Audra flew down the hill on Lady’s back, over the open field, and toward the road that would take her home. She continued to keep a watchful eye out for Barkley ranch hands who might be working in the area, but didn’t see anyone. It wasn’t until she came upon a bend in the Diamond River that she spotted two men riding away from her on horseback. She recognized the men, and urged Lady to run even faster.
“Nick! Jarrod!” Audra called as her horse raced toward the men. “Nick! Jarrod!”
Nick pulled back on Coco’s reins when he heard horse hooves pounding up behind him, accompanied by a faint cry of, “Nick! Jarrod!” He turned around in his saddle.
“What the…I oughta put her over my knee and tan her hide for riding like that. She’ll break her damn fool neck.”
“Who will break her neck?” Jarrod asked as he reined Jingo to a halt.
Jarrod turned in his saddle as well, and saw his sister charging over the rough ground on Lady.
“She hasn’t had her riding privileges taken away since Father saw her racing like that when she was eleven,” Jarrod said. “But perhaps, Nicholas, you and I need to invoke our prerogative as her older brothers and--”
“Nick! Jarrod!” Audra reined Lady to a stop beside her brothers. “Hurry! I need your help with--”
Nick leaned back in his saddle and eyed his sister beneath the brim of his hat. “Well now, young lady, exactly what has your britches on fire today? Audra, if I ever see you ride like that again I’ll--”
“Nick, shut up!”
Nick arched an incredulous eyebrow. “What’d you just say to me?”
“I said shut up! Shut up and listen, will you? Heath’s been shot. He’s--”
“He’s by father’s grave. He’s been shot in the left shoulder, and on the left side of his head. He’s unconscious. I bandaged his wounds as best I could, but he’s bleeding heavily.”
The men turned their horses around.
“Audra,” Nick instructed, “ride to the south pasture. Phillip’s there with some of the men mending fences. Have him get Doc Merar and the sheriff, then ride to the house and let Mother know we’re bringing Heath in. Tell her to have plenty of hot water ready, and plenty of bandages.”
“But what if he--”
Jarrod gave his sister the best smile he could muster considering the news she’d just brought. “He’ll be fine, honey. Nick and I will take care of him. You go find Phillip, then head home like Nick said. We’ll be there with Heath just as soon as we can.”
Audra nodded. She watched her brothers kick their horses into a full gallop and head toward her father’s grave. She turned Lady in the opposite direction her brothers had taken as she raced off to locate Phillip.
All the while Audra rode, she prayed that Heath would be alive by the time Jarrod and Nick got him to the house.
Nick and Jarrod didn’t untie the bandages Audra had secured to Heath’s wounds for fear of breaking any clots that might have formed. Instead, Nick took his shirt off, ripped it in half, and used it to reinforce what his sister had in place. As gently as they could, Jarrod and Nick lifted Heath to Coco’s back. The man moaned at the pain the movement caused him, but remained unconscious. Jarrod held Heath in place while Nick climbed on the horse behind him. Once Nick had a firm grip around Heath’s stomach with his left hand, Jarrod put Coco’s reins into his right hand.
The lawyer grabbed Heath’s hat from the ground and then hurried to Charger. He put the hat in one of Charger’s saddlebags before untying the horse and leading him to Jingo. Jarrod mounted Jingo while holding onto Charger’s reins. When the men took off for the house, it was with Jarrod leading Charger, and Nick keeping Heath upright in Coco’s saddle.
Blood still seeped into Heath’s bandages, but not at the rate it had been when Audra first left her brother to get help. Nonetheless, Nick knew moving Heath was risky, especially on horseback. Yet delaying things further by going to the ranch for a wagon, would have also presented risks. Nick hoped he and Jarrod had made the right choice. He could do nothing more than hang onto Heath while offering quiet words of encouragement as they rode.
“We’ll be home soon, Heath, just hang on. We’ll be home soon. You’re gonna be okay.”
For as angry as Nick had first been when he’d seen his sister riding her horse at breakneck speed, he was now thankful for her fearlessness and skills. By the time he and Jarrod entered the front gates of the ranch, Audra was running toward them with the news that she’d found Phillip, and had dispatched the man to Stockton for the doctor and the sheriff. Nick could see his mother and Silas coming out of the front door, and knew they had been watching for his and Jarrod’s arrival.
Nick urged Coco past the barn and to the front of the house. Audra took Charger’s reins from Jarrod so the lawyer could ride up to the house and assist Nick with Heath. The girl briefly laid her head against Charger’s massive neck and murmured, “He’ll be all right boy, he’ll be all right,” then led him to the barn. One of the hired hands that had been employed by Tom Barkley since before Audra was born, entered with Jingo and Coco, and relieved Audra of her duties.
“Go on, Audra,” the man urged. “Go up to the house. Your mother wants you to wait by the door for the doc and Frank. I’ll tend to the horses.”
Audra threw a, “Thank you, Will,” over her shoulder as she ran for the mansion.
Jarrod and Nick carried Heath up to his room. The bed had already been turned down, and there was hot water in a wash bowel on his nightstand that had been covered with a tin lid to keep it warm until the doctor arrived. Stacks of clean cloths, towels, and rolls of bandages, were piled on the dresser. While Jarrod and Victoria removed Heath’s shirt, gun belt, and boots, Nick tried to get a look beneath the bandages that had been put in place by Audra.
“How do the wounds look?” Victoria asked.
“I can’t tell. Audra’s got these bandages on here good and tight. I hate to remove ‘em if Doc Merar will be here soon. If we break a clot, we might not be able to get the bleeding stopped.”
Victoria eyed the red stained clothing belonging to Audra and Nick that had been used as bandages. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”
“Yeah, he has. Especially from that head wound. That’s why I don’t want to take the chance of starting the bleeding again. I think it’s best if we let Doc Merar decide what should be done.”
“I think you’re right,” Victoria agreed.
Silas carried in another wash bowel of warm water and placed it on Heath’s dresser. “Miz Barkley, do you need me to bring up anything else?”
“Not right now, Silas,” Victoria said, as she dipped a cloth into the water the black man had just arrived with. “Please keep water warming on the stove. If Howard has to…if he has to do surgery, he’ll need it.”
Silas gave the woman a sympathetic smile. He knew she was worried about Heath, and the possibility of surgery having to be done to remove bullets only concerned her more.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll keep water warming.”
Victoria rang the excess water from the cloth, then crossed to the bed. She sat down on the mattress, wiping the cloth over Heath’s face and neck in an effort to clean the dust off that was clinging to him as a result of his day on Charger’s back.
“Audra said she found him by your father’s grave?”
“Yes,” Jarrod confirmed.
“I don’t suppose there was any sign of who did this?”
“We didn’t have time to search,” Nick said. “As soon as Frank gets here we’ll go up there and have a look around. Whoever it was, was probably long gone by the time Audra found Heath, or he’d have likely shot her, too.”
Victoria didn’t even want to think about the possibility of her daughter having been shot as well. It was bad enough that one of her children had been bushwhacked.
“I wonder what Heath was doing up there?” Nick pondered out loud as he took the cloth his mother handed him and gave her a fresh one that had been doused in the warm water.
“Tryin’…tryin’ to find…to find out…what he wants me to…to do.”
The family looked down at Heath. His couldn’t seem to open his eyes more than halfway, but appeared to be oriented as to where he was and who was with him.
Jarrod laid a hand on Heath’s right shoulder. “Trying to find out what who wants you to do, Heath?”
It took a moment, but Heath was finally able to focus on Jarrod. He ran his tongue over his dry lips, and then said, “My father. Tryin’…tryin’ to find out if he wants me to…to talk to Garrett Reece or…or not. Tryin’…tryin’ to find out what…what he wants me to do.”
Victoria exchanged glances with Jarrod and Nick. Once again, she found herself hating the decision they’d made when Matt Bentell had first arrived. Why oh why hadn’t she been able to understand how Heath felt? Why had she insisted Heath work with the man, and why had she gone against Heath’s wishes and allowed Bentell to stay?
Nick decided now was a good time to change the subject. He bent over his mother’s shoulder, so he was in Heath’s line of vision. “Heath, did you see who shot you?”
“No…no. Didn’t see…didn’t see anyone.” The blond man’s eyes drifted back to his oldest brother. “Jarrod?”
“You…you told me once that Father…that Father always had an…had an answer for you when…when you needed it the most.”
Jarrod smiled softly while giving Heath’s uninjured shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Yes, Heath, he did.”
“Well today, I needed…needed an answer pretty bad, I reckon, but…but Father didn’t…he didn’t have one for me. It’s the first time…first time I’ve ever asked him for…for help, but he didn’t…he didn’t give me any.”
“Heath--” Nick began, though he had no idea what was he going to say to his brother. All he knew was that he couldn’t stand to hear the hurt in Heath’s voice, as though he’d been let down by the last person he had left to turn to.
Heath lost the battle to stay conscious then. As his eyes slid shut, Jarrod heard Audra leading Doctor Merar up the stairs. He was glad the man had arrived when he did, because right at the moment Jarrod, like Victoria and Nick, didn’t have any answers for Heath, either.
Two hours after Doctor Merar’s arrival, the man was making his leave. Nick rose to meet him as he came down the stairs with Victoria at his side. She had remained in Heath’s room to assist the doctor in the role of nurse, as women on ranches and farms were often pressed to do.
“Well?” Nick questioned, as Audra and Jarrod followed Nick to the foyer from the parlor. Nick had washed up while the doctor was with Heath, and had put on a clean shirt.
“Neither bullet was in him. The bullet to his shoulder passed clear through, and the one aimed at his head grazed him and left a deep gash, but Heath can thank his lucky stars that the fella aiming that rifle was a poor shot.”
“Thank God,” Nick muttered.
“Yes, Nick, thank God,” Howard Merar agreed. “Heath had lost a lot of blood by the time you got him here. I’m not sure he would have been strong enough to withstand surgery.”
“So he’ll make a complete recovery?” Jarrod asked.
