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Hughes’s heart was pounding so hard into his chest, he almost thought he was going to go meet his maker right then and there. Someone yelled from the house.

One of his boys, he thought. 

Hughes swore, aware of his boys following him. His brothers would handle the Whartons and everything else. Now…the only thing he could think about was getting to his wife. 

His Jude… 

Hughes jumped up on the porch and grabbed the front door. It swung open just as he touched it. 

Mick stood there, a look in his eyes like Hughes had never seen before. “We’re ok, Dad. Wharton…he got in. Got to Jude…was right there by Janie…but he’s going now.”

Hughes turned toward his doctor son. “Go, see to him.”

Hughes was steps behind him. 

Justice Wharton was bleeding right there on Hughes’s sofa. Jude leaned over him, her hands pressing against a bloody wound. Right in the man’s gut. “Jude, get away from him.”

She shot him a look of sheer relief. “I was wondering when you’d get here. Got everything taken care of, do you?”

“Yes. Sure do. They…they won’t be botherin’ us again.”

Wharton looked at him. “My boys?”

Hughes looked him right in the eye. “Younger two will face the magistrate and the court. Namely me. The rest of’em, well…my boys don’t miss. I’m sorry.”

Grief went through the man’s eyes. He looked at the son standing next to him. Jude’s niece Becky was holding the boy’s hand. Wharton studied her face for a long moment. “Guess…guess I done me some things I regret.”

Hughes just nodded. What was he to say to the man? Sorry? He wasn’t. Those Whartons had caused immeasurable harm to an innocent family. Innocent. Just because they could. Now Wharton had paid the ultimate cost—losing his boys because of it. 

Hughes looked at the tall, strong, beautiful boys who had grown into men he could respect. It hadn’t been easy. Barratts were a bit on the wild side, the entire lot of them. But they were good men. He would do his damnedest to see that continued with the next generations to come. 

“Wharton, they’ll be treated fair. You have my word on that. And this boy…well, we’ll see he don’t go through life alone. He’ll have a family with us. You can count on that.”

“I ain’t going to make it another day,” Wharton said. He looked at his son. “I shoulda treated you a bit better. Sorry about that. Take care of your brothers’ girls. They’re your responsibility now.” He turned to Jude and the girls surrounding her. “I didn’t mean it none. Just thought you were the prettiest girl around. And my boys—they took it too far with your girls. Guess we should not have done all that. I’m sorry. You tell my boys…I’m sorry. That’s all I got to say.”

And just like that, he was gone. Tucker looked at Hughes and shook his head. “He’s gone.”

Hughes nodded. He looked at the man’s son. He had a sick look on his young face, but he stood tall and straight and strong. “Son, I meant what I said. You’re welcome here.”

He pulled in a deep breath and met Hughes’s eyes. “I thank you, sir. But I got some things I need to take care of back where I came from. My brother…he had two girls. Four and six. They…they will be my responsibility now. I aim to see to them first. And my father…our place… There is a man in town who has offered to buy my father out a few times. I need to speak with him.”

“I understand.” 

He nodded, then slipped his arm around young Becky and held her for just a moment. “I’ll be back someday, sir. I can promise you that. Becky, I’m coming back for you one day. You can count on that.”

Hughes patted him on the back once. Then…he looked at his boys. “We have some things to take care of now. It’s time we got to it.”

His boys got started. They knew what to do. But now…

He turned to his wife one more time. 

She was covered in blood. There was a broken look in her pretty eyes. He opened his arms.

And then she was there.

Hughes carried her away. Right up the stairs. He would take care of her now. 

Tomorrow could take care of itself when it got there.

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