Summary: Getting Home, a missing scene from the episode.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 3513
Nick stood facing the man, who through his own selfless act, had stopped what was quickly turning into a bloodbath between the Mortons and him and their men.
Nick gripped the hand firmly and smiled. “Want some company on that ride into town?”
“Reckon that’d be nice, Nick, but first we gotta find your brother.”
Languid brown eyes searched the hazel of his boss and friend. “He was hit, Nick. I met up with him on the trail. That’s how I knew to come here. He wanted me to get the men from the north range.”
The smile fell from Nick’s face; fear gripped his stomach as he turned and scanned the rocks for any of his men, but they had already ridden out. “Why the hell didn’t you stay with him?”
Joshua pushed the hat back on his head and faced Nick’s glare unblinkingly. “He said he was all right. That he could make it. That you and Charlie were pinned down, needed help. I couldn’t let anybody else get hurt because of me, Nick. This was never your fight. I should have faced up to my past a long time ago.”
“Fool boy would tell you he was fine if his head was cut off. Show me where you last saw him.” Nick grabbed the reins of his buckskin, mounted quickly and pulled his horse around to follow the black stallion disappearing behind the rocks at the bend in the trail.
The two men rode in a silence only broken by the steady beat of their horse’s hooves, both contemplating their parts in the week’s events that had led to today’s confrontation and the shooting of a brother and friend.
Joshua pulled his horse to a stop. “This is where I met up with Heath, Nick. He headed down that trail. I watched him out of sight. He was hunched over and gripping his saddle but he was steady enough. Figured it was just a graze.”
Nick sucked in a deep breath as he imagined the pain his brother was in, graze or not. Keeping a tight rein on his emotions, he looked across at Joshua. There was a deep sadness in dark man’s eyes “Where was he hit?”
Joshua shook his head. “I don’t know for sure, Nick; could have been his shoulder or his side. Didn’t see any blood but I‘ve seen enough men shot to read the signs.”
Nick clenched tightly at the reins, making the horse under him dance nervously. “Damn fool boy, why the hell didn’t he just wait for me?”
Not waiting for a response, Nick kicked his horse into motion and followed the trail his brother had taken. The further they traveled, the more worried he became. His brother was heading further away from home and help. As the miles fell away, he began looking for signs of his brother’s horse straying from the trail; however, the tracks continued on in the same direction and never left the trail. Joshua kept pace with him.
Topping a slight rise in the trail, Nick’s heart leapt into his mouth. His brother’s bay stallion stood not two hundred yards away, munching contentedly on the grasses at the side of the trail.
Nick searched frantically for signs of his brother, finally spying the cream pants, pale blue shirt and tan vest lying in a crumpled heap on the opposite side of the trail to his horse.
“Heath,” Nick shouted, spurring his horse into a run, sensing but not seeing the big black meeting his own horse’s racing stride. His eyes never left the prone form of his brother. Flinging his reins at Joshua, he leapt from the saddle before his horse had fully come to a halt and dropped down beside his brother lying face down on the dusty trail.
Pulling off his black gloves, Nick reached out a shaky hand towards his brother’s neck. Daring not to breath, he waited for what seemed like an eternity to feel the weak beat under his fingers. “Thank God.” Turning to face the worried man sitting motionless on his horse, he allowed a faint smile of relief to soften his features.
“He’s alive, Joshua. Ride back to the ranch, bring a wagon back here as quick as you can. Have someone ride into Stockton for the doctor. Tell him to wait at the house for us.”
“I’ll be as quick as I can, Nick. How bad’s he hit?”
Nick looked down at his unconscious brother. He could see the dark russet stain spreading across the back of the vest and down the right sleeve. Carefully slipping his hand under his brother’s chest without disturbing him, he felt for the tell tale sign of wetness.
“Damn,” Nick looked up unable to hide the fear he felt. “He’s taken it in the back of the shoulder, bullets still in there.”
Dropping the second set of reins and nodding in understanding, Joshua spun his horse back the way they had come. Once he hit the main trail, he could make better time by cutting across country to the house. “Don’t let him move if he wakes up, Nick.”
