By Any Other Name, My Brother (by Star and Deirdre)

Summary:  A two-part story.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  69,200


Part 1 

The angry black clouds swarmed over the sky, supporting the rebellious lightning and deafening thunder. The rain teeming outside seemed a fitting backdrop to the intense drama being played inside the clapboard house. The steady ticking of the clock, the creaking of the floorboards overhead and the lashing torrent of water only added to his misery. He watched the small puddles outside form into mini-rivers, taking twigs and stones along the gutter and down the street. There were only a few souls braving the elements. He cast his eyes to the dark sky, hoping for a sliver of sun; a suggestion of hope, something which he needed desperately.

He walked past the green velvet couch where Audra slept, pulling a quilt up over her exhausted form. His pained gaze fell upon the bruises on her face. He needed something to take away the bitter taste they left. He walked over to the table beyond, where a series of decanters beckoned. Eyeing the bottles of different shapes and strengths, he made a choice. Pouring a glassful of courage, he checked the clock again, every agonizing minute weighing heavily on him.

Footsteps on the stairs rudely interrupted the path of the glass to his lips. Placing the glass on the windowsill, he made his way to the edge of the room and turned, facing the strange staircase. His anguished eyes followed the crimson splattered apron as it grew nearer. He swallowed hard and grimaced at the large amount of bloody water in the basin she carried. His mouth opened, but she answered his anxious eyes before the words could form.

“He’s holding his own for now, but it will be some time yet before the surgery’s completed.”

He nodded gratefully at the statement and listened as her steps made their way through the kitchen. He jumped slightly as the back door slammed. He retraced his path to the window and lifted the glass. The burning fluid nearly choked him as he watched his brother’s blood mingle with the small current and race by his throbbing eyes.

How had it come to this? All these weeks, over six now, since that night when everything changed. Raising his eyes to the ceiling above where the doctor worked feverishly, he thought of that night and all the weeks that led up to this awful climax this morning. That night his world changed…when he found out about his father..and all the bitter days that had led up to this fateful morning. He closed his eyes and rubbed the pounding tension between his temples. He let his mind wander back to that first night, and through the tumultuous weeks that followed; and all that should have and could have been done a little differently. Swirling thoughts of how he might have approached things in a more mature manner invaded his brain. He let his troubled mind wander back in time…back to that first night and the stormy weeks that followed.

*****

Two forks simultaneously pierced the succulent steak as two pairs of choleric eyes each pierced deep into the soul of the other adversary. The family looked on in awkward silence as the tension escalated, hostility permeating the dining area’s four walls. Picking up his knife, Jarrod slowly sliced his way through the symbolic barrier. Testosterone levels had peaked, but seemed to slacken as one large slab of meat was divided into two equal portions.

The dark cloud seemed to lift and breakfast continued in peace, but Victoria was wary. Experience had taught her that a lull usually preceded the worst of storms. Before her sat two half-brothers…both sons of her late husband and heirs to the Barkley fortune. Until a couple of days ago they had been strangers. She watched as each man silently devoured the meal before him, knowing that somehow the two would need to come to terms. Deep inside she was certain that their differences would be worked out, but for now, all she could do was hope and pray.

Heath chewed each tender bite of beef in uncomfortable solitude. Even though his father’s family was physically present, he had never felt so alone. An outsider, educated in the brutal school of hard knocks, his knowledge of how to behave in sophisticated company such as this was limited. He pulled his napkin out of his shirt collar and after wiping his mouth, excused himself from the table.

“Where do ya think you’re goin’, Boy?” Nick demanded, gruffly. “You and I still have to go out to the bunkhouse so you can be introduced to the men.”

“I was up and out of here before sunrise and didn’t have time to shave,” Heath retorted coolly. “I’m gonna go get cleaned up…see you out back.”

The two exchanged hard glances until Nick took the higher ground by backing down.

“Be out back in twenty minutes,” Nick managed, pouring himself another cup of coffee.

Heath rose and nodded to Mrs. Barkley and Audra and stopped to let Silas retrieve an empty platter. Heath tapped his shoulder and Silas looked up skeptically.

“Sir? ” the black man questioned

“Reckon I been a lot things, Silas, but ‘Sir’ ain’t one them,” he smiled disarming the unsure servant. “Them hotcakes,” he nodded at the empty platter, “were real good. Best I’ve had since I left home. Sure makes me miss Hannah’s grits and redeye gravy. Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Si…Mr. Heath. If you like, I can fix you ham, grits and redeye gravy tomorrow morning.”

Victoria was the only one who could see the broad smile Heath left unguarded before realizing every eye in the room was on his back. He shifted nervously and tried to slip by the elderly man.

“Don’t go to no fuss on my account, Silas. Whatever you make will be fine.”

“It’s no trouble. It would be my pleasure,” he smiled at the red-faced young man heading up the back stairs.

Heath turned and retreated up to the privacy of his own room. Maybe coming here hadn’t been such a smart idea after all. He pulled out his razor and filled the china basin on his dresser with water from the pitcher. Lathering up, he made smooth, even strokes, being careful not to notch his dimpled chin. Wiping his face clean, he paused for a moment and began to replay the events of the day before.

He hadn’t planned on participating in the gun battle between the local farmers and the railroad. After being thrown off his father’s estate, all he wanted was the few hundred dollars that had been offered and he would ride off, never to show his face in the valley again. It was Mrs. Barkley that had caused him to revamp his plans. While the brothers had been hostile and blind to the fact that their father had been anything less than a saint, she had opened the door of acceptance to him. If anyone had a right to be angry, it would be his widow, but her words of encouragement had challenged him. He had stayed up the rest of the night, mentally chewing and rehashing the brief conversation they had had in the foyer of the house. It was apparent that she was willing to give him a chance.

The fight at Sample’s farm had been brief but effective. The railroad’s hired guns had retreated, leaving the local landowners with a caustic victory. A cigar, a pat on the back, a few kind words…all had been added reinforcement to what had already been said. After riding back to the hotel in town to gather his few personal belongings, Heath had swallowed back his pride and given in to the deep longings tugging at his own heart.

His entrance into the family and the home that night would have gone smoothly if it hadn’t been for one person. Nick, whom he had locked horns with during their initial encounter, was less than eager to welcome in another brother. His argument had been hot and angry as he unleashed a string of vile obscenities directed towards Heath and the woman who bore him. If it hadn’t been for the other three taking Heath’s side and stepping in when things were at their hottest, Heath was sure that years of resentment towards the man he never knew, would have swung into full motion, with this volatile middle son being the target.

By the time the evening was over, Nick had been resigned to the fact that Heath was staying, though his disapproval was obvious. Victoria had escorted the new arrival up to one of the spare rooms and helped to get him settled.

“Give it time, Heath,” she reassured him before retiring that night. “Nick will come around. This is all just so new to him…he needs his space for now. Anyway, I’m glad to have you here.” She gave his hand a squeeze before leaving him to think on her words. “And I want you to make yourself at home here,” she called back before closing the door to his room. “You have as much right as any of us.”

Her decision had been sealed without reservation…that he was sure of. She had seemed to accept every bit of his story without hesitation and now her actions were only proof of what she had already said. He felt like he could trust her, but he still wasn’t ready to put his guard down completely. He’d been burned before, and by people who had seemed just as nice.

Reaching for his vest and hat, Heath exited his room and descended the back staircase. Casually he sauntered out through the corral area and over to the bunkhouse. Another day, another milestone. He didn’t know what this day held in store, but he would meet it head-on, and with dignity.

He paused defensively as Nick briskly brushed by him.

“Well, come on,” Nick called over his shoulder, “ain’t got all day!”

*****

Out in front of the bunkhouse the dinner bell clanged as the ranch foreman, Duke McCall, beat the steel triangle, rallying the men for assembly.

“Mr. Barkley wants to have a word with you,” he barked as the men gathered round. “Now, all of you…listen up!”

Nick cleared his throat as he stood on the porch of the bunkhouse and began to speak.

“There have been a few changes that have sort of come up suddenly around here,” he began, eyeing Heath, “and I’m not goin’ to spend a lot of time explainin’ things. What I have to say is just the way things are and that’ll be my final word on the subject. This here is my half-brother, Heath…Heath Barkley. He’s goin’ to be helpin’ me run the ranch. You’re to take orders from him, just as you would from me. Do I make myself clear?”

Murmurs echoed from around the scattered group of men as all glances were cast in Heath’s direction where he stood, apart from Nick. Clenching his jaw tight, he hooked his thumbs over his gunbelt as he stared straight into the eyes of the leery ranch workers. McCall looked him over suspiciously, checking him out from head to toe. The boy seemed none too friendly and Nick’s voice seemed to carry a surly edge to it. McCall studied the faces of the others as well…they were somber and guarded. After years of experience working with men, the old foreman could smell trouble brewing…maybe not today, but somewhere down the line…just as sure as he was standing there.

The way Heath was feeling, Nick might as well have thrown him to the wolves. He could practically hear the snarls. Just a few nights before, he had signed on as ‘one of the crew’. Now, a couple of days later, he had been promoted to the position of right-hand man, though Nick’s introduction of him was less than festive. He could sense the animosity and hear the echoes of resentment.

“Figures,” he heard a dark, stubble-faced cowboy comment to his tall, grim partner. “Didn’t take him long to move into the big house. There goes your chances of foreman, Sinclair.”

Sinclair spat in the dirt as the men were dismissed. He’d already put in two years of sweat working for the Barkleys. He figured that when McCall retired in fall, he’d be first in line for the foreman’s vacated position. Foreman would be a start…a chance to get his foot in the door…and then he’d try his hand at courting Miss Audra. Success could come several different ways…a fellow could work hard, steal or marry into it.

“Come on, Barrett. Let’s get started,” he growled, glancing at Heath distastefully.

“Barrett! Sinclair! Hold up there a minute!” Nick called.

“Yeah? What is it?” Sinclair managed, trying not to let his annoyance show.

“I’m assignin’ the two of you, plus Cortez, to Heath’s work crew today. Well, him being new here and all…well, I just figured you two could show him the ropes. You know…that fencin’ project we have going out on the north forty? I’d go myself, but I have some business in town that needs lookin’ into. You ride out with them, Heath,” Nick suggested, turning to his new brother. “Sinclair here has been around for a couple’ve years and knows what all needs to be done. Barrett…well, he ain’t been around as long, but long enough to have a pretty good handle on things.”

The two nodded and headed off towards the stables, leaving Heath and Nick alone once more.

“You just tag along with them for the day and you’ll be all right,” Nick coached. “See you at supper.”

*****

The July sun was merciless, causing the newest Barkley to wipe his brow. It was well past noon and Heath paused to take a swig from his canteen. He cast an eye over to the hard working boy beside him. The slim Mexican boy, no more than sixteen, was Rico Cortez. He’d worked beside Heath all morning, yet the two had not exchanged a single word.

“Cortez,” he hollered down the few yards and waited until the boy looked up. “Take a break.”

He motioned for the boy to follow him over to a tree nearby. He unpacked a couple of sandwiches that Silas had handed him that morning, and gave one to the boy. He looked over as Cortez shifted his eyes in caution but didn’t touch the food.

“Senor? I, uh…that’s okay. I will eat later.”

“Can’t eat two, you might as well eat one. Go on,” Heath urged as the boy sat down beside him.

“Gracias, Senor.”

“Been working here long?”

“Three weeks. “

“You got family in these parts?”

“No, they live about forty miles or so past the border in Mesina.”

“Never heard of it.”

“No, Senor, you wouldn’t. No one would. It’s a very small village.”

Cortez finished up and scurried back to his task. He didn’t feel comfortable talking to this newcomer. He had heard the men in the bunkhouse calling him names. Rico didn’t think the badmouthing was right, but he would mind his business and keep to himself. He couldn’t afford to get into any trouble or they might find out about him. He didn’t trust gringos, but the money he earned from them spent well. He needed the money so he could get farther away before the law came looking for him.

Heath left his young counterpart and went to check on Barrett and Sinclair who were working a couple of miles down the fence line. He squinted into the distance to make sure, but he didn’t see hide nor hair of them. Climbing down from Sally, his Modoc pony, he approached the tools and scowled at the miles of repairs yet to be done. Not one piece of fenceline had been touched. No wonder it had been Sinclair’s idea to split up. They’d scurried off somewhere to loaf, leaving him and the kid to do all the work. Angrily he snatched up the shovel and began to dig, his fury building towards what would be a colorful confrontation.

*****

“Well, we might as well get it over with, but I’m warning you, Jarrod. I’m not backing down. Crown can take his sorry hide back to Jordan and tell him what I said. He can bring a whole army in and we’ll still stand them down. I won’t cave in to their tactics!” Nick’s fist made contact with Jarrod’s desk and caused several articles to jump.

The lawyer sat in calm contemplation, never flinching a muscle. It didn’t take long for Nick to figure out just where it was that his older brother was hiding.

“So you’re not such the ‘good son’ after all. You don’t believe him either,” Nick baited.

“I want to, Nick,” Jarrod said, finally looking up, “but…”

“You want to! Why? That story of his is as transparent as the air you’re breathing. He’s no more a Barkley than Crown is! You just wait until his real motives are uncovered. Then he’ll be sorry for dragging my father’s name in the mud!”

“Real motives? Please Nick, spare me your dime novel suspicions. And he was my father, too…a man of flesh and blood. Mother’s already admitted that she knew about the affair, and she’s accepted Heath. If she can, we have no right to stand in the way.”

“You don’t believe that. I know you too well,” Nick argued, perching on the corner of Jarrod’s desk.

“He’s staying, Nick. You’re just going to have to adjust and accept things…”

“The hell I will!” Nick jumped up and paced the spacious office. “I’ll work with him, but I’ll never accept him. I can hear the wheels turning in that head of yours, Jarrod. That legal mind wants black and white evidence whether you admit it to anyone or not. “

Jarrod started to rebuke his brother, but stopped. Nick was right. The first thing he had thought of on the way to town today, was how to get evidence of Heath’s birthright. But not for the reasons Nick thought. He didn’t want to disprove the claim. He wanted it settled, one way or another. He’d sent a wire to Sacramento to Christopher Warren, who worked in the State Department. If there was anything in Heath’s past, Chris was the man to find it.

A knock on the door interrupted the brothers and Jarrod’s secretary, Katherine Evans, poked her head in the door.

“Mr. Crown is here. Should I show him in?”

“Yes, Kate, thank you.”

“This ain’t over Jarrod.” Nick warned as Crown entered and sat down to discuss the brewing problem between the railroad and the ranchers of the valley.

*****

“Where’ve you been?” Heath snarled as Sinclair and Barrett rode up.

“We had business in town,” Barrett spat. “Not that it’s any of your concern.”

“It’s after four and you’ve been gone all day. Your job was to repair this fenceline, not boozing in the saloon. “

“Shut up, you no-good cur.” Sinclair pushed Heath hard, sending him to his knees.

Heath charged back and the two exchanged several blows before Heath’s arms were grabbed by Barrett. Sinclair used this opportunity to take several jabs at the unprotected midsection and face of his new boss.

Heath fell to his knees and gasped for breath. The blood dripping from his nose and mouth left a crimson pattern in the dirt.

“You’re fired,” he choked without looking up.

The two ignored him and set about placing fenceposts and securing them, knowing that Nick would be by any minute to check on their progress. Sinclair was surprised at how much the bastard got done. Suddenly Sinclair was standing face to face with the newest arrival as the firm hand turned him.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me. Pick up what you’re owed and get out or I’ll throw you out.”

“You and what army?” Barrett laughed.

Heath grabbed him by the neck and propelled him to his horse.

“Get movin’!”

Barrett turned and shoved the cowboy hard.

“I take my orders from Nick Barkley, not some misbegotten, half-breed skunk. You didn’t hire me, you can’t fire me. Nick knows us. He’ll never believe any story you tell!”

The mock applause from Sinclair caused Heath to take pause. The look on his face was easily read by Barrett and Sinclair.

“I know what you’re thinking, Mutt, and you’re right. Nick won’t believe you for one minute. Hell, he don’t even like you. He’d sooner see you’re sorry butt heading off the ranch. “

Leaning in, Sinclair made his threat known.

“Don’t push me, Boy, or it will be the sorriest mistake you’ll ever make.”

Heath stood and glared right back, poking a hard finger in Sinclair’s sternum.

“Don’t ever threaten me, Sinclair.”

Heath stared the man down and waited until Sinclair joined Barrett by the fence line, before riding back to where Cortez was finishing up their section. It was almost an hour’s ride back to the bunkhouse. The kid had done more than his share. Heath patted the sweat-soaked boy’s exhausted back.

“Go on in, Kid, I’ll finish up.”

Cortez looked up and saw the bruises and bloody face. He didn’t say anything, but merely nodded as he stood up.

“Gracias, Senor Barkley. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Heath poured some the remaining bit of water in his canteen onto his kerchief and held it against his nose and mouth. He watched the boy ride away. Senor Barkley, indeed. One day and he was already behind the eight ball. Barrett and Sinclair were trouble and Heath had no idea of how to beat them. Picking up the shovel, he eyed the remaining miles of fenceline and got back to work.

*****

“Hello!” came the chipper voice from behind.

Heath finished splashing the water on his dirty face and stood up from the trough.

“Oh, hi,” he managed. “Didn’t hear you come up.”

“I just got here. I saw you ride in from the house and thought I’d come find out how your day went.”

“Okay,” he lied.

“Okay. That doesn’t tell me much,” she cheerfully argued. “You don’t say a whole lot, do you?”

“Only when I need to,” came the brusk reply.

“You know,” she continued, “Nick still says he isn’t buying into that story of yours. But he says he’ll go along with it for now…but I just want you to know that I believe you, Heath.”

“I ain’t askin’ anyone to buy into anythin’,” Heath gruffed, swatting his hat against his chaps in an attempt to remove some of the dust. “It’s a fact and that’s all there is to it. Nick not wantin’ to accept the truth don’t make it any less true.”

“That’s what I tried to tell him,” Audra replied. “Anyway, if it makes you feel any better, Mother and Jarrod are both on your side as well.”

“Well, I didn’t figure I’d still be here if they weren’t,” came the terse comeback. He looked squarely into Audra’s pained blue eyes and felt the sting his tones had carried. “Hey,” he gentled, “I didn’t mean to come off soundin’ so rough. I just…well, I guess I’m still feelin’ a bit confused over everythin’ that’s happened the past few days, and maybe I exaggerated a bit when I said things went okay today. Are we still friends?” he asked, offering her a lopsided grin.

“Of course we are!” she smiled, taking his arm. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the house.”

Feeling his suspicious nature subside, he allowed her to escort him towards the pillared porch, enjoying her casual prattle. Perhaps belonging to a family was going to have it’s merits after all. Suddenly, Heath felt extremely hungry. Whatever it was that Silas had stirred up for supper tonight, it certainly was going to taste good!

*****

They watched from the shadows as that prissy, purebred Barkley filly sidled up to the mongrel half-breed. A few minutes passed before she linked arms with him and the two of them walked towards the house. Sinclair felt his stomach sour.

“It ain’t right,” he said to Barrett. “Look at him cozying up to that Barkley brat. She don’t even look at the likes of me.”

“Well you ain’t Tom Barkley’s bastard,” Barrett chuckled.

“Neither is he. He’s a bastard, but he’s no more Barkley’s kid then I am.”

“Maybe it’s about time we learned that spawn some manners,” Barrett grinned as several ideas formed.

“What you got in mind, Hank?”

Barrett watched the two blondes disappear through the massive column’s and started to laugh. Yes, Heath Thomson would be sorry he ever set foot on Barkley property and spilled that wild lie.

“Come on, I’ll fill you in on the way to the chow line.”

*****

The blue sky seemed to smile down on the handsome, well-dressed stranger as he walked towards the Cattlemen’s Hotel. He nodded at several women who smiled coyly, as any eligible girl would. He stood just over six feet tall, with the broad shoulders and flat stomach leading down to a slim waist. A fine physique topped off by handsome features which were accented with the dark blue eyes and wavy chestnut hair. Entering the hotel, he smiled as a familiar voice blasted the air.

“Don’t tell me to keep my voice down…and let go of my arm, Jarrod!”

“Still a church mouse, eh Nick?”

Nick’s scowl turned into a big grin as he turned around. His eyes lit up at the sight of his old friend. They’d met in first grade and stuck by each other until he went back east for college. Nick hadn’t seen him in years.

“Elliott? Elliott Carrington? My God, man, how long has it been?”

“Too long, Nick. Five years anyway.” He braced himself for the bear hug and hard backslap.

“Jarrod, good to see you again!” he said, taking the lawyer’s hand.

“Elliott, have you moved back home?”

“Yes, It’s been six months since my father died and the house was standing vacant, so I decided to move back. I can operate my business out of San Francisco. My partner is overseeing things until I get the property updated.”

“Well, don’t be so busy you can’t come to dinner tonight. I know you didn’t forget the address,” Nick teased.

“No, I think I could still find my way to your place blindfolded,” Elliott chuckled, “But I’m afraid that’s not going to work. I’m already committed to a previous dinner engagement…business stuff.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Nick lamented, “I know the family will be terribly disappointed after I tell ’em we ran into you today. What about stopping by for billiards and brandy a bit later? Would that work?”

“Billiards and brandy would be fine. Say about nine o’clock or so?”

“I’ll have the pool cues chalked!” Nick promised.

“Excuse me gentlemen, but I’ve got to go. I’m late to meet a judge,” Jarrod broke in. “Elliott, good to see you again and we can catch up later this evening!”

“Looking forward to it, Jarrod,” he nodded as the lawyer left.

“I heard about the shootout a couple of weeks ago at Sample’s place. Tough to lose so many good men.”

“Sure is, Elliott, but if it weren’t for men like that, we’d all be drinking tea and bowing to a queen.”

“I heard some rumors around town that you’ve got a new brother? What’s that all about?”

Elliott watched his friend’s face darken and was a bit taken back by the response.

“He’s no brother of mine. He’s somebody’s bastard, but not my father’s. He’s conned the rest of the family, but I can see right through him. He’s up to no good, I’d bank on it. His kind usually is.”

“Didn’t mean to get you so fired up, Nick. Least I can do is treat you to a beer,” Elliott offered.

The two spent the next hour in the Cattleman’s bar, reliving old times and catching up. Nick had to go, but was looking forward to pool that evening. Elliott watched him leave and thought carefully on Nick’s words. ***

“Whoa, Girl!”

Heath pulled up on the reins to stop the already faltering horse. Swinging a leather covered leg down from the saddle, he stooped to examine the abrasion on Sally’s lower front leg.

“It ain’t real bad, Girl,” he calmed to the injured animal, “but I reckon it’d be best if I walked you in.”

Taking a swig from his canteen, Heath offered some to Sally and then used the rest to wet down the horse’s wound. Hooking the canteen back up around the horn of his saddle, Heath began the three mile walk back to the ranch.

“The way things have been goin’,” he thought grimly, “Nick’ll more than likely say I was usin’ this as an excuse to loaf.”

Trudging along under the summer sun, Heath reflected on the past two weeks since he had come to live at the ranch. The men all seemed to hate him…all except that Mexican kid, and he was not much more than indifferent. Mrs. Barkley and Audra both were really seeming to make an effort to welcome him, and Jarrod, though sometimes reserved, appeared to be warming up, as well. Nick was at best civil, and that was when his mother was there to monitor things. Well, like his mama always told him, time has a way of working things out. Heath scowled as he mulled over her words and thought back to his hotheaded half-brother. There was always an exception to every rule and Nick was an exceptionally difficult person to deal with. If time didn’t solve the problems with Nick, Heath reckoned that fighting would.

Heath rounded the tree-lined bend in the road and the large, red barn and numerous outbuildings burst into view. Home at last, and he had sure worked up an appetite.

“Come on, Girl,” he coaxed the gimping pony. “Oats and your stall are just up ahead.”

*****

“What are you doing, Heath?” Audra asked as she spied him in the barn patting a mud poultice on his Modoc’s fetlock. “I was just comin’ out to tell you supper’s about ready.”

“Makin’ a mudpack for Sally,” he replied without looking up.

“A mudpack? What on earth for?” Audra baffled.

“She got skinned up on a rock today and I’m tryin’ to take down the swellin’. It’s another one of them Injun tricks I learned as a kid. A good mudpack can take several days of restin’ off a lame horse. There you go, Girl,” he soothed, patting the pony’s neck as he stood. “A day or two of rest and some extra grain, and you’ll be as good as new!”

The small, black mare nickered at the familiar voice and with ears erect, turned her head to nuzzle her master’s hand.

“I think she’s looking for sugar!” Audra exclaimed, reaching out to touch the velvet soft nose. “Here you go,” she said reaching into her pocket and pulling out a small cube.

Both siblings watched as the probing lips gently accepted the sugar from Audra’s palm. The little mare nickered again, this time using her delicate nostrils to nudge and explore Audra’s pockets.

“Now look what you’ve done,” Heath chuckled. “You’ve gone and spoiled her.”

“Don’t you ever give your horse sugar?” Audra queried.

“Nope. Never could see wastin’ it on a horse. Up until now, she’s never tasted sugar. I reckon now she’ll be expectin’ it all the time.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” Audra remarked. “From what I’ve observed, you really seem to have a way with animals. I figured if anybody would want to spoil them, it would be you.”

“Oh, I reckon I spoil ’em in my own way. A good brushin’, an extra measure of grain. But I also realize that an animal has it’s place. When I was growin’ up, if my mama had ever caught me takin’ food off the table to feed a horse…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be sittin’ down for a while.”

“Did you ever have pets of any kind when you where a boy, Heath?” Audra wondered as she wistfully combed her fingers through Sally’s mane.

“I had a dog when I was young and that’s about it…that is unless you want to count Bertha Ann.”

“Bertha Ann? Who or what was Bertha Ann?” Audra couldn’t hide her curiosity, and she was really enjoying getting to know this ‘gentler’ side of her new brother.

“Bertha Ann was a chicken I came across one day in the woods,” Heath reminisced. “A raccoon had her and you might say I saved her from a rather agonizin’ death.”

“Oh, tell me more,” Audra squealed in delight. “How did you save her!”

“There really ain’t much to tell,” Heath replied modestly. “I was out tryin’ to hunt down a rabbit or somethin’ for dinner and I heard this squawkin’. I didn’t know for sure what it was, but I figured it had to be some kind’ve meat. Well, as it turned out, it was meat all right. A big, ol’ raccoon had stolen a chicken but hadn’t killed it. He had carried it off into the woods and somehow managed to scalp all the skin off the back of that poor chicken’s head.”

“The poor thing!” Audra empathized. “What happened next?”

“Well, I managed to scare the coon off and the chicken was all but in total shock.”

“But she was still alive, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, I’m gettin’ to that part,” Heath grinned. “I was able to scoop her up and carry her home. I was a little nervous about bringin’ her back to the house. We were so poor and all that I was afraid my mama might get ideas about cookin’ her.”

“Did she?”

“Nope. She took one look at that bird and had her herbs and medicines out tryin’ to doctor it up some. I named her Bertha Ann and she was my pet for a good number of years.” Heath face lit as he thought back on his much loved Banty hen. “Oh course,” he continued, “she always had a bald spot after that. She used to follow me to my job at the livery stable in town. She’d clean up any grain that got scattered from the horses eatin’ and then would fly up and perch in the rafters keepin’ an eye out on things.”

“That’s a sweet story,” Audra smiled, “and one I’ll always cherish.”

“Come on, let’s go find out what Silas has planned for supper!” Heath suggested. “I’m half starved!”

“Let’s just hope it isn’t chicken,” Audra giggled.

Arm in arm, the two youngest Barkley siblings made there way towards the house. Suddenly stopping, Audra took a moment to look her youngest brother in the eye.

“You know what?” she asked.

“What!”

“I really love having a brother that’s closer to my own age!” she blurted out, noticing the rosy hue his sun tanned cheeks had taken on.

He stopped as he felt his face flush. Shifting his eyes, he gave her a shy smile. He didn’t understand this feeling creeping inside him, but it felt good. Whether it was her unconditional acceptance of him, or maybe what it felt like to be a big brother, he didn’t know. Yep, he liked this little sister of his! It was as if she could read his mind and he could see the wonder in her bright eyes. Putting his hand around the slim waist, he thought on her words.

“Reckon If I looked high and wide for a little sister, I wouldn’t find any better…or prettier,” he managed, trying not to let the embarrassment show. “Come on! If we’re much later, Silas will be sendin’ out a search party!”

*****

The two entered the dining area where the family was already seated and Silas was in the process of serving. Audra took her customary seat next to Heath and unfolded her linen napkin. Following her example, Heath now knew to place his napkin on his lap, rather than to tuck it into his shirt like a bib. The smell of fried chicken permeated their nostrils as Silas placed a large platter of his great grandmother’s favorite recipe in the center of the table. Audra needed no more provocation than that. Soon the shrill sounds of laughter echoed in the dining room. Heath’s deep boom was forthcoming.

“Now, would you two mind tellin’ me what the devil is so funny?” Nick questioned.

Audra merely shook her head and rested her forehead in her hand as she tried to regain her composure.

“Heath?” Victoria asked, with an inquisitive look of concern. “Is there something I need to know about?”

“No, Ma’am,” he answered.

“Is there something wrong with the chicken, Miz Audra?” Silas wanted to know. This only triggered another gale of giggles coming from the only Barkley daughter. She glanced over at Heath, taking in his crooked grin as he cocked a knowing eyebrow in her direction.

“It’s really nothing,” she managed. “Just a little inside joke between Heath and me.”

“Well, if it’s all that secret, it doesn’t belong at the dinner table!” Nick growled.

“That will be enough, Nick,” Victoria chastised. “Now, since you’ve taken it upon yourself to direct our topic of conversation, how about leading us in grace?”

The family joined hands and bowed their heads as Nick gave thanks for the bountiful platter of chicken they were about to receive. Heath couldn’t resist giving Audra’s hand a little squeeze. She had gained his trust and he now viewed her as an ally. It seemed as though the womenfolk of this new family of his were all officially on his side, and that was half the battle. Jarrod was almost there and Nick…well, he wouldn’t worry about Nick right now. Time would only tell where that relationship was going to go, but for now, all he wanted to do was eat.

Nick finished with an ‘Amen’ and the plates were passed. Heath helped himself to a generous portion of ‘yard bird’. One thing about being a Barkley was he never had to go without. Victoria cast a glance over at her youngest son. It was good to see the boy smiling for a change. Perhaps his transition would go smoother than she had originally anticipated. He already seemed more comfortable when the family assembled. Now, if only Nick would learn to relax.

“One of these days,” she thought, “this family is going to be seated here in perfect unity.”

If only she knew what the immediate future held in store.*****

“Heath,” Victoria beckoned as he headed in the direction of the front stair case. “One of Nick’s old school chums will be joining us for some pool a little later. I do hope you’ll join us.”

“If you don’t mind, Ma’am, I think I’d rather just take a hot bath and go to bed. I’m sure he ain’t comin’ to see me.”

“No, like I told you he’s an old friend of Nick’s, but a friend of the family’s as well. Now that you’re a part of our family, I was hoping that you would try and make an effort to become better acquainted with some of our friends. Besides,” she said, placing a gentle hand on his arm, “it would mean a lot to me.”

“Okay,” Heath smiled. “Just lemme go get cleaned up and changed first. I wouldn’t want to scare this guest of yours off.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t do that, Heath, but go ahead and do what you need to do. We’ll be in the library when you get done.”

“Thanks, Ma’am. I shouldn’t be too long.”

*****

A knock was heard at the front door and Silas greeted the handsome Elliott Carrington, offering to take his hat.

“Right this way, Mr. Carrington,” the servant beckoned. “The family is already assembled in the library. I’ll show you the way.”

“Thanks, Silas,” the smiling man replied, “but that won’t be necessary. I know this house like the back of my hand.”

“I guess you do at that, Sir,” the black man answered. “Go right ahead!”

Nick was just racking the balls when the tall man entered, and Jarrod was carefully selecting his winning cue.

“Elliott!” Nick exclaimed. “Come on in! Let’s see…you remember my mother and Audra…,” he added, indicating the women seated over by the fireplace.

“Ah, yes! Mrs. Barkley, it’s my pleasure,” the distinguished individual blandished as he took the matron’s delicate fingers and gently placed a kiss on the back of her hand.

“And Audra!”

The debonair man was astonished on the breathtaking beauty in front of him. Surely this couldn’t be Nick’s pesky little sister who used to follow them around and make a nuisance of herself? The girl that he used to think of as a thistle had blossomed into an extraordinary lovely lily of the valley, her flaxen hair thickly draping her slender shoulders.

Likewise, Audra was more than smitten with this suave gentleman standing before her. She had always been attracted to his type…the smart, polished, refined professional…and his looks certainly weren’t making her eyes tired.

“Pleased to make your reacquaintance,” she managed, feeling slightly flushed. “My brother has already told us much about you.”

“He should have warned me about you, Fair Lady,” he oozed, kissing the soft hand, “You would make Helen of Troy pale in comparison. “

Audra blushed and smiled coyly, allowing the handsome man to escort her to the settee.

“Man, you haven’t changed much,” Nick complained. “Still laying it on thick.”

“Nick, I see the ways of love and affairs of the heart are still a mystery to you.” Elliott charmed, patting his friend’s back.

“You line ’em up and they’ll fall at my feet, Old Buddy. This Barkley charm goes a long way,” Nick spouted, placing the cue ball on the green field.

“That and the fact that ‘charm’ as you call it, isn’t meant for the sweet and innocent,” Jarrod joked from the easy chair across the room. *****

Heath tucked the clean shirt into his pants and made his way downstairs. Dinner had gone well. He felt more relaxed than he had since his arrival. Audra and Mrs. Barkley had kept the conversation light, and even Nick was in a cheery mood. Maybe things were getting settled down. He followed the sound of laughter and the crack of the billiard balls into the spacious room. He shuffled over to the side wall and stood watching the game progress. Nick was doing fairly well…the tall elegantly attired man with his back to Heath, would be the old friend Mrs. Barkley mentioned.

Victoria smiled at the stories Nick and Elliott were reminiscing about. Where had the years gone? She remembered Elliot’s mother, Claire, from whom Elliott got his fine coloring. His father, John, had been in business for himself, importing from the Far East. His San Francisco business thrived, but his quiet wife missed her hometown of Stockton, so they settled here. The boys became fast friends. Elliott went away to college, and Claire died shortly thereafter. John and his son had a falling out, something about his dropping out of school. He left after his mother’s funeral and they’d lost track of him. She glanced up and spotted Heath leaning against the door frame.

“Heath, please join us. I’d like you to meet Elliott Carrington.”

Elliott turned at Victoria Barkley’s words and extended his hand to the young man who appeared to be twenty-one or so. As their eyes met, he saw the same question reflected there. He guarded his look, enjoying the fact that Nick’s half-brother had no idea from where he remembered him.

“Elliott, this is my husband’s son, Heath. Elliott and Nick went through their school years together,” Victoria added as the two released their grip.

“Good to meet you, Heath. Welcome to the Valley. How do you like working with this quiet guy?” he baited, indicating Nick with a toss of his head.

Elliott watched carefully as Nick and Heath’s eyes met over the table. Neither said a word. Jarrod broke the silence by offering a wager.

“I’d say by the way Heath looked over that table, he’s about to challenge the winner. My money’s on you, Heath.”

Heath nodded gratefully at Jarrod. This oldest brother of his who had offered the olive branch to him at Sample’s farm, had been distant, other than meals, for these last dozen days. Of course, he was busy with a big trial and had been keeping late hours.

“Heath?” Elliott tapped him with the cue “What about it?”

Heath looked at the triangle full of colored balls. Nick was chalking his cue, looking just a little too cocky. Heath took Elliott’s cue and nodded. His cold eyes met his brother’s hot ones over the center of the table.

“I’ll break. Eight ball, straight, crossover, hi-low, bank? What’ll it be…Brother,” Heath glared.

Nick shifted, leaning onto the table, meeting the icy blue eyes. Oh, would he enjoy wiping that smirk off the whelp’s face. Pulling out a wad of cash, he counted out fifty and handed it to Jarrod.

“Too rich for your blood, Boy?” He grinned.

Heath followed suit and waited, coolly standing on the far end.

“Call it,” he said simply.

“Bank,” Nick replied, walking behind the blond as he scattered the balls.

The room became quiet as the tension in the air thickened. Victoria watched Jarrod carefully. His slight smile as he watched Heath, told her a lot. Competition was something Nick thrived on, and for the first time, she saw the emulous spirit in Heath’s eye’s as well. It was the same spirit his father had. If only Nick could see the irony…that he and this young man whom he rebelled against, shared so many intangible qualities.

Elliott watched the brothers as well, but his main interest was the very lovely, very wealthy and very ripe Audra Barkley. Easing himself next to her on the settee, he drank in her scent. His mind was a whirlwind of activity and plans for the upcoming weeks. He’d sweep her right off her pretty feet and right into his willing arms.

The young man was skilled…very skilled. He watched Nick’s face set in stone, as the younger called every shot and sank them…eight in a row. Nick took the next two, then scratched. Heath finished with precision. Laying the stick across the table, he smiled gamely.

“Double or nothin’, Sport?” he challenged.

“Rack ’em,” Nick growled, grabbing his cue. “Call it.”

Heath winked at Audra and enjoyed the broad smile Jarrod gave him. Suddenly it was turning out to be a great night after all. With the crack of the balls in the background, he looked at Elliott and Audra talking quietly in the corner. An uneasiness crossed over him. Was it because he couldn’t place the stranger’s face, or because something about the way he looked at Audra reminded Heath of a snake about to eat a mouse.

“You’re up.” Nick smacked him, breaking his gaze.

Victoria and Audra left the men around midnight, and Heath followed shortly after, over a hundred dollars richer. Jarrod was dozing in the chair as Nick walked Elliott to the door. Promising to return for dinner soon, the handsome opportunist mounted his horse and headed for home. Relocating back to Stockton might just turn out to be his best move yet. He couldn’t wait to capture those ruby lips of hers and caress that silken skin…a burning desire to conquer the spoiled princess and make her his own. Tom Barkley’s only daughter would be quite a catch.

*****

While the Barkley mansion was filled with light and mirth, several miles away in the dark, five men stood as they listened to the speaker in the shadows. As was their penchant for preciseness, he outlined the plan.

They listened as he ensured every detail down to the minute. Finally, his head came up. The scar that ran from his right eye to the corner of his mouth seemed to accent the patch that covered the lost orb. His hair was dark, the face clean-shaven, and the temperament, cool and menacing.

“Any questions?” He asked, looking at them.

“You sure nobody’ll be home?” Zeke ‘Banjo’ Jones asked?

“He’s out every day from noon ’til four. The house will be empty.”

Jones eyed his sinister friend warily. They had met in Denver and immediately felt a kinship. Both were cold-blooded killers as they’d discovered that sunny afternoon during the bank robbery. The wild teens had fought their way through the state until they had met their mentor. He schooled them in the ways of planning and precision and how patience can be your best friend. They were called ‘the wolf pack’ for their quick, cunning attacks and disappearances. This was their biggest heist yet, and if it went well, they could retire with the haul they’d bring in. Eyeing his old buddy, Jones smiled. Yes, he and Wolf had come a long way since that day in Denver.

“All right then, you all have your jobs to do. We’ll meet here tomorrow at noon and proceed. Jenkins, you ride back with me.” Wolf nodded to the big, burly, bald enforcer.

“What about Gibbons?” Jones asked before the man to his left could speak.

“He’s been updated, he’ll be ready. You just make sure that package is delivered.” Wolf eyed the two on the end. They met his fierce look and nodded.

The gang broke up and rode their separate ways. All was once again quiet in the Valley. It was much later when Wolf reached the crossroads. The full moon illuminated the rider as he made his way down the road. Wolf watched him and eyed the expensive suit the well groomed man wore and smiled. Pacing himself, he fell in behind the handsome horseman and followed him. **

“You goin’ into town?” Heath asked as Victoria entered the barn, dressed in her riding clothes.

“Yes, I need to pick up a few things. Would you care to drive me?”

“Sure, I’d be glad to…but I’m not sure if Nick’s goin’ to like me bein’ gone.”

“You just don’t worry yourself about Nick,” Victoria reassured. “I need to go into town and would very much enjoy having your company!”

“Oh, I ain’t worried, Ma’am. Just didn’t wanna go rockin’ the boat is all.”

“Well, instead of the boat, how about hitching up the carriage!”

*****

Forty-five minutes later, the black buggy labeled ‘Barkley Ranch’ pulled up in front of the dry goods store.

“You coming along inside, Heath?” Victoria wanted to know.

“No, I’d like to mosey on over to the livery. I’ll be back in a few minutes to help you with your packages.”

The two went their separate ways and soon Heath was talking to Harley Perkins who owned and operated Stockton’s only livery.

“What can I do for you, Young Fellow?” the gray-haired horse trader asked. “Looks like you’re in need of a horse. Would you like to rent a mount for the day?”

“Well, lemme look over what you’ve got and I’ll decide,” Heath mused. “I’m not sure yet what I wanna do. My horse is lame for a few days and I need something that has some cow sense.”

“I’ve got the finest cowponies in town,” Perkins bragged, leading Heath to a corral behind the stable. “I rent or sell. It’s your choice.”

