~*~Never Alone~*~

Heath Barkley brushed down his horse with two different brushes, using both hands. His saddle rested on the corral fence. He had taken off his shirt in the hot summer sun, his lean chest shining with sweat. He worked hard, knowing the horse enjoyed the care. His Modock was a good loyal horse and Heath took his responsibility to the animal very seriously.

"You're going to wear that beast out," Audra's voice teased lightly. She climbed on top of the fence and sat on it watching her brother. He grinned up at her.

"You think so huh?"

"No. I'm just kidding." Audra was a beautiful young woman, barely nineteen years old compared to Heath's 23 years. They both had the same blond hair, and bright blue eyes. Audra wore a black riding skirt and white blouse. Her boots covered her legs nicely. Heath already felt protective of his sister, even though he had only been part of the family for less than a month.

"Heath, can I ask you a question?" Audra asked with her lilting voice. Heath stopped brushing his beast. Slapping the animal on the back, he let him go to run in the field nearby. He climbed up beside Audra.

"Sure, Sis. What did you want to know?"

"That night, in town, when I came to your hotel. Are you ashamed of me? I tried to make you out to be something you weren't." Heath cocked his head a little contemplating his sibling. She was so innocent. The first night he had come to the ranch, Nick had kicked him out when Heath confronted him, telling him he was a Barkley. Hours later Audra had found him at the hotel, and tried to make a pass at him, trying to get him to admit he was lying, but he wasn't. He would never lie about something like that, not about his father and mother. He honored his mother too much for that. He sighed.

"You're worried about that?" he teased. "Audra, you had an excuse. You're as stubborn, bull-headed and wild as Nick."

"Bull-headed? Me?" Audra demanded pretending indignation that didn't reach her laughing eyes. "I think I'm going to take offense at that."

"Too late," Heath returned. "Sis, you were just protecting your father's memory. You had every right to disbelieve me. I'm still not sure I believe it sometimes."

"Oh, I believe it now," Audra laughed. "Talk about being bull-headed. You're just like Father sometimes. You walk like him you know, with that cocky confidence and you have his gentleness. You're going to make a great father someday."

"Well give me some time, Sis. I'm not quite ready yet."

"So you aren't mad at me?" Audra went on. "You never talked about that night, and I just wondered."

"I think it would take a lot for me to get mad at you, Audra. But if I do, I'll let you know, okay?"


"I'd better get my Modock in before nightfall. Nick will be back and Mother will want us to get dressed for dinner. You know Nick and I are going to Modesto tomorrow for the horse show?"

"Yes. Mother said it's going to be awfully lonely with you two gone and Jarrod going off to San Francisco."

"You should go with him," Heath suggested. "You'd have a good time." He whistled and his horse came running. Audra walked with her brother into the barn. Over the last few weeks an easy commoraderie had grown between the two. Heath cherished his relationship with his newfound sister, brothers, and Victoria. That she had so wholeheartedly was something he hadn't really expected. But then she was so like his own deceased mother, he should have expected nothing less. He would have moved heaven and earth for her. She was truly a magnificent mother.

"Heath," a voice said out of the blue. Heath and Audra turned simultaneously to see a man that Audra didn't recognize. Heath's blue eyes widened in amazement.


"Surprised you recognize me, Cuz. My parents said you had struck gold. I guess I should have come sooner." Heath turned to Audra.

"Sis, go in the house. I'll be there shortly." Audra hesitated only a second. She already recognized that tone in Heath's voice. It resembled their father, and brooked no argument even though she wanted to protest. She walked quickly towards the barn door, only to feel the man, Trey, grab her arm. Her gasp of surprise was nothing to Heath's instant action. He was by her side so fast, she barely saw him move.

"Let her go, Trey. Now." For a split second, Audra thought Trey was going to defy Heath. When he let her go, she looked at Heath.

"Be careful," she warned.

"Don't worry," Heath said with self-assurance. "Trey isn't staying, are you, Cuz?" Audra hurried away while Heath faced the man who wasn't as tall nor as strong as him. He had a weak, arrogant attitude that was irritating, one Heath never could stand. He resisted the urge to hit Trey while he watched his every move.

