Jarrod stood off to the side of the billiards table as Nick bent to take a shot. Victoria sat on the sofa doing what she’d done so often since Heath had joined their family, sewing a button back on one of his shirt cuffs. Within days of Heath’s arrival, she’d come to realize that he unconsciously twisted his cuff buttons whenever he was nervous or uncomfortable. For some reason, he’d loosened five in the last two weeks, yet she hadn’t seen that old habit of worrying buttons employed in front of her for months now.
He must be catching them on something outside. A stall, or a baling hook, or possibly on that new barbed wire fence he and Nick have been stringing.
Jarrod was leaning on his cue stick, staring out the big windows that overlooked the front of the ranch. He didn’t hear Nick until his brother had called his name for a third time.
“Jarrod. Come on! It’s your shot.”
“Oh.” Jarrod turned back to the table. “Sorry.”
Jarrod took a quick shot that sent the eight ball sailing. It missed the remaining four balls on the table, but the lawyer barely took notice. He straightened and stepped back.
“There you go, brother. The table’s all yours.”
Nick shook his head. “There’s no point in continuing the game if you’re just going to let me win.”
“Let you win?”
“Yeah. You haven’t been paying attention since we started. I don’t even know why you suggested we play.”
Jarrod heaved a sigh that sounded like it came all the way from his toes. “You’re right, Nick. I’m sorry. I...I’ve got a lot of things on mind. I apologize for wasting your time.”
“That’s all right.” Nick took his brother’s cue stick and walked over to a glass cabinet. He put both the sticks away, and then returned to the table where he retrieved the balls from the pockets. He put them in the rack and rolled it to the center of the table. “Maybe Heath will wanna play a couple of games when he comes in.”
“Did he go riding with Audra?” Jarrod asked.
“No. He told her to go without him. He’s in the tack room mending a saddle.”
Nick walked over to a round table and picked up a bottle of whiskey. “Jarrod?”
“No. None for me thanks.”
“Mother? Can I get you anything? An after-dinner sherry? Or a glass of brandy?”
“No, dear. Nothing.” Victoria picked up her scissors and clipped the end of the white thread. She tested the button she’d just sewn to make sure it was tight. She retied her thread, then started in on another button.
Jarrod smiled as he watched his mother work. “Heath’s losing buttons again?”
“Yes,” Victoria replied without taking her eyes from her sewing. “And at a rate I haven’t seen since the first month he lived with us. I don’t know what he’s catching these on.”
“What makes you so sure he’s catching them on something?”
Victoria looked up. “What do you mean?”
“What makes you sure he’s catching them on something, as opposed to twisting them off like he used to?”
“Just what I said. I haven’t seen him twist his buttons in months now.”
Jarrod’s quiet words were muttered and distant as he walked to the windows with his hands shoved in the front pockets of his trousers. “Maybe he just doesn’t let us see.”
exchanged a puzzled glance with his mother as he rested one hip on a corner of
the desk. “What did you say, Jarrod?”
“Nothing, I...” Jarrod turned to face his family. “Nothing.”
Victoria watched as her oldest son began to pace between the fireplace and desk. When she’d counted six trips back and forth, with a seventh to come, she asked, “Jarrod, are you all right? You’ve been preoccupied ever since you came home. You barely said a word at dinner.”
“Mother’s right. And barely saying a word at dinner isn’t your job, Counselor, it’s Heath’s.”
Jarrod smiled at his brother. He thought a long moment, then walked over to the study doors and closed them. Victoria and Nick exchanged glances once again, but neither of them asked Jarrod any further questions. They had a feeling they would soon enough hear what was on his mind.
The lawyer took a seat in a high backed chair. He looked up at Nick. “I think I’ll have that drink now, Nicholas. Make it a brandy.”
Nick poured his brother the requested drink, walked it over to him, and took up residence in the chair next to him. He plunked his boots on the coffee table, then looked at Jarrod and said, “Well?”
“What’s goin’ on? What’s bothering you?”
Jarrod looked from Nick to Victoria, who was seated across from her sons. She stopped sewing and gave Jarrod her full attention.
The lawyer took a long swig of brandy before starting.
“I had two unexpected visitors at my office today.”
“Who?” Nick asked.
“An army major by the name of Christian Fletcher, and another man by the name of Garrett Reece. A. Garrett Reece.”
Victoria did a double take. “You mean A. Garrett Reece, as in the United States Attorney General?”
“That’s exactly who I mean.”
“What did the attorney general want with you?” Nick asked.
“I wouldn’t exactly say he wanted me.”
“Who did he want then?”
“Matt? Why? What’s goin’ on now? Why can’t these people just leave well enough alone and--”
Jarrod held up a hand. “Nick, pipe down. First of all, what I’m about to say isn’t to leave this room. And second of all it...well, it could involve Heath, too, and I don’t know if I can be objective where he’s concerned. I need...” Jarrod looked from his brother to his mother. “I’m in bad need of some opinions I can trust. Opinions that I know have Heath’s best interests at heart.”
Jarrod’s last two sentences told his mother and brother that whatever was going on was serious, and had the lawyer torn in terms of the correct way to proceed. Jarrod drained his glass, set it on the coffee table, and then began his story. Fifteen minutes later, he finished it by saying, “I didn’t tell them. I handed that paper back to Reece without telling him that I not only know where one of the men on that list is, but that as well, that man is my brother.”
Silence lingered in the room when Jarrod’s tale came to an end. Even Nick was left speechless for a minute. He finally pushed himself to his feet, walked over to the liquor table, and poured himself another shot of whiskey. He downed it in one swallow, and then did the same with a second shot. When he was finished, Nick set his shot glass down and took up pacing where Jarrod had left off.
“You know, just when I think this Bentell situation can’t get any worse, it does.”
“I know, Nick. I felt the same way this morning after Reece and Fletcher left my office.”
Victoria set Heath’s shirt aside. All thoughts of loose buttons vanished in the face of this latest development regarding Matthew Bentell.
“The first question I have is this. Does the attorney general have the right, the legal right, to request that we not tell Matt about his visit and the purpose behind it?”
“No, Mother, he doesn’t. I scoured several law texts this afternoon looking for that exact answer, and wired one of my old law school professors just to make certain I was correct. I got his answer back right before I left the office. Since no charges have been filed against Matt at this time, and he’s not considered a fugitive from justice, then there’s nothing that prevents me from telling him what Reece is planning to do.”
“All right, now for my second question. Can the attorney general do anything to us if we don’t tell him Heath is on his list?”
“That one I don’t have a clear cut answer to. I’m inclined to say no, but it depends on how far his investigation proceeds - on whether or not he actually gains evidence that could bring Matt to trial.”
“This sounds like a real no-win situation to me,” Nick said as he sat back down.
“In more ways than you realize, Nicholas.”
“I did some other research this afternoon over at the newspaper office. I knew Garrett Reece had been one of President Grant’s military aides during the war. What I didn’t realize was how valuable the man was to Grant - and to the Union effort. Nor that he’d been cited numerous times for bravery in combat.”
“So what you’re saying is, that when Reece told you this investigation has the president’s blessing, then what he really means is the president is a close personal friend who had a hard time tellin’ him no.”
“That’s what I mean. Or at least, that’s what I surmise. And I also found out something else that’s interesting. Very interesting, as a matter of fact.”
“What would that be?”
“Reece lost his only son to the war. An eighteen-year-old boy named Avery. Avery Garrett Reece, Junior.” Jarrod looked from his mother to his brother, then back again. “He died at Carterson Prison.”
Again, silence filled the room. And again, it was Nick who broke it.
“Like I said, just when I think this couldn’t get any worse.”
Victoria agreed with Nick. “But really,
what are the chances that Heath knew this boy?”
Nick cocked an eyebrow. “With the way things have gone ever since we hired Matt Bentell, would you like me to quote you odds?”
Nick’s words provided just the right amount of comic relief. It was Jarrod who returned the conversation to a serious vein.
“No, I don’t want you to quote any odds. Hopefully, Lady Luck will be on our side with this one. There were over three thousand men in Carterson. We can only pray Avery Reece is one Heath never met personally.”
Victoria wholeheartedly agreed with her oldest son’s words. “You said there was an army major with Mr. Reece.”
“Yes. A man by the name of Christian Fletcher.”
“Why’d he come along?” Nick asked. “To arrest Bentell?”
“No. I don’t believe so. I have a feeling he was sent along to talk any Carterson survivor they find into testifying.”
“By forming an instant bond with the man. Or men.”
“Okay. So I ask again. How?”
“Fletcher spent two years in Andersonville.”
“Oh, I get it now.” The disdain in Nick’s tone was plain to hear. “Reece and Fletcher are going to play a little blood brother game of manipulation. Fletcher will hold a little pity party with the Carterson survivors and get them whipped into some kinda justice-crazed frenzy. And just how much are they willing to pay any Carterson man to testify on behalf of Reece’s personal vendetta?”
“I don’t know. I hope nothing. But...” Jarrod shrugged. “I don’t know either of these men well enough to even guess at what might happen before all of this comes to an end.”
The lawyer stood and walked to the fireplace. He looked down at the logs.
“Major Fletcher said some things I’ve been mulling over all day. Things about former prisoners of war that I’m, quite frankly, very ignorant about.”
“What things?” Victoria asked.
Jarrod turned around. He rested one foot on the hearth while leaning back against the stones.
“He asked me if I was aware that ninety-seven percent of all former POW’s suffer from nightmares. He asked if I knew that one in twenty-five of them will commit suicide because of overwhelming feelings of loneliness and isolation. He asked me if I realized that the life expectancy of most former POW’s falls short of other men in their age group, because of the physical hardships they endured. He said these men will be haunted by their experiences for the remainder of their lives in ways the rest of us can’t understand, or see.”
“Oh hogwash,” Nick scoffed. “That sounds like the exact kind of propaganda Reece and Fletcher have dreamed up to lay on every Carterson survivor they find.”
“I don’t know, Nick. Fletcher...there was something about the man that led me to believe he’s not lying. Nor would waste his time on useless propaganda. Where’s Heath?”
“I asked you where Heath is.”
“I know what you asked me. And I told you not thirty minutes ago he’s outside in the tack room.”
“Exactly. He’s alone. If you give it some thought, you’ll realize that Heath spends a lot of time alone.”
“Oh, Jarrod, come on! You spend a lotta time alone, too! You always have.”
“Nick’s right, Jarrod,” Victoria confirmed. “Even when you were very young you were content to play by yourself. You never showed a desire for the constant companionship of others in the way Nick, Audra, and Eugene did.”
Jarrod had no reply to offer his mother and brother. They were right. Although he had a large circle of friends and acquaintances, and one woman special to him who resided in San Francisco, he was a man who enjoyed nothing more than a quiet night at home with a good book. But there wasn’t some driving force burning beneath the isolation Jarrod sometimes chose for himself, like he sensed was behind Heath’s craving for isolation. Yet how did he put what was nothing but an abstract observation into words? It would be so much easier if they had known Heath as a child. Then they’d have some means of discerning if, and how, the war had changed him.
