Remember That I Love You (by Nancy)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9000


It was still dark out when her father shook her awake.  “What’s wrong daddy?”  the drowsy little girl asked as she sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“Nothing is wrong.  Get up and get dressed into your ridding clothes.  Then meet me in the barn.  Be quiet okay.  We don’t want to wake your mother,”  her father said as his dark blue eyes shone with excitement in the lamplight.

“Okay.”  The blonde girl answered as she got up.  Her father left the room and she dressed quickly.  She quietly made her way out of the house.  Once she closed the door behind her she raced to the barn.  He met her at the barn door.

“I want you to close your eyes and promise not to open them until I say so,” he instructed her as he took her hand and led her into the barn.  She closed her eyes as tight as she could.  “Okay you can open them now.”

She opened her eyes to find a little black pony standing in front of her.  “Is she mine?”  The surprised girl squealed with delight.

“You bet she is.  I bought her for your thirteenth birthday at the last horse sale I went to,”  her father answered.

“But my birthday is still a week away.  Why are you giving her to me today?”  the confused girl asked.

“I just couldn’t wait until your birthday, sweetheart.  Now why don’t we saddle her and my horse and go for a long ride along the North Ridge.  I packed us some lunch.  We can spend the whole day together.  Just you and me,”  he suggested.

“But I have school.  I don’t think mom would be happy if I miss it,”  she replied

“I know that is why I did not want you to wake her,” he said as sly half smile formed on his lips.  “Come let’s do it.  We will both play hooky.  You from school and me from work.  I get to spend lots of time with the boys when we are working, hunting or fishing, but I don’t get to spend much time with you.”  He pleaded.

“I bet I can saddle my horse faster than you,” the excited girl challenged as she went to get her saddle and bridle from the tack room.  They both saddle their horse led them from the barn and mounted.  The sun was just beginning to rise when they rode though the big iron gates and headed toward the north ridge.

“Bet my horse can beat yours?”  The girl threw a challenge over her shoulder to her father as she urged the little black mare into a gallop.

The proud father watched as his daughter raced across the field with her blonde hair whipping in the wind behind her.  He admired how good of a rider she was.  When she as a fair distant ahead of him he urged his tall bay into gallop.

The happy girl reined in the little mare and patted its sleek black neck as she turned to watch her father ride toward her.  He looked like the knight from her favorite fairy tale as he raced to meet her and to her he was her knight in shinning armor.  She knew he would always be there to protect her and love her.  “I told you she could beat you.”  She said when he finally pulled up beside her side.

“That you did.”  He laughed not letting on that he had let her win.  The father listened with delight, as his daughter talked non-stop as they rode.

“Oh dear.”  The girl said

“What wrong.”  The concerned father asked

“Nothing is wrong.  I just mean there is a dear.”  The girl answered as she pointed to the creek where a big buck stood.  “It is so beautiful.”

“Well this is as good as any place to stop for lunch.”  The father said as he dismounted and led his horse to the water.  He knelt down by the creek and dipped his blond head into the refreshing cool water.   Then he got up walked over to his daughter and shook his head like a puppy does when it is wet.

“Hey stop that you are getting my outfit all wet.”  She complained.

“There was a time you didn’t care if you got your clothes wet or dirty.”  He said

“I was just a kid then.  Now I am a woman and I must care what I look like.”  She replied as she tossed her blonde locks over her shoulder and stuck her nose in the air.

“Well no matter how old you get you will always be my little girl.”  The amused father laughed.  “Come on lets eat.

After they ate the girl lay with her head on her father’s lap as she stared up at the sky.  “That looks like a horse.”  She said as she pointed out a formation of clouds.

“A horse?  I swear you are horse crazy.  Everything you see reminds you of a horse.  It looks more like a sheep than a horse to me.”  He scoffed.   They had been playing find the picture in the clouds for over an hour now and every cloud formation the girl saw she would say it was a horse.

” I say it’s a horse.”  She pouted

“Fine it’s a horse.  Well we better head back home now.”  He said as looked at the position of the sun in the sky and realized how late it was getting.

“Do we have to.  I don’t want this day to end.  Can’t we stay just a little longer?”  She pleaded.

 “No, we don’t want to be late for supper.  Your mother is going to be mad enough at you for making me let you skip school.”  He said as he stood up and started to pack away their stuff.

“Hey it was you idea.  Not mine.  I just tell her you forced me to do it.”  She shot back

“Okay, okay.  We will both take the blame, but it was worth her wrath don’t you think?”  He asked.  His little girl’s blue eyes shone with enjoyment as she smiled and nodded her head in agreement.  They placed the stuff in the saddlebags, mounted their horses and headed for home.

*****

When they arrived home her mother was furious.  “Where were you all day?”  She demanded.

“Went riding on the north ridge.  We needed to try out that new pony of hers.”  The father tried to explain.

“That new pony was suppose to be her birthday present and she should have been in school today.  Not riding with you.”  The angry mother seethed.

