Of Glory (by Loki)

 

Summary:   Based on the episode “Palms of Glory.”   Dedicated to Fuzzy.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  40,492


 

Prologue

Heath Thomson stood over the table, staring blankly at the objects he’d almost mindlessly selected as he’d helped the ladies clean and pack away the tiny house. After his aunts had gone, he’d arranged each piece on the table’s worn wooden top. It was the best of her life in a nutshell: two Bibles, a few pieces of kitchenware, a thimble, a hat, a mirror, a handbag, and some stray man’s smoking pipe. Heath blinked once, seemingly without emotion, and then he took a careful seat. He had all of his mama’s best things gathered before him, and now he simply had to decide on the one he would keep to remember her by. The thing he would take when he rode from this place, perhaps for forever.

Yesterday she’d died. Today she was buried. Tonight he would leave.

His eyes fell first on a fine china cup and matching saucer… he remembered her bringing it home, a gift from a dying client “for Leah’s quiet diligence.” “Bone china,” his mama had always called it, with a touch of reverence in her voice. As a boy, Heath didn’t know if it was wise to drink from bones–it seemed almost disrespectful–but his mama had clearly thought it was fine and so he’d gone with the tradition. Besides it was such a pretty bit of bone, painted with pansies, purple, blue, yellow! They would drink from it on special occasions: birthdays; holidays; she’d even let him sip tea from it the time he came home from the mine with pneumonia. By then he’d known it wasn’t really bone; it was very fine glass and it could break. He’d sipped from it for weeks then, always afraid he’d smash it with his shaking hands and his hacking cough, but his mama was teary-eyed and insistent.

Heath couldn’t take the china cup and saucer. It would shatter on the trail… but it did remind him of her. It was delicate, fine… even if it had come from charity. His mouth went to twist in distaste at that and then he sighed. Poverty was part of her too. It was the life she’d led.

He moved on, cocking his head to study a stray silver napkin-ring embossed with a floral pattern. He could recall in vague snippets finding it on occasion and toying with it as a child before putting it reverently back into the carton where she kept her other tiny, pointless keepsakes. Surely it had once belonged to a set? That thought made him sad, the aloneness of it, and he threw his head back and blew out a ragged breath, blinked wildly at the ceiling until the water cleared from his eyes. Then he was back on task.

Next was a narrow lined box that held a three piece cutlery set: knife, fork, spoon. These had also been used in his childhood on special occasions… the guest of honor got to eat with the “fine stuff.” What the hell would he do with that on the trail? Cut each bean with the shiny knife? Stir the grounds in his coffee with the bright spoon? He passed right over it, but with a crooked hint of a smile.

Beside the cutlery was a small lettered cardboard box that had once held an actual bar of store-bought soap. “Fragrant and refreshing,” it claimed, “For skin purification.” She’d kept the box in remembrance of its wanton luxury, he supposed. Heath sniffed at it, wondering if any of the magic of that soap was left behind. The box smelled dusty… maybe… MAYBE of lilac, but that might have been his imaginings. It probably was.

Yes, the magic was gone from the box; and if his mother had found the soap glorious and a treat, that was years ago now. So many years of her life, really, that he’d missed. By doing what? Living, sometimes dying himself. Suffering and laughing. Working. Jobs, nondescript, one after another, until the days fell like rain. Yes, until the days dropped past, misted by, and until somehow his mama went from young and dancing-alive to merely lying and staring and dead. (Her dead eyes, glassy, looking past him and into nothing… had that been just yesterday?)

He put the box down and picked up the next item, a handheld mirror with a silver back. He studied himself for a moment. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were red-rimmed, swollen, wet and vacant. He had the faintest bit of stubble coming up, even though he’d shaved before the funeral. His eyes tracked down to a small nick above his Adam’s apple. It had bled profusely this morning (was that just this morning?) and he’d cussed, afraid for one irrational moment that the bleeding would never stop and that he’d miss the funeral…. Until he’d remembered with a swell of raw, thumping sadness that he WAS the funeral, he and Hannah and Rachel. That he’d be somehow maneuvering her casket alone, burying it alone, but that Hannah and Rachel would take care of the praying and the singing and the words. Words seemed mostly stuck in his throat lately, so that had been fine with him.

He put the mirror back down. He didn’t want that. A thing his mama had looked into for years upon years… but a thing that had somehow failed to capture her. What a forgetful, soulless thing, a mirror. It pretended to always be you, and then when you were gone it would simply be the next person who peered at it. You mattered not at all to a mirror! He reached out and turned it over, so that its glass faced downward. He scraped a tired hand across his eyes, allowed himself to feel the burning there.

When he lowered the hand, he hovered it over the next item — a delicate handbag. He distinctly remembered the handbag. She’d seen one that she’d loved, once, when they were in town and a fancy lady had walked by. Heath remembered that she’d squeezed his small hand, and indicated the lady with the faintest tip of her chin. He remembered wondering about that, because his mama had taught him never to stare at people in the streets. “Oh, Heath,” she’d whispered, “just look at that fine bag!”

For a moment Heath had been confused…. He’d heard the older boys call his Uncle Matt’s wife a “bag” and this lady didn’t look like his aunt… but then he, too, noticed the handbag. It almost glowed in the sunlight, bright and silky and adorned with fine, crisp lace, a pearl clasp, a gold chain. It had taken Mama a long time of collecting scraps and bits, but she had finally created a mimicry of that bag. But instead of silk it was made of flannel, the “lace” was hand embroidered, the pearl was a really fine button, and the gold chain was simply shiny cord. Still, she had been proud of it, carrying it out on the best occasions, her head held high and pride in her dainty steps.

Heath wouldn’t take the handbag. He’d found it pretty as a boy, but it was sad in his eyes now… almost shabby. A testament to what never was, not to the life that still lived in spite of it all.

He moved on, palmed for a moment her silver thimble, its etchings long since worn smooth. For some reason, that object actually made him feel queasy. The hours she’d spent, bent over needlepoint, darning, sewing, each stitch ticking off another second of her life. He had a sudden desire to race to the door, dash it open, and throw the thimble in a high, hard arc, until it disappeared into the world beyond. Until it disappeared so that no one could ever again see its mute testimony to pointlessness. He sat and stared at the hated thing until the feeling passed.

When he got to the pipe, he merely quirked an eyebrow. Who had it belonged to? Some distant relative, long dead? Charlie Sawyer? Or had it belonged to… Him? It almost bothered Heath more to know that He might have been around her long enough to leave a keepsake than the thought that more often plagued… that He’d taken her once and then disappeared, leaving an accident of a boy behind.

What a mystery was his mother! His mother who rocked him, who sang and prayed, who adored him, who seemed all innocence and life and purity… and yet who gladly brought a bastard into this world! Staring at her things, her pitiful collection of things, he suddenly hated her as much as he loved her. Why couldn’t she just SAY what her life had been… why couldn’t she just ever sit him down and tell him all of it? Why did she hide sacred things in the corners of her heart… her dead heart that would never tell its secrets again?

Why had he never asked? Asked and asked and asked until she broke.

He put his head down on his crossed arms, wanting to weep, but too tired to any longer. Weeping was then… and probably would be again, but it wasn’t now.

After a few long moments he raised his head and his eyes went to the Bible.

The newspaper announcement… about Him. He reached into his shirt pocket and felt for it, the one object that belonged to Heath, really, more than it had to Leah. It was no keepsake… it was a hateful lifeline. It had been in the back of the Family Bible, a much fancier book (albeit older) than the one he and his mama had shared throughout his childhood. In the front, he recalled, were family names, dates, copied carefully over generations in one or another careful script. He recognized his mama’s script in there too. She had sometime recorded the death dates of a few folks that he’d never known. He traced his fingers over the most recent names. There was Uncle Matt and his wife. There was… his mama, the name Charlie Sawyer, the dates of that man’s birth and death.

But in this Bible was no record of Heath.

Perhaps it was a sin to record a bastard’s name in the front of the holy book… but alright to stick the newspaper’s account about the bastard’s father in the back? Heath felt a swell of rage, hot and bilious, and then he swallowed it, blinked around it. His mama was also a weak woman, a fragile woman. He could let her be that. Because she was dead now.

He pulled out the stub of a pencil he habitually carried in his pocket and he leaned forward. Steadying his hand as carefully as he could, he went to record the ending of Leah Thomson’s life. He had to frown for a minute to pull up yesterday’s date, to swim through the last couple of frantic weeks until he could moor himself in time. Then he had it; he carefully wrote it on the fine paper. He closed the book.

He laid his palm on, first, the Family Bible with its fine leather, then their shared Bible with its tattered, oft-turned pages. He stared at the hand as it spread across the leather. He had a nasty nick in his cuticle. He wondered when he’d gotten that. During the burial, maybe? He wondered that it didn’t hurt because it was red and weeping. And then he wondered at the feel of the Bible beneath his palm. With a sigh he decided to take neither. The fancy one–the one where his name was missing, the spot where it should have been lovingly and joyously recorded, as vacant as an empty hole in the ground–well, it was clearly not his to take. And he somehow just now didn’t want the other one.

Heath let his eyes rest again on each of the things, brushed a gentle hand across her Sunday hat and then, blinking back tears through a shuddering smile, he stood. He’d leave it all. Hannah could pack it all in her trunk or Rachel could put them all on a shelf. Hell, the wind could come through on some wild day and blow them all about the globe, hither and yon, like pretty scattered petals.

His mother was dead.

And he was alive. And now he’d have to figure out what to do with all of the rest of his living. He blew out the lamp and headed to the door; he wanted to take a last look backwards but he didn’t. He let the door latch behind him and stood on the porch for a time, holding his hat and feeling the wind on his face, on his tears, through his hair. And wondering how long it would take him to get to Stockton… and what he’d find when he finally made it there.

*****

He coughed as the wind suddenly picked up, billowing acrid smoke from his campfire straight into his face.

He hissed as bits of ash flew into his left eye, squinted it shut, tried to see only through the blurry, watering right one.

He cussed as the fire flared up with an almost audible and taunting roar, brightened by that same gust of wind… and as it quickly blackened the delicate Valley quail he’d snared earlier that day. The bird had been nigh on perfect, Heath forcing his hungry belly to wait for that wondrous crisp of brown he so loved on the skin.

Now his tiny dinner was burnt. So was his eye. And when he went to fumble, one-eyed, for the spit, he found that he had two burnt fingers as well.

“Smart, Heath. Why don’t you just pop the whole damn thing in your mouth and burn your tongue off next?” He sat down in the dirt for a time, sucking on his burnt fingers and glaring, one-eyed, at the quail, where he’d mistakenly dropped it in the ashes at the edge of the firepit. And then he chuckled darkly, said aloud for the irony of it, “You been on the trail so long you talkin’ to yourself now, too?”

With an amused sigh at his own lack of response, he stood and headed for his canteen, hooked its loop over his shoulder. Then, using two sharpened sticks, he removed the quail from the ashes, slid it over and let it cool on his blue enamel plate. He couldn’t decide, for a time, whether to rinse it off or dust it off… did he want soggy, slimy bird or crunchy, dry bird that tasted like ash? Finally he determined that the whole thing would taste of char anyway, so what harm could a bit of ash do? He took out his kerchief and, careful not to burn anymore fingers, wiped it all the way around as best he could. Afterwards, the kerchief was a mess, but the burnt quail was now only flat black, instead of the mottled sooty-crunchy-grey-on-top-of-black pattern it had boasted.

He leaned back on his haunches, cocked his head, and studied the meager offering. Then he played the game he so often played. If this were his perfect night, on that plate would be… he pondered this for a second, rifling through his options, decided with a grin… why, on that plate would be a whole stack of Lupe’s cheese enchiladas, swimming in fiery red sauce. And there would be a mound of yellow rice, fine fluffy rice, steam just rising off of it and tickling his nose with hints of the flavors to come.

He pressed the back of his hand to his left eye, which was still smarting and streaming, and played out the second part of the game. It this were his worst night, on that plate would be (and he didn’t have to ponder this one at all) a small spoon’s toss of corn mush, moving with slow, white maggots. He settled in, pinched a bit of burnt meat off the quail. He only grimaced over the first bite, then put the taste away and chewed all the rest with relish, waiting for the clamoring of his stomach to go away. And he gave a little grin when, after a time, it mostly did.

After, he took the tiny bones away from camp to discourage predators from sneaking in during the night. While out there in the dark amongst the trees, he rinsed the soiled kerchief with a bit of the water from his canteen. It was half empty, but he’d already decided not to go into town. (It was a debate he’d had earlier, cleanly settled when he counted his sparse change and decided a hotel room was a luxury he should NOT indulge in.) He was sure he could find a stream and fill the jangling canteen tomorrow. He had just enough water left for chicory coffee in the morning, so he was fine.

He wrapped the wet kerchief around his still-stinging fingers, blew a sigh of relief at the cool, and then headed back to his meager camp: the pesky fire, his bedroll, his saddle and gear, and his tethered pony, who had been nibbling noisily at the sweet grass when he’d walked off, as if to taunt him about his own less-than sweet meal.

But when he got in sight of it all–all of the sparse belongings that defined “him”–he froze. Men were there, four men, standing around his fire. And the men clearly saw him too.

“Hooty hoo.” One of them offered a little one-handed wave full of a flourish of fingers. The man was sporting a big grin that revealed a missing tooth and his voice sounded a tiny bit slurred. But he wasn’t going for the gun slung low on his hip. Dangerously low. None of them were going for their guns, each of them keeping hands clearly away from their pieces… shining, well cared for pieces, Heath noted in a flash, every one of them.

So, since he’d look like a dolt if he turned and walked back the way he’d come, Heath started walking casually towards them. He couldn’t likewise pointedly keep HIS hand away from his weapon because, like an idiot, he’d left the rifle with his gear. His heart was thumping as he tried to decide how close he could get to his gun… as he tried to convince himself that this was just a friendly happenstance.

“Smelled cooking,” a second one said. “Don’t seem to be none left, though.”

“Sorry,” Heath offered, using his remaining, pointless words to allow him to carefully nudge his way past a third fellow to get nearer to his pony… and his belongings. “Slow day trapping. Was just a quail. Burnt one at that.”

“Pity,” the second man said while casually watching Heath move. He was large, with a barrel chest and Heath felt puny beside him. His voice was thick, phlegmy, somber. “About it being burnt, I mean. Hate burnt bird.”

Heath nodded at that, eyes just squinted. The fourth fellow, narrow and tall, was clearly checking out all of his belongings, eyeing his rifle, so Heath took another casual step towards it. “If you fellas are outright starving, I think I have a tin of beans left in my bags, but that’s about it.”

“Nah,” the fellow with one missing tooth said. “We ate a bit back. Truthfully, we was mostly just wondering who was campin’ here…. One a’ us… or one a’ them?”

The question had a decidedly ominous tone to it, and it was backed with a quartet of suddenly narrowed gazes; Heath felt like the game was truly beginning. He squared himself, felt his jaw tighten like it did when he was nudged past his limits, but he forced a grin.

“Well, I just came in today, so I’m not sure who ‘us’ is… or who ‘them’ is, for that matter,” he said, hoping his mouth wasn’t quivering with the strain of the forced smile.

The men stared at him for a time, then the first one broke the tension with a shrug. “Why, we’re the railroad, boy. And if you’re camping out here, eating burnt bits a’ bird, you obviously ain’t one a’ them uppity ranchers. So I guess you ain’t them.” With that, the band of intruders seemed to collectively relax a twitch.

Heath couldn’t relax, though. These were the hired guns he’d heard about in dark spurts, here and there, as he’d made his way towards Stockton. These were the hired men who were supposed to violently back the railroad’s play at ousting working men off their own lived-on, worked-for homesteads. And he didn’t want them in his camp.

But there were four of them to the one of him, and if they chose not to leave, he figured he would have to. It wasn’t cowardice; it was common sense. His decision was made for him when one of the fellows sat down beside Heath’s fire and pulled out an amber bottle. He uncorked it with his teeth, took a long swallow, and then handed it to the man who seemed to be the leader, the man with the one missing tooth.

“You can have my fire,” Heath drawled, making slow movements towards rolling his blanket, packing up his gear–particularly slow when he slid the rifle into its scabbard. “But since I ain’t an ‘us’ or a ‘them’, I think I’d be best to get myself out of the territory for a time.”

The ‘leaving the territory’ bit was a lie, because Heath had a decided purpose for being in this place, one that even four hired gunmen couldn’t talk him out of. But Heath did hope that they didn’t see through the lie. He figured he’d be a lot more comfortable during his time here, however long it turned out, if he WASN’T riddled with bullet holes.

The first man finished a long swallow from the offered bottle, then said dryly, “Yeah, that prob’ly would be for your best.” They all four took seats then and watched him as he saddled his pony, mounted up, lightly tipped his hat at them all, and rode slowly off.

Heath had pride; he never sped up and he never turned back. But all the while his heart pounded and his spine prickled until he was well out of sight of the four men and their quiet, leering guns. And he couldn’t help but wonder how many more hired mercenaries were wandering the range just now.

Maybe he would spend the last of his coin to overnight in Stockton after all. He dipped deeper into the frown he wore, musing on the fact that, indeed, he hadn’t rested in a proper bed in a long, long while.

Not since he’d stretched out beside her and held his dwindling, twitching mama through those last few hours. On the day she had died.

*****

By the moon, by the clouds, by his annoyingly-accurate internal clock, Heath gathered that it had to be going on midnight by the time he rode wearily into town. And yet he had to whistle to himself in amazement as he peered around at the chaos there. Men were everywhere, laughing, hollering, singing, cussing, swarming–and it wasn’t even a Saturday night! He nudged his pony towards the hotel, patted her fondly as he grabbed his gear and looped her reins, but he had to duck nimbly under the hitching post to get to the walk, there were that many mounts stuffed there.

One man, mumbling and walking backwards, soundly bumped into him before Heath could reach the hotel’s door, then spun and gave him a glare, but Heath raised peaceful hands in placation. This was NOT the time nor the place to start a brawl. The fellow narrowed his eyes for a bit, then cuffed Heath an almost affectionate slap on the cheek with a meaty paw of a hand, turned and headed towards the saloon, lurching dangerously as he went.

Heath leaned back for a moment to watch as the man bumped another fellow in his wake… he sure wasn’t too steady in his walking, it seemed. Instead of raising peaceful hands, however, that cat-like fellow whirled and punched Lurcher straight in the mouth. And it was ON, men joining from everywhere, yelling, hooting, fists swinging. Lurcher groaned once where he lay now, in the street, rolled over… and seemed to go to sleep. The fight merely continued its deadly dance above him. Heath shook his head, ducked into the relative quiet of the hotel.

With quick eyes Heath surveyed the yellow lobby, which was fairly nice… and apparently clear, for the moment, of other potential enemies. Then he finally rested his sharp gaze on the innkeeper… who was surveying him back, but with a look of distaste that turned the man’s thin mouth into a twist. Heath squared himself, marched forward, peered down at the open ledger. “I’ll be needin’ me a room.”

“All full,” the skinny man flatly intoned. Heath reared up and they studied each other… yet ANOTHER competition in this hell of a night, Heath thought, as he vaguely noticed the twitch in his own narrow jaw that meant it was clenching. He also noticed, although the innkeeper initially pretended to ignore it, the muted sounds of hollering coming from upstairs.

As the stare-fest continued down below, the hollering up above turned to cussing… and then there was a gunshot. The innkeeper flinched, ducked; Heath quirked an eyebrow and cocked his head, listening. A hollered “why you little…” filtered down and then the meaty sounds of fighting began–well, perhaps, of one man fighting and one man crying and getting decisively beat upon. Then there was a final thump, the sound of a heavy body dropping. Afterwards, the upstairs noises mostly ended (although the dulled cacophony from the street chaos continued on).

Heath sighed at all of it–the ridiculousness of all of it: riding this far over a sketchy-but-heart-seared wish; hired guns who would take over your camp and most likely kill you there for no good reason; a town full of rowdy hellions; the ludicrous fight upstairs; this weasely innkeep, staring at him as if Heath were the bumbling fly in the pudding.

But he was bone-weary, weary in his very marrow, so Heath merely turned, leaned his butt against the counter and crossed his arms. If there were no rooms here, he could go nowhere. Because there was nowhere left TO go. Not for this Heath, not yet.

Then Heath and the innkeeper (who slowly came back up from his crouch behind the counter) turned to watch as the sheriff–he had to be the sheriff if the shiny badge on his chest meant anything–worked mightily to drag a man downstairs by his ankles. The man’s head bumped horrifically on every step, but the sheriff was too busy muttering vivid cusswords to himself to notice–a whole diatribe about his town going to hell because of ornery ranchers and greedy railroads.

Heath and the innkeeper watched as the sheriff muscled the man, finally, out into the street, heard his cussing swell into hollering at the fight out there, the lawman’s beaten charge temporarily forgotten, sprawled out on the walk as the sheriff plunged into this new foray. Finally Heath tipped his hat far back on his head, cleared his throat, turned back to the innkeeper and asked, “You got a room now?”

“Maybe,” the man said, eyes narrowed suspiciously, “if you ain’t with him.”

“Does it look like I was with him?” Heath had to keep himself from hollering the response.

“‘Cause I had to call the sheriff on him…”

But Heath was ignoring the man now. He grabbed the ledger, whirled it, signed it “Heath Thomson”–and eyed the signature, wondering darkly what he would even do if he were ever offered to change that name. As if….

The innkeeper interrupted his dreary musings with, “That’ll be four dollars.”

“What?” This time Heath did holler his response. He glared at the scrawny man, who finally, thankfully, decided to get nervous.

“Town is full,” he fairly whined. “Rooms are at a premium.”

“And I’ll bet,” Heath growled, “you’re still pocketing the ‘premium’ from that fella the sheriff just dragged off, ain’t ya?” Heath decided to push it. He was that done in. “AND you wanna rob me? On a room already paid for?”

“Two dollars,” the man finally sighed, eyes rabbitting all over, “one night. Three and a half for two. And keep your voice down.”

Heath thought about the luck he’d been having lately, fished his money out of his pocket, studied it. Six dollars and eighteen cents… that was all of it. He dug out two dollars, frowned, thought about the dangerous men on the range, the horde in the street. Thought about the uncertainty of what he’d find when he went looking for… them. Thought once more about the miserable luck he’d been having lately. With a sigh he added to the coins, finally plunking three dollars and fifty cents on the counter.

It was an almost agreeable price for two nights, but his pocket was nearly empty–and his nerves were well nudged. “Them sheets better be made a’ spun gold,” he muttered darkly as he snatched his key from the man and stomped his way up the stairs.

*****

He’d headed back out, carefully made his way to the stable where he’d shaken out a few more coins to cover the care for his pony (at least she’d have a full belly), and then he’d made his way to the hotel again… avoiding the rabble the whole way. Once back in his room, he locked the door, sighed, leaned his head against it for a time, wondering if he even had the energy to make it to the bed. But his left eye still stung from the campfire’s flare-up earlier in the evening, so he made his way instead to the mirror over the dresser. There he peered this way and that; the eye was a titch red, but he couldn’t see any real damage, and his scorched fingers would most likely be fine by tomorrow.

Satisfied, Heath toed off his boots, pulled off his vest, and stretched out on the quilted coverlet. He let out a tiny groan of contentment. He hated to admit it, but this small bit of comfort might just be worth half of the naught he’d had in his pocket. He lay there for a time, relaxing his muscles into the bed’s kindness, trying to think of nothing, listening mildly to the muffled, rowdy sounds of the street. He desperately wanted sleep to sneak in, but his belly kept interrupting it with its grumbles.