Jarrod shook his thoughts off and focused on what Nick was now saying.
“And he doesn’t have nightmares.”
“How do you know?”
looked at his brother as though Jarrod had lost his mind. “Because a person who has nightmares wakes
up screaming. Remember the one’s Audra
used to have when she was little?”
“Only because you told her stories no five-year-old child should be hearing right before she goes to bed,” Victoria admonished.
“Yeah well, regardless, that’s what happens when a person has a nightmare. He wakes up screaming. I’ve bunked with Heath a lot of nights at the line shacks, and out under the stars, since he came here. He doesn’t have nightmares. I’ve never seen anyone who falls asleep as fast as he does.”
“That might be so, Nick, but now that I think back on the weeks since Bentell arrived, I’ve found Heath down here, in this room, two different times when I’ve arrived home late. Right after he came back from the logging camp I ran across him in here at midnight, and then last Wednesday I found him in here when I arrived from San Francisco. That was after one in the morning.”
“So did you ask him why he was up so late?”
“Yes. And he never answered me. Both times he changed the subject, asked me about my day, then said good night.”
Victoria looked from one son to the other. “I found him sitting on the back veranda steps at three-thirty in the morning about two weeks ago.”
he have to say that time?” Nikc asked.
“Nothing. He was...it was almost like he was lost in thought. Or like his mind was some place far away. I got the impression he didn’t want to be disturbed, and when I asked him just that, he acknowledged it, and told me he’d rather be alone.”
“So what’d you do?”
“What was I supposed to do, Nick? I respected his wishes, came back in the house, and returned to bed. But I know he never went back to bed.”
“I didn’t fall asleep. I never heard him come up the stairs. But that morning he was at the breakfast table with the rest of us, so I didn’t think anymore about it.”
“Just because Heath is suffering from what sounds like nothing more than a bout of insomnia, doesn’t mean he’s having nightmares. Look, Jarrod, I’m not saying this Fletcher guy is wrong in what he told you. He was in Andersonville, I wasn’t. So, overall, I don’t have any reason to doubt him. But we don’t need him here causing trouble for Heath. You saw what happened when Bentell first arrived. You saw how out of control Heath was. How furious he was. I’d never seen him like that before, and I hope to never see him like that again. I was afraid he just might kill Bentell if he got the chance. But whatever happened up at the logging camp happened for the best. Not that I wanted my brother’s skull to be cracked open by a rock, but if Bentell saving Heath’s life and then taking care of him afterwards, helped Heath put Carterson behind him to some degree, then I say good. Heath came back from that logging camp a different man from who he was when he left here. We all saw that. He was joking with Matt, he’d talk to him, he’d do whatever we asked without saying a word about it.”
Jarrod gave a thoughtful nod. “That’s right, Nick. Heath would do whatever we asked. And now I wonder if we had the right to ask it in the first place.”
“You damn well thought so when Bentell arrived!”
“Nick, that’s enough,” Victoria said. “There’s no use in getting upset over decisions made weeks ago. What’s done is done. We have several bigger issues facing us now.”
“Yes, we do,” Jarrod agreed. He pushed himself away from the fireplace and claimed the corner of the desk Nick had been sitting on earlier. “I’m heading up to the logging camp tomorrow to talk to Matt.”
“What are ya’ gonna tell him?”
“The same exact thing Garrett Reece told me. That the government has reopened the Carterson investigation.”
“And then...well, as much as I hate to say this, I hope Matt and Lucinda make the decision to move on. To leave us, and find work elsewhere. I won’t ask them to do that. Nor suggest it. The choice will be theirs. But in the end, I believe that will be the best course of action for all concerned.”
“Especially for Heath, you mean.”
“Yes, Nick. That’s what I mean.”
“I agree with you, Jarrod,” Victoria spoke up from the sofa. “If this investigation of the attorney general’s progresses, then it will be best for Heath if Matt isn’t a Barkley employee. But I also agree that it would be wrong for us to fire Matt.”
Jarrod looked at his brother. “And what about you? Do you agree with my line of thinking?”
“Yeah. Short of firing Matt, I can’t come up with any other alternatives. And like Mother said, we have no reason to do that.”
“All right, I’ll leave in the morning. After I return, and have a better idea of what the Bentells will do, I’ll talk to Heath.”
Nick gave a low whistle. “I don’t envy you that conversation. What will you tell him?”
“The truth, just like I told you and Mother. From there, it will be Heath’s decision as to whether or not he goes to see the attorney general.
thought a moment before asking her next question. “Jarrod, as a lawyer, what would you advise Heath to do?”
“I’d advise him to stay out of Stockton until Reece has left. I’d advise him not to get involved unless he’s forced to. Heath has one advantage going for him, and that’s the fact that his name is shown as Thomson on Reece’s list, as opposed to Barkley. If we’re lucky, that will make it difficult for the government to track him down.”
“That’s advice I hope he takes,” Victoria said.
Nick nodded. “He will. There’s no way Heath is gonna want to get caught up in the middle of this mess. Maybe a few weeks ago I couldn’t have said that. But now I can. No way.” Nick headed for the study doors, an indication that this conversation was over as far as he was concerned. “Heath won’t wanna talk to Reece at all. Not at all.”
Later that night, as Jarrod sat at the desk in his bedroom, Nick’s words kept running through his mind.
He won’t wanna talk to Reece at all. Not at all.
“I wish I could be as certain as you, Nick,” the lawyer muttered as he blew out the lamp. “I wish to God I could be as certain as you.”
Blood was everywhere. It splattered the white walls with random splotches of red, some stretching to three feet in length. It ran off the table like spilled milk and pooled on the floor, making it impossible to walk without slipping. Heath screamed when he saw the source of all that blood. He cradled his head in his hands and sank to the cold floor. He scrambled for the door on all fours; his horror increasing as his frantic escape caused him to splash through puddles of blood. He didn’t understand any of what he’d seen. Or why it had been done. But he did know one thing. He had to run. He had to run before they did the same to him.
The cowboy moaned in his sleep. He was so exhausted that the nightmares no longer had the strength to waken him. Sweat ran down his face as his head tossed back and forth on his pillows. He moaned again, and then cried out his terror in a strangled yell.
Nick sat up in bed. He cocked his head toward his open window, trying to determine what had brought him out of a deep sleep. He tossed back his covers and stood.
If those damn coyotes are up by the barn again, I’ll camp out there every night from now until I’ve shot every single one of ‘em.
Nick looked out into the still darkness. He didn’t see any movement in the ranch yard, nor did he hear any panicked squawks coming from the chicken coop.
He walked away from the window. He stood in the middle of the dark room, his brow furrowed with concentration. When one minute had passed and no disturbances sounded from inside the house or out, he moved toward his bed. He was just about to climb in, when he heard it again. Whatever it was, it sounded like a cross between a yell and whimper.
Nick pulled his pants on and fastened the buttons. He opened his door and padded barefoot into the hall. He knew Heath’s room was the only one close enough that allowed him to hear the muffled sounds of a dresser drawer shutting, or the closet door opening. Thus, logic told Nick if he was hearing the sounds of someone having a restless night, it had to be coming from his younger brother’s room.
The cowboy stopped in front of Heath’s closed door. He listened hard, but didn’t hear anything other than what sounded like Heath tossing and turning in bed. Nick rapped lightly on the wood. He didn’t want to rouse the rest of the family at two o’clock in the morning. When Nick got no answer, he rapped again, and this time called in a voice just above a whisper, “Heath? Heath, are you awake?”
Again, Nick received no answer. He eased Heath’s door open and peeked his head in. He could barely discern his brother’s shape curled under the covers in the dark room. He could tell Heath’s back was to him, but that was the extent of what he could see.
“Heath?” Nick questioned, again being careful to keep his voice low. “Heath, are you okay? Heath?”
When Nick still received no answer, and when Heath went on sleeping as though he was totally oblivious to his brother’s presence, the dark headed man shrugged his shoulders. He closed the door as quietly as he’d opened it, and headed back to his room.
I must be hearing things.
Within five minutes of his sojourn down the hall, Nick was sleeping again.
As soon as the guard left the room, Heath’s eyes popped open. He was huddled into a tight ball under his covers, trembling so hard the mattress shook beneath him.
He’s gone. He’s gone. It’s okay. He’s gone now. He can’t hurt me ‘cause he’s gone now.
It was an hour after Nick’s departure before the combination of nightmare and flashback came to an end. Heath slowly released the sweat-soaked blankets he had clenched around his shoulders, and rolled to his back. He stared up at the ceiling, so lost and so alone, as silent tears ran down the sides of his face.
Jarrod was at his office at seven on Tuesday morning. By the time Karen arrived at eight forty-five, Jarrod had accomplished what he needed to prior to leaving for the lumber camp.
Karen was surprised when her boss greeted her at the door. And even more so, when she realized he was dressed in ranching clothes, as opposed to a suit.
“Good morning, Karen.”
“Good morning, Mr. Barkley.” She looked at the files stacked on her desk. “You must have gotten an early start today.”
“I did.” Jarrod followed his secretary as she walked to her desk. “Something has come up that’s going to force me to be away from the office for a couple of days. I’d like to go over a few things with you before I leave.”
An hour after that, Jarrod was riding Jingo out of Stockton. He arrived at the lumber camp the next afternoon. He’d passed worked crews along the way, but didn’t stop to investigate whether or not Matt Bentell was amongst the men. He assumed he would get a more timely answer to Matt’s location from the man’s wife.
Lucinda Bentell was just taking a peach pie out of the oven when she heard a horse ride up in front of the cabin. She looked out of the window to see Jarrod Barkley dismounting Jingo. She glanced in the mirror hanging by the door. She tucked a few stray wisps of hair back into their clips, wiped a dot of flour from her chin, and straightened her apron. She opened the door just as Jarrod was lifting a hand to knock.
“Jarrod, what a surprise! Come in.”
Lucinda. How are you?”
“I’m fine.” The woman stepped away from the door so Jarrod could enter the cozy cabin. “Just fine.”
Jarrod removed his hat, while looking around the large main room that served as both kitchen and living area. A set of stairs came down from above that Jarrod knew led to the bedrooms on the second story. He smiled his approval. “You done wonders with this place.”
“All it needed was a woman’s touch, a broom to sweep the floors and bat down the cobwebs, and some curtains at the windows.”
Lucinda beamed with pride. One of the wealthiest men in California was standing in the kitchen of her log cabin and telling her how nice it looked, and what a wonderful housekeeper she was. Now that the lawyer saw with his own eyes how much a home meant to her, maybe Jarrod and his family would make good on their promise to build her and Matt a new house when they moved to Oregon.
“I assume you’re here to see Matthew? To talk to him about the lumber camp up in Oregon perhaps?”
Jarrod gave Lucinda his hat and watched as she hung it on the rack behind the door. “Yes, I am here to see Matt. And I apologize for not sending word I was coming for a visit ahead of my arrival, but something...something has come up rather suddenly.”
news, I hope. Is everyone all
right? Your mother... Audra...Nick…
Heath? Or your brother who’s away at
college? Eugene...is that his name?”
