Power of a Mother’s Love

Summary:   A Missing Scene From The Episode By Force And Violence
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6000


 Jarrod and Audra sat at the parlor table playing checkers. The Grandfather clock in the foyer dinged nine times as Nick trotted down the stairs.

“Jarrod, I’m packed. We can leave at daybreak.”

Jarrod jumped two of his sister’s checkers. “As soon as I beat Audra at this game I’ll pack, too. Then I’m calling it a night.”

Audra looked from Nick, who was poking at the logs in the fireplace, to Jarrod. “Do you really think Mother and Heath are in any danger from that escaped prisoner?”

Nick placed the poker back in the rack. He walked over and plopped himself in the chair across from his siblings.

“I doubt it. Like Jarrod said at the supper table, Heath’s more than capable of taking care of himself and Mother.”

“He certainly is.” Jarrod smiled at his sister. “Don’t you worry, sweetie. You know as well we do that Heath’s done a little bit of everything in his life and seen a little bit of everything. When it comes to facing adversity, there’s no man I’d rather have at my side.”

“Yeah, there’s no need to worry,” Nick echoed. “It’s just that with Mother and Heath up at the lodge and that escapee in the area …well it would be wise to let them know of the situation.”

“You just want to get a jump on your fishing,” Audra teased in an attempt to erase the frowns her brothers were trying to hide from her.  “Every spring when Mother opens the lodge you two are always looking for excuses to be the first ones to the trout stream.”

“That we are,” Jarrod agreed.  “Only this year Heath beat us to it.  He was the lucky dog who didn’t have any pressing work when Mother decided it was time to head to the lodge.”

“Oh, I could have found pressing work for him all right.”  Nick leaned forward in his seat to study the checkerboard. “Trouble is, Mother wouldn’t hear of it.”

“That’s because each year she rotates who she takes with her to open the lodge,” Audra reminded her brothers.  “She likes the opportunity of spending some undivided time with each of her children.  Heath hasn’t had his chance for that yet.”

Jarrod smiled to himself as the conversation continued.  Heath had become such a part of this family that no one even pointed out to Audra their half-brother came to them by way of their father.  He was not their mother’s biological child.  But then Victoria didn’t treat him any differently than she treated her own offspring, and despite the fact Heath had been a grown man when he’d arrived on the ranch, she never hesitated to call him son.  And in turn, the love Heath had for the matriarch of the Barkley family was apparent to all of them.

With a wave of his index finger Nick pointed out to Audra all the places on the board where she was making mistakes.  She shot her brother a dirty look.

“I hate it when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Sit in that chair when I’m in the middle of a game and tell me what moves to make.  Heath never does that.”

“Oh, he doesn’t, does he?  Well, missy, have you ever realized he just sits here and lets you make moves that are going to ultimately cost you the victory?  I would think you’d be grateful for my help.”

“Well I’m not, thank you very much.”

Jarrod jumped the last four of Audra’s checkers, his game piece giving the wooden board a satisfied bang each time it pounded the surface.  With one hand and a smile he wiped the board clean.

“And thank you very much, little sister, for a most enjoyable match.”

“Humph!”  Audra crossed her arms over her chest while Nick laughed.  “You’re only thanking me because you won.”

As he stood Jarrod leaned over and kissed Audra’s cheek.  “Which I do quite often when I’m playing against you.  Heath, on the other hand, gives me a run for my money.”

“Heath gives all of us a run for our money when it comes to playing checkers.  Or cards for that matter.  He never lost a game of cards to any of us last year at the lodge.”

“Well, mark my words this year will be different.”  Nick pushed himself out of his seat.  Like his older brother, he was going to bed.  “I plan on getting every dime back from him I lost last year and then some.”

“Good luck.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, little miss?”

Jarrod smiled at his siblings and turned for the stairs.  “I’ll let you two argue this one out alone.  Nick, I’ll meet you down here at five.  We can eat, saddle our horses, and hit the trail.”

“That’s fine. I’ll tell Silas what time we’ll want breakfast.  Then I’m hittin’ the sack, too.”

“Maybe I should come with you,” Audra said while putting the checkers back in their box.

