At first, Heath was certain he was trapped in a nightmare he couldn’t break free from. He fought the darkness until the sharp pain in his arm caused him to give a cry that sounded oddly muffled. It was then that he realized his eyes were open. His lashes flicked against the scratchy wet wool of a blanket that smelled of must and smoke. Heath turned his head and gagged. Nausea rose, but he fought back the urge to vomit as cold sweat beaded his forehead. He realized he had a bandana tied around his mouth, and knew that meant that to vomit would result in death.
Maybe that would be better, the man thought, as he felt the rhythm of the wagon. Maybe dying now is gonna be better than dying later.
Rain pelted the wagon and soaked into the blanket. Heath shivered, and prayed this was a nightmare. What he wouldn’t give now to be able to scream and wake his family. What he wouldn’t give now to have Nick shaking his shoulder and asking him if he was all right. It was funny, in an ironic sort of way, that what Heath wanted now was exactly what he hadn’t wanted just twenty-four hours earlier. Which meant Heath should have paid heed to that saying his mother was so fond of – be careful what you wish for because it might come true.
Heath’s foggy mind wandered. He was so tired, but not the kind of tired that came with the end of a long day. Instead, it was the kind of tired he’d felt only a few times in his life. It was the kind of drug-induced tired that came after surgery, or after you’d been given a dose of laudanum. Even though you had just woken up, your limbs felt heavy, and your thoughts came slow, and you knew you could sleep again for hours if left undisturbed. Heath wondered about that feeling now, and how he’d come by it. He also wondered who was driving the wagon and where he was being taken.
It was when she tossed back the blanket that he had the answer to his first question. The lantern she held allowed him to see her knife. The polished blade glittered with raindrops. The point of the knife pricked his chin, and then the blade was slashed downward, and the buttons on his shirt flew off.
“Barkley, you should know better than anyone else how I don’t like to play games. Now you lying here playing opossum is a game as far as I’m concerned. What’s the matter? Do you need me to refresh your memory about what happened to your friend Avery when he tried to fool Orlean?”
Heath screamed into the bandana as the knife made three clean slashes across his rib cage. He tried to thrust his bound fists upward, but he screamed again at the agony radiating through his right arm.
The woman laughed as Heath arched against the pain, just like she’d laughed the night she’d gutted Avery as though he was an animal she’d shot on the open range.
Douglas threw up into the bowl someone held against his mouth. He didn’t intend to throw up, or at least he didn’t think so. He didn’t even feel like he was awake, when all of a sudden his body was shooting from the bed and his stomach was contracting.
The boy sunk back against the fluffiest pillows he’d ever felt. And the mattress was soft, too. It was nothing like the hard cot he slept on in the parlor of the two-bedroom home in Stockton that his mother rented. His sisters shared one bedroom, while his mother and grandmother shared the other. Douglas and his brother used the parlor as their bedroom, but it sure didn’t seem like Douglas was in the parlor now. He couldn’t hear noise from other parts of the small house, like his sisters fighting as they got ready for school, or his grandmother as she pulled out pots and pans so she could cook breakfast.
“Douglas,” a soft voice called. “Douglas?”
The twelve-year-old slowly opened his eyes. His mother was seated in a chair beside the big bed Douglas had all to himself. He looked around, taking in the velvet wallpaper, and massive oak furniture, and the huge room, and knew he must be dreaming. His eyes drifted to his mother.
“Yes, sweetheart, it’s Ma.”
The woman wiped her son’s face and mouth with a cool cloth, then lifted his head and allowed him a drink of water. When he was finished drinking, Douglas started to push himself up on his right elbow, only to have a gentle hand urge him back to the bed.
“Whoa there, young man, not so fast. You need to stay quiet and rest.”
The gray haired man smiled. “That’s right. Now you let me ask some questions. What’s your full name?”
“My full name?”
“Douglas Charles Erickson, Junior.”
“And how old are you, Douglas Charles Erickson, Junior?”
“Do you know what day it is?”
“I…I…” the boy’s eyes flicked around the room again, and that’s when he caught sight of Victoria standing in the doorway. He shot up in bed again. “Heath! Where’s Heath?”
“That’s what we’re hoping you can tell us,” Nick said as he entered the room, followed by Jarrod, the attorney general, and Christian Fletcher.
“Nick,” Howard Merar scolded. “Douglas needs to rest.”
“He can rest just as soon as he tells us what happened.”
“Nick, I’m not certain that’s a good idea. He’s got nasty bump on his head and has just regained consciousness. Until he’s had something to eat and a restful night of sleep, he may not remember--”
“I remember, Doc! I do.”
Despite the headache he had, Douglas pushed himself up on his right elbow. Ruth Erickson knew fighting her son on this issue would do no good, and likely get him more worked up than he already was. Therefore, she placed the two pillows behind his shoulder blades and head and urged him to recline against them. She brought the blankets to his waist, smoothing them into place.
Nick walked to the opposite of the bed Douglas’s mother was seated on. He sat on the edge of the mattress, while the other men gathered at the foot of the structure. Howard Merar threw up his hands in defeat and began putting his medical paraphernalia back in his black bag.
As far as Nick was concerned Douglas was a little banged up, but considering he’d been tossed around a buggy and then trapped underneath it, the boy was lucky. He had a bandage over a cut on the top of his head, and his left arm was in a sling. The dirt and blood had been washed from his face and hair, and he was dressed in one of Eugene’s old nightshirts. He was pale and tired, but as soon as Nick got the answers he needed then the boy could get all the sleep he wanted.
Rain beat against the windows, the sound catching Douglas’s attention. He turned his head and saw that it was dark out, and for the first time seemed to notice the oil lamps that had been lit throughout the room.
“How long have I been asleep?”
Nick smiled. “A while.”
“Is it still Wednesday?”
“Yeah, it is. It’s about eight o’clock on Wednesday night.”
The boy looked around again as though he was searching for someone. When he couldn’t find that person amongst those who had gathered in the room, tears welled in his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Nick. I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you, Douglas. I just need you to tell me everything you can remember about today.”
Douglas’s eyes traveled to Garrett Reece and Jarrod. “Am I gonna be arrested?”
Jarrod smiled. “No, Douglas, you’re not going to be arrested. Just do as Nick said and tell us everything that happened today.”
Douglas scrunched his face in thought, and then began. His story started that morning before school, when he was cleaning John Laramie’s room. He told of how he’d let Mr. Laramie know that he could deliver messages for him, and the deal they had then made for Douglas to deliver a message to Heath.
“I wouldn’t have said nothin’ to Mr. Laramie about me delivering messages for him if I hadn’t heard him give a message to that man on Sunday night. I wish I’d never listened now. It’s because of me that they have Heath.”
“Who’s they?” Nick asked.
“Matt Bentell and that woman who was with him.”
“How do you know it was Bentell? Did you see him?”
“No, but I heard her call him Matthew, and I recognized his voice on account of seeing him in the general store a few times when he was stayin’ here at your ranch.”
Nick glanced over his shoulder at Jarrod and gave him a “See, I told you so,” look.
“What message had you heard Mr. Laramie give on Sunday night?” Garrett asked.
“He said, ‘The message I have for Bentell is that I’ll meet him at the designated spot.’”
“And who did he say this to?”
“I don’t know. Just some man. Not anyone I know.”
Garrett fingered the note in his pocket. Things were looking worse all the time for Senator Robert Laramie, and for the memory of John Laramie.
“What happened after you left the ranch this afternoon, Douglas?” Nick asked.
“Nothing for a while. I mean, me and Heath just rode along in the back of the buggy with Marshal Wells driving, and the other one…I don’t know his name…he was ridin’ up front, too. Me and Heath started talking, and I told him Mr. Laramie was the one who sent me to give him the message that Mr. Barkley and the attorney general wanted to see him. Heath acted kinda surprised, like he thought the message had come from Mr. Barkley or the attorney general in the first place. I told Heath about the message I had heard Mr. Laramie give that man behind the Stockton House on Sunday night, and that’s when Heath grabbed for the reins and tried to get Marshal Wells to turn the buggy around. But then the gunshots started and…and…” Tears ran down Douglas’s face. “The marshals? They’re dead, aren’t they?”
Nick looked at Ruth, who nodded her permission for him to tell her son the truth.
“Yes, Douglas, they are.”
The boy wiped at his eyes with his left arm. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”
“No, son,” Jarrod said. “It’s not your fault. The man who deceived a child in order to get his dirty work done is the one who is at fault, not you.”
Nick let the boy get a hold on his emotions before he asked his next question. “What happened after you heard the gunshots?”
“The horses took off and Heath grabbed for the reins. I don’t know if he ever got a hold of them or not, ‘cause he shoved me to the floor and told me to stay down. The next thing I know the buggy was bouncing all over the place. I looked up and saw the horses had broken free. I grabbed for the railing and hung on. Then we were flipping over and over. I don’t remember how I got under the buggy, but when I woke up that’s where I was.”
“And that’s when you heard Matt Bentell’s voice?”
“Yeah. I was gonna call out for help, but that’s when I heard his voice and I…I got this funny feeling like maybe I should keep quiet, on account of the way Heath acted when I told him about the message that Mr. Laramie had wanted delivered to Bentell. I…I heard them talking. I’m pretty sure they tied Heath up and put him in a wagon.”
“Did you hear Heath talking?”
“Did you hear other men talking?”
“No, just Bentell and a woman. It was...it was kinda odd, cause she seemed to be the one given him the orders.”
Nick’s brow furrowed. This description didn’t fit Bentell’s mousy wife as far as the man was concerned.
“Did he call the woman by name?”
“Yeah. It was a funny name…different. Like New Orleans.”
“New Orleans?” Jarrod questioned.
“Yeah…only that’s not right.” Despite his headache, Douglas concentrated hard to remember. “Orlean! I think it was Orlean.”
Nick looked at the men behind him, all of whom shrugged their shoulders. He looked beyond them to his mother, who was standing by the door with Doctor Merar.
“Mother, did you ever hear Bentell call his wife Orlean?”
“No. I heard him refer to her as Cinda numerous times, but not as Orlean.”
Nick returned his attention to Douglas. He patted the boy’s knee as he stood.