Heath looked over the fine string of roans, bays and sorrels. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the little money he had. The twenty dollars he had in his pocket was more than he usually carried. When he was working as a ranch hand, that was close to a month’s pay.

“How much for that black?” Heath asked, studying the fine specimen of horseflesh before him.

“Now, I can’t let that one go cheap. He’s a high dollar animal. How much were you figurin’ on spendin’?”

“I hadn’t really decided on an exact amount,” Heath skirted. “Is this all you’ve got?”

“Well, there’s Buster. He’s in a pen all by himself.”

“Why do you keep him by himself?” Heath suspicioned.

“When you have an animal that fine,” Perkins lied, “you don’t want no other horses pickin’ fights with him.”

“Let’s have a look,” Heath agreed, not buying into the game for a minute.

Heath followed Harley back into the barn and over to an enclosed paddock that housed a lone stallion.

“He’s a fine lookin’ animal,” Heath remarked, somewhat surprised at the lines and conformation of the stout buckskin.

Entering the stall, he ran his hand down the horse’s leg and picked up a front hoof.

“Feet are real good, too. Nice and hard. What’s your price?”

“For a horse like this? I reckon I’ll need a good thirty dollars for him.”

“I don’t know,” Heath bargained as he tried separating the horse’s lips to have a look at the teeth. “He’s kinda stubborn, ain’t he? Come on, Boy, open up.”

Using his index finger, Heath applied pressure to the corners of the stallion’s mouth and reluctantly, the jaw dropped.

“What is he, about four or five years old?” Heath questioned.

“He’s four.”

“I don’t know,” Heath replied. “Guess I’ll just have to think on it a bit.”

“I tell you what,” the horse trader replied, “twenty dollars and he’s yours!”

Heath smiled inwardly as he reached in his pocket for the folded bill.

“You got yourself a deal, Mister!” he grinned, extending his arm to seal the agreement.

*****

Heath was just tying his newest acquisition behind the buggy when Victoria exited the store. She stopped, astonished, and watched the equine scratching his face against the back wheel.

“You got yourself a horse!” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, this is Buster. Sally’s lame and it’s good to have a spare, anyways.”

“We’ve got plenty of horses on the ranch, Heath. You would have been more than welcome to one of those. I mean after all, they’re your horses, too!”

Heath seemed a bit taken. He wasn’t used to having so much at his disposal. He had needed a horse, so he went into town and bought his own. That’s the way he had always done it before.

“Thanks, Ma’am, but I guess I’m just used to fendin’ for myself. All this is goin’ to take some gettin’ used to.”

“I know,” Victoria empathized, “this must be a real adjustment for you, as well.”

“Do you have any packages that need cartin’ out to the buggy?”

“Yes, I do have a few things. Come on! You can help!”

Heath followed the petite woman back into the store and over to the counter where Harry Simons was packaging up her purchased items.

“So this must be Heath,” the friendly clerk commented, extending a warm smile.

“Pleased to meet you, Sir,” Heath replied, offering his hand.

Suddenly, from out in front of the store came a harsh clatter. Dropping Harry’s hand and running for the door, Heath arrived just in time to see his four-legged purchase standing with his two front hooves planted up, over and in the back of the buggy.

“Heath!” Victoria exclaimed from over his shoulder. “Do something! He’ll ruin the buggy!”

Her words, however, were wasted. Heath was already leaping off the boardwalk and reaching for the horse’s lead rope.

“Now you just get outta there, you jughead!” he hollered, using a firm grip to back the animal up.

Clumsily stepping back, the headstrong equine dropped his front legs back down to the ground, scraping the side of the buggy on the way. Heath loosed the rope and after taking in some of the slack, snugged the knot.

“Guess I know what I’m gonna be doin’ this afternoon,” he sighed, stepping back to survey the damage. “Repaintin’ this buggy.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Victoria smoothed. “That’s why we have Ciego.”

Heath finished loading the packages and helped Victoria into the buggy.

“Some bargain,” he thought to himself as he took up the driving reins and urged the carriage horse forward. “Now I know why he kept that horse under lock and key.”

*****

“He’s beautiful, Heath!” Audra yelled from her perch on the corral fence.

“Yeah, he’s a looker,” the cowboy replied as he reined his mount up next to his sister. “But boy howdy, does he have a mind of his own!”

“He seemed to run through his paces okay,” Audra observed.

“Yup, whoever broke him in did a nice job…that ain’t his problem. He just seems…well, too smart for his own good.”

“Are you smart, Buster?” Audra cooed, cupping the horse’s face. “Maybe Heath can train you to do tricks.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll do tricks,” Heath mused. “He’s probably got plenty of ’em. But I just don’t think they’re the kind you’ve got in mind.”

“Heath, are you coming back to the house for lunch?” Audra asked.

“No, I think I’d better take Buster, here, and ride out to where Nick and the boys are workin’ in the orchard. Day’s half gone and Nick’s already gonna be mad enough. See ya at supper!” he grinned before cantering through the gateway.

*****

They made a good team, and the last few days Heath seemed to think Rico Cortez was relaxing a little. Something about the serious teenager appealed to Heath. He saw a lot of himself at that age in the boy. The sullen boy was quiet and kept to himself. He was a hard worker and Heath had come to rely on him, especially since Barrett and Sinclair were often missing. He’d tried to approach Nick about the lazy pair but had been rebuked, just like Sinclair had predicted. Nick dressed him down, stating he’d known Pete Sinclair for nearly three years and never had a problem. Barrett was only here a few months, but had been more than willing to pull his share. Putting the last crate of wine into the wagon, he covered the multiple cases with a tarp.

“Cortez, lunch,” Heath called to the sweating boy.

Heath waited until the Mexican boy nodded, and then took the sandwiches and apples from his saddlebag. Sitting under a tree near the entrance to the winery, Heath handed the roast beef sandwich to the hungry boy.

“Gracias, Senor. You will spoil me.”

“Don’t think so. I was a lot like you at sixteen. You ain’t the spoilin’ kind.”

“You and me, Senor? Alike?” the boy laughed, eyeing his suntanned boss.

“More than you think, Rico.” Heath paused to get the two some cool water from the well nearby.

“I know that feeling that’s gnawing in your gut,” he said handing the boy a cup of water, “I’ve been there. I was fifteen or so when I got out of …when the war ended. And been on my own ever since. Roaming from town to town, checking in on my Mama every now and then, I never found a place to settle. Then she died and I found out about my father.”

“Your Mama…did she live nearby?”

“She was living in an all but dead town called Strawberry, ’bout a half day’s ride from here. She died a couple months ago.” Heath looked away.

“I’m sorry, Senor, I know how that feels. I had no father, either. Some drunken gringo attacked my mother one night as the family slept. I had a good home with my mother and grandmother. My grandfather died when I was little. Then grandmother died and things got bad. We had no money. I was desperate. She was sick, I…” He stopped suddenly realizing he’d said more than he wanted.

Heath listened and saw the terrified look on the boy’s face. He was hiding something. He was scared of somebody or something. Heath watched as Rico tied the tarp securely. Easing off the ground, he tossed the apple core away and joined his young friend. Placing a hand on the boys’ shoulder, he spoke quietly.

“If you ever want to talk bout what’s eating away at you, Rico, I’d like to help. You remember that, okay?”

Rico took a minute to absorb the offer and nodded. Feeling the strong grip on his shoulder, he suddenly felt like he had a friend, his only friend in this strange country. Looking up, he saw nothing but sincerity in the pale eyes.

“Gracias, Senor Heath.”

*****

“You really gotta watch this horse, Nick,” Heath argued. “He can’t just be tied up or stuck in some pen.”

“Now look, Boy! Are you tryin’ to tell me I don’t know horses?” Nick’s agitation was evident as he watched Heath lead his new stallion into the enclosed paddock used to quarantine sick animals.

“You know horses, Nick, but you just don’t know THIS horse. I’ve never seen one so smart. He’s already untied himself twice today and the way he was playin’ with that latch, I wouldn’t be surprised if he opens gates.”

“Well, you can’t keep him in there! We may need to use that!”

“Sorry, Nick, but until I can rig up somethin’ better, this is where I’m leavin’ him. I’m sure you can’t afford for me to be spendin’ half the day chasin’ down a stray horse.”

Heath bolted the door to the paddock and walked out of the barn without giving his brother a second glance.

“Know-it-all leech!” the dark cowboy muttered to himself. “If he thinks he’s goin’ to ride in here and start issuin’ orders, he’s got another thing comin’! I helped Father build that paddock myself. Nobody’s gonna come waltzin’ in here and tell me what to do with what’s already mine!”

Removing the wooden slab that held the door in place, Nick put a rope on the stallion’s neck and led him over to one of the stalls. Feeling satisfied, Nick pulled off his gloves and hastened for the house. If he hurried, he could grab the bathtub before Heath even had a chance to remove his boots. ***

Nick’s hair was still damp when he made his way down to the library where the family was enjoying their before dinner drinks. The hot bath had really relaxed him and he felt like a new man.

“So how’s the project in the orchard coming, Nick?” Jarrod wanted to know.

“Comin’ along well. I’ve got a full crew lined up tomorrow to lay the pipe down. In just a couple more days the pump should be in, and we’ll be the valley’s first irrigation pioneers.”

“It’s always good to know that we Barkleys blaze the trail of progress,” came Jarrod’s pleasant retort.

“And how was your day, Heath?” Jarrod continued. “Mother and Audra tell me that you bought yourself a new horse.”

“Yeah, picked one up from Harley Perkins down at the livery today.”

“Is he working out fairly well for you?”

“Oh, I think so. We seem to understand each other, anyways.”

“What’s that?” Audra interrupted, tuning an ear in the direction of the garden.

“What’s what, Dear?” Victoria asked.

“I don’t know,” Audra replied, rising from her chair. “I thought I heard something outside. It almost sounded like a cow or horse or something walking around outside the house.”

The windows and doors leading out to the verandah were open, allowing the summer evening’s breeze to drift through the house. Audra walked to the double doors and peered out into the yard.

“Mother!”

“Audra, what is it?” Victoria jumped up from her seat and joined her daughter who was now on the verandah.

“Your roses! Look at them!”

“Oh my!” Victoria gasped. “Heath, look what that animal’s done!”

The two women stood back as Heath pushed his way past them, leaped over the railing, and grabbed Buster’s lead rope. Every one of Victoria’s prize rose bushes had been pulled, stomped and chomped. Heath stood amongst the mangled debris, awestruck over the damage that one horse could cause.

“I don’t understand it,” he puzzled. “I had him secured down in the quarantine paddock. It would’ve been impossible for him to get out…unless..”

Hard steely eyes met the nervous hazel ones and locked into a cold stare.

“You did this!” Heath accused. “You put him in a different pen, didn’t you?”

“Well, I, uh…I didn’t think he needed to be in there!” Nick defended.

“I told you he’d get out!” Heath raged, taking a step in Nick’s direction, still holding on to the animal’s lead. “I told you that no ordinary pen was gonna hold this horse! You had no right to move him! Why I oughtta…”

“Heath, that will be enough,” Jarrod intervened. “Is what he says true, Nick?” Jarrod inquired, turning to his middle brother.

“Yeah, it’s true,” Nick mumbled.

“All right, then! Guess who has the job of replanting Mother’s rose garden!”

“Now, hold on there, Jarrod! I got cattle to tend. If you think I’m gonna…”

“Nick!” Victoria admonished. “You WILL clean up this mess, and you WILL be responsible for replanting every bush here! Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” Nick resigned, casting a surly glance in Heath’s direction.

“It’s settled then,” Victoria replied, coolly. “Heath, take Buster back to the barn so we can try to enjoy our dinner.”

*****

Still feeling out of sorts, Heath led the impudent stallion back out to the barn and once again, secured him inside the quarantine paddock. Sensing his brother’s need for a friend, Jarrod hesitated for a moment and then trailed along, unnoticed. He watched as the two disappeared into the barn, thinking how much the angry young man and the stallion had in common. Both seemed wild and untamed, in a league all of their own. The door of the paddock was closed when Jarrod entered, but he could hear Heath’s low voice lulling the horse.

“It’s okay, Boy,” Heath soothed, “I know just how you feel. There have been a few times I’ve felt like bustin’ outta here myself. That Nick…he really knows how to get a person riled…reckon now he’ll have those spurs of his in you, too. Well, I tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna stick together, Boy, just like glue.”

Buster snorted and Heath reached up to stroke the intelligent face.

“Sorry, Boy. Guess glue wasn’t exactly the word I was lookin’ for…but we’re a team, you hear. Now, you just try and settle yourself down…I’ll sit here with you for a while.”

Jarrod turned and walked out of the barn with his head down. Heath was right about one thing. The similarities between him and that horse were uncanny. Both were simple, but smart; loners, without roots; and independent with an inner pride bigger than the Grand Canyon. Wrestling with his own conscious, Jarrod pondered his treatment of his new brother. He hadn’t fought him, like Nick was doing, but yet he hadn’t really gone out of his way to get to know him either. Purposing in his heart to change that situation, Jarrod joined his family at the dinner table.

Hank Barrett stepped outside, onto the bunkhouse porch and watched the action over by the Barkley barn. Nick was standing by the wagon talking to Rico Cortez. He didn’t trust that kid. Although he kept his mouth shut, he was getting too friendly with the bastard. ‘Speak of the devil and he shall appear’, Barrett grinned as Heath made his way over to the wagon. Cortez approached the bunkhouse as Barrett saw Nick give Heath an envelope and watched the dark cowboy’s hand moving as he explained something.

“Pete, hey Pete. Getta move on,” Barrett warned.

Sinclair finished his coffee and the remains of his breakfast and hurried out the door. Joining his partner, he watched cautiously as Nick headed their way. He handed an object to Barrett and shoved him back inside the doorway.

“Get movin’, you ain’t got much time.”

Barrett nodded and made his way through the bunkhouse and out the back door. Heath was in the barn and Barrett worked quickly. He sneaked between the wagon and the side of the building, unseen to any passersby. He poured half of the contents of the canteen out and carefully measured one capful of the liquid in the bottle given him by Sinclair. After pouring the liquid in the canteen, he carefully screwed the top on and placed it back on the seat. He reached inside his shirt and pulled out the empty whiskey bottle, placing it carefully under the seat. Just then, he heard whistling and moved around the back end of the building just as the blond cowboy emerged and climbed onto the rig. Barrett grinned as the wagon pulled out.

He rejoined Sinclair by the bunkhouse as Nick picked out several men to accompany him to the watering lines. There they would await Heath’s arrival with the irrigation pumps.

Rico watched from a few feet away as Barrett and Sinclair whispered and laughed. He followed their gaze to where Heath’s form was barely visible going down the road to town. Turning back, he scowled, he had a bad feeling inside that they were up to no good. As if they could sense what he was thinking, the two approached the watchful boy. Barrett draped an arm around the lad, while Sinclair stood in front of him.

“I don’t like that look you gave me, Cortez, and so I’m warning you. You keep that mouth of yours shut or you’ll end up stretching that pretty neck of yours, you got it?”

Rico struggled to break Barrett’s viselike grip, as Barrett leaned in. Gripping the boy’s face, he whispered in his ear.

“Sure would be a shame if that pretty face of yours got carved up with a knife. That is if we don’t send you back to Mexico where they’re still looking for you. Now you get to that fenceline.”

Rico’s frantic eyes gave him away and Sinclair nodded. Barrett was right, the kid was running from the law. Rico broke free and ran to his horse, their laughter trailing him. He rode off feeling ashamed. He was a coward and it made him feel sick inside. Heath was the only friend he had, and someone Rico trusted. He knew those two had done something bad, but he couldn’t afford to go back. He reached the fenceline and threw himself into his work, trying to forget his heavy heart. *********

“Mr. Barkley, you better get going. It’s nearly ten o’clock .”

“Thank you, Katherine,” Jarrod replied without looking up.

He carefully selected the files, folders and documentation to go in his valise. Today was the day the jury would be selected for the Weber trial. Cal Weber had been arrested for manslaughter. He was a local farmer who had a disagreement with a hired harvest hand, and the ensuing battle resulted in the worker’s death.

“I’m sorry, you can’t go in there. He’s busy.”

Jarrod looked up as his flushed secretary tried to block someone from entering. The voice caught his ear just as the familiar fair hair and wide smile did.

“Morning, Counselor.”

“Good Morning, Roger. What brings you in here today?”

“I heard rumors that Jordan has another plan up his sleeve. I was wondering if you had an update on the situation with the Railroad. It’s been a few weeks since that mess at Sample’s farm. So, what’s the latest? The people want to know.”

Jarrod smiled at the reporter’s last statement. He’d known Roger since his days at Berkley. Jarrod had gone on to Law School, and Roger had moved to the city by the Bay to work at The Chronicle. His wife was from Stockton, so when the job of assistant editor was available, he grabbed it. Jarrod liked Roger Burke. He was fair, honest and could be trusted.

“So the people want to know, eh, old friend?” Jarrod teased the reporter as he walked towards the door.

“Are you going to fight back? A small band of brave souls against the mighty railroad,” Burke guessed.

“Come on, walk with me. How’ve you been, Roger? How are Amelia and the girls?”

“They’re all fine, and stop sidestepping.”

Jarrod laughed and the two talked about the issues at hand as they made their way up the street. Turning the corner across the street from the courthouse, Burke watched as Jarrod stopped and waved to a wagon passing by. The driver was a young man, twenty-one or twenty-two with blond hair and a winning smile.

“Heath, slow down a minute,” Jarrod called.

Roger followed his friend over and nodded at the name. So this was the half-brother that had moved in several weeks back. Remembering that he had been there when the farmers stood against the railroad, this young man stood tall in Roger’s eyes. For a stranger to come in and stand up for a cause that he had no stake in took some guts.

“Can I have a look?” Jarrod asked, approaching the wagon.

“Sure. They’re fine, I checked each one myself. You sure outdid yourself, Jarrod.”

“I only sent a few telegrams, Heath. Luck did the rest.”

Jarrod saw Roger eyeing his brother and pulled him over.

“Heath, this is Roger Burke, an old friend and reporter for the Stockton Eagle. Roger, this is my brother, Heath.”

“How you doing, Heath? Good to meet you,” Roger boomed, extending his hand.

Jarrod and Roger exchanged a glance as Heath hesitated at Roger’s gregarious greeting. Jarrod felt embarrassed that Heath should have to feel strange that someone would extend him a warm greeting. Some of the people in town had been civil, but some had been downright hostile. Jarrod realized his youngest brother had gone through most of his life looking up to averted glances. It wasn’t right, and all the right words wouldn’t fix the small minds of some people.

“Nice to meet you,” Heath said, finally shaking the extended hand. “Well, I best be goin’. Nick’s gonna skin me alive if I’m late. It don’t take much to set him off. See you at dinner, Jarrod.”

“Have a good day, Heath,” He replied patting the younger man’s arm.

They walked in silence for a few minutes before they entered the courthouse.

“How’s it going, Jarrod? I mean is the kid settling in okay? He seems awfully jumpy.”

“You’d be jumpy too, Roger, if you spent most of your life fighting against bigotry. He’s had a real uphill battle most of the way. I’ve been so tied up with this trial that I’ve been neglecting him.”

“And the rest of the family?” Roger asked as the two entered Courtroom B.

“Mother accepted him from the start, and without hesitation. Audra, she opened her heart to him right off, and so far, she’s the only one he seems comfortable with. They’ve begun to bond,” Jarrod said, placing his valise on the defense table.

“And Nick?”

“Nick. Well, Roger, Nick’s in a tough position. He’s resisting any attempt at accepting Heath. He’s been very hostile, and they’ve had far too many fights. They’re both so bullheaded and that’s led to many battles. Nick’s fighting the wrong battle and I hope he joins the right side before it’s too late.”

“Too late?” Roger asked.

“I’ve got to find time to talk to Heath. Somewhere inside that angry, brooding exterior is an intelligent, courageous young man whom I’d like to get to know. If Nick doesn’t rectify his mistake, I’m afraid we’re going to lose Heath.”

“You think he’ll bolt?”

“I hope not, Roger. The more I see him, the more I realize what a perfect fit he is for Nick and the ranch. Problem is, Nick is blinded to seeing Heath in the light of truth. He’s so angry at my father that he’s lashing out and Heath is his prime target,” Jarrod concluded as the gavel brought the rest of the occupants of the room to their feet. *******

Heath slowed the team down and drew them to a stop. He wiped his brow with his sleeve as the unrelenting sun beat down on his sweat-soaked back. It was just after eleven in the morning and he was less than an hour from the job site. He reached for the canteen and frowned as he shook it. It wasn’t full. He thought for sure he’d filled it before he left. He took several long gulps and drained the container. Urging the team onward, he turned off the main road and headed for The Applegate Turnoff, a shortcut.

He was only about a mile or so onto the turnoff, when he began to yawn. He shook his head and blinked his eyes, trying to combat the fatigue that had descended upon him. His head dropped and banged against his chest, and the team went off to the side. Jerking himself awake, he pulled the horses in and rubbed his face. He looked up at the sun and strained to think of a reason why he might be so very tired. He looked over at the canteen on the other side of the wagon and reached for it. Lying on the seat, his eyes became too heavy to support. Within minutes, he was sound asleep.

*****

His mouth was on fire and his throat felt like it was being roasted. So much that he fell into a coughing fit that woke him up. He opened his eyes and squinted up to the afternoon sun. He knew by it’s location that it was well after noontime. He sat up and the road spun before him. Placing his clammy face in his hands, he felt his stomach turning. He jumped off the wagon and fell to his knees. Crawling to the side of the road, he lost the small contents of his stomach and then just heaved air. Gasping for breath and wincing against the painful stitch in his side, he reached for his watch. It was after two. Nick would be livid.

Heath’s shaky legs got him back onto the wagon and he urged the team onward. He hadn’t even remembered falling asleep. It wasn’t like him to nod off during the day unless he was sick. He had no explanation to give Nick and he knew his brother would be spitting nails.

*****

The men stood in groups of two’s and three’s, shaking their heads and thanking God they weren’t in Heath’s shoes. Nick was on the warpath, pacing like a caged tiger and cursing like a sailor. The brown shirt that had become his trademark, was soaked in sweat as he scowled.

“Where the hell is he? It’s after two o’clock. He should’ve been here hours ago.” Nick fumed.

“Maybe the wagon broke down,” a voice called out.

“Yeah, or maybe the train was late,” another offered.

“I don’t want maybes, I want them pumps! I want answers! He better have a damn good excuse for this,” Nick swore as two riders rode up.

“Well?” Nick squinted up to them, a hand over his eyes .

“Sorry, Boss, didn’t find him. We rode clear into town and back. No sign of him. The clerk at the rail depot said he left just after ten this morning.”

“You followed the main road all the way?” McCall asked from Nick’s right.

“Yes, Sir. Straight from town to here. I sure hope he didn’t get hurt or have an accident.”

Nick frowned. He’d never thought of that. Just as quickly as the feeling entered his gut, it left.

“I saw that, Nick, ” McCall said. “It’s about time you started feeling something towards him. I’m amazed you haven’t hurt your neck looking the other way, while them big mouths beat on him.”

“I’m no ogre, McCall. Of course I don’t want anything to have happened to him. He’s a big boy. He’ don’t need me to wipe his nose. He can take care of himself. I can attest to that first hand,” Nick snarled.

McCall shook his head as the furious Barkley walked away. It wasn’t like Nick to be so one-sided, but then he’d never had his father’s image tarnished before. McCall had been working on the ranch over twenty-five years and had seen Nick Barkley raised by Tom’s side. He idolized his father and when Heath had appeared, it had shaken Nick’s world. McCall liked Heath, but it was only in the last few days that he’d begun to talk to him. McCall had watched the boy work hard over these past weeks, long into the night many times to appease his angry brother. He never complained about getting the short straw. Funny thing was, deep down he had a feeling Heath wanted desperately for Nick to accept him.

“Nick, you’re too hard on that boy. He’s worked like a dog from the day he got here and you’ve not once given him so much as a pat on the back. It’s not like you to be so…”

“What McCall? Finish it. You think I’m being too hard on him. He waltzes in here with no proof of what he’s claimin’ and ‘poof’, I’ve got a new brother. All his hard work won’t change his blood. He’s no brother of mine and as long as he’s claimin’ to be, I’m standin’ my ground,” Nick issued loudly.

“You’re wrong, Nick. I’m afraid you going to realize too late how very wrong you are,” McCall said sternly.

“Nick, you think maybe he took Applegate Turnoff?” Charlie, one of the hands, asked.

“He could have,” Nick fumed. “Or he could be halfway out of the state with some very expensive machinery.”

“He’s coming!” a voice cried.

Nick swiveled as the wagon made it’s way up the road. He stormed up to meet it and hauled the weary form out of it’s seat. Throwing Heath against the side of the wagon, Nick grabbed his collar and inched his face in close.

“Where the hell have you been? Do you know what time it is? Let me refresh you…it’s after two p.m.! You’ve kept all these men waiting for hours in the hot sun. You know we can’t afford to lose a minute in this heat. We needed those pumps up and running by sundown. Well? I want an explanation, Boy, and I want it now!”

Heath tried hard to concentrate on Nick’s words. Nick had every right to be upset, but Heath couldn’t tell him something he didn’t know himself. His mouth was dry and hot and his head was spinning. He felt his legs quaking and tried to form words, but his confused state of mind couldn’t produce any.

“I’m…sorry…I…it…thirsty…,” he croaked as his legs gave way and his eyes closed.

“YOU”RE SORRY! That’s the best you can do!” Nick growled.

Nick felt McCAll pull him away as Heath’s knees buckled and he slid down to a sitting position on the ground, leaning against the front wheel. McCall put a seasoned hand against the throat and forehead. He tapped the face lightly.

“Heath? Heath wake up.”

“Water…,” was the rasped response.

Nick bent over the wagon seat to get Heath’s canteen. As he picked it up, he realized it was empty, or Heath wouldn’t be so thirsty.

“Get him some water,” he ordered to a hand near by, handing him the canteen.

As he turned, the hot sun glinted off something under the seat. Frowning, he pulled it out and spun around with fire in his eyes.

Heath heard the growl and looked up, startled, as Nick hauled him to his feet.

“Nick, you got every right to be sore, but…”

Heath never finished his sentence. Nick didn’t remember pulling Heath up or the volley of punches that sent the weary man into the irrigation pond nearby. The choke hold kept the sputtering man under the water. Finally, the red wall rose from this vision and the roar in his ears dimmed as several of the men pulled him off Heath.

“That’s enough! You cool down!” McCall advised sternly to Nick.

Turning back, he handed Heath the canteen and urged him to drink. Heath took several long gulps and rose to his feet. McCall helped him up and Heath shook off his aid.

“I’m fine, now. I don’t know what happened,” he implored.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Nick furied as he stormed over to the wagon. “this is what happened.”

The bottle sailed through the air and landed at Heath’s feet. Heath bent down and picked it up, raising his eyebrows at the label.

“Nick, this ain’t mine. I know it’ looks bad, but you gotta believe me. I …”

“What I believe is that while all these good men stood around like sheep in this heat, you were out gettin’ soused. That’s why you took Applegate Turnoff…so nobody’d see you,” Nick said as he shoved Heath hard.

“I told you, that ain’t my bottle. I don’t drink when I’m working…not today, not ever. I wouldn’t do that to you, these men or this ranch,” Heath glared as he stood inches from his brother.

“You’re a no-good drunk is what you are…thirsty, stumbling all over the place, passing out. I’m gonna wipe the floor with you, Boy. Your little party cost us big. Every lost minute of water, them peaches were dryin’ out,” Nick launched as he threw a left hook.

Heath dodged the blow and McCall stepped between them.

“I want an explanation, Heath, and I want it now. Where the devil were you all that time?”

The only answer Nick got was a steely glare.

“Answer me, you no good whelp,” Nick growled, as McCall strong-armed him.

“That’ enough, Nick! Heath, you and those men get them pumps hooked up,” McCall ordered to a group near the wagon.” The rest of you get to those pipes. Let’s move, we’ve already lost too much time.”

Nick pulled and thrashed against the large foreman.

“Let me go! I ain’t done with him yet. I can’t believe you’re falling for that pack of lies. You’re on his side?”

“Somebody has to be, Nick,” McCall said with disdain as he released the hot cowboy and joined the five men by the pumps.

*****

Nick brushed his hair aside and took the empty bottle to his saddlebag. Grabbing his canteen, he took a long swig and poured some water over his face. Replacing the cap, he watched as Heath gave directives to how the pumps were to be set up. The men nodded and carried out their tasks. Was McCall right? Was he being too hard?

It was past six-thirty in the evening and the sun would set soon. The men were beat, working long hours in the excessive heat had wearied them. They’d worked exceptionally fast and caught up. The lines were set and the pumps turned on. Nick whistled to get their attention. Jumping on the back of the wagon, they formed a circle as he spoke.

“I want you to know what a great job you’ve all done today, despite the….problem we had,” he said eyeing Heath. “You’ll all get a bonus. Perkins, you and your crew will report here tomorrow. Okay, that’s it. Great job! Go on, now, and get some chow.”

As the murmuring hands made their way back to their horses, Nick dropped back down to the ground. He grabbed Heath’s shoulder as the weary cowboy walked by.

“Not so fast, Heath. You’re stayin’. Those orders don’t apply to you.”

“But Nick…,” Heath started, stopping when he saw the determined look.

“You created the delay…you’re staying. The engineer said them pumps have to be monitored for several hours after they start up. I’ll take the wagon in, you keep Cocoa here. You use that lantern and ride up and down every row. You keep a constant check on them lines. You think you can handle that?” Nick said sharply.

Heath walked past him without a word and grabbed the lantern. As he approached Cocoa, McCall stopped him.

“Heath, I’ll do it. You go on home. You’re beat and you haven’t had a bite to eat all day. Go on, now.”

Heath looked over at the silver haired man and smiled wanly. Taking a long drink from Nick’s canteen, he shook his head.

“Thanks, McCall…and I really mean that. He’s right. It’s my fault and I got to pay the penalty.”

“What happened to you, Son? Did you get sick or something?”

“I honestly don’t know. One minute I was fine, and the next thing I knew, I woke up and it was two o’clock.”

McCall looked at the soulful eyes, so much like his father’s. Eyes that could never lie. He squeezed the blue shirt, now damp with sweat and tried to be reassuring.

“I’m sorry for this, Heath. I believe you, and I got a hunch I know who’s behind it.”

Heath looked up startled as McCall finished.

“Despite what Nick thinks, I’ve never liked Barrett or Sinclair. They do their share, but they’re shifty. I’ve warned Nick about them. I’m in your corner, Boy. You just call if you need an ear, okay?”

“Okay, thanks for sticking up for me today. I’m not used to… well it just felt good for a change.”

McCall understood, perhaps too well. He patted the shoulder and walked to his horse. He looked back, and from the angle of the setting sun, the cock of the head and the gait of the young man, he’d swear it was Tom Barkley, himself, riding off.

*****

Nick ran a hand through his damp hair and buttoned the clean shirt. Arriving at the dinner table, he jumped into his seat and looked around.

“Sorry I’m late,” he muttered as he placed the napkin on his lap. “We had a real setback today.”

“That’s okay, Nick, I was late too. Did you get the pumps hooked up?”

“Yeah, they’re up and running, but they didn’t arrive until after two o’clock this afternoon.”

“Two in the afternoon? What happened? Did Heath have a problem with the wagon?” Victoria asked, concerned.

“Yeah, he had a problem all right. He got drunk and left me and those men standin’ for hours in the heat while them peaches dried up!”

“Drunk! Nick, that’s ridiculous. Heath would never…” Audra’s voice was abruptly cut off by her less than congenial brother.

“He would and he did, Little Sister. Fell outta the wagon, legs all shaky, thirsty, stuttering. You shoud’ve seen him,” Nick fumed.

“Is he upstairs? Did he go right to bed? ” Jarrod asked.

“No, he’s monitoring the pumps. He probably won’t be back until after ten,” Nick defied.

“Alone? Nick that’s a whole lot of ground to cover. He’s been working in the sun all day, possibly ill, and with no food. Brilliant idea, Nick, really inspired,” Jarrod glared.

“He caused it, he fixes it…that’s the way it works. Same as any other hand,” Nick shouted.

“That’s enough, both of you,” Victoria admonished. “He’s not just another hand, he’s your brother and Jarrod is absolutely right. To leave him out there in those circumstances was cruel, Nick. As far as him being drunk, I don’t believe it.

“There must be some other explanation. What did he say,” Jarrod asked.

“Nothing. Just stood there, staring at me, stuttering. What held you up, anyway?” Nick tallied.

“The sheriff. He stopped by the courthouse as I was leaving. There was a robbery this afternoon.”

“A robbery in town? Was it the bank?” Victoria queried.

“No, it was outside of town, over by The Applegate Turnoff…the Royce ranch. Fred’s got some clues, but very few, I’m afraid. He surmised it took place sometime early this afternoon. They were very precise…real pros. They had it timed to the minute. They only took merchandise high on resale in the black market.”

“Was Jim there? Was he hurt?” Victoria asked of the sixty-year-old widower.

“No, Mother, he was out. That’s what I meant by precise timing. They must’ve had it planned like that.”

The wheels in Nick’s mind where spinning and out of control. Applegate Turnoff, the early afternoon hours, and that bold refusal of an explanation. Heath was guilty all right, and that bottle just proved it. Jarrod saw Nick’s face darken and watched in surprise as his angry brother jumped up and threw down his napkin, disgust written on his dark face.

“I knew it. I warned you all, but you wouldn’t listen, and now Jim Royce paid the price. Took him in like he was one of the family, without so much as a shred of evidence.” Nick paced around the room smacking his fist into his hand. “Poor little bastard boy without a father. Nothing but a no-good mongrel.”

“Nick! I won’t have you use that…” Victoria started to admonish but was cut off.

“You call him what you want, but it won’t change what he is. A no-good impostor. He’s somebody’s bastard, but not my father’s. And you!” he ranted, slamming his hand down, causing Jarrod’s silver to jump. “What was it you said? Oh, yes, ‘dime novel suspicions’. He had you all fooled, but not me.”

“Nick, what is wrong with you? Settle down now! I want an explanation.” Jarrod stood and glared at his hotheaded brother.

“He arrived just close to two-thirty, stuporous, stuttering, couldn’t walk, eyes bleary. He was drunk, Jarred. Came in from Applegate Turnoff and guess what rolled out from under his front seat? An empty bottle of whiskey! He robbed the place and then sat down and had himself a nice little party. I’m going to turn him in to Fred right now.”

“You’ll sit down this minute, Nick,” Victoria said sharply, walking to Nick’s side.

“Why are you defending him? He’s not your son. He’s a no good bas…”

She cut his answer short with a sharp slap to his face. The sound rebounded around the room and fell short of where they stood. She glared at him and spoke severely.

“I will say this one time only, Nicholas, so listen carefully. That boy is Heath Barkley, your brother, whether you like it or not. Your father was in Strawberry for over three months. Heath was born nine months later. You won’t see him for what he is because if you do, that means that somehow you’ll think your father was less of the man you’ve thought him to be.”

He tried to turn away, his expression bearing the pain her words had triggered deep inside his heart. Her small hands reached up and took his face. She looked deeply into those hazel eyes and implored.

“Nick, your father didn’t abandon you. He was a man with just as many imperfections as any other. You can’t look at him as marble. He was flesh and blood… not infallible. He was a great man, and gave me three fine sons.

“Three? He ain’t yours,” Nick shouted.

“Yes, he is. As much as you and Jarrod. There is so much of your father in him. All you have to do is look. He’s your brother, and he needs you. He had no father. If anyone has the right to be angry, it should be him. He was the one who was deserted, not you. You had a firm hand to raise and teach you…he didn’t.”

“He’s guilty, you’re all wrong,” Nick said, turning away, but Victoria snagged the arm.

“You listen to me,” she directed at Nick, but looked sternly at her other two children as well. “Heath isn’t here to defend himself and you will drop this whole ridiculous speculation. I won’t have this matter discussed any further. It ends right here, and now! Do I make myself clear, Nick?”

She stared sternly into the hazel-eyed scowl and the firm grip on his forearms told him she meant every word. His face relaxed and she felt the tension in the bicep ease. He looked at Jarrod and back to her and nodded.

“I’ve got some work to do. Please excuse me,” he said rather calmly as he turned and left.

*****

Heath couldn’t decide which was worse, the ache in his back or the hunger pains in his stomach. It was nearly eleven at night and thankfully his task was nearly done. Nick had every right to be angry, and Heath didn’t blame him. He just couldn’t figure it out. He hadn’t met anyone on the road and hadn’t left the wagon alone. His thoughts were interrupted by the whinny of one of the team’s horses. He turned and pulled his gun in the same instant.

“Do not shoot, Senor, it is me.”

“Rico?” Heath asked, peering into the darkness.

“Si.”

“What are you doing out here this late? You oughtta be sleeping in the bunkhouse.”

“I’m sorry I’m so late. I had to wait until they all fell asleep,” the boy said climbing down from his horse.

Heath climbed down as well and walked over to the clearing where Rico stood. Holding up the lantern, he saw the boy untie a burlap bag from the saddlehorn. He smiled at the shy grin the boy held as he turned.

“This time, Senor, it is I who brings you the food.”

Heath watched as Rico sat down and unpacked bread, cheese, ham, fruit, a piece of cake, and a jug of cider. He carefully placed them, along with a napkin and utensils at Heath’s feet. Looking up, he saw the surprise and then the warm smile, helping to pacify his troubled conscience. Rico had felt awful when the men came in and started talking about what happened.

“Rico, I don’t know what to say,” Heath murmured.

“Say you’re hungry, Senor, and eat!” Rico encouraged.

“Reckon that’s about as good advice as I ever got. Thanks kid.”

He sat down and crossed his long legs, examining each item. Looking at the boy who still wore the shy grin, he thought maybe this was the best meal he ever received. He offered to share, but Cortez just shook his head. As he watched the grateful man eat, he couldn’t get the warm look those blue eyes held for him off his mind. Something told him he could trust this man. He remembered his grandmother telling him her wisdom about people who had a ‘good heart’. She had always said that if a man only had one true friend, someone with such goodness, they’d be richer than the wealthiest man in town. It was time he learned to trust this kind gringo.

“Senor Heath, can I talk to you? There is something I need to say…I…would you give me your word, you won’t tell?”

“Depends on what it is you got to say, Rico. But I promise you, I’ll stand by you, no matter what. Whatever it is that’s been eatin’ away at you, Kid, can’t be as bad as you think. “

“After my grandmother died, things went well for awhile. Then my mother got sick…so very sick. I tried to get work, but we come from such a poor village, I had to sell everything we had to get money for medicine and food for her. I found a cave in the hills and we stayed there. I felt so bad…I tried to help her, but failed.”

Heath felt the familiar pain in his stomach as he looked at the boy’s fine features, full of anguish, as the lamplight flickered upon him. He knew all too well what that felt like. To have no one, and feel helpless, watching someone you love slip away.

“I couldn’t leave her for very long, we had no family, and the town was so very poor. Many were sick and dying. I would find food, and bring it to her. She’d eat a little. Despite how bad I felt, she always said how much she loved me, her brown eye were so beautiful. I woke one morning a couple months ago and she had a bad fever. I went to the doctor and begged him to come and help her, but he laughed at me and threw me out of his grand hacienda. I was mad…so very mad. I waited until dark and went back inside. I got medicine, food and a blanket for her. I would have gotten away if not for falling in the dark, and breaking a vase. I tried to run but he grabbed me. We fought, and he fell, hitting his head.”

Rico closed his eyes, remembering how terrified he was at that moment.

“There was so much blood, Senor, and he was so still. He wife stood there, screaming at me. I ran. I ran as fast as I could. When I got back to the cave, she was looking at me. I felt her head, and at first I thought her fever had broken, then … then…the eyes had no more light. She was gone. I had left her and she died alone. I failed …”

His voice broke and he held his knees and rocked, sobbing tears two months coming. Heath felt the pain rise within him and swallowed it. He moved over and put an arm around the quaking shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Rico. I really am. I know how you feel. Me and my Mama were alone against the world, too. I worked from the time I was six or seven doin’ anythin’ for pennies, but it was never enough. When you’re poor, it never is. When she died…,” he stopped his own eyes burning, “a part of me died, too. So you go ahead and cry, Kid, get it all out. Then you hold you head up high. You’re a fine man and she couldn’t have a better son.”

Something about the gentle tone of his words hit Rico’s heart. McCall and Heath were the only gringos he’d ever met that he could trust. Nick scared him, although Rico knew he was fair, but something about Heath was different. He had the same pain inside. The scar of having no father and of seeing a mother suffer. He wiped his nose and rubbed his eyes and looked over at his friend.

“It ain’t easy being a boy in a man’s world, is it, Kid?” Heath said with a squeeze to the thin shoulders.

“No, Senor, it isn’t. I didn’t mean to get so …well you know what I mean.”

“Sure do. I cried too, not when she was buried, but later on a trail, alone in the dark. It just came over me. The finality of it all…knowin’ I’d never see her again or hear her voice. It feels a whole lot better now, don’t it?” Heath’s voice trailed off.

“Si, Senor, it felt before like a ….rock was on my chest. Now, it’s not as bad. I never had a brother, Senor, but if I did, I wish he would be like you,” Rico said shyly without looking up.

Heath laughed and ruffled the dark hair. He liked this boy and felt he’d somehow helped him a step further on the road to manhood.

