The Gunfighter (by Star)

Summary:  Audra is missing.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,000


It was a crisp, October evening in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The leaves had already metamorphasized into brilliant red, yellow and orange hues and were gradually making their descent downward. In the town of Stockton, folks were well into the process of preparing for the winter ahead. Every building in town had ample firewood stacked near the back doors, and the front window of the general store displayed a wide variety of winter coats, rain gear and flannel underwear. It was getting on towards dusk and the resident lamplighter was plotting his course through the unlit streets. Things were somewhat quiet in most parts of town, as famlies gathered together for the evening meal. However, lively tunes mingled with merry voices, filled the air surrounding the immediate vicinity of Stockton’s saloon.

The saloon was usually the focal point of meeting on any given day and was often bustling with activity until the doors were locked. This evening was no different from any other Thursday evening. The saloon girls, in their frilly dresses, hovered around the various tables of cardplayers, waiting for an opportunity to sell a bottle of whiskey or earn a little extra income for themselves. Harry, the man who owned and operated the saloon, was systematically washing and drying the steady procession of empty whisky glasses that formed at the end of the counter. Surrounding one particular table, located towards the back of the saloon sat five men; each getting ready to throw in his ante for the coming round.

Each man had his cards pulled close to his chest and wore a blankfaced look as each tossed his money into the center of the round wooden table. First there was John Touser. He had only been a resident of Stockton for about six months. He worked as head teller at the local bank. He was a robust man in his late forties and always enjoyed a game of cards before heading home to spend a quiet evening with his wife, Matilda. Next there was Dave Harwell of Stockton’s livery stable. He was a third owner in the operation, but put in as many hours as the other two owners put together. He was a single man, in his mid thirties. When his hired boy came in to work the evening shift, Dave would make his way across the street to wash down a days worth of dust and hard work at the saloon. Then there was Lowell Hodgkins. Lowell was a day clerk at the Cattlemen’s Hotel, but chose to do his socializing and cardplaying at the saloon down the street from where he was employed. The fourth man at the table was a stranger to Stockton. The stranger had come in on the late night stage the previous evening. He was a middleaged man, tall and lean with a long mustache. He was dressed in a long, black waiste coat that matched the color of his mood. He had little to add to the conversation at the table. The fifth man at the table was James Dixon. He had stopped in Stockton for a few days to try his luck at poker also, but in contrast to the stranger, was cheerful and talkative. He was simply there to win some cold, hard cash and then he would be hitting the trail again. He had done quite well for himself that morning and throughout the afternoon, cleaning out the pockets of many a local who came to sit at his table, and the stranger didn’t like it. Now James sat leaning back with his chair propped up against the back wall on two legs. He was holding onto another winning hand as he upped the ante and laid his royal flush out before his opponents. The scowl on the strangers face got darker and darker as the evening began to wane. He shot James a cold stare. James had seen that look many times before in different men. As an ex-gunfighter, his senses were honed to perfection….which gave him an edge and kept him alive all these years. But for now, there was nothing for him to do but wait.

James laid his winning hand down on the table using his right hand. He wasn’t leaning back against the wall now, but had all four legs of the chair firmly planted on the floor. The three local men at the table responded with low whistles and mild profanity. They all knew that the odds of turning such a hand were slim, especially in light of how the previous rounds had gone. None-the-less, they all enjoyed an intense card game which this had truly turned into. The stranger, however, was not amused. He had been steadily losing money all evening, and now gambled the last of his savings against the flush that he held in his hands. Laying his cards on the table, he slowly stood to his feet. His voice was terse as he directed his angry words at James.

“No man can be that lucky for this long”, he stated in a loud voice, “Mister, I think you’re cheatin’!”

Suddenly the entire saloon grew very quiet as the patrons all ceased their activities and turned their attention to the heated discussion in the back corner. James studied the faces surrounding the table and then slowly addressed the stranger.

“I think that even you have had a run or two of good luck, and that don’t mean that you’re cheatin’, does it?”

The stranger was in no mood for explanations. That was mostly his money piled on the table and he had no intention of leaving without it.

“Son, I think you’re a cheat and a card shark!”, he accused as his right hand slowly lowered. The strangers gun belt was clearly visible from beneath his coat and now he was pushing the long folds on the canvas coat back behind the holster, so that the gun handle was easily accessible.

James wasn’t smiling now. His face took on a steely look as he made direct eye contact with the stranger. He stood to face his opponent dead on and the stranger’s glance fell downward to twin colts hanging low on James’ hip line. The worn, notched handles told a story all of their own and the stranger knew that James was more than just a cowhand passing through. By now, all the bystanders had backed off leaving the two men to square off.

“I don’t think I heard you right, Mister, would you like to say that again?” James challenged as he instinctively worked the fingers in both his hands. The other three men who had been involved with the card game were aware that this gunslinger standing before the stranger was not the same man who had joked and shot the bull only minutes earlier. Before their very eyes, this likable young man had transformed into a lethal looking killing machine. Even his voice had changed. When he spoke it was cold and serious and demanded a response.

“I said, would you like to say that again?” James said again, only much louder.

Little beads of sweat formed on the stranger’s brow and began to trickle down his neck. His pride was about to take a deep plunge, but the fear of losing to this man in this strange town was a much stronger feeling. Being careful not to move too suddenly, he slowly relaxed his gun arm and stepped back. He looked around at all the inquisitive faces and turning on the heel of his boot, exited the saloon. Low, chattering whispers echoed around the saloon as James sat back down at the table and proceeded to gather up his evenings winnings.

The night was over and the wee morning hours had just begun. James sat alone at the table with a bottle of whisky as his only companion. He must have earned the feared respect of everyone else in the saloon because after the confrontation with the stranger, nobody wanted to come sit with him. Tossing a couple of dollars on the table, he stood and streched his stiffined muscles. Placing his hat squarely on his head, he sauntered out of the now nearly empty saloon. He would take the back alley to his hotel room for a couple of hours of much needed sleep, and then head out of town at daybreak. The now happy-go-lucky James whistled softly to himself as he strolled through the backstreets of the quiet town. In his mind he plotted out a plan of action for the new day. He would collect his horse from the livery stable and head out towards Sonora. He had heard tell that the town was booming and he could take the opportunity to land into some more good card games. James was so lost in thought that he wasn’t aware of the presence of someone hiding in the shadows. The someone was a sore loser who had lost all his money in a card game earlier that evening. The someone was the stranger. Using a piece of broken wagon axle and a quick, hard blow to the back of James head, the stranger had James lying face down on the packed dirt. It didn’t take long for the moustached man in the long coat to find what he was after. Pilfering all of James pockets, the man in black quickly departed with more money than he had had all evening.

