The Witness (by Star)

Summary:  At Jarrod’s request, Nick and Heath set out to find a runaway witness.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,000


The kerosene lamp flickered lustrously, casting soft shadows and illuminating the solitary office building. The dark haired, blue eyed Stockton lawyer sitting at the desk seemed lost in thought and reason when a sudden rap at the door alerted him of a late night caller. Jarrod Barkley stood and stretched before making his way to remove the bolt that served as insurance against unwanted intruders.

“Oh….good evening, Fred. What brings you out this late? Business or pleasure?”

“Well, actually Jarrod, tonight I reckon it would be business.”

“Okay. Come on in and have a seat.”

Jarrod ushered his guest over to the desk and motioned for him to sit. Reclining back in his own high backed, leather armchair, Jarrod inquisitively studied the weather-worn face of his long-time friend and waited for Sheriff Madden to offer up an explanation for his visit.

“Jarrod, I won’t beat around the bush. I’ve got a favor to ask you.”

“Alright, Fred. I’m listening.”

“I know you’ve been really busy here lately and have even been outta town for a few days, but do you recall reading about that murder that was committed a couple of weeks ago over in that warehouse building on the east end of town?”

“You mean the one involving the Army lieutenant and the warehouse worker?”

“That would be the one.”

“Yes. I read about that in the Stockton Eagle. I understand you have the suspect locked up in your jail now.”

“That is correct. His name is Mario DeSoto and he’s a Portuguese immigrant; however, he’s been over in this country for about ten years now and has worked as a bookkeeper for Hansen’s Freight Company for five. He claims he was working late one night and heard some sort of commotion out in the warehouse. He went out to investigate and found a uniformed army officer laying face down in a pool of blood. Not being able to detect pulse, he pulled the knife out. At that point he says the two night watchmen had him restrained and were accusing him of the murder.”

“And there were no witnesses?”

“Not that I’m aware of. He says that there was a young man that helped out with odd jobs around the place. The kid was homeless and usually slept right there in the building, but he disappeared the night of the murder and hasn’t been seen since.”

“Sounds like maybe he knew more than he felt safe knowing.”

“I don’t know. But what I do know is I have this gut feeling that Mario is telling the truth. He says he was framed, Jarrod, and I believe him. The problem is he needs a lawyer. A good one.”

“So that’s the favor you came to ask me?”

“I guess that’s about the size of it, Jarrod. What do ya say? He doesn’t have a whole lotta money to get him the counsel he needs, and his family is all over seas. I guess you might say he’s all alone in this.”

“Well, I guess I could mosey on over to the jail and meet this Mario. However, I would rather wait to make a decision until I’ve had a chance to talk with him myself.”

“Fair enough, Jarrod. He was still awake when I left. If you have the time, I can introduce him to you now.”

Mario was sitting on the edge of his cot reading from a battered, old Bible, the pages yellowed with time. The middle aged man carefully closed the book’s cover as Fred and Jarrod approached the dimly lit jail cell. Jarrod was already sizing up the small man. He could tell from the worn leather on Mario’s Bible that here sat a man of great faith.

“Mario,” greeted Sheriff Madden, “I have somebody here I’d like you to meet. This is Jarrod Barkley, the lawyer I was tellin’ you about.”

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Barkley!”

The raven-haired man couldn’t help revealing his enthusiasm as he stood and thrust a hand through the bars of his prison to greet Jarrod with a robust hand shake.

“Same here…Mr. DeSoto, isn’t it?”

“Please, call me Mario.”

“Alright. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mario. Fred, would you mind unlocking this door so I may consult with my prospective client?”

“Not at all, Jarrod, not at all.”

Sheriff Madden hastily fumbled with the large key ring he had retrieved from his desk drawer and finding the proper key, opened the door just long enough for Jarrod to enter before locking the two men up together.

“Here! Have a seat Mr. Barkley!”

Mario scooted to one end of his cot leaving a place for Jarrod to sit.

“Thank you for coming!”

Mario’s gratitude was evident by the glimmer of hope in his dark brown eyes. Even though they had barely met, Jarrod couldn’t help but like this man. As the two made eye contact, Mario’s face grew solemn. He looked down and began ringing his hands in his lap. Jarrod had learned to not only judge a person by what they said, but how they said it. Mario’s tried his best to convey his testimony in his halting broken English.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, Mr. Barkley. I never kill that man. They all try and blame Mario, but I kill no one.”

“Now slow down there, Mario. I think I believe you, but you have got to trust me. You have must tell me everything that happened that night.”

Mario took a deep breath and smiled weakly.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Barkley. Please, forgive me. I just don’t know what to do. The newspaper say Mario is a murderer and nobody seem to believe me. Nobody except for you and Sheriff Madden.”

“Okay, Mario, let’s start from the beginning. I want you to tell me all the details surrounding the night of the murder as best as you can recollect.”

“Well, Mr. Barkley, I’m really not sure where it began. I work for the Hansen Freight Company five years now.”

“Were you hired on when LaMar Hansen bought out Western Freight?”

“No, I work for Western and then Mr. Hansen bought the company and I stay on.”

“Okay. LaMar Hansen purchases Western Freight Company and changes it to Hansen Freight. Have you worked as the bookkeeper the entire time?”

“Yes, Mr. Barkley. When I first come to America, I live in Sacramento for a while and learn to speak good English. I try and get job there, but only job for foreigner is harvest worker. I travel south to Stockton and get job in warehouse keeping books and records. Mr. Thorpe owned company then but sold it to Mr. Hansen about a year and a half later. Mr. Hansen say I do good work and let me stay on.”

“Tell me now, Mario. How is the business run there at Hansen Freight?”

“The freight comes in on the train from many different places. The dock workers unload shipment and from there it goes out on wagon. Sometimes incoming freight gets shipped out on train.”

“You mean if a private individual has an item or crop they want shipped?”

“Yes, Mr. Barkley, sir.”

“Now, I want you to think back to the night of the murder, Mario. Think really hard and tell me if you can remember the exact time and what you were doing when the murder took place.”

“I remember well. It was 11:30 in the evening. It was the last Saturday of the month and I wanted to get month’s end tally finished. There was loud voices coming from out inside of warehouse.”

“Out inside of the warehouse? Do you mean to say that your office is ajoined to the main building?”

“Yes. That is correct.”

“Were there dock workers still working at that late hour?”

“Yes. Sometimes dock workers work all night. Freight always coming and going.”

“So you heard a commotion coming from out in the main building. Then what did you do?”

“After hearing voice, I think maybe I should go and see. It sounded like someone was very angry.”

“What did you see upon entering the main warehouse?”

“I walk around and look but nobody there. Everything quiet now. I go over behind some boxes and see something unusual on floor. It is a man in uniform lying face down. There is blood. When I rolled him over he had knife in him.”

“Then what happened?”

“I saw that he was dead and I try to pull knife out.”

“You tried to pull the knife out. What made you decide to do that?”

“I don’t know. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I pull hard but knife in very deep. Very hard to pull out.”

“But you got it out?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And then two night guards step out from behind crates and grab me. They say I kill that man.”

“You say they stepped out from behind some crates. Was there a lot of freight stacked in the building at that time?”

“Yes. There is always stacks in building. Mr. Hansen does good business.”

“What kind of lighting was in there at the time? Was it dim or bright?”

“I say dim. Just a few lamps for entire warehouse.”

“Now, the sheriff mentioned to me earlier that there may have been a possible witness. Can you tell me a little bit more about him?”

“Chris, he help with the sweeping and run errands for Mr. Hansen. He have no place to go and Mr. Hansen say he can stay there and sleep at night.”

“How old is this Chris?”

“He’s still a lad. Maybe sixteen.”

“And what happened to Chris after the night of the murder?”

“I don’t know. Antonio…, he’s one of emeano loaders. Antonio say Chris disappear.”

“Antonio is a friend of yours?”

“Yes. Antonio come and visit me in jail and say no one see Chris since that night.”

“So it’s possible that Chris could have witnessed the murder?”

“Yes. I guess he could. Or maybe he just scared that if he stick around he may be next.”

Jarrod puzzled and pondered the situation for a moment and then methodically resumed his questioning.

“Mario, you say the victim was in uniform and I had already read in the newspapers that he was an army lieutenant. What was an army lieutenant doing in the warehouse?”

“The army use Mr. Hansen freight service to get supply to base. The army have their own freight car and wagons.”

“And they use their own personnel to pick up and load the supplies?”

“Yes. Mr. Hansen just provide place to drop off and store supply until ready for pickup.”

“Alright, Mario, I think you have given me enough information for now. Let me think on this over night and I will get back with you in the morning. In the meantime, try and think of any other little details that may be important regarding that night. Even if they don’t seem important to you. When I return tomorrow, I will have some more questions for you. I will also do some checking around town and see what I can find out.”

Jarrod rose and called out for Fred to come and open the cell. It was late and he wanted to get home.

“Mr. Barkley?”

“Yes Mario?”

“I will pray that you find the truth in this thing that I am accused of doing.”

“You do that, Mario. But I also want you to try and get some sleep. I will do everything I can to bring the reason for all this out into the open, but it won’t help either one of us if you are run down and tired.”

“I will try to get some sleep. Good night, Mr. Barkley.”

“Good night.”

Jarrod gave his client a reassuring twisted grin as he followed Fred out into the office area.

“Fred, what do you think? I get the impression that Mario isn’t telling us everything, but I do believe that he is telling the truth about not killing that army officer.”

Fred had closed the door leading into the area housing the cells and was now slipping the bolt into place.

“You know, Jarrod, I’ve seen my fair share of killers in here and they all say the same thing – ‘I’m innocent’ – they got nothing to lose by lyin’. But like I told you back in your office, this man seems different. My gut instinct tells me that he’s being truthful when he says he didn’t do it.”

“True enough, Fred. This man doesn’t seem like he could kill anybody in cold blood. Besides, what would his motive be? If it was money he wanted, he could just take the strong box and leave late at night. They don’t seem to have much of anything else sitting around that warehouse that would be worth stealing. Not unless Mario is into Persian rugs or Chinese vases.”

On the moonlit ride back to the ranch, Jarrod’s conversation with Mario kept milling through his mind as he tried to untangle a reason for this heinous crime in a deserted warehouse. He felt that Mario was possibly keeping something from him, but yet he believed this man didn’t commit the murder. By the time Jarrod had climbed into bed, he had already decided that he would take the case, but first he would get to the bottom of what Mario was hiding. He didn’t need any surprises in court.

The following morning, Jarrod was the first one at the breakfast table. Preoccupied with the preceeding evening’s events, he dined silently alone on scrambled eggs, orange juice and toast without ever really tasting what he was putting into his mouth.

“You must have started a new case!”

Victoria’s chipper voice broke the young lawyer out of his trance.

“Oh, good morning, Mother. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Nick could have walked in screaming at the top of his lungs and I don’t think you would have heard it.”

“I guess I’ve just got a lot on my mind this morning. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

“Well, not to worry. Are you planning to go into the office early today?”

“As a matter of fact I was getting ready to do just that.”

Jarrod dabbed at his mouth with the fine linen napkin that lay neatly folded next to his plate and standing abruptly, gently placed a kiss on top of his mother’s head before briskly strolling out the front door. He had a lot of ground to cover today and time was wasting.

The town of Stockton was just starting to come alive when Jarrod rode up to his empty office and hitched Jingo to the rail out front. Sharon, his secretary, hadn’t even arrived yet, so after fishing for the key, Jarrod let himself in and opened up the shades. He seated himself heavily in his plushy leather chair and sighed deeply, contemplating the best place to begin. Mario had mentioned that the warehouse was pretty much open all the time. That was as good a place to start as any. Jarrod gathered together some note pads, writing implements, and a two week old paper headlining the murder in the warehouse. Armed with the tools of his trade, Jarrod headed over to the not so ritzy part of town.

Upon entering the warehouse, the neatly pressed lawyer stuck out like a sore thumb. Jarrod made his way over to the main office hoping to have a word with LaMar Hansen, but found it dark and vacant. Perhaps some of the dock workers could tell him something.

Out on the warehouse dock, the early morning crew was just resuming the day’s tasks. Burly men were moving or stacking crates and boxes and organizing shipments for their proper destinations. The low, long whistle of a distant train signaled workers of soon incoming freight. Jarrod’s eyes scanned the dimly lit building and soon rested on a lone figure counting boxes in the far corner. This man looked to be a lot less threatening and possibly a little more cooperative than some of his coworkers. Casually, Jarrod made his way over to where the slim, Latin bred man was bent over, thoroughly engrossed in his work.

“Excuse me,” addressed Jarrod, “would you be able to spare a moment or two of your time?”

The man straightened and turned to face the voice that had penetrated into his thoughts.

“Senor?”

“Good morning. My name’s Jarrod Barkley. I wonder if you might help me with some information?”

“I will try, Senor. What is it that you need to know?”

“Well, for starters, I’m looking for two watchmen.” Jarrod paused to study the print in his stale copy of the Stockton Eagle. “Their names are Gus Peters and Rod Benson.”

“Si, Senor. Gus and Rod are still here, but they will be leaving shortly.” Glancing down at Jarrod’s paper, the man added, “but why, Senor? Why is it that you want to know?”

“I understand that they were on duty the night Lieutenant Timothy Handel was murdered. I would like to ask them a few questions.”

The seemingly friendly dockworker took a step back and his face grew grim.

“You work for the sheriff, senor?”

“No. Actually, I’m an attorney. I represent Mario Desoto and I just need to get a few facts concerning his case.”

“Oh, I am glad, Senor. I’m glad for Mario, but where did he get money to hire such a fancy lawyer as you?”

“You’re a friend of Mario’s I take it.”

“Si, Senor. Me and Mario are good friends. Around here you have to be careful who you call ‘amigo’, but that Mario, he’s a good one.”

“Tell me Mr…., excuse me, but I didn’t get your name.” Extending his hand, Jarrod waited for the Hispanic man to introduce himself.

“I’m Antonio. Antonio Lopez.”

“Oh, I believe Mario mentioned you to me last evening when we talked. Tell me, Antonio, what did you mean when you said you had to be careful who you called ‘friend’?”

“These are rough men who work the docks, Senor Barkley. I just try to keep to myself and not get involved in anyone else’s business…except for Mario that is. He’s different. He tries not to get involved either, but now, Senor, now….well, you see where it’s got him.”

“Antonio, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, but I have just one more favor to ask. Before I leave could you please tell me where I can find Gus Peters and Rod Benson?”

“Si, Senor Barkley. There is a little station over on the far end of the warehouse. When they’re not making their rounds around the docks, they are usually over there drinking coffee. Gus in a very tall man with a scar down the side of his face. Rod is short, bald and heavy.”

The trim man held both arms out to emeanore his own meager waiste line.

“Okay, I think I get the picture. Thank you, Antonio. Thank you very much.”

Jarrod turned to depart, but then thinking of one last question, spun around on his heel.

“Antonio, one more thing before I go. Mario mentioned a ‘Chris’ that slept here in the warehouse at nights. What do you know about him?”

“Si. Chris worked here for close to nine months, but after the murder, it seems that he left town to find other work.”

“Can you tell me what this ‘Chris’ looks like?”

