Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves (by Modocgal)

Summary: An alternative universe story of how Heath joined the Barkley family.
Genre:  Western
Category:  The Big Valley
Rating:  G
Word Count:  79,390


Chapter 1

“I’m telling ya Jarrod,” Nick paused in mid sentence, hurriedly gulping down the shot of whiskey sloshing dangerously close to the rim of the glass in his hand before resuming both his pacing and the tirade of words that he was subjecting his brother, mother, and sister to. “He might have been dressed in cowboy clothes and had a six- gun strapped to his hip but he was no cowboy.  No self-respecting cowboy would team up with a bunch of Gypsies.” Nick drew in a deep breath. “And another thing…” 

Jarrod watched with some amusement as Nick stalked back to the decanter of whiskey that was perched precariously close to the edge of his desk; waiting for what he now realized was going to be a long and convoluted story full of half-finished sentences.  He’d already heard the ‘short’ version of what had happened on the range when his dishevelled and bloodied brother had arrived home an hour earlier. 

“Nick?” Jarrod enquired worriedly as he met his brother on the front steps of the house. “What happened to you? Are you alright?”

 “I’m fine,” Nick growled as he pushed past his sceptical brother, pausing long enough to wipe the trickle of blood from his nose with his shirt sleeve, “If you think this looks bad you should see…,” Nick shook his head.  “Never mind.”

 “See who, Nick?” Jarrod asked in consternation.

 “The other guy,” Nick muttered, still not sure how the man had got the better of him and managed to walk away.

 Jarrod shook his head as he followed his brother back into the house.  “What other guy Nick? Who did you tangle with this time?”   

 Nick threw his hat onto the side table beside the door and started unbuckling his gun belt. “Damn Gypsies,” he muttered under his breath but still loud enough for his brother to hear.

 Jarrod sighed before taking a deep breath and asking the question he just knew he was going to regret. “What Gypsies, Nick?”

 “The ones camped by the stream that borders the old Rogers place.” Nick growled, before mumbling, “thieving, lying bastard.”

 Jarrod pursed his lips.“And what did said gypsy do Nick?”

 “I caught him red handed herding one of our beeves.” Nick took a breath, “Said he, found it and was going to return it.”

 “And you didn’t believe him?” Jarrod asked with a raised eyebrow.

 “Course I didn’t believe him. Do you take me for a fool, Jarrod?  I know what I saw.  He was driving it towards the gypsy wagons when I spotted him.” 

  “And you beat him up,” Jarrod paused, “or did he beat you up?”

 “Course I did and no he didn’t.” Nick pulled his aching body up straighter and glared at his older brother before stomping into the house and heading towards the stairs and his room.  Thinking better of it he turned and headed to his brother’s study instead. He needed a drink to wash away the taste of the metallic blood in his mouth first and then he’d go upstairs and clean up.

 “Could have fooled me,” Jarrod muttered as he followed his irate brother into the house.  This was going to be a long night, he thought, as he made his way to his study.

Nick had already poured himself a whiskey from the decanter Jarrod had left on his desk after his meeting with William Rogers who had brought him the land sale papers for his property for him to peruse. Jarrod watched as Nick downed the first drink with a grimace and then pour another. Jarrod thought of the recent trouble they and several of the other ranches had been having over the last month with cattle rustlers in the area.  Was Nick jumping to a convenient conclusion because they had been unable to locate the rustlers, their hideout, or the missing cattle? “How do you know it wasn’t the rustlers who lost the cow? Or maybe it just wandered off from the herd.  They do that from time to time you know.” Jarrod pointed out.

Nick glared at his older brother before growling out through gritted teeth, “It didn’t wander off, it was stolen by him.”

 “Alright Nick, it was stolen so where is it now?” Jarrod asked.

 “What do you mean where is it now, Counsellor? It’s back with the herd of course.”

 “So, it’s no longer stolen?” Jarrod asked with a raised eyebrow.

 “Now, how can it be stolen if it’s back with the herd?”

 “I rest my case.”

 “Rest what case Jarrod?” Audra asked as she entered the study, “Oh, hello Nick…,” Audra stopped and stared at her middle brother in shock, “what happened to you? Should I call Mother? She is just changing for dinner.”

 “Audra,” Nick acknowledged with a nod of his head, “I don’t need Mother. I’m  fine. I’m going upstairs to clean up.  Jarrod can tell you what happened.” Nick turned back to Jarrod, “we’re not finished with this conversation big brother.” Nick strode across the study only to come to a sudden halt as Victoria pushed open the slightly ajar door.

 “I thought I heard voices…good heavens Nicholas. What happened to you?” Victoria asked as she reached up to lightly brush her hand against Nick’s cut lip.  “Are you alright?”

Nick gently took his mother’s hand in his and squeezed softly before releasing her hand.  “I’m fine Mother. I’m going upstairs to clean up then I’ll come down and explain.”  

Victoria turned to Jarrod with a raised eyebrow as she moved gracefully across the floor and seated herself in the chair in front of her son’s desk. “What has he gotten himself into this time?” she asked of her son who had seated himself in the chair behind the desk. “Does this have something to do with the cattle rustling?”

 Jarrod rested his elbows on his desk and steeped his fingers in thought as Victoria waited on his reply. “Yes, no, maybe.”

 Victoria’s eyebrows raised and Audra giggled as she took a seat on the arm of her mother’s chair. “That is not an answer I am accustomed to hearing you give Jarrod.”

 Jarrod sighed, “Let’s just wait for Nick to come back down and tell us from the beginning what happened out on the range.  All I know for sure is that he saw a couple of gypsy wagons camped by the stream near the old Rogers place and he found a gypsy dressed as a cowhand herding one of our cows towards the wagons.”

 Nick pushed the study door open again in time to hear Jarrod’s last words. “Cowhand my eye,” he grunted as he strode across the room and poured another whiskey. He may have changed out of his dusty, torn shirt and pants, washed his face, and combed his hair but there was no denying the swollen lip, bruised cheek and blackening right eye which told of his recent altercation with the other man.   

 “Nick stop.” Jarrod ordered before his brother could start up on another rant. “Just start at the beginning and explain everything to us as it happened, please and without the embellishments.”

Nick glared at Jarrod and huffed a sigh of annoyance, before swallowing the shot of whiskey he had poured and setting the glass down on the desk beside the decanter. “I was coming down the ridge behind the old Rogers place…”

“Isn’t that up for sale?” Audra interrupted.

“I believe it is dear,” Victoria replied, “But let’s let Nick finish his story first so we can go into dinner.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Nick replied, “As I was saying, I was coming down the ridge when I spied a couple of gypsy wagons, and before you ask, I know they were gypsy wagons because of their gaudy covers and all the junk hanging on the sides. Anyway, they were camped amongst the trees by the stream on old man Rogers side of the stream, so I didn’t bother going down to send them packing. But mark my words…”

“Nick,” Jarrod warned.

“Yeah, yeah, counsellor, keep your shirt on.  I was just about to cross the stream to head back here when I saw a man on horseback hazing one of my beeves along the stream and towards the wagons. So naturally I rode to intercept him and ask what he thought he was doing with my beef.”

“Naturally,” Jarrod muttered despite himself.

Nick glared, “what did you expect me to do, ignore it and just ride on.” Nick eyed the decanter for a moment but thought better of it.  “I asked him where he got the beef from and he said he found it wandering along the stream and was going to return it tomorrow.”

“And of course, you didn’t believe him Nicholas?” Victoria stated.

“Damn right…sorry Mother,” Nick quickly interjected at Victoria’s raised eyebrow, “no I didn’t believe him.  It was obvious he had stolen it and was going to feast on it tonight along with all the other thieving gypsies at the wagons.”

“How many gypsies exactly were there Nick,” Jarrod asked.

Nick shrugged, running a calloused hand through his thick dark hair “I don’t know Jarrod, I only saw the one, him. Now will you let me finish.”

Jarrod inclined his head, “please do Nick, the floor is all yours.”

Nick harrumphed, “anyway I pulled my gun, told him to dismount and drop his sidearm, told him who I was and that was my beef he’d stolen and that I was taking him in to the sheriff in Stockton for cattle rustling. He just sat atop a mighty fine looking unbranded bay stallion, probably stole that too and says to me, “you and whose army?” I told him to get off the horse and I’d show him I didn’t need an army to take care of one lousy, lying thieving gypsy.  He raised an eyebrow at me and said, “I’m not a gypsy and I don’t lie.”  Told him just because he was wearing cowhand clothes that didn’t make him a cowhand or honest.  He sighed then said, “You’ve got your beef back, leave now before you get hurt.”  Me get hurt, the nerve of him.  “Told him if he thought I was going to leave a saddle tramp out here to sneak back onto my range tonight and steal another beef he thought wrong. “So, then he asks, what am I, a gypsy, tramp or thief.” All three I tell him. “Have it your way,” he says and the next thing I knew he dived out of the saddle, straight over the cow between us and pulled me out of my saddle. I lost my gun when we hit the ground and then we had at each other.”

“And where is he now Nick?” Jarrod asked.

Nick shrugged and looked sheepishly at his brother, “when I came to, he was gone, probably back to those wagons, but he left the cow. I brought the cow back to the main herd and then came back here to round up some of the men and go after them.”

“Nick, you didn’t let him knock you out, did you?” Audra asked in surprise.

“No, I did not let him knock me out,” Nick replied indignantly, “he’s a gypsy and they all fight dirty.”

“Did you get his name at least Nick,” Jarrod enquired.  “If you want to press charges, I need a name.”

“No, I didn’t get his name. I was too busy defending our beef.” Nick growled.

Victoria had sat silently listening to Nick’s story but now she turned to her oldest son.              “Jarrod, do you think this incident is connected to the cattle rustling?”

“I don’t know Mother, but I don’t think so.  It doesn’t make sense.  We have not found any traces of the rustlers or cattle, despite exhaustive searchers.  Whoever they are, they have been very careful.”

“Up until now,” Nick interceded.

“That’s what I mean Nick, why all of a sudden allow yourself to be seen herding one cow and not only that, allow your face to be seen by you and then leave you alive to identify him and the cow behind.  No, I think it is just a coincidence that Nick caught the gypsy with our cow.”

Before Nick could reply, Silas knocked and poked his head around the door announcing that dinner was ready. As the rest of the family stood to follow Silas to the dining room Nick had the last word.  “Well tomorrow morning, bright and early I’m going to take some men and run those gypsies out of there. That’ll be one less thing to worry about.”     

*****

Heath sighed as he sat on the tongue of the wagon and watched his beautiful dark- haired wife with the flashing green eyes march towards him with a cloth and the bottle of gawd awful smelling liniment that his mother-in-law insisted on keeping in copious amounts for just these occasions.     

“Heath Thomson Barkley, you sit still and let me look at you.  What were you thinking taking on an armed man like that?” Esmeralda Sofia Thomson Barkley demanded as she dabbed at the bleeding cut on her husband’s cheek, under the rapidly blackening eye, with the cloth.

“You best listen to her son,” Gyorgy Potcovari stated, “Esmeralda has her mother’s fiery Italian temper and believe me you don’t want to get on the wrong side of it.”

“Gyorgy Potcovari, I heard that,” Rosetta Sofia Potcovari replied as she stepped down from the back of the wagon and eyed her son-in-law with the critical eye of one used to treating such injuries. “He’ll live and maybe he’ll learn, but probably not.”  Rosetta counselled off handedly.     

“Now Essie, I’m fine.  Even your Mama just said so. Just a few cuts and bruises and stiff muscles; if you think this is bad you should see the other guy.”

“The other guy,” Esmeralda retorted angrily, “you mean your brother Nick Barkley, don’t you? When I get my hands on him, I’ll…”

Heath caught his wife’s small hands in his larger ones and pulled her down to sit on his lap. “Essie, you’re not going to do anything to Nick, or anyone else for that matter.” Heath rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes.  Perhaps they had been wrong in coming here he thought.  He hadn’t expected his brother to be so pigheaded, unreasonable, or bigoted for that matter. When he read in the Modesto paper that William Rogers was selling his land in Stockton and it boarded the Barkley ranch, Heath thought it would be the ideal place to settle down with his growing family.  Of course, he had no intentions of ever telling the Barkleys who he really was, but he had hoped that he and his family could at least become friends and neighbours.  Heath sighed and wrapped his arms around the growing belly of his wife.  Another four months and the twins would have another play mate. Well, what was done was done; tomorrow he would ride into Stockton, meet Rogers and his lawyer, pay for the land and lodge the deeds with the land office as the new owner of the property.  Heath laughed aloud.

Esmeralda turned to face her husband.  “What’s so funny,” she demanded.

“Was just thinking.  Ol’ Nick’s going to be fit to be tied when he finds out the lousy, lying, saddle tramp; thieving gypsy is his new neighbour.”       

Esmeralda glared at her husband. “You’re really not going to tell the Barkleys who you are, are you Heath? Don’t you think they deserve to know, and what about Leah and Tomašis?  Don’t they have the right to know who their uncles and aunts are? And what of this little one Heath?” Esmeralda asked, patting her husband’s arms that were still wrapped around her belly in that comforting hug. He or she will want to know his or her family too.”

Heath shook his head sadly. “I can’t Essie, please try to understand, I made Mama a promise before she died, we both did remember.  We promised to never tell the Barkleys about me.”

Esmeralda jumped to her feet and glared down at husband, “well I think it was a stupid promise.  I thought so then and I think so now.  Leah is dead Heath, has been for these past five years.  I nearly lost you two years ago in that bank holdup in Spanish Camp.  If Frank hadn’t pulled you behind the wagon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.  Mama and Papa aren’t getting any younger, what happens to our children when they…,” Esmeralda choked back a sob, “when they or us die? Who is going to look after them then?  They need to know they have family they can turn to.”  Not waiting for a reply, and tears running down her face, Esmeralda spun around and ran to the wagon she shared with her husband and children leaving Heath sitting on the wagon tongue in despondent silence.

“I have to agree with her Heath; Esmeralda has a valid point, at least with regards to Rosetta and myself.  We aren’t getting any younger and you know my Rosie’s heart is not the best these days.” Gyorgy turned to watch his beloved wife of forty years climb into the wagon behind his daughter, his only surviving child. “She goes; I fear I will not be long behind her.  I’m sure your Mother would never want or expect you to keep her promise if it were to put her Grandchildren at risk. She loved those two children as much as she loved you even though she only knew them for a few short weeks.  As much as she would love her newest grandchild; as much as we love them.” Gyorgy sighed, “You can’t tell the future son, not even I can do that, and I am a gypsy. Your Mama, she couldn’t tell the future, she could only see the past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look towards the future Heath, look to what will happen to the children when we all pass.” Gyorgy squeezed Heath’s shoulder as he turned and headed back to tend the supper fire, a small smile gracing his lips as heard his son in laws soft reply.

“I’ll think about it.”                        

 Heath was brought out of his reverie by the excited cries of his twins.  “Papa, Papa, did you beat the bad man. Mama said you had a fight. Is the bad man dead?” Tomašis asked expectantly.

“Does it hurt, Papa?” Leah Rosetta asked as she gently touched the cut on her Father’s cheek, her deep emerald eyes searching his face worriedly.

Heath pulled both children to him and sat one on each of his knees, keeping his arms wrapped around them so that they wouldn’t fall off.  “No, it doesn’t hurt anymore sweet pea, your Mama fixed it all up for me.” Heath replied hugging his daughter closer to him.

“I bet she used that liniment of Grandmamma’s didn’t she Papa?” Tomašis stated with a shiver. “That stings and I don’t like it.”

“Yes, she did son and I don’t like it either.”

“Did you kill the bad man Papa?” Tomašis asked again.

Heath sighed. “No, I didn’t Tomašis Gyorgy and what have I told you about fighting and dying.”

Tomašis sighed dramatically before closing his eyes and screwing up his little face in concentration.  Heath waited patiently for his son to think through his question and his answer.  When Tomašis opened his eyes, blue met blue and he replied solemnly, “we only fight if it is appso…”

“Absolutely.”

Tomašis nodded, “necessary and we are never happy when someone dies, even if it is a bad man.”

“That’s right;” Heath stated, “And you remember that.  Fighting is the last option.”

“So, it was your last option Papa?” Leah asked as cuddle into his broad chest. “I don’t like it when you fight, you always get hurt.”

“I don’t like fighting either honey but sometimes that is all that is left.  Like today, the man I fought wouldn’t listen to reason and I was left with no choice.”

“Will you see him again Papa.  Will he try and fight you again if he sees you?” Tomašis asked.

“He is going to be our new neighbour after tomorrow Tomašis so I guess we will see him from time to time.  His name is Nick, Nick Barkley but hopefully he will have cooled down by then and realized we aren’t what he thinks we are.”

“What’s that Papa?” Tomašis asks.

“Gypsies, tramps and thieves.” Heath replied with a sigh.  It was no use trying to shield the children from the names that people thought or called them.  At least they would never be called bastard, he thought. 

“But Papa, Grandpa is a gypsy.”

“No, he’s not Leah; he’s a man, the same as any other man.”

*****

Chapter 2

“Good morning ladies,” Jarrod greeted his mother and sister already seated at the dining table as he took his customary place at its head.  “Nick said to tell you he will be along in a few minutes.  Apparently one of the mares foaled early this morning but there were a few complications and he had to go and assist the men.  He’s just getting changed.”

“Oh, I hope everything is alright now,” Audra stated.

“I’m sure it is honey,” Jarrod smiled.  “Nick didn’t say anything bad had happened.”

“Morning all,” Nick greeted the family, stifling a yawn.

“Nicholas.”

“Nick, are the mare and foal alright?”

 “They’re both fine Audra, it was a breach birth. Duke and I had to turn the foal that’s all.  When I left, the foal was happily drink from her mama.”

“A filly, how wonderful. I’ll go out after breakfast and sit with them.”

“Now Audra, I’m sure the mare can look after the foal without any interference from you.”

“I won’t interfere Mother; I just want to spend some time with the new foal.”

 “Well just be careful please darling, not all mares are happy to have a human so close to their newborn foals.”

“I will be Mother, thank you.”

“And what are your plans this morning Nick?” Victoria asked as she watched her middle son stacking steak and eggs onto his plate.

Nick paused and looked at his Mother, “I’m taking a few men and we’re going to run those gypsies off Rogers’ place, if they’re still there.  With any luck they will have had the good sense to high tail it out of there by now.  You coming with me Jarrod?”

“Sorry Brother Nick but I have to go into Stockton this morning and finalise William Rogers’ settlement.  I should be back around lunch time.  There is nothing else pressing at the office at the moment.  If you want to wait until I get back, I’d be more than happy to go with you.”

“What and let them spirit away some more of our beeves.  I don’t think so big brother.”

Jarrod shrugged. “Suit yourself Nick, but I suggest you take Duke McColl with you.”

 “And just why is that Counsellor Barkley.” Nick raised his voice and his eyebrow.

“Well, somebody needs to go as a voice of reason brother Nick and that certainly isn’t you.” Jarrod replied.

Nick glowered. “I don’t need a voice of reason thank you very much; I reckon old Bessie will be voice enough.”

 “Nicholas really.”

“Nick you can’t.”

“I think Jarrod has a very good point Nicholas, please have one of the men hitch up my buggy after breakfast.  I will be accompanying you to this camp.”

“What…”

“Mother you can’t…”

“It could be dangerous lovely lady…”

Victoria held up her hands for silence and turned a steely eye on each of her children, thankful that Gene was still studying at Berkley and wouldn’t be home for another four weeks.  That meant she only had three arguments to contend with not that she was going to acquiesce to any one of them. “I can go Audra and I will; I am still the head of this family Nicholas and the final decision is mine to make; I am aware it could be dangerous Jarrod but as you pointed out a voice of reason may well be needed; therefore, I will be that voice.”  Victoria rose from her chair. “Nicholas, have my buggy prepared please while I change into something more suitable for travelling in.”

“Yes Mother,” Nick grumbled in reply, waiting until Victoria had vanished up the stairs before he turned on Jarrod.  “Now look what you and your big mouth have done Jarrod.  If anything happens to Mother out there so help me…”

Jarrod shrugged, not entirely happy with his mother’s decision but as she so rightly pointed out the final decision was hers to make.  “Then Nick you had better make sure you don’t do anything stupid to put Mother in danger.”

Audra stood up, “Well if Mother is going so am I.”

“Oh no you’re not, little Sister. You are staying right here.”

“Absolutely not young Lady. Nick is correct.  You are staying here.  It may or may not be dangerous out at the camp and Nick and the men don’t need to be worrying about you and Mother too.”

“Sis, please stay here, I need to know that you are safe.” Nick spoke quietly, his hazel eyes pleading with her blues to comply with his request.

Audra looked between her two brothers and sighed heavily, nodding her head in agreement. “Alright but please keep Mother safe Nick.”

“You know I will Audra.”

“Well now that that is settled, I had better take my leave.  I have that early meeting with the new owner of the Rogers’ property this morning.” Jarrod announced as he rose from his chair.

“How exciting, what are they like, maybe they’re young.  I’ll have to ride over and meet them.” Audra gushed.

“I don’t know, honey, I haven’t met them yet.  The only thing I know is his name is Heath Thomson.  And you aren’t going anywhere near there today young lady.” Jarrod added sternly.  “Besides, give them time to settle in.”

Audra nodded, “I promise Jarrod, I won’t go over there until you say I can.”

Jarrod walked around the table and kissed the top of Audra’s blond head.  “Good girl.”  

*****

“Well Blain, what do you think?” Red asked his cousin as they both watched the proceedings in the gypsy camp through their binoculars.

“I think it’s a pity we just missed that blond cowboy and his horse,” Blain replied, “but that woman down there sure is pretty.  She’ll bring a good price, probably as much as the cattle if we play our cards right, even that young brat will bring in a decent price.  She’s almost as pretty as her mother.”

“What about the others and the cowboy. He looks like he could be handy with a gun and that horse of his would fetch a fair price too.” Red stated with a grin.

Blain nodded, “We kill the others, wait for the cowboy to come back, drop him, take the woman, the horse and the kid if she doesn’t cause us too much trouble and head back to the canyon.  Wait a couple of days and then head out with the lot.”

“I ain’t never killed a kid before,” Red stated, “Or a woman for that matter.”

Blain looked at his cousin, “well there’s always a first time.”

Red returned Blain’s look with a grin.  “Yep, I guess there is.”

*****

Jarrod replaced the pen in the ink well after witnessing the last signature on the deeds to the Rogers’ property. He held out his hand to the tall blond seated across the desk from him.  “Congratulations Mr Thomson, and welcome to the valley.”  Jarrod felt a shiver run through his spine as Heath Thomson took the proffered hand and shook it strongly.

“Thank ya Mr Barkley.  I guess that makes us neighbours now.”

“Indeed, it does and please call me Jarrod.”

“Alright Jarrod, I’m Heath.” Heath turned and headed to the door.  “Best be getting back before Essie bursts with excitement.  She’s been waiting a long time for a place of her own and will be wanting to get settled as soon as possible before the baby arrives.”

“How long as she got?” Jarrod asked thinking he would have to tell his mother to look in on the young couple as the time drew closer.

“About four months but you never can tell with a baby.  The twins were three weeks early.” Heath grinned.

Jarrod smiled.  “Why don’t you bring the family over after church on Sunday for lunch?  Mother and my sister Audra will have my head if I don’t make those arrangements.”

“And what about Ol’ Nick?” Heath’s blue eyes twinkled mischievously.  “I don’t think he’s going to be any too pleased to see me stepping onto Barkley land.”

Jarrod laughed.  It hadn’t taken him more than a minute or two to put two and two together and realize who his brother had fought with yesterday.  He had been curious to see the man that had bested his brother and looking at the blond standing before him it was easy to see, despite the blue chambray shirt, the muscles rippling beneath the material. Nick had finally met his match he thought. “I bet he won’t either but don’t worry Heath, he’ll come around once he realises you’re not a…”

“Lousy, lying, saddle tramp, thieving, gypsy.  I think that’s how he put it.” Heath finished with a grin.

Jarrod shook his head. “Yes, well my brother isn’t known for his command of the English language at times.” Jarrod looked at Heath.  “No hard feelings.”

Heath smiled, “he’s lucky I’m long on patience as Frank would say.”

“Frank?” Jarrod queried

Heath nodded, “Frank Sawyer, I was his deputy over at Spanish Camp for near on two years.  Lord was that man patient.  He taught me well.”

“Marshal Frank Sawyer?” Jarrod asked.  Then his eyes widened.  “You’re that Heath Thomson?  You brought in the Reid gang single handed if I remember rightly.  It was in all the papers here.”

“Among others,” Heath stated matter of factually.  “Well, I best be going. About what time on Sunday Jarrod?”

“Oh, say around one,” Jarrod replied absently unaware of the door closing behind Heath Thomson.  Nick, you fool, he thought, you could have been killed yesterday.

 *****

Victoria had deliberately taken her time in dressing for the journey to the gypsy camp, hoping that it would give Nick an opportunity to calm down and think about what he was doing but she should have known that it wouldn’t make a difference. Once his mind was made up there was nothing and no one, not even her, that could change it until common sense prevailed.  And right now, her son was running short on common sense.  She could see him chaffing at the bit to reach the gypsy camp in half the time it was taking because of her and her buggy.  She wasn’t even sure why she had asked for the buggy.  It wasn’t like she couldn’t have ridden on horseback and indeed kept up with the men riding with them.  No something niggled at the back of her mind that she would need the buggy today.

Something flashed in the bushes beside the trail as they rushed past.  Victoria turned her head but lost sight of whatever it was that she had seen.  Feeling the urgent need to stop she pulled strongly on the reins to slow the horse down.  Thankful that she had dressed in fitted riding pants, she jumped from the buggy seat even before the horse had completely come to a stand-still. “Nick wait,” she called loudly as she started running back up the trail.

“Mother,” Nick shouted as he spun his horse in a tight turn and put spur to flank urging the horse into a gallop.  “Mother, wait.” He yelled as he and the four men with him followed.

Victoria slowed as she neared the bushes, wishing she had thought to grab the rifle on the seat of the buggy.  What if what she had seen was the yellow flash of a mountain lion coat, or the silver fur of a wolf?  Victoria came to a stop, aware of Nick and the other men coming up fast.  She put up her hand indicating that they should stop, even though she didn’t take her eyes off the bushes.  She heard the snorts of the horses as they were reined in and Nick’s exasperated oath and one more small, muffled sound, like a sniffle.   She watched as a small section of the bush quivered and a glimpse of red flashed before she heard another stifled sniffle.  “It’s alright, you can come out, we aren’t going to hurt you.” She spoke soothingly and waited.  Another sniffle.

Without taking her eyes off the bushes she called back to the waiting men. “Nick, move back up the trail a bit further.  I’m fine.”

“What the…” Nick started but was cut off by his mother voice.

“Don’t argue with me Nicholas; just do as I say, now.” Victoria ordered in that voice that he knew only too well. The one that promised a wooden spoon if her request was not actioned upon forth with.  She smiled at the bush, aware that her order was been taken seriously and her son and his men were moving away.  “See, they are moving back, you can come out now.  Nobody is going to hurt you.”

“They hurt Papa.” A tiny voice whispered, followed by a louder sob, “and Grandpapa and Grandmamma and …”

“Who hurt them? Can you show me where they are?” Victoria asked gently.

“Papa won’t wake up. The bad men. They had guns.”  Another sob and a small groan.

“Are you hurt too,” Victoria asked worriedly.

“My arm hurts and my head.  They took Mama and Leah. I want my Papa.”

“If you come out, I can fix your arm and your head and then take you to your Papa.  I promise I won’t hurt you; neither will my son or his men.”

“Is…is the loud one your son?”

Victoria chuckled, “yes he is.”

“Papa says you got to always honour a promise.” 

“Your Papa is a very wise man and I always keep my promises.  Come out and I’ll help you and your Papa.”

“Even your son?”

“Yes, even Nicholas will keep his and my promise that we won’t hurt you.”

The bushes started to shake, there was a gasp of pain and then a small head topped with a mop of unruly dirty blond hair popped out.  Victoria smiled as she looked into a pair of red rimmed blue eyes, the exact colour of … of her late husband’s she realised with a shock.  “There now,” she said, regaining her composure “that’s better. Can you get out yourself or do you need help?”   

“I think I need some help, my arm hurts real bad.”

Victoria frowned in worry.  “Can I call my son up to lift you out?”

A small nod.  “I guess so.”

Without turning Victoria called over her shoulder, “Nick come up here slowly, we need your help.  What’s your name son?  Mine’s Victoria.”

“T… Tomašis Gyorgy Potcovari Thomson. Did you say N…N…Nick?”

Both Victoria and Tomašis gasped for different reasons.  Blue eyes the colour of her husbands, the same dirty blond hair, the same name although it has been pronounced differently.  Victoria shook herself, coincidence.  There were, no doubt, thousands of blue-eyed blond boys called Thomas.

Tomašis stared at the bruised face of the man who reached down and carefully lifted him from the bushes.   As soon as he felt his feet touch the ground he wriggled out of Nick’s hand and stepped back.  “Y…Y…You’re the bad man that hurt my Papa yesterday.”

Tomašis turned to look at Victoria, “You promised,” he cried before he turned and tried to run up the trail, only to stumble and fall with a cry of pain when he forgot his arm hurt and swung it out in front of him. 

Victoria rushed to Tomašis side and pulled the crying child into her arms rocking him gently.  “It’s alright Tomašis, my son, Nick, isn’t going to hurt you or your Papa again.  We were on our way to your camp to talk to your Papa.  I promise nothing else is going to happen to you or your Papa.”

“P…pinkie promise?” Tomašis whispered.

“Pinkie promise,” Victoria agreed, tears glistening in her eyes as she looked up at Nick.  “Tomašis I need Nick to pick you up and carry you back to my buggy.  Can he do that for me?”

Tomašis looked warily at Nick before nodding carefully. 

“Which arm hurts Tomašis?” Victoria asked gently.

“Th…this one,” Tomašis tried to lift his left arm but groaned when pain shot through it.

“Nick…”

“I’ll be careful Mother,” he replied quietly as he gently lifted the young boy out of his mother’s arms and carried him past the waiting men and to the buggy, followed by Victoria.  “Sam ride into town and send the doc back to the ranch and I guess you had better get the sheriff as well and meet us at that stand of trees before the crossing onto the Rogers’ property.” Nick ordered as he settled the boy on the seat of the buggy.  “And Sam,” he called, “you had better let my brother know there was trouble out here if he’s still in town.”

“Sure thing, Nick.” Sam replied as he headed back down the trail.

“Tomašis,” Victoria called gently to the little boy sitting forlornly on the seat of her buggy, “do you think it would be alright if I called you Tommy and had a look at your arm, sweetheart.”

“I guess; Papa calls me that sometimes, how did you know?”

Victoria smiled, “lots of little boys with the name Tomašis…Thomas, are called Tommy.”

“Oh.”

Victoria gently lifted Tommy’s left arm and pushed up the bright red sleeve, the flash of colour, of his shirt and looked at the misshapen bend of his forearm.  “Oh, honey,” she whispered as Nick, peering over her shoulder grunted in sympathy.  “That must really hurt.”

“It does,” Tommy replied with a sniff, “but Papa didn’t cry yesterday when Mama fixed his hurts and I’m not going to cry today. “I’m going to make Papa proud of me,” he said, squaring his shoulders as much as he could and looking at Victoria with tears glistening in his eyes.   

“I think your Papa is already very proud of you Tommy, you’ve being very brave so far.” Victoria replied with a smile.  “Your arm is broken sweetheart, but I can’t set it out here.  We will need the doctor for that, but I will wrap it and make it as comfortable as possible alright.”

Tommy gave a small nodded.  “What about Papa? He wouldn’t wake up, neither would Grandpa and Grandmamma.” Tommy sniffed.

Nick handed his mother his bandana, figuring she would need it for a sling as she was already using hers to wrap the injured arm with.  “Tommy, can you tell us what happened.  Why won’t your Papa wake up?”  Nick asked quietly, thinking he hadn’t hit the man that hard yesterday, or at least he didn’t think he had.  He couldn’t really remember anything other than the blond had hard fists and packed a punch.            

Victoria smiled despite the severity of the situation.  Nick was always loud, that was Nick; that was the side that most people saw.  But there was another side to her loud rancher son, the one he was showing now, the soft gentle side as he spoke to Tommy.

Tommy’s lips trembled and a lone tear rolled down his cheek.  “The…the bad men came across the stream while me and Leah were playing.” Another tear fell.  “One of them grabbed Leah…and…and the other one knocked me down with his horse.” Tommy rubbed the back of his head and winced.

Victoria suddenly remembered that he had said his head hurt when they first spoke.  “Let me see your head, Tommy.” She moved his hand away and gently explored the back of his head, feeling his little body go rigid as her fingers brushed against the lump there but thankfully felt no stickiness that would indicate blood. “Tommy does your head hurt all the time?”

“No, just when I touch it. Where’s Leah?”  

Nick and Victoria exchanged glances.  “Who is Leah,” Victoria asked.

“My sister…she’s only five and a half.  She was scared.” Another tear and quiver of the lips.

“How old are you, Tommy?” Nick asked this time.

“I’m five and a half too.”

“Twins,” Nick mouthed to Victoria who nodded.  Dear lord, what were they going to find at the camp when they arrived.  “What happened next Tommy?” Nick gently coaxed.

“I…I…don’t know.  When…when…I got back to camp…Papa…he was there but he was lying down…so was Grandpapa and Grandmamma.  There was blood on Grandpapa…I tried to wake them, but they wouldn’t…they wouldn’t wake up.”  The dam burst and Tommy began to cry, sobs wracking his small body.

Victoria covered her mouth with her hand and looked at Nick, whose face had turned a steely mask of anger.  However, he felt about the gypsies he never wanted this to happen. Even their three remaining hands were murmuring oaths amongst themselves as they listened to Tommy’s story. “What about your Mama and Leah, Tommy.  Where are they?” Victoria asked steeling herself for the answer.

“I don’t know…they’re gone.  I…I looked everywhere for them…but I…I couldn’t find them.  Mama…she’s going to have…another one of me soon.”

Victoria closed her eyes, opening them again; she looked over the top of Tommy’s head to Nick, registering the shock on his face as well. “Your Mama is with child, Tommy; she’s going to have a baby?”

*****

Chapter 3

Esmeralda was sitting on the back of their wagon, swinging her legs slowly when her Father stopped beside her.  “What are you thinking about daughter?” he asked as he leaned against the side of the wagon.

Essie’s green eyes stared across their camp and towards the stream where she had sent the twins to play in the cool water.  Despite it only been early morning the heat of the day was quickly rising.  Her hand gently rubbed the growing bump of her belly and she gave a little laugh as she felt the bundle within squirming.  This one moved a lot more than the twins had but then she figured that this one had more room to move than Leah and Tommy did.  She sighed.  “I can’t help feeling that this idyllic world that Heath is trying to provide isn’t going to be what he expected.”

Gyorgy shifted so that he could see his daughter’s face. “Why do you say that daughter? I thought you wanted to settle down with Heath, have a real home and a roof over your head, instead of this.” One hand touched the gaudy tarp of the wagon while the other swept out over the land that very soon was to be his daughter and son in laws.”

“I do Papa; believe me I have waited a long time to call somewhere home, to come back to every night.  To look out across the land, our land and be able to say this is mine, ours. And I know Heath wants that too, he wants to settle down and start up his horse ranch, raise his children in a home that he owns, be looked up to as a rancher in his own right, not somebodies…”  Esmeralda sighed.  “I’m sorry Papa; that makes me sound very ungratefully.  You and Mama have always provided for me, for Heath ever since the day he rode into our camp to help you with the broken wheel; and for the twins.”

“I could never think of you as being ungrateful, my daughter.  I might be old but I’m not blind.  I see how the world is changing, how the old gypsy ways are being lost.  This land is expanding, soon there will be no trails to amble through, soon all the land will be owned.  It is right that you and Heath should settle down on a piece of land of your own.  Your Mama and I, we are getting too old for this life now.  You and Heath have made our life complete; you gave us a proud son and two beautiful grandchildren.”

Esmeralda patted her stomach, “three grandchildren Papa.” She sighed. “I just don’t feel that this is the right place for us.  Not until Heath makes peace with his family anyway. I can’t see how he can calmly live beside his brothers and sister and maintain a façade of friendship.”

“The choice to tell them has to be his, my daughter.  He said he would think about it and that is all we can ask of him at this time.”

“What if the choice is too late Papa, like it nearly was in Spanish Camp.”

Heath and Esmeralda strolled slowly down the sidewalk, arm in arm revelling in the few minutes of peace and quiet afforded to them by Essie’s parents who had taken charge of the twins, ushering them to the General Store to buy a piece of candy each and Heath’s boss Frank Sawyer who had told the two of them to get out of his office and go eat or something.

“You know darling,” Heath lent closer to his wife and whispered in her ear, “I don’t really think Ol’ Frank meant for us to go eat, maybe we should try the ‘or something’ instead.”

Esmeralda Sofia Potcovari Thomson stopped walking and stared at her husband in disbelief, swatting his arm, “not even you can work that fast Heath Thomson,” she replied with a laugh.  “Lunch it is, the something can wait until tonight.”

“Boy howdy, you sure do know how to deflate a man, Mrs Thomson.” Heath grinned at his beautiful wife, a devilish glint sparkling in his blue eyes, “Unless of course you mean we are going to stay in town tonight instead of out at the wagons.”

Whatever reply Esmeralda was going to make was drowned out by the gun fire that erupted at the far end of town, down near the bank.  Heath pushed Esmeralda into the closest store, which just happened to be the barber shop, telling her to stay put and ordering the owner not to let her out until he came back for her.

Heath rushed down the street, drawing his gun as his he ran, hoping that back up in the form of Frank Sawyer was only feet behind him and that his in-laws would keep the twins safely inside the General Store.  Why now, he thought bitterly.  He didn’t often get alone time to enjoy a quiet meal with his wife.  He skidded to a halt behind the abandoned wagon in front of the blacksmiths and called out a warning to the three men running out of the bank and towards the restlessly milling horses in the street.

He didn’t hear Frank’s shouted warning, Esmeralda’s high-pitched scream from up the street or the gunshots that were fired as he was thrown back against the wall of the smithies, white hot pain lancing through his chest.   He was dimly aware of Frank’s voice telling him to hold on and then nothing.

Esmeralda shuddered and a small sob escaped her lips, “I thought he was going to die, right there in the street, in front of me, in front of our children and I didn’t know what to do, what I was going to do if that happened. What happens if something happens to us now, what of the children?  Heath has a family living next door; they have a right to know. The stubborn fool.”Gyorgy wrapped his daughter in a hug and held her close.  “Give him time, time to settle in; time to work out how he is going to tell the Barkleys who he is.  You know daughter, he can’t just walk up to them and say I’m your father’s bastard son.  And what about that Mrs Barkley, how do you think she will feel, finding out that her husband had an affair with another woman, an affair that produced a child. Think child, how would you feel if in twenty years a young man turned up at your door and announced your dead husband was his father?” Gyorgy sighed, “Perhaps Heath’s idea is the best.  I don’t know.  I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the decision has to be Heath’s.”

Her daughter’s scream and the sound of pounding hooves forced Esmeralda to jump from the wagon tongue as two men rode into the camp, both brandishing guns and one with her daughter under his arm. Gyorgy stepped in front of his daughter but was given no chance to speak as one of the men fired at the old man, dropping him where he stood. “Papa,” Esmeralda screamed as she dropped beside her father who was bleeding profusely from the bullet wound in his stomach. She looked up at the men, at her daughter and then realized her son was not there.  “Where is my son?” she screamed. “Who are you, why are you doing this?”

Blain Walters laughed at the woman on the ground, “No need to worry about that brat of yours, you won’t be seeing him again.  You’re coming with us, we might even take this brat,” He nodded to where his cousin was hanging onto the wriggling, screaming child; “if she stops scream.  If not, we’ll leave her here too, so you had better decide Mama and fast.”

“Gyorgy,” Rosetta screamed as she climbed from the wagon and ran to her husband cursing the two men in Italian.  “Oh Gyorgy,” Rosetta sobbed reaching out with a shaking hand to touch him but instead grabbing at her chest and collapsing on top of her husband.

“Mama,” Esmeralda cried, trying to reach her Mother as Blain grabbed a hold of her and pulled her back and towards his horse. 

“Where’s the cowboy?” Blain demanded, holding onto the struggling woman.  When she didn’t answer, he struck her across the face, knocking her to the ground.  “I asked you a question lady.  If you don’t answer you won’t see this brat again.”

“Please…please don’t hurt her.  He’s in town.” Esmeralda sobbed.

“When’s he coming back?” Blain asked.

“I…I don’t know…he was going to look for some work.”

“Come on Blain; let’s get out of here before someone comes to investigate the shot and the screaming.”  Red suggested nervously.

“I wanted that stallion,” Blain snarled.  “It’d be worth a good bit of money.”

Red shook his head. “We got enough here with these two and the cattle, let’s just go.”    

Blain swore as he dragged Esmeralda to her feet and pushed her to his horse, ordering her to mount up.  Essie struggled into the saddle and then Blain swung up behind her.  Just as he turned the horse up stream, he heard the pounding of hooves coming towards him.  He swung back around to see the blond cowboy and the big bay stallion bearing down on them.  Realizing the cowboy couldn’t shoot because of the woman sitting in front of him, he dropped the reins, pulled his gun, and fired, yelling in delight as the cowboy dropped lifelessly from the saddle.  Free of its rider the big bay swerved to the side and raced away across the open range.

“Heath,” Esmeralda screamed at her motionless husband. “Papa,” Leah cried as Red turned his horse around and followed his cousin.

“You won’t be needing him where you’re going,” Blain laughed as they rode away from the wagons.

*****

Heath allowed the big stallion to choose the pace as they loped back to his new home.  Home he thought, finally a place of their own.  It wasn’t a big spread, just over a thousand acres but plenty for the small elite horse ranch he planned on building.  He lent forward and patted the bay’s muscular neck.  “Soon you’ll have some girls of your own. Bet you’re looking forward to that Charger.” The stallion snorted in agreement and Heath laughed. Tommy had named the big horse Charger because he said he reminded him of the knights in the stories his Grandmamma read him, and they were always charging here and there.              

Heath brought the stallion back to a walk, allowing him to catch his breath and amble along as he picked up his canteen and took a drink of the cool water.  “I bet Essie is already making lists of all the things she wants to buy for the house and the kid’s bedrooms,” Heath mused aloud as he sat on his horse.  “Maybe we can turn the bunkhouse into a small cottage for Gyorgy and Rosetta.  Somewhere for them to put down roots and grow old together in comfort.”  He knew from years of experience living in the wagons that he wouldn’t want to grow old living in one; that was for sure.                

“What is it Charger?” he asked as he felt the stallion stop and become rigid beneath him.  Heath listened but couldn’t see or hear anything until the shot rang out, coming from the direction of their camp. It was a handgun, not Gyorgy’s old blunderbuss, or the rifle.  “Esmeralda.” Heath whispered as he kicked the big stallion, that needed no urging into a run.  God, he hoped Nick Barkley hadn’t come back and was trying to run them off.  As he drew closer to the camp, he could hear the screams of his wife.  Topping the rise, he took in the scene below him.  His in-laws both lay on the ground unmoving, his wife has been pushed towards a horse and his daughter was in the arms of a second rider.  Without breaking stride Charger hurtled down the slope, Heath dropped the reins on the big horse’s neck, steering the animal with his seat and knees.  He drew his gun, cursing when he realized he didn’t have a clear shot of the man because his wife was now sitting in front of him on the horse. Heath tried to veer away from the camp just as another shot rang out and he felt a searing pain enter his chest, throwing him to ground.  He gasped, “Essie,” as the world went black around him.

*****

Nick Barkley cursed loudly as he and the three remaining hands riding with him topped the rise and looked down on the carnage below. 

“Nick, what…oh my lord,” Victoria said as he she pulled the horse to a stop and stared down the slope.

“Papa, Papa,” Tommy cried as he tried to climb down from the buggy. 

Nick rode up to the side of the buggy and put a restraining hand on Tommy’s shoulder to keep him seated.  “Stay here with Mother, Tommy, while we go down and make sure it’s safe, alright.” Nick said gently.

“But Papa needs me.” Tommy cried.

Victoria nodded, “As soon as Nick says it alright, we’ll go down to your Papa, Tommy.  I promise.”

Victoria and Tommy sat in the buggy as Nick and the hands rode cautiously down the slope, guns held at the ready in case it was an ambush. Nick motioned for the hands to keep moving as he stepped down from the saddle and knelt beside the motionless figure of the man, who only yesterday had soundly whipped his butt. Tommy’s papa.  He starred at the spreading blood stain on the man’s chest and shook his head. Pulling off one black glove, he reached out to feel for a pulse and was startled to feel a weak one thrumming under his fingers.  “Well, I’ll be.” He muttered as he looked up to Joe who was riding back towards him. 

“The old woman is dead, and the old man’s alive but he’s not good, gut shot.  Don’t reckon he’ll last for too long. No sign of anyone else around. What about him.” Joe asked

“He’s still a live too, just.”  Go hitch up the teams to the wagons, we can’t stay here, and Mother will want to take them back to the ranch.” Nick ordered and waved for Victoria to come down. He walked away from the blond and met the buggy a few yards away.

“Nick,” Victoria queried.

“He’s still alive. So is the old man but the old woman is dead.  No sign of the Mother or sister. The boys are hitching up the wagons so we can move them back to the ranch.” Nick moved back to the blond, pulling the man’s bandana from his neck, and wadding it into a ball which he pushed into the bleeding wound.  “You hang on boy; your Tommy needs you.”

“Papa?” Tommy asked between sobs.

Victoria pulled the boy into a hug.  “He’s alive Tommy and I promise we’ll do everything we can to keep him that way, but he’s hurt bad.  Do you understand what might happen?”

Tommy nodded sadly, “He might die. Papa explained death to me, but I don’t want him to die.”

“Neither do I Tommy, neither do I.  Will you stay here in the buggy while I go and check on your Papa and Grandpapa?”

Tommy nodded without saying a word.

Victoria climbed down from the buggy, clipping on the sand weight she carried under the seat to the horse’s bridle, ensuring the horse wouldn’t wander and then hurried to Nick’s side and lifted the edge of the bandana.  The wound was high in the man’s right chest and was sluggishly seeping blood.  “Keep pressure on it, Nick.  I’ll go and see to the Grandfather and then see what I can find in the wagons for bandages.”

Nick nodded, “Do you think he has a chance?”

“I pray he does Nick, for Tommy’s sake.”  Victoria rose and rushed over to Bert who was doing what he could for the boys Grandfather, surprised to find him conscious.

“He’s awful weak Mrs Barkley,” Bert whispered as he kept pressure on the wound.

