The Last Journey to Strawberry (by Sandi)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  30,000


“I’ll be home in a few days,” Heath assured his family as he strapped on his gun belt and adjusted his Stetson.

Victoria reached around his waist to give him a hug and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Be safe, son.” Audra likewise gave her brother a squeeze and wished him a good trip with hopes that he would be home soon to help her train the new Appaloosa that had just been added to their string of horses. Jarrod was absent from this farewell, having business in San Francisco and not expected back for another two weeks.

“Now you’re sure you don’t want company?” This question from Nick who reached out and clamped his hand over his younger brother’s shoulder. Nick hated to see his brother make these semi-annual journeys back to the place where as a child and even as a grown man, Heath suffered so much pain and scorn from the ignorant people of that dirty mining camp they called Strawberry. Why even to the only true kin that Heath had left, he would never be anything but a bastard in their eyes. That aunt and uncle of his, Martha and Matt Simmons. They still clung to running the Hotel in that desolate town. Refusing to let go of a dream that died when the mine that populated the town shut down for good years ago. Matt Simmons, no more than a drunk who took refuge in the bottle to hide from his inadequacies and failures. One failure with which he lived with daily was his wife. A self-important woman who blamed her lot in life of living in a dead town on her husband. Her husband who would never be man enough to give her a life she felt she deserved.

“No, I’d rather go on my own,” Heath answered his brother. “Old Hannah, she’d just get flustered if too many people showed up at her door. She’s not getting any younger, Nick. Why, the last time I was there, it took her a bit of time to even recognize me. Like I said, she’s not getting any younger, especially in her mind.”

“Well, alright then,” Nick conceded, walking with Heath out to the stables. “You have a good trip then. I’ll be watching for you at the end of the week.” Nick started to walk away and then abruptly turned back as Heath was mounting his horse. “Heath!”

Heath turned in his saddle to see his fiery-eyed brother standing taut with his fists planted on his hips. “Yeah, Nick?”

“If I don’t see your hide back here by weeks end,” Nick’s voice rose to the level of a threat, “I’ll come lookin’ for you.” He concluded his parting speech in a softer but still serious tone.

Heath knew in his heart that his older brother’s words were no mere lie. He knew Nick felt the need to mother hen it over him. Now while Heath prided himself on being able to take care of himself and get out of various scrapes one way or another, still Nick had been there for him on a number of occasions and for that, Heath was most grateful.

Smiling a little half smile, Heath Barkley tucked the words of his sometimes overly protective brother into the back of his mind. Loosening Charger’s reins, he nudged the horse with his heels and headed off of Barkley land onto the road that would take him to Strawberry and to the woman who had always treated him kindly and helped his mother raise him as though he were her own.

The wind started kicking up about five miles out of town. But then again, it always seemed to be windy in these parts. Squinting his eyes against the gusts, Heath rode on remembering from his youth how his mama was forever after the dust that would sneak in under their door and steal in through the drafty windows of their tiny shack. As he rode into town, he felt his muscles tense. There was suddenly a clenching of his chest. Every time he made this trek, it was always the same. So much pain lived in this place. His hard childhood to scrape at an existence and the names that went with it. They say that names can never hurt you, but Heath knew it wasn’t true. He had been deeply wounded by the labels dished out freely towards himself and his mama. Now entering Strawberry, those old wounds stirred and festered once more.

Only one rider passed the cowboy as he and his horse ambled down through the middle of town. He passed the Hotel turning his face away from its windows, hoping his presence would not be detected by his aunt and uncle. He knew that much of the tension he was feeling right then was in a large part due to them. They had monopolized on his mother’s situation. Hiring her with a claim of goodwill, the wages she earned barely kept her and her son alive. And the ridicule that went with it, Heath often wondered if that, in part with the cancer, had caused his mother’s early death.

Trying to shake off such morose thoughts, Heath moved on down the street. He hadn’t brought a wagon so he’d have to buy his repair supplies at the General Store, which to his relief, was still open, though its sign was so weather-beaten, you could hardly make out the words. That could wait until morning though. Right now he just wanted to get to Hannah’s house while there was some daylight left. He knew old Hannah wouldn’t open the door to the Lord Almighty if it was passed dark. He picked up the pace and rode on through town to the little green cabin that sat lonely and forlorn about a half mile out.

The little property had a small stable in the back. For now though, Heath tied Charger to a tree so that he could graze. He’d bed him down later.

Whistling a little tune, Heath trotted up the gravel path that lead to Hannah’s porch. The first thing he noticed was that there were no lights on in the house. Well, he thought to himself, it’s only dusk. She’s probably laid down to take a nap and hadn’t awoken to notice the darkened house. Taking the two steps to the door in one, Heath knocked loudly, remembering that the dear lady was getting more and more hard of hearing. When no one answered, he knocked again and called her name. “Hannah? Hannah, ya home? It’s me, Heath.” The only sound he heard was the wind clattering the loose windows of the tiny house. He took a quick look out to the back of the house but he didn’t see the elderly black woman anywhere. Well, he thought to himself, maybe she had a church meeting to go to.

Hannah and Heath’s aunt Rachel had always been very religious, God fearing women. Heath pondered about his aunt Rachel for a moment. She had died in what his Aunt Martha and uncle Matt had claimed was an accident in an old mine shaft. He knew it was no accident but proving what really happened was next to impossibility. He knew his aunt and uncle had caused her death, but the people of Strawberry were afraid of the Simmons’ and because of that fear, the truth had never been revealed. As a result, things continued on just as they had for years. The Simmons’ continued to run the old hotel and rule over most of the folks in Strawberry who had no other place to go. They had nowhere to escape.

Going up to the house again, Heath knocked on the door once more and called out. On a whim, he turned the knob and was surprised that it turned, opening the door. That’s funny, he thought. Hannah, no matter if she was only in the back, always locked her door. She was almost superstitious about it. The door was ALWAYS locked if she was not in the house.

“Hannah? Are ya here?” Heath smelled the air. Musty with a hint of mildew. It smelled like the house had been closed up for who knows how long. Lighting a lamp, Heath carefully walked through the three rooms of the small cottage looking for something, though he had no clue what it was he was looking for. Some sign that she had been here recently for starters. As he neared the kitchen, the mildew smell became stronger. It was soon apparent where the sour smell was coming from. There on the kitchen table was Hannah’s old washtub. There were still clothes in the fusty water. A band of worry bordering on panic began to grip Heath’s chest. Hannah would never just leave a load of clothes to ferment like this. Something here was not right. “Hannah?” Heath raced to the small closet-like bedroom and flung open the door.

The room was stark and empty. Like the rest of the house, a layer of fine dust had settled over the furniture. Heath touched the quilt covering Hannah’s bed. It was gritty with fine dirt that had blown in through a cracked window. Heath’s heart sank. It looked like Hannah hadn’t been here for a long time.

Heath felt sick with dread. By this time it had darkened into night. Too dark to look around outside. He could ride into town to get some answers tonight but swiftly concluded that this would be both unwise and unsafe. No street lamps for one, and the fact that he was not exactly welcome there by the influential pair who reluctantly claimed him as their kin. Heath realized his extended search would have to wait until daylight.

Taking the lantern that hung outside the front door, Heath lit it and went out to where Charger was tied. He led him to the small stable. It wasn’t much but at least the horse would have a roof over his head for the night. Heath found a bucket with his dim light and pumped water for Charger to drink. Taking a brush he kept in his saddlebag, Heath stood by his horse and brushed the day’s dust off of Charger’s massive body. All the time, he was trying to reason out what had happened to Hannah. Dark thoughts crowded into his mind again and again. Foul play was a work here; he had all but convinced himself. But how? Why? Who? Well, the who may be the easiest question to answer, he rationalized. No one would dare hurt Hannah or ever want to except for, Heath clenched the brush until his knuckles whitened, his uncle Matt or more precise, his aunt Martha. But WHY? Why? His mind screamed for answers. Shaking his head, Heath admonished himself. Get a hold of yourself, Heath. You don’t know that they had anything to do with her disappearance. Loosening his grip on the brush, he continued to try to talk himself out of the morbid path his mind was wandering to. There HAD to be an explanation. Things will look better in the light of day, he tried to convince himself.

“There ya go, boy. You’ve gotta feel better now with some of those layers of trail dust off of ya.” Charger nuzzled gently against Heath’s chest and nickered in agreement.

The lantern felt heavy in his hand as Heath walked back to the house taking his bedroll with him. His heart felt even heavier. Heath set up his sleeping quarters on Hannah’s front room floor. He didn’t have the heart to disturb her bed. He felt it would be very wrong if he slept there while she…. He squeezed his eyes shut to crowd out the bleak images that came to mind. While she was…away.

Though he was bone tired after his day’s ride, sleep was elusive for Heath as his mind continued to race in a million different directions. Maybe she went on a trip. No, that wouldn’t explain why her house was unlocked and the clothes were left to mold. Had she fallen out back and wasn’t able to get help? It took all of his convincing himself not to jump up and start searching around out back of the house, knowing it would be futile on account of the dark moonless night. It would simply have to wait until morning. Tossing and turning, Heath managed to snatch a few hours of fitful sleep before the first rays of dawn peeked through the panes of the eastward window.

Heath rolled onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. The mysterious whereabouts of Hannah immediately flooded his thoughts. The back of the house! Gotta get up and check NOW. Hurrying, Heath stood up to investigate the property in back of the small cabin. Holding his hands to the small of his back, he stretched feeling the effects of sleeping on the hard floor.

The grass was overgrown, brown and tangled. Heath gingerly stepped through it looking for the dear lady who had helped his mama raise him so many years ago. The search was futile. After about an hour with nothing to show for his efforts, Heath again entered the house as confused and disturbed as when he went out. Where was she? What had happened to her?

Pangs of hunger began to gnaw at his belly. With some trepidation, Heath began to search through Hannah’s kitchen in search of some sustenance. Soon a coffee pot was located along with the coffee to go with it. Unfortunately, the icebox held only spoiled findings of bacon and old eggs but the cupboard held more promising pickings of beans and a can of stew. Soon Heath had the old cook stove lit and the coffee and beans gently rumbling to a boil.

With his stomach now satisfied, Heath was ready to carry on with the seemingly grim task of locating the whereabouts of Hannah. Leading Charger from his overnight shelter, Heath had him saddled and ready to ride in record time. Mounting the horse, Heath cringed a little at the thought of having to go into town. He knew that he would again have to face his aunt and uncle. The people who didn’t ever want to see him again. The people who knew that he knew the truth about Rachel and might be able to expose them. The people who didn’t care if he lived or died. And he knew that with their influence over the townspeople they’d stop at nothing to see that he was properly… er, taken care of, if necessary.

Heath involuntarily tensed as he prepared to walk into the Hotel still ran by his Aunt and Uncle. Opening the door, he noticed that the lobby was empty. There was a tattered lace curtain hanging from a long narrow window blowing inward as the wind controlled its every flowing movement. “Anyone here?” Heath called out. Without exerting any effort, Heath found himself damp with sweat. “Be right with you,” called a voice with a hint of harshness from a back room. She soon appeared before his eyes. He found himself holding his breath, though he had not commanded his lungs to do so. “Yes? Can I help……..WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” The words hissed from her mouth.

“Aunt Martha. Good to see ya. I was just passin’ through. Have ya been well? Uncle Matt in the back? Hope business has been good to you.” Heath knew he was starting to babble on. It’s just that at the sight of this woman, his blood chilled and the prattle proceeded without him able to control it.

“You’re not welcome here Heath Barkley or whatever you call yourself now.” Again the words seemed to SSSSSSSS from the woman’s mouth like a snake about ready to strike.

“Well, the truth of the matter is, I,” Heath cleared his throat and tried to concentrate on unclenching his fists. “The truth of the matter is I came to see Hannah. I’ve been to her house. She’s not there,” he said matter-of-factly. “You wouldn’t know where I could find her now would ya?”

“Now why would I know where that old woman is keeping herself,” Martha spit back with contempt. “I’m certainly not her keeper. Now I’ll tell you once and once only you bastard. You’d just better ride right out of here right now, ya hear me? Right now. Your kind isn’t welcome here. I’m warning you get out right now or…”

“Martha? Who’s out there? Do we have a customer?” Matt Simmons walked out behind a partition and into the lobby. He had aged considerably since the last time Heath had seen him. He seemed to have some difficulty walking and his words were slightly slurred. His bloodshot eyes widened at the sight of his nephew.

“Heath? What are ya doin’ here, boy? Ya ought not to be here. Yer not welcome. Ya have no business here. No business at all.”

“Nice to see you too, Uncle Matt. I’ll be brief, seein’s that I’m not so wholly welcome here. I’ve come to ask about,” He was cut off by Martha’s snarl. “He’s come here, Matt, to ask about Hannah. The boy thinks we’ve done the old senile lady harm.”

“Now I never said that you had harmed her,” Heath protested. “I came here simply asking regarding her whereabouts. I went to her house last night. You KNOW that I come here about once a year to do some fix-it jobs for her. Anyway, I got there and she was gone. It looks to me like she’s been gone a long time.”

“And YOU think that WE had something to do with her being gone, isn’t that so?” Martha snapped.

“I only came here to find some answers to her whereabouts,” Heath answered through clenched teeth. “I intend to find her with or without your help.” With that, he turned away from the lobby desk and made his way to the front door.

Martha took the opportunity to goad him once more. “You don’t fool me with that goody goody talk about wanting her found unharmed. You’re blaming us for her disappearance. You think you can pull the wool over ol’ Aunt Martha’s eyes, but you’re WRONG boy. We can’t have you nosing around getting into trouble now, can we? We can’t have you getting the townsfolk here all in an uproar besmirching my good name because of that batty ol’ woman who don’t even know her own name most of the time. She’s wondered off, that’s what I say happened. She’s wandered off and…”

Heath whirled around, his eyes full of anger. “And what, Aunt Martha? Did she just wander off and just accidentally tumble into a mine shaft like Rachel did?” He almost regretted his outburst but the thought was so close to the surface it just poured out. Maybe he was glad after all that what he really wanted to say was out in the open.

“Rachel’s fall was an accident,” Matt spoke up defensively. “It was an accident.”

“Yeah. So I’ve heard,” Heath replied with a clenched jaw. “Well, I plan on finding Hannah one way or another. With or without your help. You can’t stop me, so you’d better just stay out of my way, y’hear?” Heath turned again to hurry out of the Hotel before his anger got the best of him. He reached the door and was turning the knob when he heard the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked. Heath froze.

“You’ll go NOWHERE. Oh, you think you’re so high and mighty with that fancy name you claim but I’ve got news for you. YOU ARE A NOBODY. You were a Nobody then and you will ALWAYS be a Nobody. And now I’m going to make very sure that you don’t go around upsetting this town with your high and mighty claim of goodwill towards a worthless slave woman. You shouldn’t have ever come here, my dear nephew and now I’m going to make sure you don’t leave here to spread your lies about how you’d paint your Aunt Martha to be guilty of murder. We just can’t have that now, can we?”

“Martha, don’t! We’ll never get away with keeping him here.”

“Shut up, Matt! Heath dear, this gun is loaded and I know how to use it. Now very slowly, drop your gun belt and kick it away from you.”

Heath was still in shock that his aunt would stoop this low. He hesitated.

“DO IT NOW!”

Heath still in disbelief that his aunt had gone this far over the edge slowly reached down and unbuckled his gun belt and let it drop.

“Kick it over here,” Martha commanded. “Matt, go next door to the saloon and get Wiley and Jace. I’ll hold him here until you get back. Hurry up now.”

“But Martha.”

“You do as I say Matt. This time I’m gonna teach this bastard good and not YOU or anyone else is going to stop me. Go NOW!”

Matt looked at Heath before he shuffled out of the Hotel almost stumbling over a rough spot in the rug. The boy should have never come here. Matt knew that Martha would get whatever she wanted and that he wasn’t strong enough to fight her. Their relationship as loving husband and wife had died a lifetime ago. Now it was more of a marriage of convenience. She bossed the town and mostly kept the Hotel going while he was allowed to stay in the background and numb his bleak life with heavy drink. Matt didn’t have backbone enough to change his situation so he dealt with it the best he knew how. He simply drank until he was too numb to care.

Martha kept her gun trained on Heath while Matt went to get the two men she wanted.

She knew better than to get close to her nephew whom she knew to be a good shot and quick on his feet. He had shot her henchman Phelps those years ago when she had planned to defraud Victoria Barkley, who had come to town to snoop about the origins of Leah Thomson and Tom Barkley’s relationship. It was Heath who had ruined her plan then and more than that, he had his suspicions about Rachel. She wasn’t about to let him get a second chance to gather more information about the death of Rachel Caulfield. And that’s just what he would do if he were to be in association with Hannah for any amount of time.

Hannah liked to talk. That old woman would talk about anything but mostly old memories. The problem was, she’d talk about the first memory that popped into her head. Now Rachel’s death was a big shock to her so that memory figured to be thought on often by the old washerwoman. It would be a natural thing that it would be her favorite topic for conversation.

