The bloody hand reached upward, trying to make contact with Heath. Heath squeezed his eyes shut against the gore and grasped the hand. The blood made the hold Heath had on Avery wet and slick. He opened his eyes when the young man whimpered in pain and whispered, “Heath…Heath. Please…Heath…please…please make it stop…make the pain…make it stop, Heath.”
Heath opened his mouth, but no words came out. He wanted to take Avery’s pain away worse than he’d ever wanted to do anything, but he didn’t have the ability to. Heath tried to speak, but he couldn’t make false promises to his friend, and Avery seemed to sense that.
“Please…Heath…please,” Avery squeezed his hand. “Please…end it. End it. I can’t stand it. Please…please kill me, Heath. Kill me.”
“No,” Heath murmured, looking down into the chalk white face of his friend. “No, Avery. I…I can’t.”
“It will…it will be more merciful than…than what I’m going through--” Avery arched his back and screamed before he was able to finish his sentence. He squeezed Heath’s right hand again, while trying to grasp Heath’s left hand and yank it from his abdomen. “Let…let go. Let me…let me die. Let me...kill me, Heath. Find something…a rock…a club…anything. Kill me, Heath. I beg of you…kill me.”
Avery arched against the agony and screamed a long, torture filled cry that sounded like it was coming from a mutilated animal. Heath watched the blood flow through his left hand. After what had been done to Avery, he would surely die. Even if Bentell sent the camp doctor into their cell, Heath knew Avery would die. No one could be hurt like this and live through it. Blood pooled beneath Avery’s body, and began to run across the dirt floor in crooked rivers.
Red foam bubbled at the corners of Avery’s mouth. “Heath…please. Kill me.”
“No. I can’t.”
“Please kill me!”
“I can’t! I can’t!”
“No!” Heath screamed at the boy in his dreams. “No! I can’t. I can’t! Anything but that. I can’t, Avery. I can’t!”
“Heath! Heath!” Nick shouted as he shook his brother right shoulder. “Heath!”
Heath shot from his bed, his eyes wide and his breaths coming in harsh, raspy pants. His momentum would have catapulted him off the bed had Nick not been holding onto him.
“Heath,” Nick said, as he reached over and lit the bedside lamp. “Heath, are you all right now?”
Heath squinted as the light assaulted his eyes. When he’d adjusted to the sudden brightness, he looked around the room. It took him a few moments to remember that he and Nick were in the house alone. Victoria and Audra had been invited to dinner at the Manners ranch, and Jarrod hadn’t arrived home yet from his Stockton office when Nick and Heath had gone to bed at nine-thirty. The two men had worked outside since dawn that Monday, and by the time they’d come in and finished eating supper, neither of them had any desire to wait up for their family members.
Heath no longer had to wear his sling. He looked down to see his left hand encased in Nick’s, just like it had been encased in Avery’s so many years ago now. Only this time, the slick feeling came from perspiration, and not from blood.
“What timez it?” Heath mumbled as he wriggled his hand from Nick’s grasp.
“Goin’ on eleven.”
Heath didn’t have to ask if the women or Jarrod had arrived home. He knew his nightmare would have brought them into his room with Nick if they were present.
When Heath didn’t say anything else, Nick offered, “Bad dream, huh?”
For the first time Heath looked up into his brother’s face. He hesitated a moment, as if even this much of a confession to Nick was difficult. Finally, he gave a succinct nod.
The mattress dipped as Nick sat down on the edge of the bed. “Wanna talk about it?”
“It probably doesn’t seem like it, but I can be a pretty good listener when need be.”
“That’s nice to know, but it’s late and I don’t feel like talkin.’”
Heath whipped the covers back and stood. “I already told you I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Look, how can I help you if you won’t let me?”
Heath grabbed his pants off the end of the bed and slipped them on. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
As the blond stomped out, Nick remained seated on the bed. He shook his head and muttered, “Fletcher thinks this is all a matter of trust. Well, he’s full of poppycock. It’s about a helluva lot more than that, and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever know what really happened in that prison camp.”
Nick stood and headed for his room. He had no idea where Heath went, but since his brother had made it clear that he didn’t want Nick’s help, the dark haired cowboy decided he might as well go back to bed.
Heath sat out on the front veranda until he heard the buggy pull up to the barn. Rather than help Victoria and Audra unhitch the horse, as he normally would have, Heath reentered the house and returned to his room. He didn’t want to answer their questions as to why he was awake at this late hour, anymore than he’d wanted to answer Nick’s questions about his nightmare. And it wasn’t as though the women wouldn’t have help with the horse and buggy. Ever since Heath had agreed to testify against Bentell, Nick didn’t allow his mother or Audra to leave the ranch unaccompanied. Ned Henry, one of the Barkley hands, had a brother working for Garland Manners. Ned had volunteered to take the women. He told Nick he could go to the bunkhouse and play cards with his brother and the other hired men until Victoria and Audra were ready to return home.
Heath shut his bedroom door, blew out the lamp, and lay down on top of the rumpled covers. Ten minutes later, he heard the two women pass by his room. When he didn’t hear Nick’s door open, or the murmur of voices, he knew his brother had fallen back to sleep and hadn’t heard the women come home.
Heath waited another twenty minutes, then got out of bed. He didn’t light the lamp, but by feel alone found the shirt he knew was somewhere at the end of the bed. He slipped it on, buttoned the bottom three buttons, and crossed to his dresser. He opened the top drawer and put on a pair of clean socks. He didn’t bother putting on his boots as he quietly exited his room and closed the door behind him. It was after midnight now, and since Jarrod had yet to arrive home, Heath assumed the lawyer had spent the night at the Cattleman’s Hotel. If Jarrod worked late at his office and was too tired to make the trip out to the ranch, then he took a room at the Cattleman’s.
The blond man entered the study and silently closed the door. He crossed to the desk and lit the lamp. He turned up the wick until there was sufficient light. Heath walked over the bookcase, and began scanning the leather bound law texts. He wasn’t sure if Jarrod would have a book with the information he was looking for, but since he couldn’t sleep, he figured he might as well satisfy his curiosity.
Heath pulled eight books from the shelf at random and returned to the desk. He sat down behind it and piled the books to his right. He pulled the first book off the pile, opened it to the back, pulled the lamp closer, and scanned the index pages. When he didn’t see what he was searching for, he pulled the second book from the pile and repeated the process. He did this again and again, until he’d reached the sixth book and finally found what he was seeking.
Heath turned to the pages indicated, leaned over the book, and started reading.
Unbeknownst to his family, Jarrod hadn’t spent the day at his Stockton office, but instead, had caught the early train to San Francisco. Despite his loyalty to Heath, Jarrod was determined to keep the promise he’d made to Matt Bentell in regards to finding a lawyer for him. Jarrod had been wrong, however, when he’d told Matt that his friend well versed in criminal law would be eager to take on Bentell’s case. Actually, it was quite the contrary. Jarrod’s old law school friend, Harris Michaels, had no desire to get involved with Matt Bentell.
“That would be career suicide, Jarrod,” Harris had said as the two men dined together at noon. “You won’t find a lawyer in this entire country who will want to represent Bentell at his trial.”
Jarrod had smiled and tried to convince his friend otherwise. “Harris, I’m surprised at you.”
“Here you are one of the leading criminal attorneys in the state, and you’re turning down the chance to defend Matt Bentell?”
“Defend him? Do you know what he did at Carterson?”
“Yes,” Jarrod nodded. “I know what he did. Or at least some of it.”
“Well, then, you’ll understand when I say that rather than defend Matt Bentell, I’d like to hang him myself.” Harris shook his head as he took a sip of brandy. “Take my advice, Jarrod, and quit looking for a friend of yours to defend Bentell, or you won’t have any friends left. Let the government provide a lawyer for him.”
“Harris, you know what that means. Because of the circumstances surrounding this case, Bentell doesn’t have a chance of getting a fair trial with a government appointed attorney.”
“Seems to me he wasn’t very fair to the men who were prisoners of war at Carterson, so perhaps Bentell will now get his just dues.”
Jarrod had been surprised by his friend’s attitude. Usually Harris was a fair man who wanted the law to work for people in the best way possible. But emotions regarding Bentell had run high ten years ago when the man had first been brought to trial, so it wasn’t inconceivable to Jarrod that emotions would run high again.
Jarrod changed the subject then, so he and Harris could end their meal with their friendship still intact. After they parted ways outside the restaurant, Jarrod visited two more San Francisco attorneys that he knew well and thought highly of, only to discover that, like Harris, neither of those men was interested in having their names associated with Mathew Bentell.
Jarrod returned to Stockton on the last train out of San Francisco that carried more cargo and mail than it did passengers. That was all right with the attorney. He didn’t mind the solitude as he stared out the window and into the darkness. When he’d arrived in Stockton, Jarrod stopped by his office and looked through the mail Karen had left on his desk before going to the stable and getting Jingo. He’d thought of spending the remainder of the night at the Cattleman’s Hotel, but since he wasn’t sure he’d sleep well given all that was on his mind, decided he’d might as well head for the comforts home provided.
It was one-thirty in the morning when Jarrod approached the front gates leading into the ranch yard. He reined Jingo to a halt, knowing he’d better call out first. He had no idea who was posted at the gate – a ranch hand Nick had assigned to guard duty, or a U.S. marshal, but since Jarrod didn’t want to his head blown off, he made his presence known.
“Hello there! It’s Jarrod Barkley!”
Jarrod recognized the voice that called back in return as being that of one of their hired men.
“Come on through, Mr. Barkley! Everything’s fine!”
“Thanks, Clem,” Jarrod said to the man as he passed by on Jingo.
