Lost Treasure (by Elayn)

Summary:  This story takes place at the end of the episode, “The Lost Treasure”.   The premise is Heath took a different trail away from the ranch so did not come across Charlie Sawyer.  The first scene is at the house, shortly after Heath rides off.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6486


 

 

“This is crazy!  I’m going after him.  If he thinks he can just walk out on this family, well…. he has another think coming.  Come on Jarrod!”  Nick, strode to the door.  Looking back at his brother, he paused.  “Well, are you coming with me or not?”

Jarrod was torn.  “Nick, maybe we need to give him some time.  Once he has some time to think this through, maybe….”

“Maybe what!?  Maybe, we’ll never see him again? You saw him.  That damn, stubborn pride of his.  Well, I don’t know about you but I’m not letting him get out of here that easy.  That boy’s gonna listen to some sense if I have to pound it into him!”

With that Nick opened the door and stormed out, slamming it shut behind him.

The rest of the family stood looking miserably at each other.  Audra spoke first.  “Well, I think Nick is right.  Maybe Heath is wrong about Mr. Sawyer.  And anyway, it doesn’t make any difference.  How can I just forget that he’s my brother?  Jarrod please?  Bring him back home.”

Jarrod put his arm around Audra as the tears ran down her face.  “Ok sweetie.  You’re right.  Don’t worry.  Nick and I’ll find him and bring him home.  At least we’ll try”.  He looked over at his mother.  The fear in her face echoed the uncertainty in his own.  He leaned down and gave his sister a kiss on the cheek.  As he left, he brushed his hand across his mother’s face and tried to give her a look that said not to worry.

Not worry?  How can I not worry, Jarrod thought as he rode to catch up to Nick.  Being a Barkley, being a part of this family meant so much to Heath.  ‘I’ll always want to be a Barkley.’  It was the last thing Heath had said before he’d left.  And now, if what Heath had said was true.  If Heath was the son of this Charlie Sawyer.  Well, Jarrod wasn’t at all sure any amount of pleading would convince Heath to come home to them.

Jarrod was jolted from his thoughts by the sound of gunfire.  The shots sounded as if they came from the meadow to the east.  He spurred his horse into a run.  As he got closer he saw two men sprawled face first in the dry grass.  Nick had taken cover behind a log and was exchanging shots with someone who had ducked behind a pile of boulders.  One of the men in the grass pulled himself to his knees and tried to stand.  As he did, the man behind the boulder stepped out.  Nick shot the man, but not before he was able to shoot Charlie Sawyer in the back.

Jarrod and Nick reached Charlie at the same time.  The man was obviously dying.  The words came in ragged gasps, “Heath–got to see Heath–something I got to tell him”.  Jarrod put a hand on his shoulder.  “Hang on Mr. Sawyer, we’ll get you to the house.”

“No, need to see Heath—important—please.”  Charlie passed out.  Between the two of them Nick and Jarrod got Charlie back to the house and into bed where all they could do was try to make him comfortable.  Nick was just fixing to head back out to look for Heath when Charlie came to.  He again called out for Heath.

Victoria sat down beside him.  “He’s not here Mr. Sawyer.”

“Have to tell him—it’s why I came back—had to tell him…”

“Tell him what Mr. Sawyer?” Victoria asked.

“Had to tell him—it’s a lie—I’m not his daddy.  Had to set things right.”

Victoria turned to look at her children, the shock showing on all their faces.  “What do you mean?” she asked.  “Heath said you were married to his mother, that you had proof you were his father.”

It was becoming more difficult for Charlie to speak but he continued.  “Aye, I married his mama all right.  Such a beautiful young thing”.  His eyes had a far off look.  “I took what little money she had and left her.  Heath wasn’t born for another two years after I’d gone.”  Charlie lay quietly for a moment, then he spoke again.  “Mrs. Barkley, please–please tell him for me.  Oh God, how I wish he had been my son”.  Charlie’s eye’s closed.

Victoria checked his pulse and looked at Nick, Jarrod and Audra and shook her head.  Looking at Nick and Jarrod again, she said, “Find Heath, bring him home.”

*****

Finding Heath was proving to be a monumental task.  It had rained the night Heath had left and Nick and Jarrod had not been able to pick up his trail. It was as if he had fallen off the face of the earth.  Days stretched into weeks.  Nick and Jarrod were both home, exhausted and trail worn.

