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.
(Many posts contain series dialogue, which I try to indicate by using italics. The original writers were terrific----and their dialogue always flowed so smoothly! I bow to their talents! However, sometimes, italics are used in my story to indicate a flashback, from one part of the story to another.)
The rain was stopping as Heath stood by the grimy window, the pre-dawn dark making it difficult to see anything of the silence outside. The coffee cup in his hand was just barely warm to the touch, and he shivered slightly in the chill of the room.
She stood just inside the curtained doorway at the other end of the room, one blanket wrapped around her shoulders and another held to her chest, its folds clasped in her hands as she watched him. He looked so alone standing there, staring out into the dark, one shoulder leaning against the peeling paint of the windowsill.
Silently, she crossed the room, only glancing once at the flickering flames from the hearth as she passed. Instead, she had eyes only for the blond, the firelight enhancing his good looks ... and the worrisome exhaustion evident in every part of him. She knew he had slept only briefly.
“’Mornin’,” he said quietly, not taking his eyes from the window.
Pausing, she smiled, her eyes lighting up in surprise at his knowledge of her noiseless approach.
Then, as she slipped up behind him, wrapping first the now opened blanket, and then her arms, around him, she said softly, “Well, now, here’n I thought I was being so very quiet.”
With a small smile forming, he turned in her arms, and he enveloped her in his, holding her close. Then, he dropped a kiss on the top of her sweet-smelling hair and rested the side of his face against her head.
They stood together, holding each other, for long moments. Then, quietly, she spoke into the comfortable silence.
“Heath, ye must know I love you.”
After a slight pause, his quiet voice whispered against her hair.
“Brydie, I have nothing ta offer ya’ ... nothing except my love an’ my loyalty.. . that ... ,” he added with a slight chuckle, “An’ a little black mare, a worn, but serviceable saddle, an’ a Mexican long gun...”
Then, his voice growing serious, tinged with sadness and more than a little anger, he added, “Ya’ deserve more than that. Right now, I can’t even keep ya’ from havin’ ta return ta Newton’s place...”
Shaking her head slightly, stopping him, she said, “Sh-h-h-h. It’s enough ... ‘Tis more than enough. It’s you I want, Heath Thomson.”
Unseen above her, Heath’s eyes closed, as he sucked in a deep breath and let it out shakily. But, she lifted her head from his chest, feeling the tired crash of emotions surging through him and the slight sagging of his frame against hers.
She looked up, pushing away from him.
Then, she took him by the hand and led him to the cushioned chair close to the fire, the one usually reserved for her father.
He lowered himself into the chair gratefully, and he stretched his long legs out, slowly placing his boots on the wooden stool before him, one at a time. Then, he reached back up and pulled her unresisting body down to sit across his lap. With a sigh, she curled up against his chest, pulling the blanket in her hands up to cover them both.
Though his arms were wrapped tightly around her, his eyes remained closed, as she lifted her head and reached up with her hand, using one finger to trace the crease between his eyebrows that told her that he was hurting. Then, pushing up still further, her hands on his chest, she leaned back in and kissed him on the lips.
When he didn’t resist her, she leaned away from him, watched him for a moment, and placed her hand against the side of his face. Then, she leaned down and kissed him again, her lips warm against his.
This time, he responded, kissing her back, holding her shoulders close, though his eyes never opened.
After a moment, she broke away, unwilling to push her luck or rush the moment by asking more from him, and she curled back up against him, tucking her head beneath his chin and settling into the strong arms that encircled her.
However, after a period of silence in which she thought he might have fallen asleep, she murmured, “Heath?”
“I love you.”
“I know you do,” he said, after a brief pause. Then, opening his eyes slightly, he continued, “An’ I love you, Brydie. But ... ,”
Reaching up, she quickly placed her fingers over his lips, halting his words. “Stop ... ‘tis the rest of it that I’ve no desire to hear. Please, just leave it right there, unsaid this time, just for a wee bit longer.”
Then, dropping her hand to his chest, to reach her fingers inside his shirt, between the buttons, to touch the coarse, curling hair that matted his chest, she relaxed into him and was relieved when he rubbed her arm through the blanket with one hand and squeezed her shoulder slightly with the other, glad that he had remained silent at her request.
After a moment, however, she felt him tense up suddenly beneath her, and she lifted her head again.
But, he immediately reached up and eased her head back down, and he whispered brokenly, “It’s all ... ‘s alright ... Just stay ... here...”
Though he did not reply out loud, he nodded once, his face moving against the top of her head.
Then, after a little while, she felt the tension fade a bit, and she said quietly, “Heath, I don’t care about what it is ye can give me ... nor about what it is ye think ye cannot.”
“I know you don’t ... But, I do.”
His words were spoken softly, with a matter-of-fact directness that she both loved and detested.
The words made her feel something she had forgotten all about during the last year, a feeling she remembered from before the mine cave-in that had made her normally fierce, very protective father dependent on her for their survival. The words made her feel valued, worthy again of respect and love. They made her feel alive again.
But, at the same time, they made her realize that Heath would never be swayed from his resolve to do better by her. And, she knew there was more to it than that ...
She felt tears well up from inside her heart, a heart she had thought hardened by the circumstances in which she had found herself since her father’s accident, a heart solidified into unfeeling stone by the necessities thrust on her, by her existence in this place.
She knew Heath loved her, but she also knew that his was a love more complex than she knew how to accept and how to understand.
The things that were enough for her, would never be enough for him to offer her ...
And, she suddenly realized, lying here against him with his arms wrapped around her, that part of what he would not settle for was that ... that he believed she would choose him ... only because she had no other choices.
With a sigh, she knew that until he felt she was free of this place, free to choose from other options, he would take care of her the best he could, take care of her and her father, but he would not offer her what, right now, she wanted more than anything else ... He would not offer her ... himself.
Her thoughts drifting as she closed her eyes and settled into him, she thought back to their very first, real conversation, and how he had frustrated her, even then.
It had occurred on his third night in Lonesome, after she had done little more than watch him for several days, after she had been politely rebuffed downstairs at the bar on two occasions.
Finally, on that third night, she had followed him, uninvited, up the stairs to the room she knew he was occupying. She had knocked on his door, and he had surprised her by silently admitting her. He had moved back, close to the window, and he had stood watching her with that lop-sided grin and twinkling blue eyes she had now come to care for so much. She had slipped inside, placed the bottle she had brought on the table, and sidled up to within a few inches of his trim, but muscular frame.
Looking down at her without moving, he asked sternly, though his eyes betrayed his compassion, “What’re you doing here?”
“I thought ye might like a nightcap, so I brought up the bottle.”
“That’s all? ... What’s your name?”
“Brydie,” she answered, reaching out to rest her hand against his chest, undoing one button of his shirt very deliberately.
“Brydie what?” he asked, never moving.
“Brydie Hanrahan,” she answered nonchalantly.
“How old are you, Brydie?”
By then, she had moved up against him, her full figure pressed into him, and she continued playing with the hair on his chest. Still, he had not moved, though she was intent upon changing that.
However, at his question, she huffed loudly and whirled away from him, grabbing the bottle and picking up one of two glasses next to it.
Irritated, but fighting to stay in control of her considerable temper, she said, turning back around to glare at him, “Oh, now, I didn’t come up to give ye my pedigree.”
“No, I suppose not ... 18? 19?” he asked again, crossing the room and reaching out to take hold of her hand and stop her from removing the bottle’s cork.
“Why, aren’t ye going to have a drink with me?”
Then, softening his voice, he asked, “How much do ya’ make off a bottle, Brydie?”
“Oh, ‘n ye’re a wise one,” she said, flouncing over to stand with her back to him for a few seconds. Then, she turned around and stepped close against him again as if unable to stay away, the unopened bottle still in her hand.
“I make a dollar.”
Her eyes flashed at the way he took her by the hand then, led her to the door, turned her hand over in his and pressed three coins into her palm, three coins totally much more than a dollar. Then, he looked down into her eyes as he turned the knob to open the door.
“What’s this for?” she asked, looking down at the money he’d placed there, genuinely perplexed.
“It’s for peace’a mind, Brydie ... Mine.”
“What, then, is it ye’re saying? That I’m not good enough fer the likes of you, so ye’re shuffling me off like some two bit ... ?
But, the feeling that came over her as she stood looking back up at him, hearing his next words as he interrupted her, quickly dispelled her anger.
He reached up with one hand and pushed back a stray tendril of her dark hair, still holding onto her hand.
“No, Brydie. I’m sayin’ that I’d like ta fall asleep ta’night thinkin’ of you warm in your own bed, not forced ta warm someone else’s.”
With his words from two months ago echoing in her ears, she reached back up, briefly rubbed the side of his face, soothing the lines furrowing his temples with her fingers, and leaned back in to kiss his lips gently.
He had done nothing but treat her like some fine lady since then, coming to call on her after his shift deep in the mine----at least he did so on the nights he was not too exhausted from the heavy labor down in that dark place.
And, he had kept her from having to return to the saloon, leaving rent money for her on a table inside the door once a week, right up until the strike forced them both to admit that, once again, she had no other choice.
Though he managed to keep meat on her table, and that of several other families, from his forays into the mountains after the strike, she had had to again earn rent money during the last two weeks in the only way she knew.
She had agonized for him, not knowing where he had slept since he had been unable to keep his room at Newton’s, and all she had to do, even now, was look at him to know he was suffering for lack of enough food and a warm place to stay. To make it all worse, she knew he was worrying himself sick over her and the others in this place.
She reached down again, looking at him, and she touched the side of his face, her heart constricting at knowing that he should have taken his horse and his few belongings and ridden out of this camp to make a living somewhere else weeks ago.
But for her, but for her father, but for the other families that now depended on him for sustenance, he would have.
“Peace o’ mind, indeed,” she thought wryly.
Then, stroking his face again, she just watched him for a little while.
Finally she spoke quietly, sure that, despite his closed eyes, he was not asleep. “Heath, what is it that ye plan to do now?”
He shifted slightly beneath her, his arms still wrapped around her. With one hand, he reached up to stroke her dark hair, and he cracked his eyes open slightly to look at her.
With a sigh, he said, “First, I’m goin’ ta rest here a bit with you ... if you’ll let me, that is.”
Seeing her face as she lightly punched him on the arm, he smiled lop-sidedly and added, “Then, I’m goin’ down ta’ward the river ta do what I can ta put a stop ta the plans that management has made ... without hurtin’ anyone if I can.”
As she lay back down, secure in his arms, but more worried than ever about his determined course of action, she said, “’They’ll have guns, Heath ... And, it’s sure I am that ye could wind up dead before the day is out if ye try to stop them.”
Holding her closer, and pulling her back down on top of him, he continued to stroke the long, silky strands of her hair draped across the blanket covering them.
After a moment, he answered, his voice more tired than she cared to contemplate, “Don’t worry, Brydie. They can’t shoot what they can’t see.”
Jarrod slowly closed the beautiful oak-paneled front door of his home, and yawning at the early hour, looked curiously at the sealed, cream-colored envelope of the just-delivered telegram in his hand.
He stepped down from the entry onto the shiny wood floor and crossed toward the back of the house and the dining room beyond. Entering the room, as he tore open the envelope, he stopped in his tracks as his eyes caught the major words written on the small sheet of paper pulled from within.
Rereading more slowly, he glanced up at the three pairs of eyes watching him, and he allowed a very pleased smile to grace his handsome face.
He slapped the telegram, held in his left hand, against the palm of his right, and walked the rest of the way toward his place at the head of the table, the place he had held since the death of his father six years before, with a much more lively spring in his step.
“What is it, Jarrod?” Victoria inquired, touching her white linen napkin to her lips.
“It’s a telegram from Collin Murdoch, of all things,” he replied happily. “You must have made more of an impression on him than you thought, Nick,” he added, looking over at his brother.
Nick’s hazel eyes, immediately reflecting his puzzled expression, locked on Jarrod’s blue as he began shaking his head in denial.
“No, Jarrod,” he said, “You’ve got to be wrong about that. The only way I could’ve had anything to do with him contacting you, is if that telegram is a complaint about the way I talked to him! I told you I couldn’t get anywhere with the man ... He was adamant about being happy with the way things were and had no interest in anyone or anything but himself ... Why? What does it say?”
Now it was Jarrod’s turn to be puzzled, as he glanced down the table at his mother, who was now watching them both warily from the other end.
“Murdoch says if we can get him a contract that removes proxy from Sam Hummel, he will sign over his option to allow us to vote the stocks the way we see fit. He wants to keep Hummel from bringing in the Chinese after all, if it’s not already too late. He says he’s not exactly sure of when to expect them ... maybe today, so we’ll have to hurry.”
Still shaking his head, Nick reiterated, “That’s a complete reversal of the way he was talking when I saw him ... Wait a minute! He told me he has five thousand shares, Jarrod!” Nick exclaimed suddenly. “That’s more than enough to get control of the company back, isn’t it?”
Nodding, Jarrod said, “It’ll be close, but I think Chase and Mayew will side with us. I exchanged telegrams with them yesterday and have already instructed Martin to write out contracts for them to sign and to have ready for me to deliver them. With this promise and theirs’ ... “
He trailed off as he saw the momentary flicker of pain cross his mother’s face, and he blanched as he realized what recent memories his use of the word ‘promise’ must have invoked for her.
