Forty Rifles Less (by Loki)

 

Summary:   A What Happened Instead for “Forty Rifles.”  This is an alternate ending tale, and changes have been made to time and to the classic scene I start it with. (Although I flinch at it every time, the credits list McCall’s name as “McColl”… so I’m spelling it that way.) Enjoy.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated: PG
Word Count:  30,351

 


 

Heath pressed his face to the weathered wood, peering sideways through the broken window. He couldn’t make out the men way off in the gulley, but he knew they were there. He knew it because Wallant had already approached, marching forward despite Heath’s cautious suppressing fire so that Wallant could mock his “stand,” calling the shack Heath’s coffin. He knew it because some time later they’d charged him, and Heath had caught a nasty slice from Schad’s flashing bowie knife before Heath could disable him with a grunting smash from the butt of his own rifle. The slice stung now, deep across one bicep and down his chest… but it didn’t sting like the dripping, wearisome knowledge that so far he’d failed.

He’d waltzed in some two weeks ago, demanded to be taken in as a Barkley. Like a little dog sinking his teeth into a big man’s booted calf… bound to get grabbed by the scruff and thrown. But still he’d sunk in, growling, demanding. And instead of tossing him, they’d given him the rights and the power.

And the minute it was his and his alone, it had all blown to hell.

He winced at that thought, peered quickly at the crates behind and beneath him—looming all around him. Ammo, explosives… and he was sitting on top of it while bullets whizzed above like raging bees. It was indeed a coffin. He was slashed; he was one stupid shot from being blown up; he was angry; and he was blinking sad. These men had been “given” to him by Nick and the minute Nick had gone—hauled away on a wagon, a bullet in his leg, another thing Heath could hold himself accountable for — well, at almost that minute those men had turned on him.

And now they were ready — no, indeed they were EAGER — to kill him. These men were the jury: they’d decided Heath was no Barkley. And Barkley or not, as plain ol’ humans go, Heath knew he was just now showing the intelligence of a drooling fool. But he ground his teeth and stuck with the plan. Like that fool, he was GOING to get those men back. If he could wrest control from Wallant, the men would work the drive. They’d have to. Not because they would then respect Heath, hell no. But because they needed the pay. Heath had been there. These traitorous, murderous men would finish the drive at Heath’s side because they needed the pay. And when it was all done Heath would throw the coins at their faces, shove the bills down their throats.

“Get it together, Heath,” he whispered, “focus.” There was a shimmering spark of movement to the right. A man burst through the bushes, gun flaring… those bees again, buzzing angry above his head. Heath took aim, high leg, dropped the man. Nice. How many hands would be left if he kept shooting them in the legs and stoving in their ribs with rifle butts? Heath wanted to laugh and then he grew sober. He waited—kept squinted aim but waited—while another hand came forward to pull the fallen, writhing fellow back out of range. He heard movement at the door and, with a flashing glance, saw that Schad, clearly conscious again, had taken the opportunity to crawl and stumble away himself.

The wildness left Heath’s thoughts as he watched the two men on the right — one shot, the other dragging him — get swallowed back up by the dangerous brush surrounding him, as he took another sideways-eye inventory of the treacherous building he’d chosen as the place for his stand against Wallant’s scheme. No, this wasn’t just about men for Nick’s drive; this was also about stopping these men from joining Diaz, from dying for a hasty cause in Mexico. This was about stopping these munitions from going forward. Heath was in the war again. And Wallant was the enemy general.

It had been almost a full day since Nick had left and yet… how had this all happened so quickly? Well, it was no matter that it happened so quickly; that was the way with life. With death. Deal with it, Heath, he thought grimly.

And as he watched, they waited. The agonizing minutes turned into an hour, then another, maybe more. He heard movement and murmurs occasionally, carried on the wind, but could see no forming attack. His belly cramped with nerves, his back ached, and he was thirsty; he craved water, just now, as if it were love. Wallant was no doubt trying to fear him out; he couldn’t charge the building for the very real terror of blowing it up, and it almost made Heath chuckle to consider how long he could outlast them for firepower. But Wallant knew that Heath was a bit broken — maybe even beyond a bit, Heath admitted grudgingly. Wallant knew it better than Heath had himself, it seemed; knew it and played it like a pretty hand at cards.

Wallant knew that Heath had the guts to stay here for days, but that Heath’s spirits were sputtering and flagging. That was a sure way to destroy an enemy. Leave him alone with dying spirits and the enemy himself would soon follow those spirits down.

Finally, after another grinding long time, Heath noted a steady swelling murmur carried in bits on the wind; it was Wallant’s addictive tones. It was a leader’s speech, Heath knew, and his belly clenched tighter. Then there was movement (finally, blessedly, movement) in the center. Deal with it, Heath thought again, his mind going passive. And indeed it was Wallant, looming tall over the ridge and shuffling forward. It looked like the start of a charge. Even though he’d been expecting it, Heath’s heart thumped madly for a second, the sound of it pulsing in his ears… then he realized that Wallant was… still alone?

So deal with it, Heath, his mind ordered once more. Stop this madness.

Heath moved sideways to the door, met the man there, in front of the building. All of his skin was humming, waiting for the bullets from the surrounding bushes that would surely shred his flesh. (But they kept not coming. He kept not getting shot!)

And Wallant was talking, mumbling. Heath was saying things too, skin humming, nerves twitching underneath a blanket of calm. He heard himself say, “Please.” But as he watched, Wallant went to raise his gun. The quiet terror under Heath’s skin became a living thing again. Wallant’s bullet would hit Heath… or it would hit the powder keg of a shack behind him — low, and just at the level of all those deadly crates inside. With the quickest flinch Heath fired but rolled hard with it, rolled and rolled to the left and away from the tombstone building.

When it blew he thought he might be far enough away.

Then he knew he wasn’t.

The exploding shack lifted him up in its huge, angry hand. In that instant he flashed back to those thoughts of being a puppy held by the scruff and tossed. The awesome power of it tossed him, that’s for sure — in fact, it flat slammed him into the amazingly angry, sudden force that was the ground. Somewhere far from where he’d started. Then there was no air anymore, and Heath wondered mildly if there were even anymore bones.

With open, shifting eyes he stared at all the loud falling things, the sharp stabbing things, the lively dust. And standing safely in the distance, was a group of Nick’s men. How… wondrous, he thought. Wallant had lost and the munitions were gone. Nick’s drive would go on!

And then Heath’s blue eyes closed.

*****

Barrett reached the body first, holding up a hand to halt the other men. He knelt down slowly, taking in the sight. Heath lay sprawled, face-up, one arm twisted and pinned beneath his back, his head tilted sharply to the side. He was broken, battered, skewered in horrible places by sharp, shredded bits of line shack. Barrett pressed two fingers to the neck, which was coated in a fine sheen of blood from scrapes and cuts seemingly too numerous to count.

“He’s dead,” Barrett said after a time.

“What’re we gonna do,” Brown asked, head craned as he stared at the grotesque remains of Wallant in the distance.

“Were gonna get back to the drive and finish our jobs,” Barrett said thoughtfully. “We’re gonna act like none of this here happened.”

“McColl knows what happened,” Spock frowned.

“No,” Barrett chewed on his lip, staring blankly at Heath’s still form. “No, McColl knows we talked about quitting the drive and we headed out after Wallant. McColl knows Heath disappeared after that. We go back now, we say Wallant was a bust, we’re all plum sorry. Or we say we changed our minds, and that we’d like to stick with the Barkleys. We finish haulin’ that beef.”

“We’re bound to get fired,” Lillard said, eyes wide as he took in the whole nightmare scene, awed by the destruction.

“Better than going to jail,” Barrett shrugged. “’Sides, Nick needs us to finish the drive. By the time we’re done he’ll be beholden. Nobody’s gettin’ fired.”

“What about him,” Schad finally asked, tipping his chin at Heath.

“He left. He saw he lost the men, blew the drive. He got all scary and left. Nick’ll believe it. Nick knows this boy weren’t no Barkley.”

One by one the men headed for the ridge and their mounts. Barrett was last to go. He knelt there for a time, staring, thinking, then he patted Heath’s bloodied cheek. “Nope, Boy, turns out you sure weren’t no Barkley after all.”

*****

Halfway to Bakersfield, Nick had finally mastered the shakes, the nausea — the screeched nerve jolts interspersed with angry clawing claws that was his injured thigh. However, based on what he’d heard tell of the wound, he’d expected to be passed out by now, then to wake up some days later in a sawbone’s office. To wake up muzzy and trying to discover if he’d even kept the limb or not. But here he was: barely fevered, breathing fine, only squirming around the dulling ache of it all… and worried.

Because in the wagon he’d had time to mull over one of his most basic problems: who was the now-dead man who’d shot him… and why?

He demanded Jeb halt the wagon so he could finally check the wound for himself. He hadn’t checked earlier; he’d been too out of it, and glad, for once, to not have to take charge. He’d simply floated on an ocean of shock and pain as others took over—as Wallant muscled in and took charge.

And Heath hadn’t checked it because he’d been—Nick frowned, trying to recall—he’d been off after the shooter for a time, and then he’d seemed upset, and then he’d been sort of… pushed out of the circle of men tending Nick. (Because, Nick grudgingly admitted, Heath was not quite cowhand, not quite brother, not quite friend). So instead Wallant had clucked and murmured over Nick’s injury, declaring darkly that the bullet was in the bone and that Nick needed to be carted off to the doctor immediately.

And, like a fool—indeed, fool of the year, Nick was beginning to think—he’d passively gone along with all of it. Yes indeedy, Nick had been a blamed fool. Because when Nick checked the leg, carefully undoing all of Wallant’s thick and hasty bandaging, he could only stare, shocked.

“It’s through and through,” he finally breathed. “Wallant… lied.”

“Mr. Barkley?” Jeb asked, confused, but not wanting to peer too closely at the injury, even though he was holding the lantern. It made him squeamish, made his jaws water. Getting sick in front of the boss wouldn’t bolster his reputation as a tough, dependable hand.

“There’s no bullet in my bone…. There’s no bullet at all. In and out.” Nick reared up and stared at Jeb, as if he could find the answers there.

Jeb didn’t think Nick really meant for him to respond, but he did so just in case. “Maybe… maybe Wallant just wanted to make sure you got off to a doctor?”

“Yeah,” Nick nodded, eyes blank — staring backwards or forwards in time, Jeb couldn’t quite tell. “Yeah, he wanted to make damned sure I got off to a doc…. Who shot me, Jeb?”

“Not me, Sir.” Jeb was getting nervous.

“Why’d they shoot me, Jeb, out of a whole crew of men? Me specifically?”

Jeb swallowed once, twice, but decided not to answer. It was a very important question, he felt, and he didn’t want to mix it up.

Nick sat for a time longer, staring, seeming to process all sorts of facts. His mind was racing over a wild range of things: the brawl in the bunkhouse and Wallant’s convenient appearance; Heath’s statement about Wallant’s horse — his conviction that he’d seen it at the fight against the railroad; Wallant declaring that there was no water, that they’d have to take a different route. Step by step, Wallant… making himself, perhaps, necessary for the drive.

Nick was sickened by it, but the drive — and the fact that he had been shot, for god’s sake, out of nowhere—it was too important to let an ancient bit of hero worship get in the way. And then it dawned on Nick further. Nick had been in serious danger; if he’d hadn’t been swinging out of the saddle at just that second, he would probably be dead. Nick could only assume that it was all fueled by a desire for money… somehow Wallant planned to get the money, maybe the cattle, from the drive. It made no sense, but it had to be.

That’s when the final realization struck Nick. With him out of the way, Heath was bossing the drive. Heath was in as much danger as Nick… if not more. Because at least Nick had the respect of the men driving the beef. Nick was not a lone man, fighting a whole crew for even a friendly nod.

“Gimme the medical supplies,” he commanded Jeb while he snarled and worked to remove the stupid rifle-splint someone had concocted. Jeb handed him the package and Nick fished around for the liniment. He poured it carefully into the wound, not sure whether it had been thoroughly cleansed or not. And as he cleaned the nasty hole, Nick worked to bend the leg. What followed was a hissed and hollered string of cusswords so long and creatively combined that Jeb blanched and took a few involuntary steps back.

“Let’s go,” Nick finally barked at Jeb. But when the young man started the team on its way towards Bakersfield, Nick shook his head. “Wrong way, Jeb. I’ll get to a doctor, but only after I get to my brother. He needs me, right now. In a powerful way.”

*****

Heath opened his eyes to pain. It started gradually, sliding in at the corners of his mind, and then it pounced on his chest with a screeching, crushing thump. He wondered for a vague minute if it were the Lincoln County wars, but then he realized that the pain wasn’t all in his back (horseshoe nails and carpet tacks).

Then he slowly, steadily realized a number of unfortunate things. That his back was pinning down his arm. That his arm was screaming at him in such a wild way that he was mildly glad it was still attached (things that hurt worse were probably missing). That his leg was on fire and when he slid his eyes that way he saw a nasty bit of wood sticking out of his thigh. That, indeed, he had bits of things sticking out, cutting him everywhere. That it was almost worse than horseshoe nails and carpet tacks. That he almost wished it were the Lincoln County Wars again, because now everything on him was raging and cracked and hurt, instead of just his back.

That for some sad reason he was alone again; he was facing it again, alone.

He wanted to move, shift, get away from it all. And then, like a fool, he tried that. And then he wanted to never move again.

Heath blew for a time against the sudden nausea, panicked that his arm was pinned beneath him and that he couldn’t rightly move to pull it out. Hissed and guttered out a plaintive, “God,” when he tried once more to do so. And then Heath wished — more mightily than he’d ever wished for anything, he was fairly sure — that he could just pass out once more.

He stared at the sky for a time, swallowing convulsively, waiting to see if the wish would be granted. It wasn’t. So with a faint holler, Heath summoned everything he had, everything he knew, and he half rolled his torso, pulled mightily on the arm underneath. It came free; he flopped it there beside him in the dirt, dropped his chest back down.

And finally, blessedly, Heath’s world went spotty, then narrow, then black.

*****

It was late afternoon when Nick and Jeb pulled into camp. Jeb sat, hunched in on himself; Nick Barkley was confused, in pain, and worried—and that combination added up to a raw fury that seemed to come off of him in waves. Nick glared around at the scene of controlled chaos, hopped from the wagon, staggered once on his burning leg, and then caught the wagon’s edge and straightened. Nick’s gaze was dark and sweeping.

“What the hell are you all doin’ hangin’ around here?” he barked at the ten or so hands who were clustered in small groups around the chuck wagon. They looked at each other, definitely nervous, maybe even a trifle terrified. Damn straight, they should be scared, Nick thought. But nobody responded so he growled a few more questions, focusing his dark attention on one hand and then another, trying to find the one who’d break. “Why are you even still here? You should be miles south by now! Where the hell is Heath? Where’s McColl?”

As if sensing that his boss was at the breaking point, Barrett suddenly stepped forward. He swept his hat from his head in a gesture of humility, clutched the brim in his hands; his face was a portrait of chagrin. “Well, Boss, we was just waitin’ for McColl to get back and give us our orders. Or, well, we was waitin’ for the other fellas so we could all go find him. We just got here a bit ago ourselves. See, McColl, he had to, sorta… ride herd by his lonesome for awhile. Our fault, mind you, all our fault….” The other men shuffled at Barrett’s confused speech, some of them nodding, and Nick narrowed his eyes.

“Just what are you ramblin’ about?” he hissed.

“I ain’t tellin’ this so well, Nick, uh, Mr. Barkley. But it’s like this. We had kind of a dustup this morning. That Wallant fella and Heath, well, they didn’t rightly see eye to eye on some things. And Wallant, well, he talks a good game, that he does. And, well, I’m just plum sorry, Boss.”

“Get on with it, Barrett,” Nick growled, stepping closer to the fumbling cowhand. “What kind of a dustup? Where’s my brother?”

Barrett took in a deep breath. “It’s like this. Heath was barkin’ all kinda orders after you left. I don’t mean to say it, truly I don’t, but he can’t run no drive like you can. And then Wallant stepped up when we was all plain sick of it and said… well, he said he could pay us twice as much as you Barkleys and then some—offered us land ta boot—if we’d just come with him to Mexico….”

“Mexico?” Nick hollered.

“Yes, Sir. Mexico. To help with Diaz or some such. And with Heath not knowing how to boss, and Wallant talkin’ such a good game… well, Nick, I’m plum ashamed to admit it, but a lot of us fellas went along with the General for just a short time. Most of us, in fact.” Barrett hung his head, said the next to the ground. “We was flat plannin’ on leavin’ the drive.”

Schad cleared his throat and stepped up. “That’s true, Mr. Barkley, what Barrett says. We left and we rode with Wallant for a time. But then we got to thinkin’ about you, about loyalty. And we came back, pure and simple.”

Barrett nodded solemnly. “That’s the truth of it, Boss. We came back. Wallant went on to Mexico but we came back. We sent Lillard and Avery to round up the others who was gonna meet us up the road apiece. We figured, given time, they’d be rethinkin’ the Diaz foolishness just like we did. And as soon as we all got back together, we was gonna head out to find McColl. He’s probably keepin’ all them cattle fat and happy….”

“I’ll ask you once more.” Nick’s voice was menacing, but the tone didn’t match the black foreboding he was feeling in his heart. “Where’s my brother?”

Barrett and Schad exchanged frowns and, as Nick watched, they seemed to find strength from each other. “He’s gone, Mr. Barkley,” Schad offered somberly.

Barrett nodded his agreement. “Guess he figured he blew the drive. He said some things about… finally cuttin’ his losses. He rode out before we did even. Don’t think he’s comin’ back.”

Jeb was there to catch Nick as he staggered one step back. The cowhand helped his boss back to the wagon’s seat. And as intimidated as he was of Nick Barkley, he couldn’t help but put a comforting hand on the bigger man’s shoulder as Nick sat, staring into nothing and trying to process the bleak tale—the tale of a brother lost.

*****

Nick sat for a long time, one hand unconsciously clenching and unclenching his pant leg as if to make the flinching pain in his thigh abate.

