Grace Will Lead Me Home (by Star and Deirdre)

Summary:   A two-part Story
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4900


Part 1

The dark, ominous clouds shifted across the December sky, temporarily hiding the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevadas. Snowfall in the mountains had come late this year, and the forecasters were predicting more before Christmas. The lighted windows of the Pine Meadows tavern reflected their warmth on the snowy streets as the people of the town hustled in various directions, finalizing another day.

Inside the cheery building, a bearded man stared solemnly ahead, waiting and watching. The tavern’s busy entrance had a steady influx of patrons coming and going. Most of the tables were occupied and men were lined along the counter like San Franciscans waiting for a trolley. The air carried snippets and tones of many voices and the sounds of laughter could be heard at any given time.

The grim-faced man pulled a watch from his vest and frowned as he read the time. Returning the watch to his pocket, he beckoned for the house hostess to refill the empty mug which sat before him. His expression was emotionless and his words few as he handed her several coins. She took the money and nodded her thanks. He sipped on the warm cider, the hard eyes scanning the crowd. His craggy features seemed a contrast to his neatly trimmed beard and well kept appearance.

A cool breeze intermingled with the warmth of the fireplace inside as once again, the doors swung open. The man’s dark eyes alerted as he fixed his gaze on the three men entering the town’s busiest drinking establishment. The leader of the three returned his stare and nonchalantly headed over to the table located in the farthest corner of the room, his two cohorts in close tow.

“It’s about time you got here,” the introvert mumbled as his expected guests each found a seat at the table.

“There was trouble,” the leader replied. “Some sort of ruckus over at the train station. The sheriff was stopping outsiders for questioning. We had to take the back road.”

“Were you seen?” the bearded man inquired.

“No, Sir. Like I said, we took the back road.”

“Good. Sounds like you were using your head. Now, let’s get down to business. As you already know, I’ve called you here to carry out a mission. A mission that is long overdue.”

“Yes, Sir,” the burly man responded, “and I want you to know that we’re all with you.”

“Good! We have much to discuss. Your patience and dedication will be greatly rewarded if our mission is successful. The seeds of vengeance will be harvested, I promise you that. I’ve been waiting for this ever since the day that judge read me my sentence. Now, tell me what news you bring regarding our quarry.”

*****

The sun peeked in through the condensation on the windows as the family began to assemble themselves for breakfast. Jarrod, the first to arrive, sat at the end of the table, lost in thought as he read through an article in The Stockton Eagle. The jail break had been inconceivable. How anybody could escape the confinements of San Quentin was beyond him, but yet here it was again, another columnist’s commentary, spelled out in black and white. The authorities of the surrounding area had all been searching, but speculation figured the fugitive to have sought refuge over the Canadian border. It had been well over a month, and the chances of recapture appeared dim.

“Any new leads?” Victoria inquired as she briskly entered the dining area and found her seat at the head of table.

“Oh, good morning, Mother,” Jarrod greeted. “No, I’m afraid not. However, there is every indication that he’s headed north up to Canada. If he has any sense at all, he’ll stay there.”

“Well, I for one am not going to let that man’s whereabouts interfere with the Christmas spirit in this household. Audra and I have much to do today. Holiday baking and decorating. What time are you and your brothers planning to take off for the lodge?”

“I guess that will depend on them,” the lawyer reasoned. “If they plan on sleeping half way through the morning, we’ll be off to a rather late start.”

“Who’s sleeping?” Heath croaked, suppressing a cough as he stopped at the sideboard to pour himself a cup of coffee. “You must be referring to Nick, ‘ol Sleeping Beauty, himself!”

“I don’t think I’d go so far as to call him that,” Jarrod jested. “Say, how’s that cough of yours? I don’t want you getting pneumonia on us up at the lodge.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Heath rebutted. “It takes a lot more than a little cold to keep me in bed.”

“I wouldn’t call a bout with bronchitis ‘a little cold’ young man,” Victoria admonished. “You make sure you stay warm and take that medicine. I really don’t think you should be running around that mountain with snow on the horizon…”

“I’m fine, Mother, and I’m goin’,” Heath rasped decisively, his blues eyes defensive.

“I give up,” she said shaking her head. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go wake Audra so we can get to that store. It’s the last shipment before Christmas and they’ll be mobbed.”

Victoria rose to exit the room. As she passed her youngest son, she paused and kissed his cheek. Before she could utter a word of protest at the residue of fever, he silenced her.

“Good-bye, Mother.”

“Heath, really another day wouldn’t hurt, you still feel warm and your voice…”

“Five days takin’ it easy has been long enough. Give my regards to the hens in town,” he managed.

“And about time you crawled out, Boy” Nick put in with a pat to the blue-clothed shoulder, kissing Victoria as she left. “If we’re goin’ to get to the lodge and back with that tree before Christmas, we’re goin’ to have to put a wiggle on it.”

“It’s only the tenth, Nick, we’ll be back by Christmas Eve. I just hope Heath’s voice recovers in time for his debut at Christmas services,” Jarrod teased.

“Oh now that is something I have been waiting for,” Nick chortled with a wink to the lawyer.

Heath grimaced at the sideboard next to his brother. He watched as Nick filled his plate with bacon, sausage, eggs and biscuits. He’d been caught singing a favorite hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, while going through the Christmas boxes he and his brothers loaded in the foyer a couple of weeks before. He thought he’d had the house to himself…that Nick still out on the ranch and that Jarrod, Audra and his mother were returning from San Francisco later that evening. He finished the song and turned red-faced as the family clapped and Nick whistled. The trio had met Nick in the yard and the family converged into the house in time to hear most of the song. His mother had insisted he volunteer for Christmas services, since they were short a man in the choir. He tried every way he could think of to get out of it, but in the end, one plea from those gray eyes of hers had been his undoing.

“Not too late for you to lend a tonsil,” Heath offered, taking only some eggs and a biscuit and returning to his seat.

“Oh no, Brother, you got yourself into this. My job is to just sit back and enjoy the show,” Nick finished.

He started to sit down in his usual seat, next to Heath. A loud, deep, wet coughing fit interrupted his journey. Covering his plate defensively, he moved as far away as he could, seating himself on the other end of the long table.

“Wouldn’t hurt you to show a little sympathy!” Heath choked through watery eyes.

“SYMPATHY!” Nick bellowed spearing a defenseless sausage and aiming it at the winded blond. “For what? It’s only a couple of weeks ’til Christmas and I got no intention of catching what you got. I have dances, holiday visits and lots of mistletoe to stand under. I don’t intend to be spitting up gunk, coughing and layin’ in bed.”

“Nick, it’s not his fault he got sick,” Jarrod reasoned over his coffee.

“The hell it isn’t,” Nick argued back. “That’s what he gets for kissin’ strange women.”

“There was nothin’ strange about her or the way she kissed,” Heath strained with a smile.

“Really?” Nick’s eyes widened. “That hour of passion was worth you bein’ laid up all week?”

Heath didn’t answer, but his smile and the light in his eyes made Jarrod chuckle. He was a little concerned at Heath’s lack of appetite. His brothers were both hearty eaters. Nick’s plate seemed to cover enough for the two of them. Knowing his youngest brother’s penchant for covering up infirmities, he hoped that Heath didn’t have a stomach problem too.

“Nick, you’re eyes wouldn’t be a little green today, would they?” Jarrod teased.

“Over what? That silly Madison girl? She ain’t worth getting that worked up over. She’s not my type,” Nick defended.

“That’s okay, Big Brother, I got plenty to spare. I’ll throw some action your way, you bein in a slump and all,” Heath rasped as he nodded to Jarrod and left the room.

“SLUMP! That’s a word that’s not in my dictionary, you wheezin’ Lothario. Get back here,” Nick hollered at the retreating back, trying unsuccessfully not to laugh.

“You think he’s up to this trip?” Jarrod asked, rising from the table.

“He’s okay,” Nick concluded piling pancakes on a side plate. “He’d drag himself on one leg if that’s what it took.”

Jarrod knew exactly what Nick meant. This would be the third Christmas Heath spent as a Barkley and the previous two treks for the tree had come to mean something very special to him. The tradition of the brothers bonding at the lodge, drinking, joking, and just enjoying the freedom that the wilderness atmosphere offered had enriched all of them. It was at that first expedition that Heath spoke a little of his childhood and his remembrances of Christmas. The loud laughter the two older men were sharing had disappeared as their half brother shared some very moving memories.

“Jarrod? Jarrod? Hello, I’m in the room, ya know.”

“Huh?” Jarrod blinked at Nick’s waving hand. “Oh, sorry Nick, I was thinking about that first year we shared with him at the lodge. Remember the story he told about making his mother that nativity set out of wood scraps?”

Nick’s smile disappeared as he poured cream into his coffee. Stirring slowly, he too remembered Heath’s halting words of a poor ten year-old boy’s devotion to his mother. How that Christmas, despite the poverty, was the best one he could remember. How he still carried the pride his mother’s eyes beamed that day…for a manager made of crooked pieces of mismatched wood, held together by globs of glue, and the pasted, cracked porcelain figures within.

“Yeah, I guess that was the first time he really talked about when he was a kid. I was glad. You know what I mean, Jarrod?”

“I do, Nick. That time up there, alone in the mountains, I guess he felt comfortable, finally, opening up a little bit.”

“How about last year when he had all of that spiked cider? Man, I never knew how funny that boy could be. I nearly split my sides laughing at him,” Nick chuckled softly, remembering.

“That was a night to remember and so will this year be if we get going. I’ll take the bags outside, you corral that missing brother of ours.”

“Will do,” Nick said starting for the back stairs.

He stood on the porch of the house, pleased with it’s secluded location. The modifications within had been carried out to the exact measure. He nodded to the pair of brutes who carried in the supplies needed. Big, strong men who would ask no questions and take orders without hesitation. He entered the large living quarters, neatly furnished and proceeded into the kitchen. The splintering sounds of the crates being opened in the pantry told him just how close he was to imminent retaliation.

He took meat, cheese and some fruit over to the table. He poured a mug of hot coffee and sliced some bread. As he finished the meal, he thought on his mission. Soon, very soon the missing elements would be filled in. Then, he would reap his reward. Payment in full…no less, no options, no appeals. He smiled as many thoughts of the events to come filled his head. Oh, sweet revenge, thy dawn is nearing.

*****

“NICK! Get a move on!” Jarrod hollered from the foyer.

“Yeah, Yeah, hold your pants on Counselor,” Nick replied trotting down the steps carrying two bags. “He’s in the bathroom.”

Nick finished Jarrod’s glance at Heath’s room. Jarrod took one of the bags and tossed Nick his coat.

“Is he sick Nick?” His blues eyes were disquieting.

“I don’t know. I think maybe he tossed up his breakfast, what little of it there was. It’s not that far to the lodge. He’ll be okay. We can’t wait, and it won’t be the same without him.”

“If Mother finds out…” Jarrod’s voice trailed.

“She won’t. She’s not here,” Nick reasoned before adding. “Heath, let’s go!”

Jarrod was halfway up the stairs when Heath appeared, already in his coat. Jarrod didn’t miss the clouded eyes and blanched face before Heath recovered and grinned at him.

“Let’s go, Big Brother. I got just the right tree picked out.”

Jarrod stopped him mid-stair and looked hard at him.

“Heath, are you sure you’re up to this?”

“I’m okay, Jarrod. I guess I should’ve skipped breakfast. I’ll take some crackers and biscuits with me.”

Heath bounded down the rest of the steps. Jarrod followed more slowly, hoping the bad feeling he had would go away. He picked up the remaining bags from the foyer and joined his brothers out front. The door shut and the house was cloaked in silence.

The Barkley brothers left for a special trip to the Sierras to get the perfect Christmas tree. A time for them to share and bond, talking and joking, enjoying each other’s company. A trip they’d all been anticipating.

“I sure hope we don’t run into a storm. Could get nasty up there,” Nick commented, not knowing how much of a prophet he was.

*****

By wagon, the journey from the ranch to the lodge would take the entire day and well into the evening. Nestled high among the evergreens, near the town of Pine Meadows, travelers, vacationers, and hunting expeditions would take advantage of the scenic beauty of the mountains, while lodging within the log walls of the sturdy structure. Fun and recreation was the trademark established by the man who had founded the resort town seventy-five years prior. His sons and grandsons had kept the torch burning after his death, and Pine Meadows had grown into one of the largest and most frequented towns in the Sierras. Besides the area’s local residents, both the town and the lodge were a popular place for rest and relaxation, used by people far and near.

The horses’ pace was brisk as the wagon creaked onwards, beginning the gradual uphill climb as scattered pine trees dotted the hills and roadside. The air had been fairly temperate down in the valley, but had cooled significantly as the elevation increased. Scant patches of snow resided in the shaded areas and the breath from the horses’ nostrils resembled the steam from a locomotive.

Nick shifted the reigns to a single gloved hand, while he used the other to work the collar of his fleece lined jacket up around his neck. Jarrod who sat on the seat next to him, thrust his bare hands deeper into the pockets of his coat. Turning to sneak a glance in back of the wagon, he saw his youngest brother sacked out amid the blankets and supplies.

“He’s out cold, isn’t he?” Nick commented as one of the wheels hit a sharp rut in the well traveled road.

“That medicine Mother sent along for him must have quite a bit of sedative or alcohol or both,” Jarrod replied. “As eager as he was to get started, he didn’t last long.”

“You got that right,” Nick responded. “And Heath ain’t one for catchin’ catnaps in the middle of the day.”

“You know,” Jarrod lamented, “I’m almost kicking myself for not drugging him completely and leaving him back at the ranch.”

“You’d have to do more than that,” Nick added. “You’d have to hog-tie him as well. We both know that brother of ours better than that. Once he found out what we’d done, he’d be hot on our trail in no time.”

“And hot under the collar when he caught up with us,” Jarrod concluded. “Maybe we should have just bought a tree from the vendor in town this year. That way Heath would be home recuperating in a warm house and you and me would be….”

“Mending fences and catching up on paperwork,” Nick finished for him. “No, I don’t think that Heath would have put up with that, either. He’s been lookin’ forward to this trip more than the two of us put together, and you know how that boy gets when he has his mind set. He was bound and determined to make this trip come hell or high water and there wasn’t anything that anybody could do or say that would make him change his mind.”

“Yes, I guess you’re right, Nick. He’s definitely got that Barkley stubborn streak coursing through his veins. That alone brands him a true Barkely. We might as well just make the best of it and try to keep a special eye out for him. If he gets to hacking bad again while we’re up there, I’m going to insist that he see the doctor in Pine Meadows.”

“And I’ll back you, Mr. Lawyer Man,” Nick chuckled. “If it gets to that point, we just might end up havin’ to hog-tie him after all.”

“Hey, what’s all this talk about hogtyin’?” a sleepy voice mumbled from the back of the wagon.

“Oh, nothin’, Heath. Nothin’ at all,” Nick quipped. “I was just tellin’ Jarrod here that when we go out dancin’ New Year’s Eve, I just may have to hog-tie Mellie Peters to keep her from followin’ me around all evenin’ long.”

“Say, Nick,” Heath drawled, “since when did Mellie start masquardin’ as a man? I could’ve sworn I heard you refer to the person you were gonna hog-tie as a ‘he’.”

“I think what Nick meant to say, Heath,” interrupted Jarrod, using humor to change the subject, “is that Mellie will need to hog-tie Nick in order to get him to go to the dance with her.”

“No, that ain’t what he said,” Heath returned, playing along with Jarrod’s game. “He said that you and him were the ones gonna do the hogtyin’, and the person to be tied was referred to as ‘he’. Now, just who is it that you two are plannin’ to tie?”

“Heath, why don’t you just go back to sleep,” suggested Nick. “You were dreamin’, Boy. Do ya hear me? Dreamin’!”

“Maybe that elixir of Mother’s has got him hallucinating,” Jarrod teased.

“I was hallucinatin’ all right,” Heath grumbled. “Hallucinatin’ that the two of you had me all trussed up and were cartin’ me off to some doctor!”

“Good night, Heath!” the two older Barkleys chimed together in unison.

With a mock scowl, Heath snugged the blanket around himself and lay back down, smiling once his face was out of his brother’s view. Hey, he was on vacation and opportunities to nap during the day didn’t come cheap.

*****

It was close to ten p.m. when Nick pulled up the team and set the brake. The lodge stood before them, festively decorated for the Christmas holidays. From the sounds of music and laughter coming from within, the night was still young.

“Jarrod, why don’t you and Heath go in and secure us a table,” Nick offered. “I’ll go over to the barn and stable up the horses. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for somethin’ besides jerky.”

“Well, since you’re offering, Brother Nick, this is one time I’m not going to argue with you. Come on, Heath,” Jarrod said, slapping the blanketed shoulder of the horizontal form in the back of the wagon. “Let’s go inside where it’s warm.”

“Oh, we’re at the lodge already,” drowsed Heath. “How’d we get here so quick?”

“Never mind about that, Heath,” Jarrod supplied. “Right now our job is to reserve a table for this hungry brother of ours. Come on!”

*****

Jarrod entered the massive lobby of the rustic lodge which was outfitted for the holiday season. The fresh greens were in great abundance, trimmed with red velvet bows and icicle-like crystals.

A huge fire roared in the hearth, seemingly calling the lawyer’s name. Travelers of every age and size gave the room a cozy, comfortable feeling. Hefty pints of ale were being lifted as well as hot rum and cider. An accordion player in the corner let his talented fingers work magic.

“Jarrod! Jarrod Barkley! Well, now the season is officially open. How are you?”

Jarrod smiled before he turned to face his host. Max Schmidt was one of the founder’s grandsons. Now in his early 60’s, his stout body showed no signs of slowing down. The thick white hair, mustache and beard gave him the look of St. Nick himself. It didn’t hurt that he favored red flannel shirts.

“Max, if I didn’t know better I’d swear your wife married Kris Kringle himself!”

“Ahh, Herr Kringle should be so lucky. My Elsa is heaven sent!”

“I don’t doubt it one bit. I’ve been salivating at the thought of those heavenly creations coming from her kitchen.”

“I have just the table by the window, near the fire. I’ll have Gerhardt bring some steins over and some potato and bacon chowder to start with, and a basket of rye bread.”

“Boy Howdy, lead the way,” Heath finally caught up to his oldest brother.

“Young Mr. Barkley, it’s good to see you again,” Max pumped Heath’s hand.

“Same here Max. Sure looks pretty. You outdid yourself.”

“That is nothing. Wait until you meet Anna and Laurel, cousins visiting from the old country. Ahhh, two beauties as you’ve never seen. Of course, Katrina has told them all about you.”

“Oh?” Heath blushed, remembering Max’s dark haired niece, a beauty he’d met last year, and the cozy sleigh ride they had shared their last night.

“Brother Heath, it would appear you’ve established a reputation among the local ladies,” Jarrod teased.

“Talk, talk, talk,” Nick boomed with a hand on each of his brother’s shoulders. “Is that all you women can do? Let’s get movin’, there’s a pint and a plate of sausage waiting for me.”

“Did you get the bags taken care of?” Jarrod asked.

“They’re already on their way up to the three best rooms in the house! Come on, my stomach is screaming,” Nick urged.

The three brothers settled into oversized chairs at the pine table. The stout pints of ale disappeared quickly. The thick soup and bread with rich, creamy butter gave way to a platter of German sausages. Bratwurst, Bockwurst, Knockwurst and a healthy helping of Sauerbraten, a roast of beef marinated with vinegar and spices were piled high on the oversized platter. Sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and spatzle, a small tasty noodle fried in butter, completed the meal. Jarrod and Nick ate heartily. Heath selected carefully, sticking to the potatoes and noodles, not wanting to rock the boat. His stomach had settled down finally, although the smell of the tart sauerkraut wasn’t helping.

“Save some room for strudel, Boys. Elsa’s bringing it out now. Coffee?”

“Thanks, Max,” Jarrod smiled, taking a steaming mug. “Elsa’s strudel is the real reason I come up here. The tree is just a ruse.”

“Speaking of which, I know just the spot. I remember seeing a nice big pine, just a few miles south down that road, waiting for me,” Nick boasted.

“As I recall, there were some pretty spectacular trees further up the ridge,” Jarrod challenged.

“Seems to me you fellas forgot all about that spot we passed gettin’ the tree last year. It’s north, up the side of the mountain apiece,” Heath replied.

Three steaming plates of strudel, filled with apples, raisins, nuts and cinnamon drenched in creamy hot vanilla sauce arrived, interrupting the discussion. Heath declined the rich dessert, munching on gingerbread men instead.

“Oh, Man, this is sinful, it’s so good,” Nick garbled through a mouthful of the wonderful dessert.

“Elsa, you’ve outdone yourself,” Jarrod said, poking at the pastry, allowing the steam to escape.

“I’ll tell you, if you were forty years younger, I’d give Max a run for his money,” Nick smiled at the attractive hostess, still pretty and slim at sixty.

“Nick, you just earned seconds on the house!” she laughed.

“No thanks, I’ll never get out of this chair.”

Elsa had been married to Max almost forty years. A good union that produced four fine boys, all married and settled in the area. Max and his brother Carl, were the surviving grandsons of the town’s founder Otto Schmidt. Carl and Annette, his wife, along with their six children, were helping to build an empire on the mountain.

Otto Schmidt came to the Sierras in search of a dream. The youngest son in a large family from a small town nestled at the foot of the Alps, he had little hope of achieving success in the old country. He came to America and spent many years traveling across the country until he saw the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains. Taking in the spectacular beauty, he knew he was home. He started with a small cabin and utilized his many talents. He sent word home, and soon they began to trickle in… German, Austrian and Swiss immigrants. His initial foray into the lumber business was a boom. He quickly bought up land, lots of it. Pine Meadows sprung out of his dream to recreate the little town of his birth. It’s streets were dotted with alpine cottages, cafes, inns and shops. The houses in the hills also reflected this alpine heritage. It was a quaint and charming town, whose popularity had grown by leaps and bounds over the years. Otto married late in life and had one son, Ernst. Ernst, like his father, was a dreamer. The lodge, large, warm and inviting, was his creation. Now his sons carried that tradition on and their sons would after them.

“More coffee, Boys?” Elsa offered.

“No thanks, but tell Gerhardt another round of ale, please,” Jarrod answered as she retreated.

“How about you two puttin’ your money where you mouth is? I got some greenbacks here sayin’ I got the perfect tree,” Nick boasted, enjoying how Jarrod’s eyes lit up at the challenge.

Jarrod loved a good wager. He returned Nick’s devilish smile and offered a hand rolled Cuban cigar to his smug brother.

Nick took the cigar Jarrod offered and lit up, watching the smoke curl. He knew Jarrod loved betting and any kind of wager would spark his attention. He leaned back and smiled impishly at his oldest brother.

“You sure you can afford it?”

“A hundred dollars says my tree is the winner,” Jarrod proclaimed confidently.

“Easiest money I ever stole from you, Counselor,” Nick grinned and smacked Heath’s arm.

“What about it, you in?”

Heath sighed and looked from one brother to the other.

“Real shame, just purely criminal,” was his only response.

Nick sat forward and leaned over towards the blond, scowling at his brother’s waving hand, clearing the offending smoke from his face.

“Just what is THAT supposed to mean?”

“Well, don’t seem fittin’ to take advantage. I mean you being a bit short and all.”

“Short, is it? How ’bout double or nothing, Boy? Not only is MY TREE gonna be the one we tote home, but I bet I’ll out punch your dance card by the time we leave. So, come on, youngster,” Nick’s brushed his thumb across his fingers, “put up or shut up.”

Heath grinned broadly and shook on it, as did Jarrod. The wager was on. It was agreed that each would mark the tree of their choice with a scarf. Max, the judge, graciously donated three wool scarfs of red, green and blue. The brothers would set out in the morning, early, after breakfast and meet up at two p.m. The trio would accompany Max to each tree, not revealing who’s selection it was. Max would determine the winner.

Heath started to fade after the next round of ale. His eyes were fighting him and he excused himself. Getting his key from Nick, he bade his brothers goodnight. The two dark haired man watched him leave.

“He seemed better, don’t you think?” Jarrod inquired watching Heath’s back.

“Yeah, he’s okay. Will you quit worryin’? You’re worse than Mother. I’m surprised you’re not chasing him with a spoon and that foul stuff he’s been gaggin’ on.”

“One of us has to be mature.”

“Very funny,” Nick derided. Then spotting two blond beauties, smiling coyly, he nudged his brother’s ribs. “Now, don’t crowd me, Jarrod. They’re both waving this way, at smiling Nick Barkley,” he boasted, returning their smile.

“What makes you so sure they’re looking at you?”

“You’re kiddin’, right? Ten bucks says I’ll be wearing one on each arm before this evening’s through,” Nick grinned, smacking Jarrod’s back. “Open that wallet and let them moths out.”

Jarrod laughed and nodded to the two pretty girls as he stood. Nick followed behind, wearing his best Nick grin.

In the corner of the room, watching and eavesdropping, a motley trio sat sipping on hot spiked beverages. With heads bent low and hushed voices, they went over the final touches of ‘the payback party’. Discussing each detail precisely, the invitations for the three guests of honor were practically signed, sealed and delivered. Each host had a specific job to do, and timing would be of the utmost importance. Suits and ties would not be required, the RSVP was affirmed and irreversible, and refreshments would be on the house. Tomorrow would be a day that neither they or the partygoers would ever forget.

*****

Heath rubbed the sleep from his eyes and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. A fitless night of hard sleeping had really done his body good. He pushed himself off the mattress and felt his bare feet touch the polished, wooden floor. Looking down at his wrinkled clothes, he made his way to the chair where he had left his bag, and fished out a razor. If he was going to go down to breakfast looking like he had slept in his clothes, he at least wanted to be clean shaven. After all, what were a few creases and crinkles? Nothing that a day in the mountains wouldn’t cure. He’d save the dry change he’d brought along for the dance tonight. Last night Nick had baited him and he went ahead and bit. The wager the two had made was a fairly tidy sum of cash and he didn’t plan on returning home empty handed. Nor did he care to spend the trip home being serenaded by his brother’s boasts and the tinsel grin that was sure to go with it.

*****

Down in the dining area, Jarrod pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time. He was amply dressed to survive the coldest weather and waiting inside the cozy lodge for his two straggling brothers was making him sweat. At least Heath had a decent excuse, but Nick…well, that was an entirely different story.

“Mornin’, Jarrod.”

“Oh, good morning, Heath! You slept well, I trust?”

“Yeah, reckon I really needed it. Without the roosters here to wake me up, guess I really overslept. Where’s Nick?”

“That, my dear Brother, is a very good question. When I finally turned in last night, or was it early this morning…well, whenever it was, Nick was still wide awake and heavily engrossed telling war stories to a captive audience.”

“You don’t need to tell me the rest,” Heath moaned. “Did this audience happen to be of the female gender?”

“That’s a true statement, Brother Heath, and you know our brother as well as I do.”

“Boy Howdy, I sure do. And if I know Nick, he had himself painted the swashbucklin’ hero in every one of them stories, too.”

“Well, to be quite honest with you, Heath, I couldn’t hear every word that was spoken. But by the way his face was all animated and lit and by his theatrical hand gestures, I could just about hear the musket and cannon fire myself.”

“And I suppose them gals he was tellin’ it to were just gobblin’ it all up.”

“I guess that would be a fairly accurate analogy of describing how they reacted.”

“He wasn’t punchin’ reservations on his dance card, was he?”

“I’ll let you ask him that yourself. Here he comes now.”

Heath glanced behind him and watched as his disheveled brother approached the table.

“Good morning, Nick,” Jarrod greeted. “It’s about time you decided to join us.”

“Don’t give me that,” Nick gruffed groggily, “the day’s just barely started.”

“I guess that’s all a matter of perspective,” Jarrod returned. “Here, why don’t you help yourself to some coffee? It’ll make opening your eyes a little easier.”

“Yup,” interjected Heath, “You’re gonna need all the help you can get findin’ that tree, and you can’t do it with your eyes closed.”

“I’ll have you know, Little Brother, that I know these hills so well I could find my way around blindfolded if need be!” Nick piped up, suddenly feeling much perkier. “And that goes for locatin’ the winnin’ tree to boot!”

“How ’bout the dance floor?” Heath asked, a sly tone rising in his voice.

“What?” replied the befuddled Nick, wondering what his younger brother might have up his sleeve.

“You think you can find your tree blindfolded, do you figure you can also find your way around the dance floor blindfolded?”

“Well, I’d like to at least know what I’m dancin’ with!”

“That’s where I come in,” Heath baited. “You just stand in line with your blindfold on, and I’ll hand those beauties to you one by one. You’ll have your dance card filled in no time flat!”

“Oh, no. I ain’t fallin’ for that maneuver! The day I trust you to…”

“All right! That’s enough!” Jarrod exclaimed. “I, for one, am leaving to go find this year’s Christmas tree! Now, are you two going to come along, or do I win the bet by forfeiture?”

“Okay,” Nick agreed, downing the last of his coffee and rising, “I’m with you, Counselor. Lead on!”

*****

The gray sky glowered an ominous warning of things to come. Jarrod urged the black stallion, from the stable at the lodge, onward. Maybe he should have been riding harder. His leisurely pace of the last few hours could be picked up some. Looking at the placid beauty of the surrounding area gave him time to think about the upcoming holiday season. More and more, as his business increased in San Francisco, so did the social commitment’s, occupying more of his time. He loved the city by the bay, and knew one day it would be his home. He would be leaving for ‘Frisco on the twenty-sixth, with parties and socials taking him right into the new year.

