Victoria Barkley woke at dawn. She'd dozed on and off since she'd gone to bed at two-thirty. Sometime around three-thirty she heard Jarrod pass her room on the way to his own. She took that to mean Heath was sleeping and found it a little easier to do the same.
At quarter to six the woman exited her room, dressed for the day in pair of goucho pants and a plaid blouse. Rays of sunshine softly crept through the curtains hanging on the windows in Heath's bedroom. The lamp had been blown out, Victoria assumed Nick extinguished its light when the sky began to brighten.
Heath appeared to be in a deep sleep. He didn't look as feverish as he had the last time Victoria had seen him, but she could hear the heavy congestion rattle in his chest each time he drew in a breath. Nick sat in the chair sleeping as well. His head was tilted forward causing his dark hair to tumble over his eyes.
The woman moved to the window farthest from the bed. The room was warm and stuffy. She opened the window just enough to allow a gentle breeze to circulate. With it came
the smell of lilacs and pine trees and livestock.
Victoria kept her footsteps light as she walked to Nick's side. She smiled at the sight he presented. When he was a little boy his bangs were constantly in his eyes. That problem had been cured when he'd reached adulthood and started using pomade. Sometime during the trying night the gel must have reached the end of its staying power.
Victoria ran a hand over her son's bangs, pushing them back from his eyes. She placed a kiss on the top of his head just as he woke.
"Shhh," the woman cautioned in a hushed tone. "Heath's sleeping."
The man looked at his brother then stood. He placed a hand at the small of his back and stretched.
"What time did you and Jarrod finally get him calmed down?"
"Around three or so. I think we got his temperature low enough
that he could sleep. I sent Jarrod to
bed shortly after that."
"I heard him pass by my room. I assumed things were going okay in here when he didn't stop to rouse me."
"Things have been all right. Heath's been sleeping ever since Jarrod left."
"And that's just what I want you to do. I heard Silas moving around the kitchen. Why don't you get some breakfast then go to bed."
Nick's eyes traveled to his brother
again. "I can hold off a few more
hours. I'd like to sit here with him a
"Honey, he's sleeping, and that's what you should be doing, too. If his fever goes up again and he grows delirious I'm going to need your help with him. You've been up all night, Nick. You need to eat and get some rest. I'll stay with him now."
Nick was reluctant to leave, but had to admit food and a few hours of sleep sounded appealing. And his mother was correct. She would need him more when and if Heath's condition worsened. Like Jarrod, Nick needed to take advantage of this calm before the potential storm.
"Okay, I'll have some breakfast then go to bed. But if you need me, if he...if he gets worse, you wake me up immediately."
Nick's hands came to rest on his mother's shoulders. He placed a kiss in her hair, then headed for the door. He squeezed Heath's blanket covered right foot as he passed.
Victoria crossed to the door and shut it three quarters of the way. She didn't want Heath's sleep disturbed by those who would be moving about the house over the next few hours.
The woman turned for the bed. She refilled the basin on the nightstand with cold water and picked up the towels the boys had used. She made a neat stack out of the dirty linens and placed them outside the door. She knew Jessybell would be up shortly to empty the laundry hamper in the bathroom. The black woman could gather the towels as she passed if Victoria didn't get them to the hamper first.
The white-headed lady went back to her son's side. She straightened the blankets on the bed and pulled them up to Heath's shoulders. She laid a light hand on the side of his face. Though he was still running a temperature he was nowhere near as hot as he had been just a few hours earlier.
Victoria claimed the chair Nick had been sitting in. As the sun rose Heath's cough increased in its intensity, though for the time being he went on sleeping. She heard Nick come up the back stairs and enter his room. Fifteen minutes after that Audra appeared. She walked over and stood at the end of Heath's bed.
"How is he?"
"According to Nick things were pretty rough until about three this morning when his temperature finally dropped somewhat. He's been sleeping ever since that time."
"Do you think the worst has passed?"
"I wish I could say yes, Audra...but no. No, the worst hasn’t passed. As Doctor Sheridan said, Heath's condition will peak in three to four days."
"Would you like me to relieve
"Not right now. You go down and eat breakfast, then check on
the mares. If Heath stays stable like
this you can sit with him after lunch."
"I told him to eat something and go to bed."
"He's very upset."
"He's worried about Heath if that's what you mean. And you know Nick, it's hard for him to show that, let alone cope with it."
"He's grown very close to Heath. Closer than I think he realized until last
"You're quite a perceptive young
lady." Victoria ran her fingers
through Heath's hair. "We've all
grown close to Heath. And I agree with
you. I think Nick was caught off guard
by how deep their bond runs. Three
years ago none of us could have imagined the two of them would become such good
"That's for certain," Audra
smiled. "On some days I thought
they were going to kill each other."
"So did I, dear. So did I." The woman looked up. "Now you go ahead and eat. I'll call you if I need you."
Audra had no more than left the room when Jarrod appeared. Once the lawyer was assured Heath was in the same condition he had been at three-thirty that morning, he agreed to join his sister at the breakfast table.
He kissed his mother on the top of the head. "After I eat I'll be in the study doing paper work. If you need my help you come get me."
"When Nick wakes up we'll talk to the men."
Victoria gazed at the ill man propped against the pillows, still deep in an exhausted slumber. Regardless, she stood and walked with Jarrod to a far corner of the room. She spoke as softly as possible, not wanting to risk Heath overhearing a single word.
"I suppose it has to be done."
"Mother, you know we have no
choice." Jarrod's hands came to rest on the woman's shoulders as he, too,
kept his voice barely above a whisper.
"They have to know what everyone on this entire ranch is
facing. Those who don't get sick are
going to have to help those who do.
Nick and I talked it over last night.
We'll move everyone out of the bunkhouse closest to the well and
transform it into an infirmary. If
we're lucky only a very few will fall ill.
The odds should be with us that most of the men had diphtheria as
"The odds weren't with Heath."
"No...no they weren't. But hopefully that won't hold true for the majority of the men."
"I just don't want them blaming him." Victoria tossed a worried glance at the man in the bed before returning her attention to her oldest. "You know how nasty some of them were to Heath when he first came here."
"Yes, I'm aware of that. But if you remember correctly those who couldn’t adjust to Heath’s presence were sent packing by Nick."
"That's true. However, I'm well aware of the mindless panic an epidemic like this can cause to set in. The type of hysteria it creates can make even good people turn bad."
"I realize that. But don't you worry. Nick and I will handle it as diplomatically as possible."
"Nick?" Victoria raised an eyebrow. "Diplomatic?"
Jarrod chuckled. "Okay, I'll handle it as diplomatically as possible. Obviously the men will have to know Heath's sick. There's no point in attempting to keep it from them. Since we sent Phillip for the doctor there's no doubt most of them know by now that something's wrong. But they certainly don't have to know Heath is the first one in the area who's been diagnosed with the disease. It's to our benefit that we're under quarantine. They won't be able to leave the ranch for several weeks, which decreases their likelihood of ever discovering differently."
"And if one of them does?"
"If one of them does then we'll cross
that bridge when we come to it."
Jarrod gave his mother's shoulders a squeeze. "Mother, most of those men out there have just as much
loyalty to Heath as they do to the rest of us.
He proved himself to them long ago.
I don't think any of them will deliberately say something to hurt
"I hope you're right, Jarrod." Victoria patted her son's left hand before returning to Heath’s bedside. "I hope you're right."
It was a few minutes before noon when Jarrod and Nick entered the chow hall. The big building made of logs held enough tables and chairs to seat one hundred men. The kitchen was at the far end and held three huge cast iron stoves.
The Barkleys currently had fifty-five men on their payroll. Some were already seated and eating the meal prepared by the two cooks Nick employed year round. The others were still moving through the line at the long counter that separated the dining hall from the kitchen.
It wasn’t unusual for Nick or Heath to join the men for lunch, but Jarrod’s presence was almost unheard of. The chatter that had filled the building only seconds before began to slowly give way to silence. The men glanced at one another with raised eyebrows as the two Barkley brothers remained standing at the head of the room.
Nick motioned for the men in line to continue filling their plates. When the last man had taken his chair Nick stepped forward and rested a foot on the seat of a vacant chair.
“Men, I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch. As most of you probably know by now, we had to send Phillip for Doctor Sheridan during the early hours of the morning.”
Several of the hands nodded, but no one said anything.
“Heath...Heath is very sick.”
From the back of the room a man called, “What’s wrong with him, Nick?”
Nick looked to Jarrod. The lawyer got the impression his younger brother thought it would be best if he took over the conversation at this point. Knowing there was no point to stall or to lie, Jarrod got right to the heart of the matter.
“Heath has diphtheria.”
The word was exclaimed with varying degrees of shock from several parts of the vast building.
Questions flew fast and furious at the Barkley brothers. How sick was Heath? What did the doctor say his chances were of pulling through? Where did he come in contact with the dreaded disease? What did this mean for the ranch?
Nick held up a hand. It took a few moments, but finally everyone quieted.
“As I already said, Heath is very sick. His chances...well, as Doc Sheridan said, he’s young and he’s strong so he’s got that on his side. As far as where he came in contact with the disease, we don’t know. Unfortunately, other people in Stockton are sick as well.” Nick made sure to remain vague on this last issue so the men wouldn’t realize Heath was the one who brought the disease to the area. “Everyone on the ranch is under quarantine until Doctor Sheridan says otherwise.”
One man stood.
“What about those of us who haven’t had
“I was just getting to that. After lunch I want everyone who’s been assigned
to bunkhouse eight to clear their stuff out.
You can move to number five, it’s empty right now. We’re going to turn eight into a makeshift
infirmary. It’s nearest to the well so
that means easy access to water. Strip
the beds down, too. Jessybell will
bring clean sheets and pillowcases. I
want you to remake the beds with the linens she gives you so they’ll be ready
if we need them. Those of us who don’t
get sick will be pressed into service to help those who do. If you’ve already had diphtheria you can’t
get it again. How many of you know for
certain you’ve been sick with it at some point?”
Nick counted the hands that went up. Almost three quarters of the men present knew they’d contracted the disease in childhood. Nick figured a few more who didn’t raise their hands may have had it, but were too young at the time to now recall being ill. Nonetheless, that still left a dozen or so men who were wide-open targets for the deadly disease just as Heath had been.