He let the darkest thoughts consume him first. He knew he needed to work through those thoughts, but knew he’d also use them as a ladder up and into the brighter ones.

Heath had betrayed him. Heath and Wallant had been in cahoots all along, planning to rob the Barkleys of an entire year’s worth of cattle profits by stealing, not their cattle or their money… but their hands! For that version of events it didn’t really matter if Heath was a Barkley or not. If he wasn’t, well then he was just the person Nick had accused him of being at the start — a no-account con. And if he was, he was doing it out of spite for all that he must have suffered in his life; he was that bitter, angry young man who’d smashed a bottle in the study, not the hardworking, soft-spoken one Nick had come to know in the priceless days following.

But try as he might — as much as it would neatly wrap things up for him—Nick simply couldn’t accept that version. He could buy that Wallant had betrayed him. It was clear. It was the truth. The events before the drive had already led him to suspect it, and the tale just told by Barrett clearly confirmed it. Wallant had wanted, not the profit from the cattle, but the profit from the men. Wallant had wanted it — not Heath. No, not Heath.

But still, Nick thought as he moved to the next bleak possibility, Heath HAD betrayed him. According to the men, Heath had abandoned the drive. He’d… cut his losses and run. Faced with a conflict too big to handle, Heath had folded. And although he should understand the hardship Heath must have been under, Nick still felt betrayed… indeed, cut to the very quick of his soul. Didn’t Heath know how crucial this drive was? How much depended on it — and not just the Barkley’s investment, but the investments of their neighbors and friends?

But as Nick sat, watching but not seeing the men who milled around him (who steadily, nervously studied him with quick, surreptitious glances, trying to gauge his reaction), he found he couldn’t buy that thought either. It was a good solution, and it should work to solve this… hurtful mystery. It was a sound and possible solution. And yet it didn’t sit right in Nick’s gut; he kept twitching around it.

Heath had stormed onto their ranch, into their house, into their hearts…to become a Barkley. And, sure, Nick was wrong at times when it came to judging people — take Wallant for example — but in Heath Nick saw a man who was ridiculously brave; horribly brave. Brave men don’t run when things get tough. What had Jarrod said once? “A coward dies a thousand times before his death; a hero dies but once.”

Heath was a man who could stare death down without flinching. And Heath wouldn’t just run.

So what the hell had happened? Nick pressed one hand to his eyes and shuddered a sigh. He was weary. He hadn’t slept all night, but for a jolting doze here or there on the wagon’s seat. He’d been SHOT, for god’s sake, the day before. His cattle drive was floundering. And he was faced with a bleak mystery that he hadn’t the fortitude to solve.

But Heath was missing. So he had to pull it together; something dark and fleeting insisted that he had to.

Nick sat up again, scrubbed his face with the hand, let it fall back to his throbbing leg. Finally he summoned Jeb, who had dropped down to take a rest by the wagon wheel. He spoke quietly to the young man, aware of the lingering hands. “Have one of these shiftabouts get me a plate and some coffee. Then I want you to ride for McColl. Tell him to come see me for a spell. I plan to get to the bottom of all this rot and he might have a lead. After, come back and catch some rest.”

Nick cocked his head back then, squinted his eyes at the young man in front of him. After a time, as if he’d just discovered a deep truth, he said, “You’re a good man, Jeb. And I may be needin’ to rely on you for the next little bit. So take care.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jeb breathed. And then he was off like a shot.

Watching him go, Nick wanted to smile. But he couldn’t. Something about Jeb’s soulful eagerness reminded him of another young man. It reminded him of Heath.

*****

“Do you think Nick bought it?” Brown asked, nervous and toying with the hidden bandage that covered his leg wound—his mark that proved that this all wasn’t just his imagination or some horrible nightmare. Yes, they had followed that insane man, Wallant — well, they’d followed a sane one who had promptly slid into locoland there at the end — and Brown had caught a crease from that angry bastard in the shack… before the two of them had gotten blown up by that damned building. Brown’s ears were still ringing!

After McColl had shown up, Nick Barkley had ordered them all out to the herd and they were supposed to be guarding it now, skirting the edges to make sure no strays had left the main. Nick had also announced that they wouldn’t be moving forward today, which made Brown jumpier than he already was… and he didn’t think that was possible. They must have all been feeling it because instead they had clustered together for a last few minutes… some of the only men who knew the truth about it all. They were bound in a horrible pact.

“I mean,” Brown continued when nobody responded, “why ain’t we movin’ this herd? Days is money.”

“Nick’s good and shot, not like your little pink line there, ya woman,” Barrett crowed, indicating the wound he’d wrapped and hidden. Some of the men chuckled at that and Brown scowled. Barrett could be your best friend one minute, and turn plain wicked on you the next… like tricking Schad into drinking that coal oil the night before. It had been funny, sure… but Brown also wondered if it could have killed the man.

But his guts were twisting on him, bothering him. So Brown had to ask it: “Why don’t we just tell about it? We can blame it all on Wallant, and that’d be true. Why don’t we just let Nick know his brother’s dead and finish it.”

Barrett’s eyes went hard and cold. “I been in jail before, Brown. You wanna go to jail, ‘stead of earnin’ top pay on the best ranch in the state? Do you?” And Barrett was closing on Brown, leering in his face. “We’re lucky that boy… died like he did. If he hadn’t, he could testify how we tried to kill him there in that shack. Well, more specifically, how you did, Brown, and how Schad there did, since you two and Wallant were the ones that charged him. You should count yourself one lucky fella that he’s gone, yes indeed. Out there, in the middle a’ nowhere… ain’t nobody gonna find that body ‘til there’s nothin’ left to recognize. That suits me just fine.” He turned to address the whole group, to reaffirm their dark solidarity. “That should suit all of you just fine,” Barrett declared (with… was that just the faintest touch of threat to his voice?).

Brown finally nodded at that, glad to have someone remind him that they needed to stick tight on this one. The Barkley boy was dead; nothing was going to change that. They, however, were alive — alive and free. He would stick with Barrett’s plan just now. They all would. The only ones who’d witnessed it all that were missing at the moment were Lillard and Avery, who should be returning to camp by now with the other wayward hands. (Lillard, he knew, was tight with Barrett; Lillard would keep his lips steady. Brown’s only worry was Avery, who he didn’t know very well, and who had looked as sickened as Brown had felt this morning when it had all happened.)

And then Brown looked up from his musings and realized that Schad was now missing too… Schad, who had been studying Barrett’s face very closely as he talked about jail, and about the Barkley boy being dead. Brown wanted to wonder about that one, but Schad flat scared him. Barrett had tricked him into drinking coal oil, sure… but Schad had gone plum wild for a minute, and planned to plain ole set Barrett on fire. He’d been stopped by Wallant, but until that moment, it was clearly and surely his plan. Brown had read it in his flashing eyes; Schad had WANTED to see Barrett torched and screaming and maybe running for water, but more likely not able to. Brown knew, looking in those eyes, that Schad would have found that killing plain fun!

Where Schad went, Brown did NOT want to follow, even with his thoughts, and that was the truth. Instead he spurred his pony, and buried himself in the weary, mindless task that was tending a herd. He would put this all away. He had to put this all away.

*****

Brown was good to be worried about Avery. Avery Mitchell, Jeb Riley’s best friend, had ended up in hell this morning and didn’t even know how it had come to be. When Wallant talked about Mexico and land, he was excited… no, he was ecstatic! Something for him and Jeb; finally a stake. They’d been nothings for so long and, even though he had strong qualms about leaving the drive high — strong ones — he could justify it for Jeb’s sake. (His daddy didn’t raise no cheats… but he also didn’t raise no fools. Besides, Wallant had made it clear that they weren’t stealing anything.) But what it had come to… oh lord, his heart was stuck in his throat and his eyes misted up regularly over what it had come to.

So he was glad when he pulled into camp with the rest of the men that Jeb was bunked down in a bedroll and thus he didn’t have to make eye contact with him. He was doubly glad when Nick Barkley looked up from a deep conversation he was having with McColl and barked orders for each and every one of them to get their sorry tails out to that herd… that they’d hear from Nick about their desertion later.

His relief ended when he felt someone pulling on his mount’s reins as, after dismounting to stretch for a moment and fix the ties on his chaps, he swung back up into the saddle to head out after the others. Avery looked down into the patient eyes of the man who’d known him for over fifteen years—known him since he was a boy.

Jeb spoke low, so as not to be overheard by the few remaining hands. “Get down here for a minute, Avery. I need to know what all went on yesterday.”

“But Mr. Barkley said…” Avery tried.

“I told Mr. Barkley you and I was good friends. Mr. Barkley asked me to talk to you, to see if you knew anything about what went on with this Wallant fella. And about his brother. So Mr. Barkley won’t mind if you climb on down now and have a cup of coffee before you get to that herd.”

They drank their coffee in silence for a time, Avery finding the smattering of grounds in the bottom of his tin cup fascinating, while Jeb quietly studied his friend — his friend whose face wore a strange mixture of guilt and sadness. Finally Jeb asked it: “What’d you get us into this time, Avery? ‘Cause I’m with you on it, you know that.”

“I just can’t tell you, Jeb. I plain can’t.” Avery whirled and took a few steps off. Jeb could tell his friend was… in anguish? It made Jeb’s stomach go tight. He moved after him, gave Avery’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze, and waited. Avery couldn’t keep a secret to save his life, good or bad. Jeb always knew his Christmas presents a month before and he knew the same night about the one time Avery had kissed the girl Jeb had planned in his quiet heart to marry. So Jeb waited him out. Although it took longer than it ever had, the silence finally worked.

“I… I helped to kill a man,” Avery finally gasped, gaze still lost in his now-empty coffee cup. “I didn’t hurt him outright, but I was there. I was there and I didn’t stop it. Is that the same as killin’?” He lifted his head; his voice was desperate, seeking absolution. “That ain’t the same; it can’t be the same. I can’t have killed him.”

“Who,” Jeb whispered. But he knew.

“Heath Barkley,” Avery said, eyes wide and sorrowful. “I helped to kill him, Jeb, didn’t I?”

*****

McColl could only repeat the same odd tale that the men had told—but with an addendum. Heath had not just folded his cards and walked away from the table. He couldn’t confirm it, but McColl was fairly sure that Heath had headed off in the same direction as Wallant and the men had — indeed, he had ironically headed that way first. McColl felt like maybe Heath had some plan, like he maybe had some kind of a way to get the men back.

“I’m sorry I didn’t go with him, Nick. I’m sorry in my bones. But me and a few others, we was the only ones left to watch them beeves. I was torn, Nick.”

“It’s all right,” Nick sighed. “You did just fine; you did your job. I just need to know what he ran into out there, where he is now.”

When Jeb and Avery approached Nick, one glance told him the truth about his dark inquiries. And at the moment he no longer wanted to know it. He reached up a shaky hand and gripped McColl’s shirt.

“I’ll tell it,” Nick heard Jeb offer his friend. Instead the other young cowhand—one Nick had never even gotten the opportunity to know—stepped up and squared his shoulders… even though he had wild tears in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Barkley,” Avery said. “Wallant… killed him. A lot of us were there for it. I’m so sorry. Your brother’s dead.”

“Take me there,” Nick heard his voice say. He wasn’t aware of much for a long while after.

*****

Heath was staring again at the blue sky. He was drifting, trying to make the pain go to a place far away in his mind. He hadn’t the strength to move yet, but he knew he’d need to find it soon or die. It had finally come to his muzzy memory where he was, who he was trying to be. What had happened. And he knew, now, that no help was coming. Nick was in Bakersfield, hopefully tucked into some doctor’s bed. The men must have simply left him here to die. But maybe they were back on the drive; traitors or not, maybe the drive would go through.

Heath tested his limbs again, flinching at the varying degrees of agony in each. He had a working arm and a working leg, and those were good things. He was cold to his core, shaking from it in painful bursts, but that was probably from the shock and blood loss. And it ironically meant he was still alive. A glance down showed him that he’d bled fiercely — and seemingly all over; he was fairly sprayed with it — but that most of it had stopped. That, too, was good.

When he could get his sluggish self moving again, he’d pull out a few of the tedious pieces of wood piercing him, the ones causing grinding shrieks of pain here and there, but he’d leave the big one in his leg alone. He’d leave that for a doctor.

Heath actually chuckled at that thought, and then groaned aloud. “How in the hell are you gonna get to a doctor, Heath?” he rasped. And then he settled back, slowed his breathing, tried again to find some bit of warmth and strength.

He’d been drifting almost on the edge of consciousness he discovered, when he was jolted back to it by the sound of a horse in the distance. The panic thrummed sudden in his throat. He was helpless and alone. He closed his eyes, tried to slow his painful breathing. Tried to act as dead as he mostly felt.

A man approached, slowly, almost casually, and Heath stayed as still as a stone. And then Heath heard as the man knelt beside him; Heath felt as the man pressed fingers into his neck (and noted, mildly, that the drying blood on his neck itched something fierce). But as much as he was trying to calm himself, that simple contact made his traitorous heart thump with the peculiar terror that comes from helplessness

“I knew Barrett was lyin’ ‘bout you,” the man said almost kindly. “He can’t play poker for squat neither. You’re alive; don’t hide it.” Heath fished back to place the voice, finally pulled up Schad’s name. Heath opened his weary eyes, blinking against the sun, and then focused so he could study the thin, blond cowhand kneeling above him.

“There you are.” Schad smiled at him and sat down in the dirt at his side, toying lightly with the buttons on Heath’s vest. “Used to come through battlefields in the war — after we was done with a fight, and the men were all cryin’ or drinkin’ or prayin’, or whatever it was they’d be doin’ to testify they’d made it through another one. Me, I’d come down off it all by lookin’ for men like you. The livin’ ones. Would do ‘em a service, I would.” He winked at Heath then, almost merrily. “Well, to be honest, I’d be doin’ myself one too. Livin’ men can still maybe kill ya; dead ones, well, they can’t.”

Schad stroked Heath’s hair affectionately for a time, and then pulled out the Bowie that Wallant had given him. He raised it to the light, had fun for a bit casting flashes off the blade, making them shine on the surrounding bushes and trees. He scared a bird and grinned as it whirled off. All the while he was stroking Heath’s dirty, bloody, matted hair.

“I didn’t mind you as a boss. Think it’s only fair you should know that. You stuck in some a’ the others’ craws, but that’s ‘cause they was jealous, mostly. Or dumb. But I think a good man is a good man, no matter when he shows up or how he makes his stand. You’re a good man. I don’t take much pleasure in killin’ ya, and I’m powerful sorry it needs doin’. But you rest for a bit—maybe close your eyes and think on some nice things if you can. Think on how good it’ll be to get away from all this pain.”

Heath felt a stupid tear trickle down his cheek. Not one of fear…but because he was finally finding compassion and simple acceptance in this, the oddest of moments. But he sure didn’t want to die. It was sad to die. Another tear followed and Schad wiped them away with a gentle thumb.

“It’ll be quick, Mr. Barkley, don’t you worry none,” Schad crooned, and Heath sighed once deeply, wincing at the pain breathing caused. He couldn’t fight, he could barely move, and so he simply readied himself for the kind murder to come. If it was his moment, he’d be ready. He’d fought a long time on this earth, and sometimes battles end. Heath’s mind drifted. He remembered that it was always quiet and still and nice when a horrid battle was done. In the blessed stillness after, you could always hear the birds. He tried with wistful ears to find their songs.

*****

Nick sat in front of the wagon beside Jeb, who was clucking the team forward. Avery was perched in the back, pointing out quiet directions to his friend, while McColl rode alongside, leading a spare mount for Avery. Because on the way back they would need the bed of the wagon, which McColl had piled with blankets, for Heath’s body.

McColl kept close eyes on Nick. He couldn’t remember seeing the young rancher this done in. He was worried about Nick’s physical state, but more so about his clearly wounded soul. (Indeed, he found himself almost surprised that Nick was taking Heath’s loss so badly; some part of McColl—that small voice that willingly speaks the nastiest truths—thought that Nick would find it all the tiniest bit of a relief, almost.)

Instead, Nick had… sort of gone away inside himself somewhere. He hadn’t asked Avery more of the details about the tragedy; he hadn’t left instructions for the men. They’d had to help him back onto the wagon’s creaking seat, and there he sat, staring at nothing, with a gaze so wounded it made McColl’s heart ache for the boy.

“What’s that?” Nick suddenly asked, jolting upright on his perch. His voice, sharp and harsh after being quiet for so long, made them all jump. Their startled gazes found nothing, and then individually they all spotted it. Vague flashes of light a ways ahead, glinting off the bushes and in the trees.

“It’s a signal,” Nick breathed, and suddenly he grabbed for the reins. Jeb thought better of it, but allowed him to. Nick slapped at the beasts, goading them into a run.

“Nick,” McColl tried, wanting to spare his boss anymore pain, “it’s too random. It’s just… light.”

Nick gave him a dead glare that stopped McColl cold for a second. “That’s a signal. That’s my brother and he needs me.”

*****

Heath lay still, watching the indifferent sky, feeling the odd comfort of Schad caressing his hair, feeling all awash with bright, horrid pain. And feeling nothing, somehow, too. He was listening for the birds, too far beyond done-in to decide whether to live or die. Then he heard it… a croaking, screeching, trilling mockingbird. He almost wanted to laugh. Heath hated mockingbirds.

He was being mocked… or he was being challenged. Heath sighed, flinching at the hot pain of a simple deep breath, and in some part was aware that Schad had stopped stroking his hair. Instead, Schad had placed a tender, resting hand on Heath’s forehead and bowed his own head for a time, as if in prayer.

Heath listened to the happy sound-scramble of the bird, listened past the bird; he vaguely thought he heard more sounds out there too, good things –moving things and coming things. Hope. So when Schad lifted the glinting blade so that he might simply wipe it neatly across Heath’s throat, Heath met him with his good arm.

The struggle was a mighty one, Schad’s two strong arms pressing down, steadily down, against Heath’s one corded, fighting one. Heath’s shaking hand desperately clamped Schad’s wrist, but he was oh-so-slowly being forced to bend at the elbow and the glinting blade was coming closer, struggling closer against the force of Heath’s wavering arm, his clenched, hissing teeth, and yet closer still. Heath’s wild blue eyes traced the path of the deadly blade.