The house was dark save for the dim light coming from the study. Jarrod’s brow furrowed as the stared at the window while wondering who would be in there at this late hour. He dismounted his horse, lit a barn lantern, and walked the animal to his stall. Jingo had already been fed at the stable. It didn’t take Jarrod long to remove the saddle, saddle blanket, and reins, then give Jingo a quick brushing and fresh water.
Jarrod blew out the lantern as he passed by it and walked to the house. The light was still on in the study. Considering it was now going on two a.m., Jarrod wondered if someone had left the lamp on by accident. He said hello to the marshal who was standing duty at the front door. He knew the other marshal was one of two places – either getting a few hours of sleep in one of the bunkhouses, or patrolling the area around the mansion. The entire family had learned the habits of the marshals by now, and knew they switched off duty throughout the night so they could each get some rest. It was at times like this that Jarrod realized Nick was correct. Two marshals in place to protect Heath fell short of what was needed, especially given the size of the Barkley holdings. If nothing else, the family felt better about the situation considering the men Nick had keeping watch over various boundaries would make it difficult for someone to sneak onto the property. However, Jarrod realized those precautions weren’t foolproof. Their land stretched far and wide. A person determined to trespass could do so and go undetected if he remained hidden amongst the woods and long pasture grasses. In addition to that, on a night like this when no moon was visible in the sky, sneaking onto Barkley land would be that much easier.
Jarrod entered the house, quietly closing the big oak door. He took off his suit coat and laid it and his hat on the parlor table. He loosened his string tie and undid his top collar button as he walked to the study and opened the door.
Heath was so engrossed in what he was reading that he didn’t hear his brother enter the room. It wasn’t until the door clicked as Jarrod closed it, that Heath looked up.
“Well, brother Heath, I didn’t know you had an interest in the legal profession,” Jarrod said with a smile. “Are you planning on hanging out a shingle and giving me a run for my money?”
Though Jarrod’s words were light and filled with gentle humor, Heath didn’t smile in return. Jarrod walked to the desk and sat down in the chair across from it.
“Heath?” He inquired softly, “are you all right?”
“Yeah…yeah, I’m…I’m all right.”
“You don’t sound all right.”
When Heath refused to acknowledge Jarrod’s words the lawyer spoke again. “Is there something I can help you with, or something I can do for you?”
Heath hesitated a moment, then shut the book he’d been reading before Jarrod had the opportunity to see what the page said. He pushed the books aside and leaned back in the big chair that had once been Tom Barkley’s.
“Jarrod, is Henry Wirz really the only man ever executed for war crimes in this country?”
Now Jarrod knew what his brother had been reading – the same thing he’d been reading a few days earlier.
“Yes, Heath, so far he is.”
Heath stared at some point beyond Jarrod’s left shoulder. “Your book said forty-nine thousand five hundred Union soldiers were sent to Andersonville between 1864 and ’65.”
“And then it said thirteen thousand of those men died there during that year.”
“Yes, according to the legal records, those numbers are accurate.”
“It seems so clear cut – like Wirz deserved to die, until…until--”
Heath met his brother’s gaze. “Until I sit here and read that Wirz testified that he was just doin’ what he’d been ordered to do by his commanding officers, and that when he took charge of the prison he was fighting a losing battle because thirty thousand more men were housed there than the place could hold, and that there wasn’t an adequate supply of food, or a way to get clean water.”
“That’s correct,” Jarrod said. Cautiously, he added, “Similar to some of the situations Matt Bentell was dealing with, too, I’m sure.”
When Heath didn’t get angry, or tell Jarrod that things with Bentell were different, Jarrod knew his brother was beginning to realize the issue of Carterson from a legal standpoint was more complicated than first meets the eye.
“Still…if Wirz had really cared about those men, don’t you think he could have done something to improve the conditions? Don’t you think he could have gone to his superior officers and demanded more food and clean water?”
“I don’t know the answer to that, Heath. There’s nothing recorded anywhere that claims Wirz did attempt to get help for the Andersonville inmates, and if he didn’t, then yes, he should have. However, I don’t know what the Confederates could have, or would have done. They were losing the war by then, and supplies for their own men were woefully inadequate.”
“I know,” Heath said, “but if he’d tried, Jarrod…if he’d only tried, then maybe I could forgive him.”
Jarrod knew Heath didn’t mean Henry Wirz when he said, “maybe I could forgive him” but rather, he meant Matt Bentell.
Again, Jarrod proceeded with caution where this subject was concerned. “Heath, are you having second thoughts?”
“Second thoughts about what?”
“About talking to Garrett Reece. About giving him your testimony, and then testifying against Bentell at the trial.”
“No…I…no. I have to do this for Avery.”
“You don’t have to do this for anyone.”
Heath looked away a moment, then brought his eyes back to his brother. “You don’t want me to, do you? None of you do.”
“If by ‘none of you’ you mean your family – Mother, myself, and your other siblings, then you’re wrong. We told you we want you to do what you feel is right. We still stand behind that statement, Heath, and we will continue to stand behind it, and stand behind you, until this ends in one fashion or another.”
Heath swallowed hard and nodded. Sometimes his emotions were too close to the surface these days. Hearing Jarrod’s soft words of support reminded Heath that being part of this family was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He didn’t want to disappoint any of them, and he didn’t want to do the wrong thing. Trouble was, he no longer knew what was right and what was wrong, because how did you ever explain to someone what you’d witnessed at the age of fifteen that you still couldn’t make any sense of?
Heath thought a moment, then asked, “Jarrod, are…are women ever executed?”
“How…how many times have we executed a woman in this country?”
“I don’t know the answer to that right off the top of my head. It’s a rare occurrence, in part because women don’t commit crimes at nearly the rate men do.”
“But if the circumstances were right…if a woman was found guilty of murder…or murders even, then she might hang.”
“Yes, she might…she quite likely would. Why do you ask?”
“Just…just wondering, that’s all. I read in your law book that Wirz’s neck didn’t break when the trap door on the gallows was opened.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“He…it took him two minutes to die. He suffocated while people in the crowd shouted, ‘Wirz, remember Andersonville.’”
Heath stood and carried the law books back to the case. Jarrod watched as one by one his brother returned the books to their proper places. When he was finished, Heath walked over to the window and looked outside. Jarrod watched the minutes tick off on the mantel clock. Heath finally turned around and made eye contact with his sibling.
“For a long time I thought if death came to Bentell in any way, no matter how unmerciful, that he deserved it.”
“And you don’t feel that way any longer?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Heath, one thing you have to remember, and I think you realize it even more so now after reading the transcripts of Henry Wirz’s trial, is that there are two sides to every coin. I’m not excusing Wirz’s failures to the prisoners at Andersonville, yet I also believe that other men…men above Wirz in the chain of command, weren’t held accountable for their actions.”
“So, in other words you think the government made Wirz a scapegoat?”
“In some ways, that’s my perception, yes. However, it’s not fair of me to pass judgment, because unlike Major Fletcher, I wasn’t incarcerated at Andersonville. Maybe you should discuss this with him, Heath. Maybe he can answer questions for you I can’t.”
“Maybe,” was all Heath would commit to, thereby giving Jarrod the impression his brother had no intention of having this conversation with anyone else.
The blond man walked to the door. He put his hand on the knob, but paused before leaving the room. “Jarrod, sometimes…sometimes I think that no matter what I do, it won’t be enough because it won’t make things right.”
Jarrod stood and turned so he was facing his brother. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing I do now can bring Avery back. When I…when I had the chance to do something for him, I failed him. I...I didn’t do what he asked me to.”
Jarrod couldn’t stand the sorrow he heard in Heath’s voice. “Heath--”
“He’d dead, Jarrod. Avery’s been dead for a long time now. I thought giving his father the message I promised to deliver, and being willing to testify against Bentell, would help me sleep at night. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t at all. So far, it’s only made things worse.”
The lawyer watched his brother leave the room. The sympathy he felt for Heath was enormous. For the first time Jarrod found himself wondering what he’d do if he were the Carterson survivor who had the power to allow Matt Bentell to live, or be instrumental in causing his execution.
The problem was, Jarrod didn’t have an answer in that regard for either himself, or for Heath. Which, at the moment, made him feel like a failure as a lawyer, and as an older brother.
The message to flee the logging camp arrived to Matt Bentell early on Monday afternoon. That didn’t leave the Bentells much time to get ready, but that was all right. They had packed most of their belongs the day after John Laramie left. It was just a matter of putting some clothes in one trunk, and some dishes in another. The Barkleys had furnished the cabin, and there was little else in the small home other than a few pictures, that belonged to Matt and Lucinda.
Matt waited until the sun set to load the wagon and hitch up the horses. The messenger who arrived had told him Nick Barkley had men watching him, so Matt had to do everything under the cover of darkness. Matt wasn’t sure where they would ultimately settle. That was up to John Laramie, and his father, Robert. A deal had been struck between Bentell and the Laramies. Matt would never tell anyone that Robert Laramie, the great supporter of the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln, had made a profitable business out of smuggling rifles from the Laramie foundry south of the Mason Dixon line during the war. In exchange for Matt’s silence on this issue, an issue he had vast knowledge of since he had been Laramie’s contact down South prior to his assignment at Carterson, Robert was going to relocate Matt and Lucinda. John had said his father would provide them with a home, provide them with new names and phony identification papers, and provide Matt with a job.
The only trouble Matt ran into came when it was time leave. He heard one of the loggers shout, “Fire! Fire!” and knew Laramie’s men had followed through on John’s instructions to create a diversion for Matt and Lucinda. Matt stepped out on the porch and watched as loggers spilled out of the tents with buckets and pickaxes, and ran toward the orange flames that could be seen dancing up a steep slope west of the encampment. No one seemed to notice that Matt wasn’t with them, and likely wouldn’t notice while the chaos and confusion was at its peak.
