The Road Home (by Kellie)

Summary:  (AU) A sequel to “A Cry of Innocence”, taking place eleven years later. Jarrod is 19, Nick is 15, Heath is 11 and Audra is 6.  Eugene does not exist. Leah Thomson is deceased but Tom Barkley is living.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8594


Victoria smiled as she watched her youngest son’s antics through the open window. Normally he was a quiet, well-mannered boy but nothing thrilled him more than teasing and prodding his brother into frustration when Nick was trying to concentrate on something. Heath would keep picking at Nick until he received a reaction. At eleven and small for his age there was no way he could out run the fifteen-year-old once the chase was on, not that he really tried all that hard. She laughed out loud as her eyes followed the short foot race. Nick easily caught his brother and, gently taking him to the ground, started tickling him. She felt absolutely no alarm because she knew Nick adored Heath and would never harm him. She listened to Heath’s giggles and pleas for his brother to stop. The tickling match ended with the two brothers affectionately hugging each other, the same as always.

Because of his premature birth Heath remained smaller in size than children his own age and the teasing he sometimes endured as a result was the only thing that truly caused him to lose his temper. Due to his friendly, outgoing and confident personality Heath was well liked by his classmates so most of the teasing came from the older boys. Those in Nick’s age group had been the worst offenders but with a little convincing from Nick it had ceased. Now the only time Heath was teased about his size occurred when a new boy would move into the valley and he would quickly and painfully learn the same lesson that others had learned courtesy of Nick’s fast as lightning fists.

Oddly enough or maybe not so odd, Nick always referred to Heath as “squirt” or “runt” and this was perfectly acceptable to Heath because coming from Nick the words were filled with love and affection. In fact the two boys were so close that Heath was the ONLY person who could get away with calling his brother by one of two very apt nicknames, “bear” or “mule”. If anyone else had dared to call Nick either one his full fury would have been unleashed but he would only laugh when Heath said them.

Being the oldest, many times it had fallen upon Jarrod to be the one to curtail his younger brothers’ adventures or misadventures, depending on the circumstances. Unfortunately Nick and Heath took great delight in sarcastically referring to him as “pappy” when he attempted to rein them in. That nickname literally made his blood boil but he had immediately warmed to being called “Jay” by Heath. Initially Heath had called him Jay simply because as a very little boy he had trouble saying Jarrod correctly. Later it became a seldom used term of endearment that Jarrod looked forward to hearing Heath utter but if others referred to him by that name his rapid reply was, “My name is Jarrod, not Jay.”

Victoria had never, for a second, regretted taking Heath to her heart. Right or wrong she and Tom had chosen to keep the truth of his birth from him and his siblings. He carried as much Barkley blood in him as his brothers and sister did and, as far as she was concerned, he was as much hers as they were, if not by birth then through love. He brought joy and light to everyone in the family each and every day but Audra had been a Godsend in many ways.

Victoria and Tom had resigned themselves that Heath would be the last child they would raise but five years after his birth Audra had been born. Everyone had been holding his or her breath that the baby would be a girl, especially Heath. He never could explain why but he desperately wanted a little sister not a brother. As excited as he was to learn that the baby was a girl the joy he expressed upon actually seeing her was intoxicating. He had begun questioning why he was the only one in the family who had blond hair and a fair complexion but Audra’s birth erased his concerns. Victoria could still picture his little body bouncing with excitement and hear his words.

“Oh, Mama, look! She’s looks like me! Papa, Jarrod, Nick look. She looks JUST like me!”

Now, at the tender age of six, Audra was in awe of her brothers and believed they were the smartest, best looking and strongest boys on the face of the earth. Between her father and brothers she was hard put to decide which one she would marry, although, as she confided in Victoria, Heath had a slight edge because he would play tea party and dolls with her. In fact, Heath treasured his little sister more than anything and treated her like a princess. He catered to her every wish and whim and, in general, spoiled her rotten. There was absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do to make her happy or to protect her.

*****

The seven figures huddled around the campfire were brutal, hardened men without an ounce of mercy among the whole lot. They were not cowards and had seen their fair share of gun battles but they would kill a man whose back was turned just as assuredly as they would face an armed man. It made no difference to them and they felt no remorse afterwards.

They had patiently bided their time, wanting to make sure that the plan would go off without a hitch. Over the past two weeks they had all taken turns venturing into town and had been able to gather enough information that they were now ready to make their strike. It had been all too easy, after all a drunk was very free with sharing his knowledge and the best part was he would never remember having a conversation at all, let alone the face of the individual he had been talking to. They had also watched their targets closely and quickly discovered a pattern that would gain them the goal they seeked.

