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The Unforgiving Minute

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The Unforgiving Minute
By JJJunky

 

Nick dropped his reins letting them rest on his horse's neck and leaned wearily over the saddle horn. With the moon hiding behind the clouds, it was so dark he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. He had to rely on his mount's instincts to return them safely to the Barkley Ranch.

His stomach growled reminding him that he hadn't had anything to eat, except beef jerky, since breakfast that morning. He hoped his mother had kept dinner warm for him and wasn't too worried that he hadn't returned. When he'd left, he hadn't expected to be out so late. He'd ridden to the western boundary to check the grape vines. What he'd found still fired his blood. The river that provided the water to irrigate the plants was all but dried up. It had taken him hours to find the dam their neighbors, the Reeds, had built. Hours more to tear it down.

Nick winced as he realized he would have to tell his brother what he'd done. As a lawyer, Jarrod would contend they should fight their battles in court. Nick knew that the vines and the fruit they bore couldn't wait on the whims of a judge. Some of the leaves had already started to wilt. Nick couldn't tolerate seeing any living thing suffer. He didn't regret his actions.

Light shone through the darkness outlining the main house. Nick patted his horse's neck in gratitude. Relief quickly turned to puzzlement as a darker shadow that could only be the barn loomed in front of him. Where were the lanterns? Why didn't Amos appear to take his horse?

A light flashed. To late, Nick realized it came from the muzzle of a gun. Pain seared across his left shoulder in the wake of the bullet. He toppled off his horse in a controlled fall. Flat on the ground, he pulled his pistol and listened, trying to locate his assailant. A rustle came from in front of him, but to the left of the muzzle flash. Without hesitation, he lifted his weapon and fired.

Bobbing lights and cries of alarm echoed down the path that connected the main house with the outer buildings. Gasping from the pain of his shoulder, Nick awkwardly climbed to his feet.

"Nick?" Heath's voice rose above the excited cries coming from the hired hands. In various states of undress, they cautiously converged on the area.

"Over here," Nick called, knowing that even if his shot had missed, the shooter would be making tracks.

"Are you all right?" Heath breathlessly inquired, raising the lantern he was carrying so that the light would fall on his older brother's face. "We heard shots."

"I got hit in the shoulder," Nick admitted, holstering his gun and putting his hand over the small hole.

Victoria crossed to her son's side with a mew of alarm, "Who did it?"

"I'm kinda wonderin' about that myself," Nick said. "I heard a noise and returned fire. I don't know if my shot was good though."

With Heath at his side, Nick walked to the area where he'd discharged his weapons. In the dim light of the lantern, he saw a motionless figure in brown pants and a white shirt. Anger burned inside him until blonde hair glowed in the light. The sight sent a chill down his spine. He walked faster, praying that his first impression was wrong. A gently face appeared out of the shadows turning his legs to water. Collapsing next to the body, he screamed in rage and fear, "Oh God, no!"

Tears filled Nick's eyes as he gazed down at his sister, Audra. His hand shook as he brushed a lock of her hair off her cheek. He felt dead inside. He'd shot the most important person in his world.

****

Jarrod walked out of his office and into the clean evening air. He'd spent most of the day and night trying to negotiate an agreement with Tyler Reed concerning the river that flowed through both their properties. He'd handled this type of case numerous times in his years as a lawyer. It should've been a simple straight forward agreement. He hadn't anticipated Tyler Reed's stubbornness. The simple action had become difficult causing friction on both sides.

Breathing deeply, Jarrod tried to clear his lungs of stale cigar smoke. Though he was frustrated, he could sympathize with the older rancher. The current drought had them all scared. Unlike the Barkley Ranch, Reed had only the one river flowing though his property. Fear made him believe he had to fight for every drop. He wouldn't even consider a compromise.

The hammering of hooves on the hard ground made Jarrod wince. Who would so thoughtlessly endanger their horse? Nothing could be that important. His curiosity piqued, he squinted, focusing his gaze on the only patch of light along the dark street. Raucous cries of laughter echoing from the noisy saloon didn't distract him as the rider flashed past the window.

