, we’ll just head up to the house.”
“Lead on,” Jarrod said mounting up. He wondered that Nick didn’t recognize the familiar grin.....
* * * * * * * *
“Well, Mrs. Thomson, that meal was delicious. You’re a marvelous cook.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barkley,” Rose Thomson replied.
“You’d do better to just call us by our first names--I’m Jarrod, and you can call that voracious wolf Nick.” Rose smiled.
“If I’d known he was a wolf, I’d have left his plate outside.”
“Hey, you two, lay off. I ain’t a wolf, just hungry, especially with such good grub,” Nick grunted good naturedly.
“Well, I’ve got some work to do, so I need to get movin’,” Heath said as he rose.
“If you’ll loan me a mount, I’d be glad to help,” Nick offered. Heath’s face twisted for a moment as he thought.
“If you want to, sure. Jarrod, you interested?”
“No, thanks; I’ll leave that to the cowboys. I was thinking, though, how lucky it is that you live not too far from a creek, because I love to go fishing.” Jarrod looked at Aidan with one eye more closed than the other. “Only thing is that you need a partner.”
“Can I go?” the excited five year old asked his mother excitedly.
“Yes,” Rose said with a smile. “Just don’t come home filthy, Aidan. And you forgot to ask Mr. Jarrod.” Aidan turned swiftly from his position near his mother’s apron and skipped to Jarrod’s chair, placing one arm on the back of the chair.
“Can I go with you, Mr. Jarrod? Please?”
“Sure. I’m counting on you to get the worms. Now go get ready.” He ruffled the little boy’s hair with a chuckle.
* * * * * * * *
Rose was grateful that Jarrod had taken Aidan fishing. There were too many things going on, and she was tired. Watching small children and doing housework gave little time to thought. Most people had wondered at the beginning of her courtship with Heath, for just as they forgot her husband’s fire for his pensiveness, they forgot her ponderance for her spirit, or temper to the gossips. They seemed very different to most, but she knew better. There were things of the heart that you could never really speak of, but just sensed. Sometimes they’d just lie in bed at night holding hands and listening to each others’ breaths. Every morning they’d start before the children awoke and before starting on their chores would stand on the front porch in awe and silent prayer.
She was washing dinner’s dishes in the kitchen. A scouring cloth in her hand, she scrubbed the pan and looked out the window before turning her head down towards her work again. Time for the final rinse; what a blessing to have a pump in the kitchen. The old house had been on the lot vacant for a while and needed repairs when they bought it, but there was a pump in working order in the kitchen. There was a well out back, too, but the pump made cooking and bathing much easier. Perhaps tomorrow she could arrange a long soak, but for today, just having the pump was good enough. Tonight her guests could bathe, after all they’d been on the trail for two days and a mere washing wouldn’t do, and then tomorrow it was hers, after Maggie and Aidan, of course, but she’d make Heath wait. Yes, he could wait this time. He’d take his bath while she set her hair to dry in the sun that liked to hold onto the sky into the evening on a summer’s night. Perhaps a bit scandalous with gentlemen guests, but things needed a little rousing up now and then and she enjoyed a little unorthodoxy.
The last dish was done and away. She had more time to fix supper this afternoon because, and she thought of the uninformed Barkleys, it was leftover night, and a quiche was just the thing to tie up the loose ends. The kinds she made were never in the cookbooks, yet they were almost unanimously appreciated, though little Aidan was a wild card. She dried her hands, put the towel back on its peg and swiped back wisps soaked in sweat. The season’s days were toilsome and hot, and there was much work and worry with the railroad. Sometimes she was sure, confident, and knew that she could handle the difficulties, but most times those were lost in the summer haze. Today the haze was thick, and she wondered: will I make it?
* * * * * * * *
Jarrod sat by a tree trunk with a pole in his hand. For all his fervor, his young companion had fallen asleep waiting for a bite. Aidan still held his pole with a hand lazily drooped over his head as he lay on his side. There was a tug on the boy’s line. Jarrod was uncertain of what to do at first, but he didn’t want Aidan to miss his fish.
“Aidan, wake up!” He gave the little boy a shake. Aidan looked up groggily. “You have a fish on the line, Aidan. Come on, let’s get it.”
“Huh? Oh, a fish! I got a fish!” Galvanized into action, the little boy found himself pulling at something much greater than he could handle. “Mr. Jarrod, help!” Jarrod came over quickly, but not quick enough, grasping his hands on Aidan’s arms just as the fish broke the string. The pair went tumbling down into the pond. Jarrod sat up, his knees bent, and pulled a watergrass out of his hair with a satirical smile as he looked at the child next to him kneeling in the shallow waters.
“Your mother is not going to be too happy if we come home like this.”
“We can dry off in the field,” Aidan suggested with a nonchalance tone. Rising, Jarrod shook his finger at the boy.
“Something tells me you have a lot of experience in this sort of thing.” He harrumphed once and after stepping out of the water turned back to the boy. “Well? Where is that field?” Aidan jumped up and grabbed his hand, pulling Jarrod along a path.
“I’ll show you, Mr. Jarrod. A nice, sunny day like this, we’ll be dry in no time.”
* * * * * * * *
That evening, after the Thomsons had retired, Jarrod and Nick sat on the porch.
“And, Jarrod, can that boy ride! And he’s doin’ all the gentling techniques I’ve been hearing about. Manages the ranch great, too. Wish I had some more men like him at home.”
“They certainly are nice people. I’m glad we came.”
“So’m I. Good man, lovely wife, great kids. So much he could lose, and so much worth fighting for.”
“I’ve been thinkin’ about the Cana. Notice the name’s significance, Nick?”
“From the Bible, ain’t it? Promised Land? Whatcha thinkin’?”
“Cana is where Israel was. A gift from God to the Hebrews.”
“That’s why he called it a blessing, then.”
“Yes, but the Hebrews didn’t just get it for free. They had to fight hard for it at God’s command. And they lost it when they fell astray. I don’t think Heath chose it on a fluke. He knew exactly what he was saying. He’s saying that he will be decent and work hard in thanksgiving. Sometimes I forget how much we have.”
“Me too, Jarrod. I know it doesn’t make sense, but he seems, I don’t know. I just feel like we’ve met before. Can’t shake it. Well, ‘night, Jarrod.”
“Goodnight, Nick.” I know just what you mean, little brother, and how right you are, he thought to himself as he puffed the remnants of his cigar.
* * * * * * * *
––Saloon, That Evening––
Adam Coleson sat in the back room with a bottle of scotch that was a third of the way empty. He was waiting for the boss of the operation to appear so that he could divulge his information and get drunk. Every time it happened this way, every job the railroad gave him. He got there, did his job, and every night he tried to forget it in the bottle. And every job, it took more and more to get to the place where he could stand himself, and even then, he knew what he was, what he had become, and how he hated himself.
