Summary: WHI — I’ve always thought that the episode “Court Martial” was ended too easily. I thought that it might raise issues for Nick that wouldn’t be answered as simply as the five minutes that they had time to give it. So, this is a different take on the ending of that episode.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 3300
Jarrod Barkley turned over in his bed and stared into the midnight blackness of his room. This was the third night of fitful sleep interrupted by dreams. Jarrod sighed as he swung his legs over the side of the bed…guilty dreams. When he had been approached by the government to help expose a conspirator in the death of Abraham Lincoln, he had felt no hesitation whatsoever. But, from the beginning it had been a series of errors and people had been hurt, people that he loved.
His first mistake was not in being sure Audra and his mother were completely away from the house. He should have known that his strong willed and determined mother would do everything possible to escape. They had almost died in that attempt; at the very most had just escaped serious injury. Heath’s desperate dive through the window could so easily have ended in disaster.
But the one that had been injured the most and the one that was causing these sleepless nights, was his brother Nick. The dawning realization of the duplicity that his oldest brother had been a part of, spread across his face with intense pain, then incredible anger. That expression was the nightmare that would not let Jarrod sleep.
Oh yes, mistakes had been made. Jarrod sighed again. Hindsight was a disgusting enemy of peace of mind. He rubbed his neck, trying to loosen up the stiffness of a restless night. They had talked and Nick had admitted that he probably would have done the same thing. But since that day there had been a difference, something that was slightly off center in their relationship.
Jarrod would be the first to admit that it was a possibility that it was his own guilt that was making him feel that way. To be sure, he had only seen him two or three times since the incident and mainly at meals. But, it seemed that Nick was quieter and more withdrawn than his usual boisterous self. The rest of the family was willing to allow the most volatile of the Barkley clan to put to rest his personal demons. But like a sore tooth, Jarrod continued to probe the situation.
More likely ease his conscience, he thought wryly. He ran his hand through his black hair. Time to try a childhood remedy and have some warm milk.
The kitchen wasn’t empty when he got there. Nick was there before him pouring his warm milk from a pan to a cup on the cutting board.
“Enough for two?” Jarrod asked reaching for another cup.
“What?” Nick jumped, spilling his milk on the cutting board and scowling.
Jarrod grinned sheepishly, “Sorry.”
Nick’s scowl lightened fractionally. He grunted a reply and held out the pan and poured it into Jarrod’s cup.
Jarrod took a sip of the milk. “Can’t sleep?”
Nick shook his head slightly and looked down at the cutting board.
Jarrod took the bull by the horns, “Are you alright, Nick?”
His brother poured the rest of the milk in his cup, “Of course I’m alright.”
Jarrod smiled with what he hoped was humor, “You’ve been quiet for the last couple of days, for you that is.”
A shrug of the shoulder, “Well now,” he said quietly, “I suppose I haven’t had much to say.”
Jarrod sat his cup down on the counter, he had to know if his suspicions were correct. “I’m sorry Nick, for what happened. I explained to you why I did what I thought was necessary to do.”
His younger brother looked at him then, his eyes looking dark in the lamplight. “And I told you I understood.”
Jarrod placed a hand on his shoulder, “But do you?” Nick stepped back slightly and his hand fell back to his side. He felt the weight settle around his heart, “No, I don’t think you do.”
Nick’s face became defensive, “I told you I did. Leave it be, Jarrod.”
“I can’t, when I can see it is tearing you apart!”
“Well, then it’s just my problem, isn’t it.”
“No it isn’t just your problem. We’re a family.”
“Except when you decide to make decisions that affect us all. Then you pretty much work on your own.”
Jarrod drew a ragged breath, “You weren’t suppose to be here.”
“But I was!” They stared at each other for a moment.
“I asked you that night what you would have done differently. I’m asking you again, what would you have done?”
Nick took a slow sip of his milk, “I don’t know,” he sat the cup down between them, “maybe that’s why I can’t sleep. You know, I got used to feeling like a tool in the military. But somehow it’s a little harder now. Maybe I’ve been the boss too long to act like a good soldier, or maybe it just seems different when it’s your brother.” He turned away to leave.
“Nick,” he paused at the door but didn’t turn, “I never meant for that to happen.”
Nick nodded, “I know,” he said quietly and left the room.
But that was a small comfort to Jarrod as he sat at the counter in the light of the flickering lamp light, a small comfort indeed.
Jarrod shoved the last of the briefs that he’d been working on for the last few hours into his leather case and shut it with a snap. It was later than he usually worked in his office in Stockton and he considered staying in town. Nights of continued broken sleep had left him feeling tired and frustrated.
He hadn’t talked to Nick since their late night conversation three days ago. Any accusations of avoidance wouldn’t hold up in court. He always had a valid reason for not being there…fences to mend, cattle to move, horses to break. He had to be honest, it wasn’t the first time his brother had thrown himself into his work to get through a problem.