At first, Jarrod thought his tired eyes were playing tricks on him. Heath would never mistreat an animal. His mind slowly replayed the scene he'd just witnessed. Fear gripped him making him breathless. Stepping off the porch, he ran across the street and caught his brother's arm as he dismounted, "What are you doing in town?"

"I come for the Doc," Heath said, impatiently pulling his arm free.

"Why?" Fear made Jarrod's voice quiver.

Heath stopped and regarded his older brother with sympathy, "Audra's been shot."

"How bad?"

"Bad," Heath softly whispered. Turning, he ran up the path leading to the Doctor's door.

Shock making him fell like he was inhabiting someone else's body, Jarrod called, "Who shot her?"

His hand poised to knock, Health hesitantly replied, "Nick."

Dazed, Jarrod walked slowly toward the stable where he kept his horse. He knew without asking that it had been an accident. Even so, his anger burned hotter than it ever had. Nick had a temper. Too often, he shot first and asked questions later. When they were kids, Jarrod often envied this trait. While Nick ended up in more fist fights, he also usually got what he wanted - including their father's respect. More like his mother, Jarrod knew he didn't measure up in their father's eyes. The knowledge had hurt when he was young, but as he grew older, Jarrod saw that his mother was equal to, if not stronger, than his father. Like her, he decided to use words instead of fists to get what he wanted.

Lanterns mounted outside the stable door momentarily blinded him. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he saw that Sam had already saddled his horse. Making a mental note to give the boy an extra dollar the next time he was in town, Jarrod tightened the cinch. As he slipped off the halter and replaced it with a bridle, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Jack, but I need to get home as fast as you can go."

Leading the gelding from his stall out into the street, Jarrod quickly mounted. The animal must have sensed his urgency. His right foot had barely slipped into the stirrup, before they were racing down the road.

With complete trust in his mount, Jarrod let his mind slip back to the day Audra was born. Tom Barkley's disappointment at her arrival had been obvious. He needed boys to work a ranch, not a frail girl child. Ten minutes later, Audra had him wrapped around her little finger. In the struggling years that followed, it was her smile that kept him from despair. It was a service she still performed for her mother and brothers - especially Nick. They were alike in so many ways that a special bond had developed between the two. Jarrod had often envied them. What would happen to Nick if he were left alone?

Light seemed to blaze from every room in the house. Bypassing the stable, Jarrod rode directly to the front door. As he dismounted, Amos appeared to take his reins. A white bandage was wrapped around the old man's skull. Jarrod's brow creased with concern, "Are you all right, Amos?"

"I'm fine, Mr. Jarrod." Amos waved a hand toward the house, "Ya best see to yer family."

Gently patting the stooped shoulder, Jarrod took the man's advice. His heels clicked loudly echoing through the foyer as he ran down the stairs. The first person he saw was Nick. He sat on the couch in the parlor, his head in his hands. Blood liberally stained his shirt. Anger threatened to overwhelm Jarrod. Afraid he might say something he would regret, he ran up the stairs to the second floor. Outside Audra's room, he paused to catch his breath. He would need to be strong. While his mother was normally the strongest person he knew, it tended to desert her when her children were injured.

He pushed on the partially open door and slipped inside. Tears stained Victoria's cheeks. Her eyes were closed as she held her daughter's hand. The only thing that moved were her lips as she silently prayed. "Mother?" Jarrod softly called.

"Come in." Victoria spoke in a natural tone. Only her fact and eyes showed her pain.

Jarrod almost tiptoed, though it wasn't necessary on the thick carpet, "How is she?"

Reaching for him with her free hand, Victoria encouraged, "She'll be fine."

As his eyes rested on his sister's pale face, Jarrod knew his mother's words had been more for herself than for him. Though he didn't want to hurt her, he desperately needed to know, "What happened, Mother?"

"Nick was late. I don't know why. We waited as long as we could then ate dinner. When he still hadn't appeared, Audra decided to go see how Sunshine's foal was doing. She changed into her riding clothes so she could cuddle little Stormy."

Jarrod couldn't help but smile, "She's got that filly so spoiled she thinks Audra is a second mother."

"It wasn't long after she left that we heard the shots," Victoria continued. "Someone fired at Nick when he rode in."

