Jarrod, Nick, Heath and the ranch hands rode back to Stockton in silence. One hand had been sent back to the ranch to let Victoria know that Heath had been found and another had been sent to the sheriff's posse to give them the news and to meet them back in Stockton. Jarrod and Nick kept a watchful eye on their younger brother. The bruises on his face revealed little of what their brother had endured the last few days. He had eaten very little but had been worked from sunup to sundown.
They rode straight to the sheriff's office.
"Heath!" The sheriff shook Heath's hand.
Heath nodded and gave a half smile to the sheriff. "I need to make a statement." Heath stated in his usual calm matter of fact manner. Deep down inside he was hurting. He had used a girl to escape and she had died, needlessly.
Heath sat stoically and gave his statement. Jarrod and Nick listened intently, shaking their heads as their brother spoke of his treatment and the reasons he was taken. The sheriff wrote it all down and had Heath sign the statement.
"How did they know it was you who had shot this fellow?" The sheriff asked.
"I reported it to the sheriff in White Springs the next morning…..They must have found out from there…..I gave my name as Heath Barkley…..It was before I came here and met my family." Heath frowned at the irony. If he had said Heath Thomas, they may never have found him.
"We'll ride out and take them into custody."
"Sheriff the only reason I gave my statement, is that I don't want them to do it to someone else." Heath confessed.
"No!" Nick shouted.
"Heath, do it for you as well. You must want some kind of justice." Jarrod told his brother.
Heath sat with his head bowed. He was suddenly so tired, so very tired. He looked up. "I want to go home." Heath stood and faced the sheriff. "You don't need me for anything else?"
"No Heath. I'll take it from here." The bewildered sheriff watched the young man he had come to admire for his courage and honesty, leave his office. Both Nick and Jarrod watched their brother walk out with concern. "Look after him boys."
Heath was mounted waiting for Nick and Jarrod. The ride back to the ranch was quiet. Heath swayed in his saddle but kept riding, staring straight ahead. He stopped before the archway and took in the sight of his home and sighed. Jarrod and Nick looked at each other, refraining from saying anything, knowing that their brother would talk when he was ready. They rode quietly up to the front porch.
"I'll take your horse Heath. You should go inside. Mother has been worrying herself sick over you." Nick told his brother, gruffly, covering his concern for his brother.
Heath slowly dismounted and gave his brother a nod and his usual shy smile. Both older brothers noticed that the smile was forced. Heath stepped up onto the porch, stopped and slowly turned around. His brothers were standing next to their horses watching him.
"Thank you for looking for me. If you hadn't found me when you did, I'd probably be dead now." Heath looked down and shook his head. The last few days had left him feeling empty inside. His treatment reminding him of his early life where a young boy had been ridiculed and treated like an animal because he was born without a father.
He entered the house quietly. Victoria rushed from the sitting room. Her hand flew to her mouth, her eyes wide, when she took in the sight of her son of the heart. "Heath!"
Heath looked at her and saw the woman he called mother and loved deeply. He felt his eyes burn when she embraced him; it was as if all the emotions he had been keeping bottled up for the past few days exploded, like a cork releasing its pressured contents.
"Oh sweetheart." Victoria held her son as he let go of his emotions. She rubbed his back and felt him flinch.
Heath straightened up and wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. "I'm sorry."
"Oh Heath. You have nothing to be sorry about. This wasn't your fault." Victoria admonished him. She was glad he had been able to release his anguish and didn't want him to feel embarrassed or regret doing it. "If you can't show your mother how you really feel…then who can you turn to?"
"I never meant to be the cause for the family to worry. I asked them to at least let you know that I was alive….but they never told me if they did or not. They took everything from me." Heath looked into his mother's eyes for some sort of forgiveness. His back was burning, his head was pounding and he was so tired. He looked up at the stairs and wondered how he was going to climb them. The room started to suddenly spin and he was unexpectedly very light headed. The room took a tilt and he fell to the floor. Victoria tried to grab hold of him but he fell hard, banging his head.
"Silas!" Victoria called as she held onto one of his arms.
Silas came rushing in. "Oh my."
"Help me Silas." Victoria pleaded as she struggled to lift Heath.
"No Mrs Barkley. Don't try to lift him. I'll get some help and send for the doctor." He grabbed a blanket from a nearby cupboard. Victoria sat on the floor cradling her son's head. She could see beads of sweat on his forehead and could feel the heat radiating off his body.
Victoria looked closer at her son and could see that he had lost a lot of weight. She pinched his skin and noted that he was severely dehydrated.
Nick and Jarrod came bursting through the front door. They took in the sight of their mother sitting on the floor nursing the head of their younger brother.
