A Wolf in the Fold (by Pat Thompson-Dumas)

Summary:  This is a WHI for Season 1, Episode 2 titled “Forty Rifles.”  Alternative Universe:  Tom Barkley is still alive; pre-series timeline, roughly three years after the end of the Civil War.  This story uses the same Alternate Universe initially used for my series of “Young Barkleys” stories under the umbrella title of “EXPLANATIONS,” though this stands alone, and is set later in the time period.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG-13
Word Count:  49,591

 


Chapter One

 1868, San Joaquin Valley

From a distance, the vast expanse of the western portion of the Barkley Ranch seemed dotted with red and white ants, with the occasional black or brown insect on the perimeters pushing and directing the mass further to the northwest all within what appeared to be a puff of brown/gray smoke. 

The Sutter Buttes cut the seemingly unending sky, giving a focus to the central image of constant movement, pulsing outward then being pushed back.  The Barkley herd was on the move.

Seated up on his vantage point, Thomas Barkley looked over the roughly 2,300 head of cattle being readied for the drive to San Diego and the waiting Army quartermasters.  For more than 20 years, Tom had overseen this late summer endeavor; over time his boys Jarrod and Nicholas, and now young Heath, had participated with the hands. As the years had gone on, Jarrod’s interests had clearly pointed him toward higher education and a courtroom rather than a corral, allowing second son Nick to step in to become Tom’s heir apparent, the second-in-command of Barkley Ranch.  Now 22, Nick was proving himself to be invaluable to Tom as the 50-year-old rancher expanded and solidified his holdings in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

In fact, as Tom looked over his domain, he had to acknowledge this new venture, this bold attempt to try to gain a greater price per head by making a connection directly to the Army, had been put forth by young Nick, after the young rascal had made some connections utilizing his own contacts.  His daring proposal was backed up with strong alliances first forged and then solidified through Jarrod’s connections with other ranchers in the Valley.  Tom had the feeling that, for the first time, Jarrod and Nick were truly working together to forward the position of Barkley Ranch in California.  How could he fault it?  This had been his dream, his sons working together, since the moment his wife had first given birth to Jarrod Thomas Barkley. . .  Tom’s bloodline carrying the family legacy into the future for the family in generations to come.

Tom heard hoofbeats approaching from his right, and glanced over his shoulder, grinning to see Vic, his partner in everything that was important to him – his family, his ranch, his life – galloping up on Misty Girl, slowing down to bring herself beside him. 

Victoria Barkley angled her mount up beside her husband and reached out with a grin, winking at him and patting his arm.  “Another round-up finished and a drive in the making.”

Tom laughed and nodded. “This time you won’t have to swill bad whiskey to keep from freezin’ to death, my lovely,” he agreed, grinning at his tiny wife.

She gazed out over the herd and allowed her sharp grey eyes to target a few men. . .  old Brahma, who’d been with Tom forever. . . yes, McColl, his foreman and best friend . . .  and there was Nick, centered at the swing point of the cattle, three men at his side assisting him in having the herd make the turn toward the Barkley Ranch holding pens. 

“He’s doing well,” she said proudly, nodding toward their second son.

Tom followed her gaze and smiled, as well.  “He is.  Nick’s got a sense of this ranch… he knows the direction you and I knew we wanted it to go.  Even this . . .  plan . . . ”

Victoria kept herself from chuckling, knowing that Tom likely wanted to fill in the space before ‘plan’ with something like ‘cockamamie’ . . .  

“Well, he and Jarrod seem to have it all figured out,” Tom finished, smiling a bit to himself as he shook his head.

She glanced towards the rest of the men, frowning.  “Where’s Heath?”

Tom gestured toward the back of the herd, and Victoria chuckled.  “Oh, Tom . . .  you’re making him ride drag?”

“He’s green.  It’s both where he’ll learn the most and where he can do the least damage,” grinned her husband.  “But I’ll tell ya . . .  he learns fast, that boy.  He won’t be in that position long,” he said proudly.  Victoria smiled at him; Heath had been with them nearly a year, now, and he was proving to be every bit as capable as his next older brother.  And his normally quiet, calm temperament was an excellent counterbalance for Nick’s iconoclastic nature, and even occasionally for his father’s deep intensity. 

Heath was the product of a short-lived affair Tom had had while he and Victoria were suffering from an extremely difficult time in their marriage.  There had been so many strange and difficult events converging to create the perfect storm that had been his time with Leah Thomson back in the mining town of Strawberry 17 years earlier.  The more Victoria thought about it, the more she believed there was a reason behind everything.  When Leah had passed away the year before and Tom had been alerted that he had another child thus bringing Heath into their lives, there was no denying it had been a shock.  But Victoria Barkley, much like her second son, was an impetuous soul; she had implicit faith in the good Lord above and His grand hand at the loom creating the tapestry of their lives.  The colorful strand that Heath’s existence painted into the weaving of her family’s story was something she wouldn’t trade for the world.  She had come to love this blond, quiet, talented and loving boy – their wonderful middle child – as dearly as the four children of Tom’s that she’d borne herself.

Over the dry desert air, they could hear their second son’s bellow, “Heath!” and watched the rugged young black-haired cowboy gesturing off to the side.

*****

All the way toward the back of the herd, on his bay horse, the sixteen-year-old blond squinted against the cloud of dust kicked up by this passel of fractious beeves and saw movement against the horizon.  Nick had told him that Father liked to get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the herd before the drive commenced, and he saw not only Father up on Apollo – a distinctive nearly 17-hand grey, but also the tiny figure of his stepmother on Misty Girl at his side. 

Under his neckerchief, the boy grinned to see them.  Partners . . .  in everything, he thought, shaking his head in wonder.  Victoria Barkley gave as good as she got, and truth be told, he adored her and would do anything in the world for her.  Father loved him, he had no doubt, but Mother – as she’d fast become to him in his almost eleven months on Barkley Ranch – had been the one to make him feel at home.  He raised an arm and waved up at his parents, grinning tiredly under his bandanna to see them both wave back at him.  Boy howdy, but it’d been a long day already . . .

‘HEATH!”

Startled back to the present, the 16-year-old swung his head back to the ramrod, his next older brother, Nick Barkley, and followed Nick’s gesture: a stray, off to his far side, moving at a good clip.   

Soaked in sweat and streaked with trail dust, Heath grimly glanced back at his older brother in annoyance but set his lips and kicked his mount into motion, swinging his coiled lariat. “HY-ah! HY-ah!” he yelled, galloping to head off the wandering animal.  He and his horse expertly prodded at the heels of the wayward beef, making it bellow in annoyance and fight him at several turns.  But Heath stuck with it, swearing under his breath as the steer tried to dodge him over, and over again.  Finally, the boy won out, and the steer trotted obediently back toward the rest of the herd. 

Wearily, Heath pulled the bandanna tied over his face out far enough to rub the sweat from his eyes and cheeks, then let it drop down around his neck as he gulped in the searing hot air.  He swiveled his head around, looking for other strays, saw none, then glanced again toward his older brother who grinned, and offered him a thumbs up before shouting orders to another hand.

Heath snorted, shaking his head with a small lop-sided smile.  Well, I reckon I’m learnin’ the business, he thought ruefully, coughing and dragging his bandanna back up over his nose and mouth and getting back to his position in drag.

*****

Victoria smiled to herself as she watched the 16-year-old spur his horse into movement, smoothly controlling the animal while pushing, nudging the fractious steer into compliance to rejoin the rest of the herd.  She glanced back toward Nick, already directing more hands to gather the threads of the herd then yanking off his hat and galloping off to waylay several on his own.  Smiling, she glanced back at her husband, seeing the pride on his face as he studied his boys, and looked out over his domain.  A lifetime’s achievement, she thought, nodding to herself.  You’ve earned it, Thomas Barkley.

“Well, I’m going to head back to the house,” she declared, gathering Misty Girls’ reins, “You and your sons have things well in hand . . .  Speaking of sons, Jarrod will be heading back to San Francisco day after tomorrow.   I want to be sure he’s got everything he needs for his trip.”

Tom smiled and glanced down at her. You and your sons . . .  That had a real good ring to it.  “All right, my lovely.  We’ll see you tonight at supper.  A lot to do today . . .  daresay the boys and I won’t make it in until then.”  He gently took her small hand, slipping his own big fingers under her delicate ones, drawing them up for him to kiss her knuckles.  “Thank you,” he said simply.

She looked at him, surprised. “For what?”

“For everything,” he grinned at her, his blue eyes dancing. 

Shaking her head at him, but smiling as well, she turned her horse’s head toward home.

*****

As Heath watched three of the other hands move into a chevron to push the cattle forward, Heath dropped behind to further watch for stragglers.  He spotted no straying beeves . . .  but did see three human ones.  Frowning, he glanced up toward the swing position to see if Nick was aware.   But his older brother was leaning over Coco’s side, talking into Duke’s ear, and gesturing pretty strongly.  He was clearly too wound up about something to notice three saddle bums relaxing in the afternoon sun.

Heath turned his head up toward where his parents had been, and saw that Father had turned from up on the bluff and was riding down toward point.  Heath bit his lip under his bandanna and glanced back again to the three hands.  Frowning, he recalled a conversation with his brothers Nick and Jarrod a couple nights back . . .

“Boy, you’re a Barkley.  What you say goes, same as the rest of us,” Nick had declared as they relaxed in front of the fire after supper, the two older brothers sipping Scotch, while Heath had to make do with cider, to his annoyance . . .  and not hard, either.

“That a fact,” he snorted, gazing into his glass, a grim smile on his face.  “Tell that to the men.  You were born to that Barkley name, Nick . . .  kinda gives you immunity, don’t ya think?”

Jarrod raised an eyebrow, glancing at Nick.  “Are the men giving you any trouble, Heath?”

Startled, the boy looked up, and shook his head.  At his older brothers’ clear disbelief, Heath shook his head again and waved a hand. “I can handle the men,” he responded, frowning, getting to his feet, carrying his glass and walking toward the big hearth, gazing into the fire.

“Then what is it?”

“There’s some kinda… I don’t know, somethin’ runnin’ underneath the surface,” Heath sighed, trying to put his thoughts into words, “like an underground creek under a mineshaft, weakenin’ the floor.  Can’t put my finger on it.”  He sighed and planted a hand on the mantel, swallowed down his cider and offered a rueful smile over his shoulder at his older brothers. “As for me, well . . . Not only am I the youngest on the range, but my  . . .  well, let’s just say that my blood lines are called into question now’n again.”

Nick tossed back his drink, too, making a face, and glared. “By who?”

But Heath shook his head. “Nope, you aren’t gonna fight my battles for me, big brother,” he said firmly. “It’s not your problem.  I’ll take care of it, but -“

“These are my men,” snapped Nick, marching to the drinks stand and grabbing the decanter of bourbon, pouring himself another drink, then hesitating a moment.  Finally, he glanced back at the door and listened for either of their parents (or worse yet, a little sister or brother!), set his mouth and marched to his little brother’s side and poured a finger’s worth of amber liquid into the boy’s glass.

Surprised, Heath stared at him, then down at his glass.  Jarrod had chuckled, then, and stretched out his own long legs, nursing his Scotch as he watched the proceedings.

“So, like I said, boy . . .  my men, my problem!” Nick declared, clicking his own glass to Heath’s.  “They start winnowing out another man, causing trouble, and it’s most definitely my problem!”

Raising an eyebrow, the blond youngster held his ground.  “That what you’d’ve said to Gene?” he asked softly.

Startled, Nick straightened again, and Jarrod chuckled, raising an eyebrow. Nick glared at his older brother and tossed back his drink in a quick gulp.   Nick thought about the issue, and finally sighed, studying his younger brother.  “Look, Heath . . . I can’t help and I can’t run a smooth ship if I don’t know what’s going on,” he said finally.  “I’m not trying to fight your battles . . . I’m trying to keep an army whole.  The chain of command keeps an operation this big running smooth.  When you try to go around it, everything falls apart, like a house o’ cards.  Do you understand me?”

Nodding, Heath cautiously sipped his drink, savoring the sharp taste, then closing his eyes as the alcohol burned its way down his throat and spread warmth through his belly. This sure isn’t the rotgut the saloon in Strawberry serves!  “I’ll handle it,” he promised with a smile.  “I’ve crossed a few hills, big brother.  Trust me.”

“You are without a doubt the stubbornnest little cuss I’ve ever come across,” Nick sputtered, while Heath continued to smile at him.  “Won’t listen to anybody . . . “

Now, Heath firmed his lips, nodding to himself – sorry, Nick, but this is my problem, not yours – and trotted his horse over toward the three.  Barrett, Lillard and Brown.  Hm . . .  He knew Barrett hated his guts, but aside from the other two just following that blowhard around these last weeks, he didn’t really know where they stood.

“Lillard . . .  Brown . . .  I heard Nick tell you two to pick up flank not fifteen minutes ago,” Heath said quietly.  “And Barrett, McColl directed you take up the drag with me.”  When no one moved, he leaned forward, his blue eyes growing steely and cold. 

“Today, Barrett!”

The older man continued to fiddle with his horse’s bridle. “You got a horse,” he offered, insolently.

His lips thinning, Heath pondered his best course of action.  With the other two men watching him to see which way the wind was going to blow, Heath drew in a firm breath through his nose and exhaled.  No way around it, he thought grimly, dismounting and pulling his hat firmly down on his head.

At 16, Heath was lighter than the other men, but as tall, and strong, wiry and with a good reach. He was also a Barkley, whether these three chose to accept that or not.  Calling to mind some of his father’s best grim expressions, Heath disciplined his face into firm, no-nonsense lines, his blue eyes cold and steely.  He stopped within six inches of Barrett’s turned back. “Get back to that herd,” he commanded, surprising the other two men with the level of maturity that voice held. 

When Barrett didn’t move, Heath reached out a hand to spin him around, snapping, “I gave you an order!”

Barrett’s forearms parted violently, smacking Heath’s hand away and shoved the boy back a step or two.

“On this ranch, I take orders from Barkleys! Not from a b-“ Barrett spat at the youngster, stopping just short of the epithet Heath knew he wanted to use.

Lillard and Brown glanced at each other, then, startled, turned to hear hoof beats approaching . . . fast.  They looked at one another again and quickly gathered reins to mount . . . Nick Barkley.

 *****

Nick clapped McColl on the shoulder, nodding at the foreman’s suggestions for the next day’s rotation, and sat up straight in the saddle, stretching out his lower back to ease its tightness, uttering a low groan . . .  You’ve got a month in the saddle and sleeping on the ground to look forward to, Nick, he sighed to himself. You’re in rough shape if you’re getting decrepit this fast! 

As he stretched, Nick suddenly noticed, off in the distance, a clump of four men . . .  no, three men and one who just thinks he is, he thought grimly, recognizing the bay horse, tan Stetson and buff leather vest of his kid brother.  He also recognized who the boy was with, and wheeled Coco around to investigate what in blazes that fool kid was up to now . . .

 *****

The tension between Heath and Barrett was thick enough to cut with a knife and neither had heard the approach of Nick Barkley.

“Not from a what?” demanded Heath, challenging the older man. 

Barrett glared, his mouth clamped shut.

“Not from a what, Barrett?!” the boy snapped, his face white.

Barrett stared at him coldly, then suddenly noticed, set back about ten feet, the tall, black-haired rancher studying him from atop his horse, face blank but his hazel eyes as cold and icy as a mountain stream.

“Yeah, Barrett,” Nick asked, coldly.  “Not from a what?”

Startled, Heath whirled around, grimacing.  I told you I’d fight my own battles!  he glared up at his brother. . . who ignored him completely.

Barrett looked at Nick, almost in incredulity.  You turnin’ on me?  Over him He thought he’d been one of Nick’s favorite right hand men until this upstart showed up close to a year back!

Determined to regain control of the situation, Heath angled himself directly in Barrett’s face, blocking the man’s view of his older brother.  “You hop on that herd or you’re trampin’ the flats.”

Angrily, Barret glared at the boy, then up at Nick, who gazed at him through narrowed eyes, then turned his horse to head back to the herd, clearly expecting Barrett to obey his younger brother’s command.  Barrett gathered his reins and mounted his sorrel mare, settling himself in his saddle.  So, Nick Barkley’s chosen his side.  So be it, he thought.  Well, he warn’t gonna go quiet, not him!

Barrett leaned over, purring softly as Heath checked his horse’s cinch.  “You wear that brand . . . his rump and yourn.  That ‘B’ don’t stand for Barkley, not on your hide.”

Incredulous at the man’s gall, Heath whirled, furious now and ready for a fight.

The next thing Barrett knew he’d been dragged off his horse and a black-gloved fist knocked him flat to the ground.

Apparently, he’d miscalculated just how low to keep his voice for the tall rancher not to hear.

 “You’re through,” Nick declared, breathing hard.  “Collect your pay and get out.”

While Barrett gathered his hat, rubbed his aching jaw and remounted, taking his own sweet time, Heath had got his temper back under control and glared at the two onlookers. “Anybody else feel like lookin’ for work?” he snarled.

Glancing at each other, Lillard and Brown frowned, watching Barrett trot off, back straight, making a beeline for the ranch before they headed in the other direction, toward the herd.

Silence surrounded the two brothers as they watched the three ride off in different directions.  Sighing, Heath glanced down at his boots.

“So . . . that how you ‘handle’ it, little brother?” demanded Nick, coldly. 

Heath’s head snapped up angrily, and hot blue eyes met hazel. 

“We were already short-handed.  Now, we’re down a seasoned man, because you refused to obey my orders.”

“I said I could handle it!”

“You’re a sixteen-year-old kid!” flared Nick, jabbing his younger brother in the chest.  “Low man!  You think, just because of that Barkley name, you can order around men twice your age with more years’ experience on the job than you’ve got living?”

Heath flushed, clamping his mouth shut and glared back at his older brother, but Nick saw the realization in the boy’s eyes: Nick could see that Heath realized that he’d miscalculated.

“So, you pushed him.”  Nick nodded, emphatically, and shoved his hat back further on his head, exhaling in exasperation.  “And he pushed back, in a way that I couldn’t ignore.”  The older man planted his fists on his hips, back straight emphasizing the five or so inches he had over the blond.  “As a result, on a drive you know we need every single man for, your stubbornness knocks us down a man!”

Faced with seeing Nick’s logic, Heath fumed, unable to come up with a good comeback.  This felt wrong, but when laid out the way Nick just did . . . Heath blew air out through his lips in frustration. 

Nick shook his head, and strode back to his horse, mounted and rode back to the head of the herd, where he could see Apollo’s nose pointed toward them, their father resting both hands on his pommel, back rigid, and his expression like stone before he turned the animal, nudging him in a trot back toward the ranch.  Well, that’s just wonderful, Nick thought sourly, shooting an angry look back at his little brother before riding up to the lead position.

Furiously, Heath pulled off his hat and slapped it, hard, against his leg in frustration, wiping a sleeve across his soaked hairline.

Dammit! he thought.

*****

Chapter Two

 Finally, as the sun began to shift toward the west, 40 or so tired men were grateful to watch steers obediently following each other into the huge holding pens, readying them for the departure over the next couple of days.  When the last of the herd trotted under the large arch and Duke McColl pulled the gate closed, slipping the sturdy rope-knot over the rigid top-post, Tom breathed in relief and sagged a bit in his saddle.  700 hundred or so yet to go,  he thought with satisfaction, with DeKolven’s herd coming in tomorrow.  Stretching his back muscles, the ranches wheeled Apollo around, raising a hand to attract the men’s attention.

As the men gathered, Tom’s experienced eye scanned the faces before him, noting a lot of bone-weary cowboys . . . and there’s Nick, over in the back . . . yeah, I’m not looking forward to the news I’ll have to share with him later, but chat we are going to have to do, whether or not the boy likes the outcome . . .  and come to that, where the devil is young Heath?

Irritated, Tom pulled in air between his teeth, and decided to worry about pinning down his youngest ranch hand later, after addressing the men.  Yes, they were going to have a sharp conversation as well!  

Tom firmly cleared these fatherly thoughts from his mind, pulling the mantle of largest ranch owner in the state comfortably over his shoulders as he eyed his army of cowboys and wranglers.  Even Dutch, his trail cook, and his “little Mary,” young Billy Vickers, were listening up as they made ready the chuck and candy wagons, getting them shipshape, fully stocked and ready to go come sunrise day after next.

“As you know, we’ll be heading out day after tomorrow at dawn,” Tom called, his big voice carrying well over the bleating and lows of the animals behind him, “so any last minute errands you need to run, double check with McColl about time off to get ‘em done.   Tomorrow night will mean an early ‘lights out’ in the bunkhouse.  You boys who’ve been with this outfit for the last few years know the rules . . . no drunken sprees the night before a drive . . . so if you’ve an itch that needs scratchin’ you’d best get it taken care of tonight!”

Tom’s face wore a small, knowing smile as he gazed at his men, but there was also a clear warning in that statement and his expression as well; he trusted his long-time hands to make sure that was clear to any and all newcomers.  Tom didn’t tolerate any nonsense on a drive; it was too expensive a proposition.

Laughter, grins and elbows met Tom’s words, but Duke and Nick both studied the faces of the men, looking for any warning signals that there might be pending trouble.  There were perhaps eight new men in this year’s group.  Both Duke and Nick felt pretty sure about most of them; the unknowns they’d get a good handle on within the next 48 hours.

“Now I know most of you fellas have been with us for years, but for the few o’ you that are new, here’s the chain of command,” Tom said, clearly, and very seriously, settling the men all back down again to listen.  “Duke McColl, there, he’s your Ranny . . . you’ll go to him first with questions and concerns.  If he needs to, the Ranahan heads to the Range Boss, your ramrod, for answers. . .  and for this drive, that’s Nick Barkley.”  Tom nodded toward his son, unable to keep a look of pride off his countenance.  Hoots, claps and whistles met this announcement, and Nick kept a cool, calm countenance, nodding in return at his father. 

It had actually been Duke’s suggestion to make himself the Ranahan for this drive and promote Nick to Ramrod.   

“Long past time, boss,” Duke had said several weeks back, as they knocked back a brandy in the study, making their plans for this year’s drive.  “It won’t be long before he’ll be shouldering a lot of this.”

 “Why?  You plannin’ to retire?” demanded Tom dryly.

 McColl sighed.  “Boss . . .”

 Tom waved a hand. “I know, I know.  Vic’s already given me an earful.”

 McColl shrugged. “Well, considering this whole idea of getting the beef to the Army to get the best price was his . . . well, his and Jarrod’s . . . he might as well get his feet wet, while we’re both with him on the drive.  Ramrod will be good experience for him. . . ”

“Greer . . . Greer, waggle a hand!  . . . will be Nick’s Segundo, and Jackson, over there’s, wrangler, so make sure you’ve got everything you need for your string to him by tomorrow morning.   He’s in charge of the remuda and his word goes regarding the horses.”

 Tom cleared his throat, a bit surprised at how hard he was finding it to get the next words out.  “Once the drive begins, I’m just the owner.  In fact, just one of the owners. Nick is boss.”  He raised an eyebrow at his son.  “I assume I’ve got your ear, though, if I need it?”

Nick grinned.  “Depends!” he tossed back, but nodded, respectfully, as the hands all jostled each other and laughed.

Tom shook his head, smiling to himself.  He drew in a deep breath.  “Nick!  You got anything to add?”

“Nope,” Nick called back.  “I’ll address ‘em all day after tomorrow before we head out.”  He straightened in his saddle and called to them all.  “Go get some supper and battle with each other for rights to the washtubs,” shouted Nick, grinning at them all.  Guffaws and good-natured teasing ensued as the men scattered to their different areas, in good spirits to end the night, which was what Nick had been shooting for.

Tom, Duke and Nick headed, at different intervals, into the main yard.  Nick dismounted, patting Coco’s strong neck, and leading him straight for the trough.  Tom dismounted and handed off his reins to Ciego.  “Ciego, put up Coco, too, while you’re at it,” he said easily.  Duke glanced once at Tom, then pointedly at Nick, and back to Tom.

Hissing out a breath in frustration, Tom nodded and headed toward the trough himself, unbuttoning his shirt sleeves.

The kitchen door swung open as Jarrod Barkley, Tom’s oldest son, stepped out into the yard, looking around and spotting the people he sought.  Well, most of them, he thought as he spotted Father and Nick.  Heath wasn’t with them, which surprised him a bit, but he figured the boy would turn up eventually.  Please, Jarrod, go tell your father and your brothers dinner will be promptly at seven, his mother had requested, so, sighing, Jarrod ambled toward the trough. 

Tall, dark-haired Jarrod chuckled as he watched Nick yank off his gloves, drag off his hat and slam them both to the side of the trough, everything done with vigor, as though he had something to prove.  Jarrod smirked slightly, thinking of drive and everything riding on it. Well, little brother, perhaps you do, he thought to himself with an indulgent, understanding smile as Nick scooped up water with both hands and vigorously rubbed his head, howling in the process.

Pained, Tom stepped sideways. “I prefer to bathe in the house, young’un!” Tom snapped, shaking his right arm free of Nick’s spray.

Nick looked up and offered a cocky grin at his father, who merely shook his head, smiling despite himself.

Laughing, Jarrod came up on his brother’s other side, holding a cigar.  “Nick, I swear,” he chuckled, “you’re the only man I know who could step out of a bath and look like he was just dragged by a horse.”

Nick snorted at his older brother as he shook his hair again wildly, sending spray everywhere. “It might do you some good to eat a little dust once a while,” he observed, bluntly.

Jarrod raised an eyebrow, pulling out a match. “Oh, I’m a lawyer, remember?” he said, with a cheeky grin, eyebrows raised. “I only eat crow.”

It was Tom’s turn to snort at that one, though he made no further comment.

Behind them, Heath tiredly trotted into the yard with Brahma, and dismounted, wincing.  God, I ache from my hair to my toenails, he thought wearily, and smiled his thanks as one of the younger hands, a youngster not much older than Heath himself, took his horse’s reins.

He walked up to the trough just as Jarrod had offered his comment, and smiled to himself, unbuttoning his shirt sleeves, ready to wet his hot face a bit before waiting his turn in the bath up at the house.  “That’s the herd, all in,” he reported to Tom and Nick, shifting his neck and shoulders to loosen the tight, tired muscles.

Jarrod, cigar in his mouth, looked in mock surprise to the Barkley’s middle child. “What? Why, don’t tell me I’m here too late to help,” he stated, eyebrows raised in feigned surprise and dismay, a hand on his chest for added drama.

Tom chuckled, but said nothing. Eyebrow raised, Jarrod grinned at his father.

“Help?  Great,” sighed Heath, wearily.  “Stackyard . . . we need a man.”

Truly surprised at this, Jarrod glanced more seriously back and forth between his brothers and his father, who was rinsing his hands and, more delicately than his son, splashed his own face with water. “I thought you had a full crew.”

Tom, wiped his eyes. “I’ve got it,” he said matter-of-factly.

Nick decided to brazen it out.  “Down one,” he corrected.  “I fired a man.”

Tom drew a sleeve across his face and looked straight at his son, coolly.  “I hired him back.”  And waited for the explosion.

Surprised, both Nick and Heath turned toward their father as he swiveled his hips and gestured to a passing cowboy. “Berber . . .  before you turn in for the night, do me a favor and get out there and tell the men I said to take it easy with the fires.  I don’t cotton to having any stackpiles going up tonight, all right?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Barkley,” replied the man, turning back toward his horse, wearily.

Jarrod studied his brothers, seeing two separate stories being told on their faces.  Heath’s countenance was closed down, as though shutters had been pulled tight, allowing nothing in . . . or out.  Nick’s, on the other hand, was clear as glass; how he felt was obvious, and his face was growing redder by the second.

“What happened, Heath?” asked Jarrod, figuring it might go better to ask the younger brother first, but Nick cut in, glaring at Heath as though daring him to say a word.  Heath seethed, but kept his mouth shut.

“I gave an order,” Nick snapped, in response to his older brother’s question.  “He didn’t obey it fast enough to suit me.”

Tom glanced back at him, his face stony.  “Handle him.”

“I handled him,” Nick retorted, looking his father directly in the face.

Tom’s hands slipped to his hips and he glared, nodding.  “Give ‘im the sack, huh?”

“Seemed to be the way,” Nick replied tersely, nodding firmly.

Tom wheeled around, now squaring off directly in front of his son.  Nick might have been a little taller, but in his favor, Tom had thirty years of experience and the power of knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that he ruled this roost.  “You got a job for a man to do, and he doesn’t do it, you GET him to do it!” Tom snapped, jabbing the young man in the chest.  “That’s handling him!”

Heath’s face looked like a thundercloud, and Jarrod could see he was about to pipe in, but Nick turned sharply to the youngster, hard hazel eyes meeting hot blue. “You get out there and tell Mac to put a double guard on that hold tonight.  That herd’s restless.”

“But – “

“Git!”

The brothers glared at each other, until finally Heath exhaled and stalked off.  Frowning slightly, Jarrod watched young Heath stride toward the holding pens, and glanced back at Nick, questioning.

“Now, what was all that about?” demanded Tom, not missing the exchange either.

“Nothin’ I can’t handle,” Nick snapped back, making Tom’s eyes narrow.  “Father, Barrett’s a – “

“He’s a loudmouth and a bully, I’m well aware, and I know he and Heath aren’t getting along.  But right at the moment, I haven’t got a man to replace him,” declared Tom firmly.  “He stays, Nick.” 

As he saw Nick winding up to argue, Tom gritted his teeth. “Dammit, Nick!  You know what’s at stake here!” he shouted at the younger man.  “This drive won’t happen without a full crew and might not with the men you do have!”

Nick’s face was stony, but he gazed at his father, his eyes still rebellious.

“That’s the last I want to hear about it,” said Tom stubbornly.  “Last I heard, I still owned this outfit.”

Nick’s head snapped back as though his father had slapped him, his expression surprised.  Even Jarrod winced at that one, and without turning, Jarrod felt the five or six men behind them stop short in their work or conversations to hang on every word. 

Tom, realizing the statement was out of his mouth before he could pull it back, gritted his teeth angrily.  Can’t take it back now, he fumed to himself.   He firmed his lips and started to roll down his shirtsleeves, stubbornly glowering at his second son, as if daring him to countermand his orders.

Much the way Nick and Heath had glared at each, Tom and Nick did the same, while Jarrod, head tipped back slightly, watched, his gaze serious.  Finally, like Heath, Nick, strode off, stopping only long enough to pick up his gloves and his hat before stalking toward the men’s quarters.

Tom exhaled and closed his eyes a moment, aggravated with himself, then set his mouth in a hard line and shook his head as he finished buttoning his cuffs.  Startled at hearing the swipe of a match, he suddenly realized that Jarrod was still there, now lighting his cigar.  Irritated, Tom picked up his hat and placed it squarely on his head, turning toward the house.

“Father.”

“Yeah,” Tom grunted, not stopping.  Luckily, Jarrod’s legs were nearly as long as Nick’s and he caught up easily.

“Sir. . .  that was a mistake you just made.”

The quiet statement stopped Tom in his tracks, and he swung on his oldest son.  “Watch yourself,” he warned, softly, his eyes intense.

Jarrod returned the gaze, unflinchingly. “You were wrong, sir.”

“Jarrod – !”

“Wrong, Father!” Insisted Jarrod, leaning in close, to keep his voice down.

