Double Trouble (by Star and Deirdre)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  38,500


Heath Barkley took a moment to pause in front of Harmon’s Fine Jewelry Store and push his hat a little further back on his head. Pulling a worn bandana from his hip pocket, the tanned cowboy wiped the condensed beads of moisture from his brow. Here he was in Fairfield, thirty-five miles from home in mid July, and boy howdy, was it hot out! Placing his hand on the door handle, the sound of tinkling chimes notified the shop owner of his arrival.

“Good afternoon, Sir,” came the woman’s cheery voice from behind the counter. “What can I help you with today?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Heath drawled. “At least not yet, but I reckon I’ll know it when I see it!”

“Are you shopping for yourself or someone else?” the middle aged woman questioned.

“Oh, not for me, Maam. I wouldn’t have use for any kind of jewelry this fine. I’m lookin’ for a gift for someone else.”

“And would this ‘someone else’ happen to be a young lady?” smiled the well meaning store owner.

“Yeah, I reckon it would. My little sister, Audra. Her birthday is just a few days away. I’ll be headin’ back towards home this afternoon. With a full day of hard ridin’ I’ll be lucky to get there in time, much less stop along the way to buy a present. I saw this here jewelry store and figured you just might have somethin’ that would please my beautiful sister on her twenty-first birthday.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can find something to suit your needs Mr…..?”

“Barkley, Maam, but you can call me Heath.”

“Very well, Heath. And where exactly is home?”

“My family owns a spread near Stockton.”

“Ah, yes. I’ve heard of the Stockton Barkleys. One of your brothers is a lawyer, is he not?”

“That’s right, Maam. Jarrod Barkley is one of the best. Now,” continued Heath, feeling the need to get on with business, “about that gift for my sister – can you please show me what you have in the way of broaches?”

“Certainly,” replied the matronly woman, unlocking a drawer under the display case. “Here is some new merchandise that recently arrived from back East. Each piece is uniquely hand crafted with only the finest quality of stone and metals.”

Heath carefully examined the tray of elegant pins and broaches. Never before had he seen such exquisite jewelry. The tray contained rows and rows of glistening gems. Everything from pearl stick pins to turquoise and jade. Finally his eye was drawn to a colorful, shell cameo inlaid in a background of sterling silver.

“That’s it!” the cowboy exclaimed, pointing to his prize. “That’s the one I want for Audra!”

“Wise choice, Mr. Bark…., I mean Heath. Wise choice. The mother-of-pearl on this cameo comes all the way from Australia. Any young woman would be thrilled to receive so lovely a gift. And what a thoughtful brother you are! She certainly is a lucky girl!”

“It’s me that’s lucky, Maam,” Heath blushed as he reached into his vest pocket for a wad of bills. “I reckon I’m the luckiest man alive. Now, if you’ll just tell me how much, I’ll take my broach and be on my way.”

“That will be twelve dollars, even. Would you like me to wrap it?”

“Please, Maam,” replied Heath, counting out twelve greenbacks. “I sure don’t want it gettin’ busted up in my saddle bags on the trip home.”

The tinkling of the chimes once again alerted the rotound shop keeper of a caller, only this time the customer wasn’t so cordial. Pulling back the hammer of a Colt 45, the young masked bandit demanded both cash and merchandise.

“Okay, lady,” growled the gunman, handing her a large, cloth bag. “I want you to start emptyin’ out those shelves and don’t keep me waitin’, neither. I’m on a tight schedule and don’t want no holdups.”

“You!” the gunman ordered, eyeballing Heath. “I want those hands up high were I can see ’em. Any sudden moves and you won’t be needin’ no jewelry!”

Obediently, Heath raised his arms as instructed. The tone in the intruder’s voice spelled business and Heath didn’t want to test just how serious this business might be. Cautiously, the gunman approached Heath, and carefully removed his gun from it’s holster. Backing up, the armed man stuffed the wooden handled firearm in his own belt, still keeping a steady bead on the blonde cowboy.

“Hurry it up!” he snapped to the woman filling the sack. “I haven’t got all day!”

With his gun leveled, the hold up man approached the counter and snatched the half full sack away from the horrified proprieter. Noticing the wrapped cameo, still laying on the counter, the gunman grabbed that as well. Working his way backwards, the thug kept a close eye on his prey, then reaching the door, he holstered his gun and bolted down the boardwalk.

Not giving it a second thought, Heath was out the door like a shot. A saddle horse was tethered nearby and that was where the robber was headed. He was fast, but not fast enough. With a ramming tackle, both cowboy and crook were tusseling on the ground. The thief had seemed threatening in the store toting a pistol, but in a one on one wrestling match, it was no contest. In seconds Heath had the scrawny body stretched out underneath him as he disarmed the thief and pulled off the mask.

A thick mane of blonde hair cascaded down, revealing the pretty face that had been hidden by a fully hooded mask. She had emerald green eyes and lips the color of rubies. A beauty mark, naturally etched in her dimpled cheeks made her a woman that any man would desire. Any man, maybe, but not Heath. He was wise to the world and not the kind to be fooled by a woman’s intrigue. She may look like a princess, but the way she was fighting him and the way she had conducted herself in the holdup, this woman was more than the average tigress. She was vicious and ruthless inside, cursing him with obscene names and foul language.

Yanking her to her feet, Heath reached inside her shirt pocket and retrieved his stolen broach, “I thank you for the return of my broach,” he snapped. “Now, let’s see if we can find the sheriff’s office in this town.”

“I saw it over yonder when I rode in,” she sarcastically replied, indicating the direction with the nod of her head. “But I warn you, cowboy,” she added hautily, “you’re goin’ to regret ever messin’ with me!”

Taking his eyes off his captive, Heath scanned the street for the desired building. By this time the shop keeper from the jewelry store was cautiously approaching Heath and the girl.

“My jewerly, Mr. Barkley. Where’s my jewelry?”

Heath turned his head to warn her to stay back when the kick came. Swift and hard, the beautiful assailant’s knee found it’s targeted area. Heath yelped in pain as his world suddenly turned into a mass of color, confusion and torment. Buckling his knees, and doubling over, he barely heard the sound of hoof beats as his attacker fled away on her trusty steed.

“Mr. Barkley! Are you alright?”

Pushing away the purple haze, Heath opened his eyes to see the concerned gaze of the woman he called ‘Maam’ peering down at him through wire spectacles.

“I’m f…fine, Maam,” he stammered, the pain still stronger than the humiliation. “Now, if you’ll p…please excuse me, I think I’d b…better go track down the sheriff.”

Heath drained the cool water, a brief respite in the sweltering heat on this fifteenth of July. He was thinking on how to word this ordeal and avoid Nick’s tongue-lashing. He could almost hear his brother snickering. The sheriff slamming the desk drawer snapped him back to attention.

“I’ll make sure the wanted flyers are distributed to the towns nearby. I got a wire from the marshall in Batesville, which is about twenty miles north of here. They had a similar heist yesterday. I’ll send word south, looks like she’s headed that way.”

He stood as the young, blond cowboy rose to leave. He noted the empty holster.

“Looks like you’ll be needin’ a new firearm.”

“Figure I’ll pick one up on my way out of town. The gun she stole from me was a gift from my brother. Custom made, a fine piece. Won’t feel the same ’til I get it back.”

“You aimin’ on tracking her down, Son? That’s my job. You ain’t wearing a badge. You gave a description. If she’s caught I’ll see to it that you get it back.”

Heath nodded as he strode out the door and down the boardwalk to the gunsmith. As much as he wanted payback, he didn’t want to disappoint Audra. She’d been all fired up about her party. He could just see himself trying to explain why he was late. That he’d been on the trail of a skinny-filly of a bandit who …well he couldn’t go into the particulars. He’d end up flustered and beet-red, his memory would take care of what words wouldn’t. No, he’d head home first, then keep tabs on her whereabouts through the newspaper and wire reports. He wasn’t about to forget; she’d pay.

The clerk looked up as he entered the store and eyed the guns on display.

“Man, it’s hotter that Lucifer’s kitchen out there.”

Jack Price looked up from the table as Nick Barkley’s loud voice landed in the room. Jack had known the Barkleys for years and stood and extended his hand. Although it was not yet noon on this fifteenth of July, it was already unbearbly hot.

“Good to see you, Nick. How have you been?”

“Hot! I got thirsty cows looking for water, an irrigation problem in the orchards and a house full of chattering woman. No rest for the weary,” Nick complained as he threw himself into a chair.

“Well, maybe I can solve those irrigation problems. This is Max Franklin, he’s an engineer from back east. He’s been helping a lot of the ranchers in Nevada and California with the drought problems. He rigged up my place a couple months ago. It’s made all the difference during this heat wave.”

Nick took the hand of a man about thirty, seated across from him. Nick spent the next hour getting details from the engineer. He set up an appointment with the young man to come out to the ranch for a tour. Then they would meet with Jarrod and discuss a contract.

“Well, Mr. Franklin, I look forward to your visit. Tomorrow, say about ten a.m.?” Nick waited for the nod.

“Good, see you then.”

*****

She watched him enter the lobby of the Cattleman’s hotel. She opened her small purse and looked at her concealed timepiece, then waited until he was seated and rose to leave the lobby. She smiled and stopped at the desk. The young clerk almost fell over his own feet when she beckoned him and asked the time. She made sure the people in the immediate area took notice. It would be hard not to notice such a beautiful woman.

Nick stopped in the bar for a beer before heading back to the ranch. He would be meeting Jake Hopkins, his foreman, who had sent scouts out to find water. The herd was getting restless and if it didn’t rain soon, there would be problems. He drained his beer and started on the road home.

She stood on a rock and scanned the horizon. He was late, she figured he would have been there by now. She saw a dark figure approaching and recognized the horse. Smiling, she resumed her place and delicately dabbed the perspiration from her face.

Nick slowed Coco when he saw the vision on the side of the road ahead. That was the first thing he thought of when he saw her standing by the buggy.

“Whoa!”

He pulled Coco’s reins and jumped down.

“Thank heavens you came along. I just don’t know what I would have done. There was an awful cracking sound and it skittered off to the side.”

Nick knelt down and saw the broken axle. He rose and approached her. He took off his hat and nodded back to the wagon.

“That axle’s cracked. Where you headed, Miss…”

“Jessica Cassidy. I was on my way into Stockton. I have business there. I’m afraid I’ll be late.”

She was beautiful, with golden hair, deep green eyes and the prettiest smile splitting the crimson lips. The beauty mark and dimples accented the look. Her white muslin dress was sprinkled with tiny rosebuds. The matching bonnet not only hid the sun, but set off the fine-featured face.

“I think I can patch it up well enough to get you to Stockton. It’s not that far. I only have one condition.”

“And what would that be Mr…?”

“It’s Barkley, Nick Barkley.”

He shook the meticulously manicured hand.

“Your condition, Mr. Barkley?” She smiled, just about disarming him.

“Uh…that’s Nick and my fee is that you allow me to take you to dinner tonight at the Alhambra Club. Do we have a deal?” he asked, returning her smile.

“You’re mighty persuasive Mr… Nick,” she bowed. “Dinner would be delightful.”

As Nick set about fixing the wheel, Jessica smiled at his lean, broad back. The muscles beneath the white sweat-soaked shirt rippled. So far, Nick Barkley was living up to his reputation. This would be one of her easier marks. After all, how hard could it be to be wined and dined by an attractive, wealthy man, who is often blinded by beauty. She looked in her purse at the watch inside. It was half past two. She wondered how Jennifer’s day was going.

“Do you have the time, Nick? I think I shall be late. My appointment was at three o’clock.”

Nick wiped an arm across his sweat drenched face. He rose and approached his saddle, taking the canteen and draining it. Replacing the cap, he took out his watch.

“I guess you won’t be making that appointment. It’s about quarter of three now. Was it important?”

“Oh, yes,” she purred. “But it can be rescheduled. How’s the wheel coming?”

“Just about done.”

He escorted her back to town and helped her off the buggy. He was about to walk inside with her, but she put a tiny hand to his wet shirt.

“I’ve already taken up far too much of your time. You look like a working man, I’m sure you’re late yourself for something.”

“Well, if you’re sure. I’ll come by around seven.”

“I’ll be expecting you,” she nodded, turned, and walked through the door.

“Pleasant ride, Miss Cassidy?” the clerk stuttered.

“Very pleasant,” she laughed as she walked up to her room.

*****

It was almost five when Heath reined Charger in. He was beat. The excessive heat had taken it’s toll on his weary body and that of his steed. He slid from the sweating horse and ran a hand along the fine mane. He had been pushing to get home by dinner for Audra’s party tonight.

“Sorry, Boy, didn’t mean to ride you so hard. How about you and me gettin’ a drink?”

He led Charger down to the water. As the pony drank, he took in a fair share of water and splashed his face. The water was refreshing. He felt as if all the grime, grit and dust from the last three days on the trail had attached itself to him. A quick dip would make the ride home easier.

He tethered Charger to a nearby tree and ducked into the underbrush by some rocks. He hung his gunbelt over his saddlehorn and took off his boots. Discarding the filthy clothes, save his cotton underwear, he waded into the refreshing water. He was so intent upon his diving and swimming, allowing the cool water to revive him, that he didn’t notice his visitor.

She waded from the river, water clinging to every curve. Running her tongue across her lips, she smiled as she dried herself off. Her green eyes didn’t miss a speck of his lean form as he bathed. She dressed and hid silently in the bushes, enjoying the show from just a few feet away. She drank in every muscle of his tanned, taut physique. Finally, she walked slowly to where his clothes laid. Oh, how much fun this would be. She took in every inch of the bronzed, muscular body as he waded to shore. The thin cotton garment that was plastered to him didn’t hide much. He scowled as he searched for his clothes. As he started to walk away an unforgettable voice made itself known.

“Oh, I wouldn’t go just yet cowboy, the view from here is just fine,” she drawled as she cocked the gun.

*****

“Mother! Audra! I’m home!” Nick’s loud voice boomed.

“Nicholas, please!” exclaimed Victoria, entering the foyer with both hands covering her ears. “My! You look as though you were caught in a down pour, and Lord knows that’s an impossibility. What on earth happened to you?”

“You’ll never believe it, Mother! The most wonderful thing’s just happened to me!”

“Alright, Nick,” answered Victoria, rolling her eyes heavenward in mock exasperation, “who is she this time?”

“Oh, she’s beautiful, Mother! The most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on. Hair the color of corn silk, eyes like the greenest jade, lips like….”

“Who?” Victoria repeated, “Who is she?”

“Her name’s Jessica,” Nick reminisced, practically going into a trance just mouthing the syllables of her name. “Jessica Cassidy, and I think I’m in love with her.”

“You think you’re in love with her! Nick, you’ve barely met her!”

“No, I guess maybe I don’t think I’m in love. Mother, I know I am!”

“Oh, what’s the use,” exclaimed Victoria throwing her hands in the air. “But you still haven’t told me what in the world happened to get you so drenched. Did you have to jump into a river to save this Jessica from drowning?”

“No, as a matter of fact I stumbled across her on the road from town.”

“The road from town? There’s no water out there!”

“Oh, I didn’t get dunked in any water, Mother. This is one-hundred percent pure perspiration.”

“Well, if any one woman can make you perspire that much, I guess you’d better go take a hot bath! On second thought, better make that a cold one!”

“No, you’ve got it all wrong, Mother. I helped her fix a broken axle,” explained Nick. “That and the ride back here in all that heat….well, I think a cold bath sounds just fine! In fact, I need to get cleaned up anyway. I’m taking Jessica to dinner at The Alhambra Club this evening!”

“This evening!” Victoria exclaimed. “You can’t. Tonight is Audra’s birthday party!”

“Oh, I completely forgot about that! I’m sorry, Mother, but what can I do? The young lady is expecting me to pick her up at the hotel at seven tonight!”

“I’ll tell you what you can do! You can ride back into town and tell her you’ll have to take a rain check! That’s all there is to it, Nicholas!”

“But Mother, I can’t do that! Why I….”

“I’m sorry, Nick, but that’s the way it’s going to have to be! You and I both know how terribly disappointed your sister will be if you miss her twenty-first birthday party. Now, I think you’d better go get cleaned up. The caterers and decorators will be arriving in a couple of hours. I just hope Heath makes it back in time!”

At his mother’s final word, Nick trudged up the stairs in humility and defeat. Here he had the most wonderful good fortune of meeting the woman of his dreams….no, he wouldn’t even call it fortune. It was more like destiny. He had met the woman he was destined to spend the rest of his life with. A goddess, who had accepted his invitation to dinner without thought or question, and now he was going to have to break the date. Why did these things always have to happen to him? Heath and Jarrod never seemed to run into problems of this magnitude.

Nick was still fretting and stewing as he sank into the tub’s sudsy, warm water. There had to be some kind of reasonable solution to all of this. Maybe Mother would concede to his taking her to dinner and making a short evening out of it. After all, the party wouldn’t start until eight, and it would probably be close to nine before the last of the guests filtered in. He could wine her and dine her and still probably make it back home by ten.

No. Mother would never go for that. She knew her boy all too well. Out on a Saturday evening with a beautiful young lady, a candlelight dinner…..no, she would never go for it.

“Just my luck,” Nick fumed inwardly. “I guess I can be biddin’ this golden opportunity ‘alas and farewell’.”

Coincidences like this didn’t just happen every day. Riding along a very familiar and well traveled road and coming face to face with a catch like Jessica. A catch in desperate need of his masculine assistance. A catch just jumping at the chance of going to dinner with him at The Alhambra Club. Nick’s experience with the opposite sex had taught him several things of what women do and don’t like. They like to be picked up on time, they like a gentleman who will open doors and treat a girl like a queen, and they don’t like to be stood up or have dates broken at the last minute. Not a good first impression. Sure, he could try and explain the situation to the young lady, but then be would look like the fool for forgetting such an important thing as his little sister’s birthday party in a moment of starry-eyed stupidity!

Maybe not! Maybe if he approached her on the pretense of being struck sensless by her beauty and charm she could find her way to empathize with the tangled predicament he was in. Maybe, just maybe, she could even find it in her heart to be his date for the party tonight! Clapping his hands in glee, Nick hustled to finish the now lukewarm bath. Quickly drying off with a towel, his skin was still damp as he pulled on a clean pair of pants and shirt.

*****

Nick wasn’t the only Barkley just finishing with a bath. Down by the lake, still twenty miles from home, his younger sibling had been enjoying his celebration to cleanliness in the great outdoors. The only difference was while Nick bathed in seclusion and privacy, Heath didn’t have a door and lock to keep unwanted visitors from dropping by. As the sound of the husky, yet feminine voice penetrated his ears, Heath was wishing he hadn’t taken the time out for a dip.

“The view from here is just fine!”

Her words gave Heath a sinking feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. The sound of a pistol cocking. What did she have in mind? Heath could feel his pulse quicken. Was she going to shoot him? He certainly hoped that she would have the decency to allow him to dress first. Maybe this was just a bluff. Maybe after she had her fun she would decide to let him go. Would she give him back his clothes first? He certainly didn’t want to arrive at Audra’s party in what he currently had on, nor could he walk in to the Stockton merchantile clothed in his present attire. All these complications – and all because he had decided to stop for a swim.

Perhaps he could try and convince her to give them back. He would try, but not to the point were he was begging. Clothed or naked, he still had his Barkley pride and nobody could take that from him. Scowling, his eyes met hers. She was more beautiful than he had remembered from their brief acquaintance in Fairfield.

“Now, looky here, Missy,” he drawled, trying hard to keep any tones of anxiety from rising in his voice. “How ’bout being a lady and givin’ me back my clothes?”

“No,” she answered, sporting an evil grin, “you look, Cowboy. I never said anything about me tryin’ to be a lady. All I said was that you’d be sorry you’d ever messed with me. Remember?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Heath responded, trying to act agreeable, “and I guess the joke’s on me. So, now that you’ve had your fun, would you mind handin’ ’em over? Please?”

“Your wrong again, Cowboy,” she drawled, “My fun has just begun. And believe me; you aren’t lyin’ when you say the jokes on you!”

Heath could almost hear his innards groan. Somehow he had a feeling that this young vixen was telling him a true statement. He had no clue as to what she had in mind for him, but he did know that if he managed to get his hands on her, just how sorry she would truly be.

“Alright,” he asked, pretending to play her game. “What are you plannin’ to do here? Shoot me?”

“Now, that is a temptation,” she toyed, “but then what fun would there be in that? It would be too easy. Much too easy. No, I have a better idea. You’re goin’ to be completin’ your journey on foot. You see,” she smiled wickedly, “walkin’ is so good for both body and soul.”

The next groan that escaped from Heath was clearly audible. He couldn’t imagine that this was actually happening to him of all people. This was the type of thing you read about in dime store novels, not real stuff! Nevertheless, there was this young female bandit loosening Charger’s reins from the tree where he had tethered him. With a loud whoop and a gunshot, she spooked the horse off through the foliage. Then holstering her gun, she gave Heath one last iniquitous grin before mounting and galloping off down the road.

The mid afternoon sky was brilliant blue and the hot, dry air silent and still. Heath felt the earth and fallen twigs under his bare and tender feet. The ground was hard and rocky. He knew he wouldn’t get far in his present state. He looked down at the river. Maybe he could swim home. No, sooner or later he was liable to hit rapids. Or worse yet, some unsuspecting female out doing her evening wash. Wash! That was it! He could swim by a woman doing wash and try to talk her out of some of the laundry! But what about Charger? He had been spooked off, but there was still a chance that Heath could find him. If he jumped in the river’s swift current, he and Charger may never cross paths again. That was it. He needed to find his friend and mount. Sure the saddle would be rough against bare legs, but not as rough as dirt and shale was to bare feet.

Victoria was in the dining room going over the final preparations for Audra’s party. The caterer was from San Francisco and had worked many special occasions for the Barkley family over the years.

“George, I think we’re just about ready. The waiters can start serving the hors d’oeuvres shortly after eight. The guests will be able to enjoy them while the orchestra plays. Now, as far as the cake…”

“MOTHER!”

Victoria jumped as her name was bellowed through the air.

“Nick, must you shout? What is it?” she exclaimed, exasperated.

He grabbed the startled woman and twirled her around before setting her down. She saw by the grin he wore that another plan was under way.

“Now look, Nick…,” she warned, recognizing the devious smile.

“Mother, I have a great idea that will solve both problems. I’ll ask Jessica to come to the party. That way, Audra won’t be hurt and I won’t have to miss seeing Jessica. Perfect! I swear, sometimes I scare myself.”

She couldn’t help but grin as his exhuberance. Whoever Jessica was, she certainly had his coals heated up. George laughed as Nick seemed to walk on air past them into the kitchen. Their heads were once again bent over the paperwork for the party.

“As I was saying, about serving the cake, I think around 9:30 or so. That will leave time for gift opening and more dancing. Tell Claude the decorations are just magnificent. Taking Audra’s love of horses and transforming that idea into mythical silver and gold creations among glittering stars and wispy clouds. The effect is simply ethereal.”

“Yes, I think Audra will be delighted. Where is the guest of honor?”

“She’s still deciding on a dress. It’s almost six, I think I’ll go …”

“That boy don’t have good sense. Why the devil isn’t he home yet?”

