It had been a terrible summer. Nothing seemed to be going the way it should. Nick was dog tired, exhausted might be more accurate. Heath had been laid up for six weeks now and was only starting to be able to do a few light chores around the barn. Often, when lawyers’ work allowed, Jarrod would help pick up the slack, by at least handling the paperwork and sometimes -- just sometimes, mind you -- getting his “lily white” hands dirty stringing fence or branding cattle. However, this time Jarrod was involved in a bitter court case. A good friend had been accused of robbery in San Francisco and of course Jarrod had to take the case.
Things had only gotten worse with the drought making watering the stock harder. When it finally got around to raining, the land couldn’t soak up the torrential rains fast enough and the streams and rivers of course overflowed.
Now the cattle drive had finally been completed, the grain harvested for the winter, the peaches sold and shipped and Nick was looking forward to a break.
Heath’s injury was so severe that Doctor Merar had to give him morphine for the pain; Heath was so out of it that he couldn’t tell them of his history with the drug. Neither had Heath unfortunately ever told his family about his experiences with the drug after the war. Nor was he likely to now that he was on his feet again. What none of them knew was Heath had a friend who could get him what he needed from the wrong side of town.
Jarrod was expected back on the evening train. The family couldn’t wait to see him. Unbeknownst to any of them, including Jarrod, he had been followed. After the trial, in which his friend had been acquitted, the man Jarrod had proved committed the crime had threatened him. Jarrod was somewhat used to being threatened had not taken the threat seriously. The man, George Lawson, was a member of a crime syndicate. He had connections that got him released from custody and kept the news from Jarrod, the judge and prosecutor. Jarrod had left San Francisco before the message of the judge and prosecutor’s deaths were relayed. The chief of the newly formed San Francisco police force had gone himself to warn Jarrod, but was too late to catch him before the train pulled out for Stockton. Jarrod was so tired he mounted horse left for him at the station by one of the hands and made his way home without seeing the telegram his secretary had placed, unread, on his desk.
Jarrod quietly arrived and headed to the study just before Nick entered. Too weary to even bellow or slam the door, the usually boisterous man headed up the stairs to have a long soak before dinner. Audra, having arrived home from the orphanage shortly before her two older brothers, was in her room trying to decide which dress she should wear that evening and trying out ways to wear her hair for the Harvest Dance in two weeks. Victoria was tending her roses and helping Silas put the finishing touches on dinner. With the rest of the family all doing their own thing, no one took note that Heath wasn’t where he was supposed to be -- in his room sleeping.
As the family gathered together greeting each other and catching up on the news, Silas entered the parlor to announce dinner. While Silas was out of the kitchen, Lawson stole his way into the house. Victoria decided that dinner should wait a few minutes while Audra went to check on Heath and see if he was up to coming down and joining them. As Audra entered the foyer, Lawson quickly covered her mouth and told her not to scream or he would kill her entire family.
Wondering what was taking Audra so long to check on Heath, Jarrod went to find his sister. Entering the foyer, Jarrod was struck on the head with the butt of Lawson’s gun. Easing Jarrod to the floor to avoid alerting the rest of the family, Lawson dragged Jarrod into the gun room. Audra, gagged and bound to the table down the small hall, could do nothing to help her brother. Finally Nick went after all his siblings, figuring they had gotten talking having not seen each other in weeks. Heading for the stairs, Nick looked over the banister and saw his sister. Bounding back down the couple of steps he’d mounted, he hastened to untie his sister. Sobbing, Audra got herself under control enough to explain what happened. Victoria, hearing the commotion, went to see what was happening as did Silas. Lawson swung Jarrod to his shoulder and headed out the veranda door to his waiting horse.
Nick, finally comprehending that Jarrod had been abducted, turned to go to the bunkhouse to form a posse and track his brother’s captor. As he started towards the door, there was an insistent knocking. Continuing towards the door, Nick threw it open and almost received a knock on the nose as the person on the other side went to rap again.
“Hi, Nick, Is Jarrod here? I got a wire I desperately need to let him know about.”
“No, sheriff, Jarrod has been taken. I’m glad you’re here you can help me track them.” Nick turned to his mother and sister, and giving them each a hug, promised that he would return with Jarrod.