Cutler, their leader, was a shrewdly intelligent man whose only match when it came to bloodthirsty killing would be Charles Quantril. Their scout, whom they only knew as Breed, had been born of a full blood Apache warrior and a part white, part Indian woman. Not only could he track a mouse over granite but he could also lead them into such remote areas and rugged terrain that their pursuers always lost their trail.

After making their final plans they stretched out on the hard earth to get a few hours of sleep before morning. They knew what they were preparing to do would have some of the best trackers on their heels and they would need all the sleep they could get, it might be a while before they would get another chance.

*****

Heath was the best fishing buddy ever, as far as Audra was concerned. She always pretended to be disgusted by the thought of baiting her own hook and Heath willingly did it for her. What he didn’t realize was that when she went fishing with Nick he always made her place the worms on the hook for herself and she really wasn’t repelled by it at all. She just liked letting the boys do what most girls would consider yucky work and Heath was such a little gentleman about it that it made her feel like a real lady.

Heath was her best friend and she loved everything about him. He never treated her like “just a little girl”; he always asked her opinion and really seemed to listen to what she had to say. He was so very sweet, kind, gentle, quiet natured, thoughtful and sensitive and he NEVER told her what to do. Jarrod was so much older and a bit bossy for her taste even if he was kind, thoughtful and quiet. And Nick, well, she loved him dearly but he was so loud and rowdy and, at least in regards to her, he was very bossy.

Heath always had time for her and was willing to play any games she wanted to at any time. Jarrod had played tea party with her before but he just didn’t have the imagination that Heath did and Nick had never and would never play tea party or dolls, no matter how much he loved her. She understood that Heath didn’t like playing some of her games and only did so to please her but he did like to fish so she set aside every Saturday just to return the favor. They would head out early in the morning and spend the whole day at Heath’s favorite fishing hole, usually arriving home around two in the afternoon.

Audra would always fix their noontime sandwiches and that was another thing she liked about Heath. He didn’t fuss, rant and rave about her unusual concoctions the way Nick would or politely refrain from eating like Jarrod. He would crinkle his nose slightly to see something along the lines of egg salad with a huge glob of molasses and a large chunk of tomato stuck between his two slices of bread but he would always eat it then thank her for “going to the trouble” to make him something to eat.

To her Heath’s greatest asset was the fact that he was perfectly comfortable being silent. She probably found this characteristic so fascinating because she was perfectly happy to ramble on and on. He wasn’t bashful or timid or afraid to speak his mind he was just one of those people who didn’t feel the need to say anything unless it was really important.

*****

The seven outlaws watched the two children closely. Cutler was pleased by what he saw. From what they had been able to gather they knew that the older, teenage boy would have been a poor choice. From what people said the boy had a fiery temper and most likely he would have caused them untold amounts of trouble on the trail. Initially they had only intended to take the little girl because she would be the easiest to handle and control but there would be more money in it if they took two instead of one, and the Barkleys had the money to pay. Not to mention that Cutler didn’t like to listen to a brat whine and bawl and with her older brother in tow she would feel more secure and be less likely to fuss.

The little boy was ideal. They had learned and seen for themselves that he was more even-tempered than his older brother and strongly devoted to his little sister. They would use that devotion to their benefit. As long as he feared for her safety he would cooperate, of that Cutler had no doubt.

The regular fishing trips had been just what the men needed to pull the kidnapping off. It put the two children in a vulnerable position and gave the men the opportunity to snatch them unseen. Because the children didn’t normally arrive back home until early afternoon it also gave the men a good six hours head start before the discovery of the kidnapping and a posse could be formed. With Breed leading their escape six hours would be more than enough time to prevent their followers from locating them.

As the boy walked over to assist his sister with a fish she had just reeled in Cutler gave the signal. The men emerged from their hiding places and converged on the two children. Heath immediately noticed them. He sensed pure evil radiating off of these men and protectively wrapped his arms around Audra. He felt overwhelming terror in his heart to see their sneering faces as he realized that the men had them surrounded and, even if he could slip past them and make a run for it, there was no way Audra could get away from them. He remained by his sister’s side as the men closed in.

*****

“Take a good, hard look at this horse, boy. You’ve grown up around horses, tell me what ya think?” The boy’s gaze moved to the horse but he made no comment. Cutler wasn’t sure if he was being stubbornly defiant, was just unsure of what kind of response was wanted or if his cut, swollen lips were hurting too much for him to speak.

“Fine lines, wouldn’t ya say?”

“Yes, sir.” Heath hated calling these men “sir”, they hadn’t earned it. If it were just him he wouldn’t show these men any respect but with Audra in the picture he would do anything to keep them happy, including being respectful.