Finally he sat up with a defeated sigh, drank a long draught of water straight from the pitcher, then another. It helped, even if it did make him a mite queasy. Or was the queasiness from the thinking that had begun to creep in? Because, unfortunately, wakefulness always got him to thinking. It was different on the trail, when you were always busy or on the alert. In a hotel room things were… still. So the mind got busy.

He pulled the notice from his pocket, unfolded it slowly, hung his head and studied it again. Tom Barkley, dead. Six years ago now, but how ironic that he’d just found the notice on the day he’d lost his mama. Orphaned twice over in the course of a few minutes, he was.

Heath knew about his mama’s life… now he just wanted to find out something about… Him. What had Tom Barkley lived like, what had he fought for, what had he left behind? Heath didn’t have any expectations, not really… he just needed to see what this “scion of the community” had accomplished. And the article said he was “survived by”… a wife, children. Heath’s… siblings?

What a marvel it still was to him; Heath had siblings. He’d dreamt of them on occasion during the past month–vague dreams where they were mostly faceless but hugging him, or helping him with some task or another, or running from him, sometimes chasing him.

“Survived by.” Three other boys–men now, really–and a girl, all sharing part of his blood. They existed; they were close by; they weren’t dreams. Possibly they thought like him, or looked like him, the same tip of the jaw or shine at the eye. And so maybe (he whispered the word in his head over and over, like a muffled bird’s chirp, maybemaybemaybe)… MAYBE, because of them–parts of his very own self–he could somehow have… a place where he could sit down, be still. A place where he could belong.

Because of them, these mysterious, extended parts of himself, Heath, who had been alone for so long… might not have to be so anymore.

But as quickly as it flared up, the hope died. It seemed to be what hope did in his life… rear up, tease him, then die. Heath folded the article again, shoved it back into his shirt pocket. Because, just like Heath’s name hadn’t been listed in the front of his mama’s sacred Family Bible, it wasn’t recorded in this newspaper account that listed his father’s offspring.

At that thought, his traitorous eyes misted up, which stung the burnt one, which made him mad. He flung himself back on the bad, stared at the ceiling, blinking wildly against the stupid, stinging wetness.

In the morning he’d ask around, he’d find the Barkley ranch. In the morning he’d find his brothers, his sister. He’d look deep at every one of them, at everything that could have been his… maybe even stay around the territory long enough to pack a bit more coin in his pitiful pocket. And then he would most likely leave. Because hope was like that for Heath; his sacred hopes, the hopes he dreamed?

They always, always died.

Heath wanted dearly to try for sleep, but listened instead to the vague sounds of fighting down below. Somehow, the sounds brought him comfort. And finally his weary, stinging eyes drifted closed.

*****

He couldn’t afford a proper breakfast, not at all, although he did stare into the window of a restaurant for a few lingering moments, watching folks sipping at real coffee, eating fried steak and eggs, munching casually on toast with thick jam. He fingered the change in his pocket, thought about toast with jam–cherry was his favorite, rhubarb a close second–and then he put the thought away. Never was much for sweets when it came right down to it, really, he told himself. Whistling a low, mournful tune, he made his way to the stable to retrieve his pony.

When he was there he paid the stable boy a penny as a tip… and for a handful of spare carrots. They were almost fresh (at least not bendy) and he munched on them hungrily as he rode out of Stockton–a much quieter town this morning, possibly a hung-over town, he mused. But he squared his back as he left it because he was going to follow the directions he’d gotten from the innkeep… directions to the Barkley ranch. (A magnificent ranch, if the telling was right, and one that belonged to folks actually related to him. And what if, just maybe, he didn’t have to come back to this town for awhile once he’d found that ranch?)

It was a glorious day and he lost himself in it for a time. A bit chill, but that was the morning’s fault… morning loved her some chill. He studied the land as he rode through it… a wonderful, fertile part of the state, this valley. Bright trees, vivid wildflowers, rich grass. And he could smell the sweet river before he heard her. He liked her even more when he finally came upon her–lively and dancing, cutting her way through the rocky landscape, as merry as she pleased.

He did take pause at the bridge though, squinting carefully. It looked a bit… forlorn, neglected. He scrutinized it as he nudged his pony forward onto its planks: the brown, weaving sides of it, the weathered wood throughout, the ancient-looking ropes.

Then the pony stopped, seeming to notice the man in the middle of the bridge even before Heath did. The man called out a greeting that sounded more like a wry insult than a hello, and Heath put on a bland face while he studied him in the quickest flash of a once-over.

Heath’s immediate impression as he took in the man’s posture (stiff, proud), as he took in his gun (expensive), was that this was most likely just another one of them railroad fellows, on his way to Stockton to join the rest. And he’d about HAD it with those railroad fellows. What a way to ruin a pretty river, he sighed, and possibly because of that last straw of a thought, Heath determined that HE was going to start this particular fight.

And so he did, with a quip about his Modoc not knowing how to back up–(she really did know how to back up)–and with an insult about the man’s horse being a “crockhead” (it wasn’t, really… seemed a fine horse, all in all).

But he found himself second-guessing the fight a few short moments later when it seemed to turn decidedly deadly. Because it had taken no time at all to go from quipping about horses… to baiting one another about shooting prowess. And suddenly Heath knew… that blowhard railroad fellow was gonna pull on him! They grabbed for their guns in the same swinging, heart-pounding second… and then he and Blowhard heard a loud crashing. Before they could process whether it was their bullets or God’s thunder or some odd, random explosion, they were both plunged with a clamor and a whoosh into the rowdy river.

It felt as if the shocking cold of it all punched Heath straight in his belly, smashed his tender groin, knocked all of his living air out. Indeed, the iced cold battled all of his bits… frigid enough to plain shrink a man. That was what one part of his brain was sputtering over, processing, as another part was trying to keep him moving so as not to get shredded by the dangerous pieces of jangled bridge plummeting past. (Aha! The bridge had gone!) However, the most desperate, fumbling part of him was trying to merely stay upright, to not swallow a gallon of the rushing water and to thus stupidly drown.

Then it all somehow righted itself–smoothed itself out. He found that he was hanging onto his pony’s back by the pommel and one footed stirrup, being pulled along by the trusty Modoc…. He splashed a hand to the side, somehow instinctively found his hat, used the buoyancy of the water to scrabble himself back into the saddle, and then he was craning to look back at the man who, if things had shifted by the merest second, might have just shot him… unless Heath had shot Blowhard first. What the hell were they doing, drawing on each other on some crumble-down old bridge? How had it so suddenly become THAT kind of a fight?

As he made shore, leaning instinctively forward as his pony clambered sturdily up the edge, Heath’s head was beginning to swim over it all…. He couldn’t decide whether to cross over again and continue the brawl… to finally FINISH one of the many that he’d inadvertently fumbled into in this godforsaken territory–and all in only a matter of hours!

Or to move forward to his goal–to quietly find the ranch and his siblings. But as he craned his head, Heath’s squinted eyes saw that, across the water, his dripping opponent was… almost grinning at him, and then seemed to dismiss him with a shrug and to simply move on.

And Heath’s horse, meanwhile, was acting skittish there on the fresh shore, dancing sideways in her steps, as if she sensed that something important was… woefully off. So he tried to shake off his encroaching dizziness and focused on her instead, leaned to talk her down, patted her soggy neck with affection. And all the while he crooned and she snorted and bobbed her head, Heath was peering around, looking for anymore signs of danger that might match her odd skittishness. But it all seemed like a bright, normal morning–despite the chaos that had just ensued with the force of some insane explosion that had then managed to dwindle itself down into ridiculous nothingness.

He had just summoned his shaky energies, swung his leg and dismounted to croon to her some more, when the pain hit–way up on his leg. A charley horse with gnashing, deadly dragon’s teeth. It took his breath away and he wanted to hop with it, to cry, or cuss… it was that bright. Instead he merely looked down to discover that a sharp, wooden bit of the bridge–the rest of it long since floating its merry way downstream–had pierced him high in his upper thigh. It was stuck there, blood flowing around the gash in ripe black-cherry streams. The horse looked at him with wide eyes as if to say, “I told you so.”

He staggered painfully to his knees, had a moment of true panic. He craned his neck to see if his bridge buddy was gone–for a second he truly hoped not–and then reluctantly got back to himself when he couldn’t find the man.

A lone fellow pulling out shrapnel could bleed to death before help could get there. He’d learned that serious lesson in the army. He stared blurry-eyed, for a time, at the treacherous wood there, jutting straight up from his pale thigh, then, hissing through the amazing pain of it all, worked on simply deciding things.

Wryly, he decided that if the wood had hit a few inches over, he’d never be having any kids, that was a fact–not that he even had so much as a good name to leave them with anyhow. He further decided that he probably couldn’t afford a doctor just now, even if he could gallop himself off to find one with this… lovely gift from the Blowhard “sticking” along for the ride. He kind of decided that he might be sick, here on the pretty shore of the river, swallowed mightily against that indignity.

And he mostly decided that it would be too plain stupid to simply lie around and die from some gnarled sliver of bridge stuck deep into his thigh. So he gritted his teeth, threw his head back and, with both hands wrapped firmly around the enemy, he hissed a muted holler and yanked.

When he opened his eyes afterwards he discovered that it might have been maybe a half an hour later, judging by the sun–and he realized with a slow blink that the time shift was because he’d passed out… or gone swimmy or some such. The thought of “swimmy” made him laugh a dark, dry laugh, and he lifted his head lazily, squinted to check the throbbing injury.

All in all, it didn’t seem too, too bad–not as bad as it had seemed at first glance, when that horrid piece of wood had still been there. The bleeding had been obviously wild at first, but had then thankfully tapered to almost nothing. Heath had a housewife in his gear. With a bit more rest and some time he could stitch up both the raggedy wound at the leg and the fairly straightforward slit high in the thigh of the tan pants. But first he needed to clean up.

He lay for a time, gathering himself–quivering, sickish, thirsty–then whistled for his pony, which had obviously given up on him and wandered a ways off to eat. He reached up a wavering arm and hooked a wrist through one stirrup, muscled himself gradually upwards, then swung another strong arm over her rump. With a long pause and then a click, he had her drag him back to the water.

It was frigid. It was so cold that he hurt from it, too. But he limped himself down into it to wash the wound–hell, to carefully rinse the blood off of his only pair of pants. And as he shuddered wildly in the river, watching the current wash past him, the frothing water now running red, he wondered how many pairs of pants Tom Barkley had owned before he had died. It was a good focus: a bitter thought that kept him away from the bitter pain that was his thigh… the bitter cold that was becoming his entire life just now.

*****

He wasn’t going to go to them needy or wanting, so he sure as hell wasn’t going to go to them with some stupid, gaping wound in his thigh.

As he prepared the needle and thread, he mumbled grouchily to himself, “Howdy, I’m your brother, Heath. Nah, nah, just some mining camp mix up twenty-four years back, far as I can tell–unless good ol’ Tom happened to mention something more to you all? Anyhow, I just thought I’d swing by, bleed all over your fine settee for a time….” Then he tossed his head back and hollered, “Got anything to eat?” That last bit was because his stomach was flat out screaming at him now. One burnt quail, a handful of carrots, and gallons of rushing river water–that had been his total sustenance in almost two days. And he was growing amazingly dizzy from it… that, and probably all of that blood he’d conveniently gotten around to losing in the course of his idiotic morning.

And although chronic dizziness was probably a fine state in which to stitch pants, it most likely would NOT make for quality stitching through ripped skin. He sighed, put the needle and thread carefully away, hissed as he stood (best get used to standing and walking if he was gonna get through with this all). Then, keeping his kerchief pressed to the wound to staunch the further bleeding, he limped a crooked path to his saddle bags.

He pulled it out, considered it… the last tin. The sacred last tin of beans that he always kept, that he never ate–so that in the back of his head, despite how dreary things got, he’d always know that at least he still had one damned tin of beans.

He hadn’t the energy to make a fire, so he stood, leaning on the back of his patient horse, and ate them cold. He was too weary to play the dinner game, too disgusted–with himself, with the blowhard, with his life–so he chewed and swallowed mindlessly. Afterwards, he hobbled to the edge of the river, squatted–stifled a yelp at THAT lovely movement–and rinsed the tin clean. Then he used it as a cup, drinking his fill. Hungry or not, he was still a mite sickish from the pain, and so he had to force the water just as he’d had to force several of those bites of cold beans. He’d need the water though, to remake the blood. So he filled the tin once more, drained it, then dropped painfully down and sat for awhile, one hand still pressing at the wound as he stared at the lively rushing water, the cussed broken bridge.

(Or was that broken bridge a blessing in disguise… had he taken a bit of wood in the thigh in trade for a probable bullet through the brain from Blowhard’s fancy sidearm?) Finally, he pulled the kerchief off, now red, rinsed it clean again, peered at the ugly gash and then pressed the temporary bandage back into the rip in his pants.

In a sudden, blinking swell he found that he wanted to cry. Not because of the biting, stomping pain, he didn’t think, and not because of this stupid setback. Not because his mama was still dead and in the ground–and where did that drear thought just hop in from? Maybe he wanted to cry because the river was so damned pretty. He pressed an arm to his eyes, as if to block her out.

Maybe it was because he’d ripped his pants. That last thought made him laugh out loud, choking laughter that finally did turn into tears. And so Heath simply cried for a tiny time into his sleeve; just now it seemed like an okay thing to do.

Afterwards he got on with the hard stuff, summoning all of his concentration, his fortitude, to do so. He spent a while honing the needle, making it as sharp as possible–which was both crucial and nauseating, because the whole time he did so he considered how he was going to have to rip that same needle through his own skin. Finally he bore down and got to it; he stitched the raggedy, blood-slicked wound shut, carefully, with focused fingers that barely shook… but with teeth clenched so squeaking-hard through it all that they hurt almost as badly as the leg itself.

He lay back for awhile after that, watched the sky move past, drifted his mind along with the clouds to take him away from his miseries. When he was far enough away from it all to almost float into a sleep, he knew it was time; gradually he roused himself, trying to continually imagine that the pain was as far off as those drifted clouds. Then he set about stitching the pants–although his hand was cramped and he was doing a much sloppier job now. But, he thought wryly, better to be lazy with the pants than with the leg.

He had to grin a dark, quivering grin at the picture he must make. Thankfully he’d moved a ways from the river and into a stand of trees, but there he sat on his bedroll, pants in his lap, hunched over and sewing away like a gal. A mostly naked gal. So he was very glad when the pants were done and he could pull them tentatively up over the thin, careful bandage he’d made out of a strip from his lone spare shirt. He couldn’t manage a good wiggle to test the seam so he simply had to hope that it’d hold.

After he’d limped around and packed up his measly camp, he paused to frown at the horse… at the saddle that seemed thirty feet off the ground if it was a foot. Yup, mounting up was indeed going to be a chore. But he pulled on that same fortitude that had gotten him through the sharp stitching–hell, that had gotten him through LIFE thus far–and, using more arm muscles than leg, he managed to get himself up there. But not without enough hollered cussing to make the pony lay her ears flat.

As he rode slowly off, trying to get the horrid, cramping leg used to the feel of it all, he vaguely wondered how much the greedy town would charge for him to replace his lucky tin of beans. And he wondered if he could get his hands on some whiskey, SOMETHING. He needed to clean the wound proper (and soon) so that he didn’t get a mean infection going. He’d thought he’d been close to dying often in his life, too often, but he sure did NOT want his obituary to read: “Heath Thomson: Picked a Fight With a Railroad Blowhard… But it Was the Stupid Bridge that Killed Him.”

*****

He’d been riding for hours–practicing with gritted teeth and a sheen on his brow–meandering ever closer towards the ranch house, but not actually getting there. He paused only to take long swallows from his canteen since the original bleeding, maybe the whole ordeal, had pulled up a powerful thirst, and he knew that he needed to stay on top of the water.

He also pressed an occasional hand to his bandaged leg for anymore telltale moisture there. He’d only had to change the wrapping once, and it hadn’t been nearly as bad as he had thought then; in fact, he was surprised to find that being on horseback didn’t cause the regular gushing torrents that he’d originally feared. Indeed, his biting leg had finally settled into the stretch of the ride, the loping movement of it, and Heath now believed that he could probably fake it when he got there. That he could appear ordinary when he introduced himself–not like some desperate, hobbling saddle-tramp.

Dismounting would most likely be the only trouble now, in fact, because riding itself was fairly well back to normal. But if he was clever, he could dismount away from their eyes, practice the walking a bit, too, before… before what? Well, he would let that one play itself out when he got there. He never had quite figured that one through….

What the hell, if anything, was he going to tell them all… when he got there?

He didn’t like those drear thoughts, so he tried to find sweeter ones to keep his mind clear–to pull it away from the pain and constant worry that were making his jaw clench and his stomach churn. If the ranch was anything as pretty as all this that he’d been riding through–well, he sure did hope that he could stay for a time to admire it more. The smell alone: peach and orange blossoms; overturned wet, loamy earth; and from somewhere a swell of roses…. And oh the sounds: that fierce, pretty river wandering closer and then off again; a lively wind moving the abundant trees, whipping the lush bushes and vibrant flowers….

But almost as if to mock him as he mused, once more, over the simple, raw beauty of the landscape, a powerful screech cut straight through it all.

It was a train! The damned railroad!

Heath craned his neck, watched as she came around a turn, howling steam as if to boast her lone importance in the world. And he remembered the man with the missing tooth and his crew, forcing him out of his own camp the night before; he remembered the meaty, friendly, daring slap in the face from a drunk in the street at midnight.

And there was no forgetting the pain in his leg from the deadly encounter with Blowhard on the bridge just a few hours ago.

Heath slowly squinted his eyes, scowling at the approaching engine’s polish, at her irritating shine. He was suddenly every little person that the railroad intended to simply crush in this valley. Indeed, he was every little person, crushed and abandoned, everywhere… (even, perhaps, a young mother, abandoned, destroyed by some mighty lover).

And thus Heath found himself ignoring the agony of his leg and… readying himself to race a train.

He wasn’t sure that he could win, but right now he was everybody who’d ever lost… so he was damned sure going to give it everything he had: his spirit, his power, and his cussed grit.

He launched his mount into a gallop, goading her with quick slaps of the reins, and they drew up alongside the plummeting monster. He saw the spot, way in the distance, where he’d have to cut in front of her. He marked it, memorized it, became it. He was vaguely aware of movement at the cars’ windows–folks probably becoming aware of him–but he put that cleanly aside.

He was as powerful as that blasted train, he and his pony. The wind whipped past him as their speed increased and he gritted down, made them go faster still–with his legs, with his reins, with his will. They were maybe, maybe taking the lead… it was close anyhow, but he wouldn’t think of close. He only thought of that spot in the distance, leaning with all of himself towards it, willing all of himself to meet it.

And then that spot was there, and he was mindlessly cutting his pony across it.

He felt the rushing whip of the metal at his back, heard the train’s bellowing scream of failure, and then he and his mount cut a hill and were out of sight of the tracks. He was all pounding heart, wind-whipped tears, quivering limbs, as he tried to slow his gleeful mount down. But he was alive. They’d won.

It was a thing of glory; it hurt like hell.

The pony, quivering as badly as Heath was, went to stumble, but he wouldn’t let her. He wouldn’t let her get hurt over his impromptu foolishness, so he instinctively tossed himself out of the saddle. And there he was a few moments later, on his hands and knees—almost as if he’d just found himself, as if some part had gone away during the whole wild escapade. There were a few pesky pebbles imbedded in his palms, a few new bruises, no doubt, and his leg was on fire again, but the pony was fine. She stood there, eyeing him and blowing.

She was fond of him, he’d always figured, as devoted as she was–but she probably also thought him a plumb fool just now. He gasped a chuckle at that, rolled painfully over onto his back. He let the bright sun warm him, calm him.

Heath closed his eyes and almost instantly fell into a short sleep, there in the silky grass. It was a good trick, one of many that he’d learned in the army… to sleep sound and quick when you were done in, to sleep in fits wherever you could. Then you could be awake and tense and ready for the next assault when it came.

Because it always came.

*****

He felt a touch better after the brief sleep… everything seemed sharper, more focused–even the air had a crystal quality, making the clouds brighter, the spring green of the tree leaves more vivid. (Or, he thought with a snort, hunger and pain were making him a mite touched in the head.) So he determined that, if he could get his body to cooperate, it was time to get there–especially if it would keep him from doing anymore fool things like, say, drawing on a railroad gun while perched on the world’s sorriest bridge… or battling hundreds of tons worth of lethal, racing train!

“Heath Thomson,” he drawled, head hung, as he worked to dig the last pebble from his palm, “you don’t know half enough about staying alive in this world, it seems. Would’ve expected different from you. Maybe these fine Barkley folks can teach you a bit more than you’ve managed to latch onto so far.” His pony snorted, seemingly in droll agreement, as Heath chucked the pebble and sucked on the left-over, tiny bleeding hole for a moment. Then he wiped the injured hand on his shirt, patted her neck with the other, gathered her reins and started his trek. He’d practiced the riding; now he needed to work on the walking.

Leading his patient mount, he plainly limped along the tracks for a time. Then he mostly hobbled along the tracks for a time. Surprisingly, despite his voluntary tumble from the saddle, his aching thigh hadn’t bled much more. (That was some fancy, fine stitching, Heath, he thought in wry admiration–at least he’d give himself credit there.)

Finally he was able to trick the leg pain into a careful shuffle. At last he was satisfied; he figured a body’d have to squint, now, to notice that his walking was off. In fact, since they’d never even seen his regular, long stride, why, they clearly wouldn’t be able to notice the difference at all. Heath would look normal when he met them. So it was time.

With gritted teeth, he muscled himself back up onto the pony again, and instead of the meandering he’d done all morning, he headed in the exact direction of the ranch house.

He only stopped when he got to the grave.

His stomach lurched and he knew, before even looking, what it was that he had found. (Another dream buried–but this one years ago?) He sat in the saddle for a moment, mind whirling back to a different grave. One from a month ago, almost precisely. And the thought came crashing in, the thought he always tried to keep at bay. He couldn’t help but wonder if she were rotting now, like some discarded animal carcass. In her box. And did she mind the box? It was silly, he knew, but he didn’t think he could bear a box.

He didn’t notice his hiss, his wince, as he dismounted, his focus only on the grave. He didn’t know enough about this man to know if he, too, had had qualms about such desolate things–not that Heath SHOULD care one way or another what the man had experienced, desired… feared. Head cocked, he read the dates there: 1813-1870. Well, clearly Thomas Barkley was going to bones, maybe even to dust now. His mama might not be yet, but his father was.

He shook his head then, at the odd, grotesque whirl of his thoughts, decided instead to focus on the amazing difference between this sparkling granite tombstone and the homemade wooden one that marked his mama’s grave… when he was soundly stung by a … mad hornet? And then stung again, right near his eye. It was a hornet! It was a swarm!

He whirled, protective hands in front of his face, to fend off the swarm somehow, only to find that it was… a quirt? He was being jack-rabbit whipped in the face, the neck, by a spitfire of a girl on her horse, and the girl was wielding (with much success) a stupid little riding quirt! The hell? She smacked him a few more lightning times… enough times to really raise his ire because it HURT. It wasn’t his way to be rude to women, but he found himself darting in when she swung back to give him another strike and plain yanking her from her mount.

Then they were rolling in the dirt beside the grave, struggling… her to not get pinned, and him to get his hands on that damned little whip. “For the love of…” he stammered, but he couldn’t help but grin through the eye-watering stings at the ridiculousness of this new fight. It fit his whole ill-fated morning. At least, he mused, she probably wasn’t with the railroad….

