Keeping his eyes off the coffins in the middle of the parlor, Jarrod walked to the door and opened it. Several of the hands stood silently on the verandah, hats in hand, eyes to the ground.
"Barrett, men,” Jarrod greeted solemnly.
“Mr. Barkley,” Barrett replied, twisting his hat brim in his hands.
“All a us hands,” he jerked his head in the direction of the others, “just want you and the rest a the family ta know how sorry we all are about…about Nick and Heath. I know we had our trouble when the…the boy first come here but he proved hisself a real Barkley and we all liked and respected him.
“Don’t need ta tell ya how we all felt about Nick. He was tough but fair and there weren’t a finer man er boss er friend anywhere. We’re gonna miss ‘em both.”
“Thank you, men,” Jarrod said, looking at the assembled hands and forcing a smile which didn’t reach his blue eyes. “That means a lot. I’ll certainly tell the family.”
“The boys and me er gonna go out ta the grove now. McColl’s waitin’ ta show us where ta…well, we’re gonna help get things ready fer tomorra.
“We…uh, know the…service tomarra’s only fer the family but…well, us hands’d sorta like to be there ta pay our respects too. I mean, well, if it’s all right with you and Mrs. Barkley and Audra.”
“Of course,” the lawyer answered gently. “I’m sure Nick and Heath would want you there.”
Barrett grinned. “Thanks, Mr. Barkley. Means a lot ta us. We’ll be goin’ along now.”
Jarrod watched the men get into the wagon with the digging tools and pull away, bound for the grove. With a sigh, he shut the door and turned back toward the study.
Pouring himself a stiff Scotch, he sank down into the desk chair, feeling old, the weight of the world on his shoulders. As he sipped, he noted his father looking down at him from above the fireplace.
“I wish you were here, Father,” he whispered. “I could use some of your wise words about now. God knows I’ve managed to make a pretty mess of things so far.”
The door opened and Victoria came in, changed now into her black mourning clothes. Going to the drinks cart, she poured herself a sherry as Jarrod rose and moved to join her.
“How’s Audra?” he asked.
Victoria took a sip of sherry and shrugged. “Lying down,” she answered sadly. “I haven’t seen her like this since your father…”
Jarrod turned toward the empty fireplace and looked up at his father. “It’s my fault,” he muttered, his voice a blend of anger, frustration and sorrow.
“Everything. If only I hadn’t defended Korby Kyles.” He shook his head and gulped his Scotch
“There’s no use to go over that ground again, Jarrod,” his mother told him softly. “You did what you thought was right at the time. No one can ever know, in the moment, whether what they do or don’t do is right or wrong. What consequences that action or inaction may have later. All we can ever do is our best and hope it’s enough.”
“Enough,” the lawyer repeated bitterly. “Me losing my law practice, Audra booted out of the Orphans’ Society, the Dorns in danger, Amanda broken hearted, Nick and Heath…I’d say that was probably enough grief for one man’s mistake, wouldn’t you?”
Victoria rose and put her hand on her oldest son’s arm. “When your father was murdered,” she told him gently, “it seemed like the end of the world but we got through it. As a family. And we’ll get through this, too. As a family.”
“Unless I manage to destroy the rest of us,” he shot back bitterly.
& & & & &
Snapping out of his momentary lapse, Wilson smiled at the other man.
“Forgive me, Sir,” he apologized sincerely. “I…I was expecting someone else.” He opened the door wider and waved his free hand inward.
“Please, come in.”
As the other man stepped past him, Wilson peered quickly into the hall, making sure it was empty before he closed and locked the door.
Following the well dressed, slightly older man into his sitting area, he motioned to the empty chair across the small table from where he’d been sitting.
“I was just going to order breakfast,” he said as cheerfully as he could manage. “Would you care for something?”
“No, thank you,” the other man answered simply, laying his hat on the side table at his elbow.
“Well then,” Wilson replied, trying to keep up his cheerful façade, “perhaps a cup of coffee. Fresh, hot and surprisingly good, considering this small town hotel.”
“That would be fine.”
Gripping the pot handle tightly to prevent his guest from seeing his hand shake, Wilson poured the steaming coffee into the cup, placed it on the saucer and handed both to the other man. Pouring himself another cup, he sat down and waited.
The man, dressed in a tailored brown traveling suit, stirred his coffee and took a sip. He looked the picture of any well-to-do business man; Wilson, however, knew the truth and a drop of cold sweat popped out on the back of his neck, traveling slowly down his spine. But he had to remain silent until the other man spoke and the suspense was, quite literally, killing him.
Finally, the other man looked up from his coffee, his empty black eyes giving a glimpse of his empty, black soul.
“The Chairman,” he began conversationally, “has called a Board meeting for Tuesday, next. At the top of the agenda is your project.”
Wilson swallowed hard, trying not to let his guest see his nerves. He opened his mouth to answer but the other man continued.
“He is quite…perturbed about your progress in this matter. Or, more precisely, your distinct lack of progress. He sent me here to…look over the situation and make my report to him personally so that he can make a more informed decision about whether to continue his support.”
So, Wilson thought, dread twisting his stomach. The head of the organization had gotten so worried, and no doubt, angry about the project, he’d sent his personal hatchet man to see whether the project, and by extension, himself, would survive.
“I’m painfully aware,” Wilson began, trying to keep his voice steady and businesslike, “that the project has not proceeded as quickly as we’d…I’d hoped when I first outlined it to the Board.
"However, there has been some significant progress since my last communication with the Chairman. In fact, I was just waiting to hear from my…associate…”
“Mr. Huff,” the man interjected, taking another sip of coffee.
“Yes…yes, Mr. Huff,” Wilson agreed, taking a drink of his own coffee to ease his rapidly drying throat. “You see, last night, Mr. Huff disposed of both Nick and Heath Barkley and…”
“So I’ve heard.”
Blinking, Wilson looked at his guest, unable to read that blank face.
“You…heard?” he repeated, nonplussed.
The other man nodded, watching Wilson closely.
“Almost as soon as I stepped off the train this morning,” he continued. “It’s apparently the only subject on the local folks’ lips.”
A knock sounded at the door, causing Wilson to start and practically drop his coffee.
Worry appeared in Wilson’s face and something close to panic appeared in his eyes. It wasn’t missed by the other man.
“I don’t know,” Wilson admitted, glancing at the door. “Huff has a very distinct knock so that I’ll know it’s him.”
His guest set down his cup, picked up his
hat and stood.
“I think I shall wait in the other room,” he said, “just in case. I don’t think it would do for anyone to see us together.” With that, he moved off toward the bedroom, closing the door behind him, leaving it open just a little.
Gathering himself, Wilson went to the door. Opening it, he felt another wave of shock roll over him and it was everything he could do not to faint. Instead, he managed to force a smile.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” he said politely, feeling as if the shine on his badge would blind him.