"What do you want, Trey? You aren't welcome here."

"Aw, Heath. Is that anyway to treat your only living relative?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You didn't hear? What's it been, just a week or two since you and Mrs. Barkley were in Strawberry? My mother told me you had been there, and killed her friend."

"Her friend tried to kill two people," Heath hissed. "Hell, Trey, you know what a vicious woman your mother is."

"Not any more."

"What do you mean?"

"She's dead. She and my father were killed when a man tried to rob the hotel." Heath stared at Trey, his horror slowly turning to disbelief.

"Who would try to rob Uncle Matt? There was no money at the hotel. Uncle Matt didn't have any money at all and everyone knew it."

"Strangers didn't know. No one really knows what happened. They were found dead in the hotel, both of them shot. My father was behind the desk. My mother was upstairs. Neither of them had a gun."

"Who's to say it was a robbery then?"

"I do."

"I don't believe you, Trey. And I honestly don't care. Your family never cared about my mother or me or Hannah and Rachel. In fact I distinctly remember how you treated me. So why don't you just get on your horse and leave?"

"You sure you want me to do that?" Heath walked back to his horse who was in his stall. He finished watering and feeding him as he spoke.

"I want you out, Trey. We've never even been friends, much less cousins. There's nothing for you here. So just leave." Heath was on alert, but when his back was turned, Trey made his move. He lit the kerosene lamp that was used at night to light the barn. Then he threw it into the stall. The lamp broke, the kerosene hitting the hay on the ground, and lighting instantly. Keeping his head, Heath opened the stall. His Modock, completely terrified brushed past Heath throwing him back ward in his attempt to get away from the fire. The horse's body was large enough to make Heath lose his footing. He fell as Trey came into the stall. Trey took the wooden water bucket, emptying it over the flames. Heath was using the wall to get up, his hands on the barn wall for support, and his face turned towards the wall when Trey smashed the wooden bucket over the back of his head. Heath's world exploded into a sea of stars and pain as he clung to the wall. Trey took a piece of wood from the broken bucket and hit Heath even more forcefully in the same spot. Heath silently fell to the ground in a heap next to the still burning fire. Trey then dragged his cousin to safety just as Nick came running into the barn.

"Heath? Heath, where are you? Your Modock." Nick's words were halted in mid air as he caught sight of Trey pulling Heath into the center of the barn. Smoke came from the stall where Heath normally kept his Modock. Not knowing Trey, or what was going on, Nick jumped him. The two men were struggling and yelling raising a commotion. A few hired hands came into watch. Others ran to the main house to get some help.

"Nick, stop it," Audra cried as she came running into the barn with her mother behind her. Jarrod joined them, pulling Nick off the man. Victoria ran to her son in the center of the barn. He wasn't moving. In fact he was bleeding from a wound at the back of his head. Her hand when she checked for injury came back bright with blood. She looked up and saw the flames in the stall Heath used for his horse. She cried out.

"Heath, oh my God, Heath. Jarrod, Nick!"

"Nick, fire," Jarrod cried. Instinctively, Nick and Jarrod ran to the water trough. Both of them, along with two of the hands got water buckets by the trough and filled them. They all raced back into the barn and put out the fire in the stall while Trey leaned against a wall. Audra and Victoria assessed Heath's injuries. Nick confronted Trey.

"Who are you and what the hell is going on here. What did you do to my brother?"

"I didn't do anything, except to save his life. I'm his cousin," Trey explained hotly. "The kerosene lamp fell in the stall. His horse knocked Heath over and he hit his head. I was trying to get him to safety. What did you think I was doing?" Nick looked ashamed. He was so damn sure that Trey had been up to no good that he hadn't stopped to ask questions. If his family hadn't come in, he would have fought the man until he was beaten or the barn burned down around them. If Nick was aware of one of his worst shortcomings, it was his temper.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't know."

"Nick, ride into town for the doctor now!" Victoria ordered. "Jarrod, can you and this young man take Heath up to his room. He's got a head wound. He's bleeding."