The sun was peeking up over the high wooden false fronts of Stockton’s buildings. Heath Barkley had been up since before first light. He had left the ranch while the rest of his family had soundly slept, so that he could be at the train station when the five o’clock train pulled in. He pulled his empty wagon up to a nearby hitching post so that it would be handy when the train arrived with the fencing supplies that he needed for the day’s work ahead. He was a few minutes early, so he jumped down from the wagon and wandered to the side of the building. There were some empty crates stacked back there and he used one as a bench as he sat down to roll a cigarette. He fumbled with the paper, trying not to spill too many of the precious leaves. A good smoke was one of the pleasures that he had enjoyed since he was a boy of twelve. With that many years of practice, he could practically roll with his eyes closed, but then again, it was early and he was usually just starting to stir at this time. His plan was to get his supplies loaded and be back at the ranch to enjoy a hearty breakfast with the rest of the family at the usual appointed time of seven. After that, he and Nick would head up to Sky Meadows with the wagon and put in a full day mending fences. Heath put the now neatly rolled cigarette between his lips and started the search through his pockets for a match. There wasn’t one in his shirt or vest pocket or even in his pants for that matter. Damn! He usually didn’t find himself matchless. Standing to his feet, he decided to mosey on down to the livery stable. One of the stable hands was sure to have a match.

Heath made his way through the back alley. The livery was just down the street from the saloon. He turned to go around the hind side of a building when something grabbed his attention. At first he just caught the glimpse of a man’s arm with his peripheral vision, and when he stopped and looked down to the side, there was a man limply sprawled behind some barrels. Instantly Heath bent down over the unconscious man checking for a pulse. Yes, it was there. He rolled the man over and immediately the color fled from Heath’s face. He knew this man. The two of them had grown up together as children in the town of Strawberry. Heath and James had been best buddies. They had met each other when they both started school in Strawberry’s one room schoolhouse. James had just moved to Strawberry with his family, so that his pa could go to work in the mine. Shortly after the family’s arrival, James’ pa was killed in an accident, and James, like Heath, was left to be raised by his ma. The two boys had felt an immediate attraction and bonding to one another and from that point on, were pretty much inseperable. As they grew, they played together, often worked together, and depended on each other for strength when the burdens of a life of poverty got too heavy to shoulder alone.

The friendship had endured many milestones, including Heath’s lost love, a girl by the name of Sylvia Lyn. At fifteen years of age, both young men had set their affections on this particular girl, and she could have had either one of them. James, who had always been quite adept with the use of his gun, had by that time used it to his advantage on several occasions. A mining town was a rough place with lots of riff raff passing through. Though each shooting had proven to be self defense, James was getting the reputation of a gunfighter. Miners and ranchers in the neighboring areas who were having trouble with claim jumpers and the like, would call on James and his six shooters to aid in the remedy of their woes. Heath, on the other hand, was still unsure of himself and where he wanted to go. He knew for a fact that he didn’ t want to hang around the town of Strawberry. Feeling a stronger sense of stability with James, Sylvia chose him and the two were engaged. Heath accepted her decision to marry his best friend and then left home to enlist in the army shortly thereafter. When the Civil War had come to an end, Heath had returned home to Strawberry for a brief visit and learned that both James and Sylvia had previously left town and their whereabouts was unknown.

Heath paused for a moment over the form that lay before him and gathered his thoughts. He could detect no broken bones in his long lost friend and the head wound seemed to be the only injury. Deciding that it would be safe to move him, Heath cradled James in his arms, and carefully balancing his own weight against James, stood to his feet and made tracks for the home of Doc Merar. By now it was well after five, but there were no signs of activity coming from the neatly kept house that served both as residence and office for the town doctor. Heath set his friend on the rocker that occupied the porches of most homes in that area and pounded on the door for all he was worth. Finally, the sound of movement could be heard and a tousle haired doctor reluctantly opened the door. His attention focused on the rocker where Heath as already preparing to carry the unconscious man inside the house. Tucking his shirt into his unbelted trousers, Doctor Merar held the door open and motioned to a side room where he did his examinations. Heath, who had been there as a patient on numerous occasions, knew exactly where to go, and gently laid his friend down on the exam table.

The doctor started by washing the wound with soap and whiskey. Next he listened to his pulse and checked the dilation on James’ eyes. There was a good sized gash that would require some stiches, so the doctor pulled a clean razor out of a drawer and prepared the surrounding area of the scalp. James made a few low moans during the suture process, but still hadn’t come to. Doctor Merar’s diagnosis was a severe concussion and his orders were bed rest for at least three days. Temporarily leaving James in the care of Doc Merar, Heath returned to the train depot and making arrangements to pick up his supplies later, used the wagon to transport James back to the ranch.

The ride back to the ranch seemed to take forever. Heath was taking it slow and easy as not to jar his passenger any more than necessary. He had a million questions running through his mind about James. What he had been up to these past years, and what was he even doing in Stockton? Good gunfighters usually held a widespread reputation, but he had not even heard the mention of James Dixon in quite a long while, leading him to believe that James had either met his match or laid down the guns to be a more devoted husband to Sylvia. Heath had figured that James had just settled down, but now here he was wearing the same old guns. Heath began to wonder where Sylvia was and if he might have the opportunity to see her again.

As the wagon drew close to the ranch, James began to stir. He had the sensation of riding in the back of a wagon down a bumpy road. Each little bump made his head feel as though it would split in two. Suddenly the wagon came to a halt and he heard the brake lever being locked into place. He sensed the presence of another person and slowly opened his eyes. The daylight seemed bright as he blinked several times to get accustomed to the light. There was a face hovering over him and he put his efforts into focusing on this Good Samaritan. Now wait a minute – he knew that face. It couldn’t be….yes, it was! For a moment James thought that he was back in Strawberry, but where did Heath come from? Heath had been gone for years. Come to think of it, he had been gone for years as well. The whole thing wasn’t making any sense. Like a bolt of lightening, another round of pain shot through his head. Gingerly his groping fingers felt the bandage tightly wound around his noggin and he began his vague recollection of the night before. He remembered leaving the saloon, the walk down that dark alley, and then…..nothing.

“How do you feel?”, came the soft voice of his buddy, Heath. This was a dejavue of many other times during their youth when his friend had asked him the same thing. Usually it was after the two of them had either been in a fight or gotten ahold of a bottle of rotgut whiskey. Heath, his best friend, had always been there with him through thick and thin, and now here he was again.

“Heath…where did you come from? How did I get here?”

“Just rest easy James. It appears you got jumped in an alley last night. I brought you here to the ranch, where I live”. Jumping into the back of the wagon, he helped James into a sitting position. James could see that the Barkley mansion was a far cry from the shacks that they had resided in as kids.

“Whoa! Did you rob a bank or somethin’ like that Heath!?”

“Nope”, replied Heath, “This here place belongs to me and my family. It’s a long story James, so lets save it for later. I reckon that you will have some talkin’ to do, too.”

About that time the front door came flying open and Nick burst onto the scene.

“Boy, where’ve you been with that wagon? The day’s not getting any longer so lets move!”

He strode around to the back of the wagon, expecting to find it loaded with supplies, but stopped short when he came face to face with James and an empty wagon.

