Synopsis: My muse decided to take up a challenge issued by bvfan61 in The Corral at The Big Valley Writing Desk. Based on the strength of the bond between Nick and Heath. During a heated argument Nick uses the phrase “your kind”. Immediately realizing his mistake, can he fix it?
Timeframe note, this story references events in Forty Rifles and Boots with My Father’s Name, and is set shortly thereafter.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 13,050
Without any trials on the court docket, Jarrod had offered to help out on the range; even though he knew Nick’s first response would make reference to his ‘lily-white hands’. The brothers had all laughed before they set out for the day. They worked well together, almost as if this brother had always been there. Little needed to be said each knew instinctively what was required, even if one was a little slower in getting it done.
It had been ages since Jarrod put in such long physical hours; who would have thought there would be so much work to be done after the trail drive. He should have known better. The majority of their ranch hands had been away for five weeks and even with Nick’s premature return, only minimal work had been accomplished.
Nick had done well to hide from Mother that he wasn’t really up to working full-time. Sure, Doctor Merar had given him a clean bill of health, said the leg was healed, but there were times where it felt as if someone were jabbing a straight pin into the incision the doctor had made to remove the bullet. And late at night, when he’d try to roll over in his bed, the muscle would spasm. Throughout the day, his responsibilities kept him busy enough to ignore his discomfort, but by late afternoons his leg muscles would start cramping. Something he tried desperately to hide from his brothers.
Ciego had ridden out to where the brothers were working with a message for Jarrod. Without explanation, he left his brothers to finish clearing the watering hole as he rode for home.
Victoria shoed him immediately upstairs to bathe before she’d consider talking to him.
A half hour later, Jarrod sat behind his desk in the study with Victoria on the other side, an envelope in her hand.
“You sent for me?” Jarrod’s fingers were interlaced, his forearms resting on the edge of his desk.
“I did. I… I wanted to know how things are progressing.”
“Progressing? Now Mother, though I enjoy the respite from such strenuous work, surely you didn’t ask me back home for something so mundane. We pretty much bring you up-to-date on everything before dinner.”
“No, I guess not.” Victoria looked around the room, before sitting further back into the chair.
Jarrod walked around his desk to sit in the chair next to his mother, and took one of Victoria’s hands.
“How are things going between Nick and Heath?” The paper crumpled in her other hand, indicating her distress.
“Not quite as well as things were right after Heath’s return from the cattle drive to San Diego. You know Nick was on a ‘high’ that the journey was successful. You know how he was over the ranchers boasting that he was a chip off the old block after making more money than they had thought possible.” Looking carefully to Victoria, he continued, “Even so, we should still expect them to butt heads every now and then.” Victoria appeared hesitant to say anything. “Heath has some new ideas on how to handle some of the irrigation problems Nick’s been trying to solve. He’s also proposed a different rotation on which pastures to use in order to better feed the various herds. Of course, some of it is contrary to father’s management style.”
“I imagine that’s not going over well with Nick.” Victoria deeply sighed.
“He’s trying mother, but there are times where I see him revert back to how it was before the drive.” Arching his brows, “Why don’t you tell me what has you so concerned.”
Slapping the appaloosa into the stall, “Glad to have that job done,” Nick called out, his limp obvious as he shut the door. Taking a moment, he massaged his leg while his brother wasn’t looking.
Placing his saddle on the rack, “Nick, I’ve been looking over the cattle books you keep and I have some ideas on how to cross-breed them….”
Cringing after slapping his gloves against his aching thigh, “Heath, the money from the cattle drive is already earmarked for other projects on this ranch. Just because you feel it would be advantageous doesn’t mean it’s right. There’s a lot that goes into running this ranch that you don’t know.” Taking a deep breath, he walked away as normal as possible.
Tagging along, Heath attempted to offer to take on more responsibility. “Nick, I…”
Turning sharply, Nick jabbed a finger into his brother’s chest, “I said drop it!” Tired from long days in the saddle and pained from his leg, and unable to contain his frustration, his words were perceived as anger by his new brother. Proceeding to the house, “I’m claiming the tub.”
Shaking his head, Heath made his way to the corrals.
“Jarrod, I never expected…” tears welled in Victoria’s eyes. “I told you about the offer I made to Heath’s aunt and uncle…”
“Yes, you told me about the attempted extortion by the Simmons, but what does that have to do with the letter you’re holding.”
“This letter if from Heath’s Aunt Martha, she’s claiming that unless we pay her the five thousand dollars, she’ll go to the law and tell them how Heath murdered the man who ambushed us.”
“What’s this about an ambush?!” Throwing the door the rest of the way open, Nick barged into the room.
Rising rapidly to his feet, “Nick, this is a private conversation between Mother and I.”
“Someone takes a shot at my mother and you call it private?!”
“Nick please, lower your voice,” Victoria beseeched.
Strolling to the tray where he kept his best brandy, Nick poured two-fingers and turned to face his brother, and waited.
Knowing his stubborn brother, “Heath took care of the man who tried to ambush Mother and Heath on their way home from Strawberry, the day of the commemoration ceremony for father.”
Gulping the contents of the glass, “So why am I just now learning about this?”
“Because we thought everything was taken care of,” Victoria answered.
“Taken care of.” Nick slammed his fist against the mantle of the fireplace. “Tell me what else you hid from me.”
Taking a deep breath, Victoria looked to her eldest and at his barely perceptible nod, she conveyed everything that happened while she was in Strawberry, ending with the letter she had received the day before. As the account progressively worsened, Nick clinched his jowl.
“Nick,” Heath stuck his head into the room, “you made it to the tub yet?”
Oblivious to the light-hearted banter from the new arrival, Nick threw the glass into the fireplace, turned, his eyes on his younger brother, “Damn your kind!” Storming from the room, he pushed his brother aside.
Leaving his family behind, Nick never looked back into the room to see the devastation on the faces of those inside.
In stark contrast to his brother, a weary Heath made his way to the kitchen, grabbing a few biscuits from a bowl on the countertop before making his way up the back stairs.
Worriedly, Victoria and Jarrod waited in the parlor, hoping for the rest of the family to join them for a few minutes before Silas would announce that dinner was ready.
Sweeping into the room, Audra inquired, “Where are the boys?”
“Mister Heath said he weren’t hungry. I don’t know about Mister Nick.” Silas answered as he entered the room. “I can hold the meal.”
“Please Silas,” Victoria answered.
Taking his cue from the expression on his mother’s face, Jarrod quietly stated, “I’ll go see about the boys.”
In the upstairs hallway, Jarrod paused outside a door. Knowing he had no explanation, he strolled to the second doorway and knocked.
“What?!” came gruffly.
Turning the knob, Jarrod entered.
Rising from having lain flat on his bed, Nick’s voice warned, “Keep your speech to yourself,” while he leaned down to pull on his boots.
“No speech. How’s your leg?”
Surprised that that was the first question, the edge to his voice subsided, “Hurts.”
“Maybe if you worked part-time out on the range and then came back to the house in the afternoons to keep the books up to date might help.”
“Doc cleared me,” Nick bluntly answered.
Raising both hands in submission, conveying his didn’t want to fight, “It was just a suggestion to keep Mother from finding out you’re not as fit as you pretend to be. I’ve known you your whole life, and I can tell when you’re not one hundred percent.”
With a half-hearted grin, “I’ll take your counsel under advisement.”
“Brother Nick, I am curious about what that was all about downstairs earlier.”
“Besides finding out mother’s life was in jeopardy….after the fact?” Feeling guilty because there was nothing he could do, even if he had known what happened sooner. Hanging his head, “I don’t know.”
Looking on the picture of dejection that was his brother. “Even before downstairs, it seems the two of you are slipping back to how it was before the drive.”
“I know. I just can’t help myself.” Standing, Nick walked to look out the window, taking pride in the ranch he had inherited after his father’s murder. “He’s got some good ideas….”
Jarrod didn’t question or accuse, just responded, “But it’s not how father would have managed the ranch is it.”
“No.” Resting his arm against the window frame, his posture was a mixture of anger and guilt.
Walking to the desk in his brother’s room, Jarrod observed the items and casually turned the pages of the calendar to the day’s date. With a rapid intake of breath and his heart wildly beating in his chest, his fingers pressed to the number on the page.