“Muscular, looks like he would be a very fast runner, huh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, he is, so don’t go gettin’ any notions ‘bout makin’ a break for it. You and that precious little sister of yours would live to regret it, do I need to make myself any clearer?” The boy hugged his sister tightly.

“No, sir.” Cutler’s fleeting smile, before turning to his men, was not friendly.

“All right, mount up.” Heath experienced extreme distress as Dawes, a large man with a jagged scar extending from his right temple to the corner of his mouth, lifted Audra into the saddle. He didn’t want any of these men to touch his sister for any reason. Next Dawes large hands scooped him up and settled him into the saddle behind Audra. Soon as Dawes mounted his own horse they headed out. As they slowly moved further and further away from his home Heath thought back to the events of the day before.

As the men had continued to advance on him and Audra yesterday morning Heath had questioned who they were and what they wanted only to receive a backhand by Cutler that knocked him to the ground and split his lips open. Heath had never had an adult hit him other than on his fanny and he was momentarily stunned as the tears threatened to overflow. He didn’t want to give these men the satisfaction of seeing him cry but Audra’s reaction to seeing him struck had been typical and frightened him so badly that he lost his battle not to shed any tears. He could still see her attacking Cutler and hear her words; “Nobody touches my brother like that.” He could also still hear the men’s comments as their leader easily held her at bay.

“My but ain’t she a little wildcat, Cutler I do believe if she were just a tad bigger you’d have your hands full with that one.”

“Yep, Peewee’s right, and I’d say your shin’ll be sportin’ a mighty painful bruise with that kick she done laid on it.” All of the men except Cutler and the Indian had been snickering and laughing at Audra’s show of fury.  Heath had regained his feet and, wiping the tears from his cheeks, moved to calm her down. Cutler was pleased.

“That’s right, boy, you had best keep that sister of yours under control and quiet, ‘cause next time she’ll learn her lesson the hard way, if ya get my meanin’.” Heath did get his meaning and he also sensed that the whole incident had been a test of sorts. He had a strong feeling that Cutler had wanted to see how he, specifically, would react to any emotional response Audra might give and if he could handle her when that reaction came.

He and Audra had each been placed in front of one of the outlaws yesterday. The man Heath was riding double with rode ahead of the one Audra was riding with and throughout their flight to put miles between them and any pursers Heath had constantly fidgeted and squirmed in his attempts to look back and keep tabs on his sister. For his efforts he had received numerous cuffs upside his head. For her part Audra would occasionally call out to Heath, wondering if he was okay. They hadn’t stopped until this morning to grab a quick bite to eat and allow the horses to rest for an hour.

The instant Audra was able to get a good look at her beloved brother she had thrown a ringtail fit. Heath didn’t have a mirror to look into but he had no doubt that all of those cuffs he had been given had left their mark on his face and, judging from Audra’s reaction, he was correct. He had managed to calm her down enough so that the volume of her squeals of indignation was lower but she had continued to berate and fuss at the man who had hurt her brother. Heath had finally snapped at her to be quiet and that did the trick. He had never spoken to her sharply or given her an order before so she was stunned into silence. In order to keep her quiet Cutler decided to allow them to ride together on the extra horse the men always had with them in case one of their own was injured.

This arrangement was much more preferable to all concerned. Audra didn’t have to worry about Heath being hit anymore, Heath was able to keep his eyes on her and hold her at all times and the men didn’t have to tolerate the children’s efforts to stay in contact with each other, something that kept them in a much more agreeable mood.

*****

By early afternoon Audra was so tired that she wiggled around until she was facing Heath, leaned into his chest and fell fast asleep. Heath was also tired but, luckily, his mind was too busy to allow him to fall asleep and possibly cause both of them to tumble off the horse.

None of the men were educated so he had been forced to write the ransom note that was left tied to his fishing pole. They were demanding $100,000 dollars for the safe return of Audra and himself. They had him write that his parents would receive instructions the following week telling them when and where to deliver the money.

They had already traveled many miles from home and Heath couldn’t imagine how much further away they would be within a week. He was scared, really scared. Although he didn’t frighten easily and was fairly independent, he wanted nothing more than to see his parents at this moment, to cry within their protective embraces. For right now, though, he had to be brave, for Audra’s sake. If he broke down it would terrify her and if it took hiding his own true feelings to make her feel like everything would be all right then that’s what he would do.

When they stopped that evening and started a campfire Heath’s hopes sank. They had been pushing so hard for the past two days that he felt the men must fear being caught but the fact that they believed it was now safe enough to light a fire told Heath that any chances of a posse finding them had vanished.

