Jarrod's hand froze in midair, leaving the white knight within it's grasp uncertain of it's future. Nick saw the startled look in his brother's telltale eyes and turned slowly to view the door behind him.
"I'm headin' out," Heath said quietly.
It didn't registar at first and the composition unique to him, Nick's mouth worked before his brain could intervene.
"You're early," Nick said of his younger brother's afternoon walks the last few days.
"That's not the journey he's embarking on, Nick," Jarrod replied and put the knight in the red velvet box on the side of the board. He winced when Heath exhaled, feeling every bit of the apprehension housed within.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nick demanded as Heath walked closer. Then those blue eyes found his and it hit him hard. He flinched at the bevvy of pins and needles dancing inside of his gut. "Aw, hell..."
"Look, I have to do this, ya both understand that right?" Heath's voice was painted in the same hue of hope his eyes held. "Ya have become...are...such a part of me now, it's hard to believe ya weren't always there. Brothers...more than I ever thought possible. Dreamed about it, but it feels so different. Like a hole I never knew I had is gone now."
That told Jarrod more than enough and he relaxed, noddind to this sibling. There was something about the want and need in those few words that reassured him. He couldn't imagine the position Heath was in and the questions he had that needed an answer. His brother needed closure, for without that, the wound inside would fester and that bitterness would grow and cause untold damage.
"Heath, you take all the time you need. I'd say a good place to start might be Reno."
Heath found a smile then and drew on the warmth it brought when those bright eyes of his eldest brother met his. "Ya outta be a lawyer with instincts like that,:" he teased. "She's a good woman, my aunt and worried I'm sure. Not just about what happened here."
"No..." Jarrod agreed, "and a part of her needs to heal as well Heath. It couldn't have been easy for her."
Nick couldn't say a word. Sure he understood why Heath had to leave. Wasn't bad enough he'd endured the physical and mental abuse by Gavin and almost paid the ultimate price. He fingered the appropriate piece of ivory in his hand then. But to be used like a helpless pawn in the sick animal's evil scheme for revenge and having his mother's name tarnished in the process, to find out like that how he was sired, that was a pain he couldn't imagine.
"Nick, ya jest gonna scowl at me?" Heath teased, trying to take the pain that was puddling in his brother's hazel eyes.
"Huh?" Nick frowned, blinked and shook his head. "Sorry, force of habit." He tried to think of something to say. The right words to ease the burden his brother was carrying. As if sensing that, Jarrod rescued his indecision.
"Heath, know this, whaterver decision you make, for as many days as God sees fit to grace me with on this fine Earth. You will always be. " Jarrod moved to the troubled blond's side then and embraced him lightly, then held him at arm's length, one hand on each shoulder. Their eyes met and he sent a good, solid signal. "Brother mine."
Heath inhaled so sharply it hurt. He wasn't aware of how much he needed that, not just Jarrod's fine words, used like the hand of a fine artist, each one creating a beautiful stroke. But what he saw in his brother's eyes, and felt with that rich warmth that cradled every carefully placed letter, that hit him hard. A heat spread inside of him, flowing through his veins and almost adding inches onto his six foot frame. He felt taller somehow and moved his hand over his heart, needing to shelter the source of the heat.
"Thanks, Jarrod," he rasped,, not sure he could produce another word.
He moved from Heath then and looked down to where his dark-haired brother's troubled eyes were wavering. "Nick?"
"I'm okay," Nick managed, but was grateful for the strong hand on his back. He saw a flash of hidecoat in the doorway and realized the journey was about to begin. So he lifted his head and poured everything he felt into his eyes and locked on to Heath's. He offered his right hand, "...this..."
"All I'll ever need," Heath whispered, swallowing hard. He took hand and everything that came with it, "big brother."
Nick was so moved he couldn't speak and didn't try. Then a voice from behind him, just by his ear, broke the tender moment and caused his shoulders to jump.
"You gonna cry Nick?" Cody asked, "You need a hanky..."
"Dammit t'hell, Cody," Nick thundered, turning and thwacking the flringed sleeve next to him. "Where did you come from? How'd did get back there?"
"Secrets of the trade," the tracker winked at Heath. "I'll tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." He looked at Heath. " Your uh...Mister Barkley is waitin' outside for you."
With one last glance at each brother, Heath turned and left the room.
"That cabin has a lot of questions inside," Tom said, when Heath joined him outside. "It won't be easy, son, and as much as I'd like to fix that hole in you, that's something you have to conquer."
"Yup," Heath agreed, then paused as they approached the wagon. He saw the question in his father's eyes and laid a hand on the long seat. "Be easier if I wasn't ridin' solo," he invited. He didn't realize until this moment, when the words left his lips, how much he needed his father this morning. He'd thought about it almost every day but now with the winds of reality caressing his face, the little boy inside who'd yearned for a father's touch, reached out.
"You sure?" Tom asked, his voice rising and his heart full. Then the blond head dipped once. That wasn't an easy olive branch to offer and he took it for all it was worth. "Alright, son, let's do this."
Jarrod was standing behind Nick, who was seated on a settee that faced the French doors. In compatible silence, they watched Cody ride ahead of the wagon bearing their father and brother. Neither knew what the journey held, or what would each man find inside that cabin. Answers or more questions? But both knew neither man would be the same when they left the cabin.
Nick didn't speak for awhile, even when Jarrod left and came back with two mugs of hot coffee. His mind was on that horizon over both the cabin and their future. Would Heath find the salve to heal his wounded soul? Would his father be able to cross the bridge of time and find what Heath needed to heal? Would it be enough to bring both of them, all of them, together in Stockton, under that blue sky ahead?
"He'll come home, Nick," Jarrod suggested quietly, handing his brother some spiked coffee.
Nick sipped it thoughtfully, already feeling as if half of him was missing. How was this quiet stranger with his father's face now possessed half of his soul? He'd lived for twenty-eight years without a younger brother and survived. Now he couldn't imagine his life without Heath.
"He'd better, Pappy," Nick prayed aloud, "he'd better..." .
Cody waited by the front of the cabin, until the wagon stopped. For a moment, nobody moved and then Tom climbed down. The ride over had been mostly in silence, save Cody giving updates on how close they were. The next steps, would take the two men into a difficult place in both their lives.
"Take all the time you need, Heath," Cody sent with his full support. "I'm gonna take a short cut back to the dock. I'll see you on the boat."
"Thanks, Cody," Heath answered, accepting the gift, "for everything." He climibed down and walked around the wagon .
"I'll see you at the Lodge," Tom directed of the famiily gathering about to occur. "Get there in one piece!"
"Me?" Cody quizzed, casting his best choirboy eyes at the older man. "Find trouble?" A single sandy brow with gray wisdom sprinkled in arched back at him defiantly. "Don't answer that." He wagged his eyebrows at Heath and rode toward the path that led back to the boat. He turned back at the crest of the hill and saw Tom wait for Heath to enter first, then a pause and then the older man went inside and closed the door. He had no intention of going to the Lodge, a prettier spot you'd never find. A place full of peace and beauty; a healing place for a family that certainly needed it.