Matt ran into the cabin to get Lucinda. She had been in the kitchen waiting to flee when he gave the word, but now she was nowhere to be seen.
Matt took the stairs two at a time. “Cinda! Cinda, come on! We have to go now.”
The man heard the sobs before he found his wife.
Oh no, not now. Not now.
When Lucinda was under stress the ‘others’ who lived within her seemed to have a stronger hold on her. It was frightening to watch, but right now Matt didn’t have the time to fret over it. He found Lucinda curled in a ball and sitting in a corner of their bedroom.
“Cinda, come on.”
The woman peeked out from the corner she had her face pressed against. “I’m…I’m scared, Papa.”
Matt didn’t have time to play Lucinda’s games. He grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her to her feet. “Come on, let’s go!”
Matt gave the woman a hard shake. “Lucinda, stop it now! We don’t have time for this.”
Matt grabbed his wife’s arm and pulled her out of the room and down the stairs. Lucinda’s eyes hardened as they stepped out of the cabin and ran to the barn. With her free hand, she felt for the knife and the gun hidden beneath her jacket. Matt would be sorry for treating her this way. Before things were over, they’d all be sorry for treating Orlean this way.
Word of the fire at the logging camp hadn’t reached the Barkley ranch yet on Wednesday morning. All the members of the Barkley family had obligations that day that would take them away from the mansion. Audra was riding Lady to Sarah Danielson’s home after breakfast. She was spending the day with her friend so they could begin planning Sarah’s wedding along with the young woman’s mother. Despite Audra’s protests that she didn’t need a babysitter, Nick was sending a hired man to ride along with her. Once she arrived safely, the man would return to the ranch, and whatever duties awaited him.
“What time are you gonna be ready to come home?” Nick had asked as the family finished eating breakfast.
“I don’t know. Since when am I on your clock?”
“Since I have to send someone for you.”
“Nick, I don’t need--”
“Audra, don’t sass me,” Nick warned. “I’ve got enough on my mind right now. I don’t need to be worrying about you, too. Now just tell me what time you’ll be ready to come home and I’ll have one of the men come for you.”
“Nick, I can understand why you wanted Ned to go with Mother and I when we had dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Manners last night, since it would be after dark before we returned. But it’s broad daylight out now, and I’ll be home from Sarah’s before supper.”
“Yeah, and it was broad daylight when Heath was shot, too, little sister, in the event you’ve forgotten. So quit givin’ me an argument I don’t have time for and tell me when I should send someone for you. Believe me, it’s not like I wanna have to pull a man off a work detail in order to play escort for you, but right now I don’t have any choice in the matter so--”
Without saying a word, Heath stood and left the table. He paused by the parlor table long enough to pick up his gun belt and hat, and then walked out of the front door.
Nick scowled. “What’s with him? He didn’t even finish eating.”
Victoria and Jarrod exchanged glances that said, Only Nick.
“Perhaps you could choose your words more carefully, Nicholas.” Victoria said.
Nick looked at his mother. “What? What did I say this time?”
“Nick,” Audra said, “you made it sound like it’s Heath’s fault that you have to send a man with me to Sarah’s.”
“I never said it was Heath’s fault!”
“But that’s how it sounded.”
“Didn’t sound that way to me.”
“Well, it did to the rest of us.”
Nick appealed to the rest of his family. “Mother? Jarrod?”
Victoria nodded, while Jarrod said, “Brother Nick, you’re going to lose this argument before you even start it, so why don’t you just concede defeat now?”
“If you want my opinion, all of you pay way too much attention to Fletcher, ‘cause you’re startin’ to sound just him. I’m gettin’ a little tired of people telling me what I mean and what I don’t mean whenever I say something. Heath’s just wound too tight these days. He--”
“Nick, cut him some slack,” Jarrod urged, as he thought back to the conversation he’d had in the study with Heath just hours earlier. “Just like you, Heath has a lot on his mind these days.”
Nick threw his napkin on the table as he pushed his chair back and stood. “I don’t have time to cut him any slack. We’ve got too much to get done before we leave for Washington.” The man stomped for the parlor where he grabbed his own gun belt and hat. “Audra, if you’re plannin’ on going to Sarah’s then get a move on. I’m gonna need my hired man back before half the day is wasted.”
Audra waited until she heard her brother slam the door before rising. She kissed her mother on the cheek, and then did the same to Jarrod. “I guess I’d better go before Nick decides I’ve taken up too much of his precious time and places me under house arrest.”
Victoria smiled while Jarrod chuckled.
“Yes, dear,” Victoria agreed, “I believe it would be best to pacify your brother where this issue is concerned. I’ll see you at you supper.”
Audra waved as she ran for the front door. When she had exited, Victoria sat back in her chair and pushed her plate aside.
“If things are already this volatile, I can’t fathom what the next few months will be like.”
“Not any better, that’s for certain,” Jarrod said candidly, “and they’ll probably grow worse before the trial is over.”
“Nick is trying hard to hide how nervous this is making him by falling back on ‘we’ve got a lot of work to do around here before we leave.’”
“Yes, he is,” Jarrod agreed. “Nick will never admit it, but I think he’s afraid that some hired gun will shoot Heath, and that there won’t be anything he can do to stop that. It’s one thing to be a skilled shot like Nick is, and quite another to be part of the contingent that is protecting your brother from the possibility of assassination. We both know sensitivity is not Nick’s strong suit, but it will tear him apart if something happens to Heath, and even more so, if he feels he’s responsible for it.”
“Yes, it will,” Victoria said. “You know, Jarrod, I can look back to the day Matt and Lucinda arrived, and realize now, just how much like your father Heath is.”
Jarrod smiled. “I’ve noticed that a time or two myself.”
“Your father’s reaction to Matt Bentell showing up in his parlor would have been exactly what Heath’s was had Tom been a Carterson survivor.”
“In other words, Father would have lost his temper, punched Bentell, and then threatened to kill him.”
“That about sums it up,” Victoria agreed with a hint of humor. “And just like Heath, your father wouldn’t have taken the easy road and hidden from Garrett Reece in an effort to avoid testifying. Like Heath, as well, he would have put a lot of thought into his decision, and even though his choice might not have been popular with his family, he would have done what he thought was right, despite any opinions to the contrary.”
“I know,” Jarrod acknowledged. “And I think this evening Heath would benefit from hearing you tell him that.”
The lawyer nodded. “I found him in the study when I arrived home at one-thirty this morning. I think he’s second guessing himself.”
“What makes you say that?”
“For the most part, I’m basing it on some questions he asked me.” Once again, Jarrod found himself mulling over why Heath would be concerned with whether or not a jury might sentence a woman to death. But since he had no clue as to why this was bothering Heath, he didn’t mention it to his mother. “It doesn’t come as a large surprise to me – this second guessing Heath is doing. I’ve witnessed it at times with clients who are to give valuable testimony. Suddenly the line between right and wrong becomes blurred.”
“And you think that’s happening to Heath?”
“To a large extent, yes. This trial will garner a lot of publicity, Mother. I believe Heath is just now beginning to see both the good and the bad to that. For as much as he’d like to see Matt pay for his crimes, I also think Heath is realizing that Matt’s death won’t bring Avery Reece back, or bring back any other man who died in Carterson.”
Victoria sighed. “I’ll be glad when this is over with.”
Jarrod smiled. “We’ll all be glad when it’s over with, but unfortunately, the end is several months away. If you prefer not to go to Washington, I’m sure Heath will understand.”
Victoria didn’t tell her oldest son what she knew to be true in her heart. Heath would say he understood her decision to remain on the ranch, and would say he didn’t fault her for it, but such a decision would hurt him deeply, and he’d perceive it to mean she disapproved of his decision to testify.
“All right, but keep in mind that Nick and I will be with Heath and--”
“I’m going,” Victoria reiterated. “Heath will need our support throughout this, and my mother’s intuition tells me that while there are times he’ll need the type of support only a brother can give, there will also be times when he needs the type of support only a mother can give.”
“How astute of you, my lady.” Jarrod stood and offered his mother his left
arm. They were taking the buggy into
Stockton. The lawyer would spend the
day working at his office, while Victoria devoted the morning to a Lady’s Guild
meeting at their church, and then spend the afternoon having lunch with an old
friend who lived in town. She was to
meet Jarrod at his office at five o’clock in order to ride home with him.
The hired men were gathered around Nick getting their work assignments when Victoria and Jarrod left the ranch yard. Heath was in the corral with Phillip, looking over a new string of horses. Audra was already gone, headed for Sarah’s home with whatever ranch hand Nick had sent with her. The marshals in charge of guarding Heath stood by the corral, their eyes constantly scanning the area, though Jarrod didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to breach the security of the ranch yard. At any given time there could be as many as seventy-five men within shouting distance. The chances that someone would get close enough to harm Heath under these circumstances were slim to none.
Jarrod thought ahead to the next day when Garrett would take a preliminary testimony from Heath. Jarrod would be in the room with his brother, as would Christian Fletcher. Heath had already requested that no one else be present, however. Most especially, not Nick.
As Jarrod drove the buggy down the road that led to Stockton with his mother seated beside him, he dreaded the thought of having to break that news to Nick after supper.
Nick’s not going to be happy when he finds out Heath specifically requested that he not be privy to anything that’s said tomorrow. I’ll have to suggest we take a ride after supper so I can tell him several miles from the house. The last thing Heath needs right now is to be subjected to Nick’s temper.
Jarrod lightly slapped the horse’s rump with the reins, getting the animal to pick up its pace. He was anxious to get to the office. He looked forward to the respite the day’s work would bring him from his concerns involving Matt Bentell, Carterson Prison, his brother Heath, and a dead boy named Avery Reece.
