The Barkley Lumbar Camp
"Bentell, you've got five seconds to tell me where my brother is at or I will personally make sure you never forget what Heath Barkley means to this family." Matt Bentell stood up to Nick Barkley's rage. The man with his graying sandy blond hair and cold blue eyes was not about to back off from his employer, not when he was in the right or so he thought.
"I don't know where he is, Nick! I tried to get to him. Condon knocked both of us out. When I woke up the Condon's were dead. We found their bodies. Heath is still missing."
"Dear God," Victoria Barkley breathed. Jarrod put his arm around his mother, thankful that his sister had stayed back at the ranch. Victoria was strong, but if they didn't find Heath, he didn't know but that their guilt would eat them all alive.
"He risked his life for you. Why didn't you look for him?" Nick hollered again. Bentell shook his head.
"We have looked!" he insisted. "Through every nock and cranny in these blasted woods we could find. You saw the damage. There were explosions everywhere. He could have been seriously hurt or he could have just walked away. That's what he was planning to do when the fire started. He's probably long gone." Nick stepped back defeated. Jarrod took over.
"You're through, Bentell. You had a responsibility to these men and to Heath. Pack your bags and get." Jarrod Barkley was as angry as anyone had ever seen him.
"You can't do that!" Bentell yelled back. "It wasn't my fault that fire got started and it sure as hell wasn't my fault the Condon's knocked me out. I did everything to save your precious trees, and put my life in danger to boot. You owe me." Jarrod's lawyer eyes flashed bright blue in a justified Barkley rage. He pushed at Matt Bentell's chest with his fingers, not once, not twice, but three times finally ending up with the man against the wall and Jarrod's hand around his neck with Victoria trying to pull him off and Nick silently cheering his big brother on.
"Don't you dare tell me what I can and cannot do when it comes to protecting my family!" Jab! "My first mistake was in not firing you when I found out your real identity." Jab! "My second mistake was in ignoring Heath's past and forcing him to come up here with a coward like you while compromising his principles." Jab again! "My third mistake was in trusting you with my brother's life!" Jarrod's hand was on Bentell's neck and the man was finally perspiring in fear. Victoria's light hand on her son's caused him to look down.
"Jarrod, No. This won't help us find Heath." Silence filled the room. Jarrod released his captive, turning to hug his mother. Victoria reassured her eldest boy then placed herself in front of the man who had caused her to possibly lose the son she had so recently grown to know and love.
"You'll receive your wages Mr. Bentell and nothing else. Please leave. My sons will take over the lumbar camp and searching for Heath." Bentell threw up his hands in disgust. His hatred for Heath was surprisingly unleashed to the shock of the family that cherished the young man.
"He's no good you know," Bentell told them venomously. "Anymore than those animals I housed during the war…" Jarrod swung around and hit. Bentell stood and Nick delivered the next punch. The man did not get up. Victoria, Jarrod and Nick left the man in his office. Outside Victoria collapsed in tears in Nick's arms while Jarrod held them both in an embrace, not caring that some of the men who were nearby witnessed their display.
"We'll find him, Mother, I promise," Nick assured the tiny lady. "I won't rest until he is home again…until he knows he means more to us than a hundred Matt Bentells. Mother?" Gray eyes locked onto a set of determined hazel. Putting her hand up to his cheek she nodded her white head.
"He has to be somewhere. We have tell him we were wrong!" she agreed. "Oh Heath, please, please come home." Her prayer was heard by more than her sons. It was heard by Matt Bentell who stood in the doorway of his office. The words evaporated into thin air…just as Heath seemed to have done. The blond cowboy was gone. Dead or alive, his family didn't have the answers as to where he was. Neither did Matt Bentell or did he? The truth would be a long time coming and an endless amount of heart ache would be felt before the guilt of Jarrod, Nick and Victoria Barkley would be put to rest.
Twelve Months Later
San Francisco, California
Jarrod Barkley was exhausted. A case he had worked twelve and fourteen hours a day for the last two months had left him feeling every bit of his thirty-five years. The fact he won the case, proving his client innocent was his reward. Walking up the steps of his three story townhouse set on Nob Hill he barely heard the sound of someone calling his name. All he wanted was a hot bath and bed he was thinking when his name reached his ear for the first time. Turning around, he squinted his eyes in the evening light. It was fall again, a year since Heath's disappearance. Jarrod shook his head as he saw his client standing on his steps.
"Jed? What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be home celebrating with your family?" the lawyer wondered. "They must be thrilled to have you home."
"Mr. Barkley. I'm sorry to bother you. I just wanted to come by and say Thank-you for what ya done. Aint no one ever gone to bat like that for me before."
"I told you before Jed. It's my job. I was glad to help. I couldn't let your wife and children watch you go to jail for something you didn't do." Jed took a few steps forward. He took a deep breath.
"That's the problem, Mr. Barkley. I kin tell ya now. I done kilt that merchant. I needed that money for the new baby a coming. I aint never kilt a man before and I aint never planning to do it again." Jarrod stepped back as though slapped in the face.
"I just wanted to talk to someone. I felt so guilty. Thanks again, Counselor." The man walked away, as if he had just confided to a priest in a confessional where his words would be sacrosanct. Jarrod watched after him, sitting down heavily on the porch. He had been so certain of the man's innocence. How could he have been so wrong? What about the murdered victim's family. He would have to tell them, have to let them know how wrong he was. Jed could not be allowed to go free for what he had done, except that there was double jeopardy attached to the man now. Dear God, what had he done? Stumbling into his house, the counselor shut the door behind him. Unfortunately he could not shut out the truth that gnawed at him as he made his way to bed and recluse, at least for a little while.
"Jarrod, I don't know what you expect us to do," Detective Martin Wells told his friend. "Jed is a free man. We can't arrest him and we can't watch him 24 hours a day." Jarrod clenched his fists at the police station three days later. He was getting ready to go back to Stockton, but first he had wanted to make sure the police were aware Jed Barnes was a dangerous man. If he'd been desperate enough to kill once, he'd kill again.
"I know that, Martin. I just wish…" Jarrod's voice lapsed as he sagged in the chair he was sitting in. "I can't believe this is happening."
"Jarrod, there's something else." The lawyer's dark head shot up.
"What, the Mayor is going to give me a key to the city for freeing a man guilty of murder? Well bring it on." Martin sighed. He shook his head.
"The Adams brothers were in here yesterday. Said if you came near their house again, they'd kill you. Said they might anyway. They, well they're pretty steamed. You probably want to stay away from them. I don't want you to get hurt."
"They have a right," Jarrod muttered. "Don't worry, Martin. I tried to apologize. They wouldn't listen to me. I'm better off going back to Stockton, not that it's much better there." Martin had known Jarrod for years. He leaned against his desk.
"How's the family doing, Jarrod? How's that pretty sister of yours? I didn't see them up here during the social season this year."
"I don't think any of us are in the mood for partying, Martin," Jarrod snapped standing up.
"Heath wouldn't want you to stop living, Jarrod. Audra's just a young woman."
"Audra can do whatever she wants. No one forced her to stay home." Jarrod thundered. Martin put his arms across his chest. He was a man of middle height, thin with hair the same color as Jarrod's but his eyes were a chocolate brown color, his face a little more rugged. He had been a sheriff in a rough mining town before coming to work for the San Francisco police department. The police tried to keep crime down in the city, but it was difficult, especially down on the docks were men were regularly shanghaied. The Detective unit was developed in the last few years to do work the police didn't have time complete. Martin's appointment to the unit was an honor. He took his job very seriously. He also took his interest in Jarrod Barkley as his friend seriously.
Jarrod also valued his friendship with the detective.
"I'm sorry, Martin. I didn't mean to take my problems out on you."
"You don't have to apologize, Jarrod. We're friends, right?"
"Good friends, true. It's just that nothing is the same at the ranch. Nick works his tail off from dawn to dusk. Won't speak unless it's about ranch business. If you bring up Heath's name, he leaves the room. Mother and Audra try to act as if nothing is wrong, but sometimes I think it would be easier on them if we just knew if Heath were dead or alive. This not knowing is killing us, all of us."
"I'm sorry, Jarrod. I didn't realize."
"Well, I'd better get going," The men shook hands. "I'll be going back to Stockton on the afternoon train. I hope Jed doesn't do anything foolish."
"You and me, both Friend," Martin answered. Jarrod left the room, his shoulders hunched, his fatigue evident. Walking through the station with officers in their uniforms watching him, Jarrod knew many men were angry with him for helping a murderer go free. It didn't matter. He deserved their contempt. Leaving the building, he didn't bother to get a hansom cab. Instead he started walking towards home, at least two miles away. The man who had a conscious bigger than the entire state of California felt horrible. Funny how in this instance it was Heath he craved to talk to, Heath or his father. The two of them always had such an uncanny understanding of how a man could make a mistake, atone for it and somehow go on. Jarrod needed that reassurance desperately. He needed his brother. He needed to know that Jed wouldn't kill again. His conscience was eating him alive. Missing Heath, not knowing his brother's fate was tearing him apart. The lawyer was so wrapped up in his thoughts; he never knew what hit him. One second he was walking down the street past an alley. The next stars formed in front of his eyes as something hard hit his head. Falling to his knees, he looked up. Blood flowed into his eyes. Blinking he felt the world sway around him and then let oblivion carry him away while his body was dragged into obscurity.