“You and me, Kid, we’ll look out for each other, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Listen, Rico, about that doctor fella. You don’t know that he was dead. I’ve seen enough head wounds to tell you that sometimes they bleed like a stuck pig. He’s probably overcharging some wealthy widow now. As far as the other charges, I’d bet my brother could help you there. From what I hear, he’s a good lawyer. If it comes to that, I’ll stay with you all the way. I’ll protect you.”

Rico packed the dishes up as Heath’s words eased into the night. He didn’t want his gringo friend to see him cry again. Nobody had ever stuck up for him before. It felt good.

“Where’d you get all this grub anyhow?” Heath quizzed.

“I waited until they all were sleeping. I thought I was careful, just grabbing the rolls and cheese,” he recalled smiling. “Then Senor McCall…he followed me outside and told me if I was going to do a job, to do it right, and gave me the rest. He’s a good man, I like him.”

“They don’t come any better, Kid. I like him too.”

“Come on, Senor. If you show me what to do I’ll help and we can both get home.”

“Okay, Kid, let’s go,” Heath said hauling the boy to his feet and clapping him on the back.

******

It was half past ten when Heath pulled his weary body through the foyer. He was about to attempt the task of dragging his aching limbs up all those stairs to bed, when he turned. Making his way into the library, he poured himself a shot of the whiskey he craved. Tilting his head back, he downed the amber beverage in one big gulp. He heard the front door slam and footsteps making their way down the hall and into the library. He didn’t need to turn around. The jingle of spurs and low growl had already told him who the mystery person was.

“Didn’t you get enough of that this morning when you held a dozen men up from an important job? Today was bad enough, but Barrett says you didn’t even hold up your end during the fencin’ project!”

Nick’s voice was gruff and his facial features hardened as he made the accusation.

“Barrett’s words are about as true as Works denyin’ Andersonville! You want the truth? I’ll get the truth outta that fork-tongued loser,” Heath snarled, attempting to sidestep the tempest which stood before him.

“Now, you just hold it right there, Boy! I don’t need you goin’ in and stirrin’ up trouble with the men. I’ve got enough of that already!”

Heath felt the firm grip on his arm and the demeaning tone stuck him like a dagger. Throwing off the arm, he turned to confront his brother.

“And what gives you the right tellin’ me what to do?” he challenged. “You ain’t my boss!”

“Yeah? Well, I run the place, don’t I?”

Heath’s eyes burned a hole right through the vested chest of the arrogant, dark cowboy. So that’s how this popinjay had interpreted the first night’s meeting. It would be Nick giving the orders, while Heath would be expected to lick his boots like a grateful lapdog. He thought on the words that Mrs. Barkley had said when she had corralled Nick by the fire. She had emphasized the fact that ‘both’ of Tom’s sons would run the ranch. The embers in her eyes and the firm tone in her voice had convinced Heath that she meant what she said, but apparently Nick still didn’t see it that way. Well, he’d straighten that out right now.

“So all that talk about me bein’ an equal part in this was for nothin’? Your mother gave her word…”

“Her word, not mine,” Nick lashed back. “Talk is all it was. This is MY ranch! You haven’t earned the right to run it yet!”

Nick’s face was no-nonsense and cocky as his gloved thumb emphasized the ‘my’. Heath didn’t wait for a further explanation. Nick’s body language had just said it all. It was quite clear to him that no matter how hard he tried, he would never be a Barkley.

“And what’s that supposed to mean? That you still don’t believe that I am who I say I am? You think that I’m just some goldseeker who made everythin’ up to try and get into your old man’s fortune? You’ve fought me head-on from day one and now you’re more than willin’ to believe any lies that some of those blowhards out in the bunkhouse have to say about me. Well, it ain’t my fault that the ‘old stud’ wasn’t content eatin’ the grass in his own pasture!” Heath emphasized, throwing a harsh hand gesture in the direction of the patriarch’s portrait. “You think it was easy growin’ up the town bastard and havin’ that label follow me around my whole life? You think I enjoy havin’ to fight my way into my own family?”

“Your mother may have lured some sorry sailor who had the misfortune of whelpin’ you, but you’ll never convince me that it was MY father!” Nick shot, his eyes blazing with the rage he felt inside.

“You take that back!” Heath ordered, standing face to face with his older brother. “You take that back, now!”

“Not a chance!”

It didn’t take long for the fight to begin. A light, but disrespectful shove from Nick, and Heath lost his head. Plowing into his brother, he threw him hard onto the sofa and started a fast volley of punches. Nick was soon on his feet, backhanding the younger hard across his bronzed cheek.

“Mr. Nick! Mr. Heath! What’s going on in here?”

The two stallions ignored the desperate pleas from the lone, black servant as each pursued to stand his ground. Insults were hurtled and fists flew as the struggling brothers grappled and swung.

“Nick! Heath! Stop it!”

Audra’s cries seemed frantic as she burst into the room of her battling brothers. Finally, Nick gained the upper ground and sent Heath sailing across the room only to crash into a large, imported vase. Lying stunned amongst the broken pieces, Heath tried to gain his composure while Nick stood over him, red-faced and hostile.

“Now that we’ve got this little matter settled,” he huffed, “I’ll be expectin’ you to be puttin’ in your full day’s work! Got it?”

Using his gloved hand to wipe the blood from his lip, he turned and retreated out of the room.

“Heath! Are you okay?” Audra cried, running to aid her fallen brother.

“I’m fine!” he snapped, shaking off her arm and standing with his own strength. “Just leave me alone! I’ve had it with all of you!”

Through tearful eyes she watched as he stormed out of the library, taking the steps to his room two at a time. Emerging from her own room, where she had been reading, Victoria was roused by the loud bang of Heath’s bedroom door. Listening outside, she heard drawers slamming and belongings being slung around. He was packing. How she’d manage to stop him on her own, she didn’t know, but anything was worth a try. Tapping lightly, she received no answer. Carefully, she turned the handle and gently opened the door. He glared at her and continued rounding up his things. She wasn’t gonna stop him this time. No sir. He’d had enough of Nick Barkley and that poor excuse for a work crew. Securing his bedroll, he walked over to the window and pounded the sill with both fists.

“Go ahead, break it, if you think it will help,” she said calmly.

“I’ve had it with him and his mouth. Barking all the time, expecting me to jump like a trained animal,” he seethed as he turned and approached her.

She backed up slightly. His words and stance left her more than a little uneasy. She didn’t doubt for a minute he was a Barkley. He was Tom’s, all right, this youngest son who had the same passionate blue-eyed gaze that could run a gamut of emotions. Then there was the stubborn steak and that set jaw. Composing herself, she stepped forward and gripped the tense arms, looking right into those furious eyes, so much like his father’s.

“Running away won’t solve a thing and deep down you know that, Heath. You can’t hide from your destiny. Your place is here with your brother, running your father’s ranch. He built this empire,” she paused, turning the workman’s hands over, running her soft fingers over the rough skin, “with hands like these. He shed every ounce of sweat and blood he had into this land, and he died for it. You fought to get in here and I’m not going to let you leave. You’re no quitter! Anyone with eyes can see that.”

“With all due respect, Ma’am, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Your son is the one who needs the speech,” he snapped, throwing her hands off.

“He’s got my father’s temper and shortsightedness, but he’s got Tom’s fire and passion. Most people don’t understand Nick, and I know he’s hurting. His image of his father has been tarnished, and that doesn’t set well with him. It will take some time, but…”

She walked in front of him and turned his chin to face her. Such a handsome boy, fine features and so much more inside. The defiant stare didn’t fool her. It masked the turmoil within…years of hurt and deep seated pain. She saw a little boy, towheaded and angry, fists clenched, fighting the world alone. A wild child with no father’s firm hand to guide or teach him. She wanted to get to know this love child of Tom’s and to think of him as one of her own.

“Heath, you have so much to offer to me, your brothers and sister, but more importantly, to yourself. This is your heritage, and will some day belong to your sons and your sons’ sons. Your mother raised a fine man, full of pride and integrity. This new name only adds to that. I’ll talk to Nick. Your place is here with your family. It’s an adjustment for all of us and it will be hard…nothing worthwhile comes easy. For without family you have nothing, Heath, nothing at all. Is that really what you want? To be alone in this world?”

His silence was a ray of hope to her. She peered deeply into those light blue eyes and saw a glimmer. Nodding her head, she patted his arm and left. He peered out into the darkness and wondered how the tiny, formidable woman who’d known him only a few weeks, could read him so well. He sat on the bed and drew his legs up, leaning against the headboard. He eyed the bedroll and thought on what to do. He did want a family, a home and a heritage…but at what price? What if Nick never accepted him?

*****

“Do I make myself clear, Nicholas?”

Nick nodded, knowing the use of his full name measured out exactly how angry his mother was. He didn’t understand how she could welcome a stranger as part of the family or accept the fact that her husband, his father, could be dishonest. He stared at the portrait which hung above the fireplace and deep into his father’s eyes. “What do I do, Sir?” he asked silently. He was too tired to fight her and knew if Jarrod caught wind of things, he’d have to fight him, too. Sighing, he resigned himself to the fact that the boy was here to stay. He would work with him, try to contain his animosity, but he’d never accept him as a brother. There was just no way.

“Okay, Mother, I’ll give it another try. I’ll be…I’ll give him a break. But I won’t put up with him causin’ trouble among the men.”

“Then you talk to the men and make them understand. You have no proof Heath drank. Anyone could have planted that bottle, Nick, and you know it. What did he say was the reason he was delayed so long?”

“He didn’t.”

“What do you mean by that? He must have given some explanation.”

Nick’s face gave himself away.

“You never gave him a chance to explain, did you Nick?”

“All right, maybe I got a little carried away. I’ll make it right by him.”

Victoria kissed her dark-haired son on the cheek and made her way up the grand staircase. It had been close to an hour since her discussion with Heath. She walked towards his room and stopped to peer in through the open door. He was sound asleep on top of the bedspread. Smiling, she closed the door of his room and continued down the hall, stopping in front of her own room. When she turned out her lamp that night and closed her eyes, she sent a thought of her own up to Tom, and a prayer to her God.

“Please watch over Heath,” she prayed. “Help him meld into a permanent member of this family.” *****

Heath finished brushing the high-spirited horse and hoped the workout would help them both. He already knew that Nick had told the rest of the family about what had happened yesterday with the pumps. Jarrod had been more than fair, bending over backwards to accommodate him this morning. He’d stopped by Heath’s room on his way to breakfast, and asked Heath if he remembered anything more. As hard as he tried, Heath was still blank. He hesitated telling Jarrod about Barrett and Sinclair specifically, but Jarrod read his pause and suggested a setup. He looked into his oldest brother’s piercing blue eyes and saw nothing but understanding and hope. Jarrod had been gracious, telling Heath that there would be no more mention of the incident.

*****

It was a glorious Saturday morning and Audra finished dressing and watched from her window as Nick strode across the yard towards Duke McCall. As she turned, a familiar voice came up from below. Whirling, she peeked carefully out the window and felt her face flush. Elliott Carrington rode up on his horse and spoke with Nick.

Audra wondered how it would feel to be wrapped in those strong arms. Her heart sped up as she thought of that handsome face and his dazzling smile. She let her mind wander to a secluded spot on the North ridge, in the moonlight. His arms around her, his lips ….

“Audra, are you coming with me to Mrs. Green’s?” Victoria asked as she watched her starstruck daughter from the hallway. She smiled at the dazed look on her only daughter’s face. Audra finally looked up and moved towards her. She seemed to be floating.

“Oh Mother,” she exalted. “Isn’t he the most handsome man you’ve ever seen?”

Victoria took her daughter’s hand and smiled. How many times had they been down this road before? Maybe she needed something to cool her down.

“Audra, I think Heath might be going out for a ride. He’s in the barn…unless you want to go to Mrs. Green’s with me?”

“Huh? Oh, no…I’ll get my boots on and go with Heath.”

Victoria walked over to her surrey by the front door as Elliott rode by.

“Hello again, Mrs. Barkley!” Elliott greeted.

“Elliott,” Victoria nodded.

“I was wondering if it would be all right if I called on Audra. I’d like to take her out to dinner one night to the Alhambra Club…with your permission, of course.”

“It’s fine with me, Elliott. Audra is inside, if you’d like to speak with her. I’m sure you’ll have Audra back before ten?”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll come calling at six on Tuesday, if that’s all right?”

“That would be fine, Eliott.”

“See you later, Ma’am,” he charmed as she climbed into the surrey.

Elliott went inside just as Audra trotted down the stairs. The riding pants clung to every curve and the blouse dipped just right. He felt the heat rise in him and would be counting the hours until Tuesday.

“Elliott, I didn’t know you were here,” she smiled coyly, showing the even, white teeth.

“I stopped to see Nick, but he was leaving. I did speak with your Mother, and if you’re free on Tuesday, I’d like to take you to supper at the club.”

She thought for sure he knew her heart was pounding so hard it was about to burst through her chest. She felt her face flush and walked towards him.

“I’d be delighted, Elliott. I’ll be looking forward to it,” she managed, not allowing her voice to reflect the excitement she was feeling.

“Great, I’ll pick you up around six o’clock, Tuesday evening.” He lifted her hand and kissed it, lingering a few seconds and smiling to himself at her shudder.

“I’m…I have to go now,” she stammered, pulling her hand away, embarrassed by the high color she knew was showing.

“Have a great ride! You look beautiful!” he oozed.

“Thank you,” she said as he left.

She fell against the back of the door and took several deep breaths. All the way out to the barn she was figuring on the perfect dress to wear. She seemed to float through the door and smiled as her fair-haired brother called to her.

“Hey, Sis! Wanna go for a ride?” Heath offered, using his knee to nudge Buster’s belly as he tightened down on the cinch.

“Sure!” Audra accepted, excitedly. “Where are we going?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Guess I just felt like gettin’ out for a tour around the ranch. There are still some areas I ain’t too familiar with yet.”

“Sounds like maybe you could use someone to show you the boundaries,” Audra suggested. “I’ll hurry and get Mischief curried and saddled.”

“I’ll grab your gear, Sis,” Heath volunteered. “Now you just quit!” he added, scolding Buster and slapping his nose with the end of the rope. “I’ve had just about all the nonsense I’m gonna take outta you!”

“What’s he doing now?” Audra asked, quite amused over the budding relationship between her brother and his horse.

“Oh, he’s taken to foot stompin’,” Heath grumbled. “And by the way he plants his hoof smack-dab in the center of my boot, I know it ain’t no accident.”

“Has he got you yet?” Audra giggled.

“No, but he’s been tryin’ real hard. It’s a bad habit and one that I plan to break,” Heath complained as he swung Audra’s saddle over Mischief’s freshly combed back. “There you go, Girl,” he soothed to the little mare. “And just don’t you go takin’ any lessons from Buster, here, Heath added, still addressing the horse. “One outlaw in the family’s enough!”

Audra smiled, never being able to get enough of her brother and the special way he related to animals. Carefully placing her left foot in the stirrup, she swung her right leg up and over the saddle, while Heath mounted from the ground, using a single leap. Together they galloped out of the barnyard, headed for parts unknown.

*****

“That line of trees over there separates the southern boundary,” Audra pointed out. “Beyond that lies the Marvin place. The Marvin’s have been neighbors for as long as I can remember. Will Marvin and I grew up together.”

“And how ’bout that road leading to the East…where does that go?”

“Oh, that winds up and around the property. There are several good watering holes along the way. If you follow the road long enough, you’ll eventually run into the Miles’ spread. Their son, Evan, is also a childhood friend, but he’s away at college now.”

“I never even imagined this place bein’ so big,” Heath commented. “Your…I mean, ‘our’ father, must’ve been quite the wheeler and dealer.”

“Yes, he was an entrepreneur, all right. Come on, let’s ride to the top of that bluff.”

Climbing up a rocky incline, the two riders stopped momentarily, allowing the horses to take a breather. Scattered groups of cattle decorated the landscape, grazing the surrounding hillsides. From over a distant hill, a brown speck came into view, soon developing into an exceptionally elegant piece of horseflesh.

“That horse wild?” Heath asked, nodding in the direction of the bay.

“Yes,” Audra answered, “There are quite a few roaming these hills. I’m not sure exactly where that one came from, but he seems to be the leader of one of the herds. Look! There are the others down in that canyon!”

“You know,” Heath mused, fingering the rope that looped his saddlehorn. “I wouldn’t mind ownin’ a horse like that. I think I’ll ride down to the bottom and give it a shot.”

“Heath, are you sure? When Nick goes after wild horses, he usually has several men along to help.”

“Well, I ain’t Nick,” Heath maintained. “He does things his way, and I do things mine. Now, I want you to wait right here for me, you hear?”

“Gotchya, Big Brother!” Audra smiled. “But promise me you’ll be careful.”

“What I’ll promise you is that when I return I’ll be leadin’ that there stallion,” Heath grinned. “Be back soon!”

*****

The bay stallion was magnificent as he loped freely down the rocky canyon. His mares were in the ravine at the bottom, waiting. Now was his chance…his moment had come. Skirting around from the side, Heath jumped off Buster, pausing only to grab his rope off the saddle horn. Stealthily picking his way through the rock and shale, Heath positioned himself, lasso in hand. With a mighty toss, the high flying loop smoothly settled on it’s target. Bracing his feet against the sloping ground, Heath clung to the taut rope like there was no tomorrow.

Easing himself over to a sturdy tree, he managed to cinch the end several times around the solid trunk. The horse fought and reared, but Heath firmly pulled him in, using his voice to calm the frightened animal. The rest of the herd had long since vanished, leaving the stallion alone to face his captor. Working his way up the lead, Heath was finally close enough that he could reach out and touch the lathered coat. Sensing that this man posed no threat, the once domestic animal relaxed, associating a human voice with food and shelter.

Now realizing that this horse had more than likely been bred and raised in captivity, Heath led him back to where Buster was staked. He mounted and dallied the stallion’s rope around the saddle horn. The bay trotted along like he was born to lead. At the top of the summit, Audra was waiting. She beamed with pride as her brother approached with evidence of a successful mission.

“Won’t Nick be surprised,” she chattered enthusiastically. “I know for a fact that he’s had his eye on this horse for a long time now!”

At those words, Heath felt something spark inside of him. He now had something Nick wanted and had accomplished a feat that the dark cowboy had yet to conquer. It all was playing out so perfectly. If they hurried, Heath would have the stallion corralled where Nick was sure to see him when he returned from town that evening. He gave Buster a little nudge and called back to Audra.

“Let’s step it up a little, Sis. I wanna get this stallion settled in while there’s still plenty of daylight.”

When Nick rode up to the barn late that evening, he halted suddenly, as his head swiveled in the direction of the corrals. Prancing the arena, proud and graceful, was the bay stallion that he had set his hopes on catching. A sullen scowl spread across the cowboy’s face. How did the horse get here and who had caught him were the questions he wanted answered. Hastily he stabled Coco and made his way to the house. Opening the front door, he stood and listened to the voices coming from the library. Audra’s embellished, nonstop chatter gave him the answers that he sought.

“Oh, Mother and Jarrod,” she bragged. “I only wish you could’ve seen Heath in action! It was absolutely amazing! I’ve never seen anyone that can handle a horse the way he can!”

“So we have an expert horseman in the family,” Jarrod remarked, glancing at the blushing Heath. “That definitely has it’s merits!”

“Heath!” Audra exclaimed, sidling up to her brother and latching on to his arm. “I want you to be sure to come and get me before you put the saddle on him tomorrow! I wouldn’t miss watching you break him for the world! Do you promise?”

“Okay,” Heath agreed. “I promise to come get you. But I reckon first I’d better find out what Nick’s got planned for the day. He might have me out on some project.”

Beaming from ear to ear, Audra led Heath over to the settee, and taking his hand, sat him down beside her. Standing in the doorway unnoticed, Nick felt his blood begin to boil. He had always been the chivalrous brother that his little sister adored. Now, here was this impostor moving in on his territory. Stalking back out, he stood for a few minutes watching the stallion from the front porch. Furious, he stormed back into the house to confront the ‘squatter’ who had now staked his claim.

“So you couldn’t find anything better to do today?” Nick railed. “I’ve always been the one in charge of roundin’ up the horses on this ranch. Next time you feel the need to play wrangler, you come to me first!”

Heath’s smirk was inward as he remained calm and settled, enjoying every word spewn from his hotheaded brother. He couldn’t help but notice that Nick seemed to be waving a baited hook in front of him. Being careful not to nibble on the bait, Heath feasted on the tyrant’s fuming frustration. He had finally figured out Nick’s Achilles heel. The less he reacted, the hotter Nick got. Boy howdy! What a day it’d been!

*****

It was Sunday afternoon. Victoria and Jarrod had dropped Audra off at the house before leaving again to attend a reception for one of Jarrod’s colleagues. Nick had made plans to escort the lovely Madeline Prentis on a picnic down by the river. All the ranch hands, except for Rico, had gone into town for some Sunday afternoon poker. Audra was changing from her Sunday dress into some riding clothes, after which she hoped to talk Heath into going for another ride. A loud knock at the door of her room realtered her plans for the day.

“Who is it?” she called.

“It’s Silas, Miz Audra. Mr. Heath tol’ me to tell you that it’s time for him to break that new stallion of his. He says for you to meet him out at the corrals.”

“Thanks, Silas! I’ll be right down!”

Audra finished buttoning up her blouse and slipped into a pair of black, shiny boots. Hurriedly, she ran her pine bristled brush through her thick, golden hair and burst through the door of her bedroom, practically flying down the main stairs of the house. When she arrived at the corrals, Heath and Rico already had the bay stallion saddled and ready to go. Climbing up on the fence next to Heath, Audra found her perch.

“Better stay back on the other side of the fence,” Heath warned. “This horse don’t seem too terribly wild, but you never know what he might do.”

Audra jumped back down and stood to face Heath through the fence, her arms resting on the top rail. Heath patted the stallion’s neck and prepared to mount, while Rico held tightly onto the headstall. Carefully easing himself up into the saddle, Heath positioned himself squarely in the seat. With his spurs down and a firm grip on the slackened reigns, Heath gave Rico the go ahead.

“Okay, let ‘im go!” he nodded.

The young Mexican boy let loose of the horse and scrambled up the side of the fence as Heath dug his spurs into the stallion’s side. Leaping forward and coming down hard on his front feet, the hind legs kicked out in an effort to relieve himself of the cumbersome load. Heath hung on, spurring and keeping perfect rhythm with each jump and spin as the stallion took him for the ride of his life.

“He makes it look so easy!” Audra exclaimed as she and Rico watched the show.

“Si, Senorita,” the boy responded bashfully. He was still young and not accustomed to speaking with well-bred ladies such as this.

“Hang on to him, Heath!” Audra rooted from the sidelines.

Heath was riding hard and both horse and rider seemed to be tiring. Wanting to slow down the action, Heath pulled the bay’s head around, spinning him in a circular direction. The bucking ceased momentarily, but then started up again when the stallion was given his head. Heath spun him around a few more times, and this time the tossing subsided into a light crow-hop. Heath nudged him with the spurs, urging him forward. Galloping the perimeter of the arena, Heath pulled hard on the reins, causing the horse to come to a jolting stop. Giving him a moment to catch his wind, the cowboy spurred him into a light canter, using the reins to keep the horse’s speed in check. His gait seemed choppy, but time and experience would remedy that. Trotting the stallion over to Audra, Heath wore a grin that wouldn’t quit.

“I told you this horse didn’t have a wild bone in ‘im! That was about the easiest time I’ve ever had breakin’ a horse! Didn’t even get throwed.”

“You were just wonderful!” Audra gushed. “I only wish that Nick had been here to see you!”

“Nick!” Heath laughed scornfully. “I’m sure he’s got plenty of other things to do with his spare time besides watchin’ me break a horse that he was wantin’ for his own.”

“Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t hold that against you,” Audra tried to convince. “Besides, there are plenty of other horses around here he can pick from.”

“Yeah, he can, but that ain’t the point. Goin’ after a stallion like this…well, catchin’ ‘im is half the thrill.”

“I think I know what you mean,” Audra agreed. “By the way, now that you have him and he’s yours, what are you going to name him?”

“To tell you the truth I haven’t had the time to give it too much thought,” Heath drawled. “I reckon you’re right, though. We do need to give this here boy a name.”

“We?” Audra asked.

“Well, you helped me find him, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I did. But you were the one who did all the work…waiting there at the bottom of the canyon while he charged on down the hillside. You could’ve had a real fight on your hands!”

“In that case,” Heath mused with a thoughtful look on his face, “what do ya say we call him ‘Charger’?”

“Charger! That’s a wonderful name!”

“Well, then. Charger it is!”

“Heath,” Audra ventured. “Where did you learn how to break horses like that? You seem to do it with such ease. Even Nick usually hits the ground several times before he gets one gentled down.”

“Oh, I’ve done quite a bit of ranch work here and there,” Heath minimized. “That, and the fact that I love what I do.”

“Maybe you could teach me to break horses like that sometime, eh, Senor?” Rico chimed from the sidelines.

“Perhaps one of these days after we get through with roundup,” Heath answered. “I don’t reckon Nick would like it, you gettin’ all busted up right before one of the busiest times.”

“Come on, Audra,” Heath invited, as he loosened Charger’s cinch. “I’m gonna brush him down and try to get him used to me handlin’ his feet. You wanna help?”

“Sure! I can hold onto him while you work.”

“You comin’, Rico?”

“No, Senor. I think I will go find a shady tree and take a little siesta. I want to be well rested for roundup tomorrow.”

“We’ll catch you later then. Come on, Audra, let’s go!”

*****

Dinner that night would have been fairly uneventful if it hadn’t been for Audra’s constant, nonstop chatter about Heath and the remarkable job he had done breaking Charger. Not used to being the center of attention, Heath ate most of his dinner in silence with only an occasional affirmation or nod when a question was directed at him. Though Victoria immensely enjoyed hearing of Heath’s excellent horsemanship skills, she couldn’t help but notice his discomfort nor the deep-seated fury that seemed to be percolating in Tom’s middle son. Glancing at Nick from time to time, she noticed that he ate his meal in sullen silence, rarely looking up or adding to the conversation. From years of motherly experience, Victoria was able to read him like a book. She was almost certain that his eyes had turned to a brilliant shade of green. Jarrod, too, sensed the uneasiness and tried to help lighten the direction of things.

“So, Nick,” he ventured, “you and the boys will be startin’ roundup tomorrow, won’t you?”

Midsummer roundup was a time when the ranch’s spring calves would be tallied, branded and castrated. On a ranch the magnitude of this one, it was a full-blown job. Groups of cattle were scattered in all directions, covering miles and miles of open range. The men and supplies would have to be moved periodically, keeping in close proximity of the different herds. Keeping track of so many cattle, was no small feat.

“Yeah, I’ve got the men all lined out and the chuck wagon’s ready to go. We’ll probably be campin’ out most nights…save a lot of time that way. I’ll try and get back at least once, just to check in.”

“It will seem quiet around here with both you and Heath gone,” Victoria lamented.

“Yeah,” Nick replied bitterly, glancing distastefully at his younger brother.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me,” Heath cut in, “I best go get my gear packed!”

“I’ll walk you up,” Audra chirped. “Mother, may I be excused, too?”

“Yes, you may, Dear,” Victoria consented. “But don’t go getting in Heath’s way. I’m sure he has a lot to do before tomorrow morning.”

“I won’t,” Audra promised. “I was just planning on going up to read, anyway.”

“I never got no escort,” Nick grumbled as the two disappeared from the dining area.

“Brother Nick!” Jarrod exclaimed jovially. “I do believe you’re jealous!”

“Me, jealous? And of ‘that’?” Nick scoffed, gesturing in the direction of the retreating Heath. “If that’s supposed to be some sort’ve ‘conclusion’, Jarrod, save it for the witness stand. Your theories and speculations have no business here in this house!” Nick ranted, throwing down his napkin. “If I want cheap advice, I’ll pay for it! Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mother, I’ve got a lot of work to do!”

“Go ahead, Nick,” Victoria called to his back. “Really, Jarrod. Do you think it’s wise to goad your brother with the tension level around here already being stretched to the extreme?”

“I didn’t mean to goad him, Mother. I was merely making an observation, and a very accurate one at that. If there hadn’t been so much truth to my remark, I sincerely doubt Nick would’ve reacted the way he did. You know, it just might give him some food for thought.”

“I think it was more like trying to use kerosene to put out a fire. Did you honestly think that that would help the situation, Jarrod?”

“Oh, you’re probably right, Mother, but one of these days Nick will learn to use that hard head of his for something other than a battering ram. If he would only realize that he could accomplish so much more by working ‘with’ people, rather than against them.”

“He’ll come around,” Victoria stated. “Out of all my children, he was always the slowest learner in that regard, but sooner or later he’ll come around.”

“Let’s just hope it’s sooner,” Jarrod added. “Before he makes a regrettable mistake.”

*****

It was the perfect spot for a hideout. All but forgotten, it was large enough and clean. Wolf finished the last of his dinner and looked up as the door opened. The new arrivals took a seat across the room and he stomped his feet, indicating to the others that the meeting was about to commence. He turned as their leader poured himself a generous shot of whiskey. Rising, he waiting until they were all present. He raised the glass and proposed a toast.

“One down, two to go.”

“What’s the plan , Boss?” Jones inquired, gnawing on a chicken leg.

“I’ll be meeting our buyer tomorrow. Mr. Gibbons, what is our time frame?”

Bart Gibbons had worked on the Union Pacific for over twenty years. He liked his job, but the last two years, he’d made a small fortune, with this ‘side job’. He handed the tickets and time table to his benefactor.

“You get on in Stockton by nine a.m. We stop here,” he pointed to a water stop about twenty miles away, “first. The side door to the second to last storage car will be open. You’ll have ten minutes…no more…to get the merchandise on board.”

“Wolf, while their seeing to that, I have another job for you to set up,” the leader said, handing his evil right-hand man several documents.

“You got it, Boss,” he said flipping through the maps and papers.

“These are your ticket stubs for the merchandise. Did you use the containers I left?”

“They were perfect, ” the smug leader replied of the heavy, bookstore marked crates. “They’re all loaded on the wagon”

“Good, they’ll be unloaded with the rest. I’ve confirmed that your party will meet you at one p.m. inside the station. You give him the stubs and he’ll give you the money. Same as before.”

“Okay, men, we’ll meet at the end of the week to discuss phase two.” He walked over to where the two recent arrivals sat. “You two know what to do, right?”

“Yes, Sir. We’ll make that bastard sorry he ever rode into town.”

*****

“Hurry up..let’s get a move on it…and no lolly-gaggin’!” Nick ordered as the men set up their temporary camp for summer roundup.

The chuck wagon was positioned, braced and unhitched, and some tether lines strung between two trees. The bedrolls and saddlebags were removed from the horses and tossed in a community pile. As the men regrouped and duties were assigned, Heath noticed two stragglers hanging back on the sidelines. The two were talking between themselves and making no attempt to join in and sign the duty roster. Spurring Buster over, he voiced his disapproval.

“Barrett! Sinclair! The men are waitin’. Come on, let’s hustle!”

“You want somethin’, Boy,” Sinclair drawled, strategically placing a pinch of chew inside his lower lip, “you send the ‘boss man’ over. We take our orders from him, not from the likes of you.”

“Now, I ain’t gonna tell you again,” Heath threatened, stepping down from the saddle. “You get movin’ or get walkin’. Take your pick.”

“I’ll move when I’m good and ready,” Sinclair challenged.

“Guess I didn’t make myself clear,” Heath retorted, placing a firm hand on the ranch hand’s vest, “so I’ll tell you again. Move it, NOW!”

All it took was that slight bit of physical contact, causing Sinclair to take the first swing. Being an expert at interpreting facial expressions and eye signals, Heath saw the punch coming and ducked just in time. Sidestepping out of the way, he coupled both hands and whacked Sinclair, who was now off balance, hard between the shoulder blades. The pock-marked cowboy came down hard, swallowing his wad of chew in one unplanned gulp. Heath kicked him hard, knocking the wind out of him and almost bringing the wad back up.

“You’ll pay for this, Bastard!” the angry man seethed as Barrett stepped in to back him up.

“Hold it right there, Barrett,” McCall ordered, grabbing Barrett at the elbow. “You too, Sinclair. What’s this all about?”

“He jumped us,” Barrett accused, pointing a condemning finger at Heath.

“I heard what happened,” McCall rebutted. “Now, I want the two of you to get mounted and take the flats! You hear me?”

“Yeah, we hear ya,” Sinclair muttered as Barrett helped haul him up from the dusty ground.

Heath looked at McCall, expressionless, and rejoined the group with Buster in tow. The men were just breaking up and Nick was walking over in his direction.

“Problem handlin’ the men?” he asked dryly.

“I got it handled,” Heath replied, remounting. “Where do you want me, Nick?”

“You and Rico work the canyon,” Nick commanded. “I think it’s wise that you stay away from Sinclair and Barrett.”

“Come on, Kid,” Heath directed to the Mexican boy. “Let’s get goin’.”

The two rode off, ready to put in a full morning pulling strays out of the rocky gorge.

“Barrett and Sinclair are trouble,” McCall advised, stepping up to join Nick. “I think you’d be money in the bank just to let them both go.”

“Forget it!” Nick stated firmly. “We need all the men we can get right now. Two down will only hold us up all the more.”

“Or cost you even more time,” the aged foreman replied with a note of sarcasm.

“When I want your advice, Duke, I’ll ask for it!” Nick shot. “We’ll take turns supervisin’ the crews. I’ll take first shift while you watch camp.”

McCall shook his head in disgust as the dark cowboy mounted Coco and rode off toward the flats. Some people just never learn!

*****

“I’m gonna kick that scrawny hide of his clean off of this ranch!” Sinclair ranted as he burped up the aftereffects of the swallowed wad of chewing tobacco. “And ol’ Nick…he’ll be thankin’ me, too! You just wait and find out for yourself!”

“You bet he will,” Barrett smirked. “That is if the lynchin’ committee don’t see to it first.”

“Ha! That’s right,” echoed Sinclair. “Them good, respectable townsfolk may just be givin’ him a sendoff to Boot Hill. Once they catch wind of what he’d been up to while pretendin’ to be such a respectable member of the family, we might as well just sit back and watch the show.”

“When do we start?” Barrett inquired, grinning sadistically as he thought of all the fun he was going to have.

“Not for a couple’ve days,” Sinclair directed. “We just sit back and wait…wait for the perfect timin’ and then we make our move.”

“What about that Cortez kid?” Barrett wanted to know. “He’s been gettin’ awful chummy lately. All the more so since we had our last little talk with him.”

“We’ll handle him,” Sinclair assured. “Either he’ll obey or I’ll have the buzzards pickin’ him clean.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Barrett said, a wide smile spreading across his unshaven face. “Come on, let’s get them strays rounded up. If we get fired now, it could ruin everything.”

*****

Audra couldn’t remember a dinner quite so fine. Elliott had arranged for the table in the back of the Alhambra Club to be reserved, allowing them seclusion and privacy. The champagne was wonderful, the oysters divine, the seafood bisque was tantalizing and the duck l’orange and wild rice with asparagus melted in her mouth. Now the waiter set the peaches aflame briefly before them, then covering the flames and pouring the wonderful rich sauce over the freshly made vanilla ice cream.

She found him mesmerizing, and was captivated by the ease with which he carried on the conversation. His sense of humor was dry and she found herself laughing and returning his banter as if she’d known his for years. It was more than the handsome face, fine figure and terrific personality. Those green eyes had her hypnotized and she felt tingly inside. They lingered over coffee, Audra listening to him tell tales of his teenage heroics with Nick and their many adventures.

The slight breeze in the normally humid summer air was refreshing. She leaned back in the seat of his buggy and enjoyed the brief respite from the intense heat. The house was so quiet and dull with all her brothers gone…Jarrod in San Francisco and Heath and Nick out on roundup. The steady rocking of the carriage and the glasses of fine champagne caused her to become drowsy.

Elliott glanced over at the beauty sleeping beside him. He slowed the team down, savoring every minute. He smiled, proud of how well the dinner had gone. He oozed charm and she drank it in. It would be easier than he thought. Eyeing the ripe morsel beside him, every curve clinging to the satin dress, he was looking forward to the trip. He brushed his hand across her cheek and she smiled, snuggling closer. He eased one arm around her and caressed her lower arm as he approached the Barkley property.

What a wonderful dream. It was a spring day and she was out riding. Elliott was just behind her. They were racing to a large tree ahead in a meadow. He pulled ahead of her and jumped down. He reached up for her and stumbled, pulling the two of them down to the ground. He pulled her close and kissed her.

“Audra? Audra…hey, wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” he teased.

She sat up and felt the flush creep up her face, recalling the vivid dream. She looked up surprised that they were in front of the mansion. She shyly looked at the flowers he’d brought her, now nestled in her lap. She lifted them and inhaled their sweet fragrance.

“It was such a wonderful night, Elliott. I hate to see it end.”

“Ah, but then so much more to look forward to, Dear Lady, on our next encounter… Thursday evening if you are free.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it, Elliot,” she said breathlessly.

Her heart was pounding as he leaned in and brushed his lips across her forehead. Easing out of the seat, he walked around the carriage and lifted her down. She felt ripples of heat rising up her back, where his strong hands gripped her waist. He set her down and kissed her hand.

“Until then, Audra, I remain your humble servant.”

She stood transfixed as he drove off. She didn’t feel the ground under her feet, or the steps leading upstairs. The next two days would be endless waiting for Thursday night to come. As she undressed and put on her cotton shift, she recalled all the fairy tales her father told her as a child. Her last thought as she fell asleep was of the Prince Charming her father promised her as a little girl. He wasn’t riding a white horse, but his carriage seemed to her to be made of gold.

*****

Heath glanced back at Rico as the two ushered the remaining strays into the makeshift pen. It had taken them the better part of the day to find and drive the wayward steers to this area to be branded and tallied. The calves shifted nervously, seeking out their mothers.

“What now, Senor?”

“Well, you ride back and tell Nick we’re all set here. I’ll start tallying until you get back with the branding irons. Go on, if you hustle, we can get finished early, before the sun sets.”

Heath climbed down from Buster as Rico left. He had hated leaving Charger back at the ranch for two whole weeks, but a roundup was not the place to try and fine-tune a green horse. For cutting cows, he needed something that would turn on a dime. Charger was broke, but needed a little training before he’d be ready to work pens. Heath thought of the horse waiting for him back at the ranch. Heath had never owned such a magnificent animal. He was fast, smart and seemed to fit with Heath like a hand in a glove.

“You’re a good boy, too,” Heath spoke outloud to the buckskin. “But don’t go gettin’ any notions about runnin’ off while we’re out here. That’s what I brought these along for,” he said, holding up a pair of leather hobbles that he had looped over the saddle horn. Buster’s only retort was a loud snort. “Don’t blame me, Boy. You brung it all on yourself,” Heath soothed running a hand along the horse’s mane as he reached for his canteen. He took several long gulps and drained it. Bending down and hobbling the ‘Houdini Horse’, Heath took out his tally book and started counting. He was almost done when he stumbled and grabbed the fence for support. Shaking his head, he slid to his knees. Try as he might, he couldn’t muster the muscle it took to remain upright.

Sinclair waited until the blond was out cold. He propped him up against the fence and tilted his head back, opening his mouth. He poured little bits of the spirited liquor into the unconscious man and patiently waited until each little bit was swallowed. He threw the empty bottle in the brush nearby and unlatched the gate. Smiling, he remounted his horse and took off, retracing his path back to where Nick Barkley was supervising. The short cut would enable him to have a front row seat when the fireworks started.

Nick looked up as Rico Cortez arrived. McCall had just ridden in as well.

“Senor Nick, we are finished. Senor Heath sent me to get you and bring the branding irons.”

“Okay, Rico. McCall, you grab a couple men and head out with me,” Nick said eyeing the dozen or so men gathered about.

“Nick, we’re all caught up if you need a hand,” Barrett offered.

“Yeah, okay, you two come along.”

“Nick, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” McCall said, smelling a rat.

“That’s why I’m the boss, Duke, now let’s ride.”

*****

Rico knew that bad feeling that had disappeared over the last week was about to return. He saw the cows scattering and heard Nick’s bellow.

“Get after them, Watson, then ride back and get some help,” Nick hollered.

Nick scanned the horizon and spotted the makeshift pen, with the gate opened. Only about half of the cows and calves remained. He spotted Heath slumped forward against the gate as Buster grazed nearby. His ire emerged at the sight of the slumbering blond.

“That’s it, I’ve had it with him,” he clenched as he rode ahead of the pack and drew Coco to a halt just short of the fence line.

The anger rose in him, keeping time with the steady steam of curses. He was only a few feet away when a nervous group of cattle, ran along the fenceline, causing Heath to shift and his upper body tumble inside.

“Heath!”

Nick dove at his brother, covering the distance in seconds. Grabbing the unconscious man, he pulled him out of harm’s way and shielded his body as the nervous cows started to rush by. He rolled as hard as he could, sending the two of them down a short incline. He heard McCall and the men above taking control. Kneeling upright, he waved the dust away and turned the body over. He lifted the sweaty blond head with one hand and felt for a pulse with the other.

“Heath, come on. Snap out of it,” he called, tapping the still face.

“Heath?” He leaned in as a cough emerged, the essence of alcohol racing ahead.