Nick and Jarrod exchanged glances.  If there was an escaped killer on the loose near the lodge the last thing they wanted was to put their sister in peril.

“No,” Jarrod shook his head.  “You stay here and finish that dress you’re making for the spring ball.  If everything’s okay with Mother and Heath, which I fully expect it will be, I’ll be heading right back home.  I’ve got enough work at the office to keep me busy the rest of the week.  Then you and I will ride up there together on Saturday like we’d planned before this Tamarack situation came up.”

Audra thought her brothers were being overly protective of her, but she’d sensed their concern ever since Jarrod had brought up the prison break at supper.  Out of respect for that she bowed to their wishes.

“All right. I’ll stay here and sew even though as of right this moment I don’t have anyone to attend the ball with.”

“What happened to the latest suitor?”  Jarrod asked.

Nick bit back his smile.  “She was up half the night writing him a Dear John letter.  Or Dear Bill letter.  Or Dear Sam letter.   Or a Dear whatever-his- name-was letter.”

“David.  His name was David.  And it’s not funny, Nick.”

“I’m sure by the time the spring ball arrives someone else will be smitten with you, Miss Barkley,” Jarrod assured.  “Which is all the more reason for you to stay home tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“So you can go out on the prowl.”

“Jarrod Barkley, I do not prowl for men.”

“Whatever you say, baby sister.  And on that note I’ll bid both of you good night.”

“Night, Jarrod.”

“Good night, Jarrod.”

Nick headed for the kitchen.  Audra looked up from the book she was reading when he returned to the parlor.

“Did you find Silas?”

“Yeah.  He’ll have breakfast ready for Jarrod and me at five.  What are my chances of seeing you at the table at that time of the morning?”

“The same as your chances of beating Heath at cards.”

“Hardy, har, har.”

Audra chuckled at her brother’s mock outrage.  “Good night, Nick.”

“Good night.”

“Give Mother and Heath a kiss for me when you see them.”

“I’ll give Mother a kiss for you.  As far as kissing Heath, you’ll have to do that yourself.”

Nick bent over Audra’s chair and kissed her cheek while at the same time undoing the hair clasp on the back of her head.

“Nick!”

The dark headed man ran for the stairs laughing.  By the time Audra stood to give chase he was shutting the door to his room.

“Nicholas Barkley, you haven’t changed since you were sixteen years old.  You tormented me then and you still torment me today.”

Silas entered the parlor to make his final nightly round of the house.

“And you love every minute of it if I do say so myself, Miss Audra.  And Mr. Heath, why he teases you just as bad as Mr. Nick does.”

“You’re right, Silas, he does.  Oh why couldn’t at least one of those boys have been my sister instead of my brother?”

“Now, Miss Audra, I really don’t think you’d want it any other way.  Do you?”

Audra thought of all the attention and love that was showered on her by her position as the only girl amongst four brothers.  She had to admit, other than the times when they grew irrational over their desire to protect her, it was flattering to be fawned over by such handsome men even if they were her siblings.

Audra smiled as her eyes returned to the pages of her book.  “No, Silas, I don’t suppose I’d want it any other way.”

*****

An hour had passed since the bounty hunters rode away.  Victoria Barkley looked up at the night sky and said a silent prayer for Wade Dixon.  The escaped convict helped her free Heath from beneath the tipped wagon.

For whatever reason, after she’d heard his story she believed him innocent of the crime that sent him to Tamarack prison.  Call it woman’s intuition, or better yet, mother’s intuition.

They had no more than gotten Heath out of the mud pit he’d been mired in when the thunder of horses’ hooves indicated riders approaching.  Dixon dived for a clump of bushes.  He’d concealed himself in the heavy foliage, his efforts aided by the moonless night. Victoria could almost feel the man holding his breath as she calmly answered the bounty hunters’ questions.

Yes, she’d heard a rifle shot.

No, she didn’t know how long ago.

Yes, that was her horse up in the woods.

No, she hadn’t seen anyone in hours. And most certainly not an escaped prisoner.

She’d tried to delay the men in their search by enlisting their help in getting Heath back to the ranch.  It came as no surprise to Victoria when they refused.  A bounty hunter after his prey had only one thing on his mind.  Money.

