Truth (by BVFranfic)

Summary:   Heath comes to the Barkleys’ story with the whole family featured (no Eugene) but Heath and Jarrod playing the major roles. Some OCs and significant use of some characters from different episodes, and use of series dialogue—although not necessarily by the same character, or in the same situation. Left to the reader to recognize those dialogues—or not.  (Alternative Universe)
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:   171,489


 

Truth . . . never comes into the world but like a bastard,
to the ignominy of him that brought her forth.

– John Milton The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

 

Prologue

He reined his horse to a halt. From the small hill, he could look down on the scene before him. The house, barn, bunkhouse, stables, and corrals, all unchanged … and all never again to be the same … for him. He’d thought this could become the home for which he’d longed. A deep, inner, well-protected piece of himself, believed it had become that—exactly that.

And now it was gone. Taken away … destroyed … by one man.

He’d not had the power to stop him—and thus far, he’d not had the power to make him pay. But he would. No matter how long it took, no matter what he had to do, no matter anything … that man would pay. He would see to it.

Knowing now was not the time, right now there was nothing to be done, he did all he could. He took one last look—one last, longing, look—turned his horse, and rode way. As he rode he re-affirmed the promise to himself … he would see justice done—however, and by whomever, possible. Justice would be done. He would see to it.

The truth would be revealed … even if someone had to die.

 *****

Chapter 1

San Francisco, two months later:

Jarrod Barkley looked up, distractedly, as the door opened to admit his arguably-attractive secretary.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but there’s a man out here who’s insisting he has to see you. I explained that you have no appointments available today, and you’re scheduled in court shortly. I offered him your next available time, but he is most insistent that he see you now. I have been unable to dissuade him.”

The pleading look surprised him, and then garnered his attention. He was unaccustomed to Maureen being other than persuasive.

“Do I know this man? Is he a former client?”

The barely perceptible sigh slightly delayed her clipped reply. “No, sir. I’ve never seen him in this office. Didn’t indicate he’d ever seen you. Says his name is Frank Sawyer.”

Jarrod blinked … hard.

Marshal Frank Sawyer?”

Momentarily surprised, and fleetingly concerned that she’d been derelict in her duty, she hesitated before answering. “I’m … not sure. He didn’t say…. Shall I ask him?”

He sighed.

Either way I’ll likely have to see him. Doesn’t sound like he’s easily discouraged, and if she can’t convince him, it’s not likely I’ll succeed.

 He sighed again, while his fingers travelled over the back of his head in a futile attempt to draw out the tiredness and tension.

Sooner I get him in, the sooner I get him out—and myself as well.

“Better just show him in and I’ll see if I can move him on as quickly as possible.”

A moment later he exchanged a solid hand shake with the insistent Frank, and discovered that he was indeed the marshal of whom he’d heard.

The man obviously was astute enough to pick up on the general reluctance to give him an audience—at least at this moment.

“I appreciate you seeing me, and I’ll try to be quick Mr. Barkley. I’m not often in the area and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see you. It’s important.”

“Well, I am pleased to meet you, Marshal Sawyer. I’ve heard a great deal about you … all of it good  I might add. I’ll admit to being curious as to how my services possibly could be of interest to you.”

“Please, call me Frank.” His eyes did a quick appraisal of the room, noting the tasteful, but not lavish, decor, and the meticulous order … even of the items on the desk.

Ignoring Jarrod’s compliments, he opted to avoid expending precious time on the usual pleasantries. “I know you’re active in many areas of law, Mr. Barkley, but do you handle civil suits?”

“Please, call me Jarrod.” The astute attorney took a harder look at the man in front of him, wondering if all he’d heard, necessarily, was accurate. He noted the simple string tie—imperfectly done—the freshly-polished, well-used boots, and the involuntary shifting of the shoulders that said the suit jacket was not an accustomed item of clothing, and quickly rejected his momentary suspicions. This man was the genuine article.

“Civil suits are not something I’ve been called upon to do very frequently, but yes I do handle such cases. Am I to understand that you desire to sue someone?”

Sawyer took a deep breath, recognizing there was no turning back.

“Well, not me … exactly … a friend of mine. And he’s not really looking to sue anyone, so much as he’s looking for justice … by the only means that seems available.”

One of the attorney’s eyebrows rose, as his brow wrinkled. He tipped his head in an invitation to continue.

“Expect you’ll need more detail eventually, but, for now, the short version is this. A young man … used to be a deputy of mine—probably one of the best I’ve ever worked with—believes his employer … former employer … was murdered.

“Charges were brought. Accused was tried, not convicted. He’s a rich and influential man, at least in the area where he resides. We figure the only justice available now is to destroy his empire and his reputation. Hoped a well executed civil suit might do that.”

“Is there some reason your friend isn’t with you, or that he didn’t come himself?”

“Other than the fact he’d have my hide if he knew I was here?” A twinkle was readily visible in the steady, grey eyes.

“He’s not the sort to ask for favors—certainly won’t take charity. In fact, he struggles to ask for help at all. I might be one of the few people he’s ever done that with. He’s expressed his opinion to me—very clearly, I might add—that this idea has no hope of succeeding without one of the best attorneys in the State. And, the money for that, as he’s said, isn’t even within his sight, let alone his reach.”

He paused, letting that sink in, before continuing. “I realize that’s a problem. However—and I assure you he would never ask for this—I’m wondering if there might be a way …?”

He trailed off, shoulders shrugging, as he realized he wasn’t quite sure of what he was asking. Furthermore, he had no idea if his hopes were possible—if even remotely.  His eyes locked on the bright blues of the esteemed attorney.

Jarrod held his gaze, choosing, for the moment, to ignore the lawman’s implied request for special dispensation, as he addressed what he considered a more important issue.

“I’m sure you’ve been in this business long enough to know that, regrettably, the guilty sometimes go free … and the innocent sometimes don’t. I would guess you’ve learned to accept that, or you never would have lasted this long. I find myself wondering on your need to go to these lengths for justice … or more precisely, for the hope of justice? I have to ask what it is that constitutes your interest.”

“Fair question.” He paused a moment, giving himself time to formulate an answer that might best explain his involvement, and resonate with the man in front of him. He was not unaware of the circumstances surrounding the demise of Jarrod Barkley’s own father. Satisfied, he continued. “Let’s say your father … or the closest you have to one, has been murdered. How far would you go for justice? And if you believed that justice was going to be denied, how far within the law … or outside of it … would you be willing to go?

“I’ll wager his regard for the law is no less than your own—but his regard for his own life is far, far less. He’s hurting right now. Seeing justice done isn’t going to end that hurt … but it’ll make it tolerable … maybe.

“I’m afraid, Mr. Barkley. Afraid, if that doesn’t happen, he’ll seek

his own justice. And, if he does, I stand to lose someone who is like a son to me. So, the simple answer is, I want to protect him … like a father might … from himself. This is the only way I can see to do that.”

Jarrod’s lips pursed and his eyebrows rose, while he studied Sawyer, and then he nodded … slowly … again … then once more.

The marshal moved forward, calmly and assuredly laying a packet of papers on the nearly-cleared desk. “These are the transcripts and other documents from the trial—and all my notes on the case. No need to take more of your time right now. Just need you to think on it, and let me know if you’d be interested … if there’s a way we could handle the matter of your fee.

“I’ll leave the necessary information, with your secretary, so you can contact me either way. All I ask is you give it honest consideration.” He held the sapphire eyes for several moments, turned and headed for the door, before being stopped by the counselor’s question.

“Does this alleged murderer have a name? For that matter, does your young friend?”

“Name’s Merton Greenley. Friend’s name is Heath Thomson.”

Jarrod looked at the stack of papers and then at the famous marshal, before asking the question that remained. “Why me?”

Frank chuckled, “Your reputation is well known. But, not just your reputation as one of the best. For me, it was your reputation as a staunch champion for justice. Justice wasn’t done with the criminal system. This is our only hope.”

“How can you be so sure the man’s guilty?”

“Heath says he did it. In this case, that’s all I need.”

Jarrod was about to object, but something in the man’s tone, something in the look in his eyes, something said his objection would be futile. Everything he’d heard about Frank Sawyer told him the man was no fool. He wouldn’t be here on a whim or a hope. He had to have been convinced.

I may have to meet this Heath Thomson.

“Alright, Mr. Sawyer … Frank … I can’t say I’m convinced, but I can see that you are. I’ll give it due consideration and get back to you. Might be a week or two, maybe more, until you hear from me … either way.”

He stood to see the man out, before asking one last question.

“I presume Greenley has his own attorney—someone more than capable, if he got him off in the face of what, I’m assuming, you believed solid enough evidence to convict? I would guess he would be using the same person to defend this civil suit … if there is a civil suit?”

“He does. I presume likewise. I’m sure you’re well acquainted with his legal counsel … a Mr. Nathan Springer.”

Jarrod’s hand froze for a moment, before slowly completing the turn of the door handle. He suspected Frank saw the hesitation, and the fleeting look of surprise. He’d have to disclose just how well he did know Nat Springer, but that could wait. He hadn’t yet decided if he wanted to take the case. It wasn’t like he needed the work….

*****

Chapter 2

 Jarrod Barkley had persuaded the judge to render the desired judgment although neither as easily nor as quickly as he had anticipated. The consequence, thereof, had him now hurrying back to his office at a time much later than he’d planned.

He was relieved, and not surprised, to find his secretary still at her desk, and found himself smiling as he chastised her, “You do realize it is well past quitting time?”

“For you too. I assume you were successful?”

One eyebrow rose as he replied, “As far as the outcome is concerned, yes. In regards to my plans for the day, the jury is still out, and the outlook is rather bleak.”

Her initial smile was replaced with a look of concern. “How can I help?”

He was about to tell her she couldn’t and she needed to take herself home, where she belonged at this hour, when he quickly reconsidered. There was at least one matter that needed her assistance. Marshal Frank Sawyer.

With a flick of his head, he signaled her into his inner office where he shared his concerns about the potential case and let her know what she was to do. She had understood fully, without need for further explanation. This wasn’t the first time she carried out such instructions.

Maureen McNally. What a find she had been. Jarrod, more than anyone … more likely than she … recognized the value she brought to his practice. Confident she would carry through, he returned his focus to more pressing matters. Not the least of which was the ongoing struggle with the railroad, and the concomitant upcoming trip to Sacramento. He expected the next three weeks before his scheduled departure to be exceptionally busy.

He’d been correct, and found himself on the eve of that departure, once again, in his office well after closing time. When he’d entered, Maureen, without comment, had handed him a packet, and nodded.

He’s almost forgotten the instructions he’d given her three weeks earlier. Now he found himself letting the other work sit as he gave into the lure of Sawyer’s request.

John Markle had done his job, in his usual thorough way … and with absolute discretion. Pinkerton’s had a number of agents in the San Francisco area, but none, in Jarrod’s estimation, as good as John.

This effort was no exception. He had a meticulously thorough report on Mr. Merton Greenley, with said man none the wiser. It was an impressive resume … one filled with raw ambition and the trappings that so often go with that; bribery, extortion, coercion, fear-mongering, abuse, and, if Sawyer were to be believed, murder.

What stood out, though, by their very absence, were any reprisals. Except for the one case, which was successfully defended, he never faced charges in relation to any of his activities. How much a factor Nathan Springer played in that, was less certain.

In his now-to-be-expected way, John Markle, had noted other, less obvious issues. Chief among these, in Jarrod’s view, was the lack of motive for the murder. It seems Mr. Greenley had made repeated entreaties to the murdered man to sell him his property. The man had refused.

While Greenley had successfully purchased a number of properties

in the surrounding area, no evident purpose appeared by which to explain how the owning of this particular piece of property would justify the risk of committing—or arranging the commission of—murder.

He, seemingly, had done nothing in particular with the properties once he’d acquired them. No mining had taken place, no efforts to control any water resources on the lands in question, none of the usual reasons for overstepping the legal means of procuring land titles. The motivation, so far, remained a mystery.

What was not a mystery—in no doubt whatsoever—was a clear understanding that Mr. Merton Greenley was a ruthless, and a dangerous, entity. One would challenge the man at considerable peril. Dare Jarrod accept the risk? And who else would be at risk? Heath Thomson, without a doubt. Possibly, Frank Sawyer. Those men could make the decision themselves. Jarrod’s responsibility ended with advising them of the risk, and ensuring they understood its full extent.

But what of the family? Would his involvement put them in direct danger? That was the question for which he had no answer … and no idea where to find the answer. It was fine to think that the decision could be theirs—the right to say yes or no—but to what, exactly? Was there a risk? If so what was it … and how severe might it be?

Which brought him nicely back to where he’d been three weeks ago. Did he want this case?

I suppose the fact that I’m still asking the question suggests I have some interest. How much interest? If you’re honest with yourself, Jarrod T. Barkley, you know it is more than just a tad. In truth, you’ll have trouble resting easy if you let this go … especially in view of what you now know. How do you let this man go free? With all else he has done, is murder so hard to believe?

 I suppose one could say, compared to you, Heath Thomson seems to have little to lose. I doubt that’s true. I expect, in choosing to pursue this, he could lose his life. I only can assume that his life is as important to him, as mine and the lives of my family members, are to me—Frank Sawyer’s suspicions to the contrary, notwithstanding.

 I’ve read all the materials Sawyer left me with. It’s not likely there’s anything he can addand it seems that this fight really belongs to Heath Thomson. So, the next step would be a meeting with him. But where?

 Although John found no evidence of it, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect Greenley is watching either, or both, of them. Unless, of course, he truly is as arrogant as it appears. He seems to have gotten what he wanted; the owner dead with no heir and thus, undisputed ownership of the property he’d sought. Additionally, he’s disposed of any objections from Sawyer or Thomson. Perhaps he sees no reason to give them further thought.

 However, that might not be a safe assumption, and there is no point in unnecessarily arousing Greenley’s premature interest.

 No, better to play it safe.                 

 I need to know where Heath Thomson is, and what he’s doing. Presumably the good marshal can supply that information. Then I can determine a means and place of meeting, without detection.

He was about to call for Maureen, when the door opened and she stepped forward. She paused for a moment when she saw the look on his face. “Looks like you’ve read the report … and, there’s something more you need.”

He chuckled. “Right you are. Time to employ those special talents that you have used to perfection so many times.”

He told her what he needed.

She was nearly to the door before she turned back, shaking her head and emitting her own light laugh. “Almost forgot what brought me in here.”

She moved back to his desk and handed him a small box. “When you didn’t return to the office in time to get out and pick this up, I knew you would be disappointed. I decided to take care of it for you.”

His head snapped up. “How did you know … what … where?”

“You mentioned it to me months ago, and when I heard nothing more I expected you were not yet in possession of it … likely planned to collect it today.”

He looked at her, his eyes holding hers. “Have I ever told you how thankful, how utterly grateful, I am that you refused to allow me to pass you over in favor of someone older, more experienced … more male?”

And he was. There’d not been a day, not even a moment of a day, since, that he’d regretted his decision to hire her.

“Yes sir, you have. Many times.” She laughed him off, her grey eyes sparkling. Once again, evoking for him, a realization of how much she reminded him of his mother. Victoria Barkley was capable, determined, honest, and powerful. Powerful, in a way that did not usurp her muliebrity.

He glanced at the box in his hand and a thought suddenly struck him. “This was expensive. How did you pay for it?”

Having nearly reached the door, again, she turned back and smiled.

“I took the necessary funds out of petty cash. You should know that the cashbox now holds no more than what most people would have deemed appropriate in the first place.”

He understood what she was saying, and his reply was intended to send an equally clear message. “Thank you. Please ensure you replenish it from the business account.”

She acknowledged his statement with a slight nod, before closing the door behind her.

Turning back to the papers on his desk, Jarrod determined he’d taken the Sawyer matter as far as he could for the moment, and returned his focus to the cases he had decided to take. Yes, he certainly had more than enough work … didn’t need this additional case ….

Several hours later, he slipped the paperwork from Sawyer and Markle, as well as that pertaining to the railroad situation, into his leather case and prepared to turn things over to Maureen. He would be gone for several weeks.

He was catching the early morning steamer to Sacramento, and a week later he’d be heading home. He sometimes was surprised that he still thought of the ranch as home. He seemed to spend more time here than he did in Stockton. Either here, or in Sacramento.

Sacramento was a pressing concern. He was still working to get a bill drafted—a bill that would squelch, once and for all, the railroad’s claims in the valley. He couldn’t afford—their neighbors couldn’t afford—to let that matter be forgotten. He was slated to meet with a number of the legislators who had expressed interest, and on whom he was putting his hopes. It was what he saw as the last piece of unfinished business in the life of Thomas Barkley. He owed it to his father to put it to rest. It was a debt he planned to pay in full.

*****

Chapter 3

The rider tipped his hat back on his head as he squinted across the arroyo. He knew they were in there somewhere. He’d seen them yesterday and they wouldn’t be traveling far this time of year. The mares were foaling and they needed water and grass. Both were plentiful here, no need to move farther away.

He had four magnificent animals back at his camp. Horses with good formation and lots of stamina. Horses that should fetch a substantial price once he’d trained them fully. If he could pick up a couple more he’d have enough money to support his mother and keep himself going until he either could catch some more wild stock, or maybe find another ranch whereon he could get hired. It just would have to be in another county … he’d been turned down at every place in the immediate area. He was too well known here and no one was going to hire him.

Movement off in the distance brought his thoughts back to the present. Just like he thought, there they were. He’d have to circle around and come at them from the other side. Stay downwind, and out of their field of sight. He laid his reins on his horse’s neck and signaled with his knees that it was time to get to work.

If he was lucky he might be able to get a rope on a couple of mares with foals. Double his take. Might even consider hanging onto one of them. Couldn’t imagine how he’d ever get together the money for his own place, but maybe he could still have his own horses. Horses he could breed, train, and sell.

Maybe build himself a reputation, enough so people would start looking for him rather than he having to look for buyers. Places still could be found where a man could make a permanent camp—plenty of good grazing. Wouldn’t even have to stay here, he could head closer to Strawberry, closer to his mother.

A few hours later he had what he’d come for, and was settling the mares into the temporary enclosure he’d made next to the existing stock. He’d give them a bit of time to get acquainted before he put them together. He wanted to make sure the new mothers took good care of the little ones. They both looked promising.

“Well, Gal, I reckon you’ve earned yourself a good rest tonight.”

He stripped off his gear and gave the dark mare a thorough  grooming. Once again, he counted his blessings in having her. He knew he’d never be able to catch the wild horses without her speed and savvy. He also knew he’d never have spent the money for her, never have had her at all, if it weren’t for Mama.

All those months and months he’d been gone. Gone. Thinking she’d be able to rest more, work less … use the money being sent to her. Instead, she mostly was saving it. Leastwise, saving enough of it, that when he did return, feeling worn beyond his years—maybe even beyond hers—she’d given him the one thing that gave him hope … desire … for the future. Between Mama and Gal he’d recovered and moved on.

He gave the little Modoc mare a final pat and turned her loose. He was as much a part of her, as she was of him. She’d not go far.

“Go on. Scrounge yourself some dinner, while I do the same.

Maybe some day we’ll be fixed so we won’t be havin’ to live off the land—at least not completely. Maybe some day I’ll be able to afford a feed of oats for you—maybe even for myself.” He chuckled.

“No matter. As long as we can fill our bellies with something that keeps us going, don’t reckon we’ve cause to complain. If I don’t have any rabbits in those snares I set before we left, I’m pretty sure there’ll be a fish or two in the creek. No need to go hungry this time of year.”

Later that evening as he settled himself down for the night, he checked to be sure his rifle was within easy reach.

Don’t expect anyone knows I’m camped out here, and not likely anyone will happen upon me. However, just because I’ve had myself a right tasty meal doesn’t mean I want to become one for whatever might be passing through during the night. Don’t intend to have those horses filling any bellies either.

He gazed at the stars, the same stars he’d gazed at for as long a time back as he could remember. Mama and Aunt Rachael had taught him the names. For the first time he thought to consider how they came to know all that … have to ask next time he saw them.

There was comfort in seeing those far away flickers, comfort in knowing Mama was seeing them too. Somehow it brought her closer … left him feeling happy … and sad … at the same time. Left him feeling both connected and lonely, too.

Another few months and I’ll be able to get back for a visit. A visit, and a chance to restock her pantry, and give her money to tide her over until my next trip home. Home. Yup, it’s still home. Maybe the only one I’ll ever have. Well, Heath Thomson, you’re luckier than many … you at least have that.

He closed his eyes and was asleep before he drew the next breath.

*****

Jarrod’s eyes popped open as he felt the train slow. Must be coming into Stockton.

God it’ll be good to be home … even if for just a short while.

He thought back on the last week.

There were people in Sacramento who’d seemed glad to see him … pleased to be working with him. There were a few who appeared less welcoming. That was not a problem. He didn’t need everyone on board, just enough to get the bill out of committee, onto the floor, and passed.

 The week had seen significant progress with the first part. The committee had been receptive to his pleadings. He’d given them plenty of information—ammunition even—to move it along.

 He, nonetheless, knew these things could not be rushed. The final bill would have to be drafted carefully, drafted in such a way as to reflect the sentiments of those who were not involved directly. It would be of little benefit to get it onto the floor if it failed to garner the necessary number of votes to be passed. Yes, there was still work to be done.

 And, he hadn’t forgotten the small box he’d stowed away carefully before leaving San Francisco. Its contents had been a year in the planning, and he was very sure it would be well received. He only hoped it would deliver the message he most dearly wanted delivered.

He roused himself and collected those items he’d need immediately, hoping that this time Nick had opted for the buggy instead of a horse. He didn’t want to have to make another trip into town tomorrow to get what he couldn’t carry on horseback, and he just wanted to sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip to the ranch. He was tired. It had been a long, exhausting, several months. Too long.

He seemed to be spending more and more time in San Francisco and less and less in Stockton. A part of him was delighted about that. He liked the city by the bay, enjoyed the amenities it had to offer—things not available in his home corner of California. Truth be told, he also appreciated the challenges offered from practicing law in a big city. The diversity and the difficulty of cases that came through his San Francisco office could not be matched in Stockton. It brought a welcome excitement to his life.

It also brought a measure of loneliness. Jarrod Barkley loved the law, of that there was no doubt. That he loved his family more, also was without doubt. He missed them.

True, they sometimes visited, especially if he’d had a protracted absence. Mother and Audra were the most likely visitors, although Nick occasionally made an appearance—especially if a cattle drive or other ranch business brought him close to the area.

Always, he was glad to see the ladies. Mother could be a valued sounding board, and his little sister brought brightness to the often fog-shrouded city. While the responsibility that had fallen upon him, with his father’s death, to help raise the sometimes-rebellious young lady, could make him feel old, her actual presence did the opposite. She was joy personified, and sparked his imagination and enthusiasm whenever she stayed with him.

It was Nick, though, whom he really missed. That great, galumphing enigma that was his younger brother. Nick was brash and impetuous, easily angered, and almost as easily soothed. He was strong and determined, even willful. He also was soft and caring … traits seldom seen by those outside the family. It was maybe those qualities that Jarrod most missed. That caring, compassionate, young man … always there for his older brother.

They each had their responsibilities in keeping the Barkley empire thriving. At times those responsibilities could be overwhelming, and it was at those times they each depended on the other to help ease the load. Nick was no lawyer, and managing the intricacies of the Barkley empire’s business and legal dealings was beyond his expertise, while Jarrod was far from capable of juggling the many complexities of running a successful ranch. However, just knowing each appreciated the other’s unique talents and efforts, made the sometimes exhausting workload bearable.

Yes, he missed each of them, in different ways. He couldn’t wait to spend some time, with all of them, in that place he still called home. Just being there, being with them, was as refreshing as time away from the daily burdens. Somehow, he expected they felt the same—they looked forward to him coming home as much as he looked forward to being there.

“JARROD, YOU IN THERE?”

Was I really just thinking I missed him? Well, now that all of Stockton knows I’m here, I’ll just have to hope that no one is looking for immediate legal assistance.

Jarrod stepped out onto the platform and was lifted off his feet by the dark-haired rancher. “Ah ha, how you been, Boy?”

“Tired, and ready to be home for a bit. Any chance there’s a buggy waiting to take me there?”

“You’re in luck, Big Brother. Audra and Silas gave me a list, long as your arm, of things to pick up in town. Figured my horse could go lame packing all that home….”

Jarrod smiled. “Good to see you, Nick. I’m looking forward to a drink in front of the fire, maybe a game or two of pool … a chance to catch up on what’s happening with you.” Their eyes met—no more words were necessary.

As the buggy pulled off the Stockton Road and onto Barkley property Nick glanced at his brother, and then moved to ease the dark-haired head into the corner. Somewhere between listening to Nick and enjoying the familiar scenery Jarrod had fallen asleep.

Well, Counselor, I’m guessing you’re a lot more tired than even you knew. You’re home now and we’ll make sure you get some well-deserved rest. Guess I won’t make you break those mustangs after all.

He chuckled, quietly. He’d let the man get what rest he could before they reached the house. There was no doubt in his mind it was needed. It, and plenty more. Maybe he’d leave things for McColl, and they’d take a day and go fishing, just the two of them. Be like old times. They were overdue.

The business that needed tending, the concerns that were mounting, could just wait. A few days weren’t going to make much difference.

*****

Chapter 4

Three days later, and a very successful birthday celebration now but a happy memory, the Barkley household was returning to its normal routine.

A cold, wet, blast of air interceded the banging open and slamming shut of the solid, front door. The forward motion of the man the blast admitted, was halted by Victoria Barkley’s admonition of, “Nicholas Jonathan Barkley,” as she rounded the corner of the foyer. “Surely you weren’t thinking of tracking that mud in here?”

Nick looked down to where her eyes rested, and then up to meet those same eyes, a sheepish look preceding the dimpled smile.

“Sorry, Duchess. I was just thinking of getting in from out of that,” he defended, as his arm swept towards the doorway, and what lay beyond.

Her eyes rolled as she admitted defeat … again.

I know he’s never going to change. Why do I keep trying? Face it lady, you really don’t want him to change … well …  not too much.

“I’m guessing you’re looking for a hot bath and dry clothes. Just go … but leave the boots and dripping slicker here.” The wave of her hand dismissed him as he commenced struggling out of both.

She watched him disappear up the golden stairway then turned to address the mess left behind. Silas appeared before she could begin and assured her he would take care of it.

“You already done your part, Missus Barkley—you kept it in one little spot. That Nick, he ain’t never going to change.”

“Thank you, Silas. I regret to say, I think you’re right … not sure he’ll ever learn.” They both shared a quiet laugh, as she left him to his work.

Victoria shook her head as she stepped into the parlor where Jarrod sat close to the fire, with piles of paper on the low table in front of him.

“Sometimes I wonder if he’s mine.”

“Oh now, Lovely Lady, I thought it was only the identity of the father that ever was called into question.” He chuckled, his twinkling eyes catching hers.

“Yes. Well, we can consider ourselves fortunate that has never been an issue. I’ve always been able to identify your father in his offspring.”

She settled into the chair opposite him, as he rose and poked at the fire, before adding another log. With Audra spending the night with a friend the usual chatter was absent. As Victoria picked up the embroidery she’d left there earlier, Jarrod studied his mother. He noticed she was wearing it—the gift Maureen had collected before he headed to Sacramento. The gift he’d thoughtfully procured, to celebrate another year of having her in his life. He appreciated all she brought to the family, and most especially, the myriad of ways in which she enriched his existence … and smoothed many a road he’d had to travel.

The effort it had taken to get the gift was insignificant when compared to the love it represented. He’d spotted one in a store window one day, while strolling down the city streets. He’d gone in to inquire and when he’d told the proprietress what he wanted and for whom, she’d suggested a way to make it far more special.

It wasn’t that difficult … not like he didn’t brush his hair on a daily … more than daily … basis. All he’d had to do was clear the loose hair from the brush and save it. The lady had created the lovely brooch.

Mother had been surprised … and overjoyed. She missed him when he was gone, and she now had this very personal reminder of her first born. It, and he, would be close to her heart.

Confident that the gift had been all he’d hoped, he returned to perusing the papers. Soon both were ensconced in their chairs and focused on the matters at hand, as the hands on the clock moved steadily along. Until Nick reappeared.

“You can be glad you didn’t have to leave the house today, Big Brother.”

“And, you seem to be back in it much sooner than expected.”

“True. But I decided there was no point in trying to work in those conditions and, if I gave the men the rest of the day off, I’d get that much more out of them tomorrow. Don’t expect this is going to last through to morning.”

Silas, in his inimitable way, appeared with a tray of coffee and cups. “I’m guessing you’d be liking somethin’ hot, Mr. Nick?”

“Silas, you’re a Godsend, a real Godsend.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “That is going to hit the spot right nicely. Thank you, my good man.”

“You be welcome, Mr. Nick. You need anything, you just call.” He disappeared as quickly as he’d come.

Nick poured a cup and handed it to his mother, before pouring two more. He strode to the drinks table, returning with the whiskey decanter. Adding an uncertain measure of additional heat to his cup, he caught the eye of his brother, and lifted, in silent question, the same container.

“Yes please, Brother Nick, I do believe I will join you in that.”

The rancher glanced at the stacks on the table as he handed the steaming drink to Jarrod. “Thought you planned to stay away from work for at least a few days?”

“Not sure this can be described as work. Not sure what it is. Perhaps nothing more than satiation of curiosity.”

“Now I’m intrigued.” Victoria gave her eldest a slight smile.

“Out with it. None of your cat and mouse games … you’ll tell us later … or never. Just spill it Counselor.”

Nick moved over to lean against the mantle and get the full effect of the blazing fire. That effect seemed strangely diminished as Jarrod told him of his brief encounter with Marshal Sawyer.

“And so, based on this one meeting with a man you know only by reputation, you are taking on all this?” His arm sliced through the air above the marble-topped table.

He was frustrated. He knew this brother of his. He might think he was only going to get a little taste, just a quick lick at the bone, but he’d never be able to let it go at that. He’d grab on, and he’d not let go until his appetite was satisfied. And his appetite for mysteries, puzzles, unknowns … aborted justice … appeared insatiable.

Nick was worried about his older sibling. He’d hoped to shield him from worries and work until he’d had some time to rest and recuperate. He didn’t like seeing him with that gaunt, strained look, and the usual sparkle in the bright blue eyes dimmed to a dull matte. Furthermore, he wanted his brother hale and hearty enough that he needn’t feel guilty sharing with him Nick Barkley’s own worries.

Truth be told, Nick, was jealous. When all was said and done, he wanted time with Jarrod. He wanted Jarrod to be as curious about what was happening in Nick’s world as he seemed to be with what was happening in that of others.

But there was that dog with a bone thing, and it could not be ignored … left unfulfilled.

Seeing Jarrod’s look, a pleading and an apology rolled together, he relented. “So, what’s all this about? What have you uncovered in those mountains of dusty notes? And what is all that paper, anyway?”

“These are the transcripts of the trial, as well as Sawyer’s notes on his investigation. Interviews, physical evidence, et cetera. On paper it looks like a strong case.”

There it was—that but…. Something, was missing, or had been ignored. Nick snorted. “And, you smell something rotten. How does a strong case not produce a conviction? What was missed, what was ignored, who got to whom?

“So, is Sawyer wanting to hire you? I can’t imagine he would think he could afford you.”

“Right you are, Brother Nick. He knows he can’t—or at least he believes that to be the case. He indicated a hope that something could be arranged….”

“So what will it be this time? Something equivalent to a couple of chickens, a small pig or a flask of good wine? But he won’t have to come up that much will he? Won’t matter if you can’t work out something. You won’t let him walk away. You’ll do it for nothing first.” He stared at his brother.

“You didn’t tell him that did you? Once you’ve read through all this, done some more checking, and decided to take it on, then you’ll tell him.” The guffaw that followed was clear indication that Nick knew how this was going to go.

Victoria watched, in silent amusement, this interplay between her sons. She was aware of the motivations of each, and therein rested the slight trepidation she felt.

*****

Chapter 5

Jarrod looked at Nick, and wondered.

Do I tell him the rest? He’s going to be mighty unhappy if I withhold this … and it will only be a temporary reprieve. He has to know sooner of later. Maybe sooner is better.

“Well, the rest of what is here, is a report from John Markle. I couldn’t even consider going further, without more information.”

Victoria looked perplexed. “You thought there was more than what Sawyer told you, or than what was in those papers he gave you? You thought he was withholding information?”

Jarrod glanced at Nick, before looking at her. “No, Mother. I needed to get John involved for another reason.”

He waited for that information to permeate.

Victoria remained confused. “You needed to get your Pinkerton agent to investigate Sawyer?”

He reached over and took her hand, shaking his head slowly. “No, Mother. I needed to investigate Merton Greenley. And, I needed it done with utmost discretion. He could prove to be a dangerous adversary.”

Her confusion was gone … replaced by instant fear. “Jarrod …”

She was cut off by Nick. “Oh, whoa. Wait just a minute here. Don’t tell me you plan on getting mixed up in one of your half-baked crusades for justice, that end up putting this family in some sort of danger … or you … then I have to come to the rescue.

“Uh, huh, Jarrod. No way. Not this time. I’ve got my hands full with this railroad stuff. I don’t need you creating another mess in the midst of all that. What could you be thinking?”

There was a long pause … a long quiet pause … before Jarrod whispered, “What railroad stuff?”

He looked from his brother to his mother, and back again.

“What stuff, Nick? What haven’t I been told.” His voice no longer was a whisper.

“Now hold on there. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. I had every intention of telling you all about it … in a day or two. It’s not like there’s anything to be done right now anyway.

“Looks like Jordan’s trying to pick up where he left off six years ago. A few of the smaller places’ve been given notice to pay or vacate. They’ve ignored the notices and nothing further has happened. Yet! But we can be sure he won’t leave it at that.”

Victoria interjected, “Jarrod, we know you’ve been working with the men in Sacramento to create a bill to end this matter once and for all. Jordan knows that too. We suspect he tried this little ploy to see if there was still resistance. Since it didn’t work, he’s going to prefer to get the law on his side. We don’t think he’ll do anything more until he knows the outcome of that bill. There’s no immediate danger to anyone, but it is a concern.”

Jarrod took a deep breath, slowly exhaling, while he nodded. “I suspect your assessment is correct. But if the bill is passed and approved, he’s not going to give up. And we know he’ll do everything within his power to prevent the bill going through. If he has to use his considerable power to influence the Governor, he’ll do so. We could have a real fight on our hands before we’re done.”

Nick jumped at the opening. “Exactly. No better reason for you to forget all about this thing with Sawyer. We don’t need to be fighting on two fronts at once.”

“Nick, I don’t intend to put my work on hold while we wait out the railroad issue … anymore than I’d expect you to do so.”

The argument raged back and forth, abated only by Silas’s announcement that dinner was ready. Victoria had called a halt to further discussion during dinner, and they eventually retired that evening with no resolution.

Lying in bed, his hands laced together under his head, staring at the ceiling, Jarrod thought over the matter.

He realized that Nick’s protest was really concern for Jarrod’s safety … the entire family’s safety. He could see now that something had been troubling his younger brother since he’d picked him up in Stockton. He’d not pressed it because he figured it was something to do with the ranch.

I should have known better. Nick doesn’t fret over ranch problems … he takes action. Nick was fretting … I was ignoring it. Wasn’t fair to him.

 But what do I do about Sawyer? I understand Nick’s objections, but I also spoke the truth. I can’t put my work on hold waiting for Sacramento … or the railroad.

 How do I get Nick to see … well not to see exactly … to accept that? And, how do I tell him that I might need his help …  that help just may bring the danger here to the ranch? I really can’t go forward with this if I don’t have his backing.

This is a fine stew you’re brewing here, old man.

Finding no answers in the patterns on the ceiling, and recognizing that he’d have to speak with Nick again, he did the only thing he could at that moment. He opted to get some sleep.

Nick, in spite of spending a less than restful night, was up and out early the next morning. He’d given orders for the day and set out on his self-appointed task of riding fenceline. It wasn’t his favorite job, but it would give him time to think.

He hadn’t wanted to tell Jarrod about the railroad, at least not in the way it happened. He snorted.

Did it again, boy. Let your mouth outrun your head.

He, however, was worried, and to his way of thinking, rightfully so. They were going to need Jarrod’s diligence in Sacramento, and if that failed, they were going to need his gun here. Nick snorted again, well aware that Jarrod wouldn’t be happy to hear that.

He thinks I prefer to fight, and he’s wrong. I guess it looks like that to him … I do enjoy the occasional barroom brawl, especially when there are certain people on the other side. But I’m not stupid. I do know when the risks exceed a few bruises, skinned knuckles, and maybe a fine or two.

 I just have trouble understanding how he can accept the dangers that always seem to accompany his crusades, and not understand that I, too, see there are times when fighting is the only answer. And, I do know that fighting can mean dying … get reminded of that every time I think of that grave in the trees … or am out here riding line … alone.

 I’ll just have to get him to understand that he can’t put himself at risk right now with something he doesn’t need to be doing. He’s not the only lawyer in the State.

Having thought it through as far as he could for the moment, he turned his attention back to the fence, and to his annoyance spotted a section that needed repair. Riding fence was bad enough. Repairing it was worse. Like it or not, the job had to be done.

Nick Barkley stepped out of the saddle and walked over to tackle what was today’s work … for him. Tomorrow someone else could have this job. He’d find a way to convince Big Brother that he needn’t tackle every piece of legal work that came his way. Some days he could give some of it to someone else.

Sawyer’s case, for instance.

*****

Chapter 6

The rest of the week passed, the two brothers avoiding the topic, when avoiding each other wasn’t possible. Until today, when they were able to do neither … or perhaps more precisely, when they’d decided it was time to stop doing either.

The line flashed through the air, the sun catching the tiny drops of water and creating miniature specks of light along a near invisible, and malformed arch. The gentle, nearly-undetectable sound that followed, was the only evidence that the hook and fly had hit the water. The staid repetitiveness of the action brought an enveloping calm and comfort to the fishermen.

Uncharacteristically, Jarrod was first to break the silence. “Nick, I’m guessing you think I don’t, but let me assure you I have thought long and hard over the last few days, and I do, understand. And, I don’t want to cause you unnecessary worry, or shift any more burdens to your back.

“At the same time, I want to look in the mirror each morning and not have to look away. If, at least, I don’t see if there is something I could reasonably do to put this matter right, I’m afraid that will be exactly the result.”

He looked at the rancher … found himself once again feeling all those old emotions; love, frustration, respect, sadness, gratitude and all their many nuances. It was so true, he didn’t want to burden his brother further, and he could not in good conscience walk away from Sawyer’s entreaty.

Just great. That puts me, once again, nicely in the middle. Nothing to be gained by crying foul. It is what it is. Need to find a way to deal with it … hopefully a way that doesn’t leave Nick feeling attacked, or even worse … abandoned.

“Please, Nick, can’t we—” His brother’s look and words, silenced him.

“Jarrod, I’m sorry. I wanted to make this a good week for you. Maybe a good two weeks. As usual I seem to have done a spectacularly good job of fouling that up. Truth be told, Jarrod … I’m scared.” He rubbed his free hand through his hair, around the back of his neck, and then over his face, before giving his head a shake.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t imagine losing you … can’t imagine trying to keep all this going,” his arm swept out and over the expanse before them, “without your help. But more importantly, I can’t imagine wanting to keep going if I lost you too.

“And I don’t know how to protect you when you go off on one of your crusades. All I seem able to do is scream at you to stop.” He released a low chuckle. “Doesn’t seem to work well for either of us.”

Jarrod smiled … then frowned. “Believe me, Nick. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, in any way. I don’t know that I have a better plan than you screaming at me, even if it doesn’t work.

“Maybe what we could do is take this one step at a time. See if we could find a way to make each step as safe as possible. And, we have to accept that there is always some danger, always a danger we could lose each other.

“It’s just that after Father, it’s so much harder … we know what it’s like. It’s no longer just some abstract idea. We know the truth of what it means to lose someone we love.”

Nick nodded. “You’re right. You’re also right … although you didn’t exactly say it … that’s it’s not fair of me to try and force you to live your life on different terms. To give up what’s important to you. Be like you telling me to raise potatoes instead of cattle. Be so much safer. Like that would ever happen.”

He looked at this brother he’d never been without, and knew he had but one choice. “Okay, Counselor, how can I help? What do you need to do first?”

Jarrod smiled, inwardly. Suddenly the world felt like a much safer place.

Several hours, a few fish, and many words, later … words this time of support, caring, exploration … they had hammered out a preliminary plan. They were both in agreement with the need to run it by Mother and Audra before making a final decision.

They could do that this evening. For the rest of today, they simply would bask in the enjoyment of each other’s company, and store the memories for a time, hopefully long in the future, when they might be needed to ease what otherwise would be an unbearable pain.

Dinner had been a lively, pleasant affair, and Victoria was fervidly relieved at the change, she witnessed, between her two sons. She assumed they had resolved the issue of Jarrod and the Sawyer case, and relished the feeling of peace thus wrought. At least, she did, until Jarrod’s end-of-meal request that they all convene in the study to discuss a matter in need of imminent attention.

As the ladies took their customary seats, and Nick alternated between poking the fire and leaning on the mantle, Jarrod attempted to gather his thoughts. Leaning against the desk he tried to think through his argument.

I need to make them understand, convince them to go along, and in no way deceive them. Better pick your words carefully, boy. There are judges and juries that can be harder than these two.

“Mother … Audra … Nick and I talked today. While the two of us are in agreement with what I want to do, we both also are in agreement that it cannot happen without your blessing. I want you to know that I will answer all your questions … thoroughly, and honestly … but, I need you first to listen to all I have to say.”

He searched their faces, and could see the trepidation, as well as the curiosity. He’d need to play to the curiosity and alleviate the other … at least to the degree possible.

“As you are aware, I had been approached by Marshal Frank Sawyer, to take a case, on behalf of a friend of his. Not just any case, but a civil case. In some ways civil cases can be easier. The burden of proof is less.

“In some ways they can be more difficult. The result is often less certain, so much more at the whim of the judge. And, so very often, much more emotionally charged.

“As I have come to learn, and I’m sure you have determined as well, there exists many a man who values his wealth more than his life. Or, at least, who will fight harder to retain it, and put his life in danger to expand it.”

The nods he got gave him some encouragement. “The man Mr. Sawyer wants me to bring suit against, appears to be one such man.”

He paused to let that register.

“That makes him—”

Victoria cut him off. “That makes him a dangerous man. Am I right, Jarrod?”

A terse nod confirmed her conclusion.

Did I, even for a moment, doubt that she would see to the heart of the matter?

Her next statement left him a bit surprised … surprised that she got that deep, that quickly.

“If you take the case, you risk putting yourself, Sawyer, and this friend of his … I forget his name … in the path of a dangerous man. And if you don’t take the case, you have to find a way to live with yourself. To justify letting a possibly guilty man go free … at least free of any consequence.

“And, you can’t be sure how far this dangerous man will go to protect himself … or his property. Can’t be sure who else might be put in danger. Like me, Audra, Nick ….”

He saw the big, blue eyes of his little sister grow even bigger. “Is that what you wanted to tell us, Jarrod? You wanted to tell us you are considering putting yourself … everyone … in danger?”

He grunted, then sighed. “Well, Honey, I think you’ve pretty well summed it up. I’m considering doing just that. And, I want you to know, I haven’t made those considerations lightly and I won’t go ahead without your permission … your full approval.

“I’d have more trouble living with myself, were I to do that, than I’d have in choosing to let justice go wanting.” He stood straight, walked over to one of the upholstered chairs, and slumped into it.

He was at a loss as to what more he could say. It really was up to them … and even that brought feelings of guilt. He had no desire to dump such an onerous choice into their laps.

Audra surprised him with her question. “Would you hesitate if Sawyer’s friend were Nick, if it were your brother who was denied justice? Would you let his need for justice be ignored, to protect Mother or me from possible risk?”

She finished with that look—lips pursed, dimples showing, eyes ablaze—the look that spoke of disgust and determination rolled into one.

“But, Sweetheart, that’s different.”

Victoria interjected. “Is it, Jarrod? Audra makes a good point. Do we have the right to let others be denied justice, to protect ourselves? Do we have the right, to deny to others what we would not deny ourselves? Do we?”

Jarrod somehow managed to look elated and defeated, at the same time. The moment served to remind him that he sometimes forgot that Audra wasn’t just his little sister. She was Victoria … and Tom … Barkley’s daughter.

Nick interjected. “Many a time since Father’s death, especially when I’ve had to make decisions about the ranch, I’ve found myself asking ‘What would Father do?’ This seems like one of those times. Only, we don’t need to ask … do we? He already did it.”

He paused, as his gaze moved over each person. “He did what he thought was right … and beggar the risk. He would have been ashamed to do less. I don’t think I could bear the thought of having him ashamed of himself.”

Nick studied his family again, shook his head, and laughed. “Well, Counselor, looks like we need to sit down and make a plan. Figure out how you are going to get this Greenley man and protect everyone else … yourself included  … while doing so.”

Jarrod looked around the room, the sapphire blues resting long and hard on each, as he clearly let show his thanks and gratitude. He found himself at a loss for words.

Victoria stood, swept graciously over to his chair, and bending to place a kiss on top of the raven hair, whispered, “You have my blessing.”

He reached for her hand, and taking it in both of his, held it close, before looking up, and mouthing a sincere, “Thank you, Lovely Lady.”

Audra followed her lead, letting her brother know that she gave him her full support, with all her love included. He, likewise, acknowledged her gift.

“So, Counselor, where do we start?”

He saw the question for what it was. Nick’s clear message that he too would support his big brother, no holds barred.

*****

Chapter 7

Jarrod looked at his younger brother for a moment, well aware of what he’d been offered, and knowing he’d get all the help he needed.

Okay, Jarrod, you have what you wanted. You have their full support. Now, what are you going to do with it? What is your plan? How exactly do you plan to see justice accomplished and protect everyone involved? Is it even possible?

“Well, Nick, I have to admit that I can’t say I have a fully-thought-out plan … or that such a thing is possible even. But, I need to talk with Thomson, and I need to do that without arousing anyone’s suspicions. Not sure how, so I’m guessing the place to start is with Sawyer.

“I had Maureen start on that piece before I left the city … ensuring the means to move ahead was in place should it be so decided. She’ll use the usual means of providing sensitive information. Letter might already be there.”

It was a provision they had established long ago when Jarrod needed to communicate with his San Francisco office without anyone suspecting he was doing so. Maureen would send a letter to McNally … to Mr. McNally, rather than to Michael McNally. Anything going the other way would be addressed to Maureen McNally, in her brother’s hand.

“If she’s managed what I’d intended, it should provide a safe means for a meeting with the marshal. So, in answer to your question, we start with a trip to Stockton tomorrow. I’d rather not send someone for the mail. The fewer people involved, the better.”

“Fine. It seems there’s nothing we can do tonight, so I’d be happy to beat you in a few games of pool. Lighten your wallet. Make the trip to town easier on your horse.”

A tip of his head, and a sweeping palm, invited his brother to accept. Jarrod did so.

By morning, they had decided that Jarrod would make the trip for the mail. He could stop in at his office first, and then collect the mail before heading home. For anyone keeping watch, neither would seem out-of-the-ordinary actions.

As he made a casual perusal of the mail he’d been handed, he wasn’t sure if he was hoping for, or against, seeing the expected letter. Hopes notwithstanding, it was there. He forced himself to ignore it, to withdraw something addressed to himself, something of little consequence, and slowly, deliberately open the envelope, and then appear to give the contents careful scrutiny and consideration. It would give him a reasonable excuse to return to the office, read the letter of concern, and take whatever actions needed, before heading home.

Back in the office, he read and reread the contents. Sawyer was coming here, supposedly on business with the local law enforcement. All he needed was a ruse to be in Harry’s office at the same time as Sawyer. No doubt Nick could help with that. Unless advised differently, Sawyer would be there, day after tomorrow.

What to do with the letter? Did he keep it, did he destroy it. And what of future communications? For now, he opted to save it … but not here. It, and subsequent pieces, would go in the safe at the ranch. Not knowing what might happen as the plan unfolded, it was impossible to determine what, at a later date, might prove to be valuable evidence.

By that evening, he and Nick had a plan. Nick just had to get himself arrested. Jarrod would show up to bail him out. While Jarrod had no doubts Nick could carry out his part without a hitch, he was somewhat alarmed, and to no small degree dismayed, at how enthusiastic his brother had been. He held the uneasy sense of having given a child permission to raid the cookie jar.

Two days later, as expected, Nick indeed did his part. Jarrod heard the voices in his outer office, and went to investigate. Harry’s deputy stood there, hat in hand, trying to explain what had happened. The lawyer interrupted.

“Is there a problem? Is this something that needs my attention?”

“Well, yes, Mr. Barkley. You see, it’s Nick … Nick Barkley … your brother, Nick. He’s asked … well, more like … demanded … that someone get you to bail him out. Sheriff sent me … to ask you … that is. Nick’s in jail ….” He tapered off, not knowing how else to explain the situation, and not wanting to think he’d be held responsible for this man’s brother being arrested … again.

“Thank you, Billy. You can tell Harry that I’ll be along momentarily. Just have to finish up what I was working on. I’m sure Nick’s in no danger where he is. Will do him no harm to have time to cool down.”

Normally, he’d let Nick cool his heels for a bit. Harry knew that, and Billy knew it too. He had to be sure his actions matched the norm, even if not what he really wanted to do. He was quite certain Sawyer would stay put until he got there.

Three-quarters of an hour later he was proven correct. As he stepped into the sheriff’s office, and firmly closed the door behind him, he saw Frank, against the far wall, in a chair balanced on two legs. Billy was nowhere to be seen.

Seeing him look around, Harry offered, “Nick’s in the back. No one else here … as per the marshal’s request.” He nodded, with more than an obvious touch of respect, towards Sawyer.

Throwing Jarrod the keys, he added, “You can go on back. Close the door if you wish. Frank has assured me, that at least for now, the less I know the better … or at least, the safer. I’ll get busy on the paperwork for bailing out Nick.”

Jarrod nodded, a couple of times, and then headed for the back. He’d not taken more than three steps before Frank was beside him.

He was sorry, and if he was honest with himself, not surprised, to see Nick sporting the physical evidence of whatever tangle he’d gotten into. While he doubted he was hurting all that much, he knew that wouldn’t be the case once Mother had at him with her liniment bottle.

Might as well get this underway. It only took a certain amount of time to bail someone out of jail … even if the sheriff already was occupied with another matter. He started to talk as he moved to open the cell door, and free his brother.

“Good to see you again, Frank. I’d like you to meet my younger brother, Nick.” The shaking of hands was mingled with mutterings of greeting.

“I’ve read all the material you provided, and I have to agree with you. Justice does not appear to have been served. However, before we go further, I realize we have to deal with the matter of my fee.”

Seeing Frank about to interrupt, he waved him down. “Let me finish. If I win this case, I will accept my usual fee, at the end. If that is not acceptable, I will negotiate something that is. If that is not going to be agreeable to your Mr. Thomson, then we need to call a halt to this now.”

He gave Sawyer a moment to consider. “Well, Jarrod, it’s agreeable … more than agreeable … to me. Heath may be harder to convince, but that’s my problem. I’ll convince him. Won’t be that hard to do. He wants this to happen. If he has to swallow some of his pride to accomplish that, he’ll do so.”

Jarrod gave a brief nod. “Fair enough. You may be wondering why I arranged this meeting in this way … and thank you for cooperating without knowing why. I took the liberty of having someone I trust with my life, investigate Greenley … thoroughly and discretely.

“What I’ve learned is that he’s a dangerous … very dangerous … man. If we proceed with this matter, a number of lives could be at risk … yours included. Certainly mine and Mr. Thomson’s. Perhaps my family. And yes, before you ask, they are aware and have thrown their full support behind the effort.

“We hope to minimize the risk, to whatever degree possible. That effort starts by assuming we are being watched, and making sure our actions arouse no suspicions. Any contact between us, must be seen as accidental, unavoidable, inconsequential.

“I need to meet with your friend, and I need your knowledge of him—including where he is at present—to devise a means of doing so without incurring said risk. Any ideas?”

Jarrod’s long ago assessment, that Marshal Sawyer was no fool, had been correct. When he’d received the communication via Miss McNally, Frank suspected something like this. Furthermore, he suspected Barkley would be looking for a surreptitious way to meet with Heath. He’s put considerable thought into it. His plan would hinge on the brother.

“When you say your family has given their full support to this, do you mean actively?”

Nick’s eyes darted between the two, and his face took on that serious, granite, look it could get, when he suspected there was more to something than openly was apparent … like to Sawyer’s question.

“What are you asking, Marshal? I’m not much for beating around the bush … like the counselor here. Just spit it out.”

“Okay, Mr. Barkley. My plan involves you.”

He waited for a sign to continue. There was no point in doing so, if the family wasn’t prepared to play an active role.

He got a nod, accompanied by, “It’s Nick.”

“Heath’s holed up in an area not too far from Ucroft’s place. The man who was murdered. He’s trying to support himself—and his mother—by catching, training, and selling wild horses. He’s—”

Nick cut him off. “Why doesn’t he just get a job on another spread?”

Frank snorted. “Well, Nick, if I’m looking to hire a deputy, I’d be a mite leery of taking on someone who was once a Marshal. If you ask your brother here if he’d he comfortable hiring a qualified lawyer to be his law clerk, I’m guessing he’d have the same reservations. And I suspect, if you were looking to hire hands, you’d be equally hesitant towards someone who’d worked as a foreman.”

He gave them both some time to savor the thought. When he saw the gleam of recognition in their eyes, he continued. “Heath was Ucroft’s foreman … very capable, and very respected, in that position. Every ranch for miles around, knows that. None of them are in need of a foreman … none of them want to hire him as a hand.

“I’d give him a job in a minute, but he made it clear when he left that it was no longer work he wanted. I think his Mama may have had a part in that. No matter, my offer’d be refused. So, he’s doing what he can. And, he’s still looking for a way to get justice. Therefore, he’s not interested in putting too much distance between himself and where it happened.

“I figure we need to find a reason for him to come here, where he can have unplanned contact with Jarrod. And that’s where you come in, Nick. You got any need for, say, a couple of well-trained, good-looking, mares? Can you be at the next horse auction in Modesto? It’s next week. I can make sure Heath has his horses there. If you buy a couple, and make him a good offer to deliver them, it’ll bring him here.

“Won’t even look suspicious. He comes through here a few times a year, on his way to visit his mama. He’s about due.

“If you really don’t want the animals, I can guarantee you that Heath will take them back … and return every penny you paid. Probably offer to pay you for your trouble as well. That boy will not take charity … or anything that even hints at it.”

With a tone of wonder, Nick asked, “When you say he’s holed up, what exactly do you mean?”

“He’s found a spot—more like a small clearing among one of the treed areas—lots of land in that area that no one owns. He’s set up camp there. I think, as usual, his horses have better feed and accommodations than him. He cut enough trees to build a couple of small corrals. Has enough grazing to keep them fed, and a nearby stream that provides water.

Heath is pretty resourceful. I suspect he’s living on fish and rabbits, and whatever he can gather. That boy can make more of a meal out of just about nothing, than anyone I’ve ever met. Kept my belly full more than once, when we ended up chasing some outlaw a fair piece further than we’d planned.”

Nick looked thoughtful … glanced at Jarrod … nodded a couple of times. “Well, don’t see why your plan can’t work. Nobody is going to wonder if I show up at a horse auction … or if I pay someone to deliver whatever I buy. Always on the lookout for decent horses. Sounds like this might be a good deal for me.

“Okay, Big Brother, time to earn your keep. Get me out of this place. I’ve got work to do.”

“I know, Brother Nick … it’s a working ranch.”

Nick turned for a moment before opening the door. “How will I know this Heath fellow? What’s he look like?”

“A tad shorter than you. Blond hair, blue eyes. I’d lay money he’ll have the best horseflesh at the auction. Look for that, you’ll find him.”

Jarrod cocked his head, raised an eyebrow, and then signaled, with a shift of his shoulder, that it was time to move on.

*****

Chapter 8

 Nick had come alone. He’d decided it would look less unusual for him to strike up a conversation with a stranger, if he didn’t have anyone with him. It also would raise less interest, if he hired someone to deliver whatever he purchased.

Auction didn’t start until tomorrow, and for the moment, the dark-haired rancher, wasn’t seeing anything on which he’d be anxious to place a bid.

Either Thomson’s not here, or Sawyer don’t know much about horses. Oh whoa, just a minute here.

Nick watched as the gateman opened a holding pen for a small group of horses. A wrangler, on a small, black mare was leading them in, but he couldn’t see enough of the man from where he was to determine if he met Frank’s description. He’d wait a bit for the dust to settle, and then wander on over. Whether it was his man or not, he could see enough to know he wanted a better look at those animals.

By the time he’d made his move, the man was deep in conversation with the same person who’d opened the gate earlier. He was on the ground … was about the right height, and from what he could see, looked like he could be blond. And, he had a proprietary hold on a lead rope of one the finest-looking stallions Nick Barkley had seen in a good long while. He moved closer.

“I don’t want him in with the mares. He’s not for sale. I just need a space to put him until the sale’s over. If you can’t manage it, where do I find the nearest livery?”

“Well, I’m sorry young fella, but we’re plumb full up. You’re lucky I even had that space left. Livery’s down the end of that street.” He shook his thumb in the direction indicated.

Nick stepped up. “Now, come on Larry, surely you can do better than that. What kind of a two-bit operation you running here?”

Larry spun around, about to share a piece of his mind, then stopped short when he realized who was standing there. “Nick! Was wondering if you’d be here. Got some good looking stock on the block this time.”

“Well, you do now. Sure ain’t nothing else that caught my eye. You got a seller standing here with the best animals you’re offering, and you’re going to send him to the livery? If I were him, I’d think twice about ever coming back.” Nick grinned, and the grin grew when he saw the blue eyes look up at him.

If what Sawyer said is true, I’d bet the guy doesn’t have the coin to put his own horse up at the livery, let alone an extra one.

“Alright, alright, I’ll see what I can do.” Larry was well aware of the consequences of displeasing a Barkley … this one, or his father before him.

“Nick Barkley,” he offered, as he extended his hand to the stranger.  “Larry here’ll find a spot for that horse. And, if you want to reconsider, I’d be happy to find a permanent spot for him. Pay you what we both know he’s worth.”

The man shook his hand, flashed a half-smile, and replied, “Heath Thomson. Pleased to meet you. I appreciate your help with Larry here, but this fella’s not for sale. At any price.”

Nick grinned again. “Can’t fault a man for trying.”

“No sir, I guess not.”

Nick noticed Sawyer’s blue-eyed blond had an ease about him, a quiet confidence. He’d been wondering about him, off and on, ever since Jarrod had first mentioned the case. What kind of person would go to those lengths, to get justice for someone to whom he wasn’t even related. He was younger—much younger—than Nick had expected.

Have to wonder what his story is. He’s still wet behind the ears, but he’s earned a place with the likes of Sawyer … not just recently, either. What else has he done? He’s certainly learned to judge horseflesh. Oh yeah, and garner a position as foreman on what was apparently a good-sized spread. Even McColl had more than a few years on him when Father made him foreman … and at that time there were far fewer men to choose from. Damn, sure would like to talk him out of that stallion. We’ll see. Never know what tomorrow might bring.

“Can’t blame a man if he keeps trying, either.”

Heath chuckled. “Or, if he keeps refusing.”

He flashed that disarming grin again, before adding, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a mess of horses to take care of. Unless, of course, you’re handy with a brush and not afraid of a bit of work.”

Nick couldn’t tell if he was teasing or challenging. Hard to believe he’d think Nick Barkley was scared of work.

Could he actually think that? Just because I’ve got a bloody lawyer for a brother, he thinks I don’t put in a full day’s work. Well, let me show him.

“Larry, lend me a brush. Give me a chance to inspect these mares up close. See if they’re really as good as they look.”

Larry handed him a brush from the bins that were dotted around the area. The owner of this place had discovered that the better the animals looked, the higher the prices. He figured the easier he made it for those owners to spruce up their stock, the more likely they’d be to do so.

As Nick unhitched the gate and stepped through, Heath smiled and reached into his near saddle bag. Pulling out a brush and curry comb, he vaulted easily over the fence, and set to work on the closest mare. Every time he looked Nick’s way, he smiled again.

Boy howdy. Never knew it could be that easy to get someone to work for nothing. Terrible thing is, the closer the look he gets, the more he’ll discover he’s going to have to pay. He’s going to have to outbid all comers, at least on a couple of them, if he’s going to have anything for me to deliver.

Okay, Heath. It’s fine to have a bit of fun for now. But you know full well if he’s forced to pay more than they’re worth you’ll be returning the extra. Sorry Mama, I know you could use the money, but I also know you’d get no peace from havin’ it, if it didn’t come fair and honest. You’d accept the work he’s doing as restitution for, as you’d put it, ‘unwarranted pride’ … I’ll just be glad for the help. Been a long couple of days, and the sooner these horses are taken care of, the sooner I can find a spot to camp, and get some sleep. Figure I’ll be tired enough to not notice if I’m hungry … can save the food I’ve got left for breakfast.

They worked in companionable silence, and Heath was proven right. The cleaner the horses got, and the closer the view, the more impressed Nick became. He’d come expecting to have to buy a couple of unexceptional animals, and he’d been prepared to do just that. It wasn’t about getting more stock. It was about helping Jarrod. This time, helping the good counselor, was going to result in helping the ranch … in a big way.

If I could just talk him out of that stallion. Breed him to a couple of these mares, and some of the better ones back home, I’d have the start of a good new line. Well, there’s no hurry … looks like Mr. Thomson’s going to be in our lives for a while to come. Just have to find a way to sweeten the pot. Every man has his price. Wonder where he’s staying … maybe I can get him to join me for dinner.

It had failed to register with Nick that he was already losing focus on why he was there. He was just wanting to spend time with this man, get to know him better.

There were two mares and the foals left to do, when Heath decided to put an end to the game. “Hey, Mr. Barkley, I was just kidding. I really wasn’t intending for you to help with these ladies. Look ’em over as much as you want, but you’re free to go. I’ll finish up here.”

“It’s Nick to you, and I’m not in the habit of leaving a job unfinished. Besides, we’re nearly done. If you’re planning on dusting off those little guys, you might want to tackle them. I’m guessing they’re used to you by now and will be a lot more cooperative than they’d be with me.”

Heath wasn’t sure he was comfortable with keeping Nick working, but he wasn’t sure how to stop him now … not without offending him. Not seeing an obvious alternative, he opted to play along.

“You got it. I’ll take care of ’em.”

As they finished up and Nick threw his brush back from whence it had come, he asked the question he’d been wondering. “Where you staying? Thought we might get dinner together.”

“Nah, you go on Nick. I still have to brush down the stallion, make sure he’s good for the night.”

He hasn’t ridden him, he’s not selling him, and he’s still going to brush him out. Can’t fault him on that … man looks after his animals. But he didn’t answer my question. Wonder if that was deliberate.

“You didn’t say where you were staying.”

“You’re right, I didn’t. Haven’t rightly decided just yet. Plan to find me a nice spot not too far from town. I’m about done for the day. By the time I take care of Gal here, I’m going to be ready to bed down. Maybe another time, but thanks.”

Shit. Forgot what Sawyer said. He don’t take charity … or even the hint of it. Don’t guess he can afford to buy a meal, and he’ll not take kindly to me paying for one. Okay, I’ll let him go. He’ll have some money in his pockets by the time tomorrow ends. Maybe he’ll join me then.

“Suit yourself. See you tomorrow.”

As the blond started to walk away, Nick added, “Hey, Heath.” When he turned to look, the rancher finished, “Good to meet you.”

He got a two finger wave in return, nodded, and headed for his hotel … wondering what it was about Heath Thomson that drew him to the man.

*****

Chapter 9

As morning dawned, Heath rolled out of his blankets, eased stiff muscles into action, and started his day. It was early, and he had the time, so he sat and watched the circle, that would later warm the day, peek over the hills. It was a vision of which he never tired. Sometimes it was no more than a changing of black, to blue, to lighter blue, to blue-white until the full white light of day emerged. Other times it was awash in colors too exact, and yet too subtle, to be created by anyone, or anything, as limited as man. Always, for Heath, it heralded new hope, a new chance for a better life. Above all it spoke to the miracle that he still lived, was here to have that hope, and enjoy the sight.

With economy of movement, born of long practice, he soon had breakfast done, the fire out, his horse readied, the site cleared, and himself in the saddle headed to town. He was still surprised how quickly and easily he and Barkley had made contact. Remembering Frank’s caution, he was equally assured that their meeting would generate no attention. He was there to sell horses, the other man was there to buy some. His thoughts now were directed toward that final decision he had to make: which horses would he put on the block and which would he save to start his own herd.

Now that Sawyer had set in motion the means … or at least the potential means … to settle the matter of Ucroft’s murder, it seemed like a good time for Heath to move on. The stopover at the Barkley spread was a bonus. He’d have some money by then, hopefully enough to buy some grazing for whichever horses he opted to keep. If he could leave them there, long enough to visit Mama and find a place to set up a more permanent camp, he could begin his plans for his future.

One decision he had made. He’d not be staying over after the auction. He’d not be having any meals with Nick Barkley. Nothing good could come of it. The man made him uncomfortable. He could feel himself being drawn to him, and he was quite certain Nick felt something the same. He’d had that experience with a few others in his life … most recently with Cliff Ucroft. But this was different. He couldn’t figure how it was different, but he knew it was. That difference was part of what contributed to the discomfort … and the surety that it only could bring trouble.

As he approached the auction area, he let his eyes gaze over the site. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular. He was just making sure. Making sure he knew what was happening, and where, had never served him poorly … was a major contributor to him still being alive.

Reaching the space that corralled his mares, he sat for a moment, studying them closely. Once satisfied, he headed over to a nearby tree, and what would be the only source of shade as the day progressed. Dismounting, he tied Gal, with a long lead, to a lower branch. He then stripped his gear from her, gave her a quick pat, and with his usual frugal, neat, steps, headed for the stallion. Acknowledging the greeting he got, and satisfied that all was in order with the big bay, he left for the auction office.

The door was open, an enticement to the cool air that would in short order be replaced by the heat of the day. He walked on through, still paying close heed to his surroundings. There was but one man behind a table, and an already growing line of others waiting to gain his attention. Heath took a seat.

Boy howdy, don’t see as how I’ll get there any faster standing in line. And, it’s a sure thing they ain’t going to start this auction until all the animals for sale have been identified.

In due time, with but one person remaining, the blond stood and ambled over behind him. When that man moved away and headed out of the room, he turned his attention to the fellow at the table.

“Got two mares I’m selling, and one mare and foal pair. They’re penned with a mare and another pair, I’ve decided to keep.”

The man looked up at him. “Most people plan to sell whatever they bring.”

Not knowing what might constitute an appropriate response, Heath remained silent. It was habit that had served him well.

Getting no response, the man shook his head, and requested descriptions, identifying marks, any other pertinent information on the animals going up for sale. As Heath described the first horse, the man meticulously noted what he said, and then handed him a card with a number, repeating the process with each animal.

“There’s holes in those cards, and string in the bins at the corrals, so you can tie them to the horse, the halter, whatever you choose. Just make sure you match the right number to the right horse. When the auctioneer calls your name and number, you’ll have to bring the animal into the show area.”

“Yes sir, and I thank you,” Heath murmured, before making his way out of the room, and back to his horses. After spending some time with a brush and curry comb, he settled back to wait his turn. He was a bit surprised Nick hadn’t come by, and worked to quell the disappointment he could feel arising.

I suspect he’s playing it safe. Doesn’t want to arouse suspicions. Probably knows lots of people here that he’d want to spend time with, anyway. And, the less you see of him, the easier it is to keep a healthy distance. You’re nothing to him, and he’s nothing to you. Best to keep it that way.

A short while later, after a lunch of cold water from the nearby pump, he heard them call his name. As he led the lone mare around the small arena, he spotted Nick. He was standing with a couple of other men … one in a suit … and they seemed to be discussing the animal in question. As he completed the first round, the auctioneer opened the bidding.

Partway through the second round, he vaulted onto the horse’s back and let her show her stuff, using nothing more than his legs and the lead rope. Bidding intensified. When he figured they’d seen enough, he slid off her, rubbed his hand under her mane, then gave her a couple of good pats, before starting her on a slow walk once more.

In due course, it came down to Nick and Suit. Nick won. Heath took her back to the others, and brought up the other single. He’d deliberately left the pair for last. This round proceeded much as the other, except Nick lost this one to some fellow in the far stands. Heath was well aware he only lost because he chose to do so, figured it was one more way to diffuse any ideas of there being a connection between the two.

When he brought in the mare and foal, there were appreciative murmurings. They looked a little flashier than the pair he’d opted to keep. He knew there was not much to distinguish between the two mares, but anyone who knew what to look for would see the other foal beat this one in almost every aspect … if, but marginally.

Bidding commenced, and quickly grew hot and heavy. His face may have shown nothing, but Heath was smiling inside. Even if he ended up returning a sizeable chuck of the final price, there was delight, as yet somewhat incomprehensible, in knowing Nick would be forced to the ropes on this one. And he was. Suit dropped out well into the fray, but the man beside him and a couple others in the stands, kept it going. These men obviously had money, and it seemed that neither was willing to let the other get what he, himself, wanted.

The outcome wasn’t in doubt. Heath knew Nick had to buy this pair. What he didn’t know, and maybe would never quite believe, was that Nick wasn’t going to let these two go, even if he didn’t have to buy them. He’d seen the final listing posted, before the bidding started. He’d discovered then that Heath had kept back the best pair … and the stallion. However, he’d seen them all up close, and he knew the difference between this and best was not that great. If this was all he could get … for now … he’d settle for it. And do so happily. And, he’d let nobody stop him.

When Heath went to collect the monies due him, he found himself surprised at what he held. He knew what the final bids had been, knew what he’d be getting, but knowing and having it in one’s hand were not quite the same thing. He feigned surprise when Nick approached and inquired if they could work out an agreement to have the horses delivered.

Nick explained that he had pressing matters to get back to, and since he’d not bought anything else, it wouldn’t pay to have them shipped. He’d compensate him well for his time and effort. Even cover his costs to stay over tonight, get a good rest and an early start in the morning. He’d guarantee him equally good treatment at the other end as well. He reminded Heath, he’d paid a goodly sum for these animals, and he wasn’t about to turn them over to just anyone. Not even sure, when he thought about it, that he’d have been happy turning them over to the railroad. Nope. He figured the chances of them arriving in top-notch shape, could be had best if the man who knew them took on the job.

He’d made a good case. Anyone looking on would be hard pressed to argue against it … or deem it reasonable for Heath to refuse. They shook on it, and as the blond went to collect his horse and gear, Nick let him know he’d make arrangements for another room at the hotel. He was leaving in the morning too, but he’d be taking the train. He’d even buy him dinner tonight.

Boy howdy, that went well. Too well, maybe. Looks like I’m going to be spending time with him tonight. Oh well, settle down Heath. How bad can it be? Maybe you’ll learn a bit about him. Maybe you’ll even find you like him. No matter. You’ll be moving on and you’ll never have to see him again.

*****

Chapter 10

Heath was several hours on the way, as he thought back on the previous evening. He had learned some things about Nicholas Barkley … about the whole family. Things that had surprised him.

He knew of the Barkleys, as did most anyone who lived in California. Hard not to have heard of them. He never, however, had concerned himself with any of the details of them, or their lives. The first serious thought he ever had given to them, was when Frank showed up and told him what he’d done.

Boy howdy, that was a right, interesting discussion. Don’t expect ol’ Frank’ll be springing something like that on me again. You have to admit though, Heath, without his ‘interference’ the chances of righting this wrong would still be long in the future. And you’d be fuming about it every moment of every day, between now and then.

Frank’s a good friend. Was just lookin’ out for me. Nothin’ I wouldn’t do for him … if I were able.

Initially, he’d been incensed with Sawyer’s announcement … and the feeling he’d been maneuvered into something without having any say, and worse, without any power to stop it now that it was rolling. Once he’d calmed down he realized he wouldn’t want to call a halt. His only concern was the danger being created. He didn’t like the risk Frank, Jarrod, maybe all the Barkleys could be facing. He didn’t like the idea that he could be responsible for that, while at the same time having no means of protecting them from it.

 

He had no concern for himself. It was a trait he’d developed early on. An inability to value his life. Whenever he looked at his Mama, whenever he saw what she had to endure because of him. Whenever he thought about her decision to keep him, to try and provide for him, all he could see was the price she’d paid for him to be alive. Nothing about him warranted the phenomenal cost to her. Him being alive didn’t compensate. His life wasn’t worth that, had no value that could match the sacrifice. It wasn’t worth it … he wasn’t worth it.

If he took any special care to preserve that life, it was only because he knew the tremendous pain it would cause her to lose him. He didn’t understand that, but he accepted it as fact. Furthermore, he accepted that she neither needed, nor deserved, any more pain than she’d endured already.

When she’d begged him to quit the deputy position, to find something else … something where she didn’t go to bed each night, and wake each morning, in fear that this would be the day she heard he had died … he’d done so. It hadn’t been easy telling Frank he was quitting. The marshal hadn’t held it against him, apparently understood. Assured him he was there, if ever the need arose, and had proven it more than once. This thing with Ucroft was just another instance.

So, when he’d finally simmered down, and listened to the whole plan, he was more than ready to do his part. When Frank had laid out the risks involved, he stated, quite emphatically that he didn’t care. The man, however, seemed to understand his former deputy, recognized the values he held, that the boy possibly didn’t recognize himself.

He had been able to get Heath to see that, in this operation, whenever he put his life in danger, he would be putting everyone in danger. It had had the desired effect, and the young blond was taking no chances.

Now here he was on his way to the Barkley ranch, and the next step in the plan. What he’d learned the night before continued to run around in his head. What he’d heard reminded him a lot of what he’d found at the Ucroft spread. While Cliff didn’t have the financial resources of the Barkleys … he’d had to take out a bank loan to continue basic operations … he did function with the same principles. He paid some of the best wages in the area, and he treated his hands with respect. He never asked a man to do a job he wasn’t prepared to do himself, and when he worked, he worked hard. He expected no less from the men he hired.

And then there was Jarrod. Frank had given him the scoop on the arrangement for paying the attorney. Nick had given him an insight into the nature of the man. Nick didn’t just love his older brother, he admired and respected him. While Nick saw an inequity in the fact that Jarrod could, and often did, pitch in to help with the ranch, while he got no such assistance in return, he stressed that his brother had no such qualms about the arrangement. Heath remembered Nick laughing while revealing that.

“He keeps telling me, that anytime he doesn’t want to soil those lily-white hands of his with work I can hire people to do, all he has to do is refuse. And then he adds some ridiculous piece about how it is actually a relief to him to know there’s a quiet place, where he can escape and doesn’t have to worry about me tagging along. If that’s the way he wants to feel, I’ll let him go right along feeling that way … still doesn’t seem quite fair.

And, in his own way, Jarrod enjoys a good fight just as much as I do. He just prefers words as weapons … doesn’t seem to get the same satisfaction out of a well-landed punch. But people who confuse that with him being weak will be in for a surprise. If anyone is going into any sort of battle, and they’ve got my big brother in their corner, they’ve got the best chance of winning. He’s one of the good guys. Can’t imagine life without him.

He wasn’t sure if Nick was just rambling on, or if he was trying to reassure Heath about the fight ahead of them. What was not uncertain was his belief in his brother. Heath couldn’t be sure quite what that would be like, but he recognized it was an experience he’d often longed to have. One he knew he’d never get closer to than imagining.

He’d had one other conversation of importance with Nick the previous night.

“Nick, I need you to do me a favor.”

 He pushed an envelope across the table. “I’ve taken out all I can imagine needing for the trip, and I’d like you to keep this for me until I deliver your purchases. I figure it’ll be safer with you on the train, than it might be with me on the trail.

“Don’t want to bank it here … not sure I’ll be coming back this way. Besides, most of it I’m going to take to my mother.”

He’d paused to give a long, hard, pointed look to Nick, before continuing. “If something happens to me, and you don’t get these horses, this belongs to you.”

He paused again, catching those hazel eyes once more. “If something happens to me, and you recover the horses, I want you to promise you’ll get this to Mama. This and whatever you can get selling the others. Her name, how to find her, are in there.”

Blue held hazel, until the rancher nodded. “Okay, Heath. I’ll see to it. But nothing better happen to you … at least not to you and those animals.” He chuckled.

“I want to get one more chance to talk you out of that stallion. Those other mares too, for that matter. So, you just make sure you show up as scheduled.”

Heath was afraid he’d seen the statement for what it was … a clear message that this Barkley chose to care about the welfare of a man he hardly knew. It created that same uncomfortable feeling he’d had before … and that same need to conclude his business with these people and move on. He wasn’t going to let them elicit any more of those feelings in him.

While Heath rode with his thoughts, trailing the string of horses behind him, Nick sat impatiently in a seat made for someone much smaller, and wished he was home already. Having no means of making the wish a reality, he too had thoughts occupying his time.

Sure not hard to understand how someone like Sawyer could take a shine to someone like Thomson. Something about him, something I just can’t put my finger on, but he stands out. He’s just not like anyone else. Something different there … different in a good way.

Hard to figure. He wanted me to take his money in case I never got my horses … or to make sure it went to his mother. Didn’t seem at all worried about losing it for himself.

Not a one of those animals carried a brand, so I can only assume the good marshal was telling the truth, and he was catching them wild. You don’t turn a wild horse into what he was selling without a lot of work … and considerable talent. You’d think he’d value that, and expect an adequate return. It’s like he sees the value in the horses, but not in his contribution. Like they are worth more than he is.

Wonder what his story is? Seems to be dedicated to his mother. Father must be dead. I certainly know how that is. But I wonder when? Sounds like it’s just him … and his mother. Maybe Jarrod knows more about him. Will have to ask.

Doesn’t seem afraid of hard work, and certainly seems to earn people’s respect. Geez, I don’t hardly know the man and he’s worming his way into my thoughts … and seems to have earned my respect.

Now I’ve just got figure out how to talk him into selling those other horses … at least that stallion. It’s not going to be easy. In all truth, I’d not part with him willingly if he were mine. Even if I were strapped for cash … even for Mother. I’d bet good money he’s got him no less well trained than those mares.

As Nick was attempting to stretch himself out, in the confined space he occupied, the man who had invaded his thoughts was sitting comfortably in his saddle, perusing the countryside around him. He’d already decided he was camping out tonight, notwithstanding his thoughts on the other conversation he’d had at dinner the night before.

“And Heath, when I said I’d be paying you to bring them horses home, I expect to cover all those costs. There’s plenty of small towns between here and the ranch. I expect to cover their feed and accommodations. Yours too. There’s a lot of miles to trek and they deserve a good meal and comfortable quarters at the end of each day, and so does the man responsible for them.”

Heath had stared at him, for a long moment, before responding.

“Boy howdy, Nick, there ought to be lots of good grazing between here and there. Has to be plenty of soft ground too. Never seen a hotel room that gives a man a good view of the stars … or the sunrise. I won’t push them harder than they can manage.”

Nick laughed. “I’ve no doubt of that. But I’m betting you won’t give yourself the same consideration. You listen to me, Boy. I want those animals getting a good feed of oats, at least once a day. And I want to hear that you devoured more than a few good feeds as well.”

 “Ah Nick, I make the best bull-frog stew you’ve ever tasted.”

 The mouthful of coffee Nick had just taken, spewed across the table, as he struggled to take in air. He looked at the blond, started to say something, changed his mind, and shook his head.

Heath figured oats once a day, meant oats once a day. They’d had a good feed that morning and he’d see about finding a town for tomorrow night. Right now he wasn’t ready for any more strangers … or jawing … that a night in a town would demand. It was time for one of those nights under the stars he’d mentioned to Nick.

Time to be alone with his thoughts, his plans … and maybe his demons. They seemed to come to life whenever new situations presented themselves. And, Boy howdy, it didn’t get much newer than what he was facing right now.

*****

Chapter 11

The next morning found Nick updating Jarrod with how well he thought things had gone … and pumping his brother for any further information he had on Thomson.

“You had everyone else within a 100 mile investigated, why not him?”

“Nick, I’m not in the habit of having my clients investigated … and I’m not going to start now.”

“Alright, alright, don’t get your knickers in a knot. There just seems to be something about him ….”

Jarrod looked at the rancher again. “You think there’s something wrong here? You think we can’t trust him … or Sawyer?”

“Nah, nah. It’s not that, Jarrod. It’s just … well, I don’t know exactly what. But let me tell you Jarrod, that boy knows more and can do more than many men twice his age. I can’t begin to imagine how, or where, he learned it.

“I was expecting someone much older. He’s got to be near five years younger than me. Truth be told, I don’t know how a body packs that much living in those few years. And I’m sure he hasn’t told me half of what he’s done.

“I don’t think he learned much of it at home either. Never mentioned his father. I’m guessing the man disappeared from his life long before he had the opportunity to teach him much of anything. Seems to be just he and his mother. I get the impression he’s been used to taking care of the two of them for a long while … certainly more than a few years.

“Which reminds me.”

He threw Heath’s envelope on the desk. “Can you lock this away? Belongs to him, but he had some concerns about it.”

He shared the content of that conversation with Jarrod. “He certainly doesn’t shirk responsibility. Obviously felt it was up to him to get those horses here in one piece, or compensate me for their loss.”

Jarrod raised an eyebrow. “And you’d disagree with that?”

“Damn right. Wouldn’t you?”

“Hmm. Yes. If I were in your place. But if it were you in his place, I doubt your attitude … or mine … would be much different than his. Sounds like wherever he was raised, and by whom, he’s somehow acquired a goodly dose of Barkley values.”

Nick looked his way, then at the floor, before looking back, with his head tilted and his brow furrowed, before his voice lowered as his chin dropped. “I suppose you’re right.”

Meanwhile, back on the trail, Heath was having his own conversation … with his horse.

“Boy howdy, Gal, I think I’ve gotten myself in a bit of a situation here. Looks like I’m going to be depending on Frank, probably a lot more than I’d like. I trust that man more than I trust myself, and I know he’s happy to have my back. But I sure hate being that beholden to anyone. Going to have to figure out a way to lighten his load. And, land sakes, but I have no idea what I’ll tell Mama … if I decide to tell her anything.”

He reached forward to pat the mare’s neck.

Who do you think you’re kidding, Heath Thomson? When have you ever kept anything from her … except maybe when you ran off to war. That sure worked out well!

“Well, my friend, we’re sleeping indoors tonight, and someone is rustling up the grub, so I’m guessing we can tack on a few more miles today. Expect, as it is, this pace seems a mite slow to you, but we’ve got to be thinking of those little guys. Don’t want them getting too tuckered.”

They pushed on. As the day passed, Heath felt increasingly uneasy. He kept a close watch on the area around them … in front, to the sides … and behind. There was that prickly sensation at the back of his neck that said something wasn’t right.

And Gal wasn’t right either. Oh, she moved along fine, responded instantly to every cue he provided, but she wasn’t right. There was a tenseness to her, a wariness, that said, she too could sense a lurking danger. He could feel her being not right.

Nothing he could do, but keep watch and be ready. Not like he was new to trouble. Anyone around the auction would know he’d collected a sizeable sum … wouldn’t know he didn’t have it on him. Anyone with one good eye, back there, or anywhere since, could see he had a good string of valuable horse-flesh. Unbranded horseflesh.

As the light began to dim he found himself looking forward to reaching the nearest town. Things could happen any time of day, but experience had taught him that darkness brought danger … in more ways than one. Yes sir, town would be a welcome sight.

And then, there it was. Looked to be a quiet little place, nestled between the surrounding hills. Would serve his purposes just fine. He kept his eyes roving as he reached the main street. He was accustomed to riding into town, a stranger, drawing sometimes open, sometimes guarded, stares. They might be sizing up him, but he was doing likewise … them and their town.

Busy enough little place. People going about their business with no great concern … reasonable passing interest in a stranger. Probably got a capable, reasonable sheriff. All the usual establishments … has to be a hotel and a livery somewhere. Just keep riding slow, Heath boy, and you’ll be fine.

Heath was right. As he moved further into the town, and the street took a bit of a turn, a hotel appeared. He guessed the livery would be at the end of the street. They usually were close to the main access, but somewhat on the outskirts. Provided the extra room that was needed, and a place to dump the muck from the stalls. He wanted to make sure the horses were settled for the night and then he’d see to finding himself a meal and a room.

The voice caught him by surprise, and he looked toward the man on the boardwalk. The man repeated himself. “The livery’s up at the end, one street over.” He gestured with his thumb.

“Thanks. That the only hotel?”

“Only one you’d want to stay at if you’re looking to get any sleep. Got good food too.”

“Much obliged.”

He moved on, picking up the pace a bit, now that he knew where he was going. And, now that that uneasy feeling had disappeared … at least for the moment … he put less effort into carefully scanning as he rode. The town didn’t seem to present any threat.

The man had been right. The room was clean and quiet, and the meal had been substantial and tasty, not that he was picky about what he ate. He’d ignored the saloon he’d passed on his way back from the hotel. While the thought of a cold beer had been appealing, he knew the less he was seen, the better.

No point in drawing unnecessary attention to himself. He’d do the minimum … get a good night’s sleep and an early start. While that uneasy feeling was gone for the moment, he wasn’t convinced that tomorrow’s travels wouldn’t see its return.

He was wrong. He’d ridden all day without a sign of anything. Could be whoever, or whatever, was out there, had decided to leave him be. Could be … and maybe wasn’t.

The snare had yielded a good-size rabbit, which he’d skinned and set to roast on a green-wood spit. The fire was small, and low, and the carcass would be fine while he took care of the horses. It was a near-ideal spot … for his needs. The nearby brook provided for lush, green grazing and cool, thirst-quenching water.

He was squatted down, focused on the carcass, when he heard them come, pretty sure there were two, hoping there weren’t three. Two he had a chance of taking. Three meant he’d not likely see the next sunrise.

He figured they’d have their guns out, before they left their horses. They’d be ready, and he didn’t want to rush them into doing anything. He knew they were there … they didn’t know he knew that. He figured he had one chance, and he’d have to play it perfectly.

While they moved in on him, he slipped his knife—the knife he’d been using to clear the last bits of flesh from the bones of the rabbit—from his right to his left hand, and palmed the blade with the handle resting along his wrist and forearm. There was little enough light, that he was counting on it being hidden … well enough … from their view. The moment he’d heard them, he’d closed his eyes tightly, hoping to give them time to adjust from the light of the fire to the dark. Give him that infinitesimal, and very essential, improved chance of spotting his assailants when he turned.

Timing would be everything. He couldn’t draw his gun with any speed unless he was standing. When he judged they were about as close as they’d come before announcing their presence, he started to rise. That movement coincided with the shouted command to freeze, and allowed him to keep rising as his hands moved out away from his body and slowly upwards. He started to answer them as he turned around, his left arm going back as it went up … a move he counted on them not seeing.

And then it was over, barely seconds after it started. As he’d surmised, there was one directly in front of him, another over to the side. His left arm came forward, his wrist flicking to release the knife, as his right dropped to his holster.

He’d been told he was fast … seen evidence of it. Truth be told, it wasn’t about being fast. It was about being fast enough when it counted. It counted now. How fast did he have to be, to beat someone who already had his gun out, already had his gun aimed at him? The truth was, he needed to be fast enough to draw and fire before the other fired. But, was he that fast?

*****

Chapter 12

There were times, Jarrod swore, that Nick must have been born pacing … probably paced in the womb.  “Isn’t there something you need to be doing? Some place you need to be doing it? Not here?”

“Should have told him to wire me along the way. Assumed he’d just do that. It’s been days. Not a word.”

“Nick.”

The back-and-forth rhythmic sound of boots on floor provided the only response.

“Nick.”

Same response.

“NICK.”

It stopped. The feet remained in one place. “WHAT?” The eyebrows, over the hazel eyes, dipped into a scowl.

“For the love of God, would you either sit down, or leave? Pacing isn’t going to bring word or get him here any faster. What it is going to do is fray my one last nerve.”

The blue eyes were brighter than usual, with a snap to them. Hazel glared back.

“All right, you’re concerned. But, you didn’t tell him to check in, and from what you’ve said, he had no reason to do so. He’s not overdue. Truth be told, Nick, he’s not even due yet. Don’t you have more horses coming with him? Can’t you go build a corral, or something. Just leave me in peace. Please.”

“Okay, Jarrod. Okay. You’re right. But I don’t like it. Got this feeling something ain’t right. If he don’t show up soon, or send word, I’m going looking for him.”

“Fine, Nick. You do whatever you have to. Just let me get some work done here. Now.”

He returned the stare he’d gotten earlier, and waited until the rancher reached for the dark hat and settled it on his head. Giving it a tug, he marched out the door.

Jarrod attempted to return to the work he had sitting in front of him, and found his thoughts drawing him away.

I’m sure Nick is overreacting. After all, that’s Nick. Nothing I’ve seen or heard would suggest Heath Thomson is in the habit of checking in with people … or expecting they would be waiting for him to do so. I’m sure if Nick had told him to, he would have. But, Nick didn’t tell him.

 If Nick’s accounting is accurate, there’s no reason to believe anyone watching … if indeed, there were anyone watching … would have become suspicious. No reason to suspect that anyone out there sees Heath Thomson as a threat. At least not yet.

 Have to admit I’m getting anxious to meet him. He’s got me curious. Just what about him has drawn Brother Nick. He doesn’t take to strangers that readily. Not unless they have curves in places most ranch hands don’t have curves, and faces that are much easier to look upon.

 Okay, Counselor, back to work.

*****

He’d kept turning, drew, and dropped, all at once. Almost succeeded in doing the impossible. Almost succeeded in taking out the two men without sustaining any damage in return. In truth, he wasn’t quite fast enough. At least not for that.

He accomplished most of it. Both men were dead. A bullet from the second one had found him. Low enough to miss the protection of a rib, and wide enough to avoid hitting anything crucial. Deep enough to do damage. He was bleeding … more than was healthy … and the accompanying pain made its presence known whenever he moved.

The pain he could manage. Long ago had found a way to push it to the back and move forward with whatever needed doing. The bleeding he couldn’t ignore. Only took a moment to determine that the bullet hadn’t gone through, and that it was deep enough he’d not be taking it out. All he could do was get the bleeding stopped. He got his emergency supplies from his saddlebags and set about doing that.

After tying off the padding as tightly as he could, and realizing it had slowed the run of red without halting it completely, he decided the slug must have nicked something. Or the bullet was the problem … shifting just enough with every move to renew the hemorrhaging.  Either way he was going to need help. Sooner, rather than later.

He wasn’t sure how far to the next town, even where it was. The only thing to do was head back to the last one. It was going to be a long night. A night of slow going, nursing a sore side, and hauling two extra, body-laden horses. Wasn’t all bad though. The night was clear and there was a half-moon, instead of total darkness. Plus, he knew the way.

He pulled up to the sheriff’s office just after the dark had given up the fight, and the light of a new day was sliding into place. He eased himself out of the saddle, across the boardwalk and through the door, to find the sheriff pouring his day’s first cup of coffee.

It didn’t take long to tell his story. Took a little longer to convince the man of the truth of it. When he suggested wiring Marshal Sawyer to vouch for him, the man became more believing. More, but not completely. When the sheriff advised him that he didn’t want him leaving town until he gave him leave to do so, he didn’t argue.

He was pretty well argued out. Pretty well done in. He could feel himself start to sway with the shifting floor in the room. As he reached a hand toward the desk, to steady himself, and ask about a doctor, the words drifted a distance into the background … kept drifting as the sheriff’s face followed them. He hit the floor before the lawman could reach him.

When his eyes opened again, they did so upon the face of a stranger. He blinked a couple of times to bring it into focus, as the man spoke.

“Welcome back, young fella.”

Then there were arms pushing him down and the same concern-filled voice. “Whoa there. You’re not quite ready to be getting up.”

Seeing the blue eyes traveling around the room, and the unspoken questions, he continued.

“Sheriff, and a couple of deputies, brought you over. Dug the bullet out, and stitched up the hole. You lost a lot of blood. Would have lost a lot more if you hadn’t done what you did … enough that I doubt there’d have been any need of my services. You’re going to be just fine. Just need a mite more rest.”

“Horses … gear … left … hitch …. Stable … will pay ….”

“They’ve been fed and bedded, and will be well rested by the time you’re ready to go. Sheriff took care of it. Your saddlebag’s in the corner there.” He jerked his chin in the direction, while waving his hand.

“Rest of your gear is stowed away at the livery. Sheriff has your holster and rifle … for safe keeping.”

Heath looked at him, trying to gather his thoughts. “Gettin’ … dark. Been out … all … day.”

The doc chuckled. “You might say so, but it’s only part truth. You rode in here two days ago.”

At the look of alarm, he hastened to reassure his patient.

As he started to repeat his prior information that he was fine and would just need some rest, he saw something in the eyes that told him that wasn’t the young blond’s concern.

“It’s not a problem. Had more than one stranger laid up in this room. The missus and I are happy to help. No worries there. Is there something else that’s got you worried?”

“Expected … going to … be late.”

The next voice he heard came from a plain, but pleasant-looking lady who had appeared from somewhere. “Well, we’ll just have to let whoever know what’s happened to you. You give us the details and we’ll send a telegram.”

He started to shake his head and stopped when, in return, the room wanted to spin around him, and he had to swallow hard to keep his stomach contents out of sight.