His life in Stockton was a relaxing contrast. The informal, comfortable bonds of the family and the ranch gave him time to pause. He enjoyed the ranch and was looking forward to the next week of holiday festivities. Taking in the stately trees laced with snow, and the solitude of the area, he saw himself as an eight-year old boy. He remembered that day as if it were yesterday. The first year he’d come up here with his father, just the two of them. In reflection, it was an important passage. His father’s guiding hand, strong persona and the pride he took in his firstborn he had felt for the first time. Jarrod still remembered beaming at the breakfast table the day they left. What a wonderful feeling it was for this father and son. Those five days, just the two of them, talking and listening. Jarrod didn’t remember the words, but would never forget the deep feeling behind them. He was the firstborn, the heir, and the pride in his father’s voice.

Four years later, when eight-year old Nick first made the trip, something changed. Jarrod loved having his little brother along, but missed that special time. That was the year he and his father really talked for the first time about Jarrod’s future. Jarrod had known that the ranch wasn’t in his future, that he was being called to a different vocation. His father knew it, too, and the first night on the mountain, after Nick fell asleep, they had talked. The firm grip on the shoulder, the reassuring tone in the deep voice and the warm embrace did more to fuel Jarrod’s drive to succeed than any college or professor could.

His father was proud of the courage he felt the boy showed in being direct and honest. Now grown, he knew what his father must have felt holding his firstborn as an infant. Putting your hopes and dreams in the tiny fist that was gripped. That running the vast empire would be passed by his blue-eyed, visionary of a son. But his father hadn’t seen it that way. He was proud of Jarrod and the intelligence the boy possessed. A talent and strong hands that would be needed to ensure the financial success for the generations to come. “I’m proud of you, Son,” Jarrod recalled how those five words and the embrace that followed, meant as much to him today as it did to the awestruck twelve year old boy, whose father seemed larger than life.

A severe pick up in the wind drew the lawyer back to the present. His trek for the perfect tree was now forgotten. Within minutes, the strong gusts increased, accented by driving snow. Jarrod strained to see ahead. His vision impeded by the gusting snowflakes, he couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him. He slowed down the pace of the horse, as the roads were very slippery. He urged the horse back in the direction of the lodge.

*****

Every year when they made this trip, Nick took time to remember. The quiet, timeless strength and beauty of this mountain embraced him. This ritual represented more than selecting the right Christmas tree. It was during these five day treks that Tom Barkley and his sons had shared something very special. To a small boy, the great man seemed so strong and powerful. How proud he was walking with Tom Barkley, that hand on his shoulder, the smile that never left his face as he felt the respect his father commanded. He so wanted to make that man proud of him. He remembered when he was fourteen and it was Jarrod’s first Christmas home from college. Jarrod went to the town dance one night with a pretty girl from the area. Tom and Nick spent that night talking about the future. Nick felt the awesome power for the first time. That one day, the keys to the kingdom would be his. He remembered the night they came home, overhearing his father speak to his mother. “He’s quite a boy, Victoria. I’m so very lucky to be so blessed. That fire in his heart shines right through his eyes. It’s his ranch, by God, and I’ll be by his side, watching him grow with it.”

He smiled through the flurried activity on the road he traveled. With a pang, he remembered the Christmas of ’65, after the war. What a great time they’d had. Perhaps he wouldn’t realize the very depth of a father’s love until he had his own child. How at one point, his father simply embraced them, gripping hard. No words were spoken. Too many fathers buried their sons or were only left with a memory; the body lying in an unmarked grave in a battlefield far away. He thanked God every day his boys came back safe. That Christmas, Nick found him to be especially sentimental. The bite of the wind and the increase and speed of the snow falling, changed his mind about the tree. He turned the horse around and headed back to the lodge. It could be a bad one, and this mountain’s beauty would turn deadly.

*****

Heath tied the red scarf high on the tree’s base. It was a real beauty, he could see the decorations, bows and garlands dressing it up. Maybe if Nick didn’t eat all the gingerbread men, they’d have a place on the tree too. He sat for a moment on a rock by where the horse was tethered. He winced as he swallowed back the raw pain in his throat. He rubbed a hand across his aching head, and frowned at the heat on his face. He’d better be quick about getting back. If he could get to that medicine and hit the bed, he could avoid his brothers dragging him to a doctor. He loved coming up to the mountain with his older brothers. It wasn’t just for the tree, or the jousting they enjoyed, like all brothers did, but for something much more. Maybe it was the look in their eyes when they spoke of Tom Barkley. How these five days alone with his boys, over the years, had left such a strong imprint on Nick and Jarrod.

He peered through the snowflakes and thought about his father. How would Tom Barkley have seen him? If he’d come up here as a youth, what would those strong hands have meant to the angry young boy? He could hear Tom Barkley’s voice in Nick and Jarrod, very clearly at times. Maybe that was enough, knowing the depth of his brothers’ feelings…that through them, he’d found his place with Tom Barkley. Looking at the gray sky overhead, through the swirling, white shower, he nodded and smiled, feeling Tom had given him, through his brothers strong arms, a solid embrace.

Pulling his throbbing head and chest onto the horse, he headed back to the lodge. Soon riding became difficult as the storm picked up. The gusting wind and driving sleet and snow bit into his face. He wasn’t aware of how long it was taking or if this was even the right road. Just fighting to keep his eyes open and pushing back the lightheadedness in order to remain upright, was all he could concentrate on. He urged the steed forward, hoping it would carry it’s fevered master back to the lodge.

*****

The slick roads and increasing depth of the snow made it difficult to proceed. The horse slid and buckled, sending it’s rider deep into the snowbank. He was exhausted, so much that he made no attempt to throw off the cold, wet blanket that hugged him. Finally, he used all the strength he had and pulled himself upright, climbing back onto the road. The horse was gone and the icy fingers of fear gripped his heart. He was alone on this mountain, with no idea where to go. He plodded onward, through the shin deep snow, his eyes closed, one foot following the other. He stumbled to his knees and remained a stationary post, beyond shivering, beyond the cold.

“Hey, looked at that!” Tinsley hollered over the gale.

His large companion, known only as Bear, climbed down and approached the solitary figure. Jarrod looked up, was it real or a hallucination? No, it was real, two riders, maybe all wasn’t lost after all.

“Help me,” he croaked, unable to raise himself.

He felt the strong arms lift him, but his initial elation quickly disappeared. The cold eyes mirrored the smile as his hopes dissolved. A solid punch to the midsection took the little air he had left. His confused stare was met by evil laughter.

“Yeah, we can help you. We got just the right place waiting just for you.”

His numbed face couldn’t feel the blows it received. The last image he had was of the ground as he was dumped over the back of a horse and the terrific pain from something hard hitting his head. The two celebrated their good fortune all the way back to the small fortress which would be their captive’s nightmare.

*****

The spacious parlor area of the Pine Meadows lodge clamored with activity as weary guests made their way into it’s cozy interior. Trails of moisture marked the way to individual tables and seating areas as the patrons stomped their snow-covered feet and shed their heavy winter jackets. Max hustled around the room, greeting the stragglers as they came in, trying to account for every guest listed in the registration log. From across the room he spied the stable boy entering the lodge, dusting the snow off his padded sleeves. Hastily, the proprietor made his way over to the young man.

“Abe, is there anyone left out in the barn?” Max questioned in his thick accent.

“No, Sir, Mr. Schmidt. There are still three horses out, but the riders haven’t returned yet. All the stocks bedded down with fresh hay and I left the lantern going out front so that they’ll be able to find their way there in the dark. It just got so cold, I wanted to come in and warm up a bit.”

“You did about all that you could do for now,” the kindly gentleman reassured him. “Who is it that’s still out in a storm like this?” Max continued, looking worried.

“It would be those three brothers that call themselves ‘Barkley’. You know; the ones that took off this mornin’ in search of a tree.”

“Sweet Mother Mary, I would’ve thought that they of all people would have sense enough to head back when the sky darkened up like it did.”

“They seemed to know the hills fairly well. The one seemed a little soft, but I’m sure his two brothers will be watching out for him. At least that’s how they came across.”

“Well, you’re probably right, Abe. Go over and have Elsa fix you up with some hot rolls and coco. You look chilled to the bone!”

“Thank you, Sir!” the lad smiled as he headed over to enjoy the warmth of the fire.

Max sighed deeply, so lost in worry over his young friends that he didn’t hear his son Jon calling him. He turned at the hand on his back.

“Papa? Why so worried? What’s wrong?” his eldest’s asked, his blue eyes reflecting the sincerest concern.

“The Barkleys are missing. It will be dark soon and the temperature’s dropping. If they don’t come back…”

“They’re not greenhorns, Papa. They know the terrain. They’ll probably be here any minute,” Jon reassured the older man in a calm and steady voice. “The telegraph wires are down and most of the roads impassable. We need a plan. Let’s find George and Peter,” Jon continued, referring to two of his younger brothers. “Gerhardt, we’ll be in the office. Please send word if there is any news.”

The burly steward nodded from his post at the bar as he continued to fill mugs of hot cider and coffee for the frozen guests.

It wasn’t long after that the door burst open and a frosty figure stumbled in, seemingly formed from the frozen tundra itself. He was covered head to toe in snow and ice. Gerhardt raced from his post and guided the shivering man to the fire. Peeling off the layers of frozen clothing, his fingers retracting at the painful bits of ice, he saw the lips moving and leaned in, spotting at once who the snowman was.

“Stefan,” he called out to Carl Schmidt’s son, home on college break, “get your Uncle Max from the office and tell him to come quickly!”

As the youth ran through the lobby to the hallway, Gerhardt had peeled the outer layers off and the frozen socks. Maria, Max’s daughter-in-law, came with a blanket and a thick pair of dry socks. She rubbed the frozen feet briskley and the close proximity of the fire did the rest. The socks were put on and the blanket secured. The eyes finally opened and looked around the room, frantically searching.

“M-m-m-m…m-y-y…Br…br…br…broth…,” the frozen form stammered.

“Take it easy, my friend,” Gerhardt soothed, holding a glass of brandy to the chattering jaw. “Drink this, go on.”

The rich liquid burned a path from his mouth down to his stomach and he welcomed the warmth. He turned as Max knelt beside him. Before his lips could inquire on his brother’s whereabouts, the elderly man’s face told him the answer.

“Max?” he hoped against the inevitable.

“I’m sorry, my friend, they’re not back yet. As soon as the storm lets up, I’ll send men out.”

The comforting words and reassuring hands did little to ease the fear and chill in the heart. His eyes found the window outside and the screaming wind, coupled with the biting ice storm, gave him little hope. He closed his eyes and shut them all out.

*****

Max left the hot bowl of soup by the stunned Barkley, knowing it wouldn’t be eaten. He made his way to his wife’s side and drew her into an embrace. They stood together for several minutes, comforting and drawing strength from each other. Finally, she kissed his cheek and returned to the kitchen. There was much to do in the kitchen, due to the added number of unexpected guests staying over.

The elderly gentleman wandered over to the large front window and peered outside through the frosted glass. All he could see was a white blur. He certainly wouldn’t want to be out in this blizzard, and especially so late in the day. Through the haze he saw three figures approaching and the lodge’s wooden door burst open. Two white faced men trudged in carrying a third. They dropped him on the floor and Max rushed over to remove the man’s scarf.

The loud bang and biting Arctic blast roused the frozen man out of his stupor. He glanced sideways at the door and then jumped up, wincing at the pain of the circulation racing through his numbed legs. He staggered across the room and dropped down, embracing his unconscious brother.

“Heath! Heath!” he called, his finger’s instinctively seeking a pulse.

Nick sighed in relief and took the towel he was handed. He wiped the windburned face of his youngest brother. Turning at Max’s strong hands on his shoulders, Nick could only nod, words wouldn’t come. He collected himself and took charge.

“Help me get him to his room. We’ll need some extra blankets and towels. “

Max watched them carry the unconscious blond man up the broad staircase. He wondered where the eldest Barkley was. He’d known Jarrod for…well, let’s see. Jarrod was eight years old when he came for the first time twenty-two years ago. Such a fine man…what a devastating loss it would be for the family if…. Max didn’t finish the thought. Instead he sent a prayer heavenward, hoping for a miracle. He turned as the men who’d assisted Nick stood by his side.

“Two in safely, one still lost in the cold. Where did you find him?” Max asked, looking up at the angels of mercy who had packed the half frozen Barkley in to safety.

“Oh, about two hundred yards from the barn,” the tall man panted, trying to catch his breath. “Poor devil must’ve been out pretty far when the storm hit. I’m guessin’ it took all he had just to make it as far as he did. If me and Jim here hadn’t happened along, he’d be frozen by morinin’, sure!”

“And I’m glad that you did! Those men have a brother that hasn’t returned yet. Any sign of him?”

“No, that boy was all that we come across. You want us to go take another look?”

“Why don’t you thaw for a few minutes. If he isn’t back within the hour, I’ll bundle up and go out with you.”

*****

Nick stood staring into the black of night. The snow had slowed, but the awful gusting wind remained. It seemed to scream at him…or did it only seem to be Jarrods’ cries for help echoing in his tormented mind. Hoping for a miracle, Nick waged an inner battle with himself. No one could have survived this long in the bitter cold and icy storm; yet Nick refused to believe that Jarrod was gone. He must have survived somehow, maybe finding shelter in the wilderness.

He turned at the knock on the door. His long strides made the trip a short one. He nodded mutely as Elsa came in, bearing a tray of food and a large bowl of soup. Setting the tray on the wooden table, she walked over to where Heath lay unconscious on the queen sized bed. Her year’s of motherly experience told her, before she even put a hand to the flushed face, that this boy was very ill.

“Nothing yet?”

“No, he hasn’t come around at all. His breathing’s good, he ain’t coughing. I think maybe he’s not as fevered.”

“You must eat, Nick. You can’t help either of your brothers by refusing food. You need to be strong.” Her forceful words and strong hands guided him to the table.

“Yeah, thanks, Elsa.” He took a spoonful of the rich stew and began to eat, not tasting a thing.

“If he wakes, you let me know,” she frowned taking her hand from Heath’s forehead.

Nick surprised himself at how hungry he was and cleaned the tray. He took a seat next to Heath, but that lasted only minutes. His restless nature took over and his spurs made a rhythmic pattern as he paced the room.

Heath swam through the mud. He didn’t remember getting separated from his outfit. God it was warm here. The mud was so thick he couldn’t breath. He lifted his head out of the murky, swamp and saw Major Harris nearby. His legs wouldn’t work; he was sinking.

“I’m over here, Sir, I can’t breathe.”

“Huh?” Nick turned at the sound of the muttering groans.

He crossed the room and leaned town watching Heath’s pant frantically. His blue eyes raced around, Nick realized his brother wasn’t in the room with him. He pushed against Nick’s arms in a weak attempt to leave the bed.

“Take it easy, Heath. You’re okay…calm down”

“Major Harris, I’m stuck in here. I’m sinking, I can’t breathe…”

Nick sat on the bed and grabbed the confused shoulders. He shook them hard and then tapped the face forcefully.

“HEATH! You ain’t in any battle, you’re with Nick. Can you hear me? Come on, now, snap out of it,” he commanded forcefully.

Heath blinked and closed his eyes, swaying. He looked again and saw the swamp disappear and Major Harris’ blue wool uniform changed to a white shirt. He followed the buttons up past the chin and his relief and shock were audible at the face that looked back at him.

“Nick? How’d you get here? What happened?”

“That lousy storm is what happened,” Nick said easing Heath back on the stack of pillows and handing him a glass of water.

Heath heard the howling wind and the ice pelting against the window. He savored the water and sank back, welcoming the pile of blankets Nick covered him with. He closed his eyes and felt the hand ruffle his hair.

“I’m gonna get you some soup. You need to eat. I’ll be right back,” Nick promised

“Nick,” Heath called after the broad shoulders, “Where’s Jarrod?”

Nick’s hand froze on the doorknob. His shoulder’s slumped momentarily. Recovering, he straightened up and turned back towards the bed.

“He’s, uh…not back yet.”

Nick’s pained eyes met Heath’s shocked ones, so easily hurt and it showed. He turned the knob and opened the door. Heath looked back at the terrific storm that teased him from the other side of the glass.

“God, please, let him be safe. Maybe somehow, he’s just …he can’t be out there.”

Heath heard the door shut and continued to pray in the silence, the crackling sound of the fire his own companion.

*****

Dinner was finished and the trays cleared away. Nick sat nursing a large stein of ale, looking into the blackness outside. He heard the clock strike ten and eased himself off the chair. To his surprise, Heath was still awake. He made his way over to the bed, stopping for the brown bottle. Gripping the cork with his teeth, he pulled the stopped and seated himself on the edge of Heath’s bed.

“I thought you sacked out a while ago.”

He handed Heath the bottle and watched as his brother took a healthy swig of medicine.

“Good,” Nick commented, “that should put your lights out real quick.”

“I don’t want to go to sleep. I…”

Heath’s voice trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. Lifting the bottle from his brother’s hand, Nick fingered the label, unable to meet Heath’s eye.

“I know, Heath. A part of me don’t want mornin’ to come either. If he’s still out there, he’s…he’ll be…gone.”

He felt the hand grip his knee and looked up to the flicker of hope in the pale blue eyes.

“We’ll find him, Nick. He ain’t dead. He can’t be.”

Nick sighed and rose, turning off the light. He opened the door and in the light from the hall, Heath saw the despair painted on Nick’s normally confident face. His older brother’s voice was determined.

“Either way, I’m bringin’ him home.”

The door closed and Heath welcomed the blackness. The strong, bitter potion caressed his mind and he allowed the despair to lull him to sleep.

*****

“You’re not going and that’s final!”

Nick’s voice was gruff as he picked up Heath’s boots and shoved them inside the armoire. From his perch on the side of the bed, Heath knew that there was no argument that would change his brothers mind, but figured it was worth a try. If Nick still refused to budge, then he’d just have to use an alternate plan.

“Nick, he’s my brother too. I have just as much right to be out searchin’ as you do, and a good lick more than those fella’s down in the lobby. Now, are you gonna give me my boots back or do I have to go get ’em myself?” Heath challenged, pushing himself up on his feet.

“Okay, Heath, okay,” Nick reasoned, using a gentle push to settle his brother back down on the bed. “I guess you have a good point there, but first I want you to try and eat something. You just sit there and rest for a couple of minutes and I’ll be back with some coffee and rolls.”

“You ain’t plannin’ to sneak out on me, are you?”

“No, Heath. I’ll be back in just a couple of minutes. You got my word on that.”

“All right, then. I’ll be gettin’ myself ready. Just don’t go gettin’ lost on your way back up here.”

“I’ve traveled these stairs a hundred times,” Nick reassured his suspicious brother. “I reckon I can find my way back up again.”

Nick pulled the door tight behind him and made his way down to the bar.

“Mornin’ Gerhardt,” he greeted the husky man behind the counter. “How ’bout a couple of coffees and some kind of breakfast roll to go with it.”

“You got it, Mr. Barkley. Will that be for down here?”

“No, I’ll take it up to Heath’s room if you don’t mind.”

Soon the tray of crescent rolls and steaming mugs of coffee were sitting on the counter in front of Nick. Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a small glass bottle. Pulling the stopper, he carefully metered out some of the white powder into one of the mugs. Gingerly, he dipped his pointer finger into the hot liquid and carefully stirred until all the powder was dissolved.

“Sweet dreams, Little Brother,” he cooed under his breath.

Wiping the finger on the back of his pants, he picked up the tray and headed back up the stairs.

“Room service is here!” he greeted, setting the tray down. “Eat now or eat it cold!”

“I don’t care how I eat it,” Heath grumped, “but I wanna get movin’, so let’s hurry it up.”

“Here,” offered Nick, handing Heath the doctored mug of coffee. “A little caffeine will help keep the bite outta the cold!”

“Thanks,” mumbled Heath, accepting the warm cup and bringing it to his lips. “This ain’t the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Seems a bit bitter.”

“Maybe your taste buds are still froze,” Nick suggested light heartedly. “Better hurry and down it, time’s wastin’!”

Tilting his head back, Heath drained the last of the comforting beverage before shuffling over to the armoire for his boots.

“For as cold as it is outside, it sure seems warm in here,” he commented sitting back down on the edge of the bed.

“You’ve got a point there, Heath. In fact,” Nick exclaimed, “it’s so warm in here that I forgot to put on my long-johns. Why don’t you just relax a minute or two longer while I run change into them.”

“What’s got into you anyway,” Heath questioned, the annoyance he was feeling quite evident in his tone. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were either stallin’ or senile.”

“Well, you know I ain’t stallin’,” Nick replied. “I’m as anxious as you are to get the search started. Guess maybe all the stress has got me a bit unraveled. Don’t go away, I’ll be right back.”

Heath finished pulling on his boots and settled back for a quick breather. No sooner did his head sink comfortably into the large down pillow, than the sweet land of sleep welcomed him to her distant shores.

A couple of minutes later, the door slowly opened as Nick peeked carefully inside to confirm his suspicions. Yes, the medicine had taken it’s affect. Tiptoeing into the room, Nick smiled smugly at his brother’s sleeping form as he gently tugged at Heath’s boots. He slid the worn, brown leather boots under the bed and pulled the bed’s coverlet up over the slumbering body. It was going to be a day of rough, bitter riding. He had enough concerns without worrying about Heath as well. Sure the boy would be raging mad when he awoke, but hopefully by that time, all three brothers would be enjoying the comfort of the lodge, and Nicks wily cunning would be forgotten. Taking slow, careful strides as to not jingle his spurs, Nick gently opened the door and made his escape. Stillness fell over the room as Heath slept soundly.

The sun beat warm on Heath’s bare back as he watched the swirling sand filter over the rim of the tin plate. Two months of panning on the Mother Lode and his skin was as bronzed as one of the area’s natives. He squinted in the bright light and a smile spread over his face as the sun reflected the golden flakes that had settled in the bottom. With a cry of jubilation, he let out a whoop that was loud enough to be heard clean on the other side of Placer County.

Further down stream, his partners, Gil and Billy, were knee deep in the crystal clear water when they heard the joy bells toll. It could only mean one thing…a gold find! Scrambling up the banks of Sutter’s Creek, they made tracks for Heath and the place he had staked. Dunking and splashing, the partners celebrated their first gold find much like three labrador puppies discovering water for the first time. Tossing his hat up in the air, Gil spread his arms wide and caught Heath up in a tight embrace. It was an estatic moment. A moment that brought forth the excitement of hopes and dreams renewed. Returning the brotherly hug of friendship and celebration, Heath threw his arms around his buddy and gave him a hearty squeeze.

Heath opened his eyes as beams of sunlight streamed in through the window of his room on the upper floor. The snow outside made the room that much brighter. He felt the soft plushness of the pillow caught in his hold and loosened his grip. Boy howdy, had that dream ever been real, but here he was, back in his room at the lodge. He didn’t even know what day it was. Shaking off the coverlet, Heath rolled over and sat up. His stomach was growling. He’d go rouse Nick and Jarrod so they could all go get something to eat. Maybe they could all….Nick and Jarrod!

Heath came to a halt as reality began to dawn. Jarrod was still out in the snowstorm and he and Nick were suppose to be out tracking him down. Nick had just gone to go change into some warmer clothes and….why that dirty skunk of a brother! That double-crossin’, two- timin’….

Searching the room for his boots, Heath finally found them under the bed. Scowling, Heath gathered his coat, scarf, gloves and hat. Soon he was outfitted to survive the coldest of climates. Making a bee-line down the main staircase, nobody seemed to notice as he strode hastily through the lodge’s main enterance. Making headway for the stable, he found an available mount in the end stall. He eased the saddle onto the animals back, pausing only to submit to an occasional fit of coughing. Leading the gelding out into the daylight, Heath swung into the saddle and headed up the mountain. If Nick didn’t want him included, he would just start a search party of his own.

*****

Gus Tinsler watched the horse approaching. He was safe and hidden high on a rock beyond the clump of trees. Smiling evilly, from his perch, he waited for his prey to fall into the trap. His mind thought of all the wicked fun he planned to have with this misfortunate soul.

*****

Nick scanned the road ahead and urged his mount onward. Max’s nephew, Stefan, rode behind him. Nick didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings, or the kid’s, but he preferred to ride alone. He reined up his horse and jumped down.

“He okay?” the boy asked.

“He’s foreleg’s a little warm, I think I’ll rest him a bit,” Nick lied. “You go on ahead, I’ll catch up.”

He waited a full five minutes and turned the horse around. He soon spotted the turnoff. He was only a few miles down the road when he spotted it. He looked again and urged his horse forward.

*****

Heath figured he’d been out for several hours, but without a watch, and no sun to guide him, he could only guess. His head was pounding and the sweat was causing his shirt to stick to him like an unwelcome, second skin. He drained the canteen and wiped his perspiring face. Shivering, he looked up the road ahead and then back to the one that led to the lodge. He sat for a moment weighing his options. It would be dark in a few hours, there wasn’t much time.

“Come on, Girl” he urged, making his decision.

The rider was unaware of the painful greeting he was about to receive. The horse trotted confidently ahead, not knowing it would be soon without the burden on its’ back. Tinsler waited and then cut the line. The heavy tree limb soared forward, knocking the rider off the horse with a blow to the midsection.

The horse skittered sideways and the victim, amazingly, was on all fours. The dripping blood from his mouth created a sick pattern in the snow. Tinsler stood before the dazed captive and grabbed the head forcefully. The pained eyes were barely open, blood covered the mouth and chin. The misfortunate soul protected the aching ribcage.

“Who are you?” the helpless captive grunted.

“You’re worst nightmare, Mister,” Tinsler replied delivering the first of a series of blows.

With one final painful kick to the already cracked ribs, Tinsler laughed. The sick sound echoed in the wind as he dumped the abused body over the horse.

*****

Jarrod’s arms ached, the ropes bit into his flesh like a rabid dog. His shoulders and arms pained from the angle of which he was tied, suspended from the low ceiling. His face bore the colorful imprint of the captor’s fist. Every inch of him was in agony. The first few hours of his captivity, he was stripped of his warm clothes and left in

only his shirt, pants and socks. The small cell was bitter cold, the concrete floor like a panel of ice. He fell into a fitful sleep, to exhausted to brush away the furred feet that ran across his neck on the floor.

The cold water hitting his face, woke him up. Before he had a chance to recover, two sets of arms cut the restraints and dragged him out into the hall. He made the mistake of once again, asking what their demands were. His answer was a series of blows to his legs and back, stunning him. When he shook off the black spots, he was tied again, suspended from the ceiling. The blows came fast and furious, he looked up briefly to see his own black belt wrapped around the fist that was headed towards his already battered face.

Tinsler nodded for Bear to drop the newest prisoner on the ground. Bear smiled at the moan that found it’s way past the mangled mouth. With a nod, he retreated to the house and left Tinsler to his job.

He was dimly aware of the change in the environment. He cried out as he was yanked upright by the hair. He felt every cracked rib utter a protest as he was body slammed into a stone wall. Sliding to the ground, he rolled over and automatically protected his ribs. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. He tried to focus and saw the fuzzy outline of the horse’s legs and a pair of boots.

“Get up!” The harsh words hit him the same time the boot landed on the base of his spine.

He managed roll over on all fours and heave himself upright. The rough hands turned him and pushed him forward. He stumbled and hit the side of the barn on the way out the door. He looked around, but the descending darkness hid any landmark he might remember. He turned toward the house and a strong arm pulled him back.

“Not so fast, Loser. You see, around here you gotta work for your room and board. This ain’t that fancy mansion you live in. That Barkley name means nothing here.”

“What do you want?” he scowled at the armed man.

The gun to his back was the only answer. He stumbled onward and stopped as ordered, behind the house.

“Pick it up, ” the voice ordered.

He looked at the spade propped against the tree. A lamp on the ground provided low illumination. His confusion slowed his movement. A hard cuff to the ear sent him to his knees.

“You don’t hear so good. Pick it and start diggin’. NOW!”

“I don’t think so,” he spat and lunged at the legs.

Tinsler was caught off guard and found himself underneath the irate fury of the Barkley captive. They wrestled briefly, but Tinsler’s knee drove into the already damaged ribcage. He quickly picked the gun up and yanked the nearly unconscious man up and sent him back to the shovel.

“Next time I won’t be so nice. I put a bullet in your kneecap. Now dig.”

It was slow going, but soon evident by the sticks marking the outline, what the hole was for. He felt a trickle of sweat run down his back as a cold fear snuck into his gut. Pain seem to radiate from every muscle. He didn’t understand the purpose of this exercise. Why didn’t they just kill him and be done with it? He climbed out of the hole and saw the gun leveled at his midsection.

“It ain’t quittin’ time just yet.”

“I’m not diggin’ my own grave. You want to kill me, get on with it.”

He threw the shovel down and bent to catch his breath. The callous laughter caused his head to rise.

“Your grave?” the villain laughed. “Don’t flatter yourself, it ain’t for you. No siree, we got plans for you.”

We, he thought, there’s more than one. He couldn’t stand anymore, his screaming limbs wouldn’t support him. He sank to his knees and leaned against the tree trunk. He rested his head against his arm and caught the site which chilled him to the bone. He crawled over to the tarp, his mind reeling. The laughter followed him; and a boot to the back pinned him to the dirt. The foul stench of the monster’s breathe nearly choked him. The lips were close to his ear as they relished every word uttered.

