Flashes of Light
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
This story offers an alternate arrival for Heath, is loosely based on “The Young Marauders,” and uses some ideas from “Image of Yesterday.”
They continued to sit together, watching the unconscious young man in front of them. Jarrod held on to the small hand of his mother, and, after a moment, he found himself looking back down into her grey eyes. The fierceness that had accompanied her last statement was slowly turning into a soft glow; and, as he watched, he could see that her eyes were already full of love to share. He nodded. “Mother, I think you’re right. More than anything else that I felt each time I was around him, even without knowing why or how, I knew that he belonged here with us.”
A soft knock at the door halted their discussion. Giving his mother a chance to compose herself, Jarrod walked to the door and opened it.
“Jarrod,” Audra said, glancing past her brother’s tall form to see the smaller figure of her mother still sitting in the same place, “I think you had better come outside. The sheriff’s back, and he is asking Nick some questions about a missing man. I think the sheriff is talking about him.” Audra pointed inside the room.
Jarrod’s eyes widened. He had forgotten all about what had happened at the Drumm’s ranch earlier in the evening. Somehow, that all seemed like a lifetime ago. He held open the door to let Audra come in. “Honey, please don’t ask her any questions right now. Just stay with her. Thank you for letting me know.”
As he turned to leave, Audra placed her hand on his arm. “Jarrod, I don’t know what’s going on, but I saw Mother’s face when she looked at him. The things the sheriff is saying, they don’t fit with whatever my mother is feeling, nor with what I felt when I watched him with Nick’s colt down by the corral.”
Tears sprang to Audra’s expressive blue eyes. “Oh, Jarrod, the colt was down and wouldn’t even try to get up. I thought he,” she gestured toward Heath, “Looked very tired, but it was dark, and I didn’t notice that he was hurt. I would never have asked for his help if I had.” By now, the tears were streaming down her face. She finished in an even quieter voice, “I’ve never seen anything like it! He calmed the colt and just talked him into trusting us. He is not the person the sheriff thinks he is; he has a deep gentleness that the sheriff’s words can’t touch.”
Jarrod nodded once and kissed her check before he left, saying, “Stay with Mother. Keep her away from what’s going on outside if you can. I’ll go see what I can do out there.”
When he approached the knot of men gathered near the now collapsed barn, he could hear Nick’s voice. “Liam, you are wrong! That boy could just as easily be the one that warned us as the one that led the gang. You have nothing to go on.”
“Nick,” the sheriff said angrily, standing toe to toe in front of the bigger Barkley with the blazing hazel eyes, “It was my own stupidity that let that boy get away in the first place. From watching you and Jarrod with him, it makes me wonder if you didn’t send me off chasing those gang members just to protect him or something! I am going to find him; I’m going to find them all!”
The sheriff was aware of the dark, foreboding look of growing anger on Nick’s face, but risked the imminent confrontation by pressing on, “Now, are you saying you don’t know where he is, or that you do, but you won’t turn him over to me because you don’t believe he is involved?”
“What’s going on, Sheriff?” Jarrod interrupted loudly as he worked his way to the inner circle of onlookers. “Nick, get them out of here,” he said in a quiet tone to his furiously angry brother, as he gestured toward the ranch hands with his head.
“McCall, leave a few men to watch for sparks, and send the rest to get some sleep! We’re taking this conversation inside.” Nick growled.
Taking the sheriff by the arm, Jarrod led him to the front of the house. “Come on, Liam, we’re all exhausted, hungry, and just plain worn out. Let’s go get something to drink and discuss this calmly.”
“Alright, Jarrod,” Liam responded, grateful for the chance to get his guilt-laden anger under control, “But, I still want to know what happened to that other gang member.”
Just inside the door, Nick spoke up, “Liam, I don’t know where he went. I forgot all about him when we saw the ranch burning. Why do you even think he is here? We lost sight of him long before we got to the ranch.”
As they settled into chairs covered with the sheets that Silas had placed protectively over them, Jarrod handed the sheriff a drink, and, giving no time for him to respond to Nick, asked, “Now, tell us what happened after you left us. Did you find their camp?”
“No,” the sheriff sighed and replied wearily to the calmer of the two men, “It was just too dark and too rocky. We stopped before we covered up any tracks that might help us in the daylight. We’ll try again in the morning,” the sheriff laughed at his own joke. “It’s already morning, though isn’t it?” He sighed again, loudly. Then, stifling a yawn, he added with a grin, “I think I’m too old for this job!”
After a slight chuckle shared between the three of them, the sheriff added, “I’m sorry I said those things to you outside, Nick, I’m just angry at myself for letting the one link to the gang slip through my fingers.” Then, with his voice rising again, Liam Forrest added, “I promise you this, if I ever cross paths with him again, I will not make the mistake of underestimating him the second time.”
“Liam, I know what you mean. I can’t get past the fact that he even had the strength to climb back on his horse by himself, let alone outride us all like that!” Nick said, a hint of respect in his voice.
The sheriff didn’t miss the inflection. “So, how do the two of you know him? You called him Heath, didn’t you?”
Nick looked at Jarrod, but by now, Jarrod was looking down at his drink with a weary, dazed expression in his eyes. Nick spoke up to cover for his brother, “Liam, do you remember us telling you about the mustanger named Lloyd Garner bringing Audra home after a close call with a herd of wild horses? It happened the other day.” When the sheriff nodded, Nick continued, “There were actually two of them that brought her home; that fella we found at Jamie Drumm’s was the other one. Audra really took a liking to Garner, and well, our men and Jarrod, there, seemed really impressed with Heath.” With a slight chuckle, Nick added, “It seems he whipped them all at cards.”
The sheriff looked at Jarrod with his eyes narrowed. Then, he shook his head slightly and leaned back into the comfortable chair, enjoying the first quiet, the first calm moment in hours. Without raising his head from the thick upholstery, he shifted so he could see Nick better in the sheet-covered chair beside him.
Nick changed the subject slightly, “Sheriff, I do think we need to talk about what happened at the Drumm Ranch, and about what happened here.”
The conversation continued, part of it now a slightly calmer discussion between Nick and Liam about their on-going disagreement over what had happened at Jamie Drumm’s. Jarrod listened with only part of his mind. The other part was on what had occurred in the study with his mother. Somehow, he had to get the sheriff out of here so they could have time to figure out Heath’s real role in all of this, and, more importantly, so the family could talk openly about the implications of Heath’s role in their future.
Nick’s next words brought him up short. Jarrod realized he had missed something because Nick was now standing by the fireplace and Sheriff Forrest was now leaning forward in his chair staring at Nick intently. “Liam, I think those men at Jamie’s were killed with a rifle, and I think that fella, Heath, we found down the road is the one that shot them.”
Jarrod looked at his brother closely. Nick had his arms crossed, and he was covered in soot and sweat. Normally dressed in black anyway, he appeared perfectly oblivious to the way he looked. He realized that Nick also wore a very determined glare as he made his beliefs known to the sheriff.
Jarrod wondered, “Is he defending Heath, or just explaining his theory of what happened?” From his movements, Jarrod could see that, under the surface, Nick was both very angry and very much in control.
Almost in answer to Jarrod’s thoughts, Nick began telling the sheriff, “Look, I’ve been thinking about this all night as I slung water, swatted sparks, and hollered orders. Your version just doesn’t make sense to me. That gang rode in here and our men were right there inside the crew quarters eating their supper. Those raiders weren’t exactly afraid as they tried to torch the place. So what drove them away from Jamie’s before they finished him off, maybe even finished off that kid and the rest of the family, too? With your version, one more bullet pumped into Jamie would have cleared the way for whatever else they wanted to do next. Certainly, they couldn’t have been afraid of one nearly unconscious man with a pistol. It doesn’t make any sense!”
A loud knocking at the door shifted the focus of the three men away from the one-sided discussion. Nick, who had been pacing during the last few statements, his arms gesturing emphatically as he stalked around the room, stormed over to answer the door. Jarrod and the sheriff could not hear the conversation, but Jarrod recognized the man at the door as one of their hands. It was Toby, the man who had accompanied them to Jamie Drumm’s. They heard Nick holler out as the man left, “Thanks, Toby. Get yourself some sleep!”
When Nick returned, he was wearing a concerned look on his face and carrying a rifle. “The doctor can’t come until later. When I sent Toby after him, I told him to make sure the doctor knew we were not desperate here, but could use his assistance whenever he could come. He decided he had better stay at Jamie’s, especially since Mrs. Drumm is in shock over what happened.” He stopped and looked at the sheriff.
“I sent Toby for the doctor because I knew he would know where we found Heath. While he was there, I wanted him to search for this.” He patted the Winchester, then handed it over to Liam.
Then, he continued with the explanation that was on his mind, now more than ever, with the surmised rifle actually in their possession. “I repeat, I do not think Heath was part of that gang. I think he killed those two men we found near the house.”
Liam interrupted him. “No, Nick, No! You’ve inhaled too much smoke or something! Are you saying you think he picked off those men as he was riding in toward the ranch from way back near where we found him?” The sheriff gave a short derisive laugh to emphasize his disbelief. “Nick, you keep saying that a rifle was used to kill those men, but I’m sorry, I just don’t believe Heath, or anyone else around here could have made those shots from as far away as we found him! And certainly not from horseback. It had to be Jamie.”
Changing tactics, Nick said, “Okay, tell me this. Who shot Heath, then? Even uninjured, I don’t think Jamie could have hit him with one lucky shot from his pistol, not from that far away with Heath on the back of a moving horse. If Jamie killed those two men and then shot Heath, that accounts for three out of three bullets fired from the pistol he had in his hand. That would have had to be one lucky shot. And, Sheriff, tell me why the man you think was part of the gang was found shot outside the opposite gate from the one the gang obviously used to escape. No, I think you’re the one that’s got it all wrong. I think Heath just may have saved Jamie Drumm and his family, and he got his hair parted, and almost got a free stay in your jail, for his trouble.”
Jarrod knew there was more Nick wasn’t saying, but he didn’t ask him to elaborate. Instead, he watched the sheriff, who sat staring at Nick for a little while before responding. “Okay, Nick, you’ve made me think. I still don’t agree about the rifle, and I’m still not happy with myself about losing my prisoner the way I did, but you’ve given me some ideas to chew on for a while. But,” he added with emphasis, “If you’re right, I don’t know why he took off like that if he was innocent of any involvement with the gang. And, I still intend to lock him up in a nice, secure jail cell the next time I get my hands on him. However, I’m willing to keep looking at all the options while I look at him through the bars, at least until he and Jamie can answer my questions.”
It was Nick’s turn to laugh under his breath, but he didn’t say any more.
“Now, Nick, do me a favor. You keep an eye out for this Heath, and, hold onto him if he shows up here. In the meantime, I’ll try to track those mustangers and talk to Jamie Drumm. Agreed?”
Nick and Jarrod both nodded, Nick in reluctance and Jarrod in some relief.
“I had best be going so you and your family can get some rest. My men are exhausted, too, so we’ll head back to town and rest up before trying again this afternoon.” The sheriff stood to leave.
“Liam, you are all welcome to stay here if you like. It’ll save you some riding time,” Jarrod said.
“No, Jarrod, thank you, but I think we’ll head back into town.”
“Then, will you check at the telegraph office before you return for any answers to our wires to Markleeville?”
“Sure, Jarrod. Goodnight, or maybe I should say, good morning?” He picked up the Winchester, shook his head one more time at Nick’s theory about the rifle, and headed for the door.
As soon as the sheriff left, Jarrod said, “Brother Nick, you continue to surprise and amaze me. I had not put together half of what you did about all that happened at Jamie’s. What made you go after this particular puzzle like you have a burr under your saddle?”
“Jarrod,” Nick said quietly, “In all my years as your little brother, I’ve never known you to trust anyone as quickly as you did Heath, without being at least partially right. And, I trust your judgement. I saw how concerned you were about him at Jamie’s, and if you thought Heath was not part of the gang, there had to be some other explanation. Besides, Big Brother, no one, especially you, could be THAT wrong about anyone!” Nick grinned.
