Summary: A Missing Scene From The Episode The Murdered Party
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 7300
The return to consciousness was drawn out and painful. Heath’s head rolled back and forth against the hard wood of the barn wall. He flinched when the bump on the side of his skull made contact with the rough boards. For a period of time that could have been a minute, or could have been an hour, he thought he was dreaming. He felt the dirt floor beneath him and wondered why he wasn’t in his bed. Even if this was a dream shouldn’t he at least be able to skate his fingertips over his mattress?
In the dream three men snuck into the barn from behind him. Despite the bandannas covering their faces Heath instantly recognized Jake Kyles and his sons, Alan and Emmet. If Jake hadn’t been pointing a rifle at Heath’s gut the cowboy would have burst out laughing. The Kyleses weren’t known for their intelligence. If they thought those bandannas would hide their identity they were dumber than Heath had previously thought. Jake’s protruding belly alone would have given him away even if he’d been wearing one of Audra’s party dresses with a gunny sack over his head.
Because of Heath’s testimony before the district attorney the oldest Kyle son, Korbie, was sitting in Stockton’s jail awaiting trial. Heath had witnessed Korbie murder Colonel Brighton Ashby. The Colonel’s death had the whole town riled up and just itching for a hanging. Not to mention the tension it had caused in the Barkley household. Jarrod had considered defending Korbie which meant his job would be to discredit Heath’s testimony. Nick made no bones about telling Jarrod he was a fool to consider such a notion. “Korbie Kyles is a waste of an honest lawyer’s time,” is how Nick had summed up his opinion.
Audra had given her oldest brother the cold shoulder not only on Heath’s behalf, but because Colonel Ashby’s wife was threatening to take back her promise of donating land for a new orphanage. Audra had been spearheading that cause for an over a year now and couldn’t bear the thought of those needy children being forced to remain in quarters too old and far too small to accommodate them.
What Victoria thought of Jarrod’s considerations Heath didn’t know, though earlier in the evening he did overhear her tell Nick she had paid Jarrod a visit in his office that morning and that everything was going to be all right. While she was in the midst of conversation with Jarrod his secretary entered the room and announced Judge Faber had requested a young lawyer by the name of Matt Cooper take Korbie’s case. Jarrod readily agreed to the choice knowing it was in the best interest of his family if he bowed out.
Jarrod hadn’t returned from his Stockton office by the time the family sat down to supper at seven o’clock. The conversation around the table was light-hearted for a change, and when the meal ended Nick and Heath headed to the barn to work a couple more hours.
At ten Nick called it a night. Before doing the same Heath wanted to finish repairing the crooked branding iron he was pounding back into shape. He said goodnight to his brother, barely paying attention when Nick exited the barn.
Jake and his boys were hiding outside waiting to catch Heath alone. Nick couldn’t have been gone more than five minutes before they slipped in.
Knowing how loco the Kyles family could be caused Heath to fight like a caged tiger. But three against one was poor odds right from the start. For a few seconds Heath held his own, but then a fist was rammed smack in the middle of his stomach, followed by another and then another. His ribs took a plummeting next, and finally his face. He vaguely recalled hoping Jarrod would come riding in, but that wasn’t to be the case. Heath was slammed against the barn wall so hard he saw stars. His vision was off-kilter as he looked at his assailants through swollen eyes, but nonetheless he saw the hot branding iron coming straight for his left cheek. He tried to move, tried to buck and fight, but his body wouldn’t respond to the frantic commands his brain was giving it. Just when he was certain he’d feel scalding metal sear his flesh Jake drove the iron into the wall mere inches from Heath’s head. The man’s words still rang in Heath’s rattled brain.
“You’d better listen now and git it straight. You testify the wrong way and we’ll come back and put this brand so it’ll mark you for life.”
Just as quickly as he’d been accosted Heath was released. His battered body slid down the barn wall, darkness claiming him before he hit the ground.
The first time Heath awoke he did nothing more than topple sideways and vomit. Within moments he was unconscious again. The second time he awoke, he managed to get himself in a sitting position, but his limbs felt like they were encased in a vat of tar and his thoughts were so muddled he couldn’t do more than wait for blessed unawareness to come for him again.