“Shame about your brother. He surely suffered, right to end. Screamin’ in pain. Just plain heart breakin’ how he was callin’ for you.”

The last thing he saw before the black curtain fell, was the familiar woolen sleeve of Jarrod’s jacket, peeking from under the tarp.

*****

He didn’t know if hours had passed by or days were gone. He didn’t remember when they left. The door opened and a man walked in, Jarrod saw the glass of water in the large, meaty paw. He licked his cracked lips unconsciously, his parched throat aching for some water.

“Please,” he croaked.

The hand drew the water glass over to his lips. The sarcastic laugh volleyed around the room as Jarrod struggled with every ounce of strength he had left to get at that water.

“Well, you’ ain’t so high and mighty now are you lawyer-man?” the voice leered. “Go on, lap it like the dog you are.”

Jarrod’s blue eyes burned, “Go to hell,” he spat with the last little bit of spunk he had left.

The tormentor turned, walking behind Jarrod. Jarrod’s air sucked in when he felt his head pulled back and the knife at his throat.

“I could cut you and you’d suffer for quite some time.” he threatened, enjoying every bit. “But, I think I’ll wait.”

Without any warning, he cut the ropes and sent the oldest Barkley tumbling to the ground. Jarrod curled up defensively waiting for blows that never came.

“Get up, you no good dog”. He grabbed Jarrod by the hair and propelled him into the corridor. “You got some company”

Jarrod wiped his bloody face with the loose tail of his shirt. He staggered down the hall and stopped short in the doorway. His eyes weren’t prepared for the sight they saw. He crawled to the battered body and his shaking hands sought a pulse. He closed his eyes in relief and turned to the monster.

“You’ll pay dearly for what you’ve done. You won’t get away with this,” his blue eyes furied.

“Big talk from a little man. You’re in no position to be giving demands.”

A low moan drew his attention to the victim on the floor. He eased his brother upright and embraced him.

“Thank God you’re alive. We’re you alone? Do they have…”

Before the stuporous captive could reply, Jarrod was torn from his side.

“No, Leave him alone, haven’t you done enough. He’s hurt.”

Jarrod fought and was backhanded severely across the face.

“Where are you taking him,” he gasped through a bloodied lip.

“Take a good look, Counselor,” the monster leered, grabbing Heath’s hair and pulling the lolling head upright. “It’s the last time you’ll see his sorry face. He’s going now to meet his maker.”

“NO!”

Jarrod threw himself with his last ounce of strength against the leather boot, which kicked him hard in the chin.

The last thing he saw before he passed out were two brutes applying pressure to his brother’s throat. He watched the feeble struggle and the arms go limp.

*****

What a day it had been. The steep climb through the drifts had left both horses and men totally exhausted, and that wasn’t the half of it. Not only was he feeling like he could keel over at any moment, Nick’s belly was rumbling something fierce and every limb on his frozen body felt as if the least little jar would shatter them into a trillion pieces. Slowly he trudged up the front steps to the lodge, the jingle of his spurs silenced by the build up of frozen sludge.

“Nick!” Max exclaimed running over to greet the human icicle.

“Max, good to see you.”

Nick’s voice sounded less than enthusiastic as he made his way over to the large fireplace and collapsed into a wooden arm chair.

“Any news on Jarrod?”

Max’s sunshine turned to gray as he shifted his focus from Nick’s face to the floor.

“I’m sorry, Nick,” he whispered, placing a hand on the cowboy’s shoulder as he once again looked deep into the hazel eyes. “I was hoping that, well….”

“I’m sure he’ll turn up,” Nick managed, forcing a weak smile. “How’s Heath doing?”

“I haven’t seen your brother, Heath, since they carried him up to his room last night. He must’ve really needed the rest.”

“Oh, he needed it all right,” Nick answered. “And I helped him out a little bit in gettin’ it, too. Jarrod and I had this little joke goin’ on the way up. We figured that the only way Heath was goin’ to take things easy was if we hog-tied him. Well,” continued Nick, pulling the glass bottle out of his pocket and holding it up for Max to see, “I found something that works much more effectively.”

“Ahhh, and what’s your brother going to say when he finds out you drugged him?”

“I’m hopin’ he doesn’t,” Nick replied, rising stiffly from the chair. “If things pan out the way I figure them to, Heath will just write it off to bein’ dog tired, pure and simple.”

“Come now, Nick. You know as well as I do that that boy’s not fooled so easily. He’s a smart one, that Heath. He won’t buy into that for a second, and I guarantee he’s not going to like what you did.”

“Well, like it or not, I did what I had to do and it worked. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Nick said, trying to manage a small, but cheery smile, “I think I’ll go check up on that lazy brother of mine.”

The white haired gentleman followed Nick’s retreating form with sad, sorrowful eyes. The young man had a tight hold on the optimistic hope that somehow Jarrod would turn up safe and sound, but Max knew the odds of that were slim to none. I man trapped out in a driving blizzard with no shelter could be buried alive and never be found until spring thaw. No, Max couldn’t share Nick’s optimism, but he still believed in prayer and miracles.

“Please, God,” he prayed silently, “makes this Christmas season a joyous one for my friends, the Barkleys.”

*****

Upstairs, Nick was just stepping out of the steamy tub. He had detoured Heath’s door by the way of the bathroom, and decided a quick soak would do his body good. Finally he was getting some feeling back into his numbed appendages. Now, he would get dressed and go check on Heath. If Heath was awake and wanting to get up, the two would go down and have some dinner.

Nick could hear the scattered notes of various musical instruments as the musicians downstairs began to tune for the evening’s dance. He remembered his bet with Heath and all the fun he had had making it. Things were certainly turned in a different direction now. With Jarrod still missing, Nick’s heart felt heavy and an atmosphere of music and gaiety was the last thing he felt like facing. Instead of going downstairs to eat, maybe he would just have a couple of trays brought up, he thought, as he paused in front of the door leading into Heath’s bedroom. Turning the handle he cracked the door and peeked inside the darkened room. Everything was still and silent; the boy wasn’t so much as stirring. Nick felt his way over to the table. Groping for the can of matches, he struck a wooden stick and let it’s light guide him to the lamp’s wick. Adjusting the light for maximum intensity, Nick turned towards the bed expecting to find Heath sprawled out under the blankets.

“Heath,” he started, “Let’s get…”

His voice came to an abrupt halt. He had been talking to an empty bed.

*****

Heath leaned back and closed his eyes. Maybe if he just ‘played possum’ they’d be a bit easier on him. The way his head was throbbing, he wasn’t going to have to put much effort into the playing part. Every breath of air was met by the razor sharp pain of the injured ribs. A small chill pierced through his dampened body, causing him to shiver. His chest ached at the thought of his brother’s body lying in a shallow grave outside. Tears stung his eyes when he thought of Jarrod. His fevered mind wandered, he wasn’t sure what day it was. How long had he been here? If it was anywhere near Christmas, this wasn’t the way he had planned to spend his holiday. Just his luck. When he was a boy, Christmas meant a special day set aside for just him and his mama. A day that neither or them would have to go outside the home to work.

At fifteen, he had run off and joined the Army and Christmas was never the same after that. He was off fighting Rebs the first year, and the second he’d been holed up in that stinking cesspool called Carterson Prison. After his release, he had spent time in Texas riding border patrol along the Rio Grande River, among various other odd jobs he had picked up here and there. He rarely returned home to visit, and Christmas always seemed like just another day.

After his union with his father’s family, Heath began to once again cherish the Yuletide season. He had the love of a new found family to be thankful for, and the holidays were more than just a date in his pocket ledger. He wondered what was happening back at the ranch. There was no telling where the family were right now, but he imagined his Mother and Audra were just getting ready for the evening meal. He could almost smell the spicy aroma of freshly baked gingerbread and mulled cider brewing on the cookstove. The churning in his belly reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in quite awhile. The shrinking candle which was perched on the window sill across the small room seemed to symbolize the way his body felt…slowly wasting away as the fuel was spent, the light growing dimmer with the passing of time. As he watched the flame fight to stay alive, his nausea subsided and he drifted off into restless sleep.

A fire blazed in the foreground, while the Apache council conversed in a gibberish foreign to Heath’s ears. The leather thong wound tightly around his wrists, kept him fastened to the stake to which he was tied. An arrow embedded in his left shoulder had been broken off at the shaft, but the stony tip resided deep within his muscle’s

tissues.

Heath watched as the Indians used hand signals and body language to convey the points they were trying to make. The war paint in the eerie shadows made them look more like demons than men. He could hear anger rising in their tones. Somehow he sensed that the outcome of all this didn’t spell out Shangri-La. The chief got up and spat out some sharp words, resulting in a response of savage cheers from his colleagues. The Apaches took great sport in seeing how long they could keep a man alive as they slowly peeled him, piece by piece. Heath cringed at the thought. Here he’d landed a job as scout for a wagon train, and instead he was going to be providing a group of depraved renegades fun and recreation. If only he had been content to stay and work the mines of Strawberry.

“Wake up!”

A hard, sudden slap across the face shot him back into the land of reality. This wasn’t an Apache standing before him, but the eyes were just as fierce. He locked into the stare of hatred coming from his tormentor and refused to buckle.

“Be strong, Heath,” he thought to himself. “You’ve been worse off before and have been all the stronger for it. You’ve survived before and you will survive this. Just keep strong.”

Heath’s vision cleared and the stinging pain in his cheek slowly subsided. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, the lines and features on the face before him began to make perfect sense. He knew this man…knew him all too well. He remembered that day in court when he had stepped down from the witness stand. If he lived to be a hundred, Heath would never forget the icy glare that followed him back to his seat. He had seen that glare before his day in court, and many times since. Often at night he would wake up in a cold sweat with the haunting vision of this man’s face interrupting precious sleep. The raucous laugh would pierce his subconscious like a dagger, only to find him sitting upright in the silent darkness of his own bedroom. So many times he had reassured himself that it was only a dream, and in time his nightmares would fade away. Now, this ghost of his past was a living, breathing reality, and no amount of ‘pinching’ would cause him to go away. Was it this brute’s hands that took his beloved brother away?

“You look cold,” the voice stated flatly. “Perhaps it would be helpful if we relieved you of your wet clothing. Tinsler! Johnson! Remove the prisoner’s garments!”

Before Heath’s befuddled mind could register the barked command, two pairs of rough hands were yanking the coat and clothes from his shivering body. Naked and unprotected before his captors, Heath lay motionless at their merciless feet.

“He don’t seem to have a whole lotta life left in ‘im,” Tinsler mocked, placing a deliberate kick in the victim’s ribcage.

Gasping softly, Heath resisted the urge to pacify his body’s cry for comfort. Even in his weakened condition, he would not grant these men the satisfaction of seeing him react to their induced pain.

“I can see that breaking this one is going to be a challenge,” the leader sneered. “But then again, I always love a challenge,” he grinned menacingly. “Sinclair, bring me that bucket from outside the door.

“Sinclair lumbered away momentarily and returned toting a sloshing, wooden bucket. Standing closely, he watched and waited.

“You will be broken by the time I’m finished with you,” the commander addressed Heath. “It’s only a matter of time until you’re groveling at my feet, begging for mercy. Resistance will only deter the survival of you and the ones you love.”

The ones you love. Did that mean that Nick had been captured too? Or was this hybrid monster planning something sinister for his mother and sister? Suddenly the room began to spin as the nausea he had experienced earlier returned. He didn’t know what was worse, the heat he felt from the fever or the frigid cold convulsing his body in uncontrollable shaking. A warm sensation swept from his head down to his guts as his body began to heave. Clawing the earthen floor with his finger nails, Heath managed to pull himself up on his knees. Sucking and expelling air, his stomach caved from within, but had nothing to offer.

“Are you ready for me to douse him, Sir?” Johnson inquired. “He’s lookin’ a mite peaked there. Maybe some of this cold water here will bring some of his color back.”

“No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” the leader replied. “Would you like your clothes back?” he addressed Heath.

Heath remained silent, but the pleading look in his eyes produced a round of obscene laughter from his blood thirsty audience.

“I do believe that means ‘yes’,” Tinsley taunted. “What do you think, Sir?”

“That would be my interpretation as well,” the bearded monger agreed. “Tinsley, hand me the prisoners clothing.”

Quick to follow his orders, the burly guard supplied his leader with the blue chambray work shirt, tan pants and the thick, fleece lined jacket. Refusing to touch the soiled garments himself, the man-in-charge motioned towards Johnson and the bucket of water he still held.

“These clothes are awfully dirty,” Tinsley drawled, fully understanding what was expected of him. “Guess it’s high time they were washed.”

With deliberate, haughty strides he strode over to where Johnson stood and submerged the shirt in the bucket’s depth. Retrieving the dripping garment, he flung it over in Heath’s direction. Then tossing the coat to the man behind him, he motioned for Sinclair to empty the pail’s remaining contents.

“Here’s your clothes, Barkley,” he scoffed, kicking the drenched pants at Heath’s collapsed form. “Nice and clean. Too bad room service don’t have the necessary equipment to dry ’em for you!”

“Oh, and here’s the dinner you worked so hard for.” They all laughed at the reference to the grave, savoring the haunted sky-eyes that looked back at them. “Enjoy!”

The mealy crackers and small bits of meat were dropped onto the floor. Heath’s stomach rolled at the sight of the maggots that wormed their way out of the meal. Taking their lantern and bucket with them, the trio turned and retreated from the brick cell. Heath heard the key turn in the lock as once again he found himself enveloped in the darkness.

*****

The sun was just a rosy glow as it began to surface the Sierra’s snow capped peaks. The red, mercury line on the lodges thermometer was almost in the single digits, but Nick’s short fuse was burning hot enough to keep him warm through the coldest chill.

“Damn that boy! Can’t turn my back on him even for a second!” Nick fumed as he gave the cinch strap a healthy yank.

“I know, Boy,” he agreed, patting the horse’s neck as the lodge owned equine retorted with a frosty snort. “I ain’t thrilled about goin’ out in this cold either, but we got a job to do. You just help me find that lame-brained brother of mine and leave me to the rest!”

Nick pounded his right fist into his left palm, his expression dark, as he look another moment to mentally thrash Heath’s butt for leaving the lodge unannounced like he had.

“As if I don’t have enough to worry about loosin’ Jarrod,” he thought, his anger acting as a temporary catalyst to the wrenching pain he was feeling inside.

Nick led the steed out into the crusty snow and swung a lean leg over the saddle. It was always the coldest right before dawn. He pulled his collar up against the bracing chill and headed up the mountain’s incline.

As the morning progressed and the big, red ball in the sky had transformed into a bright beacon glistening off the frosty woodland, Nick spied some freshly made tracks. Pulling up on the reigns, he dismounted. The snow crunched beneath him as he knelt and examined the tracks. The sharp edges outlining each hoof print, indicated that the rider had been through late yesterday afternoon. Any earlier in the day and the imprints would have been sun-softened around the rims before refreezing that night. The direction from which they came, left no doubt in his mind that the tracks were made by one of the horses from the lodge. Nick followed the weaving path with his eyes as he watched it snake up through the timber.

“We’re hot on his trail,” he told his mount, swinging back up and adjusting himself in the seat. “Now, let’s go fetch that boy home so you can get your oats!”

The horse plugged along as the drifts seemed to get deeper in spots. This sure had been one whale of a storm. Upwards they climbed, until Nick’s horse stopped, his ears perked forward as he stared straight ahead of them.

“What is it, Boy? What do you hear?” Nick asked squinting as the sunlight through the trees caused him to turn away.

“Hello there!” a voice greeted.

Nick looked again and saw two riders approaching. As they drew closer, and he could see their faces. One had a shiny gold tooth and the other a huge, hulk or a fellow. He knew they weren’t from the lodge.

“Mornin’!” Nick replied. “What brings you boys out this way?”

“We rode in from Pine Meadows,” the husky one answered. “Got word from Max down at the lodge. It seems that a couple of fellas are missin’. He asked us to help out with the search.”

“Yeah?” Nick quipped, hope rising in his voice. “I’m the brother of those two. Have you seen as sign of ’em?”

“As a matter-of-fact we came across what we think may be one of them not to long ago.”

“You what?” Nick exclaimed with excitability and menace. “You came across him? Well, where in the devil is he, then? You just can’t leave him there!” Then pausing briefly, his voice dropped as he asked, “He ain’t dead, is he?”

“No,” reassured the stranger, “he ain’t dead, but he will be if we don’t get some help to him real quick like.”

“What are you talkin’ about,” Nick demanded, leaning forward in his saddle to deadlock the stranger right in the eyes. “Somehow things just aren’t addin’ up, here. Now, I want some answers and I want ’em now. Quit beatin’ around the bush and tell me what you know.”

“Well, we spotted these guys in a house not too far from here…just back over that yonder ridge. They had some poor beggar slung over the back of a horse.”

“What was wrong with him and what did he look like?” Nick jumped in. “Come on, hurry it up!”

“I was just gettin’ to that,” the stranger replied, sounding a little annoyed. “He seemed to have blond or light brown hair. He was wearing tan pants and a thick fleece lined jacket. From what I could tell, he’d been beat up real bad.”

“Well, why in blazes did you leave him there?” Nick roared. “Come on, let’s go get him!”

“Now, just hold on there a minute,” the large man responded, holding up a halting hand. “Those guys that had him didn’t look to friendly like and there were a lot of them. We were just on our way back down to the lodge so as to round up some help.”

“Forget the lodge!” Nick stormed. “This won’t wait! You just take me to that house and let me handle it!”

“Okay,” the man agreed, reluctantly. “Have it your way.”

“Mister, I’ve been all over this mountainside for the past two days lookin’s for my brothers. You can bet that gold tooth of yours that I’m goin’ to have it my way. Now, lead on!”

*****

Nick drew his horse to a stop, following the lead of the large man ahead of him.

“Why are we stopping? I thought you said that the house wasn’t far from here?” Nick quizzed impatiently.

“It ain’t, but…”

“BUT WHAT!” Nick hollered.

Bear smiled at the roar to his rear. Nick Barkley was just as impatient as he reputation stated. Clearing his face, he turned, feigning a worried glance.

“I don’t about this Mr. Barkley. Mr. Schmidt said I was to bring you back. We can come back with help. We don’t know how many jaspers are up there holding your brother. We don’t even know if he’s there.”

“You said you saw two men with an injured man with blond hair on a horse,” he gritted, “how far?”

“Just up the road apiece, but I really think we should turn back.”

Nick reigned the horse in and rode past the large man, not seeing the grin that spread on the beefy face.

“If you say so, Mr. Barkley,” he spat at the retreating horse.

“Whoa!” Nick hollered and jumped down, racing to the familiar sage colored jacket. He sank to his knees in the snow and picked it up carefully. His heart sank at the sight of the blood staining the front of the coat. Holding the jacket as if it were an infant, he rose as did the anger in him.

“This,” he said holding the object to Bear’s approval, “is all the proof I need. It’s his and when I get done with the animals who hurt him, what’s left of their sorry hides won’t fill a tea cup. “

“Yes sir, looks like they roughed him up a little.”

Nick’s growl was the only sound as he mounted the horse and charged forward, right into the lions den. Bear’s hand pointed to a turnoff, obscured by the curve in the road.

“Right there is where I saw them. Two upright, and the blond guy over a saddle.”

Nick followed the path and saw smoke curling from a chimney beyond a clump of trees. Easing off the mount, he got out his gun and crept forward. There was a porch out front and no sign of a guard. He quickly thought out a plan.

“This is what we’re gonna…”

His rescue effort was cut short by a severe blow to the side of the head. The force drove him hard into the rocks nearby. All the air was knocked out of him and spots of every color danced before his dazed eyes. Before he could react, the gun was torn from his grasp and a boot found it’s mark on his back. He managed to throw himself at the walking mountain and the throaty laughter told him this was an exercise in futility. The first punch landed squarely in his midsection, followed by an uppercut to his cheek. Like a bulldog, he hung tough and grasped at the belt of the imposing force. A hard backhand to the face sent him sprawling down a short embankment. The awful cracking sound he heard was his ribs as the boot found a new home.

“Get movin’, we’re already late.”

“What’s the matter with you? What are you doing?”

“I ain’t gonna repeat myself.” The fist that cuffed the side of his head was the answer.

“Drop dead!”

Nick spat a wad of blood in the beasts face. He felt himself airborne and the last thing he saw was the tree that met him head on.

*****

Nick’s body lurched forward as a swift kick sent him sprawling to the earthen floor. He heard the door slam shut behind him and the iron latch being dropped into place. In the dim light he could see the form of another man slumped, unconscious in this make shift prison. It was too dark to make out the details, but something about the sleeping form seemed all to familiar. Pulling himself up on all fours, Nick paused a moment to catch his wind. Taking a deep breath, he began crawling towards the other man, then suddenly stopped.

“Heath!” he cried out, as he scrambled over to his brother’s side. “Heath! My God! What have they done to you?”

Placing a hand to his brother’s cheek, the scalding skin sent his stomach soaring into his chest. Who were these people that were holding them and what was the purpose? If it was money they wanted, Nick would gladly pay it, just as long as it would buy their freedom. He knew that his brother was in desperate need of a doctor. His flesh was burning and his face badly battered. Whoever these men were, their tactics were sadistic. The creaking hinge caused Nick to look up as the door opened and the outline of a man stood towering in the entrance. From beyond the doorway, Nick could see the light of a lantern and hear the movement of the guards.

“Please,” he thought to himself, “tell me who you are and what you want.”

How strange that these men had randomly captured him and his brother, both. No, there had to be some sort of motive involved. The fact that he and Heath were prisoners together seemed way to coincidental to be an accident. Before, when he had tried to talk, he’d received knuckles instead of answers, but this man before him seemed different. His stance communicated power and authority. This man was obviously their leader. Nick knew he was at their mercy. His choice of words may gain him favor or damn him into more torture. He could already feel the painful bruises from the cruel beating he had received earlier. Opening his mouth, he tried to speak, but before he could form the words, a wicked laughter echoed the brick walls of his confinement.

“Welcome 370 and 597. So nice of you to drop by.

The fiendish laughter seemed to be rising from the depths Hades itself as Rizley towered over the two brothers with mocking menace radiating his person. Nick could feel the hairs on his neck stand to attention. For a split second, Nick forgot his image of the brave Spartan so many people admired. The tough bar room brawler who would stuff any insults regarding his family or bastard brother back down the throat of the foolish offender. Nick Barkley, the gladiator who had wrestled with a cougar and later came out the victor. Telling himself, now, that he felt no fear, would be an absolute lie. He knew what kind of man this Rizley was; he knew the intensity the dishonorably discharged Navy Captain could hate, and the depraved extremities he’d journey to bring forth his schemes for revenge.

In the background stood two more men. Nick thought he knew one. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Edwin Sinclair, a hand that he had fired almost four years prior. Fired wasn’t exactly the right term either…run-off was a much more accurate description.

Heath had been new to the ranch. Sinclair had behaved obstante from the beginning. Insubordinate and insipid, refusing to accept Heath’s orders. There had been words, resulting in a bloody fist fight between the two. When Sinclair had reached for an ax handle and used it to beat Heath senseless, Nick had stepped in and turned the tables. Sinclair was tough, but not tough enough to withstand what Nick had to dish out. When he was finally licked and barely able to drag himself up, he had cursed Nick with bitter words of damnation, swearing to someday even the score. Knowing the threats were no more than idle words, Nick had scoffed in the face of the man who bore so much hatred and malice.

However, that ‘someday’ promise was fulfilled just a short time later. Nick had come home from town quite late one Saturday night. The rest of the household had long since turned out the lights. Not wanting to disturb his family, Nick quietly snuck in through the back door. In the dark, he stumbled across an intruder helping himself to the ranches payroll. Using the element of surprise, Nick was able to over power the thief and hold him until the family roused and Heath was there to assist him. When the lamps were lit, and the culprit unveiled, it was none other than Sinclair himself. It was Nick’s testimony at the trial that had sealed the man’s fate. Judge Lawson had given him ten years of incarceration to pay for his crime. It had been almost three years now, and from his hardened appearance, his time in San Quentin had toughened the man even more. His face bore the scars and callousness of one who had to fight to survive.

Nick’s mind vollied around like a billiard ball, trying to peice together the chain of events and somehow get a bearing of what was in store. He thought of Jarrod. Had he, too, fallen into the fateful hands of these men so bent on revenge? It was Jarrod who had prosecuted Rizley. Between the lawyer’s courtroom expertise and his spotless reputation of upholding justice, both judge and jury had unanimously agreed that the discharged Navy Captain should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. There hadn’t been enough evidence to prove that Rizley had every actually murdered anybody, but the intent was there the night he tried to force a prison break. Upon Jarrod’s recommendation, the judge had sentenced Rizley to life imprisonment, no chance of ever being paroled. Now, two years later, here he stood, a free man.

Nick heard Heath stir and turned as the blue eyes opened. He watched as Heath looked up at Rizley and then over to Sinclair. His face was unreadable. Void of any emotion, seemingly cast of stone, the young cowboy remained steady and stable. It wasn’t until a third man stepped from out of the shadows, that a wild and savage fear danced across his ashen face.

There, standing before him, was one of the wickedest demons from Heath’s past. The man know as ‘Bear’ had been a guard during his confinement at Carterson. His reputation was as putrid as the defiled stream of filth in which the inmates had been forced to drink. His brutal methods of ‘breaking prisoners’ were even ridiculed by those who worked beside him. Heath, a boy of sixteen, had withstood this man’s torture. Through concentration, courage and an undying faith in God, he had sought refuge in the clef of Christ, The Rock. Heath’s body had been whipped and beaten, but this beast had never been able to break his spirit.

On the night of the escape attempt at Carterson Heath had found a sharp rock in the tunnel. After the guards started to fire, the men in the tunnel retreated, and when they returned to the cell block all hell had broke loose. In the course of the riot, Heath had spotted an opportunity and seized it. While Bear had his hand raised to strike a fellow prisoner, Heath came from behind and bashed his head with the rock. After the riot had subsided, Bear was transported to the infirmary for treatment of his massive head injury. The war ended before he was fully recovered, but the imprinting in his skull branded him for life. It wasn’t until his employment at San Quentin that he became acquainted with Captain Rizley and learned of the bitter hatred for one man that the two held in common.

*****

Addressing the three men who sat at the kitchen table, Rizley opened the thick folder as the meeting began. His three companions had all been carefully handpicked by the Captain, himself, and their assignments given the utmost consideration.

“As you gentlemen are well aware, each of you has a specific purpose for being here,” he droned. “Now that our three captives are secured, we shall commence. The information provided by Bear, along with what I found out during my journey to a desolate spot known as ‘Strawberry’, will provide us with just the right fuel to fan the fire.”

“Fire, sir?” Tinsler asked.

“Yes, Mr. Tinsler, fire. Heath Barkley will be the pawn used to drive his brothers against each other. You see, a man can only remain sane and logical for so long. Hours of captivity in a small dark cell, hearing screams of those you love being tortured, evidence of their deaths, causes doubt to creep in, and eventually, the mind breaks apart.”

“What’s next,” Sinclair asked, draining his coffee.

“Heath Barkley will be taking a trip back in time.” Rizley paused and took out a large bottle filled with amber liquid. “This is a hallucinatory agent I procured from the Far East. It’s very expensive and very effective. The good fortune of his illness, accompanyed by fever, will only add to the delirium. With the right ammunition and support, his mind will bend and become ours to use as we see fit.”

“When do we start?” Bear asked, eyes lighting up.

“Patience, all good things come to those who wait. We can’t have him dying on us just yet. So we’ll move him to a cleaner cell, give him a little medicine and of course, some soup and juice with just the right added ingredient. The fever and drug will do the rest. Let’s get started. Here are your assignments.”

The three nodded and laughed as the plan unfolded. Revenge would be sweet indeed.

*****

Jarrod walked the familiar path to his office. His slow pace and confusion was as thick as the gray mist that surrounded him. Was he dead? The sky was black and a chill raced up his back.

“Why Jarrod? Why?”

His heart sank at the sound of the voice. His blue eyes frantically searched the mist. He ran in the direction of his beloved’s voice.

“Beth! Beth! Are you here? Please, Beth.”

She appeared as she had on the day she was torn from him. That lovely face, the soft smile and the beautiful eyes that captured his heart. He embraced her and shuddered, it was like holding a block of ice. She pushed him back and her eyes were accusatory.

“Why did you kill me, Jarrod?”

“Beth, what are you saying.” His tortured eyes matched the torment in his voice. “I loved you. I didn’t’…”

“You should have taken care of that scoundrel. If you had done your job, I’d be alive. Why Jarrod?”

She faded away, and he desperately tried to find her in the obscured regions of his nightmare.

“No, Beth, don’t go. Please, Beth?” he pleaded.

“She ain’t listenin’ no more, Brother.” A familiar voice was just by his ear, filled with a hateful tone.

“Heath?” Jarrod turned and grabbed the blue-clad arms of his brother.

“Why didn’t you help me? I needed you, look what you’ve done.” Heath’s cold voice accused.

Jarrod shrank back at the grizzly sight that stood before him. Heath’s face was mangled beyond recognition. Blood covered his clothing.

“Heath, I didn’t know. There wasn’t time. I did try, you must believe me. I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you.”

