Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 4900
He saw the little girl before he heard her weeping. It was a soft weeping, kept low so as not to aggravate the men who held her captive. Shaking his head at the cruelty of tying the child’s hands behind her back and blindfolding her, the boy trembled with anger. He hated injustice and this was a form of despicable ruthlessness. Creeping close behind the trees, he wondered how best to help the blond-haired miss who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old with her long silky locks cascading down her back in a fine ponytail. She wore pants and a shirt just like a boy while her face spoke of the angels. The three men who had made camp for the night ignored their prisoner. Without her boots, the girl wasn’t going anywhere in this terrain. The boy watching the camp had to admire the girl’s courage for though she cried, she kept herself from irritating her captors and that was something he hoped she would continue to do. Otherwise, he knew all would be lost.
“Hold still, Little Gal,” he said softly. “I reckon the war can wait till ya get back to your folks.”
Night fell slowly on the middle of summer in San Joaquin valley. It was close to nine before the sun set, the temperature cooling considerably. The little girl sitting on the ground, her world turned upside. It had been three days since she had been taken from her parents while riding her pony with a ranch hand. They had been less than a mile from the ranch when a single shot had fallen the protector. She had taken off on her own, hearing yet a second shot which was certainly meant to kill John Abbott once and for all. In seconds she heard someone galloping up behind her. She was taken off her pony in one full swoop, her little body laid across the saddle as they rode. She kicked and screamed to no avail. The men had whooped at their quick success. While still in the saddle the child had been tied and blindfolded. So far she had not seen any of the men who had taken her and she had no idea where she was. Even so, the little girl planned to escape until they took her boots. Without boots she was helpless. She knew walking barefoot on the range was not a safe option. She still held out hope that she could get to a horse and escape, but so far even that opportunity seemed unlikely to a frightened little girl.
When the voices quieted, the child decided it was safe at last to fall asleep. Before they tied her to the tree, they had untied her hands and allowed her to relieve herself in the bushes. Sitting her back down under the tree, they allowed her some fresh cooked rabbit and water, then tied her hands again, all in the darkness that surrounded her, all with one-word directions. Leaning against the tree, the child comforted herself with the knowledge that her father and brothers were certainly looking for her. They would rescue her before it was too late. She had heard the men. They meant to take her to San Francisco and sell her into slavery. The child didn’t really know what that meant, but she knew it couldn’t be good.
“Psst…” a soft voice called. Her ears perked up. There was silence all around. From behind the tree, a hand touched her shoulder, a hand not much bigger than her own. She didn’t move as the boy spoke, untying her blindfold and her hands, his whisper soft, and insistent in her ears.
“Don’t make a sound. I’m a friend, honest. Let’s go.” She didn’t need to be told twice. Blinking, adjusting her eyes to the darkness, her heart pulsating in fear despite a feeling that this was her way to safety, she turned to see a blond boy, his finger on his lips. His sapphire eyes shone in the dim light of the campfire behind them. Immediately the girl knew she could trust him, though she wasn’t sure why. He turned and beckoned her to get up on his back. Again she did as ordered, praying this boy would take her home. It was hard to see in the dark and yet what light she could see hurt her eyes. She closed and opened them repeatedly as the boy moved. Circling the camp so as not to make a sound, he got to the horses. Not bothering to saddle one, he helped her to get mounted. He reached into his pocket and took out a knife.
“Ya hold on ta this. If they catch us, ya can use it ta work loose the ties. I got one in my boot.” She nodded putting the knife in her pants pocket. With a grin, he used a tree stump to get up behind her. He gathered the tethers of the other horses and they made their way away from the camp. The men were roused by the sound of the horses. With a cry, they chased after the boy and girl. She felt the boy placing his body over hers as gunshots rang out. He held fast to the horses.
“Stay down,” he ordered sharply as she tried to move. Another shot rang out. The boy stiffened, falling forward on the little girl. They continued to flee. The horses were let go as the boy fought to hold himself up.
“You okay?” he asked, groaning with pain. She nodded.
“We gotta…gotta get help. It’ll be morning soon…they can find us.”
“We live near Stockton. Do you know where we are?” the child asked.
“Stockton? Not sure…East of here I think. Oh God.”
“Boy…did they hurt you?” she asked, her lips quivering. They were riding a little more slowly for only the light of the full moon could guide them and there was a chance the horse could step into a hole.
“My shoulder…bullet went through I think…but hurts like hellfire.”
“My mama can fix you up. You can come home with me,” she offered. “Boy you got any water?”
“Sorry, Little Gal. I left my bedroll and canteen back there. Ya don’t want ta go back…back for it do ya?”