“I can do that for you, Senor. Chris is small built with sandy blonde hair and brown eyes. He seems to be in his mid teens and is always dressed in dark brown work pants with suspenders, light brown shirt and sometimes he wears a patched up, grey jacket.”

“Does Chris have a last name?”

“I’m sure he does, Senor, but to all of us, he is just Chris.”

“Well, thanks again and I’ll be in touch.”

With a tip of his hat and a nod of his head, Jarrod was off in search of the two night watchmen. Gus and Rod were just in the process of logging their entries onto their time sheets when they were approached by a well dressed gentleman. This man was obviously not from the docks, but from time to time handsomely attired business men would have reason to visit the warehouse. From Antonio’s description, Jarrod was able to pinpoint the two the moment he spotted them. He emeanore made his way over to the pair and extended his hand in greeting. Gus looked at Rod, Rod looked at Gus, and then the pair turned towards Jarrod, eyeing him with blank stares.

“Somethin’ we can do for you, Mister?,” Gus’ huskey voice seemed to echo off the walls of the building.

“You can if you’re Gus Peters and Rod Benson,” replied Jarrod, dropping his arm.

“Who wants to know?”

Jarrod could detect suspicion in the tall man’s tones.

“My name’s Jarrod Barkley. I’m investigating the murder that took place here a couple of weeks ago.”

“We already told the sheriff everything we know,” broke in Gus’ annoyed partner.

“I am well aware of that fact,” Jarrod calmly stated turning to the tall man’s portly sidekick, “I’m an attorney representing Mario DeSoto and I have a few of my own questions I would like to ask.”

“Well, we don’t get paid to stand around and answer questions. Now if you’ll just step aside, we were just I’ ready to leave.”

With one firm shove, Gus pushed Jarrod to the side as he and Rod sauntered past the polished looking lawyer. Catching his balance, Jarrod called after their departing forms.

“When this goes to trial, I can order a subpoena from the judge and you will have to talk.”

“Or what?,” shot Gus, suddenly turning around to face what he considered to be a menacing pest. “Or you’re goin’ to make trouble for me?”

“The only trouble is what you make for yourself, Mr. Peters. All I did was present you with an option. You can cooperate with me here and now, or I can have the sheriff and his deputies make that decision for you.”

“Well, I guess I don’t want no trouble from the sheriff…but let’s make this quick. It’s been a long night and I’m anxious to get home to my woman.”

“Tell me what you know surrounding the events that took place the night Tim Handel was murdered.”

“Like I told you, I already gave a statement to the sheriff. What more is there to say?”

“Well, for starters you never did tell him why you weren’t there preventing this crime from happening in the first place. Why is it that with two men on watch duty, a scuffle followed by a stabbing was commited, yet the two guys who are supposed to be keeping an eye on things were nowhere to be found?”

Gus took a couple of long strides forward until he stood about a foot from Jarrod’s face. With a strong arm, he grabbed hold of the attorney’s collar and pulled him in even closer.

“Are you callin’ me a liar, mister? Are you suggestin’ that maybe we had somethin’ to do with that killin’? Well, you’d better take your suspicions and get the hell outta here, ‘cause if I catch ya pokin’ ‘round here again, I’m liable to mistake you for some kinda trouble makin’ trespasser.”

With the strength of an ox, Gus gave Jarrod a final shake and with a forceful thrust, released his grip from the attorney’s lapel. Being careful not to get himself riled, Jarrod straightened his shirt and brushed out the creases in his jacket made by the watchman’s powerful hand.

“Have it your way, Mr. Peters, but take my word for it. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”

Jarrod quickened his step for a hasty departure from the warehouse building but stopped short when he spotted LaMar Hansen arriving from the opposite direction. He still needed to locate Chris for questioning and maybe Mr. Hansen could head him in the right direction.

“Good Morning, LaMar!,” Jarrod cheerily greeted the renowned businessman.

“Oh, good morning to you, Jarrod. Is there something I can help you with?”

“As a matter-of-fact there is. Is there some place we can go and talk privately?”

“Yes, let’s just step over here into my office.”

The two men entered the small, modest room that had ‘LaMar Hansen, Proprieter’ displayed on it’s door. Even though Mr. Hansen did a booming business with booming profits, there was no need for the frivolities of a fancy office in his line of work. It had been almost an hour since Jarrod had first arrived, and the morning sun was now filtering in through the cob webbed window panes.

“Make yourself comfortable, Jarrod. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

“Thank you, no. If you don’t mind I would like to get straight to business.”

“Okay, then. On what kind of business did you come?”

“Well, I’ve agreed to defend Mario DeSoto on this murder charge that he’s up against. I was just trying to gather some more information that may be helpful in presenting his case.”

“Yes, that’s a shame about Mario. He has always been the model employee. I can’t imagine what could have happened here that night that made him feel he needed to knife that young officer.”

“So you believe he’s guilty?”

“Well, what else am I to think, Jarrod? My two night watchmen caught him redhanded. Gus says he was alerted by loud arguing and arrived just in time to witness Mario plunging a knife into the victim.”

“Yes, I met Gus. Has it ever I to you, LaMar, that he may not be telling the truth?”

“I think I can figure out what you’re driving at, Jarrod, and believe me, I can’t say that by the appearance of Gus I blame you. I know he’s rough around the edges, but he really is a good man. The men that work here are tough, Jarrod, extremely tough, and there is a lot of valuable cargo stored here as well. I need a man like Gus keeping an eye on things. He’s worked here since I purchased this company and I’ve learned that I can always depend on him.”

“But he wasn’t able to prevent Timothy Handel from getting murdered.”

“This is a big place, Jarrod. The men make their rounds in pairs for good reason. There is freight coming and going at all hours during the night. They can’t be everywhere at once. I told Gus when this first happened that I didn’t hold him or Rod responsible. Besides, who would think that Mario could be any kind of a threat to anyone. He was working late on some books and they probably didn’t think twice about needing to check up on him.”

“Could be your right. But I still need to examine every possible angle. Now, I understand that there was a young man by the name of Chris who slept here at nights. From what I’ve gathered so far, he hasn’t been seen since. Any idea what may have happened to him?”

“No, I’m afraid I can’t add much more to what you already know. Chris came here looking for work some time ago and I kind of felt sorry for him. He didn’t have a home or anything and by the looks of him, didn’t get the opportunity to eat too often either. I told him he could work for a small wage, plus room and board. I figured that was a fair offer to a boy in his situation.”

“Yes, I’d say that was more than fair. I’m just wondering what would make him decide to take off like he did when he at least had a roof over his head and a full belly. Kind of makes you wonder.”

Jarrod seemed to be puzzling over his final statement and then suddenly slapping his knee with his hand, stood up and bid farewell to his host.

“Well, thank you for your time, LaMar, I won’t take up any more of your day. I’m sure you have lots to do here.”

The prematurely greying gentleman glanced at the stack of papers and invoices cluttering his desk.

“That would be an understatement, Jarrod, but if I can be of any further assistance, don’t hesitate to come back.”

Back in town, Jarrod decided to stop by the jail and spend a few minutes visiting with his client before continuing his quest for more information. He found Mario in good spirits and eating the hearty breakfast that was provided by the local I for those incarcerated in Sheriff Madden’s ‘hotel’.

“Any rays of hope on the emeano?,” Fred inquired as Jarrod was preparing to leave.

“Not a whole lot more than what I had last night,” the lawyer replied, pausing with his hand on the door handle, “I really need to find out the whereabouts of that kid that was living there on the docks. I have a feeling he might be able to enlighten us on some interesting facts. I think I’ll head on down to the rail yard. With the freight trains making frequent stops at the loading docks, could be he decided to hitch a ride. Maybe there is somebody down there who’s seen him.”

“If I won’t be in your way, Jarrod, I think I’d like to take a walk down there with you. Doc Merar keeps tellin’ me that I need to get more exercise. My deputies usually do the rounds and I get stuck in here behind this desk.”

“I’d be glad for the company, Fred. Besides, I doubt those men working the rail yard are much friendlier than some of the guys I just ran into down at the warehouse. Maybe having you as an escort would encourage them to talk.”

Within twenty minutes, Jarrod and Fred were wandering around a vast sea of empty train cars all woven together with a web of spike and iron. Rail workers milled around the yard performing various duties. As the two approached a box car, a middle aged man wearing denim overalls jumped down to the ground. They stopped and asked him a few questions, but didn’t learn anything that Jarrod deemed helpful. They were able to make a few more inquiries of the men they ran into, but nobody had seen a boy that fit Chris’ description.

“There don’t seem to be anyone around here that can tell us anything,” mused Fred, “What do you say we make tracks over to the station.”

“Is that supposed to be some kind of a joke, Fred?”

“Well, I guess it fits considerin’ where we are and all,” Fred chuckled at the cleverness of his own joke. “Maybe one of the conductors can tell us somethin’.”

“Let’s hope so,” Jarrod replied somewhat discouraged, “it seems that trying to locate that teenage boy could prove to be almost as difficult as looking for the queen in a swarm of bees.”

“Excuse me, but did I hear you say you were tryin’ to track down a young feller?”

A bearded man with a striped, cloth cap stepped from behind one of the parked engines.

“Yes, I did!” exclaimed Jarrod, not being able to hide his anxious tone, “Have you seen someone like that?”

“Matter-of-fact I did…’bout a week ago, or more…if it’s the same kid yer lookin’ fer.”

“I’m looking for a boy about sixteen years of age, blonde hair, brown eyes, wearing old ratty work clothes. Does that fit the description for the boy you saw?”

“Sure does, Mister. I’m a brake man for the Santa Fe line and we run through Stockton every Sunday and Wednesday about 1:30 a.m…”

“Yes, go on!”

“Well, from here the train is bound for Denver ‘fore it turns around and heads back again.”

“Where was it when you spotted the boy?”

“That would be Carson City, Mister. I was makin’ my rounds checkin’ the train before we pulled out, and I spotted this here kid. He was camped out in one of the box cars like he was fixin’ to stay a spell. Well, I grabbed him and told him to get out and never come back. We don’t stay in business by givin’ free rides, Mister. You can’t blame a feller for just doin’ his job.”

“Did you see where the boy went from there?”

“Nope, and didn’t care neither. All I cared ‘bout was that when the train pulled out, it would be short of one more freeloadin’ hobo.”

“Well, I thank you for your time,” Jarrod graciously told the whisker faced man.

“No trouble at all, Mister,” the man replied eyeing Fred’s badge. “Say, what’s this kid done, anyway? Is there a reward out for him?”

“No, nothin’ like that,” Fred assured the brawny fortune seeker, “just a runaway is all.”

Having gained the knowledge they had been seeking, Jarrod had a strong desire to ‘make tracks’ as Fred had put it earlier.

“Come on, Fred,” the lawyer bargained, “how about if I treat you to an ice cold beer?”

“Kinda early to be drinkin’, wouldn’t ya say?”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” mused Jarrod, pulling out his pocket watch, “let’s make that a cup of coffee over at the I. What I’m really wanting is to just go sit down some place where we can discuss this thing.”

“What’s there to discuss. We got a good lead as to where your witness may be, but my involvement with the matter ends right here.”

“I know, Fred, I know. Carson City is across state line and that’s where your jurisdiction ends. I guess I’ll just have to try and find this Chris on my own. All I have is a vague description, not a whole lot to go on.”

“Look, Jarrod, even if you are able to find him, you don’t know if he’ll be willin’ to come back to Stockton with you or not. He must’ve had his reasons for leavin’, I’m guessin’ you’re gonna have a fight on your hands.”

“That’s true enough, Fred, but I wasn’t planning to make the trip myself.”

With the wisdom of experience, the sheriff knew exactly what Jarrod had planned before he even said it.

“Do you think they’ll go for it?” ventured Sheriff Madden trying not to smile, “you know with it being summer and all, I’m sure Nick and Heath have their fair share of duties out at the ranch. Besides, what’s in it for them?”

“Don’t you worry about that, Fred. No, don’t you worry. I figure that ever since Heath joined our family, I’ve had to bail both of their sorry hides out of enough trouble to keep them indebted to me for a long, long time.” The lawyer flashed a mischievous grin at his star sporting companion. “If they can accomplish this one small feat, then I’d say we’d be about even. Now come on, I still want to buy you that cup of coffee.”

The two enforcers of justice turned, ready to depart the bustling rail yard. Neither one of them noticed the large man obscured from view. This shady individual had been dogging them from a distance ever since they had left Fred’s office. From his place of concealment, ‘scar face’ had been able to evesdrop on the entire conversation. Hearing their voices fade out, the hidden man hurried off in the opposite direction. He had urgent business that couldn’t wait.

The following morning Nick and Heath were saddled and ready to ride out long before anyone else on the ranch was stirring. It was almost a five day ride to Carson City. Since they would more than likely be gone close to two weeks, Nick had left detailed instructions with the ranch foreman. Mac had been employed by the Barkleys for close to twenty years and was more than capable of running things in Nick’s absence. While the two cowboys were out trying to round up a stray witness, the family’s attorney would be continuing his collection of data in the local arena. With the trial only three weeks away, there wasn’t much time to spare.

The first leg of the journey would be through more eme terraine until they hit timber and started climbing in elevation. It was unusually hot for July and made riding the open, unshaded parts fairly miserable. Nick wasn’t thinking of the physical discomfort, however. His thoughts were on this important job that Jarrod had asked them to do. At first Nick had balked at the idea, but as his persuasive brother had presented all the facts as efficiently as if they had been in a court room, Nick realized the importance of this trip. He knew that a man’s life may depend on what they found in Carson City. ‘Find him, Nick. You and Heath must prevail upon him to come back’. Jarrod’s words working around his thoughts brought on a whole new slew of ‘what ifs’. What if Chris didn’t want to come back? What if they couldn’t even find him?

Sensing the tension in his unusually quiet brother, Heath glanced over with keen observation. He had heard Nick assuring Jarrod that he would ‘find that boy and bring him back whether he wanted to or not’. Heath figured his role in the mission would be to ride ramrod over his big brother. Maybe a clever use of words would convince this young upstart on accompanying them back to Stockton with no force used. There was no sense in four days of trail dust and a kid just itching to break away first chance he got.

Focusing back on reality, Nick lifted his brown Stetson and using his shirt sleeve, wiped the excess moisture off his brow.

“Hot today,” he grumbled, “in fact I can’t ever remember it being so hot this time of year.”

“Boy howdy, you just ain’t whistlin’ Dixie,” responded Heath, feeling too drained even to playfully badger his brother about this being cool compared to some of the places he’d been. “Maybe we oughtta rest the horses for a while and ride at night. The moon’s plenty full. ‘Sides, when we get up a little higher I know of a few shortcuts.”

“I’d like to,” Nick came back with a serious note in his tone, “but the quicker we get to Carson City the better our chances are of findin’ that kid before he decides to hop another emeano.” Then cracking his younger sibling a wide smile added, “We can take these ‘shortcuts’ of yours on the way back when time isn’t workin’ against us. Besides if I’m remembering things right, your shortcuts usually end up takin’ twice as long.”