Joshua didn’t wait for a reply, spurring his horse into a run instead. Looking back quickly as he crested the rise, he saw the forlorn figure of Nick slumped on his knees beside his brother.
“Please Lord, don’t let Heath pay for my mistakes.”
Heath blinked rapidly as the trail below him swam in and out of his vision. Stupid. That’s what he’d been. Plain stupid to have turned his back on a gun battle. Now it wasn’t only him that would pay the price but also his brother and their men. He had to get help for Nick. They didn’t have enough ammunition to keep up the fight for much longer. Hopefully Joshua would be there soon with the men from the north range.
He groaned out loud and gripped the saddle horn tighter as his horse began its descent down the rise in the trail. Each step of the horse sending shafts of agony through his shoulder. He could feel the blood running freely down his back and knew the bullet was still buried somewhere in his flesh.
Stupid. He had to keep going, Nick and the others were relying on him to bring help.
His horse stumbled. He was slumped too far forward on its neck to stop himself. He momentarily felt the jarring impact as his body hit the unyielding ground. He made one attempt to raise himself up.
His eyes closed, one word dying on his lips. “Nick.
Nick pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and carefully pressed it against the wound in his brother back.
Leaving his brother’s side, but not taking his eyes off him, Nick retrieved the bay stallion, unsaddled both horses and left them both ground-tied a few yards further down the trail.
Returning to Heath’s side, Nick dumped the saddle and blankets on the ground, then picked up his canteen. Pulling off his bandana, he soaked it in water, then gently wiped the sweat and dust from the parts of his brother’s face that he could see. “Come on Heath, open your eyes; tell me you’re alright, little brother.” Noticing the slight tremble of his brother’s body, Nick picked up one of the saddle blankets and gently laid it across his brother’s legs. Taking off his own vest he placed it across the broad back, taking care not to let it touch the bullet wound in the shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, little brother; I let my pride and need to win get the better of me. Please stay with me, Heath. I couldn’t bear not to have you in my life.”
He sensed someone beside him, willed his eyes to open but the pain kept him under its spell. Instead, he tried to concentrate on the mumbled words. As the roaring in his head cleared, he recognized both his brother Nick and Joshua Watson’s voices. He almost let go then, almost. His brother would get him home, one way or another.
He felt the vibration of the pounding hooves through the ground he lay on. It was followed by a long silence and then a cool cloth was upon his face. But it was the words of anguish that slammed him back to reality and the agony he was in. His eyes opened to narrow slits but it was enough for him to see the fear and guilt on his brother’s face.
“Heath.” Nick felt his heart stop at the painfully drawn out words. He dropped the bandana and leant over his brother close to his ear.
Heath felt his brother’s grip on his arm as he tried to move, turn, so he could see him more clearly through the haze. “Heath,” Nick pleaded as he held him still. “Stay still, little brother. You’ve got a bullet in you. Joshua’s gone for a wagon and the doc.”
Nick was startled by the words and couldn’t help himself. “You knew. Why the hell didn’t you say something, boy – we could have avoided all this.”
Nick dropped his anger and his voice. “I don’t want to lift you, Heath. No telling where that bullet is. It’s going to be hard enough getting you into the wagon without it shifting.”
The eyes slid shut again. “Thirsty.”
Nick searched frantically for something, anything to use as a cup for his brother. But there was nothing. He was sitting in the dust of a trail in the middle of their range. Nothing. Then his eyes fell on the discarded bandana. Snatching it up he soaked it liberally in water and rested it against his brother’s lips. “Suck on this, Heath.”
Nick pushed the bandana firmly against his brother’s lips. “Water, Heath, all you have to do is suck.”
The lips moved. A soft sucking sound was heard followed by a whispered, “More.”
“Hang on, little brother.” Nick gently tugged the bandana from his brother’s mouth and then repositioned it to the next wet patch. Twice more they repeated the movements until Heath sighed in gratitude.
Nick leant forward. “Save your strength, Heath. We can talk about this when you’re well again.”
“Please, Heath, just rest. It ain’t important now.”
