Summary: A rewrite for Forty Rifles containing scenes and dialogue from the episode. This story was written to fill in the missing scenes, before changing the story to what my muse envisioned should have happened. (Blame it on AP.)
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 20,000
Within this story there is dialog from Forty Rifles, written by A.I. Bezzerides, Louis F. Edelman, and Christopher Knopf. Some of the dialogue is spoken by the same character and some has been giving to a different character to say. Also included is a little dialogue from Palms of Glory, written by A.I. Bezzerides, Louis F. Edelman, and Christopher Knopf
From sunup until sundown, the hands of the Barkley ranch searched high and low, through scrub brush and over rugged terrain to locate every animal of their herd. Once found, the cattle were driven to the holding pens where they would stay until the long drive to San Diego began.
The scene was repeated at other ranches across the valley as the annual drive neared.
Heath had felt uncomfortable that morning following the battle at Sample’s farm. Tension filled the room at Nick’s bellow, “Well, come on.” He’d already worked for almost two hours before returning to the house for breakfast with the family. With the meal completed, and with purposeful strides, the recently acquainted brothers walked from the house to where the men gathered in front of the crews’ quarters. The news had spread like wildfire and curious eyes looked him up and down, followed by indistinguishable murmurs.
Some of the comments had quieted during the past two weeks as Heath proved his worth to the older hands, but he knew he hadn’t won everyone over.
This day began the same as the days before; Nick gave orders while his foreman, Duke McColl, stood to his right and Heath stood on the other side, yet slightly behind.
With a quick shout, “This is a working ranch! Get moving!” Nick quickly mounted the gelding he’d chosen to ride, and who had patiently stood ground tied behind them.
Not waiting for Duke or Heath to reach their horses tied to the corral railing, Nick led the men as they raced down the wagon-rutted trail to their open range.
“Give it time boy. He’ll come around,” the long-time foreman sympathetically offered.
“Yeah. Let’s go before he has something else to complain about.” Heath reached for the gelding’s reins.
“Feel like he’s got you on a check-rein?”
“That ain’t the half of it.”
The two settled into their saddles and signaled their mounts to follow the others.
If he’d had given second thought to searching out his father’s family, he might have considered waiting until after round-up.
Since his discharge from the Union Army he’d done a little bit of anything and everything, including working on several large cattle ranches. Putting in long hours in the saddle, under a hot sun, with dust everywhere one could see, as well as the smell and the noise was nothing to the newest member of the Barkley family. What he did mind was the ire directed at him from his brother.
He could do nothing to change the circumstances of his birth. On the home front, life seemed to be settling with his father’s family. Victoria had accepted his claim first; followed closely by Jarrod and Eugene, and eventually Audra. But his brother Nick, though he appeared tolerant while inside the house, out on the range was a different matter.
All Heath’s meager belongings had been moved from the bunk house into the mansion, as befitting a member of the family. However, Nick treated him no better than a green ranch hand. No, worse than a greenhorn, at least they would be brought up to speed and an allowance given for mistakes made. No, Nick treated him like a thorn in his side; a constant reminder of the tarnished image the man now held of his father.
There were others closer to that cow, but Nick shouted his brother’s name above the cacophony, pointed a finger and jabbed his fist in the general direction. The tone and look gave Heath no alternative but to give chase.
Pushing, prodding, and chasing one blasted cow after another, it always felt as if they were shorthanded even though Duke stated they had a few extra men on the payroll this year.
As the last beasts made their way to the pens, Heath held back on the ridge to keep an eye out for any animals attempting to make a break, in case they got past the drovers down below. Subconsciously his mind alerted him there were fewer drovers than what had set out before the sun crested the eastern hills that morning. Looking for a man or horse in trouble, Heath found three men leisurely resting in the shade.
‘Of all the men, why am I not surprised it’s these three?’ Heath rode to where the men stood.
“Lillard, Brown. Let’s go! Flank those cattle. Barrett, pick up the drag.” Reining his horse around, “Today Barrett!”
“You got a horse,” Barrett continued to fuss at his horse’s head.
Stepping down, Heath walked into the gully where the hand continued to ignore his orders.
“Get back to that herd.” Heath reached for the man’s shoulder. “I gave you an order.”
Aggressively, Barrett threw his arm up and over, breaking Heath’s hold, “I take my orders from Barkleys, not from a…”
Calculatingly cool, “Not from what?” Heath dared the hand. “Not from what, Barrett?” In the face of the man’s continued defiance, “You hop on that herd or you’re traveling the flats.”
Once Barrett moved toward his horse and stepped into the saddle, Heath turned and walked up the incline. Lillard and Brown took their cue to mount as well.
Sidling up to Heath, who was checking the girth to his saddle, “You wear their brand…his rump and yourn. That B don’t stand for Barkley. Not on your hide.”
Whipping around, “You’re through. Pick up your pay and get out.”
Barrett smirked, gave a mocking salute, and rode away.
Turning to find the other two mounted, but not moving, “Anyone else feel like looking for work?”
Knowing they had a good job, and jobs that paid as well as the Barkleys paid their men were hard to find, the two turned their mounts and joined the rest of the drovers pushing the herd out of the hills.
Riding a blazed chestnut into the yard between the barns, Nick swiftly dismounted; his movements curt, taut with agitation. After tying the horse to the top rail, Nick stripped off his gloves, slapping them to the edge of the trough and hanging his hat on top of the water pump, he began unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt.
With an animalistic pleasure, he leaned over the trough, and began splashing himself with water; relishing the cool refreshment the liquid offered.
“Nick, I swear. You’re the only man who could step out of a bath and look like he was dragged by a horse,” teased older brother Jarrod, who’d walked behind the flailing water to stand with a foot placed on the lower fence rail.
“It might do you some good to eat a little dust for a while.” Words were spoken in jest, with just a hint of mockery garnered towards his brother’s occupation.
“I’m a lawyer remember? I only eat crow.” Jarrod pulled a cigar and leisurely chewed on the end.
From behind the two brothers, Heath arrived. “Well. The herd’s all in.”
“What? Don’t tell me I’m here too late to help.” Jarrod’s banter came naturally.
“Help? Great, stack yard needs a man.”
“I thought you had a full crew?”
“I got it,” Nick countered.
“Down one, I fired a man.”
“I hired him back.” Turning away, Nick gave instructions to a hand walking behind the brothers, missing the look of frustration directed his way.
Striking a match and lighting his cigar, “What happened Heath?”
Unbuttoning his own sleeves before dowsing himself in the trough, “I gave an order. He didn’t obey it fast enough to suit me.”
“Handle him.” Intractably Nick mouthed off.
“I handled him.”
“By giving him the sack.” Acerbity dripped.
“Seemed to be the way.”
Back and forth the brothers went; each challenging the other’s actions through their posture, if not their words.
“Ya got a job for a man to do, and he doesn’t do it. You get him to do it.” Nick swiped at the air in frustration. “That’s handling him,” said the man raised his whole life as a Barkley and groomed to run the ranch by none other than Tom Barkley himself. “Now you go out and tell Mac to put a double guard on the hold tonight. That herd’s restless.”
The brothers stared each other down before Heath turned to follow orders, slapping his hat on his thigh as he walked away.
Unobtrusively, Jarrod had listened to the whole exchange. He understood where Nick was coming from, but he also knew had the situation be different . . . Back when Nick first began working the ranch full-time, he’d fired a man. It hadn’t mattered that they were short of man power; Thomas Barkley accepted his son’s decision.
“Nick!” Jarrod hollered, stopping Nick half-way across the yard.
Walking to catch up, the lawyer was ever thinking. “That was a mistake you just made.” The determination behind the statement lightened by a brotherly hand placed on a shoulder.
“Ah, what are you talking about?” Stride for stride the brothers walked away from the horse corrals.
“Now you were wrong.” Jarrod’s voice held concern, not condescension.
“Ah come on.”
“Wrong Nick.” Jarrod moved in front of his brother to stop him.
“Now I’ve got three thousand head of cattle, five hundred and fifteen miles to drive it in twenty-four days with forty hands that know which end of a cow to prod. And not just our cows Jarrod…” Nick rattled off the other ranchers who were entrusting their herds to the Barkleys to get them safely delivered to market, ensuring their profit for the coming winter. “Nobody gets fired.”
Grabbing Nick’s arm as he walked past, “Nick, you chopped his legs off right at the knees.”
“Jarrod, I’d of done it to you and you’d of done it to me.”
“It’s not the same.”
“We’re all Barkleys, aren’t we?”
Jarrod recognized his brother’s true colors coming out. When it came to being called out on a misdeed, he’d claim ‘brotherhood’. But Nick’s actions spoke louder than words. The compassion behind accepting a new member of the family was missing; throw a life-preserver into the river and hope the drowning man could swim to it and rescue himself.
“We were born to the name Nick. That gives us immunity.”
Hearing, but not budging, “I’ve got twenty-four days, Pappy. So know this, that herd comes first.”
Resettling his hat, Jarrod watch Nick stride away; praying that Nick’s attitude wasn’t creating more trouble than they were prepared to handle.
Following orders, Heath headed to the bunk house. Stopping at the steps, he took a deep breath to calm himself. It wouldn’t do to let the men inside see how rankled he was. If it showed, they’d figure out Nick probably dressed him down. He could imagine Barrett strutting around like a banty rooster, boasting of how the boss man himself hired him back.
One more deep breath as he opened the door to the sound of laughter erupting. ‘Yep, just what I thought.’ He made sure the men heard the door close.
After collecting a cup of coffee, he picked up a chair from the first table and carried it to where there was an empty place directly across from his target. Judging from how Duke was watching, Heath figured the man knew what he was about to do; and appreciated the foreman’s stance of letting him handle the men in his own way.
Settling into the chair, Heath held the cup in both hands, as if getting ready to savor the brew; yet his eyes never left Barret. “McColl.”
“Nick wants two more men to ride guard on that herd tonight.”
McColl called out two names.
Calmly and in monotone, “No, I’ll be takin’ it . . . with Barrett.” Watching, ‘Bingo. That got him.’
“Whose thought was that?” Barrett asked.
‘Got your craw, didn’t I?’ “Mine.” Heath took a sip, waiting for Barrett’s next move.
“Well. . . I’ve had me a day.” Raising his own cup and smirking, “I expect I’ll pass.”
‘Gotcha. If a man refuses, Nick said, ‘you get him to do it’.’ Still using the same tone of voice, “McColl.”
Looking over his shoulder, “Yeah?”
‘Oh yeah, he knows what’s coming. Sorry friend.’ “Get the men outside.”
The foreman looked the room over, ‘Barrett, I hope you’re ready to tangle with the hornet you stirred up.’ Exasperated, “All right everybody . . . move it.”
Reluctantly, the men moved, with Barrett rising as the last of the men neared the door.
“Barrett,” called Heath, still sitting, coffee cup in both hands. With a little more ominous voice, “Sit down.” ‘Check. Your move.’
Standing beside Heath, arm on the table as support, and leaning over his shoulder, McColl advised, “Son, don’t do…”
Heath didn’t let him finish. “The cook too.”
Knowing he couldn’t stop the inevitable, McColl did as told, calling for the diminutive Chinese, Stanley, to follow him.
“Close the door on your way out.” Heath stared at Barret who’d retaken his seat and picked up his cup. ‘Yeah, you try to look like you don’t have a care in the world, but I know your kind. You can’t drink ‘cause you’re worried. Yeah, set it down. Gonna finish your dinner?” He watched the flickering expressions flicker across the hand’s face. ‘No? Your stomach’s roiling right about now. You know what’s coming. Whatcha gonna do?’
Yielding to Heath’s intense gaze, the hand rose from the table, carrying his cup to refill it.
‘Nick said ‘get him to do it’, but it ain’t that easy. Nick’s never been looked down on all his life. If it was just me, I’d brush it off, like I learned to do as a kid so it wouldn’t make more work for Momma. Do I do this for me?’ “Barrett. You’re gonna ride guard on that herd tonight.” Measured and even, “If I have to carry you out.”
Turning with the coffee pot in hand, “I have had it with you, boy. Now you can diddle them all you want up there in that high house, but to me you’re trash. Up out of that dirt just like Lillard and Brown, or Chad or me. You’re no better. You’re a sight less to be giving orders. I ain’t takin’ no bossin’ from a dead man’s dirt.”