Victoria knelt in the bloody dirt beside the old man and looked into the pain filled brown eyes staring back at her.

“My…Rosetta…?”  His hand slowly reached out for the old woman lying beside him.

“I’m sorry.” Victoria said.” She was already gone when we arrived.”  Victoria moved the woman’s arm out so that he could grasp the cold hand.

“Rosie,” he moaned, squeezing his wife’s hand gently.  “It…was…a good…forty years.” He looked at Victoria.  “My…daughter…Es…meralda…and…and the…twins?”

Victoria looked over to the buggy where Tommy sat hunched in the seat.  “Tommy, Tomašis is here with us, but your daughter and granddaughter are missing, I’m sorry.”

Gyorgy sighed, “Tom…Tomašis, he is alright?”

“He has a broken arm and a bump on the head but yes he is alright.” Victoria nodded.

“Heath…my…son in law…he…will be…devastated…he loves…my…Esmeralda so…much.” Gyorgy took a shuddering breath, “and…his…twins.”

“I promise my family will do everything they can to find your daughter and granddaughter and reunite them with Tommy and…Heath.” Victoria stated.  “What is your name?”

“Gyo…Gyorgy…Pot…co…vari.  That is…my Rosetta…Sofia.”  Gyorgy looked at Victoria. “Thank…you.” He sighed before closing his eyes.

Victoria reached out her hand and felt a weak pulse under her fingers.

“Is he?” Bert asked.

“No, just passed out. Keep pressure on the wound Bert.  I’m going to check the wagons for supplies.  We need to get the bleeding stopped before we move them.”

Bert nodded as Victoria rose to her feet and moved towards the now hitched up wagons.  “Poor kid,” he muttered as he looked to where Nick was tending Tommy’s father and then to Tommy who was now lying down on the buggy seat.

*****                

Sam made good time riding into Stockton.  The first stop was at the doctor’s house and thankfully Doctor Merar was home.  After explaining all that he knew and obtaining a promise that the doctor would leave post haste for the ranch, Sam moved on to the sheriff’s office. Once again explaining what had happened out at the Rogers place and asked him to meet Nick out there. He promised to catch up as soon as he delivered his message to Jarrod.  He dismounted for the third time and stepped onto the board walk in front of Jarrod’s office.  He opened the door to the outer office, expecting to find Jarrod’s secretary there but the office was empty.  “Mister Barkley, are you there?” he called and waited for an answer.  He heard a scraping noise coming from the inner office and then the door opened.

Jarrod had heard the front office door open and was just about to get up and see who was there when he heard his name been called.  He opened his office door, surprised to see one of their ranch hands standing in the office.  “Sam, isn’t it?” he asked worriedly remembering he was one of the men going with Nick and his Mother this morning. “What’s happened?”

“Nick sent me in to fetch the doc and the sheriff and you if you were still here.  There was trouble out at the old Rogers place this morning.”

“What sort of trouble,” Jarrod demanded.  Thinking how long it had been since Heath had left and whether he had made it back there or not.

“I don’t rightly know all the details.  We found the young gypsy boy, he was hurt.  He said his Papa and Grandparents wouldn’t wake up and his Mama and Sister were missing. I left them before they reached the camp to ride in here, so I don’t know how bad anyone’s hurt. I got to go Mister Barkley; I promised the sheriff I’d catch up with him.  Doc Merar is on the way to the ranch.”

Jarrod’s usually expressionlessly face showed shock as he tried to register what Sam was telling him.  “Yes, go Sam; tell my brother I’ll head back to the ranch.”

“Sure, thing Mister Barkley.” Sam turned and hurried out the door, mounted and then rode out of town after the sheriff.

“Good god,” Jarrod muttered as he dropped into his chair.  He hastily collected a few files to take home, before locking the doors to his office and hurrying down the sidewalk to the livery stable for his horse.  He passed the telegraph office, paused, made a quick decision, and retraced his steps entering the office.  He wrote out a quick message. Nodded to himself; gave the message and money to the clerk and told him to send any replies to the ranch before striding from the office to retrieve his horse and ride out of town.

*****                                       

Satisfied that she had done all she could for the two injured men, she nodded at Josh and Joe to bring the wagons over.  They gently lifted Rosetta onto a tarp, carefully wrapped her body and then reverently lifted it into the back of the first wagon.  They then moved to where Bert was still tending Gyorgy, carefully lifting the old man and placing him on one of the two beds in the second wagon, before driving to where Nick was sitting with the boy’s father.  Following the same procedure as with Gyorgy they placed the blond on the other bed.  Bert climbed into the wagon with the wounded men and waited for Nick to hand Tommy up to him, placing him on the end of his father’s bed.

“Send Duke and half a dozen of the men back here when you get to the ranch will you Bert.”  Nick ordered.

“Sure, thing Boss.”  

“Be careful Nick,” Victoria cautioned.  “Whoever did this could still be around.”

“I will be Mother, besides Sam and the Sheriff should be here soon. I’ll meet you back at the ranch later.” Nick held his mother in his arms, kissing the top of her grey head.  “Look after them Mother, that boy needs his family.” Nick helped his mother into the back of the wagon and then watched solemnly as the wagons pulled away with their burdens. He walked over to where the horse and buggy were still standing and led the patient horse back to the picket line that had been set up for the four wagon horses.

Nick decided to make himself useful while he waited for Sam and Fred Madden, the Stockton Sheriff to arrive.  He would never call himself an expert, but he didn’t consider himself a slouch either when it came to reading sign. Starting from where the old man laid, he caste around in widening circles until he found where the two horses had come up from the stream and through the bushes.  Squatting down Nick studied the hoof prints of the horses, looking for any tell-tale marks that would identify them at a later date.  The first set of tracks he studied didn’t show any distinguishable marks from the hundreds of other tracks to be found on the ground. Nick sighed in disappointment and then moved on to the second set.

“Bingo.” Nick smiled as he traced the near fore hoof print in the dirt with his gloved finger.   There in the dirt on the outer quarter of the shoe between the last nail and the heel was a small, nicked v.  So, provided the horse didn’t lose the shoe, they should be able to follow it.  The sudden whinny of his horse; caused Nick to spin on his heels and reach for his gun.  Re-holstering his gun, Nick stood slowly and carefully approached the big bay stallion, as he pawed restlessly at the blood on the ground. Talking quietly to the horse, he eased forward with his outstretched hand until he could take hold of the trailing reins.  “Your owner will be pleased to see you again if he survives that is.  If not, then I guess you belong to young Tommy.” The horse snorted in response, tossing its fine head as Nick patted the sweaty neck before leading it back to the picket line as well.

*****

Chapter 4

Audra paced nervously around the library.  She had started reading a book, then swapped to some needlework she and her mother were doing, then back to the book and finally gave up and started pacing.  They should have been back hours ago, she thought.  She knew she should have gone too.  What if something had happened to Mother? Mother would need her help, or Nick.  What if Nick had done something stupid? Audra absently picked up the cup of tea Silas had brought her a little while ago and took a sip, grimacing when she realized it had gone cold.  With a sigh, she replaced the cup on the saucer and began pacing again.  She stopped, shook her head, and gave a little laugh.  Look at her she thought, pacing around like her bigger than life brother Nick. “Oh Nick, where are you and Mother?” Audra sat down and stared out the large French windows, so lost in worrying thoughts was she that she didn’t hear Silas come into the room until he spoke.

“Miss Audra, the doctor has arrived.”

“What.” Audra jumped to her feet and rushed out the door, seeing Doctor Merar standing in the foyer, hat in one hand and medical bag in the other.

“Doctor Merar, why are you here…Who sent for you…What’s happened…Is it Mother or Nick?”  Audra’s words were tumbling over themselves.

“Calm down Audra and take a breath,” Doctor Merar ordered, nodding at Silas who had taken his hat from him. “As far as I know both your Mother and Nick are fine.  Nick sent word for me to meet them here.  Apparently, there was trouble at the Rogers place, and they are bringing the injured back here.”

Audra took a deep breath and let it out noisily. “What sort of trouble, do you know?”

Merar shook his head.  “No, I don’t.  I only know what your hand, Sam told me.  They found a little injured gypsy boy hiding in some bushes away from the camp.  The boy said his father and grandparents wouldn’t wake up. Your Mother and Nick were going to the camp to see what was wrong and they sent Sam to fetch me, Fred and Jarrod.”  

Now that Audra’s fears about her Mother and Nick had been assuaged, she took control of her emotions, knowing what her Mother would expect of her.  “Silas, prepare the downstairs guest room and the small one at the top of the stairs please. If we need any more, we can make them up later.”

“Right away Miss Audra and then I’ll put some kettles of water on to boil and gather up the extra medical supplies.”

“Thank you, Silas.”  Audra turned to Doctor Merar, “We can wait in the parlour if you like Doctor Merar.  Would you like a drink?”

“Not right now thanks Audra,” Merar replied as he followed Audra across the foyer and into the open parlour to the left of the entrance.  Merar took a seat and watched as Audra started pacing.  “Sit down Audra, before you wear yourself out.  There is nothing you can do until they get here.  And then there will probably be more to do than we can handle.”

Jarrod rode into the front yard, noting Howard Merar’s horse and buggy tied to the hitching post in front of the house and headed directly to the stables with his horse. Dismounting he pulled his briefcase off his saddle and handed the reins to Ciego, their stableman to lead the horse into the stable and take care of it.  “Is Duke around?” Jarrod asked before the man disappeared into the darker confines of the stable.

“Si Senor Jarrod, he is in the bunk house.”

“Thank you, Ciego.”  Jarrod acknowledged as headed to the bunkhouse.  Halfway across the yard Duke McColl stepped out of the bunkhouse and headed for him.

“Everything alright Jarrod, I saw the doc’s buggy drive in.”

“Apparently not Duke.  There was some trouble out at the Rogers place, and I believe they are bringing the injured back here.  My guess would be that Nick will want you and some of the men to ride out there.”    

Duke nodded. “Not your Mother I hope, or Nick.  I knew I should have gone with the boy this morning. Dang it.”

Jarrod smiled despite the worry.  “Don’t worry Duke, for once my brother wasn’t involved.  The trouble happened before Mother and Nick made it out there.” Jarrod held up his hand.  “I don’t have any other details Duke; the answers will have to wait until they arrive.”

“Alright Jarrod, I’ll round up a few of the boys and we’ll head out now.” 

“Thanks Duke, I know Nick will appreciate it.” Jarrod replied as the two men parted ways for their respective residences.

The front door suddenly opened, and Jarrod stepped into the foyer, throwing his hat and briefcase on the small side table. 

“Oh Jarrod,” Audra cried as she rushed into his arms.  “I thought…”

“It’s alright honey,” he replied holding her close to his chest as her body trembled.  He looked over to where Doctor Merar had stood up and nodded a greeting.  “Thanks for coming Howard.  I take it there has been no word yet from Nick as to when they will arrive.”

Howard Merar shook his head.  “Nothing yet Jarrod, we will just have to wait and see.”

“Mr Jarrod,” Silas said coming through the kitchen door, “Can I get you all some sandwiches and coffee while you wait.”

“That would be very welcome thank you Silas.” Jarrod acknowledged as he led his sister over to the settee and then sat beside her. “I take it preparations have been made for the arrival for the injured.” Jarrod asked looking at Howard.

Howard nodded, “Yes Audra has already seen to it.  Do you know anything more of what has happened Jarrod?”

Jarrod sighed heavily, thinking of how happy Heath was when he left his office this morning after signing the deeds. “I know the boy’s father is Heath Thomson and he just bought the Rogers place from William but as to what happened out there, I have no idea. I only know what Sam told me, which I presume is the same story that he told you.”  

Howard harrumphed, “I hate attending in the dark.  I like to know what I am dealing with before I arrive, that way I can come prepared.”

At that moment Silas entered the parlour loaded with a plate of sandwiches, three mugs, a coffee pot, creamer, sugar, and spoons on a tray. He placed them on the small table Jarrod hastily pulled in place between the settee and chair the doctor was sitting in “You’d best eat up afore Mr Nick and Miz Barkley get here,” he called over his shoulder as he headed back to the kitchen.

The three sat in silence for a minute, staring at the food on the table between them before Jarrod reached out and poured coffee into the three mugs, adding sugar and cream.  Handing one to Howard and Audra he nodded.  “Silas is right, we should eat, it could be a long night.”

“Jarrod, just how many gypsies were at this camp,” Howard asked between bites of his roast beef sandwich.

“They aren’t all gypsies, Howard.  Heath Thomson is a Californian, and then there is his wife, their twins, and his wife’s parents.”

“So, we possibly have six sets of injuries to contend with.” Howard stated.

Jarrod shook his head. “Seven, Heath’s wife is with child; I think he said the baby is due in four months.”

“Oh no,” Audra said rising from the settee, “Silas and I will go and ready the nursery for the children.”

Jarrod snagged her hand and pulled her back down to the seat.  “After you eat something Audra,” He ordered sternly.

The sound of horses galloping out of the yard made Audra gasp.

“It’s alright Honey; I sent Duke and some of the hands out to meet up with Nick.”

 *****

“Hold up Joe,” Josh called as he brought the team he was driving to a halt.  “Riders coming.  Looks like Duke and some of the boys.”

“Why have we stopped Joe?” Victoria called from the back of the wagon.”

“Riders coming Mrs Barkley; Duke and some of the hands.”

Victoria climbed from the back of the wagon and walked around the side as Duke drew level with the first wagon.  “What have you got Josh,” Duke asked worriedly.

Josh shook his head sadly, “Nothing to be done with the poor woman in back, ‘cept burying.  Mrs Barkley and Bert are in the next wagon with the ones that are still living.”

Duke nodded in sad understanding, taking a moment to look into the back of the wagon, at the tarp covered body laid to rest on the bed before he turned and moved towards Victoria who was standing beside Joe’s wagon.  “Victoria?” he asked, his shrewd eyes taking in the blood covered pants, dirt smeared face and solemn appearance.

“Duke, how did you know?”

“Jarrod sent us out when he got back to the ranch.  Thought Nick and you would need some help.” Duke replied as he dismounted and walked beside the small woman.

“Nick is back at the camp; Bert and I can deal with what we have in the wagon.”

Duke looked into the back of the second wagon and nodded at Bert who was wiping the sweat off an old man’s face.  He looked at the second bed, at the small blond boy sitting at its head, one arm in a sling made out of Nick’s bandana and the other hand resting on the shoulder of the man lying on the bed.

“That’s his Father,” Victoria whispered, “his Mother and twin Sister are both missing.”

Duke’s jaw clenched tightly as he helped Victoria back into the wagon.  “We’ll find them.” He said quietly before remounting his horse and indicating to the men who had come with him and were talking quietly to Josh, to follow him.

Victoria watched them ride on before calling out to Joe to start moving again.  She sighed as she wrung out the cloth sitting in the bucket of water at her feet and wiped down the face of the boy’s father. Heath, she must remember his name was Heath and his wife was…Esmeralda and Tommy’s sister was Leah. And Gyorgy.  They were no longer nameless faces, they had life, and she hoped and prayed they would still have life when they reached the ranch.  All but poor Rosetta Sofia in the other wagon. She realized that she had forgotten to ask Duke if Howard Merar was waiting for them.  God, she hoped so.  She knew that there was little that could be done for Gyorgy.  The old man knew it too.  She was surprised that he was still alive actually but then she thought of his words, his daughter Esmeralda and granddaughter Leah.  She felt he was only holding on for them.  To learn of their fate before he allowed himself to go.  To join his Rosie with news of their child and grandchild.  She hoped he could hold on and the news they delivered would be happy news.

Victoria turned her thoughts from Gyorgy to Tommy and his father Heath.  Heath was young; she guessed about twenty-four or twenty-five; there was something vaguely familiar about him, but she couldn’t think what.  He looked to be strong and in good physical health which would stand him good stead for the ordeal to come.  The bullet wound was high up in the right side of his chest and she knew the bullet was still lodged in there, somewhere in the muscles and bones.  It was going to take more than her skill to extradite it.  Howard, I hope you’re waiting for us. This young man needs all your skill to save him, to save both of them.  She reached over and squeezed Tommy’s hand reassuringly.  “We’ll be at the ranch soon Tommy, your Papa is strong.  We’ll do everything to help him.”

Tommy turned his tear-streaked face to look at her.  “Can you promise?” he asked, fresh tears brimming in his eyes.

“Oh Tommy,” Victoria squeezed the hand she was still holding harder, “That is one promise I can’t make sweetheart.  Your Papa is the only one that can make and keep that promise.”

Tommy dropped his eyes back to his Papa with a sad nod.

Victoria gasped and looked at Tommy as a thought struck her. “Talk to him Tommy, let him know that you are here with him.  He doesn’t know that you are alright.  I’m sure he must have seen what happened to your Grandparents and your Mama and Leah, but he doesn’t know about you.  That you are alright and here with him.  It could make all the difference to him, hearing your voice.”

Bert looked up from his ministrations of the old man and smiled encouragingly at Victoria.

“But what will I talk about?” Tommy asked quietly. “Papa already knows everything about me.”

Victoria thought for a moment, “not everything Tommy, tell him how you found us, how brave you were when I fixed your arm, how loud my son is, although I think he already knows that.  Tell him how Nick, helped you, picked you up carried you back to my buggy.”        

“But he won’t wake up so how will he hear me?”

“I promise you Tommy, he will hear you even though he is unconscious.  The mind is funny like that, even though it is sleeping it can still hear and it is the words that it hears that help it to eventually wake up again.”

Tommy looked sceptically at Victoria, but she could see a glimmer of hope in his wet blue eyes. He thought for a moment and then his small voice could be heard.  “I’m here Papa; can you feel my hand, on your shoulder?  Mrs Victoria said you can hear me even though you’re sleeping.  I’m alright Papa, Mrs Victoria fixed up my arm, so it doesn’t hurt as much.  She said it was broken and the doctor would have to fix it properly.  I’m scared Papa, I think that is going to hurt worse than Grandmamma’s…liniment.” Tommy chocked back a sob before continuing. “The bad man, Nick, he isn’t so bad I guess, he gave me his bandana to rest my arm in, but he sure is loud sometimes.” Victoria smiled and Bert tried unsuccessfully to hide a chuckle as Tommy continued, “but then he can be as quiet as you too Papa and gentle.”

*****

Nick looked up from where he was squatting on the ground, surprised to see Duke and another four men riding towards him from the ranch.  There was no way; he thought; that the two wagons and their burdens could have made it back there so quickly.  He stood and walked out to greet his foreman and men, only to hear more horses coming from the opposite direction.  This time it was Sam and Fred Madden.  Well at least now there was a good-sized posse to go after the men who had decimated the camp and taken the woman and child. “Duke, boys,” he greeted as the ranch hands rode up, “glad to see you but how did you get here so fast.  Surely the wagons aren’t at the ranch yet.”

Duke dismounted and gripped Nick’s hand, ensuring himself that his boss was alright, except for the bruises and black eye from his run in with the young man in the wagon yesterday. “Jarrod told me what little he knew when he rode in earlier, asked me to bring some men out here.  He thought you would need us.”

“Damn right I do.” Nick agreed, turning to greet Sam and Fred as they rode up.

“Nick, Duke, boys,” Fred acknowledged as he dismounted.  “What happened out here?  Sam couldn’t tell me much other than there was some trouble, but he didn’t know what kind.”

Nick ran a shaky hand through his hair.  “That’s just about the biggest understatement this side of the divide, Fred.” Nick growled as he pointed to the drying pool of blood that denoted where the blond had lain. “We found the kids father lying here and the other two over by the wagons.”

“So, who are these people, Nick?” Fred asked in frustration.

“Gypsies, cowboys, I don’t know anymore.  What I do know is that an old woman is dead, her husband is gut shot, a young boy is injured, the boy’s father was shot in the chest and his Mother and twin five and half year-old sister are both missing. Mother has taken the two wounded men and Tommy, the boy, back to the ranch.”  Nick looked quickly at Duke, who nodded his confirmation.

“Both men are still alive, by the grace of god, but I doubt the old man will live to see out the day.  The father maybe has a chance if the doc can get to him in time. I promised Victoria and Tommy I’d bring his Mama and sister home.”  He shrugged his shoulder, “What else was I going to say to the boy?”         

Nick sighed, “There you have it in a nutshell Fred.  You know as much as we do.”

“Do you think it was Marauders Nick? Although I haven’t heard of any been in the area of late.” Fred asked.

“Doubt it, the camp was too neat and tidy when we got here.  They would have trashed it.”

“Not if they ran out of time.  I’m guessing the father came back and interrupted them.” Fred replied.

“Yeah, I reckon he did, and I reckon he was fool enough to take the men on, single handed too.”

“Any idea how many men were involved Nick?” Duke asked.

“Now that I can tell you.  There were two of them and what’s more, I found their tracks and a way to track them.” Nick replied with a grim smile.  “Follow me and I’ll show you. One of the horses has a small v nicked out of its near fore shoe, on the outer quarter between the last nail and the heel.  As long as the fool horse doesn’t lose the shoe, we should be able to track it.”

“Ain’t likely to be Marauders then, they don’t usually mark their shoes,” Fred mused, “even if they had stolen the horse, they would have checked for that sort of thing and pulled the shoe off.”

“Wait a minute,” Sam said excitedly, “I’ve seen that print before, in the last couple of weeks.” He looked up at Nick, “After the first lot of cattle rustling, me and Walt was following the trail, but lost it up in the rocks.  But I’m sure that’s the same hoof print I saw then.  Thought it was a bit stupid for a rustler to have an identifying mark on his horse’s shoes, but I guess there ain’t no accounting for stupidity.”

“But why would the rustlers take a woman and young girl?” Walt asked puzzled.

“So, they couldn’t identify them.” Clem answered.

Nick shook his head, “No there has to be…Oh god no.”  He looked at Fred.  “They’re going to sell them across the border.”

“The mother maybe,” Duke spat in disgust, “But the girl?”

Fred sighed, “Take the girl. Use her to keep the mother under control.  They’d still get a decent amount of money for the kid.”

“The mother’s pregnant.” Nick interrupted. “She’s due in about four months.”

“Then we had better get after them,” Fred growled, “But what I don’t understand is why they didn’t take that stallion as well.  He’d be worth a pretty penny down on the border.”

“Horse just came back.  Must have run off when the father was shot out of the saddle.”  Nick turned to the hands who had ridden in with Duke.  Phil had taken a bad fall the previous week and he wasn’t even sure if the man should be riding yet. “Phil, leave us your horse and take the buggy and the stallion back to ranch will you. You can let my brother know what we have discovered and that we are going after the mongrels.”

Phil hid is disappointment at not continuing the hunt but at the same time he was relieved to be not going, not sure that he would be able to keep up.  His back and ribs were starting to ache badly. “Sure Nick. I hope you find them right quick.”  Phil handed the reins of his horse to Clem, untied the buggy horse’s reins, and climbed up into the seat.  He waited for Nick to tie the stallion to the back of the buggy and then turned the horse back towards the ranch, flicking it into a smart trot.

“Mount up men, times a wasting,” Nick growled.

*****

“Where here Mrs Barkley,” Joe called from the driver’s seat of the wagon, “and the Doctor is here too.”

“Thank god.” Victoria replied lurching into Bert who steadied her as the wagons came to halt.  “Thank you, Bert, for all your help this afternoon. Now it’s up to Howard.”

Bert nodded, “Can’t say as it’s been a pleasure, under the circumstances but glad I could help some anyway.  Poor kid.” 

Victoria looked to where Tommy had finally fallen asleep, his hand still resting on Heath’s shoulder. Howard, you need to work a miracle she thought as the back of the wagon was lowered and Jarrod looked in.

“Mother?” He asked, studying the occupants with a critical eye.  “Are you alright? We have made up a couple of guest rooms, one on the ground floor and one at the top of the stairs and the nursery” he added as he looked at the sleeping child, Heath’s child. His eyes then wandered to the blond who only hours before had been in his office laughing at what Nick was going to think when he found out that a gypsy had bought the adjoining property. “How is Heath, will he make it?”

“How do you…” Victoria asked startled, “Never mind, you can tell me later.  Where is Howard?”

“Checking the other wagon.”

“There is nothing he can do for Rosetta; this is where he is needed now.  We have to get these men into the house. Put Gyorgy,” Victoria inclined her head to Bert’s patient, “and Rosetta in the downstairs guest room.  There are two beds in there and take Heath up to the other one.  Bert, see if you can pick up Tommy without waking him and hand him to Jarrod.  Take him to the nursery and have Audra sit with him.”     

*****     

Chapter 5

Esmeralda blinked back tears as she saw again in her mind’s eye the moment her beloved Heath was shot out of his saddle as he attempted to rescue her and their daughter Leah.  Leah, she tried to turn, to look behind the man holding her, but she couldn’t see her daughter.

“Sit still,” Blain growled in her ear.

Drawing in a breath she pleaded with her captor, “please; my daughter, is she alright?”           

“She won’t be if you don’t shut up and stop moving.”

“Why…why are you doing this? Where are you taking us?”

Blain laughed, “For the money, honey.  You and that brat of yours will fetch a pretty penny down on the border.”

“You can’t,” Esmeralda gasped.

Blain snorted “Can’t I? Just watch me.”

Esmeralda sank back into her despair.  Would anybody miss them? Would anybody come looking for them?  Maybe the lawyer who Heath had gone into town to meet would come out and find…she closed her eyes and let the tears flow.  Find what, a dead husband, a dead old man and dead old woman… there was no one left to find…there was…Tomašis…Tommy…could still be alive…but who would know to look for him.

“Hey, wake up,” Blain shook Esmeralda roughly, before pulling her off the horse and dumping her on the ground.

Esmeralda shook her head, when did she fall asleep, she wondered.  Her daughter’s cry breaking through her thoughts, as her crying child was dumped on the ground beside her.  “Keep her quiet, or I’ll make sure she stays quiet permanently, understand?” Blain ordered.

Esmeralda nodded as she pulled her crying child into her arms.  “Hush now Leah Rosetta, Mama’s here and everything will be alright.” Esmeralda repeated the litany over and over again, rocking as she said it until she felt her daughter’s breathing even out in sleep.  Taking a deep breath and gaining control of her emotions Esmeralda looked around the camp site.  They were in a high walled canyon and the sun seemed to be setting beyond the walls.  She could hear the bawling of cows somewhere nearby and the snort of one of the horses, but she couldn’t see either of the men who had…killed her family… and kidnapped them. Esmeralda shivered as a cold gust of wind swept up the canyon, while the day had been warm, she realized that the night in the canyon was going to be cold and neither she nor Leah was dressed adequately to keep the cold at bay.  Curling up on the ground beside her daughter she hugged the child tighter hoping her body warmth would keep Leah safe.

*****

Fred put up a hand and called a halt to the group of men following him.  “It’s no use Nick, it’s too rocky here, we’ve lost the trail and it will be dark soon. We can’t track in the dark.  We need to go back to the ranch and get more men out here tomorrow to search.”

“We keep moving,” Nick growled.

Duke reached out and grabbed the bridle of Nick’s horse as he tried to ride past him.  “Fred’s right Nick and you know it.  It’ll be dark by the time we reach the ranch and besides, none of us have brought any food or blankets with us.  We weren’t expecting to be forming a posse and trailing a pair of kidnappers.”

Nick scrubbed tiredly at his face with a black gloved hand and looked at the men around him.  They all had the same look on their faces, heartfelt despair, but they all nodded in agreement when he looked each of them in the eye.

“I can’t go back and tell Tommy we failed.”

“We haven’t failed Nick, one way or another; we’ll find them, just not tonight.” Duke declared.

“I’ll ride back to the ranch with you Nick, maybe one of the men will be in a position to talk, give us a description of who we’re chasing.  Then I’ll head back to town, send out some wires to the surrounding towns and those down on the boarder then meet you back at the ranch in the morning at sunup.” Fred stated as he turned his horse and headed back down the trail, racking his brain as to who the best tracker in the area was, because he figured they were going to need the best.

*****

“Well Howard,” Victoria asked as the weary doctor dropped heavily into the armchair in the parlour.  It had been a long day, and she knew it wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Both men had succumbed to fevers, Jarrod and Silas currently sitting with a man a piece and Audra was still up with Tommy.

“I honestly don’t know Victoria.  The younger, Heath, if we can keep his fever down to a manageable level and he pulls through the night, he has a chance.  The bullet was in deep, broke the collar bone and tore up the muscle.  It was the length of time the bullet was in there that is causing the problems.  And that wasn’t your fault Victoria,” Howard hastily added as he saw his friend about to demonstrate her inability to help the young man in question. “I had trouble getting it out and I’m a trained physician.  Despite your knowledge you wouldn’t have been able to get it.”

“I suspected as much when I looked at the wound Howard. What about Gyorgy.”

“Well, I’ll tell you Victoria, I’m surprised he’s made it this far, but we both know it’s only a matter of time until he succumbs to his injury.”

“He’s waiting for word on his daughter and granddaughter. I think once he knows their fate, he will quietly pass on to be with his Rosie.  What happened to her Howard, do you know.”

“I suspect a heartache Victoria, probably the shock of seeing her husband shot down was enough to bring on a fatal episode. I doubt that she felt much pain at all if that is of any consolation.”

Victoria nodded, “And Tommy?”

Howard smiled wearily, “that’s one brave little tyke.  Barely made a whimper when I set his arm, of course the small dose of laudanum I gave him helped.  I’ve put it in a cast, but I expect he’ll be up and running around by the end of the week.”

“Miz Barkley,” Silas called from the guestroom door, “Mister Gyorgy wants to speak to you, and he won’t settle until he has.”

Howard made to rise but Victoria patted his arm.  “Stay here and rest for a few minutes.  I think I know what he wants.  I’m coming Silas.” Victoria replied has she walked wearily across the foyer, only to stop midstride as the front door opened and Nick and Fred entered.  “Oh Nick,” she sobbed as he gathered her in his arms, “Did you find them?”

Nick drew in a heavy breath and shook his head. “Not tonight, we’ll head out again at sunup with more men.  Fred wants to speak to the men if either of them is able.”

“I was just going in to Gyorgy, he was asking for me.”

“He’s still alive,” Nick responded in surprise.

“Yes, I think he’s holding on for news about his daughter and granddaughter.  I don’t know what this news is going to do to him though.” Victoria replied softly.

“Can I speak to him Victoria? I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.” Fred asked hopefully. “Maybe he can tell us what the men, either one of them looked like, or even the colour of their horses, anything that could help us find the missing girls.”

“Alright Fred, follow me.  Nick, Jarrod is upstairs with Heath, the first guest room at the top of the stairs.”

“I’ll go up and see him in a minute; I think I need a drink first.”

Fred followed Victoria into the guest room, noting the tarp wrapped figure on the bed in the corner. “Silas, would you please get Nick a sandwich; I believe he is in the gunroom at the moment.”

“Yes’m Miz Barkley, Sheriff can I get you something too?”

“A sandwich would be fine thanking you, Silas.”

“Gyorgy,” Victoria squeezed the old man’s hand gently and waited for him to open his eyes. “This is Sheriff Madden; he’d like to ask you a couple of questions if you’re up to it.”

“D…d…did…you find…my…Es…Essie…and…Leah?”

“Not yet sir, I’m sorry.  We’ll be going out again at sunup to look for them.  Is there anything at all you can tell me about the men or their horses that might help?”

“T…two…men.  They…laughed…one had…red…h…hair…he was…ri..ding a…grey…other was…chest…nut. Please…find…my girls…for…Heath.” Gyorgy closed his eyes, “Pic…ture…Essie and…Heath…in wagon.”  and slipped back into sleep with a sigh.

Victoria and Fred silently made their way out of the room just as Silas came through the kitchen door with a plate of sandwiches for Fred. “Is he…?” he nodded at the door.

“Just sleeping Silas. Would you mind?” Victoria asked.

“Be glad to Miz Barkley,” Silas said slipping quietly through the door.

“I’ll search the wagon tomorrow for the picture Fred.  I doubt that you will be able to speak with Heath, he was running a fever, but you can go up and check if you like.  Jarrod and probably Nick are up their now.  First door on the right at the top of the stairs. Tell them I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

*****

“Jarrod,” Nick asked quietly as he entered the guest room, closing the door quietly behind him.  He placed the bottle of scotch and two glasses on the dresser; opened the bottle; poured two fingers into each glass and handed one to his brother. “How is he?”

“Bullets out, it broke the collarbone and did some damage to the muscles.  Fevers rising but Howard thinks if we can contain the fever and he survives the night he has a good chance of living.”

“What about the boy, Tommy?”

Audra is sitting with him in the nursery.  “Howard set his arm, other than that he’s fine and should make a full recovery.”

“As fine as you can be finding your grandparents and father dead or close too and your mother and sister missing.” Nick growled.

“I take it you didn’t find them.”

Nick shook his head, “Lost the trail in the rocks and it was getting too dark to see.  I’ll take all the men tomorrow and start the search again.  Sam thinks it’s the rustlers.  He recognised one of the tracks after the first cattle theft.”

“What on earth would rustlers want with a woman and child?”

“Near as we can figure, sell them down on the border.”

Jarrod closed his eyes, having not thought of that scenario.

“So, who is?” Nick asked nodding at the blond.

“Well brother Nick, he certainly isn’t a gypsy, and I can say you are very lucky to be alive after your little run in with him yesterday.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” Nick growled.

Jarrod smirked, “Meet Heath Thomson, that Heath Thomson,” Jarrod emphasized, “you know the one, Frank Sawyers deputy from Spanish Camp, the one who caught the Reid gang single handedly several years ago, oh and our new neighbour.  He bought the Rogers place this morning. He is going to start up a horse breeding ranch.”

Nick stared at Jarrod, then looked at Heath, lying still in the bed and then back to Jarrod. “You’re kidding right? He’s too young to be Sawyer’s deputy.”

“I kid you not Nick. He told me himself this morning in my office. I thought he looked familiar, and I was curious so after he left the office, I went down to the county records and searched through the papers; came across the article and a picture of him.  He’s one and the same.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.  I pity those two low life kidnapping rustlers if he gets his hands on them before we do.”

*****

Esmeralda woke with a start, when one of the men roughly shook her shoulder. “Eat that and there’s a blanket and canteen.” 

She waited until the man had left and then gently shook Leah awake. “Hey baby, come and eat some of this.” She said offering the plate to the girl.  There were a couple of pieces of bread and some stew on the plate, not really enough for the two of them but it was better than nothing.  At least the stew was edible, she thought.  They mopped up the stew with the bread and their fingers, used a little of the water to wash their fingers, had a drink and then settled back down on the ground.  Esmeralda pulled the blanket over them wrapping it as tightly as she could around them and snuggled close to her daughter. 

“Papa,” Leah murmured. “Where’s Papa?”

“Hush baby,” Esmeralda whispered in her ear.  “Papa will find us.” She had to believe that she had to believe that he wasn’t dead.  She had to have hope for all three of them, she thought as she felt her baby squirm within the confines of her belly.

*****

Chapter 6

 Fred knocked quietly on the guestroom door, before pushing it all the way open.  “Jarrod, Nick, how is he?”

“Still unconscious,” Jarrod replied with a nod to the Sheriff, “But Howard is hopeful that he will make it,”

“If he sees out the night and we can control the fever,” Nick added. “The old man tell you anything, Fred?”

“Not much, two fellas who we already knew, one with red hair and riding a grey and the other riding a chestnut.  He said there is a picture of this young fella,” Fred nodded towards the bed “and his wife in the wagon.  Your mother is going to look for it in the morning.  At least then we will have some idea of what she looks like.  Do you know anything about him?”

Nick snorted, “Well according to Jarrod, he isn’t a gypsy; in fact, he was Marshall Frank Sawyer’s deputy out of Spanish Camp.  His name’s Heath Thomson.  Name ring a bell, Fred?”  Nick asked curios to hear what Fred had to say.

Fred moved closer to the bed and studied the pale drawn face in the soft glow of the lamp light before nodding.  “That’s Heath alright, damn.  Met him once when I was picking up a prisoner from Sawyer.  That was after he brought in the Reid gang and before he was gunned down in a failed bank holdup at Spanish Camp.  Heard he quit his job once he recovered though.  Not that I blame him, with a wife and young family to think of.  A lawman ain’t a job for a family man. Any idea what he’s doing around here, just out of curiosity?”

“He’s our new neighbour Fred, bought the Rogers place this morning.” Jarrod replied, changing out the warm cloth for a fresh cold one and wiping the sweat from the blond’s face.

Fred shook his head, “Damn bad way to start a new life. Well, I best head back to town. Nick, I’ll see you at sunup here.  Jarrod, Victoria.” Fred stepped aside to allow Victoria entry to the room, nodded at the two men and left the room.  He had better send a telegram to Sawyer as a courtesy, he thought and let him know what had happened here, not that the Marshall could do anything about it, but he figured he would want to know about Heath and his family.  

“Jarrod, did I hear you right, he bought the Rogers place.” Victoria asked in surprise. 

“Yes, he did Mother and paid cash for it.” Jarrod replied.

“Where’d he get that kind of money from I wonder.” Nick mused curiously.

“I imagine from all the reward money Nick. If you’re still thinking he’s a dishonest, now how did Heath put it this morning? Oh yes, lousy, lying, saddle tramp, thieving, gypsy; think again.” Jarrod replied with a smirk. “He was very successful, not to mention a well-respected lawman with a reputation of been scrupulously honest.”

“Lawman, Jarrod.”

“Yes Mother, he was Marshall Frank Sawyer’s deputy in Spanish Camp for several years and Sawyer only hires the best.”

“But he’s so young for a job as dangerous as that.” Victoria shook head sadly.

“Young or not Mother, he was very good at it.  Nick if you’re going to head out at sunup again, you had better get some sleep.” Jarrod suggested as he changed out the cloths again.

“Yeah, guess I had, after I look in on Tommy.” Nick held up a hand.  “I know Counsellor, be quiet.  I have no intentions of waking him: just need to see him is all.” Nick stood and looked thoughtfully at the blond in the bed for a minute before heading for the door.  “Call me if you need me.”

“I’ll bring up some sandwiches and coffee for you Jarrod, if you are happy to stay here.”

“Of course, Lovely Lady.”     

 *****

It was late or early, whichever way you wanted to look at it, the big old grandfather clock in the corner of the parlour having already struck the midnight hour when Jarrod heard a small scuffling noise behind him.  Victoria, Howard, and Audra had all already made visits to the room to see how Heath was doing and if he needed anything and the sound was far too quiet for Nick.  Jarrod turned in his chair, thinking that perhaps it was Silas but was surprised instead to see Tommy standing in the doorway, wide-eyed and staring at his father.  “Tommy, shouldn’t you be in bed?” Jarrod kept his voice low so as not to startle the child.

“I wanted to see Papa.  I miss him.  He always reads me and Leah a bedtime story.” Tommy’s voice trembled as he tried to hold back the tears.

Jarrod beckoned him over to the bed, “My name’s Jarrod, I met you this afternoon, but you probably don’t remember me.  Perhaps I can tell you a story tonight instead of your Papa.”

“Can…can I tell Papa one instead? Mrs Victoria said to talk to Papa…let him know I’m here and alright.  She said he’d be able to hear me even if he’s asleep.”

Jarrod smiled, “I think that is a very good idea Tommy,” realising that the little boy needed to be with some familiar family.  “Would you like to sit up on the bed beside your Papa?” Jarrod remembered when he looked in the wagon, Tommy sleeping at the end of his father’s bed, his uninjured hand resting on his father’s shoulder.

“Could I, I won’t hurt him?” Tommy looked hopefully at Jarrod.

“As long as you stay still you won’t hurt him, and I think your Papa would like to feel you close to him too.”  Jarrod stood up and lifted Tommy into his arms, carried him around the side of the bed and settled him next to his father, fluffing one of the spare pillows to make the boy more comfortable.  He then retrieved a wool blanket from the closet and draped it over the boy to keep him warm.  “There now, how’s that?”

“Thank you, Mister Jarrod.”  Tommy reached out a tentative hand, looking at Jarrod who nodded, before resting it on his father’s bare shoulder. “I’m here Papa.  You don’t have to worry about me.  The doctor fixed my arm, it hurt some when he did it, but I was brave Papa.  I hardly cried.  Miss Audra, she’s been looking after me, she’s really nice and pretty too.” Tommy paused and watched as Jarrod rinsed out the cloth and wiped his father’s face and neck.  “You should see my room Papa, it’s bigger than yours,” Tommy said looking around the small room they were currently in.  “There’s lots of toys in there and a Rocking Horse. Can I have a Rocking Horse Papa, just until I’m big enough to ride Charger, that is. Maybe in a year or too.”

Jarrod wasn’t sure who Charger was, but he assumed it was the stallion Nick had mentioned yesterday.  No, he corrected himself, the day before yesterday.

“Mister Jarrod is nice too Papa, he is helping to make you better and he’s a lot quieter than Mr Nick.” 

Jarrod smiled as he sat back in the chair and listened to Tommy talk, marvelling at the little boy’s grasp of what was happening around him, despite the trauma of the day’s events. 

“You remember Mr Nick, don’t you Papa? He was the bad man you fought the other day; the one Mama was mad about you fighting.”  Tommy paused, “I miss Mama and Leah, Papa. Where are they?” Tommy waited expectantly and then sighed when Heath didn’t answer. “I guess Mr. Nick isn’t so bad after all Papa.  He carried me to Mrs. Victoria’s buggy and gave her his bandana for my arm.  Mrs. Victoria even said he went and searched for Mama and Leah, but he couldn’t find them.” Silence.  “Maybe they were hiding because he scared them.  He sure is loud sometimes Papa. I will have to tell him not to yell so much tomorrow before he goes and looks for them again.” Jarrod turned in his seat at the stifled giggle he heard from the door, surprised to see both Audra and Nick, looking rather non-plussed and for once speechless,  standing there.  Tommy yawned, “I’m tired Papa, is it alright if I go to sleep now?” Tommy rested his head on his father’s shoulder. 

Jarrod stood, motioned for Audra and Nick to leave, and then moved around the bed, rearranging the pillows so that Tommy could lie beside his father. Once he was satisfied that Tommy was comfortable, he whispered that he would be back in a few minutes. Tommy nodded, closed his eyes, and snuggled closer to his father.

Jarrod stepped out of the room, pulling the door behind him but leaving it ajar so that he could hear if he was needed.  “How long were you standing there for?” he asked with a smirk, looking at Nick.

“Long enough,” Nick growled, “not a word Counsellor; do you hear me, not a word.” 

Audra giggled.

“That goes for you too Missy.”

Victoria came down the hall, tying up her dressing gown.  “What are you doing, is everything alright? Heath?”

Jarrod nodded, pushing the door open a little wider so that Victoria could see Tommy sleeping next to his father.  “He said that you told him to talk to Heath.”

“I did, but that doesn’t explain what you and Audra are doing Nick.”

Nick shrugged, “I couldn’t sleep, thought I’d see if Jarrod wanted a break for a while but then…never mind, I’m going back to bed.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow as Audra giggled, “I woke up and Tommy was gone so I came looking for him.” Audra giggled again.  “I think I’ll go back to bed too Mother, good night.” Audra placed a kiss on Victoria’s cheek and returned to her room but this time a soft laugh could be heard as she closed her door.

Victoria raised an eyebrow and looked expectantly at Jarrod.  “I’ll explain later today Lovely Lady, but for now I have a patient to attend to.” Jarrod kissed Victoria and quietly returned to the guest room, leaving his Mother to stare at the closed doors and empty hallway.  Shaking her head Victoria returned to her own room and interrupted sleep.

Jarrod moved over to the bed to check on the occupants and was startled to see a faint lopsided smile and a pair of pained blue eyes looking at him before they closed once more in sleep.

*****

Victoria padded quietly down the hallway.  It was still early.  The sun wouldn’t see the horizon for another hour at least but she had promised Fred that she would find the picture Gyorgy had spoken of the previous evening and she didn’t want either Fred or Nick to have to wait on her to resume the search for the missing woman and child.  Stopping in front of the guestroom door she pushed it open far enough to see into the room; the bedside lamp throwing enough light over the bed and its occupants. Tommy snuggled up close to Heath, his left arm resting on a pillow and his right arm draped across his father’s lower chest. She was relieved to see that the blond seemed to be breathing easier and his sleep more restful than it had been earlier the previous evening. Jarrod lifted his head from where his chin had been resting on his chest and nodded at his Mother, telling her all she needed to know about the condition of Tommy and Heath. Gently closing the door behind her, she moved gracefully down the ornate curving stairway to the ground floor surprised to see Howard Merar stepping out of the guestroom currently occupied by Gyorgy. “Howard?” she asked worriedly.

“Victoria, what are you doing up this hour of the morning?”

Victoria raised an eyebrow and looked at her long-time friend and physician. “I could ask you the same thing.”

“My excuse is I’m attending to my patient.”

“How is he, any change?” Victoria asked worriedly.

“Still holding on, only the good lord knows how.”

“Love can be a powerful healer Howard,” Victoria stated.

Howard nodded, “I wish that were the case here Victoria but sadly there is nothing that will change the inevitable outcome in that room.  It is only a matter of time.  He is growing weaker but still refuses anything but the smallest amount of laudanum to ease the pain.”

Victoria patted Howard’s arm in solace, “You have done all you could Howard.  I knew from the moment I saw the wound that his life was slipping away.  He doesn’t fear death; his Rosie is waiting for him.  What he does fear is passing before he knows the fate of his daughter and granddaughter.  That is all that is keeping him here now. Once their fate is known he will quietly slip away.”

“You know Victoria, sometimes I hate my job. For all my training and years of experience I can only watch a good man die and do nothing about it.   It is men like Gyorgy, Tom even the young man upstairs who deserve to live long and full lives, to watch what they have nurtured, sprout and grow, bask in the knowledge that they have imbued the future generations with their integrity, honour, selflessness.” Howard sighed, “Well enough of my maudlin thoughts, what brings you down here, Victoria.”

“Besides checking on our patients, Heath seems to be on the improve…”

“Yes, I stopped in on my way down here. He’s another stubborn, pigheaded…if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was a Barkley too.” Howard shook his head. “He was awake when I went in, in obvious pain but refused to allow Jarrod to carry Tommy back to his room or take more than a small amount of laudanum for the pain.”

“I think Tommy is good for him,” Victoria remarked, “when I checked in on them a few minutes ago, they both seemed to be resting comfortably and Tommy needs to be with his father.  Heath is the only family he has left in a house full of strangers.  I can’t imagine how frightened and alone that little boy feels at the moment.  Even if he isn’t conscious, Heath is still an anchor for Tommy’s fears for his Mama and sister.”

“I don’t doubt that for a minute Victoria, that’s why I agreed to allow him to stay. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I might head back to bed for another hour or so of shut eye.” Howard paused. “You still haven’t told me why you are up so early Victoria. Can’t sleep?”