"Did he see who it was?" Jarrod quickly asked, his thoughts flashing on Tyler Reed's eldest son. Like his father, Matt wasn't interested in compromising.

"Whoever it was knocked out Amos, then doused the lamps. Nick couldn't see a thing. He returned fire . . ." Victoria's voice faded.

"And hit Audra," Jarrod finished for her.

"Yes."

Some of Jarrod's anger toward his brother diminished. Nick wasn't as guilty as he'd thought. Still, if he'd held his fire, Audra wouldn't be laying here with a hole in her stomach. Without light, the shooter had fired at the approximate location of a rider. He'd been lucky that his bullet had found its target. All Nick had was the vague impression of a flash of light to focus on. He'd fired wildly with anger rather than common sense, and Audra had paid the price. Before Jarrod could think of anything to say that might ease his mother's pain, Heath appeared with the doctor.

Bains set down his bag and threw back the blanket covering his patient. The bandage that covered the gaping hole was saturated with blood.

Jarrod fought to keep his dinner down. It wasn't the blood that upset him. It was the location of the wound. It was even more serious than he'd feared.

"Victoria, do you feel up to giving me a hand?" Doctor Bains gently inquired, pulling instruments from his bag.

Taking a deep breath, Victoria nodded, "Of course. Silas is already boiling water."

"Good," Bains absently acknowledged, rolling up his sleeves. "You boys can have it sent up on your way out."

"You sure we can't help?" Heath asked.

"I'm sure."

His emotions mixed, Jarrod followed Heath from the room and down the stairs. He'd do anything for his sister. Even offer his own life. But, he couldn't stand by and watch her die. After seeing how severely she'd been injured, he was sure she was going to die. He felt so helpless. He marveled once more at his mother's strength.

As he walked into the parlor, Jarrod's compassion for his brother drowned his anger. Sitting on the coffee table in front of Nick, he leaned forward, "Let me take a look at that shoulder."

"Leave it alone," Nick ordered, pulling away.

"Nick," Jarrod gently protested, "you're hurt, you could bleed to death."

"You think I care!" Nick shouted, rising to his feet. Weak from the loss of blood, he blindly threw out a hand to try and keep his balance.

Jarrod caught the shaking hand and with Heath's help, gently lowered Nick back onto the couch. "That wasn't very smart."

"It was an accident, Nick," Heath soothed, handing his brother a brandy. "It wasn't your fault."

Staring straight ahead as though the scene was replaying in his mind, Nick whispered, "It was so dark. I couldn't see a thing."

"See," Heath said, his brother's words confirming his statement.

"I should've held fire," Nick argued.

"You didn't," Jarrod brutally reminded him. "If anyone will understand, it'll be Audra."

Red-rimmed eyes focused on Jarrod, "She's going to die."

"No, she's not," Jarrod half-heartedly protested, a cold chill running up his spine.

"If she dies, so will I."

At first, Jarrod thought Nick was speaking figuratively. As he gazed into the determined face, he realized he was wrong. "That's not what Audra would want," he admonished, squeezing the hand that still lay in his own.

"I know," Nick tonelessly agreed. "It's what I want."

****

The sky glowed red as the sun crept above the horizon. It was a beautiful sight. Nick's heart ached as he wondered if Audra would live to see another dawn. Her ghost already haunted him. Everywhere he looked,she was there. On the couch, knitting him a scarf. At the piano, playing him a lively tune. Sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter's night, telling him about her day. Every sound he heard was her voice. Laughing at his jokes. Crying when a favored pet died. Reading aloud from a book.

Though there hadn't been any noise to alert him, Nick felt a change in the air. Turning slowly away from the window and the bright future it offered, he silently faced Doctor Bains and his mother.

"Will Audra be all right?" Heath croaked, the long sleepless night having taken its toll.

Rubbing tired eyes, Bains admitted, "I don't know."

"How can you not know?" Nick angrily demanded. "You're the doctor."

"The bullet is lodged next to her spine," Bains patiently explained. "I couldn't get it out."

Jarrod's eyes rested first on his mother, before shifting to the physician, "You left it in?"