“Uh uh,” she cried shaking her head. “They…said…they said they was going ta sell me. I’m scared of them.”
“Smart Gal,” the boy answered. “That’s a good name for ya, Gal. I’m feeling rather poorly. Can ya see ta ride?”
“Yep. It’s okay. I can ride good,” Gal answered.
“Good, cause we don’t want them to catch us.”
“You rescued me.”
“Yeah, what of it?” the boy returned sharply.
“Why? You don’t know me.”
“Well, I couldn’t leave ya there. My mama would skin me good. Never leave a gal in distress she says. So I didn’t.”
“But they could have killed you,” Gal protested. “If they catch us…”
“They won’t.” He insisted. “Can we just be quiet?” She turned to look at him. Even in the dim light, she could see he was suffering. The boy’s face was pale and taut, his eyes expressionably filled with his agony. Little Gal knew they needed to find help, but she also knew even if they found a person to help, they wouldn’t know if they could trust them. Well if they couldn’t find help, they needed to find water and Stockton. She touched his face with her little hand and deposited a wet kiss on his forehead.
“Aww, what’d ya go and do that for?” he demanded in disgust.
“I do that with my brothers,” she answered with a light giggle. “Don’t it make you feel better?”
“Naw and don’t do it again,” the boy retorted. She turned back on the horse, digging her legs into the side of the horse. She knew her kiss did make her rescuer feel better. Her brothers protested too, especially Nick. Her oldest brother, Jarrod was starting to compliment her for her hugs and kisses, but then he was grown and in college. He had more manners than Nick. She plodded the horse forward. Fortunately, the horse was gentle, and he rode sure-footed through the night. The sun was just rising when Little Gal noticed her new friend slipping off the horse. To her horror, he hit the ground with a thud. She jumped down to his side just as horses galloped up to them. Her instinct to run was blunted by her need to help the boy. She stood protectively by his side as a man jumped off his horse and hit her hard across the face.
“You little brat. I told ya what would happen if ya tried to escape. Tie her and blindfold her again, Danny.” The little gal stumbled back as a second man pulled her arms behind her. While her hands were being tied, her eyes watched the scene unfolding around her. The first man was looking down at the boy who had called her Gal. The boy’s blond head was visible, his kind face buried in the dirt where he had fallen. Before the hated blindfold came on, her heart plummeted as the man lifted his gun and pulled back his trigger, aiming the gun at the boy’s head. He spoke hideously chilling words that threatened to push the little girl over the edge of her ability to cope with all that had happened to her.
“Well Sonny, didn’t anyone ever teach ya not to butt in someone else’s business? Now ya gotta pay the price for your danged actions. The girl’s mine. Now you’re dead.” The head turned, the sapphire eyes meeting the little gal’s with an amazingly courageous reassurance. With an anguished scream, she launched her body at the man just as the gun fired. The little gal only jostled her captor for she was small and he was quite large. Cruelly, the man grabbed her, but not before she witnessed the blood seeping out of the boy’s head and his eyes gazing at her until they closed and his body went limp. She was certain she had just seen him die, an atrocity she had never been forced to watch before. With her mind spinning at the horror, the blond girl decided the boy had died for her, and now it was her turn. Looking up, the child gasped, her mouth forming a silent “oh.” She raised her hand to deflect the blow but wasn’t fast enough to keep the butt of the gun the man held from hitting her hard on the head. The explosion in her head took her by surprise and then sent her into oblivion giving her a blessed release.
“Audra! Audra, please, Sweetheart. Talk to me,” Victoria Barkley pleaded with her little daughter. Holding the child in her arms, Victoria was at the end of her rope. It had been six weeks since Tom had found the men who had taken their daughter. All three men had been killed in a shootout with the posse that the sheriff and Tom had formed when Audra went missing. Tom told her how the trail had gotten almost seventy miles from Stockton and then suddenly turned back. Five miles later, the posse’s lead stringer had rushed back to the group saying he thought he’d seen the men now heading west towards them again. From his vantage point, he had seen Audra her little body slumped over the saddle. They hid, waiting till the men appeared. Tom saw Audra lying across the saddle unmoving. In one shot, he put a bullet between her captor’s eyes, giving him grim satisfaction as the man flew backward, dead before he hit the ground. The other two men were also killed before they really knew what hit them. With Audra as their hostage, there was little choice but to kill them before they could hurt his daughter. Tom’s heart broke while carrying Audra home, her head bruised a terrible black and blue, her listless body resting against his chest all the way home. The doctor diagnosed a skull fracture, caused most likely by a blunt trauma to the head. To her parents’ distress, Audra hadn’t regained consciousness until they had been home for two days. When their little angel woke she failed to recognize her family or talk to them. The doctor was uncertain if it was trauma that caused the child’s condition or brain damage. Victoria wanted nothing more than to hear her daughter’s voice and see those blue eyes alight with mischief.
