The Unicorn And The Lady (by Kenda)

Summary:  This Is A Missing Scene From The Episode Plunder
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5050


The torrential rains stopped shortly before midnight. Victoria Barkley finally went to bed at twelve-thirty. She didn’t sleep well from then until she rose at dawn. She knew her sons had done the right thing by volunteering themselves and the ranch hands to help bag sand, nonetheless she wished Jarrod and Nick were anywhere but at the banks of that raging river.

And Heath. She’d said a prayer for him ever since he’d ridden from the ranch. Frank Larken, Stockton’s sheriff, had knocked on their door after supper two days earlier. Sheets of rain blew through the foyer when Victoria let the drenched man in. Aside from needing men to bag sand in an effort to keep the Vineyard Lake Dam from breaking, he needed someone to ride to Salt Springs. The town had been evacuated because it sat at the mouth of the dam, and to make matters worse the Salt Springs sheriff was laid up with a broken leg. The man was an old friend of Frank’s. The Stockton sheriff had been helping keep order in the town while his colleague was on the mend. Three men had volunteered to stay and guard the town’s empty stores against looters, but Frank didn’t know the men well and wanted someone there he could trust. Heath volunteered to go. Victoria would never forget the tiny smile that came to his face when he drawled, “I never did care much for carryin’ sand bags.”

Frank was to send off two sky rockets if the dam would hold, and one if it broke. If Heath saw only one sky rocket he and the men in Salt Springs with him were supposed to ride as fast they could for higher ground. After Heath went upstairs to pack his gear Victoria turned to the sheriff.

“Frank, Salt Springs is right at the base of the dam, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s so.”

“If the dam goes how much of a chance will Heath have?”

“I won’t lie to you, Mrs. Barkley. If that boy’s in Salt Springs when that dam lets go….well, I’d say he’d better have himself a real fast horse. Or maybe an ark.”

If Heath noticed Victoria held onto him a little too long when she hugged him goodbye he made no comment other than to say, “I’ll see you in a couple days.”

She grasped his arm as he turned for the door. “Heath?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful.”

He gave her a grin and a kiss on the mouth. “Don’t you worry about me. I can swim like a fish.”

Before Victoria could make a reply he was gone. She put on her rain slicker and ran for the barn. Audra was helping Jarrod and Nick get their horses and gear ready while all around them ranch hands did the same with their own mounts.

 Victoria pitched in saddling horses and loading the wagons. When the men were ready to leave she kissed her sons, telling them the same thing she’d told Heath. “Be careful.”

We’ll be fine, Mother,” Nick assured. As if he could read her mind he added, “And don’t fret about Heath. He’ll come back safe and sound.”

Just the fact that Nick mentioned his brother led Victoria to conclude he had the same concerns she did. Though he tried to disguise it, the look on his face told her he was well aware that if the dam broke Heath’s chances of making it out of Salt Springs alive were slim.

Victoria and Audra watched as the men rode off the ranch in the downpour. Audra gave her mother’s hand a squeeze before they raced through the rain to the house. Victoria Barkley hadn’t slept well since that night.

But now the sun was out and the birds singing. The only sign of four days of rain were the puddles in the barnyard and the beads of moisture clinging to the rose petals in Victoria’s garden.

How she and Audra got through breakfast and then lunch Victoria never knew. Each time they thought they heard a horse or a wagon one of them jumped up and scurried to the window.

At two o’clock that afternoon their vigilance paid off. Victoria was puttering in the house, cleaning things that didn’t need cleaning, when Audra ran in from outside.

“They’re back, Mother! Jarrod and Nick are back!”

Victoria dropped her dust rag on a table in the foyer. She joined her daughter, both of them sprinting toward the returning men.

The Barkley brothers climbed off their horses. They were engulfed by the women who greeted them with hugs and kisses.

Jarrod grinned and pushed his hat back on his head. “Well, Nick, I’d say this is definitely what I call a proper welcome home.”

Nick wrapped an arm around his mother’s waist. “I couldn’t agree more. The only thing that would complete it is if I find out Mother has something like,……..oh, say some of that chicken noodle soup of hers simmering on the stove for her weary sandbaggers.”