The doctor moved over to him again. “Telegraph office is closed until morning. I’d like to get some food and water into you, and then you need to rest some more. Going to be what gets you out of here soon as possible.”

The blue eyes had closed, and he saw the squint lines appear and the jaw muscles tighten. This patient was in pain. Were he a betting man, he’d wager he was also trying to hide it. “Once we get some food into you, I can give you something to take care of the pain you’re working so hard to hide.”

The eyes flashed open, and were now dark, and hard. The rest of the face matched. “No … med … cine.” It was clear there would be no argument.

This man was an enigma. The scars on his back held an untold story. Men who needed to appear tough would refuse pain medication … but that didn’t seem the case with him. Something in those eyes spoke of a heap of living that stretched far beyond what his years would suggest.

When the sheriff told him what had happened, he’d voiced his curiosity as to how the man had gotten those dead bodies loaded on the horses. Sheriff couldn’t answer that, but he did share what he’d learned when he took the horses to the livery. The owner remembered the horses … and the quiet, young man who’d requested the best of care for them, and then insisted on providing some of that himself, especially to the small, black mare he’d been riding.

Don’t know what his story is, and it’s not likely he’s going to tell me. Not really my concern. Just need to be sure I give him the best care possible. Try to keep him from doing anything stupid, anything that decreases his chance of surviving this. The longer I can keep him here, the better. That might not be beyond tomorrow morning. Will push it as hard as I can.

“Your choice. It’ll be available if you change your mind. Beth Alice here can brew up a tea that’ll take off the edge, if you’ll agree to that?”

The eyes shifted to his wife, almost as if the man were judging whether he could trust her … trust that it would be tea only that he’d be getting. He took his time with the assessment, and then, seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he nodded. After accepting some water from the doctor he drifted back to sleep, until the wife awoke him sometime later with food … and tea.

*****

Chapter 13

As the early light filtered through the curtains, heralding a new day, he took stock of himself. Side still hurt, but not as sharply as before. Certainly less than on the ride to town. Didn’t feel the need to take breaths as short and shallow as the previous night. Maybe it was the tea the good doctor’s wife had provided, or maybe he just was doing better.

He wanted to get out of bed and on his way, and started to sit up. It was at that point he realized something which previously had escaped his notice. He had no clothes, was naked as the day he was born. And, the attempt to sit up hadn’t gone all that well either.

He eased himself down on his back and waited for the nausea to pass. Didn’t guess it would help any to lose what food he had gotten into him. The thought of how the retching would wake up that dull ache in his side, helped to keep him prone. Maybe he’d just wait a bit … rest a little more until someone came by to get him his clothes.

The room had grown bright when he smelled whatever was on the tray that Beth Alice was bringing through the door. Couldn’t say he actually felt hungry, but he knew he had to eat. And he was thirsty.

“Good morning. Hope you’re ready to try some of this.” She set it on a side table, before reaching for a glass and pitcher. “Expect you’re a mite thirsty and would appreciate a swallow or two first.”

She gently lifted his head, while urging him to sip slowly. When he’d finished what she considered to be enough for the moment, she propped some pillows behind him, bringing him sufficiently upright to allow him to eat.

She didn’t guess he’d appreciate her feeding him. And, like it or not, he’d have to accept it. She wanted to get as much as possible into him, and years of experience told her that the effort of him doing it himself, would stop the process before the plate was clear. She finished it up with another mug of tea.

“If you’d like, I can get a paper and pencil for that telegram you wanted to send?”

He smiled, a lop-sided grin that matched the look in his eyes … and went straight to her heart.

Oh my, there’s got to be a mother somewhere, whose eyes light up at the sight of him, who is filled with joy just knowing he’s hers. Must be a father who’s mighty proud. Maybe they’re the ones waiting on his arrival.

 “Appreciate it. There’s money in my bags to cover the cost … and to pay you and your husband for all you’ve done. Please take whatever you’re owed.”

She shook her head. “We’ll settle up when you’re ready to go. Somehow I don’t think we’ve got to worry about you slipping out the window to avoid the bill.”

She laughed, and was rewarded with another grin, and the same light in the eyes. “No, ma’am, don’t guess it’s a concern.”

To her surprise, the light quickly turned to mischief, as he continued. “But just in case I change my mind, could you maybe scare up my clothes? They seem to have disappeared.”

She laughed again. “You won’t be needing them just yet, but if it’ll set your mind to rest, I’ll bring them to you. Pants were fine once they got washed. Might otherwise have been more of an exposure, than a cover. Lots of creatures out there, attracted by the smell of blood. Shirt was a bit more of a problem. Besides packing a goodly bit of your blood, as well, looks like the bullet disintegrated the cloth. Repairing the hole it left, required a piece from the tail for a patch. So, while there’s now a wee bit less to tuck in, I’m sure it will serve fine.”

His look changed again … maybe to dismay. “No need for that. Didn’t mean for you to be put out.”

She shook her head, and placed a comforting hand against his near shoulder. “Don’t you worry none. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, doubt it’ll be the last. Can just hope it’ll be the last time for you. Now let me get that paper, and then you can get some more rest.”

He wanted to argue. Wanted to demand his clothes. Wanted to get dressed and be on his way. Realized he wasn’t going to be able to do any of those things.

Later, as she made her way back from the telegraph office, she wondered at what he’d sent … at the brevity of it.

Nick Barkley, Stockton, Calif. Stop. Unexpectedly delayed. Stop. H. Thomson. Full Stop.

Certainly wasn’t what one would send to family. She surmised it wasn’t his mother, or father, that was waiting on him. Whoever it was, she thought he’d have given more explanation. Maybe even suggest they come get him. Maybe it wasn’t what she really thought … just what she hoped.

Somehow she wanted to know there was someone who cared about him, someone who would want to know he’d been shot, know he was going to be okay, but wouldn’t let him be alone to recover. Nothing to be done about it. She and Samuel would have to be content to give what help they could, for as long as he’d accept it.

By late afternoon, he’d gotten into his clothes, insisted he could get himself to the outdoor facilities, and had a conversation with the sheriff. The identification on the two dead men was of no help. He’d never heard of them. Sheriff couldn’t be sure, but suspected they were the same men that had waylaid other travelers in the widely-surrounding area. At Heath’s request, if he found out any more, he’d notify Marshal Sawyer.

The livery had reported that the men’s horses, and gear, should fetch more than enough to cover the cost of burying them. The lawman intended to turn that over to Heath. He could have had it sent to his mother, but he knew she’d take no more pleasure than did he, in how the money had been acquired. He asked the man to see that it went to someone who could use it. Maybe a widow struggling to care for her children. The sheriff assured him he would take care of it, and wondered at someone, obviously not well-heeled, who opted to give away even a small windfall.

He hadn’t bothered to see if Sawyer would vouch for the man. Something in the way the blond had suggested he could do so, told him there was no need. Nothing he’d seen or heard since caused him to doubt his initial assessment. This request solidified his judgment. It was pretty obvious that the young man would be leaving soon … probably the next morning.

The next morning, at the Barkley ranch, was greeted with a continuation of Nick’s protestations from the previous night. Late that afternoon, Jarrod had stopped, on his way home, to collect the mail, and been given a telegram for Nick. Coming in the door of the family home, he’d set it on the foyer table, before going to find his mother and sister. It wasn’t until after dinner, he remembered to tell Nick about it.

He opened it on his way back into the parlor, and then stopped abruptly after reading it. He read it two more times, before the outburst came. It took Jarrod a moment to get through the bluster and learn the contents of the missive.

“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO MAKE OF THAT? WHAT HAS DELAYED HIM? WHEN WILL HE BE HERE? THIS TELLS ME NOTHING.” He waved it wildly.

“Nick, please lower your voice.”

“Well, Brother Nick, I’m guessing it tells you he won’t be here when you expected him, he’s still alive, and he seems to plan on being here sometime in the near future.”

“BUT HE DOESN—” He promptly was cut off.

“NICHOLAS. Don’t let me have to tell you again.”

“Yes, Mother.” He glanced back at the yellow paper.

“But there’s no information here. Couldn’t he have given us some information?”

And so it had gone on, and now was continuing at the breakfast table. “Surely, he could have taken the extra few minutes to provide some details.”

Amusement danced in the steady, grey eyes, as she attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress the smile. The master of terse, cryptic telegrams had been usurped. This missive he’d received had told everything necessary while providing no information. It was as if this Mr. Thomson had suffered through the years of Nicholas J. Barkley telegrams, and was now relishing the payback.

“And what is funny about this. Don’t think I didn’t see that smile of yours, Mother. This is not funny.”

Audra attempted to hide her giggle behind her napkin, until Jarrod gave up the fight and laughed outright, the others joining in.

“Nick, my boy, have you ever read any of those telegrams you’ve sent to us.”

He shifted his gaze to Victoria. “Remember that one he sent after the first, long cattle drive without Father? Even after six years, it’s not hard to recall, word for word.” He laughed again.

Audra, collecting herself, spoke up. “Oh yes, I don’t think any of us will forget it. Even I remember that one. Arrived. Stop. Nick. Full Stop. Just brimming with information.” Her eyes danced and the deep dimples accentuated the smile.

He glared at them, wanting to be angry, indignant … and losing the battle. As they met his glare with a look of glee, he gave in, and laughed along. “Fine, fine. But, I still think he could have given me more information.”

They all had raised eyebrows as they looked at him, and then laughter once again resounded around the table.

*****

Chapter 14

There was no laughter apparent in the small California town, as light in the sky promised an as-yet-to-appear sun’s arrival within the next hour.

“Now, you make sure you use these, and change that bandage daily. The last thing you need is an infection.” The voice carried a caring tone, as he handed the brown-paper-wrapped package to the mounted man.

Beth Alice smiled at him. “If it suits you we’d be glad to hear you made it safely.”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll be sure to let you know. Don’t be worrying on me. I’m fine.”

“Sure you are, son. Sure you are. Or at least you will be if you follow my orders, take it easy … and don’t forget to keep that area clean.”

The gruffness hid the truth. This boy had gotten to him. Had done nothing to make it happen, and had gotten to him, nonetheless. There was something compelling about him, something that made a body want to hold him close, keep him safe. Give him what he seemed to be missing. He couldn’t be sure how it had happened, and couldn’t deny that it had.

Heath turned his horse and gave a tug on the lead line, urging the other horses to fall in behind. As they started down the street he turned and offered a two-finger wave.

Nice folks. Sure were good to me. I’ll let them know when I get to Stockton … set their minds to ease. Mama would be mightily disappointed if I didn’t.

He rode steadily that day, keeping the pace slower than before. While he would have liked to have made up the missed time, he knew trying to move faster would ultimately cost him. His little mare had a smooth, even gait, and still he felt every hoof fall.

But, it was just pain, and nothing as significant as when he rode back to the town a few days ago. He could push it to that place he reserved for things that didn’t matter. He’d done it so many times that it, now, seldom required effort on his part.

As he crawled into his bedroll that night, he looked to the stars and thought of his mama. Before he closed his eyes, he thought on his blessings. He had strangers come into his life, strangers who cared enough to help. He was alive. He was recovering … and he well could have been dead.

He was about to acquire enough money to take proper care of Mama for a bit. He had the start of a small herd that, God willing, would be his future. And he had Frank Sawyer in his corner … Frank who had paved a road to justice for Cliff Ucroft. Yes, he was a fortunate man, rich in many ways. He would remember to be grateful for what he had.

Days later, when he looked down on the house, outbuildings and corrals of the place he’d been seeking, he indeed felt grateful. He’d made it. While the side still might be somewhat sore, especially when he neglected to push the awareness aside, he had made it without further mishap or delay. Furthermore, it looked like there would be room enough, and more, to pasture the animals he hoped to keep, at least until he could get to Strawberry and check on Mama and find a spot to start building his herd.

It was late when he rode into the yard. Not yet dark, but definitely late. He’d pushed a little harder this last day, knowing he must be close, and wanting to have this part done. Truth be told, he was also getting anxious to meet this lawyer fellow and learn about the plan to get Merton Greenley.

Frank had cautioned him about the need for patience, and he could manage that. He’d learned patience in the most demanding of circumstances, learned well, and then relearned in new circumstances. Patience he could do. For now, he just wanted to know the plan, most importantly, to know there was a plan.

As he led the string of ponies into the yard, and looked around, a man came out of, what he assumed was, the bunkhouse.

“Howdy. I’m hoping I’ve got the right place. This the Barkley ranch?”

“You must be Thomson. Nick is going to be one happy man to find you’ve arrived.”

The man smiled at him and stretched out a hand, as he added, “Mac. Nick can wait. Let me help you get this bunch settled.”

As Heath dismounted, Mac reached to take the lead line from him.

“We can put them in the big barn for the night.” He pointed with his shoulder, as he started to walk in that direction.

“Give them a chance to get used to their new home. Get them a good brushing, a feed of oats, some fresh water, and a clean stall. Turn them out in the small pasture in the morning.” He’d kept walking as he talked, had opened the barn door, and was now lighting some lanterns.

Heath had stepped in behind, leading Gal.

Boy howdy, this is some barn. Well, my little friend, we’ll sleep warm and snug tonight.

Mac didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t care, that the blond worked in silence. He did notice that the man worked, and that the horses responded to his touch.

He knew Nick hadn’t purchased them all … and was hoping to rectify that. He wondered which ones belonged to the boss. If Nick hadn’t gotten the big, bay stallion, Mac could certainly see why he’d be determined to do so. Something about the blond, though, told him the boss might end up disappointed.

As they closed the last stall, and Heath reached for his saddle bags, he realized Mac had made an assumption which he knew he’d have to correct … and insist upon. “Thanks, but this looks just fine for the night. Can spread out my bedroll in an empty stall, or in the loft. More than I need.”

Mac looked at him. He knew Nick would expect to accommodate him in the big house, and something about the stranger told him he’d refuse. Figured if he could get him settled in the bunkhouse before Nick knew he was here, it would make it easier all around.

The barn wasn’t going to work for Nick Barkley. No one, who was welcome by the Barkleys, slept in the barn. Could be interesting. Mac chuckled softly to himself. He couldn’t quite say why, but his money was on the blond.

“Fine by me, but I’m betting you’ll get an objection from Nick. A strong objection. Let’s get you some food—cook’ll have something can be dished up. Boss’ll be easier on a full stomach, and I’m betting you didn’t stop long enough earlier, for an actual meal.”

“Can’t say I did. Close enough to just push on through.”

He followed the man back the way they’d come and through the door. He was impressed again. Looked to be clean, comfortable quarters. The men he saw looked at him with more curiosity than animosity. So, they were wary, but not unfriendly. Good sign. They liked where they worked, were loyal to the boss. He nodded and said nothing, following Mac over to a table, while the man requested some food from the cook.

In short order the request was filled, and Heath was enjoying the alleviation of the hunger that had been riding with him the last few hours. Mac was right. He hadn’t stopped to fix a meal. He’d stopped a few times to let the horses graze for a bit, but not long enough to warrant building a fire and fixing something. He’d finished off the leftovers from the night before, at noon, and decided that would be it until morning. It wasn’t a great concern. There were many a time he’d gone much longer than that between feeds.

Cook refilled his coffee cup and set a large slice of apple pie in front of him, and the lop-sided smile he got in return was thanks enough. He’d gotten the impression, from what had been said, that Nick had taken a real liking to the man with the horses. Certainly wasn’t because they were alike, the cook thought, while at the same time agreeing that there was something likeable about the fellow.

“If you’re done there, we can go let Nick know you made it. Give the family a break from his pacing.”

Heath’s head came up, surprise evident on his face. Mac laughed.

“Spend much time around him and you’ll learn. Patience and Nick aren’t much of a fit.”

They’d left the building and were closing in the on the big house.

“Kinda guessed that … at the auction. Seems like a good man though?”

“No argument there. Nick’s one of the best. Known him since he was a boy. He wasn’t patient then either, but he was a good kid. His father would be proud of him. He’s had some mighty big boots to fill since Tom was killed. Mighty big.”

Heath said nothing, just nodded to acknowledge he’d heard the compliment … and the reverence.

And older, black man opened the door in response to Mac’s sounding the knocker.

“Hello Silas. I’d like you to meet Mr. Thomson.”

“Pleased to meet you Silas. Just Heath is fine.”

“Well Lordy, Mr. Heath. Am I glad to see you. Everyone be glad to see you. Won’t you come on in? I’ll get Mr. Nick.”

He returned moments later, trailing in Nick’s wake.

“HEATH!”

He grabbed his arm with one hand and placed the other on his shoulder to steer him toward the parlor, causing Heath to react quickly to suppress the hiss that movement elicited.

“Come meet the family.”

They were on their feet by the time he stood awkwardly before them, hat in hand, and saddlebags over his dusty shoulder.

Boy howdy, I don’t think I belong in here.

Victoria moved forward to welcome him, acutely aware of his discomfort. “Mr. Thomson, welcome to our home. It is so nice to get to meet you after all we’ve heard from Nick. Won’t you come have a seat?”

“Oh ma’am, I don’t think so. I’ve got several days worth of trail dust covering me, and I don’t think you need it covering your furnishings.”

“Nonsense. This is a working ranch. These furnishings have seen more than a smattering of trail dust. Nick, perhaps you’d like to get your guest a drink?”

She gave him that, I-said look before taking a firm hold on the young blond’s arm. “Let me introduce you to the rest of the family. My son Jarrod.”

She gave them time to shake hands before turning to Audra. “My daughter, Audra.”

Heath nodded, blushed, and stammered. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Barkley.” He got a full, dimpled smile in return.

“Nick said you’re bringing some magnificent horses. I can’t wait to see them.”

Heath nodded … blushing again … and remained silent.

“Mac, you want a drink?”

“No thanks, Nick. I think I’ll be heading back. We’ve settled the horses in the big barn. Made sure Mr. Thomson here, was fed. See you in the morning.”

He executed a hasty retreat. He’d find out come morning who won the contest over the sleeping arrangements. He had no desire to witness the battle. His money still was on the blond.

*****

Chapter 15

Nick’s reply of, “Suit yourself,” was offered to a mostly empty space, as Mac’s back disappeared out the door and Silas closed it behind him. He turned to Heath, handing him a glass, which the man accepted, still not having taken a seat.

Jarrod stepped forward hoping to ease his reluctance. “Mr. Thomson, please have a seat. I can assure you that one is more than comfortable, especially after a long day in the saddle.”

He indicated, with an out-stretched arm, the nearest chair, while catching the blue gaze and offering, what he hoped was, a reassuring look.

Heath nodded, and eased himself down onto the edge of the piece.

“Please,” he looked at each of them, “just call me Heath. I’m not much on being a mister.”

“Alright, Heath … if you will agree to call me Victoria, Mrs. Barkley if you must, but definitely not Ma’am.”

She smiled at him, that gentle, warm smile that softened her eyes and created a feeling of comfortable acceptance for most people.

He gave her one of his lop-sided grins in return, and partially dropped his head, raising only his eyes, to signal his agreement.

She reminds me of Mama. Wonder what would’ve happened if they’d lived in the same place, gotten to know each other? Might’ve  liked each other, even been good friends.

“So, Heath. I think Nick has gotten so excited about the horses, he’s forgotten why he was sent to buy them in the first place. Your telegram suggested you ran into some difficulties and I’m wondering if it has anything to do with the issue that brought you here?”

“Don’t rightly know, Mr. Barkley—” He was cut off by a wave of the hand.

“Jarrod. Just Jarrod.” His sapphire eyes twinkled.

“Jarrod…. As I was saying, don’t rightly know.”

Leaning forward, hands on hips, Nick’s impatient voice jumped in.

“Maybe if you just tell us what happened, we can figure it out. That telegram you sent sure didn’t offer much of an explanation.”

Heath looked surprised. What more would he want from a telegram?

“Nick, enough about that. Heath, please do tell us what caused the delay.”

Heath cast a furtive glance to the ladies and then a look of concern to Jarrod. The latter, suddenly understanding, hastened to reassure their guest.

“You can speak freely, Heath. Not much Mother and Audra have not seen or heard, directly or indirectly. They will be neither surprised, nor discomfited.”

“If you’re sure.”

His words were tentative and he looked once more to Jarrod, to be sure. Getting a firm nod, he continued. “Couple of men, guns drawn, came into my campsite one night. I’m afraid I had to kill them both, so don’t know what brought them there.”

Seeing the startled looks from everyone, he hastened to explain further, eventually giving them all the details.

“You could have been killed.”

To his surprise, her voice sounded distressed, and when he looked at the young blond, the look on her face matched. He couldn’t quite think why it would matter that much to her. She didn’t even know him … if she did, she might have even less cause for caring.

“You took out two men, with guns already drawn?” There was more than a bit of awe in Nick’s voice. “Sawyer said you were good. Guess he wasn’t kidding.”

“Frank can exaggerate. Just did what I had to do. Protecting what was mine … and yours.”

Now Nick looked astounded, and maybe as distressed as Audra.

“That what you were worried about? Them horses? What about you?”

Heath again looked surprised, confused. What’s he going on about, now?

“Heath, I think what my brother is clumsily trying to determine is whether you think he sees those horses as more important than you? And let me assure you … if you think so, you would be wrong. Very, very wrong.”

The resultant silence enveloped the room, like a low, thick fog on an otherwise clear day. It hung there, for what seemed an interminable time, until it was penetrated, uncharacteristically, by Heath.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to upset you all. Guess, I just been so close to dead, so many times, that I don’t pay it much heed no more. I’ll survive, or I won’t. Can’t let myself worry on it.”

In that moment, Jarrod began to understand what Sawyer had been telling him. Understood why Sawyer feared for his young friend.

Well, maybe with time we can change that too. Give him cause to care whether he lives … a reason for staying alive. Maybe, at least remove the Sword of Damocles from him.

Audra was the first to respond. “But, Heath, weren’t you scared … scared for you?”

He shrugged, one eyebrow flicking up. “Well, Miss Audra, I reckon I’ve been scared so many times, it’s a habit to ignore it.” He shrugged again.

Victoria decided it was time to change the subject. “Well, Heath, we’re just glad you made it here. But, I’m sure that doctor was not pleased that you left when you did. I’m guessing, in that little bit of time you spent with Nick, some of that Barkley-male stubbornness infected you.

“Riding out of there with a still-healing wound sounds exactly like something one of my husband’s sons would do. Were they just my sons, I’m sure they’d have more sense.

“While I understand that Jarrod is anxious to talk with you about the case, and Nick is sure to have something to say about the horses, I’m betting you are ready for a bath and a comfortable bed.

The rest can wait until tomorrow.

“Silas, would you please show Heath to a room, see that he has anything he might need, and run a bath for him?”

His head was shaking before she’d half finished. “No, Ma’am … Mrs. Barkley. I do thank you. Appreciate your offer, more than you know. But I’ve got my bedroll and I’ll be fine in the barn with those horses. They’ll be happier if I’m there, too.”

He stood to leave, picking up the saddlebags he set by the chair, assuming her announcement meant it was time to say goodnight.

“WHAT! YOU’LL DO NO SUCH THING, BOY.”

“Nicholas … your voice. Now, Mr. Thomson … Heath … I’ll not hear any more about you staying in a barn. Surely Mac would have offered you a space in the bunkhouse … unless, of course, he realized we’d expect you to stay here, which we do.”

He interrupted whatever else she might have planned to say. “He did. And I turned him down, just like I’m doing you. I’ll not be staying in your house. If I’m not welcome to use the barn, I’ll gladly ride off a piece and find a spot in the open. But, I’ll not stay here … in your house.”

There was steel in the words, and Jarrod heard it. He didn’t know what the problem was, but he knew there had to be one. He was certain this young man would not be rude to anyone, let alone to Mother. Not even if his life depended on it. From what he’d heard, especially if that were the case.

No, there was something else going on here, something that was forcing him to turn down their hospitality. Whether the others could see it he didn’t know, but he did know he needed to keep this from escalating.

“Heath.” He stopped to glare at his family, especially Nick. “I’m not sure what makes a soft bed so unappealing to you, but this family never would choose to impose our will on a guest. Please, feel free to bed down wherever you choose. The offer of a bath is still there … to be accepted or refused, as you wish.”

Heath realized Jarrod was giving him an easy out … a way to get what he wanted without having to offend anyone.

“Thank you. If you’re sure it’s not too much bother, I’ll gladly accept the bath. I assure you … all of you … I’ll be more than comfortable in the barn.” He flashed a quick smile and waited.

At first, Victoria wondered what Jarrod was about, and then she understood. Heath wasn’t avoiding being an imposition. There was a reason—a reason very important to him—that he not stay in this house … or in the bunkhouse. She couldn’t begin to imagine what that might be, but Jarrod was right. They would respect his wishes.

“Very well, Heath. Perhaps you’d like to have that bath now, and if you choose you can join us afterwards. The boys sometimes enjoy a game or two of pool before retiring. Also, I’m sure you’ve had a long day, and if you prefer to pass, that too is fine.”

She smiled at him, that same warm, gentle smile that said all was well, while waving off Nick’s initiation of a protest. “Silas, would you please run a bath for Mr. Thomson, and see that he has everything he needs?”

Silas was happy to do so, if for no other reason than to escape the explosion he expected to erupt at any moment from Mr. Nick.

“Please, Sir, if you would just follow me.”

Heath was happy to do so … for much the same reason.

Nick held it in, until the blond was up the stairs and out of earshot. Just barely.

*****

Chapter 16

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU TWO?”

Victoria’s eyes were snapping when she turned them on her youngest son. “Nicholas! I am not in the habit of repeating myself. Don’t make me tell you again to lower your voice.”

She took a deep breath, which in no way served to soften her stance. He broke the eye contact. “Yes, Mother. I apologize. But, I just don’t understand how you can agree to him sleeping in a barn. It’s not right.”

Nick stopped for a moment, as another thought unexpectedly hit him. “It’s not right … and he thinks it is. He was thinking that way at the auction. I told him specifically that I expected him to get a room every night along the way. That I considered it part of the cost I would be paying for him to deliver those horses. He didn’t do it, did he? He couldn’t have … or else how did he get attacked in his camp one night?”

He shook his head a couple of times, and then once again. “He’s more stubborn than two Barkleys put together.”

Jarrod took pity on his younger brother.

“Nick, it may be there wasn’t a town handy every night. He might have taken a room when it worked out for him. I seem to recall more than one occasion, when you opted to sleep under the stars … even if better accommodations were easily had.

“I also got the feeling, at least tonight, that he has a reason … a personal reason … for insisting he not stay here. I don’t know what that is, and it may be none of our business. We may never know.

“It was clear to me, however, that he was not going to back down on the issue. It was going to serve no one’s interest to push him on it. If we don’t show him our respect … our trust … we are never going to get it in return. We are going to need that, if we plan to move ahead with the reason he’s really here.”

Victoria drew her lower lip behind her upper teeth, and slowly nodded. “Yes, Jarrod, you are right about needing to have mutual trust with this undertaking. You are also right that he seemed very adamant about not sleeping in the house … even in the bunkhouse. You are quite right, too, that the reason is none of our business … we need to not pressure him on this.”

She focused her attention once more on Nick.

He heaved a sigh, and threw his arms in the air. “Alright. I’ll not say a word. I’ll not pressure him. But, I don’t have to like it.”

“Agreed, Brother Nick. You don’t have to like it. And now, how would you like to lose some of your hard-earned coin in a game of pool.”

“In your dreams, Big Brother. In your dreams. Lead the way.”

Victoria, deep in thought, watched them walk away. “Dreams. In your dreams. I wonder…,” was barely whispered.

“Mother. Did you say something?”

“No, Audra. Just thinking out loud. Shall we join the boys and enjoy the last of this evening?” She reached out to grasp her daughter’s hand and walk with her to the other room.

In the meantime, Heath was immersed in the luxury Silas—and the Barkleys—had provided. He felt the hot water suck the soreness from his muscles. He’d checked the wound first and decided it was close enough to healed for the bath to pose no risk. He was surprised that it remained as sore as it did, considering how good it looked.

Well, the doc had said he had to dig deep to get it out, and it hadn’t released its hold without a fight. Guess there’s more healing needed inside … just can’t see it. Long as it stays closed, don’t guess it’s a problem. Just don’t want to be losin’ any more blood for awhile.

He took a moment to scrub himself thoroughly, from top to toe, and then settled back into the hot water again. Felt good, and would feel good to be clean. The water God provided, and an occasional horse trough, were enough to keep one presentable, but there was nothing like the feeling that followed liberal use of plentiful hot water and soap.

He was feeling bad about refusing the Barkleys’ hospitality. He had not intended to offend them. The doc and his wife hadn’t said a thing. Might mean there had been no cause, or might mean they knew better than to ask. Sometimes, if he were deeply enough unconscious, the demons stayed buried.

Nick’s sister sure is a pretty, young thing. Odd … don’t find myself attracted to her … not in the usual way. Bet she makes a terrific sister. Not that I know what would make a terrific sister. She seems … nice … someone you’d want to protect … but not subdue. Must be one tricky balancing act. Boy howdy, but I bet she can shift from agreeable and shy, to obstinate and feisty, in the blink of one of those sparkling, blue eyes. Must be nice to have a sister … and brothers.

 It wasn’t the first time he’d been reminded of what he was missing. In any event, he would make sure that this family missed being subjected to unpleasant, and unexpected, awakenings. He’d be just fine in the barn. Gal was used to the occasional, nocturnal disturbances. Could even provide enough comfort to sometimes let him return to sleep.

Wasn’t the same as being wrapped in a pair of warm, accepting, reassuring arms. Not that he’d ever experienced that, except from his mama … and for a short while … with Lupe. It didn’t last, he knew it couldn’t. He suspected he may spend his life wrapped only in the arms of his nightmares.

The water had cooled while he’d been lost in thought, and he pulled the plug and stood to let it drip off him. No need to make more of a mess than necessary. When he was as dry as nature was going to offer, he stepped onto the mat and reached for one of the towels Silas had provided. Body and hair as dry as possible, he pulled his clean set of clothes from his saddlebags. Seemed an extravagance to be donning clean clothes again so soon, but if he was expected to spend any time at all in this house, he’d feel more comfortable if he wasn’t dirtying the furniture.

He glanced in the mirror, after taming his hair, and decided he might as well have a quick shave while the opportunity presented itself. When he was done with that, he cleaned the sink and the tub, packed up his bags, picked up the towel—he’d take it down to Silas—took one last look around to be sure he’d left the space much as it had been. At that point he realized he didn’t know where to find Silas, so wasn’t sure what to do with the towel.

As if he knew, Silas suddenly appeared. “Mr. Heath, you don’t need to be doing my job, cleaning and picking up. That there towel can just go in that basket in the corner. And, you just give me those clothes you took off. I’ll see to having them washed and ready for you, tomorrow.”

Seeing the blond about to protest, he waved him off. “Just don’t you mind. It’s my job and I’d do it for anyone’s here to see the Barkleys. It’s expected, and I don’t want to be disappointing anyone.”

He reached out and took the clothes from Heath, thereby ending any argument. “The family’s all in the library. Follow me.”

Somehow, in a way he didn’t understand, Silas sensed that this young man needed more assurance. He always seemed to know what any of the Barkleys needed. Couldn’t quite make out how he was doing the same in this instance. He quickly dismissed that concern and did what his heart told him. “It’ll be okay. You’ll see. They be good people. You’re safe with them.”

He nodded, smiled, and signaled for Heath to follow, which he did, equally unsure of how he knew that this man … this family … were not a threat to him.

Heath was up early the next morning, relieved that he’d insisted on bedding down where he’d not be heard by anyone. Horses, thankfully, were very forgiving … and easily able to return to sleep. He’d not been so fortunate, and long before there was more than a hint of light, he’d saddled the stallion and headed out to find a spot to watch the rising of the sun.

He figured the big boy could use the extra work, and Gal could use the extra rest. She wasn’t getting any younger, and while he gave her the best care he could afford, she’d spent a number of years far removed from anything beyond bare necessities. He was happy to let her enjoy the luxury when it was available.

As he sat and waited for the show, he thought back on last evening.

Silas showed him into the gun room, where they were indeed playing pool. Victoria was again welcoming, and suggested he must feel much better for being shed of the dust of days. He couldn’t deny she was right.

 He was invited to join the game, and wasn’t sure if he should accept. Didn’t know if it was polite to beat the hosts, but he’d never learned how to do less than his best. From what he’d seen, he expected the Barkleys would end the night losing. Perhaps best just to decline to play.

 Didn’t work out that way though. They pushed and cajoled, until he gave in. They didn’t seem upset about losing.

 In the end, the game hadn’t proven to be that important. Jarrod had broached the subject not long after he’d been handed a cue.

 “Heath, can you talk and play at the same time? I’m thinking this might be a good time to have the discussion we need to have. Might arouse less suspicion than finding a way for the two of us, otherwise, to meet.

 “If necessary, a few things can be said outside tomorrow, to let anyone who might be listening, know that this evening represented nothing more than the usual Barkley hospitality.”

 Heath nodded. Made sense. “Reckon you’re right Jarrod. Before  we get into that, though, I want it understood that Frank was way over the line doing what he did. I would never have agreed to this arrangement. I don’t accept charity.”

*****

Chapter 17

Jarrod had looked at the obviously proud man standing before them. Looked and thought hard, before he responded.

“Oh, let me assure you, Frank made that very clear. He knew he would raise your ire. He cares about you … enough so, he was willing to risk that. I trust he talked some sense into you, convinced you that this, at least, is worth looking at?”

A quick dip of his head was the only answer Jarrod got … that, and another ball in a side pocket.

“I’ve had a pretty thorough check done on Greenley. Seems he showed up in California a few years ago and has quickly become a very dangerous man to cross … or challenge. The risk may be greater than expected … we’ve not been able to uncover any motivation for the murder from which he was acquitted.

“Before we take another step, I need to be assured that you fully understand the risks involved, and that you voluntarily accept those risks. Heath, if Greenley is as dangerous as information indicates, pursuing him could cost you your life. It almost certainly will result in an attempt on your life.

“He will not sit back and allow this to happen without challenge. And that challenge will be on his terms. I cannot, as your legal representative, nor as a member of the legal profession, allow you to agree to this without ensuring you fully understand the risks.”

Heath looked around, saw the eyes on him, and appreciated what Jarrod hadn’t said. “And who’s responsible for advising you, Counselor? You … and your family?”

“NOW, JUST ONE MINUTE—”

One look from his mother, and the volume dropped. “That’s not your concern. Jarrod has—”

He was halted. “It’s the only concern I would have. My life is mine, to risk as I choose. To do so with anyone else’s is not my privilege.”

“Heath. Jarrod did outline the risks for us … for me, Nick, Audra … himself. He did not gloss over them. We were well advised. And he assured us he would not take another step without our full approval. Bringing you here was that next step.

“You are right; it is not your privilege. But, it is ours. We are not about to live our lives in fear, and we will not allow ourselves to let fear deny to others justice that we would seek for ourselves. We’ve made our decision. You have to make yours.”

“Mother is right, Heath. I don’t think I need to remind you of what you will be abandoning if you should decide to turn down this offer in an attempt to protect us.

“Whoever agrees to take this case will be facing the same risk … possibly with less awareness, and likely with fewer resources to protect against it. Again, as Mother says, the real decision is whether you want to risk your life. It’s my belief that risk far exceeds any other.”

The only sound in the room, for a long while, was cues hitting balls and the soft plunk as they dropped into pockets. In fact, he’d been silent so long, they were startled when he spoke.

“Part of my life disappeared the day Cliff Ucroft died. This won’t bring it back, but it’ll give some meaning to the loss.

“I know the risk, Jarrod. Don’t relish spreading it to others … to you. But, I can’t do this alone, and you are right. Anyone that joins the effort is at risk … directly, or indirectly. Kind of like going to war. Those of us who picked up a gun, faced one risk. Those that didn’t faced another. Can’t see how I can walk away from this. Just wish there were another way.”

He hadn’t had to say there wasn’t … it was a fact. Everyone knew it. Jarrod had his answer and they’d move forward. He’d verified that he had no more information to give Jarrod than what he’d already heard or read. They would build a case around that. And a good one … at least that was Jarrod’s thought.

As the reds and golds, and in-betweens, had been chased away by the clear white of the new day, he headed back to the ranch. He rode in to see Nick standing in the middle of the yard, hands on hips, surveying all around him. Seemed to be looking for something, and somehow the blond thought that something might be him. “Good morn’ Nick.”

“Don’t good morning me, Boy. Where you been?”

Heath chuckled. “Just went to watch the sun rise. Didn’t mean to upset you.”

Nick’s eyes narrowed as his brow furrowed, and he looked at the man sideways. He had a feeling he was being played, just wasn’t sure of the game. “Could have let someone know. Not just go gallivanting off.”

Heath smiled … inwardly. No need to rile the man … at least not this early in the day. Besides he wanted to finish his business here and be on his way, sooner rather than later. “Sure, Nick. Somewhere you’d like me to put those mares you bought?”

“Been wanting to talk to you about that. Seems—” He cut himself off when he saw the flash of worry cross the blond’s face.

He threw up his hand, palm out, spitting out his next words in rapid fire. “No worries. I’m not going back on anything …. Just thinking that maybe I could persuade you to rethink your decision to keep the others. I’ll still give you the best price you’ll get for that fella you’re riding.”

“Appreciate the offer, but they’re not for sale.”

He considered for a moment and then decided this was likely as good a time as any. “Is something I want to discuss with you, if you’ve a moment.”

Surprised, and curious, Nick let his silence, and a tilt of the head, be his invitation to continue.

“Need to visit my mama. Hoping you’d sell me some grazing rights for my mares while I’m gone. I’ll pay whatever’s the going rate. Not looking for favors.”

Nick looked hard at him, and gave his head a slow shake. “Boy, if you don’t beat all. How much grass you think those critters of yours are going to eat?”

He was about to out-rightly refuse payment, when he had another thought. “Might consider a trade. You show me what my new mares need to finish their training, and how you’d provide that, and I’ll make sure yours don’t starve while you’re gone.”

He gave the man time to digest what he’d fed him. He didn’t really need Heath to do that, but it couldn’t hurt, and it would be a lot more valuable than whatever coin he might collect for a few days of grass guzzling.

For his part, Heath couldn’t understand such an offer. Surely this man didn’t need the likes of Heath to teach him how to train these mares. Or did he? And could Heath do it? How do you teach someone to be quiet and patient?

He looked back at the rancher, for a long moment. Finally, deciding it was a genuine offer, he answered. “Deal. I can get you started soon as you’re ready and leave you with it. Hoping to head out today.”

“Today. What’s the rush. Don’t like our hospitality?”

Heath decided this was a good time to offer, to any listening ears, that little bit that Jarrod had mentioned. “Hospitality’s fine—more than what I’d’ve expected for a simple horse delivery.”

Took Nick a moment and then he realized what Heath was doing.

“No more than we’d do for anyone … have done … and more than once. Doesn’t matter what kind of business brings a stranger to the Barkley ranch, they get treated for what they are … a welcome guest. Speaking of which, if I don’t get you in for breakfast, and on time, no amount of explaining, or blaming it on you, will spare me Mother’s wrath. Let’s go, Boy.”

He took a firm grip on Heath’s shoulder and headed him in the direction of the house. He knew there were a few things Jarrod still wanted to address and this would be the perfect opportunity.

“I hope she doesn’t think if she gives me breakfast, I’ll give in and sell you those horses you want.” Nick gave him a solid push forward, and harrumphed.

Heath took one look at the table and wanted to escape … except for the wonderful aromas that came with it.

Boy howdy, doesn’t look like anyone goes hungry round here. Just be a lot better without all the finery.

Jarrod sensed his discomfiture, and took command. “Heath, why don’t you take this chair. Feel free to take whatever looks good to you. I must warn you that anything that reaches Nick first often doesn’t get beyond him.”

“Now, never you mind, Mr. Heath. There always be more in the kitchen. You just help yourself. Don’t you worry none. Nobody goes away hungry.”

“Boy howdy, Mr. Silas, I don’t reckon they do. Seems to be enough here to feed a small town. Smells mighty fine, too.”

Their conversation delayed things enough, the rest were seated with their napkins on their laps, and looking toward Victoria, so Heath only needed to take his cue from what he saw.

When she had finished saying Grace, he looked ahead and saw a plate of steaks—sank his fork into one at the same moment Nick did the same. He had no idea what came over him. Almost like he thought he had as much right to the food on this table as this Barkley son … but he refused to pull back.

Nick was not about to back down. A challenge was a challenge … in a barroom, a corral, or at the table. Jarrod stepped in, slicing the piece of beef in half, while Audra giggled. The two combatants smiled at each other, and all was well, again.

“Heath. It has occurred to me that one of the difficulties we are going to face is finding a safe—which is to say, unobserved—means of communicating with you. I’m not sure what your plans are between now and when this suit gets filed and a court date set, but I acquired the sense last evening that there is no place you have to be. Am I right?”

Nick cut in. “We were just talking about that, and Heath here has made arrangements to leave his, as yet, unsold horses here while he goes to visit his mother. Which reminds me Jarrod … he’ll be wanting that money I gave you for safe keeping. Right Heath? And, we need to add the travelling expenses to it.”

“Nick’s right. I do want to visit Mama, and take her the money. Usually has things that need fixing, so I was thinking I’d be a week or so. Wasn’t expecting you’d need me before then?” He turned to Jarrod, one eyebrow raised, his eyes clearly holding the question.

Perfect. Gives me a chance to talk to Nick first, put my plan to him. Maybe convince him it was his idea, so he’ll go along with it. Although, in truth, not sure I’m expecting he’ll object.

“You’re absolutely correct. I can’t foresee any need to contact you for at least a couple of weeks. I can think about it some more while you’re gone, and see if I can come up with a plan by the time you return.”

He couldn’t say why, but Heath suspected the lawyer already had a plan in mind. No matter. Wasn’t changing his immediate plans, and he’d discuss it when he returned.

*****

Chapter 18

Before heading out, Heath had kept his deal with Nick. He’d started by putting his own mare through her paces, letting Nick know what he was expecting of her, and how he’d taught her to do it. He then began her next piece of training—and everything slowed down noticeably. He led her, step by step, through the process, again and again. Then he mounted and urged her to repeat the steps.

When she faltered, he dismounted and went through it again, on foot. All the while, he talked softly, calmly, letting her know she was doing fine, there was nothing to worry about. When he decided she’d had enough for the day, he turned his attentions to the colt. He would show Nick just enough of how he started his animals, that he could do the same with his filly, and not get into any difficulties before Heath returned.

Audra had come to watch, and was as impressed as Nick had been with the quality of the equines. She was fascinated by Heath’s teachings … and amused. “Nick, you’ve never been that quiet, or that still, for that long, in your entire life. You’re never going to do what Heath does, unless he sticks around for a few years—maybe forever—spends the time training you first.” She giggled. Nick scowled.

He had to admit, if only to himself, that it looked pain-staking. He wasn’t sure it would be worth the effort. After all, the horses he’d trained did fine. Served him well. If he wanted them, or any others, trained this way, maybe he could hire Thomson to do it. Might be easier.

He’d tried to persuade Heath to eat before departing, but the blond was anxious to be on his way. Silas, somehow knowing, had come out with food for the journey, and an insistence that it be accepted. Heath had complied, not wanting to hurt the older gentleman, and, in fact, being grateful.

As the Barkley family settled around the dining room table, Jarrod raised the issue foremost on his mind: protecting Heath Thomson.

“We can’t protect him if he’s off somewhere by himself. I can only think of one solution. Nick, I know you do the hiring, and let me assure you, I’m not trying to interfere with your running of this ranch. But, if he were here, it would be a simple matter of extending the precautions we will be putting into place to protect the rest of us. The only way that is going to happen is if you give him a job. He won’t stay as a guest. I expect you’ll have to do some persuading, just to get him to take a job.”

“Now just a minute Jarrod. Remember that conversation we had with Sawyer? He’s right you know. Putting a foreman into a hired hand’s position is just asking for trouble. This situation with the railroad was enough of a distraction before we added this case. I don’t need another problem.”

“Hold on just a minute Nick. Let’s consider this. I’ll accept that we haven’t had much time with him—you’ve had more than I. But Sawyer’s point was really based on power struggles. Is there anything Thomson has said, or done, that suggests he has a need to take over, to be in power? I can’t see him posing any threat to Mac’s authority. Can you? I don’t see Heath’s having been a foreman elsewhere being a problem here—for that matter, Mac doesn’t even need to know. I’d wager Heath would never tell him—or anyone else.

“And, if you’re honest about it, I’m betting you can see him being an asset. I’m guessing if he’s given a job to do, he’ll do it. Won’t need to be shown how, or watched over to make sure it happens. It also means he’ll be readily available, if needed, in putting together the paperwork for the case.”

He let it rest there as he waited for his younger brother to consider his words.

Nick leveled a suspicious glance at him, and, with effort, stopped himself from issuing an immediate response. The idea was not unpleasant—he liked Thomson, and he expected Jarrod was right—he was just as good at other things as he was with horses. No, he didn’t really object to offering him a job. He just had to convince himself that Jarrod didn’t have ulterior motives. He hated it when his big brother tried to pull rank—especially if he convinced Mother to join forces with him.

He does have a good point. Truth be told, I’m not too keen on having Heath wandering around unprotected. He’s already been shot—and we don’t really know that had nothing to do with this whole thing. And he would likely be an asset. Got a full crew, but I’m betting I could find work for him to do. And the fact is, Nick Barkley, you’d enjoy having him around.

He took one more look at his brother, trying to satisfy himself that he wasn’t being maneuvered into something he’d regret. “Okay, Jarrod, points taken. I’ll offer him a spot when he gets back. But, like you said, I can’t be sure he’ll take it.”

Victoria chimed in. “Perhaps I can help with that. Female persuasion can be a powerful thing—Mothers are masters at it.”

She gave them both an assured smile that said she knew, they knew, that she was right. The matter was settled.

“However, I’ll not have him continuing to sleep in the barn.”

Jarrod objected. “Mother, I don’t care if he chooses to sleep in a tree—just as long as we can keep him alive.”

Nick looked thoughtful. “Wonder what that’s all about? Been thinking about what he said the other night—about picking up a gun in the war. He can’t have been more than 15 when the war ended. Even if he got into it late, he was mighty young. Lots of men, lot older than that, are still having nightmares ….”

Audra looked shocked. “Oh Nick, you can’t believe he ….” She looked at her mother and older brother to deny the thought.

Jarrod tilted his head, raised an eyebrow and offered a sardonic half-grin. Victoria nodded, and remained silent. Time might tell.

*****

Heath had made good time on the big bay. He’d decided Gal could use the rest, and the stallion could eat up the miles just as well. He realized he’d not given the horse a name—realized he’d deliberately avoided doing so. Somehow he needed to know he truly would be his to keep before he let himself go that far. He’d thought he should just sell him, and the others, to Nick. Use the money to pay the counselor properly. But Frank had convinced him that the arrangement was fair, and he was not getting charity.

Maybe, in some far away recess of his mind, he was considering the possibility of losing the case—something he most certainly did not want to contemplate openly. If that happened, but one option would be open to him. He could sell the horses then, pay Barkley for his time and efforts. He’d not likely have any further need of them. Indeed, it might be too early to consider giving him a name.

He’d stopped late, and figured he easily would reach Strawberry by midday. He hadn’t let his mama know he was coming—hadn’t been sure if, or when, he’d get there and didn’t want to disappoint her, or have her worrying if he were delayed. He’d just surprise her. She’d be no less happy to see him.

She wasn’t. He stepped through the front door of the little cottage, and found her settled in her rocking chair, working on some piece of mending. She hadn’t heard him come in—or had, and assumed it was Hannah, or Aunt Rachael. He stayed silent, just took a moment to let his eyes rest on her while he relished the wonderful feeling the sight of her evoked.

“Hi Mama.” It was all he could get out, and that barely above a whisper, for the lump in his throat.

She froze, and then she became all action, as she snapped her head around, bolted from the chair, and dashed to his open arms. “Oh, my Heath. You’re here, my boy.”

She took in the whole of him. The scent, the feel of the strong arms around her, the softness of the hug, the pure joy of his presence. Her Heath was home, home to see her.

After a bit, she slid her arms up his chest, and gently pushed, then slipped them the rest of the way to his shoulders and down to grasp his biceps, as she pushed a bit more. “Let me look at you, my boy. Let me get a good look.”

And she did, taking in the glorious sight of him, letting in the joy and wonder that this man was her little boy. That he was home. Home with her. It was that for which she lived. “Heath. You didn’t let me know you were coming. We would have had a feast prepared for you.”

He chuckled. “Now, why do you suppose I didn’t let you know. You don’t need to fuss for me Mama, it’s enough that you are here. I don’t need no feast—just you.”

“Hope you’re able to stay for a spell this time, Son. Tell me you don’t have to run back to somewhere right away.”

‘I’ll be here a few days, Mama. We’ll talk about that later. Right now I just want to hear how you’ve been doing. How things are with you.”

“I’m fine, just fine. Don’t you be worrying about me. Hannah and Rachael and I do just fine. We look out for each other—like always.”

He pulled her back into a hug, wanting to hold her, to know she was there for him. Thoughts of her brought happiness into his life—being with her brought joy beyond measure. She was the one thing that made living worthwhile.

He felt the dampness through his shirt and he reached to stroke her hair. “Don’t cry Mama, don’t cry. I’m fine too. Just glad to be home, glad to see you. Don’t cry.” He held her closer and waited for her to recover.

“Come sit down. Tell me where you’ve been all this while. I sent a letter to Mr. Ucroft’s place and it came back. Said you weren’t there any more. I guessed you must’ve had a good reason for leaving, and you’d let me know before too long. But I was getting worried. Was going to get Dr. Mitchell, next time he came through, to send a wire to Frank.”

She smiled up at him. “See, my golden child, I do remember what you tell me. If ever I need to reach you, I can get in touch with Frank. Figured the same thing applies, if I just need to know … about you.”

There was a quiet pause, before she added. “I’m glad we’ve got him looking out for you.”

“Me too, Mama. Me too. Ain’t no one better.”

In truth, as far as he was concerned, with the loss of Cliff, there wasn’t anyone else at all.

*****

Chapter 19

There had been laughter and tears, jibes and compliments, and love in abundance, as they all sat around the table and shared their lives since last they had been together. He’d not told them everything, just that Cliff Ucroft had died and the new owner wasn’t the sort Heath would work for. They hadn’t pressed for more details, and he’d wondered about that. As the talk diminished Heath had the sense that there was something not being said, something they didn’t want him to know … and yet did.

Later, as they settled into comfortable seats, around the fire Heath had built up, he decided to broach the subject. “What are you all hidin’ from me?” His eyebrow lifted. There was a half-grin on his face, but no hint of humor in it.

“Now Heath, what are you fussing about? Land sakes, Child, you’ve become much too suspicious.”

He chuckled. “Only when there’s cause, Mama. And I’ll wager there’s cause now.”

Their combined efforts to dissuade him were met with silence, and increased concern. He figured it must be something serious if they were going to these lengths to hide it.

“So, who’s dying?”

The looks elicited by that, sent a bolt of fear through every bit of his body. He needed to know … at the same time … didn’t want to hear it.

“Who …?” It was barely whispered, barely heard, and the word filled the room, fairly screaming at them.

The ladies looked at each other, exchanging the silent communication they had perfected over the years. When Leah’s attempt to answer produced naught but choked sounds, at her barely discernible nodded permission, Rachael answered for her.

“Heath, Dr. Mitchell was here last week, and we’re expecting him back any day now. He said he would have more information then, so we can’t be sure just yet—” His one word cut her off.

“Who?” He held her gaze, giving her no quarter.

“Your mama.” The silence screamed at him as loudly as earlier, the fear centered, forming an ever-tightening grip on his heart. His head, seemingly of its own volition, began to shake, as refrains of no escaped his lips.

Leah sprang up and quickly closed the distance between them, taking his hands in her small, work-roughened ones and eventually drawing his eyes to hers. “Heath, we won’t know for sure until I see the doctor again. I know this is a surprise for you, but I’ve had time to think on it. Ultimately, like always, I will be in God’s hands. Can’t think of a better place to be.

“Dr. Mitchell said something about maybe an operation—though in truth, I can’t imagine how we’d afford such a thing—don’t know that it’ll make much of a difference.”

Her hands responded to his squeeze, and she held his gaze.

“Heath. You need to hear me, you need to listen, and trust. No matter what, I’ll always be with you. Always. You must believe that, because I want you to believe it. Don’t stop trusting Him now, not now, when we both need Him. Please Heath. It will be okay.”

His hands now enveloped hers, as he studied her face. In time he could see it, the tell-tale signs—the pallor in her skin, the increased lines, the lack of luster in the tendrils of soft curls that escaped and fell on her forehead and over her ears. She looked tired—a tired that sleep would not alleviate. The truth stared back at him. There was no denying it, no matter Dr. Mitchell’s hesitation.

He swallowed several times, keeping the bile down, before being able to squeeze out the one word. “When?”

Rachael could see Leah’s struggle and sought to help. “In truth, Heath, we don’t know for sure. Dr. Mitchell thinks it will be soon, unless there is something that can be done. That’s the information he will bring. There is still hope.”

He nodded in acknowledgment, as he continued to look at this woman who made his life worth living. He couldn’t imagine losing her, couldn’t imagine life without her. He wasn’t sure he could survive the thought—surviving the reality was beyond comprehension.

His eyes blurred, his surroundings dimmed. The room disappeared … all sound, all texture, all light. All that remained was her. All he could see or feel was her. He no longer was sure if he was still there … had he disappeared?

It took some time for the surreal feelings to begin dissipating. Then slowly, his surroundings returned, as his awareness grew. He could feel himself again, feel his eyelids blink, could see her clearly. Her eyes continued to hold his, giving endless comfort and love. It was time to give back—to her and to the others.

He looked over at the two friends, saw the same love and comfort, and some of the same fear he felt, and blessed them with one of his heart-felt lopsided-grins. Somehow, just seeing them … seeing them clearly … knowing they were here, allowed him to consider that he might survive. He might … no matter God’s final decision.

He smiled at them again. “Thank you, for being here, for ….”  He couldn’t continue.

“Heath, child. Ain’t no need to be thanking us. You and your mama, you done let us be sharing your lives all these years, that be thanks enough. We loves you both.” With those words, Hannah slipped over and wrapped them both in a gentle, warm hug, and

hung on tight. “We be family. We be fine. That be all that matters.”

“Indeed. Heath, you ever known Hannah to speak anything but the truth?” Rachael smiled at him.

He shook his head several times, slowly, and then reached over to embrace Hannah. “Can’t believe you, can’t believe anyone.”

Rachael came over and helped Hannah to her feet, and then pulled Heath into a solid hug. He was the closest thing to a son she ever would have, and she promised herself she’d do whatever she could to help him through this. She knew what it was going to be like, for her, to lose Leah … she only could imagine what it would be like for him.

Later that night … much later, in the dark, the quiet—the all alone—Heath closed his eyes and let the tears run. He had to let them out now … he couldn’t let them be seen during the day. She had been there for him … always … without fail… without question … and most importantly, without reservation. Now it was his turn. She needed him, and he would not fail her.

He would wait for Dr. Mitchell’s visit, and if there was an operation that could save her, he would see she got it. He knew how he could get the money—however much was required. And while they waited for the doctor to come he’d do the repairs that were always waiting, he’d lighten her load … make her rest … make her care for herself, like she’d always cared for him. He’d help their two friends in any way he could, just as they’d done the same for him, for Mama, over the years.

A few days later, he again was mounted on the big bay, heading back the way he’d come, at the fastest pace possible. The doctor had been very clear. He’d wired a surgeon in Sacramento—Mitchell wasn’t sure she would survive travelling farther—he would need to see her before he could be sure, he might be able to help. His first available opening was in two weeks. They would have to travel slowly, not tire her too badly. Heath reckoned on them leaving in a week—have her as rested as possible before setting out.

It was a chance—a small ray of hope, and he clung to it. He’d asked and been told how much money he’d need. He was on his way to get it—at least that was his hope. It was the only hope, the only possibility, and he’d do all he could to make it happen.

When he’d galloped up to the Barkley barn, reined the tired horse to a halt, and flew from the saddle, Nick’s surprise was evident. The dark-haired rancher had been giving instructions to a couple of hands when he heard the hoof beats. He’d assumed it was someone coming with a report of an unexpected difficulty on one of the day’s assigned jobs. He hadn’t expected the blond.

“Heath, wasn’t expecting you back so soon, but good to see you.”

He wasn’t given the chance to utter anything further. And, if Heath’s arrival had been a surprise, it was nothing compared to what he had to say. “Nick, you still want to buy my horses, I’ll sell the mares for the same price you paid at auction for the others—without the colt, although I’ll need to leave him with the mare until he’s feeding on his own. I’ll sell you this guy—for my asking price.”

Nick, uncharacteristically, was rendered speechless. After several attempts to respond, he finally managed to spit out the question that was uppermost in his mind. “Why? What’s happened?”

“I need the money, now … Mama needs the money. If you’re interested say so. If not, don’t have time to waste, I need to get back.”

He started to pull the saddle off the stallion as he waited for Nick’s decision. Either way, he needed to saddle Gal and head home. This was it—the only avenue for acquiring the needed funds. He wouldn’t have time to find another buyer. But he wouldn’t force the man … and he wouldn’t beg.

He hurried over to the pasture fence and whistled. The little, dark-coated mare came running—as eager to see him as he was to see her. She had great staying power, and speed, she’d get him home in short order. He opened the gate, let her out, and then left her standing while he disappeared into the barn to grab a brush. Regardless of his need to hurry he’d not neglect the care of his mount.

Nick was at a loss as to what to do. He’d certainly wanted to talk the blond into selling, but this didn’t feel right. At the same time, Heath seemed desperate—and certainly wasn’t showing any sign that he was going to discuss it. He guessed he’d start with the crucial question. “How much?”

Heath told him—Nick issued a low whistle. “Kind of steep, don’t you think?”

Heath shrugged. He didn’t have the luxury of negotiating.

“It’s what I need … what Mama needs. Can’t get it, there’s no point selling him. You want him, it’s what he’ll cost you.”

*****

Chapter 20

Heath had Gal brushed off, and was about to saddle her, when his hands stayed themselves. Took him a moment to register the problem. He turned to Nick again.

“Can you lend me a dry blanket? I’ll leave this one here, and promise to return yours. Might be a few weeks.”

“Good grief man, help yourself.” Nick was losing patience. He mostly still was in the dark, and things were moving fast. At least the blond certainly was.

He wants a King’s ransom for the horse, and then worries about a saddle blanket. Something’s not right here.

He shook his head, and then did what he knew he couldn’t stop himself from doing.

He wanted the horse … probably at any price. But, something more important was going on here, and he found he couldn’t ignore the want … the need … this man clearly was displaying. Somehow he had the feeling he’d give him the money if he asked for it … no collateral, no horse included. It was like he couldn’t stop himself … any more than he’d be able to refuse help if it were Jarrod in need.

“You drive a hard bargain. It’s a deal. But—” He stopped himself, seeing the raw fear in the blue eyes as the blond head spun around at the word. “Whoa there. Just wanted you to know I’ll have to get to the bank for the cash. Won’t have that much here.”

Heath’s frantic movements stilled. He hadn’t considered that, hadn’t thought he couldn’t just saddle up and head back. A trip to town and back—no matter how fast—would hold him up a couple of hours, at least. Damn!

His hands rested on the saddle as he nodded. “I’ll wait. Appreciate it if you could be quick as possible.”

“I’m on my way.”

Heath stood there, not sure what to do. Took a few minutes for him to make sense of what had just happened, and what it meant. He pulled the saddle off his mare. He’d have lots of time to get her ready. He looked at the stallion, still standing ground tied. Guess he could spend some time taking care of him. He felt badly for riding him that hard. Maybe he’d feel less badly if he gave him some proper care … probably for the last time. He was going to miss the big guy. He chuckled.

See boy, I knew there was a reason I shouldn’t name you. Well, Nick’ll take care of that, and he’ll be good to you. Found a better place for you than I’m ever likely to find for myself.

With those thoughts, he went back in the barn to get what he needed. He’d put the stallion in a stall when he was done, give him a good feed of oats, and have him waiting for his new owner. In the process, he’d cast his thoughts on something else. He’d long ago learned there was no point in thinking about things he couldn’t change.

Nick was riding hard, and thinking harder. No matter how he worked it around in his head, he couldn’t make any sense out of Thomson’s behavior.

Said he needed the money. What could have happened since he left here that he suddenly needs that much money? Oh, oh. Wait, wait, that’s not exactly what he said. He said his mama needed the money. That doesn’t help much … although I guess it maybe explains the timing. Must have discovered some emergency when he got home.

His thoughts died off at that point, and feelings took over. There was a joyful anticipation of what having that stallion could mean. He was an animal to be envied, in his own right—maybe irk those Mortons some—but, even more, he had the capability of anchoring a new breeding line.

Yes indeed, he was one pleased individual … although the pleasure was tempered. The feelings tempering the joy weren’t quite so clear … but they were there. Maybe some sadness, for the blond. He had looked forlorn … and scared. Maybe some guilt. It wasn’t like he’d tricked the man, or even coerced him, but yet something about the transaction didn’t seem quite fair.

Almost like he was taking advantage … not of Heath exactly. More of the fact that his father had left him a legacy that gave him the ability to acquire the horse … and Heath’s father hadn’t. There was no doubt that Nick worked hard, had always worked hard, but he also always was working to build on something his father had created. He hadn’t had to start from scratch. Seems Heath did.

Deep inside, where Nick told himself the truth, he knew those horses had represented, for Heath, the chance to start from scratch. That same chance Tom Barkley had found, when he rode into this valley all those years ago.

Only, he hadn’t been forced to sell his foundation before he’d had the chance to build on it. He hadn’t had a mother to worry about, a mother who depended on him. His mother had a husband who was alive and well, and more than capable of supporting his wife. Seems Heath’s mother did not. She had no husband, he had no father. Wasn’t, in truth, Nick’s doing—or, he supposed, his father’s—yet he somehow felt badly about it.

It wasn’t until he handed the money over that another thought came to him.

Do I tell him about Jarrod’s idea … and his concerns? Maybe best to let that wait. He’ll be back. Has to return the blanket, and make arrangements for the colt. Assuming he’s still planning on pursuing the case….

He studied the area around them, making sure they weren’t being overheard. “Heath, what do I tell Jarrod? Does he go ahead, or have those plans changed?”

Heath glanced at the rancher while he finished tightening his cinch.

“I’m after justice. That hasn’t changed. Can’t say exactly when I’ll be back. Guess, if he wants, he can hold up until he hears from me. Could be three, four weeks. Maybe longer.”

As much as it went again his nature, something told Nick not to press. He heeded that something. Something also told him, if the blond said he’d be back, he’d be back. It would have to do for now.

Seemingly, without volition, the dark-haired rancher reached up and squeezed the leg of the now-mounted blond. “You take care, you hear.”

He got a nod and, in return, a two fingered wave. Heath turned his horse and spurred her away.

*****

Jarrod was worried and confused, and it made him appear upset.

“Don’t yell at me Counselor. I’m not the one made the decision. What’d you expect me to do? Tie him to a post in the barn?”

He slammed down his glass, stomped over to the fireplace, picked up the poker, and attacked the calmly burning logs.

In that moment, Jarrod realized he was taking out his frustrations on the wrong person, and he reeled himself back in. “Nick, I’m sorry. You’re right, of course. Nothing you could have done. I need to appreciate what you did manage to get.”

His answer was another vicious poke at a now blazing log.

Nick would cool down. He just would take a bit longer doing so than Jarrod.

Victoria glided into the room, and seeing the now-reticent Jarrod, and the still-agitated Nick, figured, quite rightly, that she’d missed something important. “Good evening boys. Would either of you gentlemen like to pour me a sherry?” Years of practice allowed her to suppress the smile.

No need to inquire … sooner, probably more than later, one of them won’t be able to keep from telling me.

She knew her boys, and her thoughts were proven correct.

“I don’t appreciate being accused of being some sort of fool, as if he’s the only one that thinks of things … important things.”

An innocent log got another poke.

It was getting harder to restrain the threatening smile. “Of course. And I can only assume, Nick, that your brother has done something to imply just that?”

He harrumphed. His only reply.

Jarrod handed her the requested sherry … and winked. That almost freed the smile. But, well she knew, it would not assist the matter to have Nick think she was conspiring with his obviously, inconsiderate older brother. She waited.

“Well, Mother, Nick is absolutely correct. No reason he should appreciate any such accusations. Although, in my own defense, I would suggest it was never my intention to accuse him of anything. I was confused, and I didn’t do a particularly adept job of trying to get the information necessary to address that confusion.”

He looked first at the silver-haired lady and then at the still-agitated rancher. “In truth, I was … still am … worried. And, I did an even less adept job of sharing that. What I did do a particularly good job of was drilling Brother Nick and taking my frustrations out on him. It was not acceptable.”

Seeing her tilted head, inquiring look, he quickly added.

“I have apologized. Said apology has not yet been accepted.”

He shrugged at her. Walking over, he picked up Nick’s empty glass, refilled it, and walked back to offer it to his brother.

“I am sorry, Nick. I was out of line…. And, I am worried about him. We can’t protect him, we don’t even know for sure where he’s gone. That’s not your fault, and I had no right to blame you.”

He held out the glass, still uncertain if it would be accepted … or thrown at him. It sat suspended between them, awaiting the verdict. Before long a hand crossed the chasm and claimed it.

“Guess maybe I got a little hot … over-reacted a bit ….”

He caught the sapphire eyes, then grinned. “You sure do have a way of setting me off! But Jarrod, I’m worried too … for all the same reasons. Guess I get a little edgy when I’m feeling helpless … or guilty.”

“Guilty?” The question came from both mouths at once.

*****

Chapter 21

Victoria repeated her inquiry. “Guilty, Nick? Whatever for?”

He looked at her, at Jarrod, and turned back to the fire, which was now quietly smoldering in seeming safety. It took him a few minutes to gather his thoughts, to make sense of them, and then to explain. Victoria started to object, and was cut off by Jarrod.

“Makes sense. And, it’s part of why you feel helpless. You can’t give him what you have. Not that he’d be likely to take it, if you could. And you’ve taken from him what he did have. Even if you paid him well … more than well … he’s still back in a place of being … doing … without.

“Maybe he’ll take the job, when you get the chance to offer. When this is all over, maybe he’ll stay on. Give him a chance, in time, to build a stake, start over.

“What surprises me is how quickly we’ve come to care about him. Lots of people come in and out of my office … lots of stories of justice gone wrong, of hardship. Plenty of men ride on and off this ranch … same kind of stories. But, there’s something about him … his story … that has gotten to us. Can’t explain it exactly, but there’s no doubt that I feel it. I’m pretty sure you do too.”

Nick snorted. “Yeah, the little bastard is getting to me.”

He noticed his mother’s reaction. “Sorry Mother. Didn’t mean to be offensive. But, in truth, he has gotten to me. Don’t know how … but he has.”

He looked at them both again, then set his now-empty glass, gently on the table.

“Nothing I can do about it now, so guess I’ll go get cleaned up for dinner. Oh, and Jarrod…. Apology accepted.”

He grinned and left the room, the sounds of his spurs quietly trailing away.

******

Heath loped up to his mama’s cabin, signaled Gal to stop, and slowly slid from the saddle. He stood for a moment, leaning against that same saddle, his arms draped over it. He knew he was tired, wasn’t quite sure why. No doubt, he’d ridden hard the last few days. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so, not likely to be the last … especially now that his plans for the future had been thwarted. He also felt overly warm. There was reason for that when he was in the valley, but up here it was considerably cooler. No reason to be feeling warm. And tired.

He’d take a minute, catch his breath, and put a spring back in his step. Last thing Mama needed was to be worrying about him. And worry she would, if she got the slightest inkling he was less than perfectly fine. She seemed to have a particular ability to notice the littlest thing … the slightest change from normal. Yes, he’d take a moment to make himself look right.

He undid his saddlebags and bedroll, tossing them on the front stoop. Pulling the saddle off the little mare, he threw the blanket over it, before leading her around back and removing the bridle. She wouldn’t go anywhere, nor would she bother the garden. There was grass for her, and he pumped some water into the make-shift trough. Giving her a farewell pat, he promised her, in a little bit, a good brushing, then headed to the front to pick up his bags and check in on Mama. He wasn’t sure he was feeling less tired, but maybe, this once, he’d fool her.

The moment he stepped inside the little place, he knew something was wrong. Carefully setting his things to the side, on the floor, he closed the door quietly as his eyes scanned the space.

“Mama?” It was uttered loudly enough to be heard, but quietly enough not to disturb her, if she were here … maybe asleep. He waited for a reply. Just as he was about to search the little room at the back, Rachael appeared.

“Aunt Rachael, where’s—” She cut him off with a finger to her lips, as she moved closer to him and guided him into the kitchen area.

“Your mama’s sleeping, Heath. Don’t want to wake her.” She saw the questioning, and the worry, in his eyes, and gesturing with her head towards the door, she led the way. Once outside, she wrapped her arm around his, and held it for a moment.

“Sweetie, she’s not doing too well. Was good the day you left, but seemed to start fading the next. Hannah and I been watching over her, getting her to eat and drink as much as possible. She’s not eaten much today….”

He looked at her, their eyes met and locked. There’d never been much of a need for words between them. When he was younger, just one look from this lady, and he knew … she was mighty proud of him … or mighty disappointed.

“I got the money … exactly what the doc said we’d need. And enough for the trip…. You reckon she can make the—”

He couldn’t continue, couldn’t allow himself to conceive of giving up without doing everything possible. She was his mama … he couldn’t fail her. Not now, not when it mattered the most. He just couldn’t.

He didn’t know what to do.

“I reckon what’s really important now, is to do right by her … do what she needs, and not what we want. If her time has come, we have to do what we can to make her last days as easy as possible. Dr. Mitchell’s supposed to stop in tomorrow. We’ll see what he says.”

She looked up at him, saw the pain in the now-shimmering blue eyes. “We’ll get through this together. All of us. Like always. Remember what your mama said. She’ll always be here. So will we, and so will He.” She wrapped her arms around him, and held him close, as the encroaching dark swallowed the light of day.

Three days had passed. Dr. Mitchell had come and gone. He confirmed that whatever was growing inside her was doing so at a rapid rate, and appeared to be eating whatever strength she possessed. She had periods when she was awake … awake and lucid. Heath savored those. More often, she slept, or looked lost and confused. She’d eaten nothing in two days, sipping reluctantly, when forced, on offerings of water or weak tea.

At times, she was in obvious pain. The good doctor had left an ample supply of laudanum, with instructions to give her as much as she needed. He also left some morphine, but acknowledged it would be more effective if injected, and he regretted he did not have a spare syringe to lend. They, however, could give it orally if the laudanum was not sufficient.

His proclamation that she seemed unlikely to survive the ardors of a journey to obtain surgical services, was secondary to his opinion that her condition was now so advanced that it was unlikely surgery would help. He suggested they do what they could to bring her comfort in her last days. Sadly, he was certain those days were few.

As Leah slept, Heath sat at the table not eating the food Rachael had placed before him. Hannah set a cup in front of him. “You drink that now. It be helping with that fever you got brewing.”

His head snapped up and their eyes met. “Yes, my chil’, I feels it. Now you drink that up. I puts in some of that honey you gathered last time … make it be tasting better, and it be good for you too. And then you need to be getting some rest, before you be dropping on your feet.”

“I need to be with Mama, need to be there if she wants me. Need to make the most of every minute I can. Only got a few days left with her.… Got the rest of my life to rest.”

She ambled over, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and leaned her head against his. It was enough contact to let her test … let her assess how warm he was. Ascertaining it was not too bad, and hoping it maybe just was his body’s reaction to all that was going on, she urged him again to drink the brew, and returned, with a last comment, to her work.

“You don’ts take care of you, youse won’t be havin’ any time with your Mama. She be sleeping for awhile now. You rest.”

As she walked away he reached for her offering. She was right, he still felt warmer than normal. He couldn’t get ill right now, there wasn’t time. And, Mama needed him. They all needed him … himself included. His strength, his calm, his presence. He had to do this right … this one last thing for Mama. He drank it all. The honey did help ease the bitterness. He quietly placed the container back on the table, before letting his arms and head follow. He rested.

When his eyes opened again, he did feel better. Maybe a bit warm still, but nothing of concern. Someone had cleared away the dishes … including his untouched food. For that, he was thankful. He was quite sure his stomach would not thank him for it. Maybe later.

Okay, Heath, my boy. Time to check on Mama.

He found her sleeping, seemingly peacefully. As he settled into the bed-side chair, her eyes opened. She smiled. He smiled back, as he leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead.

“Hi Mama. How’re feeling?”

“I’m fine, my son.”

“Glad to hear it.” He chuckled, then heard her do the same.

“Guess neither of us can fool the other.”

He shook his head, smiling again. It was good to hear her laugh, even if minimally. Her smile still illuminated his world, wrapped a warmth around his heart.

Stop! Don’t think of how it’ll be without that. Just relish it while it’s here. Be grateful.

“I’m so sorry you’re here, having to suffer through this … and I’m so glad you’re here. I was afraid I’d not get to see you one last time. Not get to say goodbye … for now. I know I’ll see you again one day … know we’ll be together once more … never to be separated again. But there are things I wanted to tell you, things I wanted you to know, before I left you here … went on ahead to wait for you.”

It had taken a toll for her to talk that much at once, but she’d needed to say it. Needed to know he would hear it. She closed her eyes, and worked to take in the air she needed. Take it into lungs that no longer seemed to have room for it.

He took her small, now-frail, hand in his two, strong, work-toughened ones, and urged her to breathe slowly and not try to talk.

When she had enough breath to continue, her eyes opened and locked onto his.

“Mama, please, just rest. Whatever can you tell me that I’ve not already heard?”

*****

Chapter 22

She smiled at him. “Maybe nothing, sweetheart. But, I need to tell you now, need to be sure you’ve heard it and believe it. I’ve never for one moment regretted having you. You made my life worth living. You’re my golden child … you brought me sunshine.

“Meant there was someone in my life to love, and I’ve been grateful every second for that. My only regret is how much you’ve had to suffer. That’s the part I would’ve wished to change—never the having you. Need to know you believe that Heath, it’s the only thing I need.”

Her eyes pleaded with him … entreating him to hear … to accept.

The tears pooled above his lower lashes before rolling onto his cheeks. “Mama, you’ve told me … shown me … in every way possible that you loved me. I’ve never doubted that … never. I never cared what people said, or did, to me … still don’t. I hear you Mama. I’ll stop … stop regretting that having me caused you to suffer … just remember the sunshine. I will believe you … because you want me to … and I’d do anything for you. Anything. You know that don’t you?”

She lifted her hand and wiped away his tears. “Of that I am sure … very sure … never doubted …. Love you, Heath.”

Her last words, pursued immediately by her last thoughts.

Whatever can I tell you that you’ve not already heard? If only you  knew … but you won’t. Not from me, not today … not ever in this world. Maybe … in the next … God willing.

Her eyes closed as she again struggled to breathe. Her breathing slowed, and a quiet seemed to fill her body. Somehow he knew … knew the time had come. Not knowing what else to do … how else to survive this moment … he gently lifted her into his arms. Settled on the edge of the bed, he drew her to his chest, slowly and carefully rocking her back and forth, while he whispered, over and over, into her ear, his love for her. The tears went unnoticed, as did the cessation of the quiet, shallow breaths.

He was still there, cradling and rocking her, when, sometime later, Rachael found them. Somehow she knew, and went to fetch Hannah. With great care and compassion the two friends were able to persuade him to lay her back on the bed.

He ran his hands over her hair and forced himself to take in every minute detail of her face, to store it deep inside … never to be forgotten. The signs of pain and worry were gone. All that remained was a look of peace. He knew she finally was where she deserved to be. For that he was happy … and, it broke his heart.

The next few days were a blur. He built a coffin and Hannah fashioned a lining for it. Rachael and she washed and dressed their dear friend, and helped her son place her body in the conveyance that would take her on her final journey.

He had borrowed a wagon to take them all to the grave he’d dug. Once there, they each took a moment alone with her … a last look, a few final words … before he carefully secured the lid. Words were spoken; those special, sacred words that denoted the passing of a life. The few remaining townsfolk that had befriended her were there, and helped lower the coffin, then fill the hole. She was gone.

He stood there a long time, after everyone had left, before returning to the small cabin. He’d known this day would come … just hadn’t expected it so soon. And, he’d always imagined that he’d have found someone for himself, had a place to go, when he’d eventually lost her. He’d not been ready for this, and he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. She was lost to him … and … he was lost.

Darkness had settled on the room, the flames from the fire providing the only light, when Rachael came to sit with him. “She loved you, Sweetie. So do I … and Hannah. She’d want you to continue to live your life just like you would if she were still on this earth. She’d want you to still have dreams and work to make them come true … no matter what has happened to drive them to ground.”

He looked at her, slowly shook his head, and looked again. “How’d you know?”

She reached an arm around his shoulder. “Because I know you. When’s the last time you’ve fooled me?”

He chuckled. A humorless sound in the near silent space.

“You’re weary. You need sleep. Why don’t you let yourself sleep now, and you can tell Hannah and I all about it tomorrow. Maybe we can help you figure out what to do.”

She was right. He was tired beyond measure and he needed sleep. He couldn’t think clearly. Morning would be early enough to think about it. He nodded to her, accepting her wisdom, and rose to go to bed. She wrapped him in a comforting embrace, then sent him on his way. Tomorrow, indeed, would be soon enough.

They sat at the table the next morning and he told them all he hadn’t told Mama. The murder, the trial, the fury he felt at the outcome. Frank’s efforts to help. The horses and the plans that he’d had for them …  now gone. Well, except for the young colt that might someday replace the stallion he’d had to relinquish.

He wondered, briefly, at the nearly imperceptible look they exchanged, when he mentioned the Barkleys. He guessed they were afraid that with people that powerful, he could somehow be hurt. He hastened to assure them that the family had been nothing but kind, and he’d come to trust them.

Not surprisingly, by the time he finished the tale, he knew what he needed to do. It was time to return to the ranch and renew the journey to justice for his friend. That was his first task, then he’d make plans for his future. There were still horses to be found and caught. Somehow, he was clear, that peace for him, would come when he had his own line of horses, on his own place … however small. Mama would be watching, and he’d give her nothing on which to worry.

The ride back had been slower, and more comfortable than the earlier ride. Hannah had continued plying him with her honey-sweetened willow-bark tea, and now sent him on his way with a canteen full of it, and the dried bark to brew more if needed. He’d promised to use it. Kept that promise. She knew he would. Always he had kept his promises.

In spite of the encroaching dark, he’d decided to keep riding, albeit with great care. He was close enough that he couldn’t see taking the time to make and break camp. He could be there sometime tonight. Then he saw the glow in the distance. Had to be a fire. Where there was a fire there was need of help. He quickened his pace toward what looked to be a conflagration.

By the time he arrived, there was not much help needed … at least not with the fire. The chimney was crumbling and most of what could burn had done so. A man he didn’t know was making an impassioned plea for people to stand with him. Heath wasn’t sure against whom or what.

He saw Nick move to stand with the man, and then the sheriff entered the fray, attempting to convince them all the cause was lost. No one else moved. Eyes were focused on Jarrod. They appeared to be waiting for him to choose. Something strange about that. He’d thought Nick to be more the type of man others would follow. Jarrod looked to be standing firm.

Heath didn’t know what was happening, or why. For him, it was distressing to see the two brothers in what appeared to be opposing positions. He thought brothers would stick together … he’d been sure these ones would. It created new-found doubts for him.

He’d put his trust in them. Believed they wanted to help him, and were united in doing so. Now he wondered. He didn’t like the queasy feelings it created in his gut, and he opted to get away from it. Reining his horse around, he rode away … hastily.

Eventually he slowed, and tried to think. Where should he go? Were these Barkley men people he could trust? Had he been fooling himself? Reaching a small, open, grassy area he stopped and slipped from the saddle. He loosened the cinch and let the mare graze as he shared his back, and his thoughts, with a solid, old oak.

Guess you really don’t have enough information, Heath old boy. And you promised Nick to return the blanket and make arrangements for the colt. Besides, you at least owe Jarrod an explanation. Don’t seem right to just ride away and leave him hanging. Can’t hurt to check it out. It’s not like you’ve got anywhere else you need to be.

He took some sips from the canteen, and gazed at the overhead stars. He could feel the dampness on his face and knew his thoughts had drifted to the woman he’d just lost. Thinking on her, he knew what he had to do. He would go to the ranch, get his answers, and then decide if his trust was misplaced.

In that moment, he came to realize that she would have supported his hunt for justice—and been afraid of what it could cost him … and her. She’d know he couldn’t let the injustice go unchallenged. He’d inherited his moral fiber from her. He picked up himself, and the canteen, whistled his horse over, and tightening the cinch, vaulted into the saddle and was on his way. A comfortable barn awaited.

He heard the steps, and figured it was Mac, or maybe Nick. Was surprised when Jarrod spoke.

“Saw you at Swenson’s tonight.”

He waited for the blond to stop his actions and look at him. “I suspect what you saw, before you rode away, disappointed you.”

He paused again. The blond showed him nothing.

Hate to have him as a witness … for the other side. Or an opponent in a poker game. Don’t know why it should matter, but I want him to understand … want him to think differently of us.

“He’s an imperfect man, my brother … as am I. In many ways that can hurt … without intention. Our father was a man who would rather die for his principles … and did … than live without them. It was something he tried to instill in his sons. If you hadn’t ridden away tonight, you would have seen he accomplished that.”

That produced, at least, a nearly imperceptible lift of an eyebrow.

“Nick’s impetuous, as well as hard-headed, ornery, more than a little stubborn, bold, brash, unquestionably courageous … and loyal, almost to a fault. A lot like Father. Given an opportunity, I prefer to think things through … weigh both sides … do what’s right. As did Father. Nick has idolized Father since he was able to toddle after him. He wants nothing more than to be just like him. But he can’t … not without losing some of what makes him Nick. Nor can I.

“I tried to deal with the railroad my way … failed. I had hoped, tonight, to persuade them all to give me one more chance at avoiding bloodshed … avoid burying any more family or friends. In that too, I failed.

“As I said, Nick is impetuous … and he was ready to fight. Maybe wanting to fight. His desire to emulate Father, overriding all else. There never was a doubt in my mind that Nick would stand with Sample tomorrow morning. And so, because I am my father’s son … and my mother’s … there was no doubt I would do likewise.

“I knew I would have to stand with him, but not because of my loyalty to him. The law, in this case, was standing on the wrong side of anything that was morally right. I had to abandon my loyalty to it. There was no place else to go but with my brother … and my neighbors.

“If you had stayed you would have seen that happen. It sometimes takes a while but eventually the Barkley brothers get around to seeing eye-to-eye with one another. As Father hoped, we have been instilled with the need to have, and fight for, our principles.

“Your trust in us … in this family … to stand with you … to support your fight for your principles, has not been misplaced. We’ll be at Sample’s before the eight o’clock deadline. We’ll be ready to fight … and die … if necessary.”

There was nothing more to be said. He turned and walked away, while Heath went back to grooming his mare … and thinking on what he’d heard.

When, the next morning, he found himself sitting, with shaking hands, trying to roll a cigarette, he had no questions as to why he was there. He too had his principles. He too would live … or die … for them. As always, he took no pleasure in killing for them. He, and the skills he brought to this fight, contributed far more to the number of bodies lying in this yard, than did the others. There was no pride, for him, in that.

He thought on Jarrod’s words. He suspected he was right … Nick may have wanted to fight. However, he doubted Nick took any greater pleasure in killing than did he. Somehow, however, he doubted Nick’s hands were shaking. That seemed to be his burden … his flaw. There’d be little sleep tonight.

When the hand offering the cheroot entered his field of vision, he looked up, surprised, to see Jarrod standing there. The eyes spoke of understanding … acceptance … dissolving any fleeting embarrassment that may have been there. They also spoke of pain.

A pain that had nothing to do with the blood he saw on the sleeve.

He’d seen the sheriff go down … knew Jarrod had too. In spite of his talk last night about turning away from his loyalty to the law, Heath knew this man would not rest easy knowing he’d been on the side that had killed a lawman doing his duty. He too would not sleep well this night.

The ride back had been quiet. They’d won this battle, bought some time … maybe. Everyone knew it wasn’t over. There was no cause for celebration.

And there was another battle looming on the horizon. One that Heath had brought to them. Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d made the right decision. He was nothing to these men … to this family. They owed him nothing.

By what right did he put them at risk? If Jarrod was correct, maybe their father would have done the same … but what of Heath’s father? Would it have set right with him to ask for their assistance … to accept it? He would never know … and so, not for the first time, he questioned himself.

*****

Chapter 23

It wasn’t accurate to say Heath awakened the next morning. As expected, he’d slept little, if at all … but he was up, and making himself useful. He’d turned out the horses, and as he cleaned the stalls, he attempted to focus his thoughts. He had to figure out what to do next … and where to do it. He needed to brew up some more of Hannah’s willow-bark tea. And he’d need to have a talk with the lawyer, without arousing suspicion.

As if he’d been reading the blond’s mind, Nick appeared. “Heath. Let that be. Got a man hired to clean stalls. We need to talk.” His thumb signaled to follow him outside. Heath followed.

Leaning on the top rail of the fence, he listened to Nick. The man hadn’t asked Heath about his hurried departure, in what seemed like a lifetime ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t care. More like he sensed that the blond wouldn’t appreciate the prying, and he was respecting that. Heath appreciated it.

Nick put forth the proposal he and Jarrod had devised. It was a job offer, but it was a lot more. It was part of a plan. When Heath started to object, Nick cut him off.

“I didn’t expect you’d jump at it. Just hear me out, before you decide. Maybe I was urged into it by Big Brother. But I’ve seen what you can do with the horses. I expect you’re just as good with other things that need doing around a place. I suspect I would have made the offer myself, before you rode off … or regretted not doing so. This ranch can use you. I can use you.

“It will also ease Jarrod’s burden considerably. Being able to do something to help him, for once, means a lot to me. This business with the railroad isn’t over. He’ll go back to trying to find a legal … peaceful … solution. He won’t slack on your case to do it. The less he has to worry about, the better.”

Heath considered his argument, before asking the question that had been sitting there since first he’d ridden up to the fire. “How did all this come about? Jarrod said something about having failed. Not sure what he failed at.”

Nick thought back on Jarrod’s announcement a few days ago.

“Governor vetoed it. I got the proposal out of committee, onto the floor, and passed. Then he vetoed it. I’m preparing a move to rescind, and that will take time … time we may not have.”

He shared what he knew with Heath, then added his own piece. He let the man know he’d expected then that they’d have to fight … just as their father had done six years earlier. His only hope was that the outcome would be different. He didn’t want his mother and sister to have to bury any more family members … didn’t want to do so himself. Had he not been so absorbed in the recounting, and his own thoughts that accompanied it, he might have noticed a flicker of pain cross the blond’s face at the mention of burying family members.

“It’s not so much that he failed. He simply doesn’t have the power of a Hannibal Jordan. But if I know my big brother, he won’t stop fighting. He’ll take this to Washington if he has to. Or, he’ll stand by me—stand and fight—if that’s the only avenue they leave him. Yesterday proved that.”

He took a deep breath and draped his arms over the top rail, looking sideways at the man beside him. As he did so, he was startled to realize how much he wanted him to accept the offer, to stay. Suddenly, it was as important to keep him here, keep him protected, as it would be to protect his brother.

“In truth, Heath, you’d be doing me a great favor if you took the offer … stayed on. I’d appreciate it.” Short of begging, he didn’t know how much plainer he could put it.  “Don’t have to decide right now. Promise me you’ll think on it.”

He almost said yes, without thinking further. Then his eyes caught sight of the mares he’d sold to Nick … including the ones he’d planned on keeping. Something inside him reared its ugly head.  Suddenly that seldom seen green ball of resentment bounced into view. His jaw clenched, as his fists formed, seemingly of their own volition. He grew very still … had to force himself to breathe, to think.

Boy howdy, Heath … settle down. It’s not Nick Barkley’s fault he can afford to do what you want to be doing. Not his fault he’ll be doing it with the very things you’d hoped to use … yourself included. So, you’re doing it for him. Maybe better than not doing it at all. Lots worse people could be living your dream … having it come true for them. It’s just for now … don’t know what the future’ll bring. He’s making you a fair offer … in truth, more than fair. You have no reason for turning it down. None but green-eyed envy … or pure stubbornness. Mama’d surely never think much of either.

 Nonetheless, he found he couldn’t simply ignore it. He’d have to think on it.

He took a deep, steadying breath, before turning to face the rancher. “Okay, Nick. I’ll think on it.”

Nick nodded his acceptance. He was prepared to wait. In spite of what people believed, he could be patient if he so chose. “You look like Hell, Boy. Bet you could do with some food. Come on.”

He slapped his hand onto the back of the blond’s shoulder and pushed him toward the bunkhouse. He figured McColl would have the work lined up for the day. Couldn’t have been sure Nick would be here today to do it, or in shape to do so. The man would have made sure the ranch kept running. It was why he refused to allow him to ride with them yesterday.

He grabbed a plate of breakfast and a cup of coffee and urged Heath to do the same. It wasn’t the first time he’d eaten with the men. As they ate he talked with the foreman about the day’s assignments, and then as if on an afterthought, inquired if Heath would be willing to take a look at the horses they had. Give him an honest opinion on which he thought best to mate with the new stallion. Share any other thoughts that might arise.

If he were willing, McColl could show him around … introduce him to what they had. Nick had some things to work out with Jarrod, and ledgers needing his attention. Heath could stop by the house when they got back and deliver his initial report.

Heath was appreciative with how smoothly the boss had handled that … creating a very plausible reason for him to be in the house. He could talk to the lawyer tonight and hopefully know what to expect next. He wanted this done. Quickly. In the meantime, he’d have work. Have something to take his mind off what was ahead … and what he’d left behind.

“And Mac, if you could get the crews started and then get Mother’s buggy ready. She’s wanting to visit Jenny Miles.”

Looking at the foreman, Heath offered, “Be happy to hitch up the buggy, if you point me in the right direction.”

Mac nodded and the two finished up, and headed out, leaving Nick to make his way back to the house, and report on the outcome of his job offer.

Heath had just commenced to harness the designated horse to the conveyance he had earlier pulled into the yard, when Victoria Barkley appeared.

“Just be a moment, Mrs. Barkley.”

“No rush.”

She looked at him carefully, assessing his mood, and whether this might be a good time to test if she could be as persuasive as she’d previously suggested. Deciding this might be the only opportunity, she plunged in. “You have managed to make quite an impression on Nick. Not an easy feat.”

His hands stilled for a moment, wondering what she was after, before he methodically went back to his task … choosing to ignore the comment.

“I know he offered you a job here, and you’ve agreed only to think about it. This mother would be grateful if you’d accept it.”

That got his attention, again. He didn’t say anything, but the look was one of surprise and curiosity.

“Nick seems to think you are probably as good at other things as you are with the horses. He needs someone like you … someone he can trust. Since his father’s death, he’s carried the weight of this place alone. Oh, he’s had McColl, to be sure.

“But he needs someone more his age. In truth he needs a brother. But this is not, never has been, Jarrod’s calling. But someone he can trust, can truly rely on, someone who will be there for him. That would take a huge weight off his shoulders.”

She took a moment to assess how her words were affecting the young man, and ascertaining that he was still listening … if giving nothing away … she opted to continue.

“I worry for my son. His father worked hard to build this place, but he found great joy in doing so … maybe because he had Mac at his side. Nick does the work, as well as he’s ever done it, but he’s lost the joy. Somehow, I think you could help him find that again.”

She quickly hastened to reassure him, lest he take offense.

“Oh, I know it’s not your responsibility, but you’re the first person to come along in the last six years, that seems fit for the job. And, as I said … this mother would be most grateful if you’d consider it. He’s never going to go looking for a way to get back the joy … he hasn’t realized he’s lost it. Don’t think he will realize it … until he has it back.”

He hadn’t taken offense and she moved to push him. “Would it really be such an awful thing … to work here?”

He was finished hitching the mare to the rig, and he turned to help her up into the seat. He, in the process, couldn’t avoid looking into her pleading grey eyes … afraid for a moment that they were going to brim with tears. It was like trying to resist Mama’s pleadings.

“No, Ma’am … Mrs. Barkley … it wouldn’t be such an awful thing. Not like I’m overrun with other offers. Guess a man’d have to be a fool to turn it down. Don’t expect to see him before the end of the day … feel free to let him know he’s got himself a new hand.”

She smiled inwardly. Never let it be said that Victoria Barkley was losing her touch … as a woman or a mother. “No rush. I think it would be better coming from you.”

With that she nodded, smiled her thanks, and headed the horse and buggy on its way.

For a moment, he wondered what he’d just done … what she was expecting. He had no doubt he could do any work the Barkley ranch demanded. He wasn’t so sure he was the person to restore joy to the life of Nick Barkley … or anyone else. Least of all himself.

*****

Chapter 24

Heath had been impressed with what he’d seen that day. Both the horses and the land. The place reflected the hard work that obviously had gone into it… and still did. The kind of place a man would be proud to own. He guessed Tom Barkley had planned on leaving an empire for his sons … a true legacy. While it seemed he’d gotten a good start on that, they appeared to be adding to it.

He’d taught them well. Or, maybe it was in the blood.