“That,” Victoria agreed “And I promised Fred I would find a picture of Esmeralda that Gyorgy said was in one of the wagons, when I spoke to him last evening.  Fred wanted it so they had a description of what Esmeralda, at least, looks like. And as he will be here in another hour, I didn’t want him or Nick to waste time waiting while I search the wagon when they could be out looking for her and Leah.”

Howard nodded, “Well then, I wish you luck in your search.”

The two old friends parted company, Howard up the stairs and Victoria across the entrance foyer to the front door.  She stopped by the side table and picked up the lamp that had been set on the table beside the door.  Turning up the wick, so that the flame burned brightly she made her way outside to the two wagons still parked in front of the house.  The gaudy colours of the tarps hidden by the early morning darkness made the wagons look foreboding, even sinister.  A shiver ran her down her spine; she felt as though she was about to invade some deeply hidden secret. Victoria shook her head, get a grip, she thought, it was a wagon, one of which she had spent several hours travelling in yesterday.  There was nothing sinister in it, just a deep sadness at the day’s events.  Having spent time in the second wagon, she knew that it did not hold the picture of which Gyorgy spoke. The second wagon having belonged to the grandparents.

Victoria moved to the first wagon where the men had laid Rosetta yesterday.  Pulling the tailgate down, she placed the lamp on the bed of the wagon and then stared in surprise at the three steps that folded out once the tailgate was lowered.  Carefully climbing the steps, she entered the confines of the wagon.  There were two small beds, one against each side of the wagon where the children slept.  At the head of each bed a small cupboard had been nailed to each side. Two large trunks sat on the wagon bed between the end of the cupboards and the back of the wagon seat. Hanging from the reinforced wooden arches of the wagon and with enough clearance to allow easy access to the trunks below was a wide wooden platform with a mattress and blankets placed on it.  This was obviously Heath and Esmeralda’s bed.  Victoria noted the pulley and ropes attached to one side and realised that the bed could be lifted out of the way to allow access to the cupboards on either side of the wagon.  Whoever had thought of the design of this wagon was a genius and very practical, she thought.  Never before had she seen a design like it, and she had seen many a prairie schooner on her and Tom’s travels out west.

Deciding to start with the chests, she opened the one on the left, finding it packed with neatly tied bundles of clothes, books, and toys for the children, she had a quick rummage through the items but didn’t feel anything as important as the daguerreotype that she assumed she was looking for would be found amongst the children’s belongings.  Before closing the lid of the trunk, she pulled out several bundles of the clothes belonging to Tommy.  She opened the second trunk. This one clearly held the belongings of Heath and Esmeralda. Apologising for invading their privacy, she again pulled out and set aside several of the bundles of Heath’s clothes before resumed her search for the required item.  It was towards the bottom of the trunk that her fingers brushed against the wooden box.  Pushing aside several of Esmeralda’s dresses, Victoria pulled out a beautiful, ornately carved dark wooden chest, approximately twelve inches long, ten inches wide and ten inches high, although the domed lid gave it more depth.  The two brass hinges and the clasp holding the lid in place, glowed in the soft lamp light, polished to a high sheen; indicating this was a precious treasure to its holders.                  

Victoria ran her fingers softly over the carvings on the chest, tracing the fine lines and details of the various scenes portrayed on its sides and top.  The top showed a small house set in a field with a stream flowing at one end and a mountain range looming majestically behind the house: trees and flowers surrounding the building.  Two of the sides depicted scenes of the life of a cowhand, chasing cattle, sitting atop a horse on a rise and watching the sun descend or perhaps rise over the hills; she wasn’t sure which.  The other two sides showed the gypsy wagons, one at rest, in a camp not unlike the one they had found yesterday morning and one on the trail.  Victoria drew in a deep breath, the lid and the one of the gypsy camps could have been exact copies of the camp site and William Rogers’ house; almost as though the carver had seen into the future of the young family.  She wondered if it was Gyorgy, or Heath or indeed both of them who had carved the scenes into the chest.

Taking a deep breath and again apologising for invading their privacy Victoria lifted the lid on the small chest.  She lifted out a calico wrapped frame tied with an emerald green ribbon.  Untying the ribbon, she opened up the calico cloth to reveal the daguerreotype of a stunningly beautiful young woman, long dark tresses falling around her shoulders, large round laughing eyes, that Victoria just knew were going to be the same colour as the ribbon laying in her lap, full soft lips, high cheekbones, and skin slightly darker than her daughter’s, proclaiming her gypsy origins. Oh Esmeralda, I promise we will find you, you, and Leah, have faith.  Leah, did she look like her Mother?  Victoria thought of Tommy and Heath.  There was certainly more of Heath in the boy than there was of Esmeralda, so did it follow that little Leah took after her Mother? 

There was a second calico wrapped frame in the chest which Victoria lifted out.  Perhaps this was a picture of the whole family.  Victoria untied the sky blue ribbon around the material letting the cloth and ribbon fall to her lap.  Expecting to find a happy family portrait she gasped in shock and dropped the daguerreotype into the trunk, where it landed safely amongst Esmeralda’s dresses, as though the picture had suddenly caught on fire and burned her hand.  Victoria sat in stunned silence unable to believe what her eyes were seeing…it was Tom…her young Tom, the Tom she had made the trip out west with, in a wagon not dis-similar to the one she was sitting in, staring back at her…standing behind…Esmeralda.  With a hand shaking so badly that she thought she would need to use her other hand to steady the first, Victoria reached into the trunk and retrieved the picture.  She stared at it, not fully comprehending what she was seeing in front of her but what she had seen and felt yesterday.  Her Tom looking back at her from Tomašis’…Tommy’s little tear-stained face as he stood amongst the bushes. Victoria shook her head, it was impossible, she was being silly.  Didn’t they say that every person had a doppelganger somewhere in the world? Heath was her late husbands, that was all, and Tommy took after his father, that was all too.  The name was just coincidence.                 

One more item caught Victoria’s eye.  It was an old well-worn bible; the corners of the cover bent and tattered.   She picked it up, perhaps she would find some details for Heath’s family in it, someone, a mother, or father perhaps, or siblings that they could notify about what had happened here.  Heath appeared to be a loving family man so surely, he would want his family to know what had happened and even to travel here to lend their support.  She would see to it that any of his family that did come would be treated as guests and have the full support of the Barkleys. There were a few other sundry items in the chest, several pieces of jewellery, good quality but not overly expensive, a hairbrush and mirror, tarnished with age.  Keepsakes no doubt from a departed loved one of Esmeralda’s.     

Victoria opened up the cover of the bible and several yellowing envelopes fell out.  She picked them up intending to place them back in the small chest, when her eyes spied the cursive script on the front of the second envelope, a script she would know anywhere…her husband’s script.  She sat still, in shocked silence, mind running at a hundred miles an hour or totally blank, unaware of the passing of the hour.

“Mother?” Nick called loudly, “Are you out here?”

Victoria mentally shook herself, composing her features as best she could before calling out to Nick in what she hoped sounded like a normal voice but to her sounded strained and confused. She hurriedly stuffed the envelopes back into the bible, gathered it, the two pictures and the bundles of clothes and turned to the back of the wagon, surprised to see that the sun had risen, and the dawn of a new day had begun.

“In here Nick.  I found the picture of Heath’s wife that Fred wanted and some clothes for Tommy and Heath.”

Nick stepped around the back of the wagon, getting his first good luck at its interior.  He had wondered how Heath and his wife managed to live and sleep in the same wagon as the twins.  “Interesting set up they’ve got here.” He said catching sight of his mother’s face.  “Are you alright Mother,” he asked worriedly.

“Yes fine, thank you Nick.  I was just sitting here thinking about Heath and his family.  We need to find that young woman and her daughter Nick.”  She handed him the daguerreotype of Esmeralda and quickly stuffed the second picture and the bible amongst the bundles of clothes.

Nick let out a long low whistle, “She sure is a stunner,” he remarked. 

“Yes, she is very beautiful.” Victoria replied absently.

*****

Chapter 7                            

“Oh, there you are Mother; I was wondering where you were when you didn’t join us for breakfast. And Nick was looking for you.” Audra stated as she descended the stairs.  “Is everything alright Mother,” she asked worriedly as Victoria seemed not to have heard her.

“Oh yes, sorry darling. I was a million miles away.  I saw Nick out by the wagons. I gave him a picture of Esmeralda that Fred wanted. And found some clothes for Tommy and Heath.” She indicated the bundles in her arms.

“I can take those Mother,” Audra offered reaching for the bundles. “While you go in and have breakfast.”  

“No, no its fine thank you Audra.” Victoria side stepped Audra’s reaching arms. “I’ll take them upstairs.  I want to check on Heath anyway.”

“Alright Mother,” Audra replied worried at her Mother’s slightly odd behaviour.  “Would it be alright if I took Tommy over to the corral to see the horses and the new foal?  Doctor Merar said it would be alright for him to go outside today.”    

“That’s fine darling, just don’t let Tommy get to near the horses or too tired.” Victoria smiled.

“We’ll be careful, I promise.”

Victoria nodded as she headed up the stairs.  She dropped Tommy’s clothes on the bed in the nursery and then hurried to her room, quietly closing, and then locking her door behind her.  She stood in the middle of her room, staring at the bundles of clothing she still held in her arms and what was concealed underneath them.  Stealing herself, she took a deep breath and withdrew the non-descript looking bible from under the clothes, staring at it and the secrets it held within.  Moving without thought, she took a seat on the day bed under her window and considered what her next decision was going to be. Hearing laughter down in the yard, she peered out her window watching as Audra led young Tommy over to the barn to visit the new foal and no doubt the litter of kittens one of the barn cats had given birth to a few weeks ago.  That should keep her daughter and the young boy occupied for at least an hour if she knew Audra.  She looked at the bible still in her hands and made a decision. As much as she wanted to read the letter that her husband had written to the unknown woman addressed in…Strawberry. Strawberry, there was a word, a name she hadn’t thought about in well over twenty years.  A mine, owned by Tom, his first mine in fact, in Strawberry. She remembered now, he had been gone for months, he said he had been injured, had amnesia from a severe blow to the head, had been looked after by a woman at the mining camp, until another knock to the head brought back his forgotten memories and he came home. But was all he had told a lie? Victoria closed her eyes and clasped the bible tighter in her hands.  She knew now that she had to see Heath first.  Not to talk to him, just to study his features, to convince herself that what she was, god forbid, thinking was just a misconception on her part.

Leaving the bible and bundle of clothes on the seat beside her, she stood and walked purposely across her room, unlocking the door, and stepping out into the deserted hallway.  Nick was leading the search party and wouldn’t be back until night fall at the latest, unless they found the missing girls; Audra was out in the barn with Tommy, so she estimated she had an hour there before the two of them returned.  That only left Jarrod of her four children still in the house and probably still in Heath’s room.  As she neared the guestroom door, she was surprised to hear voices.  Jarrod’s she recognised immediately, but the other was a soft southern drawl. Pain filled and slightly breathless.  Heath was awake which was gratifying but what was she to do now she wondered.  She really didn’t want to talk to him until she had had time to assimilate all her fears and the secrets held in the bible. Just as she was about to turn away from the room, the door opened, and Jarrod stepped out.

“Mother,” Jarrod greeted her with a warm smile, “Heath is awake.  I was just going to fetch Howard; perhaps you can convince Heath to take a dose of laudanum in my absence.” Jarrod kissed the top of her head as he passed before heading down the stairs to the dining room where he knew Howard was partaking of a late breakfast.

Victoria watched Jarrod disappear down the stairs before she drew in a deep breath, plastered what she hoped was a welcoming smile on her face and entered the guestroom. “Good morning Heath,” she said pleasantly.  “I’m Victoria Barkley and it is so very good to see you awake at last.  Tommy has been very worried about you.”

Blue eyes clouded with pain met grey. Victoria shuddered.  They were exactly as she remembered Tom’s to be. She staggered slightly at the enormity of what she was seeing.  “Mrs Barkley,” Heath tried to rise from the bed when he saw the diminutive silver haired woman stagger but the sudden flash of pain coursing through his body threw him back into the pillows supporting him, with a loud groan.        

Quickly regaining her composure, she hurried to the bed and rested a small hand on the blond’s chest, “Breathe slowly Heath, I’m fine, just tripped on the hem of my skirt.  I caught it on the edge of my door earlier and pulled some stitches out.   Howard, Doctor Merar should be here in a minute.  Jarrod went down to fetch him.  Will you take a dose of laudanum for me?” Victoria asked as she watched him struggle to get his breathing under control.       

Heath shook his head, “I’m fine, hate…that stuff…leaves me feeling out…of control.  Where’s Tommy?” Heath looked to where his son had been sleeping beside him.  “I thought he was here with me.”

Victoria smiled, “he slept here beside you all night.  I believe he had a very interesting one-way conversation with you too.  A conversation that my children are yet to inform me of, but one which left one child laughing, another speechless and the last promising to tell me later today.”

Heath nodded, “I remember hearing his voice and feeling his hand on me, but I can’t recall the words spoken.”

“Well then, perhaps Jarrod should enlighten both of us in that case.”

“Enlighten both of you about what?” Jarrod asked with a smile, entering the room with Howard Merar following behind.

“What Tommy’s conversation to his Papa was about?” 

“Oh that,” Jarrod laughed.  “Perhaps after Howard has finished examining Heath.”

Howard stepped around Jarrod and moved to the side of the bed, “Hello young man, I’m Howard Merar, your doctor.  Now how are you feeling?” Howard gently lifted the edge of the bandage, pleased to see no new bleeding or signs of infection.

“I’m fine, thanks Doc, when can I get up?”

“Oh, for the love of…” Victoria muttered as Jarrod laughed.

Howard shook his head, “As stubborn as any Barkley I’ve ever met.”

Heath stared wide-eyed at the Doctor, worry creeping into his eyes.  Did they know who he was?  He had to get out of here. Now.  “Where’s Tommy,” he demanded and the rest of my family.”  He pushed himself up off the pillows with a pained groan.  “Essie and Leah, I have to find them.  The men took them.” He gasped in pain but desperation to find his family lent strength to his body and he managed to make it to a sitting position on the bed.

“Heath, stop.” Jarrod ordered.  “Tommy is in the barn with my sister Audra.  She is showing him the new foal and litter of kittens.  She thought it would take his mind off what has happened and give him an hour or so of normalcy. My brother Nick, the Stockton sheriff Fred Madden, whom I believe you know, and all of our hands are out searching for your wife and daughter.  Your father-in-law is in the guestroom downstairs, but I’m sorry there is nothing more that Howard can do for him and Rosetta has passed on.  I’m sorry.”

Heath listened to Jarrod’s words, his face set in a grim mask. He showed no emotion as Jarrod spoke of Gyorgy and Rosetta, although his insides churned with grief.  He knew what Gyorgy was waiting for and he was bound and determined to at least bring some comfort to the old man who had treated him as a son, whom he treated as a father, comfort that his daughter and granddaughter were safe. Heath drew in a deep pained breath, “I thank you for all your help Jarrod and I want to ask one more favour of you.  Will you look after Tommy for me until I return with Essie and Leah?  I have to find them, my wife, my daughter, Tommy’s Mama, and sister. I owe it to Gyorgy to find his daughter and granddaughter, so that he can rest in peace, with Rosetta.”

“You know you don’t have to ask that of us Heath, of course we will look after Tommy, as friends and neighbours do but it is too soon.  You are in no condition to stand up let alone get on a horse and search the countryside for your family.  Please Heath, think of what this will do to Tommy if you leave now.  He has only just got you back from the grave.  Don’t make him or us put you back in one. Howard, Mother,” Jarrod implored.

Howard nodded, “Jarrod is right son, I understand how worried you must be about your wife and daughter but killing yourself in the process of finding them will not help anyone, least of all your remaining family.”

“I thank you both for your concern, but the decision is mine and I’m going, and you can’t stop me that’s all there is to say.  I need to speak with Tommy.  Can you bring him here to me please Jarrod?”     

Victoria stood at the end of the bed, listening to the argument between Jarrod, Howard and Heath, her heart pounding loudly in her chest, as first Howard’s words and then the flash of worry in Heath’s emotive blue eyes, at those same words, the set of his jaw, the stubborn determination of a mind decided, reminded her of…  She was transported back in time, to a time when another young blue-eyed blond had sat on his bed, telling her that he was going to Strawberry to invest in a mine, to invest in something he knew nothing about, despite her objections that it was too soon after…after the loss of their third child. A child that came into the world too soon.    Victoria thought of Esmeralda with child, somewhere out there, with those men, alone but for her five and half year-old daughter.  Would her child come too soon, brought forth from the trauma of its mother’s kidnapping and treatment, would it survive or would it succumb.  Would its loss push its father into the arms of another as their loss had pushed her Tom away?  Pushed him to seek solace in another. To produce another son and heir.  “Heath,” Victoria waited until she had not only Heath’s attention but also that of Jarrod and Howard. She sighed, her next words would not be popular with everyone in the room, but she felt they were the right words, she prayed they were the right words. She just wasn’t sure for whom.              

*****

“Papa, Papa, you’re awake,” Tommy shouted as he spied his father sitting up in bed through the open door. “Are your hurts all better Papa?” he asked as Jarrod lifted him to sit next to Heath on the bed.

“They’re feeling much better now.” Heath smiled at his son, giving him a one-armed hug.  “And what about you Tomašis, how is your arm?”  He looked up at the three people, his sister and older brother and the doctor standing around the bed watching the reunion with warm smiles on their faces.  “I want to thank you for taking such good care of Tomašis for me.  I can’t tell you how much it means to me that he is safe.”

“Are you going to find Mama and Leah now Papa?” Tommy pleaded. “I saw Charger in the barn when Miss Audra took me to see the new foal and the kittens Papa.”

Heath looked down at his son, remembering the words that Victoria Barkley had spoken only a few minutes ago…

“Heath, as much as I agree with Howard and Jarrod, that you are in no fit state to leave this bed and go searching for Esmeralda and Leah, I also understand your need to find them.  You are correct, the decision is yours to make, and we cannot forcibly stop you. But…”

“Mother.”

“Victoria”

Victoria held up her hand and waited for silence from Jarrod and Howard.  She looked at Heath who was staring at her with narrowed eyes and a slight tilt to the head.  As if…as if he were trying to read her thoughts, to discern what she knew of him. God forbid, she had never before allowed an injured man, whether it be one of her sons, one of the hands or a visitor to leave until they were fully recovered. And yet here she was agreeing with Heath that he should leave and find his family the day after nearly dying from his injuries. “You don’t know where to start looking.  By the time you reach the camp site it will be dark, and I don’t believe even you can follow tracks in the dark.”          

Jarrod sighed in relief, for a minute there he had thought…

“So may I suggest you stay here until the morning?”

Jarrod stared dumbfounded at his Mother.  “You can’t be serious Mother.”

Victoria continued, ignoring Jarrod’s interruption. “Nick will be back tonight, and you never know he may have found Esmeralda and Leah.  And if not, he will be able to tell you where they have already searched.”

“I can’t believe I am hearing this from you Victoria.” Howard responded sharply.

Victoria ignored Howard.  She had to finish what she had started, there was only one person she had to answer to and that was herself. “It will also give you some extra time to regain some more of your strength and spend some important hours with your son.” Victoria turned and left the room not waiting for a response or the recriminations she felt sure that both her son and Howard were about to voice.…before replying to his son. “Not today Tomašis…”

“But Papa,” Tommy’s blue eyes welled with tears, “the bad men have them. I want Mama and Leah back.  I miss them.”

“I miss them too Tomašis, but I can’t leave today, son, it will be dark by the time I reach our camp and I can’t track them in the dark. I promise that if they don’t come back with Nick tonight I’ll go and find them in the morning.”         

Not aware of what had transpired in the room a few minutes before their arrival a dismayed Audra started to protest, “Heath you can’t…”

“Mother has already given Heath her blessing to leave in the morning if Nick doesn’t bring them back tonight sweetheart.” Jarrod interrupted, squeezing Audra’s arm.

“What, she can’t have, that’s not possible.”

“Come on Audra, lets allow Howard to examine Heath and Tommy” Jarrod said as he gently guided his sister to the door. 

*****

Victoria stepped out of the guestroom and hurried back to her room, closing the door behind her, just as she heard Tommy’s excited voice in the hallway.  Dear lord, she thought, what had she done? What had Tom done?  Almost of their own volition, her feet carried her across the room to the daybed, the bundles of clothes and the bible.  Heath’s bible.  She sat down heavily and pulled her feet up, curling her legs to the side.  With a shaky hand, she picked up the bible and opened the cover, taking out the two yellowed envelopes.  She closed her eyes.  It had gone too far now; she had gone too far.  Why had she agreed that Heath could leave tomorrow morning and continue the search?  Whatever was in those envelopes, the dice had been cast. Was it really because he said he was going and they didn’t have the right to stop him, or was it because she wanted him gone?  Because she wanted to ignore the truth held in her hands.   

Victoria picked up the envelope bearing her husband’s script, turning it over she   carefully eased the unsealed flap out of the envelope.  With shaking fingers, she removed the single page letter from within and opened it.  The first thing she noticed was the bent corners, worn crease marks where it was folded and the smudge marks on the faded paper that indicated it had been read and folded many times over the years.  Next, she looked at the date 12th August 1849.

12th August 1849

My Dearest Leah,

I just wanted to let you know that I arrived home safely. And to also thank you once again for your benevolence in my hour of need. I realize the risk you took, caring for me all those months in your home. I hope and pray that the gossip that abounded with my presence has come to an end with my leaving. 

Please know that I do not regret the months that we spent together but my heart and my life belong here with my loving wife Victoria and my two sons Jarrod and Nicholas.

I wish you well in your life and I truly hope that you will find the man of your dreams, but I sadly cannot be that man.

You will always hold a special place in my heart.

Thomas Barkley, Esq

 

She remembered, it was a sweltering August when he finally came home but despite the blazing days, he was unaccustomedly pale and withdrawn those first weeks.  And now she understood why.  He had never admitted to her that there had been anything more to the relationship with this Leah…Leah, Heath’s daughter’s name, her Grandmother’s name…than…than gratefulness for the kindness she had extended him during his convalescence. Gripping his letter tightly she closed her eyes and laid her head against the back of the day bed.  “Oh Tom, what did you do?”       

A thought struck her, and she quickly scanned the letter again, a relieved sigh leaving her pursed lips.  It wasn’t there…no mention of his unborn child…perhaps…but no…didn’t he state that he had…no regrets for the time they had spent together. “Damn you Tom.” Victoria cursed uncharacteristically.  Dropping the letter in her lap that she now realized only answered half of her questions; she picked up the second letter, addressed to her husband in a neat feminine script and…she gasped there was no postmark on it.  A stamp, but nothing to show it had ever been sent.  She picked up Tom’s letter again; stamp and postmark proclaiming it had been sent from Stockton on the 12th of August, the same day he had written the letter.   

Turning the second envelope over she just as carefully as with the first, eased the seal flap out of the envelope where it had been pushed in and withdrew the letter within. She was surprised at the quality of the paper and neatness of the script indicating that this woman, this Leah was more than just a mining camp working girl. Victoria drew in a sharp breath, the date 12th August 1849.

12th August 1849

My Dearest Thomas

I have already missed today’s mail run so I apologise that this letter will have to wait another week before posting.

I’m not sure how to tell you this. Indeed, I suspected but wasn’t certain before you left but I can no longer deny myself or you the truth of the matter.  I am with child Thomas, your child. Approximately three months along now.  You know my story, one that my dear friend Rachel Caulfield also confirmed, so you know I had not been with another man for two years before you.

I am so happy Thomas; you have left a piece of yourself with me to cherish forever.  I understand, even though it was so terribly hard for me to give you up, that your life belongs with your wife and children and I expect nothing of you from our time together. But I promise you, this son or daughter of yours will be brought up in a home of love and compassion.

I realize that life here will be harder than it already is, the gossips are already at it again, as I’m sure that some of the ‘good; god fearing ladies’ of the camp suspect that I am carrying your child. 

I will understand if you do not respond to this letter and I will honour your unspoken wish that you do not want our child to know who his or her father is.  It is a promise that I will take to my grave.  This I pledge to you.

Be happy in your life Thomas Barkley, enjoy and treasure your family as I will treasure mine.

Sincerely and with love always

Leah Sawyer

 

Tom didn’t know.

*****

Nick called a halt to the search. ‘This is hopeless,” he growled, sloshing water over his head and neck before taking a long drink.  “We need a tracker up here if we are going to find them.  Fred, do you know of any trackers capable of tracking up here?  It’s so damn rocky…”

Fred sighed, “I’m afraid I do Nick,”

“Then why the hell didn’t you send for him?” Nick demanded.  “You knew where the trail ended yesterday. Dammit Fred we need to find those girls and quickly.”

“Because Nick, the best tracker in this state is lying in a bed in your guestroom, in no condition to be of any help to us or his family.” Fred retorted.  “Now it’s getting late, we either make camp here for the night or we return to the ranch.  The choice is yours.”

Nick looked at the men around him, “Well, I for one am staying right here.  Anyone who wants to go back to the ranch can.  None of you signed on to be a posse, and your decision will not be held against you.” Nick waited till the murmuring amongst the men stopped.

“Well Nick,” Clem started, “None of us here cotton on to a young mother and her daughter been kidnapped and sold across the border.  If’n it was my wife and child I reckon I’d be mighty grateful to anyone who put up their hand to help search for them.  We don’t know this family from a brass razoo, but we’ve all heard enough about them, about how that little boy found his Papa and Grandparents, how he was hurt himself but still went for help. They might be gypsies but…”

“They’re not gypsies, well at least not all of them.” Nick replied realizing that he hadn’t identified who Heath was.  “Just so you all know whose family you’re looking for, the father and the one that gave me this,” Nick pointed ruefully at his black eye, “is Heath Thomson, Marshall Frank Sawyer’s deputy out of Spanish Camp. I reckon a few of you have heard of him and his exploits.”   

Following a number of oaths, explicatives and nods from the men Clem spoke again. “None of us are leaving Nick.  That boy did a lot of good over the years for this state.  Now it’s our turn to return the favour.”

Nick smiled, “thank you men.  Let’s make camp.  Riley, can you head back to the ranch and let my brother know we’re staying here.  Stay there tonight yourself, then come back in the morning.  Maybe with some news on how Heath and the old man are doing.” 

“Sure thing Boss.  See you in the morning boys.” Riley called as he rode away.

“You know Nick,” Fred moved up beside Nick and watched the camp being set up, “I sure hope that little lady keeps quite about who her husband is.  If these fellas find out they kidnapped Thomson’s wife and child they may just kill them and run for the border.”

Nick nodded, “I was thinking the same thing.”  He ran his hand across his face, “All the more reason to stay out here and not keep backtracking.”

*****

Esmeralda leaned back against the cooling rock, the blanket draped over her shoulders and wrapped around Leah to ward off the coming night chill, crooning a lullaby to the sleeping child.  With the song finished and her daughter sleeping peacefully in her arms, she turned her thoughts to Heath, her son Tomašis and her Papa. She and Leah had already shed tears for her Mama, knowing that they would never see the older woman again, but what of the three most important men in their life? Were they all gone? In the moments before she was grabbed, she had seen the seriousness of her Papa’s wound and knew then that he would not survive. But what of Heath? Was he dead, still lying out on the range, waiting to be found or was he only wounded and even now searching for them? And Tommy?  She suddenly realized that Leah had not said anything about Tommy.

This was their second night in the camp, and she realized the longer they stayed here the better their chances of being rescued.  Esmeralda closed her eyes, “Please hurry Heath, Leah and I need you.”

*****

Chapter 8

Victoria blinked back tears as she re-read Leah’s un-posted letter to Tom.  A letter that confirmed her suspicions. A letter from a compassionate, loving woman who had the best of intentions. A letter that hid the birth of a son from his father. What would Tom have done had he known?  What would she have done? What was she to do now? What had she already done? Had she, with her earlier words, by agreeing with Heath, condemned her husband’s son, her children’s half-brother, to an early grave? Was that what she was secretly hoping for? That by allowing him to leave tomorrow to search for his wife and daughter, that his weakened body would not be able to cope with the added strain and finish the job the bullet had started? Was she that callous a woman to allow Heath to die to keep Leah’s secret? But then, was it a secret? Obviously, Heath knew and…and Gyorgy knew.  That cunning old fox.  Gyorgy knew what she would find in that trunk when he sent her to look for the picture of Esmeralda.  He told her, without telling her, who Heath was because…why? because Heath was planning to keep his Mother’s secret… I will understand if you do not respond to this letter and I will honour your unspoken wish that you do not want our child to know who his or her father is.  It is a promise that I will take to my grave.  This I pledge to you….to take her secret to his grave.

Victoria rose from the seat, surprised when she looked out the window to realize that the sun had already, reached and passed the zenith and was heading towards early afternoon. With determination she walked across her room.  First, she needed to speak to Gyorgy, if he were indeed conscious, to learn what Heath’s intentions regarding her family were.  Then she needed to confront Heath, tell him what she had done, ask those same questions of him as Gyorgy and try to stop him from leaving tomorrow, although she suspected, as Howard had said, ‘he was more stubborn than any other Barkley he had ever met,’ he would not be swayed from his decision. And then…then she had to tell her children. And somewhere in all of that she had to decide how she felt about the situation. 

 Victoria stepped out of her room and almost ran into Audra who was holding Tommy’s hand.

“Mother are you alright? I was worried about you.  I knocked on your door earlier to see if you wanted lunch but there was no reply.”

“Yes darling, I’m fine.  I’m sorry I didn’t hear you knock; I was napping.  It was a long day yesterday and I must have been more tired than I thought.” Victoria smiled reassuringly at her daughter before bending down to speak to Tommy. “And how are you Tommy, did you have a nice talk with your Papa?”

“Papa’s sleeping now.  He needs to rest so he can go and find Mama and Leah tomorrow.  He wouldn’t let me go with him,” Tommy explained sadly, “But he promised to bring them back tomorrow and Papa always keeps his promises.”  Tommy bit his lip, “Papa will be alright, won’t he Mrs Victoria?”

Victoria looked at Audra who with one raised eyebrow asked, “now what are you going to tell him?” Victoria pulled Tommy into a hug, “I hope he will be alright Tommy, but that is another promise I can’t make.  Your Papa is strong and his love for you and your Mama and sister is strong.  You have to believe that that strength will bring him back to us safe and sound along with your Mama and Leah.”

Tommy thought on Victoria’s words for a moment and then smiled.  “Papa’s the strongest man I know. He’ll come back.  Thank you, Mrs. Victoria.” Tommy pulled on Audra’s hand, “Come on Miss Audra, you promised to show me how to play Chinese Checkers.”

Victoria watched as Audra and…her nephew Tommy…and…and her…grandson, disappeared from sight into the nursery. My God, Victoria staggered back against the hallway wall, Tommy, Tomašis and Leah were her and Tom’s first grandchildren and she realized with a shock that Tomašis Gyorgy and Leah Rosetta were named after their Grandparents…And Heath Thomson, had been named by his Mother, after his Father.

Drawing in several calming breaths Victoria descended the sweeping staircase to the lower floor, where she ran into Jarrod coming out of his study.  He raised an eyebrow at her, “Is everything alright Mother?” he queried although Victoria could tell he wanted very much to cross examine her after her earlier behaviour in Heath’s room.                   

“Everything is fine thank you, darling,” she laid her hand on his arm. “I know you have questions Jarrod, and I will explain everything to you tonight but first I need to speak to Gyorgy.” Victoria suddenly realized she didn’t even know if he was still alive.    

“He is still holding on.” Jarrod answered her unasked question.

Victoria nodded, “And then I need to speak with Heath, privately, when he wakes up. After that and when your brother returns, I will explain to you and Nick and Audra.”

Before Victoria could say anything else, there was a knock at the door.

“I’ll get the door Mother, while you go in and see Gyorgy.”  Jarrod replied as he strode across the foyer.

*****

Jarrod opened the heavy oak front door to see a man he had never met before standing before him with a pair of saddlebags hanging over one arm.  “Yes, can I help you?”

“Good afternoon, I hope so.  I’m looking for Jarrod Barkley.”

“I’m Jarrod Barkley,” he replied hoping the man wasn’t looking to retain his services or wanting a job.  Right now, he didn’t need any other distractions than what was already happening.

“I’m Frank Sawyer, Mister Barkley, you sent me a telegram yesterday morning.  Is Heath here? Has he found Essie and Leah?”

“Marshal Sawyer, please come in.  I wasn’t expecting you to come here.  You must have ridden all night.” Jarrod said with some surprise as he moved aside to allow Sawyer entry to the house.

“I left as soon as I received your telegram, although I wasn’t in Spanish Camp. Douglas, the telegrapher forwarded it on to me in Sonora.  I had just dropped off a prisoner to the sheriff there.  And yes, I did ride all night, save a few stops to rest my horse.  Now what can you tell me.  Have they found the girls yet?”

Jarrod led the way into the parlour, calling out to Silas as he passed the small alcove to the kitchen door.  “Please have a seat Marshal Sawyer, and I’ll tell you everything I know so far.”

“It’s Frank, Mister Barkley.”

Jarrod nodded, “and I’m Jarrod.”

“Yes, Mister Jarrod,” Silas asked coming into the room.

“Silas this is Marshal Frank Sawyer, he is a friend of Heath’s.  He has ridden all night.  Could you please make him a couple of those roast beef sandwiches and bring in some coffee?  In fact, I wouldn’t mind a sandwich myself.”

“Coming right up Mister Jarrod and then do you want me to prepare another guestroom for Marshal Sawyer. The room next to Mister Nick is free.”

“Yes, please Silas, oh and have Ciego come and look after Frank’s horse, too, please.”

“There’s no need for that Jarrod, I can stay in the bunkhouse, or under the stars for that matter.”

“Frank, let me give you a piece of advice. In this house, guests stay in the guestrooms and guests certainly don’t argue with my Mother, nor do I.  She would have my head if I didn’t arrange a room for you.”

“Well, I thank you for the hospitality.  Now what can you tell me about Heath’s family and where is Heath?”

Jarrod sighed, “You know the family well?”

“Very.” Frank eyed Jarrod, “I have been a lawman, long before you even thought of becoming a lawyer Jarrod and I know when someone is hedging around the truth.”

Silas silently entered the parlour with a tray of sandwiches and two mugs of coffee, cream, and sugar.  He placed the tray on the table and then left.

“Touché,” Jarrod took a sip of his coffee.  “Heath is upstairs sleeping.  He was shot in the chest yesterday morning when he tried to rescue Esmeralda and Leah. He will recover.  They are still missing; my brother Nick, Sheriff Fred Madden and most of our hands are out searching for them.  Gyorgy was shot in the stomach, Howard, Doctor Merar has done all he can for him but there is nothing that will save him, and Rosetta is dead.  Howard believes she died of a heart attack. Tommy, Tomašis is upstairs with my sister Audra, he has a broken arm from when the men ran him down but other than that he is fine.” Jarrod waited.

Frank sat in silence, elbows resting on his knees and his chin resting on his fisted hands, all thoughts of the beef sandwiches forgotten as he digested what Jarrod had just revealed to him.  “I’ve met Fred Madden before, he’s a good lawman. How bad is Heath hurt? Do you know who did this.”

“The bullet entered high in his chest, broke the collar bone and tore up the muscle.  He had a fever last night but that has cleared.” Jarrod looked across at Frank.  “He is riding out in the morning, against our wishes to search for Leah and Esmeralda.”

Frank nodded, “Of course he is. Once that boy makes up his mind to do something nothing short of death will stop him.” Frank turned a stony glare on Jarrod, “And I’ll be riding beside him.”       

“And so will I.” Jarrod responded to a surprised Frank.

Frank ran his hand through his short, cropped hair.  “Do you think I could look in on the boy and Gyorgy?”

Jarrod studied the older man’s haggard face, realizing that his telegram had given very little information and the man must have been worried sick not knowing what was happening.  And it was obvious from his sudden appearance that he cared very much for the young family and the grandparents.  “Of course.  As I said Heath was sleeping when I came down, Howard checked his wound this morning and pronounced it was healing satisfactorily and he will be back again tonight.  Mother is in with Gyorgy at the moment.  She wanted to discuss something with him, perhaps funeral arrangements for Rosetta.  We took the liberty of arranging for a casket to be sent out for Rosetta and one will also be arranged for Gyorgy when the time comes.”

“Let’s start with that fool boy,” Frank muttered, picking up his saddlebags that he had dropped at his feet.  “I’d like to know how he managed to get his-self shot, again.” 

Jarrod raised an eyebrow, “again?”

Frank sighed, “It isn’t the first time, this is just the last in a long line, but at least it doesn’t sound as serious as two years ago in Spanish Camp.”

Jarrod nodded remembering the words Fred had spoken last night when he confirmed Heath’s identity as they made their way up the staircase, stopping in front of the guestroom door. “Fred said something about a bank holdup in Spanish Camp and Heath being shot then and that he quit as your deputy after it.”

Frank stared at the closed door, “It was touch and go for nigh on a week.  The doc couldn’t give us any assurances, it was all up to the boy in there,” Frank inclined his head to the closed door, “And his love for his wife and children, as to whether he’d pull through or not.  I credit his strength of will and Essie for that boy’s life.  She didn’t leave his side once that week.  Gyorgy and Rosetta took on the care of the young ones they were only three at the time. Knew that their Papa was bad hurt but didn’t understand that he was dying.  It was a great relief when he pulled through and opened those blue eyes of his, I can tell you.”

Jarrod didn’t respond, there wasn’t much he could say.  He carefully pushed the door open not wanting to wake the blond if he was still asleep, which he thankfully still was.  As much as Frank needed to speak to Heath, Heath needed all the sleep and quality rest he could get if he was going after his family in the morning.  Which given Frank’s assertion was a done deal. 

Frank peered into the room over Jarrod’s shoulder, sighing in relief, despite the pristine white bandage wrapped around Heath’s shoulder and chest that the boy was alright. “I’ll come back later and talk to him. Do you think you could show me where Gyorgy is?”

“Of course, but first why don’t you put those,” Jarrod nodded to the saddlebags in Frank’s hand, “in here,” he opened the door across the hall, “Then I’ll take you down to see Gyorgy.”

*****

Victoria didn’t wait to see who was at the door.  She had too much on her mind to spend time exchanging pleasantries with anybody at the moment.  She pushed the guestroom door open and quietly entered, closing the door softly behind her.  As she approached the bed, she could hear Gyorgy’s stilted, harsh breathing.  She marvelled at his will power to hang on for news of his daughter and grandchild.  As confused, angry, desperate for answers as she was, she wouldn’t put him under any undue stress by waking him and demanding those same answers. Picking up and rinsing the washcloth in the basin of water on the table beside the bed, she gently wiped the sweat from the old man’s face.

Gyorgy’s breath hitched, and his dark eyes blinked several times, trying to focus on the person attending him.  He knew who it would be, by the gentle touch and despite the growing confusion in his mind, he knew what she was here for. “A…any…word…”

“Not yet Gyorgy, I’m sorry.” Victoria replied, lifting the old man’s head, and offering a sip of water. “My son Nick, the sheriff and our hands are still out looking for them.  As soon as I hear anything I promise I’ll let you know.”

Gyorgy allowed a long slow sigh to pass his lips.  “Thank you…for…looking after…my…family…Mrs Barkley.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow.  Was this the opening she was looking for? “Don’t you mean, OUR family Gyorgy? You knew what I’d find when I searched for that picture, didn’t you?” Victoria asked without any vehemence to her voice.

Gyorgy studied the small silver haired woman from under pain filled, cloudy eyes. “For…forgive me…but…my…Essie…her fears,” his hand moved feebly to his stomach, “she…feared this…that someday…we…she and…Heath…would be gone…and the…children…”

“Would be left alone without any family.” Victoria finished for him.

“Yes…she…she and Heath…fought over…the secret…the promise…after his fight…with your son. My Essie, she has…a temper,” Gyorgy smiled sadly. “She wanted Heath…to tell you…who he was…but…”

“He made a promise to his dying Mother that he would honour her pledge.”

“So…did Essie…but I know…she has always…regretted it.” Gyorgy swallowed and then coughed. “I’m sorry…for the shock…I…caused you…by finding…the pictures…and…bible…but…it…was…the…only…way…that…I…could…tell you…without…breaking…Heath’s promise…to his…Mama.”

Gyorgy fell silent and Victoria sighed.  “He was going to live beside us as neighbours and never tell us who he was.”

“He is young…what can I tell you?” Gyorgy spoke without opening his eyes. “Tell him…I told you…where to look…he can…take his anger out…on a dead old man…it will not…hurt me.”

Before Victoria could respond there was a soft knock at the door.  Getting up, she squeezed Gyorgy’s hand, “Rest now, god willing, we will talk again later,” before moving across the room and opening the door.  “Jarrod,” Victoria queried closing the door behind her.  She looked at the man standing behind Jarrod and raised an eyebrow.  She really didn’t want to entertain now.

“Mother, I’d like you to meet Heath’s friend, Marshal Frank Sawyer, from Spanish Camp.”

Victoria’s eyes widened.  “Marshal Sawyer, I wish I could say it is a pleasure to meet you but under the circumstances.”

Frank smiled at the diminutive woman.  “I understand completely Mrs Barkley; I would prefer to not be here in these circumstances too.  I was hoping I could look in on Gyorgy for a few minutes.”       

“Yes of course Marshal.  He is very weak; he’s only holding on for word of Esmeralda and Leah.  While you are speaking with Gyorgy I will organize a guestroom for you.  I expect you will want to stay until the girls are found.”

“Already sorted Mother; I have put him in the room next to Nick’s.” Jarrod replied before turning to Frank.  “When you have finished speaking to Gyorgy, come to my study,” Jarrod indicated the second door on the right.”

“Well then, in that case I will see if Silas needs any help with dinner.  If you gentleman will excuse me.”

*****

Frank stopped inside the door and swallowed hard.  He could see Gyorgy lying in the bed to the right, but it was to the sealed casket resting on the second bed in the far corner that drew his attention.  He walked slowly over to the corner and placed his hand on the lid.  “Oh, Rosetta I am so sorry.” Frank dropped his head, “but I promise you we will get Essie and Leah back, safe and sound.”

“Fr…ank?” Gyorgy asked in a strained voice.

“Hello old friend,” Frank replied, walking over to the bed, and grasping the feeble hand.  “I hear you had a bit of trouble.”

Gyorgy stifled a laugh, “just…a bit,” he groaned, “My Rosie…”

Frank squeezed the old man’s hand, “I know Gyorgy and I can’t tell you how sorry I am, but I hear you will be seeing her again soon.”

“I’m not…afraid of…dying, Frank. But…I can’t leave…until I know…that Essie and…Leah are safe.  My Rosie…she would…kill me again…if I did not…bring her good…news.”

Frank laughed, “I just bet she would Gyorgy.  Rosetta sure did have a temper on her when she was riled.”

“Heath?”

“They say he is doing alright Gyorgy.  He and I and Jarrod Barkley will be heading out in the morning to join the search.”   

“But he…is not…” Gyorgy started.

“Hell, you know that boy, stubborn as all get out.  If he says he’s going after Essie and Leah in the morning, then that’s what he’s doing.”  Frank caught Gyorgy’s eye.  “Don’t worry Gyorgy; I’ll make damn sure he comes home in one piece and with the girls.” 

Gyorgy nodded his head in understanding.  “She knows, Mrs Barkley.  I…told her wh…where to…find the picture…of Essie.”

Frank sighed, “It is probably for the best.  It’s about time Heath gave up that silly promise.  I’ve tried to convince him time and time again.  Every time he got injured in fact.”

“Boy…is stubborn,” Gyorgy closed his eyes and slipped back into sleep.

“Rest easy old friend.” Frank whispered before leaving the room.                         

*****

Jarrod, Victoria, and Frank had just sat down to dinner, Audra having chosen to have her dinner in the nursery with Tommy when there was a knock at the front door. Jarrod was about to rise when Silas called out that he would see who it was. A moment later he was back.  “It’s Mister Riley, one of the hands, he has a message from Mister Nick.”

Dinner was quickly forgotten as they all rose from their chairs and hurried to the foyer.

“Riley, did you find them?” Jarrod asked of the man standing nervously on the step by the door.

Riley hastily pulled his hat off his head when he saw Victoria standing with Jarrod and another man he hadn’t seen before. “No sir, Nick said to tell you that they are camping out tonight and will start searching again in the morning.  I’m to ride back out to re-join them in the morning.”

“Good.  In that case Heath and I will join you.” Frank announced.

“Ah, yes sir.” Riley replied sceptically.

“It’s alright Riley,” Jarrod said “This is Marshal Frank Sawyer.  He, Heath and I will all be going with you in the morning.”

“Yes sir.  I’ll make sure your horses are ready.”

“Riley,” Frank stopped the hand as he turned away.  “Do you know where Heath’s stallion is by any chance?”

“Yes Marshal, he’s in the barn.  Phil brought him back yesterday.” 

Frank acknowledged the answer with a nod of his head. “We’ll be ready to ride at seven, is that alright with you Jarrod.”

“That’s fine Frank.” Jarrod turned to Riley. “We’ll see you in the morning thanks Riley.”

“Yes sir,” Riley replied, releasing a deep breath as he closed the door behind him and headed across the yard to the bunkhouse.

“Well, I think dinner and an early night is in order gentleman, especially as neither of you got much sleep last night.” Victoria led the way back into the dining room, all thoughts of her promise to speak with Jarrod forgotten for the moment.

*****

Chapter 9

With the lamp turned down low, and eyes shut, Frank lent back in the armchair beside the open window in Heath’s room.  As much as his body demanded sleep, he knew he couldn’t give into its demands until the blond woke up and he saw and heard with his own eyes and ears that the boy was going to be alright.    Frank thought on all that he had heard since his arrival on the ranch.  What a mess; he sighed sadly. Rosetta gone, Gyorgy soon to follow; the boy lying in the bed beside him; Tommy down the hall and Essie and Leah still missing and…Gyorgy’s revelation to Victoria Barkley.  He hadn’t had a chance to speak to Victoria, discern her thoughts or what her actions might be regarding Heath’s identity.  He couldn’t fault Gyorgy his actions in the circumstances and technically nobody had broken their promise to Leah.  Victoria had discovered the truth accidentally while searching for a picture of Essie so that the searchers knew who they were looking for.  Well, that was what he would tell Heath when the time came, whenever that time would be.  And who was going to tell him? Certainly not Gyorgy; himself? If he had too. No, some how he felt it would be Victoria Barkley who would reveal the truth to Heath.         

Heath slowly opened his eyes and cursed the doctor when he realized that there had been more than pain relief in the cup that he had been forced to drink after the doctor had changed the bandages on his chest and shoulder. A deep chuckle from the chair beside the window caused Heath to blink in confusion and look towards the darkening window and the figure sitting in the chair. “Frank?”