Victoria patted Nick’s stomach. “It’s amazing how well you know your mother.”

“No,” Jarrod disagreed, “what’s amazing is how well Nick’s mother knows him.”

Victoria looked at the ranch hands parading through the gates in two’s and three’s. Though everyone was tired, like Jarrod and Nick they had smiles on their faces which spoke of their victory over nature’s unpredictable forces.

“I take it the Vineyard Lake Dam still stands.”

 “You bet.” Nick arched his spine while placing a hand at the small of his back. “I’ve got the aches and pains to prove it, too.”

Audra smiled from Jarrod’s side. “That means Heath will be coming home safely as well.”

“Yes, that’s what it means, honey. Frank sent up the signal last night. As a matter of fact, Nick and I were betting Heath would beat us back here.”

“He hasn’t shown up yet,” Victoria said. “But I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

The woman looked to one of the few ranch hands who had been left behind to help her and Audra with the daily chores. “Diego, please take care of my sons’ horses so they can get something to eat.”

“Si, Senora Barkley.”

The Mexican led Jarrod’s and Nick’s mounts to the barn.

“Now you two come inside and clean up. Then Audra and I will serve you lunch. Or supper. Or whatever you’d like to call it.”

“At this point, I’ll call it breakfast, lunch, and supper,” Nick said. “Then I’m going to take a nice long nap. Might even sleep clear through until tomorrow morn….” The man squinted. “What the heck?”

The family turned and followed Nick’s eyes to the back gates of the ranch. Heath’s horse was coming in at a slow trot with a woman riding it. A gaudy woman clad in a red show girl’s dress with a black boa draped around her ample cleavage. A tiny red hat was perched on her bleached tresses, a black feather springing from it. And on a horse next to her rode a pigtailed Indian girl Nick guessed to be no more than eighteen.

It wasn’t until the horses came through the gates that the Barkleys could see Heath’s legs, arms, and cowboy hat behind the body of the cabaret lady.

Nick crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot in the dirt. “Now this ought to be an interesting story.”

Jarrod grinned and shook his head. “I’d have to agree with that, Brother Nick. For some reason I’m getting the feeling Heath got the better end of this deal. How about you?”

“I’m getting that impression, yes. Well, Pappy, I’ll tell you one thing. This is the last time I worry about him when we’re breaking our backs carrying sandbags in the pouring rain.”

Victoria and Audra waited with the men as the horses approached. Amusement over this turn of events shone from their eyes.

The blond woman brought the horse to a halt and called down from Charger’s back, “Excuse me, but this is the Barkley ranch, isn’t it?”

Nick exchanged grins with Jarrod before answering. “Yes, ma’am. It sure is.”

The Barkleys’ smiles changed to frowns of puzzlement as the woman turned to Heath. From their angle, they couldn’t see his head resting against the middle of her back.

“We’re here, angel. Me and Mary brought you home just like you asked us to.”

Faye Keller wasn’t sure if the words penetrated Heath’s unconscious mind, or if his body simply didn’t have the strength to stay on the horse any longer. What Faye knew for certain was she’d no more than spoken them before he tumbled sideways.

 Later Victoria would realize it was a wonder Nick caught Heath before he hit the dirt. They were all stunned, and for just a second stood paralyzed. Nick was the first one who assimilated what was happening. Whether he saw the crimson stain on Heath’s shirt before the rest of them, or saw Heath’s paper-white face dotted with tiny rivets of dried blood, or saw the way his eyes rolled up into the back of his head, Victoria didn’t know. All she did know was that Nick’s actions brought them out of their stupor. By the time Nick was sliding the unconscious Heath off Charger Jarrod was at his side. The lawyer took some of the burden of Heath’s weight from his brother.

“Careful, careful,” Nick said as they eased Heath to the ground. He looked up at the women. “What happened?”

“It’s a long story, sugar. Suffice to say I’ve brought your unicorn home with a bullet in his side.”

Despite all the questions whirling in everyone’s heads now, wasn’t the time to ask. Nick called instructions to the ranch foreman.