“Given time, rest, and plenty of Silas’s good cooking, he should.” The doctor turned to Victoria. “The laudanum I gave Heath should allow him to get some sleep, and should help relieve the pain. Because of the head injury, I’d like all of you to take turns waking him once per hour throughout the night. If he remains oriented as to who he is, where he’s at, and what day it is, then when morning comes you can allow him as much uninterrupted sleep as he wants. If he has any periods of confusion at all tonight, or any change in personality, or you’re not able to wake him, then send someone for me.”
that,” Victoria assured.
“I’ll want you to check those wounds in the morning as well, Victoria. It’s important that we watch for signs of infection. Also, he needs to drink a lot of water, and I want him to eat something, even if he says he’s not hungry.”
“I’ll see to all of that.”
“I want him to keep that left arm in the sling for now. We’ll keep it immobilized for the next few days, and then see how the shoulder is recovering. When I’m satisfied with its progress, I’ll have Heath forego the sling in favor of some exercises that will help him regain strength in the shoulder and arm muscles.
“Also, Nick or Jarrod should help him take a walk up and down the hall. This should be done three times a day in order to lower the chance of him contracting pneumonia.”
“If he complains of pain come morning, or has trouble returning to sleep after he’s eaten some breakfast, then give him another spoonful of laudanum. I’ll be by after lunch to check on him.”
“Don’t wait until after lunch,” Victoria said. “Be here at noon and eat with us.”
“Provided I’m not needed elsewhere, I’ll do that,” Howard promised. “Thank you.”
“No, Howard,” Jarrod said, “thank you. We appreciate all you did for Heath.”
“Let’s put it this way, Jarrod, it was half my doing, and half Heath’s.”
“Heath’s?” Nick questioned.
“Ounce for ounce, Heath is tougher than any man I’ve run across. The blood loss he suffered would have killed a good number of men, but Heath weathered it. That’s one stubborn cowboy you’ve got for a brother, Nick.”
“Don’t I know it. Sometimes too stubborn for his own good.”
“Well, this time his stubbornness kept him alive, so we won’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Jarrod saw the doctor to the door. After the man had left, Victoria asked her sons, “Was Frank here?”
Frank Larken was Stockton’s sheriff, and like Howard Merar, a long time friend of the Barkley family.
“He was here while you were upstairs with Heath,” Nick said. “We told him what little we know. He left to ride up to Father’s gravesite and have a look around. Now that Howard’s done with Heath and we know he’s gonna be all right, Jarrod and I’ll take a ride up there, too.”
“But it’ll be dark soon.”
“We’ll take lanterns,” Nick said, as he and Jarrod picked up their hats and gun belts from the table in the foyer.
“What about dinner?”
“Have Silas keep something warm for us. We should be back in a couple of hours.”
Victoria didn’t like the thought Jarrod and Nick returning to the area where Heath had been shot just a few hours earlier, but she understood their desire to explore their father’s gravesite, and the woods beyond, for themselves.
“Frank is going to come by tomorrow afternoon and talk to Heath if he’s up to it,” Jarrod said.
Victoria nodded as she walked her sons to the door. She had assumed the sheriff would want to speak with Heath as soon as possible. “Be careful,” Victoria said, as Jarrod and Nick headed outside.
“We will be,” Jarrod assured, while Nick gave his mother a wave of his hand.
When Victoria shut the door and turned around, Audra offered a smile. “They’ll be all right, Mother. Jarrod and Nick can take care of themselves.”
“Yes, dear, they can,” Victoria agreed. “But as we saw proven with Heath today, if someone is hiding in the woods with a rifle, there’s little a man can do to protect himself if that person is intent on causing him harm.”
Audra knew her mother was correct, but rather than confirm that, she said, “Mother, why don’t you get something to eat, and then rest for a while. I’ll sit with Heath until the boys come back and have had a chance to eat, then one of them can take over for me.”
Victoria smiled. “Thank you, sweetheart. I appreciate that. Your father would be so proud of how you’ve handled yourself today.”
Audra smiled in return at the compliment. “I know this will sound foolish, but when I was putting the bandages on Heath, I wished Father was there to help me.”
Audra had no idea what her mother meant when Victoria turned away from her while murmuring, “You aren’t the only member of this family who needed help from your Father today.”
Victoria headed for the kitchen, where she informed Silas that Jarrod and Nick would eat supper upon returning from their search for the man who had shot their brother.
Garrett Reece exited his bedroom on Saturday morning and walked into the sitting room of his hotel suite. While he waited for Chris to dress before they went downstairs to breakfast, he sat at the suite’s desk and took a piece of parchment paper from the drawer. Before he had a chance to begin a letter to President Grant regarding his progress, or lack thereof, someone knocked on the door.
Garrett lit his pipe as he rose to answer the knock. He knew who was waiting in the hallway. A twelve-year-old boy by the name of Douglas Erickson brought the paper up to Garrett each morning. Along with Douglas’s mother, the Stockton House employed the boy to clean rooms and run errands for the guests.
Garrett opened the door and looked down into the smiling face of the young man with the shaggy blond hair. “Good morning, Douglas.”
“Good morning, Mr. Attorney General. I have your paper for you, sir.”
Garrett smiled while paying the boy for the newspaper, and added a quarter as a tip. Garrett had told the boy many times that calling him Mr. Reece would be sufficient, but Douglas seemed to enjoy the sound of “Mr. Attorney General,” and wasn’t inclined to abandon its use.
I suppose it gives him something to brag about on the schoolyard.
Garrett took his paper to the round table that resided in the middle of the room. He pulled out one of the four chairs surrounding it, sat down, moved an ashtray from the center of the table to his right elbow, and spread the paper on the oak surface. He only half paid attention to Douglas, who bustled around the room emptying ashtrays and picking up the previous day’s newspaper and other discarded trash. Garrett knew that during the week, the boy worked until he had to leave for school, and then would return to the Stockton House for a few more hours after school. On Saturdays, Douglas’s routine was similar. The hours between his morning and evening obligations to the Stockton House were filled with running errands for anyone in town who might hire him. Douglas had told Garrett his father was deceased, and that it was up to him and his mother to support their family that included three children younger than the twelve-year-old, and the boy’s maternal grandmother. Which was one reason Garrett and Chris found reasons to have Douglas run errands for them, and one reason why they were generous with their tips for the boy and his mother.
Chris came out of his bedroom as Garrett was just beginning to read the newspaper’s front page. The major patted Douglas on the back as he passed him. “Hello there, Douglas.”
The boy looked up from his work long enough to smile at Chris. “Hi, Major.”
Garrett sat up straighter in his chair and spoke with urgency. “Chris, come here.” The attorney general laid his pipe in the ashtray and fumbled for the list of Carterson survivors that he had folded in his shirt pocket. “You’ve got to read this.”
Garrett held up the front page of the Stockton Gazette. “This.”
Chris eased himself into the chair next to Garrett’s while silently reading the bold headline across the top of the paper.
Heath Barkley Bushwhacked!
Chris read the remainder of the article out loud.
“Heath Barkley was shot yesterday afternoon by an unknown assailant while visiting his father’s grave. Barkley suffered a bullet wound to the left shoulder, and one to the left side of the head, but is expected to make a full recovery. Sheriff Larken conducted a search of the area where Heath was found by his sister Audra, but his only discovery was that someone fled the area on horseback after firing two rounds at Mr. Barkley.
“Although facts regarding this case are few, there is speculation that Heath Barkley was shot because he’s one of the Carterson POW’s the Attorney General of the United States is looking for. Attorney General Reece has been in our fair city for six days now, in search of men who were prisoners of war at Carterson. It seems odd that no one has supplied the attorney general with Heath Barkley’s name, but then, maybe the Barkley money has a way of keeping such things quiet.”
When Chris finished and looked at his companion, Garrett was reading over his list.
“There’s no Heath Barkley on this list, but there is a Heath Thomson. I wonder if there was an error made when my clerks put this together. If I find out they were incompetent and listed Thomson as Barkley’s last name by mistake, then I swear I’ll--”
Garrett caught movement from the corner of his eye. Douglas was hurrying toward the door, which wasn’t like the boy. He always made sure to linger until he’d gotten his tip.
The boy swallowed hard and turned to face the man who had summoned him.
“Do you know Heath Barkley?”
For a brief moment, Douglas thought of lying and telling the man that he had no idea who Heath Barkley was. But ever since Mr. Reece had come to town, Miss Hall, the teacher at Stockton’s schoolhouse, had been using this visit as an opportunity to educate her students as to the powerful position the Attorney General of the United States held. Douglas knew that Mr. Reece could have him thrown in jail if he had a mind to, and could even take him all the way back to Washington D.C. and put him on trial. Though the boy wasn’t sure how severe the penalty was for fibbing to the attorney general, he also wasn’t about to find out.
“I…I…yes, sir. I reckon I know Heath, sir. He’s…he’s a nice man. He…he gives me errands to run for him when he’s in town, and then pays me right handsomely for doin’ them.”
“He does sound like a nice man,” Garrett agreed. “Is he any relation to the lawyer here in town? Jarrod Barkley?”
“I see,” Garrett said, having assumed the two men were related in some way. “How so?”
“How are they related? Are they cousins, or is Heath a nephew of Mr. Barkley’s?”
Garrett cocked an eyebrow. “Brothers?”
“Yes, sir. Well, half brothers is what they really are, though Nick - another one of Heath’s brothers - he’ll beat up any man who says so. I saw him do it once in the Cattlemen’s Saloon.”
“I see. So, did Heath Barkley used to go by the name Heath Thomson?”
The boy’s eyes slid toward the door. He wished his mother would enter and relieve him from this line of questioning. Not that she wouldn’t tell the attorney general the truth, because she would, but she wasn’t a friend of Heath’s like Douglas was, so it wouldn’t be as though she was being disloyal to the man.
Garrett pulled five dollars out of his vest pocket and laid the coins on the table. He felt guilty for buying information from a twelve-year-old who obviously didn’t want to gossip about his friend, but then Garrett thought of Avery, and knew the end justified the means.
“Douglas, this five dollars is yours if you’ll finish answering my questions, son.”