“Missing one day ain’t going to hurt her and I just wanted to spend some time with her.  She is my daughter I have a right to.”  The father defended himself.

“Of course you do, but couldn’t it have waited until the weekend.  Why did you have to pull her out of school?”

“Because I might not have another chance.”  He answered

“What is that suppose to mean.”  The confused mother asked.

“She is growing up so fast and there is always something that needs my attention on the ranch.  Today there wasn’t anything pressing, so I decided to spend it with my daughter.  She can make up the lost day at school.  I promise I won’t ever do it again.”  He pleaded for his wife to understand, although he himself did not understand the sudden urgency he had felt this morning to give his daughter her horse.  Nor could he really understand the overwhelming need to spend time with her.

“I guess what is done is done.  I don’t ever want a repeat of this, understood.  Now you both go get cleaned up for supper.”  She ordered.

*****

That night the father sat on the edge of his daughter’s bed reading to her from her favorite book.  Finally he stopped reading and closed the book.  He stood up and stretched his back.  “Well I think it is time for you to go to sleep princess.”

“Just read a little while longer.  I don’t want to say good night yet.”  She pleaded

“I am afraid not.  Your mother was angry enough tonight at us.  Let’s not give her anymore reason, okay.”  He said as he bent down and kissed her on the forehead.  “Always remember that I love you.  Goodnight sweetheart.”

“I love you too daddy.  Goodnight.”  She said as he tucked her into bed and then left the room.

*****

The next morning her father and brother’s were already out working when she came down for breakfast.  After she finished her breakfast she saddled her new horse and rode to school.  She wanted to show off her new horse to all of her classmates.  She could not wait to see the envy in their faces.

After school she raced her little black horse for home.  She had not been disappointed by the reaction of her classmates.  They had all wanted a ride on her new horse, which she allowed.  Her spirits were soaring as she rode though the big iron gates.  She took care of her pony and headed for the house.  She could not wait for her father to get home, so she could tell him about her day at school.

As the girl walked up to the house she noticed the doctor’s buggy parked outside.  She entered the house and saw her brother’s pacing around the sitting room.  The somber looks on their faces told her something dreadful had happened.  “What is wrong.”  She demanded as her heart filled with terror.

Her oldest brother approached her, knelt down and threw his arms around her.  “Father was shot today sweetheart.”

“But he will be okay right?  He has been hurt before and he has always been all right.  You will see he will be alright.”  She assured her older brother.

“No, Sweetheart.  He won’t be all right.  He died instantly.  There was nothing that could be done.”   Her brother tried to explain.

“But the doctor’s here.  He has to be all right.  He has to be.”  She screamed as she broke from her brother’s arm to race to her father’s room.  But her second oldest brother grabbed her arm and pulled her to him.

“No, he is dead.  The doctor came to give mother something to so she could sleep.”  He tried to explain.

“No, you are lying.  This is a cruel joke.  How can you be so mean.”  She screamed as she pushed her brother away, ran to her parent’s room and burst in.   She saw her mother lying on the bed crying as the doctor sat beside her.

“Where is my father?”  She demanded.   Her oldest brother’s who had followed her up to the room grabbed her shoulders.  He pulled her from the room.

“I am sorry, Audra.  Father won’t be coming home.”  Jarrod quietly said

“No! No! He’s not dead.  He can’t be dead.”  She screamed as her whole world just smashed into a million pieces.  Jarrod tried to hug her, but she pulled away and raced down the stairs, out the front door and out to the barn.  She curled up in the straw of the manger of her new horse and cried.  How could he do this? Her mind screamed.  How could he leave her?  Did he not know how much she needed him?  He promised he would be there for her, but now he was gone.  He had left and she did not even get to say good-bye.  She looked at the little black mare her father had given her yesterday through tear filled eyes.  She remembered the wonderful day they had spent together and realized that it had been her father’s ways of saying good-bye.  “Always remember I love you.”  She heard her father’s voice whisper as she lay in the straw and drifted off into a fit full sleep.

Jarrod found her curled up asleep in the straw.  He gently lifted her up and carried her back to the house.  He took her to her room and put her into bed.  He sat down on the edge of the bed.   He did not know how they would survive this tragedy.  As he watched his little sister sleep he realized that he must be strong for her.  He now was her father figure.  He would be the one who would have to discipline her when she was bad and the one she would turn to when she was afraid and needed help.  He buried his face in his hand and wept.  How could he take his father’s place?  How could he be strong when his own heart was broken?  But strong he knew he must be for her, his brothers and his mother.

*****

Always in your Heart

It was still dark when the blonde girl awoke.  She got up and got dressed into her riding clothes.  She made her way quietly down the backstairs that led to the kitchen.  When she opened the icebox to pack herself a lunch she noticed a bag with a note attached to it, which read.  “Have a good ride sweetheart say hi to your father for me.  Love Mother.”  The girl smiled as she remembered a time when her mother was opposed to her rides with her father.  Now her mother accepted and understood Audra’s need to spend one day a year with him.    She picked up the lunch and headed to the barn.