The third awakening was the painful one. Heath felt every bump, bruise, scrape, and cracked rib as he shifted position. The man had no clue exactly how much time had passed, but he was certain it had been over an hour since his visitors left.
Heath braced one hand against the wall behind him and with the other groped until his fingers came in contact with a horse stall. The blonde’s stomach threatened to turn itself inside out as he tried to stand. He slid back to the floor, counted off a full minute in time to the throbbing between his temples, then tried again. Though neither his stomach nor head liked this second attempt at movement any better, Heath made it to his knees. He rocked back and forth a moment, then pushed himself to his feet. The entire barn swam in a crazy, tilted, counter-clockwise circle. Heath clutched the stall in a death grip. He knew if he let go he’d be kissing the dirt again. He wasn’t about to let that happen. He’d worked too hard to get this far.
The cowboy stumbled toward the cool breeze he could feel blowing down the barn aisle. He propelled his body from side to side, grabbing onto whatever he could in order to remain in a semi-standing position. When he came to the doorway he sagged against it. It was dark and Heath’s vision was far from clear, but he vaguely made out the hulking shape of the house. It had never seemed so far away before. Between the barn and mansion there would be little to cling to for support. Heath spent a moment wondering if he could make the distance. He wasn’t a man to whine or cause a fuss. He’d been hurt worse than this in his life, and passing the night unconscious on the barn floor probably wouldn’t cause him any permanent harm. But he kept thinking of that nice bed he had inside that big house, and how good it would feel against his aching body. No, first a hot bath would feel good, then the bed. Yes, if he could just make it into the house he would soak in the tub then go to bed. Everyone was asleep by now. Or at least everyone but Jarrod, and since Jingo wasn’t in his stall Heath knew Jarrod hadn’t arrived home yet. Therefore Heath could tend to his battered body without bothering anyone, then retreat to his room. There’d be time enough in the morning to inform his family about the visit from Jake and his boys.
Heath clutched his ribs. He took as deep of a breath as his sore chest would allow, then pushed himself away from the barn. His feet crossed over one another in a drunken stagger until he came to a hitching post. He barely managed to snare the rough wood with his left hand and took little notice of the sliver that sliced deep into his palm. He swayed back and forth as nausea rolled his stomach. The nausea was accompanied by that funny black feeling that told Heath he was dangerously close to passing out again. The man sunk to his knees. He sucked in gulps of damp night air until the black feeling passed. Getting to his feet again proved an impossible task. Each time Heath tried to raise unconsciousness beckoned. With no other choice left him he crawled toward the house using one hand to propel himself along while the other cupped his ribcage.
Heath crawled until he came to the first pillar. He hugged the fat support beam, its cold granite bringing momentary relief to his bruised face. Heath inched his way up the pillar until he returned to a half-standing position. The beams were spaced five feet apart all along the front of the mansion. Heath lurched from one to the next until the front door was at hand. The man studied the space between the pillar he was leaning against and the door. Even with the aid of the outside lamps, his eyesight was distorted. He could be one foot away from the door, or he could be ten. For some reason, no matter how hard he tried, Heath couldn’t recall exactly how far it was from the point he was standing to the point he wanted to reach. He was well aware he should know the answer to that, he knew his mind’s eye should tell him, but whatever part of his brain stored that information refused to surface.
When the only choice left Heath was to enter the house or spend the night unconscious on the porch he gave himself a mighty push. He dove for the door, hitting it with a resounding thud. Through nothing more than sheer luck he managed to get his hand on the knob. It seemed to turn on its own volition. With Heath’s full weight sagging it the door flew open as though someone had yanked it from the other side. Heath tumbled into the foyer like a sack of grain being pitched from a wagon.
A part of Heath knew he didn’t want to wake his family. He knew his goal had been to make it upstairs without alerting anyone to his presence. But another part of Heath didn’t care as his aching body collapsed upon cool wood of the floor.
Victoria Barkley was dozing in bed with an open book in her lap.
She had intended to wait up for Jarrod and sit with him while he ate the supper Silas left warming in the stove, but somewhere around chapter three she’d given into the sandman.