When Nick and Heath finally arrived in Carson City it was much later than they had both anticipated. The heat in the lower altitudes was higher than it had been in almost a hundred years, costing them precious time. Once they hit the higher elevation of the Sierras, the pace picked up a bit, but instead of the usual four and a half days, it was well over five. A somewhat large town with a livery, hotel and restaurants to choose from was a welcome sight to the bone weary cowboys. The two men got their horses unsaddled and settled in the town’s stable and then walked out into the bright noon day sun.

“Nick, what do ya say we go find ourselves a room, and they’d better have a bath,” Heath commented as he glanced at his brother with exaggerated facial expressions, “You’re startin’ to remind me of a mangy ol’ pole cat.”

“Me!,” humphed Nick in mock defense, “You know you don’t exactly smell like Mother’s rose garden yourself, little brother. But yeah, you’re right, I reckon we could both use a hot bath and some clean clothes.”

Directly across the street towered The Jessup House. It was a fine looking structure, with a large front porch, plate glass windows, and a sign out front advertising ‘clean beds’.

“This looks as good a place as any,” Nick said as the two crossed the street cutting through town, “I remember Mother sayin’ that this is where she always stays when she comes here to visit that old school chum of hers.”

“I don’t know, Nick, it looks mighty fancy. Maybe we should just do some scoutin’ around first. I reckon we could both pass as a couple of drovers who’ve been on the trail the past six weeks.”

“Nonsense, Heath. I’m tired, hungry and I need a bath and this place is convenient…right across from the livery. Now let’s go!”

Nick threw open the large wooden doors of the grand hotel and marched into the front lobby. The spectacled desk clerk sat behind the counter studying the registration book. Though Nick would have liked to think that it was his bold presence that made the young man look up, Heath knew by the stale expression the clerk wore on his face, it was probably the ‘ripeness’ that alerted him to the valley rancher.

“May I help you, Sir?,” the man asked dryly.

“You sure can, Mister. Me and my brother have come all the way from Stockton and it’s been one hot ride. We need a couple of rooms with a bath.”

“Well Sir, I’m sorry but we are all filled up for the night. Maybe you and your brother could find rooms down at Red Rose. It’s back through town near the tracks. Perhaps you saw it when you rode in.”

“Mister, we did see it, but we prefer to stay here. Whenever our Mother is here in town, this is the place she stays and she says it’s the best around.”

Nick waited for a response as the man peered at him from behind the counter.

“And just who might your mother be?”

“Victoria Barkley, that’s who. Do ya know her?”

The clerk’s jaw dropped as we stared at the two grimy men standing in front of him. He had waited on the matriarch of the Barkley family before and knew what a prominent family this was.

“Mr. Barkley, please forgive my impertinence,” the poor man stammered, “I do have one large room available, however, there is no bath. You’ll have to go behind the livery to the Chinese baths. They do laundry as well.”

With a firm hand, the desk clerk patted the little silver bell sitting on the counter several times until the house boy appeared from the back room.

“Take these gentleman to room 212,” he instructed the lad, and then making eye contact with Nick added, “That is on the top floor, gentlemen. If there’s anything else we can do to make your stay more comfortable, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Yes, Mr. Dobbins,” the boy scanned the lobby for luggage but rested his gaze on the saddle bags slung over the shoulders of the two brothers.

“May I carry your bags up for you gentlemen?,” he questioned.

“No, that’s okay. I think we can handle it,” Nick drawled as we winked over at Heath. He was still amused over the look on the young clerk’s face when he learned their name was Barkley.

The bellhop led the way up the carpeted staircase, glancing behind him from time to time. He wasn’t used to men that smelled of the open trail. This was the grandest hotel in town and generally catered to the very elite. The guests that lodged here were usually attired in fine clothing and hats. These two, however, wore their guns low and had the wear of the saddle etched on their britches. He would have liked to question them about their work and the places they’d been, but held his peace. He knew his job could be gone in the blink of an eye if he were to bother the residents of this fine house.

“This is your room, gents,” the boy announced stopping at number 212.

He placed the key in the keyhole, turned the handle and held the door open wide before handing the key to Nick.

“Thanks, Son. Here’s something for your trouble,” Nick answered flipping the boy two bits.

“Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”

The bellhop exited the room, closing the door behind him. Nick threw his saddle bags onto one bed while Heath held onto his bags a moment longer to gaze out the high window. The town of Carson City lay sprawled beneath him with mountain peaks looming directly behind it.

“Just look at all those buildings, Nick. I’ll bet we’re gonna have more trouble than Jarrod thought findin’ that boy in all this,” stated Heath reclining back on his bed.

“Yep, it’s a big town, alright. I figure maybe the the rail yard would be a good place to start lookin’.”

By the time Nick was lightened of his boots, hat and gunbelt, his blonde brother was sound asleep. Well, that didn’t seem like such a bad idea. He would catch a little catnap himself and then the two of them could go get cleaned up.

It was seven in the evening when Nick awakened from his afternoon slumber. Yawning, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stiffly walked over to rouse the sleeping Heath.

“Hey, little brother, time to get up.”

“Why, is it morning?,” answered Heath groggily.

“No, it ain’t even night yet. Let’s go get that hot bath you were talkin’ about earlier and then some grub. I’m as hungry as a she bear with three cubs.”

Obediently, Heath rose to his feet and reached for his hat. He hadn’t even bothered to remove his boots or gunbelt before drifting off into la la land. Reaching up to touch his stubbly face, Heath reached into his saddle bag for a razor. Neither he nor Nick had bothered with routine formalities that morning.

“Lets go,” was Heath’s reply as he slipped the razor into his pants pocket.

The brothers followed the desk clerk’s directions and sure enough, there behind the livery was Chan’s Chinese Bath and Laundry. White billows of steam rose from the wooden building. Inside was a cookstove with several pots of hot water simmering and about a dozen tubs, all partitioned off with bed sheets. Upon entering the building, the two men paid for the services they were about to receive and proceeded in emptying their pockets. Towels and kimono style robes were provided. They would need something to wear while their clothes were being cleaned. The establishment was owned by Chan Lo. His wife, Ming, ran the laundry, while he was in charge of the bath house. Several young men worked in his employ, carrying freshly pumped water in to be heated, and then filling the tubs with an equal mixture of hot and cold. If a patron’s bath began to get tepid, he would alert one of the boys for a warm up. This entrepreneuring Chinese had I done well for himself in a town of this size.

Seven o’clock on a Monday night, and the place wasn’t overly crowded. Nick and Heath didn’t have to wait long for two empty tubs. Both men shed their clothes in record time and lazily sunk down into the foaming water. The water smelled of lilac.

“Boy, Nick,” Heath jested from his side of the partition, “I might not smell like Mother’s rose garden, but we’re both gonna be smellin’ like her lilac bush before this evenin’s over.”

“Anything will be better than what we smelled like before we got here,” Nick joked back while lighting a cigar. “Now where do you want to go for dinner when we’re through here?”

“Well, from what I could tell the dining room in that hotel seemed pretty fancy. Now that they know our name’s Barkley maybe we can get some decent service.”

“Okay, back to the hotel it is. Then I want to take a walk around town and check things over.”

Nick relaxed in the warm water allowing the heat to penetrate his aching muscles. He never would be comfortable sleeping on the hard ground. He was looking forward to a night in a real bed. If all went well, they would find the kid the next day and then be on their way again. Nick winced at the thought of four more nights camping out, but for now…for now he was in heaven. A young man appeared from around the hanging sheet with a steaming bucket of water in his hands.

“Warm up, Mister?”

“Please, that would be great.”

The boy nervously diverted his eyes away as he poured the scalding water over Nick’s lap area.

“OW! What the devil are ya tryin’ to do, Boy, prevent my Mother from havin’ grandchildren!?”

“I’m sorry,” blurted the boy as he jumped back.

The snickers Nick heard coming from the other side of the sheet didn’t help cool his temper any.

“Now you listen here, Boy…”

Nick was getting ready to go into one of his tirades when his hazel eyes met with a pair of scared brown ones. The young man’s short cropped hair was the color of straw. Blonde hair and brown eyes were an interesting combination and the exact match that Jarrod said to be on the lookout for. This could quite possibly be the young man they were looking for, but now wasn’t the time to make their request known. Nick was in no immediate condition for a comfrontation and a possible struggle that might ensue.

“….Ahhh, as I was sayin’, Boy, just try and maybe pour that water in a little slower next time. Or better yet, test it first.”

“I’ll be sure to do that, Mister. And again, I’m really sorry.”

“Well, don’t go losin’ any sleep over it. By the way, Kid, what’s your name.”

“Chris, what’s yours?”

“Nick. Just call me Nick.”

Nick could hardly contain himself as he waited for Heath to finish his bath so that he could confer with him in a more discreet manner. A small room in the back of the building served as both a waiting area and dry heat sauna. Hot coals and a bucket of water provided a warm, moist environment. The intensity of the heat could be emeanore by the venting on the lid covering the pot of coals. Clad in their kimonos, the two brothers discussed a plan of recourse in hushed whispers.

“It’s gotta be the right kid, Heath, it’s just gotta be!”

“Now just simmer down before you get your bowels in an uproar, big brother. It was far too easy. First we have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is indeed the kid we’re lookin’ for, and then we have to plan out the best possible way to approach him.”

“Well, findin’ out if it’s the right kid is easy enough. I’ll just ask him how long he’s worked here. If it’s any longer than two weeks we’ll know he ain’t the right one.”

“Better ask Chan, Nick. If the kid thinks you’re givin’ him the third degree, he might lie to cover his tracks.”

“That’s smart thinkin’, Heath. I’ll also try and find out if he knows where the kid’s been stayin’. It might be best not to confront him around here.”

Suddenly there was a loud commotion coming from outside the sauna. The brothers could hear the deafening clatter of banging metal. Each man paused for a moment to cast a questioning glance at the other and then simultaneously bolted out of the sauna to where Chan stood in the front room. Pots, pans and water cluttered the wooden floor as the Chinese man set about the task of picking up.

“Mr. Chan,” Heath blurted, “what in blazes happened out here?”

“Strange man come in here,” the Chinese proprieter sputtered with rapid speech, “he want to know about new boy. I tell him new boy not here and he call me ‘liar’. He starts to search tubs and finds the one with Mr. McCleary.”

“Mr. McCleary?”

“Mr. McCleary is rancher from south of town. He don’t like stranger there when he take bath. Mr. McCleary come out here with shot gun. No clothes, just shot gun. He wave gun in stranger’s face and tell him to go away. He pull back both hammers and I never see anyone run so fast. Knock things over on way out door.”

“Which way did he go?,” questioned Nick running to the door to get a look for himself.

“Nick, wait a minute. You’re not going out dressed like that,” Heath scolded his older brother. “Mr. Chan, can you please tell us what this man looked like.”

“Very tall man. Large scar running down the side of face. Look real mean.”

“What about the boy, is he here?”

“No, I send boy to dry goods store. Ming need sewing needle to mend clothes in Chinese laundry.”

“Have you ever seen that man before?”

“No, I know most people in town and man is stranger here.”

“Listen, Chan,” Heath pleaded, “that boy could be in serious trouble if that strange man gets a hold of him. The man is obviously up to no good. Can you get us our clothes? We’ll go try and find the kid. Maybe we can warn him.”

“Clothes may not be all the way dry.”

“That’s okay. Just get them.”

Nick and Heath made haste struggling to get into their damp clothing. Damp fabric didn’t pull on easily. Heath could remember taking off wet clothes more than once, but never trying to put wet ones on. Finally slipping into his vest, the clinging feel of a damp shirt gave him a creepy feeling. He and Nick grabbed their guns, strapping them on as they headed towards the door. Nick finished buckeling his gunbelt and reached down to tie the leather thong.

“I don’t know who that man was or why he was lookin’ for the boy, but you can be damn sure that he wasn’t sent here by Jarrod. Probably means that he wants to make sure that the kid doesn’t come back.”

Heath nodded in agreement. He had been thinking the same thing. Checking the cylinder on his revolver, he gave the weapon a quick spin and slid it back into it’s holster.

“We need to watch each other’s backs, Nick. I’ve had a funny feeling ever since we first arrived in this town but I just shrugged it off. Guess next time I’ll go with my gut instincts.”

“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunity for that. Which way is the dry goods store, Chan?”

“Two blocks east and one block north.”

“Thanks!”

The two headed down the main drag of town and rounded the final corner of the board covered sidewalk just as Chris was leaving the store. Heath took hold of Nick’s arm and pulled him back behind the building.

“What are you doing, Heath?”

“Let’s just wait for him to walk by, Nick, and then we’ll grab hold of him and pull him back here so we can talk without being seen.”

“Once again, good thinkin’. You never know who might be watchin’.”

The echo of shoes on wood became louder as the approaching boy drew near. Before Chris knew what had him, he was standing in the alley between two buildings staring straight in the faces of Nick and Heath. He turned to leave, but Heath’s firm grip held him securely.

“You just let loose of me, Mister. I don’t want no trouble.”

“Now just hold on there, Boy,” Nick chided, “we need to talk with you for a minute.”

“Look, Mister…I mean Nick. If you’re still sore at me for dumping hot water on you…”

“No, Chris, that ain’t the problem. After you left to go to the store, there was a mean lookin’ cuss of a man that came into the bath house. He was lookin’ for you.”

“What did he want with me?,” Chris ceased his struggling and his voice took on a serious tone.

“Don’t know, but the truth of the matter is, you’re the reason that we’re here as well.”

“That’s right, Chris,” Heath added, “now if I turn loose of your arm will you promise not to run?”

Chris nodded and Heath relaxed his hold.

“Why do you guys want me?,” the boy questioned.

“We’re from Stockton, California, and were sent here to look for you. Our brother’s investigating the murder in the warehouse and thinks you might know something about it.”

The boy stiffened and his eyes glazed over with the look of cold steel.

“I can’t go I’ myself involved with that. You don’t know what they’d do to me. I just mind my own business and hope that everyone else keeps mindin’ theirs.”

“Look, Kid, it seems to me that you’re already involved. Why else would that rough lookin’ guy be wantin’ you so bad that he’s willin’ to do almost anything to find you,” Nick reasoned, “Including walkin’ in on a mean tempered man takin’ a bath. Now the way I look at it, you can come back to Stockton with me and Heath peaceably or you can hang around town here until that other guy finds you. As long as you’re with us, we can protect you. I don’t know what that other guy has in mind, but I’m sure he didn’t come all this way because he was concerned about your safety. I’m guessing he was sent to prevent you from testifyin’ in court. Now what do you suppose would be the easiest way for him to accomplish that?”

Chris knew that Nick was right and he was too scared to go back out on the street alone. For now he would have to trust these two cowboys from Stockton and maybe even agree to journey back there with them, but Chris would be waiting for his chance. When the opportunity arose he would get away and head some place where nobody could ever find him. Nobody was going to make him testify in court, nobody!

After a hearty meal at the hotel, Chris joined Nick and Heath in their hotel room. Making a bed of blankets for himself on the floor, he soon dozed of into sound sleep.

Heath gave the door a good rattling and after finding it secure, sat down on the edge of his bed. He removed his boots, but stayed fully dressed before crawling underneath the covers. The plan was to be up before dawn in an attempt to get out of town without being noticed. If they detoured on the way home, there was a chance they could make it without being followed.

