Twice Welcome

by Helen

“WHERE IS HE?” Nick Barkley exclaimed angrily, slamming the front door. He'd just returned from the wine cellar, where he discovered a keg of wine missing. He asked Pete Sanders, the ranch foreman, where Heath was. Pete mentioned he saw Heath leaving the cellar. For Nick, this was the last straw. As far as Nick was concerned, Heath was the source of the recent misfortunes befalling the ranch. Livestock was turning up missing. There was a fire in the barn. Heath was the last one to see the missing cattle and the last one in the barn before the fire. Heath denied responsibility for both incidents, but Nick didn’t trust him. This time, neither Jarrod nor Mother was going to stop him from getting the truth out of that boy!

In the weeks since he came to them claiming to be a Barkley, Nick found Heath to be sullen and disagreeable, although Nick grudgingly had to admit he was an efficient worker. Still, Nick was convinced the boy was lying to them. Lying about his birthright and lying about all the events of the last few weeks, but he was alone in his opinion. His brother and sister, and even his mother, believed Heath's claims to the Barkley birthright. At times he wasn’t sure whether he was angry with Heath, or even angrier with his family for believing and shielding him. But the shielding was over! Today he was going to confront that lying, gold-digging whelp and settle this once and for all.

“Nicholas! Would you please lower your voice!” Nick’s thoughts were interrupted by his mother’s admonishment.

“Mother! Where’s that boy! I want him NOW, and then I’m going to…”

Victoria cut him off. “Nick, I’m not going to say it again. Lower your voice and then tell me what this is all about.”

Hearing the commotion, Jarrod strode into the parlor. “What is going on, Nick?”

Nick poured himself a whiskey and downed it, then poured another. “That…scoundrel that calls himself our brother, has been raiding the wine cellar.”

Jarrod raised an eyebrow. “Really. And how did you find out?”

“I gave him the job of sweeping out the cellar. I didn’t see him all afternoon, so I went to look for him.”

Jarrod cut in. “In the cellar.”

“Yes, dammit, IN THE CELLAR. Only, he wasn’t there, and neither was that cask of burgundy I have been nursing along.”

“So Heath wasn’t there. Was the cellar swept out?”

“Yes it was, matter of fact, he even organized things a bit. I was almost impressed until I noticed the cask missing. Then I knew he rearranged the barrels down there so I wouldn’t know.”

Victoria spoke, exasperated. “Oh Nick, really. What would Heath want with a whole cask of burgundy? He doesn’t drink wine as far as we know.”

“Well now, mother. That does bring up an interesting point, doesn't it? What exactly do we REALLY know?” Nick’s thought was cut short when they all heard a door open and close upstairs.

Heath bounded lightly down the steps, whistling a tune and straightening his shirt collar. He stopped short at the bottom of the steps when he realized Jarrod, Victoria, and Nick were staring at him. The formers wore a look of compassion, but the latter may as well have been spewing venom. He stopped dead at the bottom of the stairs and looked down, then glanced behind himself.

“Something wrong?”

“You bet there is, you thief!” Nick spewed angrily. “What did you do with my wine?” He began to advance toward the stunned blond man. Jarrod moved to put a restraining hand on Nick's arm, but Nick jerked away and grabbed the front of Heath's shirt in his fists.

“Nick! Let go of him this instant!” Victoria scolded while Jarrod pulled Nick away from Heath.

Heath rubbed his neck and looked at the three faces staring at him expectantly. He knew this was another "incident" he was apparently being blamed for. “I…I swept up like you asked me to, and when I was done I rearranged some barrels. I’m sorry if I messed something up. Show me what you want done, and I’ll fix it after dinner.” Heath was sure that Jarrod could detect the sincerity in his voice, because he loosened, but did not let go of, Nick's arm and let out a sigh.

Before he knew it, Nick pulled out of Jarrod's grip and was on him again. This time he felt punches and tried to protect himself. If they were outside and Victoria wasn't standing there, he would have let Nick have all he could dish out, but here in this grand house and in the presence of such a lady, a brawl didn't seem fitting. Besides, he wanted to tell his side of the story.

Nick’s voice spewed venom as he pummeled Heath “A likely story, boy! Now I am going to give you what you have had coming since you rode in here!”

Heath's initial surprise at Nick's attack began to give way to anger. "I'm telling the truth!"

Jarrod was trying to pull Nick away again, and Victoria was shouting “NICHOLAS! THAT IS ENOUGH!”

Jarrod tried to put his hand on Heath’s arm, but Heath jerked away and slid backwards. Victoria could see the boy was frightened and he felt cornered. As on the day he rode in and claimed to be Tom’s son, she could see the truth in his eyes. This boy had done no wrong.

Unfortunately, Nick was not finished. “Now I am going to ask you once more. What happened to my wine?”

Heath shook his head. “I'm tellin' you I didn’t take any wine! I don’t even drink wine!”

Nick was moving toward Heath again, but both Jarrod and Heath anticipated the next attack. Jarrod got in between them, and Heath raised his fists and took a combat stance.

“Now Nick, what evidence do you have that Heath took a barrel of wine?”

“Pete saw him carrying it out of the wine cellar.”

“Pete.” Jarrod said, more to himself than to everyone else. He was beginning to see a pattern. After each incident involving Heath over the past few weeks, Pete consistently was part of the equation.

He hadn't noticed until after the fire, when he talked to Heath. That night, long after everyone else had gone to bed, Jarrod spotted Heath standing out by the corral staring at the gutted building. Jarrod decided to test the strength of the bond they were building and ask him about what had happened. Jarrod didn't know Heath well, but he did know that for him to open up would be a tremendous show of trust in their newly formed relationship. It took Heath a long time to respond to Jarrod's gentle inquiry. Finally, tentatively, Heath told Jarrod about how things had really been going since his arrival. Besides the obvious problems with Nick, he felt the foreman had it in for him.

Jarrod was surprised and at first wanted to dismiss Heath's claim as adjustment, as did Victoria when he later told her about the conversation. Now Jarrod wasn’t so sure. Obviously, neither was Victoria. She cocked her head knowingly at Jarrod.

Further discussion was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Pete. “Uh, sorry to interrupt. Nick, we located your cask, but you better come see.”

Nick’s jaw clenched and he and the others followed the foreman out to the barn. The barrel was in the barn behind some hay bales. It had been tapped, and was missing a sizeable portion of wine. Jarrod was considering this fact thoughtfully when Nick attacked Heath for the third time. This time Heath fought back with a vengeance. The two were finally separated, bloodied and panting.

“Nick, I think this warrants more investigation.” Jarrod said.

“More investigation?” Nick shook his head in disgust, then got up and smacked his fist with his palm. He glared at Heath for a few moments and then stormed out of the barn.

Jarrod watched Nick's exit. He noticed Pete standing off to the side. Jarrod's keen glance missed neither the smug pleasure nor the forced sobriety on the foreman's face when Pete spied Jarrod looking at him.

Heath sat back against the hay for a moment and closed his eyes, his decision made. Who was he kidding? As much as he felt he should be a part of the family, it was evident that his presence here would never be welcome. There wasn't any point, as far as he was concerned, in even continuing to dispute Nick's charges. Feeling both hurt and resignation, Heath opened his eyes and, taking the hand Jarrod offered to help him stand, they headed toward the house.

************************

“Good morning Mother,” Jarrod said as he sat down for breakfast. “Heath and Nick gone already?”

“Silas said that Nick left already, but he hasn’t seen Heath. I assumed Heath was sleeping in.”

She so wanted to comfort the boy last night, but detected in those eyes so familiar that he wanted to be left alone after the confrontation with Nick. After they returned to the house following the scene in the barn, Heath went directly to his room and to her knowledge, never came out the rest of the night.

“On a work day? That’s not going to sit too well with Nick.” Jarrod stated matter-of-factly. He felt better about the events that had occurred in recent weeks since he determined his course of investigation. He was certain he found the right direction and his findings would ultimately ease Heath’s transition into the family.

Victoria put her napkin on her plate. “I’ll go up and check on him. Perhaps he will let me tend to those cuts and bruises.”

Jarrod chuckled. “Mother, when he sees you coming with that liniment bottle, he’ll be running for the hills.”

“I wish my sons would start to appreciate the importance of clean cuts and scrapes," she said shaking her head. "Have a good day dear.”

“Thank you fine lady. I think it surely will be.”

Several minutes later, he heard her scream and his heart lurched. “JARROD? JARROD!”

Jarrod’s chair fell backward as he jumped up and raced out of the dining room. He ran up the stairs. The door to Heath’s room was open. Victoria was sitting stunned on the neatly made bed, holding a piece of paper. She held it out to Jarrod wordlessly, with tears in her eyes. He took the paper and read:

Dear Family,

I want to tell you how sorry I am for the hurt I have caused you. I should never have rode in here and disturbed your lives. I was wrong to have come. Even though I’m not leaving angry, that’s the way I came and that’s no way to start something.

I want you all to know that I did not do the things Nick thinks I did. I know that I’ve said it before, but I'm saying it again. I have been called a lot of things, but I am no thief. I would never take from anyone, much less the people trying to be my family.

I appreciate all you tried to do for me. I wish things could have been different.

I’ll miss you all

Heath

“I was afraid of this.” Jarrod said grimly. “If only I made the connection sooner.”

“Jarrod, what are you saying?”

“I didn’t want to say anything until I had something more concrete, but under the circumstances…Mother, I think Heath was right about Pete and possibly some others in our employ being behind these incidents.”

“Pete? Jarrod, I find that hard to believe. He has been with us since before your father died. I knew when Heath first arrived the men might be resentful, but…”

“I know Mother, but I’ve noticed a pattern between these incidents and coupled with Heath’s claims he is being hassled by Pete…” he trailed off thoughtfully “anyhow, let’s just say I am pretty confident there is something going on.”

“What about Nick? If what you are saying is true, he will be very upset. You know he has worked very closely with Pete for the past few years. They've become good friends. We also mustn't forget that Pete and Audra are seeing each other.”

Audra was in Denver visiting a friend. Victoria knew that part of the reason Audra went was to think things over about Pete. He was growing serious about Audra, but in conversation, Audra disclosed she wasn't completely sure about her feelings towards Pete. If while away Audra made the decision to continue their relationship… Victoria's mind reeled with all of the possible complications that would be wrought if Jarrod were correct.

“Mother, I know such a thing is hard to believe under the circumstances, but I think for the sake of the family, especially Heath and Audra, we should check this out. I think Nick wants the truth as well but he just doesn’t realize it yet. Mother, there is no telling when Heath left, which direction he headed, or how many miles from here he is by now.”

“We need to get him back. I want him here Jarrod. He is your father’s son and your brother and he belongs with this family.”

“I agree Mother. If Audra were here, I am certain she would also. I also believe, somewhere deep down, Nick does too. Once things are cleared up, he will look at everything differently. I’ve seen the pride in his eyes when he watches Heath gentling horses or roping cattle. He hasn't said it, but I think he wants to believe Heath is his brother. Or at least he wanted to, until these incidents started occurring.”

************************

Heath rode out before anyone else was up, or so he thought. As he saddled his horse, he had no idea he was being watched. As he rode away, Nick stepped out of the shadows and gazed hard at the retreating figure.

In the bunkhouse two more pairs of eyes saw the rider leave. Then they watched Nick head back towards the house. Pete Sanders had a plan that would forever ensure his security in the Barkley fold. When he returned today he would be a hero. While the rest of the Barkley family obliviously went about their business, he would be apprehending the thief who tried to steal their cattle and wine, burn their barn down, and who would now be caught stealing their prize stallion. He signaled to Jack Wilson, his right-hand man and accomplice then stole out of the bunkhouse to his already saddled horse. Yep, today he would be a hero.

Heath stopped near the stream bisecting the north pasture. One side was the peach orchard, the other grazing land. He wanted to make sure he had plenty of water before he continued. Where he was going, he had no idea. He also wanted to think for a few moments about what he was doing. He knew in his furiously pounding heart once he left Barkley land, he would never return. The ache he felt surprised him. This needing and wanting to be with others was a new feeling that had only recently crept upon him, one he wasn’t sure how to interpret. He had spent a large portion of his life looking for what he found here. A name, a family complete with brothers and a sister, a place he could settle down in and call home.

Victoria, Jarrod and Audra surprised him with their warmth and acceptance. After the first couple of weeks here, he'd found himself slowly starting to relax in their presence.

The warmth in his heart was replaced with bitter sadness when he thought of Nick. From the first moment he met Nick, he felt a kinship with him. They had a lot in common, and Heath initially pictured he and Nick as friends. Although Nick was angry about his arrival, Heath hoped with time, Nick would eventually accept him as a brother. The big brother he always dreamed of having. Nick made it clear Heath was not, and would never be, welcome as far as he was concerned.

Last night hurt, and not only from the physical blows Nick railed against him. Heath could almost touch Nick’s hatred for him. It was then, in the barn, he made the decision to leave before things got any worse. His presence obviously caused them a great deal of hurt, and he didn’t want to hurt them any more than he had already. He would miss them all, especially Victoria. She was a remarkable woman. Despite the circumstances surrounding his arrival at the ranch and his birth, she went out of her way to make him feel welcome and loved. Heath had grown to love and respect her in the weeks since she welcomed him into her home. She treated him exactly like she treated Jarrod, Nick and Audra, and it made him feel safe and secure. On more than one occasion, he found himself seeking her company after a particularly difficult day. She never prodded him for conversation the way the others did, and for that he was grateful. They would simply sit in the garden and he would relax in the comfort of her presence. It was as if they shared a sanctuary from the turmoil of the ranch. He found it ironic she should allow him, the cause of the turmoil, safe haven, but she did so repeatedly and willingly, as only a mother can, or would. Heath felt a lump forming in his throat and hot tears stinging his eyes.

He swallowed hard. “Well, that’s that Heath. Better get outta here before they chase you out.”

No sooner had the words left his lips, he noticed three riders coming toward him from the west. As they neared where he was standing, he recognized Pete, but did not know the other two. His hand moved to his hip just above where his gun rested in its holster, as he backed slowly towards his horse. If this were to be an unfriendly visit, he would be no match for three armed men on horseback.

The three riders reached him and dismounted. Heath tensed.

“You planning on going somewhere, boy?” Pete Sanders sneered venomously.