After eating their supper Heath led Audra over next to a boulder and they had curled up together to sleep. He drew comfort from the feel of her body snuggled next to his and their shared warmth. As Audra slept peacefully he wondered how they would get out of this mess, for he felt deep in his heart that these men had no intention of ever returning them to their mother and father.

*****

Heath and Audra were bedraggled and dirty. It had been four days since the outlaws had kidnapped them and there had been no delays long enough to allow the children to clean up. Heath had been paying close attention to the men and through their conversations had quickly picked up on how ruthless they truly were but he and Audra would get to see it first hand early on Wednesday morning.

Spying movement at the opposite edge of the meadow before them the men had blended into the shadows of the trees. Heath whispered to Audra to be quiet. They watched as a figure slowly emerged from the woods into the open. Dawes was the first to voice his relief.

“Oh, hell, ain’t nothin’ but a Paiute injun. Looks like a fairly youngun, how’s ‘bout a little fun?” Snickers of delight answered this question.

Heath had never seen anyone treated so brutally in his life. The Indian boy looked to be around the same age as Nick. All seven men had taken turns beating the boy but none were as cruel or seemed to enjoy themselves as much as Breed had. When they tired of their fun he had been the one to finish the boy off. Heath had covered Audra’s eyes during the whole ordeal and at the last he turned his away. At the time he felt unbelievable guilt for what the boy went through because he was unable to stop it but it would prove to be his and Audra’s salvation.

*****

Lying next to Audra he listened to the men’s low voices. The knowledge that they would arrive at their destination the following day worried Heath. To him it meant that he and his sister were that much closer to death, for he was now convinced that was what these men had in mind once they got the money from his parents.

The men had taken turns each night guarding the campsite and Heath had caught them fast asleep several times. The only reason he hadn’t tried to slip away was the Indian. Heath knew that his superior tracking skills would have led the men to him and Audra in no time. The other men didn’t concern him at all. From what he had observed the few tracking abilities he had been taught by Charlie, their foreman, was more advanced than what the six white outlaws knew.

Now that had all changed. Breed had gone out to scout their back trail three days ago and had never returned. Heath didn’t know exactly what had happened to the Indian but he knew he wouldn’t be coming back. It was now or never and as soon as one of the guards fell asleep he would take his sister and slip away, IF one of the guards fell asleep. He planned on using the nearby stream to throw the men off their trail. By the time these lazy, good for nothings woke up and discovered they were gone the water would have their tracks erased completely.

He would like to be able to gather some items they would need but he feared risking the chance of one of them waking up while he rummaged through the camp. He still had his knife, a bunch of fishing line and the small tin container that housed his fishing hooks in his pockets. He could use what he had to make snares or traps and to fish so that would have to suffice.

Not long after midnight the guard on duty did drift off to sleep and Heath made his move. Clamping a hand over Audra’s mouth he woke her up and whispered into her ear that they were going to escape and for her to be very quiet and do exactly as he said. Wide-eyed she solemnly nodded her head.

Heath was just beginning to believe that they had actually succeeded. The glow from the campfire had become little more than a speck when he suddenly heard voices shouting. Sure that their escape had been detected he looked for a place to hide. Spying a fallen tree with a hollowed base he grabbed Audra and together they wedged themselves inside. Gradually Heath realized that the sounds he was hearing were those of a fight and he could distinctly make out the whoops and cries of Indians. Feeling it was wise to wait until the skirmish was over he decided to stay within the relative safety of their hiding place. As he listened to the sounds of the fierce battle he eventually fell asleep.

*****

Waking the next morning Heath and Audra cautiously exited the hollowed out tree. They started in the opposite direction of the camp but Heath felt he had to go back. If there was any chance of getting blankets or matches or even food he had to try. If he could only get Audra to stay put. Kneeling in front of her he explained what he had in mind.

“Audra, I’m going back there. I want to get some things, if I can.”

“That’s stealing, Heath Ryan Barkley.” Heath smiled.

“Yeah, I know but they’re the ones who stole us from Mama and Papa and if we have to steal some things of our own to get back where we belong I don’t think it’s wrong, do you?” Audra thought long and hard before answering.

“No, I guess not. What if they catch us?”

“I don’t think there is anyone left to catch us but, just in case there is, I’m going back alone and don’t fuss with me about it. I can run faster than you can and I can be lots quieter. I’ll be back, I promise, but you have to promise to wait here until I get back, okay?” Heath hated to see her cry but he knew this was the best way. She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight.

“You promise?”

“Yep, cross my heart.”

“Okay.” She kissed him on the cheek and, in return, he placed one on hers. Once he helped her clamber back into the tree he headed toward the camp.