“Hello son, how are you feeling?” Frank rose from the chair and moved across to the bed, turning up the wick slightly on the lamp, allowing a warm glow to illuminate the small room.

“I’m fine.  What are you doing here? In fact, how did you know to come?” Heath asked, staring at his old boss and friend as if he were seeing a ghost.

“Jarrod wired me as soon as he heard what had happened.  I was in Sonora.   Douglas forwarded the message on,” Frank shrugged; “and here I am. Of course, I can leave if you want me too.”

Heath shook his head, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m going after Essie and Leah in the morning and I’m kinda hoping you’ll come with me?”

Frank nodded, “That was the plan boy, and Jarrod is riding with us too.”

Heath looked at Frank in surprise, “Jarrod?”

“Yes, why are you so surprised?” Frank questioned.

“He’s a lawyer.”

“He’s also a rancher and very concerned about you and your family, and right now Heath, I think you and Tommy could use all the family you’ve got.”

Heath glared, “I told you before Frank, I’m not discussing that with you and don’t you say anything to any of them.”

“Calm down boy,” Frank warned, “I won’t say anything, but I think you’re a damn fool and remember who it is out there searching for Essie and Leah…your brother and who’s looking after Tommy…your sister. Don’t you think they’d want to know they’re searching for or helping family?”

Heath looked away from Frank, trying to relax his clenched jaw, “I can’t Frank; I promised Mama.  I ain’t got much but I do have integrity. I’m not breaking my promise to Mama, no matter how much…” Heath stopped speaking.

Frank sighed, “Stubborn fool,” he muttered.

“I heard that.” Heath groaned, trying to push himself higher up on the pillows.

“When are you going to learn to ask for help boy,” Frank grumbled, easing Heath forward and stuffing a couple of extra pillows behind him.

Heath sighed, “Thanks, Frank.  It’s good to see you.”

“And you boy, although I’d prefer to be doing it somewhere else than here.” Frank nodded towards the bed.  “What can you tell me about the men who did this?”

“Not much,” Heath spat, “I was on my way back from Stockton after signing the deeds for the ranch.  Heard a gunshot; knew it wasn’t the rifle or Gyorgy’s old blunderbuss he keeps under the seat.  By the time I got there…” Heath closed his eyes and his jaw muscles tightened. “By the time I got there, I could see Rosetta and Gyorgy lying on the ground.  Leah was being held by a man on a grey horse and Essie had just been pushed onto the other horse.  The rider was in the saddle before I could get off a shot and then with Essie sitting in front of him, I couldn’t shoot. Didn’t stop him from shooting me though.” Heath replied bitterly. “I didn’t see their faces they were in the shadows of the trees.  The one with Leah, was tall and wiry, the one who shot me was a bit shorter and heavier but not overweight; more solid. One horse was grey and the other was chestnut.  That’s about all I can tell you now.  If I see them, I reckon I could identify them by the way they sit their saddles though.”

Frank nodded; he had suspected that was what Heath would say.  Still, it was a start.  “Silas said to let him know when you were awake, and he’d bring you up some broth and bread. If you promise not to move, I’ll go and organize your dinner and be right back.”

Heath shook his head. “Don’t bother Frank, I’m not hungry.”

“Hungry or not, if you think for one minute, I’m going to let you ride out of here in the morning on an empty stomach think again.  You’ll eat and you’ll be mighty grateful about it.  Do you hear me?” Frank demanded as he glared at his hardheaded ex-deputy.

Heath sighed dramatically, “Boy howdy Frank, you haven’t changed a bit.  Still too bossy.”

“Yes, well that’s because some people I know just can’t follow doctor’s orders.” Frank glared pointedly at Heath then raised an eyebrow in question.

“Fine, I’ll eat.”

*****

Frank quietly closed the door to Heath’s room.  They had made small talk while Heath ate the bowl of broth, freshly baked bread, and cheese that Silas had brought up, chuckling softly as he remembered the boy’s surprised look when he had cleaned up the bowl and the plate’s contents. “Boy howdy, I must have been hungrier than I thought.” Now the boy was asleep, and it was time he headed to his own bed.  A fleeting movement and soft swish of material caught his attention and he looked over the sweeping staircases polished oak bannister, spying a soft glow coming from the parlour where he had first spoken with Jarrod.  Curious, he treaded lightly down the stairs, years of training teaching him how to move silently, and across the large entrance foyer. He stood under the open arch to the parlour, watching as Victoria Barkley absently dusted around the mantel piece and its knick knacks above the fireplace. 

“A penny for your thoughts, Mrs Barkley?” Frank offered softly.

Startled by the soft words, Victoria turned to look at her guest with a gasp. “Marshall Sawyer,” Victoria acknowledged.

“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to scare you.” Frank hurried across the room.  “I heard a noise and saw the light on down here.”

“No that’s alright Marshal; I just didn’t expect anyone to be up at this hour.” Victoria replied regaining her composure.

“The name’s Frank, Mrs Barkley.  Do you usually dust at this hour of the night?” 

Victoria looked down at her hand and the dust cloth she was holding and sighed. “No not usually Mar…Frank.  I guess I was lost in thought, idle hands…and please call me Victoria.”

Frank studied the woman as she took a seat on the settee beside the fireplace.  “Would those lost thoughts have anything to do with a certain picture and bible you found?”

Victoria’s grey eyes studied the grey eyes staring back at her. “You know…of course you know…who Heath’s Father is…and his Mother.”

Frank raised a quizzical eyebrow, not sure if that was a statement or a question. “I know of them, but never met either one if that’s what you mean.”

This time Victoria raised an eyebrow in disbelief as Frank sighed and took a seat opposite her.  “But Leah is a…”

“Oh no Victoria.” Frank suddenly realized where Victoria’s train of thought was headed.  “Same surname but no relation. Leah was originally a Simmons, she married a Charlie Sawyer, but he died, drowned I believe two years before your…” Frank trailed off not quite sure how to continue.

“Before my husband Tom…Thomas Barkley, had an affair and fathered a son out of wedlock with another woman.”

Frank scrubbed tiredly at his face.  It was going to be a long night.  “I’m sorry Victoria, I know finding out the way you have is a shock and I’m sorry Gyorgy felt sending you out to the wagon was the only way to bring the truth to light and not break that da…retched promise.” Frank studied the stiff countenance of Victoria Barkley.  “But I’m not sorry that the truth has finally come out.  For too long now I’ve been trying to convince Heath that he should approach you with the truth, with the evidence of his parentage.”

“And you have no doubts that my husband…that Leah is telling the truth in that letter?” Victoria eyed Frank.  “I presume you have read the letter…both the letters.”

Frank nodded, “I have.  Heath showed them to me after Leah passed away. I made some discreet enquiries, which Heath knows nothing about, regarding the time frame of your husband’s visit to Strawberry.  I spoke to Rachel Caulfield and several other people that were still in Strawberry after Leah’s death.  And they confirmed that your husband was indeed there and living with Leah up to about six months before Heath’s birth.”

Victoria nodded in resignation.  “This Rachel Caulfield, do you know where she is now?  I’d like to speak with her if I could.”

“I’m sorry Victoria but both Rachel and old Hannah, she was a freed slave that lived with Leah and Heath and helped raise him have both passed on now.  Strawberry is all but a ghost town. I doubt that there is anybody left that knew Leah and your husband, except perhaps for Leah’s brother Matt Simmons and his wife Martha.” Frank couldn’t hide his disgust as he spat the two names out.  “Although I can’t imagine them still being there.  Martha always fancied herself as something high and mighty and a ghost town wouldn’t fit that image. I know Heath hasn’t seen them since Leah passed.  They were still in Strawberry at the time of her death two and half years ago.   They owned the hotel.” Frank paused as he thought on the treatment dished out to Leah and her son by their supposed family. “They were less than charitable to Leah and Heath. Worked Leah to the bone for a few cents a day and beat the boy every chance they got.  They blamed both Heath and Leah for sullying their good name and bringing the hotel into disrepute, never mind that the mine had already played out and it was only a matter of time before the town died along with the mine.” Frank stopped speaking and waited patiently for Victoria to gather her thoughts. He let the silence stretch between them aware of the turmoil that must be raging within Victoria’s mind and not for the first time, cursed the pledge of keeping Heath a secret that Leah had made in her unsent letter to Tom Barkley. Would she have expected her son to honour her pledge all these years later had she known what effect it would have on those left to deal with it now? 

“What do I do with this knowledge Frank?” Victoria asked quietly, searching the grey eyes of the Marshall for an answer she knew he couldn’t provide.  “I…I don’t know what I feel…anger…disappointment…sorrow…guilt…relief.  I can’t just ignore what I now know…”

Frank sighed; perhaps Heath had been right after all to keep his identity from this family. “I’m sorry Gyorgy has put you in this position Victoria but I know he only had the best intentions at heart.  Knowing that he would be unable to support Heath and Tommy, his worry for Essie and Leah still missing, he wanted to make sure that young family had the support they would need to cope with what has happened.”

“I’m not angry with Gyorgy, Frank if that is what you think.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was initially when I first found the items in the wagon and realized he had deliberately sent me out there to find them, but now…” Victoria straightened her posture, “I’m not completely naive Frank,” she gave a small shrug of her shoulders, “ignorant more like.  Tom told me about those months when he had been injured in Strawberry and about the woman who had helped him recover but he never offered a name and never indicated that their relationship was anything more than that of nurse and patient.”  Victoria paused, “Deep down I suppose I harboured those suspicions, but I was just so happy to have him home again, for us, Jarrod, Nick, Tom and myself to be a family again that I buried those suspicions arrogantly assuming that if I ignored them long enough, they would just disappear into thin air.” Victoria emitted a strained laugh, “Oh how wrong I was… and now…now the proof of those very suspicions is laying in a bed upstairs…along with…Tom’s grandson.”

“Well as I see it, you have two choices.” Frank offered a grim smile.  “You can either ignore the information you have found.  Put the bible and letters back in the chest and continue with your life as if nothing has changed,” Frank raised an eyebrow, “or you can acknowledge Heath’s existence at the very least, let him know that you are aware of his parentage and give your promise to keep his secret as well.” Frank stood up and stretched tired muscles.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been of much help to you Victoria, but it’s late, I had a long day and if I am going to accompany Heath on the search tomorrow, I had better head to bed for a few hours shuteye.”

“Yes of course Frank, I didn’t mean to keep you from your sleep.  And you have helped fill in a few more gaps.  I’ll see you before you leave in the morning.”  Victoria remained seated after Frank had left.  He was wrong though, there was a third choice…but did she have the strength to do it? Could she accept Heath into her family and not just Heath, his wife, and children…Tom’s son and grandchildren.  And more importantly would her children, Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene accept their father’s indiscretion…Victoria sighed, that’s not what this was…it was an affair, an affair of at least three months…an affair that resulted in their half-brother.

*****

A shiver ran through Esmeralda as she lay awake, her unborn child unusually active tonight. She looked up at the clear dark sky and the twinkling stars that formed a glistening canopy over their heads.  She had lain like this many nights in the past, held snuggly in the loving arms of her husband as he explained the different constellations, their names, and meanings to her. She had marvelled at his knowledge of the stars, knowing that he had never had much schooling when he lived in Strawberry.  She had asked him one night how he knew so much about them.  He had shrugged, Rachel taught me at home at night, he had said, after he had finished his work in the mines or at the stables.  She was a retired schoolteacher and she had decided that if he insisted on going into the woods to hunt for rabbits for dinner then he had better learn how to navigate by the stars in case he became lost.  She remembered asking him if he ever got lost.  Nope, he had said.  He could always find his way home to his family. What Rachel hadn’t been able to teach him another schoolteacher, whose name she had long forgotten, had taught him as they rotted away in that hell hole of a prison camp called Carterson at the end of the war.  She remembered Heath telling her that if it hadn’t been for that schoolteacher reigniting his memories of home and sitting under the stars with Rachel and his Mama, he may never have made it out of that prison camp alive. And then there was some old Modoc Indian that he had stayed with after the war for a few months as he explained, to find himself again, and who had taught him the Indian dreaming’s in the stars and a few other tricks along the way.

Esmeralda cuddled her daughter closer, wrapping the blanket tighter around their shoulders. Never had she felt Heath’s loss as keenly as she did right at this moment. Please don’t be lost my darling, I need you, our daughter needs you and so does our unborn child.  Esmeralda looked skywards once more, searching for the bright star of hope, the North Star.  “I see it Heath,” she whispered, “Can you see it too?  Please come for us Heath.  Please.”

*****

Chapter 10   

“Of all the stubborn, pigheaded…will you let me help you boy.” Frank growled as he watched Heath try unsuccessfully to sit on the edge of the bed and dress himself.

“I don’t need your help Frank,” Heath grumbled, fumbling with the buttons on the shirt Frank had retrieved from his wagon.  “Thanks for getting me the change of clothes Frank.”

Frank nodded his head, now wasn’t the time to tell the boy that it was actually Victoria Barkley who had given him the clothes earlier that morning. That piece of information could keep for later.

Heath sighed in frustration, “Well don’t just stand there, Frank,” Heath looked expectantly at the older man, “you offered to help, so help.  You know I can’t do it on my own.”

“Finally, some sense,” Frank muttered as he deftly buttoned the shirt and then carefully slipped the injured arm into the sling hanging around Heath’s neck.  Not waiting to be asked this time Frank slipped the tan pants over Heath’s feet, pulling them up to his thighs, “I’ll help you stand if you hold your pants up for me.”

Heath took a deep breath, unconsciously holding it as Frank lifted him to his feet, the firm grip holding him steady as his body swayed at the sudden change in elevation.  Letting out the breath slowly until he felt his equilibrium return, he nodded to Frank that he was alright and could let go now.

“I know I’m not going to change your mind, but just for the record, I think this is a plumb fool notion you have boy.  How long do you think you’ll last in the saddle in the heat out there? Passing out or killing yourself isn’t going to help any of us find Essie and Leah.” Frank said as he pulled the pants up onto the narrow hips and buttoned the fly.

“I’ll last long enough to find them,” Heath retorted hotly as he sat back down with a small groan so that Frank could pull his boots on for him.

A knock on the door interrupted the rest of the warming conversation, giving both Heath and Frank a chance to cool their emotions.  Jarrod stopped in the doorway and eyed both men speculatively.  “Am I interrupting something?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

Heath sighed and Frank shook his head.  “No Jarrod, nothing important,” Frank replied. “Stubborn is as stubborn does,” he muttered under his breath but just loud enough for both men to hear.

Jarrod took a moment to study Heath; there was a fine line of sweat beading on his brow and his features were tight and drawn indicating that he was in some considerable pain.  Yet the expressive blue eyes and the set jaw told Jarrod not to dare suggest he stay behind.  Jarrod sighed, he had no doubt that Heath would be going out to search today, with or without help from Frank and himself.  With that thought in mind, Jarrod elected not to enter the argument he had undoubtedly interrupted regarding Heath’s current physical condition.  Instead, he opted for a conciliatory reply. “Riley has the horses ready and is waiting out the front.  I’ll meet you gentleman downstairs unless you need my help negotiating the stairs, Heath.”

“Thanks Jarrod, but Frank’ll see that I don’t fall.” Heath replied with a smirk and glint in his eye, daring Frank to make a smart comment.

Frank for his part just rolled his eyes and continued pulling on the boy’s boots.  “We’ll meet you out front in a couple of minutes, Jarrod.”   

Jarrod nodded to no-one in particular and left the two friends to finish dressing Heath, wondering how they ever managed to work together for two years.  There must certainly be some stories there that would be worth listening too.  Perhaps when this was all over and Esmeralda and Leah were safe there would be time for some story telling around the campfire, so to speak.

Victoria, Audra, and Tommy were waiting at the foot of the stairs when Jarrod descended.  Victoria handed him a bag of supplies, which he accepted with a raised eyebrow.  “Bandages, laudanum, some sandwiches, just in case.” She looked up the staircase to the closed door of the guestroom.  “Everything alright up there, Jarrod?” she asked worriedly, yet again wondering if her stance to allow Heath to go was the right one.

Jarrod turned to look up as well before turning back to Victoria.  “Stubborn is as stubborn does Mother,” he replied with a smile.  “That young man up there could almost be a Barkley,” he continued casually.  “I think he’s just as stubborn and hot headed as Brother Nick.  It should be an interesting day when those to get together.” Jarrod looked at Victoria’s pale face.  “Mother, are you feeling alright, you look a little pale.”

“Mother, come and sit down,” Audra started pulling her mother towards the parlour.

“I’m fine Audra, don’t fuss, just a little tired is all.” Victoria smiled reassuringly at her daughter resisting Audra’s attempts to move her to the parlour.

“Papa’s coming, Papa’s coming,” Tommy yelled excitedly as he watched his father making a slow, careful descent down the wide sweeping staircase, Frank hovering anxiously beside him.  

Audra giggled, “He sounds just like Nick.”

Victoria closed her eyes for a moment…Nick’s loud voice…her husband’s blue eyes and name…the stubborn Barkley pride…could nobody else see it?   

“Stop with the scowl Frank,” Heath ordered without turning around to look at his friend’s face.

“I wasn’t scowling,” Frank grumbled under his breath.

Heath snickered, “I know you Frank, of course you were scowling and Tommy, what have I told you about yelling in people’s homes.” Heath asked turning loving blue eyes on his son.

Tommy bit his lip, “I’m sorry Mrs Victoria, I didn’t mean to yell…but Papa you’re going to bring Mama and Leah home now.  I can’t wait to see them again.”

Heath gingerly lowered himself to one knee so that he was level with Tommy.  “I’m going to do everything I can to bring them home to you Tomašis, I promise but…” Heath trailed off not sure what to say.

Tommy carefully hugged his father, “the bad men have them and they…they might have hurt them Papa…”

Heath wrapped his good arm around his son, pulling him close to his chest. Looking up at the compassionate faces around him, he replied fervently “I hope not son.” Heath released Tommy after another heartfelt hug and nodded gratefully to Jarrod and Frank when they helped ease him back to his feet.  He turned to look at Victoria and Audra, wondering for just a moment at the recognition and guilt he could see in Victoria’s eyes.  Now wasn’t the time to address those sneaking suspicions that kept pricking the back of his mind that perhaps…she knew who he was. Refocusing his thoughts on what needed to be done; he allowed a small smile to turn up the corner of his mouth, “I appreciate you looking after Tommy and Gyorgy for me while I’m gone.”

“It’s our pleasure Heath,” Victoria replied with a heartfelt smile, wanting to ensure the young man that his family…her family would be well taken care of in his absence.

Drawing in a deep breath he looked at Jarrod and Frank.  “I’d like a moment with Gyorgy before I leave,” he said solemnly.

“Of course, Heath,” Jarrod replied.  We’ll be waiting just outside for you.

Frank walked Heath to the guestroom door, realizing that this was the first time that he will have seen his father-in-law since the shooting. “Do you want me to come in with you Heath?” he asked quietly, squeezing the boy’s arm in support.

Heath took another deep breath and shook his head, “No I need to do this alone, thanks Frank.  I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.”

*****

“Audra dear, why don’t you take Tommy outside with Jarrod, I’ll join you in a minute.”

“Alright Mother, come on Tommy, we’ll wait outside so you can wave to your Papa.”

Victoria waited until Audra and Tommy had gone before she moved silently across the floor, coming to a halt beside Frank who was leaning against the doorframe of the guestroom.  “You were wrong Frank…” Victoria spoke softly so that her voice wouldn’t carry into the room.

Frank looked up in confusion at Victoria.

“Last night when you said I had two choices.  You were wrong; there is a third choice…” Frank straightened and moved away from the door, in no doubt that Victoria would follow him. “I just need to be strong enough to choose it.”

Frank placed a comforting hand on Victoria’s arm.  “I’m sure you will make the right choice Victoria.  I have faith in you.”

Victoria placed her hand on top of Frank’s and patted it lightly.  “More than I have in myself.”  Hearing the door handle turn, she moved away from Frank and crossed the foyer to the open front door.  

*****

Heath opened the door and stepped into the semi-darkened room, the lamp on the bedside tables throwing a soft glow over the bed.  He could hear the stilted soft breaths of his father-in-law as he neared the bed.  Reaching down he grasped the cold hand, disappointed when the old man didn’t respond to his touch but knowing he really hadn’t expected anything different.  Leaning over with a slight grunt of pain Heath whispered in Gyorgy’s ear. “I’m going to find them Gyorgy, I promise, just hold on a bit longer and you’ll see them soon. Essie’s strong; she won’t let anything happen to her or your grandchildren.” Heath gave the cold hand another squeeze before he moved around the bed to the coffin resting on the other bed.  Placing his hand on the top, he let the tears fall.  “I’m sorry Rosetta.” Heath stumbled over the words, “I’ll bring our girls home and then Gyorgy will be free to join you.” Wiping away the tears he walked slowly to the door, turning to take one last look at the two people that had become his Mother and Father.

Heath stepped out of the room, looked at Frank and sighed. “Let’s get going, we’re not going to find Essie and Leah standing here.”

“Are you alright son, Gyorgy…?”

“Still holding on Frank, still holding on.” Heath walked across the foyer and stepped out onto the verandah. Jarrod was already mounted along with another man, he didn’t recognize.

Seeing Heath looking at Riley, Jarrod made the introductions.  “This is Riley, Heath. He will take us out to where Nick is waiting.”

“Pleased to meet you and thank you for your help.” Heath nodded at the cowhand.

“Glad to be of help Mr Thomson.  We all are.” Riley replied.  “Nick and Sheriff Madden are waiting for us where we lost the trail last night.”  Riley study the drawn features of the man before him, wondering just how long it would be before he fell out of the saddle, that is if he ever got in the saddle.

Heath tousled Tommy’s hair in passing and stepped off the verandah, catching up the reins of his stallion.  Giving the horse a caress on the neck, he clicked and tugged lightly at the reins as the watching family gasped in surprise when the big bay dropped his head and lowered his forehand to a kneeling position.  Heath smirked at their surprise, stepping over the horse’s shoulders and settled in the saddle.  Grasping the saddle horn with his good hand, he gently tapped the stallion’s sides and waited as the horse rose back to his feet.                                                                                                               

“Glad he remembered that trick boy.” Frank said with a grin.  “I was wondering how I was going to get you into the saddle.”

Heath raised an eyebrow but chose not to comment.  “You be good for Mrs Barkley and Audra, Tommy.” Heath ordered as he wheeled the big horse around and pushed it into a lope across the yard, closely followed by Frank and Riley.

“He’ll be the perfect little angel Heath, don’t worry,” Audra called out to the departing back of the blond while holding tightly to Tommy’s hand.

Jarrod held back for a minute, “Don’t worry Mother, between Frank, Nick and me we’ll look after Heath as if he was one of our own, and we’ll bring Essie and Leah home safe and sound too.” He promised before turning to follow the other three men at a gallop.

Victoria gripped the verandah railing tightly in her hands as she watched the men ride away…the tall straight back…easy movement in the saddle…it was like watching Tom all over again only…only it wasn’t her Tom this time…riding away to confront some danger out on the range…it was… his son.  

*****

“Riders coming, Nick,” Clem called out from where he was busy saddling his horse.

Nick threw the dregs of his coffee onto the fire and handed the tin cup to Joe to pack away with the rest of the breakfast utensils.  With Duke and Fred beside him, the three men walked out of the camp to greet the riders.  Nick cursed when he recognized the big bay stallion and its rider. “What in blue blazes…?”

“Well Nick, looks like you got your wish,” Fred commented dryly as he watched the four men riding towards him.  “Well, I’ll be…” Fred said in surprised. “That’s Frank Sawyer riding with Jarrod and Thomson.  I wonder how he got here so fast.  I only sent the telegram yesterday morning.”

Jarrod, Heath, and Frank pulled up in front of the three waiting men while Riley rode on to join the rest of the group standing back at the camp site.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing boy?” Nick demanded as he glared at the hunched over form on the big bay.

“Going to find my family,” Heath retorted hotly, blue eyes flashing dangerously as he returned Nick’s glare.

“Oh no you’re not boy.  You can barely sit in that saddle now.  How long do you think you’re going to last out here? Duke, have one of the men escort Mr Thomson back to the ranch.” Nick ordered without taking his eyes off Heath.

“I ain’t your boy and I’m not going back,”

“Now listen here…”

“Nick, that will be enough,” Jarrod ordered.  “Heath is here and he’s staying.  I’d like you to meet Marshal Frank Sawyer,” Jarrod continued before Nick could speak again.  “Frank, my brother Nick, our ranch foreman Duke McColl and Sheriff Fred Madden, whom I believe you have met before.”

“Mr Barkley, Duke,” Frank acknowledged with a nod of his head.  “Sheriff, it was what about two and half years ago I believe.  You picked up a prisoner from us.”

“That’s right; it was just before that failed bank robbery.”

“Now that all the introductions are over can we get on with the search,” Heath interrupted.  “Perhaps somebody would like to show me where you lost the trail.”

“It’s this way Mr. Thomson,” Duke replied, heading towards their night camp.  “I made sure to keep everyone well away from the area, so they didn’t mess up the sign.”

Heath allowed the big bay to amble slowly behind Duke, nodding in acknowledgement to the greetings called from the cowhands as he and Frank passed through the camp. “Thanks Duke, appreciate that, makes my job easier and the name’s Heath.”

Nick grabbed the reins of Jarrod’s horse as he was about to follow behind the others.  “Just what the hell is going on Jarrod?  He’s in no condition to be out here.  Does Mother even know he is out of bed?” Nick demanded angrily. “We don’t have time to be playing nurse maid.  We need to find that missing woman and child.”

“His wife and daughter Nick, and yes Mother does know he is here, in fact she gave him her blessing to ride out here this morning.”

“She what? I don’t believe it. Why would she do something like that?”

“I don’t know Nick; I didn’t have time to ask her. But I intend to find out when we return to the ranch.  In the meantime, we have a woman and child to find.”  Jarrod kicked his horse into motion again and with Nick walking beside they followed the other four men.

Heath dismounted carefully, using the saddle horn and the strong neck of his horse to steady his shaking body.  Taking a moment to catch his breath, he rested his head against the stallion’s neck, before straightening up and accepting the canteen handed to him by Frank.  Nodding his thanks to Frank, he turned to the task at hand and followed Duke to where the sign of the kidnappers had disappeared. Heath searched around the area, slowly moving forward, noting an overturned stone here, a strike mark from a shoe there, flattened salt grass or broken off twigs from the low-lying bushes and a single print of the v notched shoe that…his brother… had been following. Heath saw it all.  Staring out across the miles of open range, Barkley, and Thomson range, dotted with small stands of tall Oaks and Pines, Heath studied the horizon where the deep blue of the cloudless sky met a sea of green.  He turned slightly to speak to Nick and Jarrod, whom he had heard coming up behind him. “What’s on the other side of the range?”

“Well,” Nick studied the range before him to get his bearings and then closed his eyes for a moment picturing the land in his mind from the maps in the study at the ranch. “The stream that forms the boundary between our properties and where you camped runs roughly through the middle of this section, out where those stands of trees are.”

Heath nodded, “that sparse stand to the left of that dense stand is the back boundary of my place.”

“Yeah, your place is a bit like a triangle, narrow at the back and then widening out towards the front.” Nick agreed.  “Ben McMasters owns the place the other side of you and backs onto the stream as well but a couple miles further up past that dense stand.  You can’t see his boundary from here, then the Barkley range crosses the stream and borders his place and…” Nick groaned, “Damn it to hell, why didn’t I think of that?”

“Think of what?” Heath asked eyeing Nick as he started pacing around the area.

Nick pushed his hat to the back of his head, then took it off completely, slapped it against his leg and ran his free hand through his thick black hair.  He stopped pacing and looked at the expectant blue eyes watching him and sighed.  “I’m sorry. I’ve wasted so much time following this trail.  I should have stopped and thought.  As soon as Sam mentioned the hoof print that I found was the same as the one he found after the first cattle rustling.” Nick started pacing again. “Hell, I should have thought of it after that first rustling myself.”

Jarrod could see the confusion and frustration in Heath’s eyes as Nick continued to berate himself. Stepping in front of his brother, he grabbed the broad shoulders and gave them a shake.  “Nick, stop.  Just tell us what you’re thinking.  This is wasting time too.”

Nick drew in a deep breath through his nose and then huffed it out. “The Barkley and McMasters spreads don’t share a complete boundary.”

“No, I know that Nick,” Jarrod agreed, allowing his own frustration to tinge his voice.  “There is a mile long canyon…” Jarrod’s blue eyes widened and met the hazel of his brother’s as the implications of what he had just said were realized.       

“What canyon?” Heath demanded, “Where is it. And what rustlers?” Heath stepped forward into Nick’s personal space, shrugging off Frank’s controlling hand on his arm. “Somebody had better start explaining.”

*****

Chapter 11

Victoria stayed where she was long after the men had ridden out of sight and Audra and Tommy had disappeared into the barn to check on the foal and kittens. There was no doubt in her mind anymore that Heath was Tom’s son and a Barkley.  The last vestiges of doubt crumbling like so many fragments of a shattered glass as she watched Heath ride, straight and proud from the yard.  Sighing inwardly, Victoria returned to the house, pausing in the foyer as she thought about what her next move should be.  Deciding that it was high time she ‘spoke’ to her husband, Victoria pushed open the library door and moved across the room to stand in front of the portrait of her late husband that hung above the mantel of the fireplace.  “Well, Thomas, what a pickle you and Leah have left for us. I can’t blame you entirely Tom but for god’s sake, surely you should have realized that there was a chance that you may well have sired another child with your affair with Leah Simmons.” Victoria moved away from the portrait and sat down on the settee, resigned that this would be another one-sided conversation, in a long line of previous one-sided conversations she had had since her husband’s death. Always in the past, these conversations had helped her to clear her mind and decide on a specific course of action but this time…she shook her head…this time the stakes were much higher.  This time her family’s welfare was at stake, and not only her family but also Heath’s family. “In some ways Tom, I wish you had never sent that letter to Leah, or that Leah had not missed the mail on the twelfth.” Victoria sighed.  “I know what Leah did when your letter arrived but what about you? What would you have done had you received her letter and discovered you had another child?  Would you have told me Tom?  You couldn’t admit to an affair, yet you clearly had one.  So would you have told me you had a child by another woman?” 

“Talking to Mister Tom, again, Miz Barkley?” Silas asked as he placed a cup of tea and biscuits on the small table in front of the settee.

“Oh Silas,” Victoria panicked, “how much did you hear?”

Silas allowed a soft smile to spread across his face, “I be a young man, when Mister Tom rescued me.  I remember as clear as if it were yesterday…” Silas looked up at the portrait of his benefactor staring impassively back at them. “…what a young Mister Tom looked like.  I’s don’t need to hear anything to know that Mister Heath be Mister Tom’s boy.”

“Is it that obvious Silas?” Victoria asked.

“Yes’m Miz Barkley, it be as plain as the nose on my face to me, but like I say, I’s remember young Mister Tom.”

“What do I do Silas? How do I tell the children…?”

“They not be children anymore, they be grown adults now, old enough to make up their own minds once the facts are known, even Mister Heath can’t deny the truth.” Silas paused, “Mister Jarrod, he’ll accept Mister Heath right off as soon as he sees the proof, and Miss Audra, well she have a big heart, she already take a shine to young Master Tommy, she be tickled pink to learn he is her nephew.  Now Mister Nick, he may take a bit more convincing…” Victoria chuckled lightly “…but once he done thought about it for a while he’ll surely come around too.”

“And Eugene, Silas?” Victoria asked, enjoying listening to Silas thoughts on her ‘children.’

“Master Eugene, he be young, but he have a good heart.  He be like Mister Jarrod, he’ll look at the facts and the proof and make the right decision.”   

“Thank you, Silas,” Victoria smiled, “I believe you may just be right but how do I tell Heath that I know who he is? I just can’t go and confront him; tell him I know his secret.”

Silas’ face crinkled in a grin, “Why you show them the proof Miz Barkley.”

Victoria shook her head, “You have mentioned the proof a couple of times Silas, what proof are you talking about? The letters?”

Silas nodded, “those and the pictures.”

Victoria stared at Silas.  “How do you know about the picture? I only showed Nick the one of Esmeralda before I gave it to Fred.” Victoria gasped.  What if Fred gave the picture back to Heath? How would he react when he realized somebody had been searching through their belongings?

“I’m not sure what picture you’re talking about Miz Barkley, but I mean the ones in the attic and…” Silas pulled out a folded piece of paper, “…this one.” He said handing the paper to Victoria.

Victoria unfolded the paper and gasped at the small daguerreotype of a young Tom and Silas, standing side by side, Tom’s arm over Silas shoulder and each with a smile on their face. Victoria stared at it in wonder for a moment before looking up at Silas.

Silas smiled, “Mister Tom and I were travelling through a town, can’t remember which one now and there was a photographer there.  Mister Tom insisted we had our picture taken, he said it would be proof that I belonged to him if anybody questioned me. When I first saw Mister Heath, I just know’d he was Mister Tom’s boy, but I’s needed to be sure, so I found that picture.  I’s hadn’t looked at it for many a year.  Had it tucked away in my Mama’s Bible.” 

Victoria returned the dog-eared picture to Silas and rose from the settee.  “Thank you, Silas.  I now have some idea of what I’m going to do, starting with the attic.” Victoria eyed the portrait of her husband, “Mark my words Thomas Barkley, our discussion isn’t finished.”

Silas watched Victoria leave the room and then turned to look up at Tom Barkley as well.  “Mister Tom, I have a feeling Miz Barkley isn’t going to be the only one wanting to have a few words with you before this is all over.”

*****

Nick stepped back, putting some distance between himself and the irate blond, with the blue flashing eyes that looked just like…his father’s…when Tom Barkley had his dander up.

Jarrod stepped between the two men, shaking his head as Frank and Fred moved forward to flank Heath.  “Heath about four weeks ago we started losing cattle to rustlers and not just us.  A couple of the other spreads had cattle stolen as well.  Not a lot, a dozen here or there.  Between all of us there is probably fifty or sixty head missing.  Nick, Fred, our hands, and the other ranches have been searching since the first rustling, but no-one has found hide nor hair of them.  The tracks are lost once they get to rocky ground.”

“Tracks are there, you just gotta know what to look for.” Heath growled.

Jarrod nodded, “Sam, one of our hands found a print from one of the rustlers’ horses after the first lot of our cattle were taken and he recognised the same print at your camp after your wife and daughter were taken.”

“We didn’t have any cattle,” Heath glared at Nick, “so why raid our camp?”

“We think that they took your wife and daughter to sell over the border Heath,” Fred replied. “Your wife is very beautiful, and I bet your daughter takes after her too. They’d both sell for a high price in Mexico.”

Heath swung around to stare at Fred bemusement, “How…?”

“She sure is a beauty boy,” Nick agreed. 

Swinging back to Nick and despite his injury Heath moved with lightning speed and let fly with his left fist in a round house punch, packed with all his pent-up anger and frustration that sent Nick sprawling in the dirt. “How the hell do ya know what my wife looks like?” Heath demanded. “What else ain’t ya tellin me?”

Frank grabbed Heath’s good arm and pulled him away from Nick, recognising the blond’s growing anger as his vocabulary took on more of a Southern accent.  “Easy Heath, fighting between ourselves isn’t going to find Essie and Leah.”

Fred pulled the daguerreotype from his pocket and handed it to Heath in way of explanation.  “Victoria, Mrs Barkley gave this to me.  I asked her for it after your father-in-law told us where the picture was. We weren’t trying to invade your privacy Heath, but you were unconscious, and we needed to know what Esmeralda looked like for the search.”       

Heath’s features paled and he staggered sideways, almost falling save for the steadying hands of Frank and Fred who both grabbed on to him. “Damn,” Frank muttered under his breath.

“Are you alright son,” Fred asked worriedly.

Heath pulled away from the two men and stalked to his horse, resting his head against the warm neck, and taking in a deep breath.  She knew, she had known all along, that explained the look in her eyes. Damn you Gyorgy. Heath accepted the canteen thrust into his hands and drank gratefully from it.

“Now’s not the time Heath,” Frank cautioned.  “Think of Essie and Leah.  That’s all you have to worry about now.  The rest can wait until they’re safe. I know you’re going to say no but I want you to take a small dose of this.” Frank held out a small bottle of laudanum.  “The doc left it for you.  Just enough to take the edge off that pain you’re in, and then will get after your family.”                    

Heath nodded silently, too tired and in too much pain to argue, which raised Frank’s eyebrow, swallowed some of the laudanum followed by more water and then handed both back to Frank.  In a repeat performance from earlier that morning, Heath gently tugged on the reins and clicked, stepping into the saddle as the stallion dropped to his knees.  After regaining his feet, Heath wheeled the stallion and sat glaring at his brothers.  “Well, are you coming?” Not waiting for a reply Heath nudged the horse forward with his heels.

Jarrod offered his hand to Nick, pulling his brother to his feet.  Nick dusted the last of the dirt from his pants with his hat, slapped it back on his head and grabbed the reins of his horse from Duke without acknowledgment.  “What the hell was all that about Jarrod?” Nick demanded as he gingerly worked his jaw with a black gloved hand.

“I don’t know Nick.” Jarrod replied following the blond with his eyes.  There was something…he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Sighing he let the thought go for the time being, the most important thing at present was finding the missing woman and child.  “Just put it down to stress and pain Nick. I can’t imagine what it must be like for him at the moment. Not knowing if his wife and daughter are even still alive.”

Nick rubbed his jaw, damn but that man could hit hard, even injured.  “Yeah, I guess I’d be stressed too if it was Mother and Audra we were searching for.”  He mounted up and followed Jarrod as he moved off to follow Heath.  He could hear the hands muttering behind him and he just bet not all of what they were saying had to do with that little trick the boy had just pulled with the stallion.  “How the hell did he teach the horse that?” he asked no one in particular.

“Clever, isn’t it?” Jarrod answered.  “I asked Frank the same thing on the way out here after he mounted like that back at the ranch.  He said Heath learnt it from some old Modoc Indian years ago.  Apparently that trick has come in handy a few times over the years.  The horse also knows how to lie down as well.  That trick saved Heath’s life when they were caught in a sudden snowstorm in the mountains.  Heath was able to use the horse’s body heat to stay warm and I believe Frank said it can also pretend to be lame when required.  Lulls people into a false sense of security, letting them think that Heath is just a cowboy with a lame horse so he can get the drop on them.”

Nick harrumphed but kept silent as they followed behind the blond.  Twice more Heath stopped to check the sign, and each time the stallion performed the same trick allowing Heath to mount without putting any additional strain on his injured body.  They reached the bank of the stream that acted as a boundary between the two properties at the apex of Heath’s range and everybody dismounted to allow the horses to drink and rest. Hats were dipped into the water and tipped over heads to cool the men in the morning heat.  Heath sat away from the Barkley brothers…his brothers…and their men on an old tree stump, squinting into the shimmering haze of heat across the stream and open range.  Frank nudged him, handing him a canteen which he acknowledged with a sigh. “She knows Frank.  What am I going to do now? How do I face her? Damn that old man. He knew how I felt about tellin them, about breaking Mama’s promise.”

“Technically nobody has broken that promise Heath. Gyorgy only told Victoria Barkley where the picture of Essie was, and you don’t know whether she found the two letters or not.  You’re only guessing at what you think she knows.”

“But the letters and the bible were in the chest with the pictures Frank.  She had to have seen them.”

Frank shrugged, “Even if she did see them, there’s no way of knowing if she looked at them or not.  Don’t go looking for trouble where there may not be any.” Frank paused, choosing his words carefully. “Heath, I know you don’t want to hear it but I’m glad it’s finally starting to come out in the open.  Now maybe you can get on and live your life the way it ought to be lived, with your family, all of your family, not just Essie and the twins. Those two youngsters need to know they have more than you and Essie to rely on in times of need.  Now they have three uncles, an aunt, and another Grandmother to love and be loved by. You no longer have the right to deny them that.” Frank squeezed Heath’s un-injured shoulder, “Right now you’re going to find Essie and Leah.  That’s all you have to worry about.  The rest will work itself out later.”

Heath closed his eyes as his thoughts wandered back to the morning and the fleeting look of recognition and guilt he had seen in the grey eyes of Victoria Barkley.  She had obviously seen the two pictures, the one of Essie; now back in his possession, Fred Madden having returned it to him and the other of him and Essie on their wedding day.  But…maybe she only looked at the two pictures as Frank had said and there was nothing on their picture to say who he was…if she hadn’t searched any further than the two daguerreotypes, hadn’t seen the bible and…and its secrets then was he imagining he had seen that look of recognition? Heath took another swallow of water from the canteen, but then what was the look of guilt for?  He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck; this was getting him nowhere and it certainly wasn’t going to help him find Essie and Leah. At least Tommy was safe back at the ranch…with his aunt…and his…grandmother.  Heath hadn’t missed how much his son had taken to Audra or how…his sister…seemed to dote on his son…her nephew.  Even Mrs Barkley appeared to enjoy…her grandson…being around.   Heath suddenly looked to Frank with narrowed suspicious eyes. “You didn’t get me these clothes did ya Frank? That was Mrs Barkley and she got Tommy clothes too.  Ya knew before we left the ranch that she had searched our wagon.”  Heath declared angrily.  “Why didn’t you tell me this morning when I thanked ya for the clothes?”                             

“And what were you going to do if I had.  Flown off the handle like you just did and what would that have achieved? And besides Jarrod interrupted us before I could tell you, if I was so inclined to do so.” Frank watched as Heath pushed himself up from the tree stump and walk away without uttering a word.  He closed his eye for a brief moment, drawing in a deep breath, thankful that the blond hadn’t asked if Victoria Barkley had spoken to him about the pictures or the bible. He didn’t want to have to lie to the boy, but the truth wouldn’t achieve anything either, not when they needed Heath focused on finding Essie and Leah.  He just hoped that his friend would forgive him for keeping the truth of Victoria’s knowledge from him when he finally found out, or more precisely put two and two together.  Frank walked back to the group of men who were all mounted and waiting for instructions.

“How far’s this canyon Nick?” Heath asked tiredly, hunched in the saddle as he eased his aching shoulder in the sling around his neck. “And how many ways in and out of it are there?”  

Nick’s eyes narrowed as he studied the posture of the blond.  He had to give him his due though.  The boy sure was tough as nails and tenacious as a coyote worrying a bone. “Another four or five miles from here, this stream enters it through a crevice in the rock wall, but it isn’t wide enough for a man to travel through.  This end is boxed in by a sheer rock wall.” Nick shrugged, “there are a couple of game trails, but you need to be a damn mountain goat to use them.  At the far end there is a cave that the stream runs through, coming out under the wall.  About a hundred yards to the right of the cave is a narrow opening, wide enough for a wagon to get through or a handful of beeves.”

Frank smirked, watching the wheels turn in Heath’s head.  He hadn’t met anybody who could form a plan as quickly as the boy and make it work.  This was going to be interesting because he just knew what Heath and ultimately, he were going to be doing. Of course, he knew he wasn’t the only one watching the blond.  His two brothers were studying him intently and he just bet they weren’t going to be happy with what he came up with.

“How deep is this canyon?” Heath asked.

“Maybe half a mile at the boxed end,” Nick replied suspiciously.  “Then it starts levelling out to a couple hundred feet at the far end. From memory there is a wide rock shelf about twenty feet above the cave. My guess that would be where they’d camp, if in fact they are even there.”

Heath starred out across the range, running, and discarding options through his mind as he visualised Nick’s description of the canyon.  Nodding his head as he finally came to a decision, he turned to look at Frank, Fred, and his waiting brothers.  “This is what we’re going to do.”

*****

Victoria dusted off the lid of the battered old wedding chest in the corner of the attic. The chest had been a gift from her father when she and Tom had married and decided to make the pilgrimage out west with the other families looking to make their fortunes in the new territories.  Lifting the rusted clasp, she pushed the lid up, allowing it to rest on the wall of the attic.  Reaching inside, she pulled out a small chest, not unlike the one she had found in Heath and Esmeralda’s wagon, but not as intricately carved.  This one had been a gift from Tom on their wedding day and had been used to store her jewellery and hairbrushes on the journey out west.  Her fingers traced the lines of the roses carved into the lid of the chest.  It had been years since she had opened these chests and certainly not since Tom had died.  Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid revealing the mementoes of years past. Her mother of pearl inlaid brush and comb set, the comb was missing teeth along its length and the back of the brush had bare patches where the nacre had chipped away.  They had been gifts from her mother on her thirteenth birthday and long with the hand mirror which had lost half of the mirror when a young Jarrod had accidently knocked it off her bedside table in his excitement to meet his new baby brother Nicholas.  Tom had promised to have it repaired but it never happened.  Putting the items aside she picked up a small, tarnished locket hanging from a broken chain.  Another birthday gift, this time from her paternal grandmother.  It had been passed down to the first-born female of her family for generations, but Grandmother Iris only had two sons of which only one survived, her father, so the locket was gifted to her on her eighteenth birthday.  She had worn it every day as they crossed the continent to California and then as they set up their house and had their firstborn Jarrod.  Victoria laughed softly as she rolled the broken chain between her fingers.  Jarrod was certainly a young tearaway.  She remembered sitting in the old cane rocker…she glanced around the attic finally spying it partly hidden behind a chest of draws…while feeding Jarrod one evening.  As was his want, he would reach up with his little fist and grab hold of a lock of her hair and not let go until his hunger was sated, but that evening he had also grabbed the chain and then remonstrated loudly when she tried to finish his feeding before he was ready.  He had wailed loudly and pulled at her hair and the chain, breaking the chain, and pulling a few stands of her hair out as well.  She sighed, another promised repair that never happened.  Putting the small chest aside before she got too lost in the memories, she reached into the larger chest again and pulled out a small calico wrapped item.                                    

*****

Esmeralda felt a shiver run through her as the early morning sun that had been warming her back after the night chill suddenly disappeared and a shadow loomed over her instead. She looked up into the sneering face of Blain Walters.  “Eat this.” He thrust a plate of what looked like hardtack and a canteen of water into her hands. “We’ll be heading out just as soon as we round up the cattle.” 

Esmeralda’s emerald-green eyes flashed dangerously.  “You can’t expect us to eat this.”

Blain laughed mirthlessly.  “Eat it or leave it lady.  Your choice but you won’t be getting anything else today.”  He spun on his heel and stomped away not bothering to wait for a reply.

“Mama, I’m hungry,” Leah announced looking hopefully at the biscuits on the plate. “When is Papa going to find us?”

Esmeralda smiled at her daughter, gathering the young girl into her arms.  “Soon sweetheart, Papa will come soon; I hope” she added the last silently. “In the meantime…” she poured some water over the biscuits to soften them; at least they weren’t mouldy or infested with weevils she thought, “You need to eat some of this.”