Douglas’s eyes lit up at the money. Five dollars would help his family get through the next two weeks in more ways than he could think of. Nonetheless, Douglas still had reservations.
“Heath…Heath’s my friend.”
“I understand that, and I commend you for your loyalty to him. He’s not in trouble, Douglas.”
“You’re not gonna put him in jail?”
Garrett laughed, then said, “No. Not unless you think I have a reason to.”
“Oh, no, sir. Heath is a real upstandin’ man. He don’t cause no trouble. Not a lick of it.”
“Well, then. See? I have no call to arrest him, do I?”
“Now can you tell me if Heath used to go by the name of Heath Thomson?”
Douglas eyed the money on the table again, and then nodded. “Yes, sir. When he first came here he did.”
“But now he uses Barkley as his last name?”
“Yes, sir. On account of the Barkley family adopting him.”
“Well, not adopting, I don’t guess. But Mr. Barkley...Jarrod…he had Heath’s name changed all legal like. My ma told me. She heard about it from a friend of hers who cooks and cleans for Mrs. Manners.”
“Would that be Opal Manners, of the Manners Ranch?”
“I heard that Mr. and Mrs. Manners are good friends of the Barkleys,” Garrett said. If he got confirmation of this information he’d uncovered on Monday, then it would validate his assumption that the maid employed by Opal Manners had overheard conversations between her employer and members of the Barkley family, as opposed to telling tales that might not be true. “Is that the case?”
“Yeah. I reckon just about everyone knows Mrs. Manners and Mrs. Barkley are best friends.”
“I see. You said Heath is a half brother to Jarrod Barkley. Does that have something to do with name change?”
“Yes, sir. Heath was Mr. Barkley’s…Mr. Tom Barkley’s…bastard.”
“Oh,” Garrett nodded, beginning to understand more clearly now. “I see.”
“But don’t tell Heath I said that, please. My ma says it’s an ugly word, and Nick will beat me up if he ever hears me say that about Heath.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell Heath or Nick anything you’ve said.”
Douglas breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, do you remember when Heath came to live with the Barkley family?”
Douglas screwed his face in thought. “I guess a little over a year ago. Maybe last January or February. I know he was livin’ here by March, ‘cause Ellen - my sister - she was real sick for the whole month of March, and Heath loaned me some money so I could buy her a present.”
“That was very kind of him.”
“Yeah, it was, but like I said, he does a lot of nice stuff for me. Ma says it’s because Heath knew hard times when he was growin’ up, same as me - on account of him not livin’ with his pa. He grew up over in Strawberry. It was just Heath and his ma all those years.”
“A ghost town south of here. Or pretty much of one anyway. ‘For I was born it used to be a big mining town.”
Garrett tapped the newspaper that Chris had put back down on the table. “Do you know if this article is correct when the writer states that Heath is a survivor of Carterson Prison?”
Douglas shrugged. “I don’t know for sure. Heath’s never talked to me about bein’ in the war, or bein’ at Carterson, but my ma’s friend – the one who works for Mrs. Manners - told Ma that there sure was a big row at the Barkleys’ when Matt Bentell showed up. Heath punched old Bentell in the jaw, and woulda’ killed him if Jarrod and Nick hadn’t stopped him. Lots of folks ‘round here think Heath shoulda’ killed Bentell.”
“I imagine they do. I don’t suppose the decision the Barkley family made to employee Mr. Bentell has been a popular one.”
“No, sir, it hasn’t been. But no one has the guts to say that to Nick.”
Garrett winked at the boy. “From the sounds of Nick’s temperament, I can understand why.”
“Don’t get me wrong. Nick’s a good guy, too. I like him a lot. I used to afraid of him, until Heath told me Nick’s bark is worse ‘an his bite.”
“That’s good to know,” Garrett said.
“I have a feeling Major Fletcher and I will be meeting Nick Barkley later today.” Garrett stood and picked up the coins. “Here you go, Douglas. You take these and be on your way.”
The boy took the money Garrett handed him. “You won’t tell--”
“Son, everything you’ve just shared with me will be kept in the strictest of confidence. Neither Major Fletcher nor I will tell anyone where we came by our information.”
Douglas smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
“You run along now.”
Douglas put the money in his pocket and ran from the room. He wasn’t even going to tell his mother how he came by this sudden wealth when he turned the five dollars over to her that evening. He knew it wouldn’t be difficult to convince her that the attorney general and Major Fletcher had sent him on numerous errands, and had paid him well for his time.
After the boy had left, Chris asked, “Was that the right thing to do?”
“What? Glean information from a twelve-year-old?”
“I don’t see why not,” Garrett said as he shrugged into his suit coat and picked up the newspaper. “If Douglas hadn’t told us, someone else would have. And if nothing else, Douglas and his family can use the money.”
Chris reluctantly conceded that Garrett had a point. He followed the man out of their suite and down to the dining room. Without having to ask, Chris knew their first order of business was breakfast, followed by their second order of business – a ride out to the Barkley ranch.
Heath was sleeping when the Barkleys gathered for a late breakfast at nine o’clock on Saturday morning. They had taken turns sitting with him throughout the night, and waking him up each hour as Doctor Merar had instructed. Heath been withdrawn and reserved, as though his mind was far removed from the ranch and his family, but he was able to answer the questions asked of him. Victoria had seen to it that Heath had eaten some scrambled eggs and toast at seven, then had given him a dose of laudanum so he could sleep until Howard arrived to check on him.
While Victoria had tended to Heath, and Audra had helped Silas get breakfast together for the rest of the family, Nick had been outside working. Jarrod had briefly joined Nick in order to dispatch one of the hired hands to Stockton. Given Heath’s physical condition and the help he would need to walk down the hall or make a trip to the bathroom, Jarrod assumed neither he nor Nick would get into town this weekend. Therefore, he asked the hired man to bring back the mail, along with that morning’s issues of the Stockton Gazette and the San Francisco Daily Journal.
The lawyer had then gone to the study. He had plenty of paperwork to keep him busy, which would allow him to be in the house should his mother or Audra need him to assist with Heath’s care. Jarrod remained in the study until Audra told him breakfast was on the table.
As Jarrod took his seat at the table, Nick reached for a piece of toast and slathered it with butter.
“Jarrod, after lunch we oughta go back out to Father’s grave and have another look around.”
“What good will that do?” Audra asked. “You didn’t find anything when you were out there last night, and neither did Sheriff Larken.”
“I know. But I’d just like to have another look.”
Victoria’s eyes met Jarrod’s. “Do you think this could be related to the attorney general’s reason for being in Stockton?”
“I believe it’s a possibility.”
“You mean as in someone shot Heath to keep him from talking?” Nick asked.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“To keep him from talking?” Audra looked from one family member to the next. “What do you mean, Jarrod? Is Heath in some kind of trouble? What’s going on? Why is the attorney general here?”
Victoria reached over and patted her daughter’s arm. “No, Audra, Heath isn’t in trouble. As for your other questions, the attorney general is here looking for survivors of Carterson Prison.”
“Mr. Reece wants to bring Matt Bentell to trial again. He wants any Carterson survivors he locates to testify against Matt.”
“Does Heath know?”
Victoria nodded. “Yes, sweetheart, Heath knows.”’
“Has he talked to the attorney general?”
“Not yet. Or, at least, not that we’re aware of.”
“Will he?” Audra looked at Jarrod. “What I mean is, does he have to? Can the attorney general put Heath in jail if he won’t talk to him?”
“There’s an off chance that he could jail Heath under charges of obstruction of justice, but at this point, honey, we don’t need to worry about that. To the best of our knowledge, the attorney general doesn’t realize Heath Barkley exists.”
“Attorney General Reece visited me on Monday because he was aware we employ Matt. He asked me to look over a list he had that contained the names of the surviving Carterson men. Heath Barkley wasn’t on it, although Heath Thomson was.”
“So that’s good, right? Then he’ll never know Heath is one of the men on his list.”
“He’s been showing the list to our neighbors,” Jarrod said, “so it’s possible that he will find out that Heath Barkley and Heath Thomson are the same man, but we’re holding out hope that doesn’t happen before Reece moves on.”
“And speaking of moving on,” Nick said in-between bites of his eggs, “wouldn’t you think Reece would be about ready to do that?”
“I would think so,” Jarrod agreed. “He’s been in Stockton six days now, and as far as we know, his search has produced no results. Our best chance of Heath escaping his notice is if Reece leaves and continues his search elsewhere.”
A knock at the door caused Silas to hurry through the dining area. The cowboy that Jarrod had sent to Stockton handed Silas a stack of mail, as well as the newspapers.
“This stuff is for Mr. Barkley, Silas.”
Silas didn’t have to question which Mr. Barkley the cowboy was talking about. The ranch hands always called Nick and Heath by their first names, but many of them, especially the younger ones, referred to Jarrod as Mr. Barkley. Whether that was because he was a lawyer, or whether it was because they rarely worked with him and therefore didn’t know him well, Silas had yet to figure out.
“Thank you,” Silas replied before closing the door. He walked to the dining room and handed Jarrod the bundle of mail and the folded newspapers. “Here you are, Mr. Jarrod. Dave brought these things from town for you.”
“Thank you, Silas,” Jarrod said, as the black man turned for the kitchen. The lawyer set the mail and the newspaper from San Francisco at his right elbow. He unfolded the Stockton Gazette. The first thing that caught his eye was the headline.
Heath Barkley Bushwhacked!
Jarrod shook his head. “Looks like Travers is at it again.”
“At what again?” Nick asked.
Jarrod turned the paper around so his family could see the headline. “Sensationalism in the name of ‘informative news reporting.’ ”
“Informative reporting my eye. Travers doesn’t care how he accomplishes it, he just wants to sell papers.”
“That he does, Nicholas,” Jarrod agreed.
“What’s the article say, Jarrod?” Audra asked. “Read it to us, please.”
“Yes, Jarrod,” Victoria requested, “please read it.”
“I hope you ladies are ready to have trouble digesting your food,” Nick warned in regards to the newspaperman who had long been a thorn in the Barkleys’ sides.