Nick had gone to bed shortly after he’d entered from the barn over two hours ago now. Victoria and Audra finished the card game they were playing and followed Nick thirty minutes later. Nick had said Heath wanted to fix a branding iron before calling it a night. Victoria wasn’t certain if he’d come in yet; however, she assumed he had since, like Nick, Heath was an early riser. As for Jarrod, Victoria didn’t know if he’d arrived home during her cat nap, but then if he got tied up at the office it wasn’t unusual for him to spend the night at Stockton’s Cattlemen’s Hotel.
Victoria was glad this business with Korbie Kyles was behind them. Granted, Heath would have to testify at the trial yet, but no doubt that would be a quick affair that would end with Korbie’s hanging. Victoria wasn’t a strong proponent of the death penalty, but she couldn’t say she was against it if the situation warranted. Korbie had been nothing but trouble since he was a boy. Alan and Emmet couldn’t be called model citizens either. Between the three brothers they’d been arrested fourteen different times in the past year. Public drunkenness, assault with a deadly weapon, destruction of property, and conspiring to commit fraud were just some of the crimes linked to Korbie’s name. Victoria supposed she should feel sorry for Jake. He’d lost his wife when Korbie was five. The other boys had been just three and two. Perhaps with a mother’s influence Korbie would have grown up to be a decent man. But one reaped what one sowed as the saying went, and Jake’s sons were definitely a product of their upbringing. The men they were now was a direct result of the values, or lack of, they’d learned at their father’s knee.
Victoria leaned over and set her book on her bedside table. She was just about to blow the lamp out when she heard a thump from below. The source of the sound puzzled her for a moment, then a smile touched her mouth.
Jarrod’s home. He always tosses his attaché’ case on the table in the foyer when he’s had a good day. No doubt he’s just as happy as the rest of us about Matt Cooper taking Korbie’s case.
The woman threw the covers back and reached for her robe. If Jarrod hadn’t eaten in town she’d sit with him at the dining room table like she had earlier planned. If he had eaten she’d at least be able to say goodnight to him and thank him again for not defending Korbie.
Victoria buttoned her robe as she traveled the long hallway. Lights had been left burning on the main floor for Heath and Jarrod, their glow arched to the second story. Victoria noted the open door to Heath’s room as she passed.
That’s odd that he would still be working outside at this time of night. But then maybe he was waiting up for Jarrod, too.
Victoria fully expected to see Jarrod and Heath sharing a brandy in the parlor. The sight that greeted her instead caused her to momentarily pause at the landing in stunned shock.
Within seconds, Victoria’s brain got the message to her that something was dreadfully wrong. She lifted her robe and flew down the stairs.
The woman knelt by Heath’s side. She didn’t know if she was more afraid to turn him over or more afraid not to. She grasped his arm and hip and rolled him to his side. Between his battered face and the way he was clutching his ribs she immediately knew he’d been beaten. But by whom and why she could only guess. For the moment that wasn’t important.
The woman swiveled to face the stairway. “Nick! Nick! Nicholas, get down here! Nick!”
Nick was slipping his arms into his shirt when Victoria saw his shadow fall across the landing.
Nick never finished his sentence. As soon as Heath came into view he charged down the stairs. By the time Nick was at his brother’s side Heath was regaining consciousness.
Nick knelt next to his mother. Together they helped Heath sit up.
“What happened, Heath?” Nick asked. “Who did this to you?” Another voice joined in the confusion as Audra raced down the stairs.
“Heath! Heath, what hap….”
Victoria held up a hand. “Not now. Let’s get him to the sofa. Audra, run next door to Phillip’s and have him send one of the men to town for the doctor.”
Audra did as her mother requested while Nick helped Heath to his feet.
The blond man bit back a moan when Nick got him completely upright. Heath’s body had no intention of allowing him to stand for long. His knees went out from under him and his full weight sagged against his brother.
Victoria slipped her arm just below Nick’s around Heath’s waist. Between the two of them they half dragged Heath, half walked him to the parlor. They turned his body around and carefully eased him to a sitting position on the sofa.
The next few minutes were a jumble of confusion to the injured man. Audra appeared from somewhere with a wet cloth in her hand. She sat beside Heath and dabbed at the cuts on his face. He heard her tell Victoria and Nick that Phillip went to get Doctor Merar. He tried to shake his head no in an effort to indicate he didn’t need a doctor, but when the goose egg on his skull came in contact with the wooden frame of the sofa he decided it was in his best interest to sit still.