*****

Chapter 12

“Of all the stupid…you can’t be serious boy.” Nick ranted as his horse moved nervously under its rider, feeling the pent-up tension through the reins and seat. Nick didn’t give the blond a chance to respond as he continued “How the hell do you think you’re going to ride that…that stallion, down a hundred-foot rocky game trail…Sawyer I thought you had more brains than to go along with a hair brained scheme like that.” Nick glared at both men, who for some reason both had smirks on their faces…no that wasn’t quite right…Sawyer was smirking at him…but the blond…Heath…had a small lopsided smile lifting one corner of his mouth…a smile he had only seen on one other face before.  Nick shook his head, he was seeing things, he couldn’t possibly be seeing his father’s smile on the blond. He turned to Jarrod who was also studying the two men or rather Thomson. “Well, aren’t you going to say something counsellor?”    

“I don’t think anything I could say will sway their minds, Nick.”

“Great, just great.  We’re supposed to just stand here and watch them, him…” Nick jerked a thumb in the general direction of the blond sitting on the bay, “Ride down a hundred-foot game trail with a busted shoulder and bullet wound…”

“Ya better not be watchin me.” Heath growled.  “It’s your job to block the mouth of the canyon so they can’t escape and…” Heath closed his eyes for a moment before opening them and staring steadily at Nick. As much as he wanted it to be him, he knew he and Frank had the best chance of getting down the game trail and coming up behind the men.  He could provide covering fire from behind if needed or hopefully get the drop on the two men before they realized what was happening. “And keep Essie and Leah safe.”   

Nick stopped his blustering at the quietly spoken words.  He sighed deeply, running his hand through his thick hair, nodding at the pleading look he saw in the blue eyes. “We’ll do our bit boy; you just make sure you make it down to the floor in one piece because I sure as hell don’t want to have to explain to Tommy, Leah or your wife why you aren’t coming home.”

Blue eyes held hazel, as each man searched the others face.  Heath was surprised to see compassion, mixed in with respect and curiosity in the hazel eyes, Heath nodded and turned away. “We’ll give you a half hour to get in place and then we’ll start down.”

“What if they aren’t there?” Fred asked.

“Then we keep looking but if you haven’t found them after four weeks of searching it’s a good bet they’re there.  Probably holding up and waiting for the heat to die down before they move the cattle.”  Heath had another thought.  “This McMasters, do you think he could be in on the rustling?  The canyon is on his boundary too, isn’t it?”

Nick shook his head.  “No, Ben lost cattle as well and his boundary only abuts the canyon for about three quarters of its length.” Nick cursed.  “The last part belongs to Robert Greaves.  He’s an ornery old cuss; just as soon take a shotgun to you than talk to you. He doesn’t take kindly to strangers or visitors, even when he knows them, been on his land. He’s run a few of our men off in the past when they’ve followed some strays across the boundary and the canyon opening is on his land too.”

“That going to cause a problem?” Heath asked.

“Counsellor?”

“I can’t see that it will, Nick,” Jarrod replied.  “We are a posse, although not duly sworn in and in the company of the Stockton Sheriff and a US Marshal.  I can’t see Robert been stupid enough to go up against us.”

“Unless he’s in on the rustling.” Heath pointed out.

Nick shook his head, “Nah, I can’t see that happening.  He wouldn’t be able to move that many cows and he only has a couple of layabout hired hands. He’s a miserly old bastard.  Gets what he pays for.”

“Well, if that’s settled let’s get moving.  The sooner we get to the canyon the better.” Heath kicked the big bay into motion, the pain of his injuries receding to a dull ache as adrenalin coursed through his body in anticipation of finding his missing wife and child.     

Nick rode up beside Sawyer.  “You sure about this plan Frank? I’ll swap places with him if you say so.”

Sawyer studied Nick for a long moment. He had seen the rancher studying Heath from time to time, seen the thoughtful looks that the man couldn’t quite hide, and he wondered what it was that Nick was seeing. “Thanks Nick but Heath and I will be fine.  It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this.  In fact, Heath’s done it a few times.  That’s actually how he caught that stallion.” Frank nodded to the bay.  “He had his herd in a box canyon.  Heath camped above the canyon and watched that stallion come and go up and down a game trail in a sheer wall.” Frank snorted, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that horse was part mountain goat.  Anyway, once the boy had figured out the horse’s routine, he waited until Charger…”

“Charger?” Nick asked.

Frank nodded, “Tommy named him that.  Something to do with knights in shining armour.  Anyway, once the stallion had left, Heath blocked off the canyon mouth so the herd couldn’t escape and then he waited for the horse to return.  He had a little Modoc pony at the time.  She was as surefooted as that stallion.  She followed him down the trail.  When the stallion figured what was happening, he tried to break back up the trail, but that little Modoc wouldn’t have none of it, stood her ground and there is the result.” Frank pointed to the blond and his horse ahead of them.  

Nick studied the back of the blond with narrowed eyes.  There was something…he just couldn’t quite grasp what it was…something familiar about the way Heath moved. Shrugging his shoulders in defeat he turned back to Frank.  “What happened to the Modoc pony, I didn’t see it at the camp?”

Frank sighed, “She was old, even when they caught that stallion.  Heath didn’t think it was fair to drag her all over the countryside when they took to the wagons, so he left her with me.  She passed on last winter.”

Nick dropped back to ride beside Jarrod as Fred moved up to speak with Sawyer.   “What do you think Jarrod?” Nick asked quietly.

“About what?” Jarrod queried curiously.

“About Thomson, Heath.  I feel as though I should know him.  He seems familiar but I know I’d never met him until three days ago.”  Nick’s hazel eyes sought out the deep blue of his brother, seeing the same thoughts mirrored in his brother’s orbs.  “You feel it too, don’t you?”

Jarrod pursed his lips, nodding slowly.  “The more I watch him, watch his mannerisms…I feel as though I’m riding beside…”

“Father.” Nick whispered.

Jarrod agreed.  “Yes Father, but we both know that isn’t possible.  They do say everybody has doppelganger somewhere in the world.  Maybe Heath is father’s is all.  I’m sure we’re reading too much into it.” Jarrod smiled reassuringly at his brother even though his gut…and Mother…were telling him differently. Now that he thought about it, the times his Mother had behaved strangely were times when he and Audra and even Howard, he recalled with a small gasp had commented about Heath…and Tommy…sounding or behaving just like a Barkley. And he remembered telling Mother that he and Nick would look after Heath, like…like he was their…brother.  My God, he thought; Mother thinks…or knows; somehow that Heath Thomson actually is…their brother…their Father’s son.        

Duke who had been riding behind the two brothers and close enough to hear what they were saying without meaning to eavesdrop shook his head.  He wasn’t surprised that the two couldn’t remember their father as a young man, they been only youngsters themselves, but he could, and he could see the resemblance between Heath Thomson and Tom Barkley as if one were looking in a mirror at the other.  He shook his head.  Tom what did you do?

*****

Victoria took a deep breath before unwrapping the calico from the small album in her hands.  She closed her eyes, already knowing the futility of the gesture but still hoping that the images she was about to reveal would not confirm what she already knew as the truth. She knew without looking that when she turned over the cover, the first picture she would see was of her and Tom on their wedding day.  With a sigh she opened her eyes and starred at the sepia image; an image that could be mistaken as her and…Heath.  How ironic, she thought; that of four sons and a daughter, the one to look so much like his father and not only in looks but also in mannerisms was the one that nobody knew about. She flipped through the rest of the album, pictures of Tom and his brother James, of their father and uncle.  All with the same blond hair, piercing ‘blue’ eyes and varying degrees of that lope sided smile that had first attracted her to Tom.  Though she knew who the faces were in the pictures all she could see was Heath Thomson staring back at her from the pages. She closed the album, dropped the calico into the chest and then closed the lid.   Hearing peals of laughter coming from the yard, Victoria moved to stand in front of the attic window and watched her daughter and…grandson engrossed in a game of tag. With a deep sigh she turned away from the window, the small album of proof gripped tightly in her hand and exited the attic.  She could now hear Audra and Tommy in the kitchen and the clink of glasses.  Hurrying down the short flight of stairs that led up to the attic, she returned to her room and placed the album on her dresser beside the bible.

What was she to do now she wondered? Oh, she knew what she had to do; she just wasn’t sure how to go about it.  Did she take the bible and the album to Heath first? She feared she would have to if Fred had told Heath about the picture of Esmeralda, which was a distinct possibility; or did she put the bible and its letters back in the trunk and feign ignorance and wait for Heath to come to her with its details, which she feared he would not. And yet…she suspected he suspected that she knew who he was.  His suspicions could be lulled if she showed him the album.  Perhaps he would just think she had worked it out from the similarity of the images but…she kept returning to the daguerreotype of Esmeralda that she had given Fred, sure that he would suspect she had read the letters in the bible.  What if he went straight to the wagon on his return and discovered the bible and letters missing? How would he react to that betrayal, she wondered?  Would he pack up his family and leave the valley and …them forever?  She could also take the proof, all of it to Jarrod; he would know how to handle it and Nicholas.  Victoria had no doubt that Nick would be furious when he discovered what his father had done all those years ago.  Nick idolised his Father; had placed him on a pedestal believing he could do no wrong.  What affect would this revelation have on him and his future relationship with Heath…with his brother…and with herself?        

There were too many choices, she would have to wait and see what transpired when they all returned home…if they all returned home. “Please Tom whatever you didn’t do all those years ago, do it now.  Watch over your son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.  Bring them home safely.”  

*****

Heath kept his horse moving ahead of the following men.  He was in no mood to pass pleasantries with anybody, his thoughts, and feelings in turmoil. He took a shallow breath; anything more sent a burning fire through his upper chest and shoulder. As much as he hated to admit it, he was going to need another dose of laudanum before he started down the game trail into the canyon.  Easing his right shoulder resting snuggly in the sling he tried to concentrate on what he felt was Gyorgy’s betrayal. His father-in-law was well aware of his feelings with regards to revealing his identity to the Barkley’s, but was it really a betrayal?  As Frank said, Gyorgy only told Victoria Barkley where the picture was so that she could find it for the Sheriff who needed it for the search. Nobody, outside his immediate family and Frank as far as he was aware was any the wiser to his relationship with the Barkley’s. Perhaps he was overreacting and if he was honest with himself and looked at it from Gyorgy’s point of view, Rosetta was already dead and Gyorgy was dying.  He had been shot and Essie and Leah were missing.  What would have become of Tommy if he hadn’t survived, and they didn’t find Essie and Leah?  He couldn’t deny that Tommy would have needed a family, but he was sure that a search of their wagon would have unearthed the truth eventually and from what he had seen of Audra…his sister and Victoria Barkley that family would have been given to him with or without proof of his relationship to them.

Heath sighed, he could feel his brother’s eyes boring into his back and strangely it felt comforting to know that they were watching over him.  In fact, he couldn’t deny the feeling that it felt right somehow that he should be searching for his wife and daughter with his…brothers. He had always wondered what it would be like to have brothers by his side, to feel that familial camaraderie…he chuckled softly…him, Nick Barkley and camaraderie just didn’t seem to fit somehow.  And yet he thought he felt a connection with the man when Nick had promised to keep Essie and Leah safe and even elicited a silent promise from himself to be careful and return to the family. He thought back to that moment when he had looked in Nick’s eyes and seen the compassion, respect, and curiosity in them.  What was Nick seeing in him he wondered, more than a thieving gypsy he wagered.  Could they become friends and brothers? The man was hot headed, hardheaded, ham fisted, self-opinionated and…‘loud’ to quote his son.  Yet despite all that he had made a good impression on Tommy.  ‘The bad man wasn’t so bad after all.’ And he couldn’t deny the fact that it was Nick who had been out here searching for his wife and child since the attack on their camp three days ago as if…as if they were already a part of HIS family.  Heath shook his head, his brother; Nicholas Barkley was a conundrum that he wouldn’t mind getting to know. 

Now his lawyer brother Jarrod on the other hand was a whole different kettle of fish. How could two brothers be so alike and yet so different at the same time? Jarrod was someone that he felt he could get to know and have a brotherly relationship with. He hadn’t missed the fact that it was Jarrod who had sat beside his bed that first night at the ranch house, cooling down his fevered body and coaxing sips of cool water down his throat. Tending to his needs despite his unconscious and at times semi-conscious state as though he were tending…his own brother.  Something that he felt was a regular occurrence in the Barkley household if his first meeting with Nick on the range, four days ago was any indication.  Jarrod’s reputation preceded him, and Heath was proud to call him…brother, if only in his thoughts. He was a man of action but in a different way to Nick. His shooting iron and his fists were replaced with his mind and words, although he had no doubt that Jarrod was just as capable with his gun and fists as was Nick if the need arose.  Where Nick’s impatience would lead him to fight first and ask questions later, Jarrod preferred to look for alternatives to the looming battle, to use his keen mind to find an amicable solution if at all possible before physical violence was employed. They said the eyes were the window to the soul.  Some said his eyes showed the depth of his emotional and moral nature, but he had never really grasped their meaning until now when he looked into the deeper blue of Jarrod’s eyes and could almost see his most private thoughts and hidden feelings.               

But the question still remained.  Would his brothers Jarrod and Nick accept him and his family as their own?  And what of their youngest brother Eugene, whom he was yet to meet? How would he feel about a new family member? Then there was Audra, his sister.  She had already taken Tommy to her heart, that was very clear, but would her feelings change if she knew the truth.  In this instance he didn’t think so.  That just left Victoria Barkley.  His father’s wife, the mother of his half siblings, the step grandmother of his children.  How could he expect her to accept him and his family into her own family after what her husband had done twenty-five years ago in Strawberry? Was she even aware that Tom Barkley had had an affair with his mother, Leah Sawyer?  And if she was aware, what were her feelings towards his father? Obviously, she had to have forgiven him considering that he had two younger half siblings.  Would his appearance bring back bitter memories for her and resentment towards him?    

Charger pricked his ears and Heath felt the big horse’s muscles tense under him, jolting him back to the present, suddenly realizing that they were coming up on the rim of the canyon.  “Easy boy,” Heath patted the strong neck before holding up his hand to stop the men following him.  The stallion danced sideways, muscles quivering in eager anticipation when he heard another muted bawl of a cow in the canyon below them.  “They’re down there” Heath announced as Fred, Frank and his brothers rode up beside him. He dismounted and stepped carefully to the rim of the canyon.  Looking down he couldn’t see anything of the floor below as the canyon walls curved away towards the left, but he could hear the occasional bawl of a steer and shrill whistle of the rustlers.  “Sounds like they’re fixing to move out; don’t reckon we’ve got much time to get set up.” Heath turned to look at his brothers and the ranch hands ranged behind them.  “You best get going.  Frank and I’ll meet you at the bottom.”

Jarrod stepped forward, offering his hand, his deep blue eyes searching Heath’s face for…recognition. Heath raised an eyebrow and Jarrod smiled.  “Stay safe.  We’ll see you at the other end.”  Jarrod turned and mounted his horse.

Nick stood glaring at Heath, hands on hips, feet spread apart.  “You be careful boy; you’ve got a pretty missus and daughter waiting for you at the other end of this canyon.  Make damn sure you stay alive to see them again.” Nick offered gruffly before returning to his horse where he mounted and gave the order for the men to ride on.  He turned back in the saddle; looked squarely at Heath, his hazel eyes catching the blues of the blond and nodded before spurring his horse to catch up with his brother.

Heath watched the men ride away, surprised at the feeling of emptiness in his stomach with the departure of his…brothers.  He turned and staggered slightly, grateful for Frank’s steadying hand and the canteen of water thrust at him.  “I guess I could use a dose of that laudanum Frank,” Heath said sheepishly, looking into the worried grey eyes and frowning face of his friend.

Frank guide Heath to sit on a rock and then turned to rummage through the bag of medical supplies that Victoria had given Jarrod that morning retrieving the small bottle of laudanum that he had offered to the boy earlier in the day. “Are you sure about this Heath, I know you’re hurting more than you’re letting on. Esmeralda will be fit to be tied and I sure don’t relish being on the receiving end of her temper if anything else happens to you.”

Heath swallowed the laudanum with a grimace, he hated the taste and the effect it had on him, but he knew if he wanted to get down that trail, he needed the pain killer.  “I’ll be fine Frank and don’t worry about Esmeralda, I won’t let her beat you up too badly,” he replied with tight lopsided smile.

Frank rubbed tiredly at his eyes, shaking his head in surrender.  He returned the laudanum to his saddle bag and then rested beside the blond.

“Jarrod and Nick, they know who I am, don’t they?” Heath asked quietly.  “The way they look at me, it’s like they are searching for something they have lost or are seeing a…ghost.”

Frank pursed his lips and looked out across the chasm of the canyon. “I swear to you son, I haven’t said anything to either of them about your relationship to them.”

Heath nodded, “Maybe not to them but you have spoken with their mother…with Victoria Barkley, haven’t you Frank?”

This time Frank sighed heavily before nodding in agreement.  “Last night after you fell asleep; I was heading to bed when I saw movement downstairs in the parlour.  I went down to investigate, and she was in the parlour, dusting the mantle.”

Heath scrubbed a hand across his mouth, “She knows doesn’t she.  She found the bible and the…letters.”

Frank nodded in confirmation. “The letters only confirmed what she had suspected all those years ago when Tom was in Strawberry.”

Heath turned to look at Frank with a raised eyebrow.  “She knew about my parents?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say she knew, but she did suspect.  Tom told her about his time in Strawberry but not who he stayed with and not that he and Leah had become intimate. She chose her family over the possibilities of an affair.”

“And a child,” Heath added bitterly. “No wonder she agreed to let me come today, she wanted me out of her house…she’s hoping I’ll die isn’t she, then she can keep our secret, live the rest of her life in denial of the truth.”

“No, you’re wrong Heath.  That’s not what she wants at all.”

Heath stood up abruptly.  “Of course, it is Frank.  There is no way she will ever accept the bastard son and family of her husband.” Heath strode over to his stallion dragging himself into the saddle with a pained grunt, not bothering to ask the horse to drop to its knees.  He reached over and pulled his rifle from its boot tied to the right side of his saddle with his left hand and then urged the horse into motion. They reached the edge of the rim and the start of the game trail.  Heath allowed some slack in the reins and leaned back in the saddle, using his weight to balance the downhill movement of his horse as the stallion carefully picked his way down the trail.

Frank sighed, hurrying to catch up the reins of his own horse and follow the blond down the trail.  “You had better make this right Victoria,” he muttered as he started his own descent to the canyon floor.

*****

Chapter 13   

The rustled cattle were content feeding on the lush grass of the canyon floor and were in no hurry to do the bidding of the two men trying to haze them into a herd. They bawled in annoyance at the men and their horses, braking away in small groups of three or four to return to their grazing. Red spat a wad of tobacco out of his mouth and swore once again at the stupid cattle that were ignoring all his prodding and whistles to bunch up and move towards the mouth of the canyon.  He pulled his grey to halt as his cousin rode up beside them, a string of oaths leaving his mouth as he glared at his cousin.

“Well, I don’t see you doing any better.” Red spat back as a big brown muley cow wandered past oblivious to the men’s presence. “We should just forget about the bloody cattle and take the woman and kid and get out of here before someone remembers this place.”

Blain glared at his cousin.  “We already lost the damn stallion; I ain’t losing the cows as well.  We’ll burn them out.”

“You been eating loco weed.  I’ll do most anything for a buck, but I won’t start no prairie fire.” Red retorted in disgust wheeling his horse around and following the muley.

Blain glowered at his cousin’s departing back, pulling his gun from its holster.

*****

Nick, Jarrod, Fred, and the hands made good time to the end of the canyon.  They splashed across the creek a hundred feet from where it emerged out of the canyon wall, the mouth of the canyon still hidden from view by the natural curve of the canyon wall. Nick dismounted and passed the reins to Jarrod.  “Wait here while see what’s going on in there. I have a fair idea where Esmeralda and Leah will be.  Maybe I can get them out of there without been seen.”

Jarrod tossed the reins back to Nick, “Not on your own, you’re not,” Jarrod countered, “If either one or both are injured you will need help getting them out or protecting them if the rustlers put up a fight.”

“Jarrod’s right Nick,” Fred agreed, seeing the big rancher about to object.  “But take Sam as well.  If the girls can’t get out under their own steam, you’ll need someone to cover your backs. And take this too.” He added, handing Nick a deputy badge.  “Esmeralda might be more inclined to believe you are there to rescue them if you’re wearing this.”

Nick accepted the badge with a nod and pinned it to his dark vest. “All this jawing is wasting time. Give us fifteen minutes and then come on in.  The canyon bends to the left before opening out so you should be able to get in without been seen.”  Nick didn’t wait for an answer instead moving purposely towards the canyon followed by Jarrod and Sam.

*****

“Mama, when is Papa coming?  I don’t like those men and I don’t want to go with them.  I want Papa,” Leah wrapped her arms around Esmeralda’s neck and buried her face in her mother’s long hair.

“Soon sweetheart, Papa will be here soon.” Esmeralda closed her eyes, praying that she spoke the truth and that her husband would be there soon to rescue them.           

*****

Heath closed his eyes and gritted his teeth allowing his stallion to pick its way carefully down the game trail that in places was nothing more than a shallow depression in the rock face of the canyon. It wasn’t fear that forced his eyes closed, he had every faith in his horse to safely navigate them to the canyon floor, but more the fiery pain in his chest and shoulder and the dizziness that kept his eyes shuttered.  He concentrated on the sounds he could hear from the canyon floor, the yells and whistles of the rustlers and the answering bawling of the cattle and the occasional curse from Frank as he followed behind him.  Heath felt the shift in the balance of his horse as the trail began to level out under their feet and sighed in relief as the jarring from his horse’s downwards steps eased off along with some of the pain.

“Take a minute Heath,” Frank suggested as he passed his canteen to the blond, eyes narrowing in concern at the tight lines of pain he saw in his friend’s face.  “Why don’t you rest a spell here? I can take care of this end of things on my own.”  Frank knew it was useless the moment he uttered the words and the ice-cold glare he received in reply only confirmed his suspicions.  Heath handed the canteen back without a word and kicked his horse into motion once again.  They still had almost a mile of canyon floor to traverse to reach the cattle and his wife and daughter.

*****                   

After checking on Gyorgy once again and ensuring herself that the old man still had a tenuous hold on life waiting for news of his daughter and granddaughter, Victoria wandered aimlessly around the big house, stopping from time to time to pick up a portrait of her family, her children, crowded around her and Tom in their growing years. Portraits that had been taken to commemorate each of their children’s milestones; Jarrod’s twenty first birthday, Nick’s eighteenth birthday; Audra’s thirteenth birthday and Eugene’s portrait, the only one without Tom, taken the night before he left to further his education at Berkeley.  Tom had been killed just before Gene’s thirteenth birthday and somehow it hadn’t felt right to take a portrait when Tom’s death was still so raw to the family and then his sixteenth birthday had come and gone. Victoria placed Eugene’s family portrait back on the mantel in the parlour with a sigh.  How could it be, she wondered, that a week ago all those pictures felt complete but now…now they felt as though a piece was missing from each one of them…in fact a whole portrait was missing from the collection.  She tried to envisage each picture with the blond son and brother that none of them knew about, where he would stand, how he would fit into the family pose. Would it be beside Nick, who always stood behind a seated Tom; or would it be next to Audra and Gene who sat on the floor in front of her and Tom; or perhaps next to Jarrod who stood behind her?  The rancher or the lawyer; the cowboy or the lawman.  Would they ever get the chance to find out? Esmeralda seated to her right with the twins sitting, one on each of her knees and a proud Heath standing behind her and next to his brothers or perhaps Esmeralda on one side and Audra seated on the other with a twin each, the four brothers ranged behind them and her in the middle with the newest grandchild.  Would she get that chance?

*****

Keeping close to the rock wall and carefully moving between the boulders Nick, Jarrod and Sam moved stealthily into the canyon and climbed up onto the ledge above the cave.  Nick allowed a small sigh to pass his lips and a smile to turn up the corners of his mouth when he spied both Esmeralda and Leah, sitting on the ledge not twenty feet from them sharing food from a tin plate.  He wasn’t surprised that they hadn’t heard their approach as the bawling of the cattle and the cursing of the two rustlers below them had all but drowned out any noise they made.  Not wanting to startle the pair into screaming in fright, Nick picked up a few loose pebbles lying by his hand and threw them, to land beside Esmeralda. Startled by the tiny clatter of pebbles beside her she turned, wide eyed to stare at the three men climbing onto the rock ledge, the lead man with his black gloved finger raised to his lips in a sign of silence.  Aware enough to realize the men were clad in cowboy attire and that the leading man was wearing a badged Esmeralda nodded her headed in understanding, gathering Leah up in her arms.

“Mama?” Leah asked.

“Quiet sweetheart.  Just do what I tell you alright and keep quiet.”

“Is Papa here?”

“I don’t know honey.  But help has arrived.  You need to be brave for a little while longer and then we’ll see Papa again.”

Nick edged out onto the ledge while Jarrod and Sam stayed hidden amongst the rocks, keeping low he moved across to where Esmeralda sat with Leah.  “I’m Nick Barkley, your husband sent me.”

Esmeralda gasped, “Is he…?”

“He’s down in the canyon along with Frank Sawyer. You’ll see him soon.” Nick replied with a small smile. 

“In the canyon, but how…?” Esmeralda began.

“Rode down the game trail along the back wall.”

Essie sighed. “Of course he did and Frank’s just as foolhardy.” 

Nick raised an eyebrow but said nothing to dispute her observation, one he whole heartedly agreed with. “Time to get out of here; can you both walk?” Nick helped Esmeralda to her feet.

Leah peered around Esmeralda’s shoulder and looked at Nick.  “Are you the bad man that fought with Papa?”

“Leah Rosetta,” Esmeralda warned, “That’s no way to speak to the man who is here to rescue us.” She turned to Nick. “Sorry.”

Nick chuckled, “Must run in the family, Tommy asked me the same thing.”

“Tomašis is with you? He is alright?” Esmeralda’s emerald green eyes glowed in excitement at the thought of being reunited with her son and husband again.

Nick nodded, “He’s at the ranch with my sister and Mother.  Besides a broken arm he’s fine.  We’d better get going; the rest of the posse will be coming through the opening in a minute.” Nick held out his arms to Leah, not sure if she would come to him or not. She hesitated, clinging harder to her mother but after a quiet word and nod from Essie she reluctantly released Esmeralda and allowed herself to be picked up by Nick.          

*****

Blain glared balefully at his cousin’s retreating back.  There was more than one way to make these cattle move.  Digging his spurs cruelly into his horse’s sides forcing it to jump forward into the nearest cow and with a rebel yell he discharged his gun into the air startling the surrounding cattle. Red spun his horse in surprise and surveyed the milling cattle.  Pulling his own gun, he threw his voice behind his cousin’s and similarly discharged his gun into the air, causing the nervous cattle to start bunching and mooing lowly in agitation.  The big muley pushed into the bunched herd ramming its one horn into the side of a steer.  The steer bellowed in rage and swung around to attack the muley, causing the rest of the bunched cattle to move off at a dead run, collecting the remaining grazing cattle in their stampede to get away from the two combatants. 

*****

Heath and Frank were halfway along the canyon floor when they heard the first shots fired, quickly followed by a second volley of six shots, excited yells, and the unmistakable rumble of cattle in stampede.  Throwing caution to the wind they spurred their horses into a run, both hoping and praying that Nick Barkley had been able to rescue Esmeralda and Leah in time. 

*****

Fred Madden led the remaining Barkley hands through the canyon opening, indicating for them to spread out across its mouth, just as Blain set the stampede in motion.  Duke glanced around quickly, ensuring that Nick, Jarrod, Sam and the two girls weren’t in the vicinity before ordering the men to head the cattle off and turn them back up the canyon.                         

*****

Hearing the commotion below them Nick quickly passed Leah back to Esmeralda and ordered her to stay with Jarrod and Sam as he moved out onto the ledge and looked down on the stampeding herd below them.  He could see Duke giving orders to their hands to turn the herd even though he couldn’t hear what was been said.  Looking back down the canyon he could just make out the blur of movement indicating that Heath and Sawyer were riding headlong into the turned cattle. Just as he thought of firing a warning shot for the two men, a rider appeared on the path leading up from the canyon floor to the ledge he was standing on.  Pulling his gun Nick ordered the rider to stop as a terrified scream rent the air. “Hold it right there and drop the gun.”

*****

Too late Blain realized their exit was blocked by a group of riders who were turning the stampeding cattle back up the canyon and directly towards him.  Cursing in anger he pulled his horse to the side and allowed the cattle to run blindly past him before turning towards the path that would take him to the rock ledge where he had left the woman and child.  Watching the stampeding cattle below as he allowed his horse to climb the path to the ledge, Blain was startled to come face to face with the deputy standing on the ledge. Cursing yet again and forgetting that he had already fired all the rounds in his gun to start the stampede, Blain ignored the chilling scream and Nick’s order to drop the gun, instead bringing his gun to bear on the rancher.  Blain’s faced showed shocked surprise as the two bullets from Nick’s gun entered his chest before his features went slack and he slipped in a boneless heap to the ground.

*****

Heath and Frank saw the cattle stampeding towards them and pulled their horses to the side of the canyon, allowing the cattle to run past, knowing that once they reached the end of the canyon and the wall the herd would stop and eventually return to grazing.  Heath searched anxiously amongst the faces of the hands riding towards them but couldn’t locate any of the faces he desperately needed to see. 

Noticing the forlorn look on the blond’s face, Duke rode up beside him.   “They weren’t in the canyon when the cattle stampeded.  Nick, Jarrod and Sam headed into the canyon before the stampede and had climbed up onto the ledge Nick told us about.”   

Heath’s only acknowledgment that he had heard Duke’s words was a curt nod of his head before he kicked his stallion into motion and continued up the canyon followed closely by Frank.

“I’m sure they’re fine Heath,” Frank offered quietly.

Heath sighed, “I don’t know what I’ll do if they’re not Frank. I can’t bear the thought of living without them.”

Frank reached out and gripped Heath’s good arm tightly, bringing both horses to a stop.  “That’s not going to happen but if it did, you’ll going on living Heath, for Essie and Leah. And remember you still have Tommy waiting for you at the Barkley ranch.” Frank searched Heath’s face, only relaxing his grip when he saw acquiescence in the emotive blue eyes.  “Alright then, let’s bring our girls home.”

The two men rode on, only stopping momentarily when they came upon Bert and Joe beside the remains of a downed rider. Bert shook his head in reply to the unasked question.  “Not one of ours Marshal, I’m guessing it’s one of the rustlers. The grey horse over there,” Bert nodded towards the canyon wall and the horse standing with reins trailing, “fits the description the old man gave Fred.”

Heath studied the horse for a moment, remembering his daughter and the red-haired man riding it back at the camp, before nodding, “that’s the horse alright.” Without a second glance at the remains on the ground, Heath kicked his horse into motion again, knowing that Frank would follow.  They rode on in silence, hearts pounding loudly in their chests and thoughts in disarray, much like the churned-up canyon floor from the passing of the stampeding herd.  Heath stopped, sucking in a deep breath at the sight of Sam leading the chestnut horse and the blanket wrapped figure draped over the saddle down off the path to the ledge.

Sam smiled encouragingly at Heath and Frank, “they’re up there with Nick and Jarrod but you’ll have to walk, there’s not much room at the top for the horses.”

Heath sat his horse staring at Sam, “are they…?” he couldn’t finish, dreading what Sam might say.

Sam nodded, “They seem fine, tired and hungry maybe.”

Frank had already dismounted and was standing beside Heath’s stallion, waiting to help if his assistance was required, but knowing better than to ask. Instead, he prodded Heath into action.  “You coming, boy, or are you just going to sit there all day?”    

Heath visibly shook himself, before slowly dismounting with an audible gasp, his knees threatening to buckle under his weight.  He held onto his saddle horn with his left hand, grateful for the added support of Frank’s hand on his arm.  Taking in several deep breaths, he allowed his racing heart to slow and his breathing to even out.  Nodding at Frank that he was alright he stepped away from his horse and started a slow pace up the path to the ledge and his waiting wife and child.

*****

Nick stood silently over the dead rustler, head bowed, his black gloved hand tightly gripping Blain’s empty gun.

“Are you alright Nick?” Jarrod asked worriedly as he came to a stop beside his brother.

Nick looked down into the canyon to where he could see two of the men standing beside a body on the ground, praying it wasn’t one of their men and then further out to where he could see Heath and Frank had pulled to the side allowing the stampeding cattle to pass by them.  He let out a relieved sigh when the two men resumed their ride unscathed.  “His gun was empty when he turned it on me. I ordered him to drop it but…”

Jarrod pursed his lips, “did YOU know it was empty when you shot him?”

“Of course not.” Nick growled vehemently, closing his eyes as he replayed the last few minutes in his mind.   “I told him to hold it right there and drop the gun, but he ignored me and pointed it at me, finger on the trigger, but I was faster.”

Jarrod squeezed his brother’s arm, “then you did nothing wrong.  It’s not your fault he didn’t count how many bullets he had fired to start the stampede.  If you hadn’t shot him, it could have been you lying there instead or as well as him.”

Nick sighed, “I know that, dammit Jarrod but…but it still feels as though I shot an unarmed man.”
“I’m sure nobody is going to see it that way Nick. He pointed a gun at you that could very well have been loaded.  He had no intention of giving himself up.  He was a cattle thief, kidnapper who had no qualms about selling an innocent young woman and child into servitude or worse down on the border and a murderer.  Rosetta is dead and Gyorgy will be very soon if not already.  He was already a dead man walking. No court will blame you for killing him.”

“My head knows that Jarrod…are Esmeralda and Leah alright?”

“They’re fine Nick.” Jarrod affirmed, squeezing Nick’s arm in support.

“Good.  Heath will be here in a few minutes.  Go back and stay with them, send Sam over here so we can get this body out of here.  Leah doesn’t need to see anymore death if we can help it.”

Jarrod pulled his brother into a quick hug.  “It’s over for now Nick.  Esmeralda and Leah are safe and soon to be reunited with Heath and Tommy. That’s what counts.”  

Nick untied Blain’s bedroll from behind the saddle and unrolled it on the ground while he waited for Sam to join him.  They wrapped the body in the blanket and then tied it across the saddle of his horse. Sam then led the horse back down the path as Nick returned to where Jarrod, Esmeralda and Leah waited.

*****

Heath was breathing hard as he and Frank made the ascent up the path.  The only thing keeping him going was the thought of his Essie and Leah waiting for him at the top.  He should have taken another small dose of laudanum before he started up.  Lord only knew how he was going to get back down.  His chest and shoulder were on fire and he thought he could feel a wetness under the bandage.  He grimaced, not from pain so much as from the dressing down he was going to get from Esmeralda when she saw the state he was in. 

*****

Chapter 14

“Papa, Papa,” Leah cried as she wriggled out of Esmeralda’s arms and ran to Heath as he stumbled to a stop on the ledge, Frank’s arm around his waist the only thing keeping him on his feet.

Heath dropped to his knees as his daughter ran into his outstretched arm, hugging her tightly to his chest with his good hand. “Are you alright honey?” he asked gently, chin resting on top of the small head buried in his chest.  A small nod and sniffle his only answer.  He felt a pair of tender arms slip around his neck and smelt the unmistakable scent of vanilla that accompanied his wife wherever she went. He allowed himself to fall back into her arms as he drank in her smell.  “Essie are you alright? What about the baby? Did they hurt ya?”       

“Oh Heath, we’re fine, they didn’t really hurt us.” Esmeralda replied, glancing quickly at Frank who was standing beside them when she realized she seemed to be taking more and more of her husband’s weight.  “What about you Heath? I thought…when he shot you…”

“I’m fine Essie, love,” Heath slurred as he slipped out of her arms and crumpled in heap at her side, still holding Leah to his chest.

“Frank?” Esmeralda beseeched as Nick lifted her gently to her feet so that Frank could check the blond.

“Papa!”  Leah reached for her father again as Jarrod lifted her into his arms.

Frank sighed, having noted the red spotting on the bandage under the blue shirt but also the strong pulse and nodded, looking up at the four people watching his every move. The two brothers, tight lipped and grim-faced holding Essie, and Leah in their arms.  Oh, how he wished… “He’s alright Essie, a bit the worse for wear, but just passed out.”

Esmeralda slumped back into Nick’s arms in relief, “thank God, I thought….”

Frank cringed as a pair of emerald green eyes flashed at him before she straightened and turned a fiery glare on Nick.  Relief flooded her, quickly followed by anger, even though she had silently prayed for her husband to find them.  “And just what is he doing out of bed, Nick Barkley, in his condition?”

“Now Essie,” Frank began before Nick could answer.

“Don’t you, now Essie me, Frank Sawyer.” Esmeralda snapped sharply.  “You’re no better, allowing him to traipse all over the countryside injured.” A soft sob, “when he shot him…I couldn’t…he couldn’t shoot back…I was in the way…he laughed…”

Frank stood and gathered the distraught young woman into his arms as silent sobs racked her body.  Frank stroked the long tangled haired, “he’s strong Essie love, he’ll be fine.  You know Heath; nothing was going to stop him from coming after you and Leah.”

“Silly fool,” Esmeralda sniffed, accepting the folded white handkerchief from Jarrod with a nod and small smile.

“Mama is Papa going to be alright.” Leah asked as Esmeralda took her daughter from Jarrod.

“Yes Love,” Esmeralda replied looking down at Heath and Nick who was now squatting beside his…brother.  “Your Papa will be just fine once we get him home.”

“Will we see Tommy and Grandmama and Grandpapa at home too?”

Esmeralda sighed, “We’ll see Tomašis and maybe Grandpapa…” she looked hopefully at Frank for confirmation, but he could only give a small shrug.

“He was alive when we left this morning but…”

“And Grandmama?”

“Oh Leah,” Esmeralda hugged her daughter close to her chest.  “Grandmama is watching over us now, even though we can’t see her, she is here…” Esmeralda patted Leah over her heart, “…and will always be with us now.”

Nick stood and touched Esmeralda gently on the arm.  “We need to get Heath, you and Leah back to the ranch before it gets dark. Are you up to riding?  It will be the quickest way back.  I’ll take Heath with me.”  

Esmeralda nodded.  “We can ride, just please look after Heath.”

Nick squeezed her arm.  “We will.”  He looked down at Heath who hadn’t as yet regained consciousness and then to Frank.  “Will that stallion of his let me ride it and will it get down on its knees for us so we can load him up if I take him in front of me?”

Frank nodded, “I’ve done it with him, and Heath has also taken other riders on board a time to two as well.”

“Alright then let’s get that horse up here.” Nick ordered.

Frank took Esmeralda’s arm, “I know you want to stay but there just won’t be enough room for all of us and the horse up here,” he stated as he gently began guiding her and Leah down the path to the canyon floor.

*****

Victoria left the parlour as silently as she had entered, yet there was a determination to her steps as she climbed the sweeping staircase to the upper floor and her room.  She took a moment to compose herself and then picked up her pen and writing paper.  The family was still not complete, and she needed to rectify that oversight immediately.

Eugene Barkely

Berkley CA

You are needed at home immediately.

Family is safe.

Important news and discussion on your arrival.

Love Mother

 

Victoria nodded; what else could she say?  Come home and meet your new brother and his family. She folded the missive and hurried back down the stairs in search of Silas whom she thought would be in the kitchen making preparations for the evening meal.

“Miz Barkley,” Silas smiled as he chopped the last of the beef for the stew he was making.  “I thought a hearty stew would be good for tonight, not knowing as to how many would be around the table but if you want me to make something else…”

“Stew will be fine Silas; in fact, that is a very good idea, perhaps with an apple pie and fresh cream for dessert.” Victoria suggested.

“Master Tommy will like the apple pie, that is for sure.”

“What young boy doesn’t?”

“Even them older boys like their apple pie.  You expecting them home tonight with Miz Esmeralda and Miss Leah?”

“Oh, I hope so Silas.”

“Sure will be good to hear children’s voices in the house again. It’s been too quiet for far too long now, cepting for Mister Nick of course. That Master Tommy sure does take after his Uncle Nick though.  We’s might be grateful for what quiet we have left.”

Victoria smiled. “You might just be right Silas.” Victoria held out the note she had written, “Would you mind taking this over to the bunkhouse and asking one of the men to ride into Stockton and have it sent to Eugene immediately.”

“Yes Miz Barkley.” Silas wiped his hands on his apron and took the offered paper from Victoria.  “Do you want him to wait for a reply?”

“No and tell him to tell Robert we will be in to pay for the telegram tomorrow.”

“I’ll get right on it Miz Barkley.”

Victoria left the kitchen and returned to Gyorgy’s room.  Somehow it felt right that they should wait together for news of their granddaughter. The pained, harsh breaths of the last three days had given way to a slow stutter that she feared would cease at any moment. She grasped the cold hand and squeezed gently, leaning over the feeble figure in the bed.  “Hold on just a little longer Gyorgy.  You’ll see Esmeralda and Leah soon.”

*****

Frank led Esmeralda and Leah back down the path to the canyon floor where Fred, Duke and the Barkley hands were waiting.  Sam and another hand had moved away from the group and were holding the reins of the two rustler’s horses with their tarp wrapped cargos tied to the saddles.  His and Heath’s horses were grazing peacefully a few yards away with Nick and Jarrod’s horses, under the watchful eyes of several more of the hands.  He led Esmeralda and Leah over to where Fred and Duke were waiting, their eyes darting between him and his charges and the path behind them.  Despite his best attempts at an encouraging smile, he could read the concern in the two faces of the men waiting for them.  “Fred, Duke,” he acknowledged with a nod of his head, “let me introduce Esmeralda and Leah Thompson; Sheriff Fred Madden and Duke McColl, the Barkley ranch foreman.”

“Misses Thompson, Miss Thompson, it’s a relief to find you safe and well.” Fred replied.

“Ma’am,” Duke nodded his head in greeting although his eyes immediately strayed back to the top of the path and the ledge where he knew Nick, Jarrod and Heath were.

Frank glanced back up to the ledge for a brief moment before he turned back to answer the unasked questions from the two men standing before him.  “Nick and Jarrod are both fine and Heath is currently taking a little unscheduled nap, but he will be fine too once we get him back to the house.  It might be a good idea though to send someone for the doctor and have him meet us at the ranch.”

Duke immediately turned to the waiting hands, “Reb, ride into town and fetch Doc Merar out to the ranch. We’ll meet you there in about four hours.”

“Sure thing Duke,” Reb replied, spurring his horse towards the mouth of the canyon.

With Reb on his way, Duke turned back to Frank.  “What else do you need?”

“A horse for Essie and Leah; Nick is going to ride double with Heath on the boy’s stallion.”

Duke nodded towards the grazing horses.  “They can ride Nick’s horse; Coco is calm and reliable.”

Frank turned back to Esmeralda who was staring worriedly up at the ledge she and Leah had just journeyed down from and squeezed her hand gently, “don’t worry we’ll take good care of him.  You just look after yourself and Leah and before you know it, you’ll be a family again.”

Esmeralda reached up and kissed Frank lightly on the cheek.  “Thank you for finding us and for keeping that fool husband of mine alive.”

Frank shook his head. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.  That was all Nick and Victoria Barkley’s doing, I’m just along for the ride.  Nick’s been out here searching for you and Leah since you were kidnapped and Victoria, Jarrod and Audra have been looking after Heath, Tommy and Gyorgy for you.”  Frank pulled Esmeralda into a bear hug.  “You don’t know how relieved I am that you and Leah are alright.” Releasing her, he gave her an encouraging smile. “Now I had better get that stallion up there before Nick starts hollering.  The way Tommy tells it, that dark haired rancher sure is loud.”

Esmeralda giggled, “Like someone else we know.”

“Exactly like someone else we know…” Frank agreed before walking over to where the horses were grazing and picking up the trailing reins of the bay stallion.  As he walked back past Essie, he gave her a wink and whispered “…and he’s already made himself part of the family.”                        

Esmeralda stared in wide eyed astonishment as Frank led the horse back up the path, her heart pounding hopefully in her chest. Did he mean… Tommy didn’t know who his father’s family was and surely Heath hadn’t told them; he was so adamant that the Barkley’s were never to know about him…them.  She shook her head; she must be reading too much into Frank’s words; unless Heath had unknowingly betrayed his vow to his mother while he was fevered. She had heard his fevered ramblings in Spanish Camp after he had been shot.  Then he had spoken of his emotional past, of the war, of his time in Carterson, of things that he would never reveal in conversation, things that Frank had cautioned her to never reveal to Heath that she knew about.  Frank?  He wouldn’t betray Heath’s confidence, of that she was sure, despite his continued pleas, like her own, that it was time for her stubborn husband to make contact with his family.  Esmeralda sighed in frustration or was it anticipation.  She wasn’t sure which.  She just knew that she wasn’t about to allow Frank’s off handed comment to go unquestioned.  She just had to be patient until she could get Frank alone and question him at length about the situation and the feelings of the Barkley family. So lost in thought was she that she didn’t hear Duke speak to her, wasn’t aware that he was standing beside her until he lightly touched her on the arm, causing her to startle and flinch away from him.

“Sorry Misses Thomson,” Duke apologized quickly, “I didn’t mean to startle you, but you were miles away.”

“That’s alright Mister McColl,” Esmeralda smiled reassuringly at the older man, “but you’re right I was lost in thought,” she replied glancing up the empty path.

Duke followed her gaze, “your husband will be fine once we get him back to the ranch, Ma’am.  He’s just as stubborn as any Barkley I’ve ever met.” Duke turned back to Esmeralda, missing her quick inhale of breath his words caused her. She offered a small soft laugh in response.

“You don’t know how stubborn he can be when he sets his mind to it.”

Duke turned back to the top of the path and the hidden brothers, all three of them.  “Oh, I think I have a fair idea about that Ma’am.” He smiled at the quizzical look on the young woman’s face.  “I’ve had plenty of experience with Barkley stubbornness over the years and your husband displays the same stubborn streak, if not more so than Nick and Jarrod and even their father Tom Barkley. In my opinion Ma’am it’s a good trait to have, it’s what has kept your husband alive this long.  Now you best get mounted up before ‘ol Nick starts hollering.  He’ll want to head off as soon as they get your husband on his horse.”  Duke held Nick’s horse steady as Esmeralda mounted then he turned to Leah and squatted down in front of the young girl.  “Now Miss Leah, will it be alright if I lift you up onto the horse in front of your Mama?  Or would you like to ride with me instead?”

Leah looked from Duke to her mother and then up to where she knew her papa was.  “I want to ride with Papa.” She stated with a pout and hands on her hips. “Papa always lets me and Tommy ride with him and Tommy rode with him last so it’s my turn now.”

Duke pushed his hat back on his head and smiled at the child standing defiantly in front of him displaying all the mannerisms of a certain blond aunt she had yet to meet. He shook his head in bemusement thinking just how lively the Barkley ranch was about to become before looking up to Esmeralda for help.