These thoughts and others occupied his mind as he stood knocking some of the day’s dust from his clothes before rapping on the solid, front door. He wasn’t sure whether this completely was a ruse, or if Nick indeed would want a report. No matter … he was prepared to deliver one. He suspected the rancher might not like all he’d have to say.

Satisfied he had rendered himself as clean as possible, he found the door opening before his knuckles made contact.

“Mr. Heath. Please come in. Mr. Nick, he’s expecting you.”

“Thank you, Silas.” He stepped into the foyer and quietly closed the door behind him, before following the grey-haired gentleman.

As Silas showed him into the room, Nick rose from behind the piles of paper spread before him on the desk. “Heath. Good to see you. Have a seat.”

He stepped over to the side and waved the glass and bottle he’d picked up. Heath nodded a yes at the mute question.

“So, what’d you think? See anything you liked?”

This was Nick at his most ebullient, proudest self. “Not much to not like.”

The voice didn’t carry the level of enthusiasm Nick was expecting … desiring. He gave the young man a hard look. “Not much. What’s that mean?”

Here it comes. Do I tell him what he needs to hear, or do I let it go and give him what he wants to hear? Boy howdy, he doesn’t make it easy.

Heath chuckled, the sound unsettling to Nick.

“What’s so funny?”

Heath shook his head, and shook it again. He was quite sure the man had no idea how he sounded … or how intimidating he could appear. He was also sure that he had no idea that Heath wasn’t in the habit of being intimidated. When he’d asked him to look things over, formulate an opinion, and report back, that’s exactly what Heath would do. He would get the truth … or nothing.

“Nick, you sure you want my thoughts? It don’t really sound like it.”

Silence! Nick shivered. It was like his brother was speaking to him.

The silence stretched between them, until Heath began to wonder if he should get up and leave. Perhaps Nick sensed that and decided he’d better say something. “You been taking lessons from Jarrod?”

He couldn’t be sure if it was what he said, or just the speaking, that caused the blond head to snap up, and the eyes to widen.

“Only other person I know who gets straight to the point with me … especially when I deserve it.”  It was his turn to chuckle. “Okay, Heath, point taken. Sometimes I come on a little too hard.”

“A little?”

“Okay, okay. A lot … I’m sorry. And, in answer to your question, yes I do want to hear your thoughts. Even if I might not like them.”

He smiled, and his arm went out indicating Heath should begin.

Heath walked him through it, asking questions, more than giving opinions … leading the rancher to form his own conclusions … the obvious conclusions.

Nick was not a stupid man. He recognized he had been managed— with no less finesse than often employed by Mother or Jarrod— into seeing things in a certain way. A way that he otherwise would have avoided.

The initial straightening of his spine, drawing himself to his full height, clenching of his teeth, mouth pulled into a tight line and nearly imperceptible narrowing of his eyes happened without conscious thought, then disappeared in an equally non-volitional reverse reaction that left him relaxed and undefended.

He’s good. Not only in his assessment, but in managing me. Better even than Mac …  like he was one of the family.

The hazel eyes brightened, until they reflected the feeling behind the smile that broadened to create the very obvious dimples. The chuckles turned into a soft laugh, that guided a hand to reach out and offer a congratulatory shake to the blond.

“I think what you’re saying is that I’ve spent more time considering oranges, which to plant and where, than I’ve spent on something that is a crucial part of the operation of this ranch. You’re right … can’t decide which mares to breed to the stallion until I know what I want to do with the offspring.”

The blue eyes danced as the half-smile appeared and some quiet chuckles emerged. Then, without warning, all disappeared.

“Ain’t meaning to criticise, Nick. Without you those oranges … and a lot of other things … don’t exist. Throw some stallions and mares together, they take care of themselves … no matter what, you still have horses.”

Contrary to what many might believe, Nick was just as capable as his older brother in weighing the factors in a well-constructed argument, and he did so now. His hazel eyes locked onto the blues, as his head provided several short, sharp nods.

“I hear you. One man can’t do it all. So, you accepting my job offer?”

The eyes stayed locked, both bodies taut and feigning nonchalance, minds whirring without a sound. “Reckon a man’d be a fool not to.”

There it was. Or was it? Nick sensed there was something missing, and laughed outright when the missing piece arrived.

“Never considered myself a fool.”

“Boy, you do beat all. I’ll let—” He stopped himself as he took a moment to think, to study the young man before him, and consider what he was about to do. It scared him a little to realize he totally trusted this man … was about to give him free rein to make decisions, take action. Almost like he was giving him a piece of Tom Barkley’s empire. And, he wasn’t questioning himself, or feeling the least bit of concern. Like he was dealing with Jarrod.

That’s not even true. I wouldn’t give Jarrod that kind of control over ranch decisions … not without involvement at some level. It’s like I trust him more than my own brother. It feels right … that’s what I can’t figure.

His head got a good shake, maybe enough to clear away the odd thoughts, ease the vexation … or lack thereof. Then he smiled, that full-force Nick Barkley, dimples-displayed smile. The one that went all the way to the bright hazel eyes that were fixed on the calm blue.

“You’re hired. You started this morning. You figure out what needs to be done to bring our horse operation up to speed, and do it. If you need anything, let me know. Otherwise, I’ve got other things to focus on” he chuckled, “… like oranges.”

All he got in return was a quick nod, and a half grin.

“SILAS.”

Heath flinched.

The elderly gentleman appeared, apparently unperturbed by the manner of summoning. “Yes sir, Mr. Nick. Something I can do for you?”

The previous bellow was made seemingly louder by the now near whisper. “Yes, Silas. Please take Heath up to Jarrod.”

“Yes sir. It’d be my pleasure.”

He quietly left the room, sure Heath would follow … which he did. However, his confusion grew as Silas headed up the gold-carpeted stairway. Surely Jarrod wasn’t planning to meet with him in his bedroom … unless, he’d been more seriously injured than initially indicated. Why wouldn’t Nick have said so?

He hesitated for a moment, wondering if Silas had misunderstood. When the man turned, smiled, and nodded, Heath began the ascent, shifting over to use the railing for support. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken so long to recover fully from an injury.

Silas’s brief knock gained them entry to Jarrod’s well-appointed bedroom. He was seated in what looked to be a very comfortable chair, showing no signs of obvious discomfort. Heath was more perplexed than ever. As Silas retreated, closing the door behind him, the client turned to the lawyer, his eyes questioning.

A quick flick of the attorney’s wrist indicated he recognized the confusion and that he would address it … in good time. “Heath, can I offer you a drink?”

Thoughts of returning down that flight of stairs he’d just climbed had him declining the offer.

“Please, have a seat. I want to do this as quickly as possible, but it will take longer than you’ll want to be standing.”

At that point, Jarrod took a closer look at the young man and wondered at what he was seeing. He looked tired, maybe even unwell. Could he have been injured in yesterday’s fight?

Then the truth came to him. The boy likely hadn’t slept well … he knew he hadn’t … and today Nick had him riding all over the ranch. Little wonder that he looked done in. Even as he considered all that, he saw the blond unhesitatingly follow his suggestion.

He must be feeling worse than he looks. I need to cover this as quickly as possible.

 Having made the decision, he began to speak.

*****

Chapter 25

“Nick and I discussed this. We want to counter any foreseeable risk that we could be overheard. As you know, we’ve put security in place around the house, and across the ranch, but it doesn’t preclude someone getting close enough to hear through a window … or door. People do come and go through the house, and we don’t want to unduly disrupt the normal routine.

“No one has cause to be up here. With my window closed we are assured of absolute privacy.”

He waited for the look of acknowledgement, and the accompanying nod of approval, before continuing. “I wanted to cover, with you, some of the more salient issues involved with your case. The first thing we are going to have to do is get a judgment that says you have standing.”

Seeing the look of confusion on the young man’s face, he hurried to explain. “In order to bring a civil suit you have to establish that you, personally, have been adversely affected by the death of Ucroft … differently than the public in general may have been. If you were family, by blood or marriage, you automatically have what the law calls standing. You are presumed to have been affected by the death.

“We have people who can attest to the deceased treating you as a son. We have his will naming you as heir, awaiting his signature, and for which an appointment had been set to get that signature. I don’t believe it will be difficult to get that judgment, but we have to request it. Without it, there is little point in going forward.

“My plan is to file that request here, in hopes that Greenley may not hear of it. It will buy us a bit of time. The request may be denied. The judge may rule that it needs to be granted in the same jurisdiction in which the case will be filed. As I said, I’m hoping that does not happen.”

He paused again to see if there were questions and gauge if he was being understood. There being none of the former and an indication of the latter, he continued.

“We have to formulate a basis for this civil suit, and then accrue the necessary evidence to support it. As I’m sure you know, the standard of proof is less onerous in a civil action than in a criminal action. So, a goodly amount of evidence that was used in the murder trial will be resurrected … with a good chance of it being accepted. When I read over the transcript of the trial I surmised that a number of witnesses either vanished completely, or conveniently lost the acuity of their recall.

“I have never, and will never, suborn a witness. However, I may be able to assist some of those temporarily-amnesiac witnesses in regaining their memories. With a little help we may find some of those who went missing.

“As I see it, you will be requesting compensation on two fronts. One, you, at some point, would have inherited Ucroft’s ranch … his entire estate. His new will was awaiting his signature … and would have gotten it the next day, had he not been murdered. Until he died you would have had steady income. So you sue for loss of immediate livelihood and loss of future inheritance.

“And, two, you have been deprived of the personal benefits of being part of a family … he was a surrogate father. So you sue for personal damages, for pain and suffering, for deprivation of family support and connection.

“Should they raise the defense that you are not without family, that you have a mother, we will counter with information that Ucroft’s death lessened the opportunity to spend time with her. She did not live in a place where you could earn a living sufficient to support both of you, and you are now no longer afforded the opportunity to bring her to live near.”

Jarrod caught the flash of pain across Heath’s countenance at the mention of his mother, and assumed it was caused by this reminder that he’d lost the chance to have her nearby.

“Your testimony will be paramount in making the case. Unless we unearth the missing ranch hand, you are the only one who can identify Greenley as the assailant. Which brings up the other matter we need to address … the matter of your testimony and the steps the opposition will take to discredit it.”

Jarrod sensed a brief flash of concern from the man … he couldn’t be sure. Neither could he risk being right and not checking it out, no matter how distasteful the process may prove.

“Heath, I know Nathan Springer. Frank has confirmed that likely he will defend Greenley in this matter, as he did in the murder trial. He does his research. Thoroughly.” He paused for a moment to see how the blond reacted to that information, and saw nothing.

He wanted to stop, and knew he couldn’t. “Springer will hire someone to dig out every little piece of information that can be found … about you. Every. Little. Piece. He’s relentless in this sort of pursuit. He’ll likely find out how many times you skipped school to go fishing. If there is anything he is likely to find that he can use to discredit you as a witness, I need to know about it now. Without that knowledge I can’t create a plan to counter it.”

The room was growing warm and Heath was struggling to concentrate, struggling to follow all that Jarrod was saying. However, this last request penetrated the enclosing fog. He knew Frank never would have violated his privacy … never would have told Jarrod the things he now wanted to know.

Maybe it would be easier to have friends who were a little less considerate.

He fixed his gaze on the lawyer, and then began to speak, not realizing how bereft of emotion was his reply. “He won’t find anything about me skipping school. Never went to school. The good citizens of the town were afraid their children would be tainted being that close to the town bastard.

“My parents were never married. Mama raised me alone with help from her best friend and a runaway slave. Never told me who my father was. I worked when and where I could as a child to help Mama. Joined the Union army when I was 12. Pay was better than anything else I could get.

“Spent the last seven months of the war in Carterson. You’ve probably heard of it. Did lots of things there I’m not proud of … and lots I am. At the time I was just trying to survive, and help my friend do the same.”

He stopped to take a breath, wishing the window was open. It was getting hotter and hotter, harder and harder to hold on to the quickly-slipping grip of reality. He blinked, trying to bring the counselor into focus … wanting to gauge the effect of his revelations. He wondered at the seeming lack of recrimination, of disgust, he had so much expected. He needed to finish this … and quickly.

“Moved around a lot after the war, taking on a variety of jobs. Guess that could be made to look bad. Never left on bad terms though. Not even with Frank, after all the work he put into training me. Got into a few scuffles—over girls, or cards. Got into a few major fights—always over comments about my mama.”

He wondered how much more to say … wondered how much more he could say, before he up and passed out. The room was starting to move … in a way no room ever was meant to move. He pushed himself to go on and end this here and now.

“And then there’s my uncle Matt, and his wife Martha. He won’t tell anyone anything good about me … or about Mama. And he’ll lie about what he does tell if he thinks there might be something in it for him.”

There was that look again. The look Jarrod this time interpreted to be sadness over the way his uncle treated his mother.

“Can’t think there’s much else to say. I’m guessing it’s time to pack up my stuff and find a place to hole up until you’re ready to go ahead.”

Jarrod very quickly got concerned and said so. “Why would you pack up? And where do you imagine you could go that would be safe?”

The flummoxed look Heath gave him almost made the lawyer laugh. Had he done so, the blond would have been inclined to join him … he was astounded the lawyer would have to ask the question.

Why would I pack up? Does he really need to ask? If he’s not brighter than that maybe I need to find me another lawyer.

He shook his head, but stopped quickly as the room appeared to want to unseat him. “Got no reason to be here, except I’m working for Nick. Once you tell him the truth about me, can’t think he’ll want me hanging around. And you’ll tell him. You have to … he’s your brother.”

“Heath, my man, you do beat all … as that brother would say. Firstly, you are my client, and I’ve not made a habit of telling Nick, or anyone else, anything about my clients. Unless I need help from him, or them, and when that is the case what I tell them is only that which is germane to getting that help. Secondly, if I did tell him, it would make no difference whatsoever. Not to him … not to any of the family.”

He paused for a moment, looking hard at the man across from him, almost daring him to object. “I’m presuming Ucroft knew everything you just told me? Do you somehow see us as less open-minded than was he … less willing to judge a man on what he does and how he does it, and not on how he came into the world, or how he manages his demons? Do you really think so little of us?”

Jarrod could feel his voice rising and knew he was getting angry. He fought to control himself, to bury his indignation. He didn’t expect Nick would do the job as well as he. The response however, squelched the need to try.

“I’m sorry. That was unfair of me … especially after all you’ve done. Guess I wasn’t thinking straight. I apologize … to you … to Nick and your family. It was wrong of me to think any such thing.”

The remorse and despair evident in the timbre of the blond’s voice was clear indication to Jarrod that this man was unaccustomed to being accepted by people who learned the truth about his background. He briefly wondered what it would be like to be forced to live in such a world, and instantly found his resolve to help grow stronger.

“No, Heath. I’m the one who needs to be sorry. I’d no right to accost you for reacting in accordance to what I’m assuming you typically have encountered from folks.”

He suspected this may be a topic they would revisit, but right now he found himself looking upon someone who appeared to be fading before his eyes. Time to shut this down and let the man get some much needed rest.

“Heath, you look like you’re ready to put an end to this day. Let’s call it good for tonight. For now, I have all I need to proceed. If you have questions … at any time … feel free to raise them. In the meantime, I’ll keep you abreast of my actions and the results. I hope you have a better sleep this night than last.”

Heath startled momentarily at that, and then quickly realized it probably wasn’t too hard to notice he looked as if he needed sleep. More important, for the moment, was getting out of this room … and this house … without arousing further suspicions of just how physically done he was.

Knowing if he just stood up, he’d fall over—or have to grab at something to avoid that happening—he took a firm grip on the arm of the chair before easing himself to his feet. Not ready to take the first step … hoping the floor beneath him would even out, and the walls would cease their side to side movements, he stalled.

“Thank you Jarrod. I want to say again that I appreciate all you’re doing. I won’t forget it. No matter how it turns out.”

“My pleasure, Heath. And now I think you need to head to bed.”

He eased his hand from the chair’s arm, turning his body towards the door. His eyes snapped tightly closed, as he forced himself to swallow, and swallow again. He couldn’t … he just couldn’t … spew here, in front of Jarrod, and onto the obviously very expensive rug. If he could just make it out of the room, he was sure it would be cooler out there. He’d recover enough to make it down that mountainside of stairs and out the door.

His eyes stayed closed as he began the unsteady steps towards freedom. He opened them briefly after a few steps, checking to be sure he was still headed in the right direction. Jarrod saw the brief pause and wondered if his client had something to add, or a question to ask. When he saw him continue he breathed a sigh of relief. Both of them needed to be finished for this night.

Heath felt his hand brush against something hard and chanced another quick peek. The door. He’d made it. He wrapped his fingers around the handle and eased the barricade open, having to take an unwelcome couple of steps backward to do so. Lost ground to be regained.

He angled over to the opposite door jamb and took a firm grip on it as he felt himself falter. A deep breath. Another deep breath. It wasn’t helping. The heat from his head seemed to be flowing downward. His legs were melting, the rest of him collapsing on top of them. He might have groaned. He wasn’t sure. One more attempt at deep breaths, and he knew no more.

*****

Chapter 26

Jarrod was on his feet and moving the moment he realized the blond was staggering towards the open doorway. He reached him just in time to ease his final descent towards the floor. Then, in a most uncharacteristic manner, he felt himself panic. He didn’t want to shout and risk drawing unwanted attention, and he didn’t want to leave Heath lying there alone while he went for help. At the very moment he realized he had no choice but to do one or the other, blessed help arrived.

Victoria Barkley took in the sight and assumed control, not without first giving unwarranted thanks that it was Jarrod by the downed man and not Nick, and chastising herself accordingly. Other than their brief conversation, she had seen little of Heath as he had come and gone but she had gotten the distinct impression that Nick was impressed enough with the young man that he’d do whatever he deemed necessary to bring help immediately.

“Jarrod, stay with him while I get help. We’ll move him into the room at the end of the hall and send someone for Howard.”

She didn’t have to ask … something was definitely wrong. She knew this was not a person who would collapse within their house … not if it could be avoided.

“Mother, he’s burning hot. I didn’t realize—” He stopped himself from continuing. There would be time later for self-recrimination.

She nodded, to let him know she’d heard, as she hurried away.

In very short order Heath, oblivious, was stretch out on a bed, with his boots removed and a cold cloth on his head. Victoria was worried. Jarrod was right, he was decidedly feverish, his skin hot and dry … and pale beyond belief.

Nick looked at him and was intensely relieved to discover that the thought that had galloped through his mind, hadn’t made its way through the open gate of his mouth.

So Jarrod, you’ve finally talked someone to death!

It was obvious to all that Jarrod was just as upset about the young man’s condition as anyone. Knowing him like he did, Nick surmised that he was already building a case against himself, somehow finding himself at fault. What mattered right now … all that mattered … was to find out what was wrong with his new hired hand and fix it.

Why are doctors only swift in coming when you don’t really want them?

Several hours later, and after what seemed an interminable time, they heard voices coming from downstairs and moments later the trusted physician found himself gratefully welcomed.

His initial perusal assured him that Nick and Jarrod did not seem to be the subject of concern. Who then? “So, what have we here? Your messenger was in quite the panic for me to come instantly?”

“I wish we knew, Howard. Mr. Thomson was up here speaking with Jarrod and collapsed without warning. He’s running a very high fever, and shivering, at the same time.”

Doctor Merar moved closer to the bed and a better view of the young man he saw there. “Has he complained of feeling unwell?”

They all looked at each other, no one sure of how to respond.

Nick started the explanation. “He was out with McColl today … came in a short while ago to fill me in, and meet with Jarrod. I’m sure if he said anything, or if Mac had suspected something, he’d have let me know. Did he say anything to you Jarrod?”

The lawyer looked at his younger brother as he thought back over the conversation with the blond. “He did not. However, he seemed to look tired … or something … not necessarily unwell. I wasn’t really concerned. I was certainly more than a little surprised when he collapsed.”

He stopped to look around at the assembled group before adding, “I’m not sure he’s the type to say anything … no matter how poorly he may be feeling.”

Nick nodded. “I think you’re right.”

Merar decided to take control. “Tell me what you do know. How long has he been here? Did he seem to have any difficulty doing a full day’s work?”

While he waited for their answers, he started his examination of his patient. Between the two of them, Nick and Jarrod filled him in with what they knew.

However, it was Victoria that provided the piece they seemed to have forgotten. “He was shot a few weeks ago. It seems he got good care at the time, and had recovered enough within a few days to finish the journey here … on horseback. He never mentioned it again. I, and I’m sure, the boys, figured he was fully recovered. Maybe we were wrong….”

Howard looked puzzled. “I don’t recall treating him, or any gunshot wound in the last few weeks.”

Jarrod clarified. “Happened on his way here from Modesto.”

“I see. And where was he shot?”

Nick and Jarrod looked at each other, before Nick replied. “I don’t recall him saying.”

Well he certainly is running a high fever and heart’s beating a bit fast … although that could be in response to the fever.

“Nick, Jarrod, please give me a hand getting him out of these clothes. I want to see if there’s something obvious that would explain his symptoms.”

He started to unbutton the blue shirt, as Nick moved in, ready to do the physician’s bidding.

“Victoria, will you ask Silas to bring up more cold water … ice if he has it. And, get some water boiling … we’ll need it if I find anything.”

As she left the room, he turned back to Nick and Jarrod. “Let’s finish undressing him, and get him into this bed.”

As the shirt was removed they were all startled by what they saw on his back. Thinking back to what Heath had shared hours earlier, Jarrod offered assurances. “I think I may be able to explain that … later. I don’t guess it’s the immediate concern.”

Nick held his gaze for a moment, then nodded, and turned back to the task at hand.

They soon had the patient stripped and covered, from the waist down, with a sheet and light blanket.

Having found nothing of importance in his examination, Howard returned his attention to the site of the recent wound. “This looks like the bullet wound, and it appears to have healed well. I wonder ….” He broke off as he began to palpate the area, pressing ever deeper into the area around and under the fresh scar. Some low moans arose from the man on the receiving end of his efforts.

He could feel the resistant mass that ought not to have been there, and continued probing until it suddenly disappeared. Almost as quickly a large, angry swelling materialized immediately around and beneath the visible wound site.

“The bullet must have gone deep. The surface has healed, but an infection built at the base of the wound, and appears to have been walled off until my probing broke it open. This will need to be opened, drained, and thoroughly cleaned.”

He turned to open his case and remove some instruments, which he handed to Victoria, who had returned in time to hear his assessment. “I need these boiled. I’ll be needing that hot water, as well as some clean cloths, and a couple of towels.”

When Silas appeared, a short time later, with the instruments in a basin of previously boiling water, Merar again took charge. Handing Silas a bottle of carbolic acid he instructed the man to add some to the basin. Taking the pitcher of hot water that Victoria had brought, he poured some into the basin on the dresser, adding more carbolic to that, before washing his hands in the same. He directed her to place one of the small towels on the bed, slightly under the side needing his ministrations.

Aware of what was likely ahead of them, he hesitated a moment before continuing. “Nick, Jarrod, I’ll need you to help hold him still. He may be somewhat unresponsive at the moment, but I’m betting he’s going to react when I cut into that—”

He was cut off by Jarrod’s question. “Aren’t you going to give him something before you do that, Howard? I’m sure we can rouse him enough to get some laudanum down him.”

“Wish I could. I’m sorry, but I have nothing to give him. My delay in getting here was due to a train derailing, yesterday, between here and Lathrop … dozens injured. Some killed. They requested help from every doctor who could get there. Pretty well depleted every doctor’s supplies … pain medication included. I’ll send an order for more tomorrow, but it will be at least two days before I can expect any.”

He glanced back at his patient. “He can’t wait that long.”

The rancher and the lawyer looked at each other, then nodded.

“Where do you want us, Doc?” He told them, and they positioned themselves.

Merar asked Victoria for one of the clean cloths she had brought along and holding it in one hand, withdrew the scalpel from the basin. Holding the cloth along the mass, he poised the sharp instrument before issuing final instructions.

“Okay, boys, bear down. I’m guessing he’s going to buck at this and I need him as still as possible.” He lowered the blade.

The part-human, part-animal, all-agony sound that accompanied the scalpel slicing into the hot, swollen flesh distressed the witnesses no less than the sight of the putrid green and yellow substance that pushed its way through the newly created opening.

The scream subsided to half-suppressed moans, as Howard continued the debridement of the wound. He had been right. It was all the two men could do to hold the blond. He may have been ill, but he wasn’t weak.

Now that the wound was free of any sign of infection, Nick questioned what he perceived as the doctor’s continued torturing of the man. “How long you going to continue poking at him, Doc? Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”

Howard smiled, inwardly. He was quite accustomed to dealing with this particular Barkley. He also well was aware that Nick seldom intended to be offensive. He most obviously was concerned about the young man’s suffering. He, therefore, sought to put the rancher’s concerns to rest. “Nick. Something caused this infection in the first place. That something must still be in there, because I have not seen any sign of it. If I don’t remove whatever it is, he’s going to be back in this same place in a matter of weeks.”

He procured a new cotton swab with his forceps and proceeded to scour the walls of the now-opened wound, before uttering a quiet, “Yes.”

Looking up at the attentive group, he smiled. “Got it. Looks to be a tiny piece of mostly-disintegrated cloth. I’m guessing it’s a piece of shirt that the bullet picked up on its way into his body. It then adhered to the flesh when the bullet was removed and the wound initially cleaned.”

A short while later, the wound flushed with carbolic, and a clean dressing held firmly in place, everyone breathed a sigh of relief … Nick and Jarrod especially. Little did they know that the relief would be fleeting.

Merar expressed a guarded optimism for a full recovery, explaining that his patient’s survival would now depend on his ability to defeat any infection that had invaded his system and the concomitant fever. All they could do was continue the efforts to reduce the fever, and attempt to replenish the fluids that same fever was devouring. He expected it would take a few days to realize any noticeable change.

His assessment proved correct.

It was Victoria, the morning of the second day, who noticed what, until then, they all had missed. She’d shooed Nick to bed several hours earlier and as Silas entered with a pitcher of fresh, cold water and a cup of coffee for her, she asked him to stay a moment with the young hand. She wanted only a few minutes to freshen up and check on the family.

When she returned the blond had quieted again. Most of the time he was … agitated. Then, inexplicably, he would calm and the agitation would dissipate for a time … sometimes a few brief moments, sometimes longer. While they all longed for the quiet times to last, they were at a loss to identify what brought them on … or took them away.

Here he was calm, once again.

“Has he been like this for long, Silas?”

Receiving no response, she was about to repeat her question when she saw the trusted man was ministering to their now-quiet patient, and softly singing what might be a … hymn. Just not one familiar to her. He obviously had not heard her.

Silas often hummed, or sang lowly, as he worked about the house. As she cast her thoughts back over the last day she quickly realized he’d done just that when he’d been in this room—delivering or removing items, straightening or dusting—doing whatever was needed or helpful. When he sang Heath quieted. So simple … so easily missed.

She wondered what the young man heard, or whom. In any event, she’d try to free Silas from his other tasks so he could spend as much time as possible in this room … as much time as possible bringing soothing, healing calm to the distressed, feverish form in the bed.

While Jarrod had apprised the doctor and Nick, about Carterson, as a likely explanation for the scars they’d seen, his possession of significantly more information about the man’s history rendered him able to make far greater sense, than could the others, of the sometimes-mumbled, sometimes-shouted words. His level of dismay accordingly was greater. His previous conclusion that his client had had a hard life, now appeared less than adequate. His resolve, to do whatever it took to get the requested justice, grew exponentially.

*****

Chapter 27

“Mr. Heath, you shouldn’t ought to be out of that bed. Missus Barkley, she’s going to be right upset if she sees you.”

“Mr. Silas, I don’t rightly know how I got in that bed in the first place. But, one thing I can tell you for sure … it’s most certainly not where I belong. Not in that bed, not this room … not even this house. And I plan to fix that right now.”

Relieved that it hadn’t been the aforementioned lady that had entered the room and found him standing in nothing but the nightshirt to which he likewise did not belong, he added, “I’d be much obliged if you could find me my clothes.”

The blue eyes looked pleadingly at the older grey-haired man.

He’d awoken a short time ago, to the first feelings of lucidity since his collapse four days earlier. Initially, not sure where he was, it had taken him a few moments to collect enough evidence from his interior surroundings, and the exterior sounds, to piece together an explanation.

His last clear memories were of speaking with Jarrod, while he had a hazy recollection of sliding slowing into darkness as his body lurched towards a beckoning doorway. He guessed he’d made it to the door in Jarrod’s room, and no further.

He repeated his entreaty, “My clothes … please.”

Seeing Silas hesitate he sought to push his point. “I’m fine Silas. I’ll assure Mrs. Barkley that you did all you could to persuade me to stay. I need to get out of here, and I don’t want to do so in this.”

He gestured at the nightshirt.

It was the eyes, Silas decided, something about the eyes … he couldn’t say no to those eyes. A short time later he was helping the young blond into the bed reserved for convalescents, in the separate, small room in the bunkhouse. He had adamantly refused to let him go to the barn.

A short while later Victoria returned home and went in search of the houseman. Not finding him in the kitchen, or anywhere else downstairs, she decided he must be upstairs with Heath. A knock at the front door interrupted her ascent of the gold-carpeted stairway.

Opening the door, she greeted Dr. Merar. “Howard. Please come in. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, tea, or something cold?”

She had long ago learned that the good doc did not accept anything stronger when he was working.

“If you have any more of that cold apple cider I enjoyed last time, I won’t say no to it. However, I’m thinking I should check on my patient first.”

“Silas is with him right now. I’m sure if there were any immediate concern he would have advised me. A moment to refresh yourself would seem appropriate.”

She led him to a chair in the parlor and excused herself to fetch the requested refreshment.

A short while later, handing a glass to Merar, she brought him up to date. “He seems much better this morning. A little confused, but coherent. And the fever seems to have loosened its hold on him. You’ll have to make your own assessment, of course, but I’m hoping you’ll see the same improvement.”

He smiled. At the news and the wonderful feeling of the cold, sweet drink making its way to the back of his throat and sliding on down. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he’d been. “I suspect your assessment and mine will be much the same. It’s good to hear. I really was quite concerned.”

Victoria nodded her understanding. “I certainly was hoping he’d make a full recovery. Nick has taken quite a liking to him … I’m hoping his presence here will be good for him. I think he’s still struggling to adjust to Tom’s death … some days he seems so sad … so lost.”

She paused for a moment, deep in thought, continuing, just as Howard had decided she was not about to do so. “This is the first time I’ve seen any glimpses of his old pleasure in working the ranch. There’s just something about this young man that has lit a spark in Nick, and I’m a very grateful mother.”

Howard looked at her. “I know what you mean. I’ve had my concerns about Nick as well.”

He tipped the glass back to take in the last drops, then set it down.

“Well, how about we make our way up there and I’ll see for myself if your years of experience have served you well?”

She laughed, and took his arm, leading him through the foyer and up to his patient’s room. Stepping inside the partially open door, she was surprised to see Silas gathering up bed linens … and no sign of the room’s occupant.

While that concerned her, his furtive movements and attempts to  avoid eye contact, concerned her more. “Silas. Where is Mr. Thomson?”

He couldn’t ignore her, and when his eyes met hers he was defeated. “I be sorry Miz Barkley. I tol’ him you wouldn’t be happy. Tol’ him he needed to be staying here. He wouldn’t listen. Insisted I get his clothes.”

He stared at her, those steel-grey eyes dissolving any little resolve he might have had. “He be mighty insistent, he be.”

He paused once more, seeking, almost as an afterthought, to answer her questions. “He be in the bunkhouse sick room. I did refuse to be letting him go to the barn.”

Howard chuckled. “Saints preserve us. He’s stubborn enough to be a Barkley.”

He sobered. “Maybe it’s what kept him alive. I’ll go check on him.”

As he moved into the hallway he waved off her attempts to follow.

“I know the way … and I’m not sure I’d be able to repair the damage if you get your hands on him.”

Seeing the potential impasse, Silas stepped in. “I be getting what you need. Expect you’ll be wanting to change his bandages.”

He quickly made his escape.

Victoria Barkley took a deep breath and then signaled Merar to be on his way. “Let me know how he is really doing.”

The quiet request was the best he’d get as an admission, on her part, that he might be right.

Until he stopped, quite some time later, to rap on the front door, Howard hadn’t realized he’d stomped across the yard from the bunkhouse.

More stubborn than two Barkleys put together!

As Silas carefully let him in, and he was greeted by the, “HE DID WHAT?” and the now automatic response of “Nicholas, please lower your voice” he guessed that, in his absence, the rest of the family had assembled.

Victoria, spotting the two men in the archway, immediately asked, “How is he Howard?”

Her question halted Nick in mid stride, causing him to spin around and focus his glare on the innocent physician. “DID YOU ORDER HIM BACK HERE?”

“Nicholas, I said—”

Well aware of this dynamic, Howard cut her off. “He is much better. Not quite as fine as he declares, but certainly much better than even I would have expected.”

Turning his attention to the still, obviously riled, rancher, he continued, “And … did I order him … ORDER HIM ….”

He paused to calm himself and proceed in a more respectable tone.

“What makes you think my orders would have any greater weight with him than they do with you?

“I did advise, repeatedly, that he would do better where he had more consistent care, and he … repeatedly … informed me that he could provide all the consistent care he needed, he not only would not be returning to stay in this house, but he intended to be out of the room he currently occupies as quickly as possible.

“Like talking to a wall … or a Barkley.”

When he saw Nick’s fingers slide through the disheveled black hair, he knew he could continue. “I did beseech him to allow himself time to heal. Let him know that this ranch did not encourage—in fact, did not allow—men to work until they had fully recovered from injury or illness. Can’t be sure he believed me … or that he cared.”

Jarrod released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “So, you expect he will make a full recovery?”

“If he gives himself time to recover.”

He looked around the room before continuing. “I must admit I’m not sure what is happening here. Whether he works for Nick or is a client of Jarrod’s. If so, why he’s staying in the bunkhouse…?”

Victoria sought to ease the good doctor’s confusion without revealing more than necessary. Not that she bore any genuine concerns around his ability to keep his own counsel.

“I can appreciate your confusion, Howard. Initially, Heath was Jarrod’s client. Then Nick discovered that he possesses an uncanny ability with horses and has sought to persuade him to put that talent to use for the betterment of the Barkley ranch. I believe that effort has been successful.”

“Darn right,” Nick declared. “He’s agreed to manage the horse operation.” He paused, lost once again in thoughts of how he had reached the decision to entrust the young stranger with that responsibility.

Merar looked pleased … and relieved.

“So Nick, perhaps I can call upon you to order him to follow my advice. I doubt anyone will keep him in bed, short of hogtying him, but he needs to be on very light duty for several days. At the very least, until that wound closes. And, he needs to be accessible, so that wound can be cleaned and dressed at least twice a day for the next few days.”

Nick’s arms crossed and his eyes danced. “He’ll follow orders, or answer to me. Besides, there’s plenty of planning that needs doing, and he can start with that.”

He sobered for a moment as he thought on the blond wrangler.

“However, I don’t think he’ll take to being pushed too far … I don’t want him riding away. So, maybe ordering isn’t quite what’s needed, but I’ll find a way to make sure he’s taking care of himself.”

Howard nodded. “Whatever works. And now I have other patients that need my attention. I’ve let Silas know what’s needed to care for that wound, and I’ll be back to check on him sometime tomorrow. I’ve told him I expect him to be here when I do so. Will be helpful to have that message reinforced.”

Victoria rose to see him out, as Audra looked at her two brothers.

“Maybe you need to remind him that you can’t help him get the justice he’s looking for if he doesn’t help you by taking care of himself. I bet he doesn’t realize how close he came to dying ….”

She blinked quickly a couple of times.

Jarrod saw her fighting back the tears, and wondered at her reaction. Obviously, something about his client’s plight had touched a tender tract in his little sister … or something about the man himself. He was instantly relieved to realize he had no concerns either way. What he had told his client was the truth. Who his father was … or wasn’t … would be of no concern to his family.

“I think you’re right, Sweetheart, and that’s a wonderful suggestion. And, Brother Nick, I suspect it would be helpful to reinforce Howard’s message that no one on this ranch is allowed to work, against doctor’s orders … except maybe the boss.” He chuckled.

Nick frowned, and growled back. “That man can be aggravating at times. I do follow his advice … when it warrants following. Sometimes, he’s worse than an old lady … and then he finagles Mother onto his side—”

“Nicholas, there is a reason, I presume, that I am being likened to an old lady?”

He flinched, openly. “Mother. I wasn’t … I never said … it’s just Merar …. Oh bother.”

She laughed, and then, at the look on his face, laughed harder. The rest joined in and it wasn’t long before he too was seeing the humor. It was a relief to laugh … seemed to have been far too long since they’d enjoyed such a moment with each other.

“Well, I think I need to go have that talk with the boy. Let him know what the next few days are going to look like … whether he likes it or not.”

He turned to Jarrod. “So, Counselor, you want to use that silver tongue of yours to help me deliver the message?”

The attorney shook his dark head and followed his younger brother to the bunkhouse.

*****

Chapter 28

As Jarrod listened to his rancher brother surprisingly incorporate Audra’s suggestion into his orders for this newest hand, he considered that he was going to have to have a talk with the young man himself. That, however, would need to take place in private.

As Nick began to wind down, and his target had yet to say a word, Jarrod glanced around the room to be sure they were still alone before speaking up. “Heath, it might have been easier if you had stayed in the house. Would have given us the cover we needed to be able to talk.”

“Couldn’t.”

Jarrod was about to promote his point with more force when he saw something in the quiet blue eyes. Something he couldn’t quite read, but which told him the blond had said all he was going to say on the matter. Maybe all he was able to say.

They locked gazes for a moment, and then with a slight tilt and sideways jerk of his head, he conceded the point. “Alright Heath, alright.”

He turned to Nick. “If you think he’s heard you well enough, and you’re done with him for the moment, I’d like a few moments in private to speak with my client.”

He thought he was going to get an argument, then Nick shrugged, delivered a meaningful glare at the man on the bed, and turned to leave. As his spurs sang against the wooden floor, he heard the soft drawl.

“Please, tell your mother I’m very grateful for all she’s done … Doc told me. Let her know I meant no disrespect … just couldn’t stay in there. And make her see Silas wasn’t at fault. Don’t want to cause any trouble for him.”

Nicked laughed. “Don’t worry about that old man. There’s not much he could do that would cause him any real trouble with Mother, short of maybe murdering one of us. And that only if it wasn’t somewhat justified.

“I’ll let her know. You just remember what I said about the next few days … or I’ll turn her loose to deal with you directly. She might not be as fond of you as she is of Silas ….”

He walked off chuckling.

Jarrod shot him an appreciative glance, before turning back to Heath, and the conversation he needed to have. He was surprised when the man beat him to it.

“You got the ruling you wanted?”

Took the attorney a moment to understand. “No, Heath. I haven’t even filed the request.”

“I thought you said that was the first thing you needed to do. You change the plan?”

“Not at all. I just needed to wait until I knew there was still a reason to file.”

Seeing the confusion on the man’s face, he was struck with a sudden understanding of its source.

“You don’t get it do you? You really don’t get it. In spite of what the doc told you, and what Nick just said. You don’t get it.” He paused a moment to collect himself.

“We had no idea whether you were going to survive … you very nearly didn’t. Mother wasn’t upset that you turned down her hospitality. She was scared that after three days of fighting to keep you alive, you were going to undo all that work and put your life at risk again. She was worried about you.”

He waited a moment, as he watched the confusion turn to surprise … then to remorse. “I didn’t know … I’m sorry. Never meant for her to worry. Guess I didn’t know it was quite that serious. I’m sorry to have been the cause of worry for any of you.”

He couldn’t find further words.

Maybe Sawyer was right after all. His friend doesn’t see much value in his own life.

He took a moment to choose his words. “We were worried … all of us. By … our … choice. It was not, and is not, your fault. We place great value on life … all life … but especially on the life of anyone we respect and admire. Like you.”

He waited for that to penetrate before continuing. “I … we … ask nothing in return, except assurances from you that you never again will ignore an injury or illness. If, for any reason, you are not feeling one-hundred percent we want to know about it.” He paused again.  “Do you understand?”

The play of emotions across the cowboy’s face would have been comical if only the situation were less serious. The answer came sooner than he expected.

“I understand.”

“Fine. Now that that is out of the way, I have something else I need to cover with you. I feel it is only fair to let you know. Nick and Dr. Merar saw the scars on your back … it couldn’t be avoided.”

He ignored the flinch and the look of fear that accompanied it.

“Not too many places a person receives the kind of treatment that produces scars like that. Process of elimination … I guessed Carterson. I didn’t want either of them to be left thinking it might be the other most likely option. So, I shared that piece of your history.”

Seeing his client about to protest, he hastened to add, “That and no more … and only with the two of them. Just that you were there and that you had told me nothing that would suggest there was any other likely scenario. And, that I believed you. Nick was understandably shocked, but he didn’t take much convincing.”

A moment’s further consideration and he thought to explain further. “Knowing my brother as I do, I doubt he’ll broach the subject with you. Not unless you raise it first. And the truth is, he won’t care if you don’t. You will come to learn that Nick either trusts people, or he doesn’t … and he does neither by halves.

“He has decided to trust you. Unless you do something to break that trust, you will have it forever. If you break it, there will be nothing you can do to get it back.”

Blue met blue without either breaking contact.

“I suspect the two of you are not dissimilar in that way.” He gave the tan-colored-pant-leg-encased limb a light slap.  “Since I’ve been assured by the good doctor that your recovery is no longer in doubt … if you follow orders … I plan to head to town today to file that same request and get this action started. You rest easy now, you hear?”

He walked out without waiting for a reply. There was work to get done.

Boy howdy, it’s not like I was planning to chase after wild horses. Just needed out of that house.

He let his mind wander back over the conversations with the two brothers and found it quickly took him to thoughts of his mama. The sadness engulfed him before he could get his defenses in place, and he fought to keep the tears at bay.

Some things he wasn’t about to share with anyone … even the lawyer. It wouldn’t help to have someone see tears in his eyes, let alone rolling uncontrolled down his face. He forced himself to turn his thoughts to other things … like horses, and the soon-to-be-here court case.

It was waking up several hours later that made him aware he’d fallen asleep. He noticed the blanket covering him, and the other at the foot of the bed, correctly assuming someone had been by to check on him. He didn’t know the someone, at Victoria’s urging, was Jarrod. He guessed it didn’t matter who … at the moment he had a more pressing concern.

He eased himself upright, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, closing his eyes to restore equilibrium, before bending over to slide on his boots, fleetingly thankful that their worn state made the task so much easier. He then gingerly made his way out the side door, to the multi-holer … and back.

Nope, I’m surely not planning on doing anything with wild horses … at least not today.

Having situated himself into a semi-reclining position, he returned his thoughts to the conversation of earlier in the day. It troubled him. He suspected Jarrod was correct: Nick did trust him. Wasn’t sure he understood why, but what he understood even less was why earning his trust was so important … and then having it so … discomfiting.  And then there were Jarrod’s comments about Mrs. Barkley.

Why would she be concerned about me? I’m nothing to her. I am not, never have been and never will be, her son … or anyone else’s for that matter. Never again.

He shook his head, attempting to dislodge those thoughts and refocus on the main issue.

 Don’t make sense … unless …. Maybe that was it.

 He thought back on his much earlier conversation with her.

 “Nick does the work …, but he’s lost the joy. Somehow, I think you could help him find that again.” Yes, maybe that was it. She would care about me if she thought I was of value to Nick. If Nick would suffer should anything happen to me. Makes sense, but I still don’t see how she thinks I can make that much difference to her son.

Well, he’s given me a job to do. I’ll do it, as best I can. If that’s a help to him, it’s fine by me. Maybe I’ll just take me a short nap … make sure I’m ready to start doing that job tomorrow.

Almost of their own volition his eyes drifted shut and the slow, steady breathing indicated he was indeed sound asleep.

Some hours later, as he approached the small room, Nick heard quiet voices coming from within.

Good, he’s awake.

Barging through the door, he was met by that unnerving, somehow disapproving, look from Silas. The look that left him stammering.

“Oh … Silas … ah, Heath … just thought I’d uh … well you see ….”

He stopped, his gloved hand grasping the back of his neck, as his head dropped down.

“Mr. Nick. We just be finishing here. Mr. Heath, he has finished the food I brung him, and it appears it be agreeing with him.” He smiled at the young man.

“It seems Mr. Nick be wanting some time with you, so I be going now. I be bringing you some more to eat later. We need to be putting some meat on them bones.”

He smiled again, before turning to Nick. The smile he gave him was somehow different …  at the same time, both scathing and sympathetic. Like he disapproved of the rancher’s inability to curb his enthusiasm, and at the same time, felt great empathy towards him for having to bear such an obvious character defect.

Nick looked after him for a moment before turning his attention back to what had brought him into the room in the first place.

“Heath. Good to see you looking better. I trust you took it easy today … got the rest you needed.”

Barely pausing for breath, let alone a reply, he pressed on. “Just want to talk to you for a moment.”

He pulled over the lone chair and flipping it around straddled it with his arms resting on the back. He met the blond’s gaze … and held it.

“Heath, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I need to be sure you understand. This ranch and all it encompasses is important to me … and important doesn’t seem to be enough. It’d take Jarrod to find the right word. No matter … whatever the word … however important it may be … it’s not as important as my family … or my brother.

“When Jarrod suggested it would be easier if you stayed in the house, he was right. Easier … and safer. I don’t want you, even for a minute, to think your case matters to him more than you do. Jarrod values life … all life … even that of some of the scum he too often represents. Even if he believes a man is guilty, he’ll take the case and plead for leniency … even mercy … if he can find the smallest shard of justification. He takes no pleasure from seeing a life end … doesn’t matter if it’s the life of a someone who deserves to die.

“I saw what you accomplished at Semple’s. Have no doubt you can take care of yourself … and those around you. If you know the threat’s there … can see whoever. But, I trust my brother. If he believes there is a good chance that you could be in danger, then, as far as I’m concerned, you are in danger.

“Don’t know why you’re refusing to stay in the house. Don’t care. It’s none of my business. All I’m asking is that you follow the rules we’ve put in place to keep people safe. Something happens to you, my brother will be hurting. I don’t want that happening.”

Hazel eyes drilled blue. He waited.

“I hear you, Nick. Got no desire to cause harm to Jarrod … or to you. Can’t stay in that house … don’t mean I can’t be careful.”

Blue drilled hazel.

“Fair enough. I think we understand each other.”

He smiled. Wider. “Besides, I’m thinking it won’t be all that long before it becomes obvious to everyone that the Barkley Ranch can’t afford to lose you.”

Neither knew how prophetic those words would prove.

*****

Chapter 29

 Howard Merer was not happy. He’d stopped in at the Barkley ranch to check on his patient, only to find … well, to find … that he couldn’t find his patient. Furthermore, no one else was any the wiser as to the missing cowboy’s whereabouts.

“Howard, I know you’re worried, but I’m not sure you need be. Both Nick and Jarrod have assured me that Heath has promised to follow orders … yours and theirs.”

The silver-haired matriarch paused for a moment, considering her words … then reconsidering. “He may not follow the actual orders, but he will adhere to the spirit of them … consider the concerns that prompted them. He will ensure those concerns are met.”

In all truth she too was worried, although not necessarily in the same way.

She believed what she told the agitated physician. Believed the young man would not risk his life engaging in any activity that put him in danger … from the not-yet-fully-healed wound, or unknown persons. She just wasn’t convinced he recognized what might constitute danger … on either front. The blond had a strong propensity to believe he was recovered to a degree far greater than matched reality. Not unlike the two men of whom she was well acquainted.

But there was something more, something she didn’t fully understand. It was like he couldn’t recognize danger to himself, because … well because he couldn’t see … himself. Like there wasn’t anything there worth protecting. She most certainly couldn’t explain that to Howard … didn’t understand it well enough herself.

“Howard, if you would be so kind as to have a seat for a short while, I’ll have Silas bring you some refreshments, and go see what I can do about locating him. Please?”

The sigh he uttered was one of resignation. “All right, Victoria, I’ll give it a few minutes. But, I do have other patients to see today, so I can’t linger here much longer.” He made his way to the nearest chair and settled himself, as he heard her brisk steps disappear.

Victoria passed through the kitchen urging Silas to do what he could to keep the doc in place while she headed out the back door to see about finding his wayward patient. Glancing over the expanse before her she wondered where to begin.

What would I do if I were looking for a seemingly-escaped Nick? Where would I start?

 She took a brief moment to ponder on how odd it was that the two seemed to share so many similar characteristics, and at the same time, so outwardly, be opposites.

Where? Where?

 And then she knew.

His horse. Where’s his horse?

She remembered Nick saying they had put the little, dark-coated mare in the near pasture. He said her owner allowed as how she would not enjoy being penned up for too long, and needed some room to run.

She headed that direction, coming fairly quickly upon the nearest fencing, and just as quickly jumping as a man appeared at her elbow.

“Sorry to surprise you, Miz Barkley. Got orders not to let you wander alone, at least not far from the house.”

She collected herself, recognizing him as a long-time Barkley hand. At the same time she wondered how long it would take her to get used to these precautions that had been put in place … and how long they would be needed. “I was looking for Mr. Thomson’s horse. Have you seen her? Or him, for that matter?”

“No ma’am … well, yes … uhm, no.” He shook his head in a concerted effort to get his thoughts aligned so he could start over and make sense.

“Excuse me ma’am. Yes, his horse is in the pasture … over yonder, under the trees by the water. Last time I saw him was earlier this morning, looked like he was heading for the barn. I stopped in the cook house to grab a cup of coffee before taking over from the night watch. Didn’t see him when I came out.”

He chuckled before catching himself, realizing to whom he was speaking.

She smiled. “Now don’t you just stand there leaving me wondering at the joke. Out with it.”

He looked over at her, and seeing the smile decided he could share his thoughts. “Just thinking … kind of like keeping Nick under wraps … might as well try to lasso the wind.”

She stared at him for a moment, somewhat unnerved by the accuracy of his observations, and found herself chuckling.

“Yes, I think you’re right … as if they were cut from the same cloth. I’ll head back to the barn and see what I can do about lassoing him.”

She had taken a few steps in that direction before she remembered to turn and offer her final thoughts. “Thank you … for looking out for us. Let me assure you I am … we all are … most appreciative.”

Had he sported a complexion more in keeping with the missing blond she would have seen him blush. Instead she witnessed only a quick nod and an adjustment of his hat upon his head, before he turned and resumed his patrol … resumed it with an increased intent to ensure nothing—or no one—escaped his notice.

As she stepped into the barn, Victoria Barkley was assailed by the sights and sounds that had always spoken, “Ranch,” to her. The lingering fetor of recently-removed horse dung, the more poignant smell of sweat … of man, and beast … the faint, near odorless, dust of freshly laid straw, and the sweet, vital aroma of fresh hay.

The occasional soft huff of a horse. The rustling of the leaves in the trees out back. The creak of the posts and beams that supported the structure. The scrape of a hoof against the plank flooring. The swish of tail creating the buzz of a newly-disturbed fly, and the faint, faint breathing of the leather of saddles, harness, and other tack.

The dark grey of the aged wood occasionally interspersed with flashes of bleached brown where a repair had been made. The pleasant mix of browns, blacks and blonds on the coats of the horses still housed in the stalls. The play of bright and dark where the filtered light from high windows and rare cracks fought to remove the dark shadows. The muted, but varied, colors in the saddle blankets hung to dry and the intermittent glint of a polished buckle or bit.

The mingling of it all produced a sense of quietude, and elicited a memory … a memory that said, “Tom,” so loudly and clearly he might as well be standing before her.

For all he became, Tom Barkley was first and foremost a rancher. Nothing evidenced that more irrefutably than the knowledge that they lived in the wagon that brought them here while a shelter was built for the horses. The first true barn preceded the first real house, and, this current solid, sizeable barn was constructed before the current house.

She knew Tom had enjoyed the house, was proud of what it represented, and felt comfortable ensconced within its walls. However, while his presence was still felt within those walls, his essence was found here, inside this barn. She allowed herself that moment to feel it, to savor all it brought.

Yes, this barn was forever the reminder of what the ranch meant … what it represented for Tom … and for her. Things of which she alone was aware. There were many words to describe Victoria Barkley. Neither foolish nor naïve were among them. She had no illusions about the man she had married. He often had been gone exploring one business opportunity or another. Often for extended periods of time.

The ranch had given her great comfort at those times … not just because it had reminded her of him. His children were here … with her. Those little pieces of him that she treasured … he prized. He had them to bring him back, and her … and if ever that proved to fall short of sufficient compensation … there was the ranch.

The ranch would always tip the scale in their favor … always bring him back to them. It was all that mattered. That he came back … that she would have him.

It was a topic which was never raised … not by him, and most assuredly not by her. If she sometimes wondered … sometimes doubted. If sometimes he returned and was too attentive … too caring … too guilty … so be it. For, it was, in those moments when she allowed herself to think too deeply about it … to consider he might seek comfort in the arms of another … she understood that the ways in which he was imperfect could hurt.

But she understood something more important: the degree to which she could be hurt also was the degree to which she cared about him. Only because he was so important to her, only because she loved him with every fiber of her being … imperfections included … was she able to be hurt by him.

Never had she questioned him. She had not been prepared to risk losing him. If he had sometimes strayed, having him admit it would have changed nothing. She had refused to doubt that he loved her. Without proof, she had not entertained the possibility she could be duping herself about that. Even now she couldn’t be sure any proof would change that. For the ineluctable fact was that, imperfect though he may be, she loved him. She would do so until the day she died.

She gave herself a moment to relish the feeling, the memories, before squaring her shoulders that imperceptible bit that brought her back to the present, and reminded her of what had prompted her feet to carry her here in the first place.

Where could he be? Eyes adjusting to the dim light, she scoured the length and breadth of the building which relinquished not a sign of him. She’d almost decided he wasn’t to be found here when her eyes caught the ladder.

The loft.

She wasn’t sure Nicholas, much more, was prone to seek sanctuary there, but it certainly might appeal to a reticent young ranch hand. She marched over and with a hand on each side, moved slowly up the rungs. Her head cleared the ceiling and allowed her eyes to do a repeat scan of the area.

She didn’t see him at first, and when she did, she froze, afraid a sound or movement would startle him … to grave consequence. She need not have worried, for it was soon evident that he was aware of her presence before she was of his. “Something you’re looking for? Something I can help with?”

Had she not had a good grip on the ladder rails, she might well have been the one to suffer the grave consequences. Collecting herself, she pulled herself up the rest of the way and slowly made her way over to where he sat on the narrow threshold of the loft door.

She stood with hands on hips, towering over him, and demanded, “What could you be thinking?”

Absolutely nonplussed, he looked up at her, the confusion evident on his face. “I … uh … I … I don’t know. That is … I … I don’t know what you mean.”

He drew a quick breath before the flashing steel of her eyes suggested he best might try to answer her question. “Well, Mrs. Barkley, I was thinking about the horses … the horses Nick has put me in charge of thinking about.”

He stopped. He wasn’t sure his answer was what she was looking for, wasn’t sure it was even an answer. It did not look like it pleased her. He dropped his eyes to the paper that sat on the board that rested on his legs.

Time to shut up Heath, old boy, and let things take care of themselves. Nothing you can say is going to help here.

She stared at him. And stared. And somewhere in those moments while she stared at him and he stared at his paper, the vision of a young, dark-haired boy flashed before her eyes.

He isn’t trying to vex me, he truly has no idea what he’s done. If I push him, I’m sure I’ll hear “What? What did I do? I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do.” Although I may hear it a little more quietly, a little less angrily, than I’d expect.

She decided it was time to start over. “Yes, Heath, I am looking for something. You. I have Dr. Merar sitting impatiently in my parlor wondering on the whereabouts of the patient he came to see. I’ve saddled Silas with the burden of trying to keep him there until I can produce that patient for him to examine.”

Pausing to be sure she maintained her composure and the tone that went with that, she took a deep breath before continuing. “So, in further answer to your second question, yes there is something you can do. You can march yourself back over to the bunkhouse, put yourself back in your bed, and be ready for the good doctor when I advise him that you have been found.”

Deciding she’d said enough, she turned and made her way briskly to the ladder, spun around, and executed an efficient descent, before hurrying back to the house. She had no doubt he’d be where he was expected by the time Howard presented himself.

She didn’t see him shake his head, and certainly didn’t hear his thoughts.

“Boy howdy, have to be grateful I only had Mama to deal with when I was a kid.”

She also would have missed the flash of pain that crossed his face, and the quick shuttering of his eyes, before even the dust motes might see what was housed within.

*****

Chapter 30

Howard had come and gone, proclaiming his charge recovering nicely, but not yet recovered. He’d again urged the young cowboy to rest and give his body a chance to recover fully. Heath had meant no disrespect when he’d told the doc, “I figure I need to get my strength back. Don’t figure it’s going to just fall out of the sky.

“I’m going to have to work to get it back. I promise not to overdo it, but I’ve been a heap worse off than this … more than once. I knew what I had to do then. Did it, it worked. Don’t see any reason to believe it won’t work now.”

While Merar would have liked to offer an argument, even he had to admit there wasn’t one to offer. Maybe the man was right, maybe he did know what he needed better than did the learned physician.

Well, he’d be willing to let him take the lead, just as long as he could come along and keep an eye on the ramifications. Truth be told, he didn’t need to be right, didn’t need to have his way. He just needed to ensure the results were what everyone wanted … at least everyone that mattered.

He was beginning to suspect that the Barkleys had some significant concerns regarding the well-being of their ranch hand. Concerns that centered around people who might prefer he not stay healthy … or even alive. He also assumed if there was anything he needed to know in that vein, they’d fill him in.

Nick hadn’t been able to withhold the dimpled grin when, at dinner that evening, his mother reported the events surrounding Howard’s visit, and the resultant conversation he’d shared with her. Heath was more and more being revealed as a man after his own heart.

“Nicholas, I really don’t think this is a laughing matter.”

In spite of his best efforts, he felt himself wither under her glare. Nonetheless, he wasn’t prepared to back down. “Not exactly laughing at the matter, Mother. I’m just happy to hear that Heath seems to be so much better. Man seems to have sand … can hardly be sorry about that.”

Jarrod decided to interject before either of them got too riled. Especially before Nick said something for which he later would have to apologize. “Mother, it sounds like Howard is pleased with his progress and not overly concerned about the stance Heath is taking. I think we can trust his judgment … after all, he’s got considerable experience managing Nick through one disaster or another … no reason to believe Heath wouldn’t fare as well as a Barkley. And, I think I have some good news.”

As he’d hoped, that last statement instantly shifted the focus.

“What kind of news, Jarrod? Oh I do hope it’s good news for Mr. Thomson.” The young blonde’s bright blue eyes met his.

“I think it could be. I met Judge Lansbury today, coming out of the Cattlemen’s and he requested I see him in chambers first thing in the morning. I suspect it’s about the petition I’ve filed to have Heath be granted standing.”

Nick caught his eye. “What makes you say that?”

Jarrod cocked an eyebrow. “Well, I don’t have anything else pending at the moment that would warrant a summons to chambers.”

“So, what makes that good news, Jarrod?”

“Well, Sweetheart, something like this could go either way, and could come before any available judge … Lawson, for instance.”

“Now Jarrod, Judge Lawson has always been a very fair man. I’m not sure—” She was cut off.

“Yes, yes Mother. That’s true. At the same time he can take an inordinately excessive amount of time to implement that fairness … sometimes be unwilling to issue a judgment based upon the facts at his disposal. If this should come before him and he should decide that he would want to first hear from anyone with cause for objection, it would defeat my whole purpose in filing the petition in Stockton. No, if Lansbury is going to rule on it that, in itself, is worthy of celebration.”

He placed the piece of meat on his fork firmly in his mouth as if to say the conversation was concluded.

Victoria wasn’t sure she could unequivocally support his position, but she could allow herself to accede to his argument. She knew Lawson’s approach to rendering justice previously had created difficulties for Jarrod, and she suspected would do so again. His concerns were valid, and it was not as if Lansbury would fail to remain within the confines of the law. Jarrod would get no preferential treatment.

“Alright Jarrod. Alright. Point taken. And, if you are correct, perhaps it is worth hoping that you will get a favorable decision.”

She looked around the table to unanimous nods of agreement.

“Let’s finish dinner.”

As they stood preparatory to reconvening in the library, Jarrod asked Nick if he could convey this bit of news to Heath. “Be sure he understands it’s a sign of a possible concordant adjudication but not indubitable.”

Nick stopped short, staring at his older brother, as he replayed what just had been uttered. He shook his head. Shook it again, then responded. “Be glad to Counselor … if you’ve no objections to me delivering the message in good old English.”

As he started to move away, Jarrod chuckled and swatted the back of his head. “Whatever you can manage, Brother Nick. Whatever you can manage.”

As Nick completed his rounds of the barn and yards before retiring for the night, he stopped at the little room in the bunkhouse, and found it … empty.

“Damn, where’s that boy now,” he muttered.

Stepping into the main area he cast his eyes around and failed to find the man he sought. “Anyone seen Mac?”

Several heads shot up, before Chester answered. “I think he trailed your new wrangler down to the lower paddock.”

He waited to see if this would be enough, or if the boss would demand more. One never could be sure with Nick. When the long legs strode across the floor and the door slammed behind him, they all breathed a sigh of relief, and shared a common thought.

Don’t think I’d want to be that young man right now.

Nick glanced skyward as he stormed across the yard and past the near corral.

Near full moon. At least I won’t break my neck trying to find him. Might break his when I do….

Mac couldn’t be sure, and Heath certainly never would admit to it, but he suspected the blond had relocated his mare to this area, and then taken himself well away from the close fence line, so Nick would have time to cool off before he reached them. Might just work … or it could do the exact opposite.

Never can be sure with the boss.

Have to admit he seems to have an unusual affinity for the young man. Hard to figure … but then I’m guessing it’s hard to see what the old man saw in me when I wandered into his sights all those years ago. I’m thinking he saw something that I didn’t even see … or even imagine anyone could see. Nick’s like his daddy in more ways than people see … it’s like they both have that built-in ability to read people … can size someone up within moments of meeting them, like they’d known them all their lives.

His musings were interrupted when the man in question showed up. Mac met his eye and nodded, then shifted his gaze to the man and horse some yards distant.

“Thanks Mac … for keeping an eye on him. You can head back. I’ll take it from here.”

Mac smiled. “You won’t be needing anyone to help pack the body … or bring a coffin?”

Nick laughed. “Get lost you old codger … or I will be needing help hauling a body back.”

He laughed again as he watched his foreman saunter off.

Damn lucky to have the likes of him.

Slowly he made his way over to the pair … dark outlines against the background of trees and pasture. He’d intended to give the man a good dressing down … let him know how vehemently he disapproved of him being out here, alone, and in the dark. As he drew close something changed his mind. It wasn’t like there was anything to see … or hear …. They both stood there silently. But, they stood with each other. No, he couldn’t see, or hear, anything special. But he could feel it.

In a move so very uncharacteristic of Nick Barkley, the rancher stood and watched … motionless and silent. He found himself, in that moment, watching himself. Watching a younger Nick Barkley, not long after he’d lost his father, on a night much like this, trying to find answers … and solace … from a certain liver-colored horse. That same sorrow … same sadness … permeated the air tonight.

Can’t leave him here, and it’s time we were both in bed.

He moved closer and wondered how to go about letting the boy know he was there.

“Howdy, Nick. Something for you?”

Nick’s body snapped back. “Damn boy. How do you do that? I didn’t make a sound.”

Heath chortled softly. “Nick, you always make a sound.”

He looked up from caressing the black mare. “Thought I’d just let old Gal here know I haven’t forgotten her. Reckon she’s a might confused … kind of lonely, with all this new space to roam in, and no work to do. Just wanted to keep her company for a bit.”

He gave her a couple more pats, before turning away and moving toward Nick. “Guess we better be heading for bed. You need me for something?”

Nick turned to follow the blond who had now passed him and was striding out at a good speed.

Thought he was injured … supposed to be needing to take it easy. Before I know it I’ll be stumbling over this damn ground trying to keep up with him.

“Hold on a minute, Heath. Got a message for you.”

That slowed the blond, and he waited until he was up close and could quietly share Jarrod’s message … in understandable English.

“Tell him thanks. Guess I better get moving on those plans for your horse operation. Could be I’ll be needed elsewhere sooner than expected.”

Nick realized he hadn’t really thought of that … and wondered at the sudden emptiness he felt.

*****

Chapter 31

 

Heath had spent the following day reviewing, and adjusting, the initial plans he’d created the previous day. He’d asked Mac if he could spare a couple of men to ride out and make sure there were no stallions in among any mares. It was time to start making those pairings a thoughtful, rather than a chance, happening. By late afternoon he’d determined he could do no more without some input from the boss. He’d waited on Nick’s return and requested some time with the rancher.

It had been a long, tiring day for Nick and all he really wanted was a bath, some food, and a good night’s sleep. He was about to suggest it wait until tomorrow, when he remembered Heath’s words from the night before. Deciding a bath and food would contribute enough to his immediate recovery, he’d suggested the boy come up to the house later that evening. Heath was agreeable.

They’d been in the library, while Nick had attempted to develop at least an estimation of what the ranch’s near future needs for horseflesh would be. Heath had already created the basic categories. Work horses (ploughing, pulling wagons or buckboards, clearing land). Horses for transportation (getting family and others to town, neighbors, outings) … on horseback and in various comfortable conveyances. Mounts for general and specialized use (riding fence or checking herds, pastures, waterways). Horses for moving cattle … general and specialized (strong, steady animals that could keep the beasts moving, pull them out of bogs or mud holes, ones who could hold a rope taut once it settled on its target, and well trained cutting horses that could drastically ease the work when the cattle needed to be separated from each other). Animals specially trained to chase down their wild counterparts, for infusing the deliberately-bred stock with carefully chosen animals from the various wild herds, was a crucial part of the plan.

Nick had been impressed with the thought that had gone into the questions. He had the sense that some of this had always been floating about in his mind. He’d just never organized it quite this way. For a moment, he wondered if his father had done so. He knew there were aspects of running the ranch that the man had failed to impart to him prior to his sudden death. Neither had anticipated any urgency.

Father had been fairly methodical in his teachings. While Nick had been exposed to everything that was happening, the underlying considerations that had gone into making those things happen were shared in measured doses. Father had repeatedly urged Nick to be patient, advising the young man that he preferred that he have a thorough understanding of one aspect before focusing on the next. It was depth of knowledge and not speed of acquisition that was important.

What he was hearing from his head-of-horse-operations bore an uncanny resemblance to Father’s approach. Carefully constructed questions, drawing out of existing knowledge, slow feeding of additional information so as to integrate it with what was already known. It was almost like he had his father back … for just a few moments.

Heath decided he had enough to move onto the next step, and was mentally outlining the next day, when Jarrod walked in. Nick looked up in surprise when the door opened, and on seeing the attorney, remarked, “Kind of late aren’t you Counselor? We were expecting you for dinner.”

Jarrod nodded, and signaled with head and hand that they follow him. They did, and soon found themselves in his bedroom, where they took seats, while he closed the window.

“Been a long day, Nick, and I’ll make this short, but we need to keep the precautions in place. Don’t want to talk where there’s a risk of being overheard. I met with Lansbury as planned and then had work to do. He’s scheduled the hearing on the petition for tomorrow morning … and he’s insisting Heath be present.”

Their eyes met. “Heath I’m sure it’s just a formality, but I wanted to make sure I had everything clearly recorded, so you could go over it and be fully prepared … also advise me if anything is missing.”

He handed a sheaf of papers to the suddenly disquieted individual, before turning to Nick. “I’m going to need your help. If at all possible, I’d prefer Heath appear to be in town for another purpose—picking up supplies perhaps—and then he can show up at the courthouse on pretence of delivering a message from you … or Mother … someone.

“I need to get him into that hearing without anyone taking particular notice … just in case. And I need him protected while he’s doing all this, so you’ll have to free up someone to accompany him. Whoever we’ve got protecting me can do double duty while he’s in the courthouse.”

Heath started to say, “I can pro—” before Nick spun on him.

“DON’T! DON’T SAY IT. DON’T EVEN THINK IT. You cannot. You will not … depend on yourself for protection. None of us will … myself included. Much as I hate to admit it. We can’t afford to take that chance.”

Unexpectedly, his voice softened, quieted. “We made that mistake six years ago. Cost us dearly. We won’t be making it again. You hear.”

Hazel eyes bored into the steady blue.

Heath released the air in his lungs in an extended and forceful way, past his pursed lips. He couldn’t drop the gaze. “Alright, Nick. I hear you. Can’t hardly not.”

He grinned that half grin and waited.

Nick acknowledged the acquiescence with a curt nod.

“Got a load of wire due in on tonight’s train. Should be ready to collect in the morning … the sooner the better. Think this young fellow’s got some plan to give each of our horses their own piece of pasture. Should use up every strand of wire in the entire State.”

Heath shook his head and chuckled. He held up the papers. “I’ll look these over, Jarrod. I’m sure it’ll all be here. If I’ve any concerns I’ll catch you before you go in the morning.”

“Sounds fine, Heath. Just remember. I do believe your presence is a mere formality. I suspect Judge Lansbury has already decided … in our favor … he’s just doing due diligence in the unlikely possibility, at a later date, his decision should be challenged. I am optimistic.

“So don’t stay awake worrying about this. Ran into Doc Merar today. He’s still convinced you aren’t getting near enough rest. I assured him I’d do what I could to help. See you in the morning. The hearing is at 9:00.”

Heath nodded and stood. They followed him and saw him out before heading back to the library. Nick reached over and closed the door, and from the privacy of the hallway, questioned Jarrod.

“Was that just for show, Jarrod, or do you mean it?”

“Well, I have no proof, Brother Nick, but I believe what I said. Can’t say why, but I think Lansbury is going to rule in our favor. As I said, I do think Heath’s presence is a mere formality. Nonetheless, he does need to be there … and I don’t want to draw attention to his appearance.”

“Okay, Pappy, I’ll trust you on this one. I’ll assign someone to ride in with him, and I’ll send along that packet of information I’ve been collecting so you can file a complaint about the taxes on the property in Calaveras county.”

He reached over and opened the door, quickly crossing the room, and pouring himself a drink. Seeing the look on his brother’s face, he handed him a drink as well, and laughed. “Sometimes I think you worry too much … sometimes I maybe don’t worry enough. Guess that makes us a good team.”

He downed the last of his drink. “Been a long day, Jarrod, and I’m long past ready for sleep. See you in the morning.”

Giving a firm grip to the near shoulder, he left the attorney to finish his drink and headed to bed. Jarrod set his empty glass on the desk, exited the room, and was prepared to follow his brother’s example, when he saw the faint light in the parlor.

As expected he found his mother settled in her favorite chair, supposedly reading a book that nestled in her lap. Her eyes were not on the pages opened before her.

He eased himself down to the seat across from her and waited for her to notice his presence. It took longer than he’d have thought.

“Oh, Jarrod … I didn’t hear you come in.” She just looked at him, revealing nothing.

“Was just heading to bed when I saw the light. Don’t know if I’ve got a penny, but I’d be glad to owe you, Lovely Lady.” His sapphire eyes smiled at her, inviting her to share whatever she was thinking.

“Doubt they’d be worth even half that amount.”

“Nick claims I’m always overpaying for regular things, so I’m more than willing to risk it. What’s got you up so late … and looking so worried?”

Knowing he had far more patience than her aforementioned son, she took the time to gather her thoughts. “I’ve been puzzling about Heath, and what we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

Seeing the quick spark of concern in those telling blue eyes, she hastened to continue. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m having no second thoughts on our decision … perhaps I’m even more convinced we made the right one. But, that’s what has me wondering.

“We made that decision without having met him. Meeting him has reinforced it. But I don’t know why. On the surface he seems to be a very ordinary, unassuming, young man. And yet, there’s something far from ordinary about him … something I can’t identify. He’s got a quiet strength … one I’m guessing can lose its quiet when necessary. He asks for little … is willing to accept less.

“But he’s getting under my skin … in a good way. I found myself genuinely concerned when I thought he was going to leave. Haven’t shared this with you … most especially not with Nick.

“I spoke to him, hoped I could persuade him to stay. And what I said to him, what seemed to have worked, was true. I somehow thought he was important to having Nick become Nick again.”

She shifted her grey eyes up to meet his, verifying that he knew of what she spoke. “He’s not been himself since losing your father. Oh, he goes about his work with the same effort and responsibility … probably more so … but it seems such an effort … like his heart isn’t in it. Like he’s lost his heart.

“Well I know how much Tom was a piece of that heart … as he was for all of us. I get the sense that the rest of us have found a way to heal that part that was wounded … he hasn’t. It’s like it’s just gone … not even there to be healed.”

She, for a moment, stopped to consider the thoughts … the concerns … she was voicing. “But when he spoke about the young man at the horse auction, and when I saw them together after he got here, it was like that piece had returned. Almost like he’d gotten his father back. I can’t make sense of it Jarrod.”

She looked pleadingly at him.

He reached over and took her hands, squeezing securely. “Not sure I can either, Mother. But, if it’s any consolation, I’ve felt the same thing. Nick is seeing something in that young man that he’s not seen in anyone else.

“I think he’s made a connection with him … one he doesn’t want to lose. One he doesn’t even know he’s made. Something of that scares me. If I don’t find a way to give that young man what he’s seeking … and keep him alive in the process … I’m not sure Nick will recover from that loss.”

He smiled wanly at her, planted a kiss on the top of her head, and urged her to join him in getting some sleep before it got any later. Tomorrow the battle and concomitant concerns would return.

*****

Chapter 32

As he reined in the horses in front of the train depot and then vaulted from the wagon seat, Heath kept his eyes scanning the surroundings. He’d been doing that since he left the ranch earlier that morning. A couple of times en route he stopped the wagon and got down on the pretence of checking a wheel.

He figured if anyone was watching, and hoping to interfere, those actions would draw them out. He wanted to believe Jarrod was right in his assessment that Greenley had long since abandoned any thoughts, or concerns, regarding Heath Thomson.

Signaling the man with him to dismount and follow, he moved into the depot office. He introduced himself as a Barkley hand and let the man know they were there to collect last night’s shipment. The man looked relieved, and Heath silently chuckled to himself.

I bet he’ll be glad to get rid of this order. Has to be taking up the bulk of his storage space, and probably threatening to pierce him whenever he lets his attention waver.

Within moments the clerk had given the men the access they needed to start hauling and loading the heavy rolls of wire. When they’d secured the final one in place, Heath had made a suggestion to the hand who’d accompanied him … a suggestion made somewhat more loudly than he might normally do.

“Ted, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you to get the other things. Don’t expect any of them will be too heavy for one person to manage. Nick asked me to drop this packet of stuff with Mr. Barkley. Said he’d likely be at the courthouse, but to make sure I gave it to him personally.

“Bring the wagon on over once you get finished here. No need to rush. I expect I could be sitting and waiting if he’s already involved in something. Boss’s fault if you get to enjoy a leisurely morning … he’s the one forgot to give this to his brother.”

“Sure thing Heath. I’m sure if there’s anything I can’t manage I can find someone to give me hand. I’ll just wait with the wagon when I get there. Don’t much fancy being inside places like that.”

Heath slapped his back, and smiled in acknowledgement. “I hear you. See you in a bit.”

He walked nonchalantly over to the building in question. He’d timed it to be sure he wouldn’t be late … and wouldn’t be any earlier than necessary.

Jarrod was waiting in the hallway. “I was beginning to worry. You ready for this?”

His eyes searched the face in front of him … searched and had to wait for the words to get an answer. “I’m ready. Guess it’ll be good practice for what’s to come. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it, though. Ted’s loading the rest of the shipment. He’ll wait on me outside here when he’s done.”

Jarrod put a steadying hand on his shoulder and steered him into the assigned room. There was no one else present except for a young man seated on an uncomfortable-looking chair, to the side of the imposing desk. They took seats on the empty bench in front of that desk and waited.

They didn’t wait long. The moment the man heard the door at the back open he harkened them to rise. They did so, and were quickly signaled by the judge to seat themselves again.

Judge Lansbury immediately got to business. “Mr. Barkley, I have reviewed your petition, and the documentation you have included therewith, and I have a few questions for your client before I render a decision.

“Mr. Thomson.” He waited for the man to respond.

“Yes, Your Honor. I’m Heath Thomson.”

“I assume you are familiar with the contents of this petition and the supporting documents?”

“Yes sir, I am.”

“Are you aware of any inaccuracies within either?”

“No sir. That information is what I provided to Mr. Barkley. I’m sure he’s recorded it truthfully.”

“Uhm hmm. It is a little unusual for this matter to be presented here, rather than in the court where the suit will be filed. I presume you are aware of that … inconsistency?”

“Yes sir.”

His face remained blank, his answers short.

“Mr. Barkley has led me to believe that this step is necessary to reduce a potential threat to your life. I would like to hear from you on that matter. Do you see this step as essential as does your attorney?”

Heath studied the judge … studied him additionally to what he’d done since he first appeared. “I saw this man murder my employer … my friend. A man who was like a father to me. Through power and means available to him he walked away from that murder charge. I saw what he did. He knows I saw him.

“I am continuing to seek justice for the murdered man. I suspect that as soon as he is aware of that fact he will endeavor to erase that threat to his freedom. I do not believe Mr. Barkley has overstated the case.”

Jarrod stared at him. This didn’t sound like the Heath he had come to know. He blinked a couple of times and then concluded that this must be the Heath who had worked for Frank Sawyer. The one who knew how to address a judge, and how to present himself so that judge would hear him … hear, and believe.

He suddenly felt more optimistic of their chances in court. He glanced at Lansbury and realized he too was wondering about the young man … wondering on how he’d answered the question. He too blinked a couple of times … hard. Seeming to come to some conclusion over his considerations, he moved on.

“I see. You make a compelling argument … perhaps even more compelling than that made by your attorney.”

He paused a moment to let them absorb that, and then continued. “I think we have consumed enough of your time, and mine, on this matter. I am prepared to grant your request. I hereby order that you be given standing in this matter, and full consideration for filing your suit.”

Jarrod quickly responded. “Thank you, Your Honor. We appreciate your understanding and your prompt ruling on the petition.”

Lansbury nodded and made to rise, at which point the clerk again demanded they do likewise. Just before the judge stepped through he door, he turned back to address the two departing men.

“Mr. Thomson.” Heath turned and looked, remaining silent.

“Something prompts me to wish you success. May you get that justice you are seeking.” So saying, he stepped from the room and firmly closed the door.

Jarrod was stunned. He turned and looked at the young man beside him, thoughts of his conversation from the previous evening … his conversation with his mother … coming back to him.

Ah, Mother. I don’t think it’s just you he has that effect upon. There’s something about him, something that demands respect without it being requested. Reminds me a lot of Father.

As they stepped into the hallway, Jarrod thanked him for delivering the ‘important packet’ and waved him on his way. The real work now began and there was no time like the present to get started. At least this much had gone their way.

Heath stepped out into the brightness of mid-morning, quickly resuming his scanning of the area. Ted was there waiting, as expected. He climbed up into the seat and took the reins, slowly setting the team into motion, while thinking how good a cold beer would taste right then. He dismissed the thought.

It was a little early in the morn’ to start celebrating, and in truth a little early in the process. Besides he owed it to Nick, and to Jarrod, to refrain from taking advantage of the trust they put in him. Nick would not appreciate him drinking on the job, or suggesting to any of his hands it was acceptable to do so. Time to get back to the ranch and back to work.

For his part, Ted was hoping the boss didn’t ask if Heath had helped manhandle those heavy spools of wire. He wouldn’t be happy with the answer.

Dinner that evening was a very pleasant affair. Jarrod had shared the good news, as well as his surprise with Heath’s response to Lansbury’s important question. “I suspect that your new man-in-charge-of- horse operations was more than just an ordinary deputy for Sawyer … not that Sawyer ever has ordinary deputies. At least not from what I’ve heard. In any event he certainly convinced the judge. I’m hoping he can do the same in the next round.

“Makes me wonder all the more just where Greenely got his power … just how he managed to get Heath’s testimony disregarded last time. Seems somewhat hard to believe in the face of what I witnessed this morning.”

He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head before turning his attention back to what was on his plate.

“And I’d like to know where he’s been all day. Seen neither hide nor hair of him, although I see the wagon is back … and unloaded. If he was involved with any of that he’s going to hear about it. I made myself very clear … he was not to be lifting anything heavy.

“I told him he could supervise the loading in town—put some of those useless excuses for help around that depot to work—and leave the rest of it to the hands when he got back here. If he didn’t there’s going to be the devil to pay.”

Nick was getting into full Nick mode and Victoria decided it was time to intervene. “Now Nick. I think we persuaded Merar to let Heath manage his own recovery … don’t you think we need to persuade ourselves likewise. I somehow don’t think he’s going to do anything he sees is beyond his current ability.”

Nick waved her off. “That’s all fine Mother. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to see anything as beyond his ability … current or otherwise.”

“The voice of experience, Brother Nick?”

Nick snorted and looked at both of them, before glancing at Audra.

“I suppose you agree?” All he got in response was the sight of a couple of deep dimples and a flashing twinkle in the bright blue eyes.

Victoria decided to change the subject … at least somewhat.

“What now, Jarrod?”

He looked at her … at all of them. “Now the real work commences … and the threat of danger becomes more pronounced. I sent off communications to Maureen to engage John Markle, and however much help he needs, to follow the trail of the missing, or otherwise silenced, witnesses. I want to provide time to round up whomever they can, and then I file the suit.”

“At that point Heath will need to be there.” It was more a statement than a question from the rancher, and the sound of disappointment … of longing … could not be missed.

Jarrod sought to reassure him. “Not immediately, Nick. The first few days are going to involve jury selection, and opening remarks, presentation of basic facts. That sort of thing. I don’t need, or particularly want, Heath there until I’m ready for him to testify.

“I’m hoping to postpone his testimony until the last possible moment. I think we can much more effectively ensure his safety if he’s here. I want to keep him here as long as possible.”

Studying Nick carefully, and once again recalling the conversation with their mother, he chose to add, “And, he’ll be back as soon as it’s over. This is not going to take all that long.”

Nick harrumphed. “Will he Jarrod? Will he? If Greenley doesn’t get to him, when this is all done, if you win, he’ll end up with his own place … the place he was meant to have when Ucroft died. What would bring him back here?”

They all looked at him in surprise. It seemed he alone had considered that eventuality, at least in the last while. No answer was given. None was available.

*****

Chapter 33

The attorney sat with his elbows propped on his office desk, head in his hands. Nick’s words echoing in his head. When he’d taken this on his first worry had been whether he could see justice done for his client … and then whether he could keep his client … and himself and family … alive. He’d given no thought to what happened afterwards. He hadn’t considered what success could mean … and most especially what it could mean to his younger brother.

Damn. Can’t anything ever be simple? Just do my job … to the best of my ability … and that’s enough.

He chuckled. If he were truthful with himself, he would have to admit that having things be simple was not what had drawn him to the law in the first place. And, if he were even more truthful, he would have to admit that simple was possible in the law … he chose not to avail himself of that particular option.

He liked the complex … liked the challenge. Sometimes, like now, he didn’t like the headaches it created … especially when those headaches were due to the effect on the family. In truth, he hated the thought of his actions bringing hurt to Nick.

Damn. I didn’t intend for what did, or did not, happen to Heath, to matter to Nick. I didn’t expect Heath to become important to Nick … in ways that he recognizes … and, ways that he doesn’t. Well Old Man, you’ve created a real mess this time.

He chuckled quietly to himself, fully aware of the irony.

For once I took time and effort to ensure the family knew the risks … gave them the choice…. Would have been helpful if I’d managed to identify this risk. Truthfully, not sure I ever would have if Mother hadn’t brought it my attention.

He exhaled … twice … before taking in a deep breath, and then decided all he could do right now was to continue working for his client. Whatever the end result he would be there for Nick, offer what help he could, and try to forgive himself for any damages that accrued to his brother … or family. Sometimes winning means losing….

He pushed himself back … upright … into his chair and turned his mind to what he could … and must … do next. Time to check the mail and see if Mr. McNally had a letter from his sister. Before this was over, he might have to renew his supply of envelopes addressed in her brother’s handwriting.

*****

A couple of days later Heath was back in the saddle, protestations from Nick notwithstanding. As he sat now thinking over that exchange he couldn’t stop the half-grin that appeared.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, BOY? YOU BETTER NOT BE THINKING OF GETTING INTO THAT SADDLE. You aren’t even supposed to be lifting anything as heavy as that saddle. Are you listening, Boy. YOU HEAR ME?”

 “Can’t hardly not hear you, Nick.”

 “Well then you better just listen. Doc’ll have my hide if I let you on that horse. He’s holding me responsible for you following his orders. You know that don’t you? YOU DO KNOW THAT?”

 “Sure Nick. I bet he’s heard you all the way to Stockton. He’ll know you told me. Can’t hardly hold you to blame.

He tightened the cinch and lifted the reins, before swinging into the saddle and turning carefully to give Nick a final reply. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

 He rode out of the yard, confident Nick would recover momentarily and he’d hear, if dimly, his last word on the subject. He’d not been disappointed.

He really didn’t want to get Nick into trouble, and he did have work to do. While he’d not said anything to anyone, he too had come to the conclusion that winning this upcoming suit would mark the end of his days as a Barkley hand. He’d not be running their horse operation. He’d have no reason to be there.

None of that was as troubling to him as thinking he’d failed to fulfill an agreement he’d made. He’d told Nick he’d get his horse operation organized and running in a way that met the needs of the ranch. He reckoned he might not have many days left in which to do so.

He didn’t have time to waste sitting around resting. Furthermore, in spite of the doctor’s belief to the contrary, he knew what he needed to do to recover fully. He was doing it.

This was a crucial piece in making that commitment. He needed to get these mares separated according to the plans he’d made, and then set up a breeding schedule for them. As long as the organizing and grunt work was done, he could leave the necessary instructions that would allow anyone to take over the program.

Having accomplished his objective with two other herds, he now studied the collection of animals spread out before him, and the longer he did so the more uncomfortable he became. The mares were calm, pulling at the lush grass or quietly tending to their young. A few of the older foals, among them, were kicking up their heels. But, something wasn’t right and it took him more than a few moments to spot it.

There she was—the nice-looking, leggy roan that had dropped a foal a few days back—suckling a sturdy, grey baby that looked like he was enjoying every aspect of his meal. Only problem was … he wasn’t her foal. He hadn’t even been here previously. Where was his dam and where was the roan’s filly?

He moved his horse closer and looked upward, scanning the sky. There they were. Scavengers looking for a free meal. Pressure from his legs turned Gal in that direction. He wasn’t looking forward to what he expected to find.

*****

Nick’s day had gone from bad to worse, and he wondered, as he tried to extricate the bawling, stubborn, uncooperative steer from the tangle of branches and wire into which he’d gotten himself, how much worse it was going to get. If he wasn’t careful with this situation, he’d find himself having to follow Merar’s orders.

Damn that blond … with his stiff-back, stubborn mind-made-up attitude, that leaves me, Nick Barkley, feeling helpless. How dare he ride away like that? Just leave me standing … shouting to the wind. Reasoning with him is like … well … like … reasoning with … me.

He chuckled … if somewhat sardonically. “Okay, you stupid animal. If you’d just hold still I could get you out of here, without doing anymore damage to either of us. Of course then you get to just wander off, fill your belly, find new trouble to get yourself into.

“But me … me … I get to stay here and continue fighting with this miserable piece of tree and then fight with the damnable mess of wire until I can patch up this hole, so you and your equally stupid ilk stay where you belong, because you can’t seem to manage to do that on your own even though you’ve got everything any hunk of beef could ever want or need right here. No you have to decide to wander off and see what might be beyond the fence, never satisfied until you’re making more work for me….”

The muttered litany continued, even after the steer had scampered away and he’d turned his attention to separating wire from wood.

Definitely not a good day.

Several hours later, having fixed not only the piece of fence line damaged by the fallen tree branches, but also other stretches in similar need of repair, Nick was done …  with fences … if not with complaining. Initially, he’d thought to head from here over to where he knew McColl had a crew busy, then he changed his mind.

Blast it. Mac can take care of his own orders, I’m going to go find me a blond.

 He laughed outright at that.

Well, maybe not a Saturday-night blonde, but a blond nonetheless. Least I can do is check and make sure he is okay and I won’t be in doc’s bad books.

Either he was not aware, or was not allowing himself to be aware, that it was a lot more than protecting himself from the town physician that had him heading in the direction he expected would take him to a certain annoying cowboy. Oh he knew he was likely to lose the man … and probably sooner than expected.

He recognized he was losing someone valuable to the ranch … didn’t seem to get the deeper, more personal part … he was losing someone of value to him. Didn’t appreciate how that loss was likely to affect him … how closely it paralleled another … still keenly felt … loss.

As he rode he tried to imagine he was that stubborn, cussed, blond cowboy and hoped he’d guessed right as to how the man would have approached the work he’d assigned himself today. Nick had no doubt he was out culling horses from the different herds and putting them together as he thought best.

He knew where he would have started, knew how much he would have gotten done by now, knew where he’d find himself … if that was for whom he was looking. He suspected they were enough alike in that regard that he had a better than good chance of finding the man he sought if he continued to head in the current direction.

He, explicably, was surprised, therefore, when he came upon the herd and detected not a single beast with saddle, let alone rider.

Blasted! Where could he be? I was so sure he’d be here.

He took a moment to consider, then looked back with greater attention to the herd in front of him. If pressed, he’d swear these were all the same horses that had been here for the last several months—save for the new additions, most of whom were frolicking about.

If he hadn’t dealt with this herd first, the only thing that made sense was to have kept it for last. Seemed unlikely he wouldn’t have made it this far by now … unlikely, unless something had gone wrong.

He shook his head, irrationally hoping the movement would dislodge the knot in his gut. As often as he acted on gut instinct, rather than thinking things through, those two anatomical areas were not connected closely enough to successfully accomplish his intended objective.

Not being sure what to do now, he decided his horse could use a drink … wouldn’t mind some cold water himself … and he headed for the copse of trees below and over from the hill on which he stopped. The trees he knew existed because of the sometimes small, but always present, stream that ran through the area.

Maybe he’s hidden away in there. Nice place to take a break at the end of a day … especially after what most assuredly had been a tiring day. Yup! Bet I’ll find him enjoying himself in a cool, shady spot. Come on horse, let’s go.

He laid the reins against the flaxen mane and applied pressure with his legs. Coco responded, and headed down the hill. He would be glad of a chance at that water as well. Not only had it been a long, hot day for him too, but the man on his back seemed … well … different … not as usual.

The horse had felt nervous all day. That was adding to his need for a brief respite before returning to the home place, and a quiet night in the barn. A moment of shade would be nice—it not only was hot, but dead still. Not the slightest of breezes to move the air—their own movement hardly enough to overcome the full calm.

Heath wasn’t exactly in the trees, or at the stream, but he was down there. And he was hidden from the approaching rider.

Earlier, answering the flying messengers, he made his way down the hill and toward the stand of trees. Whatever had the attention of the scavengers wasn’t on this side, and maybe wasn’t yet dead. They were still flying. There was undergrowth in that area, and the ground was less even.

He figured there must be times when the babbling brook he now could hear, flowed higher and faster, depositing rocks and debris onto the surrounding area. Nothing that would prevent a horse accessing the water—as long as the animal stepped carefully—but could be a problem for the short-legged, pot-bellied beasts that otherwise roamed this ranch. Probably why Nick had only horses in this pasture.

As he reached the far side he noticed a few of the buzzards had alighted in the trees … the top branches of the trees. He scanned the area, trying to see what they were seeing. Nothing. No movement, no sign of anything. It had to be there somewhere … the area was otherwise silent. No birds singing, no squirrels or chipmunks chattering. Nothing. He was thinking that trickle of sweat running down his back was not from just the heat.

It was more closed in here, couldn’t even see the creek, could just hear it moving over the rocks in its bed. The shadows were deeper, the ground and grass dark browns and greens with mottled hues only slightly lighter. And then a little deeper into the trees he saw it, the slightly different shade of brown, the reddish tint likewise dull and mottled.

And now he could hear the faint buzzing of the flies … the first visitors. But, no movement. The Modoc kept stopping as he urged her forward. He guessed she didn’t like dead things either. Maybe even less when they were her kind. He brought her forward until he could clearly see the foal, then dismounted and dropped his reins, as he went to take a closer look.

She’d been here for awhile or the mare would still be here too. And there was no sign of the grey colt’s mother. She wouldn’t disappear into the surroundings as readily as this little one.

He stepped carefully over the various obstructions until he was beside the dead filly. Now he could see the blood and the gaping wound. He scanned the area again, seeing nothing, wondering what had happened here.

As he knelt down to get a closer look, he now could see the claw marks. At the same time as he gingerly rose to his feet—his side was talking to him again—the new sound collided with the thought he ought to have had earlier.

Why aren’t those birds down here feeding?

*****

Chapter 34

Nick picked his way slowly down the hill, towards the water and trees, and did so with a mix of thoughts and emotions.

He better be there. If nothing else, I want another opportunity to share a piece of my mind with him. Let him know he doesn’t just get to ride off like he did this morning. Treat me like Jarrod might … ignore me when it pleases him. I better not find him in trouble. He better be okay … better not be any the worse for wear.

 And, that’s another thing I plan to let him know. He doesn’t get to ignore my orders … act like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I know full well he’s not a hundred percent yet, and I’ll be damned if I have to haul his carcass back home and then listen to Mother and Jarrod berate me because I LET him go off.  LET him work too hard….