“Sooner or later we’ll find out what it says,” Victoria stated. “We might as well get it over with now.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Mother,” Jarrod said, right before he began to read out loud the newspaper’s account of Heath’s ambush.
“Heath Barkley was shot yesterday afternoon by an unknown assailant while visiting his father’s grave. Barkley suffered a bullet wound to the left shoulder, and one to the left side of the head, but is expected to make a full recovery. Sheriff Larken conducted a search of the area where Heath was found by his sister Audra, but his only discovery was that someone fled the area on horseback after firing two rounds at Mr. Barkley.
“Although facts regarding this case are few, there is speculation that Heath Barkley was shot because he’s one of the Carterson POW’s the Attorney General of the United States is looking for.”
“What?” Nick cried. “What the hell did he put that in the paper for? He doesn’t know for certain why Heath was shot, anymore than we do.”
Jarrod held up his hand, indicating he wanted Nick to be quiet.
“Attorney General Reece has been in our fair city for six days now, in search of men who were prisoners of war at Carterson. It seems odd that no one has supplied the attorney general with Heath Barkley’s name, but then, maybe the Barkley money has a way of keeping such things quiet.”
The lawyer let out a heavy sigh when he finished reading. He looked at the faces of his family and saw the same anger, outrage, upset, and worry that he knew was on his own face.
Nick was the first one to break the heavy silence engulfing the room. “Jarrod, you know when you said that to the best of our knowledge the attorney general doesn’t realize Heath Barkley exists?”
“I’ve got a bad feeling in my gut that he knows now.”
“I’ve got that same bad feeling, ” Jarrod said, as he threw the paper on the table in disgust. “Believe me, brother Nick, I’ve got that same bad feeling.”
The dose of laudanum Victoria had given Heath after he’d eaten breakfast had allowed him to get three hours of sleep before his throbbing head, and the pain from his shoulder wound, woke him up. The man didn’t summon any of his family members, simply because he had no desire to be fussed over. He’d closed his eyes when he heard the door open. By the smell of the aftershave his visitor wore, Heath knew it was Jarrod who had been sent to check on him. His brother’s hand came to rest lightly on his forehead, and then Heath heard Audra’s voice from the doorway. She spoke just above a whisper.
“Does he have a fever?”
“No, he doesn’t seem to,” Jarrod answered, keeping his voice quiet as well.
“That’s a good sign then.”
“Yes, it is,” Jarrod agreed, while turning away from the bed.
“Jarrod, do you really think someone shot Heath because he’s a Carterson Prison survivor, like Mr. Travers said in his article? Do you think this happened because the attorney general is here looking for men who were in that awful place?”
“Honey, I don’t know for certain why this happened, and until Heath is strong enough to give Sheriff Larken a statement, it’s foolish for us to speculate. As far as Orin Travers goes, he tends to report what he considers to be ‘news’ before he’s gathered the facts. That’s why there’s no need to mention that article to Heath.”
“But won’t you have to tell him about it eventually? He’s bound to read it for himself, or someone’s bound to say something to him.”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll have to talk to him about it.” Jarrod put an arm around his sister and led her into the hallway. “But…”
Anything else Jarrod said was cut-off from Heath’s hearing range because the lawyer had shut the door. That didn’t matter. Heath could easily finish the sentence.
But...I want to wait until he’s stronger.
But...there’s no point in bringing it up for a few days yet. Let’s give Heath the chance to get the rest he needs.
But...Heath needs to be on the mend before I discuss this with him.
Heath opened his eyes and stared up at his ceiling. He’d read enough of Orin Travers’ articles to be able to guess what the one published in today’s paper had said. No doubt Heath had only brought further shame and embarrassment to his family. Why was it so difficult to be Heath Barkley? Back when Heath lived his life as Heath Thomson, the poor boy growing up in Strawberry, and then the young solider who lived on what the Union Army provided him with, and then the cowhand who traveled from spread to spread making just enough money to survive on, he’d thought being rich would mean the end to all his problems. But as he’d learned in the past fifteen months, with wealth and a respected name, came responsibilities. Responsibilities to your ranch. Responsibilities to the men who worked for you. Responsibilities to the town your wealth helped support. Responsibilities to your deceased father because you now carried his name. And most importantly, responsibilities to your family.
But there are other responsibilities, too, Heath reminded himself. When I was in Carterson I made a pact with the other men. We promised one another that those of us who survived would see justice done someday. We promised one another that Bentell would pay for what he did to us. No one came lookin’ for us to testify at his first trial, but now opportunity’s knockin.’ And Avery...I promised Avery I’d tell his father that he loved him. I promised Avery that I’d get a message to his family.
As he lay there in his quiet room, Heath thought of how Tom Barkley had died fighting for what he believed in, long after a man of his social standing and wealth didn’t have to fight at all. He’d heard enough stories since arriving here to know that not all of his father’s decisions had been popular ones, neither with Tom’s friends and neighbors, nor with his family. Heath wondered what his father would have done if the man found himself in the same position Heath was now. For reasons Heath couldn’t explain, he didn’t have to wonder long. Somehow, he knew what Tom Barkley would have done, and when Heath reached that conclusion, then he knew what he had to do, as well.
Heath used his right hand to push himself to a seated position on the mattress. He clutched the bedcovers as the room spun. Jarrod and Nick had helped him make a trip to the bathroom earlier in the morning, but until now, Heath hadn’t realized how much of their strength he’d relied on.
The blond man patiently waited out the dizziness. When he felt able, he pushed himself to his feet. He reached out with his right hand and used the bedpost as support until he was able to lurch across the open space to the dresser. He opened two drawers and retrieved clean clothes, the stumbled to the chair. He sunk to the upholstered seat and waited for the most recent bout of dizziness to pass. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead at the pain and exertion, but Heath was determined to get this order of business taken care of. Consultations with the family would only draw the inevitable out. Besides, Travers had already told everyone that Heath was a Carterson survivor, and that the attorney general was looking for him. There were no secrets left to keep…no shame that was best hidden so Heath could better fit in with the family he sometimes didn’t feel worthy of.
Heath stifled groans of pain as he dressed. He didn’t want to risk any family member hearing him who might be passing by in the hall. It took Heath fifteen minutes to get his clothes on, and because his left arm was in a sling, he wasn’t able to tuck his shirt in or secure more than the bottom two buttons. The man spotted his boots sitting at the end of his bed. Another wave of dizziness almost toppled him out of his chair as he reached for them. His head throbbed as he straightened, but at least he had the boots in his right hand.
The cowboy was glad this particular pair of boots were well worn and long broken in. It made getting them on easier. When he had his feet in the boots, Heath slowly stood. He used his dresser for support as he shuffled to the door. He put his hand on the knob and listened a moment. When he didn’t hear any sounds coming from the hallway, he eased the door open. He looked down the hall and saw that Audra’s door was closed. He knew none of his family members had gotten much sleep the previous night, so surmised Audra was taking a nap before lunch.
Heath used the wall for support as he made his way to the stairs. He didn’t see anyone in the foyer, so gripped the railing with his right hand and started to descend. Based on what Victoria had told Heath that morning, he knew Doctor Merar would be eating lunch at the ranch if he were not called away from the office for an emergency. When Heath saw no signs of his stepmother, he surmised she was helping Silas in the kitchen.
Heath kept his footfalls light as he stepped off the last stair. The door to the study was closed, and he easily guessed Jarrod was in the room working. Still using the wall for support, Heath headed for the front door. If his luck held, Nick would be out on the range somewhere with the men, and the pudgy Mexican hired hand who had worked for the Barkleys for many years now, Ciego, would be around to help Heath saddle Charger. He knew Ciego would try to talk him out of leaving the ranch, but Heath also knew Ciego wouldn’t stop him. Then just as soon as Heath was out of the front gates, the jittery Mexican would run off and hide somewhere so he didn’t have to confess to Nick or Victoria that he’d assisted Heath. Ciego’s unstable nerves were all the better for Heath. By the time the family realized he was gone, Heath would be done giving Avery’s message to Garrett Reece.
As Heath stepped out of the front door, he saw the riders coming through the front gate. He didn’t have to go see Garrett Reece after all. Instead, the Attorney General of the United States had come to see him.
Nick was putting a horse through its paces in the corral when the two men rode up. He didn’t have to be told who they were. Orin Travers article had taken away the element of surprise.
Nick climbed over the fence as the riders approached. He put his hands on his hips, squinting up at the attorney general and the major as though they were eighteen-year-old cowhands who needed bawling out for some misdeed.
“Gentlemen,” Nick nodded.
“Good morning,” Garrett said. “I take it this is the Barkley ranch.”
“We’re here to speak with Heath Barkley.”
Nick folded his arms across his chest. “Oh, you are, are you?”
“Well, Heath Barkley isn’t seeing visitors today.”
“And who might you be?”
“I’m Nick Barkley.”
Garrett glanced at Chris, threw him a subtle wink, and then returned his attention to Nick.
“Do you always speak for your brother, Mr. Barkley?”
“Not always, but right now I am.”
“I see. Well, if you’d like to make this ugly, then I can get a court order that will grant me an audience with your brother.”
“Listen, Reece, I don’t give a flyin’ fig if you are the attorney general of this country. My brother was shot yesterday. Per doctor’s orders, he’s in bed right now resting, and I’ll be damned if you’re gonna come on my property and start issuing orders. Now you just turn that horse around and ride back out the way you--”
“Nick,” a weak voice summoned as Heath stumbled across the ranch yard.
“I’ll. . .I’ll talk to…I have to…I need to talk to…”
Before Nick could reach his brother, Heath’s knees buckled. The blond man hit the dirt, oblivious to the flurry of activity he caused as Nick, Chris Fletcher, and Garrett Reece, raced to his side.
“Get away from him!” Nick ordered, as Reece and Fletcher offered assistance. “Keep your hands off of him!” He looked toward the house. “Jarrod! Jarrod, get out here!”
“Here, let me…” Chris started to say, as he knelt by Heath’s side.