Heath’s eyes opened and focused lazily on his brother. “Don’t…” He sighed heavily. “Wan…na…stay…a…wake.”
Nick could see what talking was doing to his injured brother but he couldn’t ignore the fear and pleading in the pained eyes. Sighing in frustration, he nodded slowly. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Nick watched the eyes blink slowly.
“That’s just great Heath. Look where it’s got you. Lying in the dirt with a bullet in your back.”
Nick heard the pained but derisive snort and saw the eyes open wider.
“No, I just bet you hadn’t.”
Nick realized that Heath wasn’t really listening to him. Their thoughts still seemed to be traveling in the same direction but at different speeds. And knowing that made it that much harder for him to sit and listen to his brother’s ramblings.
He was surprised to see a small smile on his brother’s lips as the eyes started closing again. Suddenly Nick understood far more than he wanted to. He leant forward and grasped his brother’s arm. “Rest now, Heath; Joshua should be back soon. Then we’ll get you home.”
“Yes, Heath, I believe he is. I said I’d have a job waiting for him when he got out.”
Nick looked down at his brother and then out across the rock strewn range, remembering the words Joshua had spoken when he asked him why he hadn’t run.
“Well I started to, but then I changed my mind. I got to figuring there ain’t no way I can make a new life for myself until I find the right star.”
“Know what…it’s…like…not…ta…be free.”
Nick closed his eyes. Even after all this time, he could still feel raw pain for the life his brother had endured before coming to the ranch. He leant over his brother, brushing an errant clump of hair out of the closed blue eyes. “You’re both free now, Heath.”
The sun was almost at its zenith in the clear blue sky. Nick moved stiffly, keeping the sun behind him so that his body cast a shadow over his brother. He scanned the open range for Joshua and the wagon. He should be here by now. Nick estimated that it had been about a half hour since his brother had finally passed out. While he was grateful that Heath was no longer feeling any pain, the prolonged silence was playing havoc with his mind.
This whole damn mess from the beginning was his fault. If he hadn’t let his pride get the better of him, or been so quick to take the bet with the Mortons. Or refuse to listen to them last night at the house. Or backed his fighting words with a gun this morning.
Nick slammed his fist into the dirt beside him. The other hand rested lightly on his brother’s back, monitoring his shallow breathing. If only he had stopped long enough to actually ask Joshua if the accusations were true or not.
“Why did you back my play, Heath?” Nick sighed. That was a stupid question. He could just hear Heath now, telling him everybody deserved a chance to redeem themselves. Only it had come too late for his brother. No doubt he had been relying on Joshua to give himself up before the shooting started.
But then the Mortons hadn’t left them any choice either, riding onto the ranch in force. Then, of course, there was the beating he had taken at Zach and JR’s hands and the shooting of Bert. Feelings were running hot and high among his hands. Hadn’t Jarrod stopped the hands from riding enmasse to the Mortons after Bert’s shooting?
Money wasn’t worth his brother’s life, any man’s life for that matter.
Nick gripped his brother’s arm. “I’m sorry, Heath.”
The rattle of harness broke into Nick’s thoughts. A relieved smile softened the taut features as the wagon driven by Joshua appeared over the rise. Nick looked down at his unconscious brother. “Wagon’s here, Heath. Won’t be long before you’re resting in your own bed and getting all the attention you can handle little brother.”
Nick grinned for just a moment. “Yep boy, you are about to find out what it’s like to be under the care of the Barkley women.”
Joshua pulled the wagon to a stop and leapt from the seat, going around the back to lower the tail. “How is he?”
“Holding on, Joshua.”
Joshua nodded as he squatted beside the two brothers, “Padded the back with a couple of mattresses from the bunk house. Clem went for the doctor. Rest of the hands are out on the work details. We’re going to have to move him real careful, Nick.”
Joshua hesitated for a moment and then reached out and placed his hand on Nick’s arm. “Nick, I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you in coming here. Should have turned myself in a long time ago. Never meant for anybody to get hurt, ‘specially not you or Heath. You’ve both been real good to me. Gave me a chance when most others wouldn’t.”