He’d reached the edge of the thicket and saw no sign of man or horse, which raised his ire more than his concern. At least he wasn’t passed out, his horse waiting patiently for him to mount up again. Coco was straining towards the waterway, and he let the gelding pick his way over and get the drink he craved.

Dismounting, he did the same for himself. Nothing like cool, fresh water on a hot day. Deciding that more than a drink might be in order, he found a small, deep pool where he could immerse his head. He ignored that look his horse gave him as he shook the water free and ran his hands through the now-disheveled black mass. Using his hands to wipe his face dry enough, he caught up Coco’s reins and hoisted himself onto his mount’s back.

Time to find that boy.

He eased the horse back from the creek and turned him to make their way around to the other side of this treed area. As he neared the edge of the wooded area that blocked his view of the far side, the hairs on the back of his neck began a slow move to upright, while a sense of unease began to invade the tough, determined rancher. For the briefest of moments he heard Jarrod’s voice cautioning him against being impulsive, before he dismissed it with his own thoughts.

I hear you Pappy … and something don’t feel right here. Paying attention to what my gut’s telling me doesn’t always mean I’m being impulsive. Sometimes it keeps me out of trouble… instead of getting me into it. Yup! Something sure don’t feel right.

He reined his horse to a stop while he pulled his rifle out of its scabbard and settled it in front of him. With gentle pressure the gelding was urged forward slowly. They rounded the corner and came upon the scene laid out before them. It took the big man but a fraction of a second to process what he was seeing and move into action.

As the roar pierced the quiet and a black blur launched at the blond, shots rang out.

Nick watched with lurid fascination as the bear carried the man to the ground and its momentum kept it tumbling over and beyond the prone figure. As the call of “Heath” rushed involuntarily from his lips, he dropped from the saddle, righted himself, and sprinted forward, keeping his rifle ready. “HEATH!”

He knelt by the young man, while glancing again at the bear. It wasn’t moving. Neither was the blond.

He grabbed the nearest shoulder and called again, “Heath. Heath. Can you hear me? Come on … say something … open your eyes. Heath.”

Please, God, please. Let him be all right.

He took a couple of deep breaths, tried to slow his breathing. Tried to think. Grabbing the fingers of his black gloves with his teeth, he pulled them off, and began searching for damage, his thoughts racing faster than his fingers.

Streaks of blood. Scratches. Claw marks. Were those teeth marks? Why doesn’t he respond? He’s alive. Calm down. He’s not breathing, not making a sound. He needs to be breathing. Come on Heath, come on.

Then he saw the chest rise as he heard the inward gasp of air … and the outgoing moan.

Must have just gotten the wind knocked out of him. Just got to give him a minute. Calm down, Nick. He’s going to be fine.

He shifted his eyes, once more, onto the animal that appeared to have surprised them both. Still no movement.

Must be dead. One of us got off a mighty lucky shot.

He gave a firm squeeze to the shoulder he’d been shaking, and called again. “Heath. Can you hear me, Boy? Come on open your eyes.”

He waited, almost patiently for a response to his pleading. Waited, and was rewarded, as a couple of thin, blue slits appeared. The breath he hadn’t been aware of holding escaped. He waited a bit more, and soon full blue met concerned hazel.

“Nick … I … uh … I wasn’t….” A couple of deep breaths were needed before he could continue. “You get him?”

A couple more strained breaths as he watched Nick nod. “One of us did. Can’t say who, but he hasn’t moved. You hold on just a minute, I’m going to check. Make sure he won’t be moving again.”

The eyes closed as the head gave a single nod, urging the rancher to his feet. He cocked his rifle before closing the distance to the still-motionless bear. Grabbing a long sturdy stick with his left hand, and keeping his rifle trained on the beast, he gave it a poke. No response. He poked harder. Still no response. Looking around he found a bigger branch and used it to lever the animal partially upward from the ground. Its legs and head flopped. He dropped it back. It didn’t move. He dropped the branch and moved in for a closer look. He could see the area of red on the chest.

Lucky indeed. Bullet must have hit the heart.

His eyes flicked upward sending a quick, silent prayer of thanks.

Hearing movement, he quickly turned, then shook his head, before moving back over to help the blond. “Whoa, there boy. Just rest easy for a moment. Slow down or you’re going to end up flat on your face … ‘stead of flat on your back.”

He laughed at the look his words received.

Stubborn, bloody fool.

Heath had managed to ease himself over and up onto his knees, before being forced to stop and catch his breath again. He was thinking he could use a lot more air about now. Only problem was that getting it seemed to hurt more than it was worth. He guessed he must have bruised something.

Much as he wanted to brush off Nick’s attempts to help, that too seemed like more effort than it was worth. He let the boss help him to his feet and guide him over to where he could sit in the shade and let the tree behind him prevent his falling over.

“You sit tight, boy. I’m just going to grab my canteen and clean you up a bit … take care of those scratches you’ve got. They’re going to need more attention to be sure they don’t get infected, but I can give it a first go.”

He glanced at the young man, happy that there wasn’t any opposition … and worried that there wasn’t. He’d make this quick and then get them back to the ranch. He’d send a couple of hands back to dispose of the carcasses. No need to leave them to attract anything else that could pose a threat to the horses. He hadn’t seen the filly at first, his attention on Heath and the bear. Once he got a look at her, he felt a pang of regret. Looked like she definitely had promise.

Later that evening, as the family sat down to dinner, Nick shared the events of the day. He also was able to let them know that Merar was happy that the old wound hadn’t sustained further damage, but he was sure the same wasn’t true of a least a few ribs. They weren’t displaced, but were certainly well bruised, and possibly cracked.

So, while they didn’t pose any danger of piercing a lung or causing other internal damage, they would be more than a little uncomfortable. Furthermore, there were some deep scratches on his arms, chest and thighs, most likely from the bear’s claws, and a couple of deep wounds on the top of his head. Probably from teeth as the bear went over him.

He was generally bruised front and back. Front where the bear hit him, and back where he’d made contact with the ground. He was going to be one sore cowboy by morning. In spite of his vehement protests, he was back in the bunkhouse’s sick room.

“So Nick, whose shot do you think got him? Seems like you didn’t have that good of an angle … bullet would have gone through the side. Heath had the front on view. Hard to imagine a 45 would be enough to stop a full grown black bear … would have reached the heart. If you got him, it was one heck of a shot, especially if he was moving as fast as you’ve said.”

The dark blue eyes shone with pride … and relief.

Nick shrugged. “Can’t say. In some ways it’s hard to believe either of us could have gotten off a fatal shot. McColl and a couple of hands went out to bury it … and the filly … and knowing Mac, I suspect he’ll investigate first. He’ll want to know which bullet killed it. At this point, I don’t much care. I’m just glad one of them did the job.”

He stopped, got quiet … way too quiet for Nick. That got everyone’s attention.

Victoria was about to speak when Nick’s barely audible words floated over the table. “I thought he was a goner.”

His eyes stayed focused on a speck on the tablecloth, just beyond his plate. A speck that seemed to contain everything he still could see … and all he still felt.

Deep blue met soft grey and they both knew something had happened out there today … something this tough as nails man was struggling to handle. Something awful close to what had happened six years ago. In silent communication they both agreed now was not the time to push him for further explanation. He’d come to them when he was ready.

The young blonde at the table had tears in her eyes. She too had picked up on the emotions roiling through her older brother, and was barely stopped from intervening by her mother’s hand on her arm. Without a word being said, she too understood the message.

Victoria stood and placed a kiss on the golden locks before suggesting they all move into the library, and indicating to Silas to serve coffee and dessert there.

As they moved through the foyer a knock sounded on the door.

Reviving himself, Nick offered, “I’ll get it.”

He swung the door open to find his foreman standing on the stoop.

“Got a minute boss?” He looked past Nick to see the family beyond, and anticipating an invitation to step inside, almost imperceptibly shook his head.

“I do.” Nick looked over his shoulder at the people watching him, and let them know he’d join them momentarily … after he took care of this little matter. Not waiting for a reply … or an argument … he stepped out and closed the door.

He looked at McColl and waited.

“Thought you’d want to know Nick. I heard what you told me, and I decided to open up the bear, see who had gotten lucky. You were right, bullet lodged in his heart … only the bullet hit him in the back.”

He said no more, waiting for Nick to put it together.

I didn’t take long. “The back? Neither of us had.…”

A long, long pause.

“There was someone else out there? No! Are you sure?”

Nick turned away, let his hands push through his hair, while McColl waited silently.

“They would have had to be there, set up, ready to shoot.”

He looked at the man, who nodded his confirmation.

“The shot was meant for Heath … the bear got in the way…. Damn!”

Nick stopped to think it through.

Must have been up on the ridge behind the copse. Damn the boy. I told him no one rides alone. But no, he wouldn’t listen. Mule-headed, stubborn, ornery excuse for a man. Well maybe now he’ll take this seriously. …maybe now we’ll all have to take this seriously.

He turned back to his foreman.

“Thanks Mac. I assume you got the carcasses buried? I’ll let Jarrod know … and that cantankerous, annoying cowboy … otherwise I think we want to keep this quiet for now.”

McColl reached over and gripped the near shoulder, giving it a firm shake. “I figured as much, Nick. Consider it taken care of. Anything I can do to help, let me know.”

He turned and strode away, knowing there was nothing further needed saying.

Nick let his eyes scan the yard, and as far beyond as the waning light would permit. Time to beef up the protection … and talk to his big brother.

*****

Chapter 35

Nick waited for the rest of the family to retire before following Jarrod into his study. His brother glanced at him, as he settled into the chair behind the desk, and raised an eyebrow in question.

“Something I can do for you, Nick? I’ve got work to do tonight, so unless it can’t wait, I’d appreciate it if you’d take yourself off to bed and let me get on with it.”

He shifted his focus back to the papers on the desk, hoping the rancher would take the hint.

“It can’t.” Something in the tone in which it was said caught and held Jarrod’s attention.

His questioning sapphire eyes met troubled hazel. He nodded.

“Okay. Let’s have it.”

He leaned back in the chair and waited. Waited and watched, while Nick paced back and forth the length of the room. Just as his patience was about to expire, Nick started talking.

“I really thought he was as good as dead out there today.” In the time he paused Jarrod was able to guess who he was. He didn’t bother to interrupt and verify his assumption.

Nick stopped his pacing to drop into a chair, from whence he could see his older brother. “I really thought he was dead. It was like six years ago … it was happening all over again….”

A slightly longer pause ensued. Jarrod again waited without speaking.

The weary head flopped onto the chair back for a moment, and then came forward with the body as hands came to rest on knees and the rancher again addressed the attorney. “I don’t understand it Jarrod … I just can’t … can’t … figure it.”

Another pause, another dose of silence, until hazel again met blue and he continued the thread. “I mean … I would have been horrified to have watched that bear kill anyone. But, it wasn’t that. It was something about it being … him. Something that made it … made it … I don’t know … personal. It wasn’t … horrifying … it was … in that moment … it was … devastating…. Why Jarrod? Why?”

This time green-gold eyes were beseeching.

Jarrod was at a loss, suddenly feeling helpless. It wasn’t often he discovered  himself unable to find the words his brother needed to hear … whether words of advice, comfort or correction. He took a deep breath and hoped the right words would find him.

“I don’t rightly know Nick. Not sure I can explain it either. There’s something … I don’t know … special … about him. I think I started to sense it when Sawyer first came to me and I was quite sure I wouldn’t be taking the case … but couldn’t stop myself.”

He too paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, before continuing. “He seems so fiercely independent … and yet people … people like Sawyer … like you … quickly come to care about him. And, in his mule-headed, stubborn, independence, he cares about others … about what others think of him, and about what happens to others.

“It’s an odd mixture … reminds me a lot of Father. Maybe it does you too … maybe why it wasn’t like it would have been if that bear were going after just anyone…. I’m sorry, Nick. I’m not sure I can answer your question. Not sure I understand it myself.”

They held each other’s gaze for a goodly time, before Nick nodded … nodded again. He settled back in the chair, seemingly accepting Jarrod’s explanation. If the boy was a lot like Father, it made sense that he, Nick Barkley, would feel like he did. Good enough. Now there was the other issue.

“Thank you, Jarrod. Makes sense … I can live with it. Would be nice if he were a little less like Father … little more willing to accept help when it’s offered.”

Jarrod couldn’t stop the chuckle. “Like you, for instance?”

That one eyebrow rose in its infuriating way, stayed there a moment, until Nick laughed. “Okay, okay. Point taken.”

He took a deep breath. “There’s another thing Jarrod. And, no before you ask, it can’t wait. Was what brought me in here, in the first place.”

He now had his brother’s full attention. “What thing?”

“Seems my shot didn’t kill the bear … neither did Heath’s. Bear was shot in the back. That bullet hit the heart.”

He waited for the lawyer to puzzle his way through the information, knowing it wouldn’t take him long. It was almost like he could see the cogs turning, and then see the precise moment when they all aligned and shifted into place with each other. He smiled, and waited for the confirmation.

“There was someone else there … someone planning to shoot Heath. He got the bear instead.”

The concern suddenly turned to fear. “My God, Nick. Greenley must know we’re coming after him.”

“Maybe. Or maybe he just doesn’t like leaving loose ends. I just don’t understand why now. Seems he’s had lots of opportunities before now, times when Heath was unprotected and easy to get to.

“So why now? It’s not likely he would have heard about Lansbury’s decision already. Why now?”

There. He’d said it. He closed his eyes and let himself feel the weariness. It was like six years ago … all over again.

Jarrod leaned his face in his hands, elbows on his desk, and thought about what Nick had said. And thought. To no avail. Unless…. He washed his face with his hands, rubbed them through his hair, and then sat upright again.

“Unless, it had nothing to do with Greenley. Unless it was someone else after Heath. A newer enemy… or an older one.”

The dark-haired head shot up, and the eyes flew open. “You can’t be serious. What the hell are you talking about? Who else would want him dead?”

“Whoa, Nick. I don’t know who … or why. Don’t know that I’m right. I’m just saying it’s a possibility. A possibility we can’t ignore.”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to add the next piece. In fact, he knew he didn’t want to … and must.

“It means, Nick, that it could be someone on the ranch. And if it is, how do we protect him?”

Nick was about to protest … stopped himself. Jarrod was right. He hated these times when Jarrod was right and he was forced to consider things he didn’t want to consider. He liked to think the men he hired were loyal … trustworthy. It was damn hard going about the business of running the ranch if he could not trust his hands. Damn hard. But, Jarrod was right. He let his head nod in acquiescence.

“Okay. Point taken. But I’m not about to distrust everyone. I’ve got people out there that have been here for years … people Father hired … and trusted. People who have proven themselves. I won’t have them placed under suspicion. I won’t have it.” Hard hazel eyes drilled the man behind the desk.

“Fair enough, Nick. These men work for the Barkleys … but they are your men. This is your decision. We need to let Heath know what’s happened, and we need to assign men to be with him at all times. Men you trust. And I’m going to have a talk with our young, blond, just-like-Father, recalcitrant child. He is going to follow orders … or else.”

They looked at each other, each lost in his own thoughts … thoughts about dealing with recalcitrance. Both grinned, then smiled, then nodded firm confirmation. Heath would be protected.

“I’m going to go speak to a few men. Make sure there’s someone watching tonight. We’ll deal with all else tomorrow.  He needs the rest tonight, and from what Howard said, he’s not going to be in a hurry to be going anywhere come morning. We’ll talk to him then.”

“Fine, Nick. Now get out of here. I’ve still got work to do.”

As Nick reached the door, Jarrod had one last question.

“Do we tell Mother … and Audra?”

Nick laughed. ” I certainly don’t want to. I even less want to be on the receiving end when Mother finds out we kept this from her. If you’re willing to take responsibility for that, I’m agreeable to not telling her.”

Jarrod reply was instantaneous. “Not on your life, Brother Nick. Not a chance. We’ll tell her tomorrow … let her decide if Audra is to be told.” He waved him on his way.

They, accompanied by McColl, met with Heath the next morning.

The doctor was right. He wasn’t feeling much like bounding from bed and getting on with the tasks he’d set for himself. He listened carefully … silently … right up to the point where they told him men were being assigned to protect him. He would go nowhere … nowhere … without them. When he started to object, he lit that normally damp fuse that resided, typically unseen, deep within one Jarrod T. Barkley.

“Now you hear me, and hear me good. I will be damned if I am going to have put in all the effort I have up to this point … if I am going to have put my life, and that of my family at risk … so that I can fight for justice that you say you want … and you can’t swallow your pride, or your stubbornness, or whatever the blazes it is in you that refuses to let anyone help you. If you don’t give a damn about yourself, fine!

“But you don’t get to choose to not give a damn about us, about what you have brought to us, and what is now here with us. We have done our part, and will continue to do our part … and by damn, you will do yours.

“If I have to drag your mangy carcass out back of this barn and beat some sense into you, then I’ll do so…. I will not sit here and let you throw away what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, so you can protect some pitiful excuse for pride.”

The sapphire blue eyes still blazing, he drew a deep breath and continued. “You will be protected. You will allow the men we assign to the job, to protect you. You will not only allow it, you will do everything within your power to aid them in that endeavor. You will not resist, you will not complain … you will accept. And you will do so starting now. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD.”

Light blue met dark … silence reigned. Minutes passed. The silence was broken, barely, by the first faint strains of sound … sound that resembled laughter. Sound that grew until it most clearly was laughter. Laughter that brought tears to the light blue eyes … laughter that interspersed attempts at speech.

“Reckon … I hear … you … Counselor. Hear … you … and … understand. Boy howdy … have to be … dumb as … a post … not to … understand. I … got it.” He stopped to get himself under control … stop the laughter … the tears … and the pain that went with them.

He looked at both Barkley brothers and the foreman they most obviously trusted with their lives … and his. He nodded, and dropped his head, before raising it and locking gazes.

“I will be protected…. I am sorry. Never meant to have you think I didn’t appreciate all you’ve done, all you’ve promised to do. That’s not okay. Not in the least. I am truly sorry. I don’t expect your forgiveness. Perhaps in time I might earn it.”

As pleased as all three men were with the blond’s willingness to do what was asked … what was needed … neither were sure they liked the cost of getting it … the sound and look of defeat they saw.

McColl acted first. “Heath. Jarrod doesn’t get wound up too often. Usually takes the boss doing something incredibly stupid … even for him. You just have to understand it only happens when he gets scared … it happens because he cares … not because he doesn’t.

“It’s not likely you’ll be able to earn his forgiveness, because if I know this boy like I think I do, he’s already forgiven you.”

He waited for the young man to look at him again. “In fact, I’m guessing right about now he’s feeling pretty bad about that outburst … probably hoping you will forgive him.”

Seeing a bit of spark … a touch of life … return to the emotive blue eyes, he added. “And, he’d never drag you out behind the barn … it just ain’t in him. But, you better understand that I will … and Nick will … and neither of us will feel the least bit badly about it. So, you better understand. You better do what’s asked.”

The half-smile appeared, accompanied by a wink. “You bet … boss.”

The eyes had a genuine sparkle with that. “You bet.”

Nick picked up where McColl left off. “Good. That’s settled then. Come on Mac. We have to figure out who and when … do what’s necessary to keep this boy in one piece.”

So saying, he strode off. McColl followed. Jarrod stood in place.

“Uh, Heath. I … uh … I’m—”

Heath waved him off. “Don’t say it Jarrod … no need to say it. It needed doing. I’m kind of glad to have seen it … makes me feel even more confident going into that courtroom with you on my side. Don’t apologize. Please. Would make me think you weren’t serious … I need to know you were.”

Jarrod grinned. In spite of the blond’s entreaty the eyes, nonetheless, said sorry … and thank you. He gave the man’s knee a light slap and headed for the door, calling over his shoulder.

“Got work to get done. Will see you tonight. You take care, you hear?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. Didn’t need one.

*****

Chapter 36

In spite of his desires … and attempts … to the contrary, Heath didn’t move far from his bed that day … or the next. By the third he was up and moving … if less than as quickly or fluidly as usual. He was saddling his horse when Nick caught up with him, Jarrod and Audra trailing in his wake.

“And where do you think you’re going, Boy?” His hands seemed to find his hips without thought or effort, as if they knew their owner intended to have his question answered.

“Going out to check on some horses.”

He took a moment to catch Jarrod’s eye. “Got my protection riding along with me.”

He then looked at Nick and took a moment to consider the request he was about to make, thinking about the conversation he’d had with Peters the night before.

“Heath, you got a moment?”

 Heath winced as he pulled up farther in the bed, before resting back on the extra pillows he’d been given.

 “Got all the time you need … don’t seem like I’m going anywhere in any hurry.” His now-expected lop-sided smile easing the other man’s trepidations.

“Thought you might want to know, there’s a herd of wild horses on that mesa up above Ten Mile Creek. Looks like they been there awhile. Most of the mares have foals.”

 He certainly did want to know. If he could get a good look at them, and maybe cut out some of those mares, it would fit right in with his plans.

 “Appreciate it. I think I might have to change my plans for tomorrow.”

 He chuckled as he waved the young hand on his way.

“Nick, if you can spare a couple of men … three would be better … I’d like to take them along. Expect I could use some help if I see anything worth bringing back.”

He waited for the explosion he expected, and smiled to himself when it came. “No, I can’t spare a couple of men. I’m short-handed as it is. And, that’s all beside the point. You are not riding off after some horses. They can just stay where they are for now.”

“No they can’t. Need to get them while they’re there.” He was hoping Nick would just grant his request without figuring out what he was planning.

Unfortunately, Audra was a little quicker than her older brother.

“Wild horses! You’re going after wild horses. I bet that’s the herd Nick’s been trying to locate for months.”

Nick stared at her, momentarily speechless.

Surely he couldn’t be planning … no way … he couldn’t be that stupid … or maybe he could.

“You can’t be serious. You’re in no shape to be chasing after wild horses.”

“Nick, I’m fine. I’m not planning on riding them. Just want to see what’s there and cut out any that look good. Peters said there’s lots of foals. I can manage with a couple of men if that’s the best you can do.”

The look from Nick was not encouraging … at first. As the astute rancher gave himself a minute to consider, he admitted … at least to himself … that he had wanted a chance at that herd. It might be an opportunity that wouldn’t come again, at least not soon.

However, he did not relish the idea of the blond riding that hard, or with that degree of risk, right now. And he really couldn’t spare more than one man … and blast it all, he certainly couldn’t spare himself … at least not today. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“Heath, I really don’t think it’s what you ought to be doing just yet … and, in truth, I can’t spare more than one man today.”

“Fair enough. Give me your one man. Either way, I’m going to take a look. There’s bound to be one or two mares worth the effort … can at least bring back that many. Your best roper would be appreciated.”

Her blue eyes sparkling, Audra cut in again. “I can go along. I can help.”

The words had hardly escaped her lips before the answer was hurled back. “No! Not a chance. You are not chasing after wild horses, Audra. Not now, not ever. Don’t even think about it. If you’re going into town with Jarrod, get going. Otherwise get yourself back into the house. Now.”

Instantly her eyes were flashing. “You can’t speak to me that way! I’m not one of your men, and you’re not my boss.”

She glared at him, shoulders back, head high, chin jutting. How dare he! Flashing blue met hard hazel.

“You listen to me, Missy, and you listen good. I run this ranch. I give the orders. You will do well to remember that. Rest assured that I am more than capable … and willing … to deliver that message in a more forceful, and unpleasant way, if you choose to ignore me. Now git.”

He turned his back on her, summarily dismissing any further discussion.

Her lips pursed, accentuating the dimples, as the pink in her cheeks darkened and spread. Her eyes blinked, hard and fast, while she fought to restrain the tears, before turning and stomping away.

“I’ll give you Manny for the day … best roper we have.” So saying, he turned and left the barn.

Heath looked at Jarrod, one eyebrow raised, and a look that Jarrod discerned as disapproval. “You don’t agree with him, Heath? You think he ought to have let Audra go along?”

The surprise was evident in his tone. “You wouldn’t have said no to her?”

“Ain’t my place to say anything to her, Jarrod. She ain’t my sister. If she were, she wouldn’t be out chasing wild horses.” He let the lawyer think on that for a moment, before he added.

“But, I’d just hope that if she were my sister, I could find a gentler way of letting her know she was too important to me, to let her be put in that kind of danger.”

Jarrod nodded. And nodded again. “No denying Nick can come across pretty hard at times. Guess I’ll see if I can soothe the wounded pride and restore the peace.”

He stopped after a few steps, turning back to catch the blond’s attention. “You be careful out there.” The message was clear.

Just before he passed through the door, the blue-eyed attorney looked over his shoulder and delivered one more message. “You’d make a good brother to any young girl … probably to anyone.”

No more was said, or needed.

Heath just smiled, then mounted up and rode out with his shadows following. As Manny loped over to join them, he signaled him to come up alongside. He wanted to be sure the hand understood what was expected of him.

He planned to bring back some horses … would just have to go about it a little differently than he’d hoped. When he saw the rawhide lariat the man carried, he smiled. Nick had surely given him someone who could rope. His plans were suddenly looking a lot more promising.

When Jarrod couldn’t find his little sister in the house, he headed to the lower corral. He wasn’t surprised to hear her before he could see her, nor eventually to discover her pacing back and forth along the side of the enclosure. Every clod of earth in her path crumbling with the force of a deliberately placed boot. He chuckled … quietly … to himself.

He leaned on the top rail, and as he watched her he thought on what the blond had said. He waited until he was sure she knew he was there before speaking. “He can be a little brusque at times, that brother of ours. Gets me steamed a time or two, I have to admit.”

She slowed somewhat with his words, but didn’t stop.

“I sometimes wonder if the two of you know how much alike you are.”

That got her attention. She stopped and glared at him, eyes a-storming, hands on hips. He was hard pressed to suppress the laugh demanding release on seeing her actions reinforcing his statement. Actions quite obviously intent on doing the exact opposite.

“I’m guessing somewhere inside that pretty little head of yours you know he’d never be able to forgive himself if he allowed you to do something that got you hurt … that you are far too important to him. He just doesn’t always take the time to pick his words a mite more carefully … to consider what he’s really wanting to say.”

He could see her fighting to hold her resolve, and slowly losing the battle. He walked over to her, reached out, and drew her close. He held her tight until he felt her soften and mould to him, before continuing.

“He loves you Sweetheart. Of that I have no doubt. Big, bad, Nick Barkley can sometimes let his worries and fears override his common sense.”

He grasped her shoulders and held her at arms’ length, making sure he caught her now-glistening eyes. “I don’t want you out chasing wild horses either, Little Sister. I don’t know what I’d do … what this family would do … if anything happened to you. I know, just as well as does Nick, that you can ride with the best of them. We also both know that chasing wild horses is dangerous … even for the best of riders. Neither of us could knowingly and willingly put you in danger.”

Deciding he’d said enough on that subject, he changed tactics.

“Now, I happen to have been anticipating the pleasure of a delightful companion on my journey into town today, as well as the subsequent enjoyment of that same companion at a most luscious lunch. Are you going to disappointment me? Or, are you going to give me a hand getting a horse hitched to the buggy so we can be on our way before it gets any later?” He smiled, one eyebrow raised.

She couldn’t help herself as the laughter bubbled up. “You’re impossible … just not in the same way he is.”

Her dimples deepened as that Miss Barkley mischievous gleam created a different shine in the pretty blue eyes. “I think I deserve a tangible apology for the egregious manner in which he addressed me. I suggest, on the journey, we discuss the options in that regard. You can then advance to me the necessary funds for the acquisition of same, and secure reimbursement from him at your earliest convenience.”

She smiled … a smile that brightened the day in rival with the sun.

“Shall we be on our way?” He laughed as he took her arm and headed to the barn.

Oh, Brother Nick, I fear this rash outburst is going to cost you dearly.

*****

They found the horses exactly where Peters had described. As he’d indicated there were many mares with foals. Heath sat his horse, overlooking the bluff above the mesa, and studied the animals below … and the terrain. There was a steep drop off to the creek below and he did not want to risk them running over that cliff.

It was a good-sized herd, but a lot of young stock. Even the stallion was young. Heath figured he had either managed to defeat the previously reigning animal, or that beast had otherwise met an untimely end and this fellow had taken over.

There were easily a dozen mares that nicely would fit into the breeding program he was contemplating, but he knew he wouldn’t be taking that many. Even if he had the manpower to do so, this herd could be a valuable source of future stock if its numbers were managed well. After further thought, he settled on the four mares and offspring he wanted.

He shared his plans with Manny and the other riders. He knew the men assigned to guard him were under orders from Nick, and he did not want to compromise them. With patience and careful maneuvering he figured he could accomplish that and have their help with the horses. It would just take time. Probably the whole day.

Nick had just stabled his horse for the night, and strode out of the barn in time to see the dust rising in the distance. He quickly quelled the alarm that arose, reasoning that anyone intending harm would not ride in that manner. He took a quick look back in the barn. The saddle he sought was missing.

Must be Heath coming in.

As the dust materialized into shapes, he could see horses with riders … horses without. He signaled McColl to open the gate on the far paddock, assuming Heath intended to corral the animals for the night. Ten minutes later they leaned on the outside of the rails watching the anxious ladies trot back and forth.

Nick looked at the horseman standing beside him. “Do I want to know how two men cut four mares out of a wild herd?”

“Heard tell, ignorance is bliss.”

“Uh, huh.”

He gazed at the guileless visage as first his concern and then ire increased. “Now see here Heath, I meant what I said the other—” He was cut off as the blond grabbed his shoulder and turned him.

“I gave you my word Nick. I don’t go back on that. Your guards did their job … did it exactly as you intended.”

Blue grabbed hazel, and refused to relinquish the hold.

It took Nick more than a few moments to satisfy himself, but he eventually got there. “Okay, Heath. Good enough.”

He waited a moment longer, then added. “Nice looking horseflesh. You did good, Boy.”

The full blown Nick Barkley smile was answered with a lopsided grin. But the real response was in the eyes … they glowed.

*****

Chapter 37

Over the next few days, Heath worked to get the preliminary organization of the horse operation in place. He surprised himself at how easily he did so. Maybe he knew more about what he was doing than even he had suspected. Nick, for his part, was not surprised with the progress the young blond was making.

Still not sure why, he nonetheless had no doubts about the man … no second guesses about his decision to put Heath in charge of the horses. And, of that he was glad. He had more than enough other things on which to focus his worry.

Jarrod was back in San Francisco. He’d travelled there in the private car … complete with the protective entourage Nick had provided. Having made arrangements in advance, he replaced them, on arrival, with an equally capable group who more readily would blend into the city environment. He sent Nick’s men back on the return train.

Maureen had been doing her job during his absence, and he was more than pleased with the results. John Markle, and his assistants, had located one key missing witness, and had assisted another with his previous memory lapse. The key person Sawyer had mentioned was yet to be found.

Jarrod was beginning to suspect he may have been assisted in disappearing … in a permanent manner. Then he remembered that this was a civil proceeding, not a criminal one. The missing man would have been helpful … he wasn’t crucial. Not if Jarrod Barkley dealt his cards correctly … and Heath Thomson played them smartly.

Concluding that he had all he could hope for, at least for now, he decided it was time to head to Greenley’s hometown and file his action. He would send a telegram to Nick before he left. A telegram that would say little to anyone else, and give his family all the information they needed.

It would be time to tighten security to the maximum and let Mr. Thomson know it was starting. His presence would be needed … later. Jarrod would let him know when.

He would take the rail car to Sacramento. It was as close as he could get by train … a stage would suffice from there. He figured the more public the transport, the greater his safety. No need to make his protectors’ job any more difficult than necessary.

As the stage pulled into the town, Jarrod was aware of how similar to Stockton the place appeared. It was obviously a thriving … and growing … community. Bustling with activity. He’d reserved a room in one of the better hotels … not the best. He didn’t want to find himself accommodated by the same place as Nathan Springer. In truth, he expected Springer would feel the same … if not when the trial started, certainly as it progressed.

While he intended to call Frank Sawyer as a witness, he expected the man would want to be there for the entire trial … or at least that part that demanded Heath’s presence. He suspected neither man would feel comfortable in the hotel he had chosen … nor would the men who would be sent along, by Nick, as protection.

Having given it considerable thought, and voiced his concerns to Maureen, he’d followed her suggestion. She would make arrangements to rent a small house which would readily accommodate Frank and Heath as well as whomever accompanied them. A building easily secured and just as easily defended … if the need arose.

If either of the men disagreed when the time came, other arrangements could be made. It was the best he could do. As he settled into his room that evening, his thoughts turned to the next day. He planned to check out the rental in the morning before heading for the court house. Once he’d filed his action all he could do was wait.

He’d instructed the depot manager in Sacramento to return the rail car to Stockton. While often it could take several weeks, or longer, for a civil action to get onto the court docket, he suspected, in this instance, that would not be the case. Although he still had no insight into Greenley’s motivation in acquiring the properties … the lengths to which the man went to acquire same suggested having them was extremely important.

He suspected Greenley would want any claim against his right to them quashed as quickly as possible. He knew Springer would leap at an opportunity to face … and defeat … him, in any type of case. His colleague just couldn’t seem to accept that Jarrod posed no threat to the man’s political aspirations.

The descriptions, and concomitant expectations about the house, proved correct … as did Jarrod’s instincts in regards to the speed at which the trial would be scheduled. Consequently he found himself, a few days later, standing before a Judge Stuart Brackenbury. As also expected, Nathan Springer stood there too. He was requesting the matter be summarily dismissed … suggesting the claim was spurious.

Jarrod was neither surprised nor unprepared. He indicated he had witnesses who would attest to the claims his client was making, and he had tangible evidence that would support that testimony. He suggested it would be a gross miscarriage of justice for his client to be refused an opportunity to make his case … especially in view of the fact that Mr. Ucroft’s murderer had yet to be brought to justice.

He deliberately refrained from suggesting the murderer had not been identified. Springer did not miss that fact, and strengthened his entreaty to the judge to dismiss. He pointed out that Mr. Greenley had already been accused of murder by the claimant … been accused and exonerated … and this further claim constituted harassment.

Judge Brackenbury was not convinced. He reminded Mr. Springer that decisions in criminal matters do not inform decisions in civil matters. Mr. Barkley appeared to have sufficient cause to justify the court’s involvement.

Greenley would have full opportunity to disprove whatever evidence the claimant brought forth … but he would have to do so according to the rules of law. The trial would go forth. At Springer’s insistence, the earliest possible date was set … court would convene in two days.

Jarrod was somewhat surprised that the defense would not want a couple of weeks to prepare … only somewhat. He suspected Greenley, and therefore, Springer, may have anticipated this eventuality. Anticipated it and been prepared.

It added to his unease in regards to the previous attempts on Heath’s life … if that is what they had been. He didn’t want to think Nathan would condone such actions … and he, in all truth, couldn’t deny the possibility.

Jarrod had been truthful when he told Nick he intended to have Heath testify as late in the proceedings as possible. While he had suggested to his brother that decision rested with his desire to keep his client, for as long as possible, in the safest environment as possible, it was not his only reason.

He considered the decision to be sound legally … he could prime the jury for that testimony by laying a foundation that would support it. A foundation of solid evidence outlining a pattern of events that would support the allegation that the only person who would desire Ucroft’s death was Merton Greenley.

In developing his case plan the astute attorney had reminded himself that there had been more than enough evidence in the previous case to obtain a conviction … if all that evidence had been presented … been available to present. While John Markle and his team had yet to uncover that one missing witness, Jarrod contented himself with the knowledge that particular individual had been far more crucial in the criminal proceedings than he would be in the case at hand.

He believed that a crucial piece of this case would be the composition of the jury. He had no doubt that Springer would devise a means to expose Heath’s illegitimate status and attempt to discredit his testimony by doing so.

It was yet another reason that he sought to prime the jury prior to Heath testifying. He was counting on people like Sawyer and Ucroft’s attorney and his housekeeper to present the picture of a proper young man … a man who was polite, respectful and trustworthy

Furthermore, he had been gratified to learn that Markle’s people had uncovered a new witness, a man who would provide information from Heath’s past. He would hold him in reserve, knowing Heath Thomson would not appreciate having that part of his past exposed, and hoping he would be successful in having his client present the information himself … very specific information … of his time in Carterson. If the young blond wouldn’t … or couldn’t … deliver … well … Jarrod had a backup.

The jury selection had been as slow and deliberate as anticipated, and while Jarrod knew he had tried the patience of Nathan Springer … and suspected he’d done likewise with Judge Brackenbury … he’d held firm on his original plan. He had no illusions of getting nothing but people he wanted … his efforts were directed at avoiding being encumbered with anyone he did not want.

Two days later, he felt he had been successful, and then the real work began. His first witness was Clifton Ucroft’s attorney, Michael Darcy. The preliminaries disposed of, Jarrod moved quickly to the salient information. “Mr. Darcy, I understand that you were not available to testify at Merton Greenley’s trial for the murder of your client.”

As expected, Springer immediately objected … successfully … and Jarrod did not care. While the jury could be instructed to disregard the question, once heard it could not be unheard. Any who had not previously known, would now be cognizant of the fact the man had been charged in the death of Heath’s boss … and friend.

He continued, having Darcy explain that he had seen Ucroft in his office the day before his murder, to prepare a new will. Furthermore, he had set, at that time, an appointment, for two days hence, in which he was to come in and sign that document.

He confirmed that the will bequeathed his entire holdings to Heath Thomson, and he believed nothing short of death would have kept his client from signing it. He further attested that Mr. Ucroft, without fail, had issued a payment each month to the local bank … and that there existed nowhere in his files any paperwork indicating there was a new payee.

Springer focused his cross-examination on having the witness confirm that the will could not be probated without the signature, and his attestation that the signing would have gone ahead, in fact, was conjecture only.

Jarrod called his next witness, and watched closely for Greenley’s reaction when Jeff Ralston came forward. As expected, the surprise was evident … and the concern. The counselor took a moment to give thanks for the abilities of John Markle.

Ralston reported that he was the manager of a mid-sized bank in St. Louis, and had been so for nearly two years.

“How did you come to obtain that position?” Ralston did not answer. “I remind you, Sir, you are under oath.”

Jarrod understood the man was afraid … he suspected he had reason to be so. He would do everything within his power to protect him … except excuse him from testifying.

The man looked at him, his pleading open and sincere. Jarrod merely urged him to answer the question.

“Mr. Greenley arranged it…. It was a significant step up from managing the bank here.”

Once the latter was voiced, he realized it did not help his situation.

“And what would prompt Mr. Greenley to do such a thing?”

The witness felt the penetration of the deep blue glare.

“I don’t believe I ever asked him.”

“I remind you, Mr. Ralston, that you are under oath. I remind you also, that you have been shown the documents which clearly establish how you came to receive that offer. Now … I ask again … why did Mr. Greenley arrange your new appointment?”

The witness licked his lips … once … once again … a third time, before accepting defeat. He did not know where Greenley got his power … his money and his power … but he knew he had it. And he suspected his testimony would contribute to his own imminent death … Barkley’s and Markle’s assurances to the contrary … and there was no escape. He spoke.

“Mr. Greenley arranged to purchase some loans the bank had made … loans which were granted with real property as collateral. One such loan had been made to Mr. Ucroft.”

He stopped, hoping against hope that he would not have to continue … and expecting the futility.

“And?” Jarrod prompted.

“He insisted that the bank not notify Mr. Ucroft of the change … and that the bank continue to accept and record the payments as if they were being made to the bank. The transfers to Mr. Greenley’s account were to show no trail to Ucroft’s payments.”

“And why the ruse?”

Those eyes were drilling him again. “I don’t know, Mr. Barkley. I swear I don’t know.” Maybe that would be enough….

It was not to be.

“And why the move?”

“Mr. Greenely came in one day and advised me that he intended to call in that loan, and he thought it would be best if I were not accessible when that happened. He told me he had obtained a position for me elsewhere, and I, and key members of my staff, would be moving on. Anyone who chose not to go would be relieved of their position.

His tone suggested it would be in everyone’s best interest to accept the offer. He also said I was not to discuss the matter, including where I was going, with anyone … then, or in the future. That’s all I know. I was packed and gone within the week.”

“I presume you were well aware of Mr. Ucroft’s financial position?”

Ralston nodded and was reminded to issue a verbal reply, which he did.

“And what was your understanding of what would happen if the loan were called … especially on short notice?”

Ralston took a deep breath and released it with force.

“He would default and the collateral … the property … would transfer to Mr. Greenley.”

Jarrod turned and faced the jury, let his gaze sweep over each one, as he issued his final question.

“So, am I to understand, that you assisted Mr. Greenley in creating an arrangement by which he would be able to acquire Mr. Ucroft’s ranch property, without Mr. Ucroft’s awareness of the possibility? The same property for which Mr. Ucroft had repeatedly received, from Mr. Greenly, offers to purchase … and repeatedly rejected.

That Mr. Greenley arranged for yourself, and any members of your staff who might be privy to that information, to be relocated to places unknown? Furthermore, he suggested dire consequences should any of you fail to cooperate?”

He watched the jury, noted the looks of wonder … and disgust … as their former bank manager replied. “Yes sir. That is correct.”

He waited, giving the jury time to fully integrate the information, and appreciate all it could mean, before turning back to the witness. “Thank you Mr. Ralston. I have no further questions.”

Springer did his best, and quite masterfully, suggesting that if Ralston were guilty of what he described, then the jury must consider whether he was the sort of person worthy of being believed in this moment.

How could anyone in this courtroom know the truth? Perhaps Ralston had been threatened with dire consequences if he failed to provide the testimony just heard.

*****

Chapter 38

The majority of Ucroft’s ranch hands had been with him a long time. They were dedicated … fiercely loyal. One such man was Ira Peak and his ready agreement to Jarrod’s request to testify, found him now doing just that.

“Mr. Peak, would you please describe to this court what happened at the Ucroft ranch approximately a month prior to Mr. Ucroft’s death?”

The older man shifted his muscular shoulders inside the out-dated, and near immaculate, suit jacket while slipping a finger between shirt collar and neck to create more breathing room. He could think of a million places he’d rather be right now, but nothing was going to stop him from doing this if it would contribute to getting justice for his late boss.

“Mr. Cliff … Mr. Ucroft … came to us, told us he were about to lose his place. Wanted us to know we’d likely still have our jobs, didn’t want us worrying none. We pushed him for the hows of it.”

He swallowed hard, dropped his head, and reminded himself he was doing this for Mr. Cliff. His head came up and he continued.

“Told us he took out a loan at the bank … nothing he couldn’t pay every month. But the bank had given the loan to Merton Greenley and he were demanding it all be paid right now. He’d a week to come up with the money … couldn’t do it. Had some of it, but not enough … even if he did he wouldn’t be able to pay wages and whatnot for months … not ‘til the herd were sold. Said he were sorry for letting us down … for not knowing such a thing could happen.”

He looked at the attorney again, and seeing encouragement in the sapphire eyes, and the nod to continue, he did so.

“Us men talked. Most of us been working for him a long time … he were good to us. We were none too happy thinking that might end. Cowboys are pretty simple folks. Live a simple life, with simple needs. Mr. Cliff paid us good … treated us good. Figured it was time to say thanks.”

He swallowed a few times … just thinking of the man was hard enough … talking about him was near to impossible.

“Most all of us … especially those what were there a good long while … had money saved. Figured, long as we had a place to sleep and food in our bellies, we weren’t in need of pay. We tallied up what we had and went to Mr. Heath … let him know what we wanted to do.”

He smiled at the memory. “We knowed he was supporting his mother, didn’t expect him to pitch in. Figured he might help convince the boss.” He smiled again.

“Mr. Cliff could be mighty stubborn at times, but Mr. Heath … well, I think he can out-stubborn most anyone. Lot of shouting come out of that house for a bit, but Mr. Cliff must’ve eventually decided it was a good idea.” He looked thoughtful for a moment.

“Funny thing … even with all that … it wouldn’t’ve been enough without Mr. Heath’s bit. Wondered where he got the money … sure were glad he did.”

Even from the jury box it was possible to see the change; the brightness disappeared as his eyes closed, his shoulders slumped, the weathered skin upon his face seemed to droop and he lowered his head. “Guess, it weren’t such a good thing … not in the end.”

Jarrod tilted his head, looked perplexed, then asked. “Why would you say that, Mr. Peak?”

The head snapped up and the eyes flashed. In a clipped, sharp tone he replied. “It got him killed … the money got him killed. If Greenley had got the place like he’d planned he wouldn’t’ve had no cause to kill Mr. Cliff.”

The buzz in the courtroom almost drowned out Nat Springer’s loud objection … an objection which was sustained, but not before the damage was done. It was one thing for an esteemed attorney to make accusations, for learned, knowledgeable authorities to accuse … it was quite another for a simple, working man to outline the facts and then draw the reasonable conclusion. Jarrod hadn’t expected it … and he was delighted beyond measure.

It wasn’t until much later, in recalling all of Ira’s testimony, that he, too, found himself wondering where Heath had gotten the money.

So it went over the following days, as Jarrod presented his case and Springer sought to counteract. The blue-eyed attorney called Ucroft’s long-time housekeeper who testified to what she had seen of interactions between her employer and Heath Thomson, and especially to how it mimicked the relationship he had had with his much-loved son … the son who had died in the war.

She described her own interactions with the young blond and how she found him to be a respectful, polite, considerate, and honest young man. She was not at all surprised to learn Mr. Ucroff would make him his heir … would be surprised to learn otherwise.

Perhaps, most damning of all, she described how she had received a letter, delivered by a young boy—she did not recall his name, wasn’t sure she even knew him—to advise her that her sister was not doing well and she should come immediately. The letter was penned in a hand she vaguely recognized—certainly not her sister’s—increasing her concern. Her sister was two days journey away and Mr. Ucroft insisted she leave immediately. He, personally, had driven her to town. It was the last time she saw him … he was murdered two days later.

Strangely, when she arrived at her sister’s she discovered her sister to be afflicted with nothing more than her usual complaints associated with advancing age. She had wondered … had asked. Discovered the lady her sister had hired to come in twice a week to help with the housework … who did so for several widows in the town … could neither read nor write. She was in the habit of having a friend write to the women’s relatives whenever she became concerned.

She supposed the friend somehow had confused one with another, and erroneously sent a letter to her. Her greatest regret was that she had not been present when Clifton Ucroft was murdered … was not able to testify to whatever she might have seen … assist in bringing his murderer to justice.

He’d debated over using Frank Sawyer. The marshal had no first hand information about Ucroft’s intentions—hadn’t even known Thomson all that long. In the end that was what decided it. If an astute a man as Sawyer could come to accept … respect … revere … love … Heath in the short time he’d known him, then it was unlikely a reasonable claim could be made that Ucroft had been bamboozled … had been taken in … conned … by the man.

He started his questioning with a request that the marshal explain how he had come to know Mr. Thomson.

“I arrested him.” The courtroom buzzed … loudly. It took several thumps of the judge’s gavel to restore quiet, and request Sawyer continue.

“As I said, I arrested him … for disturbing the peace…. But I suspected there was more to it than what I’d seen.”

“How so?”

“Well, I kept a pretty close eye on the comings and going in my town. I knew he’s been hired on by one of the nearby mining operations, but he didn’t seem to spend his free time in town … like the other miners. Didn’t even live in any of the places the mine provided.

“Occasionally saw him in town, picking up supplies and such … mostly stayed away from the saloon. Barman had told me when he did come in he seemed to make one beer last the night … usually settled himself in a quiet corner and just watched the action … occasionally joined a friendly poker game … usually walked away the winner. Just didn’t seem the sort to start the kind of trouble I got called to stop that night.

“When I asked him to share his side, he said nothing … just wanted to know what he had to do to get out of my jail … and as soon as possible. He seemed … agitated … being locked up. Not angry or anything … just nervous … skittish.

“I made some inquiries. Seems one of cowboys was harassing one of the girls … not one of the upstairs girls. When the man got a mite forceful, Thomson stepped in and suggested he let her alone. No one could rightly say what the man said to him … couldn’t quite figure out what it was that set him off … but suddenly he took a swing at the man. Other cowboys stepped in and the fight was on. When I got there I found a number of them on the floor and Thomson still swinging. Didn’t seem to have anyone helping him … didn’t really seem to need any help.

“Talked to a few of the miners too. They said he was a loner … didn’t mix with them. Worked hard … did a good job … disappeared at the end of every shift. One of them said something stuck with me … said he didn’t seem to enjoy the work … almost had to steel himself, every time, to go in the mine.”

He looked at the jury, the counselor, out at the gallery, and took a moment before continuing. “Wasn’t sure what to make of it all, but decided he weren’t no threat to anyone. Opened the cell. Told him he had a fine to pay and damages to cover and he was free to go … had to see the saloon owner to settle the damages.

“Handed him his gun and watched him strap it on … and I got to wondering. Miners don’t usually wear guns … don’t wear them as easy as he did. Never found I’ve ever gone wrong following my gut … decided to do so then.

“Told him I was short a deputy. Offered him the job. He looked at me … looked hard. Guess he decided it was a legit offer. Said he’d think about it, and walked away.

“A week later he came back and took the position. Found out later he’d spent the time, between shifts at the mine, fixing the damage to the saloon and otherwise working off the cost of materials. Wasn’t sure then why he didn’t just pay the man … learned about that later.”

Jarrod looked at the jury, then slowly and deliberately summarized what they had just heard. “So, am I to understand that you, on the basis of what your gut told you, offered the man, the man you’d just arrested, a job as your deputy … a job of protecting the people of your town?”

He got the response for which he’d hoped.

*****

Chapter 39

Frank chuckled. “Guess when you put it that way it sounds kind of crazy. But that’s exactly what happened. And, I can tell you this. I’ve never regretted that decision … not then … not ever. He’s the best deputy I’ve ever had … best I’ve ever seen.”

Jarrod saw the members of the jury look at each other, visages ranging from surprise in incredulity. He knew Frank’s name was known … his reputation sound. That his client had worked as Sawyer’s deputy meant something … at least to most of them.

The attorney turned back to his witness, his eyebrow raised in question.

Jarrod fixed his eyes on the witness. “So, why would you have let him go?”

“I didn’t. He persuaded me he had to quit. I think his mama persuaded him … he supported her … sent her every penny he made that he didn’t need for himself. I don’t think it was the money she was afraid to lose … it was him. And he couldn’t bear to know he caused her the worry … figured he’d caused her enough worry in his short life … no need to add to it.”

Jarrod continued to fix his gaze on the man. “Did he tell you how he’d caused her such worry?”

Frank held his gaze … held it firmly … refused to let it drop.

“He did. And he did so in confidence. I don’t care to break that … don’t see any need to share it here.”

A hint of a smile graced Jarrod’s face, and he had the decency to drop his eyes. He turned his attention to the people in the gallery, and then the jury. “Sounds like he earned your loyalty?”

“He did.”

“Mr. Sawyer, would you please share with this court, how I came to be here today, how I came to represent Mr. Thomson in this matter.”

Springer was on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. Relevance.”

Jarrod turned to Brackenbury. “Your Honor, while the question may seem irrelevant, I assure you that is not the case. If I am allowed to continue, the relevance will become apparent.”

There was an audible sigh from the bench. “Very well Mr. Barkley. I will permit the question … but, I expect you to get to the point, and quickly.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.” He turned back to Sawyer. “Please answer the question.”

Frank smiled … he knew the attorney wasn’t going to push him for more details about Heath, but in exchange he was going to make him reveal something of himself. It was a trade he was willing to make.

“Heath and I have kept in touch. I wasn’t surprised when he asked that I help with the investigation of Mr. Ucroft’s murder … help provide the evidence to convict the accused.” Frank knew the judge would not tolerate someone connected with the law, flaunting the rules … making inadmissible statements.

He, therefore, kept it simple. “I did that. Thought we had more than enough for a conviction. I was proven wrong. I was disappointed … but I’ve been in this business long enough to know it happens … and to accept that it can’t always be prevented … or corrected. Heath, however, was devastated … and he wanted justice. Wanted it however he could get it. He came to me. Asked if I’d be willing to help.

“He wanted to bring this action … do what he could to right the wrong done Mr. Ucroft … as much as he thought possible. We both recognized we’d need a good attorney … one of the best. Also knew he’d never be able to afford such a person. I suggested he leave it with me for a bit and I’d see what I could do.

“Did some research. Decided our only hope was to find a man who cared about the cause of justice more than he cared about his fee … someone who might be willing to help. Your name, Mr. Barkley, came to the top of the list. I came to see you … asked for that help. You agreed.”

“Why you Mr. Sawyer? Why not send Mr. Thomson?”

Frank laughed. “Because he’s too bloody proud … wouldn’t ask for help he couldn’t pay for. Wasn’t too happy, even when I told him. But this time his hunger for justice overrode his pride and he went along.”

“I asked you at the time why you’d go to such lengths, why it mattered so much to you. Please tell this court what you told me.”

Frank recalled that conversation. “I asked you what you might do if your father, or the closest thing you had to one, was murdered, how far you would go to get justice.” No one in the courtroom failed to note the significance of Frank’s question. Even six years later, there were few who hadn’t heard about the murder of Thomas Barkley. The quiet mutterings quickly abated, and the witness continued.

“Asked how far within the law … how far outside of it, you might go for that justice. I assured you Heath’s respect for the law was no less than yours, but his regard for his own life was far, far less.”

He paused for a moment, to calm his rising ire, and to make sure he had the attention of everyone in the room … especially the jury.

“I was afraid, Mr. Barkley. Afraid if his quest for justice was denied within the law, he’d forfeit his life to get it however he could. And, if he did that, I would lose someone who was like a son to me. I wanted to protect him … protect him as a father might … from himself. You were my only hope of doing so.” His voice dropped, he took a deep breath, and then he looked at Jarrod.

“That Sir, is how you came to be here today. Guess your desire for justice is no less than his. Or maybe … having met him, you like I, found him to be someone worthy of your respect … your help. Maybe both.”

Jarrod felt it … that tightening in his gut, around his heart. Frank was right. Thomson had invaded him … brought out his protective instincts. He didn’t understand it … couldn’t explain it … and couldn’t deny it. He nodded a couple of times … not sure he could speak. Took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and then turned back to his witness, and barely whispered.

“Thank you. No more questions.” It was unlikely the people in the public gallery could have heard it … maybe not even the jury. He took a seat, turning it over to Springer.

He had no awareness of what Springer said, asked, implied, or otherwise. He didn’t care. Expected whatever Nat threw at him, Frank could handle. Frank would protect Heath like a son, his desire no less than Jarrod’s … to protect him like a brother.

Judge Brackenbury’s second attempt to get a response brought him back to the present. “Yes, Your Honor, I am amenable to an early adjournment, to reconvening in the morning.”

It wasn’t about being amenable … at that moment he knew he wasn’t ready to continue. He also knew he’d do whatever it took to get himself prepared to continue. He needed to be the lawyer he was. His client was counting on it. As Frank had so clearly indicated, his client’s life might depend upon it. When morning came he’d be ready.

Jarrod had planned that, after Sawyer, he’d be calling Thomson. He’d sent Nick a telegram several days earlier letting him know it was time and so the message that awaited him on his return to the hotel, was no surprise … and very welcome. They would be arriving on the early evening stage … Nick, Heath and the entourage of protection his brother had chosen.

He had been prepared to ask for a continuance if necessary. Brackenbury’s decision to adjourn early today, had put paid to the immediate need, and, if truth be told, he was relieved to know he wouldn’t have to fight Springer on that request. While he fully expected he would be successful, he preferred to put his energy into winning the case … not engaging the defense attorney in procedural matters.

Back in his hotel room, he shucked his clothes and stretched out on the bed, just wanting to close his eyes, quietly consider what had happened to him with Frank’s testimony, and let himself recover his equilibrium … maybe just rest a bit. He figured the travelers all would be hungry … he’d wait and eat with them.

The pounding on the door awoke him with a start. The dimness in the room told him he’d been asleep far longer than he’d intended … not that he’d intended to sleep at all. He took a moment to orient himself and grabbing his robe moved to the door. He stopped a moment, went back to the dresser, grabbed his gun, then returned to the door. Before he had a chance to inquire as to who was knocking, he got his answer.

“JARROD. YOU IN THERE? JARROD. OPEN UP. IT’S NICK.”

As if he needed to add the last piece Jarrod thought … and smiled. His brother was here. Already, he felt better.

“GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!”

He opened the door quickly and waved off the men, letting them know all was well. They were his men and didn’t know Nick, nor he them. Good to see they were doing their job. Stepping back he let the rancher into the room. He seemed to be alone, which was a surprise.

“Where’s Heath … and your protection?”

“My men are here … at the end of the hall,” he barked, before shaking his head, and softening his voice. “Heath and the rest of the men are in the dining room. I told them I’d come get you.”

It wasn’t until then he noticed his brother wasn’t dressed, and was holding a gun on him. It was sobering. “You expecting trouble?” He pointed at the weapon, concern immediate.

Jarrod chuckled. “Not especially. Wasn’t expecting company though.” Then he realized. “Sorry, Nick. I fully intended to meet your stage … guess I fell asleep. Give me a minute to grab some clothes and I’ll be right with you.”

“Take your time. Just as long as you hurry it up. I’m hungry.”

Jarrod laughed. It felt good. Once more he was reminded of what it meant to him to have this brawny, brash piece of humanity in his life … someone to halve his misery and double his happiness. Once more, counted himself lucky, and gave quiet thanks.”

*****

Chapter 40

Not more than 10 minutes after Nick pounded on Jarrod’s door, the two Barkleys and Heath were seated at a small corner table, the men dispersed at other tables throughout the room. Heath was quiet as Jarrod filled him in … let him know he thought things were going well. The blond just nodded.

“I didn’t get a chance to let Frank know you were coming in tonight. I thought you … and he … might be more comfortable in your own space, rather than in a hotel room. I rented a small house that I was sure would meet your needs. Big enough to house you and any men Nick sent along, and small enough to be defended easily if the need arises.”

A raised eyebrow was the only indication he’d been heard.

“I opted to stay here … I sometimes keep odd hours, and didn’t want to disturb anyone.”

He turned as Nick snorted. “Truer words were never spoken … especially if you consider working until 2:00 a.m. and rolling out of bed at near noon to be keeping odd hours.”

Jarrod looked at him, and smiled, before turning his attention back to Heath. “You certainly don’t have to stay there … are more than welcome to stay at the hotel here. I just wanted you to have options.”

He stopped, not knowing what further to add, and hoping for some response from the blond.

“Boy howdy, Jarrod, can’t imagine putting the likes of me into a place as fancy as this. If what you’ve found meets with Frank’s approval, I’m sure it will do me just fine. I don’t much cotton to hotels … of any sort.”

He paused for a moment, as he took another bite and swallowed.

“Although, can’t say the food’s anything to complain about.”

He held up his fork with a piece of steak firmly speared. “Doubt it’s Barkley beef, but it’s still right tasty.”

Jarrod had clearly heard the self-deprecating remark, and it bothered him. It bothered him more to think about what must have transpired over the course of Heath’s young life to create that perception. He expected the man had seldom found himself welcome at places this fancy … and often found himself unwelcome at ones much less so. Nick’s question interrupted those musings.

“So, Counselor, you really think you’re winning this one?”

Jarrod wondered at the odd tone he sensed in Nick’s question. Was he surprised … or disappointed? “Well, Nick, I’ve long ago learned that it’s not won until the decision is rendered. But, yes, I think, at the moment, it’s leaning very much in our favor. I have Markle to thank for that.

“He located a key witness … one that went missing prior to the murder trial. One that would like to have stayed missing. I just hope John and the people he’s engaged can lose the man again … where he won’t be found … where his testimony won’t cost him his life.”

The blond head snapped up. He looked hard at Jarrod, and then whispered, “The bank manager?”

Jarrod was surprised … at first. Then he reminded himself that this man had worked for Sawyer, and seemed to have an innate intelligence that allowed him to make reasonable deducements, beyond what Frank may have taught him.

The attorney nodded. “He confirmed your suspicions. Greenley advised him to keep quiet about the change in ownership of Ucroft’s debt, and then arranged his departure from town before calling in the loan.”

The response was barely discernible over the low drone of voices in the room. “Wasn’t looking to put anyone in danger … get anyone else killed.”

“WHOA, BOY. DON’T YOU GO BLAMING YOURSELF FOR THIS.”

“Nick!” The hazel eyes swiveled to his brother, an expression that clearly asked, “What?”

“Nick, there’s no need to shout. We don’t need to broadcast our conversation.”

Blue held hazel. “Okay. Okay. Just didn’t like what I was hearing.”

Hazel now bored into lighter blue. Jarrod decided to intervene.

“It’s not my desire, not anyone’s desire, Heath. Markle has assured me he’s taken steps … calculated and competent steps … to protect the man. But, I want you to remember that what he did, not letting Ucroft know his debt had been sold, was illegal.

“Furthermore, allowing himself to be ferreted away so he wasn’t available to be questioned about it, to testify that he was coerced into doing so … coerced by Greenley … played a significant part in the not guilty verdict. Sooner or later, most men are required to answer for their actions. His time had come.”

A brief nod was the only acknowledgement he got. He decided to let it drop and quiet settled at the table as the three of them focused on clearing their plates. As he swallowed the last of his coffee Jarrod suddenly recalled his musings over Peak’s testimony. He looked at Thomson again.

“Heath, I’ve a question for you … one you don’t need to answer. I just found myself curious.”

Seeing no resistance to his continuing, he did just that. “Ira Peak said you made up the shortage … the difference between what the men and Ucroft provided … in meeting the payment Greenley demanded. I was just wondering where you got the money.”

Heath chuckled. “Ain’t no secret. Asked Frank for it. He’d offered it to me when I resigned … told me I could use it to get my own place if I wanted. His parents had died in a cholera outbreak a few years earlier. It was his share of what they’d left.”

He chuckled again. “Said he wasn’t planning on quitting his job … didn’t figure he had any use for it.”

He paused then, and grew quiet. “Told me to consider it a gift … and if that didn’t sit well with me, I could consider it a loan. I thanked him, and told him neither sat well with me.

“Wasn’t ready to decide what I’d do next, but reckoned there was a promise I had to keep. He didn’t push … told me the offer was open … all I had to do was ask.”

He was quiet again … distant. They let it be.

“Well, I expect you boys have had a long day … morning will come early. So, let’s go get this young man settled. I got a couple of rooms here for you and your men Nick. Not sure how long you plan to stay—”

He was cut off. “Heading out first stage in the morning. Got a buyer coming to look at a couple of Prince Oxford’s offspring … wants a good, young bull.  And, the ranch don’t run itself.”

He looked at his brother and shook his head.

“Besides, never could figure why you would prefer a stuffy old courtroom to riding herd or mending fences.”

He laughed. It was an old joke … he knew Jarrod knew it. No offense was ever intended … none was ever taken.

As they stood to leave, so did their men. Jarrod remained hopeful that the protection was not … and never would be … needed. Hopeful, but not confident. He asked the waitress to put the charges for them, and the indicated tables, on his bill. He dropped a sizeable tip on the table.

They found Frank comfortably settled in front of the fireplace. Jarrod had ensured the place was well stocked and the man offered them a night cap, which they accepted. He let his gaze rest on the young man he still considered his protégé. Not unexpectedly, neither Heath’s stance, nor his expression, gave away a thing. He’d have to go the direct route.

“So, how’re doing, Son?”

He got a half-smile and “I’m fine,” for his efforts.

He laughed. “Sure you are. And Nick here’s a trained bear.”

The blond smiled … a full smile … went almost to his eyes.

“I’m good, Frank … ready. I wanted this. Got it. I’ll be fine.”

While not fully convinced, Frank was willing to accept that. He had no doubt the man would do whatever it took … would indeed be ready. However, he expected Jarrod Barkley planned to push his young friend … push him into revealing things he’d never want the public … never want anyone … to know.

His only hope was that the attorney didn’t push him beyond … well, beyond what he could handle. He wanted Heath’s wish granted … he did not want him destroyed in the process.

Jarrod looked at the marshal … saw the concern. Wondered about it … wondered if he was understanding it correctly. Time would tell.

Right now he had another matter to address. “Frank. About this afternoon. Afraid I got distracted there….”

He stopped, not sure how to proceed. Now that he’d started, he wasn’t sure what he was hoping to accomplish. Decided he needed to offer an apology … acknowledge he’d left the man on his own.

“I think I owe you an apology. I realize I left you to deal with Springer on your own … left you having to answer whatever he asked. I left you exposed to attack … with no defense….”

He trailed off. Sawyer quickly rescued him. “Don’t worry about it, Jarrod. Most fun I’ve had in a long while. That man is arrogant beyond belief. Allowed him to underestimate me.”

He met Heath’s eyes, smiled.

The blond shared his thoughts. “Boy howdy, don’t I just love when that happens.”

Franks’s smile stopped, his voice hardened, his face with it.

“Couldn’t’ve happened to a better person.”

He looked back at Jarrod. Smiled again. “Just don’t you go worrying about me, Counselor. You take care of you … do what you’ve got to do. I’m fine.” He chuckled.

Jarrod expected Frank knew what had happened. He appreciated the man’s willingness to leave it be … to forgive. Of course he hadn’t reckoned on his brother.

“So, what did Springer do, Frank?”

“Ah Nick. He did what these lawyer fellows always do. He tried to turn me inside out and upside down.”

Frank too was willing to let it be. Nick, however, was not going to be denied. He wanted to know what had happened. “How so?”

Heaving a sigh of defeat, Frank gave in and offered an example.

“Well he thought to take what Jarrod had presented about my relationship with this boy here, and make it into something else. He suggested that I went hunting for evidence … came mighty close to saying I’d maybe fabricated it … to support Heath’s story.

“Wanted the jury to believe that I saw myself as having lost him to Ucroft and was doing whatever I could to win back his ‘affections’ … believe that was how he described it.”

“Could be a reasonable assumption.”

“Yes Nick, that’s true. And I guess I’ll have to offer you the same thing I offered Springer. I suggested he didn’t have any children. Told the jury that once you claimed a child as yours, all you cared about was that child’s happiness. If Heath was happy, I was happy.

“If he saw Ucroft as a father, didn’t make me consider him any less my son … didn’t change how I felt about him. Or how he felt about me. Suggested if a parent could have ‘affection’ for more than one child, wasn’t nothing stopped a child from having affection for more than one father … or mother.”

Nick gave a terse nod, but Jarrod’s curiosity was piqued.

“Frank, what do you mean by claim a child as yours? I understand that in this case … with Heath … you claimed him, but I got the sense you were talking about any child.”

Frank chuckled. “Well Jarrod, we men can sometimes be pretty arrogant. Truth is, women have irrefutable proof that any child they have is theirs. No man has that. When we are told a child is ours, we have to decide … have to believe … it’s true. We have to claim that child as ours. We got no way to prove it. Any man that thinks otherwise is a fool.”

Nick and Jarrod looked at each other, the look indicating they shared the same thought.

Can’t imagine Father ever considered the possibility we weren’t his. Somehow he would know his own children. And, he was no fool…. But, is it possible … did he entertain the slightest doubt … did he have that moment when he claimed us?

 Guess we’ll never know. I certainly never had any doubt I was his … that any of us were his. Mother would no more do that to him, than … well …  than he would do it to her. Wouldn’t happen.

Jarrod spoke first. “Point taken, Frank. It is a matter of believing … on both sides. Children have to believe … have to claim their fathers as well.”

Frank was silent. They all were. Springer’s challenges to his testimony were forgotten.

Uncharacteristically, Jarrod was the one to break the silence.

“Well gentlemen, I’m anticipating tomorrow will be a long day, and we’ll all do better with a good night’s sleep.” He put his hand on Heath’s shoulder and turned to Frank.

“I’ll leave this young fellow in your good hands and take Nick, myself, and our entourage out of here. Court convenes at 9:00. I’ll see you then.” Among muttered goodbyes they departed.

Tomorrow was a new day … a day with the testimony that likely could decide the case.

*****

Chapter 41

 Early the next morning, Jarrod Barley found himself seeing his younger brother off on the stage. As he watched the dust follow them down the street he thought back to what Nick had expressed the night before, after they’d returned to the hotel.

“Much as I’d like to feel happy for you, Pappy, happy for the success you’re having here … and I do … there’s part of me would be glad to have the whole thing fall apart … have the verdict come in against you. Right now, if you win … Heath wins … I lose. He won’t be staying at the ranch.

 “I’m sorry Jarrod. I don’t understand it … can’t make a lick of sense of it … but somehow I feel like I’ll lose more than a ranch hand … more than a highly, capable ranch hand. Somehow I’ll lose part of myself … almost like losing Father, all over again.”

 He’d turned his then-quiet hazel eyes on his older brother, eyes that reflected embarrassment and despair in equal measure.

 To his own sorrow, Jarrod realized he knew exactly of what Nick spoke. It wasn’t dissimilar to what arose when he’d listened to Frank’s testimony.

Jarrod had reassured Nick he understood, and let him know he’d do all he could to persuade Heath to stay with him … whether he won or lost. He, as well, wanted him to be part of the future of the Barkley ranch. They’d left it there.

Jarrod now turned and headed for the courthouse. He wanted to be sure he was ready for Thomson. He knew this morning would take an emotional toll … on both he and his client.

When Jarrod Barkley had called Heath Thomson to the stand, the young man had taken a moment to draw a deep breath and remind himself that, although this was maybe his only chance at justice for Cliff, all he could … and would … do, was tell the truth.

The whole truth and nothing but the truth. After he had taken an oath to do just that, he settled himself on the witness chair and turned to the attorney to face the first question.

Recalling Heath’s actions in front of Judge Lansbury, Jarrod abandoned his initial plan to slowly ease his client into the witness role. He went directly to the core issue.

“Mr. Thomson, I understand you were very close to Mr. Ucroft. Is that correct?”

While initially surprised at such a direct approach, Heath found himself, also relieved. He wanted to get this over as quickly as possible and this only would assist in realizing that desire.

“That is correct. He was like a father to me.”

“He was, however, not a blood relative. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Please tell this court how you came to know Mr. Ucroft … how he came to be,” he turned toward the jury before completing his question, “like a father to you.”

Heath took a deep breath and stole a look at Jarrod, before deciding how to answer. “Mr. Ucroft had a son, Sean. He was a good 8 or 10 years older than me. He befriended me at time when I needed a friend … when we both needed someone to trust … to lean on.

“At that time we were not sure we would survive and we had made a promise to each other … if only one of us were to survive. I went to visit Mr. Ucroft to fulfill that promise. After I had done so he offered me a job, and I agreed to stay on at his ranch.”

Jarrod had prepared Heath to testify, but not in the way he normally would have done. He had advised his client of the nature of the questions he would be asking, and the reason for the questions: his history with Ucroft to establish a family-type relationship; the time and means by which Ucroft died to suggest someone wanted to prevent formalizing the nature of the relationship; and, the effects of that death on the young wrangler.

What he had not done was present Heath with the exact questions he intended to ask, or to have him prepare specific answers to those questions. He was counting on those questions to have an effect on the blond and he wanted the jury to see the effect. Too much preparation would destroy that.

His courtroom experience told him that approach likely would require that he force his client to provide greater detail than he otherwise might relinquish. He would be forced to probe and he knew Heath would not be pleased.

The probing began as he cut off further comment from his witness.

“Please tell this court where you met Sean and the circumstances in which you found yourselves that led to your extracting such a promise from each other.”

Jarrod did not miss the flash in the blue-grey eyes. He suspected the jury would not see it.

“We were in the war together.”

He either failed to hear the murmur that swept through the spectators, or chose to ignore it. As he started to speak, he already was turning inwards. His thoughts drifted back to that time he so wished he could forget, and his voice quieted, becoming monotone.

“We enlisted about the same time, were assigned to the same unit … initially. I hadn’t yet appreciated what I had gotten myself into … just figured I’d found a better way to support Mama and me. I think he knew better … tried to persuade me to tell them the truth … tell them my real age.

“I think, once he realized that wasn’t going to happen, he decided he was going to protect me as best he could. Then someone noticed I had an uncanny ability to hit what I aimed at, and I got shuffled off into a special unit … a unit of sharpshooters. We got split up.”

He paused to calm himself … at least enough to keep tamped down, the emotions that otherwise would surface. He then continued, in the same quiet, flat, voice.

“Don’t rightly know why, but I eventually was sent to New Mexico … assigned to a unit that seemed to be involved in minor skirmishes. I guessed they had something planned … something that would require my services. Never found out what that might be.

“We got overpowered, captured and sent to Carterson Prison. Can’t think what the chances would be, but I arrived to discover Sean was already there … had been there a couple of months.”

For the first time in the telling Heath seemed to come back to the moment and have some awareness of his surroundings. The response to his statement … from the jury as well as the onlookers … seemed to register. It stopped his recounting, and he waited for it to subside, before continuing.

“He wasn’t looking too good, when I found him. I decided it was my turn to try and protect him. Dug a trough in the ground that would hold the two of us and then went scavenging.

“Only place to get supplies … covers, clothes, cups, plates, spoons … was from them that had died. You had to get there first, be strong enough to grab what you needed … and fast enough to get away before someone took it from you.”

He stopped again, vaguely wondering about the distant noise. He, once again, was way back in time.

“That first week, I managed to get us a piece of canvas and a scrap of blanket. Huddled together in our hole, with those things to keep out the weather, we were able to survive the cold when it came … and some of the rain.

“Only thing you couldn’t steal from the dead was food … they didn’t have any either. I tried a few times to persuade the guards to give Sean something better to eat … something that wasn’t maggoty or mouldy. Something that could help him recover.

“Seems he’d been injured when he was captured, and hadn’t gotten any proper medical care. And he was powerful thin. Guards weren’t persuaded and I spent time on the whipping post for bothering them about it.”

He dropped his head in his hands, as his fingers moved methodically through his hair, his nails scratching his scalp. He stopped after a moment, surprised that he’d forgotten he no longer was covered in lice … no need to scratch. He looked up and caught Jarrod’s eye, saw the empathy and the encouragement. Saw him nod. A nod that urged him to continue.

“Some of the men got together a plan to dig a tunnel … a tunnel to the outside. We talked about it. I convinced Sean that escaping was our only hope. I made it very clear to him I wasn’t going without him. But, he wasn’t in any shape to help dig … he could barely swallow any food I managed to get … let alone chew it.

“Don’t guess I was in a lot better shape but I got the men to agree that I could dig for both of us. I’d spent enough time in the mines to know how to dig when your body was telling you it was too done in to do anything more. I knew I could do this … could do it for him.”

He stopped again, but just long enough to take a deep breath. It was quiet in the room … that breath readily heard by all.

“Don’t quite know how it all went wrong, but somehow they found out … were waiting when the first man came out of that tunnel. Sean was ahead of me – I knew I’d have to help push him along. He didn’t have the strength to crawl that far on his own.

“There was no light that night, but I could feel the air … fresh air… as we got close to the end. I gave him a push and then I felt someone pull him free. Before I could follow him a man was coming back in, taking up that space … and I could hear the shots. That man started shouting. Go back, go back … and then there was silence. Nothing but silence.”

It took two deep breaths this time, before he could finish it.

“They were there, pulling us backwards out of that tunnel. They made us dig the hole for the ones they killed and then they strung us all on the whipping posts. We were still hanging there when we were freed two days later. The war was over. Not sure it’ll ever be over for me.”

The quiet went from reverential to oppressive, until he finally broke it … forced himself to finish it. “Took me some time to recover, and then a few years of working to save the money and find the time … the time and the courage … to carry out my promise. When that time came, I went and saw Mr. Ucroft.

“Told him how I persuaded his son to do this thing that killed him … how I helped push him out the hole … to a waiting bullet. Told him how I buried Sean, and how I would never, as long as I live, forgive myself for killing the best friend I’d ever had.”

No number of breaths would let him continue. He wasn’t even aware of the tears streaming down his face. When his lips moved and no sound came, the judge called a recess. As the jury box and the public gallery emptied, he sat … and, did not move. Jarrod approached him slowly and quietly.

“Heath, Judge Brackenbury has called a break. Let’s get out of here for a bit. Get some air.”

He opened the gate to the witness box and took the young man’s arm. Only then did Heath turn and see him. He turned back to the room, realizing they were alone, and slowly came to understand where he was … and why.

He nodded and let Jarrod ease him up from the chair, down the step and across the space. Then they were outside and Frank had him wrapped in his arms, muttering indistinguishable words to him.

Jarrod Barkley stood back and waited. He had expected this to be an emotional endeavor for his client. He hadn’t expected it to take quite this toll. He wondered if he’d made a mistake … gotten the effect he wanted … gotten it at a price he hadn’t intended. A price too high for the blond to pay.

He saw no way to rectify that … and no way to change tactics at this point. His only salvation would be to discover Heath Thomson wanted justice at any price … even this. He turned to gaze out over the town, to the distant countryside and the mountains beyond. Maybe salvation was not to be had … his only hope … that justice was.

Then he felt it … the hand on his shoulder … the solid squeeze. He turned and looked into the most grateful eyes ever he could recall seeing.

“Heath—” he started and was shut down by repeated shaking of the blond head.

“No, no. Don’t apologize. I knew, going into this, I had to trust you. Had to believe you knew what was needed … would do what was needed. Not sure I could have agreed to … agreed to say all that … if you’d told me ahead of time. Not sure I’ve got quite that much courage.”

His blue bored into the sapphire of the attorney, and there was no way to dismiss the words that followed. “Thank you, Mr. Barkley. Sorry for what my quest is costing you.”

Jarrod held his gaze … held it … then nodded. “Very well, Mr. Thomson, shall we head back inside … continue what we’ve started.”

He got a half-smile and a nod in response.

*****

Chapter 42

 Court reconvened and with it Heath’s testimony.

Word must have circulated in the interlude; the public gallery now was packed as Jarrod voiced his first question. “Tell this court, please, Mr. Thomson, how Mr. Ucroft took your revelation.”

Springer was on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. Supposition.”

Jarrod cut in before the judge could rule. “Allow me to rephrase the question.”

He turned to the witness. “Please, tell this court the reply you received from Mr. Ucroft.”

“Cliff … Mr. Ucroft … thanked me for coming to tell him about his son’s last hours … last days … weeks … months. He told me he had long ago despaired of ever getting his son to do anything he didn’t want to do, and he was unable to believe I could have done so. He assured me he had no doubt that if Sean was in that tunnel, he was there of his own free will. He said he was proud of him … proud of the both of us … proud that we refused to give up.”

He stopped again to collect himself, before continuing. “He asked me to come into the house, said there was something he wanted me to see. I didn’t know what else to do, so I followed him. He waved me through the entranceway into the parlor, walked over to the fireplace and took a framed photo off the mantle.

“I couldn’t see what it was, but he proceeded to remove it from the frame and then handed it to me. It was a photo of Sean and I, just before I got sent to join the other unit. I’d forgotten he’d done that … had that photo taken. Mr. Ucroft told me to turn it over and read what was on the back. I did.”

“And what was on the back, Mr. Thomson.”

“Sean had written, ‘My little brother’ and signed it ‘your loving son, Sean’. I didn’t rightly know what to say and just handed it back to him.

“He then looked at me … right at me … and said, ‘I am so very, very grateful my son was not alone when he died. So very grateful his little brother was with him … and could ensure he was buried. I don’t think I could bear to think of his body being left to scavengers … wild or otherwise.” He glanced up at the attorney.

“What happened then?”

“He said he’d like to get to know his son’s little brother … asked me to stay … help him work the place. He said he had something else he wanted to show me, but that would be for another day. For now, he just wanted me to agree to stay … to try it out … see how we did together.”

“And then?”

“I didn’t have nowhere special to be. I figured any father that could raise a son like Sean, had to be a mighty good man. Couldn’t imagine a better place I could go … a better person to work for. I agreed to stay.”

Heath looked at Jarrod and added a piece he thought was necessary. “I didn’t much like it. Didn’t think it was right. However, I figured I had done enough to bring a whole world of hurt to this man and I didn’t need to give him any more grief … didn’t need to object to what he wanted, just because it didn’t happen to suit me.”

Jarrod nodded a couple of times and then turned to the jury box.

“So, this court is to understand that Mr. Ucroft requested you stay and work for him and you did exactly that. Is that correct?”

“Not exactly. That was my intention. Mr. Ucroft insisted I would be staying to work with him, not for him. He insisted I have a room in the house, refused to allow me to stay with the other men in the bunkhouse. Introduced me to the men as someone special to his son, someone who’d be staying on with him, someone to be treated same as Sean.”

Jarrod turned back to his witness.

“Now, Mr. Thomson, how is it that Mr. Ucroft thought he could do that, thought he could treat you as a son? How is it that he didn’t expect an objection from your own father?”

He kept his eyes on Heath. Knew this would not be easy … and knew it had to come from the man himself … not be forced from him by Springer. As he’d told his client weeks earlier, he had no doubt that Springer would uncover the information.

“I’m guessing Sean told him … mentioned it in one of his letters.”

As much as he’d like to keep his eyes on Heath, offer him the support, Jarrod knew he needed to see Springer’s reaction … and that of the jury. He turned, forced out his next question. “Mentioned what?”

“What I’d shared with him … let him know…. I didn’t have a father … didn’t know who my father was. My mother never told me … and she didn’t carry his name. She was never married to him … whoever he was. I’m a bastard.”

Jarrod saw Springer slump at the same time the members of the jury snapped upright. The judge quickly quieted the room again, demanded order.

“I see. And I’m guessing that information made no difference to Sean … or his father?”

He nodded first, and then, as in afterthought, realized he had to say it. His barely whispered, “They didn’t care,” clearly indicating he spoke the truth … and barely believed it himself.

“They didn’t care. And so Mr. Ucroft took you in … How long did you stay?”

This reply was not whispered … carried no doubt.

“Until Mr. Greenley murdered him and took over his property.”

Springer did his best to drown out those last words. “OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR. I object. Mr. Greenley was tried and exonerated in the death of Mr. Ucroft. I wish to have the witness’s statement stricken from the record and the jury instructed to disregard it entirely.”

Jarrod stepped in. “Your Honor, this is not a criminal proceeding. While it is true that charges were brought, and there was insufficient evidence presented to convict Mr. Greenley of the murder of Mr. Ucroft, that in no way negates what my witness saw and what he is prepared to testify to seeing.

“Mr. Greenley is protected under the double jeopardy provisions of the Fifth Amendment, from having that testimony threaten his life or freedom. Whether the evidence proved insufficient for a criminal conviction should in no way prevent it being brought forth in a civil matter.”

“You are correct Mr. Barkley. However, your witness has not described what he saw; he has drawn a conclusion and provided an inflammatory statement. I shall sustain the objection and instruct the statement to be stricken from the record and the jury to disregard it.”

Jarrod recognized the opening the judge had given him and was quick to react. “Mr. Thomson, I believe you were present at the death of Mr. Clifford Ucroft. Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“Please tell this court what happened that day … what you saw happen. As best as you remember it.”

It wasn’t remembering that was a problem … it was forgetting.

Heath wasn’t sure he ever would. Turning his thoughts on it now was like reliving the experience … like it was all happening right now … right here.

He had limped his way into Cliff’s study and quickly caught the look of disapproval, and attempted just as quickly to shut down the protest. “I’m fine. I’m fine. Just a bit sore is all.”

 He was still annoyed at himself for being in this condition. He knew better … knew better than to take his eyes off a momma cow when he was messing with her baby. Even if all he was trying to do was help that baby.

 He remembered wondering, when he first saw the two of them, how a loving God could invent animals as stupid as cows … and then impose them on as innocent a being as the average cowboy.

 These two were no exception. While the felled tree branch obviously had taken down the piece of fence, Heath suspected the cow had had something to do with the branch falling. Being much larger and stronger than her calf, she successfully had managed to plough her way through the tangle of branches and broken wire to the other side.

 Why she did so, he never would know. There was that stupidity again. A belly full … several bellies full … of lush, green grass right at her feet and she has to tackle a barrier such as that to get to something that was no better … maybe even worse. And the calf … being a cow in training … couldn’t see it had no hope of following and thus chose to attempt the impossible.

 He now had no choice but to find a way to free her baby from the mess.

 All that would have been fine, only as he stood there thinking how best to go about that, he allowed his mind to drift back to the conversation he’d had with Cliff the night before. That was his mistake … the one moment of lost focus … forgetting the bloody momma cow.

 He had thankfully caught a glimpse of her just before she reached him, and managed to avoid getting gored or trampled. Doing so, however, had landed him in the pile of broken branches and wire and opened a nasty gash in his leg.

 After persuading her to move back, he’d gotten his bandana tied around the leg and finished extricating the stupid calf. When he realized the leg was still bleeding, and starting to throb rather persistently, he’d left them both on the wrong side of the fence and headed back to the house.

 A visit from the doctor and accompanying orders of no riding, no strenuous work, no movement whatsoever that could strain the multiple stitches used to close the would, found him several days later ready to beg for release from the quickly closing-in walls of the house. He had to get outdoors or he’d go crazy.

 Ucroft wasn’t easy to convince, but eventually took pity on the young man he’d come to accept as his son, and agreed to let him do inventory of the extra gear in the stable’s tack room. He knew some was in need of repair, and expected some needed replacing. He’d let him attend to that chore only if that was all he did, and if he used the cane he’d provided.

 The ranch owner had earlier sent the men out, in their usual crews, to attend to the various tasks he had scheduled. He had advised them he had business in town early that afternoon, and so would not be joining any of them.

It was a pleasant day and Heath had left the stable doors open as he worked in the storage area. He’d heard the horse come into the yard and then the approaching footsteps. He looked up to see a ranch hand standing there. The man advised he’d been sent to report on the problems they’d found in one of the lower pastures and to get orders on how to proceed.

Heath studied him a moment … realized he didn’t recognize him … wondered about that and then asked. He explained he’d ridden in the day before looking for work, and Mr. Ucroft had agreed to give him a chance. In the midst of that discussion the sound of more horses could be heard. He stood to go investigate, and the new hand followed.

By the time the blond reached the door Ucroft was out on the front porch addressing Merton Greenley and another unknown man, both still on horseback. The rancher was telling them to leave, informing Greenley that he had told him before he wasn’t interested in selling his property to him, Merton Greenley, or anyone … not now, not ever.

And then things started to happen, very quickly … although afterwards, and still, Heath saw it all in slow motion. Greenley lifted his gun—had to have had it in his hand all along, for Heath did not see him draw it. He lifted it and pulled the trigger.

Cliff lurched forward, reached for the post and then fell face first down the steps onto the dirt in the yard. Heath’s gun suddenly was in his own hand, but he couldn’t fire on Greenley … the other man was in the way. He started to move, as quickly as he could, to get a clear shot, and everything went black.

As he started to open his eyes and was assaulted by a blinding pain, he quickly closed them. Concentrating on a point in the darkness, and letting his head and stomach recover from the first onslaught, he was ready to try again. This time he cracked them open a mere slit and gave himself time to adjust to the incoming light. In slow increments, he eventually was able to open them enough to see what was before him. And then he remembered and quickly staggered to his feet and headed toward the porch.

He saw the large pool of red, and gently turned the man onto his back, feeling for a pulse. No, please, no, he prayed. Felt again. Willed himself to feel something, just something. And then all he could feel was cold … and pain … and fear … and hate.

He reached for his gun and found his holster empty. Looked around and realized he’d dropped it when he’d been hit. Made his way back to it and fired three shots, hoping the sound would reach one of the crews and bring help… knowing that the help he truly wanted was not to be had. There was no bringing someone back from the dead.

*****

Chapter 43

 Silence reigned in the courtroom, as Heath sat; eyes focused on some distant spot … a place not within those walls. As those walls drifted back into focus, he returned with them … came back to the present. He guessed he’d been describing what had been going on in his head. Saw Jarrod give him that nod that said continue.

“When the first riders showed up, I explained what had happened.  I sent someone for Sheriff Collins and asked that they also bring the undertaker.

“The ranch hand that had been with me was nowhere to be found … not then, and not since. And, as I eventually found out, he hadn’t been hired the day before… at least not by Mr. Ucroft.”

“What happened next?”

“I spoke with the sheriff. He told me Greenley had people willing to testify that he had been elsewhere at the time of the shooting, that he had suggested there was no way he was anywhere near the Ucroft property at the time.”

He paused for a moment and decided he would just finish it. “I guessed the sheriff wasn’t able to do anything more so I got in touch with Frank Sawyer. I wanted Greenley arrested.”

“I presume you are referring to Marshal Frank Sawyer? Why him?”

He was a marshal. They have the jurisdiction and ability to do a more thorough investigation. And I trusted Sawyer. As you all know, I’d been working as his deputy before I went to see Mr. Ucroft.”

“I see. And what came of that.”

“Marshal Sawyer was able to convince whoever necessary to file charges and have Greenley arrested. There were people testifying to things that did not agree with what I knew … things that Mr. Ucroft had shared with me. And my testimony was considered insufficient without a corroborating witness … in the face of his alibi.”

The latter was said with such disdain that no one hearing would have any doubt as to the witness’s feelings about it.

“Suggestions were even made that I might have killed the man myself and blamed it on Greenley. Guess I should consider myself lucky that there were no witnesses to corroborate that. He was set free.”

“How did you come to your decision to leave the ranch?”

“After Mr. Greenley’s trial … after he was set free … he rode out to the ranch one day and advised us that he had purchased it at auction. Mr. Ucroft’s will had named his son Sean as his sole heir.

“Since Sean was dead, and no other next of kin known, the State had stepped in and sold the property. The proceeds would be held in trust … should anyone some day claim to be related. He was now the sole owner of the property. We had words and I left.”

“I see. And now you are here hoping to re-establish your claim to Mr. Ucroft’s estate?”

“No sir, Mr. Barkley. I am here hoping to obtain justice, the only justice that remains possible for a man who was shot down in cold blood. A man … I came to love … love as a father.” The hitch in his voice with that last statement was readily heard by all.

“One further question, Mr. Thomson. Did Mr. Ucroft ever show you that other thing you mentioned?”

It took Heath a moment to gather himself … his scattered thoughts … and understand what Jarrod was asking. “Yes. Yes he did.”

“And what was that other thing?”

Heath paused for a moment, hoping to get the control he needed to talk about this bit.

“It was a packet of letters. Sean had written him throughout the war, right up until he walked through the gates of Carterson. He said to take my time, read through them when I felt like it … if I felt like it. However, he wanted to read me the last bit of one letter … said it was the letter that came with the photo.”

He found his eyes blinking fast and hard … didn’t want to find himself crying on the witness stand … crying in front of a room full of strangers … or friends. At least he didn’t want to be aware he was doing it.

“What did he read to you, Heath?”

Jarrod knew his witness was fighting to hold back the tears, and while he had no desire to embarrass the young man, he knew those tears, like the earlier ones, would speak louder to the jury than any words they might hear.

“He read me the end of the letter … the part where Sean told him he’d finally found that little brother he always wanted and when this wretched war was over he’d be bringing him home … home to stay. They would be a family … and he didn’t expect his father would object … not once he’d met him … met me.”

The last words were choked out, barely audible, and overpowered any attempts to withhold the tears that had been threatening.

Jarrod let that sit for several moments, allowing it all to be absorbed fully by the jury, before he announced that he had no further questions. He then requested the court recess for lunch. Springer objected, not wanting the jury to have any further time to sit with the image now before them, without opportunity to disrupt it.

He was overruled and Heath again exited the empty courtroom with his attorney, who didn’t expect his client would feel much like eating. However, he wanted to give him some quiet time, and perhaps persuade him to swallow a few bites. He wanted him as ready as possible to face Nathan Springer.

As it turned out Heath surprised him … even though Springer did not. The man had used every trick, every talent, he possessed to rattle a witness. Time and again he insisted Heath repeat portions of his story, challenged his recounting, hoping for some true discrepancy, however small. Or hoping for an exact word for word recounting … something that would suggest he’d been coached … he’d memorized … his testimony. He was thwarted in every regard. Heath held firm … and believable.

Jarrod refrained from objecting unless absolutely necessary. Once he realized what Nat was attempting … and how Heath was handling it … he wanted to let the defense counselor do as much damage as he could … to his own defense.

By the end of the day, it appeared he had done a stellar job of just that. For once the very successful attorney had both misread, and underestimated, a witness. Had it not been inappropriate … unprofessional … Jarrod Barkley would have smiled.

The judge announced that court was adjourned for the day. Since it was Friday, it would reconvene Monday morning.

Jarrod acknowledged a desire to put Heath on the next day’s early-morning stage. Get him back to the ranch where he’d be safer. However, having now testified, he was eligible to be recalled at any time. He was expected to be available … readily available. Not a day’s journey away.

He didn’t expect Springer would recall him. He knew he didn’t plan to do so … although he kept the possibility open, depending on what the defense put forth. However, he had no doubt, if Nat realized the man was not in town, he immediately would ask to have him recalled. He couldn’t risk the ill will a delay in his appearance would elicit. Bad enough with a witness. When that witness was also the client, the ramifications could be severe.

He had talked it over with Heath and Frank, and they all had concluded the blond was well protected. He had the men Nick had sent and he had Frank. When he was with Jarrod, his men also would be on duty.

He was encouraged, and agreed, to restrict himself, as much as possible, to the rented house. Anything that was needed Frank, or one of the men, could venture out to get. And, he was, without doubt, more capable than most of protecting himself.

Jarrod had planned to spend most of the weekend preparing to address whatever Springer offered. He had to admit that he was far less sure than usual as to what the other side likely would do. Other than call people who would refute Ralston’s testimony, he was at a loss to imagine how he himself would defend against what had been presented.

In truth, if he were Springer, he might be inclined to try to work out a last minute agreement. Settle with the other side, before it went to the jury. He’d shared those thoughts with Heath and Frank. Suggested if Springer were going to do that it would have to happen before Monday.