Jarrod’s smile faded, as he thought to himself, “Yes, ironically, Brother Nick, we can all be that wrong-----not about Heath, but about his father.”
“Seriously,” Nick continued, watching him, “There are two burrs under my saddle, as you put it. Your judgement about him is only one of them. The other is the whole set of events at Jamie’s, and then about what happened here. He obviously wasn’t with them when they tried to burn us out. In fact, he seemed downright determined to get here when he came to by the side of the road and realized where he was. I had the feeling that he wasn’t trying to get away from us as much as he was trying to get here to stop them.”
Nick let this idea hang in the smoke-tinged air of the large room for a minute, then he continued, “Then, there is the rifle. Only once in my life have I seen anyone wrap their reins around the saddle horn in just the firm, even way that Heath’s were. His horse had just enough slack for a full gallop, no more, no less. The one other time I saw that done was during the war.”
Jarrod watched as Nick’s eyes took on a faraway look. Then, Nick said quietly, “Let’s just say I witnessed a feat of horsemanship and sharp shooting that I will never forget. The battle went our way almost without a fight after that because of one wild gallop and some pretty impressive shooting. The end results were a couple of dead officers on the other side and a hasty retreat by the ones who remained.”
“I don’t understand.” Jarrod shook his head, trying to follow the images Nick was describing. “Do you mean the rider tied up his reins, guided the horse with his legs, and used both hands on the rifle? Is that what you think Heath did to make those shots?”
Nick nodded, and took another long swallow of his whiskey. The burning in his throat matched the burning in his memory at reliving the scene from long ago. “Yes. I do. I think those two shots were possible from horseback and at that distance, but not with a casual, one handed aim.”
Then, he asked, “Jarrod, what was that you said about him when you watched him play cards the other night?”
Jarrod, a little distracted still by trying to picture this version of the events, just looked at Nick and shook his head.
“I think your words were something like, ‘he plays poker like he does everything else, calmly, with an amazing combination of skill and shrewdness.’ I’ve remembered that remark; I’ve thought about it several times since we rode into Jamie’s ranch. Jarrod, the wounds I saw on those men were not just the results of two lucky shots. They were perfectly placed with a marksman’s skill. At a gallop from an almost, but not quite, impossible distance, those shots would require two hands to steady the rifle and a very practiced eye.”
Jarrod shook his head and repressed a shiver at the idea of anyone he knew having that kind of skill at killing another person. Then, with a shock, he realized that Heath wasn’t just someone he knew. He was more than just a new acquaintance; he was his brother.
As he allowed himself to remember the situation that awaited all of them in the study, he
said “Nick, I know you’re worn out and still focused on these raids, but there’s something else you have to know.”
Nick looked at Jarrod with narrowed eyes, waiting for him to spit it out. “Okay, Jarrod, what else can possibly be wrong?” Seeing Jarrod’s face, he demanded, “Just tell me.”
“Nick, Heath is in the study. I don’t know everything that happened, but Mother and Audra found him unconscious and had the men carry him in there a couple of hours or so ago. They worked on him and got the bleeding stopped, but when I left, he was still unconscious.” Jarrod paused for a deep breath, and then got up from the chair to pour himself another drink. Standing across the room from his scowling brother, Jarrod tried to continue.
But, Nick cut him off. “Jarrod, are you saying you sat here knowing he was here in the house and didn’t tell the sheriff? Why?! I’ve never known you to blatantly disregard the law or to mislead a law officer. I know I’ve got my own ideas about his part in all this, but why is this boy so important to you?”
Jarrod looked down, and said in a quiet voice, “Nick, Mother has been in there with him since they brought him in. She is convinced that she recognizes him.”
That was as far as he got before Silas came running from the hall. “Mr. Jarrod! Come quick, Mr. Jarrod!”
Both Barkleys ran toward the faithful man, who was obviously shaken. Victoria reached them at the same time, running lightly down the staircase. Unable to say anymore, Silas pointed toward the study, and Nick and Jarrod thundered past him.
Nick, his gun drawn, got to the door first.
* * * * * * * *
When Heath first came to, he saw a beautiful, grey-eyed, silver-haired woman leaning over him. The light in her eyes when she saw his finally open was a pleasant surprise he would never forget. “Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Victoria Barkley, Heath, and I am very glad to see you awake,” she responded.
As she stroked his hair, he had the strangest feeling. He knew that, if he closed his eyes, he would be able to feel his Mama touching his hair just that way, and that, if she were sitting right there across from him instead, he would see that very same light in her soft brown eyes.
“Could I have. . . some water?” he asked, hating to see her leave even long enough to fill his request. He wasn’t used to seeing love like that looking back at him, certainly hadn’t seen it for several years, and though he couldn’t figure out what he had done to deserve it, he wasn’t eager for it to disappear.
As she touched his head to help him rise enough to drink, he winced in pain. “Oh, Heath, I’m sorry. I know you’re head must hurt dreadfully.”
“I’m fine,” he gasped. Then, after one swallow, he lay back down on the soft, cushiony pillow. “Ma’am, could you tell me why I’m here? This is the Barkley Ranch?” he asked.
“I am afraid I don’t know many of the details myself. What is the last thing you remember?” she asked in return.
He shook his head once and then reached up to grab his forehead with his right hand as the simple motion made him feel like his head was going to explode. “Don’t know,” he whispered through clenched teeth. After a moment, he breathed out and added, “I remember a bad fall from a stallion I was breaking, . . . . and I think. . . . I remember something about getting shot off my horse, . . .but not much else.”
“You have two head wounds, one in the back, probably from a fall, and one from a bullet that grazed you pretty good right here,” she answered as she lightly touched the front of the bandage encircling his forehead. Stroking his hair again, she soothed, “Just rest now; you’re going to be fine. Sleep if you can.”
His eyes closed, and just as she thought he was asleep, he reached up to gently touch her hand. He opened his eyes and gazed into hers. “That sure feels nice, Ma’am.” As his hand dropped away, she saw her Tom’s light blue eyes twinkle briefly before they closed, and she heard him murmur, “It sure feels like silver angels’ wings carrying away the hurt.”
Watching him sleep, she knew the tears were streaming down her face again. “Oh, Tom,” she breathed in a quiet voice, with her eyes turned to look at the picture over the mantle, “How I’ve missed your eyes and your voice. Thank you, my love, for this unexpected gift. I will cherish him as long as he will let me.”
As she lowered her head, she added softly, “How could he know? But, he couldn’t know, could he? You used to say the same thing to me when I tried to ease one of your bad headaches by stroking your hair,” she wept. “How could he know?”
When she finally stood, she felt like six years of sadness had been lightened somehow. She knew she wanted to get to know Tom’s son. She wondered, “What kind of man has he become growing up without Tom’s guidance, the guidance that my other sons had?”
Victoria caught herself and smiled widely as she realized she had just thought, “my other sons.”
She wanted to know what touched him, what made him laugh, what made him cry, what he loved about life.
Yes, she admitted to herself, she wanted to know about his past, about his mother, and about her husband’s relationship with her,
Again, she interrupted herself, thinking, “Strawberry, yes, it had to have been Strawberry.”
But, that was something that would wait while she learned more about the son her husband had never had the chance to love.
She wanted to love him now as one of her children, as she knew Tom would have wanted her to. Somehow, she knew that getting to know and love Heath would help her finally say good-bye to her Tom, to let go of the anger, fear, and sadness that the last six years without him had brought to her heart.
She only hoped he would give her that chance.
She slowly made her way toward the door, intending to return with a tray of food for them both. It was then that she remembered Audra was there. Shaking her beautiful, blond daughter, who had fallen asleep in the chair near the door, Victoria said, “Audra. Audra, Sweetheart, wake up. Let me take you upstairs.”
Waking slowly, Audra looked around and up at her mother. She knew that whatever it was, her mother was unspeakably happy about it.
As they passed through the foyer, Victoria heard Nick tell the sheriff about what he thought had happened at Jamie Drumm’s ranch earlier in the evening. Beside her, she felt Audra stiffen at the words. Continuing, they held onto each other and made their way slowly, arm in arm, up the staircase.
Silas met them at the top of the stairs. Surprised, she said to him, “You’re still awake?”
“Yes, Ma’am, Mrs. Barkley. I’ll be down in the kitchen fixing some breakfast for whenever anyone in this house is ready to eat it.”
“Well, Silas, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Could you prepare a tray? I’ll pick it up when I return.” She turned to lead Audra toward her room after she saw his head nod. “Oh, and Silas, if you have a chance, please check on the young man in the study. He is asleep right now, but if he awakens before I return, please make sure he doesn’t try to stand up and move around. He’s hurt rather badly.”
“Yes, Ma’am, Mrs. Barkley, I’ll be glad to,” he replied.
* * * * * * * *
Perhaps twenty minutes later, as she was descending the front staircase, she heard Silas yelling for Jarrod.
The three of them, Jarrod, Nick, and Victoria, rushed to the study.
The room was empty, and the double, outside doors were standing wide open.
While Victoria stood at the mantle with her back to the room, Jarrod gave her time by pouring her a brandy. After handing it to her, he picked up a few of the blankets left lying on the floor nearby. Nick checked to see if any weapons or anything else was missing. Even the cash in the envelope they had left lying on the large desk in one corner was still there. Finding nothing out of place, Nick felt immensely better to see that his theories had not been shattered. “Well, it looks like he just cleared out. I guess that means I broke my promise to the sheriff.”
Jarrod shook his head at his brother, but it was too late. Victoria wheeled around to stare at Nick, with tears glistening in her eyes. “Sheriff?” she demanded.
Shocked at his mother’s face, Nick went to her. “Mother, what is wrong? I don’t understand, . . ,” he stopped. Then, he tried again, “Liam thinks Heath is part of the gang that hit Jamie Drumm’s place, and probably even our ranch, but. . . .” He stopped.
She turned away from him, and dropped her head as she leaned back into his strong embrace. Suddenly, she saw something that hadn’t been there when she left. She bent to pick it up.
Jarrod, standing nearby, watched her. Then, he looked down and opened an item he had found under one of the blankets lying on the floor. The small notebook suddenly reminded him of something. “Nick, do you still have that note McCall found tied to the fire bell the other night?”
Nick nodded, and reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve it. Taking it from him, Jarrod opened the small notebook and compared the two. Reaching out to take both items from Jarrod, Nick exclaimed, “If this is his, it proves I was right! He is the one who warned us. This piece of paper had to have come from this notebook. See, they’re exactly the same!”
Turning to look at her sons, then down at a small object in her own hand, Victoria said in a quiet, strained voice, “Yes, Nick, you are right. They are exactly the same.” Following her gaze, they moved to see what she was holding. The small item, retrieved from the empty fireplace, was a wadded up picture. It was a miniature of Tom Barkley, a miniature of the very same photograph hanging above the mantle. Turning it over, she read to herself, while their eyes did the same, “To My Leah.” All three pairs of eyes immediately recognized the handwriting and the one word signature that followed, “Tom.”
She repeated in a whisper, with tears in her eyes, “Yes, they are exactly the same.”
* * * * * * * *
When he opened his eyes the second time, the silver-haired angel was gone. He could still feel her fingers, the way they had soothed his headache just by stroking his hair; at least he could feel them until he tried to sit up. Then, though his eyes were open to a room that was only dimly lit, his vision was instantly bombarded by impossibly bright flashes of white light. The bright hot arcs of light were accompanied by a searing pain cutting across his head, cutting across all conscious thought. In the middle of trying to sit up, he found himself pitching forward, the floor rising up to smash into him from below, as the flashes of light inside his head plunged him into darkness.
A little later, he fought off the blackness of unconsciousness, pulling himself up to lean against the marble-topped table in front of the empty fireplace. The flashes of bright light from before swirled in the edges of his vision, but this time, they did not obscure it. Closing his eyes briefly as he sat, he clutched at his left side and was unable to prevent a moan from escaping. Sucking in air, he raised his head, and opened his eyes to look around.