But then suddenly, just as he’d known the grave before he’d read it, he knew this girl, this writhing, fighting, seething girl. “A blonde haired, blue eyed…” he gasped, eyes wide with the realization. This firecracker was his sister, as sure as his mama was dead; his pony was a Modoc, as sure as he was himself.

“You’re hurting me,” she interrupted with a pout, but there was a plaintive tone there as well. Indeed, the fight had mostly gone out of her. And it was his fault; he eased up, really hoping that he hadn’t hurt her. Still, he didn’t trust her, quite–after all, she’d just soundly whipped the bark off of him, and for no good reason.

“Drop it,” he scolded, and then the whip was in his hand and he tossed it aside, carefully disentangled himself from her–and noted vaguely that he’d ripped his blasted pants again. He angled that leg away from her as she stood, dusted herself off and retrieved her riding quirt. (How that tiny whip could raise up such an awful sting, he marveled–and quick-rising welts, he discovered, as he rubbed a hand along his jawline and neck–well, it reminded him to never buy one of those to use on his poor pony.) And all the while he was checking his latest stupid damage, he worked to keep the emotion from his face… as he studied her in raw amazement when she haughtily introduced herself: Audra Barkley.

Audra Barkley! His sister.

He memorized her features, the flash in her eyes, as she spoke of the death of her father…. (Heath’s, what? Not really his “father,” when he thought it through here at the grave, no sir–so, how about his… sire?) How a thousand people came from the valley to bury him, to mourn him, that’s how mighty he was. And Heath couldn’t believe the twisting emotions he suddenly felt… the staggering swell of stunned pride now that he was finally with her… now that he really, truly had a little sister (and a beautiful, fiery beast of one at that, even if she was a bit skinny). That, and the staggering, thick swell of disgust that the man who had left him behind, without so much as a backward glance, lived so high and so well that he was mourned by that many people (that many!) at his passing.

That they would all crown the snake a king.

Indeed, a squinted glance told him that the girl was mourning Thomas Barkley still: tending the flowers at his grave, her chin lifted high as she spoke of him, six long years after his death. (And, he reminded himself, she wasn’t “the girl”… she was his sister, HIS–living and breathing and wildcat feisty and proud, oh so proud, of that man buried in that box there.)

Indeed, Heath understood those two things–mourning, pride–if he understood nothing else in this world just now.

Then Heath knew. A swallow stuck in his throat with the power of his sudden knowing. He wouldn’t be able to tell them. He wouldn’t be able to tell them that good ole Tom had sired a bastard son and then galloped off, leaving the bastard’s mama to fend off the snarling coyote world on her own. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even believe him if he tried. They were his siblings; they were mourning still; and they were proud.

His golden hope plummeted; it was a fat lump of fool’s gold, sinking in his belly. But his sheer amazement at her–this living, breathing, fighting her–well, it was almost worth as much as hope, felt almost as good as hope…. And so he wanted to see the brothers at least once, too. He needed to. Hell, it was owed to him.

So when she asked (arrogantly? apologetically? tenderly?… he couldn’t quite suss out her tone) who he was, what he was doing here, he heard his mouth saying that he was on his way to her place… looking for work.

It was a fine and instant solution to all of it. He could maybe fill his empty pocket while he studied them, took them all in for as long as he was able, scribbled their faces, their movements, bits of their souls into the precious pages of his memory.

Before he left. Yes, looking at the girl, he knew that he couldn’t shatter that kind of sacred pride by staying, so the right course would ultimately be to leave. And when he was able, regardless of consequence, Heath always tried to take the right course–his conscience was one of the few things that he’d ever owned outright, really. And he wouldn’t give that up, even IF their sheets were made of spun gold.

*****

He sat under a tree, a safe distance away from the grave, wishing his PANTS had been made of spun gold. He was stitching again. And, admittedly, cussing just a bit, in a low, grumble–a grumble like the steady sound of a mad beehive. If things kept going like this he’d have to pull the buttons off the spare shirt (the shirt that had since been turned into bandages) just to re-use the thread from them. God help him if he lost his needle!

The stitching made him irrationally mad, made him realize the dreary realities of it all again, despite the awe he’d felt earlier. “See my brother, Nick,” he mumbled in a bitchy falsetto, “he does the hiring.”

Yeah, he thought, unable to quell the bitterness for an awful moment, some brother of mine, some brother. Nick, he does the hiring–Heath paused in his dark thoughts to clip behind the final knot with his teeth, to spit out a bit of thread left on his tongue–while I do the damned sewing.

Hiring. A man rich enough, powerful enough… to HIRE other men. And he was Heath’s brother.

That easy power galled him (what Heath had missed out on); it made him desperate to meet this Nick (what Heath had been denied). And Heath wished that he’d have a lifetime to get to know him, to know all of them. Then Heath blew a sigh and merely got to the task at hand, using the tree behind him to help himself stand (his leg was flaring bright again, maybe from the skirmish with the girl… with “Audra Barkley”). Once standing, weight shifted to the good leg, he stared at the future as he pictured it, at the simple fact that he’d be lucky to even earn enough money from his own brother’s payroll to replace the cussed pants. Because it was a rotten time for hiring on, and that was a fact–and since they didn’t know him, they wouldn’t think to owe him any favors.

But maybe he was the teensiest touch lucky after all. When he got shooed from the ranch, why, he still had that hotel room for one more night! He looked around, got his bearings. And tried to avoid thinking about what he would do when the room was gone, too.

*****

He clucked his pony, leading her through the archway–the archway that led to his future. The pony quirked her ears, interested in the scents of other mounts just a ways off, while Heath sighed at the beauty of even the archway. It was stunningly ornate, with intricate whorls of iron that signified nothing, really. Amazingly expensive ironwork just there to make things pretty as you even APPROACHED the ranch house.

And the house… his eyes were full of the house as he drew nearer. Oh lordy, was it grand! Southern in its architecture, he seemed to think, although he didn’t know enough about the man (or his wife) to know why that would be the choice. It boasted square pillars across the front that seemed to stretch to the sky, they were that showy… might as well have been marble, because it sure would take a regular crew to keep the brick that pristine, that glowing white. There were pretty trees hanging over the house, bright, flowering bushes dotted all along its skirt of a porch, and vines creeping up those pillars (new vines, really, since they hadn’t flat claimed the place, marked it as theirs… they were still working on the scramble upwards and hadn’t yet gotten around to snaking right into the very walls to make them their own.)

And there were just enough steps leading up to the porch to let you know you’d really arrived somewhere. This place was… gorgeous, stunning, off-setting. It boasted of ranch work and ways (only three steps up, not some humbling entrance required), and yet it boasted chest-swelled wealth. It was a monument really, but not one to mourn a buried Snake King… one for his family to live in, cherish, maintain, pass on.

It was arrogantly friendly, gloriously homey… and, it seemed to Heath, that the house whispered to him with a malicious smile, “oh, but if you’re lowly, you are not welcome in. Not really. So move on, you.” That made him set his back and move straight up to the entrance.

Three men approached from that fancy porch–his brothers, he was sure, since they’d come from out of the gorgeous house. He put on a friendly grin, but he found that he was keeping one careful, protective hand rested over his injured thigh the while–just in case. And in the back of his mind he noted that he had the slightest sheen on his lip, his brow (nerves? the start of a fever from the leg? he wasn’t rightly sure just now). But he plain hoped they wouldn’t notice; it seemed… shameful somehow, or like it would make him look weak.

He marked in an instant how they were all studying him… Blowhard–oh lord, it was BLOWHARD–he stood tall, hands hooked onto his gunbelt, and appraised him with a narrowed, suspicious gaze. And no wonder that! Heath had to literally bite his tongue to keep back a stupid bray of sudden laughter. He had drawn on his own brother on that idiot bridge! They might have killed one another, and wouldn’t that have been a lovely slap at Tom Barkley’s ghost. See what you get for not telling, he heard himself scold the ghost, and a tiny bit of the laughter he was holding in came out through his nose, the barest snort. Holding in the laughter hurt, and so he tried to turn it into anger.

The fancy oldest one in the suit seemed delighted to see him for no apparent reason (that almost set Heath on edge more than anything). And then there was the youngest, bringing up the rear and merely studying him… probably with disinterest. How many men had come riding up to this porch, begging for work, in that damned boy’s lifetime? And somehow, the fact that that youngest one looked a little like Heath… at the jaw, maybe the shade of hair… well, that made him madder still. The laughter was truly gone.

He couldn’t believe he was doing it again… starting the fight with Blowhard. And something told him at a glance that Blowhard was “Nick… he does the hiring.” The one behind him looked too young for it, and the oldest one, in the suit… well, the quality of that suit alone said that he didn’t have time for something as “common” as hiring. But start it, Heath did, with a wry quip about their brawl on the bridge: “Small world, ain’t it?”

Blowhard, gaze still narrowed, parried. “Something for you?”

“Mr. Barkley,” (it came out sounding as if he’d spat the word; it wasn’t his intention) “if you know where I can find him.” He wanted to laugh, again, at that–but this time dark laughter. Mr. Barkley was back there in that grave. These were… just men like Heath. They were his brothers, damnit, just men like him! These weren’t the Snake King, long gone… although their posture, the cut of their clothing, the power that was the three of them linked together in a line, made them the next closest thing. And he was forced into calling THEM mister. His heart started to thump wildly and he was swallowing against a sudden pure swell of rage.

He’d thought he’d find delight in meeting them. But there they were, towering over him somehow, even though he was mounted and looking down at them… because he was calling them mister, like a shuffling servant.

“Take your choice,” he heard Blowhard say through the rushing in his ears. And Blowhard looked around proudly at each of them there on that fancy porch.

“Well,” Heath tried, as calmly as he could, “I was told Nick does the hiring.”

Then Blowhard was grilling him about what he could do… his own brother, and he hadn’t a clue about the life Heath had led, the jobs he’d had to struggle through just to keep meat to mouth. And he heard himself rattling them off in a boastful list… and oh, he could have kept rattling, he’d lived that hard, and that long (and in only twenty four years), but the oldest one interrupted him, asked him his name.

He simply said, “Heath.” He waited for the merest second, a prayer misting the back of his eyes that the name would mean something to them. Anything. It didn’t. He should have known that it wouldn’t. What a fool.

“I was on that train this afternoon,” the suited one said. “Quite a race.”

Heath couldn’t even be amazed that he’d inadvertently met yet another sibling this morning. Fate was truly wicked. And yet, he heard himself boasting about the race being “no contest”… boasting casually about the race that almost killed him in an instant, just as he had about the slew of jobs that had tried his whole life to do him in.

And then the battle was on again with Blowhard; Heath could see it in those squinted eyes. “Where you from?”

“West of the Divide,” he heard himself say… instead of “Strawberry, where your daddy stretched right on out with my mama.”

“How West?” One brother… a BROTHER…grilling him in front of the others, poking him in the chest with his questions.

Heath’s own eyes narrowed. He wasn’t a man to be cornered, and he wasn’t one who spilled his heart secrets lightly. “Purty much all over,” was the only satisfaction he would give the man. Damn him! (And damn Heath for acting like an uppity fool just now… hadn’t he told himself he needed this job? That he WANTED to meet these men, to learn about them?) But Blowhard parried with a question about the last place he’d worked.

Heath contemplated this, didn’t know how to tell it in its complexity–and found his mood twisting again… from the idiotic, stifled laughter, to the killing rage, and now into a decided melancholy. And he found himself amazed that he was keeping it all from his face. How could he say that he had spent a year, working his way ever closer to home (his home a humble shack)–knowing that his mama was most likely dying, struggling to make it close enough to her to help, but never quite able. He’d let his mama die–a long, long dying–and he’d let her do it alone. The Klamath was as close as he’d gotten, and then it was too late, and he got to her, and she was gone.

He twisted his mouth, picked a random spot, because what the hell did it matter? It was clear that Blowhard wasn’t letting him any further onto this incredible, gorgeous ranch–the ranch that had belonged to Heath’s very own sire. “Corning,” he said, and he hoped the sudden weariness he felt wasn’t conveyed in his tone.

Then the oldest one abruptly, surprisingly, ended the battle with the words Heath had convinced himself he’d never hear. “Sign him on, Nick.” (So indeed, Blowhard was Nick.)

“To what? We’re full!”

Casually, the eldest said, “Oh, well, he did me a little favor this afternoon. Sign him on.” Heath studied the suited one–the one whose eyes were almost the same color as his own. Seems he had quite a bit of sway if he could tame Blowhard… er, Nick.

Nick finally conceded. “Uh, take your gear on over to the bunkhouse. See McNally. Tell him to sign you on.” And the whole time he said it, he was grinning, but it was the viper grin, the same one he’d given on the bridge… just before he’d gone for his gun.

*****

There were still a few hours of work left in the day (before the dinner bell, he sighed) and McNally threw a few random chores at Heath since it was too late to assign him to a crew. And somehow, even though Heath suspected that Nick had more pressing business just now, what with the railroad matter–and it was just dawning on Heath that the railroad matter might impact the Barkleys too–well, good ole Blowhard managed to follow along and scrutinize Heath’s work during just about all of it. Nick even managed to find something to do in the barn when Heath was mucking the stalls.

And of all the emotions that had coursed through him when he’d met them, his brothers, the one that got him through the afternoon was rage. (Melancholy and laughter, they always seemed to be in the back of his thoughts, holding hands really, ironic friends… but right now rage was snorting and stomping all through his brain.)

The rage was important because he was hungry, disgusted, and, he had to admit, possibly getting sick from the leg. He wanted to check it, to see if infection was setting in, but he hadn’t the place or the time–or the fortitude, because he knew in his guts what he’d find when he looked. And it really wasn’t good form to ask your new employer for something to clean out the wound he’d helped cause when the two of you had tried to flat kill each other a few hours back.

So when he felt like stopping he worked twice as hard. When he actually felt, one time, like fainting, he clenched his teeth together until his jaw hurt from it and until the feeling slowly passed. Finally Nick had to go off and attend to things–maybe to eat some fancy dinner in that fine house; and finally McNally called the day.

For the moment, Heath didn’t care if the hobbling showed. He fairly dragged himself to a spot at a table in the bunkhouse, hung his head over a plate of cornbread, ham hocks and beans, shoveled the food in, ignoring the queasiness that had settled in for good some time back. Then his stomach was actually full; it had been awhile; it was amazing. That thought gave him the power to make it to his bunk. He slept for a bit, as the tail of daylight whipped itself out, and he awoke when the crickets started talking and the men stopped, settling into snoring instead.

He awoke because the pain in his leg was making his eyes water; it was different–no longer sharp, but constant and throbbing, like a shattered tooth left hanging in the gum. And he was hot. He stripped off his shirt, threw it over a chair near his bunk, carefully bent the leg at the knee; he hoped changing position would help. It didn’t. So what was he to do now? Maybe he could march right up to Nick and say: “I’m Heath, if you recall? Well, I forgot to mention earlier that I’m your daddy’s bastard. So I thought you might see fit to loan me a bed in the big house for a time… this one is fine but the men might stare at me when the dying sets in.”

He let that bit of foolishness settle him back into the rage. He hadn’t expected seeing it all would make him so… angry. All of this! They’d all had ALL of this. Nick did the hiring; the oldest wore a SUIT; Audra had the luxury of tending flowers on her daddy’s grave, the self-importance to smack strangers with a riding crop; he’d heard talk that the youngest was just home from college… COLLEGE. Hell, their bunkhouse was better than most places he’d ever lived. Just their damned bunkhouse.

He had a conscience, yes, but he also had a temper, and sometimes the one flared hotter than the other. And so when the hand was suddenly clamped over his mouth during the heart of night… when Nick threw Heath’s shirt at him, hissing at him to get dressed, Heath felt a strange swell of fear. Not fear OF Nick, no sir… fear that Nick would finally make that temper flare like a wildfire….

Blinding-bright and searing and mean.

*****

It had all made him careless: stupid pain and grief and worry and sleeplessness. Any other time and Nick would have never, NEVER been able to sneak up on him in the bunkhouse, corner him, force him into this unwanted confrontation. Heath would have known… Heath would have simply not been there for the catching.

Or instead, Heath, himself, would have been the one DOING the catching.

And yet, here he was, being marched into the barn, Nick shoving him occasionally from behind and following so closely it was as if he was afraid Heath would outright flee. Heath considered this as he slowly began buttoning his shirt, using each button as a focus, as a center. Each shaking button whispered things like: keep your calm, Heath; do not let him break you, Heath. (But that third button might just have screamed uproariously, break HIM, Heath, smash him!)

Fleeing did sound tempting, but what he’d concluded with a painfully clenched jaw, was that despite the circumstance, for this one fine moment, on this one fine earth, Heath was going nowhere. He’d see this battle with the blowhard through (finally?). He’d been brought here against his will, but he truly hoped to leave on his own terms, so he shored himself up, brick by brick, button by button.

As the doors were soundly shut behind them, Nick hissed a few more things at Heath, asking about where he’d REALLY come from. And then the bait question: “let’s hear it?”

And as Heath slowly finalized the buttons (with the barest odd tremble to his hands), he parried with what he hoped was a truly annoying quip: “Why, you just name a tune and I’ll try to hum it.”

The buttons were done and Nick was still yammering at him: questions about Corning, (“nice town,” Heath flippantly shrugged), about whether it was the last place Heath had worked. And then Nick’s tone dropped, turned blatantly accusatory with the statement: “That’s a hundred miles from here.”

Then Heath got it! And again he might have had to bite back a snort of laughter–if his blood wasn’t crawling under his skin like a living thing, if his very temples weren’t painfully throbbing with rage. Nick–BLOWHARD–actually thought that HEATH was with the railroad! The cussed irony!

Posture casual, Heath inhaled a quiet, mighty breath, and began slowly rolling up his sleeves. He wanted his apparent calm to infuriate Nick, wanted to make him feel like Heath himself was being made to feel just now: jangled, bitter, bleeding raw.

It seemed to be working because Nick hissed, “you usually travel a hundred miles between jobs with a dozen likely spreads on the way?” Heath could feel the waves of anger coming off of Nick at his lack of response; it was wonderful.

Teeth clenched, Nick continued: “I asked you a question, boy.”

Heath lifted his proud chin and glared at Nick. The question was there, the REAL question, unspoken; it was there in the eyes. Nick wanted to know who Heath WAS; something about him, it seemed, was boring right into Nick’s very soul. Of course Heath knew the answer, but he remembered… was sad that he remembered–he’d determined, back at the grave with Audra, that he wasn’t going to crush them all in the telling.

And if this went any further–even another second further–that was exactly what would happen… and he couldn’t let it, despite how glorious it would be to plain smash Nick in his snarling mouth as Heath screamed the caustic truth down at him.

So he turned, brushed past Nick, and headed for the entrance. It was done; he’d had his time here and it had all been an aching misery and it was done.

Then he was being grabbed, twirled, and a smashing fist squarely met his jaw, whipping his head back with an almost audible snap. He whirled with the force of it, fairly flew several feet back, landing with a sound thwack against a table perched near the door. And, in keeping with the black wonder of all of this day, his wounded thigh was what hit… a sound, shattering hit right at the table’s edge.

A deadly hit–one that seemed to hurt worse than that train might have if he’d been a second too slow in that race. A spark shot from the thigh, ran straight into his brain; the insane flare of agony sent him into a crimson place, a place of no thought, really. And no conscience. Not anymore.

Heath was stumbling, closing, as Nick was continuing with his pompous rant, “Alright, you’re no more of a trail-hand than a Modoc… let’s hear it, boy, the truth, what are you doing here?” And then Heath was smashing back, putting every jolting thing he had into punching Nick to shut him up. Once, SMASH. Then again. Then again. Heath laid him out, knocked him over a table of his own… wanted to pick him back up and knock him plain through the wall if he could.

And there was truly no more thinking. They were at each other like murderers, rolling under stall walls, just missing the tromping feet of horses. Each giving as good as he got for a time. But Heath’s body tugged at him to get his attention, whispered something: it whispered that his smashed leg hurt worse than anything Nick was dishing–could dish–and that an overall trembling was setting in that was making it hard to swing with the raging viciousness that he wanted… that he needed.

And then Nick was dragging Heath back up to his feet, the both of them covered in hay, covered in horse muck. “Who sent you here, boy,” Nick yelled, “the railroad?” He punctuated it with a crashing clout to Heath’s clenched teeth. “Crown?” Another blow and Heath was stumbling, trying desperately not to fall. “Jordan?”

That next punch landed Heath against the wall; he was glad for the wall.

“They sent you, didn’t they,” Nick gasped, looking just a mite dented himself, bloodied at the knuckles, at the mouth. In some vague part of his brain, Heath was pleased.

But Heath had to get a word in before he plain slid down the wall into a heap. “No man sends me anywhere,” he declared, and he was glad for the hissing pride in his voice. He wanted, needed Nick to know that fact. But he also desperately needed this fight be over, so he grabbed backwards for anything that would help him, clutched at a heavy leather yoke he happened across. Then, with a mighty heave, he threw the yoke, hoping its impact would end it all because, god, he needed this fight to be over.

But it wasn’t. Nick was at him again and they were rolling through new stalls, and now Heath was fighting with desperation more than rage, his leg a terrible, searing flare. “Please stop,” he wanted to cry, “please help me, Nick. Please help me. Something’s wrong.”

But he literally bit his tongue against those words. And the next punch made his teeth sink right into that bitten tongue, which made him bleed… more. Finally, blessedly, he fell, stumbling backwards into a saddle, and Nick seemed to conclude that he’d dished out enough. (Either that, Heath vaguely hoped, or Nick was feeling a mite poorly himself.)

“Who then?” Nick asked, towering over him. “Who are you?” And the look in Nick’s eyes was quieter now, not enraged. It was truly a look of contemplative curiosity, as if Heath HAD, perhaps, dished it out somehow well enough to beat the rage from Nick–from this truly formidable foe. “I wanna hear,” Nick sneered.

So, there, sprawled on the ground, nearly maddened with pain, Heath made a decision.

But unfortunately his temper was there, full-blown, to help with that decision, blasting in his thigh and growling through his skin… there, and blinding-bright and searing and mean. Thus he decided to punch Nick again, the hardest punch he could land, and in the very worst place. In the soul. But he’d do it from his feet.

It took all he had to get there, leaning heavily on the saddle he’d been thrown into.

“I said who are you?” Nick growled the last of it.

Heath KNEW, when he said the blinding truth, that it would all end here, all of it. Nick was too proud, too distrustful, too wild, too hard, to do anything but outright finish him off afterwards. Kill him, like he’d tried on the bridge when he hadn’t even KNOWN Heath–because Nick would never let this truth get past the walls of the barn… never let it anywhere near that sacred house. Father Tom started a life; Son Nick was going to end it.

But he couldn’t stop his mouth now… IT was a racing train. Yes, he had to get in that last blow before it was all finished. And still, he almost couldn’t believe the words, cruel and twisted, as they issued forth: “Your father’s bastard son.”

Thus he was purely stunned when Nick had him by the collar and was dragging him… to the house? He was glad, on the one hand, that Nick was dragging him, because at the moment he surely couldn’t make it anywhere on his own steam, his bad leg trailing behind. On the other hand… why the hell was Nick dragging him to the house?

Was he going to kill him in THERE?

Heath let out a tiny, weary sigh, shaking his head to try to get his muddled wits together (and noticing vaguely that a splatter of blood from his nose? mouth? landed in the holy Barkley dirt, puddled there, his testament, his mark). He was letting Nick drag him towards those white pillars, those fancy steps and trying–desperately trying–to find a last reserve of raw power to fight with.