Heath said nothing, turning slowly to survey the situation. He rapidly concluded he was surrounded and this was definitely going to be an unfriendly confrontation. He was about to draw his gun when he felt a blow to the back of his head and everything went black.

***************************

After watching Heath ride away, Nick methodically ate his breakfast and then rode into Stockton, heading straight for the saloon. He did not want to be home when his mother discovered that Heath was gone. He knew it was his fault. Damned if he knew why she believed that boy!

He ordered a beer, ignoring the puzzled gaze of Phil, the bartender, and found a table in a dark corner of the nearly deserted saloon. As the morning wore on, he toyed with the events over the past few weeks. He considered the missing cattle, how genuinely confused and upset Heath seemed to be. He could hear Heath saying over and over that he didn’t know what had happened and the cattle were there when he'd counted them earlier.

Nick could hear himself yelling and accusing.

“Well, boy, maybe you are trying to build your own empire!”

Then, of course, there was the fire. Now, that one almost cost them good, he thought. The night it happened, Nick left Heath in the barn finishing a branding iron and headed back to the house. Heath followed him shortly thereafter, and met Nick in the foyer.

Nick recalled asking, “You put the fire in the kiln out, right?”

Heath responded hotly to Nick’s sarcasm “No, I left a fire unattended in the barn.”

The next thing they knew, they were putting out a fire. Once again, when the accusations flew, Heath was confused and upset; insisting the fire had been extinguished. Pete later told him he spotted the flames shortly after Heath exited the barn.

Nick played these events over and over as he sipped his beer. “Good thing he rode out,” he thought to himself. Trouble was, there was this nagging little feeling that it wasn’t a good thing. He knew the rest of the family was getting attached to Heath, and his sudden departure would hurt them. But that wasn’t what was bothering him. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Nick wouldn’t deny that he liked the idea of having a younger brother, especially one interested in and talented at ranching. He knew Pete had his eyes on Audra, and a more partner-like role around the ranch, but it would not be the same as sharing the ranch with a brother. A brother is a tie by blood, and leaves no questions about motivation or loyalty.

For sure, Nick wondered about Pete lately. Nick recently promoted him to foreman because he was a good worker possessing a fair amount of experience, and Nick was in grave need of the help after Carl retired. Nick gave Pete the job because he felt he deserved it, not because Pete was seeing his sister or he and Nick did some fishing together. There was a noticeable change in climate amongst the help within a week of Pete's new status. Even Nick didn't miss Pete's sudden air of self-importance, but figured it was due to the new job and budding relationship with Audra and when the newness wore off, things would settle down. On a couple of occasions, Pete redirected the men and work without Nick's approval. Nick was furious and would have taken the man apart limb from limb if Jarrod and Mother hadn't intervened and convinced him to try to be patient.

Then Heath came. All of the help was miffed about Heath's arrival, especially Pete. Nick was well aware the new foreman was less than cooperative when it came to working with Heath, and had no trouble enlisting support from the men. Still, Heath proved right away to be an impressive cowboy and hard worker, and Nick found himself slowly seeking out Heath's expertise. Nick's emotions and conscience, as they did when matters concerned his alleged brother, warred over whether or not he should intervene between Heath and the men. His emotions won, and he kept silent. The help took his silence as approval and continued to direct animosity at Heath.

Nick scowled. When Nick was about to speak up on Heath's behalf, if only to please Mother, things started happening around the ranch. If it hadn't been for Pete, they might not have found out what a snake Heath really was. Nope…I'll take a friend like Pete over a brother like Heath any day, Nick thought to himself.

************************

Heath regained consciousness when Pete and his accomplices dragged him over to the stream and dunked his head in the ice cold water. He coughed and sputtered and choked as he tried to wriggle free from whoever was holding his head under water, but his efforts were futile. Just before he passed out, he was yanked roughly to his knees. As he continued to choke, he felt his shirt being stripped from his body and his wrists being tied together in front.

"Up on your feet boy!" Pete ordered.

Heath's mind was still reeling from the blow to his head and he continued to choke on the water still caught in his windpipe. He tried to clear his head and do his tormentor's bidding, but his legs wouldn't respond. He felt the toe of a boot prod his side.

"I said up!"

Pete motioned towards the other two men and Heath was hauled roughly to his feet. The men dragged him away from the stream and back towards the horses. He felt tugging on his wrists as his eyes started to focus. With a stab of fear, he realized what they were planning to do. Suddenly energized, he began to struggle and tried to lash out with his body at his captors, but they merely danced out of the way and laughed. Heath fell to his knees, breathing hard.

"Jim, mount up and take him for a little ride." Pete said. He grabbed a chunk of Heath's hair and roughly yanked his head back.

"Wait a minute, Pete. He's pretty beat up now. Let's wait for Jack and you can take him in."

Heath didn't know the man who spoke. Pete was unwavering.

"I said to mount up!" Pete barked. Jim reluctantly mounted the horse.

Part of him acknowledged Jim was right. The other part of him, the part that was driven by his anger and resentment and currently in control of the situation, would hear nothing of stopping. He felt strangely exhilarated; it was as if the helpless man before him embodied all of the years of struggle and pain that followed his parent's death, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he had the upper hand.

Heath finally managed to find his voice. "Killin' me isn't gonna change anything," he slurred. "Truth'll come out someday."

Pete laughed. "I ain't gonna kill ya, just rough-up a thief, that's all. I want to make sure you live to crawl back into whatever hole you came from. You have a nice trip, ya hear?" He let go of Heath's hair and threw him forward, so he fell face down on the ground.

As the horse began its forward motion taking the slack out of the rope, Heath's arms jerked forward. As the horse picked up speed, he felt the flesh on his upper torso burning and tearing against the golden meadow grass. For a split second, he thought about how it looks much softer than it actually is. He tried to use the strength of his arms to pull his unprotected torso up off of the ground, but it was no use. He finally gave up when he was dragged over a lump in the ground that sent a searing pain through his side and took his breath away. The last thing he did before succumbing to the pain was pray that someone would happen by to help him.

********************

Nick was on the way back to the ranch when he got a strange urge to ride through the orchard. As he approached, he heard a lot of whooping and hollering. He tried to think of which crew he had assigned to the north pasture for that day. Anger at the possibility of ranch hands shirking responsibility began to run hotly through Nick’s veins.

He decided to make his observations from the orchard. He climbed off of Coco and walked silently through the trees in the direction of the men’s voices. As he got closer, anger was replaced with horror at the scene before him. Three men, one of them Pete Sanders, his friend and foreman, were torturing Heath’s already battered and beaten body. The boy was stripped to the waist and tied by his wrists to an overhead branch so the toes of his boots barely touched the ground. He was bruised and bloody. They were laughing at and taunting him, and bragging about all the things they did to ruin his chances for Nick's acceptance. Nick shook his head in disbelief as he tried to reconcile in his mind and heart that which his eyes saw and ears heard.

“Wait’ll Nick sees what I caught you stealing this time,” Pete Sanders taunted. Nick could see a fourth man, Jack Wilson, riding up with Charger, the stallion that would be the foundation of the Barkley horse venture. He tied the horse to Heath’s Modoc.

"Yep, 'ol Nick will be pleased I hauled you in and gave you what you've deserved all along, and you're not going to say a word, are you? If you do, I'll guarantee you two things. Know what they are?"

Heath tried to muster a defiant stare, but he was having trouble keeping his head up and his eyes focused.

"Well, I'll tell you. One, something bad will happen to the Barkleys, and two, I'm gonna finish what I started here."

In his mind's eye, the boy hanging helplessly in the meadow eclipsed Nick's image of Tom Barkley. Nick found himself suddenly acknowledging that which he wanted so much to deny. Somehow he knew right then the boy really was his brother, and he needed his big brother’s help. Nick didn’t question the sudden confirmation of his feelings. Nick knew instantly Heath’s suffering drew him toward the orchard. Along with the acknowledgement of his feelings about Heath, he felt guilt and regret, but Nick fought them down. Now was not the time. Nick drew his gun and advanced.

Pete continued to taunt Heath. “I am going to marry Audra then I'm who's going to be Nick’s partner. Not you, you stupid, no good bastard. You almost took my chance, riding up and saying you're one of them and getting the good life I've worked seven long years to earn.”

Heath tried to move, but couldn’t. The cuts and scrapes that covered his unprotected chest and back burned like fire. The wounds on his forearms and elbows were seeping so much blood it was running wetly towards his ears. Everything seemed kind of far away. All except the terrible, hurtful words. In his mind, he felt a flame flicker. He couldn’t move, but he could spit. He let go in Pete’s face. Pete was furious now. He punched Heath's already battered stomach and sides over and over again until the pain reached an intensity so great Heath could no longer feel it and no longer cared.

“Looks like this boy ain't broke yet! We'll just have to gentle him now, right boys?” One of the men handed him a bullwhip. The men moved aside and Pete moved his arm back. As the whip sailed towards Heath’s already torn back, a shot cut through the air. The men whirled to see Nick Barkley wading through the stream.

“Pete! Lay another hand on my brother and I swear the next one will be between your eyes.”

Nick’s voice was ice cold. His eyes bored right through Pete. The other men looked to him for direction as Pete stood silently weighing his options. This changed things significantly. As much as he wanted to finish the bastard off, it wasn’t worth letting Nick take the shot. Nick had obviously heard and seen enough. In an instant of rotten luck, Pete was clearly out of a job, and it was likely he and Audra were through as well. There would be no reasoning with Nick Barkley about what he'd seen, therefore, Pete's first order of business became survival.

“C’mon boys, let’s get out of here.” He never took his eyes off Nick save for when he stopped in front of Heath, who by this time was only semi-conscious. As he reached his palm up to tap Heath on the cheek, he heard a click as Nick pulled back the hammer on his gun.

He continued with the movement and addressed the semi-conscious man. "When you feel better, you and me's gonna get together again, boy." He turned and looked at Nick, almost amused at his former boss' fury.

"This isn't over, Pete. You're not going anywhere. You and I are going to settle this, right now." Nick said in an uncharacteristically cool voice.

"Settle this?" Pete laughed. "Nick, what's there to settle? Heck, if I'd known all I needed to do was claim your daddy whelped me I woulda done that years ago! No, instead, I worked my way up. Then he," he looked hatefully at Heath "he shows up one day and when the sun rose, he was sleeping in the big house. A nobody. Your daddy's big mistake." He laughed bitterly and shook his head.

Before Pete could look up again, Nick charged. In an instant, Jack and the other men joined the fray. Even in his fury, Nick was no match for four men. Two of the men held Nick while Pete landed a solid punch to his jaw. They let go of him and Nick fell to the ground, stunned.

"See you later, boss." Pete sneered. He turned and mounted up, and he and his men rode away.

Nick closed his eyes for what he thought was a second, but it must have been longer, for when he opened his eyes again, Pete, Jack and the other men were gone. He groaned when he moved his head and winced as he tried to sit up. He sat for a moment to clear the cobwebs, and heard a soft moan. He spied his brother still hanging from the branch. Adrenaline cleared his head and he rose to attend his brother.

“Heath! You’re gonna be okay.”

Nick put his arm around Heath and lifted him up to take the tension off of his badly scraped arms. With his free hand, he drew his pocketknife and cut the ropes that were suspending Heath from the branch. Heath’s mangled body fell limply into Nick’s arms. Nick gently lowered him to the ground and cradled him in his arms. There was so much blood Nick couldn't detect any one source. It was everywhere. Nick swallowed hard. This couldn't be good.

“Thanks, Nick.” Heath’s voice was barely above a whisper; his blue eyes grateful. “What took you so long?”

Nick’s eyes were full. “I’m sorry Heath. I was wrong. I’m so sorry.”

Heath smiled weakly, warmed by Nick's spoken sincerity and concern, then winced as pain shot through his battered body. “It burns,” he said softly. He felt his eyes sliding shut.

Nick grasped Heath's hand and shook it firmly. “Stay with me, Heath. We need to get you home. I know you're hurting, but I need your help to get you up on Coco.”

Heath kept his eyes open, but they were losing their focus. Nick knew he didn’t have much time to get Heath up and on the horse before he passed out completely. He pulled Heath to a standing position and supported his weight, then walked Heath over to Coco and helped him into the saddle. He got up behind him and put his arm firmly around his waist. He leaned over carefully and loosened the tethers on the other two horses, confident they would follow their stable mate. As they moved slowly forward, Heath slumped against Nick. Nick tightened his grip on his injured brother.

“That’s it, you rest now. I’m taking you home, and you’re going to be just fine.” Nick wasn’t even sure that Heath heard him. The only thoughts, besides concern for Heath, that occupied Nick on the long ride home, were those of revenge and how to exact it upon the men who had hurt Heath so badly, nearly costing him a brother.

*****************************

When they finally drew up to the ranch, Nick was relieved when the front door flew open and Victoria and Jarrod ran out to greet them.

“Nick! What happened?” Jarrod exclaimed with a mixture of concern and alarm at the sight of his brothers. He helped Nick gently lower the battered, pale, unconscious body of their younger brother from Coco.

Victoria was aghast when she saw how bloody Heath was.

“Oh, dear God, what on earth happened?” she murmured as she skillfully assessed Heath’s injuries.

“Someone send for Doctor Merar!” Jarrod shouted to the group of curious hands that had gathered to investigate the commotion.

Nick tersely recounted what he had seen and heard near the orchard while he and Jarrod carried Heath to his room. They laid him on the bed and began assisting Victoria with cleaning his wounds. In addition to the numerous cuts and bruises and broken ribs, his upper torso, on both the front and back, was severely lacerated. As the blood was cleaned away, it became obvious the skin was rubbed away, in some places to the bone. Trying to quell their nausea, Jarrod and Nick held him firmly when he regained consciousness and tried to comfort him while Victoria worked with tears in her eyes and trembling fingers. They were all still reeling with shock that someone thought to be so close to the family could be capable of inflicting such terrible wounds.

Heath fought weakly against their hold. “It's burning, it stings,” he moaned “please stop.”

“We know it hurts Heath, but Mother has to clean the cuts,” Jarrod said soothingly.

“Hang on, Heath. She's almost finished,” Nick assured in a gentle voice. Heath writhed and moaned until he finally passed out.