Douglas looked up from the carpet he was sweeping when John Laramie entered his hotel room after breakfast. He hadn’t seen the man since Sunday evening in the alley, so hadn’t been able to tell Mr. Laramie that he could deliver messages for him.
John nodded at Douglas as he passed the boy on his way to the desk that sat against one wall of the small living area. Douglas took a deep breath, then approached the man.
John turned to face the boy. “Yes? Douglas, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Douglas nodded in acknowledgment of his name.
“What can I do for you, son?”
“Well…I was gonna tell you that if you need me to deliver any messages for you, no matter how late it is, I can do it.”
“Yeah. I was empting garbage in the alley the other night and I heard you give a message to a man. I can do that for you.”
“Oh, you can, can you?”
“Yes, sir. I’m good at remembering things, and if you just tell me where I’m supposed to meet someone and when, I can get there. I know most all places around here where a man might want to talk in private.”
“I see,” John said, while hiding his panic at the thought of what Douglas overheard the other night. “You mentioned the word private. You do understand that if I hire you to deliver messages, that anything you say, or are told to pass on to me, can’t be told to anyone else.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.”
“So that means you didn’t tell anyone what you heard on Sunday night?”
“Oh, no, sir. I haven’t told anyone. I’m not a tattletale.”
John smiled. “Well, good for you.”
“So do you think you might have some work for me soon?”
John stood while putting an arm around Douglas’s shoulders. Because of what the boy had overheard, John would have to do away with him. But that wouldn’t be a problem, because suddenly, John knew just how he was going to get Heath Barkley off the ranch this afternoon.
“Yes, Douglas,” John said, as he gave the boy twenty-five cents for cleaning the room, and then walked him to the door. “When school breaks for lunch at noon, you meet me in that big stand of oak trees down by the creek where I’ve seen some of your classmates gather to fish after the school day ends. Do you know where that is?”
“Make sure you tell your teacher that your mother needed you at home this afternoon, so she knows you won’t be returning for lessons after lunch and won’t send someone to look for you.”
“Okay,” Douglas nodded, knowing Miss Hall wouldn’t question that. She knew he was the man of the house, and that sometimes his mother excused him from school for various reasons. “And I’ll tell my brothers and sisters that Ma said I had to leave school at lunch time so they won’t wonder where I’m at.”
Douglas’s eyes lit up with anticipation. “So, you’ll meet me at the creek and give me a message to deliver to someone?”
John smiled as he thought of the day ahead, and how all his problems would be solved by suppertime. Because Garrett and Chris were meeting Jarrod Barkley for lunch, and then would be returning to his law office for several hours, they’d never even know John had left town. Instead, they’d assume he was in his room engrossed in trial preparation, like he’d told them over breakfast he’d be.
Laramie patted the boy on the back. “Yes, Douglas, I’ll meet you at the creek and give you a message to deliver. But remember, if you’re going to be my messenger, then mum’s the word. This has to stay between us. You can’t even mention it to the attorney general or Major Fletcher if you happen to run across them today.”
“I won’t,” Douglas promised. He hesitated a moment, then asked, “Does being a messenger pay good?”
John laughed. “It sure does. How does ten dollars sound for the delivery of the message, and your silence pertaining to our partnership?”
“Ten dollars!” Douglas held his right hand out and shook John’s. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Mr. Laramie.”
“Wonderful,” John nodded. “I’m glad I found a young man I can count on.”
“Oh, yes, sir. You can count on me.”
“Glad to hear it.” John urged the boy toward the door. “You’d better get a move on. School will be starting shortly.”
“Yes, sir.” Douglas turned around as he placed his hand on the knob. “Mr. Laramie, if you don’t mind me askin,’ who am I gonna be delivering the message to?”
“Do you know Heath Barkley?”
“Yes, sir. I sure do.”
“Well, that’s who you’ll be taking a message to.”
Douglas grinned. If Mr. Laramie paid him ten dollars to take the message all the way out to the Barkley ranch, then surely Heath would pay him another ten for having traveled so far. Douglas’s dreams of his mother’s kitchen shelves being stocked with food would come true. It wasn’t easy providing for a family of six, even with the jobs Douglas and his mother had, and the sewing his grandmother did for people when she wasn’t looking after Douglas’s younger siblings, washing clothes, cleaning the house, or cooking a meal.
“I’ll see you at noon, Mr. Laramie,” the boy promised.
“Yes, see you at noon,” John said, as Douglas left the room. He heard the boy run down the stairs, and then a few moments later, watched Douglas emerge from the alley and onto the sidewalk. Douglas was soon swallowed up with a group of his classmates who were headed for the schoolhouse at the edge of town.
John smiled as he returned to his desk. His plan was falling into place even better than he’d imagined. He took a piece of paper out of a drawer, dipped his pen into the ink well, and using the code he now had memorized, devised a message to his father that would be sent by telegram later that night. Robert Laramie would easily decipher the message that appeared to be so innocent in its current form.
‘Mission completed. Heath Barkley and the Bentells are dead. See you soon. Love, your son, John.’
Jarrod was correct. The last thing Heath needed was a dose of Nick’s temper, but regardless, he received just that over lunch. Between Heath’s rebuff of Nick the evening before when the man woke Heath from his nightmare, and then the upset over Nick’s words at the breakfast table, there had been a palpable tension between the brothers throughout the morning. For the most part, they’d stayed out of one another’s way as they went about their work.
Silas placed lunch on the table, then disappeared into the kitchen while Nick and Heath filled their plates. Nick took three bites of beef roast and two bites of mashed potatoes before his initial hunger pains were satisfied. He glanced at his sibling.
“What time are you supposed to meet with Jarrod and Reece tomorrow?”
“Don’t know. Jarrod’ll probably tell me when he gets home tonight. He was gonna talk to the attorney general today.”
Though Nick didn’t care how disrespectful he was when speaking of Garrett Reece, he had noticed that Heath always took the time to refer to him as the attorney general, or as Attorney General Reece. Nick wasn’t sure what to make of that, since he’d never known Heath to stand on formality, especially when the discussion was just between them. He had assumed Heath’s respect for the man was a reflection of his long ago friendship with Avery.
“This Avery…Reece’s son…you thought a lot of him, huh?”
Heath dropped his eyes to his plate. “Yeah.”
“He was a good friend?”
“Yeah, he was.”
“I can understand that,” Nick said, in the best attempt to extend an olive branch that he could muster. “One thing a man needs on the battlefield, and that’s a good friend.”
“And in a place like Carterson, too, I suppose.”
Heath swallowed hard. He didn’t want to talk with Nick about Avery or Carterson, because then he’d have to admit how he had failed his friend.
Nick let out a heavy sigh. Sometimes having a conversation with Heath was about as productive as talking to a wall. He was only trying to help, and considering they were alone, and considering how close they’d become during the past fifteen months, meant Nick was growing more and more offended with each passing minute at the way Heath was snubbing him. He took a deep internal breath, silently counted to ten, and tried again.
“Listen, I’ll make sure I’m available when Reece is here tomorrow. I can sit in the study with you and Jarrod. You know, just be there in case you need…well, in case you need me for any rea--”
“What’d you just say?”
Heath looked up from his plate. “You heard me.”
“Yeah, I did. Only thing is, I don’t think I heard you right. I thought I heard you say ‘no’ when what you really meant to say was, ‘Thanks, Nick. I want you to be there.’”
“Well, I’m not going to say that, because the answer is no.”
“Jarrod will be there.”
“That’s fine. Jarrod is gonna assist Reece, so I know he’ll be of valuable help to you and Reece both. Now me, I’m not a lawyer like our older brother, but I kinda thought you might want me there just because…”
It wasn’t easy for Nick to say it, but since Heath didn’t seem to understand what he was getting at, Nick knew he’d have to put his feelings into words. “Because we’re brothers, and we’re friends, and sometimes a man needs his brother and friend beside him when the going gets rough.”
“Major Fletcher will be there.”
Nick’s eyes darkened and he scowled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It just means there will be plenty of people in the room. I…I’m not hankerin’ to do this in front of an audience just yet. That’ll come in Washington.”
“Oh, so I’m just a member of the audience now, is that it? While Fletcher gets a front row seat.”
When Heath didn’t answer his brother, Nick stood. “I’ll eat with the men in the mess hall. I used to do that before you came here on days like this when the rest of the family was gone. I guess I’ll return to that old habit. Seems to me that even though none of them are my brother, they’re better company.”
Heath watched Nick leave the room, then heard the front door open and slam shut. The blond pushed his almost full plate aside. Heath wished his volatile sibling could understand that the reason he couldn’t talk to him about Avery wasn’t because he and Nick didn’t have a strong bond as brothers and best friends, but because they did.
Heath had his shirt off as he worked the forge outside the barn. He was fashioning new branding irons, while Nick and Ned Henry were in the early stages of breaking the young equine Heath and Phillip had hand-picked for cutting horses that morning.
One of the marshals stood a few feet away from Heath, while the other stood guard at the front gate. Heath could tell they were bored and anxious to leave for Washington, simply for a change of scenery. He hadn’t gotten to know them well, which was odd considering it was their job to guard him. But both of them appeared to be reserved by nature, or maybe in their line of work it was detrimental to your concentration if you focused on anything but your job. Heath wasn’t sure which it was, but he’d given up on doing more than nodding and saying hello when he first encountered them each morning. He didn’t feel much like talking anyway, and he’d never been one to initiate conversation with a stranger, so Heath figured it was just as well that neither marshal felt the need to shoot the bull with him.
Heath looked up when he heard the marshal at the gate call, “A boy’s coming!” He took a red bandana out of his back pocket and used it to wipe the perspiration from his face as he walked toward the gate. Nick glanced in that direction, but didn’t appear curious as to who the boy could be. He returned his attention to the horses when he saw Heath walking toward the gate to greet their visitor.