Wearily collapsing on the couch, Bains confessed, "I'm an old country doctor. I'm not good enough for this. One slip and I could cut the spinal cord. She'd never walk again."

"Who is good enough?" Nick growled, unable to image Audra in a wheelchair.

"Dr. Luther in San Francisco."

"I'll go get him."

"He won't come. He has patients of his own."

"I'll make him come."

"Nick," Victoria gently scolded, "stop and think. Do you really want a man who fears for his life operating on Audra?"

Deflated, Nick shook his head, "But what else can we do?"

"Give Audra a few days to regain her strength," Bains advised. "I'll wire Dr. Luther. If he's agreeable, you can take Audra to San Francisco."

"Can she wait?" Nick incredulously inquired.

Bains nodded reassuringly, "I repaired the damage the bullet did going in."

"Can it do anymore?" Jarrod anxiously asked.

"Once in a while, it might press against her spine," Bains admitted. "This will be very painful, but it'll only last for a brief instant. The main concern is that each attack could damage the spinal cord. That's why the bullet has to come out as soon as possible."

Nick's brow creased with worry, "That's all you can do for her?"

"That's all," Bains nodded. "You, however are a another story. Come over here and let me look at that shoulder."

Nick haltingly backed away, "I'm all right."

"Like hell you are," Heath said. "You can barely stand."

"You keep out of this," Nick growled staring defiantly at his recently discovered brother.

"It's hard to stand back and be quiet when you're being a jackass."

"I'm not," Nick defended himself. "It's just not that bad."

"Nick!" Victoria ordered, ending the argument. "Sit down next to Dr. Bains."

Hanging his head contritely, Nick quickly complied. When he'd heard that tone in his mother's voice as a child, he'd quickly learned to comply - or risk a whipping. He knew, that in her eyes, he would never be too old to go across her knee. For some reason, that gave him comfort.

****

Audra tried to lick dry lips, but she couldn't seem to get her tongue past her teeth. Why? Why did every breath hurt? She moaned softly in frustration.

"Audra?"

The familiar voice filled her with peace. Nick would help her. He'd always been there for her from the day she was born. Because they were alike in so many ways, they understood each other. She trusted him. He would tell her what was wrong with her. Opening her eyes, she smiled weakly when her gaze rested on his worried face. She wanted to console him, but she found it difficult to speak. Noticing a pitcher of water on her nightstand, she tried to reach for it. Surprise and fear filled her when her arm wouldn't obey her commands.

"You want some water?" Nick quickly interpreted. Lifting the pitcher, he poured.

Desperate longing throbbed in time with Audra's other pain at the sound of the liquid splashing into the glass. She could never remember wanting anything so much in her life.

Putting a hand behind Audra's head and neck, Nick slowly lifted. When she gasped with the pain, he quickly eased her back down. "I'm sorry I hurt you."

Needing to sooth her aching throat and find the answers to the questions multiplying in her head, Audra angrily reached for the glass in Nick's hand. This time, she was more successful. Her arm came halfway off the blanket before flopping back down. Her eyes pleaded with him, until Nick finally lifted her head. This time, she managed to hide the pain the movement caused her.

Nick placed the glass against the dry, cracked lips. "Easy, honey," he cautioned, as she gulped at the savory liquid.

All too soon, the refreshing drink was pulled away. She tried to lick her lips again. This time, she met with success. "What's wrong with me?"

"What's the last thing you remember?" Nick countered, returning the glass to the nightstand and taking one of her hands in both of his.

A frown creased the smooth brow, "I remember eating dinner."

"You don't remember changing clothes and walking down to the stable?"

"No," Audra said, fear shining from her blue eyes. "Nick, what's wrong with me?"

"You were shot," he reluctantly admitted.

"Shot?" Audra incredulously echoed. "Who shot me?"

Nick dropped his eyes, "I did."

Shock and disillusionment replaced the fear. "No!"

"It was an accident," Nick hastily explained. "You know I would never do anything to hurt you."

Audra had known it was an accident without being told. Even so, she felt betrayed. In the past, she'd always admired Nick's spirit. She'd tried to be just as daring and impulsive as he was. These were not traits she admired any longer - now that she'd become a victim of them.