Meanwhile Victoria guided Audra back to the parlor and helped her drink the brandy that Silas had poured. As Audra calmed down and Victoria had began to take stock of the happenings, Silas suggested the ladies still needed to eat so that they could take care of any injuries Jarrod may have when he returned.
Victoria and Audra sat down and tried to eat at least a little while they planned what they needed for when the Barkley boys returned. After giving up on eating and taking care of what preparations they could, such as turning down Jarrod’s bed and gathering bandages, liniment and clean towels, the Barkley ladies sat down to wait. After catching herself pacing like Nick usually did when forced to wait, Audra suggested they play checkers. Neither of ladies was in the mood for that either and therefore could not concentrate on the game.
Eventually, Heath stumbled in the front door. Victoria and Audra, thinking that Heath had ridden out with Nick, assumed Heath had been injured. They bombarded him with questions about what was happening. When Heath did not provide answers to their questions, they grew both concerned. Audra raced out to the barn, calling for Ciego as she ran. “Ciego, saddle my mare, I need to ride for the doctor to help Heath.”
“Oh, no Miss Audra, you stay here and help your mother; I will ride like the wind for the doctor myself. I will send a man to the house to keep watch until I return.” Suiting action to words, he’d mounted the horse he’d saddled while he spoke and was off faster than Audra had ever seen him ride before. As he raced to the bunkhouse, Ciego yelled to his brother’s son, “Carlos, go guard Mrs. Barkley and Miss Audra until I return, Hurry now! Don’t leave them alone at any time.” Then he was off on his race to fetch the doctor. Carlos hurried to do his uncle’s bidding because the Barkleys had always been like friends to him.
Slowly the time dragged on for the women who loved the Barkley boys.
Nick cursed as once again the clouds obscured the moonlight. Luckily, the clouds were fewer than they had been for the last couple weeks. Combined with the full moon, it was fairly easy to follow the tracks of the horse carrying two men. The fact that the horse had a cracked shoe made it even easier to follow. Lawson really didn’t have a plan; the other two men he had killed lived alone. He just broke in and knifed them. But doing that with a large family around threw away his original plans. Further, he had never been in San Joachim Valley before and his unfamiliarity with the terrain helped Nick and the posse catch up. Just up ahead, the creek meandered through what was left of the meadow after the Jubal Tanner Dam had been built. Jubal gave his life fighting to save his beloved meadow where the 30-year-old grave of his wife had lain. After Jubal had died, the Barkleys had paid to have Mrs. Tanner’s grave moved and the couple was buried next to each other, not far from their friend Tom Barkley, the founder of the Barkley empire and father to the Barkley brood.
Lawson, being a city boy, was way out of his depth in the woods at the edge of the meadow. Lost and unable to discern directions at night, he was going in a wide circle. This at first puzzled Nick and the Sheriff, but they finally caught on and hid themselves to wait until Lawson came back around. The posse continued to pursue in case he changed course.
After a short wait, Nick heard a horse whinny. As the horse drew nearer, Nick stepped out to confront the kidnapper. “All right, that’s far enough; throw your gun into the trees on your right and get down from there.”
As Nick spoke, the sheriff stepped out behind the horse and cocked his gun. The unmistakable sound caused Lawson to do as he was told; there was no way he could possibly take on both men with their guns already drawn. As his left foot hit the ground, he slapped the horse hard; the horse bolted.
Nick was on his horse in a flash and off to rescue his older brother once again. Coco, being a working horse and having had a short rest, was much faster. Jarrod was thrown from the speeding horse just before Nick caught up. Letting the horse gallop on, Nick drew harshly back on Coco’s reigns and flew from the saddle before Coco had even come to a stop.
Jarrod, having started to come around just before the brief chase had started, had thrown himself from the horse’s back and managed to roll with the fall enough to minimize the damage. He had a splitting headache from the hit on the head, and a broken arm and twisted ankle from the fall, but was otherwise in pretty good shape after his ordeal.
As Nick raced after his hapless brother, Sherriff Madden fired his gun at Lawson so close Lawson felt the air move. Lawson stopped in his tracks. While Nick was accessing Jarrod’s injuries for himself, Sherriff Madden arrived with his bound prisoner.