Heath’s puzzled look turned to one of recognition when he saw Douglas Erickson approach. He waved an arm at the marshal.
“You can let him through.”
Douglas smiled and started running when he saw Heath.
“Hi, Douglas.” Heath shoved the bandana back in his pocket. “What brings you all the way out here? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“I got hired to bring a message to you.”
“Yeah.” Douglas looked toward the sky as he thought hard to recall the message word for word. He’d promised Mr. Laramie he’d say it just like the man had told him to.
“Mr. Barkley and the attorney general want you to meet them at Mr. Barkley’s office as soon as you can get there.” Douglas added a sentence of his own. “You know…your brother, Jarrod.”
Heath smiled as he tousled the boy’s hair. “Yeah, I know.” Heath picked his shirt up from the corral fence railing it was draped over, put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and walked with him toward the house. “While I clean up, I’ll have Silas give you some cookies and a glass of lemonade. Looks like you’re hot and thirsty, and I bet you’re tired after your long hike out here.”
Douglas nodded. It had taken him an hour and a half to make it to the ranch, and it would have taken longer had he not been able to hitch a ride part of the way with a cowhand who was headed to the Manners’ ranch with a wagon full of supplies. Cookies and lemonade would be a treat for the boy whose mother could rarely afford to indulge her children.
It seemed to Douglas as though Heath could read his mind, because he said, “And we’ll have Silas put some extra cookies in a sack so you can share them with your family tonight.”
“Thanks, Heath! That’ll be dandy.”
Heath turned to the marshal that was walking beside him and Douglas. While he’d prefer to go to Stockton without two escorts, he knew that wouldn’t be allowed. “After I get cleaned up we can saddle some horses and head to town.”
“No, no horses,” Marshal James Wells negated. “It’s too easy to pick someone off that way. It’ll be better if we take you in buggy. I saw one that seats four in your carriage house.”
“Yeah,” Heath said, in way of acknowledging the buggy the man was referring to.
“We can put you and the boy in the back. No one will be able to see in because of the closed top and sides. I’ll drive, and Paulson can ride shotgun.”
“Okay,” Heath agreed.
The man paused and pulled Heath a few steps away from Douglas. “Are you sure this kid can be trusted?”
Heath glanced over at the boy who was eagerly awaiting his visit to Silas’s kitchen.
“He’s only twelve.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Then to answer your question, yeah, he can be trusted. He runs errands for my brothers and me all the time, and I know he’s been running errands for the attorney general and Major Fletcher since they arrived.”
“All right,” the marshal nodded. He turned and jogged to his companion, Titus Paulson, who was still standing by the front gates. While he briefed Marshal Paulson on where they were going, Heath called to one of the hired men and asked him to hook up two horses to the carriage.
Nick jumped the fence and crossed the ranch yard. When he came abreast of his sibling he asked, “What goin’ on?”
Heath looked at Douglas and pointed to the house. “Go on in the front door there, Douglas, and turn to your left. Call for Silas. He’ll hear you and take you to the kitchen.”
“Okay. Thanks, Heath!”
The boy raced for the house. Once he’d found his way inside, Heath turned his attention to Nick.
“Douglas brought me a message. Jarrod and the attorney general wanna see me in Jarrod’s office.”
“Oh,” Nick said. Like Heath, Nick assumed the men had decided they wanted to take his testimony today for some reason, rather than the following day. And also like Heath, Nick didn’t think twice about the fact that Douglas was missing the afternoon’s lessons. When a family relied on a twelve-year-old for a good portion of its income, a few hours out of school in exchange for money meant there was food on the table for another night. “So, I suppose you still don’t want me there, huh?”
“Look, just tell me yes or no. If you want me to come along, then I need to wash up and put on a clean shirt.”
Heath silently debated a moment before finally shaking his head. “No. No, not this time.”
“Well, now, I’m pretty busy, so it’s hard tellin’ if there will be a next time.”
Heath didn’t know if Nick was just jawing at him because he was angry that he was being left out of this meeting, or if Nick meant that he was reconsidering traveling to Washington.
Because Heath had just as much pride as his brother, he didn’t break eye contact when he said, “You do whatever you think is best, Nick.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that. I will.”
Nick spun on one heel and stomped toward the corral, his spurs jingling in frantic rhythm as he crossed the dirt.
Heath watched his brother hurtle the fence. He sighed as he turned toward the house. Once again, Heath wondered if Carterson was meant to be a burr under his saddle for the rest of his life.
John Laramie hid in the thick, tall grass off the dirt crossroads that led to Stockton in one direction, and to Sacramento in the other. He was a mile and a half from Barkley boundaries, which meant he was too far away to be seen by anyone keeping watch for intruders.
John had scouted this area extensively before arriving in Stockton, and had now traveled here on foot. He’d followed Douglas for quite a distance without the boy being aware that John was behind him. When Barkley, the Bentells, and the kid were taken care of, John would burn Bentell’s wagon. He would then return to the outskirts of Stockton on the back of one of Matt’s horses. He’d climb off right before he got to town, then slap the horse on the rump and let it run off toward the untamed lands that bordered Stockton. He’d stick to back alleys when returning to town, and get into his hotel using the back stairway. John was confident that his plan was foolproof. He knew Garrett and Fletcher would be tied up with Jarrod until five. Provided things went as they should, John would be back in his room by four o’clock - four-thirty at the latest. If he did arrive after Garrett for some reason, he’d simply say he needed a break from his paperwork and had taken a walk around town.
John parted the grass and peered through the long blades when he heard a wagon coming south on Sacramento Road.
Good. They’re on time.
Laramie looked toward the Barkley ranch. So far, Stockton Road was desolate. He stood and waved Bentell forward. The man gave the horses a slap with the reins. John directed Matt to turn right onto Stockton Road, and then drive little farther up. He didn’t want Barkley, or the marshals who would likely be traveling with him, to detect the path of the wheels through the grass. Once John was satisfied the wagon had gone farther than he was going to let Barkley’s entourage travel, he directed Matt to turn off.
The wagon swayed back and forth on the uneven ground. John pointed toward a grove of trees that grew thick and tall two hundred feet behind them. He didn’t have to tell Matt what he wanted the man to do. Bentell drove the wagon into the middle of that fortress created by Mother Nature, and secured the horses so they couldn’t bolt at the sound of the gunshots.
John waited for Bentell to emerge. He assumed the man was telling Lucinda to stay hidden. John wasn’t concerned about the woman causing him problems. By the time she realized what had happened to her husband, John would be putting a bullet through her brain.
John watched as Matt bent low and ran from the cover of the trees. The men crouched in the grass and conferred. There wasn’t much for John to say, other than, “Two marshals will probably be with Barkley, as well as a boy. We need to make certain everyone is dead.”
“A boy?” Matt questioned. “You didn’t say anything about a boy when we discussed this.”
“That’s because I didn’t know anything about a boy when we discussed this. The kid overheard some things he shouldn’t have. We need to get rid of him.”
“That’s not important. Suffice to say, the kid is doing me a favor by bringing Barkley to us, but he’s going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know. Eleven or twelve, I suppose.”
Matt rubbed his chin. “That seems awful young to--”
just think of this as war. During the
war you didn’t have concerns about killing boys, did you?”
Matt couldn’t deny that he hadn’t thought anything of killing twelve-year-old boys during the war. Though neither the Yankees nor the Rebels wanted boys that young amongst their troops, there were always a few runaways or orphans who managed to join the ranks of the fighting men. When someone was pointing a gun at you, you didn’t waste time asking his age.
Bentell shook his head no in answer to John’s question. Laramie clapped him on the back. “Good man.” John pointed across the road. “See that scrub of trees there just a few feet off the road.”
“You hide there. I’ll stay on this side and get behind that cropping of rocks over there. If the marshals are with Barkley, we need to get them first.”
“I know,” Matt acknowledged. He assumed Heath was a good shot, but U.S Marshals were highly skilled gunmen. You didn’t want to be drawn into battle against them.
“Okay, let’s go,” John ordered.
The men crawled toward the road. John positioned himself behind the rock cropping, while Matt stopped to look left, and then right. When he saw no one on the road, Bentell dashed across it to the stand of scraggily trees that would give him the cover he needed without blocking his shot. Now, it was just a matter of waiting for Barkley to come by.
Matt smiled as he ran a hand over the smooth metal of his rifle. Once this mess was taken care of, he and Lucinda would finally be able to begin their lives anew.
Neither man saw her peering out from the trees. Matt was so foolish. Even after all these years, he thought Lucinda was the one in charge of all those who lived within her. Stupid man, she thought as she brought her gun out from beneath her jacket. He should have figured out long ago that Orlean was always the one in charge.
Heath and Douglas rode in the back of the buggy, secluded from view by the black canvas that had been secured to its hooks. During nice weather, a buggy ride was usually best enjoyed in the open air. But considering the circumstances, an open-air ride wasn’t allowed. Heath didn’t think Douglas minded that too much. He was still eating a cookie with one hand, while carrying a cloth sack that Silas had packed for him and filled with cookies and doughnuts. Heath had given the boy ten dollars before they’d left the ranch in payment for the message he’d delivered. The blond man knew this would be a day Douglas would long remember and talk about. When you’re a poor boy, something so simple as homemade cookies and lemonade was a big treat. Not to mention what Douglas had earned that day in his role as messenger. Heath smiled at the boy before returning his attention to the road. He could only see straight ahead, which meant he was looking at Marshal Wells’ back.
Douglas licked his fingers of the sugar clinging to them, and then wiped his hand on the leg of his trousers.
“I gotta tell ya,’ Heath, I sure am glad Mr. Laramie hired me for this job.”
Heath looked down at the boy. “Who?”
“Mr. Laramie. Don’t you know who he is?”