The blond man felt Victoria place a hand on his shoulder. He had a hard time focusing on her face, but he heard her say something about being right back with the liniment. That was another thing he could have done without, but from past experience he knew to protest would be an effort in futility.
And while the women of the family offered their ministrations Nick offered his own.
“Who did this to you?” Nick questioned, not even bothering to wait for an answer. “It was Kyles, wasn’t it? Sure it was. Jake and those worthless sons of his. Seems to me I’m suddenly feeling the need to pay the Kyles family a little visit.”
Nick ignored Heath as he got his gun belt ready. It was past time somebody let Jake and his sons know their bullying was no longer going to be tolerated. They’d crossed the line tonight with Nick Barkley when they landed the first punch against his brother. Just that morning Jake had stood in the Barkley dining room and sneered in regards to Heath, “It ain’t as if he’s a real member of your family.” Well now Nick had reason to show Jake Kyles just how much of a real member of the Barkley family Heath was. As Nick picked up his gun belt he knew he’d enjoy every second of his revenge.
Jarrod Barkley’s day had been a long one to say the least. The lawyer was a person of high standards. Despite Korbie Kyles reputation, Jarrod couldn’t stomach the thought of the man going to trial with no attorney to represent him. Jarrod thought the problem had been resolved when Judge Faber assigned Matt Cooper to take the case. But then Jarrod paid Matt a visit and found out the young man was convinced Korbie was guilty. What kind of a chance did Korbie have of getting a fair trial if his own lawyer was ready to hang him before the proceedings even began?
Jarrod had lunch with Duncan Faber that day. The judge thought Jarrod was crazy to want to take on this case, especially when one considered the eyewitness for the prosecution was Jarrod’s own brother. Duncan wasn’t certain what to make of this and said as much as he sliced into the T-bone steak Jarrod had bought for him at the Cattlemen’s Hotel.
“I only know your brother Heath by reputation, Jarrod. I’ve seen the man around town though never had occasion to meet him, but I understand,……….well like everyone else in Stockton I’ve heard of the circumstances that brought him to live with you. So maybe you have a reason why you don’t take his word at face value. Perhaps there’s something about him or his past that causes you concern. And, of course, he is just your half-brother so maybe,…”
Jarrod pushed his meal aside untouched. His eyes flicked around the hotel lobby. It was late for lunch, after two o’clock and the place were nearly empty, nonetheless, he kept his voice low.
“Heath isn’t just anything, Duncan. He’s my brother, period. There’s no halves about it. And no, I have no reason to doubt his word. What I have reason to doubt is whether or not he actually saw what he thinks he did. It was dark that night, there wasn’t a moon. Therefore did Heath really see Korbie murder Colonel Ashby, or because he caught Korbie running away from the scene of the crime does he just thinkhe saw Korbie murder the Colonel?”
The judge shrugged his shoulders. “Good point. That’s why you’re one of the best trial lawyers in the state of California. But taking apart your own brother’s testimony,…..quite frankly, Jarrod, that could get ugly.”
“Believe me, Duncan, I know it. But an innocent man being sent to the gallows simply because he didn’t have proper representation could get ugly as well.”
With the judge’s reluctant blessing Jarrod took the case. He stopped at the jail to talk to Korbie, then spent the rest of the day at his office pouring over the transcripts from the preliminary hearing. He paid no attention to the passing time. He was aware of his secretary leaving for the day at five, and knew the sun had set sometime after eight. He left the office then long enough to walk to Maribell’s cafe for supper. By nine he was back at his desk. When he looked at the clock again it was eleven thirty.
Jarrod thought of staying at the Cattlemen’s Hotel that night, but despite the late hour chose not to. He’d made the decision to defend Korbie Kyles and had no doubt that headline would be all over tomorrow morning’s Stockton Gazette. He owed it to his family to tell them the news in person. More importantly, he owed it to Heath.
Jarrod dismounted Jingo outside the barn. He put a hand to the small of his back and stretched, then picked up the reins and led Jingo to his stall. The lawyer’s brow furrowed as he passed the flaming forge. It wasn’t like Nick or Heath to retire for the night without putting the fire out.