The bottle was calling again. He picked it up and in the dim light could see a distorted reflection that was too close to the truth. He replaced the bottle but left his hand there, caressing it gently. Adam Coleson was not a stupid man. He had learned many lessons at his father’s side and his mother’s knee. Both had died when he was young; his mother was just a distant memory. The war came, and the farm where his brother took care of him took on a new name: contraband. The war finished what disease had failed to do; young Adam was left without family and without home. In a boy’s lonely mind, the loss of everything mixed mother’s lessons of justice and father’s eye-for-an-eye doctrine. No one deserved what he had lost. But his heart, long silenced, was whispering what he knew to be the truth: he had become the men he so despised. Oh, God, why wouldn’t Hutchins show up finally?
A man appeared in the door. After a moment, Coleson determined it to be Hutchins, disguised by his own shadow from the backlighting. Adam straightened himself.
“Coleson, what do you have for me?”
“They should be havin’ a meetin’ pretty soon. Thomson has some guests; haven’t figur’d out who yet. Jus’ rode in today. Figure ‘t’might have somethin’ to do with that letter ‘e sent ta Jarrod Barkley. Your men should be comin’ up from the last job in about three days, then you kin ride. All the farmers are scared since that one got killed. Thomson’s gonna have a mighty hard time gettin’ ‘em to fight. He’s the only real problem you’ve got. If he were ta go down, ain’t nobody tha’s stay. They’ll all scatter since there ain’t nobody else to lead ‘em. Our guy’ll tell us how the meetin’ goes. You can decide what yer gonna do from that.”
“Good work. I’ve got a gun comin’ in. If the farmers look like they’ll fight, I’ll have 'im plug Thomson.” Hutchins looked at the bottle and grunted. “Might wanna lay off that stuff.” He picked up the bottle, looked at it, and put it down a bit too quickly. He patted Coleson’s shoulder and left.
“Always get the job done!” Adam called weakly to the disappearing form.
* * * * * * * *
––The Next Morning, a Roadside––
Adam looked up. Even in the shade, the sun’s brightness bothered him. How had he reached the shade?
“Hold it there, Stranger. Near as I can tell, you took quite a fall from your horse. Funny, though, I found ‘im and he seems pretty easy-goin’. Somethin’ musta spooked ‘im. Reckon you remember what?” Whoever the man was, Adam couldn’t tell because the sun was behind the man, he was offering a canteen.
“No, don’t know what.” That was a lie. Lying to a man who coulda left ya there. Despicable. He took the canteen and drank. “Thanks for your help. I best be goin’.” Adam tried to stand up but the man held him down.
“Don’t think that’s the best idea right now, fella.” Adam shook him off and walked two steps before collapsing.
“Boy howdy, fella, ya jus’ had to make it hard on yourself now, huh?” Heath lifted Adam and struggled for a moment to get him on the horse and mounting up behind him. He grabbed the reins and nudged the horse gently. “Alright, Gal. Take us home.”
* * * * * * * *
“We’d better hurry up. I don’t know how well a job those two will do watching Aidan and little Maggie.” Rose’s hands swiftly cleaned and bandaged the wound while Jarrod assisted her.
“It is rather like putting the prisoners in charge of the prison, isn’t it? You seem to have summed up those two clown-like cowboys rather well. Any chance you’ve met Nick in a past life?”
“I’ll not have that sacrilege in my house,” she teased.
“You’ll have to go outside and shout it up while I stick my head out the window. Looks like our guest is about done. Heath said he woke up for a moment before he passed out again, so I think he’ll be alright as long as he doesn’t move ‘round too much. What’ve you got there?” Jarrod had removed the wallet from Adam’s coat pocket and was starting to look through it.
“I think it might help us if we found out who he is. From this, his name is Adam Coleson, and he’s staying at the Sturbridge House. Coleson, Coleson. The name sounds familiar. Hmm––Whoa!” Jarrod pulled out a load of cash.
“Goodness gracious! Where did he get such an amount? He’s not dressed well. There haven’t been any robberies in the area recently. It doesn’t make sense unless” She brought her hand to her mouth.
“Unless he works for the railroad. That’s where I heard the name before. That’s right. Adam Coleson, originally of Kentucky, moved west after the War. Inside man for Coastal and Western in small towns like this. One of their best. D––– it all!” He slapped the wallet hard on the edge of the nightstand. “Come on. He’ll be alright. We have to tell Heath and Nick.”
* * * * * * * *
Victoria pulled up to the little cottage. It was just as Tom had described it when he confessed his indiscretion. She remembered thinking against her will that it sounded quite lovely. She felt a pang of anger that it was indeed a pretty little house. But she wasn’t there for vengeance; she was there for truth. She set her reins down and climbed out of the surrey. A petite black woman appeared on the porch.
“What kin I be helpin’ ya with, ma’am?”
“My name is Victoria Barkley and––”
“Ain’t nothin’ here for ya, Miz Barkley. Y’all go on home, now, ya hear?”
“Who is it, Hannah?” called a voice from inside the house. A woman emerged from the doorway.
“Mrs. Caufield? I am Victoria Barkley. I’d like to speak with you if you have the time.” Rachel Caufield studied her for a moment.
“It’s alright Hannah. Please come in, Mrs. Barkley.
“Thank you.” Victoria followed her inside.
“Have a seat. I expect this is not merely a social call?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Then you are here about Leah.”
“No. I am here about Heath.” Rachel was clearly surprised.
“My son Jarrod received a letter about a week and a half ago. The young man who wrote it owns a ranch called the Cana and wanted advice about fighting the railroad. I didn’t recognize his last name at first. Because of our long history with the railroad, Jarrod did some checking. I read the file and realized who Heath is. Jarrod and Nick, my other sons, are at the ranch now, trying to help him.”
“What do you want with him?”
“I want to do what’s right by him. When Tom told me, I willed myself into believing it hadn’t been lengthy. I see now that that was not the case.”
“What do you intend to do? He doesn’t know who his father is, and he won’t accept a pay-off. Neither will Hannah and I. We gave our word to Leah and we won’t cheapen it by taking money.” Rachel’s words came bitterly.
“I don’t want his silence or yours. I want Heath to be a part of our family. Something has been missing since Tom’s death, and while I know he isn’t a replacement, I’d like to get to know him and for him to get to know his brothers and sister and for them to get to know him. I want to remedy a situation left in disrepair far too long.”
“Mother?” Audra called. “I’m sorry, Mother, but I read some of the file and saw Father’s old photograph on your nightstand, so I came. I saw your buggy out front, and, well, the door was open. I couldn’t help but hear.”
“Audra, this is Mrs. Caufield. Mrs. Caufield, my daughter Audra.”
“You look very similar to our Heath, Audra.”
“Thank you. I didn’t see it at first, but Heath looks very similar to Father.”
“Sit down, dear. We have much to discuss.”