“Torie,” Tom said coming out into the garden. “How is she today?” Shaking her head, Victoria held the child close. Tom touched the blond head, tears in his eyes.
“We got her back,” he murmured, “But what good has it done?”
“Don’t say that!” Victoria cried with a fierce maternal protection. “If you give up on her, Tom Barkley, I’ll never forgive you.” Victoria’s face was raw with grief and pain, but her intent was clear. Tom sat down next to his wife, his arms embracing her and Audra.
“Torie, Torie,” he sighed. “I would never give up on our princess. She’s part of my heart and soul just as our boys are. I just can’t bear to see her like this.” Victoria took a deep breath, letting it out, trying to relax.
“I know,” she conceded. “Where are Nick and Jarrod?”
“I sent them to town to get some supplies. They’ve been working hard. I thought they could use some time just to relax a little. Ride to town’s a good way to do it.” Victoria nodded.
“You know, Torie, I’ve gone over this in my mind a hundred times. I just can’t figure it out. What did those men backtrack for? It doesn’t make sense. And if they hadn’t I strongly doubt we would have caught up with them. They were riding hard and we almost lost them.”
“You mean…” Victoria gasped. Tom’s sapphire eyes, those terribly expressive eyes were solemn as he spoke.
“Whatever brought them back saved our girl. I don’t know if she managed to escape or what, but I thank God for whatever happened every day.”
“Dear God,” Victoria gasped again. She clutched Audra to her, her silent daughter. She hadn’t known such fear or loss since the loss of her baby son thirteen years before. When Audra had gone missing, her husband and sons had given chase. Those six days of worrying and waiting had been some of the worst of her life. Now, without her daughter’s constant prattle and giggling, her heart was empty. Worse was the darkness that had descended over her sons and husband in their distress. She only hoped that in town, the boys would get a chance to relax and talk. They were so good for each other, that is, she smiled to herself, when they weren’t fighting. She picked her daughter up and she and Tom went into the house for lunch. Hours later, the boys arrived home with the wagon and supplies. Nick was seventeen, tall and brawny with a rugged face like his father’s and a no-nonsense look about his hazel eyes. He hid a soft heart behind a temperamental exterior. Jarrod, four years older was slightly shorter and thinner than his brother or perhaps less well muscled, with the definite look of a scholar although now that it was summer he was home from college helping out on the ranch he had grown up on. The boys were close friends.
“Nick, you want to put the horses up,” Jarrod asked as the two brothers came into the yard. “I’ll start unloading the supplies.”
“Sure, Jarrod,” Nick answered. “Jarrod?”
“You going to tell Mother and Father about the boy they found?” Jarrod Barkley a law student who was just into his second decade nodded.
“Maybe it will help Audra put some of her fears to rest. I wish I knew what really happened out there.”
“Me too,” Nick agreed. “I’d give anything to have her asking me pesky questions and bothering me again. She’s a nuisance, but that’s better than her being so quiet.”
“True.” Jarrod had finished unloading the supplies and putting them in the barn, while Nick put up the horses. When they were both done with their chores, they walked from the neatly kept outbuildings to the large mansion their parents had built while they were both small boys. They found their mother in the living room. Victoria was holding her daughter, reading her one of her favorite stories. The child was stiff with Victoria’s arm around her, but the mother was convinced that touch and love would bring her daughter back to them. Nick and Jarrod exchanged glances, and then walked into the living room. Behind them, the front door slammed as Tom Barkley’s voice bellowed out.
“Torie? Nick! Jarrod! Audra! Where is everyone?” Silas appeared to take Tom’s hat. After greeting the house man with a grin, Tom walked into the living room with Victoria shaking her head.
“Tom! Must you be so loud?” She said automatically. “My eardrums.” Tom bent over, kissing his wife on the cheek, and then did the same to Audra who was unresponsive.
“I haven’t broken your eardrums yet, Torie, or Audra’s. As for Jarrod and Nick, I’m sure they’re used to it.”
“Well, Father, I must admit, between you and Nick, this house is never at a loss for noise,” Jarrod teased with a wink at his brother.
“Now see here,” Nick put in pretending to be offended.
“Boys, Boys,” Victoria chided. The laughter in the room was comforting. Audra lifted her head, looking around, and then seemed to retreat again.