After tying Lawson to a tree, the sheriff helped Nick set Jarrod’s arm. Together the two rescuers helped Jarrod onto Coco’s back and Nick swung up behind him. The posse arrived with Lawson’s horse and he was summarily tied to the saddle, with the reins remaining in the sheriff’s possession. With a Barkley hand on each side of Lawson and another bringing up the rear, the sheriff headed for town to deposit his prisoner in the jail.
Nick and Jarrod, with an escort from the remaining hands, turned for home. Another hand had been sent on into town for the doctor. After first refusing to lean back against his exhausted brother and almost sliding off Coco’s back, Nick demanded, “Hell, Jarrod, I didn’t come all this way to have you fall off Coco and break your d* fool neck. Now lean back against me so we can get on home. I’m sure mother and Audra are worried sick. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of mother’s spoon if I let anything else happen to you.”
Chagrined and suitably chastised Jarrod leaned back against his younger brother. Thus sure that Jarrod was secure, Nick brought Coco to a ground eating lope and arrived at the front gates in about an hour.
During the hours Nick was pursuing Jarrod and his captor, Dr. Merar and Ciego arrived at the Barkley gates and were greeted by a couple hands with rifles. After realizing who was arriving, they were let through and the hands resumed their guard duties. So it was that Nick, Jarrod and the others were stopped a ways before the gate as the hands could hear the horses but not really see who was riding them; Nick called out and they were allowed through. Nick pleased to see the support of more of the hands, promised them all a bonus, and headed on to the house with his brother. “Jarrod, wake up now; were almost home, I can see the lights in the windows and the front door was just opened.”
Audra, waiting anxiously for news on Heath’s condition, was the first to hear the riders coming. “Mother,” she very unladylike bellowed, “the boys are back, Jarrod’s hurt.”
Nick grinned at his sister and said, “Audra, been taking lessons from me, I hear.”
Audra had the grace to brush and retorted, “The house has been so quiet lately with you on the range all the time or too tired to do much, someone had to make noise to be sure we hadn’t lost our hearing.” Sobering quickly, she held the horse while Nick dismounted and carefully coaxed his brother down from Coco’s strong back.
Ciego, hearing the voices, came out to help Nick get Jarrod to his room. “Miss Audra, you come inside and help Mr. Nick with Mr. Jarrod; the doctor, he is in with Mr. Heath, I will get him to come in quickly to see Mr. Jarrod, then I will take care of Coco.”
Nick smiled warmly, at the stableman and asked, “Be sure to give him plenty of oats and an apple. Make sure he gets a good rub down; he really deserves it. What is the doctor doing here already? Did Heath get worse again? Audra, get me a nightshirt for Jarrod and help me get his boots off. I’ll take care of the left one; he’s sprained it pretty bad and we may need to cut the boot off. Then you get out of here and get me some hot water while I help Jarrod get changed.”
Victoria entered at that point and scolded, “Honestly, Nick, keep your voice down, Heath is finally asleep and the doctor will be right in. I’ll tell you about Heath while the doctor checks over Jarrod.” Kissing him on the cheek, she quickly bent over Jarrod, who was slumped on the edge of the bed. “Jarrod, thank God and your brother, you are safe; lie back and let your brother help you.” With that, she kissed him on the forehead, and with a rustle of her taffeta skirts, was out the door, leaving them the privacy needed.
Nick got Jarrod settled in time to hear a thump on the door and Audra’s voice. “Can I come back in now? I have hot water and towels for you.”
“Sure Audra, come on in.”
“Nick, open the door my hands are full,” came Audra’s exasperated reply.
Grinning sheepishly, Nick did just that, opened the door and took the bowl from his sister. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
Audra smiled at her sleepy eldest brother, “Stay awake a few more minutes, Doctor Merar will be right in.” As she turned to leave, Doctor Merar came through the door. “All right, gentlemen. Nick, if you’ll excuse us, I’ll let you know how your brothers are shortly; go down and get something to eat. You look as if you need a meal and a bed yourself.”
“I’m just tired, Doc; been a hectic and stressful summer with first Heath and now Jarrod needing your services and Heath isn’t even well enough yet to pull his weight. He’s usually chomping at the bit to get back to work. What’s wrong with him?”