* * * * * * * *
––The Thomson House, Cana Ranch––
Adam awoke slowly to a throbbing head. He shaded his eyes with his hands and readjusted himself to more of a sitting position. He gradually regained his senses and realized he was in bed in an otherwise empty room. He felt the bandage on his head when he touched the bump. He pushed himself up more before throwing back the covers and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He dipped his hand in the pitcher and wet his face before slowly standing up. He heard voices coming from downstairs but couldn’t quite make out the words. Some seemed very angry. He carefully made his way to the stairs and sat down to listen.
“Heath, use your head! I’m not telling you to shoot the man! It’d be better for everyone if you just take him to town and, explain it to the sheriff, and leave him at his hotel!” Someone was shouting.
“Nick’s got a point, Heath. Who knows what information he could gather. He’ll probably want to leave once he comes to anyway. If I’m familiar with George Hutchins at all, he won’t be too happy with this situation either. Don’t take him in in a wagon, but help him get to town.” This voice seemed more reasoned.
“I will not force an injured man out of my home. And this is my home. Do not raise your voice in my home.” The command was soft but firm.
“But it could be dangerous, Heath. Listen, boy, you’ve already helped more’n most folks woulda. What kinda treatment do you think he’duh given you?”
“However he’duh treated me I would do exactly what I did today.”
“Think about your family, Heath!”
“I am. And what’s more, you know it, Nick. The matter is closed. I insist that Mr. Coleson stay at least overnight, longer if he needs to, something that Rosie and I will judge. And the meeting will go on tonight as scheduled. Now, I have work ta do. Comin’, Nick?”
“Yep. Aw, dang it, boy. Usually Jarrod and Mother are the only ones that can set me straight. Ya know, I think Father woulda told me the same thing.” Nick clapped Heath on the back and Adam heard the door close.
Adam returned to the bed. From the conversation he knew he was at the Cana in Heath Thomson’s bed. He also had a pretty good guess as to the identity of the guests. What he had no answer for was their treatment of him.
* * * * * * * *
––The Barn, That Night––
“Thomson, we cain’t fight ‘em. They’ll be bringin’ in guns. You know how many stood up to ‘em and won?”
“I don’t know how many, but I have.”
“And jus’ who’re you, son?”
“My name’s Nick Barkley. This is my brother Jarrod. Heard you guys were fightin’ and thought maybe we could help. But I don’t like fightin’ with quitters. I came to stand up against a bunch of no-good thieves. Ain’t a man around who wouldn’t get up to stop a thief in the middle of the night. It don’t make sense to me why you won’t go after one in broad daylight. I thought you cared ‘bout your land and families. I thought we were of one mind here. I thought I was comin’ to help in a fight against injustice. My name’s Nick Barkley and I don’t quit, I don’t let thieves steal from me or mine, I care about my family, and I care about justice. I ain’t perfect but I’m tryin’. I ain’t always right but I am right about this: ain’t a man here that won’t regret it if he don’t fight for what’s his. And ain’t a man who fights that ain’t got my respect. My name’s Nick Barkley and I want ev’ry man here to be a man.”
“Barkley? From Stockton?” another voice asked.
“Yes.” The murmurs resumed.
“Ain’t your daddy the one tha’ got killed?”
“Yes, our father was killed by the railroad.” Jarrod was speaking now. “And others were killed, too. And it is not unlikely that you will suffer the same fate if you stand with us. I’ll not pretend that this is a childhood game where marbles are all that is at stake. But, I tell you more will be lost by submission.” An uproar erupted.
“Quiet down!” came a shout. Silence followed. “You all know me, and for you Barkleys, I’m Elias Cooper. I ain’t hankerin’ ta get m’self killed any more’n the rest a ya. But I ain’t about to give up without a real reason, neither, and there ain’t one a ya bin able ta give m’ one. Now, I aim to hear what this boy has to say and ya kin all keep your grumblins ta yourselves. Now, go on, boy. How’d ya figure?”
“I figure it this way: You leave. The railroad pays you less than your land is worth, less than your blood and sweat and labor is worth, but nobody wants to challenge the railroad. You get some land elsewhere, but it’s either less than you had before or the same amount but bad quality. You have to start all over again. And who’s to say the railroad won’t decide it needs to lay track down through your wife’s vegetable garden? But this isn’t the half of it; it’s just the material goods. Not one man that leaves will be able to call himself a man. Don’t the sacrifices you made to work your land mean anything to you? Are you going to let your children grow up knowin’ that they’re father wouldn’t fight for what he had worked his whole life to leave them? Are you going to be able to look any man in the eye knowing that you refused to fight for what is rightfully yours. Our father died for this. Our father knew that he might leave a widow and three children, and he knew that we needed to know that some things are worth fighting for, dying for.
“I’m willing to bet that many of you fought in our recent war. Whatever side, wasn’t it worth fighting for? You can tell me that was different, and it was. You can tell me that was war, and it was. You can tell me you have wives now, daughters and sons, and you do. But you can’t tell me that this is any less worth fighting. You can’t tell me that you don’t care enough about the land when you have brought forth the fruit of the earth with your hands, down in the dirt on your knees begging God for a good harvest. You can’t tell me it means nothing when you sit in the saddle fourteen hours and spend your days getting thrown off horses and chasing cattle. I grew up on a ranch and I still live there. I know what you put into it. I see my brother do the same things you do every day. And I know you don’t do it for nothing. It’s harvest time, time to separate the wheat from the chaff. You all have to ask yourselves whether you are substance or just the empty casing. A man or a shadow.” Jarrod’s words left them in silence for a few stunned minutes. Gradually, whispers began filling the room.
“Well, I think ‘most everybody knows this fella’s right,” Elias said. “But you aren’t fighting for yourselves here. Heath, I wanna hear what ya got to say.” Heath shifted a bit on the bale he was sitting on before speaking softly.
“I think Jarrod covered all the reasons why we gotta stand up. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Found out today that another one’s on the way. You all gotta understand how much I want to hold my baby, find out who he is, give ‘im all the chances I never got. I want to live my life ranchin’, lovin’ my wife and family. I want to have more kids. I want to raise ‘em up decent. I want to walk li’l Maggie down the aisle when she meets someone who loves her and treats her right. I want to watch as Aidan takes charge of the ranch or gets a job or meets a nice girl. I want to grow old with Rosie and keep fresh flowers on my mother’s grave. I want to be a man my kids can be proud to call their father. If I just let all that be taken I ain’t worth the dust off the railroad men’s boots. I won’t let my life be a lie just so’s I can live it. That ain’t no kinda life, just an excuse. I know the Barkleys will be with me when the railroad comes. Maybe not one of ya will show. And even if I stand alone, I have to do it. You can help or not. If I live at least I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror. As for the rest of you, they threatened to come to my ranch day after tomorrow. I’ll fight with any man that wants me to, and any help you can give me I’d appreciate. Each man to his own conscience. Goodnight.” Heath left, followed by Jarrod and Nick.