“Heath! What’s going on here!?” By this time, Nick shouldn’t have been baffled by any strange person that showed up with Heath. Heck, it had happened many times before. Seems like old friends of Heath, male and female alike, where always finding their way to the Barkley ranch.

“James”, began Heath, “this is my brother Nick.” Now it was James’ turn to look puzzled. Heath had a brother? “Nick, this is my old friend James. I’m sure you remember me mentioning him before. He’ll be staying with us for a spell.”

“But I…..”, James automatically started to put up a protest, but Heath cut him short.

“Nope! Doctors Orders. Period!”

The rest of the family was still lingering around the breakfast table making leisurely chat. Nick and Heath picked up James and carried him straight upstairs to the guest room. Victoria heard the front door close and footsteps going up the stairs, but didn’t give it too much thought. Nick bid his farwells to James, while Heath remained to get him settled.

“Well, old friend – this will be home for a couple of days. I’ll run downstairs and have Silas fix you up a tray for breakfast.”

“I guess I am pretty hungry”, confessed James. He had drunk his fill of whiskey yesterday, but hadn’t really had much of anything to eat. Heath turned to make his exit when James realized that he wasn’t wearing his guns.

“Heath”, James anxiously called after him, “where are my ladies!?” The cowboy turned to face his friend and James continued, “….you know; the ones I won in that big card game when we were livin’ back home in Strawberry?”

Heath flashed him a crooked grin and replied,

“Your gun belt and hat are under the seat of the wagon. I’ll bring them up to you in a bit.”

Down at the breakfast table the family was a buzz. Nick had come down and told them of the mysterious guest that was now resting in the spare bedroom. Victoria’s first inclination was to go up and check on the well-being of the newcomer herself, but was chortled by Jarrod to wait and let him get settled in. A few minutes later when Heath entered the room, everyone started questioning him at once.

“Heath, dear, would you please tell us exactly who is that man upstairs?” Victoria quizzed.

“Yes, Heath, that is a very good question. WHO is he?” Nick’s curiosity was really getting the better of him and he demanded an immediate explanation.

Heath told them briefly of his close friend whom he had grown up with and how he had literally stumbled across him in the alley. As to how he had gotten there and what he was doing in Stockton, Heath hadn’t had a chance to find out yet, but would have some time to ask James the same questions after his friend got some rest. Silas brought in the warmed plate of breakfast that Heath hadn’t had the chance to eat and set it down before him. Heath picked up his fork, but by now wasn’t really interested in food. He was only thinking of ONE thing. If James was in Stockton, where was Sylvia?

The family’s chatter continued, when Jarrod, who had been sitting silently lost in thought, piped in, “Heath, what did you say your friend’s name was?”

“James”, replied Heath, “James Dixon.”

The room got suddenly still until the silence was broken by Nick’s bark, “Now wait a minute! Not James Dixon the gunfighter!”

“That would be the one.” Heath answered matter-of-factly.

“Now that does put a different light on things! I don’t wanna be hosting trouble. Mother; Jarrod; I want him outta here!”

Jarrod was quick to come in on Heath’s behalf, “Now wait a minute Nick. We are talking about a very old and dear friend of Heath’s”.

“Yes”, concluded Victoria, “James is a friend of Heath’s and we will treat him with the same kindness and hospitality that we would show to any other guest. So lets drop it for now and let Heath finish his breakfast in peace.”

Nick grunted, but was obedient to his mothers request. As the prolonged breakfast drew to a close, the family members went about their seperate ways. Victoria needed to go over a shopping list with Silas, Jarrod wanted to ride into town, and Nick and Heath still had a fencing project awaiting them in Sky Meadows. Audra was the only one without a pressing obligation of some sort, but she already had made plans of her own. She was curious about this friend of her half brother. He obviously had quite a colorful past and she was anxious to meet him. Finding herself standing in the foyer alone, she turned and gazed up towards the upper level of the Barkley home. Stealthily she made her way up the stairs and when she reached the top, she made a right turn towards the guest room. She put her hand on the door knob and slowly turned the handle. Audra looked into the room expecting to see a flamboyant looking gunslinger. Instead, the man who lay there partially covered, looked like he was of no different character than any one of her brothers. This couldn’t be the famous James Dixon she thought to herself. The embellished stories that she had heard, had depicted James shooting it out with ten men all at one time. The James Dixon she had heard about, had travelled the world over and seen plenty. Silently Audra turned to depart, thinking that she would like to get to know this man. As the door closed, James opened his eyes. He hadn’t seen the person who had just been in the room, but the scent of her perfume lingered. The aroma reminded him of long ago. A time when he felt secure and was happier than he had ever been.

Down at the barn, Nick and Heath were continuing their discussion about James. Nick had simmered down considerably and Heath was telling him what a good man James really was. During the gold rush, Strawberry had been the type of town where you used a gun in order to survive. James was just so fast with his that it seemed only natural that there would be stories circulating. Most of them, Heath thought, were blown way out of proportion. They had sent one of the hands in for the supplies that were still sitting at the train station, and now the two brothers were catching up on some work inside the barn until their cargo arrived. Nick went on with his usual comments and chitchat, but Heath was a long way off in his thoughts. He was remembering a period of time in his young life in Strawberry, and the one girl who truly made him feel important. Sylvia was the prettiest girl that Heath had ever seen, with long dark hair and a gentle smile; but it was her emerald green eyes that captured his heart. When he looked into those eyes, it was though he could see right into her soul. Whatever troubles he was going through at the time, seemed to be swallowed up in their warmth. They often had talked about the direction they were hoping to go when they eventually made their way out of Strawberry. Sylvia had often dreamed of traveling to some place like San Francisco or even New York. While working in her job at the town cafe, she often heard tales from the miners and fortune seekers that came into town. They talked of tall buildings, indoor outhouses, foods from different parts of the world and a different dress shop on every corner. What an isolated world she lived in. She wanted to get away and see all those things; but most of all, she wanted to settle down somewhere and establish a home of her own. She wanted to cook and care for one man. Yes, Heath had loved Sylvia very much and wanted to marry her, but he had nothing other than himself to offer. James, on the other hand, was now making fair wages as a gunslinger, and the opportunity to move on was at his doorstep. He too, had loved Sylvia, and when he asked her to be his wife, she accepted. Heath’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a creaking wagon, and soon the two brothers were off to mend fences.

Supper, that evening, was unusually quiet. Having had such a late start, Nick and Heath had not yet returned from Sky Meadow. It was just Victoria, Audra and Jarrod who sat together at the table. The conversation was mainly centered around the recuperating house guest upstairs. Jarrod had spent the day at his office in Stockton, and while he was there, did some checking into the background of James Dixon. Victoria and Audra both were very eager to hear what he had to say.

“He really hasn’t ever broken the law”, Jarrod stated, “every fight he has ever been in was either provoked by someone else or in self defense. There is also the possibility that he may be retired. I spoke with Fred, and it’s been awhile since he has heard of any shootings involving James. However, he did tell me of a little trouble that was stirred up in the saloon the other evening.”