The San Francisco docks were known to be a dangerous place after dark, especially if you were a young, strong man who was unknown to the regular inhabitants of the neighborhood. Poverty stricken homes, shacks really lined roads that led down to the wharf where boats from all over the world docked. Men worked back breaking hours twelve hours a day in unloading the boats. They earned a wage, but the cost of living in the city was expensive. One young man with blond hair supplemented his income by guarding the docks at night for a few hours after work. Fourteen hour days seemed like nothing to him. He didn't know why. He only knew that this was his life and he really didn't have time for anything else.
Walking along the docks, the young man saw crews still at work. The men worked in shifts, two shifts a day, seven days a week. He had been doing his two jobs for the last six months. No one ever bothered him when he was out taking walks after work, so he thought he could do the additional job of security. It was only two hours a night to cover the time between shifts. The security in the docks was maintained by a private company hired by the city. There were actually only two men to watch the entire area and it wasn't enough, but they did the best they could. He checked to make sure warehouses were locked and vagrants were just that, harmless homeless people who weren't out to steal or kill a man. He'd run into a few thieves, and found he was pretty natural in defending himself. So far, he'd avoided injury. It was a good thing. He made enough money to survive, and that was about all. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye, he saw two men carrying a rolled up carpet between them. This was an old trick he knew to shanghaiing a man. Drawing his gun, he followed the men who walked quickly and silently down the street. Creeping up behind the men, he took no chances. The two men were talking, barely paying attention to what was happening around them. Heath's gun in one man's back made the man halt.
"Move a muscle more and this bullet will be in your back," Heath hissed. He was ready for what was coming. The man dropped his end of the carpet, and turned around while the other started to follow suit. Heath's pistol was up and had knocked the first man unconscious and was aimed at the second when he pulled out a knife. The carpet landed on the ground, rolling a ways, releasing a body that moaned in pain. Heath had not been mistaken in the intent of the men.
"You're breaking the law, Mister. You really think this is worth dying for?" The man came further into the light as Heath backed away. For a second the two simply stared at each other. Heath swore.
"Should a known a goody two shoes like you would be trouble Johnson. Why don't you just creep back into the hole you came from?" the man sneered.
"One more move, Potter and it's you will be six feet under. I aint letting you take him, so ya might as well surrender."
"You'll be next, if you stop me, Johnson." Heath's unreadable expression hid the fact that he knew the scoundrel meant every word he said. Potter was well known for befriending men who came from the city, then drugging their drinks and shanghaiing them. The police had never been able to prove it. Now Heath had caught him in the act. Heath lifted his weapon towards Potter. The man simply grinned at him with his own knife aimed at Heath.
"I'll give ya one more chance, Potter."
"It's you will die tonight, Johnson." In a flash, Potter had swung his hand back and thrown the knife while Heath fired. The blond didn't have enough time to avoid the knife that slammed into him. His gun clattered to the ground along with Potter's dead body. Grasping the deadly weapon with both hands the blond looked down as people came running. A numbing fire slammed into his brain as he realized Potter had thrown hard and struck into his lower chest, just below the xyphoid process. He staggered towards the shanghai victim who was struggling to get up. For a split second, Jarrod was kneeling, looking into the sapphire eyes of his brother who had fallen to his own knees, a horrifying sight with a knife sticking out of him. Jarrod's cry reached Heath's ears. He fell on his back, his silent scream of agony ripping through his own heart.
"Heath! Heath! Oh my God." Jarrod rushed to his brother, pulling him to him, knowing better than to remove the knife. "Heath!" Heath's hands were red with blood. He still clutched the knife, his blue eyes open, staring unfocused. Jarrod screamed again and again. Heath fought the pain, fought to stay awake, fought to breathe. At long last he was able to meet the terrified gaze of the lawyer he had called brother. Now he tried to speak as memories flooded him. He lifted his hand but it dropped back down as he didn't have the strength to move it further. Jarrod grabbed it, holding it tight.
"It's going to be all right, Heath. I found you. We're going to take you home to the ranch. Heath, please, please don't leave us. Fight. Heath we were wrong. We were so wrong." The sapphire eyes were fluttering, the hand in Jarrod's unresponsive. Just as a wagon from the hospital arrived with help, Heath spoke and then gave into the blessed release that would hopefully take him away from the senseless confusion and unbearable agony tormenting him.
"Jarrod? So…lost…Jarrod!" His cry was so confusing but there was no more. Without understanding, Jarrod hugged his brother's body to him for just a second, held him close. Was he too late? Was he too late to bring the boy back to where he belonged? The blond's body was gently taken from him. He followed them to the hospital wagon, and climbed aboard ignoring the pounding headache he was suffering from and the waves of dizziness and nausea that were assaulting him. All that Jarrod was concerned with was his brother. They had to save him. They couldn't lose him now. They couldn't.
Victoria Barkley held her daughter's hand as they walked briskly down the hospital corridor. Nick strode in front of them, his footsteps far longer than theirs. Audra was unusually quiet, her spirit quelled by the knowledge that Heath was injured but at least he was alive. Nick was angry, angry, hurt and worried about his little brother. He was angry and hurt with the blond for walking out on the family, for worrying them needlessly. He could at least have sent them a note letting them know where he was. Deep down, there was a fear that he would never talk to the boy again, to apologize for his part of the Matt Bentell fiasco. Behind him, his mother had many of the same thoughts. She sighed with relief at seeing Jarrod and his friend, Martin sitting on a bench in the hallway. Martin was leaning over Jarrod who had his head in his hands. The Matriarch held her breath fearful as were Nick and Audra. Heath! Heath! Her cries were silent, but they filled the long hallway anyway with a mother's love and sorrow.
"Jarrod!" Nick bellowed. "Where the hell is he?"
"Nick! Lower your voice," Victoria snapped before Jarrod could even lift his head to meet his brother's eyes. Wearily the lawyer stood, allowing his mother to hug him. The lawyer melted into the tiny woman's arms, no longer a man, but a boy needing the comfort of his mother while his world crumbled around him. Stepping back, she brushed away a tear glistening in his eye. That he was exhausted was evident.
"Jarrod? Are you all right? You look…"
"You look like hell," Nick put in, slumping down on the bench next to Martin.
"Why, thank-you Brother Nick. You sure know how to compliment a man."
"He's right, Jarrod," Martin said. "You should be in bed yourself. You've been through quite an ordeal."
"When I know Heath is out of the woods, I'll go to bed," Jarrod retorted.
"Sweetheart, where's Heath?" Victoria asked. "Where is your brother?"
"He's…well he's still unconscious, Mother. The doctor says he lost a great deal of blood."
"What the hell happened?" Nick swore again. "The telegram just said he was gravely injured."
"Nick, if you yell again, I'm going to hit you," Jarrod threatened. "My head is not up to your shananagins this morning."
"Your head!" Nick thundered back. "We were on the train all night from Stockton not knowing if Heath was going to live or die and…"
"Nick, for crying out loud. Heath was injured saving Jarrod from being shanghaied, you fool, and if you'd listen and look, you'd seen Jarrod was concussed," Martin reproached, having enough of the brotherly argument. Nick sat up on the bench stunned. Standing, he saw that Jarrod was indeed hurt, his eyes not quite right somehow, his feet a little unsteady and pain written across the haggard face. In an about face, he quickly sat Jarrod down. That the man did not object was mute testimony to how he felt.
"Oh, Jarrod," Audra sighed kneeling in front of her brother. Victoria sat next to him, feeling the lawyer's forehead for a fever, and checking him over.
"Mother, stop. I'm fine," Jarrod ordered. He lifted Audra's chin. "Everything is going to be all right, Honey." Audra put her head on Jarrod's knee. A few seconds later, a physician dressed in a white lab coat came out of a room across the hall. He came towards the Barkley family, a grim expression on his face. The family braced themselves, all standing, all holding hands, providing a united front, while Martin stood with them.
"Mr. Barkley? I see reinforcements have arrived?" the healer smiled.
"Dr. Hardy, this is my mother, Mrs. Victoria Barkley, my brother Nick and my sister Audra. You know Martin. What's going on with Heath?"
"Why don't we all go down to the visiting room? You all look like you could use some rest, and this is going to be a bit of a long haul."
"Doctor, please," Victoria insisted in her no-nonsense tone. "Just tell us. We don't need mollycoddling. We need the truth." Taking assessment of the family's stance, the doctor who was in his late thirties, a medium sized man with a paunchy stomach and kind face nodded.
"Heath is actually lucky to be alive. That knife did substantial damage." He waited for a reaction. When no one so much as moved, he went on. "First of all, the knife was not clean. However it was sharp and long. It went through a lower part of the lung, and nicked the heart causing damage to the pericardium or the sac that surrounds the heart. It ended just short of the spinal cord. Too bad the boy doesn't have some meat on his bones. Now if it had hit me…"
"Doctor this is not a time for jokes," Jarrod snapped.
"There's always a time for levity, Mr. Barkley. I apologize if I offended anyone. Now we did surgery during the night. If we're lucky, we've managed to repair most of the damage. My biggest concerns are the damage to the heart and infection. The truth is, it's going to be a long healing process and a game of wait and see."
"Wait and see?" Nick snorted, his loud voice carrying down the hall. "Doc, we aint seen that boy in nigh on a year now. He's been missing and now you are telling us we have to wait and see if he'll live or die. What are you trying to do, kill my mother too?"