Through the incredible pounding of his head and the intense throbbing of his side, he willed his legs to hold him up. Two staggered steps forward were all he could manage before he was besieged by a wave of dizziness. Reaching out for the fireplace mantle to steady himself, he glanced up at the gilt-framed photograph whose visage seemed to look down at him from above. The first glance at the distinguished-looking, bearded gentleman in the picture drove Heath to clutch frantically for the edge of the wooden mantle with white-knuckled hands. Pain-glazed blue eyes stared up at the image above him.
He knew this man. Or rather, he knew this photograph.
Holding to the mantle with his right hand and leaning his aching head on his arm, he awkwardly removed his wallet with his less steady left. Grasping the corner of the weathered leather wallet with his teeth, Heath worked the fragile, miniature photograph from its rarely disturbed place at the very back and brought it out into the dim light.
With disbelief, he compared it to its much larger twin above him. With his heart hurtling back and forth between hate and joy, anger and awe, he continued to stare back and forth between the two.
The one in his hand had been retrieved at his mother’s deathbed request from its place in obscurity, from its place inside a battered trunk in a house marked by abject poverty. The one above him was clearly hanging in a revered place of honor, surrounded by a beautiful, wood-paneled study with floor to ceiling bookshelves and crushed-velvet covered furniture.
Though the contrast between the context of each photograph was glaring, the subject was exactly the same. Turning his small replica over, he read the words for the final time, “To My Leah” and saw the simple one-word signature, “Tom” underneath. With tears threatening to blind him as surely as the blood and the pain had done earlier, Heath knew he had finally found his father.
Now the name “Tom,” the name that Heath had associated with that of his mother, Leah, since the day of her death 3 years before, was finally more than a face on a tiny photograph. Now he knew Tom had a wife and other children; now he knew Tom had a home, and Tom at last had a last name----a name that could now belong to one more son.
Heath crumpled the photograph in his shaking left hand.
He had started a search three weeks ago to find justice for a family he knew. His search had led him to the defense of a family he did not. Now that search had thrust him into the midst of the lives of a family he had given up ever trying to find. And, now that he had found them, he wasn’t sure he wanted anything to do with whatever might come next.
Heath took one last look up at the larger version of Tom Barkley above him. The finely crafted, wood-paneled walls closed in. With the pain of his body crashing through him and the pain of his heart colliding into him, the closeness of the richly appointed room crushed him. It crushed him as surely as his hand crushed the object of his years of searching, of wondering. How could he ever reconcile the future he saw around him with his lifelong search to understand his past?
He slowly opened his hand and watched the remnants of that search fall to the floor beneath his feet.
He staggered toward the outside doors and sought the comfort of the predawn darkness and the early morning sky beyond.
* * * * * * * *
Audra awoke from her brief nap in the still-dark early morning to the sound of her big brother Nick’s voice thundering through the house. She quickly splashed water on her face, and slipped into her riding clothes. Grasping her boots under her left arm, she turned the doorknob and eased down the back stairs to Silas’ kitchen.
“Good morning, Silas,” she said quietly, as the man’s nervous eyes turned from the noise-filled doorway to look back in her direction. “What is going on with Nick?”
“Oh, Miss Audra, I don’t know! He’s been in there carryin’ on for more’n fifteen minutes. I can’t tell if’n he’s mad ‘bout that young man leavin’ or mad at him for bein’ here in the first place,” Silas responded.
Audra laid one hand on the old man’s shoulder before she sat down to pull on her boots. “Silas, I’m not going in there. I’m going riding. Would you tell Mother later that I said not to worry, I’ll be home by lunch time?”
“She’s not gonna like it, Miss Audra.”
“I know, Silas, but after all that’s happened, I’ve got to have some time by myself to think. Will you tell her?” Audra asked.
“Yes, Miss Audra. I’ll tell her, but I’m not gonna go in there to tell her right now!”
Audra nodded and grabbed some bread and an apple on her way out of the door.
* * * * * * * *
“MOTHER, WHAT IN TARNATION, ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY, HERE?” Nick yelled.
Jarrod stood behind Victoria shaking his head sternly at Nick.
“Nicholas, your language!” Victoria started automatically, then she stopped and seemed to lose focus. She looked away from him and turned back to look up at the photograph above the mantle.
She tried again in a quiet voice, “Nick, sit down. I need for you to listen to me.”
When her dark-haired, sometimes volatile son hesitated, she flashed him a look that signaled her command better than any words. He sat down on the table; she stood above him. “Nick, Jarrod already knows and Audra suspects. You, on the other hand, have had the responsibility of everyone’s safety and the well-being of the ranch, during the last week especially, weighing heavily on you, so you haven’t had a chance to notice the things they have.”
She raised a hand to silence him before he said the words ready to tumble out of him. “Wait, let me finish.”
Nick stopped preparing to interrupt and waited for her to speak.
“Nick, I heard Jarrod tell you that I recognized Heath when he was brought in here earlier tonight for me to treat his injuries.” She could tell by Nick’s puzzled expression that he only barely remembered Jarrod saying this to him just before Silas called out for help. “The young man whose wounds I cleaned up and bandaged is Tom Barkley made over. He looks as much like the young Tom Barkley of my youth as any man’s son could ever look.”
The shock on Nick’s face was slowly turning to disbelief.
Victoria, who was now standing in front of the fireplace, continued with a hint of despair in her voice. By this point, she was looking down at the floor and talking as much to herself as to either of the listening men in the room with her. “Because of something your father told me about and I forgave him for years ago, I think I know the when and the where of his birth. What I cannot understand is how we did not know about him.”
The disbelief on Nick’s face was quickly turning to unabashed anger.
Suddenly, she stopped, and her head came up before she whirled around and caught both Nick and Jarrod in her fiercely determined gaze. “When that young man was carried in here, he entered as someone we only knew as Heath. When he left here a little while ago, going who knows where, he departed as Heath Barkley, youngest son of Tom Barkley. You must find him. You must find him and bring him home. Then, together, we will convince him that he has a place here on this ranch with us for as long as he wants it.”
Watching his face, Victoria nailed Nick with her flashing grey eyes. Then, she softened the look, allowing him to see the tears that rapidly filled them. She walked over to him and reached for both of his hands. Pulling Nick to her, she almost whispered, “Please, do this for me, for your father. Go find your brother and bring him home!”
Heath was leaning against the side of the undamaged barn, the remains from his stomach still burning in his throat, when he felt the strong hand clamp down on his right shoulder.
“Boy, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but you’ve got some serious explaining to do. Come with me!”
The loud voice barely penetrated the roaring in Heath’s ears as he shook his head to clear it.
The man with the booming voice must have interpreted that shake of the head as a “No!,” because the hand on his shoulder pulled him upright and shoved him into the unrelenting wall behind him.
Struggling for control over the added pain, Heath fought to stay on his feet and to keep his eyes from losing focus completely.
He shook his head again, and looked up into the angry face of Nick Barkley. “Dammit!” he thought. “What does he want from me?”
“Get outta my way!” Heath demanded, drawing himself up and glaring at the larger man.
Nick put his hands on both of Heath’s shoulders and held him up against the wooden wall. “You’re coming with me, Boy!” he said, looking into the smoldering, blue eyes.
Heath’s anger was quickly overpowering the pain he was in. Behind his stony expression, his thoughts were blazing, “Doin’ what I’ve gotta do is hard enough without this dark-headed, soot-covered, rabid-rancher as unwanted company!”
With unexpected speed, he brought his arms up and grabbed hold of the iron-hard biceps in front of him. He shoved with all of his strength, trying to move this mountain of a man out of his way. “Move, Barkley!” he shouted. “I’m not goin’ anywhere with you!”
Nick was surprised to be pushed back several steps by the slightly smaller man, especially since the barn had appeared to be the only thing holding him up minutes before. “Now hold on, Boy, I just want you to come back in the house to talk.”
Heath’s mind screamed, “There it is again, that ‘Boy!’ tone of voice.” Aloud, he said emphatically, “Get outta my way. I’m leavin’.”
Just as Jarrod came around the corner, he saw Nick advancing on Heath. Then, as he saw the blur of a fist, Jarrod froze and yelled, “No! Don’t!” Too late, the fist caught Nick just under the jaw and knocked him back enough for him to need three, full, backward steps to recover his balance.
Jarrod hollered again, “Nick, Heath, stop!” as he broke into a run toward them. He wasn’t fast enough to prevent the inevitable, as Nick used the added distance between them to get a running start and tackle the blond, overpowering him and causing them both to crash into the side of the barn. Together, they collapsed into a heap in the dirt.
For the second time in twenty-four hours, when the dust settled, the one on top stood up and moved away with sides heaving, but the blond underneath remained on the ground. This time, however, Heath was unable to scramble to his feet unassisted as he had after the wild ride on the stallion. This time, he lay unmoving, his battered body unable to overcome the blackness that engulfed him.
Once again, Jarrod and Nick dropped to their knees on the ground next to the injured Heath. This time, however, Jarrod checked him over, while Nick just shook his head and held on to his throbbing jaw.
“Nick!” Jarrod admonished, “What happened? Did you have to do that? He’s been through enough without having to tangle with you before sunrise!”
“Ben,” Nick looked up at the approach of one of his posted guards. “You’re just in time. Help us get him up.” Looking over at Jarrod, he asked, “Where do you want to take him? The bunkhouse?”
Jarrod answered without a second thought, “No, the house. Upstairs.”
Though Nick looked at him with a fleeting angry glance, he kept quiet. “I guess anywhere’s better than the study, again,” he thought.
* * * * * * * *
Audra was confused. She had heard her brothers talking about the mustangers, particularly Lloyd and Heath. She really liked Lloyd and felt an attraction to him, or “Is it just that I’m attracted to the wildness I see in him?” she asked herself.
Heath, on the other hand, despite the wildness and violence the sheriff attributed to him, seemed to her to be a completely compassionate soul. His gentleness was reassuring to her in a way she couldn’t define.
But, what did either of them have to do with the raiders and all the violence being inflicted on the valley in the last week? Were they really part of a gang of marauders terrorizing the farmers and ranchers? Were they among those that set fire to her family’s ranch just hours before? She hadn’t seen the men who had done it at all and didn’t know when Heath rode in. However, neither of them seemed capable of being involved in those kinds of terrible activities.
As she pondered the questions, she rode in no particular direction. Then, suddenly, she stopped her horse and took a good look around. She was near the canyon where she had almost been rundown by the herd of horses being pursued by the mustangers several days ago.
* * * * * * * *
When the side door opened and the three men came in carrying Heath, Victoria stopped her discussion with Silas about Audra’s early morning ride. She noted the dazed look on Nick’s face and the serious frown on Jarrod’s.
“Mother, he’s pretty banged up. Do you want us to carry him upstairs to a bed or try to get him cleaned up first?” Jarrod asked.
“You had better carry him up to the first guest room, Jarrod. I’ll be right up with some supplies. Nick, do you. . . . Nick? Are you alright?” Victoria asked, concern about his angry, yet unfocused eyes evident in her question.
“I’m fine, Mother,” he replied.
As she gathered up more bandages and poured a pan of hot water from the stove, Victoria returned to her questioning of Silas.
“When did she leave, Silas?”
“It was when Mr. Nick was so loud in the other room. She said she didn’t want to go in there, that she was going ridin’. Miss Audra said to tell you she’d be back for lunch, Mrs. Barkley,” Silas shared.
Victoria nodded and patted him on the shoulder to soothe him. “Thank you, Silas. I wish she hadn’t gone out so soon by herself, but I’m sure she will be fine. I’m going up to check on the young man’s injuries. Will you bring up some more water in a few minutes?”
* * * * * * * *
Cleaned up once more, his head injuries looked no different from when she first saw them. Now, they just needed time to heal. It was not until she asked Nick and Jarrod to help her remove his shirt that the three of them were able to get a better idea of what else he was suffering from.