“Get away from him, dammit!”
“Mr. Barkley, I’m a doctor. Now let us help you get your brother into the house so I can take a look at him.”
Because no one else was around to come to Nick’s aid, he had no choice but to accept help from Garrett and Chris. Chris issued instructions regarding the best way to lift Heath to avoid injuring him further. Being mindful of what the man said, Nick and Garrett picked Heath up from the ground and headed for the front door.
When Heath regained consciousness, the only person who wasn’t in his bedroom was Silas. He didn’t appreciate the audience, but by the firm set to Nick’s jaw, and the grim line of Victoria’s mouth, Heath knew better than to voice any complaints.
“Young man, your days of sneaking out of this house have ended as of right now,” Victoria stated with her hands planted on her hips. “Do I make myself clear?”
Heath turned his head away from his family, but had too much respect for Victoria not to answer with a quiet, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Audra,” Victoria requested, “please help Silas put a light meal together for your brother.”
Though Audra’s reply was a dutiful, “Yes, Mother,” Heath knew his spirited sister well enough to guess she didn’t appreciate being banished from the room. Nonetheless, the blond cowboy heard her footsteps tread lightly across the floor as she exited.
Heath’s attention was drawn back to the people in the room when he sensed movement on his right side. He watched as a man who was wearing the uniform of an Army major stood from the chair that was next to his bed.
“I don’t think Heath has caused himself any damage. The biggest concern is that his shoulder might start bleeding again, but all appears to be fine at this moment. That wound, and his head wound, are clean and infection free, as well.”
“Thank you, Major,” Victoria said. “I appreciate you looking at him.”
“You’re welcome,” Chris said, and then added with the diplomacy befitting a man of his position, “Nonetheless, I’m sure you’ll still want your own doctor to check on Heath this afternoon. You said he’ll be stopping by?”
“Yes, he should be here in a little while.”
“Good enough, then.” Chris turned to his companion. He nodded toward the door, as if to indicate it was time for them to leave. “Garrett?”
“I’d like to speak to Heath before we go.”
“Not now, Garrett,” Chris negated. “ It would be best if we wait a few days until Heath is--”
Nick moved to stand between the bed and Garrett Reece, as though daring the attorney general to go through him in order to get to Heath. “I’ll be damned if you’re gonna speak to him at all.”
“No, Reece. You look. You get on outta here before I--”
Jarrod stepped up beside Nick and put a hand on his shoulder. “Nicholas, perhaps it would be wise not to issue threats against the attorney general.”
Nick scowled. “I’m not threatening.”
“Nick. . .” Victoria warned in a tone that told Nick to be quiet and let Jarrod handle this situation.
Though he didn’t feel like smiling, Jarrod’s charm kicked in. “Mr. Attorney General, I have yet to have the opportunity to counsel my brother Heath in regard to the matter at hand. I ask that you grant me the time to do so.”
“And when will that time come to pass?”
“I’ll heed the advice of our physician on that.”
“No,” Heath said, prompting all those in attendance to turn and look at him.
“Jarrod, I’ve already made up my mind. I don’t need any counseling.” Heath’s eyes sought Victoria’s. “I’m sorry. I have to do this. I don’t expect you to understand why, but I just ask…”
When Heath’s sentence trailed off unfinished, Victoria questioned gently, “You just ask that I accept your decision?”
Heath nodded his head.
The woman crossed to the bed. She picked up Heath’s right hand and gave it a squeeze. “I will, Heath. I’ll accept any decision you make.”
“I…I can’t tell you how I know this, but I think…I think I’m doin’ what my father would want me to.”
“Then that’s all I can ask of you, son.”
Nick reluctantly stepped aside when he observed Heath trying to see around him in order to make eye contact with Garrett Reece. Heath’s voice was quiet and hoarse when he asked, “You’re Avery’s father?”
Garrett swore the room titled at those words. Not only had he found a Carterson survivor, but he’d found one who had known Avery. It took him a moment to get his reply out.
“Then I have a message to give you that Avery asked me to pass on right before he died.”
Garrett nodded, because to speak meant that everyone would hear how tenuous his emotional control was.
“He wanted me to tell you that he loved you, and that he loved his mother and his sisters. He…he also wanted me to tell you that if…if there was ever a way to bring…to bring Bentell to justice, then you should do it.”
“Perhaps…” When his voice came out in no more than a whisper, Garrett cleared his throat and tried again. “Perhaps bringing Matt Bentell to justice is something you and I can do together, Heath.”
“You...and me...and Avery,” Heath said, which led Garrett to believe his deceased son was going to play a large role in the trial of Matthew Bentell.
For the first time since starting his quest, Garrett wondered if he really wanted to know all the truths behind what had happened to Avery. But then he looked at the young man lying in the bed. Though Heath Barkley was weak from his recent injuries, he was robust and handsome – a mature adult male in the prime of his life. He was everything Avery had never gotten the chance to be. He was everything so many other young men who had been imprisoned at Carterson had never gotten the chance to be. Because of that, Garrett was able to find the strength to go forward, even if going forward meant hearing of atrocities inflicted upon his only son that would ultimately break his heart.
“Yes, Heath,” Garrett agreed. “You, and me, and Avery. I promise you that, together, the three of us will bring Matt Bentell to justice.”
From the time he had been a small child, Heath had learned not to rely on other peoples’ promises. But this time was different. This time, the determination on Garrett Reece’s face told Heath he’d just been given a promise that wouldn’t be broken.
Much later that same day, John Laramie was handing a young boy ten cents for bringing him a message that had arrived at the telegraph office. After he’d sent the boy on his way, John opened the envelope, then took out the paper within, unfolded it, and silently read.
We found our man. His name is Heath Barkley. He’s willing to testify. Come to Stockton on the next train.
John crumpled the paper and whipped it into a corner of the room. “Dammit!”
John’s thoughts weren’t on packing or catching a train. Instead, he ran from his room and headed for the telegraph office. Using the same code he had implemented with his hired guns, John wired a message to his father in Washington, D.C.
Matt Bentell sat at the kitchen table in his cabin at the Barkley logging camp. When mail had been delivered to the camp by one of the Barkley ranch hands, several issues of the Stockton Gazette had been included. It was just by chance that Matt grabbed an issue of the paper that was now six days old. Being isolated in a logging camp meant a man was anxious for anything to read, and didn’t care how old the news was.
Matt read the front-page account of the ambush against Heath Barkley, and then the reporter’s speculation that Heath was shot because he was one of the Carterson survivors Garrett Reece was looking for. Matt sat back in his chair and wondered if this would ever end. Would Carterson be the shadow that followed behind him for the rest of his days? If it wasn’t for Lucinda, he’d turn himself into Reece and say, “Do with me what you will,” rather than continue to be a hunted man, even long after his name had been cleared.
Matt jumped when a knife pierced the center of the paper, pinning it to the table. The blade glistened in the sunlight that was streaming in through the window.
“You should have let me take my knife to him at Carterson, Matthew. If you had, we wouldn’t be facing this problem now.”
Without looking up, Matt knew he’d be staring into cold eyes…like the eyes of a rattlesnake. And he knew her face would be like stone, indicating there was no warmth in her soul. Of all of Lucinda’s personalities, it was Orlean that frightened him the most. After all, he’d seen what Orlean could do.
Matt had learned long ago that the only way to handle Orlean was to keep your voice even, and make your responses matter-of-fact. Anything else, and she just might slit your throat from ear to ear. He’d witnessed her do so to more than one man.
“I couldn’t allow it. I was the commanding officer at Carterson. I had a duty to uphold.”
Orlean threw back her head and laughed. When this personality had first appeared, it had taken Matt a while to determine if it was male or female. Orlean always dressed in black dungarees and wore a man’s black work shirt, along with a black vest and black boots. She hid Lucinda’s long hair down the back of her shirt, and wore a bandana over her head, like a sixteenth century pirate might have favored. Eventually, Matt had figured out that Orlean was female, but one of those ‘odd’ females he’d only heard rumors about who acted like men and favored other females as their partners in the marital bed.
“A duty to uphold?” Orlean asked. “To who? A stinking teenage Yankee born of a whore? A bastard kid who wasn’t even worthy of shining your boots, let alone being your boss? But that’s what he is now, isn’t he, Matthew? He’s your boss, because that Thomson bastard turned out to be a Barkley. He turned out to be the son of the wealthiest man in California. How much of a chance do you think you’re going to have against that when Garrett Reece goes for your balls at the next trial?”
Matt winced. Though he knew this wasn’t Lucinda talking, he still couldn’t get used to hearing such coarse language come out of his wife’s mouth.
Orlean yanked the knife out of the table, grabbed Matt by the chin, jerked his head back, and ran the dull side of the blade along Matt’s neck. He knew how quickly she could flip that knife around if provoked. He swallowed and waited her out.
“If Barkley talks, we’re done for, Matthew. You know we’re done for. Maybe if any man but Reece was the attorney general, the worst that would happen to us is some time spent in prison. But when Heath Barkley tells Reece what happened to that pretty boy Avery, Reece will see we hang for it. He will, Matthew,” Orlean emphasized while pressing the knife harder into Matt’s neck. “He’ll hang us from the highest tree.”
Because of the pressure against his windpipe, Matt struggled to speak. “And just what… do you expect me to do…about it?”
“I expect you to kill, Barkley. I expect you to be a man for a change and do your own dirty work, instead of me having to do it for you.”
Matt gasped for air when the knife was removed from his throat. Orlean jammed it into the sheath she wore at her waist. “Kill him, Matthew,” Orlean ordered, as she turned to head upstairs. “Kill him, because if I have to, Victoria Barkley will never get over the sight of her precious stepson’s body butchered like he’s nothing more than a stray steer I rustled.”
After Orlean had left the room, Matt sat alone wondering what options were left him. He wasn’t a stupid man. Now that Garrett Reece’s mission was common knowledge, there would be men who would come looking for Matt in order to silence him. Perhaps he should just go stand on the front porch and make himself an easy target for any assassin’s bullet that might want to bury itself within his skull.