But all in all, it would be alright. Because that house was sure one fine and pretty place in which to die.

*****

Maybe he’d been wrong about Blowhard: sure, he was cussed mean, well and truly provoked, more ornery than the devil himself… but maybe not… a murderer? Or maybe Nick could tell, way deep inside, that something was really wrong with Heath… because he hadn’t outright killed him after he’d dragged him through the grandest door Heath had ever been on the other side of and then flung him into some fancy study. (Heath didn’t dare hope that it was because Nick, in some small corner of his heart, believed his story.)

In fact, Nick left him alone at what seemed to be a wall full of whiskey while the blowhard took to pacing and hollering at the top of his lungs for his brothers. (Ah, their names–Jarrod and Eugene. Heath’d put money that the oldest one, the one in the suit, was Eugene. It sounded like a suit sort of a name.) So, while Nick bellowed, Heath slumped heavily against the liquor cabinet there, with its insane array of bottles and glasses, and, after studying the myriad labels, he shakily poured himself a drink. Why the hell not?

But before Heath could toss back the shot to help steady himself, he noted that something warm and slick was sliming in a trail down his leg, sticking his pants to his flaring wound. He wanted to look down and check if his pants were seeping crimson, but he was afraid to; he didn’t want his brothers to see him like this.

He couldn’t let them see him like this. He was Heath Thomson; he’d been through the fire and come out again. He was somehow also Heath Barkley, he WAS, and he would just now be as shining and solid and strong as those damned Barkley pillars out front.

So he turned and perched himself against the liquor cabinet to get the weight fully off of his oozing leg. Then he tried to square his shoulders as the sound of men entering the room swam into his ears… and as his vision blurred a little. And suddenly things were closing in on him in a drastic rush, his eyes dialing into that black dot that threatened unconsciousness, the bile swelling in his throat, making his mouth water, a cold sheen of sweat on his face.

But he was stronger than that, he had to be. He had to. So he dug deeper than he thought he ever had and he found it; the very last tiny knot on the thread of his strength. He took a great gulp of air, another, blinked madly, and got the room back… and then soundly smashed one of the bottles on the edge of the liquor cabinet (out of the fear of almost losing that room; that horrid feeling of blind, dread vulnerability). He wielded its deadly, jagged glass mouth, first at the two new men–the two brothers, Eugene and Jarrod–and next at Nick… and he hoped they couldn’t tell that what remained of the bottle was shaking traitorously in his hand.

Because he’d changed his mind. He didn’t want to die in this house, particularly if it was gonna be all three of them doing the killing. Not tonight.

In a whir, Heath thought of all the things he could say just now… hurtful things, sad things, vile things, wistful things, but instead he simply glared. He hadn’t the energy for a diatribe just yet. He would wait to see how this played itself out while he shored himself up a bit more.

“Nick, what in the devil is all this about,” Suit demanded, eyes shifting from the broken bottle to Heath’s fierce gaze. And Heath could tell that Suit knew in an instant that the bottle was a bluff, a scare tactic… maybe even a mark of Heath’s own quiet terror. This one could read people, that was for sure.

Nick, however couldn’t… kept trying to edge his way closer to the liquor cabinet (Heath’s savior, just now, the kind friend that kept him from sliding to the floor), and so Heath trained the glass weapon on him, clenched his jaw to make the shaking go out of his hand. Nick kept his own gaze fearsome, but stopped in his sneaky movements forward. Clearly, Heath thought, he wasn’t quite as good at the people reading.

Clearly he couldn’t tell that if Heath tried to swing that bottle, slash with it, he’d most likely go toppling forward and impale himself on it instead.

Finally Nick stammered, tongue stumbling over his rage, “This…. He has the gall… he… he CLAIMS…”

“Can’t get your mouth around it?” Heath quirked an eyebrow, grinned a dark grin. His voice sounded steady enough, albeit low. And his gibe made Nick flash brighter, which gave Heath a snorting jolt of glee.

“He has the damned nerve to come onto this ranch and say he’s Father’s BASTARD son!” Nick hollered his response to the dig, tried to dig back with the sneering emphasis on the word “bastard.” The youngest boy visibly startled at that. Suit just cocked his head the tiniest bit and narrowed his eyes. (And it was as if, just maybe, Suit already knew it to be… a possibility. Or–Heath prayed–a truth?)

There was a beat, all of them studying each other in this fine room, and then, never taking his vivid blue eyes off of Heath, Suit calmly intoned. “Keep your voice down, Nick. And explain why, exactly, you chose to bring him here? Now?”

Nick glared at his older brother. “He’s here because you’re the lawyer, Jarrod.” (Ah, Heath amended. So Suit was Jarrod? Go figure. He sure had seemed like a Eugene.) “Because you can tell him to go to hell, right here, right now! And because if you don’t,” Nick hissed, pointing a dagger of a finger at Heath, “I swear… I’ll send him there my own way.”

Heath knew that Nick’s threat was real. If Jarrod couldn’t get rid of him, Nick would try to “send him to hell” without a second thought–as casually as one would put down a rabid dog. But Heath was amazed when he heard himself say, “Unless I send you there first,” and that his voice was calm when he said it, despite the thumping anger at Nick’s threat–despite the thumping pain in his leg. “Why, it’d be kinda nice and biblical…” he drawled, “all Cain and Abel like.”

Then Heath noticed it, the picture over the mantel; it was the same man as in his newspaper clipping. It was his father. And his poisonous rage was still thumping, so he attacked them all with one sneered declaration. “Well there he is, the old stud himself.”

At that Eugene finally came to life, lunged at him, but Jarrod grabbed him, firmly held him back. So Jarrod wasn’t going to let this go to violence? Heath relaxed his grip on the bottle (it had admittedly begun to give him a dreadful cramp in his hand, he’d been clutching it so tightly). He decided to stop baiting them, if that was how Jarrod was going to play it. Courtesy begot the same.

Indeed, with a long, daring look at Nick, he let the broken bottle drop to the floor. (And fancy that… Nick didn’t charge; Jarrod WAS clearly the leader here… for now.) Then he took the tiniest, quavering sip of the shot he’d poured, ignoring the burn at his bloodied lip. Eugene and Nick were watching the broken bottle, but Jarrod was watching Heath’s shaking hand as it fumbled to set the shotglass back down beside him. Their gazes met and it was shaming and intimate; Jarrod had seen his weakness. He’d been exposed.

Thus he had nothing left to lose, so he told it; in a slow drawl–bitter and tender and wistful and packed with ire–he told about his mama. How he’d buried her himself in a potter’s field, digging the hole, awkwardly maneuvering the box–that there was no troop of some thousand mourners to sing HER praises. He didn’t have some extravagant painted portrait of her, like that tribute hanging over the fancy Barkley mantel, not even a plain photograph. In fact, he hadn’t a thing left to remember her by now… except the pretty pictures in his head–which would one day surely hiss out, like a pinched off candle wick.

And they had all paused to listen… with what almost seemed like compassion: Eugene’s head was tipped, face open and attentive; Jarrod leaned back, but with sad eyes that carefully studied all of Heath; even Nick stopped the clenching and unclenching of his fists, crossed his arms on his chest, and listened in silence

At least they seemed to understand the galling bite that was loss, that was death.

And then he was telling about his birth, he had no idea why; how there’d been no man to fetch a doctor. Only a tent and rain and mud and misery. And then he slowed his speech down, his eyes wide with bittersweet memory, “But do you know what she was? She was warm. And gentle. And fair.” And weak, and fragile, he should have said in all honesty, but didn’t. He almost felt himself misting up when he did tell how alone she’d been her whole life, really, but he locked it all down, and instead spat, “Until he came.”

“How long ago was this?” Jarrod asked. Heath felt another tiny swell of hope. Jarrod wasn’t calling him a liar outright! He was trying to determine when this MIGHT have occurred. He told them when (twenty-four years ago); he told them where (Strawberry).

And he saw that, with one tiny detail, he suddenly had them… they damned well KNEW! They knew about Strawberry! Even the youngest one whirled to look at the others, his face a picture of clear amazement. Heath wanted to laugh or to shout. They knew and, being his brothers–the brothers he’d dreamed of–they had to be men of honor beneath it all. They had to be. (And had he really found a place, his thumping heart asked… had he found it all?)

But then Nick flared even hotter, as if the truth stuck like a burning lump in his craw. If Heath had punched Nick in the soul with his confession about good ole Tom Barkley, Nick was doing it to Heath now with scalding insults about his mama. He was fairly well calling her a harlot… would have said the word outright, or worse, if Jarrod hadn’t stopped him. (And there was Jarrod again, taking his side. Heath was amazed.) Jarrod eased closer to him, studied him with that clever, telling gaze, and asked Heath when he’d found out.

“A month ago.”

And then Nick was verbally jabbing at him again, hollering his disbelief, but Jarrod interrupted by asking what had happened a month ago. Heath jabbed back at Nick, tried to make him feel bad for all of the things he’d said about her with the flat, bottomless declaration: “My mother died.”

But Nick didn’t even flinch. His mocking, snorted response was: “Confessions from a death bed.”

Jarrod yelled, “Nick, that’ll be enough.” But then… he seemed to turn his ire on Heath: “Well?” he snapped. Heath’s hope slipped just a bit at the caustic flash in Jarrod’s eyes.

But Jarrod had to be a man of honor; he’d see; he’d understand. He had to. So Heath told it. About getting there almost too late, about the family Bible in the box, about her needing to tell him something… some sacred thing she had to tell before she passed on to glory. Then, he reached into his pocket and pulled it out, the holy proof. The only proof he’d ever had, the only link to his father (and that six years too late).

He reverently handed it to Jarrod, who gingerly unfolded it, read it, passing it over to Nick’s demanding hand next. Eugene didn’t seem to need to see it at all–or was it that he found it too disdainful to touch? There was a long pause, the air thick. Here it is, Heath thought, the… pendulum moment. He’d heard that phrase somewhere and it seemed to fit. A muted, distant clock chimed the half hour, as if to agree.

Then the pendulum swung. A piece of Heath’s heart shattered when Jarrod stayed quiet, letting Nick take the lead.

“This it?” Nick demanded. “All of it? This one piece of paper?”

Heath found himself sounding like a whiny, tired child when he went to defend his claim, declaring that this WAS his father, stammering about Nick not believing him. (How could they not KNOW he was their brother? Did they think he was low enough to make this all up? That he was THAT kind of a man?) And then Nick was shoving the clipping back into Heath’s pocket.

There was one more desperate chance. Heath turned to Jarrod, eyes just pleading. But the good things, the careful things that he had seen in Jarrod’s own studious gaze through it all… they winked out; they went stony and blank. And something fragile in Heath’s heart–as fragile as a tiny, speckled bird’s egg in a squeezing fist–it crushed. Turned to dust. Blew away.

Jarrod put on a careful, witty smile and said, “You put together a very touching story. Not convincing, but touching.” And then he was fishing in his pocket, pulling out an astonishing stack of bills. “However, considering whom it might hurt, even though it is a lie, I’m willing to pay. Three hundred? Four hundred? What’ll you take?”

Nick snatched the money from Jarrod, shoved it, too, into Heath’s shirt pocket, patted it condescendingly. No, Heath gritted with a horrible dawning, they knew and they were trying to buy him out. They KNEW and they were going to simply get rid of him!

Because if they hadn’t believed him, they wouldn’t have offered him a thing! They’d have had him bodily tossed from this place, maybe even arrested. (Jarrod, he was a lawyer, Nick had said; he could surely pull something like that off.) Heath felt the bile rise in his throat again, wanted to throw up; or he wanted to smash every cussed bottle in the room. But some stray part of his brain noted that the ooze on his leg had almost reached the knee… was gonna make its dripping way down into his boot soon if he didn’t get out of here and tend to himself. There was so much more to say, to holler, to demand… but he needed to leave while he still could, under his own dreadfully waning power.

Nick was blustering again about finishing him off if he ever laid eyes on him, but Heath could only hear the rush of his maddened pulse in his ears. He reached a fumbling hand into his pocket, clutched the bills, the newspaper clipping, and shoved it all–with a pointed glance at each of them–into his glass of whiskey.

It was five steps to the door. He was straight and tall for every one of them. He paused, his back to the room, thought about giving them a one-fingered salute, but decided he’d leave with pride. He turned it into a three fingered wave–one finger for each of them–coupled it with a snarl of a grin.

It was nine steps from the study’s door to the grand entrance. He went to stagger against a piece of furniture, but out of the corner of his eye he caught Audra, standing like a pretty statue on the stairs. So he made those nine steps as well. Barely. And then he was outside, stumbling, almost falling, catching himself on a bench beside that fancy doorway.

Heath crammed all thinking way, way down inside–all thinking, not a single thought, not yet–and focused only on movement. He used every support he could grab–pillar, tree, hitching post–to help him to the bunkhouse. He gathered his gear and then, using the same staggering method, made it to the barn to get his pony. He doubted that they’d follow and make good Nick’s threat right off, and nobody was around, so he took the opportunity to check his leg.

He almost laughed at what he saw… laughter through a hot swell of unbidden, reactive tears. (The pain was so bright as he peeled the pants off the leg, where they’d been fairly glued to his wound by the oozing, that his eyes teared right up.)

Nick, cussed Nick, might have saved him from a bit of gangrene for a time! It wasn’t blood that had been working its way down his leg, it was pus. There was a trail of blood, sure, from a line of busted stitches, but mostly he was oozing greenish yellow. He’d had a mighty fine abscess going already, it seemed, and that bash at the edge of the table had busted its hot redness clean open, letting free the infection. He pulled his canteen and poured it to rinse the slime from his leg, deciding against dabbing at it with his kerchief. If he touched it, he feared, he might just pass out in this barn–not one of his favorite places in the world at the moment.

When the leg was good and rinsed, he fished his spare shirt from the saddle bags and, using his teeth (hell! his smashed mouth hurt something fierce… but it was a pretty angel compared to Satan the thigh), he ripped another strip from the bottom. He could only sigh as he held the shirt up. If he went to wear it now it would hit somewhere above his navel… so he had the one pair of pants AND only one shirt.

And he had idiotically stuffed three hundred dollars (or was it four?) into a shot of whiskey–a shot he’d never even finished. So, was one tiny sip of a drink all he’d ever get from Tom Barkley–an ironic, stingy, condescending toast to Heath’s meaninglessness? (Stop it, Heath, he growled to himself. No thoughts. None!)

A fierce trembling began to rattle his whole frame and he decided with clenched teeth that, regardless, a drink sure would help just now. He shakily rewrapped the leg and gingerly, tentatively slid the pants back up. Then he limped a crooked path, leading the pony towards a bale of hay, which he used to help him mount up. He rode out of the barn, leaving the doors open wide behind him, headed straight to the pretty, pretty archway at the gate. He looked up at it, memorized it, and then he spat in the dirt there. It was childish, but he couldn’t help himself. Maybe Nick would slip on it in the morning. When he’d gone about a mile he decided he needed a rest, even though it was going to be hell getting back up on the pony.

He found a spot of sweet grass and lay back for awhile–he only had a little time, he figured, before the innkeep in Stockton flat gave his room away. But he needed this moment of repose. Boy howdy, did he ever! He was as shaky, as wound up, as after a battle in an actual war. So, while he stared at the pretty stars, a hand gently clutching his leg as if it could stop the maddening pain there, he tried to find a calming focus. Then he had it… began working methodically, alphabetically, through every cuss word he knew. “B,” of course, was easy. But he could only officially get to “e” and then he was stumped. How funny, that. Had some good stuff for “f” after, not much good for “g,” a smattering for “h”… but it was the vowels that really threw you, he supposed.

Then he sang, for a time, a hymn he remembered from childhood… from Mama. The first verse comforted him, but he found himself stumbling over the next in a sad, warbly tone. “I saw him in the evenin’, the sun was sinkin’ low. He’d overcome the mountain, and reached the… vale below; but he… saw the golden city… his… everlasting home.” Heath closed his eyes, stuttered out the last of it that he could, “And he shouted loud Hosanna… deliverance will come….”

And then he choked on a sob that welled up unbidden in his throat. He threw an arm over his streaming eyes, gasped out a broken, stuttering stream of pain that went somehow deeper than words, beyond words: “Why? Why… the hell? Why always?”

He wanted to demand more of the stars, but the sudden sobbing was deep, raw, hitching in his chest, filling up his throat, and he couldn’t work his mouth around it, couldn’t gasp out anymore words.

When he was done, when the stupid storm had passed, he took in a deep, shuddering breath, and then he got up. He shakily remounted with a weary moan, clucked the pony, and headed to town, letting the night wind ease the remnants of his tears.

*****

The sounds of random gunshots jolted him awake when he got to the edge of town–and he discovered from the jolting that he’d been drifting in the saddle. It was hard to shake the caul of sleep; he was so very tired that his eyes burned from it. But he shifted to wake himself, flinched with the shifting, then blew a low whistle as he finally blinked and took in his surroundings….

It was rowdier on the streets tonight than it had been… when was that? Just last night? (Amazing what dark twists a life could take in a single, horrid day.) In the distance men were howling, laughing, blasting their sidearms into the sky; Heath even saw the satin flash of some poor dancehall girl’s dress as she was circled by several very ardent admirers. The railroad must be winding it up a notch, pulling the last of them in, getting ready to strike a blow.

He stayed well back from the center of the chaos and sat for a minute in the saddle to plan. Food would be crucial in the next few days, but he also knew from practice that he could make it for quite awhile without–and he’d had a sound meal today, in the bunkhouse. He wasn’t sure what his future was–he still had to work that one through; refused to think about it just yet–but if nothing else, he could head out to the range again… just head farther from this damned railroad business, then he could disappear into the wild: hunt, trap, fish for a time.

So medicine was where the last of his change would go. A dead man wasn’t much good at hunting.

It was late, but doctors didn’t lock their doors. He pulled out his change, counted it again with a frown, and hoped that it would be enough. The room had cost him three dollars and fifty cents, the stable another two bits… the carrots a penny tip. So there it was, Heath in a sum: a faithful pony, a worn saddle, pants and a shirt, his sparse gear, his rifle (but not many cartridges left, if he thought about it, which he refused to do), NO lucky tin of beans… and two dollars and forty two cents to his name.

The next thought caused an audible snort. Nick owed him at least ten cents for mucking out those stalls this afternoon; he’d done a right fine job of it. Maybe he’d head on back tomorrow to collect his wages.

And then he got back to the task at hand, craned his head until he found the doctor’s shingle, headed that way. He sat for another while on his mount, deciding if he wanted to put all of his weight on the bad leg in the stirrup and swing the good one over, or rip at the bad one by swinging IT over. It was gonna hurt like the blazes either way, so he shrugged and flopped out of the saddle randomly, cussing out loud when his boots hit dirt. (He was stuck on the “d” swear words since, in good conscience, he hadn’t yet come up with anything for “e”.)

Hat in hand he knocked, and then waited patiently–despite the random shudder from chills that struck him now and again, despite the pure agony of standing. It took a brief time, but finally a lamp was lit and the door opened a crack. “Help you?” the man asked, his eyes not narrowed exactly… it was more like they were getting used to being opened again.

Heath sighed, got straight to it, held out the two dollars and forty two cents, watching as the coin glinted weakly in the light from the lamp. “I caught a bit of wood from a bridge in my leg. I stitched it up best I could but it went to pus. I got it banged again and I think it’s…”

“Come on,” the doctor nodded, ushering him into a small room with a bed, a corner chair, and glass-paned cupboards full of all sorts of bright bottles and shining instruments, then locking the outer door behind them. “Can you sit?” he asked, making a hand gesture towards the bed.

Heath thought about it for a beat and then said, “Think standing would be best…. So is this enough?” He still held the proffered fistful of change.

“Let’s see what kind of foolishness I’m dealing with,” the doctor muttered, fishing out a pair of glasses, hooking them over his ears. There was a long pause; he cleared his throat. Heath was confused for a second, and then a blush crept up his neck as realized the problem. He unhitched the pants. There was no getting around this indignity, so he dropped them, head hung, and went to fumble for the makeshift bandage tied high on his thigh. The doctor gently slapped his hand away.

“I’ve got the shingle, son,” he said as he worked to delicately cut the cloth away, and then he was peering at the injury. “Abscess. Broken open… that’s a good thing. Did it help with the pain? When they’re lanced, it usually does.”

“Not so much,” Heath muttered. “I broke it open by mistake. Got it… smashed against a table edge. That kinda put a whole new twist on the pain part.”

The doctor straightened up then, crossed his arms, really took in the full form of his patient. “So, you caught some wood in your leg? A pretty decent chunk?” Heath nodded. “Which I assume you personally removed, before doing this fine stitching job?” Heath bunched his nose and nodded. “And then you let it fester?” Heath flinched and nodded. “And then you busted it against some table hard enough to ‘lance’ it…” the doctor paused, grabbed Heath’s chin, turned it this way and that, noting the cuts and bruises on the face, dropped his gaze to take in the bruised knuckles, “presumably in a brawl?” Heath sighed and nodded.

“And you’ve got a bit of a fever going from it all too,” the doctor offered, the back of his hand now rested on Heath’s forehead. But his eyes were twinkling. “How’s the other fellow?”

“Just fine,” Heath scowled. “Fine as frogs’ fur.”

“You’re not gonna like me much,” the doctor said. “I need to clean this out properly, stitch it again, wrap it tightly. And you’ll need medicine after… at the very least an Epsom salt paste to help draw out any more fluid. Keep up with your liquids and the fever should pass.”

Heath hung his head, frowned, blew out a sigh. “I’m thinkin’ that sounds like more than two dollars and forty two cents worth a’ work.”

“I’ll take it out of you in trade,” the doctor said, but there was a smile in his tone.

“All I got’s my pony, and I can’t let you have her,” Heath smiled back, “she’s a biter.” The doctor chuckled as he moved around the room, gathering what he’d need, and for a moment Heath was tempted to let his eyes mist up. Such simple, sweet compassion… from a stranger.

“Nope. Wouldn’t want a biter. But how are you at shingling roofs?” the doctor asked with a wink. Then he said: “Standing’s not going to work; let’s get you more comfortable.”

Heath made it to the bed, threw his head back and gritted his teeth at sitting… and sighed in relief when the doctor helped him to actually lie back. And then the doctor got down to it… and was benevolent enough to offer Heath a dose of laudanum before he started. Heath wondered how many shingles that kind dose would cost, but it was a warm, mellow thought just now. And pretty soon he was boneless, pliant–sunken into the wondrous mattress as the doctor worked.

But Heath had to fight back a hiss, even with the opiate, as the doctor went to digging into the leg after he’d clipped Heath’s stitch work. After a time the man frowned. “Here’s your problem–well, one of them. You left a bit of wood in the wound.” He held it up, a decent chunk clutched in tweezers, for Heath to see.

“Yeah,” Heath, already feeling a tiny, blessed bit of relief, crooked a lazy laudanum grin. “I kinda did some passin’ out when I yanked the big bit. Guess I forgot to poke on through there for anymore.”

“Well,” the doctor finally intoned as he clipped the last of his own careful stitches, then turned to get the clean white dressing he’d set out, “this should heal up quite a bit better now.”

“Can’t heal up much worse than it was,” Heath drawled as the doctor helped him to sit, then to stand, holding him steadily at the bicep for a few seconds as Heath blinked, swayed, then found his feet.