Victoria smiled a little at the irony of it all.  She’d have paid the two men far more had they helped her with Heath than Dixon’s dead body would garner them from the Tamarack prison authorities.

In the hour since the bounty hunters left and Wade Dixon limped off into the thick woods Victoria had built a fire and pulled two supply crates out of the mud.  One crate held the oil lantern, the other she leaned against using it to support her back.

The only blanket she could find that wasn’t saturated with muck was wrapped around Heath’s shoulders.  She had him propped against her chest, the back of his muddy head resting on her collarbone.

She knew for certain his left leg was broken.  He’d also confessed to some cracked ribs when he couldn’t help but cry out at her probing fingers.

He’d fallen into a fitful sleep thirty minutes earlier, but even so she could feel the shivers course through his body every few seconds.

Victoria pondered the logistics of getting Heath home.  She looked at the wagon buried on its side in the mud

If only I hadn’t gotten in such a hurry to open the lodge.  It could have waited another week or so.  By then the roads would have been passable.  I should have never tried to take the wagon through that washout.  I should have known it would get stuck.  And when Heath asked me if I wanted him to take the reins I should have let him.

But that’s not how it happened.  Victoria maintained control of the horses while Heath jumped down to push.  But something went terribly wrong.  The wagon broke free of its base.  Victoria flew from the seat, not sure what was happening until she landed on her hands and knees in three feet of mud.  When she turned around, the sight that greeted her made her heart skip a beat.  The wagon bed, still loaded with supplies and gear, was laying on top of Heath.  She’d worked for an hour trying to free him out but to no avail.  There’d been no choice but to make him as comfortable as she could and leave to get help.  She’d kissed him on the mouth, promising she’d be back with Nick and some of the ranch hands.

Victoria Barkley never got as far as the ranch before she ran across Wade Dixon in the woods.  The ankle chain he wore told his story.  Or at least some of it.  The rest would come much later.  At the time all she wanted was help for Heath.  Dixon refused to come to her aid until the loaded rifle convinced him it would be in his best interest.  The shot the bounty hunters heard had come from Victoria’s gun.  She’d blown the chain apart that was strung between the manacles fastened around his ankles.

Victoria’s thoughts returned to the present when a distant wolf bayed at the dark sky.  His eerie call roused Heath.

“Mother?”

It was odd.  She wasn’t the woman who had given birth to him, had only known him for two years, yet when he spoke that word in just that tone she knew exactly who he wanted.

“I’m right here, Heath.”

He shifted his body in her arms.  He sucked in a sharp breath at the blinding pain that shot up his leg and clamped on his chest like an anvil.

“Sweetheart, don’t,….”

“Move,”  he pushed out between clenched teeth.  “I’ll remember that from now on.”

She kissed his temple.  “That would be a wise idea.”

Victoria tightened the blanket around Heath’s quaking body.  She knew she should get his mud-drenched clothes off of him.  They were only making him colder.  But she had no idea how she’d remove his pants without hurting him, and no idea if he’d even let her.  Without scissors at her disposal it was a moot point anyway.  Unless,….

“Heath?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you carrying a pocket knife?”

“Yes.” Heath moved his head enough so he could see Victoria’s face.  “In the right front pocket of my pants.  Why?”

“Because I think I should get your pants and shirt off.  You’re cold and those mud soaked clothes can’t be helping any.”

“I’m fine.”

“Heath, you’re shivering.”

“I’m fine.”

“Heath,…”

“You can take my shirt off if you want, but my pants are staying on.”

“Before Doctor Sheridan can set that leg they’re going to have to come off.”

“As long as Doctor Sheridan is the one who takes them off, I’ll have no problem with that.”

“What about Jarrod or Nick?”

“I can live with either of those choices, too.”

“But not me?”

“Not unless I’m in a coma.”

“Heath Morgan Barkley, I diapered you,….”

Victoria stopped there.  She’d gotten so used to thinking of Heath as one of her own children she’d almost said to him what she would have said to Jarrod, or Nick, or Eugene.

And Heath knew it.  He gave her a gentle smile.

“No, you didn’t.”

Victoria kissed his temple again.  Her words were soft and tentative. “You’re right.  I didn’t.”