It was six years ago today that she had first snuck out of the house to met her father for their secret day.  She remembered him waiting at the barn door like a child at Christmas.  He had bought her a horse for her birthday which was still a week away, but couldn’t wait until then to give her the little black mare.  He had presented her with the horse that very morning.

Audra walked into the barn and saddled her bay gelding that her brother’s had given her when her black pony had become to small.  She could still remember her father’s pleading blue eyes as he begged her to play hooky from school so they could spend the day riding at the North Ridge.  Okay she admitted he did not have to beg that hard.

Audra mounted her horse and headed out through the big Iron gates as the sun began to rise in the sky.  She raced across the open range with her hair whipping in the wind.  She could hear his laughter and feel his presence as she rode to the place they had stopped for lunch.  She dismounted ate her lunch and then lay watching the clouds form pictures.  “Always remember I love you.”  A voice whispered in her mind.  “I do remember daddy and miss you.”  She cried as the wind touched her cheek like a kiss.  She finally got up mounted her horse and headed for home, but first she would stop by his grave.

*****

Victoria watched her eighteen-year-old daughter ride though the big iron gates of the ranch.  She remembered six years ago how angry she had been with her husband when she discover that he had taken their daughter riding when the girl should have been in school.  She remembered him saying, “Because I might not have another chance,” when she asked him why he could not have waited until the weekend.

He had been right he did not have another chance.  She could still see the horror filled faces of her two older sons and their clothes covered in blood as they returned home.  Nick her middle son had witnessed his father shot down in cold blood.  He and his father had been searching for stray cows.  Her oldest son, Jarrod arrived on the scene only minutes latter to find his brother cradling their father in his arms.  They had tried to save him, but there was nothing they could do.  They took their father’s body into town then they came home to tell her.  That had been her worst night.  She had wanted to die.  The only thing that gave her the strength to face life was her children.  She knew they needed her especially Audra and Eugene.

Nick had blamed himself for his father’s death.  He believed that if he had been at his father’s side instead of ten yards away he could have prevented it.  The first month after his father’s death he had taken up drinking and fighting too much.  On more than one occasion Jarrod had to bail his younger brother out of jail.  Jarrod had finally convinced Nick that their father’s death wasn’t his fault.  That if Nick had been any closer to their father that day, he too would be dead.   Nick took over the running of the ranch.  He threw all his energy into ensuring that the ranch maintained the standard that his father would be proud of.

Jarrod had been the rock that held the family together.  He had set up his law firm practice in Stockton, so he could be around to help raise Audra and Eugene.  The night their father died he had became his two youngest siblings’ father.  The way he took on the burden of responsibility would have made his father proud.  Victoria didn’t know if she could have pulled herself together without him.  She was so proud of the strength her oldest boy possessed.  She knew it could not have been easy for him to take his father’s place.

All her children were hurting and dealing with the death of their father in their own way, but Audra’s way terrified Victoria.  At the funeral her daughter did not cry.  The girl just silently started at the casket as she held on to Jarrod’s hand.  After the funeral when they had arrived home the blonde girl got changed into her riding clothes and took her horse for a ride.  Jarrod had to go find her and bring her home.  He had found her on the North Ridge.  The next morning Audra wasn’t in her room.  When they found her she was curled up in the manger of the horse her father had given her.  She refused to talk to anyone and every time Victoria went to hug her she would stiffen up.

At first Victoria thought it was a natural grieving process on the girl’s part and that given time she would be her old self once again.   But as the months dragged on Audra only seemed to worsen.  She had taken to sneaking out every morning to go riding at the North ridge.  One morning after finding her daughter gone.   Victoria confronted her eldest son.

*****

“Jarrod she snuck out again this morning to ride that horse.  I don’t know what to do with her.  It is like she is trying to relive that last day with him over and over.  I wish he never gave her that horse.  Maybe we should get rid of it.”  Victoria cried in frustration to her eldest son.

“Getting rid of that horse would be a mistake and you know it.  That mare was the last thing father gave Audra.  She just wants to be close to him.  Give her time she will come around.”  Jarrod tried to convince his mother.

“Time Jarrod.  It’s been almost a year.  She is pulling further and further away form us.  He is the one who died not her, but she has locked herself into the past.  My God, she hasn’t even cried.  I have tired to talk to her, but she won’t listen to me.  Maybe she will listen to you.  Please have a talk with her.  I couldn’t bare to lose my daughter too.”  Victoria pleaded.

“I have tried to talk to her mother.  She doesn’t respond any better to me.  I will write Uncle Jim and asked him to come for a visit.  She has always felt close to him maybe he can help.”  Jarrod said.