"What happened?" Jarrod asked.
"He collapsed. Help me get him upstairs…and be careful of his back." Victoria instructed. They gently lifted Heath and carried him upstairs. Victoria raced ahead of them and opened Heath's bedroom door. She placed a blanket over his bed.
"Lay him on that….We need to remove his clothes and he needs to be washed." She said as she gathered the basin from his side table. Jarrod grabbed her arm.
"Let us clean him up mother. Go down stairs and wait for the doctor." Jarrod gently told his mother and steered her towards the door.
Victoria stopped and looked back towards Heath before she left the room. "He'll be alright mother…we'll be gentle, don't worry." Nick told his mother. She wasn't fooled by his gruffness. Nick was very concerned for his brother.
Jarrod and Nick quickly stripped Heath. His torso was covered with bruises. When they turned him on his side Jarrod's eyes went wide and he gasped. "What's wrong?" Nick stopped turning Heath.
"His back!" Jarrod choked on the words.
Nick leant over and looked at Heath's back. He was confronted with the angry welts from a whip. "I'll kill them with my bare hands!" Nick said through clenched teeth.
Jarrod snapped out of his stupor. "Nick….our brother needs us…come on let's concentrate on him and clean him up. His back is infected. That's what's causing the fever."
"Jarrod look at him….Look at him!...He's been starved." Nick cried.
"They worked him and starved him." Jarrod stated, the anguish for his brother coming through his words.
Nick and Jarrod carefully and gently cleaned Heath. Jarrod shaved him while Nick cleared away towels and the dirty clothes. They put some long johns on and cautiously pulled down the bed covers and manoeuvred Heath into his bed, keeping him on his side. They sat down and kept a vigil with their brother. Both were lost in their own thoughts when the doctor and Victoria entered the room. Victoria caught her breath when she saw Heath's back.
The doctor descended the staircase and looked at the three sets of worried eyes looking up at him. "He has a fever going at the moment but I'm confident he'll shake that off. I've cleaned his back. The cuts weren't deep but deep enough to get infected. I'm more concerned about his weight. He's lost a lot of weight and he's very dehydrated. He came to but only for a minute. He's exhausted. Sleep and fluids is what he needs. I've left instructions with Silas." The doctor patted Victoria's hand. "Don't worry, he's young and strong. He'll be alright but we must take things slow. His recovery will take time and Heath knows that. He's been through this before Victoria…a long time ago."
"You mean the war?" Nick asked.
"Yes. Heath's body has been starved a lot so it is important to take things slowly and not rush his body's recovery."
Victoria nodded. "Thankyou Howard." She showed him to the door.
"I'll sit with him. I'll send Silas down to fix you both something to eat." Victoria quickly climbed the staircase before Jarrod or Nick could protest.
Heath slept peacefully, his fever remained but not at a dangerous level. Victoria read for a while but nodded off after a couple of hours had passed. When she woke, the first rays of the morning sun were reaching into the small bedroom. Two sky blue eyes were watching her.
She smiled her loving smile. "Good morning sweetheart. How do you feel?" She brushed his hair off his forehead, mindful of his bruises.
"I never thought I'd see you again." Heath said despondently.
"Oh sweetheart….you have to remember…..you have family. Your brothers would never give up till they found you."
Heath blinked trying to stop the forming tears from escaping. "I'm sorry mother….I lost hope….but then the girl wanted to escape so I went along and now she's dead." Heath squeezed his eyes shut.
Victoria took his hand. "Heath….you can't blame yourself. These religious fanatics roam our countryside preying on the lost and lonely. They hide behind religion and break the law and then blame others for their mistakes."
"I wish it was that simple." Heath responded.
"Oh but it is. Whoever the leader was is to blame. He forces his ideas on his followers and punishes those who don't agree or follow him. Don't let him win by steeling your wonderful spirit." Victoria placed her hand on his cheek and kissed him.
"You've had to fight many battles alone….but you're not alone anymore. You have a family who loves you and needs you. Remember that." Victoria smiled when Heath gave her his shy endearing smile.
"You still have to finish that fence." Nick interrupted.
Heath huffed. "And Brother Heath we still have that fishing trip to go on."
Heath looked at each of his brothers and let his eyes rest on Victorias. She smiled a knowing smile at him and mouthed 'Family'. She patted his hand and rose. "I'll get you some soup." Heath grabbed her hand and squeezed it, letting her know that he understood what she was saying.
Nick slapped Jarrod's back. "Come on Pappy. This young man needs his beauty sleep."
They turned to leave, but before Jarrod left the room he whispered to the slumbering man, "Welcome home Heath. Welcome home."