A Tangled Web
Part One: Wild Goose Chase
Jarrod Barkley was putting on his coat to go home when his secretary knocked at the inner office door. "A Mr. Smith to see you, Judge," she said handing him a card.
Jarrod took it and read it. "Darren? Do show him in, Rachel." He shrugged out of his coat as his friend entered. "Darren!" He clapped Darren on the shoulder. "What brings you to Stockton? Can I get you a drink?"
"Yes, I'd like that," Darren said, grinning. "And I'm here on business. I'm investing in some mineral rights, and I'm here to meet with some of the other investors."
"In California?" Jarrod said, pouring him a whiskey and handing it to him. "Why not Colorado?"
Darren sipped his drink. "Oh, I find it's best to have interests all over. You get to know more of the right people that way."
Jarrod poured himself a drink and sat down across from Darren. "So why didn't you tell us you were coming? You will stay with us, won't you?"
Darren shook his head. "Sorry, I don't think I should. I didn't tell you for the same reason - it's rather awkward right now."
"Because of Audra?" Jarrod said.
Darren nodded. "I'm afraid I made rather a fool of myself when I saw her a few months ago. But I didn't know she was engaged until she told me."
"Yes, she wrote us about it at the time. She was very sorry she had to hurt you like that - I know she's still fond of you."
Darren shook his head. "Well, you understand why I'd rather not see her - I'm still rather stung about it all. But I couldn't come to Stockton without seeing you - I don't want this to harm our friendship."
"Not on my part," Jarrod assured him. "You'll have dinner with us at least?"
"No, I can't. I have a business dinner tonight, and I'm leaving on the afternoon train tomorrow." He shifted in his chair uneasily and cleared his throat. "There's something else I'd like to talk to you about, if you'll listen as a friend and not as a judge. I don't want the law drawn into it."
Jarrod furrowed his brow. "Are you in legal trouble, Darren?"
"Of a sort. I'm being blackmailed."
Jarrod started. "You? Whatever could you be blackmailed over?"
Darren sighed. "A few months ago I was in Reno on business, and I met a woman there. Very beautiful - we saw a lot of each other the few days I was there, but then I went back to Denver and thought nothing of it, until she showed up on my doorstep a month ago saying she just had to see me again."
"Go on," Jarrod said, thoughtfully.
"Well, I was flattered, of course," Darren said, "who wouldn't be? But just as things began to get interesting, there was a camera flash and a man coming through the window claiming to be her husband."
"The old badger game?" Jarrod said. "That usually only works if you're married. And if you don't know better."
Darren nodded. "Let me finish. The strangest thing about it was that the man looked just like you, Jarrod. I almost thought it was you, at first. I nearly had apoplexy."
"Did you get his name?" Jarrod asked, suspiciously.
"He introduced himself as Jack Darby. Gentleman Jack, actually."
Jarrod gasped, then swore.
"Do you know him?" Darren asked.
"Yes," Jarrod said, "but finish your tale."
"He had a marriage certificate, Jarrod. And I checked later - it was valid, all right. You know I have political ambitions - I couldn't let them publicize that picture. So I paid them off."
"How much?" Jarrod said grimly.
"A thousand dollars. But they double-crossed me - they took the camera and the plate with them. I've been to Reno trying to find them, but they had absconded. And just a couple of days ago I got another demand. Five thousand, this time. I don't know what to do, Jarrod."
"Call the police," Jarrod said.
Darren shook his head. "I can't do that - I can't let this get out, it would ruin me. Even if my reputation survived, I'd be a laughingstock."
"Then hire a private detective to track them down."
"I can't risk that, either," Darren said. "What if the detective decided to turn to blackmail himself? It's been known to happen."
Jarrod nodded. "Yes, I suppose so. Who was the woman?"
"She owned a saloon, The Lucky Lady. Her name is - was, rather - Barbara Redfern."
Jarrod's face turned livid. "You can't be serious!" he shouted.
Darren jumped. "What's wrong, Jarrod?" he asked.
"You don't remember?" Jarrod stood and began pacing.
Darren shook his head.
"Barbara Redfern is the woman who tried to frame Molly." Jarrod was fairly shaking now.
"Oh my God," Darren said. "I didn't realize - you only called her what? Barbary Red? It was a long time ago, and I never met her, remember."
Jarrod stopped pacing and stood, lost in thought. "Something doesn't fit," he said at last. "Barbara was here, five or six weeks ago, asking for my help."
Darren blanched. "Help for what?" he choked.
"I don't know, I threw her out without listening to her. You don't think that after what she did, I'd give her an opening, do you? She's lucky she's not in prison."
"I never really understood why you didn't go after her then," Darren said. "After what she put you through."
Jarrod shrugged. "It's what Molly wanted. I can't see a connection, Darren. Why would she come to me, then go after you? It doesn't make sense." He began pacing again. "Where are you supposed to send the money?"
"I'm supposed to wire it to Reno," Darren said. "I have a week to come up with it, but I can't decide whether to pay or not."
"Let me think about it," Jarrod said. "You're staying at the hotel?"
Darren nodded. "Until tomorrow. Then I'm going back to Denver. You will let me know if you come up with any ideas?"
Jarrod nodded. "Certainly. We can't let her get away with this. Not this time."
Darren pulled out his watch and looked at it. "I really must be going, Jarrod. Thanks a lot - I knew I could count on you."
"Of course, Darren, and I do hope you'll let us know the next time you're in town."
"I'll do that," Darren said, putting on his hat. "I'm very lucky to have a friend like you."
"I don't know, Feather," Jarrod said to Molly later that night, after the children were all in bed. "It doesn't make sense. What's Barbara after, and what does Jack, of all people, have to do with this? I thought we were friends."
"I wish you'd listened to her," Molly said, ruefully.
Jarrod sighed. "So do I, now. Even if her tale were all a lie, at least it would be a clue."
"I better get packing," Molly said. "We'll have to send the children to the ranch. We'll miss New Years with the family, but at least we had Christmas," she sighed.
"What are you talking about, Feather?" Jarrod asked.
"You're going after her, you know you are," Molly said. "And you're not leaving me behind again. You promised."
Jarrod chuckled. "So I did. But how did you know what I'm going to do before I did?"
"Because I'm your wife," Molly said. "And you're a Barkley. Dive in headfirst, that's the Barkley way, isn't it?"
Jarrod put his arms around her and kissed her. "I suppose it is. And I suppose you're right. I can't let her get away with this. And I have to know what she's up to."
"I know you do," Molly said, kissing him back. "I admit I'm dying to know myself."
"Let's hope curiosity doesn't kill this cat," Jarrod sighed, "but every time I tangle with Barbara Redfern, I wind up regretting it."
Part One: Wild Goose Chase
"Of course my grandchildren are always welcome," Victoria said the next morning, "but are you sure you know what you're doing, Jarrod? That woman always has been trouble for you, and you know it."
Jarrod nodded. "I know, and believe me, I'd rather not, but I have to help a friend, Mother."
"Well, you see he doesn't do anything foolish, Molly," Victoria said.
Molly chuckled. "Of course, Mother."
"I need to have a word with Audra before we leave," Jarrod said.
"She's in the study, writing," Victoria said.
"Here I am, Mother," Audra said, coming up behind her. She kissed Jarrod and Molly. "What's all the commotion?"
"Come sit, Little Sister," Jarrod said, "and I'll tell you."
He related Darren's tale to gasps of disbelief. "I can believe it of That Woman," Audra said, "but not Jack. I know Nick's still mad at him, and maybe he's not the most honest man in the world, but stooping to this! I simply can't believe it."
"You saw him a few weeks ago in New Orleans," Jarrod said. "What did you talk about? Did he ask you about Darren?"
"No," Audra said, wrinkling her brow. "We went out to supper, and talked mostly about me. He'd been to the lecture, so we talked about that, and about my engagement. I'm afraid I rather prattled on about Owen, but he kept plying me with some very good wine, so my tongue was rather loose. But Darren's name didn't even come up."
"You're sure?" Jarrod said.
"I'm sure. I wasn't that intoxicated." Audra smiled. "Now if you thought he was plotting against Owen, that might make some sense. But not Darren. At least he asked nothing of me."
Jarrod frowned. "All right, Audra. Did Jack say anything about himself? Anything that might be a clue. Did he say why he was in New Orleans, for that matter?"
Audra thought. "He said he was from New Orleans, and always seemed to go back there. He didn't say where he'd been or what he'd been doing in the meantime, though." She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Jarrod, but the conversation seems to have been all about me. I'm rather ashamed of that, now that I think of it."
"Don't be," Molly said. "It's only natural for an engaged woman to talk about her beloved. To someone you consider a friend, to boot."
Jarrod stood. "We'd better be going, love," he said to Molly. "We have a train to catch."