Nick’s voice boomed over the slam of the kitchen door.

“I’m sure Heath will be here on time. He had a long way to come,” Victoria countered.

Despite his annoyed stare, Victoria knew Nick’s trip to the yard meant he was a little concerned about his missing brother.

“Nick, get going. If you want to be back in time to get dressed, then you need to leave for town soon.”

Jarrod was heading upstairs from his study and met Nick heading for the door. He heard Nick whistling and couldn’t help but smile at the look on his lovestruck brother’s face.

“Oh, Brother Nick, I think Cupid’s arrow found his mark.”

“Jarrod, truer words were never spoken. Save that tuxedo, Boy, you’ll be needing it soon.”

“So I finally get to meet the mysterious Miss Cassidy. I hope she’s as charming as you’ve painted her to be.”

“Stay away Jarrod, I’m warning you. Don’t you mention a museum, an opera or any other of that society crap. She’s all mine.”

Jarrod laughed all the way upstairs. Nick smiled all the way to town. The third Barkley brother’s mood was far less than cheerful.

*****

Heath stepped on yet another sharp stone and unleashed a string of curses that would make a sailor blush. He was covered in dirt and grime. The sweat burrowed rivers through the mire that covered him. The only garment he wore was the cotton briefs that were filthy. He slapped at another bug and unsuccessfully tried to conquer the itching from the bug bites that covered him.

In his mind, he had taken revenge on her in a dozen different ways on this hot trek home. He decided it would be top priority to find this feline bandit and bring her to justice. The decision to follow the road and leave the trail along the river turned out to be unwise. He thought he could catch Charger, but his steed was long gone. Tonight being the night of the party, all the help would be busy with the guests, carriages and horses. Charger’s arrival would go unnoticed. Oh what a fine entrance he’d make, even in the kitchen the hired help would have a grand time talking.

The sun had set and the darkness descending made it difficult to see. He was almost to the boundries of the ranch. His exhausted limbs seemed to be made of lead. He sat down on the side of the road and took a brief rest. His throat was parched and the sunburn bit into his neck and upper back. He knew if he didn’t get up now, he wouldn’t be getting up. With a loud grunt, he rolled and got to his feet, but took a misstep sideways. He lost his balance and slid down the stony incline. He winced more at the rip of the scant fabric he wore, rather than the flesh that was torn on his inner thigh.

Another string of curses preceded him up the hill.

He heard Jessica downstairs talking to his mother. He smiled at her charming voice and knew she’d conquer the family too. The clock was near eight as he finished dressing. Nick’s mind wandered back over the events of the day. Pure heaven. Jessica must have wings under those pretty dresses she wore. The ride to the house was full of lively conversation. The animated talk found that the two held common interests. Jessica loved horses, the west and was a successful businesswoman. He found it difficult to concentrate on what words she uttered. All he saw was the beautiful face and delicious figure.

*****

It was dark when the brightly lit house came into view. Twenty miles he’d walked, maybe more. Six hours at least. If he walked any slower, he’d be at a full stop. He didn’t think his weary legs could make it. He heard the lyrical strains of a waltz in the air and saw the many figures through the illuminated open doors. Snippets of voices in varying tones and bursts of laughter trickled across the yard. The lanterns lining the driveway were lit, running parallel to the many fine carriages which rested there.

The water pump by the bunkhouse looked like a trough of gold to him. He put each burning foot into the water. Every cut and blister seemed to cry in unison. He pumped the handle and let the cool water douse his head. He took several long drinks, so much that he lost his breath. He lifted his left leg onto the edge of the trough and pumped water over the gash, streaking blood through the torn undergarment.

He made his way over by the barn and saw Charger ambling outside. He called for Ciego, but realized he would be over at the carriage house. He led Charger inside and took care of the tired animal’s needs. In the light of the barn, he saw that there was not an inch on him not covered with grime, dirt, cuts or bug bites. He reached inside his saddlebags and got out Audra’s gift.

*****

There were well over five dozen guests milling about the parlor and foyer. The orchestra played a popular song and several couples were dancing. There was a glittering assortment of gowns and jewelry, as Stockton’s finest were on display. Champagne ran freely and the guest of honor was beaming. Dancing with numerous respectable sons of denizens of society, she hadn’t had a chance to sit down all night.

Heath peeked into the kitchen and, much to his relief, found it vacant, but littered with trays of food. He stole a glance into the unoccupied dining room and followed the wonderful smell. His empty stomach and lightheadedness reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Grabbing a handful of some miniscule pastries, he started for the back stairs in the kitchen.

A chill went up his spine when he heard the throaty laughter. Dropping the pastry, he wheeled around with fire in his eyes. Fury pounded through his veins, giving him an adrenalin rush. His burning rage overtook all thoughts. He charged into the foyer, not caring that he looked like a truculent tramp.

Jarrod pulled at the tight collar of his tuxedo and wished his parents had timed the arrival of their only daughter in a cooler month. He watched his baby sister, looking every bit a woman tonight. He still saw the blond pigtails flying as she slid down the banister as a tot. Now, that flaxen hair was coiffed to perfection, the ice blue silk gown accented with silver piping and crystals made her look like a queen. He offered a silent toast from across the room. From his side vision he caught a familiar blur as it raced by. Before he could utter the name “Heath” or inquire on his brother’s battered body, all hell broke loose.

Heath’s blue eyes were blazing on the warpath as they met her cool green ones. He grabbed her roughly and his venom-laced voice was loud and clear.

“You have one helluva nerve dressing like that and passing yourself off as a lady. The only place you belong is behind bars with the rest of the criminals. As least prostitutes are honest. You’re coming with me, you dirty thief, we’re goin’ to the sheriff.”

He didn’t hear the deafening silence in the room. He didn’t hear the murmurs of sympathy for Victoria at having to suffer with such an unworthy hybrid as a stepson. He knew the author of the strong grip on his shoulder before the powerful blow to the jaw sent him through the large potted plant. With a lethal growl from the floor, he pounced back at his prey.

Twenty miles of walking barefoot and naked seemed to make itself null and void as the weary man found renewed strength. Driven by a fury stronger than Hades itself, Heath lashed into Nick with full force. The party goers scrambled for safe retreat as the fight ensued, leaving the parlor area an open arena for a conflict of brother against brother. The contrast was indescribable. Nick, adorned in his best black tux with a freshly starched and pressed ruffled dress shirt. His opponent looked more like one of California’s original natives. His lean, tanned body didn’t hide a single movement as the muscles worked beneath the skin’s surface. Like a scantly clad Indian just out of the brush, Heath seemed untamed, savage and wild as he grabbed Nick’s collar and smashed his fist into his brother’s teeth. Nick fell back, momentarily dazed, but was soon back on his feet. Heath didn’t wait for recourse. With a sturdy backhand swing, he sent his dark haired brother sailing towards a sea of horror stricken faces. Nick felt strong hands support him, as a couple of the men in the group broke his momentum and firmly pushed him back to face his attacker. Swiping at the blood oozing from his split lip, Nick was on his feet and ready for action. Squaring off face to face, the brothers sidestepped the floor, each waiting to make his move. Heath was beyond being rational. What he was going to do if he could get the upper hand on his brother, he didn’t know. All he knew was the fierce anger he felt inside. This woman had been the source of many a woe and he was going to bring her to justice; along with anyone else who got in his way.

“Heath!”

The single syllable of his name was pronounced loud and clear as Victoria regained her wits. Her youngest son’s sudden entrance followed by the brutal attack from his older brother had all happened so fast. She made her way to where her two sons were circling one another, hesitant to step between the two. Now Jarrod was pushing his way through the crowd as well, calling upon some of the others for assistance. Men from the crowd hastily stepped forward at Jarrod’s beckoning. Fighting against the restraining grip of several men, both Heath and Nick struggled to continue their match. Eyes flashing with fire, Victoria stood to confront the two rival stallions, Jarrod hot on her heels.

“Heath Morgan Barkley! What in Heaven’s name has got into you!” Victoria sputtered.

There were no words to say what was raging inside of her, nor the humiliation she was now feeling for both herself and this wayward boy of hers. Icily, her gaze locked into the steely eyes of the man she had chosen to call ‘son’. His nose was bloodied, and his breath came in short pants. The filthy, tattered shorts hung loosely on his hipline. His skin was scratched and dirty and a large gash on his upper leg wept a watery, red fluid.

“Why don’t you ask her!”, he spat scanning the crowd for the face of Jessica.

“Who?” intervened Jarrod as he joined his mother and brothers.

“That dirty saddle tramp of a wench that accosted me on the trail and stole my clothes!” Heath raged, still struggling against the men who held him.

“Why you…,”

Nick never got a chance to finish his sentence, but was instead silenced by Jarrod’s “Nick, that will be enough!”

Finally focusing on Jessica’s aghast face, Heath’s strength was once again renewed as he tried to shake himself free.

“Heath! For the love of God, stop it!”

Victoria’s stinging slap brought the wayward young man back to reality as he ceased his struggle and now stood staring into his mother’s face. At this point, what was there to say? Whatever the problem was, she didn’t want it discussed in front of a roomful of people. She knew that an explanation was in order, but now was not the time.

“Jarrod,” she calmly ordered, “please dismiss our guests. The party’s over.”

“Certainly, Mother. Would you gentlemen please stick around until we get things under control?” Jarrod asked the men holding his two brothers.

As they nodded their affirmation, the lawyer dutifully excused himself to evacuate the guests from the Barkley home. Loud sobbing could be heard as Audra sat in her father’s favorite chair, with her face buried in it’s high back.

“If you gentlemen will be so kind as to release me,” Nick sputtered, “I would like to escort my date back into town.”

Sensing the tempest had passed, the men released their grip. Smoothing down the sleeves of his jacket, Nick glared at his younger brother.

“Now, I’m taking Jessica back to the hotel,” he seethed through clenched teeth, “And when I return, Brother, you and I are going to have words!”

As the guests began to filter out from the Barkley home, Heath suddenly realized how exhausted he was. Much too tired to continue his fight, he relaxed to where the two men holding him relaxed their hold as well. Puzzled by his brother’s outlandish behavior, Jarrod ushered the naked Heath into the back study. Victoria wisked around trying to encourage the stragglers in the direction of the front door. Comments such as “have you ever witnessed such appalling behavior?” and “I reckon where he comes from clothes and manners are obsolete” could be heard floating around various parts of the room as friends and neighbors gathered their coats and wraps.

Nick and Jessica had been among the first to take leave. Jarrod knew it would take at least an hour before Nick’s return, and we wanted to make the most of his time alone with Heath. At first he had accounted Heath’s odd behavior as a result of his battered, overwrought and fatigued condition when he arrived home. Heath must have encountered someone who ‘looked’ like Jessica. Someone who had stolen his clothes and caused him so much trauma. Pondering these thoughts, Jarrod found it only reasonable that his youngest brother would be quick to jump to action when he stumbled across a girl of similar appearance. Yet, it wasn’t like the level headed Heath he knew to jump to conclusions, much less come storming into a room full of people in cave man’s attire. No, there had to be some solid reason to his blonde brother’s behavior and he was going to somehow get to the bottom of it.

Upon entering the study, Jarrod led Heath over to the sofa and with a firm push on the shoulder, encouraged the cowboy to sit.

“All right, Heath,” the lawyer inquired. “Would you mind telling me what this is all about?”

Heath sank back into the sofa’s soft cushions and momentarily closed his eyes. The reality of what had just happened was finally starting to sink in. He had lost his head and now he would pay dearly. Not only had he ruined Audra’s party, but he was at odds with Nick and half the town was talking. A loud sigh escaped the cowboy’s lips. By morning, the entire town would be talking. Was it possible that this was only nothing more than a bad dream? No, if the party was a dream, the last twenty-four hours would have to be a nightmare as well, and the way his feet and body hurt, nothing could be closer to reality.

“Reckon I’d best start from the beginnin’.”

Jarrod could hear the weariness in his brother’s words as Heath conveyed the story from start to finish. As improbable as it seemed, he couldn’t help but sense some validity in Heath’s story. There had to be a reasonable explanation somewhere in this mess. The sound of the study door opening caused Jarrod to look up. Victoria entered the room with a red faced Audra. Her cheeks were still moist from where the tears had streaked down and puddled along her jawline. Small salt stains dotted the satin on her blue party dress. As her eyes zeroed in on her bedraggled brother sitting on the sofa in his dirty briefs, her sorrow turned to rage.

“How dare you, Heath Barkley!” she screamed, the tears of anger now filling her eyes. “How dare you come in like that and ruin my party! I had it all planned out! I wanted my twenty-first party to be the most memorable yet, and now you’ve gone and spoiled everything.”

“Audra, that’s enough,” Victoria soothed with an overtone of firmness. “I don’t know what your brother was thinking, but whatever it was, I’m sure he had his reasons.”

“His reasons? What reason could he possibly have except that he was purposely trying to humiliate me!”

“Audra,” Jarrod interrupted, “that’s quite enough. Now, I think it would be a good idea for you to go upstairs and try to get some rest. I’m sure things will take on a new light in the morning.”

“Yes, Audra,” Victoria concluded, “I think that is an excellent suggestion. We can continue this discussion in the morning after we’ve all had a good night’s sleep. And Heath,” she added, turning to face her husband’s illegitimate son, “I sincerely hope you have a logical explanation for us! Your behavior tonight was absolutely appalling!”

Heath chose not to respond to his mother’s and sister’s comments, but Victoria could tell by the set of his jaw and the stormy look in his eye, that her reprimands had not humbled the boy.

“Come along, dear,” Victoria coaxed Audra, “I’ll help you get out of your dress.”

“I think I’d like to stop by the kitchen and have a glass of milk first…”

Heath could hear Audra’s words fade as she and Victoria disappeared down the hallway. Upon entering the kitchen, Audra eyed the small, but neatly wrapped package laying on the wooden table. She picked it up and read “To: Audra, My Favorite Sister” printed in Heath’s handwriting.

“Here’s your milk, dear.”

Victoria’s voice seemed to barely break her trance.

“My what?” she murmured, tracing the lettering on the box with her finger.

“Your milk, Audra! You just told me you wanted a glass of milk!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mother. I guess I’m not that thirsty after all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I can manage the dress myself.”

With an exasperated sigh, Victoria headed back toward the icebox with the milk. Then hesitating a moment, she decided to take it up to her own room instead. A cool, soothing glass of milk may be just what she needed to calm her frazzled nerves.

*****

The thirty minute ride into Stockton was cloaked in silence. Jessica’s mind was working overtime trying to figure out what Jennifer had done. This problem would accelerate their plans. She’d meet with Jen tomorrow and wire Adam in San Francisco. Adam Bennett was as smart as they came. His business savvy and family connections allowed him to move freely among the wealthy in the city by the bay. He met the sisters five years prior, when they tried to rob him. He took one look at the beautiful but devious twins and saw gold. Jessica recognized his ability, intelligence and connections. He became their mentor. The last five years had brought them much success, working their charm on dozens of different schemes. One of Adam’s many fronts was a phony jewelry company. He sold the stolen merchandise in St. Louis or Denver. Adam would have to meet them sooner and move the merchandise. She glanced at her handsome escort and an evil grin curled her lips in the darkness. As startled as she was by Nick’s brother’s sudden appearance, the fight had given her quite a rush. Men were such thoughtless creatures at times, using brawn instead of brains.

Nick’s jaw was set in a permanent clench. The darkness of the warm night concealed his scowl. Heath got off lucky. Nick wanted to clean the floor with him. Every time he thought of the verbal abuse his brother hurled at Jessica, he got hotter. Oh, that boy would pay when he got home. Jarrod be damned; Heath hadn’t learned his lesson yet. The outskirts of town appeared and Jessica’s hand tapped his arm. He turned to her as he pulled the carriage to a stop in front of the dark hotel.

“I’m sorry, Nick. If I hadn’t been there, none of this would have happened,” she feigned. “Your poor brother. I can’t imagine whatever would possess him to tell such a tale.”

“Don’t you go feelin’ sorry for him. I fully intend to finish what I started. He not only insulted you, but he ruined my sister’s party. Flying off the handle like a half naked lunatic; yelling a whole lotta nonsense. He broke Audra’s heart, another thing I’m gonna be happy to remind him of,” Nick snarled, pounding the seat between them.

She smiled in the dark of the night, enjoying every word. She felt his arm around her shoulder and snuggled into his chest. Her small hand snaked up his chest and undid the buttons on his shirt. She ran her hand inside, lightly massaging his ribs. Slithering it’s way up his chest, her finger tips traced a hot path past his jaw, gently caressing the underside. Her manicured fingers outlined his ear and then pulled his head down. She heard the sharp inhalation.

“Oh Jessica…”

She lifted her face up as his mouth devoured hers. One hand pulled her close while the other moved up her waist and past the décolletage. She moved in tune with his advances, glad she’d chosen the low cut dress.

Audra removed the cold cloth from her eyes. The red puffiness still lurked. Although she was in her nightgown, sleep eluded her. Her eyes kept drifting to the small box on her desk. She looked at the hastily addressed note, folded under the strings of the package. Her brow creased when she thought of his inexcusable actions. She’d be the talk of the town by morning. How could she face her friends?

“How could you?” she thought aloud.

She was torn inside. One half of her citing the awful behavior of the evening; the other half holding up the Heath she knew so well. Quiet, loyal and so gentle. What could have made him act so outrageously? How could he hurt her? Didn’t he know how much she loved him?

She undid the string and read the label again. The words “my favorite sister” glared at her. She unfolded the small note. She recognized the small paper that came from Heath’s tally book, which he kept in his breast pocket. He must have written it on the way home. The few lines were typical of her brother.

“Happy Birthday Audra. Reckon I got good cause to celebrate. It’s not everybody who’s lucky enough to have such a sister. Love Heath”

She unwrapped the paper and opened the velvet box. Her eye’s grew wide and a smile fought it’s way forward. The striking beauty of the silver piece was exceptional. The pearlized pastel hues of the cameo appealed to her. She held the lovely broach to her throat and recognized that it spoke of Heath. She replaced the jewel in it’s velvet house. She was halfway to her bed when she heard the bathroom door. Peeking into the hall, she spotted him wearing cotton pajama bottoms. She followed his slow movements, noting the bulk of the bandage on his thigh and then the cut and blistered feet which moved so painfully. She crept silently behind him, trying to say his name. Finally, when he reached his bedroom and had a hand on the doorknob. She was about ten feet away.

“Heath?”

He stopped; the muscles in his back tensed up. He turned halfway, enough for her to see the torment on his face.

“The cameo is lovely. I would have known it was from you, even without the note. But, I don’t understand…I mean, why you acted like that? How could you do that to me?”

Heath stopped and closed his eyes at her words. His strength had long since dissipated. His legs could barely carry him. He listened to his sore feet, begging to go to bed. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was. None of this was her fault. But he couldn’t find the words. He was empty inside; used and abused….a mixture of anger, insult and embarrassment. He exhaled slowly and dropped his head. He entered the room and shut the door. He laid on the top of the bed. His bewildered mind lost a furious battle with his spent body.

*****

It was after midnight when Jarrod left the study. He had hoped to corral Nick when he returned, fearing his brother’s ire. As he climbed the stairs and headed for bed, he thought on Heath’s plight. Even if his stubborn brothers made up, which he doubted, there was still the awful gossip that would be circulating around town. Heath had enough trouble with the bigots in town, this would only add fuel to the fire. He turned out the light and hoped the dawn would bring some answers.

Nick entered the dark house in the early hours of the morning. He went into the parlor and poured a shot of whiskey. He enjoyed the burning path down his throat. He settled on the couch with another shot. He thought of the irony of the scene. He was the hot-headed one; Heath was the level-headed brother. What could have caused such a caustic reaction in the normally cool man? Whatever it was, his actions were barbaric. Insulting Jessica and embarrassing Audra.

Swirling the liquor in the dark, he looked towards the staircase. He drained the second glass and headed up the stairs, his anger building with each step. He paused for a moment outside Heath’s door and then moved inside.

He stood over the sleeping form with his fists clenched. The light from the hall illuminated the lacerated feet. The corner of his eye caught a picture clipped from the newspaper. Nick was smiling triumphantly at his grinning brother after a horse race during last month’s fund raiser for the orphanage. His jaw tightened and he pounded his fists in the air in frustration. He cursed quietly and retreated to the doorway.

“This ain’t over yet, brother,” He clenched his fists and made his way to his own room.

*****

Jarrod and Victoria shared coffee while they deliberated the shambles of the night prior.

Audra sat silently, nursing orange juice and a headache.

“I know you’re hurt honey, but this will blow over in time,” Jarrod soothed his sister.

“Will it Jarrod? How can I face my friends or the people in town?” Audra worried.

“If they’re your friends, they’ll stand by you. Those who don’t will be the same unworthy gossip-mongers that have abused Heath since he arrived,” Jarrod said, passing the coffee as he continued.

“Heath let his anger get the best of him. After hearing his story, I can understand how he felt but not how he acted.”

“His behavior was inexcusable,” Victoria steeled.

“Something that I intend to point out to him, in living detail,” Nick growled as he threw himself into a chair.

“Nick, we had enough of that last night. That accomplishes nothing,” Victoria warned.

“Oh, yes it does! It’ll make me feel better. He insulted Jessica and Audra. Those debts will be paid in full, I’ll see to it,” Nick spat while punching one fist into the other.

“Nick, I’m warning you, lay off. He had his reasons,” Jarrod’s eyes flashed.

“What reasons? How can you defend him? Oh, I forgot, you’re the champion of the downtrodden,” Nick’s sarcasm spilled.

“Enough. Jarrod what did he tell you?” Victoria asked.

Jarrod filled them in on everything Heath told him. Audra wanted to believe him, Victoria was impossible to read. Nick, of course, would have none of it.

“If you believe that, you must have been out in the sun with him. I was with her yesterday morning and in the afternoon. It wasn’t her.”

“It was her.”

Heath’s determined voice arrived shortly before he did.

“You calling me a liar, boy?” Nick snarled as he jumped up.

“I’m sayin’ I saw her. Make no mistake, she’s as guilty as sin.”

“You listen to me, Heath,” Nick menaced, using the fork in his hand to back his blond brother into the wall “You’re wrong – dead wrong. I was with her almost all day. Whatever happened to you didn’t involve her. Maybe that walk in the sun addled your brain.”

“You think I made it up? For what reason? I ain’t lying, Nick. It was her and I’m gonna prove it.”

“The only thing you’re gonna do is apologize to my sister and then to Jessica. You got that?” Nick charged.

For a minute the two stood eye to eye; neither giving an inch. Two identical jaws clenched, two steely gazes remained locked. Finally, Heath put a hand to Nick’s chest and eased himself from the wall. He walked to Audra’s chair.

“I’m sorry Audra, I never meant to hurt you. You gotta believe that. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I hope you can forgive me”

Audra looked up briefly and saw the pain and sincerity in his expressive eyes. She was so mixed up. She wanted to believe him, but how could she?

He looked around the room at the stone faces. They’d already made their decision. He thought he saw a flicker of hope in Jarrod. Victoria’s icy stare chilled him to the bone.