“I’m sorry, Mother ... ,” he began, but she cut him off, as she stood and walked around behind Audra, holding up her hand to silence him.
“No, Jarrod,” she said determinedly, “There’s nothing to apologize for. Please prepare Murdoch’s contract immediately, and if you’ll let me know who else besides Alton Chase and Frederick Mayew that we need to approach, I’ll make those contacts myself before the day is out.”
Stunned, Jarrod rose from his seat to meet her, leaving the telegram lying on the table, forgotten for the moment. “You’ll make the contacts? But, why? You know I was planning to head back to San Francisco this morning so I could meet with Herbert Bryce first thing this afternoon.”
Reaching him, after kissing her blond-headed daughter on the top of the head, she placed one slender hand on his arm and the other against the side of his face.
“Jarrod,” she said calmly, quietly, “I need to do this.”
Then, she turned to look at Nick, who, though still seated on the other side of the table, was watching her intently, and she said, “Both of you need to take some men with you and head for that camp immediately.”
“Both of us?” Nick asked, incredulously.
She had been upset with the doctor for releasing him to ride today, after only one full day of rest, and now she was giving him permission to do what he had been planning to approach her about after breakfast ... ?
“Yes, both of you,” she replied, her tone leaving them all quite sure that she knew what he had been planning, and that her mind was made up about it all. “It’s not safe, obviously, for just one of you to go. While Doc Merar said you can ride again beginning today, I don’t want you taking any chances, Nick. There may be trouble, and you ... both of you, need to be ready for it.”
Nodding slowly as the wisdom of her plan sunk in, Jarrod said, “I suppose you could take Martin Haskell with you to meet with the men, or we could ask them to join you at my office, but...”
Smiling, Victoria looked up at her son and said, “Thank you, Darling. I assure you, by the time you and Nick return with Mr. Murdoch’s contract, we will have the other proxies that we need.”
Squeezing her hand, Jarrod nodded, his dark blue eyes sparkling in delight, and he said, “Those men won’t have a chance to do otherwise, I’m quite sure. And, if I don’t watch out, you’ll be building a rival reputation and stealing away all of my business with your powers of persuasion, Lovely Lady.”
He leaned down to kiss the top of her soft silver hair, and Nick, rising and walking around the end of the table, did the same as soon as Jarrod released her.
Then, reaching out for her younger son’s hand as he started to turn away, she squeezed it, and, mindful of Audra looking on, she said quietly, her voice thick with emotion, “Nick?”
Nodding in instant understanding of what she wanted to ask, but not in front of his sister, he replied with his soft hazel eyes full of compassion, “Don’t worry, we’ll watch out for each other, Mother, and we’ll also keep an eye out for him while we’re there.”
As tears sprang instantly to her eyes at his words, she nodded and released his hand, turning to watch their retreating backs as her two sons left the room to collect their gear, one headed to Stockton to quickly draw up a contract, and the other out to the bunkhouses to ask for volunteers from among the men.
* * * * * * * *
Barkley-Sierra was aptly named, having the highest elevation of the family’s holdings among the Sierra Nevadas. In fact, it was closer to the divide high above it, than to the Barkley Ranch and the San Joaquin Valley to the northwest.
Though the going was fairly steep in places as they climbed, it was flatter and more gentle in others. But, overall, man and beast alike knew, with heavy-breathing certainty, that they had been progressing steadily higher from the moment they left the relatively flat plain of the valley behind.
While inspiring, towering stands of trees and incredible vistas falling away from below them were the constant rewards of their efforts, the track was long, somewhat treacherous in places, and, at this time of year, uncomfortably cold and damp.
Jarrod stood, leaning against a stately yellow pine on the outside edge of a wide curve in the trail, and he searched the valley below for Barkley landmarks.
Part of his mind registered that his chestnut, whose reins he held, was standing quietly behind him, gently blowing in appreciation of the loosened cinch and riderless saddle.
From further back over his shoulder, he caught enough snatches of conversation among the five men accompanying them that he knew one of them was complaining good-naturedly about the exertion, while the others were ribbing the first about finding any physical endeavor too strenuous, whether counting cows, fixing fence, or riding ridges.
However, the bulk of Jarrod’s attention was focused neither on the view, the horse, nor the men. He was remembering snatches of conversation and details of events from two days ago in the study and from that same night in Nick’s room.
He could see all over again the carefully controlled, but potentially explosive, temper of the blond, feel all over again his own fear for his mother and sister at the threatening intrusion, and hear all over again the slight Southern drawl of the words spoken with such sincere intensity and seething sarcasm.
Drawing in a deep breath, Jarrod shook his head slightly, and let it out again, forcing himself to concentrate on what his eyes had told him about the young man, searching for clues that were hidden among the angry, yet somehow eloquently persuasive words.
Closing his eyes to the beauty of the scenery below him, he saw again the blond’s worn appearance, the battered brown clothing, the ground-in dirt, and the unshaven face.
He sucked in his breath as he thought about just how beaten down the young man appeared. His head was wrapped in a brown strip of cloth that could have only come from the ripped up shirttail hanging partially out of his work pants, and one side of his face was darkened around the cheekbone with bruises that were just beginning to show.
What had Nick said had happened to him? He must have been hit with a rock or some tool thrown at them as they had tried to make their escape after the fight in the alley?
He reviewed the young man’s actions, his aggravated pacing, his repeated pounding of one hand on the heavy wooden mantel beneath Tom Barkley’s picture, and ...
Suddenly, Jarrod opened his eyes wide, looking out at the horizon, but not noticing it, as he saw again the young man’s white-knuckled, purposeful grip on the doorframe, as he stood, back to the room, head turned slightly, telling them of the living and working conditions endured by the people in Lonesome Camp.
And, he saw again, Heath’s staggered recovery after bending over to pick up his rifle and blanket, lying next to Jarrod’s desk on the floor.
Just how badly had he been hurt?
In thinking back, it seemed to him that the young man had barely been able to stay on his feet, let alone ride off again ...
When they reached the mine, would they find him there at all, as Nick seemed to think, or had he headed off in some other direction?
And, if he were there, would he be able, or willing, to help them?
Shaking his head, Jarrod thought again of the young man as he had seen him that one and only time, in the study of his home.
Despite everything, despite the worn clothes, the battered appearance, the obvious struggle to stay on his feet, the one thing about Heath that Jarrod could not shake from his mind, not now, and not throughout the two long, almost sleepless, back-to-back nights he had just endured, was the searing, pale blue of Heath’s eyes.
Those eyes had been lit with an inner fire that belied his outward appearance, they had sparked with a furious flame that denied his battered condition, and they had been ablaze with an anger that demanded retribution, not for himself, but for the people in that camp.
Those ice blue eyes, and the words igniting images of an injustice done to others, invoked memories so strong that Jarrod had begun wondering within minutes that day if the young man accompanying Nick could be, somehow ... no matter how distantly ... related to his father, Tom Barkley.
Now, standing here on the ridge, Jarrod let out a sigh as he finally acknowledged the undeniable similarities between them, and knowing the beliefs of his mother and brother, he let the truth of it, the truth he had still been trying to logically deny inside himself for two days, finally and irrevocably sink in.
Jarrod dropped his eyes back to take in the valley below him, seeing the faint trace of the road leading to the ranch and the river in the distance that marked one boundary of its vastness. Seeing all of that, and knowing that somewhere above him was a Barkley holding he had never even set foot in, Jarrod felt the hot sting of moisture build behind his eyes.
They had so much ...
... And, Heath?
What about him?
What did he have?
Blinking hard and drawing in another deep breath, he mumbled, “Oh, Brother Heath, I think the people in Lonesome Camp aren’t the only ones walking around with unfulfilled promissory notes tucked away deep inside. But, if you know who ... who your father was, why haven’t you already come to collect what’s yours? ... And, why ... why didn’t you tell us everything that was owed to you when the chance was right there, when you had our full attention on Thursday?”
Hearing Nick’s call to them to mount up, Jarrod broke out of his reverie and, stepping over to his horse, lifted the stirrup automatically and tightened the cinch.
Then, pausing once more, closing his eyes as he leaned one arm across his saddle and looked out over the valley he had called home throughout his life, he whispered, “Somehow we’ve got to convince you that we don’t see you as just another obligation. I don’t quite know how we’ll manage that, Brother Heath, but when you’re ready, I, for one, promise you, that I’ll do everything in my power to see that you know we’re willing to give you a part of it all ... not because we feel obligated, but because we choose to.”
Squatting beneath a majestic ponderosa pine, he inhaled the rich scent of damp, rotting needles and the pungent fragrance of mountain misery, its blanket of white flowers slowly giving way to the coming winter.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he leaned back against the thick, wide plates of flat bark covering the tree, and he listened to the wind singing in the branches far overhead.
Then, taking a deep breath and opening his eyes, he pushed off from the tree behind him. Steadying himself for an extra second as he regained his feet, he shook off the dizziness that had plagued him for what seemed like years, and, picking up her trailing rein, he led his mare carefully down the slight slope toward the creek.
Just below him, the water swept downhill in its frantic rush to reach the Tuolumne less than a half mile away.
He stood for a few long minutes, enjoying the freshness of the mist rising up from the water in the cool morning dimness, wishing he could think of another way to carry out his plan without disrupting the serenity of this place.
Looking downstream, he briefly considered moving closer to the river, but knew his chances of stopping the caravan of Chinese laborers that would be arriving soon along this route were better here, as were the chances of avoiding any bloodshed.
Walking his horse forward, leading her on the soft ground several feet above the creek bed, he approached the simple wooden bridge that spanned the water. Its flat shape, level with the road and devoid of any railing, would afford anyone using it no cover and no way to turn back. The higher edges of the bank, with the road cutting into them, would further prevent any retreat, once the wagons were committed to the crossing.
He led the mare carefully down the steep bank and across the bridge, walked her about fifty feet along the road on the other side, and stopped. Then, looking back uphill, from where he had just come, he searched the road above the creek on the other side for an appropriate tree. Spotting several likely candidates for what he had in mind, he then mounted his horse, more laboriously than usual, and surveyed the area again, ensuring that the view of a man on horseback from here would be similar to that of anyone walking alongside the wagons.
It was imperative that he, nor the tree he had picked out above the road, be noticeable from this area, at least not once he had felled it.
He searched the banks several feet above him with his eyes, backed his mare up about ten feet, and noted carefully what could be seen from that position, both on this side of the creek and across on the uphill side among the trees, rocks, and brush.
If he was to succeed, he would need to ensure that he could carry out his preparations, working his way from one side of the bank to the other, both to the right of the creek, without being seen, and that he would have adequate cover from anyone looking from this vantage point.
Satisfied, he turned Gal down the road away from the creek and repeated the process, searching for an appropriate tree on this side of the bridge. Then, having picked out one particular ponderosa, or yellow pine, he headed back across the wooden planking of the structure, up the road, and around the first bend.
His methodical survey of the area complete, he was now confident that he had chosen two trees, one on each side of the creek, one on each side of the bridge, that would serve his purpose very well.
His energy was flagging as he dismounted and led his obedient mare up a slight rise, tying her behind some rocks, just above the road and almost hidden among a particularly dense section of young trees. Then, untying his saddle bags and taking them with him, he walked back down to the bridge, crossed it, and retraced his previous path some fifty feet back. Turning, he stood for a few minutes and searched the slope, looking for any sign that his black horse could be seen from this angle.
Then, taking a deep breath, sure that if she remained standing quietly, she could not be seen from the other side of the creek, he scrambled up the steep cut above him. Careful to leave no signs of his boots in the soft ground, he made his way to the base of the tree he had hand picked, the second one, the one on this downhill side of the creek.
Everything hinged on some luck and on his ability to time this perfectly. There would be no room for error, or there would be more bullets flying than he could defend himself against, and someone could be killed.
Shaking his head, he knew that he had to prevent that scenario at all costs------for if the plan failed and the shooting started, he might just as well have let the caravan go on into Lonesome.
If it was to work, it depended upon stopping them here.
For, as far as he could see, this was the strikebreakers’ only chance of not being killed outright when they finally made it to Lonesome, and it was the only chance the miners would have of keeping their jobs ... and possibly their freedom from the law ... and their lives.
If desperate Mollies, even women and old men, started attacking Chinese, the men protecting the wagons would open fire, and ...
As he lowered himself to the ground beside the tree and pulled his supplies from his worn leather saddle bags, he lifted his left eyebrow, and he tried to clear his mind of those images. Instead, he contemplated the irony of the situation.
He had grown up working in a mine, forced to learn how to set charges underground, forced to survive by giving himself enough time to escape the blast once the fuse was lit.
Now, here he was, doing the same thing again, only this time, he was doing so out of choice, above ground.
Then, he had worked, unknowingly, for the man he had learned only a few months ago was his father.
Now ... well, now, he was doing it so his father’s family could have a chance to finally keep the promises made years ago, and so Brydie and her father, along with the others, would have a chance at a better life.
Yet, like the carefully measured out length of this first fuse, he knew that all he could really do by himself, was to stall the wagons long enough to help them all temporarily avoid the explosive violence to come.
Without the intervention of the Barkleys ... all he could do, all he could really accomplish, was to slow down the inevitable confrontation.
Working quietly and efficiently, he placed the explosives at the base of the tree, burying them a bit in the dirt. Then, he carefully trimmed the fuse to the right length, striking a balance between slowing the blast enough so he could escape, without taking the chance that it would burn out before reaching the two sticks of dynamite he had already lashed together.