“What about medicine?” Came the panicked question from a young man who had been among those who didn’t raise his hand. “Can’t the doc give us something ‘fore we get sick?”
Jarrod shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but no. There’s no medicine available that cures diphtheria. However, quinine does reduce the high fever brought on by the disease which in turn allows the body a better chance at fighting it off. Doctor Sheridan has no quinine in his office at this time, but he was going to wire the state medical office in San Francisco in an effort to get some sent here on the next train. I assure you that just as soon as it’s available to him it will be available to us. We’ll buy whatever is needed for those of you who get sick. As well, we’ll pay the doctor to come out here and tend to those of you who fall ill. But as you know, with any epidemic a doctor’s resources quickly become strained. That’s why, as Nick already stated, we’re going to have to help each other through this.”
Jarrod went on to explain that the first signs of the disease would be symptoms similar to a cold. He told the men that anyone who was already feeling ill should report to the infirmary just as soon as it was ready.
“Doctor Sheridan will be back out to see Heath later tonight or tomorrow morning. At that time we’ll have him examine any of you who aren’t feeling well.”
Nick and Jarrod waited to see if there were further questions or comments. When none were forthcoming they nodded their thanks to the men and left the building.
As soon as the brothers were out of earshot conversation buzzed. The men who’d been ill with diphtheria in the past had little to worry about and worked hard at assuring the others they’d help them in whatever way they could.
“There’s no use in gettin’ all riled up like a pack a’ coonhounds on a hunt,” a grizzled old hand assured. “If you’re bound to git sick then you’re bound to git sick. That’s in the hands of the good Lord. Ain’t nothin’ a one of youz can do about it so there’s no point in whinin’ like a dang blamed bunch a’ females.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Hank,” Chuck scowled. “Your hand went up when Nick asked who’s had diphtheria. Stop and think for a minute about those of us who couldn’t raise our hands. If Heath’s as sick as...”
Hank dismissed that thought with a wave of his hand. “Heath’s a tough young feller. He’ll be fine.”
The man to Chuck’s right shook his head. “I don’t know. Did you see the look on Nick’s face when he talked about Heath bein’ sick? I think Heath’s pretty bad off, as a matter of fact I think he’s real bad off, only Nick can’t bring himself to tell us that.”
“You young whippersnappers don’t know nuthin’,” Hank scoffed. “Okay, so Heath is sick. I mean that’s what diphtheria does. It makes a body sick. But grown men the age of Heath and the ages of most of you just don’t die from it. Such a thing is near unheard of.”
Phillip Mattson, the ranch foreman, stood and put an end to the talk before panic could set in.
“Listen, men, there’s no use debating who’s going to get sick or how sick they’re going to get. None of us really knows the answer to those questions, now do we? Therefore; it would be in everyone’s best interest if we finish our meal, then do like Nick asked and get number eight turned into an infirmary. If we’re lucky we won’t need it. But if we do...well, I’ve worked for the Barkleys for a lotta years now. Longer than some of you have been on this earth. More fair, good-hearted employers you’ll never find. Like Jarrod said, they’ll get each one of you whatever you need in the way of doctorin’ or medicine. So let’s do our part by sticking together and helping one another out. With Heath being sick the Barkleys don’t need to be fretting about us.”
A red headed man behind Phillip turned his head away and mumbled to those seated around him. Phillip pinned him with a steely gaze.
“What was that, Carney?”
The ranch hand didn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts. “I said I bet old Heath won’t be joinin’ the sick ones in number eight even though that’s his rightful place. No, siree. I bet he gets tended to in style up there in the big house by that pretty half sister of his.”
“You might as well put an end to that kind of talk right now, mister, ‘cause I guarantee you if Nick gets wind of it you’ll be lookin’ for a new job just as soon as the quarantine is lifted.” Phillip looked out over the remainder of the group. “That goes for the rest of you, too.”
No one said anything further on the subject as those men who still had an appetite returned to their attention to their lunch. Some were in strong agreement with Phillip, some felt like Darrel Carney but were wise enough to keep their mouths shut, while others were too new to the ranch to understand what the man meant about Heath and therefore held no opinion one way or the other.
As Phillip set his dishes on the counter and exited the hall a young man pushed his full plate aside. His older brothers sat on either side of him and exchanged concerned looks. The boy had just turned eighteen three weeks before and had only worked on the ranch for six months. He licked his dry lips while glancing from one brother to the next.
“I don’t remember having diphtheria when I
was a kid.”
Jim Garver smiled and elbowed his kid brother. “You still are a kid.”
“Yeah, shrimp,” Pete Garver smirked, “just ‘cause you turned eighteen a few weeks
back doesn’t mean you’re a man.”
Today was one day Bill Garver didn’t feel like arguing that point with his older brothers. Jim and Pete had been employed by the Barkleys for five years. It was through them that Bill had been hired on.
“I’ve been workin’ a lot with Heath
lately,” Bill said. “And...and a couple
nights ago I started gettin’ a sore throat.
This morning...well this morning I was sneezing a lot and didn’t feel
much like eating any breakfast. Can’t
say I’m hungry for lunch, either.”
Jim put his hand on his baby brother’s shoulder. “Billy, don’t worry. It’s probably just a cold.”
“But Nick said--”
“I know what Nick said. Still, I think you’re just borrowin’ trouble. But to be on the safe side I want you to check yourself into that infirmary just as soon as we get it ready. That way when Doc Sheridan comes out he can have a look at you.”
The boy gave a reluctant nod of his head. Pete pushed Billy’s plate back in front of him and ordered him to eat. Though food was the last thing the young man wanted at the moment, his brothers were watching him like mother hens with one chick.
Across the room another young man was having difficulty eating. Like Billy, Jeb Galloway hadn’t been feeling well for a several days now. After getting off to a rocky start three years before, Jeb and Heath had grown to be good friends. If Jeb wasn’t working along side Heath then the two of them were generally part of the group who went into Stockton together on Saturday nights, or who sat around the table in a bunkhouse playing poker. Jeb had learned a lot about ranching from Heath over the years and had come to admire him as a boss and as a friend. Jeb would readily acknowledge he even looked upon Heath as the big brother he’d never had.
The young cowboy touched a hand to his flaming throat before rubbing it over the aching muscles in his right arm. Jeb was worried about Heath, but then he was worried about himself as well.
At the same time Jarrod and Nick were talking to the ranch hands, Heath coughed himself awake. For a few moments all he could register was the heat that made him feel like he was on fire from the inside, and the thick wall of mucus in his throat that caused him to wonder if each gasping breath would be his last. He was dimly aware of a towel being held to his mouth and small hands trying to urge him to his side. He did what the hands wanted, even allowing them to push his head toward the floor. The towel followed the hands and a voice that was both gentle and firm urged him to spit the phlegm into the white cotton cloth.
Heath continued to do as the woman ordered until he had nothing left to bring up. Or at least nothing that would come up since it still felt like a rope three inches wide had taken up residence in his throat.
It wasn’t until Heath was helped back to a sitting position that his eyes focused on his nurse. Victoria gave him a gentle smile while running a cold cloth over his face. He moved his face into cloth, welcoming the few seconds of relief it brought.
Victoria held a glass of water to his lips next. Heath didn’t even try to hold it, he simply leaned forward and took three healthy swallows before falling back against his pillows.
“Do you want more, Heath?”
The blond shook his head while giving a mumbled, “No. Not right now.”
“How about something to eat? Silas has some chicken noodle soup warming
on the stove for you. And Jake said you
should try to eat some bread, too.”
“Jake?” Heath’s voice came out in a rough croak two octaves deeper than was normal for him.
“When was he here?”
Victoria sat back down in her chair. She dipped the cloth in the basin of water again, then returned to sponging Heath’s face and neck. “Early this morning. Don’t you remember?”
Heath looked around his room in confusion. By glancing out the window he could tell it was noon. What in the world was he still doing in bed at this time of the day? And more importantly, why had Nick allowed such a thing?
Victoria’s voice caused Heath to refocus on her.
“Do you remember Jake being here?”
“No. The last thing I remember...” Heath turned away. He clutched his chest and coughed until he the spasm passed. He was surprised to discover that, just like earlier, it left him weak and barely able to lift his head from the pillows. For the first time he took notice of how funny his voice sounded. Hoarse and harsh like anyone’s voice sounds when they have a head cold, but also like his throat had been coated with milk. “The last thing I remember is comin’ in from the barn after me and Nick got home.”
“That would have been late last night. Around eleven o’clock Nick said.”
“What happened then?”
“As near as we can guess your temperature shot way up and you became delirious. You woke the entire house when you tumbled down the stairs. Your brothers ran out of their rooms with guns drawn expecting to surprise an intruder trying to break into the safe, only to find you unconscious in the foyer.”
Heath was amazed he didn’t recall any of those events, nor what had occurred between that time and now, twelve full hours later.
“What’d Jake say?”
“Just that you need to rest for a few
days. You shouldn’t have been working
so hard, Heath. You should have told
Nick how sick you really were.”
“But it’s just a cold.”
Victoria started to dispute that, then with a quick change of heart decided not to.
Maybe his chances of pulling through this will be better if he doesn’t realize what’s wrong.
“You’re right,” Victoria acknowledged
as she fiddled with the edge of the blanket that covered her son. “It’s just a cold. Well, a cold and a bad case of the flu, but Jake says plenty of
rest and good food will have you back on your feet in no time.”
“Never been in bed with a cold before.”
“Then you’ve missed out on the opportunity to be thoroughly pampered by me and your sister.”
Heath smiled at the teasing. “I seem to recall gettin’ that opportunity on a couple other occasions, but usually I had a bullet in me or had been kicked in the head by an ornery bronc.”
“All the more reason why this time we’re thankful it’s just a cold,” Victoria lied without so much as a blink. “Nonetheless, you’re run down and need to stay right in this bed until Jake says otherwise. Don’t you even think of sneaking outside the first time my back is turned.”
Heath coughed again, then allowed his eyes to fall shut. He felt like he had an elephant sitting on his chest.
“No, ma’am. I won’t be sneakin’ off on you.”