Heath (carefully, methodically, drunkenly) set all of his money on the counter as the man prepared and then handed him a package, including scribbled directions on how to apply the paste. When the doctor tried to slide him back a few coins, Heath set his jaw and refused. Then Heath asked, hat in hand again, package under his arm, what would be a good day for him to head back to town for the shingling.

The doctor tried to laughingly wave off the offer, but Heath was clearly insistent. Finally the man shrugged, apparently amused at the stubbornness of his patient–even when said patient was mildly drugged. “Give that leg at least a week before you do any work like shingling. And come back right away if it gets any worse. I probably have some painting that needs doing too; that should cover a second visit.”

Thus Heath found himself grinning as he made his way to his room. The lovely remnant of laudanum helped him float past most of the rabble in the streets as he led the pony to a hitching post near the hotel. Then he was mildly frowning, trying to decide what to do about the fact that he had no coin left with which to stable her (maybe he could muck stalls for trade too, since the actual townsfolk seemed friendly enough), when he looked up to catch a new chaotic swell of fighting just behind him… four men, then five, surrounding a mount, whooping and pulling gleefully at the rider.

And on that mount was Audra Barkley, fiercely but ineffectively whipping at them all with that damned little quirt.

Heath sighed.

By the time the men had her kicking, flailing, quirt-whipping form out of the saddle and in their grasp, Heath had barreled through. He was wobbly from the laudanum and limping, but he knew this was vital. So, timing it just right, he gave the man gripping her most tightly a mighty shoulder check, gave a second a sound elbow in the soft belly, and then he had her and was ducking low as he hustled her off the streets, through the busy hotel lobby, up the stairs, and into his room. He was vaguely surprised that it was still his room… and truly surprised that she’d come along quietly and agreeably once she’d seen it was him. He’d expected her to be clawing and whipping at him the while.

“I’m hurt,” she declared as he deposited her in the middle of the room and rushed to the window, checking to see if a swarm had decided to follow him up for this tasty tidbit. He noted that she’d used that same petulant tone she’d given him back at the grave. And Heath had to marvel… how HAD she lived this long? Money must be an amazing, fortifying thing.

“Hurt?” he barked. “You’re lucky you’re not dead, you little fool.” Or worse, he thought, suddenly remembering a ruined corpse he’d once come across in Mexico; it had been a girl, about Audra’s age. The thought burnt the last pleasant buzz of laudanum from his brain.

She was too pampered to know danger, and she was his sister. He would have raised her better than that… a thought that enraged him and made his tone as sharp as glass. “And just what the hell were you thinking, riding into a town full of hired guns in the middle of the night?”

“Nobody talks to me like that,” she said, chin raised and eyes flashing. “Not ever.”

“Try them” Heath parried, indicating the street below. Then he sighed; she was also too defiant to get it! And that realization suddenly calmed him again, almost made him have to swallow a grin… she sure WAS his sister, because Heath had spent the last few days (years?) in a state of “too defiant to get it” as well. He limped to the pitcher, the one he’d quelled his hunger with the night before, and dug through a drawer for some linen to use as a bandage (since his cussed half shirt was still with his gear below).

Then he pulled her to the bed, put the pitcher in his lap, and after a quick investigation of the injury, went to rip the linen into strips with his teeth. (He was getting powerful good at bandage making… maybe he could just apprentice on with the town’s friendly doctor for a time.) He kept his eyes averted the while because her shirt was badly ripped and her camisole was showing… he didn’t want to impose on her modesty.

Then she fairly purred, “You’re a rough one, aren’t ya’?”

So much for modesty. “I’ve crossed a few hills,” he said, and now his eyes were averted for the sake of his own modesty. She hadn’t seemed to have picked up that particular trait in her schooling either. Seems he was going to have to make a whole list of things to teach her… and then he realized that he’d likely never have that chance.

Thankfully, she didn’t pick up on his sudden pained expression. She nattered on, gaily, “That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. See places like you have. Do what I want, no matter what.”

He wanted to tell her that some of the places he’d seen he wouldn’t show to the devil if he begged, but he held it back, swallowed a fresh spark of ire, worked on cleaning the wound. (It wasn’t too bad; he doubted she’d need to brawl with Nick in the barn to fix it.) She wasn’t being malicious about his past, just… uninformed. Then she was musing about her family, as if the two of them were at a picnic and not holed up in a hotel room having just escaped a group of would-be rapists (hopefully escaped… Heath was on edge, had his ear trained at the door just in case; it wouldn’t take much looking to find them and he sure wasn’t up for a brawl anytime soon).

“My brother, Nick,” she said with a smile, “he takes nuthin’ from anyone.” (Heath snorted at that.) “That’s how I’d like to be. My father was like that.” (Thanks, Heath thought, I wanted to know more about Snake King.) “My mother thinks I’m shameless. Jarrod says I’m spoiled. (Do tell, Heath mused.) And then her voice got wistful, “Nick, he understands.”

So was that it? Was she here to plead Nick’s case, Heath wondered with a frown? But he took a quick glance at her, decided no. She simply had dreams too, it seemed. And he shouldn’t take his anger at their brothers out on her… even if she was a bit on the foolish side. She couldn’t help the way she’d been raised and was too young to know the difference.

What a blessing, he pondered darkly, to be able to be that young.

Then she cocked her head and said, “You’re like Nick.” (Like hell, he thought…. Yeah, I’m exactly like Nick, give or take fifty thousand dollars and the temper of a bee stung mule–and respect, and pants, and power, and something to eat tomorrow. Where the blazes was she going with all of this; why was she here?)

And in a very short time he learned why she was here.

She asked, coyly, if he was taking her home. And he knew that he would, that he had to. It was too dangerous out there for her to go unescorted. (He wondered with a snort if, when he showed up with their missing daughter in tow, the family would pay him, say, ten dollars for bringing her home safely–hell, six dollars and eighteen cents, so he could cut his losses–or if Nick would get straight back to the “sending him to hell” part of their brotherly bond thus far.)

And then he looked up, truly took her in. She had inched closer to him, was posing deliciously… flirtatiously! She was… being seductive! He wanted to be wrong, but he couldn’t. He steeled himself, his back ramrod straight, jaw clenched, and murmured, “I guess you know where you are?”

“Alone,” she fairly whispered. And he could smell her sweet breath on him, like peaches, or honey… even her breath was pampered. “In a room. With a man. It’s the first time. But there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there? To run. To talk. To love.” And with each word she’d come closer, then closer still. His heart was thrumming in panic and he was frozen: the angle of his wounded leg made it impossible to shimmy back away from her; it was decidedly impossible to get any closer to her; and he couldn’t outright shove her backwards off the bed.

So when her lips were right at his–closer, even, than those of many a girl he’d craved in his lifetime–he shattered it all with an addendum to her list. “To test your brother?” he asked, teeth clenched… just before she’d pressed her pretty lips to his. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?” (And in some vague part of his brain he mused… damned good thing he WAS her brother and not some conman, or this would be one sorry little filly.)

And then she was once more the wildcat from the grave, “Liar! Lies!” She finally got around to smacking at him again, trashing, kicking, and he merely used what was left of his strength to keep her subdued.

Then chaos descended. The door crashed open, kicked in, and men were in the room. They HAD been tracked! One of them grabbed Audra, whisking her towards the window, pressing himself upon her. Heath went feral with panic, grabbed the nearest thing, a lantern, vaguely noting that he scorched his hand on the flue as he threw it at the man. It missed, smashing through the window.

And then Heath found himself struggling with the other, catching a rain of blows for the second time tonight. He stumbled from the force of it, fell back on the bed. He was swimming with it, new random, lively pains, and fighting back with all he had–clawing, punching, trying to drive his knee into the fellow–because the first man had Audra. She needed him; the man had her, was clawing at her torn clothing, trying to press his whiskey mouth on hers!

Heath gritted his teeth, gathered everything he had to throw the second attacker off of him… when more men rushed into the room. Men with guns drawn this time. Heath wondered vaguely if they’d shoot him before or after the rape, felt his bile rise, nearly choking on the burn of it.

And then it was over. It was the sheriff and Audra was safe and it was over.

Although the buzz of laudanum was decidedly gone from his brain, Heath was glad for the moment that it was still humming under his skin… because he was pretty sure his face was good and broken this time. And even though the pain was way off in the distance, one spot at his ribs flared almost as bright as his leg for a moment. He dropped his head back onto the mattress and closed his tired eyes. Nick had started it… but the railroad might have finished it.

*****

Heath groaned and went to sit up from the mattress–stiffly, wearily… but found Audra perched at his side helping him with careful, steady hands. The room grew from muddied to clear again, and he was hearing the sheriff say: “I’ll let you explain this to your family, Miss Barkley. They can explain it to me.” The sheriff took a long few moments to study, first Audra, and then Heath, his eyes narrowed dangerously. “He’s with you, I take it?” It was more a statement tinged with suspicion than a question.

“He saw me leave the ranch and came after me,” Audra offered, eyes wide with the simplicity of her assertion… with perfected innocence.

The sheriff studied them both for another long beat, and then he moved to follow his deputies out. He stopped at the door. “I don’t imagine you’ll be… pressing charges against those fellows, Miss?” he asked, hinting somehow at more future Barkley involvement in what was a decidedly shameful affair. Off her firm headshake he responded, “Then I’ll escort them down and be back directly.”

Once the room was empty, Heath gathered himself together and murmured, “Are you alright?” He shook his head lightly against the throb there, then lifted it to examine her; her shirt was a bit more ruined but she truly, blessedly, seemed fine.

“Are you?” she parried with a shaky frown, and her voice was suddenly quavering–not the steady, assured tone she’d used on the sheriff… maybe because of how close the two of them had come to deadly consequence (brother and sister?). Then his flitting, worried gaze caught hers; he found that way deep in her eyes was something… some kind and tender thing like… understanding, maybe. Or like… profound sorrow laced with golden sparks of joy?

She was grieving something. And something else had her overjoyed. And then Heath knew–her sparkling eyes told him–he had somehow passed her test! One Barkley believed his claim!

“Been lots better,” he said, flexing his jaw carefully and giving her a wink. “Been lots worse.” Then he slowly shrugged off his vest and passed it to her, pressing a hand to a small flare at his side after the movement.

She hung her head, slid the worn vest on, buttoned it over her ruined blouse… and even though her blonde hair was a pretty drape, he could see a single tear roll its way down her nose. He watched it, amazed, as it splashed on the coverlet, was absorbed there. It was most likely a tear for the loss of some sacred part of her father… but it might also be a simple tear for Heath. For him!

A tear for him?

When she raised her head, eyes still brimming, she gave him a glorious smile, just wavering with emotion, confirming all that he’d suspected. She believed him; she knew him; she claimed him as hers. He used it all as medicine, a balm. He made it to his feet, leaning heavily on the nightstand, and then she was lifting his muscled arm, putting it over her thin shoulders. It was comforting; it felt good. Heath couldn’t stop his own stupid grin, even though it worried a split at the corner of his lip and stung like the dickens.

They made the door just as the sheriff and the innkeeper got there. “The window is smashed,” the innkeeper was whining to the sheriff while flashing a scowl at Heath.

“I am sorry,” Heath offered sarcastically. He couldn’t help himself. “Was trying to save a girl’s life is all. I’ll sit right on back next time and watch.”

“It’s all my fault, truly,” Audra intervened with a pretty, woeful expression. “Please, just bill any damages to my family.” Heath doubted he’d ever heard a more beautiful statement, ever. At the worst he would be facing jail time over the ruined property. At the least he would have to do odd jobs in the hotel for several dreary weeks to replace that pane (even the shredded linen)… and he was NOT feeling up to either of those options just now.

“Is that good enough for you?” the sheriff asked the innkeeper, his gaze never stopping in steady appraisal of Heath.

“It’ll have to be,” the innkeeper huffed, crossing his arms prissily. Heath wanted to snort at that… sure, and you’ll likely bill them for triple what that glass is worth, and four times the rag… but the stupid, aching grin was back at his face.

“We’ll be heading home now,” Audra said to the sheriff, bequeathing him one of her diamond smiles. “Thank you again.” And Heath was marveling at how wily she was as she fairly dragged him up the hall. Pondered whether to be chagrined or pleased, just now, at her clever propensity for lying… and for gracefully escaping the scene of her own crime.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’ll escort you out of town, Miss Barkley,” the sheriff interrupted their flight by catching up to them. “There’s a lot more men like those two downstairs… and,” he said, tipping his block of a chin towards Heath, “this fellow here doesn’t seem… ‘up’ to properly escorting you. It’s what your family would want.”

“Fine,” Audra nodded graciously.

And in no time Heath was somehow downstairs, in the rowdy street, and struggling into his patient pony’s saddle again. Audra trotted up beside him after the sheriff delivered her wayward mount and boosted her into the saddle. Her fair brows were dipped in concern, but Heath gave her another wink. He wasn’t going to worry her, so he sat up, flinched once, sat up straighter still with a clenched jaw, and galloped out of town at her heels.

*****

Riding felt like hell. Everything, in fact, felt like hell: every jolt and bounce and grimace. Except his heart. She was his little sister and she believed him and he was going to glory in that fact until he got to the ranch and Nick killed him outright for “showing his face in the valley” again. But even Nick couldn’t steal this tiny gem of pure joy, not right this moment.

But, boy howdy, did everything feel like hell. He was looking desperately forward to getting back to that hotel bed, even if the breeze would whip through the smashed out window. More than anything, at this moment, he craved sleep… was sheer starving for it. (Indeed, Nick killing him might even prove restful for a time just now.)

He went muzzy for awhile, let his mind drift blissfully away, his ruined body taking over the riding…. Roused a bit, vaguely aware of them stopping at the farthest outskirts of town, of Audra saying, “We’re alright from here, Sheriff, thank you.”

Then the sheriff was talking. “Hey, you’re new with the Barkleys, aren’t ya?” Heath wondered mildly at that… the sheriff had known Audra was a Barkley, hadn’t he?

He slid a glance at the man, saw that the sheriff was talking to him. Worried for a minute that he’d forgotten how to speak… and that he couldn’t think of what to say even if he could remember how to work his mouth. Wake up, Heath, he chided–wondered what was wrong with him: if it was the tail end of the laudanum; the hell of a day he’d had topped by yet another late night ride; this latest lovely beating; the anxiety of heading back to that grand house with Audra in tow.

But the sheriff was leaning forward in his saddle, studying him pointedly, which interrupted his vague musings… but still didn’t produce anything viable. Thankfully, Audra answered for him. “He saw me ride out. He came after me.”

“So you said, Miss. What’s your name?”

Heath pursed his lips. He had that one, he was fairly sure. Then Audra, with a quick frown in his direction (turned into a brilliant smile for the sheriff), offered: “Heath.”

“Heath what?”

Heath finally had his wits, but both he and Audra were stumped over that answer. Heath what, indeed. She turned to him, a question in her gaze, and then suddenly whipped her head forward to gasp at something that she’d seemingly caught in the corner of her eye. “Fire!”

“That’s Swenson’s place,” the sheriff declared, and then they were spurring their mounts in earnest.

Heath put the pain away, snapped out of the muddle, and focused on the fire ahead. Dreadful, consuming, huge… if it was somebody’s place, that place no longer existed and that was a fact. What a thick and horrid tragedy… to have everything taken in a mere few moments. Then he flashed back to the death of his mama, and that raw swell of sorrow came up, but this time for a stranger; he felt a tragic camaraderie.

The sorrow was thick in his throat as they reached the homestead, almost thicker than the choking stench of smoke there. And indeed, it wasn’t a home any longer. It was the last licks of flames; sooty, coughing men; one blackened brick fireplace that crumbled to nothing as they watched. And in the middle of it all stood a stunned woman, using her soiled apron to wipe the ash from a painting. Heath glanced around… other than a few pieces of salvaged furniture, all they had left, it seemed, was that painting. But he saw no covered corpses on the ground, so that was, perhaps, a miracle in the midst of horror.

The man, Swenson obviously, near to tears, was declaring that the railroad had done it… that they’d swarmed in out of the night “with torches, howling like wolves,” and that he could do nothing… nothing to defend himself, his life’s labor, his family. Heath felt for him; he knew that, deep inside, thick ropes of shame wove all through this man’s choking sorrow–shame that he hadn’t had the power to defend what was his. (Another point of camaraderie, Heath wondered darkly.) That Swenson might even wish he were a covered corpse on the ground, rather than live with this impossible indignity.

Heath’s musings were interrupted when Audra dismounted and went to stand by a surrey that held a tiny, handsome woman who was studying the happening as if she were a sad queen at a dirge. Audra put her hand on the surrey’s edge, at the woman’s arm, as if seeking (offering?) comfort there, and Heath could only assume that this was the mother–their mother, Tom Barkley’s wife. The woman. He wanted to study her, but the scene was too crucial.

Because he saw that his brothers were there too, all of them, surrounding the man that Heath felt such thick sorrow for. Nick, in fact, had one hand supportively clutching Swenson’s bicep, the other clasping his drooped shoulder. Nick! And Heath couldn’t help the sudden flash of jealousy that he had for such united, tender support from his brothers. This man had lost everything, he reminded himself, everything; Heath had simply never had anything to lose. (Unless he counted that glorious white mansion, that bountiful stretch of pretty land a few miles off… rightfully his, some of it… RIGHTFULLY HIS… and his brothers were offering more compassion to this man than they would to Heath if they found him shot up and dying on their porch.)

Stop it, Heath, he chided himself. And then he shifted painfully in the saddle and listened as another man began to rage… a man who, apparently, was next on the railroad’s target list. A man who refused to suffer the same ignominies as Swensen. “Well not my place,” he declared righteously. “And hanged I’ll be after paying on what I own. I have a paper here that says I have to do just that. By eight o’clock in the morning. Or have my place took out from under me. Well I ain’t, ya hear?… I AIN’T. Who stands with me?”

As Heath watched, Nick moved to offer his support (again)–was going to fight against the railroad for another neighbor (and he was a damn good fighter when provoked; Heath’s jaw, his ribs, were grumbling about that just now), but the sheriff intervened. “No one stands with you, Frank. I’m sorry, but legally, after tomorrow, the land’s no longer yours.”

And of all the people there, a sheriff included, this man, this Frank, turned to his brothers–that’s how powerful, how respected they were! As if they could magically fix all of this! “Nick… Jarrod… Eugene, listen. Six years ago your daddy and mine fought and died for this.”

But the sheriff was on a tear again; clearly he was backing the railroad in this play. “And what did it gain you? Any one of you?” He impaled them all on the truth that was a slew of dead fathers from that event, including Tom Barkley. And then declared that… Tom Barkley had left them all “six years of false hope.” Heath physically jolted at that.

Maybe Tom Barkley was nothing BUT false hope. Not just for Heath, but for every man. Six years of false hope. The men all looked stunned at that and Heath felt their shock… but he also wanted to yell, oh yeah, six, you say–try twenty-four… twenty-four damned, aching years of false hope!

The sheriff was on with his rant: “I bow to no man in my regard to Tom Barkley. But he was only a man. He couldn’t fight a giant and win! Anymore than can you.” He was picking out individuals from the crowd, pointing them down with a powerful finger. “Or you. Or any man! Follow him… you follow a dead man to his grave.”

Couldn’t fight a giant and win, Heath reflected, eyes wide. It was maybe the best advice he’d had in a long, long while. His stomach was twisted and he wondered vaguely if he were going to be sick. He sought out Audra, took one long, wistful glance at her, studied everything he could about her: her proud stance, just humbled by the needy hand at the edge of (her mother’s?) surrey; her bandaged arm (his wrapping); her bright hair; her pretty face and vivid eyes, barely lit by the dull light of the dying fires; her torn shirt protectively covered by his vest.

The smoke was making his eyes sting at the wondrous sight of her and so he readied his mount to gallop away from this madness.

As if a cue, the man marveled behind him, “Your daddy gave us nothin’? No way to fight? Never did….” And Heath took one last look backwards at his brothers, who merely stood there, taking in these accusations, these awful truths, as well.

He spurred his pony away, words–intelligent, cutting words–whipping through his head the while: “false hope”; “you can’t fight a giant, you can’t”; “your daddy left us nothin'”.

This was what he’d come all this way to learn!

And he was sorry for the man, Swenson, that it took the utter annihilation of his homestead to teach someone as apparently thick-headed and swoony and stupidly romantic as Heath had been. To teach him what had been the truth of it all along… the truth of Tom Barkley’s heritage.

That it was false, useless and empty.

He steeled his spine and headed for the ranch at a gallop. After a time, when the crazy scene was well behind him, the gallop slowed, his clever mount instinctively reading his need. And then he was fairly slumping over the neck of his pony. He was too weary for tears, and even slumping hurt, but it was the best he could do for now. He wasn’t sure why he was headed to the ranch.

But maybe it was because they were all away from it just now. And it was his ranch, it was. So he wanted one chance to glory in its midnight beauty in peace, simple peace.

That would serve. It had to.

It was all he had left to him… to the man who might have been Heath Barkley.

*****

Heath limped into the faintly-lit foyer, craning his head to truly study things this time. He wanted to mark it all, but the luxury there, even just at the entrance, made him stagger with a vivid, stomach-clenching memory, and he had to clutch at a table for a second. He was suddenly back there… back at the very day when his mama had died. He had been trying then, unsuccessfully, to siphon through her meager belongings so that he might find one tiny token to keep as a remembrance of her, (the very, very best of her life in a nutshell: two Bibles, a few pieces of kitchenware, a thimble, a hat, a mirror, a handbag, and some stray man’s smoking pipe).

In the end, none of it had mattered. But he couldn’t let those drear memories drown him and so he continued limping forward, towards the study. That was where he wanted to be… the place where he’d been dismissed.

But oh the contrast! He couldn’t help himself. His eyes were full of all of it as he went. He passed a silver tray laden with filled crystal decanters and tiny glasses with bright, winking ruby tops. There was a mahogany table with a fine lace-trimmed cloth, matching silver candelabras there that boasted pretty blue candlesticks, a large bowl overflowing with shiny fruit. He limped forward, marveling at the piano in a corner, the myriad paintings and palms, the heavy velvet curtains… frivolous, all of it, and screaming of lives lived gaily and to the fullest.

When he got to the study, he paused for a second, despite himself, to take in as much of it as he could at a sweep: more rich paintings; mounted hunting trophies (hunting for boasting rights, not belly rights); a fancy clock on the wall–maybe even an extravagant barometer, since he couldn’t rightly tell in the dim light; the massive, ornate wooden fireplace with its hanging effigy of Tom Barkley; and there was even a green safe against the wall behind the desk–not hidden, no, but parrot green, and squawking at you, screaming loudly of the wealth here. Wealth enough to need a boastful safe!

And yet there was still more to be astonished at: red velvet settees and matching chairs; the ornate and decorated desk itself; the fine crimson leather chair there; rows of locked-up rifles–gorgeous rifles, spares, but almost all of them better than his own. There was even a blue-felted billiard table tucked in one corner (obviously to be brought out later for fun).

Playing billiards… in the house… for fun!

Finally, with a mighty effort, he shook it all off. (More than his mama could ever have even imagined to dream of in her lifetime, and only in a few rooms!) He fumbled his way around to where he’d been perched earlier for the battle, his gaze dropping to the shotglass stuffed with money. It was still there–his glass, his money.

And clearly, that insane amount of money had meant so very little to them that they’d left it like that, shoved in a wad in the glass. Maybe it was too much trouble to remove it and dry it out. Maybe it was distasteful to touch because he’d touched it too.

Maybe drying off bribe money was a job for the day servants, typically.