“I’ll sure be glad when we’ve got him safely back to Stockton,” Heath commented as he turned down the lamp.

“You and me both. I’ve got a feelin’ it’s gonna be a long trip back.”

“Real long with that detour we’ll be takin’. I had the desk clerk arrange for a horse from the livery. Didn’t want anything being traced back to us if that man came around askin’ questions.”

“Hope that kid’s up to several days in a saddle, he just seems, well, kinda soft.”

“Yeah, I picked up on that, too. Probably some sorta city kid who’s never been around horses much. He seems plenty street wise, though.”

“I reckon we’ll find out how tough he really is when we hit the trail tomorrow. I’m just hopin’ he doesn’t slow us down too much.”

With the door locked tight, Heath thought he would get a good nights sleep but instead he tossed and turned all night. No sooner had he finally relaxed into a peaceful slumber when Nick was shaking him awake announcing their need to be moving. While Nick headed for the livery to ready the horses, Heath gathered his things together and walked over to the sleeping boy. He was used to early mornigs back at the ranch, but at 3:30 a.m. he was usually still sawing logs.

“Come on, son, we’d best be on our way,” Heath coaxed the cozily sleeping youngster.

Chris looked up at him through hazy eyes. The floor was hard, but it was clean and dry. It was the best place he’d slept in a long time.

“It’s time to go, Chris,” the cowboy nudged the lad once more, “it’ll be light out in a couple of hours and we don’t need to be advertisin’ the fact that we’re leavin’ town. Now, let’s get a move on it.”

By noon that day, the trio had been in the saddle for eight hours. Heath had traveled through the Sierras many times and was fairly familiar with this region. Now he was leading them on a round about path in hopes that nobody would be able to follow them. Stopping on the trail ahead, Heath turned around in his saddle to consult a moment with his brother.

“We have a couple of different things we can do here, Nick. We can keep headin’ along this trail we’re on, or take off through the woods here and up over that pass. It will save us some time if we take the pass. You might say it’s a shortcut through the detour.”

Nick looked at Heath and then over at the boy. When Chris had mounted the four footed animal early that morning, it was apparent to both the brothers that his riding experience was practically zero. It had taken quite a bit of coaxing to even get the boy up into the saddle.

“Now, Heath,” Nick asked matter-of-factly, “is this a real shortcut, or just a different way back?”

“Nope, it’s a real shortcut. It’s a little rough, but nothing the boy can’t handle. It’ll save us four, maybe five hours off the trip.”

“Okay, Heath, I guess we’ll take it, but keep a close eye on the boy. By the way he’s sittin’ that horse, he’s bound to fall off sooner or later.”

Heath threw a glance at the teen who was rigidly seated on his equine companion, just out of earshot. The horse had his neck stetched out and was nibbling on some easy to reach foliage.

“Pull his head up there, Chris,” Nick hollered back at the young greenhorn, “Allowing an animal to eat while under saddle is a very bad habit for him to be I’ into.”

With a tug on the reins, Chris managed to get ‘Charlie’s’ head up. The animal chewed on his bit letting it be known that be would much rather be grazing.

“Okay, that’s it,” Nick coached, “Now, give him a good sharp kick with your heels.”

Charlie plodded over to join the others as Heath turned Charger up a small embankment and through some evergreens. Nick waited for Chris to fall into line before taking up the rear on Coco. They rode along in silence for close to an hour. Heath was enjoying the serenity of the woods, but also had his senses tuned in for possible trouble. Playing defense is what had saved his bacon on more than one occasion. Approaching a rocky and steep decline, he reined up and turned to make sure Chris and Nick were close behind.

“It’s going to be a little steep here,” Heath instructed the boy, “but all you need to do is plant your feet firmly, lean back, and give your horse his head.”

When Chris saw the narrow, rocky gorge that they would be descending, he stopped abruptly refusing to budge.

“I’m not going down that path! I’ll be killed for sure when the horse slips and falls!”

“You ain’t gonna get killed, kid,” Nick chided, “the horse will do just fine.”

“No he won’t!” the boy wailed, “I’ll get hurt, I just know I will, or worse! I thought you two were supposed to bring me in alive. I won’t be much good to you dead!”

“Now, just calm down, son,” Heath tried to reassure the frightened boy, “if you want, we can hike down and lead the horses.”

“The blazes we can!” Nick bellowed, “We don’t have time for this and you know it, Heath!”

Nick nudged Coco with his spurs and rode up along the panicked youngster. Reaching over and grabbing the reins from Chris, he began to lead the horse to the craggy slope.

“Stop! You’ll get us both killed!”, the boy screamed, using both hands to clutch the horn of his saddle with a death grip.

“No, we won’t, boy, now just relax,” Nick ordered, “Heath, go ahead and take up the lead.”

Swaying back and forth in his saddle as Nick guided the sure-footed steed down the rocky path, Chris held on for dear life, too frightened to utter a sound. Within a matter of minutes they were at the bottom and the two ranchers looked back at the pale boy who was trying hard not to hyperventilate.

“You see, Chris, I told you we’d get down without any problems. Heath and I have been down a lot worse than this. Now, just take a couple of deep breaths and you’ll be fine in a minute or two.”

Nick tossed the reins back over Charlie’s head and walked Coco over to Heath so that Chris could have some space. Taking his hat off, Heath ran a hand through his sweat dampened hair.

“I a city kid,” the blonde cowboy commented, “Ain’t got much of a back bone either.”

Nick nodded his head in agreement.

“I can see now why this kid ran. He just ain’t got a whole lotta grit. When we get him back to town, Jarrod’s gonna have a war on his hands tryin’ to get him to testify.”

“Well, we ain’t pickin’ up much time standin’ around here jawin’,” Heath stated, firmly planting his hat back on his head, “So why don’t you take a hot poker to that kid and his horse so we can get movin’ outta here.”

Heath’s short cut may have cut some distance off the trip, but with Chris along the ride was slow and long. First he complained about the bugs and then how hard his saddle was. He was hungry; he was thirsty; he was hot; and then towards evening he wasn’t warm enough. Nick and Heath would have liked to keep pressing on until dusk, but with this sniveling greenhorn they decided to make camp early. Both their ears were beginning to ache from having to listen to this soft city kid whine.

While Nick tied up the horses, Heath cleared a spot to build a fire. As Nick was in the process of pulling the saddles off, Chris approached him with a request for dinner. Nick looked around and there wasn’t much loose dry wood in the immediate vicinity of the camp.

“Why don’t you try and scout us up some wood, Chris, while we get things set up here,” Nick suggested.

Chris looked around the dense forest and the tall trees that made early evening seem more like night.

“I’m not going out there alone,” Chris firmly stated. “Something might eat me, like a fox or coyote or something.”

“Now, Chris, you’re actin’ like a horse on loco weed. First of all, coyotes are scavengers, not hunters. And second, a fox is more afraid of you than you are of it.”

“Well, bears aren’t. There could be a mean old bear just watchin’ us right now. Maybe even waitin’ for one of us to venture too far from camp.”

“There are no bears out there either, Chris, and as a general rule, if you don’t bother the bear first, or mess with it’s cubs, it won’t bother you. Just stay close to the camp and you’ll be fine. The faster you gather that wood for the fire, the faster you’ll get to eat. Comprehende?”

The boy looked through the trees again and stepped closer to Nick.

“Maybe we could go together when you’re through with the horses. With two of us, we’ll have twice as much wood.”

“City kids,” Nick thought to himself as he finished his work in silence. “Maybe I was wrong after all. If the two of them were standin’ face to face, maybe Chris would be more afraid than a fox.”

The sun was barely peeking over the tree tops the following morning when Nick and Heath rolled out of their blankets. Yesterday’s setbacks had cost them valuable time and they were hoping that today they could make up for lost time. Both men were feeling refreshed and renewed after a fairly decent night of sound sleep. Chris, however, hadn’t slept well at all. He had slept in some pretty bad places before, but never out in the woods on the bare ground. With all the strange noises vibrating through the dark, he had spent a restless night.

“I’ll get some coffee going, Nick,” Heath offered, “Maybe you could water the horses and get Chris up.”

Walking over to Chris’ bedroll, Nick looked down at the still form before him. Chris was completely cocooned with the wool blanket pulled up over his head. It was obvious to Nick that the boy had no immediate intentions of shaking the sack. Nick, on the other hand, had put up with all the insubordination he intended to take, the day before. There wasn’t going to be any of that happening today. No sir. Today this kid was going to play by his rules or….well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he’d think of something! Nick gently nudged the snoring mummy with the toe of his boot.

“Chris, you’ve got about ten seconds to get yourself up out of that bedroll before I yank you outta there. Got that, boy?”

There was movement under the folds of the blanket as the sleepy teen decided it might be wise to adhere to the tall cowboy’s instructions. By the time he crawled out of the blankets and downed a shot of Heath’s ‘mud’, the horses were saddled and ready to go.

“Here you go, Chris,” said Nick, handing the boy the reins to his mount, “he’s all yours.”

Both brothers had already swung into their saddles and were just waiting for ‘junior’ to follow suit. Instead, Chris showed no signs of getting ready to mount his animal.

“I figured I’d just walk today,” he stated, looking up at Nick, “my backsides awfully sore from yesterday. I don’t figure it’ll take another day in the saddle.”

“Like hell you will!” Nick roared in utter frustration, “Now, I’ll give you to the count of three to get up on that horse, boy, or I’m gonna put you up there myself!”

Chris made no move to comply with Nick’s instructions, but instead stood in stubborn defiance.

“I already told you, Nick, I don’t think I could sit a horse if I tried. I can keep up with you on foot. I know I can!”

“Oh, you’re gonna have touble sittin’ alright,” Nick threatened as he swung his right leg back down off of the horse.

“What are you gonna to do to me?” Chris ventured with eyes as wide as flapjacks. Dropping Charlie’s reins, he took a couple of steps backwards.

“I’m gonna call your bluff, that’s what I’m gonna do boy.”

“What bluff?” asked Chris nervously, “I wasn’t pulling any bluff.”

“Don’t give me none of your praddle, kid, I’ve played enough poker to know a bluff when I see one. You didn’t think I meant what I said, did ya? Well, in a minute here you’re gonna find out how good Nick Barkley’s word really is.”

By this time, Heath was dismounted and had hold of all three horses. He started to open his mouth on the kid’s behalf, but then thought better of it. Getting this teen safely back to Stockton was serious business and the setbacks were really starting to put a damper on things. Besides, he knew Nick’s temper well enough to know when it was best to just keep quiet.

Heath wasn’t the only one who knew just how mad Nick really was. Chris was getting first hand experience on just how fierce this cowboy’s wrath could truly be. As Nick advanced towards the shaken boy, he continued to step back until he stumbled backwards over a large stone. Gripping the boy’s arm, Nick hauled him to his feet and pulled him over to the nearest tree.

“You let me go!” Chris screamed, flailing his arms and trying to brace his feet in a stationery position.

“Not until I learn you not to back talk your elders, boy,” Nick responded as he reached in the tree branches in search of some sort of long twig he could use for a switch.

With a final jerk, Chris broke free of the cowboy’s hold and ran pell mell into the woods.

“Now you’ve done it!” scolded Heath, “Instead of hittin’ the trail early like we had planned, we’re gonna be spendin’ half the day trackin’ down that kid.”

“You just keep it to yourself, Heath. Somebody needed to tan that kid’s britches a long time ago. I wasn’t gonna lick him hard. Just a couple of switches to the backside to let him know I wasn’t gonna play anymore of his games.”

“Well then, I guess the jokes on you, big brother, ‘cause he’s playin’ one with you as we speak. I think it’s called Hide and Seek. Besides, it wasn’t your place to be learnin’ him that sorta thing anyway.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. I just lost my temper I guess. Come on. We’ve gotta find him before he really gets lost.”

Tethering the horses, the brothers took off in two I directions. They decided that as apprehensive as the boy had been about being alone in the woods, this particular game would get old in a hurry. Nick had simmered down initially, but after forty-five minutes of circling around, his patience level had all but expired.

Heath, who was known to be long suffering, was plenty annoyed as well. Finally, as the the blonde cowboy entered a small clearing, his sight rested on the runaway perched on the trunk of a fallen tree. Heath wasn’t sure whether to call out Chris’ name or try and get in a little closer in the event the boy decided to engage him in a steeple chase. Choosing the latter, Heath approached softly. Something just didn’t smell right. The boy was just sitting there and his body seemed to be racked in sobs. Suddenly Heath stopped short. He knew what was wrong.

“Chris?” he called from where he stood.

The boy looked at him with a tear steaked face and started to get up off the log.

“No, son! You just stay right where you are until I figure out what to do here. Now what exactly happened?”

“I was running through the woods,” blubbered Chris pausing to wipe his tears with the sides of his hands, “and I tripped and….and I landed near a thicket of brush. Before I could get back on my feet this horrible creature came out of the bushes.”

“A horrible creature?”

“Yes, it was so scarry. It had huge white fangs and a big bushy tail. It was mostly black except for a stripe of white running the length of it’s back. I wanted to run, but I was so scarred I couldn’t move. I was able to grab a rock to throw and then….then it turned around and whizzed all over me.”

Finalizing his tale, the boy dropped his head and started to bawl all over again.

“He didn’t bite you or anythin’ like that, did he, son?”

Wiping more tears, Chris shook his head.

“That creature is called a skunk, Chris, and that fluid he sprayed you with is nasty stuff, but it ain’t exactly what you think it is. It’s kinda like a stinky perfume that the skunk uses to keep predators from botherin’ it. Now, the first thing we need to do is get you cleaned up. I’ve got a bar of lye soap in my saddle bags and there’s a creek not too far from here. You can use mud and soap to scrub most of that scent off of you. I don’t know what we’re gonna do about your clothes.”

Chris looked up with a startled look on his face.

“But I don’t have any other clothes besides these. What am I gonna wear?”

“I guess you’ll just have to wrap yourself in a blanket until we can figure out what to do. I think I can probably get them clean enough that you’ll be able to wear them again. I’ve got a few tricks of my own,” Heath said, offering the lad a comforting grin, “and believe me, when it comes to removing skunk odor, well, let’s just say I learned that the hard way. Now, you just follow me back to where we’ve got the horses staked, but don’t go I’ too close.”

When Heath arrived back at the picket line, Nick had already given up his search on foot, and was preparing to resume on horseback. He seemed puzzled when he spotted Heath approaching with Chris trailing along several yards behind. Taking a deep breath and counting to ten, Nick knew at this point disciplining the boy would be pointless. As they got within range, Nick didn’t need to ask for any explanations. The fragrance spoke for itself.

Walking over to Charger, Heath rummaged around in his saddle bags until his hand closed around the bar of soap. Next he untied Chris’ wool blanket off the back of Charlie.

“Come on, kid,” he called out, “I’ll walk you down to the creek.”

Chris hesitated for a moment, but then reluctantly followed.

“Okay, boy, I want you to start strippin’ off those soiled clothes and toss them over there.”

“I really don’t need anybody washin’ my clothes for me. I’m used to takin’ care of myself.”

“Look, Chris, I’m just tryin’ to be helpful. You’re problem is you don’t know when to swallow that pride of yours. Now lets get movin’ here.”