“Leah, sweetheart, Papa’s not well at the moment and he can’t ride with you.  Mister Barkley, Nick, needs to help your Papa and you can help Papa too by riding with me or Mister McColl.”

Leah scrunched up her face in thought for a moment, “Can I ride with Uncle Frank?”

Esmeralda sighed, she had hoped to get Frank alone on the ride back to the ranch and pin him down for some answers.  It seemed that everybody knew who Heath was and she needed to know how.  “Not this time sweetheart. Uncle Frank is helping Papa too.  I think it would be best if you let Mister McColl lift you up here and you ride with me.  I promise Papa will take you for a ride as soon as he is feeling better.”

“You can pick me up Mister McColl,” Leah agreed, “But you won’t hurt me will you, the other man was mean, and he squeezed my arms really hard.”  

“No Miss Leah, I won’t hurt you, I promise.  I’ll treat you just like a newborn baby.”

Duke replied sadly.  What a pity those men were already dead he thought.

“I’m not a baby Mister McColl, I’m five and a half years old.” Leah replied indignantly.

“My mistake Miss Leah, you are a young lady.” Duke chuckled softly as he lifted the child up and placed her safely in front of her mother.  “There now, that didn’t hurt, did it?”

“No, thank you Mister McColl. Papa, Papa. Look Mama it’s Papa.”

*****

Chapter 15

Esmeralda dropped tiredly into the comfortable, golden velvet covered armchair that Nick and Jarrod had quietly carried into her husband’s room and lifted her feet up onto the matching footstool. In the confines of the small, sparsely decorated room and with only Heath’s deep even breathing to act as a calming balm, she closed her eyes and allowed the tears to fall unbidden down her cheeks. Tears of joy, knowing that her children, Tomašis, Leah and their unborn sibling and Heath were safe; but also tears of deep grief for her parents that would never know the joy of their third grandchild or the new life that was to be theirs in their twilight years.  She dabbed at her eyes with the corner of the delicate lace edged handkerchief that had been gently placed into her hand by Victoria Barkley as soon as she had dismounted from Nick’s horse and had been ushered through the large oak door towards the guest room and her father. 

Esmeralda felt the comfort of Victoria’s arm around her waist as she was guided across the floor.  “I’m so sorry Esmeralda but your father’s time is near.  He has been holding on to know that you and Leah are safe. I’ll bring Leah and Tommy to you.” Victoria had squeezed her hand in silent support and sympathy before leaving her at the guestroom door to collect her children.  She remembered taking a shaky breath and then pushing the door open; of taking an involuntary step backwards at the smell of death that lingered under the heady scent of the vases of roses and wildflowers scattered around the room.  She stood in the doorway to her father’s room, allowing her eyes to adjust to the soft lamp light that illuminated Gyorgy’s still body. For one long silent moment she thought she was too late but then she heard the soft stuttered wheeze of her father’s breathing and hurried to his side.  Essie took his cold, work roughened hand in hers and squeezed gently.  “I’m here Papa;” she whispered in his ear. “We’re all here Papa, all safe. Heath and his brothers rescued us.”       

 

“Ess.” The word was just a whisper of air, the twitch of the cold fingers a cool breeze in her hand but the smile that lifted the taut lips and enlivened the sunken cheeks for just a moment was real. “Rosie.” The long sigh that followed was soft and peaceful as the final breath left her father’s body.

“Mama, Grandpapa?”

Esmeralda looked up through the glistening tears welling in her eyes as her two children stood solemnly in the doorway with Victoria. She opened her arms to her children who needed no further encouragement to join her.  “Grandpapa?” Tommy asked quietly.

Esmeralda looked to Victoria, inclining her head in acknowledgment of the tears she saw in the older woman’s eyes before Victoria turned away from the door.  “Grandpapa is at peace Tommy.  He is with Grandmama now.” Esmeralda hugged her two children close as they mourned the loss of their parents and grandparents.

Drawing in a deep breath and straightening in the chair, Esmeralda looked across to the sleeping form of her husband. The doctor had ensured her that Heath hadn’t done himself any further harm by riding after her and would be fine with a few days’ bed rest and food. She stifled a giggle.  Heath and bed rest just didn’t fit in the same sentence. She sighed, oh how she wished she could feel Heath’s strong arms envelope her in their warm embrace; to hold her tight; to give her comfort; to tell her that everything would be alright; to guide her through this nightmare.  

Esmeralda and Leah sat on Coco and watched as Nick and Charger, led by Frank slowly made their way down the path with their precious burden safely wrapped in Nick’s strong arms.  As soon as they had safely descended the path and were once again on level ground, Esmeralda carefully steered Coco to her husband’s side.

 “Papa?” Leah asked in a whisper.

 “Your Papa will be just fine once we get him back to the ranch.” Nick replied in a surprisingly soft voice to the young girl before nodding encouragingly to Esmeralda.

The rescue party moved out, led by Frank and Duke with Nick and Heath following behind, flanked by Jarrod on one side and Esmeralda and Leah on the other.  Within a half an hour Leah had fallen asleep in Esmeralda’s arms and Frank moved back and lifted the sleeping child into his arms.  Esmeralda smiled gratefully at the Marshall and then asked quietly if they could talk. Frank sighed internally but nodded, knowing exactly what questions were about to be asked and allowed his horse to drop back behind the brothers.  A few minutes later after assuring herself that Heath was fine for the moment Esmeralda dropped back to ostensibly check on her daughter.

After checking that her daughter was still asleep Esmeralda eyed Frank speculatively. “Who told them and does Heath know they know?”

Frank checked that their conversation was not going to be overheard and then replied quietly.  “As far as I know Nick and Jarrod don’t know Heath is their brother, but they are suspicious about him.  Victoria Barkley does know…” Frank shook his head, “I didn’t tell her, I didn’t have too.  Gyorgy told Victoria where to find your wedding picture.  Sheriff Madden wanted a picture of you for the search and Victoria found it and Heath’s bible…”

Esmeralda groaned as the implications of what Frank was saying became clear. “And the letters. Oh Papa, what have you done?” Whilst she had remonstrated on a number of occasions with Heath about his refusal to contact his family and her wish that he do so, this was not how she had wanted the Barkley’ s to learn of Heath’s and ultimately their existence.  “How did Misses Barkley react, Frank? Are we wasting our time riding to the ranch? Does Heath know that she knows?”

“One question at a time Essie.” Frank smiled.  “Victoria was understandably upset when she realized who Heath was and that her husband had lied to her all those years ago, but she wasn’t angry at Heath.” Frank paused and cast an eye on the brothers ahead of them. “I believe she has already accepted Heath as Tom’s son, but I can’t tell you what she is going to do with that knowledge. Whatever happens you aren’t wasting your time returning to the ranch.  This needed to come out and I for one am glad that it finally has. And don’t forget Tommy and Gyorgy are waiting for your return.”                                                                                            

“Tommy, is he really alright Frank and Papa?”

Frank nodded, “Tommy is fine and has Miss Audra and Silas, their houseman wrapped around his little finger already. Even Victoria takes joy in her grandson being around. Gyorgy…your Papa was alive when we left this morning, but he is very weak.  I’m sorry Ess that’s all I know.”  Frank cast a sideways glance at Esmeralda.  “Heath knows that Victoria knows who he is and before you ask, no he isn’t happy about the situation, but he also realizes that without his family, his brothers help;” Frank paused and nodded to the three men riding ahead and still oblivious to the conversation going on behind them, “he knows this, you and Leah wouldn’t have been possibly.”

Essie looked at the riders ahead of them, her blond-haired husband in the arms of his dark-haired brother, the same brother that he had had the altercation with two, no three days ago she was sure, so much had happened, she had lost track of time and their oldest brother riding beside them.  “What’s going to happen when we reach the ranch Frank?”     

Frank sighed, “I can’t answer that, Essie.  That will be up to Victoria and Heath to decide.” Frank pursed his lips, “but I have a good feeling about the future, provided of course one stubborn blond haired Barkley listens to reason.” Frank turned and offered an encouraging smile. “I think our boy is just about to meet his match in the stubborn stakes, more than one actually if my suspicions are correct.”

 Esmeralda didn’t respond to Frank’s last statement, instead she rode beside her old friend and sleeping daughter in silence, large emerald eyes intently watching for any sign of her husband waking ahead of her. Movement ahead of the three brothers caught her eye and a frown crossed her tied features as she watched the Barkley foreman, Duke McColl give orders to several of the hands who then turned away from the group and headed across the wide expanse of range.  Her frown deepened as she recalled the short conversation she had had with the man as they waited for Nick and Frank to bring Heath back down the trail.  

Duke followed her gaze, “your husband will be fine once we get him back to the ranch, Ma’am.  He’s just as stubborn as any Barkley I’ve ever met.” Duke turned back to Esmeralda, missing her quick inhale of breath his words caused her. She offered a small soft laugh in response.

“You don’t know how stubborn he can be when he sets his mind to it.”

Duke glanced back to the top of the path and the hidden brothers, all three of them.  “Oh, I think I have a fair idea about that Ma’am.” He smiled at the quizzical look on the young woman’s face.  “I’ve had plenty of experience with Barkley stubbornness over the years and your husband displays the same stubborn streak, if not more so than Nick and Jarrod and even their father Tom Barkley. In my opinion Ma’am it’s a good trait to have, it’s what has kept your husband alive this long.}

“Frank, how does Duke McColl know who Heath is?”

Frank turned his gaze from the three brothers ahead of him to look at Esmeralda with a raised eyebrow.  “As far as I know he doesn’t, why do you ask?”

Esmeralda shook her head, “It’s nothing, just something he said about knowing all about Barkley stubbornness and that Heath displays that same stubbornness.”

Frank pondered Essie’s words, remembering the considered looks that he had seen on the faces of the two dark haired brothers and their ranch foreman over the last few hours as they watched Heath. He shook his head, “I don’t know Essie love, but I feel as though I am missing something important, something that proclaims to those two brothers and McColl, Heath’s parentage.  I just don’t know what it is.  What I can tell you though love is that it is no use worrying about it now.  I’m sure whatever it is will come to light once we reach the ranch and Heath and you have had time to recover.”

Esmeralda sighed, for every answer she gained she felt as though two more were left swinging in the breeze, teasing her with their secrets.

Esmeralda shivered as the cool night air slipped through the partially open window.  Forcing her tired body to move, she levered herself up from the chair, pausing as she stood to rub a hand lovingly over the slight distension of her belly as the unborn babe within showed his or her displeasure at been disturbed. Glancing quickly to ensure herself she hadn’t disturbed Heath’s sleep with her ungainly efforts to rise she moved quietly across the room to pull the parted drapes closed, but still leaving the window open behind them, allowing the gentle breeze to softly billow the drapes into the room. With the drapes closed the room descended into a shadowed gloom.  Esmeralda moved to the dresser and carefully lit the kerosene lamp, turning the wick down so that a soft amber glow spread around her chair and the bed. Picking up the hand sewn quilt that Victoria had given her earlier that afternoon, she wrapped it around her shoulders before retaking her place in the chair beside her husband’s bed.  With a sigh she carefully fingered the small, delicate squares of cream and rose-pink silk and lace that made up the quilt remembering the long winter nights that she had spent huddled around the campfire with her mama making similar quilts only in the more traditional bright colours and patterns of their gypsy heritage. So lost in thought and remembrance was she that she didn’t see the pair of blue eyes solemnly watching her from the bed.

*****

Nick handed Jarrod his glass of scotch, placed his glass of whiskey on the corner edge of his brother’s desk and then dropped heavily into the chair in front of the desk, stretching his long legs so that his feet rested against the front of the modesty panel of the large oak desk. “I don’t know about you Jarrod, but this is one day I hope to never repeat again in my lifetime.”

Jarrod rested back in his leather desk chair and sipped the scotch, savouring the smooth texture and seamless blend of flavours as he eyed his younger brother across the expanse of the desk. “I couldn’t agree more Brother Nick but at least it ended with a satisfactory outcome for the Thomson’s. They are a family again…”

“Not quite Pappy, Gyorgy and his wife are still dead.” Nick lent forward, picked up his glass of whiskey and raised it in a silent toast to the elderly couple before downing the contents in one swallow. 

Jarrod nodded tiredly in agreement, remembering the sad look on their Mother’s face as she followed them up the stairs after delivering Tommy and Leah to Esmeralda.  After entering the room Heath Thomson and Esmeralda are now residing in Victoria had wiped a stray tear from her cheek and advised them that Gyorgy had just passed away.  After accepting a comforting hug from Jarrod, she had become all business quietly directing he and Nick in the care of Heath Thomson until Howard Merar’s arrival.  After Heath had been seen to, she had then asked them to assist Frank in preparing Gyorgy’s body for the casket and removing it to the cold store in preparation for the Undertakers arrival the next day. “Have you spoken to Duke about sending a couple of the hands over to the Thomson place to dig the graves for Gyorgy and Rosetta yet Nick?”

Nick shook his head, toying with the glass in his hand.  “Not yet.  I thought I’d leave it to Mother to discuss with Esmeralda where she would like her parents buried; then we can ride over and dig the graves.”

Jarrod didn’t reply, content to close his eyes and let the day’s events settle in his mind.   The ride out to Nick’s camp with Heath and Frank Sawyer; Heath’s tracking abilities despite his injuries; the rescue of Esmeralda and Leah; the return trip to the ranch with Nick supporting the young blond on the saddle in front of him; attending to Gyorgy and now contemplating those same day’s events in companionable silence with his brother. If he were asked what his main regret of the day was aside from the death of Gyorgy Potcovari he would have to say it was missing watching the decent of Heath and Frank Sawyer down the game trail into the valley.  To be honest he had doubted the two men, despite their assurances to the contrary, would be able to safely negotiate the trail into the valley.     

“Why do you think he reminds us of father?”

Jarrod opened his eyes and studied Nick who was idly rolling the whiskey tumbler in his fingers. “I don’t know Nick.”

“But he reminds you of father too, doesn’t he?” Nick closed his eyes. “It was like looking at father out there, the same eyes, the same quick anger, the feeling that I knew him. It felt right helping him, holding him in my arms, like I was holding my brother.” Nick stood abruptly, running a calloused hand through his dark hair.  “I’m going to go clean up.” Nick placed the tumbler on the desk and walked from the room, not waiting for a response from his brother.

Jarrod watched his brother walk from the room.  “Yes, he does Nick, he feels exactly like our brother.”

*****

Heath wasn’t sure what it was that woke him, perhaps it was the cooling night air coming through the partly open window; or the sudden darkness in the room when the drapes were closed; maybe the lighting of the lamp or his sub conscious telling him that he was needed.  Whatever the reason he lay back against the pillows content to drink in the sight of his beloved Essie silhouetted against the soft glow of the lamp light as she sat in the chair beside his bed.  He frowned as he tried to remember how he had gotten back to this room.  His last recollection was of being on the ledge above the valley, hugging his wife and daughter.  Vague disjointed images of blue sky, black gloves, Charger’s neck, murmured unintelligible words and strong arms holding him that felt right, that made him feel safe assailed him in their nonsensical mystery. His frown deepened at his wife’s sigh as she sat fingering the quilt wrapped around her shoulders. 

“Penny for your thoughts?”   

The soft words startled Esmeralda from her thoughts and a wide smile lit up her face as bright emerald met equally bright blue eyes.  “Oh Heath,” Essie reached for his outstretched hand as the words caught in her throat and tears tumbled down her cheeks. “Papa…”

Heath closed his eyes, and a deep sadness filled his heart despite Essie’s unspoken words. “I’m so sorry Essie love; I should have been there with you. You shouldn’t have had to go through that alone.” Heath crooned as he tugged his wife closer to the bed.  “Come and sit beside me.”

“I am sitting beside you.”

Heath raised an eyebrow, “I mean on the bed Essie.”

“I don’t…Doctor Merar said you need to rest.”

“And I’ll rest better with you beside me. I need to hold you in my arms Essie, need to know you’re real.”

Tears glistened in the emerald orbs as Esmeralda rose from the chair and moved to sit on the bed beside her husband.  “I am real Heath, you saved us.” Essie patted her tummy, “And Leah.  We’re all safe now and together again.”

Heath wriggled over grunting softly as pain flared in his chest and shoulder determined to pull Esmeralda down into his arms despite her weak protests.  With his wife snagged in his good arm and the quilt tucked around her shoulders he sighed sadly.  “I couldn’t save all of you Essie love. Rosetta and Gyorgy…”

“…Wouldn’t want you to dwell on their deaths Heath.  You saved what was most important to them, their grandchildren.”

“And you Essie love.  You were important to them too.” Heath hugged his wife close, “and to me. Where are those two young rascals of ours anyway?”

“Audra took them both to the nursery after they had seen for themselves that you were really here and sleeping.  She’s a wonderful Aunt, Heath.”

Heath stiffened at Essie’s words, recalling Frank’s words at the rim of the valley.

“Jarrod and Nick, they know who I am, don’t they?” Heath asked quietly.  “The way they look at me, it’s like they are searching for something they have lost or are seeing a…ghost.”

Frank pursed his lips and looked out across the chasm of the canyon. “I swear to you son, I haven’t said anything to either of them about your relationship to them.”

Heath nodded, “Maybe not to them but you have spoken with their mother…with Victoria Barkley, haven’t you Frank?”

This time Frank sighed heavily before nodding in agreement.  “Last night after you fell asleep; I was heading to bed when I saw movement downstairs in the parlour.  I went down to investigate, and she was in the parlour, dusting the mantle.”

Heath scrubbed a hand across his mouth, “She knows doesn’t she.  She found the bible and the…letters.” Frank nodded in confirmation. “The letters only confirmed what she had suspected all those years ago when Tom was in Strawberry.”

Heath turned to look at Frank with a raised eyebrow.  “She knew about my parents?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say she knew, but she did suspect.  Tom told her about his time in Strawberry but not who he stayed with and not that he and Leah had become intimate. She chose her family over the possibilities of an affair.”

“And a child,” Heath added bitterly. “No wonder she agreed to let me come today, she wanted me out of her house…she’s hoping I’ll die isn’t she, then she can keep our secret, live the rest of her life in denial of the truth.”

“No, you’re wrong Heath.  That’s not what she wants at all.”

Heath stood up abruptly.  “Of course it is Frank.  There is no way she will ever accept the bastard son and family of her husband.”

“So, they all know who I am?” he asked bitterlyEsmeralda gripped his hand tightly in hers. 

“No, only Victoria Barkley knows but I’m sure your brothers suspect and…” Essie shook her head, “I don’t know how or why but I think Duke McColl knows as well.”

“Did she treat ya alright?” Heath demanded, allowing his agitation and worry to slip into his vocabulary.

Essie smiled into the crook of her husband’s arm. “Oh yes Heath, she has been wonderful…she hugged me and welcomed me, us, all of us to the family.” Esmeralda closed her eyes remembering the love and compassion she received from the diminutive Barkley matriarch after she and the children had ventured out from her father’s room.

Victoria wrapped her arms around the young woman and held her as she cried for the loss of her father. “Esmeralda I am so sorry for your losses.  Gyorgy was a strong and selfless man, and I will miss getting to know him better.  He loved you very much.  It was that love and strength that saw him hold on until he knew that you and Leah were safe. I just wish it was under better circumstances that I welcome you, Leah, Tommy and Heath to our family.” Victoria released Esmeralda and gave the young woman an encouraging smile.  “We’ll talk more tomorrow, after you and Heath have had a good night’s sleep but for now you need to be with Heath.  Please do me the honour of allowing Audra and myself to look after my grandchildren tonight.” 

“She really said that she welcomed us to the family, called them her grandchildren?” Heath asked; his voice catching as he dared to hope that maybe his fears, his mama’s fears after all these years were unfounded.  

*****

 Chapter 16

Jarrod stood in the doorway of the Barkley dining room and contemplated its vacant interior.  He had fully expected his Mother to be sitting at the table, calmly sipping on her first cup of tea of the day as she waited for her family to appear from their various early morning activities.  The fact that she wasn’t and especially given that the previous evening’s dinner had been partaken for the most part by the ranch’s occupants in their own rooms, he found her absence to be quite perturbing. He and Nick had eaten supper in the kitchen after cleaning up and napping for several hours.  Audra had elected to eat and indeed sleep in the nursery with Tommy and Leah as the young girl was feeling overwhelmed from her ordeal, the loss of her grandparents; the injury to her father; the strange house and its occupants.  Frank Sawyer had ridden into Stockton to send a wire to his deputy in Spanish Camp and then had eaten with Fred Madden at the Cattleman’s and Esmeralda had taken over the care of her husband in his room. And their Mother had been conspicuous by her absence once the unpleasant task of preparing Gyorgy for burial had been completed.

“Can I get you a cup of coffee Mister Jarrod,” Silas asked as he walked past carrying a platter of bacon and eggs to the dining table.

“No, I can get it thanks Silas,” Jarrod followed Silas into the room and headed to the sideboard where a pot of freshly brewed coffee sat surrounded by a dozen bone china cups.  Picking up one of the rose patterned white cups Jarrod poured his coffee, added sugar, and then turned back to watch Silas rearranging the dining table platters, moving the breakfast steaks to Nick’s end of the table and the eggs closer to where his Mother and Audra sat. The fresh biscuits and homemade butter were placed in the middle of the table. “Where is everybody this morning? I expected to see Mother down here already.”

Silas paused his rearranging and looked up as Jarrod took his customary seat at the head of the table.  “Well Mister Jarrod, I can’t rightly say where Miz Barkley is this morning as I haven’t seen her yet but perhaps she is looking in on the children or Mister Heath and Miz Esmeralda.  Miss Audra sent Master Tommy down to say they would have breakfast in the nursery this morning. Miss Leah is still not fully rested after her ordeal.  As for Mister Nick he went over to the bunk house earlier but I’s expecting him back momentarily.  Mister Nick doesn’t miss breakfast if’n he can help it.”

Jarrod laughed, “Nick doesn’t miss any meal if he can help it.”

Silas smiled, “you surely got the rights of that Mister Jarrod. I expect the Marshall should be down soon too.  If you don’t need me, I best get to putting those breakfast trays together for the youngsters and Miz Esmeralda and Mister Heath.” 

Jarrod fingered the rose cup in his hands contemplatively, perhaps Silas was correct, and his Mother was checking on their house guests and would be down shortly.  He settled the cup in its saucer and leant back in the chair with a sigh; so why did he have the distinct feeling that his Mother was deliberately avoiding him?

“Mother;” Nick stopped mid stride, the jingling spurs tinkling into silence a moment after the forward motion of their wearer came to a stop. Nick eyed Jarrod sitting at the empty dining table.  “Where is everyone, I didn’t miss breakfast did I?”

“No Brother Nick, you haven’t missed breakfast,” Jarrod cast a hand over the laden table, “as you can see, the plates are still full.”  Jarrod watched silently as his brother poured a cup of coffee at the sideboard and then move to take his seat at the table. 

 “Well then where is everybody? I’m starving and the foods getting cold.”

Jarrod rested his elbows on the table and his chin on his fisted hands. “Good question.  I believe Audra is having breakfast in the nursery with Leah and Tommy.  Leah had a restless night according to Silas.”

Nick grunted, “Poor kid, can’t say as I blame her though after what those two animals did to her and her family.” Nick sighed and then stabbed a piece of steak with a shrug; “No sense in letting the food go cold.” Nick forked eggs and bacon onto his plate next to the steak and then grabbed a biscuit. “Besides this is a working ranch and I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

“Pass the plates Nick, as you say there is no need to allow the food to go cold.” Jarrod silently filled his own plate as Nick continued to shovel food into his mouth. “Nick.”

“Mmmmm.”

Jarrod raised an eyebrow as Nick grabbed another biscuit from the plate, “Do you feel as though Mother is deliberately avoiding us?”

Nick paused, the biscuit halfway to his mouth and swallowed hard before turning his full attention to his brother.  “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t really know, nothing I can definitely put my finger on, more a gut feeling if you like.”

Nick took a bite of the biscuit in his hand, “and what is your gut feeling telling you?”

Jarrod paused between mouthfuls.  “Besides the fact that we haven’t seen Mother since Howard Merar left yesterday afternoon.  Mother told me before I rode out yesterday morning that she would explain everything to me after we rescued Esmeralda and Leah.”

“Explain what?”

“I don’t know Nick, but I think Mother knows more about Heath Thomson than she has let on.”

“Like what exactly?”

Jarrod raised an eyebrow. “If I knew that we wouldn’t be having this conversation, Nick.”

Nick placed his fork on his plate with a sigh and leant back in his chair and wiped his mouth with his table napkin.  “Yeah, I get the same feeling.  There’s just something about Thomson, he feels so familiar, like I’ve known him all my life, yet I know I’d never met him before we tangled the other day.” Nick pointed his finger at Jarrod, “And I’ll tell you another thing, I reckon McCall knows who Thomson really is too.”

Jarrod narrowed his eyes and studied his brother across the table.  “What makes you say that, Nick?”

Nick shrugged, “Just something he said while we were out their following Thomson as he tracked the rustlers. I was complaining about how blasted stubborn that boy was, and he said he was no different to any other Barkley he’d ever met.”

“Did you ask him what he meant?”

Nick shook his head, “Didn’t have time, it was about then that we found the rustlers and then we got busy.  To be honest I forgot about it until just now.” Nick threw his napkin on the table and pushed back his chair, “But I think I might just go and ask him right now.”   

Jarrod dropped his own napkin on the table and pushed back his chair, “And I think I might just join you.”

Movement on the stairs caught the brother’s eyes as they headed to the front door and   Jarrod was the first to acknowledge the newcomer.  “Morning Frank, sleep well?”

“Best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long while thanks Jarrod.  Didn’t realize I had overslept breakfast though.”

“You haven’t, not really,” Nick replied “But this is a working ranch and I have work to do.  Better get in there and eat while the food is still warm. Just ask Silas to heat anything up that is cold.”

“You mean you didn’t eat it all Nick?” Frank asked with a laugh as he joined the two men at the foot of the stairs.

“Funny,” grumbled Nick as headed for the door.  “Coming, Jarrod?”

“Be right there, Nick.”  Jarrod turned back to Frank.  “Sorry I can’t join you for breakfast Frank, but we’ll catch up at lunch.”

Frank nodded, “Nick seems in a hurry about something.”

Jarrod looked at Nick who was standing impatiently at the door, “we need to catch McCall before he heads out with the men.  Hopefully, he can solve a mystery for us.”

Frank watched Jarrod stride across the foyer to join his brother, a suspicious knot forming in the pity of his stomach.  He had a fair idea of what mystery the brothers hoped to solve, one he too would like answers to.

Nick glared at Jarrod, “Well it’s about time.”  He yanked the heavy oak door open and stepped through the threshold, coming to an abrupt halt when he walked into the body standing on the other side of the door.  “Gene!”  

*****

Victoria gently placed the mother of pearl inlaid hairbrush, a gift from her husband on their thirtieth wedding anniversary, on her dresser and then took one final look at her reflection in the mirror. Satisfied that the light dusting of powder she had applied to her face covered the tell-tale signs of the sleepless night she had just endured, she rose from the seat in front of the dresser and walked purposefully towards her bed and the side table.  Taking a deep breath, she picked up the items stacked in a neat pile on the table. Heath’s bible, the letters from Tom and Leah, the daguerreotype of Leah and Heath and the small album of pictures of her and her husband Tom and…Heath’s father.  Fingering the two letters nestled in their envelopes, almost reverently, she closed her eyes and offered a silent promise to their authors; I promise to do right by your, no, OUR son and his family. Taking a deep breath and cradling the items in the crook of her right arm, Victoria opened her bedroom door and stepped out into the empty hallway. She paused at the nursery door and smiled at the sounds of laughter of her grandchildren coming from within.  Grandchildren. Oh, how she had longed for grandchildren and now they had been gifted to her, not by her own maternal children but by the son of her husband that she hoped to soon claim as her own.  After listening to the sounds of the children for a few more precious moments she continued on down the hall to the door at the top of the stairs, the door that held so much promise and yet also so much heart ache, lies and hidden promises behind its strong timber façade. 

Silas was on his second trip up the stairs with a breakfast tray for Heath and Esmeralda, having already delivered the first one to the nursery for the children and Audra when he caught sight of Victoria making her way down the hall from her room.  “Morning, Miz Barkley.”

“Good morning Silas,” Victoria answered as she stopped in front of the door to the room Heath and Esmeralda were staying in. “Is that for Esmeralda and Heath?”

“Surely is Miz Barkley.”

“If you don’t mind Silas, I’ll take that.” Victoria said with just a hint of nervousness in her voice.

Silas eyed the items nestled in Victoria’s arm and smiled knowingly.  “It’ll all work out; you’ll see Miz Barkley, and those young’uns will be a permanent feature in this house.  Why don’t you make a little room on the tray so you can put those things you’re carrying on it too.” 

Victoria took the laden tray from Silas with a grateful smile. “Will you ask Jarrod and Nick not to stray too far from the house please Silas?  I will want to talk to them after I speak with Heath and Esmeralda.”

“I’ll do it right away Miz Barkley, before Mister Jarrod and Mister Nick head out for the day.”  Silas turned deep brown eyes to Victoria and offered her a reassuring smile.  “Everything will work out just fine.  You wait and see.  Mister Heath and Miz Esmeralda and those two youngsters, they be part of your family soon enough.”

“Oh, I hope so. Thank you, Silas, for your support and wisdom.” Victoria watched Silas disappear down the stairs before she turned back to the door; taking a deep breath she knocked softly and waited.

*****

Heath blinked tiredly, the room was still in the early morning darkness and he couldn’t hear any unfamiliar noises that warned of pending danger to warrant his early waking. Muffled sounds of distant bawling cattle and the occasional snort of a horse wafted through the open, curtained window. A soft sigh and shift in the weight resting on his good arm caused him to look lovingly at his wife as she snuggled closer to his body. Heath couldn’t help but take comfort in the feel of his beautiful Essie safe in his arms once more.  He closed his eyes and sent a short prayer of thanks to God and his …brothers for the safe return of not only Essie but also for his twins Leah and Tommy. 

His brothers, Nick, and Jarrod… Heath was not too prideful to admit that without their help and indeed also the caring shown to him by Misses Barkley and his sister Audra, the outcome of saving his family and himself would have ended very differently. Heath leant back against the pillows and let his mind drift back to the prior day’s activities.  It had felt right, having Nick and Jarrod…his brothers… riding with him as they searched for his family.  There was no denying that family was very important to him.  Until he had met Essie and Gyorgy and Rosetta and become a father in his own right, he had only had his Mama and her two friends, Hannah, and Rachel to call family.  After his Mama’s and Rachel’s deaths, two deaths that he was powerless to prevent he had promised Essie that he would protect them all until his dying day. A promise, like so many other promises, that was only accomplished by betrayal and…his brothers.

Heath looked down at his wife in the lightening gloom of early morning and gently brushed a stray tress of hair off her face.  She was here because of his brothers. He was here because of the care shown to him by his father’s widowed wife. His children were safe and in the care of his sister.  His family!  The family he had never wanted to have a relationship with other than that of neighbours and now? Now it seemed Victoria Barkley knew who he was, who his father was and instead of turning away from them, a right he truly believed she had, and he deserved, had claimed his children as her grandchildren and welcomed them all into her family.  Heath closed his eyes; I’m sorry Mama for betraying my promise to you by coming here. I know it was wrong of me to want to meet my brothers and sister and I promise I had no intentions of revealing my true identity to them but…Mama, perhaps we were wrong to ask for and keep that promise. If it wasn’t for my brother’s help, then Essie and Leah would be lost to me now.  I need my family beside me, and my family needs their uncles and aunt and…grandmother. Essie tells me that Victoria Barkley has claimed my children, her grandchildren and welcomed us to the family.  What should I do Mama?”   Heath sighed as he felt a soft breeze caress his cheek as the curtain covering the open window fluttered into stillness.

The room had lightened enough for Esmeralda to see the frown marring the features of her husband.  She pushed up from Heath and turned so she was fully facing him.  “Heath are you alright, do you need the pain medicine?”

Heath’s frown disappeared into a smile as his eyes settled on the beautiful face, framed by long dark sleep rumpled tresses sitting before him. “I’m fine Essie love, just thinking.”

“What about, Heath?”

“How lucky I am to have my family here with me.”

“Is that all?” Essie prodded gently.

Heath sighed, “You know me too well Misses Thomson.” Heath leant over and placed a gently kiss on the top of his wife’s head. “I was also thinking about how right it felt to be riding with my brothers, with Nick and Jarrod.”  Heath looked at Essie.  “Is that wrong? I promised Mama but… but maybe that was wrong, to promise her not to contact my family. It feels so right and yet so wrong.”   

Essie reached out and took hold of Heath’s good hand.  “I think, that if your Mama really didn’t want you to make contact with your family at some time in the future, she would never have told you who your father was or given you her bible and the letters.  I believe she realized that with her death you would need your family.”

“But I have my family, you and Tommy and Leah and this little one.” Heath gently patted his wife’s stomach. 

Essie gripped Heath’s hand, “and you’ll always have us, but you also have siblings of your own.  How many times have you wondered what it would be like to have brothers and sisters? Well now you have the chance to find out.”

Heath sighed, “I don’t know Essie love; I can’t deny it felt right riding with Nick and Jarrod at my back but…but what if they don’t want to know me.  What I represent to them about their father…”

“Oh Heath, love, I don’t believe that will happen.  It might take them a while to accept what Tom Barkley did, but I truly believe they will accept you and us just as their mother has.  Take the chance love, to embrace your family.”

Heath wrapped his good arm around Essie and pulled her close to his chest, kissing the top of her head.  “Have I told you I love you?” 

“Mmmmm not in the last eight hours you haven’t.” Essie laughed lightly as Heath bent down and captured her lips with his.  She allowed herself to melt into his arms, enjoying the tender moment before pushing Heath off.  “Patience husband, somebody might come in.”

“Let them.” Heath breathed as he tried to nuzzle his wife again.

Esmeralda pushed away from Heath and rose from the bed, snatching up the soft pale green silk robe Victoria had left for her the evening before, remarking that her own brightly patterned wool robe that she had recovered from her trunk would be far too warm in the current climate. And besides, Victoria had said, the soft green colouring of the robe would accentuate her beautiful emerald green eyes and dark hair.  Slipping into the robe and tying it snugly around her waist she smoothed the soft material over her baby bump. Heath watched Essie move around the bed to the window and draw back the curtains allowing the first rays of the new day to shine on her long dark tresses. There was still a slight breeze blowing through the open window, but the clear blue sky promised of another hot day to come. Essie smiled as she turned back toward the bed. “It’s going to be another hot one today.”

“It’s already scorching in here,” Heath replied with a lopsided smile.

Any response Esmeralda was going to make was interrupted by the soft knock on the door. Essie moved across the room and opened the door to see Victoria Barkley standing in the hall with a laden tray in her arms.  “Misses Barkley, please come in,” Essie stepped back allowing Victoria entry to the room.

*****

“What are you doing here?”

“Hello to you too, Nick.” Gene replied as he stepped past his brother and entered the house.  “Jarrod,” Gene acknowledged as he dropped his bag on the floor.  “And to answer your question Nick, I was hoping you could tell me.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Nick.  “I received this from Mother yesterday afternoon, so after I cleared it with my professors, I caught the last train into Stockton last night.  Stayed at the Cattleman’s as it was so late when the train got in last night and here I am.”

Nick read the missive and then handed it to Jarrod who read it and raised an eyebrow.   

Eugene Barkley

Berkley CA

You are needed at home immediately.

Family is safe.

Important news and discussion on your arrival.

Love Mother

 

“Duke, can wait,” Nick growled, turning around, and heading back towards the dining room followed by his two brothers.  “Mother has some explaining to do.”

Gene followed his brothers, only to stop when he caught sight of Frank who was still standing at the base of the stairs.

“Gene, this is Marshal Frank Sawyer, Marshall our younger brother Eugene.” Jarrod made the introductions as they followed Nick into the dining room.  “Have you eaten yet Gene?”

“No, left as soon as the livery opened.  Can somebody tell me what is going on and why there is a Marshall here?”

“Take a seat Gene.  I’ll get Silas to heat some of this up.  Frank, you may as well join us while we fill Gene in on what has been happening and perhaps you can fill us in on a few more of those missing details that seem to be eluding Nick and myself.” Jarrod gestured towards an empty chair and waited for Frank to take the proffered seat before turning to find Silas coming towards him from the staircase. “Ah Silas just the man I wanted to see.  Can you heat up some of this for Gene and Frank, please?”

“I’s surely can Mister Jarrod.  Won’t take but a few moments Mister Gene, Marshall.  Sure is good to see you home Mister Gene.  Miz Barkley will be pleased to know you have arrived.  Mister Nick, your Mother asked me to tell you not to go too far this morning.  She wants to talk to you and Mister Jarrod and Mister Gene when she done finished talking to Mister Heath and Miz Esmeralda.”

“And just what does Mother want to talk to us about Silas?” Nick demanded.

Silas gathered the cold plates of bacon and eggs and steak, balancing them on one arm before he picked up the plate of biscuits. “That’s not for me to say Mister Nick.” Silas turned from the table and headed to the kitchen.  “I’ll bring back a fresh pot of coffee in a minute.”

Nick harrumphed, “Why do I get the feeling that Silas knows what’s going on around here as well.”

“Now Nick,” Gene quipped, “You know Silas knows everything that happens around here, even before it happens.”

Jarrod turned to Frank, who had studiously been studying the floral pattern of the lace tablecloth.  “Would you care to enlighten us as to what is going on around here, Frank?”   

Frank Sawyer sighed; this was not where he wanted to be.  Right now, he would rather be facing a band of outlaws than the three Barkley men sitting around him. “I’m sorry Jarrod, but I can’t tell you any more than you already know. Anything else that you want to know will have to come from your mother.”

“Will somebody please tell me what is going on?” Gene demanded in frustration.

*****

Chapter 17

Victoria moved further into the room, smiling a greeting to Heath as he levered himself further up the bed to rest against the pillows. “Good morning Heath, how are you feeling this morning?”

“I’m fine, thank you Misses Barkley.” Heath eyed the tray Victoria placed on the chest of draws pensively, having recognised several of the items sitting on one corner.

“Good, good.  Did you both sleep well? I hope you’re hungry.” Victoria busied herself serving a helping of bacon, thanking Silas silently for his foresight in cutting the bacon into finger length strips so that Heath would be able to just use his fork to eat with; and scrambled eggs along with a buttered biscuit on the two plates stacked under the one holding the food.  She could feel the intense blue gaze of the man in the bed as he watched her prepare the plates.  She handed a filled plate to Heath, who accepted it with a nod of thanks and balanced it on his lap.  Victoria passed a second plate to Esmeralda who had moved back around the bed to sit resting against the bed head next to her husband, leaving the golden armchair vacant for Victoria’s use. Turning back to the tray, Victoria poured two glasses of fresh orange juice from the small jug and then hesitated, deciding to leave the glasses on the tray until the young couple had finished eating. “Silas will be up soon with a pot of coffee, unless you would prefer tea, Esmeralda?”         

“Actually, I think I would like a cup of tea Misses Barkley, if it’s not too much trouble.” Essie replied with a warm smile.

“It’s no trouble at all.  I’ll have Silas bring you a cup when he clears the tray.  The children are fine; they were having breakfast in the nursery with Audra when I came past. I’ll have Silas make up the bed in the guestroom across the hall after breakfast.  The room is bigger and I’m sure you will both be more comfortable in there.” Victoria shook her head imperceptibly; she was rambling and she knew it and worse she was sure that her guests knew it too.  Her hand strayed towards the corner of the tray, hovered midway for a moment and then dropped to her side.    

Heath had been watching Victoria silently from under hooded lids, even as he ate the food on the plate, the knot in the pit of his stomach tightening as he waited for her to announce the real reason for her visit. He hadn’t missed the tentative movement of her hand to the corner of the tray, nor did he miss the gentle nudge to his ribs from his wife.  Heath glanced at Essie who smiled knowingly and inclined her head towards Victoria. He rolled his eyes at his wife and took a deep breath before turning his attention back to Victoria.  “Misses Barkley!”

Victoria turned from the tray and looked at Heath and then caught the gentle smile and nod from Esmeralda.

“Thank you for the breakfast but I’m sure you didn’t just come up here to serve us, why don’t you take a seat.  I’m guessing we have a few things to discuss.”

A relieved smile crossed Victoria’s face as she retrieved the items from the tray and sat in the armchair beside Heath’s bed.  “I know it sounds silly, but I really didn’t know how I was going to approach you.” Victoria held up a hand when she saw Heath about to speak.  “Please let me continue and then you can ask whatever questions you need.”

Heath nodded.

“It was never my intention to pry into your life Heath, please believe that.  Fred Madden wanted a picture of Esmeralda and Gyorgy, rest his soul, told me where to find it.  When I first saw the picture of you and Esmeralda on your wedding day it was like I was looking at Tom, your father, on our own wedding day.” Victoria handed over the daguerreotype of Leah and Heath and then the wedding picture of herself and Tom.

Esmeralda gasped in shock.  “They could be twins.”

Victoria smiled and nodded slowly.  “Yes, they could.”

“Misses Barkley, Mister McCall hinted that he knew who Heath was too…”

Victoria nodded, “Duke came to us just after Jarrod was born; both he and Silas knew Tom as a young man.”

“So that’s how you worked it out.” Heath muttered as he stared at the picture of a young Thomas Barkley.

“Yes.  But I already had my suspicions when I found Tomašis, Tommy, hiding in the bushes.  The same blue eyes, the same blond hair and…his name.  Of course, I thought my imagination was playing tricks on me, but I wasn’t certain.  At that point I hadn’t yet seen you Heath but when I did…I’m sorry I had to know.  Then I found your mother’s bible and the letters.  Of course, I immediately recognised my husband’s handwriting and when I saw the address of Strawberry on the envelope, I knew my suspicions, suspicions which I’m afraid to say I have harboured for the last twenty-five years but studiously tried to ignore, were validated.” Victoria paused and looked at Heath trying to discern his reaction, but he showed nothing of his thoughts on his face.  “I’m sorry but once I saw Tom’s handwriting I…I had to know the truth.”

“So ya read the letters.” 

Victoria wiped a lone tear from the corner of her eye and nodded.  “Not one of my proudest moments I can assure you but…I realise you have no reason to forgive me my transgression Heath and I accept that but…but it was a relief to me to finally know the whole truth of what happened in Strawberry between your mother and Tom, not just the truth that Tom thought I should hear. It also made me realise how grateful I am to your mother for the kindness that she showed to my husband.  Had it not been for your mother Heath, this family would not be what it is today.  In saving your father’s life, she also laid the foundations for not only your birth but also those of your sister Audra and brother, Eugene.  Reading the letters also made me realise how grateful I am that Tom didn’t know about you Heath.”

“He wouldn’ta wanted to know me!”

“Oh Heath, no, not all; that I am sure of. Please let me finish and I’ll explain.”

Heath nodded.

“I’m grateful that I don’t have to wonder if Tom knew about you because if he had and hadn’t done anything to help your mother and you, then I don’t think I could ever forgive him, and it would have left me wondering how much more of our marriage had been a lie.  My husband was a man, an imperfect man at times but the one thing I always believed about him was that he believed that his family was the most important thing in his life.  I truly believe that had he known about you then he would have found some way of including you and your mother in his and our lives.  As I said, I knew of the affair and while I had eventually accepted it, I won’t lie to you and say that seeing your mother would have been easy at the time. In fact, it would have dredged up all those feelings of anger and resentment that I had put to rest but…but I could not and would not have stopped your father from having a relationship with his son.” Victoria paused for a moment to gather her thoughts before continuing. “Watching you ride out of the yard yesterday morning I realised I had been given a wonderful gift.  I was watching your father once again.  You are so like him Heath, not just in your looks but also in the way you walk, sit a horse, your mannerisms and values and it is a gift that I am not prepared to lose. Our marriage was a thirty-five-year partnership and like most marriages it had its fair share of ups and downs over the years but one of the things that we always agreed on was equality in our marriage. What was his was mine and what was mine was his. I have given this a lot thought over the past couple of days, questioned my beliefs, my husband’s beliefs, and intentions. He was an honourable man Heath, but like any man he had his failings also and his biggest failing was not following up with your mother in Strawberry. He believed in standing up for what was right, even when it went against public opinion and I always stood behind him. I stood behind him then and I stand behind him now.  You were his son Heath; therefore, you are now my son, Esmeralda is my daughter-in-law, and your children are my first grandchildren and I very much wish to be a part of your lives if you will allow me.” Victoria placed the bible, letters, and the small album of pictures in Heath’s lap and then sat back with a deep sigh to wait.

*****

“So that’s it in a nutshell Gene.  You know as much as we do,” Nick said with a glare at Frank.

Gene looked from brother to brother and then Frank. “Let me get this straight.  The man Nick fought with and who he thought was a gypsy wasn’t a gypsy, but his wife and in-laws were. Then the next day you decide to take some of the hands and run the gypsies off, but mother goes with you as a voice of reason, and you find Heath’s son Tommy and he tells you that there was trouble at their camp.  You find Heath shot and his in-laws dead or dying and bring them back here but there is no sign of his wife and daughter.” Gene paused and Nick nodded.  “Then Jarrod comes home and tells you that Heath Thomson was Marshal Sawyer’s deputy, the Heath Thomson who brought in the Reid gang and he has bought the old Rogers’ spread. You and the hands with Fred Madden start tracking the rustlers who have kidnapped Heath’s wife and daughter.  Jarrod wires the Marshal who arrives the next day and then you all plus Heath join the search find the kidnappers, recover Heath’s family and the rustled cows. Now Heath and his family are upstairs recovering, is that it?”

“I’d say you’ve got the gist of it.” Nick agreed.

“So why did Mother send that telegram wanting me to come home? It’s not like I could do anything to help.”

“That’s what I’d like to know too.” Nick grumbled.

“Uncle Frank,” Tommy called as he rushed into the dining room, only to stop suddenly when he saw the strange man sitting at the table.  He stepped back a couple of paces, walking into Audra who had been following him with Leah in hand.

“Gene,” Audra exclaimed as she felt Leah move around behind her dress. She knelt down to Tommy’s level and tugged on Leah’s hand until she came around to stand with her brother.  “It’s alright, it’s my brother Eugene.  There is nothing to be afraid of.   Come and meet him, he’s not as loud as Nick.”

Gene couldn’t help grinning at Audra’s words as he studied the two children clinging to his sister’s dress.  Although their facial features screamed of being siblings, it was the blue eyes and blond hair of the boy and the dark hair and green eyes of the girl that had caught Gene’s full attention.  They were obviously twins, despite the differences of hair colour and eyes, a fact that Nick had conveniently forgotten in his telling of the events of the past couple of days.  Tommy and Leah looked at one another.  After Tommy nodded at Leah, Leah looked at Audra and nodded too.