The sound of a horse’s hooves pounding toward the cabin prompted Matt to walk outside. He watched as the rider approached. He wasn’t surprised to see that his visitor was John Laramie. What did surprise him was that Laramie wasn’t carrying out the role of one of the assassins Matt had just been thinking about.
On second thought, he’d use his daddy’s money to hire someone to do me in.
Without saying a word in greeting, Matt led John into the cabin. Words weren’t necessary. After all, Matt knew exactly why Senator Robert Laramie’s son was paying him a visit.
Heath spent several days in bed recuperating from his injuries. By the time Doctor Merar allowed him to venture farther than the upper floor of the Barkley house, two U.S. Marshals were guarding the mansion. Nick had taken matters into his own hands and had spoken to several trusted ranch hands. Those men were patrolling the boundaries of the ranch. Now that Heath had told the attorney general he was willing to testify, assassination of Garrett Reece’s prize witness was a real concern.
“There are Southerners who still hold sympathy for Bentell,” Reece explained to the Barkley family one evening over dinner during the latter part of Heath’s house bound recovery period. “Some of them powerful and wealthy men.”
“And you think one of them will hire someone to kill Heath?” Victoria asked.
“I hope that isn’t the case, but I’m not willing to take any chances.”
Nick’s eyes flicked to the bandage on Heath’s head, and then to the arm that was still in a sling. “Looks to me like you’re a day late and a dollar short in that area, Mr. Attorney General.”
“Nick, please, call me Garrett.”
Nick ignored the man’s request, like he had been doing since the first day Garrett extended that invitation of informality. Nick’s family realized it was his way of letting Reece know he had no intention of becoming friendly with him, and that he resented the trouble the man had brought to their household, and the danger his quest represented to Heath.
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Attorney General,” Nick continued as though the man hadn’t spoken, “my guess is that whoever bushwhacked Heath wasn’t hired by anyone to do it, ‘cause for a hired gun, he was a damn poor shot.”
“Nicholas!” Victoria admonished, in part because of Nick’s choice of language at the dinner table, and in part because Heath was sitting with them and Nick was implying that if circumstances had been different, he’d be lying in a grave next to his father.
“Mother, I’m only pointing out the truth to the attorney general. It’s doubtful that the man who shot Heath was paid to do it. I think he did it of his own free will, which means the stakes in this game are even higher than the attorney general believes, because now we have to protect Heath from every potential crackpot who comes along until after this trial is over. Of course, we’ve got plenty of men here on the ranch to help in that area, but that means some jobs that need tending to won’t be getting done.”
Heath had remained silent through this exchange. It was Nick’s last remark that caused him to throw his napkin down and shoot up from his chair.
“I don’t need any protection. I can take care of myself.”
“Oh, you can, can you?” Nick questioned. “Like you took care of yourself last week when you stopped by Father’s grave?”
Jarrod attempted to put an end to the volatile discussion. “Nick, that’s enough. Let’s not talk about this right--”
Heath’s eyes narrowed. “I took care of myself just fine for a lotta years before I came here, Nick. I survived a lot before my name was Heath Barkley. Don’t worry about pullin’ any of the men away from their work to watch my back. It ain’t necessary, and I don’t want your help anyway.”
“Now just a doggone minute, Heath. That’s not what I meant. I…Heath! Heath, get back here!”
The slam of the door indicated that Heath had no intention of returning to the dinner table. Garrett and Chris kept their eyes on their plates, not wanting to get caught in the middle of a family argument, even though in reality, they already were.
Audra started to stand, but Victoria shook her head and said quietly, “No, Audra. Not now.” Though Audra was often Heath’s confidante in the same way he was often hers, Victoria instinctively knew Carterson Prison was not a subject Heath was going to discuss with his twenty-year-old sister. Audra had known little hardship throughout her life, and had been protected from so much of the world’s ugliness. Because of those factors, Victoria was certain Heath wasn’t going to turn to Audra when he was finally ready to speak about his experiences in Carterson.
Nick looked at his mother and Jarrod. “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean that I mind pulling men away from their work if it’s necessary to keep Heath safe. I was trying to make a point to the attorney general here, that those two marshals standing outside the front door aren’t enough protection for Heath by a long shot, and that it’s us…his family, who is going to be doing that job.”
When no one said anything in response, Chris Fletcher took the risk of overstepping his bounds. He looked across the table at Nick.
“You might not have meant that the work that needs doing around here is more important than Heath and the choice he’s made to testify against Bentell, but how do you think your words sounded to him?”
Major Fletcher stood and glanced at Victoria.
“The meal was very good, Mrs. Barkley. Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Where are you going?”
“To do your job for you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m going to explain to Heath that you really didn’t intend for it to sound as though ranch work takes priority over him.”
“Oh, for cryin’ in the night,” Nick muttered. “Look, Fletcher, if you think we’re gonna start coddling Heath just because of some mumbo jumbo you read in a book at some fancy medical school, you’d better think again. This is a working ranch, and Heath works harder, and is tougher, than any man on this spread. I recognized that about him the first day I met him.”
“And you’re proud of that, I take it?”
“Of course, I’m proud of it. Wouldn’t want any less from a brother of mine.”
“Then maybe that’s why he’s never talked to you about Carterson, Nick. Maybe that’s why he didn’t tell you how the Bentells really treated him when he was injured up at that logging camp two months ago.”
Forgetting once again that he was at his mother’s dinner table, Nick demanded, “And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that when a man spends time in a prison camp, it doesn’t matter how tough he is, or how hard of a worker he might be. They break him, Nick. They break him, just as easily as a child breaks a china doll. And if Heath has always perceived your approval of him…your acceptance of him, hinges upon how ‘tough’ he is, then whether you realize it or not, since the day he arrived here you’ve been telling him that you don’t want to hear about the time he spent in Carterson.”
Chris nodded to Victoria and Audra. “Ladies, I apologize if I contributed to ruining the evening meal.” The man turned, following the path Heath had just taken through the foyer and out the front door.
Nick watched him go. Only Jarrod understood the dark, brooding scowl on Nick’s face. It wasn’t anger brought on by the major’s words, but instead, it was jealousy. Jealousy over the fact that Christian Fletcher had insight regarding painful secrets Heath had been harboring…secrets Nick hadn’t even known existed prior to Matt Bentell’s arrival.
Major Fletcher found Heath in the barn. The cowboy stood leaning against Charger’s stall, rubbing his right hand over the horse’s nose. Chris lifted a foot and rested it on a bail of hay, but didn’t speak. Heath’s eyes shifted to the man for a brief moment, then he returned his attention to his horse. He had yet to give a statement of any kind to Garrett Reece about his time spent in Carterson, in large part because Doctor Merar hadn’t wanted Heath to incur any stress or upsets during his recuperation period. Now Heath wondered if a testimony of some sort was what Fletcher had come to get from him.
Chris finally broke the silence. “Good mount?”
“What’s his name?”
“He must have cost you a pretty penny.”
“No,” Heath said, as he turned to look at Chris. “He didn’t cost me anything. Nick gave Charger to me not long after I came here. I caught him up in the hills with some other wild horses. I figured we’d break him and sell him, but Nick…I guess he saw that Charger and I had something...special between us, like sometimes happens with a man and a good steed. So when it came time to sell him, Nick wouldn’t let the horse traders take him. I came out here the next morning and found Charger waiting for me.”
“Oh,” Chris nodded thoughtfully. “I see.”
“You see what?”
“That there’s more to Nick Barkley than meets the eye.”
A small smile played at the corners of Heath’s mouth. “Yeah, generally there is.”
“Listen, Heath, the reason I came out here was to tell you that Nick didn’t mean for it to sound as though the ranch takes priority over you when he said--”
“Major, I know you’re a smart man, and that you’ve had a lot of schoolin’ that goes far beyond my own education in a small town where it was a struggle for the folks to pay a teacher’s salary. But you’re from the East, and if there’s one thing you don’t know, it’s ranching.”
“I won’t deny that.”
“A ranch the size of this one takes a lot of men to keep it runnin’, and to keep it profitable. If you aren’t making money, you can’t pay the hands. If you can’t pay the hands, then you don’t have the men you need to do the work. If you don’t have the men you need to do the work, then pretty soon you lose everything – your cattle, your horses, the contracts you have to supply fruit and vegetables to grocers in San Francisco, and the ability to pay back the loans you have to take out every spring, in order to make it through until the fall cattle drive.”
“So what you’re telling me, is that you don’t hold anything against Nick for the remarks he made.”
Heath shrugged his good shoulder. “Nick is Nick. When he has something to say, he says it.”
“Nonetheless, he was trying to make a point to Garrett.”
“That two marshals might not be enough to protect you, and that your family will assist in doing that job. He didn’t mean to make it sound as though--”
“Listen, it doesn’t matter what he meant or didn’t mean. I already told you how things are done on a ranch of this size. Nick needs the men available to do the work, not to baby-sit for me.”
Chris nodded, and the pair fell silent. The only sound came when a horse would snicker, or when laughter coming from within one of the bunkhouses would drift over on the wind.
Chris turned and sat down on the bail of hay. “Heath, may I ask you a question?”
“I reckon so.”
“Do you ever get angry?”
“Seems like kind of a dumb question, if you’ll pardon me for sayin’ so.”
“You just saw me get angry at the dinner table and leave the house.”
“That’s not what I meant. Allow me to rephrase my question.”
“Do you ever get angry because they don’t understand?”
“Because who doesn’t understand?”
“You mean about Carterson? Do you mean do I get angry because they don’t understand about Carterson and Bentell?”
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”
“No. I don’t get angry about that. I don’t expect them to understand. How can anyone who wasn’t there really understand?”
Heath returned his attention to Charger so he didn’t have to meet Chris’s eyes. “If I get angry it’s because…it’s because they don’t ask.”
“Yeah. They don’t…they don’t wanna know. They might say they do, but they don’t.”
“And if they did…if they sincerely did want hear about your experiences at Carterson, could you tell them?”
“I…I don’t know. Jarrod…maybe I could tell Jarrod.”