“Nick, this isn’t working.  We’re no closer to finding Heath now than we were the day he left.”  Jarrod’s face bore a sad but resigned look.  “The ranch is suffering.  We need to be home.”  Nick looked at his brother and shook his head.  “Let me finish Nick.  We’ll put a reward out –like a wanted poster with his picture on it.  Offer a large sum, say $10,000.  We’ll also put advertisements in newspapers between here and Mexico.”

Victoria nodded, “Jarrod’s right.  There is no telling how far away Heath may be by now.  Money is a huge motivator.  It will get others helping in the search.  Although I hate the idea of bounty hunters looking for Heath.  Jarrod, just make sure those posters are clear that the law is not looking for him – that his family wants him found and wants him back.”  Jarrod nodded.  “Of course mother.”  He smiled,  “Keep your fingers crossed.  He’ll be home before you know it.”

*****

After leaving home Heath kept to the back trails.  He initially headed northwest, angling up and into the highcountry towards Nevada’s Comstock.  He had told Nick and Jarrod he’d head down to Mexico, but he was in no hurry and wanted to avoid people.  He headed in a direction he knew his brother’s wouldn’t expect him to take.  Leaving his family had been the hardest thing he’d ever done.  He didn’t believe he could bear to have them catch up to him and have to go through it again.  The sorrow that he’d seen in their faces the day he had left was almost more than he could handle.   He had almost turned back several times that first day.  All his life he had been searching for something and had finally found it with this family.  They made him whole, gave his life meaning.  But now, knowing that Charlie Sawyer was his father..It wouldn’t be right to stay.  He couldn’t take their charity.  Yet, he knew that wherever he went, no matter how long he lived – he’d never again find what he had with these people.  He loved Nick, Jarrod, Eugene and Audra and felt as if he’d known them all his life.  And Victoria.  My god, he’d come to think of her as his mother.  With them he had felt wanted and loved.  Now, he felt very alone.

Camping along the Truckee River he looked up at the rugged granite peaks.  Snow still clung stubbornly to the summit.  Heath thought of the pioneers who had come this way 35 years before.  They too had been heading to the area to make a better life for themselves and their families.  Instead they had been caught in the worst snows in years and nearly had perished, the survivors forced to eat their comrades to stay alive.  God, Heath thought, he had to pull himself out of this malaise of sadness he was wallowing in.  He forced his mind to more pleasant thoughts, trying to enjoy the crisp, cool mountain air and the sea of stars that swam above him.  As he finished up his beans he smiled thinking of other campouts with Nick and the teasing Nick always gave him over his beans.  It was a bittersweet remembrance.  He shook his head, would he ever be able to remember his family without it hurting so much?  Somehow he doubted it.  Heath poured the remainder of the coffee into the fire and pulled the blankets over him.  Sleep sometimes kept the thoughts of his family at bay….

Heath continued his rather aimless wandering down through southwestern Nevada.  He avoided the mining towns of Virginia and Carson City, preferring the solitude of Nevada’s lonely mountain ranges and empty deserts.  The scenery and the days slipped by: he crossed the Carson and Walker Rivers, he spent days traversing the Excelsior and Silver Peak mountain ranges and skirted the edges of the Amargosa Desert, sticking to the eastern foothills of the Funeral Mountains which separated him from the area known as Death Valley to the west.  After the harsh heat and dryness of the Amargosa, Heath rested for several days in the Spring Mountains enjoying the cool pines and refreshing springs that seemed like an island in this endless desert.  Then on through the Mojave to the Colorado River.  He followed the river north and east till he came to the crossing at Lee’s Ferry.  Here the Mormon’s ran a ferry across the muddy, turbulent Colorado taking him into Arizona territory.

On through the land of the Navajo and down across the Mogollon Rim.  He skirted the lands of the Apache, but even the Indians gave Heath a wide berth.  His hair and beard were long and scraggly, his clothes worn and tattered.  The few prospectors and travelers he had come across had quickly moved on, realizing this stranger was not interested in either conversation or companionship.  Charger provided all the companionship Heath wanted.   The sturdy horse had uncomplainingly carried him for more than 1,000 miles, across some of the most godforsaken land this country had to offer, Heath thought.  That morning he had ridden into Tubac.  He wasn’t quite sure why he had come here.  No that really wasn’t right he thought to himself.  He had come because of a girl.  A girl he’d spent a short time with a long time ago.  Lupe.  A small smile came to his lips as he said her name.  Charger turned to look at him.