"Whatever else may happen," Audra said, "I can't believe that Jack would do me any harm."
Jarrod looked down at her. "You grew very fond of him, didn't you?"
Audra nodded. "And he of me, I'm sure of it." She looked up. "Find out what's happening here, Jarrod."
"That's why we're going, Honey," he said.
"You're the second person to ask to look at this record this month," the clerk at the courthouse in Reno grumbled. "Is there some problem with it?"
"No," Jarrod said, peering at the marriage certificate, "not so far as I know." He showed it to Molly. "John Darby and Barbara Redfern, just like Darren said." He looked at the signatures at the bottom. "Where can I find this Judge Holloway who performed the ceremony?"
"His chambers are upstairs and down the hall," the clerk said, taking the certificate back. "If he's not in court right now."
Jarrod and Molly made their way to Judge Holloway's chambers, and were lucky enough to find the judge in. "What can I do for you, Mr. Barkley?" the judge said, glancing at Jarrod's card. "Excuse me, Judge Barkley. It's always good to meet a fellow member of the Bar. What brings you to Reno?" He pulled out a chair for Molly. "Please be seated, Mrs. Barkley."
"We understand that you officiated at a wedding several weeks ago, between a Mr. Darby and a Miss Redfern?"
"Ah yes," Judge Holloway smiled. "I was so happy that Barbara had found someone at last." He peered more closely at Jarrod. "Was the groom a relative of yours?"
Jarrod shook his head. "No, an acquaintance. So you knew the bride beforehand?"
"Oh, yes, Barbara's been a good friend of mine and my wife's ever since she came to Reno. Oh, I know she's a saloon keeper, but she's a lovely girl. Goes to church every Sunday, even sings in the choir. Can I offer you a drink?"
Jarrod's eyebrows went up. "No, nothing for me, thank you, Judge. Did you know that Miss Redfern has a criminal record?"
"I'll have a glass of water, please," Molly said, glancing at Jarrod out of the corner of her eye.
Judge Holloway stood to pour Molly's drink. "Yes, I knew that, Judge Barkley," he said. "She was very forthcoming with us. Said she came to Reno to get as far away from water as she could. She didn't want to be tempted back into that life, so she said. I've certainly heard nothing against her since she came here." He handed the glass to Molly. "Why? Is she in some kind of trouble? I'd do anything I could to help her."
Jarrod looked confused, so Molly stepped in. "We're not sure, Judge Holloway," she said. "We're investigating a private matter, for a friend of ours. We can't go into details, I'm sorry. Do you know where Barbara is now? We'd like to speak with her, if we could."
"No, I haven't heard from her, more's the pity. I know she's sold her saloon, to Mr. Mills. He may know where she is, if anyone does."
Jarrod stood, taking Molly's hand and assisting her to her feet. "Thank you very much, Judge Holloway," he said. "Forgive us for taking up so much of your time."
"Not at all," Judge Holloway said. He looked from one to the other of them. "If you do speak to Barbara, and if she is in trouble, please tell her she can come to me, won't you?"
"All right," Jarrod said. "If we find her, we'll be sure to tell her." He tucked Molly's hand under his arm and escorted her out.
"That certainly was unexpected," Molly said.
"Does she have the whole town fooled?" Jarrod asked.
"Maybe. Maybe not," Molly said cryptically. "Let's find Mr. Mills and find out what he knows."
The Lucky Lady looked to be a thriving business, well-appointed and well-attended. Upon inquiring, they were ushered straight back into the owner's office.
"Mr. Darby?" Mr. Mills asked, surprised. "What a surprise to see you again."
"No, I'm sorry," Jarrod said, shaking his hand. "The name's Barkley, Jarrod Barkley. And this is my wife, Molly."
"How do you do?" Mr. Mills asked, bowing over Molly's hand. He studied Jarrod's face. "Boy, ain't that a kicker. You're the spitting image of Jack Darby."
"We know, Mr. Mills," Molly said. "Jack Darby is an old friend of ours."
"Sure he's not a relative?"
"It's been quite well established that he's not," Jarrod said. "But Judge Holloway said you might know where we can find him."
"Have a seat, Mr. Barkley, Mrs. Barkley." Mr. Mills gestured toward a couple of straight backed chairs. "Now that is a problem, because Barbara, that is to say, Mrs. Darby, asked me not to tell anyone where they were going. And she did stress anyone."
"But you do know?" Molly asked.
"Well, I couldn't just whisk the price of this place out of my pocket - I had to wire it to them at their destination, so yes I do, but I can't tell you. I gave her my word, you know," he said, apologetically.
"Have you known them long?" Molly asked. She fanned herself with her hand.
"Here, let me get you something to drink," Mr. Mills said.
"Just some water, please," Molly said. "Thank you, it's this heat - I'm not used to it."
"It does affect some people that way," Mr. Mills said sympathetically. He stuck his head out the door and ordered water from the barkeeper. "Anything for you, Mr. Barkley?"
"No, I'm fine," Jarrod said in an amused tone.
Mr. Mills handed Molly her glass and she drank thirstily. "Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome," Mr. Mills said. "And yes, I've known Barbara since she came to Reno. I've been trying to buy The Lucky Lady from her for over a year, but she wouldn't sell. You should have seen this place when she bought it - what a dive. She really turned it around - I only hope I can do as well. She has quite a head for business. Luckiest day of my life was when she got married."
"We know Jack is from New Orleans," Molly said. "Is that where they've gone? It really is important that we find them."
"Well, now, I'm not the one who told you, you understand?" Mr. Mills said. "But since you evidently are friends of her husband, I guess I don't mind confirming it."
"Do you have an address?" Jarrod asked, beaming at Molly.
"No, and I don't think I could give it to you if I did. I wired her the money and she was supposed to pick it up at the telegraph office. That's really all I can tell you."
"Thank you, Mr. Mills," Molly said, standing. Jarrod stood up with her. "You've been most helpful."
"It's New Years Eve," Mr. Mills said. "If you'd like to stay for the celebration, drinks are on the house."
"That's most gracious of you," Molly said, "but we really do have to be going. Thank you very much."
"My pleasure, Mrs. Barkley," Mr. Mills said, ushering them out of the office.
Jarrod hugged Molly and kissed her heartily, right out on the street. "Excellent, Feather!" he enthused. "I never realized you were such a skilled interrogator."
Molly laughed. "It's nothing any other schoolteacher couldn't do, believe me. And it was an educated guess, given what Audra told us."
"I'd better stop by the telegraph office and let the family know where we're going and how long we'll be gone. If you'll go pack, we have time to catch the next train." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "There's just one thing - if they've gone to New Orleans, why did they ask Darren to send the blackmail money to Reno? Do they have a confederate? It doesn't seem likely."
"I suppose we'll find out when we find them."
"If we find them," Jarrod said. "New Orleans is a fair-sized town. It would be easy to hide oneself there."
"Oh, I don't know," Molly said. "I think we should stroll around town until someone calls you 'Mr. Darby' and follow the trail from there."
Jarrod smiled. "That might just work. The resemblance might prove useful after all."
Part One: Wild Goose Chase
"A long train ride, just the two of us," Molly said, grinning, "it's just like our honeymoon. Remember?"
Jarrod grinned back. "How could I forget, Feather? You must think I'm suffering from dementia."
"Well, then, Mr. Barkley," she said, untying his tie. "Let's be comfortable, shall we?"
Several minutes later Jarrod rolled over in bed. "I'm sorry, Molly. I guess I just have too much on my mind."
She laid her head on his chest. "You know I don't like you being with me and thinking of another woman."
"Feather! Really! Of course I'm not. How could you think such a thing?"
"You are," she insisted. "She's under your skin, just like you're under hers. The one thing I want to accomplish on this trip is disentangling the two of you. Once and for all."
Jarrod looked down at her. "Lord, sometimes I hate to admit you're right. But it's not like that, Feather. I think - I think it's because my conscience has never been entirely clear about her. I did lie to her, I did use her. Maybe if I hadn't, none of the rest of this would have happened. But I had no choice - there just wasn't enough time."
"I know, and I understand. I can't blame you for what you did, and I can't blame you for feeling guilty about it, either. You were forced to go against both your nature and your principles, and that's doubly galling."
"And the fact that she's spent so much time getting back at me, and the people she's hurt - you, Darren."
Molly frowned. "I'm not so sure about Darren."
"What do you mean, Molly?"
"I hate to say this, because I know he's your friend and has been for years, but what if he's lying?”
"Why would he do that?" Jarrod asked, disconcerted.
Molly turned on her side and propped her head up with her hand. "I don't know - none of this makes sense. You heard Judge Holloway and Mr. Mills - Barbara's spent the last five years as a model citizen - well-respected, successful. Why would she suddenly ruin it all for herself now?"