“I think I can answer my own inquiry.”
Turning, “Come again counselor?”
“Why you’re out of sorts this week. God, how could any of us have forgotten?”
“Forgotten?” For the first time since he’d learned of the events surrounding his mother’s trip to Strawberry, Nick showed interest in something other than his anger when he heard what sounded like grief in Jarrod’s voice.
“Father’s death,” Jarrod breathily answered.
“Now how do you expect me to have forgotten father’s death? I’m reminded every day I ride out and he’s not by my side.”
“Nick,” Jarrod stared, he swallowed hard. “Today is the anniversary of father’s death.”
Relaxing his stance, but appalled at having forgotten, “Damn.”
“But Heath doesn’t know. He doesn’t know how moody you get leading up to this day, how it affects you in such a manner. We all know to give you a wide berth….”
“Oh God,” Nick groaned.
“Heath has no idea why you lashed out at him.”
“I have to talk to him.” Nick pushed past his brother and jogged down the hall. Without knocking, he turned the door knob, calling, “Heath….” and entered the empty room.
Quick hands to his younger brother’s shoulders, Jarrod said, “I’ll check the barn,” and Nick was left alone.
“Nick?” Victoria called from the end of the hallway.
“What I said….” Nick turned to face his mother. “I didn’t mean it.”
Slowly approaching her most volatile child, “Oh, Nick. Don’t say that. You meant it, but maybe not at the one who received the brunt of your anger.” Stopping to stare up into his face, a hand reaching out as if to comfort. “You were angry and upset over past events that we had kept from you.”
“Damn straight I’m mad that you didn’t tell me about your being ambushed.”
“Who were you mad at? Us for keeping this from you or the man who attempted to shoot Heath and myself?”
“Are you sure?”
Ducking his head, “No.”
“And then I informed you of the blackmail letter from Heath’s aunt. And in anger, you turned on your brother.”
“I was mad at his aunt, not at him.” Nick looked into his mother’s eyes. “Okay, I was upset that it was his…his other family. They’re nothing but….”
“Nicholas,” Victoria’s voice rose as she held up a finger to stop her son from finishing his sentence.
“How can I make this right?”
“I can’t answer that for you. That’s something you’ll need to figure out for yourself. But I will tell you this, get any and all anger out of your system before you confront your brother.”
“Nick!” Jarrod ran up the back steps.
Looking over his mother’s head, Nick answered, “How long ago did he leave?”
“Ciego said it’s been almost three hours.”
“Nick!” Victoria warned.
“It’ll not apologize for my language. It’s my fault he’s gone.” Strolling past his mother, “I’ll get saddled and trail after him.”
“Nick, it’s dark.” Jarrod reached out for his grieving brother. “Let’s get everything organized tonight so we can head out at first light.”
“Did Ciego say which direction he went?”
“Strawberry?” Victoria inquired.
“Yes. He’s going home.”
“NO! Damn it!” growled Nick. “Strawberry is not his home. Not anymore. If father had been a better man, he would have made sure that Heath was raised here!” Pointing to the floor, “By my side!”
Pushing between his brother and mother, Nick ran down the back stairs and to the barn.
(Author’s Note: Okay, so he didn’t immediately realize it, but this is Nick we’re talking about.)
He’d been right. Nick’s anger had won out over his brain. From his immediate reaction, there was no way Nick could have thought through the situation before responding to Heath’s query from the doorway. But still the words hurt. If he’d had to do it all over again, he’d have waited to allow Jarrod and Victoria to finish their conversation with Nick. Better yet, he would have held off making his presence known until Nick had cooled down, just a little.
The blonde cowboy got what he wanted, a way to leave without anyone questioning him. He just hadn’t quite anticipated the full fury of Nick’s response. Now, a clinched jaw and sitting ramrod straight in the saddle indicated his struggle to convince himself the words didn’t matter, he’d heard them before, and worse. He hoped they would understand what he’d done, and ultimately find a way to forgive him. That maybe there was enough understanding in their fledgling relationships that they wouldn’t grieve over his departure.
Putting his new family behind, Heath focused on Strawberry and the family he never had the chance to choose.
Sitting against the log with a battered coffee cup in his hands, Heath thought of his uncle and aunt. Family, he huffed at the thought.
The last time he’d seen them, he’d held a trembling Victoria in his arms. He knew he should have warned them off right then and there, but his first priority was to see his step-mother safely home.
As he had driven the carriage out of the dying town, he knew they’d never make the commemoration ceremony in time. Quietly, he’d waited, wondering if Victoria would tell him if she had found the answers she had so desperately sought while they were in the hotel bar.
Answers. Victoria spoke respectfully of her time with Hannah, and read the letter his mother had received from Tom Barkley. Her silence in regards to her time with the Simmons spoke volumes. He could only imagine the story that Martha had told. They were the first to forsake their obligations by refusing his mother support or offering words of comfort.
Sure they had given his mother a job at their hotel, but they paid barely enough for one person to live on, let alone a woman raising a child. Their demands forced Leah to work from sunup to sundown, back-breaking work that ensured her knuckles were battered and bruised as she laundered their linens. Rooms dusted and floors mopped daily, whether occupied or not. And once supper was served, Leah was tasked with washing all the dishware and cooking utensils, as well as scrubbing the dining room and the kitchen floors. Never did his aunt or uncle lift a finger to help. Their derogatory words didn’t inflict the same kind of damage as the overseers’ whips on those southern plantations, but the intent was the same. They were meant to break a person’s spirit.
Many a night Heath laid in his trundle-bed listening to his mother, sometimes singing, sometimes crying as she mended his torn pants or shirt before placing them in the laundry basket. He hadn’t understood the discussions that occurred around the kitchen table late at night, but he came to understand as he grew older.
In time, it wasn’t just his uncle and aunt who treated him worse than a cur. Before he was told he was no longer welcome to attend school, the children took up the taunts; finding pleasure in bullying him.
Leaning forward, he placed the empty cup on a stone in the ring around the fire and set the coffee pot aside, before stirring the embers and adding a log.
Remembering how ecstatic he was the day he came home to tell his momma he had a job as a charge boy at the mines. On payday, he’d proudly stand on the chair to drop his pay into the glass jar on the shelf. Hearing the coins ‘clink’ put a smile on his face that practically went from ear to ear.
A few years later, when the mine’s new owner stopped using children as laborers, Heath sought out a job at the livery. He enjoyed spending time grooming the horses and cleaning the tack for their owners, which earned him a few extra coins each day, on top of the money he was paid for mucking out the stalls.
That job lasted until the war came to Strawberry. He overheard a group of soldiers talking to a group of the miners about how much they’d get paid just for signing up, and then how much they’d receive each month as a soldier. It was a fortune to a child barely into his teens. But he was the man of the house, and it was his duty to help make life easier for his momma. If only he’d known then….
With wolves howling in the distance, Heath pulled the blanket over his shoulder and snuggled into the underside of his saddle for the night. His last thoughts before sleep claimed him were making sure his aunt and uncle realized that even though he was a Barkley, there would be no ‘free ride’. They would get as they gave – nothing.
Looping the reins over the weathered railing, Heath gave Gal a pat on the neck before slowly stepping to the warped boardwalk. Taking a moment to look around, the late-morning sun did nothing to brighten the dying town, nor the establishment. He’d taken his time clearing his campsite and riding the rest of the way to Strawberry that morning. Turning the knob, Heath pushed open the door.
With little time to think, Heath reacted to the shot and the flying splinters that flew at his face. From a crouched position, he looked along the barrel of his revolver, finger itching to squeeze the trigger at the figure standing at the top of the staircase holding the rifle.
“Get out of here bastard!”
Even though it had only been a matter of weeks, it was evident that time had not been kind. Never before would Martha Simmons have considered appearing in public in such a disheveled state. The skirt of her dress contained several large rips, her petticoat visible. The color of her blouse sharply contrasted against the skirt and only partially buttoned, and a skewed. Not to mention one side of the shirt tail was not tucked into her waistband. Her hair appeared as if she hadn’t combed it since the last time he stopped in. For a moment, Heath wondered if she might have taken to drinking and this was a result of a binge, but that thought was forgotten when he heard a door slam against a wall.
“Martha!” Matt hollered from somewhere unseen.