“Phillip, ride to town for Doc Sheridan! Tell him Heath’s taken a bullet in his left side.”

“On my way, Nick!”

“Jarrod, let’s get him in the house.”

Nick took Heath’s upper body while Jarrod carried his legs. Victoria trotted along beside them holding one of Heath’s limp hands while Audra held onto the other. The young woman looked back at the strangers. She placed Heath’s hand on his stomach and ran to them.

“Come on. Come in the house, please. I’m Audra. Heath’s sister. And that’s our mother, and our brothers Jarrod and Nick.”

One of the ranch hands stepped over and helped the women dismount.

“Nice to meet you, Audra. I’m Faye. Faye Keller. And this here is my loyal companion. She can’t talk so I don’t know her given name. I call her Mary. She seems happy with that.”

Audra shook hands with Faye, then turned to the Indian girl and held out her hand. “Mary, hello. I thank both of you so much for bringing Heath home.”

Faye hobbled stiffed legged beside Audra. “Though I can’t say I’m much for horses, either the riding aspect or the smell, Mary and I had to get angel home somehow. We owed him too much not to.”

Audra took the women by the hands and urged them to run. “Come on. You can tell the whole family about it later. After the doctor’s seen Heath.”

*****

The Barkleys waited in the parlor while Doctor Sheridan examined Heath. Faye and Mary sat with them. For one of the few times in her life Faye Keller held her tongue. She could tell the family was too worried right at the moment to put up with the foolish rambling of a saloon girl.

Nick ran to greet the young doctor when he appeared on the stairs.

“Jake, how is he? Will you have to operate?”

“No. Surgery won’t be necessary.”

“Thank God,”  Victoria whispered what Jarrod knew was the ending to the plea she’d been sending heavenward ever since Heath had tumbled off the back of his horse.

The doctor placed his bag on the foyer table, then followed Nick into the parlor.

“The bullet went straight through and came out his back. As far as I can tell it missed any internal organs. Of course you’ll have to watch him closely for the next few days. If he throws up blood, or complains of increased pain, or begins to run a temperature send someone for me immediately.”

“We will,” Jarrod promised.

“Otherwise, what he needs is plenty of rest and good food. He’s lost a lot of blood. He was awake part of the time I was with him but has fallen back to sleep. Don’t be surprised or concerned if he sleeps well into tomorrow without waking again. Between the blood loss and the trip here he’s exhausted. I’ll return tomorrow afternoon to look him over and change his bandages.”

Nick reach in his pocket and pulled out a wad of currency. The doctor waved him off.

“Just wait until all my visits with Heath are done. We’ll settle up then.”

“That sounds like a good idea. You can settle up with Heath at that time rather than with me. Everyone knows he’s the one who has all the money in the family anyway.”

Victoria chuckled at the inside joke. Heath had come to them with so little that one would assume he might foolishly spend the large sums of money that were now at his disposal. But that hadn’t turned out to be the case. Whatever money his trust fund earned from the various investments Jarrod made with it Heath generally put right in the bank or had Jarrod reinvest it. For the most part he chose to live on the weekly salary he earned as Nick’s partner in running the Barkley ranch. It had become the family joke that if you needed money you didn’t ask Jarrod for a loan from your trust fund,  instead you went to Heath.

Jacob Sheridan picked up his bag. “I’ll make sure I take it up with Heath when all is said and done. Though he might remind you, Nick, of the time he brought you to my office last year with that broken arm. You remember when you were trying to lasso that stallion?”

“Yeah, I remember. So what about it?”

“Heath paid your bill that day. Have you ever paid him back?”

“Well….huh…..” As his family laughed Nick swiftly amended, “Listen, Jake, when you’ve seen Heath for the last time, you just give his bill to me.”

“I thought you might say that.” The doctor hid his smile while tipping his hat. “Ladies. Jarrod. Nick. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon around three.”

“Thanks, Jake.”

“Thank you, Jacob.”

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Barkley.”

Nick saw the man to the door. He rejoined his family in the parlor as Silas brought in coffee, cookies and sandwiches. Lunch had never been eaten. The soup Nick had been craving was now warming on the stove for supper.