Dr. Merar arrived and confirmed their suspicions. “I'd say this boy was dragged on the ground. There is an awful lot of dirt, grass, and who knows what else worked down into these deep abrasions and in some areas, the skin is gone completely. He has suffered some trauma to the head as well, and may have a concussion.” He looked at the grim, anguished faces and shook his head before continuing. “He is at tremendous risk for infection. His temperature is already elevated. I am going to remove as much of this dirt and grass that I can, and bandage the wounds.”

Nick found his voice. “What can we do for him?”

“Well, I’ll prescribe laudanum for the pain, but my main concern is keeping the lacerated skin clean. You will need to clean the wounds and change the bandages twice a day, even if they don’t look dirty, and keep his temperature under control. Furthermore, he'll need all the fluids you can possibly get him to take. I’m also concerned about pneumonia…”

“Pneumonia?” Jarrod’s question interrupted the doctor.

“I don't want to bind those ribs just yet because of the lacerations. The normal reaction to the pain will be to breathe as shallowly as possible to avoid the pain. It is critical he takes deep breaths to prevent congestion from filling up his lungs. Every few hours, I would like for you to sit him up and get him to take a few deep breaths and cough. He won't like it at all, but this is critical. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to see how he is doing.”

The stunned family nodded their understanding to the doctor and watched silently as Dr. Merar set to work on removing the material from the wounds and bandaging Heath from armpit to waist, as well as both arms from biceps to wrist. Mercifully, Heath remained unconscious through this part of the ordeal.

When the doctor finished, he cleaned his instruments and snapped his bag shut.

“I’ll show you out, Doc.” Jarrod said as they left the room. He wanted to speak to Dr. Merar about relaying a message to the sheriff.

Nick was concerned about Victoria, who remained silent while the doctor made his diagnosis and performed his ministrations.

“Mother, are you okay?”

Victoria was lost in thought, brushing Heath’s sandy hair gently with her fingers.

“I am afraid to lose him, Nick.”

“Mother…” Nick paused. He realized only too recently that he felt the same way. “Mother,” he began again, “he’s a Barkley, don’t forget.”

Victoria smiled warmly at him. “Oh Nick, I am so glad you finally have the little brother you always wanted.”

“I am too, Mother. I’ve been so mad…”

“I know Nick. But you mustn’t be angry with Heath. Remember that he has had no more say in all of this than we have.

“I realize that Mother, but Father hurt you. How can you…?”

Victoria cut him off. “You’re right Nick. Your father hurt me. Truth be told, I had a feeling that something had gone on in Strawberry, but your father never discussed his time there with me, and I, for better or worse, respected his silence. He never returned to Strawberry, which leads me to believe that he never knew about Heath. After more than twenty-five years with your father, this much I know…as much as he loved you, Jarrod and Audra, he would never knowingly leave a child of his without support. He couldn't have known about Heath."

"Nick, you must understand that while your father’s infidelity hurt me, it hurts me more he did not tell me what happened in Strawberry. Either way, Heath is not to blame. Now, you have questioned why I can so easily accept and love Heath. The answers are simple. First of all, I love him for the man he is and has shown himself to be in the short time he has been with us: honorable, sensitive, and intelligent. Second of all, he is your father’s son, and what was his is mine now. Heath is now MY son to care for and love, and my feelings for him are as strong as they are for you, Jarrod, and Audra. Thirdly, he brings a sense of completion to this family. I am not sure why or how, but he does. I could go on and on, but I don’t think I need to.”

Nick was quiet. “No, Mother, you don’t.” He looked at his brother sleeping restlessly on the bed, pain etched in the lines of his battered face. “I am still mad at Father though. Whether he knew about Heath or not, Heath needed him as much as we did while growing up. We had a brother we didn’t know about all this time we didn’t get to grow up with, and he grew up alone.”

Victoria sighed. “I have a feeling that all the answers are not known yet Nick, but I firmly believe there has to be an explanation. In time, perhaps, we will discover the reason things worked out the way they did. In the meantime, just be glad he found us."

She studied his weary face and bloodied, disheveled clothing. "You need to get some rest. A hot bath will help you get some sleep. These next couple of days are going to rough for Heath and he's going to need you to help see him through.”

Nick nodded and bent to kiss her. He was exhausted. Before turning to leave, he looked for a moment at his brother, then reached for Heath's hand. He squeezed it gently. Victoria watched with wonder, as her bold and tempestuous Nick wearily left the room. Few people knew the tenderness Nick could show for those suffering and especially those he loved.

*******************************

"Thank you for coming out on such short notice, Doc." Jarrod said gratefully to Doctor Merar as he walked him across the foyer. "Are you heading into town?"

"No problem, Jarrod. Yes, I am heading back to town. What can I do for you?" the doctor inquired.

"I need to have Fred come out here as quickly as possible. I want to report what happened and get some men searching for Pete as soon as possible."

The doctor nodded grimly. "Understood, Jarrod. I'll send him out here right away."

Jarrod nodded. "Thank you, I'll be waiting."

He closed the door behind the doctor and let out a breath. Leaning against the door, he rubbed his palms against his suddenly tired eyes. In their concern for Heath, they delayed notifying the sheriff. Jarrod prayed silently that the delay would not be too costly. He looked upstairs and saw Nick wearily leave Heath's bedroom and shuffle down the hall. He walked across the foyer to the parlor and stopped short when the family picture sitting on the table caught his eye. He picked it up and studied it as if he'd never seen it before. Mother was seated, surrounded by Nick, Audra and himself. The picture was taken shortly before Heath's arrival. He set the photograph back down and looked up at Heath's bedroom door, then back at the photograph. The picture no longer seemed complete. He'd scarcely paid attention to it since Mother placed it there months ago, and now, it didn't seem like it fit. "Get well, Heath," he thought out loud, "we have a family photograph that needs to be fixed."

****************************

Nick took a hot bath as his mother instructed and lay in bed, trying to clear his guilt-ridden mind of the day's events. No matter what he did, all his thoughts returned to the haunting vision of his brother, battered and helpless, hanging from that tree in the meadow. How could he have let this happen? He stared at the swirls in the plaster overhead hoping the answer would materialize. He decided it was foolish. The answer wasn't in the ceiling. It was in his aching heart. His "lion's heart," as Mother often called it, that for weeks didn't have room for another brother. Didn't have room for tolerance or forgiveness or acceptance or truth. Finally, he closed his eyes and let the ache in his soul envelop him like a penance, and he fell asleep.

****************************

Carrying out the doctor’s instructions proved to be a difficult task. Heath would moan pitifully as his wounds were cleaned, leaving Victoria, Jarrod and Nick emotionally spent. Even more difficult was the effort to sit him up and getting him to breathe deep and cough. Jarrod and Nick would support him from both sides, and Victoria would hold his hands. Heath would plead with them to let him lie down and sleep. Jarrod and Nick would insist that he could after he gave them a few deep breaths and at least one cough. All were exhausted by the time the exercise was over; then it seemed before they knew it, it was time to repeat the process.

Heath would later only recall fragments of those days. He drifted in and out of consciousness, his stupor induced by both the fever and the laudanum, and see one of his brothers or Victoria or all three at his bedside. It seemed they were always fussing with him, either cleaning the abrasions or making him sit up when he didn't want to or trying to get him to drink, but they were always there and seemed to be worried about him. He drew comfort from their presence and let himself surrender to their caring warmth.

Dr. Merar visited daily to monitor Heath's condition. Dr. Merar felt the fever to be caused by both the trauma of the injuries and a slight infection. Not wanting to take any risks, Victoria, Jarrod and Nick maintained vigilance in bathing Heath's face and neck with cool water.

After a few days, the stinging and pain of the lacerations began to give way to itching, the fever faded to dull warmth, and Heath became more lucid. Dr. Merar proclaimed this to be a sign of healing and there were no signs of pneumonia, so he bound Heath’s ribs.

"Does this mean he can get back to doing his share of things around here now Doc?" Nick demanded in a teasing tone of voice. He was supporting Heath while the doctor wound the bandage around Heath's ribcage. He winked at Victoria, who glared at him.
Dr. Merar missed the teasing tone in Nick's voice.

"Victoria, it would be best if Heath stayed in bed for the next few days, and close to the house for the next couple weeks or so to give those ribs some time to mend. You'll also need to keep cleaning and re-dressing these bandages on his arms. They are going to take longer to heal, but they will."

As Nick settled Heath back against the pillows, the doctor checked the binding around Heath's ribcage and snapped his bag shut, addressing his patient.

"Heath, you heard what I said…make sure you rest. Those ribs need time to heal properly, and you may have dizzy spells. I'll be back to see you at the end of the week."

"I will, I promise," Heath said. "Thanks Doc. See you then."

Dr. Merar nodded his approval and turned to leave.

"Thank you Howard. I'll see to it that Nick lets him rest as you've instructed," Victoria said with a stern glare at Nick, who merely shrugged and gave her a "What? Me?" look in return.

"I'll show you out, Doc. I have to ride out to check on one of the crews." Nick said, following the doctor out of Heath's room. He planned to do more than check on the crews; it was high time he did what he should have done weeks ago - make it clear where he stood about Heath. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at his brother. "I'll be back to check on you later, Heath."

Nick couldn't help but smile when Heath smiled at him. It was good to see him feeling better, and Nick was looking forward to spending some time with him later in the day.

Victoria turned to Heath, who was sitting up propped against a mound of pillows. "Do you feel up to eating something? Silas prepared some beef stew this morning."

"Yes, ma'am. I guess I'm kinda hungry."

Victoria smiled. "I'll be back with a tray." She wagged a finger at him, "and don't even think about getting out of this bed young man!"

"Yes ma'am."

Victoria felt a pang at his reference to her as "ma'am." She made a mental note to address the issue with Heath once he was up and around. She wasn't sure why, but it bothered her a great deal that he referred to her so formally. Maybe it was because she ached so at the possibility of his loss these past days. Or maybe it was because she had accepted him as a son in her heart and hoped he would come to accept her in his. She hoped, given time, he would. When she approached her children about the issue of her asking Heath to call her Mother just prior to Audra's departure, Nick was so adamantly opposed that she never brought it up with Heath, for fear it would make things worse with Nick. She felt certain Nick would vote differently now, if given the opportunity. She left the room, closing the door behind her, and made her way down to the kitchen to prepare a tray.

As she made her way down the front staircase, she encountered Jarrod entering the front door. He had been to town to check the progress on the search for Pete and his accomplices.

"Jarrod!" She greeted her eldest son. "What did Fred say?"

Jarrod kissed her and then set his briefcase down, shaking his head. "No word yet, Mother. Fred has search parties combing the entire valley, but they haven't found a trace of them."

Victoria's face fell. She felt uneasy for her children that those men remained at large. She voiced her concerns to Jarrod, her voice and expression tight with anxiety.

"Jarrod, I hope they are found soon. Perhaps we should have Audra escorted home." They discussed bringing Audra home right after Heath was attacked, but decided against alarming her, confident that Pete would be apprehended.

Jarrod tried to sooth her. "They'll be found soon, Mother. Fred is aware of the circumstances and is doing all that he can. He promised to send word as soon as he knows anything at all. Please try not to worry. I've apprised the authorities in Denver daily of the status of the search. The two agents watching over Audra will move in to protect her if they suspect she is in danger. Just the same, I sent a telegram this afternoon to the Denver sheriff. Audra should be boarding the five o'clock train for home with escorts, as we speak."

"Oh, Jarrod! I must admit knowing she is on her way home makes me feel a little better. What did you tell her?"

"No more than I felt necessary. I told her Heath had an accident, but that he was doing fine, and that you wanted her home. By the way, where is Nick?"

Victoria mustered a smile, but it didn't quell the uneasy feeling. "He showed Howard out and rode out to check on the men. Heath said he'd try some stew, and I was just on my way to the kitchen to fix a tray."

"I ran into the good doctor on the way in. He said Heath is doing well enough to see if he remembers anything that might offer some clues. I think I'll pay him a visit, if he's awake."

"He's awake, but don't push too hard, Jarrod. He's been through a lot and still needs to rest."

"Understood, Mother."

Jarrod made his way up to Heath's room and was happy to find him sitting up in bed.

"Well, it's good to see you sitting up. How are you feeling?" Jarrod asked as he pulled up a chair.

Heath smiled. "Better, thanks."

"You had us worried for a couple of days. Do you feel up to talking?"

"Yeah, sure. What about?"

"Fred says there has been no word on Pete's whereabouts. It would appear he, Jack and the other two have disappeared from the face of the earth. Fred was wondering if maybe Pete mentioned anything about where they were going."

Heath thought for a minute. "Not that I can recall. I'm sorry Jarrod."

Jarrod gripped his knee and spoke softly. "You've nothing to be sorry for. If anything, I owe you an apology."

Heath looked puzzled. "For what? You had nothing to do with what Pete did."

"No, not directly, but when you told me your feelings after the fire, I should have acted sooner and maybe analyzed less, as you will find our brother Nick does, and for that I am sorry."

"You did what you lawyer's do. It's okay. When he…when it…that day, he had a strange look in his eyes. It was pure hatred, Jarrod. It was as if it took him over and he was no longer the person he was." Heath was looking into space, and he shivered. He shook his head slightly and looked back at Jarrod. "I don't think there was anything anyone could have done. He just snapped. If it wasn't at me, it could have been at someone else."

He didn't add, heaven forbid, it might have been Audra.

Jarrod studied his battered brother for a moment, impressed. He smiled warmly.

"You're probably right, Heath. Very perceptive." He paused for a moment. "Mother is getting you something to eat and should be here any minute and I am in need of a hot bath before Nick returns and uses all of the hot water. I'll check in on you later."

"Poker?"

Jarrod laughed. "I don't know about that! Your reputation precedes you, but I'll consider your offer."

********************************

The first thing Nick did when he approached each crew was call them together and give them each a brief dissertation about Pete. He told each crew that if any of them had any problem with Heath, they were to pick up their pay and ride out. Nick made it clear to each and every man further dissention pertaining to Heath and his status in the family or to the ranch would not be tolerated.

Nick also wanted to talk with Heath about the events leading up to the beating, and had been waiting for Heath to be well enough for the conversation. He discussed his intentions with both Jarrod and Victoria before dinner. They agreed such a conversation was probably not only a good idea, but necessary as well. Now that Dr. Merar declared that Heath was out of danger, Nick was anxious to make things right with him. He was afraid that Heath might still intend to leave when he was able, and Nick wanted to make sure that Heath understood his place in the family; he belonged with them and they wanted him there.