“I trusted you, Jarrod.” The voice was now full of pain, and it just about broke the lawyer’s heart.

“Heath, Heath, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Don’t go. Heath! Heath, wait!”

“Wake up. Come on Jarrod, you’re dreaming.”

Nick supported the battered head of his oldest brother. Jarrod’s bruised body gave every indication that he’d been through hell. Now he was lost in a nightmare. Nick tapped the bruised face lightly, and finally shook the bare shoulders. The low flicker of light from the candle illuminated the eyes blinking. Jarrod looked up at him finally, but said not a word.

“Jarrod, you’re awake now. You were having a nightmare.”

It took Jarrod’s lost mind more than a few minutes to recover. His eye’s look right at Nick without a flicker of recognition. Nick had seen Jarrod through a lot of tough times, but this blank, lost look scared him a little.

“Hey, it’s me. Come on, let’s get your shirt on,” Nick tendered.

He pulled the ragdollish arm up and put the garment on. He leaned Jarrod back against the concrete wall. Wincing, Nick closed his eyes, the effort creating havoc on his cracked ribs.

“Nick?” Jarrod wondered.

Nick looked over and nodded, seeing the hand touching him, as reassurance.

“I’m real, Brother. It ain’t no mirage.”

“What’s this all about? Do you know?”

Jarrod watched amazed as a look seldom seen crossed his brother’s abused features. Fear, pure and undiluted. He heard Nick exhale and saw the pain as his hand guarded his chest. His pained hazel eyes met Jarrod’s fearful blue ones. The one word sent an arrow of despair through the lawyer.

“Rizley.”

Jarrod’s leaned back and closed his eyes, hoping it would all go away. Then it hit him, the stark realization. Did Nick know? He looked over and hesitantly spoke, laying a hand on the muddy brown pants.

“Nick, I have terrible news. Heath’s dead.”

“No, he ain’t,” Nick said flatly. “You were just having a bad dream.”

“No, Nick, I saw it, they…they…choked the life out of him. I couldn’t help him. I just let them take him away. I…”

Nick turned and laid a strong hand to the blood stained shirt of his oldest brother. The despair in Jarrod’s voice contained a heavy-handed dose of guilt. His voice was firm and strong, his eyes tried to conquer the fear of Jarrod’s.

“Jarrod, I’m telling you he’s alive. I was just with him. He’s pretty sick, but he ain’t dead.”

“I was so sure…,” Jarrod’s relieved voice trailed off.

“It’s all part of some kind of sick game Rizley’s playing,” Nick said, “and he’s got help. Some sadist brute named Bear who was a guard at Carterson and Edwin Sinclair.”

“My God, Nick, we’re as good as dead. Where’s Heath now?”

“In a cell nearby. After the grand introduction, they hauled me out and dumped me in here.”

“How do we get out?” Jarrod asked.

“I don’t have the answer to that one, Brother, but we don’t have a whole lotta time. Heath’s in a bad way.”

Both men sat in silence, shivering from the biting cold and the realization of the unnamed fate yet to come. Then inching his way over, Jarrod sidled his body next to Nick’s. With the wall to support their backs, the two men huddled close, sharing heat and drawing comfort.

The length of their solitude, they did not know. It could have been hours or days, the dark room didn’t allow for time or space. They heard the bolt slide from the door, as the captors entered. Suddenly rough hands hauled Jarrod upright and threw him against a wall. Nick moved to aid his fallen brother but was slammed backward.

“Not so fast, Mr. Boss man,” Sinclair leered, putting a choke hold on Nick and enjoying it. “You stay put, we got plans for you.”

Jarrod staggered onward without looking back. The door closed and once more, Nick was left alone. In the biting cold and desolate darkness, he curled up and prayed.

*****

Heath woke up and looked around. He eased his aching body upright, surprised to find he was on a cot. The cell was clean and a blanket covered him. He saw the steaming bowl of soup, and the tantalizing aroma drove the knives of hunger piercing his stomach into a frenzied dance. He staggered over and carefully dipped the tip of his finger into the hot broth to insure it was real. He tasted it cautiously. It was rich, chicken broth with rice. A large mug of cold orange juice got his attention and he made short work of it. The juice tasted funny, but the way his mouth was all cut up, it was a wonder he could taste at all. “It must be the blood,” he reasoned as he licked his lips and started in on the soup. He ate quickly, finishing the soup as well as the bread. The gnawing, hollowness was sated for now. Picking the last of the crumbs from the plate, Heath rested his elbows on the table and closed his eyes.

How long had he been here? Why hadn’t Nick come? So many questions, his hand wiped the sweat from his hot face. His aching head wouldn’t cooperate with his resolve to remain awake. He didn’t even have the strength to get back to the cot. He laid his heavy head on the cool table and slept.

The door opened and Rizley entered. He nodded to Bear, who picked up the unconscious man with little effort. He carried Heath to the room next door. Furnished with the fixtures purchased from Martha Simmons, it almost mirrored the Simmon’s bedroom back in Strawberry where the young boy spent some unpleasant time. His shirt was removed and Heath was placed against the brass footboard, each hand secured to a post and his head resting against the brass spokes.

Rizley sat on a chair behind Heath and kept checking his watch. Finally, when he was sure that the drug had began it’s affect, he began. Speaking in a low, monotone voice, he called to young Heath Thomson. He filled the vulnerable mind with remembrances of the drunken uncle who beat the young boy.

“You like your Uncle Matt, don’t you boy?”

“No good drunk….not hurt me again…,” the feeble voice mumbled.

“But you’re were bad, Heath. You must be punished.”

“No…No.. Not again…he’s gone…”

“No, he’s right here in this room. Look, Heath, look around.” Rizley waved the strong chemical under the victim’s nose.

Heath coughed and his eyes shot open. His terrified gaze took in the bed, the faded roses on the walls, the cracked pitcher and bowl on the nightstand. He saw the small tattered shirt and looked down at his bear chest. He struggled against the rails, his heart pounding.

“It’s Sunday, Heath, and you know what that means. It’s the busiest day for her over in the cafe. She won’t hear you.”

“Mama?” He tested, watching the door. “Mama!” louder now, pleading.

*****

“Come on Boss Man, time to go.” Sinclair said, hitting Nick hard with a stick.

Nick growled and lunged at the brute, but the stick hit his leg hard, causing him to fall.

“Temper, temper. Now get moving”

The rough hands sent him staggering in a drunken gait down the hall. He stopped short in the doorway and raced inside.

“Heath, Heath. Look at me? Can you hear me? Heath are ….”

He dropped on his knees and his hand froze along with his thought as the eyes that looked back at him were full of hate and loathing. The bloodied lip curled in a sneer and the voice that followed drove a stake in Nick’s heart.

“Get your filthy hands offa me. I hate you! Do you hear me? I hate you!”

“Heath? It’s me, Nick. What’ve they done to you?”

He held the tortured face in his trembling hands and then drew back as Heath’s teeth attempted to bite at his fingers. The reunion was ended as Nick was hauled to his feet and pulled backward. Rizley’s voice came from the shadow’s in the hall to his right.

“Pick it up, 370.”

“What?” Nicks’ face screwed up in confusion, he ran a hand through his disheveled hair, peering into the darkened hall, searching for the person behind the voice.

“PICK IT UP, NOW, 370,” Rizley commanded.

Nick felt a painful blow to his back that sent him to his knees. That’s when he saw it. He shook his head and retracted, scrambling backwards.

“If you think I’m gonna take a strap to my own brother… well you may as well kill me now. Never, Rizley,” Nick hurled. “You’ll never make me strike him!”

“Maybe this will change your mind,” Tinsler laughed.

Nick turned to the left as a door opened.

“Jarrod!” Nick cried and attempted to leave.

“I don’t think so,” Sinclair appealed, pulling him back. “He can’t hear you anyhow.”

Nick’s eyes focused and he saw his dazed brother, blindfolded and tied to a chair. The thick fabric was wound around and around his ears and eyes, preventing him to see or hear what was happening in the small bedroom.

“Now 370, you have a choice. You can pick up that whip and commence 597’s punishment or…”

“Or what?” Nick’s voice contained the fear his heart held.

“Or that do-gooding mouthpiece of a brother youe’re so fond of, will get a lead ball in his knee,” Rizley threatened, nodding at Jarrod .

Nick’s tortured glance fell to where Jarrod sat. Bear held the pistol aimed at Jarrod’s knee.

“You’re bluffin’,” he challenged.

Rizley nodded and Bear slammed the gun butte into Jarrod’s cheek, opening a gash.

“That was just a warning. Next time, he catches a bullet. Decide 370, which of your brother’s lives means more to you,” Rizley goaded. “Of course 597 is only half a brother. A mistake your father made with some no good saloon girl. Should make the choice so much easier…don’t you think?”

“I’ll kill you, Rizley,” Nick seethed. “So help me, God. I’ll tear you limb from limb.”

“Time’s up 370,” Rizley nodded to Bear. “Shoot him.”

Nick watched the gun cock and made his choice.

“NO WAIT!'” he cried desperately.

With his hands trembling and his heart heavy, Nick bent down and picked up the leather whip. He fingered the bits of steel on the tips of the lash, painfully. He swallowed hard, unable to look at Heath.

“God forgive me, Little Brother,” he halted, tears welled in his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

Rizley nodded to Bear who doused Jarrod with ice water. The lawyer sat upright and shivered, sputtering. The blind fold was taken away and replaced with a gag. Jarrod strained against the ropes as he shocked eyes took in the gruesome sight. He flinched at the horrific sound of the leather biting Heath’s unprotected bare skin. Heath never cried out, his blue eyes stared ahead, flinching with every lash. Jarrod mouthed Nick’s name in vain, against the offensive gag. What was Nick doing?

Something in Nick’s mind shut down. His arm would rise and fall, but the room seem surreal. With no sense of time and space, his emotions were held in check. He didn’t hear the garish laughter or the jumbled, jargon from the gagged captive. He didn’t see the scarlet ribbons his actions created on the bare flesh of his youngest brother. He didn’t feel the hot tears that ran down his face unchecked. Forcing himself into a state of unawareness, he retreated to the hidden depts from within, void of all thoughts and feelings. Finally, a roar in his ears transported him back to reality. He dropped the whip and fell to his knees. Covering his ears with both hands, he balled up his body and screamed.

Heath kept looking at the door. Why didn’t she come? Where was she? His back was on fire and the insides of his cheek was bitten from the forceful teeth.

“Mama,” he cried out, “Mama help me. Uncle Matt’s gonna kill me. Please Mama. Why don’t you help?”

Jarrod looked helplessly from one brother to the other and watched as the sad chapter from Heath’s past come to life in horrible, living color. He never knew Heath had been abused as a child. Realizing the tactics their tormentors were using, he was overcome with rage, knowing that Rizley was raping his brother’s memory. He watched Rizley cut Heath loose and wondered what scene would unfold next.

“He’s already hurt your mother, Heath. That’s why she didn’t come to help you,” Rizley lured, enjoying the hate in Heath’s adolescent eyes.

“You’re a big boy now, Heath. She’s counting on you. Don’t let him hurt her again.”

Nick shook off his stupor and looked around the room confused. He shut out the awful view of Heath’s marred flesh and swallowed back the vomit that rose up his esophagus. God, what have I done. The feral growl caused Heath’s eyes to open. Nick had seen Heath angry, but never like this. The look in the steely eyes held one thought…murder.

“Heath, No!” he defended as the raging man flew at him.

“I hate you. I’m gonna kill you. You ain’t gonna take that whip to me no more. You shouldn’t have hurt Mama. You’re a no good drunk!”

Nick felt the death grip around his throat and tried to pry the fingers away. His time was running out and as much as he didn’t want to hurt Heath, he had no choice. He hit Heath in the ribs and the pain that rippled through the already injured body, caused the adrenaline rush to cease. Heath collapsed on his beloved brother’s chest. Nick flipped over and held him close, Heath’s head rested on his brother’s shoulder. Rocking him, brushing a hand through the wet head, he implored the eyes to open.

“Heath, I’m so sorry. Can you hear me?”

Heath struggled to get his eyes open. They felt like dead weight. Finally, he managed to open them a crack and saw the whip. His body was worn out and had no fight left, but he needed to get away. It was so hard to see, it seemed he was looking through water. He strained to hear, but the voice was speaking too slowly. He pulled back and saw Nick. Nick would help him, but how could Nick be here? Nick didn’t live with Mama and Hannah?

“Nick? … help me…Uncle…Matt…please?”

Nick looked down at the imploring sky eyes and his heart just about broke. He swallowed hard, wishing Matt Simmons were still alive so he could have the pleasure of squeezing the life out of him. He spoke directly into Heath’s ear, not giving the sadists a chance to hear.

“He’s dead, Heath. He ain’t gonna hurt you again. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“You got ’em…Nick?”

“Yeah, Brother,” was all he could manage.

Suddenly, the rough hands pulled Heath from his tender embrace. Nick fought them like a wildcat. Disregarding the searing pain in his chest, he lunged at Sinclair and drove him into Tinsler. A horrendous pain in his arm and awful cracking sound told him his arm was broken. Cradling his injured left arm, he called out to Heath, despite the fact the blue eyes were closed. He winced as they drug Heath out, his head dragged on the floor, bouncing off every board.

*****

Heath’s inability to stop shivering was causing his teeth to chatter. He should have listened to Hannah and worn a warmer coat. Here he was, working deep in the bowels of a mine, with his buddies, Timmy Tucker and Andy Harmon. All three ten year olds were coughing from the damp, musty air. Tirelessly, their small hand worked, eyes drooped by fatigue. A sudden loud rumble and violent tremor threw the boys around like rag dolls.

“Timmy, look out,” Heath cried as a large beam split.

Andy and Heath hung onto each other and watched in horror as the life was crushed out of young Timmy Tucker. When the dust settled, the two laid mutely, hoping for a miracle.

“They ain’t gonna come,” Andy whispered, fearfully.

“Yeah, they will, we’ll be fine, you’ll see,” Heath nodded confidently.

Two sets of small hands frantically dug through the debris. As the hours went by their strength faded. Andy collapsed against the pile of dirt, Heath’s hands kept moving. He managed to pull Andy through the small opening with him. He felt hands, strong hands grabbing him.

“…Told you Andy, we’ll be okay now.”

Bear squatted next to the delirious captive, remembering all to well the fun he’d had at the then teenage boy’s expense. Such as pretty boy, he was. He lifted Heath’s shoulder and held the cup to his mouth.

“Drink up, now,” he leered.

Heath obeyed the voice and gagged instinctively at the bitter, foul smelling liquid. He laid back on the mat on the floor. He heard the voice and felt the hand creeping up his leg. The terror that struck him at the familiar words forced his eyes open.

“Mornin’ Blondie, welcome to another day in hell.”

Heath curled up and shrank back into the corner of his cell. Blinking hard, he looked around the small, windowless room. The familiar sight of an unknown four legged creature of the dark ran through the crack on the wall. The putrid breath was followed by the sadistic laughter.

“Time for breakfast, Blondie.”

“No,” he rasped, pushing the maggot infested corn mush and crackers away.

Heath tried to turn away, but his weakened body was no match for the barrel chested, monstrous mountain of flesh.

“You hardheads never learn, do ya.”

One rough hand forced open his mouth, and the other spooned the infested excuse for food into his mouth. The hands then worked in tandem, one covering the prisoners mouth and the other forcing him to swallow. Once released, Heath’s stomach rebelled against the invasion and he started to cough it up.

“Now you don’t want to do that, Blondie. I’ll just put that right back in ya,” the beast grinned.

Heath closed his eyes and fought the back the urge to vomit. He leaned against the dank, cold walls and tried to sleep. He felt the hand on him again, and kicked out instinctively.

“Get out.”

“You didn’t finish your breakfast. You eat every bit or I’ll…”

Heath picked up the spoon and forced the runny meal down his throat. It took all the energy he had to stomach it. He felt the breath on his cheek as the sadist bent to pick the plate up. He cringed and shrank back as the rough hand touched his cheek.

“That’s real good, Blondie, I’ll be back later.”

Heath wrapped his hands around his knees and started to rock. He heard the cell door close and stared. The low light from the torch on the wall offered little consolation. He wished he’d been killed in that skirmish, instead of wounded. Carterson was worse than hell could ever be. Bear’s presence alone guaranteed that.

He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. The rocking motion soothed him little. He felt her nearby. A warmth, in the otherwise coldness, that was his world. He heard her crooning, soft and low.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”

*****

Nick lay on the damp earthen floor of his cell, his breath coming in short pants. It seemed as though every nerve in his body screamed. Cradling his left arm, he was thankful that the bone hadn’t penetrated the skin’s surface. The way he felt, he might just as well been on the underside of a cattle stampede. Painfully, he rolled over and tried to ease himself up on his good elbow. A worn leather boot vetoed his attempt, pressing firmly against his throat. Gasping for air, he squared a menacing look of hatred into his tormentor’s eye.

“Maybe that’ll learn you,” Tinsler sneered, his gold tooth glistening in the dim light. “You thought you were gonna play hero, didn’t ya? You were gonna whip us all with one hand…and then you’d pick up that poor, bastard brother of yours and carry him to safety. How noble of you. It’s such a pity that things didn’t pan out the way you planned.”

“I’ll kill you,” Nick grunted, trying hard to mask his pain. “I don’t know how, or when I’ll do it, but it’s gonna happen, and that’s a promise!”

“Well, I don’t think I’m too scared, are you Edwin?” Tinsler mocked, turning to his scar faced friend.

“I don’t scare over the likes of him,” Sinclair scoffed, shoving a wad of Red Chief tobacco inside his lower lip.

“And just how good is your word, anyway?” Tinsler teased. “In fact, it does seem like I recall you sayin’ not to long ago, that nothin’ could make you lick that ill-sired, mongrel pup you call a brother. Nothing! You sure broke that promise in a hurry, didn’t ya, Boy? Man, oh, man…you should’ve seen the look on his face,” Tinsler gloated, “You know, I think he wanted to bust your head in right in two. I was half tempted just to let the two of ya cockfight it out, just to show ya!”

“Show us what?” Nick steamed.

“Why show ya what a couple of low life, loser dogs you really are, that’s what. You ain’t even fit to be called human, much less men. But then, what fun would there be in the two of ya killin’ each other? That pleasure’s gonna be mine; all mine!”

Feeling the walls of defeat close in on him, Nick dropped his head, too tired to offer a rebuttal. He glanced at the moldy bread and stench-laden stew that been left in his cell earlier and felt his stomach turn. Yes, he was hungry, but not that hungry. Looking he at the putrid mess, he could feel the bile rising. He gagged on reflex and fought to keep it down. A thick, yellow wad of tobacco juice hurled through the air and plopped into the bowl of spoiled stew with a sickening ‘splat’.

“That bowl better be empty when we come back, Boss Man,” Sinclair ordered with relish, “or I just might loose my temper.”

The door closed, and the latch slid into place. Nick closed his eyes to grieve silently.

Nick hammered away, bending over the nail that would hold the strand of barbed wire in place. Several yards down, his newfound brother worked with muted fervor. Trying to work away the hurt of a failed romance, Heath’s mood was broody and dark. Nick had tried several times to instigate chat, but the boy’s laconic nature was working overtime. Checking his progress with random glances, Nick couldn’t help notice the grit and determination displayed in the intent eyes and strong jawline.

From his outward appearance, Heath was a man’s man. Strong and silent, at times even Victoria seemed timid in his presence, but inside, Nick knew Heath was hurting. He was hurting from the rejection he often received when supposadly ‘decent folk’ didn’t approve of his parentage. Once again, a narrow minded man had driven a wedge in a blossoming romance.

His courtship with Maria had been brief, but Cupids Arrow had found it’s mark. For her, he had worn his heart on his sleeve, only to have it ripped in two. Not only had the girl’s father, Don Alfredo, despised him, but Maria, whom he dearly loved, had sacrificed a life with him to preserve her father’s heritage.

Nick wanted so desperately to show Heath how much he cared. He wanted to somehow find the magic words that would erase the pain. He had tried…tried on several occasions, but his awkwardness was evident and drove Heath into even further isolation.

Reaching his limit of resistance, Nick set the hammer on top of the post and walked the fence line down to where his brother was working. He wouldn’t try to just merely console Heath, but he would try to give his esteem a boost as well…let him know that he considered him as good as anybody. Mumly watching his brother pound, Nick finally mustered up the courage to speak.

“Don’t let things get to ya, Heath. She’s too good for ya and you know it!”

Heath’s head just about snapped as he angrily turned to face the author of the insult. The piercing, steely look suddenly made Nick aware of his error.

“Uhhh…,” he stuttered. “Uh, that ain’t what I meant to say. I, uh, was only tryin’ to…, well you’re the one that’s too good for her, that’s all.”

The face cracked and the stormy eyes calmed as Heath looked into his brother’s confused face and began to laugh. Leaning back against the fence post, he hugged his belly with both arms as the guttural echoes of joy burst forth from within.

“Hey,” Nick questioned defensively, “what’s so funny. Here I am tryin’ to offer you an apology and instead you just…”

“It’s okay, Nick,” Heath stammered, gulping air between volleys of laughter. “I accept your apology. It’s just that…well, I wish you could’ve seen the expression on your face!”

“My face? What’s wrong with my face?” Nick questioned, lightening his defense.

The response only furried Heath’s chuckles, as Nick inadvertently caressed his face as if he could scrape off whatever had his brother in such hysterics.

“Clawin’ away at your face ain’t gonna help your looks any,” Heath panted. “‘Sides, I like you nice and ugly. Just another bit of added insurance that you won’t be jumpin’ claim on any fillies that come my way.”

Nick’s befuddled expression melted as his brother’s fun began to sink in. He had just hurled a gigantic chasm in their relationship and did it feel good. Breaking into a hearty laughter, Nick joined in on his brother’s offbeat sense of humor. Something told him that the two of them would be spending many nights out, enjoying good times around the campfire.

*****

He loved this old cave, it had become a harbor for him. Some place he felt safe; where the cool walls stood silent in their sympathy. He was a boy with little youth; too young to be wearing a man’s shoes. He kept his treasures in here. His small collection of arrow heads, a skull he found, a tattered, yellow treasure map, a wooden boat and a beat-up lantern that shed a low light, and the book. He found it in the deserted cabin on the outskirts of town, left behind. It was about a boy named Johnny Tremaine, who was an orphan and how the young boy become a hero for his role in the Revolutionary War. He loved books, and one day he would have all he wanted, with nobody to deny him. He wouldn’t be the bastard boy no more. Nobody would lay a hand to him again. But for now, the ten year old traced the faded lines on the map. His last thought as he drifted to sleep was of buried treasure, battles of glory and dreams yet to come.

“Move it, Blondie, time for your shift,” the beast growled, prodding him with a large stick.

Heath rolled over and glared at Bear. He licked his dry lips and attempted to stand. His sluggish effort was not good enough for the burly guard. Seizing his captive roughly by the collar, he hauled him up and threw him out the door. Heath caught himself and managed to stagger forward.

“Where?” he croaked.

“Laundry detail. You’re working with Skinner today.”

Heath turned, his eyes glowered and he clenched his fists. Anybody but Skinner. A fiendish, spineless shell of a man. His nickname was given for the gruesome occupation he’d found within this hell hole. He caught rats, skinned and filleted them. The starving souls; the very, very depraved and desperate, would trade a meager possession in order to acquire the disgusting vermin-meat. Heath had never been so desperate. Skinner was an opportunist, selling any information of escapes, riots, etc., to the guards for cash, real food, or medicine. Heath had no doubts the cretin would sell his own mother, for the right price.

Four of them had planned a break, trusting no one, they’d almost been ready to go. Then Tyler got the fever and through no fault of his own, in his delirium, spoke of their work. Skinner overheard him rambling and over a period of days, deprived him of the water and broth that might have helped his fever. There was do doctor or medicine. Skinner used every available tactic to torture Heath’s good friend. They’d taken Tyler away to another cell block. Heath tried desperately to see him, but to no avail. Skinner got all the information the sick boy could produce, then left him to die. Had long had it been? A few weeks, a month? Heath couldn’t remember, but he vowed to get even.

*****

Jarrod’s head throbbed, keeping time with the rest of his aching body. There was no sense of time in this wretched place. Had it been days or weeks? What had happened to his brothers? The dreadful sight of Nick’s blank face and the whip smacking Heath’s back wouldn’t leave him. He sensed someone nearby. He struggled to his feet, making sure he kept alert. He paced the small room and turned at the door.

“Who’s there?”

“A voice from your past, Mr. Barkley. So how does it feel? How does the self-proclaimed long arm of the law feel now? The world looks a lot different when you’re not so high and mighty.”

“You’re even more pathetic than I’d remembered, Rizley. You won’t get away with this. You’ll pay for what you’ve done.”

“Save your breath, Mr. Barkley. Enjoy your visit at our quaint resort. It’ll be you last. You and your brother won’t be so lucky this time. I spent months in that prison plotting my revenge. Justice is sweeter than I’d dreamed.”

Jarrod started to respond and realized Rizley used the singular ‘brother’. Had something happened to Heath or Nick? Or was it another trick. Before he could answer, the door opened and Tinsler stepped inside.

“Time to go, Mouthpiece,” Tinsler shoved Jarrod hard.

“Where?” Jarrod spouted, throwing the arm off.

“To get cleaned up.”

Jarrod struggled forward and down the hall where a hot tub was waiting. He shrank back, shaking his head.

“What kind of game this time? Do you intend to drown me?”

“You got a choice. You can get in on your own, or I go in with you.”

Jarrod looked at the cold eyes and realized this man was the heartless killer he’d alluded to. Squaring his shoulders, he unbuttoned his shirt and approached the tub. Twenty minutes later, with clean, warm clothes and socks, he heard Sinclair unlock the door and enter. His confusion was evident and the sadist laughed.

“You just plum run out of ideas, eh Lawyer-Man. “

“Where’s the your foul friend?” Jarrod spat.

“That ain’t very nice, him seeing to it you got cleaned up and all. None of your concern, anyhow. Let’s go.”

“No,” Jarrod sat down on the floor, resting his aching head on his arms, “I’m not participating in your sick game anymore. Do as you will.”

“Well now, I don’t recall you having that right, Lawyer-Man. Get up and get going. Maybe this will move you’re feet a little faster,” he grinned, dropping a horror before Jarrod.

Jarrod stared at the three teeth on the floor. He heard the sinister laugh. My God, were would it end? The shocked look on his face as he swallowed back his meager midday meal said it all.

“Yeah, he didn’t want to part with ’em , but I sort of convinced him. He ain’t such a tough Barkley after all. “

Sinclair had kept the teeth, stolen from a hermit he’d run into last week on a supply run. Only two gold fillings, but it was better than nothing. The old coot didn’t complain, bein’ as he was dead. He saw the pain on the lawyer’s face and laughed. He hauled up and pushed him out the door.

“Time to meet your new work partner. You two should hit it right off. He’s in a rather surly mood seein’ how you’ve killed a close friend of his. “

Jarrod’s confusion was short lived. He staggered into a room with piles of soiled laundry on the floor. A large tub of soapy water and one with clean water were visible. He heard an awful sound, something feral and vicious emanating from the darkness on the other side of the room. Squinting into the blackness, he heard a nocturnal side to a familiar voice.

“You’re a dead man, Skinner,” Heath snarled.

“Heath? Come out where I can see you? I want to help…”

“Help me? Like you helped Tyler? You filthy dog, you had no right to abuse him and leave him to die. He was only a boy.”

The shadow moved and Jarrod stepped forward, intending on securing Heath. He stopped when he saw the raw savage before him. Heath was filthy, clothes tattered, face battered, one eye just about swollen shut. He realized that the pain in his back was preventing the blond man from standing upright. His fever evident in the flushed skin and glazed eyes. It seemed no worse, but that alone couldn’t cause this delusionary world his brother had retreated into. What had they done to him? Drugs, perhaps?

“How much did it take, Skinner? Whose soul did you sell to get the bath and clothes?” Heath growled, approaching cautiously.

So that is what the bath and clothes had been for. To further his tortured brother’s delusions. He looked at Heath with all his heart.

“HEATH! Listen to me, it’s Jarrod! You’re not in Carterson. They’re using you. Please Heath, you must remember.” Jarrod’s blue eyes pleaded, but to no avail.

Through the mountains of laundry and the echoes of prisoners wailing down the hall, Heath’s angry eyes took in the sorry sight of what he thought was Skinner. He even looked like a rat. Small, balding, reddish hair, weasely eyes; all added to his total lack of merit. He saw the coward backing up. It was time to give back for Tyler. He lunged at the coward with all he had left, ignoring the raging pain within him.

The impact send both men onto the table, knocking the clothes and wooden structure to the floor. Jarrod felt the death grip Heath had on his neck, the eyes were shooting fire. Heath would kill him. He used his two fingers to poke Heath in the fleshy area above the collarbone, temporarily cutting off his air. He was then able to push Heath away and grab him from behind. Pulling him to the floor, he held on and once again tried to get through to the muddled man.

“Heath, I care about you, I’m your brother. I’d never hurt you. Listen to my voice. It’s Jarrod. I want to help you.”