Six years ago he’d spent ten days in a small village south of the border.  Ten days and ten nights he thought, smiling slightly to himself again.  She had been a little older and a lot wilder than even he was.  But Heath had felt a kinship with the brown eyed, raven-haired beauty.  She had told him of her family, living in the Mexican military outpost of Tubac, near the Tumacacori mission.  She told him of a happy childhood with doting parents and two older brothers.  Then, in 1848, Apaches had attacked the village and her parents and brothers were killed.  She was four years old and a captive of the Mescalero Apaches.  She lived with the tribe for eight years when she was sold to a whiskey trader for a case of rotgut.  After that she ended up whoring in the saloon where Heath had shown up six years ago.  Heath had seen something beyond the girl’s rough exterior.  He felt sorry for that little girl who had had her life stolen from her so many years before.  She told him of an aunt and uncle who she believed had escaped the Apache massacre at Tubac because they had been at the church at Tumacacori at the time.  But she didn’t think they would still be in Tubac.  She had heard that most of the Mexican families had left after America had bought the territory in 1853.  But, when Heath left, he convinced Lupe to leave with him and offered to help her find what remained of her family.  Amazingly, they had found her aunt, still living in Tubac.  Both women seemed to be happy to find each other after all these years and Lupe had stayed on in Tubac and Heath had moved on.

Now he wondered why he was here.  The little adobe where her aunt had lived was gone; it’s burned foundation all that remained.  So far, no one in Tubac had been able to tell him what had happened to the two women.  He had reluctantly checked the cemetery and had been relieved not to find her there.  He had also checked at the church, but the priest had only been there a short time and did not know the women.  The town was even smaller than Heath remembered.  There was only one saloon in town, and Heath entered it.  He had tried to clean up earlier, but the long lonely weeks on the trail had taken their toll.  He was thin, his jeans and blue shirt were clean but faded and worn, he had trimmed his hair and beard but had hoped to find a barber here in town to do the job right.  Ordering a whiskey, he looked around the saloon.  “Always this quiet around here?” he asked the bartender.  “Been this way ever since they discovered silver over to Tombstone” the bartender replied.  Heath paid for the bottle and took it over to a corner table.

Heath had finished off almost half the bottle when he became aware of a commotion up at the bar.  Two men were giving a woman a hard time.  The bartender reached across the bar and grabbed the woman by the hair.  “Look Mex, I pay you to show these men a good time, not to give them or me a hard time.  Intiendo?”  She nodded and he roughly let her go.  The two men laughed and both started pulling her towards the stairs.  Heath gasped as the woman turned and he saw her face.  Lupe.  “Lupe,” Heath stood and called her name.  They all turned to stare at Heath as he approached the two men and the woman.  Yes, it was Lupe Heath thought.  She had changed.  She looked much older than her 37 years.  Life was obviously still not being good to her.  Heath wondered what had brought her back to this life.  She was staring at Heath not recognizing him.

“Lupe, it’s me Heath.”

“Heath?” She questioned uncertainly.

He nodded.  “Lupe, what are you doing here?  What happened to your aunt?  I thought, well I guess I thought when I left that things were better for you,” Heath questioned.

Lupe looked at the ground.  “My aunt died, and, well, I don’t know.  I am here.  This is the life I am meant for.”  She continued to stare at the ground.

“That’s right honey,” said one of the men as he took her arm and pulled her more forcefully toward the stairs.  “And right now you’re meant for us—ain’t that right Fred?” he grinned at his companion.

“Damn straight”, replied Fred, grabbing Lupe’s other arm and heading for the stairs.

Heath reached out for Lupe.  “Lupe, no.  You don’t have to go with them – you don’t have to do this,” he told her.

“She sure does Mister.   Now you just mind your own business and leave the whore to us,” the one called Fred shoved Heath back with one hand and grabbed Lupe again with the other.

All Heath’s pent up emotions (with a good push from the whiskey), came boiling to the surface.  Heath stepped forward and grabbed Fred’s free arm and yanked him away from Lupe.  Fred took a swing at Heath, which he managed to duck.

Lupe said, “Heath no, don’t.  I have to go with them.”  But Heath wasn’t listening.  He had come here with hopes of finding something that had worked out right.  But instead he had again found more pain, more heartache.  He wanted to fight, wanted to hit someone.  The men obliged.  But the two men were no match for Heath.  One of the men soon lay unconscious on the floor; the one called Fred, grabbed the whiskey bottle and smashed it against the bar, wielding the jagged weapon in his hand.  Heath kicked at the bottle, knocking it from the man’s hand.  On the floor, the other man came to and pulled out his gun.  Lupe cried out to warn Heath and ran towards him.  The man shot and his bullet caught Lupe in the chest.