"Just what did happen between you two in that alley?" Jarrod asked.
"We talked about choices," she said. "About making better ones - and she promised she'd try."
"And because of that you have more faith in her than in Darren, who's been my friend for years?"
"Not faith exactly - all I'm asking is, don't be too quick to condemn her - let's hear her side before we make any decisions. Does that meet with your approval - Judge?"
Jarrod smiled. "All right, Wife, I shall endeavor to be fair and unbiased, if I can." He leaned over and kissed her. "Now, where were we?"
"Oh, right. . .about. . .here," she said, giggling.
They were waiting for their baggage when the porter said, "Why, hello, Mr. Randolph. I didn't know you'd been away."
Jarrod did a double-take but recovered quickly. "No, my name is Barkley, but we're looking for Mr. Randolph. Do you know where we can find him?"
The porter shrugged. "Can't say that I do. You sure do look like him, though."
"It's been often noted," Jarrod said. "Could you recommend a good hotel?"
"The Monteleone just opened, it's a nice hotel," the porter said, carrying their bags to the taxi stand.
"The Monteleone it is, then," Jarrod said, tipping him and assisting Molly into the cab.
"Mr. Randolph?" she said as they got underway.
"You don't think there can be three of us in New Orleans with the same face, do you?" Jarrod asked. "It's got to be Jack. And if he's going under an assumed name, that's evidence of guilt."
"Maybe," Molly said. "Evidence of fear, anyway. You promised not to jump to conclusions until we talk to them, remember?"
Jarrod sighed. "All right, Feather. But it doesn't look good, you must admit."
They checked into the hotel and Jarrod sent a wire home to let his family know where he could be reached. After a quick wash and a change of clothing, they set out to promenade down Bourbon Street in the hopes that someone would 'recognize' Jarrod. No one did at first, until they stopped for a bite at a café, where the waiter welcomed them warmly. "Mr. Randolph! How good to see you - and who is this charming lady? Not your lovely wife."
"No, I'm not Randolph," Jarrod said, "the name is Barkley. But we are looking for them. Do you know where we can find them?"
"A relative, no doubt," the waiter said, and Jarrod did not hasten to correct him this time. "They haven't been in this week - I believe they've purchased a house. Domestic tranquility, don't you know? But this time of day you can probably find them down on the waterfront. They have a riverboat business - L&G, I believe it's called."
"Excuse us," Jarrod said, taking Molly by the hand. They scurried out of the cafe without placing an order and made their way to the waterfront. Asking directions along the way, they finally found a small office with the sign "L&G Riverboat Co." over the door. Barbara sat at a desk writing in a ledger. She glanced up and said, "Just a minute, Honey," then looked again and gasped, "Oh, my God!"
"Hello, Barbara," Jarrod said.
Barbara leapt up and backed away. "What are you doing here?" she said. She shook her head. "He sent you, didn't he?"
"Who sent us, Barbara?" Molly asked gently.
"That shyster," Barbara said venomously. "Smith. That worm."
"Watch it, Barbara," Jarrod said sternly.
"No, you watch how you speak to my wife."
Jarrod turned around at the words and felt that sense of displacement he felt whenever he met Jack Darby. Not like looking in a mirror exactly - there was no reversal of image, but more like looking at himself as he could have been. "Hello, Jack," he said. He looked from one to the other. "So you really are married."
Jack stepped over to Barbara and put an arm around her. "It's all right, dear, don't be afraid." He looked up at Jarrod. "How did you find us?"
"With this face? It was easy."
"How did you know where to look?" Jack looked down at Barbara, who clung to him tightly.
"You told Audra you were from New Orleans," Jarrod said, looking at them thoughtfully. "It wasn't too hard to figure out - at least not for Molly."
Jack bowed to Molly. "Mrs. Barkley, good to see you again." He turned back to Jarrod. "Is it true? Did Smith send you to find us?"
"Is it true that you're blackmailing him?" Jarrod countered.
"Don't say anything, Jack," Barbara warned.
"The jig is up, sweetheart," Jack said. "Our only hope is getting them on our side."
"He'll never believe us," Barbara said mournfully.
"I will," Molly said, "if you tell us the truth." She walked over and took Barbara's hand. "Please, it's important."
Barbara gazed at her thoughtfully. She bit her lip.
"We should tell them, dear, for Audra's sake as well as yours," Jack said.
Jarrod started. "What does Audra have to do with this?"
"Everything," Jack said. "We have a sitting room in the back we use for our paying clients. Would you care to adjourn there?"
"All right," Jarrod said, taking Molly's arm and following Jack and Barbara to the back room. He and Molly sat on a sofa while Barbara took an armchair across from them.
Jack strode to the bar. "Can I get anyone a drink?"
"Just water," Jarrod said.
"I'll have a whiskey, please," Molly said. Jarrod quirked an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.
"Whiskey, too," Barbara said.
"Change your mind, Judge?" Jack said, amused.
"All right," Jarrod said, "whiskey, then."
Jack poured out four whiskeys and handed them around. He sat on the arm of Barbara’s chair. "Now then, just what tale did Smith tell you to get you chasing after us?"
Jarrod related Darren's story, and Jack shook his head ruefully. "Well, that's mostly true, as far as it goes."
Jarrod nearly choked on his whiskey. "You mean you admit to blackmailing him?"
"Only because he blackmailed me first," Barbara said, heatedly.
"Why? Blackmailed you with what?" Jarrod asked.
"He said," Barbara gulped, "he said he had proof that I tried to frame your wife." She looked over at Molly.
"What proof?" Jarrod asked.
Barbara hesitated. "We're not going to prosecute you for that, Barbara," Molly said. "It's over and done with as far as we're concerned."
"You mean as far as you're concerned." Barbara nodded at Jarrod. "He'd still like to put me away for that. He made that abundantly clear."
"But he's not going to," Molly assured her. "Please go on."
Barbara took a deep breath. "He said he recognized the journal - that the man who forged it had been a client of his."
Molly gasped. "She's telling the truth," she said, looking at Jarrod. "You know she is."
Jarrod nodded reluctantly.
"You believe me?" Barbara asked.
"Darren told us he recognized it when we were first going over the evidence, didn't he, Jarrod?" Molly said.
"Yes," Jarrod agreed, "and Barbara would have no way of knowing that unless Darren told her."
Barbara sighed and settled into her chair. "Thank God."
"Go on, Barbara," Jarrod said, his voice much more gentle now. "What did Darren want from you? Certainly not money, he has plenty of that."
"He wanted me to break up your sister's engagement."
Jack topped off Barbara's whiskey and offered the bottle to Jarrod, who shook his head. "Now don't tell me you didn't see that coming," he said.
Jarrod shook his head. "I still hate to think it's true. We've been friends for years - I thought I knew him." Molly said nothing, only looked at her husband with sympathy in her eyes.
"The dog offered me money first," Barbara said. "When I turned that down, he pulled out a copy of an affidavit he got from F - from the forger. What choice did I have, Jarrod? He had me dead to rights."
"You could have - " Jarrod broke off and hung his head, ashamed. "You did come to me, and I threw you out. I'm sorry, Barbara, I should have listened to you."
"Yes, you should have," Barbara said with emotion. "You could have saved me an awful lot of pain and trouble."
"So what does Jack have to do with it?" Molly said. "How do you even know him?"
"We met by chance a few months ago," Jack said. "I was only too happy to aid a lady in distress."
"So you pumped Audra for information?" Jarrod said, putting things together. "I would have thought you owed her more than that."
Jack held up a hand. "I was looking for a chance to turn the tables. Although in the end we had to make our own chance."
"Blackmail him back?" Jarrod said. "Why pump Audra then?"
"I didn't want to stoop to blackmail," Barbara said. She flushed bright red. "So I tried to give him what he wanted."
"What!" Jarrod shouted.
"Jarrod," Molly chided. "She was backed into a corner. And no reason to be loyal to the Barkleys. Go on, Barbara. Since apparently whatever you tried didn't work."
"I couldn't go through with it," Barbara said. "I'm ashamed I even tried, deeply, you'll never understand how deep."
"What did you do?" Molly asked.
"I pretended to be a needy woman - from what Jack got from your sister, that seemed the best approach. I never expected - I never expected to be treated with such respect. He was too kind - I just couldn't lure him on. I really would rather have gone to prison." She looked up at her husband. "And I would have, if not for Jack."
"I found her running through the snow in her nightgown," Jack said. "I never saw anyone so desperate."
"Wait," Molly said. "Were you Fannie Jones?"
Barbara nodded, blushing.
"Owen's been terribly worried about you - he looked all over for you for weeks."