‘Or do I do this for the name Barkley?’ Turning and rising in one fluid motion, Heath was ready to take on the thorn in his side.
Heath had fought men who chose to fight dirty, and he would have expected the coffee to be hurled in his direction had he been aware of the pot still in Barrett’s hand. But he managed to get in the first punch, a hard left to the lower side of his opponent’s ribs. Left handed, right-handed punches were thrown, bodies were pushed into the shelving units above the cook stove as the fighters fought for dominance. Oblivious to the havoc they were causing to the provisions, they continued their battle.
A fist to the gut stunned Heath when it was followed by a two-handed blow to the back that sent him sprawling. Barrett took the advantage to wrap Heath in a headlock, which gained Heath the upper hand to lift the man off his feet and slam him to the floor. Struggling to their feet, Barret charged forward. Heath side-stepped, his arms pushed the man into the wall.
Dazed, Barret had no defense to the left punch, nor the right that sent him over the half-wall into the storage area.
As befitting a barroom brawl, Heath pulled Barrett back into the main area, slamming him on the table. Struggling for advantage, the bench collapsed under their combined weight when they rolled off the table. The two men continued to grapple across the floor. Upturning another table as they stood to their feet, arms locked on the other.
A solid punch folded Heath at the waist leaving him open for Barrett to knee him in the face; throwing him back on the table. Pressing on, hands reached for throat in an effort to strangle. Years of hard work gave Heath the strength to break the hold.
Another left, another right sent Barrett backwards over another table. A flying double-footed kick using the table for leverage gave Heath the upper hand. Grabbing the man by the front of his shirt and spinning him around, he gave up on delivering one more punch to the sagging man. Heath dropped him where he was.
Weak in the knees, Heath used the walls as support to make his way to the door.
The words he knew his mother would say were almost as painful as the punches he’d endured. “Heath, how many times have I told you to walk away? You’re a better man than they are. You’re only hurting yourself.”
Unable to stand tall or proud, Heath hobbled as he made his way through the crew that stood outside the building. The ground led him to a surrey parked in the yard, he rested against the kickboard.
‘I’m sorry Momma. I was just trying to do what was right.’
‘Right for who?’
‘I don’t know.’ Taking a deep breath and reaching for his ribs, ‘It hurts. It was so much easier when I didn’t know.’
‘But now you know. You’re still…’
“There’s a fire in here!” interrupted his mother’s words. Comprehension slowly came. Shouts and yelling focused his attention. Turning to offer aid, he was pushed back into the surrey by men who were rushing to get help.
Out of nowhere a man threw himself into the water trough, then charged into the burning bunk house.
Alerted to the trouble, Nick and Jarrod arrived as the stranger hauled a still unconscious Barrett from the building.
Nick watched in disbelief as the man collapsed. “I don’t believe it.”
“Who is he? Do you know this man?” Jarrod asked.
“You three, get this man off the ground,” Nick ordered.
Without any acknowledgement or assistance from his brothers, Heath staggered to the back door of the mansion; there were enough people around to take care of everything.
Opening the door and surveying the kitchen, he stepped inside when his eyes failed to see the one person he feared to find him in such condition. With an arm wrapped around his ribs, he shook his head when Silas turned, eyes wide, mouth open as if to say something.
Thankful to find only the houseman in the kitchen, he scratchily voiced, “It’s nothing. I… I’ll head upstairs. Take me a bath and I’ll be all right.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Heath. Do you want any of Mrs. Barkley’s liniment? It’ll shore help.”
“No. No need to bother.”
“It’s no bother. I can bring it up. The Misses, she don’t need to know.” He watched the blonde-haired son of Tom Barkley shuffle across the floor.
Stopping at the foot of the staircase, he shook his head. “I’ll soak in the tub for a while.”
“There’s plenty a hot water for yous.”
“Thank you, Silas. Thank you.”
Turning back to the meal he was preparing, “That boy,” shaking his head, “Ain’t been here long enough to know how to accept help.”
Even after a long, hot soak, his body still ached. Heath wished he could just stay in his room for the evening, but Mrs. Barkley expected him to join the family and his absence would disappoint her. That, and there was company. Acknowledging her knock on the door that dinner would be in an hour, he began to dress.
Looking in the mirror he was happy there were no bruises forming on his face. At least the dining room chair would be stationary and not aggravate the bruises his torso sustained by the punches Barrett had thrown.
Heath smiled at hearing Audra running up the stairs, excitedly telling their mother about their guest.
With a glass of brandy in his hand, he stood apart from his brothers; not minding that Nick had failed to include him in the introductions to General Wallant.
He’d heard of this officer. Who hadn’t during the war? Men made names for themselves during the conflict. Bigger than life. And then they existed the rest of their lives living on those laurels.
Ever gracious, Victoria Barkley entered the room and thanked the man for all his help, today and long ago. Turning to leave the parlor, eyebrows rose in noticing Nick’s untidy appearance, “I assume you’ll be dining with us.”
If he could have rolled his eyes, he would have. But Nick, as well as Jarrod had learned long ago that their mother was a force to be reckoned with, and the action would not be tolerated, at least not in her presence. No matter the age of her child.
‘And listen to Nick brag! Offering to give up his room to the General. Well, he does have the largest bedroom. Wonder how that happened?’
Heath maintained his position at the window alcove, looking outside and admiring the conformation of the white horse prancing around in the paddock. At the back of his mind, worry niggled that there was something he should remember.
Shortly, the General begged off to go check on his horse and was escorted to the front door by Jarrod.
“Quite a guy.” Nick boasted even with the man out of the parlor. “Oh, he could sure raise ‘ned’ with the brass.” Huffing and striking his fist into the air, “But he could win battles, and men.” Picking up the glass topper, he placed it back in the decanter, “Better than any man I ever met,” tapping it down for good measure or lack of anything else to hit with his fist.
Heath listened; Nick’s spurs indicated his approach.
“Hmmm… What happened out there today, eh.” Hooking his hands onto his belt, “Well, it’s you and me on this drive. I got nobody else. The men don’t know the country, and I’ve only walked it once.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Heath gave a half-hearted smirk.
“I’m gonna need your head.”
Heath looked to the floor before turning his head toward his hand, left elbow high against the drapery while holding the drink aloft.
“We bury the thing, alright?”
’Guess that’s the best apology Nick feels I deserve.’ A full smile spread across his face at the thought, ‘Boy, momma sure wouldn’t let me get away with that.’ `Nodding his head, “All right, Nick.”
Stepping forward Nick looked out the window, taking note of where Heath’s attention had been focused.
With the glass still in his hand, Heath motioned, pointing, “That horse . . . I’ve seen it before.”
“Last two weeks. Since I’ve been here.” Worry creased his brow as he attempted to remember exactly where.
“Well now, how could you? You heard him say he was just passing through.”
“None of your business.” Nick’s tone brokered no argument.
‘Guess I’m not good enough to question another one of Nick Barkley’s heroes. Not after me being alive ruined the image he held of his father.’
Taking one step back, “Or mine.” Nick walked away, leaving the room. He was not going to let… ‘No, he’s just . . . Ah hell, he don’t know nothing.’
Staring out into the darkening sky, ‘I know he’s been here, but where? And why? Why show up now?’
With the family no longer in the room, Heath walked over to the settee and gently lowered himself to the cushions. He wondered how he would make it through dinner with his ribs as sore as they were. He was confident that none were broken; if they were, he figured they would have made themselves known during the kick he planted into the Barrett’s middle.
From where he sat, he could hear Audra coming down the staircase excitedly calling to Nick and commenting on the General.
“But he remembers you, Nick. It must be so exciting! Imagine, a living General in our house, and he knows my brother!”
“You just mind your manners at dinner tonight,” Nick encouraged as he headed up to the second floor to clean up before dinner. “General Wallant was in the Army and led scores of men. He won’t be too keen to hear the chattering of a young lady.”
“How do you know?” Heath heard the petulance in Audra’s voice.
“He’s a man’s man. Just leave the conversation to Jarrod and I this evening. You can chat quietly with Mother or Eugene.”
“What about Heath?”
Looking down to the parlor area, “Yeah, well, if you want to, just keep it quiet.” The sound of his spurs indicated that Nick was continuing his climb.
‘Children must be seen, not heard. Nick must think I fall into that category.’ Heath sipped from the glass of brandy. ‘If he thinks of me at all.’ The warmth from the liquor spread through his middle, offering some relief to his aching torso.
The bunk house had been set right fairly easily. The fire had been readily extinguished earlier in the day, with the building sustaining a little damage; the smoke being the worst of it. However, a few hours with the windows and doors wide open had eventually cleared the air.
Settling in for the night, the men played cards while others read. There was plenty of conversation about the events earlier in the day and the upcoming drive.
Everyone turned when the door opened and the General entered. With casual eyes, Wallant looked around the room, taking in the camaraderie of the men; his target lying on the bunk – Barrett.
During the war, the dissatisfied were the easiest of men to persuade into his way of thinking. He specifically sought out the down trodden, the little man, the ones felt most put on. With the war over, some of the survivors returned home, back to where they came from while others simply drifted from here to there, from job to job. Stripes earned didn’t mean anything once discharged from the army. Men took the jobs they could, back under someone else’s thumb and orders.
If what he’d heard in town was right, this man and the others were just who he was looking for. Prey on their weaknesses, their jealousies. Talk up the good ole days, the glory of battles waged. Find out if any of them had a specialty. Praise the man for it. Puff up their chests. It’s easy to lead those desperate to be led. Without any money exchanging hands they’ll be in your back pocket. But walk away. Let them think of the past. Don’t temp them with the future; that comes later.
Sleep hadn’t come to Heath. Sitting uncomfortably in the chair in front of the window for most of the night, his thoughts as dark as outside. This room he’d lived in for the past two weeks was larger than the living room and kitchen in the house he and his momma shared.
With a self-rolled cigarette in hand and feet propped on the window sill, the barbed words from Barrett and Nick echoed through his head.
Why had he really come? At first it was only to see who these people were, the family who had claimed Tom Barkley’s love. But after the fight with Nick, ‘He was so sure of himself. God, if he’d only known all the trouble he’d cause by demanding to know who I was. Bet about right now he’s wishing he’d never hired me.
‘Was it worth telling him? I don’t know. Mrs. Barkley seems right nice, and so do the others.
‘But Nick? Shucks, he talks a good game. ‘I’m gonna need your head.’” Sinking deeper into the chair. ‘More like he needs my back; me breaking my back chasing down his cows. And the men, they think worse of me than manure on their boots, and all to protect his herd.
‘I’m getting tired of trying my damnedest to be part of a family that I didn’t know anything about a month ago and having him…’ Taking a long drag on the cigarette, ‘He’s my brother. I always wanted a brother, someone to protect me from the shadows when I was younger. Would Nick have stood up for me, had I grown up here?’ Exhaling a long plume of smoke from his lungs, ‘Probably not. But I’d follow him to Hell and back, if he’d ask.’ Flicking the ash from the end of the cigarette into the ash tray, ‘I want this, I’ve got every right to this. But he ain’t backing me. There ain’t no trust. He rehired Barrett without talking to me, and then threw it in my face.
Lowering his chin to his chest, ‘I’m tryin’ momma. I’m tryin’ real hard, but Nick don’t make it easy.’
A night without any answers except that he didn’t want to leave. Heath rubbed his hands over his face as dawn painted the morning sky.
Standing outside the corral, Heath listened as Nick outlined the route one more time to the last rancher to bring his herd to the Barkleys. Fifteen dollars a head more than normal was rich, more money than these ranchers had ever been offered. But still, it was risky. They all knew the territory they’d need to travel was rough, add in the unknown factor of adequate water, and any man would be nervous about the pending drive. A herd lost meant no money, and no money meant they’d be hard pressed to survive the winter. And there would no resources to replace the lost herd the following year.
At Sam’s mention of losing his herd, Nick swore, “Over my dead body!”
“Run them in,” the man finally agreed.
With the decision made and accepted, Nick called out, “McColl, you ride gate horse. Heath you run Sam’s herd in.”
As the men left to do his bidding, Nick looked to his lawyer brother, “Well, this case is over. Let’s howl with the wind.”