Face red, Tom Barkley glared at his oldest son, his lawyer son – he thought angrily to himself, not even the one who’d chosen to run this ranch with me! –  and between clenched teeth, spat out, “Boy, as you and your brother are VERY well aware I’ve got three thousand head of cattle, five hundred and fifty miles to drive in twenty-four days with forty hands that know which end of the cow to prod, and not just our cows, Counselor,” he continued, on a roll now, punctuating the air with a pointing finger, “but Carr, DeKolven, Royce and Fries, still biting their nails because they had to throw their cattle in with us.”  His ice blue eyes were matched shard for shard by Jarrod’s, who, to his irritated annoyance, hadn’t backed down one single damned inch, blast him!  “I need every single man with two hands out there, Jarrod.  NOBODY gets fired!”

Tom wheeled, upset, to stalk to the house, but Jarrod wasn’t finished yet. 

“You chopped his legs off right at the knees!” he declared, making the older man stop short, and whirl. 

“I’d have done the same to Duke, if the roles were different!”

“It’s not the same and you know it, Father! Ramrod, you said.”  Jarrod eased back his intensity just slightly, but not giving in.  “Don’t you mean Nick’s got three thousand head of cattle to drive?”

“Boy, I’m warning you – “

Jarrod waved a hand, thoroughly unimpressed.  “Father, I’m sorry, I know this isn’t easy to hear but you’re being autocratic . . . and totally unfair to him.  Nick . . . me . . . Gene . . . Heath . . . We’re all Barkleys, yes, but Nick?  He’s got the horns… your horns!  This coming drive, this whole gamble with the army and San Diego, was a brassy innovation only Nick – or you! – could have come up with.”  Jarrod drew himself up tall, gazing straight into Thomas Barkley’s eyes, and continued, his voice cold.  “And you just made it clear – to him, and to the men who heard you! – that you’re unwilling to let go of control, no matter what lip service you pay him.  You’ve done little more than pat him on the head!”

Tom was white with anger by this point.  Jarrod sighed, finally, and relaxed his shoulders.  “All right, fine.  You’ll do as you see best anyway,” he muttered, turning to go, then turning back quickly. 

“But in case you didn’t notice, whatever happened out there?” Jarrod intoned, punctuating his point with the hand waving his cigar.  Once more, he held his father’s eyes.  “It had to do with Heath.”  Jarrod raised a brow, jammed his cigar in his mouth, and turned on his heel, striding off in the direction he’d seen Nick take.

Furious, Tom steamed as he watched his smart Aleck of an oldest son’s long legs eat up the ground between him and the bunkhouse . . .  and the worst of it was . . . he feared the boy – damn him! – was right.

*****

Victoria watched Tom as he marched into the drawing room and angrily poured himself a drink, then stalked to the fireplace and heavily slammed one hand onto the mantel while knocking back his bourbon with the other.  She raised an eyebrow and slowly walked into the room, giving him space.

“Do you want to tell me what’s got you so angry?”

“No.”

Her mouth twisted in a rueful smile.

“Will you tell me anyway?”

He snorted, his own mouth turning up, unwillingly, at the corners.  His eyes glittered as he looked at her.  “Your son,” he ground out, jaw clenched.

She was about to ask which one, when it occurred to her exactly which son he meant.  For some foolish reason, he’d always believed she had more influence on Jarrod than he did, which made her laugh:  Jarrod was no more swayed by her than Tom himself was, she thought wryly.  In so many ways, that neither of them deigned to acknowledge, Tom and Jarrod were exactly alike, they just expressed it a bit differently.  Eyebrow raised, she closed the distance between herself and her husband and stood beside him.

“So, what uncomfortable truth did Jarrod throw at you this time?” she asked coolly.

His hot blue eyes swiveled on her; brows knit dangerously. 

She tilted her head to one side, saying nothing.

He exhaled violently through his nose, shaking his head.  “I swear, the two o’ you . . . “

“Oh, Tom, stop being so dramatic,” she chided him.  “What on earth did Jarrod say that’s got you so wound up?”

Her husband turned his back on her and strode back to the decanters pouring himself another drink.  But at least this time he lifted a second glass and glanced at her.  She nodded and waited until he came back toward the fireplace, handing her the glass.

“He had the gall to tell me I’m autocratic and unwilling to train Nick properly in running this ranch,” he grunted.

Victoria’s eyes widened a bit.   Well, there’s nothing like tearing off a scab! Good gracious, Jarrod . . . “Did he, now,” she said, thoughtfully.  “Are you upset because he had the ‘gall’ to tell you this?  Or because you think he might be right?”

“Oh, for – “

“Tom, come on, honey,” she said firmly, taking his arm and walking him to the sofa. “Sit down and settle yourself.  You know as well as I you only get this upset when Jarrod hits the nail on the head and drives the point home.  It’s part of what makes him a wonderful attorney.”  She smiled at him, encouragingly.

Tom remained standing beside her as she sat on the settee, and she settled for that; at least he’d been willing to allow her to draw him away from the previous spot.  She’d found in their nearly thirty years together that when Tom moved, he seemed more able to process difficult information; remaining static tended to make him more tense.

“I’m guessing this is about Nick wanting to boss more this year’s drive,” she said gently, trying to grease the conversation’s wheels a little.

“Yes, partially,” Tom grunted, rolling the liquor in his glass, and finally seating himself beside her. “Vic, he’s only 22.”

She nodded.  “I know, I was there,” she smirked.

He sighed, pained, and she subsided.  “I’m sorry, honey.  What is your biggest concern about him?”

“Not a real concern,” Tom objected, frowning at her choice of words, then taking a sip of his second drink.  “It’s just that there’s a lot he’s got to learn yet.”

She pondered that.  “More than you did, when you were starting out?  Who was there to teach you?”

Tom sighed in exasperation. “That’s my point, Victoria!  He doesn’t have to make the same mistakes I did!” he countered, swallowing his bourbon and setting the glass down rather firmly on the coffee table.  “Mistakes like that can be expensive!  And if he’d just listen . . .  ”

“But didn’t you tell me that’s what made you keep from repeating them?” she asked gently.  “That you learned best by doing, making those mistakes and learning from them?”

Tom hated feeling cornered, and that was exactly the way he’d felt from the moment Jarrod had challenged him out in the yard.  His wife wasn’t improving that feeling any.  “Anybody ever tell you you’re a very uncomfortable woman?!”

“Yes,” she replied promptly, nodding. “You, all the time.”

“Well, I ain’t wrong!”

“Nick has been at your side working every aspect of this ranch for more than eleven years, Tom, from the time his legs were long enough to saddle his own horse, and he could rope.  You know that.  There are certainly aspects of Barkley Ranch that you could offload to him . . .  not just the work, but the responsibility of management as well.  Jarrod isn’t wrong, either.”

“Nick has to grow into it, Vic,” protested Tom, firmly, leaning back wearily against the cushions, thoroughly tired of fighting with his wife over this issue. “He’s still a youngster; he’ll get there.”

“Not if you don’t challenge him.  Instead what he’ll grow into is a good-sized resentment toward you and a belief that you’ll never believe he’s ready.”

“He’s not!”

“Were you?”

Angrily, Tom hauled himself to his feet and strode across the room looking out the big windows, gazing out at the wide lane in front of the house, his feet placed shoulder-length apart, shoulders back as though physically ready to repel any onslaught.  Victoria rolled her eyes and shook her head.  Thinking hard to find the right words, she finally rose and walked over to him.

“Sweetheart . . .  how much of this is really about your own unwillingness to let go of control, and not really about Nick at all?” she asked gently, seriously.

Tom’s eyes never budged from the view, and that told her everything.  Oh, Tom . . .  She remained silent, waiting . . .

“I’m not ready to hand over the reins, Vic,” he said softly.  “There’s a lot I still want to do.”

“No one says you should hand them all over,” she replied tenderly.  “But you need to start loosening your grip on them a bit . . . so that the son you trust can pick them up for you.  The sons you trust . . . Heath is coming up as well, and he’s going to be an asset for Nick to lean on, too.”

Tom sighed and nodded.  “I know.  I’ve watched them together,” he said more calmly, as a lot of his anger quietly bled out. “They’re good together . . . they balance each other really well, provided they remember to keep their goldarned tempers under control.” 

He looked down at his tiny wife, noting for the first time how gray her hair was becoming.  Seeing her age always surprised him; when he thought about her, or looked at her, he always saw “his Vic,” the 18-year-old spitfire who gave as good as she got, who backed down from no man, and who loved him with a passion that matched his own for her . . . something he’d never previously experienced. 

Never. 

He thought of Leah . . . Heath’s mother.  She’d been a lovely, sweet and strong woman . . . but no one, absolutely no one, could stack up against his Vic. . . and win.

He turned to her and opened his arms.  She smiled and came in close, embracing him.  He hugged her close to him, sighing, and leaned down to kiss the top of her head.  “All right, I get the message, Counselor.”

She shook her head.  “Jarrod’s the lawyer.”

“Yeah, well, you trained him well, Missy . . . “ Tom muttered, still deeply irritated at how his oldest son had bucked him, and bucked him hard, without turning so much as a hair.  Well, Jarrod’s no namby-pamby, that’s for sure, he grunted to himself, grudgingly.  Showing the world those guts he inherited from Tom Barkley, I suppose . . .

She chuckled.  “You should trust him, too, you know,” she said quietly.  “He’s always had your back as well, whether you believed it or not.  If he had to, Jarrod could run this ranch.  He just knows Nick loves it more . . . like you do.  But he’s an excellent sounding board, for you . . . and for Nick, if you’ll let him be.”

Tom sighed.  Most of the time, Jarrod’s choice of turning away from the ranch and to the law instead was a decision he’d been able to deal with, though the disappointment had rankled him badly at first.  But, as always, Vic was right.

Nick loved this place the way he himself did: like a living, breathing thing, part of the family, with a soul of its own.  Jarrod could see the ranch’s value, and understood its importance to the region, but his heart had been given instead to the word of law and given freely, completely, in the same way Tom and Nick gave theirs to the ranch.  How could Tom fault that devotion?  It was often hard for Tom to understand Jarrod’s choices, or the drives that pushed him through life, but one thing he could never fault him for were his motivations: they were as strong and as clearly drawn as his own, if pointed in a different direction.

Victoria watched the expressions play across her husband’s face as he thought through the situation, and waited patiently for him to come around, as she knew he would.  She loved this man with everything she had and understood him implicitly.  No man liked being bucked, especially by a son!  But Tom Barkley was the fairest man she knew, and she knew he’d see sense and ultimately figure out his path through the morass.

In moments, she saw he’d made up his mind, and feeling such faith that he’d come to the best possible decision, Victoria slipped her arms around him and hugged him closely, resting her head on his broad chest, listening to his heartbeat calm down and steady itself.  Her eyes closed, Victoria lost herself in that sound, feeling her own come into the same rhythm, complementing it, echoing it . . . hearts beating together as one.

“I’ll see what I can delegate after the drive, and also start asking Nick what he’s interested in most,” Tom said finally, quietly.   Then his blue eyes danced with deviltry; he raised an eyebrow at her.  “Then I’ll send him in exactly the opposite direction. He’s gonna have to know ALL of the business, not the just the parts he likes.”

Victoria Barkley rolled her eyes and chuckled under her breath as she felt her husband’s body quake with laughter.

“What prompted today’s outburst?”

Tom sighed, leaning down and kissing the top of her head.  “I’m not entirely sure, but it had something to do with Heath. . .  and Barrett.  Nick fired him.”

“Really,” said Victoria, startled, looking up, worriedly, into her husband’s face.

“And I hired him back,” Tom said calmly, gazing at her, straight in the eye.

Oho. . .  hence Jarrod’s involvement.  She studied him but said nothing.  The boys, and the men, ultimately had to work this out between themselves; she wasn’t about to get in the middle of it.  But she was, by heaven, bound and determined to watch carefully to see what drama was playing itself out in the background, in order to help provide useful information for Tom as he made his decisions.

And she was also ready to do what she did best:  picking up the pieces once the dust settled, and getting her family moving forward once more.

*****

Chapter Three
 

Nick strode toward the men’s quarters, still furious over his confrontation with his father, but calmer now, thanks to Jarrod offering a slap on the back, a reminder not to be late to supper . . .  and a brotherly word of support, but still trying to figure out how to salvage the situation as best as was possible.  Damn Heath and his dad-blasted temper, anyway! he stormed to himself, though he stopped short, shaking his head. 

C’mon, Nick, he chided himself, you’d have done the same or worse if you were in his shoes.  The boy’s only human . . . how many times does he have to prove himself, for crying out loud?  Still . . . he fumed.  That boy is going to have to learn that he’s part of a family now, and that he doesn’t have to deal with this stuff on his own any longer!  For pity’s sake, he’s been here darned close to a year! thought Nick, angrily.  When’s he going to stop thinking he has to take on all of the ranch’s bad apples on his own?  And when will he learn that he’s not doing anyone any favors tryin’ it, least of all himself?  Darned fool kid . . .

As if God Himself had put the youngster there to provide the answer, Nick saw Heath, just as ornery as he’d been ten minutes previously, stomping his way toward the cookhouse.  And in that gait, Nick saw himself, chafing under their father’s stern directives and orders.  Sighing, Nick called out to the youngster, who stopped, grimacing in irritation.  Nick strode over to catch him up.

“Haven’t been able to find Mac yet,” Heath grunted, figuring he was about to get hollered at again.  “He wasn’t up at the pens, and Greer said he thought he’d gone back to talk to Sal Li.”

“I figured as much,” nodded Nick, clapping his kid brother’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll tell him myself.  Look, Heath . . .”  he sighed. 

Heath snorted and glanced up at Nick.  “I heard ya,” he muttered.

“I don’t think you did, boy,” said Nick sternly, making Heath roll his eyes.  

“Hey!” Nick gripped his upper arm, and turned the youth, making him face him.  “Listen up!  I think the man’s a coward and a fool . . . but he’s got two hands, is a better cowpoke than most, if not a particularly decent human being, and until the drive’s over . . .  well, do ya think you can keep your temper under control?  I know. . .  it’s askin’ a lot.  But I got the distinct impression you didn’t want Father to know what the real problem was, right?”

Heath had frowned through much of this, but at that last question he sighed, his frown clearing a bit. He shook his head, his shoulders relaxing just a little from the rigid, angry set they’d been in.  Exhaling noisily through he nose, he finally sighed and glanced up at his older brother.  “No . . . “ he admitted.  “There’s no point.  Father’d just mash that fool into jelly and we’d have a new Civil War on our hands… ” the youngster muttered.  “We’d just end up with half the rest of the hands hating Barkley guts as well.”

Nick nodded.  Good boy. . .  you figure out that much.   “That’s kinda what I figured, too.  So, will you please. . .  please . . .  trust me and let me handle Barrett?”

Nick almost chuckled to see the slight pout of Heath’s lower lip jutting out.  “Now, I’ll do my best to keep the two of you separated, but there will likely come times in the next couple of weeks that you’re going to have make the best of it and do your job.  Show yourself to be the better man.”

Heath straightened himself up and rolled his tired shoulders, trying hard.  He looked at his older brother and was at least grateful to see understanding there.  Nick smiled at him.

“As soon as the drive’s over and we don’t need him anymore, he’s history, Heath.  But there’s too much riding on the next three weeks.” 

Heath thought about the several area ranchers who’d reluctantly thrown in their lot – and their herds – with the Barkleys, and the responsibility that rested on both Tom and Nick Barkley’s shoulders over the next month.  Getting those herds to the railhead, getting a good price, and doing it safely were paramount.  Heath settled himself, and gazed up at his tall brother’s serious expression as the dark-haired cowboy stood there, legs planted apart, arms crossed over his chest and leaning back just slightly, head tipped to one side as he waited, gazing hopefully at his kid brother.

Giving in, Heath exhaled through his nose.  “Well, I’ve been a bastard for 16 and a half years now . . .  I suppose another month or so isn’t going to make that big a difference,” he grumbled.

“Now THAT is not helping!” Nick scolded him.  But the twinkle in Heath’s eye and the very slight upturn of that lopsided smile made Nick shake his head in exasperation.  God, was I this much of a pain in the neck to Jarrod?!  I gotta remember to apologize to him tonight, if so.  “Brat. . . ” 

Looking toward the bunk house, Nick’s expression grew serious again.

“What’re you gonna do?”

“I’m going to straighten out the mess you started,” Nick replied, bluntly, giving his younger brother a stern glance, making Heath blush, abashed, remembering Nick’s dressing down by the trough.  He’d been walking away but he’d heard Father pretty clearly across the yard. . . as did everyone else within earshot.  Figuring it’d be wisest to say nothing further, Heath just nodded and followed Nick as his brother strode toward the cookhouse door.

Nick gathered himself, pulling on a mask of grim but steady control, drew in a deep breath and entered the men’s eating area, hearing the laughter from the other side of the door.

*****

There was lots of chatter in the bunk house, but one voice could be heard clearly, above the rest:  Barrett’s.   “So, then I tells old Tom I can’t hardly work flank when I been told to pick up my pay!” Lots of laughter and chatter punctuated that statement.  “Thought the Old Man was gonna blow a gasket!  ‘Pick up your pay?!’ he says!”

Nick shoved open the door and entered the building, followed by young Heath.  Knowledge of his presence spread like wildfire through the occupants.  Almost instantaneously, the chatter choked itself off; the room became so quiet you could hear the coffee bubbling on the cook stove. 

Nick frowned, not happy with the way the room seemed to be dividing.  He glanced at the complement of men and noted that the ones here were probably more than half leaning toward Barrett and his viewpoints.  He glanced back at his brother, allowing his expression to make it clear to the boy that if he couldn’t keep his temper he needed to leave.  Heath crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall beside the door, his own expression calm and grim. 

Nodding just slightly, Nick turned and walked toward the cook stove, pouring himself a cup of coffee.  He glanced around the now silent eating area and saw an empty chair.  One-handed, Nick grabbed it and hauled it over to Barrett’s table, positioning it directly across from the man, and seated himself down in front of him . . . the cowboy was now a little self-conscious and nowhere near as mouthy as a few moments earlier.

“Mac.”  Nick’s eyes never left Barrett’s face as he spoke, slowly resting his elbows on the table and cradling his cup in his black-gloved hands.

“Yo!”

“I want an extra guard on that herd tonight.”

McColl glanced around the room.  “Rawdale . . . Schad . . . ”

“Heath Barkley will be taking it,” Nick interrupted calmly, carefully, as he sipped his coffee.  “With Barrett.”

Heath’s face remained calm and stony, though he winced inwardly; his arms still crossed over his chest as he leaned back against the door.

Barrett eyed the young rancher, then glanced toward the door at Heath, eyebrow raised.  “And whose idea was that?”

“Mine,” replied Nick, still gazing directly into Barrett’s face.

“Your daddy know about this . . .  idea o’ yourn?”

There was a slight undercurrent of a chuckle, a frisson of mockery bubbling under the surface of the room, and Heath’s eyes darted around the room, assessing how the mood rested, and with whom.

Nick’s face didn’t change at all as he gazed, cup hovering in front of his mouth poised lightly between his hands.  “McColl.”

McColl closed his eyes in supplication.  “Yeah . . .” he muttered, in weary acceptance.

“Get the men outside.”

“Nick – “

“The cook, too, Mac.”

McColl exhaled in frustration and got to his feet.  “You heard the man, boys.”  When there was still no movement, McColl drew in a breath. “MOVE it!” he bellowed, angrily.  Finally, the men started to get to their feet . . .  reluctantly, as none of them wanting to miss a moment of the show.

But once underway, clearing the room didn’t take long.  Within moments, all of the men were outside, leaving only Nick, Heath and Barrett inside.

After a few moments of very thick silence, Nick drew in a long deep breath.  “Let’s get something clear.  You aren’t paid to judge my family,” stated Nick.  “Barrett, I think you and I both know exactly how Tom Barkley would react to hearing how you talked to his son this afternoon.”  The look on Nick’s face, and Barrett, flicking his gaze once again toward the youth by the doorway, made it clear exactly which son Nick was referring to.  “So, I’m betting you didn’t tell my father exactly the conversation as it happened, didja.”  It was not stated as a question.  Not at all.

Nervously, Barrett licked his lips and glanced back at Heath, who continued to stand motionless guarding the door, and tried to draw himself up, chin jutted out.

Coldly, Nick studied the blowhard of a cowboy in front of him as though inspecting an insect, or a clod of cowpat on his boot.  “A day or two before a major cattle drive isn’t the time to aggravate an owner of nearly two thousand head of cattle, though.  Makes him testy.  Could rile him a bit.  You ever seen my father seriously riled?” he asked, eyebrows raised at the man, as though having a calm, every day, relaxed conversation.  He smiled . . .  a smile as cold as ice, without a trace of humor.  “It’s a sight to see, lemme tell ya.” 

Barrett clamped his mouth shut and glared back at Nick.

“But, that’s neither here nor there.  We’ve got two days before the drive, and he’s not inclined to start it off being down a man . . . well, a hand, anyway . . . I don’t know how much of a man you are, considerin’ your idea of building yourself up involves picking on a 16-year-old.”

At that comment, Heath had an inward battle to keep his composure, but he did it, remaining motionless, leaning against the door frame without a word, his face as calm and blank as a sheet of white, empty paper.

However, Barrett lost his own internal battle, his face growing red with anger and frustration.

“You also aren’t paid to decide which orders to take,” said Nick, very softly and leaning toward Barrett.    “I am the ramrod on this drive. You aren’t.  He isn’t,” nodding his head back at his younger brother, “and he takes his orders from me just as you do.  You will take that shift tonight, with my kid brother over there, if I have to carry both of you out there myself and tie you to your saddles.  And you get this straight, Barrett:  if and when my brother comes to you to remind you of an order that’s been given by me . . . or the Ranny. . . or the owner . . . you will treat it exactly like what it is: an order from a Barkley.  Are we clear?”

Red-faced and fuming, Barrett stared at the tabletop.  He jumped when Nick slammed his black-gloved hand furiously onto the table top, making every piece of cutlery and crockery jump.  Barrett, wide-eyed, looked at Nicholas Barkley.

“Are we clear, Barrett?” came the soft but lethal growl, the young rancher’s eyes as hard and cold as two river stones plucked from the northern feed of the Klamath.

Reluctantly, Barrett nodded.  Nick held his gaze a moment longer, making the older man uneasy.  Finally, Nick got to his feet and turned, heading out the door without a backward glance.

Once Nick cleared the door, his long legs carried him across the yard to the big house’s kitchen door.  Without so much as glancing at any of the men, Heath met eyes with McColl and nodded at him, starting to shut the door once again. 

The foreman’s arm shot out, holding the door for a moment.  “Son, you don’t need to – “

“No one comes in until I open the door,” said Heath quietly, glancing over McColl’s shoulder to see that Nick had already stomped in the kitchen door from the yard.

“Heath – “  Mac gazed at the youngster, then over at Barrett, and sighed, not at all happy with this situation.  “Boy . . . you do not have to do this.”

But Heath offered him his sweet, lopsided smile.  “Sure, I do, Mac,” he replied softly. “And what’s more, you know I do, too.”

Grimly, McColl crossed his arms over his chest and gazed at the boy, finally nodding.  Heath shut the door, and turned back to Barrett, who hadn’t moved, honestly sure that McColl would have talked the youngster out of engaging.

Heath and Barrett stared at each other for a moment, then Heath pushed himself off the wall and stood tall, hands loosely at his sides.  “We’re gonna ride that guard tonight, Barrett . . . if I’ve gotta rope you and drag ya out to the pens.”

“Whinin’ to your big brother now?” the older man sneered.

“Didn’t say a word,” Heath responded calmly, shaking his head.  “I got my orders same as you.  The ramrod doesn’t want a ruckus on the drive.  Too much at stake.  I reckon he figured we both earned extra time in the saddle for this afternoon’s foolishness.”    Heath had heard Nick and understood the point his brother tried to make.  As a result, Heath tried to give Barrett a bit of an out, a way to save face, as Sal Li would have said. 

Unfortunately, Barrett wasn’t as smart as the youngster facing him.

The cowboy slammed his cup on the table, bounding to his feet, finally able to release his simmering temper. “I have had it with you, boy!  Now, you can diddle them all you want up at that high house, but to me, you’re trash!”

Heath’s mouth firmed and his eyes hardened but he didn’t budge. 

“Up out of the dirt, just like Lillard, or Brown, or Schad or me.  You’re no better! And you’re a sight less to be giving orders!”

“I didn’t give the orders,” Heath said tightly, as Barrett advanced on him.  “The orders were Nick’s and he said – “

“Comin’ out o’ your mouth?” Barret shoved the youngster back against the wall, making his head bang painfully against the wood. “I ain’t takin’ no bossin’ from the get of the boss man and his minin’ camp whore!”

Before his mind even engaged, Heath’s long right arm had shot out, quick as a snake, his fist slamming into Barrett’s filthy mouth . . .  the man never even saw it coming.

But Vince Barrett was no one’s patsy; the man had been dragged up on ranches all over the southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico area, and he hadn’t got to the level he was at without having learned how to hold his own in a fight.  Heath was as tall as Barrett, but the older man had fifteen years and forty pounds on the boy. 

Barrett roared after recovering from Heath’s punch and knocked them both into the hot cookstove, rocking it on its legs and without either of them realizing causing the crock of oil on the shelf above it to tip and spill oil onto the hot stove below . . . to sizzle

. . . and sizzle

. . . and catch!

Cussing himself for his short temper when it came to his mama, Heath dealt a good follow-up left to a body punch Barrett had mislanded, slightly to the side, then backed up quickly, giving himself room, giving himself room to let his reach be put to good advantage.  Too many of those body blows, especially those Barrett landed well, and he’d be done for. 

Heath was tiring, fast, and cried out as Barrett feinted, then twisted around, grabbing him tight in a wrestling hold.  Realizing he was outweighed, the boy made his weight work to his advantage by going limp, throwing both of them off balance, knocking them to the floor.  They rolled beneath the tables, knocking over chairs and benches until Heath got a break and was able to use his feet to push Barret back and scramble to his own feet, gasping in pain as fire radiated from his lower right side and he saw stars from his head smacking the floor several times.

Desperately, Heath glanced around the room for something, anything, that could prove helpful.  He wasn’t going to get through this on his own.  He’d seriously misjudged this man’s ability to kick his butt. You’re a fool, Heath, he thought.  Shoulda done as Nick said and left Barrett to him.  Oh, well. . .  too late now.

Coughing as he struggled to breathe – not realizing the room was filling with smoke and instead associating the difficulty breathing with his beating – Heath desperately gripped a chair and swung it with everything he had left into Barrett’s upper body and face.  He successfully caught the man unawares and slammed him into the wall behind him. 

One thing Heath had learned, earning his stripes fighting in mining camps and ranches around Strawberry, was to finish the job, before your opponent could come back and finish you.  Hauling in air, Heath charged, planting his right hand firmly on a table to hold his weight and threw his body, feet first, at Barrett’s brisket, driving the wind out of the older man.  As the man started to crumble to the floor, Heath gripped his shirt front, hauled him around and delivered a final haymaker to his jaw, flattening the man on the table behind him.

Gasping for breath and nearly collapsing on Barrett’s unconscious body, Heath groaned to himself, aching all over.  Barrett had landed a good number of solid punches. . . too many.  The boy didn’t think his ribs were broken, but he was reasonably sure a few suffered some darned good bruises, if not cracks.  The whole right side of his midriff ached and burned fiercely.

Hugging an arm to himself in support, Heath needed the wall to inch his way to the doorway, coughing lightly – it hurt, dammit! – to clear his lungs, his ears pounding so loudly with his own heartbeat that he couldn’t hear the sizzle and crackle of the fire burning merrily away behind the woodstove.

Weakly hauling the door open, Heath staggered outside, momentarily stopped as the silence and stares of the Barkley Ranch hands met him . . .  watching him.  As he struggled to breathe without showing his pain . . .  struggled to stand up straight against the desperate to need to protect his aching side . . .  struggled to not allow anyone, anyone, to see how vulnerable he was, he’d never in all the nearly twelve months here, felt so completely alone.  Even McColl, his father’s foreman, stood to the side, not offering an arm or helping hand.

Duke McColl saw the boy stagger out, and everything in him wanted to reach for that youngster and put an arm around him, assisting him to get back to the house, to safety, to his family for someone to look after his hurts.  But Duke knew how proud this boy was and was torn . . . would his support be seen as something other than caring? As the foreman struggled to figure out the best way to proceed, the boy winced and pushed past them all, staggering into the yard, clutching his right side, trying to aim for the kitchen door.

Heath made it as far as a buggy parked nearby and squeezed shut his eyes, wincing in pain, trying hard to keep from dropping to his knees.  Behind him, he could vaguely hear McColl tell somebody to “get in there and get ‘im out!”

And then the world went crazy.

“There’s a fire in there!”

“What?  God, almighty, Barrett’s in there!’

“Somebody, go to the house for help!”

“Get the water!  Get buckets!”

“Start a brigade. NOW!”

Confused, Heath slowly turned as the words began to make sense . . .  a fire . . .  A fireGod, the cookhouse was on fire!  A fire. . .  no wonder he’d been unable to breathe . . .

He tried to make his way back toward the building, and was knocked aside by men charging this way and that, his right side connecting brutally with the buggy frame and he cried out, unheard and sagged to his knees, hanging on, desperately, both to the frame and to consciousness.  

*****

Silas had been working on biscuits for dinner when he heard the yelling outside and hurried for the back door.  When Mr. Nick had stormed his way inside and stomped up the back stairs to the second floor, Silas had shaken his head in worry . . .  “Ructions . . . “ he thought, unhappily.  “Worst thing in the world before a drive . . .  Ructions . . . “  What in the world is going on now, he wondered.

Stepping onto the porch his jaw dropped to see the men all running around like crazy people, Sal Li yammerin’ in Chinese and smoke pouring out the door to the cookhouse.  And Silas noticed something else . . .  the blond youngster gritting his teeth as he hung onto a buggy frame, his eyes squeezed shut in pain and clutching his side as he struggled to get back to his feet.  Silas hesitated for only a moment, then figured there were plenty of other people running to deal with the fire . . .  no one was offering to help that boy.

Setting his mouth firmly Silas hurried across the yard and slipped an arm behind the boy’s back.  He was surprised to feel the youngster stiffen and seem to draw in, as though protecting himself, until the young’un realized who it was that had him.  “Silas . . . “ he breathed in relief.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Heath, it’s ol’ Silas.  C’mon, let’s get you inside and take a look at you.  Lord have mercy, boy, who did this to you?”

But the youngster grit his teeth and shook his head.  “ ’m fine,” he protested, though clearly not fine.  “Just help me . . .  get some ice  . . .  on the bruises . . . I’ll be . . . all right . . .”

Shaking his head in frustration, Silas eased the boy to his feet and supported him as they trudged their way back to the kitchen porch.  “’Fine,’ he says,” Silas muttered.  “Been used like a punchin’ bag, but he’s ‘fine,’ he says . . .”

Heath tried to draw in a breath and grunted in pain as he did so but glanced over his shoulder. “Wait . . . we should help. . . ” His protests were weak, though, and Silas had no trouble in keeping him on course.

“Now, enough o’ that.  There’s enough men there to do what’s got to be done, Mr. Heath,” said Silas firmly, steering the boy toward the kitchen porch inexorably.  “And if you don’t want your mama to be the one undressin’ you in order to get those bruises seen to, you’re goin’ to do as I say and let me get you fixed up.”

Wincing, Heath grunted and gave the houseman no further trouble.  But they had to stop at the door as it swung open wide and Nick, Jarrod and Tom Barkley all ran outside. 

“What in the – “ Tom stared in shocked surprise at the boy, bloody and battered, but Silas shook his head, as Jarrod gripped Heath’s other arm, staring at him, concerned. 