Nick, Jarrod and Victoria were finishing dinner when Nick decided it was as good a time as any to have that chat with his brother.

“If you boys would excuse me, I am going to take Heath his dinner,” Victoria informed her sons.

“Mother, I’ll take it up to him. You know I want to talk to him anyhow.” Nick offered.

Victoria smiled her understanding with a glance at Jarrod for confirmation. “I think he would like that, Nick. I’ll have Silas prepare the tray.” She rose from the table and went to the kitchen.

Jarrod drained the last of the coffee in his cup and pushed his chair back. “Brother Nick, if you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork to get through this evening.”

“See you in a bit, Jarrod,” Nick said absently.

Jarrod sensed Nick was apprehensive about talking with Heath, but believed the conversation was a necessary step in Nick's self-imposed mission to expiate at least some of the guilt he now carried like a yoke around his neck. As hard as it was to fathom after the past few days, Nick had been a major factor in Heath’s decision to leave. From what Jarrod knew of this new brother of theirs, Nick need not worry. Heath obviously would do anything for Nick. Mother also noticed. Even when Nick was doing his damnedest to make things difficult, Heath would bend over backwards to try to please him. Now that Nick declared his acceptance, he was like a mother hen to Heath. Jarrod smiled warmly thinking about the new relationship forming between his younger brothers.

After Jarrod left the dining room, Nick sat alone, anxiously waiting for Mother to return with the tray. She soon entered carrying a tray loaded with soup, bread, cookies, a glass of water, and a cup of coffee.

“Whoa Mother! Are you expecting him to eat all of that?”

Victoria smiled. “No, not all of it, but I want you to make sure he at least eats all of the soup and drinks the liquids.” As an afterthought she added “and no cookies until the soup is gone!”

Nick feigned a hurt look. “So I have to play the sheriff, huh?”

“Yes, I’m holding YOU responsible for your brother’s well-being.” She hugged him warmly and added quietly “I’ll be in the parlor if you need me.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

Nick took a deep breath and picked up the tray, proceeding up to Heath’s bedroom.

“Hey, you hungry?” Nick said as he entered the room.

Heath was sitting in a chair by the window. He was startled by Nick’s voice and jumped a little. Nick thought it was good to see him sitting up. The lacerations were, for the most part scabbed over, except for his elbows and forearms, which continued to ooze and remained bandaged. The bruises were beginning to turn more yellow. Though he had more color, he still looked pale.

“Little bit. Where’s Mrs. Barkley?”

Nick winced inside at Heath’s formality with Mother. He knew it bothered Mother to have him calling her Mrs. Barkley and Ma’am, and it was probably his fault Heath still did so. When Mother brought it up before Audra left, Nick was so vehemently opposed Mother obviously never discussed it with Heath. Yet another wrong Nick needed to right.

“Uh, Mother's resting. I volunteered to be your nurse for this evening.” He set the tray down and had to stifle a laugh when he saw Heath’s eyes widen at the sight of all the food.

“Boy howdy, she expects me to eat all of that?”

Nick tried to look serious. “At least the soup, and no cookies until the soup is gone.”

Heath sighed and picked up the spoon and began eating. Nick nodded his approval at every spoonful until Heath finally said, annoyed “Would you cut it out? How am I supposed to eat with you hawking over me?”

Nick nodded sheepishly and stood and looked out of the window. When he heard the spoon clink in the bowl, he raced over to check how much Heath had eaten.

“Good, Mother will be pleased. Now how about drinking some coffee or water.”

Heath glared at him, but picked up the coffee and began to sip. After a few moments, he began to shift uncomfortably in the chair, suddenly feeling tired and achy and sleepy. Nick was at his side in an instant.

“You okay?” Nick asked anxiously.

"Yeah, I'm just tired, is all." Heath answered, but swayed slightly as he tried to rise.

Nick supported him and guided him to the bed, then helped him get settled against the pillows and covered his legs with a quilt.

“Better?”

Heath nodded. “Guess I’m not ready to up and about yet.”

Nick smiled. “Looks like you’re gonna be stuck here for a while.” He caught Heath’s tired gaze and held it, adding quietly “A long while, I hope.”

Heath stared at Nick, the meaning of his comment dawning on him. Nick was asking him to stay! Heath felt his heart pounding faster. Even though Nick saved him and helped with his care, Heath still thought it would be best if he left them to return to their lives and was planning on leaving as soon as he was able. He was aware that even with their acceptance, his presence would make things difficult for them. Nick wanted him to stay. He wanted to say yes, but instead, he swallowed hard and looked down, unable to look at Nick and tell him what he really felt.

“Maybe it would be best if I leave,” Heath mumbled.

He felt Nick perch himself on the bed.

“Look at me, boy.”

Nick waited until he had Heath’s gaze again before continuing firmly. “I waited my whole life for a little brother. Now you're here, and you're not leaving.” Heath gave him a half-smile that encouraged him to continue. “I…I'm sorry for being so hard on you…” and with that he told Heath why he had been angry and how wrong he was.

Nick concluded with a simple “Give us a chance to be a family, Heath.”

Heath looked tiredly, but happily at his brother. “I reckon I’d like that. But what about the people like Pete? They will make it hard for Moth…I mean, Mrs. Barkley. You know, in town and everything. I don’t want her to have any problems because of me. When I rode in here, I was only thinking of myself. Now that I have gotten to know you all, the last thing I want is for you to be hurt.”

Victoria strode into the room. She had been in the hall since Nick helped Heath back to bed.

“I won’t have any problems, young man.”

Both Heath and Nick looked at her.

“The people who cannot accept a family loving a son and brother are the ones who have the problem. Now, about this Ma’am business,” she said looking at Nick, “no son of mine is going to live in this house and call me Mrs. Barkley or ma'am.” She detected Nick’s nod of approval, so she continued, looking at Heath “I would like a more fitting title, and would be honored if you would feel comfortable with Mother.”

She watched Heath’s expression carefully. She realized she didn’t ask him about calling her Mother. She heard him slip when she was in the hallway, and had taken it as a cue to make the suggestion. For a minute she was fearful her boldness was a mistake.

After a long moment of thought, during which he prayed for his mama's blessing, he proceeded quietly, “I reckon I’d like that. Are you sure…would it be okay?” His heart was pounding so hard he was sure they could hear it.

Victoria looked at Nick, who reached out to grasp Heath’s shoulder with unspoken approval, before responding. “I think everyone is in agreement. Mother, then?”

Heath smiled. “Yes, Mother!” It felt good to be loved and wanted again. He hadn't felt that way since before his birth mother, Leah died. He knew in his heart that Leah would approve of his new relationship with Victoria. His heart was still pounding something fierce, but this time it was with joy, not anxiety.

Victoria smiled warmly at him before surveying the half-eaten tray. “Well,” she sighed, “at least you ate the soup.”

“He drank the coffee, too!” Nick said proudly. He reached over to grab a cookie, but Victoria slapped his hand.

“You had yours at dinner!”

Jarrod strode into the room. “Well, Heath, it’s good to see you looking stronger. I was wondering if I could talk you into a hand or two of poker.” He tossed a deck of cards onto the bed. Spotting the cookies on the tray, he reached over to grab one.

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Nick slapped his hand. “Don’t be taking food from the poor boy. Can’t you see he needs his nourishment?”

Heath was sitting looking from brother to brother. Finally, his blue eyes dancing, he looked at Victoria. She winked at him, then placed the plate of cookies on the table. Then, she wagged her finger at Nick and Jarrod and said with mock disgust, “Those cookies are for your brother. If you two are still hungry, there is plenty of food in the kitchen.”

She picked up the tray and left the room, shaking her head, her eyes lifted heavenward and mumbling “Boys!”

The brothers enjoyed a leisurely game of cards and playful conversation. Heath grew tired and bowed out after a couple of hands, both of which he won. Jarrod and Nick thanked him for his mercy and continued to play until they noticed Heath had fallen asleep. Nick dimmed the lamp while Jarrod pulled the covers up to Heath’s shoulders, then they quietly left the room. In the hallway, they ran into Victoria who was on her way to bed.

Jarrod answered her unspoken question. “He’s asleep."

Victoria peeked into the room for confirmation, satisfied.

“I’m going to bed. Don’t stay up too late.” Victoria accepted a kiss from each of her sons who in turn wished her good night. As she readied herself for bed, she thought about how good this night indeed was. Certainly the best they'd had in a long time.

*********************************

Downstairs, in Jarrod's study, Jarrod inquired about how things went earlier. “I take it that our new little brother will be staying on?”

Nick smiled. “Yeah. I’m really glad, Jarrod.”

“I am too. When Audra returns, she will be happy to see you and Heath are getting along.”

Nick’s expression darkened. Jarrod’s mention of Audra reminded him about Pete. “Jarrod, Pete, Jack, and those others almost killed him. I let them ride away that day because Heath needed my help more than I needed to chase them. Now that Heath is better…” he raised his clenched fist in the air and began pacing.

Jarrod knew what Nick’s idea of justice was. “Now Nick, you can’t go hunting them down and beating them up. Let’s let the law…”

Nick whirled and cut him off. “The law? What kind of punishment do you think they’ll get if they are even found? Half of this Valley probably thinks Heath got what he deserved. They deserve to get exactly what they gave to my brother.”

 

Jarrod could tell Nick was beginning to boil.

“Nick, you know I would like to see them pay just as dearly as you do, but beating Pete up is not going to help Heath or Audra, for that matter. Don’t forget, she is has been in Denver, and knows nothing of what has taken place.”

Nick boiled over.

"That's a good point, Jarrod. What exactly are we going to say to her? Welcome home Audra, hope you had a nice trip, because your boyfriend tried to kill your brother while you were gone?! Oh, and by the way, he still wants to get married?! Jarrod, we have got a big problem here. Do I need to remind you that he may think Audra is still going to marry him?" Nick's voice dripped with sarcasm.

Jarrod sighed and walked over to the window, gazing out at the moonlit landscape. Nick was right. It was not going to be easy to tell her what happened. He tried to think for a moment about what his sister would feel. Hurt? Anger? Confused? Audra would be upset that Heath was hurt and upset that it was Pete who had hurt him. There was no doubt in his mind that Audra will not even see Pete, much less marry him, knowing what he had done. That made Jarrod somewhat concerned for her safety. At this point, it was difficult to anticipate what Pete might do. Jarrod didn't doubt that when he was torturing their brother, he hadn't intended on being caught. If Nick hadn't arrived when he did, he might have gotten away with murder.

They had no idea where he, Jack and their cohorts were. He'd hoped by now the search would have turned them up, and was growing more and more uneasy the longer the search remained unproductive. On one hand, they could be miles away and pose no threat, but on the other… With each passing day, the probability that Pete would be brought to justice dwindled a little more, while the propensity for danger to Audra or Heath grew greater.

Jarrod was now questioning the wisdom of not having Audra escorted home immediately. If he'd thought for one minute the search would be unsuccessful, he would have done so days ago. At the time Heath was assaulted, they all felt Audra was better off in Denver. They assumed that Pete would be safely behind bars when Audra returned and he and Mother agreed it would be easier on Audra if they were the ones to tell her what happened.

The investigation into Pete's background turned up little they didn't already know. He was born and raised outside of San Diego, orphaned as a young teen, and had two younger twin brothers he worked to support. His schooling ended when his parents died. Interestingly, the younger brothers' whereabouts were traced to Stockton shortly before Heath was assaulted. Like Pete, they hadn't been seen since.

When questioned, none of the hands knew Pete's whereabouts. They admitted knowing Pete harbored ill feelings towards Heath, but consistently maintained they knew nothing of Pete's plans. Thus far, Jarrod had taken their word, but had a feeling that someone probably knew something they weren't willing to admit to, perhaps out of fear.

Nick was an issue unto himself. As each day went by, Nick grew more irritable and restless. It had been no small feat keeping him at bay since Heath began to mend. Nick willingly focused on Heath's care after he first brought him in and for those critical days that followed, but now, coupled with the fruitless search, Jarrod could read vengeance as if it were stamped on his face. Nick was going to do what Nick was going to do, and things being what they were, Jarrod had half a mind to join him.

As Jarrod mulled the situation by the window, Nick sat on the couch, lost in his own thoughts. In truth, he was hurt and confused by what Pete did to Heath. In all the years he worked at the ranch, Nick found him to be loyal and hard working. He could hold his liquor, and true, his own in a brawl, but never gave Nick any indication he was capable of the hatred and violence he directed at Heath.

Nick thought about how little he had really known about Pete, then admonished himself for not seeing the obvious. It all made perfect sense now…the sudden air of self-importance Pete emanated when Nick promoted him to foreman… Pete's outspoken anger at Heath's arrival…how Pete was always available with the answers when things started happening. Could Nick have prevented the attack on Heath by intervening on Heath's behalf?

Pete hurt Heath…would he ever hurt Audra? He shuddered at the thought. Nick made a pact with himself to closely watch Heath, and Audra, when she returned. He had borne witness to the horrific things Pete was capable of doing, and did not want to give Pete another opportunity to hurt his siblings. From now on, Nick wasn't going to let his guard down.

***************************

Earlier that day, in Denver, Elsie Jacobs rose to answer the knock at the door and opened it to find two official looking men standing on the porch.

"May I help you gentlemen?"

"Yes, ma'am," the taller of the two said while lifting his hat, "we're looking for a Miss Audra Barkley."

"Would you mind stating your business with Audra?"

"Not at all ma'am. We're deputies with the Denver sheriff. May we come in?"

A feeling of alarm crept over Elsie. She gathered herself and answered as calmly as she could.

"Yes, by all means."

She escorted the men to the comfortably furnished parlor and motioned for them to sit.

"Can I offer you something?" she asked. Although she could feel her heart pounding with increasing rapidity, she wanted to remain polite. She was relieved when the deputy answered to the negative on refreshments.

"No ma'am. Is Miss Barkley here?"

"Yes, she is. She is out back with my daughter Mary. I'll call her in." She took a few steps, then turned back to the men. "Has she done something wrong?"

"Oh, no ma'am. Her family sent us."