Finally, he lifted the end of the fuse and secured it between two rough plates of the wide, flat bark, tucking it up above the explosives, off of the damp ground.
Turning, he then made his way toward the creek and away from the road, looking for the route that would provide him later with as much cover as possible when it would matter the most. Reaching the water, he carefully worked his way across and, using his hands and feet to gain purchase on the crumbling soil, he hauled himself up the other side.
Then, with a quiet groan, he dropped to his knees and paused to rest a minute, his blood pounding in his ears. The fierce, relentless headache surged through him with every beat of his heart.
He squeezed his eyes shut and panted for breath.
After a few moments, he quietly cursed himself as he struggled to his feet and continued on.
There would be no time for any of that later, he knew.
... No time for rest, no time for the pain and exhaustion.
Somehow, he was going to have to get past the weakness in his body in order to do what must be done.
* * * * * * * *
Pacing restlessly back and forth at the front of the saloon, O’Doule turned his head time and again, watching the street through the grimy windows, hoping for the sight he had been waiting for, the caravan of Chinese he knew would be arriving later today or first thing in the morning. Though he had been unable to send anyone down to the valley below to check on the progress of the wagons, he had received word three days ago that they were definitely on their way here.
Again, he looked over his shoulder, meeting the eyes of the wizened older man wearing a battered top hat and tails, his fingers poking through the moth-eaten gloves he wore as he aimlessly shuffled a deck of dog-eared cards.
“Paddy, me lad,” O’Doule blustered, “It’ll be a grand day when the wagons come a’rolling in, bringing their load of Chinamen for us to dispel like ants under a landlord’s shiny boot heel.”
Glancing up, Paddy chuckled, shook his head, and looked back down at the cards.
Sometimes, O’Doule was full of blarney, as full as a bloated tick, looking for more blood, but ready to explode from the tasting of it.
The older man leaned down, picked up the broken axe handle he had left lying on the floor, and he said, “That’s right, O’Doule. Sure ‘n it was your words that we all listened to. We’d rout the lot o’ them, you said, then the bosses would have to hire us back and meet our demands ... But, what if we can’t beat them back? What if too many of us die beneath the guns they’ll surely turn in our direction?”
Slowing his pacing, O’Doule threw his nearly spent cigar on the ground in disgust, grinding it out by pressing it into the stained boards of the wooden barroom floor, and he growled, “And, when did I ever let ye down before, Paddy me lad?”
Glancing up with a smile, Paddy said, “Oh, never, Lad. Never ... But, then, we’ve never really tested out ye’re words before, have we? ... At least not before we went after the Barkley Boss t’other night, and ye let him slip through yer dirty fingers.”
Turning the closest wooden chair around angrily, O’Doule straddled it and leaned toward the smaller man, reaching out to snatch the cards from his grasp.
Shuffling them, he said menacingly, “That was Heath’s doing, Paddy. And, it was Heath, with his mare, that was to go down to the valley to report back to me the progress of the wagons, and now he’s turned to the Bosses ... O’ Paddy, I promise ye this ... When I catch him again, it won’t matter that we grew up together in that hell hole called Strawberry. It won’t matter that I owe him me very life for pulling me out’o that collapsed shaft when I was twelve. I promise ye he’ll pay fer crossing me the other night. He’ll pay with his very life when next I set eyes upon him.”
Smiling, Paddy reached out with the axe handle and tapped O’Doule on the chest. “Now ye’re thinking, Man. Now, ye’re thinking.”
* * * * * * * *
With one more long look down the road stretching out to the northwest, just to make sure the wagons were not yet in sight, he dropped to his knees beside the first tree, the one higher on the slope above the creek. Then, repeating his motions of a little while ago, he set the dynamite, cut the second fuse, this one shorter than the first one on the tree down the hill, and he pulled out a match from his shirt pocket. Taking a deep breath, knowing that with this action he could not turn back, he lifted one boot and struck it against the worn sole. Holding the match still just long enough to ensure that it was sufficiently caught, he then held the flaring flame to the end of the fuse.
Then, laying it carefully on the ground, his eyes on the spluttering flame, he turned away and headed swiftly uphill, crossing the road. He made his way toward the sheltering rocks where he had left his mare, and, taking a firm hold of her bridle, he began talking soothingly to her, then reached up, grasping one ear and holding onto her head.
As the blast shook the ground at his feet, reverberating all around them, she threw her head up, yanking him from his feet for a few seconds in her panic. With the continual calm words spoken in her ear, she snorted, tossed her head a few more times after her front hooves touched the ground, and finally nuzzled at his chest, tremors continuing to shake her.
Stroking her neck, he clung to her for a few minutes, as much to steady himself as to ease her fears. Then, lifting his head from her mane, despite the pounding between his temples, he searched with his eyes until he could see through the thick particles of dark earth beginning to settle all around them.
Heaving a relieved sigh, he saw that the massive tree on this, the upper side of the creek, was now lying across the road, effectively blocking it for nearly one hundred feet in either direction, to the right and the left of the road. There would be no way for them to take the wagons around, due to the high banks flanking the road and the softness of the ground on top.
Now, no matter what else happened, the only choices those in charge would have were bad ones ... obtaining and using more dynamite, sending for and waiting on a crew of loggers, or proceeding to the mining camp eight miles above ... on foot and in plain view of the striking miners.
Satisfied that this part of his efforts had been as successful as he could have hoped, he again visually checked the winding road below the river for signs of the coming caravan, and, not seeing anything, he slowly allowed his aching body to slump to the ground by his mare’s front hooves. With eyes closed and knees pulled up, his head resting across his arms on top of them, he waited for the wagons he knew were out there somewhere, to approach the bridge ... where he would close the trap ... by felling the other tree behind them.
“The camp’s just beyond that rise,” Nick said over his shoulder to Jarrod, as he sat his horse and they waited for the others. “The main road coming in from the valley south of Stockton meets up here with this trail, just around that bend. It’s time, Jarrod ... We need to figure out how we’re going to approach this.”
Nodding, Jarrod leaned forward, stretching a bit, the heels of both hands resting on his saddle horn. Then, resettling into the saddle, he reached up and pushed his hat back on his head. Glancing at Nick, whose injured arm was immobilized inside his thick tan coat, he wondered how his brother had held up so well on the long, arduous trip, especially after just making the return journey from here two days ago.
Shaking his head at the incredible endurance of his rancher brother, who was more used to the long hours in the saddle than he was, Jarrod asked, “Nick, where will we become visible to the camp, and where’s the mine situated in relation to that point? And, where do you think we’ll find Collin Murdoch this late?”
“We’ll enter the main street, just in the middle of the camp, make a left turn, and have to pass at least a hundred yards of buildings before we reach the gate. If it’s like it was last time, we’ll have no trouble finding Murdoch once we enter there. He’s too jackrabbit scared to come out from behind that fence, now.”
“There’s no other way? After what happened to you, it seems to me that it would be safer to enter from somewhere else ... Do you think there’s a back way in we could take instead of going straight through the middle of the camp?”
Nick shivered slightly in the brisk wind whipping up the northern slope, a constant reminder of the coming winter, despite the protection offered by the trees around them. He immediately remembered the blond-haired miner he now knew was his younger brother, and he was troubled again by the fact that the boy had had no coat.
After looking off to the left through the trees higher up, he slowly returned his eyes to Jarrod and said, “I figure there’s a back way in somewhere, but without someone who knows the area,” he lifted his eyebrows at Jarrod meaningfully as the other men joined them, before he continued, “Without someone to show us, I wouldn’t give us much of a chance of finding it, especially since it’ll be dark soon.”
Nodding, his eyes holding Nick’s hurt hazel in his grip for a few seconds, Jarrod lifted his eyebrows, smiled slightly, and said, “Well, since we’ve seen no sign of anyone we know that could show us, I guess we’ll just have to take our chances and enter through the front door. But, we’d better barge right in and not take a long time knocking to let them think about it.”
Nick nodded back, and he turned to the men gathered on both sides of them, coat collars turned up and waiting patiently, but clearly eager to get out of the wind.
“Boys,” he said, “We’ll be going straight through half of that mining camp ... the most potentially explosive half. They won’t be expecting us, and we’ll start out nice and easy, but if there’s any sign of trouble, we’ll hightail it for the gate to Barkley-Sierra at the far end of the street. That’s where we’re headed anyway. It’ll just be a matter of how soon we get there. Any questions?”
“Yeah, Nick,” Duke McCall spoke up, his eyes narrowed against the wind, despite the hat pulled down low, “What kind of trouble’re you expecting?”
“Maybe nothing, McCall,” Nick replied, including them all with his eyes, “But, I wouldn’t be surprised if a mob comes out to intercept us in the street. Last time I was here, like I told you before we came, I was run out by a group of men who seemed intent on killing me. But,” Nick added with a smile and a twinkle of his hazel eyes, “They don’t have much in the way of weapons that I’ve seen, not unless you count rocks and potatoes.”
With the tension eased by the chuckles at this last comment, Nick picked up his reins and added, “We’re here to prevent any bloodshed, though, so let’s just get through the middle of any trouble the best we can and head for the gate without firing a shot ... if at all possible.”
“Right, Nick,” Duke agreed, as the five Barkley hands all set out to follow their bosses into the depths of Lonesome Camp.
* * * * * * * *
The streets were almost deserted as they turned the corner and headed down past the company store and the saloon-hotel where Nick had spent all of the first night and part of the next. Now, in the late afternoon, it looked much different than it had when he and Heath had galloped past here, making good their escape from the wrath of the Mollies that second night.
His thoughts immediately divided between the almost eerie stillness of the place, almost as if it had already become a ghost town surrounding a worked out mine, and the blond. Nick looked around intently, watching for any sign of Heath, or anyone else, among the dilapidated buildings. But, the only living soul he spotted was the same small, smiling, staggering figure that had followed him into Newton’s and curiously picked up his saddle bags from the bar that first night.
Walking their horses forward at a brisk, but controlled pace, they approached the gate, heaving individual sighs of relief at the lack of resistance to their advance. As the guards inside swung the twin gates open to allow them entry, the men on horseback headed toward the small office building inside the fence.
They were met by Collin Murdoch, rifle in hand.
“John!” the superintendent shouted, using the business end of the rifle to motion for one of the guards. “How about showing these men where they can shelter their horses and get some hot food?”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Murdoch,” the brown-haired man responded, as he immediately turned back to the five men waiting behind the Barkleys.
Dismounting, Nick and Jarrod handed their horses over to McCall, stepped up on the low porch, and each shook Murdoch’s hand.
The older man’s eyes immediately fell on Nick’s coat, wondering about seeing only the one arm extended through a sleeve.
“Mr. Murdoch, this is my brother, Jarrod,” Nick offered, pulling the man’s eyes up to meet his.
The superintendent responded, “Pleased to meet you at last, Mr. Barkley. I’m very honored that you came.”
“My pleasure, Murdoch. It’s good to finally meet the person I’ve received reports from all these years.”
Then, nodding and ushering them inside, Murdoch stepped over to his desk as the two men behind him removed hats and coats and crossed to stand before the warm fireplace. Mentally comparing his own injury to Nick’s now obvious one, the older man asked, “What happened, Mr. Barkley? After we talked, I heard the next day that the Mollies...”
“They tried to kill me, but I managed to get away from them, with the help of a ... a friend.”
Murdoch watched him for a moment, shaking his head. Then, he asked, sure now that these men, with the extra guns they had brought along, must be here for an entirely different reason, or at least an additional one, than the simple signing of a contract, “I take it you received my telegram?”
“Yes,” Jarrod responded, “That’s part of why we’re here. You indicated you would sign a contract releasing proxy of your shares to us for voting purposes.”
Then, seeing the man’s incredulous expression, staring back and forth at them and settling on Nick, Jarrod and Nick exchanged a look between them.
“But ... your arm? ... What they tried to do? ... He said you would, but, you still feel the same way? You really want to help those men by stopping the strike?”
“Yes, Murdoch,” Nick said, staring at him intently, “We still want the chance to talk to them, to do everything we can to make this right with them. They’re desperate men, pushed past the point of frustration and reason. I’m sure they feel that they’re justified in reacting this way, that they’re protecting what little they have, just like you or I would.”
At his words, Jarrod looked at Nick, appraising his younger brother and the intense, but sincere delivery of his message.
“You’d condone what they tried to do to you?” Murdoch asked in continued disbelief.
“No, I didn’t say I agreed with them or thought they were right, not for what they tried to do to me, nor for what they did to you. But, I do have some understanding of them.”
“Mr. Murdoch,” Jarrod began, “May I ask how you knew for sure that we would even want to accept your proxy? Who was the ‘he’ you referred to a moment ago?”
Looking back at him, Murdoch then glanced swiftly over at Nick, whose hard, suspicious hazel left no room for doubt of what he thought of him from his previous visit.
Swallowing, Murdoch said, “When you were here before, Mr. Barkley ... From your words, I gathered that you were recommending that I do something to help prevent Mr. Hummel from bringing in the Chinese laborers to break the strike and work this mine.”
“That’s right,” Nick said, the gloved fist of his unencumbered hand resting on his hip. “But, I didn’t think you cared about any of that.”