Suddenly Heath knew his End. Fully knew it. This bright blade would press deep into his neck and make a quick, gaping death smile there. Heath was resignedly sure of it. But the mockingbird was now screeching merrily at him and so STILL he somehow struggled on, shaking and heaving, even growling through his struggled pants for air. He even managed to hitch Schad’s arms back up the tiniest bit with his one fighting, dying, living fist.

And as Heath watched with weary, wondering eyes, Schad, while steadily pressing the blade towards Heath’s throat, began to cry. Through a pool of tears the cowhand said, “Aw, don’t fight it, Mr. Barkley. Please don’t. I’m doin’ this for both of us.”

The mockingbird warbled; the last scrap of Heath’s strength snapped. The cold edge of the knife plummeted towards his fragile throat.

As the ripping sounds of gunshots tossed Schad back like a flopping, shredded toy.

Quaking, Heath slid his eyes sideways, studied the man who suddenly lay a few feet off. Their gazes met. Schad smiled. Heath quirked a tiny, sad, sideways smile of his own. Then Heath hitched out a tearful groan and squeezed his own eyes shut against the pain that washed in like a flood. He was suddenly (again) drowning in dark, swirling pain.

Nick wanted to run straight to his brother — his living, breathing, dying brother — but he had to make sure the threat was gone.

As Nick loomed over Schad, the cowhand merely smiled up at him. Nick kicked the knife out of the way, removed the gun from the man’s holster and tossed it. Then he whirled to go to Heath. “Mr. Barkley,” Schad called faintly, his eyes now staring past Nick and at nothing… or at far-off things Nick couldn’t see.

Nick somehow felt the tiniest… touch of sorrow for him and he hadn’t the faintest idea why. Maybe it was the now-plaintive warbling of a nearby mockingbird as it accompanied Schad’s last harsh moments on the earth. “What, Schad?” Nick asked, kneeling down by the dying man… the man with four bullets in his body, one from each of them who’d come upon the horrid scene: Nick, Jeb, Avery and McColl.

“Barrett?” Schad rasped haltingly with a vacant nod. “He knew our boy… wasn’t dead. I wouldn’t a’ left Heath… to suffer like that. But… Barrett knew, and he did…. That one, he needs… a real good killin’… too.”

Schad flinched once, shuddered a whole body shudder, and then his blank gaze honed in on that point of nothingness that no man has ever lived to describe. Nick gently pressed his eyelids down and turned to Heath.

The others had gathered around his little brother, who was breathing shallowly, face squeezed shut. He was a painting of grief, done in the colors of dirt, blood, shredded cloth, and twitching skin.

“Dear god,” Nick breathed, and he found himself fairly stumbling to the blond. As he dropped to his knees, he considered both of Heath’s hands, mired in grime and dotted in places with cuts and slivers. Nick chose the hand that seemed the most intact, held it desperately, pulled it to his chest, pressing into it with all his tender strength—with all the hard love he could muster. “You hold on, Heath,” he begged through a sudden swell of tears.

And then he tried to manage his maelstrom thoughts. They needed to steady Heath, shore him up, then somehow move him. Dear lord, he needed a doctor now! How… how would Nick keep him alive now that he’d been so mightily blessed as to find him that way? The pressure of it was almost crippling. So, Nick decided, one step at a time.

“Gimme a canteen,” Nick asked McColl. He kept his voice low and steady, trying to heal Heath with even his tones.

“’M thirsty,” Heath whispered in response with the barest nod, eyes still closed.

Nick broke into a beaming, terrified smile. Heath was in there! “Yeah, Boy, we gotta leak all those fluids back in that you seemed to have leaked on out.” Heath nodded lightly again, and Nick gently lifted his head, while McColl tipped the canteen to his mouth. Heath swallowed greedily for a time and then gasped to indicate he was done. Nick rested him back carefully in the dirt.

Then Nick Barkley looked around, took in the scene, Heath’s clasped hand still clutched to his chest. There was a jangled skeleton of timber that had once been a line shack. Wallant’s dead, shattered body was a ways off beside it. And now he’d been joined in death by Schad. The largest part of Nick’s thoughts was on his precious brother, on getting Heath to safety. But in another part of his brain he was building a slow, steeping fury over the traitorous men who’d tried to help kill Heath.

He raised a dark glare at Avery. “This was part your doin’, so you can make up for some of it. Bury those two nice and proper—but bury them right next to that building so anybody who sees ‘em will know what they did.”

Avery nodded fearfully and rushed to the grim task. Nick watched him go. When he was out of earshot Nick murmured to Jeb, “Help him. That’s a tough job for a boy. He’s gonna need it.”

McColl had come back with blankets and with the medical kit he’d insisted they bring in case Nick’s leg (long since forgotten) needed some tending. As McColl worked to drape a careful blanket over Heath, who was shivering in obviously painful bursts, Nick studied the various splinters and fragments cutting into Heath’s flesh, trying to decide which to remove and which would need to be left for the doc for fear of the bleeding they’d cause if they were cut out.

“You’re gonna love me, Little Brother,” Nick murmured softly, despite his distraction. “I think I saw some laudanum in those supplies McColl is unpackin’.”

“Already do love you, Nick,” Heath whispered simply. He wasn’t a man who shared deep emotions lightly, but he needed to now because he could see death all around him: it was way deep in Nick’s eyes, in McColl’s, as they studied him; it was bouncing off the remembered reflection of a razored blade, glancing off the pretty leaves of the trees; he could smell it in the fresh afternoon air he was shakily breathing.

Nick moved as if sensing all of it too. It wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but with all the gentleness he could, Nick lifted Heath into his arms for a desperate hug, his chin buried in his brother’s filthy hair. “Me too, Boy,” he whispered huskily. “I gotcha now. I gotcha and I love ya and you’re safe.”

And if love alone could heal, Heath Barkley was going to be just fine.

*****

As Jeb and Avery were laboring to bury the dead, Nick and McColl were struggling to raise the living. McColl had administered as much laudanum as the two men deemed safe and Heath had settled a bit, then a bit more, and then finally he’d gone boneless into the ground instead of holding himself rigid with the pain as he had been since they’d first gotten to him. Now he was smiling mildly and watching Nick with lazy eyes that were just peeking blue past his heavy lids.

“How’s it feeling, Brother,” Nick murmured as he used a knife to carefully remove the outer layers of Heath’s filthy clothing. Nick desperately wanted to get him away from some of the dangerous grime.

“’S jes’ fine,” Heath slurred. “Hurts somethin’ awful but can’t feel it no more.”

“That makes no sense,” Nick chuckled distractedly as he and McColl worked next to carefully wrap him in a few warming blankets. Heath thought on this for a time as Nick took the opportunity to expose bits of him, gently bathing where he could with another blanket, shredded by McColl into soft cloths and doused with clean water from one of the canteens.

Heath licked his lips, which prompted Nick to offer him another careful sip. After being settled back down, Heath frowned with concentration and tried: “It all hurts like holy hell. But the hurt is way, way far away.”

“I gotcha,” Nick nodded knowingly, glad his brother was talking, even if it was about pain. “I’m gonna try to get some of these slivers outta you so we can move you more comfortably. Think that’ll work?”

“Be… careful of…. uh….” Heath knew there was something important he should tell Nick, something that hurt awfully and that Nick should be wary of, but his mind was warm and his skin was slow.

“Of your arm, which is broken,” Nick provided. “Of your shoulder there, which looks like it’s all one big, nasty sprain.” Nick frowned through the barest shimmer of tears as he went through the inventory. “Be careful of this big bit of wood here in your thigh and maybe this one gouging your side; need to save those for the doc. Maybe be careful of this here broken ankle?”

Heath tried to nod, was fairly sure he succeeded. “I sure did blow up. But I landed on my feet. Like a cat. For a second anyhow.” Heath frowned as if trying to recall the jolting moment of the broken ankle, then smiled it away again with that wan, sad smile. “Sure am glad you’re here, Nick,” he slurred. “Couldn’t seem to get around to movin’ much so I could do all this myself.”

“That’s what big brothers are for,” Nick offered huskily as he readied his pocket knife. He looked at McColl with wounded eyes, and then back down at his brother, mentally selecting a twig-sized sliver that had pierced the meaty part of Heath’s right bicep.

“Is it?” Heath wondered mildly, and then gave the tiniest nod as if to agree that, yes, that must indeed be what big brothers were for.

Nick was very glad that Heath didn’t scream as he worked—that he, in fact, kept even his flinching to a minimum. Instead he watched Nick with lazy, trusting eyes that merely jolted and sharpened now and again with the pain of it all. Nick did the hard stuff, removing shrapnel, splinting bones, wrapping and pressing and tending with hands as loving as a mother’s. But Heath somehow provided the quiet encouragement and comfort for his tortured older brother. And that, it seemed, was what little brothers were for.

By the time Jeb and Avery had respectfully cleaned up and joined them it was sliding towards evening. Heath was far better off. But he was slowly becoming worse off too. Fever was creeping in, tugging at the already thinned reserve of strength it took to keep his body going. And although they’d managed to keep the bleeding from their ministrations to a minimum, it was still too much on top of what he’d already lost. Heath was hollow, pallid, shaking in small, bursting tremors. And the pain, Nick could tell by the now steady, harsh look in Heath’s eyes, had moved back in close again. In fact, it seemed to have fairly pounced on him once more, was weaving all around him like an angry, jealous lover.

When Heath turned his head away from Nick to hide a tearful moan he’d been biting back, Nick broke. “Let’s give him a touch more laudanum before we move him,” he almost begged.

“Do you think we should?” McColl asked.

“No, but I can’t stand to see him like this. Maybe… maybe if he doesn’t have to fight the pain, he’ll be better suited to fight everything else.”

“Ok,” McColl agreed guiltily. “But let’s get more water in him first. Keep that fever down. Help him make some of that blood back.”

Heath drank several long swallows and then pulled away. “Heath?” Nick asked.

“Gettin’… sickish,” Heath whispered, eyes squeezed desperately shut.

“Okay, no more for now then,” Nick said gently, stroking Heath’s forehead until the nausea seemed to pass.

As the men readied to move Heath into the back of the wagon, Nick took a few moments to try and draw himself together. He was aware way back in his mind that his leg throbbed horribly, but the very thought of it sickened him. It felt like a betrayal to his brother, who had suffered at Wallant’s hands a thousand times what Nick had. And he was aware that yes, Heath had been found miraculously alive, but that, unless Nick was wise and careful and incredibly fast—unless he was on the very tip top of his game, despite the fact that he was injured and exhausted, plagued with a swirl of doubts, surrounded by treachery he still needed to somehow master—well, Heath could still die.

And Nick also knew he was lying to himself… because in all probability the broken young man in front of him might still die—not could, but might. A doctor was a long, long ways off for a man so low on life’s defining magic (blood); for a man battling infection from shocks and wounds too numerous to count (a man whose temperature had hiked several degrees in just the last little while). It was all too wearisome and Nick wanted to give up. But then he looked down at Heath… who was looking back up at him, trust still shining in his pain-darkened eyes.

“Move him careful, boys,” Nick announced, winking at Heath. “He’s just a mite too pretty to jostle, dontcha think?”

Now Heath was either asleep or passed out, his hand again clasped protectively in his older brother’s, and Nick was glad for either state. He was in the back of the wagon with Heath, and scowling outright at McColl, who led the team. Nick had never known how much a wagon jostled until he mentally tried to keep one going smoothly.

“Think you can find a few more bumps to smash?” he growled.

McColl knew his boss, knew that Nick was worried—hell, terrified—not angry, and so he forced a casual shrug. “Doin’ my best. He got through a knife fight, Nick; he’ll get through my wagon ride.”

Nick frowned at that, but because it took his mind whirling in a new bleak direction. “Why was he trying to kill my little brother?”

“We may never know,” McColl sighed. “Schad always was a mighty strange bird. He didn’t sleep much. Sometimes I’d come through to check on things at night and he’d just be layin’ there, starin’ at… memories I guess. He made lots of us nervous.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

There was a long pause as McColl seemed to work to form an answer for that. Finally he tried, “Sometimes, Nick, when the ranch takes all you got to keep it movin’, the last thing you wanna hear about is the men. If they’re doin’ their job — well, you make it clear that that’s all you need to know.”

Nick spoke around a sudden lump in his throat, casting a long, sad gaze at Heath. “I should always care about the men.”

“You… care about the things that keep them workin’. So in your own way you do.”

Nick didn’t want to know the answer, but he asked it anyways. “But can you… come to me if you need to?”

“Honestly? Sometimes not until a matter’s at its end. You hired me to handle things, so that’s what I do.”

“Better than me,” Nick said, his eyes sorrowful, one shaking hand adjusting the blankets wrapping Heath, checking again for the level of his fever. “I… hell… Jarrod said I chopped Heath off at the knees. That’s how I handle things.”

“What?”

“When Heath fired Barrett… I hired him straight back. I… we wouldn’t be here right now if I hadn’t done that.”

McColl craned his head over the back of the wagon’s seat, gave Nick a steady stare. “You can’t live on ‘what if,’ Nick… only on ‘what is.’”

But Nick couldn’t hear comfort or wisdom, not yet. “Some brother I turned out to be,” he muttered.

“You’re a great brother, Nick… just new at it with this one is all.”

Nick whispered, to no one in particular, “And I hope to god I get the chance to make it right with him.”

“You will,” McColl said, but both men were now watching the blond, who moaned once in his sleep, turned his pale head, and winced a cough against a tremendous bout of quivering. Nick gave his hand a gentle squeeze, tucked it carefully under the blankets, and then with a ragged sigh he went back to mopping Heath’s brow in an attempt to keep him cool—or to keep his own hands busy, Nick couldn’t be sure which. Busy was important—because Nick couldn’t recall when he’d ever felt so low.

But feeling low, feeling like a victim, that wasn’t Nick Barkley’s style. So, as they traveled, as he tended Heath, he dredged way down deep, as deep as he’d ever dug, and he pulled out a nugget of strength. The nugget was shaped like rage. Nick allowed himself to slip back into a pure fury over the men who had helped do this to Heath and that fury shaped his thoughts into honed points, guided him forward, gave him back his will.

“We got some work to do, still, Mac,” he finally said in a voice laced with ice. “I’ll need you to stop this wagon before we get back to camp.”

*****

They were maybe ten minutes from camp and night was settling down all around them. The air had dipped colder and shadows were long and lazy. It was usually Nick’s favorite time on a drive. Now it only maddened him; it stoked a fury in him so palpable he could taste its hot, acrid flavor. He needed to spit to escape it. Instead, he took one more sorrowful look at his brother, nodded at him lovingly, and then gently pulled the blankets over his fair head to cover his still form.

“Go on ahead to town now,” he said quietly to Avery. “Ride fast, Boy, like the devil’s on your heels. Take care of everything. And don’t forget the telegram.” He handed the scribbled slip and a roll of bills to Avery, who had pulled his mount up next to the wagon. The horse was quivering and skittish with the energy the young man was putting off. Avery nodded at Nick, his eyes wide with the responsibility he was being gifted… after the horrid thing he’d helped to do. No words would come to him so he carefully tucked the written note and the bills in his vest pocket, nodded once soberly, cast a final mournful glance at the blanketed form of the blond. Then he spurred his horse and was off in a determined clatter of hoof beats.

“Jeb,” Nick said next, “I know you’re as tired as a man can be and still be walkin’, but I need you.”

“I’m your man, Mr. Barkley,” Jeb said, and he was suddenly swallowing around tears. The import of it all staggered him. Life was huge, and death and he was a part of it all. He wasn’t sure how, but he’d become a sacred part of something heavy and crucial and big.

“How many men stayed with you after Wallant, Mac?” Nick asked. He’d been told but in the midst of the horrors he’d just been through he’d forgotten. He stared blankly at his brother’s covered form, unconsciously tucked a careful corner of the blanket under Heath’s good shoulder.

“Counting Jeb? Six.”

“You know what to do with your five men?” Nick asked. “We gotta play this careful. Thirty-two men is too many to battle; I ain’t afraid, but I ain’t reckless.”

“I know what to do with my five. Don’t you worry. We’ll be fine and we’ll keep the cattle doin’ what they should be. They’re good ones, those boys.”

“And Hell can have the rest,” Nick said simply, and the wagon was on its way again. As it moved, Nick climbed painfully over the back of the seat and settled down with a hiss. McColl wanted to check Nick’s head for fever but he didn’t dare. Jeb, his face somber, followed on horseback, leading Charger, who’d been retrieved from the deadly scene earlier.

And stretched out alone in the bed was Heath’s still and covered form.

This was the group of men that entered the quiet camp a short time later. A quick count showed that almost all of the hands were there, just tucking into their dinner, it seemed. They stood as the wagon approached, watching. Nick saw nervous glances, sad ones, curious glances, and even a few twitching glances—glances that bordered on the dangerous. Nick climbed down carefully, hissing unconsciously at the sharp leg pain that had become his quiet, constant companion.

“Schad is dead,” Nick announced abruptly. He could see that all of the men were shocked at that. He could also see that some of them flashed something else at the news… relief, perhaps. “So’s Wallant,” he continued. “I found them all at what was left of a line shack a ways off when I went looking for Heath.”

He turned to the back of the wagon and studied the blanketed form for a time. Then with a voice ragged with sorrow but controlled by rage he said. “That’s my little brother there. He’s dead too. Now, I don’t know what all happened out there. I don’t think I’ll ever know. All I know is I need a good man to help Jeb, here, take my brother’s body to town. I need him to send for my family so they can be with Heath until I can join them after I take care of the damned cattle.”

Something tense and awful in the camp broke and the men began to murmur quietly, to shuffle, but all eyes were still on Nick Barkley who stood, head hung now, one hand gripping the edge of the wagon. Finally Nick spoke again. “Barrett, I want you to go with Jeb. He’s beat. You drive the wagon and let him catch a rest.”

“Yes, Sir, Mr. Nick, Sir. I’ll take care of things. I’ll take care of that boy back there as if he’d been my own flesh and blood.”