“Nick, both your brothers will be fine eventually, I’ll answer your questions after I finish with Jarrod. Don’t go pestering your mother for information. She’s had it pretty rough too for a while, worrying about all of you.” With that, he reached out, grabbed Nick by the upper arms and turned him towards the door, giving him an added push to the small of his back to get him moving.
The doctor turned back to Jarrod. “All right Jarrod, I know you were hit on the head; Audra told me,” he explained as Jarrod gave him a quizzical look. “What else have you done to yourself this time? Let me start with that arm.” Gently picking up Jarrod’s arm as Jarrod told how he had thrown himself from the horse, Doctor Merar checked that the bone was in the proper place, and putting a proper splint on it, inquired of his other injuries.
“Just a sprained ankle, Doctor. It will be all right if I stay off of it tomorrow.”
Having finished with his arm, Doctor Merar pulled the covers to the side and carefully, examined Jarrod’s left foot.
Dr. Merar chuckled. “Jarrod, you need to stay off that foot for a week; you’re as stubborn as your brothers, I want you to soak it in cold water several times a day and stay off of it except to go down the hall. While you are off of it, keep it elevated to reduce the swelling. Here are some pain packets you can take if you need them. This isn’t the same stuff I gave Heath. That boy just doesn’t talk about himself much. I wish he had told me that he’d been addicted to morphine after the war. He’s always refused it but never said why. Now I know and I won’t give him any more than I can help.” He continued, “I don’t think you’d have the same problem, but I don’t want the drug in the house where you brother might find it.”
Jarrod, looking scared, asked. “What can we do to help him? Is there any treatment?”
“You and Nick need to take him away from the pressures of the ranch and away from your mother and your sister. What he will go through as the drugs work their way out of his system is not something he would want your mother or sister to see. In a week, you can take him somewhere where the three of you can be alone. Because of your arm and ankle you won’t be able to handle him alone. I’m not sure that even Nick would be able to handle him alone. I’ll start weaning him off the medicine over the next week. By then, you should be able to travel and so should he. Get some rest now and try not to worry about him too much.” While he was speaking, he mixed a packet in a glass of water and helped Jarrod hold the glass while he drank.
“I see,” slurred Jarrod, “We have a tough fight and rough time coming.”
Tucking him in and adjusting his pillows, Doctor Merar insured Jarrod would sleep for night because he hadn’t told Jarrod the medicine would help him sleep as well as relieve the pain.
Returning downstairs after seeing the two brothers were both sleeping, Doc Merar went down to talk to the rest of the family. Before his foot reached the bottom stair, Nick was in front of him demanding answers.
“Nick, settle down. Keep your voice down; your brothers are sleeping and I don’t want to wake them with that booming voice of yours.” The doctor smiled at him to reduce the sting of his words. “Victoria, Audra, please join me in the parlor. Nick, if you can stay calm, you may join us. If not, go up and sit with Heath for a while. You can accompany me back to town in a few minutes and I’ll explain on the way. You shouldn’t need more than a mile to keep from waking your brothers.
“I’ll keep my voice down; I want to know what’s happening with my brothers, especially Heath.”
“Ok, come sit down and we’ll talk.”
“Victoria, Jarrod will be fine; he has a broken arm -- which Nick set very well – and a sprained ankle I’ve asked him to stay off for a week except for trips to the water closet. He’s got a few bumps and bruises, nothing too serious except for the bump on his head, that’s a minor concussion. You know what to do for that. I gave him some pain powders which are to be kept away from Heath. Nick, would you please poor us all drinks; I know I need one and I think you all will also.”
Nick poured drinks, and with them handed round, he went back to leaning against the mantle. “Doc,” he warned, “Just tell us about Heath. Why can’t he have a pain packet if he needs it?”
“Nick, I know you’ve been under a lot of stress’ I don’t see that changing for a few weeks or maybe months. As you know, I gave Heath morphine for the pain.”
“Doc, we know that, get to the point, please,” pleaded Nick.
“Nicholas Jonathan Barkley, apologize right now or I’ll get my spoon and then banish you to your room. You really do need to get some sleep if you’re acting like this.”
“I’m sorry, Doc; it’s just that I am tired, but even more worried about my little brother.”
Audra rose gracefully from her seat and wrapped her brother in a big hug. “We’re worried too, big brother; please calm down and let the doctor tell us what’s wrong with Heath.”