Jarrod felt that he had failed his sister.  He could not reach her.  Like his mother he had watched as she lived more and more in her own world and pulled further away from them.  He had hoped in time she would turn to them, but she did not.  He had even tried to confront her a few times after she returned from one of her rides, but he may as well have been talking to a fence post.  She just stared at him with dull blue eyes that seemed so lost.

Jarrod agreed with his mother that the relationship she had with the horse that their father had given her was unhealthy, but he knew that if they got rid of it they would lose her forever.  He also knew that his sister love and trusted their Uncle Jim.  Maybe their Uncle could reach her where he had failed.  “Oh God I hope he can, because if he can’t then no one can.”  He thought as he sat down and wrote the letter.

*****

Two weeks after Jarrod wrote the letter Uncle Jim arrived.  The first morning after his arrival Audra got up to sneak out for a ride.  When she got out to the barn Uncle Jim was waiting for her.  He had saddle the black mare and another horse.  Without saying a word she mounted her horse and took off.  Jim was right behind her.  The next morning she tried to leave earlier so that she would beat her Uncle, but he was waiting for her.  No matter how early she tried to leave he would be waiting.  At first she resented his intrusion, but as he rode beside her day after day she started to open up to him.

“I miss him so much.  When I am ridding Blackie out here I can feel his presence.”  She explained why her rides were so important to her one day when they had stopped to eat their lunch at the creek.

“I know you miss him sweetheart.  We all do, but your family is worried about you.  They don’t want you to forget him, but they are afraid that you are forgetting about them.  They love and need you Audra.”  Her Uncle told her

“I don’t want to say goodbye to him.”  Audra sobbed as she collapsed into her Uncle’s arms.

“As long as he is in your heart, you will never have to say goodbye.”  Jim said as he hugged his niece close to him.

After that day Audra stopped her early morning rides to the North Pasture.  But once a year on the anniversary of their special day she would sneak out and ride to the North Pasture to relive that day once again.  The first couple years she did this, her mother and older brother freaked, but now they accepted it as something she had to do. Also after her father’s death she refused to celebrate her birthday on the day she was born because it was too close to when her father was buried.  Instead she started celebrating it a month later.

*****

Audra was just about at her father’s grave when she spotted him kneeling beside it.  How dare a common trail bum trample the flowers that she planted on her father’s grave?  She urged her horse to a trot as she approached the cowboy with her whip in her hand.  She hit him hard with the whip a few times before he pulled her from her horse and pinned her to the ground.

“Drop it.”  He ordered

“Let me go.”   She screamed indigent that this tramp would dare to touch her.  “You are hurting me.”

“I said drop it.”  He ordered her again.  When she released her hold on the whip he let her go.  He picked up the whip and threw it away.

“You shouldn’t go around hitting people.”  He said

“You were trampling them I saw you.  The flowers I planted here.”

She watched the cowboy’s face turned from anger to sorrow and remorse as she told him who she was and the story of her father’s death.  He told her he was sorry that a girl so young had to grow up with out a father.  He explained that he was looking for the Barkley ranch so he could get a job, but had got lost and ended up at the gravesite.  He apologized to her for the intrusion.  She pointed him in the right direction and told him to ask for Nick.

The blond cowboy mounted his horse turned in the saddle and flashed her a half smile as he waved and rode of toward the house.  She watched him ride away.  There had been something that felt so familiar about this young man, but she could not place it.  She turned walked over to the grave and knelt down beside it.

As she sat at her father’s grave she remembered the day her world had crashed and burned.  At times it seem like a lifetime ago, but at other times like today it seemed like yesterday.   She remembered awaking in her room the morning after her father died.  She had tried to convince herself it was a bad nightmare, but the wound in her heart told it was not.  She saw her older brother sleeping uncomfortable in a chair by her bed.  He must have brought her in from the barn, because she remembered going to the barn.  When she sat up her dark haired brother awoke.  He had tried to comfort her.

“It will be okay Audra.”  He soothed as he tried to put his arms around her, but she pulled away.

“No!  It won’t be okay.  It will never be okay.  He left me.”  She yelled back.

“I am here.  Nick, Eugene and mother are all here and we promise we won’t leave you, sweetheart.”  He tried to calm her.

“Like he promised.  Promises are just lies in disguise.  They are made but aren’t meant to be kept.”  She screamed as she bolted from the room.  She raced down the stairs and out to the barn.  She saddled and bridled her horse.  She was about to exit the barn when Jarrod stopped her.  He asked one of he ranch hands to take the horse and put it away.  Then he forced her back to the house.  She hated him.  Oh how she hated him that day for stopping her from joining her father.

 Jarrod had tried to talk to her to reach her, but she refused to listen.  She had shut the door to her heart and she would not let him or anyone else in.  At the funeral the next day Jarrod held her hand, but she did not feel it.  She watched as they lowered her father into the dark cold ground, but she did not cry.  She was numb inside, empty.  She stood stoically by her family as friends and relatives gave their condolences, but they sounded like a mosquito buzzing in her ear.