He wasn’t counting on it, but he’d let Heath know if it happened. Heath then would have to decide to accept or reject the offer. One look from Heath pretty well confirmed what he’d been thinking: there would be no accepting an offer. He reminded himself that Heath wasn’t after Ucroft’s estate. He was after justice … the destruction of Merton Greenley. It was unlikely Springer would present an offer that would accomplish that.

*****

Chapter 44

Thus it was Jarrod found himself, the next morning, furiously filling the sheet of paper before him on the small desk in his quiet room. The more he scribbled, the less confident he became, until he stopped, letting the silence absorb the last sounds of nib rubbing paper.

His head dropped into his hands, as his fingers massaged his aching temples. He had to be missing something … Springer had something on which he was going to base a defense. No doubt he had people who would refute Ralston’s testimony … that wouldn’t be enough on its own. He had to discredit Heath’s testimony … could only do so by discrediting the man himself….

Jarrod’s head snapped up. What could Springer have on Heath that he didn’t know about … that Heath didn’t know about? He harbored no doubts that his client had told him the truth. The blond was too smart, knew too much about how the law worked, to risk holding back.

What could he hold back that could be worse than what he’d revealed? A bastard, lied about his age to get into the army, got captured, believed he got his best friend killed, took a couple of years to get up the courage to deliver on a promise … a promise to tell his friend’s father what he’d done. What else possibly could there be?

He settled into a more comfortable chair, let his head loll back, and tried to clear his mind … see if whatever he was missing would reveal itself in the space provided. He nearly drifted off when it hit him, driving him to his feet. He found himself pacing, thought briefly of Nick.

Greenley. Greenley was the missing something. Springer had no stake in this … he was doing this for Greenley. He realized he’d never found an answer to the question that had plagued him long ago. Why did Greenley want Ucroft’s property … the other properties? He didn’t seem to be using them.

I don’t know nearly enough about the man. John determined he’s wealthy, powerful … at least in this area … and ruthless. I need to know more. What could he want with the properties … want badly enough to kill? And, what drives the man? What about family?

Jarrod moved over to the window. Gazed out upon the town. Who … or what … out there made those properties so important to Greenley? He could feel the excitement building … knew he was onto something. Time to send a telegram. Time to put John Markle to work again. He grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

Entering the telegraph office he again was assaulted by the smells, and the memory of his first time in the place … the smells as good … maybe a tad better … than he often experienced entering Silas’ kitchen.

Although the sign outside had said Post and Telegraph Office, he’d been quite sure he’d entered a bakery. He had quickly discerned it was both, and this time greeted the proprietress before heading for the small alcove that housed the telegraph and mail service.

There was an older boy manning the office. Jarrod remembered seeing him at the courthouse and the hotel, delivering the telltale-yellow missives. The boy looked up and seeing the uncertainty on the man’s face, sought to explain.

“Hi. If you’re wanting to send a telegram, I can help you with that. My father’s taught me well. No need to worry.” He smiled.

Pleasant Fairchild, for as long as he could remember, had been a crucial piece of what his father did. As a young boy he’d delivered telegrams. Once he’d learned to read well enough, he’d helped to sort the mail. Even now he was his father’s only errand or messenger boy. By the time he was 12 he could operate the telegraph as adroitly as his father, and often did so … sending or receiving.

His mother ran a small bakery in the space adjoining his father’s barber shop. The post office and the telegraph had always been run from that area. Both agreed that women might not be comfortable having to enter the barber shop to collect or send either.

Although female telegraphers were quite common in many areas of the country, he’d not taught her to handle the telegraph. Again they’d both agreed … the men in this community might not see it fitting to entrust important information to a woman.

All Pleasant’s life they’d lived in the spacious quarters above the two shops. It was home for all of them, and they all agreed it more than met their needs. Over time the Fairchild’s had accepted that Pleasant would be their only progeny.

The little girl, who had come along after this much loved son, had barely made her first birthday before being taken from them. The pregnancies that materialized subsequent to that were never sustained long enough to fulfill their hopes and dreams. So, they lavished all the love and care they possessed on their boy, and he returned it several fold.

He was grateful for any opportunity that allowed him to be a help to these parents he adored. His father had groomed him to be his replacement someday … had assured him that one day a post master would be a valued and well-compensated member of the community.

Pleasant hadn’t considered doing otherwise, save the possibility of augmenting it with writing … and having those writings be published. He’d been taught … and learned … well.

His father had pressed upon him the need to learn both urgency and patience, and to distinguish when which was needed. His father thus understood that when he sent the young man to deliver a telegram, or other message, he might return in a few short moments, or he might be gone a long while.

And so it was that earlier that morning, Pleasant Fairchild had stood outside Room 27 at the best hotel in town and bided his time, holding tight to the telegram for Mr. Merton Greenley.

It was not the first time. The voices inside were neither quiet nor muffled, and while he made no great effort to overhear the conversation … this time or previously … he would have been hard pressed to avoid doing so.

Many of the messages that had come over the telegraph had been taken by him, and he’d likewise relayed a goodly number. He’d done the same for many of the man’s occasional visitors—the people involved in the conversations he overheard.

There were times also when he’d sat in his father’s shop, and listened to the talk that happened there. Things Mr. Greenley said, and things said about him. Pleasant was by no means a dull boy, and he quite adroitly had pieced together all these sundry bits … he just had not been able to form them, quite, into a cohesive or coherent whole. He, nonetheless, had no doubts that if and when he were able to do so, the story that emerged would be most interesting.

There were occasions when he’d waited for the right moment to knock and deliver his missive, and times he’d thought it best to take himself quickly out of sight—around the corner or part-way down the stairs—just before the door was about to be opened. If asked he’d not have been able to explain the feeling that prompted that action, but he’d never failed to acquiesce to it.

Whether he allowed himself to overhear the conversations, or kept that fact from the people involved, elicited little, if any, guilt within him. Mr. Greenley did not appear to be an appreciative man. Any monetary thanks, occasionally given, seldom exceeded a mere penny.

This morning had been one such occasion. Eventually having retreated to wait patiently near the top of the stairway, he’d heard the door slam and been surprised to see the man that had hurried down the stairs past him. He knew that man. Knew him, and couldn’t imagine what business he could have with Greenley … or Greenley with him.

The man, who’d opened the door when he finally did knock, was not a surprise. He quite obviously was considered in high regard by his employer, for Greenley was seldom seen without him … him, or the other fellow easily seen through the open doorway. What was not clear was what either of these men did for that employer.

Another piece of the yet constructed story.

He handed over the yellow paper and pocketed the penny he was given in return. Oh well, maybe someday he would have enough information to compose one of those dime novels he’d thought of writing. Reap a return in that manner. He hurried back, not wanting to be any later than could be avoided and bring unnecessary worry to his parents.

Thus he now stood, in the little office, offering assistance to Jarrod Barkley.

Jarrod smiled back. “I’d like to send a telegram.”

Pleasant handed him a pencil and the necessary paper, read it over carefully, to ensure he understood it, totaled the words and advised his customer as to the cost. When Jarrod handed him the money and told him to keep the change, his smile grew. The change was a sizeable sum.

He let the man know he would get right on it … it should be in the recipient’s hands within the hour. He inquired as to where he should bring the reply … should there be one. He had an uncanny ability to remember names and locations. He’d not forget.

As Jarrod made his way out the door, the young telegrapher wondered about what he was sending. Seemed to be another piece to the story he’d not yet solved. In accordance with protocol, he entered into the log the information regarding the sending of the message and then filed the paper on which the customer had written his message.

Originally, he’d been relieved to know that messages were to be filed … just in case someone accused him of getting it wrong. He’d not wanted to consider the possibility of putting his father in a difficult position should someone make such a claim.

Over the years, when he no longer worried about that, he’d begun to think these bits of paper might be a useful resource if he ever got around to writing that dime novel … or anything else.

As Jarrod made his way down the wooden sidewalk, he became aware of a disturbance further up the street. Seemed to be outside the hotel … the other quality establishment. As he drew closer he began to pick up occasional words … bits of sentences. None of them made sense.

“Can’t imagine … who’d do … why … seemed such … never know … Sheriff will.”

Something must have happened.

As he reached the crowd he could hear more … at least more complete statements.

“Shot him dead they say … no one knows why … fancy lawyer is up there … Marshal Sawyer’s with the sheriff.”

And then the words that had him pushing through the crowd and bounding up the stairs two at a time.

“Thomson’ll hang for this, hang for sure.”

*****

Chapter 45

 As Jarrod earlier had been thinking about heading to the telegraph office, a frantic knocking on the door, had taken Heath first to his gun, then to the window. A neatly dressed man could be seen, with what appeared to be a piece of paper in his hand. Heath slipped his gun from its holster, kept it ready in his hand, and slowly opened the door.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Thomson?” The man’s hands didn’t move.

“Yes.”

“Got a note here for you, from Mr. Barkley, and I’m to wait for you to read it.”

Heath took the paper from the steady, outstretched hand, broke the seal and began to read. When he finished, he looked at the man again, and once again. Saw no visible evidence of threat.

“Says here you’re to take me to Mr. Barkley … you’re to do so without us being seen?”

“Yes, sir—at least I’m to minimize the chances of being seen. I was instructed to place several men in strategic locations … locations that would afford them the ability to act instantly should they detect any threat to you. Those men are in place.”

Heath glanced at the note once more … recognized Jarrod’s handwriting … read the instructions at the end. What he said agreed with Jarrod’s note: leave his men here, they would be too conspicuous. He let his eyes rove over the man in front of him, carefully taking in all he saw, took one more glance at the note … then made his decision.

“Give me a moment. I’ll be right with you.”

He closed the door, tucked the note in his pocket, and returned his gun to its holster, strapping it around his hips. He turned to the men looking at him, assured them all was well, and instructed them to stay put, dealing with the resistance he expected. He would answer to Nick if it ever came up.

Grabbing his hat, he stepped out, closing the door behind him. His eyes maintained a perpetual scan of their surroundings as they made their way down side streets and through alleys, until they arrived at a back staircase of what he recognized as a lavish hotel.

Jarrod wasn’t staying here. Heath stopped. The man continued several paces before he realized his companion wasn’t following.

Turning back and catching his eye, he inquired, “Mr. Thomson?”

“Mr. Barkley isn’t staying at this hotel.”

He held the man’s eyes.

“I don’t believe so. I think this is just a meeting place. Maybe more neutral territory?”

The man shrugged. Heath saw no signs he was lying. Taking one more careful look around, he nodded and followed the man up the stairs.

Stopping outside the second-floor room, his guide knocked solidly on the door, and being acknowledged, turned the knob and stepped aside to let Heath enter.

“Hello, Mr. Thomson. That was easy enough.”

The wicked smile was more than enough to tell Heath he’d been had. His move to step back was halted by the gun pressing on his spine and urging him to move forward, until the door was closed. His eyes momentarily fell on the partially open door of the adjoining room.

Greenley stood out of reach, across an open space, looking powerful and smug. Heath’s mind raced.

What can he be planning? Surely he doesn’t think he can kill me in cold blood, here in this room, and get away with it? He’s a bigger fool than I thought if he believes I’m going to co-operate with whatever his scheme might be.

 He decided, for now, to remain silent.

Greenley waited, as the smoke from his cigar drifted upwards, undisturbed, from an ashtray. When his quarry didn’t speak, he grew impatient. “I brought you here, as you may have guessed, to kill you.”

The lack of reaction both irritated and, somewhat, unsettled him.

“I repeat. To kill you. Surely you couldn’t believe I’d let you get away with slandering my name, let alone destroying everything I’ve built up? As you can see, I have three witnesses who can testify that you drew first. Actually, what they will testify to is that you stormed in here, threatened me, and pulled your gun. I was unarmed, and one of them had to shoot you.”

He waved his hand towards the subjects of which he spoke, and smiled. “But I like to consider myself an honorable man. It will be a fair fight: I will let you draw first.”

Heath, without uttering a sound, continued to look at the man. He noted the gun strapped low on the man’s leg. Surmised he knew how to use it. He’d never heard of Greenley killing anyone in a gunfight … fair or otherwise. He’d certainly never given Cliff a chance. That left him wondering.

Can he be so ignorant, and arrogant, as to believe he can beat me in a fair fight? Why the charade? Why doesn’t he just shoot me and make his claim? What’s going on here? He continued to look on silently.

“It’s your only chance … to draw first. Won’t matter. I’m going to beat you. I don’t appreciate scum like you thinking they have the right to come after people like me … thinking they have rights at all.

“I’m going to beat you at just the thing you, like all lawmen, think you’re good. I’m going to beat you and I’m going to make you pay. Make you rue the day you decided to smear the name of Merton Greenley. Only, you won’t be ruing the day in this world. You’ll be dead.

“When you decided to go after me, Mr. Thomson, you were playing with fire … soon you’ll be shoveling coal with the devil.”

Heath continued to stand and watch, in silence. And wait. He saw the shift from one foot to the other, the slight lift and drop of Greenley’s shoulders, the clench and release of his jaw muscles.

“Suit yourself. I’m not waiting forever. You’ve got five seconds. You don’t draw, I will.”

Heath waited, and counted. When the other man’s hand made its move to his gun, Heath did likewise. His last thought, just before his bullet found its mark, was that Greenley was faster than he’d expected. He had cleared leather. Then everything went black.

That was how Jarrod found him when he’d eventually forced his way through the throngs and found his way to the dead man’s room. He’d wasted no time in making his way to the prone figure cradled in Sawyer’s arms … breathed a shaky sigh of relief on discovering he was alive.

He’d stayed there, kneeling beside him, repeatedly calling his name, urging him to wake up. At the same time he prayed his entreaties would not be in vain … prayed he would wake up … and kept trying to reach him.

As the light began to penetrate the blackness, Heath realized he was still in Greenley’s room. Jarrod was there, Frank too. The brief attempt he’d made to open his eyes convinced him not to bother verifying what his ears were telling him.

He recognized the voices. That was enough. It was all he could do to ignore the pounding pain in his head and force himself to pay attention to the other voices he heard. The groan released itself.

“Heath, can you hear me?”

Jarrod. Why’s he yelling?

Frank grabbed his arm, as his hand reached for the back of his head. Both men saw the squint lines around his eyes tighten, and his pale face take on the telling sign, while he swallowed repeatedly. Jarrod grabbed the basin the doctor handed him, and held it in front of the struggling man, while his hand went to his back. Frank urged him to let it come.

“It’s okay Heath. Won’t do anything for your head, but your stomach’ll feel better.” He gave into the urgings … all of them. It didn’t make his head feel any better … maybe even worse … but it did allow him to feel he now could speak without more than words coming out.

“How’d you get here? I’m … still alive.”

Frank and Jarrod both wondered at the question in the statement.

Why would he think he wouldn’t be?

Frank started to explain and Jarrod cut him off. “Not now Frank. Not here. Heath, I want you to say nothing. You can give a statement later, when your head is clear, and we know exactly what, if any, charges might be filed.”

Heath started to nod, thought better of it, and let the blackness roll in again.

Jarrod looked at Frank, the same question on both faces. What in Hades happened here? And what are we going to do about it?

Jarrod let his training take over. “Frank, let me take care of Heath. You help the sheriff … make sure all the evidence is collected. Make sure it’s done right. Best way to help Heath right now.”

He saw the conflict in Frank’s eyes … wanting to keep holding the young man … wanting to do what Jarrod suggested. Reaching over he laid a hand on Sawyer’s shoulder, gave a squeeze, and pleaded.

“Please Frank. Do what you need to do, do what will be best for Heath. I’ll make sure the doc takes care of him, make sure he’s otherwise protected.”

Eyes locked, and then Frank nodded. He shifted his burden into Jarrod’s arms, stood and walked away.

The doctor stepped in, his bag open, and started his examination of his patient. He was definitely unconscious, likely had a concussion, but his pupils were reactive. Someone got him the bowl of water he requested and he proceeded to clean the wound, wash away the blood that coated the blond hair, ran down his neck soaking into the blue shirt. Only then did he look at Jarrod. Jarrod saw what looked like sympathy … maybe sorrow.

“Seems he was hit with that hunk of metal.” He pointed to the sculpture lying on the floor.

“He’s going to need some stitches. If you could just turn him a bit, so I’ve got better access, I’ll do that while he’s still out.”

Jarrod nodded. Did as requested, and then helped the physician place some padding and wrap a bandage around Heath’s head to hold it in place. As he tied the knot to keep it snug, the blond started to come around again. Doc addressed him by name.

“Heath, take it easy now. You took quite a wallop. I’ve stitched you up, but you’re going to have one massive headache.”

As his patient started to get up, he pushed him back down. “I said take it easy. I meant it. Now you just stay where you are. You stand up, you’ll fall over, and you don’t need another blow to that hard head you’ve got. Lucky you survived this one.”

Heath slumped back.

Jarrod found his concern growing at his client’s mumbled words.

“What happened? How’d I get here?”

He’d been hoping Heath could tell him.

*****

Chapter 46

Hours later, Jarrod sat with Frank and Jack Collins, the local sheriff, in the man’s jailhouse. They’d partly walked, partly carried, Heath here and laid him gently on a cot in one of the cells. He was currently sleeping. The doc had cautioned them to wake him every couple of hours … if they couldn’t to come and get him immediately.

They’d stripped him of the bloodied clothes and dressed him in clean ones that Jarrod had procured from the house. While there he’d asked one of Nick’s men to send his brother a telegram: Heath arrested for Greenley’s murder. Stop. More later. Stop.

He’d questioned the men, especially wanting to know how Heath came to be in Greenley’s hotel room without them. How he came to be anywhere without them. They told him what they knew.

Someone had come to the door, Heath had answered it, seemed to be someone with a message. Told them to stay where they were … he wouldn’t need their protection. They were profoundly sorry they didn’t know more, hadn’t pressed for more. They were sorrier yet that they hadn’t insisted on going with him. They knew neither who the messenger was, nor the content of the message he brought.

The three men of the law now tried to piece things together. Heath had told them nothing … remembered nothing. The doc wasn’t sure that would change … ever. A blow to the head like that often left a person with no memory of what had happened in the few hours previously. Without input from him, they had nothing to go on but what the witnesses provided. It was lost on none of them that those witnesses were both Greenley’s men.

And what had they described? Heath, apparently, had come storming into the hotel room, his gun drawn, and shot Greenley in cold blood. One of the men had been near the door when he burst through and grabbed the closest thing to hand, a metal sculpture adorning a small table. Claimed none of them were wearing guns.

Their guns were found sitting on a table under the window, still in the holsters, not fired. Greenley was unarmed … the only other gun was in a shoulder holster in the other room … his bedroom. It too had not been fired. Heath’s gun was still in his hand … one bullet missing. That bullet appeared to have pierced the dead man’s heart.

One of the men had stood guard over the blond, while the other had gone for the sheriff. On his way through the lobby he’d let the desk clerk, and anyone within hearing, know Merton Greenley had been killed by Heath Thomson.

Frank and Jarrod knew it hadn’t happened that way … knew Heath wouldn’t shoot anyone without provocation … without having his own life in danger. Collins too had his doubts … although he couldn’t express them.

What none of them could discern, was what had happened, and why. What could have gotten Heath ever to go to Greenley’s room? For that matter, what prompted him to leave the house and insist the men remain behind?

“Okay,” said Frank, “we need to check things out. Maybe Heath’ll be able to give us some answers tomorrow, and maybe not. We can’t depend on it. Time to start asking questions. Who saw him after he left the house, and when he got to the hotel? The desk clerk says he didn’t see him come in, didn’t see him at all. Someone had to have seen him.”

Jarrod’s head flipped around. “Say that again.”

Frank was startled. “What … someone must have seen him?”

“No, no.” The excitement was evident in his voice.

“The part about the desk clerk not seeing him. If the clerk didn’t tell him, how would he know what room to go to? I couldn’t say, even now, for certain, that Heath knew the man was at the hotel. If anything, I would expect Heath to assume, especially with no court until Monday, that Greenley would be at his own place. Makes no sense he’d go to the hotel looking for him.”

The silence filled the room. How would he have known where to go … unless someone told him? Who could that someone be?

Almost as if orchestrated, they all shrugged at the same time.

Frank voiced their common thought. “Someone from Greenley. He must have somehow enticed Heath to his room. We have to find out how.”

Jarrod continued the thought. “He must have been sensing the same thing we were … he stood a good chance of losing this case. But, surely he couldn’t have thought he could kill Heath, in his own hotel room, and get away with it. He can’t have been that stupid … or arrogant.”

The sheriff finished it. “Can get away with most anything … if you have the right witness … or no corroborating witness. Even murder.”

Frank and Jarrod looked at him. Somehow knew he wasn’t speaking about what had just transpired.

“So where do you gentlemen want to start?” Jack looked at them.

“Jarrod, I’ll take the hotel? You can start at the house … work your way to the hotel. Don’t expect you’ll get too far today. Someone needs to stay here and keep checking on Heath, like the doc said.

Imagine the townsfolk will expect the sheriff to be guarding his prisoner … not the prisoner’s friend … or lawyer.”

He didn’t chuckle … couldn’t even manage a sardonic smile.

Jarrod reached down to the floor by his chair, where he’d placed his hat. Picking it up, he stood and settled it on his head.

Suddenly feeling bone-weary, he would have liked nothing better than to return to his room, stretch out on his bed, and pretend this morning never had happened. He suspected Frank was feeling the same. Knew the man would realize it wasn’t a luxury they had … or were likely to have. Not today … maybe not for several days to come. He gave both men a terse nod and headed for the door.

Time to get to work.

It was well past dark when Jarrod made his way back to the town jail. He was hoping to discover Frank had found something … anything. Unlike himself. But, more than that he felt an overpowering need to see his client … see how he was.

He stepped inside, his eyes roving over the interior, not seeing the marshal, and coming to rest on the sheriff. Before he could ask, Collins shook his head, then stated.

“He’s in back with the boy. He’s come around on his own a couple of times, but he’s still pretty groggy. Doc was by to check on him a bit ago. Seemed to think he was doing as well as expected. Still wants him watched … and woken … throughout the night. Feel free to join them.”

Jarrod nodded. Guessed now he didn’t need to talk to Frank, but he still wanted to check on Heath … see for himself. He also was aware suddenly, that if he’d been out all day, so had his men. He knew in that moment that he’d occasionally caught sight of one or the other, but he’d not bothered to pay them much mind. They had to be feeling as done in as was he. He’d check on his client and head back to his room.

He found the cell door open and Frank sitting on the lone chair. He had it pulled up to the cot, his hand resting lightly on the arm of the blond who was stretched out, seemingly asleep … or unconscious. He looked up when he heard the footsteps approaching and nodded at the attorney. Jarrod cut him off before he could say anything.

“Jack told me. Don’t feel too bad. I didn’t fare any better.”

He looked at Heath. “How’s he doing?”

“Has come around a bit. Got him to drink a bit of water. Didn’t stay down too long. Still pretty confused. Probably a good thing … at least for now.”

Jarrod was confused … and surprised. “Why would you say that?”

“This boy don’t do well penned in. What I said in court … that time I locked him up. It was true … but a lot worse than I described. He didn’t just want out … he needed out. He wasn’t just agitated … more like frantic.

“He don’t talk about it much … suspect it has a lot to do with the seven months he spent in that hell hole down south. He’ll manage for a day or two, then it’s going to get rough. Sure hope you can get him bailed out.”

Sawyer looked at him … stared at him … challenging … then pleading. In truth, Jarrod hadn’t even thought that far ahead.

“I’m guessing there’ll be an arraignment as soon as he’s fit to attend … maybe even Monday. I’ll be able to ask for bail at that time. I can make a case for it … can’t guarantee I’ll get it.”

When he saw the marshal’s eyes flash, he sought to defend himself. “It’s murder, Frank. Unprovoked, cold-blooded murder is what the prosecutor will be claiming. Reason’s unknown. He can make a good case for him being a threat to the public. I can’t guarantee bail will be granted.

“God, what a mess.”

He looked at his client … so still … so helpless. In that moment, felt helpless, himself. “I’ll have to appear for the other case Monday morning … request a continuance.”

In all that had happened, Frank had forgotten all about that.

“Sorry Jarrod. I’d forgotten all about that. Do you actually anticipate going forward with it … with Greenley dead? Is there any point?”

“I’ll try to keep the option open. It’ll be up to Heath … when he’s free to make the decision. I’m afraid right now my focus is going to be on making sure that happens … he walks out of here a free man.” He stopped, leaning back against the bars.

“Have no idea at the moment how I’m going to do that. Just know it has to happen. This boy would no more kill Greenley as those witnesses described than would you or I. I’m no closer to knowing what happened, but as God is my witness, I swear I will find out.

“Whatever it takes.”

Frank nodded. Took a close look at the man across from him. Shook his head. “You and me both. We’ll find the truth. Right now I suggest you go get some sleep. I’ll meet you back here in the morning. Going to stay for a bit more and then turn in myself.”

Jarrod nodded. Moved over to look down on the young man. He bent over, rested his hand on the bandaged head, and whispered.

“You take it easy now, you hear. I’ll see you in the morning. It’s going to be okay. We’ll get you out of this … whatever it takes … we’ll get you free.”

He then straightened, trailed that same hand over Frank’s shoulder and made his way out of the area.

Time to get some sleep. Tomorrow was another day.

*****

Chapter 47

When Jarrod showed up the next morning, at the sheriff’s office, he found himself greeting a shiny-faced young fellow he presumed to be a deputy … a fairly new deputy. He wondered if this man knew Heath.

It was when he’d lain down the previous evening and remembered all that had happened that day, he came to appreciate that Heath had once been a part of this community. People here knew him. Many … liked him … cared about him.

He wasn’t sure how he’d failed to consider that previously, but he now understood … and appreciated … Cliff Ucroft had friends in this town. So did the young man he’d taken into his home. There were people who held the same belief as he and Frank. Heath Thomson could not have murdered anyone.

Ucroft certainly was not as wealthy as Thomas Barkley, but it seemed he had been respected no less. He’d wondered how taking in … accepting as a son … someone else’s illegitimate child might have affected that respect. He’d told the truth when he’d let Heath know it didn’t matter to the Barkley family … didn’t affect whether they hired someone.

But, accepting someone as a hired hand and accepting them as a member of your family, were not quite the same thing. He’d found himself wondering if Thomas Barkley would have risked his reputation in the same way Ucroft must have done. For that matter, would Jarrod Barkley do so? He’d gone to sleep feeling grateful he never would have to find out.

Looking now at the young deputy, he held out his hand. “Jarrod Barkley. I’m here to see Heath Thomson … was expecting to find Jack—” The deputy cut him off.

“Sheriff Collins told me to expect you … said to let you go on back. Seems he was here most of the night. I came in early this morning and persuaded him to go get some sleep. He’s not an easy man to persuade.”

He chuckled. “Guess he was more tired than he looked … if that’s possible. He went … with almost no argument.”

He tossed Jarrod the keys.

As he caught them, he realized the significance. “Marshal Sawyer?”

“Guess the sheriff earlier persuaded him to get some sleep too.”

He chuckled again.

The attorney gave him a reserved smile and a raised eyebrow, before turning and heading for the cells.

He found Heath … asleep. Wasn’t sure why he thought that, but something told him his client was no longer unconscious in the way he’d been most of yesterday. He decided to sit and wait. Howard Merar’s words echoed in his head.

“What your brother needs now is rest and quiet. The more the better. Let him sleep as much as he will.”

Yes, Nick had provided more than ample opportunity for him to learn what to do when someone had suffered a blow to the head.

The form on the cot started to stir just as Jarrod heard another body enter the space. He looked up and wished Frank a good morning, knowing it was anything but. He got a quick nod in return, and a question. “How’s he doing?”

“Been asleep since I got here, couple of hours ago. Looks like he’s starting to stir. Maybe we can bring him around.”

Frank moved over and settled on the edge of the bunk, careful not to shake his young friend. One hand settled on the leg that now was sliding up and down on the mattress. The blond had to be in pain … appeared to be developing some awareness of that. The marshal spoke, not loudly, but clearly.

“Come on Heath, open your eyes. Time to welcome a new day. I know you’re hurting, but we need to talk. You can do it. Just open them eyes. Come on, Boy, I’m waiting.”

The movement of the leg became more erratic as the fingers curled in, forming fists. Frank kept talking, continued to draw him back from that dark place to which he’d gone. He wanted him to wake up … he wanted to know … really know … that he was going to be alright.

Truth be told, he wanted to see what he remembered today … needed him to remember something … anything. He needed something to ease the grinding worry he’d felt all night … and the moment he’d woken that morning.

His efforts were rewarded, as the leg stilled … just the foot now flexing … and two thin blue slits appeared on the face. Jarrod reached over and grasped one of the clenched fists, enclosing it in his two hands. He added his verbal encouragement to that of Frank. And then the slits slowly transformed to orbs. He was back … he was with them.

Frank smiled. Moved his hand from the leg and cupped the side of the pale face. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, my boy. You surely are.”

He stopped to give Heath a moment to get oriented. “How’re you feeling … and don’t say fine.”

A ghost of a grin appeared. “Head hurts.”

He yawned. “Tired.”

“Land sakes, Heath. You been asleep nigh on 20 or more hours … give or take a few half-awake moments. Don’t rightly know how you could be tired.”

The blond started to push himself upright, quickly countered by Jarrod. “Whoa there. You need to stay still, take it easy. Don’t want you passing out again. You’ve had a pretty tough time since early yesterday. I’m not surprised you feel tired. Expect you may feel that way for a few days to come. Don’t worry about it. You just need to rest.”

He looked at Frank.

“He’s right. You listen to your lawyer here. Just do what he says.”

He couldn’t hide the concern that dripped off the words.

Heath looked at him. “What happened? Where am I?”

He tried lifting his head this time … Frank thwarted his efforts. The marshal knew, however, that he couldn’t hide the truth from him. “You’re in jail … temporarily.”

He couldn’t stop himself from offering the comfort … wasn’t sure it would be enough to make a difference.

“We’re not sure what you remember, but we’d sure like to find out. What can you tell us?”

“Jail? Why? What’d I do, Frank?”

He stopped to close his eyes for a bit, take a breath … calm himself as best he could. “What … do … get out?”

Jarrod stepped in. “Easy Heath. Take some slow breaths, try to relax. It’s going to be alright. We need you to tell us everything you can remember from yesterday … any little bit. Take your time.”

The two men anxiously awaited a reply. They wanted to give him time and yet were impatient to learn what they could.

His eyes closed. His eyebrows drew together, deepening the grooves. It wasn’t like they could see the wheels turning … more like they could see him trying to push the wheels.

The moments ticked by as the silence filled the cell. Enough silence for some to drift out the barred window, smothering any sounds from without. Then his eyes opened. He looked at them. What they saw was raw panic … terror.

He started to shake his head … stopped when the room began to move. Swallowed … again … once more. His first attempts to speak produced naught but the faint hiss of air passing teeth and lips. He swallowed again … licked his lips. Suddenly realized how thirsty he was … wasn’t sure it mattered. Decided to try again.

“Remember having breakfast … don’t even remember finishing it.” He dropped his head. The tone of defeat in his voice was painful to hear. They looked at each other, started to respond and were cut off by his next words.

“Why’m I locked up?” The panic was there again.

They both started to explain, stopped as they realized each had interrupted the other, waited for the other, both starting again. Jarrod finally signaled to Frank to go ahead … was content to be relieved of the burden … and expected it would be easier for Thomson to hear it from the other man. Not that he expected it would be easy to hear … from anyone.

Frank shared all they knew and all they’d done to try and learn more. He did his best to reassure. Let him know they didn’t believe the so-called witnesses … didn’t think the sheriff did either. Assured him that Jarrod was going to do everything he could to move things along quickly and get him out on bail.

Heath looked at his old friend, and the ache it gave Frank was palpable.

“Murder, Frank. Guessing that much bail’s going to be beyond anything either you or I can come up with.”

He swallowed as hard as he could, hoping to force the fear deep enough that it couldn’t come back up.

Jarrod felt his ire rise, and his voice rose with it. “Heath, you are my client, and a Barkley employee. More importantly, I’d bet that Nick would call you friend … let me assure you, that is not a gift he bestows on many.

“If you think we would let you sit in this miserable cell for want of money for bail, then you can’t think very highly of us. I can tell you, here and now, that whatever the bail, it will be paid. When that happens, you can accept it and walk out of here, or you can stay. Quite frankly, right now I don’t give a damn.”

He turned to walk out, and felt Frank grab his upper arm … felt the grip tighten enough to keep him from moving forward. He was breathing hard and he just wanted out of the cell, out of the jail … maybe out of town. The hand held firm until he was forced to turn his head and meet the knowing, grey eyes.

He heard the nearly whispered sentiment. “We’ll get through this. It’s going to come out right.”

At that moment he knew what Frank seemed to have figured out much sooner. He too was scared … only he wasn’t burying the fear. He was taking it out on the one person least equipped, in this moment, to bear it.

His shoulders slumped, his face flushed. He let his opposite hand cover Frank’s, nodded in understanding … and appreciation … and turned back toward the dejected young man he’d just attacked.

The apology was short and sincere … and accepted … verified by a request for water. The two older men looked guiltily at each other, both realizing they had been so concerned about dealing with the man’s case, they forgot to take care of the man.

Finding none at hand, Sawyer indicated he’d go out front and procure some.

Jarrod offered his second apology. “Heath, I’m sorry. We should have asked if you needed anything. I can tell you, you have had nothing to eat since the last meal you remember. How about some breakfast?”

“Thanks, Jarrod. But I think I’ll start with the water … see if it stays in place. Not feeling too hungry at the moment.”

“Okay, Heath. I suspect Jack will be along eventually with something that might entice you. Seems like a good man.”

He wanted to get things back to a comfortable place.

“Don’t think what happened before set right with him. His hands were tied. Didn’t matter what he believed. Law was the law.”

He paused as he took the glass Frank handed him. Took a couple of sips. Waited a moment. Took a couple more. Decided he was thirstier than he thought. Stopped himself from downing the rest.

Over a matter of several minutes he continued with slow, fractional swallows, letting himself ingest the information he’d received in the same way. Eventually the glass was empty, and he was satisfied. He wanted these two men to know that.

“He’s dead. Merton Greenley’s dead. Go ahead. Do what you can. Telling you now I appreciate it. But, hear this. I got what I wanted … however it may have happened … he’s where he justly belongs. If this is how it ends … it’s enough.”

Jarrod started to object and caught the quick shake of Frank’s head, before he addressed his former deputy. “Okay, Heath. You get some rest now, you hear. We’re going to go do what we can … do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t end this way.”

He waited a moment until he saw the blue eyes close and then heard the steady breathing, before signaling Jarrod to depart.

Once they were outside, Jarrod turned on him. “How can you let him away with that? There’s no way this is okay. No way we can let him think it is.”

“Whoa there, young man. I don’t like it any more than you do … and I’m certainly not prepared to let it be. But, you’ve got to understand Heath. He’s readying himself the only way he knows how … he’s preparing for the worst. Expect it’s been the way he’s survived most of what life’s thrown at him.

“I’ll not make promises I can’t keep … and I can’t promise him it won’t end up just where it is. Until we know differently we got no right to stop him from doing whatever he needs to, to handle this mess.”

Determined grey held slow, swayed blue. “Okay, Sawyer. I hear you. I don’t like it, but I understand. We’ll support him however we can. Now, don’t know about you, but I’ve got more questions to ask.”

He strode determinedly away.

*****

Chapter 48

By the time Frank and Jarrod met up for an evening meal, it was clear that neither had made any progress. Most people were more than willing to talk with them, to answer any questions. They, quite simply, did not know anything. No one had seen Heath from the time he left the house until he was found knocked out in Greenley’s room. No one could explain how he knew where to find the man.

When they stopped to check in on Heath, before going to eat, they received some distressing news. Sheriff Collins had been advised by the local district attorney that the arraignment would not be happening the next day.

The DA apparently had requested the State Attorney General appoint someone to handle the case … he felt his limited experience did not render him capable of prosecuting a case that would be defended by someone as experienced and successful as Jarrod T. Barkley. The AG’s office was reported to be looking into it.

Jack didn’t deny that their new DA had limited experience … he just didn’t buy the argument. His sense was that someone else was applying pressure to have him step down. Have him replaced with someone more likely to challenge the defense attorney … challenge him successfully.

Someone wanted Heath Thomson out of the way. He had no idea who that someone might be.

Heath had slept most of the day, and eaten very little. The doc had stopped by and declared he was satisfied with the state of the wound … no sign of infection and no continued bleeding. His reported symptoms were consistent with a concussion and he prescribed the usual: rest and quiet. He was not optimistic that his patient ever would remember what had happened that day.

The two men had decided to eat at the house. It would afford them the quiet they needed and the privacy they desired. They’d sent Nick’s men back with Jarrod’s to enjoy a leisurely meal at the hotel. The attorney had assured them he’d not be leaving the premises, and Nick’s men could to see him back to his room. They could relax for a few hours … have a much deserved rest.

As he took the first bite of the savory stew, Jarrod was surprised.

“I know about your reputation as a lawman … didn’t know you could cook too.”

Frank smiled, a devilish twinkle in the soft, grey eyes.

Should I tell him the truth … or let him go on thinking what he wants?

His ingrained belief in the importance of truth would not allow him to remain silent.

“I’m afraid Counselor, if I should try to withhold the truth, our young friend would eventually set you straight. Might as well just fess up. All I did was heat it up … carefully following the directions.

I stopped in at the barber’s today … more to catch any talk that might be happening than for the haircut. The smell of baking bread lured me into the bakery next door. Mrs. Fairchild seems to be a right nice lady. Insisted she have this meal delivered along with the bread. Seemed rude to refuse her gracious offer.”

He dropped his head and concentrated on using some of that bread to wipe up the remnants of liquid in his bowl.

“I’m sure you’re right Frank. Would be just downright rude to refuse.”

He couldn’t stop the chuckle. “Downright painful as well … thinking of what you could have been eating while you instead choked down whatever you’d concocted.”

Frank joined the laughter that followed. “If you want to lend a hand clearing up here, I can assure you that, unlike most lawmen, I do make a damn good cup of coffee. Should go nicely with the pie Mrs. Fairchild sent along. We can take both into the other room … enjoy in comfort. And, see where we’re at … where we go from here.”

A long while later, they finished doing just that.

“I can’t shed the feeling we’re missing something, Frank. Something important … even obvious. Wish I knew what it might be.”

The sound of voices outside put them on alert. They settled back again when they heard the key in the door, and knew the men had returned.

Jarrod stood. “I’ll be at the courthouse first thing in the morning to request a continuance on the civil case. Don’t expect it will take long. I’ll meet you at the jail afterwards. Want to talk with Heath again … see if we can’t jog his memory … even a little. The rest of this I’m going to sleep on … trust something will come to me.”

Neither needing nor expecting a reply, he turned to the men as they stood there. “Ready for another walk boys?”

They fanned out and escorted him out the door.

Settled in for the night, he stared at the hotel room ceiling and reviewed what he knew, what he and Sawyer had shared, what Collins had found, and let it run slowly through his mind. They seemed no closer to discovering what had really happened, than when they started. What were they missing? He closed his eyes, letting his mind drift.

Why? That’s the real question. Why? Why would Heath be in Greenley’s room? He certainly didn’t seek him out to kill him. Of that there’s no doubt. How did he get there without being seen … by anyone? Greenley had to have orchestrated it. But why at the hotel? Why there? Surely if he wanted to have him killed it would make more sense to lure him out of town … somewhere that would preclude Greenley being involved at all.

His eyes flew open, he shot upright.

That’s it. Greenley doesn’t worry about being involved. He was there when Ucroft died … he killed him. Why? Why not send someone to do the dirty deed? Because he was the someone! He wasn’t operating on his own … he was following orders.

This wasn’t about Greenley! It was about the properties. Someone wanted the properties … someone with more money, more power, than Greenley. Someone who could have people killed to get what he wanted … and get away with it.

Greenley was sent to kill Ucroft … got away with it. Then he was ordered to kill Thomson.

Somehow it all went wrong, and when it did his men didn’t know what to do. But, they didn’t just clear out. They tried to cover for Greenley.

They must know there’s someone issuing orders … maybe they know who that person might be. Must be someone they are afraid of … someone they don’t think they can hide from. How do we get that information from them?

Heath was meant to die. But, somehow it was important that it be made to look like he came after Greenley. It wasn’t enough that he just be removed. Why? Hmmm.

Probably the only way to ensure there was no suspicion cast upon the man. Alibi or not, it might seem like too much of a coincidence that first Ucroft dies, then Thomson, and the only one that profits from the deaths is Greenley. Alibi or not, there would be suspicion.

 He settled back in the bed again, closed his eyes once more, and continued to let the thoughts roam around within his head.

What if it hadn’t gone wrong? What was meant to happen? Heath was supposed to end up dead. Suppose they make the same claim. Heath barges in on Greenley, attempts to kill him. One of his men gets the drop on him. Kills him instead. Then what?

 They have to have an explanation … have to provide motivation. The case appears to be going Thomson’s way. Why would he go after Greenley. If he wanted the man dead he could have done that long ago … wouldn’t have bothered with the civil suit at all. What do they have that will stand up as motivation for murder? What possibly could they have?

Then there’s the business with the DA. Who the hell has enough power to make demands on the AG?

His head was starting to hurt. He needed to get some sleep. He knew now he was after two things. Had to find out what they had on his client, what they would claim as motivation. And, he had to find out who was behind Greenley. How he was going to do that he did not know, but find it he would.

He’d posted a letter to the family to keep them abreast of what he knew. He suspected Nick would be frantic. He also knew he wouldn’t abandon the ranch to come here … no matter how much he desired to do so.

In the morning he’d share his thoughts with Sawyer … maybe with Collins … see if they could come up with a list of possibilities. Two lists really, although probably connected: for whom might Greenley have been working; and, for what purpose might someone want the properties.

Yes, he had a focus now … a direction in which to go. It felt good. For the first time since this mess erupted he felt some control … the peace that went with it. His body settled more comfortably into the bed, began to relax, as his eyes closed and his breathing evened out. It didn’t take long before sleep claimed him.

He woke up feeling refreshed. Without doubt he was still worried, but it was not a crushing worry, not something that threatened to consume him. Decided a bath was in order … had a need to feel clean and respectable … ordered and orderly.

He was dressed for court as he had a quiet meal in the hotel dining room. Finishing up he set out to get his continuance.

As expected, Springer was there to object. He didn’t want the case to go ahead, he wanted it dismissed. Brackenbury wasn’t inclined to accept his arguments. Yes, the plaintiff was in jail. Yes, he was being held on suspicion of murder, would likely be charged with such. Yes, if he were found guilty, and imprisoned … or hung … the case would be dismissed.

However, he had not been convicted of any crime at this point, and so had every legal right to press his case. It, however, would be a waste of the court’s time and the taxpayers’ money to continue the case until that outcome was known. The continuance was granted.

Jarrod hadn’t entertained any reasonable doubt that would be the decision. He also knew Springer … knew better than to take anything for granted when he was involved. He was relieved, in this instance, to find that Nat had nothing unforeseen to support his request.

Time to find Frank and make a couple of lists. Maybe to send a couple of telegrams. He wasn’t sure if that idea had come before he fell asleep last night, or just after he awakened this morning. He’d run it by the marshal … see what he thought.

Somehow he thought again of Nick. Thought of the times they’d lost cattle … to rustlers or wild animals. How often his younger brother had been thwarted in his attempts to locate same … stop them. And, the number of times he’d been successful when he abandoned trying to find them and found a way instead to lure them into a trap. Yes, he had learned more than a few tricks over the years from his most wily and appreciated brother.

He would check with Sawyer … get his input. If the man didn’t agree, he just might go ahead on his own. He thought of Nick … and smiled.

*****

Chapter 49  

Jarrod found Frank in the cell with Heath, the two men quietly conversing. Jarrod suspected that Frank was doing his utmost to stave off the panic he, before long, expected to envelop his young friend. Perhaps he could assist the endeavor with his news.

He stepped into the barred enclosure while announcing his arrival.

“Good morning you two.” He smiled … not joyfully … but with much more conviction than he could have offered in the last few days.

“Jarrod. Good to see you. Heath and I were just discussing old times. Figured we’d see your ugly mug before too long.”

“Good to feel welcome.” He chuckled, and then turned to catch his client’s eyes. When he was sure he had the young man’s attention, he continued.

“Heath, I just came from the courthouse. Requested and received a continuance on the civil case. Don’t know what you might want to do with that, but I strongly advise you … as your attorney … and your friend … to postpone any decision until this situation is resolved. The judge has granted the continuance until such time is apparent.”

Shifting his sapphire to meet Frank’s grey, he hurried on. “I’ve something else I’d like to share with the both of you … something that came to me late last evening … and maybe this morning as well.”

He paused, waiting to see if they would respond. Was relieved to get simple nods from both.

“I don’t think I need to share how I came to these conclusions … I believe my reasoning in sound. Greenley was not operating on his own, he was working for someone … someone with considerable money and power. I think that someone is still operating … probably has a hand in getting the DA to request a replacement. I suspect Greenley’s men know who that might be. Now, if Nick were here he would insist that he go beat the information out of them.

“For reasons that I’m sure are obvious, I’m not about to condone that approach … although, Lord help me, there’s a piece of me would like to try it. My other conclusion is that this is not about Ucroft or you, Heath. It’s about the property … not just Ucroft’s but the others as well. This person wants those properties … for some unknown-to-us reason.

“I remembered something else my younger brother taught me. Sometimes, when you aren’t able to locate a culprit … man or animal … you can lure them into a trap.

“I’m thinking we need to focus our immediate attention on the properties: see if we can come up with any ideas as to why someone … not Greenley … would want them. At the same time think about whom that someone might be.”

He paused for a moment, to catch his breath and corral his thoughts, before continuing. “I’m also thinking it’s time to see if we can poke the hornet’s nest … see what happens. Maybe see if anyone objects to the poking.

“Thought I’d start with sending a couple of telegrams. One to Nick suggesting Greenley was only a front man. Another to my San Francisco office requesting that my secretary get Pinkerton’s to start digging … see if they can find a connection between the man and anyone who might have interest in those properties.

“If my suspicions are correct, and they have someone monitoring my communications, they’ll be privy to at least one of those. Should incite an attempt to find out what I do know … or where I might be getting my information.”

He quickly cut off any expression of the concerns he saw appear on their faces. “Before you say it … yes, I realize I might be putting myself in danger … more than might already exist. However, I’ve got plenty of protection already in place.

“I also very much doubt that whoever is behind this … no matter how much power, or money … won’t want to be opening themselves up to any further attention. They’re going to know that if anything happens to me it won’t be swept aside as easily as it was with Ucroft.”

He stopped to assess their reaction.

Both heads started to nod slowly … only Frank’s continued. Jarrod reminded himself that Heath’s head still must be hurting … even a nod might be too much.

“Makes sense,” Heath drawled.

With that response, along with the non-verbal confirmation he’d gotten from Sawyer, Jarrod felt the load lift from his shoulders, and his lungs once again expand in that free and open way to which he was accustomed. He was struck suddenly with a new thought.

“You two are familiar with the area, with the properties. You’ve seen them. I’ve not. I think it’s time I did so. If you are agreeable, I’ll leave the two of you to ponder on whom or what, and I’ll rent myself a horse and go for a ride.

“I can stop first and obtain land plat maps so I can find my way … and get that overview … see if maybe that gives me any further insight. Will have lots of time to do some pondering as well.” He waited.

Frank looked thoughtful. “Makes sense Jarrod … but you’ll need to rent more than one horse. You’re not going anywhere without your men. In spite of the considerations to the contrary that you have outlined, it remains a real possibility that whoever is behind this may think the next best way to put an end to things is to take you out of the picture.”

Those sharp grey eyes now bored into Counselor Barkley. This would not be negotiable.

The dark head tilted, one eyebrow raised, before the lips pursed and the agreement was uttered. “Agreed…. Expect it’ll take me the better part of what’s left of today, so I’ll plan to see you this evening.”

He handed the marshal a pencil and pad of paper. “Brought this along to help you get started. And, I want to emphasize that you need to write down any ideas you have … don’t bother to consider whether they are reasonable … we can work at assessing them later. Something that might seem unlikely at this point, may look very different later.”

They nodded.

Jarrod was about to depart when Jack Collins appeared. “Was hoping I’d catch you here. Just got word that the AG has granted the request. The arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday morning. They’ve appointed a Daniel Manus as prosecutor.”

No one missed the attorney’s reaction. Only Frank was brave enough to question it. “You know him?”

“I know him…. He wants to be Governor … figures to get there by prosecuting high visibility cases.”

He chuckled without humor. “Oh, yes. Daniel Manus … that great champion of justice … would sell his rotten soul for one line of publicity.”

Frank stared at him, before quietly asking the obvious. “Is he any good?”

Jarrod snorted, issued a loud sigh, then stated the truth. “To the best of my knowledge he hasn’t lost a case in five years.”

The statement sucked all sound from the room, and that was how it remained for several minutes, before Heath spoke. “Well then, guess I’m lucky I’ve got the best lawyer in the State.”

His light blue eyes met Jarrod’s sapphire. He didn’t back down, didn’t even flinch. Eventually the counselor smiled, then chuckled and soon they all were laughing. As solemnity returned, the attorney spoke.

“Heath, while I want you to help Frank here, I also want you to get the rest you need. I know you’re not close to being fine and you need to follow the good doctor’s orders.” This time he held the young blond’s gaze.

Finally satisfied that he’d been heard … and his concerns would be taken seriously, he walked out of the room, giving them a quick wave goodbye. Time to go see some properties … see if he could figure out their probable importance.

In the end Jarrod had left his men behind, and taken Nick’s instead. Figured they would be more comfortable spending a day in the saddle … maybe even appreciate some time out of town.

Late that afternoon, as he reined his rented horse to a stop on the small hill, he could look down on the scene before him. The house, barn, bunkhouse, stables, and corrals, all appearing to be well-maintained … all speaking of a place that had been loved. This was what Thomson had lost. For a moment he found himself wondering.

This place looks prosperous … every bit as prosperous as our place, even if it appears to be focused more exclusively on cattle. Something about it suggests the owner has enjoyed years of prosperity. Why would he have needed to borrow money? Wonder if Thomson knows.

His eyes drifted off to the far horizons, confirming what the maps had shown. This place was bordered, on three sides, by places that Greenley had acquired. This place was the obstacle to all Greenley’s properties being connected. There was no doubt in the attorney’s mind that fact was important. How it was, he as yet didn’t know.

It was time to head back to town and see if the two men there had come up with any ideas.

If truth be told, it was also time for a hot bath, a good meal, and a soft chair … or bed. It had been a long while since he’d spent most of a day in the saddle and his body was reminding him of the fact. It was not something he planned to share with his younger brother.

Frank spotted them coming back into town and followed the dust to the livery. He smiled to himself as he watched the man lower himself gingerly from the saddle. He wasn’t inclined to tease him about getting soft. That he’d chosen to make the ride today spoke volumes to him about the man’s dedication … and reinforced his belief that his young friend had the best help available. He walked over.

“Evening, Jarrod. Looks like it was a mite dusty out there and I expect you’re ready for a hot bath. If you want to take care of that and meet me at the house, I’ll have some grub waiting and we can share our thoughts from the day. Heath is sleeping and I’m hoping he’ll stay that way until morning … although I’m doubting it.”

Jarrod nodded, accepted Frank’s offer, and headed for the hotel. An hour later he was sitting down to another meal he presumed had been provided by Mrs. Fairchild. He’d have to remember to stop by tomorrow and thank her.

“How’s he doing?”

The marshal knew to whom he referred.

“Putting on a good act. His head’s still hurting. Doc stopped by to see him … said it probably would be for a few days yet. I think having something to focus on when he was awake probably helped ease the tension building inside him.

“He seems to manage it better when the cell door’s open. Collins hasn’t issued any objections to it being that way when I’m with him … but he closes it when I leave. Can’t really blame him … don’t know that I wouldn’t do the same. What do you, in truth, think are the chances of getting bail?”

Jarrod looked at the man. He wanted to offer hope, but he was worried. “In normal circumstances I’d say they were good … bail would be high, but it would be available. In this situation, I’m less hopeful.”

“How so?”

“Manus will fight it … just because he’ll fight everything that gives him publicity. Getting bail refused is one of those things.”

He stopped for a moment to consider whether he ought to share his other concerns, and then decided Frank had earned that consideration. “Don’t know who the judge will be … don’t know if he’ll be a special appointment as well.”

He allowed a moment for that to sink in … until the expression on Frank’s face told him the lawman understood.

“Even if the judge is not a problem, the issue of motive remains. If I were Manus … and I thank my good fortune that I’m not … I would base my request to deny bail on that fact.”

Frank interrupted. “I don’t think I’m following you.”

“Well, if there were an obvious motive … a motive that says Heath had a reason for wanting Greenley dead … then it would seem he accomplished what he wished and there is no reason to assume a threat to anyone else. Without a motive, an argument could be made that others … unknown others … are also at risk. Can’t say who he might go after without knowing why he went after Greenley.”

Sawyer harrumphed. “Renders us like the proverbial ass between two burdens. Without a motive we may not be able to get bail. Having a motive could put a rope around his neck. Damn!”

There was nothing for Jarrod Barkley to add.

*****

Chapter 50

The two men opted to take their pie and coffee and settle in the comfortable chairs by the fireplace, while they shared what they’d come up with over the course of the day. As he looked over his note pad, Frank was afraid it wasn’t much.

“The first consideration in this area is always water. But there’s been no attempts to control any water that’s on any of the acquired properties. Mining is the other thing that comes to mind, but I would think they’d have started doing so if that was the plan.

“Nothing has happened. We considered that he might be trying to somehow control the beef market here. Only problem is that a couple of the properties he bought mostly grew crops … weren’t raising cattle.

“I been in this business long enough to know that sometimes there’s no making sense of why people do things: maybe he just needs to feel powerful, and the more land he has the more powerful he feels. And he can’t tolerate someone saying no to him.”

Frank waited a moment before continuing. “While I’m pretty sure Heath wasn’t serious, I did what you said … wrote down everything. He suggested Greenley might be wanting to raise sheep and didn’t want to have to fight the cattlemen … eliminate them, and there’d be no fight. Although, in truth, if that were the plan he’d only need to buy out the cattle operations … and he’d need to buy them all. That didn’t happen either.”

He paused again, before shrugging at the man across from him, and then forging on.

“As for who might be interested … not sure we did any better. Kind of goes with the what. Didn’t seem to be anyone, or anything, that stood out. Just hard to think of who would have that kind of money … and power … and then would just sit on it all once they’d gotten it.

“Those kinds of people, or establishments, are looking to make money. Nobody’s been making any money off what’s been acquired. Who would want something badly enough to kill for it … and then do nothing with it? I can’t make any sense of it.

“Sorry, Jarrod. Don’t think we’ve been much help.” His shoulders slumped as he settled deeper into the chair and stared into his cup … willing it to offer him some comfort … or ideas.

“Don’t feel too bad Frank. Can’t say I faired much better. But I did notice one thing. Each piece of property Greenley bought was connected to another … except for the ones that bordered on Ucroft’s place. Without his place they were separated. With it they run uninterrupted in a north-south direction or eastward from it.”

He paused for a moment to look at Frank and emphasize his next point. “Except for his own place. It sits apart from the others. Can’t figure why.

“And he hasn’t purchased only the best pieces. Some of the best places still belong to the original owners and some that aren’t up to much he’s bought. Ucroft seemed to have one of the most prosperous-looking places around here, but I don’t think that’s why he wanted it.” His eyes drifted to the ceiling … perhaps expecting answers from above.

“Something about them being connected to each other seems crucial. Gives some credence to your mining idea … assuming they aren’t sure about where exactly, and don’t want to discover a vein and then have to try and buy the properties it comes from … or runs to. But then why is there no mining underway?”

He too slumped into the chair he occupied and sought solace in the flames in the fireplace. The answer was there … of that he had no doubt. There … and elusive.

“Can I interest you in something a bit more powerful than cold coffee,” Frank offered.

He was about to accept when he reconsidered. “I think I’ll pass tonight. It’s been a long day. Maybe a good night’s sleep will help. Maybe just sleeping on it will help. There’s an explanation Frank. I know there is.”

His eyes bored into the lawman.

“I can assure you, I’m going to find it.”

Frank let his eyes rest lightly on the man. He had no doubts he meant every word he said … and every fiber of his being hoped the man was right. Heath’s life could depend upon it. He nodded before forcing himself onto his feet, and waiting for Jarrod to do the same.

“See you in the morning.” He paused.

“I expect you already know this, but I’m telling you anyway. I’m not giving up either. That young man is way too important to me. What I said that first day in your office hasn’t changed. I’ll do whatever it takes to save him.”

Jarrod reached across the space between them and placed his hand on the older man’s shoulder, giving a firm squeeze. “Never doubted it for a moment, Marshal. Not for a moment.”

He took a deep breath, let it out, then turned go. “See you in the morning.”

Dressed and ready, the next morning, Jarrod stopped for a moment to gaze out of his hotel window, taking in the activity on the streets below. He’d been disappointed to awaken with no new ideas crowding into his head … and a niggling suspicion that something Frank had shared last night was important.

He’d gone over the conversation, in his mind, several times and the idea remained irritatingly elusive. Having decided that nothing he was seeing was of any help, he was about to turn away when he spotted Springer … with Manus.

Why would he be here still? I would think he’d have work waiting back in San Francisco … at the very least he has a wife waiting back there. What would be keeping him here? And what could he and Manus have to discuss?

Disconcerted by what he’d seen, the attorney grabbed his jacket and hurried from his room. He’d track down Frank and then he had a visit to pay.

As he passed through the lobby he heard himself being hailed from the dining room. His eyes searching the more dimly lit area he soon spotted Jack Collins waving him over. He used his foot to hook out a chair as he summoned the waitress, and ordered some breakfast.

“Morning Jarrod. Just thought I’d let you know. Alan Vanderburgh’s been assigned to your client’s case. I’ll admit I’m a tad surprised.”

He looked around the room, seemingly ensuring they weren’t being overheard. “You know him?”

The sheriff nodded. “He’s a good man. Knows his stuff. Usually more interested in serving the cause of justice than following the letter of the law. Never had cause to object to his rulings.”

He let it hang there. Jarrod picked up what he’d dropped.

“So, why the surprise?” The raised eyebrow invited the truth.

“Was kind of expecting, if they didn’t want our local DA, they wouldn’t likely want a local judge either.”

It was Jarrod’s turn to be surprised. Without actually saying so, the man most certainly was implying that he figured someone else … someone unknown … was involved. If not making decisions, certainly applying pressure. He appreciated what he was being given … sought to acknowledge it.

“I appreciate the information, Sheriff. I’ll hope your assessment of Judge Vanderburgh is accurate.”

He’d say no more either … no more was needed. The two men understood each other.

Jack stood and took his leave of the attorney. Jarrod finished his meal in silence and decided to seek out Marshal Sawyer later. Figured he was most likely with Heath. Decided he needed to take care of the other matter first … and maybe start poking that hornet’s nest.

No more than half an hour later he was standing at the reception desk of the most luxurious hotel in town, persuading the desk clerk to give him the room number he wanted. He found himself again thinking of his little brother … quite sure he would have gotten the information more quickly … and much more cheaply … undoubtedly free of charge. He, however, was satisfied to have gotten it, and quickly used it, as he made his way up the first flight of stairs.

Knocking several times on the door, he waited a moment for a response. He was about to knock again when the door silently and slowly slid open on its well-oiled hinges. The man on the other side quickly masked his surprise.

“Jarrod. I hope this is a social call.” His lips issued a smile that seemed to slither across his face.

“Anything but, Nat. However, may I please come in. I’m quite sure you’d prefer this conversation not take place in the hallway.”

Springer didn’t appear to know what to do with the smile he’d recently fabricated, and so it remained in place, twitching like a snake having a heart attack. He opened the door a shade wider and signaled his rival to enter.

The smile was now gone. “So, business it is. And what might that business be, Counselor?”

Jarrod decided to abandon the cat and mouse charade and get directly to the point.

“I’m surprised you’re still in town. Figured with the continuance granted … and likelihood of it being several weeks before the case resumes … you’d be back with your wife in that 40-room mansion of which you speak so highly. Can’t imagine what would be keeping you here.”

He waited just long enough for Springer to start a reply, before interjecting with the statement he hoped would catch the man by surprise. “Was wondering what you might have needed to share with Manus.”

His hope was realized. “Don’t see how that is any of your concern, Barkley.”

Jarrod well understood the significance of the moniker … decided to go along. “Oh, let me assure you, Springer, that anything that might affect my client, is a concern of mine.”

Again he interrupted, just as the man was about to reply. “I suspect Greenley might have been paying more than enough for you to tolerate being his myrmidon. But Daniel Manus? Hard to imagine.”

Again the pause … and the interruption. “Let me assure you Nathan, that even you may not be able to sink as low as Manus … and if you try, you may end up drowning. If I have to assist in that eventuality, in order to prove my client innocent … which he is … then know that I will not hesitate to do so.”

He didn’t wait for Springer even to begin a reply this time. “I’ll see myself out … and relish a return to fresh air. Good day.”

He strode over, opened the door, and was gone before Nathan Springer could fully digest what he had heard … let alone formulate a reply.

In all truthfulness, it wasn’t until Jarrod was several minutes gone that the man, for the first time, began to worry about how Jarrod Barkley might respond when he testified to what he’d shared with Danny Manus.

He hated the tiny grain of doubt that he felt … the fledgling worry that he might be making a mistake … he may have underestimated the defense attorney.

*****

Chapter 51

As he dodged people and conveyances to make his way to the sheriff’s office, Jarrod Barkley was smiling. Remembering what had created that smile, reminded him that he wanted to send a couple of telegrams … and thank Mrs. Fairchild. He changed course … might as well do that first.

The smells floating through the building momentarily dampened the joy behind the smile … reminded him too much of home. However, the cheerful greeting from Mrs. Fairchild quickly rekindled the good feeling. Her easy laugh, and quick move to downplay his attempts to thank her, simply reinforced his opinion of her.

Mr. Fairchild is one lucky man.

Having extracted a promise that she would be sure to charge him … fully charge him … for any meals … past or future … delivered to the house, he drifted over to the telegraph enclave.

Before he could voice his request, young Pleasant addressed him.

“Mr. Barkley, I was just about to deliver this to your hotel. It came in on this morning’s stage.”

He handed him an envelope. One glance broadened his smile and warmed his heart. He recognized the handwriting … Mother. He decided to save it for later … to be enjoyed in quiet, comfortable surroundings.

“Thank you Master Fairchild.” He waved the envelope. “This is a most unexpected surprise … and most welcome. I’m glad to have saved you the trouble of delivering it, such serendipitous event being realized by my need to send a couple of telegrams.”

Pleasant smiled, and handed him the necessary paper and pencil.

“Pleased to be of service, Sir.”

The attorney paused in his writing to glance at the young man.

He’d like to invite him to call him Jarrod, but suspected his parents would deem it inappropriate. Expected they had raised him to be respectful, not just because it was propitious for business, but because it fit their values and beliefs.

Remembering the envelope he had safely tucked away, he recalled his parents having done the same. He decided to tolerate the sirs and misters, and returned to formulating his messages.

He smiled at the look of surprise and delight on the young man’s face when he accepted the change after paying the requested fee, and then flipped him a gold dollar.

“If you should receive any telegrams for me today, just hold them here. I’ll check in later … may have others to send at that time.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Barkley. I’ll be sure they’re here for you.”

The slight nod and quick smile acknowledged the reassurance as the attorney turned and made his way back outside and once again in the direction of his client’s current domicile. He wanted to share what he’d been up to this morning, but more importantly, he wanted to make sure Thomson was ready for tomorrow … physically and mentally.

He was pretty sure his years with Sawyer would have taught him what to expect … except perhaps the bail issue. He wanted to apprise him of the possibility … prepare him as best he could … and he had no idea how to do that.

In truth, he had no idea if one could do that. Just how does one prepare someone, seemingly unable to tolerate being closed in, for the eventuality of being locked in a small cell for what could be several weeks … or more? Much more.

For Jarrod Barkley had another concern. One he would voice with no one. Should the worst happen … should he lose this case … would he plead for leniency? Would he ask for life in prison instead of hanging … would his client allow him to do so?

He shook his head and continued walking.

One thing at a time, old boy … one thing at a time. Just focus on being ready for tomorrow … don’t fail to consider anything Manus might do. Hope the telegrams start flushing out the vermin.

As he finished sending the final telegram, and prepared to file the slips of paper, Pleasant Fairchild took a moment to let his eyes quickly rove over them. He liked Mr. Barkley … liked the respect he showed … and the generosity he deployed.

He thought about the file of outgoing telegrams … wondered if he might be able to help the man. He’d have to pull out specific ones … check them again … see what fit together. He vowed he’d do so … as soon as he had free time again … Sunday perhaps.

Sheriff Collins was at his desk when Counselor Barkley made his entrance. He thrust his chin towards the cells, inviting him to go on back. Jarrod nodded and did just that, finding Heath and Frank in quiet conversation over a game of cards. Both looked up when he stepped in. Good mornings were exchanged.

“So, Frank, how’s our young man doing this morning?”

“Seems to have had a good night. He’s had some breakfast … ate a bit more than he managed yesterday. I’m guessing he’ll do better with lunch. Seems to be holding up fairly well.” His grey eyes twinkled as he looked at the lawyer.

“Do you suppose he’s up to some discussion with me? I don’t want to tax his strength. What’s your estimation of what he’s ready to tackle?”

His eyes were equally bright and he found himself struggling to contain a smile. He expected there would be a reaction … soon. He was proven right.

“Don’t need to be talking about me as if I’m not here. I’m not deaf … or dumb.”

The two men laughed. It didn’t take long for the young blond to realize he’d been baited … and hooked. He joined the joviality … welcomed the distraction it provided.

“In all seriousness, Heath, I do have some things to discuss. Has Frank here shared our conversation?”

“About how little we came up with yesterday? He has.”

“About bail?” He waited, hoping he’d find a way to address this … to make it be all right.

“Yup.”

He saw the shroud quickly cover the blue eyes, could almost feel the muscles tense, the spine stiffen. Felt the cowardly relief in knowing he’d not have to initiate the discussion … accompanied by the fear that he’d not be able to end it … not satisfactorily.

“As much as I am able, I want to prepare you for tomorrow … for all eventualities. I’m sure Manus will oppose bail. I’ll fight it … and may not win. He will use the lack of motive as justification. My intent is to use that same lack of motive to refute the veracity of the very biased witnesses’ account of what happened.

“Any granting of bail is predicated upon the duty of the courts to protect the public. If there’s any reasonable question in that regard the judge will be duty bound to deny the request.”

He let that sit, gave his client time to digest the significance, before continuing, and hoping he wasn’t overstepping his bounds.

“Heath, I know how important it is to you … know what keeping you in here does to you. At least I know about it … don’t truthfully claim I can appreciate what that experience is for you. If I can’t get bail, I want you to know I’ll do everything within my power to help mitigate the effects on you. That’s all I can promise.”

As he gazed on the man, now leaning back on the bed, eyes closed, chest moving faster than necessary, he knew his words had been heard. He hoped the next words would be heard equally well … embraced as fully.

“There’s one thing I need you to understand … understand and accept.”

He stopped and waited. He would not continue until the man opened his eyes. Opened them and made contact with his … and kept that contact. He needed to talk to him, not just let his words drift through the air in the room.

The pain he saw when those eyes finally met his, almost derailed him. Faltering for just a moment, he reminded himself that this task was no less important than what he might do in the courtroom. He locked onto the grey-blues and proceeded.

“I need your help … if I am to help you. No matter how difficult … how painful … I need you to tell me what’s happening with you, what might make it better.

“I am not, and have never professed to be, a mind-reader. If you won’t trust me, then, in truth, there will be little I can do for you. I need your trust Heath. Can you give it?”

The eyes remained fixed on each other, neither willing to break contact … admit defeat. Neither wanting the other to give up, or to give up on the other. It was a battle hard fought, no quarter given, nor taken. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. He nodded … and spoke.

“It’s yours. But, understand this. I can only tell you what I know … sometimes I don’t know what’s happening … have no idea what might help…. All I know is that tight, closed spaces take over … leave me feeling … powerless.”

He met the eyes again and knew this was the moment of truth.

“Powerless … and terrified.”

The eyes closed, the head dropped, the body slumped … its deepest secret revealed. Frank moved slowly, but decisively, and soon sat beside him, an arm around those sagging but tense shoulders.

“Hey, Son. You think I didn’t know that … we didn’t know that … you better think again. You think it doesn’t matter to us … then you really better think again. You’re not careful you’re going to light the counselor’s fuse again.”

He waited a moment and then went on. “No shame in being terrified … only shame is in giving into it without a fight. That fight includes asking for help. That’s all we need, Heath … all we ask. Let us help. Tell us how … when you can.”

He tightened his grip and in a bit felt the tenseness ease.

“Thank you, Heath. I give you my solemn oath that I will not knowingly violate that trust. Whether or not we obtain bail, my plan is to request the earliest possible court date. I don’t expect Manus will object to that. He likely wants to spend no more time away from bigger places, important people, than necessary.

“And, whoever is involved will want this done and forgotten as quickly as possible. I’m guessing that sitting in a courtroom will be some relief from sitting in this cell. Am I right?”

It was a quiet drawl, but firm. “You’re right.”

“Okay. I think we’re good on that, so I’ll share the other pieces of news.” That brought both heads swiveling around to focus on him.

“As I suggested to Frank last evening, I think it might be time to create some unrest with whoever is behind all this … time to start poking the hornet’s nest. I sent off a couple of telegrams which I suspect will be seen by people for whom they were not intended … people who will then know that we’re planning to search beyond Greenley.

“This morning I discovered Springer’s still in town. In town and talking with Manus. Paid him a visit. I don’t think he was happy with me. Also, think he was worried. He’s not sure what I know … what I don’t. Just another little poke. Will wait and see what materializes.”

Frank was smiling. “Wish I’d been there for that.”

Heath chuckled, the sound unexpected and welcomed. “Nothing new there. You’re always wanting to be in the thick of things, Frank.”

Jarrod looked at both. Suspected they each were doing what they could to take care of the blond.

“You,” he pointed at Thomson, “need to get some rest. Tomorrow could prove to be a longer day than planned … or hoped. I’ve got work to do to prepare. I think I can arrange to have supper delivered here tonight. Is it a date?”

“Boy howdy, Jarrod. I’d hope you could do a better job than this of lining up dates. Guess beggars can’t be choosers … glad to help out.”

Jarrod chuckled and made his exit. He’d stop by the Fairchild bakery and place his order.

*****

Chapter 52

 Supper the previous night had been convivial. Both older men were pleased to see the younger doing a better job of putting away a reasonable amount of food. Jarrod was delighted to let them know things were happening.

When he’d stopped in to order the meal, Mrs. Fairchild had advised him that a man had come in to send a telegram and then told her husband he’d be glad to deliver any they had for Mr. Barkley.

She assured him her husband had followed Pleasant’s instructions … told the man there was nothing to be delivered. Neither she nor her husband knew the fellow … the description could fit any number of people.

He thanked them for their integrity and advised them that, until further notice, under no circumstances would he send anyone other than Marshal Frank Sawyer, to collect mail or telegrams for him. He requested that they deliver telegrams directly to him only … not leave them with the hotel. They were happy to comply.

He’d collected the telegram that was there for him, and smiled at the message. Security tightened. Stop. Nick. Full Stop.

As he waited this morning, with Marshal Sawyer, for court to convene, he thought of the letter he’d posted that morning to Mr. Michael McNally. Thought how few facts he’d been able to supply, and how much conjecture … and worry. And yet he knew, the family would want to know what was happening … and what was not. And, what he was thinking.

When the doors opened he moved to take his place at the defendant’s table, while Frank seated himself in the first row, immediately behind him. In a matter of moments Collins arrived with Heath.

As the usual preliminaries were dispensed with, he got his first glimpse of Judge Alan Vanderburgh. He liked what he saw. He knew it was gut instinct … and knew it was all that was available … for the moment. Hoped it proved reliable.

The charges were read, and true to form, Manus had a surprise to offer: he added, to the charge of murder in the first degree, that of felony breaking and entering, making the argument that the action resulted in the death of an innocent person and therefore was not a mere misdemeanor. Heath plead not guilty to both.

As expected, the prosecutor countered the request for bail. Not surprisingly he focused his argument on the defendant being a threat to the public, and suggested that with two felony charges being levied, bail was not reasonable. Jarrod knew his argument was a long shot, and he did his best. He was not particularly surprised when the judge took time to consider both arguments, and then denied the request.

He saw Heath Thomson shudder. Expected or not, this early loss weighed on the counselor’s conscience. He knew how important bail was to his client. Knew they now would have their hands full helping him deal with his confinement.

He requested the preliminary hearing be scheduled as soon as possible. When Friday was offered he was surprised. He had expected to be waiting a least a week. He was not surprised when Manus accepted, although it did give him pause to consider just how much outside influence was at work. He gathered his thoughts along with his papers and exited, what he hoped would prove to be, the hallowed halls of justice.

Back at the jail, Thomson was doing a good job of appearing unconcerned. Jarrod remembered what Frank had told him, what now seemed a lifetime ago, and refrained from pushing. He’d seen the reaction when bail was denied … had no difficultly understanding what the young man was feeling.

“I’m sorry Heath. I know that you weren’t counting on getting bail … and know that you were still hoping for it. Just want you to remember what we talked about yesterday. You’ll get another walk outside in a couple of days … and a full day out of this place.

“Frank and I will be here as much as possible. We’ll get you through it … whatever it takes. In that you just have to trust.”

The eyes meeting his and a slow nod were the only response. For now, it was enough.

“I’m going to leave you both to it. I’ve got work to do.” He headed back to his hotel. He did have work to do.

Several hours later he felt confident that he had a plan in place for the preliminary hearing. He harbored no belief that the case would not be remanded over for trial. He planned to call the desk clerk to verify Heath had not requested a room number, and had not been seen by any of the staff. He would call at least one of the men protecting Heath to testify that he left the house following a visit by an unknown person. He would cross-examine Manus’ two eye-witnesses.

First and foremost, he would make a request to the court … hope it would be granted.

Friday came soon enough for Jarrod, and, he suspected, not soon enough for Thomson. As Heath slid into the chair next to the defense attorney he looked tired … and worn. It wasn’t just the being confined. He was no closer to remembering what had happened the day of the murder than he had been when he first regained consciousness. It was hard to imagine that any lawyer, even one as accomplished as Jarrod Barkley, could mount a successful defense without some help from the client.

He worried, also, in spite of the talk they’d had, that he was losing his resolve to care. He hadn’t lied when he’d said he’d be satisfied with however it turned out … that he’d gotten what he wanted … justice for Cliff. It wasn’t that he desired to hang … to be dead … but he could accept it. He could die without regrets.

The only thing that truly terrified him was the thought of being found guilty and not hanging. He could not spend his life in prison … not even a portion of his life. He suspected that would not sit well with Barkley … he would want to plead for his life. If he were to entertain any regret, it would be that he would have to refuse the man permission to make such a plea.

When Manus prepared to call his first witness, Jarrod interrupted and requested to approach the bench. His request being granted he stood before Vanderburgh and expressed his concern.

The two eye-witnesses had had several days to corroborate their story. He wanted a least a fair opportunity to challenge their assertions, and that could only happen if they were not privy to each other’s testimony, and were not given time and opportunity to converse with each other between testifying. He requested that they be called consecutively, and that one be excluded from the room when the other testified.

Not unexpectedly, Manus objected. Somewhat unexpectedly, the judge consented. It was a small victory, but Jarrod was well aware that small victories might be all he would be afforded in this case. He would take whatever he could get.

Manus called his first man, Jim Pollock, who confidently reiterated what he’d told the sheriff the day of the murder, then leaned back in his chair waiting to dispose of Jarrod Barkley’s questions.

“Mr. Pollock, I believe you stated that, at the time Heath Thomson allegedly broke into the room, there were three people present: yourself, the now-deceased, and your cohort. Is that correct?”

Pollock sneered. “I believe I can count accurately … certainly up to three.”

Jarrod briefly considered a request to the bench to have the witness refrain from commenting and simply answer the question, then opted to handle the matter in his own way.

“I see. And can you count accurately beyond that number?”

Pollock’s brow wrinkled, his eyebrows drew together, and his mouth dropped open. No sound came forth for several moments, furthering the impression he was thinking: could he count past three?

“I don’t see the point in your question.”

Vanderburgh interjected before Jarrod could continue. “The witness will answer the question.”

Pollock looked at the judge and realized he’d made a grave mistake with his first reply. Time to put an end to this. “My apologies, Your Honor. Yes, I can count accurately well beyond three.”

Jarrod handed him a piece of paper. “This is copy of the sketch, already provided to this court, that Marshal Sawyer made of the room shortly after the murder. As you can see it identifies the individuals present in the room at the time the sheriff arrived on the scene. It also shows the position of pieces of furniture and other items. I would ask you to take a close look and verify that it appears to be an accurate representation of the room at that time.”

Pollock gave the paper a cursory glance before answering. “Yes, it looks like the room.”

“Please take a moment to look carefully and then confirm that it appears accurate to you.”

Pollock looked at the paper again. He couldn’t see what could be important about the room. “Yes. As I said, it is accurate.”

Jarrod took back the paper, made a point of seeming to study it closely, then handed it back to the witness. His eyes were hard and steady as they honed in on the witness. “Please count the number of coffee cups on the table.”

The witness’s eyes flitted briefly to Manus, and then around the room. He licked his lips. The paper in his hand may have displayed the slightest of flutters. He swallowed. “There appear to be four cups.”

“I see. Four cups, and three men. The written report indicates that the cups held varying levels of the remnants of barely warm coffee, indicating that the cups had been filled at the same time. Who was the fourth person?”

“There wasn’t another person.”

“I remind you, Mr. Pollock, that you are under oath. There are four cups of coffee. I ask you again, who was the fourth person?”

“He left before Thomson there broke into the place.”

“How long before?”

Jim Pollock could now feel the sweat begin to trickle down his back, creating a damp strip on his shirt where the waistband of his pants held it close. He licked his lips again. “I don’t remember, exactly.”

“I see. You don’t remember when the other person left. You seem to have a very exact memory of everything that happened subsequent to his leaving. How is it, Mr. Pollock, that you are not able to remember when the fourth person left?”

There was now anger in the voice. “I tell you I just don’t remember. I had no reason to pay it any mind. He left when his business with Mr. Greenley was done. Was no concern of mine, when he left.”

“Thank you, sir. You’ve graciously answered my next question before it was asked. The fourth individual was a man. What was his name?”

Manus was on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. This entire line of questioning is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Whether anyone else was there before Mr. Thomson broke in … allegedly broke in … or who he was has no bearing on this case.”

“I must disagree, Your Honor. This fourth man might well be a possible witness.”

“Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

*****

Chapter 53

The neck of Pollock’s shirt, and the armpits were now growing damp, and tiny beads of sweat were appearing at his temples.

“His name?”

“His name. Surely this man had a name.”

“He was someone Mr. Greenley was doing business with. I think he called him Bob.”

“Bob? Just Bob? So, the four of you sat around this table,” he pointed to the sketch, “and drank coffee, but you weren’t introduced. Is that what you would have this court believe?”

“Well it might sound odd … but that’s exactly what happened.”

Realizing how odd it did sound, Pollock chose to add a piece. “We didn’t actually sit around the table. Me and Tony were across the room while Bob and Mr. Greenley talked. Put our cups on the table after he left.”

“So, if I understand this correctly. You put your partially empty cups on the table, after Bob left, and then moved away from the table to wait for Mr. Thomson to arrive.”

“Yes, that’s how it happened.”

“How did you know Mr. Thomson was going to arrive?”

His palms were now damp and the tiny beads on his temple had grown larger. “I didn’t … none of us did.”

“So, you would have this court understand that you left your coffee unfinished, right after Bob left, moved, for no reason, off to the side, away from the table … and chairs … to stand in the place you occupied when Mr. Thomson arrived.

“Having no idea how long Bob had been gone, you have no idea how long you stood there waiting … for … well, it seems, just waiting?” He shrugged and waited for the witness to respond.

Pollock just wanted this over. Now. “Yes. Mr. Greenley didn’t appreciate idle chitchat…. And, I prefer standing when there’s no reason not to….”

He obviously failed to note that his readily visible surplus bulk would belie that fact.

Jarrod chose to let it go. His intention was to discredit the witness’s testimony and he’d accomplished that to the degree possible. “I have no further questions.”

Manus decided to leave it alone for now, and, as advised by the judge, to call his next witness.

As per the previous ruling, Tony Bailey was ushered into the courtroom as Jim Pollock was ushered out … with no opportunity for exchange between them.

Mr. Bailey’s testimony mimicked that of his cohort. Manus was annoyed that the men had not advised him of the fourth person having been present earlier that morning. He decided to forestall the defense attorney’s attempts at discrediting this witness as well.

“Mr. Bailey, I understand Mr. Greenley entertained a business associate the morning he was murdered, and that man left before Thomson arrived. Is that correct?”

Even the fly in the far corner of the courtroom could not have missed seeing the surprise on Bailey’s face.

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is leading.”

“Objection sustained. The witness will not answer.”

Manus was annoyed. He’d hoped Bailey would answer before Barkley could object. However, he at least had accomplished a portion of his objective … if Bailey would pick up on the lead he’d been given.

“Did Mr. Greenley often entertain business associates in his room?”

Bailey’s confusion was evident but he managed to handle the question. “Yes sir, he did.”

“Did he entertain such a person that morning?”

Bailey wasn’t the sharpest quill on the porcupine, but he knew enough to play along. “He did.”

“A man to whom you were not introduced?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The prosecutor is again asking a leading question.”

Objection sustained.

“Were you introduced to this business associate?”

Bailey hesitated before realizing that he had not been introduced. “No sir, I was not.”

“Thank you. I have no further questions.”

He directed a smirk toward Jarrod Barkley before adding, “Your witness, Counselor.”

Jarrod was not surprised by Manus’s tactics.

“Mr. Bailey, I understand you to have testified that Mr. Thomson shot Mr. Greenley before you were able to disarm him, or otherwise intervene. Is that correct?”

Bailey breathed a sign of relief. At least this lawyer didn’t seem much interested in the man who had departed. “That is correct. I wasn’t wearing my gun.”

“I see. And you were close to Mr. Thomson … close enough to hit him hard enough to render him unconscious after he shot Mr. Greenley. Is that correct?”

Now he was starting to sweat. He was still somewhat unnerved by the prosecutor’s interest in a fourth man, and could only wonder where the lawyer was going with this? He remembered his instructions from Manus: answer just the question and as simply as possible.

“Yes sir.”

“Please help this court understand, Mr. Bailey, how it was that you were close enough to Mr. Thomson to deliver a very hard blow to his head, but you were unable to tackle him, or otherwise knock him aside, before he shot Mr. Greenley.”

Bailey licked his lips … again. “I don’t rightly know. Guess it just never occurred to me he would shoot the boss.”

“I see. A man, currently in the process of suing your boss, allegedly bursts into the hotel room, with his gun already drawn, and it does not occur to you that he intends to shoot the man. What was it that you suspected he did intend to do?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is irrelevant.”

“On the contrary, Your Honor, I believe it is highly relevant. This witness stated he was standing close to the door … opposite to the side to which the door would swing … standing and waiting. He stated that his job was to provide protection to Mr. Greenley. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume he was standing, ready to act in the capacity of protector, should the need arise.”

He turned and faced the jury before continuing. “And yet, when the need did arise, he would have this court to understand that he did not suspect the man who allegedly burst through the door, gun drawn, intended to shoot his employer. I believe it is well within reason to seek to understand what it was he suspected Mr. Thomson intended to do.”

“Objection overruled, the witness will answer the question.”

Manus wasn’t surprised. He just hoped the delay would give his witness time to collect his wits and formulate a reasonable reply.

“I’m sorry, Your Honor, but I truly can’t say. I don’t think I really had time to think about it. And, I really wouldn’t suspect that someone would shoot a man … in cold blood … in front of witnesses. So, doesn’t seem to me that would be a reasonable thing to suspect was going to happen.”

Jarrod, grudgingly, accepted that the witness had recovered his aplomb quite nicely. Time to change direction.

“Thank you, Mr. Bailey.”

He paused to stare at the man for several seconds. “Who is Bob?”

Again, the look of surprise would have the fly aflutter. “Bob? Bob who?”

“My question exactly. Bob who? What is Bob’s full name?”

“I don’t know any Bob.”

“How interesting. The previous witness testified that the man who left the room before Mr. Thomson arrived, was named Bob. How is it that Mr. Pollock knew that and you did not?”

He was flustered again, and Manus was once more on his feet.

“Objection, Your Honor. The question has been asked and answered. The defense counsel is badgering the witness.”

Jarrod waited for the ruling, not terribly concerned either way.

He’d made his point.

“Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

“Well I don’t know what Jimmy might have known.”

He suddenly had what he considered to be a good thought. “Maybe he was listening in on the conversation. Maybe he heard Mr. Greenley call him that. I don’t make it a point of listening in on conversations that don’t concern me.”

He looked very pleased with himself.

Jarrod smiled. “An admirable trait I’m sure.”

Time to shift direction again.

“So, Mr. Bailey, you just confirmed that Mr. Greenley, and I quote, ‘often entertained business associates in his room’ … in his room.

Did Mr. Greenley not have an office in this town?”

“I believe so.”

“Mr. Bailey, I ask you again. Did Mr. Greenley, or did he not, have an office in this town?”

“He did.” Bailey was getting nervous again.

“Hmmm. Often entertained business associates in his room. Why in his room, Mr. Bailey. Why not in his office?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is speculative.”

“Objection sustained.”

Jarrod paused for a moment, as if to reconsider. He had no intention of letting this one go.

*****

Chapter 54

“Mr. Bailey, in your capacity as body guard, for Mr. Greenley, did you accompany him wherever he went?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is irrelevant. What Mr. Bailey normally did as part of his employment has no bearing on this case.”

“Your Honor, I beg the court’s indulgence. If the witness is permitted to answer the question I will show the relevance.”

“Very well, Mr. Barkley. I will let the question stand, but I insist that you demonstrate that relevance quickly, or I will shut down this line of questioning. Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

“Yes. I was hired to protect Mr. Greenley … could hardly do so if I wasn’t with him.”

“Is it your experience then, that Mr. Greenley, more often saw business associates in his office, or elsewhere?”

He wasn’t sure how it mattered, but Bailey sensed this question was leading into dangerous territory. He felt trapped. “In his office.”

“So, it could be considered out of the ordinary for Mr. Greenley to see this man in his room?”

“Well sort of. But he’d seen other people in his room, so it wasn’t like he never did so.” He’d fallen into the trap without even knowing it.

“Mr. Bailey, do you know how it was determined whether associates were seen in the office … or elsewhere … his room for instance?”

“I don’t know how it was determined.”

“I see. When did Mr. Greenley rent this hotel room?”

Tony Bailey, once again, was left trailing in the dust of the defense counselor’s thought processes.

“He rented it when the other trial started. He said he didn’t want to have to travel back and forth from his ranch to town every day.”

“By the other trial, are you referring to the civil action recently brought against Mr. Greenley, by Mr. Thomson?”

Again, Bailey felt uneasy, and didn’t know any means of not answering the question.

“Yes.”

“Mr. Bailey, in the time that Mr. Greenley had this room, did he see people in his office?”

“Yes, of course he did. Mr. Greenley was a successful man, had lots of people he saw on a regular basis.”

“I see. And, in the time he rented this room, did he have certain people he regularly saw in his room, that he never saw in his office?”

Manus was shouting. “Objection, Your Honor. The question is argumentative. It suggests the murdered party deliberately saw people in his room, rather than his office. No such evidence exists, or can be established.”

“On the contrary, Your Honor. It establishes a pattern … a pattern which demonstrates a particular behavior on the part of Mr. Greenley … a behavior that includes choosing to see some people in a private setting rather than a public setting. I merely wish to establish that such a pattern existed.”

Vanderburgh locked eyes with the defense counsel. He was sliding on thin ice, but it was the learned judge’s opinion that as yet he had not slid into forbidden waters. “Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

“I don’t recall the question.” Sure is getting hot in this room.

“The court recorder will read back the question.”

He did so.

“Yes.”

“To clarify. Since the start of the previous court case, Mr. Greenley saw people in his room that he never saw in his office.”

Manus didn’t bother to object. “Yes. That is correct.”

“Was the man who was there, the morning of the murder, one such person?”

As he saw the witness hesitate, he added a caveat. “Let me remind you. You are under oath.”

Bailey licked the moisture off his upper lip. “He was.”

“I see. Since you are not aware of his name, and he could be a potential witness, please describe this man.”

Bailey paused. Answer the question and keep it simple.

“Nothing special about him. Average height. Average build. Brownish hair. Didn’t notice the color of his eyes. Mr. Greenley knew him, he wasn’t a threat, so I didn’t pay much attention.” He shrugged.

“I invite you to think a bit more. Did he have any scars, even small ones … on his face, on his hands? Were his hands rough like he worked out-of-doors, or smooth? How did he dress … expensive clothes, work clothes, suit? Did he look comfortable in what he wore, like it was normally what he would wear? What kind of footwear? Did he carry a gun? Was he dressed essentially the same that morning as on his previous visits?”

Bailey once again experienced that trapped sensation. Knew he had to be careful, and wasn’t sure he knew how to do so. He decided to remain as noncommittal as possible. Didn’t want the man to stand out in any way. Then he realized he’d need to paint him as someone that Greenley would have reason to see, more than once, in his room. Not some common cowhand, or whatever.

“As I said, I didn’t pay too close attention. Didn’t notice any scars or such. Don’t know about his hands. Didn’t seem to have anything special about the way he looked … like a crooked nose that had maybe been broken a few times. Just looked like a regular fellow.”

In truth, he could not recall whether he had been wearing a suit that morning or regular clothes. Decided to play it safe … at least as safe as he could.

“Always dressed nicely … don’t know if his clothes were expensive, but they were always clean, looked kind of new. Don’t recall looking at his feet. Never saw him with a gun.” He shrugged as if to emphasize that he hadn’t paid attention and was sharing all he knew.

Jarrod didn’t believe it … and couldn’t rightly challenge him further. “You have stated you do not know his name. Do you know the names of any of the other people who were seen exclusively in Mr. Greenley’s room?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is irrelevant. Defense counsel has established no connection between any other persons and this case. It is of no relevance whether the witness knows the names of other persons … persons not related to this case.”

Vanderburgh sighed. The defense counsel was off the ice and into the murky waters. “Objection sustained.”

Jarrod did not mind. He’d made his point. He also suspected, if Bailey were forced to answer, he would choose to perjure himself … undoubtedly quite certain no one could prove differently. He had seen the man squirm when the question was asked.

Jarrod Barkley, Esq. was more than certain the man knew the names of those people … and he could be squeezed. He would not invite Nick to do the squeezing. There were people capable of doing so with greater finesse … and without jeopardizing the admission of the evidence so obtained.

Time to shift direction again. “Mr. Bailey, would you say, that except for these particular unidentified men, Mr. Greenley most often saw people in his office?”

“Yes. Probably why he had an office.” His need to, as he saw it, show up the lawyer, again had him forgetting to limit what he said.

“Yes indeed. Probably why many people have offices. And that being the case … that most people have offices so people have a place to see them … is it reasonable to you to assume that were a person wanting to see someone, without having been told differently, they would go to the person’s office?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question calls for speculation.”

While Bailey had no idea what Barkley was getting at, it quickly came clear to Manus. He wanted opposing counsel stopped.

“Your Honor, I merely asked if the assumption was reasonable to the witness. I am not asking him to speculate on what anyone else has assumed.”

Vanderburgh hid his smile. He didn’t often get cases that invited the involvement of attorneys with this level of talent. He suspected he might enjoy the next few weeks … assuming, of course, that the defendant was remanded over for trial. At the same time, he had no difficulty in reminding himself that there was nothing either enjoyable, or humorous, about murder.

“Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

“Guess it seems reasonable,” his furrowed brows clearly indicative of the fact he was still at a loss to understand what the man was trying to prove.

“To the best of your knowledge, who would have known, that morning, that Mr. Greenley was meeting, in his room, with this unknown man?”

“No one I know of, except maybe his clerk. He would know Mr. Greenley’s schedule … he booked his appointments. No cause for anyone else to know.”

“I see. No cause. So, Mr. Bailey, to the best of your knowledge, would there be any means by which another person could have known Mr. Greenley was in his room at that time? A person, other than someone intimately acquainted with Mr. Greenley and his schedule?”

“Don’t see how.”

The answer was out long before Manus could object or the witness could appreciate its significance.

 *****

Chapter 55

“You don’t see how.” Jarrod repeated the answer, before letting his piercing blue eyes bore into the witness.

“So, Tony … it is Tony, is it not?”

He waited for the witness to nod before continuing. “Tony … would you please give this court your best guess as to how Mr. Thomson knew where to find Mr. Greenley, on the morning in question?”

It was comical to see the realization dawn on the witness. Bailey suddenly felt the jaws of the trap snap shut, along with the concomitant feelings of fear and defeat. He’d not been prepared for this and had no idea how to answer. In the midst of his frustration and confusion he inadvertently answered with the truth.

“I have no idea. Someone must have told him.”