Heath reached out for her with one arm and shot with the other.  His bullet found its mark, killing the man instantly.  He bent down and gently cradled Lupe in his arms.  She looked at him sadly and said, “I’m sorry Heath, I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted.”  She died in his arms.   Heath was still kneeling on the floor, holding Lupe’s body in his arms when the sheriff came in.

The bartender pointed at Heath.  “He started it sheriff – these two men paid for the whore and when they tried to leave with her–this one came at them like a wild animal.”

Hearing Lupe referred to as a whore again; Heath tenderly set her down and stood up.  He walked toward the bartender, his gun still in his hand.  “Don’t call her a whore.  Her name was Lupe and she deserved better than this.”  Heath got no further.  The sheriff brought the butt of his gun down on Heath’s head and he slumped to the ground as blackness enveloped him.

When Heath awoke, it was to a splitting headache in a jail cell.  “Good thing you woke up Mister,” the sheriff spoke to Heath from his desk.  The circuit judge is here today and there’s no telling when he’ll be back down this way.  Might as well get your trial done with.”

“Done with?” Heath shook his head groggily.  “You mean today?  What about my lawyer.”

“Lawyer!” the sheriff snorted.  “We ain’t got no lawyers here.  Come on boy, get a move on, we’re keeping the judge waiting.”  The sheriff unlocked Heath’s cell and cuffed his hands behind his back before leading him out the door.

“Guilty of manslaughter.  I sentence you to five years in the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma.”  With that the judge slammed down his gavel, got up and walked out of the room.

Heath just sat there.  This hadn’t been a trial, it was a mockery.  Why Jarrod would have…..Jarrod.  Jarrod wasn’t here and wasn’t his brother Heath reminded himself bitterly.  The Yuma Territorial Prison?  The thought made Heath’s blood run cold.  Only five years old, the prison already had a reputation as a hellhole.   After surviving Carterson Heath had sworn he’d never end up in a prison again.  Just the thought of prison made Heath shudder.  How had his life come to this he wondered?   Well, he’d have plenty of time to worry about it he thought as the sheriff let him back to the jail.

Three days later the prison wagon stopped in town and Heath joined eight other men for the 350-mile trip to the southwestern corner of the state.  A corner of the world so hot, he’d heard the cells sometimes reached 130 degrees in the shade, where prisoners died lying on their cots.

The nine of them sat on the floor of the wagon, their feet and hands shackled together.  Heath noticed that one of the men had been staring at him, studying his face for the last two hours.  “I got it – I know where I see’d you before,” the man finally exclaimed.  Heath looked up at him.  “I don’t know you mister,” Heath said.  “Well I sure know you,” the man told him.  “I been carrying around that poster of you with that $10,000 reward for the last month.”

“What are you talking about – I’m not wanted.  You got me confused with someone else,” Heath said.

“Nope, it’s you.  I still got the dodger on me.  It ain’t a real wanted poster,” the man said as he pulled a folded up piece of paper out of his shirt pocket.  “You’re this Heath Barkley, ain’t’ you?”  Heath pulled the paper out of the man’s hands.  It had his picture and name on it all right.  The family was offering $10,000 for information on his whereabouts.  He handed the paper back and told the other fellow, “Well, they’re wrong.  I ain’t a Barkley.”

“You sure are, mister.  My friend told me all about it – he read about you in the newspaper.  Seems the man you thought was your daddy died and told these Barkley folks he wasn’t your father, that he’d just made it up to get you to give him money to help him out of a jam.  Said he’d left your mother years before you was born.  Shit, and ain’t it just my luck to get locked up when I finally find my one big bounty!” the man said bitterly.

Heath sat back with his eyes closed.  Could this be true?  Charlie wasn’t his father?  He really was a Barkley?  Maybe it was just a trick – they’re way of getting him to come back.  But maybe, just maybe it was for real.  How could he get word to them – what was he going to do?   “Hey mister,” Heath called to the wagon’s driver.  “I gotta get word to my family – tell them where I am.”

“Shut up back there,” the driver hollered back.  “You’ll have plenty of time for letter writing where you’re going.  Now just shut up, I don’t wanna hear no more outta you men.”