When the funeral was over they had returned home where there was lunch held. Audra had to escape.  She could not stand all these people any longer.  When no one was looking she slipped out to the barn, saddled her horse and took off.  She rode without realizing where she was going, but as she rode she felt her father’s presence.  Jarrod found her by the creek where her father and her had shared their lunch.  He made her mount her horse and he took her home.  Again she hated him for taking her away from her father.  How dare he try to take father’s place?  The harder Jarrod and her mother tried to reach her to stop her from her morning rides the further she pulled away.  The more she hated them.  How dare they insist she say good-bye?

Audra traced her father’s name on the tombstone as she thought of how unfair she had been to her older brother and mother.  They had only been worried about her.  They only had wanted to help.  Tears rolled down her cheek and fell to the ground by the tombstone.

“I so miss you daddy.  I will always love you.”  She cried.  It was starting to get dark when Jarrod rode up.

“I thought I would find you here.  Mother was getting worried about you.  You know she does not like you out this late.”  Jarrod rebuked her.

“It seems you are always coming to find me.”  She sobbed as she looked up at him through tear filled eyes.

“I would go to the end of the earth to find you and bring you home pretty lady. ”  He replied as he helped her to her feet and put his arms around her shoulders.  He led her to her horse.

“I am so sorry for the way I acted back then but I just wasn’t.”  Audra stopped unable to continue

“You were just not ready to let go.”  He finished for her.  “I just wished I could have helped you then.”

“But you did Jarrod.  You never gave up on me and I know it was you who asked Uncle Jim to come.  You knew he could help me.  Oh Jarrod!  It still hurts so much.”  She cried as she buried her head in his chest.

“I know it does honey.  It probably always will, but at least now he can also remember the good times we had him.”  Jarrod whispered in his ear.  “Like the time we all went on that fishing trip and you accidentally hooked Nick’s shirt.  Father told you that he was too stubborn and you should throw him back.”

“Boy was Nick mad at me for that.”  Audra laughed.  “You always know what to say to make me laugh. I love you so much Jarrod.”

“I love you too Audra.”  Jarrod replied as he kissed her cheek.   “Well we better get home before mother sends out the search party.”

Jarrod held her horse for her while she mounted then he mounted his horse.  They reminisced about their father as they rode home.

*****

 Audra was almost asleep when the loud voice of Nick yelling for Jarrod and Eugene awoke her.  She got up and went to stand on the stairs.  She heard her brother’s talking to a man in the study.  This man was saying horrible things about her father.  He claimed that he was the illegitimate son of Tom Barkley and that he was there to claim what was rightfully his.  She watched as the angry young man exited the study and made his way to the front door.  She recognized him as the man she met at her father’s grave.  She had given him directions to the house.  Her brothers had given him a job.  Now he was repaying their kindness by slandering their father’s names.  As the blond man exited the house Audra glanced toward her mother’s bedroom door.  She saw her mother’s door closing and knew that she too had heard all the filthy lies this man told.

How dare he come here to defame her father’s good name and on this night of all nights.  Well, she would find him and she would make him take it back.  She went into her room got dressed and like so many times before snuck out to the barn to saddle her horse. This time she wasn’t riding to North Ridge to be with her father, she was ridding to Stockton to defend her father’s honor.

*****

Jarrod watched as the angry young man placed the money into a glass of whiskey and headed to the study door.  At the door the man stopped turned and looked at them.  A fleeting half smile crossed the blond cowboy’s lips as he gave a slight wave of the hand and then left.

The smile was like a slap in the face to Jarrod.  That was his father’s smile.  Jarrod walked over to the bar and poured himself a drink.  He could not shake the feeling he had just made a mistake.  He pushed the thought unmercifully aside.  How could he even consider that this two bit con was telling the truth?  How could he even entertain the idea father was unfaithful to his mother?

As Jarrod took a sip of his drink he remembered that tomorrow was the day their father died six years ago.  He would never forget the sound of the gunshot as he rode to meet his brother and father.  Nor would he forget the horror on his younger brother’s face as he cradled their dead father in his arms begging for Jarrod to help him.  He could do nothing to save his father, because it was already too late.

Tom Barkley had been killed by a hired gun of the railroad, because he had stood up to them.   Now six years later the railroad was once again trying to run people off their land.  Stockton was full of their hired men.  They were brought in to intimidate the ranchers of this area.  Jarrod believed that the railroad had purposely chosen to bring in these men in this close to Tom’s death as a reminder what resistance would cause.  Jarrod had been fighting for an injunction to stop the railroad from taking the ranchers homes.  He desperately wanted to find a peaceful way to end this, but so far with no luck.

Jarrod had hoped that by now his younger brother, Eugene would have been safe at college, but the boy refused to leave until the trouble with the railroad was settled.  Eugene wanted to be home in case trouble erupted and his older brothers needed him.