“What kind of trouble?” questioned Victoria.

“Oh, it wasn’t anything too bad”, Jarrod explained, “it seems there was a disagreement between James and one of the patrons that he was playing cards with. The man didn’t like the idea of losing, and he and James had a confrontation. I guess that would have been the night before Heath found him in the alley.”

“The thug who robbed him was probably the same man he was playing cards with”, guessed Victoria.

“That would be my assumption”, Jarrod agreed, and then added, “by the way, how is our house guest?”

“Oh, he’s been sleeping most of the day. He woke to eat a couple of times.”

Just then the front door opened and in stomped Nick and Heath.

“Mother!”, they could hear Nick bellow, “Where is everybody? I’m as hungry as a bear!” By that time the two brothers had made their way into the dining area.

“Nicholas, please lower your voice while you’re in the house”, Victoria reprimanded her middle son, “and you know that dinner is always at six. You and Heath come and sit down. There is plenty of food left.”

The two brothers were covered with dirt from head to toe, but Victoria was used to dirty cowboys coming in late for supper. She figured that if they had been out in the corrals instead of mending fences, things could have been worse.

“How’s James?”, Heath asked his mother.

“I was just telling Jarrod that he has spent most of the day sleeping, except for a couple of times when I took some food up to him. You know Heath, he is very polite. Not at all what I expected.”

Heath tried to explain that James was just another guy, and that the reputation that followed him had mostly been exaggerated. Nick still didn’t like the idea of having a hired gun in the house. Especially with him and his brothers being gone a good deal of the day. Heath told them that James had always been very kind and was never a bully. In a town like Strawberry, there weren’t a lot of options. James had a talent with the guns he carried, and went with that option. Audra sat silently listening to the conversation. She didn’t believe that this friend of Heaths was as bad as Nick made him out to be.

It was late when the family finished dinner. Heath had stuck his head in James’ room only to find him sleeping again. Not wanting to disturb him, he took a hot bath and headed for bed. There would be time to talk tomorrow. The others had already retired to their rooms, except for Audra who wanted to sit up for awhile in the library to read.

The grandfather clock down in the living room had just chimed for the twelveth time. Up in the guest room, James stirred in his bed. He had slept most of the day and now he was feeling a bit restless. Thinking he would like to get up and stretch his legs for a few minutes, he got up and headed downstairs. There was a light coming from the library, so he thought it best to announce his presence to whoever the midnight watcher happened to be. He entered the room and there sat a beautiful, golden haired girl. Sensing the presence of another person, Audra looked up from her book. James was stunned at how soft and blue her eyes were.

“Hi”, James said with confidence, “who are you?”

“I’m Heath’s sister. My name is Audra.”

“You were in my room earlier”, James stated. Audra looked at him questioningly and he continued, “I recognize the smell of your perfume.”

Audra blushed slightly and looked down at her book with a small smile fleeting across her face. She looked up at him again and asked,

“How do you feel?”

“Well my head feels like it was stomped on by a horse, but I think I’ll live.”

“I’m glad to hear that”, smiled Audra.

“So your Heath’s sister? I guess that friend of mine does have alot of explaining to do. I never knew Heath had a sister….especially one who looks like an angel.”

“Angelic tendencies run in the Barkley family”, Audra teased.

“Well if that were the case, I reckon that Heath could never be kin to a Barkley”, James joked back.

“Heath is actually the most angelic of my three brothers. Nick is the one who has his halo out on loan.”

James chuckled. Not only was this girl beautiful, but she seemed to have a marvelous sense of humor.

“Nick. That’s the brother I met out by the wagon when we first pulled up to the house. I can vaguely remember meeting him. I was still pretty foggy then. Tell me about the rest of Heath’s family.”

Audra motioned for him to have a seat and he gladly accepted the invitation. A moment later she was telling him all about the family and how Heath came to be a part of it. James listened intently. He was very glad to hear about the good fortune of his dear friend, but was even happier having it told to him by this lovely young lady. After Audra had exhausted her information on Heath, she asked James to tell her about himself. She felt an unexplained attraction to this young man. He was definitely on the handsome side, but that really wasn’t what had her interest. She was more captivated by who he was and the places he had been. It was hard for her to understand how such a seemingly kind and thoughtful person could have at one time hired out as a killer. James explained that he really wasn’t a killer. In a way he was just upholding the law. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but was there to take a stand when trouble came looking for him. The two talked well into the wee hours of the morning.

A few hours later, the assigned chairs in the Barkley dining room began to claim occupancy. Audra’s chair was the only one left empty. Victoria had gone up to call her for breakfast, but the young woman was sleeping so soundly that her mother decided not to wake her. She must have really gotten involved in a good book, Victoria thought to herself as she made her entrance into the dining room. Once breakfast was over, Heath decided that he would once again try to get reacquainted with his old friend. There was still about half a day’s work left in Sky Meadows, but Nick said that he would get started and Heath could ride out when he was finished at the house. Heath tapped a couple of times on the door to let James know that he was about to have a visitor and then entered the room. James was sitting up in his bed, propped up against several pillows. Heath pulled a chair up beside the bed and extended his arm for a handshake.

“Boy Howdy”, he greeted his friend, “look who’s sittin’ up all bright eyed and bushy tailed!”

“Well, I don’t know about the bushy tailed part of it”, James responded. He was still feeling some strong results from his head injury. The two friends went back and forth with some casual chatting and then Heath decided it was time to get into the meat of things.

“…So tell me, James; what have you been up to the past ten years?”

James filled his friend in on some of the adventures he had had, places he’d been, and people he had met. It all sounded very exciting except there was a missing ingredient – Sylvia. Finally Heath pinpointed his friend with the question that had been plaguing his mind since James’ arrival. Where was Sylvia?

James face lost it’s shine as he began to unfold to Heath the tragic tale of their romance. The newly married couple had left Strawberry and moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The area was a boomtown and Jame’s services were in high demand. Sometimes his work would call him away temporarily to other places. He was still young and life was an adventure to him, but both he and Sylvia looked forward to the day when he would hang up his guns and the two of them would settle down into a more tranquil lifestyle. They had never had any children, but when this turning point came into existence, they wanted to start a family. In the early part of their marriage, Sylvia would often travel along with James when he was called out of town. She could visit new places while he took care of business. But as time marched on, she found that she was content just to stay at home and prepare for his return.

It had been early August and a heated land dispute up along the Montana border had developed into a full blown range war. Some of the ranchers had sent a telegram to James in Cheyenne, requesting his services. The altercation had dragged on, leaving him gone from home for several weeks. When a person hires out his guns professionally, he is bound to make a few enemies. One such enemy was Harvey Giles. Harvey Giles and his brother, Wayne, had been known in the Cheyenne area as trouble makers. A group of Cheyenne business owners had decided that they no longer wanted Harvey and Wayne Giles residing in town. The two men were capable of ruthless acts and even the town Sheriff had trouble keeping the brothers on the right side of justice. After a rash of break in’s and vandalism, some of the shop owners decided to supersede the law and handle things their own way. Everyone knew that the Giles were at fault, yet there was no positive proof for the Sheriff to act upon. James had been hired to run the two brothers out and in the process Wayne Giles was shot and killed. Harvey Giles left the vicinity and the problems that had been occurring in town ceased.