Without glancing once at the blanketed form in the back, Barrett tossed aside his plate and almost ran to the wagon. He scrambled up into the seat and readied himself to drive the team as Jeb handed off the reins of his horse and Heath’s to McColl and then climbed up to join him there. Nick didn’t watch them. He merely kept his head hung as the wagon finally pulled off, lumbering on its slow way towards Bakersfield.

“McColl,” Nick said after the wagon was out of sight. “Pull your crew, grab a bite and some coffee, and then head out to that herd. You all can bunk out there tonight.”

“Yes, Sir,” McColl nodded, and then he indicated the five men who were to team with him, the ones that had stayed with him that morning, despite Wallant’s promises.

“The rest of you gather around,” Nick said after a time. The men did so, and a new sense of nervousness was washing in among them. It was palpable. Only after they’d all clustered around him did Nick finally raise his head. His eyes were blank, they seemed dead. But they were terrifying.

“You men joined Wallant; you left my drive and headed off on a promise of better pay, or land. I don’t care the why’s of it; I only know that somehow what you all did helped to get my brother killed.” The men were silent, staring, waiting. Nick’s iced eyes went unchanged. “Now I need this drive to go. I need it desperately. An entire year’s worth of profit is hangin’ on it. And if it fails, my family will owe a lot of other good folks a whole lot of money too. Enough to break us, maybe, I can’t be sure off the top of my head.”

A few of the men nodded at that. Nick selected one of them, and stared at him alone. “Brown, you been with us a long time?”

“Three years, Sir,” Brown said, eyes wide with a growing terror he couldn’t understand.

“Well, Brown,” Nick said thoughtfully — truthfully. “I can’t rightly kill you. I’d like to, but I can’t. I’d like to kill each and every one of you, to put you through the same pain my brother suffered. So instead, I’m gonna fire you. Every one of you. As much as I should, I can’t give a damn about this drive anymore. I only give a damn about my brother.”

Then he looked at them, pinning each of them with an individual glare that offered a personalized promise. “You can head back to Stockton for your pay. I suggest you do that in the next few minutes. If you harm these cattle, if you bother McColl, if you even look at another member of my family, I will kill you. I will.”

And with that statement, Nick Barkley turned on his heel and limped to Charger. He threw himself into his brother’s saddle and spurred off.

*****

Barrett was startled when Nick galloped up out of the dark and then pulled up to ride alongside the wagon. “Boss?” he asked.

Nick didn’t respond, instead he commanded with a wave of his hand that Barrett halt the team. Barrett was confused, but he did so. Nick pulled Charger up, secured its reins at the back of the wagon and climbed into the bed. He settled down gently next to his brother’s form, and then lifted the blanket, pulling it back.

Barrett was startled, then sickened, then terrified when he saw Heath Barkley staring at him. And Heath was holding a gun in the hand that wasn’t splinted; he had it draped lazily across his bare chest. Barrett couldn’t think, went instinctively to throw himself from the seat of the wagon, but Heath cocked the gun, although he didn’t raise it.

Jeb, however, did raise his, pointing it straight at the frightened cowhand and then relieving Barrett of his own gunbelt and tossing it back to Nick.

“Hey, Barrett,” Heath fairly slurred. “You’re fired. And guess what? Nick won’t be hirin’ you back this time.”

And then, with a pained sigh, Heath closed his eyes. Nick gingerly removed the gun from his hand, checked his head for fever, rubbed a tender thumb across his cheek, fixed the blankets around him. “Get this wagon movin’ Barrett,” Nick said without even deigning to glance up at the man. “And every bump you hit you’ll catch double from my fists later. My little brother needs a doctor. Now. After that, I’ll be dealin’ with you.”

*****

For Barrett it began as a hellish journey fraught with tension and terror. Even nature seemed to conspire against him: the slivered moon kept hiding behind fat, ugly clouds; black trees were looming and creaking at him; a surprisingly cold wind was cutting through his clothes and numbing his fingers on the reins; and the team kept TRYING to find every damned pothole in the horrible road. Through it all, Barrett was twitching, squirming, wide-eyed and pondering all the dark things unspoken.

That hated bastard had brought him to this point! Sure, Barrett had left him for dead, knowing he only had maybe minutes left in him anyways, but it was to avoid just this possibility — prosecution for himself and his friends for something Wallant had been responsible for in the first place. And now it looked like Barrett would be facing it alone because, instead, the bastard had somehow crawled his way back — and for some reason Nick seemed to want to pin all the blame square on Barrett. It all left him with a stomach queasy with jumbling worry — with a future that now loomed bleak and nasty…. What had Heath told them? Could he even have remembered that Barrett had abandoned him? How much of his tale was believable? (And who had killed Schad?!)

Barrett, squinting steadily and fighting the damned team to avoid every single dip in the road that he could, let his mind whirl further. Once they reached town he’d have no chance in a one-on-one with Nick Barkley — not this Nick, one as deadly as a pit full of mad rattlers — and so facing the law was actually better. If Heath survived (if!) the charges from the law would probably be light, maybe catch Barrett just a little bit of time…. But all things considered, he could actually live with that….

Unless that damned lawyer brother intervened, Barrett realized with a scowl. If Jarrod intervened and made things all fancy with his words, Barrett could go from playing cards in a silly cell one minute to peering out from behind the bars of San Quentin the next.

And so if Heath… still died… wouldn’t Barrett have a better chance with the law, Jarrod Barkley or not? No witness, no crime, really. Barrett kept this conclusive thought running through his brain as he focused steadily on the road, straining with the effort to keep the ride smooth. He didn’t have a plan… but it was a long way to town, and when things settled down in the wagon he’d try to watch for any opportunity.

He’d left the blond for dead the first time and that had turned out badly. So, if he couldn’t outright escape, he’d need to be far more active about it all. This time Barrett would somehow help Heath get all good and done with his dying.

*****

Nick’s first task as the wagon picked up speed and moved forward, was to settle Heath—to shore him up once more. Because this time Heath wasn’t asleep or unconscious. His eyes were squeezed shut and he was shuddering in great, groaning jolts against the pain. Lots of it. And he now wore the waxy, ashen coloring of a man desperately ill. It was as if it had taken his very last bit of self to simply wait quietly beneath the blanket during Nick’s ploy in case Barrett had tried anything. Nick had been certain Barrett wouldn’t, that Heath was in no more danger than the obvious, but it was as if somehow the blanket draped over him—the pretense of death—had invited Death itself into the very back of the wagon. It squatted there now on bent, gangly legs, watching Heath with greedy eyes.

And the way Nick’s own leg was burning, the way he, himself, was shaking (was it with exhaustion or fever?), well, Death might just be glancing Nick’s way on occasion too. If wearing the shroud had finished off Heath, the explosion of fury had done in Nick. He fumbled out the last of the laudanum, knelt there staring at the pretty bottle with mildly blurry eyes, his black hair tumbled forward. He shook his head and focused. No, he needed to shore up the situation first and Heath second (and Death could be damned; it could keep on waiting there forever… it could have the blamed wagon if it wanted, AFTER they got to town).

“Jeb,” Nick said in a steady, hard voice, but one purposely laced with dismissive disinterest. “You keep that gun out of Barrett’s reach, but he ain’t gonna try nothin’ ‘cause he knows me and Heath back here would as soon shoot him as smell him. But I want you to catch a bit of sleep. You look like you could use a few minutes and I like all my crew as up on their toes as ole Barrett seems to think he is.”

Jeb turned curious eyes to Nick… that went wide with shock when he saw that his boss suddenly seemed a step from collapse. Nick nodded with just a touch of desperation in his own eyes. And Jeb understood. Nick needed Jeb at top form because Nick himself was fading. Fast. Jeb took one last look at Heath, wondered not for the first time if he’d even make it to the doctor, and then turned and settled into the wagon seat. The best he could do for either of his bosses was to catch just a small bit of rest, as Nick suggested. Indeed, his eyes burned and he was shaky with exhaustion. And although it was a humming sleep, a sleep he thought he’d be able to twitch out of if Barrett even shifted wrong, and although he kept his gun at the ready, he tucked his chin down and let it come—which it did with a leaping quickness.

Nick set the laudanum back down and gathered Barrett’s gunbelt; he hid it as far back in the wagon as he could, so that if Barrett should try anything he’d have a real fight on his hands to get at a weapon. Then, after making sure that Barrett was still focused ahead and on the road, he took Heath’s gun and tucked it back down under his brother’s blankets. He wanted Heath to be able to get to it if, for some reason, something occurred that Nick couldn’t help him with.

Then, finally, Nick went back to tending Heath. He uncorked a canteen, tried to get a few more swallows down him. Heath drank, but weakly, some of it running past the corners of his mouth and dribbling onto the blankets. “Is that gonna stay down, Boy?” Nick murmured, keeping his low voice away from Barrett’s ears.

Heath nodded, but Nick could tell there was a supreme and draining effort to all of it: drinking, breathing, nodding. Nick uncorked the laudanum. “This’ll help; should be just enough to get you to town. I know the bumpin’ of this wagon must be hurtin’ you somethin’ fierce.”

Heath didn’t nod at that, but a single tear streaked his cheek. Nick felt the teardrop in his very soul, dropped his head into one hand. He pulled himself together for just a second, and then he cradled Heath’s head again, tipped the laudanum to his grey lips. Heath sputtered once at the foulness of it, but the blessed liquid went down. They both seemed to wait for a time (and Nick could feel Death leaning in, watching over his shoulder), but it stayed. It took a bit but finally Heath relaxed just a touch more, closed his eyes again. But Nick could tell he was still awake.

“Why don’t you sleep, Heath?” he crooned.

“’M… ’fraid to,” Heath whispered haltingly.

Nick found he was crying at that, unbidden tears streaming his cheeks. It only mildly amazed him and he simply worked around it. He’d already determined that Heath was running a serious fever, but he didn’t have enough water to bank it. He offered some, cool on a soft cloth, stroking it gently down Heath’s arms, around his good wrist, on his face, but more for comfort than effect. And all the while the soft tears streamed.

“Please hang on for me, Boy,” Nick heard himself beg.

“’M tryin’,” Heath sighed. Then he opened his eyes again, fixed Nick with a fading gaze. “Drive? Fired ‘em all. What… ‘bout the drive?”

“The drive don’t matter,” Nick said, and he was suddenly too tired to sit up anymore. He lay down beside Heath, draped a protective arm carefully across him, nudged his head against Heath’s and murmured gently. “That damned drive mattered more than anything or anyone. And it brought us both to this. Life and death. And love. I love you. That’s all that matters.”

Heath nodded, shuddered once more, hiccupped a groan against it, and then asked what was still burning in his mind. “But try? For me? So ‘m… not in vain.”

“You took a stand. It wasn’t in vain. But yeah, I’ll try. Something will work out for the drive. I’m already gettin’ Jarrod on it. But put that away. Please, Heath. For now I just need you to focus way down and live. Breathe and live. Rest and live. Hell, be awake and cussin’ and live. That’s all I need. That’s all I’ll ever need.”

Heath turned his head and pressed the barest whisper of a kiss to Nick’s forehead. But he didn’t close his eyes. Instead, he drifted, watching the black landscape as it floated past like ghosts.

In front, Barrett sensed the silence, and began to flit sneaky glances backwards. And he was sure enough tickled with the tender, fragile scene he saw.

*****

Barrett was desperate and confident, strong and terrified, and he was letting all of those emotions overrule logic. Time was dwindling for him; he had to act. And thus they were several long miles down the road when three stark things happened. Barrett lost, Barrett tied, and Barrett won. After many, many hasty, fleeting checks, he’d decided that all of his passengers seemed asleep… well, Jeb and Nick seemed asleep while Heath was hitching occasional groans in the smallest coughing voice and staring off at nothing.

As threats went, Barrett had ranked Nick on down to nothing. To Barrett’s hasty glances, Nick was clearly run thin; he had what looked like kohl thumbprints smudged under his closed eyes and, even in sleep, his mouth was a pained scowl, his face darkened with a day’s growth of beard and sunken with grief and weariness.

Barrett deemed the blond no threat at all. Lordy, Heath, Barrett chuckled silently—he was a dead man who somehow hadn’t remembered to die. A gritty man, sure, Barrett had to give him that… well, at least until he killed him.

And so, with those thoughts shoring his nerve, Barrett won when he attacked his sole remaining opponent. With quiet clucks and slaps, he gradually sped the team up until it was moving at a jostling clip and then, with a powerful shove, he suddenly pushed the unsuspecting Jeb from the wagon. Jeb bounced off a tree at the side of the road, scoring his face with some of the bark there, and crumpled into a confused heap.

Barrett tied because Heath could only watch him as he was suddenly scrabbling over the back of the seat, red-faced and hollering, spit flecking his lips. Heath knew there was a gun under his blankets but he was too done to find it: too lethargic, too pained, too fumbling, too hot and too cold both. Barrett tied because as he reached Heath, planning with utter, gleeful desperation to kill the blond in any way he could—and horribly jostling all Heath’s cut, broken and impaled parts in the process—Heath checked him with a mighty, sudden knee that dug deep into Barrett’s solar plexus, sending all the air out of him with a whump.

Then Barrett lost. When he came up, gasping from Heath’s knee, he found himself staring at a single eye of steel. The gun that Nick held, that quavered not the slightest, was two inches from his left eye. Behind the gun was Nick, his face a stone. Barrett couldn’t be sure, but he thought he also saw Death standing beside Nick Barkley, grinning with faceless joy.

Barrett had been scared in his life, but he was purely past that now. He was living in some silent, huge land past fear, where everything was cast in shades of black, grey and white. He heard Nick’s voice, steady and low, but he could now only see the eye of the gun, black-grey-silver, leering back at him. “Jeb,” Nick said, his weapon hand never faltering, “you all right?”

Barrett heard the sound of fumbling at his side, heard Jeb near the wagon, heard the young cowhand mutter something vague.

“You got a kerchief?” Nick asked in a voice that was now the steely color of the gun. “Put it to that face and back my play.”

Nick never wavered, never took the black abyss that was his gaze off of Barrett, but somehow he was checking Heath now. As he did so, he cocked the gun. Barrett hadn’t known it wasn’t cocked until he heard that it was. There had never been a louder sound in all his life; it cracked and snapped and echoed in this vast and empty land.

“Heath, Boy, you still with me?” Nick’s metal voice asked. Barrett never heard the response, but there must have been one because the gun hadn’t gone off yet, destroying his face, blasting fire into his brains.

And then Nick took a step backwards. With the tiniest hint from Nick’s chin, Barrett followed, the gun his leash. In solemn agreement, neither man allowed the two inch gap between gun bore and Barrett’s eye to break. They were moving steadily towards the edge of the wagon, and Barrett had to take extra pains to do so without stepping on Heath because his stomach was clenched and sick, which somehow turned his legs to pure jelly. Then they were climbing down.

The gun at Barrett’s eye was met by Jeb’s, which pressed hard into his ear. Barrett could hear its silver coldness.

What Nick said next was louder than the cocking gun. “Get him off the road. So nobody’ll find him.”

Then Barrett was crying, moving in hesitant steps backwards, muttering in a fluid stream of grey desperation. “Why? Why off the road? What are you gonna do? You can’t just shoot a man! Not in cold blood! I ain’t even rightly sure what I done! I… I didn’t hurt your brother, Nick. I just… didn’t help him. You wouldn’t shoot me. Not here, please. Not here.”

“You’re movin’ too slow,” Nick said mildly. His head was cocked to the side now and he was studying Barrett as if he were simply sizing him up for his coffin.

Barrett took several quicker steps back to satisfy Nick, to appease his steady pistol, but he tripped on something in the path and sprawled hard onto his butt. Nick’s gun hopped just once at the unexpected movement and that made Barrett’s bladder release.

“Please,” he moaned.

Jeb stepped in, helped Barrett up, lifting him somehow with the pistol pressed into his ear. It had notched a groove into the tender flesh there, and Barrett was bleeding in a hot trickle down the side of his head. It was the only heat in a land full of white ice. And then, Barrett found, he was backed into a tree. Indeed, he was in a deep pocket of trees, far away from where he’d started. Far away from life.

Nick studied him for a very long, silent time. Then Nick said, his lip lifted in disgust, “You ain’t even Schad.”

Nick lowered his gun, but Barrett didn’t move. He couldn’t. “Tie him up,” Nick said to Jeb, tossing him a rope that he must have had all along. “Tie him up so tight he bleeds from it. Gag him with that kerchief of yours. And Barrett, if you come untied in the next few days, I suggest you stay put.”

Then Nick turned and walked away.

Barrett was broken, snapped like a silvery twig. And when Jeb stuck his piece in his holster and motioned for Barrett to stretch his arms backwards around the fat tree, Barrett did so. Gladly.

*****

Nick made it back to the wagon with a sluggish, limping run. Heath smiled at him vaguely as he climbed gingerly into the bed and knelt beside him.

“You all right?” Heath mouthed as Nick was checking him.

“I’m fine,” Nick said distractedly. His heart was pounding. He hadn’t understood fear, it seemed, until this very moment. Fear could get bigger! Something in Heath’s eyes, something wistful and sad, made Nick taste the full swell of terror for the very first time. He worked his way tenderly down his brother’s wounded form to find out why. Heath followed Nick’s hands with a mild gaze, watched as they stopped at a cut that was bleeding anew, watched as they hesitated there. Heath’s lazy blink said “no,” and Nick nodded, moving his dexterous hands on.

When Nick got to the large piece of wood that had been just piercing Heath’s side — originally a far less powerful enemy than the one in Heath’s thigh — Nick’s hands began to shake. He pulled them away, staring at the new blood pooling there — right and red and lively, puddling against the pale, naked skin of Heath’s muscled torso.

“I’m sorry, Nick,” Heath whispered plaintively in the barest voice. He was terribly sad for his brother, but he wanted to prepare him. “I think I’m dyin’.”