Adam had left quickly just before Heath and the Barkleys. He was finally beginning to understand. These men were everything he had hoped to be growing up. Just like his grandfather and father and brother. Perhaps there was yet some hope for him. Perhaps there was yet atonement for his many sins. Perhaps he could be a better man. Perhaps he could finally be a man.
* * * * * * * *
“Another one on the way, huh?” Nick’s voice was teasing in tone as he put his arm over Heath’s shoulder. “What’re ya hoping for this time?”
“Well, I got a boy and girl already an’ I like ‘em both, so I reckon either one’d be okay.” All three chuckled before walking through the door. Heath, first in, was met with a pistol. He spotted Rose in the corner and, assuring himself that Coleson hadn’t touched her, raised his hands in the air. Nick and Jarrod did the same as they entered.
“Alright, there, Mr. Coleson. How ‘bout you just puttin’ that down. I don’t think you want to use it. Just put it down real easy on the table.”
“How do you know what I want?” His tone was icy and quiet as he cocked the hammer. “How do you know anything? I was sent here to get rid of you. I was never supposed to meet ya. I never met anyone ‘fore who I was ‘posed ta take. Why’d ya have ta change that?” He paused. “Well, anyway, I guess you were right after all. I don’t wanna kill ya. I wanna kill myself. But I’m too yella ta do that, even. Too yella to do myself an’ the world a favor. Too yella for anythang.” Nick and Jarrod had moved into tackling positions and Rosie was getting ready to crouch, but they held off when they saw Adam’s hand trembling. Heath gently pulled away the gun and carefully uncocked the hammer before placing it on the table. Adam stumbled into a seat.
“Oh God! What have I done?!” He buried his head in his hands. “You knew who I was, who I am! You knew my horse was too gentle to throw a baby, much less a full grown man. That fella was right when he said ya ought’ve took me ta town. Why’d ya have ta be so good? Why couldn’t ya hate me?” He lost control of his sobs.
“Seems to me you’re doin’ enough hatin’ for both of us. You’re right; I did know all those things. Also knew some others. I was wondering if you’d pick up on this, Jarrod, but you didn’t. You neither, Nick. I grew up in a minin’ town. Besides minin’ an’ churchin’ there was drinkin’. My uncle drunk a lot, an’, like lotsa guys who’re always drunk, he took scotch. It hardly has a stink to it at all. But when a cupboard has years’ worth in bottles, empty an’ full, the smell’s stronger. Never forgot that smell, been able ta pick it out ever since. Smelled it on you. You had a lot of scotch that night, an’ you got hard on that ole horse o’ yours, harder’n he’s used to. An’ you did it on purpose.” Adam lifted his head and halted his sobs.
“Now, look,” Heath started again, placing his hand on Adam’s arm. “Maybe you chickened outta killin’ yourself, but that’s good. Don’t you see? You gotta chance here.... Why do you hate yourself?” Adam was silent several moments.
“Because I’m doing ta ya what happened ta me. ‘Cause I’ve turned into, my father’s enemies and my brother’s murderers. I lost everythang, my family, my farm, and now I’m tryin’ ta take everythang from y’all.”
“Things that happen when we’re young affect us in many ways,” Jarrod said. “What happened wasn’t your fault.”
“But what happens after tonight is your fault,” Rose continued. “If you keep doin’ this work then your hate will keep growin’ and one day you won’t stop and you’ll end up dead. But this is your chance! You can ride out. Get a job somewhere. There’re lots of farms in California, and harvest’s comin’ up in a month or so.”
“If you have the guts” Nick added, “to walk away from this job, I’d be proud ta give you a job at our ranch. We’ve got orchards and just started farming last year. Could use someone with experience. And I know you have the guts, because you didn’t give up when that stuff happened and you faced yourself rather than commit suicide and take the easy way out. By my thoughts, that ain’t yella ev’n if ya did drink too much. What’d ya say?” Adam struggled with his mouth, which had been gaping through the last half of Nick’s statement.
“W-well, I cain’t just walk away from the railroad.” He paused. “But I ain’t gonna work for ‘em, either.” A large smile plastered his face. Everyone else was grinning, too. Nick clapped him on the back.
“Now, hold on a minute. There’s some things ya gotta know. First, there’s traitor at the meetin’s. He’s gonna report ta Hutchins. Hutchins said if it looked like you was gonna fight then you’d be a target, Heath. He’s bringin’ in a gun ta get ya.” Rose gasped. “Awful sorry, ma’am. You better watch your back. The traitor’ll try to figure what’s gonna happen. You’re lucky that no one decided tonight. That way, he’ll have to send ‘im in at the shoot-out. He’ll wanna make it look like an accident. He’ll probably try ta hide in a tree or somethin’. Know what ta look for?”
“I know. Hope it’s sunny out.”
* * * * * * * *
––Sturbridge, the Next Day––
Victoria and Audra drove into Sturbridge with Audra’s horse, Pixie, tied to the back of the surrey. The tension in the small town was palpable, and Victoria was glad she had had the foresight to paint over the Barkley name emblazoned on the carriage. She halted at the first general mercantile store she saw. The proprietor walked over, wiping his hands on his apron as he did so.
“Howdy, ma’am. What can I do for ya?”
“Hello. I was hoping you could help me. First of all, I need directions to the hotel and to the livery.”
“Sturbridge House is just down the street on the right. Liv’ry is down a block on the left. What else do ya need?”
“I need directions to the Cana Ranch.”
“Well, ma’am, I’ll tell ya but I hafta warn ya that there’s gon’ta be a gunfight over there tomorra mornin’.”
“Yes, I am aware of that fact. Can you give me directions?”
“Don’t need ta. Here comes Heath Thomson in on his supply run. Always comes in ev’ry Whensdee at eleven thirty.” Heath pulled the wagon up to the curb. “Howdy, Heath!”
“Howdy, Abe. Got my supplies?”
“Sure do, Heath. These here ladies are lookin’ ta get ta your ranch. I’ll go an’ get your order ready.”
“Hello, Ma’am, Miss. What can I do for you?”
“I’d rather not get into it here,” Victoria replied in a hushed tone. She spoke louder, “Suffice it to say that we are good friends of your guests and need to speak to them on a matter of business. My associate and I intend to get a room here in town and leave our horses at the livery. May we accompany you?”
“Yes, Mrs. Thomas. I bring the wagon over to the hotel in an hour. Can you and Miss Brothers be ready at that time?”
“We’ll be waiting.” They met at the appointed time and made small talk till they were out of town.
“Mrs. Barkley, with all due respect, I don’t think it was a good idea for you to come. And certainly not you, Miss Barkley.”
“I understand your reasons, and I think you probably understand mine. You could have quite easily told us no, but you didn’t. You even helped us conceal our identities.”