Nick, however, looked grim as a preacher in a prison chapel, glaring at his little brother.  Just couldn’t stop yourself, could you? his look demanded.

“I got him, Mr. Tom,” the old man insisted.  “I’ll get him patched up. You all get over to the cook house!”

Hesitating only a moment, Tom set him mouth and nodded, holding the door open for Silas and Heath.  “We’ll talk about this later,” he decreed to his young son, and Heath wilted a little at the glare.  But that one was nothing compared to the stone-cold expression on Nick’s face.

 It was the last thing the boy saw as Silas firmly steered him in the door and the three older men hurried toward the men’s quarters.

Chapter Four

Smoke billowed from the cookhouse door as McColl hollered for men to run for buckets and form a line from the trough to the bunkhouse door.  Brown and Lillard both tried to get past McColl to try to save Barrett but McColl wanted the men to have water on hand backing them up beforehand.

To everyone’s utter surprise, out of nowhere, a very tall, distinguished middle-aged man burst into their midst, throwing himself into the trough and rolling thoroughly in the water.

Shocked and amazed, McColl couldn’t believe he now had to contend with some loco stranger bent on taking baths in horse troughs in addition to trying to put out a fire and save an idiot cowhand who’d lost a fight with a sixteen-year-old kid, but that premise, too, proved inaccurate.

Shoving aside the frantic hands, the man grimly barreled through the door, ignoring the greasy black smoke roiling out of the door.

“Is he crazy?”

“Who is that man?  Anybody see where he came from?!”

As the men continued to send water toward the burning building, Nick Barkley pelted from the kitchen door, closely followed by Jarrod Barkley on his heels and old Tom himself just a few steps behind them.

“What’s going on here, McColl?!” demanded Nick, looking around himself.

“There’s a man stuck in there, Nick!?”

“What?!” demanded Tom, shoving his son aside and immediately rushing the door, but was forestalled when the doorway was filled with the head of the unconscious Barrett and the rest of the cowhand followed out. 

Staggering under the man’s weight, and gasping for air, the tall man coughed and gasped, “Someone . . .  get this man . . .  a blanket . . .”

“You three!” barked Tom, “Get Barrett!”

Nick stared in amazement as the big man crumpled to his knees and keeled over.  “I . . . I don’t believe it . . .” he breathed, in shocked amazement.

Jarrod, staring at the fallen man, glanced back at his brother. “You know him?”

“Who is it?” demanded Tom, going to his side.  “Schad! Rawdale, help me with him.  Get this man out of the dirt!”

As the two men eased the man upright, he coughed. “ . . . horse . . .  my horse . . . ” he wheezed.

“Brown!  Corral this man’s horse!” barked Tom, then turned back to Nick, bellowing, “Dammit, who is he?!”

*****

Silas pulled a kitchen chair next to the hearth and eased the boy down, ordering him to shuck his shirt while he went to the stillroom to fetch some bandages and other supplies.  Moments later, he was back and found Heath sitting still, desperately still, in order to keep his pain to a minimum, but still clothed. Hissing in frustration, Silas set the supplies down on the nearby worktable and advanced on him.

“Now, Mr. Heath, that’ll be enough o’ your foolish modesty,” scolded Silas, sternly smacking away the boy’s hands and unbuttoning his filthy, ripped and sweat-stained shirt, all but ripping it off him.  “Not even fit for the rag bag,” muttered Silas as he balled it up and tossed it to the floor.  Silas sighed, seeing the reddened and rapidly darkening bruises on the right side of the boy’s lower ribcage. 

Gently prodding, making Heath hiss in a breath through his teeth and squeeze shut his eyes, Silas carefully ran his hands along the bones, his eyes closed as he felt his way, imagining how the bones looked based upon his touch.  At Heath’s soft groan, Silas opened his eyes again.  The boy was as white as a sheet. 

“I’m that sorry, Mr. Heath,” he said gently, “but I had to know if y’had any breaks.  Don’t think so, sir.  Just bad bruises.  Now here,” he said calmly, pulling a basin and pouring a kettle of hot water and placing a chunk of soap nearby, “we’re not going to have any arguments, sir.  You’re going to let me get you washed up quick so’s I can bind up those ribs.  You won’t give me any trouble will you, sir?”  Silas picked up the rag and dropped it into the hot water.

“I . . . can . . .  do it. . . ”

“Mr. Heath . . . ”  The tone was gentle, but warning. 

Wearily, Heath glanced at the old man, and wilted, feeling defeated; all the fight had leached out of him, and now he just plain hurt.

“Faster you let me get to work, faster we’ll get you feelin’ more like yourself, sir,” said Silas soothingly, reaching for the soap.  Not waiting for a further response, Silas quickly, gently started washing the boy’s chest, arms and shoulders.

*****

“General Wallant, sir?”

Nick handed the man a glass of water.  Still coughing slightly, the man tried to haul in a breath and nodded, taking the glass.  Seated on a lawn chair on the verandah, the man was finally getting his breath back.

“You are General William Wallant?”

At the name, both Jarrod and Tom looked up at Nick in shocked surprise, then back down at the soaked and bedraggled, but still impressive, big man perched on the edge of the chair.

“I am,” nodded the man, streaked with greasy black smoke. “You have me . . . at a disadvantage, sir.”

“Nick Barkley, sir,” answered Nick, his face aglow with wonder.  “This is our ranch.  My father, Thomas Barkley,” he said, nodding to Tom, and then to Jarrod, “and my older brother, Jarrod Barkley.  He’s a lawyer in town.” 

Tom stretched a hand forward, shaking the other man’s hand.  “Nick and Jarrod don’t talk a lot about the war,” he said, seating himself in the chair beside Wallant, “but what little Nick does talk about generally involves your heroism, sir.”

Wallant glanced at Nick, an eyebrow raised.  “The war?  Good heavens, you couldn’t have been more than. . . ”

“Nineteen, sir,” Nick said softly.  “Just turned eighteen when I enlisted . . .  six months later I made 2nd lieutenant.”

Wallant studied him and glanced at Jarrod.  “And you . . . a lawyer . . . JAG corps?”

Jarrod nodded, considering the other man.

Wallant nodded and turned to Tom.  “Your family gave much to the country.”

Tom nodded. “We were blessed . . . they both came home; many others weren’t as lucky.  As a result, I don’t tend to look gift horses in the mouth.”  He smiled at the man. “Including yours today.  My employee, Barrett, has a lot to thank you for, sir.  We’ve already untacked and quartered your animal; all of your belongings have been brought inside for you.  Please, let me offer you our hospitality as well, at least for this evening.  Jarrod can show you upstairs to get yourself cleaned up.” 

Sighing and offering a tired smile, Wallant nodded. “Mr. Barkley, I won’t turn you down.  I smell like a campfire and look even worse.”

Nick started to rise, wanting to escort one of his heroes upstairs, but felt his father’s hand firmly grip his arm.  “Jarrod will show the General upstairs,” Tom said calmly.  “I need to talk to you for a moment.”

After Jarrod and Wallant entered the house, Tom rose to his feet and turned, facing his second son, his face grim, eyes hard.  “All right, Nicholas, I want some answers.  What do you know about why your younger brother came out of that cookhouse looking like pounded steak?”

*****

“That’s it, Mr. Heath, you just rest your arm on my shoulder while I bind those ribs.”

Heath hissed in discomfort as Silas wrapped his ribs tightly.  It hurt while it was being done, but once the man was finished, the youngster sighed in relief. 

“Better?”

“Yeah, thank you,” Heath nodded.  He found it easier to sit up and to breathe and had to admit that feeling clean again was even worth the sting of the liniment Silas had slathered on.   Heath got a whiff of his knuckles, and snorted, his little lopsided smile warming Silas’ heart.  “You basted me like a roast duck, Silas.  I won’t be able to sit at the table smellin’ like this.”

“The worst’ll have worn off by then, sir,” the old man smiled.  “Now, just those scrapes on your face, and we’re – “

“Those can wait a bit, Silas.”

Both Silas and Heath turned in surprise, Heath wincing . . .  for more than one reason.  Tom Barkley had entered the kitchen . . . and he was not happy.

“Young man, you have some explaining to do.”

“I’m almost finished with him, Mr. Barkley, if you’ll – “

“You can finish up after I’m through with him, Silas. Excuse us, please.” 

One glance told the man his employer was brooking no nonsense and would not be swayed.  Silas sighed, surreptitiously gave the blond’s forearm a supporting squeeze, then gathered the bloody, dirty rags (making sure Mr. Tom saw them, too, hopefully generating a little mercy!) and left the room.

Slowly, Heath got to his feet to face his father, keeping his face impassive, but swallowing hard.

Tom studied his middle child and sighed.  “Are you going to stonewall me as well?” he demanded.

Surprised, Heath’s eyes widened, a little bewildered.  “I . . . uh . . . ” 

“I just tried to get your older brother to tell me what in blazes you were doing in the cookhouse when the fire started, but he informed me he had no idea.  That boy can’t lie to save his life,” Tom observed, dryly.  He walked a few steps closer and tipped up Heath’s chin.  “Well, I can clearly see WHAT you were doing.” He dropped his hand and his eyes bore into his son’s. “Now, I need you to tell why you thought you could get away with it.”

“Get away with it?”

“You know perfectly well the penalty for hands fighting on this ranch,” Tom snapped.  “Don’t you?”

Heath frowned and gazed somewhere over his father’s left shoulder.  But his eyes snapped back to attention when his father bellowed, “Answer me!”

“First warning, docked pay.  Second, dismissal,” Heath muttered.

Tom nodded. “That’s right.  And this isn’t your first time.”

Heath swallowed hard . . . dismissal? Now how in God’s earth is that gonna work? he wondered, worriedly.   I live here!

“I won’t say I can read you like a book, Heath Morgan Barkley,” said Tom very sternly, “but I’ve a pretty good notion of what got this mess started.  And since the only two people who look like rejects from a prize fight are you and Vince Barrett, I’m going to assume he was your dance partner for this little two-step of yours.”

Heath clamped his mouth shut.

Tom nodded.  As he’d thought, Heath wasn’t going to say a word.  Damn these boys anyway! he thought, furiously.

“You listen to me, boy, and you listen well,” he warned, his finger under his son’s sore nose. “It’ll cost a pretty penny to get that cookhouse back in shape.  So, come the end of this month, your pay packet is going to be significantly lighter. And Barrett’s won’t be.  Because from what I can piece together, you decided to push him into a fight!”

“That isn’t true, Father!“ protested Heath, stung by the unfairness of his father’s statement. . . and his penalty. It was an accident! he thought, outraged.

“But you won’t say any more than that, right?” snapped his father.

“Respectfully . . .  no, sir,” Heath said firmly, his proud chin up.

“Respectfully, my Aunt Tillie!” Tom blustered. 

Stonily, Heath shook his head.

“Dad-blast it, boy! If you won’t tell me exactly what happened, how in tarnation can I know you didn’t commit an abuse of power?!” shouted his father, losing his temper.  At Heath’s confused expression, the older man closed his eyes, shaking his head, planting his hands on his hips, trying hard to calm himself down.  He’s still just a boy, Barkley.  Help him understand.  Jarrod and Nick, they grew up on this.  Heath didn’t, and that isn’t his fault . . . 

“Look,” the man said finally, keeping his voice very firm, but not yelling any more.  “All I’ve got to go on is you insisting to McColl, in full hearing of others, that no one’s to enter the cookhouse until you opened the door.  You walked out, Barrett didn’t!  And the place was a shambles and a fire burnin’ away.” Frustrated, Tom ran a hand through his gray-blond hair.  “No way to say Barrett wasn’t pushed into fighting back.  And since neither you nor Nick will tell me what actually happened, there’s no way for me to deal with it properly!”  Tom hauled in a breath, trying to calm down, but it was a challenge. 

The stony countenance in front of him turned his hot anger into an icy mass.  “Very well, then,” he nodded, grimly. “I can’t fire you from the Ranch, you’re my son.  But, by God, I can fire you from the drive.”

Heath’s head snapped up, his jaw dropped.  “But, Father, I -“  The boy’s eyes were wide and his face filled with shocked dismay.

I’m doing the talking here, boy!” Tom shouted.

Heath’s mouth snapped shut immediately, and he subsided.

“You listen, youngster, and hear me, because I’m going to say this only once.” Tom Barkley glared directly into his son’s face, permitting no turning away or deflection.  “If it were up to me, right now?  I’d remove you from the roster, and confine you to your room from this moment until we get back from San Diego, and you’d better believe that’s exactly what the father in me wants very badly to do!”

Heath remained still, holding his breath.

“But I need every pair of hands I’ve got to get three thousand head of beef where they’ve got to be in twenty-four days.  I can’t lose Barrett.  And I’d prefer not to lose you.  But if you budge so much as one step out of line in the next two weeks . . .  I mean one tiny inch, boy!. . . ”  Tom shook his head, his face red with fury, “I’ll have you hogtied and shipped back to Stockton on the back of your horse so fast your head will spin.  You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I give you an order, you obey it the first time, no questions asked.  McColl tells you to take a double shift, I don’t want to hear one single word of complaint.”

Tom moved a step closer, making Heath gulp a little and try to pull himself up straighter . . . bruised ribs and all.  “And if your ramrod tells you to jump, by God, boy, you’d better turn right back around and ask him, in the most respectful voice you’ve got, how damned high he wants you!” Tom warned his boy. “Am I clear?!”

Heath nodded, solemn. “Yes, sir.  Loud and clear.”

Tom glared, unsure whether Heath was trying to be funny with that last comment or not, but the boy was saved from any further scolding by the sound of rustles behind them and the clearing of a feminine throat. They turned to find Victoria standing at the door, quietly. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but if we plan to eat tonight Silas needs his kitchen back,” she said calmly.

Suddenly realizing he was standing there without a shirt on, Heath desperately glanced around for something to cover himself with decently and came up with nothing.

“That’s fine.  We’re done here,” Tom snapped, turning on his heel and stalking to the door.  He stopped just short of going through and turned back around, still so angry his beard quivered from the frisson of tension surging through him. “I’m so disgusted with you right now, Heath, I could . . . “  He struggled and finally shook his head, storming out the door.

Heath winced and sagged a bit; that last volley had stung worse than the liniment. 

Silas had clearly been waiting just outside and he came back in as well . . . carrying a fresh shirt for the boy.  “I’ll just finish up with Mr. Heath, ma’am, and then – “ He was about to hand it to Heath, when Victoria plucked it neatly with one hand, and gripped her son’s bicep with the other.

Victoria shook her head, steering the boy toward the door.  “I’ll finish up with Heath.  We have a distinguished guest for dinner, Silas, a general that Nick knew during the war.  And if you don’t get dinner going right now you might as well make it breakfast.” 

Eyes wide, Silas nodded. . . a general?  Lord!  he thought, trying to figure out how to dress up the meal a little more.

“Stillroom, young man.  March.”

*****

Moments later, Victoria had helped Heath into his shirt, pointed towards a stool for him to sit on beside the big worktable.  She’d stood, waiting for him to button it, and then finished up the doctoring Silas had started, surrounded by the shelves and drying racks of herbs and potions, mortars and pestles, small spirit lamps and bottles, bandages and splinting materials that every good ranch held on hand.

“Are you sure you can’t tell me what this was all about?” she asked, as she blotted a rag with strong-smelling liquid from a brown bottle.  “It isn’t like your father and I don’t have a pretty good idea anyway, sweetheart.”

Heath winced, knowing the sting that was coming.  He shook his head.  “It’s better to just let it ride, Mother,” he sighed.

“Stubborn Barkley men, you’re all impossible,” she muttered, shaking her head.  “Sit still, now.”

He tried to remain still, hissing his discomfort only once or twice while she worked.  She studied him, and finally stroked a bit of his blond hair back, gently kissing his temple.  “He’s an imperfect man, your father,” Victoria sighed, dabbing at Heath’s grazed cheekbone with liniment, making the boy flinch.  “And in so many ways that can hurt.”

Heath snorted. “You’re tellin’ me. . . ” he muttered, still smarting from the tongue-lashing he’d just had to suffer through.

“But you know, he never destroys, Heath.”  She stopped and put a finger to his chin, making him look at her.  “He only builds. . .  and he gives life.  Everything about him shouts that he brings a changing way to the world around him, uncompromising, often frustrating. Utter change.”  She frowned struggling to find the words she wanted to make this wounded boy understand his legacy.  “A revolution of its own, that says, ‘You are a free man no one – not even Thomas Barkley – can own.’ ” She tipped her head to the side, releasing the boy’s chin, noting his frown of concentration as he took in her words.

“Is it?” he asked softly, looking at her, then.  “A revolution, I mean?  I reckon revolutions are supposed to bring about changes in social attitudes, least the ones I read about. . .  in France. . . here. . .”  He thought of himself . . . of his mother and the stigma that had been attached to them both.  “Seems to me, the more things change, the more they stay the same,” the boy said quietly . . .  sadly. 

She smiled at him, then, cupping his hard, young cheek.  “Oh, Heath.  It’s not a battle you can win in a day, a year. . . or even ten.  Ask your oldest brother that one,” she chuckled sadly, raising an eyebrow.

Heath did smile at that.  He was still amazed at how feisty Jarrod could be, while so very much NOT of the cowboy mold of Tom Barkley, or Nick. . .  but, boy howdy, that man commanded the world around him and demanded – and GOT – that world’s respect, just the same! 

“Your father still tries to instill it in his sons . . .  all of his sons,” she stressed, eyeing him meaningfully, lightly patting his cheek.  “And every single day, I see the ways he’s accomplished it.”

He studied her then, listening.

“Sweetheart, I know you still face many who believe he made a terrible, wretched mistake.”  Flushing, the boy tried to look away, then, but she forcefully shook her head, and he guiltily looked back. “Oh, no, Heath, don’t you dare!” she warned.  “Don’t you ever forget you’re as much my son as the rest of them.  I don’t give a rap what people say, including you!”

He swallowed hard, looking up at her standing over him.

Victoria’s eyes bore into his, refusing to allow him to shrink from her.  “You’re my son, Heath Barkley, and I say to you, be proud!  Because any son of my husband has a right to be proud.  Live as he lives . . . fight as he fights . . . and no one – no one! – can deny you his birthright!”

Blinking back the tears glistening in her eyes, she put her little chin up in the air and nodded, firmly.  “That’s what I’d tell any one of my sons . . . and that includes you.”

He did smile then . . .  his father’s little lop-sided upturn, and her heart turned over.

“Thanks, Mother,” he said softly.

Getting herself back under control, Victoria briskly changed her mood to ‘all business’.  “All right, you go on upstairs and rest a bit, then get changed for dinner.  Apparently one of your brother’s heroes has come to call.  First, he saves your brother’s bacon in the war . . .   then Vince Barrett’s this afternoon.”

Startled, Heath looked at her.  “Barrett . . .  you mean . . .”

She nodded, patting his arm. “This stranger is the one who heroically went into the fire and pulled out Barrett.”

Frowning, Heath tipped his head to one side.  “I wonder what he’s doing here?”

“I think your brother Jarrod wonders, too,” Victoria nodded, turning him around and giving him a gentle push toward the kitchen stairs with a light smack on the seat of his pants, making him laugh in surprise and blush.  “But unless you get moving you won’t find out.  Now go on, you’ve got about half an hour to lie down and rest those ribs until you need to be downstairs for dinner.”

*****

Chapter Five

Trying to remain as still as he could, in order to not be noticed and told to go get ready for dinner, Eugene Barkley pulled his knees up and sat on the hearth, listening intently and wide-eyed as his big brother told the story of the Battle of Benton’s Crossing. . .  a time during the war when Nick has been pinned down by enemy fire for almost a week.

Twelve-year-old Gene’s heart lodged in his throat as he listened, rapt, his imagination almost allowing him see the blood and the bursts of gunfire . . . hear the screams of the wounded, and the tense exchanges of the men, as Nick described their ordeal.  In all the years since Nick and Jarrod had been back from the east, neither of them had talked much about what they’d faced against the rebels . . . and especially not in front of him or Audra.  This was eye-opening for a boy who’d never known hunger or deprivation. 

Gene glanced quickly over at his sister to see how she was taking this information in, and, if anything, her eyes shone with even more admiration for their older brother than was usually there.  Audra idolized Nick; always had.  And this?  This just proved he was bigger and fiercer and braver than he’d ever been before in her eyes . . .  As Gene’s wide eyes moved back to their rugged, larger-than-life brother, he couldn’t say she was wrong.

General Wallant stood by the fireplace, his dark eyes narrowed, tand head tipped to one side, as though trying to place the tall, young rancher at that battle four years earlier.  “So, you were with the 104th at Benton’s Crossing?”

Jarrod stood by the drinks table, pouring out two Scotches, one for himself and one for his father while Nick poured himself and the General a good three fingers each of bourbon.  Jarrod walked over to Tom’s chair, where the man was seated with his nearly fourteen-year-old daughter, her face glowing, but keeping herself as quiet as a mouse, seated on an ottoman at his feet. Clearly, much like their youngest brother, Audra was trying to be invisible so as to not be chased out of the room because of grown-up conversation, Jarrod noted with a smile.

Tom smiled his thanks up at Jarrod, and took his drink, listening as well.  He had meant what he’d said earlier on the verandah: neither Jarrod nor Nick liked to talk about the action they had seen in the war.  As had been true for every young man in that conflict, they had left as boys with hope, grit and determination to serve their country, but come back as men with haunted eyes . . . eyes far older than their years.

“Six days,” Nick breathed, shaking his head and handing the glass to the General, “pinned down for six days in that lousy swamp with nothing to eat but bark and moss.”

Wallant held the glass as though in honor, toasting him.  “But you held that swamp.”

Nick knocked back a swallow and nodded, gesturing at the general with his glass. “Until you broke through.”

Wallant shook his own head then, looking down at the pattern in the carpet.  “You held it until I could break through . . .an act of supreme heroism,” he said softly, glancing at Tom Barkley, and nodding at the older man.

Tom sipped his drink and nodded as well.  You . . .  I  . . .  Thoughtfully, Tom noted the careful use of language. . .  making that battle a personal win between them.  Tom almost shook his head, impressed.  No wonder men followed him to hell and back . . .

Jarrod noted the shift of his father’s countenance.  But his expression is . . .  what. . .  thought Jarrod, lawyer’s mind engaging and studying the witnesses and the jury here in the room . . .  overly composed?  Father is listening, no doubt about it, but . . .  it’s as though he’s watching a play.

As far as Jarrod was concerned, there was no better judge of character than Thomas Barkley; Jarrod had learned those skills at his father’s knee and trusted the man’s acumen without question.  So, sensing that Tom wasn’t content with the story at face value, Jarrod narrowed his own eyes slightly, turned to watch the drama, and allowed himself to gather tidbits of information. . .  memories, observations, snippets of conversations overhead from the past, as well as from the present in this room.

 *****

By the verandah windows, Heath Barkley stood quietly, sipping his glass of cider – not spiked tonight; he didn’t dare risk Father’s wrath this soon after such a classic dressing down such as he’d had to take earlier that afternoon!  Heath had worked hard to remain quiet, respectful and out of the way of either his irritated older brother or his furious father.  Instead he found a comfortable spot by the window where he could lean against the wall without having to sit, which made his ribs ache just now, and contented himself in watching the glorious white stallion that trotted restlessly around the confines of the corral. 

There was something about that horse that was niggling at Heath’s memory, and he just couldn’t put his finger on it.  He simply couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen that animal somewhere before, but the memory rested frustratingly just outside his grasp. 

Wallant, too, was an enigma to the youngster; he was positive he’d never seen the man before, but the type?  That he knew . . .  and knew it well.  This man was someone with a plan; someone who was assessing the situation around him and trying to figure out how to make it work for his own gains.  After so many years of watching his back, Heath had honed his sense of danger and manipulation; it had kept him alive and whole more times than he could shake a stick at in the last ten to twelve years.  And that sense was pricking at his thumbs right now with a vengeance . . .

“I’ll tell you, Father,” Nick declared, one large, filthy boot planted solidly on his Mother’s round marble occasional table, “we were never so glad as to see the General and his men crash through that enemy line like a bull through a china shop!. . .  Oh, Mother!”  The foot came down and he waved her toward their guest.

Victoria Barkley, freshly gowned, swept into the room smiling, her hand extended to the General as every man in the room smiled and either rose or simply turned and straightened themselves, grinning at her with love and respect, even little Gene.

Nick beamed, and proudly introduced her.  “Mother, this is General Wallant.”

Gallantly, the General accepted her hand and bowed over it, offering a light kiss to her knuckles.  “Mrs. Barkley.”

She smiled at him, glancing back at Nick.  “My son has admired you for years.  You’ve justified your reputation.”

Chuckling, Wallant shook his head.  “Oh, hardly, madam, I was just passing south, and trespassed quite uninvited to gain my bearings . . .  The rest, coincidence. The mark, I expect, of most heroics.”

Victoria tipped her head to one side, listening.  A stranger wouldn’t have noticed, but Jarrod and Tom both saw it.  She smiled brightly.  “I suspect otherwise.  You’re staying the night, of course,” she said firmly, not a question.

Wallant, startled, glanced at Nick.  “Well, I . . . ”

Grinning, Nick nodded ecstatically.  “My room!  Silas!” he bellowed, and Gene, still on his feet, turned and hustled out, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll tell him!”

Nick forestalled the General’s protests, by assuring him, “It’s no trouble, sir.  I’ll bunk in the guest room.”

Victoria glanced at Audra and smiled, extending her hand to her.  “Excuse me, I must see to dinner,” and turned to go, ushering her daughter firmly in front of her.  She paused momentarily as she passed by her happy, and very dirty, second son, looking at him askance.  “I assume you’ll be dining with us?” she grinned at him, her voice sardonic, and winked at her husband and the others, then swept out of the room, now towing a reluctant Audra along with her.

Nick looked a little haplessly at his disarray, then chuckling, flicked a single speck of the yardful of dirt festooning his shirt with a laugh and a grin, and the large booted foot found its way back up onto the table.  “Well, the last I heard o’ you, General, you were on the frontier.”

Wallant nodded.  “Six years,” he agreed, sipping his drink.

Jarrod slowly eased his way now into the conversation, Tom noticed.  “What brings you West?” the young man asked, an eyebrow raised.

“What, to California?” the older man asked, smiling.

Jarrod nodded.

“Still with the Army?” asked Nick.

Those words jiggled free a memory in Jarrod’s mind, Tom could see the shutters come down over his oldest son’s face.  Tom’s own countenance remained calm and composed, but his stomach lurched a little: So . . .  I’m not the only one who’s feeling something’s just not sitting right, here . . .

Wallant’s face became a pleasant mask.  “Forever the Army . . . ” he offered, with a small chuckle, one that held little real mirth.

“Well, you have me more than intrigued, sir,” Jarrod said, his expression . . . and his tone of voice . . .  curious.

Wallant slipped a guarded expression up once more, and said easily, “Well, then I apologize, because there is nothing as rude as to intrigue and then be forced to remain silent.”

Jarrod studied him, frowning slightly and walked back to the drinks table, as Nick and the General continued to trade memories of leaders they’d both known.  Tom, though, was scrutinizing his oldest son as he himself sipped his drink. 

As he poured, Jarrod asked lightly, “Wallant . . .  General William Wallant . . .  6th Indiana Cavalry, wasn’t it?”  His voice was calm, non-committal.  What Nick would have called his ‘lawyer man voice.’  His family knew that voice . . .  intimately.  Even young Heath, across the room, picked up on the tone and swiveled his head from his study of the white horse in the corral, to the drawing room drama unfolding behind him. 

The conversation on the other side of the room stopped abruptly as Wallant heard the name of the regiment and stiffened, and Nick heard the tone, and turned, surprised.

Wallant covered his surprise well, but not well enough for a lawyer to miss.  “I was for a short time, yes.”  He set his glass down carefully, and turned, this time, to Tom Barkley.  “Mr. Barkley, my horse, never quartered so well, I’m sure, has an injury to his shin. Do you mind if I have a look at him before dinner?”

“Of course not, General,” Tom rose smoothly, turning to his second son. “Nick, would you be so good as to show your guest where we keep the horse medicinals, in case his mount needs anything?”  Nick set down his drink, nodding, his face a little troubled as he glanced, questioningly, toward Jarrod, who gazed quietly into his glass, as though scrying for answers in the flickering light reflected in the amber liquor.   “Nick will introduce you to Ciego, who handles the family’s horses.  He’ll be sure to help you get your animal settled for the night.  And Jarrod, what do you recommend for a wine tonight?”

Jarrod grinned, bringing his head up immediately, turning off his intensity . . .  always good to keep a witness on their toes by changing mood and tactics often, he thought. “Of course!  We have a couple of bottles of Haut-Brion ’55, Father.  Will that do?” he smiled at the General, as he and Nick headed for the door.

“ ’55?  Really?” Wallant’s eyes widened in appreciation.  “That’s not hospitality, that’s homage!”

Nick laughed and gestured the General out ahead of him, turning at the last moment, and sending a penetrating . . .  and irritated . . .  look at his older brother, before heading out the door.

Tom watched them go, sipping his drink and remaining still and thoughtful.

Jarrod slowly walked up beside his father, neither noticing Heath still blending into the shadows of the room by the windows’ heavy drapes. 

“Interesting man,” the dark young man offered, sipping his Scotch.  “I can understand why Nick could see him as a hero.  Seeing someone with that kind of charisma burst through enemy lines to save a small battalion of men under siege . . . ” Jarrod shook his head, almost shuddering to think of the ordeal his young brother and his fellow soldiers had struggled through.

Tom nodded, standing quietly for a moment, then turned his head to his oldest son.  “Out with it,” he said dryly.

Jarrod raised an eyebrow. 

“Good Lord, Jarrod Barkley,” grunted Tom, “I’ve faced that deflection of yours enough in the last twenty-five years to know when you’ve got something stuck in your craw.  So . . . out with it.”

Jarrod chuckled.  “Never could get by you, could I, Father. . . ”  He squared his shoulders and nodded. “All right.  When I was in JAG, a report came across my desk about a Colonel Wallant who had charges brought against him by several residents of a small town in Tennessee.  The main charge claimed this Wallant seemed to have talked most of this small town into supplying his men with fresh mounts, food and ammunition.”  Jarrod had, too, been staring at the door, then turned around and faced his father directly, his eyes hard.  “Charges were brought that he commandeered the rations and supplies by making promises of future protection for the townspeople from rebel forces.  However, the issue never went to court martial nor was it made public because it was hearsay; the individual who’d brought the charges died mysteriously in an accident before trial.  By the time it became something to truly examine, Wallant had gone on to bravely . . .  or recklessly, some said . . . lead some pretty spectacular forays throughout the Tennessee and Missouri theatres.  He’d been granted a field commission to General by this time.  Obviously, somewhere in that period is when he and his men came upon Nick and the 104th pinned down at Benton’s Crossing.” 

Tom nodded, thinking.  That made a lot of sense.  He could tell the man who’d just held court in this room was someone who could command attention, pull out the best, or the worst, in other men, and through sheer force of personality haul them along with him to either victory or calamity.  He thanked God that on that one day, when his boy’s life had been at stake, it had been victory.

Jarrod continued, “The case was summarily dismissed without eyewitness testimony.  And no,” he said, forestalling his father’s question as it rose to his lips, “no one else in the town would concur . . . one way or the other.”

“Scared off?” Tom demanded.

Jarrod shrugged. “No way to know.”