He felt the heat radiating from the raging man, and realized the fever was still waging a fierce battle with his youngest brother. He pulled Heath closer and heard him cry out, the rough fabric of the new shirt pressed against the open wounds on his brother’s back. He eased up and that was his mistake. Heath elbowed him hard and bent his arm behind his back. Jarrod winced as Heath turned, hauling him upright. Jarrod spotted the steaming tub of soapy water he was being propelled towards.

“HEATH, NO! Listen to me. I’m not…”

“Shut up Skinner.”

Jarrod had just barely time to take a good breath before his head was plunged down into the suds.

*****

Max turned as his youngest son, Joseph, entered the office in the back of the lodge. His usual exhuberance and outward affection always gave the father’s heart a tug. The bear hug today was needed. He sat down and took a large gulp of his father’s coffee.

“Thanks Papa, I needed that. Boy, it’s cold out today. Chris and Jenny wanted to come, but Mary thought with them fighting colds, it would be better to keep them home.”

“Ja, your wife’s a smart one,” Max said thinking of his two littlest grandchildren. “How are the roads?”

“We made good progress today. In addition to the men in town, with all the extra visitors pitching , we were able to clear a wide path straight to the train station. Things should be back to normal by morning.”

Joseph paused and grabbed his father’s hand. He knew the toll that the loss of the three Barkley’s was having on the usually enthusiastic man. He’d been heartsick for four days now.

“I’m so sorry, Papa. Maybe…”

He stopped not knowing where the thought was intended. He watched his father rise and walk to the window. After several minutes, his father finally spoke.

“You said the roads were clear?”

“Yes, why?”

The heavy sigh preceded the voice. “Now that the telegraph lines are operating again, it’s time I let Victoria Barkley know about her sons.”

Max looked at the brilliant blue sky and heard the laughter of the guests pulling out for a sleighride. The snowcapped trees and red velvet bows on the porch did nothing to ease his pain. He felt the strong hands on his shoulders and nodded. Sometimes it was a godsend to have a child. Someone, whose presence alone, did your heart good.

“Thanks son, I needed that,” he said turning and hugging his boy.

“Come on ,Papa, I give you a ride to town. We need to get supplies anyway. I’ll even let you buy me a hot pretzel from the vendor in the square,” Joseph’s blue eyes smiled.

“Okay, son,” he said, ruffling the reddish hair, so like his mothers. “Let’s go.”

*****

Nick paced the cell in short strides now, his strength ebbing badly. The lack of daylight in this dungeon had taken all sense of time and space away. He had no idea how many days had been lost. Was Jarrod still alive? And what of Heath? What had that animal done to him? His anger rose. If it was the last thing he did, even if it meant losing his own life, he’d make Rizley pay. With his bare hands he’d choke the life out of him.

He sank to the floor, still wearing a cloak of fury. Every breath he took felt like shards of glass were being imbedded into his chest. His arm throbbed endlessly and every muscle screamed. He rested his head and his thoughts drifted back to a happier time, the spring after Heath came and a glorious weekend at the cabin.

“Boy Howdy, it don’t get better than this!”

“You said it, Brother,” Nick concurred. “Clean air, good fishing and good poker.”

“You have any money left, Nick,” Jarrod asked, dropping down on the dock. “Seems to me our younger brother just about cleaned you out last night.”

“I went easy on the boy,” Nick retorted, “it being his first time and all.” Then grinning evilly, he nudged his oldest brother and winked. “Plus, he’ll need that extra cash tonight for Monique.’

“I don’t know if he’s ready for her. ” Jarrod laughed, thinking of the voluptuous redheaded beauty. “She’s a little, uh, mature for him, maybe?”

“Who’s Monique?” Heath’s interest in the bass he was reeling in, suddenly paled.

“Well, now Heath, maybe Jarrod’s right. Forget I even mentioned her. Best to leave a man’s work to a real man,” Nick mocked, enjoying Jarrod’s deep laugh.

“Yeah, well if your prowess with women is as good as your poker playing, she’ll be paying me,” Heath barbed , sending Jarrod into fits of laughter.

“Boy, you sure talk a good game,” Nick chided, chuckling. “But when the dust clears, it’ll be old Casanova who she’ll be panting for.”

“Casanova? No thanks, Nick, it don’t suit me. A real man don’t need pretendin’,” He said, skillfully capturing the fish and standing. “Reckon it’s a good thing you like my name, since it’s the one you’ll be hearing her call out,” Heath laughed as he scrambled away from Nick.

“Get back here,” Nick hollered at the snickering blond’s retreating back.

Jarrod doubled over and soon even Nick couldn’t help laughing. He returned to his seat and flicked the line out over the water. He didn’t realize the broad smile until Jarrod noted it.

“He sure has made the difference, Nick.”

Nick nodded and smiled again.

“You said it all , Counselor.”

*****

“Wake up, Boss Man”

The rough hands slapped his face hard. He squinted against the light.

“Whaddya want now!” Nick grunted.

Sinclair squatted down and looked the battered Barkley in the eye. He didn’t want to miss the reaction.

“You’re needed for duty.”

“Duty? What kind of duty? I’m not playin’ any more of your sick games,” Nick said, rolling over.

Leaning in low, close to Nick’s ear, Sinclair let the words roll right down the bruised cheek.

“Funeral duty.”

The look of absolute terror and fear in Nick Barkley’s eyes made the wait worthwhile. All the time he’d been locked up in that stinkin’ prison, his one thought was to get even…to see fear in that cocky face and make him beg.

“Get movin!” He hauled the prisoner by the collar and threw him through the door. He relished the shocked face and stunned footsteps.

Victoria finished putting the last finishing touch on the silver candelabra and stepped back to admire the elegant pair that had been a gift to her from Tom, so many Christmas’ ago.

“Oh, Mother, they’re just lovely!” Audra exclaimed, slipping up from behind.

“Why, thank you, Dear. I think that when your brothers get home with the tree, I’ll snip some greenery from the lower branches and try to dress them up a bit. That, with a couple of red bows, will make such a festive centerpiece for Christmas dinner.”

“I can hardly wait!” squealed Audra. “Somehow I get the feeling that this is going to be the best Christmas ever! Do you think the boys will get back to today?”

“It’s possible,” Victoria replied, “but more than likely it will be tomorrow. I do hope Heath’s been taking his medicine. That morning they all left, be barely had a voice.”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, Mother,” Audra reassured her. “He’s got Nick and Jarrod to look out after him.”

“That’s what worries me,” Victoria teased. “If I know your brothers….” She hesitated as a knock was heard at the front door. “I wonder who that could be?”

“Probably one of my friends here looking for Nick or Heath,” Audra smiled. “I know for a fact that Elsie was hoping to catch one of them under the mistletoe this year. I’ll go see who it is.”

With a smug tilt of the head, Victoria watched her daughter whisk out of the room and bent down to pull a lace table cloth from the cabinet under the sideboard.

“This one will be pretty,” she thought.

The delicate snowflake pattern would be perfect for Christmas. Remembering all the tedious hours she had spent crocheting it as a young girl, Victoria spread it over the large, polished table. Audra was right. This was going to be the best Christmas ever!

“Mother!”

Audra’s voice seemed frantic as she rushed back into the dining room waving a slip of paper.

“That was Andy Carver from the telegraph office! He said this just came in from Max Schmidt up at the lodge in Pine Meadows. He says it’s urgent!” she stammered, handing Victoria the document, still folded and sealed. “Oh, hurry and open it, Mother! What does it say?”

“Now, just settle down, Audra.” Victoria’s voice was even and steady, trying to mask her concern. “I’m sure it’s nothing to get all worked up over.”

The worry was evident in her daughter’s eyes as Victoria used reached in the drawer for one of the sterling silver table knives. With one quick, strong tug, she broke through the seal at the top and began to read the tragic message.

“Oh, My Lord!” she gasped. “Something has happened to the boys!”

“What is it?” Audra begged, on the verge of hysterics. “Please, tell me…where are my brothers?”

“I can’t answer that,” Victoria replied, the harsh message slowly sinking in. “Nobody’s seen them for almost three days now.”

“Well, why isn’t anybody out looking for them?” Audra panicked. “Are we just going to stand here? We’ve got to do something!”

“Audra, get a hold of yourself,” Victoria ordered, gently gripping her daughter’s arm. “They’re doing everything they can do right now…but there’s more. Come on, we need to get packed. I’ll tell you about it on the way to the train station.

*****

Part 2

The train whistle announced it’s departure from Stockton, as it slowly gathered steam, the chugalug sound getting stronger as it picked up the pace. The occasional uneven bumps in the track, seemed to go unnoticed as Victoria’s gaze held fast to the front page of the daily paper. The previous prison break from San Quentin was old news, but still the main topic of newspapers around the valley. Victoria skimmed down the page, preferring to skip the familiar facts of which she was already well acquainted. The ongoing and well publicized story, hashing and rehashing the escape of Captain Rizley, along with Pete Sinclair and a bloodthirsty psycho called Tinsler, had become old and stale.

She scanned down several more paragraphs and soon became intently absorbed in the latest findings. It had been suspected all along, that there had been inside help, but now, the local authorities had solid evidence that one of the guards had been key in helping the convicts escape.

She continued to read and drew a sharp breath. The trial for Captain Rizley, and all the other’s involved, had been long and tedious. Supporting her three sons by her presence, she had sat through the entire trial listening to testimony after testimony of the horrors inflicted on the prisoner’s working Rizley’s road gang. She remembered well, the rancher called McGowen. Though the sentence he had received was significantly lighter, she had considered him just as guilty as Rizley, himself. Now, using her sons as bartering pawns, he was willing to make a deal. He was willing to exchange some valuable information that may be vital in the safe return of her boys. The public officials had agreed to a plea-bargain arrangement, and the manhunt was now in progress. The article was vague in it’s detail, but gave every indication of foul play and vengeful retaliation. The San Francisco Police Department and The District Attorney’s Office had been waiting for the wires to be repaired in order to verify the wherabouts of the Barkleys. Victoria made a mental note to wire the San Francisco Police Detective, a man by the name of Pierce Summerfield, at their next stop.

Victoria glanced over at Audra, who seemed to be boring a hole through the train’s glass window, as she peered out at the bleak, winter landscape. Victoria set the paper aside and settled back in the plush velvet seat of the private railcar. The rhythmic vibrations sang a lullaby as she closed her eyes and tried to relax, as each of her missing children enshrined a place in her heart.

The familiar tick of the grandfather clock was soothing as it helped her pass the night away. She had come to think of it as a dear friend, as on many solitude nights, it reminded her that she wasn’t alone. It had been in her family for generations, making it’s journey west when she and Tom were newly weds. They had purchased a large section of land, and though the house in which they now lived would someday be the bunkhouse, she was content. Almost nine months pregnant, soon she would deliver. They had hoped for many children, and Tom promised that as the babies started to arrive, he would build her a house big enough for all of them. Her hand caressed the rounded abdomen as a powerful kick reminded her that truly, she wasn’t alone.

Her own flesh and blood. A child that would be hers to raise and nurture. Their firstborn. She hoped it would be a boy. Tom had always talked about having a son that would someday help him run the ranch. A son that would toil hard by his father’s side, helping to carve the vast empire that Tom Barkley had envisioned when he and Victoria first arrived on their recently acquired land. Building up a dream from the rocks and clay had proved challenging, indeed. The couple had spent many long days working side by side. Tom had several other interests and investments around the valley, and often Victoria spent evenings alone. She picked up her worn copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and began to read.

She hadn’t read much, when the labor pains started. They had come upon her suddenly, and were now fast and furious. She lay down on the sofa, breathing deeply, trying to calmly work through them. They had no hired help in those days, and the nearest ranch was miles away. Having a baby alone wasn’t what she had planned, but now, it seemed as though that was the route she was going to travel.

The loud rap at the kitchen door was heaven sent. She called out and soon some young neighbors were there at her side. Wally and Jenny Miles had been out for a drive, and knowing Tom was away, had decided to stop in for a visit. Half an hour later, Victoria was cradling a raven haired, baby boy. They named him Jarrod, and the relationship of tender love that developed between mother and son, was so much more than any woman could ever even imagine. He was a quiet boy. Refined and well mannered, it was always Victoria that he would confide in. And then came Nick.

The four years following the birth of Jarrod, had been prosperous ones. Tom’s strong business sense had proved to be successful and the families assets greatly increased. Staying true to his promise, Tom had built that large mansion for Victoria. It’s great white pillars, crystal chandeliers, real carpets and indoor plumbing made it one of the finest homes in the area. With a few ranch hands and a house servant, Tom and Victoria were definitely working their way up the ladder of success.

It was late November when Victoria gave birth to their second son. From the moment she heard the doctor’s slap against the baby’s wrinkled bottom, she knew she had a screamer on her hands.

“That boy really has a set of lungs,” Tom had joked. “Someday he’ll make a fine foreman, barking out orders to the crews.”

Nick was similar to his brother Jarrod in appearance. Both boy’s shared Victoria’s dark features, but inwardly they were as different as night and day. Nick was her wild child. Always on the go, getting into things, and trying her patience. At night, after getting him settled into bed, she would come down to the parlor, ready to collapse. Tom would always smile at his wife’s fatigued face, knowing that soon he’d be grown and all that boundless energy used in a positive light. He admired the boy’s spunk and independence.

“You just watch,” he’d tell Victoria. “Someday that boy will own this whole valley. There’s not one obstacle too great for him to conquer.”

“And Jarrod,” Victoria would question.

“I’m proud of both my sons,” Tom would reassure her. “I predict that someday Jarrod will become president.”

Victoria shifted her weight and continued her doze, as her third boy came to mind.

Neither Tom or she had been there to witness his first cries as the doctor of the small mining camp handed him to his single mother. She never had the privilege of watching him grow and develop into the fine young man that she now knew and cherished. Her first introduction to Heath had been in the foyer of the families home just four years earlier. From her bedroom, that night, she had heard his wild accusations and rants, accented by the sounds of tinkling glass as he stormed around the library so angry and hostile. Nick and Jarrod had driven him away, but stubbornly, he came back.

With the boldness of one who had every right to the good things bestowed a rightful son, he had barged into the home and helped himself to a bowl of apples she had set out. As she confronted him, looking deep into the steely, blue eyes, she knew, without doubt, that this was Tom’s son. He had been invited to stay, and though the adjustment was difficult at first, he was now permanently grafted into the family tree. How she loved that boy…just as much as if he had been her own. No more, no less.

The lonesome whistle told Victoria of the waterstop up ahead. She brushed the moisture in her eyes and smoothed her skirt and then reached into her small handbag for a hanky. She blew her nose, thinking of Heath and how sick he had been. If only she had insisted. If only…

“What’s the use,” she grieved silently. “What’s done is done.”

Lifting her head, she squared her shoulders. She was proud of her sons, all three of them, and with the same courage so evident in each, she would walk tall, facing whatever trials life had to dish out.

*****

He stood like all naval personnel do in the “at ease” stance. Feet squared and hands clasped behind his back. His dark eyes had an unhealthy glow as he waited for the steward and first mate. Why the devil was it so hard for this inept crew to follow a schedule? As Captain of this ship, it was his duty to see to it that order and discipline were adhered to at all times. Sighing in frustration, he turned as one of the crew called to him.

“We’re ready for the burial detail, Sir. Will you be coming?”

“Burial at sea, an old and stalwart tradition. A time-held rite passed on from generation to generation. Very well, call arms and let’s have at it.”

“Sir? Uh…We’re not at sea. We’re in the mountains, remember.”

“What’s that you say, Sailor? Mountains?”

Rizley rubbed his eyes as the officers’ quarters melted away. He was in the front room of a cabin, a fire crackling in the fireplace. He frowned. Where had the ship gone? How did he get here? He took a sip of the hot coffee near his hand and rubbed his eyes again.

“Are you all right, Sir?”

He felt the hand on his shoulder and threw it off, standing up and issuing a loud reprimand.

“Get your hands off of me, Man. I’m the commanding officer, or have you forgotten that? I’m very aware of what’s going on here,” he stated loudly for Johnson as well as the large man who’d entered with him. “Don’t you threaten me! I know you’ve been talking mutiny with the crew. You’ll never get away with it, I’ll see you all dead first.”

“Sir, maybe you should take a rest. We can take care of the burial detail.”

Rizley stood with his back to them. Bear and Johnson exchanged a worried glance. They’d all noticed that sometimes times he slipped away, but this was the most severe episode. They’d have to keep an eye on him at all times. His lunacy and mental instability had been kept in check in prison. Now, without supervision and medication, he was losing his battle with reality. They watched him ease down onto the sofa by the fire and close his eyes.

“Let’s go, Bear,” Johnson replied as he left the room.

A loud crack in the fire snapped Rizley back into reality. He looked at the clock…almost noon. He’d get Johnson and go in town for their weekly supply run. He needed to pick up some personal items and send a wire. He couldn’t trust the men to do that. He stood up, walked into the hall and put on his coat, muffler and gloves. He saw Bear and Johnson in the barn preparing the body for burial. Sinclair was running his mouth, torturing Nick Barkley whose surly responses were earning him several blows. The delay was due to Barkley’s digging efforts being slowed downby the broken arm.

“Johnson, let’s go.”

Johnson nodded at Bear and followed Rizley to the wagon where Jarvis was already waiting. Taking the reins, he turned to the depraved Captain.

“Ready, Sir?”

“Carry on, Johnson, we have to get the supplies and be back in short order.”

*****

The holiday fervor and glorious spirit of the season showed her full feathers in town. The town square was full of greens and red bows. There were carolers on the corner singing holiday songs, vendors selling roasted chestnuts, spiced apples and hot pretzels along with hot chocolate and cider. Shoppers and tourists crowded the streets and the clear blue sky and brilliant sun put everyone in a good mood.

Johnson pulled the team in behind Abe’s Mercantile. Rizley had been dropped off out front and was already inside. Johnson withdrew the small flask from inside his coat and took a good gulp. He heard Jarvis jump off the wagon and handed over the flask. Captain Rizley didn’t permit drinking alcohol of any kind, loudly stating that it dulled the mental capacities. But they all had a stash and used it carefully so as not to get their leader vexed. He stomped the snow off his boots and made his way around the corner to the front door. Jarvis followed several paces behind.

“Yes, Sir, we got most all of this stuff,” the young clerk nodded suspiciously at the bearded man, “It should only take me fifteen minutes or so to get it ready,” he lied. “Do you have your wagon outside?”

“My man Johnson here…JOHNSON!” he bellowed impatiently.

“Here, Sir,” replied Johnson, sidling over to the Captain.

“As I was saying, Young Man, my man Johnson here will assist you. Johnson, Jarvis, I’m going to the telegraph office. Be ready to leave when I get back.”

“Aye, Sir,” he shuddered at the retreating back. Jarvis caught his eye and nodded.

“I can handle this if you want to get the wagon around to the front,” the clerk suggested.

“Good enough, Kid,” Johnson replied as he took a handful of candy and motioned to his partner to follow him out of the store.

Danny Rivers looked around to make sure they’d gone. He looked again at the morning paper. There on the bottom of the front page was a picture of the bearded man who’d just left. He quickly scanned the article and gulped. An escaped convict, maybe planning a murder? He quickly got the order together and out on the sidewalk. Not seeing the wagon or the man’s aide, he ran to the sheriff’s office.

Rizley waited impatiently in the long line. The wires were only working for a few hours now, and dozens of people were waiting to send telegrams. He looked over the shoulder of the woman in front of him, his eyes grew wide in alarm when he saw the photo in the newspaper the woman’s child was holding. Backing out of line slowly, he tried not to create attention as he left. He saw the young boy with the woman look at his photo, then at him. He saw the child pulling on the woman’s coat. She turned and saw him, too. He didn’t wait, but rushed out the door. Stopping briefly at the train station, he checked the posted departure information on the wall outside. He made a quick decision and bought a one way ticket.

Johnson pulled the wagon up and put the order in the back. Jarvis went inside to pay the clerk, but the kid wasn’t there. Leaving the money and signing the receipt, that was still on the counter, he turned to leave…and then saw it. He spent the next minute reading the paper’s headlines. Weighing his options, he decided the little bit of money Rizley had offered him was not worth being caught and tried for murder.

He snatched the money from the counter and hit the cash register sale button, the drawer opened and he took the few dollars that were inside. He eyed the new pile-lined coats on the rack nearby and shed his old beat up cotton coat for a warmer one. He was just leaving when he heard his name called.

“Johnson, get a load of this,” he said, handing the paper up to the driver’s seat.

Johnson read the article under the photo of their leader. These Barkleys were more trouble than they were worth. He knew by Jarvis’ troubled face that he felt the same way.

“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” he offered and saw Jarvis nod.

“That five-hundred bucks he promised ain’t worth a neck stretchin’. I’m gettin’ outta here on the first train. Here,” Jarvis handed him half the money he’d taken, “that oughta get us up to Oregon. Let’s go!”

Johnson jumped down and the two turned to beat a hasty retreat. As they tromped away from the wagon, they could hear their names being called.

“Johnson, we must leave immediately, there has been a change in our plans. Jarvis get that order packed. Let’s go.”

Rizley climbed on board only to see the two scrambling up the street. The devil take them, their presence wasn’t required. Rizley picked up the reins and urged the team forward. The executions would be moved up. He’d pack his things, take his money and go. That motley crew wouldn’t get a red cent.

*****

“Are you sure, Danny?” Sheriff Colt Adams asked.

“Yes, Sir, it’s him. I seen the guy with him a few times before, getting supplies. They must be holed up in a cabin nearby.”

“Let’s go!”

The sheriff grabbed his coat and followed the teenager up the street. They were just about to the store when a woman called to him.

“Sheriff, Sheriff wait a minute!”

“I’m a little busy now, Ma’am, if you’d just wait in my office, I’ll be right back,” he nodded to the woman and her son.

“We saw this man in the telegraph,” she said, pointing to Rizley’s photo.

“When?”

“No more than five minutes ago. He knew he’d been recognized. He got out of line and ran up the street…to the train, I think!”

“Thanks, Ma’am, you’ve been a big help.”

The sheriff and Danny raced to the store. Finding it empty, they ran to the train station. Rizley wasn’t there, but the ticket agent recognized his photo and told the lawman so.

“Yes, Sir, that’s him. He bought a one-way ticket. Couldn’t be more than ten minutes ago.”

“Where to?”

“St. Louis…leaves at eight tonight.”

The sheriff left Danny with instructions to keep a sharp lookout. He rounded up his deputyies and gave the assignments. One would be posted at the train station and one in the town square. He wired Pierce Summerfield at the San Francisco Police Department, giving him the news that Rizley was in the area and the three Barkley men were missing. He got on his horse and headed for the lodge, leaving his top deputy, Sam Heinz, in charge.

*****

Pierce Summerfield rubbed his temples, hoping the massage would quell the headache that raged between his dark brown eyes. Sighing, he ran a hand through the ebony hair and shook his head, his handsome face screwed up in contempt. Rizley, a cretin, not worth his salt; subhuman, not fit to breathe the same air as Jarrod Barkley or his brothers. He considered himself fortunate to know Jarrod Barkley and privileged to be considered a good friend. He’d known Jarrod for over ten years now, their initial meetings were of official capacity, dealing with homicides, assaults and other crimes. But over the years, the two had really bonded. How many hours over those years had the two debated the right to life vs. death sentences over long dinners and brandy. Jarrod was one of the finest men he’d ever known. Someone who was a walking, breathing example of Integrity. Although their philosophies on law and justice differed, the intangible factors that gave both men such incorruptible moral fiber only cemented the relationship. He knew Jarrod respected him, and that meant a lot to him.

He never realized how very strong his feelings for Jarrod were until these last few weeks. Since the first wire was sent about the escape, he’d begged his blue eyed friend to take the protection the that Pierce could offer through the department. Jarrod turned him down flat, not that he was surprised. After the first two weeks went by with no sign of the lunatic, they suspected he’d gone north to Canada, something that was a rumor in the prison. Then word from Mrs. Barkley at Pine Meadows just ten minutes ago.

He thought back on how Jarrod had saved his life. Just two years ago, after being wounded in a gun battle at the docks, he thought about quitting the force. He’d been shot before, but not this seriously. He nearly died and it took months until he was able to return to work. During that time, he thought of his new bride and the fear in her eyes. Something else to thank Jarrod for. He’d introduced Pierce to Claire at a fundraiser for the centennial celebration. Jarrod had known Claire and her family for years. Her lively personality and terrific sense of humor made it seem a match in heaven. Her beauty only added to the attraction. Jarrod came to visit weekly, encouraging him, prodding and challenging him. When all else failed, he hollered, his blue eyes flashing, his face reddened…stating that men like Pierce, whose honesty, and courage Jarrod had come to admire were too scarce. San Francisco needed him, Jarrod said, chastising the detective’s wallowing in pity and self doubts, citing that he was never a quitter. Jarrod didn’t come back the next week and it was then he absorbed all his friend’s words. He decided to stay on the force. Now he was Lt. Pierce Summerfield and he thanked God for his decision. Without being in this capacity, he couldn’t use every fiber in his being, officially and otherwise, to see Rizley hang. It was his turn to save Jarrod’s life. He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

“Lt. Summerfield, Captain Malone is waiting.”

“Thanks Mike, I’ll be right there.”

He strapped the holster on and glanced at the photo on his desk of Claire and their baby son. John Jarrod Summerfield, named for his grandfather and his godfather. Rizley would be sorry he ever set foot out of that prison.

*****

Audra swiped at the foggy window with her hand and gazed at the winter wonderland just a wall’s width away. The majestic beauty she beheld would have taken her breath away under different circumstances. Now, it was more like a glistening veil enshrouding a murderous, savage wasteland. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the stately trees, elegantly adorned with miniature drifts, held much lure, an endless number cloaking the mountainside. The beguiling slopes seemed to beckon, but it was those same mountains that held her brothers captive. Lost in the storm, the snow and wilderness had sealed their fate.

Audra sighed, knowing that if fate had captured the three in the storm, their chances of surviving would supersede the odds against wanton killers bent on revenge. Just a week and a half until Christmas, the season of giving was all around her, especially here at the lodge as sojourners prepared for the holidays ahead. Inside she felt like dying, her misplaced brothers occupying all her thoughts.

Jarrod had been her father figure. Even before the death of Tom Barkley, her oldest brother had treated her like his little princess. Her father’s loss only deepened their relationship. Tom had always been the disciplinarian, but Jarrod didn’t have to assume that role during her early years. After he was gone, Jarrod’s reprimands had always been gentle.

Nick was the brother she had always admired as a young girl. She loved to tag along at his heels, even though her efforts weren’t always appreciated. He loved his little sister, and was always readily available when she needed a brother’s assistance. The petty bickering that would arise sometimes between the two were more of what was typical between a brother and sister.

It was Heath, however, who had always been the one to captivate Audra. He had been so many places and seen so many things. His spirit had always seemed so free and untamed, though his creed of ethics was solid. The two had bonded rather quickly after his arrival and though he could be someone soft and gentle for Audra to confide in, when opposition arose, he was as tough as nails. From the understanding and respect established between the two, Audra knew he would defend her honor without hesitation, but had the grit to face her and tell her when she had overstepped his boundaries. Yes, there had always seemed to be something mystical about Heath. Her reminiscing took her back to their very first encounter.

Audra trotted through the woods, her horse well acquainted with the familiar path. With a gentle set of the bit, she stopped and peered through the trees at the young man kneeling beside her father’s grave. He was a stranger in these parts, perhaps a vagrant or one of Crown’s hired guns. His worn clothes told the story of hard times and self survival, but even with his shabby appearance, he carried an air of pride and dignity. There was something about this young man that intrigued her. She wanted to get to know him, but a formal introduction seemed awkward. It was hard to pinpoint what made her hesitate. Perhaps, even from a distance, she could detect his wild and rebellious nature. Without giving it much more thought, Audra charged in. For some strange reason, it just seemed like the thing to do.

He was angry at first. When he first felt the sting of her leather whip biting into his back, his prowess was cocked and ready. He turned to meet his attacker head on, not sure what he would find. The spunky little blond with fire in her eyes came as quite a shock. Amusement swept in and masked his defense. She was a tough little rascal, but restraining her was easy. When she had finally given up her struggle and was ready to talk in a more mature manner, he could sense her desire for friendship. She wasn’t going to hand it over to him on an engraved platter, but he could read it in her eyes. Somehow he felt as if she were a person he could trust.

The assault had taken him quite off-guard, and he wasn’t prepared for the words to follow. He felt a distant kindred with her for a moment…a young girl who was still grieving the loss of the same man that he had yearned for during the early years of his life. His anger suddenly began to surface. It was apparent that she had been raised with all the good things that he had missed out on as a child. Solid family ties, wealth, a name…but most of all a father’s support and guidance.

Audra watched as the young stranger swung into his saddle with a smooth leap and cantered off towards the ranch. She had a feeling about this young man. A feeling that she would someday know him with a greater depth. Later that evening her predictions came true.

He had claimed to be her brother. A product of her father’s adulterous affair with a single woman, and now he was here to claim his birthright. How dare he. She had long since tired of all the goldseekers trying to cash in on Tom Barkley’s fortune. So this had been his plan all along. Audra’s lips tightened as she turned to retreat to her room. Jarrod and Nick had thought they’d handled it; sent him on his way. He hadn’t backed down from his claims and accusations, but she would be the one to unveil the truth. She would be the one to present her brothers with the evidence they needed. After all, what saddle tramp would pass up the opportunity to wet his whistle with Midas’ golden daughter.