Nick had been arguing that they should stand up to the railroad like their father did six years ago.   But for Jarrod that was too high a price.  Their father had been murdered and his surviving family traumatized.  He had to find a better way, but time was running out.

*****

As she rode into town men surrounded her like a pack of wolves brining down their prey.  She tried to fight them off with her whip, but there were to many of them.  She was terrified and didn’t know what to do.  Then she felt someone pull her off her horse and drag her with him.  She fought him to get away, but the man tightly held on to her as he dragged her into the hotel, up the stairs and into a room.

“You little fool.”  The enraged man yelled.

“You hurt me.”  She yelled back.

“Try them.”  He said as he angrily pointed to the streets of Stockton.

He dipped cloth into the basin of water and then led her over to the bed.  He made her sit down.  As he tended to her wound she tried to seduce him, but he only accused her of trying to tempt her brother.  She furiously told him he was liar and tried to pound him with her fist, which he easily held at bay.

“Boy howdy the stud sure breed them wild.”  He said at her behavior.  He also told her how he wasn’t proud that Tom Barkley was his father, but he wanted his name and the respect that it brought.  Then a couple of the men who had tried to attack her on the streets entered the room.  They told the blond that this was a man’s job and that he should leave.  But he didn’t leave.  He threw himself at them.  They had him pinned to the bed pounding him with their fists when the sheriff walked in.

She told the sheriff that Heath was a hired hand that had followed her into town to keep her out of trouble.  The Sheriff escorted them out of town to make sure they would be safe.   She wondered why this blond stranger would risk himself to save her.  As she watched him riding alongside her she could her father’ voice inside her mind saying, “always remember that I love you.”   Then she realized that the way this cowboy rode reminded her of her father.

 “Oh God, could it be true.”  She thought.  Just then they saw the smoke in the distance.  That was the Miller ranch.  All three urged their horses into a run at the same time.

*****

As Jarrod watched the Millers house and barn burn to the ground he realized his time was up.  Jarrod saw his sister arriving with the sheriff and for the briefest of seconds he saw his father riding beside her.  As the riders came into the light of the burning buildings Jarrod realized that the rider beside his sister was the man from last night.  Again he had the uneasy feeling that he had made a mistake.
Jarrod heard one of the ranchers, as he demanded they make a stand at his place the following morning just like Tom Barkley did.  He heard the sheriff tell them that they would only die like Tom did.  As Jarrod heard the defeated rancher say that their father had gave them nothing but an empty legacy he saw the disgust and disappointment in the face of the young man that called himself Tom Barkley’s son.  Then the blond man turned and rode away.

Jarrod heard Nick tell the rancher that he would stand with him the next morning against the railroad.  When Nick asked if anyone else would stand with them, Jarrod walked over and stood alongside his two brothers’.  Soon every man except the sheriff was standing along side the rancher.  The time for peace was over.  Now it was the time to fight for what was right or die trying.  Just like his father did.

*****

The minute she saw him riding along side her daughter, she knew this was her husband’s son.  He may not look identical to his father, but there was a strong resemblance.  The way he sat tall in the saddle of his horse was the strongest.  “Oh Tom how could you.”  Her mind cried out.  She watched as he turned and rode away.  Then her attention was drawn back to the group of rancher’s by her middle son’s loud voice asking who would stand with them.  She watched as Eugene her youngest joined him, but her heart fell when her oldest stepped up beside his two brothers.  She knew now nothing would stop the blood bath that would occur tomorrow.  She turned her buggy for home and left.

When she arrived home she found him stuffing apples into his hat.  When he turned to find her there he just grabbed a few more apples.  He then made his way toward her and the exit she blocked.   She saw Tom’s stubborn pride written all over this young man’s features.  She could also see his pain and anger.  She told him that if he had remained at the Miller’s he would have seen her son’s band together to full fill their father’s legacy.  She told him that her husband was not a perfect man, but a good man.  She told him that if he were her son she would tell him to hold his head high and be proud.  That no one had the right to take away his birth right.   He had listened to her speech and then left.

As Victoria watch the young angry man leave she remembered the look of joy and pride on Tom’s face each time one of their children were born.  She could still see the love in his eyes as he taught his son’s how to ride, shoot, and rope.  She remembered how after a long day working the ranch how he would pick up Audra as he called her princess.  He would spend hours listening to his little girl chatter away.  He loved all his children.   Victoria could not believe that a man that obviously loved children so much could have allowed a child of his to grow up with out him.  He must not have known.  That was the only explanation that made sense.  If he had known about the child he would have accepted and loved him as he did his other children.

Victoria went up to her room threw herself on her bed and wept. How could Tom betray their wedding vows?  Had his love for her been a lie?  How could he produce a child with this woman and not know?  Had he loved this other woman more than her?  Her mind raced with questions that had no answer.  Then she remembered the way Tom had always looked at her, the way he held her at night and caressed her check, the words of love he whispered in her ear and she knew without a doubt that his love for her had been real.