Regardless, he was tired. His mind was drifting because he was tired. He pulled the sodden paper from the glass, stared at the amber liquid left there… and wondered, what whiskey would taste like when it had been flavored with three (four?) hundred dollars. He tossed the shot back, mused on the bite of it. It tasted dirty, he finally decided… or maybe that was simply how he felt… because he was indeed going to take their bribe. (He didn’t want to–or couldn’t yet–admit to himself that this was most likely why he’d come back here at all.)

He hung his head and stared at the crumpled bills for one more second… but he honestly had no choice. He needed some time to rest; he couldn’t hunt up food in his current state if he had to. Not for a few days yet. And he WASN’T going to starve over an old man’s empty promises. Not anymore. He’d had enough of that in his lifetime. He sighed and stuffed the soggy money back into his shirt pocket, ashamed at the gleeful righteousness he knew that they would feel when they found it gone (at least Nick).

As an afterthought he grabbed the clipping, studied it once, smoothed it out on the table, and then pocketed it too. He’d want something to remember Audra by, at the very least. The man in this clipping had sired them both and she was going to turn into a fine woman, even if a bit wily and evil tempered at times. He wanted to remember her, that single tear, her glorious smile–her sudden, assured acceptance of him–always.

His clenched stomach was a small fire now, and he had to escape–instantly–just as much as he had desperately needed to be here. He hobbled his way towards the entrance, stopping only at the fancy table there when he saw the fruit again, really saw it for what it was–food, not a display. And he was hungry. He hovered his hand over the bowl, trying to decide which perfect piece to take, a final seal to his measly birthright.

And then a sound alerted him. He looked up and she was there, merely there and studying him… the queen from the dirge. The woman. The wife. Suddenly he wanted to smash Tom Barkley in the face, to pick him up when he fell from it, and to smash him again. Instead, he lowered his head and whisked off his hat so that he could fill it with all of the fruit he could from that fancy bowl–defiantly, stupidly, (what an idiot… yeah, I’ll show her… I’ll take her APPLES!). Afterwards, he took a second to steady his walk, and then he was rushing past her towards that grand door.

She stopped him with her words.

Never quite looking at him, she stood just a bit taller and said, “He was an imperfect man, my husband. And in so many ways that could hurt. But he never destroyed” (ha, try my mama, Heath thought). She raised her eyes then, took in the fullness of his form. “He only built and gave life (that’d be me, Heath scowled). For he knew that what he brought was a changing way. A revolution of its own that said, ‘you ARE a free man.'” He stiffened his back and tried to look everywhere but straight at those piercing grey eyes.

“No one,” she intoned, “not railroad, nor Jordan, nor Thomas Barkley can own you. And he knew it was something you won only with courage, pride, and leadership. That’s what he tried to instill in his sons. If you hadn’t ridden away tonight you would have seen that he accomplished it.” (So she’d somehow known him there, Heath wondered? She’d watched him ride away? How had she known him? He paused, then, to truly listen.)

“And then one day he made a terrible, wretched mistake. He died. Before anyone really understood. And so, if you were my son, I would say to you be proud. Because any son of my husband has a right to be proud.” (Heath almost staggered at that… any… son of my husband? She knew! Did she know?)

And now she was staring at him outright, her eyes just swimming with tears. “Live as he would live, fight as he would fight, and no one, NO ONE… can deny you his birthright.” She was tearful now, yes, but it seemed she had to get the last of it in. “That’s what I would say to you… if you were my son.”

He studied her face for a moment… pretty and drawn in the vague light, but her proud chin, her vivid eyes… they meant truth. She was speaking truth, from her heart.

He mused that, like Audra, she, too seemed to believe him… was showing him simple kindness. He wanted to say things to her, to clutch on and hold her even… to clutch on and hold her and weep. But he had to leave before the others got back, before…. He simply had to leave. And so, with his hat full of apples tucked under his arm, he made the porch, then made the mounting, and was finally off, her words whirling in his head like old leaves from a bright, new tree.

He’d made it to the pretty iron entranceway when Audra was there, her mount beside his. She read his face, worked to say something, and then stopped. Instead she undid the buttons on his vest and passed it back. He clutched it, twisted it in frantic hands, head hung.

And then he lifted up his head, leaned abruptly forward, grabbing frantically at her instead. They shared a long, desperate hug there, under the archway, and he wasn’t sure if he was feeling her tears or his on his face, on his shirt.

“Will I see you again?” she finally whispered haltingly, still gripping him as desperately as he was her.

“No,” he shuddered. “No, never. But I loved you. I did love you. And I’m yours.”

She only nodded at that, into his shoulder, silent sobs hitching hot and wet into his shirt. And then they let go, Heath almost shoving her away, and he was riding off. Riding away. Riding from the madness that was his one and only place.

He was well away from the house–well away from anymore thinking at all… at ALL–when he stopped his mount, swung out of the saddle. His leg was flaring again, and he remembered that the doctor had said he’d need to tend it with a paste. He fished around in his saddlebags, found the doctor’s bundle, opened it, lit a match to read the instructions. He needed warm water for it, it seemed, and he sure was NOT in the mood to start a fire. Then his eyes fell on a small glinting bottle. It was clearly not the Epsom salts, which were in a gingham cloth pouch. He picked it up, squinted to read the label, and grinned, shaking the match out before it burnt his fingers. Cussed, sneaky man. The doctor had slipped him another dose of laudanum, a small one… but one, right now, that seemed like manna from heaven.

Because he hurt. Badly. And not just in his soul. Every part of him was bruised or torn, impaled or oozing, it seemed. And yes, he was a little bit feverish still–hadn’t been taking the best care of himself, he had to admit with a snort. But in the morning he could get around to the Epsom salt paste at the leg. Hell, it occurred to him, he could pay the doctor to lay up in his sickbed for a day. Pay the man for kindness and poached eggs and toast, perhaps (a dish he always associated with doctoring for some reason), and for peace–some quiet doctor’s bed, near a window, curtains fluttering in a gentle breeze. Peace.

He took a long swig from his canteen, let it settle, and then took another. The water was tinny and tepid, but he discovered that he was parched and so it was heavenly nonetheless. Then he grimaced as he downed the acrid bit of laudanum that he knew he’d need to get to town–to get, finally, to that blessed bed there, even if it might be a few hours to dawn before he finally collapsed in his hotel room.

He munched happily on two apples, one red, one green, and then a pear as the drug took effect. Quite the little picnic, he mused after a time. And then he wondered about the pear; didn’t think he’d ever had one… it tasted… sweet enough, but woody somehow, too. No, he preferred the apples, crisp and tart. And the way his mind was wandering told him he’d be just fine on the pony now.

“Thank you, Doc. Hell, I’d have dug you a new outhouse for this.” He loved this doctor; made it a note to learn the man’s name so that Heath could offer him any other future business should he ever be in the area again. He smiled lazily as he mounted up, and he hissed, but it was more out of habit than necessity just now. Because he was all warm and fine and liquefied.

He made it to town, humming tunes that he kept getting all mixed up, a hymn turning into a battle march, and then into a dancehall jingle–amazing grace somehow muddled with an homage to gin. When he got to the hotel he slowly, carefully dismounted, the hat full of apples stuffed under one arm. He grinned a woozy grin at his pony, watched with quiet contentment as she munched on the one he fed her, relishing the woody sound of her chewing. “This is as good as it gets, hey little girl?”

And then he was whirling, stumbling, off the force of a staggering blow to the back. His hat and apples went tumbling into the street and he watched, wide-eyed, as the colored pieces rolled like scattered toys under the stomping hooves of the horses at the hitching post.

He caught another blow–a fist–and was almost on his knees, when he found rough hands clutching him, pulling him upright, dragging him to an alley between the hotel and some storefront next door. “Wha?” he tried.

“You almost got us in trouble with the sheriff, boy,” one man hissed, and then laid into Heath with a mean right cross.

“And you cost us that pretty gal,” spat a second.

He stumbled, sprawled, landed against a crate. Shook his head, gathered his muzzy wits. It was the men from the room–the men who’d come after Audra. They must have waited for him and now they were circling, grinning, clearly intending to beat him outright for his feeble intervention in the matter.

And Heath couldn’t help himself. Suddenly he started to laugh. This day had damned well moved into the absurd! ANOTHER fight?

“Three’s a charm,” he sputtered, and, as the men looked at each other, curious over his laughter and his idiot dialogue, Heath righted himself, grabbed for the crate in a lightning movement (the speed of it surprising even himself), threw it at them with all the force he had. It glanced mightily off the first man’s shoulder, the man with the moustache, and then crashed to the wall behind them, splintering into pieces. Heath ducked in, grabbed a lengthy stake and wielded it as a weapon, smacking and jabbing soundly at them both, laughing stupidly the while.

“You little…” Moustache moaned, rubbing at his shoulder. So Heath smacked him a sound one to the face with his bit of wood. Moustache whirled, bleeding (ouch, sliver, Heath noted with amusement… must sting), but Moustache’s partner took the opportunity to gather his own wits and tackle Heath… who realized through foolish, hysterical giggles that he’d made them good and mad for sure.

After a mighty, beefy, growling struggle, one of them pinned Heath’s forearm with a knee and the other jerked at his thumb, almost breaking it, to make him release the weapon, then tossed it in a high arc away. They were beating him with a vengeance then, but Heath did manage to at least get a sound finger in Moustache’s eye, to hook a mean, ripping hand at the corner of the other one’s mouth. And in between his own flailing fists, he might have kneed somebody squarely in the bits too.

Yeah, he decided as the blows rained down–vague, distant blows that he somehow couldn’t quite feel just now–he was going to make them sorry they’d ever decided to beat him to death.

When it was over he was rolled against the wall in the alley, patted down, stripped of his sacred cash (although they dropped the clipping in the dirt beside Heath’s head), kicked once more, and left behind. In the distance, his pony was trying to reach a trodden apple against the pull of her reins at the post.

And so even Heath’s bright apples were gone, smashed and muddied. Everything gone… a final sacrifice to the starving, murderous beast that was the railroad.

*****

He blinked a few times, shifted mildly, came gradually back to himself. He’d come to, he found, because his pony had gotten loose and was nudging him gently with her head. He weakly patted her silky nose to shoo her away, because the nudging was at his ribs and the bright pain of it made his eyes water. He stared for a time at the pale strip of just-morning sky that wavered up there, between the two buildings, determined that he’d been out for a few solid hours.

And he knew before he checked… simply knew. A glance sideways revealed the tossed newspaper clipping. Yup, they’d taken his money.

He tried to sigh, but the hitch at his ribs at the deep intake of breath made the watering eyes spill over. He wiped at them with a wavering arm and lay for a time to gather himself. He didn’t feel like cataloguing his injuries; the laudanum was barely humming there still, he could tell, and he wouldn’t need to figure things out for, say, another few hours yet, when his body would start screaming for real. Unfortunately, he couldn’t pay the doctor anymore. But that was okay for now. He had more pressing concerns.

Most immediately, he needed to think of how to get up off the ground. Finally remembered how’d he’d done it when he’d first caught that chunk of wood in his leg a lifetime ago. He grabbed once for his pony’s stirrup, missed, arm flopping in the dirt, then grabbed again. Victory. On a three count he pulled with everything he had, let out the littlest pant of a cry, and made it to a sit.

Once he got the sitting down, he decided, he would just need to work on a few more things: he needed to get his hat (he could see it there, still near the hitching post, relieved it hadn’t blown away or been taken), he needed to figure out how to somehow move without breathing, which was pure hellfire just now. He needed to count his cartridges; he was pretty sure he had fourteen left in the box, and he knew that every last one of them would prove crucial.

And he figured he could mount up if he gritted down and focused on nothing but the damned railroad. They’d stolen the only heritage he’d ever managed to claim. Most importantly, they were going to try and kill his brothers–his, whether those brothers hated him or not (his TRUEST heritage, he knew; not the money, but the brothers and Audra). And so he was going to do what he’d known in some quiet corner of his mind that he’d probably do this morning anyway.

He was feeling pretty close to death as it was, so if it had to be, he planned to die, not in some alley, but beside them–beside Nick, Jarrod, Eugene–at the railroad’s next attack. It seemed to be his moment, the one he had been designed for… the one that he’d been racing towards his whole life.

His likely death, yes… but somehow also his shining, pure moment of glory.

That thought spurred him, and he threw his head back and gave out a holler that was part agony, part battle cry. Then he pulled himself to his feet, let the pony help him hobble to the street. Bending didn’t sound like something he was interested in just now, so using the toe of one worn boot, he hooked his hat out of the mud, tossed it and caught it, looked with disdain at the last muddied pulp of his once-pretty apples, and then shakily wiped the hat off with his sleeve. He shoved it on his head, letting anger take over his raw and utter wretchedness. He mounted up, the pain of it making more unbidden tears leak from his eyes, making his nose run. Then he rode, taking one last farewell glance at this hell of a town as he left it.

He failed to notice the clipping about Thomas Barkley as it drifted on a low wind, up the alley and away.

*****

He had tracked the horde from town–it was easy to do despite his wavering vision. And so he was in a panic when he galloped up to the house, knowing that the railroad men were already there, a swarm fairly surrounding the homestead. Was he too late? Reaching the fence and using some pocket of reserves, he leaned forward with a moan and his pony took the hint and cleared it with a pretty leap, and all the while Heath was waiting for bullets to rip him in the back. But they didn’t! And so he managed to awkwardly throw himself out of the saddle and stumble up the stairs to stand beside his brothers, gritting his teeth the while.

But when his heart slowed up the tiniest bit (he hadn’t been shot yet!) and his ears started working, he realized the talking was still going on… the last of it, it seemed, based on the thick buzz of tension, terror, malice that hummed in the air. His ears were sluggish and he couldn’t quite follow what was being said–not on either side–but his eyes were sharpening with the renewed racing thump of his heart. Because the rough men facing their small party at the house were barely shifting their hands, narrowing their gazes–readying their guns–and Jarrod (always, it seemed, the boss), was taking the loop off of his own pistol’s hammer. So Heath took in a shuddering, searing breath and readied himself as well.

Then it started, a single piercing shot followed by cacophony. In an instant the man who’d been making the stand here, Frank, was dead… then the sheriff dropped in an almost ironic counterpoint. Heath managed to crouch himself painfully behind a barrel and leveled his rifle there for firing, trying desperately against the growing thrum in his ears to make sure that every cartridge counted, since his rifle was loaded with just about the very last of them. He felt a bullet whiz past his ear, heard another splinter the barrel, wondered vaguely when the one that was going to kill him would hit… and what a killing bullet felt like.

He hit a man with the first shot, another with the second, cursed his overall muzziness when the third went wide. Then he saw a foe to the far right, traced his trajectory and knew somehow in his guts that the man was aiming at Nick, who’d swung to the other side of the fray and tucked himself beside a wagon. Heath dropped him with a shot through the throat. That seemed to make up for the wasted third.

His senses were waning, but he still had his eyes, sharpened by fear, and, it seemed, his hands–amazingly steady, war-time calm (how did they do that, his hands?). He discovered that his nose was working too… he was indeed back in the war. He could smell the sulphur drift of gunpowder, the sickly sweet smell of blood, and a passing whiff of vomit. Someone had sicked himself; he hoped it wasn’t Eugene… the boy seemed awfully young for this. Heath fired again, then carefully again, losing count… was he losing count?

He pulled his mind back together, took squinted aim… and discovered with an instant sweeping glance of the mounts that Moustache was drawing on him! Heath’s mouth went into a wavering, nervous twist of a grin and he carefully took aim and squeezed the trigger. Moustache, on the other hand, jerked at his–in panic, or maybe glee at having found, again, his opponent from the night before. Moustache missed, but Heath, with his calm hands, didn’t. Then the man was down, tossed out of his saddle and hidden behind the tramping hooves of panicked horses. Heath wasn’t sure if he was dead, (wasn’t sure, in fact, if Moustache hadn’t already killed him too… last night–since he felt fairly ruined inside), but Heath had gotten in the last lick somehow. It should have made him smile; it didn’t.

He wasn’t sure of the cartridge count anymore, so he focused the hopeful last of them on the mounted men in the center… the men that were the most likely threats to Jarrod and Eugene, who were firing from the porch. He dropped a few more, felt that familiar sick knot in his stomach at the carnage he was causing, despite the necessity. And then he saw the other man from the alley last night… he was on the ground, between the legs of the horses, holding Moustache. And aiming his pistol straight at Heath, at his face.

Heath pulled to fire off a quick, careful shot… and realized when his rifle made a sickening hollow click that he had no more cartridges loaded… four more in his pocket, but no more loaded. He’d used his ten. So here it was, he mused, taking a lightning glance over his shoulder to catch sight of his brothers for the last time.

But when he looked back he saw that the man had been dropped too, felled by someone else… one of these strangers here. Heath sat down, heavily; felt a freezing sheen break over his body. His heart was pulsing wildly as he tried to fumble in his pocket for the last of the cartridges… and then he saw that it was over. All of it. The remaining railroad men were mounting up and racing off.

It was over.

And he hadn’t died. Not yet.

He blinked and realized he’d somehow gotten himself up and limped away from behind the barrel… it had been too cramped there, making everything pinch and flare. He was perched instead on the back of a wheelbarrow, holding himself upright against the glass-bright pain in his ribs, and his hands were fumbling with his makings. He was nauseous, and hoped it wouldn’t send him over, but he craved a smoke as desperately as he craved a blessed bed just now. But all the calm that had been in his deadly hands was gone. They were shaking the paper horribly and his precious tobacco was drifting away, tiny, stinging bits of it catching him in the eye.

(But it was ok, because he hadn’t died! Not today. Not yet.)

Then Jarrod was there, passing him a fine cigar–possibly a token of victory. He gave Jarrod a wavering grin of appreciation, bit the end off, used a shaking hand to light it (although it took three tries), and then slowly smoked for a time as his brothers worked amongst those who’d fought there. Jarrod comforted the sobbing widow, then her swell of weeping children from indoors, as best he could; Nick began ordering things done with the bodies; and Eugene, looking stricken–perhaps at a loss for one of the first times in his life–rounded up the horses of the dead and then seemed to disappear into the house, maybe to bandage survivors or some such. Heath wanted to help, but was fairly worthless, definitely outcast… and mortified. He was mortified because, although the cigar tasted like heaven, it was making him treacherously light-headed.

He knew in a flash of dumb fear that he was moments away from fainting dead out. And if he fainted, they would think he’d been afraid.

He had been–battle did that to any sane man–but he still didn’t want them thinking it of him. So he made it to his feet and hobbled to his horse. He was trying to consider how to get into the saddle for the ten millionth time, it seemed, when Jarrod stopped him, caught him by the elbow. “Would you come back to the ranch?” he asked in a steady, silken tone. And was he being all business, or were his eyebrows actually dipped in… concern?

But Heath wasn’t up for anymore confrontations… ever. “Got some business in town,” he said, blinking wildly, swaying just a bit (yeah, he thought, town… where he might beg that doctor for a hundred more odd jobs so the man might maybe TRY to patch him up). Jarrod frowned at him, took in his full form, and again it was as if Heath had been found out.

“Why did you come here?” Jarrod asked, those vivid blue eyes narrowed. “Why did you risk your life for this?”

Heath cocked his weary head, gave a steady stare back. And discovered a weakness there… discovered he’d found Jarrod out as well. He just wasn’t quite positive at what he’d found–hopeful, but not positive. “Why do you care?” he muttered.

Jarrod frowned for a time, and then he shrugged–but there seemed to be a kind light in his eyes now. “Because I talked to my mother last night. After you left.”

“Nice woman,” Heath nodded lightly. He felt himself slipping a bit more, but Jarrod had him firmly by the bicep, then added a second supportive hand on the other side, at the underarm.

“She… believes in you.”

“Handy,” Heath said, working powerfully to keep his eyes open.

“You’re not well, are you?” Jarrod finally asked it.

Heath looked through squinted eyes to see if Nick or Eugene were nearby. They weren’t. But Jarrod had indeed found him out already.

“About a day past done in,” Heath hitched a pained sigh. And maybe he had no choice in the telling. Maybe he needed Jarrod, needed his help.

“Should I get a wagon,” Jarrod asked gently, “or can you make it on this pony? If I ride alongside?”

“Made it this far,” Heath blinked, distrust waging with hope in his guts. But his overall pain was what was winning.

And then Jarrod was helping him into the saddle. Heath leaned forward there, grimaced at that, leaned back again. He closed his eyes for the barest second, it seemed, and then Jarrod was suddenly beside him, on his own mount, and the two headed out of the gateway. Presumably, Heath thought, they were heading for the ranch. What he couldn’t muddle through, really, truly, was the why of it all.

All he could process was that Jarrod kept a steady, clenching hand at his bicep, and anytime Heath went to waver his way out of the saddle, Jarrod pulled him gently back into place. Go figure, Heath thought.

Go figure.

*****

Heath opened his eyes with a start as they rode under the archway and then up to the porch–noting by their seemingly abrupt arrival at the ranch that he’d probably had them closed for quite some time. He had most likely slept in the saddle for the bulk of the trip… and most likely remained mounted solely because of Jarrod’s solid grip on him. (He’d been known to safely nap in the saddle often–had a well trained mount indeed–but never quite with this combination of stomping injury, hunger, raging emotion and exhaustion.)

Jarrod halted his horse, checked Heath’s status and, off Heath’s small nod, let go of him carefully, then dismounted, giving off a groan. It was only then that Heath noticed that Jarrod had been shot… or that at least there was blood and a rip high on his sleeve. Heath sat for a time, contemplating this near tragedy, contemplating dismounting himself… but the dreary thoughts were disrupted when the mother rushed outside, followed by Audra.

“Jarrod!” the woman exclaimed as she and Audra swarmed him. “You’ve been hit!”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Jarrod replied, giving her a quick hug and then pressing a kiss to Audra’s fair hair. “So are Nick and Eugene; they’re still helping… sort things through at Semple’s.” Then Jarrod swung his head back in Heath’s direction. “I think Heath, here, is the one who needs our care most immediately.”

And then the woman was at his side, her hand resting lightly on his knee, and she was studying him with quick eyes–not frightened eyes, no, she was clearly a woman of control, but still she seemed truly concerned. “Where were you shot?” she asked gently.

“I wasn’t, ma’am,” he fairly whispered against the hitch in his ribs. Or, he didn’t think he had been anyway, not that he could tell through his overall misery… the thought of which made him want to laugh, but he knew that the pain of laughing would likely make him cry, and boy howdy would that be an embarrassment.

“Can you make it into the house? We’ll take care of you,” he heard her say through the slow buzz in his ears, and now Audra was at his side too, clutching tenderly at one of his booted ankles and studying him, a woeful expression on her face. So he leaned stiltedly over and away from the ladies (didn’t want to fall on them outright), hoping that Jarrod, despite his own injury, could catch him… then drag him to a chair, a settee, a bed, a rug, anything. And Jarrod was, indeed, there to carefully help him down. Audra was around the horse and at his other arm in an instant and soon the two of them had him inside that grand doorway, the mother leading with a brisk rustle of her satin skirts.

Since they seemed to be dragging him that way, he whispered to Jarrod, “Don’t think I can make those stairs just yet.” And then there was a diminutive black man there too, helping with the hauling.

“Leave it to us, Heath,” Jarrod crooned. “Take him into my room,” he directed the others. “He won’t be disturbed there.

The woman seemed confused at that, suggesting some spare room, but Jarrod intervened: “Nick hasn’t talked to you yet, Mother. It’s… really for the best.” Heath was merely trudging along with where they led him–up the grand stairs it seemed, after all–and he managed, with absolute focus, to put one staggering foot in front of the next.