Heath looked up at the prison.  It sat on a hill overlooking the Colorado River.  He had surely managed to mess up his life he thought bitterly.  Had managed to foul up the one good thing that had ever happened to him.  He’d walked away from the only people besides his mama who had ever truly cared for him.  His rash behavior in the bar had cost Lupe her life.  And now here he was facing five years in prison.  I guess if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all he thought harshly.  Still shackled to the other men, Heath climbed out of the wagon into the prison yard.

*****

Lying on his bunk a few nights later Heath reflected back on his first few days here.  Actually the place wasn’t as bad as he’d heard.  Oh, it wasn’t no hotel but they got fed regular, the work broke up the monotony of the day and the warden didn’t allow any physical punishment of the prisoners.

Heath actually looked forward to the work details –anything that got him out of this cell.  That was the worst part, sharing this 8×10 foot cell with five other men, two of whom were snoring right now.  Sounded like pigs rooting in the mud, Heath thought.  He needed to get up and relieve himself but the pot in the corner was full and wouldn’t be emptied till morning.  He could wait he decided.

Each morning the bell rang at 6am.  The men were led to the mess hall for a breakfast of beef hash, bread and coffee.  Then out to their work details.  Back to the mess hall for a lunch of roast beef or onion stew; back to work and then a dinner of beef and boiled potatoes or rice, bread, fruit and coffee.  Some nights there was even fruit pie for desert.  Then back to the cells till morning.  Talking wasn’t allowed at night and the prisoners rarely broke that rule.  If caught the entire cell would be chained to a ring on the floor in the center of the room.  There they would sit on the two lower bunks for the rest of the night.  Peer pressure usually assured it never happened more than once.

Some of the men worked outside the walls tending to the prison garden and crops down near the river.  Others worked in the mess hall or made the gray and yellow striped uniforms they wore.  Others continued to expand the prison.  Heath was helping to construct the new prison hospital – the brainchild of Warden Meeden.

The long hours of manual labor gave Heath plenty of time to reflect and think.  He hadn’t been able to get word yet to his family.  Prisoners’ letters were only sent out once a month.  He had thought of telling one of the guards, knowing that the large reward would certainly provide them an incentive to contact the family.  But, he’d put his family through enough and he certainly did not want them forking out that kind of money.  Three months he thought.  He’d been gone three months now.  Nick would be bringing the cattle down to the winter ranges, Audra and Mother would be preparing for the holidays, Eugene was back at school and Jarrod’s big trial against the Union Pacific should be starting soon.  The pangs of homesickness and guilt washed over Heath as they did every time he thought of them.  He realized now how wrong he’d been to leave.  Dang fool stubborn pride, he thought.  Look where it had gotten him.  An iron bunk in a prison cell—his home for the next five years.  No, he just couldn’t think that way.  He’d find a way out of here, one way or the other.

Heath’s letter went out in early November.

*****

The hospital was completed and he was now helping to build a new cellblock to house the women prisoners.  Heath kept to himself; he’d made no friends here.  The other prisoners left him to himself.  A few had tried to strike up a conversation while working and at meals but Heath just wasn’t interested.  He had a reputation for being taciturn but tough.  The men learned to give him his space.  It was probably because of this aloofness from the other men that he didn’t notice the commotion by the wall right away.

He looked up when he heard a shout from one of the guards.  The guard was still on the wall, but his gun was lying in the prison yard inside the still roofless new cellblock.  It was Oscar, Heath noticed.  He had a reputation for sleeping on the job.  The idiot must have dozed off again and dropped his rifle down into the yard.

Fool, Heath thought as he watched two prisoners dive for the gun.  Oscar yelled for help from the other guards, but it was too late.  A shot from one of the men brought Oscar tumbling off the wall into the compound below.  The men swarmed over him.  Now they had a hostage.  “Come on,” they hollered to Heath, “this guy is our ticket out of here.”

Heath was torn.  He wanted nothing more than to get out of this place, but not this way—this wasn’t right.  One of the prisoners who’d been working behind Heath shoved him forward into the small knot of men now armed with a rifle and the guard’s sidearm.  The guard turned and lunged for the man with his rifle.  He prisoner with the sidearm brought up his weapon intending to shoot the guard in the back.