Quickly saddling in the family’s stable, she hid waited for him to ready his pony. The Modock was corralled along with the horses belonging to the ranch hands, separate from the ranch stock. He galloped towards the direction of town and Audra followed. At two in the morning, the town was alive. Drunken railroad men and hired guns infesting the streets like maggots on decaying flesh. When derelict hands pulled her from her steed, she knew she was a girl in trouble. Kicking and fighting like a cougar, she clawed and bit, until from out of the darkness, her deliverer swept her to safety.

“I’m hurt!” she whined.

“You Little Fool, you’re lucky you ain’t dead!”

“Nobody, talks to me like that! Nobody!”

“Oh, yeah? Try them!”

As he shredded a cloth for bandages, she baited him. Moving in close, she tried to seduce him. She could feel his breath radiating warmth on her upper lip as he mouthed out the words.

“To test your brother?”

He hadn’t taken the bait. At first she didn’t want to believe it, but now she found herself questioning her own denial, believing that this man’s claims were possibly true. Hadn’t she been good enough? Had her father been lacking in the love she, her mother and brothers had always so freely given? So many questions left unanswered and so many emotions loose and unsettled. It was at that moment that Audra made her decision. She had laid out her fleece, and the answer was clear. Heath may have yet to prove his heritage to her mother, Nick and Jarrod, but she would stand by him, casting her vote in his behalf.

She felt a touch on her shoulder and turned to embrace her grieving mother.

“You looked lost,” Victoria murmured, “and I know how hard this must be on you.”

“It is,” replied Audra, using her hand to squelch a tear, “and I miss them so. I guess I just wanted to spend a little time with them in my thoughts…remembering the good times…and the growing times as well.”

Victoria offered her daughter a faint smile, fully understanding the grieving process and so desperately wishing she could stop the pain. As the afternoon lengthened into evening, the two women sat together, lending strength and comfort to each other through shared loved and mutual concern.

*****

“Make a decision, Jarrod, you’re time’s running out,” his mind challenged over the pounding in his ears. He had little air left as the searing pain in his lungs reminded him that he didn’t have long. Struggling to move his free hand pinned between him and the tub, he managed to make a fist. He sent it as hard as he could into Heath’s side. He heard a loud roar and everything went black.

The shock of the bitter cold snow jump-started his system. Gasping and sputtering, he raised himself on all fours, unaware of his surroundings. His stomach threw itself backwards, tossing up everything it held. Jarred wretched until he nearly passed out from the stabbing pain in his abdomen. Wiping his mouth, he stared dumbfounded at the snow beneath him. His confused state was short lived, as he was roughly yanked up by the collar.

“Welcome back to Sunshine Acres, Mouthpiece,” Tinsler snarled.

Jarrod turned and cried out, covering his eyes, unaccustomed to the blinding late afternoon sunlight. He felt himself propelled forward and landed a few feet from a new grave. He saw the steam rising as Sinclair spewed a mouth of chaw-juice on the burial mound.

“See you hell, Boss Man!” Sinclair saluted as he turned away from the grave.

“No!” Jarrod cried turning back to look at Tinsler, shock preventing any further words.

“We tried to wake you up for the final words, but…”

Tinsler’s speech was cut off by a pained cry. Jarrod turned and crawled towards a fetal ball curled in the snow.

“Heath,” he lifted his delirious brother and held him close, trying to give him a little warmth.

“As much as this little reunion warms my heart,” Sinclair mocked, “it’s time for this boy to join his brother in hell.”

“I’ll pay you three times what Rizley is offering,” Jarrod pleaded. “Name your price, I’ll meet it.”

He cradled his shivering brother, rubbing the burning flesh, trying to keep the circulation going.

“Yeah, Mr. Lawyer Man, I’m sure you got more ‘an enough to buy your way outta this,” Tinsler sneered, enjoying Jarrod’s pained blue gaze. “But you can also buy me a lotta other things…like life in Quentin. No Dice!”

“Get movin,” Sinclair ordered, motioning towards a box in the snow.

Jarrod held onto Heath tightly, refusing to budge. The click of the gun at Heath’s ear changed his mind. He staggered, dragging Heath with him and collapsed against the iron door. Crying out, he rubbed his hand where the icy metal, burned it. The stabbing realization of what was about to occur cloaked him like a ghoulish blanket. He felt Heath torn from his numbed grasp and heard the taunting squeak as the large door opened. He pulled at Heath’s leg in desperation as his brother was thrown in, the blond hair lolling against the tattered blue shirt.

“Heath! Heath! Wake up!” he pleaded, raking the blond man’s ankle hard with his nails.

Heath fought hard to open his eyes, the cold air and wet ground caused him to tremble violently. His chattering teeth tried to answer the voice he recognized as Major Harris. He’d been like a father to Heath since he arrived in the unit a year ago. The major always listened carefully to what he had to say and treated him with nothing but respect. Heath never had a father, and Major Harris’ was the shoulder he leaned on, the advice he sought, and someone he became very close to. He forced the lids to open and struggled to see. The form was very blurry, dark hair, blue eyes…Major Harris’ face disappeared and Heath closed his eyes.

“NO, HEATH! Look at me!” Jarrod pleaded.

Heath squinted and saw someone else inches away. Someone whose caring and depth of emotion was written on his face and in the intense blue eyes. He cocked his head and for a brief moment, reality set in. His fearful gaze took in the jaws of the iron beast that bit into his skin. His heart pounded against his chest, his fevered eyes bore into his oldest brother’s. He reached out and grabbed Jarrod’s hand.

“Jarrod, help me, please…”

Jarrod’s heart broke at the plea, and his numbed fingers tried in vain to grasp the weak hand. He put what little hope he had left into his voice, hoping it was enough to keep his brother fighting.

“Heath, I’m trying. You must hang on. Fight, Heath, fight as hard as you can. Somehow we’ll get help. We’ll…”

“Closing arguments are all done, Lawyer Man,” Sinclair razzed, pulling Jarrod from the brotherly bond. “Don’t worry, Cowboy, you’ll have company where you’re going. That loud mouth brother of yours is already there, waitin’ for you.”

The last thing Jarrod saw before the door was slammed shut was an indescribable look of raw pain and sorrow on Heath’s face as the reality of Sinclair’s words hit his heart. Heath looked hard at him, right into his eyes and nodded in farewell. Then the blank stare returned as his tormented brother returned to the world in which he couldn’t feel any pain. Jarrod fought and screamed as they tried to drag him away, clutching at the snow. He heard the almost childlike voice crooning from the box.

“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,and mortal life shall cease,

I shall possess within the veil,A life of ….”

The verse from Amazing Grace ended abruptly. Jarrod shook his head in despair. The crude laughter behind him faded away. The decision came quickly, followed by a reassuring calmness. He looked at the box and back at the two armed guards. Rising to a crouching position, he unleashed a feral cry and pounced, slamming the startled Tinsler into a tree and stunning him. Sinclair hauled on his collar and Jarrod turned, hitting him in the throat. The keys dropped into the snow. Jarrod grabbed them and gouged at Sinclairs face as the guard tried to stop him. He staggered over to the box and fumbled with the lock, cursing his numbed fingers. The shot came suddenly; he slammed into the box and dropped without a sound.

Heath heard the unearthly cry and looked out the small window in the box. He saw Jarrod and Major Harris meld, and blinked in confusion as the landscape kept changing from the mountains to a battlefield. He saw the figure stumble forward and heard the keys jingling. The shot caused him to cry out, but Jarrod never did. The last tendon holding Heath’s frazzled mind together snapped with sight of his beloved brother’s body sliding down the box. He never flinched as his brother’s blood hit his cheek and mixed with the tears running freely.

*****

“Nice work, Boss Man,” Sinclair mocked as he propelled Nick ahead of him, through the open door of his cell. “Another one bites the dust,” the fiend grinned. “That bastard brother of yours will be next, and I’m gonna make sure you’ve got a front row seat.”

“You’ll have to kill me first,” Nick growled, turning and squaring his tormentor straight in the eye.

“Now, Look!” Sinclair snarled. “Around here we don’t take orders from mucky-mucks like you, Barkley. If I say your gonna watch, that’s the way it’s gonna be. Even if I have to make use of a stock to hold that hard head of yours!”

“You make me sick,” Nick voiced angrily as he spat in his former employee’s eye, glaring at Sinclair with all the hatred he could muster.

“Why you…” Sinclair’s anger was evident as we used his hand to brush away the loose spittle. “Okay, Mr. High-N-Mighty-Boss Man, you’re gonna get your wish…right now,” Sinclair’s eyes flashed as he brandished a long, double edged knife. “I’m gonna carve you up, bit by bit, and feed the pieces to that mongrel brother of yours.”

Nick saw the glistening steel and the murderous look in the avenger’s eye. He felt a warm rush and positioned himself to meet the attacker head on. Sinclair circled and made a swipe, barely glancing Nick’s arm as he blocked the stab with his right arm.

“You’re as good as dead, Barkley,” he seethed, getting ready to lash out again.

With a swift, sudden flick at the knee, Nick used the toe of his boot to send the assailant’s weapon flying. Sinclair’s eyes followed the soaring toad sticker as Nick cuffed him hard on the left side of his head. The element of surprise was in Nick’s favor, but days of torture and starvation were definitely his handicap. Grabbing the stick in his belt, Sinclair advanced, swinging like a madman. Striking the dark haired cowboy across his back, Nick fell to his knees, momentarily stunned. It didn’t take but a split second for Sinclair to scramble for the fallen knife and give his boot a resting place in Nick’s ribs. His lips covered in blood and slobber, Sinclair was practically foaming at the mouth.

“Okay, Boss Man, say your prayers,” he menaced, pressing Nick’s throat to the ground with his boot heel.

Nick struggled with all his might, both hands grasping the booted ankle, in hopes that he would have the strength to topple Sinclair. Crouching down and compressing his weight, Sinclair was anchored and unmoveable. Pressing the steely tip under Nick’s chin, he applied just enough pressure to draw a red bead.

“I was gonna go easy on you, Boss Man,” he hissed, teasing Nick with the knife, “but you had to go and play it stupid. Well, now I’m gonna start dissecting you, one piece at a time.”

“Sinclair!”

Sinclair turned and saw that it was Tinsler who had barked his name from the doorway.

“The Captain ain’t gonna like it,” Tinsler warned. “You heard what he said about us gettin’ our cut and all. It’s got to be done accordin’ to plan…his plan. Now get that sorry hide of yours back upstairs. Rizley’s gone into town and left us in charge. We’re supposed to be keepin’ a good lookout while he’s away.”

Reluctantly, the tall man stood, glowering at Nick and then at Tinsler as he defiantly crossed the floor of the cell. Nick closed his eyes and breathed a silent prayer of thanks. When he reopened them a menacing, gold-toothed smile came into view.

“You’re gonna be all mine, Barkley…it’s all part of the contract.”

Sealing the promise with a kick in the ribs, Tinsler departed, leaving Nick to dwell on his words.

What a mess he had made of things. First it was his stubborn determination to be the one to single handedly rescue Jarrod, and then he had drugged his equally stubborn half-brother, not even stopping to consider what might evolve when the medication wore off. Wasn’t he the one who had assumed the position of shield and guardian after his father was killed? What a great mantle of responsibility had been placed on the shoulders of the young Nick Barkley. The head-of-household role had seemingly gone to Jarrod, but it was Nick, the lionhearted, who would use his strength and savvy to protect the Barkley lair.

Nick lay his flushed cheek on the cool earthen floor. He felt as is all the fight he had left had just been spent. His reservoir was drained. What big shoes his father had left for him to fill. What would he say if he could see him now? Jarred was dead and Heath was just about there, as well. Soon it would be his turn. Hell, he hadn’t even been able to take care of himself, much less his two brothers. Surely his father would be ashamed to call him ‘Son’. Perhaps, now, death would be something for him to welcome rather than to shun. How could he go home and face his mother and sister alone? He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep, his spirit broken as his strength waned.

“Nick, wake up, Son!”

Nick opened his eyes and looked around the darkened cell. Yes, he was still here, but the voice was distinct and clear.

“Father? Is that you?”

“Yes, I’m right here, Son. I just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you.”

“You? Proud of me?” Nick ventured, defeat in his voice.

“You’re a son that would make any father proud, Nick, and I’m so glad that the Lord in Heaven decided to give you to me.”

The cell was unlit, but Nick could see his father’s whiskered face as sure as if it was broad daylight. Though the gentle eyes told a story of love and respect as Tom Barkley placed a hand on his middle son’s shoulder, Nick was too downcast and dejected to hear what his father was trying to tell him.

“Yeah, I guess I just paint a real rosy picture of what a father would want for a son,” he scoffed, wallowing in self pity and disgust. “Just charging ahead like I always do, not stopping to weigh out the consequences. Who cares if I lose a couple of brothers in the process,” Nick dramatized, sneering at his own ineptness to bring his brothers to safety. I’ve got plenty more in my hip pocket.”

“You stop right where you are, Nick, and listen to what I have to say. You’re a Barkley, Nicholas Jonathan Barkley, my son, and I didn’t raise you to be a loser or a quitter…and I certainly won’t have you wallowing in that mudhole of self pity you’re in right now! You’re no longer a boy of fifteen, Nick, you’re a grown man…and someone that I admire very much, just as I do your brothers.”

“It’s too late, Father. I’ve got nothing left…” his voice trailing, he cast his eyes to the dirt floor of his cell.

“You’ve got your pride, Nick, and no one can ever take that away from you. Now you pull yourself up by those bootstraps, Boy, the family can’t survive without you. You fight with all your heart, Nick. Be the man that I saw in that fiery boy so many years ago! You did your best, Son. You fought like a Barkley and you continue to fight! You bring your brothers home!”

Nick opened his eyes again, only this time it was for real…the stabbing pain in his left arm and cracked ribs told him that. He felt his chin and scratched off the crusted spot of blood. Yes, it had only been a dream and this was all real. Oh, how he wished that it were the other way around. To wake up, finding his father by his side, and knowing that all this pain and suffering had been nothing more than a wild nightmare. Nick groaned as he tried to ease himself up. He was weak, but that spirit of fight and survival had been renewed. He would heed the words of his father, even though it had only been a dream. Somehow, someway, he would bring his brothers home…both of them. Nick swallowed the lump in his throat as he thought of Jarrod.

“You’re going home, Pappy,” he vowed. “Home to be with Father, and that’s one promise I ain’t gonna break.”

*****

The darkness closed in, and Jarrod’s tormented thoughts finally lulled themselves into temporary tranquility. From a distance, he could hear the strains of an old familiar hymn being sung. It had always been a favorite of his, and the powerful stanzas of the song seemed to lift him up in spirit as his unconscious roamed to find rest. Everything was pitch black, but the words and notes echoed so vibrantly that he could feel his weakened soul and body drawing on the much needed strength. The music seemed to be coming closer as the volume and intensity of the message grew louder and louder.

“Why is it so dark?” he thought. “That music has to be coming from somewhere.”

“Open your eyes,” his subconscious seemed to answer.

“Okay,” he reasoned, obediently lifting the swollen lids, “I’m willing to give that a try.”

He squinted in the darkness as a warmth seemed to permeate his body. He couldn’t exactly explain the sensation of what he was feeling…it was something that he’d never quite experienced before. Suddenly he began to feel an overwhelming joy inside and a peace that surpassed anything he had ever known. He peered off through the darkness from where the music seemed to coming. Gazing up, he saw a beautiful star, much like the one that he had often imagined led the three kings to the Christ Child. Like the magi had done in days of old, if he could just follow that star. If he could just somehow….

Jarrod closed his eyes again, knowing it was futile. His spirit was willing, but his flesh, so weak. No, he wouldn’t follow the star this time, but he would bask in it’s presence. He would allow the heavenly shafts of it’s bright beams to renew his strength and faith. He listened, as from inside his innermost being a promise that he had once read in the Bible seemed to be magnified within his soul.

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

Jarrod meditated on those words, feasting on each tender mercies of truth and grace. Somehow he would make it through this ordeal. Somehow he would be reunited with his brothers and the three of them would journey home together, and they would not be alone. Jarrod lay back, continuing to drift in his bliss, not wanting the moment to end. He knew that much too soon, he would have to travel the path that led back into that dank, dark cell and the painful reminder of how mortal his flesh truly was. Sooner or later reality would wake him, but for now his weary soul would find rest.

*****

“Pierce Summerfield, San Francisco Police. Open the gate!”

The dark haired detective held out his badge as the uniformed guard squinted at it in the lantern light. Lieutenant Summerfield cantered through the heavy, spiked, iron gates of San Quentin as the keeper of the post granted him passage. The tall, stone walls of the states largest prison loomed before him, somber and silent. Once inside the warden’s office, Detective Summerfield got straight to business.

“I understand you’re housing an inmate by the name of McGowen,” he stated bluntly, staring over the desktop of Warden Buxley.

“Yup, sure enough do,” the warden answered, stoking his stubbled jowls. “He was almost involved in that prison break a few months back, but didn’t quite make it. We’ve been holding him in maximum security ever since.”

“I’d like to have a word with him, if I may.”

The matter-of-fact tone and peircing dark eyes made the statement more of an order than a request. Though young in years, Pierce Summerfield had a reputation as an investigator who was fair, but tough. He was a defender of rights and justice and didn’t believe in coddling the criminal. Though Warden Buxley had been known to take bribes from time to time, he wasn’t even going to attempt such a foolish move with this man. He would surrentder himself in an utmost cooperative manner, not wanting to agitate this badge-toting professional.

“Clemmens!” he called to his personal aid. “Cuff McGowen and have him brought into the interrogation room.”

“I’m on it, Sir!”

Summerfield paced, his tension increasing, as the guards left to prepare the prisoner. Fifteen minutes later, Lieutenant Pierce Summerfield was standing face to face with the man who had one time been one of the states leading businessmen.

“So you’re the infamous McGowen,” Summerfield stated as he tried to keep his anxiety from showing. “I’ve read an awful lot in the papers about you, Mr. McGowen.”

“I reckon I’ve made a name for myself,” the imprisoned rancher replied cockily.

“You’re probably wondering why I’ve called for you,” the detective continued, “so I’m not going to hold back any punches. I want you to tell me everything you know about the escape that happened here last fall.”

“What makes you think I’ve got answers,” McGowen tried. “Just ’cause Rizley and I knew each other, doesn’t mean that in here, his business was mine. Around here you stay out of trouble by keeping your nose where it belongs. I just keep to myself and people leave me alone.”

“Come now, Mr. McGowen. You can do better than that!” Detective Summerfield was now leaning on the small table behind which McGowen sat, drilling deeply into his shifty eyes. “I happen to know that you were in cahoots with Rizley the night those three escaped. I also happen to believe that you had just as much reason to want to get even as he did. Now, what do you say you and me talk a little business.”

“What kind’ve business you got in mind?” McGowen questioned suspiciously.

“I’m talking about a plea bargain arrangement, McGowan. Ever heard of that before? It simply means that you scratch my back and I scratch yours. Now, are you willing to cooperate?”

“Might be,” the rancher replied thoughtfully. “What exactly is in it for me?”

“Well, for starters I can tell you what is in it if you withhold any information leading to the capture of Rizley and there are some people hurt in the process. You may be guilty of aiding and abedding murder, Mr. McGowen. So far the charges brought against you are strictly parolable offenses. If you get a murder rap in addition, it could be the gallows.”

McGowen eyed the detective, not sure whether to believe him or not. He hadn’t planned on doing any squealing but maybe he could work things to his advantage. Two years in prison and the game was getting old. He wanted out.

“Maybe you could sweeten things up for me a bit,” he drawled, placing his cuffed wrists on the table before him, looking Pierce straight in the eye. “Maybe you could be talkin’ to that warden about an early parole.”

“I’ve got certain authority invested in me as a member of the Police Department in San Francisco,” the detective bargained. “You just cooperate with me a bit here, and I’ll do what I can. I can talk to the judge about getting your sentence reduced.”

“Can I have that in writing?” the rancher requested.

“Guard!” the detective summoned. “Bring me a pen and something I can write on!”

Grasping tight onto this sliver of new hope, the detective’s faith was kindled. He would gather what information he could from McGowen and board the next train to Pine Meadows. Through his preseverence and determination, justice would prevail.

*****

“Come on, talk!”

The fervent demands accompanied by the sound of leather slapping leather, caused Sheriff Adams to abruptly set down the coffee pot and hustle back to the rear section of the jail where he had left Detective Pierce Summerfield to interrogate the kidnapping suspects.

“I already told you once, Mister. I ain’t talkin’!”

Johnson’s voice was defiant as he sat handcuffed in a cell, deliberate disrespect etched in his fleshy face. In one cell over, Jarvis sat wearing a very similar expression.

“Oh, you’ll talk, all right,” the detective vowed. “If I have to get me a wooden club and beat it out of you, you’ll talk!”

“Summerfield!”

The sheriff’s voice was sharp. His deputies had come across two men, often seen with Rizley, trying to board the West Coast bound train. It hadn’t been difficult to put two and two together and come up with four. The men, Johnson and Jarvis, had been surly and insubordinate from the start. The Sheriff had all but given up, when the San Francisco Police Detective had shown up at the front desk.

“Let me try,” Summerfield had insisted. “I’ll handle them!”

Figuring that what he hadn’t been able to do, this man, an expert, quite possibly could, Sheriff Colt Adams had led the slender built detective back to face the burly thugs. It became quite apparent, as the interrogation commenced, that this man, Pierce Summerfield, had more than just his job at stake. It was obvious to this small town sheriff that the execution of duty was much more personal than a policeman carrying out his orders for a manhunt.

“That’s not the way we do things around here,” the sheriff continued sternly. His tone mellowed as he added, “Let’s lay off for right now, Lieutenant. Maybe he’ll feel more like talkin’ later.”

“I’m sorry, Sheriff,” Summerfield replied, brushing back the ebony locks in fatigued exasperation. “Guess I just got a bit carried away, but I’m just about positive that these Mongoloids know where those three missing men are being held and I don’t plan on taking ‘won’t talk’ for an answer!”

“Well, you know what they say,” Sheriff Adams offered as the door of the jail cell clanged shut behind them.

“What’s that?” the detective huffed.

“You can attract more flies with sugar, than vinegar.”

“Look, these aren’t flies we’re dealing with, Sheriff, they’re more like leeches. Leeches on society who more than likely have some strong leads to the whereabouts of my good friend, Jarrod Barkley. Now, if my assessments of the situation are correct, we have precious little time available to us before it’s too late.”

“Come now, Lieutenant. You don’t know that for a fact.”

“I’m not going to argue with you, Sheriff. If Rizley made a ticket reservation for eight o’clock this evening, do you really think he’s going to be leaving behind any witnesses when he leaves?” Summerfield’s dark eyes furied as he pounded his fist against the wall.

“Now look! You gotta cool down! You losin’ your head won’t do Barkley any good.” The sheriff pushed the irate policeman through the door past his desk.

“With all due respect, Sheriff,” Summerfield countered, throwing the arm off, “you don’t know him. He’s more than a friend, and I won’t let these animals get away with what they’ve done. If it means me pounding a little flesh…”

Pierce tried to strong-arm his way back to the cell and felt a strong set of hands pull him back.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Sheriff Adams demanded, pulling Summerfield outside. “You don’t set one foot back in here until you cool down! Do I make myself clear? This is MY house, Detective, you don’t dictate the rules!”

Pierce’s dark eyes blazed as he grabbed his coat as it was offered. The sheriff’s strong grip didn’t subside until he nodded and walked away, towards the town square.

Summerfield noticed the late afternoon sun as it started start to fade and worried that he was allowing his personal feelings to interfere with his professional duty. He offered a silent prayer, hoping his rash actions wouldn’t prove fatal for Jarrod or his brothers.

*****

Bear slouched on the sofa, enjoying the freedom as much as the whiskey. He looked up as Tinsler entered the room, carrying a bottle of scotch. Flopping on the floor next to the fire, he pulled the cork out with his stained teeth and offered a toast.

“To dead Barkleys!”

“Here, here,” Bear saluted and took a healthy gulp.

“When’s Rizley comin’ back?” Tinsler asked.

“Dunno. Not for a while, I hope. He’s getting to be a real pain in the…”

“BEAR!” Sinclair’s voice bellowed from the hall.

“What ?” the guard answered.

“Why’d you leave your post?”

“Cause it’s cold out there and it’s warm in here.”

“Yeah, well he’s gone! He’s not in the box!” Sinclair accused.

“Would you relax. Here, have a shot of this, it’ll calm them jumpy nerves of yours,” Bear grumbled.

“Take it easy, Pete,” Tinsler offered, “I moved him back inside.”

“Why?” Sinclair demanded.

“Cause that’s what the orders were. Only leave him there to make the lawyer nuts. Then move the bastard inside. Use ‘im to drive the lawyer mad, like some kinda ghost. He’s just about gone anyhow. I left him in the cellar.”

“Well, I’d better check. “

“You do that, Pete,” Tinlser rolled his eyes behind the guards back as Bear laughed in delight.

Sinclair returned and brought a bottle of brandy with him. Soon all three were drunk, celebrating the freedom from the tightrope Rizley kept them on. Talk was light and foolish at first, but as the evening waned, the liquor acted as a catalysis, fueling bitter feelings of hatred and vengeance. Sinclair had been sullen all day, still nursing a headache after his earlier encounter with Nick. He could still feel the warm, goop running down the side of his face and the cloudy vision right after the wad hit his eye. Even more vividly, he could still see the stoical face as Nick gave testimony against him on the witness stand during his court trial. He owed that Barkley pig bigtime, and this time it would be on his terms. Tonight would be the night…Sinclairs mind was set. Pulling him self up from the table, he grabbed the bottle of brandy, and tilting it to his lips, sealed his vow.

“I’m gonna kill that S.O.B, right now,” Sinclair stated, staggering to the door.

“No, you aint’,” Tinsler ordered. “You do and we won’t get any of that two-thousand bucks Rizley’s supposed to fork over, so get back here. NOW!”

Tinsler stood, and roughly gripping the scarefaced man’s arm, pulled him back in attempted restraint.

“Get offa me. He’s mine,” Sinclair cussed as he threw Tinsler off, sending him hard into the wall.

“What’s the matter, Gus,” Bear needled, between rounds of laughter. “Too sleepy to stay sober?”

“Don’t be givin’ me none of that smart mouth of yours, Lumphead,” Tinsler seethed, using a chair to haul himself off the floor. “I need that two-thousand bucks and neither one of you’s goin’ to go pokin’ no stick in the spokes. You got that…Bubba?”

By this time, Tinsler was on his feet and about three inches from Bear’s face.

“Hey! Who you callin’ ‘Bubba’?” the large man spat angrily. “I reckon I could think of a few…”

Sinclair didn’t hear the rest, nor did he see the tussel that ensued before the two intoxicated scoundrels passed out on the floor. He was already out the door, bent on carrying out his mission.

*****

Nick heard coughing and the sound of something metallic being knocked over, as Sinclair staggered down the corridor for Nick’s cell.

“Damn!” he heard the scareface cuss as he kicked at the bucket from where it blocked his path.

Crouching behind the door, Nick saw Sinclair’s silhouette pasted against the back wall as the lamp in the hallway illuminated the darkened cell. He smelled the liquor and saw the ornery guard stumble into view.

“Where are you, Boss Man? It’s Judgement Day,” he slurred, wobbling on sea legs.

“I’ll see you in hell first,” Nick gritted as he charged Sinclair head-on, using his right shoulder.

The force propelled the plastered guard, who was already unsteady, hard into the cement wall. Nick kicked the tormentor’s wrist, sending his gun flying. The next kick caught the felon hard in the throat. Nick’s boot pressured the windpipe and he waited until Sinclair slid sideways to the floor. Crouching warily, he felt for the pulse, not surprised that there was none. Picking up the gun, he peered cautiously in the hall and started for the upstairs of the house.

*****

“Get up!” Bear smacked Tinsler’s face hard.

“Whaddya want,” the bleary-eyed man moaned, completely blank of the argument they’d had a few minutes prior.

“Time to check on the prisoners. You take the lawyer, I’ll check on Blondie.”

“Yeah, okay.” He climbed to this feet and wobbled down the stairs.

Entering the cell, he spotted the unconscious man, just where he’d left him. Squatting down, he felt the neck and the pulse was still throbbing steadily. Sure did lose a bit of blood though…all over the white shirt and covering his face. He smacked the face hard, rousing the groggy victim.

“Wake up, Mouthpiece! Sad to say you’re still among the living.”

The pain in Jarrod’s head seemed to reach a horrendous crescendo with every word spoken. Wincing, he squinted at the triple faces of someone leering at him. He sat up and put a hand to the sticky mess on his head.

“Who are you? Where am I?” he asked weakly.

“You kiddin’ me? You can’t remember? Hah, what luck. You’re a dead man, that’ s who you are…and this, here, is your prison.”

“Prison? What are …you …talking… about?” Jarrod struggled to stay conscious.

“Shut up!” Tinsler slapped him hard.

“Leave him alone,” the strong voice gritted in determination.

Tinsler’s stood up, fear racing up his back. He knew before he turned, who was standing behind him. He felt his waistband, and cursed, realizing the gun was upstairs.

“Now look, Barkley, maybe we can make a deal…”

His thought ended rather abruptly as a lethal force sent him into the concrete wall. Spitting the blood from his mouth as he slid away, he turned to face the menacing force. Nick Barkley stood before him, like a malevolent vision. Tinsler could swear the cowboy’s eyes were glowing red. He had no where to go, he was already backed into the corner. He shrank down and covered his head, cowering.