Again Victoria thought of Tom’s illegitimate child.  As much as she was hurt by the knowledge of her husband’s affair she knew that this young man had been the one who was hurt the worst by it.  Some how she had to make it right.  She knew Tom would want her to.

*****

Audra watched from her bedroom window as her three brothers rode through the gates and toward the Semple ranch where they would make a stand against the railroad, a Stand that could cost them their lives.  She was afraid that this could be the last time she would ever see them.  Like their father six years ago would they too leave her?  The fear in her heart was overwhelming.

“Oh God please bring them home safe.  I couldn’t bare to lose anyone of them.”  She prayed as she broke down and cried.

Victoria entered her daughter’s room and found her staring out the window crying.  She walked over and put her arms around her little girl.  She too feared that she would never see her son’s again and she didn’t know how she could live with that.

*****

Nick sat on the porch of the Semple farm with his two brothers waiting for the railroad’s men to show up.  He could not stop thinking that about this time six years ago he watched as his father was shot down by the railroad’s hired gun.  He and his father were out rounding up strays that day.  They were riding side by side when Nick saw a calf and took off after it.  He was herding the calf back toward his father when he heard the gunshot and saw his father fall from his horse.  Nick urged his mount into a gallop and was at his father’s side in seconds.  He dismounted, knelt down and took his father in his arms.  He tried to find a pulse, but could not.

Nick shook his head to clear the image as the Sheriff and the railroad’s men rode up.  He could not allow himself to think about that today.  If didn’t keep his mind in the present it could cost him and his brothers their lives.

As the sheriff tried once again to talk the rancher’s into surrendering, Nick noticed a rider approach the ranch at a gallop.  He recognized the blond cowboy as the man claiming to his father’s son and wondered why he was here. Nick watched as the rider urged the horse over the fence, rode up to the ranch house and pulled the horse to a stop.  The blond man dismounted, grabbed his gun, slapped the horse on the rump, boldly walked up and took his place along side Nick.  Then the fighting began.

*****

After the fighting was over Jarrod looked around the yard.  The loss of life sickened him.  He saw the blond cowboy sitting on a barrel trying to roll a cigarette with very shaky hands.  Jarrod walked over and handed the blond a cigar.  The younger man hesitantly took it and put it in his mouth, but his gaze never left the body of the widow crying over her husband’s body.  Jarrod lit the cigar for him as he realized that the young cowboy was badly shaken by the battle.

 “This wasn’t your fight.  Why would you risk your life for people you don’t even know?”  Jarrod asked trying to start a conversation with the man that claim to be his brother.

“Standing up for the rights of others is everyone’s fight.  What the railroad was doing was wrong and they have to be stopped.”  The blond man replied.

“So you see yourself as a crusader for the rights of others.”  Jarrod asked

“No.  I see myself as alone, a drifter with no one to care whether I live or die.  If I die standing up for what is right at least my life would have meaning.  That man did he have children?”  The blond asked as he nodded his head toward the dead rancher.

“Yes, he has a boy and a girl.”  Jarrod answered.

“That’s a shame.  A child shouldn’t have to grow up with out a father.  Please make sure his widow gets this.  She needs it more than me.”  Heath said as he reached into his shirt pocket pulled out some money and gave it to Jarrod.  He then stood up and started to walk toward his horse.

“Wait.”  Jarrod asked.  When the blond turned to face him he could see the sorrow and pain etched in the younger man’s face.  When Jarrod looked into his dark blue eyes he saw the same lost look Audra had six years ago and he remembered that this man had recently lost his mother.  But where they had each other to lean on this man had no one.  “Come back to the ranch with us.  We need to talk.”

*****

When her three sons returned home Victoria raced downstairs and threw her arms around each of them.  She noticed the blood on Jarrod’s arm, but he assured her that it wasn’t serious.  Then she saw him nervously standing near the door like a wild colt ready to bolt.  Again she was struck by the strong resemblance this man had to her husband.

“I am sorry mother, but Jarrod insisted that we needed to talk to him.”  Nick apologized letting his mother know this man’s presence here wasn’t his idea.

“Jarrod is right we do need to talk.”  She said as walked over and took the apprehensive man’s arm.  He flinched when she touched him, but he did not pull away.  She led him into the sitting room and pointed to a chair.  “Please have a seat.”

“Thank you, but I’ll stand.”  Heath said as he walked over to stand by the fireplace and turned to face them.  He looked like he was facing a firing squad.

“Could I get you something to drink.”  Victoria offered the young man.  He just shook his head.

“Last night you told us that three months ago on her death dead your mother told you who your father was and that the only proof she gave you is a newspaper clipping of his death.  Is that correct.”  Jarrod asked.  The blond man nodded his head in agreement.

“After your mother died did you stay in Strawberry?  Jarrod asked

“Only long enough to bury her the next morning then I left.”  Heath answered confused by the line of questioning.

“What have you been doing for the last three months.”  Jarrod inquired.