"Nick," Victoria chided. Nick snorted again, but didn't answer. Victoria put her hand out to the physician who obviously was trying hard to help her son. She wished Nick would think sometimes before he spoke. The doctor didn't need to know family business and they rather needed to keep him from becoming offended by Nick's surly speech. Fortunately the man seemed to be a perfect gentleman. He shook Victoria's hand and sighed.
"I'm truly sorry, Mrs. Barkley. I wish I had better news. There is more."
"What?" Nick grunted. This time Dr. Hardy snapped back.
"Mr. Barkley, your concern for your brother seems misplaced in your eagerness to put me down. If you are angry about the situation, please refrain from taking it out on me or my staff or remove yourself from the premises." Audra put her hand to her mouth, stifling a giggle. Jarrod looking meaningfully at the younger man while Victoria's gray gaze remained fixed on the physician, her shoulders trembling slightly at her son's dressing down. Nick gapped, then closed his mouth and was still, his face turning red as Dr. Hardy finished with his own concerns for his patient.
"Heath was working down on the docks is that correct?"
"I've learned from a friend he was both working on the docks and performing as a security guard down there. It appears he was working quite hard," Martin put in noticing the distress that news gave Victoria. Nick remained stormy but expressionless.
"I thought so. He's undernourished and his bones are poking out. I'm not sure what he was working so hard for, but it's provided him with little reserves to fight. I'm afraid my prognosis is not good, especially if he develops complications."
"Well, Dr. Hardy, I do have an answer for your prognosis," Victoria replied with simple conviction. "My sons don't give in easily. We'll take shifts and stay with Heath. We'll work with him every step of the way until he is on the road to recovery and when he is, we'll take him home. Do you have any objections to that plan?" Dr. Hardy's kind green eyes widened, until a smile broke out on his face.
"Mrs. Barkley, I would have to admit, having family in the hospital twenty-four hours a day for a patient is highly irregular. However, I'm guessing that if this boy is going to make it, you've hit on the best medicine. Now, Mr. Barkley," Dr. Hardy went on turning to Jarrod. "I would like to take a look at you. You've refused medical attention to this point, and you look as though you need it." Jarrod started to object. Victoria put her hand on her son's shoulder.
"He's all yours, Dr. Hardy, aren't you, Jarrod. Martin will go with you if he would be so kind."
"I'd be delighted to get this stubborn mule some help, Mrs. Barkley," Martin concurred. With Jarrod silent, Dr. Hardy called to one of the orderlies coming down the hall and requested a wheelchair.
"I can walk," Jarrod answered, his eyes lingering on the closed door that separated him from his brother. Victoria didn't miss the longing gaze.
"Jarrod, we'll take care of him till you come back. Please, Son, let the doctor help you." Looking down in the loving gaze of his mother, Jarrod touched her cheek. Sighing, the full force of his headache rendering him dizzy and slightly disoriented, he bent down, kissing the forehead of the woman who gave herself so selflessly to her children.
"I love you too, Lovely Lady," he told her. The wheelchair arrived. Jarrod was taken away with Dr. Hardy and Martin in attendance. Victoria exchanged glances with her two younger children. Nick put his arms around both women.
"Let's go see the Boy," he intoned with a caring brisk tone. Together the three entered the white washed hospital room. An empty bed, crisply made was the first object they saw. A curtain that usually separated the beds was drawn back. Victoria let her gaze rest on the next bed, situated near the window that looked out on a garden below. Audra's gasp reached her ears just as she reached the bed. It WAS Heath, she told herself, only it was the Heath of old, the thin rugged boy who had come to them two years before. Even with his eyes closed you could see the battle that raged on his face, what kind of battle, only Heath knew, but Victoria suspected. With a sinking realization, the mother knew they might have come too late. Though there was nothing to tell the boy was injured for his bandages were covered by the blanket that reached to his upper chest, it was evident by his breathing that he was in grave danger.
"Oh, Mother," Audra sighed. Victoria stood on one side of the bed with Nick and Audra going to the other. The mother bent down to whisper to her son.
"Heath? Heath, it's Mother. We're here now." If she expected a reply, Victoria was sadly disappointed. Heath's ragged gasps for air were her only indication that he was there somewhere in that long lean body of his. She reached down to take a big hand in hers. Looking it over, reassuring herself that this really was the son she had longed to be with all these months, she kissed the palm, then put it to her face. Audra spoke next after kissing the blond's forehead.
"You sure are a sight for sore eyes, Big Brother. Do you know how much I missed you? We found you and we're never going to let you out of our sights again. You hear me, Heath? I love you." Her voice alternated between soft sense, fury and love. If the blond heard her, again there was no recognition. Nick knew his brother was out cold. Still he took Heath's other hand, squeezing it hard.
"Feel that, Little Brother? That's Nick. Jarrod's getting some medical attention. You saved him from being shanghaied Boy. That took guts. Ya didn't have to go getting yourself almost killed did ya?" Victoria leaned into Heath's hand, her tears slipping down the strong face. "Well I reckon ya did what ya had ta. Jarrod, he's not much for hard work, what with those lily white hand of his. I reckon ya saved his life while you were at it, Boy. Now ya gotta fight, cause we got lots to talk about. We want ya to come home, Heath. We need ya. Place aint the same without ya." Now tears glistened in Nick's eyes at witnessing Heath's struggle to breath. It took all Nick had not to gather his brother in his arms to hold him tight against the angel of death that seemed to hover nearby. He couldn't stand seeing the boy in pain like this. Victoria took off her coat and gloves. Audra followed suit.
"Audra find a nurse and ask where we can get some cool water. Heath feels hot. Nick, go back and find a hotel where we can stay. Get two rooms, one for you and Jarrod and one for Audra and me. Make sure they're willing to bring food over here three times a day. We'll take shifts with him so no one else gets sick. I am not going to lose my son, not now. no matter how angry he is. I will not." Victoria's voice was firm. Nick and Audra hugged, then hurried to do their mother's bidding. Victoria pulled up a chair. Again she took Heath's hand in hers. She held it to her face leaning into it as she had before while gazing at the closed lids that kept her from the boy she cherished so.
"Do you hear me, Heath Thomson Barkley? Do you understand that your family is here, and that no matter what happens you are not going to die. The rest can wait, Heath, but you are not going to die." Heath's breathing seemed to ease just a bit as Victoria talked to her son. She spoke in gentle words to encourage the blond to fight, to fight harder than he ever had before. Whether she reached him, she did not know. She only knew she had to try, and keep on trying as long as there was breath in her body and his.
There was an angel talking to Heath, he was certain. In a dazed delirium, his body on fire with fever, he rolled over in bed screaming in the sudden pain that assaulted him.
"Mama?" he asked. "Mama?" After a cool cloth had been placed on his head, two soft little hands took his.
"Heath, it's me. It's Audra. Can you drink some water?" Heath heard the voice from a distance, his mind not registering the name, only the soothing voice of an angel, and her touch. He couldn't open his eyes. There were on fire. Were they burned? Where was he? Why was it so hot? He tried to lift his arms to push away the flames that licked at him. The small hands had no difficulty pushing his arms down.
"Heath, listen to me. You're sick. You have a fever. Do you understand me?" He tossed and turned to get away. He couldn't stay here. Neither could she. A wet cloth was placed in his mouth. Sucking at the cool liquid, he knew it wasn't enough to put out the fire that burned within.
"That's it, Heath. Suck on it. Get some water, oh please, Heath." He tossed and turned until the angel's voice grew further and further away…and his mind gave into the darkness that beckoned.
This was the way it went for several days, Heath coming around for short periods, but never with any lucidity. Sometimes he responded to Audra. Her voice seemed to sooth his restlessness. So did their mother's, but Jarrod and Nick got no where. That knowledge hurt the boys, but it didn't detour them. They all forced Heath to drink when he could and if not at least suck on a cold wet cloth to get some liquids into him. His fever spiked each night. It was terrifying to witness the young man's torment as he cried out in pain, never calling for anyone but his mama. On the fourth day, Victoria arrived early in the morning to see a marked change in her son, one that sent shivers of despair running through her heart. She shook Nick who was sleeping with his head on the bed, his hand in Heath's while Heath lay, his body supported by pillows so that he was half sitting, half reclining in bed, his face less flushed but his breathing even more labored if possible, labored and slow.
"Nick!" she cried. "Nick, what's happening?" Nick woke instantly at the sound of his mother's voice. He stood letting her sit in the chair, putting his hands on her shoulders. She was immaculately dressed in a gray fabric, the bodice tight, the arms reaching all the way to her wrists, a bit of lace at her throat, her gray eyes fierce and her tiny body sitting straight as could be in the chair while she took Heath's hand in her own, and kissed it as she often did.
"He's in heart failure, Mother. He sat up in the middle of the night and couldn't breathe. They gave him some medicine that seemed to calm him and then got him sitting up like that. I've never seen anything like it. I thought he was going to choke to death." Victoria closed her eyes.
"We're losing him?" she queried. She couldn't see Nick's nod, but felt his resignation, surprised that he was giving up.
"Doc says he won't last another day. The fever and the pneumonia have broken but it's just too much for him. His heart couldn't take it." Victoria nodded numbly.
"Why didn't you call me, Nick. I should have been here for him."