“But not Nick?”
Heath shook his head. “No. Not Nick.”
“Why?” a voice boomed from the barn doorway
Heath swung around to see Nick standing in the shadows of the evening sun. The dark headed man stepped farther into the structure.
“Why, Heath? Why can’t you tell me?”
Like a skittish colt, Heath hurried past Nick. The dark-headed man crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Chris Fletcher. Nick Barkley might be able to intimidate a good number of men with his short temper and imposing demeanor, but Christian Fletcher wasn’t one of them. The major stood and brushed past Nick.
“Barkley, you just don’t know when to keep your mouth shut, do you?”
Nick snared the man’s arm, stopping his progress for the door. “Why you--”
“Go ahead, Barkley. Take a swing at me.”
“Why? So you can have me arrested for assaulting a military officer?”
“No. So I can swing back.”
Nick jerked Chris’s arm downward as he let go. “I oughta’ take a swing at you, you bastard. And while I’m doing that, I oughta’ knock your friend Reece on his fancy ass, too.”
“Because the both of you should have left well enough alone.”
“Oh. So you don’t think Matt Bentell should be tried again? You don’t think men like your brother, and Garrett’s son, Avery, deserve justice?”
“Of course I think they deserve justice! As far as Bentell goes, I really don’t give a tinker’s damn if you try him, or hang him, or tie him to the back of a horse and run it through the desert until he’s dead. What I do care about is my brother. Regardless of whether you believe that or not, Major, I care about Heath, and I care about what this is doing to him. I don’t like the fact that Reece is using my brother as a pawn to get back at Bentell for the death of his son.”
“And you also don’t like the fact that Heath won’t confide in you.”
Nick scowled. “Confide in me about what?”
Because Chris spoke the truth, and because there was no way Nick Barkley was going to acknowledge that fact, the man said, “Fletcher, you’ve got a one track mind, you know that?”
As Nick turned to stomp toward the tack room, Chris said, “Nick, I’ll let you in on a little secret.”
Nick stopped, but refused to turn and face the major. “And just what secret is that?”
“Heath will confide in you when he feels he can trust you.”
“Trust me? Heath and I have been through a lot together since he came here. My brother knows he can trust me.”
“Trust has a lot of definitions. It doesn’t just mean that Heath can trust you to watch his back when the two of you are in a fistfight at a saloon, or when you’re breaking wild horses, or when you’re moving cattle across a rocky ravine. It means that he needs to feel as though he can tell you anything…anything at all, and that you won’t judge him for it. That you won’t tell him how you would have handled the situation differently, or tell him he handled it wrong, or brush his words off by telling him to put his experiences at Carterson in the past and leave them there. He needs to know you’ll listen, and he needs to know he’ll have your support, even if what you hear makes you want to turn away from him and never discuss the subject again.”
Nick finally turned around and met Fletcher’s eyes. “You evidently think I’m a weak man, Major.”
“No, Nick. Quite the contrary. I think you’re a very strong man. Your strength can be of great benefit to Heath, or it can be of great detriment. It all depends on how you choose to use it.”
“Sorry, but I don’t follow your line of thinking.”
“You can ultimately be one of the pillars Heath leans on that will help him get through the next few months, or you can push him away and send the message that men – rough and tumble men like Heath, don’t need ‘coddling’ as you put it a little while ago.” Chris shrugged. “It’s your decision, Nick. After all, Heath is your brother, not mine.”
With those words, Major Fletcher turned and left the barn. When the man was out of earshot Nick muttered, “You damn well better remember that, too, Fletcher. Heath is my brother, and I take care of my own. Long after the house of cards you and Reece are building comes tumbling down, I’ll be the one standing next to Heath who’s helping him get back up. And just where will you be then, Fletcher? Just where the hell will you and Reece be then, other than resting on your laurels at some White House party that Grant throws in your honor.”
Nick sighed and kicked a toe of his boot into the dirt. He had a feeling the days ahead were going to be long ones. He could only hope that someone didn’t kill Heath before Garrett Reece got him to Washington, D.C.
Well, Heath sure won’t be going there alone. Those two marshals won’t be packin’ enough firepower to keep him safe. I’d better go talk to Phillip about how I want things run around here while I’m gone.
Nick remained in the barn until Garrett and Chris left to return to their suite at the Stockton House. He could hear Jarrod bidding them goodbye, and then heard the hooves of their horses receding as the animals trotted through the front gate and out to the road.
Nick left the barn and headed for the ranch foreman’s house. He had no idea how long the trial would take, and didn’t relish spending most of his summer in Washington. From the first of May through the first of November there was enough work to get done on this ranch to keep a man busy from sunup to sunset, but Nick wasn’t about to entrust two strangers with Heath’s safety.
“Nick!” Jarrod hailed, as he crossed the ranch yard. “I want to talk to you for a minute.”
“It’ll have to wait.”
Jarrod fell in-step with his sibling. “Until when?”
“Until I’m done talking to Phillip.”
“About running the ranch while I’m gone.”
“Where are you going?”
“Same place you are. To Washington, D.C. Someone’s gotta watch Heath’s back while that trial is goin’ on, and that someone is gonna be me.”
Jarrod smiled as Nick hurried on toward Phillip’s house. Nick could be a gruff bastard when he wanted to be, and God knew when it came to voicing his feelings, or displaying empathy toward someone else, Nick often had the sensitivity of a rock. But when push came to show, Nick Barkley was a man you wanted by your side, and despite Christian Fletcher’s misgivings, Jarrod was certain Heath knew that.
“So, now the next step,” Jarrod murmured to himself as he turned for the mansion, “is getting a preliminary testimony from Heath, getting him ready for the trial, and then it’s on to Washington. ” Jarrod looked up at the first stars beginning to appear in the dusky sky. “Why do I have a feeling it’s not going to be as easy as it sounds?”
The lawyer stepped into the house and went to the study. He pulled a law book from a shelf that contained information about the trial of Henry Wirz. Wirz had been the commanding officer at Andersonville, and thus far, the only person in the United States to ever be executed for war crimes. Would Mathew Bentell be the second? Jarrod had never imagined the answer to that question might hinge upon his own brother’s testimony.
Jarrod lit the desk lamp and sat down. He opened the book and started reading, hoping that something he found within would assist him during the time he’d be in Washington offering his services as an attorney to Heath.
John Laramie arrived in Stockton the day before Heath Barkley was allowed to return to work on the ranch.
Garrett answered the knock on the door of his suite that Sunday evening at twilight. “John!” He greeted, while slapping the man’s shoulders with his hands. “What kept you? I expected you here by Tuesday.”
“I got held up in Arizona,” Laramie lied. “One of the Pinkerton agents thought he’d found another Carterson survivor, but when I went to see the man it proved to be a false lead.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Garrett said, though not with nearly the upset he might have said it if he didn’t have the guarantee of Heath Barkley’s testimony. He stepped back and allowed John to enter the room. He shut the door and indicated for the man to have a seat on the sofa. “Sit down. Put your bag there on the floor. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you. I believe I’ll do that.”
“Have you eaten?”
“Neither have we. Chris went to send a telegram to his housekeeper. He wanted to let her know we’ll be arriving in Washington by the end of the month, and that she needs to get the guestrooms aired.”
“Guestrooms? Is Major Fletcher expecting visitors?”
Garrett sat in the overstuffed chair that resided beside the sofa. He pulled his pipe from the pocket of his suit coat, along with a match. He lit the pipe and took a deep puff off it before speaking.
“Yes, he is. Chris has invited the Barkleys to stay with him while they’re in Washington.”
“Barkleys? I thought it was only Heath Barkley you were getting testimony from.”
“It is. But his brother, Jarrod, is a lawyer here in Stockton, and has an office in San Francisco, as well. He has asked to assist me in being Heath’s counsel.”
Laramie cocked an eyebrow. “Do you think that’s wise?”
“Yes, actually I do. Jarrod Barkley is an intelligent man, John, with a good head on his shoulders. I’ve done some checking, and he’s highly thought of by both the governor of California, and the state’s attorney general. I don’t look for him to cause any problems, and I think, in the end, his presence will be of a benefit to Heath.”
“I’ll trust your judgment in that regard, then. And what other Barkleys will be accompanying us?”
Garrett made a face. “The middle brother, Nick.”
“Judging by your tone, I’d say you don’t care for that idea.”
“I don’t. I’d prefer it if Nick remained here in Stockton, but short of having him locked in a jail cell, I don’t see how we’ll be able to leave him behind.”
“Is he a troublemaker?”
“Let’s put it this way, he has a temper, and he has a big mouth. Jarrod assures me Nick will behave himself in the courtroom, but I have my concerns. However, Nick made a good point the other day that I can’t refute.”
“And that point was?”
“That I’m lacking when it comes to armed men to protect Heath. The government has supplied me with two marshals, when realistically speaking six would be preferred. Therefore, when Nick Barkley said I could use him because of the additional gun he could offer, I couldn’t disagree.”
“He’s a good shot?”
“So I’m told, and I don’t have reason to disbelieve it. He grew up on the ranch and is not a gentlemen farmer by any means of the word. He works from sunup to sunset right along side the men he hires, and is as tough as he is ornery.”
John smiled at the way this proposed trip was turning into a family affair. And at how easily he was finding out exactly what he needed to know – how many men would be protecting Heath Barkley. “Are there any other Barkleys I need to make room for on the train?”
“There are three other Barkleys, but fortunately, the youngest son, Eugene, is away at college and won’t be coming home for the summer, and the daughter, Audra, has already been told she’ll be remaining on the ranch while the rest of her family is in Washington. That just leaves Victoria Barkley.”
“And who might she be?”
“The matriarch of the family, and when I say matriarch, I mean that in every way the word implies.”
“Is she going to be a problem?”
“No,” Garrett shook his head. “Not at all. Victoria Barkley is a very special lady.”
“For one thing, within her home she’s managed to incorporate an Eastern finesse with the ruggedness of the West. I’d say that holds true of her personality as well. She was born and raised in Philadelphia, but came west with her husband over thirty-five years ago.”