"How bad am I hurt?"

"You'll be all right," Nick reassured her. "The only problem is that the bullet's lodged against your spine."

"Why didn't the doctor take it out?"

"He doesn't think he's good enough. He's contacted a Dr. Luther in San Francisco. As it happens, the Doc in passing through here in a few days on his way to visit his parents. He's agreed to stop and remove the bullet."

Tears filled the expressive eyes, "I don't want to die, Nick."

"You won't," Nick firmly stated, gently brushing her hair off her forehead. "I won't let you."

In the past, his words would've reassured her, but she'd become a different person in the last few minutes. She'd said goodbye to her childhood. Nick's platitudes were empty of truth. She no longer believed that whatever he promised her would automatically come true. Though her love for him hadn't diminished, the pedestal she'd placed him on had. "Nick, would you get mother for me?"

"Of course," he quickly agreed, rising and crossing to the door. He paused with one hand on the knob and the other on the jamb. "Audra, I'm really sorry."

"I know you are."

"If I could take that bullet and put it in my own back, I'd do it in a second."

"I know that too. But you can't." She could see that her brutal honesty had hurt him. She didn't care. He had done nothing to deserve her forgiveness.

****

The clip clop of hooves penetrated Jarrod's sleep clogged brain waking him with a start. He groaned softly as he rose. A chair just didn't conform to the human body the way a mattress did. Rubbing his eyes, he cleared his fogged vision in time to see Silas walking past the parlor door. Suddenly realizing that their fear for Audra had made them forget that Nick had been shot by an unknown assailant, Jarrod rushed after the older man, "Hold it, Silas," he advised. "You better let me see who's here."

Too polite to argue, Silas nodded, "As you wish, Mr. Jarrod."

Boots clattered on the wooden porch as Jarrod buckled on his holster. After checking his gun to make sure every chamber was loaded, he headed for the door. Standing partially behind it to give himself some protection, he turned the knob. He was speechless when he found Tyler Reed standing on the other side.

"Mornin', Jarrod," the rancher greeted him.

Remembering how abruptly he'd left their meeting, Jarrod apologized, "I'm sorry about last night, Tyler."

"No need, son. No need. Know all 'bout what happened to yer sister. I'm real sorry fer yer troubles."

"Thank you . . ."

"I jest wanted ya to know," Reed interrupted, "that I won't do nuthin' with that there river 'til ya can finish havin' yer say."

"That's very generous of you, Tyler," Jarrod said, surprised by the offering. Tyler Reed was a good man, but he was hard. He still lived in the days when a gun solved problems, not a court of law.

"Twouldn't be fair ta take advantage of yer trouble." Reed turned and mounted his horse. "Ya send word when yer ready ta talk some more."

Jarrod nodded his thanks and raised a hand to wave goodbye. He stood in the doorway and watched until Reed disappeared into a clump of trees.

"What did he want?"

Turning, Jarrod watched as Nick walked slowly toward him. Dust rose from beneath his feet and covered the bottom of his pants. There was something different about his brother, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Waiting until Nick had drawn closer, he explained, "Tyler just wanted to tell me that he wouldn't do anything with the river until I can go back to court with him."

"Right," Nick disgustedly snorted, "they've probably already rebuilt the dam I tore down."

Leading the way back into the house, Jarrod demanded, "When did you destroy a dam?"

"Yesterday. It's why I was so late getting home."

"Nick," Jarrod angrily berated him, "I told you to let me handle it."

"By the time you handled it, Big Brother," Nick growled, "every grape vine would've been dead."

Jarrod unbuckled his holster and laid it on the coffee table in the parlor. Normally, he would've hung it in the gun room, but after all that had happened, he wanted to keep it close. Suddenly, he knew what was different about his brother. "Nick, where's your sidearm?" he asked. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Nick without a pistol strapped to his hip.

His eyes avoiding his older brother's, Nick crossed to the brandy decanter and poured himself a glass. Still avoiding the question, he took a sip.

"Nick?" Jarrod impatiently urged.

His voice almost a whisper, Nick finally confessed, "It's locked in the gun cabinet."

"Don't you think you should be wearing it?"