Jarrod tended to his horse’s needs, then took care of extinguishing the forge. It was when he turned around that he saw the Barkley brand burned into the barn wall.
That’s odd. If Nick or Heath wanted to test an iron they would have done it on a piece of scrap lumber.
Jarrod took three steps toward the marred wall, then stopped. He smelled the vomit before he saw it. His eyes flicked over the surrounding area and took in the smears and streaks of fresh blood.
The lawyer ran for the house. All he could picture was one of his brothers having accidentally burned himself with the branding iron. Before Jarrod got to the front door he was hailed from behind.
“Jarrod! Hey, Jarrod, wait a minute!”
The man turned as Phillip rode up. The foreman dismounted his horse and met Jarrod halfway across the yard.
“I was just looking for you in town.”
“Audra sent me for Doc Merar. He’s behind me a little ways in his buggy. Heath was hurt tonight.”
“I’m not really sure. Audra was in such a state when she came to get me I could only make out about every other word she said, but I think she was trying to tell me Heath had been beaten.”
“Beaten? By whom?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”
Jarrod patted the man on the arm. “Thanks, Phillip. For everything.”
“Anytime. And tell Nick to let me know what the Doc says about Heath just as soon as he can.”
Jarrod turned for the house. Like Nick, he already had a good idea as to the identity of Heath’s attackers. Which was going to make his pending announcement that much harder on his family.
As Jarrod expected, he wouldn’t have won a popularity contest at home that night. He’d managed to stop Nick from gathering some of the hands in order to pay Jake Kyles back for what had been done to Heath, but that was about the only good deed Jarrod did. Or at least in the eyes of his mother and sister.
Doctor Merar conducted his examination of Heath right in the parlor. Three cracked ribs, a concussion, and an assortment of scrapes and bruises were the injuries Heath had collected from the beating. The doctor taped his ribs, checked the cuts Victoria had already cleaned, removed the wood sliver from the blond man’s palm, and advised Heath be awakened every hour through the night. He then declared his patient needed twenty-four hours of rest with limited activity for the remainder of the week.
The doctor told Jarrod and Nick they could get Heath settled in bed. He allowed Victoria to show him to the door while the men moved to their brother’s side. Nick stepped in front of Jarrod and hooked his hands under both of Heath’s arms.
“I’ll do it. I don’t need your help and neither does he.”
The cowboy turned and met his older brother’s eye. “Tonight it was just a beating, Jarrod. What will it be next time?”
“There won’t be a next time.”
“Now that you’ve agreed to defend Korbie I wouldn’t be so sure of that. You think about how you’ll feel if that branding iron is driven into his chest one of these nights.”
“Nick, stop it,” Heath said in an attempt to put an end to the argument he was in no mood to be the subject of.
Nick had a lot more he wanted to say to Jarrod, but one look at Heath’s swollen eyes and the split flesh on his face caused the dark headed cowboy to heed his younger brother’s directive. “Come on,” Nick said while helping Heath to his feet. “Let’s get you up to bed.”
Audra brushed Jarrod aside and offered her assistance. Though Nick supported the bulk of Heath’s weight she put his right arm across her shoulder in an effort to give what help she could. She wouldn’t meet Jarrod’s eyes. The lawyer had no doubt that if he spoke to his sister she’d refuse to answer him.
Jarrod watched from the foyer until his siblings disappeared into Heath’s room. He glanced down when his mother came to stand beside him with a request.
“Let’s go in the study a moment, please.”
Jarrod cocked a teasing eyebrow. “Why do I suddenly get the feeling I’m being taken to the woodshed.”
The eyebrow Victoria cocked back at her son was devoid of humor. “Maybe you need to be.”
The lawyer sighed and followed his mother. When they entered the study she closed the doors, then faced her oldest.
“Heath could have been killed tonight.”
“Mother, if Jake Kyles had intended to kill Heath he would have.”
“I’m not talking about whether or not Jake intended to kill your brother, I’m saying Heath could have died from his injuries had he not made it into the house. What if he’d passed out and fallen into the forge? What if he’d stumbled into the stall with that new stallion Nick says has a bad temperament? What if he’d wandered off in the wrong direction and ended up God knows where?”