Slowly rising, Heath kept his revolver at the ready, refusing to take his eyes off his aunt, even with the approaching footsteps that stopped close by.
“Uncle Matt.” His words lacked warmth in their greeting. Without any more conversation, Heath nodded his head, an indication that he needed to take care of the situation at the top of the steps.
“Martha, put down that rifle.” His voice reflected he’d long accepted the futility of dreaming that Strawberry would come back to life. The spark that they could once again be ‘somebody’ had died. They’d thrown it all way; money, customers, friends, and family.
“He killed him!” Martha spat.
“Phelps wouldn’t have been there had you not sent him after the Mrs. Barkley and the boy.” Closing the distance, Matt reached out as he climbed the steps. “Now, give me the rifle. Please Martha.”
“It’s all his fault! We could have had everything!” Shaking her head furiously. “We were going to leave this rotten town and make something of ourselves!”
Slowly measuring his words and hoping his calm would transfer to his wife, “Martha there’s nowhere to go.”
Turning her anger towards her husband. “We wouldn’t have been stuck here if it hadn’t been for Leah and her brat. It’s because of them!”
“Martha, wasn’t their fault. The mine played out, people moved away. We should have left a long ago.”
“NO! I could have been somebody! I was somebody! He loved me! He was going to take me away! MURDERER!!”
The events unfolded simultaneously, Martha raised the rifle barrel and pulled the trigger; while Matt reached out and grabbed hold to pull down the barrel as a second shot sounded from below.
Matt screamed, “Martha, NO!”
“NO!” Martha shrieked and dropped the rifle while grasping at the pain flaring along her shoulder.
Reaching for the handkerchief in his back pocket, Matt pressed it against the wound. “It’s gonna be alright Martha.”
“No. Not at along as he’s alive.” Crying, “It’s all his fault.” Her words mumbled to sobs. “She should have killed him; she should never have let him be born.”
The sound of galloping horses, followed by boots running along the boardwalk drew Matt’s attention to the doorway where his nephew leaned heavily against the wall.
Pointing his revolver in readiness, Heath tried to back away from the still open doorway. His actions were hampered by his other hand holding tight to his thigh; blood seeping between his fingers.
In unison, two voices shouted, “Heath!”
Recognizing the voices, his body relaxed and readily slid down the wall until his backside met the floor.
The dark-haired Barkley brothers stopped just in the doorway. Nick was the first to regain his senses and return his gun to his holster. Kneeling next to his younger brother, he reached for the revolver lying limply in Heath’s lap, his eyes inquiring if he was okay.
After a brief nod, Nick returned the weapon to the holster on Heath’s hip before removing the bandana from his neck. “You got a clean one of these?”
Rolling slightly to his side, Heath allowed Nick to pull the clean kerchief from his back pocket.
“This might hurt.” Nick wrapped this brother’s leg. “But not as much as my words.” Looking up, “Heath, I…you’re my brother.…”
Having checked on the couple who had made their way to the settee in the lobby, Jarrod knelt next to his brothers.
“How’s Aunt Martha?” Heath grimaced as Nick tightened the bandana over the wound.
‘So that’s the woman who caused all this trouble.’ Jarrod inhaled deeply, exhaled even slower. “She should be okay. Your bullet caught her across the top of her shoulder.”
“The boy had no choice,” Matt volunteered.
“She took a shot at me as I entered.” Heath pointed up. Nick and Jarrod followed Heath’s motion to the door frame. “Her second shot caught me in the leg.”
“I tried to stop her.” Walking to the three men, “Boy, I’m sorry….about Martha.”
“Not as much as I am,” Heath mumbled.
Rising to his feet, Jarrod stated, “I presume there’s no doctor in this town.”
“No. Nearest one is in Grayson.”
“Least it’s going in the right direction,” Nick answered. Standing and staring down the old man, “You got a wagon and horses?”
“Yeah, they’re at the livery. I’ll go get ‘em ready.” Dejectedly, Matt Simmons left the building.
Half an hour after arriving in Strawberry, and spending ten minutes arguing with their younger brother that he wasn’t going to ride, three riders turned away from the front of the hotel. From the bench seat, Matt clucked to the team that pulled the wagon with Martha sitting in the back wrapped in a number of blankets to ward off any chill from loss of blood. Following behind, the Barkleys directed their horses down the dirt road.
The trip had taken longer than anticipated, much to the consternation of all the Barkley brothers, but Heath more so than the others. The throb in his leg kept rhythm with each footfall as Gal kept pace with Nick’s App and Jarrod’s Jingo. If it had been up to Heath, he would have ridden ahead to Grayson, but he was better than that. Even if they were a miserable excuse, they were family. Besides, if they hadn’t stayed with the wagon, it would be just like the Simmons to disappear rather than face the consequences of Martha’s actions.
The one thing Heath had decided and acted upon was that he was not going to breathe their trail dust the entire trip. Once they had reached the outskirts of Strawberry, he’d urged his mare to the front, thankful his brothers didn’t hesitate to follow suit.
Nearing six o’clock that evening, Doctor Emanuel Grayson stepped from the doorway as the rag-tag group halted in front of his clinic. Not recognizing any of them, he wondered what brought them to the town named after his father.
“Can I help you folks?” asked the balding, bespectacled man.
“Got two people with gunshot wounds,” Nick responded as he swung a leg over the cantle of the saddle. “The woman in the wagon,” he walked behind Gal and came to stop by Heath’s leg, “and my brother here.”
“See to the boy first,” Matt spoke as the physician began to unpin the tailgate. “The bullet is still in his leg. Martha just needs some stitches.”
“How long ago were they wounded?”
“Before lunch,” Jarrod answered as he walked in front of Jingo to reach his brother.
Shaking his head, Dr. Grayson watched the two men assist the third from his saddle, each taking an arm across their shoulders as his knees gave out when his right foot touched the ground.
“I can walk by myself,” the blonde proclaimed and struggled to shrug off the helping hands..
Tightening his grip on his brother’s wrist, “Not in this family.” Nick let him know he was out numbered. A crooked grin indicated Heath’s acceptance in allowing his brothers to help him into the doctor’s office.
Entering the waiting area from where they’d placed Heath in the examination room, the brothers stepped aside, allowing the older man room to take care of his wife.
After looking at the clock a countless number of times, Nick was ready once again to complain, but was stopped by the presence of a man with a badge on his vest entering the building.
“I understand we have two gunshot victims. Care to tell me how this came about?”
“Sheriff?” Jarrod spoke first, not surprised that someone had overheard their earlier statements and had sent for the law.
“Marshal. Marshal Osbourne.”
Nick looked the lawman up and down, all six-foot, three inches of burliness. Strands of dark blonde hair hung from beneath his hat, his handlebar mustache looked more appropriate on a Texas drover than a lawman.
“Marshal Osbourne, I’m Jarrod Barkley and this is my brother Nick. One of the victims is our brother, Heath.”
“The other victim is Martha Simmons,” Nick answered, disdain clearly evident in his voice.
Both waited until the lawman finished writing in his notebook.
“Okay, do we know the perpetrator?”
“Yeah, his aunt,” Nick spat.
“Come again.” Osbourne scratched the back of his neck. “I know a Martha Simmons and her husband Matt from over in Strawberry.”
“One in the same,” Jarrod offered.
“Martha and Matt only had one nephew, but best I recall his last name….”
Interrupting, “Yeah, well….” Nick was quick to continue, “He might be their nephew, but Heath is our brother. You got anything to say against that?”
“No. You said your last name was Barkley? The Stockton Barkleys?”
The lawman pointed the end of his pencil towards Jarrod, “The lawyer?”
“Yes, I’m the lawyer.”
Shaking his head, “Won’t Frank get a hoot outa this.”
“Frank? I don’t recall any Frank,” Nick answered looking to Jarrod.
“Heath hasn’t mentioned anything to me about a Frank, either.”
“You finish telling me about how Heath and Martha got shot and I’ll think on telling you about Heath and Frank.”
Ten minutes later, “Knew she had a mean streak. Must have gone crazy after Phelps died.”
“Phelps?” Nick queried, again a name neither brother was familiar with.