“Not ‘til I say so,” Nick growled a sob, and fumbling around he found an unused blanket. He snapped it out, pressed an edge of it around the damned wood… gently and powerfully both. “Jeb!” Nick hollered, and the cowhand came from the edge of the road at a full run. Without asking, Jeb threw himself into the seat and set the horses on a charge for the final leg towards town.

Nick saw nothing but Heath’s smiling eyes; he felt nothing but fear; he heard nothing but his own crooning nonsense. He didn’t even feel the wagon stop. He didn’t even see when the wagon hauling Avery and a doctor met them on the road. He didn’t hear it when the doctor climbed up quickly and took a spot at his side.

Nick only saw it when Heath’s comforting eyes slid shut. And then Nick’s eyes finally slid shut too.

*****

Jarrod had stayed in town late; he had paperwork and, if he got it done in time he had a date… of sorts. Margaret Guinevere Sayers -– Gwenny — was new to the family-owned restaurant where he took his finer meals, a niece recently arrived all the way from Chicago. She wasn’t a San Francisco lady; she wasn’t even a proper Stockton gal. But she WAS… Gwenny.

Rather than running a flirtatious banter, she glowered at Jarrod when she served him with her perfect, impeccable hands. If he left a table even mildly cluttered, she glared at it until he nervously straightened it a tad, and only then would she deign to take away his fine dishes. And heaven help him if Jarrod didn’t finish a meal. He’d once left half a breast of succulent herb-rubbed chicken, since he wasn’t hungry — had only come in to catch a glimpse of her dark, portentous face. She stood, arms folded, saying nothing, her pretty mouth a dangerous pucker, until he’d carefully cut and chewed each bite… and then eaten all the roasted bits of sweet potato after. And then drained his wine.

She infuriated him. And she was the most intriguing thing to happen to Stockton in as long as Jarrod could remember. Tonight he intended to spill just a bit of coffee on her fine table linens so he could catch a full portion of her flashing, brown-eyed ire.

When he entered the restaurant late, the owner, Milford Sayers, rushed forward at the tinkling of the delicate bell over his door. Jarrod greeted him with a broad smile and laughing eyes; Milford, in turn, greeted his best customer with an unrestrained hug, then thought better of it, straightened, and brushed off Jarrod’s jacket.

“Decorum. Gwenny’s always telling me I lack the decorum.”

“What you don’t lack, my good Mr. Sayers, is an amazing culinary skill.”

“You flatter, you flatter, Mr. Barkley…”

“Jarrod,” the lawyer said, raising a wagging finger in interruption.

Milford Sayers clapped his hands together, cocked his head, and let out a sigh of pure bliss. That was interrupted when tiny Gwenny entered the room.

“A seat, Sir,” she said. And it was a statement not a question.

Milford looked scared, offered Jarrod a small apologetic shrug. Jarrod merely winked over Gwenny’s head at the poor man as he was marched by the tiny brunette to “dinner and doom,” as he’d come to call his cherished evenings here.

She had just served him his coffee, which smelled rich and looked gorgeous in a thin white china cup, when Norm Baker rushed through the door, setting the poor, delicate bell off on a treacherous bit of jangling. Gwenny went to scold him but saw the bare look in his eyes. Jarrod saw it too, and stood. “Norman?”

“It’s a telegram from your brother, Nick. An emergency.”

In the harsh world they all lived in, the word “emergency” was a heavy thing indeed. Jarrod tipped the boy vacantly, sat back down. He wasn’t aware that Gwenny Sayers looked just a touch distraught for him as she hovered a discrete table away.

He read: “Crew tried to kill Heath Stop I’m shot Stop Fired thirty-two men Stop Drive’s a bust Stop Hire more if you can but please come quick Stop Heath may die Stop Nick.”

Beyond shocked, Jarrod set the paper on the table and merely stared at it for a time. He wanted to move immediately—to dash blindly into the night and towards his brothers—but it would be to no end. There wasn’t a train for Bakersfield for at least another hour, and he’d reach there sometime in the morning. No amount of desire on his part now could change that fact.

Still, his clinical mind was already whirling over ways to find men to run the cattle, coming up with bright snippets here and there. But his loving mind was in agony. Nick was shot, his Nick. And Heath! If Nick had actually stopped his sacred drive over whatever had happened to the blond, if Nick wrote those stark and shocking words, then the black worry that was turning Jarrod’s stomach sour was justified. Heath… might die.

“I’ll get you some tea instead of coffee, Mr. Barkley,” he heard Gwenny’s voice say. “And I’ll pack you something for travel.”

He looked up at her and their eyes met, his tortured and hers filled with compassion so rich it stole his breath for a moment. He nodded, dropped his head into one hand, while the other clenched and unclenched the napkin at his setting. When Gwenny set the tea in front of him she paused for a moment, and then she gave his restless hand the gentlest squeeze. It made him feel stronger somehow, more ready for the dark journey he was about to embark on.

*****

When Nick woke up he found himself alone in the back of the damned wagon, and moving again. A weary glance showed him that Jeb was driving the team and Nick was aware of the sound of another wagon slowly following. That was where Heath was, he thought. And Heath was dead.

Nick wondered why he’d been asleep at all—particularly for so long, since the sky seemed to hint that it was nearing morning—and then Nick began to gradually become aware of his body. He had that horrid misery, that stupid body chattering that was fever. He couldn’t remember, through all that he’d faced, when it had started, but he knew now that it had been with him for a time. And the throbbing in his leg was brighter, sharper; somehow he knew the wound had been cleaned, maybe cut on and stitched on, and the tight feel of a new bandage made him swallow a groan. The doctor. There had been a doctor, hadn’t there? And the doctor must have been able to treat him… because Heath was dead.

Oh god, Heath. Nick felt sudden tears stream past his ears and into the folded blanket tucked beneath his head, but didn’t move his sleepy arms to wipe them away. How had it come to this? What a horrid misery was love. When he’d met Heath — just weeks ago, how could that be? — he’d detested him. He’d hated him so venomously that it stuck in his throat like hot boiled cotton. Then within mere days he’d come to begrudgingly admire him, to even like him, even though Nick’s stubborn side still wanted to push him, to goad him… like fairly manipulating him into that fight with Barrett. Nick squeezed his eyes shut, gasped at the treacherous memories, as the tears slowly ran.

But then Heath had come up missing; Nick had lost him, and that possibility had sparked a raw, unbelievable fear in him. He suddenly and fully discovered that his new younger brother mattered more than Nick could ever have imagined. And then, blessedly, Nick had found Heath again—literally found him, and spiritually found him. He was horribly battered and broken, wounded in body and soul… and Nick knew at a glance that Heath had suffered it all for him. Heath’s actions spoke of bravery, pride, and unwavering devotion. His simple words spoke of love.

How damnable and horrible was love, Nick thought as he choked on a sudden sob, feeling the welling, violent cries catching in his throat but unable to make any sounds around them. How horrible and traitorous and wrong. Loving left you open for gaping, torturous wounds that could never ever heal, and yet were never cruel enough to kill you.

Nick needed a surcease from the pain; it was twisting him in ways he couldn’t bear. So he reached down and grabbed his bandaged leg. He squeezed as hard as he could with sharp fingers — until he was fairly sure he’d made it bleed. The horrid, grinding throb of it made his mind blessedly clear, then let it drift, then let it finally sleep again.

*****

Jarrod disembarked from the train and headed immediately for the doctor’s office — a doctor Emmanuel Potter, the hanging sign out front indicated. He rapped once, lightly, then let himself in, as was the custom. Sitting in the foyer-turned-waiting-room, both of them stretched out awkwardly on the small chairs there and nodding off, were two of the Barkley hands. Jarrod cleared his throat and the taller of the two snapped his eyes open and fairly jolted to his feet.

“Mr. Barkley,” he nodded. He recognized the look in Jarrod’s eyes and, after wiping a hand on his pant leg, stuck it out in greeting. “Jeb. And this is Avery.” Avery was awake now too, also on his feet and proffering a hand.

Jarrod shook with both the men, taking in the dark concern in their eyes and their weariness — more than just trail weariness. And Jarrod found for a moment that he was afraid to ask. Jeb seemed to sense that too, nodded again, vigorously. “We don’t know, Sir. Nick is… well, he hasn’t really been awake since the doc met us on the road.”

“And… Heath?” Jarrod heard a tremor in his voice.

“The doctor’s with him now, Sir. I think it would be… good… if you went in there. Nick can’t be with him. I think you oughta.”

Jarrod indicated with the barest tilt of his head what looked like the door to a surgery. Both young men nodded earnestly. Jarrod needed another moment to shore himself up, somehow. So he took charge of the situation in front of him. Fishing in his vest pocket, he pulled out a small stack of coin. He pressed it into Jeb’s hand, clasped it again in thanks. “Gentlemen, I noted the hotel on the way here. Go there and get yourself a room.”

“We ought to get back to the beef,” the young man named Avery replied, his head hung.

“You ought to fall where you’re standing, you’re both so exhausted. And right now I’m the Barkley brother who is acting as your boss. I say get a room.” And indeed, taking charge of something gave him the bolster of courage he needed. Jarrod squared his shoulders, rapped lightly on the glass at the door, and turned the crystal doorknob that led into the surgery.

Doctor Potter didn’t look up when Jarrod entered. “There’s a basin there. Wash your hands. May I help you?”

“Jarrod Barkley,” Jarrod offered. As he scrubbed his hands he tried to peer past the doctor, who was bent at Heath’s side.

“Then this young man is your brother?”

“Is he still?” Jarrod asked, and then he couldn’t believe the dark question had come from his own mouth.

The doctor chuckled though. “Barely. But I’m good at what I do, Mr. Barkley.”

Jarrod closed on the bed, took in the sight of Heath. “What the hell happened to him?” he gasped.

“According to what your hands said, he was caught too near an exploding building. And then he somehow managed to end up in a few tussles after. When I got to him on the road outside of town, he’d nearly bled out.” The doctor gently tapped a thick bandage at Heath’s waist. “Large piece of shrapnel. It had been jostled in some kind of fight. Thankfully it didn’t damage any organs.”

Jarrod placed a gentle hand on Heath’s forehead, amazed that someone so ashen could still be alive. Heath was hot with fever, which explained why he was mostly uncovered but for a discreet sheet at his groin. Then Jarrod found himself peering at Heath’s chest, which rose after a time, slowly, and then fell again.

The doctor watched as Jarrod observed, nodded. “His respiration is very slow. I sedated him.”

“Is that wise?” Jarrod asked. And then he shook his head, “I’m sorry, it’s just that…”

“That you’re honest. It was a risk. He had a high temperature and had lost a great deal of blood over time. But he was also in horrid pain — crippling pain. That can sap a body as quickly as anything.” The doctor waved a hand to indicate a vast number of stitches, the stark bandaging, particularly thick at Heath’s waist and thigh, and splints. Heath’s foot was splinted, as was his arm, which had been strapped to his chest. Jarrod took in the mottled black and purple bruising at the shoulder and realized that Heath couldn’t have supported the weight of the broken arm even if he were conscious.

“I think,” the doctor said thoughtfully, “he was about done in with the pain. Based on what I heard of his experiences, he doesn’t seem like a lad who scares easily, but he did ask me once if he were dead.”

“Will he…” but Jarrod couldn’t finish the thought.

“He’s alive for now. And he shouldn’t be. So let’s hope.” The doctor studied the young man on his table for a moment longer, than he took off an apron spattered here and there with blood — Heath’s blood. He placed a folded blanket at Heath’s feet. “I was working on lowering his fever a bit more. You can take over for a moment, if you don’t mind. I’d like to go check on… your other brother?”

“Nick,” Jarrod reared his head. “How’s Nick?”

“He was shot day before yesterday. Thankfully the bullet passed through. But afterwards, it seems, he went traipsing through the country looking for this one. It’s a good thing he did, mind you, or you’d have one brother instead of two. But he made himself ill in the process. He’s still sleeping. I tended the wound, gave him the same medicine for fever I gave this one. I imagine he’ll sleep for a time yet. I hope they both will.”

“As do I,” Jarrod nodded somberly. He took the basin of cool water and the sponge from the doctor, and settled down beside his youngest brother. “Tell Nick, if he awakes, that I’ll come to see him shortly. And tell him thank you, from Pappy… for being stubborn and foolish and brave. Just tell him… thank you.”

*****

Nick woke up to hints of dusk creeping in through the window; it was just barely painting the air in the corners shadowy and brown. He was in a small room with quaint wooden furniture and jarring blue curtains. The window was open but the curtains were motionless, as if the breeze had died. Nick was aware that someone had laid a cool, kind rag to his forehead, but he couldn’t pull his eyes from those damned listless curtains.

Finally Nick heard something that he knew had been spoken several times already. “Nick?” He flitted slow eyes towards the deep, worried voice calling his name; he found Jarrod there.

When Nick’s empty gaze settled on him, Jarrod’s face lit up with a tender smile and he reached forward to retrieve the cool cloth. “Welcome back, Brother Nick.”

“Pappy?” Nick finally whispered as familiarity crept into his gaze.

“The same,” Jarrod said gently. But when Nick’s gaze went from blank to alert to sorrowful, Jarrod found himself leaning forward, studying his little brother with growing concern. “Nick?”

“I’m sorry, Jarrod,” Nick sighed. He had to get it out so he said it in a rush, keeping the quiver from his chin and the wet from his eyes. He needed to be strong for his older brother. “I’m so sorry. I… got him killed.”

“Who,” Jarrod frowned, shaking his head.

And Nick was suddenly angry, almost raging. Because Jarrod was giving him damnable hope. “What do you mean, ‘who’? Who else is there? Who else matters?” Jarrod’s eyes went round with comprehension and Nick relaxed back into his grief.

“Heath?” Jarrod asked with a faint and sudden swell of tears as he realized what Nick must have been going through — when he tried to grasp how long the horrid thought must have been plaguing his little brother. He grabbed Nick’s hand, squeezed it in the firmest clasp, spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Heath is alive, Nick. He’s sleeping downstairs. The doctor’s with him now.”

Nick worked to sit up. Jarrod helped him. “You’re lying! I… I saw him die. He told me he was dying. He had to be dying.”

“Yes,” Jarrod said with a sad frown. “I’ve seen the state he’s in, so it’s no surprise that either of you reached that conclusion. He thought he was dying too, seems he even thought he had for a minute. But Heath is too strong for that, I guess. Or you were too strong to let him. Because he’s downstairs, right now, Nick, his lungs working and his heart beating. He looks a horrible mess, but he’s still our little brother.”

Nick was moving out of the bed at that, frustrated that he felt so weak. So Jarrod slid an arm around his waist and helped him to stand. Then Nick was frustrated that he was limping, more than he could remember limping before—it was as if sleep had pulled everything out of him. So Jarrod fetched him a crutch that had been propped beside the door. Jarrod knew that Nick should stay in bed. But Jarrod also knew that Nick couldn’t be constrained in Hell by all its minions right now if it meant keeping him from seeing the proof of what he’d just been told.

When they entered the surgery, Doctor Potter didn’t look up. Jarrod was familiar with the routine so he went to the basin and scrubbed his hands, then he helped Nick do the same. He had to fairly perform the task for Nick, who had his dark head craned the whole time in Heath’s direction. Jarrod was worried that Nick, who was fairly shaking now — whether from exertion, grief, or joy, he couldn’t tell — would fall down, so he grabbed a chair from the corner, settled it beside Heath, and eased Nick into it.

Nick stared for a time, merely stared, at Heath’s still form. “He’s so pale when I see him in the light,” he finally whispered.

The doctor nodded at that, then said thoughtfully. “Don’t expect you’ve looked in a mirror yourself lately, Son?”

Nick didn’t seem to hear that. Tentatively, as if afraid the boy would break, he laid a grip on Heath’s bicep, flinched once at the scraping feel of a few stitches there, and then gently settled his hand again. Jarrod moved to Heath’s head, crouching down so he could murmur in his ear. “I’m back, Brother Heath. I brought Nick with me. He looks like the devil, so don’t let him frighten you when you open up those eyes.”

Jarrod brushed a hand over Heath’s forehead, noticed that he was now tucked all around with soft blankets. “He’s cooler.”

“Much,” Doctor Potter agreed with a gentle smile, then he nodded at the supplies piled on a nearby tray. “I’m not going to plaster his arm yet. Want to give that shoulder a few days to heal before I expose it to the weight of a true cast. But you can help me do his ankle if you’d like, Jarrod. Clean breaks, both.”

Jarrod was glad to do so. It gave him something concrete to solve, something new to learn. Nick sat slumped, staring, eyes wide with wonder, and then fear, and then wonder again. Finally Nick asked, “Should he be awake yet?”

“I had hoped so, but he’s not.” The doctor frowned mildly, then caught Jarrod staring at him. “I won’t be sedating him again, no. It was the right thing then. It isn’t now. His blood pressure is still awfully low.”

Nick raised tortured eyes at that and Doctor Potter continued. “But that’s to be expected, all things considered. I’m less worried about the pain now, and more about his… staying power.”

He continued talking as he worked, seemingly as much to himself as to the nervous brothers. “I’ve seen a few men survive worse… I’ve seen many of them die from less. But he’s a fit one, this brother of yours.” Then he looked up, fixed Nick with a curious stare. “How’d he come to get… blown up? Haven’t treated anything like that since the war, I don’t think.”

Eyes never leaving Heath’s motionless form, Nick recounted the tale in a slow voice… including Heath’s near-fatal encounters with Schad and with Barrett after.

“And he made it until now?” The doctor whistled. “Then I’d say he’s got just enough gumption to maybe surprise the devil and live.” He straightened up from the finished cast, stretched his back. “In fact, I’m so darn confident of it, I’m going to take a five minute stroll and have a smoke.” He moved over, checked Nick’s head with a quick hand. “Why don’t you, young man, keep holding on to him, if that’s what it takes to keep you still and in that chair instead of gallivanting around the countryside with a bullet wound.”

As he pulled on his jacket, he addressed Jarrod. “And you can clean up the mess we made with that casting plaster. Wipe that calf down before the splatters dry. In fact, he could use a good all around sponging. I’m sure I missed a spot of filth here or there. Good with a scalpel; amazingly bad with a sponge.”