“Mother, look, I’m sorry about what happened to Heath. I truly am. But that doesn’t change the fact that no lawyer in this town is willing to defend Korbie.”
“So you feel that’s your job?”
“I feel it’s someone’s, yes.”
“What happened to Matt Cooper?”
Jarrod waved a frustrated hand. “Matt Cooper came right out and told me he knew Korbie was guilty. He has no intention of trying to build a case against the D.A. His only intention is to have his name linked to the trial of the man who’s been accused of killing Colonel Ashby.”
“And you have a case to build?”
“After talking to Korbie this afternoon, yes…yes, I believe I have a case that can be built. A solid case that might prove Korbie’s innocence.”
“While at the same time you drag Heath’s name through the mud.”
“Mother, no. Never. I won’t do that to Heath and you know it.”
The woman turned away from her son. She walked around the big desk her husband had so often sat at, her fingers gliding over the smooth wood of its surface. She stopped behind Tom’s chair and stared up at his portrait hanging over the mantel.
“Although he may never have voiced it to you, Jarrod, your father’s deepest wish was that his family…his children, would always stand together in the face of adversity. I’ve never had to wonder what his reaction would be to us taking Heath in. To Heath being welcomed here as brother and son. I know your father would be proud of all of us for the love and acceptance we’ve given Heath, just like your father would be proud of Heath for the love and loyalty he’s given each one of us.” Victoria paused and looked at her son. “Jarrod, can you defend Korbie while still standing beside your brother?”
“Yes. I believe I can.”
“Then if your father were alive, he’d give you his blessing.”
Without saying another word, Victoria made her leave. She patted Jarrod’s arm as she passed, then closed the door behind her.
Jarrod walked over to the whiskey decanter on the table and poured himself a healthy shot. He turned and toasted his father’s picture.
“I wish it was that easy, Father. I wish it was that easy.”
By the time the sun came up, Heath decided his life would have been simpler had he allowed himself to pass out in the barn. He’d no more than find a position his battered body deemed comfortable when someone was waking him up insisting he answer inane questions.
If he’d said his name was Heath Morgan Barkley once he’d said it ten times.
If he’d said his horse was Charger once, he’d said it ten times.
If he’d listed his siblings as Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene once, he’d listed them ten times.
But despite the annoyance of it all he’d had his fun on at least one occasion when he told Audra his name was Korbie Kyles and for just a moment she thought he meant it. Right before she could run out of his room screaming the house awake with the news they needed to send for the doctor he grabbed her arm, winked at her, and told her he was only kidding. She stomped her foot and declared she’d pay him back for that joke all the while trying not to smile.
Victoria he hadn’t teased just because he could tell she wasn’t in the mood for it. Each time she was the one who woke him up she’d brush a gentle hand over his forehead in a preoccupied sort of way. He didn’t know for certain what was bothering her, but on several occasions when he assured her he was going to be fine she squeezed his hand and gave a distracted, “Of course you are, sweetheart.”
And then there was Nick. He couldn’t enter a room quietly if he tried, so long before he was shaking Heath’s arm the blond man was already awake. Nick must have been getting tired of the same old questions, too, because on his last visit he’d asked, “Who was the president in 1820?”
Despite the pain it caused him Heath hiked himself up on his elbows. “What?”
“You heard me. Who was the president in 1820?”
“Will you know it if I give you the wrong answer?”
“Of course I’ll know it! Now come on. Tell me.”
“Huh…yeah. Good. That’s right.”
“James Madison wasn’t the president in 1820.”
“No. James Monroe was.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m sure. Which just goes to prove my point that you shouldn’t ask an injured man questions you don’t know the answer to in the first place.”
“If the injured man I’m asking questions of can be this much of a smart-aleck then I’d have to say he’s about ready to go back to work.”
“I won’t disagree if his family will leave him alone and let him get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
Nick gently pushed on his brother’s shoulders. “You lay back down there and do just that. I’ll tell Audra and Mother there’s no need to wake you again.”
Nick fiddled with the blankets a moment, bringing them up to Heath’s shoulders. “Well,….huh,….you rest now.”