Nick gave her a wan smile, a kiss on the cheek and a wink as she returned to her chair.
The doctor continued. “To put it bluntly, Heath is addicted to the morphine. He told me he was addicted once before after he was released from Caterson prison. The medical staff was overwhelmed and the only way to handle the patients was to keep them doped up with opiates.”
“Oh, God, no wonder he would never take it when offered before,” surmised Nick.
“How can we help my son? There must be something we can do?” cried Victoria.
“I’m going to put him back on a lower dose than he had when I was giving it to him before?”
“How is that going to help, doc?” interrupted Nick.
“I’m going to give him three doses a day; each day I will give him a little less in each shot than the day before. By the end of the week, he will be down to no morphine, just water in the shot. As I decrease the dose, his body will crave the amount he had been having’ by the end of each day he should be better adjusted to the lower dose. He will be moody, angry and restless. He may experience hallucinations from the withdrawal. Nick, you are going to have to be able to handle him when he is awake. Keep him from hurting himself or anyone else. Keep your mother and sister out of the room when he is awake.”
“But, doctor how can we take care of him and let him know we love him if we can’t go near him?” inquired Audra.
“Audra, you’re just going to have to do as I say, and Nick will make sure he knows you love him. If, after the first day or two, if he can control himself, Nick can let you come in to see him. Would that be alright?”
Audra eagerly nodded yes.
“But, you can’t mean to banish me as well doctor?” asked Victoria.
“Yes, especially you, Victoria. Remember when he first came and he was going to leave instead of letting you continue to experience pain from his being here?”
“Yes, what does that… Oh, I see, you think he will feel the same way about my seeing him. You think he will be embarrassed to have me see what he is going through.”
“Exactly; if I know anything about Heath beyond his knack for being injured, it is that he is a very private person. He does not want to be a burden to anyone and he most certainly would not want you to see him out of control. That is exactly what drug withdrawal does to a person; it strips them of almost all of their control over their body and their mind. Now will you do as I ask?”
“Of course, doctor.”
“Nick, when Jarrod is better in about a week, I want you to take both your brothers somewhere where they can get away from the stress and get away from people in general. Do you know of such a place, a place not too far from a doctor, just in case you need one?”
“Yes, I’ll take them to the Mission del Sol out in Monterey. Father Francis will allow us to stay there until my brothers are well. Mother, could you send him a wire in the morning? I need to get some sleep. Goodnight doctor, Mother, Audra.”
Nick headed up to check on his brothers and to try to get some sleep while his brothers slept. He quietly entered Jarrod’s room. Jarrod woke slightly and mumbled. “Night Nick, take off your spurs before going in to see little brother,” and promptly went back to sleep.
Nick ran his hand through Jarrod’s hair pushing it back off his forehead, chuckling softly and then removed his spurs. He headed straight for his little brother’s room.
Tiptoeing so as not to wake his younger brother as he had his older, he stole to the side of Heath’s bed. Giving his brother’s hair a gentle caress, he softly kissed his forehead and said, “I promise to get you through this, Heath, my word as a Barkley and as your brother.” Leaving as quietly as he entered, he heard his blond brother give a gentle sigh and settle farther into sleep as he left the room.
The next week was not pretty; Heath raged against the doctor, his brothers and life in general. With Nick or Silas with him at all times, Heath’s contact could not bring him the drugs his body craved. In fact, Jarrod caught the man trying to sneak into the house, and though he wouldn’t normally wear Nick’s boots, fired him on the spot. He then told him to get out of the valley. Nick, having heard the raised voices, entered the fray, both fists flying and would have continued beat the stuffing out of the hand if Jarrod hadn’t intervened. Nick swore that if he ever came near Heath again, he would wish he was dead.
Jarrod spent the week reading legal briefs and got in some time with his long neglected but much loved book collection when he wasn’t sitting with his beloved brothers. Since Nick was heavily involved in caring for and dealing with Heath’s moods, Jarrod relied heavily on his sister to write notes for him and summon his brother, Silas or a trusted ranch hand when he needed to travel the hallway.
Near the end of the week, Jarrod was allowed downstairs and spent much of the day on the sofa in the gun room.