“Since the doctor has given us good word on Mr. Heath perhaps everyone would like something to hold them over until dinner, Mrs. Barkley.”

“Thank you, Silas. That was very thoughtful of you.”

Victoria took the tray from Silas and dismissed him with a smile and nod of her head. She slapped Nick’s hand as he reached for a sandwich. “Nicholas, let our guests serve themselves first.”

The woman held out the sandwich tray to Mary and Faye. “Ladies, please. Help yourselves.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You’ve been too kind.”

 “No, it’s you and Mary who have been kind. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you bringing Heath home.”

The tray finally made its way to Nick. He grabbed two sandwiches then perched a hip on the corner of a marble table.

“So, Faye, you haven’t told us yet what happened up there at Salt Springs that brought my brother back here wrapped in your petticoats.”

“My best ones at that. That’s just what I told Barkley. I said, ‘Angel, it’s not every man I’d sacrifice my best petticoats for.’ Isn’t that right, Mary?”

The Indian girl nodded her head.

“But that brother of yours …well it’s like I said before, he’s a unicorn that one.”

“A unicorn?” Nick questioned.

“Yeah. You know, like in fables. The horse with wings and the longhorn coming out its head.”

“I know what a unicorn is; I’m just not sure why you’re applying it to Heath.”

“It’s like this, sugar. A unicorn is valued for its unique qualities and for its honesty. Now let me tell you, angel face up there might not have wings, but he’s honest as the day is long. Why, he sent me and Mary to the dry goods store for blankets and gave me money to put on the counter for them. Don’t that beat all? The town was deserted, all its merchants fled to higher ground. And then along comes Barkley, a guy who don’t even live there, yet concerned that someone he doesn’t know gets paid for a couple of musty blankets. Now, that is a unicorn if I ever met one in the flesh.”

The woman took a sip of coffee. Her face scrunched up like she’d just bitten into a lime, her lips pursing with distaste as the warm liquid went down.

“I’m sorry,” Victoria apologized. “The coffee’s not to your liking? I can have Silas bring you something else. Tea? Lemonade?”

 “Oh no, ma’am. This is fine. It’s just that I’m used to something a little…stronger than coffee shall we say. But like I told Barkley, I’m swearin’ off the bottle. It’s the Devil’s ale that got me and Mary left behind in Salt Springs. See, I was sleepin’ off a hangover when they gave the order to evacuate. Poor Mary here was probably too scared to answer the door when they came pounding on it tellin’ us to go. She attacked Barkley when he found us. Course it didn’t take much for him to fight her off, her bein’ so tiny and him being the strong …handsome man that he is.”

Victoria ducked her head. She knew if she met the eyes of any one of her children they’d all burst out laughing. Faye was old enough to be Heath’s mother, but there was no doubt she was smitten with him.

“So anyway, in stomps Barkley makin’ demands of me and Mary like he owns us or something. ‘Get dressed,’ he growled. ‘You’ve got to get out of town.’

 “Now at this point I’m expecting him to act like most men I’ve encountered since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. All I’m thinkin’ is that I need to protect Mary from him. Me …well me, I’m used to men if you know what I mean. But Mary, she’s young and don’t know about the birds and bees, if you’ll pardon me for being so bold right here in your fancy parlor, ma’am.”

Victoria bit back a smile. “That’s quite all right, Miss Keller.”

“Call me Faye. Everyone does.” The woman took another sip of coffee. “You know, you can get used to this if you drink it long enough. Now where was I?”

“Heath had come in your room and told you to get dressed,” Audra prompted.

“Told me? Oh, honey, Barkley didn’t tell me. He ordered me. And old Faye here ain’t much on taking orders from no one. I don’t think angel face knew quite what to do when I paid him no mind.” A smile lit the woman’s eyes. “He threw a dress at me he did and told me to hurry it up. Right then I looked at him and said, ‘Angel, let me ask you one question. Including you, there’s seven people in this town and five horses. Now if that dam breaks and we have to high tail it out of here, just how are you planning to work this out?’