Though Heath hadn’t met John Laramie, he’d heard Garrett Reece speak of him several times, and knew Laramie was a valuable and trusted assistant to Reece. He also knew Reece had been waiting for Laramie to arrive in Stockton, but wasn’t aware the man had gotten into town.
“I know of him, yeah.” Heath cocked an eyebrow in both surprise and puzzlement. “So, Mr. Laramie’s the one who hired you to bring the message to me that my brother and the attorney general wanna see me?”
“Yeah, on account of me overhearing him give a message to that man on Sunday night. Boy, I was lucky I was in the alley emptying the garbage when that was goin’ on. When I was cleaning Mr. Laramie’s room before school this morning I told him I could deliver messages for him just as good as that man he sent to that yellow-bellied scoundrel Matt Bentell.”
At the words, “Matt Bentell” Marshal Paulson turned around.
Heath’s heart beat a warning in his chest. “What message, Douglas?”
Douglas was proud of his memory as he repeated what he’d heard on Sunday evening. “The message I have for Bentell is that I’ll meet him at the designated spot.”
For reasons Heath couldn’t explain, he knew he’d been set up. He lunged for the reins. “Turn this rig around!”
“Barkley!” James Wells elbowed Heath to keep him from getting control of the reins. “Barkley, stop--”
“Turn this rig around, dammit! We gotta get back to the ran--”
Heath didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. A bullet traveled through James Wells’ right temple, its force flipping him out of his seat. A second rifle blast sounded and blood spurted through the front of Titus Paulson’s white shirt. The man grabbed his chest as he slumped forward. Another shot blew the top of Paulson’s skull off, as he, too, tumbled from the buggy. Heath lost his grip on the reins as the horses screamed, reared, and bolted. The buggy flew over the road. Heath grabbed Douglas and threw him on the floor.
“Stay down and hang on!”
The blond man climbed over the front seat as bullets whizzed by him. He dove for the reins and snared them between two fingers. He might have gained control of the animals and driven the buggy to the safety of Stockton, which was just two miles up the road, if it hadn’t been for the large rock. The wheels on the buggy’s right side hit it square in the middle. The buggy tilted left, as the harness broke free. The horses sensed this newfound freedom and flew across the road and through the long grass beyond. The buggy rolled over six times and Heath’s hat tumbled out of it. The blond’s last conscious thoughts were that he hoped Douglas was okay, and he hoped whomever had been shooting at them assumed they were dead.
Matt watched the horses break free of the buggy, then watched as the buggy rolled over and over until it landed upside down thirty yards off the road.
“Come on!” John waved. “Let’s go!”
Laramie ran toward the buggy with Matt following. Matt dove for the dirt when two shots rang out.
“What the hell--”
He cautiously lifted his head and looked toward the road. There wasn’t anyone there. He turned and looked straight ahead, only to see John Laramie lying in the grass with two bullets in his back. It wasn’t until he heard her laugh that Matt knew what had happened. He jumped to his feet.
“Just because I’m wearing your wife’s clothes, doesn’t mean I’m her, Matthew. Now, come on, let’s get Barkley and get outta here.”
“He’s coming with us.”
Matt crouched next to Laramie’s body. He placed his fingers at the pulse point on the man’s left wrist. He looked up at Orlean.
“Well, of course, he’s dead. You know I shoot to kill. Here. Pin this note to his body.”
Matt took the paper and straight pin the woman handed him. The note was addressed to Garrett Reece and detailed Robert and John Laramie’s involvement in smuggling arms to the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“He always was a sneaky little bastard,” Orlean said of John. “I believe he was going to kill us before all was said and done.”
“No.” Matt stood. “No, don’t you see? You’ve just ruined our chances to start a new life. You’ve just--”
“Awe, hell. I didn’t ruin anything, and if you had half a brain you’d have figured out a long time ago what Laramie was up to. He wasn’t going to let us live, Matthew. There was no way the great and powerful senator could risk allowing that, considering our knowledge of his activities. Well, now Reece is going to know about those activities, and once the dust settles around Barkley, he’ll be too busy prosecuting Robert Laramie to worry about us.”
Matt wasn’t sure Orlean was correct in her assumptions, but it was too late now to do anything about them. He bent and pinned the unsigned note to John’s body, then followed Orlean to the wrecked wagon. They didn’t have to look long to find Heath Barkley. He was lying on his back a few feet from the wreckage with his right arm bent at an angle that told Matt it was broken. Blood trickled from a cut on the man’s head, but other than that, there were no visible injuries.
“You get the wagon, Matthew,” Orlean ordered, “and we’ll load him up.”
“Because we’re taking him with us.”
“Cin…Orlean, no. It’s too risky. Let’s get out of here.”
Orlean spit. “I knew you didn’t have any balls. Look, Clarice wants her chance at Barkley, and Annie is upset because it scares her to know he’s still alive, and I’d like a go around or two with the son of a bitch because of the way he treated us when we arrived at the Barkley ranch. If it hadn’t been for Heath, we could have gone on being Matt and Lucinda Toddson, and we could have gotten that nice house the Barkleys were going to build for us, and lived that nice, quiet life you’ve been wanting for so long.”
“But we can’t let him live. We--”
Orlean laughed. “I don’t intend to let Heath Barkley live, Matthew. But I do intend to have fun with him before he dies.” The woman pointed to the trees where their wagon was hidden. “Now get the wagon. We’ll tie Barkley up and put him beneath a blanket.”
“Where are we taking him?”
“We’re taking Barkley back to where it began.”
“What? The ranch? We can’t--”
“No, not the ranch, stupid. Don’t worry about it right now. I know where we’re going, and believe me, no one will ever find us there. Now hurry. Let’s get Barkley loaded on the wagon and get out of here.”
Matt did as Orlean ordered. He knew better than to cross her, especially when she was holding a loaded gun. Maybe he could reason with her when they got a few miles down the road. As far as he was concerned, no good would come of this, regardless of where they were headed.
Matt winced while Orlean roughly secured Heath’s hands in front of him and tied his wrists with thick horsehair rope. Even in his unconscious state, Heath moaned at the pain being inflicted upon his broken arm. Matt looked around in an effort to locate the boy Laramie had spoken of. The kid’s body wasn’t on the road, and Matt didn’t see it anywhere in the vicinity of the battered buggy.
Matt had no desire to linger any longer. They’d been lucky so far that no one else had passed by on the road. He knew their luck wouldn’t hold out forever. If he mentioned the possibility of a kid having been in the buggy with Barkley, then Orlean would insist they look for him. There was no way Matt was going to risk getting caught with the blood of two U.S. Marshals on his hands, all for a boy who likely was nowhere in the area.
When Orlean had Heath’s hands and feet secured, Matt helped her lift him to the back of their wagon. Orlean took Heath’s gun from its holder, then tied a bandana around his mouth and covered him with a big wool blanket. Matt ran to the front of the wagon and climbed onto the seat, while Orlean searched for a large, leafy branch she could use to obscure the tracks the wheels would leave on the dirt road. Matt picked up the reins, slapped them against the horses’ rumps, and called, “Giddy up! Giddy up!”
He steered the animals toward the road and followed the directions Orlean gave him. The woman walked backwards behind the wagon, using the branch to brush away any signs of the wagon’s existence, and of her own footprints. Matt crossed to the road that led toward Sacramento if you traveled north, and away from Sacramento if you traveled south. He willed the horses to move faster as they traveled south until they came to a fork in the road.
“That way,” Orlean pointed to her left. “Go left.”
Matt did as the woman ordered, steering the horses down a desolate road overgrown with fauna that he hadn’t known existed. Orlean tossed the branch aside and climbed onto the wagon’s seat. With the horses keeping a steady pace, the fugitives headed down the old road that Matt could tell was rarely traveled.
Douglas wiped the tears from his eyes as he used his right hand to lift the canvas top of the buggy. He didn’t have the strength to move the buggy off his body, nor could he move it enough to see what direction Matt Bentell had taken. The boy clutched his collarbone and started crying in earnest now. It was because of him that the marshals had been shot, and Heath had been kidnapped. He’d trusted Mr. Laramie, but he shouldn’t have. The twelve-year-old had seen the look in Heath’s eyes when Douglas had said that it was Mr. Laramie who’d sent him to deliver the message that Heath should come to Stockton. For some reason, Heath had immediately known that Douglas shouldn’t have trusted Mr. Laramie, and he’d tried to get the marshals to head back to the ranch. But by then it was too late. The shooting started, then the horses bolted, and then the buggy was flipping over and over again.
Douglas’s head throbbed and blood ran in his eyes from a cut he couldn’t locate. He sobbed until he had no tears left. He tried to squirm out from beneath the buggy, but its weight pinned him to the ground. Exhausted from his efforts, the boy grew dizzy and weak. He dropped his head to the dirt and allowed darkness to claim him.
At five forty-five that evening, Jarrod and his mother were traveling toward home on Stockton Road. Clouds had moved in late that afternoon, and a rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance.
“I hope the fresh air did my brothers some good,” Jarrod said, as he smoothly guided the trotting horse. “Things grew a bit...tense at the breakfast table this morning.”
“As you mentioned then, things are going to be tense until the trial is over and we’re home from Washington.”
“As much as I’d like to disagree with that, Mother, I can’t, with good conscience, do so. I believe…”
Victoria looked at her son when his sentence trailed off unfinished. “You believe what?”
Jarrod ignored his mother’s question as he slapped the reins against the horse’s flesh. “Giddy up! Move it, girl! Giddy up!”
“Jarrod, what are you--”
Jarrod pointed ahead and to the left. “Look.”
It was then that Victoria saw the overturned buggy with the broken hitch.
“Oh my Lord. I wonder who it belongs to.”