Without thinking, Heath lunged for the man, knocking his gun arm up, the bullet firing wildly into the air.  It was all the distraction the other guards needed and they swarmed over the prisoners.  Heath tried to step back out of the melee but one of the prisoners turned on him.  “You dumb son of a b….,” he snarled viciously and swung at Heath with one of the iron rods they had been using to construct the cellblock.  Heath stepped sideways but the solid rod of iron slammed into his thigh.  Heath screamed in pain and fell as he felt his thigh bone crack.  He looked up to see the man grinning at him insanely as he brought the iron rod down towards Heath’s head.  Heath tried to twist away but looked up in time to see the man’s face change to one of shock and surprise.  He dropped the rod and fell to his knees, then face down in the dirt.  He’d been shot by one of the guards.  From the ground, Heath watched as the guards quickly brought the rest of the prisoners under control.   Heath tried to sit up, but even the smallest movement caused his leg to spasm causing him the most horrendous pain he’d ever felt.  He lay back trying not to move at all.

The doctor wouldn’t let them move Heath until his leg was splinted and he was tied down to a board.  They carried him up to the new hospital and transferred him to a bed.  After examining Heath the doctor explained that the break could have been much worse.  He explained that the femur was the largest bone in the body and many times the powerful muscles surrounding the femur caused it to spasm forcing the broken ends through the skin.  Luckily this hadn’t happened in Heath’s case.  The doctor fashioned a traction kind of system that held Heath’s leg immobile but pulled it taut forcing the bones into alignment.  He explained to Heath that he would have to remain in bed, hooked up to this contraption for at least a month to give the bones a chance to initially set.  Then he would splint the leg until it was completely healed – probably an additional two months the doctor thought.  He asked Heath if he wanted some morphine for the pain.  Heath almost sat bolt upright in his panic to explain to the doctor why he must absolutely not give him morphine under any circumstances.

Dr. Taggert watched the young man sleep.  He was impressed by the boy.  Both by his refusal of the morphine which he had seen many prisoners fight and kill each other over but also by his actions that day to help the guard.  He certainly wasn’t a typical prisoner.  His record said his name was Heath Thompson but he’d told him his name was Heath Barkley.  “I wonder what this fellow’s story is?” the doctor thought as he checked the traction splint one last time before turning down the lamp and leaving him for the night.

*****

Audra burst into the house yelling wildly. “MOTHER! MOTHER WHERE ARE YOU? M O T H E R!”

“For heaven’s sake Audra, I’m right here – whatever is the matter?  For a moment I thought you were Nick,” she smiled at her daughter.

Audra waved an envelope in the air.  “It’s a letter – from HEATH,” she cried waving the envelope joyously.  Nick and Jarrod wandered into the foyer from the billiard room.  “A letter from Heath?” Nick bellowed.  “What does it say, where is he?” Nick demanded of his sister.  Audra handed the letter to her mother.  “I haven’t opened it, I thought we should all be here to read it together.  Oh I hope he’s all right and that he is coming home,” she went on.  “Let’s go in the parlor and sit down,” Victoria said to her children.  Victoria opened the letter and read aloud:  “It’s dated November 1”, she said.  “Two weeks ago”.

 Dear Family:

I hope this letter finds everyone doing well.  First off, I want to apologize for the way I left.  Being a part of this family has meant more to me than you will ever know.  When I thought I was no longer a Barkley, well I don’t know, I guess I was a little crazy.  I was embarrassed that I had ever burst in on you, daring to demand what I thought was my heritage.  You all had given me so much more than I ever expected or deserved. I knew I had to leave right away, because if I didn’t I could never have left at all.  That probably doesn’t make much sense, but it was how I felt.  Not a day has gone by since I left that any of you have been out of my thoughts.  No matter how far I’ve traveled; every campfire I’ve made, every meal I’ve had, everything I do, is filled with memories of all of you.  I think I thought if I got far enough away, things would get better – that I’d start to forget.  But how can I?  You all are the best thing that ever happened to me.  From the very beginning I think wanted to come back but foolishly thought that’d be wrong.  I realize now that what you said mother was right; it doesn’t really matter if we’re tied by blood, because we’re tied by something much more powerful.  I love and miss you all very much.  I guess it’s a good thing I’m writing this cause I’m not sure I’d have the nerve to say it all out loud.  A man showed me the poster you all sent out.  I don’t know if what you say there is true or not – that Charlie Sawyer isn’t my father, but you know, it don’t matter. I wanted to let you know that I’ll come home as soon as I can.  I reckon that might not be for a while though.  I got myself into some trouble down here in Arizona.  I killed a man in a saloon fight.  He got what he had coming but the judge didn’t see it that way.  I got sentenced to five years in the Territorial Prison here in Yuma.  I don’t want you to worry; it ain’t as bad as it sounds.  They treat us fair and the food is tolerable.  Even if I have to serve my whole sentence, what’ll get me through is knowing my family will be waiting for me.  I’m more than sorry for all the mess I’ve caused you.  Try not to worry about me too much.