As they lifted an unconscious Heath’s shoulders to remove his filthy shirt, Victoria gasped at the bruising visible all along his left side. “Oh, no. What happened to him?” She reached out to gently touch the worst bruising along his ribs, and motioned for Nick and Jarrod to lay him back down on the bed.
When neither moved to comply, she looked up at them questioningly. Both were looking down at Heath’s back with expressions of disbelief. Jarrod looked up at her and held her eyes. Nick drew in a ragged breath and kept his eyes down to avoid looking at hers.
“Mother,” Jarrod said, “It’s not going to be easy to see, but. . ., “
“No, Jarrod.” Nick interjected, quickly trying to push Heath back down despite Jarrod’s resistance, “She doesn’t need to look!”
Getting up from her seat on the side of the bed, she walked around behind Jarrod to look at Heath’s back. She saw the expected blood, now dried, from the head wound she had cleaned before, and after seeing the bruises on his side, she correctly expected to see the continuation of angry contusions extending from his chest around to his spine on the left side.
However, she was totally unprepared for the evidence of healed-over scars crisscrossing his back in a repetitious pattern of unbelievable cruelty. Some of the marks were wider than one of her fingers, others were razor thin, yet all still stood out against the tanned, well-muscled back of a man she now knew to be her husband’s son, a man whose voice in the corral had been nothing but gentle.
Tears welled up in Victoria Barkley’s eyes as she thought of the torment he must have borne as these whip marks were inflicted. Though she knew the pain must have occurred years ago, she ached for what he had endured.
“Lay him down,” she said quietly. “Let him rest, now.”
As she helped them ease him back to the bed, she could see the pain she felt reflected in Jarrod’s eyes. Looking at Nick, she saw the same thing, and something more. She saw a glimmer of growing respect.
* * * * * * * *
A few hours later, she was heading back down the hall to check on Heath when she heard the front door slam.
“Mother, Jarrod!” Nick bellowed.
Jarrod came out of the room where he had been sitting with the still unconscious Heath, and they joined each other at the top of the stairs. Jarrod took her by the arm and guided her to where Nick paced back and forth below them in the foyer, energy and rage radiating off of him like heat rising from the desert.
As soon as they reached the bottom stair, he said, “I couldn’t find her, but when I headed back to get some more men to help me look, I saw Audra’s horse coming in without her. This was in one of the saddlebags.”
He shoved a note at Jarrod to read. Both were stunned to see Audra’s necklace and heart-shaped locket lying across his palm as he handed them the paper.
Victoria’s hands trembled ever so slightly as she grabbed the necklace and clutched it to her own heart. “When was this nightmare going to end?” her thoughts cried.
Jarrod read the note to himself and paraphrased it for them. “It says if we want to see Audra alive again, we must take $10,000 to the old barn at Oak Flats by one hour after the banks close today. They tell us not to involve the sheriff, and they assure us they will include the house when they return to torch the ranch if we don’t pay.”
Jarrod closed his eyes at the mental picture of his sweet, frightened, blue-eyed sister in the hands of the men who had killed Harry Coleman and who had tried to murder Jamie Drumm in cold blood.
When he opened his eyes, his mother was looking at him. He folded her into a comforting embrace while he gathered his thoughts. Nick, however, was looking up at the top of the staircase.
Jarrod turned his head to see what had his attention, and his eyes widened at the image of exhaustion and determination staring back at them from a seated position on the top step.
“They don’t make idle threats, Mr. Barkley,” the blue-eyed blond said quietly.
As Nick started up the steps, Jarrod put a hand and a command out to stop him. “Nick!”
Victoria broke away from Jarrod and pushed past Nick to run up the stairs. She stopped two steps below where Heath sat. Slowly, she reached out to run her fingers lightly through his still damp hair, just above the bandage she had placed there. When he looked up at her with confusion and surprise on his face, she reached down to take his hand. “Heath, you should be in bed. But . . . ,” she stopped, needing to, yet, unwilling to ask anything of this battered young man.
Still looking up at her, he took a tight grip on the railing with the other hand, and pulled himself up. He looked down into the scared grey eyes that, somehow, still had room for compassion for him, and spoke quietly, “Mrs. Barkley, we’ll find your daughter.”
With her arm around him for support, they slowly made their way down the stairs and to the two waiting men below. When he reached the end of the banister, he moved away from her and attempted to continue on his own to the nearest chair. He made it beyond the two men and halfway to the sitting room, before a wall of dizziness stopped him in his tracks.
Just as he had at Jamie Drumm’s, it was Jarrod that reached out from beside Heath to steady him.
“Boy howdy,” Heath breathed out to Jarrod as the room slowly settled back into place, “Your brother sure has some kick.” He shook his head slightly, and said, “I think my brain is still spinnin’ around like a turnin’, twistin’ Brahma I once rode out of a rodeo chute.”
When they reached the spacious sitting room, Victoria attempted to help ease him into a comfortable position in a high-backed chair in front of the marble-mantled fireplace. While Jarrod let out a sigh of relief, Heath’s groan and sharp intake of breath were not missed by anyone. As his pain-filled eyes looked up at her, she reached out her hand to touch the side of his face once before she beckoned to Nick to join them.
Just before she looked away, however, Heath spotted the glimmer of a tear in her eyes.
The feelings that washed over him struck him with a force that took his breath away, a force at least equal to that of the crushing blow he had sustained by her hard-charging son a few hours before. With a blinding flash of clarity, he knew he had found an ally for life, and he knew that he would sacrifice anything of himself that he could give in order to protect her and all she held dear.
He pulled his eyes away from her when he realized Jarrod was standing in front of him offering him a drink. Taking it, he nodded his thanks, and did his best to answer the unspoken question he saw in Jarrod’s eyes.
“I know what the sheriff said, ‘n I’m not sure why I’m still here ‘stead of in a cell in his jail. But, I tell ya now that I have had no part. . . . no part in what Lloyd Garner’s raiders have been doin’ here in your valley.” Heath spoke quietly and calmly, only pausing once to catch his breath before continuing.
“Heath, we found the photograph and. . .” Jarrod started, but the blue eyes across from him silenced him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Barkley,” Heath cut him off with his words and a dark, icy look, “But now isn’t the time. Right now, we have ta decide how ta respond ta that note about your sister. Nothin’ else matters.”
Nick, from his place leaning against the mantle, suddenly launched himself toward the chair where Heath was sitting with his bandaged head resting against the padded upholstery. He took note that Heath never flinched, nor changed his expression, at Nick’s unannounced, uninvited advance. Cool blue eyes looked up at Nick with no fear, no hint of intimidation.
“Boy, we can figure this out without any help from you. We haven’t forgotten that you rode in here with Garner the first time we ever saw you. Give me one reason, just one reason why we should trust you now?” Nick thundered.
Victoria half-rose from her chair, but one silent look from Heath both told her he appreciated her support and asked her not to interfere. She silently sat back down. He turned back to face Nick’s flashing hazel eyes. “Mr. Barkley, I can think of only one that will mean anythin’ to ya right now, ‘n that is that ya need me.”
As Nick took a step back as if he had been slapped, Jarrod chuckled, “Sit down, Brother Nick, and let’s figure this out together.”
Audra was seated on a rock watching the camp. So far, she was unharmed, and, though she was scared, she was determined not to show it. She let her anger at Lloyd, and the way he had deceived her, help her focus her thoughts on what was happening around her, rather than on how much she just wanted to go home.
How could she have ever thought he was kind or caring? What was it that she had seen in him, except his passion for making his own way in the world? Maybe it was that they had both been caught up in the excitement of the chase, the mustang chase that had almost become a serious accident, and that she had let this excitement influence her clear vision of who and what he really was.
Oh, she was so angry that Lloyd was now just using her like one of Jarrod’s pawns on his beloved chessboard. If she could figure out a way to get herself out of this mess without having to rely on her family to pay for her release, she would be much happier. But, she admitted, she would take any help offered right now if it meant she could just hurry and go home!
She tried not to notice the way that Turk kept looking at her every time he walked past. Audra closed her eyes and tried to think about what her big brothers were doing right now, how angry Nick would be and how careful Jarrod would be as they planned a way to get her out of here.
* * * * * * * *
Victoria was incensed that they were going to have to resort to doing the very thing they had encouraged the Colemans and the Drumms not to do. She was pacing one way, and Nick was storming up and down the other. Jarrod stood by the fireplace watching the pacing and the storming. Every once in a while, he spoke up and tried to reason with her, while he tried to calm Nick.
Finally, Victoria met Nick in the middle of the room, and stopped him with both hands on his shoulders. “Nick! We did not cause this. You’re right, we could never understand the terror those families felt until we faced it ourselves, but we didn’t make them refuse to pay.”
“Mother, don’t you be so tough on yourself either,” Jarrod interjected, coming over to stand near them both, “You offered to give them the money they needed as I recall.”
“You’re right, Jarrod, but now I know that we expected too much of them. We expected them to do what we can’t do ourselves.” Victoria explained with a sigh. Absently, she patted Jarrod on the arm.
Silently, then, Jarrod caught her attention with his eyes and nodded toward Heath.
When she glanced over at him, she could see that Heath was either mentally distancing himself from them or in too much pain to pay attention. He was sitting in the same chair, leaning over with his head in his hands. She reached out and touched Nick on the chest, and then made her way over to the table in front of Heath’s chair. Both Nick and Jarrod followed her to stand on opposite sides of the fireplace.
Touching his hair, she said, “Heath.”
He looked up at her, as if just now aware that she was even in the room. His eyes had a faraway look, and it took him a few seconds to focus on her. “Mrs. Barkley, please! None of this matters now. We have ta do somethin’ ta get her outta there.”
“What do you mean, none of this matters?” Nick’s raised voice caused Heath to close his eyes briefly, trying to squeeze out the pain in his head.
He didn’t reply right away. Jarrod moved to stand in front of Nick. With Nick’s eyes flashing at him, Jarrod said quietly, “Enough, Nick.”
Finally, Heath spoke up, calmly, and only to Victoria, as if the others were not present. “I don’t think Lloyd will hurt her. He seemed ta be genuinely taken with her, but Turk, the one who’s in charge next ta Lloyd, well, Turk is another matter. We have ta do somethin’ ta get her outta there. I don’t think whether you pay or not will determine what Turk does.” Heath took a deep breath and continued, “He is like a man with no soul.”
Hearing his quiet words and seeing his obvious worry, Victoria felt the same clutch of fear again that she had experienced when she first saw Audra’s necklace in Nick’s hand. She stood up and looked at her two sons by the fireplace.
Jarrod responded first. “I’ll go to Stockton to get the money. Then, . . . .”
Nick interjected, “Bring the sheriff back with you.”
As he started to continue, Jarrod looked at Nick with shocked eyes, and said, “Nick, the sheriff?” His blue eyes flashed toward Heath.
“Yes, Jarrod, the sheriff. We’ll sort it all out, but he has to be told. I’ll get the men together, and we’ll be ready to ride when you get back. We’ll just have to put the money where they asked us to, then try to follow them back to their camp. If all goes well, we will be able to rescue Audra before, . . .”
“No!” Heath pushed himself up out of the chair to face them. He showed none of the exhaustion that they had seen in him earlier, only the steely determination remained. “You’re goin’ ta get her killed. I’ll go.” He turned and walked with long strides to the door.
“Heath, wait.” Victoria called. Running to him, she caught up and placed her hand on his arm. He stopped and, slowly, he turned and looked down to face her.
“Please, if you know a way, . . .please come back and sit down. We’ll listen to you.” She caught both Nick and Jarrod in a fierce stare. “I think you are the only one who can help us. Please tell us, we’ll listen.”
He looked at the two by the fireplace. Both returned his steady gaze. Slowly, Jarrod nodded. Heath moved his eyes to rest on the angry face at the other end of the mantle. While his blue eyes remained fixed on Nick, he did not use them to issue a direct challenge. Rather, he waited, his eyes only asking to be heard as an equal.
Nick’s eyes softened just enough to match his words, “Alright! Alright. I’ll listen.”