"What would that have proved?" Nick wondered out loud. "Mother, I don't want him to go, but if you had seen him suffering. I can't bear to see him like this." Victoria took one hand and patted Nick's hand on her shoulder.
"If only he would wake," she sighed. "Maybe we could encourage him. How I wish we could take him home."
"Mother, I kind of wonder if he even knows what's happening. He hasn't said any of our names. There's been no recognition. What if he doesn't even know he's…dying?"
"He knows, Nick," Victoria answered. "Get your brother and sister. If he's leaving us, I want them to be able to say good bye." Nick squeezed his mother's shoulders, kissing the top of her white head. With a quick move he grabbed his hat and left the room, his shoulders hunched, his body trembling in pain. Victoria ached for Nick, knowing how this was killing him. She held the limp hand of her youngest son, held it and squeezed it.
"Heath! Heath, open your eyes," she begged. "Heath, if you can hear me, you need to listen. Please, Sweetheart, listen to your mother." He was breathing so hard. Each breath was like that same knife that had originally put him here was stabbing him over and over again, his face stretched taut in pain. She pulled down the blanket a little shocked to see his abdomen slightly distended, but noticeable due to his thin stature. Pulling it further she saw swelling in his ankles and knew. Her stomach rolled as hope plummeted. Taking off her shoes, she climbed into the bed. Somehow she was able to get behind her son, and support his body against her small one. She pulled the blanket back over them both. If he was going, it was going to be with his mother holding him. She might not have seen him into the world, but she damn well intended to see him out.
Dr. Hardy found the entire family gathered around the bed hours later. He wasn't surprised to witness the extraordinary love that came from each member. Mrs. Barkley was talking steadily to the young man while his brothers and sister were seated either on the bed or in Nick's case sitting in a chair leaning towards his mother and brother. The doctor stepped into the room. With an ahem, he made his presence known.
"Dr. Hardy," Jarrod cried first. "Thank you for coming. We…we need to know what we can do for Heath." The physician allowed Jarrod to stand so he could sit down by the young man to check him over. He listened to his chest, not bothering to distress the dying boy by moving him. Next he checked his legs and stomach. Nothing had changed since early that morning. His condition wasn't worse, but it was no better. His kind gaze met Mrs. Barkley's. Her devastation was evident, but her courage was a tribute to her as she clutched her boy close. If he had known how late Heath came to her in life, he would have been amazed at her devotion. She met his green eyes candidly, with tears ready to fall.
"I think what you are doing is truly the best. His fever is down. His lungs are little more clear of the pneumonia, but there's water there. The problem is his heart can't pump hard enough to circulate his blod properly so that, he's got water retention in his lungs, his legs and stomach. We're giving him medicine for his heart, but that's only a temporary measure."
"That's all there is?" Nick asked darkly. Dr. Hardy had become used to Nick's briskness which he knew now was borne out of a stupendous love for his blond brother. He had finally heard from Jarrod one day how Heath had gone missing, and how much they had regretted his absence and the mistakes they had made that they were certain had driven his away. Dr. Hardy would have given away his own heart to save this young man, but that was not possible.
"That's all there is, Nick. We don't know how bad the damage is. The next twenty-four hours will tell. If you have anything to say to him, this is a good time. I've always heard that the hearing is the last to go. I'm terribly sorry. He's a hero and it's a damn shame." The doctor left the room, certain he was correct and that the boy wouldn't be there to see another dawn. He left the family to their last moments with a member of their family they clearly would never get over losing.
"You're a fool, Hank Adams. Barkley deserves to die for what he done," Rebecca Adams told her son. "He convinced twelve innocent people that a murderer should go free. What'd you go and try and have him shanghaied for? I told you I wanted him dead."
"Mother, you can't just go out and kill a prominent lawyer," Hank objected. "Shanghaiing him seemed like a good idea at the time. If Potter had been more aware, Barkley would be out to sea by now."
"Well it didn't work. Now what are you going to do?"
"I don't know it," the man sulked. He was twenty-five years old and it galled him that his mother was pulling his chains since his father had been murdered in his mercantile by that skunk, Jed. Everyone knew he was guilty, even his lawyer as far as the Adams' family was concerned. Barkley just wanted to prove he was a high and might lawyer who could even get a murderer off. Hank's mother's cold blue eyes bore into her eldest son.
"When your brothers get home, I want the three of you to think on it. Word is the man who killed Potter is actually Barkley's brother, and they're still at the hospital. Find out what's happening over there. There may be more ways to skin a cat than you think. Do you get my meaning?"
"Yes, Mother," Hank nodded. He turned on his heels leaving the house with renewed thoughts. Getting back at the man who had defended Jed was one goal. Getting back at the man who had killed his friend and almost killed his younger brother was another. Maybe there was more than one way to kill two birds with one stone.
The hours passed. Each member of the family took time with Heath to say goodbye. While they all wanted to deny the inevitable, they all knew he was in pain and they couldn't stand to let him suffer. Victoria refused to move, only leaving to go to relieve herself and exercise her legs a little. While she was out the boys talked to Heath, Nick holding his brother and Jarrod speaking first. He held Heath's hand in his own, gazing at the boy whose labored breathing sounded tortuous. He touched the blond hair, pushing it back, speaking from the depths of his soul.
"You know, Heath, for a lawyer, you'd think I'd know exactly what to say right now. Truth is, it's hard, very hard. I know that if we hadn't forced you to go with Bentell, you wouldn't have been in San Francisco. You would have been with Nick at the ranch where you belong. I don't know how fate brought you onto that dock that night. You saved my life, and didn't even know it was me. You saved a complete stranger who turned out to be your big brother. Now…well it's not right, Heath. It's not right for you not to wake up so you can have the life you deserve, so you can know how much we respect you. Heath, I want you to know that if I had it all to do over again, I'd give up my life before I'd ask you to go against your principles. I was wrong. When you see Father…" Jarrod's voice choked over his words. He squinted through the tears that fell, looking for some sign that Heath heard him, sad to see nothing. "When you see Father, tell him how proud we are of you, and how lucky we've been to have you in our lives. You do that for me, Brother Heath? I love you, Heath. I love you and I guess its okay to go if Father is there. He'll take good care of you and you of him. Heath?" Jarrod held the hand for a moment more. When he knew it was hopeless, he fled from the room, joining Audra and his mother in the visiting room, giving Nick time alone with the boy for a few minutes.
In the single hospital bed, Nick's arms were encircled around his brother's waist, the young man's body supported by his brother's large frame. Heath breathed on, but Nick felt the losing battle within the blond. He could tell it was hard for Heath, so hard to catch the air he needed to sustain life. Jarrod was right. Heath had given his life for a stranger, and that stranger by ironic fate had turned out to be his own brother. It made no sense, and Nick was angry that it had to happen at all. For quite some time, he was silent, unable to say the words that might release his brother from the body that had become a painful prison. Though just recently he had begun to believe Heath might be dead, now that they were together, Nick couldn't accept the truth. He prayed for the right words, prayed hard to reach his little brother anyway he could.
"Heath, I'm not good with words like Jarrod. Ya know that. I aint got much ta say. I know yer heart aint working the way it's supposed ta, and that's why yer thinking of giving up the ghost, but I'll tell ya, it aint right. Whatever happened in the last year, whatever you thought of the family up at that logging camp aint nothing compared to how much I need you. We were a team, Little Brother, you and me. We did everything together. We should have had all the years we were growing up to be brothers, but we didn't. I'm telling ya, Heath, we aint had enough time. I'm sorry I hurt ya. I was so sorry the day I went up to the lumbar camp after the fire, I wanted to knock Bentell's head off. He's gone, Heath, and he's been gone since that day. Now ya can die thinking we was wrong and no one gives a damn about your feelings but ya would be wrong, cause I give a damn. Heath, I'm not letting ya go. I'm not, so I'm not saying good-bye. I'm just waiting until you come back to us, cause I've never known you to be a quitter and I aint going to let ya start now. I love ya something fierce, deep down inside and if you leave us, I don't think the ache of missing you will ever heal, cause yer everything to me, Little Brother, everything." Squeezing the limp body, Nick let the tears come. He didn't know how much time went by before his mother's voice roused him from his own agony.
"Nick!" Victoria's voice cried from near by. Nick looked up at his mother in surprise. She was staring at Heath. With his brother's head against his chest, Nick could not see the boy's face, nor understand the reason for Victoria's sudden slight smile.
"What?" he demanded, a little more sharply than he'd intended. "Mother, what?"
"He…he opened his eyes. He looked around the room as if he were scared and then seemed to relax. Didn't you feel it?"
"I guess I was thinking too hard about what I was saying," Nick confessed. Audra glided softly into the room, sitting down on the bed again. Victoria sat in the chair.
"Where's Jarrod?" Nick demanded.
"He said he needed to take a walk," Audra offered. Nick simply nodded. Victoria leaned against the bed, her hand brushing the pale cheek of her youngest son. To her delight he opened his eyes again. The sapphire orbs weren't focused, nor did they contain the depth of emotion that was usually Heath, but they were there. Victoria spoke with encouragement to her son, unable to help the well of hope that was bubbling inside of her. Heath kept his eyes open. Slowly, over the course of a bit of time, he managed to let his gaze rest on the woman who spoke so caring to him. The wetness in his breathing seemed to ease a long with the breaths he took. Nick didn't dare to move as the family felt a subtle change in Heath's condition. When Jarrod came back to the room, almost an hour had passed. Victoria's gray eyes met his.