“Well, I thought for sure when the light of day dawned and Barkley realized that somewhere along the line the math just wasn’t gonna add up favorably as far as people and horses went, he’d turn and hightail it from my room so fast it wouldn’t be funny. I figured that’d be the last Mary and I ever saw of him. Mary thought so, too. Course she couldn’t say that but I could tell. She knows how some men are when it comes to savin’ their own skins. Her tribe kicked her out because she can’t talk. Not one of her people stood up for her. Not even her own pa.

“But Barkley just looks at me and without blinking says, ‘You and the girl will ride my horse.’ I met his eye …’course I had to look up a ways him bein’ so tall and strapping …and said, ‘Angel face, do you know what it is you’re saying? If you put me and Mary on your horse that means you won’t stand a chance if that dam breaks.’

“And all Barkley did was shrug his shoulders and told me not to worry about him. That he could swim …”

Victoria gave a soft smile. “Like a fish.”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s exactly what he said.”

Jarrod spoke for the first time since the story began. “Faye, you said there were seven people in that town including you and Mary. Heath was sent to Salt Springs to work with three other men. If my arithmetic is correct that would mean, counting you and Mary, six people should have been there. Who was number seven?”

“A man by the name of Cannon. He rode in after Barkley got there. He was bad news let me tell you. That’s really when our trouble started.”

The family listened as Faye’s tale unfolded. They heard how Nate Cannon convinced the other men to do exactly what they’d been hired to prevent, loot the stores. The plan was to load goods on wagons and take the wagons to high ground. If the dam burst, they’d leave with the wagons and no one would be the wiser. If the dam didn’t burst, they’d put everything back before the town’s people returned and be considered heroes for keeping Salt Springs safe.

“Only problem was,” Faye said, “is Barkley wouldn’t go along with it and he wasn’t afraid to tell them that. So while he was in the hotel roundin’ up me and Mary they plotted to kill him.”

Faye told how Heath had to jump out the saloon window to get away from the men which explained the cuts on his face. How he’d come barreling around the corner just as Faye and Mary were stepping out of the dry goods store with blankets. How he’d propelled them to the livery stable in the hope of getting all three of them out of town on horseback before the other men found them.

 “But they figured out where we were real quick. They demanded Barkley surrender, but of course, angel face wouldn’t do that. Then after a little while one of them sneaks up and throws a wad of lit newspaper in through the cracks of the building. It caught some hay on fire. While Barkley was stomping it out the coward shot him.”

Faye allowed Victoria to refill her coffee cup then finished the story. By the time she came to the end everyone was dead but Heath, Faye, Mary, and a man named Cody Gell.

“Cody was so broken up over his brother Leon’s death that he was just sittin’ in the street crying like a baby. Barkley took him to the jail, locked him in a cell, gave him a canteen of water, and asked me to write a note for whatever lawman was goin’ show up beings our sheriff has a busted leg. He tried to write the note himself but his hands were shaking so bad he couldn’t. I figure that was from the blood loss. He wanted to leave for home right then, but I convinced him to let me and Mary take him back to my hotel room. I thought maybe by morning some of the people would start returning and with them would come the doctor. But this morning arrived and no people came. I wanted to wait longer because I knew Barkley shouldn’t travel, but he insisted. He said he wanted to come back here. I told him, ‘Angel, you’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re still bleeding. I’m afraid you won’t last the trip.’ And you know what he said?”

“No,” Victoria replied. “What did he say?”

“He said, ‘I want to go home. I want to be with my family.’ Then I said, ‘But, Barkley, you might die before I get you there.’ And he said, ‘No, I won’t. I’ll hang on until I’m with my family again.’ Then I said, ‘Angel face, your family must be awfully special to you.’ And that’s when he looked me in the eye, smiled and said, ‘They are. More special than anyone can imagine.’

“So somehow he managed to climb on that horse, even though I could tell it hurt him something fierce. Then he helped me get on in front of him all the while apologizing to Mary because he couldn’t offer any assistance to her.” Faye looked at Victoria. “You raised quite a gentleman in that one, ma’am. Quite a gentleman.”