“I’m just not used to having company when I bathe, now if you don’t mind, just leave the soap and the blanket. I can handle the rest myself.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” replied Heath, throwing up his hands in submission, “I’ll wait for you back at the horses. Just one thing, though. Be sure to use plenty of that river bottom mud along with the soap. It’ll help get things cleaner in the long run.”

While Chris tried to scrub away the acrid odor, Heath rejoined Nick at the horses. As Heath approached his brother, Nick looked up from the tree he was reclined against with an inquisitive visage.

“He’s down there bathin’ now. I was goin’ to wash his clothes for him, but he said he didn’t want no help.”

“That’s just dandy! At the rate we’re going it’ll be Christmas before we make Stockton.”

“Well, there ain’t a whole lot you can do about it right now,” Heath advised his brother as he sat down next to him to roll a smoke, “so you might as well just try and relax. The way that kid reeked, he’s gonna be down there scrubbin’ for quite a spell.”

“I tell ya, Heath. Next time Jarrod tries to get us to do another favor, you’ve got my persmission to slap me sensless if I agree to it for him.”

“Okay Nick, I’d be more than happy to take you up on that, but would you mind giving me that offer in writing?”

“Why, don’t you trust me, Heath?”

“Let’s just say I don’t trust your memory. Hey, how ‘bout a game of five card stud?” Heath suggested as he fished a well worn pack of cards out of his shirt pocket.”

“You’re on, but I don’t play unless there’s some sort of wager involved and I used most of my cash back in Carson City.”

“That’s quite alright, big brother, you’re credit’s always good with me,” Heath grinned shuffling the deck.

After several hands of poker, Nick decided he’d lost enough money for one day.

“I think it’s time to call it quits, Heath, we really need to be pressin’ on soon. Maybe you should go and check up on the kid.”

“He said he’d be along, Nick, just try and be a little more patient. I want to be sure he’s good and clean before we hit the trail again.”

“You and me both. With you takin’ the lead, I’m the one that has to ride down wind of him.”

“Say, what are we going to do with him when the trial is over and all?”

“I haven’t really given it much thought. I guess we can’t just send him off to hit the rails again. Maybe Jarrod could help him find some sort of job in town. A kid his age shouldn’t be out on his own anyway.”

At the sound of someone approaching, both cowboys turned their heads to see a wet, but fully dressed Chris wrapped tight in his woolen blanket.

“Guess I’m ready to go now,” Chris announced, and then dropping his head added, “I sure am sorry for all the trouble I caused you.”

“Don’t worry about it, boy,” Nick offered, feeling soft for the moment, “what’s done is done. Now, do you think you can ride okay with that blanket?”

Chris nodded and after giving him a hand mounting Charlie, Heath resumed lead position and the three headed onward. With such a late start, the day seemed to pass quickly. Heath and Nick both agreed between themselves that the episode with the skunk must have been good medicine because Chris rode the entire day without uttering a single complaint. By the time they made camp that night, his clothes were completely dry and while he still carried a slight odor, he was at least tolerable. Dinner was beans and coffee and then early to bed. Heath stoked the fire up good before wrapping up in his bedroll. Spinning the chamber of his gun, it was set and ready if needed. He paused for a moment to admire the beautiful wooden handle that he had carefully polished the night before beginning the trip. The Colt forty-five had been a birthday gift from Jarrod and it had saved his life many a time. He didn’t know just how soon he would be depending on it again.

Chris thought light would never come as he spent another fitful night tossing and turning on the hard ground. Nick had said there would be at least four nights of camping out and this was only the second. When he slept in buildings, rail cars, or the warehouse in Stockton, the surface, although hard, was at least even and there weren’t all those outdoor noises plaguing his subconscious. Chris snuggled down deeper, pulling the blanket farther up around his neck. The logs on the fire had smoldered down to embers, but they still cast off a fair amount of heat. He was glad not to be cold on top of everything else. We looked across the orange glow at Heath’s still form sleeping soundly. He didn’t have to look to know that Nick was out cold. Loud snores coming from the older brother’s bedroll confirmed that fact. Heath had joked earlier that Nick’s snores alone would keep the vermin away, but now Chris was wondering if they weren’t a contributing factor to his insomnia. Rolling over, Chris was still trying to find a comfortable way to position himself.

Out in the forest a crackling noise drifted through the night air. Something was moving around out there. All Chris could think of was a picture he’d seen once in a book of a great, big grizzly bear. The noise came again, only this time closer. Whatever it was didn’t seem too worried about the fire or the three people at the camp site. After his experience earlier that day, Chris was all the wiser. He was learning that reacting in panic wasn’t the best way to handle difficult situations. This time he would be a little smarter. Ever so slowly, Chris crept out of his bedroll and made his way over to the side of the snoring Nick. Gently placing his hand on the cowboy’s shoulder, Chris aroused him from the land of Nod.

“Nick,” he whispered softly, “Nick, wake up. It’s me, Chris.”

With grunts and sputters the snoring ceased as Nick responded in a husky voice.

“What do you need, boy? I hope it’s important ‘cause I was havin’ one hell of a good dream.”

“Nick, there’s something moving around out in the woods. I think it might be a bear.”

“That’s nonsense, boy, there ain’t no bears around here. Now, go back to sleep.”

“But I heard something, Nick! I know I did!” Chris sounded emphatic in his plea.

“Now boy, you just….,” Nick’s voice dropped suddenly as this time the noise was not only very apparent, but very near.

“Heath!” Nick hissed, “Heath, there’s something out there!”

“What did you say, Nick?”, the blonde cowboy answered groggily.

“Your gun, Heath! Pull your gun! It sounds like someones walking towards the camp!”

Brandishing his Colt, Heath was on his feet in record time. No sooner had Heath jumped up than bullets started to fly. Whoever it was that had been stalking them, was now firing at them. Nick grabbed Chris and dove behind the nearest rock. Throwing the boy down on the ground, Nick ordered him to ‘lie flat’. Heath spun to return the fire. The shadow of a large man could be seen beyond the campfire. Six shots of his Colt and he needed to reload. The moon was full, but Heath knew the gun like the back of his hand. He could load it in pitch dark if he had too. Now, Nick had drawn and was firing too.

“Keep ‘em busy,” Heath murmered, “I’ll circle around.”

With bullets whizzing through the night, Heath exercised extreme caution. He didn’t want to become a victim of either enemy or friendly fire. His expertise from handling a gun practically his whole life and experience as a sharpshooter in the war were two things in his favor. By the light of the silvery moon, Heath could see an armed form croutched behind a large tree. He drew a bead and rapidy fired three shots. The figure dropped it’s weapon and slumped to the ground. Heath’s number one rule was never trust a corpse. The gunman seemed to be mortally wounded, but he wanted to make sure. Stealthily Heath crept up to the crumpled man with his Colt drawn and cocked. He checked the pulse. Nothing. He picked up the attackers weapon and turned to holler towards the camp.

“He’s dead, Nick.”

From out of the darkness came another shot. Heath whirled and exchanged his remaining shots with the stout form of a second stranger. Brush rustled as the portly man fell headlong, giving up the ghost. Heath stumbled to the fallen man to confirm the inevitable. Yes, this man was also dead. Staightening up, Heath grabbed a tree branch for support. Why did he suddenly feel so weak?

“Do you think that’s all of them?”

With long strides, Nick made his way through the thicket of trees, his gun barrel still smoking and warm.

“I think so, Nick. I sure don’t hear or see anyone else,” Heath answered his brother as he collapsed into Nick’s strong arms.

“Heath! Heath, what’s wrong with you?”

Nick knew he didn’t have to ask as he felt the warmth of the sticky liquid soaking through his brother’s shirt. Cradling Heath in his arms, Nick gently laid him down on the ground.

“Chris,” he hollered, “get me a candle out of my saddle bags!”

Placing a hand on the side of his brother’s throat, Nick breathed a sigh of relief as he felt a slow, steady pulse. Nimbley, Nick’s fingers unbuttoned the blue chambray cotton work shirt, now stained a crimson red. Pulling back the soiled fabric, Nick exposed Heath’s bare chest. The shirt had been wettest in the left shoulder area.

“Hey, Chris! Hurry it up with that candle!”

“I’ve got it right here, Nick,” Chris replied from behind as Nick fumbled in his pocket for a match. “My God! What happened to Heath!”

“Bullet wound. Here, light the candle.” Nick handed the wooden match back to the startled boy.

“Here,” said Chris, offering the candle to Nick.

“No, I can’t deal with both that and him. You’re going to have to hold it. Here. Hold it low so I can see what I’m doing.”

Chris obeyed as Nick examined the seeping wound. The bullet seemed to still be lodged in the muscle tissue. Nick knew that with no doctor anywhere near, he was going to be the best that Heath had. Though he had never actually removed a bullet himself, first aid had been part of the training Nick had I when he enlisted in the army. He had assisted field surgeons on many occasions and knew all too well how the procedure was performed.

Still stunned from the shooting incident, Chris didn’t have much to say. He felt somewhat dazed, like maybe this was nothing more than a bad dream. But dream or not, the truth of the matter was evident. Two corpses lying close by and this critically injured cowboy right at his feet. Chris held the light close while Nick completed his examination. Finally he mustered up the courage to speak.

“How is he, Nick? Is he hurt bad?”

“Well, he ain’t good. That’s for damn sure. This bullet’s goin’ to have to come out, but it’s much to dark now. It’ll be light in a few hours and we’ll take it out them. In the meantime all we can do is keep him warm. I’m going to pick him up and carry him over to the fire. You can lead the way and make sure there’s nothin’ in the way for me to trip over.”

With carefull maneuvering and every ounce of strength he emeanor, Nick was able to get Heath settled back in the camp. He had removed Heath’s blue shirt since it would have to come off anyway, and balling it up used it to compress the wound. Cradling his brother’s upper body as a mother cradles a child, Nick mentally stategized the duties he would need to perform. First he would need hot water. Fortunately the brothers never traveled with out a coffee pot rolled up in their bedrolls. He had a small flask of whiskey in his saddle bag. That would prove to be a god send. He also had a small roll of cloth bandaging. Experience had taught him that that was a smart thing to keep on hand. His knife was in his pants pocket. It would have to be boiled really good. He had used it to gut a trout on the trip up.

Nick groaned inwardly. He wasn’t going to be looking forward to this at all. His first attempt at removing a bullet and Heath would be the helpless guinea pig. The way this whole trip was going, Nick didn’t know how it could get much worse. Heath had been right. Finding that kid as quick as they had back in Carson City had been far too easy. He just hoped that once they arrived back in Stockton, their efforts would prove to be worthwhile.

At the first signs of dawn, Nick began to make his preparations. He had built the fire up during the night and his water had now been simmering for several hours. Chris had been fairly shaken over the whole ordeal, but after receiving a combination lecture and peptalk from Nick, he was braced for whatever might come his way. They had had some time to chat during the night while they sat up with Heath. Nick had apologized for not initially believing that Chris had indeed heard a noise, and then thanked him for alerting them to the danger. Both Nick and Chris agreed that things may have turned out rather grim if Chris hadn’t been so restless. Chris in turn, was glad to add that Nick played a role in heroism as well. It had been his snores that helped keep Chris awake all night.

After thoroughly discussing all the ‘what ifs’, Nick had leveled with the boy on a more serious note.

“I’ll be counting on you when I get ready to remove that bullet from Heath, Chris. I may be needing an extra pair of hands and you’re all I got. That bullets in deep and it’s got to come out. You’re gonna have to keep your wits about you, boy. Heath’s life could depend on it.”

As the sun rose above the horizon, Nick knew that the time had come. Except for an occasional groan, Heath had remained unconscious and quiet. The bleeding had subsided from the pressure Nick held against the wound, but would start up again once he began to operate. Using the whiskey as an antiseptic, Nick cleansed the wound as well as their hands.

As the sun rose above the horizon, Nick knew that the time had come. Except for an occasional groan, Heath had remained unconscious and quiet. The bleeding had subsided from the pressure Nick held against the wound, but would start up again once he began to operate. Using the whiskey as an antiseptic, Nick cleansed the wound as well as their hands.

The knife was hot and ready to go. Nick drew a deep breath as he prepared to penetrate the skin with it’s steel tip. He paused to take another look at the man who had ridden up to the ranch three years ago claiming to be his brother. Heath, the little brother whom he had always longed for as a boy. Heath, the little brother whom he had so venomously rejected during their initial meeting. Heath, the little brother he had come to cherish more than if they had grown up together. Now, it seemed to Nick, as though their future together as brothers would depend on his own skills as a mock surgeon. If ever Nick had felt the responsibility that an older sibling has in caring for a younger one, now was the time.

The surgery would be a delicate one and the tools Nick had available to him were primitive at best. This wouldn’t just be like pulling a sliver out of somebody’s finger. He was going to have to actually cut through some of the flesh to find the bullet. Any mistakes, such as accidently lacerating an artery, could hold fatal consequences.

Nick lowered the knife and gently pressed it against the wound. A sharpened scalpel might have sliced the skin like butter, but his well used buck knife was no scalpel. With increased force combined with a slight back and forth motion, the blade began to sink deeper into the tissue. Chris crouched close by, blotting the excess blood flow. The young boy’s face was pale, but stalwartly he fought off any inclination to faint.

In a few minutes, Nick had located the bullet. The army doctors had always used a special tool similar to a long pair of tweezers for extracting the lead balls. Nick didn’t even have a regular pair of tweezers, and using the end of the knife to pry could prove too risky. Using his index finger, Nick probed into the incision and hooked it’s tip under the foreign object. Working it up to the surface, the bullet was now removed.

Yes, the bullet had I been in deep and Nick knew that to properly close the wound would require stitching. Boiled hair from a horse’s tail was about the strongest thread around, and there was plenty of that, but what to do for a needle?

“Sure wish I had a good, strong needle in those saddle bags of mine,” he thought out loud, “but then again needles aren’t standard equipment for cowboys.”

“Wait a minute!” exclaimed Chris fishing deep into his trouser’s pocket. “These are the needles I went to buy for Ming at the dry goods store in Carson City! She needed them for mending in the Chinese Laundry and after running into you, I completely forgot that I had them!”

Chris opened a small paper sack and produced an assortment of different sized sewing needles. Nick picked the small curved one. It looked close to the ones used by the field surgeons.

“Good job, boy. Now, run over to those horses and pluck me some good strong tail hairs. You’ll need to let them boil first,” ordered Nick, as he compressed the pulsating vessels.

After the horse hairs were sterilized, Nick began to sew up the wound. Heath had remained unconscious throughout the entire operation, but Nick knew by the incoherent moans that somehow his brother was still experiencing some of the pain. Now, as the needle pierced his skin, Heath began to toss and flinch.

“Chris!” Nick emeanore his novice assistant, “try and hold his shoulders down!”

Pushing down with all his weight, Chris tried his best to steady the restless man. Nevertheless, with his shoulders immobile, Heath’s reflexes began to work through his arms. The right arm wasn’t posing any immediate problem, but the left kept switching this way and that, preventing Nick from keeping a steady hand.

“His arm, Chris, can you get that anchored as well?”

“I don’t see how I can, Nick. It’s all I can do to keep his shoulders pinned!”