Victoria was glad her son’s eyes were closed. If he’d seen her face he would have immediately guessed he had more than ‘just a cold.’ His comment about not sneaking outside on her was enough to indicate to Victoria how sick he really was. It had gotten to be a family joke that at some point during Heath’s recuperation from an injury he’d invariably be found in the barn before the doctor had given his okay. Victoria had come to expect such an occurrence, and Heath had made a game out of getting her goat over it. No matter how many times she caught him treading down the back stairs and marched him back to bed, he’d eventually foil her. He’d only laugh like a chastised schoolboy when she finally found him and threatened to tan his hide with her wooden spoon.
Heath must have known what she was
thinking. As she continued to wipe his
burning face he gave her a tired grin and said, “This is one time you won’t
have to come searchin’ for me with your wooden spoon.”
“Is that a promise, cowboy?”
Worry creased the corners of Victoria’s eyes when Heath did no more than give a tiny nod of his head.
“Honey, I’m going to get Audra to come in here and keep wiping you down with cool water. While she’s doing that I’ll get your lunch tray ready.”
“I’m not really hungry.”
“I know. But you have to eat. Doctor’s orders.”
Heath made no reply. Victoria patted his shoulder, then went in search of Audra.
The blond man was barely aware of his sister taking his mother’s place. He recognized Audra’s voice and the smell of her perfume, but he was too tired to open his eyes. He thought it was strange that he should be so exhausted after having just awoken from twelve hours worth of sleep, but he didn’t have the presence of mind to question that occurrence.
Heath didn’t mean to give the women a hard time over the food. He wasn’t even aware he was fighting their attempts to spoon soup in his mouth and get him to take a few bites of fresh bread straight from the oven and lathered with butter, something he normally loved. The next thing he was really cognizant of was the side of the mattress dipping under a weight that was heavier than Victoria’s or Audra’s, then Nick’s voice deep and stern.
“Come on now, Heath. One way or another you’re gonna eat this.”
Heath tried to turn his head from the spoon aimed at his mouth but to no avail. Another pair of male hands firmly cupped both sides of his face. Jarrod’s voice joined Nick’s.
“Heath, I know you don’t feel like eating but you have to. Now do as Nick says and open your mouth.”
Heath wondered what everyone was making such a fuss over. After all, he just had a cold. If they’d simply leave and let him sleep he’d be fine in a day or two.
The feverish man bucked his body upward. Nick jumped up, barely keeping his hold on the soup bowl. What sloshed over fell onto the plate Silas had the foresight to set the bowl atop of, but not before droplets of the hot liquid splattered onto Nick’s hand.
“Dammit, Heath! You stop that right now and eat--”
Victoria grabbed Heath’s shoulders while Audra dove for his ankles.
“Nick, he doesn’t know what he’s doing!” Victoria shouted over Heath’s incoherent cries. “There’s no use getting mad at him! Just start sponging him down while we hold him still.”
Nick set the soup on the top of Heath’s dresser and did as his mother ordered. It took a few minutes, but the cool water seemed to help. Heath relaxed enough for Victoria to let go of him and join Nick in his efforts. How long of a time passed before the spoon was put in front of his mouth again Heath didn’t know. He had no memory of fighting his family, and was confused as to why his brothers were in the room when the last thing he recalled was Victoria entering with the lunch tray. The blond man was too sick to ask any questions. He simply opened his mouth and took what Nick offered. He turned his head away after three swallows, but was coaxed by his brother into taking four more. He refused the bread completely until Victoria pleaded, “Please, son, for me. Just one bite.”
Heath drank half the glass of water Jarrod held to his lips. He hated the feeling of thickness in his throat and couldn’t understand why all the liquids he was getting didn’t make it go away.
The blond man slipped in and out of delirium as the afternoon passed. His temperature climbed to an alarming height. His face burned bright red as though he’d run a mile under the hot sun, and the women had a difficult time keeping up with changing the soaked linens that lay beneath him.
What was going on in Heath’s mind, or what he was seeing when he opened his fever-glazed eyes, his family didn’t know. If he spoke at all it was in Spanish so expert and rapid that Nick could only catch a couple of words from each sentence.
The dark headed man took a wet cloth from his mother and placed it on his brother’s forehead.
“Heath, it’s okay now. You’re not in Mexico, you’re with your family on the ranch. Speak English, Heath. Speak English so we can understand you.”
Heath reached up and grabbed Nick by the shirt collar. He pulled his brother’s face to his. He still spoke in Spanish, but this time his words came out slow and distinct. Though Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod had no idea what he was saying, they could sense the air of sincerity behind Heath’s tone. Victoria was shocked to see Nick break into a grin, then begin to laugh.
As Heath collapsed back to his pillows Audra asked, “What did he say, Nick?”
“Well, he just called me Lupe, told me I have the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen, listed one or two other...attributes I won’t repeat in front of you ladies, and then he asked me to marry him.”
“To marry him!” Audra exclaimed. “Are you sure?”
Jarrod shook his head with amusement. “I have no idea, little sister. But it sure will provide us with plenty of
entertainment when Heath is feeling up to telling the story.”
Victoria smiled at her children’s fun. During the past three years the Barkleys had come to learn that Heath’s reserved nature was as much a part of him as the slight Southern drawl he got from his mother, and the blond hair he inherited from his Grandfather Barkley. There were still a lot of things about Heath’s past his family knew nothing of. Every time he revealed little tidbits it was like getting to see the inside of a treasure box.
The afternoon gave way to evening. Victoria sent her children down to the dining room to eat in shifts. Victoria herself protested when Jarrod insisted she do the same, but finally gave into her eldest. She did no more than pick at her meal. By looking at the food left on the table the woman knew her sons and daughter had done the same. She looked up with a start when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder.
Silas’s soft voice was as soothing as a warm cup of hot cocoa at the end of a long, cold hike.
“He’ll be all right, Mrs. Barkley. My Heath...he’s a strong boy. Tough in a way most others have never had to be.”
Victoria smiled. She reached up and patted her house servant’s hand.
“Your Heath...that he is, isn’t he, Silas. Your breakfast companion, your friend--”
“The child I watch over for Mr. Barkley.”
Silas pulled out a chair and sat next to the mistress of the house. He’d worked for her so long that neither one of them thought twice about his actions.
“I...well, ma’am, I expect you’ll think ole’ Silas has gone around the bend if I tell you this.”
“Tell me what?”
“Not that long after Mr. Heath came to us, I had a dream, Mrs. Barkley.”
“Yes, ma’am. Or at least I guess you’d call it that. Sometimes I believe it was more like a vision just like the visions my mama used to get.”
“What was this dre...vision?”
“I was in the kitchen makin’ breakfast just
like I do every morning. And he was
there, ma’am, sitting right in the chair Mr. Heath sits in when he comes down
early and eats with me.”
“Who was there?”
“Mr. Barkley. Do you remember how he used to rise before the sun on many a
morning and join me for breakfast long before the rest of you were up?”
“I certainly do. Tom enjoyed the times the two of you spent together.”
“And I surely enjoyed those times, too, ma’am. I got to know Mr. Barkley in a way I never would have had it not been for those mornings. I’ve always thought it was a special sign from the Lord that my Heath does the same thing. None of the other children do. Not even Mr. Nick who’s an early riser, too. They never have. Just Heath. Almost from the very first day he came here. So as I was sayin’, one night I thought I was dreaming. And in the dream Mr. Barkley was eating breakfast with me. I was tellin’ him all about Mr. Heath, what brought him to live with you all, and what a good man he is - how proud Mr. Barkley would be if he could meet him. And then he reached over and patted my arm,...why I even felt the warmth of his hand, I did. He smiled at me and said, ‘Silas, promise you’ll watch over my boy for me. Be a special friend to my Heath.’
“I smiled back at him and told him I’d do as he asked until my dying day. Then...well then I’d say I woke up, only I don’t think I really did.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ma’am, I wasn’t in bed at all, but in the kitchen. I was sitting at the table eating breakfast, and there right next to me was a half empty plate and a chair pushed out as though someone had just gotten up. At first I thought I’d just been daydreaming and Mr. Heath had been with me. But then he came whistling down the back stairs and that’s when I knew that somehow, Mr. Barkley had really been there.”
Victoria didn’t dispute Silas’s story. Though she was certain he really had been dreaming, or perhaps sleepwalking would be a better term for it, she could tell the tale brought him comfort. In an odd sort of way it brought her comfort, too. Before she could say anything she heard Audra shout from above. She gave Silas a final smile while assuring, “Heath will pull through this, Silas, just you wait and see,” before running for the stairs.
Audra met her mother in the hallway.
“Heath’s temperature just keeps getting higher. Nick wants us to fill the bathtub with cool water. He thinks that’s the only way to bring the fever down until Doctor Sheridan gets here with the quinine.”
The women dashed to the bathroom. When the deep tub was half full of cool water Victoria shut the faucet off. Audra retrieved a clean towel and washcloth from the linen closet while her mother got a fresh pair of sleeping pants from Heath’s dresser drawer. The women left the items in the bathroom, then moved out of the way while Nick and Jarrod manhandled their brother to the tub.
It didn’t take long for the brothers to strip Heath of what little he was wearing. Getting him in the tub was another matter. Though he was only semi-conscious, he fought them with a vengeance. Nick winced in sympathy when Heath gave his right shin a solid whack on the lip of the tub. No doubt the blond would sport a heck of a bruise in a short period of time, but for now that was of little consequence. Jarrod and Nick finally had no choice but to grapple their sibling into a sitting position and plunk him into the tub. Heath continued to fight. He trashed in the tub like a fish in shallow water, clawing for the lip in an effort to climb out. Water flew in all directions until Nick and Jarrod were as wet as their brother. But as the cool water began to work its magic on the overheated body the fight slowly ebbed from Heath. He finally sagged against the back of the tub, his head cradled in Nick’s hand.
Though three quarters of Heath’s body was immersed in water, Jarrod and Nick used their hands to lap the cool liquid onto Heath’s upper chest and shoulders. Jarrod reached for the washcloth his sister had left on the counter. He soaked it with water then ran it over Heath’s face. When the water in the tub began to grow lukewarm Jarrod turned on the gold faucet marked cold. This action was repeated twice until the brothers began to notice a drop in Heath’s body temperature.