On a warm summer day, while a range war was raging in Montana, Harvey Giles returned to Cheyenne. He had read in the papers about James Dixon’s involvement in the the land disputes, and bent on revenge, he decided to pay Sylvia a visit. That evening while she was working on some mending, he forced his way through the locked door of their home. At this point, James paused in his story. He didn’t care to get into the graphic details of the indecencies committed that night. To bring the painful story to a close, he told Heath of how he had returned home the next morning to surprise Sylvia with an unexpected visit. He found her disheveled, bruised and half naked. She told him what had happened and as she fell into his arms sobbing, the front door flew open. Not realizing that she had company, Harvey Giles and his loaded gun had returned for an instant replay of the night before. In heated anger, James pushed Sylvia away from him, whirled and drew. The bullets flew before Harvey hit the floor. His mark was true and stoicly James returned his gun to it’s holster; but when James turned to give comfort to Sylvia, all he could see was her crumpled form lying on the floor. James knelt by her side and cradled her body as she breathed her final words. After taking care of of the necessary formalities, James Dixon left town. He vowed in his heart that his gunslinging days were over. From that point on, he didn’t settle down anywhere, but roamed from town to town making his living with a deck of cards. Gradually the pain he felt lost it’s edge, but he would never live to forget the day that his whole world died.

James finished his tale and a somber faced Heath reached a hand out and placed it on his friends shoulder. He was at a loss for words, but managed to tell James how sorry he was. James had already learned what he wanted to know about Heath from Audra earlier that morning, so he didn’t ask. Being of laconic nature, Heath didn’t volunteer the topic for discussion. Besides, after the story he had just heard, what more could he say. At this point he just wanted to be alone for awhile.

Heath walked out to the barn and saddled Charger. The ride out to Sky Meadows would do him some good. When Heath arrived, Nick was already hard at it. His shirt, hat and gun belt were perched on a nearby fence post, and the cowboy’s bare back glistened with sweat. Silently Heath pulled a pair of leather work gloves from his hip pocket, and tying Charger to the wagon that was under the shade of a nearby tree, he grabbed some fencing tools and went to work. He knew Nick would be asking questions about his visit with James, and Heath wasn’t ready to divulge too much information. That would only bring out the “what did I tell ya” comments from Nick. Nick was a wonderful brother, but he was impulsive and his statements often lacked sensitivity.

Nick and Heath finished the Sky Meadow job and were back at the ranch in time for dinner. James was feeling much perkier and joined the family at the table. The conversation was limited to typical small talk, but Heath couldn’t help but notice the furtive glances that exchanged between James and Audra from time to time. Heath didn’t have a whole lot to add to the conversation that night, except when a question was directed to him. Jarrod had gone out of his way to make sure that James was included in the family’s interacting, and even Nick seemed to be warming up to him.

“James”, Nick suddenly exclaimed with gusto, as he pushed himself back from the table, “how ’bout trying your luck at a game of pool!?”

“Well, I appreciate the offer”, James responded, “but I reckon I best be gettin’ to bed.” Smiling, he ran his hand along the back of his head. “Guess I’m still not feelin’ quite up to snuff.”

James nodded his goodnights to each member of the family, but when he came to Audra, she detected a mischievious twinkle in his eye.

“Goodnight James”, Audra responded, and then looking in Victoria’s direction added, “…..Mother, may I be excused as well? I want to finish reading that book I started last night.” Nonchalantly she glanced sideways at James.

“Of course you may, dear”, Victoria said with a nod of approval.

“Well, I guess that means your stuck with me, brother Nick”, Jarrod chimed. “How about you Heath? Are you up for a game?”

“No Jarrod, I think the only thing I’m up for is a hot bath and goin’ to bed.”

Everyone got up from the table and headed for his or her part of the house. Jarrod beat Nick at several games of pool and finally, when Nick’s ego couldn’t take any more, the two brothers decided to call it a night. Audra insisted that she was at the best part of her book and wanted to stay up and finish. Finally, everyone had retreated to their rooms, leaving Audra to enjoy the stillness of the evening. She was secretly hoping that James would come down and join her again. She had been subtle in her hint, but had the feeling that he knew exactly what she was up to. Another hour ticked by on the mantle clock and then she heard footsteps softly making their way down the front stairs. A moment later James was standing in the doorway that led to the library. There eyes met and James broke the silence.

“I was hoping to find you down here.”

“Won’t you come in”, beckoned Audra, “I must confess that I, too, was hoping to spend some more time together.”

James entered the room and sat down beside Audra. They chatted casually, but each was feeling something that couldn’t be easily expressed. James felt totally at ease in Audra’s presence and felt like he could confide in her his deepest thoughts. She was extremely comfortable with him as well, and wanted to learn as much about him as she possibly could. The fire had been crackeling in the fireplace and James was feeling a bit warm. Looking across the room at the double doors that led outside, he changed the course of their conversation and asked, “Where do those doors lead?”

“Oh, they lead out to the garden. Would you like to take a walk?”

“That would please me very much!” James smiled as he stood and held his arm out to his companion.

Walking the garden arm in arm, they wandered down by the corrals and around the large vicinity surrounding the house. Audra pointed things out to him as they walked and shared memories that she had relating to different areas. Finally, they decided that it was getting late, or rather early, and that they should be heading in. They paused on the porch and turning to face Audra, James held her into an embrace. She returned the lengthy hug and looked up into his face. Without a word, their lips met and their mouths engaged in the most wonderful kiss that Audra had ever hoped to imagine. When it was over, they quietly retreated into the house and each went to their separate rooms. Neither one of them had noticed Heath standing off in the shadows in silent observation.

Silas whisked into the dining room and set a steaming plate of scrambled eggs and ham down on the table. Nick’s fork speared through several of the succulent slices and plunked them down in the center of his own plate.

“Hungry, brother Nick?”, Jarrod mused.

Before Nick had a chance to defend his large appetite, Victoria gave him a gentle reminder.

“Nicholas – would you please do us the honor of saying grace?”. After Nick had delivered his short, mumbled prayer of thanks, Victoria started passing things around to each of her three sons who sat at the table with her. Missing the presence of her youngest child, she commented,

“I do wish Audra were here to join us. This is the second morning she’s missed breakfast. Jarrod, do you suppose you could have a word with her?”

“What for”, the lawyer questioned, “after all she is a big girl.”

“I know, but she should carry a sense of responsibility as being a member of this family. I feel the same way about meal times as your father did. Meals are meant as a time for the family to be together.”