“Thank you, Douglas. You’ve been a big help.” The cowboy looked at the trio of men. “Well, now we know Bentell and a strange woman have Heath, but what we don’t know is where they’re taking him. This rain is going to stall all the search parties. As soon as it’s light, I’m going to ride back out there and see if I can find anything that might tell us what direction they headed in.”
No one told Nick what he was already thinking - that it was a long shot any clues would be found now considering the rain, and that quite likely Bentell would kill Heath before help could arrive.
Jarrod was just about to suggest they leave the room so Douglas could have something to eat, and then get the rest the doctor had prescribed, when the boy spoke up.
“I heard them say where they were taking Heath.”
Nick swiveled. Hope lit his face for the first time since finding out about the ambush. “Where?”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a place they named. The woman, she said, ‘we’re taking Barkley back to where it began.’”
Jarrod, Reece, and Fletcher looked puzzled while they tried to decipher what the boy’s words meant, but Nick immediately concluded, “Strawberry,” as he brushed past the others in the room and flew down the stairs.
Jarrod followed his brother. Though he wasn’t certain Nick was correct, it was as good a place as any to start. He paused to kiss his mother as he passed.
“We’ll be back as soon as we can, or send word somehow if we get delayed.”
Victoria nodded. “Just be careful and…and bring Heath…bring him home, Jarrod, no matter what.”
“We will,” Jarrod promised, realizing then that his mother didn’t hold out much hope either, that Heath would be found alive.
“Can Chris and I be of help, Jarrod?” Garrett asked.
Though Jarrod didn’t relish the thought of having to keep Nick and Garrett from wrapping their hands around each other’s throats, he couldn’t tell the man no. The pain radiating from the attorney general clearly spoke of his regrets over all that had happened, and his upset over discovering that John Laramie hadn’t been the man Garrett thought he was.
“Come along,” Jarrod said. “We have extra rain ponchos in the barn. I’ll have Silas back us some food while we get the horses and bedrolls ready.”
The men exited the room as Ruth tried to get her son to relax.
“I’d better go help Silas,” Victoria said. “I’ll be back up with a tray for you and Douglas in a few minutes.”
“No, Mrs. Barkley. That’s not necessary. I can go down to the kitchen and--”
Victoria held up a hand. “No, Ruth, you stay here with your son.” A sad smile touched the corners of the woman’s mouth. “Just stay here and count your blessings while tending to your boy.”
Victoria invited Howard to the kitchen for supper as well. When Ruth Erickson and her son were alone, the boy took his mother’s hand.
“Mrs. Barkley is real worried about Heath, isn’t she, Ma?”
“Yes, Douglas, she is.”
“I’m real worried about him, too.”
Ruth gave her son the most encouraging smile she could muster. “Don’t you fret any. Heath had a pretty hard life before he came here and always managed to take care of himself. I’m sure he’ll take care of himself now.”
The woman urged her child to lie against the pillows and rest. She needed him to be able to travel to Stockton as soon as possible so she could return to work, and return to helping her mother manage the household.
“Rest, Douglas. Just relax and rest now.”
“But, Ma, you don’t understand. Heath--”
Ruth gently covered his son’s mouth with her hand and ordered him silent with a, “Shhh.” For Douglas was wrong. As a mother, she did understand, and for just that reason, her heart ached for Victoria Barkley…and for the missing man Victoria had come to think of as her own child.
Matt knew dawn should be breaking, but other than a dark gray morning sky taking the place of the black night sky, it was hard to tell that a new day had begun. Matt saw a crooked old sign that read, Strawberry, with an arrow pointing straight ahead, but the name of the town meant nothing to him. He pulled the wagon off of the road and steered the horses toward a slow moving stream shaded by tall trees.
“What are you stopping for?” Orlean questioned.
“Because the horses need to rest and so do we.”
“It’s getting light out. You can’t stop now.”
“Look, you wouldn’t let me stop last night when I wanted to, so now we pay the price for that. We need to take a break for at least a couple of hours.”
Matt pulled back on the reins and brought the animals to a halt. When he turned around to look into the wagon’s bed he cringed. The blanket that had covered Heath Barkley had been removed, as had the man’s shirt. Heath’s chest and stomach were crisscrossed with knife slashes, his entire torso red with blood. It was his eyes that haunted Matt the most, however. Eyes that begged Matt to end this torture, even if ending it meant putting a bullet in Heath’s head.
Matt turned in his seat and looked at Orlean. She smiled as she wiped the blood from her knife onto her skirt. The wounds she had inflicted upon Heath weren’t life threatening yet, but that would come. Right now, the pain he had felt was probably akin to the pain of being sliced by a razor blade. She’d progressively go deeper, just like she had with young Avery, then Clarice would take over and she’d rape Heath, just like young Avery had been raped, and then Orlean would return to finish what she’d started and gut the man, as she’d done to Garrett Reece’s son so many years ago at Carterson.
How did it reach this point? Matt wondered. How can Cinda be so. . .so sick, that these others can do this to a boy. . .and now to a man.
It had been a secret Matt had lived with all these years – the secret of how Avery Reece had really died. And the only other person who knew that secret was Heath Barkley. Now Orlean, and Clarice, and Dack, and Annabelle, were going to see that Barkley paid the price for that knowledge.
Matt jumped off the wagon seat and unhitched the horses. He led them to the stream and tied their reins around a clump of bushes. The animals bent their heads; grateful for the long drink they were able to take. Matt turned back for the wagon. He crossed the distance to it, and unpacked the boxes that held cooking utensils, coffee, and food. He refused to meet Heath’s eyes as he did so. The man was still firmly bound, and still had a bandana tied around his mouth. Matt knew Heath had to be hungry and thirsty, but that was Orlean’s territory. Matt knew better than to go against her. If she wanted Barkley to be fed, then she’d feed him. If she wanted him to have a drink of water, then she’d give it to him. If neither one of those things were in her plans, then Barkley would just have to go without.
Don’t suppose it makes much difference. If he dies of thirst he’ll be better off than dyin’ from what she has in store for him.
Matt spent the next thirty minutes trying to locate dry wood to start a fire with. He finally found some brush that had been protected by a stand of trees. Still, with the cold drizzle that was falling it was a struggle to get a fire going that wasn’t more smoke than it was flames. He placed the coffee pot on an iron rack he set over the fire, then went to the stream for a bucket of water. He’d use some of the water for coffee, and some to mix the cornmeal into a dough he could fry. They had a good supply of beef jerky, so though breakfast wouldn’t be the biscuits, sausage, eggs, and gravy they’d grown accustomed to while living in the logging camp, it would be something to eat.
Orlean wrinkled her nose at Matt’s preparations. “We ate beef jerky on the road last night.”
“And we’re likely to eat it a lot more of it until we get wherever it is we’re goin.’”
The woman swiveled and stalked to the wagon. “It’s your fault, Barkley!” She screamed as she unsheathed her knife. She slashed it twice across Heath’s left arm, and then laughed as his body jerked at the pain. “It’s your fault we can’t eat like we’re used to eating, or live like we’re used to living, or get that fancy house your family was going to build us. It’s your fault, do you hear me!”
Orlean jumped in the back of the wagon and straddled Heath’s hips. She grabbed the crotch of his pants while slashing his chest yet again. She brought her face just inches from his and sneered.
“You remember what happened to Avery, don’t you, pretty boy? You remember every single bit of what happened to Avery. You thought you were going to tell your story to Garrett Reece, but I had other plans. You’re not telling your story to anyone, Heath Barkley. Not to anyone, do you hear me?”
The woman didn’t like the way Heath stared back at her. If he was afraid, and undoubtedly he was, he was too stubborn to show it. His stare was cold and full of hatred, and yet there was pity there, too. It was the pity that infuriated her the most, and caused her to slash his stomach again before dropping her knife and jumping off the wagon.
Matt glanced at Orlean as she approached the fire. “You gonna let him eat or drink?”
“Yeah. I’ve got to keep him alive a while yet, but the weaker he is, the better.”
Matt poured coffee into the cup the woman held out to him. “Keep him alive a while? Don’t you think that’s dangerous? It’s bad enough we’re on the run, but having him with us? You know as well as I do that the Barkleys have every hired man who works for them out looking for Heath by now, not to mention that the sheriff has likely put together a search party.”
“I know. But they’ll never find us where we’re going.”
“Where is that?”
“I told you. Back to where it all began.”
“And just where might that be?”
Orlean smiled. “Carterson, Matthew. We’re taking Barkley to Carterson, so that when I kill the bastard, we can bury him next to his dear departed friend, Avery.”
Matt’s mouth was agape as he stared at the woman. Carterson Prison was a good nine hundred miles away in New Mexico…or what would be left of Carterson. To attempt to travel there while keeping Barkley hidden was suicide, plain and simple. They’d be caught for certain. What they needed to do was get rid of the wagon and obtain two fast horses, then travel to a large city where they could buy false identification papers, get on a train, and head for Canada. It was the only place Matt could now fathom they had any hope of living a free life, and a life where no one would ever recognize them again.
Matt watched Orlean shove an ether soaked sponge over Heath’s nose again as she drank her coffee. He didn’t know when he was going to tell her they were not going to New Mexico, but it would have to be soon. When they left this place they had to head north to freedom, not south, to certain death.
Nick had led his brother, Garrett Reece, and Christian Fletcher on their search throughout the night, as Jarrod knew would be the case. They’d ridden hard, following the path to Strawberry that had become a familiar one since Heath had arrived at the Barkley mansion. Jarrod didn’t hold out much hope that Strawberry was where they’d find Heath, but search parties were covering so many other areas that they weren’t losing any ground by heading in the direction of Heath’s birthplace.
Nick held up well throughout the long night of steady rain, and Christian Fletcher was in pretty good shape, too. Jarrod would have been a lot more miserable if he didn’t go on cattle drives with his brothers twice a year, and therefore was accustomed to the elements on a limited basis. Garrett Reece was another story, however. Jarrod could tell the man was cold, tired, and saddle-sore, but trying gallantly not to show it. That last part was to Garrett’s benefit, because if there was one thing Nick Barkley had no patience for, it was a man who couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Garrett had wanted to come along, so he’d better not voice anything of the contrary to Nick at this point in the journey. Jarrod had a feeling the attorney general knew that, and would likely topple from the saddle before making a complaint.