Turning away from them, Murdoch walked behind his desk, his back to them, and said, guilt evident in his voice, “I didn’t ... I ... well, I’m ashamed to say, I was too angry about what a few of them, the Mollie Maguires, they call themselves, had done to Rob Bennett and me, to care about what happened to them any more. But ... well, let’s say that, after you left, I ... I had a change of heart.”
Hearing the evasiveness in the man’s voice and beginning to suspect that there was more to it, possibly that the man had been threatened to the point of feeling forced to do something to end the strike, Jarrod spoke up, “If you’re doing this out of fear...”
Whirling around, the man’s voice interrupted Jarrod’s, “Yes! Yes, Mr. Barkley, I’m doing this out of fear, but it’s not what you think ... I live inside this place, trapped here, concerned for my life if I venture out into the camp again without an armed escort, but, that’s not what has me afraid ... not really. I’m afraid of what I’ve let myself become ... hard, calloused, unfeeling ... closing my eyes all these years to the plight of the men, women, and children that I could have reached out to, could have found a way to help!”
Then, walking over to the fireplace, he stretched out his free hand, reaching out for the warmth of the fire.
And, he said, in a more controlled voice, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lash out at you. Together, we’ve made this mess ... oh, not you, specifically, but the company management and me. Between me closing my eyes to the condition of things, of the people here, and allowing Mr. Hummel to dictate what happens to them, I’ve contributed greatly to the problems ... In fact, I’m much more guilty than your father, the man whom these people seem to hate so much.”
“Our father?” Nick said loudly, advancing on the man, wondering what he knew and why he hadn’t said anything earlier in the week.
Quickly, Jarrod intervened, turning to Nick and looking into his eyes. He placed one hand on Nick’s shoulder before breaking eye contact with his brother, looking back at the man by the fire. Suspecting that he and Nick both knew the answer, Jarrod asked quietly, but with a no-nonsense, expectant voice, “Mr. Murdoch, if you weren’t threatened into giving up your proxy to us, how did you reach this decision? Was it what Nick said to you?”
Nodding as he turned and spoke directly to Nick, Collin Murdoch said, “You got me started thinking about it, yes. But, I don’t think I would’ve bothered wiring you ... wouldn’t have done anything to prevent it, except...”
“Except what?” Nick demanded.
“Except that I had a long talk with Tim Hanrahan, one of the miners, last night. You asked me if I had talked to the men, and I told you I hadn’t. Well ... now I have.”
“Hanrahan?” Nick asked, startled, “He wouldn’t happen to have a daughter, would he?”
“I don’t know ... Wait a minute, I believe he did mention a daughter. Yes, I remember now. He said he does ... Why?”
“Well, if it’s the same man whose daughter I met, I got the distinct impression that he’d been too badly injured to go much of anywhere. How did you arrange to talk to him?”
With a small, wry chuckle, Collin Murdoch lifted his eyes from the fire and looked Nick straight in the face. He said, “That’s the really puzzling part, Mr. Barkley, I didn’t arrange it. He came here, or rather, he was brought here...”
Closing his eyes a moment, recalling the impact the blond-headed young man and the caustic Irishman had had on him, he opened them again and added, “I still haven’t figured out how they got inside the locked gates, but last night Hanrahan, a man who could barely walk from the injuries he’d received last year in that cave-in...”
“We didn’t hear of any cave-in,” Jarrod interrupted immediately, his attention pulled from what he thought Murdoch was going to say, to this new piece of unexpected information.
Looking down at his hands, Murdoch said, “Well, there was one ... A bad one. We lost three men and another five or six were badly injured. Mr. Hummel knew, and he...”
“Go on! We can figure out that he told you not to say anything to us. Back to Hanrahan. Who brought him here?” Nick demanded, sure that he already knew what the man was going to say next, but wanting, needing to hear it anyway.
“One of the miners, a young fella. But, it wasn’t just that he brought Hanrahan. What I didn’t understand at the time, and still don’t, is that it was the boy that was behind the whole thing, not the other way around.”
“What do you mean?” Jarrod asked, his eyes on Murdoch’s, but his mind fully aware of the tenseness in the brother standing to the right of him.
Collin Murdoch looked at the two men, one with sincere, dark blue eyes, the other with hard, probing hazel, and both with very dark, almost black hair.
“Both of you are here because your family owns an interest in this mine, because your father started it years back, and because you obviously care about the people involved here. And, that’s part of what puzzles me.”
Shaking his head, Jarrod said, the query again strong in his voice, “I don’t understand.”
“The boy that brought Hanrahan somehow got him inside these gates and inside this office, and then, insisted that I talk with him ... He had blond hair and much lighter blue eyes than you, Mr. Barkley,” he said, looking squarely at Jarrod.
“But, there was something about him ... An intensity, a purpose that drove him ... I don’t understand it, but he knew all about Sam Hummel. And, he’s the one that told me, that if I was willing to help, I should contact you and ask you to bring a contract, to sign over proxy to you. How could he know? ... How could any of the miners that work here know about that? ... I mean no disrespect to either of you when I say this,” he paused and took a deep breath, glancing at both pairs of eyes across from him. “He didn’t look a thing like either of you, but ... something about that boy reminded me of the two of you.”
A stunned moment passed in which no one made a sound. Then, the silence was broken as Nick uttered one word.
Nick turned away to face the fire, the hardness leaving his eyes as they took on the wounded look of hurt hazel.
“Yes, that’s what he said. Exactly that. He said his name was Heath. Just Heath.”
With his hand squeezing Nick’s shoulder, Jarrod met his brother’s eyes, and they exchanged a long look, a silent question, between them ... and then, an affirmative answer.
Returning his eyes to the Superintendent of Barkley-Sierra, Jarrod said, “No, Mr. Murdoch. It’s not ‘just Heath.’ ... He is one of the reasons we’re here. He and this mine have something in common. They both represent a promise our father made years ago. A promise he made and never kept.”
Taking a deep breath before he said the words for the very first time, Jarrod looked straight into Nick’s supportive eyes, his head nodding slightly, and said, “You were right in the similarities you noticed, Mr. Murdoch. Whether he knows it or not, that boy is our brother ... And, his name is Heath Thomson Barkley.”
Wrapped in her dark brown cloak, the one she had made from a blanket Heath had brought her over a month before, Brydie Hanrahan lifted the hem of her skirt and deftly avoided the puddles, as she ran along the road toward the gate.
When she reached it, she eyed the two men on the other side, and, reaching out to touch the cold, thin metal of the wire fencing, she said, “Please, open the gate! I’m needing to see Mr. Barkley!”
At the instant looks of disbelief and suspicion from both of them, she rattled the wire back and forth with both hands and begged, “Please! ‘Tis very important!”
“Go away, Girl!” the closest man said, taking in her tiny, but enticing figure, unhidden by the folds of the nondescript brown cloak held tightly against her waist with one hand as she steadied herself.
Her bright green eyes took on the look of despair, but, determined to remain undaunted by the stares she was well used to, she let loose an oath under her breath. Then, she reached in through the criss-crossed wires comprising the gate, and shook her finger in the man’s face.
“It’s sure I am, that the next time ye come by, dropping in at Newton’s fer a late night drink, ye’d best get used to the idea of drinking alone. ‘Tis one place ye won’t be welcome any longer ... either of ye!”
Laughing, the brown-haired man reached out to grab her hand, but he sobered as she snatched it away, jumping back out of his reach from the other side.
“Go on! Get back to your hovel and stay there,” He said, leering at her. “After all, we wouldn’t want to lose our prettiest citizen in the trouble that’s brewing, now would we?”
Suddenly, just before she blessed him with the full extent of her temper and her very scathing vocabulary, she spotted movement behind them on the office porch.
“Mr. Barkley! MR. BARKLEY!” she shouted, clutching at the fence and rising up on her tiptoes. Her shouts drew the attention of several miners milling about on her side of the fence, as well as the three men exiting the small wooden building inside of it on theirs.
Having caught his eye and relieved at seeing him approach, she blinked hard and stepped back, away from the fence, waiting for him to move closer.
“I wouldn’t, Mr. Barkley,” the same man spoke up as Nick approached. “She’s not to be trusted any more than the rest of these...”
“I think I can be the judge of that,” Nick responded gruffly, cutting him off. “Let her in.”
Exchanging a knowing look with his partner, the man unlocked the chained gate, and opened it just enough for the girl to slip through.
She dashed inside the compound, only pausing long enough to send the man at the gate a fierce, narrow-eyed stare, and she said saucily, “The back of me front to ye!” as she passed him.
Then, once inside, she quickly reached out and took Nick by the good arm, and she asked in instant concern, “They did hurt ye, then, the Mollies?”
“It’s alright, Brydie,” Nick responded, leading her back to the porch of the office where Collin Murdoch and his brother waited, watching them. “It’s not as bad as it could’ve been.”
Taking in the relieved, but still scared face she had turned to him, her eyes large and luminous, he said, nodding toward the other two men, “Brydie Hanrahan, you probably know of Collin Murdoch, the mine superintendent, and this is my brother, Jarrod.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss,” Jarrod responded, touching his hat, as Murdoch nodded. The curiosity of both men, however, kept them from saying any more.
“Can we go back inside where it’s warm, Murdoch?” Nick asked, already ushering Brydie up the steps, his good hand placed against the small of her back.
Nodding silently, the man reluctantly led the way back inside to the fireplace.
Seating her, Nick removed his hat and used his teeth to remove his gloves. Then, he pulled up the only other chair, lowered himself into it across from her, and leaned forward, taking one of her cold, shaking hands in his warm, large one.
Gruffly, he asked, glancing up, “Murdoch, do you have some hot coffee?”
Then, returning his attention to her, and aware of Jarrod standing behind her, he asked gently, “Brydie, have you seen Heath?”
“Yes, Mr. Barkley,” she swallowed hard, giving him a chance to interject.
“Please, call me Nick.”
Nodding, her eyes searching his handsome face, she started again, her words coming as furiously as water tumbling downhill along a creek bed in spring, “Tis why I needed to speak to you. It’s sure I am that they’re going to kill him! Please, ye have to do something to help him!”
Taking the small wooden chair Murdoch had brought from the back for him, Jarrod pulled it close beside the girl. Then, a moment later, he reached up to take the hot mug of coffee the man handed him. He reached out and took one of her hands, the one gripped tightly around the arm of the chair, and, feeling her shivering, he placed the mug in it.
However, though holding it close and staring into it as if warming herself over it, she made no move to drink it.
Immediately, Nick let go of her other hand, reached out to move a stray piece of hair that had fallen down in her face, and he lifted her chin with his finger.
“Brydie,” he said quietly, “I want to hear what you want to say, and I promise you that one of the main reasons we’re here is to talk to Heath. But, you need to drink that coffee, first. It’ll warm you ... I’m not going anywhere, neither of us are,” he nodded toward Jarrod, “Until you have a chance to tell us what you want to say. Okay?”
Nodding, her eyes suddenly filling with tears at his warm compassion, she took a tentative sip of the dark liquid.
Then, all of the men chuckled softly, with Murdoch looking particularly sheepish, when she looked back up and made a face, her lively lilt somewhat restored by Nick’s words, “What is it that ye’d be trying to do, grow hair on me chest with this stiff brew?”
Nick dropped his head, trying not to laugh at the look on her face. Then, smiling broadly, he lifted his eyes again, and caught her growing smile. Satisfied that she was more in control of her feelings now and trembling a little less, he said, “Brydie, tell us about Heath. What has you so worried? Where is he?”
Immediately, the smile faded, and her green eyes grew huge again. She answered in a quiet voice, as she handed the coffee back to the blue-eyed man beside her.
“Tis hurting and sick he is, Mr. Bar ... Nick,” she corrected, seeing him open his mouth to stop her. “But, he left early this morning, before daybreak, headed down toward the river. Not a hair on his fair head have I seen since.”
Seeing that he still didn’t understand, she grabbed his hand with both of hers and said, her voice rising again as she shook him, “He knows, it’s sure an’ that we all do, that if those wagons dare to pull into Lonesome, it’s more violence there’ll be, more people killed ... He’s trying to stop them from coming ... But, this way, he may be the one killed! Please, Nick,” she pleaded, “He helped you! Now ye have to do something to help him. Please!”
“Slow down, Brydie,” Nick said, worry creeping into his voice. “Tell us what he’s planning to do. Did he say how he’s going to try to stop them? Where exactly did he go?”
Taking another deep breath, she closed her eyes and slowly re-opened them, staring into his hazel eyes and seeing his concern. Then, she turned her head and met the dark blue eyes of Nick’s brother.
She said, watching them both, “Tis all I know. He left early this morning, before the sun, and he told me he was going down toward the river. I told him ... I told him I was afraid he’d be shot, and he said...”
“What did he say?” Jarrod asked after a moment, his gentle voice soothing the worry that pelted her from the inside like cold, icy rain on a thin windowpane.
“He ... he said they couldn’t shoot what they couldn’t see.”
Turning to look over his shoulder at the superintendent, Jarrod asked, “How far is the river from here?”
“About eight miles, toward the west.”
“Is that the road they’ll be using to bring in the Chinese?”
“Yes, it’s pretty much the only way in ... at least the only way for wagons that wouldn’t take an extra four days or so to go around. But ... ?“
“But what?” Nick asked, catching the note of anxiety in the man’s voice.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but one of my men reported that some dynamite was missing this morning. If he’s the one that took it, that can only mean he’s planning to kill those men before...”