If the truth were known, Jarrod was starting to get a little more than angry himself. Not all the things that had gone wrong that day were his fault. Heath and Nick were supposed to be gone and the fire in the attic was an accident. He was getting completely sick and tired of the whole thing.
Besides, Jarrod was still sore from Nick’s right cross, something that he had seen coming and allowed anyway. He had to admit with grudging admiration, that Nick’s right cross was a work of art. It was a wonder he hadn’t broken his jaw. He rubbed at the offended area. It wasn’t luck, Nick had pulled his punch that night; he could have easily broken his jaw.
Maybe that was one of the things that bothered Jarrod so much. It seemed like Nick’s heart hadn’t been in much of anything since that night. Except work.
He yawned, rubbing his face with his hands. It was time to go. The thought of spending the night in town was discarded in favor of hearth and home. He shrugged into his coat and hefted his brief case. A cup of coffee wouldn’t be too bad before the trip home. The only place open at this time of night was the saloon. But since it was a weeknight it shouldn’t be too busy.
The minute he walked through the saloon doors his heart sank. Sitting at a table by himself in the corner, brooding over the glass his hand, was Nick. He had seen his brother drink with friends, but never like this and seldom alone. Jarrod squared his shoulders and strode across the room.
“Nick?” His brother tipped his head back and looked at him with blood shot eyes.
“Well, hello Counselor,” his words were thick and slurred. “Working late?”
“Just finished. What about you, are you mending fences tonight?”
Nick closed one eye and raised a finger, “This is Wednesday isn’t it. I’m through with the fences.”
“Nick,” Jarrod spat the name like a curse, “don’t you think it’s time you get past this?”
“And just what is ‘this’, Counselor?”
“This is not a game, Nick.” Jarrod held his gaze for a moment, but Nick was the first to look away.
Nick motioned to the bar keep. “Bring another glass for my brother the lawyer.”
Jarrod felt the anger lift the hair on the back of his neck. Nick wasn’t the only Barkley with a temper and Jarrod’s was fully roused. He never took his eyes off his brother as the glass was set on the table between them.
Nick motioned with his hand toward Jarrod, “This is my brother the lawyer. He is a very important man.”
“Nick…” Jarrod’s voice was a warning.
“He is so important,” Nick continues, “that the government has him doing their work for them.”
“I’m warning you, Nick.”
“Why, Counselor… is this a hanging offense?”
Jarrod reached across the table and grabbed the front of Nick’s shirt and dragged him out of his chair. The edge of the table caught on the handle of Nick’s holstered gun and flipped up between them. Jarrod pulled his arm back preparing to deliver a crack on the jaw that would have put Nick’s blow of several days before to an embarrassing shame. But he didn’t get the chance, for the pride of the Barkley clan folded with a sigh across the upright table between them.
Jarrod came down to the breakfast table the next morning with a bad taste in his mouth and feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. It had taken him quite a while the night before to rouse Nick enough to get him into bed without waking the rest of the family. His brother wasn’t at the table with the rest of the family, not too surprising. The older Barkley wasn’t sorry. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to see his younger sibling as yet. The anger of the night before had settled into a dull burning, easily stirred if touched too closely.
Victoria Barkley sat at the head of the table smiling with amused indulgence at the story Heath was telling. Jarrod caught the end of it.
“…three of the biggest steers you’ve ever seen, right through the center of the building.”
Audra laughed, “You think they would have noticed.”
“Oh they noticed,” he said, “they were just too pig headed to say anything.”
Jarrod helped himself to some steak and eggs and sat down across from his mother. He took a cup of coffee from Audra, handed down from his mother.
“Are you going into the office today?” His mother’s voice came to him from the other end of the table.
He looked up from his cup and made a conscious effort of lighten his expression. “No, I worked late last night and I am thinking of rewarding myself by staying home this morning.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Victoria’s look was enigmatic, “it was very late when you got in last night.”
Their eyes locked across the distance of the table. She knew. Of course, she knew. Very little that went on in this house was hidden from Victoria Barkley.
“But if you stay home,” Audra said with a shutter, “keep away from Nick. He just about snapped my head off in the hall this morning.”
Jarrod’s eyes widened, “Nick’s up?”
“Unfortunately for the rest of us.” Audra responded.
He turned toward Heath, “Where is he?”
He lifted a brow and shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know. I would rather meet a mother grizzly than Nick when he’s in that mood.”
The feeling of dread in the pit of Jarrod’s stomach grew in intensity. This feeling was different than the guilt and dreams of the last few days. Something was wrong. There had been a small handful of times when Jarrod had know with unshakable certainty that his brother was in trouble. This was one of them. For a moment Nick’s trouble wrapped around his chest like a band of fear. The next instant he knew with startling clarity where Nick was.
He looked across the table into his mother’s worried eyes. “Go bring him home, Jarrod.”
He nodded silently as he left the table.