Dull gray light shrouded the sky when Nick held up a hand and reined Coco. The other men brought their horses to a halt as Nick pointed to their left.
“The horses need to rest for a little while. Let’s tether ‘em beside the stream and have some breakfast.”
Though a light drizzle was falling, Nick took off his poncho and draped it over his saddle. He led Coco to the water, tied him to a bush, and then pulled a cloth sack from a saddlebag. One thing about Silas, when you asked him to pack food, you received the best he had to offer. Cinnamon rolls that had been leftover from breakfast the previous morning, and biscuits that had been in the oven for last night’s supper, along with sandwiches, cookies, and fresh fruit. Nick passed the bounty around, then Jarrod and Chris scouted for wood they could use to build a fire while Nick got water for the coffee.
With Jarrod and Chris gone, Garrett and Nick were alone for the first time since they’d met. Nick refused to make eye contact with the attorney general. Reece finally broke the heavy silence that had fallen over them.
“Nick, I’m sorry.”
Nick didn’t look up as he dipped the coffee pot into the creek. “Sorry for what?”
“For what’s transpired with Heath.”
“You should be.”
“And I am.”
“That doesn’t change what’s happened.” Nick stood and faced the man. “It doesn’t change the fact that my brother has been kidnapped. It doesn’t change the fact that when I find Heath, he’ll probably be dead. It doesn’t change that fact that if he is dead, I’ll carry the guilt over that with me to my grave.”
“Guilt? Why should you feel guilty?”
“Because I had a fight with him yesterday, dammit! Because I was mad at Heath when he left the ranch and didn’t go with him, when I knew damn good and well that I should have! Now I’m gonna pay for that Nick Barkley temper I’m so famous for. Or I should say, Heath is gonna be the one who pays for it, if he hasn’t already.”
“Nick, don’t do this to yourself. No matter what the outcome, don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Don’t shoulder guilt that isn’t yours to bear. I’ve spent eleven years doing that, and it’s only recently…very recently, that I’ve begun to realize I’ve sacrificed my relationship with my family for a son who’s been dead over a decade. It’s just now I’m realizing that things...people... aren’t always who they seem to be, and that maybe my wife has been correct when she said that I need to let Avery rest in peace.”
Nick didn’t have to ask who Garrett meant when he said people aren’t always who they seem to be. He knew the man was referring to John Laramie.
“But there’s a difference between your situation and mine, Reece.”
“You weren’t with Avery when he died. You couldn’t be with him. I could have gone with Heath yesterday, but I didn’t.” Nick looked to his left when he saw Jarrod and Chris coming back with wood in their arms. He turned to walk toward them, while saying quietly to Reece, “And that makes all the difference in the world. At least to me it does.”
Matt roused himself from the heavy slumber he’d fall into. His years in the military had taught him how to set an internal clock and awaken exactly when he wanted to, no matter how tired he was. He’d allowed himself two hours of sleep. From the time he’d first pulled the horses off the road, three hours had passed. He wasn’t overly concerned about anyone traveling on this path. He hadn’t encountered another soul since the rider the previous afternoon, but still, he was worried about pursuit from behind. Men on horseback riding all night could easily catch up to them. Therefore, it was time to move on.
Matt allowed Lucinda to sleep while he broke camp. He was hoping with some rest, that it would be Lucinda who awoke, and not Orlean. If Lucinda came back to him, then they could dump Barkley here and head for San Francisco, or farther north to Sacramento. Either city would allow Matt the access he needed to false papers and then train tickets to the border.
The man refused to meet Heath’s eyes once again as he loaded the wagon. He was going to have to kill Barkley before they left him here. Matt couldn’t risk someone finding him alive, and then Heath getting the chance to tell what had happened at Carterson. The most humane way to kill a man was by putting a gun to his temple, so that’s what Matt planned to do.
Lucinda woke as Matt poured water over the meager fire. He watched her, hoping to see signs of his wife. She’d changed her clothes before going to sleep, meaning the dress Cinda had been wearing had been exchanged for the black dungarees, work shirt, vest, boots, and bandana Orlean always favored. When the woman didn’t exclaim over the odd way she was clothed, and when she hacked and spit just like a man would do, Matt’s heart sunk. It was still Orlean, and he knew of no way to make her fade to the recesses of Lucinda’s mind until she was good and ready to do so.
Matt dreaded the confrontation that was about to come, but there was no choice. Now that he knew what Orlean’s plans were, it was past time to put a halt to them.
“We’re not going to New Mexico,” he said in the same gruff tone he’d used with the men under his command during the war. “It’s too risky.”
The woman pushed herself to her feet and sneered. “We are too going to New Mexico.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Need I remind you, Matthew, that you don’t give the orders around here?”
“I’m not concerned with orders,” Matt said, as he walked to the wagon with another box of supplies and the tin bucket he’d used to pour water on the fire. “I’m simply telling you how things are going to transpire. We need to get to Canada. We can’t risk staying here in the states and--”
Orlean stomped to the wagon and grabbed the man’s arm. Matt never knew where she came by her strength, because it wasn’t a strength Cinda possessed. She whirled him around as easily as she would have a child.
“We’re not going to Canada! We’re going to New Mexico.”
“I said yes!”
“Well, I said no.”
Heath turned his head to the left and watched the exchange as best he could, while trying to clear the heavy, drug-laden feeling from his brain. If he was going to attempt an escape, now was the time. However, bound like he was hand and foot made escape impossible unless he could somehow cut the ropes. His eyes flicked around the wagon bed until he saw something that would help him. Her knife. It was within inches of his left hip. All he had to do was roll over and get a hold of it. With his hands tied in front of him, he could cut the ropes that bound his ankles together and run. He didn’t know how far he’d get given the physical state he was in, but based on snatches of conversation Heath had heard on and off throughout the night, he knew exactly where he was. If he got the chance to run, there several abandoned mines nearby where he could hide until the Bentells would give up on looking for him. Then he could get to Strawberry…and to Hannah. She could tend to his wounds, and with his guidance, she’d be able to get word back to the ranch in regard to where he was. The next town north of Strawberry was small, but it did have a telegraph office. Hannah still had a buggy and a horse. She could take a message to the telegraph office for him and send it to Stockton.
Heath watched as the argument escalated. Orlean’s shouts grew louder and more frantic. Bentell’s calm, even voice only appeared to infuriate her more. With the couple focused on one another, Heath made his move. He rolled to the left and pawed for the knife. He grimaced and sweat broke out on his forehead as pain shot through his swollen, broken arm, but he didn’t let that stop him. He grabbed the knife and brought his feet up to his waist. He struggled to slice through the ropes, for the first time thankful the knife was razor-sharp. His bound hands and broken arm made his coordination poor, but the sharp blade aided in his efforts. The wagon rocked back and forth as the Bentells brawled like a couple of cowboys in a saloon. Heath didn’t care who was getting thrown around. He just hoped it lasted long enough for him to slip away unnoticed.
Heath had just freed his feet when he heard the gunshot. It was so close that he winced in reflex. He turned his head and saw Orlean standing over Matt’s body, his brains splattered on her clothes.
Heath shot upward, the knife still clutched in his bound hands. He hoped the shock of what she was seeing had caused Lucinda to return. His hope was dashed when the woman turned on him and gave a blood curdling rebel yell.
“You bastard!” she shrieked, when she saw he’d freed his legs. “You bastard!”
Heath’s weakened state, combined with his injuries and his bound hands, made fighting the woman off impossible. Like an enraged mountain lion, she tackled him and threw him off the wagon’s bed. She pounced on him, wrestling the knife away. She slashed back and forth, paying no attention as to where the blade landed – his arms, his chest, or his stomach. He bucked his hips in an attempt to unseat her, but his efforts proved futile. She was crazy, and that seemed to give her strength no woman could possibly possess.
Heath wasn’t going to lie there waiting for the knife to slash his throat. Even though he knew he was fighting a losing battle, Heath continued to buck upward while clawing for her wrists with his hands.
Heath’s last thought before he heard the rhythmic pounding that shook the ground beneath him, was that he hoped they spared Victoria Barkley the sight of his mutilated corpse.
Nick’s small search party had broken their camp at quarter to eight that morning. They’d rested for an hour, then mounted their horses and continued toward Strawberry. The rain had stopped, so the ponchos were folded and put in their saddlebags. They’d traveled for thirty minutes when a yell Nick hadn’t heard since the war caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up.
He looked at Jarrod as he plunked his heels into Coco’s side. “What the hell--”
Jarrod didn’t have a chance to answer before Nick had Coco racing ahead at a full gallop. He urged Jingo to do the same, and heard Chris’s horse and Garrett’s horse following on Jingo’s heels.
At first Nick wasn’t certain what was frantically engaged in battle that was causing dust to fly. Then he caught a glimpse of black and thought a panther was attacking someone. It wasn’t until Coco got closer that Nick saw a man was attacking Heath, slashing him with a knife.
Nick drew his gun and shot into the air. When the person’s attention wasn’t drawn from Heath, but instead, the ferocity of the scuffle increased, Nick aimed for the attacker’s right shoulder. His shot was true, but the person didn’t react to the bullet passing through flesh and bone. Another rebel yell was given, and the knife was poised above Heath’s heart. It was on the downward thrust that Nick aimed for the attacker’s chest. Blood spurted forth from the artery Nick’s bullet had pierced. The knife remained raised, but wobbled in an unsteady hand. It was Nick’s next shot through the person’s chest that knocked the attacker off Heath’s body.
Nick reined Coco and jumped down, paying little attention to the men who had arrived behind him. He ran toward his brother, calling, “Heath! Heath!”
Heath rolled on his right side; struggling for what little air he could get through the bandana that still covered his mouth. He felt the bandana being removed, then heard someone gasp as he was rolled onto his back. Heath looked up into Nick’s eyes. He’d never seen such a range of emotion expressed by Nick Barkley before – everything from fear, to sympathy, to regret, to rage, though Heath knew this last wasn’t being directed at him. Whether Nick’s rage was for the Bentells, or for Garrett Reece, or just a result of the entire situation, Heath didn’t know, and right now it didn’t matter much. He thought he’d seen all sides to Nick Barkley since arriving on the ranch, but today Heath was the recipient of a gentle side that he’d previously assumed existed only where Audra and Victoria were concerned, a few select animals that had touched Nick’s heart like his beloved Coco, or the occasional small child who managed to grab Nick’s attention. For the first time, Heath realized this man who had grown to be his best friend, had a gentle side reserved for brothers as well.