Tom nodded, frowning as he studied the pattern in the carpet at his feet. “And your brother won’t hear a thing against him, of course,” he muttered.  Slowly Tom’s head came back up and he gazed boldly, straight into his oldest son’s eyes.  “Still think Nick has the maturity to ramrod this drive alone?”

Jarrod’s own eyes narrowed as he gazed at Tom Barkley. Damn the man! he thought, in irritation, remembering their argument of earlier that afternoon. His mind raced to find the best response.  “If the tables were turned, would you feel any differently?” he asked, careful to keep his voice neutral, deliberately not poking the bear.

Tom snorted a moment and shook his head in both wonder and admiration.  “You’ve got a steel pair, boy, you know that?”

“If I do, I come by them honestly,” Jarrod replied, an eyebrow raised over their matching blue eyes.

Tom did chuckle then but grew serious quickly afterward.  “I hear what you’re saying, son.  I don’t want you to think I don’t,” he sighed, looking frankly at his eldest son, trying to mend a fence that might have been a bit battered earlier that afternoon.

Jarrod saw it and nodded in understanding.

Tom sighed and sipped again.  “I just wish Nick could have another couple of years under his belt before undertaking this.  That part of the country is unknown territory for us; we’re going to be working a bit blind.  I don’t like not knowing all the dangers . . .   you know me.”

“I do, Father,” Jarrod agreed, quietly.  “But he’ll have you and he’ll have Duke on the trail.  No two better advisors out there, you know that.”  Earnestly, Jarrod gazed at his father, his pride in his younger brother shining like a beacon.  “Let Nick make the decisions and let him deal with the issues that crop up.  Trust him.  I think he’ll surprise you.”

Tom smiled, then, and nodded, gripping his oldest son’s shoulder in affection.

Watching and listening from his perch by the window, Heath thought about the conversation he’d just overhead, realizing even more now how much rested on Nick successfully ramrodding this drive.  He needed to get his own problems wrestled into submission so that he could back his brother over the next weeks.  Nick was right; too much rested on this drive, and not just the outcome of the drive itself.  The youngster could now see that Nick’s whole future role on the ranch was gonna be decided depending on how this crapshoot played itself out.  Grimly, Heath realized that adding to Nick’s problems by being an angry hothead wouldn’t help anybody’s position . . . least of all his own, if he had any hope of becoming Nick’s second-in-command in the next few years.

He heard the snort and whuffling out in the corral and turned once again, his eyes watching that ghost-like animal dance restlessly back and forth in the darkening corral like a specter.   And where in heaven’s name have I seen that horse? wondered Heath, in silent frustration.

*****

Chapter Six

The Barkley Ranch bunkhouse was spacious and far more comfortable than those of most ranches in the area.  The walls were chinked tight again the cold, two potbellied stoves at either end of the building, and there were plenty of windows for ventilation when the summer heat was its worst.  The men even chuckled at the simple, but billowing, curtains Miz Barkley had hung on the twelve big windows, six to a side, that lined the very large sleeping quarters. 

Thirty to forty men in one room had required windows, insisted Victoria, when Tom had balked at the additional expense to his planned expansion.  “Well, unless you want them all to stink so badly the cows run off, you’d better make sure there’s enough summertime ventilation!” she’d snapped at him, making him laugh out loud in surprise and finally agree.

She’d told McColl the curtains were for the men’s modesty, “ . . . since I know there’s nothing more shy than a naked cowboy with a lily-white behind coming into the bunkroom from the washhouse,”  which always brought uproarious laughter.  The Old Man’s wife was a favorite of the men, and most who had been at the ranch for any length of time had either been treated by her for illness or injury, or had a cake baked on a birthday or other special occasion.  Damned few of the men would tolerate hearing a thing against her.

Tonight, the bunk house was half empty as a good twenty or so men were in town getting those itches the boss had mentioned earlier scratched;  those left behind were either too broke to visit a cathouse or saloon, or too tired to do much good once they got there. 

Sandy-haired Schad came in from the adjacent washroom, bare-chested, a towel draped over one shoulder as he trudged wearily toward the door to hang the towel out on the railing to dry.  Lillard and he crossed paths with nods, and just as Schad extended a hand to reach for the door handle, it swung open and the tall, ramrod-straight figure of Wallant entered the big room.

Surprised, Schad straightened up unconsciously. “General!”

Wallant smiled and nodded at the younger man, then glanced around the room, obviously looking for one face in particular as he slowly circled the room.  Finally, his eyes alighted on the face he needed, and he strolled toward a low berth, one without a bunk over it.  “Barrett!”

Vince Barrett was reclining on his bunk with his shirt off, just the bright white bandage on his left forearm.  Startled, he looked up to see the General there, a look of concern as well as a smile on his face.  “I just want to take a look at that arm,” said the older man, sinking down beside Barrett on the bunk.

Surprised, but pleased, Barrett lifted the bandaged arm a bit, trying not to wince, making it available to the General.
Wallant gently but in a practiced way folded back the bandage and studied the bruised gash, now neatly stitched up, underneath.  “Well, that’s not so bad.”

Barrett chuckled in response. “No, sir.”

Picking up the speech, Wallant smiled at the man.  “Reb?”

Barrett gazed up at the older man, as though trying to search out his meaning.  “Four years with Johnston,” he finally answered, proudly.

Wallant sat back a moment, eyebrows up.  “Pioneer Ridge?”

Nodding, Barret grinned.  “You bet.”

“Well . . .  you boys were really something,” he allowed, nodding himself.  He looked back at the rest of the room.  “The only time I ever took a ball in the back of the chest for running away from musket fire,” he declared, making the rest of the men chuckle in amusement. Wallant turned back to Barrett, eyeing the man and gestured at the arm.  “How’d you get that?”

Instantly the mood of the room shifted and changed.  Barrett himself stopped smiling and looked away, his expression growing a tad sour.  Wallant’s sharp eyes scanned the room and came back to Barrett’s face.  “Private?”

“Ain’t private.” 

Barrett glanced up at Brownie, who’d uttered the comment from the bunk across from him.  Wallant picked up on the exchange between the men and looked at Brown.  “Oh?”

“That mongrel . . .  Heath . . . shows up here a few months back . . .”

Ears pricking, Wallant quickly allowed the information to settled.  “Heath . . .  Heath Barkley, you mean?”

Barrett snorted in derision. “Barkley? He’s no Barkley any more’n I am,” he scoffed.  “Old man whelped him in a minin’ town.”

Wallant raised an eyebrow, appearing surprised at the news.  He could quickly feel the mood of the room shifting.

“Wet behind the ears, and already starts in givin’ orders like he owned the mint,” snorted Brown.  “He’s even tryin’ to convince Nick to bring him into the business.”

Wallant leaned back, musing.  “I thought Nick ran things.  Isn’t he ramrod?”

The men chuckled.

“Well, yeah, that’s what the boss says, but the old man, Ol’ Tom, he runs things and you’d best believe it!” avowed Barrett. “I don’t care what you call Nick, it’s Tom Barkley that owns this spread.”

Mutters and nods met that comment; Wallant listened and nodded.

“Ol’ Nick . . .  he’s just a young’un.  He’s all right, is Nick, but the old man? Hoo boy . . . ” chuckled Schad, shaking his head in reluctant admiration.  “That ol’ dog ain’t rollin’ over for nobody.”

Echoes of agreement and respect flitted around the room.

“Yeah . . .  Ol’ Tom, he knows!  He squashed Nick like a boot heel on a tater bug for stickin’ up for the bas . . .  for that Heath,” snorted Barrett, with a grin.

“ ‘That Heath’, as you call ‘im,” snorted an older man to the other side of Barrett, “sure gave you what for!  Sixteen-year-old boy cleaned your clock for ya!”

Incensed, Barrett started up from his bed, swinging the bad arm. “Why you- “ 

Quickly Wallant stepped between the two men, “Wait a minute!  Wait!”  He glanced around the room, and his eyes settled at the older man on the side. “This man was at Pioneer Ridge.  He gave what he got.”  As the mood settled a bit, he glanced around again, storing for future reference.  “So . . . what about the rest of you?”

The men glanced at each other, unsure.  Schad spoke up, tilting his head to the side.  “Sir?”

Wallant stood, hands in his pockets, legs spread and body tipped back just slightly, studying them all.  “The war, I mean.  Any of you in it?”

Echoes of “Bull Run” . . . “Vicksburg” . . . “Fredericksburg” . . . “Antietam” . . . and even “Gettysburg”. . .  floated through the air with the buzzing undertone of talk and mutters.

Wallant nodded.  “I make that most.”

Schad chuckled and nudged a hip into the old fella seated on the bunk next to Barrett’s.  “ ‘Cept ol’ Spock, here.  He’s still trying to hoke us that Mexican cayute shoot back in the forties was a fight,” he teased.

Spock grew red in the face and sat up straighter. “Well, it was a fight!” he snapped, in angry emphasis.

Wallant smiled, glancing at the others as they chuckled at the older man.

Incensed, Spock swung his legs around as though ready to get to his feet and take out the first man who contradicted him.  “It was!  And I ain’t forgot what I know!”

“What do you know, Spock?” asked Wallant with a grin.

Spock, turned to the older man, his face growing colder . . . more calculated . . . more formidable.  “How to take a Yaqui with my bare hand . . . or blow a bridge. . . gut a town.”  Gone was the expression of an old cowhand being made fun of.  In its place came the clear menace of a man who knew how to kill.  And how to do it well.

That fact didn’t elude Wallant.  He studied the man seriously and nodded. “You sound like you miss it,” he said softly.

“A man’d miss anything he does well,” replied Spock calmly, gazing directly back at the tall military man, his pride making him look like a force to be reckoned with once again.

Wallant silently nodded, thinking.  He quickly smiled again, and glanced down at Barrett, giving a slap to his good arm.  “I know what you did.”  He hitched up his right leg and smacked his own rump.  “Peppered tails.”

The tense moment lifted as Barrett and the rest of the room laughed, and Wallant smiled at the rest of the men.  “What about you?”

Schad grinned.  “Ordinance.”

Wallant glanced at the tall, well-built Negro ranch hand beside him.  “Telegrapher.”

Brown piped up with “Artillery.”

That caught Wallant’s attention.  “Coehorn mortars?” he asked, his eyes narrowed.

Brown nodded. “Coehorns . . . Dahlgren. . .”

Wallant tipped a head to one side.  “Anyone know how to take out a train?” he asked, his words quick and sharp.

Schad nodded. “Yeah.”

Wallant immediately prompted, “What do you use?”

Schad immediately responded, “Blasting power and coffee gun.”

Gazing intently, Wallant persisted, “What if you’ve got no powder?”

Schad grinned.  “Log jam ‘er on a turn.”

There were chuckles around the room and Wallant himself slowly nodded and seemed satisfied with the answers.  He glanced around the room, noting how every man had their eye on him . . .  every face was turned toward his . . .  his men, waiting for their orders . . .  he gave himself a  bit of a mental shake, and drew in a breath, glancing down again at Barrett.  “Put some ice on that,” he advised, his voice calm and a bit gentle.  “It’ll cut the pain.”

Barrett nodded and smiled.  “ ‘Night, General.”

Echoes of “Good night, sir!” and “Thank you, sir!” followed Wallant as he made his way through the crowd of men to the bunkhouse door and back out into the dark night.

 *****

Nick tiredly came back into the house after having pointed out all the supplies the general might need to tend to his horse, introduced him to Ciego.  The general kindly thanked him, and chuckled.  “Perhaps you’d best go get cleaned up for supper, before your mother decides you’d best be slopped at the trough rather than seated at the table,” he grinned, but in a kind way, making Nick laugh.

“Yeah, that’d likely be best,” he agreed.  “Dinner is at seven sharp, General.  Let anyone in the house know if you need anything, all right?”

“Thank you, Nick.  I will,” promised Wallant, as he turned and entered the corral to fetch his horse.

Nick smiled and watched for a moment, then tiredly turned and trudged back to the mansion, figuring he had time for another drink before heading up to his room to grab some clothes and change for dinner.  He’d need a few changes of clothes moved over to the guest room anyway, and he was sure Silas was too busy with dinner preparations to take care of it at the moment.

Inside, Nick noticed the drawing room appeared empty and strode to the drinks table, pouring himself another glass and a movement by the window caught his eye.

Heath. . . his back to the room, leaning against the verandah French door casement, a drink in his hand. 

Nick sighed quietly, thinking about the yelling he’d heard coming from the kitchen area earlier, and knew that his kid brother was likely still stinging a bit from that exchange with their father, as well as from the solids licks Barrett had got in during that scuffle in the bunk house.  He picked up the drink, and thought for a moment, studying his brother’s back; he knew Heath realized he was there.

“Quite a guy.”

Heath continued to gaze out at the corral, empty now after Wallant had gone in and taken his horse inside.  Funny, he’d not noticed anything wrong with his shin . . .  At Nick’s words, the boy all but rolled his eyes.

“Oh, he sure could raise Ned with the brass, but he could win battles!  And men . . .  better’n any man I ever met,” Nick continued.

Heath frowned slightly at that; young as he was, Heath realized that Nick was one of those men Wallant had won.  Four years back now, and still . . .  still his older brother was idol-struck by the man.  I s’pose if a fella saves your life that way, it’s bound to stay with you, he mused.

Nick looked down, realizing that his small talk wasn’t budging his little brother an inch.  He knew the struggle Heath must be battling: pride, honor and just the cockeyed misery of being sixteen.  Any one of those alone was enough to contend with, but all three at once?  That was a powerful heavy stew for a stomach to digest.  Slowly he walked up behind his young brother and his voice grew a little self-conscious, a little gentler.

“Uh. . . look. . .  What happened out there today . . . “ Nick sighed, scratching the back of his head.  “I’ve got a lot on my plate with this drive . . . I’d like to be able to lean on you . . . I got nobody else . . .   Mac. . .  Father. . .  I can’t go there too often. I’ve got to be able to prove to them I can do this without them holding my hand.  The men don’t know the country, I’ve only walked it once.  From what you told me about ridin’ – “

Immediately Heath whirled around, cutting his brother off with his eyes wide.  He glared at Nick, glancing behind him to see that no one else was in the room.

“Relax,” his brother smiled, shaking his head.  “There’s no one else here.  And I promised you I wouldn’t say anything,” he reassured.   Heath huffed a little and turned back around glancing at the corral . . . the white horse was once more out there.  “Anyway, I’m gonna need you, need your head.  We’ll . . . well, we’ll bury the thing, all right?”

Heath smiled to himself a little sadly.  “All right, Nick,” he said softly, still gazing out.

Nick realized his brother was watching something and came up behind him gazing over his shoulder.

Heath gestured toward the animal, a pale streak in the darkness of the corral.  “That horse.  I’ve seen it before, I know I have. . .”

“Wallant’s horse?” asked Nick, frowning.

Heath nodded.  “Sometime in the last two or three  weeks. . . I know it.”

Nick glanced down at his brother.  “Well, now, how could you?  You heard him say he was just passing through.”

Heath nodded again.  “Yeah . . .  I heard him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Nick, frowning.

Heath shrugged.  “I don’t know, Nick.  I just . . .  passing through from where, I wonder?”

Nick stared at his brother; his brows knit.  “None of your business. . . or mine.”  Giving his younger brother a stern look, Nick tossed back his drink, and turned, setting the glass down rather firmly on the table before heading out of the room and up the stairs to change for dinner.  Heath watched him go, frowning, and glancing once more into the corral. 

His thoughts were circling as tightly as that white horse prancing restlessly around the corral.

*****

The following morning, Heath trotted into the yard beside Greer and McColl after having made ready the far holding pens for the last herd to join up for the drive.  And there was Sam DeKolven, that herd’s owner, leaning against the fence with Father, Nick and Jarrod.

Heath smiled a little to see Nick with his map out, spread on the top rail of the fence, jabbing at the map as he talked, Father and Jarrod looking on, each with calm, no-tell expressions on their faces.  He was a bit surprised to note that General Wallant was hanging around to the back of the group as well, making as though he was fiddling with his horse’s cinch. 

Frowning, Heath walked his animal up and dismounted, handing his reins to Ciego, who just appeared out of nowhere.  Heath grinned at him, and the big Mexican winked in return.

Heath walked up behind the group and pulled out his tobacco pouch and a rolling paper . . . he knew Father hated him smoking, but he’d tried to push back, arguing it was better than drinking, and grinned a little to himself, remembering the thunderous look on this father’s face.

Heath rolled himself a smoke and drew a match along his chaps and lit it, listening in.  He breathed in a long drag with a contented sigh but jumped to feel a firm tap on his shoulder.  McColl had come silently up behind him. 

“You’d better put that out if you know what’s good for you, young’un,” he said softly . . .  and very, very sternly.

Heath started to protest, then remembered the kitchen conversation of a day earlier, and sighed, taking another quick pull, then dropping it to the ground, grinding the rolled butt under his boot.  He glanced at McColl, who gave him a final firm look, the stepped back up behind Tom.  Heath rolled his eyes in irritation, but said nothing and buckled down to listen.

“Now, we’ll bed down here,” Nick was saying, pointing at a position on the map, “at the Kern River for a day, then up over these mountains and it’s home free to San Diego.”

DeKolven glanced at Tom, whose face was impassive as he stood there with his arms crossed over his chest.  You got a question? his stance clearly directed, Talk to Nick.  A look at Jarrod didn’t offer Sam any different outcome.  Sighing, DeKolven glanced at the second son of the Barkley Ranch.

“Those mountains are quite a climb,” he observed, raising an eyebrow at the young man.

Nick nodded, conceding the point.  “There’s a slight grade for about 10 miles or so . . .  between here and here,” he nodded, pointing at the map, “but it’s nothing cattle can’t take.”

“Water?” DeKolven queried.

“Prettiest lake you ever saw, right up here on top,” Nick nodded, tapping the map.

DeKolven scratched the back of his head.  “I like it . . .  it’s good.  I . . .  I like it a lot.”

Jarrod sighed; his eyebrow raised.  “In other words, you want out, right Sam?” he uttered, dryly.

“Now, Jarrod, I didn’t say that.”

Jarrod pushed home his point. “Now, we went through all this two months ago.  Nick and I told you then that the Army’d offered fifteen dollars a head more than the Kansas City price for all the steer we could deliver to San Diego.  We talked to you, Sam.  You and all the others said you wanted in.”

Frowning, Sam finally couldn’t help himself; he turned to Tom.  “Royce and Carr?”

Nick answered, before his father could open his mouth.  “And Fries,” he said firmly, folding the map firmly over the railing. “In this morning, penned and tallied.” 

Sam looked at Tom, imploringly.  Tom hadn’t budged, arms still crossed across his body, but he spoke up now.  “Sam, in this I’m an owner, no different than you.  This is the boys’ plan.  Nick tracked down the opportunity, Jarrod backed him up. You have questions, you need to ask them.”

“Your herd, Tom,” reminded Sam, in irritation.

“My ramrod, Sam,” he said nodding toward Nick.  “On the trail, he’s boss, not me.”

Behind them all, Heath listened intently, holding his breath, hoping against hope.  Nick and Jarrod had worked real hard on this, and he wanted them to succeed.  Beside him, he could almost feel the tension in Mac, muscles tight as a bowstring.

Nick kept his face impassive, Jarrod tipped his head to one side, inquiringly . . .  an impudent, but knowing grin on his face.

“If I lost that herd, Jarrod – “ began Sam.

“It’d be over my dead body,” Nick stated, baldly, gazing straight into DeKolven’s face.  The older man studied the boy in front of him . . .  He’d known Nick Barkley since he was little shaver barely tall enough to saddle his own mount.  That boy had grown up learning at the feet of the canniest cowman  – businessman in all different areas, really – that Sam had ever known.  Maybe it was time for the next generation to step up; maybe Tom Barkley was right.

Finally, the man nodded.  “Run ‘em in.”

Nick fought his urge to whoop and throw his hat up in the air, and merely turned behind him to where he knew McColl would be and nodded as well to see Heath there.  “McColl!  You ride gate horse.  Heath . . .  run Sam’s herd in.”

Sam shook his head a moment, and then stuck out a hand to Nick.  “It’s a big job, Nick, but you’ve got broad shoulders,” he said finally. 

Nick took the hand and shook it, smiling and nodding gravely.  “You won’t regret it, Sam,” he assured their neighbor, and watched the man turn and walk away.  Nick swung back to the fence and sagged a little in relief and grinned at his brother, and then nodded as well at Tom.  “Thanks, Father,” he said simply.  “I appreciate what you said to Sam.”

Tom smiled and nodded. “Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it, boy.”

“Well, all right then!” grinned Nick. “It’s aces over, boys! Let’s howl at the wind!”

Heath turned to walk off toward his horse until he heard Wallant come up and point to the map still spread out over the fence rail. 

“Nick, um . . .  “ Wallant pointed.  “That lake. . . there at the top?”

Nick grinned. “Best coffee water you ever drank!”

“It’s not a lake.”

Tom had been talking to Jarrod and stopped, turning to the older man.  Nick’s grin froze.

“What?”

“What do you mean, it’s not a lake?” demanded Jarrod, looking down at the map and then directly into Wallant’s face.

“It’s a run-off,” the man said quietly.

Nick shook his head, looking at the General. “Why . . .  why, I was there!”

“That was spring, Nick,” Wallant said calmly, as though speaking to a dim-witted child.  “This is August.  That’s high desert country. . . there’s not a particle of water in those hills. . . not for a hundred miles.  Your lake, Nick, is nothing but barrell cactus and sage.”

Nick stared at the man; his face stricken. 

Jarrod frowned in consternation.  

Tom gazed at the tall general before him, his brows knit.

And Heath stood behind them all, thinking . . .  thinking hard.

*****

Chapter Seven

All day, Nick studied that map, thinking, analyzing different route options, guesstimating and making notes for how long it would take to drive a herd this large to travel overland utilizing different routes . . . how far they might go with little to no water for the animals without losing them.  At lunch time, Nick corralled Jarrod and Heath, talking over various ideas with them, bouncing thoughts off them, and asking for input and reaction, but not asking for answers; this convinced his brothers that Nick was ready for leadership.

There was one person he studiously avoided.  The last thing he needed was a Tom Barkley ‘I told you so,’ he thought irritably, pacing his room like an expectant father. 

Just before dinner, Jarrod had stopped into Nick’s room, and Nick had outlined his final alternate route plan with him, and Jarrod nodded thoughtfully, asked intelligent questions and helped to rebuild the confidence that Nick had dumped that morning into the slop jar.

“Nick, do you believe you can make this work?” asked Jarrod, seriously.

Nick rubbed his hand over his face and then ran both of his hands through his hair.  He seriously studied those hands, and then nodded hard once and looked up at his brother’s face. “Yes,” he answered, firmly, standing up straight and tall, and facing his brother with a calm demeanor.  “I do, Jarrod.  I believe I can get that herd to San Diego. I believe we can earn roughly $45,000 more dollars more than what would normally be earned.  I believe I can do it with the men we have, with no loss to the owners.” 

Jarrod studied his younger brother . . .  and had never been prouder of him.  A slow smile spread over his face.  “Nick . . . I believe you can, too,” he said softly, reaching out and gripping his younger brother’s bicep.  “Let’s go tell Father your plan.”

***** 

“We’ll travel along here,” Nick stated, striding across the room and spreading the map out over the low, round marble table in the parlour, and tapping it with a pencil, “ until we get to the Kern River . . .“ he tapped a spot on the map, glancing at his father.  “Then we go due east.”

Jarrod and Heath stood by the fireplace, General Wallant had a seat to the left side of the fireplace and Jarrod, while Victoria sat in a chair to the right of where Heath was standing, with Tom standing beside her, sipping a drink.

Victoria rose and with her eyes gathered Audra and Eugene, Gene cross-legged on the floor at Jarrod’s feet and Audra standing opposite watching Nick with a big smile.  “Will you excuse us, gentlemen?  I sense the conversation is about to become masculine.

“I don’t mind!” Audra beamed.

“And, Ma, I am masculine,” protested Gene.  “I’m gonna be going on the drives soon, too, aren’t I?  Then I should hear this, too, shouldn’t I, Father?” he implored Tom.  Jarrod and Heath smiled at each other, seeing how much Gene wanted to remain a part of the male company, and looked to their mother with hopeful expressions, backing up their little brother.

“Let the boy stay, Vic,” grinned Tom.  “He’s right.  He is masculine, after all,” he finished seriously, giving Gene a wink. 

“Audra, would you get my sewing basket, please?” Victoria sighed, rolling her eyes.  “I need my shears.”

Audra looked puzzled. “Whatever for?”

“Apparently I’m being told I need to cut my apron strings,” Victoria chuckled, and turned her daughter around, gently pushing her out the door, to the soft protest of “Oh, MO-ther….!”

Grinning excitedly, Eugene dropped down to his knees on the carpet just in front of Heath’s boots, leaning back against his older brother’s leg for balance.  Heath grinned down at him and tweaked an ear, making Gene glare at him. “Hey! Cut it out!”

“Boys . . . ” warned Tom sternly, and both younger sons subsided, paying attention again to the conversation between Nick and the General.

Wallant and Nick had continued studying the map as though no one else was in the room.

“Yes, due east, for sure, along the base of these hills.”

Nick picked up his head, frowning.  “But that’s all desert.”

Wallant shrugged.  “You can’t go over the mountains, you’ve got to go around them, through Mint Canyon.”

Jarrod kept a thoughtful expression, but Heath had a distinctly blank, noncommittal countenance.

“There’s water there,” Wallant continued.  “It’s longer, but you can make up the time.”  He looked askance at Nick. “I thought you knew this territory, Nick.”

Nick shook his head.  “Not this territory,” Nick sighed. 

Wallant turned to Tom Barkley. “Nope,” answered Tom, calmly.  “I’ve traveled that country but not in twenty years.  I couldn’t rely on my memory from that far back.”  He leaned over the map and pointed toward the mountain Nick had originally indicated had the source of water.  “How long since you have been in this territory?  I believe you mentioned Merced area, which is considerably east of our trail.”

Wallant slowly brought his head up from the map and gazed at his host, Barkley’s eyes like intense blue suns.

“Within the last year,” he said easily.  “In the summer.”

Tom nodded.  And last year was a drought, he thought.  This year has been much wetter.  Hm . . . .

“Well, surely some of your men – “ Wallant continued, talking again to Nick.

The young, black-haired rancher frowned.  “None of my men have been south of Fresno.”

“But, Nick!” interrupted Gene, earnestly, “didn’t the General say he was heading south tomorrow, too?  If he’s been there before and is gonna be goin’ at the same time, wouldn’t it be . . . “   Gene trailed off as felt Heath grip his shoulder firmly.  Eugene saw his father and Jarrod staring at him, not precisely in horror, but certainly not as though his suggestion had been as good an idea as he’d thought . . . 

Worriedly, the twelve-year-old glanced up at Nick, and breathed in relief to see the wide-eyed, ecstatic expression on this older brother’s face.

“I think what my oh-so-wise baby brother is subtly trying to suggest is for you to throw in your lot with a regiment of beef cattle, instead of infantry, General!” grinned Nick, leaning back on the settee.  His grin faltered only slightly to see the less-than-ecstatic expressions on his father and older brother’s faces . . . what the heck was stuck in Jarrod’s craw about this man?  Father’s, too!  he thought to himself, angrily.  You’d think a man’d be grateful to the officer who made it possible for your own son and brother to come home from the war!  But it niggled at Nick . . . because neither of these men were prone to jumping to conclusions and were both good judges of character.  What in the world was it? 

Wallant’s reaction, however, cut short Nick’s thoughts, and he focused on the General once again.

Wallant’s eyes widened.  “That I go along with you?” he declared, seemingly startled.  He shook his head. “Oh, no, I’m sorry gentlemen, but I’d be nothing but a nuisance.”

Nick glanced at his father and Jarrod, then back at the older man. “Well, that’s hardly the word, General!” he protested.

Wallant looked at Nick, directly, then, pondering the idea. “Well . . .  if you can tolerate a man who doesn’t know a drag from a flank . . . done,” he smiled putting out a hand to Nick.

“Good! Wonderful!” the young man smiled, pleased, and clearly relieved, as rose to his feet.  “I’ll get in touch with McColl and have him get you set for tomorrow morning!”  He leaned down and hauled Gene up, swinging him up effortlessly and draping him over his left shoulder, making the youngster howl with laughter.  As Gene’s upper body hung down Nick’s back, the older brother smacked the younger’s backside making his yelp and snort with laughter. “C’mon, brat!  Your idea, so you can help me tell Mac.”

Wallant watched the brothers noisily leave the drawing room with a smile on his face, and noted that the rest of the room seemed very. . .  very quiet. 

Tom Barkley sipped his drink, gazing after his departing sons.

Jarrod Barkley studied the Scotch he’d poured as though it held the secrets of the ages.

But it was the two holes Wallant felt burning between his shoulder blades that prickled and set the hairs on his arms to rise.  Abruptly, the man turned to see young Heath Barkley, still favoring his bruised ribs, leaning back against the marble fireplace, and openly studying him, his head tipped to one side, as if asking, What are you, Wallant?

As the older man’s eyes met the boy’s, the intensity eased a bit and Heath’s eyes dropped.  But though the boy’s observation waned, Wallant’s uneasiness at the presence of this kid and the unnerving feeling that the youngster was taking his elder’s measure brought out in him grew by leaps and bounds.

***** 

Victoria had spent the evening with Silas, assessing the trail clothes and supplies for her men, making sure there was a large quantity of clean and dry socks more than anything else, fully aware that the rest of their clothes would be so sweat-stained and lived in that they’d practically stand up by themselves by the time Tom, Nick and Heath returned home.  She made a mental note to line up some extra staff for laundry the week the men were due back.  Razors would be ignored, soap used sparingly, and certain articles of clothing abandoned altogether by the time the third week of the drive came around.  But she wanted to be sure they at least started out fully outfitted.

She supervised Eugene washing for bed, listened to Audra’s lessons before blowing out her lamp and then walked through the downstairs tidying the rooms and gathering dishes and glasses to be returned to the kitchen.  As she looked around the drawing room, she saw Heath once again by the verandah window.  She could see he was worried about something, that something weighed heavily on his mind. 

The scolding he’d taken the day before?  No, she thought as she slowly walked over to him.  Heath didn’t let things like that bother him.  If he’d been in the wrong, he’d accept whatever was coming to him and move on.  She’d been impressed with the boy’s pragmatism on that score ever since he’d arrived.

She reached out and ran a hand along his arm, smiling at him, startled to realize that she needed to tip her head back farther to look at his face.  My goodness, he’s grown two inches without me even realizing it, she thought to herself in shock.  He’ll have outgrown every stitch he owns within a month . . .   She gave him a gentle hug, and he glanced back at her, his little lopsided smile present, but distracted.

“It’s going to be lonely here over the next few weeks,” she said softly.  “You and Nick and your father gone on the drive, Jarrod back in San Francisco.  Gene and Audra gone all day at school . . . or off with their own friends . . . it’s hard to keep track of them these days, especially your sister.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he murmured, studying the animal in the corral with an intensity that was almost palpable.

I can almost reach it . . .   I can almost remember where I’ve seen that stallion before . . . he thought, frustrated.

“Oh, now, I thought we were finished with that silliness, Heath Barkley,” she smiled, giving him a gentle hug, careful not to jar the ribs.  “I haven’t been ‘ma’am’ for a good six months!”  She studied him as she saw his brow furrow.  “What is it, sweetheart?”

“Nothing,” he muttered, shaking his head.

“Oh no, not that,” she said firmly.  “Not to me. . .  Trouble with the men?”

He glanced at her, and smiled a little sadly, shaking his head.  “I can handle the men, Mother.”