“NO!” Nick and Brydie answered at once, then looked at each other as the man’s words trailed off.
“No,” she said again, softer. “He knows what it is that he’s doing. He’s been setting charges in mines like Lonesome since he was but a wee lad of six. He’d never plan to hurt anyone like that! ... Don’t ye see? He’ll just try to stop them there, not harm them, before they can be hurt or killed here!”
Squeezing her hands, Nick smiled slightly, nodding at her. Then, he used the anger that had instantly welled up inside him at her revelation about Heath’s childhood to drive him, and he turned, snarling at the man standing by the fireplace that had spoken.
“Murdoch, I’ll want someone you can trust to take Brydie home. Then, I don’t want to hear any more about your speculations on what Heath may or may not be planning. He’s not a killer, and he’s not a Mollie Maguire ... He’s a Barkley, and he’s my brother.”
At the gasp from Brydie, Nick turned back to her and squeezed her hand tightly, nodding again.
“Alright, Mr. Barkley, alright. I’ll send her home,” Murdoch said. “I just hope your faith in both of them is not misplaced.”
The sounds of horses’ hooves, jingling harness, and heavy wagons rolling along the road below jarred him from his exhausted, nearly-unconscious, sleep. For a few moments, as he lay there on his side, listening, he couldn’t prevent his mind from embellishing the sounds with the remembered cries of wounded men being loaded on large wagons long ago, or the memories of the moans coming from the sick and the starving, struggling to walk along the road, trying to keep up beside the wagons as they had finally rolled north.
Struggling to his knees, he kept both hands on the ground, holding himself steady. His head was throbbing, and the dizziness kept him disoriented, but worse was the deep, pervasive cold that made him stiff and groggy ... slow to move, and slower still to rise.
The pain and weakness gave even more credence to the images lurking behind his closed eyes.
Shaking his head, he opened them and pushed off from the damp ground. Then, he reached up and pulled himself to his feet by holding onto the stirrup hanging down from above him. As soon as he was standing, he looked around, and, shaking his head once more to clear it, slowly got his bearings in both time and place.
Blinking rapidly and letting out a sigh of relief, he remembered where he was and why he was here, feeling the weight of something that had happened years ago fall away from his shoulders and slither off into the brush like the shadow of a dark, nightmarish place best avoided.
“Boy Howdy, Gal,” he whispered, scratching the staid black mare under her mane for a few seconds.
Just touching her helped ground him in the present, and it further dispelled the remembered horrors, endured in the distant past best forgotten.
Then, removing his rifle from the scabbard on the other side of the saddle where he had placed it several hours ago, he reached up, yanking off the light-colored bandage wrapping his head, and he checked his shirt pocket for matches, before stuffing the cloth inside his saddlebags. Glancing down at his brown clothing, and satisfied that he would easily blend into the shadowy woods all around him, he turned the mare around and, readying her for a quick escape, pointed her toward the uphill slope. He looped one rein securely over a nearby branch, just in case she got so scared from the coming blast that she tried to bolt.
Patting her neck one more time, he slipped around the edge of the rocks that concealed her from below, and, rifle in hand, saddle bags slung over his shoulder, he headed off on foot, across the slope. Though he moved stiffly at first, he forced himself to rapidly traverse the road thirty yards above the fallen tree, then, made his way downhill toward it. Keeping low, he skirted the massive length of its trunk, lamenting its loss and the destruction he had wreaked on this section of forested mountain, hours before.
All around him lay the large pieces of the tree’s wide sections of scattered bark, further evidence of its destruction, and that of the smaller trees it had crushed during its descent.
As he worked his way around it, moving toward its uprooted base, he drank in the very strong, comforting scent of yellow pine. The smell instantly reminded him of two things, both the tiny, coveted bottle of vanilla extract his Aunt Rachel had used in baking when he was a child, as well as the winter several years ago that he had weathered further north in these mountains, sometimes supplementing his diet by roasting the seeds from the fragrant pinecones of huge trees just like this one.
When he reached the ragged hole created by the blast at its base, he paused momentarily to silently observe the devastation caused by the dynamite he had placed there.
This particular tree, over four feet across, had probably stood silently on this slope for over 200 years, longer than the lifetime that he, or any of the unseen men working their way up the road from below, could hope to live.
That the tree, with damp, dark dirt still clinging to its extensive roots, could be destroyed so quickly, and left behind, fallen here with its life-giving sap soaking into the ground, reminded him one more time of the fragile nature of all life, his own included.
Taking a deep breath, he edged away from the fallen pine, and he began working his way down the slope toward the creek, struggling to focus on the task in front of him and the reasons for it.
Narrowing his eyes as he watched carefully for his first glimpse of the wagons moving up the road from below, he knew that it was now his responsibility to keep any of the men down there from being killed today.
Somehow, he had to stop them, but without doing to any of them, even inadvertently, what he had already done to the tree behind him ... had to stop them from going any further up the mountain without uprooting them permanently from life in this world.
* * * * * * * *
Her worn boots made very little sound as she paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, chewing on an already ragged thumbnail.
From his chair nearby, her father watched her silently, cursing himself inside for being unable to help her or the blue-eyed young man he knew she pined after. He reached down, pulling his pipes from their place beneath his chair, and he slowly, deliberately arranged them, half across his lap, half lying at his side, to begin to play.
As her green eyes, bright with unshed tears, met his on one of her passes across the floor, the first plaintive wail escaped from the instrument, like a long, discordant sigh of extreme sadness.
Brydie turned abruptly, making her way to the back of the room. She pushed aside the limp curtain covering the open doorway that led to the sleeping quarters beyond, and immediately began gathering supplies for bandages. Packing the clean, white sheet into a dark brown, woven bag, she then walked over to a shelf and, picking up the bottle containing her tincture of iodine, she paused, her thoughts drifting back to the night before, to when she had cleaned the already closing, still painful gash on the back of Heath’s head.
Then, closing her eyes, only her lips moved as she clutched the bottle close to her chest and sent up silent thoughts and wishes for his safe return.
Opening her eyes again, she recalled the words she had heard Nick Barkley say, speaking first to her, then to the mine superintendent thirty minutes ago, the words that had shocked her to the core.
“Brydie,” he said quietly, “I want to hear what’s happened, and I promise you that one of the main reasons we’re here is to talk to Heath ... “
“...I don’t want to hear any more about your speculation on what Heath may or may not be planning. He’s not a killer, and he’s not a Mollie Maguire ... He’s a Barkley, and he’s my brother.”
Placing her faith on the broad shoulders of the very one she loved, and giving her trust to the two determined, dark-headed men who claimed him, she knew that his chances of surviving the coming confrontation had improved immensely and that the decision she had made last night was even more correct now, than it had been then ...
... And, that knowledge would give her the strength to do what she had to when the time came.
* * * * * * * *
Moving as soundlessly as possible, he edged toward the creek. Keeping low to the ground, he picked his way down from the bank above, to the rocks below, their rough shapes long worn smooth by the water cascading all around them. Carefully, he worked his way across the rushing water by following the route he had pinpointed hours ago, and then, he climbed up the slightly lower bank on the other side.
Knowing he would be easier to spot once he was on this more steeply sloped side, he crouched down and moved swiftly from tree, to boulder, to tree, taking care to use the slight rise to his right to better shield him from plain view below.
Dropping to one knee as he finally reached the designated tree, he ignored the headache pounding behind his eyes, but, wheezing slightly as he fought for breath, he reached out to grasp the rough bark of the trunk, steadying himself. Shivering in the sudden sharp wind that gusted down the mountain, he struggled to make himself concentrate.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he sucked in a shallow breath and released it slowly. Then, opening them again, he watched the caravan below in growing concern.
There were three wagons, their dirty white canvas covers standing out in stark, late afternoon brightness as they moved slowly up the ever-steepening grade of the hard-packed dirt road, its surface scattered with the rich red-brown of freshly fallen pine straw. Judging from the obvious efforts of the teams of horses pulling them, he knew each wagon was heavily laden.
From this angle, he could see seven men, in addition to the drivers of each wagon. Three were riding alongside, and two led the front, while two more brought up the rear of the procession. He knew there could be more, hidden from view, riding on horseback on the other side.
Narrowing his eyes against the sun setting to the west, its rays shining directly in his face, he shook his head slightly. He had hoped the men below would not be quite so aware of precautionary tactics aimed at keeping the wagons safe from attack. They were much more spread out than he had anticipated, and the men were obviously, even from this distance, more alert for trouble than he had expected.
Sam Hummel, whoever he was, must have spared no expense in hiring the best to ensure that his strikebreakers reached their objective.
With rising trepidation, he looked up into the tree branches of the stout pine his shoulder was leaning against, following its trunk to its full height with his eyes, and mentally judging how far he could expect it to reach if he adjusted his earlier plans, moving the charge he’d already set slightly around to the uphill side. Doing so would widen the angle of his trap when it fell.
But, would it still reach the road if he did?
Then, he looked back down, and he visually gauged how far to the left of the curve in the road he would have to fell this tree in order to completely block the spread out wagons between the already downed pine above the bridge and the one still standing above him.
It could be done, but it would mean putting the last wagon, and the men behind it on horseback, at risk of being crushed by the tree when it came crashing down from above them.
Shaking his head, he realized it was never going to work, not unless he was willing to chance hurting someone. The tree, the largest on this slope, just wasn’t tall enough.
Looking down the hill, he searched for a suitable tree closer to the road. Maybe if he could just move a little closer ...
Suddenly, he heard shouts and turned his attention back to the far right.
The two men in front of the caravan wheeled their horses and came flying back down the road, seeking out the large, grey-headed man on the sorrel riding beside the first wagon. As Heath watched, he saw the three men, joined now by a fourth, exchanging words and pointing up the road toward the creek.
They couldn’t have seen the fallen tree yet. They hadn’t gone far enough ...
Perhaps they had realized the bridge, lying across the creek and cut deeply into the guarding banks on either side, would make a perfect place for an ambush and were just being cautious.
The caravan immediately came to a halt and, after more shouting, the three men headed back up the road, pushing their horses into a fast clip, even as the two at the rear turned their mounts to face away from the caravan and retraced their tracks back down the mountain a little ways, readying for an attack from the rear.
Dammit! Now, they were even further apart!
However, they were still too close to the caravan to place the tree squarely between them and the last wagon ... and they were too far back for even the top of the branches to have any chance of blocking the road to their rear.
If he didn’t block the wagons between the two trees, they could make it to the camp in three or four days by the longer route ...
But, if he headed down the mountain to find another tree, he would risk never making it back up through the woods to his mare. He would just have to give up on the idea of trapping the wagon between two large, fallen trees. Hopefully the roadblock he had already created above them would prove enough to slow them for a while.
The irony of his situation was not lost on him, as he knew that he could have safely made his own escape hours ago, if he had not stayed to dynamite this particular tree behind them.
“Dammit!” he muttered under his breath.
He would just have to hope the Barkleys were true to their word to engage upper management in a fight that would succeed in turning the strikebreakers around some other way.
Quickly, Heath gathered the bundle of dynamite he had left at the base of the tree hours ago and pulled the fuse from between the deep crevices in the bark. Then, stuffing the items in his saddlebags, he pushed off from the trunk and struggled to his feet, stumbling uphill.
He had been counting on being able to contain the wagons between the two trees lying across the road ... and on using the subsequent explosion as a distraction to make good his escape.
Now, he would not have the advantage of time bought by either one.
Setting the dynamite at random on his way out, a thought that he briefly considered and even more rapidly dismissed, would be too risky. Again, he could not take the chance that an errant tree trunk would fall in an unintended direction. He was here to save lives, not take them, even accidentally ... even to save himself.
Now, as he stumbled back up the mountain, staying as low as possible, he knew his only chance was to make it back to his mare before the men on horseback realized the tree they would soon see had been purposefully dynamited to land across the road above them, above the bridge.
He turned at the calling of his name, and he saw her running toward them, coming out of one of the doorways near the end of the broken-down row of houses they were approaching.
“Jarrod!” Nick called, as he halted his horse and waited for her.
Joined by his brother, both of them riding fresh mounts obtained from up at the mine behind them, Nick leaned down and looked into Brydie’s worried face.
“Please, Nick, will ye take me with you? I’m worried!”
Shaking his head, Nick said, “No, Honey. You can’t go with us. It’s too dangerous. We’ll bring him back just as soon as we can.”
Silently, Brydie’s shoulders drooped as she nodded in understanding, much of her natural fire at being refused snuffed out at the concerned compassion in his voice. Then, reaching up, she began determinedly tying the brown cloth bundle in her hands to one of the latigo strips hanging down from behind the cantle of his saddle.
“Will ye take this, then? He might be worse by the time ye get to him. It’s me medical supplies.”
Quickly dallying his reins around the saddle horn, he reached down with his only free hand and grabbed hers, squeezing it in reassurance.
“Thank you, Brydie. Now, stay here, and don’t worry. We’ll be back soon.”
Releasing her, he retrieved his reins and applied his spurs to the brown horse beneath him.
As the two brothers, and the five men accompanying them, galloped toward the west and away from the camp, Brydie reached up with the same hand and brushed away a tear.
Something told her that the next few hours were going to prove him wrong.
* * * * * * * *
The road was becoming narrower, as the trees began closing in on it, and the downhill track, steeper in places.