“It’s okay, Heath,” Nick soothed, as he steeled his expression so Heath wouldn’t see how horrified Nick was at the wounds he was viewing. “You’re gonna be okay, little brother.”
Nick looked up. Chris was bent over Matt Bentell with his fingers on the pulse points at Bentell’s throat, while Garrett was bent over the man who had been attacking Heath. By the expression on the attorney general’s face, Nick could tell he was puzzled about something, but that wasn’t the cowboy’s utmost concern at this moment. His eyes met Jarrod’s as the lawyer crouched down beside his siblings.
“We need something we can tear into bandages, Jarrod, and water and blankets. He’s wet and cold from the rain.”
Major Fletcher approached. “I’ll get what we need.”
Jarrod nodded his thanks as he moved to support Heath’s upper body. Nick took his pocketknife and cut the rope still binding Heath’s wrists. Jarrod placed his left hand beneath the arm he could tell was broken, in an effort to hold it in place when the rope came loose. Despite his brothers’ gentle care, Heath gave a hoarse cry when the rope released its grip on him.
Nick ran for Coco, grabbing a canteen off the horse’s saddle horn. He rushed back to his brother’s side as Chris Fletcher was instructing Garrett to start a fire and get some water warming. Nick crouched by his brothers once again and lifted the canteen to Heath’s lips.
“Here, Heath, take a drink.”
Heath raised his right hand in an effort to hold the canteen, but the hand trembled so badly that Jarrod grasped it in his and said, “Let Nick and I do all the work, brother Heath. Just relax and let us do all the work.”
The normal quip Jarrod might have received to his words – something along the lines of, “Well, boy howdy, fellas, but that would sure be nice for a change,” wasn’t spoken. Instead, Heath allowed Nick to help him take a long drink, and then he sunk into Jarrod’s chest again as though holding his head up was too great of an effort.
Despite his fatigue, sore muscles, and the massive cloud of depression that was threatening to engulf him, Garrett Reece rose to the occasion. He hurried to gather wood and get a fire started, then rummaged through the supplies on the wagon. He put an iron rack and pot over the fire. He rushed to the stream where the Bentells’ horses were still tied, and filled a tin bucket with water. He poured the water into the pot and put the pot’s lid on. He then went back to the wagon and began searching through wooden crates for clean cloths, towels, and then clothing that could be torn into strips for bandages.
Major Fletcher examined Heath while Garrett’s preparations were under way.
“How is he?” Nick asked, when he couldn’t take Fletcher’s silence any longer.
“The knife wounds aren’t as bad as they look. They aren’t very deep, which means no internal damage has been done. However, Heath has lost blood and he’s cold. We need to get him by the fire.”
“Can he make the trip home?” Jarrod asked.
“To the ranch, you mean?”
“I’d rather not risk it. Where’s the nearest town with a doctor?”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “Stockton?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But I saw a sign for a town called Strawberry with an arrow pointing straight ahead.”
Before Jarrod could answer Chris, Heath spoke. “There…there’s nothin’…nothin’ there any…any more.”
“No one…no one but Han…Hannah.”
“A friend of Heath’s,” was the only explanation Jarrod gave. “We’re about halfway between Strawberry and Stockton as it is, so if Heath can travel, then we might as well get him back to the ranch.”
Chris looked around. They were in the middle of nowhere, so staying here beyond the time it took to tend to the injured man’s wounds and stabilizing him for the ride in the wagon, wasn’t going to benefit Heath. He needed shelter, medical care, food, water, and a warm bed. If the Barkley ranch was the closest place for him to receive those things, then that’s where they’d have to go.
“Garrett,” Chris hailed.
The attorney general had been hesitant to approach Heath because of what he deemed his own personal failures. Now he crouched beside Heath in the grouping with the other men.
“Can you get on your horse and ride for the Barkley ranch?”
“You can make it all the way there?”
“Listen, Major, just because I haven’t spent time in a saddle since the war, doesn’t mean I don’t recall sleeping on the back of a horse, or not getting off of one for three days when Sam Grant got a burr up his behind at Petersburg to make Lee turn tail and run south. I can make it to anywhere I need go. Now what do you want me to do?”
Even Nick couldn’t completely hide his admiration of this man he’d thought of as ‘soft’ before this journey started.
“Ride back to the ranch and have them send a wagon with fresh supplies – food, water, bandages, towels, bedding, a mattress, anything that will make Heath’s trip home more comfortable. We’ll start out from here as soon as I have him ready to travel. When we meet up with that wagon we’ll transfer Heath to it.”
“Make sure someone gets a message to Doctor Merar so he knows what to expect when we get Heath to the ranch.”
Again, Garrett acknowledged, “All right.” The attorney general laid a hand on Heath’s shoulder. The blond man looked up at Garrett.
“It was...it was her, wasn’t it?” Heath asked.
Though Nick and Jarrod had no idea what their brother meant, Garrett nodded in acknowledgment that the corpse he’d been bent over was that of Lucinda Bentell.
“Now…now you know…now you know what happened to Av…Avery.”
“She killed Avery?”
“Yeah.” Heath rolled his head away from the man. “She…she did a lot…a lotta the killin’ in that prison. It wasn’t…it wasn’t all Bentell.”
As much as Garrett wanted to demand further explanation of Heath, he knew now was not the time. They’d talk later, and when they did, the story of Avery’s death would finally come to light.
Garrett gave Heath’s shoulder a fatherly pat, then rose. He mounted the horse he’d been riding, turned the gelding around, and urged it into a run.
With Jarrod supporting Heath’s broken arm, the men carried him to the fire. They laid him down on a blanket as close to the blaze as possible so he could absorb some of its warmth, and covered him with another blanket.
Chris sent Nick in search of branches he could use for a splint, while Jarrod created a pillow for Heath’s head by folding a blanket four times until he’d made a thick square pad out of it. Nick brought back two wide, sturdy branches, and four long strips of rawhide he’d had in his saddlebags. Heath wouldn’t meet his brothers’ eyes when Chris set his arm. He turned his head and looked at the stream. The only visible sign of pain were the beads of perspiration that appeared on his forehead, the way he clamped down on his lower lip, and the fact that he squeezed Nick’s right hand so hard that it momentarily turned white from lack of blood flow.
The warm water that was used to cleanse the knife wounds felt good. Heath knew a painful cleansing would come later, when Doctor Merar used a disinfect on them. As it was, the wounds reminded Heath of their presence as soon as Chris was done winding bandages around his chest, stomach, and arms. The knife slashes stung and burned, and made Heath wish for some of that liniment Victoria had that soothed skin irritations. It smelled so awful that you could hardly stand to have it on, but Heath had to admit it helped ease the pain of burns and cuts.
Heath looked up when he felt a hand on his arm. Jarrod smiled down at him, while Nick wiped his face with cool water.
“Are you okay, Heath?”
“Just…just thinkin’…just thinkin’ that some of Mother’s…Mother’s liniment, might feel good…good right now.”
Nick wrinkled his nose. “You’re actually gonna volunteer to let Mother put some of that awful smelling stuff on you?”
Nick gave his brother a gentle smile. “Well, I’m sure she’ll be happy to do it. Now, speaking of Mother, are you ready to head for home?”
“Been…been ready…been ready for a while.”
“I want him to eat something first,” Chris said, as Jarrod begin packing up their campsite. “And I want him to drink more water.”
“I’m not…I’m not hun…hungry.”
Like Chris, Nick knew Heath needed to eat something. Judging by the difficulty he was having talking, he was weak from lack of food and water.
“You have to eat something,” Nick insisted, sounding like a bossy older brother and not caring a bit that he did. “Silas sent along some biscuits and cinnamon rolls. I’ll help you eat one of each.”
“Just…just a biscuit.”
Nick looked at Chris, who nodded his agreement with what Heath wanted.
“Give him a biscuit and all the water he’ll drink, Nick. It’s better for him to eat a little at a time anyway. We can try to give him something else to eat in an hour or so.”
Nick filled a tin cup with water and got a biscuit from the sack in his saddlebags. Jarrod stowed the last of the gear, and then propped Heath up against his chest again while Chris made a bed in the back of the wagon. Nick broke off small sections of the fluffy biscuit and fed them to Heath. In-between swallows of the bread, he brought the cup to Heath’s lips and insisted that he take a drink.
It took Heath twenty minutes to get that little bit of food eaten, but the normally impatient Nick didn’t voice any complaints. He sensed that saying the wrong thing now, even in jest, would be detrimental to Heath’s recovery. When Heath was finished eating, Jarrod, Nick, and Chris conferred about the best way to travel home.
Nick looked around the area. There was the stream, and plenty of shade trees lining its bank.
“We can hitch Bentell’s team back to the wagon. Jarrod can ride Jingo, and we’ll leave Coco and Mandy – the horse you were riding, Major, - tied to those trees by the stream. They’ll be fine until some of my hired men can bring them back to the ranch. I’ll drive the wagon, and you can ride in the bed with Heath. Let’s get him up there and be on our wa--”
Nick crouched at his brother’s side. “What, Heath?”
The blond reached up and grasped Nick’s arm. “I said…I said, no. You. I want…I want you to ri…ride in the wagon with me.”
“But, Heath, Major Fletcher is a doctor. He’s the one who needs to be riding back there with you. I’ll drive, and Jarrod will ride along beside us.”
“No,” Heath shook his head as his eyes drifted to the dead bodies of Matt and Lucinda Bentell. “No. I…please, Nick.”
Jarrod could tell that pain, fatigue, and shock were taking their toll on Heath. He knew under normal circumstances, Heath wouldn’t voice any fears…or beg Nick to ride in the back of a wagon with him. But Jarrod knew that right now, it was Nick that Heath needed beside him in order for him to feel safe on the long journey home.
“Nick, let’s do it the way Heath wants to,” Jarrod said. “At least for now. If he needs Chris’s attention, you two can switch places.”