"If you tell him anything, would you tell him I'm sorry?" Barbara said. "He was really good to me. Your sister's a lucky woman," she said to Jarrod.
"They're both lucky," Jarrod said. "So after you failed with Owen, you turned to blackmail."
"It was no more than he had coming," Jack said grimly, "and what I wanted to do in the first place. Simple and just."
"But not lawful," Jarrod said.
"No, but what do you want from us? The law was being used to victimize Barbara - we just turned the tables. And we did it to protect Audra as much, well nearly as much, as to save Barbara."
"How so?" Jarrod asked.
"Part of our price was for him to stay away from her," Barbara said. "I don't want that cockroach touching any woman, much less one like her."
"Has he?" Jack said. "Stayed away?"
Jarrod looked thoughtful. "So far, at least as far as I know, but we've been out of touch for a couple of days."
"I wouldn't put it past him to have sent you on this wild goose chase just to get you out of the way," Jack said.
"You may be right," Jarrod said. "In which case, we need to get home as soon as possible."
"You won't tell him where we are, will you?" Barbara asked. "The last thing he said to us was that we wouldn't get away with it. I'm certain he'd revenge himself on us if he could."
"No, we won't," Molly said.
"Where's the plate?" Jarrod asked. "However justified, I can't be a party to blackmail."
"There is no plate," Jack said. "I don't know how to use a camera - it was all a bluff."
"Now why do I find myself believing that?" Jarrod said.
"Because it's true," Jack grinned. "And there's no blackmail - we got the affidavit. That's all we wanted."
"And the money?" Jarrod asked.
"What money?" Barbara asked puzzled.
"Darren said you took a thousand dollars from him. And are holding him up for five thousand more."
Jack shook his head. "He gave Barbara a thousand to do his dirty work, but we didn't blackmail him for it, and we certainly aren't now. The last thing we want is to have anymore to do with him."
"I can't say that I blame you." Jarrod grimaced. "Much as I hate to believe all this about someone I've considered a friend all these years."
"But you do believe us?" Barbara asked eagerly.
"Yes, Barbara, I do," Jarrod said. "And I'm deeply ashamed, too. I could have prevented all this just by listening to you. I ignored a cry for help, and I'm truly, truly sorry."
Barbara wiped away a tear. "Thank you," she whispered.
"Why Randolph?" Molly asked.
"Old family name, on my mother's side," Jack said. "Audra's mistaken that I'm from here - my mother was, but I'm actually from Kentucky."
"Really?" Molly grinned. "Me, too."
"I thought I detected a trace of accent," Jack said. "Where from?"
"Paducah," Molly said.
"Ah, Louisville for me," Jack said.
"As much as I hate to interrupt old home week," Jarrod said, "we really need to be going. We need to get word to Audra as soon as possible."
"Yes, of course," Jack said. He held out his hand. "Are we square?"
"I think so," Jarrod said, shaking it. "I can't blame you for trying to protect your wife from villainy."
"I thought you'd understand," Jack said.
"Congratulations, Jack, and best wishes, Barbara," Molly said.
"Thank you," Barbara said. "Just take care of your sister, all right, Jarrod?"
"All right, Barbara," Jarrod said. "And best wishes from me, as well. I hope you two are truly happy."
"We're going to try," Jack said.
"Just one more question," Molly said. "What does L&G stand for?"
"Lady and Gentleman," Jack said. "It seemed fitting, and a last good-bye to Gentleman Jack, who is disappearing into John Randolph."
"I think I'm going to miss him," Molly said.
Jack shrugged. "I honestly don't think I will. John Randolph has so much more to be grateful for." He smiled warmly at his wife.
Jarrod stopped at the hotel desk to compose a long, detailed telegram to Audra, hoping he wasn't too late. He consulted the rail schedule - they had time to wash up and eat dinner before catching the evening train back north, but it would still be three days before they would reach Stockton, by which time they would have been gone almost a week.
He gave a generous tip to the message boy before going to their room and washing up. He heaved a sigh - they hadn't even unpacked yet - before joining Molly in the dining room. They were in the midst of a very good dinner when the message boy brought a thick telegram to their table. "Is it all right to interrupt, Mr. Barkley?" he said.
"Yes, thank you," Jarrod said. "We were hoping for a quick reply." He tipped the messenger again and ripped open the envelope. His heart sank as he read it and his face turned white.
"What is it, dearest?" Molly asked. "Jarrod, you're scaring me."
"I can't -" Jarrod choked and handed Molly the telegram. "I can't believe it. Not only is Darren a blackmailer, he's a murderer."
End of Part One
Part Two: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Dr. Owen Grigsby put on his coat and tied his scarf around his neck preparatory to leaving on his morning rounds. He had just stepped out the door when he was accosted by a stranger with his coat thrown over his shoulders and holding a bloody towel around his left forearm. "Come inside," Owen said, quickly stripping down to shirtsleeves. "Let's have a look at that."
The man removed the towel, revealing a deep gash, the edges flecked with foam. "Looks like I barely caught you, Doc," he said.
"Lucky for you," Owen said. "That's a nasty cut. How did you get it?"
"Dropped my razor," the man said.
Owen grimaced. "You're lucky you didn't slice an artery. I'll have to clean the wound first, then stitch it up." He took a clean towel and a bottle of alcohol. "This is going to hurt," he warned.
"It can't hurt any more than it does already," the man said.
"Yes, it can," Owen said. "Ready?" The man nodded and Owen poured alcohol on the wound. The man gasped loudly. "I'm sorry," Owen said, "but it's necessary."
"All right," the man said, blinking back tears of pain. "Just get on with it."
Owen cleaned the wound and began to stitch it up, the man grimacing the entire time. "Thanks," he said finally, as Owen wrapped his arm in bandages. "I don't know how I'm going to explain to my wife that I cut myself shaving."
Owen smiled. "It was just an accident, Mr. . . ?"
"Meriwether," the man said, sticking out his hand, "Amos Meriwether. I'm in the import/export business. Anything you want, I can get it for you."
"That's all right," Owen said, amused. "My fee is two dollars, that's quite adequate."
"You'll never get rich that way," Meriwether said. He pulled out a handful of cigars and lit one. "Two dollars wouldn't even buy you one of these cigars, came all the way from Havana. Here, have a couple."
"That's quite all right, Mr. Meriwether," Owen said.
Mr. Meriwether put his jacket on, easing it over his wounded arm. "I insist," he said. He tucked two cigars into the pocket of Owen's coat hanging on the coat rack, and shrugged into his own coat. "And here's your two dollars. Remember, anything you want, I can get it for you."
Owen smiled and shook his head. "I'll remember that," he said as Mr. Meriwether left. He put on his hat and coat and left for his rounds.
When he returned, Audra was waiting for him. He smiled warmly and his eyes lit up when he saw her. He leapt down from his horse and took her in his arms. "Hello, love," he said, kissing her lightly.
"Let's go inside," she said, and he opened the door and pulled her in. He took some time giving her a proper greeting, and she sighed and rested her head on his chest. "Oh, how I've missed you," she said.
He stroked her hair. "We just saw each other yesterday."
"I meant all these months. There's not a day, or an hour, that I didn't think of you."
Owen blinked, his eyes watering. "Me, too," he said. He wrapped his arms around her, and they stood that way for long minutes, absorbing each other's warmth.
"Have you had lunch?" she asked at last.
Owen laughed. "Always trying to feed me."
Audra laughed, too. "Well, I worry that you don't eat properly."
"And you've apparently infected your mother and your sisters-in-law. The way they urged food on me while you were gone, it's a wonder I'm not fat."
Audra giggled. "Well, now that I'm back, they won't have to. So you didn't answer my question."
"No, I haven't, but there's stew in the icebox. It'll just take a few minutes to heat up. Do you want some?"
"I'd adore it," Audra said.
Owen took off his coat and felt the cigars in his pocket. He handed them to Audra. “Here, a patient gave me these. Maybe one of your brothers would want them. They came from Havana, he said."
Audra tucked the cigars into her pocket. "That's probably the one thing I will miss when we get married - you're the only man I know who doesn't smoke."
Owen shrugged. "I just never got the taste for it. If you'll miss it that much, maybe you ought to take it up yourself."
Audra laughed heartily. "Silly," she said, taking his arm. "Let's go have lunch."
They discussed inconsequentials over stew, caressing each other's hands across the table. Owen fingered her engagement ring. "Not to rush you or anything, but have you thought about setting the date yet?"
"Of course I have, but I can't decide," Audra said.
"Hm?" Owen raised his eyebrows.
"I hate to wait, but I hate winter weddings. They feel so rushed and cramped. I always thought I'd get married in June. Or at least in spring."
"We can," Owen said, trying not to show disappointment.
She reached across the table and stroked his beard. "And we've been apart so much - I'd like us to have the chance to be a couple, before we settle down into husband and wife."