Audra stood up and led the twins over to Gene who had stood up as they approached. 

“Hello Sis.” He gave Audra a quick hug and then bent down to greet the children.  “Hello, I’m Audra’s brother Eugene, but you can call me Gene.”

“Hello Mister Gene, I’m Tommy and this is my sister Leah, we’re twins.” Tommy announced proudly as he held his right hand out to Gene, the left arm was resting snuggly in a sling.

“So I see,” Gene smiled as he shook hands with Tommy, “pleased to meet you Tommy and you too, Leah.”

“Miss Audra and I are going to show Leah the kittens in the barn. Do you want to come too Mister Gene?  She hasn’t seen them yet.  Miss Audra said we can have one when they’re older, if papa says we can.”      

“I’d love to Tommy but right now I have some business to discuss with my brothers, maybe another time, alright?”

Tommy thought for a minute and then nodded.  “Alright Mister Gene; come on Miss Audra, Leah.  After the kittens can we visit the new foal?” Tommy asked as he headed out the door.

“I’ll talk to you later Gene.” Audra placed a kiss on Gene’s cheek and then hurried after the twins.

Gene turned back to Nick.  “I think you left something out of your story Nick.”

“And what would that be college boy.”

Gene inclined his head in the direction Audra and the children went.  “You forgot to mention they were twins.”

*****

Heath stared at the items that Victoria had placed in his lap for a long moment before reaching out and lifting his mama’s bible.  He opened the front cover and slipped the two letters between the well-worn pages before closing the cover again.  He set the bible down on the bed beside him and then casting an apprehensive glance to Essie he tentatively opened the album.  The first page was blank but showed the outline of where a picture had previously rested.  This he assumed was where the picture of his father and Victoria normally resided.  He turned the page and stared at the next picture.

“That is your father and his older brother James, your uncle. Tom was a couple of years younger than what you are now.  It was taken just before we left Philadelphia to make the trip out here.”

Heath nodded silently and turned the page.

“Your father and his father, your grandfather, James senior. Tom was about six years old in that picture.”

“If I didn’t know better Heath, I’d swear that was you with your father instead of your mother.” Esmeralda exclaimed, “And it looks very much like Tomašis too. I can see why you thought my son looked familiar to you too Misses Barkley.”

“Yes, there was a striking resemblance.” Victoria agreed.  “Heath, do you have a picture of you and your mother at that age?” Victoria asked curiously, realising that she hadn’t seen any pictures of Heath and his mother, yet it appeared there was at least one from what Esmeralda had just said and…and she had no idea what Leah looked like and what had drawn Tom to Heath’s mother.”

Heath nodded and cleared his throat.  “Yes, it was taken at the county fair when I was five.  We didn’t have much money.  Mama struggled and saved all year ta take me, she wanted ta give me something ta remember the fun we had, and she insisted we take the picture.  It’s the only picture I have of my mama.”

“I would love to see it sometime, if that is alright with you Heath.” 

Essie squeezed Heath’s arm gently.  Heath sighed but nodded.  “It’s under Leah’s pillow. She likes ta sleep with her grandmother.”

Victoria nodded, “And her namesake. Heath, may I ask you something?”

Heath sighed again, closed the album, and looked at Victoria. He knew what she was about to ask, he just wasn’t sure that he could answer her question to satisfy her or himself. 

Victoria took Heath’s silence as permission to ask her question. “If you knew who your father was, who we were, and you had proof of your connection to our family why did you not come to us sooner Heath?”

Heath dropped his eyes to the bed and fidgeted with the corner of the album still resting on his lap.  Essie placed her hand on his, stilling the movement of his fingers.  “It’s time love, time to reveal the promise, put it behind you, let us live without secrets.”

Still with a dropped head, Heath sighed.  “Mama never spoke of who my father was when I was growing up.  All she said was that he was a good man and made the only decision he could at the time. I used ta ask her if he knew about me and she said no.”  He looked up at Victoria accepting the solemn nod of acknowledgment. “I asked her time and time over who my father was and why she never told him.  She said he was wealthy and would take me from her if he knew.  I was his gift to her; I was her sunshine, and she could never give me up. I remember when I was little, I begged her ta find my father so I could have a brother or sister ta grow up with.  She’d wrap her arms around me and promise that one day I would have what I desired but she couldn’t give it to me. I never understood what she meant by that…until now.” Heath shrugged, “As I got older, I started ta resent my father and mama. I watched her struggle every day to earn enough money just ta put a loaf of bread on the table while he did nothing ta help even though mama said he was wealthy.  I worked odd jobs in Strawberry from the time I was six but there weren’t too many prepared ta hire a bastard.”  

Victoria sucked in a breath but refrained from correcting Heath at that moment.  There would be time for that later.

“Once I was old enough ta make it on my own, I moved on, eventually finding Essie and her family.” Esmeralda squeezed Heath’s hand encouragingly.  “Just after the twins were born, I got word that mama was sick, and we moved back ta Strawberry. She passed on four months later.” Heath paused and closed his eyes before shaking himself and continuing. “Just before she passed, she gave me the bible and the letters, finally telling me who my father and family was but…but she made me, us, promise that we would not contact any of you.  She said no good would come of it.  She had accepted and made her peace with Thomas Barkley when she received his letter and didn’t see the point in reliving the past.  She didn’t know whether he ever told ya about her or not, but she didn’t want you, Misses Barkley, ta question his love for you or his family.” Heath released a long-drawn-out sigh.  “I’m sorry; I’m not making much sense. I’m not even sure I can explain it properly.”

Victoria allowed the silence to stretch between them, giving them both time to sort through their thoughts and feelings. Hearing Heath’s story, of which she was certain were only the barest facts of his life growing up, she felt her anger towards her husband’s handling of the affair twenty-five years ago rising to the fore.  But at the same time, she couldn’t help but marvel at the generosity of Leah Thomson to accept the life that she had been dealt at her husband’s hand with grace and love for the young man lying in the bed beside her.  Victoria closed her eyes and drew in a soft breath; it would do no good to show her anger to the young couple before her.  God only knew, this was not of their doing but unfortunately, the only two people who could supply all the answers were beyond reach.  “How do you feel now that you have met your brothers and sister, Heath?”

Heath plucked at the wool blanket covering his legs, avoiding the need to look at Victoria as he thought on her question.  How did he feel? He had always thought he was honouring his mama’s memory by keeping the promise they had made on her death bed.  It had been easy at first. He was angry with his mother, with Tom Barkley even Hannah and Aunt Rachel for keeping his identity a secret. But then after he was injured in the bank robbery and nearly died three years ago a little voice in his head started urging him to contact his father’s family. That voice along with many late-night heated discussions with Essie, Gyorgy and Frank had convinced him to make the trip to Stockton.  He had naively thought that he could keep his mama’s secret and still make contact with his family as neighbours, but the rustlers had upset his plans and here he was, lying in a bed in his father’s house, facing his dead father’s wife and admitting his connection to this family.  And yet…it felt right somehow.  He couldn’t deny the brotherhood or its rightness he felt while riding with Nick and Jarrod yesterday even though he had vehemently tried to ignore those feelings and drive his brothers away.  

Heath sighed, how was he going to explain how he felt to this woman, his father’s wife and the woman who had claimed his children as her first grandchildren? He allowed the silence to stretch between them, not sure if any answer he gave would sufficiently express his feelings.  “Angry, relieved, frustrated, grateful, sorry.” Heath shrugged helplessly.  “Angry that I betrayed my promise to my mama and yet relieved that it is finely out in the open.  Frustrated that it took nearly losing my family, twice, to recognise the truth of what Essie, Gyorgy and Frank kept telling me. Grateful for the help my brothers afforded me.” Heath squeezed Essie’s hand resting on the bed beside him.  “If it wasn’t for their help and Frank’s, I don’t think I could have gotten through the last couple of days or found Essie and Leah.  And I gotta admit it felt right somehow to have them riding at my back.” Heath looked up, catching the grey of Victoria’s eyes with his, “and grateful for what ya done for Tommy and Gyorgy, for all of us but sorry that I brought all a this to your doorstep too.”             

He was so like his father, Victoria thought as she watched and waited for Heath to work through his thoughts and formulate a response to her.  Even the head down and avoidance of eye contact until those thoughts took on substance and meaning were all her Tom.  “Don’t ever be sorry for wanting a family, Heath.”               

“Do the others know who I am?  I kept getting the feeling when we were riding yesterday that they knew or at least were suspicious of who I was?” Heath looked expectantly at Victoria.

“Not yet they don’t Heath.  I wanted to talk to you first before I said anything to them.  Jarrod and Nick were too young to remember Tom in his younger days and I doubt they have seen those pictures in years, if at all.  Audra and Gene barely remember their father as it is. Silas and Duke are the only other ones on the ranch that know.”

Heath nodded his acceptance of Victoria’s reply.  “So, what do we do now?”

Victoria smiled, “Now I would very much like to go downstairs and tell my children about the wonderful brother they have lying in bed up here, if you will allow me to.   It’s time to come home Heath.”    

*****

Chapter 18

Victoria gently closed the guestroom door and then sagged against it with a grateful sigh of relief.  The first half of her mission to unite the two families under the Barkley name had been met with a cautious willingness on the part of Heath.  She looked down at the items in her hands.  Her album of pictures, the daguerreotype of Esmeralda and Heath and…and the letters from Tom and Leah.  That last had been a shock to her.  After agreeing to allow her to speak to her children and reveal Heath’s connection to the family, he had slowly opened the bible and handed her the two letters. Looking up at her he had only said, “There can’t be any more secrets.  Maybe these will help them to understand.”    

Straightening up and wanting to avoid her children waiting below for a few more minutes, Victoria took the back stairs down to the kitchen where she could hear Silas humming to himself as he cleaned up after the breakfast cook. She paused at the foot of the stairs and silently watched him work, appreciating the normalcy of the simple everyday task of washing dishes. There was nothing complicated in the task, not like the one she was about to embark on.

Silas caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to look at Victoria, who seemed to be lost in thought. “Miz Barkley?”

Victoria gave herself a little shake and smiled.

Silas face creased into a wide smile.  “I’s guessing your talk with Mister Heath and Miz Esmeralda went well.”

Victoria nodded, “yes Silas, I believe it did.  Heath has agreed to allow me to tell the others who he is, and they want me to be a part of their family, be a grandmother to their children.”

“I’s surely happy for you Miz Barkley. I’s told you it would all work out. They be a fine addition to this family.  Why Miss Audra has already taken young Master Tommy and Miss Leah under her wing and she surely loves those two children. Even Mister Nick seems to have a soft spot for Tommy and I’s sure Mister Jarrod and Mister Gene feel the same way. Mister Gene done arrived and hour or so ago.”

Victoria reached out and took Silas hand, “Thank you Silas, for everything and not just for keeping this house running these last few days, but also for your wisdom and guidance.  Knowing you had things under control gave me the time and space I needed to sort through my feelings and accept some hard truths about Tom, the situation that he has left us all in and the decision I needed to make.”             

“Was nothing Miz Barkley, just doing my job.  They a fine young family and they deserve the right to be a part of something bigger.”

“Yes, now I just have to convince my children, Silas.”

“I think you’ll find that easier than you think Miz Barkley.  I’s overheard Mister Nick and Mister Jarrod talking at the table this morning.  They both feel a connection to Mister Heath, they just don’t know why, yet.  Miss Audra and Mister Gene both have big and generous hearts.  Once they hears Mister Heath’s story and they’s all see those pictures then they believe, and they will all welcome that young family into their hearts.”

“Oh Silas, I hope you are right.  Nick is the one that I worry about the most. This will devastate him.  He put Tom on a pedestal many years ago and to learn now that his father wasn’t the person that he thought he was…”

“He’ll see the right of it Miz Barkley, don’t you worry. It might take him a might of time, but he’ll make the right decision too, just like you did.”

Victoria patted Silas arm, “Thank you Silas; what would I do without you? Essie would like a cup of tea when you take Heath’s coffee up to him.  Could you also please tell my children to meet me in the study too.”

“Right away.  Would you like me to make you a plate as you missed breakfast?”

“I think just a pot of tea for now. I’m too nervous to eat. Maybe after this discussion.”  

Silas watched Victoria take her leave of the kitchen before he turned back to the stove to reheat the kettle.  He would make the tea before telling the rest of the family to head to the study.  A few more minutes wouldn’t make any difference and it would give Victoria a few minutes to settle herself and prepare. As an afterthought he went back to his room and picked up the small picture of young Mister Tom and himself.  He would show it to Mister Heath when he took up the tray with the tea and coffee.  

Carrying a tray holding Victoria’s pot of tea, a cup and saucer, milk, and sugar, he walked to the dining room door, frowning slightly when he didn’t see Audra at the table.  “Miz Barkley requests your presence in the study.  Where is Miss Audra?”

The three Barkley brothers and Frank looked up at Silas announcement.  “Well, it’s about time,” Nick grumbled.  “Maybe we might get some answers now.”

Knowing why the brothers had been summoned to the study, and not wanting to be a part of the coming discussion Frank stood and placed his napkin on the table.  “Miss Audra is out in the barn with the children Silas.  I’ll send her in and look after the two young rascals.  Beside it will give me a chance to spend some time with them before I have to return to Spanish Camp.”

“Thank you kindly, Marshal.” Silas turned away from the door and headed to the study with the three Barkley men following.

“What’s going on Silas?” Nick demanded.

“Well Mister Nick,” Silas replied without stopping, “That’s not rightly for me to say.  Your Mama be the only one that can answer that.” Silas placed the tray on the small table beside the settee on which Victoria was sitting.  “The Marshal has gone to find Miss Audra and look after the youngsters Miz Barkley. I expects Miss Audra to be in right soon.”

“Thank you, Silas.  That will be all for now.”

Nick waited until Silas had closed the study door behind him before turning to Victoria who was calmly pouring a cup of tea.  “What’s going on Mother?”

“Good morning to you to Nick.”

Nick sighed. “Morning Mother.  Now would you care to tell us why we are having this meeting and more importantly why is Gene here?”

Victoria took a sip of tea.  “This is a family meeting Nick, and your sister isn’t here yet.” Victoria looked up and smiled at Gene.  “Thank you for coming Gene on such short notice.”

Gene bent over and kissed Victoria on the cheek.  “Good morning Mother. It’s good to be home but I can’t say that I’m not curious.”

Victoria patted Gene’s hand.  “All in good time.”

“Morning Jarrod.”

“Good morning lovely lady.”

“What no inquisition, Jarrod?”

“Let’s just say I know when to fold Mother and as you said Audra isn’t here yet.” Jarrod moved around behind his desk, taking a seat in his leather chair, and lent back to wait although he did raise an eyebrow at the album on his mother’s lap.

Gene sat down in the chair in front of the desk, while Nick paced impatiently in front of the fireplace and under the stern stare of his father’s portrait.

The study door opened, and Audra bounced in.  “Good morning, Mother, you wanted to see me?”

“Yes dear.  Good morning.  Come and sit beside me.  We have some things that we need to discuss as a family.”

Nick stopped pacing and turned to stare at his mother. “Finally.” He muttered under his breath.

“I’ll not have any interruptions thank you Nick.”

“Yes Mother.”

“Firstly, I would like to thank you Jarrod and Nick for your help and support of Heath in the search for Esmeralda and Leah. I know he greatly appreciates all that you did for him.  And you too Audra for all your help with Tommy and now Leah.  It gave me the time to comfort Gyorgy as he waited for news and to do some soul searching of my own.”

Audra reached out and gripped Victoria’s hand.  “Mother, is everything alright?”

“Yes, fine thank you love.” Victoria fingered the album in her lap.  “Before we start our discussion, I wish to show you all some pictures and then we will talk about what you have seen.”

Jarrod and Nick shared a look; whatever was about to happen was in some way connected the Heath Thomson.

With a nervous sigh Victoria removed the daguerreotypes of Heath and Esmeralda and of herself and Tom on their wedding day and handed them too Audra. 

Audra accepted them with a quizzical look at Victoria before turning to study the first picture of Heath and Esmeralda.  “Essie looks so beautiful.  That dress seems to be a mixture of colours.  I hope she still has it; I would love to see it.” 

“We didn’t come in here to look at dresses Audra.  This is a working ranch and I have work to do.” Nick grumbled.

“I’m just saying, Nick…” Audra looked at the second picture Victoria had given her.   “Your wedding photo Mother…oh my,” she gasped “But this looks just like Heath.”

“What are you talking about Sis?” Gene took the pictures from Audra’s limp hand and studied them for a minute.  He looked at Victoria and then back at the two pictures.  Even though he hadn’t yet met the Thomson’s he had no trouble in recognising the diminutive young lady standing proudly next to her tall husband as his mother and father.  He glanced back at the picture of the Thomson’s again.  “Oh boy…” and silently passed the daguerreotypes to Jarrod.

Unnerved by his siblings’ responses to the two pictures and impatient to see what all the fuss was about Nick crowded in beside Jarrod’s chair and stared at the daguerreotypes that Jarrod had laid out side by side on his desk.  “What the…,” no it couldn’t be, “Jarrod…Mother; what are you saying?” Nick demanded as he moved from the desk and started pacing again.

Jarrod nodded.  It all made perfect sense now.  He had limited memories of his father as a young man but certainly enough to recognise the resemblance of Heath to a young Tom Barkley.  “I think it’s more a case of what Mother is not saying Nick. These…” and Jarrod pointed at the two pictures, “explain why we have both felt as though we knew Heath, why he seemed so familiar to us.”

“Oh no Counsellor, no way, it’s not possible, Mother tell him he’s wrong. It’s some kind of trick, I knew he was a no-good lousy Gypsy pretending to be something he’s not.” Nick growled, his voice rising with each thought.

“Nicholas…”

A soft knock at the door interrupted Victoria, as Silas quietly entered the room and moved to Victoria’s side casting a quick glance around the room. He couldn’t quite read the emotions on Audra and Gene’s face, but Jarrod’s seemed to show understanding and perhaps acceptance. No doubt Jarrod’s thoughts were returning to that time, twenty-five years ago when Mister Tom returned from his extended trip to Strawberry and all the arguments, fights and tears that followed between his parents.    As for Nick, well that one was easy for him to discern, anger.  “Mister Heath asked me to fetch this and give it to you Miz Barkley.”

“Thank you, Silas.” Victoria offered a weak smile to their houseman before taking a breath and slowly turning over the daguerreotype. This was what she had asked to see, but now…she wasn’t sure that she really did want to look at the face of the other woman to have captured her Tom’s heart. Closing her eyes for a moment but aware of the faces watching her, she opened them again and allowed them to focus on the smiling face of the small blond boy being held in a loving embrace on his mother’s lap.  She couldn’t stifle the gasp that fled her mouth at the sight of the beautiful young woman, dark hair pulled back in a soft bun, sparkling eyes and radiant smile that stared back at her.  This was not the saloon tramp and floosy that had ignited so many heated arguments all those years ago.  This was a young woman, a loving, caring mother who had endured years of hardship to raise her husband’s son alone in a broken-down mining town.  I was her sunshine.  Victoria nodded; no truer words had ever been spoken.  Victoria opened the album and flipped the pages to find the picture of Tom and his father.  She carefully removed it from its mounts marvelling at the two likenesses.  They could be identical twins she thought, as she handed the pictures to Audra.  

Audra nervously accepted the two pictures.  She wasn’t naïve and had put two and two together.  Somehow Heath was her brother.  She looked at the two pictures, not entirely sure at what she was seeing.  It appeared to be the same young boy in both pictures, but she didn’t recognise either of the adults. She looked at her mother in confusion.

“Your father and his father, your grandfather and Heath and his mother, Leah.”

Audra stared at the pictures, “They’re identical.  Mother are you trying to tell us that Heath is father’s son?”

“What?” Nick shouted as he snatched the two pictures from Audra’s hand, stared at them both for long moments and then threw them on to Jarrod’s desk in disgust.  “Have you any idea what you’re saying Audra.  Its lies, some trick to get money out of us.  Father would never do that to Mother.” He returned to the fireplace and began pacing faster, occasionally glancing at the portrait of his father.  “I have a good mind to go up there and throw that stinking, thieving gypsy out on his ear right now.” Nick turned from the fireplace intent on carrying out his threat.

“You will do no such thing Nicholas.  What you will do is control your temper and your voice and listen to what I have to say.  Is that understood?”

“Oh, come on, Mother, “Nick swallowed a chocked off laugh, “you don’t really believe this tripe, do you? Jarrod, tell her.”

Jarrod had been studying the latest pictures while Nick ranted before silently passing them on to Eugene.  Instead of responding to Nick he rested his deep blue eyes on Victoria.  “Is this all the evidence you have to support your claim, Mother?” he asked quietly.

“Not you too Jarrod,” Nick growled in frustration before turning his glare on Eugene.  “And I suppose you believe this cock and bull story as well, college boy.”

“That’s enough Nick, shut up and let Mother tell us the rest.” Jarrod ordered.  “There is more, isn’t there Mother.”

Victoria nodded.  “Yes, there is Jarrod.  Before I show you, I want all of you to listen and understand.  Jarrod you were only eight at the time, but do you remember when we lost your brother Thomas Jnr.”

Jarrod nodded, “Yes, Nick was four and I had to look after him because father had gone away, and you spent a lot of time in your room.”

Victoria smiled, “yes I did and I’m sorry I put you in that position. Your father went away because I drove him away.  I was inconsolable when Thomas was stillborn and I blamed your father for everything, even though it was not his fault, or mine but an act of God.  Nevertheless, your father left.  He had just invested in a mine in a little place called Strawberry and that’s where he went.  By the time he came home I had realized what I had done, accepted what had happened and was ready to apologise to your father and move on with our lives together but…I could tell when he came home, he was hiding something.  Your father was never a very convincing liar, or so I thought, and he eventually told me about his time in Strawberry and Leah Sawyer.”

“I remember the arguments and fights after father came home, but I didn’t know what they were about, but as the weeks passed, they seemed to lessen and finally you and father made up.”

Victoria chuckled softly, “we just got better at hiding our disagreements from you children but you’re right I did eventually forgive your father and we made up, as you put it.  Your father had an affair while he was in Strawberry…”

“No.”

“Yes, Nick.  He didn’t go there with that intent, but he was attacked one night and severely injured.  Heath’s mother, Leah Sawyer found him in the alley behind the hotel and cared for him at her home.  He said he had amnesia from the head injury and had forgotten who he was and us at first. One thing led to another and he and Leah had an affair.  When his memory returned, he left Strawberry and returned to us.  Several months later he found a buyer for his interest in the mine and never returned to Strawberry.”

“So that still doesn’t prove this Heath Thomson is father’s son.” Nick responded defensively.

“No, it doesn’t Nick, not on its own, not even with the likeness of your father and Heath in the pictures but these do.” Victoria withdrew the two envelopes from under the album and handed them to Jarrod.  “Nick, you are not to touch these or damage them in anyway.  Whatever you believe of your father, remember he was a man and like any man he had his imperfections.  Jarrod would you please read the letters to your siblings and take note of the dates.”

Jarrod had been studying the envelopes.  He immediately recognised his father’s handwriting, having seen it many times on the ranch documents.  Carefully withdrawing the letter from the stained envelope, he scanned the short missive, a lump forming in his throat.      

12th August 1849

 My Dearest Leah,

 I just wanted to let you know that I arrived home safely. And to also thank you once again for your benevolence in my hour of need. I realize the risk you took, caring for me all those months in your home. I hope and pray that the gossip that abounded with my presence has come to an end with my leaving. 

 Please know that I do not regret the months that we spent together but my heart and my life belong here with my loving wife Victoria and my two sons Jarrod and Nicholas.

 I wish you well in your life and I truly hope that you will find the man of your dreams, but I sadly cannot be that man.

 You will always hold a special place in my heart.

 Thomas Barkley, Esq.

 

Jarrod firstly studied his mother, who only nodded at him with a weak smile and then looked to his siblings who had remained silent as they digested their father’s admission.   

“The other letter please Jarrod.” Victoria prodded gently.

Jarrod folded and placed the letter back in its envelope before picking up the second one, noting the delicate female handwriting.  This letter and envelope, like the previous one was stained and torn in places, shown that it had been read many times over the years.

“12th August 1849” Jarrod glanced at his father’s letter. The dates were the same.

 

“My Dearest Thomas

 I have already missed today’s mail run so I apologise that this letter will have to wait another week before posting.” Jarrod checked the envelope, there was no post mark on it, meaning it had never been sent.

 “I’m not sure how to tell you this. Indeed, I suspected but wasn’t certain before you left but I can no longer deny myself or you the truth of the matter.  I am with child Thomas, your child. Approximately three months along now.  You know my story, one that my dear friend Rachel Caulfield also confirmed, so you know I had not been with another man for two years before you.

 I am so happy Thomas; you have left a piece of yourself with me to cherish forever.  I understand, even though it was so terribly hard for me to give you up, that your life belongs with your wife and children and I expect nothing of you from our time together. But I promise you, this son or daughter of yours will be brought up in a home of love and compassion.

 I realize that life here will be harder than it already is, the gossips are already at it again, as I’m sure that some of the ‘good; god fearing ladies’ of the camp suspect that I am carrying your child. 

 I will understand if you do not respond to this letter and I will honour your unspoken wish that you do not want our child to know who his or her father is.  It is a promise that I will take to my grave.  This I pledge to you.

 Be happy in your life Thomas Barkley, enjoy and treasure your family as I will treasure mine.

 Sincerely and with love always

 Leah Sawyer.

 

Jarrod lent back in his chair, “there is no post mark on the envelope.  She must have received father’s letter before the next mail run and never sent this one.”  Jarrod carefully refolded the letter and returned it to the envelope, placing it on the desk with the other items that proclaimed the existence of another brother.  But it meant more than just a new brother, there was also a sister-in-law, a niece and nephew and another baby to be welcomed into the family.

The heavy silence that had settled around the rooms occupants as each of them came to terms with the revelations was suddenly broken by Nick’s harsh voice.  “Well, that’s just fine and dandy isn’t it.” Nick paced angrily in front of the cold hearth. “We’re just supposed to accept this and do what exactly?” Nick paused in his pacing and glared at the impassive face of his father staring down at them from the wall. “Accept him into this family with open arms, admit that Father was an adulterer to the world and conceived a bastard.”

Victoria stood suddenly and with determined grace strode across the room and slapped Nick soundly on the cheek.  “I will not have that language in this house Nicholas, nor will I allow you to vilify either your father or your brother in such a manner again.  Do I make myself perfectly clear?” Victoria demanded, standing toe to toe with her tall rancher son until he took a deep breath and stepped back a pace, touching the burning spot on his cheek where the slap had forcibly landed.

Running his hand through his thick black hair he sighed deeply, acknowledging his mother’s words with a grim-faced nod and a grating, “Yes Mother.” 

Victoria searched her son’s face.  She knew of all her children it would be this one, the one with the biggest forgiving heart and the fiercest family protector who would take these revelations the hardest. “Nick, sweetheart, I know this has being a shock for you, for all of you and I realize it will take time for you all to understand and accept your father’s…and my past actions.”

“But Mother, none of this has anything to do with you,” Audra objected.

Victoria returned to the settee and retook her seat, taking a sip of her cooling tea before speaking.  “Maybe not directly Audra, that lies solely at the feet of your father and Leah Sawyer, but I made selfish decisions at that time, knowing what the consequences of such a liaison could be, but I chose to ignore those consequences to save my marriage and this family. I made your father promise never to return to Strawberry even though I always knew there was the possibility a child had been conceived considering the amount of time your father was there.  Had I not extracted that promise we would have known about Heath before or early after his birth and he and his mother would not have had to live a life of squalor that they did.”  

Gene reached forward and captured Victoria’s hands in his.  “What do you want us to do Mother?” he asked quietly.

“What’s there to do,” Nick growled, “We pay him off and send him packing with a warning not to spread rumours about who his father is.”

“These are not rumours, Nick, the evidence is irrefutable,” Jarrod countered.  “By their own signed admission,” Jarrod pointed at the two letters, “Father and Leah Sawyer have admitted their affair and the…for the sake of a better word…the consequences of that affair.”

“Where do we stand legally, Jarrod?”   

Jarrod pursed his lips, “Legally Mother, Heath Thomson is illegitimate and has no claim on this family.  We are under no obligation to acknowledge him or pay him any remittance if we so choose…”

“Good,” Nick muttered.

“But morally…,” Jarrod continued, ignoring Nick’s comment, “Heath is our brother, maybe a brother from another mother,” Jarrod smiled at Victoria, “but I would like the chance to get to know him more.  You can’t deny the connection we both felt out there yesterday Nick.  You said as much to me that he reminded you of father and I agreed with you and now we know why. There are also some other considerations to take into account.”

“And just what would they be counsellor.” Nick demanded choosing to ignore Jarrod’s reminder of his feelings towards Heath yesterday.

“Well firstly, Heath is now our neighbour, or have you forgotten he purchased the old Rogers place four days ago, so there is no way we can avoid him unless you want to start a range war or give him the cold shoulder which will only serve to start tongues wagging in Stockton and ensure questions are asked that we may not want to answer.”

“So, we buy him out.  The Rogers place is good grazing.  Offer him more than what he paid, and he can find someplace else to live.”

“That is an option but only if Heath wants to sell.  I certainly will not be making an offer on the property Nick and neither will you.” Jarrod replied before returning his attention to Victoria.  “We aren’t the only ones who know about Heath’s connection to this family are we Mother?  Considering the way Marshal Sawyer evaded our questions he obviously knows of Heath’s parentage.”

“Sawyer.” Gene interrupted.  “Are Heath’s mother and the Marshal related?”

Victoria shook her head.  “No, they aren’t.  The surname is just a coincidence.  And you’re right Jarrod.  Duke McColl and Silas also know for the same reasons that I suspected.  They both remember your father as a young man and see the same resemblance and qualities in Heath as they did in Tom.”    

Nick huffed. “Well at least we know they won’t say anything.”   

“There is one more thing to consider. Any decision we make does not only affect us and Heath but also Esmeralda, Tommy, Leah and their unborn child.”

“Mother I just realised,” Audra interjected excitedly, “if Heath is our brother that means Esmeralda is our sister-in-law and Tommy and Leah and the baby are our nieces and nephews and your grandchildren.”

Victoria smiled warmly. “Yes, they are, and Heath has agreed to allow me to be a part of their family.”

“I’ve heard enough.” Nick stormed across the study and yanked the door open allowing it to slam back against the wall. “I need some air.”

Jarrod rose from his chair but sat back down when Victoria raised her hand.  “Leave him be for now Jarrod.  He needs time to work through all of this, reconcile the man he thought he knew with the man he was.  We all do.”   

Gene looked at Jarrod.  “What I don’t understand is why Heath hasn’t brought this to us before now.  How long has he known who his father was?”

*****

Chapter 19

After leaving the family to their discussion in the study, Silas returned to the kitchen, picked up the tray of tea and coffee and headed up the back staircase to the guest room.  He knocked on the door and waited a moment before opening it slightly. “I’s brought your tea and coffee Miz Esmeralda.”

“Come in Silas,” Essie called.

Silas smiled as he entered the room and looked at the young man in the bed. He placed the tray on the small bedside table and began pouring a cup of tea for Esmeralda who was sitting in the armchair recently vacated by Victoria.   “You’s looking better this morning Mister Heath”

“Feeling better too, thank you Mister Silas.  Amazing what a good nights’ sleep can do for a body.”

“It just be Silas, Mister Heath.  Milk and sugar Miz Esmeralda?”

“Both thank you Silas.  One sugar please.”

Silas handed the cup to Esmeralda and turned back to pour the coffee for Heath, adding two sugars as he had been doing each time, he had brought the young blond his coffee over the last several days. “Here you go Mister Heath, just how yous like it.”

“It’s just Heath, thanks Silas.  There’s no need to call me Mister either.”

“I’s thank you Mister Heath, but it just wouldn’t be right for me not to call you’s Mister.” Silas busied himself collecting and stacking the breakfast plates on the tray before turning back to the young couple.  “If I may, I’d just like to welcome you to the family Mister Heath.  I know’s the first time I laid eyes on you’s, you’s was Mister Tom’s boy.” Silas paused and pulled his small picture of him and a young Tom Barkley from his pocket and handed it to Heath.  “Mister Tom be about your age in that picture.  I can’t remember where it was taken but Mister Tom gave it to me to proves I was with him if I’s was questioned.”  

Heath studied the picture of the two smiling young men, the tall white man with his arm over the shoulder of the smaller black man.  There was no sign of stiffness in either man to show that they were nothing more than two friends enjoying the chance to have their picture taken.  He passed it over to Esmeralda.  “I never realised how much I resembled my father until Missus Barkley showed me the pictures of him.”

Silas smiled, “it be more than looks Mister Heath, though that be powerful clear but you’s remind me of him in other ways too. The way you’s talk, how you hold yourself and walk and ride.  I swear I’s was watching Mister Tom ride away yesterday morning when you left to retrieve Miz Esmeralda and…” Silas smiled.  “You be just as stubborn and lawd only knows he was one stubborn man, and you got that same Barkley stubbornness, just like your brothers and sister.”    

“I’m not their brother yet Silas,” Heath pointed out with a sigh.

“It might take some time Mister Heath but you as much a Barkley as they are and Miz Barkley will not have it any other way. She is very much looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren. In fact, she be down in the study right now telling them about you’s. They’s won’t be able to deny the truth when they see the pictures and the letters. Miss Audra already loves those two children and she be tickled pink to learn they be her niece and nephew.  Mister Nick might deny it, but I see him look at those youngsters with a kindness in his eyes and both Mister Jarrod and Mister Gene, well they smart, once they have time to study the evidence, they will accept it without reservation.” Silas picked up the trays.  “Well, I best be getting back downstairs.  I’ll bring lunch up unless you’s gots ideas of joining the family in the dining room Mister Heath.”

“He’ll be up here Silas,” Esmeralda confirmed with a cunning smile.  “He might think he is fine but another day or two in bed after yesterday’s stunt should be punishment enough.”

“Now Essie,” Heath began…

“Don’t you now Essie me, Heath Thomson.  You had no right running around out there yesterday and you know it, so either swallow your punishment like a good little boy or I’ll have Doctor Merar come back and make sure you sleep for the next week.”

Heath stared wide eyed at his wife, under no illusion that she would carry out her threat if he didn’t comply, after all it wouldn’t have been the first time, he had tried to bluff his way around one of her threats, with unpleasant consequences for him.  He couldn’t help the twitch of his mouth as he tried to contain the smile threatening to burst forth and he just knew the words he was about to utter were going to drop him further into the tub of hot water he was sitting in but…” I just love it when you’re angry Misses Thomson.”

“Lawd have mercy,” Silas muttered, shaking his head.  He may have only met Miz Esmeralda the day before but from what he had already seen and heard from Mister Jarrod and Mister Nick; she was every bit as formidable as Miz Barkley with her dander up.  Yes sir, there was no denying the truth of the matter, the young blond in the bed was surely another Barkley son.

“Silas,” Heath called as the houseman picked up the trays, “Would you mind going out to our wagon? There is a picture under Leah’s pillow; it’s the bed on the right side of the wagon.  I told Misses Barkley I would get it for her but…” Heath looked sheepishly at his wife.

“Not to worry Mister Heath, I’ll find it and give it to Miz Barkley right away.”  

“Thank you, Silas.”

*****

Nick stormed through the foyer and out the front door, allowing the heavy oak door to slam shut behind him.  He paced angrily across the wide veranda; his spurs jingly frantically to keep up with his momentum.  Snorting derisively the big rancher stomped down the stairs from the verandah and headed towards the corrals and the big bay stallion moving restlessly within its confines.  He stared at the horse, HIS horse, HEATH’S horse, his BROTHER’S horse.  Nick slammed his black gloved, fisted right hand down on the top of the corral post, ignoring the sharp sting of pain that coursed up from his hand to his shoulder. He watched the big horse move fluidly around the corral, remembering the way it and its rider had moved across the range the previous day and the odd feeling of familiarity watching the blond had brought him.  He closed his eyes and let his memories wander, remembering watching his father astride his horse, moving in the same easy, fluid way as though horse and rider were one unit, much like the Centaurs of Greek mythology that his father used to describe to him in stories at bedtime all those years ago. Nick cast his mind back, he only had fleeting memories of that time when his father had gone away, and Jarrod looked after him because their mother was always upset.  He remembered the book that his father would read to him about the centaurs and other mythical creatures before he went away, the book that Jarrod thought was silly and wouldn’t read to him.  He remembered throwing it in his toy trunk in a fit of rage after Jarrod refused to read it.  Nick turned and looked back at the house and up to the attic.  He would have to go up there and find his old trunk and the book, perhaps young Tommy would like him to read him some of the stories. 

Tommy.  Nick dragged a gloved hand through his thick black hair and sighed deeply.  If he believed all he had heard and seen, Tommy was his nephew. The boy looked just like the picture of his father Heath and his grandfather, Thomas Barkley at the same age that he had seen in the study no more than five minutes ago.  Damn you father, how could you do this to Mother, to us, to HIM? Nick glared up at the clear blue sky and orange ball of fire steadily marching across its expanse in a mocking silence. There would be no answers forthcoming from that direction, in fact there would be no further answers, excuses or apologies forthcoming ever again.                

Nick lent back against the corral fence and despite the anger he felt towards his father, he smiled.  Tommy and Leah were his nephew and niece, and he was their uncle. Uncle Nick, he had to admit it did have a nice ring to it but… Nick sighed, how could he accept Heath Thomson as his brother and his brother’s family without acknowledging his father’s actions?  Nick turned back to watch the big stallion quietly grazing on the mound of hay beside the water trough.  He thought on the two letters Jarrod had read out.  The one telling Leah Sawyer his father didn’t regret their time together, but he loved his wife and children, loved HIM, and hoped she would find happiness in the future because she deserved it, but he couldn’t be in that future. Nick snorted in disgust; he knew what he would do if his father was standing in front of him right this minute.

And the other letter from Leah Sawyer, never sent because she missed the mail run and the opportunity to tell the great Tom Barkley about his unborn child.  What must she have thought upon reading his father’s letter?  Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it? She had kept her son’s…his brother’s birth from his, no…no, their father he corrected himself angrily and this family, choosing to bring up his brother, alone in a mining town.  The town gossips tongues were wagging.  I just bet they were, he thought bitterly, under no illusions as to what those vindictive tongues would have been saying.  All thanks to the great Thomas Barkley Esquire.  “Damn you to hell father, how could you?” Nick muttered under his breath.

“Mister Nick, Mister Nick,” Tommy shouted excitedly as he ran out of the barn, hesitantly followed by his sister and Frank Sawyer.  “I gots to pat the foal, its mama let it come to the gate today.”  Tommy beamed at Nick “and Leah really liked the little ginger kitten with the white belly.  I like the black kitten.  Do you think Miss Audra would let us have two kittens?”

 

At the first call of his name Nick sucked in a deep breath and turned to watch Tommy running excitedly to him.  This was his nephew and niece, he reminded himself, coming towards him.  Crouching down, Nick gathered Tommy into his arms and lifted him up as Leah watched from the safety of Frank’s legs.  “Well now young man, I’m sure my sister would be more than happy to let you have two kittens, I know I would, it’d be two less mouths I’d have to feed but…

“But Mister Nick, you don’t feed the kittens, the mama cat does.”       

Frank laughed, “He’s got you there, Nick.”

Nick threw a sideways glare at Frank, “But your Papa might not want two kittens Tommy.  I think you best ask him and your mama first.”

“But I want the black one, it’s as black as night when the moons hiding.” Tommy pouted. “Leah says the black one is dark and scary, that’s why she wants the ginger one.  It’s bright and colourful and happy.  Girls spoil all the fun.”

Nick sat Tommy on the top rail of the corral, making sure to keep a good hold on him.  “Now Tommy, maybe the black kitten reminds your sister of the dark and scary nights she spent with your mama and the bad men before your papa found them.”

“You found them too Mister Nick and Mister Jarrod and Uncle Frank.”

“Yes, we did Tommy, we all found Leah and your mama.” My sister-in-law.  

 Tommy looked at Nick earnestly, thinking on what he had just said, “I guess it would have been scary for Leah and mama.” He looked down at his sister who was still tucked in behind Frank’s leg, her large green eyes watching him carefully.  “Alright, Leah can have the ginger one.” Tommy announced. 

Nick grinned at the young, blue eyed blond in front of him, marvelling at how much he looked like that picture of a six-year-old Tom Barkley.  “I tell you what Tommy, if your Papa says you can only have one kitten, I promise I’ll talk to him for you.”

Tommy’s eyes lit up before the light faded in his eyes and he sighed. “Mama says Papa can be awfully stubborn at times.”

“That’s alright Tommy, I’m pretty stubborn myself; it runs in the family.” Nick admitted before realising what he had just said.  He looked sharply at Frank who was standing only a couple of feet away, an amused expression on his face.

“Come on Tommy,” Frank said as Nick lifted him off the corral rail, “I think Nick has some more contemplating to do and it’s time you went up and visited your Papa.”

“What’s contenting Uncle Frank?”

“Contemplating! I’ll explain later; take your sister’s hand and no running in the house.” Frank ordered.  “I’ll be right behind you.”

Frank watched the two children walk towards the house before he turned back to Nick.  “Children are a great equalizer, aren’t they?  Whatever you feel Nick, those kids and Heath aren’t to blame, none of them had any say in the machinations of the past.”

Nick nodded in response as Frank turned and headed towards the house. “It’s really true isn’t it, Frank; my father and Heath’s mother.”

Frank stopped and turned back to Nick, studying the tall rancher. It was easy to see the turmoil and anger in the hazel eyes.  “Yes Nick, it’s true, every last word.  Heath doesn’t lie and I’m damn sure your Mother doesn’t either.  Don’t hurt that fine woman and your Brother out of spite for your Father, Nick.  The way I see it, this family has already lost enough and doesn’t need to lose any more.” Frank turned and continued on to the house, leaving Nick standing by the corral.  The big rancher would have to come to terms with his Father’s behaviour on his own terms and nobody else’s.

*****

Victoria took a sip of the now cold tea, grimacing at its unpalatability before replacing the cup on the saucer.  “Heath only found out five years ago Gene.  His mother told him on her death bed and made he and Esmeralda promise to never contact this family.  Apparently, she thought nothing good would come of it and she didn’t want to upset me.”

“The promise she made Father,” Jarrod nodded, remembering Leah Sawyer’s unsent pledge their father.  I will honour your unspoken wish that you do not want our child to know who his or her father is.  It is a promise that I will take to my grave.  This I pledge to you. “She was a strong woman, Heath’s mother to live by that unsent pledge all of her life.”

“Yes, she was Jarrod, just as Heath and Esmeralda have been strong all these years to honour their promise to her.” Victoria paused, “you know, I think had the circumstances been different and we had met, become friends, I would have liked, even admired Leah Sawyer for her courage and scruples in face of the diversity she had to endure.”

“Mother, how does Heath feel about all this, now that the secret is out?” Audra asked.  “Does he want to get to know us, be part of our family?”

Victoria’s fingers brushed the album resting in her lap and she smiled.  “I believe he does Audra now that the secret is out.  He told me, he originally was not going to tell us who he really was, just live as neighbours…”

Gene laughed. “That would have only lasted until the first time you saw him Mother, then the cat would have been out of the bag.”

“I dare say you are correct Eugene, but it wasn’t just myself who recognised Heath and his connection to this family either. Both Silas and Duke knew who he was, or at least who his father was the moment they laid eyes on him.”

“Could he really have lived just as our neighbour though, Mother?” Audra asked.

“No dear I don’t think he could have.  Not once he met all of you. He told me that when he was searching for Esmeralda and Leah yesterday, that it had felt right having his brothers riding at his back.”  Victoria smiled at Jarrod.  “I also believe his resolve to honour his Mother’s promise had been wavering for quite a while, or at least ever since he was injured in that bank hold up three years ago. I think he started to worry about the what if’s that could happen to his family if he died.  Gyorgy and Rosetta weren’t getting any younger and that would have left Esmeralda and the children, or god forbid, just the children to fend for themselves.” 

“Do the children know who we are Mother?” Gene asked.

“No, I don’t believe they do, and we will not say anything to them.  That will be up to Heath and Esmeralda, provided of course all of you,” Victoria paused and looked at each of children in turn, “are prepared to accept Heath as your brother.”

“Oh yes Mother, I can’t wait to welcome Heath and Esmeralda to the family and Tommy and Leah.  I have a sister-in-law to go dress shopping with now.  We must organise a trip to San Francisco.”

“Audra dear, I think your shopping trip will have to wait.  There are more important matters to attend to first.  Namely the funeral for Rosetta and Gyorgy and the birth of Esmeralda and Heath’s third child.”

“Oh, how awful of me, poor Esmeralda, losing both her parents like that.” Audra exclaimed sadly.  “What can I do to help Mother?”

Victoria turned to Jarrod and Eugene, “what are your views on the matter of Heath.”

Jarrod pursed his lips and steepled his fingers on the desk.  “I felt a connection to Heath, almost from my first meeting with him when he signed the papers for the Rogers place, and it only grew the more time I spent with him.  I would like the opportunity to get to know my brother.”

Victoria nodded her head, “Eugene I know this is probably more difficult for you than Audra, Jarrod and Nick as they have all had the advantage of meeting Heath and Esmeralda and I’ll understand if you have reservations about this.”

Gene shook his head, “Strangely Mother, I don’t have any real concerns even though as you say I haven’t met him.  From what Audra, Nick and Jarrod have told me, and what I have heard from you this morning, I think I would like to get to know this brother too. And my niece and nephew.”

Victoria released a grateful sigh and smiled warmly at her three adult children.  That of course only left Nicholas but somehow, she knew that he would accept Heath and his place in this family.  “Thank you all for your understanding.  I know it will be a great relief to Heath and Esmeralda, as it is for me that you are all willing to welcome them to the family.  Now we have a funeral to plan.  Heath is in no condition to make another trip to his ranch. Jarrod, would you mind very much hitching up the buggy and escorting Esmeralda to their new home.  She needs to choose a plot of land to bury her parents. I’ll send one of the hands into Stockton to ask the undertaker and Father Joseph to come out this afternoon to make the final arrangements with Heath and Esmeralda.”

“I’d like to go too Mother, Esmeralda shouldn’t be on her own,” Audra said.

“And I’d also like to go.  I can help Jarrod mark out the plot and then take a couple of hands back to dig the hole. Besides, it will give me a chance to meet Esmeralda.” Gene added.

Victoria nodded in agreement. “I’m sure Esmeralda and Heath will appreciate your help.” Victoria stood and gathered the letters and pictures lying on Jarrod’s desk.  “I’ll let Esmeralda and Heath know what is happening.  I should think she will be ready in an hour Jarrod.”      

