Eli fell and writhed in the dirt, crying like the hurt animal he was. Nick had come all this way with the intent to kill, but if he killed Eli in revenge, he would become him, and that wouldn't help Heath at all. Nick would no longer be able to call himself Tom Barkley's son. That was no way to live out the rest of his life.
A paralyzing shot to get him out of the fight had to be enough. Nick's bullet hit Eli in the shoulder of his shooting arm. He was out, but the fight had only begun.
Just then, a bullet broke through the bushes, showering him with debris. He was exposed and drawing fire. He crouched and fired back but the shooter broke into a run and Nick wasted the shot. Another bullet whizzed by his ear. Seeking better cover, he darted for the nearest tree.
The camp was in chaos. Men shouted. More guns fired. Nick took aim on one of the gang who struggled to get on top his jittery horse. The shot dropped him.
Bullets riddled the tree around Nick, splinters exploded, and then something akin to a bull slammed into him and knocked him to the ground.
It was no bull. It was a growling and howling Eli Wilson. "Shoulda kilt me!"
He brought up his gun and Nick realized he no longer had his. Eli had him. With his left arm pinned beneath his body, Nick grabbed the weapon that was pointed at his nose and struggled to shove it away. He saw the hammer of the gun move back. A shot rang out, and Eli collapsed like a cord of wood on top of him. Out of breath and dazed, not knowing what happened, Nick shouted. "Get off me!"
Jarrod broke through the brush, breathless. "Nick!" he said, kneeling beside his brother. It was then that Nick noticed the gunfire had stopped.
"Pappy," Nick wheezed. Eli was heavy and bleeding all over him. "A hand?"
Jarrod rolled Eli off, and Nick could breathe again, but it hurt.
"I think you've been shot." Jarrod went to work on opening Nick's shirt.
Nick looked. "Where?"
"Here. In the ribs," said Jarrod. He tilted his head to get a closer look. "You're lucky. Bullet passed clean through and not too deep. Might hurt like the devil, but-"
No wonder Nick hadn't been able to fight Eli effectively. He put his hand over the wound and it stung. Nick sucked in a breath. "You call that lucky?"
"After all we've been through?" Jarrod glanced at Eli and then back to Nick. His brows drew together and he frowned. "Yes, Nick. I call that lucky. Stay here, a minute. I think Fred needs help."
Fred Madden. Nick closed his eyes with relief. Opened them again to check Eli, but he was silent.
As Jarrod got up to go, Nick grabbed his arm.
"He's dead." Jarrod assured. "I didn't miss."
"I know," said Nick, "Thanks, Pappy...for coming back."
Jarrod's expression relaxed some. He gently squeezed Nick's arm in reassurance and left.
Nick turned his head, and Eli stared back unseeing, in his neck was a gaping hole from Pappy's bullet.
A few minutes later, and a few pulls from a whiskey flask and the pain didn't matter all that much. Nick might have a cracked rib or two, but after a more thorough examination, they found no lead in him. It was true. He had been lucky.
Nick stood by the fire which one of the deputies had stoked with plenty of fuel. Three corpses in all, were laid side by side covered in the tarp from the lean-to. They all looked to be no more than firewood, Eli Wilson, and two others whose names Nick didn't know. Sheila sat silently rocking herself with her arms wrapped around her knees, her head bowed. She hadn't looked at Nick nor spoken since the shootings, but whoever she had been caring for in the lean-to, was dead. Shot, but not by one of them. The man had been sick a while, probably since the attack on the Doddards. Sheila would have a lot to sort through, but Nick couldn't bring himself to care anymore.
"Couldn't a done it without you, Nick." Collins said when he walked up. Not a scratch on him. "You kept 'em pretty busy down there."
Nick gave him a wry smile. "Least I could do." He gestured over at MacMasters, sullen and trussed up like a pig. "Got your man. Suppose he'll talk?"
Collins shrugged. "'Spect he might, with the right kind of persuading. There's a substantial reward for that gold. You'll be set for a windfall if we recover it."
Nick shook his head. "I don't want the money. I just want to go home and sleep in my own bed."
"If that's the way you want it," Collins remarked. "If ever you want to step over to law enforcement, I'd be happy to-"
"I'm a rancher," Nick said. "Nothing more."
Collins chuckled. "I thought you might say that." He stuck out a hand. "Thanks for your help, Nick."