Victoria smiled, saying only, “Thank you.”

“Now I’ll tell you, there’s no love lost between me and horses. In my opinion there’s better ways for a lady to travel, but I decided if Barkley wanted to be with his family that bad then the least I could do after the trouble he went through for me and Mary was get him here. And funny thing is, he never completely lost consciousness until after we rode in that gate and saw all of you standing there. It was like he knew then it was okay to allow himself to give into his pain. Like he knew he’d completed some journey that was very important to him. I was trying to get him to stay awake even as we approached you. I asked him, ‘Who are those two tall, dark and handsome men standing there, angel?’ I could feel him smile when he said, ‘My older brothers. Jarrod and Nick.’

 ” ‘And who’s the gorgeous blond girl who has your eyes, Barkley?’ I asked him. And again I could tell he was smiling when he said, ‘My little sister Audra.’ 

” ‘And who’s the tiny lady no bigger than a choir boy? She’s beautiful, Barkley.’ He nodded against my back, ‘Yes, she is. Beautiful inside and out. That’s my mother.’ “

Faye smiled at the tears running down Victoria’s face. “That’s the first time in all my years on this earth that I’ve thought I missed out on something by not having a family of my own. By not having a son. I wish you could have heard the pride and love in Barkley’s voice when he said that, ma’am. I wish all of you could have heard the pride and love in his voice when he spoke of you. When he said each one of your names.”

Even Nick had to tuck his chin into his chest to hide the moisture that had welled up in his eyes. He swiped at his lids.

“Darn trail dust.” Without facing his family Nick stood. “I’d better go check on the men. See if they need any help unloading the gear.”

Jarrod smiled at the retreating back of his brother. He stood and kissed his mother’s cheek. “I’ll go sit with Barkley for a while.”

Victoria chuckled at Jarrod’s choice of words. She reached up and squeezed his hand. “Even if he sleeps through your visit I think somehow Barkley will know you’re there and appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

“When you get tired, Jarrod, let me know,” Audra said. “I’ll sit with Heath next.”

“I’ll do that, little sister. It looks like we’re going to have to take a number in order to get our turns in. How about you, Mother? Where would you like to be penciled in?”

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll find an opening. Don’t you worry about that.” Victoria turned to their guests as Jarrod trotted up the stairs. “In the meantime, ladies, perhaps you’d like to take turns soaking in the bathtub. Then Audra can show you to your rooms.”

“Mary would prefer to stay with me if that’s all right, ma’am.”

“That’s fine. And please, call me Victoria.”

“Victoria. A regal name for a regal lady.”

“Why, thank you, Faye.”

“Oh, don’t thank me. Thank Barkley. He’s the one who said it right before he fell off his horse into his brother’s arms.”

“I see. Well then, I’ll have to remember to thank Heath, won’t I.”

Victoria watched as Audra led their visitors up the stairs. She walked around the parlor collecting the coffee cups and sandwich plates.

She paused for a moment at a table that held a family photograph. The picture had been taken since Heath joined him. She reached out a finger and lightly traced it over his face. “I don’t know when you became so important to us, or we to you, but it’s a good feeling, Barkley. It’s a good feeling.”

Victoria entered the kitchen and handed Silas the tray with the dirty dishes.

“I’ll serve dinner at seven o’clock if that’s all right with you, Mrs. Barkley.”

“That will be fine, Silas. Please set places for our guests. But don’t set a place for me.”

“Ma’am?”

“I’ll eat later tonight. As long as everyone will be gathered around the table I’ll take my turn right then sitting with Barkley.”

“Barkley?”

“Angel face.”

“Angel face?”

“Our unicorn.”

“Unicorn?”

Victoria laughed at the look Silas was giving her. As though he feared the events of the afternoon had caused her to have a breakdown. “Heath, Silas. I’ll be sitting with Heath.”

“Oh. Well, no doubt Mr. Heath will like that. He sure does love this family, ma’am.”

 “Yes, Silas, he sure does.” Victoria smiled as she walked from the room. “And this family sure does love its unicorn.”

***The End***

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