It was strange how times like this could focus in the pain of Tom’s affair with Heath’s mother so sharp and clear.  Heath sensed her disquiet.

He lifted his right hand until he came in contact with hers.  He squeezed gently.

“I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Heath.”

“Sometimes I think I do.  Other times I know I do.”

“What do you mean?”

Heath shifted his head so he was staring straight ahead.

“If I had known you before I rode on the ranch  I never would have told you who I was.”

“You mean told me you’re Tom’s son?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re the last person on this earth I ever want to hurt.  But before,…..before I knew you, it didn’t matter to me.  You were just a name.   A name that meant nothing because you were simply Tom Barkley’s wife.  I never imagined you would become so much more than that.”

“That’s understandable.  I don’t think any of us; you, me, Jarrod, Nick, Audra, or Eugene, could have imagined that first day how much a part of our family you would become.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“Why’d I do what?”

“Ask me to stay.”

Victoria thought a long time before answering.

“Because I saw a lonely, heartbroken young man who, despite his anger and hate-filled words, was looking for a family.  Was looking for a place and people he could call his own.  I’ll be honest with you, Heath, I didn’t like you much that first day you arrived.  As a matter of fact I didn’t like you at all.”

Heath smiled at Victoria’s forthrightness.  He hadn’t wanted her to like him back then.  As a matter of fact, he wouldn’t have cared if all the Barkleys cursed the ground he walked on.  Or at least that’s what he’d told himself the day he arrived on the ranch to claim his inheritance.

“But after a few days your attitude quickly improved.  Soon I began to see the real person underneath that bitter exterior.  And the real person was so kind and loving that it was hard not to love him back.”

“And now you’re sittin’ here allowing a mud-covered cowboy to use you as a pillow.  Who’d have ever thought it, huh?”

Victoria gave Heath’s shoulders a squeeze.  “Oh, I don’t mind.  I think this mud covered cowboy is pretty special.  Just as special as my other three cowboys and my cowgirl.”

“You’re too good to me. You always have been.”

“I beg to differ with you on that point.  But then we’ve had this discussion in the past.”

“Yes, we have,”  Heath acknowledged. “And since we always end up agreeing to disagree I guess it’s foolish for us to talk about it again.”

“I’ll second that.”

Another shiver made Heath tremble within Victoria’s embrace.  She tightened her hold, trying to transfer more of her body heat to him.  While keeping one arm around Heath she leaned sideways and tossed another log on the fire.

“When daybreak comes, I’ll  have to leave for help.”

“I know.”

“I should be back by early afternoon.  Nick and I will bring a wagon and some men.”

Heath could tell the woman needed his reassurance that her plan was the best one and that he’d be all right while she was gone.

“That’s fine.  I’m won’t be goin’ anywhere.”

“Unless we can get you on one of the horses,”  Victoria thought out loud.  “Do you think…”

“No, Mother.  It’ll never work.  Even if you could help me mount a horse without hurting yourself, which I highly doubt, I’ll never be able to swing this leg over.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be okay here alone.”

When Victoria didn’t answer, Heath turned his head again so he could see her face.          “What’s wrong?  What’s bothering you?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ve been upset ever since those bounty hunters left.”

“Upset?”

“You said you’d tell me about the man who helped you when you got me home.  Maybe you’d better tell me now.”

“I’d rather you sleep.”

“I’d rather sleep, too, but that’s not gonna happen.”

“Is the pain that bad?”

“Let’s put it this way, it smarts.  But I’ll live.”

“Of course you will.”

Victoria ran a hand through Heath’s hair.  The thick strands were brittle now, caked with dried mud and spiked from his head. “I’ll have to wash your hair for you after Doctor Sheridan takes care of that leg and those ribs.  That is, of course, if you’ll let me.”

“As long as I have some sort of pants on while you’re doin’ it.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.”

“Mother?  The man who helped you?”

“You know, Heath, you’re as tenacious as your father was.”

“I reckon I’ve been accused of worse.”

Victoria ignored the teasing in Heath’s tone.  She sat a long time running her hand through his hair.  When she spoke her voice was soft and soothing.  For some reason her tone reminded Heath of when he was a little boy and his mother would tell him a story each night before he went to sleep.