"All very sensible," Owen said.
Audra narrowed her eyes. "Is it?"
"You know what I mean," Owen said sternly.
Audra sighed. "I'm sorry, I don't want to fight about it. I do want to marry you, and soon - but I feel like we've missed out on so much, being apart. On the one hand, I feel closer to you than I've ever felt to anyone, but on the other, I feel I barely know you at all."
Owen smiled. "Not an unusual state among engaged couples, I think."
"No, not unusual," Audra smiled back. "Do you mind waiting, just a bit? Now that I'm back, we can have lots more time together."
Owen kissed her fingers. "I can bear it," he said. "Whatever you want, I'm certain will be right."
Audra leaned across the table and kissed him. The bell over the surgery door rang and Owen broke off the kiss with an apologetic expression.
"You will come for New Years Eve tonight, won't you?" Audra said hurriedly. "Since we have all the children with us, it's just going to be the family, but we all want you to be there."
"If I'm not held up, certainly," Owen said.
"Even if you are, come anyway," Audra said, standing and clearing the table. "We'll be up late."
"All right," Owen gave her a quick kiss before going off to tend to his duties. Audra washed and dried their few dishes before returning home.
The Barkleys held dinner as long as they could, but Owen did not appear, so they commenced without him. Audra tried not to feel disappointment - she was well aware by now that this is what her life would be like once she married Owen. She had come to terms with it months ago, but she still wished he were there to begin the new year with.
After dinner, they all adjourned to the parlor for drinks and entertainment. They took turns playing the piano and singing, and served soft cider for the children and champagne or whiskey for the adults. Nick lit up one of the cigars Audra had given him and inhaled appreciatively. "That is a good cigar," he enthused. "You want the other one, Heath?"
Heath shook his head. "I don't think so, Big Brother."
"You don't know what you're missing," Nick said.
"Ew, Uncle Nick," Emma, Jarrod's eldest daughter, said, "that's making me nauseous."
"I think you mean nauseated, dear," Victoria corrected.
Emma shrugged. "It makes my stomach hurt."
"All right, darlin'," Nick said. "I'll take it outside." He kissed Emma's cheek before putting on his coat and stepping out onto the verandah. He returned a few minutes later and partook in the festivities with gusto.
The children began to drop off long before midnight, so Alice and Samantha went upstairs to put them to bed, all save Lucas, who, at fourteen, was more than eager to stay up to see the new year in. Audra kept glancing toward the door, hoping to hear a footfall or a knock, but none came.
Just before midnight, Nick asked to be excused. "What's wrong, Cowboy?" Samantha asked. She looked at him closely. "Are you not well?"
"No time," Nick said with a sick look and bounded up the stairs to the bathroom. Samantha followed him worriedly. Victoria, Heath, Alice, Audra and Lucas waited downstairs, all thoughts of festivities forgotten as midnight came and went.
Samantha came to the top of the stairs and called down. "Victoria! Heath! Help, please." She hurried back to the bathroom, the rest of them following.
They found Nick lying in the floor, unconscious, Samantha kneeling by his side. The toilet was filled to overflowing, and the smell was atrocious. "Let's get him cleaned up and put to bed," Victoria said briskly. She stopped and looked into the toilet, a stricken look on her face.
"What is it, Mother?" Heath asked.
"Come look," Victoria said. "What does that look like to you?"
Heath looked down and turned white. "Cholera," he said. "It looks like cholera."
Part Two: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
"Lucas, go for the doctor," Victoria said.
"I'll go," Audra said, sprinting out the door.
"All right, then," Victoria said. "Lucas, go fetch what's left of the cider. He's going to need plenty of fluids. Then wake Silas and ask him to boil as much water as he can."
Lucas nodded and left to do as he was told.
"I'll go check on the children," Alice said.
"Let's get him in the tub," Victoria said to Heath and Samantha. As they picked Nick up, he stirred and awakened.
"What happened?" he asked groggily.
"You're sick, Cowboy," Samantha said, trying to keep the worry out of her voice.
"Must have had too much to drink," Nick said.
"No, Nick, you're really ill," Samantha said.
"I'm never ill," Nick said. He doubled up, moaning with cramp, and they barely got him to the toilet in time. Heath bent over to flush it, but Victoria stopped him. "Not yet, Heath. It's contaminated."
Lucas appeared with the cider and Nick drank a fair amount of it before they got him into the tub and then into a clean nightshirt. When Lucas came back from waking Silas, Victoria sent him for whiskey and bleach. The bleach she poured into the toilet before flushing it, the whiskey she poured over the hands of everyone who had touched Nick.
Alice came back from checking the children. "All fine," she said. "Everyone sleeping peacefully, no fever or clamminess."
"Well, that's the thing," Heath said. "If it's cholera, why aren't any of the rest of us ill?"
"I don't know," Victoria said. "We'll have to wait for the doctor."
Audra galloped down the road into town, ignoring the damage she was doing to her good dress. She heard hoofs coming toward her, and pulled up her horse. "Owen?" she said hopefully.
"Audra?" Owen's voice came out of the darkness. He slowed his horse to a walk and met her on the road. "What's wrong?"
"Nick's ill. It looks like cholera."
"Come on then," Owen said, spurring his horse into a gallop.
When they got to the ranch, Owen examined Nick carefully. "Well, you're doing all the right things," he said.
"Will he be all right?" Samantha asked, sitting by the bed and holding Nick's hand.
"Of course I will, Sam," Nick said irritably. "Don't make a fuss."
"You should be," Owen said to Nick. "Once that water is boiled, I'll have Silas make up a solution of sugar and salt that should get you properly rehydrated. Dehydration and shock are the real killers in cholera."
"Is it cholera?" Victoria said.
"You have a doubt?" Owen asked her seriously.
"No one else is sick," Victoria said.
"Yet," Owen said. "The next task is tracing the source - we don't want an outbreak, certainly," Owen said. "Is there anything that Nick ate or drank that no one else did?"
Victoria shook her head. "I've been thinking about that. Dinner was all served from the same dish, the drinks were all served from the same pitcher. Afterward, the champagne was shared out among all of us. Nick did have some whiskey, but so did Heath. I can't think of a thing."
Owen turned to Heath. "What about earlier today, while he was out working? Did he drink from any streams?"
"We both did, and filled our canteens," Heath said, "but we both drank from the same stream, and we were together all day. If he's sick, I should be, too."
Owen frowned. "It would seem so. Is the water still in your canteens?"
Heath nodded. "I'll go fetch them."
As he left, Owen said, "I'll need a sample of your well water, and whatever was eaten, if there's any left."
"I'll get it," Lucas said, scurrying off.
Heath returned with the canteens and Lucas soon after with jars of water and food packed in a satchel. "The lab work will take a couple of hours," Owen said. "I'll let you know as soon as I can. Be sure and send for me if Nick worsens, or if anyone else falls ill."
"I'm coming with you," Audra said. "I can help."
Owen nodded. "So you can." He put on his hat. "Let us be going."
Audra prepared slides for Owen as he examined each sample under the microscope. Each drop of water, each smear of food was subjected to careful scrutiny, then re-sampled and re-examined. Finally, Owen straightened and rubbed his eyes. "It's not here," he sighed. "Nothing here is contaminated. Where could it be?"
"I don't know," Audra said wearily. "Whoever heard of a single case of cholera?"
"No one," Owen said, "that's what frightens me. If we can't find the source, it could be disastrous."
"Are you sure it's cholera?" Audra asked.
"Cholera is pretty distinctive," Owen said. "There aren't any other diseases with the same symptoms." He scratched his beard. "We must be overlooking something. We have to think."
"I've been thinking," Audra said, "but I'll think some more."
They sat quietly for several minutes, until Owen sighed. "We'll have to go back to the ranch, question everyone more closely." He stood to put on his coat, then stopped.
"What, Owen?" Audra asked eagerly.
"Something - something I read a long time ago. What was it?" Owen stood with furrowed brow and Audra stood silent, afraid to interrupt his thoughts. He turned and took a large book down from the shelf.
"Poisons?" Audra asked, alarmed, reading the spine.
Owen hurriedly flipped through the pages. "Here it is." He scanned the page. "Yes."
Audra stood behind him and read under his arm. "Arsenic?" She turned pale. "Someone poisoned Nick?"
"Not necessarily," Owen said. "Arsenic does occur naturally. But acute poisoning has nearly all the same symptoms as cholera. This could be it."
"Does it say how to test for it?"
"Yes, and I have all the reagents here, but it's a slow process." He put the book down on the counter. "You should go home and tell your family what's happening."
Audra shook her head. "No, I can help." She bit her lip. "But we should go to the sheriff."
"Audra, we can't. Not yet," Owen said.