Every Barkley sibling had their favorite place, a place of solitude and reflection where a person could think. Jarrod’s place was overlooking a valley. Wide and rolling hills that took his breath away every time he stood there
But Nick’s place was a bluff that overlooked a rocky canyon that was just as wild and unforgettable as Nick himself. The top of it was a kind of huge stone embedded into the top of the bluff that seemed to hang into the space above that long drop into the canyon. Jarrod wouldn’t admit it to his brother, but he hated to walk out onto that rock. But not Nick, he stood out on that rock with his fists on his hips and head thrown back, breathing in the wildness of the air itself. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that was where Nick was right now.
He sat his horse at an easy lope through the hills. He would have to walk the last quarter of a mile as the ground became to rough for the horse to handle. He knew he’s been right when he spotted Nick’s horse tied to some scrub oak at the bottom of a rocky incline.
It was still early enough in the day so that the morning sun only carried a hint of the heat of the later day. But he was still sweating as he pulled himself up over the last rise of stones at the top of the bluff. He paused to catch his breath and froze. Nick was sitting on the edge of that rocky table with his legs hanging out into space.
“Nick?'” Jarrod breathed his name softly.
His brother turned his head slightly, “I should have known you would come.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just sitting here, thinking.”
“Couldn’t you think somewhere else?”
Nick laughed softly, “You never have liked this place, have you.” His voice was softly slurred, he’d already been drinking.
In spite of the warmth of the climb, Jarrod felt cold with fear. “No, I suppose I never have liked this place,” he admitted.
Nick continued so softly that Jarrod had to strain to hear the words. “I keep having this dream. I hadn’t had it for a long time but,” he shook his head slightly, “Now I have it every night. I can’t sleep anymore.”
Jarrod moved over to stand behind that giant table of stone. “What is it about?”
“Someone you knew?”
He shook his head slowly, “No I never knew him. I only saw him once, back in the war. It was before Mayville. It wasn’t big enough to be called a battle, just a skirmish. There were more of them than there were of us, but they were a ragged lot. The only uniforms that most of them had were their Johnny Reb hats. They came at us in their overalls and with their old guns. Some of them didn’t even have guns, just clubs. It was hard to know if they were going to shoot you or club you. After a while it didn’t seem like they were people anymore; just the enemy and you had to get them before they got you.
“I lost my horse in the first few shots, but I managed to find cover behind a downed tree. Jumping over that log with a wild yell, came this boy, his Rebel hat pulled down tight. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen. Just a tow headed kid with the biggest blue eyes you’ve ever seen. He came over the top of that log with his old squirrel gun and I blew his head off. He was just a kid and…I…couldn’t do anything but shoot. Most of them were just faceless enemies, but I have never forgotten that boy. I used to dream about him night after night. You know Jarrod,” he turned slightly, “one of the only people that made any sense of any of that was General Adlerson.
“He held us all together and made everything mean something. And now I know everything he said was a lie. I keep wondering, when I shot Johnny Reb that day, if I was any better than the people that he ordered to massacre that town? Maybe I’m just as much of a monster as they were; just as much of a monster as the man that led us. I wanted to blame you, but it wasn’t you. It was easier to blame you than to believe that the man that had made so much sense of that time, could be so wrong. Maybe easier than blaming myself.”
Jarrod search for the words that could help his brother. “You weren’t like the men that killed the people in that town, Nick. You were defending yourself in battle. That Confederate soldier may have been a boy, a lot of them were. But when he took up that gun, he took up a man’s responsibility. If you hadn’t defended yourself, his bullet would have killed you just as dead as anyone else’s. I know the man that you are, Nick. There had to have been some truth in Alderson’s words for you to believe in him.
“But,” he continued, “The man that you were then and the man that you are today isn’t because of what General Alderson said to you. It is because of the way you were raised and the ideals that you were brought up with. There is nothing in you that would allow you to slaughter innocent people.”
“And just how do you know that?”
“Because I know you. You are a man of honor and I am proud that you are my brother. Don’t judge yourself by the likes of Alderson. You were just a soldier that day, fighting in a war just like all the rest of us were. The truth is, if I had been beside you that day I would have done the same thing, we all would. You need to forgive yourself, Nick and you need to let that boy rest in peace.”
Jarrod allowed his brother a few moments to consider his words, then looked up at the blue sky. The morning mildness was burning off into a hot afternoon. “You know, it’s getting pretty warm out here. Why don’t you come down off that rock and let’s go home.”
Nick nodded slightly. “There is only one problem with that.”
Jarrod frowned, What’s that?”
“I’m going to have to crawl off of this rock.”
Jarrod grinned in spite of himself. He reached back as far as he could and grabbed the back of Nick’s belt. “Now you know how I feel.”
“I don’t suppose we have to tell the rest of the family about this.”
Jarrod looked at his brother with amused affection. “I never saw a thing.” For the first time in days he felt a lifting of the dread and knew that his brother would be all right.