"No!" Nick replied, taking another sip of his drink.

"Somebody tried to kill you," Jarrod quietly reminded him. "It's too dangerous to be walking around without a gun."

Nick's eyes rested on the closed door to his sister's bedroom. "I'm too dangerous with one."

Crossing to the small bar, Jarrod lifted the brandy decanter and refilled Nick's glass, before pouring one for himself, "It was an accident. You didn't mean to shoot Audra."

"But I did." Emptying his glass with one quick gulp, Nick asked, "If it had been you instead of me, would you have held your fire?"

"It wasn't me," Jarrod prevaricated. "How can I answer that?"

"Would you?" Nick pressed.

Reluctantly, Jarrod finally admitted, "Yes."

"Then it was my fault," Nick groaned, throwing his glass into the fireplace. The sound of shattering glass followed him from the room.

****

Audra tried to keep her attention focused on the story her mother was reading, but she was finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. With her eyes open, all she could see was the ceiling. However, the view was far worse with her eyes closed. Nick's tortured face danced in front of her. She could feel his pain. She didn't want to. She had enough of her own to deal with. There was no reason for her to feel guilty - yet she did. She stared up at the ceiling fighting her conscience. Nick hadn't shot her on purpose. Would it have been so hard to have told him that? To say she forgave him?

The pain came without warning. She involuntarily screamed in agony. What was happening to her? It felt like someone was sticking a red hot poker into her back.

As suddenly as the pain started, it ceased, leaving her gasping. She could feel her mother holding her hand. She saw Jarrod and Nick run into the room, the former with his gun drawn. The worry on their faces stabbed at her heart. Her breathing was still too erratic to make speaking possible.

A cool, wet cloth wiped away the perspiration that had beaded on her brow. Under her mother's gentle administrations and soothing words, she slowly returned to normal.

Jarrod holstered his gun before circling the bed to take her other hand, "Are you all right, Honey?"

"Audra," Victoria squeezed her daughter's hand until she got her attention, "the doctor told us this might happen, remember?"

Not trusting her voice, Audra nodded.

"It's just the bullet pressing on a nerve. The pain will go away."

"It . . . already . . . has," Audra croaked, wanting to reassure her concerned family.

"Do you need anything?"

This time, Audra didn't try to reply, she just shook her head. She would only hurt them more if she answered honestly. All she wanted was the bullet out of her back. Through the tears that filled her eyes, she saw Nick's stricken face. She had never seen him so upset. His agony tore at her compassionate heart. Before she could find her voice to try to reassure him, he turned and ran out of the room. "Nick!" Her soft pleading cry never reached his ears.

****

Nick wasn't sure where he was going. He only knew he had to get away. Do something that would drive the memory of his sister's pain racked body from his mind. How much longer could he live with the guilt of what he'd done? As he approached the barn, the scene of his disgrace, he saw that the lanterns had already been lit. He paused and watched as the sun slipped below the western horizon.

"I wasn't gonna take no chances this time," Amos said, walking slowly out of the barn.

Puzzled, Nick reluctantly shifted his gaze to the old man. He was surprised, but not scared, when he saw the muzzle of a pistol aimed at his heart. "You're the one who shot me, Amos. Why?'

"Ya was gonna fire me," the old man bitterly revealed. "After all I done fer this family."

"What're you talking about?" Nick impatiently demanded, feeling his anger rise. Had he shot Audra over a misunderstanding?

"I heard ya talkin' ta Mr. Heath, after I let that colt get away from me. Ya said it was time ta fire me."

"Not fire," Nick sadly corrected, "retire. After working so hard for so many years, I thought it was time you enjoyed your life."

"How am I suppose ta live with no money?"

"We woulda still paid you."

"Why would ya done a thing like that?" Amos unbelievingly snorted.

Nick sadly shook his head, "Because you served this family so well, for so long. It was our way of saying thank you."

The wrinkled hand shook as it cocked the trigger, "I don't believe you."

"It's the truth, Amos," Jarrod's soft voice confirmed, his own gun pointed at the old man. "Now drop your gun."

"I lost everythin' ain't I?" Amos cried, tears running down his cheeks.