When he got within sight of the camp he used the tall grass to hide his approach by crawling to the edge of the campsite. Peering through the grass he could see their bodies, counting he breathed a sigh of relief to see all six there. He started to jump up and head on in but thought better of it. One or more of them might be playing possum so he settled down and watched closely.

He looked at his pocket watch, nearly thirty minutes had passed and not a single one of them had stirred. He couldn’t wait any longer for fear that Audra would become impatient and leave the safety of the tree so he slowly rose to his feet and gingerly walked into the camp.

Although what he saw made him sick to his stomach it also made him feel satisfaction. These men weren’t playing possum and none of them would suddenly jump up and grab him. Each man had been scalped in exactly the same manner as Breed had scalped the Paiute boy. It was a message that Heath could read loud and clear. These men’s reckless regard for human life had cried out for retribution and it had finally been delivered. Apparently members of the boy’s tribe had tracked his killers here and had revenged his death. Heath was even sure now that the reason Breed had not returned was because they had also ambushed him.

Heath hated these men but he couldn’t stand the sight of their dead bodies any longer so he quickly gathered blankets, a gun he saw sticking out from under Cutler’s body, all the bullets from their gunbelts, all the canned food they had, some rope and Peewee’s slicker. He only managed to find three matches but that would have to do. All of the horses were missing so he assumed the Indians had taken them. It would have been nice if at least one had still been there but he had figured they wouldn’t be so he wasn’t really disappointed. He and Audra would just have to walk back home, no matter how long it took. Scanning the campsite one last time he turned and hurried back to where he had left his sister.

*****

As he neared the fallen tree where he had left Audra he called out her name, expecting to see her eager yet very displeased face pop out to greet him. Not seeing her he thought he hadn’t called out loud enough so he tried again. Her failure to respond this time set his heart to racing. His pace quickened and his mind filled with a horrible thought. Had she gotten tired of waiting for him and left the tree to go in search, only to become confused and head off in the wrong direction? Tears were brimming in his eyes as he ran the remaining distance to the tree.

He slid up under the arch of the fallen tree and looked into the deep recesses of the hollow. He cried tears of joy of see her there, lost in peaceful sleep. He offered a silent prayer to the Lord thanking him for keeping her safe then reached in and shook her shoulder. Her beautiful face radiated her elation at seeing him but he was still subjected to at least five full minutes of scolding for taking so long.

The rumbling in their bellies could no longer be ignored. Using his knife Heath managed to pry open the lid on a can of peaches and he and Audra greedily dipped their fingers in time after time to pull out a slice and devour it until the can was empty. With something in their bellies neither one was willing to drink the juice considering how dirty their hands were so Heath poured the contents on the ground, rinsed the can out in the stream and it became their official drinking cup. Audra watched and handed him items as he began to fashion a pack out of one of the blankets.

“Heath, how are we gonna get home?”

“I ‘spect we’ll have to walk.”

“We sure came a long way with those men. Will we be home for Mama’s birthday?” Heath counted the days in him mind, nine days until his mother’s birthday. It had taken them eight days of hard riding to make it this far. There was no way they could walk home in enough time to be there for her special day and he knew that with two of her children missing this birthday would not be spent in celebration.

“No, Audra, we won’t.”

“How long then?” He thought about lying but she was almost as adept at knowing when he was telling a lie as their mother.

“I’m not sure, Audra. It could take nearly three weeks.” Afraid she might cry he glanced up to see her take a big sigh then look him directly in the eyes.

“Well, I sure hope you know how to get us back.” Heath was very good with directions and had an excellent memory, Nick was fond of saying that his little brother was a human compass and that was very nearly the truth. Heath had no reservations that he could find his way home.

“Yep, I sure do. So what do you say, ready to start now?” Audra’s answer accompanied a confident and exaggerated nod of her head with an imitation of Heath thrown in for good measure.

“Yep, I sure am.” The two small children began what would prove to be their greatest adventure.

*****

“Audra, please don’t cry. It’s not your fault. I’m almost twice your age and I know you can’t go as fast or as far as I can.” They had been traveling for three days and not a day had passed that Heath hadn’t placed his homemade pack on her back then toted her on his. She was upset because she felt guilty that she was slowing them up. She was slowing them up and Heath had already realized it would take longer than three weeks to get home but he had meant it when he said it wasn’t her fault. Snuffling she looked up at him.

“Really, you’re not mad at me?”

“No, of course not. I don’t expect you to be able to do more than what your size and age will allow. No more than Nick would if it were me and him out here.” She wrapped her arms around him as he pulled her onto his lap and hugged her tight. “Do you feel better now?”

“Yes, I’m just tired and want to be home.” Kissing the top of her head he agreed with her.