Heath’s first thought when he opened his eyes and stared up at the bathroom ceiling was to wonder why he was sitting in a cold tub of water. He had to admit it felt darn good, but he could never recall taking a cold bath before. Yes, he’d washed up with cold water plenty of times on a hot summer’s day, but to actually soak in a frigid tub? No, not that he could recall. The next thing Heath was aware of was two pairs of hands supporting him in a reclining position while lapping water on him. Heath shifted his eyes. He was embarrassed to discover his brothers bending over him, but immediately decided that was better than the other alternative - Victoria and Audra.
“Well, fellas, I don’t suppose the ladies would consider either one of you too ugly, but you’re not exactly my choice of bathin’ partners.”
Jarrod and Nick grinned. They’d welcome the good-natured insult in exchange for the delirium that had plagued Heath all afternoon.
“You’re not exactly my choice either, Mo,” Nick shot back, using the nickname he’d somehow derived over the years from Heath’s middle name of Morgan, “but beggars can’t be choosers on a lonely Tuesday night.”
Heath chuckled before turning his face toward the wall. He allowed himself to sink further down into the water. Since he was now lucid neither Jarrod nor Nick stopped this action, but let him submerge as much of his body as he could.
The blond cowboy didn’t realize his teeth had begun to chatter until Nick said, “Okay, let’s get you out of there.”
“No, Nick,” came the weak protest. “It feels good.”
“It might feel good, but you’re shivering. Come on now, don’t make me and Jarrod fight you outta there the same way we fought you in.”
Heath knew there was no use to argue further. He didn’t have the strength to take on either one of his brothers at this point, let alone both of them.
Under normal circumstances Heath would have been mortified to have his brothers dress him and then support him while he emptied his bladder. But these weren’t normal circumstances and he was grateful for their firm grips on his elbows. As they walked Heath back to his bedroom he fleetingly wondered again how a cold could make him feel like he had one foot in the grave, but before he could question this Victoria and Audra were fussing over him as though he was visiting royalty, and Jarrod was easing him down onto clean crisp sheets, and Nick was forcing him to eat some soup and drink some water, and then a severe coughing spasm had everyone pounding on his back and bending him this way and that, and then he collapsed against the pillows to the sound of Victoria issuing a rotating schedule that would have the blond’s family taking turns sitting up with him throughout the night. Again, Heath wanted to tell them it was just a cold and not to fret so, but long before he could get the words out of his mouth he was asleep.
Jacob Sheridan surveyed the large room. The pulpit and pews within the Congregational Church had been replaced by neat rows of cots and pallets. The first thing Jake had done after returning from the Barkley ranch was to send a wire to the state medical office pleading for all the quinine they could give him. As soon as the town was awake and people stirring, the second thing Jake had done was gather together Stockton’s businessmen and church leaders. He apprised them of deadly illness that was about to descend on their town. He honored his promise to Victoria when he said no more than, “Heath Barkley is already very sick. I’ve seen several other people who are also coming down with the disease.”
Reverend Dyer immediately offered the Congregational Church for use as an infirmary. Jake soon had more volunteers than he could count. While men moved the pews and other artifacts to the church basement, or to storage sheds on their own property, women made up cots and pallets with blankets and sheets they brought from home. Mr. Krueger cleared his shelves in the general store of towels, wash clothes, pitchers and bowls, anything that might be used to hold water and in turn to wipe down bodies wracked with fever was greatly appreciated. By seven o’clock that Tuesday evening, less than twenty-four hours after Jake had seen Heath, he had quarantined fourteen people within the walls of the church.
The doctor smiled at a young mother who was bathing her feverish three-year old daughter with cool water. He bent over the crying child who squirmed to get away from him.
“Now come on, Emma, is that any way to treat your old friend Doctor Jake?”
The little girl cried harder when Jake raked a ticklish finger over her abdomen.
“I’m sorry, Doctor Sheridan,” Nan Whitcomb apologized. “Emma doesn’t seem to make for a good patient.”
“No one makes for a good patient when they
feel like little Emma here does, Mrs. Whitcomb. Keep bathing her like you’re doing, and try to get her to
cough. Put the heel of your hand to her
back like I showed you and thrust upward.”
Jake rose and moved to kneel between the next two cots. Emma’s older siblings lay on them with their father in attendance. The only thing that indicated six year old Grace was still among the living was the ruby red circles on her cheeks. The child reclined on her cot so still and lifeless, as though her body didn’t have the desire to fight its invader. On the cot to Grace’s left was her eight-year old brother Neil. The boy gave Jake a weak smile while the doctor listened to his heart and lungs, then placed a palm on his hot forehead.
“Hey there, Neil, how’s my best patient doing?”
“My throat hurts real bad, Doctor Jake. And my chest...it hurts worse than that time Marvin Meyers sat on me in the schoolyard. And he’s big and fat even.”
Jake gave the boy’s cheek a gentle pat. “I know your chest hurts, son. That’s why it’s important that you cough as often and as much as you can. Your sisters...well they’re just little girls yet and they’re going to need your ma and pa to help them out. But you’re practically a grown man, so you remember to cough like I showed you. Will you do that for me?”
Neil’s father followed Jake as the doctor moved away from his family. Halden Whitcomb looked back at his sick children, then steered Jake to a far corner of the building.
“What are my children’s chances, Doc?”
“Hal, you know I can’t quote you odds. Like I told you and Nan this morning, it’s imperative that we try to bring their fevers down while getting them to eat and cough. If a supply of quinine arrives then the chances of survival increase somewhat.”
“I know what diphtheria can do,” the man hissed, “so don’t treat me like some half-witted hillbilly. Twenty years ago I was the oldest of nine children. Because of an epidemic just like this one my folks only have two children left. I’m one of ‘em, my brother George the other. It only took one week, Doc. In one week’s time my mother and father buried seven kids. Seven. Me, I only got three little ones. And then you wonder why I want you to quote me odds.”
“I don’t wonder, Hal. Believe me, I understand. But you know I can’t predict who will live and who will die.”
“But it’s usually the young ones and the old ones who don’t have enough strength to weather the disease, right?”
“Often times, yes. Though this strain of the disease is a bit different and quite unpredictable. When I saw Heath Barkley last night he was much sicker than I would have expected given a man his age and size.”
“So he’s the carrier? The Barkley bastard is the one who brought
the disease here?”
William Dyer stepped up behind the two men before Jake could form a reply.
“Mr. Whitcomb, I’ll not have that kind of
talk in this building. Regardless of
what purpose a church is used for, it’s still God’s house.”
“I’m sorry, Reverend, but if those are the facts then I have a right to know. My children are sick. They may die! And if that no good, sorry excuse for a man--”
“Mr. Whitcomb, have you ever met Heath Barkley?” William asked.
“Have you ever met Heath Barkley?”
“I’ve seen him around town a few times, but if you’re asking if we’ve been formally introduced then no. No, I’ve never spoken to the man.”
“Then how can you stand in judgment of him?”
“Look, Reverend, you of all people should understand he’s the product of sin. Why the Bible tells us--”
“The Bible tells us that we’re all sinners, Mr. Whitcomb. Every single one of us regardless of how, where, or why we were born. Now unlike you, I do know Heath Barkley. He’s a good man. A kind man. A hard working man. And just like your Neil, Grace, and Emma, Heath is someone’s child. No, Victoria Barkley didn’t give birth to him, but she loves Heath as if he was her own. And right at this moment I can guarantee you she’s doing the same things you are. She’s worrying, and she’s praying, and she’s losing sleep, and she’s tending to her sick child. Now you go back over there and tend to your own children. There’s no use in pointing fingers or playing guessing games. We all have to pull together to help one another in times of crisis. Regardless of how this disease came to Stockton, certainly no one, no one willfully brought it here.”
Halden Whitcomb looked from the minister to the doctor. His jaw tightened and he shook his head in disgust. As he turned away they heard him mutter, “Then you just don’t understand his kind. Who knows what things he carries around inside himself as God’s punishment for the wrongdoings of the woman who birthed him.”
Jake watched the rancher settle himself back in the chair that had been placed between the cots of his six and eight year olds. He turned to the minister with a cocked eyebrow.
William read all he needed to in that one gesture. “You didn’t know?”
“That Heath isn’t Mrs. Barkley’s son? No. This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“My wife and I came to Stockton four years ago. Heath arrived about six months after we did. He showed up on the ranch one day in January claiming to be the illegitimate son of Tom Barkley. Whatever proof he brought with him of those words, or whatever the family uncovered after his arrival, I don’t know. All I do know is he’s long been accepted by the Barkleys as both brother and son. The gossip surrounding Heath has died down over the years, which probably attributes to why you haven’t heard the story before now. But despite that, people don’t forget. Nor do they forgive.”
“Forgive? What would anyone have to forgive Heath for?”
“That’s the sad thing, Jake. Nothing.
They have absolutely nothing to forgive Heath for. But Tom Barkley was
already dead when Heath came to Stockton so making him own up to his mistake
wasn’t possible. Unfortunately, there
will always be people like Hal Whitcomb who insist on making the son pay for
his father’s transgressions.”
Jake thought a long moment before making a
reply. “Until my dying day I’ll never understand the ignorance of a man like
“I won’t either. But whether you and I like it or not, there’s plenty of it to go around in this world. And when something like this happens, when a disease as deadly as diphtheria strikes an area, then fear tends to bring out the worst in even some of the best people.”
Jake nodded his head, bowing to William’s experience in this matter. The Connecticut born doctor was twenty-eight years old. This was the first epidemic of any kind he’d been forced to face. If Halden Whitcomb’s attitude was an indication of what was to come Jake wondered how he’d handle the strife.
More importantly, he wondered how Heath Barkley would handle it should he still be alive by the end of the week.
Heath was so certain he was on fire he tried to roll against the sheets to put the flames out. Heat more blistering than any he had ever felt baked his skin. And smoke...the room had to be filled with smoke. That’s the only explanation he could think of for why he couldn’t breathe.
Victoria tried to calm Heath as he thrashed and flailed in vain attempts to get air to his lungs.
“Heath! Heath...sweetheart, settle down. I know you’re hot, but you need to lie still. Heath, Mother’s here! Try to cough for me, Heath. Heath, try to cough!”