While still watching Heath, Martha grimaced as she thought back to the time of Rachel’s death. It was supposed to look like an accident and no one was going to be a witness. It was all planned out. Rachel wouldn’t do Martha’s bidding of cheating the townsfolk out of what little they made to keep alive, so in Martha’s mind, she simply had to be done away with. An accident down at the mine. The story they’d tell was that they’d taken Rachel on an outing and she somehow wandered away and fell through some rotted boards into the shaft. Of course Matt didn’t want to be a party to her death, but Martha knew how to get him to do what she wanted. She always got him to do what she wanted in the end. The plan was perfect and was executed just as planned. Trouble was, she didn’t count on Hannah. Hannah had been down by the mine sitting under a tree by a stream reading her Bible. She had seen three people go into the old mine but only two came out. She knew! She knew! Martha laughed to herself, still holding the gun steady on Heath. She found it so easy to keep Hannah quiet. All she had to tell the old woman was that she would see the same fate if she dared breathe a word of what she knew to anyone. And it had worked too. Hannah lived in fear of Matt and Martha for a long time after that. However, as she aged and her mind became more addled, Hannah began to talk of that day. Not in a straightforward way, mind you, but in bits and pieces. She’d be singing one minute and the next she’d be gabbing on about someone falling. A deep hole. Someone got pushed. No, she couldn’t remember who fell into the hole. From one day to another, little bits of the story were being exposed. Some days Hannah couldn’t remember if someone was pushed into the hole or fell. Some days she couldn’t remember if it was Rachel or somebody from town who had died. It was all a jumble. Martha became more desperate and feared that one day Hannah would tell the story to someone who would listen to all of its parts. She made up her mind that she wouldn’t let that happen. Hannah would not live to tell the whole story.

*****

The sun was beating down on the men as they worked in the heat to round up stray cattle that had busted down areas of fence to get to the thicker grass on the other side. Nick, who could be hotheaded on any given day, seemed especially volatile today. The men worked hard to show their worth and to not bring the wrath of their boss upon themselves. The truth of the matter was Nick was feeling restless. No more than restless. Something just didn’t feel right but he couldn’t put a finger on it. To compensate for his feelings, he barked orders louder and rode his crew with an even tighter rein than usual. Dave Donnelly, his foreman silently watched Nick’s actions throughout the early day. By late morning when Nick had pretty much picked up the same sour attitude that he’d carried through those first working hours, Dave had seen enough and rode over to where Nick was berating a group of men in their handling of a captured calf. Dismounting, Dave strode over to where Nick was bawling out the men. “I told you men to stay this side of the line. Now when I give an order, I expect it to be carried out! Ya got that? We do this MY way or you can pick up your pay right now, you hear me?”

“But Nick, it was just one calf and…”

I SAID we round ‘em up MY way. That calf was fine where it was for now. We do this systematically. MY system. That means moving east to west, you hear me? You rode out of bounds and I don’t cotton to that. You work by my rules or…” Nick stopped his tirade and ran his hand through his hair. He knew he was getting overly heated up about a situation where no harm was done but he just couldn’t seem to put a lid on his displeasure. Dave watched the scene unfold before him. He took his queue when Nick stopped in mid-sentence seemingly trying to regain his cool. “Uh, Nick. Can I have a word?” Nick scowled down at his foreman from his mount.

“Yeah? What is it?”

“Alone Nick and eye to eye.”

Wheeling Coco around to face the men who had just been the target for his temper, Nick dismissed them with a lesser growl and than turned his attention to his foreman.

“Well?”

“I said eye to eye, Nick. If you’ll step down here level to me.” While most of the men in the Barkley’s employ tended to skirt around Nick, fearful of his bite, Dave had no fear. He’d known Nick for a long time and knew him to be a fair man who really rarely bit. Just barked loudly. He also knew when his boss and friend was troubled. He could always read it in the big man’s eyes and he was seeing that troubled look now.

Nick sighed loudly and climbed out of his saddle to face Dave. “Now what’s this all about?”

“It’s about you, Nick,” Dave stated in an even voice. “You’re, you’re, well, you’re not yourself today. Bossing the men is one thing, and without a doubt, you do that well but riding them like you have this morning, frankly that’s uncalled for. You’ll lose good men with that mouth of yours if you don’t draw in your horns. You’re not dealing with boys here. They are men, and men have pride. Just wantin’ ya to settle it down a little that’s all.”

Nick looked away at first not wanting to admit that he was anywhere close to being in the wrong but deep down, he knew Dave was right. He’d been feeling jumpier than a weasel waiting for its chicken dinner all day and didn’t know why.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Nick admitted in a gruff, turning to face Dave again. “I just wish Heath were here to ride with me and help out.” There! He’d said it. Heath. That’s what had been troubling him. But why? It had only been three days since his brother had left for Strawberry. “I’ll, uh, try to take it a little easier on the men, Dave. It’s pert near noon. Why don’t ya stop the men and let them and yourself get a bite to eat? I’ll meet back up with you in say an hour?”

“You bet, Nick.” Walking back to his horse, Dave stopped and turned as Nick was saddling up again. “And Nick?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

The cowboy clad in black tipped his hat towards his friend. Turning Coco around, he headed for his favorite thinking place down by the little waterfall that dropped into a lazy flowing stream on the North Ridge.

*****

The door crashed open and Heath’s mouth suddenly felt cotton dry as the men called Wiley and Jace sauntered into the lobby of the Hotel. They weren’t men, they were walking mountains! Both men were well over 6’7”, Heath guessed. “Zis him, Martha?” In seemingly two strides, Wiley and Jace stood on each side of Heath. Their mammoth hands roughly reached for and grabbed the blond cowboy’s upper arms locking their grip like a tightened vice. Heath winced in pain but stood firm.

“Aunt Martha, why?”

Martha just laughed in scorn and said nothing.

“Where do ya wannus to take him, Martha?” Wiley asked in a rather high-pitched whiny voice. The size of the voice oddly did not fit the size of the man. Matt scurried in just then and retreated behind the counter and into the office.

“Take him to the cellar. Make sure he stays real quiet. And use your gun if you have to. I don’t want him getting away and I don’t want him raising a ruckus. Go!”

“Come on you,” ordered Jace. His voice was deep and gruff with a derisive quality to it. “You’ll be coming with us. We’re gonna take reeeeeal goooood care of you, boy.”

Jerking Heath forward, Jace purposely kicked him behind his knees causing him to topple. “Ah, whassamatter boy? Cain’t ya walk none without someone to hold yer hand?” Heath struggled to stand up, the back of his knees smarting when Jace used his pointed toed boot to give Heath a sharp kick in his stomach. Heath crumpled to the floor having the wind knocked out of him. Martha stood behind the lobby counter with a small smirk playing on her lips.

“That’ll be enough boys for now. Just get him down to the cellar. Make sure you tie him good so he doesn’t get any notions to escape.”

“Okay Martha,” Wiley replied in a kind of sing songy way and then added with a sneer, “We’ll make sure he doesn’t even get one little notion of leaving. After all, this is a fine bit of hospitality you’re giving to one born on the wrong side of the blanket.”

The two men laughed loudly with glee and the effects of too much drink. Heath was still trying to catch his breath when he was jerked to his feet and half walked and half dragged to the cellar located under the hotel building.

“Git in there, you bastard,” said Jace as both men hustled Heath down the stairs. They shoved him with such force at the fourth step from the bottom that it caused the normally sure footed cowboy to trip and plummet down the remainder of the steps, smacking the side of his head on the hard dirt floor. Heath’s vision was starting to cloud and a powerful sharp pain sliced through his head. He could feel a rivulet of blood marching down his face. “Git up! Git up!” Heath felt another kick from the sharp boot to his gut. He tried to cry out a protest but the only sound that came from his throat was a low guttural groan.

He felt himself being grasped by his hair and pulled to a standing position. He gritted his teeth with every bit of strength he could summon so as not to collapse. He was brutally shoved toward a beam in the middle of the dank and dark room. The weight on his upper body was almost unbearable as Heath was forced to a sitting position. Wiley and Jace pulled his arms roughly behind him and Heath felt their rope slice cruelly around his wrists. Next his feet were bound and then they were gone. Heath’s head slumped forward as the pain in his head and ribs won out and everything went dark.

He didn’t know how long he’d been out when he slowly came up to consciousness. He was aware that the room was spinning. Nausea quickly overcame him. He was able to swivel his body just enough so that the putrid contents of his stomach missed him and landed on the dirt floor instead. Gagging, Heath gulped for air. Fearing that he might choke, he tried hard to regulate his breathing and finally found himself not gasping. It took longer for his heart to stop racing. His mouth tasted vile and dry. He needed water badly.

As he sat quiet licking his dry lips while his head still pounded, his other senses kicked in. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see that his surroundings were familiar. A great room with stone walls. Small windows sat on top of the walls on two sides of the room. He’d been down here before. He remembered with anguish, as a little boy, his Uncle Matt would bring him to this cellar as a punishment. He would make him stay down here for hours at a time in the dark. Uncle Matt used to laugh at him because the little boy was afraid of the dark and would scream terrified when left alone here.

Heath thought about his family. His mind seemed to train on Nick. “If I don’t see your hide back here by weeks end,” he remembered him saying. ““I’ll come lookin’ for you.”

Boy howdy Nick, I sure could use you now. “Nick, please come,” he whispered through cracked lips.

Heath inhaled trying to clear his head. The smell was the musty smell of dampness, vomit and rodent droppings. His ears were ringing loudly but he thought he could make out the sound of water dripping. And there was something else he thought he heard. Singing. He was sure he could hear someone singing.

*****

Heath! Why couldn’t he get that boy out of his mind, Nick wondered sitting on a boulder watching the stream scuttle by. He listened to the water as it cascaded from the small waterfall. He listened as the churning waters bubbled and gurgled creating a path that would carry it rushing to its next home, the Sacramento River. Nick suddenly cocked his brow and froze. He heard more than the water gushing and dancing its way down stream. He tilted his head and listened. He heard his brother’s voice. Heath’s voice. Calling him. Calling him to come help. There it was in the rushing stream. That familiar voice with that soft yet insistent drawl. Nick I need you, it called through the water. Please come. Please help me.

*****

He must have drifted off again because when his eyes opened, Heath noticed it was almost completely dark. The light that had filtered in from the tiny windows had turned to thin threads as the gaslights went on in the town and the day went from evening to night. His head was throbbing like the dickens and he felt like he’d been kicked in the ribs by a mule. The dry sour taste from being sick earlier still coated his mouth. Heath tried to bring up enough saliva to rid him of that awful taste but his efforts proved to be futile. His mouth was just too dry. The rope that bound him was cutting and burning into his flesh. At least the ringing had subsided in his ears. Concentrating the best he could under the present circumstances, he tried to listen. Silence. The sound of water he thought he’d heard earlier was gone. And the sound of singing, that was gone too. Maybe he had dreamed it, he thought to himself. Maybe he hadn’t heard any of those sounds at all. Maybe.

*****

Like a man possessed, Nick rode Coco hard back to the ranch. Bringing the horse to a sharp halt, he leapt out of the saddle, stormed into the house and pounded up the stairs, spurs jangling. The slam of the door had brought Victoria rushing from another part of the house into the foyer. She just saw a flash of Nick as he dashed down the hallway and into his room.

“Nick?” Victoria called to her son, curious as to his all fired hurry. Traveling up the stairs with her skirt swishing, Victoria strode with purpose down the hallway until she stood in front of Nick’s bedroom door. She knocked and called out. “Nick?” She could hear drawers being opened and slammed shut again. She called out, this time with authority. “Nicholas Barkley, you open this door right now!”

At that moment, the door opened. Immediately she knew something was going on. “Oh! Hello mother.” Nick stood in front of the open door with his hand gripped on the knob but was not forthcoming with an invitation to enter. Victoria tried to look around her tall son. She caught glimpse of his saddlebag and a bedroll. A couple of shirts had been tossed carelessly on the bed.

“Nick, what is this all about? You come charging in like the barn’s on fire and then you barricade yourself in your room. Now I see,” she swiped by him and planted herself in the room. “That you look like you’re about to go on a journey and I know nothing about it. Were you planning on telling your family your plans or were you just going to sneak off without us knowing where you’d be?”

“Mother,” he wrapped his big hands gently over her dainty shoulders. “Of course I wouldn’t just leave without telling you. It’s just that,” he drifted off as his facial features took on a strange worried look.

“It’s just what? Something’s wrong, isn’t it? What is it Nick. Tell me. Is it Jarrod? Audra? He, Heath! Did something happen to Heath?” Victoria always felt apprehensive when Heath chose to make these semi-annual trips to Strawberry but she always put on a brave face and never meddled knowing he was trying to stay connected with the only family he had growing up.

“Now mother, nothing’s wrong,” he tried to say convincingly. “I haven’t heard anything.”

Victoria relaxed a little but then inquired, “Then where are you going?”

How could he begin to explain to her his strange feelings down by the stream? How could he tell her that he had heard his brother calling for him through the rushing water? How could he make her see that he had to go to Strawberry? He had to go find Heath.

“Well, I just thought I’d take a ride out Strawberry way and meet Heath. He’ll probably be ready to head back home by the time I get there. I just thought he’d want some company is all. ‘Sides, that boy is way too quiet. He needs me there to get him talkin’. Exercise those vocal cords.”

“But what about the ranch?”

“Don’t worry mother. I’ll only be gone no more than three days. I’ll have Dave assign the men until me and Heath get back.”

“Well Nick, you do what you have to do. The work will get done, I’m sure of it.” Smiling up at her middle son, she wrapped her arms around his waist. I’ll see both of you in a few days.” She knew Nick held special feelings for his youngest brother. She also knew that Nick had some kind of inside intuition when it came to Heath. On more than one occasion when Heath was in trouble, Nick had sensed it, though he was not with Heath at the time, and had gone out of his way to aid his brother. Victoria leaned into Nick’s chest. He didn’t hear her softly whisper, “bring him home.”

By the time Nick came back downstairs with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder and his bedroll tucked under his arm, Victoria had summoned Silas who had put together a food pouch for Nick’s trip.

“Now Nick, I don’t want you riding at night. Promise me you’ll stop someplace to camp before it gets too dark instead of riding the whole way.” His mother’s words came as a statement, almost a command. It was not a request and Nick knew it.

“I promise mother,” he assured her. Dropping his saddle bag and bedroll on the foyer floor, he took his mother’s face into his large calloused hands and kissed her tenderly on the cheek. He already had his gun belt on from coming in earlier. Plucking his hat from the table where he’d left it when he had made his hurried sprint upstairs, Nick picked up his gear once more and walked towards the door. Turning, he smiled a bright smile for his mother’s benefit. “I’ll, er, WE’LL be home in a few days.”

In truth, Nick didn’t feel like smiling. A lump had settled in his gut. Somehow he knew he wasn’t going to just ride into Strawberry, meet Heath and ride home together. Something had happened to the boy. His gut told him so. Nick knew that Heath’s aunt and uncle despised him. They had always despised him choosing to believe that somehow a child should be made to pay along with his parent for a gross sin. In Heath’s case the fact that the boy had no father to speak of and Leah his mother had no husband. Coupled with the fact that they still resented Heath for insinuating that they had anything to do with Heath’s aunt Rachel’s death. Nothing had been proved there. Heck, there wasn’t even enough evidence for a trial, so they had gone virtually unjudged. Still they held Heath responsible for bringing down their good name and vowed he would pay someday.

Nick spurred Coco on, hoping to get a large chunk of distance behind him before night fell. It was almost dark when he finally reined in Coco to a trot and scouted out a suitable place to build a fire and put down his bedroll. He figured he was about fifteen miles from Strawberry. He’d be there by mid morning.

*****

Squeezing his eyes shut, Heath tried to block out the pain that his head was causing him. He wondered if he had suffered a concussion. Mentally he ticked off facts about himself that had he been home and received a head injury, his family would have been waking him every hour to recite. What’s your name? Heath Barkley. Where do you live? The Barkley Ranch in Stockton, California. What are the names of your family members? Mother, Victoria. My mama, my birth mama, Leah. My sister Audra and brothers Jarrod and Nick. Nick. Heath’s mind stopped his litany when he thought of his brother. Licking his dry lips, he whispered, “Do ya know I’m in trouble, Nick? Do ya? Need ya here, brother. Need ya bad.”

The clattering and subsequent squeak of the cellar door being opened startled him and caused a shudder to pass through Heath’s body that chilled him to the bone. He knew he was vulnerable being tied the way he was. It wouldn’t do him any good to be belligerent to his captors in any way. “Stay calm Heath,” he kept telling himself over and over. Heavy steps down the stairway told Heath it was one of the men who had thrown him down here in the first place. The loud footsteps seemed to thud right through Heath’s head.

He saw the wildly out of proportioned shadow of a man as the light from Wiley’s lantern bounced down the stairs casting the form of his bulk onto the wall. Heath involuntarily tensed, awaiting the outcome of this visit realizing that he was not being paid a social call.

“Well, well! Looky what we got here,” Wiley grinned down with malice at Heath as he leaned his massive frame in to tower over him. “What happened to yer face there, cowboy? Did ya fall down and hurt yerself?” Heath clenched his jaw and turned his head to look away from the man. “Now don’t you turn away from me when I’s talkin’ to you, boy.” With that, a swift kick was delivered to Heath’s knee causing him to gasp and bite down on his lower lip to keep from crying out. “Now,” Wiley sneered, glaring down at his helpless victim. “You and me, we is gonna be friends. Yessiree. Good friends.” Wiley laughed maniacally as he slowly walked a circle around the beam where Heath was tied. “Oh! ‘Bout forgot. Brought ya somethin’.” Wiley produced a canteen out from under his coat and dangled it in front of Heath’s face. Heath licked his parched lips. He was so thirsty.