Nick looked at the major. The man offered no arguments, because he had none to give. He’d done all he could for Heath. What the cowboy needed now was the luxury of the Barkley ranch, along with the medical care Howard Merar and Chris could offer him under circumstances far less primitive then the current one.
“That’s fine,” Chris nodded. “I’ve done all I can for Heath at the moment. Let’s make certain we all have full canteens, then get him on the wagon and head for the ranch.”
The men broke camp fifteen minutes later. Chris drove the wagon onto the road while Jarrod traveled along side it on Jingo. Heath had been made as comfortable as possible in the wagon’s bed. Nick leaned against wooden two barrels and rested his brother’s upper body against his chest. He fussed a moment, making sure Heath was well covered with a blanket.
Heath watched the campsite grow more and more distant, his eyes never leaving the bodies of Matt and Lucinda Bentell. When he could no longer see the Bentells’ corpses, Heath’s eyes drifted upward until he was able to view Nick’s face.
“I’m sorry,” the injured man mumbled.
“Sorry for what?”
“Sor…sorry I couldn’t. . .that I couldn’t tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“ ‘Bout what…what happened at Carterson.”
Nick’s eyes lingered on his pale, bandaged brother a moment. Over the past twenty-four hours Nick had learned there were a lot of things that were important to him, but none of them involved Carterson Prison.
“You don’t have to be sorry. And if you can’t ever tell me, then I’ll respect that.”
Heath knew how difficult it was for Nick to let the subject of Carterson end this way. He offered his brother the best smile he could muster and clumsily patted the man’s arm with his right hand.
Nick covered Heath’s hand with his left one and gave it a light squeeze. “You rest now.”
Heath gave a weary nod. He turned his head so it was cradled in the hollow between Nick’s shoulder and neck, and closed his eyes. When Nick squeezed his hand again, a feeling of security washed over Heath. That simple gesture promised Nick would protect him at all costs until they arrived safely at the ranch. Because of that gesture, and despite his throbbing wounds, Heath fell asleep to the gentle swaying motion of the wagon that was carrying him home.
Heath had vague memories of being woken several times during the trip to the ranch in order to be given food and water. But the longer they traveled, the more distant his memories of the journey became. He didn’t recall being transferred to a wagon loaded with fresh supplies that met them that afternoon, and later he was told that by the time he arrived home early that evening he was burning with a fever Nick was fighting to control with cloths soaked in water from the canteens.
Victoria Barkley ran to meet the wagon as it pulled up by the front veranda. She gasped when she caught sight of the blood stained bandages covering her stepson. Garrett had detailed Heath’s injuries, but that didn’t prepare her for the toll the long trip home had taken on Heath. His wounds were seeping, he was exhausted, and his complexion was pasty gray except for the ruby red streaks running across his cheeks. Perspiration plastered his hair to his head, and though Victoria could feel the heat radiating from his body just by touching his shoulder, Heath shivered as though still feeling the effects of the previous night’s cold rain.
Howard Merar was waiting at the ranch for Heath’s arrival as well. He hurried to Heath’s room with Victoria, while Nick, Chris, and Jarrod carried the injured man up the stairs. Nick saw Douglas peering out from the room he was being housed in. The boy’s face paled and his eyes grew wide when he saw the condition his friend was in.
“Heath!” the boy cried. “Heath!” Before Douglas could run into the hall, his mother pulled him back into the room and closed the door.
Heath fought Howard Merar when the man unwound the bandages covering his knife wounds and doused those wounds with disinfectant. He didn’t recognize Doctor Merar, and thought he was in Carterson Prison again. He felt hands pinning him to the bed, and yelled for the only person he thought would help him.
If Heath hadn’t been entrenched in delirium and pain, he might have wondered why his mind placed Nick in Carterson Prison when, of course, Nick had never been there at all. But because Heath was caught in a feverish world filled with frightening images of guards he’d never wanted to see again, he cried out for the man who had grown to be his best friend, in the same way Avery Reece had once been his best friend.
“Nick! Nick! Nick, help me! Nick!”
Nick tried to sooth his brother with gentle words, but Heath fought the men like a cornered bobcat, leaving Nick no choice but to assist Jarrod, Chris, and Garret with holding Heath down.
Howard Merar’s medical opinion of Heath’s condition didn’t differ from Major Fletcher’s. While Victoria bathed Heath’s face and upper body with cool water, Howard and Chris exchanged the branches that had been used to immobilize Heath’s arm for a splint and a sling. With Heath’s wounds disinfected and dressed again, there wasn’t anything else Howard could do for the man.
“You have to keep that fever under control,” Howard told the Barkley family after Heath had been given a sponge bath and dressed in a pair of muslin sleeping pants. “If we get him past that, and if the infection that’s in the wounds doesn’t get worse, then with plenty of rest, water, and food, he should be fine given time.”
The doctor left that night with the promise of returning the next day. Victoria insisted Garrett and Chris spend the night. Just by looking at their drawn faces and heavy eyes, she knew they were too spent to ride back to town. Considering that, like Jarrod and Nick, they hadn’t gotten any sleep since Tuesday night, this hardly surprised the woman. While Victoria bathed Heath with cool water, the four men ate supper. Silas then showed Garrett and Chris to their rooms.
Garrett felt he should be doing something more, but was too exhausted to know where to start. The Barkley hired hand who had ridden to town for him that afternoon to summon Howard Merar, had also summoned Frank Larken at Garrett’s request. While Garrett had waited for Chris and the Barkley brothers to arrive with Heath, he’d told Frank what they’d found on the road leading to Strawberry. He gave Frank a message to wire to the U.S. Marshals’ office in San Francisco, and knew by the next afternoon a full investigation of the crime scene would be under way. Until then, Frank sent three men to stand guard over the Bentells’ bodies. Garrett was going to meet the marshals at the Stockton train station the next day and ride out to the scene with them. For now, the best thing the attorney general could do for all concerned was get some sleep.
Garrett stripped to his under drawers and cleaned the day’s grime from his body using the fresh water Silas had left in a pitcher next to a washbowl on the dresser. He dried his face, neck and chest with a towel, then crossed to the bed and sunk to the mattress. He pulled the covers up to his chest and stared into the darkness. He heard Heath’s delirious cries for Nick from down the hall, and could vaguely hear the gentle cadence of Nick’s deep voice as he attempted to sooth his brother from the nightmare Heath was trapped in. Avery’s face flashed in front of Garrett’s eyes. As tears ran down his cheeks, Garrett hoped someone had been with his boy until the end came, in the same way Nick Barkley would be with his brother until Heath’s fever broke, or until death claimed him.
Despite Christian Fletcher’s exhaustion, he assisted Victoria with Heath throughout the night. Jarrod was able to get several hours of sleep, but Nick remained by Heath’s side. Nick’s mother and the major had urged him to go to bed numerous times, but Nick steadfastly refused. Heath kept calling for him, so now that Heath finally needed him, there was no way Nick was leaving.
As dawn broke, so did Heath’s fever. The night had been a long one. Victoria credited Ruth and Silas for their help, as much as she credited Major Fletcher and Nick. Douglas’s mother had relieved Victoria twice throughout the night so she could rest for a little while, and Silas never allowed cool water, fresh bed linens, and clean cloths to be in short supply.
Heath’s temperature was still elevated when he slipped into an exhausted slumber at seven that morning, but Major Fletcher assured Victoria this wasn’t unusual considering the wounds he’d incurred.
“We’ll just have to watch him closely over the next few days, Mrs. Barkley, and stay ahead of that temperature if it starts to rise again.”
Jarrod ate breakfast in the dining room with Garrett, then took over at his brother’s bedside so his mother, Nick, and Chris could eat and get some well-deserved sleep. By nine o’clock Garrett was headed to Stockton to meet the marshals he anticipated would arrive at noon.
After lunch, Jarrod sent Ned Henry to bring Audra home. The lawyer knew his sister was probably wearing a hole in Mrs. Danielson’s rugs by now, and would likely chew him out for keeping her from her family the past two days. But whatever temper tantrum Audra threw would end as soon as Jarrod told her their mother would need her to assist with Heath’s care. Audra and Heath had grown to have a close brother-sister bond. Jarrod suspected that as Heath grew stronger, his sister would be just the person he’d welcome to keep him occupied with jigsaw puzzles and games of checkers while he was recuperating.
Victoria slept four hours, then appeared from her room dressed and groomed just as Jarrod was bringing Doctor Merar to Heath’s room. Heath didn’t awaken throughout the brief examination. The instructions Howard left weren’t any different than the ones the family had been given when Heath had been shot. Watch for signs that his temperature was on the rise, make sure he ate well and drank plenty of water, and get him on his feet as soon as possible so he could walk the length of the upstairs hallway several times a day to prevent pneumonia from starting.
It had been all Ruth Erickson could do that day to keep Douglas occupied. The boy insisted he felt fine, and kept trying to sneak out of his room to see Heath. Doctor Merar checked on his young patient and deemed Douglas fit to travel back to Stockton. The doctor offered Ruth and her son a ride to town. While Ruth gathered up the few things they had to take with them, Douglas changed from the nightshirt Mrs. Barkley had let him borrow, to a set of clean clothes that had belonged to Eugene that Victoria told the boy he could have.
“Ma, can I see Heath before we leave?”
Before Ruth could answer her son, Doctor Merar said, “Heath is sleeping, Douglas. I don’t want him disturbed.”
“I won’t wake him up, I promise. I just…I just wanna see him for a minute.”
The doctor could hardly refuse the silent plea on the boy’s face. He thought a moment, then nodded. “All right. But just for a minute. When your visit is over, come down to the foyer. Your mother and I will be waiting for you there.”
“Shhh,” Ruth cautioned. “If you want to see Heath, you have to be quiet.”
“I will be,” the boy whispered.
Douglas wanted to run from the room, but he knew his mother would have a fit if he did. In part, because of the sling he was wearing, and in part because he was just told he had to be quiet. He walked to Heath’s room as fast as he dared, and peered inside the open doorway. Nick had awakened since Doctor Merar had arrived, and was now in the room with Jarrod and Heath. The two older Barkley brothers sat in chairs on either side of Heath’s bed. The positions of their chairs blocked Douglas’s view of Heath’s upper body.