“Get up, you stinkin’ coward! You’re gonna pay! Oh, are you gonna pay…for every bit of hell your put me and my brothers through!”

Tinsler tried crawling away, but Nick’s strong boot sent him flying across the floor. Tinsler dove hard at Nick’s bad arm, but the grim Barkley wouldn’t be denied. He turned deftly, and Tinsler flew into the wall. He slumped against the wall and one strong hand closed around his neck, cutting off his air supply.

“Give my regards to Satan when you see him,” the voice gritted.

He reached for the gun and the two struggled, resulting a lone, fatal shot. Tinsler’s eyes widened in surprise as his last breath died out.

Nick kicked the vile form out into the hall and leaned against the door, gasping in pain. Turning he staggered and dropped next to Jarrod. His hand found a good pulse before he wandered back into the hallway, looking for Bear. Spotting the pitcher of water in the laundry room, he took it and some cotton towels back to where his brother lie injured. Gently, he washed the blood from Jarrod’s face and dabbed softly on the head wound across the right side of the lawyer’s scalp. Several moans caused him to stop and pull the wounded man upright.

“Jarrod? Can you hear me?” he tested.

Not waiting for a reply he looked around and spotted a tin cup. He filled it with water and took a good sip, then supported Jarrod’s head and encouraged him to drink as well. Finally, the blue eyes opened and Jarrod looked around the room, his face a puzzle.

“Look, I know you hurt bad, but we gotta find Heath and get outta here before Rizley gets back. Heath ain’t in his cell. Do you know where he is?”

Jarrod looked at the stranger blankly. Heath? The name sounded familiar, but…he looked back over at the dark haired man speaking to him. He flashed to a scene with the man whipping a younger, blond man who was tied up. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.

“I know your head hurts, but we gotta get moving. Come on, I’ll help you,” Nick coaxed, pulling at his brother’s arms.

Jarrod saw the blond man again, his blue eye hurt and pleading; he was holding the blond’s hand…a pain in his chest…a shallow grave. He saw the dark man raising his hand and the whip, hitting the boy’s bare back. Opening his eyes, he felt the arm trying to pull him upright. He threw it off and skittered to the other side of the small cell.

“Get away from me, you killed him. I saw you. You’re….you’re one of them. I’m not going with you,” Jarrod cried as his eyes frantically raced around the room.

Nick sat back stunned, Jarrod didn’t recognize him. The head wound was more serious than he had thought. Thinking quickly, he used another approach. Raising his hands in front of his chest, he showed his confused brother he meant no harm.

“Look, that crease in your head’s given you some kind of amnesia. I’m your brother, Nick Barkley. You’re Jarrod Barkley. Heath, our other brother, is missing. We’ve been held prisoner by Rizley. You gotta remember, Jarrod. Please try. Where’s Heath? I can’t find him.”

Jarrod’s confused mind was a swirling mass of color and confusion. So many images…the whip, the box, the blue-eye boy, a mean face with a beard. He put his hands over his eyes and screamed.

“No, cut that out! Bear will hear you!”

Nick covered the small space in one move and put a hand over Jarrod’s mouth. Jarrod panicked, squirming with all he had against the stronger man. They wrestled briefly and something silver, dangled in front of his eyes and caused him to stop.

“No, look Jarrod, I’m tired of foolin’ around, you gotta….”

Nick’s voice stopped when he saw Jarrod fingering the coin around his neck.

“It’s Heath’s. He dropped it the first night we were here. I’m gonna give it back to him when…”

“He’s dead,” Jarrod croaked, leaning against Nick’s right shoulder.

“What do mean?” Nick demanded, pulling the confused form upright.

“I…saw…they…he went in a metal box, outside. There was a grave…a body….he’s gone, Nick,” the blue eyes mourned.

“You show me. I don’t believe it.”

*****

Bear squatted down next to Heath Barkley and felt for a pulse. Damned if the kid didn’t have nine lives. The skin was hot to the touch and the breathing raspy. He’d not last too much longer in this weather. He had found Sinclair’s body and saw Tinsler’s in the hall. The burley guard had one more gift for Heath Barkley before he made his getaway into town.

“Shame we didn’t have more time together, Blondie, I’m gonna miss you.” He said with a hand on the flushed cheek.

Hauling the unconscious man over his broad back, he stepped out into the night.

*****

Nick stopped at the sight of the two woolen coats by the door. He managed to get Jarrod into one and put one on himself. Checking his gun, he frowned at the two bullets remaining. He’d have to make them count. Taking the lantern by the back steps, he turned it up and motioned for Jarrod to follow. He helped Jarrod make the steps and they found themselves out in the yard. Nick thought on Jarrod’s words about a grave. Without speaking, they stumbled to the fresh dirt and starting digging. They didn’t have to dig far. The mud didn’t cover the blond hair and familiar blue shirt.

“Oh God, no!” Jarrod moaned, frantically clawing at the dirt.

Nick’s broken arm impaired their progress, and time seemed so much longer, but it was only seconds before they laid their brother on the frigid ground. Jarrod’s shaking hands went for the throat. His face wore unbridled grief, giving Nick the awful answer. Jarrod shook his head and lifted Heath, holding him close. Nick laid a hand on the lawyer’s back, his eyes dry, his heart broken.

“Well, it would appear 597 left without permission. Pity.”

Nick’s head shot up as Rizley approached. He threw himself at the startled man and they struggled. Rizley hit Nick hard in the left arm, sending waves of hot pain searing through the bone and marrow.

Kicking the cracked ribs, Rizley scrambled away. Nick felt numb to the pain, but his anger raged. He was on his feet in a flash, following Rizley through the dark. The woods were no place for amateurs and Rizley knew he shouldn’t wander far. He waited behind a large tree with a rock, ready to extinguish Nick’s wrath, once and for all.

The woods were still and silent except for the sounds in the woods of Nick’s boots crunching the virgin snow. Nick tuned his ears, keenly picking up any sound. The labored breathing was getting louder and he knew he was close. The moon was but a sliver, making it difficult to see.

From out of the brush, Rizley sprang, catching the victim unawares. Nick went down hard, loosing his hold on the gun. Rizely noticed the silver glint as it tumbled to the ground. Releasing his grip on the rock, he dove for the gun. Grabbing it, he hauled Nick upright, holding the gun to his throat.

“Let’s go 370, it’s time for and your brother to be sentenced.”

Jarrod hugged his brother’s lifeless body against his chest. Heath’s head resting just below his chin. He wrapped his arms around Heath and rocked, the tears freezing to this cheeks before they could trickle down to the shoulders of tattered, blue shirt.

“I’m so sorry, Heath.”

Jarrod stopped rocking and listened. Did he imagine it? Pulling Heaths nose and mouth closer to his ear, he listened intently.

“HEATH! HEATH!” Jarrod slapped the cold face forcefully.

A wet cough was his answer. He laughed, the tears he spilled, now sprungforth with joy and gratitude. He hugged his brother close and slowly pulled him into the house. It seemed like an eternity, the dizziness and nausea working against him. But he was hell-bent on a mission and no one would stop him. Laying the frozen form by the fire, he stumbled to the nearest bedroom. Pulling the blankets with him, he fell several times, and gasped as the reeling walls dancing before him. Not wanting to put faith in his own legs, he crawled, pulling the blankets behind him. He rubbed the frozen arms and legs briskly and then nodded as the skin became pink and warm. He wrapped his youngest brother in blankets and held him close. Swallowing back the nausea, he ran a hand through the blond hair and kept a steady conversation going, leading with Heath to fight back.

Heath felt the icy fingers of death leave him, defeated by a much stronger force. He felt the warmth and basked happily. He heard the words and did as ordered. Alerted by the moans, Jarrod reached for Bear’s abandoned whiskey flask and knelt over the stirring form.

“Heath, here, drink this.” Gently, Jarrod tipped the whiskey into the parted, bluish lips.

Heath sputtered briefly and swallowed. Jarrod smiled as two blue slits appeared. The mouth worked but no words came. The hand fought against the pile of blankets covering it. Jarrod opened the blanket and took the weak hand, gripping it.

“You going to be fine, Brother. I’ve got you and I’ll keep you safe. You just rest.”

Every breath was painful and the blue eyes were growing weak. He looked at the bloody shirt and awful head wound. Heath’s hand reached up to touch the face of ‘Major Harris’.

The soft touch against his abraised cheek, reminded Jarrod of the reason behind his brother’s worried face. He smiled back down at him, offering words of reassurance.

“Stop worrying. I’m fine. It’s much worse than it looks.”

Heath tried to talk, but fell asleep before a thought could form itself into words. Jarrod put the arms back under the covers and settled in beside his brother. Holding the gun he found on the table nearby, he tried to stay alert. The gun dropped to the floor as the lawyer’s head slipped down onto his brother’s chest. The two slept peacefully, unaware of the villain who lurked nearby.

“WAKE UP!”

The harsh words and the cold water in his face caused the eyes to open. Jarrod blinked hard and looked down at his hands, secured to the chair beneath him. Across the room, the only face that could match the hellish voice, looked back at him. Jarrod’s heart sank. Rizley was standing between Heath and Nick. Both were seated on the sofa, Nick’s right hand tied to the back of his belt. The dark cowboy’s eyes glared at him defiantly. Nick wasn’t defeated yet. Rizley stood behind the two, a gun at Heath’s ear.

“Choose, Mr. Barkley. Which one gets the bullet. There’s only one in this chamber.”

“What?” Jarrod’s confounded stared completed the reply.

“CHOOSE! I believe I’ve made myself quite clear.”

Jarrod looked at Heath’s slumped head and then to Nick who’s unblinking gaze was unsettled and fierce. He cast an eye back to Rizley. The beast’s eyes were glazed over in lunatic’s delight.

“No,” Jarrod confirmed.

“Will you beg, Mr. Barkley?”

“What game is…”

“WILL YOU BEG. HOW MUCH DOES THAT BARKLEY PRIDE MEAN TO YOU! DECIDE NOW! I’M THROUGH WAITING.”

He cocked the pistol in Heath’s ear.

“NO!”

Jarrod looked at Nick briefly. The hazel eyes were full of fire, his mouth a grim line. Shaking his head, Nick mouthed the word ‘no’. Jarrod knew what Nick wanted. He couldn’t do it…trade one life for another. He’d rather die first.

“Very well, then. We’ll let the crew decide,” Rizley canted. “Johnson! Tinsler!” Rizley’s head swivled. “Where the devil are they? Mutinious bunch of losers. Spinless, all of them! They’ll never get away with taking over this ship. Once we get into port…”

Jarrod saw Nick’s mind working as the pained hazel eyes flicked back and forth. Rizley was walking the fine of reality and illusion. Maybe if they could stall him somehow…

“Somehow, what?” Jarrod debated himself.

“The time has come, Mr. Barkley, decide.” Rizley’s eyes gleamed demonically as he waved the gun, his fingers itching. “The cocky one or the bastard?”

Jarrod felt his heart leap into his throat as it almost choked him. Nick never wavered, he sat up straight and proud, wearing a mask of grit and steel. Unblinking, unemotional, he leveled his gaze at Jarrod. Something in those eyes reached Jarrod and his pounding heart slowed it’s pace. He took a deep breath and kept his eyes fixed on Nick.

Jarrod could see Rizley tense up as he pulled the hammer. It came without warning.

“NO!” Jarrod screamed, as the shot rang out.

*****

“Jarrod? Jarrod? Can you hear me?”

The voice seem to come from far away. Jarrod struggled through was seemed to be an endless abyss. His eyes were so very heavy. Finally, he managed to open them a little and squinted at the blurry face before him. He felt the gentle tap on his cheek and the strong arm around his back. The voice seemed familiar, somehow.

“Who…are ….you? ” he croaked.

“Now, that’s a fine thing to say to the father of your godchild!”

No, it couldn’t be, could it? He closed his eyes and opened them again and the world became much clearer. The fuzzy face became ….

“Pierce! My God…how on earth…what happened…my brothers…” He struggled in vain against the strong arm.

“Take it easy, Jarrod. They’re fine, see.” Pierce pointed across the room.

Jarrod’s shaky hands accepted the brandy and he sipped it as he watched the sheriff and his deputies tending to Nick and Heath. Nick’s arm was being splinted and Heath was being wrapped in blankets, both men were unconscious.

“But Heath…the shot …how could he miss?”

“That shot was mine. I took Rizley out.” Pierce cast a dark eye to the blanketed figure on the floor.

Jarrod hand grasped his friends and his blue-eyes conveyed what the words ‘thank you’ couldn’t. The nightmare was finally over. How long had they been gone?

“Pierce, I don’t know what to say…”

“You said it just fine, Jarrod.” Pierce patted his back and smiled.

“What day is it? My God, I feel as though we’ve been gone for weeks,” Jarrod winced.

Leaning back, he tried to stem the fierce throbbing on his head and the desire to vomit.

Pierce looked at the pale face, spotted with blood, and the shirt that matched. His gaze went over to Jarrod’s brothers and he shook his head. One minute longer, well, he didn’t want to think about what might have been. What was important was that he’d gotten there in time. He had sent a man back to town to have the doctor meet them at the lodge. All three were suffering from exposure, exhaustion, dehydration and a variety of other injuries, but they were alive.

“How long, Pierce?” Jarrod asked weakly, eyes closed.

“It’s December sixteenth, Jarrod.”

“Five days? It seemed like weeks. I can’t believe it’s over. It was a living hell, Pierce. An unfathomable nightmare of a world.”

“From what I saw on a quick run through the place, it looked like a dungeon. We found two dead men downstairs.”

“Two?” Jarrod’s eyes shot open. “You mean three, right?”

“No, just two plus Rizley.”

“There’s one missing. Was one of them a huge, burly man?”

“No. Who’s he?”

“A guard from Quentin, the inside man. They called him ‘Bear’. He used to work at Carterson. He brutalized Heath there, as well. Pierce, what they did to Heath was…,” Jarrod swallowed as he saw the blond man carried out to the wagon.

“I’m sorry, Jarrod, for what they did to you, but it’s all over now. You’ll be fine,” Pierce said, pulling Jarrod up.

“Not while he’s loose,” Jarrod pulled on the gray sleeve of his friend. “You must find him. He has to pay. There’s no punishment befitting a monster like him.”

Jarrod gave Pierce a description of Bear and the detective immediately dispersed men to seek him out with orders to shoot to kill, if necessary.

“Pierce, I’m almost certain they used a drug of some sort on Heath. They bent his mind, he was hallucinating, back to the darkest days of youth and past abuses. It was…ghastly. They put him through hell all over again. Whatever it was, we may need it. There’s no telling what damage has been done and how to correct it.”

“I’ll search this place from stem to stern. You have my word. Right now, you need a doctor. Let’s go, my friend,” Pierce promised leading the dazed, battered lawyer outside.

Jarrod eased himself between Heath and Nick and welcomed the warm blankets. With one arm around each, he pulled them close. Nick’s head fell on his shoulder, Heaths under his chin. He never felt closer to anyone in his life as he did at this moment. Pierce saw the look of raw emotion as Jarrod held his brothers close. Giving his friend a moment to collect himself, he waiting until Jarrod caught his eye.

“I’ll see you at the lodge after I get done here.” Pierce patted the bloodstained shoulder and nodded to the driver. He felt a hand grab his shoulder.

“Pierce, I…,” Jarrod swallowed hard, his blue eyes full.

“It’s okay, Jarrod, I understand. You saved my life too, remember?”

The air didn’t seem so cold or was it that the warmth of having his brothers near. The wagon lurched and Jarrod eased his head back, looking at the brilliant starfield that seem to wink at him. His eyes sought out a star above him, a beautifully brilliant, majestic marvel. It was all too familiar. Smiling, he eased back, understanding, perhaps for the first time, the depths of divine intervention. Here on this icy mountain at the edge of reality, he felt God’s breath and inhaled, savoring the moment.

“I will never forsake you…,” Jarrod nodded, remembering, aloud.

With renewed strength of soul, he watched that star, and as they climbed down the road to freedom, his heart soared.

*****

The china tea cup in Victoria Barkley’s hand clattered as she jumped. Did someone call her? Looking across the crowded main room of the Pine Meadows Lodge, she saw Max waving frantically. Crossing the room, with Audra in tow, Max met her halfway, sweeping her off her feet in a jubilant frenzy.

“They’re alive, Victoria, they’re alive! Pierce found them! He sent one of his men ahead so we could be ready! I’m so happy for you, Dear Friend!”

“Thank God!” she said as Max released her, only to find herself in Audra’s embrace.

“Oh Mother, I can’t believe it. Are they hurt?”

VIctoria waved at the deputized messenger, who made his way over.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I”m Victoria Barkley. My sons? How were they when you left?”

“Jarrod was awake and talking to Pierce. He was able to walk to the wagon, he’s got a nasty head wound. The other dark haired one’s got a busted arm and the blond one seemed to have a fever. We didn’t check them that close, we got a doctor on the way over.”

Victoria saw something else in the young man’s eyes as he hesitated.

“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked suspiciously.

“Ma’am you need to prepare yourself. They look awful. The place they were held in was set up like a prison. The men Rizley hired, beat them up pretty good. The blond fella’s got whip marks all over his back. All of them will need lots of rest and some food. They’re pretty weak.”

Victoria nodded, her mind racing to absorb all the information. No matter what condition they were in, they were alive and once they were well enough, they’d go home and celebrate Christmas. What her boys needed more than anything, was a good dose of old fashioned love and nurturing.

“Thank you, Mr….”

“Todd, Ma’am, Jeremy Todd. I work with Pierce and have had the pleasure of meeting your son, Jarrod, on many occasions. He’s a fine man. I was glad to help.” Tipping his hat, he left to aid in the manhunt.

“Victoria, why don’t I have them taken right over to the house,” Max said, holding the small hand. “Elsa and I don’t need all that space. We’re over here all the time anyway. There’s plenty or room, you can have the house all to yourself. Those boys will need the privacy. We have a suite over here we use most nights anyway.”

“Thank you Max, that’s very generous. I can’t thank you and Elsa enough for all your prayers. I know they helped. “

“Come along, we’ll have bandages, towels….” Max’s voice died off as Elsa and Victoria walked arm in arm behind the list maker.

The Schmidt house was a short walk from the lodge. A sprawling two story Alpine wonder, it was as warm and inviting as it’s owners. Like the lodge, it featured a large main room with a huge stone fireplace and oversized, stuffed leather sofa’s. Wooden tables with gingerbread wainscoting, graced the floor, The kitchen was also large and well stocked. Two bedrooms were on the main floor and three more were upstairs, with a bathroom on each level.

*****

The young army nurse bent over him, dabbing at the beads of perspiration that formed on his feverish brow. His eyes were as slits as he peered up at her through his delirium. He didn’t know where he was, but with a face like that, it certainly wasn’t Carterson. He reached up and weakly fingered the thick, golden strands. Her smell of perfume reminded him of a place he had been before, so long ago.

“Welcome back,” she whispered.

Her voice was kind and gentle. An angelic smile lit her face as her lily soft hands caressed his scarlet cheek.

“Here,” she coaxed as she lowered a glass of water to his dry, weather-chapped lips. “Try to sip on some of this.”

She lifted his head with her left hand and tilted the glass with her right. He gratefully took several long gulps before she tenderly eased his aching head back down to the pillow. With a damp cloth, she bathed his burning face in cool water.

“Your fever seems to be down a bit,” she murmured, trying to sound cheerful. “That’s a good sign. Soon you’ll be up out of this bed and…”

Her sunshine seemed to dim as he stared up at her with moisture glistening in his eyes.

“Heath, are you okay?” she ventured, her hand reaching for his.

His eyes pleaded with hers. He wanted to tell her how glad he was that she was here, at his bedside, tending him. He wanted to hear her tell him that it was all just a nightmare, and none of this had ever happened. He wanted to erase the caustic memories of abuse, the war and Carterson from his anguished mind forever. He wanted to tell her what a beautiful girl she was…but the words just wouldn’t come. Feelings of shame, sadness and frustration overwhelmed him as he turned his head and a lone tear ran it’s path to his pillow. Using her delicate fingers, she brushed the moisture from his cheek and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. Closing his eyes, he shut himself away from her, away from the world.

“You just rest, Heath,” she soothed. “I’ll be right back.”

Audra stood up and left the room.

*****

Breakfast was eaten in relative silence. Christmas Eve was usually a festive affair with the whole family in high spirits. There was so much to be thankful for, Victoria mused over her coffee. Her sons were alive, two were well on the road to recovery. She sighed and thought of her lost boy, Heath. Initially they thought coming home would heal the awful open wounds in his mind. Although Professor Moreau was hopeful, citing other veteran’s he’d worked with, Victoria’s heart was heavy. He’d opened his eyes over a week ago and her heart rejoiced then sank quickly when the vacant eyes stared at her unknowing. He’d yet to utter a single word. Mutely doing as ordered, lost in a world unknown.

“I’ll take his tray up, Silas. Thank you,” Victoria said.

Rising from the table, she took the tray and was ready to exit the Dining Room when there was a loud rap on the front door.

“Who could be here at this hour?” Jarrod wondered, reading the time of seven a.m. on his watch.

“I’ll get it, Mother,” Audra offered.

Victoria set the tray down and was about to follow Audra into the foyer, when the voice stopped her.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Watson. You’re up early.”

“Good Morning, Audra. I’m here about the party today. Early bird gets the worm you know.”

“Let’s go into the parlor and I’ll get Mother.” Audra charmed.

“Oh, no,” Victoria loathed out loud. “Olivia Watson!”

Jarrod threw down his napkin and Nick paused over his platter, scowling. Olivia Watson was married to one of the most influential men in the Valley. They were well connected and she was very active in volunteer work. Not that she had a good heart, if there was one in her chest at all, she liked the attention and lived for the praise and seeing her name in print. She was a bigot of the worst kind and had made more that one unsavory remark about Heath.

“Who let her out of her cage?” Nick complained

“The party? My God with all that’s gone on, I’d forgotten that the orphans will be here this afternoon .”

Victoria realized suddenly, wringing her hands.

“Maybe they could go somewhere else.” Nick offered.

“No, it was very important to your Father that the Orphans Christmas party be celebrated here on Christmas Eve. We started that tradition the year you were born Nick. It must go on. We have the gifts, more than enough food and decorations.” Victoria mused.

“Well, then, the problem is solved,” Jarred rose and walked to her side.

“Yes, I suppose it will take a little doing but…Oh No.” she dismayed, shoulders slumping

“Oh no, what?” Jarred asked.

“Heath…the last two years he’s been the one who gives the gifts and tells them stories. He sits in the middle of the floor; children on his lap, next to him, they are entranced. He goes often with Audra to the orphanage and they’ve become so attached to him. This does present a problem.”

“I’ll do it.” Jarrod offered.

“Thanks dear, but you are going back to bed. You heard what Dr. Merar said yesterday. That blackout you had was because you’re pushing too hard. A week in bed is what he said. I’ll think of something. Let’s go greet our guest”

“Good morning, Olivia,” Victoria greeted as she entered the room.

“Victoria” the matron nodded.

“Mother, Mrs. Watson is here about the party. I told her two p.m. would be all right.”

“Yes, I think that will do nicely, ” the dowager added. “Of course, there is the matter of the gifts. A suppose a change is in order and high time. I know you’ve taken him in, but his type shouldn’t be allowed to mix freely with small children.”

Nick growled and Jarrod held him back, trying to quell his own anger as well.

“Mrs. Wat’son, that was uncalled for and under the circumstances very out of line. My brother’s suffering is a tragic loss for all of us. Those children love Heath, for the wonderful, warm human being and gentle soul that he is. You could learn a great deal from him,” Jarrod’s eyes blazed.

“The fact remains” she spat back “that a change is in order.”

“I’ll do it.” Nick said suddenly “YOU?” she repelled.

“Yeah, me. I won’t be able to fill his shoes, but I’ll do my damnedest in his name.” Nick said pulling her up with his good hand and ushering her to the door. “Now if you don’t mind, we’ve got a lot to do. Good Day.”

“Well, I never…,” she huffed as she left.

“Lady, I think that’s half your problem,” Nick muttered, causing Jarrod to chuckle.

“Nick, are you sure,” Victoria asked grabbing his hand.

“I said so, didn’t I’?’ he glared. “How hard can it be? Tell a couple stories and give out some presents.”

“I think you’ll be great,” Audra said kissing his cheek. “And thank you, Nick, I’m proud of you.”

“Stop fussin’, I got a lot to do before ten o’clock.” He brushed her aside, then smiled and winked at her as he went upstairs.

“Nick, playing Santa Clause? Christmas may never be the same,” Jarrod teased.

*****

Jarrod woke up to the sounds of many little feet on the floor downstairs. This was followed by a chorus of tiny voices and one loud on booming “HO HO HO!” He smiled at Nick’s rendition of the time tested greeting and put his slippers and robe on. Padding down the hall, he stopped briefly to watch Nick maneuvering in the sea of small bodies. Turning the knob to Heath’s door his joy at the scene below died. Heath sat by the window, staring at the wall.

“Hello, Heath. I’m going down to get something to eat. I’ll stop back up, I’m sure you’re hungry.”

Heath nodded and started to stand. Jarrod firmly sat him back down.

“That’s okay, Heath, you stay here. It’s kind of noisy downstairs, the orphans are here for the party. I’ll be right back with a big piece of pie for you.”

Heath nodded and watched Major Harris leave. It was a nice house and Jordy’s family sure were good people. Major Harris visited here a lot. He wanted to go home, and hoped that he’d be well enough soon. The doctor sure came a lot. Despite the fact he felt better, the terrible pain in his heart wouldn’t leave. An unbearable sorrow left him unable to speak. He tried, no one knows how hard he tried. He stared out the window at the falling snow and waited in his silent world.

“What happened then, Mr. Nick?” the little girl named Anna pleaded from Nick’s lap.

“Well, just when that Old Bear thought he’d gotten away with takin’ the children’s toys, Santa saved the day.”

“How?” a seven-year old freckled face boy named Bobby asked.

“Well,” Nick said putting the tiny girl down and standing up, “He said HO HO HO! Mr Bear, those toys don’t belong to you. Then the Bear turned, his claws raised and…”

“And then what!” several voices clamored.

“Then Santa walked right up that Bear and shook his paw, asked if he could be his friend. Turns out the Bear had no friends and Santa was the first person who tried to get to know him.”

“So the Bear gave the toys back?” Anna asked, pulling on Nick’s pants “He sure did, Honey, and loaded them right onto Santa’s sleigh. Then he climbed up and took the reins and started to leave for his big night,” Nick embellished. “He said, ‘Ho ho…hold it right there, Jarrod, I got plans for that pie. I was savin’ it for later!” Nick hollered, scattering a pack of giggling childen as he approached his brother who was headed towards the stairs.

Jarrod had stopped in the doorway of the parlor and enjoyed every minute of Nick’s performance. Whether he’d ever admit it, Nick enjoyed it too. His mother and sister were in the kitchen getting the food ready. Turning, he defended his stance.

“Sorry, Saint Nick, you’re out of luck. And you can’t “save” a piece of pie. It’s against the First Order of Leftovers.”

“What First Order of Leftovers?” Nick asked suspiciously, his face screwed up.

“The one I just invented,” Jarrod smiled. “Besides, it’s not mine, it’s Heath’s.”

“Oh, well okay, then. Tell him I’ll be right up,” Nick reposed.

The sudden cease in activity and deathly silence caused both brothers to turn towards the parlor in unison. There behind them, by the French doors, stood Heath, staring transfixed at the tree.

“What’s he doing loose?” Olivia Watson cried indignantly. “He shouldn’t be running around in public. Please put him back where he belongs,” she loathed at the brothers.

Jarrod couldn’t hold Nick back this time. His brothers’ eyes were hot and he didn’t control the rage in his voice as he pulled her away into the foyer away from the children’s listening range.

“I’ve have had all I am going to take from you and that filthy mouth of yours. That,” he emphasized pointing to Heath, “is my brother, Heath. I realize that something like caring and compassion are lost on the likes of you; he’s got more integrity in his little finger than you’ll see in a lifetime. This is HIS home where HE belongs. You live with it and keep that mouth of yours shut or you leave, NOW. Do I make myself clear?”

She pulled her arm free and huffed her displeasure but nodded. Nick left her and approached Heath. The children had been told only that Heath had been hurt and couldn’t talk. Most of them seemed a little frightened, sensing something was very wrong. However, one boy, who had become especially attached to Heath, came forward.

“Hello, Mr. Heath, it’s me, Danny White. You remember me, don’t ya?” the dark eyed, solemn boy asked.

Nick started to approach the boy, but Jarrod pulled him back motioning with his head at Heath’s face. Heath looked down at the little boy, who called to him. He knew this boy, but from where? He felt somehow this boy had suffered and those dark eyes reached out to him. Squatting he touched the boy’s cheek and nodded.

“Boy am I glad, I knew you’d never forget me, Mr. Heath. You and me are best buddies, remember? Like when I first came to the orphanage and the big bully was picking on me cause I stuttered. You worked with me and I stood up to him finally. You told me how proud you were. You were the first real friend I ever had. I come along way since then, Mr. Heath. I’m getting a new Mama and Papa today. Ain’t that great?” the boy said excitedly.

