A Test of Courage (by Star)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,200


Sparks danced out of the camp fire as Nick Barkley stirred the burning embers with a long stick. The sinking sun had turned the sky to a crimson red and frogs in the nearby stream were starting to croak their evening lullabies. In a tree, an owl gave it’s low ‘who’ and Nick could hear the nicker of the horses as Heath rummaged through the saddle bags looking for the evenings supper.

“I hope he has something in there besides beans”, Nick thought to himself, as he watched the flames begin to lick up the stick that he held in his hand. Whistling to himself, Heath strode up to the fire and tossed Nick a can. Holding the can up and squinting to read the print in the dusky evening, Nick exclaimed,

“I figured as much! I should have known better than to let you pack chow!”

Heath grinned as he pulled out his pocket knife to open the can. The special blade that doubled as a can opener was well worn.

“Well Nick, knowing how much you love beans and all, I sure didn’t want to disappoint you.”

Nick shot his brother an annoyed grimace and using his bandana, wiped the trail dust out of his tin coffee cup. Just then the two brothers heard a twig snap and in the dim light they could see a figure approaching the campfire with a horse in tow. Instinctively they both reached for their guns, but then relaxed when they saw their sister Audra’s face in the flicker of the fire light. A moment later, Nick’s relief was shifted to frustration laced with anger.

“Audra, what are you doing here?”

He knew he really didn’t need to ask, but yet it seemed to be the logical thing to say.

“I thought maybe I could help cook your meals while you’re on the trail”, the blonde girl offered. “Besides, with Mother and Jarrod gone to Denver, I couldn’t stand the thought of being home alone a couple more weeks while you and Heath were at the lumber camp.”

” I thought we discussed that last night, and decided that the best thing was for you to stay and look after the house.”

“You mean YOU decided. You and Heath always get to have the adventures. I get tired of just waiting around the house for everyone to come home, so I decided to follow along on my own.”

“Well, I guess it would take too much time to take you back now, so you might as well come. But take my word for it, Sister, you’re gonna learn the true meanin’ of trail life!”

Nick and Heath exchanged wary glances as Audra prepared to join them. Heath stood up to take his sister’s horse, but then stopped short as Nick ordered,

“Oh no you don’t, Heath. If she wants to play trail hand, that’s exactly what she’s gonna get. Audra, you can tether your horse over on that picket line with ours. Then bring your gear over and we’ll eat these here beans that Heath has seen fit to pack along.”

Heath looked at Audra sympathetically, but bowing to Nick’s orders, made no move to help his sister get unsaddled. Nick chuckled to himself and whispered to Heath,

“Maybe next time she’ll think twice before deciding to tag along after she’s been told ‘no’ .”

Dinner was unusually quiet as the three sat down to ‘Heath’s feast’. Audra was feeling smug for getting her way, but yet she still felt as though she needed to treed on egg shells in Nick’s presence. When everyone was through eating, she was quick to jump up and whisk the pot and plates down to the creek for clean up. She would show her older brother how handy she really was to have around. The two brothers held on to their coffee cups so that they could enjoy sipping their evening brew and after everything had been put away, Heath pulled a pack of cards out of his shirt pocket and shuffled the deck.

“Anybody for a game of gin?”

“I’ll play!” Audra was always glad to get into a game of cards with Heath.

“How ’bout you, Nick?”

“No Heath, you and Audra go ahead.”

Nick smiled inwardly. Though he would never admit it, he was beginning to feel a little amused by Audra’s strong spirit. He knew it would probably slow them down having her along, and there was always the possibility of a dangerous situation once they reached the lumber camp. He and Heath would have to keep special watch on Audra, but by golly, in the meantime, he was going to make a real trailhand out of her. Continuing in thought, Nick pondered the reason he and Heath had ventured out on this trip. The family had recently acquired another lumber operation, but even though the numbers in the ledger should be reading high, the profits just weren’t showing. The evening before last, word had been sent of some serious accidents that had happened up at North Fork Lumber Camp. The two brothers decided that things needed to be investigated, and on very short notice left for a three day ride up to North Fork. Jarrod had left for Denver a week earlier to attend a series of meetings and Victoria went along to have an extended visit with her sister. Audra had the option of going along with her mother and oldest brother, but decided that three weeks with Nick and Heath at the ranch would be more interesting than three weeks in Denver. Besides, somebody had to look after these two bachelors.

The stars twinkled like gems in a treasure box and a coyotes howl signaled that it was time for bed. Nick didn’t want to be riding with any sleepy trailhands the next day. He had already made that perfectly clear, so Heath and Audra wrapped up their card game and soon three bedrolls were lined up by the fire. Using her saddle as a headrest, Audra snuggled up beneath her blanket. She felt safe and secure with a brother on each side of her. Nick often thought of his sister in terms of dress shops, fancy parties and suitors, but tomorrow she would show him just exactly what she was made of. After all, she was Victoria Barkely’s daughter, and anyone that knew her mother, knew that Victoria was no wimp.

Audra was up at the crack of dawn brewing coffee for her two brothers. She was glad she had prepared for the trip by packing herself eating utensils and some provisions of her own. She brought some water to a boil in a pot and added a seven grain mix and a handful of raisins that she retrieved from her saddle bag. Heath and Nick could smell the hot cereal cooking as they rose up from their bedrolls. The boys usually just ate jerky for breakfast when they were on the trail, so this was a real treat. Nick and Heath pulled on their boots and stiffly made their way over to the camp fire. Maybe having Audra along wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Audra dished up a plate of gruel for each one and stood by with the coffee pot readily available. Once again, when breakfast was over, she washed up the plates and helped with the process of breaking camp. She had packed her saddle bags and rolled her blanket and was heading over to saddle her horse, but found that Heath already had prepared all three mounts. Nick stamped out the ashes in the fire and they were on their way.

As the morning wore on, it was proving to be another beautiful day in the Sierra foothills. Audra felt contentment riding along through the peaceful woods with her two brothers. The scenery up at the higher elevations was always breathtaking. The three had been making fairly good time when they stopped for lunch. After continuing on their way, they had to slow the pace a bit as the road got steeper. When learning through a telegram that the two brothers were riding up to the camp, Stu Jacobs, the lumber boss, had returned a warm response and had mapped out an alternate route through the timber that would save half a days ride. They had already turned off from the main road and there were places where the trail narrowed with rocks or overgrown brush. Audra had no trouble keeping up the rear as the horses picked their way up through some of the rougher areas. She was actually holding up much better than Nick had anticipated. Heath, on the other hand, knew that Audra was plenty gutsy when survival depended on it. She wasn’t just another spoiled daughter of a rich rancher, but had fortitude and plenty of spunk. The trail was well marked and they had no trouble finding their way.

“Do you know where we’ll be camping for the night?” Audra questioned the older of her brothers. Even though when roughing it Heath was the more capable of the two, Nick, being older and bolder, generally found himself in the position of self appointed leader.

“We’ll ride for a few more hours”, instructed Nick. “There should be a small lake up near the top of these mountains. We’ll make camp there.”

“Oh good”, Audra exclaimed gleefully, “we can go fishing!”

“Fishin’ ! What do you know about fishin’ ?”, Nick smirked. “Last time I took you fishin’ you wouldn’t even bait your own hook.”

“That may be true”, admitted Audra, “but who cleaned the fish!?”

“That is true, Nick”, piped in Heath, and then added with a smile, “I’ve got some line in my saddle bags. If Audra baits her own hook, are you going to cook supper?”

“I’ll do anything I have to just as long as I don’t end up eating YOUR cooking again tonight.”

The three equestrians laughed and picked up their pace. They were all looking forward to relaxing beside the lake that evening. Little did they know that they would be having some unexpected company.

The afternoon turned into early evening as the sun started it’s descent behind the tall mountains. To Audra, twilight seemed to come much sooner than she had expected, but that was fine with her. She had had enough riding for one day and was eager to show her brothers that she could run camp while they checked out the fishing. The gear and saddles were unloaded at a place of Nick’s choosing, and He and Audra readied camp while Heath got the three horses settled a short distance away. After securing their four legged friends for the night with ample grass to nibble on, Heath joined his two siblings. Nick already had the fire going and seeing Heath stroll up, he stood to greet his brother. The two looked out over the lake. It wasn’t overly large and neither of them observed any fish jumping in the stillness of the evening.

“Nick, are you sure this is the lake that Jacobs said was full of fish?” Heath queried.

Nick looked at the water still waiting for the first ripple of life to emerge from the murky depths.

“I could have sworn that we followed the map and directions to the letter, but if there are any fish in that lake, they’re either hiding or asleep.”