“Thirsty. Need drink,” Heath croaked.

“Oh are ya now boy? Are ya? Boy, you don’t look so high and mighty now do ya? See? That fancy name of yourn ain’t worth nothin’ when it come right down to the necessities of livin’. Now ya see, I’ve got the canteen and I can let you have a little sip only if I see fit. Now you and me, we’s gonna have lots of fun together and if you play nice, you’ll git a little of this water here, see?” Wiley’s sour breath wafted up Heath’s nostrils as the big man leaned over him and let out a high pitch giggle, rubbing his hands together in sadistic delight.

“Now let’s hear you say ‘pretty please’ for this here water.” Heath again turned away from his tormentor. “What did I tell you boy about turning away from me?” Another sharp steel-toed kick hit its target of Heath’s shin. This time Heath couldn’t hold back the yelp of pain that escaped from his mouth. “Say ‘pretty please.’” Heath cringed at the whiny way Wiley’s order was issued. He also realized he had no option but to comply. He needed that water and was simply not in the position to let pride have its day here. Narrowing his eyes to a glare and clenching his teeth, Heath spit out a hoarse “pretty please.”

“See? That warn’t so hard now was it? And see? I’m a man of my word. You get to have a little drink.” Unscrewing the lid, Wiley reached out and grabbed Heath’s hair tilting his head back in an exaggerated angle forcing his jaws open. The water poured out of the canteen into the cowboy’s open mouth with such volume that Heath couldn’t swallow fast enough and started to choke. Of course this amused Wiley to no end and so he cruelly continued to pour the contents of the canteen down Heath’s throat reveling in the gasping and sputtering as Heath tried to bring air into his lungs around the water. Finally the canteen was empty and somewhere in a haze of trying to breathe Heath felt the man release him and his chin slammed into his chest. Gagging and coughing and trying to suck air into his lungs, Heath felt himself getting lightheaded and dizzy. Wiley stepped back and cackled callously over his prisoner’s predicament. Tiny black spots appeared before Heath’s eyes. He could feel himself sinking. Gasping but unable to fight, he let the darkness come. His head slumped to his chest.

Wiley sauntered over and reaching his hand under Heath’s chin, he propped it on his hand momentarily feeling for a pulse. He didn’t want his fun and games to end. Not yet anyway. Satisfied that he felt life within his captive, he was further assured that the boy was still amongst the living when he could see his chest heaving and hear the rattle of his labored breathing.

“Sweet dreams you little mongrel.” Picking up his lantern, Wiley returned to the stairs. As the light drifted up the steps, the cellar was again darkened with only pinprick beads of light coming through the windows above the stone walls.

*****

Nick awoke just as the sky was starting to turn pink. A strange sense of urgency filled him as he scrambled around to light a fire and get some coffee on to boil. He would have rather rode out without the benefit of breakfast, but something told him he needed to eat to keep up his strength. He spat out the last of the coffee and prepared to break camp. He rode on toward the mining camp where Heath was raised by only his mother and two of her dear friends. A place where Heath and his mother were never accepted. Where shame and scorn shadowed them and taunted them by the good upstanding folks of a dying town. Nick crested the last rise at about 10:00 that morning. He could feel the wind smack in his face as he rode the last five miles toward a town nearly deserted.

Squinting into the sun, Nick nudged Coco onward; clip clopping down the middle of town at a slow trot. Nick was alert to everything his eyes took in. The boarded up windows, the faded sign from the General Store, the windblown abandoned appearance of the sheriff’s office and town jail. Wonder how long they’ve had no law around here, Nick mused. Seemed like the only businesses in business were the General Store, the saloon and The Strawberry Hotel.

Unbeknownst to Nick, his ride into town did not go unnoticed. Martha turned from the grimy hotel window with an acid look on her face. “Oh, you won’t find your dear brother here Mr. Barkley,” she seethed “You’ll never find him.”

Riding on down the dusty street, it wasn’t long before Nick was out of town. Turning down yet another lonely lane, he came to the small green cabin where he knew Heath’s friend Hannah James lived. Swinging himself out of the saddle, he dropped to the ground. Still holding onto Coco’s reins, he took a quick visual look about the place. Nick knitted his brows and curled his lip, puzzled. The place looked deserted. Could it be that Hannah didn’t live here anymore? Or maybe she di….. No. Heath would have been back to the ranch or at least wired from the next town if that were the case.

Tying Coco loosely to a tree, Nick decided to scout around the house a bit. After some poking around, he soon came to the same conclusion Heath had when he first arrived. There hadn’t been anyone in this house for a long time.

“Well,” Nick muttered under his breath. “Where the devil is everyone?” Heaving a heavy sigh, Nick untied his horse and mounted back up. There had to be answers somewhere and the place that kept coming to his mind again and again to get the answers he was looking for was The Strawberry Hotel run by Heath’s aunt and uncle. They were the last people he really wanted to rub elbows with since he knew they were a big reason why Heath and his mother lived the way they did, in awful poverty. They were also the ones that were paramount in spreading gossip about Leah and Heath’s father. They seemed to thrive on keeping the town in a tizzy over Matt’s sister’s shameful condition. Nick shook his head. No, he didn’t want to see those people but right now it looked like he didn’t have a choice. He needed answers as to where Hannah was and where Heath was for that matter. Nick’s heart thudded in his chest. It dawned on him that Matt and Martha Simmons may have the answers to his questions but he had a sick feeling that he may not like the answers they would give.

Martha hurried from the window as Nick Barkley rode up and dismounted. Busying herself with a dust cloth, she went about dusting down the lobby furniture, only turning in a nonchalant manner when Nick walked through the door. She gave no hint that she had made his acquaintance in the past and proceeded to greet him as just another potential guest to her lodging establishment.

“Good day sir. Will you be wanting a room, sir?”

Nick was momentarily put off because he knew that she must know who he was. They had met once when Heath, Jarrod and himself had ridden out to inquire about the events leading up to Rachel Caulfield’s death. He remembered that Martha had seemed cold, almost eerily calculating about the whole matter. He also remembered how in the end, there was not found enough evidence to make a conviction stick and that she and her spineless husband were allowed to go free. Nick’s eyes hardened into a glare when he suddenly remembered something else and it chilled him. Martha Simmons had screamed out a threat as the three Barkley brothers rode out of town after the Simmons’ had escaped punishment. She swore that she would get even with them. Get even for the pain and suffering caused by their accusations. Get even for the humiliation that the whole matter had caused her with the townspeople. They would pay, she had promised. The high and mighty Barkleys would pay.

“Uh, Mrs. Simmons? I’m Nick Barkley. Surely you remember me.”

Drawing her mouth into a hard thin line, Martha answered. “Yes Mr. Barkley. What do you want? You’re not welcome here.”

“Well ma’am, what I’d like is a little information.” Nick took his hat off and tossed it onto the counter.

“What kind of information?” The words hissed through Martha’s clenched teeth.

Nick picked up his hat again and twirled it in his fingers.

“I was out at Hannah James’ place. Looked pretty empty out there. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find her now, would ya? Oh, and funny thing, my brother, your nephew rode out this way a couple of days ago. Now if Hannah had passed, he would have been home by now. Haven’t seen him though. You haven’t seen him have ya?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Martha lied. “I’m not that batty ol’ woman’s keeper and I haven’t seen that half blood nephew of mine since you high and mighty Barkleys rode out of this town two years ago. Not since you couldn’t prove,” she added gloatingly, “that Rachel’s death was nothing more than the accident it was.”

Martha’s reference to Heath’s lineage just about made Nick’s blood boil but he managed to swallow down his desire to clout this most insensitive woman because she was a woman. He would not take any talk like that from a man. When Heath first came to them and after Nick himself had finally realized that Heath was the brother he had always wanted, for that first year, Nick seemed to find himself constantly defending Heath in the matter of his birth. Now all that had died down and Heath was pretty much accepted by most for what he was. He was an honest, likeable, hardworking member of the Barkley family.

It stabbed Nick to hear that old talk come up again but he stifled his want to take care of the matter with his fists and concentrated on why he’d come here in the first place. To find Hannah and Heath.

“Alright Mrs. Simmons. Alright. But let me tell you something,” Nick stated loud and plain. “I’m going to keep looking for my brother and for Miss James. I’m going to keep looking until I find the answers I’m looking for. Do you understand? In the meantime, I will need a place to stay and since this is the only lodging in ten miles, I plan on staying here. I’d like a room please and I don’t want any trouble with it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Oh, you make yourself perfectly clear, Mr. Barkley,” Martha retorted. “And you’ll get your room, I’ll see to that. But let me make myself perfectly clear, Mr. Barkley. You will never find that bastard brother of yours or that half-witted washerwoman he claimed as his kin. I’ll also see to that.” With that, Martha shoved her registration journal in front of Nick and slammed down a room key on the counter. “Now get out of here, Mr. Nick Barkley. I’ve got work to do.”

Heath couldn’t believe it when his weighted eyelids fluttered open to daylight. His chest felt awfully heavy and his breathing was wet and labored. Heath wondered how late it was in the day. He felt so sluggish. He was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open. His head felt like it was in the grip of a vice and his stomach was threatening to revolt again. “Stay awake, Heath,” he kept telling himself. “Gotta think out a plan. Gotta figure out how to get out of here.” Heath tried to relax as he concentrated on his ragged breathing. He tried to cough, hoping to loosen the mucus caught in his lungs. It helped a little but made his head swim so bad that he was forced to squeeze his eyes shut and ride out the feeling of spinning while willing his stomach to remain still.

He cocked his head. He could hear something. Singing. The same kind of singing he had heard last night. It wasn’t a dream, it was real. It was a soft mournful song. Heath grunted as he tried to adjust his position. His hands, arms, legs and feet had long fallen asleep. His movement caused a pins and needles sensation to surge through his limbs. Heath continued to listen over the biting pain, as his extremities awakened. That voice! That voice was familiar. That song! He had heard it before. That was Hannah’s voice and she was singing an old spiritual that he’d heard many times as a little boy! Hannah did love to sing and she did so often. Not just when she was happy but at sad times too or when she was bothered and worried. Heath had long ago learned to read Hannah’s moods by the songs she hummed or sang. He listened again. The song that Hannah was singing was one he would hear when this dear one was distressed or sad. Just hearing his friend who had helped his mama raise him all those years ago caused hope to be revived within the blond cowboy. Still feeling weak and wheezing terribly, Heath felt a new determination to come out of this situation alive. He squirmed to loosen his bonds. His efforts came to no fruition. The ropes stayed tight and would not budge.

Did he dare raise his voice to catch her attention? Though he could not see the elderly woman, he ascertained that she must be behind the door he had spotted at the end of the cellar he sat facing. He had almost forgotten about that door. He didn’t have any idea what the door opened to, though he suspected it contained a little sleeping chamber of sorts. When he was taken down here as a child for being bad, he was forbidden to touch that door. In those days, Heath’s uncle Matt carried quite a presence. The boy wouldn’t dare disobey the man knowing that if he did, it would mean a fierce thrashing in return.

With light coming in from the top windows now, Heath let his eyes rove around the room. Funny how things seem bigger when you’re a child. This room used to seem like an endless monstrous cavern to Heath when he was small.

He had to take a chance. He had to take a chance that the old woman would hear him. She wasn’t being held down here by her own will, he knew that. The door must be locked. Still, if he could get her to hear him, perhaps it would comfort her knowing he was there. Perhaps it would ease her thoughts and give her hope that she would leave this wretched place alive.

Concentrating on listening for the sounds of someone descending the stairs, Heath waited a moment but was soon satisfied when he heard nothing. He tested his voice. He was dismayed that his lung capacity would only allow him to emit a hoarse call not much above a loud whisper.

“Hannah? Hannah, can you hear me? It’s me, Heath.” Heath’s head protested this exertion and caused him to squeeze his eyes shut tight in an effort to stop the wild spinning of the room.

The singing stopped momentarily and Heath tensed with anticipation. Had she heard him? He couldn’t see how that could be so. He just couldn’t seem to fill his lungs enough to project his voice in a volume that would be heard. A brief silence and soon the soft sad song began anew. Heath slumped in defeat. The whole effort had fatigued him terribly. He shut his eyes to rest and to think. He would somehow have to think of some way to get him and Hannah out of this place.

*****

Nick swiped the key off of the counter and turned to walk upstairs. He was starting to rethink the wisdom of his decision to stay here at the hotel. “Might not be too bright, Nick,” he chided himself. Turning the key and opening the door to his room, he looked around. The color of the walls was drab and the pattern on the drapes and bedspread was faded and dull.

Maybe I won’t have to stay here, he tried to convince himself. Just find Heath and the whereabouts of Hannah, then hightail it outta town before it got dark. Well, he reasoned with himself, if that’s gonna happen, I’d better get started looking. But where to start? That was the question. The saloon! Might as well head on over that way and see if I can find out if anyone had seen Heath or knew Hannah.

Nick’s spurs jangled down the stairs and across the lobby as he exited the hotel. Martha looked up from behind the desk as he left. Her eyes filled with hate and her mouth twisted into a scowl. “Let’s just see you try to find that half breed brother of yours. Let’s see if you’ll die looking.”

The saloon was actually doing a brisk business when Nick hit the swinging doors just past noon. A lot of men who had lived here all their lives, working and sweating in the mines and who had lost their dreams, sat at the bar or at tables drowning themselves in liquor. Trying to forget what their lives had become and not bold enough or young enough to start over somewhere else. Nick ambled up to the bar, took a seat and looked around the premises.

“Can I get ya somethin’ mister?”

Nick was a little startled by the bartender’s question. “Huh?” Composing himself, he quickly ordered his drink. “Whiskey.”

“Okay mister. Whiskey it is. Glass or bottle?”

“Uh, better make it a bottle.”

After paying for his bottle, Nick stood up and made his way to a table where a card game was in progress. “Anyone sittin’ here,” he asked the two men playing.

“Nope, mister. If’n you’d be willin’ to share your bottle there, we’d be willin’ to cut you in on a hand or two of this here poker game. You do play poker, dontcha?”

“Oh sure. I play a little,” Nick admitted and then added, “for friendly stakes of course. Now I don’t need to drink this whole bottle by myself, so if you’ll just pass your glasses over, I’d be happy to share. Whose deal is it?”

“Yours mister.”

While Nick shuffled and dealt the cards, the two men filled their glasses. Nick smiled to himself. He’d figured that the best way to get information from these folks was to drink with them. His plan was rolling along so far. The poker game was a bonus. Now Nick Barkley was a pretty fair poker player and could hold his own with the cards. That was unless he was playing with his brother, Heath. Now Heath could whoop just about anyone who dared participate in this game of chance. He could bluff better than anyone Nick knew outside of a professional. Heath had once told him that he had thought of becoming a professional gambler once but he just couldn’t take winning off of men who were often betting their whole weeks pay. “I would be taking food out of women and children’s mouths. I just wouldn’t be able to live with that,” he had stated.

“What’s yer name stranger,” asked one of the men as Nick won the first round with a full house.

“The name’s Nick.” Knowing the name Barkley might not be a popular one here; he stayed with his first name only. “And you,” he asked both gentlemen.

“Name’s Clyde and this here’s my younger brother Hank.”

“Nice meetin’ ya,” Nick replied amiably.

“Where’d ya come from, stranger, er Nick,” the one called Hank asked as he filled his glass for a second round.

“Me? Oh just passin’ through. Gonna look at some horses up Sonora way,” Nick lied. He figured since he didn’t know these gentlemen, they didn’t really need to know the real details of why he’d come to this desolate hell hole.

“Fact is, my brother was gonna meet me here and we were gonna ride out there together.

Can’t figure it out though. He was supposed to be here yesterday but I haven’t seen hide or hair of him. Say,” Nick glanced at each man. “You wouldn’t have happened to have seen my brother, would ya? He’s ‘bout six feet tall, blond sandy hair. Tan hat and probably dark tan pants.”

Both men pondered for a moment and then Clyde spoke up. “Ya know, come to think of it, I do believe I did see a man ride in here fittin’ that description. Was, let’s see, was yesterday mornin’ as I recollect. Hank and I were in the General Store gettin’ some supplies and I just happened to glance out the winder when a stranger, ain’t nobody I knew, rode passed. Didn’t recall ever seein’ him around here, so I stepped outside to see where he was headed.”

Nick couldn’t resist asking, “Do you check out everyone passin’ through that you don’t know?” Nick pictured his town of Stockton. If someone were to watch every stranger entering town and seeing where their business was, it would be a full time job. Busybodies is what they called people like that in Stockton.

“Well, actually Nick,” Clyde answered. “We don’t get too many strangers in these parts. If ya hadn’t noticed, this isn’t what you’d call a jumpin’ place. Having a stranger pass through our main street gets to be a bit of a novelty ‘round here.”