“What’s wrong with him?” Audra lamented.

“We’ll send for the soonest doctor and find out,” the woman said sensibly, and then Heath was being settled into a huge and impossibly comfortable bed. But lying down flat made him gasp an outright, unbidden cry, so they carefully propped him up on a number of down pillows. As he drifted, he wondered at the irony… he was in killing pain, but he knew that it had been a long time indeed since he’d felt quite this fine… this surrounded, this good, this cared for. (And wondered if the feeling could possibly be trusted… could possibly be real.)

“And who’s this here boy?’ he heard the black man ask in a tone of quiet respect.

“This is Tom’s son,” the woman answered and Heath opened frowning eyes a slit to see their reactions to that. Indifference, it seemed, for the most part. The woman was merely studying him with a worried gaze that seemed… maybe even proud? Audra looked both elated and terrified (maybe terrified for him? did he look as bad as he felt?). Jarrod’s brows were dipped in concern as he scrutinized Heath’s face, apparently taking in the bruising there–he even seemed a bit angered by Heath’s state. The black man appeared merely calm… but was making pesky movements to remove Heath’s clothing. Heath tried to slap at that, but his arms were sluggish, inefficient.

Finally, when Jarrod saw Heath’s discomfort at being divested of his garments, he turned to gently shoo the women out. “Let us check him over; you get the supplies. Well send for you as soon as possible.

“Heath,” he asked, redirecting his attention to his brother (his brother?), “can you tell us where you hurt?”

“My word! Here, for sure,” the black man uttered, revealing Heath’s darkly mottled chest–black, purple, green–and then working, with Jarrod’s help, to slide him just a bit higher up on the pillows. And the movement hurt, lord yes, but it helped with the breathing, which let Heath gasp out some more information.

“M’ leg,” he tried, eyes closing again. “Nick and me… at the bridge, when it fell…”

“That was you!” Jarrod exclaimed.

Heath nodded weakly, continued, “Caught some wood in m’ leg. The doc’s medicine for it’s on my horse… But I’ll be fine. Just need a bit… a’ sleep is all. Maybe a bite to eat. Then I can be… on m’ way.” And then he was drifting, despite the swimming pain of it all. And then he was gone.

*****

JARROD, MOTHER, AUDRA! Heath jolted awake with a pounding heart to a bellowing from down below, followed by the distinct crash of a slamming door. He took inventory of himself, readying for a fight. It was Nick.

His ribs were wrapped, he could tell from the bright tightness there, which was both a blessing and a curse–a blessing because the pain was settling just a touch farther away, a curse because the breathing was even more of a problem, only coming in the barest hitches now. He also had one bandaged hand… the one that had suffered a myriad of tiny miseries along the way: imbedded pebbles from the fall after racing the train, bruises and cuts from some lucky blows landed against a variety of foes (Nick included), and a nearly broken thumb and several deep slivers from a yanked-away weapon in an alley.

But he was still decidedly nude. Not good fighting form. Although a discreet drape of blanket was offering the most crucial privacy, his thigh was exposed. And the black man was toiling there, hunched at the light of a lantern. It was probably late afternoon, Heath quickly reflected, but dark, as if a storm were brewing to match the tragedy of the day.

“You settle down, now,” the man intoned calmly, obviously reading Heath’s sudden agitation at the noise. “Mr. Nick ain’t gonna hurt a body, not today nohow. He’d have to come through me first, and that boy knows that God would frown on that something mighty.”

“What’s the leg doing?” Heath rasped quietly, dryly. Silas paused in his ministrations to pour Heath a glass of water, helped him tip his head to drink it down. It was cool, wonderful.

“Jes’ workin’ on the doctor’s salt paste. Sure can’t hurt you none. You got some mean weepin’ in this here stitchin’. Plain ugliness. How long you been ridin’ around on this leg?”

“Feels like about… a year?” Heath mused and Silas chuckled darkly. Heath was still listening intently and the tempest that was Nick was moving its way closer, coming towards the stairs, followed by low murmuring clouds… voices that probably belonged to the mother, Audra, Jarrod.

“I’m Heath.” He decided to get the introduction out proper before he was murdered.

“So I been told,” the man nodded with a smile. “I’m Silas. The lady that’s been helping me…” Heath gasped at that, felt the burn of a blush. “No, no, jes’ to bring your fever down with some cool cloths at your forehead. You was spikin’ a bit. She’s Mrs. Victoria Barkley. Hear tell you already met Miss Audra and Mr. Jarrod.

“And Nick,” Heath said, voice lowered to almost a whisper, as the bellowing made its way up to Jarrod’s door. He wasn’t truly afraid of Nick, but he sure was in no position to defend himself, despite what Silas had said about the Lord and all; the Lord’s intervention had seemed fairly whimsical lately as far as Heath was concerned….

“Where the devil is he, Jarrod?” Nick was hollering. “Gene said you left Semple’s WITH him!” And then the voice stormed past.

“He won’t think to look in here,” Silas offered mildly as Heath relaxed just a touch into the pillows behind him, stifling the groan that the tiny movement caused. “Mr. Jarrod don’t let nobody in his room.”

“So why am I here?” Heath craned a careful neck, took in the sumptuous surroundings. The room was full of rich red wool rugs, deep brown leather, shining gold drapes, what appeared to be a whole wall full of colorful, leather-bound books–it was as amazing as all the rest of the house.

“Because it seems, Mr. Heath, you ain’t jes’ nobody.” Silas winked, then carefully put a tight new bandage on the thigh, which made Heath pant a tiny gasp. “Doctor might not make it here for awhile, not ’til he’s done with all them poor souls at that railroad nonsense, but I think we got you ’bout as wrapped up as we can. Mrs. Barkley made Mr. Jarrod take a rest, but she’s working on some a’ her beef broth. That’ll make your stomach perk up nice and fine. I can tell it’s been a time since you got a good meal in you, so we’ll jes’ take it slow.”

“Thank you, Silas,” Heath breathed, grateful beyond words for the compassion, the tending, for the understanding; then he was feeling his burning eyes start to drift closed again. How tired he was!

“Don’t thank me. Thank the good Lord he finally saw fit to lead you home where you belong. And in almost half a’ one whole piece.” Silas’s brown eyes glinted at that and Heath went to chuckle in spite of himself, but chuckling hurt and so he groaned instead.

“Shush,” Silas frowned. “You sleep some more. I’ll go see to that broth, maybe some toasted bread. You don’t seem to be dyin’ for the moment–don’t think that doc’ll need to do any cuttin’ on you anyhow–so I’m bettin’ it’d be alright for me to fish up somethin’ for the pain too.”

“Think you can keep Nick away while you’re doin’ all that sneakin’?” Heath breathed, feeling the sleep settle over his tortured body once more like a heavy shroud. It was a dread and helpless feeling, knowing that he had an enemy roaming just rooms away… and that Heath was about a step from unconscious in the meantime.

“In his brain, that boy thinks he owns me outright… but in his soul, he’d never cross me once,” Silas said. “And heaven help him if he tries to cross his mama,” and then he lowered the wick of the lamp and was gone.

Heath drifted through the amazing pain, through the powerful wave of emotions crashing at him. And then Heath slept–abruptly, darkly, deeply.

When he woke the next time he was feeling the tiniest bit better–at least a touch rested, finally. But his stomach was so empty that he was queasy from it… he must have slept through the broth Silas had mentioned. And sure enough, there was a tray on the nightstand–an awfully fine tray for one bowl of soup… and that was one mighty fancy bowl to boot! He got himself to a seated position by clenching his jaw, rolling a bit, and then shoving mightily against the mattress with one muscled arm, careful to keep the blanket draped across his lap.

Then he reached for the broth, brought it shakily to his mouth, drank straight from the bowl. It had gone cold, but it was wonderful. He sipped at it slowly, sat for a time to make sure it stayed settled, one arm wrapped protectively, desperately at his ribs. While he waited, swallowing against a touch of unbidden nausea–throwing up would decidedly be ANYTHING but fun just now–he worked to distract himself by playing the dinner game (after the fact). If this had been his best night… he’d have had exactly that bowl of broth, even cold. So he didn’t have to ponder if this had been his worst night (he’d have been staring with dead, blank eyes in an alley, never able to eat again.) And then he blinked to gather his wits, wondered what his next move should be.

Pants. Definitely pants.

He leaned slightly forward with a moan, turned the wick on the lamp up a notch with a shaky hand and, sure enough, there were his clothes, folded neatly on a chair in the corner–and looking as if they’d been cleaned. Lord knows they’d needed that! Using the nightstand as leverage, and making as little noise as possible, he somehow made it to the chair. Bending the leg to put on the pants sounded like outright slaughter, but he was NOT going to be caught by Nick in this fancy room without them. (But he let himself get decidedly past “e” on the hissed cuss words as he worked them on.)

The shirt didn’t prove much more cooperative than the pants. His chest was plain on fire. Now that he’d rested, he had fairly well decided that the ribs were likely cracked, maybe even separated… but not broken. If they’d been snapped, with as much as he’d put himself through, he probably would have shoved one through a lung or some such and bubbled right on out already. He had broken a mean sweat nonetheless and was panting against the tight wrapping at his torso by the time he got the shirt half buttoned. He stopped there at halfway–good enough–and decided to plain leave the vest.

Then he considered the boots, tucked under the chair. Aw hell, the boots. How to put on boots without bending either torso or leg? Maybe he’d be fine in a face-off with Nick in his bare feet… ’cause his socks were out of the question too.

There was a huge mahogany armoire near the chair and Heath leaned heavily against it. He was horridly lightheaded from just dressing… and he’d only managed to do that halfway. He’d felt too vulnerable otherwise, however, so it had been the right choice… but for the moment he wondered how he’d even make it back to the bed, much less out the bedroom door.

And if he made the door, what then?

He pressed a quavering hand to his forehead and let the thoughts come in. Why the hell had they brought him here, patched him up? Why hadn’t Jarrod just let him go, back at the fight… well rid of him, Heath the bastard? What was their game… or was it a game? Was it maybe, somehow… real? What had changed? Was it really the woman?

He was hungry for air and went to catch another breath, a deeper one, and the pain of it brought water to his eyes. It didn’t matter what had changed. He was far, far from well, and sure as hell couldn’t get up on that pony again, not right now. (He flashed a quick worry about the pony, if she’d been cared for. Decided that at least Audra would have thought about it… then decided that, whether they hated Heath or not, this was a ranch. They wouldn’t take it out on his pony.)

He craned his head, judging the distance to the bed. He didn’t have much choice just now about his options, he admitted with a tiny hitch of a sigh. And Heath was about to launch on a wavering path back to the comfort there when the bedroom door flew open with a resounding crash.

*****

Heath stumbled back against the armoire as Nick stormed in, followed by a frantic Audra and Jarrod, even Eugene. “Oh, now this just cuts it!” Nick raged, closing dangerously on Heath. “I knew he was around… found his blasted Modoc in the stables. But you hid him in here? In HERE?”

“Yes, in here,” Jarrod declared, stepping with a quickness around Nick and positioning himself in front of Heath, planting a firm palm on Nick’s chest to stop him. Heath, in the meantime, had his fists clenched as tightly as Nick had his. He wasn’t going down without getting a few good licks in first. “I put him here so you wouldn’t do any more damage to him than what you already have!”

“What are you talking about, Jarrod?” Nick hissed. “Is the boy so feeble he can’t take a few good licks in a barn?”

Heath went to argue his case but couldn’t catch a good breath, so he snapped his mouth shut instead, clenched his jaw, narrowed his eyes–tried to look as dangerous as he decidedly did NOT feel.

“A FEW licks, Nick? Look at him!” Jarrod turned, taking in Heath’s battered face, bandaged hand, his newly wrapped chest, the white strips and some of the dark bruising clearly visible under the half buttoned shirt. Audra, in the meantime, slid in beside Heath, moored herself at his side, trying to support him. He wondered if she could tell that he was about to slide down the pretty armoire and into a crass puddle on the lovely polished floor.

“I don’t know how I missed it last night, but you beat him half to death,” Jarrod continued darkly. “And did you know, before you even started THAT fight, that he was already badly injured from your run-in with him at the bridge?”

Eugene had come closer too, was studying Heath, and Heath felt a rising panic at his meager, panting intake of air. Audra believed him, so did Jarrod, it seemed, but Eugene and Nick did not–could finish him off without much effort… even a boy like Eugene, just now. As if sensing that, Audra wrapped her arm tighter around his waist, lifted a defiant chin at her brothers. The arm both hurt and helped, somehow, and Heath worked to slow his panicky breathing.

“Nick wouldn’t do that to him, Jarrod,” Eugene said somberly, “regardless of who Heath claims to be.” And when his gaze lifted, caught Heath’s, it seemed… apologetic maybe?

“The evidence suggests otherwise,” Jarrod parried, eyes now boring into Nick, who had stopped his rant to also really study the full damage done to Heath.

“Nick doesn’t fight like that,” Eugene said simply, and then he took up the side opposite Audra. In unison, the two of them worked to drag Heath back to the bed. “Nick smashes a man flat in the face to plain shut him up… to shut a fight right down. He doesn’t need to take the time to break all his ribs afterwards.”

“They ain’t broken,” Heath hissed, wanting to get a word in for himself (something), as they settled him in the bed. (But how wondrous, Heath thought, to have a brother so obviously believe in you, to know you, as Eugene apparently did Nick.) He couldn’t help the moan he let out as he fell back against the pillows, and the fact that they had heard it made him feel even more helpless–which angered him further somehow.

“No,” Nick growled at Jarrod, and now the two of them were locked in a furious gaze. “I don’t tend to go around bustin’ peoples’ ribs for kicks–not like that.” He made a vague gesture towards Heath’s wrapped torso. “And no, I didn’t know he was ‘hurt’ when that blasted bridge fell in. How could I? But I also don’t run a boarding house for injured bastards in my OLDER BROTHER’S BEDROOM.”

“You watch your mouth, Nick!” Audra suddenly stormed. She was mad, Heath could tell, probably at the word “bastard” (and boy would she have to get used to that one if they were seriously taking his side here… or were they just letting him hole up to heal?)

“Some of this is my fault!” she continued, more contritely.

Jarrod turned to her, an eyebrow raised. “Oh?”

“I….” She looked to Heath, looked back to her brothers, and then squared her narrow shoulders. (Uh oh, Heath thought.) “After he came to the house, after you kicked him out last night… I followed him to town. I went to his hotel room….”

“His… hotel room?” Jarrod intoned dryly.

“Yes.” She swallowed once, nervously, and then, as Heath watched, she grew defiant again, eyes flaring rebelliousness. “I tried… to seduce him.” (And again, he thought, how HAD she lived this long?)

“You WHAT?” Nick hollered. Eugene, on the other hand, started to laugh outright.

The contagiousness of that pure, stupid sound made Heath want to laugh–HAVE to laugh–which made him groan again, hiccup once through it, clutch himself tighter, all of which made his eyes water some more.

“I take it, by your sudden unspoken support of Heath, here, that said seduction… failed?” Jarrod offered, a twinkle in his eyes.

“Of course it failed,” she snapped, as if that was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard. “He’s my BROTHER.”

“Oh, NOW…” Nick blustered, throwing up his gloved hands.

Audra ignored him, finished her story. “But then some men broke in, tried to attack me… one of them beat him when Heath went to defend me. It was awful. It… could have been so very much worse. But he got hurt saving ME.”

“And how did this all end?” Nick growled.

“The sheriff broke it up, escorted us out of town.”

“The sheriff took Heath out of town in this condition?” Jarrod asked. “He didn’t take him straight to Doctor Merar?”

With the focus off of him, Heath was finally calm enough to find a bit of breath. Eyes closed, he slowly gasped, “Those same men caught me in an alley when I got back to town. Caught me off guard; finished things up.”

“Oh, Heath,” Audra cried, laying an apologetic hand on his shoulder.

He reached up, gave the hand a comforting squeeze, continued: “This ain’t all Audra’s fault. And it sure ain’t all Nick’s doin’. I can handle Nick.”

“Oh you can, can you?” Nick growled, but there seemed to be some sort of edge gone from his voice.

“Yeah,” Heath breathed. His eyes were still closed but he pasted on a cocky grin to make the dig stick. “Sure as hell can. And when I can get back up off this bed without fallin’ over and dyin’, well, we’ll finish things up good and proper, you and me.”

That seemed to renew the fire in Nick’s soul, and he was hollering again. “I don’t care if God and all his armies beat that boy half to death. What the hell is he doing HERE?”

“He’s here, Nicholas,” Victoria Barkley said, sweeping into the room, “because he’s your brother. And if my say counts for anything in this family, he’s here to stay, whether you approve of that just now or not. And watch your language.”

Then she was at Heath’s side. “Move that tray, Eugene,” she demanded and he hopped to do so. She settled a new one on the nightstand, perched herself carefully on the edge of the bed. “I have more broth for you, Heath, and a bit of toast. The doctor still hasn’t come, so I’d like to see you take a dose of laudanum while we wait. You’re clearly in far too much pain, but you’ll need more nourishment first.”

Heath opened his sluggish, smarting eyes. He just had to see the reaction to THIS. Jarrod was grinning and Nick was outright gaping. Eugene stood in a corner, holding the old tray, his gaze moving from his mother to his brothers and back again.

“Audra, go get some cool water and a hand towel. He’s flushed, still running a bit of a fever. Nick, close your mouth and excuse yourself; this is a sick room. And Jarrod, I told you to rest in the study until the doctor does make it here, and I meant it. Eugene, you’ve had a long day. Go to bed.”

Heath couldn’t help the stupid, aching smile on his face when all three brothers, men, the lot of them, shuffled obediently out of the room, followed by a triumphant Audra. Victoria Barkley winked at him when they’d left, settled a gentle hand on his forehead for a moment. And then the imperial tone was back. “And you… eat your broth.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Heath breathed.

“Without anymore talking,” she commanded, and then she was helping him to sit up a bit higher, and pressing a fine silver spoon into his unbandaged hand.

Maybe, Heath thought, admiring the spoon as it winked in the light from the lamp… just maybe… he was here to stay. Either that, or he’d died in that alley and was drifting his way towards heaven.

*****

After the soup, which was somehow even better when warmed (bliss), the nibbled bits of buttered toast (manna), and the tiny dose of laudanum (love), Heath merely let himself drift on the cloud of pristine white pillows behind him. The pain, all of it, was so very far away for that few sacred moments that he felt like sticking his tongue out at it. The horribly constricted breathing was all that was bothering him just now–but it was a mere pest in the scheme of things, really… a bit of stinging ash in the eye, like he’d experienced on his first night in the area.

Indeed, he was vaguely aware of all sorts of niceties: Victoria was carefully tucking an occasional blanket around him, helping him to slowly sip at a cup of hot tea, (acrid, mediciney, but sweetened, he could tell, with flowery honey). Audra was on the other side and chirping low nonsense at him while keeping a cool cloth on his forehead. Silas was moving occasionally, almost protectively through the room.

And finally he became aware that Victoria had eventually sent them all away, was taking up the late-night watch herself (he thought it might even be creeping somewhere up on midnight… but time was a bit of a blur). She was perched straight-backed in a plush, fancy gold chair that had been positioned beside the bed.

“I don’t mean to put you out, ma’am,” he murmured slowly, actively working to open his eyes. (He couldn’t remember when he’d slept this long, this deeply… it felt like days now and it had only been since the morning–if he didn’t count the few hours of pure unconsciousness in the alley before dawn…. And if he didn’t count the week he simply lost right after his mama’s death by merely sleeping in a bedroll off the trail, somehow incapable of forward momentum.)

“‘Mmm…sure you have better things you could be doin’ just now,” he continued. (Like stretching out in some bed as fancy as this instead of sitting politely beside your husband’s bastard.)

“No,” she smiled gently, “not at all.” She leaned to turn the rag on his forehead, warm moving back to lovely cool. After a time–and Heath watched her, through half-mast eyes, watched as she debated even bringing it up–she quietly cleared her throat and said, “I didn’t mean to declare it… quite so abruptly, Heath–earlier? with Nick?” He nodded his understanding at her reference. Satisfied, hands now clasped in her lap (anxiously? was she anxious?), she continued: “And yet I hope I did make my intentions clear–what I feel about you and your position here. But we clearly haven’t had the opportunity to discuss YOUR intentions. I know you shouldn’t talk right now–that you should be resting–but….”

“If I sleep anymore, ma’am,” Heath interrupted, offering the barest crooked grin, “they’ll prob’ly be singing my funeral dirges by tomorrow.”

“I doubt that,” she laughed quietly. “You simply seem a few years behind on good, sound rest. But… what I would like to know is… what would YOU desire? Of us?”

He knew what he longed for, but not at her expense, so instead he dipped his brows and, with a touch of trepidation, tried: “I think I recall it. I was a bit muddled this morning, but I think… Jarrod said that you… believe me?”

“Yes.” She gave him another winning smile, but her eyes were painted at the corners with the colorings of sorrow. “Decidedly.”

“Why?” he breathed.

She looked away for a long time. When she turned back, her eyes were just brimming with tears.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Barkley. I didn’t come here to hurt you. Not at all.”

“It’s an old sorrow, Heath, and it does NOT belong to you. I’ve long known about Strawberry, about my husband there. Long known. Not about YOU, but about them. And… here you are.” She indicated him with a sweep of one arm, as if he were an utter miracle, newly discovered–the lost family diamond found in the bottom of an old drawer. She wiped quickly at her tears with a delicate sleeve, and, giving him a quiver of a smile, cupped a gentle hand at his face for emphasis. “And, HERE you are welcome. If it’s what YOU want.”

He pondered that for a time, and then spoke softly, haltingly, as the constricted breathing would allow. “I’ve only known a month. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you’ve lived a life like mine.” She nodded at that, eyes just filling again, then rested a gentle hand on his forearm to encourage him to go on. “But all the while I headed here, what I sometimes dreamed of… what I wanted… is what I thought… well… hoped, that I was maybe entitled to. A name. A heritage. Maybe some part of it all.” He looked off towards the window, wistfully. “It’s such a proud name. I can’t even fancy what it would be like to wear it… to have people look up to me like they do to your sons. Can’t even imagine….”

He was winding down with a surprising quickness, his voice hitching out with his meager air. She patted him gently on the muscled arm. “We’ve talked enough. Rest now; you’ve had a simply horrible time of it.” She was blinking at another swell of tears, and it suddenly dawned on Heath that her tears were for him… not BECAUSE of him, his presence here… but merely for him. “You have all the time in the world to decide.” She quavered another smile, but this one with a hint of mischief, “Although I hope you won’t take quite that long.”

He quirked another grin at that and she seemed to find strength there. She raised her chin and said, “Just know that you’re welcome in our home–the home your father, Thomas Barkley, built. You’re welcome here forever.”

Her words, her comfort were unexpected, wondrous, but he couldn’t help his internal edge of skepticism–that edge that had maybe kept him alive long enough to experience this single glorious moment of acceptance. (I appreciate the sentiment, ma’am, he couldn’t help but think, but maybe tell that pretty speech to NICK.) Closing his eyes, he pondered it all, hitching one sigh against the annoying bandages.

And then, through the muddle, he was truly niggling on the problem that was Nick. What kind of man he was, what kinds of things drove him, kept him pulsing and passionate and alive. His cussed, determined, evil-tempered brother, Nick.

What kinds of things would it take of Heath to make a believer out of Nick, too?