Heath knelt and took the small shoulders, nodding again, stone faced.

“So, I was thinkin’. Since Miss Audra said you got hurt and can’t talk…well, maybe you’d like to have this.”

Heath looked down and saw the small bear the boy offered. He took the woolen animal and studied it, his head cocked.

“‘Member that, Mr. Heath? You gave that to me, right after we met. I couldn’t talk at all then, on account’ve I stuttered so much and all the other kids laughed. You told me when I was alone, to talk to him; he’d never laugh. It worked, I don’t stutter no more. So you keep him, Mr. Heath, he listens real good. You’ll be talkin’ real soon, okay?”

Jarrod wiped his moist eyes and turned as his mother approached, tears on her cheeks. He turned back and saw Heath hugging the boy, eyes closed and then the solitary tear that snaked it’s way down his cheek. Then as he released him, Danny kissed his cheek and Heath smiled at him.

“Out of the mouths of babes,” Nick choked.

“Indeed, Nick. The first sign of emotion, maybe he’s on his way back,” Jarrod suggested, hopefully.

Audra gathered the children in a circle and organized a game to keep them occupied while Nick and Jarrod got Heath on his feet. Clutching the small bear, he followed them down the hall into the kitchen. He sat at the table, cradling the bear and nodded at Jared’s request.

“You hungry, Heath? How about a sandwich?”

While Jarrod got a sandwich from the tray his mother had prepared, he watched as Heath’s eyes followed Nick around the kitchen. Nick paused, carefully pouring a cup of coffee and saw the emotional look on Heath’s face. Forgetting the cup, he crossed the room and knelt by the chair. His hopes soared when his brother’s free hand made it’s way to Nick’s shoulder, the blue eyes paining on the casted arm.

“What is it? Come on, Boy, talk to me,” Nick pleaded, his hand on Heath’s cheek.

Heath looked at Jordy and desperately wanted to say how sorry he was for the mess he’d caused. He hadn’t intended on upsetting their family party, but he wanted to see the tree. Missing his home, he had wanted to go home for Christmas. He tried to tell Jordy, but no words would come. He held the bear close and retreated, seeking comfort elsewhere.

But just as quickly the light faded and once more the stone face returned. The hand dropped down and Heath was gone once more. Nick turned away, not wanting Heath to see his disappointment. Jarrod patted Nick’s shoulder and put the plate in front of Heath.

“Go on now, Heath, eat up.”

Heath went through the mechanics of eating and then walked up the back stairs without glancing back. Jarrod turned back at the curse and fist pounding the table, causing the silverware to jump up in protest.

“Take it easy, Nick, it’s a step in the right direction. We can’t force him back. That’s the first sign he’s fighting.”

“I know, but …it’s killing me Jarrod. What if he never comes back?” Nick emoted.

Jarrod couldn’t see Nick’s face, but knew the sorrow it held. This seemed to be harder on Nick than any of them. Jarrod knew Nick was punishing himself unduly, blaming himself for Heath getting caught.

“Come on, Nick, you’re audience awaits you,” Jarrod tried.

“I’ll be right in, I need a….a…coffee,” Nick lied.

“You got it, Brother,” Jarrod patted his back understanding and retreated.

Nick regained his composure and straightening up, reentered the parlor area.

“Santa’s back!” many little voices exclaimed with glee.

Nick forced a smile and responded to the children’s welcome with his best “ho, ho.” But underneath the red and white hat and the thick white whiskers, Audra couldn’t help notice the dismal spirit trying so hard to keep from surfacing. He’d been through so much, but the lost relationship with his beloved brother was the worst than the hell he had survived. Audra thought hard, wondering what she might do that could lighten the spirit. With an impish grin, she beckoned the children to gather round her.

“Now, I’ve got a Santa story,” she volunteered. “A Santa story that involves Mr. Nick, here, when he was a little boy. Would you like me to tell it to you?”

“Yes, yes, please, Miss Audra!” the children chorused.

Audra winked at Nick as his befuddled expression told her that he wasn’t sure of what was next.

“When I was a little girl,” Audra solely began, “it was my job to leave the cookies for Santa. You know how cold it is and how hard Santa has to work delivering all those nice toys you receive on Christmas morning!” The children nodded in agreement as Audra continued. “Well, when we were growing up, it was up to me to decide which cookies were going to be left for Santa and his reindeer. That and a big glass of milk was just what Santa would need to get him to the next ranch. Mother and I had been baking cookies all afternoon and I had wanted the ones for Santa to be extra special.”

At this particular part in the story, a loud moan was distinctly audible and Audra glanced up at Nick to catch the dramatic roll of the eyes she knew was coming. The little eyes of her young audience were all glued forward in sincere fascination as Audra continued to remember that special Christmas so long ago.

“Up in my room I had a nice sized bar of chocolate that I had been saving. The mercantile in town had been short on chocolate that year, and this bar that I had purchased earlier in summer was a treat to be treasured. Nick knew about the chocolate and he had been trying to get me to give him some. I told him ‘no’ that I wanted to save it. He begged and he begged, but I just wouldn’t give in.”

Giggles filled the room as the children envisioned this grown cowboy trying to persuade his little sister to share her chocolate.

“Well, Mother and I were almost done with our baking when I had an idea. I had been thinking about how bored Santa must me with all the cookies everyone leaves him and maybe this year he would like a rich, chocolate cake. Mother agreed to help me and so I ran to my room to retrieve the bar of chocolate. Nick hovered over us the entire time. He even pretended to want to help, but when Mother saw his hand reaching for the candy, she whacked him with her wooden spoon.”

“Did he get any of it?” Tommy asked, looking at Audra and then at Nick.

“I’m getting to that, Tommy,” Audra savored, enjoying each word of the tale. “No, I managed to get a beautiful chocolate cake baked. Thick and gooey with rich chocolate frosting. I proudly displayed the cake on one of Mother’s nicest platters and poured a tall glass of ice cold milk to go with it. I carried the cake out to the tree, with Nick following, and went to bed, dreaming of all the wonderful presents I was going to get. Father had sent Nick to bed, as well, and then he, Mother and Jarrod all turned in.

Suddenly, I was awoken as a loud clatter coming from the parlor aroused all of us from our sleep. We all got up and raced to the top of the stairs and what do you think we saw?”

“Santa?”

“We saw Santa, alright,” Audra grinned, looking directly at Nick.

The small heads turned to look at the blushing Santa that stood in their midst.

“You mean it was Mr. Nick?” Sally asked.

“That’s exactly what I mean!” Audra exclaimed, bursting into giggles and a bright smile. “He had snuck downstairs and carefully cut the center out of the cake I had worked so hard to bake. Then he pushed the ends together and tried to smooth out the frosting on the top. He was trying to sneak back upstairs when he tripped over the lampstand and broke the lamp. There he sat in the middle of all that broken glass with the telltale signs of chocolate crumbs gracing his guilty face.”

“Did Santa leave him any presents,” Mary wondered. “I don’t think Santa leaves things for naughty boys.”

“Well, since Nick hadn’t been really, really naughty, Santa did leave him his gifts,” Audra paused, looking back at Nick who was violently shaking his head, wanting the story to stop right there. “…But, the next day, Santa made a personal appointment with Nick…the meeting place was out in the wood shed.”

By the time the story was finished, everyone was laughing, even Nick, as he reminised the year he got spanked by Santa.

*****

“Are you okay?” Victoria asked, worried at Jarrod’s pinched features and pale face.

“The headache’s just a little feisty today. I’m fine Mother.”

“Well, maybe I ought to get Doctor…”

“On Christmas morning? Mother he has a family too. I’ll be fine. That aspiring powder will kick in soon.”

“Mother, the buggy’s ready,” Nick popped his head in the parlor.

“All right, Nick. I’ll be right out.”

“We’ll be fine Mother,” Jarrod reassured her, indicating Heath as well.

Kissing him good-bye, she took Nick’s good arm and they left for Christmas services at church. Jarrod closed his eyes, warding off the pounded between his temples. He’d been weaning himself of the pain killers and for some reason, early mornings were still very painful. He didn’t realize he’d been dozing until Silas shook him.

“Mr. Jarrod, wake up. I can’t find Mr. Heath.”

“What!” Jarrod was awake instantly and on his feet.

“He ain’t in his room. I looked everywhere. His coat’s missing.”

“Oh No!” Jarrod fretted, eyeing the gray sky that had just started to spill snow.

“I’ll go out and find him.”

“But you’re not supposed to be…”

“It’s okay, Silas, I’ll be fine. You look upstairs again, maybe you missed something.”

Heath patted the mane of the horse from Jordy’s stable. He loved horses and he made sure he was very careful saddling this fine bay. He heard the bells ringing and they seemed to call him. He stared out of the room he was staying in and realized about church. That’s where his Mama would be, she’d be waiting for him at church. He’d stopped to tell Major Harris, but didn’t want to wake him. He’d go on his own.

He followed the graceful bell sounds and soon was at the church. He looked up through the swirling snowflakes at the bell tower, where the bells pealed so wonderfully. He tied the horse up and entered.

Jarrod noticed Charger’s empty stall and followed the fresh tracks in the snow. He lost hem on the main road and decided to go to church and find Nick. The sheriff would be at service as well. They’d need his help, finding Heath, in his state of mind in a snowstorm. Pulling his collar closer, he hurried Jingo onward.

The church was dressed in all her finery, respondent in greens and the lit candles gave it a warm, rosy glow. Victoria knelt and said a prayer for her lost son, asking God for all a little help. The organ sounded as the choir sang “O Holy Night.”

Heath stood unsure in the doorway of the church. He cocked his head and heard the beautiful voices. He stood in the back and listened, enjoying the feeling inside. He saw the candles and the crowded church pews. The preacher nodded to the choir as they finished and start to speak. He saw Jody and his family up front. He was about to make his way there, when he saw her. His heart pounded so hard, it felt like it would come right through his chest. He staggered up the side aisle, unnoticed and knelt before her. His face basking in her glorious glow.

Jarrod spotted Heath’s horse tied out front and nearly fell off his own horse in relief. Hurrying to the door, he entered and scanned the crowd. He found his family, but Heath wasn’t with them. It was then he noticed the back of the blond head. Not wanting to draw attention, he crept up the side aisle and stood next to his brother. He was about to shake Heath and call his name when he saw the look of unbridled love and emotion on the windburned face. His curious gaze followed Heath’s emotive line of vision. It was the Mary, Heath knelt before. She was with Joseph looking down at the infant Jesus in the large manger that sat by the side door. It was a gift from Padre Carlos, who was a very close friend off the minister.

Heath looked at her face and smiled broadly, reaching out toward her hands. He knew she’d be here, the bells were a sign, her calling to him. She always found him when he was lost. She’d help him get home. His mother smiled at him and he felt the warmth of her breath as she touched his face.

Jarrod knew something was happening inside Heath. He watched in awe at the glow on Heath’s face as he touched the outstretched hand of the Madonna. He heard the sounds buried in his brothers chest fighting to come forth. He watched the mouth struggling and the tears in the overcome eyes. Jarrod got a chill up his sensing somehow, he was about to witness a miracle.

The preacher nodded to the choir to sing the recessional hymn.

“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

Twas grace that brought me heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.”

The choir stopped so the organ music could be heard doing a refrain.

Heath felt her hands pull away and the joy on her face reflected on his own. He closed his eyes and felt her warmth invade him. Basking in her love, his eyes shone as he thanked her silently. “I understand Mama” he conveyed through his thoughts. Opening his eyes, she nodded her encouragement, and was gone.

Waiting patiently, every head in the room turned as a voice was heard.

“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come…

“My God that’s Heath!” Nick cried, racing to where Jarrod knelt in stunned silence next to the soloist.

“Tis grace that…” Heath slowed and looked around, confusion on his handsome face. Not understanding where he was and why Jarrod was staring at him, overcome with emotion.

“…hath brought me safe thus far,” Nick saved, his deep voice booming, as he pulled Heath to his feet

“And grace will lead me home!” Jarrod joined in, finishing the miraculous chorus.

“Heath! Heath!” they called, hugging him.

He looked from one to the other.

“Jarrod? Nick? How’d we get here?”

“On the wings of a dove, Brother,” Jarrod replied.

“Heath, oh Heath,” Audra sobbed into the confused man’s chest.

She stood back and closed her eyes, sending God a special thank you. On this day of all days, there was something truly to rejoice. The most wonderful sound had opened her eyes.

“Mother?” his soft drawl called her.

She ran into his open arms and sobbed, “Oh Heath, Thank God, you’ve come back to us.”

“I was just thinking that myself,” Nick added, encircling his family.

“I don’t understand? What happened? When did we leave the lodge? How did you bust your arm?” he implored of Nick.

Nick and Jarrod shared a wary look and Nick just shook his head. Before he could respond, the congregation rejoiced as well. They’d all known about Heath’s loss and a few claps slowly turned into a thunderous ovation. They’d come that morning to celebrate the birth of the greatest King the world had ever known. They left doubly blessed; witnessing the awesome power of his divine love as it pierced the lost heart of one of his beloved sons and drew him home.

*****

The fire blazed, basking the room in warmth, although the love that radiated from each face, was doing that pretty well on it’s own. Heath sat by the base of the tree Max sent down, still wearing the scarf he’d tied to it. He heard Victoria and Aura’s voices by the piano, and smiled at the wonderful feeling he held. Like every color of the rainbow was ready to burst forth, in a colorful concert of love. He turned at Jarrod’s voice and the hand on his shoulder.

“Looks like Nick and me owe you some money, Brother Heath, you won the bet.”

“Don’t go giving away me hard earned cash, Jarrod. Some of us really work for a living,” Nick joked “Besides, my bet was double or nothing, and since them fine woman at the lodge missed out on the chance of a lifetime by not gracing the dance floor with me, the bet is still on, I’ll pick up my cash next year, okay little brother?” Nick’s good hand extended.

“Anytime you want to give your greenbacks away, Nick, I’ll be first in line. You got a deal,” Heath agreed as he shook on it.

“What’s that?” Jarrod squatted down and pulled out a gift that hadn’t been unwrapped. The others were all oohed and ahhed over and piled neatly under the tree. Jarrod lifted the red flannel draped package and placed it on the small marble table in front of the tree, right beside Heath. The lawyer lifted the fabric off to uncover a manger, mounted to a wooden base. There were new pieces of wood where the old ones had rotted and the porcelain figures had been cleaned up. Jarrod would have known this tender gift anywhere. He massaged Heath’s quaking shoulders, he blue eyes pierced Nick’s hazel ones with affection.

“It would appear this fine gift belongs to you, Heath.”

Heath’s hands shook as he ran them along the wooden roof. He fingered the new straw, freshly laid under the holy family. The figures had been cleaned up, their chipped faces repaired with great care and affection. He hadn’t seen it since the year he left to go to war. He thought it was lost forever. This wonderful childhood memento, something that meant more to him that any words would be able to describe. A treasure, created out of love and more valuable that all the gold in the world. He dropped his head in his hands and tried to compose himself, but a couple stray tears worked their way loose.

Audra knelt beside her stunned brother, who’s shoulders shook and who’s tears splashed onto the roof of the nativity. She picked up each piece reverently and finally lifted the shocked face. Her manicured finger wiped the tears away and she kissed his cheek. Wrapping her arms around his waist, he soft voice beckoned.

“Can you tell us about it, Heath?”

With a deep breath, he started, slow and halting, stumbling at times, to tell this family, who meant so very much to him, about his best Christmas.

It was an especially hard year, there was no money and his mother had been so very ill. Long hours in the mines and extra time at the livery, the boy worked feverishly to get the meager pennies saved for her gift. His mother never said a word, but the ten-year old boy knew from the look in her eye while they read an old catalog, that she wanted a nativity set. He had saved what pennies he could for most of the year and tried to buy her one. The cost was much more than the meager amount he offered. The store manager found him Christmas week and told him there was a broken set, he’d sell Heath. The greedy merchant took every cent from the poor boy. There were only four figures that were able to be saved, Joseph, Mary, the infant and a little shaped boy holding a lamb. They were cracked, and broken but the ten year blond boy, used grace and great care to mend the pieces. Heath got scraps of wood from the livery and set about to make a proper manger. His small fingers using gobs of glue to keep the uneven, unmatched wood in place.

Nick sat across from Heath got as angry as he had the first time Heath told him this story, his first year at the lodge. The deep seeded anger at this unknown stranger who’d taken advantage of his brother. Heath had seen that dark look and smiled at his brother gratefully that night, over a beer. “It’s okay Nick, it was a long time ago, and I was used to being treated like that.” It wasn’t okay in his brother’s eyes then or now. He swirled his brandy and scowled at someone who’d take advantage of the brave little boy, he was so proud to call brother.

He drifted back as Heath’s quiet voice continued the story of that magical year.

“She was so sick that year, I almost lost her. The money ran out before we could get more medicine. Reckon I never prayed so hard.” He remembered “She pulled through and on Christmas morning I put it beside her bed, so as she see it first thing when she woke up. I tried sitting up, staying awake, but I must have dozed off. Next thing I remembered was waking up to the crying. I looked over…” Heath swallowed hard and fought off tears, remembering. “She was holding the baby Jesus and sobbing. I thought she was mad, that she wanted the one in the book. I started to tell her I was sorry and she shook her head. She pulled me close and told me…” His voice broke and he was unable to continue.

Victoria walked over, tears running freely and lifted the face. Heath smiled up his mother, who’s face masked the identical look of pride and love, his mama wore that fateful Christmas.

“How much she loved you and you very proud she was to have such a fine son. That this nativity is the most beautiful one she’d ever seen?” Victoria’s broken voice completed.

“How’d you know?” Heath choked in amazement with wide, wet eyes.

She knelt and drew him close, hugging him tightly. “Every mother knows, Honey. I know just how she felt. I love you Heath Thomson Barkley.”

She remained a minute longer and then taking Audra’s hand, she left him with his memories.

The story of that magical Christmas was now complete and caressing the little figure in his hand, he rose. He crossed the room and stared into the fire, sending a silent prayer and message to his mother. Turning back he knelt reverently in front of the holy family. With on last thought of his mama’s smile, he finally put the shepherd boy back into the manger. The tears he held in check would no longer be denied. They ran down his cheek as looked at the treasure. He fingered the repair work, eyed the fresh straw under the figures and turned at the small hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see his mother eyes brimming as well. Standing, he hugged the small frame close and kissed the top of her head.

“Thank you, Mother. You have no idea what this means to me. It’s the finest gift I could have received.”

She looked up and took the tear-streaked cheeks in either hand. How wonderful it was to see the light of life back in those wonderfully expressive blue eyes. God had given her son back, a priceless gift.

“Heath, the gift of life is the greatest gift we get from God. Tonight in that church, God gave us a miracle, and that,” she paused, her voice breaking, “is the most wonderful gift of all.”

She looked past him at the crooked wooden manger with globs of old glue still scarring the frame, and the cracked porrecting pieces within, with the love and appreciation only a mother can know. She could see a small towheaded boy, blue eyes lite up in anticipation as his mother opened this wonderful treasure. The love that boy possessed still shone strong in the man before her. Looking back at him, she squeezed his shoulder.

“Sweetheart, as much as I would love to take credit for bringing that beautiful manger back to you and letting it shine her for all of us, as it should, it wasn’t me.”

Heath looked around the room to Audra first, who shook her head then to Jarrod who also denied being the gift bearer. Nick continued to stare into the fire, poking at it with his good hand. Heath smiled at the uncomfortable look, all too familiar, that his older brother was wearing.

“I guess this proves that there really is a Santa Claus,” Jarrod added, taking Audra’s and Victoria’s elbow “And if he were here, I think he’ d say “Let’s eat!” Realizing Heath wanted a moment alone with Nick.

The trio started for the dining room. Heath walked over and laid a hand on Nick’s back, squeezing his shoulder. They stood for a minute, lost in thought, Heath tried to find the right words to tell Nick just how much it meant to him. That Nick would, despite his own healing process, take the time to remember the story shared long ago and make the trip to Strawberry to find the missing piece of Heath’s heart. He sighed several times, his mouth forming invisible words.

“Nick, can you do me a favor?” he managed with a crooked grin.

Nick met his grateful eyes and nodded, a little confused, “Sure Heath.”

Heath turned and led them towards the dining room. Pausing and looking back at the manger, he made his request known.

“Can you tell Old Saint Nick ‘Thanks’ for me? It seems he’s about the best man I know. With everything else he had to do, he found time to get them reindeers over to Strawberry and…” He swallowed and sighed, “…I hope he knows I’ll never forget it and how much he means to me.”

Nick laughed and ruffled the blond hair, “He knows brother, believe me, he knows. Come on, I’m starved and Jarrod’s in there polishing off that roast.”

*****

“Goodnight son, don’t stay up too long.” Victoria spoke softly, placing a kiss on Jarrod’s cheek left.

Taking a sip of brandy, he watched her cross the room and pause behind the chair where Heath sat by the fire. She bent down and whispered in his ear. Heath squeezed the small hand and nodded as she walked away. Audra had gone to bed already and Nick slipped out to the barn to check on a sick mare. The crackling of the fire was the only sound in the parlor as each man was lost in thought.

The burst of cold air filled the room as the French doors opened and Nick reappeared. He struggled out of his coat, careful of the castled arm, resting in a sling.

“How’s Sheba?” Heath asked.

“She’s better. I got Russ to sit with her,” he said of a new hand, “I’ll check on her later.”

He picked up a glass and laid it inside his sling. Carefully carrying the brandy decanter over, he placed it in front on Jarrod and sat down next to him. Pulling the glass out of his sling, he offered it over.

“Thanks Jarrod, I do believe I will join you. ” Nick invited.

Jarrod eyes took in Nick’s battered face, which matched both his and Heath’s. He filled both glasses and motioned for Heath to join them. Heath carefully walked over and winced slightly as he eased himself onto the small bench by where his brothers sat. Jarrod thought on the past weeks events and felt for the first time, he really understood the meaning of the spirit of Christmas. Those dark hours in that desolate confine, he thought he’d never see his family again. Some very spiritual happened this day and Jarrod wanted to celebrate that fact.

“Ya know, considering everything that happened,” Nick reasoned, “I believe this has turned out to be a very special Christmas.”

“Nick, you read my mind,” Jarrod raised his glass and waited until his brother’s followed suit, “gentlemen, here’s to the reason for the season.”

The clink of the glasses and the crack of the fire were the only sounds as the men savored the toast. Jarrod watched Heath studying the glass he rolled between his hands. He watched the expressive sky blue eyes drift left and right as Heath relived some moments for the past. How many more painful memories hid within his brother’s fragile soul? He thought of those dark hours, when he lay curled in a ball in that dank, cold cell. Near naked, shivering and in pain. Thinking Heath and Nick were lost to him forever. He had no sense of time, it may have been days, or weeks in his mind. The feeling of murderous rage at his tormentors, thinking they’d killed those he held dear.

Nick watched the contrite blue eyes next to him and knew what Jarrod was thinking . Before he could react, his oldest brother spoke.

“Heath, those horrid days last week made me see a lot of things a little clearer. I want to say how sorry I am about that episode with Matt Bentell, ” Jarrod paused as Heath’s head flew up and his brother scowled.

“Jarrod, please don’t go there, it’s done. You don’t owe me anything.”

“Yes, Heath I do.” Jarrod blue eyes reached out “I mishandled that badly. My first concern should have been to you, and the pain you suffered. I never realized just how much more of a man you were than I until last week. I was wrong Heath, and I am very sorry.”

“You ain’t alone in that boat, brother,” Nick added. “I should have spoken up that day, instead of holding my tongue, you deserved my full support, and for that, Heath, I ‘m sorry.”

Heath looked at Jarrods bruises and bandaged head, then his eyes took in Nicks abrasions and broken bones. Such good men, strong men whose broad shoulders he was so grateful for. Shoulders that were too often unappreciated. He nodded, his expressive blue eyes were followed by a thankful voice.

“Reckon I’m sorry too. For not learning sooner that I have two fine men I call brother and for being too proud to know when to lean on them. A lesson I learned the hard way. So, thanks to both of you,” he finished raising his glass.

“To brotherhood.”

“Here. Here.” his brother’s echoed.

“Heath, you know if you ever want to talk about the war, or anything else that you’ve buried too deep, that’s all a part of being a brother, and a friend. We’ll be here to listen.” Jarrod ended.

“You don’t have to suffer in silence, Boy,” Nick supported.

Jarrod rose to leave for bed and Heath stood and hauled his brother upright. They embraced and with a final swig of this brandy, Jarrod left. He paused at the foot of the stairs and Nick’s deep laughter followed him. He turned and watched Heath doubling over as Nick’s animated hand and face were busy in the middle of a story, involving a girl and exaggerated no doubt. As he passed the bathroom another burst of laughter floated into the foyer below. Jarrod smiled, it sounded like music to his ears.

As he eased into the soft mattress of the large bed and closed his eyes, Jarrod thought of the last line to the hymn that had unlocked the door to Heath’s dark dungeon and set him free.

“And Grace shall lead me home.”

It was late when Nick’s weary body made it’s way upstairs. The hours between dusk and dawn had become a burden. Endless nightmares, waking in a cold sweat, sometimes curled on the floor. He pauses at his door, and walked to the end of the hall. Glancing at Jarrods’ door, he was relieved to see a light shining from underneath. Tapping lightly, he called quietly.

“Jarrod, you still up?”

“Yeah Nick, come on in” a tired voice replied

Nick padded to the bed and sat down. Jarrod’s face bore the same fear Nick’s did. His brother cast him a wane smile.

“You’re fighting it too?”

“Yeah, it’s much better since I’ve been talking Professor Moreau. I owe you big time for bringing him here.” Nick lauded gently.

“No thanks necessary for that Nick, we’ve all benefited from his help.”

Jarrod got up from the chair near his fireplace and made his way across the room. He sat down next to his restless brother and waited. Something else was weighing on his troubled brother’s mind.

“Spit it out Nick, what’s eating away at you?”

“Anybody ever tell you to consider entering the field of law?” Nick teased at Jarrod’s ability to read him.

Sighing, he rose and walked to the window, paced across to the fire and then back to Jarrods side. Jarrod watched the journey and pulled Nick back down.

“Come Nick, it can’t be that bad. What’s wrong?”

“I asked him Jarrod, I had to know. He uh…He don’t remember anything.”

“About the confinement?” Jarrod queried.

“Confinement? That’s a damn lousy way of putting it!” Nick flashed.

“All right Nick, you know what I meant. What about Heath’s recollections”

“He’s got none. He hadn’t asked about it all night. I mean, I had to know. He told me the last thing he remembers is me giving him that spiked coffee, then being in church by that manger.”

They sat in silence for a moment, Jarrod kept glancing at his younger brother. He saw the shadows of doubt and guilt cross Nick’s face. He knew before Nick said a word, he was about to address it when Nick spoke in a low, agonized voice.

“What am I going to do if he remembers, Jarrod. My God, I took that whip…” Nick ate the rest of the thought

Jarrod saw the terrible pain in Nicks eyes. What to do indeed. Maybe it would be better for Heath to know it all upfront, before he started getting nightmares or flashbacks.

“Maybe we should tell him everything Nick, before he remembers it on his own. He’ll think we were hiding the truth from him. He won’t like it. It might be a lot worse, do more damage.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think. I was wondering if you’d help me. I …I don’t know how to find the words. What can I say,” Nick tortured “Heath, I beat you raw with a whip” or “Heath, I left them open scars on your back, or…”

“Nick stop it!” Jarrod urged, squeezing the downcast shoulders. ” You’re not the only one carrying a cross. I still see that pained look on his face when they shut that iron door. He pleaded with me….” His voice trailed off momentarily “We’ll ask Vincent what to do, he’s the pro “Jarrod said of the Professor.

Nick rubbed a hand across his burning eyes and nodded. He waited a couple minutes, then made his way to the door. Pausing, he looked back at Jarrod and smiled.

“You know something, I think God sent the right one first. You sure are one helluva big brother. Thanks, Jarrod.”

Jarrod nodded, “Goodnight Nick, we’ll get through this, like we always have: together-forever, right.”

“Right.” Nick smiled, remembering their boyhood pledge.

Victoria tied the robe around her waist and walked from the bathroom back to her bedroom. She paused at Heath’s open door and studied the empty bed inside. Padding down the stairs, she peeked into the parlor and found her youngest son, asleep on the sofa. She covered him with a blanket that was nearby and bent to kiss his cheek. She paused and spotted the little shepherd boy clutched in his hand. Smiling, she pried the prize loose and set it carefully on the table. Kissing his cheek, she ran a hand through the light hair.

“Merry Christmas sweetheart, welcome home.”

***The End***

Return to Star’s homepage

2 thoughts on “Grace Will Lead Me Home (by Star and Deirdre)

  1. I have read your story several times and just wanted to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed reading it each time. I’m glad Nick didn’t hold back with Ms. Watson and her prejudiced outlook. Wish the family would have reacted the same concerning the Bentell situation. I look forward to seeing future stories from you.

    Like

  2. One of my very favorite big valley stories! Great job star and deirdre!!! I absolutely loved the brothers at the lodge and the other characters that ran it. Would love a sequel with the brothers going back to the lodge again… for winter break or just for a vacation 🙂 Lots of great action/adventure, drama, angst, humor… very exciting story to read!!

    Like

Leave a Reply to CJ Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.