When the blond began to gasp for air Victoria knew she was fighting a losing battle. It was two o’clock in the morning, other than the glow from the lamp in Heath’s room the rest of the Barkley household was dark and quiet. Victoria had relieved Jarrod from Heath’s bedside at midnight. Heath was sleeping comfortably at that time, but had begun to grow restless as the early morning hours wore on.
The woman flew down the hall. Nick had left his door open and was sleeping fully clothed on top of his bed spread.
“Nick! Nick, I need your help! Heath can’t breathe!”
Nick was on his feet within seconds of hearing his mother’s cry. He dashed by her and tore into his brother’s room.
The rancher grabbed the thrashing Heath by the underarms. Nick lifted the blond man like he would a rag doll and positioned Heath’s abdomen across his bent knee. With Heath’s head dangling toward the floor Nick took his palm and thrust hard between his brother’s shoulder blades. Heath choked and gagged, but seemed unable to produce a healthy cough. Nick tried again and again, only to get the same results.
Nick was barely aware of Jarrod joining him. Like his brother, Jarrod hadn’t bothered to shed any clothes other than his socks when he’d gone to bed. Nick’s bangs flopped in and out of his eyes as he hammered on Heath’s back with his fist. Jarrod took the bulk of the blond’s weight and positioned Heath’s belly over his forearms.
“Hit him harder, Nick! Hit him harder!”
Heath’s arms swum upward like a drowning man searching for the surface of the water. Nick glanced over his shoulder at his mother and Audra. Like Jarrod, the young woman had been roused by the sound of her mother calling for Nick.
“Move my bed next to the fireplace!” Nick ordered the women. “Wake Silas and have him get a fire started, then fill the biggest kettle we’ve got with water and get it boiling. Shut the door and windows. When it’s thick with steam we’ll move Heath into my room.”
Victoria thought briefly of vetoing that. The steam-filled room would only make Heath hotter. But then she heard the blond man struggle to draw in another wheezing gasp and knew they had no choice. If Heath couldn’t breathe easier soon, the mucus plug formed by the disease would choke him to death. The woman grabbed her daughter by the hand. They rushed from the room to do what Nick ordered.
Victoria never knew how her sons managed to keep Heath alive that night until Nick’s room was ready. The awful wheezing could be heard all the way down the hall intermixed with the men’s shouts of encouragement to their brother, and the sound of Nick’s hand pounding against the bare skin of Heath’s back.
By the time Victoria returned to Heath’s bedside to tell her sons they could move their brother the sick man’s upper back was one massive bruise. Nick’s palm print clearly formed the outline of the black and blue mark.
Without asking for Jarrod’s help Nick moved Heath to a reclining position then scooped him up in his arms. He staggered for a moment under his brother’s weight, then got his balance and headed out the door.
“Nick, your back,” Victoria reminded the man of the sensitive back he possessed after years of bronc busting and sitting in a saddle. “Let Jarrod take some of his weight from you.”
“I’m fine! You two go on ahead so you can help me get him to the bed.”
Within seconds of entering his bedroom Nick’s hair was limp and hanging in his eyes. By the time he was easing Heath to his bed he could feel sweat trickling down his chest and pooling in his underarms. Nick used a hand to brush his hair back. A quick look at his family through the humid fog found them in the same condition.
The massive bed Nick slept in had been moved within five feet of the fireplace. The space allowed just enough walking room without tripping over the hearth. Using heavy oven mitts Victoria and Jarrod lifted the kettle of boiling water from the fire. The woman directed her son to help her set the steaming kettle in the middle of the hearth.
Nick turned from the bed where he and Audra were propping Heath against four pillows.
“Why are you taking that off the fire?”
“Nick! Jarrod! Move your brother over here.”
“Get him out of that bed and down onto his knees in front of this kettle! Audra, bring me the biggest towel we’ve got.” Victoria moved out of the way so her sons could do as she ordered. “Be careful of his arms. Nick, you’ll have to hold them against his sides so he doesn’t burn himself.”
Nick still wasn’t sure what his mother had in mind, but once he and Jarrod grappled Heath to his knees Nick had to straddle his brother’s back in order to keep Heath in place.
“Whatever you’re gonna do you’d better hurry! He might be sick, but he’s still damn strong. I can’t hold him like this for long.”
“Here, Mother,” Audra ran to Victoria’s side. “Here’s the towel.”
Victoria took the thick white cloth and with a flick of her wrist snapped it open. She laid the towel across the back of Heath’s bent head. Nick nodded when he saw what his mother was trying to accomplish. The towel formed a drape around Heath’s head and shoulders that forced the steam to billow directly into his face.
As more heat assaulted the already flaming Heath he fought with renewed fury. He couldn’t put faces to the voices shouting at him from all directions, and even if he could have their words made no sense. He screamed his rage in a voice louder than anyone had ever heard him use before. He rose up on his knees twisting and turning his upper body, doing whatever he had to in order to rid himself of the crushing weight that was hindering his freedom.
Nick Barkley had ridden some mean-spirited broncs in his day, but he couldn’t ever recall one that fought with the frenzy his brother possessed. If Jarrod hadn’t been there to help him Nick knew he would have lost his grip on Heath’s sweat-slicked body. Nick felt Jarrod’s weight come down on top of him and for just a second the old school yard game of monkey pile came to mind.
Shouts flew from all directions.
“Heath, stop it! Stop it now or I swear I’ll knock you out!”
“It’s all right, Heath! Heath, it’s Jarrod and Nick! It’s all right!”
“Heath...Heath, please. Don’t fight the boys! They’re only trying to help you! Please, Heath!”
“Sweetheart, calm down! It’s okay! No one’s going to hurt you!”
The fever-crazed man paid no attention to his family’s pleas. He screamed a string of obscenities that even Nick had never heard him use before. Heath tried to whip his brothers off his back, his mind racing ahead to his next move.
The door! The door! Gotta find the door!
Hot. So hot in here. The door! Outside. Cold outside.
Go. Let me go! Don’t like to be held down! No! No one will ever do that to me again. Let me go!
Just as Heath was about to break his bonds and race for freedom, one voice raised loud in command penetrated his brain.
“Heath Morgan Thomson Barkley, I said calm down! Now I mean it!” Two small hands reached under the towel and grasped Heath’s face. “Calm down, Heath. Calm down!”
And with that the fight went out of Heath. He was so hot. And so weak. And so sick. And though he would never admit it to anyone, so scared. So very scared. But her voice, the voice of the woman he called mother, was like a beacon that guided him home.
Heath sagged forward. Only Victoria’s hands kept his face from falling into the hot water.
Jarrod waited a few tense seconds, then slowly eased himself off Nick’s back. Nick groaned when he, too, finally felt it was safe to climb off Heath. He knelt on his brother’s left side while Jarrod did the same on Heath’s right. The two men kept Heath positioned over the kettle so he’d get the full benefit of the steam.
Ten minutes later Victoria sent up a prayer of thanks when the wheezing gave way to coughing. She could hear the phlegm moving through Heath’s chest and throat. She took another towel Audra handed her and held it to his mouth. Like Victoria and her family had done in the past, she encouraged Heath to spit up what he could.
When Heath wasn’t able to cough any more Victoria removed the towel from his head. His face was red and sweat ran down his cheeks like tears. He didn’t open his eyes, but by feel alone slumped into his stepmother. Victoria held him against her collarbone and kissed his burning forehead. She was well aware they had little time to waste at bringing his fever down, but also knew that, for however brief, both she and Heath needed this hug more than they needed anything else.
Nick and Jarrod moved the bed away from the fireplace. Nick directed Audra to open the bedroom door halfway and to crack a window. He and Jarrod then hung the kettle back over the fire so steam could still fill the room to some degree.
Heath was barely cognizant of being lifted from Victoria’s arms by his brothers and carried to the bed. His family began bathing him with cool water. The high temperature was taking its toll on the man with each passing second and he no longer recognized the relief the water brought. His tried to push the hands away from his body. In complete contrast to minutes earlier, Heath was now so weak Audra was able to grasp his wrists and hold his arms against the mattress.
Dawn was casting light in the eastern sky before Heath quieted. The night had seemed to be three days long as far as Victoria was concerned. She looked at her bedraggled family. Audra was still in her nightgown and robe. Her hair was limp like over cooked noodles and eye makeup she hadn’t washed off before going to bed streaked her cheeks black like the markings on an Indian warrior. Sweat stained the back of Jarrod’s shirt and formed big wet rings around Nick’s underarms. Victoria knew she wasn’t in any better shape. Her hair hung loose around her face, her shirt and underclothes clung to her body in a way that made her long for a bath. The room was hot and stuffy, but the trade-off to the discomfort was that Heath was able to draw in life giving air.
Nick stood and ushered everyone to the door. “The three of you eat some breakfast and try to get some sleep.”
“What about you?” Jarrod asked.
“Silas can bring me a tray.”
“You need to sleep, too, Nick,” Victoria said.
“I’m not that tired. Unlike you and Jarrod I managed to get a few winks in before Heath got bad.”
Victoria raised a skeptical eyebrow. Nick’s bloodshot eyes and pinched features told her what little sleep he’d gotten was restless and wrought with worry.
Audra gave one last look at the man on the bed before Nick pushed her out of the room.
“Go on, little sister. Get dressed, fancy up your hair like you do, put some of that goop on your face--”
“Goop? Nicholas Barkley, I’ll have you know make-up is not goop.”
“Whatever. All I know is Heath is gonna be mighty disappointed if you give him reason not to brag that you’re the prettiest sister a man could have.”
Nick’s words brought tears to Audra’s eyes. “I’d never disappoint him, Nick.”
Nick encircled his sister with one arm and kissed her temple. “I know you wouldn’t, honey.”
Audra leaned into the cowboy’s chest. For just a moment she was a little girl of four again and in awe of the thirteen-year old brother she called Nicky who chased monsters from her room every night and carried her down the stairs on his shoulders each morning.
Nick’s eyes followed his sister’s to the bed. In a voice barely above a whisper he assured, “He’s tough, Audra. He’s so damn tough. Nothing can keep him down. We’ll get him through this. I promise we’ll get him through this.”