“I’ve been drifting around from place to place getting work where I could just like I did before my mother died.”  Heath replied.

“So you drifted all the way up to Corning.  That was the last place you said you worked wasn’t it?”  Jarrod asked.  He saw the flash of anger in the blond man’s blue eyes.

Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with any of this.”  Heath snapped in frustration.

“Why didn’t you come here straight from Strawberry after you found out who your father was instead of going all the way to Corning?  Why did you wait for three months before making your claim?”  Jarrod demanded.

“I don’t know, but what difference does it make.”   Heath snapped.

“I am just trying to find out exactly what you were hoping to find when came here.”  Jarrod answered

“I told you last night.  I want what is rightfully mine as the son of Tom Barkley.”  Heath answered.

“You have no right to anything.  You are no more my father’s son than any other son of whore.”  Nick spat before Jarrod could say anything else.

Like a flash of lightning Heath lunged at Nick and knocked him to the floor.  The two angry men fought on the floor until Jarrod and Eugene pulled them apart.

 Don’t ever call my mother that.  She wasn’t like that.”  Heath seethed as he glared at Nick.

“The truth hurts doesn’t it boy.”  Nick spat back.  Heath tried to attack Nick again, but Jarrod stopped him.

“That’s enough Nick.  We are going to talk not fight.”  Jarrod rebuked his younger brother.

“Oh don’t let his showing up the Semple’s today fool you.  He was just using it to get what he wants.”   Nick snapped back at his older brother.

“Nicholas, that is enough.  Now sit down and be quiet.  Let Jarrod handle this.”  Victoria ordered her volatile son.  Nick reluctantly sat down.

“Lets start this again shall we.”  Jarrod said as he turned to face Heath.  “What did you hope to find when you came here.”

“I already told you.”  Heath answered as he turned to face the fireplace.

“You have told me what you expect to get.  Money a name, but if that is all you cared about you would have came here as soon as you found out who your father was.  What do you really want from us.”  Jarrod asked again.

“What else is there?”  The blond cowboy asked as he turned back to face Jarrod.

“Today at the Sample’s you told me you saw yourself as alone a drifter.  I believe you came here hoping to find family.  Someone who would care if you live or die.”  Jarrod said throwing the man’s words back at him.

“Well I sure didn’t find anyone to care it I live, but I sure as hell found someone who wishes I was dead.”  Heath hissed as he glared at Nick.  He cursed himself for letting his guard down and allowing this man to see his weakness today.  Now like a shark after the smell of blood the dark haired lawyer was using it against him.  He had to get out of here.

“This was a mistake.”  Heath said as he pushed past Jarrod and headed for the door

“Heath Barkley.  You are my brother and I care if you live or die.”  Jarrod yelled after the retreating man.  His words stopped the blond man in his tracks.  He slowly turned to face Jarrod with a look of utter disbelief.

“Now just wait a blasted minute here Jarrod.  How can you defile father’s name by accepting this man’s lies?  I thought you lawyers always like hard facts.  Well the fact is this man has no proof.”  Nick yelled as he leaped up from his chair and confronted his older brother.

“If you open your eyes Nick, you will see all the proof you need.”  Victoria said before Jarrod had a chance to say anything.   Her statement confused both Nick and Heath.

Victoria walked over and put a hand on Nick’s shoulder as he looked at her like she lost her mind.  Then turned to her husband’s son.   “Now Heath please come and sit down.  There is still a lot that we all must discuss.”

They talked half the night away and it was finally decided that Heath would stay at the ranch with his father’s family.  Nick wasn’t convinced, but he finally agreed.  Then they all went up to bed except for Jarrod who had some paperwork he needed to get caught up on.

*****

Audra could not sleep, so she went downstairs to get a glass of milk.  She noticed that her older brother was in the study working on some paperwork.  She walked into the study.  “Jarrod.”  She said

“What’s wrong Audra?”  Jarrod asked when he opened the door to find her.

“I was just wondering what made you believe that he is father’s son?  She asked.

“There was actually a couple of things.  Like the way he smiles and when I saw him riding along side you at the Miller’s last night for the briefest of seconds I saw father.  At the Staples after the fighting he had that same brooding look father always got when something troubled him.”  Jarrod replied

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  He kept reminding me of father as we rode together.  Why can’t Nick see the resemblance?”  She asked

“Oh right now he is blinded by his anger, but given time he will see what we do.”  Jarrod answered.  “By the way with everything that happened last night and today I never got to ask you how you ended up in the presence’s of the Sheriff and Heath last night.  Would you care to enlighten me?”

“You know mother was right.  There has been enough talking for one night.  Well good night Jarrod you know I need my beauty sleep.”  Audra stammered as backed out of the room and retreated up the stairs to her room.

Jarrod watched her leave as he shook his head.  “Boy that girl was a handful.”  He thought to himself as he blew out the lamp in the study and headed to bed.

***The End***

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