"If someone poisoned my brother, that's a crime," she said heatedly. "They have to be caught."
"And they will be," Owen said, "but think first. Who does suspicion fall on when a man is poisoned?"
Audra closed her eyes. "His wife," she said with a sigh.
"And with Samantha's history - even if she's cleared, once that suspicion falls, she'll never be rid of it." Owen shook his head. "Let's find the source first - then we'll know if there's been a crime or not."
"All right," she agreed, "what do we do?"
So they spent the next few hours setting up the equipment and running their analyses of all their samples. Dawn had long since broken by the time they finished, and Owen collapsed wearily. "It's not here, either," he said. He pounded the counter. "What could it be?"
Audra tugged on his elbow. "Come on, let's get back to the ranch."
"Is there somewhere there we can set this up?" he asked, eyeing his equipment. "We'll have to do more testing, and I don't think we should keep running back and forth."
"We'll find a place," Audra said, beginning to take it all down.
Owen reached up and took down a bottle from his medicine shelf. "What's that?" she asked.
"Sulfur," he said. "It's the antidote for arsenic."
She nodded and kept on working.
"We were expecting you back hours ago," Victoria said when they arrived back at the ranch.
"How is Nick?" Owen asked, ignoring the implied question.
"No worse, but no better," Victoria said. "He keeps pouring liquids out as fast as we can pour them in. It's been a long night."
"I'll go see him," Owen said. He ran up the stairs to Nick's room, where Samantha and Heath were keeping watch. Audra followed close behind, and Owen poured out a glass of the rehydration solution from the pitcher by the bed, adding a good dose of sulfur to it. "Drink this, Nick," he said.
Nick took the glass, but was repulsed by the smell. "What is it?" he asked.
"Sulfur," Owen said.
"I never heard of sulfur for cholera," Heath said.
"It won't hurt, and it might help," Owen said.
"Whatever you say, Doc," Nick said, and drank the potion down, grimacing. Samantha took the glass from him and put it back on the table. She was still holding his hand, looking almost as pale as he did. Owen looked at her with pity. "Have you slept, Samantha? Have any of you?"
"No," Samantha said, "and I won't until Nick is better."
Owen almost argued with her, but merely said, "I hope that will be soon." He looked over at Heath. "I need to talk with you, Heath." He gestured towards the door, and Heath followed him out into the hallway.
"What is it, Doc?" Heath asked. He looked in Owen's face. "You haven't found the source, have you?"
"No, which is why I need to talk with you. You were with him all day - and I know how you notice things. Think. Was there anything Nick did - ate, drank or touched - that no one else did?"
"Well, I wasn't with him all day - when we came home he spent some time alone with Samantha and Lizzie, but other than that I was. Let me think." Heath went still, and Owen waited patiently for him to sift through the day's events.
"The cigar," Heath said at last.
Owen gasped. "The cigars I gave Audra?"
Heath nodded. "Nick smoked one after dinner - no one else did."
"I need that ash," Owen said. "Or the butt."
"You don't think it's cholera, do you?" Heath asked. "You mind telling me what you do think it is?"
"Not yet," Owen said, "not until I'm sure. Where is that ashtray?"
"Emma complained the smoke made her sick, so he went outside," Heath said.
"Did she?" Owen asked. "I need to talk to her then. And find that butt."
"The kids are out in the garden playing. I'll go look for the butt. Do you want the other cigar, too?"
"Yes, please, and thank you, Heath."
"My pleasure." Heath went out to look for the cigar butt, and Owen went to find Emma.
She was playing tag with Lena and Vicky in the garden, and Lucas had his hands full chasing after Georgie. "Emma, may I speak with you, please?"
"Me, too!" Vicky said, throwing her arms around his knees.
"Not just now, Vicky," Owen said patiently, disentangling himself. "You go play, all right?"
Vicky pouted, but did as she was asked. Owen crouched down to Emma's level. "Your uncle Heath tells me you got sick when Uncle Nick was smoking."
Emma nodded. "But just nauseated. Not sick."
"How do you feel now?" Owen asked.
She shrugged. "Fine."
"Have you had a bowel movement today?"
Emma frowned at him, but nodded.
"Was it firm, or runny?" Owen asked.
Emma wrinkled her nose. "I don't like to talk about things like that," she said.
"I'm a doctor," Owen said. "I have to ask about things like that."
"I don't think I'd like to be a doctor," Emma said.
"Most people wouldn't," Owen agreed. "But I still need to know."
"Runny," she said reluctantly, "but it is sometimes."
"Thank you, Emma. If you start to feel at all ill, or if your next one is runny, too, please tell me, or your grandmother, all right?"
Emma nodded and went back to her game. Owen walked back to the house, and Heath met him on the verandah. Heath handed him the cigar butt and a fresh cigar, unsmoked. "There's a little bit of ash here, that the wind hasn't blown away yet. You want that, too?"
Owen nodded and took a notebook out of his pocket. He tore out a page and scraped the ash onto the paper, folding it into a packet. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say anything about this yet, Heath," Owen said.
"You're the doctor," Heath said.
"And if you'd stay with Samantha until I tell you to stop," Owen added.
Heath raised his eyebrows. "Stay with Samantha?"
"If you would, please," Owen said.
Heath shrugged. "If you say so." He went back upstairs.
Owen was contemplating the cigars when Audra came back downstairs to help unload the lab equipment from the buggy. She saw what he was looking at and gasped. "It can't be," she said, then, "but, of course. I should have seen it before. I see my brothers smoke so often, I hardly notice it anymore."
"Don't blame yourself," Owen said. "We'd better run those tests, but it looks as though I'm the person who poisoned your brother."
Part Two: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Nick had only one more bout of diarrhea, but whether it was because of the sulfur or because the disease had run its course remained to be seen. Owen and Audra set up their equipment in the wine cellar, and proceeded to run their tests, but neither was surprised when the tests proved positive for arsenic. Although it deepened the mystery, it was a relief to have proof that no one in the house was a poisoner, nor did they have to fear a cholera outbreak.
They went upstairs together to break the news. Everyone was stunned, to say the least, although Heath's knowing "Ah" was the only acknowledgement there would ever be that he had been protecting Samantha from suspicion. "That makes less sense than ever," Nick said. "Who would want to poison you?"
"It's not certain anyone did," Owen said. "As I told Audra, arsenic occurs naturally. It could be that the cigars were contaminated. We're going into town now to tell the sheriff. He'll find Mr. Meriwether, and we can straighten this out."
"Let's hope that if they were contaminated, none have been sold yet," Victoria said.
"We have to move quickly," Owen agreed. He gave Victoria the bottle of sulfur. "Dose everyone who might have breathed the smoke." He held up his hand at Alice and Samantha's startled gasps. "I don't think anyone got enough to harm them, but better safe than sorry. Lizzie was not there at the time, I hope."
Samantha shook her head. "She was upstairs in her crib."
"Thank God," Owen said, and he ushered Audra out to the buggy without further ado.
"Why would anyone want to poison you, Doctor?" Sheriff Madden asked. "Do you have any enemies?"
"None that I know of," Owen said. "And I doubt it was intentional - more likely the cigars were contaminated, which is why we have to find Mr. Meriwether as soon as possible. He was smoking one when he left my office yesterday morning. He may be ill as well."
"Meriwether, Meriwether," Fred pondered. "Don't believe I know any Meriwether. You'd better tell me all you know."
Owen related the events of yesterday morning, describing Amos Meriwether - around thirty-five years old, light brown hair, brown eyes, six feet tall and a gash on his left forearm. "Sounds pretty ordinary, except for the gash," Fred harrumphed.
"He's in the import business," Owen said. "He shouldn't be that hard to find."
But he proved impossible to find. None of the shipping offices or other importers had ever heard of him. A check of the records at city hall showed no licenses or deeds issued to anyone by the name of Meriwether, nor was there anyone by that name or description registered at any of the hotels. He may never have existed, except for Owen's testimony and the evidence of the cigars.
"I think you're going to have to face up to it, Doctor," Fred said at the end of the day, having stopped by Owen’s house to give him the news, "an attempt has been made on your life - and a cold-blooded, well-thought out attempt, at that. Now who in this world would be out to get you?"
They were sitting in Owen's parlor, Audra at Owen's side, her hand clasping his tightly. Owen shook his head. "I have no idea, Sheriff," he said. "I wouldn't have thought I had an enemy in the world."
"Someone you might have injured? Inadvertently, certainly," Fred said. "Even the best doctors make mistakes. And people can hold a grudge for some of the strangest reasons, sometimes."
"I've been pretty lucky since I came to Stockton." Owen smiled at Audra at the double meaning of his words. She did not smile back, her face serious and frightened. "The only patients I've lost," Owen continued, "were the sailors in the typhus outbreak."