“I kin understand some of ‘em. But I figured you’d be out to the ranch whether I took you or not. Wouldn’t be right for you to ride out by yourself, ‘specially with the railroad. Are you gonna tell them to come home?”
“No, I most certainly am not.”
“Per’aps you should. I can’t guarantee anyone else ‘sides the four of us.”
“Who’s the fourth?” Audra piped up.
“A nice fella, named Adam, but he won’t be back till late, out on the range. ‘S had a rough time o’ things an’ finally found ‘imself. Used to work for the railroad.”
“And you trust him?” Audra was astonished.
“Yep.” Audra was dissatisfied with his answer.
“For Heaven’s sake, why?!”
“Audra, keep your voice down.”
“No need, ma’am. I’m sure you want to know, too, considerin’ they’re the folks as murdered your husband.”
“Yes, I am curious, but, surprisingly, I am not opposed.”
“Don’t feel right to go spreadin’ his whole life story. Let’s jus’ say he understands better’n anyone what’s at stake ‘n’ he jus’ forgot it till recent.” Victoria noted the similarity between Heath’s words about Adam and Nick’s words about Heath. Audra began to voice a request for more information but Victoria’s stare silenced her. She decided to pick up the conversation where she had so abruptly ended it.
“So, tell me about your family, Mr. Thomson.”
“Heath’s fine, ma’am. What d’ you want to know?”
“You have children, right, Heath? Tell me about them.” She noted that he subconsciously slowed the horses a bit before speaking softly.
“Two right now. Aidan’s m’ first. He’ll be five in March. Got light hair an’ he’s sturdy built. Loves the outdoors. Ranch’s the right place for ‘im, though I reckon it makes launderin’ awf’lly hard on his mama. Always gettin’ dirtied up. Always tryin’ to help ‘round the ranch where he’s too young to. Then there’s little Maggie.”
“Oh, how sweet!” Audra interjected. “I always thought Margaret was a good name for a little girl. How old is she?” Heath smiled at Audra’s delighted questioning. She’s gonna have lotsa kids I’ll bet. Aidan an’ Maggie’ll be spoiled while she’s around.
“Maggie’s ‘bout a year an’ a half. Dark hair just like Rosie’s. Loves to try ‘n’ help out in the kitchen but she likes the outdoors, too. She’ll be in her nap when we get home, but you’ll be there jus’ in time for dinner.”
“Does it really take that long to get there?” Audra asked confused. Heath looked puzzled.
“Not long at all. Not more’n an hour. What time do’y usually eat at?”
“We have dinner at seven. Dinner would be at one-thirty at your–– Oh.” They both started chuckling while Victoria looked on amused.
“Well, now that that’s all straightened out––” Audra tried to stifle a leftover laugh. “Now you can tell us about Rose.”
“I think you’ll like her. You remind me of her, both of you, but not in looks. She has light skin like you, Miss, but shorter and with dark hair. She likes to go ridin’ hatless ‘cuz the sun streaks her hair golden. Same thing happens to Maggie. Loves horses an’ ridin’, and boy is she spunky.” Heath smiled to himself a crooked grin that Victoria knew instantly. “You know, she tried to get me to let her break a horse once. She was gonna break this horse that we’d just caught an’ was really mean at first. I did end up teachin’ her some ‘bout gentlin’, but not on that horse. Felt kinda bad, though. Gave her the first mare he sired to make up for it. An’ she gentled ‘er, too!” Audra and Victoria laughed. Audra was looking forward to getting into some mischief with another fun-loving female. Rose sounded like she’d be a great sister. They spent the next fifteen minutes telling family anecdotes before pulling up to the house. Heath got out and was helping the ladies out when Nick and Aidan arrived on the scene.
“MOTHER, AUDRA! WHAT’RE YOU DOIN’ HERE?!” At hearing the shouts, Jarrod and Rose came running out of the house.
“Nick Barkley, you will not shout to raise the dead in my front lawn!” Rose proclaimed forcefully. Nick looked sheepish, causing Audra to burst out laughing.
“Well, what in tarnation is so da––, er, darned funny?!”
“I thought only Mother could put you in your place! Mrs. Thomson, I’m Audra Barkley. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She held out her hand while trying to control her giggles. Rose took it and smiled.
“Pleasure to meet you, too. Just call me Rose. I have a feeling we’ll be friends soon enough.”
“Then you must call me Audra. And tell Heath to do the same. I told him to on the way here, but I think it’ll take your command for me to hear the end of ‘Miss Barkley.’ Let me introduce you to my mother. Mother, this is Rose. Rose, my mother, Mrs. Victoria Barkley.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Barkley.”
“Likewise. And who is this strapping young lad? Can it be the Aidan I’ve been hearing so many good things about?” Victoria leaned down to Aidan’s level, which was hiding behind his mother’s skirt. He timidly took the hand proffered.
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Barkley.” Audra bent down also.
“Hello, Aidan. My name is Audra Barkley.”
“G’afternoon, Miss Barkley.”
“How about you just call me Aunt Audra? What have you got in the bag?” Jarrod noted Audra’s choice of words and the pleased look on his mother’s face.
“You mightn’t like it. It’s a frog.” Aidan had decided to use his new pet as a test to see what this big girl was like. Girls weren’t any good if they didn’t like frogs.
“I see you don’t know me very well yet, Aidan. I used to catch frogs in the creek near my house every summer growing up. In fact,” she looked around hurriedly, “can you keep a secret?” He nodded. “I went down to the creek two weeks ago and caught one. May I see your frog, Aidan?” Aidan was delighted at the thought of another playmate. The Barkley family seemed awfully like kids to him. He held open the bag and the frog scrambled to the top to jump out. Aidan was horrified at the thought of losing the frog so quickly after catching it. Much to his surprise, as well as that of the surrounding audience, Audra quickly sprang into action, ran after the frog, and caught him in mid-air. The frog was small enough for her to hold him easily in her hands. Aidan looked up wide-eyed at her and held open the bag.
“Wow, Aunt Audra! You surely caught him fast!”
“Thank you Aidan,” Audra smiled. “Think after lun–– dinner you could take me down there?”
“Whoopee! Can I go, Papa?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Hooray! Aunt Audra, you’re the best boy a girl could ever be!”
* * * * * * * *
“That’s a big one there, Aidan. Want to try for it?” He nodded his consent.
The boy crept over to the edge and reached out to get the frog. Audra held her breath, hoping for her nephew’s sake his small hands could grab and hold it. The little boy had much experience, however, and although he almost tipped over sideways, he managed to get a good hold of it.
“Got ‘im!” the boy shrieked as he grabbed onto his new pet.
“Good boy,” Audra answered. “Bring him here so I can have a look.” He brought the frog over to where she was stretched on the ground. “That’s a big one, Aidan. He looks even bigger up close, and I didn’t think that could happen.” The boy smiled under her assessment of his capture.
“He’s got a lotta pimple-y things, Auntie,” Aidan giggled.