She tipped her head to the side.  “Heath, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody.  Nearly a year you’ve been here, part of this family, part of this ranch, part of Stockton,” she said firmly.  “Do you remember that brawl in town, when you and your brothers and your father all ended up in Sheriff Madden’s jail?  That was four Barkley men standing up to a whole town, standing up for what you believed to be right.  You fought with them, and you won, each of you -“

Suddenly, Heath straightened.  Sweet God . . . that’s it! . . . he thought, excited.  “That horse!” he said aloud, interrupting her.

Victoria stopped and looked at him, confused.  “What are you talking about?”

Heath nodded toward the corral. “That horse was there . . . in town about three weeks back,” he said firmly, turning to look at her.  “Jarrod and I went in on a Sunday afternoon to fetch those kids from the depot for his client . . . remember?  Three children, the grandchildren of his clients, the . . . “ frustrated, he tried to recall their names.

“The Dawsons?” Victoria suddenly remembered, looking at him, and then out the corral.

“Yes, that was it! The Dawsons!”

“Wallant’s horse?” she said thoughtfully.  “You saw that horse in town?”

“Yes,” answered Heath, firmly.  He turned to her. “At the depot corral, restless, just like he is right now, out there.”

“Are you sure?”

The boy glanced out at the corral and nodded, his mouth a firm line.  “You don’t forget a horse like that,” he muttered, then looking directly into her eyes. 

She saw his firm resolve and nodded.  She knew what he meant and she, too, looked out at the animal.  No. . .  you wouldn’t forget a horse like that one. . .  not if you were Heath Barkley . . .

“Have you told your father?”

Heath sighed.  “I could try, I ‘spose, but I don’t want to get a dust-up goin’ between him and Nick b’fore the drive.  There’s too much at stake, and they gotta keep their heads in the job.  I mean . . .  I’ve got no proof of anything, other than the fact the fella lied about just passin’ through.” 

“And Nick?”

Heath snorted and looked at her. How do I tell her that her son won’t listen to reason when it comes to this man?  That I already tried to tell him last night I thought I’d seen the horse before and got told to mind my business?  He shrugged.  “Nick would never believe it.  He thinks Wallant’s a saint.”

“And you can’t prove otherwise,” nodded Victoria, studying him.

Heath thought a moment, then turned to her, troubled. “No.”

“Nor can I,” she said, thoughtfully.  She looked at him, seriously, and he at her.  Between them, in those brief seconds of shared gazing, so much was communicated. . .

. . . I’m worried about you, about all of you . . . I don’t trust that man. . .  I need you to keep an eye on them for me, Heath. . . and on yourself. . .

. . . I don’t trust him, but I can’t tell ya why, Mother. . .   I’m worried Nick won’t recognize it until it’s maybe too late, and I’m afraid Father might over play his hand, making Nick just fight back. . . I’ve gotta figure out how to keep an even keel goin’ out there on the trail. . .

Victoria hugged him a little closer and placed a tiny hand on his chest.  “Oh, take care, Heath.  Take care, please. . . “

He nodded, leaned over and kissed her cheek, then put his arm around her, as both of them gazed out at the ghostly white animal that they both knew would haunt their dreams tonight.

***** 

As he heard the clock on his mantel chime midnight, staring up at his ceiling, the dark-haired young man realized he wasn’t going to get to sleep any time soon, and that annoyed him, as he knew tomorrow was going to be a huge day. 

Jarrod hauled himself to a sitting position and re-lit his bedside lamp.  He sighed, rubbing his face and decided to go downstairs for a warm cup of tea, maybe soothing himself enough to get some rest.  The train back to San Francisco was going to be at the station at 9:15 a.m. and he had to be there, too.

Yawning, Jarrod, wrapped his banyan around him and pushed his feet into his slippers, heading downstairs.  To his surprise, he saw the lights still on in the kitchen, and his surprise expanded further to see his sixteen-year-old brother huddled by the hearth with a warm blanket around him, eyes closed, while Silas stood at the stove.

“Well, Brother Heath,” he said softly, not wanting to startle the boy, “it’s long past your bedtime.”

“Yours, too,” smiled Heath tiredly, opening one eye.

“Just fixin’ Mr. Heath some willow bark tea, Mr. Jarrod,” smiled Silas.  “You look like you could use some chamomile. That so, sir?”

“I could indeed, Silas, wise man that you are,” nodded Jarrod, with a smile.  Jarrod walked over to his younger brother and gently squeezed his shoulder.  “Still hurting quite a bit, hm?”

Heath sighed. “ ‘m alright,” he said softly.  “But I need to sleep and Silas said . . . well, he said this might help.”

Jarrod gazed at the bruised face, the swollen lip . . . and the troubled eyes.  “I have a feeling, little brother,” said Jarrod softly, pulling up another chair beside the youngster, “that there are some things on your mind keeping you awake as well as the hurts your body’s screaming at you.”

Heath sighed.  “Jarrod. . .  I know you think talkin’s the way to get through all problems, but – “

“No, not all,” responded Jarrod, “just the ones in which you’re trying your best to understand a situation that’s unfamiliar to you.”

Heath sighed in frustration. 

Jarrod chuckled. “You know, you are so very like him,” he smiled.  Heath narrowed his eyes and glanced at his brother.  “Father.  He hates to talk about things on his mind until he’s sure of what he thinks.  But . . . he can’t make a full decision until his has all the facts.  He also hates to make a wrong step forward.  I’ve observed you’re much the same.”

Flushing, Heath studied the fire beside him, only looking up when he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.  With a silent nod at Silas, he accepted the willow bark tea, and sipped it, making a face, even though he could taste a good slug of honey, and he smiled at the old man.  “Thank you, Silas,” he said softly.

“You drink that up while it’s hot, Mr. Heath,” said Silas firmly.  Then turned and handed Jarrod his cup. “You let that steep a bit, Mr. Jarrod,” he smiled, patting the older man’s shoulder.  He winked at the lawyer and draped another quilt over his shoulders before he left the room.

“It’s been almost a year, Heath,” said Jarrod quietly.  “What’s been the hardest thing to get used to?”

Heath smiled as he sipped his tea, trying to relax and allow the pain in his body to ease.  “Havin’ older brothers askin’ me questions.”

Jarrod chuckled.  “Okay, what about the easiest?”

That made the boy raise his eyebrows and glanced at his brother.  “I . . . I’m not quite sure.  Maybe . . .  “ he hesitated, blushing a little.  “I guess I’m kinda surprised how fast I found myself lovin’ all o’ you.”  With a pair of bright pink ears, Heath studied his mug of tea.  “I . . . I’m not used to talkin’ about myself, and I’m not used to having to think about other people so much when I do make a decision.”

Jarrod nodded.  “I can understand that,” he said thoughtfully.  “You weren’t raised on it.  Nick . . . me. . . Audra and Gene, they’re learning. . .  but I’d say from the time Nick was about seven and I was eleven, Father had become a force to be reckoned with in this area.  He’d built a ranch that stretched so far we couldn’t begin to see where it ended.  So we were taught that everything we did  . . . or didn’t do . . . had an effect on the whole, on this ranch, which is kind of like a small town in and of itself.”

Jarrod leaned back and studied his younger brother.  “One thing I’ve noticed about you, Heath. . .  you have this belief that you need to stand on your own two feet.”

Heath nodded.  “Don’t you?”

Jarrod nodded.  “In some things, yes.  But, did it ever occur to you . . .  standing on ‘your own two feet’ puts the family at a disadvantage?” asked Jarrod very gently.

Heath pulled his head up and stared at his brother as though he’d been slapped.  “How?!” he demanded, a little outraged.

Jarrod smiled and leaned back in his chair, sipping his tea.  “Because the moment you think you have to stand on your own two feet, you forget that the family is a whole. . .  a single entity,” smiled Jarrod.  “While each of us has our own interests, our own particular areas of support or talents . . .  we stand together as a whole, as ‘Barkley Ranch’ owners.”

Heath studied his brother, thinking hard, struggling to understand.

“There’s a certain military identity to the whole thing,” said Jarrod quietly.  “The idea of a chain of command is important to almost any business, and is paramount on a ranch.  There’s no other way to maintain ranch discipline than through a concept of that chain.  You’re a son of the ranch owner.  When something is said against you, the only way the ranch owner can counter the claim is through the chain of command, otherwise he’s seen as ‘playing favorites’.”

Heath studied his brother. “But  . . . the problem’s mine.” 

Jarrod’s eyes widened. “Oh, no, it’s not, “ he said strongly, making Heath’s eyes widen.  “You’re a Barkley son. That means your pain is ours.  Your wins are ours, too.  Mother has made it clear that your mother’s honor is as important as her own.  You understand that, don’t you?  The person to be vilified in your situation is Father, not you.  You get that?”

Heath snorted, wincing a little as his ribs protested.  “I don’t want anybody . . . vilified.”

“Well, that’s not up to you.”

Heath glared at his brother, who returned the gaze in a straightforward way.  “It’s not, little brother.  That’s up to the people who judge us.”

“What right do they have – ” started Heath, hotly.  And he stopped, hearing Jarrod’s laughter.

“Right?!  Oh, little brother, don’t shout your naivety,” Jarrod warned, with a smile.  “We’re a wealthy and powerful family in the San Joaquin Valley.  Whether you like it or not, that gives others the right to make judgements.”

Heath, frustrated, stared at the fire.

“Drink down your medicine,” said Jarrod firmly, gesturing toward the boy’s cup.  Heath sighed and swallowed it as directed.

“Heath, this is reality, and you might as well swallow it along with your tea,” Jarrod said gently, but firmly.  “You are now a member of a leading family of the Valley.  Your viewpoint . . .  your existence . . .  your wins and your losses. . . . they are now part of the public record.  Your existence . . . it’s part of the public discussion points.  Father’s infidelity . . . part of the public record. . .  Mother’s shame. . . part of the public record.”

Heath miserably closed his eyes.

“And you know what?  Neither Mother nor Father gives a damn,” said Jarrod, firmly.  Heath, surprised, glanced at him. ‘Nope.  Neither of ‘em.  They don’t care a damn.  They care about you.  In return?”  Jarrod smiled.  “Your job is to care about the Barkley Ranch.  That means understanding that everything you do has a bearing on the ranch’s bottom line.”  Jarrod studied him.  “You understand what that means?”

Heath, in turn, studied his older brother.  “How I . . .  react to being pressured. . . “ he said slowly.  “That has a lot to do with how the public sees the family.”

Jarrod smiled, eyebrow raised, and nodding.  “Good.  Yes, exactly.”

“So when I lose my temper – “

“The family suffers.
Heath frowned, trying to allow his mind to wrap around this.

“Frustrating, I know.”

“I’ll say!” Heath snapped, wincing as he shifted uncomfortably.

“No better proof, though, that our family is more than just the individual . . . it’s the sum of its parts.”

Heath frowned, trying to think, trying to understand. . .

“I know, it’s hard,” commiserated Jarrod.  “I think it was Alexander the Great who said, ‘Remember, upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.’  Accepting that everything one of us does affects all of the others is a tough concept.”

Heath sipped his tea and stared into the fire, then closed his eyes as though remembering something.  “ ‘It is not in numbers. . . but in . . .’”

Jarrod frowned a moment, then smiled.  “ ‘. . . but in unity . . .’” he encouraged.

Heath’s eyes opened, and he looked at his brother, a history lesson from a few months back coming to him once again.  “ ‘. . .but in unity, that our great strength lies.’”  He sighed and nodded. “Thomas Paine, right?”

Jarrod smiled, nodding.  “And the upside of that. . . “Jarrod said softly, rising with his cup of tea in his hand, “is that we are . . . none of us. . .  ever alone.  So, it’s a fairly even hand-off.”  He gently touched his younger brother’s shoulder.  “I think I’ll be able to sleep now,” he said quietly.  “How about you?”

Heath’s brow was still furrowed, but he sighed.  “Yeah.  Maybe I can,” he admitted softly. He glanced up at his oldest brother.  “Never alone, huh?”

Jarrod smiled, and nodded. “That’s right, Brother Heath.  Never alone.”

“Hm.”

“Don’t stay up too late,” admonished Jarrod with a smile. “Tomorrow’s a big day.”

“I won’t.  G’night, Jarrod.”

Heath continued to stare into the flames, thinking hard as his oldest brother headed up the kitchen stairs back to his bed.

***** 

Just as the sun was rising, all the Barkley hands were mounted up, ready to move out.  Nick, mounted on Coco for this leg of the journey, was in the center of their semi-circle as they waited for their final orders and the all clear to open the pens and start moving the beef south.

Tom and Duke were positioned off to the side, deliberately staying out of the limelight to give Nick center stage to address his men.  Tom’s practiced eye studied the men overall, and saw something . . .  felt something . . . he couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was an undercurrent flowing beneath the surface, an uneasiness that reminded him of a line from his favorite Shakespearean play, Macbeth, when the second hag intoned, “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes. . . “

“Duke, you picking up on anything in the bunkhouse we need to be aware of?” he’d asked earlier that morning.

McColl had sniffed and wiped a hand across his face.  “Somehow, word got out that Nick got it wrong about the water near the eastern pivot point.”

Tom swore a particularly foul oath.  “I’ll bet I know where that came from,” he muttered, annoyed, glancing at the tall man seated on the prancing white stallion.

“You wouldn’t be wrong.”

“What’s he up to, Duke?” demanded Tom, frustrated, his brow creased.  “Everything is just too pat, too practiced.  God help me, but I do not trust that bastard!”

McColl had nodded as well.  “All we can do is try to keep our ears and eyes open, Boss,” he’d stated grimly.  “Back up Nick as best we can.”  He glanced at his old friend.  “You might have to step in, y’know.”

Tom frowned and shook his head.  That was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do.  Talk about cutting his boy off at the knees?!

“We’ll just have to take it one step at a time,” he ground out, looking meaningfully at his long-time associate.

Now, up front, Nick had finished with the basic housekeeping information he needed to share and drew in a deep breath.  He studied the faces of the men in front of him, and felt . . . he couldn’t place it . . .  off kilter, somehow . . .  like the walls of a room not lining up square . . .

“We’ve got a lot of miles to cover and twenty-four days to do it,” Nick’s voice rang out, clear and crisp in the morning air.  “But you’re the best men I could hope for.  Together we can make this ‘boondoggle’ happen.”  There were chuckles around him.  “Don’t think I haven’t heard the talk.  But we’re professionals.  We’re good at what we do and, by God, we’re gonna show everyone what Barkley Ranch hands are made of.  And when this is finished, in San Diego, you’ll find that Barkley Ranch management will remember you.  We remember our own!”

He gazed out over the expanse of men . . .  Lillard, looking a bit pensive, Brown at his side. . .  Rawdale,  Schad, anticipating, rarin’ to go . . .  Barrett, over there, looking smug, that miserable cur. . .  Ol’ Spock, looking to have more life in him than Nick had seen in months, come to that.  Brahma, bless him, always ready for whatever got thrown at him. . .   Greer, Ferguson, Lampert, Doyle . . .

And Heath.  There, on the far right, in the back, ready to take up his spot in drag, his kid brother, Heath.  Silent and sitting tall in his saddle.  We’ll get through this drive, boy, and then you and me. . .  we’re going to reshape things a bit, Nick thought to himself, you wait and see.

Nick nodded, and picking up his right hand, his coiled lariat in place, lifted his hand high and waved the rope coil in a circle, the signal to the gate horse hands to release the gates and start the herd moving.  Nick’s eyes studied the herd, watching them move, steer by steer, and was pleased with how the men riding point and flank were getting the animals underway.

He looked off to his left side and saw Wallant, sitting atop his white stallion. . . Nick would have chuckled if he wasn’t so fervently intent on getting the drive off to the best possible start, because Wallant looked for all the world like Caesar, reviewing his armies.  Shaking his head slightly, Nick smiled and looked further back. 

There . . . there they were . . .  McColl and Father off to the side.  Swallowing hard, Nick nodded gravely at his father, and received the same back . . . a nod of respect. 

Gratefully, Nick touched his hat, and then moved his horse into gear beginning his rounds from man to man, position to position, checking in directly or just by eye contact . . . exactly as Tom Barkley had done for the last twenty-five autumns.

*****

Chapter Eight
 

The first week of moving the cattle south was slow, dirty work, as it always was.  Wallant tried to help where he could and was learning as he went along.  His offer to offer his services as scout was taken up with pleasure by Nick, though Tom and McColl glanced at each other, a bit surreptitiously.

While Tom Barkley found sitting on his natural tendency to lead,  to take command, almost more than he could bear, he also noticed that even though Nick didn’t do things exactly the way he would have, and perhaps focused on different aspects of his men’s performance, in many ways their leadership styles were very similar. 

He also noticed that the men kept looking . . .  at him.  Nick would give an order, and they would look to him to see if he corroborated it.  Or to McColl to confirm.  Tom could tell it was beginning to annoy Nick, so he began to drift further back and away from point and swing. . .  and that just made his stomach churn with not knowing what was going on.  Good grief, Barkley, he snorted to himself, let the boy do his job!

Nick noticed that Barrett, in particular, was someone who needed constant baby-sitting, much to his annoyance.  When focused, the man was a better-than-decent flank rider, experienced in seeing when a beef was cottonin’ to pull out of formation.  But Nick spotted the man lollygagging to the side more often than the others, to the point that Barkley shouted in annoyance, “Barrett!!! Keep that beef movin’!” earning himself a sour glare, though the man did then step up his game and got back to work.  What Nick didn’t see was Wallant watching every single exchange.

Every time Nick had to pull a tired cowboy up short to stay on his self-imposed schedule. . .  every time a stray got out of reach, and Nick would shout angrily for the nearest cowboy to anticipate it, jump on it,  without having to be told first . . .  every time a hand dozed off on evening watch and Nick had to jostle him awake with a stern word . . . Wallant would see it and store it away in memory.

Each evening as the groupings of campfires lit the stopping points each night, Nick would visit each fire and touch base with the men, trying to connect with each man, feel out how they were faring.  Did they have any concerns?  Any ideas for improvement that Nick might take on board?

Then, a few minutes after he left each camp, Wallant oozed his way in, undoing all the groundwork Nick had laid to keep the men calm, focused and on point.

“So, you boys heard anything further about where the Ramrod is planning to stop for water?” Wallant asked one night, seemingly innocently.  But he made sure the question was asked in the camp that held the greatest of Nick’s naysayers.

“Beginnin’ to think there ain’t no water a’t’all,’ snorted Spock, morosely, picking at his stew.

“I’ll tell you what,” confided Brown, using his spoon for emphasis, “I’m makin’ sure to fill my canteen from Dutch’s stores each mornin’.”

“Young Nick seems to be leaning an awful lot on that wet-behind-the-ears baby brother of his,” Wallant observed, earning a chorus of grunts and irritated undertones around.  “I wouldn’t think a child like that was ready for that kind of responsibility.”

And he’d ask questions. . .  questions meant to make the men worry.  Such as “how long can these animals go without water before they start keeling over?”  And, “how much of a distance is it between watering holes?  Is there enough water for the men?”  And, “aren’t we getting into dangerous country?  Seems to me the Yaqui were prone to be fairly active around here not long ago.”

All understated.  And all designed to create discord and a lack of comfort.  And it worked.

“Well, but,” Wallant prodded, “you’re not worried, are you?”

There was muttering and uneasiness around the fire.

“You wishin’ old Tom was back holding the reins?” asked Wallant with an understanding nod.

“I’ll say,” breathed Barrett, with others joining in.  Finally, someone had put to words the feelings that had been bubbling throughout the crew for the last eight days.

“I guess it is a little unnerving at that,” Wallant agreed quietly, “trusting your life to an untried boy, eh?  Oh, well . . .  at least the Old Man is handy for when this all blows up in the boy’s face.”

And, as simply as that, the seed was planted.  Within days, the rumblings were spreading from campfire to campfire.  No one was outright bucking Nick, but the uneasiness and stress were beginning to show during the daylight hours as well as in the whisperings at night.

*****

For Heath, each day had become one, long, miserable slog.  He’d been doing his best to remain calm and centered, his mind on the job, but he found that Barrett was going out of his way to make his life a trial.  Whenever the man had a free moment, he’d be watching the Barkley leadership, and when all eyes were elsewhere, deliberately sending a stray beef off, forcing Heath to have to hustle to get it back into line.

“Heath!  For pity’s sake, pay attention!” Nick finally shouted in frustration.  “Can’t you keep your line solid?!”

Heath grit his teeth and remembered the rules; no talking back, no arguing, and merely worked that much harder.  But Tom was the one who noticed that these things only seemed to happen when Barrett or Brown was anywhere near Heath’s position.  At all other times, the boy did fine.  And that smelled fishy to the man. 

By the end of the first eight days, tempers were beginning to grow thin and Heath was finding himself getting hollered at on a regular basis.  He’d taken to eating his meals on horseback to avoid being in camp to be teased or riled.  Tom, himself, decided to see if he could pour oil on the troubled waters and try to settle his boy down a bit.

Nudging Apollo gently, Tom trotted his horse carefully out the back of the herd, where Heath sat, weary and shivering a bit, trying to stay awake for his four-hour evening guard duty.

“How’re you holding up?” smiled Tom as he came up beside him.

“Fine,” said Heath shortly, feeling as though he was being watched like a hawk. 

Tom raised an eyebrow.  “You sure?  You seem a little . . . tense.”

Heath clamped his mouth shut and shook his head, thrumming with resentment.

Tom respected the boy’s grim intent to do as he’d been told and just do his job, but the older man also felt the anger pulsing from him.  So much anger for such a young fella, he sighed to himself.  Sixteen . . .  what a tough age.  In so many ways expected to be a man, but without enough life under your belt to help you face the disappointments and frustrations life throws at you. . .  give the boy a few more years and he’ll have the understanding and experience to know that eventually, life tends to even out . . .   

Tom smiled a bit to remember both Jarrod and Nick at sixteen.  They’d faced and responded to those issues in different ways than Heath, to be sure, but the general sense of feeling like a human firecracker – tensions all wound up tighter and tighter and tighter, ready to blow – was common to all youngsters this age.

Tom thought, trying to remember a situation from his own life involving difficulties getting along with people he had to work with to see if he could come with something, anything, to help his boy . . . and almost chuckled aloud to remember.

The desert night was cold, and the man reached down into his scabbard and pulled out a flask.  He thumbed off the thong-secured cork with one hand and took a swig, then glanced at his son and offered him the flask.

Surprised, Heath wondered if this was some kind of a test and hesitated.  “A sip won’t hurt you and might warm up your belly a bit to get you through the next couple of hours,” Tom nodded. “Go ahead.  Just don’t take too big a swallow, or you’ll doze off.”

Heath nodded and accepted the flask, taking a small sip, rolling the liquor around in his mouth and swallowing it.  He sighed as the warmth slid down his throat and landed like a hot stone in his belly, spreading the warmth out to his chest and backbone.  He grinned at his father and handed back the flask.  “Thanks.”

Tom nodded, and recorked it, slipping the flask back into his scabbard.  “You know, son,” he said quietly, “when I first got back from Strawberry all those years back, McColl darned near knocked my head off and was going to leave the ranch.”

Shocked, Heath pushed his hat back further on his head to look up at the tall man beside him.  “Serious?” he asked, incredulous.

Tom nodded, looking at his boy, his eyes filled with pain.

“Because of Mother,” Heath murmured, understanding.

“That’s right,” Tom admitted.  “Because of your mother . . . your mothers,” he sighed, smiling sadly, remembering. 

The boy sat his horse, pondering this, wondering, trying to understand where his father was going with this conversation. “Father . . .  why did you tell him?” Heath wondered.  “I mean, I can understand you and Mother having to talk things out, but . . . “

“Duke McColl had been my best friend and most trusted employee for close to ten years,” answered Tom, looking out over the herd.  “Trying to shoulder something this serious alone was a bigger load than I needed to bear right at that point in time.”

Heath’s brows furrowed.  “But . . .  weren’t you afraid he’d be angry?  I mean . . .  sounds like he was angry. Weren’t you afraid you’d lose him as a friend?” the boy asked softly.

Tom nodded and drew in a breath.  “Yes, I was.  But I’d breached some trust there . . . and it was up to me to repair the damage.  It was time for me to come clean, take my licks, and hopefully move on.  Victoria, bless her, took me apart, but was willing to put us back together again.  For a while there, with Mac, I wasn’t so sure.”

Heath nodded, still wondering what his father’s point was.

“There we were, just before the fall drive and I’d been gone . . .  everything resting on Duke’s shoulders, everyone thinking I was either dead or . . . well, no one knew.  Duke’s got more integrity than anyone I ever knew in my life.  He refused to risk all the hard work the men, and your mother, had put in those weeks by leaving us in a lurch, but the anger he had for me . . . ” Tom chuckled to himself, ruefully.  “I’ll tell you, boy, I’ve had men wish me dead before, but Duke took things to a whole new level.”

Heath listened as his father described the coldness and uncomfortable working relationship they struggled with through the drive and suddenly realized where his father was going and frowned.  As Tom described the iciness finally thawing between the two men and their working relationship improving through the winter as they got the ranch ready for spring, the sixteen-year-old grimly set his mouth, resenting the notion that what Tom had gone through was anything like Heath’s experience.
“Father,” he started, a pained expression on his face, until Tom raised a hand as though asking the boy to let him finish, and the youngster stopped, exhaling in frustration.

“Heath,” said his father gently, “I understand that my situation and the one you’re in isn’t the same, believe me.  For one thing, I was trying to make amends . . .  Barrett isn’t.  I understand that.  But I want you to think about using Duke McColl’s example as something to look up to, son.  Like you, someone he cared about a great deal had been wronged, deeply wronged.  And it took everything he had to set aside his feelings for the good of everyone.  It was hard work, and sometimes he wasn’t able to do it . . . there’s a molar missing from my mouth to prove it.” 

Heath’s face darkened; it’s not the same! he fumed to himself.  Father has no idea. . .

“The point is, son, I’m not asking you to go drinking and carousing with the man,” Tom said finally, a little frustrated, seeing that his conversation wasn’t getting anywhere.  “I’m asking if you can grow up, be a man and do your job.”

Angrily, Heath resettled himself on his saddle.  Boy howdy, but he sure was getting sick and tired of being taken to task for defending his mother’s honor!

Tom realized he’d said the wrong thing and exhaled noisily through his nose.  “Dammit, Heath.  I understand you hate the man!  But hating someone takes an awful lot of energy.  And here’s something you’re going to have to learn, sooner or later, boy!” he declared, turning in his saddle, and facing his young son head on.  “You’re going to have to figure out how to work side by side with men you don’t like or who don’t like you.  The reasons don’t matter . . . no!” he snapped, as Heath reacted to that one, and the boy threw him an outraged glance. “They DON’T matter, not when the bottom line is that the work has to get done!  More than your feelings, or mine – or Barrett’s! – rest on this drive!  The lives of everyone on this ranch, and four others in the valley are riding on us pulling off this drive and getting those cattle to San Diego by deadline.  That’s more than 200 lives, young man.”

Heath scowled, his reins clutched in an angry fist.

“When the drive is done, we’ll approach this issue head on.  Nick’s told you as much.  Now I’m telling you.  I’m not making light of the accusations, nor am I belittling your defense of your mother.  But the way you went about ‘dealing with it’ left your brother and me with no options.  When you have an issue with one of the hands, you come to me, or your go to your brother.  Even Mac, though it’d be better to come to Nick or me,” Tom explained, calmly. “Go through the chain of command.  When you try to handle this on your own it becomes personal, rather than an issue of ranch discipline.”

“But it is personal!” protested Heath, his temper flaring, making his pony prance a little beneath him.

“It’s only personal when it’s on your own time, it’s off the property and it doesn’t affect the running of the ranch.  As soon as it begins to impact the smooth running of ranch operations, then it’s business!” Tom pronounced sternly.  “Am I getting through to you?!”

And suddenly, Heath sat back in his saddle, no less angry, but finally getting the point.  He remembered the talk with Nick.   He remembered his talk with Jarrod the night before they’d left.  Both of his older brothers were trying to make the same things clear, Heath realized.  Everything was falling into place, even if he didn’t like it much.  Nick . . . Jarrod . . .  Father . . .  they’d all tried to make him understand the same basic thing, even if they came at it, all of them, from different angles: in Strawberry he was on his own, utterly, even with Mama, and Aunt Rachel and Hannah behind him.  Here, not only was he not alone, but their existence held him up, as his did them.  The Family was like. . .  how to put it. . . the Family, how they all interacted with each other, was like another relationship in and of itself . . .

Tom kept his mouth shut and watched the wheels turning in his son’s stubborn blond head, and almost sighed in exhaustion.  God almighty, but that boy is a caution!  I haven’t had to work this hard in years!

“I understand you’re angry, and that this whole thing is unfair.  That none of this is your fault and yet you’re the one forced to deal with it.  You have every right to be angry, son. Every right to be downright furious,” Tom said gently, trying hard to show his boy he understood.  “However, you don’t have the right to jeopardize the lives and livelihoods of everyone working on this drive because of it.  So, I’m asking you, man to man:  can you do your job?  I’ll understand if you tell me you can’t, but I need to you be honest . . .  with yourself, even more than with me.”

Shocked at the sudden turn this conversation had taken, Heath’s pride and his feelings felt as blasted as a lightning-struck tree.  “You’d make me leave the drive before you’d let Barrett go?” Heath demanded bitterly, hurt and trying to bluster his way through it as only a sixteen-year-old can do.

How do I make him understand this is a lesson he badly needs to learn, without getting him any more riled than he already is?  Tom thought as he studied this upset, angry young man.  How do I make him understand I’m trying to give him some skills to use in the future?  That there’ll be Barretts coming at him all through his life, and if he doesn’t start now to figure out how to deal with them, he’ll spend his whole life in brawls?  God, help me…give me the words to reach him, because I’ve never felt so helpless . . .  

Tom sighed, offering that prayer, knowing that for a while, anyway, he would not be this son’s favorite person.  Well, so be it.  No one ever said being a father was supposed to be easy . . .

The man turned in his saddle and gazed right into his son’s hurt blue eyes… the same sky-blue as his own, but filled with anger, and confusion and frustration.  “I would, yes,” his father answered firmly.  “He’s not my son.  You are.  What kind of man he is doesn’t matter a damn to me in the long run.  The kind of man you grow up to be does.  You matter to me.”

Tom wished he could ease the pain and resentment his words were clearly causing, but he knew no other way to make this clear to his boy.  Growing up hurts sometimes, son . . .  I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but it does  . . .

“And if you can’t conquer this, Heath, then I’m worried about you and your future,” he finished quietly, simply.  “I’ll support you every way I can, son, but this change has got to come from you. You have got to figure out some way to let go of the hate and the rage.”

Seething, Heath gripped his reins, wanting, with everything he was, to just kick his horse into a gallop and take off. 

Tom could see it and decided to give the youngster some space.  “Just think about it, and let me know what you decide,” he said simply, turning Apollo and trotting off, hoping against hope that somehow his son would be able to understand the lesson he was trying to teach him, once the waves of fury and resentment rolling off his boy eased up a bit.

*****

Chapter Nine

Soft snatches of cowpoke lullabyes and the whuffling and lowing of cattle drifted over the huge expanse where three thousand head of beef rested for the night as eight to ten hands struggled to stay awake while they kept watch of their charges by the light of a huge, pale yellow moon hanging overhead.  One young cowboy shivered as he heard the eerie, haunting howl of wolves calling back and forth to each other, and glanced around nervously, though it was clear from the sound their source was miles away.