“Way I heard, he’d been hanging around the hotel in Strawberry. Before the store owner left town, he said the man was sweet on Mrs. Simmons. Phelps was killed during an ambush.” Looking from one brother to the other, “Now it all makes sense. Phelps tried to ambush a Mrs. Barkley, your mother?” He waited for the brothers to confirm. “Heath returned fire. Rumors have it that Martha sent Phelps after them.”
“My mother did confide in me the events surrounding their return from Strawberry a few weeks back, but she didn’t know the name of their assailant or why he was after them. I reported it all to Fred Madden, Stockton’s sheriff.”
“Got that report as well as the one written by Heath. Went to Strawberry and asked some questions, then went out and did some investigating, myself. All the signs indicated an unprovoked attack from ambush, with Heath’s reputation, I closed the case. Frank would have done the same.”
“Just what do you mean Heath’s reputation? I don’t know who this ‘Frank’ is, but my brother ain’t no gunfighter. He’ll tell you straight what happened.”
Reaching towards his rancher brother, “Nick.”
Wishing he could stay around and possibly be a fly on the wall, the lawman mused how it was this family didn’t know anything about their brother. Smiling, and politely ignoring Nick’s blusters, Osbourne scribbled a few more notes, “Was Matt present during the attack?” Clarifying their confusion, “At the hotel, when your brother and Martha were shot?”
“Yes, we arrived just after the shooting stopped,” Jarrod offered. “Matt and Martha were on the stairs when we entered.”
“Heath told us….” Nick began to add.
“I’ll get his statement about the latest incident once the Doc’s finished with him. Need to talk with Martha, as soon as the doc says I can.” Jotting down more notes, “I presume he isn’t too bad off?”
“Bad enough, fool insisted he could ride,” Nick muttered.
“And so I did,” answered Heath from the open doorway, pant leg split up the side, white bandage wrapped around his thigh, one hand on the door knob, the other on the door frame.
“Just have to do things your own way. When’re you going to learn that’s what brothers are for?” Nick quickly made his way to Heath’s side and helped him to the nearest chair.
“Zeke,” Heath acknowledged after settling in the chair.
“Frank know about this?” Osbourne teased, pointing to the Barkley brothers.
“No yet. Still trying to figure it all out,” answered Heath.
“Who shot you?”
“Aunt Martha. Fired one shot as I entered the hotel.”
“Struck the door frame,” Nick leaned against the wall, arms crossed.
“Started screaming her head off about me, and Momma.” Knowing it was old news to the lawman, “Uncle Matt tried to get her to drop the rifle.”
“I take it she fired again.”
“Yeah.” Looking down to his leg, he absently rubbed at the wound. “She was on the stairs, raised the rifle, and Uncle Matt grabbed for it, pulling it down. I only fired to defend myself.”
“Struck where you aimed?”
“No, tried to go lower on her arm. Guess I pulled my shot.”
Dead-eyeing the grumbling brother standing next to Heath, “Makes sense.” Writing a few more notes, “You gonna press charges?”
“Damn straight he is,” Nick stood tall, dropping his hands to his side.
“Don’t know.” Heath fidgeted with his cuff.
“Heath she tried to kill you!” pled Nick, pulling fisted hands to his hips.
“I want to talk ta Jarrod first. Believe me, I don’t want her to get away with this. But I need ta know what choices there are before I decide.”
“I’d be more than happy to discuss your options according to the law,” Jarrod offered as he finally approached to stand the other side of his seated brother.
The door to the examination room opened once more.
“How’s the patient, Doc?” inquired Marshal Osbourne.
“Bullet carved a deep gouge along the top of her shoulder. She’ll need some stitches. I gave her a sedative and, well, as upset as she is, it’s going to take a little while for it to take effect. Right now, I’m more concerned about her mental state.”
“How so?” Jarrod inquired.
“If I were to testify in a court of law, it would be my professional opinion she should be institutionalized. From what I’ve observed, she’s no longer of sound mind.”
“Is that what you were wanting to talk to me about, Heath?” A nod confirmed the reason behind Heath’s bowed head.
“Then you’ll keep her here tonight?” Osbourne inquired.
“She’s not going anywhere,” the doctor answered.
“What about her husband?” the marshal asked.
“He’ll stand by her, and my diagnosis. He told me how she’s been acting the past few weeks, it confirms my assessment.”
“Guess Phelps’ death sent her over the edge,” Heath mumbled.
“You knew about Phelps?” Jarrod asked as he knelt down.
“Not at the time, but Fred showed me the final report. Identified the man who tried to ambush us. Read the store-owner’s statement on how he’d been hanging around the hotel, firing off his rifle for kicks, and following Aunt Martha like she was some pied piper.” Heath chose to ignore an unkind remark Nick made. “When Aunt Martha was ranting, before she shot me, Uncle Matt sort of confirmed she sent Phelps after us.”
Noticing his brother beginning to slump in the chair, Nick asked, “Are we free to go?” At the lawman’s nod, he turned to the doctor, “You got a hotel in this town?”
He answered, “Out the door to the left and around the corner, three doors down.”
Pouring a glass of brandy, Jarrod turned and inquired, “He asleep?”
Closing the bedroom door off the suite’s common area, “Yeah. Before his head touched the pillow.”
The brothers made their way to the overstuffed chairs set opposite the low round table in the middle of the room, but never sat. “How do you want to proceed tomorrow?”
“We stay here. He ain’t traveling home until I say so.” Exhaling deeply, Nick continued, “After breakfast, I’ll try my damnedest to make my apologies to our brother, and pray he’ll forgive me.”
Handing the recently poured drink to Nick, “I’ll flip you over who orders dinner and who sends a wire to Mother.”
Enjoying the smooth taste of brandy, Nick relaxed his stance. “I’ll order and pay for dinner if you send the wire.”
“Chicken,” Jarrod slapped Nick on the shoulder before they finally sat down.
A faint morning sun filtered through the window, landing on and warming his face. Stifling a groan as he woke, Heath grinned at the sight of his rancher brother sleeping stretched out in a wing-backed chair, his stockinged feet resting on the end of the bed. Shaking his head, he gingerly sat up. As he had previously, anytime he’d been injured, Heath stubbornly struggled to stand on his own, before making his way across the floor to the door.
Content in the knowledge that his brother still slept, Heath opened the door and slipped into the main suite. He couldn’t help but laugh at the expression Jarrod wore, understanding that the lawyer had probably expected to see his dark-haired brother step into the room.
“Didn’t think you’d be up this early.” Jarrod folded the newspaper and laid it on the table in front of the settee. He stopped mid-rise at hearing Heath’s, “Don’t.”
Making his way slowly the few feet to the cart where coffee service, including a pitcher of orange juice and a carafe of milk, had been placed, “I’m always up early, best way to start the day is to watch the sunrise.”
“And your plans after that?”
“Figured I’d head back home…”
“And just where might that be?” growled Nick. Without boots or spurs to herald his arrival, Heath startled at his brother’s voice.
Understanding dawned as to why Nick had slept in his room, Heath struggled to answer with a mirrored gruffness, “You know where my home is.”
“Heath please,” Nick softened his voice. “I shouldn’t have reacted as I did the other day. Family is everything to me, and to learn that Mother could have been killed.”
“I protected her, Nick. I’d have given my life to save hers.”
“Damn it! That’s not what I want.”
Turning his back, he poured a glass of milk. “What do you want, Nick?”
“I want you to come home with us. Let me prove to you that you’re worthy of having the name Barkley, the same as Jarrod and I. I want you home to run the ranch at my side.”
“At your side, but not with you.”
“Yes, with me!” shouted the dark-haired rancher.
“And what of my suggestions for improvements.” Heath sipped from the glass, using it to hide the grin that shone in his eyes, the one that sent Jarrod to coughing as he realized what was happening.
“Maybe Jarrod has the right idea, at least until my leg gets strong enough to spend all day in the saddle.”
“I don’t understand.” Heath lowered the cup.
“Brother Heath, I suggested that Nick work the ranch in the mornings and at some time during the early afternoon, return home under the guise of working on the books. At least this way he stands a better chance of Mother not finding out how much his leg is still giving him fits when working.”
“Wallant’s ambush on the trail drive?”
“Yeah,” Nick acknowledged.
“That was weeks back.”
“I know. Doc said I could get back to work, but I guess it’s going to take a while longer before I’m ready for a full day in the saddle working so hard.”