Nick stiffened at the touch but then let his shoulders slump. “Not now, Joshua. Let’s just worry about getting Heath home, then we’ll talk.”
Joshua nodded sadly. “Sure thing, Nick.”
Together they lifted the comatose blond, ignoring his loud moan, with gritted teeth. They couldn’t think of the pain moving was causing him if they wanted to get him safely into the wagon and back to the ranch.
Nick settled into the back of the wagon beside Heath and waited as Joshua retrieved their saddles and tied the two horses to the back of the wagon before climbing back onto the seat and taking up the reins again.
Joshua turned to study the brothers in the back. Nick was wiping down Heath’s face with the wet bandana. “Ready.”
“As we’ll ever be. Let’s just get this done.”
The wagon lurched forward. Joshua guided the horses in a wide smooth turn and head back over the rise once more. The rumble of the wheels on the hard, sun baked trail, masking the slight moans from the blond cowboy within.
Four worried faces stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for news from above. The three men gripped empty whisky glasses, one pacing intently from one side of the bottom step to the other.
Audra sank to the bottom step and looked up at her brothers and Joshua. Guilt was written on all their faces. “Nick, will you please stop pacing.”
Nick swung around and glared at Jarrod. “What’s taking so damn long?” He sighed and looked apologetically at his sister. “Sorry, Audra.”
“It’s all right, Nick; we’re all worried. I’m sure Mother and Doctor Merar will be down soon. He did say it wasn’t as bad as he first thought.”
“He was shot, Audra; that’s bad enough.”
Audra lowered her eyes, so that her brothers wouldn’t see her tears. She felt an arm around her shoulder and rested into the strong chest of her oldest brother. “It’s all right, honey.”
The door at the top of the stairs opened and their mother and Howard Merar exited the room.
“He’ll be fine, Victoria. Keep him in bed for a few days. The bullet did very little damage itself; it’s the blood loss he has to overcome. Make sure he drinks plenty of fluids. I’ll swing by tomorrow and check the wound. You know where to find me if you need me.”
The relief was evident in Victoria’s voice as the rest of her children hurried up the stairs.
“Thank you, Howard, for everything.”
“Doc?” Nick let his eyes wander from the doctor to his mother and back to the doctor again.
Howard Merar smiled as he squeezed the burly rancher’s shoulder. “He’ll be fine, Nick, with a few weeks rest.”
Nick let out the breath he was holding and slumped against the wall in relief. “Thanks, doc.”
“You’re welcome. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a busy morning. First JR and now Heath.”
“Why yes, didn’t you know? He was shot this morning as well. Not serious and he’ll be on his feet in a few weeks too, but not before the rodeo.”
Joshua stood at the foot of the stairs and listened to the doctor’s words, feeling the relief wash over him when he realized that Heath would be all right. His place was no longer here. As the doctor walked past him, he reached out a hand and stopped his progress. “Would you like some company on the ride back into town, Doctor?”
Howard Merar studied the dark man before him, aware of who he was and why two boys were shot that morning. That he was still here in the Barkley family’s house gave him pause for thought. Before he could answer, though, he felt Nick’s presence beside him.
“Thought I was riding into town with you Joshua?”
Joshua, though grateful for his boss’s offer, shook his head. “Much obliged, Nick, but your place is here with your family. With Heath. I’ll leave Abaddon at the livery. Would appreciate it if you would look after him for me while I’m gone.”
Joshua turned to follow the doctor, who had moved to the door, but stopped at the grip on his arm. Turning back, he watched Nick as his eyes went to the closed door of his brother’s room and then to the rest of the family before coming back to rest on his face.
“Heath believed in you. He knew you were the one they were looking for in Phoenix but he was prepared to give you the chance to turn yourself in. To be free. Let me finish what he started. We both owe it too him.”
Joshua looked up at the family standing at the top of stairs — the raised eyebrow from Jarrod, the smile on Audra’s face and the nod from Victoria Barkley. After the pain he had caused the family, how could he possible turn them down?
He held out his hand, feeling the firm grip as it was taken. “Thank you Nick.”
And the rest you know.