“Must be all that late night readin’ she’s been doing lately”, Nick said with his mouth full of ham. Then to Heath he added, “What’s got stuck in your craw, Boy? You haven’t said more than two words since you’ve been down here?”

“Oh Nicholas”, Victoria chidded, “maybe he has other things on his mind this morning. Do you feel okay, Heath?”.

“I’m okay”, was all the reaction Victoria was able to get out of Heath. He took the last swallow of coffee and excused himself to go out to the barn.

Nick arrived in the barn a few minutes later. Heaving his saddle up on Coco, he asked Heath, “I’m goin’ to check the herd in the North Pasture. You wanna ride along?”

“No thanks, Nick. I’ve got some work to do around the ranch today.”

“Suit yourself. See you at dinner.”

Nick, who by this time had finished saddling his mount, swung a long leg up over Coco’s back and nudging him with his spurs, cantered off for his day’s work. Heath grabbed a curry brush and headed for Charger’s stall. He was still having a hard time working through the grief he felt after learning of Sylvia’s death. He had gone to bed early last night feeling worn out from the day. Several hours later he had awakened from a bad dream. His tormented thoughts turned to the girl he once loved, and after that, sleep was no longer an option. He reached for the pants strewn on the floor at the side of his bed, and made his way to the balcony which attached to his room. There in the moonlight he could see two figures strolling arm in arm. He identified the figures as James and his little sister Audra. He kept them in his watchful gaze and when the darkness had swallowed them up again, be put on a pair of boots and swung down over the edge of the balcony. Heath wasn’t the spying type, but he felt that his sister’s welfare was at stake and he wanted to know exactly what was going on. The kiss between the two confirmed his suspicions, and now he had that to deal with as well. He had already decided it was a matter that he himself should handle, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. He finished brushing Charger and busied himself with other duties. There was a lame horse that needed doctoring, a saddle that needed mending and some feed sacks to be stacked. There were also several broncs that needed to be ridden, but he would save them for last.

Heath grabbed another sack, and using his knee, bounced it up to the top of the stack. Stopping a moment to brush the sweat off his forehead, he unbuttoned his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. He was thinking of Sylvia again, and feelings of anger were beginning to erupt over the grizzley incident. He didn’t hear Audra come into the barn until she was standing right behind him.

“Good morning, Heath. I thought I might find you out here.”

“Good morning? The days half gone”, Heath replied dryly.

Audra looked a bit surprised over the tone in brother’s voice, “What do you mean? I just overslept a little”, she answered defensively.

“From the way I look at it, you haven’t been sleepin’ at all. Least not at night anyway.” Heath had finished with the last sack and now turned to face his sister.

“What are you trying to say? I just stayed up a little late to read!”

“You know exactly what I mean, Audra, and I’ll tell you something else, it ain’t gonna happen!” At this point Audra knew that her brother must have somehow found out about her growing relationship with James and now she stood defiantly with her anger picking up momentum.

“And since when do I need YOUR permission? I’m quite capable of deciding for myself whom I wish to spend my time with.”

“Look Sis – I just think that you should consider what goes along with the name James Dixon, hired gun. Why don’t you ask James what happened to his wife?”

The blank look on Audra’s face told Heath that James hadn’t mentioned his marriage with Sylvia to her. With that he turned and strode out of the barn for the house. Buttoning up his shirt, he entered the front door, and taking the stairs two at a time, headed straight for James’ room. Inside, James had already dressed and was now standing at the window looking out towards the backside of the place that Heath now called home. A sudden, loud knock interrupted his thoughts.

“It’s open”, he called out. The door opened and in walked Heath.

“You feelin’ any better today?”, Heath greeted his friend.

“Yep. Thanks to the hospitality of you and your new family! Say Heath, have you been back to Strawberry lately?”

“Not lately. There’s nothing for me there anymore. Everyone and everything that I hold dear is right here on this ranch.” Heath paused a moment and continued.

“James, I think that maybe you should leave today. I know that Audra has taken a shine to you and I don’t think that you would be the best thing for her.”

In disbelief, James looked at his friend and said, “You gotta be kiddin’ me, Heath. Are you tellin’ me that I’m not good enough for your new sister? I was good enough for Sylvia.”

“If I knew then what I know now, I would say that you weren’t good enough for Sylvia, the same as me. She deserved better than either one of us, and if we had stayed away from her, maybe she would be alive today.”

“So Heath – livin’ in this big house has given you a new set of virtues, has it?”

“No James, that ain’t it at all and you know me better than that. Sylvia was really somethin’ special and was better than either one of us and deserved something better, and you know I’m right, don’t you!?”

James looked down at the floor and after a moment sorrowfully replied, “It was my fault that she was alone that night, and I reckon that it was my fault for takin’ her away with me in the first place. Maybe we should have all stayed in Strawberry.”

“No James. Staying in Strawberry wasn’t the answer”, Heath paused and continued, “Audra is too young to know what’s out there waitin’ for you, and spendin’ her life with a gunfighter isn’t what we want for her. Now if your feelin’ better, I think it’s time for you to go. We’ve been friends for a long time and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

James nodded his agreement. He knew that the life he led wasn’t good enough for Audra and there was nothing else he could do but bid his farewells and ride out.

“Okay, Heath, I’ll leave right away. Would you lend me a horse though? I’ll leave it at the livery when I go pick mine up.”

With a half smile, Heath extended his hand to his friend and left the room. James fastened on his gun belt and grabbed his hat off the night stand. By this time Heath was already in the barn saddling up his mount.

Audra was just getting ready to go upstairs when she met up with James on his way down. She thought it odd that their house guest would have his guns and hat unless he were planning to go somewhere.

“Where are you going with those?”, she questioned.

“It’s time for me to go”, replied James, stopping on the stairway. Audra couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

“What’s the matter?”, were her next words, “Did I do something wrong….or was it something I didn’t do?” Saying this she started to cry.

“No, no”, James said taking hold of her hand, “Heath and me….well, we talked about this ‘you and me’ thing, and we both agreed that it was best that I left.”

“Did Heath tell you to go? Did he?”

“It doesn’t matter, Audra. This is for the best.”

James gave Audra’s hand a final squeeze before making his exit. A tearful Audra watched him walk out the door and then retreated up to her room for a good cry. Up in her room, the big house seemed empty and lonely. Heath was still out by the barn, Nick was up in the North Pasture riding herd for the day, and Mother and Jarrod had left for a one day train trip to Modesto. How could Heath do this to her? Didn’t he realize how much she truly loved James? Audra often felt as though her brothers treated her romantic interests as passing fleets of fancy, but this was different. She had never felt something so real and so quickly for any man before. She had already entertained fantasies in her mind of being Mrs. James Dixon, and she had no intentions of giving up this easily. Out in the barn Heath had mentioned to her about James being previously married, but that did not alter the feelings of endearment that she held for him.