"We'll take him, Mother. No fear." Audra drew close to her mother. Trey glanced at her, seeing an unspoken mixture of fear and confusion in her face. It didn't matter. He didn't plan to stick around long enough for Heath to wake up and give him away. And she wouldn't do anything until Heath woke up, he was sure.

"We can make a chair of our hands and use our body to support him," he suggested to Jarrod. Jarrod nodded. He and Trey lifted Heath carefully, then walked carefully out of the barn with him. Nick left the barn. His horse was still saddled outside. They could hear him ride away at a full gallop. Shaking her head Victoria looked around the barn.

"It could have burned them both to death," she sighed. Audra touched her mother's shoulder. Victoria recognized when her daughter was upset, but she put it down to the situation. They were all upset.

"It's all right, Audra. I'm sure Heath will be fine."

"It's not that, Mother. I was just wondering."


"Why would Heath be using a Kerosene lamp at this time of day. And since when would he put it where it could fall into the stall." Victoria walked over to the stall. She looked inside at the shattered lamp. Her mind was easily as logical as Jarrod's or Audra's. She turned back to her daughter with new found respect.

"What are you saying, Audra?"

"Heath was not happy his cousin was here, Mother. He said Trey was leaving. I think Trey's lying."

"Audra? Do you think he meant to hurt Heath?" Victoria's incredulous disbelief overflowed. Her eyes locked on Audra's. Nothing else needed to be said. In a rush of maternal protection, Victoria hugged her daughter to her. She stepped back and put her hands on Audra's shoulders. She wasn't as tall as her daughter, but she sometimes appeared taller than anyone she knew, especially to her youngest child.

"I'll tell Nick and Jarrod. Do me a favor. Stay with Heath at all costs. I'll make sure Silas and one of the men is near too."

"I will, Mother. It seems as if Heath just got here.and then it seems as if he were always here. He has to be all right, Mother. He just has to." Audra's plea was echoed in Victoria's own heart as they walked back to the barn, hand in hand. Her children were her life, and Heath was one of those children, courtesy of her husband. She looked heavenward just before they entered the house through the side patio door and said a silent plea.

"Tom, you better take care of your son. We're not going to lose him now. Do you hear me? We're not." Victoria smiled as she felt her husband's warmth and strength encircle her. Heath would be all right. He would. The swish of her skirts was lost in the afternoon wind as she entered the house, her maternal instinct on guard to protect all her children from an intruder who masqueraded as a friend.

Part II

"Well Doctor?" Jarrod Barkley asked after the older man had examined his brother and dressed his head wound. Dr. Merar sighed as he turned to face Mrs. Barkley and her children. He hated giving this woman bad news, but he also knew he couldn't sugar coat the truth. Victoria Barkley wouldn't stand for it, and she was one woman he knew better than to get mad at him.

"John," Victoria said firmly. "Be honest." It was as if she knew he needed reinforcement.

"Well, Victoria, I won't lie to you. Heath has suffered a nasty head wound. His skull has been fractured. I can feel a bit of bone giving way at the back of the head. He's deeply unconscious, unresponsive to any kind of stimuli. I believe he's in a coma."

"No!" Audra cried. Jarrod pulled her to him, putting his arms protectively around his baby sister.

"Audra, please," Victoria said a little impatiently. "John, Heath has only been with us a short time. He's been through a great deal for such a young man. I think he's been the happiest in his life living right here. He works harder than any of our hands, and he loves with a quiet fierceness that is inspiring. We're not letting him go."

"You tell him, Mother," Nick agreed. He sat on the side of Heath's bed.

"Victoria," the doctor said with a little condescension in his voice. "You can't fight with nature. You know that." Victoria, her eyes bright with her intensity stepped forward, facing the doctor head on.

"Tell me what we can do to save him, John. I have to know. We'll do whatever it takes to help him." Looking at the eager faces in front of him, Dr. John Marer wondered what this young man had done to earn such loyalty from the Barkley's. Jarrod and Audra appeared ready to fight while Victoria stood her hands at her side, waiting. Nick watched the doctor as well, all of them waiting for him to speak. He thought carefully before he answered Victoria's question.