Victoria squeezed Audra’s hand as the girl passed through the doorway. Jarrod put an arm around his mother’s shoulders and walked Victoria to her room. He was just about to pull the door closed for his mother when he saw her cross to the big windows that overlooked her flower garden. She stood there so tiny and alone. He watched as she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
The lawyer stepped up behind his mother. She gave a soft smile when she felt his touch on her shoulders. She reached up and grasped one of his hands with hers.
It was as Victoria stood there taking in the first rays of sun kissing the blooming roses that she started to cry. Jarrod turned her around and pressed her head to his chest.
“Hey, there. Hey, now. None of that. You heard Nick. Heath’s going to pull through this.”
“But it’s all my fault.”
“Your fault? What makes you say that?”
“Oh, Jarrod, I knew there was a diphtheria epidemic in Laton. Opal Manners told me weeks ago one Sunday after church. I should have known when Heath first started complaining about having allergies that he was getting sick. I should have known.”
Jarrod cupped his hand under his mother’s chin and forced her to look up at him. “Now how could you have known?”
“I should have asked him. Don’t you see, I should have asked him if he’d ever had diphtheria. But I didn’t. I remember how thankful I was the day Opal told me about it. I remember thinking how grateful I was that my family was safe because my children had the disease long ago. But I...I guess I just lumped Heath together with the rest of you in my mind. Why did I do that, Jarrod? How could I have been so careless? If I had been thinking clearly I would have known I needed to ask Heath if he’d ever had it. If I’d done that he wouldn’t be as sick as he is now.”
“Mother, first of all knowing or not knowing wouldn’t have given you a guarantee in terms of how sick Heath would become. Even Jake can’t predict something like that ahead of time.”
“But if I would have known he never had
diphtheria then I would have also known that he had a lot more than a cold when
he first started getting sick. Oh,
Jarrod, why didn’t he tell one of us how bad he was feeling? Why did he continue to work long hours day
after day when he should have been in bed?”
“That just how Heath is. You know that. Like Nick said, he’s tough.
Maybe too tough for his own good sometimes. But Heath doesn’t complain to anyone in this family about
anything concerning himself. He never
has and I doubt he ever will.”
“And that’s all the more reason why it’s my job to watch out for him.”
“I realized a long time ago you made that your self-appointed duty,” Jarrod smiled, “but I didn’t think I’d ever hear you admit it.”
“I didn’t...” Victoria moved away from her son and walked back to the window. “I know it sounds strange, but a woman never quite gets over the need to mother her children. After Eugene went off to college...well, none of you needed me any longer in quite the way you had before. No one turned to me anymore for guidance or just a shoulder to lean on when life got too rough.”
“And then Heath came.”
“Yes,” Victoria nodded. “Then Heath
came. If ever there was a young man who
needed the gentle influence of a mother it was him. During his early days with us I can’t say I imagined our
relationship would grow to what it is today.
As a matter of fact I often wondered where I stood in his eyes. But it didn’t take long for me to know.”
Victoria felt Jarrod’s hands on her shoulders again.
“He loves you very much, Mother. No matter what happens, don’t forget that.”
“But I let him down. I let him down by not doing what a mother’s supposed to do. By not taking care of him like I should have.”
“If you told Heath that he’d disagree with you.” When Victoria made no reply Jarrod continued. “Mother, you just gave Heath the highest compliment you could.”
“You said you lumped Heath together with the rest of us in your mind. With the rest of your children. You’ve thought of him as your son for a good many years now. Don’t blame yourself for an oversight that came from the heart.”
Victoria’s tears flowed anew at Jarrod’s words. She patted his hand a final time, signaling to her oldest child she wanted to be alone.
Jarrod kissed the top of Victoria’s head before turning to leave the room. She heard him echo Nick’s words, “He’s tough, Mother. He’s so damn tough,” right before the door closed.
Jim Garver walked to the bunkhouse door. He stepped outside and looked down the road that led to Stockton. Not a soul was on it, not even a distant dust cloud rose to indicate a rider coming.
Pete Garver joined his brother. “See anything?”
“Nothing. I thought Doc Sheridan would be here by now.”
“I did, too. But you know how things go when an epidemic hits a town. He’s probably got his hands full.”
“Him not showin’ up here yet has gotta mean the quinine hasn’t come in.”
“That’s what I figured.” Pete looked at the mansion. “I wonder how Heath’s doing?”
The lanky Jim spit in the dirt. “Who gives a rat’s ass?”
“Well, I don’t care and you shouldn’t either. It’s because of him that Billy’s sick.”
“Come on, Jim, we don’t know that.”
“Whatta ya’ mean we don’t know that! Of course we know it! Heath’s the first one on the ranch to get sick so that means he’s infected everyone else.”
“And what? The bastard’s gone and brought the sickness here, that’s what. If Billy dies it’ll be his fault.”
“I thought you liked Heath. As a matter of fact just last week you said you’d never worked for a better boss or one who knew so much about horses.”
“Never mind what I said last week. Billy bein’ sick changes all that.”
“You can be just as stubborn and unreasonable as Pa when you put your mind to it, you know that?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You lose all sight of your common sense. You get angry over stuff you got no call to get riled about.”
“And you’re not riled about Billy?”
“I’m worried about Billy if that’s what your askin’. But I don’t blame Heath for him bein’ sick.”
“Well, maybe you should.”
Jim turned on one heel and reentered the building. Pete watched his brother walk to Billy’s bedside. He let out a heavy sigh as he looked through the screen door. They’d done a good job of transforming the bunkhouse into an infirmary. Every surface had been scrubbed before fresh linens had been put on the beds. Jessybell was keeping a table stacked with clean towels and sheets. Even Phillip and some of the other hands were pitching in to help her keep up on the enormous amount of laundry that was being generated.
At Nick’s orders the two men who cooked for the hands kept chicken soup simmering on the stove for those who were ill. Silas had brought out loaves of fresh bread as well. Pete couldn’t imagine what more the Barkley family could do that wasn’t already being done. Every couple hours Nick or Jarrod would come out to the infirmary to see how the sick men were. Why Jarrod had even carried soiled linens back to the house on several trips. Despite Jim’s feelings, Pete knew how lucky they were to be employed by people like the Barkleys at a time such as this. On any other ranch Billy wouldn’t have stood a chance for survival.
Aside from Billy, five other men had fallen ill. There was a wrangler fifty-four years old by the name of Fred whom Pete didn’t think would last more than a couple days. Then there was Joe, a man in his early thirties who had just started working for the Barkleys in March. He had a wife and four children who lived in a rented house in Stockton. Pete knew Joe had to be going out of his mind with worry for his family. His oldest kid was only seven. Because they were quarantined there was no way to get word to Joe’s wife that he was sick. At least not until Doctor Sheridan came out.
The other men who were sick were all in their twenties. Pete’s eyes fell to Jeb Galloway. The cowboy with the raven curls was beginning to run a temperature. His face had a red flush to it that made Jeb look like he’d been out in the sun too long, and when he coughed he sound like a fog horn.
Billy wasn’t in much better shape. He’d started coughing so hard shortly after dawn that Pete was certain he’d choke to death. That spell had finally passed, but Pete was well aware more like it were to come.
The cowboy squinted. Was that a buggy coming? He waited until the object crested the last hill then smiled.
“Hey, Jim! Fellas! The doc’s coming!”
No cheers went up, but the smiles that lit the faces of the men who were taking care of the sick spoke of their relief.
Finally, Jim Garver thought as he ran a cold cloth over his baby brother’s fiery face. Help is finally here.
The Grandfather clock was striking eleven when Silas led Doctor Sheridan to Nick’s room that Wednesday morning. Nick and Audra were sitting with Heath while Victoria rested and Jarrod tried to concentrate on paper work at the desk in his room. Silas knocked on the attorney’s door.
“Doctor Sheridan is here, Mr. Jarrod.”
“Thank you, Silas.”
Jarrod entered the hall and walked to his mother’s room. He knocked on the door, calling softly, “Mother?”
The lawyer heard his mother moving across the floor. The thirty minutes she’d spent in the bathtub followed by the breakfast she’d eaten had helped her appearance a little, but she still looked drawn and tired. Jarrod doubted if she’d gotten more than two hours of sleep since this ordeal had begun.
“Jake’s here. He’s with Heath now.”
Victoria nodded and followed her son to Nick’s room. She smiled at Silas who hovered in the background.
Jarrod and Nick lifted Heath from his pillows. Jake spent a long time listening to Heath’s lungs with first his stethoscope, and then by placing his ear directly against the blond’s back. No one missed the slight shake of Jake’s head as he straightened, nor the small frown that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
With Jarrod and Nick still supporting Heath the doctor perched on the edge of the mattress.
“Heath? Heath, it’s Jake Sheridan. Heath, I want you to open your eyes for me.”
Victoria saw Heath’s eyes move beneath his lids as though he was trying to obey Jake’s command, but the effort appeared to be too much for him.
“Heath!” Jake reached out and flicked his fingers against Heath’s right cheek. “Heath, come on! I need you to wake up for me.”
When that action didn’t produce any results Jake stood and gave Heath a resounding slap.
Jake barely glanced at Heath’s sister. “Audra, I had to do it. It’s important that we wake him up.” The doctor looked at Jarrod and Nick. “How long has he been unresponsive like this?”
“He fell asleep around seven last night,” Nick said. “Then at one-thirty this morning his temperature started to rise again and he had a hard time breathing. That’s why we brought him in here. Mother had us hold him over a kettle of steam. He calmed down just as the sun was coming up.”
“And he’s been like this ever since?”
“Well...yeah. But I thought he was sleeping.”
“He’s far more unconscious than he is asleep, Nick.”
The doctor turned his attention back to Heath. Another slap finally caused Heath’s eyes to open halfway.
“Heath!” Jake called, when the cowboy couldn’t seem to focus on anyone or anything. “Heath!”
Jake looked at Nick. “You try.” The doctor scampered around the bed, switching places with Nick.
The dark headed man sat on the edge of the bed and grasped Heath’s upper arms. His tone was both loud and firm.
“Heath! Heath, come on, wake up! Heath, it’s Nick! Come on now, it’s past time we got the day started!”
Heath’s right hand reached for the distant voice he recognized. He felt someone take the questing hand in a firm grip and knew by the calluses on the palm he should be able to put a name to the voice, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t.
“Heath, open your eyes! Open your eyes for me! Heath!”