In the campfires surrounding the herd, the amazing cacophony of varying sounds that always surrounds camps full of worn out, sleeping men blended with the other noises of the night, from the whistling, wheezing snores to the  crackling fires, to the uncomfortable grunts as men struggled to turn over in their bedrolls, seeking to escape the rocks pushing at all their sore spots.

*****

A few miles off, nearby enough to have heard the same wolves shrieking to each other, three trail-filthy Yaquis shared a bottle back and forth over their own campfire, cooking fresh meat on stick, the fat dripping, sizzling and sparking in the flames.  Their mounts were staked a few feet off, dancing uneasily as they, too, heard and likely smelled the wolves.  As the three sniffed and checked on their meat, suddenly one shot out a hand to stop their soft chatter, picking up his head, frowning and listening hard.

As one, the three dropped their light-hearted banter and immediately became cold and wary, pistols drawn as they turned, back to back to back, each facing out to a different area of the camp, watching . . .  watching . . .

Suddenly, the one who appeared to be the leader of the group relaxed, and eased the tension of his gun hand, rising smoothly to his feet as he saw the tall, straight figure of the gringo they’d been waiting to meet picking his way carefully through the stakeout, making sure he was clearly seen by the camp’s inhabitants.

“You’re late, friend,” the leader said, dryly, once against holstering his pistol, and lifting the bottle to his lips.

“General,” Wallant corrected, coldly, as he gazed at the man.

The man chuckled, swallowing, and raised an eyebrow.  “In my country, when a man is no longer in the army, he is no longer a general . . . General.”  Handing off the bottle to one of his companions, the man walked away from Wallant toward a small boulder where supplies were stacked.

Wallant gritted his teeth at the man’s insolence but reminded himself he had other fish to fry than allowing this person to halt him from his plans.  “You have them?” he growled out.

The man had leaned down and picked up a rifle from the bundles of supplies resting there, and answered, “Of course,” tossing the weapon to Wallant.

The tall gringo caught it asking, “How many?” as he examined it.

“Thirty.”

Wallant looked up from the gun and narrowed his eyes at his supplier.  “Henrys.”

“That’s what I could get,” the man responded with a shrug, coldly.

“I want Winchesters,” Wallant insisted.

The Yaqui chuckled.  “And, so . . . I would like to be President,” he snorted.  “It’s impossible.”

Wallant’s face grew colder.  “So, it’s impossible,” he snapped, and tossed the rifle back at the leader, turning on his heel and making his way back in the direction he came.  Behind him, he heard, “General.”

Wallant stopped, and turned back, his chin up, daring the other man.

The Yaqui snorted, and shook his head.  “I’ll talk to my people.”

“Tell them I want forty, not thirty.”

“Forty!” The man narrowed his eyes coming closer to the tall American.  “You have so many men as forty?”

Grimly, Wallant gazed down, directly into his eyes.  “I’ll have ‘em.”

The leader tipped his head back, bringing the side of his swarthy face into the light of the campfire, the deep and wide knife scar on his cheek starkly visible.  “Against the Arikaras? You had 200 . . . all dead,” he added, almost as a reminder. 

Wallant, swallowed and looked down at the ground.

“So . . . when are the forty?”

Picking his head up, Wallant gazed at the man.  “When you have the Winchesters,” he answered, firmly.

The man chuckled; brass cojones, this one! he thought.  He nodded.  “They’ll be there for you, at the Kern.”

“With all the rest of it?”

“Of course,” nodded the leader.  When Wallant didn’t budge, the man offered a sneering, “Something more?”

Wallant studied him, then nodded.  “I want you to kill a man.”

*****

The sun beat down as the herd continued to move. On one side of the higher ground, Nick Barkley sat on his horse, overlooking the herd being moved toward the river to make the cross, trying to get a birds-eye view of the operation, and shook his head in pride and wonder.  Despite the pulsing sense of discord running just below all his senses, Nick had pushed and chivvied and barked and cajoled, and to everyone’s shocked surprised, they had moved faster than anyone could have believed possible. 

Hearing Lillard, riding scout that day, bellowing “The Kern!” as he pointed below at the snaking river, put smiles on even the dourest faces, relieving some of the stress and edge the men were struggling with. 

Also high up, a bit further along on the butte from Nick sat Tom Barkley on Apollo, doing the same as his son.  You did it, boy, he thought to himself in admiration, smiling in pride at the sight of his son, a day and a half ahead of schedule with the herd safely at the resting point, where they could stockpile water and let the herd – and the men! – rest for a day.  Nick grinned at his father and offered a thumbs up signal, and Tom smiled, nodding at him and sending a wave his way.

Tom’s smile remained but grew bittersweet as he watched the young man quickly spot a problem area of the herd and move to compensate, expertly directly his men to balance and bring order once again.  He was doing everything right.  He was handling the men.  He was making smart choices.  The few times there had been hiccups in the smooth operation of things . . . hiccups that seemed odd to Tom, things that shouldn’t have happened, and which always made him looked surreptitiously at Wallant . . . Nick had quickly thought through his options, made a decision and followed through.  When a decision was wrong, he corrected his course.

Vic had been right.  Duke had been right.  Damn his hide, anyhow, Tom chuckled to himself and shaking his head, but even Jarrod had been right.  Let Nick make the decisions and let him deal with the issues that crop up.  Trust him.  I think he’ll surprise you, he’d said. 

Well, he has.  And I am so proud of him . . .

Tom exhaled slowly. . .  So.  Now what? he asked himself, a little dryly.  If your boy’s proven himself to be just as capable as you, what the hell good are ya, Barkley?  What difference can you make anymore?

He almost chuckled out loud to think of the smack upside the head Vic would give him to hear him thinking so self-pityingly.  Alright, old girl, he snorted to himself, closing his eyes for a moment as he felt the sun warm his face and shoulders.  You tell me, what’s next for me?  Rockin’ on the verandah?

Suddenly his eyes flew open as he heard “Heath!” bellowed out, and his eyes quickly tracked his youngest ranch hand.  With pride he watched the youngster immediately pick up his head at Mac’s call, and spot the two straying steers, a grin of determination on his face and a nod at the Ranny as he pushed Gal into motion, galloping after them and bringing them back into line. 

That’s what’s next, Tom thought.  Bringing Heath up to manhood, and after him Eugene.  Raising Heath will have its own set of unique challenges, but, boy howdy, he chuckled, thinking of his boy’s favorite phrase, he was working with excellent foundation materials.  And Gene?  That kid was smart as a whip and had a mouth on him.  He needed to KNOW!  Gene might end up leaning more toward Jarrod’s type of life . . . and Tom sighed a little, frowning then allowing his forehead to relax.  And that’ll be just fine.  I need Gene to be the man he needs to be. . .and I need him to know that.  I need to have a talk with Jarrod, too.  I need to . . . well, to make things right between us, he sighed to himself.

He knew he was gruff with the boy, and he knew it bothered his oldest son.  But he truly was so proud of him, of what he’d accomplished.  For heaven’s sake, there was talk of the boy running for District Attorney in just a few short years!  His son!  His first born, District Attorney?!  Tom just found it hard to understand him sometimes, and . . . well, to be honest, the boy was just so damned smart  . . . most of the time, Tom felt at a bit of a disadvantage, like something of a yokel when Jarrod got talking with some of the power mongers at the state level.  The boy was gutsy, and daring, and quick on his feet . . .  what Tom Barkley didn’t realize what that the boy had got those skills from him.  Jarrod just polished them and used them in a different way than Tom Barkley did. 

Vic was right; Jarrod could be an excellent asset to him and to Nick if Tom could only let him.  He just hoped it wasn’t too late.

Tom drew himself up and shook himself.  “Enough of your self-pity, Barkley,” he muttered.  “Help your Ramrod get this herd in!”  And he nudged Apollo into motion, assisting the flank move the herd along.

*****

Within hours, the men had three thousand head of cattle slowly but surely crossing the murky river, cowboys in the river with them, pushing them along, shouting and swinging hats and coiled lariats to keep the beef swimming across. 

It had been a damned long day and Nick and Tom each trotted down into the lowland to meet the rest of the management team at the central campfire, where Dutch had set up the chuckwagon.  Nick arrived first and gratefully took the cup of coffee young Billy offered him, twisting and bending to try to stretch out his back.  He looked around the group and saw Wallant off to one side, giving his horse a good rub down, and Heath just now dismounting and getting ready to uncinch Gal’s saddle.  Heath happened to look up at that moment, and Nick grinned at him, nodding.  Tiredly, Heath managed a lop-sided smile and a nod back.

Nick turned to the General.  “Nine days!” he crowed.  “That’s GOOD!” he asserted, sipping his coffee, and offering Tom a wave as the big man trotted up on Apollo.

Tom waved at Nick and brightened as he spotted Heath.  “Heath!” he called. “Hold on just a moment, don’t unsaddle yet. Duke needs to -“

A shot rang out, and Nick stared, unable to make his thoughts come together, as though time had slowed down and nearly stood still, as he watched his father cry out in shocked pain, blood spraying like a geyser from a leg wound that spun Tom out of his saddle and slammed him to the ground.

The next thing he knew, though, Nick was there, beside Tom, quickly ripping off his bandanna and already tightening it around his father’s left thigh, just about two inches above the knee joint, where his pants leg was already soaked in bright, red blood. 

In a heartbeat, Heath was there as well, white as a sheet, also ripping off his own bandanna, wrapping it under Nick’s, and feeling the other side of the leg for an exit wound.  “It’s . . . it’s still in there, Father,” Heath muttered, glancing up worriedly at Nick.

“I know!  I can feel it!” Tom grunted through gritted teeth.  “Oh, God . . .”

As though in one fluid motion, realizing their father wasn’t gut- or chest-shot, Nick and Heath both leaned back from him and looked back toward where the shot must have come from.  They saw a man in the distance trying to run up the hill, the setting sun glinting off his rifle barrel.

Anyone who’d ever questioned whether or not these two were brothers needed to only take one look at the expression on their faces.  It was identical; two faces, one dark and one fair, mirroring features that were both murderously cold and determined.

“Dutch! Mac!  See to Father!” Nick snarled running for his horse.  Heath was already on Gal, with his pistol in his right hand and galloping for the ridge.

*****

The Yaqui swore foully as he realized his shot had gone low.  He whirled and started running for the top of the ridge. 

“¡Maldita sea! ¡No lo maté!” he muttered as he struggled to find solid purchase on the gravelly terrain, slipping and sliding his way up.  He glanced behind him and saw the very young cowboy with the yellow hair gaining on him, quickly abandoning his sure-footed black mount and following him on foot.  He noted the tall, black-haired rancher . . .  and the Gringo, Wallant, as well, following the blond.

*****

Panting hard, Heath gave chase, careful to make sure his pistol was available but not pointing anywhere that could hurt a non-combatant.  He followed the man and curved around a section of the incline that wasn’t as steep, giving himself surer footing and gaining speed.  He glanced to his right and saw Nick eating up the ground with his long legs.  His brother gestured to the left side of the ridge and tapping his own chest, then gestured to the right, indicating that he and Heath could form a pincer, trapping the Yaqui.  Heath, panting, nodded and came around the left-hand side of the boulder around which the Yaqui had just disappeared.

Both Barkleys cleared the top of the ridge just as they saw the sniper slip, and desperately try to regain his footing… and lose.  Over and over, the man rolled, slamming against rocks and outcroppings that barely even slowed his descent, until he finally came to a halt, his back arched in agony as he cried out, one arm pinned beneath him.

Carefully descending, neither of them wanting to join the man in being injured, Nick and Heath came closer, pistols drawn.

“My back!” the Yaqui cried out, in English, “Don’t shoot me . . . my back . . .”

Nick heard the footsteps behind him, seeing Wallant, and several of the men. “Lillard!  Schad!  Up here!” he yelled, as he turned looking grimly at the wounded man. In seconds, Heath was beside him, his expression just as forbidding.

And once again, shots rang out.  The Yaqui jolted in shocked surprise, and his eyes emptied as the life poured out of him.

Amazed, both Nick and Heath stared, then whirled as they heard steps.  Wallant trotted up beside them.

“He was helpless!” Nick shouted at the General, furiously.

Wallant eyed Nick, coldly.  “Helpless?” he said, his tone making Nick advance on the man in rage.

Heath quickly pushed forward, inserting himself between Wallant and his brother, jamming his boot against the slight incline, keeping Nick from being able to engage. “Helpless. . . except for what he could tell us!”  the boy panted and glared.

Wallant studied the Barkley brothers, and then turned, using the toe of his boot to flip over the dead Yaqui . . . exposing a deadly, eight-inch blade in the hand that had been supposedly pinned beneath the body.

Nick and Heath, panting, registered their shock, and glanced back at Wallant again, studying them sternly, for all the world like a headmaster taking two errant schoolboys in hand.  

“Every snake has two fangs,” he pronounced, coldly.  He looked first at Heath, and then shifted his gaze to Nick, still panting.  “Remember that,” he nodded, and turned to head back. 

Wallant met Lilllard and Schad’s eyes as they crossed paths, and the two men nodded at him on his way by.

Nick stood there, staring after Wallant, and brought up a sleeve to wipe his face.  Wearily, Nick shook his head. “C’mon, let’s check on Father,” he grunted, heading back up the ridge.

Heath stared at the dead Yaqui, and the knife, frustrated and thinking.  Then he reached down, yanking the blade out of the Yaqui’s hand, and slipping the knife into his boot, turned to follow his brother.

*****

Chapter Ten

Tom hissed in pain as he hopped his way toward the wagon on his one good leg, his arms draped over each of Nick’s and Brown’s shoulders because they were of a similar height.  The other leg was splinted tightly from the top of his thigh down to his ankle, the pant leg slit halfway up the thigh to offer access to the bullet wound.

Heath had surprised his father and brother by having a good grasp of what needed to be done for the gunshot wound and ordered Dutch to get some clean rags, soap, whiskey and hot water made available for him.  Nick had barked out orders to set up his father’s saddle and blankets for a place to work on the wound, giving Tom back support so that he wasn’t lying totally flat.  He then gathered all the materials needed for a splint while Heath did what he could to clean out the wound – which was a lot of fun for Tom, to be sure.

To distract himself, the man panted out questions.  “Where’d you learn to do this?”

“Jubilee,” muttered Heath, struggling to stay focused on his job.  Don’t panic, Heath, he told himself, desperate to keep his fear and worry from taking hold.  Focus on the wound.  Clean the wound.  One thing at a time, just like Frank taught ya . . .  Heath hesitated only a moment as he picked up the bottle of whiskey Dutch had given him and glanced at Tom.  He knew just how bad this was going to be; he had to work fast.  “Okay, deep breath in, Father, then let it out.”

“What in hell’s in Jubilee?  And I know how to – oh, God…“ Tom started in frustration, only to go white and swear and writhe, with Nick holding him and his leg down as Heath liberally poured whiskey into the wound with one hand, using a clean rag with the other. 

“Judas Priest. . .  I’m not convinced . . . Vic isn’t your mother . . . you got the same . . . ruthless streak. . . “ he wheezed afterward, trembling, soaked in sweat and his eyes squeezed shut, making Heath chuckle to himself shakily.  Once he was finished, and the wound was wrapped in a clean dressing and bandage, he gripped his father’s hand.

“I’m sorry, Father, I know that hurt. I tried to go fast, but I had to get it all . . . ” he muttered, blinking hard.  Tom shook his head and managed a wan smile.

“Nonsense. . . you did well. . .  real proud of you . . .” Tom panted, managing to get his free hand around to pat Heath’s, as reassuringly as he could.  He could feel the boy’s tremors now.  Bless the child, he held off the shakes until the job was done, he thought to himself, proudly.  This boy of mine’s a tough one . . . 

That made him think of his other tough boy, and he glanced up wearily at Nick, who was barking orders at the men to get the fire built up, gather blankets, do this, do that. . . Under stress, Nick’s method of coping was to create a sense of control, any way he could.  Tom resisted the urge to rein him in; the boy needing to blow off some steam and if the men couldn’t handle him needing that with a wounded parent bleeding on the ground, then by God they needed new men, he thought to himself.

Tom closed his eyes, still hanging tight to Heath’s hand, and tried to distance his mind from the pain, focusing on remembering everything he could up to the moment he heard the crack of the rifle. . .  and felt that bullet rip into his leg.  Nothing . . .  nothing stood out.

“Father. . . “

Tom opened his eyes and saw Nick squatting beside him on his other side, a flask in his hand.  Gratefully, he reached for it with his free hand and took a good swig, forcing himself to stop at one.  He saw Nick’s worried green-gold eyes embedded in a stony face and managed a small smile.  “I’m all right, boy,” he reassured, panting.  “A doc’ll get it right as rain.  Nearest town . . . Bakersfield. . . about 18 miles . . . southeast, right?”

Nick nodded, sighing.  “No road . . . in a wagon, best guess’d be about 12 hours, maybe a little better time if the driver gets lucky.”

Tom nodded, hissing in breath as a wave of fiery pain enveloped his leg like sheet lightning.

“Nick, we gotta get that leg splinted,” Heath said quietly, glancing worriedly at his father.  “Bleeding’s slowed a bit; this is a good time.”

Nick grimly nodded and bellowed for the men to bring the supplies and the two brothers got to work.

*****

Now, as Nick started Tom toward the back of the buckboard, saying, “All right, here we go,” Tom smacked both his and Brown’s shoulders, shaking his head.

“Oh, no. . . I’m not gonna lay down.  Put me up front,” Tom ordered, wincing.

Standing by the seat up front, Heath rolled his eyes, already clutching several blankets and his father’s saddle.  “Yeah, I figured that,” he muttered to his brother, lifting the saddle onto the wagon’s floorboard between the seat and footrest, to give Father a solid, more or less, place to rest his leg.

“C’mon, Brown, let’s get him settled up here.  Easy, now . . . ” Nick grunted as he eased Tom, back first, toward the buckboard’s seat.

Gib, one of the remuda hands, steadied the rig while Nick and Brownie boosted old Tom up onto the seat, and Heath built up the prop for his father’s leg he’d created with saddle blankets, making the support as secure for the older man as he possibly could.

“One lousy bullet from a drunken Yaqui,” Tom sputtered furiously as he struggled to keep his pain under control.

“That’s no lousy bullet, Mr. Barkley,” offered Wallant, seriously, standing to the side, handing Heath more blankets.  “That’s in the bone.”

“Well, there’re doctors in Bakersfield, and you’ll be there by morning,” said Nick, matter-of-factly, looking at the set-up to see how else he could make his father as comfortable as he was able for the long trip.

Tom reached out and gripped his son’s forearm, his pain-filled eyes searching his son’s.  “Well, it’s . . . it’s all yours, Nick.”

Everyone gazed at the no longer symbolic shift in command taking place here. This was real.  In deference to the Old Man, the hands backed off a bit, giving Tom and his boys a little privacy. . .

“I know, Father,” Nick said seriously, gripping his hand.

Tom struggled, trying to decide whether or not to say what was on his mind, and finally, squeezed his son’s arm tightly for a moment, pulling him in close just as Heath was right near him as well, covering him with a blanket. “Scout your lake, Nick, just in case,” he said softly, just loud enough for Nick, and Heath, beside him, to hear, as Gib climbed into the rig beside the Old Man. Startled, Nick started back at him, and Tom nodded, his eyes flicking back and forth between both sons.  Heath’s brows knitted and he, too, stared at Tom, then looked up at his brother.

“Heath . . .  go on with Father and Gib so you can help him,” said Nick, a little distractedly, turning to his brother and trying to mentally fit into place what his father might be trying to tell him.

“No!  He stays,” Tom insisted, shaking his head. “He’s got to learn sometime . . . all that’s involved in a drive, and he might as well learn from the best . . . and you need every pair of hands.  Trust your gut, boy.”  Tom reached out a shaky hand and slapped his older son’s shoulder, then turned his head to his younger boy, gazing seriously into his eyes.

They hadn’t had time . . . Tom recalled his and Heath’s uncomfortable father-and-son talk from the evening before out with the herd.  Just like everything else in this boy’s life, the right of that choice – of whether to head on home or to stay and shoulder the job, despite his personal feelings – had been taken from him, and Heath was forced to play the hand life dealt him.  Tom hauled in a breath and shook his head.  “I truly hope your choice would have been this . . . staying put, son,” he said, making Nick look at him in confusion, but Heath, understanding, hauled in a breath of his own and nodded, a ghost of his lop-sided smile surfacing.  “Listen . . . to your brother.  Your job . . . is to have his back.  Understand?”

“Yes, sir, I do.  I won’t let him down.  Or you,” Heath answered, his eyes watering as he gripped his father’s hand.  Tom squeezed back, and nodded, sagging in exhaustion.

“You two. . . Barkleys . . . stick together. . . ” he panted, gathering them both with his eyes.

Nick muttered, “We will, Father.  Don’t worry.”  Nick gripped his father’s forearm, and for a moment, the three Barkley men clung, giving each other what strength they could.

Finally, Nick glanced at the wrangler beside the older man.  “All right, Gib, make tracks . . .  and you see you take good care of him,” he ordered gruffly, Gib seeing the worry in the ramrod’s eyes.  Gib had been with the ranch for more than 10 years, and he too reached out and gripped the young man’s arm. 

“I’ll send word how he’s doing to San Diego,” promised the man, reassuringly.

“Stop talkin’ about me . . . like I’m out cold.  Let’s go!” Tom grunted, wincing as the wrangler slapped the reins and got the rig underway.

As he watched the wagon roll off toward the southeast, Heath felt as though the very ground he stood on shook and trembled, forever shifting and changing the landscape, making it as hard to find his footing as it had been while chasing that Yaqui sniper up the ridge just a couple of hours earlier.

A couple of hours. . .  How could so much change in so short a time?!  How could he lose his father now, this man who was larger-than-life, seemingly indestructible, and so much a lynchpin now of Heath’s life?  His mind was a morass of terrified pleas for his father’s safety.  He might be sixteen, but right now he could have been six: a frightened little boy desperate for reassurance that his daddy would be all right, scared that the father he’d only just found would be taken from him, just as everything else he’d ever loved had been. 

It might have helped the boy to know that his big, strong, feisty older brother was feeling much the same way he was.   Nick felt the frisson of trembling in his younger brother’s body, and drew in his own deep breath, putting a strong arm around the boy’s shoulders.  He gave the youngster a solid squeeze, a manly “bucking up” kind of hug, trying to send him some strength . . .   strength he wasn’t even sure he had himself.  

“He’ll be okay,” Nick muttered fiercely . . . He has to be!  “He’s a tough old bird. . .  it’ll take more than a ‘lousy bullet from a drunken Yaqui’ to bring him down.”

Nick pulled in another deep breath and turned to his little brother, gripping his shoulder and gazing into his eyes.  He saw the glassiness there and decided it would upset Heath more to acknowledge those tears, so he simply squeezed that shoulder again and nodded at him, encouragingly.  

Heath settled himself, sniffing hard and nodded in return, pulling himself together.

Nick managed a small smile and noted Duke McColl standing just off to the side, ready if needed.  He cupped the back of his kid brother’s neck and looked straight into his eyes.  “I need to talk to Mac.  Heath, ask the men to take a circle and close ‘em in, will you?”

“Yeah,” Heath nodded, hauling in a breath and brushing a sleeve over his face.  Nick smiled and patted his shoulder, then without another word, took McColl’s arm and walked off, clearly wanting to do some serious palavering.

Wallant hesitated, looking after Nick, then glanced at the stricken youngster, and the men around him.

“If you would, Lillard . . . could you and Schad and the others do as Nick just said, and form a ring?  I’ll go  let Dutch know,” Heath asked the tall Negro quietly and respectfully, giving him the benefit of being the man present with the most seniority, determined to keep his tone of voice unimpeachable.

Lilllard studied the boy for a heartbeat, then clearly made up his mind to something.  He nodded and patted the youth’s shoulder.  “Sure will, Heath.  Don’t worry too much, your Pa’s as tough as they make ‘em.  He’ll be all right.”

Heath offered a small smile and nodded, and Lillard pushed Schad and the other men into following him.  The boy turned toward the chuck wagon and Wallant joined him for the walk.

“I’ll lay down a route for your brother,” he said confidently.  “You’ll want to leave early in the morning.”

Heath looked down, and stopped, his hands clenched in fists at his sides.  “We’re not leaving in the morning.”

Wallant eyed him.  “I beg your pardon?”

Heath picked up his head and looked up at the very tall older man.  “I figure Nick’ll want to stay over another day.”

“Whatever for?” demanded Wallant.

“Scout that lake,” Heath replied, quietly.  “Up that grade on top of those mountains.”

Wallant shook his head a moment and began to speak the boy as though he truly were Tom Barkley’s idiot child.  “I believe I told your family, that lake is-“

“Yes, sir, I know what you said.  ‘There’s no water.’ “ Heath put his hands on his hips.  “I kind of believe there is.  And so does my father.”

Frowning, Wallant stared at him.  “Why would I lie?”

Heath studied the ground before him, then looked up at the General. Do I tip my hand?  How do I play this?  But the stress of the last weeks and especially the last hours had taken their toll.  “Now, that’s kinda interestin’…  I didn’t accuse you o’lying, General.  Those are your words,” he said coldly. 

Wallant’s face hardened at the boy’s words.

“But, I dunno. . . Maybe to make yourself necessary?” the youngster finished, his eyes narrowed.

Wallant stared at him for a moment, then shook his head, annoyed.  “To whom, little boy?” he purred.  “To whom, exactly?”

“Maybe to the men,” Heath responded, cutting a side glance at the general. “In case something ‘happened’ to my father.” 

“How ridiculous,” Wallant snorted.   “They’re Nick’s men!”

At that, Heath stopped short, so abruptly that the General nearly plowed into him, and the boy hauled himself up to his full five feet and nine inches, considerably shorter than the older man, but turning and squarely facing the much larger man nonetheless . . . a very young David to Wallant’s Goliath.

“Now that’s a fact,” the boy glared, ferociously, eyes still a bit red but so angrily focused, that even Wallant was taken aback.

“Why, you impudent little – “ Wallant sputtered, but Heath merely turned on his boot heel and stalked toward the chuck wagon, his shoulders set.

Shocked and with rage rapidly boiling just under the surface, Wallant balled his fists at his sides, watching the youngster walk away through a red haze; he was astonished to find how frustrated this child – this upstart of a little boy! –  was making him feel.  But before he could make strides to catch the youngster up and teach him a much-needed lesson in respect due his elders, the red haze faded as he heard uproarious laughter from the area around the cookfire combined with painfully ragged gagging and retching.

Whirling on his heel, Wallant narrowed his eyes and quickly crossed the ground to find a good fifteen men nearly rolling with laughter across the fire from tall, cocky Schad, now nearly doubled over, horrified disgust written all over his face in between violent bouts of vomiting while clutching a brown whiskey bottle.

Vince Barrett, laughing hardest, stood across from Schad, cackling, “You seen that, din’ja!  You saw when he drunk it?!” Slapping his hat against his leg, Barrett laughed till the tears ran. “Coal oil!  The damn fool couldn’t tell the difference between bad whiskey and coal oil!”

Recovering from his last bout of retching, white-faced, Schad raged, “You rotten, fleabit Georgia skunk!” at Barret, which only made the rest of the men laugh harder. 

Few men in the bunkhouse had ever seen Howie Schad truly lose his temper; the few who had never doubted that if pushed to it, Schad could commit murder with his bare hands.  Had any of them been in that group of men at that moment, they might have been able to shut that idiot Barrett up from pushing Schad over the edge, but Providence had chosen to not have that be the case.

So when Schad suddenly shifted his grip on the brown bottle, grasping it low and slamming its upper section against a large rock nearby, thus creating a much large mouth than the previous bottleneck, the men around the campfire abruptly stopped laughing, and just as suddenly pulled themselves away from the two combatants.

Barrett, slower than most, was still laughing, alone by this time; but eventually, even he realized something was amiss here.  He was more than sure of it, when Schad, white faced with rage, reached down for one of the pre-made torches Dutch kept by the campfire, and lit it . . .  standing there, with the extended club aflame, Schad resembled nothing more than a cowboy version of an avenging Saint Michael the Archangel, complete with flaming sword in one hand, and broken bottle of sloshing, and very flammable, liquid in the other.

Barrett’s smile faded fast.  “Hey, now,” he muttered, eyes widening a little.  “Whaddya think you’re gonna do here?”

All vestiges of calm reason gone, Schad’s reddened eyes blazed at the other ranch hand.  “I’m gonna roast you, boy!” he growled, circling the torch and bottle together, threateningly.

Pale, now, Barrett slowly brought up both hands in front of him.  “Hey, now . . .” he repeated, nervously, cutting his eyes to the other men imploringly.  Those eyes shot back for Schad as he saw the sharp movement of Schad’s arm, and he spat as coal oil hit his face and lips.  Shocked, he stared, breathing hard.

A feral grin began to slip over Schad’s face.  “You’re the fella that likes fire, I recall,” he breathed.

Barrett blanched.  “Schad… c’mon, boy, I was only funnin’…” he protested weakly.

Suddenly Lillard started to move forward. “Schad, you don’t wanna – “

“Stay out of it,” snapped Brown, shooting an arm across the tall man’s chest and his eyes warned his back.

“Brown, this is got outta hand!” protested Lillard, but Brown pushed the other back, and Spock and Greer moved into place beside Brown.

A mob . . . an’ here thought I left lynchin’s behind in Alabama . . . thought Lillard, swallowing hard. He put his eyes quickly back to the confrontation and glanced around him for leadership.  Nick and Duke were still off talking somewhere apparently . . . Wallant was there, though. . .  and Lillard noticed, doin’ nothin’.  Grimly, Lillard kept looking around and saw the boy, young Heath, tense, watching but also thinking. . .  The tall ranch hand could almost see the wheels turnin’ behind those eyes and the steam comin’ out the boy’s ears, then watched him turn and cut for the chuck wagon.  Uneasily, Lillard turned back to the drama unfolding by the cookfire.

Barrett, swallowing hard, tried to get himself under control and look braver than he felt. “Now, look Schad,” he started, but shut up quick when Schad feinted at him and he lurched backward, falling on his butt, with Schad advancing menacingly.

“I’m gonna have to git ya, boy,” threatened Schad, “so you’d best scamper!  A hundred yards to make the river!” and he made a sudden lunge for the terrified, gasping Barrett supine on the ground.

Everyone held their breath, then gasped as suddenly there was a literal sizzle as a bucketful of water drenched Schad, shocking him into dropping both the snuffed torch and the bottle of coal oil.  Another bucket immediately followed, dousing Barrett.

“Enough!”

Stunned into silence, both men turned to the source, shocked to see a very angry young Barkley standing there, fists clenched and jaw working… and looking for all the world like Tom Barkley in one hell of a temper.  The likeness was astonishing, and even the naysayers to Heath’s rights as a Barkley son were flabbergasted into silence.

“You’ve both ridden for Tom Barkley long enough to know there’s no drinking on a Barkley drive!  What… you figured you could sneak it past Nick and he wouldn’t care?”  he demanded.  Turning on Barrett, he pointed at the broken shards of the bottle.  “Coal oil or whiskey, that bottle came from somewhere, and somehow I reckon it wasn’t empty when it started out on this drive!  And you,” he spat at Schad, “coal oil or whiskey, you thought it was rotgut and were ready to break the rules!” 

Glaring back and forth between them, Heath shook his head in disgust and growled out, “You’ve both got an hour to get your dinners, then get your butts out to the herd for eight hours of guard duty!”

Schad started to open his mouth, thinking Only the Ramrod has the right to tell me. . ., but couldn’t even finish the thought, much less put it to words.  He stopped the moment the full force of those blue eyes – Tom Barkley’s blue eyes! – came to bear on him. 