“I don’t know,” Jarrod said, as he strained to see something that would indicate which local rancher was the owner of the rig. “I hope whoever it belongs to walked away without a scratch.”
“I hope so, too,” Victoria agreed. As Jarrod brought their own rig to a halt, Victoria knew she and her son would search the area on foot in an effort to make certain no one was lying injured…or dead, in the long grass.
It wasn’t until Victoria was climbing out of the buggy that she saw a man’s boot lying several yards ahead of her on the road. She took a few steps closer, then pulled up her skirts and started running.
“Jarrod! Jarrod, come here!”
Jarrod turned from the path he was taking toward the overturned buggy. He didn’t know what his mother had seen, but could hear the panic in her voice. He ran after her. “Mother, what--”
Victoria turned from the man she was kneeling beside. She looked up at her son with wide eyes. “It’s one of the marshals – James. James Wells. He’s…he’s dead.”
Jarrod looked around. He spotted Titus Paulson lying face down in the long grass on the opposite side of the road from Wells. He bent and turned the man over, blanching when he saw that most of Paulson’s skull was gone. Jarrod turned and grabbed his mother’s hand.
“Yes, he’s dead.” Jarrod urged his mother to run toward the overturned buggy. The dead marshals were a strong indication of what family that buggy belonged to, and if Jarrod’s assumption was correct, then Heath had been traveling with them for some reason.
Victoria had the same thought. “Heath--”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Jarrod said, even though he already had. “Come on, let’s have a look around.”
The pair circled the buggy. There was no sign of Heath in the immediate area, so they widened their circle. They walked slowly as they searched, knowing they could easily overlook Heath in the long grass. Jarrod noticed the foliage that had been matted down by wagon wheels, closed his eyes briefly, and swallowed hard. He had a feeling they weren’t going to find Heath, but he didn’t say that to his mother. The pair continued to search, moving farther and farther away from the wrecked buggy while traveling in opposite directions. Victoria cried out when she stumbled across a cowboy hat. She held it up.
“Jarrod, look! I found Heath’s. . .”
Victoria saw her son crouched down in the grass, as though he was leaning over someone. She started running, praying that if Jarrod had found Heath, the young man was still alive.
“Jarrod! Jarrod, what--”
Jarrod turned and caught his mother before she saw John Laramie’s body. Granted, she’d seen dead men in worse condition – the U.S. marshals were two recent examples, but still, it was the lawyer’s instinct to protect her.
“Heath?” The woman strained to see around her son’s shoulder. “Jarrod, is it--”
“No, Mother, it’s not Heath. It’s John Laramie.”
“John Laramie. He’s the assistant Reece has spoken about who was to arrive in Stockton – the son of Senator Robert Laramie.”
“How do you know that’s him? Have you met him?”
“No, but Reece told me this afternoon that Laramie had arrived on Sunday. As to how I know it’s him,” Jarrod let go of his mother and held up his right hand. “His wallet has identification in it, and there’s a note pinned to his suit coat.”
“I’ll explain later.” Jarrod stuffed Laramie’s wallet into the inside pocket of his suit coat. “We need to get Garrett, Chris, and Frank Larken out here. Let’s get to the buggy and—“
Victoria cocked her head. “Shhh.”
“Did you hear that?”
Victoria walked toward the overturned buggy. “It sounds like someone moaning.”
Jarrod ran to catch up with his mother. He was just about to tell Victoria that she was hearing things and that they needed to get back to Stockton, when he heard a faint groan. They hurried to the buggy. Though neither said anything, both mother and son were sure it was Heath they were going to find underneath the carriage.
Jarrod grasped the frame of the carriage, though he wasn’t certain what they’d do once he lifted it. If it was Heath under there, Victoria wouldn’t be strong enough to pull him out, while at the same time Jarrod wasn’t sure she could hold the carriage up long enough for him to free Heath. He knew he might have to send his mother to the ranch for help before all was said and done.
“I’m going to lift this on the count of three,” the lawyer informed his mother.
Victoria nodded and crouched down.
Jarrod’s biceps strained beneath his black suit coat as he lifted. He heard his mother’s gasp, then saw her tugging on something.
“Mother, you can’t pull Heath--”
“It’s not Heath. It’s Douglas Erickson. Just hold it up a moment longer.” Victoria slipped her hands beneath the boy’s armpits. “I’ll have him out in a second.”
“Douglas Erickson?” Jarrod muttered, even more confused now over what had happened than he previously had been.
Victoria dragged Douglas free of the wreckage. “Okay, you can let it down.”
Jarrod eased the buggy to the grass and hurried to his mother’s side. She was already examining the boy for signs of injury.
“He might have a broken collar bone,” the woman said, as she pressed a tender spot on Douglas’s left shoulder that caused the unconscious boy to moan, “but no other bones appear to be broken.” The woman parted the twelve-year-old’s thick hair and saw some dried blood on top of a lump. “He’s got a good sized bump on the head.”
“We need to get him to Doc Merar.” Jarrod bent to lift the boy. Though Jarrod wanted to head to the ranch so he could dispatch men to start looking for Heath, he knew they had to get help for Douglas. “We’ll go to Stockton and--”
The lawyer broke off in mid-sentence when he heard a rider approaching. He turned to see Ned Henry’s horse galloping toward them.
“Jarrod…Mrs. Barkley, what happened? The marshals…I saw them on the road…they’re…they’re--”
Jarrod stood with Douglas in his arms. “We know, Ned. Was Heath with them when they left the ranch?”
“Yeah. Douglas came out with a message for Heath. Said Heath was supposed to meet the attorney general in your office.” Ned looked around from atop his mount. “Where is Heath?”
“We don’t know,” Jarrod said. “Is Nick at the ranch?”
“Yeah. He sent me to get Audrey from the Danielsons’ before the rain moves in.”
“Never mind Audra. She’s safer there anyway.” Jarrod hurried toward the buggy he’d left parked in the road. “Ned, ride to Stockton and get Doc Merar. Have him come out to our place. Also, find Douglas’s mother. If she’s not at home, then she’s probably at the Stockton House. She can ride out to the ranch in Doc’s buggy. Then I want you to find the attorney general and Major Fletcher. They’re probably in their room at the Stockton House, or eating dinner somewhere. Tell them what happened and have them come out to the ranch. Stop by the sheriff’s office, too, and let Frank know what’s going on.”
Ned nodded as his horse trotted along side Jarrod. “Will do, Jarrod.”
“After you’ve done all that, ride over to the Danielsons’ and tell Martin what’s happened. I’m sure he and Beatrice will allow Audra to stay there until we send for her.”
“All right.” Ned knew the Danielsons’ were old friends of the Barkley family, and agreed with Jarrod’s line of reasoning. Until things calmed down, Audra was better off away from home, especially if she was under the care of people who thought of her as a daughter.
The man gave his horse three strong kicks with his heels. The animal took of for Stockton at a full gallop.
Victoria hurried ahead of her son and pulled a lap robe from beneath the seat of the buggy. She climbed in, spread the robe across her legs, and held her arms out.
“Here, Jarrod. Give the boy to me.”
Jarrod laid Douglas in his mother’s arms and helped her wrap him with the robe. The lawyer ran around the back of the buggy and climbed in on the other side. He slapped the horse with the reins.
“Giddy up! Giddy up! Let’s go, girl!”
The horse did as Jarrod commanded. She ran at a clip as fast as Jarrod could safely allow. The lawyer kept one eye on the road and one eye on the boy in his mother’s lap. If anyone had answers as to what had happened and where Heath was, that person was Douglas. But until they knew how seriously the boy was injured, and if and when he’d regain consciousness, there was little they could do other than initiate a search for Heath that would likely prove futile.
The wagon traveled the desolate road. They were now three hours from where they’d kidnapped Heath Barkley, and they’d passed only one lone rider on an old mare. Matt had pulled his hat low over his forehead when he saw the rider in the distance. He’d acknowledged the man with just a nod, and the stranger hadn’t appeared to recognize Matt when he nodded back.
Orlean seemed to have a hold on Lucinda that couldn’t be broken. Matt had never seen one of the ‘others’ take over for so long, with the exception of that time he didn’t like to think of. That time that involved Avery Reece. Orlean had climbed in the back of the wagon when Barkley had started moaning. She’d soaked a sponge with ether and held it over his nose. Matt didn’t bear enough ill will toward Heath Barkley that he wanted to see the man suffer. The war had been over for a lot of years now, and there was no point in harboring old hatreds based on what side of the Mason Dixon line you fought on. For that reason, Matt hoped Barkley slipped from drug-induced sleep to death. That would be a lot easier than what Orlean had in store for the man.
“You know,” Matt said, “we could dump Barkley here…off this road somewhere, and then be on our way.”
Orlean scowled. “I already told you, no. Barkley isn’t going anywhere until I’m through with him.”
“Cin…Orlean, there’s no point.”
“There is too a point.”
“Then would you mind telling me what it is?”
“Revenge, Matthew. Revenge for the way we’ve been forced to live…always running, always hiding, always using different last names, because of the likes of Heath Barkley. Because we never know who might run us out of the next town we settle in, or who might try to stir up trouble, just like Barkley did when he agreed to testify against us. Besides, you know why Barkley can’t be allowed to testify. You’ve known all along, which means you also know why we have to kill him. You know what will happen to your precious Lucinda if Barkley gets a chance to tell his story.”
And that was exactly the trouble. Orlean was correct, Matt did know what would happen to Lucinda if Barkley told of what he’d witnessed in Carterson. If they didn’t hang her, they’d lock her away for the rest of her life. Matt couldn’t bear the thought of that. If he could just separate her from the others somehow. He didn’t care about Dack Hammond, or Clarice, or even little Annie. He especially didn’t care about Orlean. But Lucinda…she was the love of his life, and if there was some way to purge her of those that lived within her, Matt would. But he’d tried to help her for years now to no avail, and somehow he knew that no man, no matter how educated, would be able to give Lucinda the assistance she needed.