“Here, maybe I can sit on it,” Nick said, as he maneuvered Heath’s forearm under his right knee.

Nick continued his task of sutchering the incision, tying each stitch off separately. There! Finally he was done. Nick had just successfully completed his first operation. He tightly bound the wound with the cloth bandaging and pulled a blanket up under Heath’s chin.

“There, that’s about all we can do for the time being. What he needs now is rest.”

Nick tried not to let his uneasiness show, but he was worried. Worried that infection would set in before he could get Heath to a doctor. Tenderly he laid a hand on his brother’s forehead. Yes, he was slightly warm, but nothing to get overly concerned with at the present time. Dumping the hot water out of the coffee pot, he headed back down to the creek. Cool water sponged over the face and chest would help bring down that elevated temperature.

“Okay, Chris,” Nick stated as he finished dabbing Heath with his cool, wet bandana, “I think you and I need to walk over to those desperados lying back there in the woods. It would be helpful if you are able to identify them.”

“What are we going to do with them, Nick? Turn them in to the sheriff?”

“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary and with Heath hurt we need to get back as quickly as possible. After you take a look, I’ll handle it from there.”

Nick grabbed the tall cadaver and turned it over. It was a man with a long scar running the length of his face.

“Just what I thought,” gasped Chris stepping back. “That’s Gus, one of the watchmen at Hansen Freight. He was on duty the night of the murder.”

“He was the murderer, then?” questioned Nick.

“No, it wasn’t Gus, or Rod either.”

“Rod?”

“Gus’ partner. I’m guessing the second guy who was shooting at us last night was Rod.”

“We might as well go find out for sure. Come on, Chris.”

The two walked a short distance over to the other still form slumped into the bushes.

“Yep,” confirmed Chris, “that’s Rod all right.”

“Chris, if these two men followed us all this way to try and prevent you from testifying, they must’ve been involved in some way. Are you sure it wasn’t them that killed that army I?”

“I’m sure, Nick. After that guy was knifed, I ran. Before I jumped off one of the back docks, I saw Rod and Gus heading in the direction where I came from. They weren’t anywhere near the place of the murder when it happened.”

“Did you see who did it, Chris?”

“Not really. There were some boxes in the way and I had been sleeping. The lighting was dim, but I could see the officer with the knife in his gut stagger in front of my line of vision. I didn’t wait around any longer. I figured whoever it was might come after me next. As I was leaving the warehouse, the Denver bound freight pulled in. I figured Denver was as good a place as any and when the train pulled out again, I was on it. I would have stayed on it, too, if that brake man hadn’t found me when the train stopped in Carson City. I just wanted to get as far away as I could get.”

“Well Chris, I know my brother Jarrod will really appreciate the fact that you came back with us. I can only imagine how frightened that made you, but you’ve got to trust us to keep you safe. My family or the sheriff aren’t going to let anything happen to you. Now,” said Nick placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder, “I want you to go back to camp and sit with my brother while I take care of these two. It wouldn’t be decent leaving them here for the vultures and vermin.”

Nick finished the dismal chore and hurried back to camp. He wanted to keep a close watch on Heath’s temperature. When he arrived, he found that Chris had resumed the duty of sponge bathing Heath’s feverish body. Nick knelt down and laid a hand against his patient’s flushed cheek. Still warm, but not high enough to really worry. Slightly raised body temperature was to be expected after an injury of this magnitude.

“Will he be okay, Nick?” Chris seemed worried too. “He sure has been out a long time.”

“Heath’s as tough as nails. He’ll be just fine, Chris.”

Nick pulled some jerky out of one of the bags and tossed a piece over to Chris.

“Here, kid. You need to keep your strength up.”

Gratefully, Chris caught the airborne piece of beef and the two sat chewing in silence. Finally, Nick broke the stillness.

“Tell me Chris, how long have you been on your own?”

“For about three years now,” Chris answered.

With Heath injured, he was beginning to feel like he and Nick were a team. Even more important, he was beginning to trust; something he hadn’t done for a long time.

“So does that mean your folks are no longer living?” Nick wanted to know.

“My mother died when I was quite young and it was always just me and Pa. He and I ran a hardware store in southside Chicago. When he died, the bank foreclosed on the store. I didn’t much care to hang around after that, so I took what little money we had and started headin’ west. Some friends taught me the ropes on how to sneak rides on the trains. That way I was able to stretch my money farther.”

“But eventually it ran out?” Nick listened with interest as Chris continued his story.

“Yeah, it ran out and so I started picking up odd jobs here and there. There was usually work that I could do around towns. If I liked a place particularly well, I would stick around until I had reason to move on. Pa had always taught me to take care of myself, but I soon found out that city life is a lot different than life on the road. My street smarts helped me survive in towns, but put me out in the wild and I’d be a goner for sure!”

“Boy, you ain’t joking about that!” Nick teased, placing emphasis on the word ‘that’.

Chris smiled sheepishly realizing how he must look to these well seasoned cowboys.

“No, that ain’t no joke Nick, but I’ve always admired those who can live off the land and survive in the outdoors. I’m not sayin’ that that’s what I want to do or anything, but I would maybe like to learn how to do some ranch work. Do you think there’s a chance I could get hired on doing some odd jobs on your place?”

“We’ll worry about that later, Chris. I suppose when we get back, I could try and make a cowhand outta you, but you’ve got to be willing to really want to learn. A cowboy who doesn’t want to ride a horse won’t make it at the Barkley ranch,” explained Nick, leveling with the young man. “Now, if you decide that you’re goin’ to buckle down and get over some of your skittishness, I suppose we may be able to work something out.”

“I sure would like to try….if’n you’re willin’ to teach me, that is.”

The two passed the remainder of the morning chatting and playing gin. Heath roused long enough to open his eyes and swallow some water, and then passed out again. Around mid after noon his fever had risen considerably.

“He’s a lot warmer than I’d like him to be,” Nick commented, blotting the beaded sweat off Heath’s forehead, “I’m thinkin’ we may have to haul him down to the creek and let him soak a spell.”

“We’ll have to be careful not to get his shoulder wet,” Chris added.

“Yeah, one thing he doesn’t need is creek water in that shoulder wound. I noticed earlier that the creek bank has a gentle slope and is not too deep. We can set him in there from the waist down.”

Nick squatted down to gather his unconscious brother up in his arms.

“Hey, Chris. Would you mind grabbin’ those two empty cups? We’ll need to pour some water over his chest and arms.”

Nick carried Heath down to the creek and after removing his belt and boots, set him in the chilly water, pants and all. Chris followed close behind with the two tin cups. Together they worked spooning water over Heath, attempting to bring his temperature down. After about an hour Heath’s forehead felt cool to the touch and Nick decided it was time to get him out of the water.

“Okay, Chris. I’m gonna grab him under the arms. Do you think you can manage his feet?”

“I think I can do that. Go ahead, I’m ready.”

By this time, Chris had taken off his shoes and had waded into the creek. Nick hooked Heath under the armpits and carefully began backing up the bank. Chris had a firm grip on his feet and was attempting to side step over, when his foot slipped on a mossy rock in the bottom of the creek bed. Losing his footing, the boy let Heath’s feet drop as he fell backwards into the water.

“Chris!”, exclaimed Nick, pulling his brother up on the bank and setting him on dry ground.

“You okay?” he asked walking to the bank’s edge.

Chris stood to his feet dripping in water and slowly made his way up the bank while Nick stood watching in stunned silence. In a moment’s time Chris had suddenly changed. It wasn’t so much the dry to wet that made Nick take notice, but the young teen standing in front of him. The saturated clothing clung to his body….revealing the shape that belonged to that of a young woman.

“Would you mind tellin’ me what the devil you think you’re doin’, kid?”

“Sorry, Nick,” replied the clueless teen, “I must’ve slipped on a rock or something.”

“Hang the rock, Chris, I ain’t talkin’ about that. I’m talkin’ about….well….look at you! You ain’t no more a boy than I am a girl.”

Chris breathed a long sigh and sat down on the bank not sure how to respond.

“I guess I have some explainin’ to do, huh?”

“Oh, do you have some explaining to do, Chris! Do you realize you were workin’ in a bath house? What in blazes were you thinkin’?”

“I guess you probably won’t believe me, Nick, but I was always careful to look the other way when warmin’ up the tubs. I was desperate for a job when I got bumped off the train in Carson City and the bath house was hirin’.”

“And that’s another whole issue all together! Runnin’ around the country in freight cars is no kinda life for a girl, Chris. Hell, it just ain’t safe!”

“That’s why I disguised myself as a boy. That, and it made it easier to find work. Not many people are willin’ to hire a girl, you know.”

“Well, we can talk about this some more when we get Heath back to camp. I’m just glad I decided to leave his pants on!”

Nick carried his brother’s limp form back up through the woods and laid him on the bed of blankets. His glance fell on the partially full whiskey flask setting nearby where he had left it. Too bad he would be needing that for doctoring purposes. It had been several days since he had taken a good strong drink, and right now he was feeling as if he really did need one. He looked back down at his unconscious brother and ran a hand through the uncombed, blonde hair. However strong the temptation to take a swig, he knew to give in would not be cost effective. The young man laying before him held more value to Nick than the desire to satisfy any fleshly impulses.

“When Heath wakes up,” Nick thought to himself, “he’ll probably be needing the drink worse than I do.”

Heath rolled his head and began to mumble some incoherent jargon. Nick couldn’t make heads or tails out of the mumbo jumbo, but was relieved to see his brother finally coming around.

“Heath! What did you say!” Nick exclaimed, trying to keep a soothing quality in his voice as he laid a hand on his brother’s cheek. “I’m right here, Heath, and everything’s going to be fine!”

Heath opened his eyes and looked up at Nick and then Chris who was now standing in the background.

“What’s going on?” he stammered. “Why am I still in bed? You should have woken me sooner, Nick.”

“Just take it easy, Heath,” the older Barkley explained, “Some men tried to bushwack us last night and you were shot. Now, you just lay back and don’t try to get up.”

“Men tried to bushwack us?” Heath seemed confused at first by the statement, but then he started to recall the previous night’s events. “Oh yeah, I think I remember now. They didn’t hurt the boy, did they?”

“No, little brother, Chris is just fine, only…,” Nick paused and looked up at the third person standing near by, “only Chris ain’t a boy.”

“What do ya mean he ain’t a boy?” Heath asked weakly.

“I mean she’s a girl!” Nick explained matter-of-factly.

Heath seemed enlightened as his confused expression mutated into a twisted grin.

“No wonder you didn’t want any help with that bath,” he responded, flashing Chris a shy smile.

By evening, Heath was alert and his fever was down. It was decided that they would press for home the following day. Nick was hesitant at first, wanting to be sure his brother felt strong enough to sit in a saddle, but Heath assured him that he had ridden in worse condition many a time. He was weak, but felt the urge to be traveling on. Since Chris had identified Gus and Rod as possible accomplices, but not guilty of actually committing the murder, there may be others wanting to prevent the teenager from giving a testimony.

“You know, Chris,” Nick remarked after they had finished their evening meal, “it’s going to be tough for me to start thinkin’ of you as a girl. I mean all this time referring to you as ‘the boy’ and all. And by the way, that reminds me of somethin’ else. You’re name is ‘Chris’ isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s my real name, all right. My given name is Christine, but Pa always just called me ‘Chris’.”

“So now I’ve got another question for you,” pondered Nick, “Now that your secret’s out, when all this is over, are you goin’ to be ‘Chris’ or ‘Christine’?”

“You mean am I going to go back to being a girl?” Chris asked. “I don’t know the answer to that, Nick. Guess I really haven’t given it much thought. Posin’ as a guy is part of my key to survival. There aren’t many jobs available for a girl my age except for the ones I promised Pa I’d never take. To tell you the truth, I’ve pretended to be a boy for so long now, I’ve kinda forgotten how to even act like a girl. Even when Pa was still alive, I was always more like a son to him than a daughter.”

“You can’t keep hiding your gender forever, Chris. What kind of life will that be for you? You won’t even be able to marry and have children. It’s just a bunch of blame foolishness, anyway.”

“Foolish to you, Nick Barkley, but it’s been my way of life and enabled me to see the country,” Chris anwered indignantly, “It’s not so easy to give up something that’s been my security.”

“Are you afraid to change, Chris?” Heath asked, his voice weak. He had been dozing on and off but had gotten in on the tail end of the conversation.

“Yes, I guess you could say that I am. I mean what if I decided to start dressin’ like a girl and then didn’t like it. By that time, people would know who I really was, and there’d be no going back again.”

“Well, you’ll have time to think on it,” Heath answered, “but just keep in mind that if you decide to take that step, the Barkley family will be right beside you. I’m sure Nick will even agree that we’ll do whatever we can to help you get started in your new life.”

“That’s right, Chris,” Nick added, “you won’t be left out in the cold.”

“I guess your offer of teachin’ me to be a ranch hand is off now?”

“Now Chris, you know I can’t hire you as a hand out at the ranch under the present circumstances. How would the other men react if they found out they were bunkin’ with a woman?”

Travel was slow the next two days. Heath kept up the pace and never uttered a complaint, but Nick could tell he was haggard. Each evening, Nick cleansed Heath’s shoulder with whiskey and rewrapped it with clean bandages. The last two days were spent in the flatlands and more civilized areas. Nick urged Heath to stop and see a doctor from one of the near by towns, but Heath flatly refused. At the end of the third day, the three riders were officially on Barkley land.

Victoria, Jarrod and Audra were enjoying their predinner socializing when the front door of the house swung open.

“It’s the boys! They’re back!” exclaimed Audra, running to meet her brothers. Her exuberance, however, was stifled at the sight of her youngest brother.

“Heath! What happened?” she blurted out, rushing to his side.

“Yes, please tell us!” interjected Jarrod, as he and Victoria joined the group in the foyer.

“I think for now Heath just needs to go up to bed and wait for the doctor,” Nick said, coming to his brother’s rescue. “I already sent Ciego into town for Doc Merar. I’ll tell you all about it, but first we all need a bath and a decent meal.”

With all the fuss over Heath, the family had momentarily forgotten the extra presence, now standing awkwardly on the sidelines. Victoria was first to notice the bedraggled teenager and immediately rushed over to make acquaintance.

“You must be Chris,” she warmly greeted, “I’m so glad to meet you.”

Bashfully, Chris returned the greeting as the Barkley matriarch escorted her guest to join her conversing children.

“Chris!” Jarrod chimed in, focusing on the shy youngster, “I’m Jarrod, Mario’s attorney. He’ll be so happy when he finds out that you came back. Come on up stairs, I’ll get you settled, then after dinner we can go into the study and talk.”

“Uhhh, Jarrod,” Nick emeanore, “I think maybe it would be more in keepin’ to have Audra show Chris her room.”

“Her room?” questioned the confused lawyer.

“Her room,” Nick reiterated, “Her real name is Christine.”

“Oh, I see,” replied Jarrod, surprised, but yet amused as he imagined what an interesting trip it must have been. “Well, I hope my brothers saw to your comfort, young lady!” he added, turning to Chris.

“Oh, they’ve been really nice,” answered Chris, “At first I wasn’t so sure. Especially when I accidently poured the hot water on Nick in the bath house. I thought for sure he was going to….”