“Me, too, Audra. I don’t think there is anything I have ever wanted more.” They could get a couple of more hours walking in but Heath felt they were both done in for the day so he unpacked their blankets, opened a can of beans that they shared and they went to sleep. Just before falling asleep Heath wondered how his little sister would be able to walk all the way home. She was struggling so much already just to keep up. She was a tough little girl and she would never quit, she was like their mother in that respect, but he worried that her body would eventually just refuse to carry her any further. He didn’t have any answers so he finally let his exhausted body have the rest it needed and deserved.

*****

Heath’s eyes flew open but he remained frozen in place. There it was again; something was out there, just outside the glow of the campfire. Another loud snap and Audra began to stir. He covered her mouth with his hand and as she stared at him with frightened eyes he put one finger to his lips. Gradually he slid his hand behind him until he felt the gun, grabbing it he brought it to rest in front of him and waited.

Thinking he saw movement he squinted his eyes, yes, there just across the campfire from them he definitely could make out something or someone moving about. Suddenly he heard a horse snort and stamp a hoof. Slowly the animal began to walk forward into their camp; Heath held his breath and tightened his grip on the gun. Hopefully the rider would be friendly and help them get home but if not he was prepared to do whatever he felt necessary to protect his sister. As the horse entered the light cast from the fire Heath almost laughed at the release of tension. Audra immediately recognized the animal.

“Look, Heath, it’s that mean man’s horse. The one who hit you in the mouth.” Heath was carefully raising himself from the ground. Once standing he took a step in the horse’s direction but Audra caught hold of his pant leg.

“Heath, that man said to stay away from his horse ‘cause he’s dangerous.” Heath reached down and gently pried Audra’s hand away from its hold.

“Yeah, I remember but I think he was lying. That horse never acted mean that I saw and we sure could use him. Just be real quiet while I see if he’ll let me catch him up.” Audra watched fearfully as Heath advanced slowly toward the horse. The horse was spooked and on edge so, as Heath neared, it began to throw its head and prance a little. Heath had always had a special connection to and way with horses. He began to speak softly and gradually the horse began to relax. Heath didn’t allow himself to draw a breath until he actually had his hands on the animal. Taking his shirt off he used it for a temporary means of restraining the horse.

“Audra, pull that rope outta our things and bring it to me but walk slow and don’t make any sudden movements, okay?”

“Okay, Heath.” Audra did as requested and soon Heath had one end of the rope tied to a tree and the other loosely knotted around the horse’s neck. For the first time since they had headed for the pond that faraway Saturday morning Heath really felt good.

“We got a ride home, Audra, we got a ride home.” The siblings hugged each other before slipping back under their covers for the night.

*****

“What’s his name, Heath?” Audra was currently pulling tuffs of grass from the ground and hand feeding them to the horse while her brother was packing up their belongings. Heath had been right, Cutler was lying when he said the animal was dangerous. Heath and Audra had found the horse to be very gentle with a friendly disposition. But Cutler hadn’t been lying when he discussed the horse’s finer points and neither had Heath when he agreed with the man. The horse’s excellent conformation and heavy muscling conveyed his quality breeding.

“Don’t know, never heard Cutler call him anything but plain ole horse.”

“He’s our horse now, isn’t he?”

“Reckon so.”

“Well, all our horses have names so he should too.” Heath had finished packing and walked over to stand next to her in front of the horse.

“What do you think, Sis?”

“Earl.”

“Earl? Why Earl?”

“’Cause he looks like an Earl. Don’t you think?” Heath studied the horse closely.

“Not sure, if he was a mule I’d say he looked like a Nick.” Audra’s giggling grew and grew until it was out and out laughter. Heath was overjoyed to hear it. Over a week without hearing her infectious laugh had been almost unbearable. His laughter joined hers.

“Earl sounds fine to me, Audra. Well, ole boy, guess you got a name now.” Patting the horse’s head Heath used a length of rope to form a hackamore, helped his sister onto Earl’s back, led the horse over to a rock and climbed aboard himself. Turning the horse’s head they started for home. Heath was relieved that Earl’s appearance meant Audra wouldn’t have to suffer as she had when they were forced to walk and that much of the time it would take them to get home had been shaved off. It already felt like they had been away for a year and Heath couldn’t get home quick enough by this point.

******

Day after day passed as the brother and sister steadily worked their way home. Even with Earl to ride they weren’t covering the same distance that they had with the outlaws. Without a saddle to help keep them on the horse’s back Heath had not pushed the horse any faster than a canter. He wouldn’t risk one of them falling off and being injured.