“Yes, he does, doesn’t he?” she laughed as well. “Well, I think perhaps we’d best head back, Aidan. It’s getting late. Put him back now.” Aidan reluctantly released the frog as all mirth faded from his face. Seeing his sadness, Audra tried to cheer him up. “It’s okay, sweetie; you can come back and get him again.”
“No I won’t. Ain’t never gonna find him again. I wanted-ed to keep ‘im. Now I won’t never find him.” Audra was shocked by the sudden change in demeanor. Aidan sat willfully with his arms wrapped around knees brought close to his chest.
“What on earth makes you say that?”
“Grannie went, and she never comed back.”
“Yes, but she died, that doesn’t happen to everyone.”
“Mr. Gregory got shot, and he never comed back, neither.”
“What does that have to do with Froggy?”
“Papa’s gonna fight them bad men, and he ain’t gonna come back.” Audra was shocked. She grabbed Aidan and pulled him into an embrace.
“That won’t happen, Aidan. It’ll be alright. It won’t happen to your papa.”
“It happen’d to your papa.”
“Yes, but your papa has more help than mine. Your papa will be fine.”
“R-r-really?” the child stuttered through tears.
“Really, Aidan. Now, come on, we still have a long walk home before supper.”
* * * * * * * *
––Later that Night––
“Do you want me to tell to Nick?” Jarrod joined Victoria on the porch.
“So the reason for my visit did not escape you, Counselor.”
“No. But I didn’t expect Audra.”
“Neither did I, Jarrod. Heath needs to know this before tomorrow. He needs to know that our home is his if he wants it to be. He needs to know that whatever happens his family will be safe. Yes. I would like you to tell Nick. Audra knows to keep her distance for a bit tonight and you telling Nick will kill two birds with one stone. I think, under the circumstances, he will react better than otherwise. He is familiar with Heath’s hardships over the past twenty-four years and that will help him. I think it will be hard for him to imagine that his father was not perfect. You tell him first. I’ll give you a fifteen minute head start. Deal?” Jarrod took is mother’s hand and kissed it.
* * * * * * * *
“What are you trying to say, Jarrod?!” Jarrod was impressed by Nick’s relatively calm demeanor. “Are you saying Heath is my brother by another woman?”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. Mother went to Strawberry and found out for sure. Audra followed her there. Are you alright, Nick?” Nick was sitting on a bale of hay in the barn shaking his head.
“Yeah, I guess. I just don’t understand it is all. It seems to fit pretty well, though, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve watched you two over the past few days. No one would doubt that you were brothers. There’s something that just clicks, and I’ve felt it, too, when I’m with him. A kind of camaraderie, if you will.”
“When are we gonna tell him?”
“Mother should be doing that just about now.”
* * * * * * * *
“I don’t understand. Why would you come all this way to tell me that I’m a dead man’s bastard?”
“You are not Tom’s bastard, you are Tom’s son! And you have a right to what Tom’s other sons have!”
“I don’t want it. I don’t want charity, I don’t want pity, I don’t want any of it. I’ve spent my whole life without him. I don’t need now what I needed growing up. What is this? I never asked for this. Has everyone known but us? Why now?”
“This is an offer of everything you should have been given growing up, brothers and sisters, a ranch, a safe haven. I knew this when I read a file about you. Try to understand. The railroad has been after us for years. We had to be sure. Audra followed me to Strawberry. I think Jarrod figured it out, but he didn’t know for sure. He’s telling Nick now. I’m telling you now because it is a situation that needs fixing. I want you to have somewhere else if you lose the battle tomorrow. I want you to know that I care and that I am so sorry for not pressing Tom for details. If I had I would have known how long the affair lasted and would have checked with your mother. I want you to know that if, God forbid, anything should happen tomorrow, your family will be taken care of, and I will do so personally. Oh, Heath! I know nothing can make anything of what you suffered up to you. But I want for you to start with what is yours. I’m not asking you to give up the Cana, I know better than that. And I know it won’t be an easy transition. Driving here with you, spending time with you and you, too, Rose, has made me feel even more secure in my decision to talk to you. I’ll respect whatever decision you make, just think about it. And promise we’ll be able to keep in touch whatever happens.” Heath took a deep breath. Rosie put her hand on his shoulder from behind and he placed his hand over hers.
“You make a compelling case, Ma’am. Guess I know who Jarrod takes after. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll think about it. Thank you.”
“For giving me the choice.”
* * * * * * * *
––Cana Ranch, Seven-Thirty the Next Morning––
Victoria and Audra rode in on their mounts. Rose was in the chicken coop with her basket. Nick and Jarrod walked out of the barn and Heath emerged from behind the house. Audra and Victoria dismounted and the former took the horses to the barn. She paused at the door and looked back. It was a beautiful morning, the sun’s rays protruding from the back of the house and framing it like the halo in a stained-glass window. She turned around and proceeded to find herself in the company of stranger. He pivoted from where he was shoveling hay and placed the prongs of the pitchfork into the ground, leaning his chin onto the top of the handle.
“Sorry to startle ya, Miss. You must be Miss Barkley.” He extended his hand which she gracefully accepted.
“And you Mr. Coleson?”
“Yes’m. Allow me ta take care uv your horses.” He held out his hands for the reins. She placed those of Victoria’s horse in his hands.
“You can take my mother’s. I like to take care of Pixie myself.” He nodded his consent and led the rented mount to a stall. Audra studied him. She could tell from his face that he had experience with liquor, but also knew him to be quite sober. He was not ugly but not quite handsome, either. Yet she felt attracted to this reformed sinner. His movements were crisp, his tone gentle and sad. When she heard about him initially she had distrusted him immensely. Yet his careworn eyes and strong features had convinced her that he was worthy of her confidence. He finished shortly before she did and leaned on the stallpost.
“You certainly do care for that horse, Miss Barkley.”
“I’ve taken care of her since she was a foal. Sweet little thing, really. Now, Mr. Coleson, I think that since we are scheduled to fight together against our common enemy, I believe things would be much simpler were we to go by our first names. That stated, I ask you to call me Audra.” He gave an amused smile.
“Alright, Audra, but only if you’ll call me Adam. Shall we go, then?” He offered her his arm. She decided that she loved his drawl as she smiled and took his arm.
“We certainly shall then, Adam.”
* * * * * * * *
“What time d’you think they’ll show, Heath?”
“Railroad probably figures to get this outta the way quick. My guess is before nine. What d’you think, Adam?”
“I think your right. They’re real professional. Prob’ly figure ta take this in the mornin’ an’ spend the afternoon tellin’ ev’ryone. You’re sure ya know what ta look for?”
“What do you mean, Adam?” Audra queried. Adam looked at her and then quizzically at her brothers, unsure if an answer was appropriate.
“I believe what Adam means,” Victoria began, “is that the railroad will be gunning for Heath. Is that true?”
“How awful!” Audra ran to Rose’s side.