“I don’t think the family’s interested in hearin’ about that,” interrupted Nick, his face and neck burning with abashment.

Victoria appeared somewhat jolted as she looked at Nick and then over at Heath. The deep shade of her youngest son’s complexion told her that he had been involved with the incident as well.

“Oh, I think that the family would be more than interested in hearing about that,” chimed Jarrod, now more amused than ever.

His mother, however, was not amused. She knew that her chivalrous sons would never intentionally set themselves up in such a compromising situation, but could not help thinking of the stigma attached with two grown men bathing in the presence of an impressionable young lady. She knew there had to be a reasonable explanation, but that could wait.

“Nick, why don’t you help Heath up to his room,” Victoria added briskly, sensing the awkwardness of the subject at hand, “He looks like he needs to lie down. Audra, take Chris up to the guest room and have Silas draw her a hot bath.”

Chris followed Audra up the broad staircase. She was only now beginning to notice just how grand this home truly was. The crystal chandelier, carpeting on the stairs, the wooden hand rails, polished to a golden sheen. Audra led her down the hall and opened one of the closed doors. Inside was one of the most gorgeous rooms Chris had ever seen. She had never been in a home with furnishings and I such as these. Audra noticed that Chris wasn’t carrying any kind of bag or belongings.

“I’ll go up to the attic and try to find some clothes that will fit you. I think some of my old dresses are packed away up there.”

“Dresses?” Chris replied, as if Audra’s suggestion was something far fetched and outlandish.

“Haven’t you ever worn a dress, Chris?”

Audra’s question was asked with such gentle sincerety, that Chris almost considered accepting her offer.

“No, at least not that I can remember. I may have before Mother died, but that was such a long time ago. Working with Pa in the hardware store like I did, pants just always seemed best. Guess I’d be most comfortable if you could just find me a clean pair of those.”

“I’m sure some of Nick’s and Jarrod’s old things are up there. I’ll see what I can find.”

Audra hesitated for a moment before leaving the room. Smiling, she watched as Chris explored the room that was to be her sleeping quarters. She didn’t know this young woman or her history, but Audra sensed a lack of self esteem. She felt like she wanted to befriend this wayward child and help her to learn to believe in herself.

“You have very pretty hair, Chris,” Audra complimented the younger woman, “it looks as if it’s naturally highlighted. Have you ever worn it long?”

“Yeah, it was long all during my growin’ up years. When I left Chicago, I cropped it short before I left. Didn’t want people thinkin’ I was a helpless girl.”

Shutting the door behind her, Audra left to retrieve the clothes. She didn’t know whether or not fate had brought Chris to their doorstep, but nonetheless was glad that she had come. Maybe Jarrod, in his infinite wisdom, could direct this lost girl with the guidance she so desperately needed.

Two hours later, the doctor had just left and the family, minus Heath, was assembling at the dinner table. Doc Merar had left some medication to help fight off infection and prescribed plenty of bedrest.

“How’s Heath?” Nick inquired of his Mother after Jarrod had offered grace.

Nick had been in the tub when Doc Merar arrived and had’nt yet received his younger brother’s prognosis. Now, he was heaping his plate with all the favorite foods he had gone without the past two and a half weeks.

“He’s still very weak, but Howard says he should recover nicely. He also said you did an excellent job removing that bullet.”

“Heath told you about that then?” Nick questioned, his mouth full of ham.

“Yes,” Victoria nodded, “he also said to tell you that you missed your true calling. He thinks you should have gone into medicine rather than raising cattle.”

Chuckles volleyed across the table as Jarrod and Audra imagined their volatile sibling in a profession often associated with sensitivity and compassion.

“With a brother as accident prone as Heath is, I think it would be quite beneficial having a doctor in the family,” mused Jarrod with a twinkle in his eye. “What do you say, brother Nick? Do you want to let Heath run the ranch so you can pursue a medical career?”

“Oh, you’re just a barrel full of laughs,” Nick answered in mock sarcasm. “Hey Audra, pass me some more of that ham.”

With the family discussing Heath’s welfare, the focus had been momentarily diverted from the guest now seated at the table in a pair of Nick’s old pants and shirt.

“Well, Chris,” Jarrod inquired, trying to make their guest feel at ease, “how are you feeling after several days on the trail?”

“I’m okay. Boy, this is some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Does Silas do the cookin’?”

“Silas and I share in meal preparation,” Victoria replied. “However, he did cook the food we’re eating this evening. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.”

“I was able to find some clothes that fit Chris up in the attic,” Audra piped in, “I think they belonged to you, Nick!”

“I thought those clothes looked awfully familiar,” commented the lanky cowboy, briefly reminiscing a time when he fit into that particular outfit.

“Well, Nick,” exclaimed Jarrod, pushing himself away from the table, “if these lovely ladies will excuse us, why don’t you and I step into my office for a brotherly chat! I think that after three weeks we have a little catching up to do! If you’re through eating, that is.”

“I’m through,” answered Nick, wiping his plate clean with the last of his bread and stuffing the oversized morsel into his mouth.

Upon entering Jarrod’s study, the lawyer shut the door behind them.

“All right, Nick,” Jarrod started as he poured them both a drink, “let’s have it from start to finish.”

Nick briefed Jarrod on all the major details of the trip, skirting around his and Heath’s initial introduction to Chris. The lawyer paced the room, looking more perplexed than ever.

“So Chris claims he, I mean she, doesn’t have any idea who actually committed the murder, but she does know it wasn’t Rod Benson or Gus Peters. If she’s telling the truth, I guess that blows one of my theories. The theory that it was one of them that actually did the killing. It also means that they were sent by someone. If they didn’t do it, they would have no interest as to whether the boy, or girl as things turned out, came back to testify or not.”

“Have you done any checkin’ on the victim’s background?” Nick questioned his older brother.

“Yes, I’ve been doing some investigative research while you and Heath were in Carson City. From what I’ve learned from checking around town, Timothy Handel was serving as paymaster out at the Fort. I guess it would stand to reason that an officer in charge of Army funds may frequent a warehouse on occasion.”

“But the murder happened close to midnight. Would he be conducting Army business at such a late hour?”

“Yes, that could be possible if he had urgent need for a particular freight shipment, but when I conducted my research, I found no records indicating any kind of shipments going through Stockton that particular night. In fact there’s no evidence that the Army has even tried to investigate Lieutenant Handel’s murder.”

“And Mario hasn’t been able to provide any more useful information?”

“No, his story hasn’t changed, and now that I know him better I’m convinced more than ever that he’s innocent. But I still feel as though he’s holding something back.”

“It sure beats me how you can tell that just by talkin’ with a person.”

“It comes with the territory, brother Nick. Now, unless you care to enlighten me on that bath you and Heath were taking in Carson City, I think I’ll go get acquainted a little better with our guest. Maybe she can help fill in some of the gaps.”

“Where’s Chris?” asked Jarrod, as he and Nick joined Victoria in the parlor.

“Upstairs with Audra. They went to check on Heath and offer him some dinner. Would you like me to run get her?”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll give her a few minutes. I was just wanting to chat with her before she gets too tired. I imagine she’ll be going to bed early tonight.”

The sound of female voices laced with giggles caused Jarrod to turn his head. Audra and Chris seemed to be getting along well. He was glad that Chris seemed to be coming out of her shell. His little sister seemed to have a special gift with people. If anybody could make an outsider feel welcome, it was Audra.

“You two certainly seem to be enjoying yourselves,” Jarrod remarked to the two smiling young women. “Did you share some of your cheer with Heath?”

“No,” answered Audra, “we poked our heads in his door, but be was sound asleep. I guess I might as well go tell Silas not to keep his dinner warm.”

“I’ll go with you, dear,” Victoria suggested, “I think Jarrod would like to have some time with Chris.”

“And I think I will say ‘good night’,” Nick added.

As everyone exchanged their evening farewells and went their separate ways, Jarrod invited Chris to join him in the study.

“Can I have Silas get you a cup of hot chocolate?” the lawyer offered. He wanted this girl to feel welcome and at ease in their home.

“No thanks, Jarrod, I’m fine. Dinner was really filling.”

“All right, then. Let’s get down to discussing your knowledge of the warehouse incident. Can you please describe the events that night exactly as you recall them?”

Nick had already recounted the story he had received from Chris, but Jarrod wanted to hear it straight from the mouth of the witness. Carefully he took in every word she said, not wanting to miss a hint of any lead that might offer more clues.

“Chris, you say you saw a uniformed man stumble from behind some crates with a knife in his emeano. Does that mean that you never saw this man before?”

“He may have been there one other time, but I’m not certain. The Army uses a lot of supplies and I’m used to uniformed men coming and going. After a while, it just looks like another uniform.”

“But this officer’s uniform would be a little different than that of a sergant or a private. There would be more color on the sleeves.”

“I did think that I had maybe seen a uniform with the same markings a week or so before the murder. It could have been the same man.”

“Do you have any clue as to what kind of business an Army lieutenant would have in the building at such a late hour? Were they expecting a shipment of some kind?”

“I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t wait ‘til mornin’ to come for his supplies. That’s the way they usually do it.”

“So then the supplies are stored right there in the warehouse until somebody can come and collect them?”

“Yeah, they usually store the crates marked USA right near the docks….except for the really heavy ones and they go in the back room.”

“Now what do you mean by ‘the really heavy ones’? What makes those crates different from all the others?”

“I don’t know why they would put ‘em there, unless they were just trying to get them out of the way or something. I’m not sure what the Army even wants with all those books.”

“You say there are books in those crates?”

“Well, I never opened one up, but that’s what the stenciling on the sides of the boxes say.”

“Hmm, that’s mighty interesting,” Jarrod pondered, the wheels in his brain kicking into gear.

“By the way, Jarrod, how’s Mario doing?”

“His health is good, but spirits have been rather low. I suppose that’s only to be considered a normal state for someone who’s behind bars. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, he was just always really nice. Most of the people who worked there treated me like I was just some dumb kid, but Mario….he was just always friendly and went out of his way to make sure I had food and blankets and stuff like that.”

“Would you like to see him?”

“Yes, that would be great!”

“I’m sure it would boost his spirits considerably to have a visitor. I don’t think he gets very many.”

“Yeah, I think people sort of shrug him off sometimes, too. Not ‘cause he’s young like me, ‘cause he ain’t, but because he has an accent. People think he’s dumb just ‘cause sometimes he’s hard to understand.”

“Mr. Hansen must not feel that way. After all, he’s put Mario in charge of his accounting.”

“I guess, but sometimes I wonder if Mr. Hansen really trusts Mario. A lot of times after Mario has left for the day, Mr. Hansen will come in late at night and work on the books himself.”

“Was Mr. Hansen there working the night Lieutentant Handel was murdered?”

“Can’t say for sure. Usually he comes in late. I went to sleep fairly early that night and don’t recall running into him. Besides, I don’t think he’d come in if Mario were still there. For some reason I get the feeling he doesn’t want Mario to know he checks his work. Probably doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. Well, if that’s all for now, I think I’ll go to bed. That trip with your brothers kinda tired me out.”

“Good night, Chris, and again, thanks for all your cooperation.”

Jarrod sat up long into the night after Chris had gone to bed. He hadn’t really considered the possibility that LaMar Hansen could have been involved with the murder, but then again, what did he really know about this man? His research had proved Hansen to be quite the opportunist. He had run a smuggling operation during the war, invested in several different export companies, purchased large amounts of railroad stock, and had recently acquired several thousand acres of prime grazing land. Jarrod knew that LaMar had business interests besides the warehouse that could be attributing to his great success. Climbing to a position of prominence during the few years he had been in Stockton, the man had seemed more than eager to offer his assistance during Jarrod’s investigations.

Now, from the information he was able to gather from Chris, a new light was being shed on this mysterious chain of events. He figured that maybe further cross examination of the man would help confirm any speculations he now emeanor as possible motives. Turning down the lamp, Jarrod decided to call it a night. Tomorrow he would ride into Stockton for a chat with Mario.

When Jarrod awoke the following morning, he mentally mapped out the day’s agenda before his feet even touched the floor. He needed to spend some time at home before heading to Stockton a little bit later. Jarrod knew that the others in the household would more than likely be sleeping in late this morning, so he walked down the hall to stake first claim on the bathroom. Everyone would be wanting it in an hour or so and he much preferred to shave there than in his room.

Jarrod dabbed the last little bit of shaving soap off his chin and splashed on some of the aftershave Audra had given him last Christmas. The brasing tincture made every nerve in his face stand at attention. Giving his cheek a final pat, he gathered his toiletries together and headed back down the hall. The door to Heath’s room was slightly ajar. Jarrod stopped to look inside and found Victoria standing next to the bed propping Heath up with pillows.

“Heath! How are you feeling this morning!” As of yet, Jarrod hadn’t had the opportunity to properly thank his blonde brother for his efforts in bringing Chris back to the ranch.

“Hungry enough to eat breakfast, even if it was Audra that was goin’ to be cookin’ it!” Heath grinned.

“I’ll bet you are! We missed you at the dinner table last night,” Jarrod smiled. “And if I know our Mother, she’s going to insist on serving you in bed.”

“That’s right,” Victoria firmly agreed, “I’ve instructed Heath that he’s going to abide by the doctor’s orders this time around.”

“And that means no sneaking out of the house when I’m not up here watching you!” she sternly joked, looking Heath right in the eye.

“I’ll try and mind my manners, Mother. Now, ‘bout that breakfast. Do you think Silas could stir me up some of his scrambled eggs and hot raisin bread?”

“I’ll bring it up to you shortly, dear,” chirped Victoria, pausing to kiss Jarrod on the way out.

“Heath,” Jarrod began, “Nick told me how you helped protect Chris from those men who tried to jump you in camp, and I just want you to know how grateful I am for all you did in getting her here safely.”

“It wasn’t much,” Heath replied, brushing off any hints at heroism, “Nick’s the one that really out did himself.”

“Yes, that he did. Anyway, I’ll be going in to town later to give Fred a full report of what happened. Now, you just rest easy and get to feeling better,” Jarrod said, patting Heath’s arm.

“Thanks Jarrod!”

After finishing his breakfast, Jarrod went back to his study to gather some papers together. He had offered to take Chris into town to visit Mario, but that could wait. The girls were both still sleeping, and he didn’t want to publicize her presence there at the ranch. Jarrod grabbed his coat and hat off the rack when he finished in the study. When he reached the stables, he found Jingo saddled and ready to go.

“Thanks, Ciego!”, the lawyer called to the portly stable hand as he trotted out of the barnyard.

Arriving at the jail, Jarrod found Fred behind his desk sorting through a new stack of wanteds that had just come in from the post office. As the sheriff sorted, some were filed in the waste basket and others were set aside for display. Jarrod noticed, however, that one was singled out and sitting smack dab in the center of Sheriff Madden’s desk.

“Jarrod!,” the sheriff greeted, “I was just I’ ready to ride out and see you!”

“Why, what’s up, Fred?”

“Looky here,” said Sheriff Madden, pointing to the poster centered on his desk. “Does this face look familiar to you?”

Jarrod leaned over hoping the mug would hold some signifigance, but instead drew a blank.