The twelve-year-old chewed on his lower lip, not so certain now that he wanted to enter the room. He had a lot of respect for Jarrod Barkley. Everyone did. But Nick…well, even though Heath had told Douglas that Nick’s bark was worse than his bite, the boy was still intimidated by him. And right now, Douglas was downright afraid of Nick. After all, it was because of Douglas and the message he’d brought to the Barkley ranch, that Heath had been hurt. Granted, Nick had told Douglas on Wednesday night that he wasn’t mad at him, but Douglas had been confined to bed then, so maybe Nick had figured it was best not to yell at a sick kid. Now that Douglas was on his feet, things might be different between him and Nick.
The boy’s fear prompted him to take a step back from the doorway. Before he could make a clean get away, Nick caught sight of him. He motioned Douglas in the room.
“Come in, boy.”
Douglas swallowed hard. He tried hard to return the smile Jarrod gave him, while looking from Jarrod to Nick.
“I…Ma and I are goin’ back to town with Doc now, so I…I uh…I wanted to say…I wanted to say goodbye to Heath.”
Nick nodded his permission. “That’s fine. I’m sure Heath will appreciate your visit.” Nick beckoned with one hand. “Come on and get closer. You can’t say goodbye from way over there.”
The boy kept his eyes on the floor as he approached the bed. He walked around Jarrod’s chair, and stopped when his body lightly bumped against the mattress. He wanted to look at Heath, yet he didn’t. Because Douglas had seen the man briefly the previous evening when he’d been rushed past the guestroom, the boy knew Heath had been hurt real bad by that scoundrel, Matt Bentell.
“Hey, there,” a gravely voice said, “I thought you were gonna tell me goodbye.”
Douglas’s head shot up. A grin spread across his face when saw Heath was awake and looking at him.
“I’m fine,” Heath confirmed, despite the fact that his arm was giving him a considerable amount of pain, and the wounds on his chest and stomach still stung and burned. He knew there was a bottle of laudanum in the house that Howard had left when he’d been shot. After he had something to eat, Heath was actually going to volunteer to take a dose.
Douglas couldn’t keep tears from welling in his eyes. “Heath, I…I’m sorry. It’s ‘cause of me you got hurt. I…I should have never brought that message from Mr. Laramie. He double-crossed me. Honest he did. I’d never do anything to hurt you, and I’d never team up with that old rebel, Bentell. He’s lower ‘an a snake’s belly, he is.”
“I know you’d never do anything to hurt me, Douglas. Don’t let it upset you.”
Heath reached out with his right hand and grasped the boy’s uninjured arm in a weak grip. “No buts, Douglas. You didn’t know. It’s not your fault. People like John Laramie don’t care who they use to get their dirty work done.”
“Jarrod said that, too.”
Heath tossed his oldest brother a wink. “Well, then, you should listen to Jarrod, ‘cause everyone knows he’s the smart one in the family.”
“I take exception to that,” Nick said.
Heath turned his head just enough to make eye contact with Nick. “Take all the exception you want. I’m standin’ by what I just said.”
Jarrod’s laughter interrupted Nick’s show of mock indignation. “Douglas, you better get while the getting’s good. Once these two start with one another, the verbal sparing could last all afternoon.” Jarrod stood and put a hand on the boy’s back. “Say goodbye to Heath. Nick’s going to help him eat some lunch, and then he needs to sleep.”
Douglas shifted his attention from Jarrod to Heath. “Bye, Heath. I’ll try and come out to see you while you’re recoverin’. Maybe when you’re feelin’ a little better I can come play checkers with you, huh?”
“I’d like that,” Heath said. “Tell you what. I’ll send Nick to get you as soon as I’m allowed out of this bed.”
“That’d be great. And I can come on any day, ‘cause school’s out for the summer starting on Wednesday.”
“Okay,” Heath agreed, while fighting pain and fatigue in order to hold up his end of the conversation. “I’ll remember that.”
Silas entered the room with Heath’s lunch tray, which gave Jarrod a good excuse to usher Douglas out. He knew Heath wouldn’t want the boy to see him being assisted with the meal by Nick. Though Heath had use of his right hand, Jarrod had seen the slight tremor coursing through it when Heath had grasped Douglas’s arm. This visit from the twelve-year-old had been enough activity for Heath so early in his recuperation.
As Jarrod guided Douglas toward the door, he heard Nick complaining.
“Oh, so now I’m gonna be your errand boy, is that it? I’m gonna stop everything I have to do around this ranch just to go into Stockton to pick up your little friends so you can play checkers. Well, let me tell you something, Heath. If you think just because you’re laid up in this bed for a few days I’m gonna be at your beck and call, you’ve got another think comin’. You’d better--”
Douglas looked over his shoulder and saw the gentle way Nick was helping his brother sit against his pillows, then glanced up at Jarrod and smiled. As they stepped into the hallway, Douglas said, “Nick doesn’t really mean any of that, does he? I mean, about being Heath’s errand boy and complain’ about coming to pick me up.”
“No, Douglas, Nick doesn’t really mean any of it. He’d do anything for Heath that Heath asked of him, and a good deal of things Heath wouldn’t ask of him.”
“I thought so. Do you think Heath knows that?”
“Yes, Douglas, I think Heath knows that.” Jarrod glanced into the room one last time and saw Nick helping Heath guide a spoonful of chicken broth to his mouth. He looked down at Douglas and smiled as they walked together to the stairs. “As a matter of fact, I’m sure Heath knows that.”
Douglas nodded. “Good.” He charged down the wide, curving staircase to the horror of his mother, who ordered him to slow down.
Jarrod put an arm around his own mother when he came to stand beside her in the foyer. Quietly, he said, “I have a feeling that when Heath is feeling better, you’ll be admonishing him to do the same.”
“I have a feeling I will be, too.” Victoria leaned her head against Jarrod’s shoulder. “And considering what might have been, I won’t complain one bit if I have to.”
Victoria and Jarrod saw Howard, Ruth, and Douglas to the doctor’s buggy. They stood on the veranda and waved goodbye, then returned to the house. By the time they reached the second floor, Heath was sleeping again. His older brother sat beside his bed and watched for signs of fever, signs of nightmares, or signs of any form of distress that would alert Nick Barkley to the fact that his brother needed him.
Garrett Reece and the three marshals who had arrived from San Francisco did a thorough investigation of the spot where Matt and Lucinda died. Their bodies were then released to Stockton’s undertaker. The man embalmed them, and during the coming week would ship the couple via rail to a nephew of Matt’s who lived in Chicago. Garrett assumed the bodies would be buried in a section of some cemetery where other Bentells had been laid to rest, but overall, he didn’t care one way or the other. As far as he was concerned, they could have been left to rot beside that old road leading to Strawberry. However, the nephew had been located and was willing to pay for the transportation of the corpses, so Garrett’s thought that an unmarked grave in a potter’s field was all they deserved, was left unvoiced.
John Laramie was embalmed and sent back to his father. An investigation into Robert Laramie’s activities during the Civil War would soon be under way, but this was one investigation Garrett wasn’t leading. The attorney general had finally come to understand he was too close to this situation to effectively see justice done, and would assign the case to someone else.
Two days after Heath had been brought back to the Barkley ranch, he gave a statement to the marshals and Garrett regarding all that had happened after he’d been ambushed. What he had to say didn’t alter their conclusions, but rather, solidified them. Based on the note left on John Laramie’s body, they knew his father had allegedly sold firearms to the Confederates. The note said Matt Bentell had been one of Laramie’s contacts in the South until he’d been sent to head Carterson prison the last two years of the war. Garrett concluded Robert and John Laramie had concerns that Bentell would try to make a deal with the government if he were brought to trial. That dealing being, that in exchange for information about the smuggling of firearms from Senator Laramie’s foundry, Bentell would not hang, no matter what testimony Heath Barkley offered. It’s not a deal Garrett would have agreed to, but obviously the Laramies weren’t secure in that knowledge. Whether it was Matt or Lucinda who shot John Laramie, no one knew. Nor did they know why the shooting had occurred. Had the Bentells been concerned that Laramie wouldn’t adhere to whatever bargain he’d made with them in exchange for helping him do away with Heath? Or had they argued about something with John – their final destination, or possibly money they were to be paid for their silence regarding Robert Laramie’s smuggling activities? Garrett doubted they’d ever have all the answers, but that made little difference, because the answers they did have were enough for the attorney general to understand why five people had lost their lives, and why that death toll would have been seven had Douglas Erickson and Heath Barkley not had a little luck…and the Lord, on their sides.
Garrett and Chris had been invited to join the Barkley family for Sunday dinner. They were leaving Stockton the next day. Though Garrett didn’t think Heath looked like he should be out of bed, Nick helped him down the stairs so he could join his family and their guests for the one o’clock meal.
Audra and Victoria fussed over Heath in a way that Garrett could see both pleased and embarrassed the man. He was still pale and tired, but considering what he’d been through, he was doing well to be up and about already. Judging by his empty plate when the meal was over, Heath was getting his appetite back, which Garrett knew was a good sign as well.
It was Jarrod who recommended Garrett and Heath convene to the study after dessert had been eaten. That morning, Heath had informed his brother that he wanted to make good on the promise he’d given Garrett regarding telling him how Avery had died, provided Garrett still wanted to hear the account of his son’s last hours. Jarrod had pulled the attorney general aside shortly after he’d arrived, and within seconds received Garrett’s confirmation that yes, he wanted to know what had happened to Avery.
“I’ve sacrificed too much not to know, Jarrod. I may have lost my family over this. Sam Grant may kick my behind over the murders that took place last week. If I’m going to lose everything – my family and my job, then I have to leave here with what I came for.”
“That facts surrounding Avery’s death?” Jarrod had asked.
“Yes,” Garrett nodded. “The facts surrounding my son’s death.”
Jarrod had told Victoria what was going to take place after the meal. Rather than have Audra asking questions that were none of her business, or that would make Heath uncomfortable, Victoria urged her daughter to rise when dessert had been eaten.
“Let’s help Silas wash the dishes. I’m sure he’d like to begin enjoying his Sunday afternoon off as soon as possible. Then we’ll take a drive to Opal’s.”