He dropped his brother and stood up, cursing and kicking up the dust nearby. He saw the eyes blink and grabbed the sweat-soaked shirt, at the neckline.

“I warned you, Heath. A good day’s work shot to hell ’cause you got drunk. I oughtta kick your butt from here back to Stockton. What’s the matter with you?” he raged.

Sinclair and Barrett slid off their horses and watched from above. Sinclair looked back to check if McCall was watching. Since he had time, he kicked the bottle, sending it sliding down the hill. Nudging his partner in crime, he eased back as Nick’s eyes caught the flask.

“I suppose you got no idea where this came from, either? Get up!” he gruffed, looming over the dazed body.

It seemed to Heath that everything was in slow motion. He could see Nick and he knew Nick was talking to him, but he couldn’t hear the words. His head was pounding, his mouth was on fire and he knew what would follow. He felt Nick’s hand at his neckline fisting the blue fabric as he drove his point home. Then suddenly he was gone as the first wave of pain hit. He curled up and turned over, rocking on his knees. He felt an arm guide him and tried not to let it come up. Nick was about to pound some sense into his inebriated brother, when he was pulled away by a set of strong arms. Duke looked up the hill and saw the pair of weasels smirking.

“You ain’t bein’ paid to stand around,” he snarled. “You get to that brandin’ or I’ll send you packin’. Now go!”

He waited until they disappeared and pulled Nick several feet away. Nick immediately fought to get back at the sotted form on the ground.

“Get offa me. He’s got this coming. I warned him…”

“You stay here! I wanna have a look at him,” McCall warned, releasing Nick when the dark cowboy nodded.

Duke knelt by Heath and steadied him while he got sick. He heard the suppressed cries of pain and saw how hard the drugged man clutched his abdomen.

“Go on, let it out, Boy. You’ll feel better when it’s done,” he soothed.

Finally he felt the cramped muscles relax and was able to ease Heath into a sitting position against Rico. Rico had arrived just after Duke and had brought fresh water.

“Here, Senor McCall, ” he said, handing the canteen to Duke.

Heath’s eyes were closed, his skin clammy and his breath coming in pants. Duke tapped the face lightly, and the eyes opened a slit.

“Heath, I want to look at your eyes, you just relax,” Duke said, as Nick appeared over his shoulder.

“What’s wrong with him?” he said in a concerned voice that surprised them both.

Duke didn’t answer right away and looked hard into the drowsy man’s eyes. Nodding to Rico, he handed the canteen to Heath and urged him to drink.

“You take it real slow, but drink all you can. I’ll get a horse and we’ll get you back to camp. Your gut still hurtin’?”

Heath nodded and closed his eyes, savoring the cool water. Duke got up and pulled Nick to the side.

“Well?” Nick asked, his features screwed up against the sun behind the foreman.

“I’d bet my paycheck he’s been drugged,” the older man said.

“Drugged? How? And by who?” Nick said looking back at where Rico was struggling to get Heath on his feet.

“I worked on the Barbery Coast when I was much younger, before I met your father. I’ve seen this before. He’s got all the symptoms…thirst, pain in the gut, throwing up, dizziness…and then there’s his eyes, the dialated pupils. That’s a dead giveaway. Somebody’s got it in for him…setting him up to get at you. “

Nick shifted uncomfortably and looked back at the topside of the hill. Slowly he turned back as Heath staggered over to where he and McCall stood.

“Will he be okay?” Nick managed.

“What he needs is to get out of this sun…plenty of water and some sleep. Nick, you need to start opening them eyes of yours. That boy’s had enough. How much more do you think he can shoulder?”

“Yeah, I hear ya,” Nick said patting the foreman’s back.

Heath didn’t know what Duke said, but he saw Nick’s features soften and felt the tension leave him as he walked over to the pair.

“Nick, I’m sorry, I don’t know how that happened. That gate was secured. I’ll go and get them strays,” Heath offered weakly.

“The boys topside got it all covered. You go back with McCall and get some rest and take it easy. I need you to be ready in the morning,” Nick said as he turned and went up the hill.

*****

At the camp, Heath smiled wanly as the foreman held his horse so that he could dismout. “Thanks, Duke,” he said.

“You get in the shade and keep drinking that water…and you get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I never got sunsickness like that before.”

“That wasn’t the sun, Boy. I think you were drugged. You watch your back, you hear?”

Heath nodded and took his bedroll to a nearby tree. He eased himself down and greedily drank the water. He thought on Duke’s words. He remembered Cortez saying Barrett handed out the sandwiches they ate for lunch. Duke was right, he’d have to be more careful. One good thing…whatever Duke said to Nick seemed to have worked. He drifted off to sleep hoping the new dawn would bring some peace.

*****

Nick loped up the road leading to the barn. In spite of a few problems, roundup had been a success and was now completed, though the day wasn’t half spent. Nick was still angry with Heath for all the troubles they’d endured while out on roundup, but relieved to have put another year’s ritual behind him. The men had worked hard over the past two weeks, and when the last calf was tagged and branded, Nick had declared the remainder of the day a ‘Barkley holiday’, complete with slack time. He’d assigned a half dozen men to night guard, leaving the rest free to celebrate in town

Nick slackened his pace as he neared the corral where he kept Misty’s Golden Sunrise, his newest flight of fancy. She was a registered quarter-horse mare, descended from the finest bloodlines. He had already made the arrangements to breed her to Carl Wheeler’s stallion, Prince of Nottingham. She was just coming into heat, and he would take her over there later this afternoon. Together, the two would produce a trophy animal…one that was sure to put the dark cowboy in the winning ring at many a competition.

Stopping for a moment to admire his ‘golden girl’, Nick’s ardent affection was soon masked with an exploding choler. Already in the process of performing his studly duties, a certain buckskin stallion was taking full advantage of the seasoned mare. With nothing but visions of vengeance capturing his every thought, he spurred Coco into a full gallop, bypassing the barn completely. Slide stopping in front of the house, the windows shook as Nick made his entrance known.

“HEATH!” Nick hollered at the top of his lungs as his boots played a war dance across the foyer floor. “Where are you! Get in here, NOW!”

Heath sat up from the sofa where he’d been resting, trying to keep his stomach settled. Nick’s voice pounded in his skull like nails in a plank. His distorted vision took in the irate face as it loomed nearby.

“What’s goin’ on?” he blinked and stood up.

“That degenerate, mongrel stallion of yours jumpin’ my prize mare, is what’s goin’ on!” the tall cowboy railed. “I thought you were goin’ to see to it that that disaster on four legs was kept at bay! Well, he’s loose, Boy, and someone’s goin’ be payin’ the piper before I’m through here!”

“Now, hold on, Nick. That’s impossible. I locked Buster in the paddock myself. There’s no way that even he could have figured a way outta that!”

“Well, he did!” Nick seethed, now viewing the situation in a different light. “That ill-bred stallion of yours just ruined any chance I had at gettin’ a purebred colt outta Misty for at least two more years! I hope you’re satisfied! Guess you and that half-breed are one of a kind! About as pure as a putrid waterin’ hole!”

“You think so!” Heath’s voice was hard and flat. “Well, I guess me and Buster will spare you of ever haftin’ to drink anything that ain’t pure and served in a golden goblet. You want us gone? We’re outta here!”

“You’re not going anywhere, Boy,” Nick said, grabbing the muscular shoulder as it headed for the stairs.

Heath turned and glared at the gloved hand, until it slid down his arm and turned him. He met his brother’s gaze as the order was spewed forth.

“The only place you and that sorry excuse for horseflesh are goin’ is on night guard. That Cortez kid can’t handle the West side alone. Buck, Walters, Billy and Charlie will cover the rest. The rest of the men are in town. You got it?”

Nick backed down a step as the steely gaze bore into him. He recognized the look, having seen it before on the faces of some of the toughest men he’d come against. He saw the fists unclench and the slight nod. Without a word, Heath tread up the stairs and into his room, closing the door and shutting them out.

From his place in the foyer, Nick watched as Heath disappeared down the hall towards his room. It wasn’t until he heard the bedroom door slam shut that Audra made her presence known.

“Nick, how could you?” she wept empathetically. “How could you say such cruel things? Sometimes I just…I just hate you!” she blurted right before bolting for the staircase, leaving Nick more dumbfounded than ever.

*****

Part 2

Up in the room that had been his, Heath gathered his things together. With Barrett and Sinclair trying to frame him and all the flack he’d been taking from Nick and the other men, his thirst to claim his heritage had been quenched. How could he have been so foolish as to think he could actually take on the Barkley name. It would never be anything more than ‘half’ his. His thoughts were interrupted by a light rap at the door.

“Heath, I need to talk to you,” his sister’s voice pleaded.

“Ain’t nothin’ to talk about,” he gruffed through the door.

“Please, Heath. It would mean so much to me!”

“Not now, Audra. Leave me alone, please?”

“All right, Heath. But I want your word, we’ll talk later.”

“Yeah, okay, Sis,” he said, grateful for the retreating footsteps.

The room seemed to get smaller and he felt dizzy. Pouring a glass of water from the full pitcher on his nightstand, he sat on the soft bed and thought hard. He eyed his bedroll and the few possessions he’d collected on his trip from Strawberry. He looked across the room at the small leather satchel. How many times had he seen her clutch it to her chest? He’d been so torn up when she died and so busy since, he’d never bothered to open it. He remembered her eyes frantically gazing at it as she tried to tell him.

Heath took several deep breaths and tried to quell the sour stomach. He looked at the bedroll again and made his decision. He couldn”t run out on Rico. The kid had worked by his side all this time with loyalty and devotion. He’d finish his tour tonight and head in before dawn. He’d be packed and gone before they got up. He stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes hoping for a few hours of sleep. It would be the last soft bed he’d sleep on for some time he thought as he drifted off.

*****

Heath yawned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He looked around in the pitch dark and rolled over on all fours. The pounding in head and the sour stomach were all too familiar. He braced himself and doubled over, heaving until his stomach was empty. Staggering to his horse, he reached for the canteen, then remembered he’d drained it right before Watson relieved him on night duty. He didn’t even remember getting off his horse, let alone passing out. Long hours never put him out like this before. Climbing on his horse, he headed for the ranch. He stretched in the saddle, trying to stay awake. Looking up at the silver disk in the sky that rode with him, he hoped he’d be able to stay awake long enough to grab his things. The late hour worked to his advantage as it had, on and off, since his arrival. Nick had seen fit to assign him lots of solo work, creating long hours. He knew it didn’t sit well with Mrs. Barkley or Jarrod, but Nick only answered to himself. Actually, he felt more at ease eating late suppers with Silas at the kitchen table.

Tonight would be different. He wouldn’t be enjoying the wonderful soft mattress and hot bath. He’d had his fill of that loud mouth brother of his. He didn’t take to anybody calling him a liar…Nick Barkley be damned. As he rode, his anger built, squelching the small part of him inside that hurt. All he’d wanted was for Nick to give him a chance. He’d never worked harder and felt lonelier. All thoughts of seeing respect in his brother’s hazel eyes died out as Heath thought of his midnight departure from all that was Barkley. He’d get word to Rico so that they could meet up later.

“Sure will miss that fine bed tonight,” he thought out loud stroking Buster’s neck.

He didn’t realize how correct his statement would turn out to be. *****

“Hurry up! The sheriff has men out on patrol,” Barrett whispered under the scarf.

“Yeah, I hear ya. I’m almost done,” Sinclair said, dumping the coins from the safe into a bag.

The two gathered up the bags full of booty, coins, stocks, jewels and cash from the safe. The rest of the gang was downstairs carefully selecting two paintings from the owner’s private collection. They met in the foyer.

“Where’s Wolf?”

“Upstairs having some fun,” Sinclair snickered.

The impatient leader raced up the stairs and followed the screams. He looked on in disgust as Wolf backhanded the sobbing woman and knelt over her. He met the scarred man’s eye over the fallen woman and nodded with his head. Wolf understood. Forcing a final kiss on the victim, he leered and rose to leave. He turned the lamp up and threw it against the curtains. Hearing the call from below, he knew Jones had set a fire there also. It was time to move. She managed to grab onto him, screaming for help. He threw her hard against the wall and sent her sprawling. Dazed, she started to crawl through the flames licking up at her torn chemise and a vicious kick from his boot sent her backwards into oblivion.

He took the bag of jewels and ran down the stairs. His partner was furious and Wolf thought they’d come to blows.

“That was a stupid thing to do! We could have been long gone,” he seethed.

“She was too ripe to pass up. You got bad timing. I didn’t even get started. Don’t worry, she won’t be talking to anyone,” Wolf replied.

“The sheriff will be here before Barkley gets here. Are you sure this will work?” Barrett asked, leaving the gang’s black scarf with a wolf paw insignia on the front of the door.

Sinclair didn’t answer. He smiled, knowing what the impending hoofbeats would declare.

“Rider comin’,” Banjo hollered, reining his horse as he approached. “It’s Barkley. He’s right close, we best get goin’.”

“Pete, you’re a genius!” Jones lauded as the gang rode off.

Heath saw the flames and rode harder towards the Miller house. Adam Miller was in his fifties…a widower who remarried recently to a very young Spanish beauty. Their property bordered the Barkley’s and Heath had admired the house when he had passed it before. Flames danced at the windows on the upper floor and off the side porch. Heath jumped from his horse and ran to the door. The heavy smoke caused his eyes to tear, and a blast of smoke started him coughing. Spotting a scarf by the door, he tied it around his face and ran inside.

“Mr. Miller? Mrs. Miller?” he choked, staggering in the firelight.

He heard a weak cry from upstairs and took the steps two at a time. He saw her in the hall and lifted her over his shoulder, managing to get her outside. Leaving her on the porch, he ran back inside towards the wall of fire. He saw the body by the sofa, blood covering the silver-haired man’s face. Before he could make a decision on his next move, a vicious blow to the midsection took all his air away. He was unconscious before he hit the floor. The figure pulled him to the doorway, and hearing the approaching posse, left him in full view, ripe for arrest.

*****

The sheriff dropped beside the body of Mrs. Miller. He was surprised at the pulse, weak but steady. His gaze took in the torn chemise and scratches. He looked up as Billy Yates, his deputy cried out from the porch. Billy was pulling another body down the steps and over towards the side yard.

“It’s one of them. Look at the scarf,” he indicated as the flames from the window illuminated the white wolf paw covering the man’s face.

“He dead?” came a call from one of the posse, now approaching.

“Dunno,” Billy said, squatting and turning the man over. “It’s Heath Barkley. Geez, looks like Burke was right on the money.”

The sheriff knelt down and examined him. Unbuttoning the shirt, he checked the neck and chest carefully. The face was clear too…no scratch marks.

“They must have heard us coming and he was last out,” Ike Clements, another deputy, suggested.

“Maybe…Billy you get him to town. Dan, take Mrs. Miller to the Doc’s. I’ll ride out to the ranch and then send the coroner out.”

“Coroner? I thought you said she’s alive,” Billy nodded at Mrs. Miller.

“She is, her husband ain’t. He’s in there somewhere.” He indicated the inferno that the remaining men were trying to put out.

Ike and Billy tied Heath’s hands behind his back and threw him over a horse. The two set off for the jail and Fred went the opposite direction toward the Barkley home.

Pounding on the massive front door, it took several minutes before he heard voices. The door opened and Jarrod stood before him, buttoning a shirt. Squinting out into the night, the last face he expected to see was the sheriff.

“Fred? What are you doing out here?”

“Can I come in Jarrod? It’s important.”

Jarrod nodded and moved aside, allowing the lawman to enter the house.

“What’s going on?” Nick grumbled as he made his way downstairs.

“Fred? What are you doing here?” Victoria followed her son.

“There no easy way to say this. That wolf pack hit another ranch tonight….the Miller place. There was a fire. Bill was killed and Maria was badly hurt. I’ve got a team out there now, trying to put it out. “

“That’s horrible,” Victoria’s hand went to her throat. “I’ve known Bill for …over twenty years. How tragic. How badly was Maria hurt?”

“I won’t know that until the doctor examines her. It appeared to me as if she might have been assaulted.”

“My God, that’s barbaric,” Jarrod exclaimed.

“So why are you here, Fred?” Nick inquired.

Fred shuffled uncomfortably and sighed heavily. Looking past Nick to Jarrod and Victoria, he finally spoke.

“We found someone who may be a part of the gang…he got caught in the fire. Billy took him in to jail.”

Nick swiveled his head up towards the empty bedroom above and back to Fred. Before the sheriff could answer, he cursed and slammed his hand against the railing.

“I knew it! I told you he was trouble, but you wouldn’t listen. Well, now Bill Miller has paid the price. I hope you’re satisfied!”

“Heath?” Jarrod said incredulously. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m sorry, Jarrod. You might want to ride back with me. He’ll need to talk to you. It looks bad.”

“I’ll be right with you.” Jarrod turned to go upstairs, but Nick jumped in front of him.

“What are you doing? You’re going to help him? That no account bastard?”

The slap was so hard, Nick’s ears rang. He rubbed the stinging cheek and looked back at his mother’s wrath.

“How dare you! Don’t you ever refer to him like that again. He’s your brother and a Barkley, whether you like it or not. “

Nick glared at the trio and retreated up the stairs, slamming his door. Jarrod hugged his mother and nodded.

“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. He may be a lot of things, but he’s no criminal. I’m sure by morning I’ll have him back home. Don’t worry.”

“Was he hurt?” Victoria asked.

“He was out cold when we found him. I didn’t see any marks on him. Looks like the smoke got to him.”

Jarrod returned in a flash and the two set off into the night.

*****

Heath noticed the spots first. Black spots that danced before his bleary eyes each time he coughed. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get enough air. His chest ached and any attempt at moving only produced pain and nausea. He squinted through the dancing spots and saw bars. Jail? How’d he get here? His first mistake was sitting up. He closed his burning eyes and tried to remember. Night guard, he was riding home and…he passed out and got sick. He was headed for ….where? Think Heath, he told himself. Home to pack…that was it. As much as his parched mouth sought water, it was just too painful to move. He remembered a fight, broken porcelain…Nick? Did he hurt Nick so bad that he got arrested? A severe coughing spasm ended the confused man’s journey as a black curtain fell and launched him forward. **

“Nick, are you awake?”

“Yeah, Mother, come on in,” he grumbled.

She crossed the room and stood next to him by the window. She rubbed the side of his arm and watched the seeds of doubt try to overtake the wrath on his face. She knew that deep inside he didn’t want to push Heath away. That is what bothered him now.

“You’re having second thoughts, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what to think. How come you all see him so differently?”

“We don’t see him differently, Nick. You haven’t allowed yourself to see him for what he is. All you can see is your wounded pride.”

“Mother, I’m not…”

“Let me finish. The fact that I see doubt in your eyes leads me to believe that maybe you’re finally coming to terms with this. Heath is not your enemy. He was an innocent child, born into a situation over which he had no control. He didn’t hurt you, Nick. You’re angry with your father. You feel betrayed somehow.”

He broke away and stalked the room, his long legs pacing a steady pattern back and forth. He saw the imploring eyes she cast upon him. He stopped his journey at the small saddle… remembering his first horse with his father by his side, and so proud. Try as he might, the anger built again.

“I’m tired, Mother. I’m going to bed.”

“All right, Nick, but I want you to go to the jail with me in the morning. You will look your brother right in the eyes and then you tell me if you still think he’s a killer. You know I’m right, Nick. He’s been set up and that is who you should be angry with, not Heath.”

She left him pondering her words. As she turned out the light in her bedroom, she wondered once more if peace would ever fill these halls again.

*****

Fred led Jarrod into the office and saw Billy behind the desk. The deputy was busy, filling in the details for the report on the fire and robbery. He looked as Jarrod spoke.

“Is my brother all right? How badly was he hurt? What did Mrs. Miller have to say?”

“One thing at a time. He was coughing for quite a spell, but he’s quiet now. I don’t think he’s hurt bad. I haven’t had time to go to the Doc’s and check on Mrs. Miller.”

“Come on, Jarrod.” Fred tugged at Jarrod’s shirt as he grabbed the keys. “Let’s go check on Heath.”

Jarrod followed the sheriff down the narrow corridor and his fury rose when he spotted his unconscious brother lying face down on the cement floor.

“What’s he doing on the floor? Why didn’t Billy keep a watch on him?”

“Billy! Get in here,” Fred hollered as Jarrod scrambled past him.

Jarrod gently turned Heath over and with Fred’s help, laid him back on the bunk. He tapped the sooty face lightly and called to Heath, but got no response. He spotted the blue and purple peeking out from under the torn shirt. Pulling the shirt up and to the side, he winced at the bruise that was obviously no accident.

“Did you have some ‘fun’ with him on the way in?” he glared at the deputy.

“Now, you hold it right there, Jarrod, ” Fred warned “I know you’re upset, but you know Billy better than that.”

“Well, somebody clubbed him, Fred. That sure looks like it came from a rifle blow,” Jarrod said angrily.

Heath moaned as Jarrod’s fingers deftly ran over the left side of the bruised ribcage.

“I don’t think they’re broken. Fred, I need some water and towels.” Jarrod turned, “And I want Doc Merar to have a look at him.”

It was nearly dawn when Jarrod turned from the pinks and purples of the sky out the window. He didn’t see the eyes following him. He sat down and looked up in surprise.

“Heath? How are you? I’ve sent for the doctor, he should be along soon.”

Heath nodded and placed one hand on his aching side and the other to his fuzzy head. He remembered bits and pieces, but the only lasting image was Nick’s fury, the broken vase and blood.

“Jarrod, how bad is he? He just got me so fired up that I couldn’t help myself.”

Jarrod’s brow furrowed as he poured his dazed brother a glass of water and sat down by his side. Did Heath have a fight with Bill Miller? What connection could there be? What could Miller have said to upset Heath so?

Heath’s parched throat sent a message to his mind. His eyes caught the pitcher across the cell and he stood on uncertain legs and walked over. He drained a glass and poured another one. He had just taken a mouthful, when Jarrod’s words caused him to spin around in shock, sputtering as the hurried gulp caused him to choke.

“He’s dead, Heath. I want you to think carefully and tell me everything you remember about last night.”

Jarrod was taken back by Heath’s severe reaction. He expected his brother to be upset, but the wounded look in the sky-blue eyes and the shock on his face was much stronger than the lawyer had anticipated. Heath remained frozen in place and the shaking hands placed the cup back on the table. He shook his head as if to clear it and to somehow make the words go away.

“Jarrod, I…I’m sorry. I didn’t think I hit him that hard. My God, what have I done?” Heath choked.

He had killed his own brother. Despite all their differences, he was a brother, and one who maybe, given time, he could have gotten to know better. Both of them had been too stubborn to swallow their pride and put aside their differences. Now, any chance of a resolution was sealed forever.

Jarrod watched as the anguished face raised up to meet his oldest brother’s eyes.

“How…I mean I can’t remember too much…bits and pieces, a fight, the broken vase. How’d I get here?”

“Fred and Billy saw the fire and rode in just in time. They found you on the front porch and…”

“Fire! There was a fire? Audra and your mother, they’re all right aren’t they? Please, Jarrod I gotta know!”

Jarrod’s confusion at his brother’s frantic voice followed the younger man as he resumed his seat. Heath’s forlorn form sank onto the bunk next to him. His face was buried in his hands and it took a minute for Jarrod to realize just why Heath was so devastated.

“Heath, the fire was at the Miller ranch, not ours. That gang struck again, robbing the place and setting the fire. The sheriff found you unconscious on the porch.”

Jarrod watched concerned as Heath’s head shot up and he leaned back against the walls of the small cell. Shaking his head, he turned and looked, wearing a mask of enormous relief. He expelled some air and coughed and then leaned forward, resting on his knees.

“Then Nick’s alive?”

“Nick? Nick’s fine. Oh, Heath, is that what you thought…that you’d killed Nick?”

Jarrod saw the fair head nod and reached out and put an arm around the slumped shoulders. No wonder he was so stunned. He waited a moment and then pressed Heath with some questions.

“Heath, what happened to you after you rode out for night guard last night. Let’s start with that.”

“Nothing. I finished up and Watson relieved me. I drained my canteen and must have passed out. I woke up and.. pains in my gut…got sick. “

“Okay, so you were on your way home and you saw the fire?”

Heath rubbed his eyes and tried to remember. Yes, that was it, he spotted the flames and remembered the scream.

“I heard her screaming. I ran in and she was headed toward the stairs, crawling. I got her outside and went back in to get her husband. He was….”

“Go on, Heath. Did you see Bill? Was he still alive?”

Heath thought hard and shook his head. “No, he was dead…bleeding all over the carpet. Somebody clubbed me,” he winced, brushing his hand over the bruise, “and that was it. The lights went out.”

Jarrod paced for several minutes and added up the clues. Someone had set Heath up for the fall. He thought of Heath’s actions in the prior weeks…passing out, incoherent, being sick. Someone had drugged him somehow and without an alibi, knew he’d be the prime suspect. What was the common factor?

“Heath, how many times have you had these spells? You know, when you’ve passed out and become sick upon awakening?”

“Hmm…let’s see. First time was the day I picked up the pumps. That wasn’t too bad. Then a few days ago on roundup. That was bad. The pain was worse and so was the throwing up. If McCall hadn’t been there and known what to do…,” his weary voice trailed off.

“Then last night…is that all? Just those three episodes?”

“Yup.”

“There’s a common link we’re missing. Someone drugged you each time to set you up. What happened on roundup while you were unconscious?”

“I was gathering strays to be branded, but I passed out and they all got loose. Nick would have liked to have killed me. Somebody left an empty bottle again, like before. McCall knew right away I was drugged. He kept checking my eyes. I don’t know what he said to Nick, but it worked. Nick told me to take it easy and left. “

“What’s the last thing you did before you passed out?”

“It was hot and them critters gave me a rough go of it. I latched the pen and finished the water in the canteen.”

“That’s it, Heath! It’s in the water in the canteen. Each time you took a drink from the canteen prior to passing out. So somebody on the ranch is behind this…which means that they’re also a part of the Wolf pack.”

“I know who it is. McCall suspects them too.” Heath looked over as Jarrod studied him. “It’s Barrett and Sinclair.”

The sheriff had been listening and nodded to Jarrod through the bars. The doctor was behind him. Fred motioned for Jarrod to come outside and let the doctor inside.

“Mrs. MIller?” Jarrod asked as he met Doctor Merer at the cell door.

“She’ll be fine. She was beaten pretty badly and broke an arm and some ribs, but she wasn’t violated. She said Heath saved her life.”

“So he’s free to go?”

“Sorry, Jarrod, not so fast,” The sheriff interceded. “She passed out before she finished giving her statement. I agree with you. I think that the boy’s innocent, but I need for her to make that statement official. He’ll be safe here. She’ll probably come around later. I’ve got Billy beside the bed waiting for her to wake up. Come on, now. Let the doctor inside.”

Jarrod sat down by the sheriff’s desk. Fred Madden, the sheriff, handed him a report. Jarrod scanned the contents, a dossier of the previous robberies the pack was suspected of. The events stretched back over several years.

“Just how was it that you and Billy were so close to the fire? More than a little convenient, wouldn’t you say?” Jarrod inquired.

“We got a tip. We were following a suspect,” Fred hesitantly stated.

“A tip? A suspect? Heath? You were following my brother.” Jarrod’s ire rose with his voice.

“Simmer down! We had to, Jarrod. The tip said Heath was unaccounted for during the hours of the first incident…that he was on Applegate Turnoff right next to that ranch. All was quiet while he was on roundup, so when the hands started arriving in town last night, we figured we’d stake out the ranch. We picked up his trail all the way to the Miller place.”

“Where did you get this information?”

“From me,” a third voice said as Roger Burke entered the room.

“Roger? I can’t believe it. Why didn’t you come to me?”

“I left a note for you to see me, Jarrod. You were up in ‘Frisco. You must have gone straight home yesterday. If it were true, I couldn’t risk being responsible for losing the prime suspect. Yesterday a note was left on my desk. It incriminated your brother. I took it to the sheriff. I’m sorry, Jarrod.”

“That’s fine, Roger, now that you have a noose around his neck,” Jarrod issued sternly.

“Look, Jarrod, I didn’t have a choice. I’m not the bad guy,” Roger reasoned.

Jarrod knew that his friend was upset. Roger wouldn’t ever intentionally hurt someone. He was only doing his job, taking a lead to the local law enforcer.

“How is he?” Jarrod asked as the doctor reappeared.

“He’s fine. I gave him something to settle his stomach. He should sleep for a while. He was drugged, Jarrod. That’s was caused him to pass out. The severe thirst, stomach pains, stupor and memory lapse are all symptoms. He told me about the liquor bottle. Whoever did this to him forgot one thing.”

“What’s that?” Roger asked.

“That the pupils of your eyes can’t hide the effects a drug has on your system. Someone gave him a good dose last night. Now, I’d best get back to Mrs. Miller.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Jarrod said as the physician left.

“Jarrod, you heard what he said. Heath will be sleeping for hours. I’ll keep a watch on him. You go home, get some sleep and update your family.”

“Okay, Fred,” Jarrod said.

He walked back and entered Heath’s cell. His brother was dozing, but opened his eyes as Jarrod leaned over him. He sat up despite Jarrod’s protest.

“You take it easy and get some sleep. I’ll be back later. There’s a good chance you’ll be released this afternoon. I left fresh clothes in the corner if you need them. Do you want anything else before I go? Something to eat?”

Heath’s face paled and he shook his head. His stomach felt like a circus was parading around inside of it.

“Jarrod?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

Jarrod saw so much in those expressive pale eyes. He put his arm around his brother’s shoulders and gave his back a pat. He looked around the small cell and realized it wasn’t the best place to convey a message, but beggar’s can’t be choosers. He turned to face Heath and spoke sincerely.

“I realized earlier while you were asleep that it’s a month today that I acquired a new brother. I thought at first it was the murder trial that kept me busy. That was part of it, but…I should have reached out a lot sooner. It’s hard for me to imagine the strength and guts it took to do what you’ve done. I’m sorry, Heath. I’d like to make it right. I believe you and will do everything in my power to uncover the truth. More important, I’d like the chance to get to know Heath Barkley. I think I could learn a lot from him.”

Heath listened and felt each word penetrate deep inside. He glanced away once or twice, unable to meet Jarrod’s strong gaze. He knew Jarrod meant every word and felt a burden had been lifted. He looked up as his brother stood to leave. He saw the hand extended and grasped it firmly.

“Reckon, there’s a whole lot this hard head of mine can learn too. Guess I’m always expecting to be kicked in the teeth again. That ‘reaching out’ part works two ways, Jarrod. My arm was a little short, too.”

He felt something as Jarrod left. Yawning, he returned to the cot. He closed his eyes and heard the cell door clang. As he dozed off, he realized he wasn’t alone anymore. He could trust Jarrod.

“Everything okay?” Roger asked, feeling a little guilty.

“I hope so, Roger. We had a little talk…one that was several weeks overdue.”

Jarrod walked to the door and felt the tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw the contrite look in the light green eyes.

“Still friends?” Roger asked.

“You buy me a fast breakfast at Maude’s and I’ll think about it,” Jarrod teased, shaking the offered hand.

The two headed for the cafe next door where Jarrod filled Roger in on what Heath had told him. Half an hour later Jarrod rode home, and Roger sat at his desk and pulled out a copy of the sheriff’s report. He studied the past history of the previous crimes. He started writing notes, his hand flying across the paper. He looked at his watch, and gathering his notes, headed out the door.

*****

Jarrod entered the dining room first, despite needing a shave and craving a hot bath. His mother, brother and sister were already eating. He nodded gratefully as Silas poured him some coffee.

“How is he?” Victoria asked.

“Was he hurt?” Audra implored, eyes wide.

“He’s fine. He was drugged and then clubbed at the Miller place. The doctor gave him something to settle his stomach. He should sleep all morning. I’m going back later when Mrs. Miller gives her statement. Hopefully he’ll be released then.”

“So there are no charges against him?” Victoria inquired.

“He’s still a suspect until Bill’s wife clears him. She was hurt pretty bad and only made a brief statement that Heath saved her life. Fred is pretty sure she’ll be able to clear Heath and perhaps have a description of the assailants.”

“Then somebody set him up? Who would do such a thing?” Audra wondered indignantly.

Jarrod almost chuckled at her naivety.

“Honey, Heath’s coming here, making his parentage known and staking his claim has upset a lot of people in this town. It’s bad enough that they bad mouth him, but to use him for such a vile act…well, that takes an animal of a different breed. Heath has a pretty good idea of who’s behind it, but we’ve got no proof.”

Jarrod noticed Nick’s eyes shifting. He doused his coffee with sugar and waited, eyeing his brother as he scowled.

“Jarrod, what’s the name of that expensive whiskey Royce imports?” Nick inquired.

“Uh…I think it’s…”

“Glencairn Gold?” Nick answered his own question.

“Yes, Nick, that’s it, why?

“Glencairn Gold! You know as well as I do that Royce is the only one in this area that stocks that brand.”

“What does that have to do with Heath?” Jarrod pondered.

“That’s the bottle I found in the wagon the day Heath was late with the pumps,” Nick answered.

“Nick, why didn’t you say that before?” Victoria asked.

“I didn’t look at the bottle. I put in my saddle bag and forgot about it. I must have tossed it in the barn before I left for roundup. I noticed it last night when I was brushin’ down Coco. It’s still out there in the corner of the stall.”

“It would appear Sinclair and Barrett have been busy. It’s a wonder that they can keep up with their ranch duties. It would appear Heath and that young boy…,” Jarrod paused.

“Cortez,” Nick added, sourly.

“…have been pulling more than their share. So tell me, Nick, when Heath came to you before, why is it you didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt? Why did you, instead, choose to believe Sinclair’s and Barrett’s lies?”

Nick didn’t answer. His face said more than enough.

“I don’t know. Sinclair’s been here three years. I know him. He’s never been a problem. Barrett’s always kept his nose clean. Heath and me got off on the wrong foot and it just seemed to get worse. I can’t help it, I just get so riled up at him.”

“Look, Nick…,”

“I was wrong! Is that what you want to hear?” Nick shouted, rising and tossing his napkin to the floor.

“That’s a start. Nick, he thought he’d been arrested because he’d killed you in a fight…,”

“What! How could he think that?” Nick pained.

“He was in agony, Nick. I wish you could have seen the lost look in his eyes. For a few horrid seconds he thought he’d killed his own brother. Someone should make amends before it’s too late.”

*****

Roger entered the sheriff’s office just after ten a.m. Fred was out and Billy was going through a new batch of wanted posters. He looked up as Roger approached.

“What can I do for you?”

“I want to see Heath Barkley”

“Well…I guess it’s okay.”

He took the keys from the wall and led the reporter to the cell. Heath had already washed and shaved, and was just finishing getting dressed. He nodded at Roger through the bars.

“You up to company, Barkley?” Billy asked.

Heath nodded and the deputy let Roger inside. He waited until Billy was gone and then sat down on the edge of the bunk.

“Sure didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Heath, I’ve been researching the other robberies that fit the same pattern. I think we can help each other. You tell me everything from the day your trouble started, and with what I have here,” he said patting the legal tablet, “I think we just may put a crack in this case.”

It was almost one p.m. when Jarrod and Nick arrived at the sheriff’s office. Nick hadn’t said much on the ride out and Jarrod suspected he was feeling guilty. Billy looked up when they came in.

“Jarred! Nick! What are you doing here?”

“We were out for a stroll and decided to stop in for tea.” Nick’s sarcastic voice had a nasty edge.

“Nick!” Jarrod chastised. “We came to take Heath home. Fred sent word that Mrs. Miller cleared him.”

“Yeah, she did. She gave a long statement and described them bandits. Heath was a hero. I told him how sorry I was for thinkin’ poorly of him.”

“That’s all fine and good, Billy. Can he go now?” Nick’s impatience was showing.

“He’s gone.”

“Gone? Gone where? When?” Jarrod said, peeking into the empty cell.

“He left a couple hours ago…soon as the statement came in. I couldn’t hold him anymore. He’s no minor. He was free to go and he did.”

“Where could he be?” Nick said to Jarrod.

“I don’t know Nick, but I hope he’s not issuing a one man campaign to bring that gang in. They’re cold blooded murderers,” Jarrod worried.

*****

It was after midnight when Jarrod finally left his study. He stayed up late working, hoping Heath would return home. He and Nick had spent several hours searching the ranch and surrounding area. Nick had even sent some hands out, but no luck. Barrett and Sinclair were missing, too, not that either brother was surprised. He turned the lamp off and headed for the stairs.

He found it difficult to sleep and the clock ticking seemed to become louder as the time passed. Exhaustion finally overtook him and he was asleep when the figure crept down the hall. Keeping in the shadows with stealthy precision, he had one goal in mind, and wouldn’t be deterred. He opened the door and entered the room quietly. ****

“He’s gone,” Audra said tearfully as she entered the dining room.

“I’m sure we’ll find him, Honey. Maybe he just needed some time to think. He’s been through a lot these past weeks and …,” Jarrod tried.

“No, you don’t understand…he’s packed his things. He’s gone and it’s all your fault!” she accused Nick .

“My fault! Now hold on a minute. He’s just as stubborn as me. That mangy, horse of his ruinin’ everything was just the icing on the cake. Let me tell you something, Little Sister! If he wasn’t hiding anything he wouldn’t have a reason to run,” Nick challenged.

“That’s enough, both of you!” Victoria interrupted sharply.

“Audra are you sure?” Jarrod asked.

“Yes, I was just in his room. The closet was open with some shirts missing. His drawers have some personal items missing and the picture is gone.”

“What picture?” Nick asked.

“The picture he had on his bedstand of his mother,” Audra finished.

“Nick and I will try to find him. It could be that he just needed some time to think. He’s not a quitter. He fought hard to find his place here.”

“Jarrod’s right, Audra. Heath has been under a lot of pressure. Maybe he felt the walls closing in, especially after spending a night in jail, and with what he went through,” Victoria added.

“Or maybe he’s gone forever because Nick chased him away. He was so special. None of you took the time to see how gentle and kind he was…how much he needed to be loved. I hate you!” Audra cried, glaring at Nick and bursting into tears as she ran from the room.

Jarrod stood up to go after her, but Victoria motioned for him to remain.

“You finish your breakfast. She’s upset. I’ll go up and talk to her.”

The two brothers sat in silence, Jarrod eyeing Nick until the younger man broke the tension.

“Well, go ahead, say it…’I told you so’,” Nick said sarcastically.

“Nick, I wasn’t going to say that, but Audra had a good point. She’s been the one person he’s turned to…even opened up to…perhaps because she accepted him unconditionally. I don’t think Heath has fled the family. I think he’s hurt and needs some space. I only hope that’s all it is and he’s not out there playing vigilante. “

Nick finished his meal and stood, approaching the back door.

“I’ll get some men and search the area…and I hope he’s sitting there come dinner,” Nick said, nodding to the empty space.

*****

“Jarrod, got a minute?”

Jarrod looked up from his file cabinet and saw Roger’s head in the doorway.

“Come on in,” he said, distracted.

Roger waited several minutes and saw how drawn Jarrod was and that his eyes weren’t as bright.

“You okay?”

“Not really. Heath’s disappeared. When we arrived at the jail yesterday, Heath was gone. I knew he was upset and thought he’d wanted some time to himself. But he didn’t come home until sometime during the night. Some of his things were gone when we awoke this morning. I only hope he’s getting himself squared away and not playing lawman. Or worse, that’s he’s left us forever.”

Jarrod looked up and saw something on his friend’s face that he didn’t like. Roger’s face was an open book…one that Jarrod could easily read.

“You’re hiding something,” the lawyer said as he walked over to the leather wing chair where the reporter sat.

“I didn’t think he’d bolt this fast. He didn’t seem that upset.”

“What are you talking about? Have you seen Heath?”

“Yeah, yesterday morning. After you left, I spent a couple of hours doing research. I found a string of robberies over the past couple of years in the surrounding area. Some further off and as far back as five years. Anyhow, I went to see Heath to find out if he could add anything. We talked for about forty-five minutes. He had some kind of idea some of your ranch hands are tied into this gang. He thinks they set him up to take the fall. Honestly, Jarrod, I didn’t think he’d do anything so impulsive. I told him I was meeting with you today and I thought he’d talk to you about it.”

“Why didn’t you come to the house yesterday?” Jarrod queried.

“I didn’t have time. I had a meeting in San Francisco and didn’t get home until late. I’m sorry, Jarrod.”

“What is it that you told Heath?”

“I had a talk with the sheriff this morning about my hunch. He’s gonna check with the law in those towns that were hit. These are my notes if you want to read them. I’m going over to the Miller place to see if I can dig anything up.”

“Let me know if you find anything, Roger.”

“Will do, Jarrod.”

He stopped at the door as Jarrod called out, “Roger?”

“Yeah?”

“Be careful, okay?”

“I’ll keep an eye out. Thanks, Buddy.”

*****

Heath finished the rest of the beans and pork and cleaned the plate and utensils in the stream. Packing his gear, he rode Charger onward until he spotted the line shack. It wasn’t the one that he’d seen before, and judging by the distance it was from the ranch, wasn’t used very often. He was pleased when he poked his head inside. It would suit his needs perfectly.