“He was a young man about your age.  He said his name was Dixon.  Wade Dixon.  His mother left home when he was ten.  He woke up one morning and she was gone.  Her clothes were gone.  Her jewelry was gone.  Even her hairbrush was gone.  She’d left no note.  Nothing for him to remember her by.  When Wade asked his father where she was he’d been told he was to forget her.  To pretend she’d never existed.  Soon his father began leaving him with neighbors and disappearing for weeks at a time.  Wade never knew if his father was looking for his mother, or if he was running from the pain her leaving caused him, or simply running from the responsibilities of being both mother and father to a little boy.”

Leah Thomson’s face came to Heath’s mind and he thought of himself at the age of ten.  At that time she was all he had in the entire world.  If he’d woken one day to find her gone he would have been devastated beyond anything words could convey.  When he spoke his voice was as quiet as Victoria’s.

“It must have been very hard for him.”

“No doubt it was.  I’m sure he spent many years wondering if she’d left because of him.  If he’d done something to upset her or make her angry.  I’m not sure if, even now, he understood that no woman who is a good mother would ever abandon her child no matter what that child did.”

“So what happened?”

“He grew up to be a gambler.  Like his father he roamed from town to town.  He didn’t say so, but I’m sure his roaming was really a search for the woman who had left him so many years before.

“One day he was playing in a card game when he recognized the saloon girl.  She was his mother.  She denied knowing Wade even after he told her who he was.  Later that same day he had a fight with another man over a hand of cards.  He said he shot the man in self-defense.  That the man drew on him first.  Wade said his mother was the only witness.  When the sheriff questioned her about the shooting he said she lied.  He said she claimed he was guilty of murder, even though she knew that wasn’t the truth.”

“And you believed him.”

“Yes, I believed him.  Don’t ask me why or how.  Call it mother’s intuition.  But for some reason I believed every word he said.”

“Which was why you didn’t turn him into those bounty hunters.”

“Yes, that’s why.”

The pair fell into a lengthy silence, each privately reviewing Victoria’s story.  It was Heath who finally spoke.

“Can I ask you another question?”

“Only if you promise to go to sleep after I answer it.”

Heath chuckled.  His own mother used to reply in that exact fashion when he was a child and tried to prolong bedtime at the end of her story by making inquiries of her. “I’ll try.”

“All right then, ask away.”

“How did you get Dixon to come back here with you?  I can’t imagine a man who was running from bounty hunters would want to be delayed for any reason.”

“No, he didn’t want to be delayed, that’s for certain.  Let’s just say that at first my rifle convinced Mr. Dixon it would behoove him to see things my way.  And later,……well later a mother’s love further convinced him.”

“A mother’s love?”

“In the beginning, he was jealous of the love I have for my son.”  Victoria gave Heath a squeeze so he knew she meant him when she said, ‘my son.’  “Then I believe he came to admire it.  And I suppose to envy you for it as well.”

Heath reached up and rested his hand on the arm Victoria had wrapped around his shoulders.

“He should envy me for it.  In this life I’ve been luckier than most men.”

“What makes you say that?”

I’ve had two women whom I’ve called mother.  And they’ve both been equally as special to me.”

Victoria had to swallow the lump in her throat.  “That’s a very nice thing for you to say, Heath.”

“Doesn’t matter if it’s nice or not.  What matters is it’s true.”  Heath squeezed Victoria’s arm.  “If I’ve never told you this before then it’s past time.  I love you, Mother.”

Heath could feel Victoria’s tears against the side of his face.

“Whether you know it or not, honey, you tell me every day.  And I love you, too.  Just as much as if you were one of my own children.”

“Thank you.  That means a lot to me.”  Heath tossed the woman a lopsided grin.  “But I’m still not gonna let you take my pants off.”

Victoria gave Heath a light whack on the shoulder. “That’s enough out of you, Mr. Barkley.  You go back to sleep.”

Heath nodded and closed his eyes.  Leah Thomson had been dead a long time now.  It felt good to again be wrapped safe, and secure, and warm in the arms of a woman he called mother.