“And her husband? What about him?”
“Tom Barkley has been deceased for six years.”
“Which is another reason Mrs. Barkley is a special woman.”
“Heath isn’t her son, and didn’t come to live on the Barkley ranch until after his father was dead.”
“He isn’t her son?”
“No. Tom Barkley had an affair with Heath’s mother. But you’d never know that by watching Mrs. Barkley and Heath interact. I would have thought she’d given birth to him if I hadn’t known better.”
“Sounds like an usual situation.”
“It is. Heath Barkley is a lucky man. His father’s family took him in, and don’t hesitate to call him one of their own. He’ll likely need that type of strong family bond in the days and weeks to come.”
“Likely,” John agreed. “Garrett, if you don’t mind me changing the subject, may I ask when Bentell will be arrested?”
“Just as soon as the president signs the order. I sent a telegram to Sam this morning. I look for the warrant to be issued within forty-eight hours.”
“In the meantime, do you know where Bentell is at?”
“Yes. Still working for the Barkleys at their logging camp.”
“And you’re not afraid that he’ll bolt?”
“He told Jarrod that he wouldn’t.”
“But you have no guarantee that Bentell will keep his word on that.”
“No, I don’t. However, Nick has a couple of the loggers keeping an eye on Bentell, so other than that, there’s not much I can do. Until I can arrest the man, he’s free to go where he will. If he sneaks out of the logging camp, I’ll find him, John. Don’t doubt for one minute that I’ll find him.”
John nodded. He knew how tenacious Garrett Reece could be, and knew that tenaciousness would grow even stronger the closer Reece came to putting Bentell on trial.
Garrett took another puff on his pipe, then blew out the smoke. “I have a room reserved for you across the hall. If you’d like to return to Washington within the next day or so, we can buy you a ticket at the train station tomorrow.”
“Return to Washington? I thought I’d be staying here and going back East with you.”
“I suppose you can, but it will be a couple of weeks yet before we’re ready to leave. I’m to meet with Heath on Thursday in order to get his preliminary testimony, and to go over with him what he can expect when the military tribunal convenes. I thought I’d send you on ahead to Washington. You can start preparing our case for trial.”
“I can do that right here in Stockton just as easily.”
“Yes,” Garrett agreed, knowing that Jarrod would give John access to any law books or other research papers he might need, “but I’m sure you’re anxious to return to your family, and there’s no need for me to prevent that from happening.”
“My wife understands, Garrett. She knows this is an important case. Besides, it sounds like you could use an additional guard for Barkley, and though I haven’t fired a gun since the war, I’d venture to say I’m still a fairly good shot.”
Garrett smiled. He knew John had grown up around the Laramie family business, and knew he had been taught to shoot a gun and a rifle at a young age. Knowing how John excelled at everything he did, led Garret to believe the man was still an accurate shot.
“All right. I won’t turn down the offer of an additional gun. For the sake of Avery’s memory, we have to get Heath Barkley to Washington alive, and we have to keep him that way so he can testify.”
Before John could reply, Chris Fletcher entered the room. Laramie stood and shook the man’s hand, then allowed Garrett and Chris to take him to the dining room for supper. Now that John knew the time frame he had to work within, keeping Heath Barkley from testifying was going to be as easy as taking candy from a baby.
Long after darkness had fallen that evening, and long after supper had been eaten and Garrett and Chris had retired to their suite, John Laramie exited the Stockton House via the back stairway normally used by the staff. There was a door at the end of the stairs that allowed a person to step directly into the back alley. As John quietly shut the door, a man stepped from around the corner of the building.
John’s father would be proud of him. He’d thought this out so well. He’d been delayed in arriving at Stockton because of the plan he and Matt Bentell had put into place. The only thing Matt wasn’t aware of was how the plan would be altered to include more than Heath Barkley’s death. It would include Bentell’s death, and the death of his crazy wife as well.
Laramie had hired skilled horsemen to ride as fast as it was safely possible to do so. They were strategically positioned from here to the Barkley logging camp, so that a message could get to Bentell as quickly as possible. John had suspected all along that the Barkleys and Garrett had some men watching Bentell, so that news had come as no surprise. However, it would be easy enough to thwart a few loggers, especially once the fire was set.
“Go now,” Laramie said to the man. “The message I have for Bentell is that I’ll meet him at the designated spot.”
The man nodded. John couldn’t risk writing anything on paper for Matt Bentell, for fear of one of his messengers being caught. That’s why he’d kept his instructions short and simple. John’s words would pass through six men before they reached Bentell. Matt would know what John meant, even if the message did get garbled a bit during its journey.
The mystery man disappeared into the night as quickly and silently as he’d appeared. John smiled when he didn’t hear the pounding of a horse’s hooves. It had cost him a good deal of money – or cost his father a good deal of money rather, because John had hired only the best men. He had no idea where this man had secreted his horse, but obviously it was far enough away from the center of town so that no one would look out his or her windows and wonder why a rider was leaving at such a fast pace.
John turned and reentered the Stockton House as quietly as he’d exited it. After the door closed, Douglas Erickson rose from behind the tin garbage cans.
The boy had been in the alley dumping garbage from the kitchen before going home for the evening. Douglas didn’t know what had made him duck behind the garbage cans when the service door opened, other than to say he was a high-spirited boy who was always in search of an adventure. He didn’t know why two men would hold a secret meeting in the alley, but it was the type of incident that piqued his curiosity. Douglas hadn’t been able to see the face of the man who had stepped out of the shadows, but just by his voice alone, Douglas knew the other man was an assistant to Garrett Reece, and that his name was John Laramie. The attorney general had introduced Mr. Laramie to Douglas earlier that evening when Douglas was sweeping the carpeting in the hall outside their rooms. Mr. Reece had told Mr. Laramie that Douglas was just the boy to hire for errands and such, and Mr. Laramie had shaken Douglas’s hand and said he’d likely have some work for him to do over the next few days. Douglas was disappointed that Mr. Laramie hadn’t hired him to meet the mystery man in the alley and give him the message. It was an easy one to remember.
The message I have for Bentell is that I’ll meet him at the designated spot.
Douglas could have passed that along with no trouble. But maybe Mr. Laramie didn’t realize a boy Douglas’s age worked such late hours.
I’ll have to make sure I tell him. Ma and I can use all the extra money we can get. Especially if Mr. Laramie tips as good as Mr. Reece and Major Fletcher do.
Douglas finished empting the trash while wondering what the message meant that Mr. Laramie was sending to Matt Bentell. Everyone knew Mr. Bentell was going to hang - if someone didn’t kill Heath Barkley first, that is. Douglas hoped no one killed Heath, but that was the talk he’d heard amongst the old men seated on the bench outside the general store when he’d passed by the other day on his way home from school.
The boy hurried back into the Stockton House so he could complete his last few jobs before going home for the evening. Douglas smiled when he thought of the additional money he’d make when he told Mr. Laramie he could pass messages along for him. As visions danced in his head of his mother’s kitchen cupboards stocked with food, Douglas hoped Mr. Laramie had a lot more men to meet in the alley before he left for Washington with the attorney general.
Garrett paced the living area of his suite. He’d gone to bed an hour earlier, but hadn’t been able to sleep. He’d gotten up, pulled on a pair of pants, a shirt, and his socks, then had slipped quietly from his room. The door to Chris’s room remained closed, and no light shown from beneath it, leading Garrett to conclude his movements weren’t disturbing the man.
The attorney general had a lot on his mind, including the arrest of Matt Bentell, and the trial that would follow. And though he hated to acknowledge it, the future of his marriage. Whether Madeline would stay with him through all of this, or leave him because for the past decade his life had been devoted to their dead son, Garrett couldn’t predict. He couldn’t imagine loving another woman, but he wouldn’t try to keep her from going either. He supposed he couldn’t blame Madeline for her bitter feelings. Women needed things from their husbands that men often couldn’t give, and the things that were important to men – like seeing justice done, women didn’t understand. Garrett admired Madeline for her apparent ability to forgive Matt Bentell for the death of Avery. He admired the way she’d been able to devote herself to their daughters and grandchildren in the years since Avery’s passing. Garrett hadn’t been able to do any of those things, and he wouldn’t lie and claim he had. He had always hoped, though, that once he saw justice done on Avery’s behalf; that he could return to his family and be the husband, father, and grandfather that they needed him to be.
Time will tell, I suppose, Garrett thought as he came to the end of the room and turned around. Either they will welcome me as a hero for avenging Avery’s death, or they will turn away from me because I have been gone from their lives too long. So be it. I made my peace with all the possibilities a long time ago. For Avery…for my only son, I will do what I must.
As he paced, Garrett thought of the testimony he would soon take from Heath Barkley. He’d been surprised to discover he wasn’t nearly as anxious to get that testimony upon finding Heath, as he had thought he’d be. Garrett wasn’t known for his patience, but he hadn’t voiced a word of dissent when Doctor Merar said any testimony Heath was to give regarding Carterson Prison would have to wait until he was stronger. While Heath recuperated, Garrett had been content to spend his time getting the marshals in place to guard Heath, corresponding with his aids back in Washington and with President Grant, preparing for the arrest and transportation of Matt Bentell, recording the happenings of each day in his journal, and beginning preliminary work on the trial. At times, Garrett wondered if he was stalling, and at times, he knew the answer to that question was yes. For as much as Garrett wanted to hear what had happened to Avery, there was a part of him that didn’t want to hear the details. Garrett wondered if his heart could stand to discover what his son had gone through before he died. And when he found himself wondering that, then Garrett also found himself wondering if he should do what Madeline had done – learn to allow Avery to rest in peace.
But this isn’t just for Avery. Bringing Bentell to trial is for the mothers and fathers of every young man who died in that prison. Bringing Bentell to trail is for men like Heath Barkley, who survived Carterson, but somewhere deep inside their souls, still carry the scars that place inflicted upon them.
Garrett heard a door close across the hall. He smiled softly as he headed back to his bedroom.
I guess John couldn’t sleep either.