The man's explanation did little to soothe her jangled nerves, so she went to retrieve Audra. Perhaps when Audra was present, the men would offer more in the way of explanation.

In a few moments, Elsie re-entered the parlor followed by a beautiful young lady. The men rose to meet her.

"You must be Miss Barkley. I'm deputy Sam Weston, and this is my partner, Mike Smith."

Audra smiled cordially. "To what do I owe this visit?" She was certain she had seen these men before, she just couldn't place where.

Sam's face took on a serious expression. "Please sit down, Miss." He waited until Audra was seated before continuing gently.

"We received a telegram from your brother Jarrod. It seems there was an accident at home involving your brother Heath."

Tears sprang forth immediately to Audra's eyes, along with a sharp intake of breath.

"Heath? An accident? Did Jarrod say if he is all right?"

Elsie, and Mary, who had entered as the deputy was talking, moved to the couch where Audra was sitting and tried to comfort her.

Sam continued reassuringly. "He didn't offer any details, Miss, but he said Heath is fine. Your Mother would like you home though, to help her with his care."

Audra was stunned. Why would they send for her if Heath was okay? "I…I…guess I should pack my things" she said absently, her mind reeling. "When is the next train?"

"Five o'clock, Miss. Your brother requested that we accompany you."

"Accompany me?" She looked from the deputy called Sam, to Mary and Elsie, as if to affirm what the man said.

"Yes, Miss. He didn't say why, exactly," Sam offered, hoping she wouldn't detect his lie, "but we were guessing he is concerned about you, you know, with this news and all." He watched as the girl digested his words. The hostess finally broke the tense silence.

"Well, Audra. We best get you packed if you're going to make that train." Elsie offered her hand to the stunned girl. She felt sorry for her, and had a suspicion there was more to this story.

So did Audra.

*****************************

While Audra's train chugged towards California, the topic of conversation at the Barkley breakfast table the next day was the news that the active search for Pete had been concluded. He would remain at large, but Fred could no longer expend the manpower for a full-blown active search. Jarrod had just presented the idea of hiring the Pinkerton detective agency to continue looking for the men, when a gasp from Victoria interrupted the conversation.

“Heath! What are you doing up out of bed? You're supposed to stay in bed a for at least few more days, doctor's orders!”

Jarrod and Nick dropped utensils and turned to see Heath moving stiffly and slowly into the dining room.

He grinned. “Can’t take anymore restin’. It’s making me soft. Besides, I feel better.”

Victoria was not amused. “You may be downstairs, mister, but there is no way on this earth you are leaving this house!”

Heath sat down in a chair and Jarrod passed him the eggs. “I wouldn’t try it Heath. Mother is a pretty formidable force when she puts her mind to it.”

Nick winked at Heath. “Oh Mother, I’m sure I can find something easy, like, let’s say, horse breaking for my brother here to do.”

“Oh no! Absolutely not. He is not working today at all. Not even sweeping out stables.”

Heath watched the exchange bounce between Nick and Victoria. Jarrod was watching too, obviously amused, with his hands clasped together and both elbows on the table.

Heath offered a meek suggestion.

“Some sunshine sure would help my coloring some.”

Nick loved that one.

“See Mother, a few hours outside could help his recovery!”

Victoria didn’t like it one bit. She glared at Nick, then looked at Heath. She knew Nick was kidding, but when she looked into Heath’s expressive blue eyes, she saw pleading. He was serious! She looked closely at him. The bruises were faded some, but he was still carrying himself like he was still quite sore, and he was still pale. She could not see him putting in even an hour of work.

“Heath, I’m sorry, but you are not well enough yet to get back to the regular routine.” Her tone said that she considered the issue final.

Heath recognized the finality of her statement, but decided to present one more ploy.

“Could I at least ride out and watch? I won’t do anything, promise.”

Nick decided this was a feasible suggestion.

“C’mon Mother, I’ve got some of the men riding fence in the north pasture. Heath can at least spend the day in the fresh air. I won’t let him do a thing, I swear.” He was looking forward to spending the day with Heath, hopefully getting to know him better. Plus, he thought, this way I can keep an eye on him, in case Pete decides to try anything funny.

Victoria sighed and looked from son to son. She would be able to hold her ground as long as she didn’t look into Heath’s pale blue eyes…but she did and couldn’t resist their expressive charm. She relented.

“All right.” She waved her finger for emphasis, “Nick, I’ll hold you responsible. He is not to lift so much as a blade of grass, do you understand?”

“You have my word, Mother.” He rose and moved around the table and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “C’mon Heath, my boy, we’ve got work to do!”

Heath’s smile lit up the room. He too rose and bent to give Victoria a kiss. “Thank you, Mother,” he drawled gratefully.

She held his arm for a moment. “Please be careful.”

He winked at her and slowly followed Nick out of the house. Victoria and Jarrod detected the stiffness with which he moved.

“Well Mother, you certainly held your ground,” Jarrod said wryly.

Victoria just sighed. “I hope it was the right decision. Nick will look after him, I’m sure.”

“That he will, Mother.” He looked at his watch. “I best be getting to work myself. I'll get in touch with Pinkerton to see what assistance they can offer. See you this evening.” He kissed her cheek and was gone. She sat looking at the empty table, trying to push away a nagging feeling that the storm was yet to come.

**********************

Nick was as true as his word to Victoria. When they arrived at the spot in the fence where the men would be working, Nick saw to it that Heath settled himself against a large shade tree. Heath gave him no protest; the ride out had been more difficult than he anticipated. His ribs and his head were both throbbing, and the newly formed, tender skin on his elbows itched like crazy.

The morning passed quickly. Heath dozed off and on, and occasionally traded wisecracks with Nick. By lunch, he was really feeling sore all over, though he hid it from his brother. In one way he wanted to be back home in his bed, but in another, he was enjoying being out of the house and being with Nick.

Finally, the men broke for lunch. They had made good progress and Nick felt he could finish up alone, so he decided to send Kyle and Bill to check the fence in the south pasture in anticipation of tomorrow’s work. After the men rode off, Nick grabbed a couple of sandwiches from his saddlebag and walked over to where Heath was sitting. He tossed a sandwich to his brother.

“Here you go, eat up.”

“Thanks. You fixin’ on finishing up alone?”

“Sure. Not much left to do. I sent Kyle and Bill to scope out the south pasture. We’ll start over there tomorrow.”

Heath nodded and switched the subject. "I heard you talking at breakfast. Fred's stopped lookin' for Pete."

Nick's expression grew dark as he ate his sandwich. "Yeah…yeah, that's right."

Heath felt the muscles in his belly tighten. "Audra's due home tomorrow?"

“Yeah, Heath. She boarded the five o'clock yesterday evening along with the deputies keeping tabs on her. I know I'll feel better once she is home. We shoulda sent for her days ago, but we thought Pete would turn up and didn't want to upset her if we didn't have to.” Nick wiped his hands on his pants and took a swig from his canteen.

“How do you think she is going to take the news about what happened?”

Nick considered Heath's question. It was one they all had been considering for the past week. “Well, Mother says she was lookin’ for a way to let him off. Guess he more or less decided things on his own.”

Heath recalled Pete's ranting during the beating and shuddered. “You don't suppose he's gone lookin' for Audra, do you?”

Nick tried to sound certain. “No, Jarrod notified the authorities in every town between here and Denver. He'd be a fool to think we hadn't put a price on his head. I'll tell you, brother, I've got a mind to go out and find that weasel myself and do to him just what he did to you. He'd have to be out of his mind to come near this ranch again.”

Heath looked thoughtful for a moment. As far as he was concerned, Pete might do just that.

“I reckon some of the things he said he meant only if his plan would have worked, like the part about him and Audra gettin' married. You ridin' up that day changed the situation some.”

"Yeah, guess it did," Nick said, his eyes growing dark. The image of Heath hanging from that tree, beaten and bloodied, flashed through his mind for the millionth time. It was a picture that would haunt him for some time to come, he feared.

Nick erased the image by shaking his head.

“Now, don’t you go worrying about him coming after you again. Nobody's seen hide nor hair of them since they rode outta here, and Audra is on her way home with secure escort. Besides, even if he did show up, he won’t be able to get past Mother. You got nothin' to worry about, boy.” Nick hoped his attempt at humor would ease some of Heath's concern.

Heath responded with a half-smile, but his eyes were serious.

“Maybe…Maybe not.”

*********************************

Over a week had passed since Pete Sanders, Jack Wilson, and Pete's twin brothers, Jim and Jake, rode away from the Barkley brothers in the north pasture. Pete knew that the family probably initiated a search for them, but he was one step ahead of them. He anticipated Fred Madden would dispatch search parties all over the San Joaquin valley and Wanted posters in every town, so Pete and his men holed up in the last place anyone would look: in the cabin the Barkleys used for vacations.

In Pete's mind, he wasn't through with Heath just yet. Plus, there was still the matter with Audra. He hadn't planned on Nick riding up that day, and had no plan as yet for how to deal with her. When he really thought about it, he still felt a little something for her, but in thinking things over, knew it was unrealistic to think they could ever have a relationship now. Bitterly, Pete thought about how she would view him once the family told her what happened, if they hadn't already. As far as he was concerned, Heath had taken Audra from him as well, and he would pay.

Pete played the same questions over and over in his head. Did Audra still have feelings for him? Maybe she would have if he could make her realize how foolish the family is being over their loyalty to that half-breed. Don't they realize they hardly know him? Did they do anything to prove his story? Pete spent years working his way up on that ranch, it seemed now, for nothing. He worked hard and did as he was told to do even when he knew Nick was wrong. When he signed on with the Barkleys, it was just another job; a way of supporting his two younger brothers. It never occurred to him back then it could be any more than just that: another job. It paid well and the work wasn't too bad compared to some jobs he'd held. Audra didn't even fit into the picture when he started working for Tom Barkley. At eleven, she was just the boss' daughter. She was pretty, to be sure, but she was a kid nearly seven years his junior.

The years passed. Tom Barkley was murdered, Nick took over, and Audra grew from a kid with pigtails into a beautiful, desirable young woman. Friendship sprouted between him and Nick, and after a time, began unexpectedly bearing fruit, giving him the sweet taste of a life as a boy growing up, he only dreamed of having. Soon, it became obvious to Pete that Nick considered him more than 'just another cowpoke.' The icing on the cake was when Audra agreed to accompany him to a social, and to see him on a regular basis. After his first dinner in the mansion as Audra's suitor, Pete knew he wanted to share their grand lifestyle, and his heart's desire seemed imminent until Heath arrived.

Nick fought to deny Heath in the beginning, but gradually, Pete could sense even Nick starting to accept him. It was a little thing here or there, like a clap to Heath's shoulder, or congratulations on a job done well. Before long, Pete began to see Nick consulting with Heath rather than him, and he felt he needed to save his position with the Barkleys. There was no way Pete was going to go from being boss to being nothing but another hand just because Heath rode up making claims he was a Barkley. Jack, ever loyal, agreed to help Pete make Heath look like a thief out to make a fast buck, in hopes of the family sending him packing. It was almost fun watching Nick boil each time it looked as if Heath wasn't so perfect. They almost pulled it off, until that day in the orchard.

Jim, his cautious brother, warned that they should take Heath in after they dragged him through the meadow. The problem was, Jack hadn't arrived yet with Charger, so taking him in then would have been pointless. Pete recalled how good it felt to unleash his anger and frustration on Heath.

Pete knew one thing for certain, he wouldn't apologize to her or any of them for what he did to Heath. As far as Pete was concerned, Heath deserved every bit of it and then some. Yes, the 'then some' was yet to come. He smiled to himself as the seeds of his plan began to take root.

*************************

It was decided Victoria and Jarrod would meet Audra at the train station. They wanted the opportunity to fill her in about the past couple of weeks on a slow ride home from town. Victoria felt sure about how Audra would react, yet found that she was waiting on the platform with trepidation. Victoria studied the face of her eldest son, and noted from his expression, similar thoughts were occupying him. The distant whistle of the approaching train interrupted her reverie.

The train pulled into the station and came to a stop. Soon the platform was awash in a sea of disembarking passengers. Finally, Jarrod spotted his vivacious sister coming out of a car not far from where they were standing, followed by two men who Jarrod assumed were the deputies assigned to protect her. He touched Victoria's arm lightly and gestured towards the car from which Audra was coming down the steps.

"Mother, there she is!"

Victoria turned and waved at Audra. She smiled and made her way towards them.

"Mother! Jarrod! Oh, it's I missed you so much! How's Heath? Your telegram said there was an accident, and these men insisted on traveling with me. What happened?"

Victoria embraced her and planted a kiss on her cheek, then made an effort to steer Audra away from the subject of Heath for the time being.

"We missed you too, darling. Heath is fine, we'll fill you in on the way home. How was Denver?"

"Oh it was wonderful! The mountains are so beautiful at this time of year. Mary and I had a wonderful time just enjoying the outdoors! Mrs. Jacobs sends her love." Audra gushed, forgetting for the moment her questions surrounding her trip home.

Jarrod planted a kiss on her cheek as well. "Well, now, little sister, are we to assume that you did not grace any of the shops in Denver with your presence or the Barkley money?"

She pouted a little at his barb. "Oh, you! It just goes to show you that I am capable of doing more than shop." She paused for a moment before adding more quietly, "well I did buy a couple of small things."

No sooner was the statement out of her mouth, two porters approached them struggling with a mountain of packages and luggage.

Jarrod burst out laughing, which made Audra pout even more and she smacked his arm in mock disgust.

Victoria watched this playful exchange with amusement, almost forgetting the serious topic that would need to be discussed on the way back to the ranch.

"Mother, Audra, why don't you wait for me by the wagon. I want to stop in to see Charlie for a moment," Jarrod said. He caught Victoria's gaze and cocked his head slightly towards the deputies standing on the platform.

Victoria understood. Grabbing Audra's arm, she propelled her towards the wagon. "Come dear. I am sure these gentlemen would like to get your things placed in the wagon."

Jarrod made his way over to the deputies, extending a hand. "Hello. I am Jarrod Barkley. I'm pleased to meet you."

The taller of the two men extended his hand. "Nice to meet you sir. I'm Sam Weston and this is my partner Mike Smith."

Jarrod addressed both men. "I assume your journey went smoothly?"