Heath slapped his brother on the shoulder,

“Well, big brother, what do ya say we go try and wake ’em.”

“It’s certainly worth a try”, exclaimed Nick. “Audra, we’ll be gone a little while. We should be back before dark, hopefully with something to eat. If not, it looks like more beans.”

The two men circled the shoreline looking for a likely spot for fish to hang out. Heath mentioned that he thought Audra had done quite well on the ride that day.

“You must admit, Nick, she never complained once about anything.”

Nick had no choice but to agree with Heath’s compliments of Audra. They walked a bit further and found a suitable fishing spot. Heath produced a small spool of fishing twine and the two made themselves comfortable on the water’s edge.

“You know”, Heath mused, “I’ve been on many long rides, but this is the first time I haven’t spotted a single deer.”

Nick was fussing with his makeshift pole, trying to get the line fastened to it, and thinking the same thing. He had never been up in this area to hunt, but why would the lumber boss say that there was good fishing here?

After two hours of unsuccessful fishing, the two brothers meandered back towards camp. They had walked the perimeter of the lake and tried every place that showed even a remote possibility of aquatic life beneath the surface, but the best they could hook, were fish that weren’t much larger than bait.

“Nick”, Heath stated, “what do you suppose Jacobs is up to? There aren’t any fish in that lake. Haven’t been for a long time.”

“I’m not sure”, Nick replied, “but when we get to that lumber camp, we’re going to ask him if this is supposed to be his idea of a joke. If it is, well, it ain’t gonna be too funny.”

It was completely dark by the time they returned to Audra at the camp. They were feeling fortunate for the full moon that reflected it’s light off the surface of the lake. Audra had the plates out and coffee made, but made a face when Heath handed her the ‘bait’.

“I know”, admitted Heath with a grin, “we shouldn’t have taken them away from their mama.”

Audra laughed and told them to have a seat as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. The beans that Heath had brought were to be dinner again tonight, but somehow they tasted much better this time around. Nick groaned as he lowered himself to the ground.

“There’s nothing in that lake. More than likely they have a longer winter up here and the water freezes solid.”

“We better try and find something to shoot tomorrow”, Heath commented. “I was planning on fresh fish and didn’t bring enough food along for three people for three days.”

Nick looked over at him through the flames. He wasn’t thinking of food right now. He was thinking of why Jacobs had told them about all the great hunting and fishing that was to be had. Nick had questions and he intended on getting some answers.

Morning came all too soon. Again, Audra was first up, but this time didn’t get the breakfast started. Actually there wasn’t any. The rations that she had brought had been used for yesterday’s lunch. There was still plenty of coffee, so she could at least get that going. Nick and Heath were just starting to stir, so she decided she would take a walk over to where the horses were tethered. Still wanting to prove herself to Nick, she had planned to lead the animals back to camp one at a time, and have things ready to go by the time her brothers were up. Audra made her way through the trees and entered the clearing where she expected three pairs of eyes to be giving her their full attention. Instead, she stopped short in her tracks. The picket line was there, but there was not a horse in sight.

“Nick! Heath!” Audra’s cries instantly transported both men into reality.

Nick came running pell-mell in a pair of socks and his uncombed hair flying every which way. Heath had paused long enough for his boots and gun, and was now hot on Nick’s heels. The two disheveled young men burst into the clearing expecting to find Audra as a prospective meal for a hungry bear. Instead, they found their distraught sister frantically circling the perimeter of the small clearing, peering off through the trees. By the time she spun around to blurt out, “the horses, they’re gone!” The two cowboys had already registered the fact. Holstering his gun, Heath ran to the empty picket line and examined some footprints in the marshy soil.

“Moccasins!”, he exclaimed. “Looks like we had some visitors during the night.”

Nick was thinking to himself that it had been a long time since he had heard of any Indians in these parts. This was strange, so very strange.

“What are we going to do?” Audra cried out. She had settled down a bit, but was still very excited. “Where did they come from? How did they know we were here?”

“Well we’re in the pickle barrel now”, Nick barked. “Here we are in the middle of nowhere, and twice as far from home!”

Heath was still kneeling and looking around.

“Well, by the looks of things here, there were four, maybe five. They came from over there and went that way”, he ventured, pointing in the direction that they had been heading.

“So what do we do now?”, Audra questioned. “Head for home or go on?”

“I don’t know what Heath has in mind, but I for one plan to keep on going. This whole thing is just a little too convenient.”

“You can’t go by yourself, Nick”, Heath warned. “You’re right about this being just a little too easy.” He paused and looked over at Audra. “We gotta get her home. This is no job for a woman.”

Nick gave his sister a look that telegraphed exactly what he was thinking. He was just as concerned about getting her home safe, but yet if she hadn’t followed them, the decision to be made would be an easy one. He and Heath would be off tracking horse thieves.

“We can’t go back”, Nick finally decided, “It’s too far; maybe even several days on foot to the nearest town. We need to try and find the horses and head for the lumber camp.”

As the three traded theories on what type of a plan would make the most sense, the sky was turning from a crimson red to a dark gray. A slight drizzle had started, but no one had yet noticed. Before long, a slight wind started whipping through the pines. Softly at first, but then steadily became harder. Realizing what was about to happen, Audra looked up towards the dark clouds that had already formed in the sky. She knew that if they didn’t take cover soon, they might as well all take a dip in the lake.

“Heath! Nick! We have to get some shelter before that rain comes!”

Cursing Jacobs, Nick bellowed,

“We don’t have time to build anything, and our slickers were in that supply bag that I left over by the picket line. That’s gone too. They took everything!”

“We still have our bedrolls and saddle bags”, replied Heath, “let’s see what we can do.”

The three scooped up as much gear as they possibly could in a short amount of time and made headway for some densely grouped pine trees.

“These trees will keep a lot of it off”, said Heath as he handed each of the others their blankets. “Here – wrap up in this, Audra.” He helped Audra drape the thick fabric around her shoulders.

Nick was still madder than a hornet.

“For all the good it’s done us so far, this trail we’ve been following could very well be some wild goose chase off through the timber land. I’m for followin’ the trail back to the main road and headin’ for the logging camp from there.”

“That may be true, Nick, but your probably talkin’ at least a day on foot to get back to that road, plus another day or two up to the camp. I’ve got a fairly good sense of direction. I’m sure I can get us where we want to go.” With the year he had spent as a scout, not to mention much time spent tracking around the back country, Heath’s confidence was unabashed.

“Well, I don’t know”, hesitated Nick. “We don’t have a compass and I would really hate for us to get in deeper than we already are.”

“Trust me”, Heath tried convinced his brother, “with a little help from the sun, I can find my way anywhere.”

The rain subsided and the trio ventured out into the bright rays of sun. The welcome warmth streamed down through the branches beaded with water droplets. The mountain storm had washed away any remaining evidence of tracks, so estimating an exact direction the horse thieves had gone was now no longer an option. They would have to figure on hoofing it all the way to North Fork. Heath was now pulling a piece of rope out of his saddle bag. The saddles and most of the gear had been with them during the night.

“Now what are you doing?” Nick questioned his brother.

“Well, unless you plan on packin’ your saddle on your back, I was going to hang it, and whatever else we don’t want to carry in this grove of trees. At least it will be somewhat protected until we can get back for it.”

Nick grunted his agreement and soon the three of them were off for a trek through the mountains. Not wanting to stray too far from a ready source of water, Heath had been able to locate the small stream that fed the lake. They followed it towards the ridge to which they were headed. It was a couple of hours into their hike when something caught Nick’s attention. There in some brush, was a large eyed doe with a fawn nestled close besides her. Nick stopped short and motioned for the others to do the same.

“Looky there, Heath; see it?” He said pointing at the pair, who seemed totally unfazed by the presence of humans.

“Go for the fawn”, Heath said as he pulled his gun and drew a steady bead. “If we shoot the doe, the fawn will die anyway.”

“No!”, screamed Audra, “you can’t!” That little fawn was just too precious for her to stand by and watch him get shot right out from under his mother. Running between her brothers and their potential meal of venison, Audra provided the fawn with a much needed shield as Heath dropped his gun arm. Jumping to their feet in reflexive fear, the two deer bounded off into the trees.

“Dammit Audra!”, Nick bellowed, “we gotta eat!”

“I’m not THAT hungry”, shot back Audra.

“It’s okay Nick”, Heath said trying to help smooth the tension, “maybe we’ll run across another spot to try our luck fishin’ again. Either that, or I can try and snare us a rabbit.”

“Oh, don’t try that, Heath”, Nick responded, glaring in Audra’s direction, “you do that and you’ll have the ‘Society for the Preservation of Rabbits’ on our doorstep.”