They entered a particularly thick area of trees, the tall pines stretching high above them with their dark outlines silhouetted against the last rays of the fiery red sun. Nick, unable to lift his hand in his customary gesture to halt, suddenly turned his horse across the path of the men following him.
They pulled up abruptly to avoid careening into him, then sat their horses quietly as they too recognized the sound of shots from far below, the sounds that had already reached Nick’s sharp ears.
Confirming his fears, Nick wheeled his horse around, and he met Jarrod’s worried eyes. Then, as one, they charged down the road and toward the sound of a battle being waged out of sight, somewhere down the mountain in the deepening dark.
However, unwilling to rush headlong into the middle of a firefight they might not be able to decipher until too late, Nick halted them again after over ten minutes of hard riding. He had heard no more shots during that time, but he felt they were getting close and wanted to take no chances.
They walked their horses forward cautiously as they rounded the next turn, ready to disperse and find cover quickly if necessary.
Except for seeing several spots of bright flame up ahead that appeared to be lit torches, Nick, with growing frustration, peered into the darkness. He was unable to make out much of what was in front of them in the deepening gloom, though he strained to hear and see what was happening.
No other shots had been fired, of that he was sure.
Suddenly, he could distinguish the shapes of milling horses surrounding several men gathered together about a hundred and fifty yards down the road. Immediately, he began to be able to distinguish shouts over the sighing sound of the wind in the trees above them. Urging his horse forward again, he kept his eyes glued to the light-colored shirts of the men ahead, just visible in the growing dark.
The voices were raised in anger, and as they approached, Nick was suddenly sure he knew exactly who the recipient of their collective ire was.
* * * * * * * *
The loud shout from somewhere below cut through the silence of the woods, as Heath dove headlong into the cover on the far side of the pine needle strewn road, above the creek. Staggering to his feet, as the shout was followed by the sound of a bullet ricocheting off the rocks above him, he crashed through the undergrowth, never noticing as his shirt was ripped in multiple places by the thicket, and his unprotected chest was sliced open by the briers.
Emerging from the other side of the thick bushes by the boulders, he unwrapped his mare’s rein from the branch, tossed his saddlebags in front of the pommel, and vaulted into the saddle, still gripping his unused rifle in one hand.
Then, exploding from behind the boulders and charging up the open expanse of road, he rode like the fires of Hell were licking at his mare’s flowing black tail.
His only chance of avoiding being shot from the saddle was to stay low.
His only chance of making it was to round the next curve before they did.
His only chance of escaping was to get there before the men below him worked their way around the fallen tree lying too far off the ground for their horses to jump.
Fortunately, his little mount was more used to this terrain than theirs, she was much more rested, and she had the advantage over most horses of possessing both speed and stamina in great supply.
As he had several times in the last few years, he wagered his life now against the inability of her pursuers to catch her.
Leaning low on her neck, he glanced back over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes, surprised to see three men bearing down on him from over the rise above the road to his right. Despite the much softer ground among the trees, they were using the angle to their advantage, cutting down the distance that separated them by not yet returning to the road.
It was a gamble on their part, trading a slower pace for a shorter distance, and only time would tell if it worked in their favor ... or his.
As the first shot hit the ground just to his right, he spurred the mare and spoke into her ear, urging her on. She surged forward, just as another bullet hit a tree to his immediate left.
Unwilling to return fire unless absolutely necessary, Heath focused his attention on the boulders looming up on his left, rising out of the ground just ahead. If he could make it beyond them, he could use their massive bulk for cover while he cut across this switchback, regaining the ground he had lost to their maneuver.
Just as he prepared to shift her to the other lead and make the unexpectedly sharp turn, he felt a bullet tear into him, sending searing heat up and down his right leg. He struggled to regain his balance as the impact pulled him precariously close to losing his seat in the saddle, and, in the process, he lost the opportunity to make the turn.
As he grabbed for her mane, he lost his grip on his rifle.
Immediately, he felt himself falter, as the pain crashed into him. The dimly lit woods all around him nearly went completely dark.
Then, her plunging, uneven strides made him hold his breath, as the fear that the bullet had passed through his leg and had injured her, became his greatest concern. After a few moments, relief stormed through him, though, as he balanced himself in the saddle again, and her strides smoothed out ... though some part of his brain acknowledged that the bullet must be lodged in the bone of his thigh, since it must not have passed through and into her side.
A gasp tore from his throat, as the blinding pain nearly stole his breath. Fighting against it, he twisted his cold fingers deeper into her long black mane, struggling to remain in the saddle. Though he held on and urged her forward with his voice, he knew the men behind him were gaining on them.
Struggling to remain focused through the encroaching haze, his thoughts as they galloped up the road narrowed down to immediate survival ... for now, for this moment ... with no room for thinking of tomorrow, of the future.
He knew he wouldn’t make it much further.
He was running out of options.
As the pair plunged around the sharp curve and up the next section of steep mountain road, he slowed her, pulled his bloody leg over her back, and dropped, with a cry of agony, to his feet. Then, gasping for breath, he slapped her on the rump, sending her back into a gallop, away from him, up the dark road.
He took a step toward the shelter of the trees and almost staggered to his knees. Then, sinking his teeth into his bottom lip, he grasped his bleeding thigh, regained his feet, and, dragging his injured leg, hobbled off the road and disappeared into the deepening dark of the shadows along the side.
Falling to the ground with a muffled, pain-filled cry, he only managed to drag himself a few more feet before complete darkness descended upon him, forcing him into oblivion.
He never heard the other horses round the curve and gallop past where he lay, nor did he hear them return five minutes later, leading his mare, or their voices as they sent one man back to bring reinforcements to join in the hunt.
The sound of a single shot, the gun barrel facing the sky above the road, brought him around a short while later, but it was the rough shaking and the snarling voices of two men that wrenched him completely into consciousness.
As he fought to open his eyes and focus on their faces far above him, the light from their torches blazed through his head, renewing his ferocious headache. But, little else seemed to matter as he struggled to keep from crying out when the agonizing pain in his leg threatened to pull him immediately back down, into blackness once again.
“Wake up, Boy!” one of the men spat at him, striking him across the face with his hand.
“Let’s get him up, Ross,” another voice said. Then, the same man shouted over his shoulder, “Over here, Mr. Hastings! We found him.”
A loud, rough voice grated against Heath’s ears as a third man stalked toward them, hollering as he came.
“What the Hell were you doing, Boy? You dynamited that tree, didn’t you?”
Unable to hold his head up as the two men hauled him to his feet, Heath was totally unprepared for the viciousness of the blows that plowed into his stomach and chest, the fists as relentless as the questions he could barely comprehend.
His focus narrowed until he was almost beyond the pain, only aware of that relentless voice and the two closer, silent men, the one whose fists were pounding into him, and the one standing behind him, pinning his arms back in a strong, viselike grip.
Then, as the man in front of him continued hitting him, the same, rough voice, bellowed, “Answer me, Boy!”
The owner of the voice was standing back a bit from the man meting out the blows, as if distancing himself from the furious beating his orders caused.
Each subsequent question or goading comment offered only the briefest of interruptions in the fists, as blow after blow threatened to send him back into unconsciousness. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t fight back, couldn’t put weight on one leg to kick out with the other, even for a moment.
But, just as he felt the darkness beginning to close in again, and he could barely catch his breath for the pain, he heard another voice.
This one, just as loud and commanding as the other, was somehow familiar ... and it was calling his name.
Nick hollered the name twice, just before he launched himself from his saddle, unmindful of his injured arm, and careened into the man whose fists were beating the defenseless blond into oblivion.
As the two men rolled deep into the brush with the force of Nick’s attack, Jarrod pulled his gun and aimed it at the one standing back with his arms crossed, the one who had been calling out the orders.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Jarrod demanded.
Then, keeping his eye on the angry, now silent, older man, Jarrod quickly dismounted and stepped over to him. He knew that the Barkley ranch hands with him also had their weapons pulled and trained on those already on the ground, so, with his blue eyes blazing, he holstered his weapon and stepped in front of the taller man, whose carriage spoke of a military career.
“Who are you, and by whose authority are you doing this?”
Eyes narrowed, the older man replied angrily, “Not that this is any of your concern, Mister, but I’m Aaron Hastings, and I’m in the employ of Barkley-Sierra Mining Company. I have orders to deliver my cargo to the mine up at Lonesome, and this boy deliberately tried to prevent me and my men from carrying out those orders.”
Jarrod glared at Hastings and said, “Well, since I’m Jarrod Barkley of Barkley-Sierra, and I’m telling you now that there’s been a change in those orders, I expect you to tell your men to stand down ... Now, Hastings!”
Expecting his demands to be met, Jarrod turned his back on the man, who was now staring at him wide-eyed with his mouth open, and he quickly made his way toward the other men standing just on the edge of the road.
“Let go of him!” Nick demanded of the one still holding on to the blond, as he approached, emerging from the trees, pushing Heath’s subdued attacker in front of him with his good arm.
“Stand your ground, Ross!” Hastings hollered. Then he added angrily, running past Jarrod to get around to face him, his arms spread wide, “Mr. Barkley, they sent him here! Those Mollies in that camp sent him!”
Then, despite the simultaneous sound of several pistol hammers being pulled back in readiness, Hastings turned and took two steps toward the battered blond, before he stopped ... before they all did ... frozen by the ice-like voice and the suddenly lifted, defiant blue eyes glaring out of the badly cut up face.
“No man sends me anywhere!”
Taking a deep, relieved breath at seeing a response from Heath, Jarrod became instantly concerned again as he began coughing harshly. Jarrod stepped forward, reached Aaron Hastings, and took hold of his arm as he said, “Stay here, Hastings. I’m not done with you. Tell them to let go of him. NOW!”
Then, he released the man and ran toward Heath, who had wrenched one arm out of Ross’s grasp. Jarrod saw Nick’s livid face as he shoved the man in front of him, the one he had tackled, pushing him back toward the road.
Nick then turned toward Heath as well.
Ross, the man holding up the barely conscious blond, looked in confusion at his boss, who reluctantly nodded his acquiescence when Jarrod turned back and speared him again with his furious blue eyes.
The man did not react quickly enough for Nick, however, who pulled back his fist and instantly felled Ross, like a tall tree suddenly sawn all the way through.
Hastings moved forward and yelled, “What the Hell?”
But, Jarrod blocked his path, shoving the man backwards, despite his greater height.
As Ross was forced to release his hold on Heath, the blond tried to take a step forward. But, he dropped heavily to the ground, landing on his knees in the dirt with a muffled cry, his hands pressing against his thighs to hold him up.
Unnoticed in the dark, blood quickly covered one hand, and his eyes closed while he struggled to heave in air.
As one, Nick and Jarrod reached him and dropped to the ground, catching him just as he started to topple over. Together, they eased him to the ground, and Nick quickly moved around behind him to support his upper body.
“Easy, Heath,” Nick said softly, reaching up to touch the sweat-streaked hair, careful to avoid the gash he knew was there.
The blond had started struggling as soon as they took hold of him, but Nick could tell he was almost done in and was fighting them simply in confusion. Now, he felt Heath stiffen silently in his arms, as his head came back, pressing against Nick’s collarbone.
From in front of him, Jarrod saw his eyes open wide, and Heath silently lifted one hand, searching for something to hold onto, as he gasped for breath. Reaching out, Nick grabbed the hand and clenched his teeth, as Heath’s whole body seemed to convulse, with every muscle focused on transferring the agony he was in through to his hand.
“Easy, Boy. Take it easy, now,” Nick ground out, concentrating on gripping the hand as hard as he could.
Gradually, he felt the easing of the muscles as Heath began to relax against him, and he slowly became aware that the hand he was holding on to was slick with blood. Nick looked up into Jarrod’s face, and he said quietly, “He’s bleeding from somewhere, Jarrod ... And, I think it’s more than the beating. Check him good to see if there’s a bullet somewhere.”
Nodding, Jarrod began unbuttoning the ripped shirt, but stopped when they both heard Heath mumble through a clenched jaw, his eyes narrowed to slits, “...m’ ... leg...”
Their eyes meeting over his head, Jarrod broke away and quickly moved down to kneel by the leg closest to him. Nick felt Heath’s head move against his neck, negatively, as soon as Jarrod touched his left boot.
“Try the other leg, Jarrod,” Nick said, as he glanced up at McCall, who dropped down beside them, his arms laden with a lit torch, blankets, a canteen, and the brown cloth bag the girl had tied on Nick’s saddle earlier.
A sharp hissing of Heath’s breath told them that, with the help of the light from the torch, Jarrod had found the wound. Carefully, Jarrod took the knife McCall handed him and began to cut open the cloth of Heath’s pants from around his outer right thigh, a hand’s width above the side of his knee.
“Easy, Boy. Take it easy. I’ve got you,” Nick soothed, as Heath’s hand bore down on his again, while Jarrod quickly opened the brown bag and pulled out the labeled bottle of iodine. Using it to drench his fingers, he began looking unsuccessfully for an exit wound, then gently probed inside the track left by the bullet.
In instant reaction, Heath sucked in his breath in a rush and pushed his head back, grinding it into Nick’s shoulder.
A few seconds later, Jarrod moved up closer to Nick, wiping his hand on a piece of white cloth Duke handed him.
“It’s in the bone, Heath,” he said somberly, “We’re not going to be able to do much about it here. We’ll have to get you back to the camp, to the doctor there.”
Struggling to open his eyes to look at him, Heath said, “No doc-tor ... in Lone-some...”