"Jarrod? Where were you?" she asked careful to keep her tone neutral, but rather angry that he hadn't been here for his brother.
"In the chapel," Jarrod answered simply. Nick let out a whoosh of air. He clutched Heath closer still. Jarrod sat on the edge of the bed. Audra took his hand and squeezed it. Victoria's impatience evaporated.
"Were you praying?" She asked knowing the answer. Jarrod nodded.
"Had a talk with Father I suppose, and God. I begged them not to take him…that we needed him…I needed him." Tears cascaded down the smooth face of the oldest brother. His mother stood, sitting behind him, hugging his close, letting her white head lean against his back.
"Oh, Sweetheart," she crooned.
"Mother," he started while his attention remained on Heath. "Mother?" This time the voice was filled with questions. Jarrod looked at Nick. "He looks as if he's sleeping. There's something different. What is it?"
For a minute no one could answer. Finally Victoria spoke, looking over Jarrod's shoulder to her son who seemed to be dying just moments before. Heath had closed his eyes and did indeed seem to be sleeping peacefully, that terrible breathing softened, his chest muscles more relaxed and the intensity of pain relieved from his face.
"We don't know," she whispered just enough so all could hear. "A miracle from Tom and the Lord?"
"From the love of a family?" Audra added in all her innocent wisdom. Nick leaned towards Heath, whispering in his ear, giving him further motivation. With the barest of expectations, the trio prayed. When Dr. Hardy came back to the room in the late evening hours, he was not only surprised to find Heath alive, but also amazed to see the improvement in the young man. The charge nurse had sent for him telling him his patient's condition had changed dramatically. He had come certain his trip from home was worthless. The physician examined Heath amid happy faces.
"Doc?" Nick asked first. Victoria never did get him to relinquish his spot. He needed to use a bathroom badly, but he had refused to move. Keeping Heath out of the clutches of heavens gates was more important to Nick than anything, even his own needs. He was sure Heath was improved, but like his mother and brother, he needed to hear if it was false hope or true progress Heath had made. Dr. Hardy stood, shaking his head.
"If I hadn't witnessed it I wouldn't have believed it. Has he er…excuse me ladies…lost a lot of water today?" The ladies blushed a little but Jarrod nodded. Nothing more was needed on that score.
"I'll be damned. Er…excuse me ladies again."
"Doc, what does that mean?" Nick demanded, his voice rising several notches. Dr. Hardy was not at all perturbed by the young man's impatience.
"It means that Heath's heart appears to be pumping more effectively and Heath is enjoying the benefits thereof. His lungs are more clear, and he is resting comfortably. The swelling is gone in both his stomach and his legs, and that's the telling sign. There's no mottling which would indicate impending death, and if I'm not mistaken, he's passed the crisis!" Nick's whoop and holler filled the room along with Victoria and Audra's tears and Jarrod's standing to shake the doctor's hand firmly.
"Nick," Victoria sighed, shaking her head at her son's exuberance. Nick grinned from ear to ear not at all abashed. Dr. Hardy gave them fair warning.
"Now, Nick, calm down," he warned. "Jarrod, I appreciate your gratitude, but the truth is, whatever happened here today is out of my hands. The heart is a complex and rather confusing organ. We won't know yet what the effect of Heath's high fever, the pneumonia and the heart failure will have on him. It's a little early to celebrate."
"He opened his eyes, Doctor," Audra answered. "He'll be back to normal soon, won't he?" Her gentle tone wasn't lost on the physician. He couldn't help not wanting to hurt the expectant faces.
"We'll just have to see," he answered, keeping his concerns to himself for the time being.
"You wait, Doc. Heath isn't a quitter. We'll get him home yet," Nick enthused. Dr. Hardy nodded. Maybe so, maybe so, he thought. But he still wasn't sure. He left the Barkley family to their own, still talking to Heath, still waiting for him to waken, never knowing that it might take more than miracles to bring their boy back to them. It might take sacrifices untold.
Three Weeks later
The Barkley Ranch
The man who had beat death by a hairs breath was out of bed for the first time since he had been brought home a few days before. Sitting up in a chair by the window, he recognized his surroundings, the bedroom he was in, the barn outside, and the rolling hills beyond. Alone for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, the blond hugged himself close, not sure what to think or do or say. There was a fog in his brain, a layer that kept him a prisoner in a place he didn't understand. He appreciated that he was home, just as the lady who called herself Mother, and the brothers and sister told him. Still it was difficult to comprehend. Usually it was easier to just let the fog take over, to sink back into the peacefulness of a world that no one else could enter, just to stay safe.
Downstairs, Nick Barkley threw open the front door, his voice ringing through the house.
"Mother? Jarrod? Mother!" Victoria Barkley walked from the kitchen where she had been making supper with Silas, the family house servant to the foyer where her second son had thrown off his hat and was pacing aimlessly.
"Nick! Must you yell so? Heath might be sleeping."
"I don't think so. I saw him at his window when I came in," Nick answered. Bending down, the dark haired rancher hugged his mother, planting a kiss on her forehead. He strode in to the family living room, pouring himself a whiskey from the trolley that sat in the perfectly decorated room. Slumping down on a green Settee near the fireplace, he took a healthy swallow. Victoria sat on the table in front of him, a round marble table that was large and more than sturdy enough to support her slender weight.
"Nick I wish you wouldn't drink so early," she scolded. Her gray eyes told him, she didn't agree with her words, and in fact would probably join him if it was proper.
"He still hasn't said anything has he?" the man asked, knowing the answer before it was given. Shaking her head, Victoria waited for the storm to come. She wasn't disappointed. Nick drank the rest of his drink then hurled the shot glass into the empty fireplace with a growl that came from the depths of his guilty soul.
"Nick!" Victoria's voice cried for the third time in as many minutes. "If you keep this up, you're the next one who is going to need medical attention."
"Me?" Nick snorted with proper indignation. "What for?"
"For a broken heart. Wishing Heath well isn't going to make it so. Dr. Hardy said it was going to take time." Victoria smiled with a little sadness, but a little joy at the same time. "He's come so far, Nick."
"Yeah, I spose. It's just when he looks at me, I feel like I'm back in this room, telling Heath he doesn't have a choice, that he has to go with Bentell, that…"
"Stop it, Nick. We don't know exactly what's going on with Heath. It's too soon to say why he's so far away right now. All we can do is love him and care about him."
"I wonder when he's stronger if I take him out on Charger. Maybe then he'll open up and let us in."
"I don't think he's doing this deliberately, Nick," Jarrod said coming into the room. Unlike Nick, Jarrod usually made more quiet entries into the house. The lawyer didn't hesitate to help himself to a brandy. Nick joined him. Victoria closed her eyes in worry for her two sons, no for all three. Where was this going to end and what was Jarrod talking about? Nick beat her to the question.
"Just what does that mean, Pappy?" he demanded, downing the brandy in one shot, but refraining from throwing the glass in the fireplace this time. Jarrod sat down on his favorite wingbacked chair next to the table.
"It means I had some investigating done while we were in San Francisco. I'm not sure, but I think Heath had amnesia while he was up there."
"Nick," Victoria sighed again, her patience with the young man wearing thin. "Hush." Jarrod nodded his thanks.
"Some of the men Heath worked with gave the story on how Heath was sick when he arrived in town. He was at another hospital across town. I was just up there talking to the doctors who took care of him. It's a charity hospital. They told me Heath was out of his head with fever for days. When he finally came round, he could only tell the staff his first name. He didn't have any other memories." Jarrod's blue eyes rested on his mother. Her reaction was hardly surprising. She contemplated the information she had been given, biting her lip, then standing and pacing a little, her white skirts rustling around her slender legs. Whirling around in one fluid movement she shot her confusion at Jarrod.
"Jarrod, you said Heath called your name on the dock. Do you think he remembered then?"
"Yes, I do, Mother. He told me he was 'lost,' per say. I didn't understand it then. I do now. He didn't remember who he was until that night."
"So what has that got to do with how he is now?" Nick demanded. "Hell, he won't answer a question. He won't talk, and it's like pulling teeth to get him to acknowledge us." Jarrod sighed. He knew how to handle Nick. Sometimes it just felt as though he had to knock sense into that rock hard head of his. He leaned towards his brother.
"Nick, if it were you, if you had suffered with the confusion and anger Heath did up at that logging camp and then ended up in San Francisco with amnesia, what would you do? Now wait, add on to the fact that your memory comes back after a whole year only when you find your brother because you've saved his life, and been stabbed at the same time. You end up in the hospital and but for the Grace of God, almost end up dead. And for the icing on the cake, you end up in the very same place you tried to escape from in the first place, if that's what he was trying to do, what would you do? How would you react?" Jarrod's lawyer logic made Nick scowl. Victoria bit her lip as Nick's confusion surfaced.
"Hell, I don't know."
"I don't either. Seems like a lot for a young man to carry around with him. Don't you think we owe it to our little brother to give him a chance to find out who he is and what his place is in this family?" Nick's face crumbled. If Heath had seen his brother at that moment, he would never have doubted the big hearted man's devotion for Nick had all he could do to keep from letting the tears flow at his own torment. He stood leaning against the fireplace, contemplating the empty crate for a moment until he turned back to his family to the people who with him, had almost destroyed the boy they called Heath.