“So that means I can try out my ideas?” Heath asked.
“No, that does not mean you can try out your ideas,” barked Nick.
Wanting to prevent another misunderstanding, “I think what Nick means is that you yourself are now recovering from a bullet wound to the leg. It will take some time for your leg to heal, too.”
Glaring at their older brother, Nick grabbed Heath by the elbow and escorted him to the settee, sitting him next to Jarrod. Taking a seat in the chair opposite, Nick continued, “What I meant, is that we’re going to sit down and calmly discuss your ideas and draw out plans to see if they’ll work, what we’ll need, the cost involved, and how best to implement them. I’ll also need to show you the books, and the plans I had for the remainder of the year.”
Heath warily asked, even though he knew he’d forced the initial blow up. “Why the turn around?”
The dark-haired brothers eyed each other, Jarrod indicating that Nick needed to be the one to explain.
“What gives?” Heath pushed.
“I was a horse’s a… posterior.”
“There’s more to it than that, Brother Nick.”
“What Jarrod means is, well, I’ve never handled the days leading up to the anniversary of father’s death that well. I’m always brood and jump down people’s throats for this littlest of things.” Shifting in the chair, “See what all of us failed to realize this year, was how close we were to the date.”
“Heath, the day Nick stormed out of my office and declared ‘your kind’ as he brushed past you was…”
“The anniversary of your father’s death?”
“Our father’s death,” Jarrod corrected. “You are a Barkley, and as such, whether he raised you or not, he was your father, too.”
“Yeah, I guess I can understand how you felt.” Looking to the floor, Heath softly added, “So it didn’t help when I baited you, did it?”
Surprised, the other brothers sat straighter.
Continuing without further prompting, “I heard your mother telling you what happened on our way home from Strawberry, and about the letter from Aunt Martha. I knew I needed to face her and Uncle Matt once and for all. And maybe I did it the cowardly way.”
“How so?” Jarrod asked while Nick sat open-mouthed.
“I didn’t want to drag you into problems with my family, and I was afraid if I asked for help…” Setting the glass of milk to the tabletop, “Besides, I didn’t know exactly how to ask for help. I’ve always taken care of things. I couldn’t let them sully the Barkley name.”
Sitting forward in his chair, Jarrod spoke, “We weathered your arrival, the family could have handled this.”
Playing with the shirtsleeve button, “I never knew what it was like having brothers when I was growing up, and well…”
“Well what?” Nick asked. “Wait a minute, back up. You eavesdropped?!”
“Yeah,” Heath lowered his eyes once more.
“You knew I was already mad.”
“And you stuck your head in Jarrod’s office, and asked me if I was done with my bath.”
“You knew I’d blow up.”
“Sure, you’re Nick. I knew you were moody, figured I could use that to give me some time to get away.”
“Brother Heath, I commend you for prodding an angry bear. Not sure if I’d classify that as brave or fool hardy.”
Slapping his knee, “That means I don’t owe you an apology!”
Jarrod’s eyebrows rose at the declaration. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Heath looked back and forth from one brother to the other.
“Yeah, well… I really didn’t mean the words the way you heard them or the way I said them. I was angry at your….uh, the Simmons.”
Lowering his head again, “I won’t say hearing your words didn’t hurt, but I couldn’t blame you.”
Turning to his blonde brother, “But why? You know Nick’s temper.”
Looking up to answer, “Like I said, I wasn’t used to brothers growing up, or asking for help.”
Showing the lawyer in him, Jarrod countered, “But to deal with your aunt and uncle by sneaking out in the middle of the night and not letting anyone know?”
Boldly addressing his oldest brother, “I didn’t sneak out in the middle of the night, and I told Silas where I was heading,” Heath chirped, his eyes grew light with mirth, “Besides, this way, Nick couldn’t turn me down.”
“I couldn’t turn you down? Now you’re talking riddles boy.”
“My plan was simple. Make you act before you think. While everybody is giving everyone else breathing room and time to cool down, I leave. Later, I knew you’d have regrets, at least I hoped you would. Then you’d come after me. I mean, you’d probably think I’d left the ranch and wasn’t coming back.”
“Wait a minute!” Nick barked, trying to comprehend, “You mean you weren’t leaving for good?”
“Heck no, Nick.” Taking another drink from his glass of milk. “I left Charger there. Ain’t no way I’d have left him there if I wasn’t planning on returning.”
“You left your….horse.” Nick’s face turned crimson, he palmed his face to hide his growing frustration. Unable to stop grinning, he shook his head at his brother’s logic and the milk mustache he now wore.
“Sure, wouldn’t you? I mean, if you were going to be traveling fast, probably at night, would you take one of the best gifts your brother ever gave you, knowing how risky it could be?”
Listening intently, and still not understanding everything, Jarrod asked, “So, you planned this, to get us to come after you?”
“No, I only figured Nick would come. You’re an added bonus.” Leaning back to stretch out his legs, “Sure is nice having brothers to back ya up.”
“Brothers to back him up,” Nick blustered between being peeved and shaking with a healthy dose of laughter.
After the laughter subsided, Jarrod was first to speak. “There’s one thing I’m not sure I understand about yesterday. From everything that happened, you couldn’t have arrived at the hotel that much before we did.”
“Well, I hung around as long as I could before breaking came. Finally decided….”
Jarrod interrupted, “Maybe you were wrong about us?”
“Yeah, I really wanted Nick by my side, but I knew I didn’t want to spend another night on the trail. I wanted to get back home. So, I packed up and got to travelin’.”
“He wanted to get back home.” Nick reached over and slapped Heath on the knee of his uninjured leg. “Just so you know, we left before the sun rose, and rode like the devil. We stopped at that old mine and looked around.”
Jarrod finished speaking, “We’re both thankful that neither, and we do mean, neither of you were injured.”
Their attention was drawn to the door after hearing a knock; Heath began to rise, only to be stopped by Nick’s hand held out indicating he should sit back down.
“Brother Heath, have you forgotten you’re wounded?” Jarrod asked as he rose to answer the door.
“Not really, just used to doing for myself.”
“Well, that stops here!” blustered Nick as Jarrod allowed the hotel bellman to push in a cart carrying a silver domed tray. “Just leave it right here.”
Pulling a few coins from his vest pocket, Jarrod showed the man out, and began to close door. He stopped at the second set of knocks. He stared at the figure in the hallway before pulling the door fully open once more.
“Good morning, Marshal Osbourne.” Nick rose from where he’d been seated.
Heath turned from where he sat on the settee, pulling his knee up so it rested on the seat cushion, he draped an arm over the back. “Zeke.”
Removing his hat, “Barkley, Barkley, Heath,” Sheriff Osbourne entered the room.
“Like we said last night, I’m Nick,” he pointed, “he’s Jarrod.”
“All right. Just stopped by to see how you were doing Heath, and to see if you had anything more to add to your statement about what happened.”
“We already told you what happened,” gruffed Nick who placed himself between the lawman and who he perceived to be his quarry.
“The only other thing to add would be the reason why I was in Strawberry.”
“Heath, as your lawyer and your brother, I feel that’s a family matter.”
“But Jarrod, it has bearing on why I went there, and possibly why Aunt Martha acted as she did.”
“Well I ain’t gonna let my breakfast get cold.” Lifting the lid and taking a plate from the cart, Nick realized there were still three plates remaining. Handing a plate to Heath, he looked to the marshal, “You joining us?”
“I was the one who arranged for your breakfast, hope you don’t mind.”
Returning his seat and placing his plate on his lap, Nick mumbled, “Guess I can’t say no.”
“Nick, Zeke’s a friend of mine.”
Removing his own breakfast from the cart, Zeke took a seat in the vacant chair around the low table in the sitting room. Jarrod removed the final plate and returned to his seat.
As they ate, Zeke spoke, “So you said there was a reason you went back?”
In between his own bites of food, Heath reminded the marshal of his earlier trip to Strawberry and the ambush. “Turns out that Aunt Martha wasn’t about to let go a me, or at least her chance to get money out of the Barkleys.”
“Take it she felt they owed her for all the help she and yer Uncle Matt gave your ma in raising you?”
Jarrod took up the narrative, “Mother received a letter from Martha Simmons demanding five thousand dollars or else she’d go to the law and tell them that Heath had murdered this Mr. Phelps in cold blood. Planned to tell the law Heath shot him down without giving him a chance to defend himself.”