“Well, I guess I’m not suprised. What you’re not saying, says it all,” Heath muttered.

He turned to go out the back door, Nick’s bellow stopped him momentarily. He turned at the loud words.

“And just where are you prancin’ off to? I ain’t finished with you.”

Nick started after him, but Victoria intercepted him.

“I’m bein’ paid to do a job, I best get to it,” Heath spat as he exited.

“He’s got one helluva nerve. Where does he get off with that attitude? After what he did, he’s lucky I didn’t put him in that bed for a month. I’m not lettin’ him get off that easy,” Nick scoffed as he attempted to leave.

“Nick, sit down please and watch your language,” Victoria commanded.

“I know you’re mad and you feel Jessica’s honor was tarnished. But Nick, you’ve only known her one day. You’ve known Heath a lot longer. When have you ever heard him lie?” Jarrod questioned.

“I know what you’re trying to do, Jarrod. I know Heath wouldn’t lie, but she was here. He is wrong. He’s choking on that pride of his,” Nick contested.

“Maybe, Nick, but something’s not quite right about this whole picture,” Jarrod ended.

Breakfast resumed and the trio ate in silence, each pondering the problem and the possible solution.

*****

Heath felt the familiar pain inside as he rode to town. Why didn’t they believe him? Why did it usually come to him against them? He was tired of defending himself. As much as he was a Barkley, he often was the bastard. The one who was doubted. He felt the gazes and heard the whispers behind covered mouths as he climbed off Charger. He entered the sheriff’s office.

“Howdy Heath. What can I do for you?” Fred offered.

“I got a problem, sheriff, and I need your help,” Heath said as he sat down.

Thirty minutes later a skeptical sheriff reviewed the notes he had taken. He knew about the fight at the party. It was so unlike this young man to behave so irrationally. He wanted to believe him. Sending a wire to Fairfield would clear things up. He asked Heath to wait while he went to the telegraph office.

When he returned, he scratched his head and re-read the wire. The marshal in Fairfield confirmed Heath’s story. Something didn’t make sense. Fred decided to send Billy, his deputy to Fairfield to pick up information from the sheriff. Billy would be back by five or so. Fred told Heath to stop back then. If he had proof, he’d bring her in for questioning.

*****

Jennifer watched her sister pull up and dumped the rest of the bitter coffee on the ground.

“You’re early. Wasn’t expecting you until this afternoon.”

“We got a problem. Did you bushwhack a blond cowboy on the way here?”

Jennifer laughed and nodded, her green eyes lighting up.

“Oh, was that fun! You should’ve seen him climbing out of the creek, almost naked. I took his clothes and ran the horse off. He was spittin’ nails he was so mad. It was priceless.”

“It was more costly than you think, Sister.” Jessica entered the cottage and sat on a chair.

“What’s wrong,” Jennifer asked.

“Guess whose brother he is?”

Jennifer thought for a moment and then frowned.

“You don’t mean…he’s not related to the mark, the Barkley guy, is he?”

“Is he ever! It’s his brother. We’re gonna have to push things up a bit. They think he’s crazy. I got Nick eating out of my hand. That man has a one track mind. I can buy us a little time. I wired Adam and he’ll come in this afternoon on the train. By the way, I was invited to the mansion for a party for Nick’s sister. They’re loaded. I scoped out the place while I was there. I got a plan.”

“What’s up?”

“There is a reception for the mayor at the hotel tomorrow night. The whole family will be gone for about two hours, from seven to nine. I’ll be with Nick, that will leave you to the house. I gotta get back now. Nick’s taking me on a picnic by the river. I’ll draw a map and give you more details when we meet tomorrow. You meet Adam at the stop about five miles east, called Miller’s crossing. You bring him here.

*****

The sun seemed relentless and the day endless. Heath finished loading the bales of hay from the wagon into the pasture. He rode over to Walnut Creek to check on the crew fixing the dam. It was after 5 p.m when he headed to town. Billy wasn’t back yet, but Fred promised Heath he’d send word. Heath had to get back to the creek.

*****

The pretty spot by the river was a favorite of the dark cowboy. Many of Stockton’s finest fillies had been wined and dined on a blanket under this grand tree, but Jessica was something special. He couldn’t tear himself away from the beauty beside him. Those eyes glistened like emeralds and those lips were made for him. He watched as she leaned across his lap to pluck a grape from the plate near his hip. The trim on the low cut neckline hid nothing. The grape sat on the perfect row of white teeth before the tip on the pink tongue captured it. His blood began to boil and he pulled her close, running his hand along the curves. He realized she was getting angry.

“Nick, you haven’t heard one word I’ve said.”

“Guilty as charged, ma’am. The only thing I can concentrate on is that beautiful face of yours,” he replied huskily, nibbling on her neck.

“Is that all I am to you?” Her green eyes mocked.

Brushing against him as she stood, Jessica left the checked cloth covered with the remnants of lunch and walked to the river’s edge. She waited until she heard him near and put on her best pout.

“Aw, come on Jessica. Give me another chance. What’s my sentence for misbehaving, Madame Judge?”

She felt his hot breath tickling the back of her neck as he wrapped his arms around her from behind. She left her pout in place and turned slightly, allowing him to see the full, ruby-puffed lips.

“Well…,” she demurred, turning so she brushed against his skin.

She played him perfectly. He captured those lips and kissed her deeply. His hands traced the delicate bones in her spine and ended by unleashing her golden mane.

“God, you’re intoxicating, Jessica,” he choked.

He nuzzled her neck and she smiled over his shoulder. She held the back of his head with one hand and slipped the other through the unbuttoned shirt and massaged the bottom of his back, just below the belt. He captured her mouth and she felt the groan as her hand worked it’s way up along his chest. His tongue plowed onward and his strong arms pulled her close.

This was going too smoothly. She couldn’t wait until she met with Jennifer tomorrow. Her twin sister couldn’t possibly be having as much fun as she was. This Nick Barkley was an easy mark and a delicious one as well.

He rested his chin just above her head and caught his breath. His right hand spanned her firm hip while the left played with the silky blonde hair. He heard her soft laughter and looked down at the pretty face.

“What’s so funny?”

“A girl needs some secrets to keep her mysterious, Nick.” She deferred running a delicate finger along his lips.

A guttural sound came from deep within him and she found herself once again in his clinch. His strong arms held her close and she felt her lips being parted. He pulled her down on the soft grass. She smiled over his head as his lips left a hot trail past her heart. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

*****

It was just after ten in the evening when Nick exited the saloon and ended his celebration. He had stopped at Annie’s to ‘cool down’ before going home. What an afternoon and evening! The late picnic was perfect as was the heavenly interlude that followed. They had watched the sun go down, sharing the last of the wine. He couldn’t get enough of her. Waving to Harry, he left the saloon. He was approaching Coco when he saw Fred leave the hotel with Billy and Jessica in tow.

“Fred, what’s going on? What are you doing?” Nick asked as he reached the door in record time.

Fred ignored Nick for the moment to speak to his suspect.

“If you’ll come this way, ma’am, I have some questions for you.”

“NOW, HOLD ON A MINUTE!” Nick roared and pulled her back.

“Nick, get out of the way! Stay out of this! I got some questions to ask her about a crime that was committed. Go home Nick, I’m warning you.”

“Crime? She’s no criminal. Who told you …Oh now wait a minute. That lousy, no good excuse for a brother. He’s gone too far! I’m gonna bust Heath for this! He’s lyin’, Fred. That thick head of his is screwed on wrong!”

Fred saw the dark look on Nick’s face.

“He had his reasons, Nick, and the sheriff in Fairfield had some strong evidence, too. Look, she’s not being arrested. It’s just questioning. Now back off,” Fred warned.

“I’m coming with her,” Nick seethed.

“No, Nick, you’re going home. I don’t want you or that hot head of yours interferin’ in this,” the sheriff ordered with a firm hand on Nick’s chest.

“Nick, I’m sure this mistake will be cleared up,” Jessica interjected. “After all, I’ve been with you and been seen at the hotel and around town. Surely, with all these witnesses, nothing will come of this little mistake. I’m glad to help the marshall get this recified. I’m sure your brother didn’t mean to hurt me. You can come by tomorrow for lunch,” she demurred.

Nick felt like a volcano about to erupt. He raged as his angry eyes followed the trio. Nick didn’t remember climbing onto Coco, and the ride to the ranch was a blur. Taking the stairs two at a time, he flung open the door of Heath’s bedroom. He fisted his hands tightly in order to quell the desire for strangulation.

“Get up,” the voice growled.

“What?” Heath asked groggily.

“Get up outta that bed before I break you in two and plant you in it.”

Heath sat up and tried to focus on the figure looming above him in the dark.

“Get out, Nick.”

Heath felt both of his brother’s strong hands around his neck. The powerful dark figure lifted him off the bed and threw him against the chest of drawers. Heath pounced back, sending Nick through the door. They wrestled on the floor and rolled perilously close to the staircase. Heath managed to get on top and tried to combat Nick’s fury.

Nick used all his strength to push Heath hard into the railing. Heath’s head banged against the post. Nick caught his breath and climbed to his feet.

Heath staggered and tried to hold the rail for support. He blinked, trying to clear the dizziness; he rubbed his eyes. Like a bull chasing the red cape of the matador, Nick propelled himself full force at Heath’s unprotected form.

Jarrod’s warning came too late; it tumbled down the stairs after his brothers.

“NICK, DON’T!”

Even if they had been spoken a moment sooner, Jarrod’s words would have fallen on deaf ears. With the tenacity of a rebel defending his picket line, Nick had one mission in mind. He was going to learn this ill bred half brother of his some decent manners once and for all! Nobody, not even Heath, was going to stand in the way of his future with Jessica. Nor would he tolerate the disgrace and humiliation bestowed upon his mother and sister the previous evening. It was time for this boy’s malicious actions to come to a grinding halt, and Nick was going to be the one to pull the brake cord!

Bonded together like glue, the battling Barkleys cascaded downward, hitting the main floor with a loud thud. Scrambling to their feet, Heath was slightly quicker. By this time his head had cleared and what was now playing before him was crystal clear. Once again, Nick had taken the word of an enticing woman’s over his. It didn’t take much deducing for Heath to figure out that Jessica had been arrested. His livid brother’s irrational behavior told him even before Nick spoke.

“You double crossin’ liar!” Nick accused with the volume of a foghorn. “You told me you were goin’ out to work! What the hell do you think you’re doin’ goin’ to the sheriff instead? He’s got Jessica locked behind bars and it’s all your fault, you misbegotten whelp!”

As the caustic words hit his weary brain, their stinging venom bit hard. Heath went ballistic. If it wasn’t already enough that he had suffered unduly, been humiliated, had his word and sanity doubted by those he loved the most, and now his own brother casting insult upon injury was more than Heath could bear. With the ferocity of a mountain lion, he lunged toward his brother with every ounce of strength that he possessed. Grabbing Nick around the ribcage in a bear hug, Heath’s reasons for closeness weren’t for promoting brotherly love. Propelling his body forward with the might of a bull elephant, he and his opponent went sprawling into a nearby lamp stand. The shrill sound of shattering glass and the smell of kerosine soaking the carpet went unnoticed as the two fought and pummeled, each trying to win the upper hand.

From the balcony above, Victoria and Audra paused a moment to take in the situation before them. The room was dimly lit with the light of a single lamp, but the two forms fighting below and the heated voices were unmistakable. Jarrod was already half way down the stairs, taking two at a time.

“If that’s your way of insultin’ my mother, you’d better think again!” Heath growled through clenched teeth. “Nobody calls me a whelp and gets away with it! You hear me? Nobody!”

“Your mother be hanged,” Nick huffed. “This is about you and me, boy; just you and me! You shootin’ off your mouth to Fred with all that crock about Jessica, and me puttin’ an end to you and your lip!”

With an angry surge of adrenaline welling up through his veins, Heath smashed his fist into Nick’s jaw as hard as he could hit. Nick fell back again, this time into the settee. Heath was on him in a flash, gripping his brother’s throat with both hands.

“You take back what you said about my mother!” he seethed. “And as for that floozy of a blonde, she ain’t nothin’ more than white trash!”

“Heath! Stop it!”

Jarrod tried unsuccessfully to pull the enraged Heath off the gasping Nick. Loosening one hand, Heath swatted Jarrod off his arm like he would a fly, then quickly resumed his hold around Nick’s collar.

“Heath, no!”

This time it was Victoria’s panicked voice that rattled his ear drums.

“Heath! For the love of God, stop it! He’s my son, Heath, and you’re going to kill him!”

With those words coming from the woman he loved enough to call ‘Mother’, Heath’s rationale snapped him back to reality. My God! What was we doing? This man those throat was clamped in his vice-like grip was his brother! Relaxing the muscles in his calloused hands, Heath hung his head in mortified shame. The feelings of shame and remorse, however, didn’t last long. Having caught his wind, Nick was on his feet and beating Heath with the fury of a madman. Heath felt the deafening blow of Nick’s right fist to his left temple. Things seemed fuzzy as the attacker’s fists found new and vunerable areas to make their marks. Soon everything went dark. What seemed like hours was merely seconds. When he opened his eyes again, Nick’s reddened face was as a blur and Jarrod’s was looming in the background. Instinctively, Heath knew that the reason the beating had stopped was due to the fact that Jarrod was holding the hot-headed Nick in restraint. The face of Victoria was the next thing that came into view, hovering over her battered stepson, caressing the side of his face with her long, delicate fingers.

“Lemme at ‘im, Jarrod!” Nick roared. “This boy ain’t through with his lessons yet!”

“Nick, simmer down! Haven’t you done enough already!?”

“I haven’t even begun! Now you turn me loose, Jarrod! I aim to finish what I started!”

“Finish what, Nick?” Victoria demanded standing to her feet to face her middle son headon. “Were you planning to beat your brother to death? Now, I will not tolerate any more of your aggression! The case is closed, Nicholas, do you understand me! Closed!”

“Jarrod,” the matron continued, taking full charge “I want you to take your brother out for a breath of fresh air…and don’t allow him to come back in until he’s had a chance to cool off. Audra, I need you to get me the Godfrey’s linament and a damp cloth!”

Reluctantly Nick eased his struggling, but Jarrod kept one hand on the cowboy’s arm as a reminder that his mother was not to be disobeyed. Using his free hand to comb back the dark locks that draped his forehead, Nick turned for the door, cursing under his breath.

Heath closed his eyes and groaned inwardly. The way his face felt, that linament was really going to sting. All he really wanted, was to get back into that soft bed of his. The bed where he had been contently sleeping until Nick had so rudely awakened him.

“Here’s the linament, Mother,” Audra whispered, offering both the bottle and rag to Victoria.

She was still baffled by the display of behavior demonstrated by her two brothers. It seemed as though they had actually been bent on killing each other. Audra gave a slight shutter. Heaven forbid such a thing ever happening. Just a couple of days ago, Heath and Nick were close allies and either one would have challenged anyone who said differently. Now, suddenly they had turned into bitter enemies, hostile and violent towards one another.

“Thank you, dear,” responded Victoria taking the items her daughter offered.

Turning back to her son, Victoria struggled to get him into an upright position.

“Here Heath,” Victoria encouraged. “Why don’t you try to sit up. You’ll be much more comfortable over here on the sofa while I tend these cuts and bruises.”

Heath was in no mood to argue with his mother’s good intentions. Slowly he sat up and gingerly rising, allowed her to walk him over to a chair. He sank back into the velvet cushions and looked at her with sorrowful eyes. He knew that somehow things would get worked out. At least they always had in the past when he and Nick had had disagreements. But for the time being, he didn’t feel safe sleeping in his own house. Nick had already yanked him out of a sound sleep once, catching him off guard, and it wasn’t going to happen again.

Victoria wanted to nurse his wounds, and he would go along with it. After she had finished, he would excuse himself and go to bed. By that time, Nick and the rest of the family would probably be heading there as well. But after everyone was asleep, he would slip out. Tomorrow he was going to get some answers. He would go over to Fred’s and confront this femine serpent himself. Jarrod wasn’t the only member of the family who could bring a false witness to justice. Come hell or high water, he was going to settle this thing and prove to his family just how wrong they had been. Nick would be sorry. Yes, sirree. When all was said and done, Nick would be on his knees begging his forgiveness.

The late hour did nothing to quell the intense heat. The humid air clung to Jarrod like a heavy drape. He listened to the night creatures and watched Nick douse himself at the pump. His mind reeled like a vortex, trying to sort out the events of the last few days. Heath was so far out of character, that Jarrod was inclined to believe him…but on the other hand, Nick seemed right, too. This last violent scene played out in the foyer wouldn’t be repeated. He intended to investigate Miss Cassidy to the fullest. He waited a few minutes and then followed the ‘tempest’ to the barn.

In the small mirror on the wall, Nick viewed the damage inflicted on him by his brother. He winced as the split lip continued to ooze. There would be a black eye to match the bruises on his neck. He thought of the damage in the house and his mother’s wrath. It couldn’t go on like this. That boy would have to see the light or Nick would send him packing. He turned at Jarrod’s voice.

“Nick, this has to stop. You and Heath were trying your damnedest to kill each other in there. What happened this time?”

“He reported Jessica to the sheriff. She’s no criminal and I won’t have her treated that way. My intention was, and still is, to pound some sense and instill some manners into that thick head of his,” Nick seethed, punching the wall for emphasis.

“Or die trying?” Jarrod queried.

Jarrod gave up trying to keep pace with Nick’s long legged stalk around the barn. He settled onto a pile of haybricks and watched Nick’s fists clench repeatedly. His brother’s face was still contorted.

“Nick, I’ve been thinking what happened to Heath. It’s not like him to become so unraveled. I think there may be something to his story.”

Nick swung around and strode up to the lawyer. Swinging a lean leg onto the bale next to him, he emphasized each strong word with his index finger.

“I should’ve known you’d take his side; that bleedin’ heart of yours is stainin’ your shirt. Jarrod, I was with her. It couldn’t have been her. End of story. Save your closing argument speech for him,” Nick spat.

“I’m on the side of the truth, Nick. How much do you really know about her? Where does she come from? What about her family? What business is she involved in? Where…” Jarrod didn’t finish.

“Now hold on there. She’s not on trial and I am not interrigating her. She’s a wonderful, beautiful woman whom I happen to like very much,” Nick stated loudly.

Jarrod rose from his perch and walked to where Nick was staring at Charger. He laid a hand to the torn shirt of his younger brother and spoke quietly.

“I know you like her Nick, and I hope this is all a big mistake. We’ve had that younger brother of ours for two years. I think I know him well enough to understand that something is dreadfully wrong. He wouldn’t accuse Jessica without good cause. You know him Nick, probably better than any of us. Has he ever tried to hurt you or lie to you? Been deceptive in any way?”

“No…No…he’s not that way. I know that, but… Jarrod it’s not her.”

“Nick, when I asked you about her background it was only because I care about both my brothers and want to see this ended. There will be more fighting. I’m only trying to help,” Jarrod gently suggested.

He saw the edge leave Nick’s face and felt the tension in his back slowly disappear. He watched as Nick unconsciously ran a hand down Charger’s neck. He waited until his brother’s eyes had cooled down.

“What do you know about her, Nick?”

“She’s from San Francisco. She’s a little younger than me and loves horses. She has no family, or at least hasn’t mentioned any. She’s here on business for a few days.”

“What kind of business? Did she say?”

“Uh…something about meeting a client. I dunno, Jarrod.”

“That’s a little vague Nick, don’t you think? What were you doing all that time?”

“Discussing the Stock Exchange,” Nick mocked. “What do think we were doing?”

Nick’s raised eyebrow and sarcastic look gave Jarrod a brief chuckle.

“Funny, usually those extracurricular activities put you in a good mood,” Jarrod teased.

“I’m done talking about me. What about him?” Nick warned.

“Him? He has a name, he’s not some derelict. I’ll speak with Heath and tomorrow we’ll go together to speak with Jessica and the sheriff. We have to solve this mystery. Agreed?”

Nick reluctantly nodded and walked towards the door. Jarrod followed, hoping his mother had talked some sense into his heated youngest brother.

*****

Heath hadn’t moved an inch since Victoria finished applying the liniment. He sat stonefaced. His steely eyes never varied. Her questions went unanswered.

“Heath, please talk to me. This has got to stop. I won’t have you and your brother repeating this fiasco. What happened?”

“Ask your son!” His terse reponse hit her hard.

The cutting emphasis on the words ‘your son’ hurt. She tried to grab his arm as he rose to leave, but he shrugged it off. She followed him to the staircase and latched onto the bare arm.

“I am asking my son.”

He turned briefly and saw the heartache on her face. Her gray eyes were full of emotive sorrow. This woman, this determined soul was his mother. She was that and so much more. With a deep sigh, he turned.

“I had to tell the sheriff about what happened in Fairfield and on the way home. He wired the marshal and got the confirmation I expected. He was waiting for the full report when I checked with him earlier.” Heath’s shoulders slumped and his tone lowered as he continued.

“She’s guilty Mother, there is no doubt in my mind. I don’t have answers yet for Nick, but I aim to find out somehow.”

He stepped down to the landing to face her and took both small hands. Looking into the watering eyes, he made a promise.

“I don’t want to upset you any more. You got my word, I won’t start any more fights with Nick. But I will defend myself if he attacks me again.” He sealed the promise with a kiss to her forehead.

She watched as he walked slowly up the stairs and heard him speak from the heart as he entered his room.

“I’m sorry, Mother, I really am.”

She was alone in the parlor when Nick entered. Jarrod gave her a ‘I-think-he’s-okay-for-now’ face and followed Nick to the stairs. Jarrod continued up toward his bedroom.

“Nick, I want to speak with you a moment.”

Nick turned and walked toward the small formidable force. She rose and accepted his kiss to her cheek.

“I’m sorry, Mother. It won’t happen again.”

She hugged him and murmured her thanks. They walked to the stairs and she watched him stop and glance at Heath’s closed door. A brief flicker of anger crossed his face. She squeezed his arm tighter and they headed for bed.

*****

The new dawn had not yet broken as Heath dressed in the dark, not wanting to face another inquisition at breakfast. He’d head out to Spring Meadow and start his repair work. Later, he’d pay a visit to Miss Jessica Cassidy and get the truth out of her, one way or another.

Nick ate his breakfast in silence and left quickly. He headed for the bunkhouse to check in with Jake Hopkins, his foreman. He spotted the middle aged man by the porch.

“Jake, how far behind are we up at Walnut Creek? That engineer can’t wait forever. I outta bust that brother of mine for runnin’ out on you.”

Jake watched as Nick peeked inside the bunkhouse and caught the suprised look at the empty room.

“They hightailed outta here already,” Jack said calmly.

“To avoid their cranky boss?” Nick guessed seeing the hard look on the normally amiable man’s face.

Jake watched as Nick pretended to read the duty roster posted on the wall. He was much older than Nick when Tom Barkley took him on 25 years ago. He knew both of Tom’s sons and knew how stubborn they both were.

“Look, Nick, you and Heath gotta fix this problem between you or leave it up there,” he said, pointing to the white columned mansion.

“I won’t put in another day like yesterday, and I won’t put my men through it either,” he continued to Nick’s back.