He’d obviously drifted off on those thoughts, because when he opened his eyes next, the doctor from town was there. “Hello again, Heath” the man said with a smile, settling his black bag down on the nightstand (now devoid of soup tray) and moving the lantern closer. (Heath didn’t recall giving the man his name at their last meeting; Mrs. Barkley must have done so.)

Heath grinned weakly, shifted, pressed a protective arm to his ribcage, said: “I’m afraid you’re plain gonna have to take my pony this time, doc, biter or no.”

“No worries, son,” the doctor nodded as he went straight to work: checking Heath’s temperature with the barest frown; cutting the bandage from his hand, studying the myriad injuries there; grimacing most at the swollen and discolored thumb as he barely, tenderly moved it. “Broken, you think?”

Heath hissed, but shook his head no. “Could still fire my rifle fine the next day. Pro’bly just a sprain.”

“Hmmmm,” the doctor muttered, then he was focusing his attention down to the leg… and Heath blew out as much of a sigh of annoyance as he could muster. The doctor chuckled. “Yes, I hear you’re particularly fond of these pants. I’d suggest borrowing a sleepshirt?” Off Heath’s vigorous head shake to the contrary, the doctor said, “No? I didn’t think so.”

“As long as Nick Barkley is roamin’ these halls, I’m keepin’ my pants.”

“Well then,” the doctor declared, eyebrows raised, “down and then up again… although the movement’s going to play hell with those ribs.”

“A butterfly bumpin’ ’em would play hell with these ribs,” Heath gritted, lifting his hips as best he could so the doctor could shimmy the pants down. And then the man was studying his previous handiwork.

“You’ve busted a few stitches. Silas said he applied the Epsom paste twice–which seems to be twice more than you managed.” At that, the doctor gave him a stern look over the tops of his glasses, and Heath looked appropriately chagrined. “No, I’m still not pleased with how this is faring. It’s redder than it was.”

“Sure not pleased with how it’s feelin,’ either,” Heath managed. “And sorry about not keepin’ up with the paste. Was too busy, well, gettin’ beat INTO a paste.”

The doctor’s eyebrows dipped in dark concern at that. “I’ll check again tomorrow, and if we’re not seeing progress I might have to lance it again.”

“Doc,” Heath’s mouth quirked downward, sadly, as he placed a wavering hand on the man’s arm. “That money I paid when I visited you in town? That was the last of it. The very last. I can’t afford no more lancin’ or proddin’ or predictin'”

The doctor merely smiled a gentle, understanding smile at that. “I guess you failed to notice that you’re stretched out in a Barkley bed?”

“I don’t take charity,” Heath gasped… because the doctor was poking at his leg with a vengeance, it seemed.

“And the Barkleys don’t give charity,” he nodded, finally working to rewrap the leg. “Besides, the bill’s already been settled.” Then he dismissed that petty concern and tsked. “Yes, unfortunately, I’ll most likely have to lance this again tomorrow.”

“Joy,” Heath grumbled (about both the lancing and the bill–he wasn’t going to be beholden, but sure didn’t know at the moment how he could square this particular debt right-off, incredibly kind though it was).

And then Heath focused, scrunched up his face in near sorrow as the doctor indicated the ribcage. “You could probably leave that all wrapped up and call it a night, couldn’t ya, Doc?” he tried woefully.

“Sorry, son,” and the doctor really did seem so. “Mrs. Barkley did give you some laudanum, right?” he asked as he readied his scissors. Off Heath’s miserable nod, he cut carefully through the wrapping at the ribs. As Heath involuntarily slumped a little from the sudden freedom of it, the pain came in like a charging bull… with insanely sharpened horns, indeed. Heath gritted his teeth, wondered if they’d plain turn to powder from the force of his grinding.

And then the doc was prodding with curious fingers at the ribcage… prodding him THERE, at the death spots. (So much for laudanum, Heath thought, throwing his head back.) “You’re right about that paste bit… somebody beat you but good,” the doctor whistled, eyes wide in amazement.

“Yeah,” Heath managed in a whisper, “and sad to say, I was there through most all of it.”

The doctor produced a stethoscope, used it to listen to Heath’s chest, with particular focus at the darkest bruising. “Hmmm… a bit of crepitus,” the doctor squinted. Finally he finished, sighed. “Multiple cracks, yes. But no breaks that I can tell; that’s a relief.” (Relief? The HELL, Heath growled to himself, blinking back involuntary tears.)

“And sorry, but…” the doctor suddenly, carefully slid one hand behind Heath’s back, placed the other on his breastbone and squeezed gently.

“Shittttt,” Heath gasped, watery eyes going wide.

“And yes, indeed, separated. Cracked and separated ribs both. You are, beyond a doubt, quite a thorough mess, son. Okay, I’ll ease up for a bit. You just try to breathe, nice and slow.”

“Don’t wanna,” Heath whined, done with it all, streaming eyes now squeezed closed.

“As your physician, I’d strongly advise it,” the doctor chuckled. “I have found that regular doses of breathing seem to do wonders for most patients.” He was hunched over Heath, merely working at the chest with the stethoscope again, but even the simple, sharp coldness of that caused Heath to flinch. And then, before Heath could muster the strength to simply pass out, the exam seemed to finally be over.

The doctor was wiping down his hands, considering Heath with a dark frown. Heath saw all of this through watery, half-closed eyes. “You want the verdict?”

Heath thought about that for a second, then reluctantly nodded.

“So do Jarrod and Mrs. Barkley. Is that alright with you?” The doctor’s forthright gaze was giving him a true and honest choice in the matter, but Heath couldn’t help but feel obliged. He was stretched out in Jarrod’s bed and the Barkleys had footed the bill for this visit. He managed another tiny nod.

The doctor went to the door, opened it, and summoned in the two of them, who must have been waiting outside the while. Then he directed his dialogue back at Heath as they watched steadily in the background. “You’re going to be here for awhile, son. Ribs like yours can take weeks and weeks to heal, and I may still have to lance that leg tomorrow. I think your overall condition–exhaustion, near starvation–has allowed for the infection there to linger.

“But I’m not going to make a firm decision about your case until I see you again in the morning. I want the ribs wrapped tonight for the pain, but you’re going to have to alternate; you’ll need to do some regular deep breathing so that pneumonia doesn’t set in… wrapping and unwrapping in shifts, do you understand?” Heath nodded again, miserably, and both Victoria and Jarrod parroted the head movement behind him.

“I’m going to splint that thumb before I leave, just for comfort. But if your leg is still inflamed, if the cuts in your hand work up any more infection by tomorrow, I’ll be doing some more serious tending. So your best bet–in ALL cases–is to merely partake of as MUCH of the excellent nourishment that you’ll be offered in this fine establishment… and to REST.” And on that note, the ever-proficient man went to finalize his work.

Heath breathed out a hitching sigh at that, still somehow ashamedly aware of his surroundings, despite the doctor’s diatribe about his miserable health. “Can I be moved from Jarrod’s bed… so he can have it back?”

“Oh, nonsense, Heath,” Victoria scolded, bustling forward, and then she leaned in to carefully assist the doctor. The two seemed to be good at working in tandem… old pros. “We’ll be moving you when you can MOVE, and not before then.”

“Where are you going to sleep?” Heath pondered in an almost slur, eyes sliding to Jarrod’s form. (The doctor had kindly administered another small dose of laudanum before he went to re-wrap Heath’s ribs, splint the thumb, and Heath thought he might have been confused about Victoria’s reaction because of it all.)

“No worries, Heath,” Jarrod said, carefully watching the ministrations–but eyes flashing that merry blue sparkle at him despite his distractedness. “We have so many spare rooms in this house that our guests call them ‘the revolving bedrooms.'”

Heath gave a wobbly grin at that… he wasn’t even sure why. And then he was thankfully moving away from the doctor’s painful ministrations and back into the pure blessing of sleep. (And way, way in the background, his mind was still niggling at the problem that was Nick. Again, he pondered–wandered through the notion in the dark, meandering hallways of his hopping, sliding dreams–what kinds of things would it take to make a believer out of him, too?)

To make a believer out of ornery, looming nightmare Nick?

*****

Heath slowly came awake to the dusty smell of new rain coming in through the bedroom window, which had clearly been opened just a crack at some point (fresh air for the sickroom, he mused). Still, he sighed at the bliss of it. The storm that had threatened since yesterday afternoon must have washed through during the night–and with a quickness, because his ears told him that it was done raining… but he could almost feel the clarity of the air that such a quick sweep of storm would have left, that wondrous feeling of newness. (He could imagine being out in it, in a bedroll… sheer misery as it rained, but real pleasant after, as he warmed back up and watched the world transform around him.)

It wasn’t yet dawn, he could tell by the light outside. And a sweep of the room revealed that Victoria had left, but that Audra had taken her position. She was sleeping in the chair, wrapped in a quilt, her feet tucked up under her. He crooked a small grin… both at the sight of her (his sister, his!), and at the fact that they clearly didn’t trust leaving him alone after the whole “dressing himself” incident.

He had muddled his problem through in his sleep, actually dreamt the solution, and even though it wasn’t quite dawn yet, even though he was still as tired as the dead (couldn’t believe he could sleep as much as he had), her presence was the perfect catalyst for his plan. Maybe Silas was powerful enough to make the Lord intervene on his behalf after all, Heath chuckled. But chuckling hurt and so he groaned–noting anew the blast of pain that was his whole being.

The groan did it… Audra wrinkled her nose in her sleep, and then opened one bleary eye. She shifted in the chair, stretched languidly (her arm had been freshly wrapped, Heath could see, by the doctor). “Hello.” She gave him a warm smile.

“Hey,” he grinned back, his voice raspy in his ears. He cleared his throat then tried, “Why are you the lucky one who gets to stand sentinel?”

“Jarrod, Mother and Eugene are asleep. And do you think we’d let NICK near you?”

He went to chuckle at that, which made him groan again. But his plan was in effect and the involuntarily groan would be the perfect start. “Is there anymore laudanum?” he tried pitifully. He was probably several days away from being off the opiate entirely… but he sure was gonna need a dose now for what he had in mind.

“Oh,” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with sudden sorrow. “I was supposed to give you some already! I slept through it!” And then she was trying to untangle herself from the quilt, almost tumbling from the chair in her haste.

“Easy, there,” he fairly breathed. “You’ll need some too if you plant your face in the floor.”

She got herself smoothed out, hopped to the nightstand. He watched with a quiet gaze as she readied the dose, helped him to drink it with gentle, lifting hands, paused through his grimace over its foulness, and then helped him with some cool water after. He closed his eyes and waited for it to take effect, which it did with a quickness considering his fairly empty stomach. His thoughts grew warm, his skin grew lax, and the pain pouted and walked a long distance away.

“Better?” she asked.

“Much,” he nodded vaguely. And then, with a mighty effort, he got himself up off the bed.

“Heath! Stop!” But he had her, he knew, because in her confusion she was helping him to stand.

“Audra,” he blinked, steadied himself, continued, “you gotta help me.”

“Are you leaving?” she asked in a panic, arms still holding him up. “You can’t leave, you….” She floundered around, as if trying for a reason, any reason, then found one. “You don’t HAVE anything,” she declared.

“And just how do you know that?” he squinted.

She lowered her eyes, embarrassed, and then admitted, “I… went through your saddle bags.”

“Why?” He didn’t think he was mad at it (no SHAME in being poor… just a whole lot of hungry), but he still wanted to know the reason for the intrusion of it.

For once she actually looked genuinely contrite. He was maybe seeing the real Audra, not the one she presented to much of the world in her quest to conquer it… to “be like Nick” (and, he remembered from her speech in the hotel room, to be a bit like wandering Heath too). She almost whispered, “I was the one sent down to get the medicine for your leg.” Then she looked stricken. “You don’t have a THING. So you can’t leave.”

Then she was crying, telling the absolute truth of it, clutching desperately at his good hand. “You’re my brother and you just can’t leave me.”

He hung his head wearily for a moment, contemplating that for the final time. “No, I s’pose I can’t. Not you. But if I’m stayin’, I gotta be ahead. And so you gotta help me.”

“I… don’t understand.”

He was clutching his ribs, hitching as he spoke, but it was imperative she understood. “It’s about me and Nick. You said we were alike. And on one count, at least, you were right. I know what men like Nick… think like. And so I know what it’s gonna take to make him believe me, even just a little. And he has to believe me if I’m gonna stay… it’s all or nothin.'”

She cocked her head, dashed a hasty sleeve across her eyes, and then narrowed her red-rimmed gaze. But she seemed to understand him. “What do you need me to do?”

It was the stupidest thing he’d ever had to ask of anyone. “I need you to put my boots on for me.”

And then she’d moved from sorrowful to mad, even bossy (and boy could he see her mama in her). “You are NOT going out of this house in your condition.”

He leaned heavily on the nightstand, judging the distance to the chair in the corner where the boots and the vest were; she watched, arms crossed, refusing to help now. He crooked the tiniest grin, asked, “You think you can stop me?”

She narrowed her gaze at that for a time, twisted her mouth in thought. And then she nodded decidedly. “Yup. If I shoved you a good one right now you’d be back on that bed for keeps.”

He scowled at that, which made her tip her chin triumphantly…. Then he tried a trick he’d learned years back. He widened his blue eyes and turned his mouth down into the tiniest pout. “Aw, Audra. I NEED you to do this for me.” He hung his head for a second. “I can’t do it… alone.”

Now she was scowling. They were in a face off–Audra all scowls and Heath all wide eyes and sorrow. Finally she flipped her hair and stomped to the chair, retrieving the boots. “Fine. But I’m going with you.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way… Sis.” And it was amazing how quickly his tiny pout turned into the barest crooked grin.

*****

He was leaning in the parlor where Audra had hidden him when she’d dashed up to dress for breakfast (or redress, after getting out of her riding clothes). Now he was waiting for all of them to settle into their meal before he made the entrance he’d planned on. The trip had been hell, but she’d helped the while, and he’d made it… out and back again.

His knees suddenly went to buckle but he locked them. If he slid down the wall he wouldn’t be getting back up. He didn’t think he could feel worse than he had the day before, but he did. And yet he knew that it was all resting on this… that this was the test, make or break. It was another “pendulum moment”… it was to be the moment that determined his fate here.

He opened his eyes with a sudden start as his head snapped forward. He’d actually nodded off standing there! It had only taken a second and so he knew he’d have to put on his show now, whether they were all seated or not. He slid into his best poker face, limped towards the dining room entrance… then stopped when he heard Nick, who was clearly on a rant: “Well now that does raise a point….”

“None that was not discussed quite thoroughly and well into last night, if I recall.” That was Victoria’s voice.

But Nick was at it again. “Now wait a minute. That story of his, do you really want it taken apart? I can take that story of his apart piece by piece….” (You’ll have to take me apart first, Heath thought, his ire rising and replacing his infirmity.)

But clearly, Nick wasn’t getting any support for that one, so he shifted focus. “Just like that we pick up a brother! Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

“Not quite ‘just like that.'” That was Jarrod’s voice, calm and clipped both.

“Well if that boy’s a Barkley, he has a job to learn, and I’m going to make sure he knows what IT is….” Then Nick was rambling on and on about all the threats to his ranch, his valley. Heath leaned against the wall, trembling just a bit, somehow torn–he was almost grinning at Nick’s fervor… and he was a ball of stomach-clenched terror at what was at stake just now.

“And let’s make one thing very clear,” Nick continued his diatribe. “This is a working ranch. And he pulls his weight. And that means up in the morning, every morning, with the rest of the crowd at five o’clock, and sweat! Not like now, no, all cozy and coddled in JARROD’S bed. Just let him come to me, just one time with a dry shirt on his back!”

And THAT was Heath’s cue. He steadied his limp as much as he could, and entered the room. His voice was caught on hitches from the ribs, but still he delivered the sum of what he’d found on his ride out with Audra. “You’ve got a section of fence out and a… patch of mesquite to clear that’s just… beggin’ for fire.” He fought for a breath, pasted on a cocky grin, continued, “And that bridge… has gotta be fixed before my Modoc breaks a leg, which I don’t cotton to happen.”

It wasn’t quite the delivery he’d hoped for, but the point had been made…. He could see it deep in Nick’s dark, shocked gaze. And then the room came alive. Everyone hopped up in a clear state of agitation, except Audra (who’d been expecting this) and Nick, who paused for a second and then merely took his seat, glaring. Then the storm that had been on Victoria’s face passed and she calmly seated herself again as well.

“I don’t know what you could have possibly been thinking, but we’re going to get you upstairs right now!” Jarrod declared, finally seeming to get over his shock at even seeing Heath in the dining room and moving quickly to his side.

“No thanks, Jarrod,” Heath said, stifling a gasp at a hitch of fresh pain (successfully stifling it, he hoped). “I got here on my own steam. I can leave the same way.”

“Oh no, Jarrod,” Victoria almost chuckled from her chair as she poured a dollop of cream into her coffee. “Do leave him be. Even better that we can finish our breakfast with the entire family gathered.”

Nick snorted at that and Jarrod studied his mother for a beat, eyes wide. After a moment he seemed to give in to something Heath couldn’t quite understand, and then, after helping Heath down into a seat, he took his own. Indeed, taking Victoria’s lead, they all seemed to make the motions of resuming breakfast.

After a time of passing platters, Jarrod resumed as if it were a standard meal-time conversation. “What I’d like to know, Heath, is who helped you on with your boots?” He raised one questioning eyebrow as he put a piece of steak on Heath’s plate. “That doesn’t seem to be something I could have accomplished were I in your state.” (Yup, Heath thought, hanging his head and pretending to study the steak in order to avoid his older brother’s stare… Jarrod was mighty good at figuring folks out.)

“Audra did it,” Eugene declared simply as he dished himself some eggs–clearly tattling came naturally to him in regards to his sister.

“Eugene!” she hissed, giving him a glare. He merely grinned and took a bite, chewing victoriously.

“One mystery solved,” Jarrod nodded. “And Audra, honey, remind me that we need to have a long talk later. But what I’d further like to know, Mother, is why we’re allowing Heath to stay here instead of ushering him straight back up to bed where he belongs?”

Oh,” Victoria said with an airy wave of one hand, “when a Barkley sets his mind to something, it’d be easier to change the course of a river than THAT particular path. And besides, Heath is being no more rash than the three, no FOUR of you were yesterday when facing all of those hired guns at Semple’s farm.” She took a sip of her coffee, patted her mouth delicately with her napkin, and then continued. “Indeed, sound doses of idiocy, it seems, are what keep many men moving forward through life.” Then she took a dainty bite of her eggs.

Boy howdy, Heath thought, was she sore at him! He decided he’d best make good his breakfast, because it was likely his last one here. So he actually studied the steak. It sounded far from appealing–in fact, he was decidedly queasy–but they were all watching him, he knew. And lordy, was that one fine cut of meat… but he only had one good hand to eat with–couldn’t quite wield a knife with a splinted thumb.

“Need me to cut that up into little bits for ya?” Nick asked condescendingly, leaning forward, chin on steepled hands.

“I can just gnaw it,” Heath parried with feigned indifference, “if the ladies can forgive my table manners.”

“We forgive Nick’s all the time,” Audra purred.

“Or,” Heath cocked his head thoughtfully, “maybe you can lash the knife to my bad hand, Nick? That’s what I had to do awhile ago so I could swing an axe at that mesquite.” (He hadn’t really swung an axe at anything–had barely stayed atop his pony–and Nick knew it, but it was sure fun to poke at him. Heath could almost get used to it, he decided.)

Nick snorted again at that, but he was doing far more glaring at Heath than he was eating… and, like Jarrod, Heath also fancied himself good at reading people. Nick was glaring, not because of Heath’s parries, but because Heath had PROVEN himself… had satisfied Nick’s impossible standards where this new “brother” was concerned. And boy did that ruin HIS world.

And then Heath’s world was suddenly suffering from a bit of miserable ruination of its own.

First he felt a cold sweat breaking out; then his stomach started turning; finally his ears were buzzing. The room was slowly closing in on him… darkening drastically. He locked his eyes to his plate and tried to fight it off… but he’d gone and done it good this time. Yeah, he’d shown Nick what he was made of, but… now he was going to undo it all in a brief minute or two. Spots were honing in on his vision and he could tell that all the color had drained from his face. With a suddenness, he was finally and fully done in. He’d hit the very last of it.

He wanted to say, “Excuse me,” and make his way from the table, but all he could manage was a whispered, “Aw, hell.” His last thought for a moment, was “yup, idiocy,” and then he slid sideways out of his chair in a dead faint.

He wasn’t out for long–just long enough for the brothers and Audra to have gathered around him… and to decide that fainting hurt like hell when you had cracked ribs.

“Perhaps now he’ll stay in bed,” Heath heard Victoria casually declare from her spot at the head of the table, as the world came back into focus. Audra and Jarrod were on their knees at either side, and Nick was looming above him, arms crossed. Eugene, twisting a nervous napkin in his hands, was to Nick’s left. Heath cleared his throat, tried for a crooked grin of apology, but he was fairly sure it came off looking more like a grimace.

Victoria’s calm voice floated down from the table. “Nicholas, please escort your brother to the room I’ve prepared for him. I believe he’s finished with his breakfast.”

There was a long pause, Nick seemingly refusing to respond, and then Victoria cleared her throat. “I said…”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nick sighed. And then he was shoving in among the others and helping Heath up… almost tenderly it seemed. Heath groaned at the agony of getting up off the floor, but then, with Nick’s help, he managed to find his legs and together they staggered past the table and towards the door.

“I’ll be in to see you shortly, Heath,” Victoria called after them as they cleared the room.

“Boy, are you in for it now,” Nick said almost gleefully, then he was hitching more of Heath’s weight. “I’ll be. You’re pretty heavy for a corset waist.”

Heath clutched an arm at his ribs, sighed out, “And you’re right handsome for an imbecile.”

Then Nick was fairly carrying him up the staircase. He muttered, “So you thought you’d just leave the room ‘on your own steam,’ the same way you came in, huh?”

Heath’s eyes were closed as he concentrated on dragging one foot, then another, up those billion stairs. “Sounded right at the time.”

“That was some trick you tried to pull. I ain’t impressed. Can’t stand the sight of you just now…. But my mother doesn’t lie, and so maybe you are a Barkley.”

“Why, ’cause I got the sense of a mule, like you?”

Nick paused there on the stairs, hitched him up a little bit higher, looked him over. Perhaps for the first full time. “Yeah, pretty much,” he said with a nod. Heath grinned, then moaned, and Nick mumbled, “Think you might faint more than Audra, though.”

“Audra prob’ly don’t faint much,” Heath hissed out another sigh, head hung.

“No, you got a point.”

And as Nick fairly dragged him to a room, small and tidy, helped him into the bed there, Heath couldn’t help the stupid grin that graced his face… even if the grin clearly angered Nick, who tucked him in with a growling vengeance–tucked him in so tightly that it hurt.

But Heath didn’t care. This bed, this room, this family, it was suddenly… home.

Home!

It was… okay to think that, now–to feel it, to really let it in, let it bathe his weary soul like a sweet, refreshing balm… like a new rain. It was okay because of Nick’s begrudging, angry, hateful approval. And it was all sure a wondrous thing, he thought, as he sank slowly, carefully, into the sacred mattress there and as Nick, muttering darkly the while, settled into a chair beside the bed–maybe even as if to keep watch…. Yup, it was all sure a wondrous thing; it was a blessed, wondrous thing of glory.

***The End***

Return to Loki’s homepage

.

One thought on “Of Glory (by Loki)

  1. Wow an intense take on Heath’s arrival to the Barkley family. Sucked me in so I didn’t want to stop reading until I saw how it was resolved!

    Like

Leave a Reply to laurafc44 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.