Jarrod smiled sadly, recognizing what the doctor was doing—helping Jarrod and Nick by keeping them busy, by giving them a way to help…. And the doctor recognized that he was caught in the act. He grinned sheepishly. “Medicine matters a great deal, but comfort and familiarity can too. Nothing beats my scalpel—one of the best in the state if I do say it—but a good dose of love sure can’t hurt a patient. Long as your hands are clean.”

And so Nick held onto Heath with gentle, murmuring hands while Jarrod bathed him as tenderly as one would a newborn. Indeed, they were pressing him all around with love.

*****

Dinner had been fetched, the brothers had been excused so that Nick could take a forced nap, and Heath had been thoroughly examined again. It was well past midnight when Doctor Potter allowed Jarrod, and (begrudgingly) Nick back in to stay by Heath’s side while he took a quick nap of his own. He swore he’d only need a half an hour and he’d be fit as a tyke, and Jarrod believed him. Now the brothers were taking watch at Heath’s side. Heath was still as silent as the tomb, but for an occasional twitch of his eyelids (a new development, Nick swore) or of the fingertips of his splinted hand—and the steady rise and fall, rise and fall of his muscled chest.

After a time Nick dropped his head into his hands. “Fifteen dollars a head,” he murmured.

“Pardon?” Jarrod asked distractedly. He’d thought Heath had just shuddered the tiniest bit — with cold, maybe pain — and so he was carefully tucking the blankets again. Cold, at least, Jarrod could fix.

“That’s what Heath’s life may have cost me. Cost us. Fifteen extra dollars a head.”

“Now, Nick…”

“No, Jarrod. Do you remember what I said before I left? You were talking about me… putting Barrett before Heath. Oh, that’s not what you were generally talking about, but that’s what you were literally talking about. And you were talking about Heath having to earn things we were born to.”

Jarrod wished he didn’t, but he did. “I remember.”

“And do you remember what I said to that?”

“You said….” Jarrod winced, sorry that he had a lawyer’s memory for testimony. “You said that the herd comes first.

“That is indeed what I said. You see this boy, Jarrod? I trampled him right into the dirt with those words, with those damned stinking cows. I lined him up in front of a stampede. For fifteen extra dollars a head.”

Jarrod wanted to argue with Nick, but he had no words. He was too weary and Nick was too right. They might have hovered in that moment of guilt and agony forever if Heath hadn’t twitched his lips and, with eyes still closed, uttered a one word question: “Herd?”

No longer mindful of weariness or injury, Nick dropped to his knees by the bed, grinning tearfully and clutching Heath’s hand. “I told you to shut up about that herd, Boy. Your job just now is living. Breathing and living, remember?”

“Doin’… that,” Heath rasped, licking his pale lips. Jarrod fumbled for a glass of water, but Heath turned his head away until he could finish his thought. “So… which a’ you two’s… gonna take care a’ that herd? Or do I haveta… get up and do it… m’self?”

*****

Heath was awake! When the doctor was summoned by a raspy bellow from Nick, he entered the room muttering a caution against giving Heath too much water too soon. But it was too late; Jarrod had already let Heath down nearly a third of a glass. And indeed, the blessed water didn’t stay put.

Even Heath looked shocked as he suddenly gasped, but the doctor was able to gently turn his blond head to the side in time, catching the spew on the apron he’d been tugging on over his own head when he’d rushed forward. “That’s it, Boy,” he murmured, carefully pulling one of the pillows from behind Heath and pressing it gently to his bandaged abdomen. Heath sensed the comfort there and wrapped his good arm around the pillow as he dry heaved a few more horrid, hollow times. When he collapsed afterwards he’d gone another shade of grey — Nick didn’t think there were that many whites and grays in the spectrum.

The doctor turned his attention, not to Heath, who his busy, soothing hands were now helping to comfort, but to poor Jarrod who stood, aghast, the villainous glass trembling in his hand. “The sedative I gave him earlier… his current state. I knew he’d be parched, but that his stomach would be too fragile. Ice chips, I was going to recommend. Would you be kind enough to get some for me? I have a block at the ready in the kitchen.”

Jarrod nodded, hovered watching for a few seconds, and then hurried towards his goal. Nick, wide-eyed, studied his brother as the doctor settled Heath, who was now quivering violently and swallowing convulsively.

“It’ll pass in a bit, Son,” Doctor Potter soothed. “Slip back into sleep for a minute if you can; you can’t be too far from it. That’ll help.”

Heath struggled for a time, but finally seemed to take the doctor’s advice, if for no other reason than sheer exhaustion. The doctor pulled a second thick blanket over Heath, whose quivering began to steady, then taper. Finally, when the doctor was satisfied by the slowed pattern of his breathing that Heath was asleep again, he lifted the covers to study the bandage at Heath’s abdomen. Satisfied after a time that there was no new bleeding, he left his patient’s side and whisked off the soiled apron, whistling a low, mindless tune as he replaced it with a crisp new one.

Finally Nick asked, as if it were occurring to him anew, “He’s… awfully sick, ain’t he?”

The doctor turned his head, studying Heath again, whose jaw was clenched against his misery even in sleep. “We need to get liquids in him. Lots. That’s going to be a fight, as poorly as he’s feeling. Because until he’s quite a bit more stable I’m not going to be able to sedate him again to help with the pain. I took that risk once, for a crucial reason, but I can’t take it again. A bit of laudanum at the strongest maybe, but that’s it, and not while his belly is empty like it is.”

Jarrod entered the room with a bowl of chipped ice. The doctor addressed the next comment to both of the brothers. “I do have strong hopes that he’ll live—if I have anything to say about it, that is—but he’s not going to be enjoying a minute of it for a few weeks to come.” Then he fixed each of them, one at a time, with a serious gaze. “But just in case I’m wrong, if there’s anymore kin who care for this boy, you might want to send for them right away.”

“I already did that, Doctor,” Jarrod heard his voice say. And then he was beside Nick, one hand on Nick’s shoulder, the other laid gently so he could feel the slow rise and fall, rise and fall of Heath’s chest, the slow thrum of his sacred heart there.

*****

Jarrod had helped settle Nick back into bed, and was staring out the window as deep night began to shift slowly into hints of day. “I imagine Mother and Audra will be here on the morning’s train. When they can watch Heath and you, I need to go figure out how to finish the drive.”

“I can’t even think of that damned herd,” Nick said, his tone a mixture of sorrow and bitterness. “Feels like I’m being a traitor if I do.”

“Heath wouldn’t want you to feel that way.” Jarrod finally turned from the window, crossed his arms and leaned against the sill. “I don’t want you to feel that way. But I understand how you are… you feel things, Nick, deeply. It’s part of what I love you for. But Heath needs to see the thing finished. He gave everything for it… almost literally. So is it all right with you if I see it through?”

“Of course it’s all right,” Nick whispered, and then Pappy had moved to sit on the edge of the bed and was holding Nick in strong arms. So Nick held him back, desperately, releasing for a few blessed moments all the fear and anguish he’d been living for days now.

Finally Nick said, “When you have that all figured out, you need to spring me, just for a few hours. I need you to come somewhere with me.”

Jarrod pulled his head back and studied Nick, who almost looked his old, evil self again. Nick was swallowing a smile — but it was a smile just dipped in ire. “Don’t know what came over me, but I abandoned the man who abandoned our little brother — the man who abandoned him to die alone. Seems I left ole Barrett tied up out in the wild, all defenseless and alone, if I recall. Probably oughta go cut him free. Do a bit of ‘tending’ to him.”

Jarrod nodded seriously, but with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes. “Why, we’ll get right on that, Brother Nick. Just as soon as we can.”

Nick was contented in his brother’s comforting grip. It felt selfish, but it felt secure and fine. He said, “This is a pretty big bed, Pappy, and you need rest too. Why don’t you climb up?”

“You always hog all the blankets,” Jarrod chuckled, but he had already moved to empty his pockets onto the nightstand and remove his boots. He’d catch a quick nap — a Doctor Potter special — because it occurred to him that he was not just weary, he was bleary-eyed. He’d boarded a train last night and he hadn’t stopped since — and he hadn’t spent this long, long day doing regular tasks, either. Instead, he’d been wrung out as he’d watched one ill brother refuse the struggle to overcome his hard and heavy conscience, and the other struggle steadily but weakly to overcome the sharp, prodding fingers of death.

“Hey, I’m sick,” Nick retorted, pouting and clutching at the blankets, and Jarrod snorted at that. But they settled down together, knowing just how to place limbs, which ways to turn so as not to annoy the precious other. They were brothers. They’d had years of practice at bunking together. And this time Jarrod fairly insisted that Nick hog the covers. As he fell into sleep Nick smiled, really smiled, and it felt odd to his face after all that he’d endured in the last three hellish days.

*****

Based on the glare of the sun through the window, Jarrod had slept longer than he’d intended and, although he was glad Nick was still asleep (thanks, he was sure, to the laudanum Doctor Potter had forcibly administered a short while after they’d bunked down), he felt a momentary sense of panic. His logic calmed him; if something had happened to Heath, the doctor would have gotten them. But his heart still thudded almost painfully as he slipped quietly from the room then fairly ran down the stairs.

It only slowed when he was scrubbing his hands in the surgery, made bright by the morning’s light. Because the doctor smiled a greeting at him…. As did Heath, although Heath’s smile was lazy, crooking at just one corner of his mouth.

“Well, well, Brother Heath,” Jarrod couldn’t stop the silly grin that was on his face. “How long have you been awake?”

“Wouldn’t call it ‘wake, really,” Heath said with a voice that was a quiet rasp. “Just kinda visitin’. Sure can’t shake how tired I am.”

As Jarrod came closer, taking the seat that the doctor had stood to offer him, he saw that Heath’s features, admittedly hazy with sleepiness, were also painted with the dark colors of pain.

“Help me get some more ice chips in his belly,” the doctor said, handing Jarrod a spoon and a mug half filled with slush. “If he can keep it in maybe we can move to a tiny bit of broth later.”

The doctor rested a tender hand on his patient’s exposed shoulder, addressed Heath. “And if you’re good to my broth, son — make friends with it nice and proper — I’ll introduce you to a taste of its partner, laudanum. That will make your day much more pleasant indeed.”

“I see you have your work cut out for you, Heath,” Jarrod winked, spooning out a careful bit of ice and ladling it into Heath’s mouth. He watched as, eyes closed, Heath seemed to let it fairly dissolve there and trickle down his throat. “That’s a boy,” Jarrod heard himself croon. “You’ll be meeting that broth in no time.” And Pappy sure hoped so, because if anyone needed a break from pain just now, it was this strong, broken (and much beloved) boy in front of him.

*****

Jarrod was whistling when he went to meet the train. Heath had managed the entire cup of ice chips without incident and had then drifted back into a deep sleep. The doctor planned to try a bit more ice — to maybe let Nick feed it to him once he’d awakened — and then a bit later he was going to try the rich chicken broth he kept simmering on the stove. (Doctor Potter didn’t make it; he was an admittedly awful cook. But a local Chinese man, who couldn’t pay for his regular medicines to ease his arthritis, always provided it for him in trade. Doctor Potter had spent many a late night gladly supping on Lao’s chicken broth and toasted bread.)

When his mother and Audra climbed down, glancing around nervously until they spotted him, Jarrod greeted them both with long hugs — trying his best to keep his own greedy need for comfort out of them.

“How are they?” Victoria asked, studying her son and laying a gentle gloved hand on his cheek. Jarrod knew she already saw all kinds of truths about the situation in his eyes, so he was straightforward.

“Nick will be fine. He was shot, as I mentioned in my telegram, and then he pushed himself past that and into exhaustion looking for Heath. But we all owe him a monumental thanks for that. Heath would be dead now if he hadn’t.”

“Dead?” Audra whispered as if trying to wrap her mind around an impossibility, and Jarrod took both of her trembling hands in his.

“Yes, Honey. He’s been far more dead than alive the past two days, and still looks as if he hasn’t decided yet whether he’s staying here with the living.”

“Is it that bad?” Victoria asked, straightening herself as she gathered all her courage. It was easier to be courageous, ironically, now that she was here and able to see it all with her own eyes, than it had been on that interminable train trip, when she could only see it with her torturous imagination.

Jarrod paused, gave first his mother, and then Audra a tender, pained look. “Heath looks dreadful. He has several broken bones, some horrid strains, more bruises, cuts and stitches than I’ve been able to count, and he was violently impaled by several large pieces of wood that could have, alone, killed him. One very, very nearly did.” He winced at Audra’s sorrowful look, but he knew he was right to tell them now, here in the bright, clean street. “I want you to be ready for it. He’s been through hell, fought doggedly to survive every minute since he was injured. It’ll be difficult, but try not to let him see your fears for him in your eyes… just let him see your strength and your love.”

“I want to go to him now,” Victoria said with a determined nod.

“You’re right to,” Jarrod agreed soberly, and the two shared a gaze packed with understanding. “The doctor’s house is just up the road; on the left past the hotel. I’ll escort you that way, but I’ll stop to arrange rooms for us all and for Nick too. I imagine the doctor will be releasing him today… if he can make him leave, that is. I’ll rely on your persistence for that, Audra.” He winked at his sister, recognizing that he was using Doctor Potter’s own ploy — give something for tender-hearted Audra to be responsible for so that she had a sense that she was somehow helping in the midst of what felt like a helpless situation. “From what I can tell, he seems to only have the one sickbed, and, if all goes well, he’ll be needing to move Heath there shortly.”

He tucked each of their arms in one of his, pressed kisses to each of their fair heads. Jarrod felt buoyed by their presence and so he was able to manage a bit of levity. “And, after being tended to by nothing but three rascally men, if the beauty of Heath’s two new nurses counts for anything at all, he’ll be fairly bounding up those stairs all by himself. And then bounding back down them again in no time.” Jarrod’s wistful heart wished his happy lie was truth.

*****

Jarrod had just entered the lobby of the hotel when he fairly bumped into Jeb and Avery as they were headed out — but walking backwards so that they could take one last appreciative gander of the ornate lobby (practically shabby by Jarrod’s standards, but clearly sumptuous by their own). Jeb whirled and was immediately pumping Jarrod’s hand in a vigorous handshake, “Mr. Barkley, we was just gonna come lookin’ for you. Thank you for the stay here. Don’t think I ever slept in a bed so grand.”

Avery still had his head craned, staring up the stairs as if recalling the room. He said in a worshipful voice, “They had fresh fruit in a silver bowl right in there. Four kinds at least. Must’ve been left over from some fancy feller that had the room last, so we didn’t eat none of it, but imagine that!”

“That’s fine, boys.” Jarrod’s eyes twinkled.

Suddenly Avery remembered himself and sobered. He, too, turned and briskly shook Jarrod’s hand; his eyes, Jarrod could tell, were now wide with renewed guilt. “How are…”

“Nick and Heath are doing well. Nick is getting grouchier by the minute and Heath had actually managed some ice chips and a smile before I left him a little while ago.”

“That sure is somethin’ good to hear,” Jeb whistled.

Avery hung his head, but his voice was clear and strong. “I was there, Mr. Barkley, when I thought they’d killed your brother. And I didn’t stop those men before it. Nick ain’t fired me yet, but we was gonna head down to the doc’s and let him do it before Jeb rode back out to the herd.”

Jarrod lifted the young man’s chin. “If Nick hasn’t fired you yet, I don’t think he has plans for it.”

Avery locked a confused gaze with Jarrod. “Is he waiting on me to… quit then?”

“Neither Nick nor Heath like quitters. You ought to know that by now, Avery. In fact, now that you’re rested, I need both of you to head straight out and help McColl. Nick told me there’s only six men out there just now, counting Mac?”

“Yes, Sir,” Jeb stepped up, sensing Avery needed a moment to put away the guilty terrors that had been plaguing him. “But best we can do is keep them cows right there and hope they don’t get a notion to do something rascally about it. We sure can’t move ‘em, Boss, with only eight of us, and the way I see it… we’re at least three days behind on the drive already.”

“No, no,” Jarrod agreed thoughtfully, “we can’t move them. But according to what I’ve been told, they have adequate water and food where they are, so we’re not in any true hurry. Because, gentleman, I think I may have a solution to our problem.”

Jarrod pulled himself from his musings and focused on the two sturdy, eager men in front of him. “I need you to tell McColl that Nick and Heath are doing better, and tell him next that I’m looking into just how to deal with this drive — that I think I might be able to get it taken care of in no time. Tell Mac that he simply needs to do his best at keeping that herd happy in the meantime. If a few head stray, don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it later. Or not at all.

“The men come first, tell him that. And that I’ll be sending precise word as soon as I know how it’s all to be worked out.”

Jarrod watched them go, thankful for their simple goodness. And then he arranged the best rooms the hotel had for his family — replete with fresh fruit baskets.

When Jarrod let himself into the doctor’s office, he went straight to the kitchen and set about making a pot of strong coffee. In the meantime his mind was working, strategizing, digging for familiar names, fixing. He scrounged until he found a serviceable tray and a number of mismatched cups and saucers, a small china bowl with some lump sugar. He carefully delivered the whole odd service to the surgery, setting it on a bare spot on a cupboard there before moving to fastidiously scrub his now-chapping hands. He wondered silently if he’d still have fingers when all of this was done, or only soap-dissolved nubs.

He wasn’t surprised to find everyone there. The doctor and his mother were at Heath’s side, Doctor Potter carefully going over the blonde’s myriad injuries for Victoria’s loving, pained scrutiny. Nick was seated in a chair in the corner, his bandaged leg stretched out long, and Audra stood beside him, a devoted hand laid on his shoulder. They both followed all that the doctor was indicating and over-viewing with somber, wounded eyes. Nick looked a little better, in Jarrod’s estimation—his color was becoming ruddy and his bearing a little less stooped. Heath, on the other hand, didn’t look better… but he didn’t look any worse, and for that Jarrod decided to be thankful.

And suddenly Jarrod discovered that Heath’s gaze was on him—it was a gaze full of pain, clearly, but there was something else there, something anxious, maybe, that Jarrod couldn’t quite read. So Jarrod eased himself into the familiarity of social etiquette as he tried to figure it out. “Coffee for everyone but you, I’m afraid, Heath,” he said, cocking his head sideways to meet the tired blue eyes and offering his best comforting smile—all the while trying to dig deep into what Heath was perhaps trying so wearily to tell him.