Never one to refuse a Sunday visit, Audra did as her mother requested without being concerned about what the men’s plans were.
After the women and Silas had cleared the table and disappeared into the kitchen, Jarrod looked at Heath and Garrett.
“Gentlemen, the study is all yours for as long as you want to make use of it.”
Thanks to Jarrod, Nick was aware of what was to transpire, but kept his peace. He didn’t ask to be a part of the discussion, and had resigned himself to the fact that he’d likely never know the whole story behind Avery Reece’s death, or exactly what atrocities Heath had suffered at Carterson. He was, therefore, surprised when Heath said quietly, “Jarrod, Nick…you…you might as well hear this, too. I…I ain’t gonna be up to tellin’ it twice.”
“Are you sure, Heath?” Jarrod questioned.
“I’m sure.” Heath looked at Chris. “And, Major, you’re welcome to hear it, provided the attorney general doesn’t have any objections.”
“I have none,” Garrett said.
Heath hesitated a moment, then pushed himself to his feet. “All right, then.”
Heath waved Nick aside when the man stood and reached for his elbow. Without his brother’s aid, Heath slowly walked to the study. He eased himself into a big leather chair, and gave the other men time to get settled. Jarrod shut the doors, and then asked if anyone wanted a glass of brandy. One by one the men thanked Jarrod for his offer, but refused. The lawyer had a feeling that by the time Heath’s story came to an end they’d all welcome a stiff drink.
Chris and Garrett sat together on the couch, while Nick sat in the other easy chair. Jarrod got the chair that sat behind the desk and pulled it into the grouping. No one rushed Heath, and for a moment the only sounds in the room were those that drifted in through the open French doors. A horse’s whinny coming from the corral, the family dog barking at something that had caught his attention, and the distant sound of a guitar being played by one of the Barkley employees. Other than the necessary chores being done, Sunday was a day of rest for all concerned on this ranch, even the hired men.
Heath stared down at the floor for several minutes as though collecting his thoughts and memories, then finally made eye contact with Garrett. He didn’t normally have a loud speaking voice, but now his voice was even quieter than usual, meaning the men had to listen hard to hear him.
“I…I didn’t know what was goin’ on. For a long time, I didn’t understand it. None of us did. She…Bentell’s wife…the first thing you were told by the other prisoners when you arrived at Carterson was to steer clear of Bentell’s wife because she was crazy.”
“Crazy how?” Chris asked.
“No one ever said. They just said she was crazy, and warned all the new guys to stay away from her. Trouble was; there wasn’t much you could do if she took a shine to you. She…she seemed to like the young ones…boys my age and Avery’s age. She took notice of Avery right away.”
“Lucinda?” Nick questioned with disbelief. Even though he now knew it was Lucinda Bentell who had been attacking Heath with a knife, and knew it was Lucinda Bentell he had killed in order to save Heath’s life, it was hard to reconcile the lady-like Lucinda Bentell who had been a guest in this house, with the woman she evidently was.
“Yeah. I know…I know it’s hard to believe. It’s…I don’t know how to put it into words, because I’d never met anyone like her before, and have never met anyone like her since. She…it was like she became other people.”
“Other people?” Garrett questioned.
“Yeah. She…sometimes she’d act like a little girl, and sometimes like…like…like a whore, and sometimes she was a Confederate private whose last name was Hammond, and sometimes she’d act like a woman who…who really wanted to be a man…that was the person who was attacking me. That’s the person who killed Avery.”
“Multiple personality disorder,” Chris said.
Everyone in the room looked at him for an explanation.
“It’s not something many doctors in my field even believe exists, yet I’ve read about it, and studied a patient who appeared to be afflicted with it when I was in medical school. No one knows what causes it, but it’s as though the real person - in this case Lucinda Bentell, can’t stand to be herself, or has never been allowed to be her true self, so her mind forms other personalities – personalities she’d like to be for some reason, that come alive in a very real sense of the word.”
“Sounds crazy,” Nick snorted.
“If you mean crazy in the sense that Mrs. Bentell was mentally ill, Nick, then yes, she was crazy. This is not something medical science has a cure for, or medication available that will help these people, or other treatments of any kind to offer. Maybe someday in the future, there will be some sort of treatment for them, but not until the medical community at large comes to an agreement that multiple personality disorder does exist.”
“Heath,” Jarrod said, “is Lucinda Bentell the reason you asked me if a woman had ever been executed in this country?”
“Yeah. I knew if I gave my testimony, that a jury would likely find her as guilty as they found her husband. Maybe even more so.”
Garrett perched on the edge of the couch. “Heath, will you tell me what happened? Will you tell me what she did to Avery?”
Heath took a deep breath, then nodded. His eyes returned to the floor, and he left them there as he told Garrett Reece how his son died.
“She had…she had tormented Avery and me for a long time…threatened us a lot, but she’d never hurt us. We…Avery and me, we promised each other we’d stick together, ‘cause we figured if we did there was no way she’d bother us, and even if she tried to, we knew that together, we could fight her off. We were foolish, I guess. Young and foolish, ‘cause we didn’t realize that when the time came she wanted one of us, that she’d bring a guard with her when she came to get us. That’s…that’s what she did the night she took Avery. I…I fought the guard, but I wasn’t any match for him. We were hardly being given any food at that point, and even if we had been, he was a grown man and outweighed me by seventy-five pounds. I…I got beat up pretty bad, but I didn’t care ‘cause Avery and I had made that promise to one another. Avery kept calling my name as another guard dragged him away. I…there was nothing I could do. I was barely conscious. By the time I got me wits about me the cell door was shut and Avery was gone.”
Heath paused long enough that Jarrod wondered if he was going to be able to continue. Just when Jarrod was about to tell Heath he didn’t have to say any more if he didn’t want to, the man spoke again.
“He…Avery…was gone a long time. Hours. When they dragged him back he…he was covered with blood and his…his intestines were hanging out. She had used her knife on him. He told me…he told me she did…she’d done other things to him as well.”
Garrett spoke around the lump in his throat. “What…what other things?”
“Things…things that I’ve only heard of men…of men doing to women, not the other way around.”
Garrett wasn’t sure what Heath was getting at, when suddenly it dawned on him as to why the young man couldn’t meet his eyes. “You mean rape?”
Heath hesitated, and then gave a slow nod.
It took Garrett a moment to find his voice. When he did, he requested, “Go on, Heath. Tell me the rest, please.”
Heath brought his eyes up. They flicked to every man in the room, before stopping on Garrett. “There’s not much else to tell. He…he didn’t live long after that. About thirty minutes. He…he kept begging me to kill him. He was in so much pain. He wanted me to end his life only….only I couldn’t. I…it was all he wanted of me, but I couldn’t do it.”
Garrett’s tone was gentle and filled with understanding when he asked, “Did you even have the means to do it?”
“I…no. I mean, if you’re askin’ if I had a gun, or a knife, or a club, or even something to make into a garrote like a handkerchief or belt…then no. I didn’t have the means.”
“Then you didn’t fail, Avery. Besides, he asked a lot of you. He asked something of you that no fifteen-year-old boy should be asked to do, anymore than a grown man should be asked to do it.”
“Still, we promised to stand by each other. I…I’ve never gotten over feeling as though I let him down.”
“As Avery’s father, Heath, allow me to assure you that you didn’t let him down. You were a loyal friend to my son, and because of you, he didn’t die alone. There’s nothing more I could ask from you than that, and there’s nothing more Avery could have asked from you than that.”
Heath fell silent again, as though absorbing the man’s words. Whether he agreed with them or not was hard to say, because he didn’t comment on them when he spoke again.
“I already gave you Avery’s last message – that before he died, he asked me to tell you that he loved you, and that he loved his mother and his sisters. And then he asked me to tell you to bring the Bentells to justice. I. . .I should have gotten the message to you a long time ago. It’s just…I…there were some things about Carterson I didn’t remember until…until Bentell showed up here. Then, for some reason, what happened to Avery, and the way Mrs. Bentell acted…it all came back to me like a flood gate had opened.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Heath,” Garrett said.
“No, you don’t,” Major Fletcher reinforced. “By blocking out these memories, your mind was protecting you, Heath. The human brain is a powerful and complex organ. Sometimes it allows us to forget things that would break us, and only brings those things to the surface when it knows we’re strong enough - or possibly in your case given your young age during your time in Carterson, old enough and mature enough to handle the memories.”
Heath wasn’t certain if the human brain could do all that Christian Fletcher claimed, but he had not the proof nor education to dispute the man’s words, so simply nodded. Heath addressed his next comment to Garrett.
“After Avery gave me his message for you, he…he died in my arms just a few minutes later. I…I held him all night, even though I knew he was dead. They…the guards…they came and got both of us the next morning. There was a mass grave at Carterson. They made me carry Avery to it and throw…throw him in. Then they made me take a shovel and cover…” Heath paused and looked at the floor again. It was hard to speak now, and he didn’t want to see the sympathy on Jarrod’s face, or the pain and outrage on Nick’s over what Heath had been forced to do. “And cover him with sand.”
Garrett didn’t try to hide the tears running down his face. “Is the grave marked?”
Heath shook his head. “They threw all the prisoners who died in it. It was just a deep trench out behind the buildings.”
“I see,” Garrett acknowledged with heartache so deep everyone in the room could feel it.
Everyone thought Heath was finished speaking until his quiet voice came forth again.
“Avery was a good friend…my best friend during those years. I knew he was a rich boy who had grown up in a fancy house while attending the best schools, and he knew I was a poor boy who grew up in a house that had only three rooms, and that I’d dropped out of school when I twelve, but those things never mattered to either one of us. We laughed together, and we fought along side one another, and we stuck by each other if the older men in our unit were picking on one of us. Then in Carterson we shared everything we got when it came to food, or water, or clothing. We shared the only jacket we had between us, and the only pair of socks we had between us. We never exchanged a cross word, even though I reckon we were as different as night and day.”
“What makes you say that?” Garrett asked. “Because he was from a wealthy family and you grew up poor?”