“If you need anything just holler. Someone will be in the house with you all day.”
“Nick, don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“I know. And I’m not worried.”
Heath didn’t bother to dispute that fact even when Nick remained in the room with him until he fell asleep.
When Heath woke again it was two o’clock in the afternoon. His bruises were far more painful than they’d been that morning, but he’d expected they would be. He stretched as best he could, then scooted to a sitting position using his pillows for support.
Though Heath knew lunch would be long over by now he could smell something good wafting from below. The smell seemed to be traveling in his direction and soon he could hear boot heels clicking against the back stairs.
Jarrod hadn’t been among the participants who had woken Heath up throughout the night, but it was Jarrod who entered the room now carrying a tray piled high with scrambled eggs, toast, bacon and a tall glass of orange juice.
The lawyer smiled when he caught sight of his brother. “I had a feeling you were about ready to join the real world again. Thus, your breakfast, sir. Or perhaps you’d rather call it lunch.”
“I’ll call it whatever you want me to just as long as I can eat it.”
“I’d say that’s a good sign then.”
Heath moved his arms out of the way so Jarrod could set the tray across his lap. The lawyer made certain the tray was balanced on its legs, then stepped back. He stood beside the bed as though he wasn’t sure if he was welcome in here or not. Heath took a long swig of cold juice then pointed to the chair his mother and siblings had used earlier.
“Have a seat.”
“Thanks. I believe I will.”
The blonde man held out a piece of bacon to his brother. Though Silas had served Jarrod lunch in the study at noon, the lawyer accepted Heath’s offering. He slowly ate the bacon while watching the food disappear from Heath’s plate.
“I don’t think we need Doctor Merar out here to declare you fit. By the way you’re going at that food I’d say you’re well on the road to recovery.”
“I’m fine. Mother, Audra, and Nick make too much of a fuss.”
“That’s understandable considering they found you passed out in the foyer at midnight.”
“I suppose.” Heath took a bite of his toast and washed it down with another swig of juice. “But I didn’t mean to wake everyone. I just wanted to get up here to bed. I would have been all right, doctor or no doctor.”
“You might have been, but Mother would have had your hide had she woken this morning to see you looking like you did last night without alerting someone to your injuries.”
“Yeah, she tends to get riled that way.”
“It’s only because she loves you, Heath.”
Heath’s eyes met Jarrod’s. After a long pause the blond nodded. “I know.”
When Heath’s plate was empty he allowed Jarrod to remove the tray. The lawyer set it on top of the bureau for the time being.
“Did you need anything else?”
“Not in the way of food. Though a hot bath, a toothbrush, and a shave don’t sound too bad right at the moment.”
“I think that can be arranged.”
Heath expected his brother to help him out of bed, but instead Jarrod sat down again.
“Before you do those things there’s something we need to discuss.”
“And that would be?”
“You were pretty out of it when I came home last night. I’m not sure if you heard me say I’ve decided to defend Korbie Kyles after all.”
“I heard you say it.”
Heath didn’t make an immediate reply, but then that didn’t surprise Jarrod. Heath was the deep thinker amongst Tom Barkley’s four sons.
The lawyer waited his brother out. When Heath finally spoke he said, “Jarrod, since the day I came here I’ve respected you for your principals. You care more about people than about making money and I admire that in a man. As a matter of fact I admire that a lot. When I first found out you were a lawyer I thought….well I expected you to be different than you are. Dishonest, a scoundrel, out to make a fast buck,….”
Jarrod laughed. “Thanks a lot.”
“Sorry, but that’s the baggage that comes with hangin’ out a shingle, counselor.”
“Believe me, Heath, I know it.”
“But anyway, you quickly proved to me you weren’t the person I thought you to be. Many’s been the time I’ve seen you hold your ground through an unpopular decision. You do what you think is right, Jarrod, as opposed to being swayed by the majority.”
“In this instance, I’ll have to agree with that. Right now the majority of people around this house aren’t speaking to me.”
Heath gave an indifferent shrug. “They’ll get it over it.”
“Yes, I suppose they will.” Jarrod sat back in his chair and gave his brother a grin. “You know, Heath, more and more every day I come away with the conclusion that you and I are more alike than we’re not.”