“I don’t let my personal business affect this ranch,” Nick tried.

“Oh don’t you?” Jake scoffed. “I beg to differ. I spent all morning watching that short fuse of yours explode over nothing. I saw you chew out hands for no reason. Then I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with that mulish brother of yours. Not one word outta him. Face longer that the Mississippi and twice as grim. Wouldn’t listen to reason. Let the crew go at supper and didn’t ride in till almost ten last night. Bury it Nick. You and him are one helluva team. Whatever it is, it’s not worth losing him. “

Nick’s head shot up at the last remark. Jake saw a shot of fear in the eyes before the scowl returned.

“I saw that Nick. I hope that did scare you some. You’ve seen him through some pretty tough storms. Folks bad mouthin’ him and them bigots that talk down to him. He’s got a lot of pride. You push him too far, too hard – he just might walk. Even Heath has a breaking point. I’ve never seen him as angry as he was last night. You know what you mean to him, Nick. It hurts twice as much coming from you.”

Jake patted Nick’s black vest and headed outside. Nick stared hard at the distant mountains out the window and thought on Jake’s words. He and Heath had been so busy beating each other, maybe they’d missed something. He didn’t like the sour stomach and bad feeling he’d held since the fighting started. If it wasn’t Jessica, and Nick knew she wasn’t involved, then someone else was guilty. They should be the ones punished, not us.

“The dam?” Nick asked stepping off the porch.

“We’re done, Nick. I just got back from there. Heath worked with his shift up there all day. I left with him close to five or so last night. He must’ve gone back and finished the modificatons on his own. The engineer was real impressed with Heath’s drafts. He inspected the dam this morning. It’s all done.”

Jake watched as Nick walked slowly over to Coco and turned as he rode away.

“Thanks Jake.”

*****

It was almost eight in the morning when Heath arrived in town. He had a lot to do and little time to waste. After checking in with the sheriff, he would see that thief. Somehow she’d stolen his brother’s heart and blinded him in the process. He had a full afternoon of hot work on the fenceline before heading to the mayor’s reception. He hated the thought of climbing into a suit in this heat and sufferin’ through boring speeches, but he’d promised his mother over a week ago.

“Mornin’.”

“Hello, Heath. I was just about to ride out and visit with you,” the sheriff greeted, wincing inwardly at Heath’s battered face. “You tangle with Nick again?”

Fred got no asnwer as he stood and walked around the desk. He handed Heath a folder that contained a dossier on the robberies in the area. The only eyewitness who could provide a description was Heath.

“But the shopkeeper saw her, too,” Heath frowned.

“The store clerk couldn’t positively identify her. She’s claiming she didn’t see the face real clear,” Fred answered.

Heath’s eyes bore a hole through the wanted poster. It was Jessica Cassidy.

“I’m gonna find her,” Heath fumed. “Then I’m gonna have a talk with that brother of mine.”

“Now hold on there. That’s not your job, young man. She’s not at the hotel. I’ve got a man posted there waiting for her and two more looking around town. I’ll find her. You cool down. I don’t break colts and mend fences – you don’t arrest felons. Agreed?”

Heath nodded as he scanned the rest of the report. His eyes widened at the information on the last paragraph.

“$25,000 in jewels? Pretty slick operator.”

“She’s got help. More than one, I’d bet. I’ll try and find Nick and talk to him. I updated Jarrod before he left for San Francisco. We’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“San Francisco?” Heath wondered out loud.

“Yeah, he stopped in about an hour ago. After reading the report, he mentioned your brother Nick told him that’s where Jessica was from. He’s going to ask around and try to find out about her. He mentioned that he’d be back around five this evening.”

Heath handed the folder back to Fred and departed for the ranch. For the first time in the last couple of days he felt a little hope. He knew if anyone could get to the truth, it was his oldest brother. He’d meet Jarrod at the train.

*****

It was about four in the afternoon when Heath rode back into town. He was stopped at the livery by the teenage boy whom he had spoken with that morning. A woman matching Jessica’s description rented a buggy and headed south.

“Does the sheriff know about this?” Heath inquired.

“He wasn’t in. I left him a note,” the boy replied.

Heath rode south for several miles when he spotted a buggy in the distance. He urged Charger onward and followed the turn it made. The buggy continued down an obscure, bumpy road and halted in front of a seemingly deserted cabin. Concealed in the trees, he watched as a blonde woman got down and entered the door of the cabin. He tied his horse in the brush and crept onto the porch. Peering through the window, he saw her talking to a well dressed man. His eyes didn’t miss the large cache of jewels spread on the table. The click in his ear and quick hand removing his gun surprised him.

“Move it, Handsome,” she prodded, using the gun to jab at his backribs.

She shoved him hard through the door. He lost his footing and fell forward, landing on all fours. He felt the full force of her kick to his ribcage.

“Get up, Cowboy!”

She motioned to the chair and he slumped on it, gasping and nursing his middle. Adam yanked Heath’s hands behind his back and tied them tightly. He smiled as the winded cowboy winced at the ropes which cut into his skin. Adam then secured him to the chair by tying a rope around the captive’s waist. Heath gasped for several minutes, still reeling from the bruising in his side. Finally, he lifted his head and blinked in astonishment.

Jennifer laughed raucously at the shocked look on his face. Jessica joined in and watched as her devious sister knelt in front of the prisoner.

“You look a mite flushed, Sugar. Let me help you out,” Jennifer flirted, straddling the defenseless victim.

She unbuttoned the front of his shirt and ran a hand along the damp golden hair inside. Her finger trailed behind the path that a bead of sweat was weaving. She caught up to the moisture and slowly licked it off her finger.

“You sure are a fine lookin’ specimen. What a waste,” she added, cupping his startled face. “That’s right, Honey. We’re twins.”

She ended the thought with a full kiss to the unwilling participant’s lips.

Shaking his head free, Heath scowled as the haughty feline stood upright and tilted her head back in obscene laughter.

“Well, guess I ain’t too surprised,” he grumbled. “I should’ve known my brother would’ve had good reason to think you innocent.”

“Your brother didn’t know ‘what’ he was thinkin’,” chimed Jessica with a seductively evil smile curling her sensuous lips. “He would have handed me the world if I had asked him. Stupid fool! I’ll almost feel a tad bit of guilt having to break that foolish heart of his!”

“But you’ll go ahead and do it,” supplied Heath. “And after you’ve finished with him, you’ll move on to the next town and try to hook another one. Your act just moves from one stage to the next!”

“That’s right, cowboy,” she varnished with sweet words, running her delicately boned hand up the side of his still battered face. “That’s why we can’t afford to leave behind any witnesses. But there’s still time for plenty more fun before Jen and I decide to depart.”

“You’ll have to kill me first!” Heath seethed, through gritted teeth, unsuccessfully struggling against his bonds.

“That’s entirely up to you, Cowboy,” came the throaty laughter. “We can play it anyway you want. But just remember. I can hurt you in ways to make you wish you’d been a better sport about the whole thing. You’re gonna die anyway! Why not die happy?”

Gently tweeking his nose, Jessica turned to face Jennifer and Adam.

“What time is it, Adam,” she demanded, taking full charge of the situation at hand.

“Almost half past three,” came the dutiful reply.

“Good! That gives us plenty of time. The reception isn’t supposed to start until seven. Nick is planning to pick me up at the hotel around six-thirty for cocktails, which means everyone will have to be leaving the house by six. Jen, I suggest that you go ahead and get started. Find a concealed place to hole up in the general proximity of the house. That way there’s no danger of accidently running into anyone on the road. I’ll wait a few minutes and then head back to town to meet our ‘Romeo’. We’ll meet back here afterwards, and then head south as planned.”

“But what about Sugar, here?” teased Jennifer, playing up innocence to the hilt with widened green eyes. “We haven’t even had our fun yet!”

“You’ll have your opportunity, sister,” Jessica toyed playfully, “But for now, he’s mine! Now scat! You too, Adam. It’s such a pleasant evening – a little fresh air would do you good!”

Obediently, Adam took his hat from the small table and headed for the door. He had traveled with the twins long enough to know their appetite for attractive men. The same scenario had been played before him a dozen times. They would find some poor soul who was more than happy to allow himself to be swept off his feet. The romance would last just as long as convenience allowed, and then ‘lover boy’ would find himself left high and dry. Sure, he knew it was ruthless and deceptive, but those were the principles on which he had built his business. As much revenue as the twins were bringing in, he could afford to overlook quite a bit.

Jennifer lifted her gunbelt from the back of a chair and strapped it on. Heath looked past her and there on the table lay his own gun, nestled among the assortment of gems and jewels. How he longed to feel the smooth wooden handle with it’s eagle insignia in his hand now. Unless someone had taken the time to empty it, all six chambers should still be loaded. He saw the familiar black mask as the feminine bandit grabbed it off a nearby pile of belongings. Stopping by his chair to stoop and plant and a sensuous kiss on his mouth, she bid him her final farewell.

“Now don’t you be going anywhere, sugar, and try not to overdo it while I’m gone. We still have a whole evening ahead of us!”

Heath turned his head to follow both Adam and Jennifer out the door. With a loud slam, the two were gone and the cabin was now silent. Turning his head back, his eyes met the evil gaze of the third party. Seductively she sidled up to him, seating herself on his lap. Holding his head in her soft grasp, she forced his lips over to hers and kissed him with passion. Trying to fight off her advances, he struggled to turn his head away.

“What’s the matter, Handsome,” she coquetted, temporarily relinquishing her oral hold. “You know you can’t win, now open up. Let Jess show you what it means to kiss a real woman.”

“You show me one and I will,” he challenged.

“That wasn’t nice,” the temptress dallied, tracing her finger down his chest. “Now please, don’t make me hurt you. We can do this friendly like or I can get rough. What’s it gonna be, Cowboy?”

Mulling over her words, Heath relaxed his struggle. He had a plan brewing and he’d only have one opportunity to try and pull it off. Staring straight ahead, this time he allowed her to lock her lips with his. Fervently, Heath returned the kiss.

“You wanna know somethin’, Sweet Stuff,” the green-eyed seductress trifled, pausing momentarily from her game. “You really oughta take lessons from your brother. Now, there’s a man who can really make a gal feel like a woman.”

This time it was Heath who made the advances, passionately embrangling her mouth as he would a stick of peppermint candy. Engulfed in a sea of unwelcome emotion, Heath could feel the color rising up his collar, as his body betrayed him.

“My, but you blush pretty,” she cooed, fingering the thick strands of his blonde hair as she stopped to admire his ruggedly handsome features. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it!”

“No,” murmered Heath, “that wasn’t bad at all. In fact it was downright nice.”

“Now you’re gettin’ the idea, Sugar!” she purred, the sweet aroma of her breath gently sweeping his nostrils. “I think you might even give ‘ol Nick a run for his money!”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty of ideas,” he coyed. “Ideas for the two of us….but, me bein’ tied up and all is goin’ to make things a bit difficult.”

“What do you take me for?” she asked, her sinister laughter bouncing off the walls of the cabin. “A complete idiot? I’m sure you’d just love for me to cut you loose now, wouldn’t you. And then you’d be hightailin’ it back to that fancy ranch of yours to warn your brother and family. No, I don’t think so, cowboy. What I’ve got planned for you will work just fine the way you are.”

“Okay,” leveled Heath, trying to use his quick wit to think up a new tactic. “I guess we’ll do things your way. But there’s only one slight problem. These ropes are really diggin’ into the sides of my wrist. Makes it kinda hard for a feller to concentrate on such a lovely face.”

“Oh, you’ll be concentratin’, Sugar, believe me! Now, if you would excuse me for a moment, I’ll be right back!”

Heath’s thoughts were whirling like a windmill as he devised a new plan. He could see that his previous tactics weren’t going to work with this one. No sir. She had the cunning of a shrew and the heart of a serpent. The only thing this one was going to understand was brute violence and now was the time to act!

Firmly locking his legs around her waist, Heath stood up suddenly and threw himself sideways, taking the chair with him. He forced the two of them into the wall hard. He welcomed the loud crack, realizing the chair had broken, freeing him, but not his bound hands. They slid to the floor, his weight pinning the struggling femme fatale. He raised his face inches above hers.

“Looks like you lose…..Sugar!” he sneered triumphantly.

Heath elbowed her hard as she started to rise. She let out a yelp as she landed back down on the floor. Heath was on her in a split second, using his boot to kick her into unconsciousness.

Heath stepped back and cringed at the sight before him. Never before had he struck a female, but she had left him no choice. He had to use any means possible to prevent her from carrying out her plans for both him and his family. These women were vindictive and ruthless. If one of the family was in the wrong place at the wrong time and tried to unhinge their scheme, neither sister would think twice about silencing a witness. And what about Silas? Heath knew that he was supposed to have the night off for supper with the minister of his church, but what if he managed to run into Jennifer? No, what he had just done was about the only thing he could do. Male or female, these were hardened criminals he was dealing with and they would have to be treated as such.

Staggering over to the table, Heath shook the remaining bits of wood free from his back. He needed to find a knife and quick. There was no telling when Adam would decide to return and he didn’t want to be caught with his hands in the cookie jar, so to speak. Nor did he want to face Jessica in his current condition if she somehow managed to regain consciousness.

A glistening blade of steel caught his eye from where it lay on the hearth. Shuffling over and backing up to it, Heath fingered the handle, managing to slide it’s blade between his wrists. Swiftly and skillfully he sawed at the ropes, being carefull not to dig the knife into his own skin. Finally he felt the ropes break loose as he shook off his bonds and freed himself from the remains of the cumbersome chair.

Using several long strides, Heath retrieved his piece with the eagle handle from the table, checking the chamber for shells. Yes. Each bullet was in place. Pulling back the hammer, he slipped out the door and made for the place he had left Charger. Without hesitation, he knew where he must go first. He would take care of matters at home, and then he would report to the sheriff. Swinging the bay’s head around, Heath kicked Charger into a full gallop.

*****

Earlier on Sunday morning: Victoria finished dressing and started downstairs. Audra wasn’t up to going to church this morning, still upset by the actions of the last two days. Heath and Nick were both missing.

As she reached the foyer and walked towards Jarrod’s study, she thought of her two fueding sons. She hoped wherever they were, they were thinking about their actions. She knew Heath wasn’t making the story up. Nick was well known for his temper and short sightedness at times. It wouldn’t have surprised her if he had been the one to make such a bold accusation. But Heath? He often thought too long and hard before coming to a conclusion. It just didn’t make sense. She was so distracted, she didn’t hear Jarrod approach and jumped slightly when he grasped her elbow. They stepped outside and approached the buggy.

“You must be miles away, Mother, you didn’t hear me call to you,” Jarrod mused.

“I’m sorry dear. Are you ready…” She halted noting his valise. “Where are you going?”

“To San Francisco, just for the day. I’ll be back in time for the reception tonight.”

She watched the intense blue eyes working overtime. He urged the team forward and as they trotted down the drive, she spoke.

“What is it that you hope to find there?”

He sighed deeply before replying.

“Anything I can about Miss Jessica Cassidy. Nick offered very few clues. All he knows is that she’s from San Francisco and is involved in a business of some kind. I’ll drop in on Frank Wells, he owes me a favor.”

“Did you see either of your brothers this morning?”

“Not Heath, he was gone very early. I spoke with Nick briefly. I told him what I was going to do. He’s upset, but I think he realizes that this puzzle has to be solved.”

“It certainly does. I just can’t imagine what has gotten into Heath. I feel badly that he thinks we’re deserting him. But whoever assaulted him, it certainly wasn’t Jessica. The sooner he realizes he’s made an error, the better.”

“Mother, did you get a chance to speak with Jessica during the party?” Jarrod turned.

“Briefly,” Victoria remembered. “She didn’t offer much about herself. She commented on the house, furnishings, my dress and jewels. She seemed to know quite a bit about the finer things. She recognized the gown I wore by the design. I had it made at Madame Dupont’s shop on Nob Hill. I think she knew the value of the necklace too. She’s very astute. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.”

Jarrod patted his mother’s hand. He would make it a point to stop at Madame Dupont’s. By hook or by crook, Jarrod intended to uncover the truth.

“You’ve been a big help. I’ll stop by that shop. She may have some useful information.”

Jarrod slowed the buggy and got off at the sheriff’s office. He had half an hour until his train left. His mother departed for church as Jarrod entered the office.

Victoria held her head up high, her gaze unwavering. She made her way up the aisle and took a seat near the front. She heard the whispers and felt the eyes boring into her back. She was relieved when the Minister gave her a heartfelt smile and started the service.

*****

Jarrod enjoyed the slight breeze the bay offered. One of the many fine things about this town he knew one day would be his home. San Francisco’s bay breeze. He paid the cab driver and then stepped aside to let the carriage pass. He made his way into the Pinkerton Office. He’d known Frank Wells for several years. He was a good dectective. Jarrod trusted him and had only known him to be honest and straight. He also knew Frank was a determined man, and stopped in the office every Sunday morning. Sure enough, there was the familiar reddish-brown head bent over a file. He waved as Frank noticed him and smiled.

“Little off your course, Counselor. What brings you here on a Sunday?”

“I need your help, Frank. If you have a few minutes, I’d like to ask a favor of you.”

“Anything, Jarrod, you know that. What’s up?”

Frank leaned forward and listened as Jarrod spoke. Years of experience guided him as he jotted down notes. He studied the drawing Jarrod offered. He looked hard for a moment, then crossed the room. He rummaged through a pile of folders and came back and handed a thick one to Jarrod.

“That brother of yours is damned lucky to be alive,” Frank said.

Jarrod sat up and bore a blue hole into the sharp detective. He took his time and read through the report. Many victims had fallen prey to her. Mostly wealthy, attractive men. Once she tired of them, she ended the affair and moved on, often with a good deal of their money or valuables.

“Why hasn’t she been arrested?” Jarrod asked.

“No one will press charges. All this information is second hand. They are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been conned. They report it to their insurance companies and get reimbursed. Some of these guys have huge egos, Jarrod. They don’t want it known a woman conned them.”

“Just how is my brother lucky to be alive?”

“Jarrod, we have two unsolved murders that have a similiar M.O. as this one. Two wealthy men, both robbed and murdered. No witnesses. But they were both seeing a woman that resembled Miss Cassidy. Both were killed in their own homes on evenings after a late supper with her…but she had an airtight alibi both times.”

“How airtight?”

“Read for yourself. One night she was at the theater, dozens of people saw and spoke with her, including the lead actor of the play. The other night she was at a dinner given to honor the Governor. She sat at his table. Both times she had the same escort. A man named Adam Bennett, a business partner.

Jarrod nodded taking notes of his own. He read the bio on Bennett in the folder. About forty, attractive, with brown hair and eyes. Very tall and well spoken. His family was very wealthy. Jarrod knew from the circles in which he traveled just how deep the pocket of Mark Bennett was. His four sons were all well established in a variety of businesses. He glanced at his watch and still had a few stops to make before catching the train.

“Thanks Frank. I’ll keep you posted.”

“You do that, Jarrod. I would like nothing better than to turn her over to the D.A’s office. I’ll be waiting.”

Jarrod was at the door when he heard Frank’s warning.

“Oh, Jarrod. You tell your brother to keep his eyes open. That woman is no lady. She’ll slit his throat as soon as look at him.”

“I’ll do that, Frank. Thanks again.”

Madame Elise Dupont’s shop was well known throughout California. Anyone who could afford her, never went elsewhere. She was a striking woman, whose beautiful face could be anywhere from thirty to fifty years old. There were no wrinkles; only a creamy complexion, black eyes and hair as black as a raven’s wing. Jarrod waited by the front counter, fingering a silky chemise made of deep apricot silk. Her voice came from behind him.

“Not your size, I’m afraid, Mister Barkley. Not Gabrielle’s size, either. She is too ample in the chest for that piece.”

Jarrod blushed slightly and replaced the item. Gabrielle was a woman he saw socially when he was in town. She was, as Jarrod’s women always were, very beautiful and very intelligent.

“I’m not shopping for Brielle today, I’m shopping for information. Is this woman a client of yours?”

Elise studied the drawing and nodded.

“She is very comely and a very good customer. She pays in advance and demands perfection. She never mentions anything about her personal life. She’s also as cold as ice.”

“What else can you tell me about her?”

“She’s been a regular for about six years or so. Unlike most of my clients who have the garment delivered, she always picks it up or has someone do it for her.”

“Cold as ice, huh. How so?”

“A woman can sense this in another woman. A man will not often see it . She has no heart, just lives for what she can get out of men. It’s like a game to her. She hasn’t made your acquaintance, has she?” Elise worried.

Jarrod smiled and squeezed her hand.

“No, I’ve met her and can honestly say she’s not my type. Thanks Elise, for your help.”

“Jarrod, I do know she often goes to the Clarion. It’s her favorite restaurant. Whatever it is you’re looking for, maybe someone there can help.”

Jarrod hurried to The Clarion, a four star restaurant with prices to match. He dined there frequently and knew the maitre’de well. It was a lull in the late afternoon, and Lucien was glad to help.

“Good day, Mister Barkley, you’re a little early. Dinner won’t start for hours yet.”

“Hello, Lucien. It’s good to see you again. I’m not eating today, I’m investigating this woman. What can you tell me about her?”

Lucien shook his head and snorted at the sight of the vixen. He handed the paper back to the lawyer and offered him a glass of wine as they spoke. Jarrod sipped the fine vintage and listened to Lucien’s tale.

“I know her well. A cold-blooded snake she is. She comes in several times a month. Usually two weeks or so with one man, then moves on to another. She makes no secret of her intentions. Displays herself lewdly, makes suggestive remarks openly. These men are besotted with her. I’ve heard the rumors that she robs them and they are too vain to admit to it. She used to live in an apartment on Nob Hill, but she moved after the last murder furor. I haven’t seen her in weeks. Maybe she’s gone. Good riddance.”

“Sounds personal, Lucien.”

“It is, Jarrod. Charles Pearson was a good customer, a fine man. I knew him for years. He was devoted to his wife, they never had children. She died last year and that…strumpet turned his head. He was one of her victims. Oh, they didn’t prove it, she had an alibi. I don’t know how she did it, but I know she killed him. I hope she hangs one day.”

Jarrod put his notebook away and drained the chablis. Thanking Lucien, he left for the train. As the train made it’s way to Stockton, Jarrod glanced at his watch. It would be almost seven when he arrived. He had to stop Nick before it was too late. He knew what Adam Bennett looked like, if they intended to sting Nick, Bennett would be close by. Jarrod would too. Jessica Cassidy would be brought to justice. Nick wouldn’t like it, but he’d listen. He had to; Jarrod wouldn’t let her harm Nick. And Heath?

That was the part Jarrod couldn’t figure. The alibi, was that something Bennett was involved in? His background certainly leant itself to moving quickly. His many connections and well known name would open doors. So Jessica set up the mark, and somehow Bennett set up the alibi and then fenced the stolen property. But two murders? That was a tall order. Maybe he could get Fred to spring a couple of men and they could set a trap for Jessica.