He unloaded the tins of food, coffee, bread, and other items he’d brought from the ranch. He lit the stove and made some coffee, pondering his next move. Sipping the strong brew, he went over the mental list of tasks ahead of him. Roger’s clues had been helpful and his first job was to stake-out Sinclair and Barrett after hours. From what he remembered and from what Cortez told him, the two varmints usually disappeared twice a week from eight until eleven. Tonight was one of those nights and Heath would trail them.

He couldn’t risk Sinclair, Barrett or any of the gang he suspected they were running with, hurting Audra or Mrs. Barkley. If everyone thought he’d gone, his chances were much better. He hated hurting them. He knew Audra would be upset, but there was no other way. He thought on Jarrod’s words in the jail, and felt for the first time how good it was to have a brother, someone bonded by love and blood, to lean on. He decided to get some rest. It might be a long night.

*****

“Where’s that so-called brother of yours?” Barrett asked Nick.

“None of your business. I ain’t payin’ you to stand around gossipin’. Get on that horse and get to them peaches.”

As the pair rode off, Cortez stood uncertainly on the porch. He had heard that Heath had been arrested and then let go. He had also heard Nick tell McCall that the blond cowboy had packed his gear. McCall hadn’t said a word, but his angry eyes bore deep into Nick’s.

“Senor Nick?”

“Yeah?” Nick turned and saw the Mexican kid standing on the porch.

Nick knew how close the boy had been to Heath and had seen the positive effect his brother had on the lad. He was more confident, steady and sure-footed. He had grown by leaps and bounds as far as his duties were concerned, and was quickly becoming a top hand.

“Is it true? Did he leave?”

“I don’t know, Rico. I hope not. Could be he just needs a few days to think over what happened. You ride with Watson till he gets back.”

“Yes, Sir,” the dejected boy said.

“Cortez, hold up a minute,” Nick called

“Sir?” the boy asked, perplexed.

Nick threw a hand over his slim shoulder and walked with him to his horse.

“You’re doin’ a great job. You’ really showed me some stuff on that roundup. You keep it up, so as you can brag to Heath when he comes back, okay?”

“Si, Senior, gracias,” Rico grinned as the older man ruffled his hair.

He rode off and looked back as Nick barked orders to the dozen or so hands gathered around him. The dark cowboy still cast a big shadow, but Rico thought perhaps his bark was worse than his bite. He urged his horse onward, catching up to Alan Watson. ****

Heath hid in the brush and watched as the two rode by him. Allowing a safe distance, he followed cautiously as the pair rode for a few miles, and then turned off. Heath followed them as they made their way up to a large house. He saw them greet several other men, one whose face was all too familiar. He remembered through the thick smoke at the Miller place, seeing that scarred face and eye patch leering at him from above.

He waited until they entered the house and crept closer. The house was dark and Heath skirted the perimeter, not able to gain entry. The windows were closed and locked and the curtains drawn. He made his way back to his horse and waited. The meeting didn’t last long. It was only an hour later when Sinclair and Barrett emerged. Laughing and carrying on, their voices carried over the yard.

“Sweet pickin’s, that’s what it’ll be. Revenge on them high-falutin’ landowners. They won’t be looking down at us no more,” Barrett smirked.

“He sure is smart. Boy, he has everything planned out to the letter. He’s living proof that crime does pay. That house is mighty fetchin’.”

“Yeah, wait till he gets that prissy blond in there. He’ll sure have a good time squirin’ her around.”

“What about Barkley? What are we going to do now that we can’t use him no more?”

“Yeah, shame about the bastard skipping out. I wasn’t done havin’ my fun with him,” Sinclair added ruefully.

“Where did you get that stuff, anyway?” Barrett asked.

“A long time ago. I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time… a cat house called the Golden Slipper on the Barbery Coast. Some fella got carried away and tried to carve up one of the girls and then the owner. I saved them. Madame Louise was exceptionally beautiful and grateful. This stuff is how they lure the wealthier ones into blackmail money. Anyhow, it’s saved me on more than one occasion. Never had so much fun with it before. Just a few drops and ‘wham’…that bastard dropped like a sack of grain.”

It took all of Heath’s strength not to leap out and pound the two of them into kingdom come, but they were only the small pegs. The mastermind was the owner of the mansion, and Heath had a sinking suspicion he knew who it was. He rode back to the shack and made plans to stake the house out for a couple of days…then he’d make his move. ****

“Are you ready, Lovely Lady?” Jarrod asked from behind the desk in his office as Victoria returned from freshening up.

“Yes, I think so.”

“Good! That train won’t wait,” Jarrod exclaimed as he placed the last of his documents into a briefcase. “And I’m sorry to say, neither will that stockholders’ meeting in Frisco this afternoon. Here,” he added, stepping from behind his desk, “let me help you with that bag.”

“I’ve got it,” Victoria replied. “It’s not heavy and you have your hands full already.” She hesitated a moment and then addressed her son. “Jarrod, do you think it’s wise for us to leave right now? With Heath being gone, robberies and everything else that’s been going on around here…perhaps we should stay.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more,” Jarrod agreed, “but with us being major shareholders, I think it’s vital that we attend this meeting. Besides, what can happen between now and tomorrow afternoon? Heath’s been gone three days now. One more day shouldn’t make much difference. If anything comes up, Nick and Audra know where to wire us.”

“Oh, I guess I’m just playing the part of the overly-concerned mother. It’s just that Nick is…well…still so angry. He’s convinced himself that Heath is guilty and that his absence only proves it. I only hope that if the two of them meet up that he won’t do anything that he’ll regret later.”

“I know that Nick can be rather hardheaded at times, Mother, but he’s a grown man. We can’t stand around and molly-coddle him twenty-four hours a day. We’re just going to have to trust that if and when the moment of their meeting arrives, that Nick will use good judgment. Anyway, it’s Heath that I’m really worried about. I think he’s playing a dangerous game and one where he might not necessarily come out the winner. Fred is aware of what’s going on. We’ll just have to leave things in his capable hands while we’re gone. Now, come along, Dear Lady, we have a train to catch.”

*****

Heath watched carefully as the owner left the mansion. He’d spent the last three days trailing Sinclair, Barrett and the rest of the pack. The mastermind was a man of precision, and Heath knew he’d only have an hour or so until he returned. It was still hard for him to comprehend what the connection could be. Was the gang blackmailing him somehow?

Heath crept onto the side porch and in through the French doors. The house was undergoing changes and the owner was it’s only occupant. He glanced around the ivory walls and at the elegant fixtures in what must be a music room. He made his way into a large formal hall accented by a black and white tile floor. Pausing, he reflected on his choice. Going to Fred without proof would only spook the gang and he couldn’t risk endangering the family.

He peeked through several doors and saw a dining room, large and gracefully done, a well-stocked pantry, a nicely appointed kitchen and finally a study. Skirting the perimeter with his keen eyes, he spotted a large mahogany desk. Making his way over to the massive piece, he saw house diagrams. Opening them up, he was surprised to see it was the downstairs of the home that had become so recently his own.

“What the devil do they have planned?” he thought aloud.

He saw the maps, lists and other documents on the table. He scanned the maps and recognized the Miller and Royce properties. He glanced at the train schedule with dates circled. There was an inventory list that contained most of the items missing from the two homes. Meeting points and times in nearby towns were also noted…for the buyers of the hot property, no doubt. He went back again to the rough drawing of the Barkley mansion. A paperweight was sitting on the sketched study. He thought for moment and saw on the side of the rough sketch the number ‘twelve’ written in pencil. Twelve what? He looked at the carefully marked details in the study and his finger paused on the wall safe. Twelve o’clock? Twelve of something. His light eyes caught the calendar on the desk and his gaze shifted from it to the number listed.

“That must be it,” he thought aloud. “Today’s the ninth…they’re planning something by the end of the week. Nick didn’t share any of the details of the business with him so it was possible something was being put in or taken out of the safe on that date. Didn’t matter what anyhow…he’d see them behind bars by then. He sat on the leather chair and mused over his choices. If he left the found information here, they might be gone by the time he got back with the law. If he took it, there would be no proof as to where it came. Or would there?

He sat up and studied the carefully printed notes, details and highlights on each document. He then saw the bills for the supplies that were needed in order to complete the restoration of the house. Smiling, he had his proof. He turned to pick up one of the receipts and a picture fell to the floor. Reaching over to pick it up, he studied it, and it finally hit him…why Elliott Carrington’s face was so familiar.

“So you were guilty after all,” he said to the photo of a slightly younger Elliott sporting a mustache and beard.

Two years prior, in Virginia City, a series of similar crimes had occurred. Heath had been working a small silver mine, sharing a stake with a couple of guys he knew from the army. The homes of several of the wealthier mine owners and residents had been robbed. It was the same pattern as the crimes in Stockton. Carrington had been a suspect. Two of the home owners had identified him, but then recanted their testimony at trial. He was the only member of the gang caught and had sworn his innocence. He’d lost weight and changed since then, but Heath could never forget him. He’d been on the posse that brought him in. Heath had testified against him.

A soft laugh, so very familiar to Heath, drew him back to the present. His chest filled with hot fury at the thought of that animal being anywhere near his sister. He’d put a stop to that right away. He spotted a good sized leather bag on the floor. He threw the documents, maps, and some of Elliott’s private notes and correspondence into the sack. He slipped out the side as Elliott and Audra entered the front door.

“Elliott, it’s beautiful. You have wonderful taste,” she gushed, eyeing the palatial entryway.

“Thank you, but I feel it needs a woman’s touch,” he oozed, drawing her close.

“Did you have a certain woman in mind?” she asked breathlessly, her face inches from his.

His answer was a kiss. Deep and more powerful than those they had recently shared during a few stolen moments in a moonlight carriage ride. She felt a shock shoot straight to her toes. He released her and she backed up, breathless and shaken.

“I’m sorry, Audra, I just couldn’t help myself. You’re just so beautiful,” he charmed.

“Do you really mean that?” she asked, turning to face him, her heart pounding.

He captured her in his arms and massaged the small of her back. His strong hands found the curve of her hips and his caress sent shivers through her. He was about to silence her once more when a pounding on the door chased away the idea.

“Who could that be?” she breathed.

“Somebody with terrible timing,” he muttered, stepping to the doorway.

“Heath!” Audra cried, running to his arms. “Where have you been? We’ve been so worried? How could you just run off like that…for three days with no word?”

He pushed her behind him and shoved Elliott hard, sending him to the floor. He saw the knowledge enter the green eyes of his adversary. For one long moment the icy blue eyes cut right through Elliott Carrington. Nick Barkley has no idea how dangerous this man is, he thought.

“Heath, what’s the matter with you?” she cried, running to Elliott’s side.

“Get away from him, Audra!” Heath snarled.

“I will not! How dare you!”

“He ain’t who you think he is. Now come on, we’re leaving,” he said sternly, pulling her hard.

“Let go of me! I’m not a child and you can’t tell me what to do!” she argued, fighting against his strong grip.

“Get outside,” he said, pushing her through the door.

He turned as Carrington stood up, then grabbed the elegantly attired man and threw him up against the wall.

“You keep your filthy hands off of her, Carrington. You don’t see her, touch her or come anywhere near her. You do and it will be the last thing you do. You’ve got my guarantee on that. Do I make myself clear?” Heath threatened.

“So you remembered. Took you long enough. Must be that mixed blood of yours addled your brain. Don’t issue idle threats, Heath. She’ll be sharing my bed just about the time they hang you. I’ve got it all planned. She’s such a tempting morsel, don’t you think?”

His guttural tone was so low that only the irate cowboy could hear. Heath’s fury sent the foul-mouthed impostor across the room. Blow after blow was landed until Carrington was motionless and Audra’s shrill screaming and fists pounding on his chest, halted him.

“STOP IT! STOP IT AT ONCE! What have you done? How could you do this to me? He cared for me! He…”

“You don’t know who he is, Audra. He’s using you. He doesn’t care about you, only what he can get from you. We’ve gotta get out of here,” he said, fearing the gang would reappear at any moment.

“I’m not going anywhere with you. To think I defended you to Nick. Maybe he was right and you had us all fooled. Don’t you speak to me. Just leave me alone.” She urged Misty Lady, her gray mare, into a full gallop and headed for home.

Heath felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut by the fine horse. But it had to be done and for her own good. He covered the short distance to Buster and urged the steed to Stockton. He only hoped that Jarrod was still in his office…they had a lot to talk about. ***

Heath tied Buster to the post and went up the street. He stopped when he spotted the gold lettering identifying his brother’s office. Entering the empty office, his heart fell. He retraced his steps back outside and thought on what to do. Eyeing Fred Madden’s office, he took a few hesitant steps when he stopped short. What he saw hit him as hard as if he had been slammed into an invisible wall. Elliott Carrington was entering the sheriff’s office…pressing charges, no doubt. Heath backpedaled and reentered Jarrod’s office. He left the leather portfolio on Jarrod’s desk and scratched out a hasty note. He was just turning, when a woman’s alarmed voice found his ears.

“What are you doing in here?”

“I’m looking for my brother. Is Jarrod here?” he said as she backed up. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, Lady,” he added.

“He’s not here. He went with his mother to San Francisco. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Heath nodded and left the panicked woman puzzling after him.

”Here you are, Joey, that’s the final copy. Go ahead and print it,” Roger said to the copy boy.

“Got it.”

He was about to go to the sheriff’s office to find out the latest on the information he was waiting for, when he spotted a familiar blond head heading south. He tried to catch Heath, but by the time he got to the corner where the blond cowboy had turned, he was gone. Roger walked back and scanned the street and direction Heath had come from. He found himself outside Jarrod’s office.

“Kate, was Heath Barkley just here?”

“He was. Gave me a good start, he did. He came out of Jarrod’s office.”

“Do you mind if I have a look?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Thanks.”

He saw the note and quickly opened the leather bag and spilled the contents out. He spent the next hour pouring over the evidence and matching it mentally with his own information. He glanced at the clock and noticed it was after five p.m. He could wire Jarrod, but the next train to Stockton wasn’t until tomorrow morning. No sense worrying him. He replaced the items and made his way to Sheriff Madden’s office. He stopped when he saw Elliott Carrington, battered and bruised, ranting and raving to the nodding sheriff. He cocked his head in the doorway and listened as the irate citizen lodged a complaint.

“I want him behind bars, Sheriff. He attacked me in my own home. His so-called sister is a witness. It was totally unprovoked. Look at my face! Look what he is capable of. That animal should have never been set free. Well, aren’t you going to do something?”

“I’ll ride to the ranch and see if he’s there. I’ll post a warning for Billy and the other deputies to look for him. It ain’t gonna be easy…he’s been missing for the better part of the week. He don’t want to be found.”

“You better hope they find him before I do. He won’t be needing any jail, after I get done with him.”

“Don’t go there, Mr. Carrington. I’m the law here and I won’t put up with that. You go home and let me do my job,” The lawman ordered.

Roger ducked back onto the street and ran for his horse. If he hurried, he might catch up to the wayward cowboy.

*****

A sudden rap on the large wooden door caused the bruised gentleman to peer through the part in the window coverings before answering the door.

“Barrett. Please, come on in,” Elliott invited. “So, what news did you bring for me today?”

“The bastard’s back,” Barrett informed. “That’s about all I know.”

“I already know that!” Elliott stormed. “Where do you think I got these?” he added, placing his hand on his purple face. “He stopped by here yesterday to check on his sister and then insisted she leave. Later that evening, I noticed some paperwork missing from my desk. I want him silenced, Barrett. He needs to be stopped before he ruins us. If he has those papers, that could be the end of our entire operation here!”

“Well, I can’t just knock him off,” Barrett argued. “Sinclair thinks that Nick and McCall are suspicious enough as it is. The bastard winds up dead, and they’ll be knockin’ on our door. We’d better think this one through. All that druggin’ we’ve been doing was really pushin’ it. It worked at first, but I think they’re catchin’ on.”

“Get rid of him,” Elliott commanded. “I don’t care how you do it, but do it. I run a tight little group here and there’s no place for carelessness. One dumb move could bring the curtain down fast. And Barrett…guys like you can be replaced. You got that?”

“Got it, Boss, and I’m on it! I’m not sure yet what the best way to tackle this will be, but I’m sure Pete’ll have somethin’ up his sleeve. We’ll get it taken care of…don’t you worry.”

“Men like you don’t worry me, Barrett. I want less talk and more action… understood?”

“I understand ya just fine,” Barrett drawled. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an important job to do.”

The hootbeafs thundered away from the house as quickly as they had come. Barrett rode hard to catch Sinclair and the herd before anyone had a chance to notice that he was gone.

“Pete,” Barrett huffed to his hard-faced accomplice. “The boss ain’t too happy with you and me. Says that if that so-called Barkley talks, it’s all on us. He says he wants him silenced and now!”

“And just how does he want us to do that,” Sinclair questioned sarcastically.

“He didn’t say. Just said to get it done.”

“Lemme think this one through,” Sinclair thought out loud. “There’s got to be a way that we can work this without raisin’ too much suspicion. Perhaps we could engage him in a fight of some kind.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard. He’s plenty sore at us already.”

“Yeah, but sore ain’t good enough. We need him really steamed. So steamed that he’ll go for blood, and then ‘wham’,” Sinclair said, using his fist to emphasize his action. “It’ll all be in self-defense,” he grinned sinisterly, looking off towards the horizon at an approaching rider. “And I think we’ve got just the right ‘bait’ headed this way now. Look.”

“That Cortez kid?”

“Yup! It ain’t no secret how the bastard’s been wet-nursin’ him. Why, they’re probably one of a kind. We rough up the kid and ‘Papa Bear’ will be on our doorstep in no time flat. We strike while the iron’s hot. Come on, Hank! Let’s get ‘im!”

The two men stepped out into the path of the oncoming animal as it’s rider reined it in.

“Hey, you two,” Rico called out. “Senor McCall’s been looking for you. He says for you to come meet him in the South Pasture. He wants to talk to you.”

“Well, maybe we don’t want to talk to him,” Barrett drawled, grabbing hold of the kid’s mount.

“Yeah,” Sinclair voiced, “we don’t wanna talk to him…so, what are you gonna do about it?”

“Nothing, Senor. I do nothing.”

“You got that right!” Sinclair quipped, latching onto Rico’s loose shirt and yanking him off his horse.

“Senor, what is wrong? I did nothing!”

“Did nothing,” Sinclair mocked, “you little snitch! I’ll learn ya to go runnin’ to a no account boss man every time you smell a little smoke.”

“Who said anything about smoke, Senor? They just told me to get you, and I am here.”

Rico’s answer was a cuff upside the head that sent him sprawling. He looked up confused and tried to stand, only to have Sinclair kick his legs out from under him. The game went on…first Sinclair, then Barrett. Finally, when they’d had their fill, the two menacing cowhands mounted their horses and rode away, leaving the still form alone on the prairie.

*****

With Jarrod and Victoria gone to San Francisco for the day and Audra refusing to speak with him, Heath figured that only left him with one more person to whom he could turn…Nick. He’d backtrack to the ranch and stay under cover until he could determine the exact whereabouts of Nick Barkley. He’d stay close enough to the house that he could also try and keep an eye on the road leading to and from the Barkley dwelling. He had just seen Carrington in town. If he decided to come back to try and sweet-talk Audra some more, Heath would be able to waylay him before he arrived.

Veering off the main road and cutting through some open range, Heath spotted something ahead. It appeared to be the form of a human, slumped down in the dirt. Cautiously approaching the figure, Heath squinted in the noonday sun and then suddenly gave Buster a quick nudge with his spurs. The horse bolted forward and stopped when Heath cued him with the reins. Jumping down from the saddle, Heath bent over the listless form and placed a hand alongside the victim’s throat. He sighed with relief as he felt the slow, steady throb of the main artery.

“Rico,” he called, shaking the still form. “Rico, wake up.”

The boy stirred and moments later slits appeared in the closed eyelids.

“Senor Heath,” he gasped, a smile making it’s way across the beaten face. “You came back.”

“Rico, who did this to you?” Heath pressed, ignoring his friend’s greeting.

“Barrett…and…Sinclair,” the battered boy grunted through blood encrusted lips.

Heath used his skilled hands to carefully access Rico’s injuries. One eye was almost swollen shut, the rest of the face was bruised. A gash over his eye was bleeding as was the split lip. Heath was relieved to find that Cortez’s limbs weren’t broken, but when his fingers touched the ribcage that the boy cradled protectively, his voice cried out in pain.

“Sorry, Kid, you got a couple cracked ribs. They’re gonna pay for this,” Heath growled, easing the boy upright.

“No, Senor…please…is what they want…use you…please…” His weak voice trailed off as his eyes fluttered shut.

“Well, it worked,” Heath retorted, feeling the anger well up from within. “Come on, Kid. I’m gettin’ you back to the ranch and then I’m goin’ to go out and finish what them two started.”

“They will kill you…no, Senor…,” he issued, too weak to open his eyes.

“Save your energy, Rico. You ain’t goin’ to talk me outta this. I’ll be careful…I promise.”

Buster tried to sidestep as Heath gently eased Rico up into the saddle. Heath gave the reins a firm set to remind the horse to stand still. Carefully situating the injured boy, Heath helped the weak hands grasp on to the saddlehorn. Then swinging up behind him, the vengeful cowboy made his way for the grounds surrounding the house.

*****

The busy streets seemed only to add to the charm of the city by the bay. Full of businessmen and citizens of various creeds, it was a growing metropolis. Jarrod stepped out of the carriage and helped his mother down. The meeting had lasted longer than he anticipated, and he wasn’t sure if she was up to dining out. Paying the driver, he took out his key and unlocked his office door.

“I’m sorry, but we have to stop in the office, Mother. I want to make sure that my secretary has these contracts first thing in the morning.”

“That’s all right, Jarrod,” she said, eyeing her handsome son. “I hope you’ll do the honor of allowing this proud mother to take her son to dinner at Claudine’s.”

“Well, thank you, Dear Lady. I’d be honored. You must’ve read my mind. I’ve been thinking of veal in wine sauce, some escargot and a vintage grape.”

“Good, I’m starving and it’s been ages since we’ve dined there.”

“Well, let me check my mail just in case Nick wired.”

She nodded and remained in the outer office. Several minutes went by and he didn’t reappear. Curious, she rose and called to him as she entered the handsomely appointed room.

“Jarrod, is everything okay?”

“Yes,” he answered distractedly, his eyes never leaving the opened package.

“What is it?” she asked, approaching the desk.

“The information I asked Chris Warren to get me several weeks ago. I had him do a background check on Heath.”

“What on earth for?” she bristled.

“Take it easy, Mother. I felt that by knowing his background, that is, how he grew up and where he’s been, it would enable me to understand him better. He seems to carry such a huge weight inside. I only wanted to help.”

She walked around the desk and rubbed his back. She should have known Jarrod’s intentions were honorable.

“I’m sorry, Jarrod. I shouldn’t have jumped like that.”

“Well, there is quite a bit of information here. I’ll pack it up and we can review it tonight back at my house.”

“All right, Dear.”

*****

The clock chimed ten times and Victoria stretched, stiff from being bent in one position so long. Upon their return to Jarrod’s magnificent home on Nob Hill, they’d spent the last couple of hours reading about Heath’s life.

“He certainly is made of the right stuff,” Jarrod remarked in admiration.

“I can see now where he gets that pride of his,” Victoria complemented. “Leah Thomson was a remarkably brave woman. From these notes, she’s suffered terribly from the time he was small. No wonder he admires her so.”

“Indeed,” Jarrod said, leaning back and cocking his head. “You know, Mother, when Nick and I were small, our biggest decision was what to wear to school, what horse to ride, wondering what fun we could have after school. There was a library full of books, a fine house and family, a strong hand; we had so many choices. He had one…survival. From what Chris found out, Heath started working in the mines around age seven. By ten he was also working at the livery. Still, it wasn’t enough. A small boy wearing a man’s shoes.” Jarrod thought out loud, his voice full.

“No, it wasn’t. I’m sure he went to bed hungry more than once and her heart bled for him. As a mother, I know how torn she’d be. The intense need to sacrifice all for that child…to enrich his world. Then at thirteen to lose him to the war, and that awful prison afterward,” she lamented.

“Yes, what little remained of his youth was shattered then. Grown men didn’t survive those awful camps…I can’t imagine how a boy could. From there it’s very sketchy. He’s roamed a lot over the last five or six years. Maybe if Nick reads this, somehow he’ll understand why having a home and a heritage is so important to Heath.”

“I hope so, Jarrod. I want to be a part of that boy’s life. Somehow, I feel she’d want it that way.”

“Well, I think we’d better get to bed. We can be on the early train,” Jarrod concluded, gathering up the documents.

*****

The corrals and bunkhouse seemed deserted as Heath, Rico and Buster stopped in front of the barn. Charger was in the fenced pen where Heath had left him, prancing the length of the fence. Dismounting Buster, Heath helped the injured boy off the horse. Setting him down, with the doorframe for support, Heath led Buster inside the barn. Loosening the cinch and pulling the saddle, Heath secured the stallion inside the enclosed paddock. He was just sliding the bolt into place when he heard a voice from behind.

“So you decided to come back, eh, Bastard?”

Wheeling around, Heath came face to face with Barrett. The cowhand’s square jaw broadened as a demonic grin danced across the stubbled face. With the glint of evil dancing in his brown eyes, Barrett stood with his thumbs hooked over his gunbelt, making himself an open target. It was too good to be true, but Heath didn’t stop to give it a second thought. Flinging himself with all his might, he plowed into Barrett, driving him hard onto the ground. Regaining his balance, Heath grabbed the stunned wrangler by the collar and began beating the dark head against the earthen floor. Barrett struggled hard, gaining himself a momentary lull from the beating. Heath gave him a hard backhand swing when suddenly something pounced on him from above and wrestled him from the object of his ire. Barrett was on his feet fast, quickly assisting Sinclair with the scuffle he had engaged in with Heath. Heath fought hard, but by using the element of surprise, Sinclair was gaining the upper hand. Barrett grabbed Heath from behind and held him in a bearhug while Sinclair delivered a volley of punches, knocking the wind out of the blond cowboy.

From where he sat slumped against the doorframe, Rico’s blurred vision made it difficult to see exactly what was going on. He tried hard to remain awake, ignoring the fire in his chest. He saw Heath go down and watched as Sinclair kicked the cowboy into oblivion.

“He’s comin’ to,” Barrett leered. “Let’s have a little more fun with him before we do him in.”

“You had enough yet, Boy?” Rico heard Sinclair mock. “Guess maybe I’d best put you out’ve your misery. Barrett, grab me that ax handle and then get outside and keep a lookout.”

“No…,” Rico moaned to himself, his thoughts whirling.

Using what little strength he had left, he crawled across the wide expanse of ground to the fenceline. Hauling himself up painfully as tiny, invisible daggers pierced his chest, he staggered towards the door.

Nick was just coming down the stairs when the front door burst open and Rico Cortez fell inside. Covering the remaining distance in several long bounds, Nick dropped to his knees beside the injured young hand.

“Rico? What’s the matter?” he said, turning the body over. He gasped when he saw the bloody and mauled face.

“Who did this to you?” He growled.

“Senor. ..please…it’s my fault…hurry, he will kill your brother…in the barn…please..go…”

“Who? Who’s gonna kill Heath?” Nick said shaking the boy.

“Sin…Sincl…Sinclair,” Rico gasped as he fell unconscious in Nick’s arms.

Swiftly, Nick laid the injured boy aside as he jumped to his feet and ran pell-mell for the barn.

*****

Sinclair fondled the end of the ax-handle as he advanced on the fallen Barkley like a wolf moving in for the kill. Carefully raising the weapon above his head, Sinclair took special aim. If placed correctly, one good whack would do it. Heath moaned as he tried to open his swollen eyes. A blurred form hovered above him with arms raised high. Rolling over as part of an attempt to stand, Heath managed to pull himself to his knees. Sinclair hesitated, standing by to deliver the deathblow. Having Heath on all fours would increase his chances of getting in a clean shot the first time around.

“Welcome to hell, Bastard,” he heard Sinclair snarl. “You’ve got a one-way ticket and no refunds allowed.”

*****

“HEATH!” Nick screamed as he raced across the yard, pausing briefly in front of the barn to clang the fire alarm a couple of times. Even though it was Saturday evening, a few of the men were still in the bunkhouse eating chow.

Barrett froze at the sound of the irate Barkley’s voice. He didn’t have to see Nick’s face to know what it held. Spotting his horse a few feet away, he made short work of getting mounted. Sinclair was on his own, he didn’t want to be on the other end of Nick Barkley’s wrath.

McCall and the dozen or so hands in the bunkhouse ran outside when the fire bell sounded. McCall had heard Nick scream again and saw him stop dead in his tracks at the entrance to the barn. He raced over, with the men behind him.

Sinclair was just getting ready to finish off the mongrel upstart when he heard Nick Barkley’s cry and the fire bell right outside the door. The raging bellow caused his arm to jerk as the ax found it’s mark. Dropping the weapon, he scrambled past the body of Heath Barkley and out the side door, just as Nick came in the front door.

“Heath, are you …”

Nick’s voice died out when his eyes caught sight of the bloody ax handle in the straw. The sight of the horrid object stopped him dead in his tracks. He shook his head as if to deny what his heart feared most. He heard the voices of the men from across the yard. Murmurs of ‘Fire?’, ‘thought I heard Nick holler’, and ‘what’s going on?’ echoed behind him. He took a hesitant step, with dread building in his chest. His disbelieving eyes made their way up the blue shirt, ending with the red-stained collar.

“Heath? Oh God, no.” Nick cried.

Dropping to his knees beside Heath’s body, his hands quickly found a pulse. The sigh of relief welcomed the low moan. Nick’s first thought was to stop the bleeding and his hands slipped over the back of his brother’s head. He then tried to untie his kerchief, but his hands were trembling and slick with blood.

“Here, Nick,” McCall offered as he joined him and produced a section of cloth.

Nick turned Heath and lifted him, cradling him against his chest. He pressed the cloth on the vicious wound and spoke quietly in Heath’s ear.

“Heath, Can you hear me? You’re gonna be fine. I’m sorry Heath. I’m sorry for everything.”

“Randy, ride to town and get Doc Merar and let the sheriff know …,” Duke ordered.

“What’ll I tell him, Duke?” the young hand interrupted.

“Tell him Pete Sinclair tried to kill my brother,” Nick snarled.

“Duke, you see to it Heath gets to the house. Cortez is just inside the door. Sinclair used him for a punching bag. Take some of the men with you and see to it that he gets taken care of,” Nick commanded.

Nick allowed Duke to take Heath from him and rose. Climbing to his feet, he noticed one of the hands had Coco saddled and ready to go. Not wanting to waste any more time, he mounted the reliable beast and turned to leave.

“Where you going, Nick?” Duke called.

McCall handed Heath over to the hands, who gently lifted the bleeding cowboy. Walking to the front of the stable, he grabbed Coco’s reins.

“Nobody lays a hand on my brother,” Nick growled, his burning eyes narrowed and his face was dark with fury. “I’m going after Sinclair, and God help him when I find him.”

The men present knew from the tone in Nick’s voice that the stern edict was more than just idle words. Somewhere in the scarlet-stained scene Heath Barkley became Nick’s brother. Nobody would ever challenge that issue again or treat Heath with any less respect than they would any other Barkley…Nick wouldn’t tolerate it. McCall squinted up at Nick and met the determined man’s gaze.

Nick knew what Duke was thinking and he was right. It shouldn’t have taken Heath nearly getting killed by a brutal bigot to cement his blood ties. For one scary moment, staring at the prone figure in the hay, Nick felt a pain that he couldn’t describe. Taking a deep breath, he determined never to feel it again…only to make things right with Heath and make sure nobody ever questioned the relationship again.

Duke saw the light of reason finally in Nick’s eyes. He saw the pain the dark cowboy had while glancing at the pale young man who was being carefully carried into the house. Their eyes met and Duke nodded, releasing the horse.

“You be careful, Son,” he added as Nick rode off.

“Go on,” he nodded to the remaining hands, “Get saddled and ride with him. You all know what Sinclair looks like and now you know what he’s been doing to that boy all this time. Get moving.”

They wasted no time and Duke entered the house as Cortez was being carried to the bunkhouse. He stopped them, briefly, eyeing the battered boy’s face. He shook his head, angry that it had come to this. Nodding, he released them as Audra emerged on the top floor landing.

“HEATH!” she screamed, running down the stairs.

“Take it easy, Miss Audra, he’ll be okay. We got a doctor on the way,” Duke assured as he tried to calm her down.

“What happened?” she managed, eyes wide with shock.

“I’m not sure, but I think Sinclair, and maybe Barrett, beat up Rico Cortez and lured Heath into a trap. Sinclair took an ax handle to him. Nick got there just in time or …well… we got lucky. It looks worse than it is, Honey. I’ve seen lots of head wounds…they all bleed like that. He’s a strong boy…he’ll pull through. I’m going to go see what I can do for Rico. You send Doc Merar over when he’s through here, okay?”

“Huh?…Oh, yes, of course. Thanks, Duke.”

******

“…Senor Heath?…have to get help…” came the weak plea.

“He’ll be okay, Rico. You take it easy,” Duke eased.

Rico managed to open his eyes a little as the strong arms pushed him back against the pillows. Blinking at the harsh light, he eyed the bunkhouse and the blackness outside the window. He felt his head lifted and heard Duke urging him to drink a little water. He sipped a bit, then closed his eyes.

“I’m so sorry, Senor. It’s my fault he got hurt,” Cortez pained.

“No, Son, it’s not your fault. Sinclair’s been using Heath all this time, setting him up to take falls. Nick knows the score now and is out there looking for Sinclair. You get all that guilt out of your head, understand?”

“But..”

“No buts, Rico. Now quit jawin’. Them ribs are broke and I know you’re hurtin’. You take is easy. The doctor will be here soon.”

*****

The doctor snapped his black bag closed and with a final pulse check, he turned to Heath’s ‘nurse’.

“He was lucky. It could have been much worse. There’s no fracture, but he has a bad concussion. I don’t want him out of that bed for a week. He’s going to have blackouts and severe headaches. He’ll probably get sick when he wakes up, so keep that basin handy. Give him some ice chips if he wants or a little water. Most of all, he needs to rest. Stop worrying, Audra. You’re in charge. You update the family and I’ll stop back tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Doctor and I’m sorry if I was squeamish. There was just so much blood.”

“Yes, it took quite a few stitches. Keep that bandage clean. If he needs it, there is pain medication in that bottle on the nightstand. You make sure you get Silas or Nick to sit with him a spell. Don’t you go getting yourself exhausted. He’ll be needing you tomorrow. He’ll be pretty sick.”

“Okay, Doctor. Oh, one of the hands was also hurt…Rico Cortez. He’s over at the bunkhouse,” she remembered as she walked him to the bedroom door.

“I’ll go right away. I know the way…you don’t need to walk me out. Please, stop worrying,” he smiled, squeezing her hand. ***

Audra dozed on and off as she spent the night keeping a vigil on her injured brother. Seated in the chair by his bed, she never left his side. The doctor had warned her of the confusion that was often the immediate aftermath of a concussion, and she wanted to be there with him when he finally came around.

Jerking herself awake again, she reached over and lightly touched his forehead. His skin felt only slightly warm, no signs of high fever. She thought back on the angry tongue lashing she had given him the day before. Hot words spoken on impulse. She’d give almost anything now, if only she could take them back.

The sounds of hooves in the barnyard broke her thoughts as she stood and wandered over to the window. It was well after midnight and the hands involved in the manhunt were only now returning. She peered hard through the moonlit night, but didn’t see any signs of Nick. She knew that meant that he was either still searching or in town giving a report to the sheriff. Audra sat back down knowing that there was no need to worry. If anything important had happened, someone would be sure to come and tell her. ***

The men had all gone back to the ranch to retire for the night, but Nick had continued on. Bent on finding Pete Sinclair or Hank Barrett, he would ride all night if he had to. How could he have been so indifferent as to close his eyes to the discord that had been apparent to everyone else? He knew now just how much he needed a brother like Heath. Someone whom he could trust and share the responsibilities of running one of the state’s largest ranches…a hard worker who had proved his reliability and fortitude again and again.

“It should’ve been me that got busted with that ax handle,” Nick thought. “Maybe it would’ve helped knock some sense into this thick skull of mine.”

But all the remorse and self-berating wasn’t going to atone for his behavior towards Heath. Nothing could erase the caustic words and actions he had used in attempts to humiliate and abuse his new brother. The concerns Victoria had expressed to Jarrod only a couple of weeks prior seemed to be fulfilled as anguish and sorrow flooded the cowboy’s heart. **

The full moon illuminated the upstairs bedroom with it’s bluish light. Stirring from his slumber on the full-sized bed and covered with a patchwork quilt, Heath reached up and rubbed his aching skull. Opening his eyes, he looked around the dimly lit room. Moonbeams danced in Audra’s golden hair as she sat peacefully sleeping in the nearby chair.

Many thoughts raced through Heath’s addled mind as he tried to reflect on the past few days. His mind was fuzzy, but he could remember his little sister pleading with him, begging for just a few minutes of his time. But why was she here in his room now? Heath’s mind reversed back even farther as he recalled an argument with Nick and the foul names he had used when referring to Heath’s mother. Rage and wrath burned deep in Heath’s heart. Nick had no right to degrade his mother the way he had.

Feeling a heaviness deep within his gut, Heath swung his legs over the side of the bed and made his way to the bathroom. Stopping long enough to steady himself on the doorframe, he felt the bile rise and made his way to the porcelain throne. Gladly parting with the meager contents of his stomach, Heath sat back against the wall and closed his eyes. Why was he so sick all the time? A few more minutes passed before his head cleared enough for him to fit the bits and pieces together. There was jail, the house, Elliott, Rico, the barn, Sinclair, Barrett, and the fight…no, he couldn’t forget the fight. That was the reason his head felt like it had been parted with an ax.

All the robberies, and being framed by Barrett and Sinclair…but what tie was there with Elliott? Heath could only guess that they were all part of an elaborate ring of organized crime. He thought again of his volatile brother. Nick would never go along with his theory…at least not with sufficient proof to back his statement. There was only one thing he could do. Go after the gang himself and try to bring them to justice single-handedly.

Using the commode to pull himself up, Heath pulled the long cord that refilled the bowl with fresh water. Stopping by the wash basin just long enough to splash some cool water on his face, he made his way back down the hall. He didn’t know what time it was, but figured he could use the cover of darkness to his advantage. Elliott’s large house would be his first stop. Hesitating by the door of Audra’s room, he slipped inside and scrawled out a brief note. Though he had left her sleeping in his room, she was sure to find it in the morning when she returned for some fresh clothes.

Taking each step one at a time, Heath managed to get himself down the stairs without any spills. The large front door to the house creaked as Heath stepped outside into the cool night air. The stillness that was typical of predawn hours cloaked him like a veil. The occasional chirp of a cricket or croak of a frog accompanied him on his trek to the barn. The horses were all resting peacefully in their stalls, except for the thumping that could be heard from inside the enclosed paddock.

“I’m sorry, Buster,” Heath thought, “but I’m not going to have time for any of your shenanigans today. Passing the paddock, he headed for the stall where his Modoc was tied. Sally was fully recovered from her leg injury, and riding the gentle pony again would seem all too easy. He pulled his saddle off one of the racks, and after placing a blanket on Sally’s back, stiffly hove it into place. The slight exertion left him seeing stars as he paused to lean against the little mare’s warm side. His vision cleared and he led the pony out into the open area of the barn and quickly slipped her headstall into place. Soft whinnies from Buster’s pen gave him a sense of comfort as he gingerly placed a boot in the stirrup and swung onto Sally’s back. Urging her into a light canter, he rode into the moonlit stillness, the Modoc’s hooves beating a steady rhythm down the packed dirt lane. Heath didn’t look back at the darkened house as Sally carried him away from the place he had so desperately wanted to call home. If he had, he may have seen his sister’s silhouetted form peering out of the window after him. ****

The dawn light was breaking and Nick had been in the saddle all night. Stopping by a creek, he stepped down off of Coco to give him a break. He spent a moment talking to his boyhood friend and stooped down to fill his canteen. He was just getting ready to remount when a second set of hoof prints in the soft creek bottom soil caught his eye. Judging by the tracks, the horses right hind foot was slightly toed in…that described the horse Barrett rode to a tee.

“Come on, Boy…”

He urged Coco onward and had gone only a few miles when he spotted the Paint tied to a tree. His fingers tingled in anticipation as they warmed to the idea of fondling Barrett’s weasely neck. Nick watched as Sinclair’s partner in crime stooped over the creek in attempts of getting washed. Slipping off Coco, he crept silently and stood directly behind Hank Barrett. Leaning against the tree, he crossed his arms and waited.

Barrett finished washing up and thought on just how lucky he was. He’d ridden immediately to the Carrington mansion, and confronted the head man. Elliott was furious at Sinclair’s botched ‘hit’. He gave Barrett orders to find Sinclair and steer him clear of the mansion, directing the two to ‘hide low for a couple days and then meet at the hideout’. Sinclair was tucked away safe and sound and Barrett would join him soon. Standing up, he turned and his bowels turned to ice.

“Nice day,” Nick barked, as his hands closed around Barrett’s throat, “isn’t it.”

He drove the coward backwards into the creek and held him under the cold water for several seconds. Hauling him onto the bank, he towered over the sputtering snake and wasted no time.

“I wanna hear from you right here and right now,” Nick seethed with his hands at Barrett’s gasping throat. “Where is he?”