“Yes, Eugene. And no. No bad news of that sort. Everyone’s fine. There are just some things I need to discuss with Matt that couldn’t wait. I suppose he’s out with one of the crews?”
“Yes, he is, though I don’t know where. But I imagine he’ll be home shortly. Please, sit down. I just took a peach pie out of the oven. Let me give you a slice along with a cup of coffee. You can keep me company while I make dinner. That is, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind. But I didn’t intend to impose either.”
“Oh, Jarrod, your visit is hardly an imposition. And certainly you aren’t planning on turning around and riding out of here yet today?”
“To tell you the truth, yes, that’s what I’m planning. Silas packed enough food to last me two weeks. He seems to have forgotten I don’t have the appetite of Nick or Heath. So in light of that, I thought I’d head back just as soon as I’m done talking to Matt.”
won’t hear of it. We have two
bedrooms. You’ll eat dinner with us,
stay the night, and then let me cook you a good breakfast in the morning before
you head for home.”
Jarrod leaned back as the woman placed a slice of warm pie and a cup of coffee in front of him. One bite of the sweet pie with its thick and flaky crust told him Lucinda Bentell cooked as good as she kept house. The lawyer gave his hostess his most charming smile. “Ma’am, I think you’ve just made me an offer I can’t refuse. At least for dinner.”
“Dinner it is,” Lucinda said, as she turned back to the counter to begin her supper preparations. “But you’ll spend the night, too.”
If you still want me to after you hear the news I bring, was Jarrod’s thought as he ate his pie and watched Lucinda Bentell work.
Matt rode his horse up in front of the cabin late that afternoon. He stopped the mare next to Jingo, and tied her to the hitching post. Any puzzlement he had over who his visitor was ended when he saw the Barkley brand on Jingo’s rump.
That looks like Jarrod’s horse.
Jarrod was still seated at the table visiting with Lucinda when Matt walked in.
“Jarrod! Good to see you!”
Jarrod stood and shook the man’s hand. “Good to see you, too, Matt.”
Matt hung his hat on the hook next to Jarrod’s, then walked over to his wife and gave her a kiss. “I smell something cooking that makes a man mighty hungry.”
“Roast chicken. We’ll eat at six. Jarrod’s going to eat with us, too.”
“Well, of course he is. Can’t have one of my bosses riding all the way up here, only to send him home without feeding him.”
Matt led Jarrod toward the living area. He indicated for the lawyer to sit in an easy chair that resided next to the fireplace. The only other pieces of furniture this part of the house contained were a love seat and a rocking chair. Since Jarrod couldn’t picture a tall man like Bentell being comfortable on either one of those for long, he knew he’d been offered Matt’s chair. He did as his host requested and sat in the well-worn, comfortable chair, while Matt took a seat in the wooden rocker. Lucinda continued to bustle around the kitchen, setting the table and keeping an eye on her dinner while the men talked.
Jarrod opened the conversation by asking Matt questions about the lumber operation. This seemed to relax both Matt and Lucinda, which was what Jarrod wanted. He knew they had to be wondering about the purpose behind his sudden visit. He didn’t need things starting off any more tense than they’d grow to become by the time he was finished speaking.
“And I plan to have some of the men start clearing that burned acreage next week,” Matt said. “It’ll be a big project, but it has to be done if we ever hope to have that ground fertile again.”
Jarrod nodded at Matt’s wisdom. The burned acreage he was referring to was the large area of forest that the Condon brothers had started on fire.
“Good thinking, Matt. As you say, it has to be done. Especially if we want to continue to log this camp, which we do for quite some time to come.”
“That’s good to hear. Cinda and I like this part of the country. It’s quiet. Peaceful. Other than the sounds of the men working, there’s little disturbance.”
Jarrod could imagine how important the isolation of this logging camp was to the Bentells. Which made him hate all the more the news he was about to tell them.
“Matt, I didn’t ride up here to just talk logging. I...” Jarrod looked over at Lucinda, who was stirring a pot of gravy. “Lucinda, perhaps you’d like to come and sit down, too. I think you both need to hear this.”
Lucinda looked at her husband with a pinched, anxious expression. Matt gave her a confident smile. “Come on, Cinda. Come sit on the sofa.”
The woman gave her gravy one last stir, then took it off the flame, covered the pan, and set it on the warming ledge. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and did as her husband requested. When she was seated, Jarrod began.
“Matt, Lucinda, I don’t know any other way to say this, so I’m going to come straight to the point. Two days ago I was paid a visit by our nation’s attorney general.”
“You mean Reece?” Matt asked. “Garrett Reece?”
“Yes, that’s exactly who I mean.”
“What did he want?”
Jarrod’s gaze took in both husband and wife. Lucinda sat forward on the sofa and fished for Matt’s hand. He grasped it, and allowed her to squeeze as hard as she needed to.
“He wanted you, Matt.”
“No!” Lucinda cried as tears began to flow from her eyes. “No! No!”
Matt leaned sideways in the rocker so he could wrap his arms around his wife. “Cinda, don’t cry. Please. Just calm down. Let’s hear what Jarrod has to say before we get upset.”
Jarrod waited until Matt got Lucinda calmed down enough so he had their full attention again. The woman remained wrapped in her husband’s arms, her head resting against Matt’s shoulder.
Jarrod told the Bentells everything Garrett Reece had said. The only thing he left out was the part about the list that contained Heath’s name. But Matt was too smart not to have already figured out exactly what Reece would need in order to bring him to trial again.
“He’s looking for witnesses, isn’t he? Carterson men to testify against me.”
“Yes, Matt,” Jarrod nodded. “That’s what he’s looking for.”
Jarrod hesitated a moment, then said, “I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to Heath about this yet. Ultimately, whether or not Heath talks to Reece, will be his choice. I can’t stop him, or forbid it. But my mother, Nick, and myself, are in agreement that it will be best if Heath doesn’t talk to Reece. I hope that has some bearing on his decision.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jarrod. If it’s not Heath, it will be someone else.”
“Yes. Quite likely it will be.”
you come up here to fire me?”
At those words, Lucinda’s tears started again. She gave a strangled sob as she fled the room. She lifted her skirts and flew up the stairs. Jarrod heard the slam of a bedroom door when she reached her destination.
“Matt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset her. Perhaps we should have had this conversation outside.”
Matt cast a worried glance at the stairs, before turning his attention back to Jarrod.
“You don’t need to apologize. I would have had to tell her the truth eventually. It’s just that the war, and everything that came with it, was hard on her. So hard. Her parents’ plantation was burned to the ground in the Battle of Vicksburg. Cinda’s father was killed trying to defend what was his. Her mother died not long after that. The shock of it all, of seeing her husband get run through with a bayonet, was just too much for my mother-in-law. Cinda was an only child. She’s got some cousins scattered here and there, but no one she’s close to. My situation isn’t much different. My parents died thirty years ago during a cholera epidemic, and my brother died shortly before the war broke out. I’ve got three nephews, but the last time I saw them was at their father’s funeral. For many years now, all Cinda and I have had is each other. Our love for one another has gotten us through some pretty rough waters. We thought our bad times were over. After you offered me this job, and let me stay on after you found out who I was, we thought the past was behind us for good. It’s just...it’s a shock to Cinda right now. She’s scared.”
“I’m sure she is.”
“We’ll pack our things and be gone by the weekend. Is that soon enough?”
that’s what you want to do.”
“I didn’t come up here to fire you, Matt. I simply came up here to let you know what’s going on. And to advise you to hire an attorney in the event this does escalate to a trial.”
Matt stood and walked over to the window. He looked out toward the barn for a long time before turning to face Jarrod again.
“I have no desire to run, Jarrod. If I do, I’ll be running for the rest of my life. Besides, it will be an effort in futility. I know Garrett Reece by reputation only, but what I’ve heard leads me to conclude that if he’s determined to find me, he won’t stop looking until he does.”
“That’s very brave of you, Matt.”
“I don’t know if it’s brave or stupid, but that’s just the way it’s going to be. So, if Reece asks you for directions to this place, you go ahead and give them to him.”
“I don’t believe that will be happening in the immediate future. The investigation is just starting. The attorney general has quite a lot of work to do before the possibility of a trial even exists.”
“You said I should see a lawyer.”
“Yes. If nothing else, I think you should seek legal counsel in preparation of what might come to pass.”
“Okay. Then I hire you.”
Jarrod shook his head. “Matt, I’m sorry. I truly am. But I can’t.”
“Because of Heath?”
“Yes, because of Heath. It would be a conflict of interest. And even if Heath chooses not to talk to Reece, I still can’t. I hope you understand.”
“I do. Heath’s your brother. Your first loyalty should be to him.”
“Yes, it should be. But it’s not just a question of loyalty; it’s a question of me being caught in the middle between you and Heath. I can’t do that. Not to myself, not to my family, but most of all, not to Heath.”
For the first time since Jarrod had brought up Garrett Reece’s name, Matt smiled. “Things would be a bit tense around the supper table, huh?”
Jarrod smiled in return. “To say the least. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to throw you to the wolves. I have a good friend in San Francisco. He’s an excellent attorney, and well-versed in criminal law. I’m going to talk to him about this situation. I don’t think I’ll have a problem convincing him to meet with you.”
“Thank you, Jarrod. I appreciate it. Not many men in your position would do even that much for me.”
Jarrod stood. He patted Matt on the arm as he walked by him to retrieve his hat. “No thanks are necessary. I’ll contact you just as soon as I know anything further.”
“All right. In the meantime, I’ll keep things going up here if that’s what your family wants.”
Jarrod didn’t tell Matt what he was thinking.
Actually, we were hoping you’d leave, but I can’t blame you for the position you’re taking. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.
“That’s what we want, if that’s what you want.”
“It is. It will be better this way. Running, hiding...well me and Lucinda did that for a long time. It’s not a pleasant life, Jarrod. Not a pleasant life at all.”
“No. I don’t imagine it is.” Jarrod held out his hand to Matt. “Like I said, I’ll be in touch. Please tell Lucinda thank you for the pie and coffee, and for the offer of dinner.”
“You’re not staying?”
“No. I think the two of you need to be alone tonight. Besides, as I told your wife, Silas packed enough food to last me two weeks. And with all of this going on, the sooner I get back to the ranch the better. I don’t want Heath hearing about it from anyone else but me.”
“I understand. Cinda will, too. And again, thank you. And thank your mother and Nick for us as well.”
Matt stood in the doorway and watched Jarrod mount Jingo. He waved to the lawyer one last time as Jarrod urged the gelding into a trot.
When Jarrod was out of sight, Matt shut the door, his body immediately sagging against it. He banged the back of his head against the solid wood in time to his words.
“Why? Why does this have to start all over again? Why?”
The man took a minute to compose himself. When he knew he was ready to be strong for Lucinda, he headed up the stairs. The door to the bedroom they shared was open. He peeked inside, but the room was empty. He walked to the end of the hall where the remaining bedroom was located. This time the door was closed. He knocked.