The train slowed to a stop, and Jarrod climbed off. He headed for the Cattlemen’s Hotel. The reception was well underway when he arrived. He scanned the room and found his mother and sister at a table to the side of the large conference room. One of the deputy commissioners was speaking. Jarrod’s blue eyes hunted the room for his brother or Jessica. Finding neither, his stomach turned. What if he was too late? He hurried to where his mother and Audra were seated and whispered in Victoria’s ear. The three made their way to the lobby. It was after eight o’clock.

“I think Nick may be in danger. I found out some rather unsavory information about Miss Cassidy today. She is suspected of killing two wealthy men after robbing them. She had an alibi for the nights both crimes were committd. There were several other cons she pulled as well, but no one will press charges.”

“Why?” Audra asked.

“They’re too embarrassed, Honey. These men are successful, and more than a little arrogant. It’s less embarrassing to just forget and receive a nice check from the insurance company than to admit you were taken. Mother, where is Nick?”

Victoria looked at Jarrod’s intense stare and shuddered. It wasn’t like him to be so upset. She sighed and shook her head. She grasped her son’s hand and Jarrod felt the tremble which matched the worry in her voice.

“I haven’t seen either Nick or Heath all day. When we left, Jake said Nick was out riding the fences. He was going to send a hand to remind him to get dressed and come here. Jarrod, you don’t think…”

“I hope not Mother. Let’s get home. Maybe Nick is running late or he fell asleep.”

Jarrod helped his mother and sister into the buggy and the trio set out for the ranch. For some reason, Jarrod had a chill and felt something was very wrong at home.

It seemed as if Chargers ears were pinned and plastered as Heath rode for the Barkley Ranch, hell bent for leather. He knew in his mind that Fred would be up-in-arms over him taking the law into his own hands, but Heath was stubborn. He also had pride. That vixon had caused him considerable grief and he was going to be the one to bring her to justice. It was something that he, himself, had to do alone. If Sheriff Madden raised much ruckus, Heath could always use the logic approach to excuse his independent behaviour. It was much closer for him to ride to the ranch then to go all the way into Stockton, round up Fred, and then back home. By that time the jewel thief would have pilfered the house and fled the scene.

Heath rode hard until he approached the deserted grounds surrounding the house. The hands had all ridden into town for their weekly game of Sunday night poker at Annie’s. Slowing Charger to a trot, his decision for caution came second nature. There was a nicker as Jennifer’s mare sensed the presence of another horse. Heath eyed the mare tied in the thicket behind the house and dismounting Charger, continued the trek to the house on foot.

Drawing his gun, Heath tiptoed up to the backdoor, peering around the corner before entering. The house seemed deathly silent. He peeked through to the parlor area, and found it empty. The ceiling creaked, indicating that someone was walking around in the room above. The sound of a door opening further alerted him to a presence upstairs. Turning from whence he came, Heath opted for the back staircase. Creeping with stealth and speed, he made his way up the stairs and into the back hall. Audra’s door was now wide open and he could hear movement stirring from within.

Moving down the hall with catlike strides, Heath’s trigger finger stood at attention. Allowing the steel barrel of the eagle handled gun to lead the way, he entered his little sister’s bedroom. At first glimpse, the back of the blonde head could have been Audra’s, but Heath knew different. As the feminine bandit filled her sack with his sister’s fine jewelry, he saw her hand reach for the mother-of-pearl broach.

“So you decided to come back and take it after all!” he exclaimed gruffly, making sure she could hear his pistol cock. “I guess once again I’ll thank you for givin’ it back!” he snapped, as he swiftly relieved her of her weapon as well as his sister’s birthday gift.

If Jennifer was worried, she didn’t allow it to show. Her attitude projected annoyance portrayed in a cool, calm manner with cockiness ala carte.

“Have it your way, cowboy,” she drawled. “What’s the matter?” she added with a sinister grin. “Couldn’t you wait for me to come back?”

“No, I couldn’t!” Heath retorted, tossing the broach on the bed. “And your sister found that out as well! Now, the only thing waitin’ for you is a nice, cool cell in the Stockton jail….or maybe a rope!”

“Whatever you say, cowboy,” the flaxen haired she-devil replied. “I ain’t there yet and Stockton’s a ways off. But I warn you! My sister better not be hurt! Nobody messes with the Cassidy twins and gets away with it!”

“Oh, she’s hurt alright, and I wouldn’t think twice about doin’ the same to you. Now, let’s get movin’ before I forget you’re female.”

With a powerful grip around both small wrists and his gun leveled at her head, Heath escorted his guest towards the grand staircase. Roughly shoving her ahead, Heath’s man-handling conveyed the message of justified vengeance.

“Quit draggin’ your feet,” he quipped, “I know you can walk faster than that!”

“You’re truly goin’ to be regrettin’ this, cowboy,” she shot back. “Why don’t you make it easy on yourself and turn me loose.”

“Not a chance,” he drawled, sarcasm lacing his tone. “You and that wench you call a ‘sister’ have caused a lotta grief between me and my family. That, and everyone else you two’ve scammed is reason enough. Now, hurry it up! My patience is worn mighty thin!”

Jennifer battled in his grasp, but her efforts proved futile. Her tries for freedom only resulted in a firmer clasp pressing one wrist tightly into the other.

“You’re hurting me,” she feigned, as the two approached the bottom step.

“Tough!” was the gruff response. “Live with it!”

Jennifer struggled in vain against Heath’s vice-like grip. Her fervor increased as she wriggled her body in an attempt to free herself. The pair staggered, the gravity of their actions turning them towards the hall leading to the back of the house. From over Heath’s shoulder, Jennifer could see the front door opening. Someone was coming – more than likely another member of the family. Through the crack, the form of a tall dark haired cowboy started to form. This must be Nick Barkley. Her sister had described him perfectly. Her mind snapped like a steel trap. If she played her cards right, Nick’s surprise entrance couldn’t be any more perfect. The sweat from her exertion caused her right hand to weasel out from her captor’s hold.

“Cut it out,” Heath barked loudly, “or I’m gonna hurt you!”

He said his lines right on cue – this was going to be her best performance yet! She hesitated, waiting for her mark. Moments later she saw Nick’s head cock through the slight opening. He had heard! Everything was going to play out percisely as planned! Grabbing the head of the startled Heath with her free hand, Jennifer pulled forward, kissing with passionate fury. He tried to protest, but her mimed affections silenced him. Roughly, his tight grip shifted to her upper arm, as he shook her hard. She turned loose of his head, as she screamed in decibels of fright and panic. Fighting like a cougar, every nail on her right hand stood erect as she traced a scarlet path from his neck to his collar bone. With a loud rip, the fabric of his blue chambray work shirt gave way to her sudden yank from the front pocket, leaving the frayed edges to expose his bare chest.

Weary and grubby, Nick had been prepared to find the house vacant, lost in all the thoughts and calculations cluttering his mind. Heath’s harsh words had come as a surprise as he began to open the door. The shrill scream piercing the air only confirmed that Heath was not alone, and whoever he was entertaining wasn’t a willing participant. As he flung the door open, there was his beloved Jessica fighting to free herself from his brother’s bearlike grasp.

His eyes flamed as he witnessed the torn fabric and the the tell-tale sign of struggle etched on Heath’s hide. So this is what Heath had planned all along! His true motive wasn’t justice, it was jealousy! It was apparent now what Heath was really after. He wanted this beautiful woman for himself! This beautiful woman that had stolen Nick’s heart!

Well, brother or not, nobody was going to ‘handle’ his woman and get away with it! He had staked his claim. Jessica was his, and nobody, not Heath or Jarrod…..NOBODY…..was going to take what was rightfully his.

Nick’s quick strides carried him across the room. Heath looked up as Nick approached. His brother’s murderous gaze told Heath that reason was out of the question. He secured his grip on the squirming villianous shrew. His desperate plea fell on deaf ears.

“Now hold on, Nick,” he started, “It’s not what you…..”

“Nick,” she cried frantically, muting Heath’s words with her shrill screams.

Observing the blind rage Nick wore, she knew no more words were necessary. She would be free to relax and let nature takes it’s course. Burying her face in her hand and hiding her smile, her quaking shoulders and false sobs only enraged him more.

Nick never waited to hear Heath’s explanation. He flew at his brother with the fury of a rabid wolf. Turning to face his enraged brother, the youngest Barkley male once again attempted to offer an explaination.

“Nick, wait! I can….”

Heath’s words were silenced as Nick’s swift kick sent the eagle handled pistol flying back over Heath’s right shoulder. A second later, Nick’s forceful punch sent Heath sprawling half way into the world of oblivion as knuckles and teeth met head on. Not being one to miss out on opportunity, Jennifer had managed to wiggle free when the first kick caused Heath to loosen his hold. As Nick hovered over his defenseless brother, preparing for the next blow, a yellow blur alerted him of her departure as she stooped to pick up Heath’s fallen gun and bolted for the door.

“Jessica, wait!”

Staggering to his feet, Nick felt his heart rise as he mistakenly believed his words would cause her to stop. She smiled and hid the gun in front of her right hip, as her itchy fingers found the trigger.

Heath pulled himself up to his knees as he tried to clear his head and attempted to stand. He could visualize Nick’s lost look, trailing the back of Jennifer’s blonde head. His eyes then riveted as the reflection of the sinking sun glistened momentarily off the barrel of the pistol that was now rising from her slim hip. With the grace of a cat, he sprung into motion.

“Nick! Be careful!” he cried, an adrenalin surge urging him to his brother’s aid.

Simultaneously, Nick heard his name, the click of a hammer and then the explosion as his body was slammed into the ground with a driving force. He was aware of Jennifer’s retreating form as he ventured to explore the weight pinning him.

“Jessica!” he muffled into the rug where he had landed. Turning his head sideways, a blue chambray sleeve came into view.

“Get off me!” Nick ordered, throwing his brother aside as he ran to the door.

“Jessica, wait! Don’t be upset!”

He ran on to the porch and jumped down to the ground. The throb of retreating hooves were his only reply. With fists clenched and his heart slamming against his chest, Nick turned sharply on his heel. Heath would pay for this. His long strides soon found him in the doorway. His eyes were burning as he growled, “Heath Barkley, you’re a dead man….”

His voice died in his throat as the harsh reality of his words swung back and slapped him in the face. Nick stood frozen at the surreal sight of his pale brother lying motionless on the floor. His brain tried frantically to dispel what his eyes told him to be true. Nick’s head shook in disbelief as the bright light of truth suddenly illuminated his reeling mind. His breath came in short pants. His limbs seemed unbearably heavy as they made an uneven path across the room. His pained gaze couldn’t tear itself away from the blood pooling under his brother’s still body. He sank to his knees, his heart breaking.

“Please God, don’t let him be dead,” he prayed aloud.

His shaking hands searched desperately for a pulse. His blinked back tears welling in his eyes at the weak pulse. He sighed and turned the listless body. His burning eyes took in the horror at the blood on his hands. So much blood; and on the floor as well. His trembling fingers gently lifted the bloody shirt and saw the wound on Heath’s back. He applied pressure and turned the injured man over searching for an exit wound. He found none. Swallowing hard, he realized just how grave the situation had become. Heath needed a doctor or he’d bleed to death. The longer the bullet remained inside, the better the chance of a potentially deadly infection setting in.

He lifted the limp body and took it in his arms, keeping pressure on the blood flow. Cradling the human shield that had just safeguarded him from a felon’s lethal bullet, memories of the past three days sped by in one haunting vision. Heath’s head rested on his brother’s strong chest. Nick’s chin wavered, brushing against the blonde hair. His free hand stroked the pale cheek….

“Why, Heath?” he choked. “Why did you have to go and do a fool thing like that? Boy, sometimes you just ain’t got any sense at all.”

He rocked slightly, holding his younger brother tightly, hoping somehow to transfer life force back into him. Raising his tortured eyes, he made a plea.

“God, don’t let him die…..please!”

“Hey, Nick!” came the voice of Will Marvin, a friend of Audra’s, as he spied Nick through the open door.

“Is Audra at…..”

He stopped speaking when he saw Nick hovering over the unconscious form of Heath.

“Nick! What happened? You didn’t…..”

Will had been one of the guests attending Audra’s party the previous Friday, and the recent feud between the brothers had been no secret. Will squatted beside Nick and at first glance thought the dark cowboy to be in shock. Nick’s skin was cold and clammy. He was sweating and his breath was labored. Finally, Will saw the head raise and the horrible pain in the hazel eyes.

“No, I didn’t. He…he needs a doctor, Will. Go as fast as you can!”

“Okay, Nick, I’ll go. But first let me help you. Let’s try to get him upstairs to his bed. Come on, Nick.”

Will tried to take Heath from Nick’s iron clasp. Nick relented and without another word, they carefully carried the wounded man to his room. After taking off the bloody clothes, they turned him on his stomach. Grabbing a hand towel from near the wash basin, Nick kept pressure on the seeping wound.

“I’ll get there as fast as I can, Nick. I’ll get the sheriff, too. Nick, where is the family?”

“At the hotel attending the mayor’s reception,” came the flat reply. “Send them home, okay?”

Will patted the grieving man’s shoulder. He’d known Nick Barkley for years and this was the first time he’d ever seen fear on the cowboy’s face.

“He’ll pull through,” Will reassured his friend and neighbor. “He’s as strong as an ox.”

Nick jumped slightly at the bang of the door. The house seemed terribly quiet and he felt so isolated and alone. He watched Heath’s struggle to live. Nick was holding his own breath with each labored intake of air from the injured man. He gripped the limp hand and leaned in, hoping somehow, his brother could hear him.

“I’m sorry, little brother. Sorry for everything. You fight, boy! Fight with all you got! I need you, Heath. You’re…..”

He sighed and left the lone tear run unchecked.

*****

Will urged Thunder onward and raced to Stockton. By the time he arrived at Doc Merar’s on the edge of town, his auburn hair was plastered to his head and his shirt was soaked through. He was still gulping air when he read the note posted on the door.

“Called to the Henson house. Be back by nine.”

“Oh, no,” Will groaned.

He slumped against the porch rail of the Doctor’s house and peered into the dark window. Mrs. Merar was up at the reception no doubt. Henson’s place was on the way back to the ranch. If he took the shortcut it would save time and every minute counted. He’d lose twenty minutes or more backtracking to the hotel and getting back here. Heath didn’t have that time to waste. He’d double back to the hotel afterwards.

Jumping on Thunder again, he headed for the pass cutting through to the main road.

*****

Nick’s bloodied hand was cramped as he peeled it away from his brother’s back. The bleeding had finally stopped. He checked the clock on Heath’s dresser again. The steady ticking seemed to be unnaturally loud tonight, keeping time with the pounding in Nick’s head. Twenty minutes! It seemed more like twenty hours.

“Where the hell is that Doctor?” Nick worried aloud.

Heath was sweating profusely as the infection raced through his weakened system. His breath came in frantic pants, like a drowning man. Nick bent over the still form and whispered encouragement. He took the large pitcher and basin to the bathroom and filled it with water. Grabbing a handful of towels, he held them under his arm and made his way back.

He soaked the towels in the cool water and laid one carefully across Heath’s back. Using great caution, he gently wiped Heath’s face and neck, all the while talking to him. The cold water against Heath’s burning flesh caused the younger man to moan and twitch. The restless movements turned to thrashes, Nick’s calming voice turning sterner as he leaned down and gently stroked the wet, blond hair.

“I know. I know it’s cold but you got a fever, I’m trying to cool you down some. Don’t move, Heath! Try to stay still. You got a bullet in you back. I’m right here, you just rest.”

Whether it was the cooling water or the reassurance of his brother being near, Heath stopped his rapid movement. Nick checked the clock again. Where were they? He wiped a hand through his dishelveled hair and rinsed out another cloth. He turned the lamp up, illuminating the darkened room. He swallowed hard at the sight of his younger brother, whose complexion was nearly as pale as the sheets he rested on. In two years this man had come to mean more to him than words could express. He made his way back to the chair and took the limp hand.

“Heath, you hang in there. I’ll help you, little brother. I’ll stay right here and fight with you.”

*****

“When I said to stay off that leg, I meant it Jeb.”

Doc Merer finished re-wrapping the injured leg and gave Mary Henson some medicine. He was about to finish the pie and coffee she offered when the door flew open and Will Marvin fell in.

“Will! What’s wrong?” He said, stooping to help the boy up.

“Heath,” WIll gasped. “You gotta come, he’s been shot. It’s real bad. Nick’s with him at the house. “

“Shot? How?”

“I dunno. Come on, we gotta hurry,” Will was frantically pulling the doctor’s arm.

“Okay son, take it easy. I’ll get my bag. Mary, I’ll stop by later in the week. See that he stays put”

“I’m gonna ride back and get the family. You go on to the ranch. He’s upstairs in his bedroom. He’s lost a lot of blood. The bullet’s in his back.”

Doctor Merer climbed into his buggy and urged his horse forward. If Will’s words were correct, he’d didn’t have a second to spare.

*****

“NICK!”

Nick jumped and simultaneously hollered, “Thank God”. He raced to the hallway and met the doctor at the top of the stairs. Doctor Merer took one look at Nick Barkley’s face and knew Will’s words rang true.

“How bad?” He inquired as he entered the room and pulled the sheet back.

“It caught him in the lower back. The bleeding stopped, but he lost quite a bit. His breathing ain’t good, he….”

Nick stopped as the doctor pressed the stethescope to Heath’s back and listened to his lungs and heart. His trained ear told him that they had no time to spare. He found the young man’s pulse to be weak. He carefully examined the entry wound. The infection was progressing at a rapid rate. He turned back to Nick.

“Look, Son, I don’t have any time to waste, so I’ll get right to the point. Heath is in a bad way, and unless we get that bullet out, the infection will kill him. He’s lost quite a bit of blood, but if you roll that sleeve up, we can take care of that.”

“Don’t let him die,” Nick’s voice was barely audible as he offered his arm. “You take whatever you need from me. He…He saved my life.”

The doctor got the transfusion underway and rubbed Nick’s shoulder.

“I’m going to boil some water to sterilize these instruments. I’ll be right back. He’s a strong young man, Nick, but a few prayers wouldn’t hurt.”

Nick’s eyes traced the tube that had become Heath’s lifeline. They were now joined as one. He closed his eyes and prayed. The awful rattling sound of Heath seemingly gulping for air was breaking his heart. Suddenly, the sound stopped. Nick’s eyes flew open as his worst nightmare came true. Heath’s back was no longer rising and falling. The terrifying sucking sound had ceased. He hollered for the Doctor as loud as he could. The transfusion line had him at a disadvantage, but he screamed at Heath as loud as he could.

“HEATH! HEATH! WAKE UP! DON’T YOU QUIT ON ME, DAMMIT! YOU START BREATHING! BREATHE, HEATH, BREATHE!”

He managed to maneuver himself and slap his pale brother as hard as he could on the face. He stood back, relieved when the patient took a long shuddering breath and the awful sucking sound resumed.

“Boy, don’t you scare me like that!” he sighed, rubbing the scarlet imprint of his hand left on the pale cheek.

The doctor put the large steaming pot on the floor and walked to Heaths’ side. He nodded at Nick.

“Close call?”

“Too close! He stopped breathing.”

The doctor swabbed the area around the wound with alcohol and lined up the instruments on a hot silver platter. When the transfusion was complete, he disconnected Nick and bandaged his arm. Nick immediately began hovering over the bed. The doctor sympathized, knowing the great bond between the two men, but he couldn’t be distracted.

“Nick, why don’t you go downstairs and wait for the family. I’ll take care of him.”

Nick bent over the prone body and rubbed Heath’s shoulder. He leaned in close and spoke firmly.

“You listen up. I gotta go now. The doctor’s gonna take that bullet outta your back. You fight; you keep breathin’. Don’t make me scold you again.”

Nick’s voice was gentle as he bade what he hoped wouldn’t be the last farewell.

“I’ll be back later, okay. Don’t you leave me.”

*****

As they neared the house and Jarrod slowed the buggy, they were both surprised and concerned at the presence of Doc Merar’s rig hitched out front.

“That’s Doc Merar’s buggy. Oh My God, Jarrod!” Victoria cried, “Nick! Nick!”

She jumped down without waiting for her oldest child and threw the front door open. Jarrod got Audra down and they raced in behind her. He could see his mother’s shoulders quaking as she stood frozen in the entryway.

“Mother, what is it? What’s wr….”

Jarrod’s words were silenced by the pool of blood on the floor.

“NICK! NICK!,” Victoria screamed as she raced toward the stairs.

“Mother, wait,” Jarrod grabbed her arm and pointed to the parlor.

“Nick! Oh, thank God!” she swiftly found her middle son’s arm.

Nick never moved. His eyes were firmly glued to the marble mantle, his white knuckles cinched around a partially empty bottle of comfort.

“Oh…My…God…” she said very slowly seeing the blood on his shirt, hands and face.

“Nick, what happened?” Jarrod asked, moving behind his mother and taking in the macabre sight.

Nick never blinked or gave any indication he was aware of their presence. Jarrod’s trained eye took in the haunted look on his brother’s face and the dead eyes. The whiskey bottle Nick held on the mantle was nearly empty. His heart sank as he added together the clues before him. There could be only one answer to Nick’s tortured stance.

“Heath?” the lawyer offered with a hand to Nick’s shoulder.

Nick finally turned, one eye blackened from the prior night’s fight, the other red-rimmed and lost. He was fighting back tears as his mouth worked but no words would come. He shook off Jarrod’s hand and staggered across the room. Victoria caught up to him by the foyer.

“What happened to Heath? Is the doctor with him? NICK, ANSWER ME!”

With eyes a strange mixture of pain, compassion and torment, he glanced to the room above, where his brother was fighting for life.

“It’s in his back. Doc’s trying to save him,” he pained, taking a long swig of courage.

“Who shot him? Nick, what happened?” Jarrod demanded.

Wiping the dribbling liquor from his mouth, Nick pulled away from Jarrod’s grasp and turned, his raw eyes burning a hole right through Jarrod’s heart. He watched as Nick pointed the neck of the whiskey bottle in the direction of Heath’s door.

“The bullet he took,” Nick swallowed hard, “had my name on it, Jarrod”.

The very hollowness of Nick’s voice matched the emptiness in his brother’s eyes. Jarrod watched as Nick turned and walked towards the open French doors. Victoria started to follow, but Jarrod stopped her.

“I’ll talk to him. You go up and see how Heath’s doing.”

“Thank God, you’re here! I couldn’t find you at the hotel after I got the doctor. How’s Heath?”

Jarrod and Victoria turned at the sound of Will’s voice. Audra walked over and took his arm.

“Will, do you know anything about this? How did Heath get shot?” Audra inquired.

“I got here right after it happened. I thought at first that maybe Nick had…but it wasn’t him. I don’t know who shot him. I saw somebody riding away, but it was too far away to see clear.”

Victoria nodded and went up the stairs to Heath’s room. Audra and Will took a seat on the parlor. Jarrod walked outside and found Nick and his buddy, Jack Daniels, standing by the edge of the trellis.

“How bad is it Nick?”

“I’ve seen worse, and they’ve been dead,” Nick said without turning.

“What happened, Nick?”

“I’m not sure, Jarrod. It all happened so fast.”