“Listen, Nick, is was mostly his idea. He hated the idea of that no good bastard gettin…” A knee to the groin ended Barrett’s thought.

“Nobody says that about him to me. You got it? Now talk!” Nick ordered, kneeling over the scarlet-faced fool.

“I don’t know where he is, ” Barrett gasped, doubled over in pain.

Nick hauled him up and delivered a powerful right to the midsection, and followed up with a shot to the jaw.

“My patience is running out you spineless wonder. Now, WHERE IS HE?” Nick ended with a kick to the ribs.

“Not far,” Barrett gasped trying to save his own hide. “He was on your brother from the beginning, settin’ him up, making it look like he was drunk, skipping out on…”

“You mean all the stuff Heath told me from day one about him and Rico doin’ your work plus their own was true,” Nick growled, his hands around the dumbfounded man’s throat.

“Urghh…,” was the only response that the clenched fingers would allow.

“What did you do to him to make him sick?” Nick demanded, towering over the trembling form.

“Some stuff they use on the Barbery Coast…like knock out drops. It didn’t hurt him none. He got what was coming…that’s what Pete said,” Barrett squealed as Nick’s eyes glowered red.

The volley of blows left the former employee battered and bruised by the bank. He was barely able to see the dark face as it bent over him.

“I’m only sayin’ this once, you yellow-bellied cretin. You take that sorry sack of yours as far away from here as you can get. You ever set foot in this valley again and I will personally see to it that the undertaker gets a new customer. Do I make myself clear?” Waiting for the mauled head to nod, he continued. “Now, I’m gonna ask you one more time. Where is he?”

Hank Barrett didn’t waste another moment. As Nick rode toward the line shack, Barrett made some plans of his own. Nick Barkley would pay for this beating. ******

“Come on, Boy,” Nick coaxed Coco. “We’re hot on the trail now.”

Nick rode for several miles, picking his way up the narrow gorge. The old line shack located at the top was the place where Barrett had directed him. It was located on the southern tip of Barkley range and made the perfect hideout for the renegade cowhand. Up until an hour ago, Nick may as well have been chasing dreams, but at least now he had something to go on. He followed the steep incline up what had been a grassy slope earlier that spring. Now the sage and tumble weeds were all the fodder available for grazing cattle. Ahead in the distance he saw the outbuilding, smoke pouring out of the single stove pipe.

Jumping down from Coco, he looped the reins around a clump of sagebrush and continued his journey on foot. Peering through the early morning rays of sunlight, he saw a lone horse tied to the post out front. It was Sinclair’s, all right. With the stealth of a cat, Nick slunk up cautiously behind the cabin and waited. Trying to piece a feasible plan together, the sound of an opening door caused every muscle to tense as Nick drew himself up flat against the cabin wall, listening for his next cue.

The splat of coffee being dumped told Nick that now was a good time to catch his foe off guard. Stepping from behind the building with gun drawn, Nick stood to face his opponent. Sinclair returned the cold, steely stare with a look of absolute stupidity. Caught with nothing more than his long johns on, the dumbfounded cowhand went for a gun that wasn’t there.

“Forget it,” Nick steeled, reholstering his own gun. “I’m gonna do this with my bare hands.”

Turning to run back inside the cabin, Nick was one step ahead of the distressed wrangler. With a sudden jump onto the front porch and a couple of long, lean strides, he reached the door a moment before Sinclair. Using the heel of his boot to pin Sinclair’s bare foot to the planking, the adversary cursed out in pain.

“Beat my brother with an ax handle, will ya?” Nick seethed as his fisted black glove drove into Sinclair’s jaw.

“Frame, abuse and ambush him and then leave him for dead, eh?”

This time Nick’s foot did the work of driving another point home.

“And then there’s poor, defenseless Rico!” Nick mocked angrily. “Now, how low do you have to be to go beatin’ up on a kid?”

Sinclair tried to stand, but Nick kicked his legs out from under him. Then reaching down and hauling him to his feet, Nick delivered a series of thrusting blows to the midsection. Sinclair started to topple, but Nick grabbed him by his thermal top and slammed him up against the wall of the wooden shack. Giving his head a few hard whacks against the weather beaten wood, Nick drew his grip in tight and lifted the coward up off his feet. Sinclair squeaked as the crotch of his one-piece union suit drew up tight around his groin.

“Now, I’m warnin’ you, Boy,” Nick gritted. “If I ever so much as catch your sorry hide on Barkley range again, I’m finishin’ it! Do I make myself clear?”

Sinclair nodded as blood ran freely from his lip and nose. Nick let go of his hold and the defeated cowhand slid down the wall of the cabin and slumped to the ground. Holding his aching ribs, the villain cursed under his breath at the retreating form of his former boss.

“Someday,” he thought. “Someday Nick Barkley’s gonna eat those words.”

*****

The house on the North Road appeared vacant when Heath rode up. He cautiously entered and crept upstairs to the master bedroom, finding it empty. Throwing open the doors of the armoire, Elliott’s clothes appeared to be missing as well. Heath made his way down to the desk in the study. It was clear and void of all the incriminating evidence that had littered it’s top just two days prior.

Disgusted, Heath strode out of the house and around to the brush where he had hidden Sally. At least he had had the foresight to collect a few of the papers as samples of evidence. Reaching into his saddlebag, he pulled out a piece of hardtack left over from roundup. Thoughtfully he nibbled on it, plotting out his next move. He was still a bit shaky and unsteady, but feeling much stronger than he had when he first left the ranch. Climbing up on Sally’s back, he spun her around, pointing her nose west. It would be logical to assume that Elliott would be traveling in the direction of San Francisco, maybe even rejoining the gang along the way. *******

It was midmorning when Nick rode back to the ranch’s barn, tired and bedraggled. Sliding off Coco, he handed the reins to Ciego and headed for the house. Stillness greeted him as he walked into the foyer and tossed his hat on a nearby chair.

“Audra! Silas! I’m home!,” Nick hollered as he scanned the top of the stairs for activity. “Now, that’s funny,” he thought to himself. “I wonder where the devil everybody is around here?”

Then he remembered…this was Sunday morning and Silas always left the house early for church.

“Audra’s probably upstairs with Heath,” he thought, heading towards the carpeted staircase, “unless…!”

Bounding up the stairs two at a time, Nick raced down the hall and threw open the door of Heath’s room. The bed sat there empty.

“Heath, no!” he cried, turning back towards Audra’s room. “Audra!” he called as he opened the door only to find it empty as well. “My God, what have I done?” he grieved as he entered the room and sank down onto the bed with his head in his hands.

Looking up and taking a breath, his glance fell on a handwritten note that bore Heath’s handwriting. Snatching it up, he quickly read the inky scratch.

Audra: had to go away for a while. Be back when I can. Love, Heath

“Thank goodness!” he sighed in relief. “At least I know Heath’s okay and not….”

Nick stopped to take another look at the note. Heath was gone, that was obvious by the note, but where did he go…and where was Audra? Not wanting to lose a moment’s time, Nick scrambled down the front stairs and ran out to the barn.

“Should I resaddle your horse, Senor?” the stable hand asked.

“No, not Coco,” Nick responded. “I may have a lot of riding to do and he’s already put in a long night. Put my saddle on Jingo.”

“Si.”

“Ciego,” Nick prodded, “have you seen Heath or my sister this morning?”

“No, Senor Nick. Except for when the men left for ranch duties early this morning, everything’s been real quiet. Maybe they decided to sleep in. Your brother was in a bad way.”

“No, they ain’t sleepin’ in. Besides,” added Nick peering across the barn, “both Sally and Mischief are missin’. Now listen to me, Ciego, and listen good. When my mother and Jarrod get back, you just tell them that Heath and Audra took off and I went after them. Tell them I’ll send word somehow if I find anything. You got that?”

The Mexican nodded. Satisfied, Nick mounted Jingo and rode off towards Stockton.

*****

It was two o’clock in the afternoon when Heath heard the hoofbeats coming up behind him. The sky had darkened, threatening the onset of a summer thundershower. Having been on horseback all day, the renewed strength that Heath had felt that morning had long since waned. Slumped in the saddle, he defensively turned to face the approaching rider.

“Audra,” he managed in a weak whisper. “What are you doin’ here?”

“I saw you ride out and came after you,” she replied.

“Have…have you been…trailin’ me…all this way?” he stammered.

“Yes,” she answered, “and it’s a good thing, too. You look as though you’re about to fall off that horse.”

“You…shouldn’t…have come,” Heath halted. “This is…no…place…for you.”

Audra started to defend herself when a big raindrop landed on the cantle of her saddle, making a darkened splotch.

“It’s starting to rain,” she said, “and you really look as though you could use some rest. I’ve been following along from off the road and there’s an old house back a ways in the brush. It looks as though it’s been abandoned. Will you at least agree to let me take you there? You can regain your strength while we wait out the storm.”

Heath paused for a moment to assess the situation. Audra’s presence did alter things. Now, he had her welfare to think about as well. The darkened sky lit up as lightening flashed it’s threat. Several seconds later, thunder answered the call as more heavy droplets plummeted downwards. Seeing his nod of approval, Audra turned Mischief to the East, leading the way to shelter.

The horses tromped through a thicket of trees and then into a clearing. Nestled in the secluded area sat the old, deserted farm house, it’s shutters and shingles hanging in disrepair. Audra jumped to the ground, hastily tied Mischief, and ran over to aid her brother who was clutching the saddlehorn with both hands. Somehow she managed to keep him from falling as he slid down the side of Sally. Acting as a crutch, she put her arm around his waist and encouraged him to lean on her as they made their way up the front steps of the house. Turning the handle on the door, it swung open, offering refuge from the ominous weather outside. The house was small, but well furnished. Audra spotted a bed in the far corner of the main room, next to the fireplace. She led Heath over and steadied him while he sank down onto the mattress.

“You feel warm again,” she noted, placing her hand on his forehead.

Walking over to the kitchen area, she found a cup and pumped some water into it. Taking it back to her brother, she encouraged him to drink. Heath gulped the entire contents of the cup and then eased back on the bed. Within moments he was sleeping peacefully.

While Heath slept, Audra busied herself about the cabin. She found a lamp with kerosene and some matches. Just having some light inside seemed to chase away some of the gloom. Next she searched through the cupboards. For an abandoned building, it certainly seemed well stocked with provisions. Whoever the previous occupants had been, they had even left the woodbox full. She took the small hatchet which lay on the hearth and chipped off some kindling to start a fire. She would put some water on to boil…Heath might want some coffee or even some broth when he awoke. There was some jerky in one of the cupboards. She would simmer it and offer him the broth or even the meat if he was up to it.

The old home didn’t have a clock of any kind, but Audra figured Heath had already been asleep for a couple of hours before he began to stir. Walking over and sitting on the edge of the bed, her face was the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes. At first he was disoriented, but after looking around the room and hearing the crackle of the fire, his recollection returned.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“Better, I think.”

“You look better,” she affirmed. “Your voice is stronger and you have a little color back in your cheeks. Would you like to try some broth?”

“Audra,” he said sternly, ignoring her offer. “Why did you follow me?”

“Like I told you back on the road, Heath. The doctor told me that you should be in bed for several days. You were weak and in no condition to go riding off like you did. I was really worried about you.”

“So what took you so long to make yourself known? Did you figure that I’d be more apt to let you stay if you put more distance between yourself and the ranch?”

“Yes, I guess that’s what I had in mind…and it did work. Where did you think you were goin’, anyway?”

“I just had somethin’ that needed tendin’ to…still do, in fact…and layin’ around here ain’t helpin’ any.”

“Something you need to do! What could be so important that you’d put your health at risk?” Audra quizzed. “Let me guess,” she added, answering her own question. “You were goin’ to go after the men who beat you.”

“For starters.”

“And?”

“And that weasel boyfriend of yours.”

“Weasel boyfriend? Heath Barkley, I think you have some explaining to do! You haven’t liked Elliott from the beginning. What on earth is it about him that’s bothering you?”

“He’s not what you think he is, Audra. The other day when I came up to you two at the house…well, I had just discovered some papers and maps and things on his desk. They proved that Elliott’s the one who’s been responsible for all the robberies we’ve been havin’ around here lately. I was just gettin’ ready to leave when a picture fell off the desk. I picked it up and recognized it as Elliott…how he looked several years ago. He’s bad, Audra. I’ve tangled with him before…I just didn’t know it ’til I came across that photograph.”

“No!” Audra gasped. “He can’t be like that! I love him and he said he loved me!”

“Like I told you before, he was usin’ you, Sis. Those maps he had were marked. The Miller and Royce ranches were two of the places he had circled. I also found an inventory listing all the loot he’s made off with, as well as dates and times written in as future marks. And you’ll never guess who else was on that hit list of his.”

“Who?” Audra asked, hardly being able to believe what she was hearing.

“Your family’s very own ranch.”

“Oh, Heath! Are you absolutely sure?”

“As sure as I can be. I gathered up some of the information and left it on Jarrod’s desk in Stockton. When this goes to court he’ll need that as proof.”

“Oh, Heath,” Audra blurted out, breaking down in tears. “I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry for what?”

“Sorry for doubting you the other day at Elliott’s and for the spiteful way I behaved. Will you ever forgive me?”

“There ain’t nothin’ to forgive, Sis. Reckon if I was in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.”

“But still, I took his word over yours. Please, Heath. Say that you forgive me.”

“Okay, if it makes you feel any better, I forgive you.”

“Thank you,” Audra smiled. “And I do feel a lot better now. You seem to have quite a bit of oozing around those stitches,” she added, changing the subject. “With all that trail dust it’s a wonder you don’t have a high-grade infection. I’m going to look for some soap or something I can clean it with. And you never did tell me…are you up to a cup of broth?”

“Yeah, I’ll take the broth,” Heath accepted, offering her a lopsided grin.

She ladled him a cup and went to search for some first-aid supplies. There were two back rooms that she hadn’t explored yet…perhaps she would find something in one of them. She opened the first door…it appeared to be another bedroom. Searching through a trunk, she found an extra set of sheets. Audra pulled them out, thinking that they might come in handy for bandages if Heath’s head wound started to really bleed. Tucking them under her arm, she headed over to investigate the second room. Placing her hand on the knob, she turned it but the door wouldn’t open. Gripping the knob harder, she rattled and shook the door, but it seemed to be locked.

“That’s funny,” she thought. “Why would someone care enough to lock a door in a house they were planning to desert.”

Looking around, Audra searched for a key. There had to be one around somewhere. Standing on tiptoes, she felt up along the top frame of the doorway. A wrought-iron key came tumbling down along with a good deal of dust. Stooping to pick it up, Audra placed the key in the lock and turned it. The key turned over with ease. Gently pushing open the door, she stopped amazed. The room was full of all kinds of valuables and treasures. Leaning against some golden candelabras were two magnificent pieces of art. She recognized those pictures. She was sure she’d seen them somewhere before. Peering closely at them in the dim light she suddenly remembered where it was. They were the original oil paintings that she had so often admired…the ones displayed in the living room at the Royce ranch.

Audra flashed on Heath’s words of warning as she stood and beheld the bountiful booty before her. If all this was true, then this old farmhouse was also serving as a hideout for the gang. She didn’t know when they’d be back, but knew that she and Heath needed to get out of there. But where could they go? The rain was coming down in sheets and Heath was feverish and in no condition to travel.

Closing the door of the room, she followed the snap of the fire back into the main room. Walking over to her resting brother, she found him once again engulfed in a deep sleep. She tried gently shaking him, but he didn’t want to rouse. Then she remembered. The doctor had warned of sporadic periods of unconsciousness. Heath was more than likely passed out, rather than asleep. Pulling a wooden chair up close to his bed, she allowed the heat of the fire to penetrate her body. The warmth was soothing, but still she had an uneasiness settle over her. With the loot stashed in the house, the gang was sure to be returning soon. If from a distance they saw the smoke rising from the chimney, that could be even worse. Quickly Audra rose and doused the fire with water.

*****

“Audra?”

“I’m right here, Heath. What is it?”

“Just checkin’. Wanted to know where you were is all.”

Already Heath was becoming accustomed to having family members that cared for him and he for them. He thought it strange that he could feel that way again. His mama had always been there for him, and now she was gone. But even with a loving mother, he had always been fairly independent…the war and hard living conditions had made him that way. Still, it was nice to have someone close by. He realized just how much he longed for the interaction of a real family. A family that he could be a part of.

“Heath,” Audra began. “I think we’re headed for some serious trouble if we don’t try to get away while we can.”

“What do you mean?” Heath asked, turning his head to face his sister.

“I mean that I found the stolen items from the Royce ranch, plus a lot of other things, in one of those rooms in back.”

“This is the hideout, then,” Heath alarmed. “Come on, Audra. We’re checkin’ out!”

“I’ll help you,” she offered, grasping one of his arms as he stood.

“We don’t have time for that,” he replied, standing on his own strength. “With all this rain, the gang’s more ‘an likely goin’ to want a dry place to hole up.”

“Maybe they’re just usin’ this place for storage,” Audra suggested, following Heath as he staggered for the door.

“No, I doubt it. They wouldn’t want to let all that treasure lyin’ around for someone like us to walk in and steal. I’m sure they’ll be comin’ back real soon. Besides, it’s a chance we can’t take,” he added, turning to Audra. “Now I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna ride for the nearest town and report this place to the sheriff. Benton City should be just a few miles down the road. We’ll go there.”

“What! And cheat us outta doin’ you in, Bastard?” came Sinclair’s voice from behind.

Seeing the horses out front, he had sneaked in through the back door. Several other gang members were outside, surrounding the house. With his gun aimed in Heath’s direction, the wrangler’s face was still badly battered from his previous encounter with Nick.

“Looks like you and Nick met up on the trail,” Heath offered dryly.

“Yeah, as a matter of fact we did. And you know what? I plan on doin’ to you what he did to me. And then you wanna know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna finish off what I started in the barn the other day. Only this time that loud mouth brother of yours won’t be around to stop me.”

As Sinclair advanced forward, Audra stepped between him and Heath.

“No,” she pleaded. “Please don’t touch him. I’ll…I’ll do anything…”

“Audra!” Heath ordered, grabbing her arm and pulling her out of the way. “You stay out of this.”

“No, let her continue,” Sinclair leered.

“Like hell I will,” Heath gritted as he made a fist and catching Sinclair off guard, sent the gun sailing from his hand.

As Heath tried to dive for the stray pistol, Sinclair was there, too. The two men grappled and struggled, each trying to gain control of the firearm. Heath had it for a moment, but then felt a firm hand on top of his. With his finger on the trigger, if he could just get the barrel of the gun turned, Heath knew Sinclair would be as good as dead. Sinclair foresaw his intentions and aiming the gun down towards Heath, deliberately applied pressure to his trigger finger.

The loud explosion brought in Elliott and Barrett. Wolf and Banjo were still watching the front door. Heath relaxed his hold on the gun as a crimson stain began to spread across the right leg of his tan pants. The bullet had grazed the skin badly without actually penetrating it. Standing to his feet, now in full charge of the gun, Sinclair stood back and cocked the revolver, taking careful aim at his victim.

“Sinclair!” Elliott ordered as he stepped inside the room. “Put it down. We may need them.”

Sinclair answered with a surly scowl.

“I mean it, Sinclair. Put it down. These two just may be worth more to us alive than dead.”

“What do ya mean?” Sinclair growled. “This mongrel here’s been nothin’ but trouble ever since that first day he came on. Thinks he’s really somethin’…waltzin’ in and tryin’ to lord it over the rest of us like he was boss. All high ‘n mighty just ’cause the old man gave him some of that rich blood. Well, I think it’s high time I take away that pedigree…once and for all!”

“You do and you obviously don’t care about getting rich quick,” Elliott continued. “Now with all that ‘rich blood’, how much do you think the Barkley family would be willing to pay to get these two whelps back? I figure they’d pay quite a bit,” he said, fingering a golden strand of Audra’s disheveled hair.

Feeling repulsed by this imposter who had used her, Audra couldn’t hide her deep set anger. Pulling back and repelling his touch, her hand darted out to deliver a forceful slap to his handsome face.

“Get your hands off me, you filthy dog!” she snapped with the ferocity of a lioness.

He rubbed the stinging cheek and laughed.

“I had no idea how that fire in you could sir my blood, Love.”

“Love?” she loathed. “The only thing that stirs your blood is money and stolen property. You disgust me!”

“Barrett! Get some rope,” the leader commanded. “I have a feeling that this one is going to need to be tied up. I’m afraid she’s too much for even me to handle. Tie that so-called brother of hers as well. Then take and stash them in the room with the rest of the loot.”

“Do you think that’s a wise idea, Boss?” Barrett questioned. “There’s some real valuable stuff in there. What if they try and trash it just for spite.”

“Good thinking, Barrett. Put them in the other room…and be sure to lock the door,” Elliott issued, looking straight at Audra. “I wouldn’t want to be forced to shoot them should they attempt anything so foolish as an escape.”

Barrett left for a moment and returned with Wolf and Banjo as well as the rope. The three bound the hands of Heath and Audra while Sinclair stood by with his gun leveled. Audra was hauled to her feet and told to walk, while Heath was dragged and slung into the back bedroom. Audra could hear the key being turned in the lock and Heath’s moans as he tried to clear the fog from his fuzzy mind. His pants were now soaked in the scarlet fluid as the gash on his right thigh continued to bleed. Audra didn’t know if anyone back at the ranch had missed them yet, but she knew they were definitely in a predicament.

*****

It was well past noon when Jarrod pulled the buggy up in front of the house. After a bath and some lunch, he was heading back to Stockton. He helped his mother down and entered the house behind her.

“I’ll bring the bags upstairs and then take the buggy over to the barn,” he informed her, turning back to close the door.

“Audra, Nick, we’re home,” Victoria called.

The house was strangely silent. Victoria peeked into the parlor and then walked across to the study and library on the other side of the house. She repeated her greeting, but her children seemed to be out. From upstairs, the sound of Jarrod’s voice conveyed a message of urgency. Victoria’s heart quickened as she heard the tone of panic rise in the voice of her normally calm son.

“Jarrod, what is it?” she answered, sweeping around the staircase and up the stairs. “Jarrod? Where ….”

She stopped momentarily, seeing him standing in the bathroom doorway. She reached his side and he turned to let her inside. The lingering aroma of vomit hit her before her small foot was even on the tile floor. Traces of it remained around the bowl of the toilet. That wouldn’t cause Jarrod to be so upset. Then she saw the concern on his face. Following his worried gaze, she saw the familiar blue shirt Heath wore covered in blood. There were towels on the top of the hamper. They were also bloody.

“Oh no, Heath. What could have happened?” she feared.

Treading silently down the hall, she peeked into Heath’s room. She saw the upset sheets and when she got closer, the traces of blood on the pillowcase. That answered at least one question. Heath had suffered some kind of head injury…but where was he?

“Jarrod, where could he be? He was obviously injured seriously. He couldn’t be out of bed, unless…”

She turned as Jarrod’s strong hand gripped her shoulder.

“I’m sure it’s not that, Mother,” Jarrod reassured, knowing she feared the worst.

“But Jarrod, what else could it be? If Heath…if the injury was fatal, then Audra and Nick may have taken him to…,” her voice trailed off.

“No, Mother, they knew we were coming home today. They would have waited. Let’s have another look around.”

Nick’s room held no more clues, but Audra’s did. Victoria met Jarrod in the hall and handed him a note. Briefly scanning it, he frowned and headed for the stairs.

“I was afraid of this. He’s being foolish and stubborn. Issuing a one-man campaign to bring this gang in was bad enough, injured it’s…”

His thought was interrupted by a loud banging on the door. He recognized the voices and opened the massive door to admit Fred Madden and Roger Burke. Roger’s rumpled clothing and state of disarray was a sharp contrast to his normally well-groomed appearance. The grave concern on his face and that of the sheriff told the lawyer that his questions about Heath were about to be answered.

“How is he? I came as soon as I heard. I’m awful sorry, Jarrod.”

“Roger’s got some information to show you, Jarrod,” Fred indicated and nodded at Victoria. “I’d like to see Heath if he’s up to it. I need to get a statement.”

“He’s not here Fred, and we’ve only just arrived. Please come inside,” she motioned to the parlor. “There’s evidence upstairs something terrible happened to Heath. Nick and Audra aren’t here, either. Jarrod seems to think that Heath is trying to find this gang by himself. I’m afraid Audra went after him.”

“And Nick?” Roger asked.

“From what Duke told me, Nick left here last night, loaded for bear and looking for Pete Sinclair.”

“Sinclair? Then Heath was right?” Jarrod asked.

“Wait a minute!” Victoria said, placing both hands in front of her. “Start at the beginning. What happened to Heath?”

“Pete and Hank Barrett used some young hand named Cortez as a punching bag yesterday. They knew Heath and the kid were close and used him to lure Heath into a trap. Sinclair took an ax handle to him in the barn. Nick got there just in time and then went hunting for Sinclair. Duke can fill you in on the rest. I was out here last night, but he was out cold and the doctor seemed to think, he was in a bad way. You say he’s gone?”

“Yes, apparently. He must have awakened during the night and took off to find the gang, I think. Audra must’ve found this note,” Jarrod said handing it to the sheriff, “and took off after him. Roger, what are you doing here?”

Roger sat forward and handed Jarrod the note Heath left in his office along with the evidence he’d found.

“He’s been staking out the Carrington place all week, I guess. Anyhow, he came looking for you yesterday and left this on your desk. It’s all there in Elliott’s own hand…names, dates, maps, etc. I tried to find him and didn’t get home until late last night. I checked with Fred this morning and he told me about Heath.”

Jarrod’s eyes widened as he rifled through the documents. His hand froze at the crude outline of the Barkley Mansion.

“Looks like we’re on the hit list. What’s our next move, Fred?”

“Carrington knows Heath’s on to him…I’m sure of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s behind Heath’s attack. I went out to his place last night, but it looked liked he hadn’t been there. He won’t be comin’ back. He knows he’s been had. There was no sign of the loot there, either. I’m guessing they have another hideout somewhere. I’ve got men posted outside the house and will send a posse out to find Heath and Audra. I need to take that evidence to the District Attorney’s office.”

Jarrod nodded and handed the parcel over. Victoria stood up to walk him to the door. He stopped at the entrance to the foyer and turned back, meeting Jarrod’s penetrating gaze.

“I guess we all owe that boy an apology. I sure feel bad about this. I’m going to go over and see how Rico Cortez is doing. He was awfully upset last night. Really took it hard about Heath. Seems like a nice kid.”

“I’ll walk over with you, Fred. I want to talk to Duke,” Victoria said.

“Roger, don’t you go getting any hair-brained ideas! I’m warning you,” Fred said sternly.

“Me?” Roger’s eyebrows shot up.

Jarrod smiled knowing exactly what the sheriff meant. More than once Roger had been hurt uncovering criminals and evidence.

“I’ll keep an eye on him, Fred,” Jarrod issued as his mother and the lawman left.

“I gotta find him, Jarrod. You understand, right?” Roger said, green eyes contrite.

“Understand what? Roger, Heath is an adult and knows right from wrong. He should have asked for help.”

“He tried, Jarrod, but nobody would listen. I believed him. There’s just something about his eyes…,” Roger trailed off.

“You getting shot, or worse, won’t solve anything.”

“I’ve got to cover the Mayors of America Conference in San Francisco tomorrow, so I need to get home and get packed. But I’ll be back Tuesday. “

“I’m going to get changed and get a couple of hands to ride out with me, ” Jarrod said, rising. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and Heath and Audra will return home.” *********

“Heath, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so. The bleedin’ feels like it may be slowin’ down some.”

“If it weren’t for these ropes, we could use the sheets on that bed over there for bandages,” Audra said, struggling with her restraints.

“I’ve still got my pocket knife,” Heath suggested. “It’s in my front pocket. If you could somehow get to it, we could at least get these ropes off.”

Worming her way over, Audra turned her back to him and felt through the denim fabric for the shape of the knife. “

“It’s right here!” she exclaimed. “Now, if I can just get it out of your pocket and open.” Using her hands which were bound together behind her, Audra was able to work the knife to the opening of the pocket from the outside of the fabric. “I just about have it!”

The knife made a clunky ping as it plopped out of the pocket and onto the floor. Turning over, Heath groped for the knife. Once his fingers closed around it, he turned it in his clasped hands, playing with it until the blade popped open. Carefully positioning it through his wrists, Heath began to lightly saw at the ropes. Finally cutting through, he shook his hands free and went to work on Audra’s.

“Oh, thank you!” Audra said, rubbing her wrists where the rope had dug in.

“If you hear that key turn in the lock, you might want to put your hands behind you again,” Heath warned. “If they don’t try and move us, they may not notice the ropes are gone. Let’s get these cut pieces out of sight.”

Audra shoved the rope remnants under the bed and then lifted up the corner of the quilt covering. She was relieved to find that there were indeed some sheets underneath. Heath was sitting up by now, examining the injury to his leg. He had sliced a little bit of the fabric away with his knife and was using it to lift the sticky denim away from the graze.

“I think it’ll be okay,” he said. “It ain’t real deep. The bullet must’ve just nicked the surface.”

“Let me have your knife for a moment,” she requested. “I can cut the hem off one of these sheets.”

“You start applyin’ bandages, and if they come back in here, they’ll know for sure somethin’s up,” Heath warned.

“Well, what’s your solution then?” Audra argued. “Just lay here and have me watch you bleed to death? Sorry, but it’s a risk we can’t take. Besides, the sheets kind’ve match the color of your pants anyway. Once they start absorbing some of that blood, maybe the bandage won’t be so noticeable.”

“You’re probably right,” Heath agreed, glancing in the direction of the uncovered window. “It will be dark soon,” he thought.

The window was one solid mildewed pane with no opening of any kind. To break it would definitely alert their captors. He could hear the rain dripping off the eaves and see the dismal patch of gray sky lurking outside the glass. Audra knelt down beside him. He scooted with his back against the bed so he could sit up and watch as she wound the cloth fabric around his upper leg.

“That should help,” she said, knotting the two loose ends together.

“Thanks,” he offered, reaching for her hand.

She curled up beside him and they sat arm in arm drawing strength and comfort from one another. Heath had really begun to let his guard down around her. She only hoped that their relationship could continue to develop.

*****

Jarrod’s trip was short lived. Just a few hours into his search the storm clouds and gusty winds drove him home. He was upstairs looking out Heath’s window, when Nick rode in. Jarrod took the stairs two at a time and waited by the front door until his brother blew in.

“Anything, Nick?” he hollered over the thunder.

“They’re not here?” Nick turned, hopeful.

“No. I was hoping they’d be with you.”

Nick was soaked, haggard and hungry. He stood dripping in the foyer and looked painfully at the floor. His deep sigh and the pain etched on his face made Jarrod think there was something more to his concern.

“You get a hot bath, a shave and some dry clothes. Dinner’s almost ready. Mother’s been resting and just got up. I’ll have a brandy waiting.”

Nick met Jarrod’s sincere gaze and nodded his thanks. Victoria and Jarrod were mulling over where else to look, when Nick appeared. He bypassed the brandy and poured a double shot of Jack Daniels. Taking a sip, he found a spot by the fire. Victoria knew he would. Since he was young, it was his favorite place to brood.

“How’s Rico?” Nick finally said.

“He’s very stiff and sore today. His face is…well what those brutes did to him is inexcusable,” Victoria said, remembering the sad brown eyes peeking out of the swollen, discolored face.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Nick snarled, draining the whiskey and slamming the glass down. “I caught up with them two way out by the south end of the ranch. Barrett spilled his guts…said Sinclair had been setting Heath up all along to make me think…. Well, it worked, but I took care of the two of them. I only hope Heath will forgive me.”

“Did you see any signs of them, Nick? Where could they be?” Victoria fretted.

“I looked high and low, Mother. Been all over this ranch, to town and back. It’s like they’ve disappeared. I guess he must’ve gone off lookin’ for Sinclair and gave Audra the slip.”

Silas had returned and announced dinner was ready. The trio resumed their discussion while savoring the chicken and dumplings the black man served.

“How bad was he, Nick?”

“I don’t know how he could have even got on a horse,” Nick mused, putting his fork down. “I thought…for a few minutes, when I got into the barn and saw him laying there, so still… It was a bad feeling. I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Did you drop Sinclair and Barrett at the jail?” Victoria asked.

“Jail? No, I handed out my own ‘sentence’. They’re probably out of the state by now.”

Jarrod and Victoria looked at each other and then at Nick. Nick saw their confusion.

“What? What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nick, those two are a part of the Wolf Pack Gang. Heath knew about it. That’s where he’s been all week…staking out the Carrington House. He obtained some evidence and they found out. Fred thinks Elliott ordered Sinclair to silence him. Apparently you interrupted the job, thank God.”

Nick’s head pivoted and his scowl was followed by a growl.

“Elliot? What does he have to do with this?” Nick pondered, and then before Jarrod could answer… “Oh, now wait a minute. Are you telling me he’s involved in those robberies? That Sinclair and Barrett were working for him? I can’t believe it! Elliott?”

“I’m sorry Nick, but Heath’s evidence is pretty incriminating. Elliott looks to be the mastermind. Fred has the house staked out, but doubts if he’ll return. They’re probably lying low at their hideout.”

“Jarrod, do you think that they have Heath and Audra?” Victoria feared.

“I hope not, Mother.”

Nick sat brooding, his fist hitting his palm. Jarrod saw the dark face and waited for the explosion.

“Nick, ranting and raving won’t bring them home. We need a plan and I need you to have a cool head, understand?” Jarrod leveled sternly.

Nick didn’t move, his eyes bore a hole into the two empty places where Heath and Audra usually sat. Finally, he spoke in a low voice.

“I’d give anything to see them sitting over there…gigglin’ and carryin’ on like they were the other night. I’ve got no idea where to start. What do you know about this Wolf Pack?”

“After dinner we’ll go to the study. I have Roger’s notes, and I’ll fill you in on what Heath’ found at the Carrington house.”

*****

Victoria entered the empty bedroom and walked to the window. She watched the action at the corral as life continued on the busy ranch. Rico was standing by the corral watching a new stallion being broken. She couldn’t hear what Duke was saying, but smiled, knowing that his ire at the young man was due to how much he liked the boy. Sighing, she turned to leave and spotted Heath’s clean clothing still folded on the bed waiting to be put away. She opened the dresser drawer and made two trips across the room putting the various items in the proper drawers. As she attempted to close the middle drawer, it stuck. She forced it with her hip and the drawer closed, but the sudden hard movement caused an object to fall from the top of the chest .

She glanced down at the leather bag and it’s contents which had spilled out. Bending to pick them up, her hand froze at the familiar slanted script that seemed to jump out at her. She picked up the letter and the other items and carried them to the bed. Sitting for several minutes, Victoria stared at the handwriting she knew as well as her own. The letter was addressed to Leah Thomson. She placed it carefully next to her and looked at the other items. First there was a pair of cuff links with golden eagles engraved on the front which she vaguely remembered as being a gift from his father. They had mysteriously disappeared years ago. She swallowed hard as she cast her glance on an old yellowed photograph. It was a picture of her Tom, so young and handsome, with a pretty young woman, obviously Heath’s mother. His eyes, just like Heath’s, were deep and full of feeling. She picked up the letter and sat staring at it.

“Mother? Are you all right?”

Jarrod had watched for several minutes, not wanting to interrupt. She hesitated and patted the spot next to her on the bed. He approached cautiously, noting the emotive look on her face and the tears on her cheeks.

“I don’t know whether to read this or not. They’re both dead. Do I have that right? Does it even matter?” Her gray eyes sought answers from her oldest son and trusted confidant.

“I can’t answer that, Mother.”

Jarrod picked up the cuff links and the photo. He studied his father, and like his mother, felt Tom Barkley reaching out. Those eyes, which Jarrod remembered all too well, held so much expression. Warm and light blue, they could reflect amusement, affection or anger, so much like the son he never knew. He heard the rustle of paper as she unfolded the brief letter and handed it to Jarrod.

“Why didn’t Heath say something? He had this all along…the proof of his parentage.”

Jarrod thought for a moment as he scanned the brief note. It was an eerie feeling to read his father’s words, and read between the lines, the passion he had felt for Leah Thomson. He noted in the letter that she was the only woman he could have ever loved, save his Victoria. Three months he had lived with her and loved her. Jarrod felt angry at his father for using both women, but this indiscretion was twenty-two years gone. All the harsh words and broken vows could never be repaired. And what of Heath? He had been born into a situation over which he had no control and raised by a woman alone. From what he had gathered, she had been a strong woman who had armed herself with faith and courage and raised Heath to be a fine man. The letter ended with his father urging Leah to marry and have children. He folded it and handed back to his mother.

“For the same reason Leah Thomson had never used this evidence as blackmail. Heath has used honor and integrity as his shield and armed himself with pride. He doesn’t need anything else. “

“I don’t know, Jarrod. He’s suffered so all these weeks. It could have made the difference.”

“Or caused an irreparable rift. Heath needs to be accepted for who he is, not what he is or who his father was.”

Victoria replaced the items in the bag and placed them back on the chest of drawers. She took Jarrod’s arm and they silently exited the room.

*****

Audra couldn’t help notice the heat being generated from Heath’s body. The sheet tourniquet that she had tied around his leg, was now soaked. She could only speculate that the wound in his leg was worse than he had tried to let on. Heath, on the other hand, was feeling a deep concern for Audra. He knew what a frightful experience this must be for her. He cherished his little sister and would give almost anything to have her safely back home with her family. From what he knew of kidnappers, even collecting the desired ransom wasn’t a guarantee for safe passage. For now he would watch, wait and try to keep alert and if an opportunity for escape presented itself, he would seize it. Staying awake was going to be the hard part.

“Heath,” Audra asked, “what are you thinking about?”

“Not a whole lot. Just feelin’ bad that you had to get mixed up in all this.”

“Well, it’s my fault that we’re here in the first place. I’m the one that spotted this old house. Remember?”

“Yeah, but I’m the one who took off when I should’ve stayed at home. I didn’t even tell you where I was goin’.”

“I guess in that case,” Audra mused, “you might say we got ourselves in this together.”

“All for one and one for all,” Heath quoted, making an attempt to keep spirits light. “Isn’t that how the sayin’ goes?”

“If we were talking about the three musketeers it would be, but there are only two of us. Who do you suppose would be the third?”

“I don’t know. Nick, maybe? He seems to like adventure.”

“Yes,” Audra agreed. “Nick certainly has his share of adventures. He took off right away last night, after the men who hurt you. He still hadn’t returned by the time I left.”

Heath’s eyes widened. He was not so surprised that Nick would seek justice… Heath had seen enough of him to know that Nick would instinctively need to ‘right a wrong’. What did surprise him was to hear that Nick would take out right away and that he would ride all night.

“You seem surprised that Nick would defend you,” Audra continued.

“Oh, just that he’s made it clear from the beginnin’ that he don’t want me around. It seems strange…him all of a sudden wantin’ to stick up for me and all.”

“I know he’s said some cruel things, Heath, but once you really get to know Nick, you’ll realize what a big heart he has. It was hard on all of us learning that my father was unfaithful to my mother, and Nick…well, he just always put Father on such a pedestal. The fact that he went after those two men shows that he cares.”

“Yeah, could be,” Heath mused, hoping that Nich had had a change of heart.

Audra hesitated in her response to listen to the drunken laughter coming from out in the main room of the farm house. The merriment mingled with occasional outbursts of howling and cussing made it sound like a lively time. She took a moment to think of Elliott and what he had meant to her. Would he actually allow any harm to come to her or Heath? Whenever she was in his company, he had always played the part of the perfect gentleman.

“Heath, he really does care,” she finally replied. “Duke said he had fire in his eyes when he took off after Sinclair. Give him another chance, Heath. He’s a good man and a wonderful brother. I’m pretty lucky to have three brothers whom I love so very much.”

If Heath was a man of raw emotion, she would have seen tears welling up in his eyes, but Heath wasn’t one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He had learned through the course of his life that exposing one’s feelings was a sign of vulnerability and Heath was too much of a survivor to put himself in that position.

“Now, hold on there, Sis. You’re puttin’ the cart before the horse. First we gotta get outta this fix.”

“Please don’t go, Heath. Now that I care so very much for you, I couldn’t bear it if you were to leave again.”

Despite the extreme physical pain that Heath was experiencing and the uncomfortable and dangerous situation they were both in, a warm, happy feeling seemed to permeate his every fiber. Just hearing that he was loved and accepted was music to his ears. Except for what he had received from his mama, Rachael and Hannah, love was a gift most foreign to him. Already, he was beginning to feel the wonderous magic those words could bring as a little bit more of the anger and resentment that he had carried around for so long began to fade away.

“Thanks, Sis,” he finally managed, his eyes saying what words could not.

“I know you care, Heath. You made that very clear by what you said at Elliot’s the other day, and I’m sorry for the way I reacted. Your actions were simply a reflection of how much you do care.”

She returned the shy smile that peeked up at her. Bending over, she kissed his forehead and brushed her fingers through his hair.

“You get some rest now, Big Brother. I’m on duty now.”

*****

“It’s like they just vanished. I don’t know where else to look,” Nick sighed dejectedly.

Three days had gone by since Heath and Audra disappeared. The vast grounds of the ranch had been searched again and again. The sheriff had sent men out and wired the surrounding towns, but there was nothing. With each passing hour, Victoria grew more fearful. An invisible cloud of doom hung over the house. By the third day, the unsaid became more warranted…that Audra and Heath weren’t coming back.