"I can't stand it, ya know. I can't stand seeing him look at us as if he doesn't even know us. It's as if he left a part of himself in San Francisco and we can't get it back." Jarrod's hand came to lie upon his younger brother's shoulder. Nick leaned his head against the fireplace, his anguish threatening to overwhelm him. Jarrod's words shook him to the core of his very being.
"Nick, I'm the one that got Heath into that fix. He almost died trying to save me. He came this close! I'm the one responsible for his condition. It was my idea too to have him go up to the lumbar camp. If I'd just kept my stupid schemes to myself, none of this would have happened." Nick whirled around to argue who was at fault with Jarrod, but Victoria beat him to the punch. She stepped between the two men, the tiny lady who packed more steel between her small shoulders that a freight train. She was smoking and Nick and Jarrod knew they were both in trouble.
"Enough!" Victoria ordered. "That's all the self-pity I'm going to listen to. Heath is the one who is important here. I know how you two feel, but this isn't the time or place. Upstairs there's a confused young man who needs our help. If you two want to feel guilty and sorry for yourselves, please do it elsewhere, and if either one of you takes a drink again before support, I'll throw the trolley into the fireplace." She stood, her hands clenched until the heat evaporated from her words and from Nick and Jarrod's own pain. Jarrod nodded, bending down to kiss his mother. Nick sighed.
"Now I know where Jarrod gets his fine speech from," he pouted with a twinkle in his hazel eyes. Victoria gave a small smile.
"And don't you forget it, young man. Now I do believe you have a date with me to go the town meeting this evening? I can't imagine you're going dressed like that?" Victoria looked her second son with a disdainful glance that told him he'd better get moving to clean up.
"No, Ma'am," he teased, bending down and planting a kiss on her forehead as Jarrod had. "I'll get a hot bath and then stop by to talk to Heath. Should I bring him down to supper?"
"You can ask him," Victoria replied, "But he usually doesn't answer you know."
"Well if not, maybe I'll just eat with him, stubborn cuss," Nick mumbled hurrying up the stairs two at a time. Victoria and Jarrod exchanged glances. There wasn't anything else to say. They followed Nick up stairs to get ready for supper, hoping that somehow, someway Heath would find his way home without making any more sacrifices than he already had.
When Heath was really aware of anything again, he found himself sitting in the same chair by the window. His desk had been pulled over with another chair where the brother who was called Nick sat eating with gusto while talking about horses, cattle, vineyards and basically the running of the ranch. He understood what Nick was saying, but was grateful the dark haired man didn't ask him questions. Poking at the food in front of him, he found he hadn't eaten much, nor did he want to. Nick pointed at the food as Heath looked down at it with distaste.
"Little Brother if you don't eat more than that, Silas and Mother will have at you. How do you expect to get your strength back iffn ya don't eat nothing." If Nick expected an answer, he didn't get one. Heath knew he didn't have one. He put the fork down. Nick gave him a glass of water which he drank obediently as his brother urged him on.
"Well that's something at least," Nick mumbled. The older brother's distress spoke with his next sentence. "Heath…Can ya answer me one thing? Can ya tell me, do you even know who I am?" Heath's sapphire eyes gradually filtered up to observe Nick's face. "Can ya tell me who you are?" Heath's silence seemed like a shroud over the room, the blond's face devoid of any thought or appreciation of the relationship that once existed between the two men. Nick put his own fork down. Whether his words would reach his best friend, Nick wasn't sure. With a his stomach rolling, the big man only knew they had to be said.
"Ya know, Heath, before all this happened, we spent a lot of time together, you and me. We ran this ranch together. Ya could outride, and outshoot any man on this place, cept for me of course." Nick chuckled a little as Heath fiddled with his napkin, looking down. "I never met a man who could do so much and be so dang modest about it. Ya showed me up more than once. Spose I could go on about how much this family misses hearing yer voice or yer laugh, miss watching ya gentle horses the way only you can, or riding with Audra like the wind across the range. We miss ya, Heath. I miss ya. I miss ya a lot. Yer part of this family, Boy and yer heart is right here." Nick pointed to his own chest while Heath watched him. With a sigh, the older man left his brother alone in the room, taking the tray of half eaten food with him. Heath looked out the window again. Something his brother had said made a lot of sense to him. Now if he could only think about what it meant.
A few hours later, after Nick and Victoria went into town for the town meeting, Jarrod made himself comfortable with a brandy in the living room. He put his book down, thinking of Heath wishing his brother could join him for a game of chess. Heath was the only one in the family who could beat the lawyer. Nick tried, but he was impatient and tended to cheat. Audra did better at checkers. Heath was smart, far quicker than he gave himself credit for. The lawyer couldn't help wondering where Heath was in his mind, if he was confused, if he was hurt or angry or just lost. Standing up, his book falling on the floor, Jarrod felt the same frustrations he had earlier with Nick and his mother. Deciding he needed to at least talk to Heath, he started towards the stairway only to be distracted by a knock on the door. Thinking it was one of the hands or Duke Jarrod threw the front door open without thought. He stepped back in surprise when he found the point of a pistol being slammed into his chest.
"Well, well, Barkley. Bout time I gotcha to myself," Hank Adams taunted pushing the lawyer into the house, two men with him. Jarrod's heart lurched. He had expected trouble from Hank Adams and his brothers, but not here in Stockton. Not in his own home. He put on a brave front.
"If you wanted an appointment, Adams, all you had to do was contact my secretary," he pointed out. "No need for extremes." Jarrod looked pointedly at the gun. Hank Adams laughed.
"Always the gentleman, aren't ya Barkley, even when ya lie right to my face. Ya don't want ta see me or my brothers here. Tom, Dave, find the cripple."
"Cripple?" Jarrod's forehead frowned. "I don't know what you mean. There's no cripple here."
"He's a cripple all right, crippled in the brain from what I heard. People talk in San Francisco ya know, specially about the Barkley's. Heard your own brother took a knife for ya, Barkley and it left him addled in the head. Serves him right." Hank taunted. Keeping his anger under control, Jarrod watched Hank with his blue eyes blazing. He saw the two brothers start towards the stairs. As the two men their backs him, Jarrod saw his chance and pulled a gun out of the closest holster. With one foot, he pulled one of the brother's feet out from under him and then pointed the gun towards Hank, only to hear the sickening popping sound of a bullet being fired at him at point break range. The bullet slammed into his upper right chest throwing him to the ground. For a second he tried to hang on to consciousness, then gave into the pain that took him down, his body lying face down on the floor. Hank kicked Jarrod in the ribs, and watched as blood started to soak the fancy shirt. Next he pushed Jarrod over. His chest still rose and fell.
"Damn Fool," he concluded. "Now I'll have ta kill you." He looked at his brother. "Didn't I tell ya to find the cripple? He's gotta die too. Get moving." The men hesitated until one of them spoke up. The other had gotten up off the floor where Jarrod landed him. He pretended to need to brush his clothes off.
"I aint never killed a man before, Hank. I thought we were just coming to scare the man. Tom and I aren't planning to kill anyone," Dave protested.
"Well that's what Ma wants. Ya gonna argue with her?"
"Ma?" The two brothers looked at each other.
"Yeah, Ma. She wants Barkley here dead for setting that murderer free."
"If we kill him, who's next, Hank?" Tom asked raising above with a temerity Hank hadn't expected.
"Ma told ya to do what I said. This high faluting lawyer defended the man who killed our father just cause he had money in a case register. Jed's dead. Now it's his turn."
"What?" the boys asked in unison, neither of them seeing a shadow cross past the staircase upstairs. "When?"
"I found him down by the docks a while back. He's been fish bait a long time. Don't worry. No one is going to care what happens to him."
"Well, I ain't killing no one," Tom answered with defiance. "That's not what I came here for."
"What if someone figures out I put a bullet in the lawyer? We're all here together Little Brother. This one and the cripple gotta go or else we'll all end up in prison a long time. Now go upstairs and find the cripple." Tom and Dave gave in. They started up the stairs when a voice broke through the air. For an instant time stood still.
"Don't move, not one of ya," Heath Barkley breathed holding a gun on the three men with Silas next to him brandishing a rifle. From a distance, Jarrod heard the voice. Before he could comprehend what had happened, gunfire erupted. Jarrod cringed, but wasn't strong enough to move. When the gunfire ceased he barely breathed.
"Jarrod!" Heath's voice cried. Still Jarrod found it difficult to move. He heard someone crawling across the floor and Silas scolding his brother.
"Mr. Heath, you stay still. You not strong enough to be walking much. I can check Mr. Jarrod."
"Help me, Silas," Heath insisted. There was a strength to Heath's voice even though Jarrod could tell he was struggling. Moving with a groan as his wound sent waves of fire to his brain, the lawyer managed to sit up. He met Heath's stunned gaze.
"Jarrod?" Heath was sitting himself on the floor only a few feet away with Silas by his side. Less than ten feet from Heath, Hank lay dead while his brothers' bodies had fallen to the bottom of the staircase. Heath's eyes squinted in disbelief while Jarrod gave a wry grin.
"Heath! You all right?"
"Me? Yer the one I thought was dead." Heath tried to stand, but stumbled and would have fallen again if Silas hadn't helped him. "Damn floor needs to stay still," Heath mumbled as he sat by Jarrod. Taking off his shirt, he tore it and put pressure on Jarrod's wound.
"Ow!" Jarrod cried, his mind reeling from the pain. "Press a little harder there Brother Heath."