Nick shook his hand. "You're welcome."
Collins walked away, a man confident he'd come out on top.
Nick wished he felt the same. He gingerly walked toward the horses, careful not to jostle his wound too much, to where Jarrod tended Coco. He glanced at Nick. "You shouldn't be walking around, Nick. We have a long ride ahead."
"Feels better to stand." Nick watched him tie a knot, neither of them attempted to break the uneasy silence. After a moment, Nick couldn't take it anymore. "Pappy..."
Jarrod stopped and looked at him and it was then that Nick saw the deep hurt in his eyes. The hell Nick put him through, for the sake of vengeance.
Jarrod had come through for Nick so many times he couldn't count. So many times he'd saved Nick from himself. Jarrod killed Eli to save his skin. This rescue would cost him dearly in the weeks to come. "I'm sorry," said Nick, but the words weren't enough, would never be, for the man he respected most. "I should hav-"
"Don't," said Pappy. "What's done, had to be. We both made hurtful decisions, but we'll have to live with them. Let's not waste time on regretting what can't be fixed."
Nick nodded and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He knew Pappy and knew there would be plenty of discussion and hashing out once they were home and could finally begin to look forward.
Nick left it alone and prepared for the long ride home.
Home was dearer to Nick now than when he left a week ago. What a homecoming it was. First were the heartfelt kisses and gentle hugs from Mother and Audra whose tears never seemed to end. Then from Silas came the late supper of heaping plates of steak, potatoes, and warm oven-baked bread. Audra beamed when Nick had two helpings of her apple pie. She'd forgotten to add any sugar, but he declared that it was the sweetest pie he'd ever tasted...and it was. When he finally announced himself incapable of taking another bite, Jarrod laughed and echoed his sentiments.
Mother ushered them both out to the den to sit by the fire and poured a whiskey for Nick and a Scotch for Jarrod. The firelight glowed softly on her gentle face. "I'm so happy you're home," she said, and after good-night kisses, she retired upstairs.
Heath had been asleep since they arrived, but Nick wanted to see him. He would go upstairs and wake him soon, just to tell him he was proud he was his brother. The news about Eli could wait until morning.
Jarrod and Nick had no more words about what happened between them on the journey. It needed turning over in their minds. Soon, they would talk. Nick hoped that whatever conclusions they came to would bring them closer. He couldn't stand the thought of losing Jarrod's faith or his friendship.
Jarrod got up from the chair and set down his glass. "I want you to take it easy tomorrow, Nick, and for the rest of the week," he said. "You can't afford to tear Dr. Merar's stitches. Can't have you bedridden; we need to get this ranch working again."
Nick absently put his hand over the bandage the doc had given him in town. "It is a working ranch," he said, but at Jarrod's stern look he added: "I'll take it easy."
"Good night," Jarrod said.
"Good night, Pappy."
Nick stayed a while and listened to the crackling fire.
When he went in to visit Heath before going to bed, it was very late. Nick decided he couldn't wake him. He just had to see Heath so he could be satisfied that he was still mending and healthier than when Nick had left him.
Someone had brought in a rocking chair with a thick cushion. Just what he needed. Nick sat and the chair creaked, but not overly loud. Besides the steady breathing of deep sleep, Heath didn't move. He seemed better...at least his coloring was normal and it looked as though the pain had become manageable. Nick took a sip of whiskey and stretched his legs out. Finally allowing himself to believe everything was getting better.
Heath opened his eyes. "Thought I heard you come in," he said.
Nick half-smiled. "I knew you were awake." He moved to set the whiskey down and winced.
"You doin' all right?" Heath asked.
"I should ask you." Nick settled back into the rocking chair.
"I'm doin' better," said Heath. "Got everything I need."
Nick thought about the ranch and the family. This had in some ways been one of the best evenings in his life. "I do to," he remarked. "Funny, the things I have to go through just to see it."
"My brother's hard-headed," Heath said. "But he knew what he had long before he left, else he never would have left it at all."
Nick pushed his boot heel into the wooden floor and rocked back. Maybe he had known and he had to hear it from someone else in order to believe it.
It had been thoughts of Heath that kept Nick from killing Eli outright. Jarrod hadn't been the only brother to save him that day.
"Heath," he said, "I'm glad you're my brother."