"Yes sir," answered Sam. "Whoever might be after her, they sure weren't anywhere near Denver."

Jarrod nodded. "It appears not, but one can never be too careful. My family and I are much obliged for your assistance."

"It was our pleasure, Mr. Barkley. We are staying overnight in Stockton. Could you direct us to the hotel?"

"Certainly. Cattlemen's Hotel is on the main street running through Stockton. Just walk due south of the station, you won't miss it."

"Thank you. Good day, Mr. Barkley."

"Thank you. Good day, and give my regards to Carl Samuelson." Jarrod responded, shaking each man's hand again.

"We'll do that sir, thank you." Sam replied. The men parted company, the lawmen heading for their hotel, Jarrod towards the Barkley wagon parked outside the station.

Before long, Audra's luggage was loaded into the wagon and Jarrod urged the team towards the ranch. Audra chatted gaily about how she and Mary, a close friend who along with her family moved to Denver a few years ago, spent each of their days. During one of the infrequent pauses in Audra's ceaseless prattle, Jarrod took the opportunity to introduce the recent events at the ranch.

"Well, little sister, in all this talk about Denver, it seems you have forgotten to ask about Nick and Heath."

Audra gasped. "Oh, yes, what happened to Heath? The men who escorted me mentioned an accident. Nick and Heath are okay, aren't they?"

Victoria smiled and patted her arm. "They're fine, dear. In fact, Nick seems to have finally resolved his feelings about Heath. They have been getting along fine."

"Oh Mother! That's wonderful! I just knew that Nick and Heath would eventually be friends. What happened to make Nick change his mind?"

As Victoria tried to formulate a carefully worded reply, Jarrod spotted an inviting grove of trees and pulled the team to a stop.

"Why are we stopping here, Jarrod?" Audra inquired, momentarily forgetting about her previous question.

Before Jarrod could answer, Victoria touched Audra's arm and replied. "It's time for lunch dear, and Jarrod and I thought we'd share the story with you over one of Silas' picnic lunches."

Audra smiled. "How lovely, Mother. But really, I am anxious to get home and see Nick and Heath, and I promised before I left that I would have dinner with Pete when I returned."

Victoria bristled at the mention of Pete's name and tried to sound nonchalant. "Well, we're already here and the basket is packed. Let's stop for just a little while."

Jarrod had already jumped from the driver's seat and was helping Victoria down, so Audra had no choice but to go along. She began to get the feeling that a leisurely chat and picnic lunch was not all Mother and Jarrod had in mind. She reached out her hand to Jarrod, who was offering her assistance in disembarking from the buggy.

"Little sister, one taste of Silas' fried chicken and you'll forget all about wanting to get home to see those two dusty cowboy brothers of yours!" Jarrod said humorously.

Audra smiled, but couldn't help feeling suspicious. She noticed the way that Victoria bristled when she mentioned dinner with Pete. They quickly settled comfortably on a blanket spread in the shade and enjoyed a delicious lunch. For some reason, Audra felt reluctant to pursue the subject of Nick and Heath any further. Victoria and Jarrod both found it hard to maintain neutral conversation during the meal in anticipation of the more important subject at hand. Finally, with a look at Victoria, Jarrod cleared his throat and embarked on the discussion.

"Honey, you asked earlier about what changed Nick's mind about Heath. We want to tell you about what happened, but we're afraid it won't be easy for you to hear..."

"What happened Jarrod? Please tell me what is going on!" Audra interrupted anxiously.

"They're fine honey. There was an incident early last week, involving Pete and Heath."

"An incident? What kind of incident?" Audra inquired. She was prepared for Jarrod to say that Pete and Heath had a fight. Never could she have imagined what Jarrod said next.

"Pete, along with Jack Wilson and two other men as yet unidentified, assaulted Heath," Jarrod said as gently as he could.

Audra was puzzled. "Pete? Assaulted Heath? Jarrod, what are you saying?"

Victoria put a comforting hand on her daughter's arm. "Darling, I know this is hard for you to imagine, but Pete apparently hates Heath deeply enough that he wanted to hurt him."

Jarrod carefully explained the events leading up to that day in the north pasture. Audra listened, incredulous, sometimes shaking her head in denial, tears streaming unchecked down her cheeks.

When Jarrod finished, Audra sobbed quietly for a long time. Victoria held her and rocked gently back and forth, but neither she nor Jarrod said a word.

Finally, Audra pulled away from Victoria. Jarrod offered her his handkerchief.

"Is…is Heath okay, really?" Audra sniffled.

"Yes, darling. He's fine. He's very worried about you, though." Victoria answered, brushing a stray hair from Audra's face.

"It seems brother Nick will make quite a nurse if he ever gives up ranching," Jarrod quipped lightly.

The image of Nick as a nurse made her giggle, despite the tumult of emotions she was feeling. She looked at Jarrod and Victoria. "I'd like to go home now and see the boys."

"Sure honey. We'll go now." Jarrod said gently.

The three of them quickly packed up the picnic lunch and before long, they were turning down the narrow road that led to the ranch.

Jarrod maneuvered the wagon and stopped at the front door to the house. As he set the brake, the front door burst open and Nick was striding across the porch, followed by Heath. Nick approached the wagon and surveyed the mound of bags and packages in the back.

"WELL, IT LOOKS LIKE SOMEBODY DID SOME SHOPPING IN DENVER!" Nick boomed as he helped Audra down from the wagon. "Welcome home, little sister!" He hugged her tightly.

Audra accepted his embrace. "It's good to see you too, Nick, but I'll have you know, shopping wasn't the only thing I did in Denver. Mary and I spent a lot of time enjoying the wilderness."

"Well, it sure looks to me that you did SOME shopping! Did ya bring anything for your favorite brother?" Nick teased.

Audra's eyes danced, although it was obvious she had been crying a short time ago.

"Why yes, I have something special for Heath in that box on the top."

"For HEATH? I thought I was your favorite brother!" Nick feigned a hurt look, then burst out laughing.

He turned to Heath, who had hung back and was uncomfortably watching the scene, looking down and shifting from foot to foot.

"C'mon boy, give me a hand unloading this wagon!"

Heath was glad to see Audra, but nervous about how she would react to him. It was obvious that Victoria and Jarrod had spoken with her. He could tell she'd been crying. The next thing he knew, Audra threw herself into his arms.

"Oh, Heath!" she gushed, noticing the faded bruises that still graced his handsome features. "I'm so sorry about what happened. Are you okay?"

Heath returned her embrace, and answered gratefully and quietly, "I'm fine, sis. I was going to say the same to you."

"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. It's just that I'm shocked that Pete could have been so hateful." She broke the embrace with Heath and gazed sincerely at him, squeezing his hand reassuringly.

Heath could hear the sorrow behind the confident tone. Even though she wasn't as serious about the relationship as Pete was, Heath knew she was hurt.

Victoria walked up and put her hand on Audra's shoulder. "We all are, dear. You've had a long trip, and would like to freshen up I'm sure. Let's go in the house, and Nick and Heath will bring in your things."

The brothers were left on the porch as the rest of the family filed into the house. When Jarrod passed Heath, he gave his blond brother a reassuring clap on the shoulder. Heath continued to stare, lost in thought, at the front door long after Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod entered. He was wondering if Audra was really all right, or if she was trying to cover up how she really felt. Did she, like Pete probably did, blame him for their lost relationship?

Nick broke Heath's reverie with a pat on the back.

"C'mon, we best get started unloading all of this stuff our little sister brought all the way to and from Denver. You can carry some of these lighter things." When Heath didn't immediately respond, Nick gripped his upper arm and squeezed gently.

"Hey, come on. Everything is okay." Nick's voice was soft and reassuring.

Heath gave his brother a half-hearted smile and moved to help him unload the wagon.

************************

"Pete, how long do you think we can stay here? Sooner or later they are going to figure out where we are!" Jack shouted. He and Pete were engaged in the argument that was occurring with more and more frequency. The longer they stayed in the Barkley lodge, the more nervous Jack was getting. They could have been in Mexico by now!

Pete scoffed. "You backin' out on me now, Jack? I told you before, I am not leaving until this is finished!"

"Well, you best get to it then, because if we wait much longer, the only ones getting finished will be us!"

Pete looked at the trio sitting across from him. Jacob and Jim, his brothers, said nothing, but Pete was sure they agreed with Jack. He felt his anger rising to the surface.

"Fine. If you guys want to run out, go ahead. I'll take care of the bastard myself!" Pete growled with his jaw clenched.

Jack stared back at him. They were in enough trouble already. When he'd agreed to help Pete out, the deal didn't include murder. Although Pete hadn't actually come out and said it, Jack was certain that was what he would consider payment in full. Jack wanted no part of it, and was pretty sure Jacob and Jim didn't either. His decision was made.

In an even voice, Jack verbalized this to Pete. "I'm ridin' out, Pete. If you want to tangle with the Barkleys, you do it without me."

He stood up, never taking his eyes off of Pete, who sat with his jaw clenched and his temple throbbing with rage. As Jack turned to pack his things, he heard Pete slam both of his fists on the table and address his brothers.

"Well? What about you two? You runnin' out on me too?"

Jacob and Jim exchanged glances. Pete was the only family they had left and while they felt loyalty to him, they, like Jack, could see him self-destructing over this vendetta. They'd spent a lot of time over the past few days trying to decide whether it was really worth it. If Pete was hell-bent on committing murder and they got caught, they could hang. As it was now, they were facing a stretch in prison for assault and battery.

Jacob cleared his throat and spoke softly. "Pete, Jack is right. We need to let it go and get out of here."

Pete shot to his feet so fast the chair he was sitting on crashed to the floorboards with a bang, and only served to punctuate his fury.

"Oh, that's just great! My own brothers are turning yellow on me! What is this world coming to when a man can't count on his own brothers to help him out?" he said with a mixture of anger and sarcasm.

Jacob's voice remained calm. "Pete, we would support you one-hundred percent if we felt it was worth it. Killing a man who did nothing but ride up to the boss' house one day is not worth hanging for."

Pete got right in Jacob's face. "Oh, nothing but ride up? Dear brother, let's go over this again. He not only rode up, but he took my job and my girl. I busted my butt for almost seven years on that spread. Worked my way up from the bottom. Then HE RODE UP, and seven years of my life are GONE! I was this close," he waved his pinched fingers at his brother "to living with them. To living like them. You oughtta be a little more upset than you are. Haven't I always shared with you?"

Jacob had a feeling that having money and prestige were the root of his anger. Pete wanted money and the lifestyle it could buy him. Once Pete got a taste of the good life, it quickly became an addiction he was willing to risk everything for.

Jacob held his ground. "Pete, there are other ranches and other girls. If we kill him, we will hang. Then there will be nothing! Is it really worth hanging for?"

Pete's eyes narrowed. "I ain't gonna get caught. A bullet comes out of nowhere and takes him out."

Jacob sighed. "So the Barkley bastard is dead. Then what? Do you think you'll get your job and the girl back? Let it go. You made your point when we beat the living daylights out of the guy."

"I'll be avenged, and that's enough. Just knowing that bastard didn't get the good life either. That's enough."

Jacob shook his head. "Well, I can't do it. That ain't reason enough for me. I'm leavin' for Mexico with Jack." He rose and started to gather his things. After a moment he paused, then turned and addressed Pete.

"Pete, did it ever occur to you that we might have killed him already? We beat him up pretty badly. He may not even be alive, which means we're just wastin' time waitin' to get caught."

Pete's voice was flat. "He ain't dead."

Jacob sighed and returned to his packing. Apparently Pete would not waver at all on the issue.

Pete turned to Jim. "What about you?"

Jim shook his head, rose, and followed his twin.

As he watched his friend and brothers mount their horses, Pete taunted them. "Go on, go. Who needs ya, anyway! A man wants something done, he's gotta do it himself! Fine thanks I get for all I did to keep you two fed and clothed!"

He watched the three riders turn their horses south, and pounded his fist on the porch railing. "Damn!" he cursed to himself. "Heath Thomson is going to be sorry he ever rode into this valley."

************************

When the three riders were out of view of the cabin, Jack motioned for them to stop. He turned to Jacob and Jim.

"I was hoping he would come along."

Jacob shook his head. "Naw, not likely. Once his mind is made up, it's made up."

Jim seemed bewildered. "I've never seen him so angry before. I never knew he could hate someone enough to kill them. Even though we're ridin' out, ain't we just as guilty?"

Jack and Jacob looked at each other and shrugged.

"Well, he might be dead already, like you said, and if he isn't already, we ain't pullin' the trigger. Bottom line is, I'm not stickin' around here waitin' to get caught. I'd rather be a free man. I'm tellin' you fellas now, Nick Barkley mad makes Pete look like the preacher's daughter at the county fair. If he's accepted Thomson as family, then he'll protect him like a grizzly bear." Jack said bluntly. "C'mon, time's a wastin'."

They spurred their horses forward, with no intention of looking back again.

*************************

Jonathan Thatcher, of the Pinkerton Agency, sat at the small desk in his hotel room poring over the information provided by Jarrod Barkley about the suspects. He rubbed his eyes and rested his elbows on the desk. Men just don't vanish into thin air, he thought to himself. There has to be an answer here.

He stretched at looked at the clock. It was five minutes to one. Jarrod Barkley was due any minute to review the progress of the search. Jonathan felt terrible that he would have nothing to report. It was rare that cases appeared unsolvable. He sighed. Perhaps this was one of them.

He picked up the sheet at the top of the stack. It was a chronology of the events that occurred the day Heath Barkley was brutally assaulted at his family's ranch. From what Jonathan could gather, the men beat the boy and simply vanished, most likely east into the foothills and then south towards Mexico. This Pete Sanders was a smart cookie. Had a lot of what they say is "street smarts." The trail the men initially left went cold just outside the confines of the Barkley holdings, so that it was anybody's guess as to where they went. At any rate, they took full advantage of the family's occupation caring for the boy.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. "Come in," he beckoned.

Jarrod opened the door and peeked into the room. Thatcher rose to meet him.

"Hello Jonathan," Jarrod said cordially, extending his hand.

"The pleasure is mine, Jarrod. Have a seat."

Jarrod took one of the chairs opposite Jonathan at the desk. He perceived an air of disappointment etched on the face of the seasoned detective.