“I’ll go find Nick and let him know you two have kindly volunteered to cover the herd tonight!” Heath barked at him, and glared at Barrett as well, now furiously scrambling to his feet, and then strode off to locate Nick and Duke McColl.

“Well, that rips it!”

The men swung their eyes back to Barrett, red faced and blustering.  “I have had it up to here!  You unnerstand that?!”  He cast his eyes around the group, pushing his jaw out and glaring.  “Who goes with me?  Lillard?  Spock?”

Lillard leaned back, his arms crossed over his chest, a firm no.  Spock looked less convinced, but definitely not jumping on Barrett’s bandwagon.

Angrily, Barrett nosed up to the man who’d just threatened to turn him into barbecue. “Schad?!”  Throwing his arms open wide, Barrett demanded, “What are you?!  A pack o’ stock for him to beller and prod at?  Him?! A snot-nosed, wet-behind-the-ears rich man’s little byblow?!  You ain’t had enough, Brown, huh?  You want more?”

But no one moved. . .  no one altered their stance.  The anger was assuredly there, but the vent Barrett provided wasn’t sufficient to get their feet moving in any direction, much less to follow the angry, feckless Barrett.

Wallant slowly walked up then.  “Where do you want them to go, Barrett?” he asked calmly.

“Well, I ain’t stayin’ wi’this,” Barret blustered.  “There’s other spreads!”

The General pursed his lips, thoughtfully. “Eight or ten dollars a month. . .  How much do you make?”

Barrett deflated a bit, as if he was a bladder than had struck a leak.  “Twelve,” he muttered.

Wallant raised an eyebrow.  “Top pay, unless…”

“Unless what?”

Wallant turned toward Schad, who was a little calmer now, though still angry . . . and clearly interested in hearing the answer.  He allowed a slow smile to grow, looking at the soaking wet, steaming ranch hand.  “Unless… you’re a man who can take out a train.”

Shaking his head, Lillard demanded, “What are you talkin’ about?”

“More money in a month than you make in a year,” declared Wallant gazing straight at Lillard.

“For what?” asked Spock, his eyes narrowed. 

Glancing at Brown, Wallant offered a small smile. “For a man who knows how to run a mortar. . . “ 

Turning to Lillard, he offered, “. . . a telegraph key.”

And finally returned his gaze to Spock.  “. . .  gut a town . . . blow a bridge.”

Wallant gathered the eyes around him as surely as if he’d had each of them tethered with lead lines, and they followed, like sheep in the fold . . .  all but Lillard.   Making sure he had all eyes on him, Wallant allowed a slow smile to spread across his face.  “Dinner?  Suddenly I’ve found that I’ve developed an appetite!”

As the men followed the General to pick up their mess kits stacked by the chuck wagon, Lillard stayed put, troubled, as he watched this oversized Pied Piper lead the men to their meal.

*****

Chapter Eleven

Victoria Barkley frowned in irritation at the unevenness of the hem she was sewing and said a very unladylike word under her breath. 

Rolling her eyes at herself she slapped the pair of Eugene’s trousers down on the settee beside her with a muted thump of frustration.  Everything she put her hand to today had been fraught with problems! She’d tried gardening and pricked her thumbs on every single blasted rosebush in the bed; she’d burned a batch of cookies that she could normally bake all but in her sleep.  And now this.

Exhaling in frustration, Victoria got to her feet, her arms crossed over her breast, and paced slowly the length of Tom’s study and back again.  She usually found it comforting to be in this room when Tom and the boys were away; somehow, she felt closer to them here. She could smell Tom’s pipe tobacco and the smell of the leather oil Nick used on his saddles and boots.  The smell of the ink Jarrod used, when he did ranch business at the desk.  And the smell of the gun oil that was always wafting somewhere around Heath; she smiled to herself as she thought of her middle child.  He was always busy with something, his hands never idle.  She couldn’t recall a time in the last year when she’d ever seen him just sit and relax; there was always a gun being taken apart and tinkered with, or a piece of harness or halter he was repairing or braiding.  She chuckled to think how everyone always dismissed him as being so quiet. 

“It’s the quiet ones you need to watch out for,” she remembered her mother telling her, and Victoria chuckled to herself, seeing Heath’s devilish little lopsided grin in her mind.  But then that image shifted to the worried, pensive expression he’d worn the night before they all left on the trail; so worried, trying to figure out how to broach to his father and brother his concerns about this General Wallant.  Victoria herself had tried  to express her concerns to Tom in bed that night before they left, and he, too, said he and Jarrod were worried, but knew that saying anything would just push Nick that much further onto the other side of the fence. 

She gazed at the sun pouring in the verandah windows and walked to the window she and Heath had stood at, gazing out now at the empty corral.  Eleven days.  Eleven days since the men had taken off for San Diego; they’d be nearly half-way there. 

It had been so quiet all week; Audra had gone to stay the night at a friend’s house and Eugene was out in the barn getting his chores done for the night with old Yankee, the blacksmith, overseeing his work, leaving Victoria alone in the big house except for Silas out in the kitchen.

She jumped as she heard the front door open and close with a bang.

“Hey, Ma!”

Victoria closed her eyes and shook her head. Oh, Nick, you’re training your baby brother well, she thought to herself, ruefully.

“In the drawing room, Gene.”

Her twelve-year-old poked his head around the door and beamed when he saw her, and her mother’s heart melted a little even at the noise.  Such a handsome young fellow and growing so tall!  Her baby . . . he wouldn’t be a baby much longer, she sighed.  “What do you need, sweetheart?”

“Nothin’,” he replied coming around the side, entering the room with his hand extended, an envelope clutched in his paw.  “Telegram just came for ya.”

Startled, Victoria turned and walked to him and retrieved it. “From where?”

The boy shrugged. “Dunno.”

She glanced at him.  “I. Don’t. Know,” she said carefully.

“Me, neither,” he answered, looking at her, confused.

Rolling her eyes, Victoria opened the envelope and drew out the thin sheet of paper.

VICTORIA BARKLEY

BARKLEY RANCH, STOCKTON

 LAID UP WITH LEG WOUND STOP SEND FAMILY RAILCAR BAKERSFIELD SOON AS

YOU CAN STOP BOYS RUNNING DRIVE STOP WILL EXPLAIN ONCE YOU’RE HERE

STOP

 TOM

Victoria jumped again as she heard the door open once more and shook herself.

“Hello, dear lady,” called Jarrod through the drawing room doors, coming in with an arm full of boxes and his briefcase.  He dumped his things on the foyer table and turned to her with a smile that faded when he saw her pale face.  “What’s wrong?”  Jarrod looked from his mother to Eugene.

“Mother got a telegram,” said Gene, worriedly. 

Jarrod strode to her and she handed him the piece of paper.  She watched his face grow grim, and he tapped the page, uttering “…. Damn….” under his breath.  Jarrod put a hand on Gene’s shoulder. “Do me a favor, Gene, would you go fetch Silas for me?”

The boy nodded and sped off for the kitchen.

“Well, if he sent this, he’s upright, Mother,” reassured Jarrod, as Victoria retrieved the telegraph and tried to read between the lines. 

“Your father said that you were concerned about Wallant, as well,” she said, without preamble. 

Raising an eyebrow, Jarrod took off his hat and set it on the foyer table, nodding.  “Yes.  And I’ve heard more in the last couple of days that made me even more concerned, but it’s too late to do much about it now.”

“Oh, no!’ she muttered.  “What?”

“Again, it’s all pretty amorphous,” Jarrod said apologetically, walking over to the drinks table.  “Sherry?”  She nodded, joining him there.  “Apparently, he was leading a party of mercenaries up in the Dakotas about three years ago. . . a cadre of more than 200 men, against one of the tribes up there. . .  the Arikaras, I think it was.  Anyway, it didn’t end well.”

“For the Indians?” she asked.

Jarrod shook his head.  “No. For his men.  All 200, dead,” he responded, gazing directly at her and handing her the glass. 

She swallowed hard and sipped the sherry.  “What about more recently?”

“The last thing I could dig up indicated that he was in Mexico through the end of the French occupation in Sonora. . .  when they were ousted last year, that brought his involvement with the Army there to a close.”

“You wanted me, Mr. Jarrod?”

Jarrod turned. “Ah, Silas!  Mother’s just got a bit of a worrying telegram from Father.  Apparently, he’s managed to get himself hurt on the drive and needs the railcar to get him home.”

“Oh, no!” Silas cried, “you’ll be wantin’ me to get you packed?”

“Yes, please.  Mother and I will be leaving first thing in the morning.  Can you ride herd on the brats for a day or so?  We should be back by late tomorrow night, unless he’s too ill to travel, and I don’t really get that sense from his telegram, do you, Mother?”

“I don’t get much of anything from it,” she said grimly.  “Your father’s Scottish parsimony is functioning well, if his leg isn’t.”  Tom hated spending money on excess words in a telegram.

Jarrod chuckled. 

“O’ course, sir.  Mr. Eugene and Miss Audra and I will be just fine,” Silas reassured Victoria.  “And I’ll make sure that downstairs spare room is ready in case Mr. Tom can’t handle the stairs for a bit.”

“Thank you, Silas,” she sighed, smiling.  “You always manage to think of everything.”

Silas headed upstairs to pack for them, and Jarrod kissed her forehead.  “Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” he assured her.  She nodded, patting his arm, and watched him head out the door.  Jarrod needed to send Yankee into town with the word that they would need the Barkley railcar for the 7:45 a.m. train to Bakersfield, and to send a return wire to Tom letting him know they’d be there later in the day.

Victoria walked to the desk and picked up Tom’s favorite pipe, it’s familiar feel reassuring and solid.  She gripped it, closing her eyes.   “Oh, Tom. . .  what about our boys?”

*****

Except for the soft rustlings of the cattle grazing or standing asleep on the range, and the cowboys riding guard on them, the main camp was still and quiet.  The fire had burned down to embers, well-banked for morning, but only glowing at this point. 

The quarter moon had risen, and when the man gazed at the sky, he estimated the time for somewhere around midnight or one in the morning . . .  hours yet before sunrise.  Carefully, the man silently rose from his bedroll and smoothly picked his way around the clumps of men, sleeping in groups around the fire.  He walked to the stake line, and carefully led the big white stallion away from the rest of the group to the isolated spot where he’d left his tack. 

Glancing once more back over the group, seeing no movement in the dim glow from the banked fire, Wallant slowly took his animal by the reins and guided him out, moving out of the camp toward the southwest.

Young Heath Barkley tipped his hat up just enough to watch him go, and then glanced over at his brother.  Nick, exhausted, was so sound asleep he wasn’t even snoring.  He hadn’t heard a thing.  Heath hesitated a moment; he knew he should alert Nick.  His brother wouldn’t be best pleased to learn his kid brother had gone following the general in the night, but Heath didn’t see how he had much of an alternative; he felt it was important to know what Wallant was doing . . .  and planning. 

He’d left Gal tacked, since it was supposed to be his turn for second watch.  The boy bit his lip and glanced again in the direction Wallant had gone, and then back at Nick.  Making up his mind, he figured he’d just have to weather Nick’s wrath come morning.  Gathering her reins, Heath guided Gal out in the same direction the big white stallion had gone a few minutes earlier.

Once clear of the risk of being heard, Heath watched Wallant mount the big stallion and head off toward the hills.  Carefully, he mounted and followed, grimly determined to find out, once and for all, whatever it was Wallant had been hiding all this time.

*****

Carefully Heath walked his horse up to the ridge he watched Wallant cross moments earlier and didn’t hear the hoofbeats of the horse walking, so he figured the man had reached his destination.  He saw no glow from a fire, so it didn’t appear to be a camp.  Tethering Gal to a bush, Heath carefully navigated the side of the low ridge and peeped up over its top.  There he was, at the lonesome small cabin or line shack -.  Sure enough, , there was Wallant’s horse, tethered next to it.  Two other horses as well.  So, he was meeting someone. . .  but who? Heath wondered.

He didn’t have long to wait.  Heath heard the squeal of the shack’s door hinges and three men came out: Wallant, unmistakable for his height, and what appeared to be two Yaquis, based on the wide brimmed sombreros they wore.  Probably partnered in some way with the one who’d taken the potshot at his father. . .

The three men talked for a short time, in such low voices Heath could hear nothing, then they broke up, each going to a horse. 

Quickly and silently, Heath untethered Gal and slid himself off the side of the ridge, pulling her behind a good-sized thicket of something thick and busy, his hand over her nose, shushing her and blowing on her nostrils to keep her from whinnying.  Watching carefully, Heath kept his eyes on the white horse’s legs, rather than on the man, knowing that somehow, that man would be able to “feel” a set of eyes on him.  He knew HE could when he was making himself especially aware. 

He held his breath until the general had ridden past for a good distance, then tethered Gal again and quietly crested the ridge once more to see where the Yaqui were.  Both were mounting as he watched and rode away in the opposite direction from the drive’s camp.  Heath waited a decent interval, then climbed over the ridge and came in, low and quiet, pistol drawn, to the line shack.  Just because no horse was tethered didn’t necessarily mean no one was there.  Quietly he came around the side, listening intently. 

Nothing.  Not a single sound.

Carefully he tried the door, but it wouldn’t give.  He looked around the porch of the shack and found a sturdy pole he could use to jimmy the door.  Once the flimsy clasp gave way, Heath entered the shack.

As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, the boy was startled:  guns . . . ammunition. . . boxes and boxes of them.  What looked like pieces of a Gatling gun, from what he could remember of that one time he’d been near a military regiment.  Rifles, everywhere he looked . . . he carefully walked over and picked one up.

“Winchester,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head. 

Wallant was preparing to form an army for something.

But for what?!

*****

As William Wallant rode back to the camp, he felt the night breeze at his back and felt powerful beyond measure.  Sitting atop that white stallion, like Alexander . . . ready to ride against and conquer the Persian empire with his thundering army of Greece, after having conquered and brought under his absolute rule all of the Greek city-states . . . King of Macedonia . . .

It was the unexpected tarry fragrance of the black sage brush around him that brought Wallant back to reality for a moment . . .  putting back into perspective where he was, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Startled, the man shook his head . .  must have been dreaming . . . he thought to himself, frowning.

Shaking his head once more, Wallant reviewed his plan to gather these men and bring them down with him to Sonora, to help him convince young José Maria Bonifacia Leyva Pérez that soon the time would be right for the Yaqui to rise again, to remove themselves from the tyranny of the Mexican government.  Wallant had met the man, known to his people, the Yaqui, as Cajemé . . . unprepossessing at first glimpse, until one heard him speak in any of the three languages in which he was fluent.  One forgot his small stature and instead heard the power of his ability to move men.  While Wallant had served as a non-regular Army veteran attached as scout to the Americans assisting the Mexican Army to oust the French during the campaigns over the previous three years in Sonora, Wallant had got to know the young Yaqui aide-de-camp to General Ramon Corona.  Watched this man rise above a station hitherto unheard of for a Yaqui . . . and listened to his plans to create a new, sovereign Yaqui state somewhere between the deep central part of Sonora and the United States.  To be part of a conquering army again . . .  that was all Wallant wanted.  It didn’t matter to him which side he was on.  And this side was rapidly becoming very well-funded.

As the approached the drive’s camp, he glanced again at the sky.  It was still a couple of hours before sunrise, he was surprised to note; he’d made good time to the line shack and back.  He dismounted well before the campsite and walked his animal into the picket lines . . . and stopped short.  There was a horse gone from the remuda.  The little Modoc mare . . . the one that young bastard brat of Tom Barkley’s rode.

Quickly untacking his stallion, Wallant entered the camp to find everyone still fast asleep, and sure enough, the spot beside Nick Barkley was empty.  The older man crouched by Barkley’s bedroll and gently touched his shoulder. “Nick.”

The young rancher startled awake immediately.  “What’s wrong?” he demanded, bleary-eyed and sleep-confused, sitting up straight.  Father?  No Father wasn’t there.  “General?!  What – “

“Your brother is gone,” Wallant said quietly, gesturing toward the empty bedroll beside him. 

Nonplused, Nick glanced and then heard another horse approaching.  “He’s got guard duty tonight,” Nick whispered tiredly, not wanting to wake the men around them, drawing a weary hand over his face. “That’s all.”

“He wouldn’t have taken his mare for that.  He’d have taken a horse from the remuda to let her rest.”

Nick stopped rubbing his face and glanced at the General.  Damn the man, he was right.  Grimly, Nick pushed off his blankets and got to his feet, just as his brother was quietly re-entering the camp. 

Heath stopped short as he saw the General and Nick standing together by his empty bedroll and swore quietly to himself.  Oh, well, nothin’ for it but to brazen it out, he thought, still quietly coming forward.

“Where the hell have you been?” demanded Nick.

Startled at the vehemence, Heath narrowed his eyes, and glanced at the General.  “I need to talk to you, in private.”  He turned away, intending for Nick to follow him a little away to talk alone, but Nick’s hand shot out and gripped him, hard, by the upper arm.

“I asked you a question, boy,” he growled.  “You were supposed to have the second watch.  So, answer me!  Where’ve you been!”

Heath shook his arm free, angrily, and squared off against his brother.  “If you’ll step over here, I’ll tell ya!” he hissed. 

Glaring back, Nick insisted, “You can tell me right here!”

Blue eyes hot and blazing, Heath studied his brother for a moment then nodded. “All right! That’s the way you want it? Fine!” he snapped back.  “I was following HIM!” pointing at Wallant.  “There’s that little line shack – “

By now, several of the men were blearily opening their eyes, muttering and complaining about the noise, considering it was still blacker than Hell’s vestibule and clearly not time to muster yet.

“So now your baby brother has decided I’m your enemy?’ chuckled Wallant, quickly inserting himself into the conversation, and shaking his head.  Nick looked back at the General, then narrowed his eyes at Heath.

Angrily, Heath shot the older man a glare, but faced his brother once again.  “Nick, listen, it’s important, please, if you’ll just step over here – “

Nick whirled on his younger brother so fast Heath stepped back in surprise.  “How dare you!” he breathed, his voice angry. “How DARE you be so disrespectful!”

Shocked, Heath’s eyes widened, staring at his brother in disbelief.  “But, Nick if you’d just listen – “

“Sure, sure, tell your tale of woe, little boy,” chuckled Wallant.

“He been sleepwalkin’, Nick?” snorted Schad, stretching and shaking his head.  “Maybe the baby needs a bottle before bed to help him sleep.”

“Shut up, Schad!’ snapped Heath.

“You apologize to the General, immediately!” warned Nick.  “Father’d be completely ashamed of you right now!”

“Dammit, Nick, will you just – “

“Best do as your big brother says, little boy – “ Wallant purred.

And Heath lost his temper completely, frustrated beyond measure.  “And YOU can just shut up, too!” he bellowed, glowering at the General until he felt himself hauled around by one arm, and a calloused palm slapped him, hard, across the face.

Shocked silence fell over the campsite, as men who’d been muttering and complaining, some rising, some burrowing deeper into their bedrolls, stopped dead, amazed and shocked.

The blow had knocked Heath back a couple of paces but he managed to keep his feet.

Panting, Nick, made himself stay calm and glare at his younger brother.  Dammit!  he thought to himself, unhappy with the direction this was taking, but realizing he had little control over it at this point.  He shook his head and firmed his lips.  What would Father expect from us?  he thought and turned stern eyes on his brother once again.  “You heard me, boy.  You apologize to the General, and I mean now!”

Even in the slowly gathering light, Nick could see the glowing imprint of his hand on the boy’s cheek, stark against the paleness. Heath coldly reached up to wipe the blood away from his busted lip.

They locked eyes, and communication the like of which they’d never exchanged before went back and forth between hot blue and molten green-gold.  Heath’s mouth jaw worked into a firm line.  Instead of the apology expected, an absolutely foul epithet – one that was physically impossible – crossed his lips and the boy spun on his boot heel heading for his horse.

“That’s it!” bellowed Nick, grabbing the boy’s arm and swinging him around again.  “I’m done with this nonsense!  Come first light, boy, you’re heading back to the Ranch!”

“I ain’t waiting for first light!” Heath sneered furiously, violently shaking off his brother’s grip.  “You’re on your own, big brother!”  He glared at Wallant as well, but the coldest expression was reserved for Nicholas Barkley.  “Good luck!”

In seconds, the boy had gathered his bedroll, and saddle bags, stopped by the chuckwagon for some leftover biscuits and jerky, and glaring at Nick, mounted Gal and rode out.

Panting with the emotion and spent energy of the argument, Nick stared after him.  “Heath!  Wait until daylight, for God’s sake!” he bellowed.  “Dammit, HEATH!” 

Nick kicked at the campfire, sending embers wildly into the sky.  Panting hard, he finally shook his head again and looked around him.  Every eye was on him.

“All right,” he growled.  “There’s at least another hour until sunrise.  I suggest you get some more shut eye, since it’s clear we’re gonna be another man down.”  He whirled on his heel and stalked to the chuck wagon to start a pot of coffee, leaving the men behind him looking at each other knowingly. . .  and sharing a glance with the General.

For Wallant stood in the center of the camp, a cat-that-ate-the-canary dusting his lips . . . then he smiled knowingly at all the men.  “Yes, men. . .  get some sleep.  Tomorrow’s a big day.”

*****

Chapter Twelve

The sun rapidly rose hot and dry over the land, as Nick and McColl headed their mounts from the herd into the main camp.  Needless to say, after his argument with his younger brother resulted in the boy taking off in the middle of the night Nick got no more sleep.  He had to admit it; he was worried about the kid.  He knew Heath was more than capable, and could find his way around, but still . . .    Nick was tense and weary, and seeing half of his complement of cowboys sitting around as though it was a Sunday and they were waiting for church to begin was not making him feel any better.

“What in blazes are they are still sittin’ around for?” demanded Nick to himself, setting his jaw.  He glanced at McColl then grimly pointed the nose of his mount into the camp.  Coming around a protective clump of trees, Nick pulled his horse up and bellowed, “All right, it’s a new day, gentlemen! Brown! Schad!  There’s a pack of strays downstream.  Pick ’em up.” 

Turning to the older hand pouring himself and Barrett some coffee, he shouted, “Spock, saddle up. I’ve already sent Lillard up that ridge to scout for water, but I want to back him up, and I need you to cover me on point until I get back! Okay, let’s move it.”  Wheeling his horse around, Nick stopped, looking back over his shoulder to realize no one. . .  not one of them. . .  had moved.  Glaring, he bellowed, “Now!”

Laughter around the campfire stopped the young rancher in his tracks, shocked.  McColl glanced back at him, then pulled on his own ‘no nonsense’ voice.  “You heard him.  Move out!”  Nick shook his head at his father’s old friend, and put out a hand to stop him from continuing. 

Watching the mutiny taking place before his eyes, Nick dismounted and studied the crowd of men chattering amongst themselves, laughing and talking.

“Move out?” snorted Brown.

“Oh, we’re gonna move out, all right,” laughed Barrett.

“Yeah,” snorted Spock, , setting the coffee pot back on the hook over the fire, “we’ll move.”

Nick strode into the center of the group, planting his fists on his hips.  “Well, well . . .  what do we have here?”  Looking down at Schad, studiously ignoring him, Nick kicked the mess kit out of the sandy-haired cowboy’s hands, to his shock.  “So, what do you think sitting there’s gonna get you?  Huh?” he demanded.

“What they fought through four years of war to find.”  Nick whirled at the voice and stared  into the face of the man that had saved his life three years earlier. 

All around him, the men were drawing together, muttering and offering support to each other. . .  and to Wallant.

The big man smiled at them and looked calmly into Nick’s face.  “No ordinary men satisfied to return to their farms and their ranches, their jobs and live a small, insignificant life.”

“You hear that?” Spock sneered, nodding emphatically.

“Dissatisfied men, Nick,” continued Wallant, “yearning and searching for a place . . . a place of their own, and rightfully so, because they had the courage to seek it.”

“That’s right!”

“You hear that? Courage!”

Nick, nearly sick to his stomach, glared at the man he’d idolized for three long years . . .  and finally noted something in his eyes. . .  a wild, feral look to them that he’d never truly noticed before.   “And you’re gonna give it to them?” he scoffed.

“You bet he is!” shouted Brown. 

Others joined in the approbations, and Nick spun around, looking at them all, eye to eye, trying. . .  trying to make a connection to these men who had been willing to fight at his side against all odds right up until just two weeks prior. “Where?” he demanded.

He was met all around with cries of “With Cajemé!”, “In Sonora!” and “Yeah, Mexico!”

And Nick’s shoulders slumped momentarily, then he wheeled around and glared right at Wallant.  “Cajemé . . . a resurgence of the Yaqui Wars . . . So that’s what it’s all about.  You wanted hired assassins!”

Wallant raised an eyebrow and shook his head.  “Volunteers!”

Nick cried, “Off to Sonora to fight for a young Yaqui who hasn’t even declared an intent to rule?!  That’s crazy!”  He spun around to all of the men.  “Don’t you see?  There isn’t even a funded attack yet!”  He threw his hand out, pointing toward Wallant.  “HE wants to turn you into vigilantes!”

“Patriots, “ corrected Wallant, pouring himself a cup of coffee and sipping it.

Nick continued, ignoring Wallant, “And for what?”

Schad rose to his feet then, angrily.  “Half of all we get, that’s what!” he insisted.

Wallant saw Schad’s passion and pushed a little harder.  “Oh, no, no…  More than land, boys.  A province.  My province, yours and mine.  All that you’ve ever dreamed of owning for yourselves,” he said, passionately, tapping into the dreams of every man there who’d never hoped for better than working for a decent boss until they were too old to work anymore and pray for an old age pension.  “Not working for somebody else, and what’s more . . . 100 square miles of water and green. . .”

Barrett chuckled.  “Well, that’d spoil me,” he laughed, nudging Spock good-naturedly.

“The run of the land,” Wallant breathed.

Nick stared at his former ranch hands.  “And just exactly how much of that do you really think you’re gonna see?”

Barrett slapped his mess kit down on the ground, standing up and glaring at Nick.  “Listen, Nick. We’ve had all we want to hear from you.  All of it.  Now it’s done!  It’s over!”

Nick strode to the man and glared down into his face.  “A six-by-three-foot grave, Barrett!”  He spun and looked at Brown.  “Brown, you follow him,” he shouted, pointing at Wallant, “and you go to your death! That’s all the value you are to him! No? You don’t think so? He’s been planning this for weeks!  He said he was just passing through?  That’s a lie!”  Nick whirled on Wallant then, white with anger.  “My brother told me he’d seen your horse in Stockton three weeks ago… three weeks!  And I didn’t believe him!”

Wallant merely smiled.

Nick swallowed hard and shook his head.  “So, is that how you got the news about our plans?  Heard about it in town… then decided to throw doubt on us getting to San Diego by insisting there was no water?  Making yourself the avenging angel, eh?  The great savior, General William Wallant!  And all you needed was that idiot blowhard, Nick Barkley, to sing your praises to get you there!” he cried out, bitterly.

Wallant sighed, shaking his head at Nick, as though pitying the poor man. 

Nick’s face grew red with fury, and he whirled to the group once again.  “Ask him why my father was shot!” he stated, slowly and icily, turning to each of the men, now stopping, remembering that.  “A little too much of a coincidence that Tom Barkley’s the one who gets shot, isn’t it, boys? Ask him why it was my father!”

Nick swung back on Wallant, anger and hatred for the man before him now surging to a level that surprised even him.  “Because he ordered it, that’s why,” he said bitterly, staring straight at each man, “because he knew you’d never break away from Tom Barkley as long as he was here.  Because of the respect your held for the Old Man.”

The raucous laughter and camaraderie faltered just slightly then, and Wallant saw it.  Immediately, he moved in. 

“Look, men, we can either stand here jawing all day, or we can go ahead and grab your futures with both hands, right this minute! Right now!” he cried, passionately.  “The bottom line is that I offer you freedom.  I offer you manhood. I offer you everything that a courageous man can achieve.”  He lifted a fist and grinned, his expression feral and intense.  “Are you with me?!”

Cheering, the men rose and all broke ranks, lunging for their gear.

Defeated, Nick stared around him, at the wreck of what had been his dream. . .  his plan to establish himself as a premier ranching visionary.  Now what?!

Wallant walked directly by Nick, his shoulder bumping him aside just briefly, as though pushing aside someone of no consequence at all.  “Barrett, I need 10 men to come with me.  You others pick up the rest of the men at the herd. We’ll meet you at the Camino Real crossing at noon. Oh, and, um, nothing stolen.” He said with a smile.  “Not even a calf.”

The men all cheered, mounted up and headed off as Wallant had ordered them.

As the camp emptied like a bottle broken at its base and streaming its contents, Wallant slowly turned to Nick, pulling out a wad of bills and peeling off some notes.  “By the way. . . I’ll need a wagon.  I think twenty should cover it . . . “ 

He held the notes out to Nick, who stared for a moment, then furiously slapped away Wallant’s hand, sending the notes fluttering to the ground, Nick’s expression a fierce last stand  of defiance. 

“Nick,” the older man smiled, with a nod, and headed for his mount, his shoulder brushing a silent, shocked McColl aside as he passed.

Nick stared around him, deserted and powerless.

*****

The dark-haired rancher cleared the small ridge near the tiny line shack just as the sun was beginning move to its zenith.  He remembered Heath’s passionate words the night before. . .

“Fine!  I was following HIM!” pointing at Wallant.  “There’s that little line shack – “

He circled the building, looking around to see if anyone was near, and brought Coco to rest toward the back, tethering the old boy out of sight in a thicket.  Pistol drawn, he came in low, peering in the one window to check for any movement, and seeing nothing, entered.

Nick closed the shack’s door, allowing his eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness and those eyes widened as he saw line after line of boxes . . .  rifles . . .  ammunition . . . enough to outfit a small attacking band.  He stepped forward, about to reach for one of the rifles.

“ ‘Bout time you got here.”

His heart in his throat, Nick spun, pistol drawn, and sagged, closing his eyes in relief.

Perched in the back on one of the crates was his kid brother, his tan hat pushed back on his head as though he hadn’t a care in the world, a cocky grin on his face. . .  marred only by an old, fading black eye and a freshly bruised and healing split lip.

“God almighty. . . “ breathed Nick, slamming his gun back in his holster.  “You like to give me heart failure, you durn fool,” putting his hand to his chest.

Heath grinned and hopped off the crate.

The two brothers stood apart and looked at each other for a moment, and then suddenly hugged, hard.  

“You’re all right?’ demanded Nick, releasing his brother, and tipping the kid’s face up, wincing a little at the damage he’d done.  He shook his head, and sighed.

“Yeah, ‘m fine.  But, boy howdy, big brother,” Heath grinned ruefully, “that was one helluva signal!”

Nick’s mind spun back to the moment Tom Barkley had gripped his arm while in the buckboard, getting ready to be moved out to find a doctor in Bakersfield.  The moment Tom had gripped that arm, and gathered Heath as well into the mix, insisting that Nick scout for the mountaintop lake, the gears had finally shifted into place.  

The situation was all too coincidental . . .  first, there was the lake Nick knew should be there, corroborated by his younger brother when he’d first broached this plan roughly two months back.  A little brother whom, he’d found out, had learned about a lot of the high mountain lakes in this part of the country when he’d run away from his home in Strawberry four years back. He’d been trying to join up with the Army, of all the foolish things, in order to better provide for his mother Leah, Aunt Rachel and Hannah.