"The only thing I can think of is to try and wake him up. Talk to him. Read to him. Play music for him, anything to stimulate his mind. Another thing to do is to massage his arms, his legs, and his back to keep his body as healthy as possible. It could take a long time for this to work. It may never work, but it's worth a try. If he is going to wake up, though it would be more likely to happen in the next few days. If he doesn't wake up by then, it's unlikely he ever will." Audra closed her eyes in pain while Jarrod let her go. She ran to her mother who enfolded her with a maternal hug. Victoria met the doctor's gaze over her daughter's head.

"He won't be alone at any time, John. We love him and we want him back the way he was, or any way we can get him."

"He must be very special."

"You'll get to know him someday," Victoria promised. "Let me show you the way out. Nick, will you see to our guest downstairs? Jarrod, please stay with Audra and Heath." Victoria led the doctor out of Heath's room into the second floor corridor. Nick made his formal good-byes to the doctor and then went down stairs. Victoria stopped the doctor just before they got to the staircase, making sure they could not be seen or heard from the floor below.

"John, the man downstairs is Heath's cousin, Trey. He said Heath fell and hit his head. That's what we told you."


"Is that possible? You said he fractured his skull. Could he have injured himself so severely by hitting his head in the barn?"

"Depends on what he hit it on."

"It was a water barrel made of wood." Dr. Morton appeared to think for about ten seconds. He nodded.

"It is possible, Victoria."

"Nothing else could have caused the fracture?"

"Now I didn't say that. Truth is, unless Heath wakes up, he's the only one who can tell us the truth."

"Or his cousin," Victoria mused.

"You think the man is lying?" Victoria shook her head.

"No, of course not. He pulled him out of the stall when it was on fire. I'm sure I'm just being fanciful. When will you be back?"

"Tomorrow. I want to keep close eye on him. If he wakes suddenly and vomits or you notice a change in his pulse, send one of the hands for me. You know what to look for, Victoria. You've been through enough with Nick and Jarrod."

"Yes, they have gotten into their fair share of injuries," Victoria conceded. "Thank you for coming, John."

"You're welcome, Victoria." They walked down the stairs. Silas came to see the doctor out. Victoria heard Nick talking with Trey in the parlor. Her eyes smoldered with unspoken anger for a few minutes. It didn't matter what John said. She had met Martha and Matt. She knew what Martha was capable of. While their son didn't have to be like his mother, from what Audra told her, she guessed he was fully capable of trying to kill Heath. But why? That was the question that ate at Victoria. It kept her from sending one of the hands for the sheriff and pressing charges, that and the fact they had no evidence. She had to find out what the man wanted. And she had to prove that he tried to kill her son. Then she would let the sheriff take him away, hopefully for a good long time.

"Nick, are you entertaining our guest?" she asked as she walked into the parlor. She shook Trey's hand as he stood to greet her.

"I'm sorry we don't have much time now, Trey, is it? Heath is terribly hurt as I'm sure Nick told you. We must give him all our attention. You are welcome to stay here as long as you would like. I'm sorry, I didn't get to ask what your reason was for coming to the ranch?" Victoria's voice was strong and certain. Nick waited expectantly for Trey to reply while Victoria tried to meet his gaze, but found he would not really look at her. Like mother, like son, she thought, knowing she was rushing to judgement, but certain she was right.

"I came to see Heath. I wanted to tell him about my parents. We didn't really get a chance to talk before the fire started."

"Your parents?"

"Yes, Ma'am. I think you met them once. They were murdered about a week ago by robbers."

"Really?" Victoria queried, hiding her growing distrust. "That's terrible." Nick knew his mother. He looked from Trey to his mother and back in confusion.

"I wanted Heath to know. Just glad I was there when he fell. His first thought was for that horse. He always was all fired up to take care of animals before people. That's Heath." Curious now, Victoria walked a little closer to Trey.

"You know Heath well?"