Nick sat down on a stone bench and ran a weary hand across his forehead. He left the stained fingers rest over his eyes as he continued.

“I came through the front door and heard him hollering at someone. Then I heard Jessica scream. It looked like he got rough with her. His shirt was all torn up and she raked his neck good. I thought…well, I lost my temper,” he shamed.

“Then what?” Jarrod asked, taking a seat next to his tormented sibling.

“We fought, or rather, I jumped him. I saw her running away. I thought she was scared, so I ran after her. The next thing I knew, Heath hollered. There was a shot and he slammed me.”

“She’s not who you think, Nick. I went to see Frank Wells today,” Jarrod said as Nick sat up straight and looked quizzically at his brother.

“Nick, she has a record three inches thick dating back over five years. She a thief, con-artist and more than likely, a cold blooded killer. She is suspected of killing two men. You’re lucky, Nick. You were next on her hit list. She sets her sights on wealthy, attractive men and then uses every femine wile she can to lure them into her trap. Once she’s done with them, she moves on. From the notes Frank has from the San Francisco Police Department, it’s suspected that the two men who died found out who she was and what she was up too. They suspect that she killed them, but she always had an alibi. I’m sorry Nick, I really am,” Jarrod ended sympathetically.

Nick sat for several minutes, his face was a mask. Jarrod couldn’t tell what was working in his mind. Finally, a sarcastic answer was heard.

“Wealthy, attractive FOOLS you mean. She knew what she was doin’. She didn’t pick you; you’re too smart. You would have seen right through her. No, she picked gullible Nick; an easy mark. Bait the hook and reel ’em in,” Nick as he paced the perimeter of the porch and back.

“Dammit, Jarrod, am I that transparent?”

“Nick, she’s done this to dozens of men, and they were not only wealthy, but intelligent, dominant forces in business. She’s good, Nick. You’re not to blame.”

Nick slowly walked up to Jarrod and stopped as the lawyer rose to meet him. He followed Nick’s gaze through the doors towards the staircase.

“He never hesitated, Jarrod. After the pounding and name-calling I put him through these last two days…Why?”

“Nick, I think you know the answer to that. If you don’t, then you’re not his brother,” Jarrod answered, his blue eyes trying to reach Nick’s guilt-ridden ones.

“He didn’t see a combatant, an enemy or even a hot-tempered Romeo. He saw one thing only. Someone he cared for very much was in peril. You’d have done the same for him, Nick,” Jarrod ended, placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder as they walked back into the parlor.

“I guess so, Jarrod , but it don’t make me feel any better. What if he don’t pull through? The last memory is me beating him, not to mention two days of hell. How am I going to live with that, Jarrod?” Nick’s soulful eyes pleaded.

“That was a two-way street. Both of you were at fault. Nick, the last two days couldn’t erase almost two years of what preceded. I think Heath’s actions tonight should tell you just how strongly he feels about you and erase any doubt and guilt you have.”

Nick nodded slightly and welcomed Jarrod’s strong arm that led him to the settee. He was about to sit when Audra jumped up.

“How is he, Doctor?”

They surrounded the weary man and watched, horrified at the bloody sheets Victoria placed by the doorway.

“He’s alive. The bullet wasn’t deep, but it was close to the spine. His breathing is still labored and he’s critical. He’s lasted through the surgery. I’ve done all I can. The rest is up to him and God.”

“There is something you haven’t told us,” Jarrod asked, his discerning mind noticing the guarded look on the physician’s face. He watched as the doctor exhaled and looked at the brothers.

“The bullet was lodged near an area where there are many nerve endings. There is a lot of swelling and it very well may be temporary.”

“But what?” Nick demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“There is a possibility that Heath may be paralyzed.”

Audra’s sobs were the only sound in the stunned room. Jarrod caught Nick who’d rocked back on his heels. He led his numbed brother to a chair where Nick dropped, head between his knees and covered with his hands.

“My God, what have I done?” He anguished as he slumped.

*****

It was a long night. Victoria sat Heath and thought of just how much she’d grown to love Tom’s son. She frowned, thinking of the things she’d never told him. She ran her fingers through the damp, blond hair and spoke. She told him how she knew by the twinkle in those sky-blue eyes when he was up to something. Tom’s eyes had that same mischievous, little-boy-dare look. How his slow, methodical way of thinking was so very much like his father. How over the last two years she had come to admire what a brave young man he was and how much it meant to her that he had chosen to share the painful and pleasant childhood memories along with the horrible internal scars from the war. She looked up as Jarrod entered. It was nearly two a.m. and she was exhausted. The doctor recommended shifts; they’d all need their strength over the next critical hours. She rose to go to bed and leaned down, kissing the waxen face.

“I love you, Sweetheart.”

She paused long enough to accept the strong embrace of her eldest son. It never ceased to amaze her that Jarrod always found the strength to pull the family together during a crisis.

Jarrod kissed his mother and hugged her reassuringly. He took the bedside seat, glancing at the doctor sleeping on a cot nearby.

“Hello, brother Heath. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t think you’d mind if I kept you company.”

Jarrod took the cool cloth and wiped the perspiration from his youngest brother’s face. He talked of many things. Like his mother, he needed to tell this man just how much he meant to him.

*****

It was nearly dawn when Nick shook the doctor awake. He jumped up startled, but Nick merely shook his head, indicating Heath’s condition was unchanged.

“He’s the same. Why don’t you go down and get something to eat?”

The doctor took several minutes to check on his patient. Satisfied that Heath was stable, he left. Nick walked over to the chair where Jarrod was sleeping and tapped him on the leg. He watched as the lawyer roused and his blue eyes searched Nick for an update.

“I’m okay. I sent the doctor to get a bite. Why don’t you eat too, or maybe get some shut-eye.”

Jarrod stretched and stood up.

“You sure?”

Nick nodded and took the empty chair, picking up the limp hand.

“Yeah, me and the boy got some talkin’ to do.”

Jarrod read between the lines. Despite the large amount of liquor he had consumed, Nick was somber and sober. He needed to bare his shattered soul to Heath. He rested one hand on Nick’s knee and leaned over Heath.

“I understand, Nick. Heath, take it easy brother, I’ll see you a little later.”

Nick waited several minutes after the doors closed. The indigo and pink rays of the new day peeped through the window. He looked at the beautiful sky which seemed to be painted. He fell to his knees and squeezing the limp hand, his eyes glanced heavenward for a moment, and then he bowed his head.

“I know I’m not the most devout church-goer, and I ain’t got a right to…but it’s like this,” he started and then rubbed his hand over his face. God, this was hard.

“You see, him and me are real close. I don’t know how I’d go on if…if you took him away now. I mean, you sent him here to find us and gave him the family he needed. You can’t take him back yet. It’s not right. I…we need him too much. All the rotten stuff he lived through as a kid and at that stinkin’ prison. All the poverty and …well he’s just so special. So I’m askin’ You…please help him find his way home. You did it two years ago, you can do it again. He’s Heath Barkley, he’s my brother and they don’t come any better.”

Heath was lying on his side, propped up by pillows. Nick leaned in close to Heath’s ear and tapped his cheek lightly. The raspy breathing was the only response.

“I hope you can hear this, Heath. I’m so sorry for what happened. I hope you can forgive me. I want you to know how much I…well you know, how…”

Heath was in a dark void. An awful cold place. He never felt so alone and lost. There seemed to be no end to the vast cavity. He was afraid. He was dead, he thought, but this wasn’t heaven. He heard words, mumbles, and pushed on. The words got clearer, he heart rose at the sound of Nick’s voice. He heard the prayer and the love behind it. He heard Nick thank him for saving his life. Then he heard the awful sobbing.

“Please don’t die, Heath. Please…”

Caught in a deep fog in which he drifted, Heath fought hard to answer the pleas of his brother. He could hear each phrase spoken clearly, but yet Nick seemed so far away. Trying so desperately to respond, the words formed in his heart, but could not seem to find their way to his lips.

“Don’t, Nick. Don’t cry. Please. Forgive you? Ain’t nothing to forgive you for. Thankin’ me? You got no cause for that. You’re everything I…you’re the best…”

Why, oh why couldn’t he make his lips move. His mouth felt dry, as if it were filled with cotton.

Nick’s grief could no longer be held in check. All the pain came forth in an unconsolable burst. He rested his head near Heath’s chest and poured his heart out. The tears were deep and bitter. He stopped as he felt the hand on the back of his neck, the fingers in his hair.

“Heath?” he hoped, raising his head and taking the hand.

There was a loud shudder and then the breathing became even and steady. Nick’s free hand felt his brother’s neck and found a stronger pulse. The smile that broke on the weary face was as brilliant as the sun that kissed it through the window. Nick closed his eyes in thanks as God’s hand retreated.

“Heath, you’re gonna be okay, kid. You’re gonna be just fine,” the voiced boomed.

He saw the pale lips move and bent closer. He smiled at the words, knowing they meant that his words had found his stricken brother.

“..s’okay. Me too, Nick.”

*****

Down in the dining room, Silas was beginning preparations to serve breakfast. He had arrived back at the house quite late the previous evening, expecting to find the lights turned low and the family in bed. Entering in through the kitchen, Victoria had been there to greet him as she tarried momentarily to make some tea. After his briefing on the evening’s events, Silas had slipped into his small bedroom off the kitchen to meditate and make intercession to his God.

It was now Monday morning, and a house that was usually bustling with the activity of a brand new week, seemed forlorn and desolate. Whisking back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, the long-time family servant turned and filled each cup with steaming, hot coffee as the chairs around the table began to be occupied. Silas knew it had been an extremely long night for each member of the family, and the usual homey atmosphere was sure to be somewhat strained. Victoria was the first to take a seat, followed by Jarrod and Doc Merar.

“Good morning, Mother,” Victoria’s oldest son bade her, routinely kissing her soft cheek even though they had shared company throughout the night.

“Good morning, Jarrod. Good morning, Howard.”

“Good morning, Victoria,” the doctor replied. “Mmm! Are those Silas’ biscuits I smell.”

“Sure are,” answered Jarrod as he seated himself and passed the heaping basket to the stubble-faced doctor.

“I thought I heard Nick up and about in his room earlier,” Victoria observed. “Is he sitting with Heath?”

“Yes,” Jarrod responded. “I believe he wanted to spend a little time alone with him. Despite all the drinking, I don’t think he slept much last night, but he seemed quite sober this morning. I’ll go out to the bunkhouse after breakfast and tell Jake to go ahead and get the men assigned for the day. I’m sure Nick will be wanting to spend as much time as possible with Heath.”

“That, and nursing a bad headache,” Victoria agreed.

“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” Jarrod pondered, “and I guess we’ll have to wait until Heath can tell us to know for sure….but under what circumstances do you suppose Miss Cassidy happened to be here in our home?”

“You know, Jarrod. I asked myself that same question but haven’t really had the opportunity to give it much thought. With Heath and everything else going on….,” Victoria’s voice trailed off. “Maybe Nick could offer some sort of clue.”

“I’m not sure that he knows, either. At least he didn’t make any mention of it last evening, and like you say…we’ve all had other concerns in the meantime.”

“Jarrod,” Victoria mulled methodically, “don’t you find the whole thing rather peculiar? I mean, Nick was supposed to be picking Jessica up at the hotel, and instead she shows up here at the house. Don’t you find that odd?”

“If you ask me, Mother, this entire scenario is odd. So odd that it has the authorities in San Francisco totally baffled. From what I can tell, this Miss Cassidy is a polished professional. She does her job, and she does it well. But why she would take such a risk of coming here to the house is beyond me. I figured her to be much smarter than that.”

“But if she knew that the house was going to be vacant….,” Victoria offered.

“That’s just it,” Jarrod jumped in. “She knew the house was going to be vacant, but she also had a date for Nick to pick her up at the hotel. Now why do you suppose she’d want to make that gamble? If she wasn’t there when Nick arrived, he would certainly be wanting an explanation.”

“Is the coffee hot?”

All heads turned as Nick entered the dining room.

“See for yourself, brother Nick,” Jarrod ventured, studying his brother’s face.

“How’s Heath, Sweetheart,” Victoria interjected.

“I think he’s going to pull through this just fine,” Nick diagnosed, reaching for the biscuits and butter. “He actually spoke a few words to me. He’s asleep now. I figured I’d come grab some chow and then maybe one of you could go sit with him.”

“I’ll go,” Doc Merar offered, pushing his chair back from the table. “Thank you for breakfast, Victoria.”

“You’re more than welcome, Howard,” Victoria acknowledged. “I’ll be up in a few minutes as well.”

“Do you have plans for today, Nick?” Jarrod asked.

Even though Nick’s words were encouraging, the dark, dangerous expression that he wore gave the lawyer reason for concern.

“You might say that,” Nick gruffed.

“I’m sure we’re all quite curious as to what you’ve got going, Nicholas,” Jarrod prodded, “Would you mind filling us in?”

“I’m going into town and I’m going to find Jessica. After that, I don’t know. We’ll just wait and see what happens.”

“Nick, surely you’re not thinking of taking the law into your own hands. Fred made it perfectly clear when he stopped by last night that he would handle things. The last thing he needs is you roaming the countryside playing vigilante.”

“And just what do you expect me to do, Jarrod? Just sit around playin’ tiddly winks until Fred gets tired of followin’ some wild goose chase? That boy up there is a Barkley, and he’s goin’ to get the same treatment that either one of us would get if we were in his shoes,” Nick thundered, now rising and pacing the room.

“Nobody’s saying anything different, Nick,” Jarrod reasoned, keeping his voice low.

“Then perhaps you have short-term memory, Jarrod,” Nick quipped. “Just in case last year is too far back for you to remember, let me help you out a bit. You were the one upstairs lyin’ in that bed of yours, while the Dunagan Brothers waltzed back to Nevada with ten-thousand dollars of Barkley gold. It was Heath who helped me track those boys down and bring ’em back here to Stockton to face murder charges!”

“That’s right, Nick, “Jarrod agreed, “And you were correct in bringing them back for trial instead of issuing punishment yourselves. You’re also lucky you both made it back alive. Nick, you’ve been under a great deal of pressure the last few hours and I don’t believe for one minute that you’re thinking rationally. The whole point is justice, not vengeance, Nick. Now, please, won’t you just agree to let the sheriff handle this?”

“I’m sorry, Jarrod, but I can’t agree to that. It’s easy for you to sit there and tell me vengeance isn’t the answer, but I’m the one that has a score to settle. And it’s not just for me, Jarrod,” Nick said, turning to stare his brother straight in the eye. “It’s for him, my brother, and not you, or Fred or anybody else is going to stop me!”

“All right, Nick,” Jarrod agreed, the corners of his mouth turned up, indicating a truce, “then how about if I go with you?”

“Well, I guess I can’t turn down an offer like that now, can I? But I wanna get goin’ as soon as we can get packed and saddled. As it is, I’m sure Miss Jessica Cassidy is wise to us.”

“Since it’s settled, then I guess I’d best be getting myself ready,” Jarrod stated, taking the last swig of coffee. “But first I want to stop by Fred’s and tell him what we’re planning. Maybe we can work together on this. Oh, good morning, Honey,” he added, noticing Audra’s robed form standing in the doorway. “What do you have there?”

“Look for yourself, Jarrod,” his sister replied, tears welled in her eyes as she clung tightly to the mother-of-pearl broach in one hand, and a small cloth sack in the other.

“I found this in my room this morning,” she continued, handing the bag to Jarrod. “It’s Mother’s and my jewelry. I was so tired last night, I just dropped into bed without even lighting the lamp. When I woke up this morning, the bag was lying on the floor along with the broach. She must have dropped it there.”

“So that’s what she was doing here,” Jarrod concluded. “I must say I had my suspicions, but this definately confirms it. Come on, Nick. Time’s a’wasting!”

“Fred?” Nick called, as he and Jarrod commenced through the door of Stockton’s jailhouse.

“Oh, Caleb!” he corrected himself, finding Sheriff Madden’s senior deputy occupying the space behind the desk. “Did Fred leave you in charge for the day?”

“That he did, Nick. What can I do for you? Mornin’, Jarrod.”

“We really need to talk with Fred,” Jarrod interjected. “Did he say when he’d be back?”

“Not likely that he’ll be back any time soon,” the aged deputy replied. “He’s out chasin’ after that there hold up gal. You know, that flaxen-haired filly you was courtin’, Nick.”

“Was, is right. I ain’t courtin’ her no more. Now, can you tell us what direction he headed?”

“I believe he and Billy said they’d be headin’ south of town. That’s the direction the livery boy thought she’d high tailed off to yesterday.”

“Does he have any solid leads on her, Caleb?” Jarrod wanted to know.

“None that I know of,” the elderly man answered, scratching his head. “He just muttered somethin’ about searchin’ for a needle in a haystack and headed out.”

“All right. Well, we appreciate your help, Caleb. If Fred comes back, you might tell him we stopped by.”

“Will do,” Caleb assured, as the two brothers exited the brick building.

“You know, Nick, I’ve been thinking,” Jarrod pondered as they stood for a moment out in the street. “Maybe I should take a quick trip up to San Francisco to pay another visit to my friend Frank Wells at the Pinkerton agency. Now that we have some solid proof that she was involved in a crime, the authorites over there may be able to take some action. There’s also the possiblity that she has already returned to her home town. If not, maybe we could get some Pinkerton men on her before the trail gets too terribly cold.”

“Okay, Jarrod,” Nick gruffed. “You go do what you have to do and I’ll go do what I have to do. I’ll ride south and try to hook up with Fred and Billy. She was on horseback when she left. She may have headed in an entirely different direction altogether.”

“All right, Nick,” Jarrod agreed, “but promise me you’ll be careful.”

“What I’ll promise you is that when I return, Jessica will be my prisoner. I aim to get her, Jarrod, one way or the other, and I won’t rest until I’ve accomplished just that. She’s gonna pay. Pay for hurtin’ Heath and all the hell she put the rest of us through.”

Jarrod sighed, knowing that any more admonishments of caution to this hard headed brother would be like beating his head against a wall.

“Good enough!” he exclaimed. “You bring her back, Nick. But please. If you spend the night somewhere, be sure to send a wire of your whereabouts. It will be a load off Mother’s mind knowing you’re safe and it may be helpful in my proceedings.”

Nick agreed and the two brothers went their separate ways. Each headed in opposite directions, but with one common mission…that justice would be served and the days of the mendacious Jessica Cassidy ended.

*****

It was late Monday afternoon when the Doctor returned. Victoria had just finished giving Heath an alchohol bath when she heard him enter the room.

“Looks like he’s running quite a fever.”

“Hello, Howard. Yes, he slept all morning and Audra noticed how warm he seemed earlier this afternoon. The last hour it really shot up. I’ve been rubbing him down with alchohol, it seems to be helping.”

“Well, there is always this risk with an infection,” the doctor said as he frowned slightly, his hand on the flushed man’s face. “Hmm. Has he come to at all?”

“Not really. He’s been muttering and not making much sense. Talking about work. What else can we do?”

“Just try to get fluids into him. I have some herbs here you can make a tea with.”

Victoria’s hand was unconsciously running through the damp blond hair of her son as she spoke with the doctor. Somewhere deep in the black ocean of torment and confusion, Heath felt that gentle touch. He knew his mother was close by. His eyelids seemed like heavy sand bags and he fought to open them. He didn’t recognize this place. Where was his mother?

“Mama?”

Victoria turned and sat on the edge of the bed, smiling down at the blue movement beneath the heavy lids. She continued to stroke his hair and she spoke in a low, subdued voice.

“I’m right here,son. You’ve been ill, you need to rest.”

“Thirsty….so hot…where are we…?”

Howard mixed some sugar into a glass of water and supported Heath’s head as Victoria encouraged him to drink. He gagged slightly and for a moment she thought it was going to come back up, but he held it down. She then gave him some cool, clear water. She rose to replace the glass and felt the weak grip on her wrist.

“Don’t go…”

“I not leaving you, Honey. I’m just getting you some more water,” she soothed, kissing the hot forehead.

She heard his release of breath and the tension in his grip was gone. He seemed to be calm, not thrashing as he had before.

“I think I’ll have Silas put coffee on. It looks like it’s going to be a long night, Howard.”

*****

Jarrod arrived at Frank Well’s office just past two p.m. He spent the next couple of hours filling the detective in and going over the notes left by the District Attorney. He realized when the clock was approaching five, that he’d be staying over.

“Frank, I’m going to send a wire home. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll tell you what, Jarrod. We need a break anyway. I’ll walk over with you and we can grab a bite at Pistol Pete’s. How about a little spicy Mexican?”

“The hotter the better,” Jarrod exclaimed, slapping his friend on the back.

“I meant food, counselor,” Frank teased.

*****

Nick followed the road south of town in search of the posse. He came to a fork in the trail and rode off the main path. He slowed Coco’s pace down a bit, and then pulled the horse up. He jumped down and fingered the remnants of wheel runners in the dirt. They weren’t that old. He tethered Coco to a tree branch and followed the tracks through a heavily wooded glen. After a five minute walk, he was about to turn back when he spotted a chimney poking out of the tree tops. He drew his pistol and eased into the side of the property. There was no sign of man nor beast. He peered in the door and saw an almost barren room. A broken chair, a table and some fruit scattered on the floor. He was about to leave when he caught sight of an object that had become as familiar as the back of his hand.

He squatted and picked up the blue chambray shirt that had become Heath’s trademark. His brother’s pants and boots were thrown in the corner as well. This must be where the rest of the gang hid out. He walked around the small cabin and saw the pink shawl Jessica wore to the picnic. He picked it up and leaned against the table. This one really hurt. He had really felt something for her. The pain was quickly replaced by anger as he weighed the faded blue shirt against the silky shawl. He flung the shawl across the room.

“Lady, you’re gonna regret the day you took on Nick Barkley,” he growled, his spurs echoing his resolve as he stormed outside.

He stopped by the well out front to get a drink. His face screwed up as a thought occured to him. There were no tracks leading back to where he came from. They must have used a back road. Wiping his mouth against the brown sleeve, he walked around the back of the cabin. He continued to walk and found a road obscured by the brush. There they were; fresh tracks, very fresh. With a new confidence, he picked up the pace and found Coco in no time. Leading the horse to the new path, he rode in search of justice.

*****

“Mother, please go to bed. I’ll sit with him. It’s almost midnight, you’re exhausted. His fever’s no worse, he’s been sleeping for hours now. Come on.”

Victoria sighed and reluctantly agreed. She was tired and if he got worse tomorrow, she would need all her strength. She hoped both Jarrod and Nick would return. Jessica Cassidy’s history added to the cold-hearted attempt on her son’s life spelled trouble until she was behind bars. She kissed the scarlet cheek.

“Goodnight, Heath. I love you. Audra is right at your side.”

The room was quiet and Audra kept a silent vigil, hoping that the new day would bring Heath back to them. She couldn’t imagine this family without him and needed to tell him that. The only sound in the room was the steady tick of the clock.

*****

The bustle of San Francisco just added to it’s pull on Jarrod. He finished a late lunch and read the wire again. Heath was stable, but still unresponsive. He wished he had better news. He and Frank had tracked down two unsuccessful leads that morning. They were catching the late afternoon train to Stockton. Frank wanted to interview Heath. And what about Nick? The last line of the cable had read “no news from Nick”. Jarrod hoped wherever his brother was, he was safe and having better luck.