Audra returned the glare and the three continued on in silence. Following Heath’s lead, they hiked until early afternoon. By this time, Nick’s belly was really starting to rumble. Audra was famished too, but didn’t dare fess up to the fact. The path they were taking elevated over a small rise, and there, a short distance away, was another small lake. The three weary travelers felt a small sense of relief and anticipating a break from their endeavor, made their way to the water’s edge.

“I’ve got blisters on top of blisters”, Heath moaned pulling off his boots and socks. A foot soak would feel good on trail-weary feet.

“Never mind the foot bath”, Nick grumbled, “where’s your fishing line?”

Heath tossed the spool at Nick and after rolling up his pant legs as best he could, proceeded to dip his feet into the refreshing water. Audra followed Heath’s example, while Nick stomped off to sulk and fish. About forty-five minutes passed and by this time Heath and Audra were done with their foot soak and had had a little time to catch their breath.

“What do you say we go find Nick”, Heath told his sister, reaching for his boots.

“Sure. That sounds like a good idea”, agreed Audra.

They both headed off in the direction where Nick had departed and soon spotted him up to his knees in the lake. He had a fishing pole in his left hand and the finger’s of his right hand were hooked through the gills of a large trout. However, instead of wading in to the shoreline, Nick just stood in the water with his gaze fixed on a thicket of brush.

“Nick! What the devil are you doin’ out there!?” The way leading down to where Nick was standing, was plenty rocky. Heath took Audra’s hand as he helped her pick her way over the rocks.

“Heath! Don’t you or Audra come any closer. I’ve got one mean grizzly looking here at me. I’m not sure if he wants me or this fish!”

Pushing Audra back in the direction from which they had just come, Heath drew his gun and quickly spotted the bear.

“I don’t know if the bullets from this Colt will phase him much, but maybe it’ll scare him. Toss him the fish, Nick, I’ve got ya covered.”

Reluctantly, Nick surrendered his catch. The bear graciously accepted the gift and lumbered off through the brush with it’s prize.

“Well that’s just great”, Nick muttered as he approached the bank. “Not only am I protecting the wildlife around here, I’m feedin’ it as well.”

By this time, Heath and Audra had joined their brother.

“It’s all right Nick”, Heath reassured him, “we’ll have other opportunities. But for now I suggest that we put as much distance as we can between us and that bear. I don’t want to be around when he decides that he’s hungry again.”

That evening proved to be a true test of brotherly love between three of Tom Barkley’s offspring. As appetites increased, so did the feelings of tension and hostility. They knew that they would need to depend on one another for survival, yet nobody was really getting along. Heath had come across some sheep sorrel which they had readily devoured, but it was hardly an adequate meal after spending all day hiking through the mountains. As the evening air cooled and the mountains cast long shadows, they knew it would be best to stop for another evening of camping out. If things had gone according to plan, they would have been enjoying the warmth of the fire in the lodge of North Fork by now. No doubt their bellies at least would be full.

An abandoned bird nest provided the kindling for a campfire, and the three siblings sank into the the cover of their bedrolls to spend a fitful night of restless slumber. Heath had been hungry before and knew how to deal with the painful reminder of hard times past, but for Nick and Audra, the hollowness they felt inside kept them tossing and turning throughout the night. The following morning, Nick’s mood was no better than it had been the night before. When Heath roused and they had charged their metabolisms with a pot of his very strong brew, they discussed the route to be taken that day. Nick thought that Heath was leading them off course, but Heath insisted that if Nick would just show a little patience, they would eventually reach their destination. Audra lay in her bedroll listening to the heated banter. She wasn’t sure which brother had the right assumptions, but if this were a bet, she’d be willing to put her money on Heath. The rising tones of their angry voices, broke the serenity of the peaceful surroundings.

“Nick, quit being so bullheaded and just hear me out”, Heath sparked.

“I listened to you, boy, and look where it’s got us. We’re no closer now than we were yesterday. I knew I should have followed my gut instincts and gone back to the main road.”

“It takes time, Nick. We’ve had a lot of ground to cover. If you’d just quit being so damn stubborn, maybe we could make some decent time.”

With that final statement from Heath, Nick was on his feet and stepping in Heath’s direction, stood right in front of his face. Heath too, was now standing and the two brothers stood glaring at each other, silently daring the other to make the first move. Finally Nick took the offense and addressing his steely eyed brother, he said,

“Now looky here, boy, I’ve had just about all the lip I plan on taking from you on this matter. It’s going to be MY way. You got that, boy?”

“I ain’t your boy, Nick, and if you think I’m going to stand by and let you get us lost, you’ve got another thing comin’! You can take off to parts unknown if that’s what you want to do, but I’m takin’ Audra and we’re headin’ for the lumber camp.”

“Why you…”, Nick sneered through gritted teeth as he reached out to take hold of Heath’s collar. His grip was warded off by a heavy thrust from Heath’s fist.

“Okay, boy, if that’s the way you want it….”, Nick’s fists were cocked and ready, but his words were cut off by Audra’s shrill scream.

“Stop it you two! You both sound like a couple of stray dogs scrapping over a piece of meat!” The word ‘meat’ caused Audra to salivate slightly, but she continued with her reprimand. “I’m tired, and I’m hungry and I just want to go home.”

“You stay out of this, Audra”, Nick ordered. “If you remember correctly, you were never invited to come along with us in the first place. And as for being hungry, none of us would be if you hadn’t interfered yesterday.”

Audra was too angry to be hurt by her older brother’s words. Instead she marched over to her bedroll and began packing for the day’s hike. Heath shot Nick a dirty look and turned to join his sister. The two of them had an especially close bonding, and during the infrequent times when there were disagreements among family members, they usually stood by each other. Even though nothing had been physically duked out between the two brothers, Nick knew that he had been licked. Reluctantly, he too packed up his things, and the three headed out to conquer the new day. There were enough obstacles to face without making enemies out of one another as well. If Heath and Nick could each overcome their own stubborn pride, their chances of safely reaching their destination would be greatly increased.

The tempers seemed to cool down considerably after the journey was started. Putting their heads together, Nick and Heath set about a more constructive means of verbalizing their concerns. Trying to piece what little they had to go on, they were trying to figure out the how’s and why’s of the events that they had encountered so far on this trip. First of all there was a lumber camp that wasn’t producing near the profit that a camp it’s size should be. Then there was the telegram from Stu mapping out a short cut, through an area supposedly abundant with game. The shortcut didn’t seem to have saved them any time, and the lake was hardly teaming with fish as the lumber boss had claimed. If that wasn’t enough, the horses were stolen during the dead of night, with no signs of human presence anywhere near. Sure, the tracks appeared to be those of Indians, but both brothers knew that the chances of Indians in that area were slim. It all seemed very fishy indeed. Caution being the bane of his existence, Heath thought they should exercise such when they finally did come into the vicinity of the camp. If somebody was trying this hard to keep them away, they may go to any means.

Audra was still a bit miffed with Nick, but she was happy that the two were at least speaking to each other in a civilized manner. They rounded a thicket of brush, and there in front of them was the biggest patch of blackberries that any of them had ever encountered. The three dropped their belongings and practically dove into the thorny patch headfirst. Ravenously plucking and eating, they were finally able to quench their gnawing hunger.

“I think that now I will have the energy it takes to make camp”, Audra sighed with relief, licking her purple stained lips. She had to laugh at her two brothers. “You both look like a couple of saloon girls”, she said, not being able to stifle her giggles.

Both Nick and Heath looked at each other and had to laugh with her.

“Boy howdy, Nick, don’t you look pretty.”

Heath’s light humor with his brother was Nick’s sign that the earlier dispute had been forgotten. At this point, the three were really starting to look worse for wear, but finding this unexpected godsend revived their spirits and they were ready to trek onwards. It was later on that day that they heard the ring of axes and sounds of falling trees echoing across a still valley.

“The lumber camp must be within ten miles of here”, Heath ventured. “Just on the other side of that valley.”

“So what’s the plan here, little brother?”

Nick voluntarily gave Heath the chance to call the first shot. His way of showing his younger brother that he truly did respect his skills and decisions.

“Well, Nick, I know that you and Audra probably are anxious to get some hot grub as soon as possible. Hell, I am too, but I think our best move would be to lay low for awhile longer yet.”

“Are you wanting to camp here for the night, then?”

“I think that it would be to our advantage to do so Nick. We can build a small fire, but we need to try and keep it concealed. We don’t want anybody to know that we’re out here. If somebody really did want to delay or prevent our arrival, we need to find out the reason for it. I don’t want to go walkin’ into any traps.”