"We grew up together. You could say I protected him sometimes. Kids can be awfully cruel you know. Everyone knew Heath didn't have a daddy." The words hung in the air. "Until now that is." Trey's hastily added words didn't save him. Nick caught on to his mother's dislike of the man in that minute. The way Trey spoke showed he had no respect for Heath either and that put him way down on any list for Nick.

"Well, Mr. Thomson." Victoria started.

"Trey. The name is Trey. I won't intrude while Heath is sick, Mrs. Barkley. I'll just go and stay in town. I don't have much money but."

"Oh, I wouldn't hear of you leaving," Victoria said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. "You must stay over night."

"No, no. I wouldn't feel right." Outside the thunder was just starting to crackle and a few rain pellets hit the French windows of the parlor doors. Victoria threw her hand out towards the French doors that led to the patio.

"You can't go now. It's raining. Silas will get you some supper and show you to the guest room. I'm sure you'll excuse Nick and me. We need to check on Heath."

"Nick said my cousin was in a coma. Is there any hope at all?" Trey asked, his concern not reaching his eyes. Victoria's temper was rising. She worked to hold it in check. Nick didn't miss the color in his mother's face. Most people thought he got his temper from his father, but if they ever saw his mother steamed, they would know better.

"Heath is going to be just fine," Victoria returned with a quiet firm tone. "I would not contemplate otherwise from one of my sons." Her voice lingered on the word my. Trey blinked but didn't respond otherwise to that word. He knew perfectly well who Heath's real mother was and now he knew that Heath was also Victoria Barkley's son, if not by blood, then by her heart.

"Goodnight, Trey," Victoria nodded. She turned, her pale green skirts swishing behind her as she and Nick walked up the stairs. At the top of the stairs as they walked to Heath's room, Nick put his arm around his mother. She looked up in surprise.


"I don't know what you are thinking, Mother, but I sure am damn proud of you." Victoria touched her second's son's face. She looked behind her, shuddering a little. Then she took Nick's hand and walked into Heath's room. There she had a very long talk with her children in Heath's presence. Whether Heath heard or not was irrelevant. What she didn't see was Trey listening through the door, knowing that he definitely wasn't welcome in the Barkley home. He needed to retreat quickly, but he didn't plan to retreat until he got his fair share. He had put up with Heath's goody goody attitude, and envied Heath his mother and now his good fortune too much to give in now. There was a fortune here.and Trey meant to take what he could while he could.

Part III

The next morning, Heath remained unconscious. Through the night, Victoria read to her son while her children slept restlessly in their rooms nearby. Victoria did the nursing Heath required quietly with some help from Silas who remained on silent standby as he often did for the Barkleys. As the morning dawn shined into the room, Victoria gazed at Heath. Her heart ached for him as much as it had ached for Audra or Jarrod or Nick when they were hurt. She knew why she felt as she did about Heath. But she wondered if he knew. She spoke as the early morning birds chirped in a new day. She spoke hoping he could hear her.

"Heath?" Sitting on the side of his bed, Victoria took Heath's big weathered hand in hers. Her hand was so small and fine compared to his. His hand was like Nick's and her husband's. It was worn and knew hard work. She pushed back a piece of stray blond hair that covered the bandage around his head.

"I wish you would open your eyes," she told him. "Of all my sons you have the most expressive yes. They're just like your father's. Do you know I always knew what Tom was thinking just by looking into his eyes. I could even tell when he was stretching the truth to either protect me or to keep himself out of some hot spot when he got in a brawl or.when he came back from Strawberry. When Tom came back that year, that fall, I knew something was different. He was so attentive, so caring, showering me with gifts, and spending more time with the boys. I remember a conversation we had now. I didn't think much of it then. We'd been married almost ten years then, and I thought he was getting sentimental on me." Victoria was lost in her memories as she spoke. Still she held Heath's hand, ever cognizant as she waited for some sign he was listening.

"He told me that he loved me more than anything in the world, and that no matter what happened in his life, he would always be grateful for the days we had together. He said that as long as he lived he would cherish every minute we spent together. I didn't really answer him. I just let him hold me and love me. Oh, Heath, if he had known about you, I know he would have loved you. I can just see him now wishing he had known you. I don't think that what happened between your mother and my Tom was a mistake. I think it was the best way God knew to create a man like you, because there was something in your mother." Victoria's voice cracked as she admitted her own frailties never knowing that Audra was listening in awe in the doorway.