Love,

Heath

Victoria put down the letter and for a moment no one spoke.  Then they all began to talk at once.  Jarrod interrupted.  “This is what we’re going to do.  I’ll go down there and see if I can’t straighten this out. It’s been my understanding that few of the prisoners sent there serve their full terms and I’ve heard that paroles are fairly easy to obtain.”  “I’m going with you,” said Nick.  “All right Nick, maybe that’s best,” Jarrod replied.  Victoria nodded at her two sons but she looked visibly upset.  “Try not to worry Mother”, Jarrod told her taking her hand.  “I’ll get this all straightened out, we’ll have Heath home for Thanksgiving.”  Victoria smiled a little and squeezed Jarrod’s hand, “Just bring him home.”

*****

 Jarrod and Nick were in Warden Meeden’s office.  Nick was pacing back and forth and stopped to lean over the desk into the warden’s face.  “You mean to tell me he broke his leg trying to save some incompetent guard and you toss him into some filthy prison hospital?!”

“Nick, calm down,” Jarrod demanded.  “This isn’t going to help Heath.”

Warden Meeden stood up from his desk and spoke to both of them.  “Your brother is lucky that the accident happened here at the prison.  Dr. Taggert is one of the finest physicians in the territory.  The hospital is brand new.  Many of Yuma’s citizens are now coming here to be treated.  I assure you, your brother is in the best of hands.”  He sat back down but continued to speak.  “And as far as a parole is concerned.  Well, I’ve already looked into your brother’s case.  There seem to be some improprieties in the way his arrest and trial were handled.  But beyond that, his conduct during the escape attempt was exemplary.  I have already begun the parole process.  A pardon will take a little longer but I think we can have a full pardon from the governor by the time your brother is well enough to leave here.”

“May we see him?” Jarrod asked.

“Certainly.  If you gentleman will follow me.”  The warden stood and headed for the door.

Heath hadn’t noticed his brothers enter the room.  That is until a booming voice carried across the room,  “Hell Jarrod, I might have known we’d find him lying around.  That boy’ll find any excuse to get out of work.”  Heath heart caught in his throat as he looked up at Nick and Jarrod’s smiling faces.  They crossed the room to his bed and knelt down beside him.  He could see the concern and love in both their faces.  Heath looked at them without speaking; he didn’t trust himself to speak just yet.  He didn’t want to cry in front of his brothers.  Jarrod put his arm around Heath’s shoulder and nodded, “It’s ok Heath, we’ve come to take you home.”

The pardon from the governor took a little longer than they had hoped.  But on December 10, with a full pardon in hand, and a splint binding his leg from thigh to foot Heath left the prison and headed home with his brothers.

The trip was difficult.  Heath found the crutches hard to master and he depended more on his brother’s help to get around than he would have liked.  The long trip home had an advantage though, as it gave them all time to relax and work through what had happened over the past several months.  Jarrod shared Charlie’s last moments with Heath.  He told him how he had come back to the ranch to set things straight with the boy – that at the end he had only wanted to do the right thing.  Heath told them about his long, lonely journey and about Lupe.

Winter weather and rains slowed their trip home some too.  By the time their train pulled into Stockton it was December 24.  Heath was a little nervous as he carefully made his way down the steps to the station’s platform.  It had taken he and Nick and Jarrod a little time to work through all their feelings about his leaving, he didn’t know what kind of response to expect from Audra and Mother.  He needn’t have worried.  As soon as she saw him, Audra squealed in delight and threw her arms around her big brother, causing them both to almost fall as they got tangled in his crutches.  She laughed as she helped Heath regain his balance.  “Oh Heath, it’s so good to have you home.  This is the best Christmas present ever,” she smiled adoringly up at her big brother.  Heath grinned back at her as Victoria came up and gently hugged her son.  “Welcome home Heath,” she laid her head on his chest.  Heath pulled her close to him.  He looked around at his family, Audra was right this was the best Christmas ever.

***The End***

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