“Yeah, it would at that,” agreed Nick as he momentarily looked toward the street. “Do ya remember if he stopped anywhere?”

“Uh, I don’t know.”

“Wait! I remember!” Hank spoke up. “He got off of his horse and went into the old hotel. You wouldn’t catch me in that place. Not with that ol’ bat, Mrs. Simmons. Something’s just not right with her. Or with her husband neither. They’ve both got a screw loose if ya ask me.

“So Heath, uh, my brother was here and he was at the hotel?”

“Yep, if that man that we saw was your brother,” confirmed Hank.

“Alright. Then she was lying.”

“How’s that,” Clyde asked.

“Martha Simmons lied to me about not seeing Heath. Something just doesn’t seem right to me. Why would she lie about not seeing him unless she had something to do with his disappearance?”

“Well, wouldn’t be the first time that someone come up missin’ in this town,” Hank said almost casually under his breath.

Nick turned and looked sharply at the man. “What do you mean? You’ve had other people just disappear and you think the Simmons’ had something to do with it?”

Hank fidgeted nervously and picked at the dirt on his shirt. “Mister, the Simmons’ all but own this dustbowl of a town. Now we don’t wanna cause trouble cuz we’ve got to…we’ve got to live here. Not that we wouldn’t like to see those Simmons’ get theirs, and lordy knows, they have it comin’. It’s just that they are powerful people here and they have ways of keeping the people in line.”

“Is that a fact?” That question came out like a growl from Nick’s mouth. “Boys, it’s been nice meetin’ ya. I can understand how you feel but I still could use some help in locating my brother. I’m not gonna force you to help but if you change your mind, I’ll be stayin’ here until I find my brother and, HOLD IT!” Nick remembered Hannah. “You boys know Miss Hannah James?”

“Oh yeah! She’s the old black woman that lives in the little green house just outside of town. What about her,” asked Clyde?

“She’s a friend of my brother’s. He was supposed to be staying with her for a few days. She’s missing too.”

Hank whistled low. “Betcha if it is the Simmons’s who are responsible, that they are bein’ held somewhere in that old hotel of theirs. That is if they’re still alive,” he added softly.

Now it was Clyde’s turn to fidget. “Hank, you’d better pipe down. We cain’t get involved. It’s too dangerous.” With that, Clyde pulled on his brother’s arm directing him away from Nick. “Thanks for the drink, mister.” Tugging on Hank once more, Clyde pulled him through the saloon doors and down the street away from the stranger. Away from Nick who rose and was ready to find Heath and possibly Hannah whom he was sure were being kept captive somewhere in that hotel.

*****

Must’ve drifted off again, Heath realized as he again tried hard to pry his heavy lids open. Can’t breathe very well. Feel so hot. Got..gotta get out of here. Thirsty. He remembered Wiley’s method of giving him water and shuddered. He heard Hannah’s voice again through ringing ears. He must try again to call to her. She had to know he was here. Concentrating with all the strength he could muster, Heath called out.

“Hannah! Hannah please he..hear me. It’s Heath.” Biting his lip to dull the pain in his chest caused by his exertion, Heath listened for a response. Silence. The singing stopped like before. Heath closed his eyes. Please! Then he heard that woman’s sweet voice.

“Heath? Dat you? Oh lordy be. My Heath. Dat you Heath?”

Heath exhaled. “Yeeeeees”.

“Heath, I cain’t get outta dis place. I’z locked in. Martha, that bad woman, she put me here. I cain’t get out. You come to get me out, Heath?”

“Hannah, hold on,” Heath called out with a voice just above a whisper. “We’re gonna ge..get outta here. Just ho..hold on.”

Heath’s chest felt like it was on fire and being pressed on with an awful force. His breathing was shallow and wheezy. Drawing his legs up as far they would go, Heath tried leaning into his knees to alleviate some of the pressure off of his chest. Lack of oxygen was making him feel terribly lightheaded. Suddenly he saw a flicker of light on the darkened wall just below the high windows.

Heath’s glazed eyes locked on to the small shaft of light dancing on the wall. It was almost mesmerizing to him. What was causing that sparkle? All of a sudden, it came to him. He was causing that little splinter of light! The sun was reflecting off of his own belt buckle in such a way that the buckle in turn caused the reflection to hit the wall thus making the light that he saw skip around on the wall. Heath tried to pull his fevered thoughts together. If only…if only he could make that flash of light be seen outside of these walls.

*****

Nick edged up to the window looking into the lobby of the hotel. To his relief, Martha and Matt were not in sight. He would start his search in the unoccupied rooms upstairs. Opening the door slowly, Nick slipped into the lobby and quickly ascended the stairs avoiding detection. He looked first down one hallway and then down the other that connected the floor in an L shape. Twelve doors in each wing.

Pulling his colt from its holster, Nick readied himself for a fight. He looked around quickly and then stole down the first hallway to its end. The first door was open and the room appeared to be empty. Nick carefully walked in and after taking an investigative look, walked back out. He looked down at his spurs and scowled. Reaching down to his feet, he deftly removed the spurs and stowed them behind the door of the room he had just departed from. The next room had an open door as well, as did most of the rooms on the wing. Nick made quick work of entering, searching and exiting. He contemplated the two shut doors he’d come to. Taking a deep breath, he stepped up to the first and knocked. No answer. Nick was about to go to the next closed door when he heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. He turned just in time to see two large men coming his way. Nick was quick to cock his gun and stood facing the two men who took up the width of the hallway.

“Now, Mr. Barkley,” Jace said sweetly. “We don’t mean no harm to ya. We were just comin’ up here to sees that ya got settled in is all.”

“I just bet you were,” Nick spat.

“Now just put that gun away, Mr. Barkley and we’ll leave just the same way we came.”

“Where’s my brother? Where’s Heath?”

“Why, does that mutt belong to you, Barkley,” Wiley piped up in a mock astonished voice.

“What have you done to him?” Nick was becoming crazy with fear for Heath.

“Oh, he’s, um, resting.”

“Where is he? I swear if you’ve hurt him, I’ll…”

“Whatcha gonna do, cowboy? Beat us up?” Wiley chuckled and looked over at Jace. “Mr. Barkley here wouldn’t be so rough and tough iffen he wasn’t holdin’ that thar shootin’ arn.”

“I’d have to say I agree with ya on that point,” Jace said. “Hows abouts you and me, we make this more of a fair fight?”

“Sounds like a winner to me, buddy.”

Before Nick could blink an eye, his gun was spun out of his hand and his jaw connected with a meaty fist. Nick kicked out and landed a boot into Wiley’s stomach, but he couldn’t keep Jace from reaching from behind him, trapping his arms. Wiley took advantage of Nick’s capture and pummeled the dark haired cowboy’s ribs until Nick sunk to the ground in a heap.

“That oughta show him that Barkleys aint’ ‘zactly welcome ‘round here, don’t ya think Wiley?”

Wiley tittered and replied, “Yep buddy. That oughta learn him reeeeeeal good.”

Nick’s eyes opened wide as he surfaced to consciousness. The pain from his kicked ribs made him moan out loud. Sharp twinges smarted with every breath he took. “Augh.” Being careful not to cause anymore hurt to himself, Nick slowly rolled onto his back. He pondered the ceiling as he gathered the needed energy to pick himself up off of the floor. He felt like he’d been run over by a herd of stampeding cattle. With great care, Nick started to sit up but the ache from his ribs forced him to surrender to the hardwood floor once more. Reaching his hand to his neck, Nick untied his bandanna and wiped it across his sweaty face. Taking a deep breath, Nick again summoned his body to progress to an upright position. Panting, the black clad cowboy rested his aching head in his hands as he successfully managed to sit up. He contemplated his next move. Finally with a forceful groan, Nick stumbled to his feet, hanging on to the walls of the hallway to keep from toppling over again. Walking tentatively, Nick weaved slightly as he moved down the corridor toward his room. He was stunned to see his colt lying on the floor. The men who had ambushed him had left it in their hurry to escape. He reached for the gun and tucked it into his holster. Scrunching his face and shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Nick retrieved his spurs from the room where he had left them. Stumbling on, he reached his own room, fumbled with the key and entered. He took two steps and let himself collapse onto the bed.

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when Nick awoke. The sun had started its downward plunge towards evening. On this early summer day, there would still be about three hours left of daylight.

Still groggy, Nick sat up. He knew those men had been sent by the Simmons’ to stop him from finding Heath. Well, it didn’t work, gentlemen, Nick thought to himself. More than ever, Nick was determined to find his little brother before it was too late. He was now convinced that Matt and Martha were holding Heath somewhere in the hotel and that they were bent on killing him in revenge for his bringing them to answer for their part in Rachel Caulfield’s death. While Nick was still aching from the beating he had taken, he rose from the bed with new fortitude. He would go forward and search for Heath. And he would find him. He would find him even if he had to tear up every board in this stinking hotel.

*****

Heath felt himself continue to sink. It was so hard to even hold his head up. He tried to cough to clear the congestion in his lungs but only succeeded in choking. Panic arose in his chest as he gasped to catch enough breath to keep from passing out. Sweat drenched his face and ran into his eyes. Reality of consciousness and the unreality of delirium intermingled and played fierce with his mind. And yet there was the light on the wall that was helping him to hold his grip.

As the day waned, the light that flickered on the wall from the buckle of his belt was falling. Somehow Heath knew in his addled brain if he moved his body just slightly, the light would dance. He knew if he continued to move, the light would eventually reflect so that a passerby outside of his prison would see it. It was his only hope. “Oh please God. Let somebody see it. Let somebody see the light,” he beseeched out loud.

*****

“Alright Mrs. Simmons. I want answers from you and I want them NOW!”

Martha spun around startled when she heard Nick’s growl. “Why Mr. Barkley,” she said trying to compose herself. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard that one before. Now lady, I’ve just about had enough! Just got done meeting your welcoming committee and I don’t feel like fighting with you. What I want is the truth. Got that? THE TRUTH!” Gritting the words out through his teeth, Nick demanded an answer from the surly woman before him. “Now where’s Heath and where’s Hannah James?”

“Mr. Barkley, I have NO information for you,” she hissed and turned to walk back to her office. Nick reached out and grabbed her arm.

“You let go of me!”

“Not until I know where you’ve got Heath.”

“No!”

“Alright then. I’m not lettin’ go of ya.”

“MATT! Matt come out here quick!”

Nick struggled with Martha, gripping her tighter and turning her so that they were face to face.

“Don’t you understand?” His eyes were pleading with her now. His voice was only a whisper, but his words came out short and tight. “He’s my brother! If you hurt him, you hurt me. Please! Please tell me where he’s at.”

Martha’s eyes narrowed, unmoved by Nick’s passionate plea. Curling her lip, she gave her final answer. “Never!”

Just at that moment, Matt came out from the office. He raised his gun and leveled it at Nick head. “Let her go, Barkley.”

Nick turned toward Matt without releasing his hold on Martha.

“You! You know where my brother is and Hannah too. Please! For the love of God, tell me where they are!” Nick’s voice cracked with emotion.

“I said to let her go. Do it now!” Matt waved his pistol.

Nick reluctantly let loose of Martha’s arm. He momentarily thought he could overpower the unsteady Matt but stepped back from the couple instead.

“I’m going to go get the boys,” Martha declared, and started toward the front door.

“Martha, no!” Matt spoke sternly but kept his gun trained on Nick.

“But why not, Matt? They could help us get rid of our, um, problem here,” she argued gesturing to Nick.

“No more Martha. I’m gonna let him go.” Addressing Nick, Matt said, “You, Mr. Barkley, you go home. Go home to that fancy ranch and forget about that brother of yours. You’ll never see him again. If you don’t leave, I’ll kill you right here. Understand?” Matt cocked his gun. “Now I want you to back away and turn with your hands so that I can see them and walk out that door.”

Nick knew Matt was just crazy enough or drunk enough to carry out his threat. He would have to find another way to get to Heath. He just knew that wherever Heath was, Hannah was there too.

“Alright,” Nick conceded. “Alright, I’m leaving.” He slowly backed away and walked hesitantly towards the entrance of the hotel, making sure his gun hand was outstretched and visible. Matt followed close behind making sure that Nick would be mounting his horse and heading in the direction of Stockton.

Nick untied Coco and climbed up into the saddle. Looking back at the hotel, he saw Matt standing at the door with his gun pointed directly at him. “Come on boy,” Nick nudged his horse forward and slow walked down the main street the same way as he had come in earlier that day. The sun was just at a position to shine directly into his eyes. Nick squinted, pulling his hat down over his forehead hoping to block out some of the bright rays.

Nick coaxed Coco on for about 200 yards and then stopped. He prayed that the Simmons’ had gone back inside of the hotel and were convinced he had heeded their warning. Nudging the horse, Nick lead Coco down a small side street and brought him to a stop under the sprawl of an ancient weathered Oak. Dismounting, Nick secured his horses lead. Being careful not to bring any attention to himself, he started off back to town moving down side streets and abandoned alleys.

He walked cautiously as he approached the back side of the hotel. He was intent on watching the top story windows for anything unusual when something flashed in his eyes. Bringing his hand up to his face, he shielded his vision. He stood there gazing at the back of the stone building, considering his next move when a flash of bright light cut across his eyes once more.

“What the devil,” he muttered to himself. Still exercising extreme caution, Nick looked about where he was standing, trying to determine where those mysterious flickers of light were coming from. His eyes lit on a row of small windows running along the lowest edge of the hotel almost non-visible for the stone retaining border that framed the building. Standing with his hands planted on his hips, Nick waited to see if he would see the flashes again. He didn’t have to wait long. There it was. Sharp and quick and it was coming from inside those tiny windows. Crouching down, Nick craned his neck to see inside through the dusty panes. Another bead of light smacked him right in the eyes, making him inhale sharply and squeeze his lids shut. Blinking the tiny dots away, Nick once again peered inside. It looked like…..wait. Someone was down there. An outline of a person. Nick forced his eyes to stretch so that he could make out the outline. Yes. It was someone. Someone, it looked like who was in a sitting position but who didn’t seem to be moving much. Nick squinted hard, his heart pounding out of his chest as he started to have his suspicions as to whom he might be seeing. Angling just a tiny bit closer, Nick’s notion was confirmed causing him to gasp.

“Heath!” Nick cried out. He felt tremendous jubilation for a moment only to have that feeling be slammed to the ground and replaced with a sick feeling of dread. What was Heath doing down there? Why wasn’t he moving? Oh my God. I’ve got to get to him, Nick thought frantically as he cast all caution aside and with his boot began breaking the glass out of the windows and clearing the shards with the barrel of his gun.

In his delirious state, Heath thought he heard the sound of breaking glass. He was terribly hot with fever and the pain in his head and chest made him doubt his conscious thoughts. He couldn’t be sure what he thought he had heard was real or imagined. It was becoming more and more difficult to stay awake. Sleep. The overwhelming desire to just close his eyes and sleep was conquering all other notions he had of staying alert until help came. Finally the battle between wakefulness and oblivion was determined. Darkness fell swiftly once Heath allowed his heavy lids to dominate and triumph.

Reaching a black-gloved hand over the wood frame being careful of the jagged glass, and using his other hand to help balance himself, Nick squeezed through the small window and dropped to the floor. His knees buckled as his feet hit the hard dirt floor but Nick was able to right himself. With his eyes focused on his find, Nick sprinted those few steps to reach Heath and fell to his knees. A sob escaped from deep inside of the big man as he cradled his unconscious brother in his arms. Still holding Heath, Nick’s eyes fell to the rough rope cutting into Heath’s wrists. He saw how it was secured to the beam, forcing Heath to stay in a sitting position. Nick’s eyes traveled to his brother’s ankles where another rope bound his feet assuring minimal or no movement.

Nick gently laid Heath’s head up against the beam and reached for his hunting knife that he kept secured to his gun belt. Unsheathing the weapon that ordinarily would be used for dressing a hunting kill, Nick took the knife and with great gentleness and care severed the bonds that had held his brother prisoner in this pit of the Strawberry Hotel.

Heath moaned and slumped sideways into Nick’s lap as the cords were cut. “Heath! Heath!” Nick leaned down and whispered his brother’s name into his ear. “I’ve got ya boy. We’re gonna get you out of here. You’re gonna be all right.”

Heath twitched and struggled to open his eyes. He thought he saw his brother. He could swear that Nick was right there with him. But how could this be true? Nick was home in Stockton. Must be dreaming. Must be the fever. Heath’s eyes closed. “Heath! I’m right here, brother. Try to wake up. It’s Nick. I’m here. You’re safe.”

That voice. That was Nick’s voice! Forcing his eyes to open once more, Heath tried to focus. Hazel eyes met blue eyes. He felt his head being cradled in a pair of strong arms. Pressing his swollen tongue against his teeth, Heath with great effort whispered, “Nnnniiick.”

“Thatsa boy. I’m right here. Now we’re gonna get you outta here.” Nick was alarmed at the heat radiating from Heath’s body. He could see just by looking at him that his blond brother was terribly dehydrated. He could also hear Heath wheeze as he struggled to draw in air. Nick expertly ran his hands over Heath’s body looking for further injuries. His hands didn’t have to search for the bloody gash and lump on the side of his brother’s head. Though bruised and battered especially down around his shins, Nick didn’t think he found anything broken.