"Jonathan, I take it you don't have good news to share today," Jarrod said, getting right to the point.

Thatcher took a deep breath and exhaled. "No, I'm afraid not. Actually, I have no news. As much as I hate to say this, I haven't found out any more about their whereabouts than your sheriff did." He watched as Jarrod Barkley clenched his jaw and shook his head.

"I was afraid of this. Do you think it is because we delayed those hours in starting the search?"

Thatcher shook his head. "Not entirely. The delay didn't help, but I think, more than anything, this has more to do with the trail going cold. It is unusual that they haven't been spotted somewhere. Even fugitives have to eat and drink, if nothing else."

"I see," Jarrod responded. "What's next? My family would like to get this matter put behind us. As you can imagine, my brother and sister would like to be able to travel beyond the confines of the ranch without worry."

"I understand your concern, and believe me, we are doing everything possible to bring these individuals to justice. I would like to see if we haven't exhausted every possibility. Would you be opposed to me asking you a few more questions?"

"No, not at all. Fire away, Jonathan."

Thatcher spread a map of the area out on the table, and starting with the location of the assault and traveling east, grilled Jarrod for details about various locations that fell within the probable route the fugitives took.

"What about here?" Thatcher questioned, pointing to an area marked by hills and little formal settlement. There were several small lakes shown nestled amongst the hills. It was slightly northeast of the primary focus of the search.

Jarrod recognized the location immediately. "Oh, that's right about where our family's cabin is located. Mother and Father laid claim to a parcel of land in the foothills when I was an infant. They felt the location was ideal for vacations, as it is not too far from the ranch, and it is near a lake. Best fishing in California."

Jonathan considered Jarrod's description. "Pete Sanders was with you for seven years, correct?"

"Yes, approximately." Jarrod said, trying to discern Thatcher's thoughts. Jarrod's instincts told him the detective might be on to something.

Thatcher chewed on his upper lip for a moment before speaking. He looked up at the lawyer and cocked his head slightly, eyes slightly narrowed.

"Did Pete know about this cabin? Was he ever there?"

Jarrod felt his stomach tighten. "Yes, I believe he did know about it. In fact, I think he may have spent some time there with my brother Nick. They are about the same age and through the years spent time together as friends."

Thatcher nodded thoughtfully. Jarrod knew what the detective was getting at.

"Do you suppose Mr. Sanders decided to take some uninvited advantage of the Barkley lodge?" Jarrod asked.

The detective nodded slightly. "Very well may have. He doesn't seem to be anywhere else and must have known we would be looking either due east or south. He'd have access to fresh water and food. The perfect hiding place. How long a ride is it, roughly?"

"About four to five hours at a canter." Jarrod replied. His mouth felt dry. All this time…and Pete might have been relatively nearby. He chastised himself mentally for not thinking of it sooner.

Jonathan Thatcher read the lawyer's expression and knew what he was thinking. "Jarrod, it's not your fault. I'm sorry we didn't come up with it sooner. Heck, we're supposed to be experts!"

Jarrod detected the sincerity in the detective's tone and managed a smile. "Well, there is no use in sitting around here. I'm going to head out to the ranch and let them know what has transpired, as well as change into more suitable attire for a posse. Can you meet me there?"

Thatcher nodded his head. "You bet. I'll talk to the sheriff and see if he can lend a few deputies."

Jarrod put his hat on his head. "Good enough. See you there."

**********************

Heath was painting the corral adjoining the newly repaired barn. In actuality, he longed to be out with Nick and the rest of the crew on the range, but mother and Dr. Merar both forbade him from resuming full duties just yet. The skin on his arms was nearly healed, but the flesh was pink and tender to the touch. Dr. Merar said it would take a while for the tenderness to finally dissipate. Plus, the doctor felt his ribs could use some more healing time, and he was still having occasional dizzy spells, though they were becoming more and more infrequent. Heath protested vehemently, but Victoria made it absolutely clear that she supported the doctor's recommendation. Nick couldn't even persuade her to give in.

Heath sighed as he moved his arm up and down and back and forth. It wasn't that he minded the work, but he missed riding. It had been nearly two weeks since he'd been on a horse, and he missed it. At least riding fence, he could ride to and from the house. A relatively short ride, albeit, but a ride nonetheless.

"Oh well," he muttered to himself, "at least she let me out of the house."

He blinked against the sun's reflection on the fresh white paint and listened to the faint rustle of the tall meadow grass blowing in the gentle breeze. He set the brush across the paint can and took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his sweaty brow. His gaze traveled over to the big mansion he now called his home, and his thoughts wandered over the events of the past several weeks.

He thought about his first day here. How riding through the arch that proudly proclaimed this the Barkley ranch was the hardest and best thing he ever did. He knew from the family's initial reception to his claim that settling in here would not be easy, but to his surprise, after their initial shock, they, save Nick, readily accepted him into their fold. What he hadn't anticipated was the outrage displayed by some of the ranch hands. To be sure, he'd done plenty of scrapping on behalf of his mother and himself, but he couldn't recall anyone wanting to actually kill him over his parentage before. He knew Pete came pretty close to doing just that.

He smiled to himself as he recalled the conversation he had with Audra a few days after she returned home.

After lunch that day, Nick took off to supervise the men working elsewhere on the ranch while Heath returned to the barn where he was completing repairs to some of the stables. Not long after he resumed his work, Audra entered the barn carrying a glass of lemonade.

"I thought you might be thirsty," she said to him as she handed him the glass. When she perched herself on a hay bale, Heath felt his stomach lurch. She wanted to talk.

He took the glass from her and made quick work of its contents. She took the empty glass from him but remained where she was. For a few moments the only sound heard in the barn was the flies buzzing about in the thick and stale air.

"Heath? Can I talk to you?"

He felt his mouth go dry and his heart started to pound faster. He looked down at the stray strands of hay that littered the barn floor. "Sure," he mumbled.

"Heath are you okay?" she asked with genuine concern in her voice.

"Yeah, I'm fine, thanks." He responded.

"You seem, well, uncomfortable. Does it have anything to do with me?" she implored.

"Kind of," he returned. There was no sense in trying to mislead her. If it was one thing he'd learned since joining the family, it was that they were tenacious about pursuing conversation, and had an uncanny way knowing when something was bothering someone.

"What is it, Heath? Does it have to do with me and Pete?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, I reckon it does." He paused for a moment and studied her expression for a moment. She sat leaning slightly forward, looking at him with concern.

He sighed and plowed forward. "Audra, I'm sorry if this has caused you pain. The last thing I would want is for you or anyone else to be hurt. If I had known what would happen, I never would have come here. I'm sorry, I really am."

She smiled a little and motioned for him to sit. She grasped his hand and said, "Heath, this did cause me pain, but I don't think it is in the way you think."

He looked at her, confused.

She continued, "I hope I say this right…you see, when you came, and after we found out you are Father's son, Pete got…well, he got kind of funny. It was like he was obsessed with you. You were all he would talk about. He wanted to know things like which room was yours, and did everyone believe you, and was Jarrod going to change your name, and if you would be a partner in the Barkley holdings." She paused to see if Heath was following her. His eyes expressed understanding, so she resumed.

"I don't know, Heath. It was like I saw a side to him I'd never seen before. I suddenly felt like it wasn't really me he wanted. It wasn't really love." Tears welled in her eyes.

Heath swallowed hard and squeezed her hand gently. His mouth felt so dry his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth, though he was beginning to see what she was trying to tell him.

Her tears spilled and she swiped at them with her palm. "I went to Denver and thought about it, and before I ever received the telegram telling me to come home, I'd already made up my mind that I was going to tell Pete things weren't right for us." She looked at her brother, whose blue eyes showed their empathy.

She took a deep breath and gathered herself, then continued. "When Mother and Jarrod told me what happened, I was hurt, but not because my relationship with Pete. I am more hurt by what he did to you. I'm also relieved that his true colors came out before things got any more serious between us."

Heath gave her a half-smile. "Thanks, sis. It's funny. Mother said the same thing about being relieved."

Audra smiled and stood up. "Do you feel better now, big brother?"

"I reckon I do," he answered gratefully.

Heath's attention returned to the present as he spied a rider approaching in the distance. As the figure drew closer, he recognized the rider as Jarrod.

"Wonder what has him in such a hurry?" Heath wondered aloud.

************************************

Jarrod rode hard through the gates of the Barkley ranch and would have gone straight to the front door of the mansion but he spotted Heath by the corral. He slowed Jingo to a canter and waved to his younger brother.

"Boy howdy, Jarrod!" Heath greeted him, "where's the fire?"

"No fire, Heath, but I have some important news and there isn't much time. Do you have a minute?"

Heath shrugged and gestured to the fence. "Sure. It'll mix things up a bit for me," he said wryly.

"Good. Meet me in the parlor. Do you know where Mother, Nick, and Audra are?"

"Mother is in the garden, Nick is out at the South Ridge, and he dropped Audra over at the Stevens' place since it is nearby. They won't be back until dinner, I reckon." Heath noticed that Jarrod barely gave him time to finish before he nodded and turned Jingo towards the front of the house.

Heath shrugged. "Whatever it is, it must be important," the blond cowboy thought to himself, starting toward the garden to locate Victoria as the lawyer requested.

************************

By the time Heath and Victoria were assembled in the parlor, Jarrod had traded his suit for more casual attire and was fastening his gunbelt around his waist. He glanced out the window to see if Jonathan Thatcher and the men were coming yet. Seeing no sign of them, he hastily turned and went downstairs to fill his mother and brother in on the latest developments.

As Jarrod reprised his conversation with Jonathan, Victoria's emotions were a mix of elation, fear, and worry.

Heath's face remained nearly expressionless. Anger began coursing through his veins that the fugitives might possibly have taken refuge on Barkley property.

"Jonathan and some deputies will be here shortly," Jarrod finished.

"I'll grab my gear," Heath said and started to move towards the stairs.

Victoria's voice stopped him cold. "Oh no, you're not going anywhere!"

Heath felt the red creeping up his neck. He stopped and turned around to issue protest. "But…"

Victoria advanced, wagging her finger. "No buts. You are not completely healed yet, and I don't want to see you breaking those ribs all over again or worse, falling off a horse because of a dizzy spell."

"I have a right to be there!" Heath said with determination.

"Mother's right, Heath. It's going to be a hard ride," Jarrod injected. He squeezed Heath's shoulder. "You'll get your chance to confront him when we get him in custody."

Jarrod felt bad for his brother. He knew Heath would feel avenged only with a face to face and fist to fist encounter with his attacker. Fortunately, Heath was not as hotheaded as Nick. In the short time since his arrival, Jarrod observed that Heath's temper was more often governed by reason than Nick's, but he'd fight if that is what reason dictated.

A knock at the front door interrupted further discussion. Jarrod strode to the door and beckoned for Jonathan Thatcher to enter. The detective entered the house, and while removing his hat greeted Jarrod.

"Hello Jarrod. We're ready." He turned to Victoria. "It's nice to see you again ma'am."

Victoria smiled. "The pleasure's ours, Mr. Thatcher. I hope your journey is successful."

"You can call me Jonathan, Mrs. Barkley, and I hope so too." Jonathan turned to Heath, extending his hand. "Heath, hopefully we'll be back tonight with this fella in custody."

Heath shook the man's hand and offered him a half-smile. Jarrod and Victoria could tell his cordiality was forced. He was not happy about being left out of the posse.

Jarrod broke the awkward moment. "Well, we best be getting on the trail." He leaned over and kissed Victoria on the cheek. "We'll be back some time tonight. Try not to worry."

Victoria forced a smile. "Be careful, Jarrod."

Jarrod smiled warmly at her. He turned to leave, and stopped in front of Heath. Their blue-eyed gazes locked for a moment, Jarrod's communicating "it's for the best" and Heath's a mix of fury and defiance. Jarrod clapped him on the shoulder and followed the deputies.

Heath and Victoria stood for a few moments in uncomfortable silence. She knew her new son was furious with her, but as mothers often do, she felt that she made the best decision regarding his welfare. Thankfully, Jarrod had backed her up.

Victoria cleared her throat and tried to lighten the mood. "It's hot outside and you've been in the sun all morning. Would you like something to drink?"

Heath stood for a moment, then mumbled "I'm not thirsty, thanks." Feeling humiliated and angry, he strode out of the house to return to work on the fence.

Victoria sighed. It wasn't the first time one of her children disagreed with one of her decisions, nor would it be the last. She decided to spend the heat of the afternoon in the study with the distraction of a good book.

*****************************

Heath picked up the brush and resumed painting haphazardly, his anger growing more acute with each stroke. Thoughts raced over and over through his mind…I should be on that posse! I'm the one they beat up; I should be there when they're captured! I'm not a kid…I can take care of myself…I'm fine.

He stopped painting and wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm. He looked around the corral. There wasn't a soul around. Nick wouldn't be back for several hours. Heath figured Nick would be pretty mad Jarrod left without him, as well.

Why shouldn't he go? Jarrod took the main road, which at one point would take them somewhat north before they turned to the southeast. Heath had never actually been to the cabin, but he knew roughly where it was. Heath could still catch up to them if stayed off the road and traveled due northeast. The terrain would be a little rough, but he could make good time. What would Jarrod be able to do then? Once he was there, Jarrod couldn't send him back. His mind made up, he picked up the paint can and went into the barn to saddle his horse.

He wanted to take a rifle, but did not want to risk running into his stepmother. They usually kept a gun in the driver's box of the buckboard, but Nick had taken the buckboard this morning when he left. Heath was left with no choice but to retrieve his own gun from his room. He stole into the house through the kitchen door, up the back stairs to his room, and grabbed his gunbelt. Just before he exited the house, he felt a twinge of guilt when he thought of how angry Victoria would be when she discovered he was gone. He shook his head to dismiss the thought. This was just something he had to do.

*****************************

Nick and Audra arrived at home shortly past five o'clock. Nick handed the team over to Ciego for care, and escorted his sister to the house.

"MOTHER! HEATH! JARROD!" Nick thundered as he slammed the front door.

Victoria jumped at the sound of Nick's voice and closed her book, shaking her head. She rose to meet her children in the foyer.

"Nick!" she admonished, "must you shout so?"

Nick smiled and kissed her cheek. "We didn't see anybody. Shoutin's easier than lookin' for everybody."