And then the General dropped the floor out from under them. Informing that it wasn’t a lake in the high meadow, it was a run off. Overflowing in the springtime, but during the heat of summer; there would be no ‘greatest coffee water’ or water for anything when they arrived. When Nick argued, Wallant agreed that water probably had been plenty in the spring, but that was months ago.
‘Yep, take the high and mighty down. Tell him his dream is nothing but barrel cactus and sage. Oh how easy they fall. Nick’ll spend the rest of the day rerouting the herd, and I know just where he’ll take them.’ Nodding. ‘Just the route.’
Much to the Jarrod’s chagrin, Nick commandeered the desk in his office. Maps of various sizes were strewn across the top, taking all of Nick’s attention, until Victoria announced that dinner would be served and that he had neglected his guest for far too long.
After dinner, Nick pulled out his maps and presented his idea. Victoria excused herself from the gathering, but when Audra didn’t take the hint and boldly indicated that she didn’t mind staying, “Audra, would you help me find my sewing basket. You seem to have lost a top button on your dress.”
Listening to Wallant explain that Nick was taking the wrong route and Nick’s explanation of why he didn’t know the land any better, “I think that what my brother is, suddenly, trying to suggest is that since you’re traveling south yourself in the morning…” Jarrod interrupted.
“That I go along with them? No,” the General shook his head, “I’m sorry gentlemen. I’d be nothing but a nuisance.”
“Oh, that’s hardly the word General,” Nick offered, pulling a cigar from his lips.
Looking between the brothers, ‘Yes, just what I wanted.’ “Well, if you can tolerate a man who can’t tell the difference between a drag and a flank…” Wallant extended his hand to Nick. “Done.”
With the cigar back in his mouth, “Wonderful, just wonderful. I’ll get in touch with McColl and have him set you up for tomorrow,” Nick left the room.
In the background, by the fireplace, Heath listened and observed the changed atmosphere from the people in the room compared to earlier in the day. There had to be more to the story. ‘What did Nick mean earlier that he’d only walked it. Walked what? Something Jarrod knew. Of course Jarrod would know, he’s his brother.’ Exhaling deeply. ‘Maybe some day.’
Nothing was said to or asked of him during the conversation; the same as Eugene, who also stood on the periphery, only closer.
Surreptitiously, Wallant inhaled while looking around the room; eyes briefly stopping on the newest Barkley. ‘Just as I hoped… but you boy … you’re a different matter.’ Averting his eyes, he trusted he’d given nothing away.
The house had quieted with Audra up in her room rethinking her actions earlier in front of the General. After sitting in her mother’s room she realized she’d behaved much like a love-sick school girl. Heavens, the man was old enough to be her father. But she had so wanted to be one of the ‘boys’, listen to the plans and dream of riding out with her brothers. But that was not the lot in life for the only daughter of Tom and Victoria Barkley.
Nick was out with McColl going over the last-minute details before the combined herds of the valley headed out bright and early the following morning.
Jarrod had retired to his office in the house to devote much-needed attention to an upcoming trial, thankful that he wasn’t going to be trailing along on the drive.
Heath slipped through the double doors to the garden porch, drawn by a persistent doubt at the back of his mind. In his hand he worried the smooth stone that he’d kept with him ever since his release as a prisoner of war. So long ago, but the memories were still there. The rock was given to him by one of the sisters at the army hospital. He denied his faith by refusing to touch the worry beads on the Sister’s rosary; but knowing he needed something to do with his hands to fret away his time, the nun gave him a smooth stone she’d found on one of her sojourns from the Abbey to the hospital.
The swish of a skirt alerted him that more than likely Victoria Barkley was on her way through the doorway. Even though he knew she was coming, her hand slipping through the crook in his arm startled him.
“It’s going to be lonely here for the next few weeks. You and Nick on the drive and Jarrod back to San Francisco, Eugene off to college.” Victoria paused, as if to allow Heath to speak, but continue, “And Audra, well, whoever knows where Audra is.”
“Yes ma’am.” He listened, but his attention was still on the corrals.
“Aw now. We’re going to have to do something about that. I’ve been many things to many people, but never ma’am.” Disappointed in not receiving some kind of response, “What’s wrong Heath?”
Taking a deep breath, “Nothing.”
“Aw no. Not that, not to me.” A mother’s intuition prompted her to inquire, “Trouble with the men?”
Daring to glance down, he answered in his quiet yet calm manner, “I can handle the men.”
“Heath, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody. You proved who and what you are two weeks ago…”
Victoria’s words spurred the memories of Sample’s Farm and the fight against Coastal and Western, Heath stared at the horse. Faint images that had teased his brain replayed in vibrant colors.
Confident and bolder in his declaration, “That horse.” He stared hard, both hands gripping the railing, ashamed how he had missed what had been right in front of his eyes.
“What are you talking about?”
“That horse was there.”
“At Sample’s place with those hired guns.” Looking her straight in the eye, letting them bore into her for a fraction of a second.
“Are you sure?”
Returning to the horse cantering around the corral, Heath nodded his head twice, “You don’t forget a horse like that.”
Knowing that she needed to offer this newest son of hers her support, she couldn’t stop asking, “Have you told Nick?”
“No, Nick wouldn’t believe it. He thinks Wallant’s a saint.” ’Just like he thought of his father.’
“And you can’t prove otherwise.”
Quietly, he turned and looked to her one more time, depths of longing and loss reflected in his eyes, “No.”
‘What will it take for Heath to trust me? He’s so like Tom, so sure of his convictions. But unlike Tom… Do I believe him? Do I trust him?’ “Nor can I.” ‘Yes, I do.’
Realizing the implications of Heath’s observations, “Aw, take care Heath.” ‘Because whether you believe it or not, you’re my son. Maybe not of my body, but in two weeks you’ve become a son of my heart. I couldn’t stand to lose you anymore than I could Nick.’ “Take care.”
With the house quieted for the night, Victoria sat in front of her dressing table, looking at her own reflection.
‘Strange how I feel so attached to him, almost as if I had given birth.’ She looked to the family photo on the table top, taken months before Tom had been killed. ‘Will Heath ever think of me as someone he could care about, and not just as his father’s wife? Will he ever get to the point where he’s comfortable enough that he doesn’t feel he needs to hide when he’s hurt?’ Shaking her head, “Probably not, Tom would tend to downplay any injury, too. He reminds me so much of Tom, though Tom was never as quiet as this son. Maybe someday I’ll get to know the real Heath; hear him laugh spontaneously, have him feel relaxed enough to tease with his brothers and sister; and have him be willing to tell us more about his life.’ Brushing her hair, Victoria could only hope that day would be soon. ‘Please look over both of them while they’re on this drive. Please.”
An hour earlier, drivers perched on high bench seats shouted to the harnessed horses. Long reins slapped on the haunches urged the beasts to lean into the traces to get the supply and chuck wagons moving.
Wranglers and drovers had been up well before their usual time in order to check any last-minute needs before climbing into their saddle; and spreading out to be in position when Nick gave the order to open the gates. The process of calmly pushing the herd from the pens began as pinks and blues tinged the eastern sky. It would take well over an hour before the last of the cattle was moving on the range.
From a rise, four Barkleys watched as two of their own rode away. With the General by his side, Nick rode at point while Heath, almost lost in the dust kicked up by hooves of three thousand head of cattle, rode flank. The horses of the remuda would leave almost an hour later and overtake the cattle before noon. The wranglers would have the horses in position along a picket line, ready to be swapped out while the men ate their lunch.
By late afternoon of the third day, the animals on the left side of the herd had started lagging and spreading out. Heath couldn’t help the heavy workout his horse endured as he raced along the flank, ordering the men to keep the cattle moving. Begrudgingly, Barrett obeyed orders just enough to hide from Nick that he and the others were slacking off.
But it hadn’t gone unnoticed. Later than night, on the far side of the chuck wagon, “I gave you a job! I thought you said you’d pushed cattle before!”
“Then do your job!” Nick jabbed his brother in the chest.
Batting away the hand, “I am!”
“Well obviously not good enough.” Sarcasm dripped, Nick’s head tilted left and right as he spoke.
“Yeah, well if the men you hired were doing theirs…”
Belligerently, “I told you what to do the other day. If you’re not man enough to handle the job…”
“Ain’t me who has the problem.”
“Not a one of them’s ever given me a problem!” Nick jabbed Heath in the chest with a pointed fist.
“Well, I’m not you!”
“Ain’t that the truth! Get your men to do their job or you’ll be riding drag.” Nick stormed away.
“Purty boy lost some of his shine,” Barrett snickered to Lillard and Brown as Nick headed to the picket line.
“You best be careful. You got off easy the other day. Nick don’t know the truth awhat you said. Keep it up and even he’ll send ya packin’,” Brown advised.
“Give it time and them Barkleys’ll be castin’ stones and chasing off that bastard like a mongrel dog after a pure-bred female dog in heat.”
Wearily returning to camp at two in the morning, Heath stumbled as he slipped from the saddle. Had McColl not been there to offer a cup of coffee, he’d have landed on the ground.
“You’re late getting in.” Handing over the cup, he took the reins and tied the horse to the picket line, before unsaddling the animal.
“That’s what happens when a couple of the nighthawks don’t show up.” Heath yawned deep before sipping the coffee.
“Want me to say something to Nick about the men?” Like Silas, Duke was alert to know some of the men were given Heath a rough time, and weren’t pulling their weight.
“No. He’s the trail boss. If he’s that blind to what’s happening, then he deserves to lose the herd.”
“But not the other ranchers.”
“That’s why I stayed out. If it were just Barkley beef . . .”
“You’d have stayed out there, too.”
Too tired to debate the facts, “Night Duke.”
“Get some sleep. Morning’ll be here soon enough.”
Waving, he stepped to the supply wagon to pull out his bedroll.
“Got it in my wagon,” Cookie whispered after watching the man step back to the ground.
“Huh?” Heath turned to the grizzled old man who managed a smile, even at the early hour. Duke had advised him before they first set out that Stanley, the crew quarter cook, didn’t accompany them on the trail drives.
“I ain’t blind. You’re a good man. You don’t need their kind of trouble. I kept your bedroll safe.”
Heath nodded in thanks to the man who was hired to prepare the meals for the drovers. “Thanks. Didn’t mean to keep you awake.”
“It comes with the job, besides I was just getting up anyway; gotta get breakfast going.”
Pulling the covers around his shoulders and barely able to keep his eyes open, Heath missed seeing Wallant slip into his own bedroll.
Nine days out, the herd came to the Kern River. Once across, they’d have a day or so to rest up; horses, cattle, and men alike.
In a mood befitting the excellent progress they’d made so far, Nick jovially shouted for Heath. Without warning, the settling cattle stampeded at the sound of a nearby rifle shot. Men on the ground swung back into the saddles.
Standing in their stirrups, the flank riders raced their mounts to the front, screaming obscenities lost in the thunder of hooves, all to help the point riders turn the cattle. Every moment the cattle ran, exposed man and beast to potential disaster. Minutes passed in a blur as the men worked furiously to turn the herd in on itself in order to stop it before it truly got away from them. Hairs prickled and stood on end. Riders found it hard to breathe in the dust-clogged air.
An hour later with the cattle nervous, but milling a lush valley, Nick and McColl took stock of their situation. They’d ridden around the herd, checking in with each drover to make sure they’d come through unscathed.
“You want me to track down Heath? He’s the only one we ain’t seen.”
“I’m sure he knows what needs done.” Heath’s absence rankled on Nick as he pulled hard on the reins to turn his horse to face the direction they’d come. The torn up ground told the tale. “If he knows what’s good for him, he better be scouting for any strays that got away during the stampede. You and me need to back track; find out how many head we lost.”
“Yeah. Come on.”
Signaling their horses into a lope, the trail boss and his ramrod rode along the ground torn up by twelve thousand cloven hooves in addition to the shod horses.
“Not as bad as it could have been,” pushing his hat back on his head, McColl whistled once they reached the river crossing.
“Only three down? That’s a miracle.” Nick uncorked his canteen and took a deep draw before recapping it and hanging it from the pommel. “If I find out who fired that damned rifle, they’re gonna rue the day they stepped foot on Barkley land.”