“I know what to look for. It’s sunny out, see? God answers prayers. Most likely they’ll put him in a bit after it’s started so we cain’t see ‘im in the smoke.” He walked to the window and pointed. “That tree’s the best spot, next best’s over there but it don’t provide cover a good blast of wind won’t ruin. Nope, it’ll be that one. Hopefully they’ll come ‘round at half past eight so the sun’ll be right. Then I kin catch the glint easy an’ take ‘im.” The room was quiet. Maggie toddled to her father and hugged his legs. He picked her up to see Aidan sitting on his mother’s lap at the table. Maggie began to whimper. Heath held her close and whispered something to her. She looked up at him and put her little hand on the side of his face and smiled. He smiled back.
“See? Papa’s right. Ev’rything will be fine.”
* * * * * * * *
“D–– it! Sorry, ladies. They’re here already.” Nick was looking out the window. It was only eight o’clock. He could see them riding in. At least fifteen guns, not counting the expected sharpshooter.
“Rosie, Audra, Mrs. Barkley, you stay upstairs with the children and keep down.” They walked outside. “Looks like we’re on our own.”
“Not quite, Heath,” said Elias Cooper. “I talked ta all them an’ got a few ta come with me. Rest o’ them cowards is waitin’ ta find out what happens here. Already got their wagons packed. Looks like we’re just in time for a li’l hoedown. Alright, boys. Come on, now!” The new arrivals stepped onto the porch.
“That makes eight, Heath. That’s two for each man.”
“Great, Nick. Looks like that meetin’ wasn’t for nothin after all. Thanks for comin’, fellas.” Both parties fell silent as the railroad men neared. “Now, everyone listen,” Heath whispered. “I’m gonna do the talkin’. John, Clayton, go through the house an’ find positions near where th’ keepin’ room juts out. Elias, who d’ya think you’re foolin’? You barely know what end is used for what. You hold back an’ when somebody gets hurt you help ‘im up ‘an then take his place. Rosie cut some bandages; they’re over there with some water. Bill, jus’ like the old days with the major, huh?”
“Just like it, Heath. You were givin’ orders back then, too, Private.” They shared a laugh.
“Thomson, you can still leave! We’ll give ya to sunset ta get out an’ the price stays same as before! What’ll it be? Leave peaceable with money in your pocket or get taken off slung over your horse?”
“Whatever happens to me, I ain’t leavin. I’m stayin’ whether it’s in my own bed or six feet under the ground.” The foe dismounted as one and scattered the horses, using the cloud of dust it created to conceal their movements.
“Remember, they’ve got to fire first!” Heath commanded. Strangely, the battle didn’t start immediately. The great cloud of dust hindered progression and the men stood there, waiting. The brief moments stretched to an eternity and held the men on edge as they stood waiting to be shot at. Finally infinity halted and they saw the once-hidden enemy, which began the bloodshed immediately, almost to their relief.
It was not to the relief of the ladies upstairs. Not knowing any better, Maggie had decided to mimic the sounds coming from the yard. Rose scooped her up and gave a light slap to her hand.
“Don’t do that!” She softened, her baby crying. “There, there. Mama’s sorry. Hush, now. It’ll be alright.” She rocked Maggie back and forth for a few moments. “Oh, Mrs. Barkley, what will I do if something happens?!” Tears streamed down her face but she struggled not to wail. Victoria sat down on the bed beside her and put her arm over Rose’s shaking shoulders.
“You’ll go on. I know it seems impossible, and it’s very hard. But you are a woman of strength and of virtue and God will guide you. I never would have thought I could survive losing Tom, but by the grace of God, I have. And whatever happens, you will be taken care of, I promise.”
“So strong. Heath’s out there fighting and here I am in tears.” She frantically began to wipe her eyes.
“It’s alright to cry. Just don’t give up.” Rosie straightened up.
“It may be alright to cry, but I am not going to cry anymore. I have so much to be thankful for. I won’t shed another tear when there are those who have experienced pain a hundredfold. My children don’t need that.” Victoria patted her daughter-in-law’s arm and thought of another strong woman who had made the same decision six years before.
* * * * * * * *
The fight was going well. Only Clay, stationed at the side of the house, had been injured, and it wasn’t serious. The railroad, however, had suffered one wounded and two dead. The smoke from the fighting had begun to really collect and the battle had become more of a hold-off, neither side gaining or losing ground, only time. The railroad wasn’t used to such resistance from a small rural group. Clay came through the back door to the porch to stand for first aid.
“You all right there, Clay?”
“Yeah, Heath. Just caught enough flesh to keep me from pullin’ a trigger. I showed Elias the right end of a gun to aim.” They shared a brief laugh before returning to their duties.
Heath thought he saw a glint in the tree in the corner of his eye. When he turned, it wasn’t there. Redirecting his attention to the scene before him, he felt compelled to stand. While rising, he felt himself being pulled to face the tree. It glistened and he got off a shot just as the sharpshooter’s bullet struck. The man fell from the tree limply and Heath fell back, ending up propped against Jarrod. Jarrod looked up in time to see the foe hit the ground.
“Good shot, Heath. Just in ti–– Heath! Are you alright?!” He pulled Heath back to lean against the wall of the house.
“Nick, come quick.”
“Stop it, Jarrod. And hand me my rifle.”
“Your rifle?!” Nick was incredulous. Heath wrested it from Jarrod’s hand.
“You can’t stop me. This is my house, my livestock, my land and my fight."
“You’re fighting? In your condition?”
“I mean to give a d––– good imitation. My condition. N-now, you’re both wastin’ time. An’ don’t y’all go sendin’ for Rosie, now. We got work to do.”
* * * * * * * *
The shooting stopped and the dust cleared. The last of the railroad men were becoming ever-distant. Nick crouched by Heath’s side and looked at his side.
“You’re a d––– fool, you know that? Shoulda let us get you inside at least.”
“It’s bad, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, but you can survive. You, however, look like hell. Come on, let’s getcha inside while you’re still conscious so’s you can tell that wife o’ yours it ain’t my fault you weren’t in there earlier.” Nick tried to help Heath stand and Jarrod joined him, but he was too weak from the blood loss, so Nick scooped Heath up like he would a sleeping child. Heath gave no protest, feeling the fever creeping in like an unwelcome visitor, companion to the bayonet-thrust of pain.
“I’ll go ahead and get some water on the stove," Jarrod said, holding the door open. The others stood gravely by, at reverent attention in honor of their uniter.
“Where’s the closest town with a doctor? I’m going into town to wire for one.” Adam stood waiting.
“I’ll go in and send the wire, son.” It was Bill who spoke, all the while remembering a distant field where a fair-haired boy had pulled a young man of twenty to the hospital tent. He saw the puzzled look on Adam’s face. “Let’s just say I’m returnin’ a favor in kind.”
* * * * * * * *
“Bill’s sendin’ for the doc,” Adam announced as he entered Heath’s room.