Heath nodded, but before he moved, he asked. “Do you have a map of the area?”
Victoria waited on Nick to answer, but when he didn’t, she offered, “Yes, several, in the study.” She took him by the arm to lead the way, but he didn’t move.
Instead, he asked her quietly, “Is there somewhere else we can spread ‘em out?”
Remembering the photograph, she nodded. “Let’s go to the dining room.”
With everyone standing over a map a few minutes later, Nick took charge. “Here is our ranch; here is the Davis Ranch, and this is the Drumm’s.”
Heath asked, “Is this the canyon where Garner and I first saw Miss Barkley?”
At Nick’s nod, Heath then asked, “And Oak Flats, where they want the money?”
Nick pointed out the desolate area. It was Heath’s turn to nod. Then, they all watched as he traced the river with his finger, moving away from the ranch. He cross-checked with the bottle-necked canyon Nick had already pointed out, then triangulated out from the Drumm Ranch. He tapped an area of few landmarks with his finger. “I take it you’ve noticed the signal flashes Garner’s men’ve been usin’? Is this where you’d say they are?”
“Yes,” Nick responded, “Here and here.”
“Then, this is where Garner’s, . . .” he stopped as he was wracked by a fit of coughing. Grabbing his left side, he took a step back and doubled over. He put his left hand out to clutch at the edge of the table. As the coughing reached a crescendo, he felt a hand on his back.
Victoria and Jarrod exchanged looks behind him. She left to pour Heath a glass of water.
Standing slowly and catching his breath, he was surprised to see that it was Nick that had steadied him this time. “Thanks,” he nodded. He stepped back up to the table to focus on the map. “Garner, this is where Garner’s camp is.” He touched the map for emphasis.
Nodding his thanks at the offered water, Heath pulled out a chair. Sinking into it with a sigh, he collected his thoughts.
Victoria motioned that they should all sit.
Without taking his eyes from the map, Heath began speaking with no noticeable drawl and with obvious military descriptiveness. “Garner’s security perimeter is always nearly unpenetrable. In addition to the two lookout posts where the signals originate, he has both a defensive wider circle using the river as its boundary, then an inner circle strategically placed further in.”
“You said the perimeter is ‘nearly’ unpenetrable?” Jarrod questioned.
“The only way in will be along the river. We’ll have to go in on foot.” Heath’s steady gaze held on Nick’s serious face, both sets of eyes knowing what they would be in for. Nick gave an imperceptible nod, while his eyes let Heath know that he was willing to work with him to accomplish this task.
After a long moment, Heath broke away and looked back at the map. With the drawl back in place, he added, “Gettin’ her out will be very difficult, but I think it can be done. But, ya have ta know that it’ll be a risk for her. We’ll go in, but we can’t make any guarantees. The other choice is ta hope that if ya pay, they’ll let her go unharmed.” Heath’s eyes left the map on the table and looked only at Victoria across from him.
She said quietly, “But, you said you thought the one called Turk couldn’t be trusted to not harm her?”
“That’s right, I did. But, I also said Lloyd probably wouldn’t hurt her. I believe it’ll all come down ta who’s in charge at that point.”
“Can we hedge our bets?” Nick asked quietly. When Jarrod and Victoria looked at him questioningly, Heath was already nodding.
“Yes,” he spoke up. “That makes a lotta sense. Pay the money like they’re askin’, follow the pick up, but stay beyond the inner perimeter ta avoid crowdin’ them, and hope for her safe release. You and I can stay close just’n case Turk somehow persuades Lloyd ta do somethin’ else. And, you’re right, . . . the sheriff has to be told. Just keep ‘em with you. Don’t let him come chargin’ in too far.” The last was aimed at Jarrod.
Nick looked at Heath with that hint of respect Victoria had noticed earlier, and nodded. Next, Heath looked at Jarrod, who nodded back at him.
When his eyes again found Victoria’s, she reached across the table to place her hand over his, and looked into his soft blue eyes with her tear-filled grey ones. “Yes, Heath, this is what we have to do. Thank you.”
Her heart nearly tripped over its next beat when he flashed a lop-sided grin at her. Stunned, she realized the expression had also brought a momentary spark to his eyes of compassion so strong it almost resembled love. In the next instant, he was looking back down at the map. But, she knew her eyes had not deceived her, for she had just seen her beloved Tom reflected in that fleeting half-smile, her Tom shining through those light-filled eyes.
For the first time since she took her daughter’s necklace from Nick’s hand, Victoria felt that Audra had a chance to come home to them safely.
He refused to rest before the three men left the ranch. He drank some more water, and accepted the offered provisions for his saddle bags, but shook his head once at anything else to eat.
The one thing he had asked her for was another bandage for his head, though his only concern was for her to replace it with a darker color that wouldn’t stand out as brightly as the clean white one. The one thing he had been adamant about doing before they left was that he take time to clean and get the feel of the pistol and rifle Nick had handed him.
The two weapons were replacements for those the sheriff had taken the night before; their offering was a gesture of trust from one man to another that was not lost on the younger.
His only reply, however, had been to nod and say, “Thanks, Mr. Barkley. I’ll return ‘em to ya as soon as this is over.”
With his head now wrapped twice around in a brown strip of clean fabric, he was walking over to mount his horse and join the men she knew were his brothers. He knew it too, they all did, but he was not ready to let any of them close enough to discuss it, not yet.
For now, it had to be enough for her that he was still here, helping them find Audra.
But, suddenly, watching his weary movements and unable to stand it anymore, she walked up to him resolutely and put both of her small hands on his as he gathered his reins. “Heath, please wait!” she said, looking up into the intense blue of his eyes. “I know you’re in pain, wait, let’s think about this again. Maybe there’s another way.”
He started shaking his head, then looked out over the enclosed yard, beyond her, beyond the corrals, and into the distance. She watched as he seemed to draw strength from the sight of the mountains beyond. He blinked several times and took in a deep, ragged breath.
“Heath,” she started, then stopped, still watching him.
He looked back down into her eyes, and said, “Your daughter gave me somethin’ out there in that corral last night, Mrs. Barkley. She kept referrin’ ta what we accomplished t’gether with that colt, sayin’ we made a good team. She made me feel somethin’ I’ve searched for without really admittin’ ta myself I was even still lookin’ for it. If there’s any way I can help bring her home ta all of you, I will.”
She gripped his hands tighter, and nodded. Looking up at Jarrod and Nick, she nodded at them as well and, then, smiled as Nick said, “We have to go, Mother. We have to get close enough to that camp to see Audra and reach her if necessary. We have to be ready as soon as Jarrod delivers the money. Don’t worry. We’ll bring her home.”
The three sons of Tom Barkley mounted their horses and rode out of the front gates.
* * * * * * * *
With the anguish and uncertainty of the search started years ago shoved deep down into his heart, he returned to the search to which he was more recently committed. Unable to deal with his feelings about the former, he returned to focusing on the other.
As they rode, he tried to think ahead and focus on what he was getting ready to do.
But, with the pounding of his head almost in rhythm to the beat of his horse’s gentle lope, he had trouble keeping the image of the Lansings from intruding on top of the sight of the two men talking in front of him. His all too vivid recall of the grisly scene, his anguish at what had happened in his absence almost a month ago, still haunted him.
The more he could see the Lansings in his mind, the more determined he became to make this turn out better, much better. He fought to clear his head and channel his anger over their senseless deaths to help him prepare for the hours ahead.
He briefly wondered about the members of Lloyd’s group that he had come to know while working with them. He thought of Old Mac and of Bill Andrews, of Russ Atkins and of Midas Elsey, and he hoped he would not be forced to choose today. Which ones were guilty of murder? And, which ones, like himself, had just been casually attached to Garner’s horse operation and not at all involved in the greedy violence?
Jarrod looked back at him with concern as a series of coughs brought Heath to rigid attention in the saddle. The pain shooting through his side with each cough was only dulled by his tight pressure on his side with his right hand. He struggled to keep his eyes focused on the road in front of him. When the coughing stopped, he nodded at Jarrod, who had dropped back to accompany him; then, he waved him off.
Breathing a little easier, he forced himself to continue his mental preparations. Even if it meant he had to settle with the law himself, he was glad the sheriff would be nearby to assist with making the decisions about who was involved and who wasn’t. Heath hadn’t been able to identify the four other men with Garner and Turk yesterday at Jamie Drumm’s, but he knew that Mac had known about what was happening and hadn’t tried to stop them. Others were probably guilty of the same.
Riding away from the ranch and the many questions and possible answers it held for him, riding toward the justice he had been searching for, he realized that he was now totally focused on what must be done today.
While he knew he would feel no satisfaction if Garner or Turk were injured or killed as a result, he knew this had to end. No matter what, the marauders had to be stopped. He could feel no compassion for any of the men who had known about, who had planned, or who had participated in this sort of violence. He could feel no compassion for any of the men who could murder another man’s children, for men who had tried to kill Jamie Drumm and his family, or for men who were holding Miss Barkley ransom.
As he kept his brown gelding at an easy lope to follow the men in front of him, he steeled himself against the sharp slice of pain in his head that caused him to see sparks. Taking a deep breath, he focused his eyes on the sight of the distant ridgeline. If the coughing would stay away and his vision would just remain clear, he thought he could stand the constant headache and the consistent ebb and flow of the pain in his side.
“Concentrate, Heath.” He admonished himself, as he tried to force his thoughts back to focus on the steps they needed to take to get within range of Lloyd’s camp. He thought through the approach in his head, having already figured the tree-lined river to offer the best protection. The biggest problem that way was the closely guarded ridge where Mac’s perch was located.
“We’ll just have to hope that whoever is up there now, doesn’t know I was at the Drumm’s Ranch yesterday fighting on the other side,” Heath shook his head, slightly, and then winced at the stab of pain the extra movement invoked. His eyes focused on the distant horizon for a few more minutes, and he willed himself to take controlled, regular breaths until he got past the sharp dagger in his skull.
* * * * * * * *
Nick and Jarrod headed for some trees and the welcomed shade. Heath followed, but dismounted a little ways up from them. He sank down to the ground, removed his hat, and leaned his heavy head against a tree, careful to avoid contact between the covered gash and the rough bark. Taking a sip from his canteen, he looked up at the barely moving leaves in the branches above him and concentrated on staying ahead of the pain.
Jarrod lowered himself to the ground next to Heath a few minutes later. Nick sat down on a nearby log and scowled at the blond-headed man across from him. Jarrod spoke first, “Heath, are you alright?”
Flashing that half-smile at the man beside him, Heath said, “Fine, Mr. Barkley.”
Nick’s eyebrows raised at this formal address, but he remained silent.
Jarrod nodded, convinced that the question might as well have been rhetorical anyway, sure before he asked it that he would get no other response. “I’ll turn off here and head to town. We agreed that the sheriff has to be informed of the events. We’ll need his help to pull this off. I’m just concerned that he is very suspicious of you, and I don’t think I need to tell you that he still wants you in his jail. We’ll do everything we can to convince him otherwise, but, . . . .”
“Excuse me, Mr. Barkley,” Heath cut in, “But, all’a that worry will wait ‘til after your sister’s home safely. We’ll be in place ‘n waiting on ya to drop off that money by 5:30. We’ll look for you ‘n the sheriff to enter the main trail just east of the tree line and the river after that. Keep a good distance back from the camp itself; don’t panic ‘em by crowdin’ in, or they might get scared enough to hurt her.”
Jarrod nodded, “Okay, Heath, we’ll be ready. We’ll give the two of you time to ensure her safe release before we make a definite move.”
“And, Mr. Barkley, make sure you stay out of sight of the lookout in the hills further out where we showed you on the map. We’ll,” Heath included Nick with a movement of his eyes, “Have already taken care of the one on the ridge closest to the camp before we go in.”
Nick’s eyebrows raised at this, while Jarrod once again agreed. Resting one hand on Heath’s shoulder, and looking intently into the sky blue of the younger man’s eyes, Jarrod said, “Heath, thank you for what you are doing. But,” he too included Nick with a sideways motion of his eyes, “Both of you, be careful. None of us are interested in trading one Barkley for another out there.”