"Someone before then," Fred suggested.
"My former practice consisted primarily of people who went to doctors because it was fashionable," Owen said ruefully. "I barely got to treat anyone, much less injure someone."
"Well, think on it," Fred said. "In the meantime, be careful. Don't accept anymore gifts from strangers, and it'd be best to keep someone by you." He turned to Audra. "When's Jarrod getting back?"
"He and Molly left Reno for New Orleans yesterday," Audra said. "They should arrive sometime tomorrow. We might find out then when they'll be back."
"Keep an eye out," Fred warned, standing and putting on his hat. "I'm putting out a 'wanted' on your Mr. Meriwether. Let's hope he doesn't make another attempt."
Owen felt Audra's hand grow cold, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Fred left and she wrapped her arms around him. "Don't worry, love," Owen said. "I'll be fine."
"Someone tried to kill you," Audra said, choking. "How can I not worry?"
"I still think it's a mistake," Owen said.
"I think you're making the mistake," Audra said heatedly. "Fred's right - you need to face up."
"And do what?" Owen said. "Hide?"
"Just be careful," Audra said. "Do you know what it would mean to me to lose you?"
"I'm always careful," Owen said. "You said yourself I don't have a careless bone in my body."
"With other people, like having Heath watch Samantha so there'd be no room to suspect her if Nick got worse. But with yourself - you think too little of yourself."
Owen looked down at her, saying nothing. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "Maybe you're right," he said at last, "but up until now I've had little reason to consider myself. You've changed all that, but I still don't see what I can do differently. I can't neglect my patients, and I can't hire a bodyguard."
"I'll stay with you," Audra said.
"And guard me?" Owen said, amused.
"Don't laugh," Audra said, "I'd like to see anyone try anything with me here." Owen could feel her jaw tighten.
"You can't stay, love," Owen said. "It wouldn't be proper."
"Try and get rid of me," Audra said.
Owen could hear the determination in her voice, feel it in her body. He sighed. "I'd stay at the ranch tonight, if that would make you happy, but you're full up at the moment."
"We'll find room," Audra said. She gave him a squeeze. "And thank you."
"Merely bowing to the inevitable," Owen smiled.
Owen bunked in with Lucas that night, Victoria having moved all the girls into one room. Although he usually enjoyed spending time with his in-laws-to-be, he found himself supremely uncomfortable in the circumstances. Nick had recovered enough to begin eating again, although he was still too weak to get out of bed, and no one else seemed to suffer any ill effects, so there was much to be grateful for, but Owen's mind kept churning with the who and the why.
He slept uneasily, and evidently Audra did, too. When he went out to saddle his horse after breakfast, she accompanied him, leading out her own horse to be saddled. "You don't have to come with me," he said.
"I do," she said, putting on the saddle.
"I'm doing rounds, Audra. I know everyone, and besides, you'd be bored."
She tightened the girth. "I can help," she said tersely.
Owen sighed, leaning an elbow against his horse. "Is this what it's going to be like when we get married?"
"If you mean, am I going to look after you, then yes, this is what it's going to be like." She vaulted into the saddle.
Owen put his hand on her knee. "Why so angry, my love?"
She looked down at him and put her hand on his. "I'm not angry. I'm scared."
Owen looked up at her, uncertain what to say. He shook his head, then mounted his own horse, riding alongside her into town.
Audra was a great help, Owen found. He had long been aware how well the Barkleys were respected, but he had not known they were so well liked. All his patients seemed delighted to see Audra, and she put aside her anxieties well enough to brighten whatever house (or hovel) she was in with her smile and her natural sweetness. She charmed his male patients and comforted his female patients, and he was almost sorry she wouldn't be with him on every round.
They ate a quick lunch before Owen's surgery hours. Audra occupied herself straightening up between patients and working on the book she was writing. It was almost dinner time, or what would have been dinner time if Owen were not still busy with patients, when Jarrod's telegram arrived. Audra had seen the message boy earlier on her rounds with Owen, so she was not surprised that he would attempt to save himself a trip to the ranch by trying the doctor's first.
She sat down in shock from the first sentence onward. She could not credit it - Darren a blackmailer, and on the word of That Woman. But then, Jack backed up her story, and for all Jack's wiliness, Audra still found she had faith in his word. But she had always had faith in Darren, too - in his basic decency, in his inherent goodness. Could she be so completely mistaken?
Darren was Jarrod's friend, had been long before she met him, and Jarrod believed it. Jarrod had even less reason to believe Barbara than Audra did, so her tale must have been compelling. Audra shuddered. She had come very close to marrying Darren - indeed, had not rejected him for himself, but for the life he had offered her. If he had supported her dreams instead of belittling them. . .it didn't bear thinking about.
And then the events of the past few days reacted with Jarrod's telegram in a volcanic fizzing in her brain. Could it be? If Darren would stoop to blackmail to win her back, would he also stoop to murder? She tried to push the thought away, but it would not go. She would describe Darren's hair as sandy rather than light brown, but other than that, Owen's description matched. It provided a motive where there had been none. Darren had been in Stockton - he had supposedly left the day before the visit from 'Mr. Meriwether,' but no one had seen him go. Her bowels twisted themselves into knots, and she almost wished she could faint so she would not have to think about it.
But she did not faint, and she did think about it. Did the two halves make a whole? She found she could not completely trust her own judgment, but she trusted Jarrod's. If she gave him the facts, and he came to the same conclusion, then it would be the right one. She hoped against hope that she was wrong, but her heart told her she was right, and she wept as she took pen and paper and began to compose her answer to Jarrod's telegram.
Confrontation and Conclusion
Two days later Jarrod was ushered into Darren's law office in Denver. "Jarrod!" Darren said in surprise, "I didn't expect to see you again so soon. Have you lost the trail already?"
"No." Jarrod reached across the desk and grasped Darren's left forearm, squeezing. Darren winced in pain. "Did you cut yourself shaving?" Jarrod asked.
Darren gasped and turned white. "What are you doing, Jarrod?" he asked. "Let go."
"How'd you hurt your arm, Darren?" Jarrod insisted, still squeezing.
"Chopping wood," Darren said. He jerked out of Jarrod's grasp, rubbing his arm.
"You're a liar," Jarrod said, nearly hissing. "You weren't being blackmailed - you were the blackmailer. You sent me off on a wild goose chase, for what? To get me out of the way while you murdered my sister's fiancé?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Jarrod," Darren insisted. "Make sense."
Jarrod stood and stared at him, nostrils flaring. The man was good, he had to admit - too good, too convincing. "You should see a doctor about that arm," Jarrod said, striding over to the door and flinging it open. He gestured, and Owen entered Darren's office, arm in arm with Audra, leaving the door open behind them.
Darren was white before, but now he turned papery. "No, it's not possible," he breathed.
"Please identify him, Owen," Jarrod said, suddenly weary.
"It's him," Owen said, "it's Amos Meriwether. He'll have thirteen stitches in his arm."
Darren was breathing heavily now, and Jarrod reached over, grabbing Darren's wrist and stripping out his cufflink. He shoved Darren's sleeve up, revealing a long stitched gash - thirteen stitches, just as Owen had said. Jarrod dropped Darren's wrist and leaned forward, fists on the desk. "You made one mistake, Darren. Owen doesn't smoke."
"What kind of man doesn't smoke?" Darren said, confusedly.
"That one," Jarrod said. "He gave the cigars to Audra, who gave them to my brother Nick. . . ."
"Oh my God," Darren whispered.
". . .Who smoked one in the presence of my children." Jarrod's voice rose.
"Oh my God," Darren said again. "Are they all right? Please tell me they're all right." He covered his face with his hands.
"My children are all right," Jarrod said, "but my brother nearly died. He would have died if this doctor had not had the intelligence and the means to find out what was wrong with him."
"I would never hurt you, Jarrod," Darren said, "or anyone belonging to you, you must believe that." He looked over at Audra. "You believe that, don't you?"
"I don't know what to believe anymore, Darren," Audra said bitterly. Owen patted her hand where it lay on his arm.
Darren took in the gesture and his face turned hard. "You don't love her the way I do," he said, his voice like iron. "You'd never dare the things I've dared for her."
"I wouldn't kill someone to possess her," Owen said, "but that's not love. You lost her because you wanted her to be someone she's not. I won her because I want her to be what she is."
"I'd have made a great lady out of her," Darren said. "First Lady of Colorado. Maybe First Lady of the land."
"That'll be enough!" Jarrod said firmly. He turned to the open door. "Is that sufficient?"
A marshal stepped through the door. "Yes, Judge Barkley, quite sufficient." He turned to Darren. "I hereby arrest you on these charges: one, administration of poison against one Nicholas Jonathon Barkley; and two, attempted murder by administration of poison against one Owen Geoffrey Grigsby, medical doctor." He clapped handcuffs on Darren and began to lead him away.