“No. No coffee, Heath,” Victoria said gently, taking up the banter. Jarrod’s entrance seemed to be her impetus, shocking her from the frozen stillness that the doctor’s grim overview had caused. She delicately accepted the chair beside Heath that Doctor Potter offered, reaching for what Jarrod saw was a fresh cup of ice chips. “But we do have something for you, Darling,” she added, her tone low and soothing, with just a hint of practiced merriment.

Heath accepted a spoonful of ice chips, but it clattered against his teeth as if his jaw were clenched, and his eyes were still on Jarrod’s; there was something damnably quiet and hidden in there. Perhaps even… fear? Or was Heath begging Jarrod for something?

Then the doctor and Jarrod seemed to understand it simultaneously. Doctor Potter moved to Nick’s side, gave Audra an almost half-bow as he helped Nick to stand. “You, dear girl, can help this older brother of yours upstairs for a rest. And after, in a few hours, you can escort him right on out of my fine facility. We seem to be at overflow capacity.”

While the threesome headed upstairs to settle Nick down, Jarrod caught Victoria’s eyes, fixed her with a weighty gaze; something unspoken passed between them. Jarrod moved slowly forward and handed Victoria a cup of coffee. She stopped in her ministrations of ice and took Jarrod’s offered cup, then she proceeded to drink of it as if she were a lady with no hurries at all. And already Heath seemed to be less frantic.

Jarrod quietly admired how carefully Victoria sipped from her mismatched service for a moment, that the cup never rattled once in the saucer… despite the fact that she was steadily drifting careful eyes over the fullness of Heath’s pale and injured form. Next, Mother and Eldest Son orchestrated their movements in an unplanned but perfect dance. She stood with an almost melodic swish of her skirts, then backed quietly into the corner to take over the chair that Nick had abandoned, thus allowing Jarrod to settle softly at Heath’s side.

Jarrod sipped on coffee himself for a slow, practiced time as Heath shivered once, settled himself, and then blinked a bit, his eyes swollen with a hint of tears—but tears of relief, it seemed to Jarrod. And then Heath expelled a large, painful breath. Afterwards, the blond relaxed a bit more into the mattress and then finally, slowly closed his eyes. Jarrod knew he wasn’t asleep, but only after he’d counted out a full three minutes did he try to resume with the spoon and the chipped ice.

Heath, eyes closed, took the ice in tiny offerings and listened as Jarrod talked to ease Heath further. Because what Jarrod and Doctor Potter had discovered from the desperate blue gaze was that Heath was, not frightened, nor in any more pain than had already been diagnosed and predicted. Heath was plainly overwhelmed.

Whereas Doctor Potter might have found the reaction odd, or attributed it to the peculiarities of injury, Jarrod knew that it was because Heath was still struggling to simply know this family. That all of them crammed into a small sickroom in a strange town must have been enough to make him desperately want to flee… which would have made him horribly aware of how far away his body was from the ability to flee.

So, as he slowly ladled bits of ice for Heath, Jarrod started a low murmur about the meeting he’d just had with Jeb and Avery, about how he’d sent them out to the herd, about how he thought he’d be able to find as many as ten or twelve more reliable men in a town this size, without too much effort, who could go out and help guard the beef immediately. Through the tale, Heath gagged only once on a spoonful, but Jarrod crooned him down and through it.

In no time, Heath had safely ingested most of the cup of slush, had been told of all of Jarrod’s low murmured schemes to save the drive—including the most important part of it, the part that Jarrod was still awaiting wires for. Heath had further been told that he was loved deeply, and had finally drifted off into a sleep so heavy it was as if it were narcotic.

That was when Doctor Potter, who had come back down from upstairs, and who had observed this whole interplay between the family members and Heath’s reactions to them, stepped forward, speaking in a low voice to Jarrod and Victoria. “I assume he was simply overwhelmed by the number of people in his sickroom. Is there anything else you can tell me that will help me to organize the time you all hope to spend with him? I didn’t suspect animosity, no, but that boy was just not comfortable with every one of you… at least not all together at once. And my job is to make sure he is comfortable.”

“Overwhelmed,” Victoria whispered through the faintest swell of tears. “We were only thinking of ourselves, how good it would be to see him alive, to tend him. We weren’t thinking that he could be… overwhelmed by our affection.”

She raised her proud head and stared at the doctor without flinching. “You see, Doctor Potter, Heath has only been with our family — as their brother, as my son — for going on three weeks now.”

The doctor blinked at that for a few moments, but surprisingly he didn’t balk. Instead he said, “Well then, these are the rules of my surgery. Until the boy is feeling better and can communicate otherwise, only one of you can be directly with him at a time, and no more than two to his room. He needs love… but he also desperately needs familiarity, and I think this is the best way to manage both.”

“Can you explain?” Victoria asked.

“You tell me that he’s only been with you for a matter of weeks, and that’s a truly difficult thing for me to understand because I sense real love among you all. But, by the same token, I now understand what else it is that I’ve come to sense about this patient of mine. Familiarity, for this boy, might be… aloneness. He may only know how to suffer his hardships alone.”

Victoria folded in on herself and cried at that and Jarrod wrapped a strong arm around her. Doing so helped shore himself up as well.

At the next feeding — the blessed broth — Jarrod stayed quiet in the background, reading telegrams he’d received based on all of the inquiries he’d made. The doctor had left to help settle Nick and Audra into the hotel, Audra designated as Nick’s nurse and warden both, since Nick was not going to be allowed to come see Heath until summoned.

Victoria was in charge of Heath, working slowly with the bowl of warmed broth. She bade him sip it carefully, murmuring as Jarrod had about things important to the blond. But since she didn’t have the wherewithal to tell him about the drive and its progress, she assured him over and over again that Nick was going to be fine, and that Heath himself would be fine too, given time. She even murmured nonsense about the ranch and horses the boys had left behind; anything to keep him feeling both loved, but washed over by the kinds of thoughts that might pursue him in his own quiet times.

Meanwhile, Jarrod was deep in his own thoughts, a slow, victorious smile creeping over his face. He picked up a sheet with detailed sums on it, nodded. Only then did he mentally snap back to the room, notice Victoria standing above him and that the doctor was back, actively checking Heath’s heart rate, his respiration, his blood pressure — poking and prodding at stitches, bruises and bandages in ways that even made stalwart Heath wince.

“I think this boy is ready for some laudanum,” Doctor Potter finally announced with a smile. “And since he’s done nothing but watch you do all that thinking and ciphering, Jarrod, well I figure you can administer it and then send him down into sleep while you catch him up on all you’ve found out. It’s about your damnable cattle I presume?”

Jarrod settled on the seat beside Heath. “I think I have some news that’ll make you happy,” he said as he readied the medicine he needed.

“Hope… so. Feelin’ right awful,” Heath shuddered, and Jarrod was shocked by the heaviness of the admission.

“I know you are, Heath, I’m sorry for that. Would my good news even… help?” Suddenly Jarrod felt foolish.

“’M sorry,” Heath breathed, his eyes closed. “Course it’d help. Just feelin’… stove in… far away.”

“You’re going to be just fine, Brother Heath. We’re here to help you, all of us. We’ll be here, one or the other of us, each time you wake up. And if you don’t want any of us, well… well, actually, that’s too bad because you’ll still be stuck with good Doctor Potter.” Heath chuckled at that, painfully.

And then Jarrod couldn’t resist it; he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Heath’s forehead, judging an almost clammy coolness there, but not fever. “You’ve been through an appalling thing, Heath. But I think I can make one part of it right now. If you’ll take this laudanum it’ll make your body feel a whole lot better, and if you listen to me for a while as you fall asleep, why, I think your spirits will feel better too.”

Heath nodded, but his face was mournful. “Trust me, please,” Jarrod whispered.

“Always,” Heath rasped after a time. “’N thank you… Pappy,” he breathed, reaching up blindly with his good hand until he could clutch it at the edge of Jarrod’s vest. He held on firm through the laudanum, through the telling, through the gradual relaxation and slip into sleep. But when Jarrod left to set in motion the plan he’d hatched — the plan he’d just shared with Heath and had gotten a sleepy blessing on — he didn’t simply let go of Heath’s sacred, clutching hand. He entrusted it to Victoria’s two small ones, the determined woman eager to hold and comfort the marred soul that was her newest son with all the bright, strong love she, too, could offer.

*****

Audra watched, frustrated, as Nick limp-paced his way around the very purple hotel suite. “Your lunch is hours cold,” she sighed as he hobbled past a lavender settee. She craned her neck and watched him, wincing more at the mostly purple painting he moved past (it was dripping with violets, plums, wine, amethyst) than Nick’s pained limp. “And you’re not doing your leg any good,” she tried. But Nick wasn’t listening; his far-off eyes were full of Heath.

She’d almost given up when he whirled on her and started in the middle of a debate he’d obviously been holding with himself. “…about ridiculous. It’s been hours, hasn’t it? That boy needs me! And I’m not afraid of Mother, you know,” he declared, eyes narrowed. “So you’re gonna march right in there and tell her it’s our turn to sit with Heath.”

“Me?” Audra’s mouth was agape.

Nick waved a dismissive hand, hobbled to the door and struggled with his damnable crutch. “You’re the baby girl. You always get your way.”

“I do not.”

“Well, she never yells at ya. Don’t think you ever got a spanking more than… well, she hardly ever yells at ya. Just tell her it’s our turn. Please.” He gave Audra a gaze so pitiable that she sighed and took his free arm.

“All right, but if I have to cross Mother, you….” She thought for a moment, then brightened. “I’m in a new city so you owe me a shopping trip later.” She got frustrated with his pitiful crutch maneuvering so she fairly tossed it back into the room and lifted his heavy arm to rest it across her shoulders.

“Scores of dresses,” he vowed with a wince and a nod. “And those stupid little hats to match.”

“And gloves,” her eyes danced gleefully, but she halted, keeping him from going forward until he threw up a hand in agreement.

“Fine, gloves,” he muttered. “Purple like that room. Whatever gloves you want.”

“Sucker,” she suddenly giggled as she moved to escort him towards the lobby. “I was gonna do it anyway because I want to see Heath too.”

Then she sobered, peering up at him from under the arm she was helping to haul him by. “Nick, he is going to be all right, isn’t he?

“He has to be, Audra,” Nick nodded, “so he will. That’s all there is to it.” But the kiss he pressed to her forehead, she could tell, was just tainted with a quiet desperation.

The changing of the guard went fairly well. Without even checking to see who’d entered, Victoria’s initial mindless inclination was to wave the intruders away, but finally she looked up and caught a glimpse of them — it was her children, Nick forlorn, and Audra pensive. With a glance, Victoria realized that she’d almost forgotten about Nick in the horrid crisis that was Heath. She stood, patting the chair she’d been perched on for Audra to have, and hurried to her second born.

She checked his head with a tender hand. “You look flushed.”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Nick smiled gently down at her, communicating with his eyes, his face, his various smiles, that he was all sorts of “fines”: “I feel all right, don’t worry”; “I’ve survived worse”; and “I’m fine because Heath is still alive.”

She cocked her head and read the fearful relief in his eyes at that last one, the most important one for Nick. “Yes, she said, “he’s fighting marvelously. The laudanum has helped a great deal, I can tell.”

But the mention of laudanum reminded Nick of the terrifying journey that he’d experienced when transporting his dying brother to town. “It was awful on the road,” he whispered, but that was all Nick could share for now. Maybe someday, but not now. At his obvious anguish, Victoria enfolded him in a tight hug, held him for as long as he would allow.

“The doctor is napping now, but you’ll let him look at you when he awakes?” she finally asked, pulling herself back to arm’s length and studying him.

“Of course.”

Victoria knew that Audra was ever-patient… but that Nick had a deep need just now, so she moved to her daughter, whispered in her ear so as not to wake Heath, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully for once. “Let Nick take first watch. You can go order supper for yourselves and the doctor. I noticed a café a few doors up. I’ll escort you there and then head on to the hotel to freshen up.”

Nick settled in for a long wait, a glad wait, but Heath awoke a short time after the two women had left.

“Hey there,” Nick flashed him a smile full of dimples.

Heath nodded, smiling crookedly back and slowly shifting himself to try for a more comfortable position. There wasn’t one so he sighed and went still, flicking his eyes past Nick to study the ceiling for a time.

“What would you say to some ice? Or some broth?” Nick asked.

Heath shook his head and Nick settled back in his chair, simply content to watch his brother breathe. He was surprised when Heath said, in a light and whispery voice that belied the heaviness of the words, “Been laying here… thinking… that I can’t lay here thinking no more. Can’t shake how bad I feel. But if I lay here like this much longer…” he turned serious, sorrowful eyes on Nick, “well, I’m just plain afraid to lay here like this much longer.” He shifted his head to watch Nick’s reaction; Nick seemed to understand so he pressed forward. “Don’t imagine you’ll help me escape outright?”

“Nope,” Nick said gently.

“Well, do ya think you could just help me… sit up for a time then?”

Nick studied the situation carefully and then settled himself on the edge of the bed. He worked slowly and gently to slide his hands under Heath’s torso and shoulder blades, to lift with tender strength. And he was glad when he felt Heath struggling to help with the lifting.

“Thatta boy,” he murmured, and then Heath was upright and boneless against him, pressing his face into Nick’s shoulder. They rested like that for a time, Heath fairly panting against the strain of his injuries, against the swell of nausea. Nick wondered if they’d have to lay him back down but Heath seemed to gradually fight past all of his body’s betrayals.

After all the darkness and hardness seemed to pass, Nick quickly and decisively turned him so that his legs were over the side of the bed. He rested a supporting arm low behind Heath’s waist and helped, with the other, to carefully lift up on Heath’s splinted arm so that it didn’t pull against the horrible bruising at the shoulder there. They sat, side by side like that for a long while, Heath fairly sagging into his older brother as the blessed, hurtful moments passed.

After a time he was leaning more into Nick than he was holding himself upright, and Nick could tell that he was fraught with harsh flinches of misery in numerous grinding places. Still, somehow Heath seemed happy… or more whole. But Nick was trying to decide how to ease his younger brother back down to the mattress… when they were caught in the act outright by Doctor Potter.

The man was yawning, stretching, as he entered the surgery. And when he’d blinked open his eyes, shaking off the heavy sleep he’d allowed himself, he reared his head back just a bit and then straightened. He put on his best doctor stance: stiff, grim-faced, hands clasped importantly behind his back, and he studied the boys. Nick, sitting tall and providing a wall of support for Heath, looked like he’d just stolen a lady’s petticoats. Heath grinned at the doctor, despite his own agonies, at the simple joy of not being dead. The doctor swallowed a grin back at that and pondered his punishments for a time.

“You, young man,” he finally declared to the blond (Heath was fading fast, so he’d need to get his decision in before the willful boy faded back into oblivion), “you’re grounded. You don’t even get to stay in my surgery anymore. I’m gonna graduate you to the recovery bed upstairs and you’d best make good of it. No dying in my recovery bed. That there bed’s for fools who feel like rushing and sitting up before their doctor says they can.

“And for you,” he said to Nick, as if he were really pondering the weightiness of it all. “You’re so all-fired ready to spring patients, I guess you might as well go on and spring yourself. I won’t even look at that hurt leg again if you beg me, so go on, get. Get on with business as usual and don’t come crawling back to me.”

But he added hastily and quietly, “Unless you’re really hurt, of course.”

The doctor had moved forward to help with Heath, still spouting grumbling ire against the Barkley boys — who didn’t have the sense God gave a particularly stupid mule — when Jarrod returned. Doctor Potter kept his word firm, and he, Nick, and Jarrod moved Heath upstairs to the recovery room. The blond fought like he hadn’t remembered fighting for a time to keep himself conscious and to NOT throw up on his fellows as they all carried him upstairs.

As soon as he was tucked into the big, soft bed there, the doctor leaned over him carefully and gently. “You did good today, son. Wasn’t quite ready for you to move yet, but you’re nothing if not an ornery one. I don’t think I’ll need to dose you to sleep, but get your belly ready for broth because you’ll be wanting laudanum for sure when you wake up. You been moving some awfully cranky parts and they’ll be screaming. I’m sure somebody from your family will be hovering over you, but if not just flail on over and knock a book or something off the nightstand if I’m not nearby, and I’ll come up. You might actually need to be using the chamber pot here soon as well, now that you’re getting enough liquid in you to even raise a spit.”

The brothers hovered outside the room, listening as Potter slowly got Heath settled, and then Jarrod helped Nick to quickly hobble downstairs when they heard him finally head for the door.

“You,” Potter pointed a steely finger at Nick when he met them downstairs, “Leave us alone while your brother and I talk.”

“What happened back there?” Jarrod asked, wide-eyed after Nick, chagrined, let himself out.

“Nothing. Two ornery men who needed to be treated accordingly.”

“Look, Doctor Potter,” Jarrod went into defensive mode, but the doctor silenced him with a wink and a wave of his hand.

“Heath needed to sit up, clearly. Lord knows Nick wouldn’t have initiated such a dangerous move without having been asked to by Heath. I imagine he feels too close to death down here, well… stretched out in a deathbed. So I ‘punished’ him for it. If he’s so all powerful strong he can beat death with all that fancy sittin’ up, then hell, he may as well graduate to the next bed. This way, you see, the fight’s in his hands. Time will tell me if I’m right… but I think this particular boy needs that to help push him.”

“You’ll be careful with him?”

The doctor’s words were harsh but his tone was gentle. “Lord, you’re a fool if you don’t think I’ll be settled right down in the hallway past his door, measuring each little cough and hiccup.”

Jarrod was relaxed now, a smile in his eyes. “And Nick?”

“Nick, well, if he can help his brother up, he can help himself. Nick is consumed with too many things and the last thing he needs to worry about is his own illness. We’ll all keep an eye on him, but I think I ‘scolded him’ into having to take up the full mantle of a man again. He’s injured, he wears the lingering effects of it, and he’s been through the mill. But he’s still the fellow that can run a ranch far larger than any I’ve ever visited. So I merely gave him a nudge to help him forget the rest and just be that man again.”