Heath stared back at Jarrod. Saying nothing, he only offered a raised eyebrow, his lop-sided smile, and a nod.
Standing, Jarrod turned to his horse and his task. Nick followed him, leaving Heath alone, still sitting on the ground by the tree.
Nick caught Jarrod’s arm before he mounted and shaking his head, said, “Jarrod, I just don’t understand what is driving him! He gets hurt doing who knows what and winds up with bruises over half his body, he rides into Drumm’s place and runs off the marauders there, getting shot out of the saddle in the process.”
Despite Jarrod’s attempts to quiet him, Nick continued the saga with his rising voice reflecting his anger and uncertainty, “Then, he struggles to get to the ranch after the raiders, and I don’t even know how he stayed in the saddle on the way. He helps Audra with my colt when he should have been flat on his back, and now he agrees, no insists, that he is going to go in and get her out of that camp. Jarrod, I’m telling you, there is more going on here than we know. What is driving him? What is he after? Something’s not making any sense!”
Half-way through Nick’s monologue, Jarrod had watched Heath get slowly to his feet and return to his horse. He had seen him take the borrowed Winchester from the worn scabbard, walk out of the trees and back down the road from which they had come.
Nick saw him then and stopped talking. Together, the two brothers watched as Heath crossed the road and stepped up on a slight rise near some rocks. He settled behind one and propped his elbows and the rifle on top of it. They watched as he zeroed in on a skinny sapling some one hundred yards away and smoothly pulled the trigger. Then, the report of the rifle still ringing in their ears, they saw him set up in exactly the same position and repeat the shot. They waited as he walked to the tree with the weapon cradled firmly in his arms, checked the difference between the two shots, and walked slowly back to the same rock. Once again, he moved into the same stance, expertly repositioned the rear sight ever so slightly, and made one more smooth shot at the same sapling.
While they waited for him to return from checking the target once more, Jarrod mounted his horse. Then, he looked down at Nick and said, “You’re right, Nick, I’ve known it from the first time I laid eyes on him. His actions are purposeful and deliberate. I’m sure that in the beginning, it had nothing to do with us, but now I think he cares more about Mother and Audra than he does about himself. As I said before, Brother Nick, be careful, and be sure to take care of each other out there.” He held Nick in his serious gaze while bending down to shake Nick by the shoulder, before turning his horse toward Stockton.
As he rode away, Nick shook his head and turned back to look at the figure down the road by the tree. Instead of returning, Heath was now sitting beneath the lone sapling, leaning against it wearily. Nick walked over and saw that what must have been the first and third of the three bullet holes were virtually indistinguishable. He extended one hand down to the blond.
Heath looked up at the dark-headed man. Then, still cradling the rifle in his left arm, he took the offered hand in his right. Nick hauled Heath to his feet and steadied him when he wavered. “You okay?” he asked.
“Thanks, I’m fine now. Let’s go.” Heath nodded, his blue eyes signaling his appreciation.
Fighting a brief slash of dizziness as he climbed on the tall, brown gelding, he spared a thought for his little Gal, hoping that he’d still be able to find her among the mustangers’ remuda when all this was over.
Then, as he led the way toward the distant ridges, he pondered at the change a few hours had made in the actions of the man behind him called Nick and at the continued acceptance he saw in the eyes of the other one, the older one, called Jarrod.
“Jarrod, what do you mean he was in your house while we were talking?! You and Nick lied to me!” Liam Forrest shouted.
“No, Sheriff, Nick never lied to you and, technically, I never said anything. Nick didn’t know he was there, and if you’ll recall, your questions were directed at him, and he didn’t lie. I didn’t lie either, because I didn’t answer you,” Jarrod responded. Then, hanging his head slightly, he added, “But, you’ve every right to be angry with me because I didn’t speak up and therefore I was not really being honest with you. I knew you wanted to find him, and, well, there was more to it than whether or not he was a gang member. I knew he wasn’t. I just couldn’t prove it to you.” Jarrod paused for breath, while the sheriff jumped into the one-sided conversation.
“Jarrod, what in thunder has got into you?”
“Liam, there’s more going on here than you know. Hell, there’s more going on than any of us know. But, right now, we’ve got another problem. Garner’s gang of marauders have my sister, and they want a ransom to be paid for her. I need you and the men you were getting ready to ride out with to come with me instead. I have the money here,” Jarrod patted his saddle bags, “And we have to deliver it to Oak Flats by 5:30. Nick and Heath, the one you’ve been looking for, have ridden out to get in position by Garner’s camp in case they try anything other than releasing Audra safely.”
“Whoa, there Jarrod. Are you saying that not only were you harboring the fugitive I was chasing, but you’re trusting him to help you in getting Audra out!? Are you crazy, man?”
“Liam, I don’t have time to debate it with you. I guess I’m asking a lot to ask you to trust me now, but we’ve got to go. Come on. We can talk about it on the way.” Jarrod stood to leave, looking back over his shoulder at the sheriff, who was still sitting on the edge of his desk. “Are you coming with me or not?”
“Yeah, Jarrod, I’m coming. I just don’t know what to make of it all.”
The sheriff stood and gathered his gear. Stopping, he picked up the Winchester that belonged to Heath, looked pointedly at Jarrod, and set the rifle back in the rack.
* * * * * * * *
About a mile from the ridge, Heath reined in under the last of the scanty trees. “Well, now we decide,” he said to Nick, who pulled up beside him.
Nick, who had been following a horse’s length behind and thinking hard, sat and looked the bandaged blond over before answering. He took in the strained squint of Heath’s eyes and noticed the right hand curled into a tight fist lying across his left leg. He could tell Heath’s breathing wasn’t quite as relaxed as he was trying to make it seem, but other than that, he could not gauge any closer how Heath was holding up. He could not see any blood, so he figured that was a good sign. He looked ahead of them toward the ridge, wondering about the lookout.
“How close do you think we can get before he spots us?” he asked.
“I think he’ll see us shortly after we cross that low area, over there,” Heath pointed.
Nick nodded. “Do you think he’ll start signaling or will he start shooting?”
“I think he’ll signal, and then someone else, probably from those trees once we get closer, will start shootin’. But, unless ya know of another way around that won’t cost us 15 miles of hard ridin’, I think we’re goin’ ta have ta deal. . . .ta deal with him if we’re gonna have a chance of gettin’ in.” Heath finished, without looking at Nick.
Nick knew something about his answer was wrong. It was written all over Heath’s face, but it wasn’t pain this time. It was more like anguish. “What is it? If you thought we couldn’t get in, you should have said so before.”
“No, we can get in. I just don’t have ta like how we’re gonna have ta do this.” Heath looked away, then back straight into Nick’s eyes. “I know that man up there.”
“A friend of yours?” Nick asked quietly.
“Could say that. Look, I don’t know if they told him I was at the Drumm’s Ranch ‘n that I was the one shootin’ at ‘em. I’m willin’ ta bet they didn’t.”
“Willing to bet with your life?” Nick asked incredulously, his suspicions aroused again.
Heath just nodded and continued, “If we both go in, he’ll wonder ‘bout you, and he’ll probably start signalin’. If I go, ‘specially if I go in leadin’ my horse like there’s a problem, I don’t think he’ll signal. If ya let me get ta the top ‘n give me a few more minutes besides, ya should be able ta ride in ta meet me up there.
But,” Heath began as soon as he saw the beginnings of uncertainty in Nick’s eyes quickly giving way to distrust, “It all depends on how much ya trust me not ta lead ya into an ambush, doesn’t it?”
He continued to look Nick straight in the eye.
When Nick didn’t say anything, Heath asked even more quietly than before, “Do ya really think I’m just tryin’ to help Garner gain another hostage?”
Nick stared back, hazel into blue, searching for what his older brother and his mother saw in this man that linked him to his father, searching for the man that he believed had saved Jamie and his son, searching to assure himself that he did not see one of Garner’s raiders staring back at him.
He thought about what he had asked Jarrod earlier, about what was driving this young man to do the things he had done, and he shook his head and said, “Who are you?”
Heath saw the unspoken questions, but after only a brief hesitation, he broke away from the stare, began riding away from Nick, and spat back at him over his shoulder, “I’m your father’s bastard son.”
* * * * * * * *
He rode at a frenzied gallop through the slightly depressed area and back up the slope beyond toward the ridge. The horse kept pace with Heath’s anger, kept pace with the battering of his blood in his head and all along his side. Then as he took a grip on his feelings and let the waves of pain wash over him, Heath gradually returned his focus to his task. A little rougher than he intended, he pulled up sharply as if there were a problem and dismounted. Bending down to check his horse’s left foreleg, he kept his back exposed to the ridge for a moment. Knowing this simple action of facing away from the lookout would help relax anyone who was watching, he started to slowly stand.
Dizziness crashed into him with the ferocity of a lightning strike, and he struggled to grab the gelding’s neck before he lost his footing. He turned and removed his canteen with the other hand and took a long drink. He took a moment to loosen the girth while his head rested against his horse’s shoulder and his eyes closed. Then, when his head cleared, he began leading the brown gelding toward the ridge.
Just as he began traversing the boulder-strewn slope, he called out. “Got room for one more?” His heart sank when the reply came back to his ears in Mac’s gruff voice.
“Come on up! Looks like you’re behind on that horse tradin’! Is he alright?” Mac asked of the gelding.
“Yeah, . . . thanks, Mac,” Heath replied tiredly, waving the coiled rope in his hand at the grey-haired man. His voice reflected how winded the climb had left him.
“Hey, you don’t look so good. Come on over here and let me get ya some water!” Mac’s voice grew serious.
Heath dropped his reins and approached the much older man with a sigh. As Mac turned away to get him some water, Heath grabbed his arms from behind. He swiftly used the rope to tie his arms, removed his sidearm, and hauled the struggling man over to the shade of a large rock. Mac tried to turn his head to see Heath, “What in the devil are you doing to me, Boy,” he growled. “Of all the low down, snake-eyed, tricks!” Mac let loose a string of curses, and Heath did his best to ignore him as he turned the agitated man on his side and worked to tie his legs. As he checked Mac’s pockets, removing a pocket knife and some matches, and pulled off his dusty brown boots, he heard Nick approaching.
As he returned with a canteen for the angry man, Nick dismounted.
Heath offered Mac some water. “Come on, Mac, drink it, don’t spit it back out at me! Ya might not get any more for a while.”
Finally, Mac did as asked, his eyes taking in the arrival of the dark-headed rancher. Then, he said, “What’re you doing, Thomson? I thought we were friends? You’ve just been using me, huh?”
“Mac, save it. I’m not part of what Garner’s been doin’, and you know I never could be.”
Heath left Mac and knelt on one knee to fold up the blanket with the pieces of broken mirror lying on top. “Ya won’t be needin’ these, Mac. I can’t have ya signalin’ all over the hills for a while. I’ll come back for ya later.”
As he had the last few times, he stood slowly, hoping to avoid the return of the dizziness. Sighing in relief, he carried the blanket to Nick. “Do ya have room for these in your saddle bags? Mine are full of my gear.”
Nick took the blanket and returned to his horse.
As they picked their way down the rock-strewn slope, Nick said, “He was pretty mad with you.”
Heath didn’t answer, he was thinking back and remembering the laughs they’d shared and the conversation and cards around a few campfires lately.
Just when Nick had completely given up on getting any response, he heard Heath’s quiet but resolute voice behind him. He strained to catch the words, “Mac and I’ve had a few good times, but he knew ‘bout what was goin’ ta happen at Drumm’s and at your place. He never lifted a hand ta stop any of it that I can tell. That’s where it ends.”
When they reached the gently rolling, slightly less dusty hills below, they circled around widely to the right in order to reach the river by the long route. They kept the low hills between them and the dark green tree line. Now, after ensuring that they would be unseen from above, they would remain out of view and hopefully undetected by anyone watching the more direct trail into the trees.