Nick and Audra agreed with Heath’s wise suggestion. Attempting to shoot some game for dinner was totally out of the question, but using his fishing line to make a snare, Heath was able to treat his two siblings to a feast of wild rabbit. It felt good to finally put some food with substance into their bellies. It was agreed that someone should be awake at all times during the night. Nick and Heath were going to split the watch, but Audra insisted that she be given a turn as well.

“After all”, she told Nick, “you did say that you were going to make a trail hand out of me.”

“That I did, little sister, and you’re proving to be a pretty fair one at that.”

The night passed with out incident. Heath sat up through the first watch and then it was Nick’s turn. Nick, who was now showing his soft side, thought twice about waking Audra when his time of vigil had expired. Being the protective big brother that he was, he had contemplated, “she can use the rest”. However, she had seemed so sincere in her desire to help, that he didn’t want to disappoint her. Besides, he figured that taking a turn with shouldering responsibilities helped to build strong character.

Nick and Heath slept longer than usual the following morning. They woke, and there was Audra swaddled up in her blanket, sitting with her back to a tree.

“Mornin’ Sis”, Heath greeted his sister drowsily.

“Good morning!”, Audra’s response was reasonably cheery considering how the past few days had gone.

“Did you catch any Indians trying to sneak into camp while we slept?” Heath was up and now sitting under the tree next to his sister.

“No Indians last night”, Audra teased back, “just that big grizzly bear wanting another handout.”

“He probably took one look at Nick and decided to head for high timber.” Heath chuckled and looked over at Nick who had his blanket wrapped around him like a cocoon. “Well, big brother, are you goin’ to lay around in the sack all day?”

Nick mumbled something about having to be the one stuck with middle watch and rigidly thrust a foot into a boot. Nick’s back sometimes gave him trouble from countless times of being pitched off ornery horses. Having spent the past several nights sleeping on bare ground hadn’t done it any favors. Heath now had his knife out and was using it’s razor edge to scrape a night’s worth of stubble off his jaw.

“We need a game plan, Nick. What do you say I do some scouting around while you and Audra wait here?” Heath suggested, brushing his hand across his freshly groomed face. “Here Nick, you want to use this?” Heath retracted the knife’s blade and held it out to his older brother.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt.” Nick reached for the knife offered by his younger brother.

Heath squinted up at the sun,

“I’m guessing it’s right around eight o’clock. I’ll try and be back in two or three hours.”

“Good enough”, replied Nick, and then with a small grin added, “and Heath, don’t go getting yourself lost.”

Audra gave her soon-to-depart brother a small peck on his cheek.

“Be careful Heath.”

He slipped his arm around her waist and drew her into a quick squeeze. Then untying his bandana from around his neck, he handed it to her.

“Here’s for good luck; now there’s no need to go worrying yourself “, Heath reassured her, and with a half cocked smile added, “Don’t wait supper on me.”

Nick and Audra watched their brother’s form disappear among the trees. There hadn’t been any breakfast that morning, so there were no dishes to wash or any other chores for that matter. Audra was feeling a bit restless and not wanting to spend a banal morning with just her and Nick staring at each other, she suggested that they take a walk down by the stream. Nick could try and find a spot where some unexpecting trout may be lurking, and she really felt the need to freshen up a bit.

“Come on Nick, let’s go for a walk down by the stream.”

Nick looked over at his sister. She had really proved her grit on this trip, and he was also glad to be sharing her companionship.

“Is that a hint for me to try and catch you some breakfast?”

“Well, let’s just say that if you do, I’ll clean and cook it.”

“And I’ll bait the hook! Come on.”

The two made their way down to the water, but didn’t find a spot suitable enough for Nick to try his luck fishing. They both took a minute to splash some water on their faces, and then decided to take a hike upstream. If there were any widened areas in the creekbed, the prospect of finding a meal would be greater. They had walked about three miles, when a small meadow came into view. There munching contently on summer grass were three horses. Audra spied them first.

“Nick look!” The excitement in her voice quickly aroused her brother’s attention.

“Hey, those are our horses!” Nick strained to get a better look at the equine trio. “Sure enough. There’s Coco, Charger and Mischief. Damn. I wish I had brought that rope along.”

“There must be something we can use”, Audra ventured. Thinking a moment, she zealously added, “we can tear our shirt sleeves into strips and make some rope.”

“That would work”, responded Nick. “I know that Coco will probably come to me. If we can get enough length to even just lead him back to camp, Charger and Mischief are sure to follow.”

Audra had already unbuttoned her blouse and was in the process of taking it off.

“Here Nick”, she said reaching out her open palm, “Give me that knife of Heath’s.”

Nick dug the knife out of his pocket and handed it to his sister, and then removed his shirt as well. The knife was helpful in cutting through the thicker part of the cuffs and then the sleeves ripped with ease. Using both the sleeves from both shirts, there was enough fabric to construct two small ropes. Nick and Audra slipped back into their shirt vests, and headed in the direction of the meadow.

“Just take it slow and easy as not to spook them”, Nick warned.

As they approached, the horses who had sensed their presence stood in alert attention. Nick whistled softly and Coco perked his ears up, giving his master a low whinny.

“Easy Coco, easy boy”, Nick spoke soothingly to his old friend.

The horse gave some soft snorts and walked over to Nick and Audra.

“Good boy. Good Coco.” Nick slipped one of the cloth ropes around Coco’s neck.

Audra walked up to Charger, who had followed along with Mischief, and put her noose on him. The horses, who had grazed their fill, where perfectly content to be led back through the trees by these familiar humans. Not wanting to be left behind, Audra’s little mare brought up the rear.

“Won’t Heath be surprised when he comes back and finds the horses.” Audra could hardly wait to see the look on her brother’s face.

“He sure will”, Nick agreed.

While Nick and Audra were having their adventure, Heath was having one of his own. He figured that keeping well in the cover of trees, he would work his way in the direction of the logging camp. The North Fork Lumber Camp was ideally located near the Stanislaus River. Many little creeks, streams and tributaries fed the river. Though Heath had never actually been to this particular camp, he was familiar enough with the area to know that by following the path of a stream or creek, he would eventually reach the camp that was located south of the river. They had heard the echoes of the crashing trees the previous evening, so he knew that to find the camp, he didn’t have far to go.

It seemed as though it was going to be especially hot today. He had only been walking an hour, and already his brains felt like they were being baked. Heath shifted his path down next to the creek he was following. A cool drink would taste good right about now. He knelt down and scooped the water up to his mouth. Because of his military training, he never drank with his face in the water. A soldier had to be alert to his surroundings at all times. He took off his hat and using his shirt sleeve, wiped the sweat off his brow.

Standing back up, he was preparing to move on when the formation of the creek bank opposite of where he stood caught his attention. The soil looked as though it had been turned and worked and there were various piles of soil and gravel that looked as though they were man made. The creek was fairly wide, so Heath traveled along it’s edge hoping to find a spot with a fallen log where he could cross over. As he walked along, he closely observed the other side. Similar piles of dirt and gravel could be found periodically all up and down the creek. Heath had been around gold country and knew that this could only be the sign of one thing. A gold find.

Eventually he came upon a place suitable to cross over. He examined the turned up soil closely and then stepped down directly to the creek. Rolling up his sleeve, he reached into the water and brought up a handful of the creek bottom’s sandy soil. There glittering golden in the sunlight where little specks of yellow. So this was why Jacobs didn’t want management snooping around. He realized what this meant to the interest the Barkley family held in this land. He knew that he had stumbled on to something big. He also knew that there would be certain individuals who would be wanting this to be kept a secret at any cost. He would go back to Nick and Audra to report his speculations to them, and they could plan how best to handle the situation.

Heath had just stood to his feet when he heard a whip snap. He started to turn but stopped short when the familiar sound of a revolver being cocked echoed in his ear. A hand reached from behind and lifted Heath’s gun out of his holster and a gruff voice demanded some answers,

“Who are you boy, and what are you doing here?”

“My name’s Heath and I was just getting a drink of water”, Heath calmly replied. He didn’t wish to volunteer any more information than he absolutely needed to. Another voice piped in,

“That didn’t look like what you were doing to us. Now we’re going to ask you just one more time, boy; what are doing here?”

Before he could think of a snappy answer, the other voice broke in again,

“I’ll bet he’s one of those Barkley fellows. Hey Barkley, where’s your brother?”

“I don’t know”, answered Heath, “we split up in the woods and went our separate ways.”

Heath’s statement was true enough, at least for these ruffians. He definitely didn’t figure they needed to know of Audra’s presence.

“Well, I imagine our boss will have some questions of his own. Let’s take him back to camp, Tanner. I’ll bet this week’s pay that Mr. Jacobs would be more than honored to make the acquaintance of Mr. Barkley here.”