“Nick, whoever could have been shooting at a snake.”
“Don’t matter. These men should know better.” Stopping his train of thought, “Best catch back up.” A hand on his arm stopped him from turning his mount around.
“Over there.” Duke pointed, ‘Is that a downed horse and rider?”
Riding to and dismounting beside the fallen pair, “Horse was gored. Careful Duke, we don’t know how bad he’s been trampled.”
Gently turning the drover, “He ain’t been trampled Nick. Heath’s been shot.”
“Damn, just what I needed.” The good mood from moments before had evaporated.
“That’s right, just what you need.” Shaking his head, “I’m sure Heath needed to be shot,” Duke satirically spat while looking up at his boss.
“Now just one minute!” Nick pointed a finger.
“Don’t you one minute me, boy!” Working diligently, Duke examined the unconscious man, searching for any broken bones. “I was working for your pa when you were still wearin’ dresses, before he convinced your ma to at least put you in knickers. The old man would be ashamed a the way you been treating your brother.”
“Don’t you say that!” Duke rose to his feet, fists clinching and opening. “Your Momma’s accepted him and so’s most everyone else. The men, they take their cue from you. You listen to me boy!” Duke grabbed Nick’s bicep as he attempted to walk away. Pointing to where Heath lay on the ground, “That boy didn’t ask for Tom Barkley to shack up with his ma, nor did he ask to be born as a result!” In disgust, Duke let go of Nick. “If you’d get that chip off your shoulder, you’d see the truth and embrace it.”
“You got no call!” flustered Nick ripped off his hat, slapping it against his leg.
“I got every right.” Duke thrust a pointed finger into Nick’s chest. “You don’t remember your father from when you was just a shaver. All you remember is him when you were older and that portrait that hangs in the parlor. I’m sure Victoria seen it right off, and I did, too. There ain’t no way this boy isn’t one hundred percent Tom Barkley. Now get your butt over here and help me tend to him.”
“Save your apology for when this boy’s healthy.” Kneeling down, he ripped open the back of Heath’s shirt to get a better look at the bullet wound. “If he survives this, and if you’d let him, he could be the brother you always hankered after to have; someone to share running the ranch with. You know Eugene ain’t gonna be willing to work it any more than Jarrod, not once he graduates.”
“That’s a few years down the line. ‘Sides I get them when they’re home.”
“You can have Heath by your side every day a the week; him takin’ care of business at hand when you need to be elsewhere.”
Fighting against the dawning realization that Duke was right, he had been hard on the boy ever since Heath had spoke those words, “Your father’s bastard son.” ‘It aint easy to accept.’
“He’s got a bullet wound to the back, not high enough to say it didn’t nick his lung. Pretty good lump on the sidea his head, probably got that from fallin’.”
Guilt ate at Nick as he listened to Duke. He thought of his own actions ever since he forced the confrontation and learned the truth. ‘Jarrod’s always saying don’t ask the question if you’re not ready for the answer.
“Duke’s right. I always wanted a partner to help run the ranch, a partner who was family. Ain’t Heath’s fault what happened back then. Why? Why can’t I accept the truth? Does it prove Father was… what? Human? He was good to me. Taught me how to be the man and the rancher I am today.’ Shaking his head, ‘He was a man. Mother tried to explain that there was that time when Father was away, and when he finally came home. . .’ Looking at the still form on the ground, ‘Does accepting Heath as my brother make him any less of a father to me?’ He knelt. “What do you need me to do?”
Duke looked around, “The wagons shoulda been the other side of that rise. They can’t have gotten too far ahead. Go catch up with them, see if Hoodie can clear out one of the supply wagons, we’ll use it to transport him to Bakersfield.”
“That’d take too long. Let’s bandage him up and get him in the saddle with me.”
“For nearly two hours? Nick, be reasonable.” Duke was pleased with the turn around, but they needed one of the wagons. “Your arms would be ready to fall off holding on to him for that long.”
Torn between reconciling the past and the present, “I’ll be right back.” Turning, Nick strode to his horse and mounted.
“I know, I’ll bring back the emergency kit,” Nick waved off as he spurred his mount in the direction of the wagons.
With an unconscious Heath settled in the back, Nick and Duke watched Jeremiah ‘Hoodlum’ Jones drive the team away.
“You want to go with him?”
“In case you forgot, I’ve got a herd to get to San Diego, and as I told Pappy, ‘that herd comes first’.” Pulling his gloves back on, “I told Cookie to keep moving the other wagons and catch up with the herd. You ride on and tell the men to hold the herd where they are for a day or two, let ‘em rest like we planned.”
“And where’ll you be?” Duke mounted, knowing exactly where.
Duke shook his head, smiling.
“Okay, I’m going to see if I can find this brother of mine that everyone is so gung-ho about. If I ain’t back in two days, you get the herd moving.”
“Whatever you say, Nick.”
“Hey Duke,” Nick paused. “Until we know better, uh… I asked Cookie and the others to keep quiet. I don’t want anything said to the men about Heath being shot.”
“Why not? If someone’s taking potshots at our drovers.” Duke read more into Nick’s concern; maybe he should have said something about how the men were treating Heath long before now. “You think one of our men did it?”
“You said yourself, not everyone’s accepted him. I don’t know.” Wiping his brow and resettling his hat. “I just don’t know Duke.”
The riders separated to take care of business.
Pulling up in front of the building with a sign on the lantern post proclaiming Doctor’s Office, Nick hastily dismounted from his appaloosa and ran up the crushed-stone walkway. A note hung from the door, “Gone to Supper, Be Back Later”.
“Where the hell is he?” Frustration held tight to Nick’s temper as he flipped the sign and punched the porch support post as he walked past.
“I could run back to the Sheriff’s Office we passed comin’ in,” Hoodie offered. “Maybe he has a key and can let us in.”
“Do it.” Nick climbed into the bed of the wagon. Removing a glove, he placed his palm against Heath’s forehead and felt the rise in temperature. “Don’t know whether it’s good or bad that you’re still unconscious.”
“How long has he been out?” inquired a bespectacled, gentleman; hair greying at his temples who peered over the sideboards.
“Better part of three, maybe four hours.”
“Let’s get him inside.”
“One of my men went for the Sheriff.”
“This man an outlaw?” The man stepped to the back of the wagon, reaching for the corners of the blanket to help lift the unconscious and carry him inside.
“No.” Nick looked inside himself and considered if he should say more. “He’s my brother. Hoodie went to see if the Sheriff could let us into the doc’s.”
“If he were in town, I’d say he could. But I can do you one better.”
Nick looked up.
“The door isn’t locked and I’m Doc Mordechai.”
“Am I glad to meet you,” Nick exhaled sharply as he lifted the other end of the blanket. “Nick Barkley.”
“Let’s get him inside, first door way on the right.”
The two had just carried Heath past the white picket fence surrounding the property when Hoodie returned and offered a hand.
“Sheriff weren’t there.”
“That’s okay, this here’s the doc.”
Maneuvering through the entryway and into the examination room, “On the table, gentlemen.”
After Heath was settled, the tall and lanky ranch hand stepped to the doorway, “Nick, I’m gonna go take care of the team and your horse. Put them up for the night at the livery.”
“No Hoodie, I need you to head on back to the herd. They’re gonna need that wagon.”
“You sure, I don’t mind stayin’.”
“I’ll catch up with you as soon as I can. Just take care of Appy and then head on back.”
As the young man left, Nick’s attention returned to the scene inside the room, watching as the doctor removed his jacket and tie before rolling up his shirt sleeves. “What happened?”
“His horse was gored during a stampede and he was thrown. Not sure when he was shot. . . in the back.”
“Help me get him stripped. I need everything, including him, as clean as possible to prevent infection.” Doc Mordechai removed the blood-soaked bandage that had been applied over the shirt. “Has he ever had an adverse reaction to ether or chloroform?”
“I don’t know.” Nick pulled off Heath’s boots and socks.
Cutting away what was left of Heath’s shirt, the doctor saw traces of previous injuries. “Surely with these scars on his body, he had to be been put under to take care of some of them.”
“Scars?” Nick took a look before unbuckling and removing his younger brother’s gun belt. Setting it on a chair by the door, he returned to pull the leather belt through the loops of Heath’s pants.
“Looks like someone whipped him, not recently mind you; possibly when he was a lot younger, maybe as a child. He’s also suffered at least one other gunshot wound,” the doctor detailed the old wounds he saw as he stripped away the last of Heath’s filthy clothing. Looking up suspiciously, “You said he was your brother.”
“He is . . . only we didn’t grow up together. We just,” Nick swallowed hard. “Heath just recently came to live with the family.”
Doc Mordechai retrieved a sheet from a cabinet in the corner of the room, returning, he draped it over the still figure on the examination table.
“I’ll do my best. But without proper history of the patient I can’t be sure how he’ll handle sedation. Some men can’t handle it at all, suffer complications, and they don’t make it. And I’m not all that sure about his head wound. Sometimes, a man takes a blow and just never wakes up.”
“I can stay if you need help,” Nick offered as he watched the physician pull a tray of surgical equipment from a different cabinet in the room.
“My nurse will here shortly.” Knowing that regardless how recently these two had become brothers, they were family. “He’s still alive. And you did everything you could to help ensure he made it here. Let me do my job.”
“Morey?” called a feminine voice from the waiting area.
“In here Beverly. We have a gunshot patient with a head wound.”
“Sir, please.” Doc Mordechai’s nurse, Beverly Culhaney, all five foot eight, raven hair, dark green eyes, and curves everywhere there should be, held open the door; with the expectations of Nick leaving.
“There’s a café down the block. Get something to eat or a cup of coffee or two. I won’t know anything for probably an hour.” With Nick hesitant to exit, “The longer it takes you to leave this room, the longer it will be before I can begin the operation to save your brother’s life.”
“You do your best,” Nick pointed, his eyes staring menacingly hard at the doctor.
“Nothing but my best.”
Sitting at a table in the corner of the café, ‘Has he reacted to sedation? How’m I supposed to know?’ Nick told the waitress to bring a cup of coffee. ‘He’s been whipped? Why? Doc said it happened when he was a lot younger; maybe as a child. How much a child?’ Nick smiled at the waitress who set a steaming cup of coffee down on the table. ‘Doc found an old bullet wound. So, big deal. I’ve been shot before. He’s what, four years younger than me? ‘Line boss, hay waddie, hasher, cow prod, jingler, you name it, I’ve done it.’ He’s too young to have done it all, but since he’s been here, he’s pulled more weight around the ranch than some of the men. Why’ve I been such a fool?”
Nick sat, elbows on the table, coffee cup held with both hands mid-air.
‘Father? Is it because of you that I’ve shut him out? Damn it! I know I’ve been with women and never gone back… Still.’ He nodded his head when the waitress brought over the coffee pot. He handed his cup to her.
“Would you like a piece of apple pie?”
“Apple? Sure, a big slice. It’s been a while since I’ve had any.”
‘Father, you should have gone back and checked. He should have been raised here, as a Barkley, even if it set tongues to waggin’. Like they aren’t now.’ Nick huffed. ‘We haven’t been to town since Heath arrived. Haven’t even made it to church, just too much to do since we showed Coastal and Western we’re not pushovers. Wonder how much of a field day the gossips are havin’?’
Toying with the fork delivered with the slice of pie, ‘Heath jumped right in to working. Didn’t have to be told what to do; he saw what needed done and did it. Didn’t push it off on the hands just to make life easier.
Duke returned to the herd to find a little over half the number of drovers who should have been riding guard. Entering camp, he found chaos. Cookie was shouting at Barrett who was throwing orders around with half the men listening and the other half ignoring.
Duke stepped down from his gelding. “WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?!” Everyone turned.
“Finally, someone with some brains,” Cookie glared at Barrett, pushing past the man. “What’d ya find out?”
“Not now.” Duke walked directly toward where the men were gathered. “I asked a question? What’s going on?”
“Barrett thought he was in charge when you and Nick didn’t return,” Gus stated, disdain dripped from his voice.
“Well, no need to worry about that now. I’m back. I want at least six more riders on the herd! Barrett since you want so much to be in charge, you can lead five others out and ride ‘til midnight. And keep your eyes open, I don’t want to find any of you sleeping in the saddle!” Duke watched as the men made their way to the picket line. “And those of you who’ve been slacking off, don’t think it ain’t been noticed. It stops right now! Pull your weight or be prepared to ride midnight for the rest of the drive.”