They had been traveling alone for twelve days when they entered the meadow where Cutler and his men had killed the Indian boy. Heath rode Earl over to the spot where the boy had died and slid off the horse’s back. Because Heath had prevented Audra from seeing what happened to the boy she didn’t share her brother’s intense emotions about this meadow but she did understand that Heath was deeply moved by this place.

Heath was so lost in his sorrow and Audra was concentrating on him so neither one noticed the riders until it was too late. Hearing a grunt Heath spun around to face a Paiute warrior. The members of his tribe would regularly visit the place where the boy had been murdered and as they had entered the meadow they had seen the two white children at the spot where they had found his body.

The whole tribe was still outraged by what the white man had done and their intentions had not been friendly when they first approached but the little boy’s face spoke volumes to the warriors staring at him. Heath had said not a word or made a move other than turning to look at them but the tears rolling down his cheeks and his sorrowful expression told them all they needed to know. The proud warriors had simply turned their horses and left the children alone in their grief. Heath lingered a few moments more before leading Earl into the woods. Finding a high enough embankment along the stream’s edge he climbed back onto the horse and resumed their journey home.

*****

Originally it had taken them five days of riding to reach that meadow, going at a slower pace Heath figured it would take an added three to four days to arrive home. It couldn’t be soon enough, not just because he desperately wanted to see his home and family but also because the nights were becoming very chilly. He already had a cold and was tired and miserable most of the time but he endeavored to hide it from Audra.

They had used their last match the night before and had used up the last of the canned food two days ago. Heath had managed to catch some small game in several traps and snares he had set, it was enough to last them probably three more days then he would have to forage for more food. If he could gather enough it would get them through until they made it home but only if he could manage to get a fire going to cook it with, otherwise it would spoil.

******

In a fit of rage he flung the two pieces of wood several yards away, pulled his legs up to his chest, laid his head on his knees and began to sob. It wasn’t fair; he was just a little boy. He shouldn’t have to be burdened with these responsibilities, only adults should have to carry this kind of weight. They couldn’t be more than four days from their parents and Heath had trapped three rabbits that needed to be cooked. He had tried and tried to start a fire but he had never been able to do it this way. If they had had enough food in their bellies he would just let it go, four days on berries wouldn’t be too rough but with empty stomachs they needed to eat. And with his illness he needed it even more to keep his strength up.

Audra was confused. She knew Heath was feeling the immense burden of caring for her and trying to get them safely home and she somehow sensed that his anger at not being able to start a fire was only a manifestation of those feelings. She also knew he was sick, she could see it in his cloudy eyes, his heavy footsteps and his failure to rise early each morning to begin the day.

Her confusion came from seeing him break down and not knowing how she should react. All of her brothers hated for others to see them cry and repelled any attempts at solace but this somehow seemed different. Gathering her courage the six-year-old rose and walked over to her brother. Sitting beside him she wrapped her arms around him and held him tight.

Surprisingly not only did he not scorn her comfort but he willingly laid his head on her tiny shoulder. Even before she reached up a small hand to caress his cheek, the way her mother would do, she could feel the heat radiating off his body. Showing wisdom beyond her years she cooed to him softly as he cried tears of frustration. Eventually they lay down, Audra pulled the blankets over their bodies and they fell asleep.

*****

Victoria leaned against the fence rail as she stared at the hillside east of their home, the direction that her two babies had headed the last morning she had seen them. Every afternoon she would stand in this very spot, her eyes fixated on the hill, hoping and praying to see their return. Tears rolling down her cheeks she recalled that long ago day.

When they hadn’t returned home by 2:30 that afternoon Tom and Nick had rode to the pond where Heath and Audra always fished. She had fully well expected to hand out a scolding to the two children for their failure to come home on time. Dear Lord, how her heart had filled with terror when she saw her husband and second born son race their horses back onto the property a mere thirty minutes later without Heath and Audra in tow. She had known something very bad had happened.

Tom had sent one of the hands into town and within an hour the sheriff and numerous volunteers had gathered at the ranch to form a posse. Nick and Silas had insisted on riding with them so, other than the visits of well wishers, she was left alone for several days while the men searched for her missing children. Their return confirmed her greatest fears. Apparently this had been a well planned out kidnapping and at least one member of the group that had stolen her babies was knowledgeable enough that eventually the posse had completely lost their trail.

That left them to only wait for the promised message telling them where to leave the money. Tom had made all the arrangements and the money was ready to go but that message had never come. As the days grew into weeks their hopes of ever seeing Heath and Audra faded, although she never lost faith that she might possibly see them again one day.