“We know Heath’s reputation.”
Stopping mid-chew, Nick hounded, “Now this is a second time you’ve mentioned my brother’s reputation.”
Heath warmed as Nick continued to show he accepted him as family; it flowed as easily as if he were speaking of Jarrod.
A smirk turned up the corners of Zeke’s mouth. “You want to tell ‘em about you and Frank?”
“Yes, dear brother.” Setting his empty plate to the table, Nick leaned onto his left knee with his elbow, on his right knee rested a fisted hand, his elbow jutting out to the side, “You want to tell us about your reputation, and this here Frank?” Nick’s eyes rolled slightly.
“Nick, I wouldn’t say his name using that tone in his presence,” Heath advised, in a soft, humble tone.
Watching the interplay between his newest brother and the marshal, an idea came to Jarrod, “You wouldn’t happen to be speaking about Frank Sawyer?”
Nick snapped his head to face his oldest brother. “Marshal Frank Sawyer? The Spanish Camp marshal?”
Blue eyes dancing merrily, Heath finished the last piece of bacon from his plate. “One and the same, big brother.”
Nick sat back in his chair, stretched his legs out, and rested his elbows on the plush armrests, and interlaced the fingers of his hands over his stomach. “Do tell.”
Half an hour later, Nick and Jarrod had new respect for their brother as Heath finished telling how he came to be taken under the wing of the well-known lawman. They were also shocked to learn that their sibling had a part in bringing the Simpson Gang to justice.
“Took you a few weeks to get over that ordeal, didn’t it,” Zeke queried.
“Yeah.” Heath leaned into the back of the settee, his mind wandered to those days. He told of how Sawyer, with Osbourne’s help, had taken four of the outlaws back to town while he, as a deputy, vowed to follow the two leaders who had abandoned the others without any water. Osbourne picked up the narrative of how a week later, Heath returned to Spanish Camp with his targets in tow. His dried, sweat-soaked shirt plastered to his body, his face reddened with sunburn. The skin beneath the rips in his shirt also bearing witness to the brutal sun.
“After handing the lead ropes to one of the many people gathered around congratulating him for bringing those two in, young Heath collapsed into Frank’s arms,” Osbourne finished the tale.
“You get shot?” Nick inquired.
“It might have been easier if I did. I was young and foolish.” Shaking his head, an involuntary shiver coursed through his body. “Ran out of water. It was the middle of summer, out in the desert.”
“Just doing my job, Nick,” Heath answered.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” the lawman sat back in his chair. “Just how did this,” he motioned to Jarrod and Nick, “happen?”
“Momma died earlier this year. I barely made it home in time.” Heath stopped talking, using the time to collect his emotions. “Aunt Rachel and Hannah tried to keep her comfortable, but as soon she saw me, she got frantic, said I had to know.” Shaking his head, “She kept saying, ‘The truth is in my bible.’ That she wanted to die with a clear conscience and wanted my forgiveness. I went to get her bible, and when I turned around, she’d passed on. Found out Tom Barkley was,” he hesitated, “my father.”
“And they accepted you just like that?” The lawman snapped his fingers for emphasis.
Rubbing his jaw, “Not exactly. Nick and me’ve had a few go rounds. But Mrs. Barkley, she took to me, and slowly the rest of the family accepted me.”
“Yeah, well that’s old history. I’ll admit to being thick-headed at times, but I’ve come to know my brother, and he don’t lie. He’s a Barkley!”
Snickering how protective the gruff rancher appeared to be over his new-found brother, “Well, it’s been nice reminiscing with you, Heath,” Zeke offered as he stood. “I do need to finish this business with your aunt.”
Turning to his lawyer brother, “If the doctor states that she’s insane, what would happen to her? I mean, could she stand trial for shooting me, and the blackmail?”
Taking time before answering, “She’d have to stand trial, but it would be a commitment trial in order to place her in a mental institution.”
“But she’d get help, wouldn’t she?”
“Now why’d you care about that?” Angrily, Nick stood to his feet and began to pace. “She deserves what she gets. If it were me, she’d stand trial for attempted murder!”
“And be found not guilty,” Heath whispered.
“NOT GUILTY?! Why we were there!”
“Not during the actual act,” Jarrod corrected. “We only showed up a few moments later. Martha Simmons could always claim she was defending herself.”
“But the evidence. Osbourne could go to Strawberry, see the bullet lodged in the door frame. Another one was lodged in Heath’s leg. That old bat only had one wound.” Nick ranted, his voice growing louder. “Hell, her own husband backed up what Heath said happened.”
“It wouldn’t matter Nick. Aunt Martha would be seen as a respectable woman defending her property from the likes of me.”
“The likes of….”
“’Your kind’,” Heath whispered.
“But I didn’t mean that.” Dejectedly, Nick plopped back into his chair.
“I know you didn’t, Nick. But to others, I’m nothing. Just a back-woods colt. A bastard. I get what I deserve. To them, I have no right in crossing the threshold of any respectable business.”
Turning to his older brother, “Can’t you do anything?” Nick implored.
“I wish I could say the jury would consider only the facts of the case as presented, but there are those who would view Heath’s circumstances as a mitigating factor and place him as the instigator.”
“For something he had no control over? He can’t be held responsible for Father’s actions….”
“He shouldn’t, but it is human nature, unfortunately.”
“Where would this trial take place?” Heath asked.
“We can request a change of venue, since there is no law in Strawberry. We might be able to request the commitment trial be held in Stockton.”
“Would we have any say in where she was sent?” Heath quietly asked.
“Possibly, though I do think it would be best if we looked into the facilities that could best help her and present that to the court. We can wire Eugene and ask him if any of his professors could recommend a facility.”
Half laughing, “That is if this term his professors are human doctors and not veterinarians,” Nick responded.
“I just don’t want her anywhere close to Stockton, or in California. Can we send her back east, she’s got family back there. Least that’s what Momma once said.”
“I’ll look into it,” Jarrod offered.
Collecting his hat from hanging on the back of his chair, Marshal Osbourne readied to make his departure, “You just let me know when and where, and I’ll arrange transportation to see she gets there.”
After seeing the lawman to the door, Jarrod turned and looked at his brothers. As different in appearance and temperament as night and day, yet both seemed to be wallowing in misery.
Rubbing his hands together, “Well, what do you say to us heading home tomorrow?”
“Here, here,” Nick quickly answered.
“I need ta do some shoppin’ first.”
“Dang tooting you do!” Nick jumped up. “Can’t have my brother riding home with ripped britches and clothes that could stand up in the corner.”
“Speak for yourself Nick,” Heath’s half grin warned the brothers that he was about to get the last word. “You probably never got to take that bath, did ya.”
“I’m gonna rectify that situation.”
“When?” Jarrod’s eyebrows rose in humor.
“Why you,” Nick grumbled as he went to the room he was supposed to have share the night before with Jarrod but had forgone in order to watch over Heath. Moments later he re-entered the main room, tossing Jarrod’s shaving kit to him. “If I need it, then you need it too.”
Calling out to his brother exiting the room, “Hey, I did bathe before we came after Heath!”
“Yeah, but you’ve spent time in the saddle since then,” drifted from the hallway.
“You coming?” Jarrod turned to his blonde brother.
“Let me get my gear and I’ll be right behind ya counselor.”
Quickly grabbing the towel he had begun to drop from around his waist, Heath turned red at the two figures entering the bathing area. “Do you mind?”
“Just checking to see if you needed any help and to make sure you didn’t get your bandage wet.” Nick reached to look under the towel. “Want to make sure you didn’t ruin all the doctor’s hard work in patching you up.”
Smacking his brother’s hand away, “I’m fine, don’t need any help.”
Holding a brown-paper wrapped package, Jarrod leaned against the wall; smiling at his brothers’ antics.
“Jarrod, the boy almost seems embarrassed for us to see him in his birthday suit.”
“He should be thankful we’re not home and that Mother doesn’t know.” Jarrod’s eyes sparkled in merriment.
Tilting his head sideways in an effort to get a better look at his brother’s bandaged leg, “Yep, she’d have her bottle of liniment out,” reaching forward once more, “demanding that Heath drop the towel, order him to quit squirming.”