He heard a muffled, “Go ‘way!” Matt ignored the tearful plea and entered the room. The sight before him came as no surprise, though it broke his heart nonetheless. Lucinda’s hair had been taken down, and was now hanging in two uneven braids to her waist with pink ribbons tied at the ends. She’d removed her dress, apron, shoes and stockings too. The dress she now wore was pink with white squares, and only reached to the middle of her shins. Like the ribbons tied to her braids, the dress had a big pink bow at the neck. She sat barefoot on a far corner of the bed. She was leaning against the wall with her right thumb in her mouth, while her left arm hugged a rag doll to her chest. Tears trickled down her cheeks, and every few seconds she’d give a hiccupped sob.
The woman spoke around her thumb in the voice of a five-year-old. “I’m not Cinda. I’m Annabelle.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Matt said gently as he approached the bed. “I forgot. Annabelle, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
Lucinda began to rock her body back and forth as Matt sat down next to her. “I’m scared, Papa.”
“Scared of what?”
“That they’ll take you away. That they’ll put you in jail.”
“Oh, now, there’s no reason to be scared.” Matt gathered his wife in his arms. “No one’s going to take your papa away, Annie.”
“Yes. I promise.”
your heart kind of promise, Papa?”
“Yes, Annie, a cross my heart kind of promise.”
Lucinda looked up at Matt with tears shining in her eyes. “But that man. He knows our secrets. What if he tells?”
“Jarrod? No, Annie, no. Jarrod doesn’t know any secrets. And besides, Jarrod is a good man. He wants to help us.”
“Not him. The other one. The one who hurt his head, and then got sick in our barn. The one with the funny name.”
“Yeah. Heath. That’s the one. He knows lots of stuff, Papa. Stuff he don’t need to know. And I think he’s a tattletale. A big, dumb tattletale.”
“What makes you say that?”
Lucinda reached out an uncoordinated hand and played with the buttons on Matt’s shirt. “ ‘Cause that ‘portant man is here now.”
“What important man?”
“The one Mr. Barkley told you about. The general.”
“You mean the attorney general? Garrett Reece?”
“Yeah. Him. We knew someone else by that name one time, Papa. I ‘member. He was a boy. He wasn’t much fun though. He didn’t like to play our games. He was friends with that Heath. Best friends. That’s why Heath will tell, Papa. He’ll tell, ‘cause Avery was his friend. His bestest friend.” Lucinda started crying again as she buried her head in Matt’s chest. “And I don’t want him to tell, Papa. I don’t want him to tell, ‘cause then they’ll put you in jail. Please don’t let him tell. Please, Papa. Please don’t let him tell.”
Matt rocked back and forth on the bed with Lucinda in his arms while he stroked one hand over her braids. He stared at the far wall with a look of fierce determination in his eyes.
“No, Annie, I won’t let him tell. I promise, sweetie. I’ll do whatever I have to in order to stop Heath Barkley from telling.” Matt held the sobbing Lucinda as tight as he dared while he made his final vow.
“I’ll do what’s necessary to shut Heath Barkley up for good.”
John Laramie sat at the battered wooden desk in a hotel room in Mason City, Arizona and looked over the list. Slowly but surely, more names were being crossed off, either because the Pinkerton agents were discovering various Carterson survivors were deceased, or because, as in the recent case of cowhand Boone Armstrong, John had paid a hired gun to do away with the man. Laramie knew he couldn’t whittle this list down to no survivors without suspicions being aroused, but he also knew the odds were with him when it came to the fact that a number of these men would never be found. The United States was growing larger with each passing day, and men were moving throughout her vast territory now with the added ease of the railways. This had no doubt enabled some of the former POWs to start life anew in other parts of the country, and even change their names and backgrounds if they had reason to want to.
John was also leery of having every man he found die by gunshot wound, like Armstrong had. Again, that would arouse suspicions if it happened more than a couple of times. Granted, the west was still largely untamed, and men died as a result of being shot every day, but still, John knew he had to exercise caution.
The man’s eyes drifted down the list. A Pinkerton agent had just left this room. He’d told John that rumor had reached him of a man living on a ranch outside of Stockton, California, by the name of Heath Barkley.
“They say Barkley’s a Carterson survivor.”
John thanked the agent, and then saw him to the door. Under normal circumstances, he would have contacted Garrett about this supposed survivor living near Stockton, but as John’s father had stressed to him before he’d left Washington, these weren’t normal circumstances.
The man chewed on the end of his pencil while looking over the list of names. There was no Heath Barkley written on the paper, but there was a Heath Thomson. John had no idea if Heath Barkley and Heath Thomson were one in the same, but he knew who could find out, and he knew who could take care of the problem for him if Barkley was, indeed, a Carterson survivor.
John rushed out of his room. He hurried down the stairs and through the dining area of the establishment he was calling home for the time being. His boot heels pounded against the wood of the sidewalk as he ran to the telegraph office. Laramie and his contact had long ago established a code they communicated in based on letters of the alphabet. The letter K in a telegraphed message really stood for the letter B. The letter M stood for G, the letter S stood for A, and so on. Only if you knew their code, could you decipher the real communication that was occurring. To anyone reading their words, or to the telegraph operator sending them, the messages would appear mundane and benign. However, messages that conveyed plots of murder were anything but that.
By the time Laramie’s seemingly innocent message was sent to his contact in Stockton, the man would know what John expected of him for the price John’s father was willing to pay: Find out if Heath Thomson and Heath Barkley are the same man. If so, kill him.
Because he’d ridden through a large part of the night, Jarrod arrived back at the ranch at ten minutes to three on Thursday afternoon. His mother greeted him warmly, then led him to the kitchen. Lunch was long over with for Jarrod’s brothers, and they were off somewhere working on the vast Barkley acreage. Audra was spending the day at the Mission Orphanage. Silas had gone with her to help unload supplies, therefore, Jarrod was able to fill his mother in on his visit with the Bentells, minus interruptions.
The lawyer ate a sandwich and drank a glass of milk at the kitchen table while he talked. He finished his story, and his meal, at the same time.
“So there’s no chance Matt and Lucinda will be leaving?”
think so. Not unless Lucinda changes Matt’s mind. He was pretty firm about it, Mother. And I can’t say I’d take a different position if I were him. He was found not guilty ten years ago. Why should he have to run now?”
“He shouldn’t. And I’m glad you, Nick, and I agreed on that issue. It’s just...”
smiled when his mother let her sentence trail off. “It’s just that it would be easier for all concerned if Matt
would move on.”
“Exactly. But if it’s not to be, then it’s not to be. Wishing Matt will go away won’t make it happen.” Victoria stood and carried Jarrod’s dishes to the sink. “When will you talk to Heath?”
Victoria turned around. “Tonight?”
“There’s no point in delaying the inevitable. Now that we know Matt won’t be leaving, we can’t risk Heath hearing about Garrett Reece from someone else. Or heaven forbid, Reece tracking Heath down on his own. At least this way I’ll have a chance to explore Heath’s options with him and point out the pros and cons in whatever course of action he takes.”
“I think I should be there when you talk to him.”
“I think you should, too. And Nick, as well, provided he can keep quiet and not lose his temper the minute he hears something he doesn’t agree with.”
“Nick will do fine, as long as you let him know ahead of time that’s what you expect. That you...and Heath, need his support tonight as opposed to needing more problems.”
“I’ll pull him aside before dinner and tell him just that. What about Audra?”
“I haven’t told her anything about the attorney general’s visit with you. For now, I’m not going to. It’s not necessary until we see how far this might progress. She won’t be home this evening anyway. She was invited to eat dinner and spend the night at the Danielsons.’ Sarah arrived home from college on Tuesday.”
“Audra won’t be coming back here with Silas in order to pack a bag and get her horse?” Jarrod asked.
“No. Audra packed her valise this morning before she left for the orphanage, and she rode out on Lady while Silas followed with the wagon. She’s going directly to the Danielsons’ when her work is done. I don’t look for her to be home until sometime late tomorrow afternoon. You know how Audra and Sarah can talk nonstop once they start visiting.”
Jarrod nodded. Sarah Danielson had been one of Audra’s closet friends throughout childhood. She’d gone away to the Boston Ladies’ College upon graduation from Stockton’s schoolhouse.
The lawyer stood and walked over to his mother. He placed a kiss on her forehead. “Don’t frown like that, it causes wrinkles.”
Victoria couldn’t help but chuckle at her son’s teasing. Jarrod placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eyes.
“It will be okay, Mother. Nick’s assured me several times that it’s doubtful Heath will want to talk to Reece.”
you confident of that fact, as well?”
“Not as confident as Nicholas, I don’t suppose, but I have to put stock in what he says. After all, he works with Heath day in and day out. They’ve practically become inseparable during the past year. I have to believe Nick has an insight to Heath’s innermost thoughts and feelings that I’m lacking.”
Victoria nodded as Jarrod turned for the back stairs.
“I’m going to take a hot bath, put on some clean clothes, then catch a quick nap before my brothers get home.”
“You do that, son. You look tired.”
“I am. I haven’t slept well since Reece’s visit.”
The lawyer was already in his room when Victoria muttered, “Neither have I, Jarrod.” She turned to the sink and began doing her son’s lunch dishes. “Believe me, neither have I.”
All Heath and Audra had been told about Jarrod’s time away was that it involved business. Which Heath assumed meant Jarrod had gone to San Francisco, or had traveled somewhere to meet with a client. If he thought it odd no details of that trip were forthcoming at the dinner table that evening, he didn’t comment on it. But then he was too tired to care, or to focus on the conversation around him. The nightmares hadn’t let up, but were only getting worse in their intensity and duration. At three o’clock that morning he’d found himself huddled in a corner of his closet, without even knowing how he’d gotten there. All he remembered was the terror that prevented him from leaving the tiny space until the sun finally began to shine through his bedroom windows. Only then did Heath realize he wasn’t fifteen years old, and wasn’t in a punishment cell at Carterson. Or a Hell Cell, as his fellow prisoners used to refer to it.
Heath had assumed the nightmares would be a thing of the past now that Matt Bentell was back at the lumber camp. But the Bentells had left ten days ago, and Heath was beginning to wonder if he was going crazy. Maybe this was how a person started to lose his mind. When you could no longer get a peaceful night’s sleep, when you could no longer go about your working day without memories of your nightmares haunting you, when you could no longer enjoy the activities that used to make your life worth living, when you didn’t feel you had anyone you could talk to about the demons that had suddenly taken up residence within your soul, then maybe you just went off the deep end. Maybe you just went stark raving mad until you finally put a gun to your head and pulled the trigger. In the last few weeks, Heath had come to see why a man might be driven to do that. He’d even thought about it a time or two. Thought about how quickly it could all be over. How quickly the nightmares, and memories, and unanswered questions, could be left in the past for good.
Heath was the first to stand after Silas had collected the dessert plates.
“Good night?” Nick questioned. “It’s only seven-thirty.”
Victoria could see the truth behind Heath’s words. His eyes were red, and faint gray circles formed shadows beneath them.