After Victoria had left the room Audra turned to Jarrod.  “Do you think Nick will come around Jarrod.  I mean if we have all accepted Heath as Father’s son and our Brother, surely Nick can too.”

“Well honey, of all of us Nick was probably the closest to Father.  They worked together running this ranch and when Father died, well Nick felt it was his duty to honour Father by putting him on a pedestal. In his eyes Father could do no wrong so hearing that the man he looked up to, the man on who he based his own moral code wasn’t quite the man he thought he was, thought he knew, is a bitter pill to swallow.  I’m sure given time Nick will see the truth in what Mother has told us and what he has seen and felt himself and will come to accept Heath as his brother.”

“So, Heath is really like Father, Jarrod?” Gene asked.

“Very much so Gene.  You were too young to remember Father as we do so you may not see the resemblance as Mother, Silas and Duke do, or feel the similarities that Nick and I felt but there is no mistaking that he is Father’s son, now that it has been pointed out.”

“What’s he like? I mean not in looks, that seems obvious but in other ways.” Gene shrugged, “I guess I’m just wondering what to expect when I meet him.”

“That’s hard to say Gene, I’ve only known him for a couple of days and really only spent an hour talking to him that first day.  Yesterday we just followed behind while he tracked his wife and child and the kidnappers, but I would say he is quiet with an inner strength, he’s a thinker, studies the situation and then makes a decision before acting on it.  He has a temper; we saw glimpses of it yesterday, but he keeps a tight rein on it.  I can say I wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end if he ever did lose it.  He’s determined, to the point of been pigheaded and stubborn.” Jarrod smiled, “a definite Barkley trait and he puts the welfare of his family ahead of his own.”

Audra giggled.  “You do realize Jarrod, you just described you and Nick and even Gene.”

Jarrod laughed. “Yes, I guess I did.  He’s all of us and his own man as well.  I think he’ll fit right into this family.”

*****

Victoria closed the study door behind her and lent against the door frame with a relieved sigh.  That had gone better than she thought it would with three of her four children prepared to accept Heath as their brother.  Now she only needed Nick to realize the truth of what had been shared.  Pushing away from the wall she started up the long staircase only to stop as Frank made his way down from the first floor.  She smiled at his raised eyebrow and nodded.

“That’s wonderful Victoria, I knew your family would find it in their hearts to accept Heath, just as you have.”

“Yes, well that just leaves one hurdle Frank, Nicholas. He is every bit his father’s son too and just as stubborn.”  

“I wouldn’t concern yourself too much about that Victoria.  I think you’ll find Nick will come around sooner than you think.”

Victoria raised an eyebrow at that statement and searched the craggy face of her newest friend for answers.

Frank chuckled, “to quote my earlier comment to Nick, let’s just say that children are a great equalizer, especially those two young rascals upstairs.  He’s seen what he could be missing out on and he’s not ready to lose that Uncle status just yet.”

“The children…”

Frank shook his head, “Are currently none the wiser but…” and he looked solemnly at Victoria, “They should be told soon.  It’s not fair to keep them in the dark much longer, especially as they have just lost the only grandparents they have ever known.  Learning that they have an aunt, uncles and another grandmother will go a long way to helping them recover from this ordeal.”

Victoria patted Frank’s arm. “I’m just about to go up there and officially welcome Heath and Esmeralda to the family but it will be their decision as to when they tell the children who we are.  I imagine they—Heath especially—will need some time to accept this latest turn of events. Jarrod, Audra and Gene are going to accompany Esmeralda out to their new property so she can choose a place to bury her parents.” Victoria looked pointedly at Frank.  “Perhaps Heath could use some company while she is gone.”  

“I’ll be around.” Frank agreed.

*****

Victoria hummed as she arranged the roses she had just cut from her garden in the white china vase on the table in the foyer. She fingered the delicate pink petals of her favourite rose, a gift from her husband, her happiness at Heath’s agreement to talk with the family was tempered by a feeling of melancholy as she thought of Esmeralda and the sad duty, she was currently engaged in.  She made a mental note to ask Esmeralda what Rosetta’s favourite colour was and she would have Silas make a wreath of roses for the coffin.  Victoria was still standing by the vase of flowers, thinking of all the things that would need to be done over the next few days and didn’t hear the front door open.  A small wake for Gyorgy and Rosetta would be held at Heath and Esmeralda’s new ranch, so she would need to organise for Silas to provide food.  After that Nick and the men would be tasked with getting the property into a liveable and workable order for the family to move into. The two gypsy wagons would have to be driven back there too. 

“A penny for your thoughts Victoria?” Frank said.  “You’ll make me a poor man if I have to pay you each time, I find you standing lost in thought.”

Victoria smiled. “I’m sorry Frank, I didn’t hear you come in.  I was just thinking about what needs to be done before and after the funeral tomorrow.  Heath won’t be able to do much work around the new property for another four to six weeks, so I hope he and his brothers will use the time to get to know one another while they help him to get the ranch into order.”

Frank pulled his hat off and looked at Victoria.  “Well, I’ll tell you right now Victoria, Heath isn’t one to ask for help, even when he needs it.  In fact, he can get right ornery about it, so I hope those sons of yours are up for the challenge.”

“He’s a Barkley, Frank.  They’re all stubborn to a fault, but eventually they see reason,” a glint came into Victoria’s eye, “usually with the help of my wooden spoon.”

Frank laughed, “Between you and Esmeralda and her wooden spoon, I think the boys just may be beaten.”  Frank sighed, “I’d like to stay and watch but I need to get back to Spanish Camp so I’ll be leaving day after tomorrow; that is if I can prevail upon your hospitality for another two nights.”

“Of course, Frank, and please know you are welcome here anytime.  Does Heath know when you are leaving?”

“No. Thought I’d go visit with him now for a bit; after I clean up that is.  I tell you Victoria that fool horse of his is just as stubborn as he is.  Thought I’d go out there and give him a brush.  Heath can spend hours brushing that horse until you can see your face in his coat, but do you think the fool animal would let me get more than a couple of strokes in before he’d go and roll, and I’d have to start over again. Too stubborn for their own good, the pair of them.”

“And you wouldn’t have it any other way though, would you Frank?” Victoria laughed.

Frank shook his.  “No, I can’t say that I would.  It’s that stubborn streak that has kept them both alive this long.” Frank turned and headed towards the stairs and then paused at the foot of them.  “Perhaps you would do me the honour of a night cap tonight Victoria.”

Victoria nodded, “I’d like that very much thank you Frank.  I’ll be up in a few minutes to collect Tommy and Leah; they were keeping Heath company; that way you and Heath can talk without any interruptions.”   

Victoria checked her vase of flowers one last time as Frank ascended the stairs before she moved across the foyer to follow, however a noise from the study caught her attention and she moved in that direction to investigate.  There should not have been anybody in the room as she could hear Silas in the kitchen, Frank, Heath, and the children were upstairs and Jarrod, Gene, Audra, and Esmeralda were on their way to the Thomson ranch.  Quietly she opened the door.

*****

After watching Frank and the two children head up the steps of the house, Nick turned and made his way into the barn. Picking up a curry comb and brush from the bin of brushes by the door he moved down the aisle to his horse’s stable. Opening the gate, he moved into the stall, securing it behind him.  “Well old boy,” he murmured as he patted the dark golden neck, “I have a lot of thinking to do.” With that sentiment voiced he began currying the horse’s coat as he thought over the morning’s revelations. Everybody it seemed, believed that his father was Heath’s father also, which made the boy his brother.  And shockingly, he was beginning to believe it too.  There were just too many coincidences for it to be not be true, so where exactly did that leave him.  If he truly believed that Heath was his brother, then what did he still believe about his father? The man who had raised him from a baby, nurtured him, taught him all the fundamentals of life.  How to ride, to shoot, to drink, to run the ranch, to show respect for others and turn the other cheek before reacting.  Nick snorted, well maybe he hadn’t learnt that lesson all that well considering the number of times Jarrod had had to bail him out of the Stockton jail over the years.  And how to treat a lady with respect. Another explosive snort left his lips.  Obviously, his father preached better than he practiced, or they wouldn’t be in this mess now. His thoughts were interrupted as Jarrod and Gene entered the barn.  Nick slipped back into the shadows; he wasn’t ready to face his brothers just yet. He watched and listened as they collected the buggy horse and gear.

“So, what do you really think Jarrod? Is father really Heath’s father also?”

Jarrod took a moment to slip the headstall over the horse’s head before replying.  “Having second thoughts Gene? I thought you accepted the evidence that Mother showed us?”

“I did, I do.  I don’t know.  I guess…” Gene sighed, “I haven’t had the advantage of having spoken to or even met Heath yet, not like the rest of you.  I mean you and Nick, you rode out there yesterday with him, you watched, you saw him, you saw father in him.  I mean Nick has doubts…”

“Nick doesn’t have doubts Gene, he saw the same things as I did.  He felt the same things as I did.  That familiarity, the rightness of being there with him, backing up our brother.  Nick’s problem is father and his image of what he believed father to be, and not the man he has shown us to be. Once Nick comes to terms with his feelings for father, he’ll accept Heath as his brother too.”

“I guess.”

“You know Gene, it’s not just us who is finding it difficult to come to terms with all this.  Think about Heath for a minute.  He grew up his entire life not knowing who his father was.  I can’t imagine life was easy for him or his mother in a mining town.  To then suddenly find out that you have a family, brothers, and a sister but you are forced to promise to never contact them and then find yourself in the situation Heath did, needing his family to help him and yet try to maintain that promise only to have it inadvertently broken.”

“You’re right Jarrod, Heath didn’t ask for any of this to happen, it just did.  We shouldn’t and Nick shouldn’t lay the blame on Heath, after all it wasn’t even Heath’s fault that he was born.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Jarrod agreed as he led the horse from the stable, followed by Gene with the set of buggy harness.

Nick moved out of the shadows once his brothers had gone, their words tumbling around in his head. He sat down on an upturned bale of hay in the back of the stall, ignoring his horse’s indignant snort and rested his head in his hands.  Jarrod was right, he did feel all those things and more.  Despite the blonds attempts to keep him at arms-length he had felt a camaraderie with the man.  He’d felt as though he was right where he should have been, riding at the blond’s back. Gene was right too, Heath couldn’t be held responsible for his birth, it happened, he had learnt to live with it and so would they.       

Nick was startled out of his thoughts by the voices outside the barn door.  This time it was Audra and Esmeralda along with his brothers helping the two young women into the buggy.  He heard the creak of leather so one of them must be riding he thought.  He moved out of the stall, with a fleeting pat to his horse’s neck and headed for the barn door just as the buggy, driven by Jarrod drove out of the yard, followed by Gene on horseback. It took him a moment to realize that they must be taking Esmeralda to the ranch to choose a burial spot.  Suddenly his problems felt selfish, compared to what Esmeralda was about to face on the morrow. Dropping the brush and comb in the bin, Nick headed into the house via the French doors.

*****

Chapter 20

“You know Nicholas, you aren’t going to get the answers you are looking for from that portrait. I know because I’ve already tried.” Victoria said quietly as she moved into the study to stand beside her second born.

Nick sighed and turned from the portrait to look down at his diminutive silver haired mother standing beside him. “I thought I knew him Mother, now I’m wondering if I knew him at all.  Was my entire life with him a lie?”

Victoria grasped both of Nick’s arms in her small hands and forcibly turned him to look at her. “Oh Nick, darling, it wasn’t a lie.  The man you grew up with was the same man I married.  Everything he taught you, everything he told YOU was the truth.”

“His version of the truth.”

“He never misled you in anyway Nick. Did he ever tell you about his time in Strawberry?”

“No but…”

“Did you ever ask him about his time away, even years later?”

Nick shrugged, “No but I had forgotten about that time, I was only four years old.”

“So, you never asked or gave your father a reason to lie to you?”

Nick sighed, “I guess not.”

“Your father was just a man and like any man or woman he had his shortcomings. What he did do in a time of weakness and need, in a time when his memory had lapsed was make a terrible error in judgement.  Not out of malice or disdain for me or this family Nick, but more out of a need to feel like a man again.  I am just as much to blame for what happened in Strawberry as he is.  I drove your father away after your brother’s death; I blamed him for everything that went wrong, every little accident, for silly, irrelevant things like spilt milk, spoons in the fork draw, not been able to find my hairbrush.  I was vitriolic in my words to him, I wouldn’t let him touch or comfort me in anyway,” Victoria paused and swallowed hard, “I made him feel less than a man.  I took away his pride, his family and drove him out.”

Nick gathered his Mother in his arms and led her to the settee.  “You had just lost a child Mother, my baby brother.”

“Don’t you see Nick; that was the time I needed your Father the most and I turned away from him.  Locked myself in our room, forbade him to enter.  I didn’t give him a choice until finally he thought that by leaving, by my not seeing him, by giving me space to come to terms with Thomas death that eventually I would come to my senses.  And he was right, I did need that time, but your Father was still a man with needs of his own.”  Victoria looked up at the portrait watching silently from the wall.  “He didn’t go to Strawberry with the intent to have an affair or father a child.  What happened to him was unforseen, it could have been anyone who found your father and nursed him back to health, but it was a beautiful, caring young woman who showered your father with kindness and love and allowed your father to be the man he was destined to be, to be the man that I had denied him.”

Nick sighed, “I was in the barn when Jarrod and Gene fetched the buggy horse.  Gene pointed out to Jarrod that Heath had no part in what happened, he hadn’t asked to be born but he is the one that has been left holding a dead hand. It’s just that Father always told me, all of us, to own up to your mistakes yet he didn’t own up to his, he never went back and checked. Surely Father knew what could happen, yet he never went back.”

“Because I forbade him to.  When he came home, I knew something was wrong and at first, he said nothing. I had resolved my feelings about Thomas death and my behaviour towards him and I guess he was frightened to say anything to upset me, to start the kettle boiling again but he was still bothered by the head injury, still having headaches and the occasional dizzy spell.  He finally told me after I had called old Doctor Rose out after one of his spells.  The Doctor wanted to know what had happened, how he had been injured and the story came out.”

“But you forgave him.  I remember hearing the shouting matches and Jarrod taking me out to the barn or down to the pond until it was safe to come home, but he never left again.”

“No, he stayed in the spare bedroom, we avoided each other as much as possible unless it was to do with you children, eventually I forgave him, and we became closer and stronger together.  I said it to Heath, and I will say it to you.  I am thankful that Leah found Tom, nursed him back to health, cared for him as she did because without her compassion your father would not have returned to us and your sister and brother would not be here.”

Nick sucked in breath as that realization hit him.

“I wasn’t naïve Nick, I knew what the possible outcome of your father and Leah’s liaison could be and yet I encouraged him not to return to Strawberry but instead to sell his share of the mine, which he did, happy to comply with any request I made, and we continued on with our lives, both of us ignoring the possibility of a child.” Victoria paused, “I had no idea that Tom had written to Heath’s mother after his return to us until I found that letter in Heath’s trunk along with the unsent one from Leah.” Victoria shook her head, “but I am grateful to know that Leah never sent that letter and Tom never knew he had fathered another son in Strawberry.” Victoria held up her hand to stop Nick from speaking.  “If that letter had been sent and your father knew of Heath’s existence and for fear of upsetting me and this family never spoke of it, never made an attempt to right the wrong, to include Heath in this family somehow then I fear I too would be wondering if our entire marriage, our life together, was a sham and how many more times and children may be out there.”               

Nick raised an eyebrow. “Are there…”

“No Nick, your father swore there was never anyone else before or after Leah and I believe him.” Victoria squeezed Nick’s arm.  “Nick don’t blame Heath for your father’s actions.  You said yourself you felt a connection to him, that it felt right riding with him, that he reminded you of your father.  Think of Heath as a long-lost gift that your father had misplaced but has now been found, because that is exactly what he is.  A final parting gift from your father.”  Victoria stood and kissed the top of Nick’s head, “now I’m going to relieve your brother of my grandchildren, so that he can get some rest while Esmeralda is out with your brothers and sister. Whatever your feelings Nick, I hope you can put them aside for the sake of Heath, Esmeralda and the children tomorrow.”

Nick watched his mother leave the room before turning to look up at the portrait of the man he thought he knew as well as himself.  “Damn you father, I won’t take my feelings out on Heath, but know this; It will be a long day in hell before I am ready to forgive you for what you have done to this family and my brother.”

*****

Frank poked his head around the edge of the door to the guestroom, “Is it safe to come in?” he asked, scanning the room for the two young rascals.

Heath laughed, “They are with their Grandmother.”

Frank fully entered the room and raised an eyebrow.

Heath shrugged, “Somehow it feels right calling Misses Barkley, their Grandmother.”

Frank plopped down in the armchair beside the bed.  “I’m glad you finally saw sense boy and are allowing your family to get to know you, Esmeralda, and the young uns. They need their aunt and uncles, or maybe it’s the other way around.  Those two rascals of yours already have that family down there wrapped around their little fingers especially Audra and Nick.”

“Well, it’s not like I had any choice in the matter.” Heath sighed.

Frank lent back in the chair and crossed his right leg over his left knee.  “Now that’s not entirely true Heath.  You could have said no when Victoria spoke with you this morning, but you didn’t.  You agreed to allow her to tell the rest of the family about you. Had you asked Victoria, she would have kept your secret, admittedly grudgingly but she would not have broken your confidence and you could have continued on with your life as before.  Are you regretting your decision?”

Heath shifted uncomfortably in the bed and pushed out a heavy breath between clamped lips.  “I guess not Frank.  I’ll tell ya I’d have never come here had I known how much I look like my father.  Misses Barkley, Silas and even the foreman McColl knew Tom Barkley was my father the moment they laid eyes on me but after what happened to Essie’s parents, to me, the thought of Essie and the children left alone to struggle through life without any family.” Heath shrugged, “I could see how happy Tommy was when he was with Audra, and you were right, Gyorgy, Rosetta, Essie, you were all right.  They need their family. And I can’t deny how grateful I am to them for helping Essie with all the arrangements for the funeral.  Even Eugene has gone with them and I haven’t met him yet.”

“But you still have reservations?”

“What if they don’t like me, Frank?  Don’t want me to be a part of their family. I wasn’t particularly friendly to Nick and Jarrod yesterday; in fact, I tried my best to alienate them.”

Frank snorted, “You think.”

Heath threw a blue-eyed glare Frank’s way.  “Not helpful Frank.”

“What can I tell you? It’s not going to be easy for any of you, but I do know from the conversation I had with your brothers this morning that they both felt a connection with you yesterday Heath.  You just have to be patient, let them sort through their feelings towards their father and you.  Remember you have known for five years who your father was, who your family was but they only found out this morning that they have another brother and a niece and nephew. It is going to take time for all of you to come to terms with the actions of Tom Barkley and Leah Sawyer all those years ago.”

“I hear ya Frank; I guess I just gotta get my head and my heart to agree.”

“Time boy, time heals all wounds eventually.” Frank fidgeted in his seat for a moment to the amusement of Heath.           

“Something on your mind Frank?”

“Just feeling a bit guilty I guess.”

Heath raised a questioning eyebrow, “About what?”   

“You know I’d like to stay indefinitely but I’m going to have to head on back to Spanish Camp day after tomorrow. I can’t leave Roy holding the fort for much longer.”

Heath nodded tiredly, “I figured as much.  I don’t think I thanked you for coming and helping Frank. Things are a bit sketchy after we found Essie and Leah, but I want you to know I really appreciated having you at my back yesterday and all those other times that you’ve being there for me, Essie, and the children.  I don’t think I’d have got this far without you.”

“The only thanks I need is to hear that you have settled down here with your family Heath. And I’ll be expecting an invite to the latest little Thomson Barkley christening too.”

Heath yawned, “You’ve got it.  Essie would never forgive me if you didn’t get an invite.”

“Good enough.  Well, I think I’ve kept you long enough.  If you want to make that funeral tomorrow you better get some more sleep, besides, I don’t want either Victoria or Essie coming after me with their wooden spoons.  I’ll drop by later today.”

Heath sank lower into the bed and closed his eyes.  “See ya later Frank.”

*****

Essie quietly opened the bedroom door, stepping softly into the room, two plates of sandwiches and cups of fresh squeezed orange juice balanced on the tray.  She crossed the room and placed the tray on the dresser before returning to close the door.  Moving to the bed, she knelt upon it and gently shook her sleeping husband’s shoulder, calling softly to him at the same time. Heath mumbled under his breath and tried to roll away from the incessant shaking, but Essie refused to give up her endeavours to wake the blond.  Eventually Heath blinked open his eyes and stared at the unwavering emerald’s staring back at him.  “Essie,” Heath pulled himself further up the bed and lent against the pillows that Esmeralda placed behind him.  “You’re back.” He studied her drawn features, and the not quite hidden tear tracks down her cheeks.  “I’m sorry honey; I should’ve gone with you.  You shouldn’t have had to go on your own.”

“Oh Heath, I wasn’t alone, I had our family with me. Audra, Jarrod, and Gene were there and besides you had no business being out of bed today. They were all a wonderful help with the arrangements.  We have picked a spot to lay Mama and Papa to rest and Gene has taken several of the men back to dig the grave.  You’ll like Gene; he is quiet and a thinker like Jarrod, very thoughtful and caring.  He is studying to be a doctor and I think he will make a wonderful one when his studies are finished.” Esmeralda removed her travelling gloves and then the tie holding her long dark tresses back, giving her head a shake to allow her hair to cascade around her shoulders and down her back before rising from the bed to retrieve the two plates of sandwiches, passing one to Heath before sitting on the side of the bed.

Heath took a bit of sandwich and chewed it thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing.  “You’re happy that the Barkleys know who we are, who I am, Essie?”

Esmeralda swallowed her own bite of sandwich and nodded.  “Yes, Heath I am and relieved that we no longer have to keep the secret and pretend to be who we aren’t.  I know Papa did wrong, but it was for the right reasons and I hope one day you will be able to forgive him for revealing it to Victoria.”

Heath pulled Esmeralda close to him and squeezed her arm gently, “Nothing to forgive Essie, he was right, in fact you were all right, it was just my stubborn sense of honour and fear that kept me from contacting the family sooner.”

Esmeralda turned to look at Heath with a raised eyebrow, “Fear, Heath?”

Heath nodded and smiled sheepishly at his wife.  “I’d already lost so much, Mama, Aunt Rachel and Hannah; I didn’t want to have ta face losing the Barkleys if they didn’t want ta know me.  I guess it was easier for me to know they were my family that way I couldn’t lose them, than them not knowing me.”

“Oh Heath, why didn’t you ever say anything?” Essie curled into Heath’s side, “I wouldn’t have given you such a hard time about it if I’d known.”

Heath kissed the top of his wife’s head.  “This is me we’re talking about Ess.  When do I ever admit to anything?”

Esmeralda sat up and slapped Heath on the arm, “Not often enough but that is going to change from here on in Mister Thomson Barkley. Do you hear me?”

“Loud and clear Misses Thomson Barkley.” Heath pulled Esmeralda down and kissed her passionately on the lips.  “I can’t wait to get you alone in our own house.” He breathed in her ear.

Esmeralda responded to the kiss before pushing back and sitting up to look around the empty room.  “You do realize when we get to our place, we won’t be alone, or have you forgotten about our children?” She patted her enlarged stomach, “Speaking of which…”

“Misses Barkley took them for some Grandmother-Grandchildren play a couple of hours ago.”

“I know, they are all napping in the nursery according to Silas. What I was going to ask was when are we going to tell them that the Barkleys are their Aunt, Uncles and Grandmother?” 

Heath sighed, “I was thinking about that and I think we should wait until after the funeral tomorrow. They will have enough to deal with, with their Grandparent’s burial without adding extra complications and a lot of difficult questions.”

Esmeralda nodded and snuggled down next to her husband again. “You’re probably right, they are inquisitive, and I don’t think any of us will feel like answering all their questions tomorrow.”

*****

Frank stepped through the French Doors of the study and moved across the verandah to stand beside Victoria, the heady smell of the roses assailing his nostrils as he lent against the verandah railing.  “The children are all in bed asleep. Can I buy you that night cap now Victoria?”

Victoria turned her gaze from the night sky to smile warmly at Frank. “I’d like that thank you Frank, a sweet sherry I think.”

Frank held out his arm for Victoria to slip hers around his and they walked back into the study.  Victoria took a seat on the settee while Frank poured them both a drink, returning to the settee he handed Victoria her drink and then took a seat in the chair in front of Jarrod’s desk. After taking a sip of his whisky, he looked at Victoria.  “All the arrangements are finalized for tomorrow?”

“Sadly yes,” Victoria sipped her sherry, “the undertaker and Father Joseph were out this afternoon, Gene organised for the grave to be dug and Silas has the food organised.  I had thought to move the two wagons but then I realised that the Rogers’ ranch house needs some repairs that Heath will not be able to undertake at the moment so they will come back here for the next couple of days while Nick and the men see to the repairs.”

“Well, I have to hand it to you Victoria, you seem to have everything under control, and I know both Heath and Esmeralda appreciate all the help you and the family have given them.”

“They are family too Frank.” Victoria pointed out.  “And this family looks after its’ own.”

Frank sipped at his whisky and eyed Victoria speculatively, “So they have all accepted Heath as Tom’s son and their brother.”

Victoria allowed a small smile to grace her lips, “I believe so Frank.”

“Even Nick?”

“Yes Frank, even Nick.  Nick’s problem is not with Heath but with his father.  He lived in his father’s shadow from the moment he was born.  He idolised Tom growing up, wanted to be just like him, run the ranch the way Tom did. And now he discovers that Tom wasn’t the man he thought he was.  Nick has a big heart and family means everything to him and he will do anything, fight anybody to protect this family and he thought that Tom shared those same values but that has proven in part to not be true, and it is a bitter pill for Nick to swallow. Given enough time for Nick to sort through his feelings towards Tom, I know he will embrace this new brother and his family.” Victoria swallowed the last of her sherry and stood.  “Well, we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow Frank, so I think it is time we called it a night.  You know I’m going to miss our nightly chats when you leave.”

Frank stood and returned the two empty glasses to the tray holding the decanters of liquor and then offered his arm to Victoria again as they headed for the stairs. “So will I Victoria, it has been a real pleasure getting to know you, even under these circumstances.  What’s say we make another date for a couple of nightcaps when that bub up there decides to make an appearance?”                                                            

Victoria laughed softly as they ascended the sweeping staircase, “It’s a long time since anyone has asked me on date Frank; I think I scare a lot of them off so yes I would like that very much.”  They stopped outside Frank’s bedroom door, “Goodnight Frank.”

“Night Victoria,” Frank replied as Victoria disappeared down the hall to her room.

*****

Heath stood on the verandah steps, his arm around Esmeralda; their two children standing beside Audra and Gene who gripped one small hand in each of theirs as they watched the solemn procession of Barkley hands, led by Jarrod and Frank carry the two coffins to the waiting hearse.  Out in the yard the remaining hands and Duke held the reins of the men’s horses.  Heath shook his head in wonder.  The entire ranch crew had requested permission to attend the funeral and pay their respects to Gyorgy and Rosetta.  In some small way they had all played a part in the events of the preceding days and none of them had wanted the young family to grieve alone.

With the coffins safely placed in the hearse the hands returned to their horses and Jarrod and Frank made their way to the family standing on the verandah.  Eugene climbed into the driving seat of the carriage as Frank helped Esmeralda into the carriage and then lifted Tommy and Leah up to sit beside her.  He turned back to Heath and squeezed the blond’s uninjured shoulder before helping him into the carriage with his family.  He had expected an argument that morning when the boy was informed that he would not be riding his horse but would instead be riding in the carriage with his family to the funeral and then they would be returning to the Barkley ranch for another week. But none was forthcoming, which only confirmed in Frank’s mind the toll the last week had taken on his friend. He raised an eyebrow in silent query to Heath who only nodded in reply to let him know that he and the family we were fine.  Closing the carriage door, Frank moved to gather the reins of his horse.

With the children safely in the carriage, Jarrod escorted Victoria and Audra to the waiting buggy.  After settling the two women comfortably he gathered the lines from Ciego and climbed up onto the seat.

Nick strode through the front door of the house and stopped at the verandah steps surveying the groups waiting in the yard for the hearse to begin its slow trip to the Thomson’s new property.  He caught his mother’s eye and gave her a small half smile and nod in reply. Striding down the steps he moved to the front of the carriage and eyed Gene who was looking at him questionably. “Take my horse Gene; I’ll be driving my brother and his family to the funeral.”  

*****

Chapter 21 – Epilogue

Jarrod relaxed back in the wicker rocker placed on the porch in the shade of the old oak tree that graced one side of the Thomson-Barkley ranch house and stretched out his legs, taking a sip of scotch from his glass.  A small table had been set up with a bottles of scotch whisky and several glasses.  He patted his shirt pocket, ensuring the four Havana cigars he had brought for their celebratory toast on the safe arrival of their new niece or nephew were still there. Jarrod allowed his amused blue eyes to follow the agitated pacing of his younger brother in front of the closed front door. In the four months since Heath Thomson-Barkley had arrived in his office in Stockton he could not ever remember the blond being so impatient to need to pace animatedly.  That was usually the domain of their brother Nick and he wondered idly if that would be his own response to pending fatherhood.  Heath made another lap of the small porch, stepping over Jarrod’s legs and bumping into Nick who was leaning on the porch railing watching Gene entertain Tommy on the swing he had made for the children and sipping a make-believe cup of tea given to him by Leah.   

“Watch it boy,” Nick grumbled good naturedly as Heath continued his pacing. “You know if you wear out those floorboards, you’ll be the one replacing them this time, I’ve already done my share of the work around here.”

Heath stopped his pacing with a heavy sigh and joined Nick leaning on the porch railing.  “I can’t remember being this nervous when the twins were born.”

“Essie will be just fine little brother,” Nick consoled by throwing an arm over Heath’s shoulder, “besides, she has Mother and Audra with her; the two finest nurses in the valley.  I’ve lost count of the number of babies Mother has helped deliver over the years.  Jarrod, you got any idea?”

“I’ve never thought to keep track Nick, but I would estimate it to be around twenty, maybe more.”

“There you see Heath, nothing to worry about.”

A shriek of laughter from across the yard interrupted the brother’s conversation.  “Higher Uncle Gene,” Tommy shouted as Gene pushed the swing.

“My turn, my turn Uncle Gene,” Leah called in a voice nearly as loud as her brother’s as she pulled on Gene’s pant leg.

“I’m not finished Leah,” Tommy shouted, “Go and play with your silly dolls in the wagon.”

“Will not,” Leah pouted in response.  “I want a swing with Uncle Gene.  You always get to play with him.”

“That’s cause we’re men, isn’t that right Uncle Gene? And us men have to stick together.  Uncle Nick said so.”

Jarrod sniggered from his chair at Tommy’s declaration, as Heath sighed and made a move to step off the porch to go speak with his twins, but Nick snagged his arm. “Let’s see how well Uncle Gene handles them.  Besides, it will be good practice for him, you know, dealing with kids when he becomes a doctor.” Nick said with a grin.

Heath settled back against the railing and glared at Nick, “Just what have you been telling my son Nick?”

“Me, you can’t blame me for everything that Tommy says.”

“Can’t I?”

Nick ran his hand through his hair, “I mean I might have said in one of our conversations on the way home from school that sometimes when the girls are, you know, been annoying, wanting to play with dolls and things that, um, well you know we should, um, stick together and tell them no, we got, um, boy, well men things to do.”

“You did huh?”

“I didn’t think he’d remember it,” Nick replied sheepishly.

“Well for your sake Nick, let’s hope he forgets it real soon because if he says that to Essie, I know which of you is going to be in more trouble.”

*****

Gene slowed the swing and brought it to a stop then moved around to stand in front of Tommy with a disapproving look on his face.  Tommy swallowed and looked down at his feet dangling below the seat of the swing.  When Gene didn’t say anything, Tommy lifted his head and peered through the blond bangs hanging over his face at his uncle.  “I guess I’m in trouble Uncle Gene?”

Gene raised an eyebrow at his nephew’s question, “Was that a nice way to speak to your sister, Tommy?”

Tommy sighed, “I guess not Uncle Gene, but girls can be so annoying at times and anyway Leah doesn’t like to swing high, and I don’t get to see you very often and Uncle Nick and Uncle Jarrod and Papa never have time to swing me like you do.”

Gene squatted down in front of Tommy.  “Well, your Papa and Uncle Nick have a big ranch to run, and they work hard from sunup to sundown, and sometimes they are just too tired to play but I happen to know both your Papa and Uncle make time to take you fishing every Sunday and I also know that your Papa and Uncle Nick make time to playhouse with Leah in the cubby wagon after they come back from fishing. And Uncle Jarrod is a very important lawyer, but doesn’t he always make time for you and Leah when you visit him in town and doesn’t he always take you both out for lunch on those visits?”

Tommy twisted around on the seat of the swing and looked across to where Leah was now sitting on the steps of the brightly coloured covered wagon that had belonged to their Grandparents, a sad expression on her face.  His parents, with the help of his uncles and aunt and new Grandma had converted it into a playhouse for him and his sister and had presented it to them for their sixth birthdays two months ago. Inside the wagon there were cupboards and chests for each of them to put the trinkets they found and their toys as well as a cot for Leah’s dolls and a small table and chairs for them to sit and eat at.  Tommy giggled as he thought of his Papa and Uncle Nick squeezing into the tiny chairs to have make-believe afternoon tea with him and Leah.  Tommy sighed, Uncle Gene was right, Uncle Jarrod always took just him and Leah out for lunch when they were in town, unless Grandma was with them, then she came too, but Papa and Mama always managed to find things to do when they were in town, so it was just them and Uncle Jarrod. “I’m sorry Uncle Gene.”

“It’s not me you have to apologise to Tommy, it’s your sister.  Do you know why I spend so much time playing with you and Leah on my visits?”

“Because everybody else is too busy?”

“No Tommy, well not really. You see when I come home from school, I don’t really have a job here to do.  I help out on the ranch sometimes, but I don’t get to see and spend as much time with you and Leah as your other uncles and Aunt Audra do and I like spending time with you both, doing the things that you both like to do; like swinging you high and playing Cowboys and Indians or swinging Leah low and having pretend afternoon teas. But to do all those things you both have to share me equally.”

“So, Uncle Nick was wrong, us men shouldn’t stick together?” Tommy asked earnestly.

Gene shook his head wondering what Nick had been thinking when he uttered those words.  “Not completely Tommy, sometimes, especially in times of danger, when we need to protect you and Leah or Grandma and Aunt Audra or even your friends, whether they are girls or boys, we men do have to stick together, even to protect ourselves but at other times when there is no threat it’s alright to be an individual.”

What’s an individual?”

“Individual. It means to be your own person, be different from everyone else.” Gene held out his hand to Tommy, “come on let’s go and see what Leah has cooked for us.”

*****

Nick harrumphed as they watched a subdued Tommy and Gene walk over to Leah and then head up the steps of the cubby.  “I wonder what he said to him?”

“After some fatherly advice are you, Nick?” Jarrod asked with a laugh.

“Funny counsellor.”

Heath sighed as a cry of pain from his wife came from their bedroom.             

Jarrod poured a glass of whisky and nudged Nick’s leg with the toe of his boot.  Nick turned to complain but seeing the glass in Jarrod’s hand and the nod towards Heath he closed his mouth and accepted the glass instead.  He turned back and nudged Heath in the ribs, handing the blond the glass when he turned to look at him.

Heath took the glass without a word and downed the contents in one swallow then lent against the porch post beside him, twirling the empty glass in his hands.  He looked at these two men who were his brothers and shook his head, still not believing that everything he now had was in part because of them. They had had his back all those months ago when Essie and Leah had been kidnapped, even before they knew who he was.  They had accepted him after Mother told them the truth of his birth. 

Mother…Heath stared across the yard to the new barn that Nick and the hands had raised that first week he was laid up.  He had never thought that he would ever call another woman Mother, not after his Mama but Victoria Barkley was one very persuasive lady.  He couldn’t help the small smile that lifted one corner of his mouth.                

It was not long after they had moved from the Barkley ranch to their new home and Victoria had come for a visit with her grandchildren that she confronted him as he rested in the rocker that Jarrod now occupied.  She had stood in front of him, hands firmly planted on her hips, flashing grey eyes boring into his as she demanded they talk.  Despite her diminutive size, he remembered how small he had felt as he gazed up at her wondering what he had done wrong to earn her ire. He remembered gamely trying to rise from the rocker not wishing to have to stare up at the Barkley matriarch, only to be pushed back down with a not so delicate hand to his un-injured shoulder. 

Heath swallowed hard, before staring at the formidable woman before him from under half mast lids.  “What do you want to talk about Misses Barkley?”

“That is exactly what I want to speak to you about, young man.” Victoria replied sternly.

“I don’t…”

“Of course you don’t Heath.” Victoria sighed at the nonplussed look on the blond’s face.  She pulled over the small table beside the rocker and sat on its edge, hands resting amongst the folds of her skirt.  “I know that the last few weeks have been difficult for you, for all of you, with the deaths of Rosetta and Gyorgy, Esmeralda and Leah’s kidnapping; meeting and getting to know your siblings, moving onto your own ranch and having to watch your siblings doing all the work that I am sure, you, yourself are more than capable of doing alone.”

Heath nodded, “I’ve never been one to just sit around and watch others when there’s work to be done but I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the help from my brothers getting this place up and running while I’m laid up and I know Essie really appreciates the help sis and you are giving her with the house and the twins, Misses Barkley. Tommy and Leah love having their grandmother and aunt over for visits.”

Victoria pursed her lips and sighed.  “You still don’t see the problem do you Heath Thomson-Barkley?”

Heath gulped at the use of his full name.  “No Misses Barkley, but I’m sure you are going to enlighten me real soon,” he replied with a small lopsided smile, hoping to appease her displeasure at his flippant words.

Victoria raised an eyebrow and shook her head before a small smile graced her fine features. “Heath, you refer to Jarrod, Nick and Eugene as your brothers and Audra as your sister.  You allow and insist that Tommy and Leah call them uncle and aunt.  You have allowed me the honour of claiming them as my grandchildren and them in turn to call me Grandmother.”

Heath shrugged, “That’s because they and you are Tommy and Leah’s uncles, aunt and grandmother, but if that’s not appropriate, I’ll tell them to call you Misses, Miss and Mister Barkley but I can see the last one getting a bit confusing.”

“Oh, for the love of…,” Victoria threw her hands up in the air in despair. “That is not what I am asking Heath.  You have accepted my children, your father’s children as your siblings, your family and yet you still call me Misses Barkley.”

“But…”

“Don’t but me, young man, even your children have noticed how you refer to me and they are confused.  They just now asked me why you call me Misses Barkley and they call me Grandmother.”

Heath opened and closed his mouth, but no words came out. He cleared his throat and looked pensively at the woman sitting in front of him. “What do you want me to call you then, if not Misses Barkley?”

Victoria blew out a soft breath, “well you could call me what all your siblings call me…”

Heath’s head shot up and he stared wide-eyed at Victoria, “You’re not…I’m not your son…Tom Barkley might have been my father, but…”

“Exactly Heath,” Victoria agreed.  “Tom Barkley was your father, he was the father of your siblings, he was your children’s grandfather, and he was my husband.  That makes us all connected, it makes us all family.” Victoria reached out and cupped Heath’s free hand in her small ones. “Heath I am not trying to replace your Mama.  Nobody ever will but Leah sent you here for a reason.  To find your family, to become a part of that family and all it entails.  You are a fine man, a fine father and brother to your siblings.  Just as they are all proud to call you their brother, I am also proud to call you my son.” Victoria held up a hand to stop Heath’s objection.  “As I told you back at the ranch, what was your father’s is now mine and that includes you, Essie, Tommy and Leah.  I would be proud if you would call me Mother,” Victoria paused and then smirked.  “And if you choose not to, then you can explain it to Tommy and Leah and your siblings.”

Heath chewed his bottom lip, studiously studying the small delicate hands that were somehow now entwined with his work calloused one.  Heath lifted his head and looked intently at Victoria, searching her clear grey eyes for any sign that the words he was hearing were not her true feelings.  Reading nothing but hope, love, and acceptance of him in their grey depths, he nodded minutely.  “If that’s what you really want, then I guess I can call you Mother, Mother.” Heath grinned, “Besides, it will be a lot easier than trying to explain anything to Tommy and Leah…all those questions.”              

“Earth to Heath,” Nick gave his brother a gentle shove.  “Where’s that head of yours boy?”Heath took a deep breath, staring across the yard to where his children and Eugene were just emerging from the wagon. “Just thinking about when Mother decided it was time for me to stop calling her Misses Barkley and call her Mother instead.”

“You made her very happy when you agreed, Heath,” Jarrod replied.

Nick snorted, “She told us about THAT conversation and how exasperated with you she was when she came home that evening.”                    

“Yeah, well I guess I hadn’t really thought things through enough when I decided to buy this place and meet you all.”

“Are you sorry you did Heath?” Jarrod asked from the rocker.

Heath shook his head, placing his empty glass on the porch railing. “Not one single day Jarrod.  I reckon the day I had that fight with Nick was the day I found what I didn’t even know I was missing.” Heath turned to look at his two brothers keeping him company on the porch.  “You know, I don’t think I ever truly thanked both of you for what you did those first days, saving Tommy and me; searching for Essie and Leah…helping with the arrangements for the funeral for Rosetta and Gyorgy…” Heath darted a glance to the small knoll that overlooked the creek and the white picket fence that surround the old oak tree with its gnarled branches that offered shade to the two headstones sitting at its base.  Sighing at the still raw emotions that Rosetta and Gyorgy would never know their latest grandchild, Heath turned back to his brothers and waved a hand to encompass all that was around them… “The new barns and yards, fences and general repairs you’ve both helped with over the last four months.  I couldn’t have done it without you, and I will always be eternally grateful to you both.”

“No thanks are necessary Heath,” Jarrod replied.  “We are a family, all of us and that’s what a family does, whether they are new or old family members. We help and support one another in times of need or …”

A loud wail coming from the house interrupted the brother’s conversation as three sets of eyes looked expectantly at the closed door.  Heath pushed himself away from the porch post and stood nervously in front of the door, his hand tightly gripping the door handle.  Another loud wail broke the spell and Heath turned to look at his grinning brothers.

“…to celebrate a happy event.” Jarrod finished raising his half empty glass of scotch in salute.

“Well, what are you waiting for boy?  Go see that little lady of yours and your newborn.”

Heath needed no further encouragement has he pulled open the front door and rushed into the house.

“Was that the baby, Uncle Nick” Tommy asked as he jumped up on to the porch and tried to follow Heath into the house only to be thwarted by Nick’s strong arms around his waist.

“Now hold up a minute Mister, let your Mama and Papa have a few minutes alone first, then we’ll all go in and meet your new brother or sister.”  

Jarrod reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out four cigars.  Handing Nick and Eugene one each he laid the other two on the table beside him in anticipation of the coming celebration. 

Leah tugged lightly on Eugene’s hand.  “Do you think it’s a girl, Uncle Gene?”

“Course it’s not Leah,” Tommy interjected, “Girls don’t make that much noise.  It’s gotta be a boy, right Uncle Gene?  I’ve got a baby brother.”

“Girls can too,” Leah stamped her foot.  She hoped it wasn’t another boy.  She was looking forward to playing house and having tea parties with her baby sister.

The front door opened, and Audra stepped onto the porch, blue eyes alight and a happy smile on her face.  “You can come in now but be quiet.”

Tommy and Leah lead their Aunt and Uncle’s into the house and up the stairs to their parent’s room, pausing in the doorway when their Grandmother held up a hand to slow their rush to the bed. Taking a small hand in each of hers, Victoria led the twins over to the bed where Heath was leaning back against the bedhead with Essie resting against his chest and the baby swaddled in a cream blanket in her arms.

Esmeralda smiled at the twins as they carefully climbed up onto the bed before looking up at Heath’s three brothers and Audra who had come to stand at the foot of the bed. Victoria returned to her seat in the rocker that Heath had had re-upholstered in one of Rosetta’s brightly patterned gypsy blankets as a gift for Esmeralda’s birthday the previous month.

Heath bent down and kissed the top of Essie’s head and whispered just loud enough for everybody to hear.  “You might as well finish what you started Misses Thomson-Barkley.”    

Esmeralda lightly smacked Heath’s arm resting across her belly.  “Oh no Mister Thomson-Barkley, you don’t get out of it that easily.”  Looking up at the family watching them with knowing grins Essie lifted the sleeping baby in her arms. Before speaking Essie turned to look at Victoria.  “Heath and I would like you all to meet Victoria Rose Thomson-Barkley.”

Leah squealed in delight, “It’s a girl.  Now I can have real tea parties.”

“Oh Mother, they have named the baby after you. How wonderful,” Audra smiled.

Victoria wiped a tear from her cheek and smiled lovingly at the young couple and their new daughter snuggled in the bed.  “I am honoured to have my new granddaughter named after me and I thank you both very much, but I feel the honour of the name should go to your mother Rosetta, Esmeralda.  Why don’t you reverse the names to Rose Victoria?”

Essie looked up to Heath for guidance, “Heath what do you think?”

Heath looked to his siblings standing at the foot of the bed, trying to gauge their reaction to their mother’s announcement.

“Don’t look at us Brother Heath,” Jarrod answered the unasked question, “the decision is entirely up to you and Esmeralda but let me remind you that Mother has spoken and we all usually acquiesce to her words of wisdom.”

Heath turned from the knowing grins of his siblings to look lovingly at his wife and new daughter.  “It’s fine with me Essie love if that’s what you want.”

Esmeralda returned her gaze to Victoria.  “If you’re sure Victoria, Rose Victoria it is.”

“Well, now that that’s settled,” Nick stated, “When do I get to hold my new niece?”

“When you’ve washed up Nicholas and not a moment sooner.” Victoria replied.

“Tommy love, what are you looking for?” Esmeralda had been watching her son as he tried not to squirm on the bed while looking around the room.

“For my brother.” Tommy replied hopefully.

“Oh sweetheart, you have a baby sister this time.” Esmeralda replied.

“But why?  There’s one each of me and Leah so why isn’t there one each of them?” Tommy asked, pointing at the baby.

Esmeralda looked helplessly at Heath as the rest of the family tried not to laugh at Tommy’s question.

Nick slapped Eugene hard on the back, almost toppling his brother over the foot of the bed.  “Well Doctor Barkley, I can’t wait to hear your answer to this one.”

***The End ***

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One thought on “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves (by Modocgal)

  1. Really enjoyed this take on Heath arrives at the Barkley’s. Started reading fan fiction during the pandemic after rediscovering the westerns I grew up watching with my dad. Came across this website while looking for background on TBV. I started a story but haven’t finished it. Not sure it will be good enough. Laura

    Sent from Laura’s iPad Kiss of the sun for pardon. Song of the birds for mirth. You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden than any place else on earth. –Dorothy Frances Gurney

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