"There was something in your mother that you needed to be who you are. You are a fine example of both your father and your mother, and yourself. You miss your mother I know. I can't take her place Heath, but I love you. I need you because you are in my heart every bit as much as Audra or Jarrod or Nick. You are all my children and I love you." Audra's movement caused Victoria to turn her face. She stood a silent beacon to her daughter. Audra walked over to her mother. She took her hands in hers.

"Have I told you lately how lucky I am to be your daughter?" Audra asked, her deep respect and caring for Victoria shining on her young face. Victoria smiled.

"Not lately. I always enjoy hearing it though."

"Oh, Mother." The two hugged in a warm embrace.

"How is he this morning?" Audra asked. The two stood arms around each other. Victoria was wearing the same dress she had worn the night before while Audra was fresh and ready for the day.

"He's the same," Victoria said. "Oh, Audra."

"He's strong, Mother. He'll fight. He has to."

"Yes, yes of course you are right."

"Why don't you go lay down, Mother. I'll sit with him and read."

"When you get tired, get Jarrod or Nick to take over."

"They're both supposed to be leaving on business trips today," Audra objected.

"They won't go at least not today. If Heath isn't awake in a day or two though, they'll have to get back to their lives. It'll be all right, Audra. You'll see. Dr. Merar will be by later too. Good night, darling." She hugged Audra again, leaving the young woman to sit with her brother. Audra, a natural nurse thanks to her brothers many close calls didn't think twice about sitting with Heath. She sat down picking up the book her mother had been reading. Heath loved to read. She hoped he could hear her. She hoped.

Hours later, Victoria woke to hear voices outside her window, raised voices that were none too friendly. She always slept with her windows open because Tom loved the outdoors. Habit was hard for Victoria to break, so she left the windows open. In her nightgown, she stood just out of sight of the window, listening to the voices below.

"This is how you are repaying me for saving Heath?" Trey was saying. "If it hadn't been for me, he would have died."

"He may die anyway," Nick retorted. "Listen, you're taking this all wrong. My mother and sister are wound up in taking care of Heath. We just don't have time for visitors right now. If you want to come back when Heath is better, I'm sure the family will be glad to have you."

"It's just that Heath was going to loan me some money," Trey seemed to whine. Victoria closed her eyes. The more Trey talked, the more he got on her nerves. She smiled when she realized Nick wasn't buying it.

"Well that's between you and Heath. If you'll excuse me, Trey, I've got cattle to take care of." Victoria chanced a glance out the window. She saw Nick walking away, and a sight that made her blood run cold. Nick's back was to Trey. Trey made the figure of gun with his hand and pretended to pull the trigger. She breathed a sigh of relief as the man got on his horse and rode away. She shook her head. Audra had been right when she thought Trey was lying. Trey was not a person Victoria wanted anywhere near her children or the ranch. When Heath woke, they would get the truth.and maybe then Trey would get what he deserved.

Part IV

Three days later

"Mother, I don't like leaving you like this. Jarrod is in San Francisco. You and Audra have been caring for Heath by yourselves for days. You both are exhausted."

"If Heath doesn't wake up soon, we're going to lose him, Victoria mused. "Every minute we spend with him is worth the energy." Once more Victoria's voice cracked as she looked down at her son, still lying so lifelessly in bed that it stabbed her with pain every time she saw him. "We'll hire a nurse if we need to. You have been planning this trip for months and the show will end on Thursday. You need to go, Nick. We need that stock."

"Yes, that's true." Nick sat on the side of Heath's bed. Audra and his mother had taken the best care of Heath, massaging his arms and legs twice a day, and turning him so his skin wouldn't break down from pressure sores. They had watched him constantly, but still he hadn't come back to them. Nick was beginning to be afraid his brother would leave them before he had ever really gotten to know him, just like his father. The thought was driving him insane.