Those who had been called out mumbled as they went about their tasks while the others quietly settled in for their meal.
Duke headed to the chuck wagon, grabbing a cup of coffee from Cookie.
“You gonna answer my question now?” Cookie quietly asked.
Nodding, “It weren’t one of ours who shot the boy. I found an empty shell casing and a couple of unfired cartridges on the rise about two hundred yards out.”
“You gonna tell the men where Nick and Heath are?”
“None of their business. Sides the men knew we were planning to rest the herd this side of the Kern. If any of them start grumblin’ you send them my way.”
Watching Duke watch the men, “You think Heath was the target?”
“I don’t know. Could be he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Duke blew over the steaming brew before taking a sip.
“You believe that?”
Glaring at the man, “Where’s Wallant?”
“The General rode out shortly after I arrived, said he was gonna hawk the herd.”
“He wasn’t out there when I rode in; hard to miss that white horse of his.”
Wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist, “You think the boy’s gonna be alright?”
“He’s a Barkley.”
“So was Tom.” Cookie left the foreman standing alone.
As the sun sank lower in the western sky, Wallant entered the camp of those shadowing the herd. Approaching his second, “You shot the wrong man!” and back-handed him hard, knocking him to the ground.
“I got the job done,” the man spat blood from his mouth.
“I wanted Nick Barkley out-of-the-way. You shot his brother.”
“I got them both out-of-the-way,” hissed the Mexican named Cota.
“But not long enough! He’ll return.”
“By then you’ll have his men.” Cota slowly rose from the ground, wiping spit and blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. “I watched. Had I not shot the other one, he would have caused you trouble.”
“The men wouldn’t have followed him! I needed Nick out-of-the-way.”
“Is he with the herd?” Bending over, he swiped his hat from the ground. “The brother, he was not like the others. I watched. He was a lone wolf, one who would be exceedingly crafty and dangerous. If Nick returns, he will be dealt with. Now we only have to deal with the foreman. No?”
“Next time, follow orders.” Gathering up the reins to his horse, Wallant climbed back into the saddle. “Make sure everything, and I mean everything, is at the shack day after tomorrow. They’ll rest the cattle another day or so to make up for the stampede.”
“You make sure you have the men and the money.”
Doc Mordechai measured his patient’s pulse while Beverly cleaned up the room, gathering the bloody instruments and towels.
“Thank you Beverly,” Mordechai stated as he slipped his watch back into his pocket.
“What chance does the boy have?”
“Fairly good, if we can keep this fever at bay.”
“It’s not risen much since he arrived.”
“No, probably caused by shock. The wound was straight forward to clean out.”
“But you’re worried.”
“His head wound still bothers me. I wish we’d had time to wait for him to regain consciousness before operating. There’s no guarantee that the ether didn’t do more harm.”
Pausing to understand the implication of the doctor’s statement, “I don’t blame you for Isaac’s death. You did everything you could, for God sake, he was your brother. You know as well as I do, had you waited any longer, the bullet wound would have proved fatal . . . same for this young man.”
“I miss him too.” Doc kissed his sister-in-law on the forehead. “I just pray this one will wake up.”
“He will. You wait and see.” With an armload of soiled surgical sheets and towels, Beverly left the room with tears pooling in her eyes.
Nick stared at the empty cup and looked up as a shadow fell over him.
“Hear tell you brought in a man suffering a gunshot wound?”
“I did, sheriff.”
“Care to tell me how it happened?”
“We got caught up in a stampede.”
“Generally drovers fire into the air.”
“Yeah, well someone didn’t.” Sitting forward, resting both forearms on the edge of the table. “Look sheriff, we can banter back and forth. Only I don’t think you’d be happy seeing me really pissed off. So why don’t you just spit out your accusation.”
“All right. Who are you and can you back it up?”
Pushing the chair back, he stood tall, hands wrapped around the buckle of his holster. “My name is Nick Barkley and I’ve got a herd of three thousand head of cattle a few hours past the Kern on our way to San Diego. Just who else might I be? Sheriff?”
“Names Klyden, Sheriff Joshua Klyden.”
Nick stared as the lawman pulled out a chair and raised his foot to the seat. His weather-worn face spoke of a life out on the range. Leaning forward, he rested an elbow on his knee, calloused hands spoke of a life of hard work. He smiled at the strands of red hair poking out from under the law man’s hat.
Taking stock of the man who still stood, the sheriff looked him straight in the eye. ‘If he’s guilty, he won’t look me in the eye.’ “Marauders on your way south to meet up with a General to join Diaz. We’ve had a lot of men showing up, hanging around like they’re waiting for someone, and I don’t like the trouble they’re causing.”
“Diaz would never been found on this side of the Rio.” Nick let his hands drop to his sides, his fists clinching open and closed.
Pulling out a chair to sit and indicating Nick to return to his seat, “You’re right. But I’ve heard rumblings from some of the men who’ve spent time in my jail, they been talking about some big Yankee General. He’s promising all sorts of rewards once they get down to Mexico.” Signaling to the waitress, he accepted a cup of coffee. “Barkley. You’ve three thousand head of cattle, mighty tempting to the likes of this man. He needs money to finance his campaign, and to keep his promises.”
“I’m not alone, I’ve forty-some drovers with me.”
“You see any strangers?”
“Now every one we’ve seen since we left Stockton is a stranger. Care to quantify who your stranger is?”
“Rides a big white horse.”
“General Wallant?” Nick sat back in the chair, the air whooshed from his lungs as if he’d been sucker punched.
“You know him?”
“Saved my life and those of my men during the war.”
“The war’s long over.” The sheriff stared over the cup he held to his lips, “But some men can’t give up the glory. I’m figuring this General is one of them.”
“He’s with you?”
“Not here.” Tilting his head, “With the herd.”
“He have anything to do with the route you’re traveling?”
“I won’t believe your lies.”
“If I could show you proof?”
“What proof?” Nick sat forward.
“My deputy followed a couple of strangers, Mexicans out to an abandoned shack a ways from here, maybe a half-day’s ride. Reported back they have plenty of Henrys and Winchesters stockpiled there. Dowd also found more than a few cases of dynamite.”
“So, what’s that have to do with Wallant.”
“Nothing for certain. I’m just following the crumbs.”
“You’re going to be mighty disappointed when you find that Wallant has nothing to do with this.”
“I can say the same to you. How’re you going to feel when you find out he has everything to do with this? Ride out with me and I’ll show you your proof.”
“Not until I find out how my brother’s doing.”
“He the one shot?”
“Doctor Culhaney’s the best.”
“I thought his name was Mordechai?”
“It is, Doctor Mordechai Culhaney, everyone around here calls him Doc Mordechai. Between him and his sister-in-law Beverly, your brother couldn’t be in better hands.”
Sheriff Klyden took note of the young boy entering the café.
Out of breath, the boy’s chest heaved as he delivered his message. “Sheriff, Doc sent me to find you and a man named Barkley.”
Without waiting to hear anything else, Nick jumped from the table and ran out of the building.
Bolting through the door to the doctor’s office, “My brother?”
Holding up both hands to stop Nick’s entrance, “Easy there. He’s a very lucky man. If it had been half an inch lower, his lung would have been punctured,” Doc Mordechai explained.
“When can he ride?” Nick pulled off his hat.
“Not for at least ten days, maybe two weeks.”
“But we’ve a herd. . .”
“I understand, but he’s still a sick young man. The fever hasn’t abated, and the wound will take time to heal. And I need to continually monitor his condition for the next twenty-four hours or so.”
Sheriff Klyden entered behind Nick, “Son, you can leave your brother here to recuperate and pick him up on the way back home.”
Running a hand through his hair revealed Nick’s agitation.
“Barkley, if Wallant is with your men, your herd is at more risk than if you left your brother here.”
“Then I’ll ride to the herd.”
“You just don’t get it. Let me spell it out for you.”
“Sheriff, I’ve had just about enough…”
“I’ll throw you in jail!”
“And it would be on trumped-up charges and my older brother, who just happens to be a lawyer with offices in Stockton AND San Francisco, would have your badge.”
“Gentlemen, your arguing isn’t doing my patient any good.”
“Heath’s awake?” Nick turned; hope apparent on his face.
“Not yet, but I won’t have him disturbed by two bulls posturing to see which will come out on top.”
Humbled, Nick looked to the floor.
“Barkley, would you listen to what I have to say?” pled the sheriff.
Nick glared, but nodded.
“The way I see it, Wallant needs men. You have forty men who some, not too long ago fought a war. Many a man found it difficult to return to what their lives had been. This General comes along, finds a way to insinuate himself into the group. Along the way, the natural leader of the group is ‘disposed of’, who do the men follow? Most aren’t leaders, they’re looking for someone to lead them. Who’s in charge while you and your brother are here?”
“I just can’t believe he would…”
“Men change. Some can’t give up the lure of command and will look for any way to get that power back.”
“But if you’re wrong?”
“Then I can check him off my list of suspects. Barkley, I need a man like you. Besides my deputy, there isn’t anyone else in this town that I can use to help me. We’re growing, but most the folks are city people. They don’t’ have what it takes to be out there.”
“In the morning. We’ll ride out.” Turning to the doctor, “Now, may I see my brother?”
As the town quieted for the night, Nick sat in the chair beside his brother’s bed. Frequently he’d refresh the damp cloth on Heath’s forehead and took a moment or two to wipe down his chest and arms in an effort to keep him cool.
“You gotta come to boy. I told you back at the house, it’s just you and me. I need your brain . . . more so I need your calm.” Sitting back in the chair, “Shucks, I know you can get riled, ‘Boy, I’ve had me a day!’ You remember when you made that proclamation.” Slowly shaking his head, “Guess between that and you claiming to be . . . well, you set yourself on my wrong side and no matter what you said or did, I . . .”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I brought some fresh water,” Beverly announced as she entered the room. “Keep talking to him. It’ll guide him back.”
“Don’t know if he’d want to be back, at least not with me around.”
“Morey said you were brothers.” Beverly set fresh towels on the nightstand as well.
“Yeah. Didn’t know it until not quite a month ago.”
“Must have been a surprise.” Beverly stepped to the bed and checked Heath’s temperature. “He feels a little cooler.”
“Yeah? Been trying to keep him cooler.” Rising from the chair and walking to the window. “Will he wake?”
“I believe he will; so does Morey, Doc Mordechai.”
“It’s been too long. He got tossed early this morning. It’s been twelve hours, maybe more.” Nick moved the curtains to look outside. “That’s too long for just a bump on the head, or even a gunshot.”
“A blow to the head is nothing to take lightly, considering what Morey said in how he went down.”
“Yeah, getting toss from a bronc is heck of a lot different than getting thrown during a stampede. Hell, he could have even been struck by one of the cattle.”
“I don’t think that’s the case. There are no other signs of him being trampled.”
“Then why ain’t he woke yet?”
“I may be out of line.” Beverly took a step back, each hand taking hold of the opposite elbow.
Nick turned to look at the woman, taking note of the way she stood; hesitant as if she was unsure she should say anything. “I’ve been known to have my say a time or two.”
“It must have come as a shock, a grown man finding out he has a grown brother he never knew; couldn’t have been easy on either of you.” Lowering her arms, Beverly walked to the other side of the window, and leaned against the wall. “There was twelve years between Morey and my Isaac. Morey’s father remarried and Isaac came about a year later.”
“He’s younger than I am, and my mother is still alive,” Nick whispered. “And my parents were married before I was born and were, up until Father died.” ‘Why did I just tell her all that?’
“There’ve been times since Isaac died, Morey’s told me of the worries he had as a young boy when Isaac was a growing up – his anger, jealousies, and insecurities. I imagine you could be going through those same emotions.” Nick shrugged his shoulders. “Morey directed the bitterness he felt from having a step-mother towards the baby. When he was old enough to, Isaac worshipped the ground his brother walked on, but it wasn’t reciprocated. That is until Isaac said he wanted to go to college to learn to become a doctor, and hoped to work alongside his brother.” Twisting her hands and repositioning her apron, “They were able to work together for eight years and a pair of closer brothers I’ve never seen. Morey regrets all the time he lost being a big brother, and now, Isaac’s no longer here. Don’t let those same emotions block you from getting to know him. It might just be your brother’s waiting to hear that you want him as part of your life.”