As they galloped forward, Nick thought about what he had seen on the ridge and what Heath had said. Nick remembered that he had called Heath a drifter the other day when Jarrod suggested he hire him. He was wrong. No drifter he had ever come across made choices like the one Heath obviously had. Men moving from place to place all the time didn’t usually go out of their way to make an enemy. He could tell that the young man beside him had chosen to do what he thought was right over keeping a real relationship with someone that was obviously willing to be his friend. “I know who you said you were, Boy,” Nick thought, looking at the light-haired cowboy beside him, “But, I want to know who you really are!”
A few minutes later, it hit Nick that maybe what he really meant was that he wanted to get to know who this brash young man really was. He wanted to get to know him and to understand the purpose burning brightly behind his, sometimes furious and fiery, sometimes cool and icy, blue eyes.
“Lloyd. Lloyd!” Turk called out, trying to get Garner’s eyes to look at him instead of at the blond-headed girl sitting in the shade of a large rock formation.
Garner’s eyes moved and took in the smaller man. “What?”
“Lloyd, you know we can’t let her go when we get the money.” Turk stated.
“What are you talking about, Turk? I’m not going to kill her.”
Turk shook his head, “Lloyd, she can identify all of us, now, not just you. Besides, you don’t have to kill her right now. She’s so pretty! Maybe you should just share. . . .”
Garner held Turk’s eyes in a silent stare, daring him to continue. “Turk, if you so much as act like you’re going to touch her, you’ll have me to answer to. I’ll decide what’s to be done with her, not you.”
Turk inclined his head, “Okay, Lloyd, okay. We’ll do it your way.” To himself, he added, “Well, at least we will for now.”
* * * * * * * *
They forded the river a little after noon. Shortly afterward, they watered and tethered their horses among the trees, next to the gently flowing river.
Nick gathered the items he needed for the long trek on foot ahead of them and the possible action to follow. Then, he stood impatiently while Heath did the same. The furrows around his hazel eyes increased as he saw Heath remove his hat and go back to the riverbank. He had seen him take a charred piece of wood from his saddlebags and was curious as to what he was up to. Following, he saw Heath bend over by the river and gather up a handful of mud. His eyes widened as Heath slathered the mud through his hair and all over his face and neck, leaving his suntanned face and blond head a darker, dull and earthy shade of brown. He then rubbed the charcoal on the fingers of one hand and wiped this on his face; the effect was to make some areas darker than others.
Standing, Heath grinned at Nick’s expression, knowing the only thing easily distinguishing him from the dark, cool woods around him were the whites of his eyes and teeth. Removing his canteen and the rifle from his saddle, he quietly made a request of Nick, “Please, if ya think ya can stand ta do without the sound of ‘em for a little while, take off your jingly spurs and leave ‘em here.” Then, he quickly disappeared into the trees before Nick could even offer a suitable retort.
When Nick caught up a few minutes later, the muddy blond was waiting for him on the edge of a small, sunny clearing. Heath flashed him a lop-sided smile and raised one eyebrow as he looked down and nodded at Nick’s quiet boots. Together, they moved forward in silence.
They were following the flow of the river, but were well in away from its wide-open banks, sticking instead to the denser trees. There was little underbrush here and the going was fairly smooth. With Heath setting the pace, their progress had been steady for almost an hour. It was a pace marked by periods of a ground-eating, long-strided walk interchanged with shorter periods of a quick, effortless trot.
As a result, Nick was caught off guard when Heath suddenly stumbled in mid-stride, went down on one knee, and fell forward on the ground. With hardly a conscious thought necessary, Nick dove for the ground too and waited for the sharp outburst from a gun he figured would closely follow. Realizing then, that he had heard no dull “thwack” of a bullet hitting the man in front of him, and hearing no sound of gunfire, Nick raised his head and looked around in puzzlement. Nothing was moving, including Heath, but the sounds of birds twittering in the trees continued as undisturbed as before.
Nick inched forward on his stomach to find out what had gone wrong. He rolled the still form toward him and quickly sat up, reaching for his canteen. Relieved that Heath had not been shot, he was, however, deeply concerned about the blood seeping through the bandage wrapped around the unconscious man’s head.
“Heath. Heath! Can you hear me?” Nick shook him and slapped at his face.
The blue eyes that slowly opened to look up at him were dazed and confused.
“Com’on, Boy. Can you drink some of this?” Nick held the canteen poised for Heath to take advantage of and helped raise him up enough to drink several sips.
“Boy Howdy, where did that rock wall come from?” Heath asked, shaking his head slightly. “Felt like I ran right into one’a your early mornin’ shoves.”
He struggled to sit up. Nick wasn’t sure he should, but he helped him anyway. “Are you okay, Boy?” he asked, not quite willing to share his compassion, but concerned in spite of himself.
“Yeah, this Boy is fine ‘n dandy, Mr. Barkley, never better,” Heath shot back at him, his eyes finally growing focused, but quickly turning irritated and icy.
Realizing Heath was trying to get back on his feet, Nick pushed on his shoulders and held him down. “Now, hold on a minute. We both need to take a break and eat something anyway. Here, lean over by this tree,” He pulled Heath a few inches to the left and eased him up against the tree trunk. Then, he removed the bloody, light brown bandage and checked both compresses underneath. Finding the one on the back of Heath’s head to be held in place by already dry seepage, he left it alone. He tugged out his shirttail and tore off a strip of the dark brown material. Folding it, he handed it to Heath to hold over the bullet gash in the front. “Here, add this to the other one; the blood has soaked through. I’ll wash this out.”
Returning from the river with the wet bandage, Nick re-wrapped Heath’s injuries. “You sure scared me,” he caught himself before he added the offending ‘Boy’ and continued, “When I saw you go down, I thought we were about to be caught in a cross-fire. I’m relieved to see it was just that your hard head got too heavy for your proud neck to hold up any longer!” He offered a grin and a pair of mirth-filled hazel eyes to soften his words. “Now, don’t move. I’ll get us a couple’a Silas’ chicken sandwiches, and we’ll both rest here for a few more minutes. You’ve been setting a blistering pace and my sorry, spur-less boots have been struggling to keep up for that last mile or so.”
Heath nodded and relaxed into the trunk, letting the cool, wet bandage help ease the fierce pounding of his head. He eyed the sandwich Nick offered him, but shook his head. “No, I can’t. I’ll be sick. You eat it.” He turned his head away, looked toward the river, and made a path with his eyes through the trees in the direction they needed to go.
“Here, at least eat this.” Nick held out a chunk of bread. When Heath shook his head, he insisted, “You have to eat something or it’ll be more than your legs that give out on you next. Eat it.”
Heath took it and chewed slowly, chasing it down with another swallow of water. He waited for his stomach to revolt, but it reluctantly stayed put.
After another ten minutes or so, Heath got to his feet. Though he held onto the tree for stability until the expected dizziness faded away, he knew he felt better now and was able to go on.
Afraid he would wind up carrying both Heath and Audra out of here, Nick started to suggest that Heath wait for him. But, he saw the determined set of the eyes and knew anything he said would be a’kin to wasting breath on trying to talk the sun out of rising just because he wanted to sleep late.
Besides, he knew Heath had been right this morning. He needed him. So, shaking his head at the stubbornness of the man already striding through the woods in front of him, he kept quiet.
* * * * * * * *
Turk paced up and down at the edge of the trees. They had already sent Russ to pick up the money, and he wanted to send a group of men to head for the Barkley Ranch to raid it while the family’s attention was surely focused on getting the girl back. But, Lloyd was dead set against this action.
He never would have believed it if someone had told him Lloyd would go soft over some female. He just couldn’t understand how he could turn his back on having it all, just because the girl had paid attention to him like she cared or something. He had always looked out for all of them; now it seemed like all he cared about was what the girl thought about him. True, he had gone along with holding her in exchange for the money, but it was clear he was hoping she would want to go with him as soon as they had the cash.
“There he is, over there right now, trying to talk to her about his plans,” Turk fussed out loud. “Well, he’ll see. She is going to turn him down flat, and then, he’s going to change his mind about her and her fancy family.” Turk continued to watch the scene across the camp while he paced up and down, wearing a track in the dirt with the heels of his boots.
“He’s going to be looking for me any time now. I just bet, he’s going to want me to gather the men and send them out to do a little more burning after all.” As Turk watched, a smile of satisfaction spread across his face, growing like the slow burn across Lloyd’s face that he knew Lloyd was feeling now. “Yep, that little blond hellcat has clearly given him his answer with the flat of her hand,” Turk thought, “Uh-huh, here he comes! It’s going to be embers for the Barkleys for sure, now!”
“Turk!” Lloyd yelled, stalking over, “Get the men. Send them with Midas to burn the barns, burn the house, burn everything!”
* * * * * * * *
Suddenly, Heath stopped his long-striding, easy jog again. This time, though, when he went down on one knee it was with a silent signal to Nick to be still. He pointed out a man sitting beneath a tree and watching the shady trail into the trees from the ridge beyond. Heath motioned for Nick to join him. Then, without making a sound, he pulled a large knife from the inside of his boot and pointed to a length of rope looped through the back of his gun belt. Heath touched Nick’s drawn pistol and looked into Nick’s eyes. He pointed at Nick’s chest and mouthed, “Stay” while holding up the same hand out in front of Nick. He touched his own chest and made a pointing motion to the right and around.
Still without making a sound, Heath lay his borrowed rifle beside Nick and moved off to the right through the trees. Nick watched as he edged up behind the man on the ground and put his hand over the man’s mouth. Holding the man against the tree, Heath disarmed him and removed the rope from his belt in one fluid motion. He tied his bandana around the man’s head and across his mouth. Then, he used his rope to tie the lookout’s hands and body, passing the rope around the tree, and pulled it tight. He cut off the excess rope, tied him securely, checked the man’s pockets, and removed his boots. Finally, he replaced the man’s hat and gave it a last pat before silently motioning for Nick to join him.
Heath was breathing hard, though he was quiet about it; but the little half-smile was in place. “This way,” he said quietly, and once more faded into the shady background.
Nick followed quickly, being as quiet as he could. It wasn’t long before he saw Heath stop again. This time, there were two of them. When Nick lay down on the humus-covered earth beside the brown cowboy, Heath motioned for him to take the one on the left while he circled around behind the one on the right. He cut his remaining rope into two pieces and handed half to Nick.
As one, they each moved in opposite directions with a common goal. Heath looked at Nick to make sure he was ready to take his target before he gave a low whistle just behind his own man on the right. Both of Garner’s men turned toward the sound. Nick hit the man low on the back of the head with his pistol and the man dropped like a sack of corn thrown from a hay loft. He trussed the fallen man like a steer ready for the branding iron, removed his weapons and boots, and left him where he lay.
When he had last looked over to check on Heath, he saw the butt end of the borrowed rifle being used to give Heath’s intended target a powerful uppercut to the jaw. The man’s whole body had risen into the air and had, just as quickly, crumpled back to the earth.
As he approached now, he saw that Heath was just kneeling on the ground near the man; both had their eyes closed. Checking, Nick determined that the one on the ground was not dead. He walked over and removed the rope from Heath’s hand, using it to tie the unconscious man as he had the previous one. After removing the man’s weapons and boots, he carried them back down the path and covered them with fallen leaves before returning.
“Heath,” he said quietly, looking at the sweat running down the mud-covered face and soaking the dark-colored shirt. “Heath!” He reached over to touch the damp face, pulling back as soon as he felt the heat radiating off of him. “You’re burning up, Boy!” Nick exclaimed. “Here, drink this.”
Opening a canteen, he poured water on his hand and lightly slapped Heath’s face, trying to get him to open his eyes. Heath, still kneeling, hands on his knees, drew in a deep, ragged breath through his nose, and his eyelids slowly fluttered open as he let his breath out. The blue eyes struggled to focus on Nick’s face, but the lop-sided grin followed closely behind when he finally succeeded. “Boy Howdy, Barkley, I was just restin’ while I waited on your sorry hide ta hurry up. If ya want some mud of your own, why don’t ya go back ta the river and get it, ‘stead of wipin’ off all’a mine?”