Heath’s temperament improved slowly as his body grew used to having less and less of the drug. He was still prone to violent mood swings. One minute he would be sitting and talking to Nick and next he was on his feet throwing the dishes from his previous meal, screaming because the window was open, letting in the spells of the ranch yard he missed so dearly. Ever since Heath chose that room, he’d always had the window open at least a little, even in the middle of winter. Now he was thundering mad it was open. “G* d* it, Nick, what’s the winda doin’ open. Iffn I want it open, I’ll open it.” He shut the window so hard the glass rattled in the frame and Nick was surprised it hadn’t broken. Five minutes later, he was yelling because it wasn’t open. “Nick, you know I want the winda open. Why’s it closed? Iffn I cain’t go out, leastways let me smell the fresh air and the horses. Cain’t rightly hear the horses or smell the ranch. Don’t like feelin’ trapped with it closed room.”
Nick wasn’t at all sure how to handle the second outburst, Heath had totally forgotten that he was the one that closed it. Nick’s heart ached for his brother, but did have a clue how to deal with this. He sat there for a minute and watched his brother pace like a fresh-caught stallion, pacing the corral.
Finally when he thought it through, Nick stepped in front of his brother, clasping his arms as made to step around him, stopping his restless pacing for a moment and apologized for something he hadn’t even done. Releasing his brother when he received a nod, he pivoted, strode over to the window and raised it the amount it his brother liked. Returning to his little brother, he quietly asked if the window was ok now.
Heath stared at Nick for a moment, nodded yes and collapsed into the chair by the window. Then he did something that almost made Nick’s heart break. He very quietly started to cry. Not much at first, but as one lonely tear tracked down Heath’s cheek, it was followed by another and another until Heath’s face was covered in tears. As Heath, tried to control the flow, Nick landed on his knees in front of his trembling brother and pulled him into his embrace. Pulling Heath’s head down to his shoulder, he rocked his brother back and forth, crooning in his ear, “Let it out, boy, you don’t gotta be strong for me. Give in, let the tears come. You’re gonna be all right. We’ll get you through this.” While he rocked his brother, he made a silent vow. I ain’t never gonna let him go through anything like this again. This boy’s had too much to deal with all by himself for too long. I’m gonna make sure he knows he can come to me anytime he needs help and I’m gonna step in before it gets anywhere close to this bad again. Since he was already on his knees, he said a silent prayer. “Oh, Lord, it ain’t right that this boy, my brother, has had to go through H* on earth. Please show him some mercy and let him enjoy some of the joys in life. Help him get through this. Don’t let him have to go through this ever again.” Nick continued to hold his little brother until he felt him sliding out of the chair into his arms. He gently eased Heath to the floor and wiped his own eyes and slipped into sleep, exhausted by the outpouring of emotions.
Silas returned to the room when he could no longer hear Heath’s sobs. He gently took a damp cloth and wiped the tears from Heath’s sleeping face. He rinsed the cloth and gently did the same for Nick, who still held Heath protectively in his arms while they both slumbered on the floor.
As Heath’s body allowed him more control, he became increasingly restive and more eager to leave the confines of his room and more withdrawn from his family. He was embarrassed to have lost control in front of the brother whose respect he’d worked so hard to gain. He didn’t know yet that Nick’s respect for him had grown even stronger as he helped him regain control of his life.
Eventually the week was done and an exhausted Nick, a slightly more relaxed Jarrod and a disgruntled Heath set off for the train station on the first part of their journey. The second part of the trip was made by stagecoach. The need to sit close together was beginning to wear on all their nerves, with Heath being, uncharacteristically, the most vocal about the conditions. As Heath’s tensions rose, so did his brothers’.
The last part of the journey was made in a wagon full of supplies for the mission. This was thankfully also the shortest and arguably the prettiest leg of the trip. They arrived just as the sun set. The mission was on a hill overlooking the ocean. The sun going down over the water was an amazing sight. All three brothers plunked themselves down on some rocks and just stared at the red sky.
The brothers spent their time talking, reliving memories of the war (both good and bad) and strengthening their bond as brothers. Heath worked through his continuing guilt with the help of his brothers. He repeatedly apologized and pleaded for the forgiveness of his brothers and their assistance in getting their mother and sister to forgive him for his treatment of the family and his addiction to the drugs. Jarrod and Nick assured him the they understood, but pointed out kindly that if Heath and trusted them with his past addiction, they wouldn’t have allowed the doctor to give him the morphine to begin with; but what was done was done and they promised to never let it happen again.