“Maybe Audra found Heath and he’s not able to ride. We’ll find them, Mother,” Jarrod offered over the silent dinner table.

She pushed her plate away, excused herself and rose. She headed out the back door to the garden…a place where she often found comfort. The only sound in the room was the occasional clink of utensil against china.

*****

The sound of the key turning in the latch woke Audra with a start. Heath had fallen asleep and she had drifted off shortly there after. Silently nudging him in the ribs, from where she sat on the floor next to him. She clasped her hands behind her as he began to stir. Suddenly, the door burst open and Wolf staggered in reeking of Glencairn Gold. His menacing, toothless smile was accented by the black patch covering his eye and the chilling scar that ran the length of his face. Salivating like the ‘hungry wolf’ that we was, he advanced toward Audra, his one good eye honing in like a divining rod.

“You and me’s gonna have some fun, Missy,” he drooled. “They’ve all passed out in there and you’re all mine!”

“You stay away from me,” she warned, glancing over at the semiconscious Heath.

“If I was you, Girlie, I’d be rememberin’ that you’re only here ’cause we allowed it,” Wolf leered as he squatted down in front of her, his eye traveling the length of her blouse. “Now, unless you want me to treat you and that ‘brother’ of yours like useless baggage, you might want to start actin’ a little more friendly li…”

Wolf’s sentence was cut short as a hand clamped his throat from behind. Heath had regained consciousness long enough to see his golden opportunity served and set before him. The harboring resentment built up inside, along with the compelling urge to protect his sister, renewed the strength in his weakened and battered body. His vice-like grip closed in around the protruding Adam’s apple as Heath gritted his teeth with determination.

Wolf let out a croak and gasped for air. Then suddenly, using all the strength in his two arms, he pulled Heath’s right arm away. Momentarily losing his balance, Heath let go of the pervert’s windpipe just long enough to give him the upper edge. Whipping his fist around, Wolf lopped Heath a good one, causing the stunned Barkley to collapse to the floor.

“How’d you get loose?” Wolf demanded as his scuffed boot imbedded it’s toe in the already bruised ribs. The kick produced a low groan as Audra became feral.

“You leave him alone,” she cried, hitting him for all she was worth.

Wolf wheeled and slapped her hard, forcefully driving her down to her knees. She tried to get up, but he hit her again.

“Take that, Wench!” he seethed, slapping her repeatedly.

Audra was still sobbing when Elliott appeared in the doorway.

“What’s going on in here?” he questioned. “That’ll be enough, Wolf. The family’s not going to pay top dollar if the merchandise is damaged. Cheap as it may be,” he added, scoffing. Looking over at Heath’s collapsed and untied form his ire began to rise. “How’d he get loose?” Carrington demanded. “You guys were supposed to have tied him. Do I have to do everything myself?”

“How the hell would I know,” Wolf growled. “Maybe Prissy Missy here’s got ahold of a knife of somethin’.”

Walking over to the bed, Elliott bent down and looked underneath. Pulling out the discarded pieces of rope, he walked over and held them in front of the teary Audra.

“Well, look what I found, Miss Barkley…cut up ropes! Now may I suggest that you hand that knife over, now, or I’ll be forced to have my man here retrieve it for me.”

Fishing the pocket knife out of her pants, Audra laid it in Elliott’s open palm.

“Smart move, Princess. Now,” he said, turning to Wolf and handing him the remnants of rope. “I want you to tie him up…and this time do it right!”

“What about her?” the cold-hearted man fumed. “There ain’t enough rope left for both of ’em.”

“Oh, I don’t think Miss Barkley will be giving us any more trouble,” he said looking down at the weeping Audra. “Will you, My Pet?”

Audra denied him the answer he was looking for, so Elliott answered for her.

“She says she’ll behave,” he said, turning to Wolf. “Tie up the bastard and then lock then both in. If you hadn’t disturbed them, none of this would have happened.”

“May…may we have some water, please?” Audra croaked, attempting to swap manners for a few precious drops of life.

“When you’re through,” Elliott instructed Wolf, “get them a fresh canteen of water.”

Then rolling his shoulders back and holding his head high, Elliott strode out the door.

*****

Roger Burke was also frustrated. He’d been trying to track down Sinclair or Barrett without any luck. He’d been to the ranch and felt the loss in the house. His duties with the paper didn’t allow him to spend endless hours roaming the hillsides, but tomorrow, an old friend was coming to town to do Roger a favor. They worked together in San Francisco on the Chronicle, and Mike Young was the editor from whom Roger had learned so much. Retired now, he was happy to lend a hand.

“Hey, did you hear anything I said, Honey?”

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry sweetheart. I’ve got a lot on my mind. What’s up?”

“I think you’re blaming yourself. I’ve never seen you so upset or absorbed in a story. Heath Barkley is a big boy. He could have asked for help. It’s not your fault,” the pretty brunette said, settling on the porch swing next to her husband.

“I shouldn’t have seen him that morning. I should have gone to Jarrod first. Maybe if I had, he wouldn’t have been beaten or be missing all this time,” he uttered glumly.

He stroked the golden curls of his two-year old daughter who slept peacefully in his arms. The infant at his feet smiled up at him, her dark eyes happy and alert. He couldn’t imagine losing them, or the awful pain if they were missing like the two Barkleys.

“Tomorrow’s another day, Roger. I want your promise that you’ll remember you’re a writer, not the law. If anything ever happened to you…” Her voice trailed off.

He smiled and leaned over, cupping the pretty face. Drawing her in, he kissed her softly.

“I promise, Sunshine. My three princesses are my world. I’d never jeopardize that.”

*****

Nick had his usual early morning meeting with Duke. He went over the orders, signed some releases and gave directives. He finished the bitter coffee and rose. Nick rubbed a weary hand across his face. Whether it was merited or not, the guilt weighed heavily on Tom Barkley’s middle son. What Heath had endured for almost six weeks now was bad enough, but then there was the added weight of Audra being gone. It was as if Duke knew what he was thinking. He heard the weathered voice and turned.

“Kicking yourself in the teeth again? I thought we settled that the other night. It won’t help find them any sooner. You get on that horse, say a quick prayer and get moving. Go on, now, Nick.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you later, Duke.”

*****

Mike had filled in for Roger twice before and knew the ropes. Roger was able to get an early start. The previous several days, he’d spent hours staking out the Carrington House and spots near the ranch. He had hoped to find either the two weasels who beat Heath or Elliott Carrington, himself. He spotted the train coming in and reined his horse to a halt. Making his way over to the station, he looked around. Tim Duncan, the clerk, nodded at him. Following the boy’s head, he spotted a mean-looking ombre, with a dark eye patch. Nodding back, he followed the stranger who was headed south of town. Slowing his pace, he followed at a distance.

He followed the stranger for hours and had it not been that Tim Duncan had given him great leads before, he’d have given up by now. He had asked the clerk about Carrington, Sinclair and Barrett. Tim remembered spotting Carrington with a scarred stranger wearing an eye patch. Roger paused briefly to get a drink. He frowned as far ahead the stranger stopped and waved his hat. Roger gulped and moved closer. His heart pounded when he spotted the two who joined the stranger. The three took off with the excited reporter racing behind.

“You two sure caused a pack of trouble,” Wolf sneered as Barrett and Sinclair joined him.

“Couldn’t be helped,” Sinclair argued.

“If you’d done your job right, we’d still be sitting pretty at Elliott’s place. You bungled the hit. You should’ve just taken out and shot him. Nobody’d be the wiser. “

“Listen, you, I have enough of your remarks…,” Sinclair spat back.

“Enough!” Barrett placated. “Let’s ride, we’re late already.”

*****

Roger took so many turns he was afraid he wouldn’t find his way back, but all of a sudden there was a clearing and an old farmhouse. He watched the trio disappear inside. He waited and slid off his gray mare and edged in closer. Creeping along the side of the house, he peeked in the window. He didn’t see the gang members, but did spot the loot, piled high. He crept down to the next window and peeked inside. The first thing his eye caught was the raw wrists, tied behind the back of a prisoner. Next he saw the bloody tan thigh. He didn’t have to see the face to know who the wounded man was. He heard Audra Barkley’s voice, surprising calm, as she soothed her fevered brother.

“Come on, Heath, please take some water. You’re burning up and it will help.”

There was a pause and then her voice again praising his feeble effort. Roger had no time to spare. He didn’t know this area and if he took a wrong turn, he’d end up lost. He climbed back on his horse and raced back towards Stockton.

*****

Nick paused to let Coco have a long drink in the stream. He doused his head and took a drink as well. The afternoon sun beat down on him. He scanned the horizon and saw a rider approaching. His trained hand sought his gun on instinct. He strained as the rider got closer, hearing his name called.

Roger couldn’t believe his luck. Here, just ahead of him, was Nick Barkley. He screamed Nick’s name and saw the dark cowboy’s head cock. He also saw the gun drawn and then announced himself.

“Roger?” Nick frowned as the reporter reined his horse in and fell off.

“Nick…,” he panted out of breath and took the hand offered, “you got to hurry. I… they’re up….Heath’s been shot.”

“Take it easy, Roger, slow down, ” Nick said, pulling him off the ground. “Heath? Where is he?”

“Tim Duncan alerted me to a stranger who’d been meeting with Elliott. I followed him to an abandoned farmhouse about ten miles up the road. I looked in a couple of the windows. I saw the stolen goods piled in one room. Then I looked in the next window and saw Heath’s leg, bandaged and bleeding. I heard your sister, trying to coax some water into him.” He ended taking a deep breath.

“Good job, Roger!” Nick smacked the unsuspecting reporter hard on the back.

“I’ll give you directions on how to find the place and then ride for the sheriff. I’ll get word to Jarrod, too.”

Nick nodded from Coco and took off, the wind whipping by his determined face. Sinclair and Barrett…this time he’d make sure they paid. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

*****

Nick found the old farmhouse just where Roger said it would be. He tied Coco up in the underbrush and crept in, the late afternoon sun behind him. He spotted the barn next to the house and made his way over. Opening the door a crack, he peeked inside and saw only one horse. That meant the rest of the gang was out and left one guard. Smiling, he spun the chamber of his gun to make sure it was full, and crept back towards the house. He peered in the window nearest the front door and saw Audra’s battered face. The rage fired up within him. He wanted nothing better than to use his bare hands on these brutes. A moan drew his attention to the form lying on the floor next to his sister. He watched as she leaned over and wiped the face of the prone man. He heard a familiar voice right next to the window where he knelt.

“Why don’t you come over here, Sugar, and leave that sorry bastard alone. You’re wasting your time fussin’ over the likes of him. Seems to me we could get to know each other a little better,” Barrett leered.

“I’d sooner kiss a rabid dog!” Audra stood and fired back defiantly, causing Nick to smile.

“You got a fresh tongue, Girl. I think it needs to learn a lesson,” Barrett said, advancing.

Heath sat up and struggled to his feet, and staggered a few steps, putting himself between his sister and the skunk.

“You so much as breathe on her and I’ll take you out,” Heath spat.

“You and what army, Whelp? You with your bad leg and hands tied? Yeah, you got me scared.” he laughed.

Heath charged and threw himself at the unsuspecting man, just as the door opened. The force of the impact sent him backwards into Nick, causing the gun to go off. Hank Barrett slid to the floor, his lifeless eyes unable to hide his surprise.

“Heath!” Nick cried. “Hold on, Boy, I’ll get them ropes off you.”

Heath nodded and then felt the binding ties give way. He heard Audra sobbing and almost cried in relief himself. Nick’s strong arms pulled him upright and eased him back onto the bed. Nick handed him Barrett’s gun which he jammed into his waistband.

“Audra, you okay?” he asked his sobbing sister who was clinging to him.

“I’m okay. We’ve got to hurry, Nick. They’re only up the road. They’ll be back any minute. They went to get the wagon.”

“Okay, let’s go,” Nick said. “Heath, can you ride?”

“Yeah, but Nick…”

The sound of hooves and raucous laughter met their ears.

“Too late, they’re back!” Heath gritted, limping to the window.

“We got two guns, and we got them dead on. We can take them out,” Nick said from behind Heath.

“No we can’t. Audra could get hit. It’s too risky. Here, you take this and wait for me,” Heath said handing his puzzled brother the gun.

“What are you doin’?” Nick asked.

“Audra, turn that table over and get behind it,” Heath said. “Now, Audra…go!”

“I’m gonna go out the back and draw their attention. You slip out the front and surprise them,” Heath said limping quickly to the back door.

“You can’t do that!” Nick argued.

“They don’t know you’re here, Nick. I’m the only one that can. They’ll think I’m escaping and follow. It’s the only way. There’s a stream right outside…down a hill…I can hide there. Now, there ain’t gonna be any more jawin’, they’re right outside.”

“That’s suicide. I won’t let you,” Nick shouted.

“What do you care?” Heath said, eyeing his brother before slamming the door.

Nick started to argue, but the hail of gunfire drowned him out. Audra’s head shot up and Nick screamed at her to get down. He ran out the door and around the side of the house. His heart sank as the cry of delight from one of the pack rang through the air.

“I got ‘im! He’s done, let’s get the girl and get outta here.”

Nick dropped to the ground and rolled over, firing all the while. One fell mortally wounded, one slumped over his horse and rode off as two more scrambled off through the underbrush.

He lay in the dirt, gasping and trying to swallow down the bitterness. The words hit him again like blades cutting into his gut…’he’s done’. Nick closed his eyes to the thought of having to make the painful journey down to the water and find his brother’s lifeless body. He scrambled to his feet and ran to the edge of the hill. He scanned the riverbank but saw no sign of Heath .

“Nick?” Audra inquired painfully.

“I don’t know. I can’t see him.”

“There!” she cried, racing down the hill and throwing herself into the water.

Nick wasted no time and followed her. Heath was lying face down in the shallow end of the water. Nick hooked his hands under Heath’s arms and pulled him up onto the bank. He turned his brother over carefully. His eyes found the wound fast enough. The left side of his soaked shirt was taking on a redish hue. Nick’s hand sought a pulse at the throat.

“He’s so pale, so still. Nick, he’s not dead is he?” Audra knelt by the wounded man’s side.

Nick’s mouth opened and closed without a word. His painful gaze told her what she couldn’t bear to hear.

“No! No, Heath!” she cried, throwing herself over his chest.

Nick pulled his brother upright so that Heath rested against his chest, the soggy-bandaged head rested under Nick’s chin. He wrapped his arms around his younger brother and felt a horrid coldness inside him. He held him close, somehow trying to will the life back into him. His stuttered at first, then the words came, brief and heartfelt.

Audra raised her head, her fury at Nick building. This was all his fault. His brutal treatment all these weeks and the lack of support had pushed Heath into this fatal corner. She was about to unleash her fury on him, when she saw the tortured pain etched in his face and the unspeakable grief in his eyes. She watched him rock and talk into Heath’s ear.

“God, what have I done? He’ll never know…I wanted to tell you…should have sooner. Heath, I’m sorry. You deserved a lot better than me. I…”

Audra’s tears blurred her vision and at first she thought she was seeing things. She sniffed loudly and rubbed the salty water from her eyes. No, it was real!

“HEATH!” she buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed. “THANK GOD!”

Nick felt Heath’s head turn and a shiver ran through him. He laid his brother gently on the ground and smiled at the two blue slits that met his damp eyes.

“Heath, you hang on, Boy. We’ll get you to a doctor,” Nick boomed. Then turning to Audra, he ordered, “you get back to that house and get blankets and anything we can use for bandages. Then, fill the canteens and put them in that wagon and bring it here. Go, Audra, run,” Nick commanded.

Nick pulled the wet shirt up and saw the blood pumping from Heath’s side. He put pressure on the wound and spoke words of encouragement. The eyes were closed again, but Nick leaned in close and felt the raspy breath caress his cheek. He bent close to Heath’s ear and continued to talk to him.

“You gotta fight, Heath. You’re gonna be fine. You got a slug in your side. I’m sorry, Heath…sorry for everything. You pull through this, you hear me? We got a lot to talk about…Little Brother.”

Heath didn’t have the strength to open his eyes which seemed to be weighted with sandbags. He was cold…so very cold. He felt the strong arms hold him and heard every word Nick said. The words ‘Little Brother’ sounded strange but warmed him a bit. He smiled as the phrase settled into his chest for a permanent stay. Nick saw the brief smile and held his shivering brother closer, keeping him warm.

“He knows,” he thought, “At least that’s something.” He heard Audra call out and lifted his brother.

The black clouds opened up, spilling rain and sending thunder loud enough to chase them all the way to Benton City. Nick drove the wagon forward, peering through the sheets of water. Audra was under blankets in the back, trying to keep Heath warm and dry. She spoke to him constantly, running her hands through his hair, telling him how much she cared. Nick reined the team in as he passed another rider, coming out of town.

“Where’s the doctor’s place?”

“White clapboard end of Main Street…right across from the Silver Star Inn.”

“Thanks.”

Nick found the house right away and jumped down. His loud banging soon had the door open. A middle-aged woman peered out at him.

“My brother been’s shot by a gang of thieves. He’s in a bad way.”

“Bring him right in,” she hollered over a clap of thunder.

Audra ran in ahead of Nick who bore his brother’s weight effortlessly.

“Top of the stairs,” the woman said, shutting the door. “I’ll get the doctor. You get those wet things off of him.”

Nick struggled near the top of the stairs, his adrenaline giving out. He laid Heath on the bed and took the wet boots and shirt off. The doctor’s wife appeared, and saw Audra shivering and took her elbow.

“You need a bath and some clean clothes. I can fix that. It’s going to be a long night, you’ll want to be comfortable.”

Audra nodded gratefully and walked over to the bed. Bending down she took the limp hand and kissed her brother’s cheek. Her tears hit his face and she spoke.

“It’s Audra, Heath. You take it easy, the doctor will be right in. I love you.” She smiled at the weak squeeze he gave.

She started to follow the doctor’s wife and paused. She remembered the awful pain she saw on Nick’s face by the creek. She remembered his words, too. She walked around the bed and hugged him. They stayed like that for several seconds. She heard the catch in his voice.

“Thank you, Audra. I needed that.”

She smiled up at him and left, closing the door behind her.

Nick finished removing the wet clothes and pulled the blanket up to Heath’s chest. It was then the doctor came in and went right to the bed.

“I’m Doctor Dugan. My wife told me your brother’s been wounded. Let’s have a look.”

He glanced at the two wounds and made a quick examination. Nick saw him looking at the dirty head bandage.

“He’s got a concussion from earlier this week, ” Nick offered, as the doctor spoke.

“I won’t lie to you, Son, he’s not doing very well. He’s lost a lot of blood and he’s very weak. I’ll operate after I get the instruments sterilized. I’ll be right back. “

Heath’s movements caused Nick to place a hand on the thrashing man. He felt the heat on his hands as the fever raced through his brother’s weakened system.

“Stop that, Heath, you’ll only hurt yourself. You’re sides bleeding, now cut it out. I know you’re hot, hang on a minute.”

He crossed the room and poured cool water into the porcelain bowl. Draping the linen towel across this shoulder, he retraced his steps and placed the bowl on the bedside table. He eased himself onto the bed and talked to Heath as he wiped his face, neck and shoulders.

The fever that caused his flesh to burn so, made him shiver and thrash. The pain in his side had built to a crescendo that could no longer be stemmed. He gasped, realizing that the scream that caused his eyes to open, was his own. He saw Nick turn and the worried look that met him. The unshaven face seemed a good fit to the haunted eyes and haggard features. He closed his eyes and shivered, looking up again as Nick stood by his shoulder.

Heath’s fevered face went by his brother’s and took a slow, painful journey around the room. Scowling at the unfamiliar surroundings, he closed his eyes once more. He thought of his sister, what had happened to her? Was she safe?

“Aud…dra….?” he croaked feebly.

“She’s down the hall. She’s fine,” the brusque reply came.

Nodding, he gripped the sheet with a bloody fist and bit back a cry as another wave of pain stabbed him. Much as his anger for Nick still resided inside, a part of him was just as angry at himself. Some of this could have been avoided if he hadn’t been so stubborn. If only he’d had the patience and wisdom to realize just how much time it takes to learn to fit in and become a member of a family, to reach out when your down and not bury your head and sulk.

Nick’s mind raced as he struggled to find the right words. He wanted to let Heath know that he was wrong and how sorry he was for all this mess…that if only Heath would come back, they’d talk…or rather, he would listen. He would listen to what this troubled younger brother of his had to say. Raising his eyebrows, he suddenly found he like the sound of that…’younger brother’…and wanted so very much to keep him near. He wiped the sweaty face and tried in vain to soothe the fevered flesh. He heard the moan and saw the white knuckles peeping through the bloodied fist where it clutched the sheet. He gritted his teeth, sensing how much pain the younger man was in.

“Heath, can you hear me?” he pleaded, his hazel eyes beckoning.

Heath’s eyes opened a slit and he nodded weakly. It was all he could do to remain awake.

“Good, that ‘s good,” Nick stumbled. ” Listen, I uh…about these last weeks since you came to us… I …I didn’t really give you a fair shake.” He paused, concerned, as the pale eyes closed. He held his breath and then let it out as we watched the eyelids open again. “Maybe I ought to introduce myself, I’m Nick Barkley,” he said, offering his hand.

Heath looked from the hand back up to Nick’s face. He squinted against the pain and stared hard. He saw something there that was missing before. The hazel eyes were full of concern, and more important, respect. That which he’d fought so hard to attain, the one thing deep down he wanted from Nick Barkley, was staring right back at him. He lifted his hand and felt the strong grip. He opened his mouth, but it was hard to speak. He saw Nick lean down close.

“I’m…..Heath…,” he swallowed fighting the black curtain. “…Thomson,” he gasped, not noticing the shoulders slump and the defeated hazel eyes.

Thomson…Nick’s heart dropped. One simple word that said so much. He wasn’t taking the name. He’d go on his path, an unclear one, as Heath Thomson. Nick felt a great pain inside, realizing too late how much this gutsy young man meant to him. Here was the younger brother he had always wanted…a partner to share the dream and help carry the load.

“….Barkley,” Heath forced out, using his last ounce of strength as he smiled up weakly at the look of enormous relief and emotion on his brother’s face.

“Boy, you sure know how to scare a guy,” Nick teased. “You hang in there…things are gonna be different. You got my word.”

Nick saw the lips moving and the frustration at the willing mind and weak body. He watched the sweat soaked blond head swivel in anger and grabbed the flushed cheek.

“Take it easy. Whatever it is can wait till your better.”

A wave of pain interrupted any further discussion. Heath cried outloud and grabbed the sheet with one hand, gaining strength from Nick’s firm grasp on the other.

“DOCTOR, GET IN HERE!”

Nick turned back at the soft laugh and leaned in.

“Still….givin’….orders.”

“Yeah, well, some habits are hard to break.”

Heath realized that Nicks’ bark was worse than his bite. That what he had previously thought was arrogance and cockiness, and maybe even that swagger, was really passion. A man who loved his family and land so much he’d fight anybody who threatened them. That fierce loyalty to bloodties and all that was rightfully his. Heath liked the feeling, and felt it very clearly through Nick’s strong hand as it gripped his. He wanted this brother and it was about time he himself started acting like one.

” Nick…”

Nick leaned close to the pale lips barely moving, “You pick a fine time to start talking,” Nick teased, referring to the brooding silence that was his brother’s trademark.

“Need to say…I…got …a lot…to…to…”

“Don’t talk, Heath. You can tell me later.”

“Now,” he countered weakly, fighting. “I…got much …to…learn …about… this… brother…business…too…okay?”

Nick laughed, squeezed the limp hand and ran a hand through the matted, wet head.

“We got a whole lifetime of learning ahead of us. You just rest now.”

Nick saw the head nod and straightened up and turned as the doctor arrived. His wife followed him, carrying the heated instruments of surgery. Nick backed away as the doctor pulled the sheet back revealing Heath’s wounds.

Leaning down to the pale young man, the doctor took his pulse as he spoke.

“How long ago did this happen, Mister…?”

“Barkley, uh Nick Barkley,” Nick offered as Heath’s lips moved silently. “That there is Heath,” he paused, drilling the sky eyes with his own. “By any other name, my brother.”

The smile that shone up from the bed was crooked, or lopsided or half a grin. Whatever it was, it found a spot in Nick’s heart. Thomson or Barkley…the name didn’t matter…this was his brother. The broad smile he cast back soon dissolved as a rack of pain caused a loud moan. Heath’s eyes rolled in his head and he went deathly silent.

“Heath! Heath!” Nick ran to the other side of the bed, the doctor’s wife pulling at him.

“He’s okay,” The doctor reassured. “What happened?”

“He got that,” Nick said pointing to the dirty, bandaged leg wound, “a few days ago. The one in his side is from this afternoon.”

“There’s no time to waste. I’ll have to ask you to leave, now. My wife will be assisting me. You can wait downstairs,” The doctor said coolly.

Seeing the stricken look on the dark-haired man’s face, he walked him to the door. Patting his shoulder he eased his tone.

“He’s young and strong, I’ll do my best. The only thing you can do now is wait, and maybe pray.”

*****

Jarrod rode into Benton City just before sunset. The poncho he wore managed to protect him slightly from the steady rain. Benton City was a little smaller than Stockton. Jarrod had only been here once, but remembered where the sheriff’s office was. The gray haired man looked up as he entered.

“Hello, I’m Jarrod Barkley. I was hoping you could tell me if my brothers and sister are in town. I have a feeling one of my brothers may be injured.”

“You’d be right. I’m Paul Kane, the Marshall. Doctor Dugan sent word down late last night. The wire came earlier from Sheriff Madden about that gang holdin’ your brother and sister. Guess your other brother must have caught up to them. My deputy and I rode out to that abandoned farm they were usin’ this mornin’. Two were dead and we found one later, wounded. Sheriff Madden sent a telegram sayin’…,” the lawman stopped to read his notes. “Uh…here it is. Sinclair and Carrington are still missing.”

“Yes, that’s all well and good, but what about my brother? I saw your men at the farm and stopped. I saw the blood,” Jarrod fretted.

“Young fellow with yella hair and a funny name…,” he paused.

“Heath,” Jarrod said, disheartened.

“Yeah, that’s it. Took two bullets. The doc did his best. I checked a little while ago …he’s holding his own. Your other brother was with him.”

“My sister?” Jarrod inquired.

“She was roughed up a little, but appeared to be okay. She was with your brothers when I stopped in earlier.”

“Thanks, Sheriff. Where are they?”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Barkley. From what your sister said, that Heath fella dang near got himself killed makin’ himself a target. After hearin’ her and your brother’s report, I don’t know if he was being foolish or heroic.”

“That’s often a gray area, Sheriff,” Jarrod added.

“Well said, Son. They’re at the doc’s. It’s the white clapboard with blue shutters at the end of the street. Nice little inn on the other side if you need a room.”

“Much obliged, Sheriff.”

*****

Jarrod found the house easily and wasted no time getting to the door. A woman answered and ushered him in, the rain blowing in with him.

“I’m Jarrod Barkley. I’m looking for my brothers and sister.”

“Hello, Mr. Barkley, I’m Agnes Dugan. My husband, Joseph, is the doctor. Your brother is running a fever, but he’s a fighter. We think he’ll pull through just fine,” she eased, smiling.

“Jarrod? Oh Jarrod, thank God you’re here,” a soft voice cried.

Turning, he felt a stab of pain as he took in her bruised face. She ran to him not caring about the wet cloak her wore. Touching her discolored skin, he looked deep into the blue eyes.

“Are you okay, Honey?”

“I’m fine…but Heath. Jarrod, you can’t believe what he did. He ran out the back door of that farmhouse to lure them away. Nick had just arrived and they were right on his tail. There wasn’t time to think. Nick didn’t like the plan, but Heath was gone before he could protest. We heard the shots, Nick ran out front and took down a few of them but a couple got away. Jarrod, he just …you didn’t see him when we pulled him out of the river. He was so cold and pale, it was horrible. I thought he was… dead,” she sobbed.

Jarrod absorbed the story and kissed the top of the flaxen head.

“Audra, I’ve rented a couple of rooms at the inn across the street. Go get some sleep. Nick and I will be over later and we’ll get something to eat, okay,” he said, wiping the tears away.

“All right,” she agreed, and hugged him hard. “I’m so glad you’re here. He needs all of us, you know. And he needs to know how much we need him. Does Mother know?”

“I sent her a wire. The stage line was upset by a mudslide. I don’t think she’ll be able to get here for a few days. But, then again, this is Mother we’re talking about,” he smiled.

*****

“Nick, how is he?”

Nick turned in surprise as the sound of Jarrod’s voice drifted across the darkened room. He saw the worried look on his oldest brother’s face as he cast off his dripping poncho and approached the bed. He turned to face Nick after his hand left the flushed cheek of his youngest brother. He lifted the sheet and his shocked eyes took in the double wounds.

“Nick?” his piecing blue eyes implored.

“He took one in his side…it got stuck in a rib. It was a difficult dig, but the doctor got it out. The shot to the thigh was a deep graze, but he lost blood and it got infected. That’s why he’s so feverish,” Nick sighed as he ran a hand through his dark hair.

Jarrod walked around the table and stood next to the chair where Nick sat downcast. He couldn’t remember the last time Nick looked so bad. Not that a hot bath, shave, meal and a good night’s sleep wouldn’t help the beleaguered man, but there was something else…something troubling in his eyes.

“Did you have anything to eat?” Jarrod asked.

“Not hungry.”

“Nick, we have to talk. I…”

Jarrod’s thought was interrupted by a moan from the bed. Nick jumped up so fast he nearly bowled Jarrod over. Jarrod watched with wonder and felt his heart gladden at the tenderness Nick bestowed on the injured Barkley.

“Heath? You’re gonna be fine. Don’t move. You need to stay still and rest.”

“…dry…water…,” he pleaded, licking his parched lips.

Nick placed one hand carefully behind the scalding neck and raised the damp, bandaged head. Lifting the glass by the bedside, he gently gave instructions.

“Just a little sip,” Nick coached as the patient took in a good amount. “I said ‘a little sip’. Boy, you need to learn to listen to me.”

“…be like…like…missin’ a…a…a…hurricane,” Heath gasped as Nick eased him back on the pillow and smiled.

“…bullet…out?” he weakly questioned, trying to open his eyes.

“Yeah, it was kinda ornery, but it finally gave in,” Nick replied.

“…should …name…it…Nick…,” Heath teased.

Jarrod’s chuckle at Heath’s remark and the scowl on Nick caused the eyes to open slightly. Jarrod watched the blue slits regard him with caution. The lips moved and Jarrod leaned in to reassure his brother.

“…are…you..doin’…here…Jar..Jar…” His voice trailed off as his eyes tried to focus on the man bending in.

“Take it easy. With any luck and a long stead of good health, I intend to be by your side for many years to come, Brother Heath.”

“…m okay with that…that…I…I…”

“Heath, you sleep now. We’ll talk later,” Jarrod reassured, pulling the sheet up to the flushed neck.

“You know, Little Brother,” Nick chimed, liking the way the words rolled off his tongue, “you’ve said more while you were flat on your back than in all the six weeks you’ve been here.”

“…seems when I tried …say…something…your fist got…got…in …the way,” he gasped, eyeing Nick with a little grin.

“Yeah, well as I recall, you weren’t exactly shy when it came to introducing your knuckles to my face,” Nick retorted playfully.

Heath smiled and his heavy eyes went from one brother to the other. A warm feeling crept up inside his gut and took a firm hold. He didn’t understand this feeling…it was something new to him. A tingling was born inside as the bonding process started. It seemed to him like some folks went through a whole lifetime without appreciating what they had. Heath intended to embrace this new family of his.

“What are you grinning at?” Nick demanded suspiciously.

“…thinkin’…all…work…” Heath’s eyes drooped.

“I believe he was thinking of all the work you’ll be doing, while he’s being waited on hand and foot by Mother and Audra. Right Heath?” Jarrod advised.

The eyes didn’t budge but the head nodded and that crooked grin once again touched Nick. Jarrod tapped Nick’s arm and they walked across the room. He pulled out the small leather satchel.

“Nick, I have some information about Heath. This is the proof you were looking for.”

Jarrod started to tell Nick of the photo and letter he’d uncovered, but before he could utter a word, Nick stopped him.

“It ain’t necessary,” Nick’s confident eyes drilled Jarrod’s surprised ones. “I got all the proof I need right here,” he said, tapping his chest. “That boy is a Barkley..every inch of him. Some folks may need proof, but I don’t. He’s got the Barkley brand on him…stamped on his soul.” The dark cowboy’s voice was full of pride as he finished.

Jarrod nodded in relief. Nick had found proof far more stirring and deep that anything in print or any portrait could produce. He looked over Nick’s shoulder as the head weakly turned on the pillow. Nick’s words had found their way into the wounded man’s heart. Nick didn’t realize it, but Jarrod knew. He saw the blue slits close and the smile that lingered.

“You get some dinner, a hot bath and some sleep. I’ve been a bit shortsighted in my responsibilities. I’d like to spend some time with Heath. Go on, you look beat.”

“Okay, I’ll be back later,” Nick said. “How’d the sheriff make out? Any word on Elliott and the rest?”

“Two were dead at the cabin, one wounded man was found a little later. The posse caught up with one more, but Elliott and Sinclair are still missing.”

“Dammit!” Nick pounded the wall and winced. “I should have finished the sorry scoundrel off back at the line shack.”

“They’ll be caught…Fred’s combing the area. They won’t get far. The information Heath got from Carrington’s house as well as the bounty at the abandoned farm is more than enough to put him away for quite some time. I’m sure the District Attorney will try for a murder charge.”

“I’m goin’ after them,” Nick steeled.

Nick turned once more and walked over to the bed. He looked down at the sleeping form of his brother. Touching the bandage on his head, he scowled at the thought of the weeks of pain and prejudice Heath had endured without his support. Those days were ended, but Nick made a vow, looking at his father’s son. Never again would anyone hurl those hurtful names, slanderous remarks or raise a hand at Heath. He thought of all the battles the younger man must have fought alone. Finishing his silent pledge, he patted the slumbering chest before departing.

In the years to come, it would be hard to believe the two hadn’t been raised together. Working side by side, they would form a bond so deep that it would be hard to find any two brothers closer. Oh, they’d argue and curse at each other now and then…often butting heads over the growing ranch and Barkley holdings. But if anyone else dared to impugn Heath’s name or standing in the family, he would soon find himself on the end of Nick’s wrath, on a fast horse out of town, or both.

Jarrod started to argue but saw the deep emotion on Nick’s face. He followed the weary tracker into the hall and down the stairs. He nodded to Mrs. Dugan, the doctor’s wife, as she entered Heath’s room as promised, to give the brothers a little break. Nick reached for the door handle, and then Jarrod stopped him. Putting his back to the door, he prevented the vengeful man’s departure.

“I know how you feel, Nick, but this wont’ help. You can’t…”

“You don’t know how I feel,” Nick charged, leveling a stern gaze into Jarrod’s bright eyes. “I got a score to settle, and not just for Heath and Audra. He used us, Jarrod. Elliott Carrington, someone I used to call ‘friend’, came into my home and used me and my family. Heath didn’t think twice. He made himself a target for that pack. He knew the risk and it almost killed him. Elliott’s gonna pay for this. I want to be in that courtroom when they sentence his sorry hide.

“And Sinclair?” Jarrod sought.

Nick didn’t answer, but the clenched jaw and penetrating gaze gave the lawyer his proof. He couldn’t stop Nick, but maybe he could calm him down.

“All right, Nick, but at least get some food and a little sleep. I rented a couple of rooms in the inn across the street. It’s dark out and still raining hard. What do you say?”

“Okay, Jarrod, but you, the sheriff or a whole blasted army won’t stop me.”

*****

The sun was up and the sky was blue for the first time in days. Jarrod finished dressing and went downstairs. The dining room of the small inn was empty, and Jarrod took a table by the window. Nick had been up and out before dawn. Jarrod had heard Nick leave as he returned from the doctor’s office during the wee hours of the morning. Heath still hadn’t regained consciousness, but Jarrod had found comfort just from being near his side. Nick and Jarrod had talked for quite some time the previous night. The eldest Barkley hoped his reasoning had sunk into his hot-headed brother, but Nick had only one goal in mind…retribution. As he rode back toward Stockton, Jarrod thought maybe his brother would become more level-headed as.

*****

“Good morning.”

“Good morning, Audra.” Jarrod looked up and winced at the fading bruises on his sister’s face. “How are you today?”

“I’m all right, Jarrod. It looks a lot worse than it feels,” she pacified. “Where’s Nick?”

“Up and out before the first light. He’s going after Sinclair and Elliott Carrington.” Jarrod noted Audra’s pained expression at the mention of Carrington’s name.

“He used me, Jarrod. I really cared for him. I thought…maybe, that he and I would…,” her voice died out and she felt tears prickling her pale blue eyes.

“I know you’re hurt, Honey, and I’m sorry. I wish I could take the pain away. He wasn’t always that way. I guess failing at college and the rift between he and his father was too much of a strain,” Jarrod mused.

“You’re making excuses for him!” Audra angered. “He’s a vile beast and he nearly killed Heath. Don’t you dare defend him to me!”

“Calm down, Audra. I’m not making excuses for what he did…rather trying to explain how he changed so much,” Jarrod tried.

“Can we change the subject, please?” she gritted.

“I’d like to ride out with the sheriff to the farmhouse this morning. Your horses are down at the livery. “

“Fine. I’ll stay with Heath. I want to talk to him…thank him for what he did,” she said quietly.

“I’m sure you’ll be the best medicine for him. Pretty nurses seem a little scarce in these parts!” he joked, glad for the smile it brought.

The waitress came and they ordered a full breakfast. The hot coffee and cold orange juice were followed by ham, eggs, toast and fruit. Everything was good and they each felt renewed as they headed out for the day.

Audra thanked Mrs. Dugan, who’d been sitting with Heath since Jarrod had left. He was sleeping peacefully…still feverish, but stronger. Mrs. Dugan assured her that the doctor had been in at dawn and was pleased. Audra kissed the flushed cheek and gave her brother a warm ‘good morning’ hoping for those blue eyes to open for her. He didn’t stir and she settled into the chair by his bed. Looking at the horizon, she wondered where Nick was and prayed for his safe return.

*****

It was almost three p.m. when Jarrod finished at the sheriff’s office. He wired Fred Madden in Stockton, letting him know of the inventory they’d found. Banjo Jones would recover from his wounds and stand trial for a host of crimes, the most glaring, murder. He found Dr. Dugan in the front hall as he entered. The doctor smiled and placed a hand on the worried man’s shoulder.

“Let me take that fear out of your eyes, Mr. Barkley, he’s going to make a full recovery. His fever is coming down and his breathing is much better. He’ll be in a considerable amount of pain, and therefore heavily medicated. He’s weak, but with some food, medicine and a couple week’s rest, he’ll be able to travel home.”

Jarrod sighed before replying, “Doctor, you made my day. He’s been on my mind since I left this morning. Is he awake?”

“He is, and your sister looks tired. Good time for a shift change.” The doctor watched Jarrod climb the stairs.

Jarrod entered the room and waved as Heath gave him a weak smile. Audra was dozing. Jarrod sat on the edge of the bed and eyed the drowsy nurse.

“It would appear your nurse is sleeping on the job, Heath.”

“She’s been…here…all day. Told her…go…she…,” Heath coughed and winced, sucking his breath through his teeth.

Jarrod saw the pain register and helped Heath sit up a little. Another spasm overtook the wounded man and he grabbed Jarrod’s hand.

“Better?” he asked.

Heath nodded and eased back on the stack of pillows, resting his eyes. Jarrod walked around the bed and shook his sister gently. She jumped a bit, startled, and then looked around.

“I must have dozed off,” she said sleepily.

“Shift change, Little Sister. You get some rest and something to eat. I’ll see you later.”

Audra kissed Heath’s forehead and was about to leave when her wrist was snagged. Looking down, she saw the half-mast blue eyes shining up at her.

“Thanks,” he managed.

“Heath, you don’t have to keep thanking me. You keep forgetting…you’re part of a family now. Taking care of someone you love isn’t a chore. Okay? Now don’t talk Jarrod’s ear off.”

“You thirsty, Heath?” Jarrod asked.

He poured a cup of water and held the cool liquid so his brother could drink. His hands felt the heat coming through the skin on Heath’s neck. He replaced the cup and poured some water into the bowl. Dampening a linen towel, he welcomed the smile of relief as his ministrations were appreciated.

“I went out to the farm today and took an inventory for Fred,” Jarrod said, turning the chair to face Heath.

“…gang?” Heath blinked.

“Most of them are dead, including Barret. Sinclair and Carrington are still on the loose. Nick went after them.”

“…alone?” Heath’s eyes feared.

“Yes, but he’s promised me he’ll keep his cool. You’ll soon understand how very deeply that brother of ours feels when it comes to his family. No obstacle is too great, no mountain too high, no river too deep…you get my meaning?”

Heath nodded and sighed, shaking his head. So much of this could have been avoided. But the important thing was for Nick to get back safely.

“You know, Heath, that gang was wanted in several states dating back five years ago. You’re a real hero. Audra and Nick told me what you did. I’d say that reaction just about sealed your fate, didn’t it?” Jarrod tested.