"Heath?" he asked, just as Victoria had, his heart in his mouth, and his gruff soul reaching out. He looked rather odd, dressed in his ranch clothes with that leather vest and his spurs on his boots, his brown hair greased back and his broad face sadly set. When Heath didn't answer, he spoke anyway.

"You hear me, Boy?" he asked. Victoria smiled realizing she had asked Heath the same thing. "You know we were just getting to be friends. Being brothers, that kind of came easier. Can't chose your brothers you know, though you and Pappy are pretty good. Being friends, well, that takes more work because it involves respect and time. You gave it your all. You're so quiet, Heath. You don't speak up much, but you talk all the time with your eyes and your face. Sometimes I can read your mind, you know. I don't want to lose you, Heath. I lost someone I loved very much once upon a time. He was a good man. He loved us so much and he died too soon. You're not going to do that to us. I won't stand for it. So if you want to tell me that I can't tell you what to do you need to wake up. You need to take control of your life." Nick looked at his mother, then hastily back at Heath. Her tears hurt him but he knew she suffered even when she didn't cry.

"Heath, if you know what I'm saying, there's a lady here who wants you to come back a whole hell of a lot. Audra too. She's kind of wondering around the ranch looking for you when you're right here, but you're really not. We need you brother. I need my best friend. Come back to us, hear?" He stood up. Victoria enveloped him in her arms as he wept just a little, giving into the grief that would haunt him forever if Heath really died or stayed in this horrible state. Bending down, he kissed his mother gently.

"He'll come back," he told her. "If just to give me what for. I'll be back by Friday. Make sure Silas locks the door. I'll stop in town and tell the Sheriff to come out at least once a day. Don't argue."

"I won't," Victoria replied. "I love you, Nick."

"I love you too, Mother. You're one of a kind." Nick's compliment rang in Victoria's ears as he hurried off. She watched him leave out Heath's window, then returned to her son. Once again she picked up a book and started to read. It was early morning. Audra was sleeping after an all night shift. Silas was in the kitchen. Victoria was alone with Heath when she started reading again. She was reading a passage from the bible when she thought she noticed something. Heath's hand seemed to move. She almost dropped the bible, then put it on the bedside table. Next she took his hand and squeezed it, as hard as her small fingers could squeeze. For a small woman, Victoria Barkley had quite a grip.

"Heath? Heath, it's your mother!" She waited. At first he didn't move. Then his other hand moved and the left one that she held, returning her grasp weakly. Victoria's heart leaped in exaltation. She called as loudly as she could.

"Heath, wake up. It's time to wake up. You have a whole life to live yet. Heath Barkley. Open your eyes this instant. Heath! I said!!!" Victoria's voice brooked no refusal. Heath opened his blue eyes as his sister fully clothed in a nightgown and robe came running into the room.


"He's awake, Audra," Victoria informed her daughter. "Heath is awake." Audra rushed to the other side of Heath's bed. His eyes were going from Victoria to Audra.

"Heath!" Audra's voice fairly screeched in joy. "Thank God!"

"Don't you all ever sleep?" Heath managed to choke out. "You been talking forever."

"You heard us?" Victoria asked in amazement. Heath nodded. He couldn't say more. He put his hand to his head. Victoria took his hand back.

"You fractured your skull. You know Nick would tell you your head is hard enough. You didn't need to fracture it to prove otherwise."

"Where?" Heath asked looking around the room. "Jarrod? Nick?"

"Nick just left for that horse show in Modesto. Jarrod made a brief trip to San Francisco. He had to go if just for a few hours. He's taking the night train home tonight." Heath nodded.

"Heath are you in pain?" Audra asked seeing her brother shielding his eyes. Heath nodded again.

"Audra, do you think you can ride into town and get Dr. Merar. He might have something for Heath's headache. In the meantime I'm going to get him some broth. How does that sound, Heath?" Heath was already starting to fall asleep again, but this time it was a more natural sleep. Audra clapped her hands as she and her mother went into the hallway.

"He's going to be all right. I know he is. In a week or two, he'll be fighting with Nick and beating Jarrod at pool."