Jake’s soft voice made a sharp contrast to Nick’s loud one.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough, Nick. You’ve done the best you could.” With Jarrod’s help the doctor eased Heath back to the pillows. Jake walked over to his bag and took out a thin black case. He opened it and removed a thermometer. He shook it hard four times, then returned to Heath’s side. He placed the thermometer under Heath’s tongue and ordered, “Heath, I want you to hold that thermometer in place until I take it out.”
Whether Heath really understood the doctor no one knew, but he didn’t fight the foreign object in his mouth either.
For the next three minutes Jake kept one eye on his pocket watch and one eye on his patient. He didn’t even have a chance to read the instrument before Nick was asking, “What’s it say? How high’s his temperature?”
“Too high. One hundred four point eight, which explains why he’s having a difficult time responding to us.” The doctor passed the delicate tool off to Audra. “I have rubbing alcohol in my bag, Audra. Pour some in a shot glass and put the thermometer in it please.”
Silas hurried from the room to get the requested shot glass. By the time he returned the doctor was mixing powdered quinine in a cup of water. Jarrod and Nick held Heath up again while Jake placed the cup to his mouth.
“Heath, I want you to drink this. Here, let me--”
Before Jake could finish his sentence Heath’s eyes popped open and a fist flew up. If Nick hadn’t been anticipating what was going to happen next the precious quinine would have ended up on the floor.
Amidst Heath’s incoherent cries Jarrod and Nick struggled to keep him in bed. Audra rescued the quinine from the doctor as Jake was drawn into the fray.
Victoria rushed to soak a towel in water. She wrung it out and moved to the bed. She placed the cold towel on Heath’s forehead. No matter how hard he tried to move out of her reach she stayed with him. Silas was right there to help. Just as soon as the heat from Heath’s fever caused the towel to lose its effectiveness Silas placed a fresh one in Victoria’s hands. They worked together in silent rhythm handing towels back and forth, until Heath finally started to calm down. With the three men still holding onto Heath, Victoria indicated for Audra to give her the cup of medicine. The Barkley matriarch sat on the mattress. She continued to wipe Heath’s face with a towel while talking quietly.
“Heath, it’s Mother. Sweetheart, the only thing in this cup is water mixed with quinine. No one’s trying to hurt you, son. You need to drink this. It’ll help bring your fever down. Come on now; don’t fight us. Drink this for me, Heath. Please, honey, drink it.”
Audra wondered if the cold towels had finally brought Heath’s temperature down to a point where he was no longer lost in a world of delirium or if he, like everyone else in the room, had heard the tears in Victoria’s voice. Whatever the reason didn’t matter. Audra was simply grateful that Heath allowed their mother to lift the cup to his mouth and was willing to drink from it until it was empty.
Heath sagged into the pillows as Victoria handed the cup off to Silas. The black man filled it with cold water, but try as she might Victoria couldn’t get Heath to take another drink.
Jake released his grip on Heath. Jarrod and Nick did the same. The doctor began gathering up his things.
“Jarrod, Nick, I’ll help you move Heath back to his own room. I’m sure the steam helped him last night, but it’s too hot in here for him now. I’ll leave enough quinine for one more dose. Silas, if you could get me a clean cup please, I’ll pour it into there.”
“Yes, Doctor. I can do that.”
“One more dose?” Nick questioned as Silas left the room. “Why can’t you just leave
the whole bottle?”
Jake snapped his bag closed and turned from
where he was standing by the tall dresser.
“Because I’ve got three dozen people in town who are just as sick as
Heath and a limited supply of quinine.
I have no choice but to ration it, Nick.”
“Well then, send for more. I’ll give you whatever money you need--”
“I have sent for more. But this epidemic is turning out to be wide spread up and down the state. The medical board has wired back east to have more shipped but--”
“But by the time it gets here Heath could be dead!”
Jake’s eyes flashed both his weariness and anger at his inability to stop a disease that would take many lives.
“By the time it gets here a lot of people could be dead! Now you have to face the fact that I’m doing the best I can. Believe me, Nick, I know your brother is very ill. And believe me, too, when I say I wish I could do more. But I can’t. I have to be fair to everyone. You know that.”
Jarrod laid a calming hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Yes, Jake, we know that. Now rather than focusing on what we can’t do, what more can we do to help Heath?”
“Aside from getting him out of this room and trying to control his temperature, I have one last idea.”
“I’m going to leave a bottle of sulfur with you. If he starts to choke again and can’t breathe like you described happening last night, then you put hot coals in a pan and sprinkle four healthy tablespoons of sulfur over them. Now you’ll need to wear a flannel cloth tied over your own noses and mouths to protect yourselves from the fumes. When you’re ready you’ll have to hold Heath over the pan. He’s not going to like it. He’s not going to like it one bit, but the fumes will cause him to vomit which will bring up the mucus. It’s hardly a pretty way to get someone to cough, but I’ve been told it can save a patient’s life.”
“We’re not worried about pretty,” Victoria
assured. “Whatever we have to do for
Heath we will.”
Victoria wasn’t sure why she saw a new kind of respect shining from Jake’s eyes when he looked at her and smiled.
“I realize that, Mrs. Barkley.”
The three men carried Heath to his room. Jake shook one dose of quinine into a cup and told the family when it should next be administered, then left behind a small bottle of sulfur.
“I don’t know when I’ll be back.” The doctor picked up his bag and turned for the door. “I hope you understand.”
“We do, Jake,” Victoria nodded. “It’s bad, isn’t it? In town I mean.”
“Yes, ma’am, it’s bad. Unfortunately probably not as bad as it’s going to get. Oh, Reverend Dyer wanted me to tell you he’s including Heath in his prayers. He’s been a big help to me. He’s allowing the church to be used as an infirmary among other things.”
“William’s a good man,” Victoria acknowledged. “Please let him know I appreciate his prayers for Heath and that I don’t want him riding out here to see us. He should stay in town and offer whatever he can in the way of assistance to you and the people there.”
“I’ll make sure he gets the message, Mrs. Barkley.”
“We’ve got half a dozen sick men in a bunkhouse,” Nick said. “I’d like you to look at them before you head back to town.”
“Lead the way.”
Jake’s examination of the sick ranch hands was quick but thorough. As he stood to leave he complimented the Barkley brothers on the makeshift infirmary.
“You’ve done everything correct out here from keeping it clean, to having plenty of water on hand, to having your cooks provide soup and bread. I’ll leave two bottles of sulfur here. Have your hands use it for the sick men in the same I described for Heath. Other than that, it looks like everyone is doing all they can.”
Jim Garver rose from his brother’s bedside. He joined Jake and the Barkleys by the door.
“What about quinine, Doc?”
“I’m sorry, but right now I’m being forced to ration what little quinine I received.”
“Okay, fine. So ration some out to these men in here.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Garver, but I can’t do that.”
“What do you mean you can’t do that?”
“I have to distribute the quinine to those people who are the sickest right at this moment.”
“These men are sick! My brother is sick!”
“I understand that, sir, but I have people in town who are sicker. Heath Barkley is sicker. I have no choice but--”
“Do you mean to tell me that Heath is getting quinine and my brother isn’t? Do you--”
“Heath is desperately ill, Mr. Garver.”
“But Billy’s ill, too.”
“Not as ill as Heath.”
Nick attempted to calm the man by placing an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, Jim, come on now. Jarrod and I are gonna do everything we can to see that Doctor Sheridan gets more quinine. We’ll wire everyone we know between here and Boston. It’s possible we’ll have a shipment headed our way by tonight.”
“And what if that doesn’t happen? What does that mean for Billy and the rest of these men! Heath gets medicine but they don’t? Is that the way it’s going to be?”
“Jim, no,” Jarrod assured, “that’s not the way it’s going to be. Doctor Sheridan has already explained the reasoning behind rationing the quinine. Heath didn’t get any special favors or privileges.”
“Like hell he didn’t! If he wasn’t a Barkley he’d be suffering like everyone else! I don’t understand it! Why do you care so much? He’s only your half brother. Only half a Barkley! Only--”
Nick took a step forward. “Jim, that’s enough now. I know you’re upset about Billy so I’ll overlook that last remark. But—“
“I don’t care if you overlook it or not because it’s true! If Heath was still Heath Thomson, instead of Heath Barkley, he’d be layin’ out here in this bunkhouse goin’ without quinine just like Billy is!”
Jarrod managed to get a firm grip on Nick just as Pete Garver appeared and managed to get a firm grip on Jim. The two men struggled against their siblings until a weak voice caused everyone to turn toward a bunk in the corner. Billy Garver struggled to prop himself on his elbows.
“Jim...Jimmy, don’t.” The young man used a shaking hand to wipe at the sweat that ran into his eyes. “Don’t start a fight o...over me. Nick...Nick’s doin’ all he can. I know that. Please--”
Jim hesitated a long moment, then allowed his body to relax within his brother’s grip. He gave Nick a final glare before shaking himself free of Pete and crossing to Billy’s side.
Jarrod released Nick. Pete’s gaze took in both men.
“I’m sorry. Jim...well, Jim’s really upset about Billy. He didn’t mean what he said.”
Nick simply nodded while Jarrod reached out to squeeze Pete’s shoulder.
“We understand. And like Nick said, we’ll do all we can to get more quinine here as soon as possible.”
“I know you will. Thanks.”
Pete nodded to the cowboy on the bunk next
to Billy. “Doc, Joe’s wife rents a house in Stockton. Can you get word to her that he’s sick?”
What’s the last name?”
“Does he have children?”
“Yeah. Four of ‘em. Two boys and two girls.”
Jake turned away so his voice wouldn’t carry throughout the room. “I see.”
“What?” Pete asked. “Whatta ya’ mean by that?”
Nick and Jarrod had already guessed what Doctor Sheridan was about to say, but then by looking at Pete’s face they knew he had guessed it as well.
“The Edmonds children are very ill.”
“All four of them?”
“Three of them so far. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time
before the youngest boy is sick as well.”
For a few seconds the only sounds that could be heard was that of the barking coughs that seemed to travel from bunk to bunk. Pete stole a look at Joe Edmonds who appeared to be sleeping.
“How do I tell him?”
“But he’ll ask me. As soon as he knows you’ve been here he’ll ask me if I gave you a message for his wife.”