Stuttering at the image, “S-she w-wouldn’t.” Heath again batted away Nick’s hand.
The two dark-haired brothers nodded in unison. “Yes Heath, that lovely lady has taken you to her heart, and you would be subject to her ministrations the same as any of her other children.” Handing the package over, “We hope these are the right size.”
“Thanks. Let me know how much I owe….”
“I’ll take it out of your next wages,” gruffed Nick. The laughter that followed stopped Heath from taking him seriously. “Come on Jarrod. Let’s let the boy get dressed. We’ll wait for you back in the suite.”
Opening the door to the suite, Heath stopped at hearing, “Brother Nick, it’s a shame Heath wasn’t raised at the ranch with the rest of us. But there are times, I’m glad he wasn’t.”
Heath heard the clink of China.
“I know what you mean.”
Heath gripped tighter to the doorknob, his chest constricted.
“Can you imagine all the pranks he and I would have played,” Nick pointed, “on you!” Laughter echoed around the room.
“Exactly! You were bad enough. The two of you….together,” Jarrod shook his head, “would have meant double trouble for me. But then again, maybe mother wouldn’t have had time to take her wooden spoon to me as often as she did.”
Heath relaxed, remembering the old axiom about eavesdropping, and was glad he hadn’t acted on Jarrod’s previous statement.
“God how I wish father had known. Somehow….” Nick bemoaned.
“Can’t change the past.” Jarrod had finished speaking and was taking a drink from the coffee cup when Heath decided to enter the suite. “But we’ll make sure Heath knows how much this family values his addition.” Looking up to see the subject of their conversation, “And here he is. All freshly bathed and dressed.”
Jumping up, Nick offered to escort Heath to the settee, but stepped back at Heath shaking his head no, and holding up his hand to stop his brother from approaching.
“So what next?” Nick inquired as they all took their seats.
“Want to have a word with Uncle Matt, and the doctor.”
“Would you like for us to accompany you?” Jarrod asked.
Nodding his head, “Yeah. You might know the right questions to ask, and offer Uncle Matt some suggestions on Aunt Martha.”
“Anything else?” Jarrod inquired.
Nodding, “Need to check on Gal, make sure she’s taken care of over at the livery.”
“I can do that.” Nick jumped up, “While you two are over at the doctor’s, I’ll go to the mercantile and purchase a few provisions for our trip and stop by the livery to make sure all our mounts are being taken care of.” Doing an abrupt about-face to retrieve his hat and pointing it towards his oldest brother, “Jarrod, make sure you pick up a few supplies from the doctor so we can treat Heath’s leg while we’re traveling.”
“I’ll be….” Heath quieted when Nick pointed his hat in his direction and raised his eyebrows. “Fine.”
Heath paused in front of the closed door; knowing who was on the other side. Even the hand offering comfort on his shoulder failed to encourage him to turn the knob. Casting his eyes to his brother, he drew a deep breath.
“You’re not alone, Heath.”
Opening the door, he noticed the sun streaming through the window, landing on the still form in the bed. On the far side, Matt sat in a slat-backed chair holding his wife’s hand, mumbling, “Everything will be alright. We’ll go away from here. We’re gonna forget about the past.”
“Uncle Matt,” Heath spoke in monotone.
Looking up, “Boy?”
“My name’s Heath.” His monotone lapsed to hatred. “Heath Thomson.”
“Heath Barkley,” Jarrod corrected.
“Heath, forgive me.”
“It’s long past forgiving, Uncle Matt.”
“I suppose it is.” Absently, he continued to pat Martha’s hand. Gazing at the dark-haired man behind his nephew, “We didn’t get properly introduced, you the lawyer?”
“I’m Jarrod Barkley. And yes, I am an attorney, in addition to being Heath’s brother.”
Letting Jarrod take the lead, Heath limped to a chair as far away from his uncle and aunt as the room allowed.
“Mr. Simmons, it has come to our attention that your wife sent a Mr. Phelps to ambush my mother and Heath after their last visit to Strawberry.”
“I didn’t want nothing to do with that.”
“But you knew?”
“I knew she wanted money and felt that Phelps was the man to get it for her and to take her away. Mrs. Barkley had offered us five thousand dollars as compensation for helping Leah take care of the b…Heath.”
“That’s a damn lie!” Sitting rigid in the chair. “You never helped. All you did was help yourself to slave labor, paying my momma barely enough to live on, let alone raise a child.”
“It wasn’t what I wanted…”
“What you wanted?” Heath spat, rising shakily to his feet. “What of all the times you took your belt to my backside?!”
“You were disrespectful!”
“Disrespectful? I was protecting momma!”
“Heath, this isn’t the time or the place,” Jarrod offered.
“Then when is?” Heath turned his anger on his brother. “You don’t know what it was like. Momma did everything they asked, and still it wasn’t good enough!” Looking to his brother for understanding and not seeing it in his eyes, Heath left.
As the door slammed, Matt spoke, “I know we didn’t do right by the boy, nor my sister.”
“Didn’t do right?” Jarrod inquired. Running a hand through his hair, Jarrod steered the conversation back to the reason they had come. “The doctor has informed us that in his professional opinion, your wife is no longer mentally competent.”
“She changed after Phelps. I guess if I were honest, I’d say she changed a long time ago.” Looking to the blue-eyed barrister, “She weren’t always mean. But she took it personally when Leah got pregnant, and refused to abort the baby. We never had no children of our own.”
“And that’s your excuse for the way Heath suffered?” Struggling to keep his composure. “I’m here to let you know that once the doctor has completed the required paperwork, we will, at the least, be filing a suit with the courts to see that Martha Simmons is committed for the rest of her life to an institution for the mentally insane. However; it will be up to the District Attorney to decide if the State prefers to bring charges against both of you being an accessory to attempted murder, blackmail, and attempted murder.”
“I won’t fight you. I’m tired a fighting. Maybe if I’d a stood up to Martha all those years back.”
Jarrod returned to the suite, disappointed in not finding Heath in the common area, nor the bedroom.
“Jarrod!” Nick shouted as he entered. “We’re all set to return…” Shoulders slumped at seeing the despondent expression on his older brother’s face. “Ah, now what happened?”
“Oil and water, Nick. Oil and water.”
Jarrod took the next ten minutes to described what happened at the clinic.
“Damn, I should have gone with you. I’d tear that man limb from limb.”
Jarrod’s own frustration came out, “And what would that accomplish?”
“It’d make me feel better.” Holding up both hands in to indicate he didn’t want to fight based on the critical look received. “So you left it with the old man that they could still face charges?”
“I felt he might be more inclined to go along with what Heath wants.”
“And what of Archer?”
“As I explained before we left home, I will not let Archer persecute our brother.”
“Damn well better not!”
“And if mother were here, she’d be after you about your language.”
“Jarrod, he’s my brother. He’s been through…. I don’t know how he came through his childhood to be the man he is.” Nick’s voice reflected the pride he felt for his brother. Tiredly, Nick fell into the chair, hanging his arms off the arm rests. “Heath in bed?”
“No. I’m not sure where he is.”
“YOU were supposed to stay with him!” Nick jumped to his feet and made three steps before the door opened.
“I needed to take a walk, Nick,” Heath answered as he limped into the suite. “Think you can yell any louder?”
Feeling the need to defuse the situation, “Yeah, but only when I’m outdoors. You okay?”
Heath nodded and turned to Jarrod, “I’m sorry for my outburst earlier. It’s just that after all the years of torment…. Found a way to make more money than I ever made in the mine or working at the livery. At least that’s what I told Momma. I tried to hide from her the bruises they gave me, Uncle Matt and Aunt Martha. I’d lay awake at night hear her cry. I thought, everyone would be nicer to her, she wouldn’t suffer because a me. So I left.”
“Wish you’d come to us, little brother,” Nick answered.
“So do I.”
Victoria was thankful the Ladies Auxiliary had already left before Audra, wearing a form-fitting blouse over her riding pants which were tucked into her short boots, yelled as she ran into the mansion. “Mother!”
“Audra, please,” Victoria graciously appeared, from the hallway under the second-floor landing, reaching out to greet her daughter. “A lady does not yell or carry on in such a manner.”
“But Mother, they’re home!” Audra pointed to the still open front door. “They’re coming!”