“Long day, sweetheart?” She asked as he bent to kiss her.
“Something like that.”
Victoria assumed Jarrod would table his planned discussion in light of Heath’s fatigue. But before the blond man could get out of the dining room, the lawyer beckoned, “Heath, hold up a minute please. I need to talk to you.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow, Jarrod? I’d really like to call it a night.”
“I can see that, but I’m sorry. No, it can’t wait.” Jarrod stood and placed a hand on his brother’s back. “Come on. Come in the study with me.”
If Heath was wondering why Victoria and Nick were trailing him and Jarrod, he didn’t mention it. Jarrod indicated to the chair he’d been sitting in the last time he’d participated in a serious discussion in this room.
“Sit down, please.”
Heath did as his oldest brother requested of him. Victoria sat on the sofa, with Nick sitting on the arm next to her.
Heath first grew curious about what was going on when Jarrod shut the study doors. There was no one in the house but Silas, which indicated to Heath that whatever was about to be said was considered private family business, and highly confidential.
Jarrod walked over to the desk. He opened the middle drawer, and from beneath a stack of papers retrieved something that he concealed in his palm. Without bothering to offer anyone a drink like he normally would, the lawyer took the only other chair in the room. He glanced at his mother and Nick for silent support before beginning.
“Heath, on Monday two men came to my office.” Jarrod passed Heath the business card he’d just taken from the desk drawer. “One of them left this with me.”
Heath leaned forward and took the engraved card from his brother. He kept all expression off his face as he read the name, while willing his hands not to shake.
It took a moment for the blond man to find his voice and meet Jarrod’s eyes. “What did he want?”
“He’s looking for Carterson survivors. He’s heading an investigation that may, or may not, result in Matt Bentell being brought to trial again.”
“Did you give him my name?”
“No, I didn’t. But he had the names of the surviving Carterson POW’s printed on a piece of paper. He showed it to me. You were on it. Listed as Heath Thomson.”
“Did you tell him how to find me?”
“No. I didn’t tell him anything. For the time being, I denied knowing anyone on the list.”
“What about Bentell?”
“That’s where I’ve been the last two days. I went to the lumber camp to talk to Matt. At this point, he’s not wanted for any crime, so his options are open. For now, he’s chosen to stay up there and run the operation for us.”
gaze took in his entire family. “What do you want me to do?”
“It’s not a matter of what we want you to do, Heath,” Victoria said gently. “It’s a matter of what you want to do.”
whatever you tell me to.”
“Heath, no,” Jarrod said. “The decision is ultimately yours. I can offer you some advice, help you weigh the pros and cons of talking to Reece, as opposed to not talking to him, but I can’t tell you what to do.”
“Because I can’t. It has to be your decision, based on what you think is best for yourself, and best for the men you served with.”
“When Bentell came here, you told me what you me wanted to do.” Heath looked from Jarrod, to Victoria, to Nick. “All of you did. So all I’m asking is that you tell me what I’m supposed to do now, in order to make you happy.”
“Heath...sweetheart, no. No,” Victoria negated. “We didn’t ask you to work with Matt in order to make us happy, we asked you to work with him so you could come to terms with Carterson. So you could see nothing good can come from hate. And that happened, didn’t it? Didn’t you come to see that hating Matt Bentell was useless? That it was just tearing you up inside?”
Heath said exactly what he knew Victoria wanted to hear. And this time everyone in the room finally realized it.
“Yeah.” Heath’s eyes dropped to the card he held. “Sure.”
Jarrod exchanged an uneasy glance with his mother and Nick. The family fell into a lengthy silence that the lawyer was finally forced to break.
“Heath, I realize you’re tired. Why don’t you go up to bed and sleep on it. A decision such as this shouldn’t be made at the end of a long day. Nor does it have to be made tomorrow, or the day after that. Give yourself the time you need to think it over. And if you want to talk to me, get my opinions as a lawyer, or just run your thoughts by me as your brother, you know I’ll always be here for you.”
Heath nodded his head while still staring down at the card. He stood and walked toward the doors like a man in a trance. As his hand touched a knob, he turned around. His eyes sought Jarrod’s.
“The attorney general?” Heath questioned.
“He’s Avery’s father, isn’t he?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jarrod could see the despair on his mother’s face, and the wry, “See, what did I tell you?” on Nick’s.
“Yes, Heath. Attorney General Reece is Avery’s father.”
The family barely heard Heath’s, “I thought so,” as he exited the room.
The man ducked out of view behind the ornamental bushes when Jarrod Barkley passed by the windows. He was an old pro at eavesdropping. All you had to be was a little sneaky, and a little patient. If you excelled at those two things, you could learn a lot.
So, Heath hasn’t forgotten Avery. Too bad. He would have done well to wipe that name from his mind.
Dack Hammond listened through the open windows as Victoria, Nick, and Jarrod discussed Heath’s reaction to all Jarrod had revealed. No one seemed to know what he would do with the news, but Dack did. He knew, because he was well aware of how noble Heath Thomson was. He’d seen Heath as a fifteen-year-old boy stand up more than once for a fellow Carterson inmate, even if it earned him a beating.
Heath won’t turn his back on the memory of his friends. He’ll talk to Reece. I know he will. He’ll tell Reece all he knows. All he witnessed. He might even agree to testify against Captain Bentell.
Long after the Barkleys left the study, the man stayed put. When complete darkness fell, he slunk out of the bushes and ran for the cover of a distant tree line. He mounted his waiting horse and rode away into the night.
Heath had gone right to his room from the study. He closed the door, sank to the bed, kicked off his boots, and lay back against his pillows. He didn’t bother to light the lamp or get undressed. By feel alone, he put Garrett Reece’s card on his bedside table.
No thoughts churned in the blond man’s head as he stared up at the dark ceiling. No emotions touched his heart. He was empty inside. He was void of any feelings, because it was the feelings that brought on the nightmares. Or so Heath told himself as he slowly gave into his exhaustion.
Heath was dressed in his blue suit; the one Jarrod’s tailor had made for him shortly after his inclusion into the Barkley family. He sat on the witness stand and stared out over the courtroom. On his right, sat his family. Victoria, Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene nodded at him, their synchronized movements making it clear what they expected him to do. On his left, sat the men he had been imprisoned with at Carterson. It was odd, because many of the faces he saw were faces of men he knew were dead. But they sat there, looking very much alive, while they, too, nodded at him. Without being told, Heath realized their nods met something else. He realized their expectations were far different from those of his family. They expected him to give testimony that would hang Matt Bentell. His family expected just the opposite.
Heath felt his stomach churn when the Bailiff approached him with the Bible. He didn’t know what he was going to say. Who should he side with? His family? The people who had acknowledged him as a Barkley, and taken him into their lives? The people who had given him their unconditional love and a place call home, the two things he cherished above all the Barkley money in the bank? Or should he side with the men who had been his family throughout the most hellish seven months of his life? The men who had helped him survive his internment at Carterson, both physically and mentally.
The Bailiff held the Bible toward Heath. “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
Slowly, Heath’s quaking hand rose. No one seemed to notice the blood on his palm, or how it ran down his wrist and soaked into his suit coat.
The Bailiff’s words spun in Heath’s head.
“I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
Heath looked from his family to his friends. When he tried to say the words the Bailiff commanded of him, he couldn’t. When Heath tried to open his mouth to speak, he couldn’t force anything out. His family didn’t want to hear the truth his friends were counting on him to tell. What was he supposed to do? Who could he turn to for advice that had no stake in either camp? Dear God, he was so alone. He had no one. No one at all who could see him through this. And then the doors at the back of the courtroom opened. A young soldier dressed in Union blue entered. Despite the years that had passed, Heath would have known that infectious grin and those brown curls anywhere.
The soldier lifted a hand and waved at Heath. He opened his coat and looked down at his stomach. His grin faded to a grimace of horror as he frantically attempted to shove his intestines back inside the hacked flesh that had once been firm and unblemished.
“Heath, help me! Please help me!” the young soldier screamed with rising panic. “Help me! Oh please, Heath, please! Help me!”
Heath tried to move, but he couldn’t. He sat in the witness stand, staring transfixed at the blood that ran down Avery’s cheeks in place of tears.
“Help me! Help me!” Heath’s upper body catapulted from the mattress. “Help me! Oh, God, help me! Help me, please!”
Heath’s endless cries for help woke the household from a sound sleep. Nick grabbed his pants from the end of his bed. He jumped into them, and was still fumbling with the buttons as he dashed down the hall.
Jarrod threw his robe on over his loose-fitting sleeping pants and was two steps behind Nick. Victoria was belting her robe as she entered the hall to see her sons disappearing into Heath’s room.
Victoria lit the lamp on the bedside table, as Nick grasped his brother by the upper arms.
“Heath! Heath, wake up! Wake up, Heath! It’s just a dream!”
The hands on his arms only made Heath struggle harder. His legs flailed as he tried to kick his attacker. “No! No! Let me go! No!”
Jarrod joined in the fray. He scrambled onto the bed, grabbing his brother from behind. He wrapped an arm around Heath’s chest, and put his mouth next to the blond’s right ear.
“Heath, wake up! Come on now, wake up! You’re okay! No one’s going to hurt you. You’re dreaming. Heath! Heath, come on! Wake up!”
Victoria knew whatever Heath was seeing in his mind, was terrifying him. His pupils were dilated and his nostrils flared, making the woman think of a wild stallion trapped in a box canyon. His face twisted into a grimace of horror so plain to see that you were tempted to look around the room for the source of his fear.
The more Heath’s brothers urged him to wake up, the more he fought. Even Victoria’s voice couldn’t bring him back to the present. When Jarrod was just about to lose his grip on the bucking body, Nick took the only course of action left them. He drew back his hand and slapped Heath across the face with a resounding ‘smack!’
The blow to his left cheek sent Heath’s head reeling, but it accomplished what Nick intended it to. It broke the horror of the nightmare the blond was trapped within.
Heath blinked his eyes three times as Nick’s face came into focus. He had no idea what was going on around him, though he could feel a sharp sting on the left side of his face, along with warmth that indicated blood had come to the surface of the cheek. The arm wrapped around his chest, and the voices coming at him from three different directions, magnified the blond man’s confusion. There was Nick’s voice first, right in front of him, tight and full of concern.
“Heath, are you okay now?”
Then Jarrod’s voice came from somewhere behind him, gentle and quiet, but also concerned. “Heath, are you all right?”
And finally, Victoria’s voice came from his right side. A voice filled with worry, and barely able to disguise the fear she felt for him. “Heath? Sweetheart?”
Heath shook himself free of Jarrod’s grasp. He felt the lawyer’s weight leave the mattress. Heath swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sagged forward, and hid his head in his hands. Throughout all the years, and all the nightmares, he’d never woken anyone up before. Not even the various women who had shared his bed from time to time. Somehow, he’d always experienced the dreams silently, like he’d experienced so many other things in his life. The shame and humiliation of having cried out in fear, of having woken his family, was almost more than Heath could bear. Carterson hadn’t possessed him like this since the day he’d been freed from her clutches. He was scared at the thought of this newfound control she suddenly seemed to have, but he had no idea how to put that fear into words without shaming himself further. Without taking away all that it meant to be Heath Barkley.