Jarrod gently reminded, "You still have your daughter."

"She hates the very sight of me," Amos said, his voice shaking. "This were the only family I had. It were cause of me that Miss Audra got hurt."

The pain in the quivering voice brought tears to Nick's eyes. He knew how Amos felt. He knew what it was like to feel empty inside.

"Drop your gun, Amos," Jarrod gently urged, taking a few steps closer to the older man.

"No!"

Nick instinctively ducked as he saw the old, arthritic fingers squeeze the trigger. Two shots echoed as one. A bullet plucked at Nick's sleeve on it's way to burying itself in the trunk of a tree. Horrified, he watched as Amos toppled to the ground. Dust rose into the air, before falling onto the still body.

Staring sightlessly at the man he had killed, Jarrod asked, "Are you all right, Nick?"

"Fine." Crossing slowly to his brother's side, Nick gently took the gun out of the trembling hand. "I don't think you need this anymore."

Confusion and pain making his voice quake, Jarrod whispered, "Why did he make me shoot him?"

"Because he thought it was the only way he could escape what he'd done. He didn't think we could forgive him."

"He was wrong."

"It's hard to see that when you're the one who fired the gun. All you see is the pain you caused."

"What's that old saying?" Jarrod thoughtfully contemplated, "Time heals all wounds."

"It only works if you have the courage to wait."

Jarrod put his hand on his brother's arm. "You have that courage, Nick," he confidently stated.

Nick's eyes strayed up to the house. "I hope so."

****

Nick took deep, even breaths before tapping nervously on his sister's bedroom door. His free hand rested uncomfortably on the butt of the pistol he wore strapped around his hips. He'd started wearing it again after Dr. Luther successfully removed the bullet from Audra's back.

"Come in."

The strong, clear voice filled Nick with pleasure and pain. He could hear how much better Audra felt. And, though he was glad, he was also nervous. Why had she requested his presence? Didn't she loath the very sight of him?

Feeling as though he were walking into a lion's den, Nick pushed open the door and walked inside. He hesitated, undecided about whether or not he should close it.

"Close the door, Nick," Audra ordered, making the decision for him.

Quickly complying, Nick leaned against the jamb, "You wanted to see me?"

Patting the chair next to her bed, Audra said, "Come over here. I don't bite."

"I have a scar," Nick contradicted, holding up his right index finger, "that says you do."

"That was your own fault," Audra smiled. "You shouldn't have put it in my mouth."

"How was I suppose to know a baby had such sharp teeth?" Nick grumbled, crossing to sit next to his sister.

"It's something to remember when you have children of your own."

"There's a lot of things I'll never forget," Nick unhappily admitted.

"Nick," Audra guiltily confessed, "I know I should've told you before, but my getting shot wasn't your fault."

"I should've held my fire. Jarrod would've."

"You're not Jarrod."

"If I were, you wouldn't be lying there right now."

Audra rested her hand on her brother's arm, "Jarrod wasn't there. He can't know for sure that he wouldn't have fired."

"Then who do we blame? Amos?"

"Why does anyone have to be at fault?" Audra angrily demanded, slapping his arm. "Why can't it just be an accident and leave it at that?"

"Because I'm scared to death that it could happen again."

"I know you wouldn't deliberately hurt me."

"That doesn't make it any easier," Nick confessed.

"I know. Jarrod told me that you stopped wearing your gun."

"I'd rather die than shoot someone I love again."

"But you're wearing one now?" Audra's eyes uneasily rested on the weapon.

"Because Amos showed me that I was taking the coward's way out. It's easier to die than to live with what you've done, but running out like that isn't fair to those you leave behind." Nick caught his sister's eyes with his own, "It's not fair to leave them with your guilt."

Holding Nick's work worn hand in her own, Audra sighed, "At least it's over now."

"It's not over," Nick softly contradicted her. "Every time I pull my gun and start to squeeze the trigger, I'm going to hesitate. It's changed us both. Forever."

"It hasn't changed how I feel about you," Audra said, tightening her grip on his hand. "I still know how lucky I am to have you for a brother."

"I hope I never do anything that will change that."

"You never could," Audra confidently stated.