"I'll fight this, Jarrod," Darren said. "I won't waive extradition."
Jarrod just shook his head and watched his friend be led off in irons. Audra let go of Owen's arm and wrapped her arms around her brother. They held each other for long moments, then the three of them left to meet Molly at the hotel.
"What happens now?" Audra asked Jarrod over a late supper in the suite the four of them shared.
"First there'll be the extradition hearing tomorrow," Jarrod said. "Owen will probably have to testify, especially if Darren is going to fight it."
"Could he stop us in our tracks already?" Audra asked.
Jarrod shook his head. "The state only has to show that there's enough evidence for a trial. He might be able to delay matters, but he'll be extradited, never fear. Then there'll be a trial, and you and Owen will both have to testify - Nick, too."
"I understand Owen and Nick," Audra said, "but why me?"
"Chain of custody," Jarrod said. "We'll have to cover how the cigars got from Darren to Nick. That's our weakest point - a good defense attorney would try to show that the cigars could have been tampered with before they got to Nick.”
"But would a jury believe that - given Darren's incognito? He did pretend to be someone else in order to give Owen the cigars." She grasped Owen's hand.
"A good defense attorney could tear into that, too, although Owen knowing how many stitches Darren had will help immensely." Jarrod shifted in his chair. "The case is a good one - not air-tight, but a good one."
"And if he's convicted, could he hang?" Audra asked.
Jarrod shook his head. "Not in California. The Penal Code calls for a sentence of not less than ten years. For each count."
"I'm not sure I understand that," Molly said, sitting on the arm of Jarrod's chair. "He tried to kill Owen, but poisoning Nick was an accident."
"No, dear, he poisoned Nick in an attempt on Owen's life - in the commission of a crime. Even though Nick wasn't the intended victim, under the law Darren's as guilty as if Nick were. He's lucky Nick was the only victim."
"We all are," Molly said, shuddering. "Can you imagine what might have happened if Emma hadn't complained?"
"Darren must have thought that, because Owen lived alone, he'd die alone," Jarrod said. "He never considered any other possible outcome."
"Not less than ten years," Audra said, musingly. "He could get out, then."
"I'm afraid so," Jarrod said. "It depends on the jury - he could get life, or the equivalent of it. But he could be out in ten years."
Owen felt Audra's palm go sweaty, and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "He's locked up now," he said, "and as to the future - we'll be forewarned. He can't take us by surprise again."
"No, he can't," Audra said grimly.
Molly yawned. "It's late," she said, "and I will be quite happy to spend the night in a bed that doesn't move, for once."
"I'll see you in the morning, love," Jarrod said, standing and kissing her goodnight. Molly departed for the bedroom she would share with Audra.
"Do you mind, Jarrod?" Audra said. "I'd like to speak to Owen alone."
"Banished," Jarrod said, but the levity fell flat. He looked down on Audra's grim, stony face, then knelt down and took her hand. "Don't blame yourself, Honey," he said. "Darren didn't do it for love, like he said. He did it for gain. You were a means to an end."
"I know, " Audra said. She looked at Owen. "I know it wasn't for love - and if I had married him, at some point there would have been something else he wanted and couldn't have, and he'd have been willing to harm someone else to get it. I understand that, I do." She kissed Jarrod's cheek. "But thank you for the reassurance anyway, Big Brother."
"Good night then," Jarrod said, going into the other bedroom.
Audra put her arms around Owen's waist and held him tightly. "Let's get married," she said.
"Audra," Owen said, "not now. Not like this."
She looked up at him, tossing back her hair. "One thing I've learned from this is that time is short. I don't want to waste it."
Owen tilted up her chin and kissed her lips. "We can't get married because we're afraid of what the future holds. We'll get married because we embrace what the future holds." He wrapped both arms around her. "Give yourself some time, dearest. The fear will pass, the pain will pass. When you're happy again, then we'll get married."
She snuggled next to him and sighed. "I could be happy a lot sooner if you'd kiss me some more."
He was happy to oblige her.
Molly was sitting up reading a book when Audra entered the bedroom. "It seems a shame to split you and Jarrod up for the night," Audra said.
"We could have booked Owen a separate room, but we thought you'd like to have him close by. This seemed the best solution."
"Thank you," Audra said. "I do realize it's a sacrifice."
"How are you with all this, Audra?" Molly said. "I must confess to being rather worried about you."
Audra sat down on the bed and hugged a pillow. "Better, now that I've talked to Owen."
"Yes, talking helps immensely, I'm sure," Molly said with a knowing smile.
Audra smiled sheepishly. "Well, that, too." She pulled her knees up and rested her chin on them. "But I do wonder - if I could be so wrong about Darren, what else could I be wrong about?"
"You were right enough about him to not want to marry him. Something in you knew the truth, at least part of it," Molly said. "This isn't causing you to doubt your feelings for Owen, is it? Because that would be a tragedy."
"No, you're right, Molly. How could I doubt Owen?"
"How indeed." Molly shut her book and took off her spectacles. "Darren fooled everyone, even Jarrod. Some people are simply good at it. Don't blame yourself."
"That's what Jarrod said," Audra smiled.
"Good advice," Molly said, putting her spectacles on the bedside table. "Now put your night things on and come to bed. The trials are just beginning, better to have all your energy to hand."
Audra put on her nightgown and snuggled down between the covers. "Is Jack really married to That Woman?" she asked before falling asleep.
Molly smiled. "Yes, and I think they'll be happy together."
Audra shook her head. "I can hardly believe it. But then, if not for her, we might never have found out who tried to kill Owen, so I should be grateful."
"Darren underestimated Jarrod, I think. I doubt he thought we'd really find her, and we wouldn't have if not for you, so everything came together as it should have."
Audra drifted off to sleep, if not quite ready to embrace the future, at least not fearing it quite so much.
Darren tried everything he could to postpone extradition, but Owen's calm and thorough testimony, coupled with that of the arresting marshal, was more than enough to convince the judge that extradition was warranted. Darren was given into custody of the Federal Marshals for transport, and the Barkleys, along with Owen, returned to Stockton to prepare for the trial.
As Jarrod had expected, Darren's defense attorney - a high-priced lawyer from San Francisco - made his strongest attacks on the weakest links of the case. As Owen was the only person who had seen 'Mr. Meriwether,' his testimony came in for the hardest pounding from the defense, but his calm and careful testimony was difficult to break. The evidence of the number of stitches the defense tried to pass off as mere coincidence, but it was a difficult point to make.
Audra expected to take her share of pounding as well, but the cross-examination was unexpectedly easy. Whether it was because she was a woman, or because she was a Barkley, she was not sure. She hoped it was not because Darren had insisted the defense go easy on her, but she suspected it was so.
Nick's testimony seemed to hit the jury the hardest. An obviously strong man still struggling with weakness from his recent ordeal, he gained the jury's sympathy immediately and thoroughly. Darren took the stand in his own defense and denied his own involvement while casting aspersions on Owen's honesty, implying, but never directly stating, that he was Owen's victim. In the end, it came down to who was more believable - and Owen's calm and professional demeanor trumped Darren's air of injured innocence. That, and the corroborating evidence, served to seal his fate. The realization that Darren's actions had endangered the Barkley children was not lost on the jury, either, which served to explain the severity of the sentence they handed down when they found him guilty - twenty years on each count, to be served consecutively.
"Forty years," Audra said that night in the Barkley parlor. The family and Owen had all gathered at the ranch after the trial - not for celebration, but for comfort.
"He may get it reduced on appeal," Jarrod said, "and I'm sure he'll appeal. But he'll serve twenty, at least."
"Twenty I can deal with," Audra said. "Ten had me worried - I pictured him getting out of prison when our children were still small. I admit that thought terrified me."
Owen clasped her hand and smiled down at her reassuringly.
She tugged at his hand. "Come into the study," she said. "I have something to discuss with you."
Owen followed her in and she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. "I'm setting the date," she said.
"When?" Owen said, caught between delight and caution.
"June first," she said. "You don't mind sharing an anniversary date with Jarrod and Molly, do you? I have always wanted to get married in June."
"I won't say I wouldn't like it to be sooner," Owen said, "but June will do. It will give your wounds time to heal."
Audra sighed. "I was fond of him once," she admitted, then held up her hand, "and no, I'm not blaming myself. This is certainly the biggest betrayal I've ever suffered, and yes, it does hurt, but I don't think there will be any lasting damage, not with you and my family to talk sense to me when I need it."
Owen kissed her nose. "That's good to hear. So you're ready to embrace the future?"
She laid her head on his chest. "With you, I am," she said.