“Nnnnniiiick.” Heath worked his mouth but was having trouble making sound come out of it. “Ha..Han..nah.” His eyes read despair as Heath tried to tell Nick about Hannah. His voice and the forming of words felt disjointed and everything felt floaty and unreal.

Nick berated himself for not bringing his canteen with him. It was back still secured to Coco’s saddle horn. The boy needed water desperately. He’d have to go back and get the canteen. But how? He looked up to the glassless window he’d just come through. There’s gotta be another way out of here without drawing detection. Scanning the semi-dark room, Nick eyes landed on a door. Maybe it was another way out besides the main way of going up the stairs he could see off to his left.

Not sure of how much Heath was comprehending, Nick spoke softly and reassured him that he was only going to be gone for a short while. “Hang in there Heath. I’ll get you some water and we’ll get out of here.”

Heath clutched a hold of Nick’s leather vest. His eyes looked beseechingly toward his older brother. “Hhhhannnnnah.”

“We’ll find her Heath. We’ll find her. You just lie still now, ya hear?” Before Nick rose, he removed his vest and rolled it to make a cushion. He tenderly lifted Heath’s fevered head and moved the vest under it.

“Rest now, little brother. Try to rest. I’ll be back real soon.”

Heath nodded feebly and closed his eyes. Somehow Nick had found him. Somehow his big brother was here. The searing pain in his chest and the pounding of his head were unrelenting but he felt calm and peace. He had always wanted a big brother and boy howdy, as providence would have it, he’d gotten the best one there was. Heath relaxed into slumber.

Nick headed toward the door he had seen. He turned the knob to find that it was locked. Leaning his weight into the splintering wood, he soon heard the panel crack. One more strong shove with his shoulder and Nick found himself in a tiny room. He also found himself face to face with Hannah. The elderly black woman cowered against the far wall of the small chamber.

“Who is you? Who is you? You stay clear from me, y’hear?” Hannah clung to the wall. Terror was written all over her face.

Astonished at seeing Hannah in the tiny room, Nick quickly recovered and spoke softly and reassuringly to the trembling woman. He held his hands away from his body in a non-threatening gesture and prayed that he could get through to her that he was there to help her, not hurt her.

“Miss James, it’s Nick Barkley. Remember? Nick Barkley. I’m Heath’s brother. Remember? We met when I came with Heath last summer to work on your place.”

Hannah’s eyes still stared wide and scared at the tall dark haired cowboy. Nick could see that he needed to do some further convincing of who he was.

“I’m not going to hurt you. I’ve come here to help you. Now you can believe me. I’m not going to harm you. Heath is down here too. He’s very sick. I’m going to get both you and him out of this place. You’ve got to trust me, alright?”

“Heath sick,” Hannah nodded knowingly. “Heath sick.” Looking to Nick with now pleading eyes, Hannah clasped her hands in front of her and implored Nick. “Please! You help Heath. Don’t let him die. You help him get out of dis place. Leave me here. You help Heath. Martha, she come down here and hurt Heath if he don’t get away. Me? I is an old woman. Jest an old slave woman. I’ve lived my life and now it be time for me to die. You go to Heath. You leave me be, y’hear?”

“No. You don’t understand. I’ve come for you and Heath. You’re coming with me. I’m going to get us all out of here. Get us all away. You and Heath, and I’m not leaving here without you,” he stated with finality. Nick would not bend. He wouldn’t leave the old woman there to die a slow death at the hands of Martha and Matt Simmons.

Nick scanned the small room quickly and spotted a second door. He prayed that it was a door that would lead to the outside. “Miss James, that door there. Do you know where it goes to?”

“Martha say not to touch dat door. She say if I touch it, den I die. I believe her, Mr. Nick. Martha, she don’t lie. She would be pleased as punch to see ol’ Hannah dead. I believe her. I don’t touch dat door. No. I don’t touch it at all.”

Nick was stunned that one woman could instill such fear into another human being. He almost was not surprised when he walked over to the door and save Hannah’s protests, opened it easily. Cautioning the trembling Hannah to stay put, Nick ventured through the opening. He was elated to find that there were steps leading to what he assumed would be the street above. Quickly Nick ascended the steps and was pleased that it was indeed the street that rushed up to greet him.

Hoping that he had not been seen, Nick turned and retreated back down the ten or so steps. Back to the little room where Hannah was praying and waiting.

“Martha, she will come. She will come and kill us all.” The elderly woman had bunched herself up in a corner, drawing her legs to her chest. Rocking helped still her fears but only a little.

“It’s gonna be okay.” Nick tried his best to soothe the frightened woman. “We’re gonna get Heath and get out of here. But first I need to get him some water. He has what looks to be a high fever. He needs water but I need to get my canteen. I’ve got my horse tied in an alley close to here. I need you to stay here and stay as calm as you can, do you understand? You must stay calm.”

“Yessir, Mr. Nick. I will….I will try.”

“Good.” Nick cupped her shoulder tenderly. “I’ll be back soon. Real soon. Just sit tight and stay calm.”

Nick carefully stepped through the door and padded quietly up the steps to the street above. Taking a quick look around, he dashed off in the direction where he’d left Coco tied to fetch his canteen for Heath. Heath. Nick thoughts once again turned to his ailing sibling. God I hope it’s not too late. You can’t die on me boy. I’ve just found the baby brother I’ve always wanted. You can’t leave me now. Be strong Heath. Fight! I’ll get ya home.

Coco nickered softly as his master approached. “Good boy,” Nick murmured affectionately and tousled the old horse’s mane. “I’ll be back for you shortly,” he assured his faithful companion as he unhooked his canteen from the saddlehorn. “I won’t forget ya, old fella.” Nick grabbed his bedroll and saddlebags and along with the canteen, carefully made his way back to the cellar entrance of the hotel.

While Nick was fetching supplies that would help his brother, Hannah slowly peered passed the splintered door that Nick had smashed entering the little chamber. Although the room was mostly dark, she could still make out Heath’s body lying still on the dirt floor.

“Oh Heath,” she whispered in a gasp, still very much afraid that Hannah or Matt would come down the interior stairs at any moment. “My Heath. My Heath. You be jest fine. You be jest fine, you hear me? Your brother, he help you. He help both of us to get out of dis place. He’s gonna help you. Hang on my Heath. Jest a little longer.” She spoke oh so softly in almost a lilting voice as she crept ever closer to her beloved Heath whom she had helped raise from a boy. Though he was not her own flesh and blood, she felt him to be a loved member of her family. Like a son. The only kin she had left in the world.

Hannah stroked his face like that of a cherished child. She could feel the fever radiating off of his skin. She sat on the hard earth and made a lap for Heath’s head. Praying that she wouldn’t be heard, she softly began to sing and rocked gently to and fro. Heath moaned softly and groped the air with an unsteady hand. Hannah reached out for Heath’s outreached palm and stilled it in her own loving clasp. Hannah found a renewed strength as she held her dear Heath. She knew that her Lord would take care of them and would not let them falter. Praying softly, she laid her complete trust in her God and knew if it was to be His will, that He would bring them all to safety.

Heath felt like he was under hot water trying to swim to the surface for air. Sweating profusely, he fought to open his eyes and pull the needed air into his lungs all the while thrashing back and forth in Hannah’s arms. “Hush boy. I is here for ya. It’s me, Hannah. Wake up Heath. You’ll feel better once you open dem eyes. Come on my boy. Come on my Heath.”

A voice that sounded faraway, yet near. It was as if in a dream. A familiar voice. Soothing and soft. He heard her voice. Soft and wispy, like blowing cotton floating in the breeze. Hannah’s voice. Her singing. He had heard that singing before. She seemed so close. Close enough to touch.

Not yet having the strength to open his eyes, Heath allowed that sweet voice lull him into a feeling of well being, though the pain in his chest and head were screaming out for him to brace for more hurt. She was near. In a dream, he could feel her. Her hands, soft like fine tanned leather were entwined in his own rough calloused fingers. His beloved Hannah was near.

Heath tried to swallow, though his mouth was oh so parched. He moved his lips to form a word but no sound came forth. Heath moaned and jerked suddenly. Agitated that he couldn’t find his voice, he tried again, his chest heaving with exertion.

“Ha-hannah.” It came out as a whisper but clear.

“Praise the Lord. I is here Heath. You is waking up now. Dat’s good. Come on now. I is right here.” Hannah brushed Heath’s damp hair off of his forehead with her hand as she continued to speak soothingly and rock him in her frail arms.

“Nnn-nick.” Slowly Heath opened his eyes and tried to focus on the smiling face looking down at him.

“He be back, Heath. He be back and then we leave. We’ll get outta dis place, you’ll see.”

“So so thir…thirsty.”

“Hush then boy. Don’t try to talk. You just lay back in ol’ Hannah’s lap and rest. Mr. Nick, he be coming back with some water, just you wait and see.”

Nick had started to relax a little as he approached the steps that would take him back down into the cellar. He was shifting his bundle of provisions when he heard the unmistakable click of a hammer being pulled back on a gun.

“Well Mr. Barkley,” Nick instantly knew who was stationed behind him. “What’s the matter? Wasn’t the room we gave you comfortable? Looks like you are preferring our cellar instead, am I correct?”

“Mrs. Simmons.” Still facing the steps, Nick responded in a low and even tone. “My brother is down there, but I’m sure you know that already. He is very sick and if he doesn’t get water and medical attention soon, he may die. I don’t plan on letting that happen.”

“Oh, the poor poor boy,” came her mock sympathetic reply. “Why do you care so much for that back woods colt? He ain’t no good. His mama was just a plain ol’ street whore. So what if he dies? No big loss in my eyes.”

Nick’s hands clutched tight around the canteen and blanket. His eyes narrowed and his jaw set firm and hard. For a brief moment he just shook with a rage that sent a rush of blood to his face and made his heart pound with nothing but pure hate towards this woman. No one! No one talked that way about his brother. Gun or no gun, Nick would take care of Martha Simmons and he would do it right now! Whirling around fast, Nick hurled the full canteen at Martha. The move caught her off guard as the canteen struck the gun, knocking it out of her hand and into the street. Martha stumbled but caught her balance before she fell. Infuriated, she lunged at Nick all the while screaming at the top of her lungs for her husband and for her heavy hands, Wiley and Jace.

“Matt! Matt! Get out here right now! Wiley! Jace! You get your drunken hides out here and help me or you’ll be sorry!”

Nick was surprised by the strength of the old bag, especially when her right fist connected with his left jaw.

Flabbergasted, Nick sputtered, “Why, you ol’ witch! Now I’m not in the habit of hitting women but in your case, I might make an exception.” Nick reached out and after a few flailing attempts, managed to grab Martha’s arms and pin them to her sides. He would somehow have to keep her confined until he could get Heath and Hannah out of town. Then he would take her to the nearest Law and turn her over to them.

Of course Martha wouldn’t take the fall alone, this Nick knew. Surely she would name

Matt and those two thugs that he had encountered earlier as partners in her little hate game. No, she wouldn’t take the blame alone. Martha Simmons, she may have skirted the charge of murder in the case of Rachel Caulfield but this time the charge was kidnapping. She would not go unpunished. Nick would see to it that she and her little entourage were properly brought to justice. Hannah would attest to the fact that she was taken from her home against her will. And Heath. Nick closed his eyes and swallowed hard. If Heath…he scarcely breathed as he hoped and thought on Heath’s inward strength, iron will and stubbornness to the point of pigheadedness. If Heath lived, he would be able to tell a judge what had happened to him at Martha and Matt’s hands and how he ended up tied to a post in the dark cellar of the Strawberry Hotel. Nicks head began to swim. If he lived.

Using his muscular arms, Nick lifted Martha so that her feet were not touching the ground and maneuvered her, still kicking and screaming, down the steps and into the cellar. She managed to get a couple of direct hits to Nick’s shins, one of which about made him drop her but he gritted his teeth through the sharp pain and got her through the door and into the small bed chamber. Relieving himself of his burden, Nick fairly threw Martha on the cot and through clenched teeth dared her to move or he’d take care of her right there, once and for all.

“You don’t scare me, Mr. High And Mighty Nick Barkley,” she spat.

“You….. just try to….. get up,” Nick angrily replied between gasps while raking his hand through his hair in an attempt of removing it from off of his forehead and out of his eyes. Martha was a big woman and getting her down those steps had not been an easy job.

The tough woman who had most of the folks in Strawberry tucked neatly under her thumb knew she had for now been bested and knew that Nick Barkley meant business. She knew that she would have to simply bide her time until Matt and the others showed up, if they ever did show up. Martha was sure her cries for help could be heard in the hotel. Was Matt so numb that he didn’t hear? Or was he so drunk that he just didn’t care anymore? And what about those good for nothings, Wiley and Jace? Probably hung over somewhere in a corner of the saloon.

Nick quickly retrieved the rope that had been used to tie Heath and made sure that Martha would stay put by tying her hands securely to the frame of the cot.

Still wary of Matt and the other two, Nick vaulted upstairs to retrieve his canteen and other supplies. Hurrying into the cellar, Nick reached Heath and Hannah. Hannah looked visibly shaken, as she had heard the commotion in the little room. “Martha? She be here? She come to kill us all?”

Nick tried to reassure her in a soothing voice that yes, Martha was here but no, she would not hurt her or Heath. Heath appeared to be trying to speak but was only having limited success. Nick wasn’t sure if he was truly conscious or still just delirious. He looked questioningly at Hannah. “Is he awake?”

“He be trying to wake up. The poor boy. He been through so much. He be trying so hard.”

“Here. Let me try to give him a sip of water. That should help.”

Hannah unfolded herself from under Heath’s head and shoulders and allowed Nick to take over Heath’s care.

“Heath! Can you open your eyes? It’s Nick. Open your eyes for me.” Lightly tapping Heath’s cheeks, Nick soon was rewarded with two slits of blue as Heath worked to open his eyes completely.

“Nnnnniiiiick.”

“Good Heath. You’re doin’ just fine. Here, I’ve got some water for you. Just a little now. Don’t need you to be choking. Careful now. Here ya go.”

Heath, with Nick’s help, raised his head enough to take in a few swallows of the cool liquid that he so desperately needed.

“Gotta….gotta get out of here. Hannah. They, they have her. Room. Door. Wanna…wanna ki-kill me.”

“Hannah’s right here, Heath. She’s safe. I’m going to get you both out of here. Trust me Heath. Hannah is safe and you’re gonna be alright.”

Hannah reached across Nick to stroke Heath’s cheek. Her touch no longer seemed like a dream. She was real. Hannah was alive and here with him. Slowly he moved his head in her direction and let a satisfied smile cross his lips. His dear friend was safe.

“Now we’ve got to get a plan together in getting out of here,” Nick stated as he handed the canteen to Hannah and stood up to stretch. Pacing the room, Nick slowly put together a way, that if executed with no hitches, would get the three of them and Martha out of town before total darkness fell. Nick looked toward the broken window that he’d come through earlier and guessed it had to be about 6:00 evening time now. They had about two hours before darkness would hinder further attempts for escape.

“First we’ll need a wagon and horses. I think I can manage to get what I need in that way at the livery. Next we’ve got to get him,” Nick glanced down at Heath who was trying on one hand, to comprehend what was taking place around him while on the other, attempting the task of just staying awake. “Into the wagon as quietly as possible. Once we do that, I’ll come back for Martha. There’s a sheriff in Cold Springs. It’s only about five miles from here. We’ll turn her over to the Law there and have ‘em hold her until formal charges can be made. I’m sure they have a Doctor there as well. We’ll get Heath there and once he’s fit to travel, we can go on home.”

“But Mr. Nick.” Hannah looked at her rescuer with eyes brimming with tears. “My home is here. It be here but I is afraid to go back there. I just cain’t go back there ever again. Oh Mr. Nick, please don’t make me go back to dat place. It cain’t ever be home to me again. I be too afraid that someone would take me. Take me and kill me like they do to Rachel.”

“Whoa now.” Nick took Hannah’s hands and gently held them in his. “Take it easy there. You’re not going back to that place. I’m going to take you home with us.”

“Home wit choo? I don’t understand.” Hannah’s heart was racing with anticipation.

Heath was listening intently to this exchange between his brother and his good friend. He knew that as rough and tough as Nick could appear on the outside, in actuality, this man, this man he called Brother, on the inside had the biggest heart of anyone he knew. It lifted him to know that Nick was willing to find a place for Hannah with them so that she would be able to live out the remainder of her days in peace and tranquility. Heath felt it was important for him to voice his approval and so struggling somewhat with his intake of breath, he addressed his Hannah in a soft, warm and sincere manner. Reaching for her he began his plea for her to stay with him and his family.

“Hannah there’s a place…a place for you at the ranch. It’s a good place where…where you will feel security and peace.” Taking a deep wheezy breath, Heath looked over at Nick, hoping his brother was on the same train of thought with him as he went on to describe the cottage on their property that would be perfect for the elderly lady.

For the moment, Hannah’s joy knew no bounds. “A place for me? Where I could still have my garden? Glory be! The Lord provides! Praise the Lord for he is good.”

Nick picked up the conversation and went on to describe how she’d have her independence there and yet if she needed folks, that the family would just be down the road and that she could call on them any time if she needed help.