The worried family exchanged glances, unsure of how to proceed. It was Victoria who finally made the first move. She reached out a hand and laid it on the top of Heath’s head. She was shocked when he flinched, and then moved just enough so she could no longer make physical contact with him. She didn’t try to force her touch on him again.
“Heath, it’s Mother. Honey, are you all right?”
Heath wouldn’t bring his head out of his hands. His response was muffled, but could be heard.
“Yeah. Yeah...I’m fine.”
Nick tried next. He crouched on his knees and tried to meet Heath’s eyes. When Heath wouldn’t remove his hands from his face, Nick gently grasped them with the intention of doing it for him, but again Heath flinched and moved away. In a quiet voice, Jarrod said, “Nick, don’t. For now, let’s respect the fact that he doesn’t want to be touched.”
Nick wasn’t sure he agreed with this course of action, but he bowed to his older brother’s wisdom. He turned his attention back to Heath, though like his mother, Nick didn’t try to touch the blond again.
“Can I get you something to drink? A glass of water? Or a shot of whiskey maybe?”
Heath knew he’d never be able to steady his hands enough to hold a glass. And there was no way he’d embarrass himself further by allowing someone to hold it for him.
Nick looked up at Jarrod and shrugged his shoulders. He stood and moved out of the way so the lawyer could take his spot. Like Nick had been doing, Jarrod crouched down in front of Heath. He kept his voice soft and gentle.
“Heath, how can we help you?”
A long silence followed. Jarrod looked at his mother who nodded her head, indicating for him to continue his attempts at drawing Heath out.
“Heath? I’m going to ask you again. How can we help you?”
Heath’s voice was hoarse from screaming. “Just...just tell me what you want me to do.”
want you to do?” Jarrod asked.
“About Bentell. About Reece. Tell me what you expect of me. What all of you expect of me.”
And that’s when silent tears began to run down Victoria’s face. Because that’s when she knew they’d made a mistake of gigantic proportions when they’d given Heath no choice but to work alongside Matthew Bentell.
Jarrod glanced up to see the tears on his mother’s face, and the regret on Nick’s. He swallowed hard before speaking again.
“Heath, we already told you. Your family will stand behind whatever choice you make. We only expect you to be true to yourself. We only expect you to do what you think is right.”
“What if I don’t know what’s right?”
“Given time, I have the utmost confidence that you will.”
A minute passed in which no one spoke again. Heath finally dropped his hands, but his gaze remained on the floor. His words were so quiet his audience almost didn’t hear them.
“You never even asked.”
Jarrod remained the family spokesman. “Asked what?”
“If what Bentell told you was the truth.”
“The truth? The truth about what, Heath?”
“When I was hurt. Up at the logging camp. He told you I was seen by a doctor. Bentell told you they took care of me.”
“They? You mean Matt and Lucinda?”
Heath’s words held no emotion, which was more frightening than if they’d contained burning anger. His monologue was flat and without feeling, his glazed eyes never lifted from the oak floorboards.
“No. Bentell dumped me in the barn. He didn’t give me any water, or any food, and he never sent for a doctor, either. I crawled up in the hay mow and laid there for the three days and nights it took me to get better.” Heath swung his feet up from the floor. He eased himself to the bed, then rolled over, turning his back on his family. “But I never said anything because you didn’t ask. You just took Bentell’s word for it, and were so grateful to him, that I just kept it to myself because that’s what I thought you expected of me.”
Heath was only partially cognizant of what occurred after that. He was vaguely aware of Victoria reaching out to hold him, but without realizing it, he flinched at her touch again. At some point, Heath thought Nick led her from the room while murmuring quiet words of reassurance, “He’ll be fine once he gets some sleep, Mother. You’ll see, he’ll be fine,” but he couldn’t say for certain. He heard Jarrod walk to the closet and open the door, then felt a heavy quilt being spread over his shaking body. Heath was pretty sure the next thing Jarrod did was slide the chair to his bedside that normally resided in a far corner of the room. Though Heath’s eyes were open, he wasn’t able to focus on anything for some reason, not even the concerned older brother sitting by his bed.
How long he and Jarrod remained in their respective positions, Heath didn’t know. When he woke at nine o’clock that morning, the lamp had been blown out, the shades had been drawn down over the windows, the chair was back where it belonged, his door was closed, he was alone...and Garrett Reece’s business card was missing from his nightstand.
Garrett Reece had too many years of investigative work behind him not to know when people were being evasive.
“They’re protecting someone,” he told Chris as they ate lunch at a table in one of the two, private dining alcoves the Stockton House contained. Though the men weren’t completely concealed from the reminder of the dining room’s patrons, two half walls encircled them, making Chris and Garrett almost invisible upon being seated. Since the Stockton House catered to businessmen more so than cowhands or store clerks, Garrett assumed the alcoves had been added at some point to allow men the advantage of private discussion over lunch or supper. You had to pay fifty cents for the privilege of dining in an alcove, but Garret felt it was fifty cents worth spending in light of the subject matter he and Chris discussed curing their meals.
“Who’s protecting someone?”
“The ranchers we’ve been visiting.”
“What makes you say that?”
“It’s just a feeling I have. Something about the way some of them pause for a moment as they’re reading over the list.” Garrett swallowed a spoonful of thick, beef stew. “And then yesterday, out at the Circle K, did you see the way Martin Kennigan shoved the list back at me and said this was none of his business?”
“Yes, but that action may have been nothing other than a reflection of Kennigan’s feelings that the war ended eleven years ago, and that he’s too busy to concern himself with things from the past.” Chris buttered a second slice of bread for himself. “These people work hard, Garrett, from sun up to sun down. Much of their livelihood depends on forces beyond their control – the weather, cattle prices, epidemics that can ravage their herds, finding men to employ they can rely on – I can understand why most of them don’t have the time or desire to get involved in our investigation.”
“I’m surprised at you, Chris.”
“Considering what you’ve been through as a result of your military service to your country, you don’t seem to be upset over the indifference these ranchers have shown us.”
“First of all, it won’t do me any good to get upset. That action won’t make any man come forward with information who doesn’t want to. And second of all, I joined you on this mission knowing the odds weren’t in your favor.”
“They don’t appear to be,” Garrett reluctantly acknowledged. He’d received a wire from John the previous day. Laramie had gone to speak with a man in Arizona by the name of Boone Armstrong, whom a Pinkerton agent had tracked down, only to discover upon his arrival that the man had died two days earlier. Armstrong been working alone, mending fences for the rancher who employed him, when he was shot in the back. The rancher assumed Indians had done the murder. In John’s telegram he told Garrett the rancher said they had trouble in that area with Apaches on occasion.
“But still,” Garrett said, as he brought his thoughts back to the present, “there was something about the exchange between Garland Manners and his wife this morning that leaves me suspicious.”
“In what way?”
“Mrs. Manner’s was looking over Garland’s shoulder as he read the list. I saw her give him a nudge with her elbow, and I also saw him give a quick shake of his head.”
“And that meant what?”
“I surmise it meant there was a name on our list they recognized. I believe Manners was letting his wife know that they were not going to acknowledge that fact to us.”
“They have a big spread. It’s possible someone on the list worked for them at one time.”
“Or currently works for them.”
“Or currently works for them, yes. But what are you going to do about it, Garrett? Until someone is willing to tell you that one of the men on that list lives here in Stockton, or somewhere in the surrounding area, there’s nothing you can do but keep looking.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I’ll keep looking.” Garrett pushed his bowl away and reached for the slice of apple pie that was setting by his coffee cup. “Garland and Opal Manners are good friends of the Barkley family.”
“How do you know that?”
Garrett smiled. “I know a lot of seemingly insignificant facts about people that might surprise you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chris smiled in return, as he reached for his own pie.
“They came west from Philadelphia with Tom and Victoria Barkley thirty-six years ago.”
“So, I just find it interesting that Garland signaled his wife to keep quiet when they were looking at the list.”
“That could mean nothing more than the fact that they know the Barkleys are employing Bentell, and that Manners, as a friend of the Barkley family, doesn’t want to get caught in the middle of all this.”
“You’re right, it could mean that. Or it could mean something more.”
Garrett shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe one of the names on my list is a Barkley ranch hand.”
“Jarrod Barkley already denied knowing any man on that list.”
“And you expected him to do otherwise?”
“Garrett, do you really think a Barkley ranch hand would continue to work for Jarrod Barkley and his family, given the fact that they’re employing Bentell?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. If he needed his job badly enough.”
“More than likely only if he wanted a chance to murder Bentell. Otherwise, I can guarantee you that if any name on that list belongs to a Barkley ranch hand, the man is long out of Stockton by now. I don’t believe any man who had been imprisoned by Bentell, is going to continue to work for his employer if that employer also has Bentell on the payroll.”
“Like I said, maybe he needs the job.”
“Under those circumstances, no Carterson survivor would be that desperate for work.”
“Maybe the circumstances are such that he has no choice but to stay with the Barkleys.”
“And maybe you’re grasping at straws.”
“Maybe I am,” Garrett agreed. “And maybe I have been since Avery died. But I’ve come this far, and with the president’s blessing. Grant leaves office in ten months, Chris. If I have any hope of bringing Bentell to trial, I have to do it before I no longer have the support of the commander in chief. They’re saying Hayes will be our next president. He won’t back me on this, Chris. You know he won’t.”
Major Fletcher knew Garrett was likely correct when it came to that prediction. Rutherford Hayes was a veteran of the Union Army and had served during the Civil War, but his wife was known to have great influence over him, and to be a champion of the underdog, which meant she would not approve of Bentell being pursued at this late date. And if Lucy Hayes didn’t approve, then she would see to it that her husband didn’t either.
“I will find the man I’m looking for, Chris,” Garrett vowed not for the first time since their journey had begun. “While Grant’s still in office, I will find the man who knew Avery. I’ll find him, or mark my words, I’ll die trying.”
The man Garrett Reece was looking for had quietly left the Barkley mansion at nine-thirty that Friday morning. Heath had muffled his movements as he’d dressed, then crossed the hall to the bathroom where he washed up, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He wasn’t sure if anyone was in the house other than Silas. By this time of the day, Jarrod should be at his office, Nick should be working somewhere on the ranch, and Victoria should be tending to errands in Stockton, or visiting a neighbor, or doing some charitable work for the church the Barkley family attended. The only person whose absence from the house Heath knew of for certain was Audra’s. Victoria had mentioned at dinner the previous evening that Audra was spending the night at the Danielson ranch, and wouldn’t be back until sometime later today.