“I already told him I want him.”
“When I came in you said you needed his brain and his calm.” Taking two steps, she placed a hand on Nick’s crossed arms. “That’s not the same as telling him you want him as a brother.” Walking to the doorway, she stopped. “Well, I’ll leave you two.”
“Thank you, for all you’ve done to help.”
Nodding, Beverly left the room.
Returning to sit in the chair he had vacated earlier, Nick lifted his legs and rested his boots on the edge of the bed. Leaning back, elbows on the armrests, fingers interlaced over his stomach, “Maybe she’s right.”
“She is,” Heath whispered.
“Heath?” Nick dropped his feet to the floor and moved to the side of the bed. “You playing opossum all this time?”
“Just heard her say it weren’t the same as wanting a brother.” Heath coughed.
“You want some water?” He rose and walked to the nightstand.
“Please.” Heath worked to clear the dryness from his throat as Nick poured a glass.
“Here, let me get you sitting up.”
Moments later, Heath closed his eyes, his thirst quenched. “How long?”
“Since you been awake? Too long. More than half a day. How you feeling?”
“Shoulder hurts, some.”
“And your head?”
Opening his eyes, “Got a crew pounding away at rail spikes.”
“I’ll see if the doc’s got something to help ease the pain.”
Turning at the door, “Yeah?”
“Who’s with the herd?” Heath raised his hand to rub his temple.
“Don’t you worry about them.”
“You need to get back.” His arm limply fell back to the bed.
“Nick, I remembered where I saw Wallant’s horse before. I know you said it was none of my business.”
“Heath…” Nick warned.
“I should a told ya before we set out. He was at Sample’s farm. Holding back, but he was there. I saw that horse before I rode in. He was in the tree line. He’s trouble Nick. One way or another, that man’s trouble.”
“Don’t you fret none, boy.” Nick returned to Heath’s bedside.
Cringing in pain, but needing to tell, “Nick, there were rumors, things I heard before I went home and learned who my father was. I didn’t put any of it together until after we forded the Kern. Wallant, he’s stolen men before; entices them away from their jobs using false promises and old triumphs. Those men, most ended up dead.” Reaching for Nick’s arm, “You gotta go. Protect the men.”
The latest news was a bitter pill to swallow, but he realized neither the sheriff nor Heath had reason to lie. Nick accepted the General’s past might be tarnished. Wouldn’t be the first time a man using his position turned marauder during or after the war. He’d only seen one side of the man, a hero. Just like he’d only seen one side of Heath and that side he had perceived as a liar.
‘If he had been lying about being Father’s son, he wouldn’t have put up with everything I’ve thrown his way. Why should he be so worried about the men? Duke said he saw it, said Heath looks like father, back when he was younger. Nick, you’re a stubborn fool. Okay so I accept him as my brother, but that doesn’t mean I won’t challenge him when I feel he’s out of line.’
“I’m planning to head out in the morning with the sheriff. Seems he’s got the idea that Wallant is planning to somehow hook up with Diaz.”
“Nick, you be careful. He’s not to be trusted.” Heath’s eyes drooped closed.
“You get some sleep and I’ll see you when I get back.” Patting the blanketed leg of his brother, Nick left the room.
The greys of night were fast leaving the street as Sheriff Klyden half sat on the porch railing, waiting for Nick to exit the hotel. Pulling on his gloves, he looked the lawman up and down, before pushing his hat back on his head, “You’re up early.”
“Wanted to get a jump on going after Wallant. Got your horse getting saddled at the livery.”
“Surprised you don’t have him here and waiting.” Resettling his hat, Nick stepped from the boardwalk.
“Figure you’d want to check in on your brother first.”
“You got that right.”
Entering the room at the back of the clinic, he noticed the curtains were drawn open, letting the morning sun illuminate the room. A gentle breeze blew through the open window.
“Don’t stop on my account, Nick.” Heath opened his eyes, turning his head towards the doorway.
“Didn’t want to disturb you if you were asleep. ‘Sides, how’d you know it was me?”
Raising his eyebrows, “Seriously, I heard you the moment you entered the front door.”
“I didn’t say any… Oh, my spurs.”
Entering farther into the room, he removed his hat, twisting it in his hands, “How you feeling this morning?”
“Shoulder doesn’t hurt so much.”
“And the headache?”
“Doc said since I talk sense, he’s giving me some headache powers that help.”
“That’s good. Well, you mind what the doc and Miss Beverly say.”
“You getting ready to head out?”
“Yeah, the sheriff’s out front waiting.”
“You’re going after Wallant.”
“Yeah, one way or the other. Either he’s a pawn or he’s guilty.”
“I’m sorry, Nick.” ‘I really am sorry to be so much trouble.’
Replacing his hat to his head, “I’ll see you in a few days. You take care.” ‘And keep out of trouble.’
Heath twisted and leaned forward to holler , “Watch your back!”. He lay back feeling exhausted.
Memories kept Heath from growing bored; once he remembered the first rumors, he’d spent a fretful morning as more images surfaced and fit neatly into the picture forming in his mind. Heath sat up when he heard someone enter his room late in the afternoon.
Pointing, the man told the boy who followed him where to set the things he was carrying. “Ah, yes. There you are.” A portly man had entered the room speaking with an obvious Italian accent. His dark mustache went from above his lip across his cheeks, ending at his sideburns. The lower half of his face was shaved clean.
“Who are you?”
“Folks around here call me Wally, short for Walbridge. I give the best shave and haircut in town.”
“Don’t let him fool you, he’s the only barber in town,” the boy answered before tipping his hat and backing out the door after hearing, “Get out of here Kaleb.”
“Sure Pa!” A high-pitched laughter followed the departing youth.
“Turns thirteen,” shaking his head, “I’ll need to have a word with my wife about his impudence.” The man watched his son leave the room before turning to his client, “Now, where was I. Oh yes. From the looks of you, you sure could use both.”
“We’ve been on the trail a while.” Heath scratched the growing stubble on his cheeks. “Don’t exactly get to shave regularly.”
“Your brother thought you might like some attention.”
Walbridge set out preparing the lather and ensuring his razor was sharp.
“What’s in the pan?”
“Oh, that’s a hot towel for afterwards.”
“Nick didn’t spare no expense did he?”
“No, and he even suggested after the shave you might like a haircut.”
“Are we sure we’re talking about the same Nick Barkley?”
“Tall, talks loud, wears big rowels?”
Shaking his head in disbelief, “Guess so.”
“Just let me fluff these pillows behind you. Doc said you weren’t allowed out of bed yet.”
“Ah, I’m feeling fine.”
“Not until the doctor says.”
As most men are prone to do when sitting in a barber’s chair, they chatted; it didn’t matter that Heath was restricted to a bed. Deftly, Heath directed their discussion to the surrounding areas, inquiring where a person might find a secluded shack under the guise of wanting to get away from all the hassle for a while. “Once the doctor turns me loose,” he clarified.
By the time Wally had finished the shave and haircut, Heath had a pretty good idea where he would be heading.
Running his hands across his face, Heath whistled. “Smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
“My own papa couldn’t have done it any better.”
Collecting his equipment, Walbridge left Heath alone.
By the time Beverly brought in his supper, Heath was feeling much better, a solid plan in his head.
“My, don’t you look handsome.”
Blushing, “Thank you, ma’am.”
They chatted for a few minutes as she placed a few more pillows behind his back. Once satisfied with her efforts, she set the tray bearing his dinner on his lap.
“I hope you like beef stew with some fresh-baked bread.”
“Would you like some company while you eat?”
Heath nodded, and Beverly sat in the chair next to the bed. Leaning back, she stretched her arms and legs straight out in front of her.
“Was getting pretty lonesome in here.” Heath slowly savored the beef stew. Growing uncomfortable with the silence and the nurse in the room, “Nick was saying you and the doctor are related?”
“I’m his sister-in-law.”
“He must be a pretty lucky man, married to your sister.”
“What makes you think that?” Beverly sat forward in the chair. Intrigued at why the man would presume she had a sister.
Blushing, “Your last names are different.”
“Oh, they’re not different,” Beverly gently laughed. “I was married to Morey’s brother. With both of them being doctors it got rather confusing which doctor people were talking about. So, they started going by Doc Mordecahi and Doc Isaac. Unless it was for a trial or something official, I rarely ever heard either one of them introduce themselves to a new patient by Doctor Culhaney. And going by ‘Doc’ sort of put people at ease. They weren’t as nervous as if dealing with a ‘doctor’.”
“Sorry if I offended ya.”
“Will I be meeting your husband? I mean, will he look in on me when Doc Mordecahi goes out on rounds?
“Heath, Isaac died a few months back.”
“We’re adjusting.” Not wanting to break down in tears in front of her patient, she stood, “If you feel like falling asleep before I return, just set everything on the table here.”
“I will. And thank you.”
Nodding, Beverly walked out into the hallway and out the front door.
Four hours out-of-town, Klyden led Nick from the rutted road they’d been following and halted at a brook. Both men allowed their horses to drink, while the men drank from their canteens. Replacing the stopper, Nick wiped his mouth using the back of his hand.
“Toss your canteen over and I’ll fill it,” Klyden offered, catching the canteen easily.
“You know where we’re heading?”
“The general idea. Dowd hunted this area when he was a kid.”
“And what of you?”
“Only been here for about three years. So far the directions he gave me have been pretty accurate.”
“How much farther?”
“Maybe an hour. Up that arroyo and follow the trail south. We’ll meet Dowd and he’ll take us the rest of the way.”
“Lead on,” Nick said as Klyden handed him back his canteen.
Thirty minutes later they spotted a saddled horse munching in a wide grassy field.
“That looks like Dowd’s horse.” Sheriff Klyden kicked his horse hard into a gallop.
At their rapid approach, the dun-colored horse shied away, but was easily caught by the two larger horses and their riders.
Stepping down from his saddle, Klyden examine the horse; dismayed to find blood on the saddle. “Damn.”
“I’ll start searching from that side and work my way to where we first spotted the horse.”
An hour lapsed before Nick found the body they were looking for. “He’s just a kid,” Nick knelt and spoke as Klyden turned Dowd over.
“Just turned twenty-one two months ago.” Removing his hat, he wiped a sleeve across his eyes. “He was shot in the back. Must have saw something he shouldn’t have. I warned him to keep his distance.”
“How far away from here is that shack.”
“I’m not exactly sure.”
Standing to his feet, fisted hands on his hips, “You’re not sure?! You send your deputy out here and you have no idea where he’s been?”
Understanding how the man could interpret their actions, he calmly answered, “We didn’t want to attract any attention that we knew about the shack until we had proof.”
“You told me you had proof.”
“With your help, I’d have all the proof I needed.” Walking to Dowd’s horse, he untied the bedroll from the back of the saddle. Returning to where the young man lay, the lawman covered him.
“He have any family?” Nick helped wrap the blanket around the man.
“No. Parents died a few years back of the fever.”
“So what now?”
“I take him back to town.”
“And what of Wallant?” Nick stood, arms crossed.
“We come back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow might be too late.”
“I can’t help it. I’m not going to leave Dowd out here.” Tying a rope to keep the blanket around his deputy, “Help me get him on his horse.”
Twenty minutes later, Nick watched the sheriff return to town with his deputy’s body slung over the horse the lawman was leading.
Searching, Nick found what he hoped was the trail from the deputy’s horse leading into the field.
The trail was easy to follow, but still took time while walking.
Parched, Nick pulled his canteen and took a drink. Removing his hat and holding it upside down, he poured a little water in the crown for his horse.
“I tell you what Appy. This had better not be a wild goose chase.”
With his hat back on his head and canteen hanging from the saddle horn, Nick led his horse on.
A shot ricocheted off the boulder beside him. Twisting, he pulled his revolver while looking for the assailant. A second shot allowed Nick to target the man, firing and striking him in the chest.
Running over, Nick kicked away the man’s gun before making sure he was dead. Kneeling down, he heard the clicks of gun hammers being drawn back.
“Drop your weapon, Senior Barkley. I told Wallant if you returned, I would take care of you.”