“Better yet,” Heath sensing a little apprehension, knowing how cussed independent Hannah could be. “You’ll be close so that I can see you any time I want to. And if I need your help or just want to talk, I know that you’ll be near just for me.”

“Oh my child. You knows that your Hannah wants to always be there for you. I want you near me, Heath. Oh I want that so very much.”

Heath smiled and let his eyes close for a moment. The whole effort of the conversation had exhausted him. Nick too smiled. He knew what he had suggested was the right thing to do for Hannah. But more than that, it was the right thing to do for Heath. Nick also knew and the thought caused him to heave a sigh of relief. He knew that once Hannah was settled in the little cottage on Barkley property that Heath would never ever have a reason to come to this god-forsaken place ever again.

Nick made sure that Heath was made as comfortable as possible by tucking the blanket he had brought in with him warmly around his brother. He helped Heath with a few more sips of water and stationed Hannah by his side. Standing, Nick started for the door and then stopped. Walking back to Hannah and Heath, he crouched down beside them and removed his gun from its holster and placed it in Hannah’s trembling hand.

“You may need to use this.”

“But Mr. Nick, I ain’t never shot no gun befo. Please! Oh, lordy, lordy. What shall I do?” Hannah looked to Nick with scared wide eyes.

“It’s okay. It’s just here for you if you need it, which I don’t imagine you will but just in case. Here,” Nick talked softly as he showed Hannah how to cock, aim and squeeze the trigger of his colt. “The main thing is to be calm and once you’ve got ‘er aimed, don’t hesitate to fire. These are dangerous people we’re dealing with. You need to protect yourself and him.” Nick looked to Heath and shook his head in dismay. Nick’s blond brother was still struggling just to breathe and again had a sheen of fever about his face that wasn’t there an hour ago. As he looked at his brother, Nick knew that putting the gun in Hannah’s hand was the right thing to do. For Heath, though a skilled marksman when he was well, was in no condition to handle a firearm in the shape he was in presently. Hannah gingerly fingered the gun and knowing she may have a serious responsibility to perform, tucked the weapon into the apron of her dress and looked to Nick with pleading eyes.

“Please hurry back Mr. Nick. Oh please do hurry.”

Nick still had his rifle stuck in the holder of his saddle. He’d be unarmed until he reached his horse but it was a risk he’d simply have to take. Nick assured Hannah and Heath that he’d be back as quick as he could with a wagon and horses.

Nick made a quick check in on Martha who still seemed tied securely to the cot. She glared with contempt at the cowboy as he made his way out the door of the room and up the stairs. She had long ago quit hollering for Matt and her men. There had been no answer to her yells for help and no one to rescue her. Matt, she figured, was too drunk to care, not that he ever cared anything for her when he was stone sober. Wiley and Jace? Probably soaking up whiskey or nursing hangovers over at the saloon. Men, she thought bitterly. What were they good for anyway? No good drunken weaklings. She’d be better off without any of them.

Nick made his way to the top of the stairs and stole across the street and down the block and over to the alley where Coco was tied. He reached for his rifle and checked his ammunition. Untying Coco, he swiftly led him by his reins to the livery just down the main street from the hotel. The young man tending the horses was just finishing up putting the nightly feed down when Nick walked in. The man, a boy really, turned to face Nick when he’d heard his jangling spurs. The young man was surprised at first because the Strawberry Livery rarely got strangers in. Just townspeople who kept their own personal riding stock here if they lived in town and didn’t have a barn for keeping animals. Strangers held high suspicion in a place like Strawberry. The young boy, no more than sixteen, looked at Nick with guarded eyes and presented himself in a tight stance.

“Evenin’ mister. Uh, something I can do for ya?”

“Evenin’. Be needin’ two horses and a wagon. I’ll be ridin’ to Stockton. Ya got something for me there, boy?”

“Looks like you’ve got a horse there, mister.”

“Oh, Coco?” Nick looked up at his horse. “No ol’ Coco here ain’t no harness horse. Need two pulling horses. Ya got ‘em?”

“Reckon I do. Stockton, huh?” The young man stroked his chin and pondered a moment. “Well mister, now how’s you plannin’ to get my wagon and horses back to me once you get into Stockton?”

“It will be taken care of. Our liveryman will be sure they get back here in about three days.”

Still eyeing Nick with heavy apprehension, the young stable hand finally nodded.

“Alright mister. I got a wagon over yonder,” he pointed to a small oldish supply wagon in the corner of the barn. “And ya ‘ll can use Buster and Clancy here.” He swept his arm over to what seemed to be two sturdy animals. “They’re good strong horses. Should getcha to where you’re headin’. It’ll be nine dollars for the rig. That’s seven dollars for the wagon and horses and two dollars for the deposit that you’ll get back when ya bring back the horses and wagon.”

Nick looked over at the wagon. It looked like it hadn’t been used recently. He hoped the axles were fit and that it would get them all out of town in a hurry and in one piece. It wouldn’t be the smoothest ride, this he knew, but it would have to do. Nick pulled out some bills and paid the boy.

“Uh, my brother rode in here a couple of days ago. I see that’s his horse over there.” Charger had been moved to the livery undoubtedly by Matt or one of his men. Nick didn’t wish to give any information that might cause more suspicion in the young man than what was already felt and that now hung heavy. “He rode over to Sonora with a friend. Asked me to fetch his horse, as he’d be taking the train back into Stockton. S’pose you’d hitch his horse and mine to the back of the wagon?” Nick hoped his story sounded believable enough. He promised to be back in about a half an hour and asked the livery keeper to have the wagon hitched and ready for them at that time.

Making his way back to the cellar, Nick was still very cautious that he might be being watched. He was just about to the stairs when it happened.

Suddenly he was pulled off balance by what felt like a full size grizzly bear.

“I got ‘em Wiley!”

The force of sheer mass that struck Nick was enough to knock the wind out of him. Stunned for a moment, Nick froze but quickly recouped his wits and as instinct kicked in so did his fight. Kicking out not knowing where his boot would land, he was satisfied when he heard a pleasing whomp and grunt as it connected with Jace’s gut. The one called Wiley jumped into the foray and Nick felt the big man’s meaty fists hammer over the top of his head like a sledge. Another blow, Nick heard bone crunch in his nose. Adrenalin coursed through Nick Barkley’s veins, giving him the strength he needed to grapple with the two men who were both twice his size. Adrenalin is a powerful rush, however, is short lived. Nick was managing to hold the two thugs at bay but felt himself flagging in strength, and yet if he stopped fighting, he knew he would surely be killed.

Neither of his attackers had gone for their guns, most likely thinking it would be too risky that they might hit one another in the battle. One of the men, Nick couldn’t tell which, had Nick’s arms pinned behind him and was twisting them in an unnatural angle. Nick’s pride would not allow him to scream out, but if truth were known, the dark haired cowboy was in terrible agony and more so with each twist. Just when Nick thought he was going to pass out from the pain, he saw in his peripheral vision two other men. A wave of lightness passed over him. He felt tremendous relief as his arms were released from their bondage. Nick blinked and shook his head to clear his thoughts. He swiped at the blood that was flowing like slow lava from his nose. There fighting right beside him were Clyde and Hank, the two brothers he had met in the saloon earlier that day. The same two who had seemed so fearful of the Simmons’ and who didn’t want to get involved with Nick’s search for Heath for fear that there would be repercussions from Matt and Martha. Now here they were. Those two men. Brothers. Fighting with him side by side against the two thugs of Martha’s hire.

Empowered by the show of solidarity, Nick felt invigorated and leaped back into the fight with a fierce kick to Wiley’s ribs and a head butt to Jace’s stomach. Clyde and Hank fought well, throwing punches and landing kicks with practiced precision. Another sharp kick from Nick’s steel toed boot landed Jace sprawled in the middle of the street.

A small crowd had gathered like scared mice outside of the saloon to watch the fight. Wiley came at Nick like a raging bull honing in for the kill. The stairs leading down to the cellar were at Nick’s back. He’d have to do a quick shuffle of his feet with precise timing to accomplish what needed to be done. Wiley was so close now that Nick could smell his sweat and feel the big man’s sour breath on the side of his face. As Wiley drew back for what could have been a fatal blow, Nick twisted his body and dodged the deadly fist. Wiley cried out as he plummeted with a sickening thud down the stairs and came to rest up against the chamber door. His eyes were set with a look of both surprise and fear but looking at the mass of flesh lying there, Nick knew there was no surprise or fear left in the man. Wiley was dead.

Nick felt drained as he bent over resting his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. The click of a hammer being cocked sent chills up Nick’s back and set him into motion again. Without a weapon, he instinctively threw himself to the ground and brought his hands up protectively over his head. A shot rang out and a deafening silence fell over all those standing in the street. Nick lifted his head slowly, not quite comprehending what had just taken place. Bending a knee, the battered cowboy pushed himself up with his muscular legs and stood tall. He looked at the prone body of Jace Willits who lay in a heap, dead from a bullet to the head.

“I-I shot him. I shot Jace Willits.”

Nick slowly walked over to where Hank stood still holding his fired gun in his hand.

“I HAD to shoot him Nick.” Hank turned to Nick with worry furled in his brow. “He would have killed you. You know that don’t you? He would have killed you.”

Nick wrapped his hand around the shaken man’s shoulder. “I know he would. You used your gun to save my life. I’m grateful to you.”

“But…but…you don’t understand. Martha. She’ll kill me for this. She’ll kill me, Nick.”

Clyde silently walked over to his brother and stood staring at Jace’s body. “Nick,” he started and turned to face the one whom he had helped to protect. “Martha, she ain’t never gonna let us get away with killin’ one of her men. ‘Fraid we’re gonna be in a mess of trouble now.”

“No, I don’t think you’ll be having any problems with Mrs. Simmons again.” Nick moved to place a hand on each man’s shoulder in a way that he hoped would calm them and then went on to explain.

“Mrs. Simmons and I had a little get together a few hours ago right here.” Nick gestured with his hand to the area where they stood. “Our dear Mrs. Simmons isn’t in the position to harm you or anyone else ever again. Fact is she’s down in that cellar as we speak.” Nick motioned to the door leading to the hotel cellar. “She’s just waitin’ to be escorted to the Sheriff in Cold Springs.”

Years seemed to fall away from the faces of the two brothers as they took in all of what Nick was saying and what it implied. Finally Clyde spoke. “Ya mean it’s over? Martha Simmons rule of this hole of a town is over?”

“That’s right boys,” Nick assured them in a low voice. “It’s all over for Matt and Martha Simmons.”

Hannah heard a commotion at the other end of the room. She looked down at Heath as his head rested in her lap. “Glory be! Your brother is here; I just knowd it. Now we can get outta here.”

Heath was very weak but he was conscious. He nodded ever so slightly. Nick would take them home.

Suddenly a twisted scowling face appeared where the door had been to the small chamber!

Hannah shrunk back against the wall, eyes wide with fear. Like a mother shielding her child, she pulled Heath in closer to herself and held on to him tight.

“Mizz Simmons!”

“So! You were just gonna let them take me, weren’t you old woman?” You’d let those Barkley’s see me arrested, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?” Martha with hate embedded in her eyes, walked menacingly towards where Hannah and Heath sat. Instinctively, Hannah drew the blanket, partially covering Heath, up and over him hoping to keep him hidden.

“Well Miss Goody Goody, you won’t get away with it. I’ve tried to be good to you over the years. See how you repay me? You turn against me and for what? For…for,” her finger pointed accusingly at Heath who in his fevered state, wasn’t sure what was happening or why he seemed to be swaddled in a blanket barely able to move. “That BASTARD!”

That word registered like a blow to Heath. He knew that Martha was down in the cellar with them. He moved frantically to remove the blanket that was clutched around him. Gotta help Hannah. Can’t let Martha hurt her. His thoughts were a blur. He had to protect her and yet his attempts to rise up only met with hard resistance. He was just too weak. Still Martha continued to advance across the room. Everything appeared to Heath to be happening in slow motion. The more he fought to gain control, the more he felt his body balking at his efforts. He could see his aunt close up now. She had gone completely mad. Her face was twisted in an ugly display of hate and malice. He knew that she was capable of killing both him and Hannah now. Why wouldn’t his body obey his orders to move and shelter? Protect and fight? Martha’s eyes screamed at him as she raised both of her hands in a hard fist to strike. Strike to kill. Suddenly an earsplitting blast ripped through the cellar and then a soft thud. Heath tried to marshal his thoughts together as to what just took place. A body lay prone on the ground.

“She dayd. Mizz Simmons is dayd. She was gonna kill my Heath. I didn’t have a choice. Mizz Simmons is dayd.” The gun shook in Hannah’s grip and a look of shock washed over her face. Heath slowly lifted his head and made himself come to a kneeling position facing Hannah. Quietly he took the gun from her and laid it on the blanket beside her. Hannah’s hands dropped to her lap. Heath using all the strength he could muster drew the small woman toward him and hugged her gently to his chest.

“It’s finished.” Heath drew a ragged breath and rested his body into hers. The blessed sound of jangling spurs could be heard. Nick had returned and stopped abruptly when he saw the scene in front of him.

Heath through bleary eyes watched as Nick tried to take in what had just transpired.

“She’s…she’s dead Nick,” Heath informed his brother quietly. “It’s all over here.”

Nick so wanted it to be all over but he knew there was one more bit of business that needed to be taken care of before they could all finally leave this death town for good. Matt Simmons would need to be apprehended and brought to justice. Matt was no longer the brawn that those many years ago, had bullied and beat Heath as a boy. Still, he would have to answer as to why he had let Martha take Heath and Hannah and hold them as virtual hostages. Why he allowed Martha’s thugs to nearly kill his brother with little or no resistance. Heath needed those answers and so did Hannah. They deserved that. But they weren’t the only ones. The town folks of Strawberry needed answers too. Why had Matt Simmons allowed his wife free reign of this town to intimidate and hold the people like prisoners under her thumb?

Nick came over and crouched down by where Heath was holding Hannah. Nick could see that his little brother barely had the strength to hold himself up. Heath started to totter. Nick smoothly transitioned Hannah onto his one arm while with the other, he cushioned Heath’s slide to the floor as exhaustion forced the blond cowboy to surrender to oblivion.

“Mr. Nick. I shot her dayd. Oh Lord, have mercy. I shot Mizz Simmons dayd. Did I do a bad thing?” Hannah’s wide eyes looked to Nick for solace. “She was gonna kill my Heath. I had to do it. I just had to.”

“I know you did.” Nick spoke consolingly to the tiny woman who looked too frail to even hold a gun, much less shoot one. You did what had to be done. Now I need you to help me by being strong. Be strong for him.” Nick motioned to Heath and tenderly ran his big calloused hand through his brother’s sweat matted hair.

Hannah sniffed back her tears and straightened her shoulders. “I will be strong Mr. Nick. I will be strong for my Heath.”

Nick winced as he stood up. The adrenalin that had helped him to defeat Martha’s henchmen was gone. Now the pain from the beating he had received at their hands was starting to kick in. He breathed deep to steady himself. His actions were not missed by Hannah.

“Mr. Nick? Is you hurt bad?”

“Just bruised, I think,” Nick answered her, touching his tender ribs. Taking his bandanna, he grimaced slightly as he blotted the blood from his nose that by this time had caked and dried. “I’ll be alright. We’re gonna be leaving here soon. Gotta wagon set to go. I just need to see to one more thing and then we’ll be leaving. Leaving for good.”

Hannah knew what that “one more thing” was. She knew that Nick was going to hunt up Matt Simmons. A shiver of fear overcame her. She was very aware of what kind of man Matt Simmons was or could be. Drunk most of the time or nursing a hangover, he was quite docile. However, he could be a very dangerous man when sober. She prayed with all her might that he was not.

“Mr. Nick?” Her eyes looked up pleadingly to the black clad cowboy whose height towered over her small frame as she sat on the floor close to Heath.

“Yeah?”

“You be careful. Please, you be very very careful.”

Nick reached down and took both of her tiny hands in his large ones and squeezed them gently, reassuredly.

“Don’t you worry none. I’ll be fine. You just rest now and take care of my brother there.” Nick’s gaze fell to Heath who seemed to be breathing a little easier than when Nick had first arrived to find Martha shot dead on the floor. “I won’t be long.”

Nick turned and climbed the main stairway. The stairs leading directly to the inside of the hotel. The stairs leading directly to Matt Simmons.

Nick walked with purpose, spurs jangling with every step down a short hallway until he reached the hotel lobby. With piercing eyes, he set his sights on the closed door leading to the office where Matt kept himself mostly hidden. Marching across the open atrium, Nick didn’t bother with the bell that was used to summons service, nor did he acknowledge the half door that swung open to the one tending the desk. Using his arms well built up from years of hard ranch work, Nick vaulted over the counter touching his hands slightly to the ground as he steadied himself. Rising up, his mouth hardened into a thin angry line and his hazel eyes narrowed. His prey was just beyond that door, that he was sure of. Feeling a force wash over him fueled by anger and contempt, Nick raised a sturdy black boot and slammed it into the door causing it to wrench from its hinges and to splinter on impact.