“Good. How long will it take for him to get here, Rose?”
“Day and a half, Victoria.” The heyday had made proper titles too inconvenient.
“Can you hold on that long, Heath?”
“Y-y-yes ma’am. I’ll try r-real hard.”
“Good. Nick, Jarrod, I need you to go to the children’s room and play with them. Send Audra back here. Adam, go fetch us that water from the stove and then join the boys with the kids.”
The boys did as they were told. Adam handed the water to Audra and she smiled at him before he left. It was a smile not wholly unfamiliar to him, one that said Thanks, it’ll be alright, one reserved for those close to the heart. He quickly left the room.
The ladies had decided they needed to remove the bullet. While the bleeding had slowed, it hadn’t stopped, furthering their assumption that it must be in an inopportune location. Heath had held remarkably still as they began, but quickly lost consciousness. Victoria hated digging around for the bullet, but the wound was messy and it took over forty minutes for her to find it. It appeared that no internal organs had been damaged, but then again, who could tell? They managed to halt the bleeding and clean it thoroughly. However, the blood loss was severe and Heath floated unresponding near the bank of the River Styx.
* * * * * * * *
Victoria entered the children’s room. The men stood up and walked to her, both hopeful and fearful.
“We got the bullet out.” She spoke hushedly. “He hasn’t regained consciousness at all. Rose is sitting with him now. We’re going to need to take shifts. He’s lost a lot of blood. Right now all we can do is pray.” The boys nodded and returned to their seats on the bed. Aidan quickly crawled into Adam’s lap.
“Mr. Adam, is Papa gonna be okay?”
“Well, Aidan, I cain’t know for sure, but I think so.”
“Yep. See, your papa has someone lookin’ out for him real good.” The adults’ ears perked up.
“Like an angel?”
“Just like a angel. See, ya papa almost got killed right off, but he di’n’t ‘cause a angel helped ‘im.”
“You see the angel?”
“Nope, but I knowed he was there. He pulled your papa outta the way. I seen it m’self. See, now? It might be close, but God’s watchin’ out for ‘im and he’s got a special angel lookin’ out.” Nick and Jarrod asked Adam later if he had been telling the truth, but Victoria knew. That evening, she gazed heavenward at the stars filling the sky, reminded of the covenant with Abraham. It wasn’t an angel who had pulled Heath from certain death.
“Thank you for keeping our boy safe, Tom. Keep him alive now. He may have lived a lifetime but it’s not time for him to go yet. Dear God, please save him. Such a special boy he is, Tom. So very much your son.”
* * * * * * * *
The doctor arrived just past noon and much to the relief of all. Heath had had a difficult night and they weren’t sure he could survive another. The doctor looked over the wound.
“Very nice, ladies. Always knew that stitchery of yours must be good for something. Now, are there any male blood relatives?”
“Yes, sir. Jarrod and I are his brothers.”
“Half-brothers,” Jarrod corrected gently, knowing it might be pertinent.
“Well, half’s good enough for me. One of you step over here and have a seat. This young man’s going to need a good amount of blood.” Jarrod yielded to Nick, who had hesitated awkwardly, waiting for approval. Jarrod sensed that being united in blood would resolve the issues Nick had been struggling to overcome.
Nick watched the tube, wishing he could see inside to be assured of its flow.
"What d’we do now, Doc?”
* * * * * * * *
“Victoria?” Rose began, late in the night. She stood by the window of the children’s room, gazing with a coldness out into the dark sky. Victoria rose and came nearer.
“If, if Heath doesn’t get better, I want to go back with you to your ranch.”
“Alright,” Victoria replied gently. “Well see. Let’s not get too hasty, though.”
“Was it like this for you, all this waiting?”
“No, not at all.” She paused. “Tom was killed a distance off from the house. By the time I heard, he was dead. He was caught out alone; they said he held on for a bit, but he was cold four hours by the time the wagon reached the house. No, no waiting, just a bleak death on a day of undeserved beauty. Not even rain, angels’ tears, to cry with me, just nothing at all. They say all that is meant to be will be, but it feels no better, just as black as that moonless night that holds your eyes.”
“So am I. I hope with all my heart you are spared that. It was difficult for me, and I cannot imagine doing so with child and so young, but if that does come to pass, you will have the strength, and I will help you.”
“I’ve been here for hours. Must’ve run through my beads ten times or more praying for strength and life. I don’t know that it’s helped. I want to believe that it has, but I’ve buried too damned many. Too many people. I don’t want to hear a casket hit the earth any longer; I don’t want to wear black; I don’t want to tell my children what a great man their father was. I don’t want any of it.” The tears spilled down her face and she brought her hands up quickly to cover them. Victoria embraced her gently, running her hand over the young woman’s back.
“I know, Rose, I know. It’s alright, it’ll be alright. I’ll help you.” Rose’s sobs lessened in intensity and she separated a bit from her comforter.
“I said there were no more tears, and here I am crying.”
“That happens to all of us. Me, too, dearie.”
“Sometimes, I feel like the world is ending, and then other times I know it’ll be alright. I think, maybe, we should come to live with you all regardless. A new start, away from all this mess.”
“I would like that very much, but only if it is what you truly wish to do. In the meantime, be patient, and things will be alright, not easy, perhaps, but alright. Now, it’s getting late. You should rest.”
“Not yet. I promised I’d take the early bird watch and I won’t miss it. I’d best leave now. ... Thank you, Victoria.”
“You’re welcome.” Rose left. “You’re a strong woman, Rose Barkley, you just don’t know how strong you are.”
* * * * * * * *
Heath was an early riser out of habit. He opened his eyes and took in the sun shining through his window and the chirping of the birds. He looked to the chair and saw his sweet Rosie, her golden highlights glistening against her dark hair. She looked beautiful and peaceful and he decided not to disturb her. He reached over and softly placed his hand over hers. She stirred a bit and looked down at her hand, then at him with a tremendous smile.
“Tried not to wake you.”
“Not hard enough.” They chuckled and gazed together at a beautiful day. A day of promise and hope, and a horizon that extended into eternity.
Heath and Rosie did decide to move to the Barkley Ranch, but maintained ownership of the Cana in partnership with Adam Coleson. They were going to surprise Audra with it as a gift for her birthday in the spring, when they expected another important announcement to come.
Heath stood with his baby son in his arm, Maggie holding his hand, and Aidan’s hand latched to the crook of his elbow. It was early Thanksgiving day and they were all quite bundled as they stood by the old Barkley cabin on a hill overlooking the valley.
“See there, Tommy. You, too, Aidan and Maggie. See the land. Take it in. This land will always be yours. It’s a gift, just like the land of Israel in the Bible. You must always take care of it.”
“Does it have milk and honey, Papa?” Aidan asked, bedazzled. Heath smiled.
“It sure does, son. It sure does.”
thanks for reading.