Despite his tears, Garrett smiled. “Heath, I think you, of all people, have learned by now that money doesn’t make a man who he is. What makes a man is his character. The true definition of a man is the person he is when no one is watching. Avery was just a boy when he left home, and not much more than a boy when he died, but from what you’ve told me, I can now take comfort in knowing what kind of a man he was going to become. I’m proud of my son and the friendship he shared with you. As evidenced by your words, he grew up to be the person his mother and I raised him to be. And just as I’m proud of Avery, I’m certain your brothers are proud of you. You gave Avery the one thing no one else did during his last hours in that prison.”
Heath made eye contact with Garrett. “What’s that?”
“Respect, Heath. You gave him respect. You stayed with him until he died, and then continued to stay with him until they made you put him in that grave. You were a good friend to my son, Heath Barkley, and if you don’t want to remember anything else about your time in Carterson Prison, then remember that.”
Silence engulfed the room then. A silence filled with memories of a tragic war that had torn its nation apart. Every man seated in the Barkley study had served in that war, and though the circumstances surrounding their time in the military differed as much as their ages and backgrounds did, their allegiance to the Union gave them common ground.
Jarrod stood and walked to the brandy decanter. This time he didn’t ask if anyone wanted a drink, but instead, to the liberty to pour one for each man. He carried the full glasses on a tray and circulated it amongst his guests and his brothers. When everyone had a glass in hand, Jarrod set the tray back on the table. He crossed to his chair and remained standing. He held his glass aloft and offered a toast.
“To fallen comrades, sons, brothers, and friends. May they rest in peace.”
The glasses were raised in unison, then drained dry. One by one the men stood and put the empty vessels on the table. Garrett turned to Heath.
“Heath, thank you. I know the decision to testify against Bentell wasn’t an easy one for you to make. I don’t have enough words to offer you an adequate apology for the trouble my presence has caused you.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Mr. Att--”
“Please. Call me Garrett. And I don’t want to make that request of you again.”
“Garrett,” Heath finally agreed. “ There’s no need to apologize, Garrett. I made my own decision when it came to being willing to testify against the Bentells. Besides, what happened wasn’t your doin’. For some reason, I have a feeling that you, and I, and Avery, were in this thing together from the start.”
Garrett smiled. Though he wasn’t one for fanciful thinking, maybe…just maybe, Avery had somehow had a hand in seeing that Heath Barkley was safely returned to his family.
“I’d like to think you’re correct, Heath.” The man turned to Chris. “Are you ready to make our leave of the Barkleys, Major Fletcher?”
“If you are, Garrett.”
Handshakes were exchanged and thanks given. Even Nick and Garrett managed to shake hands without coming to blows, or exchanging sharp words.
“Nick, you’ve been a worthy adversary,” Garrett teased.
“I have been known to speak my mind a time or two,” was all Nick would acknowledge.
Jarrod looked at his brother. “A time or two, Nicholas?”
The other men laughed, then Garrett encircled Heath’s shoulders. He gave the young man the kind of hug he’d give Avery if he were still alive. The kind of hug a father gives a son he’s proud of.
“Heath, thank you for everything. You’ve given me a gift I never thought I’d have.”
“The gift of knowing what happened to my son.”
Because he didn’t know what else to say, Heath’s only response was, “You’re welcome.”
As the Barkley brothers walked their guests to the front door, Jarrod asked, “Are you gentlemen heading back to Washington tomorrow?”
“No,” Garrett shook his head. “We’re heading to New Mexico first. From there, we’ll head on to Washington.”
“New Mexico?” Nick questioned.
“I want to see my son’s final resting place.”
“There might not be anything there,” Heath said, knowing that most of the buildings had probably fallen down from disrepair, if not having been torn down by looters for the lumber they contained.
“You’re right, Heath, there might not be anything there. Or at least not anything but Avery. However, this is something I have to do. After I have seen the place where my son died, then I’ll go home and see if my family will have me back.”
“They will,” Heath said.
“How can you be so certain?”
“Just tell your wife and daughters that Avery wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He loved his family a lot. He wouldn’t want all of you torn apart because of him. You tell them Avery’s friend said so.”
“I will,” Garrett promised. “Believe me, Heath, I will.”
Final goodbyes were spoken, then Jarrod and Nick walked their visitors to the barn. Heath knew he wasn’t up to making the trip without assistance from Nick, so chose to stay in the house.
The horses Chris and Garrett had rented at Harper’s Livery Stable were retrieved from stalls, saddled, and led into the ranch yard.
As he mounted his horse, Garrett said, “Please thank your mother for the hospitality she’s extended to us these past few weeks.”
“We will,” Jarrod promised.
“And thank Heath again for me, too.”
“I believe Heath will tell you that you’ve thanked him enough.”
“Jarrod, after what Heath, as a fifteen-year-old kid, did for my son, I can’t thank him enough.”
Jarrod gave a sad smile for all the things Heath had been forced to endure before coming to the ranch. “No, I don’t suppose you can.”
Jarrod and Nick waved goodbye as the men turned their horses around and headed through the front gates. The brothers walked back to the house. When they entered, Jarrod turned left and went to the study. Given the events of the past few days, he was woefully behind in his work. Karen had brought a stack of files and mail to him on Friday that he hadn’t even looked at yet.
Nick toured the lower part of the house in search of Heath. When he didn’t find his brother in the parlor, or gunroom, or kitchen, he trotted up the back stairs. Nick assumed he’d find Heath’s door closed, which would be an indication that the man was napping. Considering Heath was still recovering from his injuries, that event wouldn’t have surprised Nick. So when he saw that Heath’s door was open, Nick’s brow furrowed with puzzlement.
The blond haired cowboy was standing in front of his window, looking down upon the ranch yard. Nick walked up behind him.
“Need to talk?”
“No. Reckon I’ve done enough talkin’ for one day.”
Nick smiled. “More than you usually do.”
Though Nick couldn’t see his brother’s smile, he knew his words had prompted Heath to do just that.
“Garrett wanted us to thank you again for all you did for Avery.”
“No thanks are necessary. Avery was my friend.”
“Somehow, I thought you’d say that.”
Nick raised his hands, lowered them, raised them again, and lightly laid them on Heath’s shoulders. He squeezed briefly, then allowed his hands to rest there.
There was a lot Nick Barkley could have said, starting with, “Heath, I’m sorry for not always understanding how difficult Carterson was on you, and not understanding what you went through there.” But because Nick knew Heath would brush him off with something like, “You couldn’t have known,” or, “You don’t need to apologize,” Nick chose to say something else as he squeezed Heath’s shoulders again.
“I just want to let you know that what Garrett said in the study a little while ago is true.”
Heath turned his head enough so that Nick could see his face in profile. “What he said?”
“That he was sure your brothers were proud of you. I am proud of you, Heath.”
“Thanks, Nick,” Heath said, as he returned to staring out the window. “I…in some ways, I wanted to tell you about Carterson every time you asked, but in other ways, I didn’t.”
“Because I was sure you would have handled things better than I did. Because I was sure you wouldn’t have failed Avery the way I did.”
“You didn’t fail Avery. You were a loyal friend to him. You can’t blame yourself for what Lucinda Bentell did to him, or the fact that you couldn’t end his life. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, and even more so, of a fifteen-year-old. Besides, as you said, you didn’t have the means to do so even if you had been willing to.”
“And I couldn’t tell you what I would have done, because I wasn’t there. So for you to assume you know what I would or wouldn’t have done, is a waste of your time, and a waste of my time, too. You got that?”
Heath smiled again. “Sure, Nick. I got it.”
The brothers stood looking out of Heath’s window for a long time that afternoon. They didn’t hear Jarrod walk through the doorway, and weren’t aware of his presence until he put one arm around Nick’s shoulders, and rested the other on Heath’s right arm. The ranch yard seemed to come alive with history in each man’s mind as they silently relived the battles they’d fought in, the miles they’d marched, and the places in this vast country their military service had taken them, before the faces of long dead friends began flashing in front of their eyes.
Jarrod finally brought his attention away from the window, and took note of the way he and his brothers remained grouped so closely together. Jarrod with an arm still around Nick’s shoulders and a hand on Heath’s arm, and Nick with both of his hands still resting on Heath’s shoulders.
President Lincoln was right, Jarrod thought. A house divided against itself cannot stand. But a house united...Jarrod smiled. A house united is a very strong house indeed.
Nick’s attention was finally diverted from the window, as well. He looked at his older brother and asked, “What are you smiling for?”
“Oh, just thinking how grateful I am for this strong house we have, Nicholas.”
“Strong house? What are you talking about? Of course the house is strong. Father built it out of--”
Jarrod laughed as he urged both of his brothers from the room. “Come on, Nick, let’s go play a few games of billiards. With Heath’s bum arm I don’t suppose he can do much more than watch, but that’s okay. I think the three of us are along overdue for some brotherly fun.”
“Well, at least something you’ve just said makes sense,” Nick said, as he charged ahead of his brothers so he could get the billiard balls racked.
When Heath didn’t question Jarrod regarding his comment the way Nick had, the lawyer knew his younger brother understood exactly what he meant. He put an arm around Heath’s shoulders, being careful not to jostle the man’s sling.
“You know, Jarrod, you’re right.”
“Right about what?”
Heath smiled. “That a house divided against itself cannot stand. I thought Matt Bentell was gonna divide this house for a while, and maybe he did, but in the end, this house was too strong to fall.”
“No, Heath. This family was too strong to fall.”
Heath thought a moment, then silently acknowledged that his brother was correct. It was the family that united a house, and the family who lived within its walls that kept it strong. When it came to families, Heath Barkley knew that he couldn’t ask for more than what God had blessed him with.
The memories of Carterson Prison weren’t erased that day, but as time went on, they were easier for Heath to bear, and easier for him to speak of. There would come a time when he was even able to tell Victoria and Audra some of what had happened to him there. And years after that, Heath’s children, nieces and nephews, and then later grandchildren, and grandnieces and grandnephews, would look upon him as a hero because he’d been a POW during the Civil War, and beg him to tell whatever stories he was willing to share. Because advancing age had taught Heath the importance of keeping someone’s memory alive, his stories always included a boy name Avery Reece, and the time an Attorney General of the United States visited Stockton.
But children were still a few years off for any of the Barkley men, so on this day in 1876, Heath was content to watch his brothers play billiards, and like Jarrod, was grateful for a house that was once again united.