“The officer who’d seen me ride told me I could spend the whole war doin’ nothing but taking care of the horses,” Heath had chuckled, telling Nick one day while they worked, sweating in the hot June sun, repairing long stretches of fence line, not long after Nick had laid out his idea for this drive to San Diego to his brothers. 

“For cryin’ out loud, you ninny, you were twelve years old!” Nick had said, incredulous.  “What officer in his right mind would sign up a twelve-year-old?”

Heath sighed, looking at his brother uneasily.  He took his bandanna and wiped his face.  “Umm . . . an officer who. . . well. . . who wanted more than just someone to take care of his horse,” the boy said quietly, uncomfortably.  Nick looked confused, then suddenly his face went blank and he stared.   Heath glanced up at him, wincing, and nodded. “Yeah.”

“My God. . . “ the older man breathed, stricken, leaning back.  “Oh, Heath. . . ”

“Well, I didn’t realize what he wanted at the time, that’s for sure, though I’d surely heard of such things!” the boy said crossly, beet red with embarrassment as he wrestled with the barbed wire.

“How did you . . . I mean. . .”

“Hadn’t signed the papers yet, when a Marshal came through the same area with a prisoner he was takin’ to Bakersfield,” the boy muttered.  “Didn’t take him long to figure out what was goin’ on.  I didn’t realize it, but he was keepin’ an eye on me, and when the Lieutenant cornered me in the stable, well . . . he . . .  well, let’s just say he ‘stepped in.’ ” 

Stepped in is right, thought Heath with a sigh, as he remembered how he’d thought all his terrified and fierce, but ultimately useless, fighting back against his attacker, as well as his hollering and frantic bellows for help, were going unheeded.  That is, until Marshal Frank Sawyer had first dragged that filthy animal of a Lieutenant off him and laid him out cold as a mackerel with a gun butt to the head.  He’d then gripped Heath’s collar as the boy had frantically tried to pull his clothes back around himself decently, and hauled him back to his own group of men.  The lawman had first checked him over to see if the bruised cheekbone, busted lip and twisted shoulder were all that was wrong with him, and then threatened to tan him if he so much as budged from his side until he personally delivered him back to his mother, thus starting a long and interesting acquaintanceship. . .  

“But – “ Nick frowned.

“Look, that’s a story of another day,” continued Heath in irritation, certain he was never gonna share more on that one.  “The point is, that lawman taught me that it’s often likely there’s water way up on those mountaintops, if you look for the right vegetation around it . . . Even in high summer.  So, I think your plan’s a good one, based on that, provided ya make sure to have enough good men for scouting.  Now, Nick, you promised. . .  you won’t tell Father or Mother or even Jarrod that I tried to hitch up back then.  Swear?”

“Yeah, I swear.  God, you’re lucky you didn’t. . .  Father would’a killed you, forget the Rebels. . .”
 
Then when a stray Yaqui peppered Tom Barkley, right out of nowhere?  Nope, that was just too much coincidence to ignore. 

Looking deeply into his father’s pain-filled eyes as he gripped his arm, Nick realized he was going to have to start to think about whether or not he’d been keeping a golden calf, an idol, on a pedestal ever since Benton’s Crossing.  After Tom had rolled out with Gib, Nick cornered Duke McColl, and demanded to know everything McColl and Tom had thought about Wallant. 

Duke shared his and Tom’s concerns . . . Duke shared his own observations, snippets of things he’d overheard the men say, all of which insinuated – but couldn’t outright prove – that Wallant was doing his best to turn the men against Nick specifically, but also reducing any trust in Heath.  He shared the worries some of the men had voiced to him about Nick’s lack of experience . . .  the unknown territory they were traveling through . . .  the fact that they felt their rudder gone with the loss of Tom Barkley at the helm.  And how he couldn’t exactly put his finger on it, but both he and Tom had felt Wallant was behind all of it, since he was the only new element, really, in the mix.

Just as McColl was finishing up his story, an angry Heath had stormed up, spitting out the altercation between the Barrett and Schad, and what had happened, admitting a bit guiltily that he’d put them both on guard duty, and that he was coming to tell Nick about it.

Nick had nodded. “He’s pitting us against each other,” he breathed. He gave Heath a sour look.  “Stepped a little bit over your station, there, little brother.”

Heath had the grace to blush but shrugged.  “Had to do something, or we’d have had Georgia barbecue for dinner,” he responded in distaste.  “Wallant sure wasn’t doin’ anything about it. . .”

Nick nodded and glanced at McColl.  “He got Father out of the way, knowing the men would never mutiny against him.  But me . . . “  The young man sighed, frustrated, running a big hand through his dark hair.  Fool!  You absolute fool, he berated himself.

“Nick, they just don’t know you in command,” said McColl gently.  “It’s not your fault.  This is why I’ve been trying to tell your Pa for months now that it was time to have you to step up and have the men see you take over more of the reins.”

Heath looked up at his big brother and gripped an arm in support.  “So now you know.  What do we do?”  The boy looked between the foreman and his brother. “Because if we don’t get this resolved, this whole job’s gonna go down in quicksand.”

Nick nodded, grimly.  “Well, he’s obviously got some plan in mind, something to get the men turned around and away from Barkley Ranch.  I just can’t figure out what for. . . “

“Whatever it is, this must be the turning point,” reasoned McColl.

Nick glanced at him.

“Because of the water,” Heath breathed, nodding.  He looked at his brother.  “If you’d gone up and over the mountain, he loses out on something.  What’s south?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

McColl and Nick looked at each other. “Mexico,” they said in unison.

“Well, that doesn’t answer everything, but it gives us a place to start,” Nick sighed, scratching his head.  “Heath. . .  he’s going to keep on trying to shove a wedge between us, so maybe. . .  maybe we oughta let him.  Let him split us up.”

“Why?” demanded Heath, worried.  “The last thing Father told us was to stick together.”

Nick smiled. “We are.  I just mean we might find out more by splitting up . . . maybe Wallant will spill something, and you can perhaps keep an eye on him from a distance.”

Duke nodded to himself, gazing at the dark-haired young man.  “You mean, if he thinks he’s won, that he’s split up you two, he might tip his hand.”

Nick nodded at McColl.  “Exactly.  Winning is what the man is all about, after all,” he said, grimly. “It’s mother’s milk to him.”

Heath tipped his head to one side, frowning then nodding.  “Okay. . .  so, how?”

“Dunno,” answered Nick, thinking and then shrugging, irritated.  “We’re going to have to keep our eyes open and grab the opportunity once it presents itself.” He looked directly at his brother.  “When it does, I’ll give you a signal, one you can’t miss.  But we’re gonna have to make it look good, little brother,” he warned.

Heath exhaled. “OK.  Is there someplace we can meet up afterwards?  Or a way to keep in contact, somehow?”

Nick thought, looking around where they were.  “Yeah… yeah, I think so.  About a mile southwest of the camp, right between the ridges, where the ground forms the notch?”

Heath concentrated and nodded. “Yeah, I know where you mean.”

“There’s a little line shack there . . .  or there was, a few years ago when I first came across that lake.  Can’t imagine why it wouldn’t still be there,” Nick shrugged.  “Once one of us is able to get away, we’ll meet back up there, all right?” He ran a big hand through his dark hair.  “If we can’t figure out how to accomplish that, we’ll have to come up with some kind of a signal, though God only know what. . . “

Nick came back from his memories and grinned at his younger brother.  Luckily they hadn’t needed to figure that out!

“For Pete’s sake, didja have to hit me that hard?” Heath complained with a grin, gingerly touching his busted lip, and then raising an eyebrow at his big brother.  “You owe me. . .ow. . . ” he smiled, then winced as his lip protested a bit. 

“Hey, I told you we had to make it look believable,” Nick scoffed, with a chuckle.  “Besides, knowing you I’m sure you messed up somewhere along the line these last two weeks and had that bust in the teeth coming to ya.”

Heath snorted in amusement. “Oh, I see. . . just helpin’ me out, huh?” he chuckled.  “What a guy. . . “

“Exactly… big brothers do that for little brothers… hey, better me than Father…” Nick grunted, with a grin and two raised eyebrows. 

“I’m not so sure ‘bout that, myself. . . And here’s Father thinkin’ all this time that you can’t lie to save your life,”  Heath snorted.

Nick harrumphed, and tipped his head to one side, shaking it.  “You could’ve waited until morning to leave camp, y’know,” he said seriously, giving Heath a stern glance.  “Haven’t I got enough on my plate without worrying about you, alone out here?”

Heath shrugged.  “Sorry,” he said, an impish gleam in his eyes, not looking one bit sorry. 

Nick rolled his eyes, chuckling.  Impossible . . .  this kid is completely impossible . . .

Then Heath drew in a deep breath and gazed seriously up at his brother. “So. . .  it all went to hell in a handbasket, huh?”

Grimly, Nick nodded. “Yeah.  I’ve got Duke hanging onto to what men we have left, trying to keep the herd from straying.  But the rest… They’re on their way here, I’m sure of it – “

Heath shot out a hand to Nick, putting a finger to his lips. . .  sure enough.  Hoofbeats in the distance.  The brothers’ eyes met. 

They were coming. ­­

*****

Chapter Thirteen

Eleven men on horseback approached the lineshack from the western side, until Wallant, leading the pack, held up a hand, stopping the column.  He dismounted and nodded to the rest to do the same.  Barrett, Schad, Brown and Spock came around the general as he smoothed his jacket, tugging it into hanging straight on his shoulders . . . like a uniform.

“Wait here,” Wallant ordered, heading up toward to the shack on foot, while the others dismounted, sipped from canteens and rested themselves.

Wallant strode toward the building until a bullet missed his foot by about six inches.  He heard the commotion behind him as the men quickly took cover and pulled out their rifles and pistols.  “Hold your fire! Don’t shoot,” he warned.  “This place is a powder keg.”

Catching the eye of a couple of the men, Wallant nodded and turned back to the shack.  Narrowing his eyes against the sunlight backlighting the building, he spotted the shine of a sweaty face. . .  the glint of gold-green eyes, staring him down.

“I’ll kill you, General, if I have to,” Nick Barkley spat out.

His head tilted to one side, Wallant studied the former young star-struck second lieutenant. “Unless?”

“I want those men back,” snapped Nick.  “They’ve got a job to do. After that, stay or leave is up to them, but by God, I want them back!”

“Men are not given, Barkley,” Wallant observed, “They’re earned.

Nick gave a mirthless laugh.  “Right. . . Or stolen.”

Wallant chuckled outright then.  “Oh, Barkley, what a lot you’ve got to learn,” he said a little softly. . . just loudly enough for the two of them to hear.  “Some people want to be stolen.  Don’t you know that? Relieves them of all responsibility for their impotence and weakness.  Men are sheep, Barkley.  These men are all sheep, going willingly to the slaughter . . . preferring it rather than facing their own inadequacy and failure.”

Sadly, Nick shook his head, remembering three years back.  Had the monster always been in there, just hidden away? God help him, but Nick just couldn’t believe that. . . wouldn’t believe that. 

“What happened to you, General?” he asked softly, sadly.

Wallant appeared not to have even heard him.  “Take you, for example,” he mused.  “What a curious place to make one’s stand – in a coffin.”

Nick’s face hardened, as he realized the literal powder keg he was standing in.

“Think about it,” Wallant advised, as he turned around and headed back, totally uncaring that his back was plainly available to Nick’s rifle.

Nick stepped back from the kicked-out wallboard and glanced back at Heath. “You stay low and keep that rifle quiet!” he hissed at his younger brother, sternly.  “Right now, he thinks I’m the only one in here and that’s to our advantage!”

Heath hesitated, lower lip caught in his teeth, then nodded, accepting his brother’s authority.  “All right, but if they charge – “

“If they charge, you’ll wait for my orders.  You hear me, boy?” Nick demanded as quietly as he possibly could.  Despite the low tone, the older man poured every ounce of authority he possessed into that statement, willing his brother to obey him.

Your job. . . is to have his back. . . Heath remembered his father saying, just before he rolled out of the camp. . . God, was it really just yesterday?  And chain of command. . . follow the chain of command. . .  Heath didn’t like it, but he realized this was his chance to prove to his father and his older brothers that he’d heard what they’d all tried to teach him.  That he was ready to step into his role on the ranch, and that role wasn’t to try to solve this alone; it was to stand, side-by-side, with his older, in-charge brother . . . stronger together.

Silently, his eyes met Nick’s, and though he didn’t like it, he nodded, relenting.  “All right.  I hear ya, Nick.”

*****

As Wallant maneuvered back down into the gulley behind the ridge with the ten others, Barrett waggled a chin toward the line shack.  “That Nick Barkley in there?”

“Yeah,” Wallant responded, and the men, troubled, looked at one another.  “Barrett, Spock, you draw his fire. Schad, you come in from the east, the sun to your back.  They’ll keep him occupied. Take him through the door,” said Wallant, pulling a brutal, 10-inch knife from his waist scabbard and slapping it into Schad’s hand.

Schad stared at him a moment, then down at the knife, uneasily.  “Sir?”

“And keep your fire high,” Wallant warned Barrett and Spock.

Schad glanced at Barrett, the reality of this situation suddenly crashing into him – and several of the others – like a runaway locomotive.

Barrett grimly set his mouth and, he tapped Spock’s arm as they moved to position themselves to draw Barkley’s fire.  Hesitating just a moment, Schad finally turned and hurried off to find the best way to infiltrate from an eastern position, as directed.  But to stab Nick. . . to stab Barkley?  In cold blood?! Schad kept moving, struggling to keep his legs pumping in order to keep from thinking about how this sparkling dream was rapidly spinning out of control into a terrifying nightmare.

*****

In the shack, Nick moved back into position at one of the boarded up windows, seeing movement out over the expanse.  He slipped to the side just slightly and looked at Heath, hesitating.  He’s just a kid, Nick!  You can’t ask this of him.  Grimly, Nick sighed, and looked at his brother.  “You let me handle this.”

Heath moved up beside him, gripping his arm, his eyes fiery. “Not a chance,” he glowered. “We stick to the plan!”

“Heath – “

“Together… we do this together, or not at all,” Heath insisted firmly, looking up at Nick.

You two . . . Barkleys. . . stick together . . .   Nick heard their father’s parting words from the day before as he stared at his oh-so-fierce little brother. . . looking at him with Father’s eyes.

Heath continued, “I’ll draw him out. You cover me, you’re faster.”

Startled and incredulous, Nick stared at his younger brother.  “I’ve seen you draw, remember?!  Why, you little …. you’re as fast as I am!!” hissed Nick… faster, in fact, but there’s no way I’m tellin’ you that!

“Well, I’m just following your rules, big brother.  You’re in charge,” Heath grinned, nervously.  Seeing the taller man shake his head in frustration, Heath sighed and reached out, gripping his brother’s forearm, his blue eyes gazing straight into his brother’s green-gold ones. “Nick…it’s gotta be this way.  The men, they’ve got to see YOU doin’ this.  YOU’RE the one they’ll follow, not me.   And, ‘bout me being as fast… “

“Yeah?”

“Just remember ya said that down the road, all right?” grinned Heath, his nervously wavering lop-sided smile making Nick want to reach out and grab his little brother to him and hold him tight… hold him safe.  But this was no boy… this was a man standing in front of him.  And his partner. 

Nick closed his eyes, exhaling in frustration, then snapped open his eyes and his hand shot out, cupping Heath behind the neck. “You be careful!” he said fiercely.  “Promise me!  No unnecessary chances, or so help me I’ll make that last belt on the cheek seem like one o’ Mother’s good night kisses!”

His lips trembling a little, Heath smiled and nodded, allowing his hand to grip the arm that supported him.  “I promise,” he said, seriously, patting his brother’s arm, then slipping out of his grasp and heading for the back door.

At the back entrance, Heath stopped, hesitated, thinking of something, and then turned back. “Nick, remember… like he said, ‘every snake has two fangs’,” he whispered, seriously.  He tilted his head in the direction of the mad general out there.  “I’ll bet ya anything he’s got another gun or weapon, somewhere.  Be careful, all right?  I really don’t cotton to havin’ my head blown off.”

Grimly, Nick nodded.   Suddenly, the boys heard gunfire and Nick darted back to the window.  There, off to the side, Barrett and Spock drawing fire.  “Dammit…” Nick muttered, and glanced back, but Heath was already gone.

*****

As Heath slid quietly out the back of the building, unseen, Schad had approached, knife in hand, from the east as directed, and made for the front of the building.  He heard the gunshots coming from inside, aimed to the west where he knew Spock and Barrett were drawing Nick’s fire.  Blotting out everything else from his mind, Schad gripped the knife and barreled through the flimsy door, crashing to the floor.

Nick whirled, making sure he was out of the line of fire from Barrett and Spock and praying to God the walls were sturdy enough to keep out stray rifle fire.  He saw Schad scramble quickly to his feet, the 10-inch Bowie in his hand, and grimly set his mouth.  Schad saw the strength and intensity in that gaze, and faltered just long enough, before attempting his lunge, for Nick to set himself. He pulled the rifle down and used it to slam first into Schad’s gut, then sickeningly into the man’s face, sending him back out the door, blood spraying from a smashed nose. 

Schad landed on the porch. . .  and didn’t budge.

Nick quickly slipped back into position by the window, desperate to keep one eye on the men out there, and one on Schad, just in case the idiot’s head was even harder than he’d thought and he’d come around. . .   God, Heath, just be careful! he prayed.

*****

Down in the gulley, the men watched as the drama played out before them, and groans were audible as they watched Schad, battered and unconscious, fly back out the shack’s door.

Barrett and Spock trotted back up to the group, frustration and, to some extent, shame on their faces as Wallant glared at them, his expression dripping with derision.

His jaw working, Brown suddenly lunged for the grade, only to have Wallant grab him and pull him back down.  “Where the devil do you think you’re going?” the General demanded.

Brown glared.  “To get him back!” he spat, gesturing toward Schad.

Grimly, Wallant pulled out his pistol spinning the cylinder to make sure it was still loaded.  “Brown, Spock.”

“Sir?”

“And you two men,” he added, pointing to two younger hands, “fan out.  On my shot, take him,” Wallant said grimly.

Brown stared. “Take him?”  He glanced at the other three.

“Head on,” nodded Wallant.

Uneasily, the four men moved into position.  This cart is  rapidly having its wheels fall off, thought Brown, angrily.  Chargin’ Nick Barkley, armed with a rifle? Judas Priest. . .

Wallant raised his hand and fired, sending the four men off, Brown and Spock to the left and the other two to the right. 

*****

In the shack, Nick was scanning the layout, constantly, watching for movement and noticed some shifting off to the west. . . no wait. . . to the north, too.  What the hell?  Coming at him from two sides, he thought grimly. 

“Well, alrighty-then, boys,” he muttered, fiercely, black brows lowered, pulling his rifle up to sight it, “let’s dance!”

*****

Brown moved forward, and suddenly realized he wasn’t getting any cover from the two men approaching on the other side.  Grimly he raised his own gun, figuring if nothing else, he could lay down cover for Spock, behind him. Before he got closer than thirty paces to the cabin, a rifle shot sounded and it felt like a horse kicked him in the leg, dropping him like a poll-axed steer.  Gasping in shock, he felt Spock grab his arm and drag him back into the cover of the trees.

“Brown, how is it?” demanded the older man.

Brownie grimaced, his eyes squeezed shut and shook his head.  “Yeah, ‘Take him,’ he says,” he muttered in derision.

Barrett came up beside him, “You okay?” only to feel his vest and shirt clutched and himself pulled back, hard, rocking him on his pins.

“No!”

All of them stared in shock at General Wallant.

“You can do better than that, boys.  This is no good,” the man was saying, a wild expression in his eyes.  “There’s only rebs out there on that line so it’s yells and musket fire and up! ‘Cause never- not once, not now, not this one Pioneer Ridge,” he spat out, making Barrett stare at him in shock, “are they ever gonna say that Wallant was stopped!”

And the bubble the men had been existing in for the last few days and hours suddenly burst, leaving a clear view of the mental wreck of the man they’d followed so zealously standing before them . . . crazed and unstable.

“So we take ’em- and then it’s letters to your sweethearts and your wives and medals, boy! And whiskey from the officers’ table,” Wallant grinned, nodding at them, but not seeing filthy, trail-dusty cowboys in chaps and Stetson, but boys in blue wool uniforms, tired, weary but still ready to follow him to hell and back.  “I always did that for you. You know that I did,” he nodded, smiling indulgently.

Shocked and uneasy, as is always the case when in the presence of palpable insanity, the men exchanged glances and pulled away a little.

Wallant drew himself up and laughed.  “So, we take ’em now, boys.  And then . . . it’s cheers.”  Raising his pistol, Wallant whirled and using the power of his long legs, crested the small ridge shouting, “Charge!”

*****

In the shack, Nick was still grimly glancing back and forth out the door checking Schad’s inert body on the front porch and out the window, watching for any sign of an advance, when he heard the “Charge!”  Grimly raising his rifle, Nick readied himself and saw Wallant clear the ridge.  If I can do this without killing anybody, he thought, that’d be best, but . . .  Grimly, he brought his rifle up and drew a bead.  And frowned. . .

*****

Wallant came over the lip of the gulley, gun drawn and trotted slowly as though leading his men. . .  but he was completely, and utterly, alone.

“Ten more yards, boys!” he called behind him, earnestly, urging them on.  He could hear them behind him, heard them panting. . . heard their footfalls . . . heard their breathing as they trotted behind him . . . he could smell the reek of their intensity, fear and sweat and God knew what else, but they were with him . . .  they were there, climbing Pioneer Ridge with him . . .

“That’s all it is, just 10 more . . . “   Suddenly confused, Wallant slowed . . . the terrain . . . it’s all wrong. . . He blinked, shook his head, squeezing shut his eyes, and looked again.  The line shack? . . .  but  . . . where were his boys?. . .

Slowly he turned and saw no one.  Nothing.  And further back, he saw the clump of nine men, standing exactly where he’d left them, including Brown, wincing in pain on the ground, wounded.
Wallant stood there, confused.  What was happening?  Where did they go?  Where was he?

*****

In the cabin, Nick lowered his rifle and slowly came to the door, glancing down at Schad, still out like a snuffed candle.  He quickly stepped around him, kicking free the knife and grabbing the man’s pistol, tucking it into his belt, and slowly advanced toward Wallant, stopping about ten yards back.

“General,” he called, softly, to no response.  A little more loudly, then tried again.  “General Wallant!”

This time, the general lurched slightly, and slowly turned his head toward Nick.

“General,” he said.  “Give me the gun.”

Wallant stared at Nick, seemingly unable to make thoughts and actions come together, shaking his head.

“Please,” asked Nick, softly.

Wallant’s haze seemed to clear slightly, and he turned abruptly. 

In reflex, Nick aimed a shot  a foot or so in front of the general’s boots.  And blanched.  Empty.  His rifle was empty.  Grimly, Nick gripped the useless rifle in his hands, and stared into the eyes of his old idol.  Damn. 

Wallant’s own eyes widened suddenly, and he glanced down at the gun in his hand, and suddenly brought it up toward Nick.

From out of nowhere, Wallant’s gun hand flew as a bullet nicked it, blood spattering his clothes as the pistol was dropped.

Heath stepped around the side of the cabin, deliberately coming closer into Wallant’s range, making his body block Nick’s, his own gun down as though Wallant held no threat any longer.  . . .  Every snake has two fangs . . .  God, Nick, I’m trustin’ you .  . .  

“It’s over, General!” the boy yelled, walking steadily toward the man.

*****

The men in the gulley watched in astonishment as a sixteen-year-old boy grimly advanced on the old warrior, determination and courage written all over his face, drawing the fire away from his seemingly disarmed older brother, until suddenly the General’s left hand slipped into his boot and pulled out a small pistol . . . small, but with enough range to kill that kid.  Several of the shell-shocked men start to move, bringing their own guns slowly, too slowly, up into range to protect him.

But before Wallant could bring the little pistol all the way up, Heath suddenly dropped like a stone, flat to the ground, there was a report of gunfire and the General was laid out, still as death.  And standing there, just behind his brother’s prone form, was Nick Barkley, arm extended and pistol in his hand, the useless, empty rifle on the ground.

Heath closed his eyes and breathed in relief, a tremor going through his body, as he slowly rose back to his feet.  Boy howdy, but that was close. . . .

Cautiously now, Nick and Heath moved together toward the General’s inert form, this time both of their guns drawn carefully on him.  They watched as the ten men, including the wounded Brown, arms draped over two others’ shoulders, came up to join them, standing over the body of the war hero . . . the man who’d saved Nick’s life and that of countless others’ . . . and who had completely lost his way. 

Nick and Heath noticed Lillard had joined the group as well, now.

Barrett slowly stepped forward, looking at both Barkley brothers.  “After we . . .  well, we do what we gotta do here,” he said, quietly, gesturing toward the General’s body, “I figure we can still make the cattle up that grade. . .  Mr. Barkley.”  This last was said, respectfully, to Nick, then turned, flushing beet red, but with an added nod of acknowledgement toward Heath.  “Lillard just got back from scoutin’ . . . and like you said, there’s a fresh water lake up ‘ere.”

Heath nodded back, and glanced at his older brother, who stood tall, forbidding against the backdrop of the powder keg behind them . . . the ‘coffin’ that had turned out to be Wallant’s own.  The good ol’ boy was gone. Nicholas Barkley had stepped into his power.

Slowly, Nick holstered his pistol, and nodded.

 *****

 EPILOGUE

The Mansion, Barkley Ranch

“Not only water in that dry lake, but you oughta see the trout . . . the size of yer feet!’ Heath, covered in trail dust, blue eyes wide, crowed to Tom as he chomped on an apple, using it to punctuate his comments.

“Well, no, not yours,” he amended impudently, winking at Tom, and waving the apple at Nick. “His!” The prodigious boot size Nick wore was a family joke.

Audra and Gene laughed out loud, while Jarrod raised an amused eyebrow at Nick, who stood to the side with a tired grin, a cigar clamped between his teeth, listening to their younger brother.

Jarrod snorted.  “Uh, is that with or without his boots on?” he asked, nodded toward Nick.

“Ha ha ha,” Nick snorted, lighting his cigar.  As he did, he noticed their father quietly stumping with his cane toward the verandah, his head down. 

Both he and Heath had been so relieved that afternoon to see Tom up and around with a sturdy cane, if limping pretty badly.  Still filthy and covered with most of the trail they’d ridden home over, the boys had been hailed like conquering heroes, dragged into the drawing room and, for once, allowed to sit, dirty as they were, on their mother’s furniture.  Perpetually hungry Heath had immediately snagged an apple, while Nick made a beeline for the humidor on their father’s desk.

As Heath continued to entertain his brothers and sister with the story of the pain-in-the-neck steer that had fought them not only all the way down to San Diego, but even fought them trying to get him into the railcar the Army had waiting, Nick followed Tom to the verandah, to go talk to him, a little concerned.

But he was forestalled, by a gentle hand.  Victoria, smiling up at him, patted his arm. “Let me,” she suggested gently, and, understanding, Nick smiled and leaned down to kiss her.

“How about both of us, Duchess?” he acquiesced.

Victoria and Nick followed Tom outside, where he stood, puffing on his pipe.  “You really shouldn’t be up on that leg for so long,” Victoria said gently.

“You going to be the one to put me to bed?” he smiled back at her, though not turning completely around.  “If so, I might think about it.”

“Oh, you behave!  Not in front of Nick,” she scolded, affectionately, smacking his arm.  She came up beside him, listening to Heath share the story of the eight men it had taken to get that foolish beef into the railcar. “That’s a mighty big cloud he’s on in there,” she said softly, smiling.

“He did a mighty big job,” Nick replied, softly, gazing back at his animated kid brother, excitedly talking with their siblings.

Tom turned and gazed affectionately at his second born.  “You both did.”

Victoria stroked Nick’s arm.  “And burst a big bubble,” she said gently.

Wincing a little, Nick sighed.  “Yep.”

Tom smiled at him.  “Nick, there’s always something tragic about a fallen idol because the tragedy, y’see, is that it makes us wonder how we could have been so wrong about them in the first place.  Usually, there’s a little bit of truth in that worship.  The man did save your life, after all.”

Nick nodded, but the flush on his face made it clear he still blamed himself for much of the mess that had occurred.  Then he thought . . .  really thought about what his father had just said, and looked at him, squarely.  That’s true of a lot of things, Father,  he thought to himself, as he remembered how angry he’d been when news of Heath’s existence, and his father’s betrayal of his mother first surfaced.  But Father was also right; there’s a little bit of truth in that worship.  Thomas Barkley was human, and flawed. . . but a powerful, intelligent, deeply loving and amazing man to be honored, none the less.

Victoria took a couple of steps closer to her son.  “Worship idols, Nick.  All do and must,” she reasoned, a gentle hand on his chest, “but never, never believe their light is brighter than your own.”

Tom drew in a deep breath and faced his son squarely.  “Someday soon, Nick, this ranch will be yours,” he said firmly. “Yours to rule.  So will be the men, by your choice and your decisions.  It’s clear to me now . . . that time is closer than I thought, and changes need to be made.  We’re stronger together than with just one man at the helm.”  Tom reached out and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “And I’ll tell you, son. . . I couldn’t be prouder of you, truly.”

Nick smiled then, truly smiled, and drew himself up a little straighter.

“Hey, Nick, what was the name of that saloon girl you met in San Diego?” Heath’s voice rang out from the drawing room. 

Nick’s grin faded into a look of outrage.  “Hey!  That was supposed to stay between you and me!” he cried, turning and striding back into the drawing room, as Heath impishly winked at his siblings, and made an agile leap to keep the settee between himself and his approaching older brother. 

Nick got some of his own back when he leaned over at his kid brother and hissed one word, audible only to Heath and himself: “Jubilee!”   

Heath gulped a little, while Nick offered an evil little smile and nodded, smugly.

Tom grinned, shaking his head, as he watched his five children alternately squabbling and laughing and teasing each other.

They’re your legacy, Thomas Barkley.”

Questioning, he turned and looked down at Victoria, a soft smile touching her lips as she gazed first at them, then up at her husband. 

“Each one of them is part of you, shows a part of you that will live on forever . . . in themselves and then in their children.  That legacy is so much more than just a ranch . . .  It’s a bloodline. . . an idea.”

He contemplated them, and then looked down at her.   “Well, now you’re quite a doctor, aren’t you?” he chuckled.

“Oh, I’ve cured an ego or two in my day,” she smiled back, gently touching his arm.

“. . . Fish as long as your foot. . . “ Tom mused suddenly, making Victoria frown slightly.

“What?”

Tom turned, and called, “Heath!”

“Yes, sir?”

“How long did you say that fish was?” Tom asked, looking straight at Victoria with a burgeoning grin on his face, and hers quickly matching it.

“Boy, howdy, Father, I tell you,” the boy responded eagerly, using his nearly finished apple core to run the length of hand to shoulder, “as long as your arm!” With a big, happy grin, he then turned back to his siblings.

“Cure that, Doctor,” Tom smiled, leaning over and kissing his wife.

***The End***

Author’s Notes:

CREDIT:  All lines from “Forty Rifles” (Season 1, Episode 2) are credited to Christopher Knopf, episode screenwriter; www.imdb.com also credits A. I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman (creators) with writing this episode.

My apologies to the 6th Indiana Cavalry; I mean to cast NO aspersions against the gallant men of this unit.  As far as I was able to determine, there were no accusations of behavior unbecoming officers, or outright theft, levied against the men of this group.  Andrew Duggan just happened to be born and raised in Indiana, so I decided to place Wallant from there as well.   The 6th Cavalry was in the battle theatre I wanted at the right time, that’s all. 😊

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