Victoria never thought about it when she started to hum a favorite old hymn.  She’d done this with all her children throughout their growing up years when they’d been sick, or been awakened by a nightmare, or simply couldn’t unwind from a hard day of play and fall asleep.  She didn’t realize she was humming the same hymn Heath’s mother used to hum to him for all the same reasons she’d hummed it to Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene.

Despite the pain he was in the soft song lulled Heath toward sleep.  He thought of a ten year old boy who’d been abandoned by his mother and later grew up to spend his life searching for her.  Heath knew that in some ways he and that boy had a lot in common.  After Heath’s mother died  he’d left the town he’d grown up in.  In a way, Heath had been searching ever since then for his mother, as well.  It had taken him a long time to realize his search had stopped the day he rode onto the Barkley ranch.

Victoria felt Heath give her arm a final squeeze right before his body relaxed and his head slid sideways against her shoulder.  Long after he’d fallen asleep she continued to hum.  She smiled as she looked up at the night sky while marveling at God’s wonders.

Now she could say that at some point all her children had fallen asleep in her arms.

*****

Victoria woke with a start.  The pink rays of first light were just beginning to part the darkness in the east.  The woman didn’t know what time she’d fallen asleep, but she knew it had been well past midnight.  Heath had woken up several times during the night.  Each time he’d open his eyes and shift his body within her arms she’d wake up, too.  Though he wouldn’t admit it she knew the pain was taking its toll on him.

Heath had fallen asleep again about an hour earlier.  Victoria hated the thought of leaving him here alone but she knew she had no choice.  She’d let him sleep a little longer, then wake him for breakfast.  After that she’d settle him as comfortably as she could before she climbed on one of the horses and rode for the ranch.

The woman had no time to reach for her rifle when she heard horses racing at a full gallop.  She prayed the bounty hunters weren’t coming back.  She didn’t think they’d hurt her or Heath unless they’d come to the conclusion she’d allowed Dixon to escape their clutches.  Then she had no doubt they wouldn’t think twice about killing her and her son.

Heath was still sitting propped up by Victoria’s body.  Even if she’d needed to move with any type of speed she wouldn’t have been able to without hurting him.  As the horses pounded around the curve of the road above their heads Victoria tightened her hold on Heath.

The white-headed woman didn’t know who was more startled,  herself or her sons.  Jarrod and Nick jumped from their mounts and sidled down the hill.

“Mother!”

“Mother, what happened?”

Victoria put her fingers to her lips.  “Ssssh.  Not so loud.”

The men knelt beside their brother.  Heath went on sleeping, undisturbed by their presence.  Nick looked behind him at the tipped wagon. “Mother?”

“The wagon got stuck in the mud.  I was driving.  Heath climbed down to push and something broke the bed loose from the frame.  It fell on him.”

Nick’s eyes traveled his mud covered sibling. “How bad is he hurt?”

“A broken left leg and some cracked ribs that I know of.”

Nick turned and clawed his way back up the steep hill.  Because Nick Barkley believed in safety in numbers he’d brought along two ranch hands in the event they ran across the escaped prisoner.  And because he always believed in being prepared for the unexpected he’d made sure everyone had brought bedrolls and food.

“Mike, Cal, bring a wagon as fast as you can.  Load it with blankets, pillows, fresh water, the means to make a splint, and strips of cloth I can wrap Heath’s ribs with.  Send someone to town for Doc Sheridan.  Tell them to have him meet us at the house about two this afternoon.  We should be pulling in with Heath right about then.  And let Audra and Silas know what’s going on.  Audra will probably insist on coming back here with you.  Tell her I said she’ll do Heath more good by waiting at the house for the doctor.”

“Will do, Nick.”

“Give me your bedrolls,”  Nick ordered while retrieving his own bedroll as well as Jarrod’s.

The men untied the bedrolls from the back of their horses so Nick could make use of their blankets.

“We’ll ride fast, Nick,”  Cal assured.  “Be back just as soon as we can.”

The men turned their horses around and took off in the direction they’d just ridden from.

When Nick rejoined his family Victoria said,  “Don’t take this wrong because I don’t mean to sound the least bit ungrateful, but what in the world brings you two up this way so early in the morning?”

Nick covered Heath with two of the four blankets while Jarrod spoke for both of them.