The man referred to as Tanner whistled loudly and a third man rode out of the brush leading a couple of saddle horses. The two men holding Heath carefully straddled their mounts, keeping there guns leveled on him at all times.

“Now you just start walking Mr. Barkley. We have a ways to go so I don’t expect you to dilly dally.”

Heath walked for what seemed like close to two hours. Finally they approached the logging camp. The camp consisted of a good sized building constructed of logs that served as both a mess hall and company office. A livery and large canvas tents made up the rest of the camp. A small supply cabin was nestled on the hill directly above the main building. The men walked Heath around the side of the building and up the steps to where Stu Jacobs was sitting in his large office. The lumber boss had some blue prints laid out on his desk and was going over them with a couple of his workers. The sound of the opening door caused him to look up from his work as the three men and their captive entered the building.

“Tanner. Johnson. What’s going on?”

“Well Mr. Jacobs, it appears that we caught us a claim jumper. I’ve got a strong suspicion that his name’s Barkley. We found him poking around down by the creek bed.”

“Barkley? I thought that you were going to try and discourage the Barkleys from coming up here. Where’s the other one?”

“Don’t know, Sir. He was the only one we could find.”

Stu Jacobs turned and addressed Heath,

“Now Son, I’m going to ask you some questions and I don’t figure on waiting too long for some answers.” The man’s demeanor conveyed authority. “Which Barkley are you? Are you Nick Barkely?”

“No, my name’s Heath.”

“Now I’m going to ask you, Heath, where’s your brother Nick and who all knows about our little operation here?”

“Like I told your men. Nick and I split up quite a ways down the mountain. I really don’t know where he is at the present time.”

“I don’t think your being level with me, boy. Tanner.”

Jacob’s sidekick nodded to his two comrades and the three stepped towards Heath. The man referred to as Johnson and the other one, nameless, each grabbed one of Heath’s arms. Tanner stood facing him and with a wicked grin on his face, struck him in the mouth with full force. Heath winced as he saw the blow coming. The impact split his upper lip. He could feel a warm stickiness oozing through his teeth.

“How do you like the taste of your own blood, boy? Now are you ready to cooperate?”

Heath felt the burning desire to tell Jacobs and all his henchmen to just go to hell. He wanted to tell them that they could beat him black and blue, but they would never force an answer out of him. His better judgment told him that now wasn’t the time for that. If he kept his cool, maybe they would go easier on him and he could try and figure a way out of his predicament.

“I already told you. I don’t know where my brother is and as far as I know, nobody else knows about the gold.”

“Tanner”, Jacobs stern voice commanded, “make sure he’s not lying and then tie him up and stick him in my tent. We’ll figure out what to do with him tonight.”

With that statement, Stu Jacobs got up from his desk and walked out of the office. As the door shut behind him, confession time began. The men all began taking their turn trying to make Heath talk. He fought them off as best he could, but five against one was hardly an even score. He thought the beating would never end, but finally the blows ceased and he could vaguely make out Tanner’s voice as the man’s eyes bore down on his crumpled form.

“Okay, I don’t think he’ll be giving us much trouble now. Tie his hands and put him in the tent like the boss said.”

“What are we going to do with him?”, one of the other men asked.

“I’m not sure exactly what the boss has in mind. Maybe he’ll want us to arrange another one of those ‘accidents’.”

Back at the camp Nick and Audra were patiently waiting for Heath to return. He had told them two or three hours which could easily translate into four or five. By the time evening came, they were both really starting to get concerned.

“He certainly should have been back by now”, Audra stated. She didn’t know exactly what time it was, but the way the sun was starting to sink, she knew it had to be getting fairly late.

Nick had to agree. There had been enough rope left in Heath’s saddle bag to make a picket line and tie for each horse. Nick knew how to fashion a hackamore style headstall with reins with a piece of rope as well. They wouldn’t have the luxury of riding in a saddle, but it would definitely beat walking. Anticipating Heath’s arrival, the two hadn’t left the vicinity of the campsite since they had returned with the horses. Audra had passed the day by grooming the horses manes and tails with her fingers. Nick had been able to rig a snare like he had watched his brother do the night before, and actually caught a couple of rabbits with it. The rabbits had long been devoured, and the two were now confronting the harsh reality that their brother may not be coming back.

“You’re right, Audra”, Nick’s voice sounded uneasy, “he should have been here by now, which can only lead me to believe one of two things. Either he’s been hurt somehow or he ran into some sort of trouble with those guys down at North Fork.”

“Maybe he lost his way”, Audra suggested with hopefulness surrounding her tone.

“No”, replied Nick, “I’m sure that Heath didn’t get lost. His sense of direction is far too great. No, I have this gut feeling that he may have got himself into some serious trouble.”

“Oh Nick, what are we going to do?”

Nick could see the deep concern reflected in his sister’s eyes.

“You’re not going to do anything!”

“What do you mean ‘I’m not going to do anything’? He’s my brother too, Nick, and I will do whatever I can to help him!”

Nick took a moment to consider the options. There really weren’t a whole lot to choose from. As much as he wanted to keep Audra away from the logging camp, he certainly couldn’t leave her here alone for the wild beasts or anyone else who happened along. One thing was certain, and that was that neither of them would be content to sit around here much longer now that they had made the assumption of foul play. Finally Nick spoke as his sister listened in full attentiveness.

“Okay Audra, I guess you win on this issue. At this point there isn’t a whole lot of choice. We’ll take the horses and skirt around wide. By the time we reach North Fork it should be dark and all the men should be in camp. We can find a place to leave the horses and then try to get into the camp without being seen. I’m not sure if we’ll find anything when we get there, but at least we’ll have tried.”

Audra nodded her approval and the two packed what little gear they had and prepared to leave. After preparing hackamores for Coco and Mischief, Nick gave Audra a boost up on to her horse. He had rolled the saddle bags up in the bedrolls and tied them up onto Charger’s back. The horse balked slightly from the awkward load.

“Easy there Charger. Hope you won’t mind playing pack animal for awhile”, Nick soothed his brother’s loyal mount. “Well, Audra, guess I’m ready.” Nick heaved himself on Coco and the rescue expedition was on it’s way.

Meanwhile at North Fork, Heath was starting to regain consciousness. His ribs hurt something fierce and his head felt as though it had been split in two. He tried to reach up and touch it, but discovered that there was rope joining his arms together at the wrists. He looked around and soon figured out that he was in somebody’s tent. Then he remembered the voices back in the main office. They had said something about holding him until they could arrange for an accident of some kind. Heath leaned back and shut his eyes again. How did he always get himself in these difficult situations? He thought of Nick and Audra waiting for him back at the campsite. When he didn’t return, more than likely they would come looking for him. Heath could only pray that they would have enough sense not to come walking into the same trap he had.

He heard some voices approaching and now two men stood outside the tent talking. He identified them as Tanner and another man referred to as Brown.

“You know Tanner, it would have been much more simple if we had just taken care of both of them back there in the hills when we had the chance.”

“I hear ya, Brown, but the boss, he didn’t want it that way. You start gettin’ too many casualties and the like and people start to wonder. I guess now we don’t have any choice, but it would have saved some effort if you could have just scared ’em back home.”

“Well, by the way that Barkley feller fought us when we were working him over, I kinda get the feelin’ that he don’t scare too easy.”

“Oh yeah. Well maybe some arrows shot in their backsides would have done it.”

The two men laughed venomously. “Come on Brown”, Tanner added, “Let’s go on over to the mess hall. The Boss wants Barkley moved up to the cabin for safer keepin’. You and a couple of the boys can take care of that while the rest of the men are eatin’.”

It was near dusk when Nick and Audra arrived in the woods looking down into the logging camp. There was light coming from the windows in the mess hall, but enough daylight that men were still milling about the camp.

“Now what are we going to do?”, Audra questioned her brother. “I don’t see Heath anywhere.”

“It’s doubtful that they would have him out in the open, if he’s even here”, said Nick, “I think our best bet would be to try and get somebody to give us the information we need. Now if I could just figure out a way to lure one of those hooligans out of camp.”

Audra smiled.

“I’ve got a way Nick.” In a hushed voice she divulged her plan to his listening ear.

“I don’t know Audra, it could work, but then again, it’s pretty risky.”

“Then it’s a risk I’m willing to take. If we aren’t willing to take a gamble, then it could be Heath’s life that’s at risk.”

“Okay, little sister, you go ahead and do what you need to do. I’ll be waiting down the road a piece.”