"Don't want cha ta bleed ta death," Heath retorted. "Silas, would ya send someone for the doc and the sheriff. We need some bandages for Jarrod."
"Yes Sir, Mr. Heath," Silas answered hurrying to do the young man's bidding. Heath leaned around the shoulder, examining it. He sighed in relief.
"Bullet went through," he mumbled. "Good thing. Jarrod, everything's spinnin. I aint feeling so good."
"Didn't think so. You're barely on your feet. What the hell got into you?"
"I heard shooting…saw ya lying on the floor. Had to do something, didn't I?"
"You could have stayed in a safe place for one thing," Jarrod retorted. "Course I'm glad you didn't." Heath's lopsided grin was Jarrod's answer. Jarrod was so dumb founded, he forgot he'd been shot for a minute. It was as if someone had unlocked Heath's mind and set him free, only Jarrod wasn't sure how it had happened.
"Heath, do you understand what you did?" Sitting against the wall between the foyer and the living room, Jarrod didn't move while his brother held the cloth in place to stop his shoulder from bleeding. Heath, having expended energy he didn't have just looked blankly at his brother. Jarrod explained succinctly.
"You just saved my life again."
"Reckon I did what had to be done."
"But…" Heath shook his head to silence Jarrod. The blond was breathing a little heavier. He was clearly exhausted. Still he acknowledged Jarrod's thanks.
"I know what ya mean, Jarrod. Mind if we talk about it later?" Jarrod nodded. Quickly enough some of the men from the bunkhouse came into the house. They helped Jarrod up to his room with Silas. Duke McCall, the ranch foreman practically carried Heath up to Jarrod's room for the younger brother refused to go anywhere else. Duke helped the blond get comfortable in Jarrod's favorite chair with a blanket over him. Patting the young man's knee, the foreman then moved quickly to help Silas tend to Jarrod. Heath could barely keep his eyes open. Just as he felt himself falling asleep, he was jolted awake when Nick's voice catapulted through the house and then running feet halted at the lawyer's open bedroom door. Behind him, his mother skirted to a halt pushing him out of the way.
"Jarrod! Heath!" Jarrod was feeling a great deal of pain as Silas cleaned his wound, and Duke gave him clean cloths to use. Victoria's voice gave him a second wind to reassure her. He flashed a weary smile at her.
"No harm done, Mother. We're fine, thanks to Brother Heath."
"Heath?" Nick bellowed. The hazel orbs went from Jarrod to Heath and back to Jarrod, then in amazement back to Heath who looked like a kid who had just dipped his fingers into the cookie jar.
"Hi, Nick," He greeted.
"Hi, Nick?" Heath started to stand. Duke was by his side in an instant.
"Oh, no you don't, boy. You're going to bed and that's the end of it. You look like death warmed over."
"Gee, thanks, Duke," Heath replied with a little slur to his speech. "Reckon you're right though…I'm powerful tired…" Nick was instantly at Heath's side, mumbling as Heath leaned against him for support.
"I don't know why it is," he was saying. "I go out of the house for a few hours and all hell breaks loose. Heath's talking. Jarrod's shot and there's three dead men downstairs. Had to be one of those days."
"Nick? I aint sure how I got here, but I remember being in San Francisco. Want me to go back?" Heath jabbed. Nick's arm tightened around his brother keeping him standing for the moment.
"Don't ya dare," he thundered.
"Nick, keep your voice down," Victoria chided. She had made sure Jarrod wasn't bleeding anymore and Silas' bandage was being placed nicely. Duke had assured her while Nick talked that Dr. Merar had been sent for. She kissed her son on the forehead.
"Mother…" Jarrod started.
"Shh," she told him. "Just rest. The rest can wait." Jarrod, despite his pain found staying awake difficult. For a precious minute, his mother massaged his forehead with a light touch until he was drowsier yet. The last thing he saw before he closed his blue eyes was his mother walking towards Heath. Her voice calling the boy's name followed Jarrod in to a restless sleep.
"Heath," she sighed. "Duke is right. You look terrible… and wonderful at the same time." She wanted to pull him into her arms. Instead she followed Nick as he escorted his brother back to his room, the big man still mumbling about Heath being a ghost of himself and then suddenly coming back to life and would he please make up his mind. Victoria stifled a giggle as her older son almost dragged his little brother back to his room. Heath barely fussed as Nick helped him undress and then get into bed.
"Thanks, Nick," Heath said.
"You're not welcome," Nick grumbled. "We got some business to attend to Little Brother. Ya aint going ta run away again are ya?" Heath snuggled down into the bed.
"Didn't know I had run away. I'm awful tired, Nick. Can't ya ask me tomorrow?" Nick's face softened. He tousled the blond hair.
"Yeah, yeah, sure thing, Little Brother. Just make sure yer here. Mother, I'm going back to help the doc with Jarrod."
"Watch out for Audra. Her date should be bringing her home soon," Victoria warned. Nick nodded as he left the room. Victoria turned to her son. His eyes were already closed. He had fallen asleep just as Jarrod had. She shook her head in disbelief. What had happened? What had brought Heath back? She fondly straightened the blond hair Nick had messed up then touched the face that appeared far more peaceful tonight than it had in a long time, even if it was drawn with exhaustion. She bent down kissing the cool cheek, and whispering into her beloved son's ear.
"I love you, Heath." She turned down the lamp by the door, watching the young blond sleep, her heart overflowing with joy. It wasn't until she turned to leave the room that she realized she still didn't know how Jarrod got shot, how the men ended up dead in her foyer or how Heath had come back to them. She left the door open, knowing she wouldn't sleep until she had answers. Loathe to leave her youngest son, Victoria had no choice. Jarrod needed her. She froze when she heard Audra's sudden cry as she entered the foyer. Hurrying past Jarrod's room, the mother rushed to the daughter. As she hurried down the stairs, and stepped over the dead bodies still lying there, and as she led Audra past the mess and up the stairs, the mother wondered if their lives were finally going to get back to normal…One could only hope.
Five days later, Heath sat in the living room, staring into the empty crate. He could hear Nick coming down the stairs after his bath. Dinner was almost ready and this was the first time the entire family would be eating together since Heath's return home. Over the last few days, the young man had had a lot of time to think, little too much he thought ruefully. There were so many ifs in Heath's mind. He just wished he could figure them out. Nick's spurs announced his arrival which Heath ignored until his brother was handing him a brandy. Taking the golden liquid, the boy nodded his thanks, then resumed his stare.
"Something goin on in there I should know about?"
"Nothing much." Nick sat down on the marble table by the fireplace only a few inches from his blond brother. For a minute he sipped his drink. Heath finally let his gaze meet Nick's.
"So? So what?" Heath returned, still eyeing the older brother.
"So are ya going to keep us waiting or are ya going ta let us know if you are staying or not?" If Heath had been puzzled before, Nick's words truly set him on edge. He fought to fight down the fear that suddenly settled in his heart. Did his brother want him to leave? Heath looked back into the fireplace.
"Wasn't planning to leave Nick, lessen ya want me ta go."
"Hell, no," Nick hollered. Heath couldn't help the lopsided grin that came across his face. Some things never changed. Nick was definitely one of them.
"Then why did ya ask?" the blond went on. A swish of skirts told him Audra and his mother had come into the room. Jarrod's faint cigar scent announced his arrival as well. The family gathered around, all apparently aware of the conversation, allowing Nick and Heath to continue while they sat near by.
"I thought…" Nick faltered. "I thought that's what you were doing at the lumbar camp. Bentell said…you were leaving before the fire."
"I was," Heath admitted. "I just couldn't stand working with the man. He made my blood run cold."
"But you went back to help with the fire," Nick reminded him, exchanging looks with Jarrod who sat next to the blond on the settee. Heath nodded but didn't say more. Jarrod touched Heath's shoulder as Nick asked the question they were all wondering.
"Heath, what do you remember after the fire?" Staring at nothing, not raising his head, Heath answered in a low voice.
"The last thing I remembered before I woke up in San Francisco was arguing with the Condon's. In the hospital I didn't remember anything about…the family, nothing at all."
"Oh Heath," Audra sighed. "That's terrible." Heath looked at his little sister. He couldn't help feeling relaxed around her. Five nights ago, after Jarrod had been shot, he had been sleeping when he heard a sound in his room. It was almost dawn. He woke to find his sister sitting in a chair by his bed, watching him sleep. In seconds they had communicated silently under the lamplight, their relationship completely unhindered by the past. Since then, Heath had fallen back into his easy camaraderie with his sister. So far, that wasn't truly the case with the rest of the family, he thought. He gave her a sad smile.
"Reckon it was pretty bad. I was sick for awhile, a long while. Had some burns, and well, it took a bit to get strong enough to leave the hospital and then find work. I remembered my name but that was it, just Heath."
"Kind of like when you first introduced yourself to us," Audra reminded him. Heath's blue eyes twinkled at his sister now. Jarrod squeezed his shoulder bringing him back to the present.
"Heath, do you know how much we missed you?" Heath turned, his uncertainty evident.
"Reckon I had an idea,what with all the care you've given me since ya found me."
"Then what is wrong, Heath?" Victoria asked, her own gray eyes bright with concern, her body leaning towards Heath from where she sat on the marble table next to Nick.
"Didn't say anything was wrong," the boy denied.