“The sheriff stopped in my office yesterday and told me about an escapee from Tamarack prison.  Nick and I talked the situation over at supper.   We thought it might be wise to let you and Heath know about the man considering how close the lodge is to Tamarack.  We had planned to leave home right about now, but at midnight I woke up to find Nick pacing my bedroom floor.  He said he had a feeling something was wrong and we should head to the lodge as fast as we could.”  Jarrod reached out and laid his left hand on Heath’s arm and his right on Victoria’s.  “For once I’m glad I took stock in one of Nick’s premonitions.”

“I’m glad you did, too.  I was just getting ready to head home for help.  I hated the thought of leaving Heath here by himself but I didn’t have any other choice.”

Nick took off his gloves and shoved them in a back pocket of his pants. He ran his bare hands over Heath’s body, trying to determine if there were any other broken bones.  He looked up when his hand came in contact with one of Heath’s.  The blond man’s icy fingers caused Nick’s brow to furrow as he looked at his older brother.

“Jarrod, he’s really cold.  We need to get these muddy clothes off him.”

“I wanted to do just that, but he wouldn’t let me. Or at least not the pants.”

“Well, he’s not gonna argue with me and Jarrod on this point.  We’re taking everything off him.  We can build up the fire and wrap him in these blankets.  See if you can find some more wood close by, Mother.  And I packed food in my saddlebags.”

Jarrod helped his mother ease out from behind Heath.  He took over her spot, knowing that with cracked ribs it was less painful for Heath if he was propped up in a sitting position.

The stiff muscles in Victoria’s legs screamed with protest.  She felt the pins and needles sensation that indicated blood was flowing back to the shoulder Heath’s head had been resting on.  The woman allowed her body a few seconds to get used to her upright position then headed up the hill for Nick’s saddle bags.  She retrieved them, tied her sons’ horses to a tree, then scrounged the ground for firewood.  She heard Heath stifle a cry and pivoted.  It was hard for her not to run to his side, but out of respect for him she kept her distance.  Nick was using his pocket knife to cutting away Heath’s pants.  She knew no matter how careful her middle son was the action was bound to cause Heath pain.  Jarrod was still holding onto his upper body.  Even from this distance she could tell he was offering words of comfort.  Whatever he said caused Heath to say something, which in turn caused Nick to join in the conversation in a way that made Victoria realize Heath and Jarrod were teasing him.

When Victoria could tell her sons had Heath wrapped from neck to toes in a cocoon of blankets she returned to the encampment.  She placed the logs she’d gathered on the fire, then knelt by Heath’s side.  With her fingers she wiped away the beads of perspiration on his forehead.

“How’s Doctor Nick treating you?”

“If you want the opinion of Doctor Nick’s first patient, I’d say he needs to go back to medical school.”  Heath looked around with confusion.  “What time is it anyway?  I thought you were leavin’ at dawn.  And if you were leavin’ at dawn how’d you get Jarrod and Nick back here so quickly?”

“It’s five-thirty.  And yes, I was going to leave at dawn but in the end I didn’t have to.  According to Jarrod, Doctor Nick had a premonition that something might be wrong at the lodge.  They started in this direction shortly after midnight.”

“Well, Heath, I gotta hand it to you,”  Nick said, while taking off his coat and gently tucking it around the blankets covering Heath’s upper body, “you sure know how to ruin a perfectly good vacation at the lodge.  You were supposed to take advantage of being the Barkley chosen to bring Mother up here before the rest of us arrived.”

Victoria smiled as she thought over the night now passed.  She looked from Nick to Jarrod before leaning forward to place a kiss on Heath’s cheek.

“Don’t you worry, Nick.  Heath took advantage of his opportunity.  As a matter of fact, we both did.  And you know something, Heath?”

“What?”

“I was just thinking that as soon as Doctor Sheridan gives the okay, there’s no better place for you to recover but at the lodge with me and Audra there to wait on you hand and foot.”

Jarrod laughed at the look on Nick’s face. “Well, brother Heath, I’d say despite the bum leg and the sore ribs, you are one lucky guy.”

Heath freed a hand from nest of blankets and held it out to Victoria.  When she took it he squeezed.

“I know I am.  Believe me, I know just how lucky I am.”

***The End***

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