Jarrod, with difficulty, refrained from smiling. “I see. That someone, as you have already testified, having to be intimately acquainted with Mr. Greenley’s schedule. Is that true?”

He mopped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt, and in so doing only managed to create room for more sweat to accumulate. His eyes pleaded with Manus for release … and there was no rescue possible. “I guess.”

“And, might you guess who that someone might be?”

“I don’t know.” Again forgetting he’d been admonished to keep his answers succinct, and not yet accepting he lacked the prowess to successfully spar with the defense counsel, he tightened the jaws of the trap. “I’d guess Thomson probably went to the office first and the clerk told him where to find the boss.” He smiled with delight.

“I see.” Jarrod looked thoughtfully at the man, before he slowly ambled over to his table and casually shifted through the papers he’d earlier placed there. Picking up one document he appeared to look it over thoughtfully, before making his way back to stand in front of the witness.

“I have here a sworn affidavit, gathered by Marshal Frank Sawyer,” he glanced at the judge, “which I will submit into evidence. Said affidavit was sworn by Mr. Horace Perkins, office clerk and assistant to the deceased, Mr. Merton Greenley.”

He paused, to let the words sink in, and allow Judge Vanderburgh and the jury members to observe the visible paling of the witness, before continuing.

“It seems Mr. Perkins denies having spoken with Mr. Thomson … that morning … or any morning. In fact, he states that, to the best of his knowledge, Mr. Thomson has never been in the offices of Mr. Merton Greenley.”

Again he waited … and watched the man squirm.

“It seems your guess is inaccurate. Since neither you, Mr. Pollock, nor Mr. Greenley left the room, neither of you could have informed Mr. Thomson. If your previous testimony is truthful, it would seem that the only other person who was privy to the knowledge of Mr. Greenley’s whereabouts was Bob.”

Bailey’s head snapped up. Barkley couldn’t know. Surely he couldn’t know what had happened. Manus had said Thomson hadn’t remembered a thing about that morning. Surely the defense counsel wouldn’t dare withhold the truth from Manus … if he knew, he would have told him.

“I find myself wondering why Bob, a supposed close business associate … close enough to be met with privately … would see his way clear to share that information with Mr. Thomson. Doesn’t seem plausible, does it Mr. Bailey?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is argumentative.”

Jarrod welcomed the objection. He really didn’t want this witness to offer an alternative explanation … if indeed one existed. He’d made his point and he was ready to discontinue questioning … would be happy to have the objection sustained. He got his wish.

“Objection sustained.”

He didn’t rush. Moved to hand the affidavit to the court clerk, then quietly returned to his table, before addressing the judge. “I have no further questions of this witness.”

“Very well. The witness may step down. Mr. Manus call your next witness.”

Manus stood and looked at Defense Counsel before addressing the judge. “You Honor, I have no further witnesses.”

Vanderburgh took a moment to consider the information before declaring, “Thank you Mr. Manus. In view of the lateness of the hour I hereby adjourn these proceedings for lunch. Court will reconvene at 2:00 p.m. Mr. Barkley, will you be ready at that time to call your first witness?”

“I will, Your Honor.”

“Court adjourned.”

As people started to file out and Jack Collins stepped forward to take possession of his prisoner, Jarrod turned to his client and advised him that he would see him within the hour. He had some thinking he needed to do, and he headed back to his hotel room.

He had barely settled into the room’s comfortable leather chair when a knock sounded at the door.

Damn. I need some undisturbed time to think this through.

Having heaved a sigh and suppressed his annoyance, he walked over and opened the door, surprised to find Frank Sawyer standing there. He was even more surprised at the man’s words.

“We’ve got a problem.”

Jarrod motioned him into the room and closed the door. Easing back into the recently vacated chair, he indicated that Frank should likewise find a seat.

“What kind of problem?”

“Manus.” He glanced at the attorney before shrugging and adding the rest. “He issued orders that no one is to have access to Heath except his defense attorney … you … and whoever is on duty at the jail. And, of course, himself.”

“He can’t do that.” Even as the words left his mouth he knew them to be false. He could … and, he did.

“There’s more.”

Jarrod just stared at him … waited for the elaboration.

“Had a telegram waiting for me. Advised that the subpoena you got so I could be here for the trial is no longer in effect. That action’s on hold and so’s the subpoena. I’ve been ordered back to work.”

“Does Heath know?”

“Not about the subpoena. He knows the rest. I was there when Collins came back to tell me I had to leave … and why.”

Jarrod shook his head, his fingers automatically travelling through his hair and coming to rest on the back of his neck.

Damn. Can’t anything ever be simple?

He took a few minutes to think it through and hoped he had a solution. “How did he take the news?”

“Good question. He put on that bloody poker face and assured me he would be fine. I have my doubts, but time will tell.”

“Okay. Nothing we can do immediately. I can get a new subpoena for the upcoming trial … once it’s been scheduled. But I want to speak with Collins first. See if he will request you be assigned to the case … get you to do ongoing investigation. That would take care of both problems at once.

“If your suspicions are correct and Heath isn’t going to handle this too well, what can we do within the limitations? What might keep the panic at bay?”

The slouched shoulders and downward directed eyes, relayed more than the words. “Something else Manus wouldn’t likely allow. Leave the cell door open.”

Jarrod pursed his lips, raised one eyebrow, tilted his head, and looked thoughtfully at Sawyer.

“Don’t assume the worst. He can’t raise an objection to what he doesn’t know.” He smiled.

Will have to see how persuasive I can be, should the need arise.

Frank looked at him for a minute before deciding to leave that matter in what he had come to appreciate as very capable hands and instead share what was on his mind. “You said, upcoming trial. Are you saying that’s a certainty? Seemed like you were doing pretty good at the hearing.”

Jarrod chuckled. “Law’s a funny thing … even when you’re doing well, doesn’t mean you’ll win. It’s what I came up here to think about.

“I almost decided to waive the right to the hearing in the first place. Maybe I should have done so, but I wanted to see what Manus was going to offer … beyond what I expected.”

He stopped for a moment while again considering if that had been a good decision. “Unfortunately, I got nothing in that regard. I still don’t know what Springer’s role is going to be, and he quite obviously does not see a need to bring that forth at this time. He’s quite confident this will be remanded over for trial.”

“But surely his two witnesses have been discredited. You did accomplish that much didn’t you?”

He chuckled again, and nodded. “Yes, I agree. However, all I did was establish the idea that they may be hiding something, that things may not be exactly as they indicated … maybe they aren’t in agreement as to what happened before Heath arrived.

“But I offered nothing to oppose their testimony as to Greenley’s demise. Two eye witnesses have testified that Heath broke into the room and shot an unarmed man. On that their testimony did not diverge.”

He turned those piercing blue eyes on the lawman and waited until he was sure he had his full attention. “Remember, this is a hearing. Its intent merely is to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial, not if there is enough to convict. Manus has done that.”

Frank held his gaze and slowly nodded. He did know that. He hadn’t even forgotten. He simply had wanted to keep alive some hope that it could end here.

Jarrod decided he’d share the rest of his thoughts with the man. Sometimes it was more effective to think out loud rather than try to process everything in the solitary confines of one’s head.

“I had initially planned to call the desk clerk … have him verify that he didn’t give Heath the room number. Also call one of the men from the house to testify as to what had transpired that caused Heath to leave the house. Establish that it did not appear to be a premeditated action.

“Now, I don’t see it changing the outcome of the hearing. I’m not so sure I want to tip Manus to even that much of my line of defense. No point giving him more time than necessary to develop a counter argument.

“But, Springer still bothers me. When I think on it I can only imagine that somehow Manus wants to use something from the civil action to establish motivation. Because of one thing there is no doubt … the lack of motivation will affect his ability to get a conviction. Especially if I can further discredit his two eye witnesses. I can’t believe he doesn’t think he has that covered.

“So, I’m thinking now the only witness I will call is Thomson. Have him testify that, at this time, he has no memory of the events of that morning, and that he had no reason to kill Greenley. He had initiated the civil action to get what justice he could … within the law. The case seemed to be leaning towards a favorable outcome for him. He was getting what he wanted. Killing Greenley made no sense.”

Frank looked at the man. There was something else going on here.

“And your need to think about it … your hesitancy in doing just that?”

Jarrod smiled, harrumphed. The man could read people, no doubt about that. “I’ve no doubt it is a good legal decision. I’m concerned about how my client will feel about it. Will he see it as a lack of trust in him … or worse still … an unwillingness to give his case my best effort?

“Somehow, his opinion of me has come to matter … a goodly bit more than I’ve come to expect in regard to clients. Not sure what that’s about. But there it is … and it can’t be denied.”

Frank chuckled for a bit and then laughed outright. “Sorry Jarrod. But, I’m afraid you’ve gotten caught in his spell. He doesn’t even know he does it, but somehow he has that effect on people. Well, at least on some people … people who are worthy of him.”

He chuckled again. “He, of course, would deny it all.”

He quickly turned serious … and sad. “Unfortunately, he fails to see that he has any worth at all.”

Jarrod looked at the marshal. Reminded himself that this was an unusual man … and one worthy of respect and admiration in his own right. He stood up and reached for his suit jacket.

“Come along, Frank. I’ll buy you a quick lunch and then I’m going to speak with my client … and deal with the other matter.”

*****

Chapter 56

Jarrod watched as the sheriff escorted his client into the courtroom. Their eyes met and the blonde gave a quick nod, eliciting a silent sigh of relief from the dark-haired attorney.

When he, earlier, had advised Thomson that he was going to, in essence, concede defeat in the hearing, he wasn’t sure how well the news had been received. He’d outlined the same rationale he’d provided Sawyer, and Heath had not raised any objections. He had offered assurances that he could handle testifying.

As he thought back on it now, Jarrod realized he’d had no concerns about his client being able to handle himself on the stand. He’d seen ample evidence of his abilities in that regard during the earlier trial. No, his concerns were more about the man himself, and how well he would fare without Sawyer … if the marshal’s presence could not be secured without delay, and in a way that would negate Manus’s order.

He’d presented his case to Collins and received an agreeable response. He, however, had been advised that just because the request would be submitted did not ensure it would be fulfilled. The sheriff had indicated that best he could do would be to put forth the strongest argument possible. It otherwise would be out of his hands.

As the room was brought to order, and the judge took his seat, Jarrod pondered on how important it would be to get the earliest possible court date. Again, he expected no resistance from Manus, but was prepared for a date that could be up to two weeks hence. The thought did not cheer him.

He called his client to the stand, and took delight in the surprise that flitted across the prosecutor’s face.

Maybe he won’t be prepared to cross-examine him. Good thing I don’t have many questions … it won’t be late enough in the day to ask for an early adjournment.

“Mr. Thomson, please tell this court what you recall from the morning Merton Greenley died?”

“Breakfast.”

Vanderburgh couldn’t contain himself, although he did keep his amusement from showing. “The witness will please provide this court with a more thorough answer.”

Heath looked up at him and nodded. He was quite confident the man was not annoyed … not in the least.

Just doing his job.

“Yes, Your Honor. My apologies. I remember sitting down at the table in the house in which I’d been staying … sitting down to breakfast, maybe eating a few bites of it. Don’t remember anything else until I came to in what I have been told was Mr. Greenley’s hotel room … after the man was already dead.”

Vanderburgh nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Thomson.”

He shifted his eyes back to the defense attorney. “You may continue, Mr. Barkley.”

Jarrod nodded. “Mr. Thomson, in view of your loss of memory of that time period, what makes you so sure that you did not kill the deceased?”

“I had no reason to do so. I’d started an action against him that, if successful, I believed would result in the destruction of his reputation and his accumulated wealth. I was looking for justice, and that outcome would have represented justice to me.”

He paused to consider his next words. “At the time of his death Mr. Greenley was not faring well in that action. I believe he was at risk of losing the case … of having to face the justice I sought. Killing him would serve no purpose. I had no reason to kill him.”

He looked out over the courtroom, and then up at the judge, avoiding Jarrod Barkley, before deciding to add an additional piece.

“Furthermore, if I had sought to kill the man I would not be so stupid as to do so in such as manner as has been described to me. And, it doesn’t matter what I remember. I have not forgotten who I am … the type of person I am … and what I am and am not capable of doing. I could no more shoot an unarmed man, even one so deserving of it as Merton Greenley, than herd sheep.”

Jarrod was barely able to suppress a smile as the judge worked to restore quiet in the courtroom. He couldn’t be sure if it had been a simple statement of truth, or if it had been calculated to win favor with those in the public gallery. This, after all, was cattle country.

“Thank you, Mr. Thomson. I have no further questions.”

He moved back to his table and settled into his chair to await Daniel Manus’s cross-examination … and enjoy the man being momentarily disconcerted.

The defense attorney had been correct. Manus had not expected Thomson to be called as a witness … he was not prepared to question him. The questioning that had occurred had been too brief to allow him to scribble down more than a couple of preliminary ideas. He picked up that piece of paper and pretended to study the content, as he sought to buy himself a few more moments. Urged by the judge to proceed, he did his best.

“While it is admirable, Mr. Thomson, that you see yourself as such an honorable man, can you deny having ever desired to shoot Greenly, having ever thought about doing so.”

Jarrod was on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. The question is irrelevant. A person’s thoughts cannot be put on trial. What this witness may, or may not, have thought is irrelevant to these proceedings.”

“On the contrary, Your Honor. A person’s thoughts about a certain matter are preliminary to actions. Mr. Thomson has been accused of killing Mr. Greenley. I wish to establish whether he had, at any time, entertained a desire to shoot the deceased.”

“Objection overruled. The witness may answer the question.”

Heath wanted to smile, and refrained from doing so. “I did think of shooting him … attempted to do so … when I saw him kill Mr. Ucroft. I failed to do so because another person was in the way, and I was knocked unconscious before I could get a clear shot.”

He turned to the judge. “I sought to shoot him … not to kill him. My intent was to keep him from escaping.”

Neither Manus’s repeated entreaties for him to stop, nor the buzz in the courtroom, were sufficient to drown out the blond’s words. The prosecutor had made a rookie mistake, and he knew it. Never ask a witness a question to which you do not know the answer. He was rattled, and he knew that too. He decided his best course of action was to put an end to this … and to do so as quickly as possible.

“So, you admit you have no memory of what happened the morning that Mr. Greenley died. You cannot, therefore, deny that you shot him. Is that not correct?”

Jarrod was up again. “Objection, Your Honor. The question is argumentative.”

“Objection sustained.”

“I have no further questions, Your Honor.”

Daniel Manus knew he’d been outfoxed in this instance. He, however, did not believe it would affect the outcome of the hearing. It would be remanded over for trial. His belief was reinforced when Jarrod Barkley indicated he had no further witnesses to call.

The judge ordered a brief recess before rendering his decision. Sawyer persuaded Collins to take the prisoner outside until such time as court was called back in session. They sat in silence on a bench in the interior courtyard. It was a comfortable silence … and revitalizing for the young cowboy.

Maybe just this once I can take this with me … have it sustain me while I’m locked inside. Maybe … just this once….

When they were called back inside, no one was surprised by the decision. Jarrod requested an early-as-possible trial date … indicating they would be opting for trial by jury.

The decision on that was a surprise … trial would commence Monday. Manus raised no objection. The defense attorney anticipated the first two days would be devoted to jury selection. Then the real work would begin.

Nathan Springer’s role remained a mystery and Jarrod suspected it would be something unexpected. He had no way of knowing how prophetic those suspicions would be … or how far reaching the consequences.

*****

Chapter 57

While Heath was led back to the jail, Jarrod spoke with Frank, who advised that he would be leaving on the evening stage to return to his assigned placement. He expected it would take two days, maybe three, for a decision to be rendered in regard to the sheriff’s request.

The attorney advised him that he would not be filing for a subpoena until that decision was known … it would be in everyone’s best interests if the marshal were here under assignment. If he were subpoenaed he would be unavailable for assigning. They parted ways … Jarrod for his hotel and Frank for the jail.

Jack Collins, more than certain he knew the reason, was not happy to see the U.S. Marshal come through the door. “Don’t ask Frank. You know I can’t let you back there.”

“I’m surprised at you sheriff … requesting I come work with you and thinking I’d ask you to ignore the prosecutor’s order. I was just wondering if you’d remembered to search the prisoner … after you brought him back from court. Would have been easy enough for someone to have slipped him a concealed weapon.

“Light back there’s not too good. Probably be easier to do a thorough search if he were out here. Can’t see as to how you’d be held responsible if someone were to come in while you were busy doing that … in about five minutes, say? I’m heading out on tonight’s stage.”

Jack studied him for a moment, fully aware of how thin was the line he’d drawn.

“Don’t suppose I’ve got any control over who might come in here in, say, five minutes.” He went back to dealing with the papers on his desk as Frank chuckled and headed for the door.

He’d only gotten a precious few minutes with his friend. He’d taken the time to explain he’d been called back from whence he’d come, and the steps planned to get him back as soon as possible. Possibly by Monday.

Reminded the young man he only had the two days to get through, and then he’d be back in the courtroom. Reassured him he believed the boy could handle that … and Jarrod would be around. He needed to remember he was no longer alone … there were people who cared about him … people who would be there for him. He wasn’t sure how convincing he’d been, even though the young blond had assured him he would be fine.

Jarrod had stopped at the telegraph office on his way to the hotel. Nothing. He was beginning to worry about the lack of any communication from Markle. He knew there was someone behind Greenley … someone powerful. The trial having been scheduled for Monday had only helped to reinforce that belief.

While he had asked for an early date, he’d been expecting to have at least a further week to prepare … most especially to have some information on the deceased and his connections.

Unfortunately he’d put himself between Scylla and Charybdis:  having asked he could not then object to the date given; and, speeding things up for the benefit of his client left him with less time to prepare, thereby jeopardizing his client in a different way.

Before heading back to the hotel, he took a moment to order dinner … his and Heath’s … and request it be delivered to the jail.

Back in his room, he spread out his papers and began to plan his case. He knew better than to hang the outcome on a hope his client’s memory would return—that thought creating a momentary pause. He shook his head, wondering what it was that was troubling him. There was something, something in what Heath said at the hearing, something he couldn’t put his finger on. Finding himself stymied in that regard he decided to let it be and get back to the matter at hand: prepare for the upcoming case.

He started his usual meticulous process in the same manner as always: lists. As the light from the window grew fainter he set the work aside, took a moment to don more casual attire and then headed out to see his client.

He arrived at the jailhouse in time to open the door for young Fairchild, and bestow a handsome tip on the lad. The boy seemed somewhat distracted and it occurred to Jarrod that he likely carried far more responsibility than most of his peers. He’d never seen him when he wasn’t working … in one capacity or another. That surmise would have been reinforced, had he any idea of the thoughts that were distracting the young fellow.

As he took the basket and stepped through the door, he was waved to the back. He took a moment to apologize to Collins.

“I’d have ordered some for you too, Jack, but I couldn’t risk having Manus accuse me of offering, or you accepting, a bribe. However, if you’re willing to wait, I surely will appreciate you being able to take care of any leftovers and get the basket back to Mrs. Fairchild. Seems a reasonable exchange for me absolving you of the responsibility of feeding your prisoner.”

He winked. Collins smiled and offered a terse nod.

He was relieved to find he didn’t have to encourage the young blond to eat … at least not overly much. Talk was quiet and inconsequential throughout most of the meal. Then, thinking on the lists he’d been making, Jarrod asked for clarity on one matter he found puzzling.

“Heath, I know you don’t remember what happened that morning, but I’ve been wondering about your thoughts on what could possibly have ….”

He stopped, looked hard at his client, then shook his head. Heath patiently waited for him to continue.

“I’m sorry. It just occurred to me that I was asking myself the wrong question … and to the wrong person. I was wondering what you thought might have prompted you to leave the house without the men. I need to talk to them … find out what prompted them to allow it. These are Nick’s men. He’d given them orders to go where you went. They would not, without good cause, ignore those orders.”

He chuckled. “They well would know that only at great peril does one choose not to follow Nick’s orders.”

Heath chuckled along with him. “Boy howdy, even I know that….”

He too paused to consider. “No way I would’ve left without them … I’d promised Nick. I don’t break promises.”

He thought a little harder on it. “Never thought it was that necessary. Pretty sure I could take care of myself … always had. But I promised….”

Jarrod saw the squint lines around his eyes deepen, the slight shake of his head, before it dropped slightly.

“Something wrong Heath? Are you okay?”

The light blue eyes, when they looked up, harbored confusion … maybe pain. Jarrod waited a bit, then was cut off just as he was about to speak.

“I’m fine. Just got distracted for a minute there. Can’t figure why I’d break that promise.”

He shook his head slowly, stopped, then shook it again. “Just don’t make sense.”

Jarrod couldn’t agree more. Talking to the men quickly became his top priority.

As he left the jailhouse he saw the lingering dust from the recently-departed stage, and fervently hoped that one of the passengers would be returning on the next stage … or soon thereafter.

*****

The man that opened the door looked surprised … or maybe something Jarrod couldn’t identify.

“Mr. Barkley. Something you need? Something I can do for you?”

The attorney quickly sought to put him at ease. “It’s Drew, correct?”

He didn’t wait for the answer. “I’m hoping all of you are here. I’d like to revisit the morning Mr. Thomson left without you … get clear for myself exactly what happened. At least as well as each of you remember it.”

He saw it then … the look of disappointment. His turn to be surprised.

What was the man hoping for … what did I fail to deliver?

His thoughts were interrupted when he was invited in and assured that all the men were there.

While his desire was to pursue answers to his questions, some instinct … finely honed over years of practice … told him he first needed to address the other matter. “I may be mistaken, but I got the impression that you were disappointed with my appearance … or the reason I was here?”

He didn’t miss the looks that passed between them … those silent messages that cowboys seemed so adept at exchanging. His younger brother included. Years of practice with the latter had taught him to wait for an answer. His patience was rewarded … much more promptly than was typical with Nick.

The eldest of the lot, Charlie, spoke up. “Guess we was kind of hoping to see Nick, or at least to get orders from him … orders to head back to the ranch. Don’t seem to be of much use here.”

Uncertain, in that moment, as to whether his comment would be seen as a complaint, he hastened to add, “Not that we’re complaining about the orders we’ve got … just that it’s getting a mite boring. We’re kind of used to working for our wages.”

He rubbed his hand over his head, hoping again that he hadn’t conveyed the wrong message.

Jarrod’s laughter created a visibly-apparent relief.

“I can certainly understand that. We were hoping the judge would grant the request for bail, and you’d be back to doing what you were sent here to do. Regrettably that didn’t happen. I let Nick know that if this went to trial, I’d need all of you here to testify. Had expected to call one of you at the hearing … decided, at the last minute, against that plan. We’d agreed to send you back to the ranch after the hearing.”

Seeing the faces light up, he regretted having to squelch the joy.

“However, the trial is set for Monday, so those plans have changed. While I’m not expecting to call you as witnesses for at least a week … or more … I want you in that courtroom … want you to know what is being said. If anything is said that you know to be wrong I want to be advised of it.

“So boys, you still have a job to do here … just a little bit of a different job than originally assigned.”

He waited.

It didn’t take long before the silent messages procured united nods … and again, that visibly-apparent relief.

“Thank you for telling us, Mr. Barkley. Please know, we’re willing to help however we can. Mr. Thomson’s a right nice fella … don’t none of us believe he did what they’re accusing him of.”

It was Jarrod’s turn to nod … and look relieved. Time to get on to the real reason for his visit.

“I can assure you I, and my whole family, are pleased to know that. We appreciate the loyalty those words represent. I also want you to know that I’m not requesting anything more from either of you than the truth … as well as you recall it.

“What I would like right now is for one of you to tell me exactly what you remember from that morning. And then if anyone else remembers something additional … or something differently … I would like you to share that. Any questions?”

Drew spoke up. “Seems pretty straight forward to me. Guess I can start.”

An hour later Jarrod had what he considered to be a pretty clear picture of the events of that fateful morning. There had been a knock on the door. Heath had responded, looked out the side window first, tucked his gun in the back waistband of his pants, and then answered the door.

Charlie had stood somewhat back of him, thinking the man was being cautious but not looking particularly concerned. There was some quiet conversation … he didn’t catch all of it … then the door was closed while Heath grabbed his hat, put his gun back in his holster and strapped it on.

The men had moved to get their gear and come with him. He had told them to stay put. They had resisted. He told them Jarrod wanted to see him, and had provided his own security. They’d all assumed Jarrod’s men were doing that. One of the men recalled that Heath’d laughed and told them if there was any problem with Nick he’d take care of it. They would not have to answer to the boss.

Jarrod had almost laughed in the here and now, seeing the looks from them that said they weren’t so sure that was still the case … looks that said they might still be the ones answering to Nick. Like Heath had done he reassured them that if Heath couldn’t intervene with Nick he certainly would do so … reassured them that they had done nothing wrong and would not be held responsible for the outcome … or for dealing with an irate Nick Barkley.

He had asked Charlie and the others for a description of the messenger. None of them had seen him clearly, but they could attest that it was a man and not a boy. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about him … nothing that stood out. As he probed for as much detail as they could give his thoughts went back to the courtroom.

Sounds similar to the fourth man in the hotel room … surprisingly similar. Like whoever he was he was chosen to be nondescript … no distinguishing attributes. Makes me wonder.

He found himself beginning to form a hypothesis: Greenley had sent the man to get Heath, persuade him to follow him, ostensibly taking him to Jarrod. The why and how were still missing.

What could Greenley want with Heath? If he wanted him dead, his room was not the place to accomplish that. Was it? And what could the man have said … what could he possibly have said … that would persuade Heath to follow him? There’s something missing here and I need to discover what it is … my client’s life may depend upon it.

*****

Chapter 58

Jarrod spend the majority of the following day working on case preparation. His thoughts in regards to jury selection were much the same as with the previous court action. However, what he’d learned since about Heath … the fact he’d been liked and respected in this community … had him less concerned about finding acceptable candidates. He still would be making careful choices.

Manus would have his two witnesses. Heath’s illegitimate status was known, as was his war service. Manus may try and use that to paint the boy as an accomplished killer … as someone capable of committing cold-blooded murder. Jarrod was comfortable in his ability to handle that. The two troubling unknowns remained: motivation and Springer. Preparing for those was impossible until he could formulate, at the very least, a hypothesis for each.

His head snapped up.

Maybe not for each. Maybe they are connected. I told Heath that Springer always does his research. What could he have uncovered that would establish motivation for killing Greenley? What motivation could there be? I need to talk to Heath again.

He decided to stop by the telegraph office first, although he was quite sure if anything had come in for him it would have been delivered promptly. He would see if he could pick up an impromptu dinner for two and take it with him to the jailhouse. Mrs. Fairchild assured him she’d have something ready within a few minutes if he was willing to wait. He was, and she did.

Jack Collins looked up when he entered the man’s office. Jarrod got the immediate impression that something was wrong, and that thought must have shown on his face, because the sheriff’s words confirmed it.

“He’s not doing too well. I suspect he’ll be more interested in your presence than the gifts you bear. He barely touched the lunch I provided.” He got up and led the attorney back to the cell.

Jarrod took a look at the body sitting on the cot … a body that looked defeated, tired, weary beyond imagining, and he remembered Frank’s words.

“He’s taken you as his friend.”

Something inside him said Heath needed a friend right now … not a lawyer. He motioned the sheriff to open the door and when the man had departed he slowly made his way over to his … friend … and eased himself down beside him.

He waited a moment and getting no response … either way … placed his arm across the young blond’s shoulders. He felt the muscles in those shoulders bunch, but there was no effort made to remove the arm.

He waited … longer than felt comfortable … as long as was necessary … until he felt the body beside him grow less tense. When he felt he’d waited long enough … as long as he was able … he began to think of the right words to say. The words that would be heard.

At that very moment when his mouth began to open, and his tongue sought to form the first syllable he realized that the man … the boy … beside him did not need his words.  Now was not the time for his silver tongue. Now was the time for his presence … and his silence. He gave both.

After an indeterminate time, he made his next move. He turned his body towards his client, stretched out his other arm, and drew him towards him … encircled him in his arms. Enwrapped him in an embrace like he’d give to Nick … even Audra … an embrace that he hoped would help him feel protected and safe.

The muscles bunched once more, and Jarrod held on … tight enough to prevent easy escape … loose enough to allow necessary escape. And then he felt it … the body melted … every bit of tension dissolved, and the man collapsed onto his chest … into his hold.

As he held tight, and continued to remind himself that words were not needed, he felt the first tremors … tentative and barely perceptible. And then more obvious as the shoulders began to shake and the body joined them. In time the dampness penetrated his shirt. He continued to sit … to be present … to be silent … to be there.

In time the sobs dissolved to hitched breaths, then slowed breaths … eventually quiet, easy breaths. He realized Heath had succumbed to all he’d been through … and all that might be coming … and fallen into what was likely an exhausted sleep.

He continued to hold him until the breaths grew deep and slow and he felt sure he could ease him into a horizontal position on the cot, without awakening him. He covered him with a blanket, pulling it up gently to cover the now stilled shoulders, before moving back to the cell door and wondering how he’d get the attention of the jailer without disturbing his client.

As he wrapped his fingers around the bars of the door, he felt it give. Smiling slightly, he picked up the basket with dinner, opened the door, eased himself out, and closed it behind him, before making the short walk to the front office.

Well, Old Man, now’s the time for the silver tongue to work its magic. Let’s see how well you can do.

He looked at the town sheriff for a few moments before deliberately setting the basket on his desk and reaching for the vacant chair. Pulling it close he began to unpack the two meals, offering one to the sheriff … bribery threats be damned.

As he took the first bite he focused on the man and thought about where to begin. The picture of Heath collapsed on the bed came unbidden to his mind, and he surmised that was a good place to start. “He’s fallen asleep. I suspect he’s exhausted. From what Marshall Sawyer told me, he just doesn’t do well shut up … sleep becomes elusive.”

The sheriff chewed, swallowed and nodded. He gave no further indication of what might be going through his mind.

Jarrod thought about what else Sawyer had told him … thought about what he’d learned from the blond himself. Decided to play a hunch. “You in the war, Jack?”

That got a reaction, as the head snapped up, and the eyes challenged. “What’s it to you … if I was?”

Jarrod smiled … inwardly only. “Which side?”

The sheriff knew something was going on here, just didn’t know quite what. He considered not answering the question … refused to consider hiding the truth, if he chose to answer.

Jarrod waited … and waited. Years of courtroom experience had taught him that sooner or later the silence would become unbearable. Didn’t take nearly as long as he’d expected.

“South.”

“Why?”

“Why what? Why in the war or why on the South?”

“Both … I guess.”

Just before the man was about to answer, the counselor cut him off.

“I suspect you were in it for the same reason all of us were in it. Seemed like the right thing to do. I suspect you chose sides for the same reasons too. You saw your side fighting for something in which you believed, and you wanted to support that.”

The sheriff stared at him, didn’t answer, and then gave a very slight nod. The attorney didn’t have it quite right, but for now he’d go along … see what the man was getting at.

“And I suspect we all came out of it with some of the same demons. Some of us have found a place for those demons … where  we can mostly manage them … or their effect on us has grown slight.

“Been a little harder for my client back there.” He gave a slight flick of his head back towards the cell block.

“I think the war was hard enough on him, but it was his seven months in Carterson Prison that produced the severest demons.”

The look of surprise on the sheriff’s face stopped him. He hadn’t realized Jack didn’t know about that.

“I’d heard rumors … after he showed up at Ucroft’s. Never gave them much credence. He was in the war … in Carterson? He can’t be old enough.”

Jarrod nodded. “He wasn’t … old enough, that is. But he was there. Frank Sawyer told me, in the time he worked for Frank, he’d see him cringe each time he heard the cell door snap shut … snap shut on others. I can’t imagine what he must be going through having to hear it snap shut on him.

“Frank did say he never, in the time they spent together, was able to get him to set foot inside one of the cells … unless he had the door secured in the open position.”

The sheriff was listening. He heard what the lawyer man was saying … and what he wasn’t.

“Look Mr. Barkley … he was arrested for murder. I can’t release him except on bail. It was refused. If you can get the judge to change that, I’ll be happy to comply.”

Jarrod smiled. “I think we both know that’s not likely. Although, from what I saw, and what Frank shared, I am absolutely certain he poses no risk to you … or to anyone. Especially to the citizens of your fair town. The only man, to whom he ever might have posed a threat, is dead.

“No, Sheriff, I’m not asking that you release him. I’m asking that you recognize he is no threat. That you leave the door to his cell open. Give him a chance to avoid being devoured by the demons. I may be asking, but I can assure you … I’m willing to beg … if that becomes necessary.”

The sheriff now looked incredulous. “And what are people to think when they see the accused murderer I’ve locked up … isn’t … locked up. He’s just sitting there free to walk out whenever he chooses. I can’t believe … it’s preposterous.”

Jarrod smiled. “Surely is … isn’t it. I suspect you’ve done more than a few preposterous things in your time at this job. And, nearly as I can tell, except for me, his family … of which he seems to have only a mother … a mother who isn’t here … maybe Frank—if your request is honored—no one else has the right to see him. Certainly, no one has the right to see him without notifying you of that intention.

He’s just sitting back there … no harm done if the door’s open. Maybe a lot of good done. He, after all, is accused of murdering Merton Greenley. He’s not been convicted of doing so. Just for the record, I intend to do everything within my capability to ensure that conviction does not happen.

“All I’m asking is that you do what you can to ensure that young man, a former … well-respected … lawman … is in fit condition to go on with his life when I’ve accomplished that end. Ensure there is still someone to release when the time comes. His life is not in your hands, Sheriff … his ability to live it … when it’s restored to him … is. Totally. In your hands.”

He stood and moved the chair back where it was, put the now-empty dishes back in the basket, picked it up, and slowly made his way to the door, before turning back to the sheriff.

“I leave it with you.”

*****

Chapter 59

Victoria Barkley’s eyes drifted around the Sunday morning breakfast table, taking in her children gathered there, before coming to rest on the empty chair opposite her. She missed her eldest son, and wondered about that. He often was gone for extended periods of time, and she missed him then too, but this was different.

She caught Nick’s glance and realized she’d been caught. “He’s not been gone that long and yet I find myself wondering when he’ll be back.”

Nick harrumphed. “Doesn’t sound like it will be anytime soon. Yesterday’s telegram said it was going to trial. He didn’t say … as usual … but I’m guessing that’s going to take a couple of weeks at least. Quite frankly, I wish they were both back here. Not likely to happen … probably not ever.”

Audra caught the tone in his voice … something between anger, disgust and longing.

“You can’t know that Nick. I trust Jarrod. I’m sure he’ll be fully successful in defending Mr. Thomson.”

He harrumphed again. “Even if he is, there’s still the civil trial to complete. If he’s successful with that, Heath Thomson will have his own ranch to run … won’t have any reason to come back here. Thought I’d made that clear long ago.”

He snatched a serving platter and slammed some more food onto his plate.

“Nicholas Barkley, it is not necessary to speak to your sister in that manner. I think we are all well aware that you’re not happy with the turn of events, or with the future possibilities. None of them are Audra’s fault.”

He tried to look contrite … didn’t feel it. Truth was, he didn’t quite know what had him so discombobulated … and worried. He missed the young man. He missed Jarrod. It was more than that.

Something is telling me things are not going well. Audra may be confident but I’ve got a feeling Jarrod isn’t. Maybe it’s what he hasn’t said … and how seldom he’s said anything … or maybe I’m just looking for trouble. But I don’t care what anyone says … something’s not right.

 If I wasn’t so shorthanded right now … and wasn’t still worried about protecting these two … I might just take a quick trip up there. Talk to Pappy directly. See what’s really going on. Oh well, not going to happen … better answer Mother before the day is completely ruined.

He turned to look at the Barkley matriarch. She was a formidable presence. He found himself smiling. “You are quite right, Mother, as always. Guess I just miss him … too.”

He gave her one of his full-power Nick Barkley smiles. Hoped it would ease her worry … didn’t count on it. He turned to Audra. “I do apologize, Little Sister. Mother’s right. I’ve no cause to snap at you. She too got the smile, before he added, “Forgive me?”

Her dimpled smile said it all. Sometimes he marveled at how quickly she could recover her good humor. At least sometimes. He had not forgotten yet how much her little forgiveness-doesn’t-come-cheaply shopping trip had cost him.

He likewise recalled Thomson reminding him that he was lucky to have a little sister, and if he’d taken a moment to think before he spoke he wouldn’t have had to buy her forgiveness.

Even as he thought on it now he could feel how strongly he’d been affected by the admonition to be grateful he had a little sister. Made him wonder still, what was there for which Thomson could be grateful. Certainly not a little sister … or a big brother.

The silver-haired lady at the head of the table let her gaze rest on her younger son. She was quite certain something was troubling him … had been for some time. While she wasn’t sure just what it was she knew it had something to do with Heath Thomson … and not just that he might not be returning here. Something deeper … more personal.

She knew better than to ask. In fact, part of her worry was that asking would be pointless … not because he’d refuse to tell her, but because he, himself, didn’t know.

At moments like this she wondered if it would have been better if the young man had never come to the ranch … if they’d never heard of him. Then she’d castigate herself … wasn’t she the one who’d persuaded him to stay … been sure he would be the impetus to reigniting this dark-haired son’s joy in life … and love for the work he once shared with his father.

In truth, she had to admit that plan had been successful. The pall she’d felt hanging over Nick had lifted … was gone. He was back to being his old self … and yet he wasn’t. He’d been able to mourn for his father. This was different … like Thomson was dead to him, yet still alive. How does one mourn that … or understand it?

She had no idea. Neither, it seemed, did her son … if, indeed, that was all that was troubling him about Mr. Heath Thomson.

She returned to finishing her breakfast … hoped her other son was eating well and getting sufficient rest.

*****

When Jarrod made his way to the jailhouse that same Sunday morning, he smiled to himself when the sheriff waved him back … waved without getting up to escort him. In deference to the man … and what he expected to find … he took a moment to remove his gun-belt.

The early morning light was streaming through the barred window and casting wavering lines of shadow on his client, as he sat on the edge of the cot. He looked up as Jarrod stepped through the open door and then walked over to occupy the empty chair across from him.

“You’re looking more rested. You had anything to eat?”

Heath nodded. “Jack fed me.”

He looked up and flashed that half-grin to which Jarrod was becoming accustomed. “Told me if I didn’t eat he’d lock the door again.”

Another quick grin. “I ate.”

“Glad to hear it.” Jarrod glanced around the small space and realized it had a different feel this morning … more open … less oppressive … almost comforting. He hated to destroy that mood.

At the same time he acknowledged that the trial would start tomorrow and he needed to discuss a few things with his client. He’d put it off long enough. Quite unexpectedly Heath gave him the opening.

“I’m guessing you made this happen,” gesturing toward the open door.

Jarrod chuckled. “I can be persuasive at times.”

His brief pause filled the quiet space. “I’m hoping to be exactly that in the coming week or two … but, I’m going to need your help.”

He let that set until he got that nearly imperceptible nod he interpreted as permission to continue. “I’m presuming that if you had remembered anything … anything at all … from that morning, you would have let me know.”

Again, the pause and the concomitant nod. “I talked with the boys at the house, and I would like to review what they told me … see if it triggers any memories for you.”

“Expect it can’t hurt.”

Jarrod did his review: Heath had gotten up to respond to the knock on the door, looked at the window, retrieved his gun but didn’t keep it in his hand. He’d opened the door, had a conversation with the man, and been persuaded to leave with him … leaving the men behind. He’d relayed to them that he was going to see Jarrod and security was already in place. None of them had gotten a good look at the man, but what they had seen had not been remarkable in any way.

The counselor then shared his so-far-sketchy hypothesis, to which Heath nodded. “So, if this fourth man is the one who was at the door, either I had to have known him, or he was somehow mighty convincing. Don’t think I’ve ever been easy to convince.”

He looked at his attorney. “Sorry, Jarrod. Hasn’t helped. Don’t remember any of it.”

He froze. Jarrod saw it … saw the suddenly blank visage … the fixed focus without an obvious object.

He had to ask. “Heath. What just happened? Talk to me.”

The blond continued to stare at seemingly nothing, no expression, no movement. He was about to repeat his entreaty when he heard the quiet drawl. “Not sure. It was like a flash. Saw something. Not sure what.”

He shook his head a couple of time, tipped it sideways, tried to bring the elusive image into focus. “Don’t know Jarrod. Maybe a door … or a room. Something.”

He looked up and locked blue on blue, the pain clearly evident, and the even quieter, flatter response, attesting to the sense of despair. “It’s gone.”

Jarrod reached across the space and put a hand on the now-slumped shoulder. “Not to worry. Give it time. Maybe this is just a sign that your memory is coming back. Doc cautioned against trying to force it … or rush it. It’s going to be all right.”

Somehow in that moment, as he said it, Jarrod T. Barkley believed it. It was going to be all right.

*****

Chapter 60

Monday morning, and the commencement of jury selection, came early enough. Jarrod expected Manus, on general principle, to be difficult. He too could be difficult … and every minute they spent on this was one minute Heath was not confined to that little room in the back of the jailhouse.

The day dragged on … a break for lunch … more questioning … more wrangling … slowly moving to afternoon’s end. When the process was reconvened to the next day, seven jury members had been selected. While Jarrod was less concerned than he had been for the now-suspended civil trial, he, nonetheless, expected that some of the candidates neither were neutral nor random. Whoever had the power to influence the assigning of the prosecutor, most certainly would have the power to plant jury candidates.

Any candidate that Heath failed to recognize—even to the slightest degree—would not be accepted. Any candidate, with whom Manus seemed especially enamored, would not be accepted. Power was inevitably connected with money. He’d not have anyone on the jury whose vote might have been purchased … not if he could prevent it. At the same time he did not want to overly tax the patience of the good judge. Once the selection process was complete, he planned to have the man address another issue.

As he reclined in bed his thoughts drifted to the fact he’d heard from neither John Markle, nor from Frank Sawyer … both silences were concerning. He knew the marshal would be pushing to be put on the case, and that he would let them know as soon as a decision had been made. There was a possibility that he simply would show up one day … hopefully sooner rather than later.

Markle would be working. The fact there was no communication did not mean he hadn’t found anything … just that he, as yet, hadn’t put meaning to whatever he may have found. John would be in touch … when he had something useful. Jarrod hoped he didn’t run out of time. He certainly would not be able to stall the jury selection process beyond the next day.

The trial would be underway by Wednesday. Surely Manus would need no more than three days to present his case. Jarrod could engage in extended cross-examination … to a point. He could not imagine being able to delay that process more than a day. He needed to have his defense ready by Monday. Markle needed to find him something … ideally, the fourth man … or his boss.

As Collins escorted Heath to the courtroom the next morning, the young man was surprised at how bright … almost cheerful … the day appeared. Not a cloud in the sky, the sun warm but not oppressively hot, with a gentle breeze stirring the air.

A perfect day … just not for sitting in an old courtroom.

 Quite unconsciously, he slowed his steps … prolonged the momentary contentment … pushed aside the longing … to enjoy such a day … to be elsewhere … to ride … to be free.

No point to spoiling what is by wishing for what isn’t.

A slight smile touched his lips as he heard his mama’s words. Even that was a surprise … he could let himself hear them, and not be crushed by the knowledge that he never again actually would hear them. Not in this world.

As he took his seat next to his attorney, he heard more.

Sometimes, Heath, my boy, you just have to be willing to trust. Trust that things will come out as the good Lord meant them to do … trust that whomever He sends will carry out His work as intended.

 You can’t trust Him; you can’t trust anyone … same for the people He sends to you. He sent us Rachael and Hannah … when we’re in need He’ll send someone. You just got to believe … believe and trust.

As his gaze settled on Jarrod, he realized he did trust this man. Wasn’t sure why. Maybe his mama was right … maybe he was a gift from God. Hard to think how else he could be here right now.

Of course that don’t mean I wouldn’t have appreciated not being in this mess in the first place … been glad to have spared God the bother of sending anyone … been happy to have Him create a different plan for me.

 At that thought, Heath wondered why this was the plan. Whatever purpose could God have in putting him through this … surely Carterson was more than enough testing?

Who do I think I am to be questioning God’s plan for me … it’s not like I do such a great job of making my own plans.

The quiet chuckle caught Jarrod’s attention, and he turned a questioning look at his client. Heath looked at him, knew there was no explaining it, gave his head a slight shake, and shrugged his shoulders. The attorney let it go … not like he didn’t have plenty of other things on which to ponder. And, by some means which he could not explain, that quiet sound and the nonchalant shrug, eased his mind.

The morning … and the afternoon … seemed to drag on inexorably. Then it was over. The selection process was complete, the jury members identified. Jarrod looked at Heath and got a curt nod in return. The blond was accepting of the outcome. Collins stepped forward, retaking custody of Heath, in anticipation of escorting him back to the jailhouse. Giving his shoulder a quick squeeze, the attorney assured his client he would be over to see him in a short while.

His leather case tucked securely under his arm, Jarrod Barkley made his way to the large oak door sporting a brass plaque indicating it was the judge’s chambers. Briskly stepping along with him was a man of whom the attorney hoped he’d have no need. Motioning him to a chair in the hallway, he stepped forward and rapped on the door. Almost immediately, he was beckoned to enter.

Blue eyes followed the judge as he finished hanging his robe on the oak cloak stand and moved to take his seat behind the substantial mahogany desk. They continued  to travel across the space and confirmed that the prosecuting attorney already had settled himself comfortably into a solid, wooden chair, lingered momentarily before moving on to locate another available seat. Seeing the hand signal from the judge, indicating he should avail himself of it, he … somewhat reluctantly … obeyed.

Alan Vanderburgh studied the young man … at least from his perspective, young … who had hesitantly settled into the chair across from him. While he had a passing knowledge of the Barkleys of Stockton, California, he had had no direct contact. From what he’d seen during the preliminary hearing and the jury selection, he surmised Jarrod Barkley to be an astute attorney.

He also surmised that there was more to the man than his legal acuity and his likely ability to win cases … and that something more spoke to his qualities as a man, rather than as an attorney. He harbored no such assumptions about the other person in the room.

Well, time to get this underway … and satisfy my curiosity.

“Mr. Barkley, I understand you requested this meeting, in order to address a matter of importance … a matter I am given to believe is pertinent to the current case. Perhaps you would be so kind as to enlighten me … and your esteemed colleague … as to the specifics thereof.”

Jarrod picked up the tone in the voice. A tone that clearly indicated the judge was not prepared to have his time wasted … and yet openly remained willing to hear and consider the defense attorney’s concerns. He opted to get immediately to the point.

“Yes, Your Honor, by all means. As you may not be aware, the prosecutor has ordered that, except for essential personnel … myself included … my client be denied visitors.”

The slight widening of the eyes told him all he needed to know. The judge was not aware of any such order. Expecting Manus to interrupt, he quickly continued.

“As you are aware, the blow to the head my client sustained, has left him with no memory of the events that transpired in the hotel room … or prior to his arrival there … the morning of Mr. Greenley’s demise. The doctor has indicated that his memory may return. Consultation with him on this matter has revealed that it is unknown what might assist in that process.

“However, the good doctor also advised that a singular event can sometimes trigger the recovery … an event such as exposure to individuals with whom he shared experiences at the time in question. Denying him access to these individuals could hinder the recovery of his memory.

“I am sure I do not have to explain how imperative that recovery might be to my client’s defense.”

Manus no longer could be silenced. “Surely Your Honor could also understand that the exposure of which Mr. Barkley speaks, could just as easily provide the defendant with information that he could embrace in lieu of actual memories. Providing unlimited access could well create opportunities for conspiracy.”

Vanderburgh chose not to respond to Manus.

“Am I to understand, Mr. Barkley, that you are here to request that I overrule the prosecutor’s orders?”

“I am, Your Honor. And I will hasten to add that, while the memory issue is paramount, in this case, there is an additional consideration.”

He paused for a moment to glance at Manus, and then to make eye contact with the judge. “My client fought for his country in the recent war between the States.”

Seeing the man’s reaction, he quickly continued. “Yes, he was too young … and yes, he was there. That however, in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact he was a prisoner of war … seven months in Carterson Prison.”

Now he definitely had the man’s attention.

Alan Vanderburgh knew of the civil case that had been underway, and as was his habit, he chose to avoid availing himself of any information regarding same. Long experience had taught him that he unexpectedly, at any moment, could be drawn into a case. He preferred to enter with as unbiased an outlook as humanly possible.

The revelation of Thomson’s war experience … especially his incarceration in Carterson … was unexpected, and discomfiting. He sought to focus on the attorney’s ongoing words.

“Should you find it necessary, I have a man waiting outside this room, willing to attest to this fact … and to how it affected my client … still affects him. And many others.”

He looked at the judge and saw him indicate with a flick of his hand, that he should continue. “His experiences from Carterson are exacerbated whenever he is confined; especially in small, closed spaces … spaces like jail cells. I requested he be released on bail and was denied.

“Marshall Sawyer, based on his knowledge from the time my client worked as his deputy, has advised me that he can tolerate these circumstances more readily if he is not isolated … if he has contact with people he knows and trusts.”

He again glanced at Manus before once more making eye contact with Vanderburgh.

“Mr. Manus, by his own admission, has issued this order to circumvent consequences he believes could happen. I submit, his order, in fact serves to punish my client for something that has not happened, and for which no evidence exists to support the likelihood of happening. Furthermore it subjects him to unwarranted cruelty.”

His voice dropped, his eyes hardened, his stance grew rigid.

“It is my believe that this country currently supports the position that a man is innocent until proven guilty. My client at this time is innocent. I most certainly do request that you lift the punishment imposed upon him … that you overrule these orders.”

Daniel Manus was incensed … and sputtering. “These … allegations … accusations … are … are preposterous. My beliefs … concerns … are more than valid. How dare … this … Mr. Barkley suggest … accuse me of being cruel. My job is to protect the people of this State. That is what I am doing.”

Jarrod forced himself to withhold the smile that threatened. “Your Honor, it is my understanding that the protection of the people of this State … protection from possible, if not probable, harm from my client … was accomplished with the refusal to grant bail. Surely, they are in need of no further protection.”

He, this time, turned his blue-eyed stare on the prosecutor, and held it while he continued. “I repeat. I request that you overrule the orders imposed by Mr. Manus.”

The judge observed the silent battle waging between the two men in front of him, while he concomitantly considered the arguments made by the one, and the rebuttal by the other. While he made every attempt to do so dispassionately, he found it difficult to disregard the recent information he’d received and the image it incurred … an image of a young boy enduring seven months in a place like Carterson.

If he’s found guilty of murder, he will pay the price. Until such time, it would seem he’s already suffered enough. Can’t see that I need to add to his suffering, at least without exceptionally good cause.

Vanderburgh looked closely at both attorneys, considered how his decision would be received, and then delivered same.

“It is my decision that there is insufficient evidence to determine that justice will be best served by withholding visitors from the prisoner. Mr. Manus, your orders are hereby rescinded, and you will immediately advise the sheriff to that effect.”

Anticipating the prosecutor’s objection, he quickly added, “You are both dismissed. Now.”

They departed.

*****

Chapter 61

The man had waited and Jarrod signaled him to follow as he made his way to the jailhouse. He filled him in and sent him on his way. He expected Manus would be in no hurry to speak with Collins … he also wanted to give the sheriff a forewarning; to be sure the prosecutor wouldn’t surprise him and find the cell door open.

His next stop was the rented house. He let the men know they were now free to visit Heath, and suggested they do so one or two at a time, while reminding them to avoid giving him any information regarding the morning in question. It was paramount that he remember on his own. He left them to decide who would visit first.

As he was met by the enticing aromas in the Fairfield business establishment, he realized how hungry he was. He would take care of this remaining task, then head back to the hotel for an evening meal. Mr. Fairfield was behind the counter and quickly acknowledged his presence.

“Got a couple of letters here for you, Mr. Barkley. And one telegram.” He handed them over and inquired if there was anything further he could do for him.

“I need to send a telegram, please.”

Well versed by now, with the protocol, he reached for the paper, neatly penciled the details, laid down the requisite coin and instructed the man to keep the change.

Pleased as he was with his success with the judge, he was equally distressed with how tired he felt. The case was just starting. The demands on his time and energy only would increase. Tonight he would focus on getting some much needed sleep.

Morning came early enough, and was surprisingly welcomed.

Jarrod couldn’t be sure if he was responding to a night’s good sleep, or that gut-sensation that was telling him the river of hope ran high. Either way, he was looking forward to what the day brought.

As his telegram to Sawyer indicated, he’d submitted the request to have the marshal subpoenaed. He expected the man would be here no later than Friday … sooner if the initial request to have him assigned to the case had been granted. Since there’d been no telegram so indicating, he doubted that to be the case.

He’d lingered over his meal the night before, as he opened the envelopes from home … or ostensibly from home. Nothing unexpected from the one addressed in his mother’s fine hand … he knew they were concerned and curious, and that Nick was impatient … and overworked.

The other, in his younger brother’s easily recognized hurried scrawl proved to be more interesting. While it did hold one page containing a couple of sentences from the rancher, the remaining pages were writing he readily recognized. She must have sent it via McNally. Reading through it, he now could smile at John’s telegram.

May the luck of the Irish be with you soon. Stop. Chasing loose ends. Stop. Will report early next week. Stop. JM. Full stop.

The man was good … worth every penny he charged. He had no doubt that some of the information Maureen had passed on would prove crucial. Once John had those loose ends connected, they would know just which parts that would be. He just had to hope it would happen in time.

He didn’t miss the quick smile Heath provided as he settled into the chair beside him. He nodded back, acknowledging the quiet expression of gratitude. Not for the first time, he considered how little the young man asked and how much he appreciated what he was given … and renewed his silent vow to win this case.

The morning brought few surprises. Manus started as expected: the doctor confirming the deceased died of a single gunshot wound, the defendant unconscious with what appeared to be a blow to the head with a blunt object; the defendant later unable to recall the events of the morning; the sheriff describing what he’d seen when he arrived, and then confirming that, other than the two men present in the room, there appeared to be no other witnesses.

For a fleeting moment something about the doctor’s testimony seemed important to Jarrod … he just couldn’t identity what it might be. He didn’t have the luxury of taking further time to ponder on it and returned his attention back to what was happening in the moment.

Jarrod hadn’t challenged the testimonies to any great degree, except to get the sheriff to admit that he had not had the bullet removed from the deceased, had not compared it to the bullets remaining in the defendant’s gun, had not ruled out the possibility of there being another gun, an alternate murder weapon. The lawman admitted that had there been another weapon it could have been removed prior to his arrival. He pushed it no further. In truth, he was certain the bullet had come from his client’s gun.

He expected the afternoon would see Manus call the first of the two eye-witnesses. Furthermore, he expected the testimony would match that given at the preliminary hearing, except that they would be far better prepared for the cross-examination.

He was not surprised. Whenever necessary he sought to highlight those instances in which this testimony, especially under cross-examination, deviated from that previously given. Being well prepared did not preclude an inability to identify the fourth man, to explain how Thomson knew of Greenley’s whereabouts, and the failure to subdue the assailant before he shot the deceased.

He also questioned how it was, since he and his partner were there to protect Mr. Greenley, neither were wearing their guns … even had their guns within reach. He was not given a satisfactory answer … he hadn’t expected one.

As Heath was escorted from the courtroom, Jarrod noticed him hesitate for a moment … saw Collins take action to move him along. He decided to deliver dinner to his client and find out what that had been about.

As the two men forked the last of the pie crumbs from their plates, the attorney decided it was time. He kept his voice quiet, level, and non-threatening. “I saw you hesitate leaving the courtroom. What happened?”

The blond head snapped up, and just as quickly dropped down.

“Don’t know Jarrod … not exactly. Saw someone … a man … looked familiar. Couldn’t place him … don’t know if it matters.”

He paused for a moment, considering what he was about to say.

“Figure he’s not local … I know the local folks. Have to wonder why he was there….”

His eyes lifted to meet his attorney’s. Saw the man nodding.

“If he’s there tomorrow, let me know. If you place him, let me know. Right now Heath, we can’t be sure what is important … what isn’t … that makes everything important, until proven otherwise.” He waited for the nod of agreement, smiled when he got it.

“And, if rumors are accurate, I understand that Charlie and a couple of the boys are planning to lose some of their hard-earned wages to you tonight. I expect they’ll be here momentarily, so I’ll take my leave.

“Just go easy on them … and shoo them out before it gets too late. Make sure you get some sleep … you need to be alert tomorrow. I do want you paying attention to what’s being said … something doesn’t sound right, I want to know it.”

Heath nodded and stood as Jarrod relegated the remnants of their meal to the basket and then gave his client’s shoulder a solid squeeze. Their eyes met and said all that needed saying.

He waved to the men coming up the sidewalk, as he made to cross the street and head back to his hotel. He too wanted to be sure to get enough sleep … he couldn’t afford to be anything less than his very sharpest.

He was stopped in his tracks as the sudden memory of that moment in the courtroom and the doctor’s testimony triggered the recollection of his reaction to Heath’s testimony at the earlier hearing. He didn’t remember anything when he came to—he said it, the doctor said it. But it’s not exactly the truth. I was there when he came to. He took a moment to recall those moments in Greenley’s hotel room, Heath’s first words coming back to him now. “How’d you get here? I’m … still alive.” And then after the doctor stitched him up, “What happened? How’d I get here?”

Jarrod’s eyes ceased focusing on where he was as his thoughts raced. Here? In that moment Heath must have known where he was, and that something had happened that ought to have left him dead. Later he had no memory of what had happened, and he testified that the last thing he remembered was breakfast. How could that be?

Jarrod started to move again, but not toward the hotel. He needed to talk to the doctor.

Less than an hour later he was once again on his way to the hotel. The doc had been very interested in what he’d shared. Had also been inclined to share the counselor’s conclusions: the blow to the head had not erased his memory … at least not when it happened. The inability to remember had come about after he came to … in fact, seemingly after he was removed from the room.

Most importantly the doctor acknowledged the possibility it meant Heath’s memory had a greater chance of returning than originally thought. Unfortunately it did nothing to better pinpoint when that might happen.

There was increased hope but no immediate help. As he slid the key in the lock and let himself into his room his thoughts returned again to tomorrow.

He was quite certain Manus would be calling his other eye-witness … then what? When would the man call Springer … and why? There was still the matter of motivation … opposing counsel would know the importance … what did he have that Jarrod still didn’t know about? Had to be something….

Having no answers and recognizing the need for a good night’s sleep, he’d gone to bed early. Sleep however, had remained elusive … annoyingly, and unproductively so. Now, as he settled his tie into place, he had the discomfiting sensation that, last night, before he had finally drifted off, something of import had invaded his last vestiges of consciousness. He only could hope it would reveal itself again … soon.

Until it did, he had the expected, and possibly the unexpected, with which to contend. Whatever Manus presented, he had to be ready to address … and address credibly.

The morning brought no surprises. Again, Jarrod challenged when he could and highlighted areas in which discrepancies in testimony from the hearing were evident. He knew he had no means, at this time, of disproving the allegations of the two eye-witnesses. Introducing the possibility of their testimony being perjurious was the best he could do.

Heath’s man was back … still unidentified. Jarrod used the lunch break to request that one of his shadows shift attention to the man … learn whatever possible. As he strode back into the courtroom he let his eyes drift over the seating. The man was in the same place, but the person he hoped to see was missing. He wondered what Manus had planned for the afternoon … if he wasn’t going to call Springer.

He settled in his chair beside his client and waited for court to be called to order and his curiosity to be sated. He didn’t have long to wait. Manus called Mr. Joseph Higgins.

As the witness took his seat he looked directly at the defendant, then placed his right index finger, very deliberately, on his right eyelid, drawing the lid down over the eye, holding it there for a few seconds before pushing it back up.

Heath ducked his head quickly in an effort to withhold the smile that threatened. Anyone who might have noticed the man’s actions would have thought him to be dealing with a speck of dust, or other irritation, in his eye. Heath knew better. His thoughts drifted back to a long-ago conversation with the man.

“Joe you just go ahead and wink at that little lady and you’ll get all the dances you want.”

 “Easy for you to say. If I was to try winking like you do, nothing would happen. The only way I could wink at her is if I were to grab hold of my eyelid, pull it down over my eye and then shove it back up again.”

As he thought on it now, he knew the only way to keep from smiling was to keep his head down. He’d concentrate on listening.

Higgins was sworn in and Manus began his questioning.

“Mr. Higgins, please tell this court your occupation.”

“I’m foreman, sir. At the Lucky Horseshoe.”

Heath felt, more than saw, Jarrod stiffen. He reached for a piece of paper, wrote one word, and pushed it in front of his attorney. Jarrod blinked several times, looked at his client, and turned his eyes back to the paper.

Relax. What the blazes does that mean?

He glanced over again and saw the barest hint of a smile.

Relax. I can only assume he knows something of which I am not privy. Okay, old boy, do what he says. Relax.

He took another look at the blond, who was now leaning back in his chair … looking almost … amused. Maybe trying to look not amused…. He shook his head and then sat back in his chair and waited for Manus to continue.

*****

Chapter 62

Manus continued questioning Higgins, “How long have you been there?”

Joe’s hand travelled slowly over his mouth and down his chin. “As foreman, sir?”

Manus shook his head, whether in response, or in an attempt to dislodge something seemingly unpleasant inside, was unclear. “In total. How long have you worked there?”

“Little over a score of years I’d say.”

“More than 20 years. So, in your time there, were you acquainted with the defendant?”

Higgins let his eyes rove over the courtroom until they settled on the defendant. His chin came forward, his eyes narrowed and his brows drew in, then he looked up at the prosecutor. “I was.”

Manus stared at him for a moment. His instructions to the man had been to answer just the question asked and volunteer nothing … this could be a long afternoon.

“Would you please tell this court how you know the defendant?”

“He came to the Lucky Horseshoe a few years back.”

Manus sighed.

Please, spare me from these witless country clods. Get this trial over with. Just get me back to the city post haste.

“What was his role there?”

Higgins paused for a moment before answering. “Well, sir. I’m guessing that would depend on who you asked.”

He was not successful in keeping the vexation from his tone. “I’m asking you.”

“Well then, if you’re asking me, I’d say his role was son.”

Manus, who had been watching the jury, spun around at the reply.

“Son? Whose son?”

Higgins didn’t hesitate. “Why Mr. Ucroft’s, of course.”

Manus stared at him. Something didn’t seem right, and yet he couldn’t quite bring himself to consider he may have made a mistake in subpoenaing this witness. “What work did he do on the place?”

“Early on, he mostly worked with the horses. But Mr. Thomson’s one mighty fine cowboy … could do most anything that was needed. He was as much foreman, before he left, as me.”

Lord help me. The man actually can string more than two words together. Maybe now we can get this moving.

“So, he worked with the men. Yourself included?”

“He did.”

“Tell me Mr. Higgins, did you ever hear the defendant, Mr. Heath Thomson, say anything negative about Mr. Merton Greenley?”

Heath leaned forward in his chair, crossed his arms on the desk, and silently lowered his head onto them. He didn’t know exactly what was coming, but he knew where it would end up.

“Only after Mr. Greenley killed Mr. Ucroft.”

Manus almost screamed. “Objection. I want that stricken from the record.”

Vanderburgh could not contain himself. “Mr. Manus. Am I to understand that you are requesting I rule on your objection to your own question?”

Manus glared long and hard at his witness, before swinging his gaze to the judge. “Excuse me, Your Honor. I am merely requesting that the answer be stricken from the record. That you instruct the jury to disregard it. I’m afraid Mr. Higgins does not realize that it is unacceptable for a witness to make unsubstantiated accusations. If you could please instruct him to answer the questions as asked.”

Vanderburgh held the gaze several seconds longer than required, before addressing the jury. “Members of the jury, you will please disregard the witness’s last response.”

He turned to the witness. “Mr. Higgins, please refrain from making accusations that have not been proven.”

Joe Higgins obediently returned his attention to Daniel Manus … awaited the next question.

“Mr. Higgins, did you at any time hear Mr. Thomson make threats against Mr. Greenley.”

Higgins looked at the judge, appeared to contemplate for a moment, and then replied.

“Excuse me, Your Honor, would you please clarify. Is this question an unproven accusation?”

Jarrod looked at Heath, saw his shoulders shaking. He realized he would get to cross-examine this witness and he could use him as a compurgator. In that moment he was torn between enjoying the show … watching Manus try and escape from the hole he’d dug … and turning his attention to formulating his own questions. Much as he preferred the former, he acquiesced to the responsibility of doing what was in his client’s best interest.

In truth, with the judge’s help, Manus eventually was able to get his witness to attest to having heard Heath Thomson make threats against the deceased. Try as he might, he was not able to get the man to state that Heath had threatened to kill the man. The truth was that Heath had never made such a threat … at least not in the presence of Joe Higgins.

Opting at that point to cut his losses, Manus turned the witness over for cross-examination … and did so most reluctantly.

Jarrod rose slowly and made his way to the witness box. He smiled at Higgins … who smiled back. The questioning began.

“I believe you stated that you saw Mr. Thomson as Mr. Ucroft’s son. Would you please clarify that statement?”

Manus wanted to object … oh, how he wanted to object. And, he knew it was futile. He had introduced the subject … no attempts to object now would be sustained.

Higgins did all that Jarrod asked … and more. When the cross-examination was complete Jarrod felt sure he himself could not have done a better job of finding a character witness … even had he chosen Thomson’s own mother. It was an afternoon he would long remember.

Later, back in the cell, sharing another dinner with his client, he could not refrain from asking if Heath had known Higgins was going to be there.

“Haven’t seen Joe since I left for the auction with the horses Nick would buy and get me to deliver. My last conversation with him was to persuade him to keep the job … to work for Greenley. To trust I’d find a way to set things right.”

He looked at Jarrod, before continuing. “Never found a need to question his loyalty.” He couldn’t stop the laugh that followed … a sound Jarrod could not remember ever hearing from his client.

“Sorry, Counselor. Minute I saw him, I knew it was going to be trouble for Manus. Just didn’t know exactly how. Man is arrogant, would never consider Joe could best him.”

He laughed again, and Jarrod couldn’t help but join in. It surely had been a wonderful afternoon.

But, now there was tomorrow to deal with. Daniel Manus now would be in a vengeful mood … and he had Springer on his side. And Jarrod Barkley still had not the slightest idea of how Springer fit into the picture … how he could be used.

As the laughter quieted, he suddenly remembered the thought that had invaded his consciousness the previous night. “Heath. What can you imagine would have allowed you to believe the man that came to the door?”

He saw the bewilderment on Thomson’s face, and sought to explain. “Sorry. I realize I just changed direction rather quickly. Before I drifted off last night, it occurred to me that you are not likely to just believe someone … especially someone you don’t know. I’m wondering what it would have taken for you to believe the man that came to the door that morning.

“The men said you told them he was taking you to see me, and he had cover in place, and so you didn’t need them. I know we’ve discussed that before … what could have persuaded you to break your promise to Nick … to leave the men behind. But my question now is what would persuade you to believe him?”

Heath’s eyes met Jarrod’s, his head tilted, he shook it a couple of times … slowly. He opened his mouth to speak … closed it again. Continued to stare at the attorney. Several moments passed before, almost without thought, certainly without volition, he answered.

“I would have needed proof….”

He shrugged. He had no idea what might have constituted that proof.

“Yes. Yes you would. There had to have been some proof. I’m going to talk to the men again. Perhaps this will help them remember something they may have forgotten.”

He studied the blond for a moment, before adding, “You get some rest. Tomorrow well may be a long day.”

Heath smiled. He knew exactly why it might be a long day … and in truth, he thought it well worth whatever tomorrow might bring.

Still smiling, he nodded and waved his attorney on his way.

Having gathered all the men together, Jarrod quickly assured them all was well. He then proceeded to share his latest revelation, and suggested they take their time and consider it.

He urged them to talk to each other, describe again what each had seen and heard. He suggested they do so slowly and attempt to picture the moment, get as clear an image as possible, try to focus on the little things that previously they might have disregarded.

If they came up with anything … even if only an idea … to so advise him. Tomorrow would be early enough, as he’d not be able to do anything with it immediately.

*****

Chapter 63

As Jarrod left the men and made his way back to the hotel, he knew the men would do their best, and he sought to put the matter out of his mind. He was worried about tomorrow, and acknowledged that worrying was of no benefit. He had no way to prepare for whatever Manus might have planned. Entering the hotel, he decided he would take the time to write the family … they deserved more consideration than he’d provided.

So absorbed was he in his thoughts, the voice startled him.

“Mr. Barkley. Good thing I’m a patient man.”

“Frank! When did you get here?”

He momentarily chastised himself for the less-than hospitable welcome, and quickly sought to correct his failure. “Forgive me. I was miles away … in Stockton I think. I am more pleased than you can know to have you back. Have you eaten?”

Frank Sawyer arose from the hotel-lobby chair he’d been occupying and strode over to shake hands. “Good to be back. I ate while I was waiting on you. How’s Heath?”

Jarrod was about to answer, when he reconsidered. “Let’s go up to my room.”

Astute enough to know better than to question further, the marshal nodded and followed the counselor.

Once inside his room, Jarrod offered the man a drink—which he was happy to accept—then brought him up to date. Frank couldn’t help chuckling over the Higgins affair. He was immensely relieved to know the no-visitor order had been lifted, and assured that had he known, he would have stopped at the jail.

“I’ll drop by for a few minutes before I turn in for the night. I want to see him and let him know I’m back.”

“Couple more things you should know Frank. Firstly, I’ve set a task for the boys at the house. They can fill you in … might be you can help them with it. Secondly, there’s a fellow been watching since the case began. He looks familiar to Heath, but he’s not been able to identify him … even place where he previously may have seen him.

“I’ve had one of my men keeping an eye on him, and learning what he can, but he’s yet to come up with anything of value. I’ll let him fill you in, come morning. Maybe you can lend a hand. Obviously, until we know more, we can’t determine whether it’s important.

“Frank pursed his lips, let his grey eyes rest on Jarrod’s blues, then nodded. “I’m guessing you’re wondering the same as me … could he be, as you’ve called it, the fourth man?”

“Yes. I have wondered that. Although it’s hard to believe whoever is running this operation would let him sit there … just waiting to be recognized.”

“True enough. I’ll do what I can. Now, if you don’t mind, it’s been a long day and I think I’d like to see my young friend and turn in.”

“Don’t mind at all. I’ll see you in the morning. Still not sure what tomorrow might bring, so it won’t hurt for all of us to be as rested and ready as possible. The men aren’t expecting you, so just take care you don’t get yourself shot.”

He chuckled and Frank provided a responding guffaw, as he stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Jarrod sat down to write that long-overdue letter, and then head to bed himself.

Sawyer didn’t stay long at the jail and soon found himself welcomed by the men at the house. He urged them to explain the task Jarrod had set for them, and the progress they had made. He learned there had been little progress and they quickly accepted his offer to help.

“Okay boys. I want you to start describing what you saw that morning, in as much detail as possible. Don’t care who starts, you can each jump in with anything you remember.”

Charlie nodded and said, “Heath was at the table when someone knocked on the door.”

“Detail, Charlie. Close your eyes. Picture it. What do you see when you look at the table … not just Heath sitting there. What is he wearing, can you see just his back, his side, where are his arms, what can you hear….”

The men looked questioningly at each other … not a surprise for the marshal. He’d put witnesses through this before and accepted the initial skepticism. He again urged Charlie to continue.

“I could … can … see his back. He’s wearing a brown-checked shirt, sleeves rolled up … can only see his upper arms … elbows must be bent forward.”

The frown lines were deepening as Charlie attempted to bring up the image and describe it in such detail. However, as the process continued, excitement began to build and the others soon joined in. Frank smiled.

Works like a charm every time.

“… scraping sound like a fork on a plate … he’s leaning forward … sound of … probably coffee, hitting something … knocking at the door … two knocks a short pause and two more … Heath pushing back the chair … at the window … window next to the door … pulling back the curtain … no, no, he’s pulling it forward a bit, peeking behind it … using his left hand, looking out with left eye … putting it back in place.”

The recounting continued as Sawyer nodded encouragement and asked questions as necessary. They were all contributing now, eager to help … even without understanding how this was helpful.

“… left hand pulling at his belt and waistband and right hand sticking his pistol in the space … turning the key and cracking the door open … right hand staying free … saying something … can’t hear words, just sound of his voice … he’s not the loudest person we’ve ever met….”

The laughter rang out, somewhat easing the tension, before they quickly resumed the process.

“… opening door further … man, not quite as tall as Heath … can’t hear it all … ‘message for you’ … silence … left arm reaching forward … then right arm doing same …”

Charlie interjected. “I start to move forward, Heath raises his right hand, hand open, brings it back a bit behind his head. I stop, step back to where I had been.”

“Okay, everyone, keep going, what happens after Charlie steps back?”

“… hear Heath’s voice but again can’t make out the words … stands without moving … closes the door….”

“Which hand does he use to close the door?”

They looked at each other, again closed their eyes. Someone started to say left hand, when Drew jumped in.

“Left hand. Right is up at his shirt pocket … left pocket … fiddling with the pocket and then taps it a couple times….”

They all looked at each other as understanding dawned, then multiple voices offered the same conclusion.

“… put something in that pocket … must have been a note….”

The question didn’t need to be asked. It was written on every face.

Where was the note?

Frank was the first to voice the obvious. “If they didn’t take it off of him, why wouldn’t he eventually have found it?”

Then Juan remembered. The excitement was evident in his voice.

“Mr. Barkley came for clean clothes. Later brought back the dirty ones. I put them in Heath’s room.”

He immediately disappeared, reappearing moments later with a bundle that looked like rolled up pants. “This is what he gave me. I forgot all about them.”

He held it out to Frank, who took it and then held it a moment. He was afraid to unroll it … afraid he wouldn’t find what they so desperately needed. Finally, taking a deep breath, he set the bundle on the low table in front of the fireplace, and rolled it open. There inside was the brown-checked shirt they expected to find, parts of it adhered to each other, covered in a dried, rusty-brown substance. Everyone recognized it for what it was.

Frank eased the garment open, wanting to get to that all-important left pocket. Suddenly it fell back and there it was. Near-trembling fingers moved forward, tentatively reaching inside, before closing on something … something that resisted his efforts at extracting. He slipped his fingers between the back of the pocket and what obviously was a piece of paper and managed to free it from the material and slide it out.

He ignored the light reddish-brown stain as his now-steady fingers sought to unfold the paper. He found himself giving quick thanks that the blood that had seeped through from the back of the shirt had not been sufficient enough to glue the folded sides together. He took another deep breath before letting himself read what was written.

It was a smaller than a letter-size paper. Frank presumed the man used it for quick notes to people. The Jarrod T. Barkley, Esq. clearly embossed at the top, provided no doubt as to the source … at least that would be the assumption of the recipient. Frank couldn’t determine if it was the counselor’s writing … but the words he read left him with no doubt in that matter.

‘Heath. Need to meet with you immediately. Important that you not be seen. Leave the men at the house. Protection has been put in place. The man who delivered this will bring you to me. Will explain when I see you. Expect this will be over soon. Jarrod.’

It couldn’t be Jarrod’s writing … and yet … Frank remained troubled. He knew Heath. Couldn’t quite believe the name at the top would be enough for the young man to lower his guard and comply. He must be missing something here … didn’t know what.

The silence in the room had become unbearable. Charlie broke it.

“So, what’s it say?”

Sawyer looked up, surprised. Realized he’s momentarily forgotten the others were there. He read the note and shared his concerns.

The men nodded … Charlie spoke again. “Too late now to do anything with it tonight. No point in interrupting Mr. Barkley’s sleep. You can give it to him in the morning. Maybe he’ll make sense of it.”

Frank, brow furrowed and eyes partially closed, slowly nodded. And then he realized how implicitly these men trusted Barkley—acceepte there had to be an explanation.

“You’re right, Charlie. We all need to head to bed. Tomorrow may be a long day. Let’s turn in.”|

They did so, and soon the little house was quiet … almost at peace. And for the first time in a very long while, it seemed to hold hope.

*****

Chapter 64 

 They were up early … eager to know what the attorney could tell them. Frank had cautioned them against saying anything in Heath’s presence … they’d let him see the note if the doctor said it would do no harm. It seemed to them that the day was half over by the time they took their seats in the courtroom, waiting for Frank to tell them what the attorney said.

The man in question had been waiting outside the building, wanting to ensure he and Jarrod were not overheard. He told him what had happened last evening. He handed him the note and watched his face as he read it … saw surprise and then something not quite discernable … maybe dismay. He waited.

Jarrod looked up, caught the questioning grey eyes. Knew what Frank wanted. “It’s my handwriting … or, I guess what I need to say is it’s a credible forgery of my hand. I’m guessing Heath has seen my writing enough to have believed this came from me.”

He chuckled … without humor. “Even if he had something with which to compare it, he’d think it was mine. Truth be told, if I didn’t know better, I’d think it had been written by me.”

He paused for a moment, looked at the marshal. “Thank you for this, Frank.”

“Think the thanks belong to Drew and Juan … they remembered the crucial pieces.”

The dark-haired head nodded. “Fair enough. Give them my thanks. Now I better get in there and see what Manus has planned for today. We can talk more about this during lunch.”

He took the note and settled it safely into his inner suit-jacket pocket.

When he got to the defense table Heath was already present. He smiled at his client and offered one sentence that simply left the blond perplexed.

“Your Frank is an amazing man.” Then he smiled.

Jarrod hadn’t scanned the room when he came in, and so somewhat was taken by surprise when, following the preliminaries of getting the court underway, Manus called Mr. Nathan Springer to the stand. He quickly recovered and found himself welcoming the end of the unknown … even relishing the thought of finally knowing Nat’s part in this.

Once Springer was sworn in, Manus wasted no time. “Mr. Springer, what was your connection with the deceased Mr. Merton Greenley?”

Jarrod wondered at the furtive glance Nat flicked his way and felt the sudden clenching of his stomach. Shaking it off, he kept his eyes riveted on Springer, while he listened to the response.

“I was his attorney.”

“I see. And what type of legal work did you do for Mr. Greenley?”

“Initially, I negotiated the procurement of some properties in this area.”

“And after that.”

“I successfully defended him against criminal charges.”

Manus was almost smirking. “I see. And, what were those charges?”

Jarrod saw no point in objecting to any of this, as he was quite sure Manus would find a means around the objections and the information would come out. In truth, the objections might not be sustained since Ucroft’s murder had already been introduced by Higgins.

“He was accused of murdering Mr. Ucroft.”

“And when you say you successfully defended him, is this court to understand that he was found not guilty on those charges.”

“That is correct.”

“I see. And did you continue to act as his attorney, subsequent to that judgment?”

“I did.”

Manus turned to look at the jury members. “In what capacity did you do so?”

“I provided legal advice on business matters and I arranged for him to obtain the Ucroft property, at auction, following Mr. Ucroft’s passing. Eventually, I represented him in another case.”

Daniel Manus returned his gaze to the witness, and fixed it there, hoping to acquire some indication of what was transpiring. He had expected more co-operation … more willingness to divulge information.

He had not expected to have to extract every detail with painstaking effort, like a patient dentist locating and removing each carefully exposed root fragment of an obviously problematic tooth. His sustained observation failing to reveal further enlightenment of Springer’s attitude, he chose to do whatever was required.

Jarrod was hard-pressed to withhold objecting, but reminded himself that he wanted Manus to reveal his hand. He needed to know Springer’s role, and any incorrect information he provided in respect of that case easily could be refuted. Or so he thought. He would let this proceed, for the moment.

“So, you were actively representing him at the time of his murder?”

The defense attorney was instantly on his feet. “Objection, Your Honor. It has yet to be proven that Mr. Greenley was murdered.”

“Sustained.”

The judge instructed the members of the jury to disregard the statement of murder, before signaling the prosecutor to continue.

“Mr. Springer, you were actively representing Mr. Greenley at the time of his death?”

“That is correct.”

“Please tell this court the circumstances of that representation.”

“Objection, Your Honor. I see no relevance—”

“Your Honor, I beg the court’s patience as I establish the relevance. I intend to show that a previous relationship existed between Mr. Greenley and the defendant, in which this witness was involved. Within that relationship was created the motive for the defendant to murder Mr. Greenley, as charged.”

Following a moment’s pause, Vanderburgh ruled, “Very well. I will deny the objection at this time. However, I urge you to establish the relevance of this line of questioning quickly and directly.”

He turned to the witness. “You may answer the question.”

Jarrod took his seat slowly.

Motivation? What could Springer know that would establish motivation?

“I was defending the deceased in a civil suit brought by the defendant, Mr. Thomson.”

Manus waited, and when his witness did not voluntarily continue, he resumed questioning. “And, in your opinion, had the case gone to conclusion, would your defense have been successful?”

Jarrod Barkley stopped himself from objecting. In that moment, he realized that anything he said afforded the opposition a window through which to reveal new information.

“It would.”

Manus again focused on the jury. “Mr. Springer, in speaking with several people, including my esteemed opponent,” he gestured toward Jarrod, “I have been informed that at the moment of Merton Greenley’s death, the case, in fact, was favoring Mr. Thomson. I can only, therefore, surmise that you have information that was unknown to others. In deference to His Honor’s request that the relevance be established quickly and directly, I ask that you share that information.”

Manus’s eyes returned to Springer, daring him to resist further. Nat did not miss the inference.

“Mr. Thomson’s case, to a large extent, was based on his own testimony … the veracity of that testimony was conditional upon his character and integrity. I had obtained evidence that would cast aspersions on both.”

Manus nearly smirked. “If his testimony were called into question, he would have to take alternative action?”

Jarrod saw where this was going and could no longer hold his seat.

“Objection, Your Honor. Irrelevant. No such information … information to call into question the veracity of my client’s testimony, had been revealed. Mr. Thomson, therefore, cannot be presumed to have acted upon it.”

Springer responded before the judge could rule.

“True. However, Mr. Greenley advised me the day before he died that one of his young, female, office staff confessed that Heath Thomson had charmed the information from her.”

*****

Chapter 65

Jarrod’s, “Objection, Your Honor. That’s hearsay and inadmissible,” was drowned out by the resounding, “That’s a lie,” issued by his client. The blond was standing, his body leaning forward, threateningly, his icy-blue eyes boring into Nathan Springer.

“Order! Order in this court. Counselor, you will advise your client to remain seated and silent, or I shall have him removed.”

Heath felt the firm grip on his shoulder and the slight downward pressure, as his attorney caught his eye. He took a deep breath and allowed himself to sink slowly back into his chair. He saw the nod of approval … of relief … as he concomitantly felt the gentle squeeze.

Jarrod leaned over, whispered to him, “We can refute her allegations later. Let’s hear this out.”

Come on Heath, boy, settle down. Boy howdy, you need to trust Jarrod … help him out here.

 He gave his attorney the nod he sought.

 Manus was quick to interject.

“Your Honor, I beg the court’s indulgence. I would have called the young lady in question, but she seems to have disappeared. We are continuing our attempts to locate her … and are just now coming to consider she may have been … removed. It is essential, at this time, to have Mr. Springer reveal what he was told.

“I would ask Your Honor to hear the remainder of his testimony before ruling. I assure you this piece of information is crucial in establishing motivation.”

Before making his decision, Vanderburgh let his gaze rest, for a moment, on the prosecutor. “Very well, Mr. Manus. I will withhold ruling at this time, but I will also insist that the witness henceforth refrain from making statements he knows to be in violation of the rules of the court. The witness may continue.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.” Somehow, whenever Manus uttered the words, Your Honor, they tended to carry a tone of disdain. Alan Vanderburgh chose to ignore that fact.

“Mr. Springer please share, with this court, the evidence you intended to present in the civil case.”

Jarrod glanced at the clock. Half the morning was gone. He rubbed his hands over his face. He was still unable to fathom what information Springer could have that would have secured him a desirable outcome in the civil case … let alone establish motivation in this one.

He suspected he was about to find out. No point in objecting. If Springer’s so-called evidence was valid, it eventually would be revealed, one way or another. If not, it would be inadmissible.

“The evidence consisted of a letter … well actually two letters. One which had been mailed, and one which had not. Letters concerning Mr. Thomson.”

“I see. And how did you come to have these letters?”

Jarrod’s gut was providing the first twinges of concern … possibilities of impending disaster. He hoped it was wrong. However, something told him Manus was dragging this out … offering it in small tidbits … prolonging what, for the ambitious prosecutor, might be some sort of perverse pleasure.

“They were given to me by an investigator I had hired. Hired to gather all possible information on Mr. Thomson.”

Anticipating the question on many people’s mind, Manus asked, “Is that normal, Mr. Springer, to gather that type of information.”

“I can’t speak to it being normal, but I assure you it is the norm when I am involved in any case. I do my research. I find out as much as possible about everyone involved.”

“So, if I am to understand you, you had someone investigate Mr. Thomson. And this person obtained these letters of which you speak? The content of which this young lady … currently unavailable … claimed was shared with Mr. Thomson?”

“That is correct.”

Manus reached into his inner pocket and withdrew, with great deliberation, a couple of item. Holding them for Springer to see, he asked, “Are these the letters of which you speak?”

“They are.”

Manus turned to the judge. “Your Honor. I intend to have these documents entered as evidence in this case.”

He didn’t wait for a response. Turning back to the witness, he handed both items to him. “Mr. Springer, please read the contents of these letters.”

Jarrod was, and would remain forever, grateful that he happened to be looking at Heath as Springer began. He saw the surprise … the disbelief … the utter shock. It left no doubt in his mind that the content was as unknown to his client as it was to Jarrod, himself.

He heard the first of Springer’s words. “The earlier communication is on the letterhead of Thomas Barkley, Stockton, California. It appears to be a personal letter, and begins, “Dear Leah….”

He never was sure how much of the remainder he heard … and what he might have missed. What was not in doubt was what he did hear … and what he came to learn from that.

Thomas Barkley had known Leah Thomson, known her in a way Jarrod had assumed he knew no other since the day he married his wife … Jarrod’s mother … Victoria Barkley. Leah had known he was Heath’s father … had known, and had chosen to keep the information from that father.

As Springer’s voice faded away, he heard Manus take over, his words directed to the entire courtroom. Jarrod was appalled at what he was claiming.

“Knowing we had these letters, that we knew the truth, and soon that truth would be revealed, I propose that Mr. Thomson realized his case was doomed. The entire subterfuge that Jarrod Barkley was taking his case in a desire to see justice enacted would have been exposed.

“We propose that Mr. Barkley struck a deal with Mr. Thomson: he would get him Ucroft’s property in exchange for his silence. That silence would protect the reputation of the great Thomas Barkley … and his family.

“We propose that all means possible would have been employed to besmirch the name of Mr. Greenley and have his very legal actions called into question. Every attempt possible would have been made to destroy him … to rob him of what was rightfully his, and provide it to Mr. Thomson.”

Manus was now focusing directly on the jury. “When it became apparent to Mr. Thomson that his efforts had failed, when he realized he would end up with nothing—for he had no legal claim against any Barkley holdings—he worked himself into a rage. That rage superseded all rational thought, and he directed that rage against the man who had foiled his efforts: Mr. Greenley. He stormed into Mr. Greenley’s hotel room, and shot the man in cold blood.

“While we believe Mr. Barkley was complicit in this scheme, we cannot prove that to be the case. We do not suspect him to have been privy to Mr. Thomson’s attack on Mr. Greenley. In that we contend that Mr. Thomson acted alone.”

The uproar was loud and long. By the time the judge’s gavel had restored order, it was apparent that a recess would need to be called. In fact, the judge determined that a temporary halt in proceedings was in order. He ruled that court was dismissed and would reconvene Monday morning, and the bailiff was to clear the courtroom immediately.

Anyone paying attention, at that moment, to Jarrod Barkley would have seen a clear look of shock. Anyone, so choosing, could have assumed it was due to his nefarious plans being exposed.

Jarrod was rendered speechless … and immobile … his eyes resting on the papers Manus, at some point he no longer clearly recalled, had placed on his table. Only when he felt a hand on his shoulder did he look up. Frank stood there. While Jarrod could see he was talking he found himself totally unable to comprehend the words.

Seeing the blank stare, Frank gave the attorney a solid shake, called his name several times. Only when Jarrod finally blinked did Frank repeat himself. “I need to speak with Heath and I’ll be right back. You just wait here.”

He squeezed his shoulder again … gave him another shake.

Waited. When the man nodded, he took his leave.

Suddenly Jarrod realized he needed to see that letter … the letter purportedly written by his father. He found himself on his feet moving towards the court clerk’s desk. The papers were lying there  almost beckoning him. He reached down, picked them up. Leah’s letter was on top.

He had to see the other one. He had to be sure … had to KNOW.  The moment he moved it aside and saw what was underneath, he KNEW. He let them fall from his fingers, drift down to the desk, as his legs carried him back to his table. His hands were moving, gathering up the papers he had there, placing them in his leather case. Before he could move further, Sawyer was back.

The marshal’s presence seemed to be the catalyst he needed to get his mind working again. “Frank, I need to get home. Talk to my family before they hear about this from elsewhere. Please tell Heath I’ll be back by Monday. We’ll sort this out. It’s not over. Stay with him.”

The latter was more a plea than a request.

Frank nodded before responding. “I’ll take care of him. He’s assured me he knew nothing of this. You do what you have to do … take care of yourself … your family.”

Somehow it didn’t seem enough … something was missing. As Jarrod squeezed by him, he reached out and stopped the attorney, turning back so their eyes met. “I’m sorry, Jarrod … real sorry.”

Jarrod blinked, nodded, then gave Frank’s arm a squeeze. It was enough for now. He headed straight to the stage office. “When’s the next stage leave for Sacramento?”

“Soon as it gets in and can unload and load up again. Should be in any moment.”

The ticket agent no sooner finished speaking than the sound of pounding hoofs could be heard, accompanied by a cloud of dust at the far end of the street.

“One ticket, please.”

Jarrod set down some money and with little awareness put the change in his pocket. He didn’t have time to get anything from his room … realized he had all he needed. He had the copies of the letters. His only concern was to get home … immediately.

*****

Chapter 66

Pleasant Fairchild had been attempting unsuccessfully, all week, to speak with Jarrod Barkley. He knew what he had to tell him was important. While he hadn’t been able to make complete sense of it, he was quite convinced that the smart man could do so.

When he read the message the excited-looking man, who moments before had come rushing up to the telegrapher’s counter, had written he knew he had to do something. He took his time moving over to sit at the small table that held the telegraph. When he looked up and realized the wooden trays his father used for sorting papers completely blocked the man’s view of the machine, he did the only thing he could think of. He took hold of the wire and pulled it free, sticking the end under the machine.

Taking a moment to calm himself, he finished tallying the words and then advised the man of the cost. Master Fairchild then did something he could not recall having done ever before, in his young life. He lied … sort of.

“I’m afraid I’ll not be able to send this until the telegraph is working.”

The man looked frantic. “How long’s that going to take.”

“Can’t say for certain. I’m sure my father will take immediate action to correct the problem … as soon as he knows what it is.”

“Yes, well, I guess that’ll have to do for now.”

As he saw the other men hurrying through the door, he hastened to add. “Just remember as soon as it’s fixed, my message was first. It’s on top and goes out before any others.”

“Yes sir, I will remember that.”

Pleasant smiled, and then proceeded to give the same information to each of the other men that were crowding into the little office.

By the time the first man had left the office, the stage carrying Jarrod Barkley was well on its way, and unavailable as an alternative means of getting word to the newspaper offices in the city for which it was bound. It likely would be morning before they would receive the news … be able to pass it along.

*****

As his piercing blue eyes drifted around the room, moving erratically from person to person, seeing no solution, Jarrod found himself feeling oddly comforted in the realization that he’d had plenty of opportunity on the stage and then the train to think. To know now, that it wasn’t for lack of time that he had no idea how he was going to tell his family. Or what he was going to tell them … exactly.

Just thought you’d like to know that the great Thomas Barkley seemed able to keep his word to everyone but those he professed to care most about  … his family…. We have a family member we never knew about…. I wanted to be the one to tell you that Heath Thomson is a Barkley … seems father had a brief dalliance with his mother a score and four years ago…. Mother, in case you weren’t aware, your late husband, was unfaithful to you.

That thought brought him up short, as he fixed his gaze on Victoria Barkley, and realized that his indignation, his anger, was not going to be helpful … or fair. This lady he adored did not deserve that. Time to find the words.

“Nick, I know you, especially, are terribly busy right now, and so I want you to know how much I appreciate you answering my request to be here. I want to thank all of you for trusting that I would not call you together in such a manner, on such short notice, unless it was important.”

Nick was frowning, in that way that only Nick could manage. That look that was part annoyance, part impatience, and part curiosity. It wasn’t helping. Audra just looked confused, and perhaps a bit worried. She’d recover. It was his mother that garnered Jarrod’s concern. He decided he needed to focus on her, direct his words to her. Nick would explode regardless.

“I wasn’t planning on being here right now. Wish I didn’t have to be. However, yesterday something came out at the trial that necessitated I return as quickly as possible.”

He paused to gather his thoughts and the words to express them, unable, fully, to ignore Nick’s growing agitation.

“Part of my defense in this case was going to be the absence of motivation—especially at the point in which Heath is alleged to have killed Greenley. Manus called Springer to testify, and to provide that motivation.”

He waved off Nick’s attempt to interject, and then addressed him directly. “Nick, please, I need you to hear me out, without interruption. Please.”

He waited, watching the plethora of emotions flit across his brother’s face. His audible sigh of relief followed the rancher’s curt nod.