Victoria shook her head. "I'm glad you're both here. Jarrod was here earlier. Jonathan Thatcher suspects that Pete may be hiding in our cabin."

"WHAT?!" Nick roared, "where is Jarrod now?"

"He left a few hours ago with Jonathan and some deputies for the cabin."

"Why didn't he come get me?!" Nick shouted.

"Jarrod felt there wasn't enough time. Besides that, he wanted you to be close by here in case there should be any trouble. They aren't even sure Pete is there, but they felt it was the best lead they've had so far."

Nick smacked his palm with his fist and paced around for a few moments. He supposed Jarrod was right, but still…he had a score to settle with Pete and would have wanted to go.

"Where's Heath?" Audra asked.

"Yeah, where is he?"

Victoria looked surprised. "He should be out painting the corral. He's been out there all day."

Nick shook his head. "He isn't out by the corral. In fact, the painting isn't finished. That isn't like him."

It took not even a split second for alarm to cross all of their faces. Nick turned without a word and ran out the front door, Victoria and Audra close behind. He ran around the corral calling his brother's name.

"Heath!"

His sister and mother joined in.

"Heath!"

It was soon clear that Heath was not in the area. Nick ran into the barn and exited after a moment.

"His horse is gone!"

Victoria put her hand to her mouth. "Oh my God!"

"What is it, Mother?" Audra implored.

Victoria shook her head slightly, too worried to be angry with her youngest son. "He wanted to ride with Jarrod to the cabin, but I forbade it and so did Jarrod. He was angry about it, to be sure, but I didn't think he would go on his own."

Nick clenched his teeth. "Of all the stubborn…well, the fact is, he's gone. I'll saddle up and ride after him. He won't be able to ride too hard with those sore ribs."

"Please find him, Nick." Victoria pleaded.

"I will."

Victoria had a terrible feeling that Heath's attackers were nearby, just waiting for an opportunity to finish what they started. It was a fear that had hung over the entire family like a pall ever since the day Pete nearly beat Heath to death. She knew she would never be rid of the dreadful feeling until the man was behind bars. If the fugitives were not at the cabin as Jarrod and Jonathan hoped, she prayed they weren't anywhere near her son, who was traveling alone in a weakened condition, and likely unable to adequately defend himself from their vengeance.

**********************************

As Nick was preparing to set out after Heath, Jarrod and the posse reached the Barkley lodge. They slowed down about an eighth of a mile from the cabin and moved in as close as they could. The cabin appeared to be deserted, but from the looks of the tracks in front, someone had definitely been there recently.

Jonathan motioned his arm for the men to fan out and surround the cabin. When they were in place, guns drawn, he attempted to draw out its potential occupants.

"Sanders!" he called. He waited a few moments but there was no response. "Pete Sanders!"

Again, there was no response. He cautiously moved out into the open, gun cocked and ready. He made his way slowly toward the cabin. The closer he got without confrontation, the more he relaxed. Jarrod followed a few steps behind. By the time they were on the porch, it was clear the cabin was deserted. They kept their guns drawn and threw the door open. Thatcher let out a breath and put his gun in its holster.

"I'm sorry, Jarrod," he said regretfully.

"Someone has been here," Jarrod replied grimly. "There are several sets of tracks out front and the dust on the floor is tracked with prints."

Jonathan nodded his agreement. He stepped out onto the porch and motioned to the men. "I would like a couple of you to trace these tracks. The rest of you, fan out and see if you can find any other signs."

The detective stepped back into the cabin where Jarrod was trying to identify whether the recent occupants left any additional clues. He walked over to the stove and lifted the iron burner. Gingerly, he dipped his finger in the ashes. They were slightly warm.

He heard someone call his name. The detective moved out onto the porch. Carl Smith addressed him.

"We finished looking around, and found three sets of tracks heading south."

Jarrod exited the cabin and stood next to Thatcher. "Three? There were four men." Jarrod reminded them.

"I was getting to that, Mr. Barkley. There's one set heading back towards your ranch, only he's traveling high, off of the main road."

Jarrod blanched. "Jonathan…" was all he could manage. The lone rider was most likely Pete. He must have parted company with others. Why? Jarrod would have plenty of time to ponder this as they raced back to the ranch at breakneck speed.

The detective nodded. "All right, men, let's mount up!" He hoped for the sake of the family employing him they either caught up to the fellow or could get back to the ranch in time.

**************************

Pete Sanders was making his way back to the Barkley ranch under the cover of the numerous outcroppings of rock and trees rising high above the level of the road. Traveling this way was slow, but he felt assured that his trail would be more difficult to pick up should he find himself being pursued.

The wisdom of his decision was brought to light when he heard the trampling of hooves on the roadway below him. He dismounted quickly, drew his gun, and positioned himself behind a boulder. He smiled smugly as he spotted them. There was a group of men, led by Jarrod Barkley and another man, riding at breakneck speed towards the cabin he so recently vacated.

After they passed, he mounted his horse once again and resumed his journey. This changed things somewhat. His current course of action did not account for a posse being this close. He urged the horse onward a little faster, being mindful of the loose rock and dirt that hampered hasty movement. He chuckled to himself as he turned the horse into a wide circle that would hopefully throw them off of his trail.

**************************

Heath intersected the main road, but could not bring the horse into a full gallop. As much as he hated to admit it, Mother had been right; he really was not ready to make such a trip. His sides ached so badly they even hurt when he breathed, and he'd had two dizzy spells, the second of which nearly caused him to topple from the saddle. His jaw set with determination, he pressed slowly onward.

**************************

Nick Barkley followed his brother's trail. He could tell by the depth and distance between hoof prints he was not moving beyond a canter at the fastest, many times a mere walk. This told Nick his brother was having trouble. With a growing sense of urgency, he dug his spurs into Coco's sides and rode as fast as he could.

**************************

Pete rested at the crest of a ridge, his back against a large tree. If he lay on his stomach he could see the road below. He took a sip of water from his canteen and replaced the cap. Closing his eyes for a brief moment, he listened to the sounds around him. His eyes shot open as he picked up the faint sound of hooves. He rolled onto his belly and crept toward the edge. He spied a rider approaching, not very fast. The man on the horse was struggling to stay in the saddle. As the figure rode near, Pete nearly choked when he realized who it was. He scrambled backwards as if he'd touched a flame and tried to ignore his suddenly sharp breaths and racing heart. Gathering himself from the shock, he quickly formulated a plan while he mounted his horse and turned back in the direction from which he'd come.

**************************

Heath counted each time a hoof hit the ground to help detract from the discomfort he was feeling. A third dizzy spell in as many hours was again threatening to spill him from the horse. He slowed to a walk, and eventually stopped. He leaned on the saddle horn and squeezed his eyes shut in an effort to stop the landscape from spinning. The only sound he heard was his own blood thumping in his ears.

He was stopped in an area where the road seemed to disappear into a long, green, botanical tunnel. The trees lining both sides of the road were thick and lush. Heath was so intent on trying to quell the dizziness he didn't notice the figure perched above him.

Pete watched his prey sway in the saddle and jumped. He tucked his head as his shoulders caught Heath full in the chest and both men toppled off the back of Heath's horse to the ground.

Heath was momentarily stunned. He tried to focus on the force that propelled him so violently off of his horse. As his vision cleared, he saw the ragged face of Pete Sanders sneering triumphantly above him. Heath tried to make out what he was saying, but Pete's voice sounded distant and muffled.

"Well, this worked out just fine, didn't it, boy?" Pete sneered. "All this time I was thinkin' I'd hafta ride all the way into Stockton to take care of you, and here you are, deliverin' yourself to me like a big ol' birthday present." Pete was pinning the helpless man down with his knee across Heath's chest and shoulders.

To Pete's surprise, Heath displayed a burst of strength and forced him off. He was only momentarily taken aback. Heath lunged at him but Pete deftly moved out of his way, sending Heath sprawling face down. Pete quickly jumped on top of him and leaned all his weight on his knee planted in the center of the struggling man's back.

Pete laughed as Heath coughed and tried to spit out some dirt he swallowed. "You ain't so proud, now, are ya? I guess it's good for you rich folk to come down to the ground and crawl with us regular hard-workin' types once in a while."

He yanked Heath's arm backwards roughly, causing his victim to moan with pain. Pete pinned Heath's arm behind his back and leaned on it with his leg, further disabling the struggling man. Then he reached down and pulled his pistol from its holster. He checked the chambers and aimed the gun at Heath's ear.

"Prepare to meet your maker, boy."

Heath couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe at all. Pinned between the hard ground and the weight of his assailant, his weakened ribcage could not expand properly so he could take a breath. Spots started dancing before his eyes. He wanted to tell Pete killing him would not change anything…that the Barkleys would continue to hunt for him even after Heath's death…that sooner or later the Barkleys would have seen through him…that Pete was the cause of his own problems. He wanted to say these things but couldn't. The light of the world began to fade as he heard his attacker pull back the hammer on the gun.

Heath passed out just as a shot cut through the gathering darkness.

Pete Sanders looked up with surprise as he felt the searing heat of the bullet bore into his chest. His last conscious vision as his body spun around, was of Nick Barkley's expressionless face. He was dead before his face hit the ground.

Nick ran to where his brother lay and threw himself to his knees, fear gnawing at his heart. He laid a hand on his brother's pale cheek and noticed his lips were tinged slightly blue. He turned Heath over gently and lightly slapped his cheeks.

"Heath! Heath, come on now!" Nick urged, panic evident in his voice.

Nick laid his head on Heath's chest to listen. He smiled broadly when he detected faint breath sounds. "Atta boy!"

Nick spotted Heath's canteen and rose to retrieve it. As he returned to Heath's side, his brother coughed and struggled to open his eyes. At first, Heath felt panic. Then he saw his older brother hovering over him, and the panic gave way to relief.

"Here," Nick said. He placed his arm under his brother's neck and shoulders and lifted him. With his free hand, he tipped the canteen so his brother could drink. Heath coughed and sputtered, but managed to get a few swallows down.

The water helped Heath find his voice.

"Boy howdy, am I glad to see you," he croaked weakly.

Nick continued to support him as Heath struggled to regulate his breathing.

"Same here. What in the devil were you doing out here?" Nick demanded, trying to disguise his relief with his customary gruff tone.

"I wanted to catch up with Jarrod to help bring Pete in." Heath managed.

"Well, little brother, it was a damn fool thing to do…" Nick paused and looked directly into Heath's eyes, "…but I can't say I blame you." Nick finished, his expression emphasizing his understanding.

"Thanks, Nick. That's two I owe you now."

"I'll put it on your tab," Nick said affectionately. "Do you think you can sit up now?"

Heath nodded and Nick pulled him completely upright. They exchanged glances as they heard horses approaching. Nick's hand immediately went to his gun and he placed himself in front of his brother protectively.

"Nick! Heath!" they heard the familiar voice of their brother cry out.

Jarrod quickly dismounted and ran to where his brothers sat. He looked at Pete's body, then back to his brothers.

"Heath, you're supposed to be back at the ranch!" he admonished.

Nick stepped in on Heath's behalf. "He, uh, thought you might need some help."

Jarrod glared at Nick then addressed his youngest brother. "Heath, you are in no condition to ride."

Heath's blue eyes were soulful as he looked at his oldest brother. "I know that now, but I've been fightin' my own fights for a long time. I wanted to see Pete brought in myself. After what he did…I owed it to myself."

Jarrod's expression softened. He understood. Heath's fierce pride had been at stake.

Jonathan walked up to the brothers. "We'll take care of the body Jarrod. Can I speak to you privately for a moment?"

Jarrod patted Heath's thigh before he rose. "Sure thing."

Away from the others, the detective and Jarrod spoke with each other in low tones.

"Jarrod, we don't have to do it now, but I'll need statements from both of your brothers."

"Of course, Jonathan, of course. Just let me know when you'd like to take the statements."

Thatcher nodded his approval. "The other three are still at large. I would imagine that you'll need to make a decision about retaining the agency's services for their capture."

Jarrod agreed. "Yes. I will discuss the issue with the entire family once we get my brother home." He glanced at his two younger brothers, still seated on the ground. Nick was speaking to Heath in a low tone, and Heath's head was cocked slightly, listening. Then the two broke into laughter. Jarrod smiled. It was good to see…his younger brothers. He liked how that sounded.

Jonathan watched the lawyer studying his brothers. The affection and admiration showed in the lawyer's bright blue eyes. The detective could not help smiling and thinking this was the best part of his job…the happy endings.

"Well…Jarrod…we best get moving toward Stockton," he said to the lawyer.

"Yes, you're right. We'll be in touch." Jarrod answered warmly. He watched the detective walk away. "Jonathan…one more thing. Thanks."

"Just doing my job. This was a tough one. I'm glad it worked out."

Jarrod returned to his brothers. "Gentlemen, we should be heading for home."

Nick stood up, dusting off his pants. "Yeah. I'm starving."

Heath, who remained sitting, winced.

"What's the matter with you?" Nick asked, offering his hand.

"I'm not lookin' forward to getting' back in the saddle, that's all." Heath said as Nick pulled him up.

"Well, boy, you should have thought about that before you left the ranch." Nick said unsympathetically.

Heath rolled his eyes. Jarrod laughed. "Heath, enjoy the ride home if you can, because I think Mother is going to hog tie you to keep you in her sight until you are recovered."

Heath shook his head and groaned. He supposed he deserved that and a whole lot worse. Mother would be furious with him not only for riding off, but for not letting anyone know he was leaving. Of course, she had been right about him not being healed enough, and now he was having a definite setback, which would mean even more time close to home under her watchful eye.

Heath basked in the banter flying between him and his brothers on the ride back to the ranch. He felt comfortable, and was looking forward to many such conversations with them in the future. The time flew by, and the ride home didn't seem nearly as long and painful as the ride out earlier that afternoon.

Victoria was indeed furious with him. Underneath her stern tone, Heath could sense her love for him was equal to the love she felt for his brothers and sister, and her relief that they were all home safely. After a dinner of warmed-up leftovers, she sent him straight upstairs for a hot bath, and reminded him that Doctor Merar would be sent for in the morning.

As he extinguished the lamp on the bedside table, he smiled to himself. He had a rare feeling he'd only experienced in one other house. He felt welcome.

*****END*****

 

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