“Torie, did you see that,” Tom asked putting down the bottle of brandy he had been about to use to pour himself a drink. Victoria, her heart suddenly hopeful nodded. Nick and Jarrod patted each other on the shoulder. Nick came over to kneel in front of the blond child who had captured his heart the moment her tiny finger took his when she was born eight years ago.
“Hey, Little Sister, it’s about time we saw those pretty eyes a yours. Now you get better and I’ll take ya riding on your pony.” Audra didn’t answer. Nick was disappointed, but he still squeezed her hand. He stood, leaning against the fireplace across from his father who did the same while sipping his brandy. Jarrod sat on the marble table in front of his mother and sister.
“Nick and I talked to Sheriff Grant today. He had some news about a boy. He was found out on the range and taken to Modesto. Sheriff’s deputy came over from Modesto to do some investigating.”
”What about the boy?” Tom asked with general curiosity.
“Well, he was found the same day you found Audra. He’d been shot in the shoulder and had a bullet that had glanced off his head. He was unconscious for several days. When he woke he had some difficulty remembering what had happened. Guess he was sick for awhile. Bout a week ago, when he was getting ready to be placed in an orphanage, he remembered. He insisted on finding “Little Gal.” Jarrod’s eyes were on his sister. Did he imagine it or did he see a flicker in her eyes.
“Little Gal?” Tom asked in puzzlement? “What’s that?” Jarrod’s answer to his father’s question was intriguing.
“Seems it was a little girl. He insisted the sheriff find her. He said that he’d tried to rescue her from some men who were going to sell her. That boy was dead serious and very insistent. He said the little girl came from Stockton. Wanted to make sure someone lit out after her cause, and I quote what the deputy said, “Those no good low life’s still got her.” The deputy came here because he knew of Audra’s disappearance. He doesn’t know any more than that, except that the boy has run off. No one knows where he is. It’s possible the little gal he was talking about was Audra.” Silence pervaded the room. Tom held his drink as if he were frozen. Victoria looked down at her daughter, hugging her close, and then let her gray eyes meet her husband’s. This boy then was the distraction that had saved their daughter. Next to her Audra wiggled free.
“Jarrod?” Taken completely off guard, everyone stared at Audra as she looked at her brother. Jarrod knelt down in front of his sister.
“The boy? Was he okay?”
“Yes, Honey. He got better and he’s on his way to wherever he planned to go.” Audra looked to her father and mother. Bursting into tears she let her mother comfort her. Victoria’s heart was full to bursting with joy, and so were her husband’s and sons’. Audra finally got a hold of her emotions. Snuggled close in the safety of her mother’s arms, she haltingly told her family how the boy had tried so valiantly to save her life. Her face paled as she recalled when he was shot for the second time, her lips trembling as she finished.
“I thought he was dead,” she confided. “I thought he died for nothing. I felt so bad.”
“Oh, Sweetheart,” Victoria sighed. Tom Barkley sat on the other side of his little girl and pulled her into his lap.
“Princess, when a man dies or even is injured trying to save a life, it’s never in vain. You must never forget that. The boy was very brave.”
“Yes, Papa, he was,” Audra agreed. “I liked him. He didn’t like my kiss though.” Nick and Jarrod spluttered and then started laughing. Tom’s chuckle enfolded his daughter as he held her close. Her chatter couldn’t be stopped after that day…and no one in the family ever minded it again…except perhaps, Nick.
Fourteen years later, Heath Barkley burst into his sister’s room. Downstairs, the family had just brought Audra home from the hospital in Sacramento after she had had her appendix removed during a traumatic train ride from Stockton to that capital city. Audra had asked Heath to come upstairs and get her favorite wrap to wear. It was folded in the second drawer. Heath would have preferred that Victoria get the wrap but she was in the kitchen fussing with Silas to get something for Audra to eat and drink. Embarrassed to be going through his sister’s things, Heath found the wrap. He was about to close the drawer when his eyes lit on a red jackknife that had been under the wrap and was now staring up at him. Picking it up curiously, he noted how old it was and a nick on the end of it. Shutting the drawer, he kept his eyes on the jackknife, all the way downstairs. Absently he handed his sister the wrap which his brother Nick was quick to help her into. She laid back on the settee where she had sat with her parents on that day so long ago when she found out her rescuer hadn’t died.
“Feel all right?” Nick growled in his gruff manner. Audra’s brilliant smile was bright.
“I’m fine. You need to stop fussing.” Her voice was bright and happy to her brothers’ relief. They had come close to losing her on the train. Life without their little sister was something the Barkley men were not prepared to deal with.