Nick entered the room and stopped abruptly. Looking up, he could feel bile rising up into his throat. Never in his wildest imagination did Nick think he would find the man who had brought misery to so many in this way. There dangling from a central rafter hung the body of the once powerful Matt Simmons. Nick swallowed hard pushing down the sickness that threatened to manifest itself. Feeling suddenly clammy and sweaty, Nick reached out and grabbed a hold of the battered maple desk in front of him. Swallowing and breathing deeply, he was finally able to bring himself out of his initial shock and let his mind kick in to determine what needed to be done next. Not yet trusting his legs that felt like soft rubber, Nick surveyed the room while still holding on to the desk with both hands. The office was in a terrible state of disarray. Papers were strewn all over the desk and on the floor. A file cabinet in the corner was open with its contents sagging from the drawers as if someone had carelessly tossed them hither and thither.

With one hand, Nick swept a pile of folders that covered the desk chair onto the floor. With a grunt, he sat himself down heavily and rested his head in his hands for a moment.

His foot kicked something under the desk that rolled away from him and into the open. Nick lifted his head and his eyes fell upon an empty whiskey bottle. Leaning over, Nick picked the bottle up and turned it in his hand. He looked at the body hanging from the coarse rope and then back to the bottle.

“So this was your courage, huh? Ya just couldn’t live with the life you’d created for yourself any longer, could you old man?” Gesturing to the rope, he continued. “The cowards way out of an existence you couldn’t face any longer. With this,” Nick raised the bottle towards the dead man, “as your courage and your anesthetic.” Nick stood up and walked to where the door had been. Turning once more to face the man who had hurt his brother both physically and emotionally all those years ago and whose hurt still branded his gentle sibling, Nick raised the hand still holding the empty bottle and slammed it into the far wall. The sound of shattering glass somehow fortified him. Watching the glass explode into tiny pieces acted for him as a healing balm. Nick’s boot found a piece of glass that crunched under the cowboy’s weight as he walked away from the room and out of the Strawberry Hotel for the last time.

Nick stepped out into the ebbing daylight and braced himself as the wind kicked up in a blowing fury. He hurried over to the livery, where the wagon and two horses were hitched and waiting. Reassuring the livery hand once more that the horses and wagon would be returned in about three days, Nick jumped up into the driver’s seat and skillfully maneuvered the team in a circle so that they were pointed towards the hotel. He moved them slowly down the main street, pulling back on the reins when they were at the front of the steps leading down to where Heath and Hannah waited for him to come back and pluck them from the bowels of that wretched building. Nick couldn’t move fast enough to his liking as he scuttled down the steps and into the darkened cellar. Daylight was waning when Nick Barkley at last threw himself down by his brother’s feet and declared to both Heath and Hannah that they would be leaving this place as of right now. They would be leaving and that there was no one left to stop them. They were going home!

Hannah just looked at Nick, her eyes shining and a peaceful look took over her face. “Praise the Lord for he is good,” she exclaimed. “Praise the Lord.”

Heath was thankfully conscious and though he was weak, he reached out and clasped Nick’s arm. “Good…good brother to have.” The effort to speak sent the blond into a full-fledged coughing fit. Nick took his brother’s upper body and gently supported it in a sitting position. Positioning Heath’s legs, Nick arranged them so that they were folded like steeples. Gently Nick nudged Heath’s chest forward so that he curved over his upright knees. By doing so, Nick hoped that whatever crud was in Heath’s lungs would have a better chance of expelling itself.

“Come on boy. Cough it out. That’s it.”

Hannah reached for what was available, the blanket that had been covering Heath and raised it to his mouth as his productive coughs brought up a round of stringy phlegm and water. Heath’s hands rushed to the sides of his head as he pressed inward to try to relieve the throbbing caused by his coughing. The exertion was making him light headed and dizzy.

“Gotta lay down.”

“No!” Nick insisted, holding his brother upright. “You need to cough, Heath! You’ve got to clear those lungs a little so you can breathe.”

“Dizzy.”

“I know you’re dizzy, boy but you’ve got to do this. Come on. Hack it out Heath. Do it now. Do it for me.”

Heath gathered all the strength he had and let go a fierce bout of coughing that proved to be satisfying in the amount of slimy mucus and water that escaped out of his mouth and into the section of blanket that Hannah held for him. Heath was sure his head was about to fall clean off of his head.

“No mo..more Nick.” Heath was winded and struggled to catch his breath. Nick noted with satisfaction that he seemed to be drawing in more air into his lungs but he still needed to get his brother out of this dank cellar and to a doctor in a hurry.

“Gotta lay down Nick.”

“Alright then. You did a good job.” Nick carefully wrapped his arms around his brother and gently laid him down on his back. “See?” Nick looked down at his sibling and said softly, “You sound much better. Sometimes big brothers do know best.”

“Wanna go home,” Heath proclaimed drowsily. “Sleep.”

“That’s right brother. We’re goin’ home right now. Think you can stay awake until we get you settled in the wagon?”

“Wagon? I don’t…don’t need a wagon. I can ride. Charger. Livery.”

Nick rolled his eyes over the head of his stubborn brother. He knew it was the fever talking that made Heath claim he was fit to ride. Nick decided he’d make it sound like Heath was doing a noble thing when he responded back to his brother. “Heath, you are not riding Charger. If you did, we’d never get out of this place because I’d be picking you up every four feet. ‘Sides, Miss Hannah here wants to ride in the wagon and she needs you to keep her company. Can ya do that?”

“Can’t let Hannah ride alone.” The words almost slurred from Heath’s lips.

Turning his head towards Hannah, Heath reached out a large hand and found his dear friend’s tiny one. “I’ll ride with ya. Keep ya company. Zat okay?”

Hannah looked down at her boy and smiled wide. “Oh yes Heath. I’d like that very much.” Glancing over to Nick, she said thank you with her eyes. “Yes. I’d like that very much.”

“Okay then, let’s get a movin’ while he’s,” Nick pointed a thumb towards Heath, “still awake.”

Nick took the blanket that Hannah was still holding and removing his pocketknife from his belt, he quickly cut away the soiled part of the blanket, making it uniform in shape as he went along.

Turning to Hannah, Nick shared his plans for their first evening’s ride. “We’ll stop for the night in Cold Springs about five miles from here. I’ll need to talk to the Sheriff about what happened here. Hopefully they’ll have a practicing doctor there for him.” Nick looked over to Heath and was relieved that his brother’s blue eyes were still open. Nick knew he’d have to hurry though. Little brother looked like he was fading fast. Nick was bone tired and wasn’t relishing the thought of hauling his brother across the room and up those stairs by his lonesome. Hopefully Heath would be some help in getting himself into the wagon. Nick was confident that once Heath was settled, he would sleep the rest of the way to Cold Springs.

Helping Hannah to her feet, Nick assisted her up the steps and hoisted her gently up into the back of the wagon. She immediately went to work making a soft bed for Heath out of blankets and bedrolls. Nick, after seeing to Hannah’s comfort, hastened down the stairs once more to bring Heath up to the wagon.

Crouching down to his brother’s level, Nick reached for Heath all the while quietly talking to him, hoping he was convincing his sibling that with his help, they’d be on their way shortly.

“Come on Heath. It’s just across the room and up a few steps. You can make it boy. I know you can.”

“Charger. Charger’s still at the livery.”

“No Heath. Charger is tied to the wagon. We’re just waiting for you. Now ya gotta help me.”

“Yeah. Me ‘n’ Charger, we’ll follow ya, Nick.”

“No you don’t boy. Remember? You’re gonna ride in the wagon with Miss Hannah. Remember now? You’re gonna keep her company.”

“Oh. Oh yeah. Gonna keep her company. ‘Member now.”

“Good. You’re doing just fine Heath. We’re almost to the wagon. Just a few more steps and we’ll be there.”

“Thir…thirsty Nick.”

“Alright. We’ll get you some water once you’re in the wagon. We’re almost there.”

Heath’s weight threatened to pull Nick down the stairs more and more with each step they took. Heath was aware enough that he knew he needed to help Nick but telling his legs to cooperate was a different matter. They felt like leaded weights and moving them even a little was exhausting work. Finally though, the two men were at the wagon. Nick was panting with exertion and Heath felt that if Nick were to turn loose of him now, he’d fall to the ground never to get up again.

“Come on boy. Need your help just one more time,” Nick grunted. “Need to get you into that wagon. Heath!” What little bit of energy Heath had was quickly diminishing as he swayed forward in Nick’s arms. Catching his balance, Nick leaned up against the wagon still holding on to his brother.

“Heath!” With one arm secured around Heath’s waist and leaning his weight against the wagon, Nick brought his free hand up and lightly tapped Heath’s cheeks. “Don’t fall asleep on me yet. I need your help one last time. Come on Heath. Try! Try this last time.”

Even in his groggy state, Heath sensed the challenge that was set before him.

Collecting all the strength he had, Heath lifted his foot onto the wheel of the wagon and groaning, he swung his other foot up behind him. He let his body propel him over the top onto the softness made for him inside.

Nick breathed a sigh of relief and allowed himself to slump against the wagon wheel, catching his breath. Heath had landed in softness made lovingly by Hannah. The elderly woman covered Heath and ministered to him tenderly. Heath at that moment wouldn’t have known if he was on a bed of nails or on the softest down. He was fast asleep, allowing his body to do its work of healing and strengthening. Nick couldn’t help but chuckle as he saw how fast his brother had entered into slumberland. That brother of his, even when he was healthy, could drop off to sleep quicker than anyone he knew.

Reaching over the side of the wagon, Nick tenderly tucked the blanket around his dozing brother. “Sleep well Heath. When you wake up, we’ll be even closer to home. I know how you hate seeing a doctor but this time I’m going to make you. You have no choice in the matter, y’hear? You sleep now, boy. Just sleep.”

Nick heaved his tired body into the driver’s seat and, with an expert flick of his wrists, he soon had the team moving towards their next destination. Nick breathed a prayer for his brother. Please God, let him survive. Let him be alright. Please, let him be alright.

The last rays of daylight disappeared behind the western mountains as the team left Strawberry. The wind started to howl causing Nick to shiver. Thanks to Hannah, Heath remained warm as she drew a blanket up and over his face protecting him from the wind. They would be to Cold Springs in about two hours.

Except for the fever that manifested itself in Heath’s delirious mumbles, the ride to Cold Springs was uneventful. Hannah gently tended to the sick man while Nick kept the team moving at a smooth pace. It was about 11:00 PM when they pulled into the small town. Nick quickly located the Doctor’s office and stopped the wagon under a modest shingle that read Dr. Morrison, M.D. The dark haired cowboy jumped down from the driver’s seat and vaulted up the steps to the front door. He pounded on the door loudly, figuring he’d need to wake someone up at this time of night. “Anybody home? Is the doctor there?” Nick stood with his fists planted on his hips and rocked back on his heels and then up on his toes, back and forth. Finally he noticed a light being lit from inside the house. At last the door opened and a sleepy-eyed, middle aged, short plump man stood in its frame.

“Uh, can I help you young man,” the man asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Yeah! Are you the Doctor,” Nick asked.

“Well, the sign says I am. What can I do to help you, son?”

“Oh, it’s not me. It’s my brother. He’s been real sick. Fever and his breathing’s not so good, though better than it was yesterday. Over here Doc. He’s in the wagon. We just come from Strawberry. No Doctor there. Was hopin’ you’d be able to take a look at him.”

“Well son, let’s go take a look together.”

Nick was surprised how agile the man was as he scurried right up into the wagon and knelt down beside Heath. The Doctor noticed Hannah hovering close and held out his hand in friendship to her.

“I’m Dr. Morrison ma’am. And you would be dear lady?”

“Hannah. My name is Hannah” Caressing Heath’s fevered face she continued. “And this is Heath.”

Dr. Morrison looked towards Nick. Prompted, Nick introduced himself.

“Uh, I’m Nick Barkley, Doctor. Ol’ Heath here, he’s my brother; he got caught up in some bad business over Strawberry way. If we can get him into your office and get him comfortable, I need to stop by the Sheriff’s and get some matters taken care of. That okay with you?”

“Fine young man. Fine. Now let’s just get him out of the wagon here and get him into a bed inside.”

The doctor looked down at his patient and saw that he was starting to stir. Heath’s eyes slowly opened and then became wide with terror when he saw a stranger looking down at him. Still reeling from what had happened to him at the hands of Martha’s thugs, Heath only saw another face that would hurt him. He violently slammed his body up against the side of the wagon, recoiling from the man’s touch. Nick rushed to his brother’s side and held him steady and spoke soft words as Heath weakly struggled to escape from this man whom he thought in his delirium only meant him harm.

The doctor inhaled sharply and drew back from the writhing Heath. He looked questioningly at Nick. “What happened to this man?”

Nick made sure that Heath was calmed down before he replied. “Like I said before Doc, he ran into trouble in Strawberry. Bad trouble. I’ll be talkin’ to the Sheriff as soon as I know he’s resting comfortably.”

The Doctor’s hand came up and rested below his chin. His brows furrowed. “Strawberry, huh? Ain’t that the old mining camp over yonder that’s pretty much controlled by a batty couple name of Simmons? Talk is, they rule the town pretty much by intimidation.”

“The same,” Nick answered bitterly, shushing Heath as the blond began to thrash about again. In a low voice Nick continued. “They won’t intimidate anyone anymore. They’re dead.”

“You kill ‘em,” the doctor asked incredulously.

“Well, let’s just say that’s why I need to talk to your sheriff here. It will surely clear up a lot of things.”

When Heath seemed quiet enough to move, the doctor and Nick moved him swiftly from the wagon to inside the house. Hannah followed close behind not wanting to take her eyes off of her beloved Heath.

“The first thing we need to do,” Doctor Morrison surmised, “is to get that fever under control. We’ll need some ice for that.” Turning to Nick, the doctor handed him two empty flour sacks. “I’ve got an ice house out back. You fill these sacks up and secure them with some rope. You’ll find some out there along the wall. Bring the sacks filled back here and we’ll cradle him on each side with ‘em. Once we get his temperature down, I’ll know better how to proceed.”

“Right, doc. I’m on my way.”

Nick soon arrived back to the house with two flour sacks full of ice, one over each shoulder. Doctor Morrison took one sack at a time from Nick and settled them on Heath’s sides hugging them right under his armpits and then resting the blonde’s muscular arms on the other side of the sacks. Nick was surprised when Heath didn’t even flinch when the cold cloth touched his body.

“Why isn’t he responding there,” Nick asked with alarm. “He didn’t even move when you put that ice on him.”

“That’s normal,” assured the doctor. “When a person is running a high fever, it’s not uncommon for them to not respond to hot and cold or other stimuli. I’ll rotate the sacks every ten minutes so he doesn’t develop frostbite. He seems to be resting comfortably. Sleep in the best thing for him now. It would be best if you could both stay with him tonight. Mr. Barkley, your brother may have moments of delirious agitation. I might need you to help me calm him. In the meantime, why don’t you try to get some rest? There’s an extra cot in the corner there. Miss Hannah, I have another room down the hall that you can use if you’d like,” the kindly doctor said invitingly. “I know you must be tired.”

“Oh no good sir,” Hannah replied. “I cain’t leave my Heath. He might need me. Please may I stay here with him for just a little while?”

“Certainly you may, madam, as long as you like. Just know you have a room to go to, to rest should you desire.”

Hannah content with the knowledge that she would be permitted to stay and watch over her dear friend, pulled up a wooden high back chair by Heath’s bedside and began her vigil.

The Doctor continued his examination by pulling out his stethoscope and listening to Heath’s lungs. He moved it about the cowboy’s chest here and there, tsk tsking as he went. Removing the instrument from his ears, the Doctor turned to face Nick.

“Well, the good news is that although your brother’s lungs appear to be quite congested, it does not appear to be consistent with the symptoms of Pneumonia. That’s very good. I rather think he has suffered a trauma to his lungs somehow. It might become necessary to manually palpate the area so that he coughs. The area has now become inflamed, which is why he is running a fever. The palpitation will help clear the fluids that are trapped in his lungs. I may need your assistance with this, Mr. Barkley, when it comes time to do this procedure. For now though, he needs to sleep. I’ll watch his breathing tonight and we’ll do the palpitation tomorrow morning. Once that’s done, his lungs should heal. Rest and quiet for a few days will do him the most good.”

Exhaling in relief, Nick ran a black-gloved hand through his dark hair.

“That’s…that’s great, Doc. That brother of mine, he can be pretty pigheaded about following doctor’s orders but I’ll see to it personally that he gets all the rest he needs until he’s well, even if I have to sit on him myself to keep him in bed.”

Doctor Morrison smiled at the rough and tough cowboy before him. He could tell that under the rough exterior, there laid a tender heart and a special bond between these two brothers.

Nick grew restless and started to pace the room, eager to rush out and wake the Sheriff and take care of his business. Slowly though, reason took a hold of him. He may be needed here if Heath were to become difficult because of the fever. And come to think of it, he was tired. Very tired. Surely if he had a few hours of sleep, it would be to his benefit when he did go and talk to the Sheriff tomorrow. Nick stopped his pacing and sat on the cot and leaned the back of his head against the wall. Besides talking to the Sheriff tomorrow, Nick figured he’d better send a wire to Stockton letting his family know of their present situation. He’d also need to send another wire to Jarrod in San Francisco detailing the events of the past few days in case an inquest was called. Nick might need his lawyer brother here to defend him. It wasn’t long before Nick, still with his head propped against the wall, succumbed to sleep’s blissful invitation.