Heath hadn’t felt reluctance to face his family since the first few weeks he’d come to live at the Barkley ranch. Back then, that feeling of reluctance was due to worrying about whether or not he’d fit in, and due to the fact that Nick was always putting him to the test, and that Victoria’s refined ways made him nervous. As well, he’d been so afraid that he’d never be able to live up to the expectations Victoria held for a son of Tom Barkley. But over time, Heath had begun to fit in, and he and Nick had become so close that it was hard to believe they hadn’t grown up together, and Victoria...well, she didn’t make him nervous any longer. Heath had come to learn that she expected no more or no less of him than his own mother had – to be an honest and hard-working man, who was willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. When he’d finally started to call her Mother, the name felt right to both Heath and Victoria. His own mother had always been Mama. But the word ‘Mother,’ seemed fitting for a woman like Victoria Barkley, and the term allowed Heath another way to blend in with his half brothers and sister, who also called the woman, ‘Mother.’
Now the reluctance to face his family was based on embarrassment over his nightmare, and once again the feeling that he was different from the rest of them. That his time spent in Carterson set him apart from Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene, and not in a way that Heath wanted to be set apart. As he’d grown closer to his family, and had learned more about his heritage, there were some ways in which Heath was different from his brothers that made him proud. His hair color and the shape of his face and nose were exactly like that of Theodore Barkley, his paternal grandfather…or so he’d been told numerous times. Victoria had told him that he had Tom Barkley’s walk and laugh, and that the tonal quality of his voice was also that of his father. These were characteristics about Heath that differed from characteristics his half brothers carried, yet these differences didn’t set him apart from his family, but rather, brought him closer to them. Made him feel more like a Barkley, rather than less of one. But now, he felt less of one. As though, somehow, Jarrod or Nick would have come through Carterson in a different way than he had. Would have known how to handle Matt Bentell’s presence better than he had.
Maybe when you grow up rich, ya’ just grow up knowin’ the right way to conduct yourself in every situation, Heath thought, not for the first time, since arriving on the Barkley ranch.
As Heath suspected might be the case, the normal activities for a weekday on the ranch had been altered because of him. When he reached the top of the stairs, he could hear voices coming from the parlor. He stood there a moment and listened. Nick’s voice was easy to discern – loud and deep, and no matter how many times Victoria told him to shush, he just kept right on talking. Jarrod, on the other hand, never raised his voice, and when he spoke, it was with the wisdom and confidence Heath had come to admire him for.
“First thing we gotta do, is get rid of Bentell.”
“Get rid of him how, brother Nick?”
“Just tell him to move on. Tell him he’s gotta go.”
“On Monday evening we agreed that whether or not Bentell stayed or left, was his choice.”
“Well now, Jarrod, things are a might different than they were on Monday night, aren’t they? You saw what that nightmare did to Heath. You saw what the news about Garrett Reece did to him. Bentell’s gotta go. If you won’t tell him to pack his stuff and move on, then I will.”
“Nick, calm down. Let’s wait until we’ve had a chance to talk to Heath to see what he wants.”
“I know what Heath wants, Mother. He doesn’t have to tell me. He wants Bentell gone. He wanted that over a month ago when Bentell first showed up, but none of us would listen to him, would we? So now I guess we’re paying the price for that.”
“Nick, no one is paying any price.”
“Oh no, Jarrod? You don’t think Heath isn’t paying a heavy price that…”
Heath turned away without hearing the rest of Nick’s sentence. He didn’t want to be the reason why they were arguing. He wished they’d just tell him what to do. He wished they’d tell him what they expected of him, but he knew they weren’t going to do that. Instead, Jarrod would map out the pros and cons for him, like a good lawyer should, and if given a chance, Nick would run Bentell off Barkley property, and Victoria…well, Heath wasn’t sure what Victoria would do, other than look at him with sympathy, while likely wishing he’d never brought all this turmoil to her household. That’s why a man was better off to keep quiet about Carterson. The memory of it only brought trouble.
Heath silently walked down the upstairs hallway, and descended the back stairs into the kitchen. Silas was putting away the breakfast dishes as Heath passed through on his way to the door.
“Mr. Heath,” the black man summoned, “there’s a sack for you on the counter with some food in it. Go on and take it with ya’ now. I packed some cinnamon rolls leftover from breakfast, some sandwiches, an apple, and a piece of that strawberry pie Mrs. Barkley made for last night’s dessert.”
Heath didn’t waste time wondering how Silas knew he didn’t plan to sit at the table and eat breakfast, or be back to the house for lunch. He chalked it up once again to there being few happenings in the Barkley home that Silas didn’t sooner or later find out about. If Silas had knowledge of what had happened the previous evening, then that also meant Silas would know how Heath felt about those happenings this morning.
“Thank you, Silas,” Heath said softly, as he picked up the sack and walked out of the door.
The blond cowboy hurried to the barn, thankful the French doors in the parlor looked over Victoria’s rose garden, as opposed to looking over the ranch yard. The Barkley hands were scattered amongst the vast acreage, doing whatever jobs Nick, or Phillip Mattson, the ranch foreman, had assigned them. Heath didn’t encounter anyone as he saddled Charger and left the barn. He stopped by the pump and filled his canteens, took a cinnamon roll from the cloth lunch sack before putting it in a saddlebag, then mounted his horse and headed out of the front gates. Where he was going, Heath Barkley wasn’t sure, but he figured he’d know once he got there.
Jarrod saw Garland Manners to the door. He shook the man’s hand as they paused in the threshold.
“Thank you again for coming by, Garland. Are you sure you won’t stay for lunch?”
“No, Jarrod, no. I need to get back to the ranch. I…” Garland looked past Jarrod to Victoria and Nick, who had remained in the parlor. “Again, I apologize if I’m talking out of turn. It’s just that when I saw Heath’s name on that list, I thought you should know what the attorney general is doing.”
Jarrod didn’t bother to explain to his parents’ old friend that they knew perfectly well what Garrett Reece was doing.
“There’s no need to apologize. We appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to ride over here and tell us.”
“Seems like the least I could do, considering that my friendship with your father dates back to when we started school together at barely six years old.”
Garland bid the Barkley family goodbye, then made his leave. Jarrod shut the big door behind the man. As soon as the lawyer entered the parlor, Nick started speaking.
“If Reece is going around to all the ranches in the area showing that list, how long will it be before someone tells him Heath Thomson is now Heath Barkley?”
“Not long, I don’t suppose,” Jarrod said, “but it’s not as though I can tell the attorney general what he can and can’t do. And it’s not as though I didn’t expect this.”
“Isn’t there some way that you can protect Heath? Some…law that prevents Reece from doing this?”
“No, Nick, there is no law that prevents Reece from showing our neighbors a list of Carterson survivors while inquiring if they know anyone on it. And as for protecting Heath…until he and I talk about his options and what he wants to do, I’m hard pressed to do anymore than I already have.”
Nick glanced at the clock on the mantel and saw it was one-thirty. He, Jarrod, and their mother, had been so engrossed in their discussion, and then had been interrupted by Garland’s visit, that he hadn’t realized morning had turned to afternoon.
“Speaking of Heath,” Nick said, “I can’t believe he’s still sleeping.”
“If he’s been having nightmares in recent weeks like the one that awoke all of us last night, then I’m sure he’s exhausted,” Victoria said. “However, we need to talk to him, and I’d like to do that before Audra gets home.” The woman could hear Silas moving between the kitchen and dining room, therefore knew he was putting lunch on the table. “Nick, please wake Heath and ask him to come down and eat with us. After that…after that, we’ll see where a discussion leads us in regards to Attorney General Reece.”
Nick nodded his agreement to his mother’s suggestion. He took the stairs two at a time while Victoria and Jarrod walked to the dining room.
Nick knocked on the closed door of his brother’s room. “Heath? Heath, you awake?”
When he received no answer, Nick knocked again. “Heath? Heath, Mother would like you to come downstairs and eat lunch with us.”
When his calls still went unanswered, Nick opened the door. The bed was made, the shades were pulled up, and nothing was out place, as though the room’s occupant had been gone now for quite some time.
“Dammit,” Nick cursed under his breath as he turned and dashed down the stairs. “Mother! Jarrod! He’s gone.”
Victoria and Jarrod looked up as Nick entered the dining room.
“Gone?” Jarrod questioned.
“When could he have left without us seeing him?” Victoria asked. “We’ve been in the parlor all morning. When I checked on him after breakfast, he was still in his room sleeping.”
“He went down the back stairs,” Jarrod guessed. “He heard us talking, did an about-face, and snuck out of the house.”
“Why that son-of-a--”
“Nicholas,” Victoria admonished. “Leave that kind of talk for the range.”
Nick sank to his chair as Silas entered with a platter of fried chicken. Victoria eyed the black man as he sat the platter down in the center of the table.
“Silas, did you see Heath this morning?”
“This morning, Miz Barkley?”
“Yes, this morning.”
“Well…now…I don’t rightly remember.”
“How can you not rightly remember?” Nick growled. “Either you saw him, or you didn’t.”
“Well, Mr. Nick, you now how it is with old Silas. One day juz runs into the next, and it’s hard for me to keep ‘em straight.”
“Nick, calm down,” Victoria urged, before turning to look at the black man again. “Silas, Heath isn’t in trouble for leaving the house, and you won’t be in trouble for telling us if he did. It’s just important that we know when he left. I…I have reason to be worried about him.”
Because Silas knew what was going on in the household, he also knew what Victoria’s worries were about. He didn’t want to be disloyal to Heath, but since he couldn’t say where the man had gone, he supposed it wouldn’t hurt to put Mrs. Barkley’s fears to rest somewhat.
“I reckon Mr. Heath walked through the kitchen at about half past nine this morning, ma’am.”
“Did he say where he was going?” Jarrod asked.
“No, Mr. Jarrod, he didn’t. But shortly after that, I saw him leave through the front gates on Charger.”
The family was silent a moment, then Victoria said in dismissal, “Thank you, Silas.”
“You’re welcome, Miz Barkley,” Silas replied, before retreating to the kitchen.
“So, he’s run out on us,” Nick said when the black man was gone.
“No, Nick, he hasn’t run out on us.”
“Then what exactly do you call it, Jarrod, when a grown man sneaks down the back stairs and out the kitchen door in an effort to avoid talking to his family?”
“What I call it is a man who needs time to think, and isn’t ready to be overwhelmed by the opinions of his mother and brothers.”
Nick took a vicious bite of a drumstick. “We weren’t going to overwhelm him.”
“No, we weren’t. Though I have a feeling that right now anything having to do with Matt Bentell and Carterson Prison seems overwhelming to Heath.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Wait?” Nick snorted. “Wait, you say? Well, that’s not what I say. I say we go out and look for him.”
“He’ll come back, Nick.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“A year ago, I wouldn’t have been. But this is home to Heath now, and we’re his family. If he’s learned anything in the past fifteen months of living with us, I hope it’s that he knows he can turn to us for help when he needs it, and that we won’t think less of him if he doesn’t heed our advice.”
“Well, Pappy, that’s where I believe you’re wrong.”
“We sure didn’t let Heath know he could turn to us for help when Bentell first arrived. Quite the opposite actually. I think we did a damn good job of giving Heath the message that he couldn’t turn to us for help at all.”
Considering the truth to Nick’s words, Jarrod had no response. He exchanged glances with his mother, and he could tell by the look in her eyes, that she recognized the validity behind what Nick had said as well.