“Who… Jarrod and Nick?”
“And Heath. Oh Mother, it has to be Heath riding with them.”
Together, mother and daughter stepped to the porch, to await their returning family members.
As if they hadn’t a care in the world, the three riders slowly made their way to the front yard, laughing at something one of them had said.
Barely allowing for her brothers to dismount, Audra ran up to Heath, “They brought you back! Oh Heath.” She wrapped her arms around him.
Responding to her hug by rubbing her back, “No need to cry.”
“I thought you’d left.”
Understanding just how much this family had taken him into their hearts, he whispered, “I was planning ta come back. I wouldn’t a left without saying goodbye.”
Expressive blue eyes looked up, “Truly?”
Nodding, “Why don’t you dry your eyes. I think we all need to sit down and talk, after dinner.”
“Is that Chicken Creole I’m smelling?” Nick walked past the gathering, ignoring the roll of Victoria’s eyes.
“Always thinking of his stomach,” Jarrod jested as Heath pulled his saddlebags from behind his saddle.
“Just making sure I get to the tub first!” With that, Nick ran up the stairs.
Reaching out, she took Heath’s hands in hers. “Heath, welcome home.”
Pulling her close and wrapping an arm around his step-mother, “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
Stepping back, Victoria asked of her newest son, “Is everything okay?”
“It will be Mother.” Jarrod initiated a welcome-home hug to his mother. “We have some decisions to help Heath make.”
“Oh?” Victoria queried, looking to Heath who was handing the reins of his horse to Ciego and whispered something to the old vaquero.
Turning to face Victoria, “Yes Ma’am. It’s about my…. Aunt Martha.” Seeing the petite woman stiffen at the mention of his aunt’s name, “Ya don’t have ta worry about her. She’s in custody of the marshal over in Grayson.”
“That’s what we have to talk about.” Leading his family inside, “But I think it best that we wait until we’ve all had a chance to clean up, eat dinner, and then gather in the parlor where this can be discussed fully.”
With the front door closed, Victoria watched as two of her sons made their way up the staircase. “Heath… Are you limping?”
“Damn,” breathily escaped his lips, he lowered his head.
A hand to the blonde’s shoulder, “You are on your own,” Jarrod quietly answered before continuing to the top landing.
Turning, he was unable to look her in the eyes, “Just a little saddle weary.”
“I can always tell when one of my sons is not being truthful.” Standing with her hands resting on top of the newel post, she looked to where Heath had stopped, half way up. “Do I need to retrieve my bottle of liniment?”
Responding quicker than he mean to, “No, Ma’am!” Realizing his folly, he continued a little less hurried, “The doctor sent along some antiseptic for me to use.” He patted the saddlebag slung over his shoulder.
Wishing her newest son would feel comfortable using the term of familial used by her other children, she felt that taking him to task at this moment would be wrong, as would pressing him to allow her treat his injury. “I take it your brothers know about whatever it is?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Looking at her, his eyes brightened just the slightest.
Thinking he looked like a little boy hoping to get away from some kind of a punishment, she decided to allow him. “Go on, upstairs with you. Let Nick and Jarrod tend to your injury. This time.” Victoria smiled at the wide grin that appeared on Heath’s face before he turned to finish making his way upstairs. Victoria exited the foyer to go help Silas with the final arrangements for dinner.
Chapter 10 – The End
The house had quieted hours before. Earlier, Jarrod had expounded the relevant facts regarding their options when it came to dealing with Matt and Martha Simmons. But not all of what happened, between brothers, was discussed; there were things he had determined the ladies did not need to know of Heath’s past.
After years of knowing her oldest son’s ways, Victoria recognized when she was not being told the entire truth, and this was what found her still awake long after she’d retired for the night. She knew the boys were not lying, but more importantly she felt their omission was an effort to protect someone. It disturbed her when she finally came to understand the brothers were protecting Heath. In her heart, Victoria knew Jarrod would have stopped by her sitting room on his way up to bed had it been Audra. As much as the only daughter was becoming a young lady, there were things in the world she just didn’t need to know, yet.
Gliding down the staircase, Victoria spied a figure standing before the fireplace in the parlor. “Tom?” she whispered. So much like her husband when troubled, she had to force herself to remember he had been taken from her six years before.
Regaining her composure, “Couldn’t you sleep?”
Unfazed at her voice, almost as if he had expected her, he shook his head. “Haven’t tried.”
“I’m willing to listen if you need to talk.”
“Ain’t nothing more needs saying.” Turning away from the fire, Heath faced the woman who had accepted him into her home, and their lives. “I’m sorry you got pulled into all the ugliness of them.”
Tingeing her voice with regret, Victoria replied, “You tried to warn me. If I had just let it all alone. I am sorry Heath.”
Nodding, wanting her to know his heart, “I’m thankful for you agreeing about sending them away.”
“I will admit, I wanted them to stand trial, to have them face justice. But hearing you and Jarrod discuss what could happen….” Victoria shivered. “It doesn’t seem right.”
“Ain’t a matter of right or wrong, it’s just people.” Heath hit the side of his fisted hand against the fireplace mantle, inadvertently revealing how much he was hurting,. “You think Mr. Archer will agree with everything Jarrod wrote down.”
“I’m sure he will. With the doctor’s diagnosis and your uncle agreeing… It’s the best way to see…your aunt hopefully gets the help she needs.”
Heath turned away from Victoria and walked to a nearby window, pushing the lace curtain aside.
“What is it Heath?” Victoria followed, placing a hand on his forearm.
Shaking his head at his own reflection, “It could have all been so different.” Still holding the lace curtain with one hand, he slipped the other into a front pocket of his pants.
Victoria waited, unsure if Heath wanted a response.
“I’d of given anything to be a part of a family.”
Victoria interrupted, “Oh but Heath, you were. You mother, Aunt Rachel, and Hannah.”
“Yeah, we were a family.” A fond smile appeared on his face. “But we could have been so much more.” Memories returned to his childhood, and a young boy’s dreams. “Growing up, seeing other children with both their parents and extended families.” His voice turned bitter, “He was Momma’s brother. They were supposed to be my family…”
Reaching up to turn his face towards her, “Heath, I wish the past could have been different, that somehow….”
“No, ya take what life gives you and ya make the best of it. That’s what Momma always said.” Allowing the curtain to close, “Guess I’m just feeling sorry for myself.”
“You’re entitled to feel that way, for the way you had to live while growing up. But I hope you’ll think on the here and now as a blessing. Life gave us you, Heath. Your joining our family was an unexpected gift, and I thank God every day that you decided to come here.” Placing her hand in the crook of Heath’s elbow she led him across the floor, stopping as they arrived at the staircase, “But if you ever….” She pointed a finger to the blonde, to emphasize her point.
Heath paused, but Victoria kept him moving up the carpeted steps, but allowed him to proceed slower do to his wounded leg.
“If you ever, deliberately set your brother against you like you did before you left. Making the rest of us worry that you were leaving us.” Victoria quieted until they reached her bedroom door and stopped.
“Let’s just say you’ll receive the same punishment as your brothers when they’d do something they knew would draw my ire.”
The right side of his mouth turned up. “Jarrod said something about wooden spoons.”
“I take it you’ve had some experience with them?”
A boyish glint lit his eyes, “Only to lick the batter bowl on rare occasions,” but this hand nearest Victoria slipped to his backside, as if to protect something dear.
“Oh Heath,” she laughed and rose to her tiptoes. Placing a kiss on Heath’s cheek, “Sweet dreams, Heath. And I do mean it when I say, it’s good to have you home.”
Heath waited until the door clicked closed before lifting his hand to his cheek. Smiling at the warm glow he felt inside, he turned to walk down the carpeted hallway. He stopped and dropped his hand at seeing Nick leaning against the door frame to his room. A smirk on his face and standing ever so relaxed; arms folded across his chest, left ankle crossed in front of his right leg, toe to the ground. “We okay?”
With a smiled that reached his eyes, “Yeah, we’re more than okay.” Heath continue to his room, but paused and called, “Nick?”
Turning, “If I haven’t said it, thanks for coming after me.”
“You’re welcome. But, next time….”
“I should come right out and ask for help?”
With a wide, lop-sided grin, “It’s good to be home, big brother.”
Standing straight, “It sure is good to have you here, brother.”