‘Should a kept my mouth shut.’ With a thud, Nick’s pistol landed on the ground. Moving his arms away from his sides, “You going to shoot me in the back?”
“No, if I had wanted to do that, I would have pulled the trigger long before now. Miguel was anxious, he did not wait as he should have.”
“So, what’s next?” Nick asked, hesitant to look over his shoulder.
“Now, we take you to Wallant.”
“Because he is the General.”
Bakersfield had quieted for the night. In the clinic, Heath slowly slipped from the bed, pausing at the foot to make sure he had his balance before he made his way to the chest of drawers. Earlier he’d watched Beverly place a fresh set of clothes in the drawer; he hoped they fit.
Opening the drawer he was surprise to see what lay on top of the neatly folded trousers and new shirt; his worry stone. In a way he’d enjoyed his conversation with Beverly after she had mentioned finding such a smooth yet strikingly-colored stone in the pocket of his pants. She’d held it near the window; it appeared to pulse from the light of the sun. Taking it in hand, he explained how it presented the good and the bad of life. “Rubbing it is sort of like rubbing the magic lantern in that book about the Arabian Nights, and wanting a Genie to grant you three wishes.” After she left the room, he placed the stone on the nightstand. ‘Miss Beverly must have put it here when she came for the tray and dirty dishes.’
Grabbing the clothes and stone from the drawer he returned to sit on the bed. After sliding his legs into the pants, he slipped the stone into a pocket. Maneuvering his arms into the sleeves of his shirt was an effort, but by the time he had finished fastening the buttons, the back of his shoulder didn’t hurt as much.
Once dressed, the pants hung a little loose around the waist, he only needed to tighten his belt a hole. Opening the next drawer down, Heath found and pulled out his holster. After checking his weapon, he returned it to its resting place and buckled the belt around his hips. In the closet he found his boots. ‘Guess they don’t know me well enough. Figured I’d stay put by just them telling me to.’ Heath smiled a lop-sided grin, before grimacing while pulling on his boots. ‘Gonna be fun saddlin’ a horse.’
In the livery, Heath winced as the wound in his back pulled as he attempted to lift a saddle down from the half wall pointed out by the night manager.
“Here, let me do that for ya young fella.”
Ten minutes later, Heath rode out of Bakersfield on a rented horse with a borrowed rifle in the scabbard.
Finding most of the landmarks exactly as Walbridge described, Heath was pleased that he was making as good time as he was. It helped that a full moon illuminated the valley, making it easy to see anything that could cause the horse to stumble.
The sun was well up into the morning sky when Heath found what he hoped would be the correct shack. Tying his horse in a copse of trees a distance away, he pulled the rifled before beginning a crouched walk to the building. Stepping to the porch, he looked through the broken boards nailed over the window, all he could see were wooden cases.
Warily, Heath pushed open the door and stepped inside. He exhaled deeply after satisfying himself that he was the only one present. ‘Now to sit and wait.’
Reaching behind his back, he tested to see if he’d pulled any stitches, his hand came away bloodless. ‘Nurse Beverly will probably have my hide when I get back.’ Shaking his head at his thoughts, ‘Wonder if Nick’s generosity of a shave and a haircut will extend to him having my back against her and the doc?’ Contemplating, ‘Probably not.’
“Why are we waiting here?” Nick asked after Cota allowed him to dismount and offered him water. “I thought you were taking me to Wallant?”
“Why? And don’t give me ‘because he’s the General’. Why does Wallant need me?”
“He does not need you. He needs your men.”
“So the Sheriff was right.”
“My men ain’t gonna follow him.”
“They’ll follow. They tire of working for those who have the money and not sharing.”
“We’ve worked hard for what we have. My family…”
“Cota,” the man named Ortega interrupted, “maybe you were wrong in not shooting this one?”
“He’s more use alive than dead,” Cota growled.
“No, you should have shot this one instead of the other one.”
“You’re the one who shot Heath?!” Nick struggled against the ropes. “Let me get my hands free and I’ll take you on right now!” He continued struggling and verbally assaulting the men who held him captive.
“Shut up!” Cota ordered.
“Damn you! Why?! Why shoot him in the back? You’re nothing but bunch of cowards. Not a one of you are man enough to take on a Barkley face to face!” Losing control, forgetting the fact that his wrists were bound, Nick charged.
Cota’s fist slammed into his stomach, doubling him over. A second double fisted blow across his back knocked him to the ground. A kick to his side knocked the wind from him, giving Cota the opportunity pull out a bandana, and use it as a gag. Ortega and the others laughed after resettling weapons back in their holsters.
“You want to know why I shoot your brother?” Twisting Nick’s shirt in his hand, his rank breath blew into Nick’s face. “Wallant wanted you out-of-the-way.” Cota smiled at the shock in Nick’s eyes. “Yes,” he nodded. “But I know different. Yes, your men do not like your brother. They would not follow him because they see him as . . . how do you say? A man lower than they who has lied his way into your mansion.” Nick struggled at the words. “But I know the truth, his kind do not lie. His truth is his badge of honor, his pride.” Releasing Nick, “But he was dangerous. He was a lone wolf, one who would have figured out the General’s plans.” Leaning in and lowering his voice, “He is cunning. He does more than he should because others do not trust. Yet, he would have acted to save those men from themselves. He would have died a martyr. And that we could not have.”
Cota smiled wider as Nick verbally lashed out with nothing but mumbles.
“But my way?” Patting the side of Nick’s face, “I get you both out-of-the-way. No?”
Standing, Cota continued, “But then you showed up. But not mad. Not grieving. Not seeking vengeance. So, I presume, your brother still lives, or at least has a good chance of living.” His gun once more drawn. “Maybe Wallant will still get his way. He will still have you shot. But you will hear his order. Get up and get back on your horse.” Calling to his companions, “We ride.”
Duke was last to come in from checking the herd two mornings after the stampede. Refusing a plate with his meal, “What time he get in?” jutting his chin towards Wallant as the General joked with the men.
“Well after midnight. Something ain’t right Duke; him disappearing at the drop of a hat. He’s getting too cozy with the men, talking about the war. I don’t like how the men are responding.”
“How so?” Duke looked hard to the men.
“They should be asking about Nick, but they ain’t said nothing about him missing. And yesterday, they was figuring Heath ‘got while the getting was good’. And now, they’re talking they’re looking for another battle so they can relive the glory.”
Walking towards the center of the camp, Duke noticed the definite shift in the men’s attitudes.
“All right men, let’s get moving. We’ve rested this herd long enough. They’ve got a date in San Diego!” Observing the men, he was surprised how many of them ignored him. “Come on, we’ve got cattle straying!”
Looking to those closest to him, “Okay, someone want to tell me what’s up?”
“Only what they fought though four years of war to find,” Wallant stood tall and proud. “No ordinary men satisfied to return to their farms, their ranches, their jobs.” The men mumbled their agreements. “Living the small insignificant life. They’re dissatisfied men; dissatisfied with the likes of the high and mighty Barkleys. The pittance they get paid to do a job and then having a bastard thrown in their faces. Making these proud men take orders from a bastard, a man not fit to walk among decent folk. These men fought for their country. They’re yearning and searching for a place, a place to call their own.”
“And just how are they going to get these places?” Duke demanded. “You?” He stared at Wallant.
“Yes he is,” Barrett eagerly shouted.
“How?” Duke challenged.
“Diaz in Mexico,” Chad volunteered.
Walking to where he was ten feet away from the General, “You’re going to turn these drovers into hired assassins?”
“Volunteers,” Wallant corrected.
“And what do they get for volunteering?” Duke repeated, “What do they get?”
“Half is what we get,” Barrett answered.
“Half of what?” Turning, Duke demanded.
Wallant continued his diatribe, rousing the men into a frenzy he knew the foreman couldn’t control.
“Half a bullet can still kill ya.” Duke shouted to the men; his voice imploring, “How much do you think you’re going to live to see if you follow him?”
Barrett answered, again. “We’ve had it takin’ order from Barkley’s dirt. We deserve better than working for the likes of him.”
“You follow Diaz and all you’re gonna see is a six by three-foot grave!” Duke bellowed.
“Come on men. You don’t have to take any more of this. Your land awaits!”
Wallant led the drovers through the system of gullies to the shack where they were to meet Cota. Signaling the men to hold up, he dismounted.
‘Leave the men here. I’ll call for them to join us once I tell Cota I’ve got them.’
Climbing out of the ravine, Wallant walked across the ground, stopping when a rifle shot struck near his feet.
This was the reason why he’d had the men wait; he didn’t want Cota or the others to accidentally shoot any of them. But he also needed the men to know they couldn’t return fire.
“Hold your fire! Don’t shoot. This place is a powder keg!”
“I’ll kill you Wallant, if I have to.”
‘That voice. I know it.’ “Unless?”
“I want those men back.”
‘The bastard.’ “Men are not given, Barkley, they’re earned.”
Laughing and shaking his head, “Barkley. What a lot you’ve got to learn. Some people want to be stolen. Don’t you know that? It relieves them of all the responsibility of their impotence and weakness. Men are sheep Barkley.” Thumbing over his shoulder, “These men are sheep.” Lowering his voice, “Going willingly to the slaughter. Preferring, rather than facing their own inadequacies and failure.”
Lowering his own voice, “Wallant, what are you?”
Ignoring the question, “Take you for example. What a curious place to make one’s stand… in a coffin. Think about it.”
Turning, Wallant walked away, returning to the men well protected in the ravine, but thinking on how best to get the rifles, ammunition, and the dynamite.
Barrett was the first to speak, “What’s going on.”
“No, the bastard.” Not waiting to give them time to think, he needed them moving, following orders. “Barrett, Spock, you draw his fire. Chad, you come in from the east, the sun will be to your back. We’ll keep him occupied.”
Pulling out a Bowie knife, he handed it to Chad. “Take him through the door.” To the others, “And keep your fire high.”
“Sir?” Chad asked, looking at the knife in his hand.
The main group of men waited while the others moved into position.
The first shots drew Heath to a different window. Scanning the terrain he determined where they were hiding and eventually returned fire, carefully aiming to warn off, not strike. Moments later, the door crashed open. Heath didn’t have time to recognize who it was, he only saw the glint of silver. Torn that these were Nick’s men, he could have shot the man, but he knew Wallant was right. They were sheep, following along.
Using the stock of the rifle, he went on the offensive to keep the hand off-balance. One strike to the gut followed by a second blow to the jaw, knocking the man out the door.
With their surprise attack thwarted, Barrett and Spock made a hasty retreat, back to the General to be told what to do next. As they arrived, one of the other hands tried to climb out, only to be pulled back by the General.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to get him.”
“Brown, Lillard, you two men fan out. On my shot, take him.”
“Take him?” Brown queried.
“Head on.” Wallant checked to see that his revolver was filled with bullets, slowly spinning the cylinder for good measure.
The men spread out, take cover behind fallen trees or anything which offered protection.
When the shot sounded, the men slowly moved into view. None of them thinking on their own, just following orders.
Taking careful aim, Heath fired to wound, praying his was aim true, that the man would only suffer a painful flesh wound. The man went down and was helped to his feet; they retreated.
‘Sheep. There’s more of them than there are of me, but they cower and seek protection from the shepherd.’
‘Sheep. Can’t even think for themselves. They had the advantage. They could have easily taken the bastard if they’d just press on. Useless sheep.’
Barrett was first to greet the returning drovers, “Brown, how is it?”
“Take him, he says.”
Wallant pulled the men back. “You have to do better than that, boys. This is no good. There’s only Rebs out there on that line. So it’s yells and musket fire and up. Cause never, not once, not now, not this one,” Wallant appeared to be pained, “paltry ridge are they gonna say that Wallant was stopped. So we take them.” Laughing, “So it’s letters to your sweethearts and wives. And medals. And whiskey from the officer’s table. You know I’ll do that for you. You know that.”
As he spoke he hedged away from the men near Brown and spoke to the others.
“So we take them boys. And then it’s cheers.”
Drovers looked from one to another, each wondering if the others also thought the man crazy.
Turning, Wallant ran up the ravine yelling, “Charge!”
Inside the shack, Heath heard the order and watched as Wallant came into view. Drawing a bead on the man, he waited. Eyes searching for movement behind the General.