“Springer provided a couple of documents—letters actually—the existence of which, he alleged, Heath knew. He claimed that Greenley advised him that Heath had wheedled that knowledge out of one of his young, female staff, and had done so the day before Greenley was murdered. Heath denies having done so, denies any knowledge of the documents—or of their content.”

He paused again, wanting to see if his mother had any reaction. Either this information meant nothing to her, she hadn’t surmised a connection to what she might know, or she’d make a formidable poker opponent. Didn’t make it any easier.

The attorney in him realized he was hoping this would not be news to her. The caring, compassionate, son was wishing it was something she’d never known … never had to know. Something that had never happened.

“One of those letters, which never had been mailed, was penned by Heath’s mother, Leah Thomson.”

She didn’t blink.

“The other letter was written by Father. They were written to each other.”

Silence! Utter, complete, impenetrable, and terrifying silence. He kept his eyes on his mother as he steeled himself against the onslaught that would come from Nick. It came, as the dawning understanding elicited the welling up of tears in those soft, grey eyes he loved, and the previous composure slowly dissolved into sadness, and something he couldn’t readily identify … resignation perhaps … even acceptance.

He wanted to go to her, fix it for her, do something to stop her suffering. The blast from Nick knocked him off track.

“What are you saying? You better not be implying what I think you’re implying, Boy. I don’t know what was in those so-called letters, or where they came from, but you better not be suggesting Father did what you’re suggesting he did ….”

The rant continued, holding Jarrod fixed to his spot. He found he was catching only occasional words. “Preposterous … never … how dare … if you ….”

He let it go on, his eyes fixed on his mother.

“I’m not staying here, listening to any more of your absurd accusations. I have work to do.”

Vaguely, he heard the spurs and boots retreat, and the oak door slam. Taking a deep breath, he willed his feet to move, and in the next moment he had his arms around the diminutive lady, feeling her body vibrate against his as the sobs began. He said nothing. He’d said too much already.

After an indiscernible passage of time, he felt her arms move between them, her hands on his chest, as she pulled back, slightly. He brought his hands to her face, gently used his thumbs to wipe away the remaining tears.

“I’m so sorry, Mother. So very sorry.”

In that moment, Victoria Barkley realized her tears arose from sadness that came from having one’s greatest fears realized, rather than from what had actually happened. And, in so realizing she reconnected with that inner steel which had gotten her through innumerable disasters, which made her who she was. If there was one thing she knew, here and now, it was that none of this was Jarrod’s fault. She’d be damned if she’d let him feel responsible.

She smiled at him, then chuckled.

“Your Father liked to surprise us. Not sure he planned this one, but it isn’t the first time one went awry.”

This time, she wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close, wanting to ease his pain. After a bit, he pulled back. In that moment they both remembered Audra. She’d remained seated, still looking confused, although now significantly more worried. None of this was making any sense to her.

How could Father have anything to do with Merton Greenley—they didn’t even know the man existed until a few months ago? Why was Nick so angry, mother so sad, and Jarrod so sorry? What was going on here?

If it weren’t so tragic, Victoria would have laughed. Sometimes she forgot how complex this youngest child could be. How she vacillated between feisty and compulsive to demure and naïve. She reached outward, signaling the blonde to join her on the settee, before addressing her quiet son.

“Jarrod, perhaps you would be so kind as to fill me in on the details, and thereby help Audra to understand what has happened.”

She smiled at him, that smile that said I’m telling not asking, and you will be fine with this.

The dark-haired attorney met her request. He assured her Tom’s letter was authentic, and that there was little reason to doubt Leah’s was likewise. He knew Nick eventually would demand to know it all, need to know it all, and wondered how much to save for later.

Observing his mother’s demeanor he quickly decided Nick would be dealt with later. Even if it meant repeating himself. As he talked he saw understanding appear in his little sister’s innocent blue eyes, quickly followed by her statement.

“Father had a child with another woman? Heath is a Barkley?”

Victoria put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. While this might be hard for Audra to accept, she knew her husband in ways their daughter never had … none of her children had. She might have been surprised to hear it confirmed, but she wasn’t disbelieving of the possibility.

Tom Barkley was far from a perfect man, and being honest with herself, she acknowledged that was part of his allure. He was far too competent, too able … too everything. Had he been perfect as well, she never could have seen herself as good enough for him.

If she were even more honest, she’d have to allow that had she, all those many years ago, confronted him, she might have prevented this. She had been too scared … too cowardly to do so. No, he was far from perfect: she no closer.

In spite of the suspicions she’d harbored, she never had considered the possibility of a child, let alone the ramifications.

It was time for considering. Time for courage.

*****

Chapter 67

“So, what now Jarrod? It seems Heath was not deceiving you. He advised you he was illegitimate: he did not know you had the same father. I see no reason that you should have shared his disclosure with us. It was in no way germane to our decision to assist him in bringing Greenley to justice. So what now?”

Her eyes met his. “Frankly, Mother, I don’t know. My immediate concern was to get here, to tell you before you heard it from someone else … or read it in the newspaper … a special edition no doubt. Now my concern is for my client … my brother ….”

He was silent, the only sound being the clock in the foyer, ticking off the seconds. He rolled his shoulders a couple of times before doing the same with his head.

“For the first time, I have to go into court to defend a client and I know I don’t have a leg to stand on. And not just any client. My brother! But do it I must. I leave in the morning. Have to get back in time to talk to Heath before court reconvenes Monday morning. Maybe he’ll have remembered something … or Frank will have uncovered something.”

He shrugged, rubbed his hand on the back of his neck, then slumped back in his chair.

“And, what about Heath? What about …” her voice disappeared, taking a moment to be found, “this …?”

“He must be scared, confused ….”

The soft words surprised them.

When she caught them staring at her, she continued, tried to explain. “If he didn’t know who his father was, he must be as surprised as us. If you think this makes his chances that much worse, he must know that too.

“And then you took off … for home … and left him there alone. He must be wondering if you’ll come back … wondering if you can come back.”

She raised her tear-bright blue eyes to look at her mother and then settled them on her eldest brother.

“Just because you assured him before … assured him you didn’t care about him not having a father … doesn’t mean you won’t have a far different opinion now that you know who that father was. He might think you … we … won’t want anything to do with him. We have each other … he has no one.”

The same thought drew smiles from both of them.

From the mouths of babes.

“Sweetheart, you are absolutely right. Although I did explain to Frank and assured him I’d be back before Monday, he may not be able to convince Heath of that. All I can do now is get back as quickly as possible, and do what I can to build a new defense.”

Victoria reached over and took his hand. “No Jarrod. You’ll not go back as soon as possible … we’ll go back.”

She paused for a moment to consider her words. “Yes, we’ll all go back with you.”

“And Nick?”

“Nick is hurt, and angry … and impetuous. But he’s also fair … and he’s a Barkley. He more than anyone would say Barkley’s stick together. Nick will be with us.”

She had no doubt she spoke the truth. She smiled that all-knowing smile, before adding. “We’ll talk more … after you’ve helped Nick see the light.”

Jarrod shook his head, slowly, a couple of times. “Me, Lovely Lady? Me? Why should it fall upon me to bring enlightenment to his incorrigible self?”

She laughed outright. “Because, you, my dear son, are the one with the ability… an ability purchased at significant expense … to convince someone that night is day. Nick will barely tax those talents. I believe in you.”

Reaching for her daughter’s hand, she demanded, “Come along, Audra. We need to see about getting packed.”

The two swept from the room.

As it turned out Nick did more than tax Jarrod’s talents.

He’d returned somewhat less angry, but no less determined to challenge Jarrod’s conclusions. Victoria had demanded that the matter be tabled until dinner was done, and then again disappeared upstairs to assist Audra in completing their packing. Well she knew that she could order Nick to join them … and well she knew he’d comply.

However, she far preferred he come of his own volition. In truth, she knew he would have to do so, for if he didn’t his presence would be of no value.

Jarrod had listened to his brother again rant about the impossibility of his father having done such a thing. When he seemed to have gone full circle for the second time and was about to start in once more, Jarrod called a halt.

“NICK! That’s enough. I’ve listened to you. Now you can listen to me. NICK, ENOUGH!”

He’d penetrated the stone wall, and needed to make his move before the crack was sealed.

“Nick, what if this isn’t about Father, about protecting him? About protecting his honor, his pride … and maybe yours. What if this is about doing what’s right? What if this about a young man who has been wronged, continues to be wronged and who may be wronged in the worse way possible? A young man who may be hanged for a crime he did not commit?

“Are you okay with that Nick? Are you really able to sit back and do nothing in a misguided effort to protect the reputation of a man … a man who is himself responsible for this blemish on his reputation?”

He paused for breath and to be sure his brother was listening. Listening and hearing. “Nick, I saw the letter. It was Father’s writing.” He saw the objection start to form and cut it off.

“And yes, I’ll be the first to admit that Greenley would likely have no trouble finding someone who could forge Father’s handwriting, but let me share with you one other pertinent piece of information.

“Several years ago I was helping Father address a problem that had arisen. I needed some documents that I was sure he had put … somewhere. Knowing he would put me off, I stood over him while he looked for them. In the course of doing so he uncovered a couple of sheets of paper, rather distinctive, if not necessarily ostentatious.

He explained he’d purchased a supply of it years before … about the time he took the first steps toward building an empire. Around the time he acquired his first mine … in Strawberry. He’d long before replaced it with something more befitting. Hadn’t realized he even had any of it left. As I said Nick, it was distinctive paper … and it was the same paper on which the letter was written.

“Now, tell me, Brother Nick, what do you think the chances are that someone could be found to do such a masterful job of forging father’s handwriting, and obtain a piece of that paper?”

He waited for the message to be heard … heard and accepted.

When it did, the victory felt like a defeat as he watched this strong, stalwart, man dissolve in front of him. He gave him a moment before approaching and placing a firm hand on his shoulder, giving a solid squeeze.

“He was a man, Nick. Not a saint. And Lord knows he seemed to demand perfection from you all too often, somehow implying that he must possess it himself. He didn’t. Mother was clear about that.”

He took a deep breath, taking the briefest moment to consider, and in that moment realizing a truth that previously had escaped him. He turned slightly, facing squarely to his brother, and placed both hands on those broad, steady shoulders. In a quiet, awe-filled voice, he shared his realization.

“Nick, I’ve just, in this moment, come to understand something. Discovering that Father was not perfect, makes him easier … not harder … to love. It’s like I can see myself as worthy of having such a father, seeing the love I have for him as enough. His imperfections make me a good enough son … you too.

“He doesn’t need our defending. He was a great man in his own right. Accomplished many exemplary things. Those stand on their own, by their own right. His failures do not diminish his successes.”

He’d maintained contact with Nick as he spoke and he felt the muscles begin to relax, the body to soften. He knew he’d gotten through. Mother was right. Jarrod’s fears that his revelation would have a fissiparous effect on the family were unfounded. Nick would be with them tomorrow…. No …  that wasn’t quite accurate.

This, after all, was Nick. By tomorrow he wouldn’t be with them, he’d be leading the charge.

And so it was, early the next morning, the Barkley family was boarding the train to set out in support of their newest family member. The surreptitious glances and muttered comments from Stockton’s assorted citizenry had gone ignored. They were of no importance. The journey ahead was all that mattered.

As they settled in and waited for the train to start rolling, a twinge of guilt pricked Jarrod when he recognized that his first thought was how wonderful it was to be in their private car.

He’d sent it back to Stockton after the initial trip north, and hadn’t had time to order its return before his hurried trip back. In an attempt to assuage that feeling he reminded himself that it provided not just increased comfort, but the opportunity for private conversation.

That conversation was quickly initiated by Nick. “So, what do we say to Heath?”

“What would you have us say to him, Nick?” While it was said in a quiet, almost pleasant tone, there was a razor edge to Victoria’s query.

The flash of anger in the hazel eyes quickly disappeared, as they softened to match the regret and concern displayed on his visage.

“I wish I knew. Just because we’ve decided we’ll accept him, doesn’t mean he’ll want us.”

Audra was aghast. “What do you mean, Nick. Why wouldn’t he want … us?”

A snort was her answer.

“Nick is right. When Frank Sawyer first approached me, one thing he made clear, was that Heath was a proud man. Perhaps a quietly proud man, but proud nonetheless. We may have to find an argument he can’t refuse. Maybe point out what this will allow him to do for his mother.”

“Right, Jarrod. We’ll invite him to get his mama to come live with us. Maybe settle her comfortably in Stockton? Have you lost your mind Counselor?”

The anger was back. “How dare you suggest….”

Victoria’s simple rejoinder cut him off. “I think not.”

She looked at all of them.

*****

Chapter 68

Tom Barkley’s widow continued. “From what I’ve seen of the young man, he may not be educated, but he is astute. He would no more expect me to accept your father’s mistress than he would expose his mama to your father’s wife.

“No he won’t be enticed by an opportunity to ease his existence … or his mother’s. He’ll come because he wants to be part of a family … of this family.”

Jarrod smiled. She never ceased to amaze. “As always, Mother, you are quite right. Now that you mention it, that was another thing Frank had revealed. Heath’s quest for justice, in this instance, was driven by him having lost, as I recall Frank putting it, the nearest thing to a father he had.”

Nick’s support was quick. “You’re right Jarrod. He sold me those horses that he didn’t want to sell me because he needed the money … needed it to somehow help his mother. Never told how he helped her, but it was clear as could be that he would have sold anything he owned to help her.

“I suspect, if forced to it, he would beg … or steal … to make sure she had what she needed. She’s all the family he has. She’s that important to him. Family is important to him … maybe not our family….”

Audra spoke up. “What about his mother? Shouldn’t someone let her know what’s happened?”

They looked at each other. Once again the young lady was right.

The question was how to handle that.

“Father’s letter was addressed to Leah Thomson in Strawberry. I guess we could presume she still lives there. That mine closed long ago, so I’d guess there’re not that many people still there. Shouldn’t be too hard to find her.”

“It fits. At least with what I know of Heath’s trip to see her … how long he anticipated it would take. I can wire McColl at the next stop. Ask him to send someone to let her know. Or go himself. McNally can handle things while he’s gone. It’s not the thing one puts in a telegram, if they even have a line there now.”

He looked at his mother. “I don’t know if she’ll want to come, or how we handle her being there if she does. I doubt that he would tell her. Wouldn’t want to worry her. If we’re to believe those letters are not forgeries,” he stared, for a moment, at his attorney brother, “then it would seem she knows who his father is, and she’s never told him.

“We don’t know why. However, I guess if she was out to hurt this family she could have done so several times over. Not sure she’ll forgive us if she knows we kept this from her….”

He looked, again, at his mother, catching and holding those solid, grey eyes.

“Nick is right. She has to know, and we have to see to it. Alright Nick, send the wire at the next stop. We’ll deal with the ramifications when they happen.

“As for the rest of this discussion, it all will be moot if we can’t find a way to prove his innocence. So, I suggest any discussions with him, for now, be limited to doing just that. The rest can wait.”

No one was going to challenge her. The truth was, she was right. Since Tom Barkley’s actions established motive for murder, it would rest on his offspring to unearth evidence to the contrary.

They would be afforded plenty of time in the days ahead to formulate a strategy to get Heath to join the family … and one to deal with the existence of Leah Thomson. The immediate concern was to make the possibility a reality… starting with Jarrod’s attempts to prompt the young blond’s recollection of what happened in that hotel room.

They left the private car in Sacramento and proceeded by stage. Jarrod still had his room at the hotel and was able to get additional rooms, on the same floor, for his family. Certain that the coming week, or even weeks, would be difficult for all, he decided separate rooms were best.

He encouraged them to have dinner in the hotel dining room, promising he would do likewise … after he saw his client … his brother. He left them there and headed to the jail.

Frank smiled when Jarrod walked into the jail. He cocked his head to the back area as he advised, “There’s someone back there that sure needs to see you.”

“How’s he doing, Frank?

“Not too well. Although I know he’s been in tougher spots and gotten himself through.”

Jarrod refrained from inquiring but not from speculating.

Carterson is obvious, but what other situations could he have survived that were worse than what he’s facing right now?

“I told him what you said, Jarrod, but I’m certain he didn’t believe you’d be back … couldn’t believe it. I don’t think he’s eaten much of anything, and I’m sure he’s not slept. He doesn’t look too good. You’re a Godsend, boy. A Godsend.”

The attorney raised an eyebrow before acquiescing. This news was something he’d considered as a distinct possibility.

“Well, let’s go take a look. See if maybe I can restore a measure of hope. Perhaps enough to persuade him at least to eat something and try to get some sleep. It would be better if he showed up in court looking as unaffected, as possible, by Friday’s revelations.”

Although Frank had warned him, Jarrod was actually shocked by what he saw. Under normal circumstances, the boy didn’t pack any extra weight, but it looked like he’d lost well over 10 pounds. Nonetheless, it wasn’t the physical appearance that was startling.

It was like he no longer was there. Like the man he’d known had vanished, and left this pale imitation in his stead. The sound of his name failed to raise his head, failed to elicit any response.

As Jarrod stepped into the cell, he realized the door was still being kept open. When all this was over he’d have to find a way to thank the sheriff for this little kindness. He snagged the only chair and hauled it over to the bed on which the blond reposed. That, too, brought no reaction. He wasn’t getting any reaction from the man.

It wasn’t that Heath was ignoring him … he simply wasn’t able to acknowledge the attorney’s presence … barely could acknowledge his own. All that seemed to remain of him, was the thoughts in which he was mired.

Don’t much care if they hang me for murdering Greenley … he’s going to Hell and I’ll go be with Mama. Judge and jury are only that … they aren’t God. And God knows what really happened.

 And Cliff will know … he’ll welcome me home too. He’ll know I did all I could to get the justice he would have wanted.

 Wish the Barkleys had never been dragged into this mess. They didn’t deserve any of this. And now, they’re going to have to deal with Springer’s allegations.

 Guess they’re more than allegations … if Frank’s right, there’s proof Tom Barkley sired me. Don’t rightly know what to do with that information.

 I’ve hated the man who did that to my Mama, and left her to fend on her own … left her to deal with my existence. And now he has a name … and that name belongs to a man I thought I had come to respect.

 Don’t rightly know how to hate a man … hate him … and respect him … at the same time. Just don’t rightly know how to do that.

 And now the Barkleys, who’ve been nothing but good to me, are going to have to figure out how to do the opposite … how to love him … and not respect him … at the same time. Don’t rightly know how they do that, either.

 God, I’m so tired … so bone-deep weary. I just want it over … all over. Maybe Mama will help me figure it all … maybe she knows how to do it. Seems like somehow she found a way to love him … and respect him … at the same time. Must take a powerful lot of love to do that … after what he did to her.

“Heath, we need to talk, need to go over plans for tomorrow and the rest of this trial ….”

Heath heard sound in the room—sound without meaning. Whatever was happening, here and now, had no significance. He did not care … could not care. He needed to keep his focus elsewhere, and he did so, right up to the moment he felt the hand on his arm. In that moment, the sound became words.

“… I’m not giving up.”

He looked up, and the nothingness Jarrod saw, in the dead-blue eyes, frightened him. The words that were uttered, and the mirthless smile that accompanied them, in no way allayed those fears.

“I’m sorry Jarrod. Sorry they went after you, after your family. It’s not fair to you. No need to do any more. I got enough. Greenley’s dead. I killed him. I wanted justice and that’s close enough.

“People want to think I murdered him, ‘s okay. Makes no matter to me. I was willing to die getting justice for Cliff. That hasn’t changed. Justice happened. I’m okay paying the price. Please, go on home to your family. You’ve suffered enough.”

Jarrod looked at Frank who shook his head and raised his hands in defeat. He suspected Frank had railed relentlessly at the stubborn young man, to no avail. Obviously what he’d been saying for the last 20 minutes had not been heard. In that moment, he decided that further attempts at persuasion would be futile.

Time to change tactics. “Okay, Heath. I’ll stop talking, stop trying to persuade you that it’s not okay to hang for something you didn’t do. But, I’ll not be going home to my family. I can’t.”

He stopped, waited for Heath to process that. It took a little longer than he’d anticipated, but only a little.

“They’re blaming you? They can’t do that. Wasn’t your fault!”

He looked alarmed, which was substantially better than how he’d looked until then.

“I think you’ve misunderstood.” He paused again, making sure he still had the blond’s attention, before continuing.

“I can’t go home to my family … because the family’s here. They’ve come to support me … to support us. And, I’m not going to be the one to tell them they’ve wasted their time. So, I’ll send them by, and you can tell them yourself.”

He stood up, moved the chair back to the corner and guided Frank through the cell door, crisply closing it behind them.

Before he finished his retreat, he added, “Starting with Mother.”

The, “No, Jarrod, no …” faded from hearing as he exited the building. He chuckled to himself.

That poor boy won’t know what hit him!

Jarrod never knew either, but his mother returned a short while later to inform him that he had a client to see. She reminded him that client was also his brother.

*****

Chapter 69

When Jarrod returned to the cell, the man sitting on the cot looked less forlorn, but more exhausted … if that were possible.

Time to change plans.

“Heath, we do need to talk. However, I will need you to be able to think clearly, and contribute as necessary. So, for now, I’m going to go get us something to eat … all of us.

“Then we’re going to sit here until you’ve eaten your full share. After that, we’re leaving and you’re going to lie down and get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

He didn’t wait for a reply. Nodding at Frank he strode out and soon found himself at the Fairfield bakery. The missus assured him she could put together dinner for three. He took advantage of the wait to check for mail or telegrams, and was pleased to see Markle would be arriving tomorrow afternoon.

He presumed that meant the man had something more for him. He also presumed he’d have heard the latest news. It gave him pause for a moment, but only a moment. He had no doubts it would be of no consequence to the man.

He sent a quick reply confirming he’d meet the stage. While he was paying for that, Pleasant came in. Seeing the attorney standing there, he moved closer, and as quietly as possible, spoke.

“Mr. Barkley. I’m so glad to see you. I need to speak with you … in private. At least where we won’t be overheard. Perhaps you would have time tomorrow?”

His voice dropped even lower. “It’s important … important to Mr. Thomson … and the case.”

Jarrod turned and looked at the earnest young man. He couldn’t quite imagine what he would have to say that was so important … or so needful of privacy. However, something on the face … in the eyes maybe … suggested he spoke the truth. He should have time after seeing Heath, before John arrived.

“Okay, Master Fairchild. Do you have a place in mind? I could arrange to be in my hotel room … say one o’clock?”

Pleasant considered for a moment. I could pretend to deliver a telegram … no one would think anything of it.

 He slowly nodded his head. “That will be fine, Mr. Barkley. I’ll be there.” He turned and quickly was gone.

Back in the jail cell, Jarrod laid out the feast and they each filled a plate. He and Frank were both relieved to see the young blond empty his, albeit rather slowly. He even joined them in enjoying the coffee and sour-cream raisin pie that followed.

“Well Frank, I think this young fellow is ready for some shut-eye.

Why don’t you take what’s left here back to the house? I’m sure the men will find a way to make it disappear.”

Frank chuckled. “I’m sure they will.”

He reached over and gently pushed Heath back and down, watched his head settle on the pillow and his feet draw up onto the bed. The young man was barely aware of the blanket being draped over him.

“See you in the morning, Son. Sleep tight.”

He was asleep before they left.

Back at the hotel, the family had waited in Victoria’s room, and when they heard Jarrod unlock his door, invited him to join them.

His mother eyed him closely. “Jarrod. Did you stop and eat, or would you like to have something delivered here?”

He chuckled. “No, Mother. I did eat. Mrs. Fairchild … I’ll introduce you tomorrow … you’ll like her … prepared enough for the three of us.”

He saw the confusion on their faces, and hastened to explain.

“Frank, Heath and I. Boy hasn’t eaten, I’m sure, since yesterday morning … if then. I passed on the idea of trying to talk with him tonight. He needed food and sleep, in that order. I’ll see him in the morning.”

When Nick held up the glass, Jarrod nodded yes. Nick handed it to him, along with his thoughts. “It appears this has become the case from Hell.”

“Nicholas!”

“Sorry Mother. Don’t mean to be offensive, but it’s hard to describe it otherwise.”

“Nick’s right, Mother. It certainly is not what I had anticipated.”

A quiet plea cut in. “Jarrod, there has to be something you can do … we can do. It’s just not fair….” The distress was evident in her troubled blue eyes and wavering voice.

“Well, Sweetheart, even though I may not know exactly what we’re going to do, I can assure you I’m not throwing in the towel. Had a telegram from John Markle. He’ll be here tomorrow. I’m presuming that means he’s found something.”

He stopped for a moment to consider, and decided he needed to keep them informed … needed to trust them.

“The boy that often runs the telegraph and delivers messages wants to see me tomorrow. Says he has something important … something related to the case. Can’t imagine what that might be, but I see no harm in meeting with him.

“I would ask that you keep that to yourselves. He was clear we needed to meet privately … somewhere that we couldn’t be overheard.”

“Really Jarrod. What could a messenger boy have to offer?”

“Don’t know, Nick. But he strikes me as being plenty intelligent. And … and, this just came to me … he sees almost every incoming and outgoing telegram. Could be he might have a great deal of information to which no one else would be privy. Guess I’ll find out tomorrow.”

Victoria stood up and looked at all of them. “Well, if nothing else, I can make sure my children get enough rest. I think it is time we all turned in for the night.”

She paused for a moment, before adding, “And Jarrod, I’m not sure what prompted you, this morning, to wear that same tired, dusty suit, in which you arrived, but I do hope you have something clean for tomorrow. I presume you’ve found a place here that does laundry?”

“Can’t say that I know what prompted me either. I’ve been leaving my things with the hotel clerk … he’s been happy to take care of it.”

Nick snorted. “Probably just happy with the coin you offer for doing so.”

“Brother Nick, the cynic.”

Nick raised his glass in answer, and downed the last of its contents.

“If you ensure the pockets are empty, I’d be glad to drop it off for you tomorrow … and anything else that needs attention.”

“Lovely Lady, I’d be happy to avail myself of that offer.”

And in saying his hands unconsciously began to explore the pockets, and landed upon a piece of paper he’d forgotten about.

Drawing it out and opening it once again, he heard Audra exclaim.

“Jarrod, what is that? Looks like you spilled something on it.”

Unsure if he wanted to share what constituted that something, he again reminded himself that truth would have to prevail … at least with the family.

“It’s a note … supposedly written by yours truly. It was given to me yesterday morning … the men found it the night before. It was in the pocket of the shirt Heath was wearing the morning Greenley died.”

He went on to explain the rest, and heard Nick’s fist hit his palm.

“So, this should prove that someone did come for Heath, that he didn’t go to the worm’s room on his own.”

“That was the original thought, Nick. Now, I’m not so sure. It might be more damaging than helpful.”

Audra questioned his statement. “How could that be Jarrod? You didn’t write it, so someone must have forged it?”

“Well Sweetheart. We can’t prove I didn’t write it … have to admit it looks like my writing … even to me. Initially it did look like it would be valuable. Now it might be the opposite.”

“Come on Boy, make sense will you?”

He shook his head. Some things seldom change … Nick’s lack of patience being one of them.

“In lieu of corroborating evidence, with Springer’s revelations, I’m sure Manus could counterclaim that it is my handwriting, and that Heath likely shared what he found out from this elusive girl. I then realized the game was up, and decided to get rid of the problem. Sent Heath to Greenley, expecting when he showed up threatening the man, Greenley’s men would kill him. Dead men don’t talk.”

Victoria’s voice held concern … maybe fear. “Is that likely, Jarrod? Would anyone believe such a ridiculous claim?”

His hands on her shoulders, a kiss on her forehead, and his, “Good night, Mother,” before his turn and exit of the room, comprised his answer. She knew … it was possible.

Nick stepped forward and enclosed her in his arms … held her there for a bit, before lowering his face to the side of her head, and whispering,

“It’s going to be okay, Mother, or I’m not Nick Barkley. Don’t you worry. We’ll find whatever corroborating evidence we need. You get some sleep. Good night.”

He then released her and left the room too.

Audra looked lost. Her mother walked over and gave her a hug, then offered the same sort of reassurance her youngest … no … her middle … son had offered. “Get some sleep, dear. I’ll see you in the morning.”

It was time again to use that Barkley steel … show the Barkley guts. Tomorrow was a new day … she would be ready to face it.

*****

Chapter 70

 Morning found Heath awake, feeling almost rested, and awaiting

Jarrod. He looked at Frank, hovering near the window, and caught his eye.

The marshal chuckled. “He’ll be here, Son. Trust me … trust him.”

“I do Frank … well, maybe sometimes I forget. Maybe too many times … it’s hard….”

Frank moved over to the cot and clamped his hand on the young blond’s shoulder, gave a couple of shakes, and nodded. Heath got the message. Frank understood … and accepted.

They both looked up at the sound of approaching feet, smiled in further understanding, and awaited their visitor. The trust would not be betrayed.

On his way over from the hotel, Jarrod had considered how to handle this meeting. Having decided that the direct approach likely would be received best, he chose to do just that.

“Morning men. Heath, I have something here I want you to take a look at.”

He handed him the blood stained piece of paper, and watched his client’s face … looked hard for any sign of recognition. Saw, at first, nothing but confusion, then understanding … without the hoped for recognition.

Heath looked at him and quietly stated, “It’s the proof I would have needed.”

He looked up and the attorney saw the hurt in the eyes that accompanied the addendum. “Why would you have sent this?”

Jarrod found himself surprised that the response surprised him.

Ought he not to have considered this … Heath obviously had considered it genuine the first time around.

Time to set the record straight and see if it won’t somehow trigger some memory.

“I didn’t.”

Seeing the disbelief, he hastened to continue. “I know it looks like my handwriting, it’s on my stationary, but I did not write it. The men found it in your shirt pocket Thursday night … Frank gave it to me Friday. In all the confusion of that day, I forgot I had it. Found it in my pocket last evening. I didn’t write it, but it does look like my handwriting … even to me.

“Whoever did it is a very fine forger … one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

He paused for a moment to let that register, then turned his attention to … his brother.

“More importantly, it tells us why you left as you did. It solves that part of the puzzle. Now, I need your help. Do you think you are up to this?”

He waited for Heath to give him the go-ahead nod, and then began.

“Okay, Heath. I want you to imagine yourself opening the door and getting this note. You read it a couple of times, verify its authenticity, then prepare to leave. We know that from what the men saw and heard. You know now where you ended up, and that you were to be led there without being seen.”

He lowered his voice, adopting a smooth, melodic tone. “You know this town. Pick a likely route … imagine making that walk. See if anything comes to you. Take your time … walk slowly.”

He waited … and waited. Saw the blond head begin to shake and then stop, hold still, before the words came. “An alley … a door in an alley … stairway inside the door. A voice urging me up the stairs. Not your hotel.”

He threw up his hands in frustration. “Nothing else. I can’t remember anything else.”

The soft, quiet voice continued. “Easy Heath. Go slow. You knew it wasn’t my hotel … likely means you knew it was a hotel, maybe even which one. You likely said something, he gave an answer that made sense … that got you up the stairs.

“We’ll presume he led you up the stairs and down a hall to the designated door. See if you can make that walk. Go slowly again … just imagine how it might have been.”

He waited with outward patience and inner chafing. “A door … closing? A face.”

The blond head shakes several times. “I don’t know.”

Frank moved to sit beside him on the cot, put his arm across his shoulders, ease him back into it. He took over for Jarrod.

“It’s okay, Son. Just stay there. A door … a door closing. Stay with it … every detail you can see. What door? In front of you … behind … to the side? Just let it come.”

“I’m standing … just inside an open door … it’s on my right … so I can see over to my left … to the wall there. There’s a door there … partially open … pushed closed….”

“Think Heath. Pushed closed how? What are you seeing?”

He stiffened, blinked. Blinked again. His eyes shifted left and he spoke again. “A face … a woman’s face.”

The furrow between his slowly, deliberately blinking eyes deepened.

The anxiety and excitement were in Jarrod’s voice as he asked, “A woman, Heath. What woman?”

The blue-grey eyes stayed focused on the distance, to the left. “Don’t know her. Older … brownish hair … pulled back. Maybe a cleaning lady … not fancy.”

Suddenly the eyes shifted to Frank, then to the attorney, and amazement could be heard in the voice. “She must have heard … seen … whatever happened. She must have been there.”

The anticipation … the hope … that poured from those same eyes when they met Jarrod’s, left him feeling humbled … and honored. He needed to respond. “We’ll start searching, Heath. We’ll find her … whoever she is. We’ll find her.”

Frank interrupted. “Hold on a minute there, Counselor. What if she ends up supporting what those other two claimed?”

Heath turned to him. “It’s okay, Frank. It’s okay. Whatever happened, I have to know … I need to know. I can’t live not knowing if I really did kill that … man.”

“Now, hold on Heath. You didn’t kill Greenley … it’s not something you’d do. I know you, Boy. It’s not something you’d do.”

“Stop it Frank. You can’t know … I don’t know. I know what Cliff meant to me. If I thought I wasn’t going to get the justice I was seeking …” His voice dropped, his eyes too. I could have done it. I need to know.”

The other two men glanced at each other. Jarrod shook his head and Frank nodded. They’d leave it for now, discuss it when alone. Right now they had work to do. The woman had to be found.

“Okay, Heath. I’m out of here … off to do what I do best … churn up some evidence. I’ll find her for you … do everything I can to make that happen.”

Heath looked sheepish as he offered an apologetic half-smile. He knew what it would cost his friend if he did find her and she wasn’t his … salvation. “Thanks, Frank. However it turns out, I’ll be grateful.”

The marshal nodded and turned to leave, Jarrod on his heels. As he stepped through the open cell doorway, the latter turned back to offer a parting remark. “You take it easy now. Get some rest. Don’t push for more. Just let it come if it does. You hear?”

He acknowledged the curt nod and followed the other man out of the building.

Frank paused on the wooden sidewalk, waiting for Jarrod to join him. “Figured to start at the hotel. Find out who might have been cleaning that room, at that time.”

“Makes sense. I’m going to leave you to that for now. I have an appointment with another source of information, and Markle is due in on the afternoon stage. I can probably get him to help you … maybe together you can find this mystery woman.”

He paused for a moment, wondering if he should pursue his other thought. No time like the present.

“Heath seems to think he might have killed Greenley. You seem certain he didn’t. He didn’t work for you that long … hasn’t worked for you in a long while. Even if you would have been sure back then, how can you be sure now … sure he hasn’t changed.”

Frank looked long and hard at the lawyer, nodded his head a couple of times, then gave the man his best answer.

“What you say is true. He hasn’t work as my deputy in a long while … quit for reasons that made sense to him. But, I figure he’s no different from most any other man … from you, for instance.

“You might be able to quit doing a job, but you can’t quit being the kind of man that did the job. Nor can he.”

He quieted for a moment to let Jarrod hear it, then let him know he’d see him later, and headed for the fancy hotel.

Jarrod watched him walk off. Continued to ponder the man’s words.

Lot more to Marshal Frank Sawyer than meets the eye. One would do well not to underestimate him.

He turned and made his way toward his own hotel. See if he could round up his family and have lunch with them … maybe send Nick over to keep Heath … keep his little brother … company. Then he’d get ready to meet with Master Fairchild … see if his instincts were right. The kid must have something of value to offer.

*****

Chapter 71

 The dark-haired attorney was surprised to get no response to his knock on his mother’s door … or his sister’s. He decided to try Nick’s. Same result. No real surprise there. Nick wasn’t one for sitting around in hotel rooms. He was probably over at the house with the men, or seeing what kind of trouble he could scare up in one of the local saloons. Jarrod cringed.

Lord help me here, I don’t need two brothers in jail…. Father always said ‘the Lord helps best those that help themselves’ … maybe I better find Nick first and then look for Mother. She at least won’t be in trouble … I hope.

He turned and headed back down the stairs.

As he was passing through the hotel lobby it occurred to him to make a quick check of the dining room … be sure none of them were in there. To his surprise, he found both his mother and sister … and another woman unknown to him.

Might as well ask if they know where Brother Nick might be … save myself some time.

He stopped as he reached their table, and addressed them.

“Good morning ladies. What a lovely surprise to find you here. I had been hoping to enjoy lunch with you … you and Nick. Do you by chance know where I might find him?”

Victoria responded. “I believe he is with the men. I’ve sent one of our protectors to persuade him to join us.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before they both heard it.

“MOTHER.”

She shuddered, and dropped her head. Jarrod took over.

“Nick. We are all here. You’re not at home … not that even that warrants a need to bellow.”

He received a scowl in reply. “I wasn’t bellowing, and I also would like to know why I’ve been summoned from a perfectly enjoyable poker game … one I was winning, I might add.”

He looked directly at his mother.

“Nicholas. Thank you for coming. I would like you and Jarrod to meet Mrs. Caulfield.”

She directed their attention to the lady sitting at the table. Manners, long ago instilled, often practiced, kicked in.

“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” came as nearly one utterance.

Victoria continued. “Please have a seat boys.”

It wasn’t a discretionary invitation. They sat. She signaled the waitress and after everyone had placed their orders she began to speak.

“I had a most unanticipated, interesting morning. It started with a rap on the door….”

Dropping back into that moment, the Barkley matriarch shared her memories.

She’d barely let her eyes close, or so it had seemed, when the knock on the door brought her upright. Her automatic response had her grabbing her robe, heading across the room, and opening the door before she’d had time to think of whether the person on the other side could represent danger.

 The woman who stood there was a stranger, of that she was certain. “What could she want of me?” Before she could wonder further, the lady, seeing the puzzlement on her face, spoke.

 “You don’t know me. I’m Rachael Caulfield … a friend of Heath’s. Your lovely Mr. McColl told me what’s been happening … made the arrangements for me to travel here.

 “He said you … the Barkleys … had sent him to let Heath’s mother know what’s happened with him. It’s so like Heath not to have told you … not to have told anyone….

 “Last time Heath was home … his mother … my best friend … died.”

 Her eyes welled with tears she thought had all, long ago, been spilled, and she dropped her head as she searched for a handkerchief in her reticule. She found her shaking hands impeding her efforts, before Victoria’s offer of a soft, white, lace-trimmed one ended the need. She dabbed at her eyes before looking up in response to Victoria’s quiet invitation.

“Please, come sit. You look to be exhausted.”

Rachael interrupted. “Mrs. Barkley … Victoria … perhaps it would be easier if I told them…. I’m sure it will be as much of a shock to them, as to you.”

She caught those strong, grey eyes and waited for the response.

Victoria nodded. “Yes, perhaps that would be best.”

“But just a minute here.” It was Nick’s turn to interrupt. “Heath’s mother is dead? He sold me his horses … one for an exorbitant amount … said he needed the money for his mother. He didn’t say she was dead.”

Rachael Caulfield smiled. Nick was very much as Heath … and Victoria … had described him.

“Mr. Barkley. You need to understand that when he sold those horses she was alive … alive and very ill. He wanted the money to pay for the doctor … for a surgery we had hoped might save her life. Unfortunately, it was not to be. By the time he returned it was clear to all that there was nothing that would save her.

“He used the money to pay the doctor bills that’d accrued already … and to bury her. The rest he left with us … with me … and Hannah. Hannah’s an elderly lady … a former slave … who helped with raising him.

“I would’ve brought her here with me, but she claimed she didn’t feel up to making the trip. She’s never ventured far from home. I suspect she doesn’t feel safe doing so.”

She looked around at all of them, before resuming her story.

“Heath hadn’t let us know what was happening here. When Mr. McColl arrived looking for Leah, and was advised she was no longer with us, he was understandably surprised. As were we, when he told us what had brought him to Strawberry.”

She paused again and her face now revealed the anguish she so obviously felt. “It was only when he told us the details that I suspected what had happened.”

She raised her hand when Jarrod made to interrupt … to get clarification. “Please sir, let me finish. Then I’ll answer any questions.” She waited until she got the signal to continue.

“Several weeks ago a man and lady showed up in town, asking questions about Heath … about Leah. I suspect someone … the storekeeper, or the livery owner, let them know that Heath wasn’t there and that Leah was gone … and pointed them to Hannah’s little house. The house that had been Leah’s and that Heath assured Hannah would now be hers.

“They’d shared it since Heath ran off to join that wretched war. Near broke his mama’s heart … and spirit. She wasn’t well anyway … hadn’t been for a long while.

“Hannah moved in to care for her … and to help dispel the loneliness elicited with Heath’s absence. When he came back, she stayed … they both cared for that boy, got him back on his feet. Helped him heal … before he left again.”

The waitress was there with their orders, and she stopped for a moment, thankful for the chance to gather herself. Once they again were alone, she continued.

“Anyway, these two claimed that Heath was courting their sister, that it was serious, but they were worried for her. He didn’t seem willing to answer any questions … to tell them much about who he was … about his family.”

Although their sister said it didn’t matter to her, they felt the need to protect her. Once he’d revealed that he grew up in Strawberry they determined to make the trip and see what they could learn.”

She stopped. Allowed her eyes to travel slowly from one to the other … to let them hear what she was saying.

“Heath, if asked outright, never denied the circumstances of his birth. They alluded to the fact that he didn’t have a father … or that his father was unknown. I assured them that his father was not unknown … just unknown to him. I explained it was information his mother had vowed to take to her grave … information she couldn’t see would benefit him … or his father’s family.”

“They seemed accepting of my explanation, asking only how I could be certain. I explained that I had met his father, had known Leah at that time….”

The pause was longer this time, and the anguish now more evident.

“I told them I also had seen letters … one he’d sent to her after he left, and one she’d written and never sent … that one confirming  she’d had his child.

“Told them that Leah had shown them to me … and sworn me to silence. Told them that if ever the need arose for him to prove the identity of his father, the letters were available. Until such a need arose, they would stay in the trunk where she had put them.

“Also told them, if they couldn’t take my word that he was a good man … if knowing the name of his father was somehow of greater importance then knowing him … then maybe they weren’t the family for my boy.

“It wouldn’t be the first time … and not likely the last … that a girl’s family was able to persuade her to set her sights on someone else … someone more … acceptable.”

She hung her head, unable to continue.

Victoria reached over and took her hand, squeezed it tightly, and waited for her to look up. Smiled … a smile that said she was forgiven … and that there was nothing for which she needed forgiveness. “Rachael, you’ve nothing for which to atone. Let me finish what you told me.”

A brief shake of the head was her reply. “No, Victoria. Thank you, but I need to finish it.”

She did so. “They advised me they could accept my assurances. They apologized for having doubted him in the first place, and they wanted to make amends. They knew they’d have to tell him they came on this quest, and figured he might be a little bit more lenient if he knew they had treated his two friends well. Maybe, invited them to a meal out.

“Hannah and I chose to accept their apology. We also let them know that the hotel was the only place in town at which to eat … and we’d have to be mighty desperate before we’d darken those doors. They didn’t ask why, just agreed to rent a buggy and treat us to the best meal the neighboring town had to offer.”

Again that look of anguish and contriteness. “Never thought another thing about it … until your Mr. McColl told us what happened. I went to look, although I was sure what I’d find … or more accurately … what I wouldn’t.

“The letters were gone. I’m guessing they had someone else working with them … someone who searched the trunk while we were gone. Found them and took them.

“I’m so very sorry. I had no need to go into Leah’s trunk. I never knew they were missing. And now it’s too late….”

Nick looked at his mother. Everything he saw told him she believed the lady. In truth he, himself, had no reason to doubt her story.

He found himself with an overwhelming desire to get his hands on those two people … three people. In that moment, he didn’t much care that one happened to be a woman. He slammed his napkin on his now empty plate.

Jarrod turned to Rachael. “Let me concur with Mother. You’ve nothing for which to be sorry. I do hope you can accept that. You were trying to protect Heath … to help him … without violating the trust which his mother … your friend … had assigned you. She was fortunate to have such a loyal friend … he is too. What I know of my little brother….”

 He let that sit just long enough to be sure she heard it … understood it … before continuing. “… he would not hold you culpable. He would feel badly that you had been put in such a position.”

He smiled … that special, reassuring Jarrod Barkley smile. The one that went up into his dark blue eyes and said all will be well. Trust me. And, somehow she did. The smile was returned.

“Now folks. I have an appointment to keep. There’s a young man over at the jailhouse that I suspect would be happy to see each and every one of you.”

He looked at his mother. “Even you, Mother.”

He chuckled. She swatted him, before replying. “I suspect you’re right. So, you go on to your meeting and we’ll see what we can do about cheering up a young man … or at least distracting him from gloomy thoughts—”

He interrupted her. “Just so you know. His memory seems to be coming back, in bits and pieces … a flash here and there. Frank is following up on a lead he gave us this morning. I don’t want you to push him, but I didn’t want you to be surprised if he says anything. It is encouraging.”

Victoria smiled. “It is indeed.”

In so saying, she stood, and invited the others to join her, throwing one more comment to her eldest, “I trust you’ll get the bill.”

He did.

*****

Chapter 72

As he entered the hotel lobby, Jarrod spotted the young Fairchild, near the centre of the space, turning round and round, appearing quite lost and uncertain. In his hand he clutched a slip of paper. The attorney smiled to himself.

Perhaps the hand of Providence is in play. Now, to see if Master Fairchild can play his hand.

He moved, seemingly without hurry or concern, towards the stairs. And, as if on cue, Pleasant spotted him, and calling out his name rushed in his direction.

Jarrod stopped, and turned, looking about, as if seeking the source of the hailing, and then seeing the young man turned his attention to him. “You’re looking for me?”

He caught the young man’s eyes and willed him to understand. The truth in his earlier assessment was soon revealed. Pleasant stopped, composed himself, and responded.

“Yes, Mr. Barkley. I have a telegram for you … it said urgent. I wasn’t sure where to find you when I got no answer at your door. I hope it’s not bad news … so often is when marked urgent.”

He handed over the paper and quietly waited.

Jarrod smiled, as if at the message. Only he knew the truth.

“Quite the contrary. This is good news. However it will require an immediate reply … several replies in fact. I wonder if you would accompany me to my room as I prepare those. I also will need to pen a letter, and I would hope that you could get them all on their way at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Their eyes met … message sent and received.

“I’m not sure … I should be….”  He paused, as if contemplating, before continuing. “Yes. That should be fine. I don’t believe I am needed at home … at least not immediately. I would be happy to wait and take your messages with me … the letter as well.”

He waited for Jarrod to turn and lead the way up the stairs, before following obediently behind. Anyone who might have been observing certainly would have seen the encounter as unplanned, and definitely as non-nefarious. Likewise, they would have harbored no surprise that the message boy did not immediately reappear.

Once inside the room, with the door securely closed … and locked … Jarrod turned to his young accomplice.

“Nicely done, Master Fairchild. I apologize for creating the necessity … I do not make it a habit of being late for appointments. However, it may have happened for a reason … may prove to be fortuitous. Your prolonged presence in this room will be well explained to any casual, or even deliberate, observers.

Pleasant smiled … at both the praise, and the thought of what had happened. It had been fun to play his part. At least it had once he’d realized he was being given a part. Also, time to settle another a matter. “Mr. Barkley. If it’s all right with you, I’d much prefer that you just call me Pleasant. Master Fairchild has such formality and … expectancy….”

Jarrod momentarily was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to him that addressing the boy by his surname would create an assumption that something was expected. Well, he immediately could put that to rest.

“Mas … Pleasant. Please let me assure you that I have no preconceived expectations in your regard. I will be grateful for whatever you may provide … mostly I am grateful that you are willing to do whatever may be possible. That is more than enough. And, please feel free to call me Jarrod.”

Pleasant was startled. “Oh no, Mr. Barkley. I cannot do that. It wouldn’t be proper … my parents would be dismayed. And, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing so … any more comfortable than I am with being called Master Fairchild.”

Now the poor boy looked anxious. Jarrod sought to reassure.

“Pleasant, I am fine with whatever is comfortable for you. And, thank you for advising me that you prefer to be addressed by your Christian name. I am more than happy to do so.”

He let that sit for a moment, before continuing. “Can I get you anything—”

He was cut off by the vigorous shaking of the young man’s head.

“I’m fine. I think I just need to show you what I have and not be here any longer than necessary.”

He met Jarrod’s eyes without flinching, and got a sharp nod in return. Time to get to work.

“Right you are. So, what is it that you have for me.”

Pleasant reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a wad of papers. Looking around for a place to spread them, he waited as the attorney moved everything from the low table in front of the settee then set them down, one at a time. Jarrod immediately recognized them.

“They’re telegrams … or rather the written messages that are to be telegraphed.”

Pleasant nodded. He then went on to explain how telegraphers  were required to file them each time a message was sent, and that he had thought they some day might prove useful. Then he got to the heart of the matter.

“Most of these were sent by Mr. Greenley … or sent by people who’d been with him … to the same small number of people. Each on its own doesn’t mean much, but when I looked at them together, it seems they’re part of a plan … a scheme. I’m not sure I’ve gotten it figured out yet … thought you might better be able to do that part. Only there’s one other piece….”

He stopped himself, taking a deep breath, whether to inhale some courage, or just to give himself a moment to hold on to what he already possessed, he couldn’t say. Jarrod waited patiently, realizing this was not a time to rush him. At the same time he was anxious to hear the rest, and felt the tension dissipate as Pleasant again began to speak.

“The day Mr. Greenley was shot I had a telegram to deliver to him. There were voices … loud voices … angry voices … coming from the room. I decided….”

He looked at Jarrod to gauge his reaction, “… like I’d done at other times … to wait for things to get quiet.”

He saw a hint of a smile grace the lawyer’s face and a slight nod that he took as an invitation to continue. He did so.

“I went down the hall a short piece, and waited at the top of the stairs. I heard the door open and close. The yelling had stopped. But I could hear a man approaching … he rushed past me and went on down the stairs.

“I’d seen him before … but never with Mr. Greenley. And not for a long while. It was several years ago … before Mr. Greenley came here … bought his place … then started buying more places.

“When he was here before, he was with another man. Don’t know who he was … or why they were here. Papa might know … seems there were lots of evenings when he wasn’t home … Mama said he had meetings to attend. I hadn’t thought of it until now. I think the meetings were with those men.”

He paused again as he saw the change in the attorney’s expression, not sure how to read the change … sure only that it was important … and that it was somehow confirmation of his suspicions. These pieces of paper were part of a plan … some scheme. He swallowed hard, taking a moment to convince himself again that he was doing the right thing. Reaching into his other pocket, he withdrew another fistful of papers, setting them on the table, before adding.

“These are the telegrams that were sent out at that time. As you will see, some of them went to the same people as Mr. Greenley’s…. I hadn’t noticed until now…. I don’t know exactly what it means.

“All I know is that my parents didn’t seem to like those two men. I think they didn’t trust them…. I know I didn’t like the man that passed me on the stairs that morning … not sure I know why … except maybe because of the last time I saw him.”

Taking another deep breath, he held out one last piece of paper.

“He came into the telegraph office, just before the stage left. Told me he was in a hurry, he had to be on that stage. Dropped some coins, handed me this … had it already written out … and told me to please ensure it went out immediately.

“I had just finished sending it, heard all the excitement in the street. When I went out to see what was happening the stage was just leaving, and people were saying Mr. Thomson had killed Mr. Greenley.”

He stopped himself again, took another breath, and another.

“It wasn’t until this last week that I realized this message might be important … might be tied to that death.”

He stretched forward yo hand the paper directly to the attorney.

Jarrod read the message: Leaving imminently. Stop. Complications now present. Stop. Plan needs revision. Stop. Will explain on arrival….

 Jarrod turned to the young man. “This doesn’t have a name, just this initial?”

“Yes.”

He looked expectantly at the attorney.

Seeing the look, Jarrod responded. “I can’t explain it either. Obviously he didn’t want his name known … either by the person sending it,” he looked again at Pleasant, “or the person receiving. No way to know. We can presume that the initial stands for his name … whether Christian or surname … but I wonder….”

Jarrod’s thoughts suddenly were whirling, and for a moment he forgot about Fairchild’s presence.

Pleasant’s eyes met Jarrod’s, and held. If he were called upon to describe what he saw, he would have said it was relief … combined with excitement … maybe a measure of trepidation.

He guessed maybe all this meant more to the lawyer than it meant to him. In that moment, the last of his doubts disappeared … he was certain he had done the right thing. He only hoped, that when he told them, his parents would feel the same way.

Jarrod nodded slowly and walked over to the table he’d been using as a desk. When he came back he had some papers in his hand, and a sealed envelope. He handed them to the young man before placing his arm across his shoulders and guiding him to the door.

“It’ll be best if you have these to take with you … just in case someone is observing. I suspect it is also best if you know nothing of my thoughts right now … except for one thing…. I will be eternally grateful to you … Mister Fairchild.”

His head snapped around to look at the man. Sincerity was evident in the sharp blue eyes. He blinked a couple of times … hard. Nodded. And took his leave, knowing there was nothing more that need be said.

At his departure Jarrod closed the door tightly and returned his attention to the low table, and wondered again about the hand of Providence.

Combined with the information he’d recently received via Maureen, he was growing more and more suspicious that these bits of paper would be quintessential in finding, and tying together, the elusive evidence needed to free his client … his brother. He would spend some time with this … make as much sense of it as he could … eagerly await the arrival of John Markle, and whatever insights he may add.

As he set about his work, he noticed the sun’s rays pouring onto Pleasant’s slips of paper and he basked in the comforting knowledge that the ray of hope he now felt was no less bright.

*****

Chapter 73

 As he stood and watched the distant cloud of dust grow ever closer, Jarrod Barkley was well aware that his usually staid demeanor was threatened not only from his trepidation of what Markle would make of the latest findings … and what he might be bringing to add to them … but also from the fact that he’d reneged on his earlier promise to himself.

A promise to keep nothing from the family.

 He had made a deliberate decision to speak to no one … especially not the family … until he could discuss his findings with Markle. He suspected he was acting cowardly when he justified his actions as a desire to spare them the agony of having their hopes raised and then dashed should his sanguine expectations be unrealized.

It was a good excuse, and yet, in truth, he had to accept that a part of him didn’t want to have to see … or experience … their disappointment, should that happen. Better to wait. Nick’s wrath and Mother’s admonition were preferable.

As the horses pulling the stage materialized out of the dust, he stepped up from the street onto the wooden walkway for the third … or fourth … time and forced himself to take up a place against the wall, near the depot door … and stay there.

He did find himself struggling to keep his focus on the main issue … proving Heath’s innocence. The truth of the matter was that if any of Jarrod’s thoughts were proven to hold credence, the possibilities for a much more far-reaching justice were so very enticing. If only….

Once the four-in-hand had pounded to a stop and the agent had opened the stagecoach door, Jarrod stepped forward with his hand out. “Good to see you John. Hope you had a good trip.”

Markle took the proffered hand and studied the man behind it. He might be very adroit at uncovering crucial information … he was even more so at assessing people.

Something was affecting the attorney … something beyond the norm. He contained his curiosity. The street was not the place to discuss it. “As well as can be expected, I’m sure. I presume you are anxious to talk.”

Jarrod glanced at the man, then chuckled. “Am I that obvious?”

“Not usually … but this time….” His shrug elicited another chuckle from the attorney.

“Guilty, as charged. However, Mother would be appalled if she found me failing to use those manners she took such pains to beat into her offspring … myself included. Let’s get you settled in first. Have you eaten?”

“Ate on the train. Could use something to wash down the dust.”

They’d reached the hotel and Jarrod took Markle’s bag as the detective signed the register. Accepting the key from the clerk he signaled Jarrod to lead the way, and soon found himself opening the applicable door.

Relinquishing the bag, Counselor Barkley addressed his friend.

“Should have everything you need here, John. If not just shout. When you’re ready I’m two doors down.” He signaled with his hand. “Be glad to provide that drink you requested.”

“Start pouring, my good man. I’ll be right there.”

He spoke the truth, and in far less time than Jarrod had anticipated, they found themselves sequestered in his room. As John took the promised drink he could feel the excitement. It was contagious.

Something had happened … or was about to happen. He wanted to know what, and know now. “Who goes first?”

Jarrod spun around, stared for moment, laughed, then nodded.

“I do. As much as I want to know if you’ve anything to add to what I received from Maureen, I need to hear your thoughts on what I have.”

Before he started he took a moment to verify that the detective had heard the news about Heath’s parentage … and that it changed nothing for him. That matter taken care of, he then proceeded to show him the telegrams, in just the way that Fairchild had done. He kept the final telegram in abeyance, wanting Markle to verify his suppositions.

“You’re right, Jarrod. The names that go with these telegrams are the same as the ones in my letter. It connects the people I’ve found with Greenley. No doubt about it.”

Like a poker player turning over his last card—the one that would take the pot—the counselor placed the last slip of paper on the table, and waited for the detective to read it.

“Okay. There’s someone involved who doesn’t want his name known … it’s possible the initial isn’t even a reference to his name.” He looked up at the attorney, back at the paper, and up again. “Okay, spill it. What haven’t you told me?”

Jarrod pursed his lips, took a moment to consider his words.

“John, you have to understand that all I have is speculation, can’t prove a thing … at least not yet….”

Again he took a moment to consider … to organize his thoughts … then he shared them.

Markle looked at him. Blinked hard. Blinked again, before speaking. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

Jarrod shook his head slowly, walked to the window, looked out, walked back, took a chair, rested his head in his hands.

“So help me, John, I don’t know. I truthfully don’t know … not sure even what I think. But, it’s the only explanation I’ve been able to come to.”

“You know what this could mean don’t you?” Markle’s budding enthusiasm was evident.

“I know what I hope it means. I also know it’s not enough. We need more.”

Markle wondered at the reticence. “We could have him Jarrod. Or we could once we fill in the gaps. And now we know where to go to do the filling.”

Noticing the perplexed look on Jarrod’s face, he hastened to add.

“I need to let you know what else I’ve discovered and how it fits with this. Because, let me assure you that it does. We’ll need to apply some discreet pressure … in places we know will fail to withstand it. And the house of cards will fall. We’ll have them all, right back to the man at the top.”

He went on to explain what else he’d discovered, then clamped his hand on the counselor’s shoulder and gave a shake before asking,

“Who else knows about these telegrams?”

“Near as I know, just the young man from whom I received them.  Perhaps his father … if he’s told him … yet.”

Now it was Markle’s turn to look perplexed.

“I suspect when he came to me he hadn’t shared this with his father … with either of his parents. I also suspect that he would see himself as having a responsibility to do so … no matter the consequences.”

“We need to speak with them … convince them to remain silent about this. Immediately.” Markle’s excitement had turned to agitation … concern. He turned to Jarrod.

“I presume you know where to find them. Let’s go.”

“Whoa, John. Whoa. If we both go rushingover there, and anyone is watching, it’ll arouse suspicion. I don’t believe there’s any great rush. The Fairchild’s don’t strike me as the type of people to rush into anything. If they were going to go to anyone it likely would be the sheriff.

“Tell you what. Let’s head over to the jail.”

He paused for a moment, carefully considering what he was going to add. “John, the first concern here has to be Heath. We can’t risk his life to go after the ultimate prize. I suspect he’s got a cell full of company … Frank for sure and likely all the family. We need to be very careful about saying anything in a public place … that includes the jail.

“I trust Sheriff Collins. I don’t know about his deputies … expect they are equally trustworthy. Doesn’t mean they can’t be fooled … … or threatened … or bought. I want Heath to know what we have, but I want the area secured first. We’ve got men who can do that, but they need to know what’s required.

“We need to go slowly … be very careful. One misstep and we could lose it all.”

He’s right. If we go rushing in, show our cards too soon, we could lose the whole game. Okay, John, old man, settle down. Back to being detective for Mr. Jarrod Barkley, and not friend and fellow avenger.

“Right you are. Got a little carried away. We’ll go slowly and methodically. We’ll take care of your new little brother … but in the process we’ll take care of a lot more.”

The raised eyebrow and slow nod gave sufficient affirmation.

“We can take care of the immediate concerns at this end. I suspect you’ll want to head back on the morning’s stage. Start applying that discrete pressure.” Again the eyebrow rose, this time in question.

He got a slow, firm nod in reply.

When they arrived at the sheriff’s office, Jarrod was not surprised to find his expectations realized. On the walk there he had made a decision, and now pulled Nick aside, whispering what he needed.

The attorney had no qualms about the ability of the men hired to guard him. But they were hired. Nick’s men were different … they were loyal. For a moment he found himself envying his dark-haired brother … only for a moment. Then he was grateful that the rancher garnered that kind of dedication … it would prove invaluable now … and in the days ahead.

Nick heard him out, then replied, “Give me 15 minutes. I’ll be back … they’ll be in place.”

He was gone before Jarrod could utter so much as a thank you.

True to his word, the rancher was back as promised and the curt nod said his mission was accomplished. He now was impatient to know why such provisions were necessary. Anticipating the demand, Jarrod lifted his hand to stop the expected questions.

“Hold on Nick … I’m planning to let everyone know what’s happened, but first you need to know what John found.”

He then turned it over to the detective.

Before he addressed them, John had a question for the young blond. “Heath, Jarrod mentioned you seeing a man in the courtroom … seemed familiar, but you couldn’t identify him. Just wondering if you’ve had further insights in that regard?”

The prisoner looked at him in surprise, a groove forming between his eyes, as his head pulled back and down into his neck and his shoulders commenced a shrug.

“Afraid I haven’t thought on it, Mr. Markle,” he replied in a tone

John sensed carried a decided measure of apology … and something else … caution perhaps.

“Call me John. Please.” Then, as the sudden insight hit him, he added, “Your big brother here doesn’t cotton to me getting too much respect … might mean I raise my fees.”

He smiled as he studied the young man, and seeing him visibly relax, surmised he’d guessed correctly. The boy’d been unsure where he stood, now that the news was out about Tom Barkley’s wood’s colt.

Jarrod laughed. “Don’t pay him any mind Heath. He charges whatever he wants … whether he gets respect or not. But, much as it pains me think what the end tally may be, I find myself in all truth having to say I believe, in this case, he will have been worth every penny paid.” He glanced at his friend.

“It’s all yours, John.”

*****

Truth – Chapter 74

Markle nodded at the attorney, then took a moment to gather his thoughts and be sure he had everyone’s attention. He needed to ensure he distinguished between fact and supposition. Like Jarrod, he did not want to raise false hopes.

“When Jarrod brought me onto this case … when it was still a civil matter … our focus was on Greenley … what he was doing and why. It was very odd for someone to acquire the amount of land he had, and then do nothing with it. And then kill someone to get another piece, with which he likewise has done nothing.”

He looked at Heath. The look clearly said he had never doubted the blond’s story about Ucroft’s murder.

“The more we found, the more questions arose … and the clearer it became that the man’s actions were being backed. Backed by someone with resources … power and money both. But the question that more and more begged for an answer was … why Greenley? The investigation hoped to answer that.”

He took a moment to sip the water someone had provided.

“I think I can spare you the details of that investigation and suffice it to say, his services were obtained with a strange admixture of blackmail and bribery. Seems Merton Greenley hailed from Boston where he was a man of some means and reputation … came from what there is known as a good family. He fell in love with, and married, a young woman considered to be of lesser social status.

“However, by all accounts they were very happy together … for a few years. She eventually bore him a son, and for reasons not well understood, subsequent to the child’s birth, things began to deteriorate, culminating in his returning from work one day to find her in a highly distressed state, and their son dead … apparently at her hands.”

They all heard the gasp.

“The poor man,” was quickly followed by another gasp—of a different sort—as the young lady turned to Heath and tried to apologize. “I didn’t mean … I’m sorry … it’s just….”

She was saved by the detective.

“Let me assure all of you, but Heath in particular, that I am not telling you this to garner sympathy for Greenley. He murdered a man … in cold blood. I merely provide the background information so you understand something of the people with whom we are dealing … and the means by which Greenley was controlled. And,” he turned his eyes to Audra, “that does not mean that we cannot feel a degree of dismay in regards to the man’s history.”

Heath cut in. “It’s okay Miss Audra. No matter what Greenley did later, we can’t choose to ignore what was true before then. I reckon there’s no fault in feeling sorry for people’s misfortunes. Makes you the kind of person you are. I’ll not hold it against you.”

Her smile, and the look in her eyes, told him all he needed to know.

Markle continued. “Apparently Greenley hired the best lawyers he could get … at great cost … to no avail. At the very least he was hoping to have her declared insane … keep her out of prison. I suspect … but couldn’t confirm … hidden pressure was exerted that returned a verdict of sane … and guilty.

“He had his attorneys initiate an appeal, and instructed them to continue that process until they had the verdict overturned. Greenley owned a number of properties … hotels mostly … not exclusive, but certainly above the average, and he held a high position with one of the local railroads. As I said earlier, he was a man of means with a good reputation.

“Again, I didn’t delve into the particulars, but it seems that having a wife in prison … and perhaps his efforts to save her, when seemingly she had murdered his helpless, infant son … was fodder a-plenty to slowly destroy his reputation, and all that went with it.

He was relieved of his position with the railroad and business at his hotels began to falter. Eventually he sold them for a fraction of their worth and left the area … came to San Francisco.

“I presume he decided to get as far, as was possible, from Boston and anyone who might know of what had happened there. He continued to pay for his wife’s appeal, although his financial position was becoming precarious, and little progress was being made. He sought work, and apparently secured it with California Pacific … doubtless his work with a railroad in Boston helped in that regard, as it helped him, very quickly, to advance with that company.

“Jarrod recently received a letter with all this information … he only this afternoon learned the rest of what I’m about to tell you.”

He looked around the room, ensured they were listening … and understanding. Only then did he continue.

“Greenley looked like he had a promising future with CPR. Then, quite unexpectedly, he one day tendered his resignation. Very soon thereafter he purchased his place here … and subsequent to that began to acquire the other properties.”

Markle stopped for a moment … to give himself a break, and to afford the others time to absorb the information. He knew what he would share next would have a significant effect on all.

“Again, I won’t bother you with the details, but what we learned was that he had been approached by a couple of men and informed that their boss had a job for him to do … a job that would pay far more than his current salary. Once that job was done, there would be more work for him, of a different sort, and in keeping with his expertise.

“For whatever reason, his initial response was to turn them down. Maybe he thought he had good prospects where he was and didn’t want to risk losing that with an entity that was an unknown to him. Notwithstanding, when they approached him the second time, he accepted. They may have sweetened the offer. He may not have realized, at the time, what he was getting into.

“The rumor is that at some point … whether then or later is unknown … he was advised that if he did his job as expected that his ‘little secret’ would be kept quiet. If the threat hadn’t persuaded him to take the job, it most certainly persuaded him to keep it.

“By the time he realized what he had gotten into, any attempt to escape would result in his untimely death. He’d been bought … body and soul.”

“You saying he was ordered to kill Mr. Ucroft?” There was a note of challenge in Heath’s question, and Markle chose to address it.

“Can’t answer that … and don’t see that it makes him any less responsible for his actions. I suspect he was ordered to get the property … how he did so was of little concern to the people issuing the orders. When his initial plans to foreclose were thwarted he took the next step.”

Victoria Barkley had listened to what the detective was saying … and what he wasn’t. She was quite certain he knew something he wasn’t sharing and if he did, so did her eldest son. She determined to find out what that something might be.

Her grey eyes settled on the son in question. “Jarrod, I’d like to know what Mr. Markle is not telling us … what you have avoided telling us.”

“Yes, indeed, Big Brother. I’d be happy to be privy to that as well. Sooner, rather than later.” The hazel eyes that bore down on him were no less demanding than the grey had been.

He and John looked at each other. They weren’t planning on hiding anything … it was just a matter of how they were going to go about sharing it … and then how they would contain the expected reaction.

John decided he needed to earn the fees the counselor paid him.

“Mrs. Barkley … Nick … let me assure you that neither Jarrod nor I have any intention of withholding information. Had that been our intention we would have kept all of this to ourselves.”

He let them think about that for a moment, before he continued.

“You have to understand that some of what we have is conjecture.  Some of it we just put together this afternoon when we were able to combine what each of us had discovered.”

Nick was getting impatient. “Um-hmm. And what might that be. What did he discover,” he hooked his thumb in Jarrod’s direction, “that he hasn’t seen fit to share with us?”

Markle decided to continue. He expected Jarrod might catch a portion of flak when the family was alone, he at least could spare him some for now.

“I believe Jarrod did share with you that he was meeting with young Pleasant Fairchild … and he did so early this afternoon. It proved to be a most fortuitous meeting, although you have to understand, on its own, it might not have meant much. Fairchild gave him copies of old telegrams.”

He looked around again. Victoria’s rapt gaze was evident. Nick, on the other hand, was clearly impatient and agitated, pacing as much as the limited space allowed, while his hard hazel eyes delivered a far from friendly message.

That man is a force with which to be reckoned. Maybe I’m coming to appreciate Jarrod’s concern to go slowly … carefully…. And his need to rein in his own emotions if he’s going to corral that kind of power.

“What those telegrams reveal is an ongoing relationship between Greenley and the men who originally approached him … and their bosses. I suspected there was a connection … the telegrams have established it beyond any doubt … a connection I’ve long suspected goes to an organization with far more power … far more money. Money enough, for instance, to provide the funds Greenley used to buy what he bought … including Ucroft’s loan.”

He looked at Heath. “I was quite sure Greenley was not acting on his own, in that regard. His available money was going to pay for his wife’s attorneys. One of the things that puzzled me was the promise to Greenley that he would have more … different … work to do once his initial job was completed. His real interest had seemed to be with his hotels, but I couldn’t see how that fit with his new employer.

“Yes, they were buying property … but far more than anyone would need to build even the most posh hotel. Nothing fit … until this afternoon.”

He looked around again. Nick had stopped pacing for a moment, was actually focused on him … waiting … almost motionlessly … and silently.

“Jarrod came up with a possible explanation … this afternoon.” He avoided looking at the man … no need, at this point, to draw him in.

“He remembered that all the parcels of land purchased by Greenley would adjoin each other … once he had Ucroft’s place. That, combined with the fact that there was a need for secrecy, pointed to a probable scheme … likely nefarious. Greenley’s history … a way in which Greenley could be useful after obtaining the properties … not his history with hotels … lead to the conclusion that a railroad was involved.”

He let it sit for a bit … gave them time to consider what he’d said … begin to draw their own conclusions. Just as Nick was about to voice his thoughts, he stopped him with the final bit of information.

“There was one more telegram. One that went out the morning Greenley was killed … after he was killed. That was sent by a man our young telegrapher saw leaving Greenley’s room earlier that morning. A man that had been here with another … holding meetings with local businessmen … not long before Greenley moved in. A man the Fairchild’s apparently did not like. A man who signed that telegram with just an initial….”

Anticipating the question, Jarrod answered, “An ‘H’ … that was the initial.”

He knew he’d not have long to wait, and wasn’t surprised at the word Nick uttered. He was surprised at how softly he said it.

“Hoak….”

*****

Chapter 75

 Victoria Barkley looked first to the detective, then to Jarrod and finally to Nick, before quietly confirming.

“If Hoak is involved, then so is Crown … and Jordan.”

Nick’s response was instantaneous, as one fisted hand pounded the palm of the other. “Yes. We finally get the bastard … finally. All I can say is it’s about time.”

His mother looked at him, then turned her eyes to his older brother, unable to stop herself from asking … pleading, “Do we … do we have him. After all this time…?”

It hung in the air: both the hope and the potential despair that he so had been wanting to avoid. It couldn’t be avoided. Respect demanded he answer. “Mother … it’s possible … only possible. It’s my hope … as it is yours … and I can’t guarantee it will happen.”

As he saw the tears well up in her eyes he wanted to swear. Would he never find a way to take away the pain … the pain she kept well hidden, but that he knew sat there … just below the surface … just waiting to be exposed.

“Mother, we are going to do everything we can to tie him to all of this. But my primary focus is to protect Heath … to prove him innocent. I believe to do that we will need to tie in Hoak … and Crown. John knows how important this is to me … to us. He will do all he can to take it to the desired end.”

The rancher was now livid. “John will do everything. To hell with that. This is Barkley business, we’ll take care of it. I’ll be damned if I’ll stand here and wait for someone else to do what they can to make it happen. We have a way to get him, I’m going to make sure that happens.”

Jarrod sighed.

It had to happen. You knew it would get to this … and you need to lasso him … maybe with his own rope.

“So Nick, are you standing here, telling us, all that matters to you is that you get to do it your way. After you’ve stampeded through the collection of carefully orchestrated work … destroyed whatever chance we might have had … that you get to walk away with a clear conscience? You can say you did everything possible, and be satisfied with blaming us for not doing enough … not doing it your way.”

At first he was angry, but now he just felt defeated. Even when he knew what would happen he couldn’t prevent it … couldn’t seem to be prepared to deal with it either.

Suddenly, he realized how tired he felt … and how defeated in that regard as well. He wouldn’t let himself stop trying … at least to get Heath free. He couldn’t let himself stop … Nick’s interference notwithstanding.

He took a deep breath … waited … let it out, and took another. No point trying to argue … might as well believe you could out-stare a rattler. He waited until he was sure he was back under control … sure he had calmed himself and could maybe say the only thing that might penetrate that wall of stubborn that was Nicholas J. Barkley.

“Well then little brother, you just go ahead. And then you get to explain to Mother why there’s no justice for her … and you get to explain to Heath … to our little brother … why he gets to spend the rest of his life behind bars … or worse. You just go ahead. Don’t let me stop you. Just let me know when you’re done … I’ll see what I can do to pick up the pieces.”

Nick saw the change in his brother … noticed the shift from anger and persuasion to calm and acceptance. Now that the anger had dissipated he saw something else … pain maybe. It was almost frightening. He knew how to deal with an angry … a demanding … Jarrod. Wasn’t sure he knew how to deal with this one.

How the Hell does he do that … become so calm … so calculated? He’s finally given the chance at the one thing he’s been six years hoping for … working for … even if he’s never let me openly know he’s been doing that. It’s available, and he stands there calm as a mule chewing on summer grass. If I say anything he’ll suggest I’m worked up enough for both of us. Guess he might be right….

He again looked at his older brother … saw what he’d missed earlier … beyond the pain. The man looked exhausted. He also looked determined.

He’s right. He has worked hard on this … given it more than any of us know. And he does want Jordan … maybe more than I … if that’s possible. He’s also right … I could destroy all that work. Damn! I hate feeling useless … powerless. Guess I don’t need to take that out on Pappy…. Hate apologizing too….

Nick released the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and waited until he could catch the counselor’s eyes. With hazel firmly locked on blue he said what he knew needed saying.

“Sorry Jarrod. That was uncalled for … unfair. Without what you and Markle here have found we’d have nothing. I do appreciate all you’ve done … and I don’t want to destroy it. Would like to help … if there’s a way I can do that.”

He smiled. Then he smiled more. Once Jarrod saw the dimple he knew it was over.

“Fair enough Brother Nick. I am not trying to exclude you … and you have helped. Maybe in ways you don’t recognize. Knowing you were taking care of things at the ranch … ensuring Mother and Audra were safe … allowed me to turn John loose to do what he does best.

“Sometimes I forget to let you know how much I appreciate all you do … and how much comfort it provides me to know you have my back. I maybe take that for granted … it’s not fair to you. Feel free to remind me … quietly … if you can.”

He looked long and hard at the man he did appreciate, wanting to be sure the message had been received. The eyes told him … they always had … probably always would. Mother often reminded him that Nick was an open book … just waiting to be read … and savored. He did need to remember that.

He closed the distance between them, wrapped the big rancher in a firm hug, before whispering something in his ear. Something not meant for anyone else … something that elicited the booming laugh he so wanted to hear.

They both turned their attention to Heath, and let the silence eventually act to raise the blond’s head … garner his full attention. Both knew the comment had to come from Nick.

“Heath, Jarrod is absolutely right. We’ve waited six years to get Jordan. He might not have pulled the trigger, but we have no doubt he’s the man ultimately responsible for Father’s murder. We want him … and we won’t rest until we get him.

“But you need to know … need to trust. We’ll wait another six years … or sixty … before we’ll put that ahead of you. Everyone’s priority here is to see you free. That comes first … and that’s the absolute truth.”

He held the young man’s eyes … wanting to know he was believed, and seeing uncertainty. He could see the plethora of emotions that poured from the eyes, crossed the staid countenance.

Took him a minute to realize the answer was clear. Mr. Poker-face was letting himself be seen … he was being vulnerable … trusting. Therefore, he believed.

He nodded, walked over to the man, grasped the back of his neck and gave a firm shake. The only reply was a half-smile. It was enough for everyone to know.

Victoria moved to glide over and take a seat by the blond, but was intercepted by Rachael. As she settled beside him, she wrapped an arm around his, and quietly, but loud enough for all to hear, stated, “Heath, my boy, looks like you have yourself a new family. I’m guessing you are a bit confused right now.

“Hannah and I often urged your mama to tell you about your father. She wouldn’t do it … and I believe what was in her letter was the truth. She didn’t see how any good could come of it … leastwise not without someone getting hurt. Was why she never brought herself to mail it.”

Glancing at Victoria, she continued, “I suspect, now that it’s out, people have been hurt. She’d not be happy about that, but if I’ve never known another thing, I know she’d be happy for you … happy you’re not alone. Happy … grateful … you have a family that will be there for you.”

Squeezing his arm tighter and giving him a little shake, she added, “Remember what Hannah would say, ‘Trust in the wisdom of our God, for He has a plan.”

She looked up at each of the faces surrounding them, and quoted, “For wisdom is a defense, and money is a defense, but the excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it.”

Turning back to Heath she grasped his face gently in her hands and spoke directly to him. Spoke from her heart.

“There are folks here who believe in you, care about you … even love you. They will use whatever wealth and wisdom they possess in a fight to prolong your life in this world.

“You know, I know … I’m sure they know … there is an eternal life which is guaranteed to those that trust the wisdom of God. You’re going to be just fine, my boy. Just fine.”

She drew his head over and rested his forehead on hers … held it for a moment … wanted to be sure he’d heard her. As she felt the soft nod, she knew all was well, and released him, before, once more, looking up at everyone.

“I’m thinking we all have work to do, and we’d best get on with figuring out what that is, and then getting to it.” She smiled.

Nick laughed. “Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mrs. Caulfield. It’s time. Maybe God’s giving us another chance at Jordan … maybe not. But He’s certainly given us a job to do and we’d best get to it.”

Turning to Heath, he ordered, “Your job is to get some rest and be ready for tomorrow. We’re going back to the hotel where we can let Jarrod turn all that wonderful wisdom for which Barkley Enterprises paid dearly, to good use.”

“Here, here,” echoed Frank.

As they started to file out, Victoria approached Heath. Gazing down at him she could feel the insatiable need within herself, to affirm and comfort … yet, she felt she needed permission.

As those expressive blue eyes lifted upwards, and rested gently on her face, she saw it, and smiled. Moving closer she bent down, rested a hand on the back of his head, taking care to avoid the still-healing wound, and placed a soft kiss atop the tousled yellow locks.

“We’ll be back in a bit,” she whispered, “get some rest.”

Then she was gone, while he sat and let the feeling wash over him.

Somehow Mama seemed closer … not quite so forever gone.

*****

Chapter 76

They’d had food sent up, not wanting to risk being heard, nor to squander the time it would take to visit the dining room, while they decided how to move forward. Surprisingly, to all, it had not been that difficult to formulate a feasible plan. No one had forgotten that the priority was to gain freedom for the man sitting in that jail cell.

That man, having enjoyed dinner, and a few games of poker, with some of the hands, had subsequently decided to follow orders and see if he could get some sleep. He smiled thinking of Nick’s words. In truth, they were orders … and he found himself accepting of that. There was a sense of caring behind them.

As he’d stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes, waiting to see if sleep would come, his mind drifted to what had transpired earlier in the day. He understood Nick. He too felt useless … wanted to help in some way. The one thing he could do, remained beyond his reach. Remember. If he only could remember … something … anything.

Maybe tomorrow. For now he’d sleep. And then, in that almost not there moment between awareness and sleep, he saw it. Saw the face. And he knew. Maybe wouldn’t be much … certainly not enough … but at least it was something.

The plotters, now gathered in Victoria’s room, heard the knock on the door across the hall. As Nick got up to investigate, Jarrod halted him. “The men will see to it.”

Hard as it was Nick nodded. This business of letting other people do what he considered to be his job was going to take some getting used to.

Within moments there was soft knock on her door. Jarrod gave Nick the nod.

Better let the old bear have some satisfaction.

He drew his gun before he eased open the door, and found Jack Collins standing outside. Quickly inviting the lawman inside, he waited to hear what had brought him to them.

As the sheriff looked around the room, his first inclination was to remind them that he would not allow them to take the law into their own hands. He quickly curbed the notion. You either trusted people to do the right thing … or you didn’t. Should they choose to break his trust he would deal with it then.

“Sorry to intrude, folks. Got a note here from my prisoner. He didn’t offer to share the contents with me, and I didn’t ask. He did ask that I deliver it in person, as soon as possible.”

Looking around the room, he wasn’t sure to whom he ought to hand the note. Seeing his uncertainty, Jarrod held out his hand.

“I can take that Sheriff. And thank you.”

Realizing the man truly was on their side … on Heath’s side … he decided to set his mind to rest. “Just so you know. We’ve no intention of taking the law into our own hands. We have formulated a plan to do what we can to get the information we need … and maybe the witnesses … to relieve you of that prisoner.

“We do have Frank here, to keep us on the straight and narrow. Thank you for bringing this. We are grateful for all you have done to help Heath. It hasn’t gone unnoticed … by any of us.”

Jack sucked the inside of his cheek between his teeth for a moment, as he thought on what he’d just heard. Deciding he had to take the man at his word … had to trust he spoke the truth … he opted to leave things as they were.

“My pleasure. If I can be of any assistance, please let me know. Best I get back and let that boy know his message has been delivered.”

That said he took his leave.

Jarrod looked at the paper in his hand. It was folded over, nothing more. He knew Collins could have read it … and knew he hadn’t. Heath too must have known that. He unfolded it, read what was written, and frowned.

“What?” Nick demanded.

“Seems little brother’s memory is starting to come back. Besides the woman behind the door, he has finally placed the man in the courtroom.

“Says he looks exactly like one of the men tried to rob him when he was delivering those horses. One of the men he killed.”

“Probably a brother…,” Frank offered. “Or some sort of relative.”

Now it was Nick’s turn. “Didn’t you say we had someone keeping an eye on him?”

At Jarrod’s nod, Nick smiled … that full dimpled Nick Barkley, I’m-so-happy smile.

As his right fist soundly landed in the left palm, he added, “Well, I think I have me something I can do. Something right up my alley.

“By this time tomorrow, folks, we’re going to know who he is … and what he’s doing here.”

Victoria jumped in. “Now Nick. Jarrod just assured the Sheriff we’d not be….”

He cut her off.

“Mother. Trust me. I’ll not be breaking any laws. I’ll just be encouraging that man to speak the truth … just giving him a little persuasion … Barkley style.”

She hid the smile … although, in truth, she hardly knew why. She had no doubts he knew it was there.

“Fine. See that you do.”

She left it at that, and if asked, could not have attested to whether she was admonishing him not to break the law … or to get the truth. She could deal with her conscience, should it press her to believe she ought to care considerably more than she did.

Nick was about to close the door, when he stuck his head back inside and issued one more comment. “I’ve got to see a man … about a … rat. I’ll hope to have something to report by morning.”

The door closed before anyone could object.

Jarrod shook his head, took in a deep breath, freed it slowly, and let whatever objection he might have raised disappear with the air he expelled.

“He’s been harnessed far too long already … he needs something to do that’s not related to waiting. We couldn’t expect him to sit idly by forever.”

He chuckled, before glancing around at those remaining. “Anyone interested in a friendly wager? My money’s on Nick. We’ll know all about the … rat … in question, by morning.”

“Jarrod Thomas Barkley!” While she sounded reproachful, the shining grey eyes were laughing.

Sawyer’s response echoed what the eyes revealed. “I’m guessing you’ll not have much luck finding anyone to bet against you, my man. Certainly not me.”

His laughter was soon echoed by all.

Audra’s yawn prompted Rachael to suggest they all call it a night. Tomorrow could be a long day. Markle was heading out on the first stage … and sending back the people he believed could start applying pressure where needed. Starting with the eye-witnesses.

Manus undoubtedly thought he now had motivation established. Jarrod wasn’t sure if the man had anything more to offer. If he was called upon to begin his defense, he was ready. He’d be starting with Rachael Caulfield … and then Victoria Barkley.

Other than the letters, all Springer, and by default Manus, had was conjecture. Jarrod would have sworn testimony to counter that … by two ladies he strongly suspected the jury would believe.

He was hoping by the end of tomorrow Frank Sawyer’s efforts would have identified the presumed cleaning lady. While he could only surmise her reasons, until now, for remaining silent, he was more than confident that he would have them eradicated.

There was always the hope that Heath would remember.

And there was Nick. Nick, who had never failed him.

That self-same-aforementioned man, meanwhile, had gotten the needed information to locate the mystery man. He thought about inviting Sawyer along. Decided that might not be best … no need to put the marshal in a compromising situation. A quick stop at the rented house offered more volunteers than he needed.

He and Charlie were soon bellying up to the bar of one of the many saloons in town, and making an admirable show of downing the beers they’d ordered. It hadn’t taken them long to spot their quarry.

He looked comfortably settled in the chair across the room … like it wasn’t the first time he’d been there.

“You know Boss, I swear that guy was in Piper’s one night … when Heath was still at the ranch. Almost sure of it. Maybe you should slip on out of here, before he sees you. I doubt he’ll remember me. But, if he’s been to Stockton there’s a good chance he’ll know what you look like.”

“Uh-huh. And why would I care if he sees me?”

Charlie shook his head. Nick was far from stupid, but sometimes he could be more than dense. “Well Boss, what you think he’s going to do if he spots you? Think about it.”

The rancher studied the cowboy for a minute. Then he nodded … and smiled. “I’ll be waiting outside.”

He slapped some money on the polished surface. “Have another one on me … if you need to. Just make sure you can move as well as him when he decides to leave.”

A look and a nod comprised the only answer.

Charlie had been nursing his second beer a good long while before he finally had cause to move toward the batwings. Once he was sure the focus of his attention was leaving, he moved out just ahead of him. Nick was there in the shadows.

The man tried to push past Charlie, who stumbled into him enough to knock him off balance, and thus allow himself to move off ahead of him, certain now of the direction to go. He didn’t have to look to know that Nick would be bringing up the rear. There was an alley up ahead. He reckoned it would serve their purposes just fine.

It did. As Charlie came to an abrupt halt, Nick closed the distance, and let the barrel of his gun persuade the man to make a detour. It was over almost before it started. Nick backed off just enough to let the man think he could make a play. As he turned to do just that, the rancher’s fist connected solidly with the side of his jaw. He dropped where he’d stood.

Charlie fetched the horses while Nick guarded their prey, and soon they found themselves well clear of town … and any chance they’d be heard. A copse of trees, well off the road, provided privacy and a ready means of securing their victim.

Persuading him to tell them what they wanted to know was a little less easily accomplished … but not by much.

As he paused and looked down at what he considered a vile piece of humanity, Nick considered his next move. He could take the man to the sheriff but was loath to do so … didn’t want him sharing the cell area with his little brother.

His mind made up he turned to Charlie. “Let’s load him on a horse and take him back to the house.”

Charlie looked at him, his eyes questioning? “You sure, Boss?”

Nick, understanding the man’s concern, nodded.

“It’s temporary.”

*****

Chapter 77

Taking an indirect route and using the cover of darkness, soon found them safely ensconced in the house, with their prisoner gagged and well secured, thereby avoiding disturbing the others.

Nick decided morning would be early enough to deal with things. For now, it was time to get some much needed sleep.

As dawn was barely breaking, Nick roused a couple of the men and explained what he wanted them to do. After grabbing a quick breakfast, and whatever they might need, they moved off to carry out his orders. Nick headed for the hotel, clean clothes and a meeting with the family.

As stiff, sore fingers finished persuading the last of the shirt buttons through their respective holes, a knock sounded on the door. He was surprised to hear Jarrod answer his request for identification. Pappy wasn’t usually up quite this early.

“It’s open. Come on in.”

He grinned at the sight … the man might be up, but it easily was a stretch to say he was awake…. “What’s on your mind, Jarrod?”

The counselor took in the man standing before him, including the bleary eyes and scraped, swollen knuckles.

Nodding toward same, he stated, “I’m guessing you found your man.”

Nick’s humorless chuckle would have been sufficient response, but he added, “I did.”

The eyebrow went up, as the head tilted, and that questioning look appeared … that look with which Nick was oh so familiar.

“He’s not involved … not with Greenley … Crown … or Jordan.”

He might not know why, but Jarrod knew if his brother said the man wasn’t involved he could take that to the bank. The man was not involved. Part of him was relieved … another part was disappointed. It would be nice to have someone who could corroborate their suspicions. It would also be nice to have some elaboration.

“Care to fill me in?”

Nick sighed. Might as well get it over with now. He’d likely have to repeat the story several times … or maybe Jarrod would do some of that for him. “Name’s Troy Jackson. Turns out, both of those men Heath killed were his brothers. They’d been at the auction … knew Heath had sold his horses … knew what he’d gotten. They’d seen him leave with the ones he’d sold and the ones he hadn’t. Figured they could relieve him of them and the money.

“Wired Jackson … let him know where they were headed. When they didn’t show up, he backtracked them to the town that buried them. Got the story on how they ended up dead. He was looking to avenge their deaths. Bloody fool…. He shot the bear.”

Seeing Jarrod’s perplexed look, he took a moment to remind him of the bear incident that now seemed a life-time ago.

“When he didn’t get him then, he followed him here. Was just biding his time until he got a chance to take him out. Then Greenley’s murder changed all that … put him out of reach. Decided he’d just stay around, see how it came out.

“He was willing to settle with watching him hang. Just wanted him dead … like his brothers. If he didn’t hang, he planned to find another way to take him out. Don’t think he cared all that much whether he got caught.”

At first, all Jarrod could do was shake his head. Then he took to worrying about the next piece.

“Where’s Jackson now? Tell me he is still alive. You did turn him over to the law … didn’t you?” Blue eyes bored into hazel.

“Relax Counselor. Much as I would have liked to dump him over a cliff … a long, steep cliff … your endless lectures have penetrated. I plan to turn him over to the law … sort of.”

“Sort of, Nick. What does sort of mean?”

“I need you to get the sheriff and bring him to the house. He can deputize a couple of my men … you can take down the man’s confession. The new deputies will take him to Stockton and turn him over to Madden, with the request he be charged with attempted murder. That bear hadn’t gotten in the way, we’d have buried Heath.”

Seeing Jarrod about to object, he cut him off. “Don’t Jarrod. Don’t you dare suggest I should have brought him to Collins … let him sit back there with Heath. Forced that boy to have to deal with his presence … and Lord knows what else. Don’t. Just don’t.”

The thin line of his mouth and the blazing eyes would have stopped Jarrod … if the words hadn’t been enough.

The attorney walked over to the younger man. Stood quietly for a moment, then reached out a hand. In a Nick-like gesture he grasped the back of his brother’s neck and gave a solid shake.

“Well done, Brother Nick. Well done.” He smiled, and got a dimpled smile in return. They understood each other. They were good.

By the time court convened, the men and their prisoner were several miles down the road, and all requisite persons had been apprised of the situation. As extra insurance, the attorney had requested the sheriff send a wire to his counterpart in Stockton. It was done.

Now Jarrod sat in the courtroom, looking at Heath, and thinking about it. It was better than he’d expected … and so much less than he’d hoped. Nick was safe … doubtless feeling better … and a possible lead was gone.

They were back to what he, Markle, and Sawyer could unearth. There was some relief in knowing that he and Markle had found the Fairchilds willing to cooperate.

Mr. Fairchild had promised to provide a list of all the telegram communications—incoming and outgoing—involving Hoak or Crown. That would give them some level of proof that Crown was involved … hopefully enough to get Crown’s cooperation … when the time came.

They also had devised a plan for moving ahead once the necessary players and pieces were in place. Once one side was ready to start the process rolling they would telegram the other. Unless advised otherwise, they would follow through and the other would respond appropriately. It was the best they could do … for now.

*****

Nathan Springer was back on the stand and before declaring he had no further questions of the witness, Manus had him review his testimony from Friday.

Had it been only three days ago?

Judge Vanderburgh’s second invitation to question the witness, brought him back to the moment. He most certainly did intend to question this witness.

Stopping to pick up the latest two exhibits, Jarrod approached Springer, and handed them to him. “Mr. Springer, would you kindly read to this court the information on this envelope … the envelope you provided as evidence in this trial?”

Nat was cautious. He knew Barkley well … perhaps too well. He had to be up to something … this was not the line of questioning he was expecting.

“Leah Thomson, Strawberry, California. That’s all it says. No return address.”

“But it has a stamp. A cancelled stamp?”

What in blazes did that matter? Where was he going with this?

“It does.”

“How is it that you know Leah Thomson?”

Springer wasn’t quite fast enough to hide the look of surprise that flashed on his face. “I do not know Leah Thomson.”

“Then how is it that she came to give you her mail?”

Damn. This is going to be a problem.

“She didn’t give it to me.”

Jarrod looked to the public gallery, then to the jury, before turning his attention back to the witness. “I see…. Please tell this court how you came to possess Leah Thomson’s property?”

Springer was trapped. He knew it.

“It was given to me by an investigator I hired.”

Jarrod paused to give the jury time to consider that admission.

“So, this investigator … this man you hired … was given this evidence by Leah Thomson?”

“I would presume so.”

“When do you presume she did so? What is your best guess as to the date he received this from her?”

Springer indicated the day he received it, and suggested the man had acquired it at most two or three days prior to that.