Still Heath could not bring himself to believe he was forgiven. He thought they were just saying it because he couldn’t forgive himself. His mind kept repeating. “You just cain’t do anythin’ right, cain ya. Ya just have to destroy ever’ good thin’ comes your way. Ya’re worthless; they shoulda just throw’d ya out when ya first come ‘n ya shoulda just rode out a not looked back.”
Nick and Jarrod constantly sought to reassure him, to convince him of his worth to himself and them. They just didn’t seem to be able to get through. Jarrod employed all of his big brother and lawyer’s skills. Nick, in typical Nick fashion, threatened “to beat it into his thick skull.” Still nothing seemed to get through to this most stubborn of Barkley brothers.
In exasperation, Jarrod finally yelled. ”Hell, Heath, if that’s the way you feel, why don’t you ride out the minute we get home? Just break all are hearts. Mother and Audra are going to be devastated. But you do what you want. We didn’t fight this hard to help you adjust to the family and snatch you back from the brink of death when the doctors said we were fighting a losing battle for your life. Brother Nick didn’t spend a week just before we came here tending you, cleaning up you up when your body betrayed you, calming you down when raged against us for denying you the drugs, holding you when you needed held. Did you know he’d cry on my shoulder, deathly afraid he couldn’t bring you back from the edge of self-destruction when he’d finally get you off to sleep? Yeah, big bad Nick Barkley, bawling like a baby, afraid of losing you, dear brother. Just ride out, forget we exist.
Heath just stood there, stunned by his eldest brother’s words. He looked at Jarrod, really looked at him. Then he saw it -- he saw the devastation in Jarrod’s eyes, the worries he could no longer hide. He turned to look at Nick but what he saw froze his soul. Nick wasn’t standing by the fireplace in the room they shared. He was huddled on the floor, tears streaming down his face, rocking back and forth. Then he listened. He heard it, the barely perceptible keening Nick couldn’t hold back. “I’m sorry, father; I couldn’t do it. I tried, really I did. I couldn’t help him. We beat back the drugs but he just couldn’t take no more. I’m sorry, so sorry. How do I tell Mother? She’ll be so ashamed of me. I couldn’t help him when he needed me most.” Then he saw a glint from the fires glow. Something had reflected the fire’s light. Nick had a gun in his hand, Nick was holding his gun, the one Jarrod gave him for his birthday, the one with the eagle on the handle. Heath dove toward his brother, pulling the gun with ease from Nick’s hand and sliding it across the floor towards where Jarrod sat slumped in the chair by the bed. He wrapped his arms around his rancher brother and copied that brother’s actions of the week before. He rocked him in his strong arms and cradled his head against his shoulder and told him of his love and his thankfulness of all he had done for him. “Nick, sh, sh, I ain’t gonna go nowhere ‘ceptin home with ya ta Mother ‘n Audra. Ya didn’t fail Nick, oh, please believe me, ya didn’t fail, I’m here, I’m free of the drug, thanks ta ya. I ain’t gonna touch ‘em ‘gin. I swear, Nick; ya didn’t fail.” Then he felt his eldest brother join them.
Jarrod, unmindful of his still tender ankle, was there on the floor surrounding them with his love, adding his own tears to those of his brothers and hugging them awkwardly with his still splinted arm. Jarrod wrapped his good hand around the back of Heath’s neck and gave him a gentle shake. “Heath Barkley, don’t you ever again doubt the love and respect we feel for you.”
Heath conveyed his understanding with his eyes.
Jarrod released him and touched Nick likewise. “Nick, I didn’t mean to betray your trust. I just knew we were losing Heath and I won’t deny I hit him where I knew it would hurt the most. I’m just sorry I told him about your desperation while caring for him.”
“Pappy, there’s nothing to forgive; it worked, ‘at’s all that matters.
They stayed there on the floor a long time.
Two weeks later they returned to Stockton, rested, healthy and ready to get back to their duties. They decided to stop in the bar before heading home. All their friends were pleased to see them. They settled in for a couple of hands of poker, a couple of beers each and then headed to their mother and sister.
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