“Oh, like there’s any mud left with all the sweat pouring off of you.” Nick replied gruffly. Then, he grew concerned at Heath’s efforts to get to his feet. “Whoa, now. Hold on. Just rest a few more minutes. We’ve got time, it’s only a little after 4:30.”
“No, I’m fine, now. Let’s go.” Heath insisted, as he stood, but quickly leaned back over with his hands braced against his thighs.
“Heath, look, this isn’t working. How much farther can it be? I can go on and get in position. Then, if you feel better, you can come in a little later. If not, we’ll come back for you when I get Audra out.” Nick said, one hand on Heath’s back to steady him.
Heath’s only reply was a shake of his head as he stood up and started walking.
Nick let out a sigh, leaned over and picked up his gear, and walked forward quickly to catch up with the younger man.
“Heath, wait, at least drink some of this.” Nick said quietly, catching him by the arm and turning him to hand over the still open canteen. He watched as Heath took a swallow and poured a small portion of the water on the back of his neck. He took it back from Heath, who started walking again, his rifle still grasped tightly in his other hand.
One of the raiders had just returned to the camp. Turk wondered what had happened that caused one to come back without the others, and he wondered what the man was over telling Lloyd about the situation. But, he didn’t walk over, because he knew this was his opportunity. He had been looking for a way to have a few minutes alone with that blond-headed gal; this was his chance. He picked up a blanket and sauntered over to the tree where she was sitting. Her hands were tied together, at Turk’s earlier insistence, but she could still get up and move about. “I’ll watch her, you go get something to eat,” Turk ordered the man keeping an eye on her from the rock above.
He spread out the blanket beside her and lay down on it on his side. He crossed his feet and propped up his head with one hand. The smirk on his face was quickly becoming a leer as he took in her figure and her beautiful face. She started to stand up to move away from him, but he grabbed her by one arm and roughly forced her to sit back down. When he relaxed his grip, she tried to edge away.
Turk could feel her trembling with, . . . with what? With fear, and maybe anger, too? Good.
He traced one arm with his finger. She snatched away and raised both of her hands to strike at him. He grabbed her tied-together hands and yanked her down toward him. She tried to turn her head away, but the foul-smelling man held onto her and slobbered kisses all over her neck. She pushed away with her hands, now pinned between them, and fought to pull her knee up to his groin. But, he was holding her too close. She continued to arch away from him and began to scream.
An instant later, Lloyd grabbed Turk by the belt from behind and threw him away from Audra. “Get off of her, Turk!” he growled.
Both men began to circle each other in a fighting crouch, with Turk smiling and enticing Lloyd, “Come on, then, if you want her so much, let’s see you take her away from me!”
Audra scrambled to her feet and moved away from them, trying to find any sympathetic eyes among the faces around her. Seeing only glee at the emerging fight, she looked for a weapon instead. The only thing she found were rocks that were too large for her to hold between her tightly tied hands. Searching frantically while the attention was all elsewhere, she spotted a piece of a broken mirror. Picking it up by the smoothest edge, she tucked it between her two palms. Even if she wasn’t able to use it as a weapon, she might be able to cut the ropes with it.
Turning her eyes back to the fight, she saw that the smaller, but quicker Turk was quickly gaining ground on the larger, but slower Lloyd.
Though she could see that her guard had returned to his rock above her, it was all she could do to make herself stay inside the clearing and wait for the outcome of the brawl. Watching the guard to look for signs of wavering attention, she began sawing at the ropes, thinking furiously. If she ran, would the man above her just shoot her? Would he climb down and come after her? If he did, could she run fast enough up that hill to get away? Or would he just holler for the others to chase her? Maybe if he just yelled for the others, no one would hear him, and she could get away. A sound caught her attention, and, suddenly, she made up her mind.
* * * * * * * *
The last half-mile or so had been more uphill and more rocky, than not. Nick was breathing heavier than before, but noticed that Heath didn’t slow the pace despite the change in elevation. Suddenly, as they neared the top of the small rise, Heath’s whole body tensed, and he motioned for Nick to get down again. Nick crawled forward to join Heath, removing his hat and laying it on the grey, rocky ground beside him.
What he saw as he looked down the hill made his eyes widen with fear for his sister. Audra was sitting just at the edge of the clearing closest to them, but was obviously being approached by one of the marauders. As Nick watched, his anger and fear grew. “That sonofa. . . I’ll kill him!” he started, and he stood up to run down the rocky rise to his sister’s immediate defense.
Swiftly, Heath reached up and grabbed him with both arms, “Barkley, get down. Just wait. Give it a minute, maybe it’ll be alright!”
As they struggled with each other, Nick fell on his side by Heath and lashed out with his arms trying to get away. Heath held on despite being pummeled by the angry, anguished man beside him.
“Barkley, ya can’t help her from here. Calm . . .” Heath’s words ended in a gasp when Nick’s right arm caught him across the side of his head and knocked his face into the ground. All of his ability to hang on to the struggling man left him in the aftermath of that single blow.
Nick scrambled to his feet, charged down the embankment, and headed straight for his little sister.
At first, Heath could only lay there. He struggled to fight off the daggers of agony shooting their bright lights through his brain, struggled to keep them from pulling him into unconsciousness. Then, as his vision began to clear, he could only lay there and watch as he saw, first, Turk manhandling the girl, then, Lloyd pulling him to his feet. Finally, when the fight broke out, he knew he had to do something. He might not get a better opportunity.
Cursing himself for his own weakness, he struggled to raise himself up and to pull the rifle beside him into position. Cursing Barkley for his impatience, he wondered for a few seconds if the hard-charging cowboy would be able to trust enough to turn what Heath was going to do into an opportunity he could take advantage of or if he would misunderstand the intent and just think Heath was shooting at him.
“NO!” Heath’s mind screamed as new daggers of pain slammed into the side of his head, momentarily blinding him.
When his vision cleared this time, Heath scanned the area for Nick Barkley and finally spotted him as he neared the area where his sister was now standing. With a start, Heath realized the girl was preparing to bolt, probably not even aware that her brother was closing in to help her.
“It has to be now!” he told himself. With a little shake of his head to force his eyes to focus on the scene below, he willed himself to slow his breathing and his heart rate. Finding his rhythm, he sighted in on the guard on top of the rock over 200 yards away.
Just as he squinted and nearly closed his non-dominant eye, he saw Audra dash from the clearing. The guard stood and raised his pistol to take a shot, at Audra or Nick, he couldn’t be sure. But, the man never got a chance to aim. Heath’s bullet ripped into him and toppled him from the rock in the opposite direction.
When the guard went down and the echoing thunderclap of the rifle among the rocks reached the men below, the camp erupted into chaos. Though the numbers were already greatly reduced from the twenty some-odd men that Heath knew to be part of Garner’s mustangers, the ten or more that he could see scrambled for cover. The report of Heath’s rifle quickly found three more victims before the men realized they were being picked off from above them and adjusted their positions, desperately seeking cover.
Wiping the sweat from his eyes, Heath crawled backwards a foot or so and moved around the rim to his right. As he took up another position from a new angle, he became dimly aware that the sleeve he had swiped across his head was now smeared in blood.
The new position afforded him enough of a change to take out one more of Garner’s men.
Suddenly, he heard heavy breathing and looked to his left as first Nick, then Audra, hauled up by her dark-headed brother, scrambled up the slope and over the crest of the hill.
“Heath! Where are you?” Nick called.
“Here, Barkley. Get down, both of you.” Heath responded, without taking his eyes from the camp below. “Are you two alright?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, just need to breathe a minute. . . .” Nick answered. He and Aura lay down next to him, and Heath handed her the canteen without turning his head. She silently shared the canteen with Nick. He took a moment to pour some of the cool water on his sister’s bloodied left wrist, and once again, tore off strips of his bedraggled brown shirttail.
After wrapping the makeshift bandage around her wrist, Nick pulled her into a fierce embrace and said into her hair as she began to cry, “You did it, Audra! You are such a brave girl, Little Sis! You make me proud to be a Barkley!”
Easing her down beside him, Nick made her lie there a minute to rest. He stroked her hair with one hand, while he continued to hold her. Slowly, the silent sobs subsided, and she crawled up to look over the crest of the hill between the two men.
Heath felt her hand on his arm, as he continued to watch the camp below. “Hey, there, Little Girl. It’s good ta see ya safe n’ sound,” he said quietly without looking at her. Then, to Nick, he said, “Barkley, hold on ta her!” as he lined up for another shot.
The sharp retort of the rifle beside her brought a gasp from the blond-headed girl, but from Nick, the visible results down below brought an exclamation of disbelief, “Hell, Boy! That was some shot!”
Looking over at the unresponsive man on the other side of his sister, Nick asked, “How many have you hit?”
“Six,” came the only reply.
“Heath, you’re hurt!” Audra’s cry soon filled the silence left in the wake of his one-word answer. “Let me help you!”
One quick glance passed from Heath to Nick caused her dark-headed brother to take her by both arms. “Not now, Audra. Leave him alone.”
Turning his attention back to Heath, he asked, “How many more?”
Heath gave a slight shake of his head, “I don’t know. . . .I could see at least three more when I started. You ‘n I already took care’a four, counting Mac, . . . ‘n we think there’s at least one more at the other lookout post. . . . . Figure one rode for the ransom money, . . . . that means there’re still around eight . . . .ta ten men still unaccounted for.”
He was having more and more trouble keeping his breathing even. He felt like he had been running uphill to escape the camp, the same as the other two. He just couldn’t draw a full breath anymore; enough air would not go in and stay in.
But, he and Nick both knew that with other men possibly in the area, they couldn’t stay here indefinitely. They had to get Audra to safety.
Their eyes met briefly over the top of her head. Heath, still struggling for enough air, was grateful that Nick was the one to start the conversation. “We’ve got to get back to the horses and get out of here. We’ll just have to chance it and go. Come on.” He slid backwards down the crest of the hill and turned to pull his sister behind him.
Nick looked at the back of Heath’s head. The younger man had not moved and was still watching the camp below them, but his one word was clear and distinct.
“What do you mean, no? We’ve got to go, now! We don’t have time to argue about it. They’ll either be coming up this hill or around it to cut us off in a few minutes. Let’s go, both of you.” Nick replied.
Audra was on her feet next to Nick. They were both watching Heath.
Heath responded. “Go, Barkley. This is my fight, not yours. I’ll stay here ta hold them off for a while, then I’ll follow behind you. That way, you’ll have a better chance’a gettin’ her outta here. Now, take her ‘n go!”
“Heath, . . .” Nick started, coming back to reach out for Heath’s arm.
Something in the other man’s quiet voice, still spoken from his unwavering vantage point over the camp, stopped him.
“Take her ‘n go! . . . . . Please, Nick. Take her home.”
Nick heard the quiet plea. What struck him the most, right in the gut, was the fact that it was the first time Heath had called him Nick. The thought that came next was that Heath was right. Aura had a better chance if one of them stayed behind to cover the other two.
Beginning to be afraid that he wouldn’t ever have a chance to get to know this young man, wouldn’t ever have a chance to get to know this brother, he realized he had to seize this moment. But, watching the back of the injured head, Nick struggled with what to say that would matter. Then, he hung on to the word Heath had used, the word ‘home.’
“Alright, Heath. We’ll go.” Nick said evenly. “But, you need to know that early this morning when you left the house, Mother sent us to find you. She looked me in the eye and told me to go find my brother and bring him home, to bring him home for her and for Father. I’m telling you right now, if you don’t follow us out of these woods, I’m coming back in here to get you. Like Jarrod said, we didn’t come here to trade one Barkley for another. Hurry home, Little Brother.”
Heath heard the words from behind him as he remained focused on the camp below. This time, as his vision blurred for a few seconds, it wasn’t the sparks of pain shooting through his head that caused it.