“Dammit!” Nick responded, his head turning away from the three men, his heart covered over in anger and guilt, and his eyes searching the heavens above the darkness of the thick trees for answers he didn’t have, with questions he couldn’t forgive.
“Another broken Barkley promise!” he spat out vehemently.
Immediately, however, Heath shook his head against him again and said through clenched teeth, “No ... the doc left ... three months ... a-go...”
A groan escaped, as the burning in his leg threatened to overwhelm him again.
Nick held on tightly and returned his eyes to Jarrod’s worried face.
“Alright,” he said decisively, “We’ll just have to get him to the closest one, Jarrod. Sonora’s closer than Stockton. We’ll go there.”
“My sister lives in Sonora, Nick,” McCall spoke up, shaking his head. “They haven’t had a doctor there for over a year.”
As another spasm of pain surged through Heath, he tensed up and fought for breath. Then, as the others watched helplessly, he began coughing, his arms wrapped tightly across his waist.
Nick quickly gave up on holding him upright, and let him ease forward, slightly sideways, until he began spitting out darkened phlegm from deep in his lungs.
Easing him back against his chest, then, Nick could feel the heat beginning to build beneath the cold, sweaty slickness of Heath’s back pressed against him.
Searching the blond’s face, Jarrod reached back into the bag and pulled out the folded sheet. Handing it to McCall, he said, “Tear some strips from that, Mac. The bleeding’s showing no signs of slowing, and we’ll need to wrap it, especially if we’ve got to take him very far.”
“But, Jarrod,” McCall began, shaking his head as he thought of binding the wound tightly with the bullet still in it. “You can’t...”
Looking over at the older man, whose dark brown eyes were filled with worry, Jarrod said, “Just help me, Duke. We’ve got no choice. He’ll bleed to death if we don’t.”
“Hand me one of those,” Nick demanded, breaking in on their conversation. Then, he added, holding out the torn piece of cloth. “Pour some water on it for me, Mac.”
Using the damp cloth, Nick wiped Heath’s face, neck, and chest, pushing back the thin brown shirt, already ripped to shreds. His worry deepened as he heard the wheezing quality to Heath’s breathing in the silence that followed and felt the tremor of cold run through him.
He met Duke’s eyes as the older man silently opened up a blanket and lay it over the blond, leaving his right leg uncovered.
“Heath?” Jarrod asked, needing to explain what he felt he must do next.
Receiving no reaction, Jarrod immediately reached out and tapped Heath’s clenched jaw a couple of times, bringing the pale blue eyes open slightly.
“Heath,” he said firmly. “I’m going to pour some water, then some iodine, directly on your leg. Then, I’m going to wrap it to slow the bleeding. With the bullet still in there, it’s going to be bad. Are you ... ?”
“Just do what ... needs doin’ ... ,” Heath said with assurance, the corner of his mouth quirking up in a lop-sided smile, eyes barely open. “I’ll make it.”
Patting his chest, Jarrod moved back down to kneel by his bloody leg. With McCall assisting him, he proceeded to clean and bind the wound the best he could.
Only once did Heath make a sound, though the tenseness in his frame spoke of the internal war being waged with the searing agony they all knew he must be in, especially as the pressure to stop the bleeding also put pressure on the bullet inside his leg.
Swallowing hard, Nick held onto him, continuing to talk in his ear, as they worked, supporting him in the only way he knew how.
When he was finished, the blue-eyed lawyer got to his feet and silently moved off into the trees.
He stood there, one hand on a lichen-encrusted, waist-high boulder, looking out into the night. Taking deep breaths, he closed his troubled eyes, seeking a balance inside himself for the pain he knew he had caused and gathering himself for what he knew was to come.
The blond-headed young man lying back there on the cold ground was his brother ... a brother he never knew he had before this week. And, he would be, Jarrod was sure, fighting for his survival ... within a matter of hours. There was no way they could get him all the way to Stockton, the place with the closest doctor, without causing him immense pain, and there was no way to turn back the fever he could already see and feel, building inside the too-lean, already-ill body.
As he closed his eyes and pulled in a deep breath to prepare himself, Jarrod felt a hand on his shoulder.
Turning, he saw the compassion in McCall’s eyes.
“Jarrod, you did what had to be done, and that boy knows it.”
“One of those men, the bossy one, wants to speak to you. Me and the fellas’ll help Nick put the boy on a horse for you, while you set things straight here. When you’re done, we’ll head back up the mountain and down the other way to Stockton. It’s not going to be easy, but Nick and I figure it’s the only way.”
Nodding, Jarrod said, “You’re right. Thanks, Duke ... Send him over.”
Turning back to look out at the fading sliver of red, just barely visible between the mountains and the dark, low-lying clouds, Jarrod waited.
“Mr. Barkley,” Hastings said vehemently, the words tumbling out even as the man approached, “That boy dynamited a huge tree down there ... between here and the creek. I can’t get my wagons through! ... It’ll take a team of loggers the better part of two days to get it out of the way! That boy’s caused me a heap of trouble, and I don’t understand why you’re taking up for him!”
“Was anyone else hurt?” Jarrod asked quietly, dreading the reply.
“No. The tree was downed before we got there ... but, we caught his horse, and there’s dynamite in his saddlebags ... We know it was him.”
“No one else was hurt, then?” Jarrod said, both immensely relieved and instantly incredulous, “Even with all of the shooting we could hear?”
“No, he never ... ,” the man paused, thinking hard. Then, he said, seeing where the younger man was going, “No, he never fired ... he never fired at us, though my men said he had a rifle in his hand up to the very end.”
His voice stronger now, Jarrod said firmly, “All he did was block a road with a tree! Your men shot him, and you could’ve killed him with your beating, Hastings.” He held up one hand and shook his head, continuing to speak as the man in front of him opened his mouth to reply. “You say he didn’t use all the dynamite he had, and he didn’t fire his rifle at you. But, you tried to kill him anyway...”
Then, glaring at the man, Jarrod added, “Tell me ... if we hadn’t stopped you, what would you have done to him?”
Staring at the livid blue eyes, shining in irate indignation in the reflection from the nearest torch’s light, Hastings dropped his voice and said, “I don’t know, Mr. Barkley. But, that boy could’ve killed someone, and,” his voice rising again, “He slowed down the efforts of your company to end this strike! I just don’t understand why you’re defending him!”
“I’m defending him because he was right, Mr. Hastings,” Jarrod said evenly, his face stony. “Sam Hummel was wrong to hire you and your men, wrong to hire the Chinese miners, to bring them into Lonesome. And, that ‘boy’ you keep going on about did everything in his power, short of hurting someone, to stop you long enough to avoid any more violence up there at that mine.”
Taking a deep breath and dropping his voice even more, Jarrod asked, “Do you know what would’ve happened if you’d been successful in reaching the camp with those wagons loaded with Chinese? ... Do you?”
Seeing the spark in Hastings’ eyes, Jarrod waited, pretty sure of what he was going to be told, but hoping that he was wrong.
“Yes, I knew we were in for a fight. But, Mr. Hummel told me that I had permission to shoot anyone that tried to stop us from getting those wagons inside the gates of the mine. And, that includes that boy!”
“And, did he also tell you that you’d have to drive the wagons right through the center of the camp, right through streets of houses with women and children living in them, to get to those gates? Women and children that could’ve been killed if any shooting started?”
Seeing the man’s slowly fading, faltering confidence, Jarrod pressed his point both verbally and physically, reaching up and jabbing his finger into the man’s chest as he spoke. “Did he tell you that those people would only be armed with broken tools, rocks, and potatoes to pelt you with?”
“Yes, potatoes,” Jarrod said, instantly recalling the conversation he and his family had had with Heath two days ago about potatoes.
“No ... ,” Hastings admitted, “No, he didn’t tell me that.”
“And, did he mention that if you’d started shooting at those people, unarmed the way they’d be, that you and your men would’ve been guilty of aggravated assault, possibly murder?”
“No ... no, he didn’t.”
“Then, may I suggest to you that, instead of trying to kill the person who kept you from committing such a grievous error, you offer your apologies and assistance in seeing that he recovers from what you and your men did to him? My brother was trying to stop the violence, not cause more of it...”
“Your brother?!” Hastings responded instantly, interrupting Jarrod’s words.
Jarrod was silent for a moment, hearing the man’s question and realizing for the first time what he had said without even being aware of the words.
Then, he answered, his voice growing in strength, “Yes, Mr. Hastings. That boy is my brother, and I just hope, for your sake and for my family’s, that he survives to know what he has accomplished here, despite what you did to him tonight.”
For Nick, the ride down the mountain over an hour ago had been a blur of intense emotions and straining senses. His mind had been full of fears and questions, trying to figure out how they were going to locate the blond, how they were going to assist him in gaining the cooperation of the men ushering the Chinese strikebreakers to the camp, and how they were going to turn them back.
Now, retracing their journey at a much slower, more agonizing pace, he felt, if anything, more despair than before.
They had found Heath, and the threat of the Chinese entering the camp and clashing with the mostly Irish miners was forestalled for now.
But, as his eyes found Jarrod’s, then moved to take in Heath’s pale, drawn face, his eyes barely open, Nick felt the knot of worry in his chest grow a little tighter.
So far, the boy was holding his own, keeping his horse slightly ahead of the larger mounts that Nick and Jarrod rode. Nick was behind and to Heath’s right, while Jarrod was on Heath’s left, riding almost even with him, ready to reach out with his right hand to grab the younger man if he looked like he was going to topple from the saddle.
But, that had not yet been necessary.
Suddenly, Nick took a deep breath and eased it back out, his eyes still on the blond. His heart seemed to turn over inside his chest, and for a moment, he opened his mouth, staring at the back of the young man’s head in front of him.
Then, seeing Jarrod turn his head, watching him, Nick could see the familiar, midnight blue eyes sparkling in the limited moonlight from above them.
There was no doubt that Jarrod was silently laughing at him.
With a growl, Nick closed his mouth and returned his eyes to the road in front of him.
Swallowing hard, he acknowledged to himself that what he had just felt, what had almost toppled HIM from his saddle as he rode behind them, was the feeling of pride growing inside him ... pride in this stoic, determined young man who he had recently discovered was the younger brother he’d never known about.
Dallying his reins around the horn, Nick reached up, unbuttoned the top of his coat, and reached inside to massage his shoulder. He had landed on it when he had barreled into the man whose fists were plowing repeatedly into Heath, and, with a grin, he knew every ache, every bruise he had obtained as a result, had been worth it.
As Jarrod dropped back to check on him, Nick recalled silently the words Heath had spoken so softly after McCall and two of their other men had helped settle him into his saddle and walked away. Heath’s face had been a wall up until the moment he spoke, his jaw clenched tightly and his eyes fixed on something Nick couldn’t see.
But, when it had been just the two of them there, Nick using his good hand to ease Heath’s injured leg into place and his worn boot into the stirrup on the off side, Heath had reached down to grasp Nick’s good shoulder. And, his firm, but not deathly, grip had told Nick that Heath was not just reacting to pain when he did it.
“’Saw what ya’ did, Barkley ... ‘Your arm okay?”
Looking up into Heath’s quiet face, the deep line etched between his eyebrows, and his clenched jaw the only evidence of the pain he was in, Nick replied gruffly, “It’s fine, Boy. Just fine. I’d do it again right now if need be, and don’t you forget that I would.”
Heath nodded once, as Nick asked him, “How about you, Boy? Can you ride?”
Then, the blond squeezed Nick’s shoulder again, and, before he released it and moved his horse off, he said, his answer a halting, but defiant, echo of Nick’s words to him just a few nights ago, “Fightin’ off men ... with your fists ... may be your territory, Barkley, but ... this saddle’s mine ... The question’s more likely ta be ... can you keep up with me?”
Now, watching Jarrod’s face, the smile still there from before, Nick plunged in to keep his brother from opening his mouth and baiting him too badly.
“He’s sure something, Jarrod. I don’t know how he’s even still conscious, let alone still in that saddle.”
Nodding with knowing eyes, Jarrod said, “He’s made of the same stuff as you, Brother Nick. And, speaking of that, how are you? And, how’s your arm holding up? Did you undo all of Doc Merar’s handiwork?”
“I’m fine, it’s fine, and no, I did not. Besides, Heath already took care of the hard part for the Doc out on the trail the other day, so keep that in mind when you get the good doctor’s fee this time!”
“I will, Nick,” Jarrod chuckled, “I will.”
Then, more soberly, Nick asked, “Jarrod, do you think he’s going to be alright? He’s hurting, and we’ve got better than a day’s ride ahead of us at this pace.”
The teasing smile fading from his handsome face, Jarrod replied, “I don’t know, Nick. I think he was already pretty sick, he had that head wound ... and I suspect a concussion ... and now this. All we can do is get him back as soon as possible and let the doc take it from there.”
“Do you think we’re better off to ... Whoa, there!”
Nick nudged his borrowed brown gelding up quickly, using his body and shoulder to catch the slumping form of the blond. Jarrod, joining them from the other side, reached out to pull Heath by the arm until he was upright again in the saddle.
“Heath!” Nick called, as Jarrod brought both horses to a halt.
Not seeing any movement nor response, Jarrod reached up and shook the blond by the collar. “He’s out cold, Nick. Hold him while I get up behind him.”