Matt took the sandwich the woman handed him from the basket that was stored beneath the seat. He heard a rumble of thunder and looked up. The clouds were getting thicker, and the scent of rain hung heavy in the air.
“We need to make camp before it starts to rain.”
“We’re not making camp.”
“We’re not making camp tonight, Matthew. I know where we’re going. Just stay on this road. It’ll take us there.”
“Take us where?”
“Where I want us to ‘gather by the river’ as the hymn goes, only there isn’t river I don’t suppose, not unless there’s been a lot of rain since the last time we were there.”
“What do you mean? Where are we go--”
“If you haven’t figured it out yet, then never you mind.” Orlean gave the man a cold smile. “We’re doing the Barkleys a favor and taking their bastard back where he belongs.”
how many questions Matt asked, Orlean refused to say any more. Matt finally grew silent and kept on driving
Controlled chaos reigned over the Barkley ranch that evening. Nick had been in the barn when his mother and Jarrod arrived home. When Jarrod summoned him with shouts of, “Nick!..Nick!...Nicholas!” the cowboy exited the barn grumbling, “A man can’t get a damn thing done around here today without sending someone to escort a sister to her social obligations, being interrupted by a kid delivering a message, and putting up with moody brothers. I have half a mind to--”
Nick’s tirade faded as the buggy approached and he caught sight of someone lying in his mother’s lap wrapped in a blanket. He ran to the buggy, calling for one of the hired men to put the carriage and horse away as he took Douglas from his mother.
“What the hell happened?”
“An ambush is what happened.” Jarrod jumped from the buggy while Victoria climbed down on the other side. “The marshals are dead. Was Heath with them?”
“Of course Heath was with them! You and Reece sent for him.” Nick hurried toward the house with Douglas in his arms, Victoria and Jarrod running along on either side of him. “Heath wasn’t there - wherever it was you found Douglas and the marshals?”
“First of all, neither myself nor Garrett sent for Heath.”
“We didn’t send for Heath. Who said we did?”
“Douglas. He came out here around one-thirty or so, and told Heath you and Reece wanted to see him at your office.”
“Whoever sent Douglas out here was evidently setting Heath up. And to answer your question - no, Mother and I weren’t able to find Heath anywhere in the vicinity of the ambush. Ned came along just as we were getting ready to put Douglas in the buggy. I sent him to town for Doctor Merar, Frank, Garrett, and Chris. Then he’s going to the Danielsons to deliver a message to Martin. I want Audra to stay there for the time being.”
“Good idea,” Nick agreed, as Victoria opened the door and called for Silas.
The woman pointed up the stairs. “Put Douglas in the corner guestroom, Nick. The one that has the sitting room off of it with the extra bed. Jarrod told Ned to have Douglas’s mother ride out here with Howard. In the event she and Douglas have to stay with us a few days, that will be an ideal location for them.”
While Silas helped Victoria make Douglas as comfortable as they could until the doctor arrived, Jarrod filled Nick in on what little he knew about the ambush that had left their brother missing. The two men hurried outside where they gathered every ranch hand they could find in order to put together search parties.
Nick split the men into six groups, assigning a foreman within each group. He had just begun to assign each foreman a specific radius to search, when a rider charged through the front gates. The man jumped off his horse and ran toward Nick and Jarrod. The brothers recognized him as one of the crew bosses from the logging camp. Nick held up his right hand as the man began to speak.
“Not now, Denny. We’ve got more important things to worry about than how many trees were felled this month.”
The man ignored Nick’s directive to keep quiet. He’d ridden hard to get here. Both he and his horse were lathered with sweat.
“Nick, there’s been a fire up at the camp! It’s still burning on the west end. We think it was deliberately set.”
“Where’s Bentell?” Nick barked. “Why isn’t he taking care of this?”
“That’s what I came to tell you. I know you told us to keep an eye on him, but in the confusion caused by the fire, he and his wife disappeared.”
“Yeah. We don’t know when exactly they hightailed it. We were all assuming Bentell was working amongst us to get the fire out, but when things finally slowed down a bit and we were able to catch our breath, that’s when we realized he wasn’t anywhere around.”
Nick turned to his brother. “So, now do you have any doubts as to who’s behind the ambush?”
“Nick, all we know at this point is that Bentell is gone. He may have just picked the wrong time to run.”
“Yeah, or he may have been in cahoots with this Laramie character you were tellin’ me about.” Nick returned his attention to the man gathered around him. He finished assigning them areas to search on the Barkley ranch, and well beyond its boundaries, and then sent them on their way. The pounding horses hooves exiting the ranch yard drowned out the sound of the thunder overhead.
Nick turned to the logger. “Denny, take care of your horse, get something to eat, get some rest in one of the bunkhouses, and then head back up to the camp. Jarrod and I need you to take care of things there for us until Heath…until things are straightened out here.”
“Sure thing, Nick. I’ll head back up there in a couple of hours.”
“Thanks, Denny. Heath knew what he was doin’ when he hired you.”
“Heath always knows what he’s doing,” Denny said of the Barkley boss he most admired, before turning to lead his horse into the barn.
“Yeah, he does,” Nick quietly acknowledged, almost as if that fact surprised him, or as if it was the first time he’d ever fully realized what a competent man his half-brother was, and how much he’d come to rely on Heath as his partner during the past year and a half.
Nick smacked a fist against his thigh. “Dammit, Jarrod! I should have gone with Heath.”
“Then you’d likely be lying dead in the road, too.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I wanted to go. I offered to go, but the stubborn fool kept telling me no, that he didn’t want me there when he told you and Reece about what happened to Avery.”
“I don’t think Heath’s reluctance to have you hear his testimony has anything to do with him being stubborn, Nick, as much as it has to do with this being a difficult subject for him to verbalize.”
“Whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”
“It means it’s not easy for a man to talk about the humiliations he had to endure while being held in a POW camp.”
“Now you sound like Fletcher. It’s bad enough that Heath thinks that fancy pants doctor knows it all. I don’t need--”
“And you sound like you’re jealous of Fletcher.”
“Jealous? I’m not jealous! It’s just that as Heath’s brother I have the right--”
“That’s just it, Nick. You don’t have the right. None of us do. That’s what started this mess to begin with; remember? We thought we had the right to tell Heath he had to work with Bentell, and we thought we had the right to tell him how to feel about that.”
“Now, look, Jarrod. I’ll be the first to admit we made some mistakes along the way with this Bentell fiasco, but it’s pretty damn hard to rectify them when Heath
won’t talk about--”
“Instead of standing here debating the rights and wrongs, let’s head out to meet Frank and Garrett like we’d planned. If we’ve got any hope of finding Heath, that’s the best place to start.”
Though never one to back down from an argument, Nick knew Jarrod was correct. At this moment, fighting wasn’t a productive use of their time. Searching for Heath was.
The men saddled their horses and rode out of the front gates just as Doctor Merar’s buggy was coming in. Jarrod shouted, “Go right in! Douglas is in the house!” as they passed the man, who had Douglas’s mother, Ruth, with him.
A light rain had started to fall by the time Jarrod and Nick arrived at the crime scene. Frank Larken, two of his deputies, Garrett Reece, and Chris Fletcher were already present, as was Stockton’s undertaker, Darman Mitchell. It didn’t take the men long to determine the basics of what had happened, right down to the fact that not only had Heath Barkley been set up, but in the end, so had John Laramie. Reece didn’t want to believe that his trusted assistant had anything to do with Heath’s disappearance. For the third time, he read the note that had been pinned to the dead man’s coat.
“Look, Reece,” Nick said, “I was standing there when Douglas told Heath you and Jarrod wanted to see him, but now we know that’s not true. Open your eyes, man. That note puts Laramie’s head on a platter.”
“It might put Laramie’s head on a platter if, in fact, what it says is true. But nonetheless, that doesn’t mean John had anything to do with Heath’s disappearance. He might have been warning Heath off. He might have heard something in town that concerned him, and he was coming out to see Heath. He might have--”
“Reece, you need to get your head outta your ass, you hear me?”
“You can’t speak to me like that, Barkley!”
“I can, and I will! You brought this trouble to my family. My brother is missing because you showed up here intent on avenging your dead son. Well, thanks to you, Heath might be dead now, too.”
Still clutching the note found on John Laramie, the attorney general balled his fists and stepped forward. “Barkley, I’m warning you. Shut that big mouth of yours and keep it shut.”
“And you think you’re gonna make me, is that it? Reece, I’m no more scared of you than I’m scared of a room full of old ladies. Why I’ll--”
Jarrod stepped between the two men. “That’s enough! This isn’t accomplishing anything. So far all we know is that three men are dead, a boy’s been injured, and Heath is missing. Frank said any tracks have been obscured, which means someone carefully planned this. Now it’s starting to rain, which is going to make finding Heath that much harder. I suggest we ride back to the ranch, while praying Douglas has regained consciousness and can tell us something that will be of help.”
Christian Fletcher spoke for the first time since Jarrod and Nick had arrived. “I suggest that, too.”
“Garrett, we can’t do anything else here. Let the undertaker get the bodies back to town. As the old saying goes, dead men tell no tales.”
Garrett read the note he’d unpinned from Laramie’s coat one last time. His voice broadcast the sorrow and betrayal he felt toward the man he’d once considered a close friend.
“Maybe they do, Chris. Unfortunately, maybe they do.”
Reece folded the note and put it in his coat pocket, while the Barkley brothers had some final words with Sheriff Larken about the search party he would form upon his return to Stockton. It was after those plans were in place, that Jarrod and Nick, the attorney general, and Major Fletcher, mounted their horses and rode for the ranch.