The two siblings made their way down towards the dirt road that led up through North Fork. While Nick concealed himself in some brush, Audra started to hike up the road to the camp. She stopped for a second, and looking down at her blouse, unbuttoned the top two buttons. She was wishing that her blouse still had the sleeves attached. It would help make her story a little more believable.

The livery was located on the edge of camp right off the main road. Two men were leaning up against the backside of the building enjoying a friendly chat and a cigarette. The taller of the two glanced her way and did a double take. That couldn’t be a….. yes, it was.

“Hey Abe, looky what’s comin’ up the road. Seems like a coon’s age since I’ve seen one of them.”

“Now Hank, it hasn’t been that long. We were just down at the trading post a couple of weeks ago. She’s something to take notice of, though. I wonder where she come from?”

“Well, I intend to find that out right now.” The two men exchanged impish grins and walked down to greet the approaching girl.

“Well now what happened to you Miss. You look like you’ve been through a war.”

“Well I haven’t been in any wars”, Audra smiled, “but I did have a wheel come off my buggy about a half mile down the road from here.”

“What in tarnation brings you up this way little lady?”

“I’m one of the girls from the trading post”, Audra replied. “I was sent up here to invite all you boys in the camp down for some fun and excitement tomorrow night. After all, aren’t the weekends when you men like to kick up your heals. There are several new girls who have arrived this week, and I’m one of them.”

“Well, if they all look like you, I’m sure it will be plenty fun and exciting.” The man called Abe was eyeing Audra’s low buttoned blouse and bare shoulders. He couldn’t hide the big grin that spread over his face.

“Say”, said Audra, “would one of you fellows be so kind as to help me with my buggy. It doesn’t weigh much. If you could just lift up the axle, I could get the wheel back on. The buggy’s just a short walk from here.”

“I think that could be arranged”, piped in Hank. “Come on Abe, let’s go give this lovely little lady a helping hand.”

“No, Hank. I think this is one job that I can handle all by myself. You wait here and tell Jacobs I’ll be back in about twenty minutes. No, better make that an hour.”

The two men exchanged winks and Abe headed back down the road with Audra. She could feel his hand brush up against her backside, but was careful not to show her discomfort. She knew that Nick was just ahead and that he wouldn’t let anything happen to her. They came around the bend in the road where Nick was hiding, but yet there was no buggy in sight.

“How far is this buggy of yours, sweetheart? I thought you said it was just a short ways.”

“Maybe it’s a bit farther than I thought”, Audra responded.

“Well I’m not in the habit of doing favors. If it’s very much farther, it’s gonna cost you extra.”

With that he grabbed Audra by the arm and pulled her into a hungry kiss. His grip loosened, however, when he felt the sensation of cold steel being pressed up against his temple.

“Now that’s far enough, mister”, Nick growled, “now don’t go getting me any more riled than I already am. This Colts got a hair trigger and my fingers feelin’ mighty itchy so don’t make me do anything that you’ll never live to regret.”

The man didn’t dare twitch a muscle as Audra moved back out of his reach. Pressing the barrel harder against Abe’s head, Nick made his request known.

“Now you’re gonna tell me exactly what’s going on around here, aren’t ya partner?”

“I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’ “, the man scoffed. “When Jacobs finds out that I’m not back in an hour, he’ll come lookin’ for me.”

“Well if you want him to find you dead, then you just keep your mouth shut. Now you’ve got just one more chance, buddy. Start talking, and if I don’t like what I hear, you’re going to be makin’ your entrance through those pearly gates.”

Nick pulled the hammer back on his Colt and steadied his arm. Audra couldn’t help but smile. She knew her brother would never shoot somebody in cold blood, but she was enjoying his theatrics.

“Okay”, blurted Abe. “I’ll talk. What do you want to know.”

“Where’s our brother?”, chimed in Audra. “Have you hurt him?”

“No, didn’t touch him”, the man lied. He had actually been one of the ones involved with Heath’s beating, but didn’t want to get this other Barkley any more riled.

“Well then, you just tell me where it is that I might find him and maybe I’ll let you live.”

Nick apparently had done a pretty fair job convincing the man. He gave directions to the camp and told Nick and Audra that they could find Heath in Jacobs’ tent.

“Take off your shirt”, Nick ordered.

“What?”

“Your shirt. Take it off.” Reluctantly the man obeyed.

“Okay, now lie face down in the dirt.” Tossing the shirt to Audra, Nick kept his gun pointed at Abe’s head. “Audra, rip up this shirt. I need a gag and some more of those ropes.”

By now Audra was an old pro at fabricating robes from shirts. In moments they had the man bound, gagged and hidden in some brush. Nick pulled the man’s gun out of it’s holster and handed it to Audra.

“Here you go, sis, this may come in handy.”

Nick and Audra headed back up the road to North Fork. There was still the problem of how to get into the camp and locate Heath. It was apparent to both of them that everyone in the camp was expecting Nick, yet no one seemed aware of Audra’s presence.

“I guess our first priority is to locate Heath”, Nick mused, “finding out what in blazes they’re trying to pull off is secondary. We need to get into that camp, but somehow I get the feelin’ that they don’t cotton to kindly to strangers.” He glanced over at Audra. “At least not ‘male’ strangers.”

“Well maybe they’ll cotton to me”, replied Audra. “After all, this is a logging camp. Maybe I could try and lure the men out one by one and you could take care of them from there.”

“No, that would take too long.”

“Well, I don’t see that we have that many other ways to go about it, Nick. At least let me go up and see if I can find Heath. If we can turn him loose, that will be one more on our side.”

“No Audra, I can’t let you do that.”

“I’m a big girl, Nick Barkley, and old enough to make my own decisions. I’m going and that’s all there is to it. We already know from what that ‘Abe’ said, that they are expecting you. If you go and get yourself caught or killed, how’s that going to help me or Heath? No, I’m going into that camp. Besides, I’m certain they have no intention of killing me. You just wait here for any unsuspecting men that I decide to send your way.”

Nick knew that they had pretty much run into a brick wall on choices, so reluctantly he agreed to Audra’s plan.

“Well I guess since you’re set on it, I don’t have much choice but to go along. I’ll keep an eye on things as best I can from out here, but if you’re not back in a reasonable amount of time, I’m coming in.”

Audra nodded and turned, but Nick had one more concern.

“Audra wait. It’s going to look a little too obvious with you packin’ that gun around. Here”, he said unbuttoning his shirt, “tuck that into your pants and put what’s left of my shirt on over it. It will hang low enough on you to cover that pistol. And Audra, don’t use it unless you absolutely have to.”

Once again, Audra walked up the road by the livery. Abe’s buddy, Hank, was still standing out back. He was talking with another man. They both looked over at Audra.

“He’s having trouble with that buggy wheel”, she called out. “He asked me to have you go down and give him a hand.”

“Why don’t you go”, Hank told his friend, “I’ll stay here with the lady.”

“Actually, I would love to freshen up a bit. Would you be so kind as to escort me into the camp?”

“That would be my pleasure, Miss”, said Hank tipping his hat to Audra.

By now it was almost completely dark and most of the men were in the mess hall playing cards. Hank took Audra to a water bucket, located on the porch of the mess building.

“I’ll just leave you here to clean up, little lady. When you’re done, just come on inside. I’m sure all the boys will want to be meetin’ you.”

Hank walked into the building and Audra took her moment of solitude to have a glance around the camp. Abe had told her and Nick that Jacobs had Heath hidden inside one of the tents. There were many, many tents so which one was it? She figured it would have to be one fairly close to the building. She welcomed the darkness as a friend. It would enable her to search through some of the tents, hopefully unnoticed. Quickly she moved across the camp grounds and began her hunt. The moon cast enough light that she could plainly see to find her way around, but the tents themselves were fairly dark. She felt her way around in the darkness, softly calling Heath’s name.

She had just entered the third tent and had decided that it was another dead end, when suddenly, the canvas room lightened. There on a cot sat a bearded old man, turning up a kerosene lamp. Impulsively motivated by fright, Audra reached inside Nick’s shirt and drew out the pistol. Gripping the handle firmly with both hands, she leveled the gun at the unshaven stranger, waiting for him to make the first move. Instead he gently asked her,

“Child, what are you plannin’ to do with that peace maker?” Somehow the tenderness in his voice, gave her a sense of trust, but she had to be sure.

“I’m looking for my brother. Your Mr. Jacobs has him and I intend on getting him back. Who are you and how long have you worked here?”

“Now that’s a funny question”, the old-timer said, “me, I come and go. I get enough for a new bottle and a grub steak. Then me and Fred, that’s my mule, me and Fred go lookin’ for some of that gold that those old Injund used to talk about. The white man came and drove them all south to the reservation, so they kept it a big secret. Only those of us who were raised in these here parts have heard tell of this, and I suppose it’s probably even just another ghost story.”