"I think you are right, Darling. Now, about Dr. Merar?"

"Oh, right away, Mother. I'll be back so fast, you won't even know I'm gone." Audra raced for the stairs. Victoria hid her amusement as she called out to her daughter.

"Audra?" The young woman, her blond hair tousled, her white gown flowing around her slender legs stopped at the top of the stairs.

"Don't you think you should get dressed first?" Audra looked down at her nightgown, her face turning red, even as she laughed out loud. Her laughter, so much like her mother's was music in the Barkley ranch. Victoria cherished her daughter's laughter and joined her, releasing much of the tension that had beleagured her since Heath's 'accident."

"Sorry," Audra apologized. "I guess I just go so excited. I never thought I would feel so happy about Heath. I never knew."

"He's a part of us, Audra. Your father sent him to us."

"I like that thought," Audra agreed. "I'd better hurry." She went into her bedroom. Victoria went down to the kitchen where she told Silas the good news. He was so thrilled he wanted to make Heath a complete meal. Victoria thought broth and maybe some toast would be the best way to start. At least until Heath got some strength back. He hadn't eaten or had anything to drink for three days. She wondered how long he could have lasted without nourishment. Shaking her head, Victoria thanked God she hadn't found out the answer.

Upstairs, Heath had been sleeping when a shadow crossed his bed. A sudden hand on his neck made him waken instantly. The shock on Trey's face was interesting. Clearly he hadn't expected Heath to awaken. Quickly his hands tightened around Heath's neck. Heath, terribly weak, was unable to stop his cousin. His hands came up to push Trey away, but he wasn't able to break his hold.

"You were supposed to be dead already," Trey hissed. "Then I could get your family give me some of your fortune for at least trying to save your life. I was waiting, but I didn't hear anything. When I saw Audra tear out of here, I figured you had bought it. I guess I was wrong, Cuz. But this is it. This is the end. This is payback for all the times I envied you your mother. Leah was a real mother, not like mine. She hated me. She hated you. She hated my father. She hated everything." Trey's hands squeezed. Heath choked as he tried to breath. The door to the room burst open as Trey started to speak again. Heath heard the tray of food crash to the floor as Victoria dropped the tray and run across the room to stop Trey.

"Stop," she screamed. "You're killing him. For God's sake, stop." But somehow Trey wasn't hearing Victoria. Heath saw his eyes were crazed. Trey pressed harder.

"You deserve to die, Heath. You're a bastard. You should never have been born." Trey didn't see Victoria go to Heath's gun belt that hung in his closet. She took out Heath's gun and pointed it at Trey.

"Trey, Stop!" She screamed one more time. "For the love of God, stop. I'll shoot. I swear." Distantly Heath knew this time he wouldn't survive. His hands fell to his side, his blue eyes closing just as Trey squeezed one more time as hard as he could while a gunshot echoed in the room. Instantly Heath was released as Trey was felled by Victoria's bullet. Victoria, her face loathing what she had done, dropped the gun as though it were too hot to hold. She rushed to Heath's side. He could hear her calling him again, just as she had while she was reading or talking to him.

"Heath? Heath, answer me." Heath opened his eyes. Victoria collapsed next to him, sobbing her pain. Slowly Heath's arm went around his mother, his real mother, as real as Leah had been. He spoke through a slowly clearly haze and a raspy voice.

"You saved me." Victoria's smile was all Heath needed to know that he truly had come home. His mother put her head on her son's chest and sobbed until the tears were gone. When finally she was able to sit up, she shook her head.

"No Heath, you saved us. You brought your father back to us and gave us hope. Promise me, you'll never do this again. Promise you'll always be here. We love you so much, and we need you." Heath Barkley had believed in Victoria's caring for him. He was proud to work with Nick, side by side with his own brother. Jarrod, the lawyer, the father figure, Pappy, was always good and supportive, and God only knew how he adored Audra. But they were blood. They were part of him. Now he knew as Victoria cried her relief at his survival, as the dead body of his cousin attested to the lengths she would go to save him, he knew. He had a family. He wasn't alone anymore, and God willing, he never would be again, never again.