Once outside, Jarrod found Nick. They both stood for a time, watching the city settle into its night persona, lanterns slowly being lit along the walk, day laborers disappearing and the pretty night people emerging. Jarrod passed Nick a cigar and they smoked for a time.

“You did good,” Jarrod said, blowing a perfect, lazy ring.

“I know. That boy needs to sit up and live, not lay there and die.” But Nick still looked a tad guilty.

“The doctor said as much,” Jarrod nodded.

“He did?” Nick cocked an eyebrow at Jarrod and then nodded, firmly. “Of course he did.” He smoked casually for a few more minutes, leaning against a post. Then his hazel eyes brightened. He turned to Jarrod with a villain of a smile. “It’s going on nighttime.”

“That it is, Brother Nick.”

“Feel like taking a ride with me?”

“Out into the woods to look for wayward strangers, Brother Nick?” Jarrod asked. Nick nodded and the two shared excited grins just dripping with danger.

*****

The first night (while Heath was being frantically treated in the back of a wagon by a doctor who was trying with every desperate thing he knew to save his life, while Nick was waking up to the tragic surety that his brother was dead) Barrett had tried to find a saving shroud of rage… or even simple anger. But he found he could only live in a vast world of lively terror. Every sound — every creak and moan and snap — was worse than the thousand predators he also imagined… it was Nick Barkley coming back to press that gun to his face and to calmly, gladly pull the trigger. And the few times he unknowingly slipped into sleep, Nick loomed up and did so. Nick murdered him over and over. Barrett would jolt awake to a sound so loud—the echo of that nightmare gunshot—that he swore he would hear that sound beyond the grave.

When glorious day finally reached down through the green cover of the trees (just as Jarrod, horrified of what he might find, was making his way to the doctor’s office, as Nick and Heath were both sleeping the sleep of the dead), Barrett found that the terror had finally receded. It never left — he still flinched involuntarily at each loud noise — but instead it was replaced with something somehow worse. Barrett didn’t think a man could be so miserable and live. His arms were arced wide behind him, unnaturally so, around the rough bark of a fat tree, and his wrists were tied so tightly back there that he couldn’t find his hands anymore.

Logic would say that his arms would hurt, and that was true; the muscles quivered and ached and every time he shifted, the ropes bit deeper and the bark began to cut through his clothing and into his flesh. But his legs also stung him over and over from holding still and he thought his butt would break, if that was possible. And, although he’d managed to work Jeb’s bloody kerchief gag from his mouth, just knowing that he was without water brought up a thirst so keen that he wanted to cry from it (although he didn’t think he should waste the wetness of the tears).

By afternoon (when Jarrod had to leave the doctor’s house, where he’d been alternating visits between Nick upstairs and Heath on what seemed to be his deathbed so that he might send a telegram to Victoria urging her to come), Barrett’s bladder had become the worst enemy, causing a cramping in his abdomen that made him grind his teeth until they squeaked. The odd pain of it made him squirm, which made a bit of bark finally shred the shirtsleeve it had been rubbing against and begin to work on skin.

Barrett was almost glad when the sound of the only wagon he’d heard since he’d been left out here — a wagon he was certain heralded the deadly return of Nick — had caused him to release. He didn’t know he’d wet himself again until the wagon had long passed and Barrett had gasped to let out the horrid, head-pounding breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding. When he felt the hot wetness, Barrett swore — he actually screamed cuss words out loud to the sky — that next time he’d just soil himself outright since he couldn’t get much filthier. But he also knew that human nature is such that it would prove almost impossible to do so; that he’d be just as miserable next time, holding it and holding it without any hope of relief.

Which brought up a new panic and the fear began to creep back in amongst the physical agonies — what if, instead of coming for him, Nick Barkley actually… never did?

Then the hunger settled in, making him think he’d literally cave in from it. But somehow worse, by nightfall (nightfall, when Nick finally discovered that his beloved brother was still alive…but hours from when Heath would fade into wakefulness long enough to speak his first words, an inquiry about the herd) Barrett was so thirsty — so cracked and parched and thick from it –that he doubted he’d ever have to go again. And with nightfall came the return of terrors, richer now, more refined, and far more real. Barrett knew that, one way or another — by Nick’s hand or by the lack of it — he was going to die out here in these woods, within walking distance of a town. He wept a bit over that knowledge, and spent a long, black night trying to remember all of the good things that had made up his life, grabbing onto anything he could to keep him sane.

Finally Barrett’s head lolled towards his chest and he slept. He slept through morning, and Audra’ and Victoria’s arrival into town; he slept through Heath’s first successful ice chips; he was sleeping and nodding with nightmares that he couldn’t pull himself from when Heath was rewarded with his first dose of laudanum; he was sleeping and snoring and muttering wordless miseries when Nick helped Heath to sit up.

And when he finally awoke it was with a jolt. It was dark again and, as his eyes adjusted to the deep black of it, he knew there was someone there with him. A man. Sitting casual and cross-legged a few feet off. Barrett groaned with a fear so thick that he could taste it; it was tinny and salty in his mouth. This was the devil. This was death. This was Nick Barkley. It didn’t matter who it was, because his deadened body came alive in every nerve ending at of the truth of it: worse than being alone in this black cavern of the woods was being there with someone else.

The voice that spoke shocked him and his eyes snapped at the sudden recognition. “How are you, Barrett?” the voice asked, silky and deep, and Barrett knew it was the oldest brother, Jarrod. He could see him now; see him grinning in the dark. Barrett’s hollow stomach tightened because he didn’t know whether to be relieved by that or to say his final prayers.

Jarrod didn’t say anything else, merely cocked his head and watched, and Barrett realized the man wanted an actual answer. “A mite thirsty,” he heard himself croak.

“You smell a bit too,” Jarrod said thoughtfully. “Did a… cat of some kind spray you? These woods must be full of them.”

Barrett was too all-over ashamed, too completely defeated. He couldn’t even drop his eyes; it was just one more insult on a platter full of them. Jarrod smiled, glad he’d added to the heap though. But the lawyer seemed to be in no hurry and Barrett found that, now that an end (of any sort) was near, he couldn’t bear his miseries any longer. “Please, Mr. Barkley, what’re you gonna do with me?”

“What do you think I should do with you, Barrett?”

Barrett opened his mouth, formed a thousand responses, and then let it shut again.

“What crime did you commit?” Jarrod finally asked.

Barrett’s eyes widened with the seriousness of this game. This was no game. “I, uh, I attacked Heath… er… your brother. I attacked him in the back of the wagon, there, and so Nick dumped me out here.”

“Wrong!” It was a new voice, coupled with the sound of spurs, and Barrett found himself bodily jerking at the sharp sound of it. Nick came around a tree and stood behind Jarrod, who was suddenly standing as well. In the dark, Barrett couldn’t tell which of the brothers seemed bigger, stronger. He couldn’t even swallow from the fear of it; he had no voice left.

And it wasn’t Nick but Jarrod who closed on him, who hovered so that he was mere inches from his face, so that Barrett could see his sparking blue eyes — the color of a pretty death shroud — in the wan moonlight. “You don’t even know it, do you? You don’t even know what you did? We do, though. We know it, not just with our minds, but with our guts and our skin. You knelt beside our little brother, you knelt beside Heath, and you pressed your fingers until you found a pulse there — his precious heartbeat, working. And you talked that whole group of men into leaving him to die there. Alone.”

Jarrod poked him just once, in the chest, and it felt as if he’d stabbed Barrett, and then he continued, his voice so low and dark the cowhand almost had to work to hear. “You would have had him die there alone, hurt and scared and alone, rather than to face who you are. Well, this is who you are, Barrett. A little man who pisses himself in the dark.” And Jarrod turned and walked away.

Barrett felt tears sliding down his face as Nick neared him next. But Nick didn’t say anything more, he merely flipped open a knife, stepped behind the tree and cut the ropes. Barrett slid to a heap on the ground and lay there for a long time, crying and hissing and wanting to cuss over the agony of his loosened limbs, but having no more words. But when Nick growled, “Get up, now,” Barrett somehow did.

And when Nick secured his hands again, this time in front of him, Barrett didn’t mind because he was alive. When Nick secured a line there and then hooked it over his pommel, Barrett didn’t mind because he was alive. When Nick and Jarrod mounted up and headed their horses slowly towards town, dragging the limping cowhand along with them, Barrett didn’t mind.

If they took him to town that meant they’d take him to the sanctuary of the sheriff. And even if he spent all of the rest of his days in prison, Barrett didn’t mind. They were good men, the Barkleys. They’d taught Barrett that there were lots of things darker and more terrifying than he’d ever even thought to fear in his time here on this earth.

And two of them were riding in front of him and pulling his stumbling form along.

*****

Nick and Jarrod delivered Barrett to the sheriff in town, who was first skeptical and then amazed at their tale. The Barkley name, Jarrod’s credentials, the fact that the sheriff had a victim at the doctor’s in town that he could (and would, he promised) check up on, and Jarrod’s statement that he’d have a witness (the cowhand, Avery Mitchell), come in and corroborate the accusations in the next few days convinced the man to toss Barrett in a cell with no problem. The sheriff considered himself an astute fellow; he saw the tight lines at the mouths, the dark gazes of both of the Barkleys as they turned in their prisoner (gazes that this Barrett fellow made a clear point to avoid, keeping his own eyes to the ground). It was plain that if the sheriff didn’t take the shaky, soiled man in now—deal with him promptly and lawfully—the Barkleys could find plenty of other ways to deal with him themselves… ways that they would prefer.

Because it was also abundantly clear that they’d stretched themselves to the thinnest of their reserves, moral and otherwise, to bring the man in without violence. And as the sheriff watched, the brothers’ moods shifted collectively from quiet, deadly ire, to relief that a task was completed, to a renewed and sudden wash of worry. The taller one was already on his way to the door, sporting a limp the sheriff just noted, and so the lawyer said their good-byes. “Lock him up tight, Sheriff Beam. We’re going to check on our little brother and if anything has happened to him while we were gone… well, we may just have to come and recant our statements so that we can take good ole Barrett home with us after all.” The sheriff scratched his head, wondering if he’d be able to stop that if it happened—wondering if he’d even try after the tale he’d heard—and then both Barkleys were gone and he was alone with his odiferous, cowering prisoner.

Jarrod sent Nick ahead while he went to the telegraph office, and Nick found himself hurrying up the streets, empty and bright in the crisp early morning air. Something about this morning felt good in his lungs and in his eyes and that scared him so much — that this odd feeling of goodness and relief about the day could be shattered in an instant — that he found himself fairly running towards the doctor’s office the closer he got to it. The downstairs was empty and so he rushed up the narrow staircase with its threadbare runner as quietly as he could, and headed for the bedroom there.

Inside he found Heath, stretched out long and tucked in tightly, his casted foot propped up on pillows, and his good arm crooked behind his head. He seemed to be watching the day come alive through the blue-curtained window. “Mornin’ Nick,” Heath said in a voice that was part rasp, part whisper.

“Mornin’ yourself,” Nick smiled, already at Heath’s side and testing him with a gentle hand for fever, reading him with greedy eyes for any signs of new injury… or of old injury causing new torment. “Where’s the doc?”

“He went to breakfast with Mother and Audra and then planned to escort them to the hotel.”

“He left you alone?”

Heath chuckled softly. “Actually, I owe him a dollar.” He indicated with his eyes the doctor’s pocket watch which lay open on the bedside table. “I said you’d be awhile; he swore you two — I think he called ya ‘hovering biddies’ –had been gone too long already and wouldn’t be but maybe fifteen minutes more.”

“How close was he?” Nick frowned but his eyes were twinkling.

“Ya still had nine minutes, biddy.” Too much talking was wearing Heath out, Nick could tell, when the blond merely indicated a note on the same nightstand with another nod.

“For me? A love letter I suppose.” Nick sighed melodramatically. “They follow me everywhere.” He settled into the chair to prop his aching leg on the bed as he perused the doctor’s scrabbly scrawl. “Says we’re supposed to get some more broth in you, let you stretch, then dose you up proper and send you back to bed.” He looked up from the note with a serious frown. “I was wondering, Heath, do you mind the laudanum?”

Heath gave him a look that said Nick was crazy, glanced down along the length of his fairly shattered form. “I’d smoke opium right now, if you had it.” They both laughed at that, but Heath groaned at the laughter and Nick knew he needed to rush the soup.

“Be right back,” he said, patting Heath’s chest gently beneath the warm covers and catching a last fond linger at his little brother.

When he returned with a tray laden with broth for Heath and coffee and a few scrounged biscuits for himself (his mother’s, he could tell), he noted that, although Heath had shifted positions, he was again studying the simple panorama offered by Doctor Potter’s window… or something vague and in the distance, past the actual sights there. Because this time Heath’s blue gaze was far-off and sorrowful. Before Nick could ask if he were all right, Heath whispered, “I’m so sorry, Nick.”

“For what?” Nick frowned, set the tray down on the floor and settled on the edge of the bed, gently grabbing Heath’s hand.

“For losin’ your men.” Heath closed his eyes. “For failin’ all that faith you had in me.”

“You listen to me, Boy.” Heath didn’t open his eyes and so Nick repeated himself and lightly squeezed the hand in his. “Listen.” When Heath opened his eyes and fixed them on Nick he continued. “Besides the fact that I treated you so badly at the start of all this, the only thing I’m sorry for at all is that you felt like you had to go after those fools in the first place.”

The conversation was tiring Heath out rapidly, but Nick knew it was important to have it, so he let Heath talk. “One of those times when I was… sleepin’ and awake too, I heard Jarrod talkin’. Ramble talk. But he said you felt the herd comes first. And he’s right. I’m gonna cost this family more money than I can even imagine—more than I’ll ever be worth. Already cost ‘em too much time.”

Nick’s voice was gentle, but packed with so much strength and truth that it made Heath’s eyes mist up. “That is what I said, and I’ve never been more wrong, little brother. But you wanna know how I made up for it?” He locked gazes with Heath, made sure his brother could see his heart. “When I fired those men? I’ve never done something more right, Heath. Ever.”

It was a whisper full of shock, doubt, awe: “Almost forty men. For me?”

“A hundred men for you,” Jarrod said as he entered the room.

“A thousand,” Nick whispered, and the matter was settled. They were silent for a time until Jarrod settled the tray on Nick’s lap, helping himself to the coffee and biscuits there while Nick fed the already-cooling broth to Heath.

“How’s he doing with that soup?”  Jarrod asked after a bit, winking at Heath as he drained the last of Nick’s coffee.

“’Bout sick of it,” Heath smiled wanly

“Well, did you know I make a mean piece of toast?” Jarrod grinned. He stood, stretched, and headed towards the kitchen, chuckling as Nick, finally finished with carefully doling out the soup, grumped a demand for a refill on coffee and biscuits.

Heath took to the dry toast as if it were manna from heaven, eyes closed in bliss. He let it settle for a time, only seriously flinching once, and then he said, “Now I believe it’s time for my morning constitutional.” Jarrod was confused for a second, but Nick shifted his position beside Heath on the bed, indicating a spot for Jarrod with a nod. “Come on, Pappy, help him sit up for a bit.”

It was an easier process with the two of them working at it and soon Heath was slumped between them, in great pain but happy to be up and almost out of the bed again. They were surprised when he mumbled, “What’d you have Barrett charged with?”

“Conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder to begin with. When I get a minute I’ll come up with a few dozen charges more. Been busy worrying about other things.” At that, Jarrod pressed a fond cheek to Heath’s head where it rested on his shoulder
.
But the blond knew that Jarrod meant more than just his ongoing concern for Heath. “So you were checking the wires again? And?”

“It’s going to work. At a loss, but it’s going to work.”

“What is?” He knew Jarrod had something going but he didn’t know what, so this was new to Nick.

“I contacted the army and they put me on to a fellow who had finished his drive early. He’s an independent cattle drover with a ready crew who contracts out to lots of smaller ranches that can’t afford to drive their own herds. Piles the cattle all together, makes the drive, keeps a take, gives those small ranchers a good share back.

“And, he’s just finished a big drive… early it seems.” He grinned widely at both brothers. “He’s on his way, should be here late today or tomorrow, and he and his team are gonna take that damned herd all the way to San Diego for us. There’s a charge, of course. For the most part, we won’t be seeing that fifteen extra dollars a head, but that was already above the profit we normally make… it was like found money, really. And we have to vote on it, but I imagine we’ll all agree that some of our own profits should go to Royce, Carr and the others to see that they still get their bonus, or at least some percentage of it. None of this was their fault.”

“Now just a minute! None of this was Heath’s either.” Nick was suddenly defending Heath against future perceived insults from men all the way in Stockton.

Jarrod grinned at that, but it was a grin full of love. “Nobody ever said it was. And with you around, nobody ever will. But we contracted with them to get the job done at a certain price. I’ve done the math, Brother Nick; when all is said and done the cattle will make it to market, we’ll still turn a profit, and our consciences will be sound. Because you’ve made it so that none of us have to ever work with the likes of those men again.”

He teased Nick then, perhaps to bolster Heath’s spirits as well. “In fact, I think I’d like to see Heath in charge of the hiring for awhile after this, Brother Nick.” They were both grinning at that when Nick noted that Heath was limp, almost dropping off between them.

“I’ll get the boy settled, Pappy, and you can measure out the laudanum.” And with their gentle hands and their loving hearts they got Heath tucked back into the soft, kind bed. He rested there, easing slowly into warmth and comfort as either the medicine or the palpable tenderness with which it was administered took effect—Heath couldn’t be sure just now which was most potent.

And, before drifting shut, Heath’s lazy eyes this time, instead of staring out the window, rested on the smiling, caring faces of first one older brother, then the other. For their parts, Nick and Jarrod were knowingly and gladly breaking Doctor Potter’s house rules. Because neither of them intended to budge from their little brother’s side. Not ever again, if they had anything to say about it. Not ever, ever again.

***The End***

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One thought on “Forty Rifles Less (by Loki)

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