In a dream, Nick reached his hand out to shush the scream that assaulted his ears. Suddenly it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Nick’s eyes shot open and his beating heart pounded into his ears as another cry snatched and grabbed his now conscious mind.

“Heath!”

Nick was at his sibling’s side in two strides. Heath’s glazed opened eyes looked directly at Nick but they did not see the man whom he called brother. Instead those blue eyes were playing out a nightmare made from the ingredients of fever, sickness and exhaustion.

“NOOOOO!” Heath shot up in the bed. His face painted a picture of sheer panic.

Nick reached out and wrapped his big hands around Heath’s arms and held him gentle but firm. Heath struggled to free himself from the enemy whom he knew was out to kill him.

“I told you that if I ever saw you again, I’d kill you. I can’t let you keep doing what you’re doing. They’re only boys. You’re a savage! I said I’d kill you Bentell and now I intend to cash in on that promise!”

“Heath! Wake up! It’s me, Nick. Come on Heath. You’re having a bad dream. Wake up boy!” Nick tried to shake the frenzied look out of the blonde’s eyes but Heath read the moves as a signal to prepare for combat. With a burst of strength, Heath swung out both of his arms, knocking Nick off balance and on to the floor with a thud. Nick shook his head amazed by Heath’s power. He pushed himself off of the floor and went to his brother once more, this time more than determined to wake Heath out of his terrifying nightmare. Tackling Heath around his waist, Nick gritted his teeth and hung on as the fever crazed man tried to buck and shake him off.

“Heath! You’re safe! It’s Nick. Bentell can’t touch you now. Wake up! Can’t you see? It’s Nick. You’re safe now.” It seemed to Nick like hours that he wrestled to calm Heath but it had only been mere seconds. The Doctor had heard the commotion and rushed to Nick’s aide. While Nick’s force didn’t seem to have any effect on Heath except to make the man strike out even more, the wise Doctor produced from a pocket some smelling salts in which he waved a few times under the agitated man’s nose. Heath snorted and gagged a few times but slowly his glassy eyes came into focus. With his chest heaving from exertion, Heath worked hard to catch his breath while at the same time trying to summons his mind to tell him where he was. He looked with confusion to Nick who still had him in a solid clasp.

“Boy howdy! Get that stuff away from me. Nick? Wha-what are you doing? Where are we? What am I do-doing with these bags of ice on me? Get ‘em off of me, Nick. They’re co-cold.”

“Welcome back little brother.” Nick leaned over and pulled the blankets snug around Heath. “You were runnin’ quite the fever there for a while boy. Had us all worried, didn’t he Doc?”

Doctor Morrison sat down on the bed and leaned over his patient. “Indeed you did, son. Do you remember anything about how you got here?”

Heath wrinkled his forehead in concentration. “Nope, I reckon not. Last thing I remember is talking with Hannah about coming to live on the ranch. Hannah!” Heath started to bolt from the bed again but this time both Nick and the Doctor held him firm.

“Hannah’s just in the other room getting some needed rest,” Nick assured him. “A lot has happened while you’ve been out. We’re in Cold Springs now. We’re gonna get you well enough to travel and then we’re going home.”

Heath reached up and grabbed Nick’s arm. The look on his face was one of unmistakable fear. “Uncle Matt and Aunt Martha?”

Nick reached over and cradled the man to his chest. “They’re dead Heath,” he said simply. “They won’t hurt you ever again.”

Doctor Morrison looked to Nick questioningly for a moment but quickly looked away choosing not to pursue what had happened in Strawberry. The Doctor reasoned with himself; this man who cared so much for his flesh and blood could only be a decent, honorable and upright man. There were people dead in the mining town he’d known as having an ill reputation. This man, this Nick Barkley, was no murderer. If there were indeed dead souls in Strawberry then the killings would have had to of been done for a reason. A damn good reason.

Turning back to Heath, the Doctor laid his hand over his patient’s forehead. The kindly healer smiled and turned to Nick who had started to pace, trying to alleviate some of his nervous energy.

“Mr. Barkley. Your brother is going to be alright.” The Doctor’s voice rose to almost the point of jubilation. “The fever seems to have broken.” Nick rushed to Heath’s bedside and knelt beside his brother. Relief and thankfulness were written all over Nick’s face as he laid a big calloused hand upon Heath’s shoulder. “Ya hear that boy? You’re gonna be alright.”

“What else did ya expect Nick,” Heath answered with a weak voice. He turned and looked into his brother’s hazel eyes. “I’ve been through a lot worse. It’s hard to keep a good cowboy down, y’know.” Nick caught the wink Heath gave to him before he yawned and relaxed into the bed once more. “Sleep now. Just let me sleep. Be fine in the morning.”

“You bet you will little brother. You bet you will.”

*****

Nick was awakened as the rays of the new day peeked into the room and spilled onto the blanket covering him. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Nick sat up and swung his long legs over the side of the cot. Feeling a little stiff from the hard bed, and lost sleep, the cowboy shuffled over to where his brother still dozed. There had been no other nightmares after quenching that first one. Heath’s features looked relaxed as he slept. His breathing seemed better than the night before. Nick walked back to the cot feeling confident for the first time that Heath would make a full physical recovery. He frowned slightly as he anticipated that the emotional scars might take longer to fade and disappear, but he would be ready to deal with that as it came along. He pulled on his boots and donned his black leather vest over a clean white shirt. Trying to step lightly so as not to wake Heath, Nick’s spurs jangled softly as the dark haired cowboy moved down the hallway of the Doctor’s house in search of some coffee.

He met up with the Doctor as both men entered the kitchen. An older dark haired woman of Mexican descent bustled about preparing the morning meal.

“Morning, Mr. Barkley. Coffee’s on the stove,” The doctor said invitingly. “Let me introduce you to my housekeeper, Francisca. Francisca, this is Nick Barkley. He brought his brother Heath in last night.” Addressing Nick, “how is he this morning?” Still sleeping?”

“Yep. After the time he’s had, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sleeps for a week.”

“Indeed,” Dr. Morrison agreed, wondering what really took place over there in Strawberry. “I know you’ll want to get your business taken care of with the Sheriff, so why don’t you grab some breakfast and get on over there? I’ll have Francisca heat some of her excellent broth and make sure Heath gets some nourishment this morning. You won’t have to worry about a thing.”

“Much obliged, Doc,” Nick replied helping himself to some of Francisca’s huevos rancheros and tortillas. He ate quickly and downed the last of his coffee. Rising from his seat, Nick thanked the Doctor again and his housekeeper for a wonderful breakfast. “Don’t have eggs like that at home. I’ll have to have Silas make it for us when we get back.”

Before the Doctor could ask, Nick filled him in. “Silas takes care of our family. Makes the best scrambled eggs this side of the Mississippi.”

Francisca beamed with pleasure from the compliment. “Gracias, Senor.”

Retrieving his gun belt and hat from off of a hook by the front door, Nick informed the Doctor that he should have his business taken care of by noon. Coco stood patiently while Nick saddled up. “Coco ol’ boy, you’re in for a good groomin’ when we get home. Bet you’d like that, huh boy?” The old horse nickered in agreement as Nick headed off towards the middle of town and the Sheriff’s office.

Tying Coco loosely to the hitching post, Nick frowned, deep in thought as he walked up to the small building. He was hoping everything would be pretty much cut and dried and that he could get on home. Sheriff Dave Harper glanced up as he heard the door open. Quickly removing his feet from his desk, the Sheriff stood and greeted Nick as he came in the door.

“Howdy, stranger. ‘Scuse the mess.” Meaning to look respectable, Dave went about busily tidying his desk. “Uh, something I can do for ya?”

“Yeah. Yeah there is. I need to report a killing.”

Dave’s head shot up as the man before him definitely now had his interest. “A killing you say?”

“Well, make that three killings and, uh, one hanging. Self inflicted.”

“In MY town?”

“Well, not exactly. Over in Strawberry. They don’t have a lawman there. I figured this was pretty much the closest town who had a Sheriff, so we came here.”

“We?”

“Uh, yeah. My brother and I. Name’s Nick Barkley. My brother Heath was visiting a friend in Strawberry and fell into a nasty mess. See Heath is really my half brother and he ran into some kin of his while he was visiting his friend. Well, these folks, it seems they thought they had a debt to settle with him and well, to make a long story short, they out and out kidnapped him. ‘Bout killed him too and would have if I hadn’t decided to check up on him like I did. They also were holding his friend, a Miss Hannah James, locked up in a tiny room in their cellar under the Hotel they run.”

Dave Harper furrowed his brow and ran his hand absently over his brown neatly trimmed mustache. “Did you say ‘hotel’”?

“Yeah. Why?”

“You wouldn’t by chance be talking about ol’ Martha Simmons and that drunken bum husband, Matt?”

“I would be.”

“They’re dead you say?”

“They are.”

“Wasn’t murder was it,” The Sheriff asked as he started scribbling something down on a piece of paper.

“It wasn’t. Self defense, plain and simple. Like I said, I had to rescue my brother. He was pretty sick when I found him. They had him tied to a beam in that rotten cellar of theirs. Didn’t know if he’d make it to the Doctor. That’s where he’s at now. Looks like he just might pull through, no thanks to those two inhumane jackals.”

“So what you’re telling me is, the Simmons’ are dead. That means…” Dave gazed out the window as he let it sink in what had really happened. “That means that the people of Strawberry can finally start to live and breathe on their own again.”

Now it was Nick’s turn to look sharply at the Sheriff. “You mean you KNEW what was going on there all these years and didn’t do anything about it?”

“Couldn’t do anything. Oh sure, Strawberry’s in my jurisdiction but the Simmons’, though they ruled the town with an iron fist, they never broke any laws, at least not that were ever reported to me. ‘Sides, the people lived in fear of what would happen to them if they exposed the way the town was handled, or mishandled. And most of those folks were too poor to rent a horse from the livery to ride out and tell their stories anyway. Heard ol’ Martha had a coupla fellas that acted for her to make sure the people did her bidding.”

“Well Sheriff, uh, they’re dead too. That’s three killed in self defense and Matt Simmons took the coward’s way out. Found him strung up in the hotel office. That bottle of his helped tighten the rope.”

Dave Harper shook his head in astonishment. “If anybody was fit for something like this, it was the Simmons’. They’ve been bad news for the last 25 years.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Nick muttered under his breath.

“What’s that son?”

“Oh nothin’, Sheriff, ‘cept my brother was raised in Strawberry. Matt and Martha were kin to him, like I said. Well, let’s just say they didn’t treat him like loving family members ought to and leave it at that.”

“As you wish, Mr. Barkley. I won’t pry.”

“So, uh, Sheriff, I s’pose there’ll be an inquest or something proving self defense? My brother, Jarrod, is a lawyer. I could get him down here in say, two days if that’s what you need to do.”

“Well,” Dave had sat down once again and without thinking, had his boots propped up on his desk. “Normally I’d say that yes, we need to have an inquest. However, seein’s it was the Simmons’ that were involved, I have no reason to doubt that everything you did would have been solely to protect yourself and your brother and his friend. Who was that again?”

“Heath’s friend?”

“Yeah.”

“Her name is Hannah James. She’s lived in Strawberry for years. Quite elderly, she is. She’ll be coming home with us to live out her days on our ranch. Helped raise Heath, y’know. She, along with Heath’s mother, Leah Thomson and another friend by the name of Rachel Caulfield.”

“Rachel Caulfield.” Dave wrinkled his forehead. That name sounded familiar. “Rachel Caulfield. Yes! I remember. The story is that the Simmons’ murdered her. Pushed her down an old abandoned mineshaft. Funny, it was never proved in court. Wonder how they wiggled out of that one?”

“That’s why they wanted my brother dead, Sheriff,” Nick revealed quietly. “They knew that he knew more about the matter than what they wanted told and feared if they didn’t shut him up, the truth would be learned and they would have swung for her murder.”

“Yep, a lot of unanswered questions, as I recall, in that court case. Intimidation. That’s what got those two off. Pure intimidation.”

“Well sheriff, maybe we can look at things this way. Justice has now been served.”

“Mr. Barkley, I think you’re right when you say that. As I said, I really should order that inquest, but I’m not going to. Now you git out of here and git that brother of yours home. Scoot, before I come to my senses and change my mind, y’hear?”

Nick felt as though a weight was rolling off his shoulders as he walked towards the door leading to the outside. Turning to face the law official, he raised his hat and with deepest gratitude, expressed thanks to the Sheriff of Cold Springs. “Thank you Sheriff. I’m deeply indebted. Thank you again.” Shutting the door behind him, Nick Barkley walked with a lighter step all the way to the Telegraph Office. Only one telegram needed to go out. The one to his family saying they were coming home.

*****

Epilogue

The ride home from Cold Springs was a little rough for Heath but soon enough he was tucked into his own bed with Victoria and Audra fussing over him in their own loving way. Heath would have been tempted to say “smothering” way but he kept his tongue and for once did everything that Doctor Merar told him to do. He submitted quietly to the palpitation treatments that were designed to loosen the phlegm and water from his lacerated lungs. The treatment consisted of fierce poundings to his back between his shoulder blades often administered by Nick, while Heath himself, dangled precariously from the side of the bed with his body folded over the edge. Victoria or Audra usually stood at his head in an attempt to keep him from toppling onto the floor from Nick’s over zealous hand. The treatment proved to be effective as the force to Heath’s lungs would cause him to expel the undesirable liquids, which would then be caught and disposed of.

In about a weeks’ time, Heath’s breathing was clear and his color was back to a healthy glow. Due to the stress from the whole unfortunate affair, Heath’s body was a little slower to regain the strength needed for full time ranching. Doctor’s orders kept him mostly housebound for about a month, which didn’t sit well with the cowboy used to being active. When the time came, Heath wasn’t the only one glad to be back out in the sunshine and working the land that he loved. His family breathed a collective sigh of relief when the doctor lifted the “stay in the house” order. Heath, after a week of inside confinement, was not a happy man. Fact was, he was almost unbearable. He grumped and sulked, driving his family nearly crazy with his uncharacteristic whining and general grouchiness.

Although he never had reason to journey back to Strawberry, which over the next decade lost its last inhabitants, rendering it a true ghost town, Heath did travel annually to the town’s outskirts. Kneeling in a potter’s field where her simple grave lay, Heath would pay homage to the woman who had raised him to be caring and gentle. Who had taught him to be honest in all things and to know the value of a job well done? Who showered her son with love and warmth and did her best to keep him safe from the cold dark world in which he would too soon experience. “Mama. You will always be in my heart,” He murmured lovingly as he placed fresh daisies, her favorite flower, on her grave.

Hannah James moved into the small ranch house that Nick and Heath had promised her. She went about her work of planting a garden and keeping her little house as neat as a pin. She never talked about what happened in the hotel cellar that day, but Heath knew it was in her thoughts because of the soulful songs she would sing and the Bible verses she would recite when he would visit and help out with the little chores she was unable to carry out because of her frailties. Hannah always had a smile for “her Heath” and lived out the remainder of her days surrounded by the love and care of her new found adopted family.

Coming in after an especially tiresome day of wrestling and branding cattle, Heath arrived at the house, closely followed by brother Nick. Stepping through the massive oak door, Heath stopped at the table in the middle of the foyer. Looking up the curved staircase, he saw Victoria and Audra descending, arm in arm dressed elegantly for dining. Simultaneously, Jarrod appeared from the Library, scotch in hand. A handsome man indeed, outfitted by San Francisco’s finest tailors. For a moment, Heath couldn’t move as he drank it all in.

“Well, ain’tcha gonna move Heath,” came Nick’s familiar loud bellow that could wake the dead.

“Well Nick, they say that in life you should stop every once in a time to smell the roses. Right here are all the members of my family, standing before my eyes. Just wanted to take ya’ll in and enjoy the feeling it gives me, knowin’ I’m loved by the best mother, brothers and sister on the earth.”

Victoria swept gracefully across the foyer and embraced her son gently not in the least bit disturbed by the dust and dirt that fell from his clothes onto her gown. “And I have a son who is loving, kind and good. What more could a mother want then for her boy to be raised right.”

Audra sashayed lightly up to Heath and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t tell Jarrod and Nick, but you’re still my favorite brother.”

“I heard that, young lady,” came the mock retort from the oldest Barkley brother as he walked over and slapped a hand over Heath’s shoulder. “You just keep smelling those roses brother Heath and no matter what happens, your family loves you.” Muttering with a smile and a twinkle of his deep blue eyes. “No matter how many times I have to bail you out of jail and defend you, I’ll still love you and call you my brother.”

Nick, not to be beaten with the sentimentalities being spoken, stepped up and standing square in front of the brother he had always wanted and now had, said with emotion pouring from his heart, “never a better ranching partner could I ask for in you, Heath Barkley. But more important, never could there be a better baby brother then what I’ve got right here.” Nick grabbed the back of Heath’s neck in an affectionate gesture and then turned towards the grand staircase and then back to Heath. “However, right now, brother, you’re spreadin’ trail dust all over Silas’ clean floor and ‘sides that, you stink somethin’ awful. Race ya for the tub.”

***The End***

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