Feeling satisfied that he had done the best thing that he possibly could for Audra, Heath spent the afternoon breaking in the three new horses that had been waiting for him. Before James rode out, he told Heath of his ‘goodbye’ to Audra and that Audra hadn’t taken it real well. Heath decided that it was best to leave her alone for awhile, and after she had had a chance to think on it, then he would go to her and make reconcilliation. It was getting near five and with everybody else in the family gone for the day, Silas had promised to serve an early supper. Heath was tired anyway. That baldfaced mare had been a real challenge and he had been thrown off several times. One time, he had landed especially hard on the side of his hip, and was now really starting to feel like he had spent the day as a bronc stomper. He had been so busy down at the corrals, that he hadn’t even noticed when Audra slipped out to the barn to take her horse Mischief out for a ride. Heath walked into the house and tossing his hat on a nearby chair, made his way over to the brandy decanter. Silas was just getting ready to set two places at the dinner table. Pouring himself a much needed glass, Heath asked Silas.

“Dinner ’bout ready?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Heath. Dinner will be ready in five minutes.”

“Guess I’ll go knock on Audra’s door and see if she’s ready.”

“Oh Miss Audra – she hasn’t come back yet.”

“Come back? Where and when did she go?”

“She left about an hour and a half ago. She was packing along some saddle bags. When I asked her where she was off to, she said that she had to take some things over to the orphanage. I told her dinner would be right at five and she nodded.”

By this time Heath had taken the last hard swallow of brandy and was reaching for his hat and gunbelt.

“Why don’t you hold off on dinner, Silas, I have a feeling that Audra will be running late.” Under his breath he muttered, “supplies for the orphanage my eye.”

*****

Audra rode Mischief towards Stockton like she was hell bent for leather. The little buckskin mare was lathered from brisket to fetlock by the time they reached the out skirts of town. Under normal circumstances, Audra would have never pushed her horse that hard, but she wanted to be sure of catching up with James before he left town. She had a few of her necessary belongings packed in her saddle bags, and after a brief stop at the bank to withdraw her savings, she would look for James and beg him to take her along. She figured that she had enough money saved that the two of them could get by for quite a while, and by the time the money ran out, her family would be ready to welcome her home with open arms. Besides, when she finally decided that it was time to return to the ranch, instead of returning as Audra Barkley, she would be Audra Dixon. The name had a nice sound to it. Of course, when the family learned of her marital status, James would be received as a brother. Audra had no way of knowing that before all was said and done, nothing could be farther from the truth.

*****

The door of Cattlemans swung open wide and Heath stampeded up to the front desk.

“Good evening Mr. Barkley, what can I help you with today?” came the cheerful voice of the clerk behind the counter.

“I’m looking for a Mr. James Dixon – is he here?”

“Mr. Dixon was a guest a few days ago and then disappeared. About an hour ago, he came back, picked up his gear and left.”

“Did he say where he was going?” Heath asked anxiously.

“No, he just said that he wouldn’t be staying on. You might check the livery or the saloon.”

“Did he have anyone with him? A girl maybe?”

“No – just him and his bedroll.”

“Okay, I appreciate your help.”

Heath left the hotel wondering where he should look first. He had a feeling that if he found James, Audra would turn up as well. First he went down to the livery. Dave Harwell was hard at work pitching the horses their evening hay.

“Howdy Dave”, Heath greeted, glancing around in search of the loaned out horse. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Calls himself James. Can you tell me if he’s been by at all this evening?”

“Let me see”, said Dave scratching his head, “That would be the young fellow that we played cards with the other evening. I’ve been boarding his horse for the last few days. When I was out filling the water trough this afternoon, he came by and said something about earning some money so that he could pay the bill. My guess would be that he’s over in the saloon right now. If his luck is holding out anything like it was the other evening, he should be here right short like.”

Heath had already turned to leave before Dave finished his last sentence. He called his thanks back over his shoulder and made way for Stockton’s saloon. There sitting in the middle of a poker game, was James. The dealer had just shuffled the deck and was dealing around the table. Heath approached the table.

“If you’ll excuse me for a moment, gentlemen, I have a little business to discuss with Mr. Dixon.”

“Can’t it wait, Heath, I’m right in the middle of a game?” James requested.

“No James, it can’t.”

“All right then. If you gentlemen will be so kind as to deal me out of this next hand, I’ll go have a word with Mr. Barkley here.” With that James picked up his bottle and glass and followed Heath over to an empty table. When they were out of immediate earshot, Heath, in a very serious tone, asked his friend, “Okay James, where is she?”

“Where’s who?” James replied with a puzzled look on his face.

“Audra.”

“Audra?”

“Yes, Audra, James. She left the ranch this afternoon and still hadn’t returned as of about an hour ago. Silas said she had her saddle bags with her when she left. Now, where do you suppose she was going?”

“Well, my guess would be that maybe she intends on following after me. Certainly you don’t think I put her up to it.”

“No, James, I guess I don’t. At first I thought you might have, but now I know that I was wrong.”

“Thanks Heath!” James gave his friend a warm smile and then got serious again. “Well, she ain’t in here, so I guess our best bet is to start looking some place else.”

“I’d sure appreciate the help, James. None of us like Audra roaming around too long by herself, and I still suspect that she’s out searching for you.”

The two men checked the dress shop, Bandies general store and the town mercantile.

“Maybe we should check in with the Sheriff’s office”, suggested James.

“Well, I really hate having to do that”, Heath hesitated, “but guess maybe that would be a good idea.”

The two men entered the office of Sheriff Fred Madden, only to find it empty.

“Wonder where Fred is?”, pondered Heath. “Maybe he’s making his early evening rounds.” Looking at his pocket watch, he added, “it’s about six-thirty. The bank closes at six and he usually likes to rattle the doors good and proper after the tellers have gone home for the evening. Let’s head over in that direction.”

The two men hadn’t walked too far when they just about had a head on collision with John Touser, another one of the men who had played poker with James his first night in town. Heath engaged the panicked man in conversation, “Now hold up there John; what seems to be your hurry?”

John stopped to catch his breath, but spit out an explaination as best he could. It was getting near closing time at the Stockton bank, when a hold up man in a long, black waist coat entered through the double doors. The man was the stranger that had been hanging around town for the past several days. There were several other people in the bank as well. The stranger pulled a gun and ordered everyone to be still. He grabbed a young girl standing right at John’s window and held his gun up to her head. Then he ordered John to fill a bag with money for him and threatened to shoot the girl if John didn’t comply. John gave the stranger the money he demanded, but not before one of the other customers had slipped out the door to run for the Sheriff. One of Fred’s deputies was in the vicinity and in no time flat, was waiting for the armed man to leave the bank. The stranger then released everyone left in the bank, but kept the girl as a hostage. At this point John paused and looking at Heath said, “…and the young girl is your sister, Audra.”

*****

When James and Heath breathlessly arrived at the bank, a small crowd was scattered in various places of cover. Fred, his deputy and several of the men from town that had been duly deputized for the evening were laying siege on the bank. Heath ducked behind a wagon that Fred was using for cover with James right there at his heels.