“Us?” Heath grunted in disbelief. “Alike? Jarrod, my education stopped the day I was thirteen and started playin’ hooky from school on a regular basis. I’m not proud of that fact, but at the time I was foolish enough to think it was the right decision to make. I bummed from job to job, never knowing where I’d be from one day to the next until I came here. You, on the other hand, have a college degree. You graduated first in your class from one of the finest law schools in the country. Not only are you a well-respected attorney in Stockton, but in San Francisco, too. In addition to those things you run the financial end of all the Barkley holdings.”
“And you think that makes me smarter than you?”
Without hesitation, Heath replied, “I know it does.”
“Heath, a man can be smart in a lot of different ways. The things you’ve seen, the things you’ve done…your experiences in the world far surpass mine. Why I can no more design and then build a barn than Audra can. But I’ve seen you do that using nothing other than a discarded brown scrap of wrapping paper for a blueprint. I’ve seen you tend sick animals with the skill of a veterinarian. When Nick or I have a question about our mining operations who do we turn to but you. When we have a question regarding our timber operations, again who do we turn to but you. And when it comes to someone who stands up for what he believes in, who stands tall in the face of adversity, you’re the man, Heath Barkley. I saw those qualities in you the first night you came here. The night you took the three hundred dollars Nick stuffed in your shirt pocket and shoved it in a glass full of whiskey. Do you remember that?”
Heath couldn’t help but smile. “Sure do. It about killed me. I needed that three hundred bucks.”
“I figured as much. But you weren’t about to let any of us see that need. You came here to get one thing, a name you could be proud of. And if we didn’t give you that one thing you weren’t going to beg for it, or push your way into our family, or cause a scandal. You were simply going to walk away with your head held high knowing that you did the best you could. Knowing that you tried.”
“And that’s what I want you to do in the courtroom, Jarrod. I don’t care what Mother says, or what Audra says, or what Nick says,…..I don’t care what anyone says. The important thing is we both know what we have to do and we both know why. When you get me on that witness stand you do the best you can. You give me all you got. And when you do I promise you I’ll keep one thing in mind.”
“That at that moment you’re a lawyer who just happens to be my brother, as opposed to my brother who just happens to be a lawyer.”
A long moment passed before Jarrod nodded. He patted Heath’s knee and stood.
“Come on, let me help you to the bathroom. You can soak in the tub as long as you want. Then we’ll take a little walk outside if you’d like and surprise Nick. Maybe you’ll even feel like joining the family for dinner at the table this evening.”
“I think I’ll be able to manage that.”
“All right then, up you go.”
Jarrod grabbed the clothes from the closest and bureau Heath directed him to. He carried the clothes in one hand while holding onto his brother’s arm with the other and guiding him to the bathroom. Jarrod started the water running in the tub, then headed for the door to give Heath his privacy. Right before he stepped into the hallway the lawyer stopped and turned around.
“Oh say, I have a question for you.”
“Why did Nick ask me who was president in 1820 when he came out of your room earlier this morning?”
Heath simply shook his head and smiled. “It’s kind of a long story. I’ll tell you about it when we take that walk you promised me. Though I might not have stayed in school as long as I should have, the one subject I took a likin’ to while I was there was history. Hannah always said I have a good memory for facts and dates most folks don’t care about.”
“I’ve noticed that. And here you think I’m the smart one in the family.”
“You are the smart one, Jarrod. I’m just the guy who came along and shook things up.”
Jarrod couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t often Heath made a joke about the circumstances that brought him to the Barkley family.
Right before Jarrod swung the bathroom door closed he said, “And I don’t know what we would have done without you, brother Heath.”
Heath indicated to his bruised torso. “Probably had a few less doctor bills if nothin’ else.”
Jarrod laughed again. “Don’t worry. We took a family vote this morning and decided you’re worth it.”
“Glad to hear it, otherwise I was gonna have to ask Nick for that three hundred dollars back.”
Victoria Barkley had no idea what was so amusing when she heard Jarrod and Heath laughing, but she knew the source behind their fun wasn’t important. What was important was that her husband had gotten his wish.
Once again, Tom Barkley’s children were standing together in the face of adversity. And really, what more could a mother ask for?