Jarrod stood for a moment, as if contemplating those dates, before moving to the defense table, and rifling through some papers. Taking a firm grasp of one, he moved again to the witness stand.

“Please take a look at this … and share the contents with this court.”

Springer looked. He could feel his pulse quickening and sought to hide all display of his building anxiety. “This is a death certificate. For Leah Thomson.”

“Leah Thomson of what location?”

“Says Strawberry.”

Jarrod nodded. “And the date of death.”

Springer had no choice, he had to reveal it.

*****

Chapter 78

Jarrod Barkley let his gaze rove over the jury members, as he addressed Springer’s reply. “Perhaps you could explain to this court how a dead woman gave her possessions to the investigator you hired … who then gave them to you?”

Springer knew this was not going to go well. At best he could attempt to extricate himself. “I’m speculating that whoever came into possession of her worldly goods, passed them on.”

“An interesting speculation … especially considering your recent testimony.” Jarrod now turned his attention to the jury.

“I can, if necessary, provide proof that the only heir of Leah Thomson, was the defendant, Heath Thomson. Therefore, whatever worldly goods, including these letters, she might have possessed at the time of her death, would become the property of her son.”

He turned back to the witness.

“Perhaps, Mr. Springer, in view of your proposal that Heath Thomson killed Mr. Greenley to prevent these letters becoming public, you could speculate as to why he would give them to your hired investigator.”

As dismayed as he felt, some small corner of Nathan Springer had to admire Barkley’s aplomb. The man was good … maybe better than even Springer had anticipated. There was no defense to be offered … time to go on the offensive.

“I’m sure I cannot speculate on the mental machinations of a man who would murder another.”

“Or why Heath Thomson would give your hired investigator the very thing he supposedly wanted to keep hidden.”

Jarrod turned to the judge. “Your Honor, I have no further questions for this witness, at this time. However, I wish to reserve the right to recall him at a later time.”

Vanderburgh, with some effort, restrained the smile that threatened. Springer would be prevented from returning to the city, and Counselor Barkley had to know that would not sit well with the man.

“Very well, Mr. Barkley. Mr. Springer, please be advised that you are to remain available for recall.”

Manus wanted to question the witness further, wanted to ask if he assumed the materials were obtained legally. He resisted the urge. He hadn’t forgotten the number one rule in questioning a witness … especially your own witness. Never ask a question for which you don’t know the answer. Furthermore, he hadn’t forgotten he’d made that mistake already. He’d not make it again.

He didn’t know how Springer might answer. Didn’t want to risk the man perjuring himself … or damaging the case. He couldn’t pursue it. He knew it.

He was unhappy … very unhappy. He had underestimated his opponent. He’d been so sure the revelation of Thomas Barkley’s bastard son would throw his eldest into such turmoil that concluding this case would be a simple matter. It hadn’t worked as hoped. In fact, he seemed more determined than ever to defend the murderer. Defend his father’s bastard son.

Hard to figure some people.

He rose to address the court.

“Your Honor, I have no further witnesses to call, at his time. Should further evidence come to light, I wish to reserve the privilege of presenting it at that time.”

Vanderburgh let the smile escape this time. “Very well, Mr. Manus. It is so noted.”

He turned to the defense attorney. “Mr. Barkley, are you ready to call your first witness?”

“I am, Your Honor.”

Jarrod, earlier, had considered whether he would abandon his new plan, and stay with his initial thought to call Rachael Caulfield—establish without doubt that the letters had not been given to Springer’s investigator. He’d decided to stay with the new plan.

“I call Charles Naughton.”

Jarrod had intended to call each of the men in the house, but with some of them currently transporting the bear-man to Stockton, he did have to change those plans. He didn’t see it as a big concern. His objective was to establish that Heath had had a visitor that morning … a visitor that lured him out of the house … without the men assigned to protect him.

He wasn’t expecting much challenge from Manus. His expectations were realized. The best the prosecutor could do was attempt to discredit the witnesses … suggest they were loyal to their employer and might be persuaded to testify as instructed.

He knew Charlie would set the tone in responding to the thinly veiled accusations. He did … the rest followed. Manus pulled back. He, however, did manage to introduce the idea that Heath may have been in cahoots with the man who came to the door … that the men could have been innocent victims in a subterfuge. They, in turn, could not deny the possibility.

It was tedious, but necessary testimony.

As Rachael sat in the courtroom, the proceedings floating in the air around her, her thoughts were on the young man of whom she was so very fond … and concerned. At times she despaired of him ever developing a solid belief that he would not end up alone in this world … that people truly wanted to be … and would be … there for him.

She knew she had to have a talk with him … one more. She resolved to do so today … assuming cooperation from the Barkleys and the sheriff. The former she addressed by a whispered conversation with the family matriarch. When the lunch break was announced, she found herself moving against the flow in an attempt to reach the latter. Upon doing so she quietly promoted her idea. Closely studying the woman, Collins came to a decision and gave her a quiet affirmative response.

So it was that she now found herself, basket in hand, making her way across the small courtyard toward the eerily still young blond. She gave no more than a passing glance at the deputy standing guard some distance away, and continued to approach her quarry.

She knew if the sheriff had refused her request to do this outdoors, she could have done it in the jailhouse. She also knew it would be easier on this boy she adored to do it where he felt less … confined. He would feel trapped enough as it was.

Settling the basket on the ground in front of them, she took the vacant space beside him. “I’m hoping you’re hungry. That you’re not going to force an old lady to eat everything in there, all by herself.”

Heath laughed … somewhat mirthlessly. “Aunt Rachael, ain’t no one ever forced you to do anything you have a mind not to do. You and I both know you’d be setting straight anyone who suggested you were old … so don’t give me that poor old lady line.”

It was her turn to laugh. She did. Soon he joined her.

“So, we going to beat around the bush, make nice with each other while we enjoy the feast you’ve provided, and eventually get to what’s on your mind … or cut to the chase?”

She laughed again. He didn’t join her. He could feel the trepidation building … she certainly had something on her mind. Aunt Rachael had never engaged in meaningless activity … including picnic lunches just because. Certainly not when she’d have to get the sheriff to agree. He couldn’t imagine she wanted anything of him … wasn’t much chance, under the circumstances, he could do much for anyone. That meant he was likely in for a tongue-lashing.

Not hard to figure the topic. Mama!

Might as well get it over with. “I didn’t tell anyone Mama … died,” his voice barely above a whisper as he uttered the last word. Even he was surprised how hard it was to say … still.

Her resolve nearly failed her.

Come on Rachael, you need to do this. He needs you to do it.

“Why Heath. Why keep it secret … hidden?”

The words came out without thought. It was only after saying them he realized they were the truth. “Couldn’t believe anyone would care.”

He looked at her and the abject pain in the telling blue eyes, once again, almost killed her resolve. She forced herself to proceed.

“Not even Frank?” It was said softly, without challenge … or criticism.

He raised his eyes to hers again, held her gaze, thought how to answer. “He wasn’t there right after … not ’til I got here. By the time I could have told him, seemed there were other things more important …. Just didn’t seem … relevant … right … somehow.”

Now it was her turn to hold the gaze. “Nice try Heath … and doubtless that’s all true. But it’s not all of it, is it?”

“Aunt Rachael … please … don’t … please … leave it be.”

She heard the pleading. Steeled herself to ignore it. Held his eyes with hers.

“Heath.”

*****

Chapter 79

He wanted to look away … get away. Knew he couldn’t … wouldn’t. Knew she was right … that she knew it … and that she knew he knew it. There was no escape.

He started at barely a whisper. “Didn’t want anyone to know. Wanted to forget … at least not be reminded. Hard to do when others know.”

Their eyes continued to hold, as hers urged him to finish it.

“I missed … I … miss … her. It hurts … to think on her … not being … here. I don’t … don’t … know how … how … to ….”

No more words came … were replaced by the tears now flowing unchecked. Tears she suspected were long overdue … long held back.

Now she could break the gaze, as she moved closer … eased him into her arms. She felt his initial stiffness … resistance … give way as she continued to hold tight. Her hand traced small circles on his back as the shoulders finally started to shake and the sobs followed.

Only after his release was spent did she become aware of her own tears.

“I miss her too, my boy.  I miss her too.” She smiled, albeit somewhat sadly, and got a likewise, somewhat sad, lopsided smile in return.

“How about you eat something before we have to go back in,” she offered, reaching for the basket without awaiting his reply.

He would have refused, quite sure nothing would go down his throat … and stay. But when she handed him a sandwich and then sat quietly munching on her own, he began to think he might manage it … if barely. Once he overcame the resistance of the first few bites he realized he indeed was hungry, and accepted the second one she offered … as well as the cookies and apple.

Thereafter they sat in companionable silence. The two of them never had needed to fill the space with noise. When she considered him sufficiently recovered, she continued the earlier conversation.

“I’m thinking this whole thing must have you confused … uncertain. But, from the little I’ve seen of these Barkleys they seem like good people … people that take care of their own.”

She paused to see how he’d react, and got the expected quiet acceptance … at least of her words, if not their message.

“From what I’ve seen they care about you … about what happens to you. I’m not saying they’re here to replace Hannah, me, your mama, but seems like you maybe have yourself more family.

“But, it’s not going to be enough for them to offer it. You have to be willing to accept it. Don’t expect you’ve done that yet. Might never do it.

“But, Heath, you’d be doing yourself a great disservice to not give it fair consideration. Yourself and … your mama’s memory.”

At that his head snapped around.

“Aint’ got nothing to do with Mama.”

She chuckled. “Don’t know how you figure that, my boy. Tom Barkley is your father. That, I’ve always known. Your mama did too. Like it or not, she loved that man … ‘til the day she died. Loved him enough to protect his family for him … without him ever asking. Loved you enough to try and protect you too.”

She stopped herself for a moment, providing him the time to absorb what she was saying, before she continued. “She never knew whether you’d be accepted by them … even after she learned he had died. She never doubted he’d want you. Maybe was even afraid of that … he could have taken you from her.

“I’m more than sure that would have broken her heart … far more than when she discovered he wasn’t to be hers forever.

“She wasn’t going to risk finding out their feelings … chance you getting hurt if they sent you away. All the doing without. All the poverty in the world. None of it would ever hurt as much as a broken heart. Of that she was certain. And she would do nothing to bring about that possibility for you.”

She studied him for a moment. Decided he was listening to her … letting himself hear what she was saying. “Seems to me she needn’t have worried so hard. She didn’t trust them … but then she didn’t know them. I’d say you’ve had a chance to know them … before you knew who they were. Maybe you can decide whether they are the kind of folks one can trust … trust with one’s heart.

“Decide if they are speaking the truth when they claim you as brother … and son.”

He stared at her. Wondered how she even could consider believing what she was saying. “Aunt Rachael, surely you can’t be serious. Maybe my brothers, maybe Miss Audra … perhaps her most of all … but surely not Mrs. Barkley. How could she possibly accept me as family? I can’t be anything but an endless reminder of her husband’s betrayal.”

Rachael smiled. He didn’t get it … perhaps couldn’t get it. She’d make one more try. “Heath, do you suppose it came as a great surprise to her? That her husband was unfaithful? I’ve yet to know a woman, hitched to a man with a wandering eye … or more … who didn’t suspect, at some level, that it could happen.

“Men seem to be surprised when it happens to them. Perhaps because it happens so rarely … in comparison. Women aren’t that naïve … that stupid. So, we can best assume she had her suspicions … and she stayed anyway.

“Just like your mama, who kept his secret for all those years. Took  it to her grave … or so she thought. Not because he hurt her … because she loved him. Couldn’t stop loving him. Suspect Victoria Barkley felt the same. No matter what he might have done, she’d go on loving him.

“You’re not a reminder of his betrayal. You’re a reminder of how much she loved him.”

He continued to stare at her.

Is she serious?

 He thought on it some more.

Could she be right? How could anyone do that … forgive that kind of betrayal? How?

She saw the questions flit across his face. Guessed what he was thinking.

“You know, Heath my boy, the person who was equally betrayed … by your mama, not by him … was you. Are you going to quit loving her?”

His head snapped up and around. “I could never…,” he barked at her.

“Of course you couldn’t. Wasn’t suggesting you could … or would. What could your mama have done, for you to quit loving her?”

He looked at her again. The understanding was seeping in.

“Nothing. Wasn’t nothing she could do to make me stop. Nothing.”

She smiled. He was getting it. “And if the roles were reversed? If she were Victoria Barkley, and his son came to her family. What would she do? What would your mama do, if it were her?”

His eyes opened wider, before his brows dipped, came together … then eased. “She’d accept him. She’d love him … just like she loved me….”

She nodded. “I suspect she would. I surely do. She was that kind of woman.”

He stared again. Surprise clearly evident on his face.

“She’s telling the truth.” The wonder was evident in his tone of voice … and the acceptance.

“Suspect so. She told me she had a little talk with you.”

Seeing his look of alarm, she quickly moved to reassure. “Didn’t tell me what she said … just that they were worried you were giving up. Must admit that did surprise me. Your mama never gave up. She fought with all she had, right until the end. Lost the battle, but never quit the fight. Your mama didn’t raise no quitter. Don’t you forget that, my boy.”

She didn’t wait for a reply … didn’t want one. “Now, finish up the last of this … enjoy the fresh air. I’m going to freshen up a bit. I’ll see you back in the courtroom.”

As she started to walk away, she heard the quiet drawl.

“Thank you, Aunt Rachael.”

She smiled again. Thought of Leah. Smiled once more and continued on her way. She needed to have another conversation with him, but that would be for another day.

The afternoon proceeded much as had the morning. Jarrod focused on poking holes in the prosecution’s carefully laid case.

He called the hotel clerk who attested to never having seen the defendant prior to him being arrested. He assured the court he had not given the man Greenley’s room number.

He called Greenley’s office staff who confirmed the same. The man had never been in Greenley’s office, had no means of knowing where Greenley would be that morning.

Perhaps most damaging of all, Greenley’s clerk couldn’t identify the missing lady from whom Heath Thomson, supposedly, was to have purloined information … information he would kill to keep hidden.

Manus tried, but there wasn’t a lot of room for him to counter what was presented. No one was making wild claims, drawing unreasonable conclusions. They were merely stating facts.

The best he could do was press the witnesses to agree that those facts did not necessarily mean that the obvious conclusions weren’t wrong. The defendant might have gotten the room number, the lady might have existed and divulged the information.

Jarrod Barkley did not attempt to counter his efforts. He didn’t have to prove his client’s innocence. The prosecutor had to prove his guilt … beyond a reasonable doubt.

That doubt was slowing being established. It was enough.

*****

Chapter 80

Jarrod was about to call his next witness when he was handed a note from the bailiff. He smiled before quickly jotting a reply and giving the man instructions.

“My apologies, Your Honor, for the delay. I would now like to call Mrs. Rachael Caulfield.”

Rachael had been prepped by the defense counselor. She knew he wanted her to testify about the letters. He’d also helped her prepare for likely cross-examination by Manus.

As he’d done so he developed a healthy respect for the evident strength of this woman … one willing to befriend a fallen woman, her illegitimate son and a possibly escaped slave … and any trepidations in subjecting her to Manus were eased considerably. It, therefore, was with great confidence that he again picked up the letters and began his questioning.

“Mrs. Caulfield, are you familiar with these items?”

She took them from him and went through the motions of examining them. “I am.”

“Please tell this court how you came to have that familiarity.”

“Leah Thomson showed them to me before she placed them in her trunk. Told me she did not want their contents to be known.”

“I see. Why not just burn them?

“Leah was a great believer in God having a plan for each of us … and us not knowing what that may be. She, therefore, tried to be prepared for uncertainties the future might create.

“Her fear was that a day may come when her son would need to know … and have proof … of his father’s identity. Understand this … she had no desire for him to know … hoped it would never be necessary.

“At the same time she wanted to be prepared for the eventuality. These letters would provide that. Even if she were alive at the time, the letters would be needed for proof. And if she weren’t they would be the only source of the information.”

Defense Counsel paused, turned to face the jury, then asked his next questions. “So, she put them in her trunk. I am presuming you had access to that trunk?”

“I did.”

“And, where was that trunk located?”

“It was in the house that Leah, until her death, had shared with her friend Hannah. The house that her son Heath inherited and gave to Hannah on his mother’s death.”

He turned back to her. “As you are aware, Mr. Springer testified that the investigator he hired gave them to him. Did you give those letters to that investigator … to anyone?”

“I did not.”

“Would Hannah have done so?

Manus was on his feet.

“Objection, Your Honor, the question calls for speculation.”

Vanderburgh did not hesitate.

“Objection sustained.”

Jarrod smiled. He’d anticipated the prosecutor’s actions, and those of the judge. He’d wanted to give that to both of them.

“Mrs. Caulfield, to the best of your knowledge, did Hannah provide the letters to anyone.”

“Hannah did not know the letters existed. Leah apologized at the time for, as she put it, burdening me with this responsibility. She was aware of her tenuous health and explained that she had to tell someone, and I was the only one she believed could withstand pressure from anyone … especially Heath … to release the information.”

Jarrod nodded. “I see. So, what is your best guess as to how Mr. Springer’s investigator came to have the letters?”

She told them about the two visitors to Strawberry, their story about Heath and their sister, and the trip to the neighboring town. She testified that, upon learning about Heath’s arrest, from McColl, that she looked in Leah’s trunk and found them gone.

“My best guess, Mr. Barkley, is that those two people had a third accomplice who entered an unlocked house, searched an unlocked trunk, and helped themselves to those letters. That is my best guess.”

She paused for a moment, before continuing.

“What is not a guess, Mr. Barkley, is that however, and by whomever, those letters came to be here today, it was not through my efforts, and, therefore, did not happen legally.”

“Thank you Mrs. Caulfield.”

He turned to Manus.

“Your witness, Counselor.”

Manus knew there was no way to address the illegal acquisition of the letters, short of accusing her of lying. He suspected that would not go well for him. Thus he sought to use this witness in the only way he imagined could be useful to his case … and maybe lead the jury to forget about the legalities of the letters as evidence.

“Mrs. Caulfield, if I am to understand you, you have been acquainted with the defendant for some time. Is that correct?”

It was all she could do to stop herself from laughing. Jarrod Barkley was a very bright man … he’d known exactly where the prosecutor would go.

“It is.”

“And how long have you known him.”

“Since the day he drew his first breath.”

“So you would have watched him … a bastard child, in a small town … interact with the people of that town?”

She looked at him. She might have smiled, had she not restrained herself, but there would have been no humor, no joy, in the smile. There would have been nothing but disgust. “I did.”

“And what did you see?”

“I saw him insulted, taunted, denied schooling, rejected, and sometimes battered and bruised.”

“Oh, so he got into fights?”

The smile remained constrained. “Only when defending his mother’s honor, or his own person. Only when provoked.”

“Surely, Mrs. Caulfield, with what you describe being directed at him: insults, taunting, rejection, physical attacks … no access to school … surely with all that you must have seen in him, a degree of violence and rage.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “I wish that were true, Mr. Manus. For then he would have been spared the suffering. Heath was, and remains, the kindliest person I’ve ever known. He is quiet, gentle, loving—”

Manus cut her off.

“Come now Mrs. Caulfield. Surely you don’t expect this court to believe that. This is a man … well a boy … who willingly went off to war … lied about his age to do so. Surely that alone would indicate an inner desire to kill, a propensity to violence.”

Rachael gave him a withering look … one not lost on the occupants of the courtroom. “Mr. Manus, Heath didn’t go off to war with any desire to kill. He went with a desire to preserve life … his mama’s, Hannah’s … mine.

“He was lured by the money and what it meant to him … food for all of us … medicine for his mama. His thoughts weren’t on killing.

“He paid dearly for that decision … more than any man … or child … ought to pay for a mistake. Don’t you be trying to tell me what kind of man Heath Thomson is. I doubt you’ve got it in you to recognize the truth.”

Her eyes were flashing. While her voice remained quiet … calm … there was no mistaking the boiling anger … the indignation … under the seemingly tranquil façade.

From the corner of his eye he caught several jurors nodding … whether at her description of the defendant … or himself … he couldn’t be sure.

He was beginning to wish he’d never agreed to do this job. These people were not what he’d expected, and once again he’d underestimated an opponent.

Who was this bloody woman from some little backwater establishment? What was someone with her intelligence … her abilities … doing in such a place? And, moreover, what was she doing defending the likes of Heath Thomson … befriending his disgraced mother?

Time to cut his losses and put an end to this. Perhaps the mess that had accrued would at least serve the purpose of minimizing the issue of how the letters came to be evidence.

“Yes, Mrs. Caulfield. Obviously, Mr. Thomson, and his mother, were most fortunate in having you as a friend. We do often see only the best in our friends.

“I have no further questions.” He took his seat.

Vanderburgh addressed Rachael.

“Thank you Mrs. Caulfield. You may step down.”

Jarrod waited for her to take her seat with the family, before addressing the court. “Your Honor, in view of the testimony of Mr. Springer, and Mrs. Caulfield, and without proof to the contrary, the only reasonable conclusion is that these letters are stolen goods. I move to have them ruled inadmissible.”

He expected Manus to object. The man did so.

*****

Chapter 81

 Manus was indignant.

“As Defense Counsel, himself, indicated, there is no proof … no proof either way. Unless he can prove these items stolen, they de facto remain admissible.”

Jarrod countered.

“Your Honor, it has been established that the original owner of the letters in question, was deceased at the time they came into the possession of Mr. Springer’s hired investigator. Ownership then passed to her heir, the defendant Heath Thomson.

“As I’ve previously pointed out, since Mr. Manus claimed Mr. Thomson killed Mr. Greenley to prevent the contents of those letters being exposed, he surely cannot claim that Thomson gave them to this purported hired investigator.

“Mr. Thomson was the owner of those letters. They, therefore, could not have ended up in the hands of another, except by illegal means. Whether anyone gave them to the man, or he stole them, the fact remains that the only legal means by which he could be in possession of them was if he received them from Mr. Thomson.

“I contend they are inadmissible, and request again that you so rule.”

In fact, Jarrod didn’t care how the judge ruled. He put the request forward solely for the purpose of once again highlighting that Manus had yet to raise a viable motive for the murder.

The only true damage elicited by them was the revelation of Heath’s paternity … and those most affected no longer considered it damaging.

He suspected Vanderburgh was well aware of the motivation behind his request. He also suspected the man enjoyed the legal challenge the request presented. His supposition was confirmed by the decision.

“Gentlemen, I am not prepared to render a decision in this matter without further consideration. In view of the hour I, therefore, adjourn proceedings for today and will prepare to render a decision when court reconvenes tomorrow morning.”

The early adjournment, if only marginally so, served Jarrod’s purposes. He wanted to talk to Frank … sooner rather than later.

Taking a moment to let Heath know he’d see him later that evening, and advising the family he would see them at the hotel for dinner, he made a hurried departure.

As requested Frank was waiting at the rented house.

The combination of worry and excitement precluded the civilities the attorney normally would offer. “Where is she?”

Frank laughed. “Now you’re reminding me of your younger brother.”

It did serve to remind Jarrod of his manners, and of something else.

“Which one?”

Frank laughed again. “Maybe both, but I was thinking of Heath.”

He waved off Jarrod’s attempts to explain … or apologize.

“As you requested, she’s being watched. At last report she was still at work … one floor down from your rooms. She works at this hotel and the one at which Greenley had a room. Landing jobs at the top two establishments in town, means getting top pay. It also means long hours.

“From what I’ve been able to learn, she’s a widow. She works to support her two young children, which explains her job choices.

Frank paused to let Jarrod consider that before he continued.

“Being a mother could work for us … for some reason that role confers a desire to do the right thing and ensure fair and equitable treatment. It also confers a desire to protect. That could work against us. If she is the sole support for those children she likely is not going to be quick to put her life at risk.

“This is going to require some careful handling.”

Jarrod nodded. He appreciated the marshal’s insights. Knew the man was right. “Can we protect her?”

The question caught Sawyer by surprise. “Probably as well as we can protect anyone … but not indefinitely. If Jordan wanted to get to her he could find a way to do so.”

Jarrod thought for a moment, before replying.

“She’s really not in any danger until she testifies. Presumably none of Greenley’s men … or Jordan’s … knows she was there. If they did, I’m betting she wouldn’t be alive.

“For now I just want to know what she saw. Taking the pressure off Heath … letting him know it’s no longer important for him to remember … may help bring back his memory. She only knows what went on in the room. I’d still like to know how he got there … beyond the note supposedly from me.”

Their eyes met. “What are you proposing?”

Jarrod turned away, walked across the room, and back. Repeated the action. Did so once again.

“Rachael. We’ll get Rachael to talk with her. I haven’t heard Heath say it, but I’m betting she can be kind, comforting, loving, sympathetic … and determined. She’ll not easily be denied.

“I don’t want her testifying right away. Not until we’ve got the requisite people in place to arrest everyone involved … including Jordan.”

“You sound pretty sure that whatever she saw will support Heath’s innocence.”

One dark eyebrow rose without volition. “You have doubts?”

Frank chuckled. “Not in the least. I know the boy didn’t murder anyone. Just needed to know if you were thinking legally … or stating your personal truth.”

While he might have been insulted, the attorney realized he once again was hearing Frank’s support for his young blond friend.

Can’t fault the man for that.

“Do we tell him we’ve found her?”

“Heath?”

Jarrod nodded.

“I vote we wait until we know more … whether she will talk, and what she actually saw. That boy’s been on a wild ride of late. Don’t see how giving him more maybes will be a help.”

Jarrod nodded again. “Can’t argue with that.”

He caught Frank’s eye again. “Okay. Let’s head over to the hotel. You can point her out to me, and I can talk to Rachael. See if she’s willing to do this, and get her input on how she thinks it would be best to approach the woman.”

Neither expected Rachael would turn down the request, and she did not. She proposed she follow the woman home … find some pretence to get invited inside. They agreed.

Frank pointed out the target as she crossed the lobby and headed for the front door. Rachael got him to give her directions to the lady’s house … just in case she lost her on the way.

She waited until the woman had opened her door, before grabbing the gate post and emitting a low groan … loud enough to be heard only by her quarry. As expected, she turned, and seeing someone in distress moved to help.

Had anyone with sufficient knowledge seen the performance, they might have offered Rachael a role on stage. Within moments she was in a comfortable chair, with a damp cloth on her forehead and a cool glass of water in her hand.

She took her time … didn’t rush it. In slow bits, she revealed herself. Her friendship with Leah, the pain of losing her, and terror that Heath likewise might be lost.

She talked about the young man … what he’d done for his mama … including going off to war, probably no older than the woman’s own son. Nearly dying in a Confederate prison. How he’d returned, reclaiming a spot among the living, and being a support and source of pride for his mama.

How he’d lost Cliff Ucroft, and all the hopes for the future that Cliff had represented … especially the chance, at last, to be accepted. And, the chance to give his mama what he’d longed to give her … and to have her near. She talked about all of it.

Only when she was sure the woman had some empathy for the plight of the young man did she confess that she’d been following her. She did not confess that the acting job was just that.

When the woman asked, she told her why she’d been following her, and then presented her case. Jarrod would have been delighted … and proud. He couldn’t have done a better job himself.

Convincing Sylvia Hartley to cooperate was not easy … maybe the hardest thing Rachael Caulfield ever had done. And she did it. When she left the little house, she knew what had happened that morning … at least what her new friend had seen and heard.

More importantly, she knew it was enough to free Heath … and convict Jordan. At least it would be, with a little help from a few others. She had no doubt Sawyer … or Markle … would get those others talking.

Years of experience in a mining town had taught her that when the little rumble started soon the whole thing collapsed.

She’d lost her husband that way. Now she’d save her boy.

*****

Chapter 82

Late that evening Frank and Jarrod sat with Heath. They knew they had to be careful what they told him … couldn’t give great detail.

Jarrod took the lead. “Heath, we found the lady … the one you remembered seeing.”

That got the blond’s attention. He said nothing, just gave a questioning look.

“As expected, she was there to clean the rooms. Like Fairchild, she’d heard voices in the front area and went in through the bedroom door to avoid disturbing anyone. She saw and heard it all … even before you arrived.

“Hoak was sent to get you … bring you to Greenley. She didn’t know who he was, but she heard him referred to by name.”

Jarrod paused a moment … didn’t want to rush … wanted to choose his words carefully. “You didn’t murder Greenley…. You did kill him…. It was a fair fight. It just didn’t go according to his plans.”

He glanced at Frank and waited. He wanted to see what Heath did with the information. Didn’t want to offer more … at least not yet.

He saw the look of concentration … and then of dismay. “Still don’t remember, Jarrod. What if I never do?”

He took a firm grip of his little brother’s shoulder, gave a gentle shake.

“It doesn’t matter Heath. We have an impartial witness who can testify to what, in fact, happened. Your verification of that is not important … neither for your freedom, nor to nail Jordan.

“You are going to be found not guilty. His little empire is going to come crashing down around him.”

The look of longing that emanated from those emotive blue eyes nearly undid the lawyer. He could not fail to miss the desire to believe … and the fear to do so.

He sought to comfort. “It’s going to be okay, Heath. It’s going to be okay. Just hold on … a few more days. It’s going to happen.

“I’m sorry you have to wait at all. A part of me … a large part … would like to call her to the stand first thing tomorrow … have you free by noon. We’ll lose Jordan if I do … and she may lose her life.”

As he started to go on, the blond waved him off.

“Not to worry, Jarrod. Reckon it’ll take me a few days just to get used to the idea. It’s not that I didn’t trust you … just couldn’t quite risk believing you might be successful. Couldn’t bear to think of how much worse it would be … if I let myself believe that I wasn’t guilty and then found it wasn’t the truth.”

Somehow, unbeknownst to any of them, Nick had quietly made his way into the cell. Had heard the exchange.

“If you don’t beat all, Boy. How many times we got to tell you, Counselor here doesn’t cotton to losing. And he certainly doesn’t make mistakes … never. Just ask him. If he figures you’re innocent, you bloody well better be … or you’ll never hear the end of it.”

He crossed the space separating them, lifted the young man to his feet, and wrapped him in a Nick Barkley bear of a hug. In a whisper no one would have believed possible of the big rancher, and no one else could hear, he added, “You’ll learn to trust … all of us, and yourself especially. Give it time.”

Breaking the hug, and grabbing Heath’s upper arms, he gave him a good shake, before declaring it was time to quit talking and get some sleep. The next couple of days might be busy.

Jarrod and Frank laughed. Trust Nick to figure out what was needed … and act on it. He was right. Time to get some sleep … after one little detour.

Morning had come soon enough … for everyone. One of Markle’s men had sent a carefully worded telegram advising him that they were ready to put the previously devised plan into action. That action would commence at 5:00 this evening … unless they were advised otherwise. Jarrod was quite certain John, by now, would have everything in place to respond.

The first step, which Jarrod Barkley had much earlier ascertained would be successful, would be to initiate the squeezing of Tony Bailey. That action had been delayed in the hopes that Heath’s memory would return and provide crucial informational muscle. Mrs. Hartley now had taken care of that issue.

Marshal Sawyer was confident Markle would have everything he needed to carry out his part of the plan. One of the things he’d not revealed previously was that he’d been delayed in returning due to a couple of side-trips he’d made to call in some favors.

Having done so now ensured the necessary cooperation would be forthcoming when Jarrod’s man needed it. The time had come. Having those U.S. Marshals involved would assist in counteracting any corruption at the State level.

Jarrod Barkley’s job now was to go on with the trial as if nothing new had happened. Call the witnesses he intended to call. Give nothing away.

He’d nearly forgotten that Vanderburgh was planning to start the proceedings with the ruling on his request. He found himself relieved that it was denied … figured it would help to calm the prosecutor’s zealousness.

The decision being rendered, Judge Vanderburgh invited Counselor Barkley to call his next witness. He did.

“I call Victoria Barkley.”

The hammer hit the gavel to silence the courtroom response.

Jarrod took a moment to remind himself he wasn’t to enjoy this … even a little. He was at the same time more than aware that parts of it he would not enjoy … at all.

“Mrs. Barkley, please tell this court how you came to know of the existence of the defendant, Heath Thomson.”

“I believe, Mr. Barkley, that you so advised me.”

He wasn’t sure if she was playing along … or playing with him.

“It then would be correct to say that the revelation that he is the son of your late husband, Thomas Barkley, was a surprise.”

“It would be correct to say the revelation was a surprise.”

 She’s playing along. Lovely Lady, I’m going to owe you for this one … and I will remember to tell you how grateful I am. You are one amazing lady.

“Only the revelation?”

“Yes.”

“I take that to mean that the fact that Heath Thomson is the son of Thomas Barkley, is not a surprise?”

“Correct.”

He looked at her, made sure her grey eyes met his sapphire … saw the permission that resided there and was reinforced by the nearly imperceptible nod.

“How could that be?

“I am no fool … not that I’m suggesting you might think otherwise.” He saw the lips twitch. Knew she was hiding a subtle smirk. He couldn’t hide the twinkle in his eyes, but otherwise gave no indication that he knew she was enjoying this.

“From the day I met him, until the day he was murdered … and beyond … I have loved Thomas Barkley. That was a choice I made … openly and knowingly. A choice I made in the face of the knowledge that he was an imperfect man … perhaps because of that knowledge.

“I held no illusions of there being an impossibility that he could allow himself to wander. I had no knowledge he had done so … but sufficient awareness to accept the possibility. I am not naïve. I know the potential ramifications of such wanderings.

My only regret is that, in this case, those ramifications caused great suffering for two people. Heath Thomson and his mother. Neither deserved to have paid the price for his irresponsible actions.”

He could have hugged her … not for her testimony, but for her humanity. And … for her willingness to speak such truth.

“What has been your experience of Heath Thomson … as an individual … in the time you have known him?”

She smiled. “I have found him to be a polite, respectful, considerate young man. I’ve come to learn he works hard, protects those he loves, and seldom acts without consideration for those who might be affected by those actions. He is honest to a fault … if such a thing is possible … and honorable. He values loyalty and truthfulness above all.

“He’s a credit to the Barkley name. I’m proud to have him as my son.”

She’d caught him by surprise. He hadn’t realized that she’d come to know him that well … or accept him that fully. He relished the warm pleasant sensation it gave him.

“So, in truth, you do not support the idea that he would have murdered the deceased?”

Her gaze drifted over to the jury box … and stayed there. “I do not support any such ideas. I have neither heard, nor experienced, anything that would support such an idea.”

Okay. Time to let her have some fun with Manus.

“I have no further questions, Your Honor.”

Vanderburgh, having recovered from his initial surprise at Barkley’s choice of witness, was now eagerly anticipating the potential entertainment from the cross-examination of this unflinchingly, yet deceptively, powerful woman.

“Very well. Mr. Manus, if you have questions for this witness, please proceed.”

*****

Chapter 83

Somewhere deep inside, where Daniel Manus may occasionally tell himself the truth, rested the knowledge that, political aspirations aside, the strongest enticement in taking this case was the opportunity to strike a blow to Jarrod Barkley. The possibility of doing that through the man’s esteemed mother had him nearly drooling.

“Mrs. Barkley.”

If others may have missed the disdainful tone those words carried, Victoria Barkley most assuredly did not. She nodded to him, while a nearly imperceptible smile, bordering on a smirk, and carrying a fine-edged threat, graced her face. “Mr. Manus.”

 Is she daring to challenge me? Can she be that arrogant? Like mother, like son.

“Mrs. Barkley, I’m sure the members of the jury, the honorable judge … even the public citizens … must be as confused as I over your recent statement … a statement given under oath.

“I’m quite sure I heard you refer to the defendant, Mr. Heath Thomson, as your son. He may be your husband’s …”

He stopped himself. Much as he desired to say bastard, he knew that doing so would discredit himself. “… illegitimate child, but he is not yours.”

The steel grey eyes were now flashing. “As much as the others.”

“But he does not carry your blood.” Manus could not believe she was continuing to hold with her earlier admission, was certain he could have her admit she’d misspoken.

“He carries my husband’s. That makes him the child of my husband. When my husband …” She too stopped herself, was going to say died, and knew, in this instance, it was not enough.

“… was murdered, what was his became mine. As I said, Heath Thomson is as much my child, as the others. He is my son. I see and accept him as such.”

She wants to play it that way, fine. I’ll use what she gives me.

“So, you are in the habit of altering the truth to suit your needs?”

Now she did smile, although not with glee. “I, Mr. Manus, have but one need. To have the truth be known … the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“If I have to point out misconceptions and bigotry to accomplish that, I most certainly will do so. I spoke the truth. If your circumscribed sentiments prevent you from seeing it as such … if you need to promote your own perceptions as truth, to meet your ambitious needs, that is not my doing.

“I repeat. I spoke the truth. Heath is my son. He became my son the day I learned he was my husband’s child. He will be my son forever.”

Manus was dumbfounded. The questions raced through his mind.

How could a woman of her status purport to have accepted a bastard into her family … let alone accept him as her son? How could she dare to declare that publicly?

Something was terribly amiss here … something he could not identify.

He was quite certain that whatever she was saying she was doing so at the urging of her eldest son. Somehow, disgracing her husband’s name … disgracing herself … was worth it.

How did Jarrod Barkley determine this would be advantageous to him winning this case? How could it counter the testimony of two eyewitnesses who saw Thomson shoot Greenley in cold blood?

Almost without volition, the racing questions spewed the words from his mouth. “How can you let your esteemed son force you to take this stance?”

If she could have stood she would have. If she could have slapped him she might have. Neither option being open to her, she used her words to best effect. “Mr. Manus. Let me tell you something … something I trust I will need to tell you but once. The fact that it may be well beyond your understanding is of no concern to me.

“No one … no man, no woman, no son, no daughter … no one … tells me what to think, what to believe, what to feel, or what to do.  Jarrod Barkley included.

“While this may be news to you, it is not news to my family … any of my family. Jarrod Barkley could not force me to take any stance … he knows this well enough to preclude him ever from trying.”

She decided to stop before she said more than was necessary … more than was helpful. While the words stopped, the fire that burned was still evident. Even Manus could not fail to see it. He knew enough to stop before he got further burned.

“I see.” He needed to stop there, and could not make himself do so. He turned to the jury as he uttered his final words to the witness.

“If you wish to accept as a son of yours, a man seen to have shot another in cold blood, that is most certainly your prerogative.

“I have no further questions.” He headed for his seat.

Jarrod knew better than to issue an objection of badgering the witness. Victoria Barkley would not appreciate … did not need … the protection. He had no desire to find himself on the receiving end of her disapproval.

“Mr. Barkley?” Vanderburgh was somewhat … but only somewhat … surprised that Barkley had not objected to the questioning. He suspected, like the witness said, that her son knew her well, and had no need to object on her behalf.

“I have no re-direct, Your Honor.”

“Very well. The witness may step down. In view of the hour, we will break for lunch and court will resume at 2:00 p.m.”

Jarrod rested a hand lightly on Heath’s shoulder, bent over and whispered a few words in his ear, then caught Nick’s eye, and got a curt nod in return. Nick would secure the area.

He waited for Frank to join him, before the two followed Heath and the deputy to the jailhouse. This wouldn’t take long and then they would join the others, at the hotel, for lunch. They’d let Collins feed his prisoner this time.

As soon as Nick joined them in the cell, Jarrod advised the young blond of what to expect that evening. He had no doubts the man could play his role … he just wanted him prepared. When he’d finished, Heath turned to Sawyer, his blue eyes twinkling.

“Like old times, Frank.”

Frank laughed, and punched him lightly in the shoulder, before ruffling his hair. No further words were necessary.

Jack wasn’t sure what had transpired when he came in with the expected meal. As the others left, he figured his prisoner would tell him … or not.

Lunch was a quiet affair. No one wanted to risk something important being overheard. The family decided to take advantage of the seeming lull to extract what they could, from Rachel Caulfield, about their newest member’s early life. She was guardedly forthcoming. She would not violate his trust … even for his family. Some things were his alone to tell.

In what seemed like a very short time they were back in the courtroom. Marshal Sawyer was now on the stand. Having spent some time responding to Defense Counselor’s questions in an effort to inform the jury of his relationship to the defendant and his assessment of the man’s character, not unlike what had happened in the civil trial, he was now withstanding cross-examination by Prosecutor Daniel Manus.

Again, as per the civil trial, Manus raised many of the same issues as those raised by Springer … Frank fielded them identically … and Jarrod, still confident the marshal could handle himself paid minimal attention … until Manus changed direction.

“Marshal Sawyer, would you say that a lawman operates with a fair bit of power … more power than the average citizen?”

Jarrod’s objection was heard before he was fully on his feet.

“Question is irrelevant, Your Honor.”

“I beg the court’s patience, Your Honor, as I establish the relevance.”

Recognizing his biases in dealing with these two men, Judge Vanderburgh was most aware of the need to not let those biases influence his decisions. “Objection denied. However, please be advised Mr. Manus, that the court’s patience is finite and I urge you to establish relevance quickly. The witness will answer the question.”

“I believe there is no doubt that our legal system confers upon lawman certain limited, and specific, powers … powers necessary for them to perform their duties … as it does to judges and juries … and attorneys.”

Manus persisted. “I am sure you are aware of instances in which that power was misused. Is that not so?”

“Yes.”

“Is it possible that a man, having been accustomed to power, could leave the job and yet seek to retain the power?”

“Yes.”

“So, it is possible that Heath Thomson, the man you so admired, may have left your employ, and not relinquished the power.”

“No.”

“You just stated it is possible that a former lawman could do so.”

“Yes.”

“And yet you state it is not possible that Mr. Thomson, a former lawman, could do so.”

“Yes.”

Manus turned back to Sawyer, fixing a gaze upon him that might have had a lesser man cringing. “How could that be?”

“Mr. Thomson never misused his power when he was a lawman. Mr. Thomson is not the type of man who misuses power. Makes no difference whether he was a lawman at one time, or not.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Knowing people is what I do for a living. It’s part of my job. I do my job extremely well.”

Manus realized if he tried to push this further he’d have Jarrod Barkley objecting every step of the way. He still failed to see how the blond bastard garnered such great loyalty … especially from people he would have thought should know better. It all was beyond his comprehension.

He decided that ultimately, it didn’t really matter. A thousand people could swear on a thousand bibles that the man was a saint. He had two witnesses who swore they saw him shoot a man in cold blood. The jury would have to put the facts above the sentiments … even without identifiable motivation. The testimony of the witnesses could not be overcome. Of that he was certain. He could let this go.

“I have no further questions.”

*****

Chapter 84

Judge Vanderburgh glanced at the clock. “The witness may step down. In view of the late hour court is adjourned until 9:00 tomorrow morning.”

Amid the bailiff’s, “All rise,” Frank made his way across the courtroom, down the aisle and out the door. He’d like nothing more than a drink to wash the taste of Daniel Manus from his mouth.

Jarrod hurried to catch up, and clamped a hand on his shoulder, momentarily halting his forward progress. “I’m guessing you could use a drink. Let’s head to the house. We’ve got about half an hour before we need to visit Heath.”

Frank chuckled, slowed his pace, and walked in companionable quiet with the Stockton attorney. He got his drink and a brief respite.  They made arrangements to have one more telegram sent, before they both presented themselves in front of the sheriff’s desk.

“Trust all’s ready, Jack,” Jarrod stated.

“Exactly as planned,” he replied. “Good luck.”

A couple of curt nods were his only response as the two men headed to the back and a rendezvous with a certain young blond.

“Evening Heath,” Jarrod offered as he stepped into the cell.

He jutted his chin towards the other cell and added, “We got them.”

“Yessir, my friend,” Frank cut in, “they’re going away for a long while. Perfect timing, you remembering. We needed to get our hands on that fourth man. Now we’ve got an eyewitness that can testify that they were lying.”

Jarrod kept the litany going. “Frank’s right, Heath. They’ll stand trial for perjury, accessories to attempted murder, and Bailey to attempted murder. Only by chance that blow to the head he delivered didn’t kill you.”

Heath played along. “You’re absolutely sure? No way they’re going to wiggle out of it?”

“Can’t see how. They’re just the pawns. No way Hoak is going down for this … he’ll be singing loud and clear.”

Frank cut in again. “Just sticks in my craw that he’ll likely get some sort of deal.”

“Yes, Frank, but it’ll be worth it to land the big fish.”

He looked into the other cell, let his bright blue eyes rest on the two men sitting there. “And, it will be wonderful to have scum like this off the streets of this … or any … town. They’re going away for a long time to come. My only regret is that they won’t hang.”

Heath spoke up. “Unless we can get them for Ucroft’s murder. Well not Cliff himself … I know Greenley pulled the trigger on that. But I’m betting if we ask around there’ll be someone knows how some other people have disappeared … like the person who knocked me out that day.”

“We’re working on it, my boy. We’re working on it. In the meantime, I’m sorry we had to put them in here … sorry you have to share this space with them.”

“Frank’s right Heath, but it’ll only be for tonight. You’ll be a free man this time tomorrow. All we’ve needed was that fourth man … an eye witness. Robert Hoak may get a vastly reduced sentence, but he’ll give us everyone above him … and everyone below.”

Heath nodded, looked at both, then across at the men in the adjoining cell. “And that should take care of Greenley … and anyone associated with him.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Right you are.” His attorney rested a hand on his shoulder, gave a squeeze. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got work to do before tomorrow. Want to be fully prepared to question our new witness.

“You sleep well. Tomorrow brings you freedom.”

Jarrod strode out, leaving Heath and Sawyer conversing in tones too low for the occupants of the other cell to hear. Then Frank stood, wished the blond goodnight, and himself departed.

Time for the next step.

Frank Sawyer nodded at Jack Collins and continued on his way across the room. As he reached for the knob, the door opened, admitting a man he knew but had never met. He and Jarrod had both agreed with the sheriff when he’d suggested this man should be left to him. He stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him.

Jack Collins rose to shake the man’s hand. “Sorry to disturb your evening Pete, but I believe you’ve been advised why this is important.”

He nodded and returned the greeting, “Jack.”

Peter Lomax was the local district attorney. He’d never felt particularly comfortable about the way he was convinced to turn the current murder trial over to Manus. When Jarrod Barkley had approached him late yesterday evening with this request he was happy to oblige.

“I understand you have someone from whom you’d like me to take a statement?”

“I do. Make yourself comfortable while I fetch him.”

Having dispensed with the preliminaries they got down to the questioning. It took less time than even Jarrod had expected before Bailey was telling everything he knew … fully corroborating Sylvia Hartley.

Lomax, with a steadfast, neat hand, recorded it all, and inquired once again if the prisoner wished to have legal counsel before signing.

“Ain’t any fancy lawyer going to do me any good if Hoak don’t like what I’ve said. Just give it to me.”

Peter Lomax took a moment to record that Bailey had refused legal counsel, and then witnessed the signature he placed on the confession.

They expected Pollock would be a harder nut to crack, and their expectations were met. As it got later, and the DA yearned for home and bed, he stopped being pleasant … and persuasive.

“Very well, Mr. Pollock. I’m done with you. There are two witnesses who will swear under oath that things unfolded as Sheriff Collins has described. One of whom will be more than happy to have you take full responsibility for what transpired. Might even be able to convince a judge … and jury … that you were operating against his direct orders. Convince them you took matters into your own hands.

“Might even make a case that you were blackmailing Mr. Greenley … and therefore, in essence, are responsible for the death of Mr. Ucroft.

“You need to understand that I don’t care. I have enough to put away the people that matter, and most importantly, to free an innocent man. I’m offering you an opportunity for leniency in regards to your participation. You most certainly are not required to accept the offer.”

He turned to address the sheriff.

“Thank you for your time Jack. I’m on my way.”

He rose to leave, and never broke stride as Pollock started objecting. He’d only gone a few feet, a slow few feet, down the boardwalk when the door opened and Jack called him back.

A short time later he walked away with two signed confessions tucked safely in his inner pocket. He’d stop by the office and put them in the safe, before heading home. He once again was feeling he deserved the trust the citizens had placed in him when they elected him. He’d sleep well tonight.

The quiet knocking, not long after sunrise, woke Jarrod Barkley. Automatically reaching for his robe, he grabbed his gun, as he headed for the door, and then found himself wondering.

Who would have gotten past the guards? If this was Nick, he’d kill him. Couldn’t be Nick … knock was too quiet. Mother knew better….

He was at the door before he’d sorted it out, and decided the best solution was to open it and see.

Pleasant Fairchild blinked hard at the sight before him. It truly had not occurred to him that someone as busy and important as Mr. Barkley would not have been up and ready by this time of day.

He’d knocked quietly to lessen the chance he’d distract him if he were working on something important. Quickly gathering himself, he spoke up. “Telegram for you, Mr. Barkley. Thought it might be important.”

He held forth the slip of paper, released it when it was taken, and stood waiting to see if there was a reply.

Jarrod read it and smiled. “Thank you, Pleasant. This will not require a reply.”

He reached over to the bureau top and grabbed the first coin that came to hand. The young man was startled to see the half-eagle sitting in his hand, and quickly began to protest. Jarrod waved off the attempt and sent the boy on his way. He couldn’t remember the last time a day got off to such a good start. It was worth far more than what he’d paid the young man.

Although he took his time getting ready and making his way to the dining area, he found himself starting on his second cup of coffee before his up-at-dawn-rancher brother joined him. Seeking to stave off any sarcastic quips from this same brother, he quickly handed over the telegram, and just as quickly signaled him to temper his response.

Understanding Jarrod’s concern, Nick complied. He did have a question. “Will they let him go … today? Will our little brother be a free man before sundown?”

Jarrod Barkley’s exposure to the capriciousness of juries and courtrooms guarded his response.

“Can’t promise that Nick. It will depend on the jury … and the judge. However, if neither is willing to render a verdict based on the testimony they will hear today, I am going to present again my request for bail. I believe that will be dealt with favorably. One way or another he, at least, will be free of that jail tonight.”

He caught the hazel eyes, held them for a moment, before his lips twitched slightly and he added, “Or I’m not Jarrod Barkley.”

Nick’s glare quickly turned into a laugh.

*****

Chapter 85

As the rest of the family slowly gathered for breakfast, and heard the good news, Jarrod wondered about last night’s outcome at the jailhouse. He didn’t have long to wonder. Peter Lomax entered the room, took a table over by a window, and gave him one curt nod. Success!

Currently he need only contemplate how to proceed. He now was far more confident in their ability to protect Mrs. Hartley … and her children. That made starting with her testimony a good tactic. His only concern continued to rest on her welfare … in a different way than previously.

As Manus felt his case … his win and all it represented … slipping away, he would be relentless in cross-examining her … brutal even. Jarrod could counter with objections where permitted, but he realized he would have to depend on Vanderburgh’s humanity to hold the prosecutor in check.

Having her testify first would have a more profound effect on the jury. Having the two prisoners do so would lessen Manus’s attack on her. He was torn.

The sound of his sister’s voice caught his attention. She seemed to be responding to something one of the other ladies had said. As he looked at the three women at the table, thought about the testimony the older two had provided, he realized he had his answer.

He only need ask the lady herself. Sylvia Hartley, like Victoria Barkley and Rachael Caulfield, would know what she could handle.

And so a short time later he sat beside his youngest brother, and listened to the swearing-in of the witness. He’d said nothing to the blond, knowing Frank had planned to speak with him this morning. He would be as prepared as possible for hearing, at long last, the truth of what had happened that morning. The morning that ultimately had changed all their lives.

“Your witness, Mr. Barkley.”

“Mrs. Hartley, would you please tell this court what you do for a living?”

“I clean rooms … at a couple of hotels.”

He asked which hotels and she provided the names. He also had her indicate how long she had been working at those establishments, which served to identify her as a long-term, reliable employee, but also as having been in the employ of Greenley’s hotel at the time of the shooting. He then had her confirm that she was indeed at work that particular morning.

“Mrs. Hartley, are you aware that a man was shot and killed, in that hotel, on the morning in question?”

“I am.”

“How did you come to learn that?”

Expecting the explosion from Manus her answer would engender, he caught her eyes as he asked, and sent her as much reassurance as was possible. She did not waver. “I saw it happen.”

“OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR.”

Some people never disappoint!

The outburst was followed by silence. The judge waited a reasonable amount of time, before demanding more.

“Please state your objection, Mr. Manus.”

“Your Honor, this witness was not made known to the prosecution prior to being called. It would seem that Defense Counsel has brought in someone to discredit the testimony of two previous witnesses, and is doing so at the last moment. I object to this witness testifying.”

Jarrod didn’t wait to be invited. “Your Honor, may we approach the bench?”

Vanderburgh waved them both forward.

“Your Honor, as you know, my client has very little memory of the events of that morning. A few days ago he did recall seeing a face at the bedroom door in Mr. Greenley’s suite … a woman’s face. He did not know the woman.

“That was our first knowledge that such a witness to the shooting existed. It has taken a few days to locate Mrs. Hartley.

“I beg the court’s indulgence. As will become apparent as today progresses and other witnesses are called, it was necessary to take steps first to ensure Mrs. Hartley’s safety prior to bringing her forth. I can assure you her testimony will be corroborated … by witnesses to whom the prosecutor can have no objection.”

Vanderburgh was more than intrigued. “Mr. Manus, it is not usual for a witness’s testimony to be disallowed prior to being heard. While this witness was not previously identified that is not grounds for disallowing her testimony. Should you desire, a request can be made for additional preparation time prior to cross-examination. I will rule on the request at that time.

“Please continue, Mr. Barkley.”

Manus’s fury was evident as he made his way back to his chair.

“Mrs. Hartley, would you please describe, to the best of your memory, what you saw and heard take place in that room, that morning?”

“I came to clean, and heard loud voices in the outer room. That had happened before, and when it did, I let myself into the bedroom. Started there and hoped all would have settled down by the time I’d finished that area.”

Jarrod interrupted.

“Was Mr. Greenley aware that you did that … let yourself into the bedroom to clean if he was discussing things with people in the other room?”

“Yes sir. Sometimes he would still be involved in those discussions when I’d finished and needed to do the outer room. I’d come out and begin my work there. He never said anything. I don’t think he saw me, or me hearing or seeing anything, as having any importance.”

“I see. Please continue.”

“There was a man … I later learned his name was Hoak … telling Mr. Greenley that Crown wanted the matter taken care of now … that day. He told Greenley he’d get Thomson,” she looked at the defendant, “… Mr. Thomson … and that Mr. Greenley better be ready. He then left and Mr. Greenley said something I couldn’t hear to the other men in the room.

“When I went to make the bed, I realized one of the pillows had a rip in it. I left to get a new one … took all the soiled sheets and towels with me. Don’t know what happened while I was gone. I got back and finished the work in that room. Was at the door, about to enter the outer room, when I heard a knock and Mr. Greenley called for someone to enter.

“Something made me stop … wait to see who was there before going on in. I saw Mr. Thomson step into the room. Hoak … don’t know if that’s a first or last name … was behind him. Mr. Thomson seemed to take a step back and Hoak must have pushed him forward and then closed the door.”

“Where were the other men?”

She looked around the courtroom, at the jury, then back at Jarrod. Seemed to find whatever courage she needed to continue.

“They were standing to the side of the door. They had their guns drawn. Mr. Greenley then threatened Mr. Thomson.”

“Threatened how?”

She went on to describe the conversation that had taken place. How Greenley had told Heath he could get one of his men to kill him, but he wanted it to be a fair fight. How he’d forced the blond to draw on him, and how he’d lost.

“The one man must have put his gun away at some point, because when Mr. Thomson shot Mr. Greenley he picked up a metal figure that sat on a small table … I know it because I’d dusted it every day for all the years I’d worked there … and knocked Mr. Thomson out.

“Don’t know what happened next. I gathered my things quickly, hurried out and down to the first floor. Went into one of the rooms there. Wasn’t until I was there, that I got powerful scared. I figured if they’d been planning to kill Mr. Thomson, they’d surely think nothing of killing me.”

She paused at this point in her story and turned to the jury and then to the defendant.

“I cleaned that room … took my time doing it. Calmed myself down as best I could. Then, I came out and went on to the next room … as if it was just an ordinary day. Never let on that I’d seen or heard anything … been anywhere near that room.

“I’m ashamed to be such a coward. All I could think about was my children. Since my husband died, all they had was me. If something happened to me, they’d have no one.

“I just tried to forget I’d seen anything … tried to forget I was there that day. Somehow hoped the truth would come out … they’d believe what Mr. Thomson told them.

“I’m sorry … more than you can know. But in truth, even today I don’t know what I would have done if they didn’t believe him. If Mr. Thomson were going to hang.”

*****

Chapter 86

 Heath wasn’t sure when he’d picked up the pencil, but he heard it snap when she finished her testimony. The sound seemed to crack something inside himself … create an opening that hadn’t been there before. No matter who told him he didn’t murder Greenley he hadn’t been able to believe it … at least not fully. Not until now … not until he knew exactly what did happen.

He knew what Cliff had meant to him … knew he could have done it … if he’d learned that long-ago morning that Greenley somehow was going to avoid justice. He had to know … for certain. Now that knowledge had seeped in … it would take a mite longer until the relief was felt. At least he knew.

All because of a woman he didn’t know. A lady like his mama … struggling alone to care for her children. A lady that couldn’t see the courage she would have had to possess to keep going … could only see where she’d failed … where she didn’t have enough courage. A lady who wasn’t sure she’d have any when it truly might be needed. He didn’t know what she would have done either, yet somehow he believed she would have stepped forward.

When she looked at him, the evident self-condemnation was painful to see. She had just given him back his life. He didn’t want her to lose hers in the process. He caught her eyes … winked and flashed a quick half-smile. Her face registered shock … surprise … disbelief … utter disbelief … and then relief.

As he spoke to his witness, Jarrod turned to the jury.

“Mrs. Hartley, I’m not sure any of us can say with certainty what we might do when faced with the imponderable. I can only thank you for coming forward now … for being willing to speak the truth … now.”

He turned back to her, smiled gently, and nodded slightly, before addressing the judge. “Your Honor, I have no further questions of this witness.”

Manus didn’t wait to be invited. He was on his feet and striding to the witness box. “That is a very interesting tale … very touching … perhaps even believable. Just not by all.

“Are you truly asking this courtroom … this jury … to believe you saw all this happen, as you described, and managed to escape without being seen or heard? Then, having done so, you were able to keep this knowledge to yourself … not tell a soul … and go on about your life as if it never had happened.

“You were able to continue working at the same establishment … living in the same town. The fear you say you felt somehow not prompting you to relocate somewhere else … anywhere else.”

His fixed his somber, challenging eyes on hers. “Please tell this court how that is possible?”

“Objection, Your Honor. The question is argumentative.”

While he might have had some of those same doubts himself, might have liked to hear that answer, Vanderburgh was not prepared to ignore the rules of law to satisfy his curiosity.

“Objection sustained.”

Manus was annoyed … not surprised. In any event, he’d made his point. And, a part of him did not want to pursue this. A tiny little part of him was afraid that she was telling the truth. No point in pushing it.

“Mrs. Hartley, have you ever shared this information with another?”

“With Mrs. Caulfield and with Mr. Barkley?”

“With Mrs. Caulfield? I understood she was a visitor to this town.  Why would you share this great secret with her?”

“She came by my place one day … came to talk to me. Told me they knew I’d been in the room … been seen. Seen by Mr. Thomson. She pleaded with me to tell what I’d seen … to let the truth be known.”

“So, together you two concocted this story?”

“Objection, Your Honor.”

He didn’t have to finish. The judge ruled instantly. “Objection sustained. Mr. Manus, I believe you are more than aware of the rules governing the questioning of a witness. I suggest you restrain yourself from violating them, or I will restrain you, and your questioning of this witness will be terminated. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

It was said with not even a modicum of respect, but Vanderburgh’s message had been heard, and Manus took heed.

“How is it you decided, at that point, to break your silence?”

Sylvia Hartley had expected this question … if not from Manus, from Jarrod Barkley. In truth, she didn’t have an answer … not one she could swear to. Her tongue ran over her lips a few times, perhaps helping to free them.

“I don’t rightly know … even now … even having thought about it. Mrs. Caulfield told me about Mr. Thomson … made him somehow real, not just a name … not just a man who was unjustly accused. I guess she pricked my conscience more than I could tolerate. I can’t say for sure.

“Maybe I thought I’d been identified … I’m sure that’s what I must have thought. Guess I knew I could no longer hide. I just don’t know for sure. Initially, I started to tell her just enough to get her to go away … then it all came out. It was like … once I started … I couldn’t stop.

“It had been eating at me for a long while.” She shrugged.

“So, you hid the truth for a long while. Hid it to protect yourself. And when you could no longer hide it, you told this story.

“Mrs. Hartley, how are we to know that you haven’t fabricated this entire story? How can we know that you are not continuing to hide the real truth? How do we know you aren’t more afraid of what the Barkley family might do to you, than what … who was it … Hoak?  Yes, what Hoak might do to you?”

She looked at him. Saw him for the bully he was … and was no longer afraid. She smiled. A smile readily seen by all. The only possible answer was the truth.

“You don’t … Mr. Manus.”

Jarrod was delighted. Manus was flabbergasted … confounded. He had been sure she would defend herself, and somewhere in that defense he would catch her in a lie.

What is she playing at here? How can she not defend herself?

He decided to try once more. “So, you are saying your story could be fabricated?”

“No sir. It could not. It cannot be both the truth and fabricated. And it is the truth. All I was saying is that you … you or anyone else who was not actually there … cannot know which it is.

“You don’t know if what I’ve told this court is the truth. You believe it … or you don’t. You, the judge, the jury … anyone.”

Manus wheeled to face the jury box.

“Quite right. And we have already heard testimony from two other individuals … two individuals who were there … that contradicts yours.”

He kept his eyes riveted on the jury.

“We have to decide who we will believe. A woman, supposedly too afraid to come forward with what she knew, who somehow, just now, was persuaded to do so. Or two men, also present, who have nothing to gain, and whose truth is equally plausible.

“I leave it with you to decide.”

Jarrod was struggling to withhold the smirk. It didn’t help when he heard Heath’s very quiet chortle. For a brief moment he suspected that Heath’s desire to have the wind removed from Manus’s sails was greater than his own.

The man in question had retaken his seat before declaring, “I have no further questions of this witness.”

Vanderburgh looked at Jarrod and accepted his slight shake of the head.

“The witness may step down. Court is adjourned for lunch and will reconvene at 2:00 p.m. sharp.”

They gathered at a table in the hotel dining area. All except Audra.

Earlier that morning they’d arranged for the Hartley children to be tucked away in the rented house … and Audra to stay and both entertain and comfort them. She had sent word that she would be having lunch there, with the children and their mother. She would see them all back at the courtroom. The Hartley’s would remain at the house, to partake of the amenities … and protection … offered.

While it might be a bit early publicly to celebrate, the family was in a celebratory mood. The seemingly long-hanging pall had lifted. All were aware that the mood encompassed more than Heath’s freedom. They could taste the spice of satisfaction of being so close to finally getting Hannibal Jordan … truly avenging the murder of Tom Barkley.

A nondescript young man approached the table, and caught Jarrod’s eye.

“Any word Saul?”

“Telegram says he’s due on the 2:15 stage. He’s bringing help.”

“You know what to do?”

“Yes sir. We have our instructions. It’ll be taken care of.”

*****

Chapter 87

As court reconvened that afternoon, Jarrod Barkley felt that surge of excitement he always got when he knew, not just that he would win, but that justice would be served. By the end of today there would be more people behind bars here, and in San Francisco. One of those people would not be Heath Thomson … Barkley.

When signaled to begin, he stood to call his first witness.

“The defense recalls Tony Bailey.”

He saw Manus’s head snap around, and the scowl appear on his face. He watched as the scowl turned to confusion when Bailey was ushered into the courtroom by the sheriff.

Vanderburgh reminded him that he was still under oath.

Jarrod picked up some papers from his table and approached the witness box, showing them to the man seated there. “Mr. Bailey, do you recognize these papers?”

“I do.”

“Please tell this court what they are.”

“Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?”

Jarrod had expected the interruption. It only served to fuel his sense of satisfaction. His opponent was so predictable.

“Your Honor, the relevance will be apparent when the witness answers the question.”

“Objection overruled. The witness will answer the question.”

“They are my statement about what happened when Mr. Greenley was shot.”

While, before his answer, the room might have appeared quiet, the silence now could be heard.

“When was this statement made and recorded?”

“Last night.

“This is a signed statement?”

“Yes.”

“To whom was it made?”

“To Sheriff Collins and the local district attorney, Peter Lomax. He wrote it down.”

“You acknowledge that your signature indicates that this statement was given under oath, and represents the truth as you know it.”

“I do.”

He now handed the papers to his witness. “Please read said statement.”

He did so. As he proceeded it soon was apparent to everyone present that he was corroborating what they’d heard that morning. He was also countering that to which he previously had testified.

Before he’d finished the doors to the courtroom opened and three men entered, taking seats near the back. Moments later Frank Sawyer quietly made his way over to stand in front of those doors. He expected, before the afternoon was over, those same men would attempt an early departure. He intended to have them retake their seats.

Bailey had glanced up briefly at the sound of the doors opening. Seeing the one man he recognized, briefly silenced him. He was persuaded by counsel to continue.

Jarrod had not turned to see who entered. The telegram he’d had one of the men take care of the previous day, and the one of which he’d been apprised this morning, made checking unnecessary. He knew Hoak now was in the courtroom.

Bailey continued … providing all in attendance an accounting of what transpired subsequent to Mrs. Hartley’s departure.

“Hoak rushed over to check Greenley, told us he was dead. No one moved for a few minutes, then he removed Greenley’s gun belt and stood up.

“He told us to tell the sheriff that Thomson had barged into the room and shot Mr. Greenley before they could stop him. We were to take off our guns and put them on the table over by the fireplace, and put Greenley’s in the bedroom. We would claim we weren’t armed and couldn’t stop what happened.

“We were to make no mention of Hoak ever being there. As soon as everything was in place we were to get the sheriff. No matter what Thomson claimed, it would be his word against ours, and Greenley was dead. Thomson would hang for murder and the problem would be taken care of. He would send a quick telegram to Crown and then take the first stage out of town.”

Nick had turned when Hoak entered the courtroom, and while he didn’t know any of the others he certainly recognized that one man. As he now stole a quick glance, to see how he was reacting to the testimony, he noticed Sawyer. A smile crossed his face.

He’d been sitting far too long … time to stretch his legs. He gave Frank the briefest hint of a nod as he took up a spot next to the man. His arms, seemingly of their own volition, crossed over his chest as he again focused his attention on what was being said. Before too long, things could get interesting.

“Pollock asked why we didn’t just kill Thomson like was supposed to happen. Hoak said he couldn’t see any need for any of us to kill anyone, when the hangman would do it for us. No sense in taking the risk.

“Hoak left then. We did just like he said. Told the story to the sheriff. Convinced him it was all Thomsons’s doing that Greenley was dead … he’d been shot in cold blood.”

Jarrod looked at the man.

“Mr. Bailey. What prompted you to make this statement?”

“Didn’t have much choice but to come clean. Not after the sheriff arrested me and Pollock last night. Well, not after we heard you and Thomson talking, and realized he’d remembered. When you said you had a witness, well I knew it had to be Hoak. Weren’t anyone else in the room.

“And when you said he’d get some sort of deal and he’d tell all, I knew the game was up. Figured it would go easier on us, on Pollock and me, if I just came clean. Figured I was safer in prison than out where Hoak’s, or even Greenley’s, people could get to me.”

Jarrod was leaving nothing to chance.

“So, Mr. Bailey, you are now contradicting your earlier testimony. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“You are admitting to perjury?”

Bailey hesitated, implying he hadn’t really considered that accusation as an eventuality.

“Well, don’t know about that exactly. I’m just correcting what I got wrong before.”

Jarrod stared at him. Stared hard. Said nothing. Bailey tried again.

“Well, I wasn’t really not telling the truth the first time. Was just telling what I’d been told to tell. I mean, my life would have been in danger if I’d said what exactly happened.”

Jarrod continued to stare, his now hard, cold, blue eyes riveted on the witness. He waited. It didn’t take too long.

“I guess it could be considered that … considered perjury.”

“Yes, Mr. Bailey I guess it could. Can’t imagine it being considered anything else.

“Thank you. I have no further questions.”

As he made his way back to the defense table, he addressed Manus. “Your witness.”

“So, Mr. Bailey, you would have this court believe that you provided the first version of the events of that morning to protect your own life. And, you have now provided another version, ostensibly for the same reason … to save your own life.

“How is this court to know which version is in fact the truth … or whether you may yet come up with a third version, if it might better serve to protect your life?”

Bailey’s brow wrinkled as he tipped his head to the side and ran his hand down the back and onto his neck. He took his best stab at answering a question that he clearly didn’t understand.

“Ain’t no third version. Wasn’t any reason to not just stick by what I was told until I learned that Mr. Hoak was somehow going to blame it all on me … on Pollock and me. I was going to get charged with attempted murder for hitting Thomson.

“That weren’t no attempted murder … never even planned to hit him. Didn’t have any choice when Greenley wasn’t fast enough to kill him. It’s really all Greenley’s fault. If he hadn’t got that crazy idea he wanted to prove he was good enough to take Thomson, none of that would have happened.

“If he’d just gone with the original plan, I would’ve just shot Thomson dead and claimed it was to protect….”

He stopped himself, seemingly, at that point, having his mind catch up to his mouth. Coming to the abrupt conclusion that admitting he had planned to shoot the defendant wasn’t the best defense against an attempted murder charge arising from him hitting him.

Manus was furious. How could it all be going so wrong, so fast? How could he have failed to recognize that this witness hadn’t been telling the truth in the first place? All he could do now was attempt to salvage what was left.

“So, you’ve changed your story. You’ve admitted your first plan was to kill a person outright. You’ll do, or say, whatever is in your best interest. I suggest that nothing you say can be believed.”

He turned toward the jury box.

“I would trust that the members of the jury would come to the same conclusion. I suggest that the only thing that remains certain is that Mr. Thomson, as charged, did kill Mr. Greenley and needs to be held accountable for doing so.

“I have no further questions.”

*****

Chapter 88

Hoak had heard enough. He got up and headed for the door … was almost there before he noticed the two men barring his way. He was about to push his way forward and past them when he saw the inviting smile and make-my-day gleam in the hazel eyes of the younger man. He promptly decided he’d need to bide his time and returned to his seat.

Within moments Bailey’s place in the witness box had been taken by Pollock and the process was repeated. His statement corroborated that of the previous two witnesses. When questioned, his reasons for changing his testimony, likewise, were the same.

Jarrod turned the witness over to Manus, who by now had concluded that the case was lost. He declined the offer to question the witness.

Jarrod turned to the judge.

“Your Honor, in view of the testimony heard by today’s witnesses, I request that all charges against Mr. Heath Thomson be dropped. Furthermore, I request that Mr. Robert Hoak, now present in the courtroom be remanded in custody until appropriate charges can be determined and filed.”

“Mr. Barkley, as I am sure you are aware this is not a bench trial. I am not able to grant your request. That decision rests with the jury.”

As he heard the judge’s first words, Hoak released the breath he’d been holding and barely stopped himself from smiling. He’d take care of this mess as quickly as possible … once he was out of this courtroom.

Anticipating Defense Counsel’s response Vanderburgh  hastened to add, “I do, however, rescind my previous decision regarding bail, and release the defendant on his own recognizance, pending the jury’s decision.”

He paused for the briefest of moments, before directing his gaze to the sheriff. “I have considered your additional request and hereby instruct the sheriff to remand Mr. Robert Hoak into custody. I further instruct that he remain in custody until the district attorney has had opportunity to consider the evidence against him and determine if charges are warranted.”

Hoak, instantly, was on his feet and shouting. His words were swallowed by the louder rumblings among the public and the sounds of people moving toward the doors and being interrupted in their attempts to exit the building. Neither Frank nor Nick was about to let the doors be opened until such time as Collins had taken control of Hoak.

While many were not happy about it, there was no one willing to challenge the two men.

It did not take long for Collins to accomplish the task and the subdued prisoner was soon on his way to join Pollock and Bailey, already tucked away in the awaiting cells.

A telegram was on its way to Markle. A number of cells would be filling before the night was over. Charles Crown would be in one of them. It was suspected that by morning he’d be relinquishing the necessary secrets to allow for Hannibal Jordan to occupy another.

In the midst of all else Heath had remained seated … feeling both relieved and disbelieving. Could it really be over … so quickly … so easily? Hardly seemed possible.

Then he felt two arms reach from behind, cross his chest and slide up towards his neck. When his hands came up in response and touched the fabric covering those arms, he was surprised to realize they didn’t belong to Aunt Rachael. He tipped his head back, looked upward and felt the warmth spread across his face.

Mrs. Barkley was holding tight. He didn’t know whether to be worried or terrified. He was paralyzed, and welcomed with an unexpressed gratitude the rescue that came from a certain dark-haired rancher.

“Well, Heath, my boy, let’s get you out of here. I, for one, have had enough of stuffy, old courtrooms for a long while to come.”

He shoved the table out of the way and hauled the blond to his feet.

Before anyone could say a word he had him heading out the door. Jarrod shook his head and escorted the rest.

It wasn’t over. Not even close. But the first, and most important, piece was done. Despite what he’d told Nick earlier, at this time, he harbored not a shred of doubt as to the verdict the jury would return. Time to celebrate.

Celebrate they did, although not at the hotel as Jarrod had anticipated. They ended up at the rented house where there soon appeared more than enough food and drink for all. Heath refused to come indoors. Frank understood … Rachael too. They both joined him on the front porch, sitting in quiet contemplation and immeasurable gratitude for the long-hoped-for and not-to-be-expected opportunity.

He couldn’t recall ever feeling the air so fresh, or the stars so bright. Not even after the liberation from Carterson, when the subsequent days were a blur of pain and intermittent near-imperceptible consciousness. This moment he could savor … and remember until his dying day.

He knew he had someone to thank. He’d get to that later. It wasn’t a thing to be rushed.

Boy howdy, how do you thank a man for giving you back your life? For giving you this? Words ain’t going to seem enough … and they’re all I’ve got. Guess I’ll just have to do the best I can.

For a moment a ghost of a smile touched his lips.

If I still had that stallion I could make him a thank you present. Can’t see he’d have much use for such a horse, but I’m betting he’d enjoy how much it would rankle Nick that he had him.

He released a quiet chuckle.

It’s not to be. Guess I’ll just have to settle for words.

The opportunity for those words came later that evening, and as Heath expected, Jarrod attempted to brush them off. He was having none of it. This man had to understand that none of his actions … none … were being taken for granted.

“Jarrod, it’s not just the legal piece … what you did to get me free. It’s what you did when Springer revealed the letters … what you did with the family. I wasn’t there, but somehow I know that you told them in a way that allowed all this to happen. Allowed them to be willing to take me into your family. There’s just not words for that….”

He stopped himself there, for indeed, there weren’t words. He turned his emotive blue eyes on his older brother’s darker ones and let them speak for him. No more words were spoken, or necessary. Jarrod gave him a Nick-like back-of-neck grasp and shake, then patted his shoulder. It was enough. They had both spoken clearly.

Thinking about it later, Jarrod was somewhat surprised. Not that Heath would thank him, but the earnestness of his need to be sure his appreciation was understood and accepted.

Over the last several weeks, and his occasional conversations with people who, over the years, had known this little brother, Jarrod had come to realize how accomplished he was … in many, many ways … in different arenas.

And yet he had this great humility … humbleness … to him. Almost like he didn’t see himself as accomplished, and certainly didn’t see himself as deserving of such help … or acceptance. He knew in that moment that if he ever did anything for this young man, he wanted to be able to change that. Hoped he and the family somehow would come to instill in him that missing sense of deservedness.

Late the next morning, having been called back to court with word that the jury had reached a decision, he sensed the outer look of controlled unaffectedness was masking an inner wad of trepidation … even anxiety. He wasn’t surprised …entirely.

Jarrod Barkley really wasn’t uncertain of the outcome … and yet … always in the background lingered that … possibility. The only thing that engendered the slightest apprehension was the length of time it took for the jury to return. That usually indicated at least one member was holding a different view.

Could it be possible that someone on the jury was being subjected to external pressures? He suspected Heath knew enough about the system … the ways things could go wrong, to wonder the same thing. Hence the uncertainty.

There was no means of offering assurances. They sat and waited for the bailiff to call the proceedings to order and for the judge to go through his routine. And then the moment had come.

“We the jury find the defendant,” the foreman looked directly at Heath, “… not guilty.”

The blond looked back, unseeing and unreadable. He just stood there, paralyzed … with fear … and relief. Relief as the words slowly sank in and were absorbed … understood … believed.

In that moment his legs lowered him slowly into the waiting chair. They seemed to have lost the ability to hold his weight. He sat.

Eventually he felt the hand on his shoulder … looked up … saw Jarrod. Saw him nod … and smile. He stayed focused on the face, on the smile. And then he knew … truly knew. He smiled back. It was over.

He stood. Welcomed the hugs, handshakes and congratulations from all those gathered in front of him. Was surprised at how many there were … including Jack Collins. This time it was Victoria who stepped forward and rescued him from the throng.

“Well, young man, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some lunch. Would you be so kind as to escort me?”

As she drew his arm through hers and started him moving towards the door, she looked back over her shoulder and added a comment.

“Jarrod can pick up the bill.”

Then she laughed … and tightened her grip on his arm. She had him … she wasn’t about to let him go … not here and now … not ever.

 *****

Chapter 89

Judge Stuart Brackenbury was aware of what had transpired, over the last few weeks, in the Greenley murder trial. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’d been following it, but it was hard not to know … at least some of it.

Ever since the Barkley family had become involved it was hard to go anywhere and not hear some piece of news, or opinion, expressed … either within the legal community, or the town.

It was no surprise to him then, to find young Counselor Barkley in his chambers, requesting the continuance for the civil suit be set aside and the case reconvened. In accordance with his previous decision, and in view of the complainant being exonerated of all the criminal charges, he saw no reason to deny the request.

Jarrod wasn’t sure if Springer would continue to oppose the claim. Certainly, he could act on behalf of Greenley’s estate … probably be paid through it … but would he wish to do so? There was only one way to find out, and now was an opportune time. He set out in the direction of Springer’s hotel, his mind drifting back to lunch the previous day, and the conversation he’d had with his youngest brother.

Jarrod had joined them, taking the seat they’d saved for him. He relished in the admixture of joy, relief and contentment he saw around him, and knew he could add to the first.

“Thank you for saving me a spot.”

His words got their attention, and stopped the light babble that had preceded his arrival.

“Alright, out with it Counselor … before you choke on the feathers.”

 Nick’s challenge was readily taken in the bantering easiness in which it was delivered.

 “Your every command is my greatest desire … and so I present,” he pulled forth the telegram, waving it for all to see, “confirmation that Mr. Charles Crown has succumbed to the overwhelming evidence of his involvement in this wretched scheme, and provided the necessary information to prompt the arrest of Hannibal Jordan.

 “He is, as I speak, behind bars, facing charges for a number of things, including accessory to the attempted murder of Heath Thomson, accessory to the murder of Clifford Ucroft and,” he paused to take a breath, struggling even now with the reality of what he was about to say. “… and … accomplice to the murder of … Thomas Barkley.”

Victoria looked at him, let the words settle, first in her head and then in her heart. Could it be true?

“Is it for sure Jarrod? Can they really get him?” It was barely whispered.

“Markle’s words are,” he turned his eyes to the telegram, “Lady Justice has risen up … and Hannibal Jordan is going down.

“John isn’t given to hyperbole. He wouldn’t say it if he wasn’t very, very sure.”

He looked at his mother, fully understanding what this meant for her … meant for all of them. Before he could state that, Audra spoke. Her soft voice seemed to give more credence … and more power … to the words than might have been evident coming from either Nick or Jarrod.

“Justice … after six long years. And not by any means we’d ever imagined.”

She turned her gaze to Heath. Smiled at him. Shared what all were thinking.

“Thank you for giving us this. Never could have happened without you going in search of … demanding … justice.”

Heath hadn’t managed to gather himself enough even to formulate a refutation of her assertion. His struggle to do so was evident to all. This time it was Jarrod’s turn to rescue their younger brother.

“As usual, our little sister has spoken the unadulterated truth. And that reminds me. Tomorrow I plan to put a motion before Judge Brackenbury to reconvene the civil trial. Not sure how long it will take to get onto the docket.”

That did serve to distract the blond from his attempt to deny any contribution to the justice the Barkley family had sought, and instead created a puzzled look as he asked, “Why?”

Not understanding the question, Jarrod had begun to explain that it couldn’t be scheduled until there was a courtroom available. He’d been waved off.

“No. Why go on with it?”

Now it was Jarrod’s turn to be confused. Why would he want to drop it? It took him a minute before he realized Heath never had been party to the whole explanation behind Greenley’s efforts to acquire the Ucroft place … and all the other places he’d purchased. Or rather, that Jordan likely had purchased.

“If you don’t proceed Ucroft’s place will be claimed as part of the assets of Coastal and Western, as will the other places. A railway will likely be built on those lands. I’m thinking that is not what you would want.

“The only way for that to be stopped is for you to proceed and hope you win the case. All the assets in Greenley’s estate will be yours … at least if we get the level of settlement we’ve requested.”

Heath had looked at him for a moment … obviously was considering the information … and the ramifications. He nodded.

“Don’t want none of Cliff’s lands in anyone else’s hands. Don’t care about the others. Wanted all of it before to destroy the man, what he had … saw it as a measure of justice. I got my justice, but I want to protect Cliff’s place … his dream.”

He’d assured his brother he’d get started immediately. Explained that the sooner they got a judicial decision, the less likely the estate would be tied up with legal wrangling among outside interests … like railroad companies. Heath had agreed to let him do what he thought best.

Springer remained the wildcard. If he was willing to concede, it could be wrapped up quickly. If he just refused to continue as legal counsel the court would be forced to assign someone to represent the estate. That could create new delays … difficulties.

*****

He was about to knock the second time, when he heard the doorknob turn, and the door was eased open. He nodded at the man standing there and waited to be invited in.

It took Springer a moment either to remember his manners … or decide what he wanted to do. He invited him in, but no more.

“What brings you here?”

Deciding that Springer wasn’t interested in engaging in pleasantries, Jarrod opted to get directly to the point.

“I put a motion to Judge Brackenbury to rescind the continuance on the civil case. He has granted my request and should have a date by this afternoon. In view of what has transpired, I wanted to see what your intentions might be.”

Nathan Springer turned away, moved to the window and looked down on the street. He was not a happy man, and he was irked that Jarrod Barkley had the audacity to question his intentions … about anything.

If the truth be known … to him … he’d have seen that his annoyance with the man coming to see him had little to do with Jarrod Barkley and a great deal to do with Nathan Springer and his current displeasure with himself.

“What gives you the right to question my intentions?”

Jarrod barely stopped himself from replying in kind. He hadn’t been sure how the attorney would respond to his question, but something didn’t seem right.

Time for a different tact.

“You know Nat, we may not ever have been friends exactly, but I would have considered you a respected colleague … would have thought you’d give me the same consideration.

“There’s no doubt we’ve butted heads a time or two. Always thought that was over cases, and representing our respective clients. Never considered it personal. Until now.”

He got no response … not even an indication that he’d been heard.

At that point he decided he might as well put all his cards on the table. He was betting Springer might not like it … also betting it might give him the point he’d been hoping to win.

“A long while ago you told me that cases were won on research … that you made a of point of researching everyone involved. I remembered that in this instance … figured you’d find out everything you could about Heath. I shared that with him. Told him I needed to know everything … that it could cost him the case if you found something I didn’t know about.

“He told me … everything he knew. Nothing was more important to him than securing what he considered justice for Ucroft. That included his reputation … his life. I knew he’d not held back … knew he had no knowledge of those letters.”

He gave himself a moment before continuing. Needed to be sure he wanted to finish this the way he’d intended when he started. Springer’s continued silence pushed him on.

“More important than that was the fact I, myself, followed your advice. I had everyone investigated … including you.”

He paused for just a moment, just long enough to be sure Springer heard him, not long enough for the man to respond. “It wasn’t your fault you know … what happened to your brother.”

That snapped the head around … had Springer staring at him. For a moment the eyes flashed, then he composed himself.

“I don’t have a brother.”

Jarrod was now beyond where he could stop himself.

“Not anymore … at least not alive. And I repeat. You weren’t responsible. It wasn’t your fault he was hung … even if you think it was. Yours or your father’s.”

*****

Chapter 90

Jarrod had paused briefly to consider how to continue, how much to share. He decided at this point nothing less than the full truth would suffice.

“Got my investigator to dig all the way … did what you think you failed to do. Found what you think you missed. Sometimes the truth can be more painful than what we believe the truth to be.

“If you had dug deeper, you would have discovered he deserved to hang. He, in fact, was guilty. Wasn’t the horrible person they made him out to be, just a young man who made some poor decisions … especially in whom he chose as friends.

“They convinced him it was just a lark … nothing but all of them having some fun. Only they were dead serious … and when it was over a man lay dead. Your brother was the person who shot him … they made sure of that. He was the only one with a gun that was loaded.

“So, you stood and watched him hang and swore you’d never again lose a case by not doing the research … not knowing everything. Only, it would have made no difference. Had you done all that research, learned all there was to learn, you would have accomplished nothing but to put yourself … and your father … in a conundrum.

“You would have known that the truth was he’d murdered a man. And you would have had to reveal what you knew, or forever live with having concealed the truth.”

Not knowing whether he should continue was of little significance. Having started down this path Jarrod Barkley could no more stop himself, than he could stop a rolling train.

“I suspect, for your father, that losing the case, watching his son hang, was painful enough to usurp his strength … his will to live. Doubtless led to his death less than a year later. I also suspect that knowing his son murdered another man, would have been a thousand-fold more painful.

“That is something for which he would have blamed himself in a much more profound and painful manner than losing the case. With the latter he saw himself as having failed his son as his lawyer. The former represented failing him as a father.

“I’m sorry you lost your brother … that you believe you can’t acknowledge he ever existed. Possibly you thought that exposing Heath’s parentage, maybe destroying my father’s reputation somehow would ease your pain.

“It didn’t work. In the end, thanks to you, I gained a brother … and yours still remains lost to you.”

Springer’s dark eyes remain riveted upon him, but his head now was shaking slowly, repetitively, side to side, as if trying to dislodge something.

“It can’t … it’s not … he couldn’t … you’re … you’re wrong.”

“Part of me wishes I were. The other part hopes that the truth might set you free from this guilt you’ve carried all these years. The guilt that’s driven you to win every case … no matter the cost. To you … or others.”

It was time to wrap this up. Leave the man to deal with his own demons.

“I guess, in truth, I came here to ask you to consider ceding the case. I don’t think I was aware of that until just now. I want my little brother to be able to get on with his life. He needs to have all this behind him for that to happen.

“Your decision. I’m sure you’ll hear from the court clerk as soon as a date has been determined. I’ll see you in court.”

He turned and made his way to the door, opened it, then closed it quietly behind him. He wasn’t sure in that moment if he was pleased or disappointed in himself.

*****

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Rachael Caulfield was making plans to return to Strawberry. The Barkley women had invited her to come and spend some time with them at the ranch, but she’d said it was time to go home. They might not understand, but she’d left Hannah alone far too long … she’d be worrying.

Victoria did understand. Jarrod arrived in the middle of the frank exchange of opinion regarding how she was to get home. Heath, perhaps more than anyone, acutely cognizant of her contribution to how things had turned out, was insisting he’d escort her. He couldn’t see any need for his continued presence.

Jarrod disagreed. “I understand why you’d want to see this special lady safely home, but you need to be here when that civil case starts. That could be as early as tomorrow.

“I do agree that she’ll not be making her way home alone. McColl got her here, I’m sure he can step in again. Barring that, I have men, Nick too. I’m sure one of us can provide a reliable escort.”

That was Nick’s opening. Ever since yesterday, he’d had a concern he’d wanted to share with big brother. Mother would need to hear it sooner or later, might as well be now.

“Do you think the threat’s over, Pappy? Seems to me Jordan’s got mighty long arms.”

He stopped himself from saying more. Figured there was no need to spell it out, and if Audra didn’t get it, so much the better.

The thought had weighed on Jarrod’s mind as well, and he wished he knew the answer. He wasn’t keen to have his freedom limited as it had been … he’d like the ability to come and go without someone always knowing where he was … where he’d been. It was getting stifling.

He had to admit he was far more worried about his mother and sister than he was about his brother.

There it is again. Will it ever become automatic to think brothers?

And, thinking about it now, it occurred to him that his youngest brother was likely in the greatest danger of all. Before he could say anything, that brother spoke.

“Ain’t no way to know. There’ll always be Jordans lurking out there. I got no problem with being careful, but I’m not prepared to keep this pack of protection following me about. Not much use to getting out of that cell just to be put in another … one of my own choosing.”

Nick knew he was right. While he would have liked to keep the men in place for the rest of his family, he wanted back his own freedom. Once again it was Audra who made it clear.

“Thoughts of Jordan either continue to haunt our daily lives … or they don’t. Guess we get to decide.”

She looked at her mother, then at Jarrod. “We’ve waited six years to be shed of him. I’m ready. Don’t want him being part of my life ever again.”

Nick chuckled a couple of times, before he broke into outright laughter. “Little sister, you do beat all,” he gasped.

Victoria moved over beside her only daughter, sliding an arm around the back of her waist. “Audra’s right. The men go back to protecting cattle and crops. The Barkley family will live their lives unencumbered by fear.”

One look at her and everyone knew the decision was made. There were times when no one questioned Victoria Barkley.

“Boy howdy, I’m ready.”

They all laughed. Together. It served to chase away any remaining tendrils of fear, and fill the space with peace. That feeling had been too long missing.

“Aunt Rachael still needs to get home … and she’ll not be traveling there alone.”

He looked hard at her and the love and care she saw overrode her desire to fight him on this. She could compromise … occasionally.

“Alright, young man. However, you will be staying here. Your brother needs you … you’ll not be leaving him stranded to get me home, when there are plenty of able-bodied men who can do the job.”

All heads had turned and were now staring at her. Maybe Victoria Barkley wasn’t the only woman in the family capable of having the final word. If that were true, Nick was going to ensure he’d be the male counterpart.

“Can’t see as how I’m needed here anymore. I’ve got a ranch to run. We all have things we need to be doing. Time to get done with law and back to living.

“I suggest we pack up and catch today’s stage and then we’ll take the private car to Stockton. Aunt Rachael will come with us and we’ll find someone to escort her home from there. Time to go home folks.”

He’d spoken and, as so often happened, Jarrod was surprised at how clear it was that the decision was made. This time there was more. In this instance he was envious of how quickly and seemingly easily Nick had made the transition to accepting the family additions.

He’d not missed the ‘Aunt Rachael’ and what it meant. In Nick’s mind she was now family … as much their aunt as Heath’s. The fact she was no blood connection to any of them, was of no import.

Just like that, it’s done for him. Like she’s always been here … like Heath has always been our brother. Wish I knew how he did that. Wish I could do it as well. I will get there. Will just take more effort … more thinking.

 Maybe that’s the difference. Nick has always said I spend too much time thinking. He acts … sometimes he thinks first. But once he’s made a decision he gives it no more thought. From that point forward he simply acts on it … as if there had never been any decision involved.

We’re different. Will be interesting to discover Heath’s approach to life.

That same move to action had Nick taking his older brother aside, long before they all had an opportunity to gather at the stage depot and climb aboard, or wish those who did a safe journey.

“What’s up Pappy?”

*****

Chapter 91

Nick’s question had Jarrod giving him that raised eyebrow, I’m-innocent look, he’d perfected over the years. Nick was having none of it.

“Don’t give me that. Something’s wrong. It’s written all over you. Save us both a lot of time if you just come clean.”

Jarrod was surprised. He truly hadn’t thought his doubts about his conversation with Nat were visible … at least not readily so. The rancher was right … denying it … or attempting to … only would serve to prolong the discussion.

He came clean.

“So, somehow you think telling him the truth was … what?”

Jarrod was frustrated … as much at himself as at his brother.

“I don’t know Nick. I’m not in the habit of sticking my nose in other people’s business … unless they ask me to do so.”

Nick snorted … which took Jarrod from frustrated to irritated.

Nick backed off … a little. “Okay, I’ll grant that you don’t always actively stick your nose in where it’s not invited. But that don’t stop you from thinking about their business … and those thoughts eventually create some sort of action.

“Maybe this time you did more acting than thinking. Maybe that’s what’s got your knickers in a knot.”

That earned him the patented Jarrod Barkley contemplative look. Far preferable … in Nick’s opinion.

Flicking his head up from where he’d been studying the carpet, his blues met the hazels. He rubbed his hand over his mouth, moving it to support his chin as it absorbed the several, short, thought-laden nods his head produced.

“You’re right. I hadn’t thought it out clearly. Hadn’t even known ahead of time what was taking me to Springer’s room. I didn’t want to know what he was planning … I wanted to urge him toward a specific decision. I was hoping he’d back down, cease to defend the civil action.

“God Nick, I just want this over. For Heath … for all of us. When he became so obnoxious … uncooperative … I don’t know … uninviting … I just acted….”

His voice trailed off. That was really the issue. Not that he’d told Springer the truth … that he’d done so without thorough consideration. He’d done so without thinking. Whether it ultimately proved to be the right thing to do … proved helpful to the man … he’d not stopped to consider the outcome. Damn!

Standing and watching, Nick was sure he could see the wheels turning in the counselor’s head … and the trails down which they were moving. Could almost see the marks they left behind.

“Jarrod, remember what you said about Father … when you found out about Heath. What it meant … how it didn’t diminish him, just made him easier to love. Made it poss