“Brothers are allowed to fuss over little sisters, Honey,” Jarrod chuckled sitting on that same marble table. He looked up at Heath who was still eyeing the jackknife. Victoria came into the room with a tray of lemonade and sandwiches for all of them. Nick too noticed Heath’s distraction. He came over and put his hand on Heath’s shoulder.
“Whatcha got there, Little Brother?” Without reply, Heath got up and sat on the settee, letting Audra put her stocking feet on his legs. He held out the jackknife to her. She took it with a puzzled expression.
“Little Gal, how long ya had this here knife?” he asked in a soft voice. Audra’s eyes opened wide. Nick, Jarrod, and Victoria froze. A smile broke out over Audra’s face as a long-ago memory took hold.
“Well, Boy, I suppose it’s been quite a while.” For several seconds the brother and sister’s eyes were locked on each other. Audra sat up. She planted a kiss on Heath’s cheek. When he grinned from ear to ear, she pouted.
“Now what’s that look for, Sis?” he teased.
“Aren’t you going to protest?” she giggled back. Heath shook his head.
“No way, Little Gal. Only a twelve-year-old boy refuses a girl’s kiss, ‘specially when it’s his own sister.” Heath shook his head until he exclaimed with amazement. “I’ll be damned.” Audra’s hand touched his face just as it had that night.
“You saved my life, Heath. If it wasn’t for you those men would have taken me for sure, Father said.” Heath shook his head in disbelief, still stunned by what the jackknife and Audra confirmed. He did have some questions.
“The sheriff in Modesto told me your family had found you.”
“Sure after you get yourself almost killed for me,” Audra smiled. “Through that entire ordeal, you were my hero. I kept the knife to remember the courage of a little boy who couldn’t leave a gal in distress…”
“’Cause my mama would have skinned me good,” Heath finished. “I’ve never forgotten you. You were so brave and did everything I told you.”
“Oh, Heath,” Audra sighed. Hugging each other close, they were quickly pounced on by their mother and brothers. When it finally came clear that Heath was the boy who had saved Audra from being taken to God only knew where Victoria hugged her son close.
“Mother, don’t,” Heath pleaded. “It’s over now. I was just surprised when I saw the knife. I wanted to tell Audra how proud I was of her. She saved my life too.”
“How?” Nick thundered, looking from his brother to his sister and back again.
“I saw you, Audra,” Heath said. “You flew at that man and his bullet went wide. If it’d gone in where he intended, I’d a been six feet under for sure.”
“Well I couldn’t let him shoot you,” Audra replied indignantly.
“Anymore than I could let them take you,” Heath replied. This was a part of the story the family had never heard, for Audra only told them the men had shot the boy in the head and that was when she thought he died. She didn’t mention her little stunt. Nick gathered his sister up in his arms, dancing around the room with her and hugging her close.
“Audra, you are the bravest, most courageous Little Gal I bet there ever was,” he praised with a big wide grin of delight on his rugged face.
“Hey, what about my horse?” Heath interrupted. “She may not be as strong and sleek as Charger, but she’s as fast as the original Little Gal she was named after.”
“So that’s where you got her name from,” Audra breathed as Nick gently placed her back to the settee. Heath and Nick fussed over their sister as Jarrod came to put his arm around his mother, hugged her to him. He had been silent throughout the revelation that had just raised his pride in both Heath and Audra a hundredfold.
“Well, Lovely Lady, what are you thinking,” Jarrod asked with a loving note. Victoria’s gray eyes stayed on her three youngest children while she leaned against Jarrod’s embrace. Tears fell down her perfect cheekbones.
“I’m thinking Tom would have been so proud to know Heath.”
“That he would, Mother, and how Audra saved Heath as much as he saved her.” Victoria smiled, nodding.
“You children never cease to amaze me,” she murmured.
“Excuse me,” Jarrod wondered. Victoria slapped his back gently.
“You heard me, Jarrod.” She planted a maternal kiss on his cheek. “Now let’s go eat with our boy and our little gal. This family is home and I for one intend to relish every minute of this wonderful day.” Jarrod watched his mother glide across the floor to join the family. His blue eyes rested fondly on the blond brother and sister who were brought together once by chance and then by blood. Jarrod couldn’t fathom how their lives would have changed without Heath’s existence in more ways than one. But for the boy, he had been and the man the blond had become, the Barkley’s lives would certainly have gone down a path Jarrod didn’t like to consider. Joining the family, he had no idea how the fates could work so explicitly. He could be forever grateful to the boy who had saved their little gal so long ago and now was part of their hearts…by grace, good fortune and love.