“No, I’m sorry, Fred. I don’t know him.”

Fred looked down at the fuzzy image on the wanted poster and then back at Jarrod.

“No, I guess you wouldn’t know after all. You never saw the body. It’s the face of that Army Lieutenant that was murdered over at Hansen’s. See, right here it has his name ‘Timothy Handel’,” continued Fred, squinting to read the fine print, “It says he’s wanted by the Army for desertion and extortion. Gives a detailed description, but there’s no mistakin’ it. This is our man.”

“Let me see that, Fred,” Jarrod exclaimed, reaching for the sheet. “Does it give the date when this was printed? Oh, here it is. The mail must be slow. This was printed about a week and a half before he was murdered and you’re only just now getting the wanted on him. Now, what would an Army deserter be doing in Stockton. Especially at a warehouse that was frequented by troops picking up supplies.”

“Maybe that’s why he was there at night when no shipments were expected in,” suggested Fred.

“You know, you might just have a point there, Fred. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to talk with Mario. There are a few more questions I want to ask.”

Fred reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out the large brass key ring.

“Here you go, Jarrod,” Fred replied, handing him the ring, “help yourself. I don’t think you’re plannin’ on springin’ him are you?”

“No, you have my word that I won’t,” Jarrod smiled, taking the keys. “Just a couple of things that have been bothering me.”

Jarrod unlocked the wooden door that separated the cells from Fred’s office and approached Mario’s cell. The curly haired man was sitting on the bunk with his Bible, having his daily devotions.

“Hello, Mario!”, Jarrod greeted.

“Good day to you, Mr. Barkley! So good to see you!”

“Mario,” Jarrod began, pushing back his hat, “my brothers arrived home with Chris yesterday afternoon and I’m afraid the youngster didn’t see anything that will clear you of the charges.”

Jarrod couldn’t help noticing the disappointment in the timid man’s eyes as upon hearing the disheartening news that his name was still not in the clear. Now, Jarrod began to express a hunch that had been plaguing him since the evening of their initial introduction.

“Mario,” Jarrod continued, “I’ve been in this business a long time and I can pretty much tell when a client is holding something back. Now, I want to go over this one more time. Is there anything, and I mean anything, that you are keeping from me?”

Mario peered through the bars at the man standing in front of him with a new respect. He was amazed at the canniness this lawyer displayed. Then, feeling ashamed, he looked down at his feet. Yes, there had been something that he had purposely failed to mention. Something that might cost him his job if Mr. Hansen were to find out.

“Yes, Mr. Barkley,” the immigrant meekly answered, “there is one thing that I thought best not to say.”

Jarrod stood silent, waiting for Mario to further his statement with an explanation.

“When you ask me about my job at Mr. Hansen’s warehouse, I told you that I do books. Mr. Hansen pay me well, and I am happy. I don’t ask question, and he is happy.”

“Mario,” interrupted Jarrod, “what exactly is it that you’re driving at?”

“Well, sometime I see that he makes change in books.”

“Is he trying to do something dishonest?”

“No, he change numbers in books to make like he has more account receivables than what he really has.”

“Now, don’t you find that rather strange, Mario? Why do you suppose he’d do something like that?”

“I don’t know the answer, Mr. Barkley. All I know is he doesn’t seem to be hurting anybody and so I say nothing.”

“How long has he been doing this, Mario?” Jarrod mused.

“Maybe over a year.”

Jarrod put a hand to his chin and thought to himself. Maybe this whole thing was beginning to make some sense after all.

“Thanks, Mario!” Jarrod called back over his shoulder, “I’ll be talking with you later.”

Jarrod tossed the keys to Fred without stopping to lock the partitioning door. Mario wasn’t going anywhere and maybe by this time tomorrow he would be a free man.

“Fred, I’m going down to talk to Hansen for a little bit. I have a few questions to ask him, and then maybe we can go over to the saloon.”

Jarrod walked through the large warehouse. It seemed to be fairly quiet at the moment. There was a light on in LaMar Hansen’s office. Jarrod opened the door and let himself in. Mr. Hansen was sitting at the desk going over a thick ledger.

“Hello,” greeted LaMar Hansen, rising to his feet with a start, “what brings you here today, Jarrod?”

“Well, you’ve told me all along that you were willing to help in any way you could, and well, I just have a few more questions I’d like to ask, if that’s okay?”

“Certainly, Jarrod. Like I told you before, anything I can do!”

“For starters, I’ve been doing a little checking around, LaMar, and it seems that you’re buying up some of the surrounding acreages that have been for sale. I also see that you’ve been buying quite a bit of railroad stock.”

“That’s no secret,” Hansen answered emean. “I’ve got a good business going here and I’ve been trying to diversify my holdings into other arenas.”

“From what I’ve been able to determine, the amount of cash flow coming out of this office is staggering. Now, we both know you can’t possibly be making that kind of money hauling freight.”

“I’ve got other investments, Jarrod,” insisted the business man, “Certainly by now you must have figured that out.”

“Mario has also told me that sometimes you change the books,” the lawyer bluntly replied.

“If you’ve got something to say, Jarrod, just spit it out!” retorted Hansen, his face flushed and his voice rising. “I haven’t got time for this! Can’t you see how busy I am?”

“Well, LaMar, I feel that this is an issue that needs to be thoroughly discussed. Maybe we should finish our conversation over at the Sheriff’s office.”

Standing to his feet, Hansen slipped his hand into the upper drawer on his desk and pulled out an old Navy Colt.

“You just couldn’t let it go, could you, Barkley? What’s that old man to you anyway?”

“I’ll tell you who he is, Hansen. He’s a man, just like any other man, who has rights. And that’s my job, Mr. Hansen. Protecting the rights of those like Mario, who are exploited by people like you who don’t believe they have any rights! Now, fess up Hanson. You had that Lieutenant killed, didn’t you?”

“I did better than that, Mr. Lawyer Man. I killed him myself. Just like I’m planning to do to you shortly. He was skimming money from the Army payroll and sending it to me. I would take the money and buy land, cattle, stocks….anything worth something. I changed the books to make it look like my business was doing lots better than it really is. The plan was to make enough off this scam that I could retire in style. Maybe even become a congressman.”

“And so you decided you didn’t want to cut Timothy Handel in on the profits?”

“The Army finally caught on that money was missing from the accounts,” Hansen continued, smiling wickedly. “Handel got nervous. He showed up one day and wanted his cut. I told him I didn’t have it on me, but to come back that night and I would give him what he had coming. Well, I gave it to him all right. He showed up like clockwork and that’s when I stabbed him. I sent my watchmen in to get rid of the evidence and that’s when they found Mario bending over Handel’s body. It was the perfect set up.”

“So you decided to frame Mario for the murder? An innocent man who’s been nothing but loyal to you for the past several years.”

“That’s right. I figured that no one cared about him. No family, no friends to speak of. It was easy. Then you came into the picture and things got turned upside down. When you sent your brothers off to fetch Chris, I figured there must have been good reason for it. I sent my boys to find him first, but they aren’t the smartest pair I’ve ever worked with.” Hansen paused in perplexed amusement. “You know, I haven’t seen those two since they left town on their little mission. I don’t suppose you would know what became of them, would you, Jarrod?”

Jarrod offered Hansen a slight nod, but said nothing.

“Knowing your brothers, it’s probably safe to bet that they won’t be coming back.”

“I’m thinking that you would be safe in betting that, LaMar.”

“Well, that’s fine, too. I never did like leaving a trail of witnesses behind. Okay, Jarrod. Let’s you and me take a nice, little ride. I think maybe we’ll head out of town.”

“And I’ll have what? An accident? You won’t be able to sell that story, Hansen.”

“I think I will, Jarrod. You’re headed home and you get robbed. There’s a scuffle and you get shot.”

Jarrod looked up at the man plotting his demise, but only smiled.

“What’s that smile for, Barkley?” Hansen demanded.

“I’ll tell you what it’s for,” boomed a voice from behind, as a pistol cocked. “my brother here has just taken a quick glimpse into your future!”

The voice of Nick Barkley was unmistakable and Hansen knew him to be a man quick to anger.

“I’ve been on the trail for two weeks, Hansen,” bellowed Nick, “and my brother’s been shot. And you know what else? I’ve had a bellyful of your henchmen, their games, and you! Now, if I were you, I’d be droppin’ that gun right about now, or I just may be tempted to blow your fool head off!”

Hansen let the pistol fall to the wooden floor. With a swift kick, Nick sent it gliding across the floor to Jarrod.

“Now, Mr. Hansen,” Nick stated, “I’ve got something for you from my brother!”

As Hanson slowly turned to face his captor, Nick’s left fist hit him square in the jaw. The sound of knuckles against bone was deafening as Hanson slumped to the ground.

“Nice work, Nick. Where did you come from?” Jarrod wanted to know, feeling quite relieved.

“I rode into town to give Fred the rundown on that bushwackin’ and he told me where you were headed. I figured that you just may be needin’ some back up,” replied Nick, holstering his gun.

Reaching down, Nick took hold of the subdued figure who was now tenderly rubbing his swollen jaw, and yanked the scoundrel to his feet.

“Come on, buddy. Sheriff Madden’s got a nice, empty jail cell just waitin’ for you.”

It was Sunday afternoon and three days had passed since the trial. Hansen had been sentenced to the gallows and Mario was a free man. Outside, the grounds of the Barkley Ranch were peaceful and serene. Most of the hands had gone into town for some afternoon poker, except for a select few who had stayed behind to either catch up on rest or routine gear maintenance. Inside the big house, Sundays were days for family and relaxation.

Upstairs in Audra’s room, the two young women stood in front of Audra’s bureau as Chris admired all the elegant glass bottles of sweet smelling fragrance.

“Here, Chris,” coaxed Audra, “try this one. It’s called Dark Secrets and the smell is absolutely heavenly!”

Chris pulled the glass stopper out of the bottle and hesitated as she drew in the redolent aroma. She knew what perfume was, but had never had the opportunity or the desire to actually try it.

“Don’t just stand there smelling it, silly, put some on! Here, like this!”

Taking the bottle, Audra lavishly patted her throat and wrists with the costly liquid. Handing the bottle back to Chris, the young woman cautiously anointed herself with the liquid gold. Perceiving herself in a strange, but feminine light, a smile formed on her lips as she looked in the mirror. Sadly enough, the same face and demeanor stared back through glass that doesn’t lie. Her gaze wandered over to some framed photographs setting next to the perfume bottles. There was one of the Barkley family. Audra and Victoria adorned in their finest gowns and the three bothers, all spit and slickered in their Sunday best. Chris looked wistfully at the family photo, thinking what it would be like to have a family such as theirs. To actually be who she was, and not who she pretended to be. Farther down was another photo. The young man in the picture was handsome with heavy eyebrows and a strong jawline.

“Who’s that?” Chris inquired.

“That’s my cousin, Eugene,” her flaxen haired hostess answered. “Even though he’s my cousin, I almost think of him more as a brother. We spent a lot of time together while we were growing up. He’s gone away to college now. He says he wants to be a doctor.”

“He reminds me of a boy I knew when I lived in Chicago. He lived next door and we were the best of friends.”

Chris’ voice trailed off as she thought of the lasting crush she had had on her childhood playmate. She wondered what had ever become of Caleb. His family had moved shortly before her father died. Lifting her head slowly, Chris took another good look at the young woman in the mirrored glass. The young woman with short cropped blonde hair wearing a strange man’s hand-me-downs. Chris went one step further and did something she’d never done before. She looked deep inside herself and tried to picture things as they really were. She saw the weak, frightened little girl who tried to be so tough and strong. She saw the daughter who had tried to give her father the son she had always believed he had wanted. And finally, she saw the blossoming young woman trying to hide from the inevitable. The moment was right and the decision was hers.

“Audra,” Chris spoke softly, “I think I’m ready to try on that dress now.”

Audra didn’t have to say anything as she held Chris in a warm embrace. Her body language said it all. Welcome home, Chris.

Down in the parlor, Jarrod was filling the sherry glasses. Victoria, Nick and Heath were gathered there with him as a knock sounded at the front door. A moment later, Silas was ushering the guest in to join the family.

“Mario, so good to see you!” greeted Jarrod, extending a hand in amiable welcome.

“Thank you, Mr. Jarrod, Thank you!” the small man answered, giving Victoria a nod of respect.

“Here, Mario,” interjected Nick, handing the man a glass of sherry. “Something to help settle the dust.”

“Oh thank you, no, Mr. Barkley. I never touch strong drink.”

Nick raised an eyebrow, thoroughly entertained by a man who thought of sherry as a strong drink. Nonetheless, he liked this man in all his innocent and child like ways.

“So what brings you out to visit on a Sunday afternoon?” Jarrod continued.

“I come to tell you the good news!”

“Good News?”

“Yes, good news! I am now proud owner of the merchantile in town!”

“Congratulations, Mario! How did this come to happen?”

“I was in the merchantile yesterday and Mr. Simmons talk to me. He says he is getting much too old to have to work a store such as this one. He says if he could find buyer, he would sell. I told him I would like to buy store. I work and work and I have money saved. I know how to keep books and order freight. He decide a price, I go to bank and give him money.”

“Well, Mario,” responded Jarrod thoughtfully, “I’d say you’d need somebody to help run the store.”

“Yes. That is why I come to see you. I know that Chris has worked in store. I also know that she need job. That is why I come all the way out to the Barkley Ranch.”

“She’s upstairs with Audra. I’ll get her,” volunteered Nick, walking to the foot of the stairs. “Chris,” he hollered in his loudest baritone, “Chris! There’s someone here to see you!”

“Nicholas, you said you were going to go get her,” reprimanded Victoria. “Not shout the roof down on our heads!”

Just then everyone stopped talking as two very lovely young ladies appeared at the top of the steps.

“Oh, my, my!” exclaimed Mario, completely aghast.

Chris held her audience captive as she and Audra descended the long stairway. Nick, still awestruck, offered his hand to Chris, escorting her back into the parlor.

“Chris,” Jarrod began, “Mario has come all the way out because he would like to ask you a question. Mario?”

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Jarrod. Chris, I have just purchased the merchantile and would like very much if you would come work for me. I pay you well, but first there are two things you must agree to.”

“I would like very much to work for you, Mario,” replied Chris, “but what are these conditions you mentioned?”

“I would like for you to go to school. You can work merchantile afternoons and weekends.”

“And how ‘bout the second condition?”

“I close the merchantile Sunday morning to go to church. I would like you to go, too. There is a room in back of the store. You may stay there if you wish. I stay at my house on edge of town.”

“Well, there you go, Chris,” Jarrod reasoned logically. “It couldn’t be any more perfect than that. You can finish your education, earn a way for yourself, and get established right here in a town where there are people who care about you.”

Chris didn’t have to think long.

“I’ll take it!” she exclaimed.

“I think this calls for a celebration,” chortled Jarrod. “Nick, why don’t you break out that last keg of apple cider you’ve been aging.”

“You’ve got it, Jarrod! Heath, come give me a hand!”

When Nick returned with the cider, Jarrod poured everyone a glass and proposed a toast.

“Here’s to you, Chris!” he toasted, raising his glass high, “Here’s to success, happiness, and a new life!”

***The End***

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