Working together, and aided by one of the other men who came up to take Jarrod’s horse, the tall lawyer climbed up behind Heath’s saddle, wrapped his arms around the slightly smaller man in front of him, and picked up the reins in his left hand.
“Ready?” Nick asked.
“Yes,” Jarrod said. “But, let’s see what we can do about getting him somewhere warm before he wakes up again, Nick. I think that’s as important as trying to ride straight through to get him to a doctor. If we pick up the pace, I assure you, he’s not going to feel it.”
“Alright, Big Brother,” Nick replied. “Let’s head back through Lonesome instead of taking the cut just below it. I promised that girl we’d bring him back to see her anyway. We can head for Stockton from there, first thing in the morning.”
* * * * * * * *
The voices seemed no more than distant murmurings, like the whispering of the wind among tall, majestic pines on the slopes of a mountain. Then, slowly, as he fought his way to the surface of the dark threatening to pull him back, he was able to distinguish one voice from the other.
“He’s too hot. I think he’s headed towards a high fever.”
“Just keep those cool cloths on him, and I’ll keep bringing in the cold water ... Don’t worry, he’s tough. He’s a Barkley, isn’t he?”
“He may be blond and blue-eyed like Audra, and he may have my intelligence, but he’s got your knack for getting into trouble, Nick, that’s for sure.”
“What?! I’m not the only one who...”
“Bark-ley?” the quiet voice interrupted their discussion, as both dark-headed men quickly stepped back over to the bed.
“Easy, Heath. Easy, Boy,” Nick said, reaching down and again wiping the hot face with the cool rag in his hand, while Jarrod placed both hands on the shoulders of the struggling blond and pushed him back to the bed.
“Just lie still, Heath,” Nick demanded. “You’re alright. We’re back in Lonesome, and you’ve got a bullet lodged in your leg.”
“Lone-some?” Heath repeated groggily.
“Yeah, Boy. We got you away from those men down on the road and brought you back here. We’ve got plenty of our hands with us this time, so you don’t have to worry about watching for the Mollies, either.”
“The ... road?”
Suddenly, Heath tried again to sit up, and he fell back with a groan, shaking his head from side to side. “The ... wagons?” he asked, his eyes cracking open, searching for Nick. “Where’re ... where are they? ... Not here!”
“Whoa, now. Settle down,” Nick said, placing his good hand in the center of Heath’s chest, and glancing over at Jarrod, who had returned with a cup of water. “Everything’s alright, Heath. They’re not here. You stopped them, Boy. You and a few strategically placed sticks of dynamite.”
“No one ... no one ... h-u-r-t-t-t?” Heath asked, reaching out and grabbing Nick’s arm as he panted through a wave of pain radiating up through his leg, turning his last word into an admission as much as a question.
“No, no one was hurt, Heath,” Nick responded. “No one but you. Now, lie back, and just rest. We’ve got to get you to a doctor tomorrow. That bullet can’t stay in your leg much longer.”
“Here, Heath,” Jarrod said, raising his head enough to get some water down him. “Go slowly. That’s right.”
The light blue eyes slid closed as the slight movement sent new tremors through him, but, after a moment, he nodded his thanks and whispered, “Jarrod ... Jarrod Barkley?”
Patting the shoulder to avoid the badly cut up chest, Jarrod said, “That’s right, Heath. It’s Jarrod ... You talked Murdoch into sending for me, and here I am. He signed the contract, by the way, thanks to you and Tim. And, the Chinese strikebreakers have been returned to the coast.”
Without opening his eyes, Heath said, his voice now barely audible, “The ... strike?”
“We’ve already sent for someone to negotiate with the miners. He and his team should be here within a few days. I promise ... ,” Jarrod faltered over the word, then continued, “I promise you, that everything will be done to help the people here that can be.”
His eyes cracking open, Heath ground out, his jaw clenched as another wave of pain swept through him, “A Bark-ley ... prom-ise?”
“Yes, Heath,” Jarrod said. Then, glancing at Nick’s searching, hazel eyes, Jarrod added quietly, “Yes, a promise made from one Barkley to another.”
Hoping to see some reaction to his words, Jarrod was disappointed when he saw that Heath was unconscious once more. Though he had wanted him to know how they felt about him, wanted him to know that they already accepted what he had not yet spoken of to any of them, he was reasonably sure now that Heath had not heard what he had said.
But, Nick had.
“You do believe that now, don’t you, Jarrod?” he asked. “You’re as sure now, as I’ve been for a couple of days, aren’t you?”
Standing, Jarrod walked around the bed and stood by the dirty, broken window, its cracks covered by boards nailed over them from outside. He could see out enough to know it was still fully dark outside, the dawn still more than five hours away.
As if from far away, he said, “Yes, Nick. I believe that Heath is Tom Barkley’s son, that he’s our brother. But, I don’t believe that he is anyone’s obligation, nor is he a person that will be easily persuaded to do or believe what we want him to. If he had wanted the things that we have, the material things, he would never have left the house without telling us who he is two days ago.”
“So, what you’re saying is, he might not be persuaded to stay with us? To claim us, even though we claim him?”
“No, I don’t think that’s quite what I’m saying. I just don’t think he’s going to be influenced into making a decision by the things ... the wealth, the power ... the things that most anyone else would be influenced by. Neither is he going to be influenced by us feeling like we owe him something. He’s already made it pretty clear to you how he feels about that...”
“He’s hurt, Jarrod, and he’s got no choice now in coming back with us, just so he can get to a doctor if nothing else. If there’s a good part to any of this, as much as I hate that this has happened, it’s that keeping my promise to Mother will be that much easier.”
“Is it, Nick? ... I wonder.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well,” Jarrod said, turning his eyes from the window to meet Nick’s, then to the bed where the blond slept on, a thin sheen of sweat beading across his forehead. “I wonder if in the long run, he’s not going to feel trapped into having to go with us now, and if that might make it that much harder for us to convince him that we want him to stay.”
Looking up quickly, Nick stared into Jarrod’s dark blue eyes. Then, he asked quietly, “But, you do admit that you want him to stay, don’t you, Pappy?”
Without hesitation, Jarrod nodded, and he walked over to ease down on the bed beside the blond. “Yes, Nick. I want him to stay, to be part of our family, Father’s family. Selfishly, I want this little brother to live at the Barkley Ranch ... more than I’ve wanted anything for a long time ... He’s part of us, part of Father, and I want the chance to help him understand that, to understand what that heritage is all about.”
“Why do you say, ‘selfishly,’ Jarrod?” Nick asked, puzzled. “Don’t you think it would benefit him too?”
“Of course it could benefit him in many ways, Nick. But, I’m not sure it can at all until he allows it to. You see, and this is why I’m worried about how he’s going to feel about having to go back with us ... I’m not sure that being part of Father’s family is what he wants.”
* * * * * * * *
As he shifted in the bed, Heath groaned aloud, the pain bringing him quickly awake.
“Rest easy, Love,” the soft, lilting voice crooned.
He felt her cool, gentle touch along the side of his face, and he relaxed a bit, despite the burning raging up and down his leg.
“Wher-r-re ... ?”
She leaned down to kiss his unshaven cheek and said, “Tim Hanrahan’s house, and lucky to be alive to see it again, I’ll wager.”
“What ... hap-pened?” he asked, reaching up to squeeze his head between both hands, the headache threatening to steal his breath away.
“Do ye not remember, then, Love?” she paused a moment, giving him time. When he did not respond, she said, “They say ye sent some huge tree crashing down across the road, that ye kept the Chinese from coming here, kept us all from the violence that would’ve destroyed us ... Oh, Heath, me love, ye did what no Mollies could’ve. Ye made the bosses pay attention, and ye saved us from our own foolishness for sure.”
When she finished speaking, she reached over and took hold of one of his hands, which he had slowly lowered, as if lulled into relaxing by her words.
Carefully, he turned his head to look at her, watching as she continued to speak.
“The Barkleys are taking ye to the doctor down the mountain, Heath. It’ll be a long, tough trip on the same back trail ye’ve already worn out in the last two days, but you’ll make it.”
As he started to shake his head, trying to push up from the bed, and opening his mouth to protest, she pushed against him until he had no choice but to lie back, panting for breath.
She reached out and placed the palm of each hand against each side of his face, and she moved from the straight-backed, wooden chair, so that she was sitting beside him on the bed, facing him.
“Heath. Heath, don’t fight it, Love. This is what has to be ... Do ye not see that? That bullet has to come out, and ye know there’s no doctor that can take care of ye here.”
“But, you could ... ,” he started, looking up into her eyes.
“No, Love,” she said, shaking her head, her green eyes filling with tears. “I can’t help you. It’s in the bone, and when I looked at it while ye slept, I couldn’t get to it. It’s too deep and there was ... there was too much blood, Heath. ‘Tis no more that ye can stand to lose. I’ve re-wrapped it, but the longer you wait, the worse it’ll get ... Ye have to go with them. Ye have to trust them.”
“But, if I go ... Brydie, there’ll be no one ... no one ta take care’a you an’ Tim ... No, I can’t go.”
He began struggling to get up. “Get my knife. I’ll get ... get the bullet out ... m’self.”
“No! Heath, no!” She pushed him back, finding herself half lying across him, as he suddenly gave out and collapsed beneath her on the bed.
Catching her breath, she sat up and straightened her blouse. Then, prepared to be angry with him, she caught the slight twinkle in his eyes, just before he squeezed them shut with one hand and groaned softly, his other hand reaching to clamp down on his leg.
Taking his questing hand, she held onto him and scolded, “Heath, me love, ye’re more hard headed than me Da, and that’s accursed stubborn.”
As he opened his eyes, she saw the resignation in them. “Brydie, you an’ Tim ... you’ll have ta ... come with us, then,” he said softly, reaching up to brush back a piece of her soft, dark hair.
Loving him all the more for his words, she started shaking her head immediately, however.
Then, glancing up, she saw Jarrod Barkley standing in the doorway, nodding at her to let her know they were ready, and she reached down, grasping the blond’s hand and holding it to her lips as she started to speak to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dull red curtain, pushed halfway open, fall back in place behind the departing man.
“No, Heath,” she said softly, kissing his fingers. “Ye’ve done more for me than ye’ll ever know ... I had lost me’self in that saloon, in that life, and ye pulled me back, allowed me to see me’self for what I could be, not for what I had become. Me Da, for all that I curse the way he’s acted ... now I know he loves me, and that he only wants for me what is best. I couldn’t see it before, but now, thanks to yer patience with us both, I understand it.”
She took a deep breath, and she added the part that she knew he understood better than she did, had understood from the very beginning, the other part that he had been trying to help her understand.
“Heath, Me Love, ye’ve given me a chance to make something o’ me’self, to be something better than I am right now. And, I’m going to take that chance. But ... but, ‘tis alone I must be doing it ... For me.” She took a deep breath and continued, “I know ye can understand that, can’t ye? Ye’ve tried to make me see it for many a day. Now, ‘tis up to me. I’ve never stepped foot outside o’ this camp. I’ve never seen any other place, nor...”
“You’ve not seen your beautiful green eyes ... reflected in anyone else’s eyes, but mine,” Heath said, reaching up to caress her face. “An’ ... as I’ve tried ta tell ya’ before, Brydie ... that’s a chance ya’ deserve. If this ... ,” he reached down to take her slender hand in his and, lifting it to his lips, he kissed her fingers gently, “If this is something that’s meant ta last ... then we’ll find each other again. But ... ,” he started, smiling at her lop-sidedly, before he bit down on his lip and closed his eyes tightly at the sudden pain burning up and down his leg.
She reached out with the cool, damp cloth in her other hand and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. Eyes still closed, he released her hand, afraid he would clamp down too hard on her, hurting her, and he groaned as he tossed his head away.
When he opened his eyes again, breathing hard, he met hers and whispered, “But, I think we both know the way we feel, is ... is more tied ta this place ... an’ the ... the...”
Reaching up, she placed her fingers over his mouth, silencing his struggle to try to make her understand, despite the toll it was taking on him to talk so much through the searing agony of his leg.
Looking into his eyes, made darker than usual by the pain pushing him back toward unconsciousness, she leaned down, moved her hand to touch the side of his bruised face, and kissed his cold lips.
“Sh-h-h-h,” she said, “Just rest. I do love ye, Heath, and I know ye love me. But, I know now ‘tis not the lasting kind o’ love that I know ye want for me ta find someday. That’s what ye’ve been trying to make me understand, isn’t it?”
She stroked his sweat-streaked hair, and felt her heart soar at the relief she saw in his barely open eyes. Even in her inexperience with such emotions, she knew now that she had finally understood it all correctly.
He had been trying to tell her that there were all kinds of love, all reasons of love, and he had known, even from the very beginning, that hers for him was a love of desperation, born of a need to feel alive again, more than it was a lasting love between a man and a woman, a love that could grow into an endless, limitless future.
When she had finally figured it out, decided that she must take her father and leave this place, starting a new life somewhere else, and that she must do so without leaning on the strength of Heath’s caring, concerned ... but not passionate, love for her, her biggest worry had been at how he would react, at how alone he would feel ...
But, now, glancing over at the two men talking quietly by the fireplace, beyond the pushed-back curtain separating them from the younger brother she knew they already claimed, she understood ... even if Heath did not yet realize it ... that he had a family ... and a future with them.
No matter what she did, no matter where she went, she wouldn’t have to worry for him, for he would have them ... if only he would allow it.