“Heath, I’m glad your here. We have some decisions to make”, said Fred, anxiously glancing towards the broken, barred window of the bank.

“Where are you at now?”, the cowboy questioned.

“Well, the guy in there with your sister is shooting at anything that moves to close to the building. We’ve held our fire for fear of hittin’ Audra. He’s just demanded a horse and passage out of town. If we comply, then he will release Audra unharmed after he’s safely out of town.”

“But what if he doesn’t? What if he decides to take her along as a hostage, or worse yet, what if he decide he doesn’t want to leave behind a witness?”

“That’s why I’m asking you to make the choice, Heath. It’s your call.”

Heath pondered for a few moments. He had been in similar situations several other times when he worked as a deputy for Frank Sawyer. In most cases, the captors weren’t really interested in harming the hostages intentionally, but if a heated gun battle entaled, they didn’t go out of their way to protect them either. The most sure way of getting Audra out of the bank unharmed would be to comply with the gunman’s wishes, but yet he wasn’t to keen on the idea of his sister seeing this stranger safely out of town.

“Fred”, Heath finally decided, “Have one of the men go into the livery and get a horse from Dave. Nothing too fast.” Then in the direction of the bank, he called, “You in the bank! We’re getting the horse you requested and will guarantee you can ride out without being followed, but first, turn the girl loose!”

“Not a chance”, called out the stranger, “she goes with me. My gun will be on her at all times. Any false moves and she’s a goner!”

Inside the bank, the stranger who had his left arm around Audra’s neck, securely holding her back close to his body, gave her an exaggerated squeeze.

“You understand that, Girlie? No funny business from you either, or you won’t live to see another sunrise!” The armed man growled to the gasping Audra.

Audra partly nodded and partly vocalized her agreement. She thought about the stranger’s words about ‘not living to see another sunrise’. Audra remembered the sunrise of this particular day, and how her morning had been started by an agrument with Heath out in the barn. The young, flaxen haired girl thought of her brother whom she dearly loved, and who was always looking out for her best interests. A few moments ago she had heard his voice out in the street negotiating on her behalf. Feelings of remorse began to plague Audra’s soul. She wanted desperately to be able to run and put her arms around him. She wanted to tell him how sorry she was and how foolishly she had behaved. “Oh God”, she whispered within her own mind, “please give me the chance to make things right with Heath.”

Out in the street, the men had returned with the horse. Keeping careful surveilance from his lookout, the stranger called out, “Okay. Now I want you to listen to me careful like. Take the horse and tie it up to this here hitching post outside the door.”

“Let me take it, Fred”, Heath requested. Fred nodded his approval and the cowboy led the saddled mount to it’s appointed place. After tying the animal securely, Heath turned to walk back to the others, but then stopped and turned to face the man peering through the barred window. Very slowly he unbuckled his gun belt and holding it at arms length, tossed it away from him.

“Look”, he said. “My name is Heath Barkley and that’s my little sister Audra you have in there. Now, I don’t care about how much money you plan on taking with you when you leave; all I care about is gettin’ my sister back in one piece.”

“So what’s yer point, Mister”, the gruff reply echoed through the now dusky streets.

“Robbery is bad enough, but at least it’s not a hangin’ offense. Kidnappin’ is. Now, around here a Barkley’s word is considered as good as any signed contract. I give you my promise that if you send that girl out to me, nobody will take a shot at you.”

“What about the others?”, the voice behind the window demanded.

Without turning around, Heath called out, “Fred, will you and your men agree to these terms?”

“It’s agreed”, Sheriff Fred Madden hollered back loud enough for all to hear.

Heath added, “I will stand right here where you can see me with my hands up. As a little bit of added insurance, I will stand in front of you and the horse. Do we have a deal?”

The stranger thought for a moment. He was between a rock and a hard spot. One thing was certain; he couldn’t stay holed up in the bank forever, and this man, Heath Barkley, did have a point. If a posse were to catch up with him, kidnapping or murder was a sure ticket to an instant lynching.

“Okay”, the stranger agreed, “but don’t go trying anything stupid, or you’ll be the first to get it!”

There was a rattle at the door of the bank as the bolts were slid out of place. A moment later the stranger emerged still clutching a terrified Audra. ‘What if the man went back on his word and did something irrational?’, were the only thoughts she could presently dwell on. Her eyes caught Heath’s. She saw the deep concern and love transmitted in her direction from a brother that was willing to risk his own life for hers. A brother whom she had probably hurt with her deliberate refusal to listen to his words of wisdom back at the house. She paused in her thoughts long enough to vow to herself and her maker, that if they both walked away from this, she would have a deep respect for her brother’s insights, and would never turn and run in anger. However, at this particular moment, all she could do was hope, pray, and trust.

By now they had reached the tethered horse and the stranger loosed his arm from Audra’s throat.

“Okay girlie, you just stand here for a moment and no sudden moves!”

Keeping his gun carefully aimed at Audra’s head, he swung a leg over the saddle and with a warning glare, thundered off into the night.

“Heath!” Audra flew into the arms of her brother and he held her close to his chest.

“Sis! Thank God you’re all right!”

“Oh Heath, I’m so sorry for the way I behaved – hurting you and running off like I did. Will you ever forgive me.”

“Well Audra, they always say that hindsight is better than foresight. We all make mistakes. Now lets say we get you back to the ranch.”

The two siblings walked arm in arm back to Fred, James and the others. The president of the bank, and his head man, John Touser, had arrived by this time. They were concerned as to whether or not the tall, dark stranger had made off with any of the bank’s money. Audra told them that after being pinned in the bank, her captor hadn’t taken the time to pilfer through the drawers for cash. He was content just to get himself out of his predicament. Fred and his men held true to their word, and didn’t pursue the fleeing man.

The crowd started to break up and Heath, Audra and James found themselves in a place where they could have some private words together. James said, “Well, I’ve got my gear down at the livery stable. Guess maybe I’ll go find a nice pile of straw and try and get a good nights sleep. I plan to leave town at first light.”

“You don’t have to do that, James”, Heath responded, “why don’t you come back and spend the night at the house. You can leave after breakfast in the mornin’ .”

“No Heath. I think it’s better if I just stay in town tonight. Thanks for the offer though.” Then looking at Audra, he smiled and said, “and thank you, young lady, for all the warmth and hospitality you’ve shown me while I was a guest in your home. I will always cherish the time we had together.”

“Me too!” Audra beamed back at him.

After all the goodbyes were finalized, James headed back for the livery, and Heath and Audra went about locating their mounts. Charger was still tethered in front of the Cattlemen’s where Heath had tied him several hours earlier, and Mischief, who had spooked and broken loose when the commotion first started, had wandered into town and been tethered in front of the saddle shop by one of Stockton’s well meaning citizens. It was getting late and by now the rest of the family would be wondering where the two siblings had ventured off to. Riding side by side, Heath and Audra headed for home.

***The End***

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