Letting her eyes scan the hillside one last time in a futile hope of spying them she started to turn toward the house when, suddenly, out of the corner of her eye she saw movement. Locking her gaze on the spot she watched closely. It was so far away that she couldn’t be sure if what she was seeing was a cow, a horse or maybe even a large elk. The animal continued to make its way down the hillside until Victoria was able to determine that it was a horse. Concentrating on its outline she realized it carried a rider, a small rider, no two small riders. She literally vaulted over the fence and as her legs carried her at top speed in their direction she yelled for her husband.

“TOM, TOM, IT’S THE CHILDREN! IT’S OUR BABIES!” Just as the horse reached the level ground at the bottom of the hill she was near enough to get a good look at her children. They were dirty and thin and their clothes were in rags but she had never seen a more beautiful sight. Audra was bouncing up and down on the horse’s back. Unable to restrain her eagerness she jumped down and ran to her mother. Victoria scooped her up into her arms and held her tight as she continued toward Heath, who was still sitting on the horse.

“Oh, Mama, I missed you so much.” Both Barkley females had tears in their eyes as they traded kisses. Audra pulled back and a serious, worried expression appeared on her face. “Heath is so very sick, Mama.” Sick, indeed, his fever glazed eyes and the way he was weaving on the horse’s back gave that away immediately. He smiled down at her.

“Hello, Mama.” Just as he started to topple off the animal Tom appeared out of nowhere and caught him. Before Tom and Victoria could rush their children toward the house Heath feebly raised his head and looked at his brothers.

“Be sure to take care of Earl, Jay and Nick.” Nick’s brow creased.

“Who’s Earl, little brother?” He lifted a finger and pointed at the horse. Jarrod and Nick turned in the direction he pointed.

“Our horse, we would have never made it without him.” Jarrod laid a hand on Heath’s feverish forehead.

“Don’t you worry, little man, Barkleys always pay their debts and it sounds like we owe this horse the greatest debt of all. Nick and I will make sure he’s given the best care possible.” Heath smiled weakly as Tom began to run to the house with him.

******

Two hours later found the entire family gathered in Tom and Victoria’s bedroom while Heath slept peacefully and Audra recounted their adventure. While they had waited for the doctor to arrive Tom and Victoria had bathed Heath first then, as Tom carried his sick son to their room, Victoria had bathed Audra. The family was relieved by Dr. Merar’s findings. Other than being a little on the thin side Audra was fit as a fiddle and Heath only had a bad cold but because he had always made sure Audra got the lion’s share of their food he had lost significantly more weight. However, with plenty of nourishment, fluids and bed rest he would recover quickly.

Heath awoke in time to hear his sister praising him for how well he had tended to her. He knew she had left out the ending so he related it to their parents and older brothers.

Heath had gotten them as far as the pond where their adventure had begun before he gave out completely. He had wanted to get off Earl and rest for a while, after all it would only take them less than an hour to get home but Audra had been adamant. She knew he was so weak that if he got off he wouldn’t be able to get back on and she would be forced to ride the remaining distance alone to get help. She had figured since they had come this far together and they would finish together. She refused to let him dismount and taking the rope reins from her brother she had led them the rest of the way home.

Tom and Victoria were very proud of both their children. They had shown a true spirit of kinship and bravery that had seen them through their toughest ordeal. Heath was lulled back to sleep by his mother’s soft voicing singing to him and her gentle hand massaging vapor rub onto his chest and stomach as Audra was escorted to her own room and put to bed by Tom.

Later that night with Tom working in the study and Heath sleeping soundly Victoria had slipped downstairs to warm some broth and milk for her son. Upon returning to her room she saw Audra curled up next to her brother on the bed. Thinking she was sleeping Victoria quietly entered the room only to see her daughter’s head raise and look in her direction. She watched as Audra’s hand continually petted her sleeping brother.

“You left him alone, Mama.” This was not an innocent observation; it was an incriminating reprimand.

“I’m sorry, dear, I went downstairs to get him something to eat. It won’t happen again.” Audra slid off the bed and, walking toward the door, paused in front of her mother.

“See that it doesn’t.” With a toss of her head she left the room. Victoria was hard put not to laugh out loud, well, she had just been told. Victoria had seen a reflection of herself in Audra’s actions and words in that moment. It was nice to see how Audra had matured in many ways due to the ordeal she had experienced and, if anything; her love for Heath had only grown stronger. It was obvious that they had bonded closer than ever.

As she reached to wake her baby boy she gazed at his features for a moment and offered a prayer. Thank you Lord for bringing this boy to me. He is as precious of a gift as my other three children. All that you gave him, his compassion, intelligence, kind heart and quiet nature combined perfectly with the confidence and strong ties to family that he gained through us to bring him and Audra safely home.

***The End***

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