“what do you mean ‘ghost story’ “, Audra asked.

“Hell, anybody up here will tell you that you go lookin’ for Injun gold and you just don’t never come back outta these hills. Lots of people have come lookin’, but they never came back.”

“You mean there’s Indian gold in these woods?”

“Yes siree, somewhere, but let me tell you, there are some strange things goin’ on in these parts lately. Yes sir, mighty strange. I could’ve sworn that I saw some Injuns just a few nights ago, and I know there ain’t been any here for a long, long time.”

By now Audra felt confident that this friendly old geezer meant her no harm and lowering her gun, she returned her weapon to it’s place of concealment. The old man gave her a warm smile and asked,

“Now just who are you, Missy, and where did you come from?”

“I’m Audra Barkely.”

“Barkley? Are you one of them folks I hear about from down in the valley?”

“Yes sir, that’s my family.”

“Well Missy, if you need any help, you can count on me.”

Audra looked at the man and wondered if she really could count on him to help her locate Heath. Right now, her chances of finding him alone, seemed slim.

“So”, the old man said, “I suppose you ain’t one of them gals from town after all.”

“No sir”, Audra said blushing. “I’m here in an attempt to rescue my brother from Jacobs.”

“I knew that ornery ol’ pole cat was up to no good. He don’t know nothin’ about cuttin’ trees. Neither do the men he hires. Not like when Bill was up here; but that was a couple of years ago.”

“What happened to Bill?”, asked Audra.

“Oh, he had one of those accidents that happen around this place if you’re not careful. I wasn’t here when it happened, but I heard tell that a tree rolled over him when he wasn’t lookin’. That was after he hired Jacobs as his assistant. After that, business got bad. Real bad. Men left and Jacobs hired others. And you wanna know somethin’ else? In my opinion they don’t know which end of an axe to swing.”

Audra peered out through the flaps of the tent and looked around.

“He’s here somewhere”, she said, “he came to scout the camp and never came back. I learned from one of the other men, that he’s somewhere here in this camp.”

“Well Missy, if they got your brother he could be anywhere. Jacobs has men everywhere in this camp. Some of us old-timers stick together because his men ain’t the friendliest.”

“Where do you think he might be?” Audra asked.

“Well”, said the old-timer stroking his chin, “he may be in Jacobs’ tent, or if he doesn’t want others to see him, maybe the old cabin out back.”

Just then a scroungy mongrel of a dog wandered into the tent and nuzzled up against the old man’s legs.

“This here’s Weezle my dawg. You got anything that belongs to your brother, Miss?”

Audra remembered Heath’s bandana that he had given to her back at the camp. She offered it to her new friend and he in turn showed it to Weezle.

“Weezle here don’t actually belong to me, Miss. We just sort’ve go the same places. Sometimes he leads and sometimes I do. Here you ol’ coon hound. Go find this pretty ladies brother.”

The dog sniffed and sneezed.

“You stop that, you walking pair of winter boots. Now you go find that boy. You hear me?”

With that the dog lumbered through the flap of the tent and looked around the camp like he didn’t know what or where to go. Then with a sudden burst of speed, he put all four legs in gear, and sprinted past several rows of tents, and up to the old run-down cabin that was built on the side of a hill, past the mess hall.

“Weezle must’ve recognized that smell from somewhere”, the old man said, “by the way, my name is Matthew.”

Audra reached out to shake the old man’s hand.

“I’m so glad to know you Matthew. And what is your last name?”

“Peters, Missy, Matthew Peters. I grew up in these here parts and I know every tree and hole along the river.”

Slipping through the rows of darkened tents, Matthew and Audra followed Weezle up to the door of the rundown old cabin.

“Could this be where my brother is?” Audra couldn’t keep her excitement contained as she rattled and shook the knob on the wooden door. The knob turned but somehow the door must have gotten stuck. She looked up the frame and found that the door had been padlocked.

“Seeing how Weezle is here, your brother is either in there or was in there.”

“What is this place?”, she questioned looking up at the structure. “Could they hide somebody in there and keep it a secret?”

“This here is kind’ve a place to store things. Nobody goes in there except for the foreman. He’s a close buddy of Jacobs. Tanner’s his name.”

The two walked around the side of the building. There was one window, but it had wooden shutters. Audra pulled at the wooden boards, but they were barred from the inside.

“Isn’t there any other way in?”, she desperately pleaded with Matthew.

“Don’t be feared little lady”, the crusty old man pulled a long bladed retractable knife out of his buckskin shirt and slid the blade in the crack where the two shutters met. Sliding the blade up the length of the shutter, the small wooden doors came open. “This ain’t town, Missy. Around here we only lock winders to keep varmits out.”

The old man gave her a boost and soon Audra was in through the window. The room was very dark with only the moonlight shining in through the small window, but she could hear the unmistakable sound of labored breathing in the darkened room. She called out the window to Matthew,

“There’s somebody in here, Matthew, do you have a match?”

The flame from the match provided enough light for her to locate a table with a candle on it. Scanning the candle about the room, she saw a man’s form collapsed on the floor.

“Heath!”

Audra rushed to his side and put her hand to his head. His forehead felt feverish. He groaned and opened his eyes. In the dim light, Audra could see that his face was badly battered and dried blood caked the corners of his mouth and nose. His tattered shirt had the odor of musty sweat.

“Heath! Are you all right?”

“I’m okay”, he told her, trying to minimize the way he really felt. “Just feel like I’ve had another night on the town.”

Audra looked down at his tied hands, and once again, Heath’s ‘razor’ came in handy. Pulling the knife out of her pocket, she cut her brother’s bonds.

“Thanks Sis”, said Heath gratefully as he rubbed his wrists where the rope had dug in. He tried to sit up and started to cough. Instantly the pain shot through his ribcage. “I guess maybe I’m not as well off as I thought. How did you get in here and where’s Nick.”

“It’s a long story – I’ll explain it to you later. Right now we need to get you out of here. Do you think you can walk?”

“Yeah, I’m well enough to walk out of here, and when I get my hands of Jacobs….” Heath stood to his feet with some assistance from Audra. He clutched his tender ribs and regained his train of thought. “When I get my hands on Jacobs, he won’t be feeling well. Not for a long, long time.”

Just then Matthew looked in through the window.

“Missy, we best be gittin’ outta here. Their bound to come back lookin’ for him.”

“Who’s this?”, Heath exclaimed, “and where’s Nick?”

“This is Matthew Peters. He’s a friend of mine. I left Nick back at the road to take care of a few of Jacobs men. Now please, let’s just get out of here.”

With Matthew and Audra’s help, Heath was able to carefully ease himself through the window. Heath breathed in the cool night air. It felt good to be out in the open again. Solemnly he took in the surroundings of the camp. Freedom wasn’t his yet. Not until He, Nick, Audra and their new friend were safely out of the camp’s vicinity.

The three made their way down the hillside, and staying to the lee of the main building, attempted to carry out a plan of escape. They would creep through the woods and circle around to the road where Nick was waiting. Audra could only hope that he would still be there. Heath was a bit slow on his feet due to his injuries and weakness from hunger. Stealthily they moved, using the trees as their only cover. As they approached the area near the mess hall, they could hear the sound of boots walking on the wooden planks of the porch, and loud voices carried through the still of the night. Not wanting their movement to draw attention, Heath motioned for the others to stay down. With a full moon, it would be possible for their shadows to silhouette along the hillside. They could hear the voices getting louder as three men made their way towards the supply cabin where Heath had just been held as a prisoner. The men were much too close for them to try and venture any further. Their only hope was to lay low.

The voices faded out again, and a light shone through the door of the cabin. Soon cursing and angry words came back into earshot.

“He’s gone!”, came Tanner’s voice. “Now how the devil do you suppose he managed that?”

“The boss sure ain’t goin’ to be happy about this”, said Brown. “Now where do you suppose he could have run off too.”

“Well, in the condition he was in, I doubt he ran too far. Let’s comb these woods and see if we can find him. I’ll go get some more men.”

“Good idea. I want every available man out here on the double. Now Let’s go.”

Nick had been patiently awaiting his sister’s return for close to two hours. A couple of stragglers from the camp had wondered along the road where he was hidden, and using the element of surprise and a Colt 45, he had been able to take several captives. “That would be all the less to deal with inside the camp”, he told himself. With each capture, he had confiscated his prisoner’s weapon and was now loaded for bear. His last catch had been sporting a Greener double barreled shotgun. He had been wanting to buy one of these for himself for quite a while now. Sure the gun would eventually have to be turned over to the proper authorities, but for now it was at his disposal.