Nick grabbed a chicken breast and headed for the door. Jarrod didn’t have to be told that Nick was going to look for Heath. The lawyer stood and grabbed a second piece of chicken for himself. He kissed his mother’s cheek as he passed.
“We’ll be back as soon as we find him.”
The woman nodded. Unlike her sons, she had no appetite for a second helping, and had taken only a few bites of the drumstick still on her plate. She stood and began clearing the table, while hoping that Jarrod and Nick would find Heath, and that he’d be willing to come back to the house with them.
For several hours that morning, Heath rode over Barkley acreage without a specific destination in mind. He’d thought of going to Strawberry, but there was nothing there for him any longer other than his mother’s grave, and Hannah. Unfortunately, time and age had ravaged the memory of the black woman who had helped raise Heath, which meant having a conversation with her was difficult at best, and impossible at worst. Ten years ago, she would have been a good source for Heath to turn to for an opinion he could trust. But now her opinions were the ramblings of an old woman, and most of the time when she looked at Heath she seemed to see the ten-year-old boy he had once been, and not the grown man he now was. After he’d come into the Barkley money, Heath had wanted to move Hannah away from Strawberry, which was so close to being a ghost town that the spirits of the people who had once inhabited it might as well take over. But Hannah had refused to entertain the notion of relocating to Stockton, so Heath had let her be. He made the journey to Strawberry once a month to check on her, and when he went he always took plenty of supplies with him so she didn’t want for anything from food, to household goods, to the cloth for a new dress.
The other place Heath had thought of heading, was for the ruins of Carterson Prison. However, it would take him weeks to get there on horseback, and even a good deal of time by train, so it wasn’t like he could make the trip and be back home that evening. When he’d first arrived on the Barkley ranch, Heath wouldn’t have thought anything of disappearing without telling his family where he was going, but things were different now, and he’d learned that with a family, came obligations. You didn’t pack up and leave for weeks at a time without letting the people you lived with know where you were headed, and when they could expect you back.
So the trouble with going to Carterson was, he’d have to tell his mother and siblings of his plans, and he had no desire to do that. First of all, they’d likely give him grief over it. And second of all, if he insisted on going, Jarrod and Nick would insist on accompanying him. That wasn’t something Heath wanted. He had no idea how much of Carterson was left standing, and what affect it would have on him to view that place he thought of as hell. Besides, how could he explain to his brothers that by going to Carterson, he hoped to reconnect with a dead boy, and in so doing, he hoped to discover whether or not he should meet with Garrett Reece?
Heath stopped to eat his lunch along the Diamond River. He unsaddled Charger and allowed the horse to drink his fill from the clear, rushing water. The blond took off his hat and dozed against a tree after he’d finished his meal. He felt guilty for being lazy – a state that was foreign to the man who had been working since he was six. He supposed Jarrod and Victoria would forgive him for taking this day off, but Nick…well, Nick would probably be upset with him, and figure he should at least mend a fence or two while he was out riding.
Two hours later, Heath put the saddle back on Charger and was on his way. He still had no destination in mind, and for all the thinking he’d done since leaving the house, still had no answers. He traveled along a Barkley fence line and inspected it as he went. At least this action absolved some of his guilt over not putting in a full day of work. It was four o’clock when Heath took note of the landmarks around him and realized where he was. He pulled on Charger’s reins and brought the horse to a stop. He looked up the hill, knowing that if he ascended it he’d come to his father’s grave.
In some ways, it still felt odd to Heath to use the term ‘Father’ either internally, or by saying it out loud. He’d never met the man who’d created him, and for a long time had hated him. It was only by getting to know his brothers and sister, that Heath had come to feel that he’d gotten acquainted with his father to a certain extent. Within a few months of his arrival, Victoria had made a trip to Strawberry and gotten some things from Hannah that had belonged to Heath’s mother. It was then that they discovered, through conversations with Hannah and an old letter that Tom Barkley had written Leah, that Tom never knew the brief affair he had with Heath’s mother had produced a child. That had given Heath some measure of peace, and at least the ability to cast his hate for his father aside.
The blond softly clunked his boot heels into Charger’s sides. The horse trotted up the hill and toward the grave, as though he’d known all along this was Heath’s destination. When they reached the short, white picket fence surrounding the grave and gravestone, Heath slid off Charger. He secured the horse’s reins to a tree branch, and walked to his father’s final resting place.
Heath knelt down just outside the picket fence, which was no more than six inches high. He was careful not to trample any of the flowers Audra had planted around it, and smiled a little as he recalled his first day in the valley. By accident, he’d run across his father’s grave on his way to the mansion. He’d knelt here then, just like he was kneeling here today. Audra had spotted him, and not knowing who he was or what business he had on Barkley land, had accosted him from behind and whipped him with her riding crop until he was finally able to wrestle it away from her. Right then, he knew she was a spirited young filly, and once he found out she was his sister, had visions of what a task it would be for a big brother to keep those spirits reined in. Audra certainly hadn’t proven him wrong during the past fifteen months, but he usually left the reining of her spirited ways to Jarrod or Nick. Instead, he was always her listening ear when she thought the world had done her wrong, which was likely one reason why they’d grown to be close. He’d once heard Victoria say, with considerable affection, that both he and Audra were Tom Barkley’s “wild ones,” and he reckoned that was true, if by ‘wild’ she meant that neither he nor Audra would ever take kindly to being corralled.
The cowboy took off his hat in a show of respect as he read the gravestone that said no more than, Thomas Barkley, 1813-1870. No words of parting from his family, and no words that told the world what a great man he’d been. Just his name, and the year he was born, followed by the year he’d died. Heath liked that. It made his father seem like more of a simple man…like the kind of man Heath thought of himself as being. The mansion was nice, and provided luxuries Heath had never imagined he would have. And a man sure couldn’t sneeze at all the Barkley money, but if he had to start tomorrow with none of those amenities, Heath knew he’d survive just fine, because he had survived without them many years before coming to Stockton. All that really mattered was his family. If he had to start tomorrow poor, or even start tomorrow as Heath Thomson again, he’d want to do it with Victoria, Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene at his side.
Which was what brought Heath to his father’s grave, he suddenly realized. He’d ended up right where he needed to be. He didn’t want any decision he made regarding Matt Bentell and Garrett Reece to jeopardize his relationship with his family.
Heath had never ‘spoken’ to his father before while visiting the man’s grave, but today, for the first time, speaking to his father felt right.
“I…I wish I knew what to do. I…I wish you were here, so I could talk to you and ask you what you expect of me. I don’t wanna be disloyal to the family, but I…I don’t wanna be disloyal to the men I was in Carterson with either, especially not to Avery. He…he was my best friend. The closest thing I had to a brother, I reckon, before I came here and met my real brothers. I…I made a promise to Avery that I’d get a message to his father someday. I…I haven’t done that yet, and now I wonder if maybe this isn’t the time. I…I guess for a lotta years it was easier to forget that promise than remember it, ‘cause of how bad things were in Carterson. But now that Bentell’s been around, I’ve been rememberin’ a lot of things I thought were best forgotten. Maybe nothin’ is really ever forgotten, huh? Sometimes I wonder about that, and now I think my mama was right when she said the truth eventually comes out.”
Because he was talking, Heath didn’t hear the person sneaking through the trees behind him. A rifle was raised, and a shot fired, followed by another. Heath never had time to pull his gun from its holster. The first bullet ripped through his left shoulder, and the second burned a trail of fire along his scalp. Charger whinnied as the force of the bullets spun Heath around. The man teetered on his knees a moment, before collapsing across his father’s grave.
Audra Barkley rode across an open field on her family’s land, her valise lightly thumping against Lady’s rump from where it was secured to the rear of her saddle. She’d enjoyed her time spent with her closest friend. When you were the only girl amongst four brothers, you treasured being able to gossip and giggle with a young woman you thought of as your sister. Audra was glad Sarah had graduated from her Eastern school and would now remain on her parents’ ranch in Stockton until she got married next summer. It would be good to have Sarah back home, and to be able to see her again on a regular basis. Audra was dreading the day when Sarah returned to Boston to make her home with the man she’d met there who would become her husband next June, but she decided there was no point in getting upset over something she couldn’t change. Or at least, that’s what Audra’s mother would tell her.
The young woman turned to the left and urged Lady up the hill. She never passed this way without stopping by her father’s grave to pay her respects. As she got to the top of the hill, she saw Charger tied to a tree. Other than the first day Heath had arrived on the ranch, Audra wasn’t aware he came here to pay his respects, too, on occasion. She wondered if she should intrude on her brother’s private time beside their father’s grave, or turn around and head for home. She wasn’t sure how Heath would feel about her finding him here. Tom Barkley was still somewhat of a sensitive subject where Heath was concerned.
Audra would have turned around that afternoon, if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was curious as to where Heath was. She couldn’t see him kneeling outside the fence surrounding her father’s grave, nor was he standing anywhere near his horse. It was as Lady trotted up next to Charger that Audra was able to see around the animal’s body.
“Heath!” the girl cried, upon spotting her brother sprawled across Tom’s grave. “Heath!”
Audra slid off of Lady and ran to Heath’s side. He moaned as she turned him over, but didn’t regain consciousness.
“Oh, Heath,” Audra murmured, as she saw the blood running freely from his head wound, and the blood soaking the upper left portion of his blue work shirt. She turned and raced for Lady. She untied her valise and opened it, pulling out any piece of clothing that she could use as bandages. She rushed back to Heath’s side and gave him the aid he needed.
The blouse Audra had folded in thirds and tied around Heath’s head was soon soaked with blood, as was the skirt she’d folded and secured against his left shoulder with a pair of her stockings. She looked around, but didn’t see anyone. They were far off the road that led to the ranch house, meaning no one would hear her calls for help. If she were Nick, she might be able to get Heath on Charger and lead the horse home, but she wasn’t Nick, so there was no way she could lift Heath from the ground, let alone get him on the back of a horse.
The young woman frantically scanned the desolate area again. It was then that she realized she had no choice but to leave her brother and get help.
“Heath, I’ll be right back,” Audra assured the unconscious man. “I’m going to get help. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The girl wiped at the tears welling in her eyes. Heath was losing so much blood that he might die right here on their father’s grave before she was able to return. She bent and gave his cheek a quick kiss. “Hang on, big brother. Please hang on for me.”
Audra scrambled for Lady. She hoisted herself onto the horse, kicked her sides, and urged, “Let’s go, girl!”
The gunshots, and now the subsequent flurry of activity, had made Charger nervous. But he was too well trained to leave his master’s side, and he had recognized Audra and Lady. Their presence had calmed him enough that he’d quit trying to break the hold of his reins on the tree branch. He stood and waited, somehow knowing Audra and Lady would bring help for Heath.
The man hurried from Tom Barkley’s gravesite until he came to where his horse was tied. He mounted and kicked the horse into a gallop. Dack Hammond didn’t want to be around when Heath’s body was found. Besides, he had a job to do. He had to report to Captain Bentell that Heath Barkley was dead.