“Ready to go, Jarrod?”

“Right behind you, Frank.”

Jarrod left a generous tip on the table and followed the detective down the street.

They were waiting for the 4:40 to pull in, when Jarrod spotted the familiar face in the crowd.

“FRANK! My God, it’s her!” he pointed.

The two eased around the perimeter of the crowded station and kept an eye on her. She was with Adam Bennett. Wells subdued Bennett and handcuffed him. Jarrod saw the cold predator in line for tickets. She was purchasing tickets to San Diego… probably intended to go south to Mexico from there. Jessica took the tickets from the clerk and turned. The green eyes widened in shock, and for once, her calm exterior cracked.

“Not so fast, Miss Cassidy. You’re going to Stockton. You’re wanted for attempted murder and robbery.”

Jarrod ‘s hard tone matched the coldness in his eyes as he gripped the slim wrists firmly.

Frank kept the two closely guarded while Jarrod wired home.

*****

“Mother, he caught her! They’re bringing her in on the train! Look!”

Audra handed Victoria the wire from Jarrod. Silas had prepared a dinner tray for her to eat while sitting with Heath. Somehow, as relieved as she was that the villianess would be in prison in town, the prison Heath was in was the one she was worried about. What if the paralysis was permanent? How would he survive that? He’d battled back from so much already. Audra’s exasperation drew her back.

“Mother! Did you hear me?”

“Yes, dear, that’s good news. I hope Jarrod won’t be too late. I imagine they’ll be questioning her and talking to the District Attorney as well. I hope Heath is strong enough to give them a statement. “

“He’s so restless, Silas managed to calm him down. He’s quieted finally.”

Audra picked up the tray and followed her mother up the back stairs to her stricken son’s room. He was sleeping quietly and Silas was steadily talking to him, in a low and comforting voice.

“You gonna be just fine, Mister Heath. I’m making some corn fritters for you. You be out there givin’ Mister Nick fits in no time.”

He stood and patted the boy on the shoulder as he prepared to leave. His dark eyes were lined with worry. His shook his head as he left.

Audra put the tray down, and with a kiss to her mother’s face, she left the two alone. For a long while she watched his chest rise and fall, grateful for the steady rate. He’d come to mean so very much to her in so short a time. The dinner went uneaten and as darkness fell, she rose and looked into the star-filled sky.”

“Mother?”

She smiled at the clarity and lucidness in the blue eyes. Her hand told her the fever was coming down. She sat on the bed and wiped his sweaty face. Her steady hand held his head as he drank the tea the doctor left and followed it with some water.

“Thank you.”

“It’s good to see you again. I’ve been worried. How do you feel?”

He eased back onto the pillows and looked around the room. His brow furrowed and he shook his head.

“Guess Nick was right about that roan. Should’ve passed on breaking that one. Funny, I don’t remember hitting the fence that hard.”

Her confused stare caught him off guard. Her hands trembled slightly as she fluffed the pillow and adjusted his sheet. His hand snagged hers.

“What’s wrong? That is why I’m laid up, isn’t it?”

She sat down and her grey eyes searched those expressive blue ones. She took his hand and sighed.

“No, Honey, that was over a week ago. You weren’t hurt then. Heath, what’s the last thing you remember?”

He felt a butterfly ramming his stomach inside as his eyes darted left to right. Remember? Remember?

“I’m sorry Mother, that is the last thing I remember. What happened to me?” his eyes pleaded.

“You were wounded a couple of days ago. You’ve had a fever, but the doctor says you’ll be good as new in no time. Now, how about I have Silas bring up some broth for you. He made it this afternoon in case you woke up.”

“How’d I get hurt?” he demanded.

“You ran into an intruder downstairs and were shot. The most important thing for you to do now is to get your strength back. You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re weak. I’ll get that broth.”

Intruder? In the house? He thought and thought but came up blank. His head hurt and he felt dizzy. Something was missing, something important. He needed to tell them. Why couldn’t he remember? His heart started pounding and the room got black. Danger, Trouble, he had to warn Nick. Nick? Where was Nick?

Victoria saw the blank stare and her initial cries went unanswered. The sweat was pouring off him, but not from the fever. He was back in time, searching.

“Heath, Heath are you okay?” She shook his leg.

“Mother, Nick’s in trouble, I think, but I don’t know. I need to warn him. I…, ” He stopped and stared transfixed at her small hand squeezing his leg. He couldn’t feel the pressure. He reached under the cover and pinched his thigh as hard as he could. Nothing.

His terrified gaze told her what words couldn’t. She tried to take his hand but he pulled back.

“Why didn’t you tell me I’m paralyzed?” His pained eyes burned through her soul.

*****

Jennifer stabbed at the pieces of rabbit cooking on the spit over the fire. It was late and she’d ridden hard all day. She lost the posse yesterday and eased up enough to give her sister time to get home. She planned on laying low, camping outside town for a couple of days until things cooled off. Damn that blond cowboy! She poked an angry stick at the fire, pretending it was his face. He’d ruined everything. How did Jess let him get away? She was lucky that lovestruck brother of his wasn’t thinking clearly, or she’d be dead or in jail. No matter, things would work out. They always did. Whatever the Cassidy’s wanted, they’d get eventually. They had enough money saved to live good for awhile. Maybe head east. Adam had connections in New York City. She yawned and finished the rest of the charred rabbit and doused the fire. With a final swig of coffee, she turned in for the night.

Nick knew he was close. For a day and a half he tracked her. Twice he’d been within range enough to see her in the distance, but as darkness fell, it became harder to see as the wooded area grew thicker. She eluded him. He drained his canteen and looked at the black, starless sky. He could press onward a little further, but it was late and he should wire home. He could double back to Blossom, a little mining town a few miles away. He’d get a good start in the morning. He turned his horse and trotted away, unaware that his prey lay sleeping just a few hundred yards behind him.

*****

“Look, Miss Cassidy, there are certain facts regarding your actions of the past several days which need to be addressed. Let’s start with your whereabouts last night from seven to nine p.m.”

Jarrod had seen his share of cool customers in his day. He’d certainly defended some clients that didn’t crack under pressure, but Jessica Cassidy was a real ice maiden. She never said a word the entire trip home and in the three hours since they’d arrived, she offered little. He listened as Frank questioned her with the district attorney, Jim Sinclair, present.

“I told you where I was. Can’t you read that scratch you call script?” she nodded at Frank’s roughly written notes.

“Once again, please, Miss Cassidy, from the top.”

“Until my attorney arrives, I’m not saying another word. I told you I was accosted on the road. Adam found me late last night and we took the train home.”

“Why didn’t you report this incident?”

“I didn’t see him. What good would it have done. Now, gentlemen, I’ll be saying goodnight.”

She turned her back on them and walked to the corner of the cell, pouring a small amount of water in the bowl. Frank shook his head at Jarrod as he, Jim and Fred left the cell. Jarrod picked up his jacket and was ready to go when she approached.

“Give a lady a hand, Handsome?” She cooed, offering the back buttons on the dress that was constricting on this humid night.

“You’re on your own,” He paused and added with a little contempt, “Lady. I’d add there are women working the upstairs at the saloon that suit that name better than you.”

He shut the cell door and her sultry voice called after him. He was headed towards the outer room of the sheriff’s office.

“Shame about that brother of yours. A real pity.” She mocked.

He wheeled and shot her a venomous look through the bars. Turning away once more, her throaty laughter followed him.

*****

Back at the ranch, Heath was in a prison all his own. Unable to move his legs, and weakened from the termendous blood loss, the usually energetic cowboy, was held captive by the confinements of his bed. With the determination of a bull terrior, the young man tried to make his lower appendages obey what his brain was ordering them to do, but without success.

He pounded the bed in frustration and cursed the hand of fate. What if Doctor Merar was wrong? What if this wasn’t temporary? Working the ranch meant everything to him. These last two years he’d felt a contentment before unknown. The respect he had yearned for so long could be seen in the eyes of the hands he worked with. Could he be happy staying inside, without the pure pleasure of riding Charger and feeling the wind whip against his face, roping and breaking broncs and just the satisfaction of things purely physical? Even the damn fence posts would look good. He let his guard down and allowed the melancholy to share his bed.

*****

The wonderful aroma of coffee and cinnamon rolls greeted the lawyer as he strode through the doorway.

“Mr. Jarrod? What are you doin’ up so early?” Silas greeted.

Jarrod smiled and shut the kitchen door behind him. He grabbed a hot cinnamon roll from the tray on the table and took a healthy bite. As he ate, he nodded gratefully at the glass of juice the servant offered.

“I wanted to check in with Jake and make sure everything was okay with the ranch. I hope Nick gets back today.”

“Yessir, me too. These last few days, seems like a black cloud hoverin’ over the house.”

Silas shook his head and returned to slicing ham for the morning meal.

“Oh, Silas. Is Heath’s tray ready? He was asleep when I got in last night and I’d like to spend some time with him.”

“It’s up there, but he won’t eat it. He’s wearing a long face. I sure hope them legs of his get to workin’. Can’t see that boy happy doin’ anything else.”

“I’ll have a word with him, Silas. Thanks,” Jarrod reassured, nodding to the elderly man.

Jarrod paused in Heath’s doorway and studied the forlorn face staring at the wall. Silas was right on the money. Heath had the ranch in his blood. The satisfaction he got from the long days and backbreaking work seemed lost on Jarrod. Heath was good at what he did and it showed in the high level of dedication he applied to everything he laid his hands on. And Nick? Nick had come to rely so much on their blond brother, that it would be devastating to him as well. Heath had become a part of Nick and the ranch…a union forged from the gap left by the death of their father.

Jarrod had no doubt Heath could excel at any field he applied himself to. Not just because of the dedication and work ethic that was his makeup, but the intelligence that he possessed. One look at the modifications his brother had made to the engineer’s drafts told him Heath had untapped potential.

“You plannin’ on standin’ there all day?”

“Huh?” Jarrod roused. “Oh, sorry Heath, I was lost in thought. How are you? I stopped in last night, but you were sound asleep.”

Jarrod eyed the untouched tray as he eased another pillow behind his brother. Other than for meals, the doctor wanted Heath to lie as flat and still as possible.

“Heard from Nick at all?”

“No, but I’m sure I’ll see him or get a wire from him today. Actually, I’m relieved we found Jessica. With the state of mind he was in, I was worried about what might happen.”

“He would have brought her in, that’s what he’d do,” Heath said confidently.

“How can you be sure?” Jarrod asked, reaching for the tray. “He was very hurt and angry when he left.”

“Jarrod, you know Nick. He’s no killer. He’d get mad, holler loud and stomp around some. He might get a little rough with her, but that’s where it would end. He’s got a code inside him, deep and solid. Call it what you might, ethics or prinicples. I just know there’s no one like him.”

“You’re right there, Heath. How about eating something? You have to build yourself back up.”

Heath nodded and stared mutely at the food before him. His mother was upset that he didn’t finish his dinner the night before. She was right, he needed to eat to regain his strength, but he just wasn’t hungry. He felt bad about the extra effort Silas took, making some of his favorites. Ham, grits, and some corn fritters.

“I know you’re a little down about this Heath, but it’s only been a few days. The swelling has gone down considerably. Doc Merar told me he’s very encouraged. There’s every hope that…”

“That what, Jarrod? That I won’t be a useless carcass sittin’ in the house all day?”

Heath shook his head and pushed the tray away.

Jarrod pushed it right back and sat on the bed, leveling a harsh set of blue eyes at his brother with a tone to match.

“Now you listen to me, Heath. What happened to you is tragic. An awful experience, and I’m praying that it’s temporary. But if this condition is permanent, than you will have to make some major adjustments and go on with your life. You’re as intelligent a man as I’ve ever met.”

Jarrod didn’t miss the blond head rise up and the eyebrows raise in astonishment as well at that comment. Without pausing, he continued.

“I have absolutely no doubt that you will excel at any vocation you choose. Given the opportunity, you’d make a fine engineer. Those modifications you made were exceptional, and you did that without any formal training. I know how much you love this ranch and being a large part of it’s success, but most of that has to do with your heart and your mind. Those tools you can use anywhere.”

Jarrod sensed some hope returning to the downcast cowboy. He laid a hand on the slumped shoulder and concluded.

“The courage you’ve shown, the obstacles you’ve overcome since boyhood are a large part of that which makes you so special, Brother. It won’t be easy, challenges never are. But if anyone has the tenacity to conquer this, it’s you. There’s no room in this house for self-pity. Tom Barkley didn’t produce quitters.”

Jarrod watched carefully but Heath never raised his head. He left the bed and made his way to the window. He watched the hands leaving for their work day. He scanned the horizon hoping to see a blur of Coco, but no such luck. He turned back and felt a glimmer of encouragement. Heath’s eye’s were a little brighter and his shoulders were straight. He smiled at the cocked head, something Heath was never aware he did when he was deep in thought. Something his father always did. Then slowly the hand made it’s way to the fork and one by one, the ham and other breakfast foods disappeared. Finally, the amber colored medicine was drained as well.

Heath ate in silence, lost in thought and absorbing Jarrod’s words. He took in all that went behind the words as well. He cast a tentative eye at his oldest brother and gave a half smile. Jarrod nodded and returned the smile. He removed the tray and took the extra pillow away. The medicine would take effect soon.

“You need anything before I leave?”

“No thanks, Jarrod. Between what Silas cooked and you served up, I’d say I’m just about bustin’.”

“Well, I’ll see you at dinner.”

Jarrod drew the curtains, cutting out the harsh sunlight and allowing the room to cool slightly. The morning sun fell right into Heath’s bed and the weary invalid was grateful. He snagged the lawyer’s wrist as the sheet was pulled up.

“Thanks,” Heath managed through a yawn as his blue eyes closed.

“Any time, Brother.” Jarrod replied, knowing Heath wasn’t talking about the sheet or the window.

*****

Nick dissected the contents on his plate which was an animal of some sort. That he was sure of, but what it was now, was anyone’s guess. One thing was certain, it wasn’t going inside of him. He pushed the grayish, mealy mix away and settled for coffee and stale rolls for breakfast. Whoever named this town “Blossom” had a cruel sense of humor. The sooner he got going, the better. It was bad enough he lost Jessica, but sharing his room with multi-legged critters was icing on the cake.

“You Mr. Barkley?” a wizened old man asked.

“Yeah?”

“This come for you last night.”

Nick scanned the brief note, which only stated that the two felons were in the town prison. He threw his hat on the table in disgust. How the hell did she get back near Stockton? She was slicker than a cat covered with bacon grease.

“Dammit,” he swore loud enough to make the old man move faster than the geezer thought possible.

He wanted the pleasure of capturing her. Looking her in the eye and letting the disgust sear into her pink skin. Telling her what a cur she was and making her squirm. Well, he’d see her in Stockton. She would feel his wrath. He threw a handful of silver at the swarmy, aging waitress and left. He wired the sheriff, figuring Jarrod would be there. With any luck, he’d be home by four o’clock or so.

*****

The morning progressed slowly. Jarrod persuaded Frank to wait until later in the day to interview Heath, hoping some sliver of chance would bring his memory back. They decided to question Adam but got nowhere. He’d already wired for his father to send Spencer Cummings to defend them. Jarrod groaned when the sheriff informed him of the wire Adam had received. Cummings was as good as they got. If Heath didn’t recover his memory, Jarrod’s stalwart adversary wouldn’t even break a sweat.

“She’s asking for you, Jarrod,” Fred indicated with a nod of his head.

Jarrod walked to the back cell where Jessica was finishing with her hair. She was as stunning as she was cunning. Quite a combination. She smiled deviously and her voice oozed through the bars.

“Oh, there you are, Sugar. Last chance, Counselor, we could make some nice music together. That blue eyed bastard can’t mean that much to you.”

“You’re descpicable, truly without morals, not to mention decency.”

“Oh, them eyes of yours sure do shine when you get fired up! I’ll say one thing, your Papa sure did produce some fine lookin’ studs. I heard tell he wasn’t above makin’ a girl feel good…and I don’t mean your mother. “

“Give my regards to Lucifer, when you see him. Good day.”

Jarrod stormed out and once more his ire rose as her raucous laugh echoed in the hall.

*****

“Heath, Jarrod is bringing Frank Wells from the Pinkerton Agency over this afternoon.””Shame his trip out here will be wasted. I been rackin’ my brain all day, Mother…can’t remember a blasted thing,” he scowled.

Audra entered and greeted him warmly. She perched in the chair next to his bed and babbled on about Will and her friend Marcy and the quilting party and Sarah’s bridal shower. He heard her voice but not the words. He felt her hand on his arm and saw the water glass.

“Heath Barkley, you didn’t hear one word I said,” his blond sister frowned.

“Guilty as charged. I’m sorry, Little Sister, I’m just real restless. What were…”

His voice stopped and she watched as he cocked his head, staring at her throat. She unconsciously fingered the area. The broach, the one he gave her. She was wearing it.

“What is it Heath? Do you remember this pin? It’s from you, for my birthday. You…”

She stopped as she saw him blinking rapidly and panting. Victoria crossed the room and sat on the bed, taking his hand and squeezing it.

“Heath, What is it?”

It was just a flash, but it was important somehow. A fight, an awful fight with Nick. Cascading down the stairs, smashing furniture and Nick’s red-faced fury. Something else, just on the outside of his memory, lurking in the corner of his mind like a thief in the night. Danger. Then it was gone. He looked deep into Victoria’s eyes.

“What happened between me and Nick? Did we have a fight?”

“You and Nick had a rough couple of days and you had a couple of good brawls,” Victoria assessed as she took the pin from her daughter.

“Honey, do you remember the day you bought this?”

“Heath fingered the pretty pin and stared hard. There was nothing.”

“I’m sorry.”

He handed it back to Audra and saw the disconcerted look she wore. He suddenly got an awful feeling; one that sickened his stomach. He’d hurt her terribly in some way.

“Audra, I…I did something awful, didn’t I? I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”

She swallowed back tears when she saw the deep pain in those eyes like the sky. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, then ran a hand along his face. Smiling, she reassured him.

“The only thing you have to be sorry for is not dancing with me on my birthday, Big Brother. I’m holding you to that. I’ll be expecting that dance. Promise?”

He nodded and released her hand as she left the room. Why was everything so dark? Doc Merar said sometimes people have memory lapses from trauma. His mother mentioned the name Jessica, and he watched how she looked at him, but the name meant nothing to him.

A huge void that left him feeling empty inside, as if a chapter in this strange string of events had been ripped out and thrown by the way side. He didn’t know what all this missing chapter contained, but he had a feeling that it’s contents would help piece this unsolved mystery together. His gut instincts told him the lost information could be vital to his family.

“Just give it time, Sweetheart; don’t be so hard on yourself,” Victoria advised, walking to the dresser and picking up a snack tray full of fruit, cake and iced tea. As she crossed the room, she noticed the strain of exertion and struggle now displayed on her youngest son’s face.

“Howard said it may take awhile,” she added, setting the tray down on the wooden night stand and gently touching her son’s arm. “Here, why don’t you take a little nourishment. You really haven’t eaten much of anything since breakfast.”

Heath ceased his efforts as the steady massage on his shoulders relaxed his upper body. Capturing the small, firm hand, he kissed it and gave his mother a weak smile.

“Have I mentioned today how much I love you?” he asked, with a twisted grin.

“No, and it’s about time,” she teased. “Now, if you really love me, why don’t you show me by eating some of this good food.”

*****

It was nearly five o’clock when Nick stopped outside the Sheriff’s office in Stockton. Wearing his determination like a second skin, he forged through the room, not interested in exchanging pleasantries with the marshal.

“Nick, now hold on a minute, you can’t just go barging in there,” Billy warned, skirting the desk.

“You watch me,” he growled, leaving the green deputy in his wake.

Jessica was finishing her supper. She looked up without any emotion on her face and slowly pulled the fork out of her mouth, ending with a long sucking sound.

“Miss me, Sugar?” she drawled, waltzing over to where he stood.

“Like the plague,” he shot hotly.

“Pity. Real Pity,” she oozed as her hand caressed his inner thigh through the bars.

Nick grabbed the hand and twisted it painfully, causing her to cry out. His eyes were alive, like molten lava erupting from a fiery volcano. With all the contempt he could muster, his lips barely moved as he leaned in close to her face.

“I hope they hang you. I intend to be there in the front row. I’ll be sure and wave.”

“Honey, I’ll be dining in the best hotel in San Francisco in a couple days,” she crooned. “There’s no proof I’ve committed any crimes, let alone a hangin’ offense.”

“I’m proof. You tried to kill me. That’s attempted murder. When my brother gets done testifying against you …”

“Oh now, Sweetlips, you know as well as I do, that that poor brother of yours can’t remember a thing. Unless he gives a statement by tomorrow night, I’m walking right out that door. Shame about his legs, what a waste. Umm…umm he sure was pretty, and one fine tastin’ specimen, too,” she leered.

“You shut your filthy mouth,” he raged and grabbed at her through the bars.

She backed up and laughed, the tongue that once danced with his, soft and pink, now seemed black and forked. She relished every bit of his rage and hurt. She ran her hands along her body and huskily spoke.

“Remember how good it felt, Lover. Those strong, calloused hands on these soft curves. That hot mouth of yours on my …”

Nick’s sneer interrupted her trip down memory lane.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I’ve had better in flophouses on the Barbary Coast.”

“Temper, temper, Nicky darling. You don’t wanna go bustin’ up that blond haired honey again. Oh, I forgot, he’s a cripple now, or maybe that won’t make a difference. Felt good to thrash him, didn’t it, Romeo?”

Nick gripped the bars as if a burst of superhuman strength would pull them apart. He wanted to wrap his hands around the white throat and choke the life out of her. He wanted the green eyes that now laughed at him, to plead for mercy.

His eyes averted to the key on the wall. He took it off the hook and slowly returned to the latch. His control caught her off guard and she backed up. He was much more dangerous now; she’d gone too far. The key turned and he entered, not showing the satisfaction he felt by the look of terror on her face. He flexed the gloved fingers and took a step. His lethal thought was cut off by a strong arm.

“Okay, Nick, that’s enough,” Fred warned, pulling Nick back.

Nick turned and left, leaving her with a final thought.

“When it comes right down to it, Jessica, you’re just about the most unsightly, ordinary whore I’ve had the misfortune to cross paths with. By the time them guards at Quentin are through with you, you won’t be able to pay a blind leper to touch you.”

*****

Jennifer pulled the hat down lower over her face as she entered the train station at Miller’s Crossing. She knew the last train was at eight p.m. and didn’t want to miss it. The sooner she got outta these parts and back to Jess and Adam, the better. As she stood in line, a conversation on the bench beside her got her undivided attention.

“Not safe in your own home! What’s the world coming to, Jonas?”

“I don’t know, Lou, but I feel real sorry for that Barkley fella. Nice boy. Shame about him being paralyzed and all.”

“Yeah, sure is, but at least the family has the satisfaction of knowing that woman who did it is locked up.”