It was well after dark and Audra had still not returned as promised. He was well aware of the coarse behavior displayed by woman starved men in logging camps. Not being able to restrain himself any longer, he decided to move in and have a look around. As he neared the camp, everything seemed to be in the state of chaos. There was a group of men gathered in front of the main structure, and the guy who seemed to be in charge was barking out orders.

“I want three of you to go down to the creek. Just sit back and wait. If you see him, shoot.”

Jacobs gave the order, and then Tanner pointed to three men who in turn departed.

“I want several more of you to fan out down along the main road.”

His order was countered by Hank, who was wanting to volunteer what he considered helpful information.

“Boss, Abe went down that way earlier with a gal from the trading post. He went to help her fix a wheel on her buggy and still hasn’t come back. In fact, she came back up looking for more help and I sent Keefer down. He hasn’t come back yet either.”

“Now hold on just a minute. What was a woman from the trading post doing up here?”

“She just came up to tell us of a whole passel of dames that arrived there yesterday. She wanted to be sure the boys all knew about it.”

“Dames? Their ain’t no dames. I was just at the trading post this afternoon. Now who was that girl?”

“All I know is what I just told you, boss. She came back into camp and wanted to clean up. She looked a sight from breakin’ down on the road and all. I went inside the mess hall, and when I came back out, she was gone.”

“Okay, Tanner, you take the rest of the men here and go search along the road. If you find anything, fire three shots.”

The men all departed and Jacobs stood alone by the mess hall. He had had an uneasy feeling ever since the telegram had arrived from Nick Barkley last week. Even if they were to find both Barkleys and do away with them, their disappearance certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed. Soon the place would be crawling with lawmen and where an affluent family like the Barkleys were involved, there was sure to be some Pinkerton men as well. The man stood in the moonlight a while longer, seemingly lost in thought. A few moments later, Nick saw him hustle across the camp’s yard and disappear inside one of the tents.

Once inside the tent, Jacobs pulled an old carpet bag out from under his cot and started stuffing it full of clothing. With the men all out searching the borders of the camp, nobody would notice his departure. Finally, he went to the foot of his bed, and reaching under a pile of blankets, disclosed a locked steel strong box. He reached in his shirt pocket for the key, and carefully unlocking it, checked the contents. Yes. The glittering fortune was all in tact. Closing the lid, he stood to his feet, cradling the box close to his chest. Suddenly the gruff voice of a stranger boomed behind him.

“All right, Jacobs, you so much as scratch and I’ll blow a hole in you big enough to ride my horse through.”

Gingerly he turned to face the unfamiliar voice. There looming over him with a sawed off shotgun, was the tall figure of Nick Barkely.

“Nice of your men to loan me this” Nick boasted with an evil grin.

“You must be Nick Barkley”, Jacobs croaked.

“Sounds like you’ve been expecting me.”

Jacobs swallowed hard. His throat was as dry as the Mojave Desert.

“Now you listen to me Jacobs, and you listen good. I’ve been walking for three days on account of you. I’m tired and I’m hungry and I don’t have a whole lot of patience.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I think you know what I want, Jacobs, I’m looking for my brother. NOW WHERE IS HE?”

The lumber boss looked down at the shot gun Nick held in his hands. Both hammers were pulled back and the barrel was aimed straight for his belly.

“I don’t know”, Jacobs stammered, “he got away. My men are out lookin’ now.”

“What about the girl?”

“I haven’t seen her either.”

“Okay Jacobs, I want you to go lay face down on that cot nice and easy like. That’s it, now I want your hands up behind your back. Come on, MOVE.”

Nick grabbed some of the rope that was still laying on the floor of the tent from when Tanner had tied up Heath that morning and tightly bound the cooperative man’s wrists.

“Okay Jacobs, we’re going to take a little walk.”

“Where are we going?” The boss’s face was an ashen white.

“We’re going out to the main yard and you’re going to call those men off, you hear.”

By this time Nick had the lumber boss up on his feet and with one hand on Jacobs’ lapel, ushered him out the door of the tent with a mighty shove. Lifting up on Jacobs’ collar, the man’s feet barely touched the ground as the two made their way back over to the mess hall. With the loud ring of the iron dinner bell, Nick made his summons known to all who were near. Back up the hill, three renegades had been anchored motionless to the ground. In the dark, they were unaware of Nick’s presence, until his booming voice could be heard echoing throughout the empty camp.

“Hey, that’s Nick down there”, Heath whispered to the others, “let’s work our way down and find out what’s going on.”

“You and the little lady go, young feller, Weezle and me, we have some business that needs tendin’ too.” The old man looked around. “Now where in tarnation did that hare lip run off too? Well, he’ll come around when he gets a mind too.”

There was no time to argue, so Audra gave Matthew’s hand a squeeze and thanked him for all his help. As the old man made his departure, Audra surrendered her pistol over to Heath and he led them down to where Nick and Jacobs stood on the mess hall’s porch. It was a quick but happy reunion as the siblings greeted one another.

“Jacobs’ men should be here any moment”, Nick directed, “let’s hole up in this building ’til they get here.”

Nick, Heath and Audra entered the log building. Jacobs was propelled through the door, as Nick had zero tolerance for the man who had caused them so much trouble. There was a rustling under one of the tables. They all turned to look and Weezle came out wagging his tail. The bolt on the door was secured in place and opening the shudders on one of the front windows, Nick stood alert with his prisoner. Audra had been instructed to keep back and Heath now joined his brother at the window. Jacobs’ men were now beginning to make their way back into camp.

“All right Jacobs, you’re going to tell all those men to form a straight line out in front of the building where I can see them.” Jacobs hesitated for a moment but a sharp jab in the ribs with Nick’s Greener gave him a hasty reminder of what would happen if he didn’t comply. “You do as I say Jacobs, or I’ll cut you in two. And when you tell them, you add to that no sudden moves. Any man that tries any monkey business will be shot. You got that?”

Jacobs nodded and called out the order. There were about fifteen men, not counting the ones that had been jumped and tied by Nick. The men weren’t sure exactly what was up, but did as their boss commanded.

“Next I want each man to slowly lay his weapon on the ground in front of him. One at a time, no sudden moves, and using two fingers. And no talking amongst themselves.”

Nick knew that what he was trying to accomplish could very easily have him out on a limb, yet he didn’t like the idea of telling Jacobs’ men to ride out, only to have them wait in the woods and in ambush. He figured that by holding them at gun point, he would order each man into the building, one at a time. If everything went according to plan, by morning they would have the whole lot of them trussed up like Christmas geese. However, there was always the potential for the men to scatter and take cover. Nick calculated that by his presence being unknown until now, they wouldn’t have time to think or scheme.

Jacobs relayed the orders and the men surrendered their weapons, but when the order to enter the building one at a time was given, the men seemed reluctant to obey.

“Come on, let’s get moving!”, Nick barked out the orders himself. “If I have to wait much longer, Jacobs here is going to get it.”

All of a sudden, a mob bearing shotguns and rifles approached from behind the line of men. Nick hadn’t planned on this. He exchanged the shotgun for a rifle and leveled it over the window sill. With all those extra guns, his plan was foiled. He and Heath would have to shoot it out and hope that their aim was good. The lever action Winchester was ready to go, but Nick waited for the opposition to make the first move.

There was scratching at the door as Weezle whimpered to be let out. Matthew’s voice came ringing out like a bell in the night.

“It’s okay young feller, me and my buddies here, we got you covered.”

Heath breathed a sigh of relief and said,

“It’s okay Nick. It’s that old timer that helped Audra and me.”

Nick pulled the rifle back into the building and, leaning with his back to the wall, looked about to collapse.

“Audra, why don’t you stay here until we get things settled out there.”

The young girl nodded and sank down on one of the wooden benches. With a firm grip, Nick helped Jacobs through the door one last time as he and Heath joined the group of vigilantes. Matthew stepped up to greet them.

“I had a hunch that there would be more trouble brewin’. Yes siree, more trouble than you could handle on your own. So I went and fetched up some’ve these here men who don’t cotton to Jacobs and the dern fool way he runs this here place.”

“Well I kindly thank you Mr……?”

“Matthew. Just call me Matthew, young feller.”

By the time a new dawn was born in the Sierra mountains, Jacobs and his men were loaded up in the supply wagons and on their way to the nearest jail. Nick, Heath and Audra would stay at the camp a few more days until they were well rested and Heath had had a chance to heal. When they did make their departure, the camp would be left in the capable hands of their new foreman until other arrangements and decisions regarding the camps future could be made. The new foreman was Matthew. Like he had told Audra, he knew every tree and hole on the place. They figured he was the man for the job.

***The End***

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