“Reckon, it did…no hero…don’t like…please,” Heath grimaced.

“Stop being so humble. Don’t be surprised if there is a front page story with your picture and ‘hero’ under it. Roger is just salivating at the thought, I’m sure,” Jarrod grinned.

“No way,” Heath shook his head.

“Oh, by the way, Mother is coming. She should be here by morning. It would take a whole lot more than a mudslide to deter her.” He watched Heath scowl and look away.

“…shouldn’t for me…she’s quite…lady.” Heath coughed again, white knuckling the sheets.

“She’s a formidable force, Heath. She cares very much for you and I think you care for her, too. Nobody will ever replace your mother, Heath, but she’s a wonderfully strong and giving woman. You’ll…,” Jarrod looked over as Heath met his eyes and nodded, smiling.

“…scares me…little,” he grinned.

“She scares all of us a little, Heath,” Jarrod said, returning the smile. “Now you get some rest. I’ll be right here.”

Heath tried to sleep but the throbbing pain in his side wouldn’t let him. He shifted restlessly and each time a painful cough was produced, the strong hands were right there to help him. Twice he looked at Jarrod and felt such comfort from those brilliant blue eyes. Jarrod finally put his foot down and made the restless body take some medicine.

“Not…time yet..,”Heath protested.

“Heath, stop arguing and swallow. Don’t you know better than to argue with a lawyer?” Jarrod teased, easing the bitter medicine and cool water down his brother’s throat.

“…pulling rank?” Heath complained in jest.

“Yes, well, rank does have it’s privileges. Being the eldest, it goes with the territory.”

Jarrod saw him shivering and pulled the sheet up. Placing a hand on his head, he frowned. The fever seemed a little higher. Heath pushed his hand away and scowled.

“You…worse than Audra…stop fussin’.”

“Sorry, Brother, no dice. Are you hungry?”

“Not really…little, maybe.”

“I’ll see if I can scare up some broth, okay?”

An hour later the bowl of broth and a carafe of orange juice were drained. Heath slept peacefully and his brother watched the sunset, wondering where the missing member of the trio was.

*****

The buggy stopped in front of the Silver Star Inn. Jumping down and grabbing the bag from the back seat, the driver put out his hand to assist Victoria as she stepped down onto the street.

“I’ll carry your bag in for you, Ma’am,” he offered.

“Please,” Victoria requested, nervously eyeing the doctor’s office across the street. “Would you just take it in and have the clerk leave it in my room?”

“Surely….why, thank you, Ma’am,” he beamed as she placed a one dollar gold piece in his hand.

Hitching her skirt, Victoria hurried over to the small clapboard building. Bracing herself, she gave the door several hard raps. Agnes Dugan opened the door. Her eyes looked fatigued and stray brown hairs had escaped the clutches of the bun wrapped tightly behind her head.

“You must be Mrs. Barkley. Please, won’t you come in?” she offered.

“My son…,” Victoria hesitated, her reference to Heath seeming awkward and out of place. As much as she cared for the boy, their relationship still held some barriers. “Heath…how’s Heath?” she continued.

“Holding his own,” Agnes replied. “His brothers and sister have been with him around the clock. It’s always helpful when a patient with injuries as severe as his has those he loves close by. I think that’s what really helped pull him through.”

“Please,” Victoria asked impatiently, “I want to see him.”

Victoria followed the doctor’s wife to the room upstairs. Heath lay soundly sleeping on the bed while Audra sat close by.

“Mother!” Audra exclaimed, looking up from her book.

“Audra!” Victoria gasped as she took in her beautiful daughter’s battered face. “Your face, Sweetheart…what did those animals do to you?”

“I’m okay…really I am,” Audra reassured as she tightly embraced the mother she loved. “Heath’s the one who got the worst of it.”

Audra turned and looked wistfully at her battered brother. Taking Victoria’s hand, the two woman walked over to the edge of the bed. Reaching out, Victoria gently stroked the cheek of her husband’s son.

“Has he regained consciousness at all?” she whispered.

“Oh, yes, he’s been awake,” Audra answered. “The doctor gave him some real strong medicine to help ease the pain so he could get some rest. It’s pretty strong …just a teaspoon seems to knock him out.”

“I’m still in the dark as to what exactly happened,” Victoria stated. “I’ve been able to put some bits and pieces together, but perhaps you could explain. How is it that Heath was shot?”

“He jeoparadized his life for ours,” Audra responded softly. “Back at that deserted house, he ran out and drew their fire so that Nick and I would be safe.”

Victoria seemed startled and asked Audra to recount their adventure from start to finish. Victoria’s eyes were brimming with tears when her daughter finished telling the tale of terrible abuse and Heath’s heroic efforts. Years of experience had told her that he was a fine man with strong moral fiber, but now hearing these words proved just how accurate her discernment had been. She was also thankful to hear of Nick’s care and concern for his younger brother. Just as she had thought, things would work themselves out. Her only regrets were that it took such extreme measures for Nick to finally come to his senses.

“Audra,” Victoria suggested, “why don’t you go get something to eat. I’d like to sit with Heath for a while. By the way, where’s Jarrod?”

“He went back across the street to try and catch a few winks of shuteye. He was up and down throughout the night. He said he had trouble sleeping and didn’t get much rest. I’ll go knock on his door and see if he wants to join me for a bite to eat.”

Though Audra’s face was as dark as the thunder clouds that had covered the skies for days, her sweet smile broke through as did the morning sun, warming Victoria’s heart with it’s effervescent rays. Kissing her mother, she retreated from the room, leaving Victoria to spend some time nurturing her injured brother.

*****

It was past noon when Nick left Sheriff Madden’s office. He’d stopped by the ranch but his mother was already gone. He should have guessed she’d be out by first light. According to Ciego, she was going to take the Stage as far as Rosedale where the mudslide blocked the road. She figured she’d be on the first stage out the following day when the road opened and be that much closer to Heath’s side. Nick’s heart was full of admiration as he thought of his mother. She had taken Heath into her heart as well as her home. He was looking forward to spending some time getting to know his quiet, younger brother as well.

“Nick! Didn’t expect you this soon. You must have left in the middle of the night,” Fred said, rising from behind his desk.

“Don’t know what time it was. I had to get out of there. I got an itch inside that won’t go away until them cowards are behind bars.”

“How is he, Nick?”

“Still breathing. He’s a Barkley, so you know he’s a fighter. The doc took a slug out of his ribs. He’ll have a tough go of it, but he’ll pull through.”

“I’ll put a word in for him with the man upstairs,” Fred added as Nick poured a half cup of coffee and wolfed down a cinnamon roll from a plate on Fred’s desk.

Nick nodded his thanks and drained the coffee, listening intently as Stockton’s sheriff filled him in on his prey.

“We have a lead on Elliott Carrington. I wired a description to the sheriffs in several surrounding counties. I got a wire back this morning, from the Marshall in Sonora, George Gomez. He’s pretty sure Carrington was there last night. He checked at the hotels and boarding houses and says it looks as though Carrington was there as of this morning. If you leave now, you ought to make good time. Check in with the sheriff when you get there. I’ll wire him sayin’ that you’re on your way.”

“Thanks, Fred. I’ll send word. Do me a favor and wire Jarrod…he’ll be worried.”

“Will do, Nick,” he said, patting Nick on the back as they walked outside. “You listen to me, Son. Don’t you go taking the law into your own hands. You bring him in alive, you got me?”

“Yeah, I know. You sound like Jarrod. Don’t you two think I got any sense at all?” Nick growled and then added after seeing Fred’s all knowing glance and raised eyebrows, “Don’t answer that. You got my word I’ll turn him over to the law.”

Nick urged Coco onward seeking to get to Sonora as quickly as possible. Fred wondered if Elliott Carrington would be able to survive the full fury and force of Nick Barkley’s wrath.

*****

The rustling of bedsheets and the sound of Heath stirring caused Audra to look up from the book she was reading. She noticed the blankets moving as Heath twitched restlessly under the covers. Reshifting his position, he flopped over, enabling her to see his disturbed countenance.

“His being laid up has been very hard on him,” she thought. “Even in his sleep he fidgets.”

Heath gave a low snort and opened his eyes. When his sister’s face came into view, he managed a soft grin. Reaching for the glass of water that sat on the small stand, she placed it in his hand and watched him take a sip.

“You need to try to relax a little,” she advised. “You were all over that bed a minute ago. I can’t imagine you’re getting much rest with all that tossing you were doing.”

“I just ain’t much on bed rest,” came the weak reply. “It’s especially hard when I think of all that work that needs to be done back at the ranch.”

“The work can wait, Heath,” Audra smiled. “Right now the important thing is getting you back on your feet.”

“I’d be on my feet by now if it weren’t for you and your mother standin’ guard over me twenty-four hours a day,” the patient complained.

“I know it’s hard,” Audra empathized. “One time when I was a little girl I can remember having the measles. My mother made me stay in bed for two whole weeks.”

“And I suppose she patrolled your room to make sure you didn’t try and sneak out?”

“Well, I don’t know that she watched me constantly, but she did keep a fairly close eye on my whereabouts. Sometimes she’d send Nick in to sit with me. He never really wanted to, but Mother made him. I remember the first time he came in,” she reminisced with a smile. “He came in looking like Billy the Kid…mask and all.”

“What was he tryin’ to do?” Heath asked. “Scare you?”

“No,” Audra laughed. “He was afraid that he was going to catch the measles. Then Mother explained to him that since he’d already had them, it wasn’t likely that he’d get them again. It did give me a little bit of a start though,” she continued. “To be resting comfortably in bed and then suddenly having the masked marauder hovering over me. Mother came in and told him to ‘take that ridiculous thing off’. I think he felt pretty foolish afterwards.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” Heath chuckled. “Nick, who ain’t afraid of anything …except a few red spots!”

“Now, don’t you go teasing him,” Audra chided, “or he’ll know that I told!”

“Don’t worry, Sis,” Heath joked back. “I can keep the secret. Guess we don’t want folks thinkin’ that Nick Barkley’s got yellow blood runnin’ through his veins.”

“Nick’s definitely not yellow,” Audra commented, “and I did appreciate all the time he spent reading to me during my stay in bed. I remember one story in particular. I would ask him to read it over and over again. He got so tired of it that he even tried to hide the book. But I knew that he had to have had the story memorized and begged him to just tell it.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. He was reluctant, but I coaxed him into it and you know what?”

“What?”

“I found out that my big brother was a pretty good story teller. When he was reading it, it was just words. But when he told it from memory, his face got all animated and he used hand gestures and voice changes. It was so much fun!”

“What was the story about?”

“It was called Rapunzel and it was about a beautiful princess with long, long hair. The evil witch locked her in a tower. At night she would let down her hair over the edge and a handsome prince would come climbing up the golden strands. I remember sometimes after he would leave the room, I would sneak out of bed and go stand by the window. I would stick my head out and pretend that I was Rapunzel. Of course, no handsome prince ever came to my rescue.”

“Just the warden, right?”

“If you mean Mother, yes, I guess she did. What games did you play when you were a boy, Heath?”

“I never really had much time for games and such, but when I did, I guess I liked to pretend I was Robin Hood.”

“Robin Hood! Did you read that book as a boy?”

“Yeah, my Aunt Rachel had it. Every now and then my mama would borrow it and read it to me before bed. Whenever I got a chance, those woods surrounding our house in Strawberry turned into the Sherwood Forest. I’d find me a good long stick that I could use for a sword and off I’d go.”

“Heath,” Audra asked thoughtfully, “what did you mean about not having much time for games? I thought all young boys liked to play.”

“Oh, I was not different from most in the sense that I would’ve liked to have played, but duty called.”

“Duty?”

“You know…my chores after school and stuff like that. I can remember a couple of times, though, crawlin’ down a mine shaft and pretendin’ I was lookin’ for buried treasure.”

“Heath!” Audra exclaimed. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it was dangerous to go crawling around deserted mine shafts?”

“Oh, this one wasn’t deserted. It was fully operational. I worked there as a charge boy.”

“A charge boy! Heath, you could’ve been blown up!”

“I reckon I thought of that a time or two as well. I lost a couple’ve good buddies in the tunnels, but my mama would get real sick sometimes, and we needed the money for food and medicine.”

Audra paused for a moment, sadly envisioning a small boy too busy earning his way in the world to be able to enjoy the freedoms of youth. A young, towheaded boy who could do no more than take one day at a time and hope that a fateful accident didn’t keep life’s basic necessities from the woman he loved. Forced to grow up much too fast, she couldn’t help thinking of how much he had missed as a child. If only they had known about Heath sooner. Perhaps he would have come to live with them. She was sure that her father must not have known about the situation. Certainly he wouldn’t have stood by and allowed one of his own to be denied the basics for happiness. The two looked over as Victoria entered the room. Walking over and sitting next to Heath on the bed, she placed her hand on his brow to make a temperature check.

“You’re still a little warm,” she commented, reaching for an amber bottle which sat on the nightstand. “Here,” she said, pouring a little into a spoon, “take this.”

Heath obediently opened his mouth and quickly forced down the foul tasting liquid. Chasing it down with the rest of his water, he laid his head back down on the pillow.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he delivered. “Reckon maybe I’ll go back to sleep now. That stuff knocks me out quicker than an ax handle.”

Victoria stooped down to place a delicate kiss on the fevered forehead. On the outside she smiled at his politeness and humor as her eye caught his; but on the inside she was distressed. All these weeks had passed and still she was no more than ‘Ma’am’ to him. She stood and left the room as Heath closed his eyes and Audra went back to her book.

*****

“Sheriff Gomez?” Nick asked.

“Yes, Can I help you?”

Nick closed the door and entering the lawman’s office. Taking his hat off, he wiped his brow and approached the desk. The sheriff was a tall, lean man about thirty-five. He looked up and Nick sensed right away he meant business.

“I’m Nick Barkley. I’m told you may have some information on a felon named Elliott Carrington.”

“Have a seat, Mr. Barkley. Coffee?”

“No thanks, and it’s Nick.”

“This Carrington fella, he was here, all right. Myself and two deputies were looking all over town for him. The stage coach clerk said a man matching his description asked about the stage to Carson City.”

“Carson City! You kiddin’ me?” Nick dismayed.

“No, I don’t ‘kid’, Nick. He wasn’t on it, so I sent some men out to look for him. I figure he’ll try to catch up to that stage at one of the stops between here and Bridgeport. I can help you as far as the state line and wire the Marshall in Carson City.”

“Yeah, I know about that ‘state line’ business,” Nick muttered.

“Look, you’ve ridden most of the day, you’ve got to be tired. Why don’t you get something to eat and get some sleep. You’ll need it if you’re going to catch him.”

“Thanks, but he’s already got a jump on me. I’ll get some grub and get going. I can cover quite a bit of territory and camp out on the road.”

“Suit yourself,” the lawman said rising as Nick turned to go. “Good luck to you.”

Nick ate heartily, realizing it may be awhile before he had the chance to do so again. He picked up some canned goods at the mercantile and wired Jarrod. Within an hour, he was once again on the hunt.

*****

Elliott stood and stretched, walking once again to the window of the building. He had money hidden just outside Carson City where they’d struck last year. The abandoned mine that they used had been a perfect hideout, but they’d had to leave in a hurry when Jenkins spotted a posse in the distance. There were money, jewels and some other packable items that he’d need to get north. He hoped Nick would figure he was going south to Mexico.

His anger rose when he thought of how that bastard ruined it all for him. Too bad Sinclair botched the first hit. They’d all be on their way to Canada by now as rich men, and he’d be luring that prissy Barkley filly into a trip up the aisle.

“Stage comin’,” the clerk announced.

There were only two elderly ladies and himself at the Bridgeport stop. He would feel a whole lot better when he was across the state line. The women gathered their bags and slowly made their way to the door. Elliott opened the stage for them and climbed in after. The bags were secured, the mail stowed and the stage rolled onward.

Nick waited at the pass, having ridden hard for several days, trying to stay ahead of the stage. He was both tired and hot…something which didn’t help buffer his temper. He wanted to keep his promise to Jarrod, but his fingers were itching. After getting the hot tip, he’d made the decision to bring Elliott in, but he hadn’t forgotten Sinclair. Justice would be served, one way or another…Nick’s way. He saw the dust storm as the stage passed, making it’s way to Sandy Point, the overnight stop. Nick followed behind, hoping to hit the jackpot.

It was almost dark when the stage pulled in to the small town of Sandy Point. The driver helped the elderly ladies down and ensured that their bags were taken into the small hotel. Nick watched from the shadows, his gloved fingers stroking his gun. His eyes were bleary, his limbs aching and the beard he wore from several days without a shave was itchy. He needed a hot bath, shave, good meal and soft bed. His heart was pounding as he entered the hotel. He registered and scanned the room list.

“Number ten, please.”

“Yes, Sir,” the clerk said, handing him the key.

His aching limbs seemed lighter as they approached room number nine. He knocked on the door, the anticipation nearly causing his hands to flex.

“Yeah?” came the familiar voice.

“You open this door, Elliott, or I’ll blow a hole in you, right through it,” Nick growled, his foot poised to kick the door in.

He heard the scurry and the window open. His foot found the wood and sent a shower of splinters into the room. His long legs wasted no time in getting to the window. His hands hauled the startled man backwards, sending him hard into the wall.

He threw himself at Nick and the two fought, once best friends, now bitter rivals. Knuckle met bone time and time again. The two weary fighters, bloodied and battered, finally went to their knees, each gripping the other’s shirt.

“Why?” Nick gasped, wiping his bloody lip.

“I never started living until I found my real talent. You wouldn’t understand, you with your wonderful father and terrific family. My father despised me from the day I was born. I hated him…flunked out of college just to spite him. I wanted him to suffer… to know how it felt,” Elliott glared.

“Hated him? Why Elliott?”

Elliott threw off Nick’s hand and fell back against the wall. Spitting a mouthful of blood on the ground, he reached up behind him and took a bottle of whiskey off the table. He pulled the cork out with his teeth and took a long swig. Wiping his mouth, he handed the bottle to Nick, who also took a long swig.

“He wasn’t my ‘real father’ and never let me forget it. How ‘lucky’ I was to be in ‘his’ house and have ‘his’ name. He was a tyrant, an ogre, and I didn’t blame her one bit for the few months of happiness she had with whoever it was that did father me,” he sighed and took another long swig.

“I’m sorry, Elliott, for what you went through, but that’s no excuse. You had choices, lots of them,” Nick loathed, hauling the stuporous man to his feet. “And now you’re going to pay for what you’ve done.”

“Look, Nick, I got some money hid. I’ll split it with you…,” he tried.

Nick’s backhand answered the insulting proposal and sent the loser to his knees.

“You make me sick,” he spat and grabbed the torn shirt collar.

“For him you came all this way? That no good bastard ruined everything for me.”

The sound that came from Nick was a combination of a growl and some unearthly noise. Elliott realized his mistake too late. The brown gloves were wrapped tightly around his throat. His green eyes tried frantically to plead with Nick’s, but the tall Barkley’s eyes were unseeing.

“For him I’d have ridden clear to the Atlantic Ocean to catch you. I’m damn proud to call him ‘brother’ and can only hope he’ll forgive me.”

Nick released the puppet and he collapsed onto the floor. Nick tied his hands and took him to the sheriff’s office. They’d hold him until the end of the week when he’d be transported back to Stockton to stand trial for a long list of charges. He’d never see the light of day again.

Nick sent a wire to Fred and Jarrod. He took that long, hot bath and shaved. He had a quiet dinner, suddenly not very hungry. He thought of the Elliott had known growing up, a good friend, not the lost soul who reappeared…a pale imitation.

*****

Pete Sinclair rode through the dark, hell-bent for the ranch that had been his place of employment for the past two and a half years. His greedy ambitions for success had backfired, and most of his friends were dead. As far as he knew, the gang’s ringleader was still alive. He was sure that he had seen Elliott make his escape when the shooting started. Damn that Nick Barkley anyway! He was always there, right on schedule, ready to slide a stick into Sinclair’s spokes. There was just no sidestepping the guy.

Sinclair’s blood began to boil as he thought of how this former employer had foiled his attempt to kill Heath in the barn…made him look bad to Elliott and the rest of the boys. Elliott had really lambasted him for ‘bumbling the hit’, and when Nick showed up again…well, Sinclair knew that he didn’t dare show his face back at the hideout. The gang’s leader had little tolerance for incompetence and would more than likely welcome his presence with a Smith and Wesson. Sinclair seethed inside as he thought of all that loot scattered among the various hideouts. All that loot that should rightfully be his. Well, he wouldn’t be going without…somebody was going to be making up the difference.

“I’ll teach that high-n-mighty boss man to go pokin’ his nose in other people’s business,” the bitter wrangler schemed. “With all them Barkleys followin’ that bastard’s path to Benton City, that’ll leave the ranch an open target! I told Nick Barkley that he’d have reason to remember me. I’m gonna show ‘im that I wasn’t just bluffin’.”

Sinclair’s horse stumbled, causing the cowhand to come down hard in his saddle. Spewing a string of cuss words that would initiate any sailor into the navy, the wrathful man resituated himself in his seat as the horse regained it’s footing. Reaching back and using the long reins to give the equine a hard slap on the rump, Sinclair was once again riding along at a steady canter. He’d ridden this range a hundred times in the dark and knew which route to take in order to avoid the night guards.

As the large Barkley mansion loomed in the distance, it’s outline silhouetted by the full moon, everything seemed still in the unlit house. Reining his mount into a grove of trees behind the house, Sinclair continued his trek on foot. Using the long blade on his buck knife to jimmy open the door leading into the library, he slipped inside the unoccupied house.

*****

It was after midnight when Nick rode Jingo into the barn. Several days away from home and it was good to be back. A lot had changed since we had departed over a week ago…especially from within himself. His outlook on things was much more positive and he felt as though he’d been through some sort of horrible war, but come out all the stronger and wiser for it. He pulled his saddle off Jingo and led him into the stall next to Coco. Good old Coco. Over a week off…Nick couldn’t remember the last time he’d been away from his horse for so long. He’d be feeling as frisky as a colt when Nick saddled him up for ranch chores in the morning.

Nick arched his back and stretched. He’d spent an awful lot of time topside a horse lately…a hot bath would be heaven sent. Nick’s spurs jingled in the dark as he trudged the distance from the barn to the house. There was a low light in Jarrod’s office. He didn’t recall Jarrod mentioning that he would be home this early…maybe this was a good sign. Apparently Heath was experiencing a speedy recovery and Jarrod no longer felt the need to stay on. Slipping in through the kitchen, an uneasiness suddenly fell over Nick. Something just didn’t seem right. He could hear movement coming from the library. Why would Jarrod be making so much racket?

Stalking down the hallway, Nick paused with his gun drawn. The silhouetted shape of a man with a hat was bent down in front of the area where the family kept the ranch’s payroll money. Quickly, Nick ran a mental check on the number of people who knew of the exact location of the safe and it’s contents. Yes, Pete Sinclair was one of those people. He had been in the library a couple of times right before Nick was getting ready to hand out the monthly wages. The thief didn’t give any indication of the knowlege of Nick’s arrival. Reholstering his gun, Nick smiled. Using the element of surprise, he would catch Sinclair off-guard and finish up what he had started that day at the line shack. Stepping inside the library, he hovered and waited as the hunched bandit pilfered the money from the safe. Sinclair had just deposited the last stack of bills into his sack when he heard the sound of a throat being cleared. The bandit jumped and reached for his gun, but Nick’s foot was quicker. Sending the gun skittering across the room, Nick hauled the surprised Sinclair up by his shirt collar and threw him against the wall.

“It would’ve been easier just to put a bullet between those beady eyes of yours,” he seethed, “but then I wouldn’t have the pleasure of watchin’ you sweat on the witness stand. I hope they stretch your neck, but good. I’m gonna volunteer to help build the gallows to hang you from, Boy. Now move! We’re goin’ to go pay a little visit to the Stockton Sheriff.”

“Like hell we are,” Sinclair spat, lunging into Nick. “You’ll have to kill me first.”

“Whatever it takes,” Nick volunteered as he stepped aside and allowed Sinclair’s weight to plummet him to the floor.

“Get up!” Nick commanded as he drew his Colt and pulled back the hammer. “You ain’t worth the effort it would take. Now, march…slow and easy like. Any sudden moves and I’ll blow the biggest hole in you since Garberville.” **

Nick and Jarrod were alone in the parlor. Jarrod had returned from Benton City just before supper, carrying the news of Heath’s recovery process. Jarrod watched Nick’s face change expression several times as he looked through the open French doors, enjoying the rare breeze.

“Brandy, Nick?”

“No thanks, Jarrod. Oh, by the way, Sinclair made a mess in the study…papers all over the place. I did the best I could, but you might want to go over them, make sure they’ll all in the right place. I left each folder and pile of documents on your desk.”

“Thanks, Nick. I’m sure they’re fine. I’m glad it’s all behind us. I’m looking forward to a new dawn and a fresh start. I think we all have much to be thankful for.”

“Amen to that, ” Nick mused. “I think I’ll take that brandy after all.”

Jarrod poured Nick a glass and carried it across the room. The two stepped outside, watching the sunset. Jarrod wondered if Nick’s pensive mood at dinner that he still held had something to do with Sinclair’s arrest. He was about to inquire when he remembered the file that Chris Warren had given him on Heath and that it was still on the desk. Was that the cause of Nick’s mood? He remembered how the words on those pages affected him when he had first read about his brother’s hard life.

“Something troubling you, Nick?” he inquired.

“No, not really. Well, maybe.” Nick drained the glass and reached for the decanter.

“About Heath?” Jarrod prodded.

“I, uh…,” Nick said as he plunged the stopper down and straddled the small iron patio chair, “…happened to glance at some army papers about Heath.”

“Yes, I thought that might be what was troubling you. I knew he had a hard childhood, and the army details were an unpleasant surprise. It hit me hard, too.”

“I only read part of the one page that mentioned Carterson…and only by accident. Where did that stuff come from?” Nick demanded.

“When Heath first arrived, I asked Chris Warren to get some background.”

“YOU SPIED ON HIM?” Nick wheeled angrily.

“No, of course not! I wanted to know more about him…so I could help him. Understanding where he came from, would only be a benefit in that process. Now that you’ve read it, surely you understand that,” Jarrod defended.

“I didn’t read any of it. I only read the first page and that was enough. You had no right prying into his business. I can’t believe you would do that!” Nick’s voice rose as his eyes blazed.

“Don’t use that tone of voice with me, Nick. I did what I thought was right,” Jarrod challenged.

“Right? You don’t have that right…that’s his. I didn’t read any of that stuff…it would have been like stealing from him. If he wants to share that with me, he’ll do it on his own time, when it’s right, not before. When it comes from him, freely offered, it will mean a whole lot to me. I want it to come that way…that’s what a brother does. He offers an open hand, he don’t steal.” Nick slammed the glass down and left Jarrod alone, pondering the gravity of his actions.

*****

The thick draperies which hung at Heath’s bedroom window blocked out a good portion of the midday sun and heat making it possible for the recovering patient to get the necessary rest prescribed by the doctor. Feeling more than a little penned in, Heath sat up from where he lay on top of the bed coverings and pulled his boots on. At least he was at the point where he didn’t have Victoria and Audra hovering over him twenty-four hours a day, but Victoria still played the part of the martinet when it involved carrying out the doctor’s instructions to the letter of the law. The house seemed unusually quiet this afternoon and there hadn’t been any inquisitive heads poking inside his door for at least a couple of hours now.

Gingerly, Heath made his way across the floor and down the long hallway that led to the grand staircase. Gripping the rail for support, he slowly took each step, one at a time. He reached the stone floor in the entry way and stiffly hobbled over to the front door. A trip to the barn and corrals would do his soul good. His four-legged friends had weighed heavily on his mind for the past few days. Sure, he knew they were being well cared for, but it just wasn’t the same as doing it himself.

As he approached the corral in front of the barn, Charger pranced over and stopped in front of the fence. Heath reached up and scratched the side of the face as it extended itself over the top rail of the fence.

“Just as soon as they let me, you and me have some work to do, Boy,” Heath told the large bay as it nuzzled his hand. “We’ve got to get you finished off with your trainin’.”

Giving the equine a final pat, Heath entered the spacious barn.

“Rico!” he exclaimed joyfully. “I didn’t expect to find you here! Nick give you the day off?”

“Good to see you!” the Mexican boy greeted. “No, Senor Nick asked me to fill in here today. Ciego went to spend the day with is mother. She twisted her ankle and Senor Nick told him to take a couple of days and help her out.”

“That Nick must be gettin’ generous in his old age. You been exercisin’ my horse for me?”

“Si, Senor Heath. I’ve been takin’ Buster out just like you asked me to, but still, look what he does.” The boy walked over to the enclosed paddock and opened the top half of the stall’s split door. “Look over here, Senor Heath. He chews the wood from the inside.”

“Cribbin’!” Heath blurted with a tone of disgust in his voice. “Buster, you’re goin’ have old Nick on the warpath for sure when he sees this. Guess I already have my first project cut out for me…build you a nice, sturdy corral and replace this door!”

“The horse is bored, Senor,” Rico defended reaching a lean arm up around Buster’s neck. “He’s not used to being penned up for such a long time.”

“You say you’ve been ridin’ him a little, Rico?” Heath questioned.

“Si, Senor. I take him out to the corral or sometimes run him down to the end of the road and back.”

“How does he behave for you?

“Good. Very good. When you were gone and I was laid up, I would come out to the barn and visit with him sometimes,” Rico replied. “It was good for both of us,” he added bashfully. “We both missed you, but at least we had each other.”

“I tell you what, Rico,” Heath pondered thoughtfully. “I’m gonna be havin’ my hands full with Charger just as soon as I’m back to ridin’ again. How about if you take over Buster for me?”

“You mean it, Senor?” His wide brown eyes and exuberance caused the blond cowboy to laugh.

“Yup, sure do. I know you been usin’ the ranch horses, but a vaquero’s got to have his own horse, and Buster, here…well, he needs to have his own rider. What do you say, Rico? Is it a deal?”

“Si, Senor!” the boy beamed. “And we will build him a pen? I don’t want to cause any trouble with Senor Nick.”

“You just leave ‘Senor Nick’ to me,” Heath grinned. “By the way, speaking of Nick, what’s he doin’ today? Is he workin’ cows or peaches?”

“I don’t think he’s doing either one, Senor Heath. He’s been working up near the house all day.”

“Doin’ what?”

“I think he’s doing something for Senora Barkley. When I was cleaning the stalls earlier today, he told me to put the manure in a cart and leave it up by the house.”

“Hmm,” Heath thought outloud. “I wonder what he could be doin’. Whatever it is, sounds like it’s somethin’ worth lookin’ into,” he smiled mischievously. “I’ll catch you later, Rico,” he concluded, clapping the boy of the shoulder.

Rico bit his lip as his friend turned to leave. Something had been on his mind these last weeks, while he recovered. If this ranch in this wonderful country was to be his home, he wanted to start clean. He trusted Heath and needed his advice.

“Senor, I have a favor,” he tested, seeing Heath turn.

“Okay, I’m listenin'”

“It’s about the trouble I had in Mexico. You know…about that doctor.” He exhaled and tried to get the nerve to continue. “I…well, it’s like this..”

Heath furrowed his brows and hobbled back to where the young man stood hemming and shifting his feet.

“What it is kid? Come on, spit it out.” Heath offered with a hand to the slumped shoulders.

“I wish to make this country…this ranch, my home. I want to not watch my shoulders…no, I mean…”

“You don’t want to have to be looking over your shoulders, is that what you meant?” Heath chuckled.

“Si! I have a little money saved, it’s not much, but I can pay the rest back. I was wondering if you could have your brother…um…he is a lawyer, no?”

“Best around from what I hear,” Heath nodded, squeezing the shoulder, knowing how hard it was for Rico to expose himself this way.

“Do you think…I mean, I know I’m just a hand, but maybe he would help me?”

If Rico wasn’t so solemn and his face wasn’t wearing a ‘scared to death look’ Heath would have laughed. Smiling, he patted the youth’s back and reassured him.

“You save that money, Kid, you earned it. I’ll talk to Jarrod tonight and set up a time for us to meet with him. I can’t have my right-hand man frettin’ his days away, can I?”

“Gracias, Senor, but I won’t take charity. I can pay…I have some money.” His angry voice matched the fire in his eyes..

‘Hold on now, Rico, take it easy. You saved my life that night in the barn…seems to me I owe you. We’ll call it even, okay?”

“Well, I guess that would be all right, Senor.”

“Good. Now you get back to work. I’m gonna find that brother of mine.”

Heath paused for a moment by Sally’s stall before making his way back toward the house. This time, instead of using the front entrance, he walked around to side, in the direction of the library…and the rose garden. Sure enough. There was Nick on all fours, giving the dirt around one of the newly planted rose bushes a final pat.

“Boy howdy,” Heath greeted, “I see it, but I sure don’t believe it!”

“Well, it…it just needed to be done, that’s all!” Nick exclaimed, rising to his feet, his knees caked with fresh manure. “What are you doin’ up and about. Mother and Audra left for town a couple’ve hours ago. I’m supposed to be makin’ sure you take it easy.”

“And I’m takin’ it easy,” Heath lamented, “but believe me, it ain’t easy.”

“I know,” Nick empathized. “I know exactly how Mother gets every time anyone around here is sick or shot up. That’s just part of havin’ a family, Boy. I tell you what, though. If you’re really wantin’ somethin’ to do, how ’bout givin’ me a hand with these roses.”

“No, Nick, that’s okay,” Heath grinned impishly. “I sure wouldn’t want to go gettin’ your mother riled up at me. Somehow I get the feelin’ that her wrath is nothin’ to be trifled with,” he chuckled, remembering the day that the feisty little woman had assigned her dark-haired, cowboy son to ‘rose duty’.

“You ain’t just a woofin’ there, Heath. Over the years I’ve learned to only fear three things…drought, hoof ‘n mouth disease, and Mother’s wrath!”

“You know, Nick, could be you missed your true calling. You seem right at home in the manure,” Heath jested.

“Very funny,” Nick scowled, rising to his feet, “Your sense of humor is as bad as the scent of this manure.”

“Well, I don’t want to hold you up…guess I’ll go in and get some lunch.”

“Now, that’s what I call a good idea. I’m starving…been tanglin’ with these blasted, thorny monsters all day,” Nick lamented.

“Fine by me, Big Brother, just be sure and sit downwind, okay?” Heath said, wrinkling his nose.

“Get movin’,” Nick swatted playfully at the hobbling man, “or I’ll put you in this manure heap.”

Heath settled in at the kitchen table while Nick removed his soiled boots and washed up at the pump outside. Glancing at the ice box, he got up and opened the door. Spotting some leftover ham and potato salad, he removed the tasty gems and hobbled to the table. By the time Nick entered, he’d sliced some bread and cheese to go with it. He was panting and flushed with color as he reached for the pitcher of cold lemonade.

“Hold up there, Boy, you’re gonna wear yourself out. Mother will skin my hide if you have a relapse on my shift. Get in that chair,” Nick ordered, turning his winded brother.

Nick got two glasses, some utensils, plates and napkins. By the time the icy citrus drinks were poured, Heath had wolfed down half a sandwich.

“This sure is tasty. Silas is some kind of cook,” Heath commented. “Reminds me of some of the stuff my mama and Hannah made when I was little.”

Nick watched Heath’s animated face as he began to speak quietly about his boyhood and the good times. As he savored the tangy potato salad, he watched his younger brother’s eyes grow serious when he spoke of the bad times and having to get up before dawn to hurry to the mine for an early shift before school. Suddenly, Heath stopped talking as quickly as he started, not really comfortable sharing anymore for the time being. It still came hard to him, opening up, but knowing he had so many people who loved him, would make the path easier.

“I sure am itchin’ to get back in the saddle. I can’t wait for Doc Merar giving me the okay to work. I’m starting to feel the walls close in…like I’m in prison,” Heath said, changing the subject as he finished his sandwich.

Nick’s head shot up as the word ‘prison’ hit him like a brick. He couldn’t stop the images of ‘Caterson prison’ from resurfacing. The idea of a fifteen year old boy in a place like that angered him. Knowing that hell hole was probably responsible for the scars he’d seen on Heath’s back in the doctor’s house. He scowled and clenched the knife in his hand, wishing the brutes who tortured his brother, were in the room so he could pay them back.

“Boy Howdy, I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that.” Heath laughed seeing Nick’s dark face.

“Huh?” Nick looked up and realized what Heath had seen, “Oh, sorry Heath, guess my mind’s been on a lot of stuff lately.”

The sound of a buggy approaching the house caused both heads to turn. Nick scurried to the window as Victoria and Audra drove by and pulled to the front of the house.

“Come on,” Nick offered. “We’d better get back upstairs before they discover that you’ve been out ‘n about or we’ll both be gettin’ it. You for leavin’ the house and me for lettin’ you.”

Heath nodded in agreement and stood, but before he could reach the back stairway, Victoria was standing in the entrance of the kitchen, both hands on her small hips.

“There you are!” Victoria exclaimed from the doorway. “I was wondering where it was you had wandered off to.”

“Yeah, I needed to stretch my legs a bit,” Heath explained sheepishly. “What have you and Audra been up to?”

“Well, first we…” Victoria stopped mid-sentence and began to sniff the air around her. “What is that smell?” she asked, sniffing the ‘fragrance’ that permeated the room.

“Smell?” Nick asked innocently. “I don’t smell anything. Do you, Heath?”

“Well, come to think of it,” Heath began, “it does seem a bit ‘ripe’ in here.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” Victoria put in, walking over to investigate. Following her nose, the aroma led her over to her second born. “Nick!” she exclaimed, looking at him from head to toe. “You stink…and look at your pants!”

Nick looked down at the caked on manure and felt the color begin to rise.

“Mother,” he said, taking her by the arm, “I want to show you something!”

“All right, Nick,” Victoria said, “you show me…but please…will you walk ten feet ahead?”

“Now, it ain’t that bad!” Nick returned in mock exasperation. “I got them roses all planted, just like you asked.”

“Oh, and they look simply lovely,” Victoria complimented as she stood on the back porch gazing in the direction of her newly planted garden. “Thank you, Nick! Now, why don’t you go get cleaned up. I’ve asked Silas to prepare an early dinner tonight. And you, Young Man,” she said addressing Heath. “I think you could stand a little rest before supper.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” was the feeble reply.

Carefully and with Victoria as an escort, Heath made the long, painful journey back up the staircase to his bedroom.

*****

Heath’s late lunch had given him an early departure from the dinner table. He walked out into the summer twilight and embraced the unexpected breeze. He strode among the rows of roses which bloomed in every size and hue. The scent was alluring and he found himself seated upon a small bench, next to a pond. He was lost in thought and jumped a bit as the small hand touched his.

“Sorry, Heath,” Victoria offered, taking a seat, “Where were you?”

“Lost in time, Ma’am…remembering how my mama used to love flowers. She had a real nice little garden. Nothin’ as grand as this, but she sure was proud of it. She spent a lot of time out there, until…”

Victoria squeezed his hand and watched the smile turn to a frown. He remained like that and she’d learned in these last couple of months since his arrival, that he was often lost in thought, embracing solitude.

“What is it, Dear?” she tendered, brushing the tear that sneaked down his cheek.

“Sorry, I guess sometimes, she seems so near. Sitting here, in this beautiful place, I could swear I felt her,” he paused.

“You’ll always feel her, Heath, she’ll always be in your heart.” Victoria stroked the strong arm and noticed something else in those pensive eyes of his father’s.

“She should have told me sooner, maybe…somehow, I could have gotten her the help she needed. She shouldn’t have suffered so. I failed her…” He exhaled deeply and stared at the sky, fending off more tears.

“Don’t, Heath, don’t do that to yourself. She was a very brave woman…her courage shines through so much, in you. She made her choice when you were born and never wavered. It wouldn’t have changed anything. You told me she was a woman of great faith. It was that faith in the Lord that gave her the strength to leave when the time was right. You were a man, strong and true, ready to make you way in the world.”

“But…why didn’t she tell me sooner?” he pained.

“That was her decision, and neither of us has the right to question that.” Victoria took the troubled face in both hands and looked into those blue eyes, so full of emotion. “She raised a fine man, full of courage and unquestionable moral fiber. A young man who’s gentle soul and generous spirit are so much a part of her… someone I’m proud to call ‘Son’.”

The word ‘Son’ hit Heath right in the heart. He looked into those strong gray eyes and absorbed the determined woman’s words. Did she mean that the way it sounded? The last few weeks, while he recovered, she was always there at his side. Through fever and nausea, encouraging him to eat and drink, helping him with the first painful steps from the bed, scolding him when he overdid it. A mother…his mother…that is what it had felt like. Someone who’d love him unconditionally. He’d be proud to be this wonderful woman’s son. As if she read his mind, she answered the emotional plea from his heart that beckoned her through his eyes.

“I’ll never replace her, Heath, but I’d be proud to be your mother. Don’t stay out here too long, Son.”

She kissed his cheek and then stroked it lightly, and rose to leave. Just as she got to the edge of the path, she turned as the words carried on the breeze of the summer’s eve and, scented by the lush roses, found her heart. Five words, choked out in the soft drawl that she’d come to hold dear. The tears glistened in her eyes as she turned and found his embrace.

“Goodnight…Mother. I…love you.”

***The End***

Return to Star’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.