“Wasn’t that an odd thing? That Cassidy gal, right? The one Nick was courtin’? Something wrong with the world when a pretty thing like that resorts to lootin’ and shootin’.”

“I heard she’s wanted in ‘Frisco…that them lawyers up there are scurryin’ around trying to find witnesses. Seems that they feel once Heath gives his testimony, it might help them other cases some.”

“Yeah, but ain’t he in a bad way? What if he don’t make it to trial?” Lou asked.

“They’re gettin’ some fancy lawyers to take his statement in the morning, with witnesses and such,” Jonas replied.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“My Mary cooks the meals they’re feeding that gal in the jail. I was waiting for her outside and heard the sheriff talking to Jarrod.”

Jenn’s mind was spinning. Jess in jail? She turned and very carefully walked outside. She made her way back to where she’d left the horse. Throwing her saddlebags over the animal, her mind was already forming a plan. Jess wouldn’t be in jail if it wasn’t for her blundering the assignment. It was now up to her to free Jess. A smile curled on her lips as she rode toward the Barkley ranch.

“Shame them fancy lawyers wasted their trip down here,” she crowed to the horse. “Cause that blond cowboy ain’t gonna live to see the light of day.”

Urging the steed onward, she rode into the dark night.

*****

It was now midnight and Jennifer had been watching the house for a little over two hours. One by one she had watched as the various lighted windows in the house had gone dark, starting with the main floor and finally, now the upstairs. Only one room remained very dimly lit. She had observed a woman’s shadow turning it down while another room burned bright. The woman had then entered the brightly lit room and it wasn’t too long after that that only the dim light remained.

“That must be the room of that blond cowboy,” She thought.

She knew from the snippets of conversation she had caught while waiting at Miller’s Crossing that he was striken to his bed, critically wounded. Next would come the tricky part…breaking into the house, finding the correct door, and completing her mission without being seen. The last part should be easy. From what she was able to pick up eavesdropping, that pesky cowboy wouldn’t be putting up much of a fight. Getting in might prove to be a bit more difficult, but nothing she couldn’t handle. The biggest risk would be accidentally turning the wrong knob. She didn’t want to come face to face with Nick Barkley in the dark. No, the way he had been dogging her earlier, he’d had his cap set on catching her. She wasn’t sure exactly what had made him decide to turn around and go back home. It wasn’t likely that he had given up the chase. No, from what she could figure, Heath Barkley hadn’t talked yet. Now it was up to her to make sure that he was silenced permanently.

Creeping up to the backporch of the house, she tried the back door leading into the kitchen. It opened; this was too easy. Apparently none of the members of the household had remembered to lock it. She slipped inside, her small frame lending itself to her nimble and agile movements. Upon entering the kitchen, Jennifer struck a match and looked around. She had been in the home only a few days prior, but the rooms were spacious and it had been daylight then. Taking note of the ascending staircase, she began her climb to the upper level.

From where she had been hidden outside in her silent observation, she had a fairly good idea which room would turn up the wounded cowboy. She had counted the windows over from the left of the house, and now assuming that each door led to a room with it’s own window, she would be in business. One, two, three…she reached the fourth door and slowly turned the handle. The creak of the hinges set every nerve on end as she continued to push it open. The slight scent of burning kerosene confirmed her hunch. In the shadows slumbered the form of the man who would soon become her next victim.

Tiptoeing over to the bedside, Jennifer stood over the motionless patient. His head resting comfortably on a large, down pillow, he seemed to be a bit restless. Reaching for the pillow, she pulled it out from under him, causing his head and shoulders to shift. He moaned and opened his eyes. The figure of a young woman with long, flowing hair loomed over him. He cocked an eyebrow and a smile flittered on his lips.

“Audra,” he whispered drowsily, “why aren’t you in bed? Don’t worry ’bout me – I’m fine.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Sugar,” the venomous voice responded, as she hovered over his weakened body holding the down pillow just inches from his face. “Wine and jewelry may be fine, this house is certainly fine…and then there’s that fine line of right and wrong. Even these linens are fine,” she scoffed, using her free hand to finger the ruffled bed sheets with mock expertise. “But that descriptive will never apply to you. No, I’d have to say you won’t be feelin’ the least bit fine. Now, take a good deep, breath, Honey, ’cause it’s going to be your last!”

That voice…it seemed so familiar, but yet his thoughts were so cloudy and vague. Suddenly it was all coming back to him. Then it hit him…hard. Just as he realized who this was standing in his bedroom and that it wasn’t just a bad dream, he felt the plush softness of the pillow closing in around him. Struggling for air, he fought with all the strength his upper body would allow. He could feel her weight pinning his chest to the bed as she leaned on him with one knee. She would have to be directly in front of him. He remembered the long, golden hair. Flailing his arms upwards, he found the thick strands and clenched the yellow mane in his tightly balled fists. Yanking hard, she screeched in sheer startlement and pain as her head was snapped back.

Heath could feel the pressure subside as she released her hold on the feather pillow. Heaving his body hard, he rolled himself out of bed, landing on top of her. She fought and squirmed, but the dead weight of Heath on top secured her to the floor.

“Nick!” Heath called, trying to catch his breath. “Nick, I need you!”

In his room across the hall, Nick had been awakened by a shrill scream…a scream that seemed all too familiar. In the haze of semi consciousness, he tried to collect his thoughts. He heard a loud thud and his name being called.

Once again, the windows in the large white mansion began to light up again, one by one, as various members of the family were roused by the commotion down the hall. Nick was the first to enter Heath’s bedroom. Running to the night stand, he turned up the light and saw the woman he once loved pinned beneath his convalescent brother.

“Jessica!” he exclaimed in stunned disbelief.

Jessica was supposed to be locked up in the Stockton jail. He had seen her there himself just this afternoon, yet here she was in Heath’s bedroom. He didn’t know what kind of jail Fred was running over there, but he was going to be speaking with the town council about tighter security. By this time, the rest of the family was congregated at the door of the bedroom.

“Get up!” Nick snapped, tightly grasping Jennifer’s small arm as he prepared to pull her out from under his brother.

“Nick what’s wrong. Is Heath all…,” Victoria’s voice died in her throat.

“Mother…”

Nick’s concentration was distracted only for seconds, but it was long enough for the wildcat to bare her claws. She ran the lethal spikes down his neck and used the other one to gouge his eye. Cursing and blinking his tearing eye, he held fast and the two did a drunkardly dance across Heath’s floor.

“JARROD! JARROD!” Victoria called from the doorway.

Racing to her stricken son’s side, she watched Nick struggle to gain control of the she-devil. Her hand reached down for the gun she wore at her side, but Nick’s quick jab knocked it out of her fingers and onto the floor. Nick seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the struggle, but she took his legs out from under him with one swift move behind his knees. He landed on top of her and managed to pin one wrist down while trying to gain control the free one.

“It will be a real pleasure when they throw your sorry backside in jail. I’m gonna personally see to it that the key is thrown away for good. You’re one sorry excuse for a female,” he leered.

“And who made you such a good judge of people?” she spat, hitting him hard between the legs with her balled fist.

It didn’t do the damage her well versed knee could have, but it caught him off guard and he fell sideways. Slithering across the floor, her livid green eyes were intent on the gun which now lay within reach. Nick’s arm caught her boot, but not before she closed on her prize.

Heath’s vision cleared and the room began to come into focus. He watched as Nick fell sideways and Jennifer slithered towards him like the slimy snake that she was. He saw Jarrod and Audra arrive in the doorway.

“Jarrod,” Heath cried and kicked the gun to his startled brother.

Jarrod picked up the gun and took aim.

“End of the road , Miss Cassidy. I think we’ve all had enough of your act.”

“Jarrod, help Heath!” Nick seethed, knees buckling as he tried to stand.

Jarrod pushed his way past Audra and the wiggling, cursing vamp who now felt the wrath of Nick Barkley’s full fury. His eyes burned like coals as he grabbed the back of her neck with one hand and her wrists with the other. His vice-like clinch caused her to curse and kick. This only intensified his stranglehold. She trembled a little when she saw the pure hatred in his eyes.

“Go ahead, just give me an excuse,” He growled.

Jerking her to her feet, she didn’t have a snowball’s chance of squirming free from Nick’s steel grip.

“Now how do you suppose she managed this?” Nick questioned through clenched teeth. “Seems like we have an escape artist on our hands! Well, when I get through with you, Sister,” he threatened, locking his ominous gaze onto Jennifer, “there’s going to be nowhere safe for you to escape to!”

“I wouldn’t count on that, Cowboy,” she stammered, her face flushed with anger. “Sooner or later I’ll be loose again, and then I comin’ after you!”

“Don’t listen to her, Nick,” Heath interjected from the floor, where his mother and sister now crowded around him, along with Jarrod. “She ain’t that good. You only think she is ’cause there’s two of ’em. She’s the one that held up the jewelry store in Fairfield, while her twin sister made sport of you here in Stockton.”

“Are you sure, Heath?” Jarrod questioned. “Are you sure she’s the one?”

“I’m sure, alright!” Heath affirmed. “Let’s just say that by now there’s been plenty of opportunity for me to get to know the Cassidy twins real well!”

“Let’s get her to the sheriff, Nick,” Jarrod suggested. “I’d say the pair will make excellent cellmates.”

“Yeah,” agreed Nick. “It’s such a shame for a family to be separated…especially twins! Now, come along, Princess,” he drawled, his words dripping in sarcasim. “I’m going to get a little bit of rope and tie you over the saddle of that horse of yours. Just some added insurance that you won’t be tryin’ any more of your tricks durin’ our ride into Stockton!”

“Jarrod,” Victoria beckoned as Nick and Jennifer prepared to exit the bedroom, “help me get Heath back into bed and then go give Nick a hand. I have a feeling he may need it.”

“Help him?” Nick exclaimed as he turned with a mischievous smile gracing his lips. “Why there’s nothin’ wrong with that boy’s legs. From the looks of that kick that sent the gun sailin’ Jarrod’s way, it won’t be long ’til he’s runnin’ circles around all of us. In fact, just in time for all them fence holes that need diggin’.”

“How about it Heath?” Jarrod said with a wink to his youngest brother as he lifted him from the floor.

Heath held onto Jarrod like a toddler does to it’s parent. He hesitantly placed one foot in front of the other and managed two steps before his knees buckled.

“Show-off,” Audra teased, taking up the other arm as Jarrod helped get him to the bed.

Heath’s smile lasted long after he fell asleep.

*****

“Mother?”

“In here, dear. How did it go?”

Jarrod entered the parlor where his mother was reading a book. He kissed the top of her head and flipped the cover.

“The new Mark Twain novel? When did that arrive?”

“Today. Now, Jarrod, how did it go?”

“The District Attorney is confident that with Heath’s testimony and the revelation of twins, in addition to the witnesses who have come forward, that those two feline felons won’t see the light of day for some time.”

“Do you think he’s strong enough? He’s just now beginning to gain some strength back. I don’t think he is up to a strain like that.”

“By the time the trial date is announced and the attorneys for that pair file extensions, Heath will be strong enough, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop him. Where are Nick and Heath anyway?” Jarrod queried regarding his younger brothers.

“In Heath’s room. Dinner is almost ready.”

Jarrod stopped in the bedroom door, perplexed slightly at the sight of Nick. His brother was sitting in a chair pulled close to Heath’s bed. Nick’s long legs were extended on the bed over the sheet covering his brother’s knees. Several piles of papers, receipts no doubt, were stacked on various parts of Heath’s sleeping form. Nick was slouched comfortably, with a large ledger on his lap. His brow furrowed as he scratched out figures and noted transactions.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable at the desk downstairs,” Jarrod asked, entering.

“Nope,” Nick replied without looking up.

“What are you doing?”

“Me and Heath are balancing the books.”

Jarrod studied Heath’s face, relaxed in sleep. His chest rose and fell in a steady rate, never disrupting the dozens of account references and bills that were resting on him. Jarrod’s blue eyes squinted and he watched Nick’s hand moving.

“So what exactly is Heath’s role in this partnership?”

“Support,” Nick grunted.

He lifted his lean legs, indicating his use of Heath as a foot stool and waved his hand, showing how Heaths torso supported all the receipts rather nicely.

Jarrod watched as Nick turned over a yellow bill of lading and it fell to the floor. Reaching for it, he frowned and directed a question at the cowboy turned accountant.

“Nick, these aren’t coded.”

“What coded? Whaddya talkin’ about?” Nick scowled, finally looking up.

“Coded, Nick. You know, marking on the bill – the ledger number, page and column number so I can cross reference them if I need to. You know how much time that saves me? That coding system of Heath’s is a godsend.”

“Oh,” Nick squirmed.

“Nick, please tell me these are coded.”

Jarrod looked a little dismayed at the large pile of slips on the floor.

“Sorry, Jarrod. He usually takes care of that, I guess I forgot, but that’s okay, I marked some of them, see.”

“SLAP?” Jarrod carped. “What does that mean?”

“Shipment Late Access Penalty,” Nick said proudly, replacing the slip.

“Thought of that all on your own, did you Nick?” Jarrod chastised, shaking his head.

“What’s the matter with you? Makes sense to me,” Nick defended.

“And what about those of us less fortunate souls who don’t understand ‘Nick-speak’?. Please, Nick, leave these for Heath. He’ll need something to keep him busy while he recovers. It’s not your strong suit.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you’re right. Audra and the giggling pack of females she’ll have trooping in here will have the kid nuts in a week.”

Nick carefully placed the completed receipts in the book , while Jarrod gathered the small piles from his youngest brother’s chest. He took the book from Nick and carried all the material over to Heath’s small desk in the corner.

“Dinner’s almost ready. You coming down for a drink?” Jarrod asked by the door.

“Nah, I’ll hang around here, he’s gonna be wakin’ up soon. I’ll see you at the table.”

Nick stretched and rubbed his eyes. The long, hot day on the range had left him weary. Maybe he’d take a cool bath after dinner and work himself up to a game of pool with Jarrod. His thought was interrupted by his legs being unceremoniously dumped on the floor.

“Make yourself at home,” a drowsy voice complained.

Nick smiled at the cranky, sleepy voice and the face that owned it. He attempted to help his weakened sibling sit up and was rewarded by a slap to the hand and low growl.

“Stop fussin’, Nick. Leave me be.”

“What’s your problem?”

“Sorry,” Heath offered, wincing.

“Back pain again?” Nick frowned.

“It ain’t bad. Reckon it’s a whole lot better than feelin’ no pain,” Heath sighed.

Nick watched as Heath took his pain medicine and followed it with a long swig of water. The last few days had seen much improvement in his brother’s condition. Nick usually got home after Heath was asleep. They really hadn’t talked about that night. Now was as good a time as any.

Nick slouched in his chair across from his brother who was massaging his calves. He fidgeted in the chair and tried to get started. He was about to speak when Heath’s head came up.

“Spit it out Nick, what’s stuck in your craw?”

“Uh…well I…It’s like this. That night, when Jennifer had me dead to rights and you took the bullet,” Nick stopped and Heath smiled broadly. He’d let Nick squirm a little more, then let him off the hook.

“Guess that makes us even, Brother,” Heath saved.

“Even how?” Nick wondered aloud, his face confused.

Heath looked past his brother’s strong arm to the window outside. The sun would be setting soon. The orange ball was gliding slowly into the horizon. He thought back to how strong the emotional tide was that day in court almost two years ago. The day the guards testified. The day he found out just how much his brother loved him.

“For gettin’ me out of that box,” Heath quieted, finding Nick’s hazel eyes.

Nick winced as the awful memory of that black moment came back into mental view. The long, agonizing hours that he’d spent watching that damn box through the prison window. The way his gut was ripped to shreds every time Heath’s moans and cries struck his ear. How his heart sank and his stomach turned when the unconscious form tumbled out of that iron box. Risley…that was the closest he ever came to killing a man with his bare hands.

“Heath, you thanked us after you came around. Me, Lobo, all the guys that helped bust ….”

“I’m not talking about the jailbreak, Nick. I’m thanking you, for…for what you did.”

The depth of Heath’s emotion was evident in the tone of his voice.

He grabbed Nick’s shoulder and wouldn’t let him avert his gaze. Heath remembered all too well the overwhelming sensation that rocked him to the bone when the guard testified. That his brother, his best friend, someone he admired like no other, went down on his knees…to a spineless cesspool; a subhuman monster who didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Nick Barkley. That day in court, when the words tumbled forth, Heath was stunned. He tried to find Nick’s eyes, but Nick wouldn’t look at him. The long day of testimony only furthered the gap. A long, uncomfortable silence in the hallway that day told Heath that Nick had considered the debt free and clear. He wouldn’t talk about it, and Heath hadn’t pushed. But now, he wouldn’t let his brother look away.

Nick felt the strong grip on his shoulder and leaned forward. He raised his eyes, only inches away from Heath’s. The expressive blue eyes shone with a stirring pride. Nick’s eyes were moist and his chest felt a little tight. His mouth opened and closed several times, he looked away and a hand turned him back.

“Sometimes, Heath,” he stopped and swallowed hard; his eyes locked into his brothers, reaching, “you gotta do whatever it takes,” he sighed and continued. “You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, Nick, I do. So now you understand why I did what I did, okay?”

Nick nodded and swallowed hard, gripping the back of the fair-haired head. Nick’s shirt was partially unbottoned and a mischieveous smile crossed the blond cowboy’s face. Nick didn’t see the smile appear or retreat. Heath could see he was still lost in thought.

“Course, that don’t make things totally even,” Heath seriously mocked.

“Whaddya mean?” Nick’s head shot up.

Heath opened Nick’s shirt and carefully studied the claw marks on the side of his neck. His forehead creased as he shook his head.

“Nope, my scars are a whole lot prettier than yours.”

Nick cuffed the side of Heath’s face and laughed.

“I don’t know about that, Brother. I think I have the edge.”

“Yeah, but you don’t got these,” Heath turned slightly to show Nick the scarlet streaks from misguided passion on his back.

“Where’d they come from?”

Heath yawned and laid back on the pillow, bringing his knees up and closing his eyes.

“Hey,” Nick shouted, smacking the top of the blond head, “I’m talking to you!”

“I don’t recall real clear, Nick. My mind’s still real fuzzy. I think it was when me and Jessica, no maybe it was Jennifer…maybe it was both…” his voice trailed off as he feigned sleep.

“Both! Boy, you are delerious. I think that fever’s coming back. You’ll need a whole lotta practice before you get in my class. Heath? Heath are you sleeping?”

Nick pulled the sheet up and grunted all the way to the door. He glanced back just in time to see the head in the bed pop up and the wink and grin that followed. His loud laughter echoed through the halls and followed him down’ to dinner.

*****

“Mother! Audra! Where is everybody?”

Nick threw his hat on the table in the foyer and paced the lower level of the Barkley mansion, his spurs keeping tune with each long stride.

“Heath! What are you doin’ up and about,” the tall cowboy exclaimed, finding his little brother at the desk in the library, knee deep in paper.

“Oh, just goin’ through some of these books. I couldn’t stand another day in that bed with Mother and Audra fussin’ over me. They left this mornin’ to visit out at the Mission and I figured I’d take full advantage of havin’ the house to myself. Where’ve you been all mornin’?”

“That, my dear brother, is what I came home to tell everybody. I met up with Fred in town this mornin’, and he told me that the trial in San Francisco ended yesterday.”

“Oh?” responded Heath. “That was pretty quick. What was the outcome?”

“Well, with your written deposition and the evidence that Frank Wells had supportin’ murder charges in San Francisco, the Cassidy twins, along with Bennett have been sentenced to life in Quentin. I then went over to the telegraph office and picked up a wire from Jarrod,” continued Nick, pulling a crumpled pieced of paper out of his vest pocket. “He says here that he’s satisfied with the outcome of the trial and he’ll be back home tomorrow evening!”

“Is he, now?” grinned Heath, using the desk for support as he stood up. “I think that calls for a little celebration, Nick! What do ya say?”

“You gettin’ down those stairs all by yourself is a cause for celebratin’, Little Brother! Here, let me give you a hand.”

“No, Nick. I think I can manage this one all by myself,” Heath rebutted in triumphant jubilation as he slowly began his trek across the room to the liquor decanters.

Pacing himself with Heath, Nick kept in time with each teetering step, ready to lend a hand if the situation arose.

“Hey, that’s pretty good,” he congratulated as Heath put a hand out for the small table holding the bottles. “You’ll be ready for the dance floor in no time!”

“Speakin’ of dance floors, Nick, who are you goin’ to be takin’ to the social Sunday evenin’?”

“Oh, to tell you the truth, I haven’t given it much thought,” Nick mulled wistfully. “I guess I’ll probably end up goin’ stag, if I even go.”

“What? You not go! What did all those poor, deprived women do to deserve that?”

“I guess they’ll survive. I think for the time bein’ I’d best lay low from the women folk. Just think. If I hadn’t fallen head over heels for Jessica, none of this probably would have happened to you…and you’re more important to me than ten Jessicas…even if they were as pure as the driven snow.”

Taking the drink that Heath had offered him, Nick put the shot to his lips and took a good, hard swallow.

“Ah, really hits the spot,” he murmured in contented bliss, and then with a sly smile added, “and I thank you for givin’ us reason to celebrate!”

“Say, Nick,” Heath mused. “All this talk about Jessica and if she’d been as pure as the driven snow. If she was that pure, Nick, would we have both had the chance to find out what she really was like?”

“What do ya mean?” Nick questioned.

“Oh, you know. The kissin’ and all that. Accordin’ to the experienced Miss Cassidy, when it comes to smoochin’, I’ve got you beat, Big Brother!”

“Is that so?” Nick played along, trying to put a serious tone in his voice. “And when did you get to be such an expert?”

“Let’s just say I’ve had my opportunity,” Heath teased. “You ain’t the only one in this family that knows how to woo the ladies!”

“Well, since you know women so well, and since you’re obviously recovered enough to be out and about, maybe you should go along to the dance Sunday night and show me how it’s done. I mean after all, it’s your voice of experience talkin’!”

“I just might do that. In fact that sounds like a great…..”

“Heath Barkley! What are you doin’ out of bed?”

Both brothers jumped as they traced the voice of reprimand to the tiny woman standing in the doorway with both hands placed firmly on her narrow hips.

“Oh, hello, Mother,” Heath sheepishly replied.

“Mother! Glad you’re home!” Nick cut in, trying to take some of the heat off his younger brother. “I’m starved!”

“In a minute, Nick. Right now I want to hear from your brother. Heath, you know what the doctor said. Plenty of bed rest for at least another week!”

“So does that mean I won’t be goin’ to the dance Sunday evenin’?”

“That’s exactly what it means, Young Man. Now I want you to waltz upstairs to your bedroom. Right now!”

“Well, I guess that settles it, Nick,” Heath shrugged. “You’re goin’ to have to get along as best you can with out me.”

“Come on,” Nick laughed, “I’ll get the checker board and meet you up in your room. Maybe you can give me some pointers while I’m whippin’ you at a game!”

Victoria smiled as she watched the backs of her sons disappear through the doorway and heard their laughter echo in the hallway. Nick’s strong arm around Heath’s shoulder, side by side, just as brothers should be.

***The End***

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One thought on “Double Trouble (by Star and Deirdre)

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