Slowly, but deliberately, Wallant crossed the open ground, counting down the distance to the ghosts of soldiers who had previously followed him during the War Between the States and other skirmishes he had lead men into down in Mexico.
The past and the present collided in the battlefield of his mind. Traitors and cowards they all were, and the battle lost.
Unknowing why the General no longer had control over the drovers, but thankful that they had finally come to their senses; Heath stepped to the porch of the shack. Walking over the still down Chad, he walked out into the open.
“Wallant . . . Give me the gun.”
Shaking his head slowly, unable to accept defeat.
The General looked down to the gun still in his hand. His gun hand rose as he looked up, to the man who had brought his downfall. Without any choice, Heath fired. Two shots sounded almost simultaneously.
In the draw, the men waited. Guilt gnawed at what they had almost done, guilt over how easily they had been led by a man whose mind had come unhinged and returned to the past. One by one they showed themselves, embarrassed by their actions.
“After we do what we gotta do here,” Barrett offered, point to Wallant. “I figure we can still make the cattle up that grade.” Humbling himself, “Mr. Barkley.”
Minutely, Heath nodded, accepting their surrender and their submission.
The men dove to the ground when a shot struck between them and Heath.
“Stand back!” Cota yelled, pulling a bound and gagged Nick along with him entered the clearing. Spying the General dead on the ground, Cota grew enraged. This was the man who was supposed to help Diaz, the man who was their best hope for victory. Maybe there was another, but the cache of weapons…
From the ground, the drovers recognized Nick and saw there were only two other men with the one holding him hostage. With an imperceptible nod of Barrett’s head, the men began the slow process of reaching for their weapons without the newcomers noticing.
“What do you want?” Heath shouted, rifle still in his hands.
“I want what is mine, what is in the shack.” Cota gripped Nick tighter, weapon pressed into Nick’s side.
“You have no choice. I will shoot your brother.”
“Shoot him, I shoot you.”
“I have men,” Cota jerked his head left and right to indicate the others.
“So do I.”
“Wallant said they were sheep. Look at them, even now they cower.”
Heath raised the barrel of his rifle.
Observing the movement, “You are at a disadvantage; you won’t be able to cock the rifle before I shoot your brother. And by then, you will be dead.”
“NOW!” screamed Barrett.
The wind swept away smoke from a dozen guns having fired. Three Mexicans lay dead or dying on the ground; as did Nick.
“Nick!” Heath ran to where his brother lay.
“Damn!” Even gagged, they all understood Nick’s exclamation. His bound hands reaching for the bullet wound to this thigh.
“How should I know? I’m not a doctor,” he spat after Spock untied the gag.
“Quit your belly aching. Move your hands and let me see.”
Lillard pulled a knife from his boot and cut the ropes.
“Quit poking me!” Nick batted at Heath’s hands.
“I have to, to see if the bullet struck the bone. Lillard, give me your knife.” Heath slit Nick’s pants to get a better look at the wound.
“Stop that!” Nick warned.
“Everett, go check on Chad. Spock, go get me some branches so we can splint Nick’s leg.”
“You ain’t gonna splint anything!” Nick barked, pushing away Heath’s hands.
“And if that bullet struck the bone? You want to risk it breaking?”
Nick growled, knowing Heath was right.
“Do it my way and you’ll be in the saddle in a few weeks instead of laid up for months nursing a broken leg.”
“Don’t have to like it.”
“Where are Duke and the other men?” Nick asked of those who were standing around.
When no one else answered, “Recon they’re where they should be; with the herd Nick,” Speaking louder, “One of you men needs to ride back to Bakersfield and get the doctor and bring back the Sheriff. Oh, and we’ll probably need four wagons to transport everything!”
Nick looked at Heath. “Wagons?”
“I’ll tell you about it later. Right now, I’m not feeling too good.”
With a bandage securely wrapped around his brother’s leg, Heath finally weakened. After too many hours in the saddle and the stress of facing Wallant, the adrenalin of the day fled. Everything intensified the pain in his still healing wound; and those railroad spike drivers were making a return appearance in his head.
“Speaking of where they’re supposed to be.” Nick noticed Heath’s graying complexion. “Aren’t you supposed to be at Doc Mordechai’s? Doc said you’d be laid up until we came back.” Looking around as Heath sat hard to the ground, “Barrett get over here!”
Heath glared at his brother as the hand made his way to the brothers.
“Check Heath’s back. Make sure he ain’t bleeding from being shot.”
Worried about losing his job, having shot the boss’ brother, “We didn’t mean to shoot you, Mr. Barkley.” Barrett knelt beside the brothers. “We were trying to fire over your head.”
Knowing how close some of that gun fire came to the window where he’d hid, Heath accepted that the man might really be sorry, and just maybe, if they could get beyond the cattle drive, things would be better. “You didn’t shoot me. And it’s Heath.”
After receiving word that their services were needed, Doc Mordechai and Beverly accompanied Sheriff Klyden out to the abandoned shack.
The brothers were carefully tended to medically; in addition, Heath was sorely chastised for his foolishness in leaving during the middle of the night.
Nick sat back, arms crossed, smiling as he watched his brother drop his head; ‘Yeah, he should have been raised a Barkley. Wonder how many times Mother would have taken her wooden spoons to the two of us. Sure would have been something.’
The Barkley drovers had one by one sat down in shock after setting the cases of dynamite into one of the wagons. Guilt ridden, they finally understood the ramifications of their actions; one stray bullet could have killed Heath or themselves had they followed the General with his ‘charge’.
Seeing the first cases marked dynamite alarmed Nick. He knew Klyden had said there was dynamite stashed at the shack, he just never figured his brother would knowingly make that his last stand.
“It was foolish I tell you. Down right, stupid! Of all the idiotic, dumbfounded…”
Nick lost all his bluster when with a lop-sided grin Heath said, “Next time, just tell the doc to hogtie me to the bed.”
By the end of the day, Sheriff Klyden led a procession of wagons on their return to Bakersfield. The first wagon, driven by the doctor with Beverly sitting beside him, contained the injured Barkley brothers and the woozy Chad in the back. The second wagon carried the blanket shrouded dead. The cases containing the rifles and ammunition had been loaded in the third wagon, while the dynamite-laden wagon brought up the rear.
The hands, who had been sorely castigated by Nick for abandoning Duke and the others, sheepishly returned to the herd with orders that they would night hawk during the midnight shift for the duration of the drive. The worst slot to be assigned; drovers felt they had barely fallen asleep before they had to wake to get in the saddle for a few hours. And once done, they’d collapse to sleep only to wake once more for breakfast and then on their way, again.
Chapter 16 – The Epilogue
Duke and the hands had returned from San Diego two weeks prior, handing Jarrod the draft to cover the sale of the entire herd of cattle.
The family ran to the porch when Nick and Heath drove through the wrought-iron Barkley entrance, riding in a buckboard carrying their saddles, with their horses tied behind. Victoria rushed down the steps from the mansion to greet the missing members of her family. Nick set the brake to the buckboard and wrapped the reins around the lever.
“How are you? Let’s get you both inside and upstairs,” she hurriedly called out. Seeing Ciego, “Ciego, have someone ride for Doctor Merar.”
“Belay that order Ciego!” Nick shouted, turning to swing his legs over the side. Quieting, “We stopped in town and Doc Merar has already examined us and given us a clean bill of health.”
From the porch, Jarrod and Audra watched in quiet amusement. “What did I tell you Sis? Our peace and quiet is ruined.” Audra giggled, and playfully punched Jarrod’s arm.
“Ciego, if you won’t mind,” Heath called out, “have someone take care of the horses and our gear.”
“Si Mr. Heath, welcome home! Welcome home, Mr. Nick!”
“Nick, do be careful.” Victoria scolded, assisting Nick to the ground. “Duke said you were shot in the leg.”
Nick risked rolling his eyes, ‘Yes, I know I was shot in the leg.’
Watching from the corner of the mansion, Duke shook his head and smiled, ‘Told you Doc wouldn’t let you two ride home.” He walked over and climbed aboard the buckboard as Ciego clucked to the horses heading them to the barn.
Later that night, while enjoying an after dinner drink, the Barkleys gathered in the parlor. Heath spoke to his family, “Not only was there water in that dry lake, but you oughta seen the trout. They were the size of your feet.”
Enjoying the camaraderie, “Is that with or without his boots?” With drink in hand, Jarrod pointed to Nick.
Standing by the piano, Nick listened to his brother excitedly telling of their, long-delayed, return trip home. Regretting his previous actions and feeling he didn’t have a right to share in the telling, he left the room. Using the cane gifted to him by Doc Mordechai, he slowly made his way to the patio.
‘What would it have been like had he grown up here? Guess I have a lot more to learn about Younger Brother Heath. I know it will take time.’ Nick inhaled deeply, held it, before blowing it out slowly. ‘You’d be proud of him Father, I know I am.’
Joining her son, “That’s a mighty big cloud he’s on in there.”
“He did a mighty big job.”
“And burst a big bubble.”
Stepping closer, “Nick, there’s always something tragic about a fallen idol. Because the tragedy you see is, that it makes us wonder how we could have been so wrong. Worship idols, Nick, all men do and must. But never, never believe that their light is brighter than your own.”
Nick contemplated his mother’s words.
“This ranch is yours Nick. Yours to rule. So are the men. By your choice and your decisions.”
A smile indicated her words were accepted in his heart. “Well now, you’re quite a doctor, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’ve cured an ego a time or two in my day.” Victoria smiled; thankful that her sons were home and it appeared they had turned the corner and could now enjoy their brotherhood.
With a gleam, “Fish as long as my foot?”
Stepping back to the open glass doors, he shouted, “Heath?”
Standing from where he’d been sitting on the arm of a settee, Heath leaned forward and looked to the open glass doors, “Yeah Nick?”
“How long did you say that fish was?”
“Boy Howdy, Nick. I tell you that fish was as long as your arm.” Heath measured out the length of the trout along his arm still resting in a sling.
“Cure that, Doctor.” It felt good to smile.
“I think he’s already been cured, on his way home, by his brother. Am I right?”
Nodding, “We got to know each other better while recuperating. And I came to figure that sometimes, sometimes mind you, there is something more important than the herd.” Nick shook his head in disbelief that he actually accepted what he was saying. “And after Wallant, well, we both wanted to know the truth about that lake, the one Wallant told us was dry this time of year.”
“And that’s where Heath found those trout?”
“Best tasting trout I’ve ever ate.” Smiling, “Learned something else, too. Accepting Heath as my brother doesn’t make Father any less of a man to me.” Gently laughing, “I guess I could get used to having another brother to take the blame…”
“The blame?” Victoria warily looked up.
“For showing up our other brothers.” Mother and son shared a true heartfelt laugh.
“Will I ever know exactly what happened out there? Duke said Wallant was dead.”
“Sheriff Klyden has everything in his report. And I’ve spoken with Jarrod, he’s going to follow up just to make sure there won’t be any repercussions. So please,” Nick placed an arm around Victoria’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head, “don’t worry about it.
“It’s a mother’s prerogative to worry.” Wrapping her arms around Nick’s waist, “Heath will be alright, won’t he?”
“The doctor wouldn’t have let us travel if we weren’t up to it. Howard said we came through the return trip in good shape, too. As for Heath, Doc advised him to keep his arm in the sling for a couple more weeks, just long enough to allow the muscles in his back time to fully heal. Doc Mordechai declared him foolhardy, but said he hadn’t hurt himself any worse for ‘playing the hero’ as he put it.”
“And your leg?”
“The bullet lodged against the bone and doc had to cut me open to get at it. But it too will heal just fine. I imagine we’ll both be back in the saddle about the same time.”
“Side by side, Mother.”
“And what of the men?”
“What about the men?”
“You don’t think I’m not aware of the grief they gave Heath before you left?”
‘Can’t keep anything from you.’ Smiling. “Like everything else Mother, it’s settled. They understand and accept Heath’s my brother, and my partner in running this ranch. His orders are as good as mine.”
Victoria smiled as Nick relinquished his hold on her, turned, and joined his siblings in the parlor. Looking to the heavens, she felt a warmth wrap around her. “They’re your children Tom. Please watch over them, all of them.”