"Heath!" Victoria sighed. "You know better than that, unless you don't want to talk about it now. That's all right. You don't have to. We'll wait…for as long as it takes." Heath felt the mother's hand touch his knee. He shook his head, unable to hide his complete surrender.
"Even when I'm angry you make me feel loved," he said so softly she had to strain to hear him.
"Are you angry, Heath?" the mother's voice asked. Again the sapphire eyes drifted to the fire place. He shrugged. It seemed as if no one breathed until he spoke again. He didn't move, only tried hard to confess his thoughts to help his family understand why he was so lost.
"I don't know. Suppose so. I did have a question about all this."
"Bout what, Little Brother?" Nick wondered leaning forward.
"Well, cept for Audra, ya all been walking on egg shells around me. Nick, you're afraid I'll leave. Jarrod tries to agree with everything I say and Mother you're pampering me so much I'm about to explode."
"And?" Nick prodded some more.
"I kind a got that you all were sorry about making me go with Bentell, but I didn't understand why you changed your minds." Audra, following her mother's example bit her lip in consternation. Nick stood, now leaning, looking into the fireplace like Heath had. Victoria sighed while Jarrod rubbed his left arm as if he were in pain. Nick turned around slowly.
"Spose that's a fair question, Little Brother. You remember being up at the lumber camp the day of the fire?"
"Yeah. I remember."
"So when you were planning on leaving, where were you going. What were you thinking? Who were you mad at?"
"I don't know, you, me, Bentell, everyone maybe, maybe no one."
"Well, when Bentell told us you had ridden off and would have left except for the fire, well, we knew we were wrong."
"Wrong? I thought that's what you wanted." Heath looked to Victoria. "You wanted me to get rid of my hate, but I couldn't. I don't think I ever will."
"Neither will we, Heath," Jarrod told him. Heath stared in amazement.
"Jarrod fired Bentell the first day we saw him after the fire," Nick added. "Punched him out too." Heath's face broke into a grin.
"That's the best news I've heard in a year. Wish I could a had a shot."
"I took one for ya, Little Brother," Nick informed him.
"I still would like to have done it myself."
"Mother is the one that sent him completely packing. Audra probably would have added her two cents worth if we'd a let her," Nick went on. "You have a powerful affect on this family, Little Brother. Bentell got what he deserved."
"Ya didn't think so at first. What made ya so sure you were wrong?" Heath asked, guarding his emotions, knowing how hard Nick was trying, almost feeling sorry for his big brother. Jarrod spoke, his voice kind, neutral and even as apologetic as Nick's.
"Maybe it was when we saw how Bentell really could have cared less about finding you after the fire," he admitted. Heath wasn't surprised by that confession, but he couldn't help tensing. "Or maybe it was the long ride up there where we had a chance to think about what we had asked you to do and realized how much we hurt you."
"We hurt you badly, didn't we, Heath," Victoria put in quietly. "We asked you to go against your principles and that hurt."
"Yeah it did," Heath admitted. "I guess I was leaving ta figure out if I really belonged in the family. If I couldn't live without your respect or trust, I wasn't sure I wanted ta stay."
"Heath, we didn't mean…" Jarrod said.
"I know that now. When ya came in San Francisco, I knew ya were there. I even knew when ya took me home. You never got impatient, none of ya, well maybe Nick." Nick swatted the young man on the knee, knowing he was teasing. "Think I heard ya apologize a few times too. Now I know what for." The sapphire eyes looked down at Victoria's hand. He took it, touching it gently, then squeezing the slender fingers between his own as he lifted his gaze to hers. His brothers and sister were silent as the blond brother spoke from his heart.
"I reckon we're all gonna make mistakes. Just cause we're family doesn't mean we won't let each other down. I told ya true, Mother. I never want to let you down. But the truth is, I can't live against what I believe, what I feel is right inside. I never thought you'd want me to, until Bentell came. Then I wasn't sure. Iffn I let ya down, I figured I should leave, cause there wasn't any way I was planning ta change. Even if it hurt like hell." Victoria touched Heath's hands with her own free one. Leaning over she kissed him on the cheek. Tears of pride and joy glistened in her eyes, wetting her soft fair cheeks.
"You're right, Sweetheart. Your father would be so proud to know that you stand by what your mother taught you and by what you know is right. That's what Nick, Jarrod and I regretted most, telling you how you should feel, and act. You're a good man, Heath Barkley, one I'm proud to call my son. You have a right to chose your own path. We only hope you'll let us share it with you."
"Didn't really know what I was gonna do the day of the fire. Guess my choices were taken away then." Again, Jarrod spoke, giving his brother further food for thought.
"Heath, everything you do stands for what this family strives to accomplish every day."
"I think you know," The lawyer replied with a knowing smile. "You have courage, honesty and strong convictions that have perhaps become more deeply rooted within yourself than the rest of us, just because of the hard life you have lived. You saved my life, Heath, not once, but twice and the first time I could have been a stranger. You were fighting against injustice and putting your life on the line at the same time."
"Jarrod…" Heath interrupted, embarrassed by the praise, his face turning red. Jarrod went on.
"Heath, that night when we literally told you to go with Bentell, did you for one minute believe that we would think any less of you if you didn't?" Jarrod finished. The lawyer's blunt question didn't surprise Heath. He just didn't want to hurt the family by telling them the truth. His silence spoke for him as he looked down, anywhere but at the brothers and sister and mother he held more dear than his own life. Nick blustered but before he could speak, Victoria put into words what her second son could not.
"How do you feel now, Sweetheart?" She lifted his chin when he did not speak. The tears glistening in the sapphire eyes caught Victoria by surprise. She quickly managed to swallow her own emotions so she could concentrate on her son.
"Heath, please. You need to talk about this." Heath stood. Walking over to the fireplace mantle, his hand fell down hard on the wood, his rage directed inward as he felt the pain from hurting himself. As she had that night long ago when she told Heath to go to the lumber camp, to rid himself of the hate he had for Todd Bentell, to show some of Tom Barkley's guts, Victoria rushed to the boy. She swung him around and this time simply hugged him close. Nick, Jarrod and Audra waited, their own torment written on their faces. Slowly Victoria led Heath back to the chair.
"Heath, please," she begged again, sitting next to him. He clenched his fists, his emotions becoming more evident as they were released by the usually stoic cowboy.
"When ya all took his side, I stuffed down what I felt. Then when ya brought me home from the hospital, I couldn't grasp much. It was like someone had rolled me up in a thick blanket and I couldn't get through to tell ya anything. Now…my mind is telling me ya didn't mean any harm and there's no reason for ya ta ask for forgiveness. It's just…" Heath almost turned away again.
"Finish it, Sweetheart," Victoria told him. He looked right into the pride and strength that made his mother the woman she was, then at his brothers who were men he loved and respected, and his little sister who was an innocent bystander in this whole sorry mess.
"I just…" Heath hesitated finally settling his gaze on Nick. Nick's expression was one Heath usually saw only when they were in private, one of compassion, compassion mixed with an unconditional love that encouraged the boy to finish what he had to say just as his mother urged him to.
"I can't help wondering if another day comes when I don't agree with you, this will happen again and it'll tear my heart out, cause next time I won't give in."
"You don't have to, Heath," Nick told him. "I promise, Little Brother. You don't ever have to give in again."
"How can you be so sure, Nick? You've got principles too, all of you. Ya been a family longer than I've been around. I don't always know what's right or wrong, not here."
"Stick with your instincts, Heath. They haven't led you wrong yet have they?" Jarrod asked.
"Not usually. Guess I wasn't wrong about Bentell either. I'd still like to tear him limb from limb…only I reckon Jarrod was right about him in one way."
"How's that, Brother Heath?"
"Bentell isn't worth hanging for. Isn't worth giving you all up either." The tension in the room lessened considerably. Nick stood up, holding his hand out to his brother.
"Truce?" Heath stood as well. His strong grasp of Nick's hand was warm and caring. The sapphire eyes smiled with a glint of sadness until Nick grabbed the hand and pulled his brother into a hug.
"Heath, if we hadn't found you…well our lives were pretty sad without you. Welcome home, Little Brother."
"Amen," Jarrod sighed, using his uninjured right arm to hug his brother as well. Victoria's graceful self rose to her full five feet 2 inches of height. She pulled her skirt about her straightening the white folds as Heath waited. Leaning over, she held her son close, apologizing once more.
"Heath, we made a mistake and we almost lost you…" Heath put his hand on his mother's cheek. She looked up at him, her heart reflected in the beauty of her maternal gaze.
"It's over now," he reminded her. "I'm home and I reckon I'll be hard pressed to leave any time soon."
"Amen," Audra added softly. At that moment, Silas came into the living room announcing supper. Jarrod took Victoria's arm while Heath took his mother's and Nick followed the group leaving the room behind. The sacrifices made by Heath had brought the blond haired brother home. Nick kept his eyes on his brother all through dinner. And that night when he made sure Heath was resting comfortably in bed, he said a silent prayer that nothing would ever drive a wedge between himself and Heath again. He knew that sacrifices are made for love every day…and in this instance, the sacrifices had been worth the reward… but the dark cowboy had been this close to losing his brother forever. He vowed that this family would never expect more from Heath Thomson Barkley than he could give, because if they did, Nick knew that next time they might lose his brother permanently. And that thought was one none of the Barkley's ever wanted to consider again. Heath was home...and home was where he belonged...forever.