“Then tell him you did. For now that’s all he needs to know.”
“Mr. Garver, at the moment there’s nothing your friend can do for his family. Though none of us like this fact, the spread of diphtheria is not yet something modern medicine can prevent or control. Therefore, it’s best to give a patient nothing but hope and encouragement. Any words to the contrary can produce devastating results.”
Pete looked from Joe to Billy. He finally nodded before joining Jim at Billy’s bedside.
Jarrod turned to the physician.
“Jake, if you’ve got just one more minute to spare I’ll write out a list of every person I can think of my family is acquainted with who might be able to get a shipment of quinine here.”
Jake couldn’t help but smile. “Considering how many people the Barkleys know I’d better spare you two minutes.”
“That you had.” Jarrod returned with a smile of his own.
The lawyer exited the bunkhouse and headed for the barn, Jake at his heels. Nick kept a pad of paper and pencil on a shelf out there where the ranch hands recorded the supplies that were needed on a weekly basis. Jarrod’s script was still neat despite writing quickly and while leaning his paper against a barn wall for support.
“There’s just no possible way you can leave
some of that quinine here for the sick men?”
Jarrod questioned as he wrote. “Not even one dose for each of them?”
“Jarrod, no. I’m sorry. I wasn’t lying to Jim Garver when I told him Heath isn’t getting preferential treatment. I don’t do business that way.”
“I didn’t mean to imply any less. It’s simply that...” Jarrod let his sentence trail off unfinished.
“That you’re in-between a rock and a hard
place, is that it?”
“Aptly put, Jake. Very aptly, put.”
“Look, Jarrod, I understand that I’ve just given medicine to Heath that I’ve had to refuse to give your hired hands. But again, I have no choice but to ration what little I received. The bottom line is, Heath is sicker than the men in the bunkhouse. Maybe two days from now that won’t be true, but with an epidemic of this magnitude I can’t worry about two days from now.”
Jarrod paused in the act of writing and made eye contact with the younger man.
“Will Heath even be alive two days from now?”
“I don’t know. But--”
“It would be best to prepare your mother and Audra for the worst.”
It took Jarrod a moment to regain his concentration. When the lawyer started writing again Jake saw a slight tremor to his hand that hadn’t been present earlier.
Five minutes later Doctor Sheridan was on his way back to Stockton with a list that included the names of four United States Senators, two renowned Boston physicians, three wealthy Philadelphia businessmen, and two Harvard University professors. Jake had no idea if any of these people could be of help, but if nothing else just knowing everyone on Jarrod’s list would soon receive a wire with a desperate plea for assistance brought comfort to the young man. At least he didn’t feel quite as alone as he had just a few hours earlier. As if Stockton had been cut off by the outside world and was in danger of losing a large amount of her citizens by forces beyond anyone’s control.
Which, Jake supposed as he slapped a short whip against his horse’s rump in an effort to speed up the buggy, was all too true.
While Jarrod was giving the family doctor the list of prominent Barkley acquaintances Nick remained in the bunkhouse. He moved from bed to bed, making certain he spoke with any man who wasn’t sleeping. When he came to Jeb Galloway’s bunk the young cowboy struggled to sit up and put his feet on the floor. Nick grasped Jeb by the upper arm.
“There’s no need for that, Jeb. Lay back down.”
“No...” The man turned his head to cough. When he could speak again he faced Nick and motioned for him to sit beside him. “No, I’m fine. It feels good to sit up for a little while. It’s easier to breathe.”
Nick saw the signs in Jeb he’d seen out on the range just two days earlier with Heath. Smoky gray circles under his eyes, pale skin, a twinge of red streaks on his cheeks. The same twinge of red that Nick hadn’t realized was the beginning of a fever when he’d noticed it on Heath while they ate their noon meal on Monday.
As if he was reading Nick’s mind, Jeb
asked, “How’s Heath?”
“He’s doin’ okay. He’ll be fine. Just fine.”
A crooked grin touched Jeb’s lips. “Don’t lie to me, Nick.”
“Heath always says...” another coughing spasm interrupted the young man for a moment. “Heath always says you can’t look a person in the eye when you fib.”
Nick tried to act the part of put out older brother. “Oh he does now, does he?”
“Yep. And you wouldn’t look me in the eye just now so I know you’re lyin’. Heath’s not okay.”
Nick rubbed his palms over the thighs of his pants. This time his eyes met Jeb’s. “No, Jeb. No, Heath’s not okay. He’s...he’s pretty bad off right now.”
“He’ll pull through, Nick. I know he will. Heath...well him and I have gotten to be pretty good friends these last couple years.”
“I know that. And I appreciate how you looked past everyone’s prejudices regarding Heath and helped show the other men what a good guy he is.”
“Don’t thank me, Nick. Friendships...well they just happen. And because Heath’s my friend I know he hasn’t always had an easy life. He don’t talk much about it, never says nothin’ in a way that would make a person think he wants anyone to feel sorry for him or anything.”
“No. Heath’s got too much pride for that.”
“That’s some of it. But some of it...well, I don’t reckon he really looks back on his growin’ up years and thinks of them as all that bad. He has a lot of good memories of his mother and the home she made for him. I guess maybe her love kinda makes up for everything else in Heath’s mind.”
Nick gave a thoughtful nod. “Heath doesn’t talk to me about his mother very often, but I imagine you’re right.”
“Anyway, what I wanted to tell you is that Heath’s made it through a lot of rough spots in his life. He’ll make it through this one, too.”
“I know that, Jeb.” Nick smiled while patting the young man’s leg. “Now come on, let me help you get settled back down on this bunk. You want a glass of water? Some soup maybe?”
The cowboy shook his head as Nick helped him ease to a reclining position. He fought to keep his eyes open. “No. No, I don’t need anything. Thanks for offerin’ though.”
No, you don’t need anything but quinine. Nick looked around the room. You and everyone else in this building. And we have one dose for Heath. One dose. Will one dose really make that much difference in the long run? Could that make the difference between life and death for Heath, or life and death for someone in here? But Heath is sicker than these men. Even Jake says so.
As Nick walked out into the sunlight he wished for the wisdom of King Solomon while praying for a shipment of quinine to arrive on the next train.
During the afternoon hours the quinine reduced Heath’s fever to the point he was no longer delirious. Despite that, the disease had already taken its toll on the cowboy. He was weak and lethargic, seemingly unaware of who was in the room with him and unable to comply with what the person was asking him to do. As the day worn on Heath never became cognizant enough to eat which brought Audra to tears as she tried again and again to coax him into taking a bite of bread or a spoonful of soup.
The Barkleys worked in shifts that afternoon and evening. Like the day before they took turns at Heath’s bedside, taking their meals at the dining room table, and getting some rest. The normal exuberance that was a part of Victoria’s household by virtue of the personalities that lived there was missing. If Jarrod wasn’t helping with Heath then he was sitting at his father’s desk in the study attempting to do paperwork. But more often than not Victoria found him staring out the big windows that overlooked the ranch yard with deep worry lines creasing the skin of his forehead. Audra no longer bounded throughout the house as though she didn’t have a care in the world. Gone was that beautiful smile her father had loved so much and the teasing remarks she would normally toss to one of her brothers at the drop of a hat. And Nick...well, if Nick wasn’t sitting with Heath, or outside tending to the animals, or checking on their sick employees, then he wandered aimlessly from room to room. Victoria knew he was barely eating or sleeping. Even when Nick went to his bedroom to rest his mother would hear him pacing the floor or tossing and turning on the mattress; getting up, then lying back down, getting up, then lying back down; this cycle of torment repeating itself for hours at a time.
It was ten o’clock that night when Victoria took over at Heath’s bedside. She found Nick standing at a window, staring out at the moonless night. She walked up behind her son and placed her hands on his upper arms.
The cowboy turned his head just enough to look down at his mother. He gave her a weary smile and voiced a quiet, “Hi.”
“How have things been?”
Nick’s eyes traveled to his brother. Victoria felt, as well as saw, her son shrug his shoulders.
“About the same as they’ve been ever since Jake left. I’ve tried to get Heath to eat a couple times, but he’s too out of it to understand what I want him to do. Jarrod stopped in a little while ago and helped me force some soup down his throat, but in the end I think we did more harm than good.”
“It caused him to him choke,” the woman guessed.
“Yeah. He got to coughing so hard I thought he was gonna...well, let’s just say we won’t be doing that again.”
Victoria patted a soft hand against Nick’s back before releasing him. She walked over to the nightstand and straightened the items sitting on top of it. Nick returned to staring out at the darkness while his mother added fresh water to a bowl, refolded the clean towels that had been knocked askew, gathered up the wet towels, and covered the soup that had now turned cold. Victoria set the pot of soup on Heath’s dresser. She bent and picked up the sweat-soaked linens Nick had taken off the bed at some point. She folded them, laid the damp towels on top of them, then stacked everything outside Heath’s door for Jessybell or Silas to gather.
Victoria tried to lighten the mood when she stepped back into the room.
“We haven’t seen this much laundry since Audra and Eugene were both in diapers.”
Nick didn’t even crack a smile, nor did he face his mother when he spoke.
“Speaking of Gene, the next time Jake’s out here do you think we should have him telegram Gene about what’s happening? About Heath being sick?”
Victoria didn’t say what she was thinking. That by the time Gene got the telegram the crisis would be over and Heath would either be on the road to recovery or would be dead. If the latter turned out to be the case Gene and his wife, Anna, would never be able to arrive in time for the funeral.
“I think the best course of action is for me to write Gene and Anna a letter at the end of the week.”
Nick turned. “End of the week?”
Victoria did no more than nod her head. In that instant she could see Nick understood what she was saying. By the end of the week they’d know one way or another if Heath would be alive to see another day.
“I...yeah, I guess we might as well wait. I don’t suppose it makes much difference either way. It’s not like Gene’s gonna be able to get here if...if Heath...if...”
Nick didn’t have the heart to finish his sentence.
“Regardless of how far away he is, Gene would want to be here if he knew, Nick, and that’s what counts.”
The cowboy nodded and once again moved to gaze out at the velvet sky.
“Honey, why don’t you try to get some sleep.”
When her son didn’t answer Victoria crossed the room and placed a hand on his back. “Nick?”
“I...I didn’t realize until this week how much I’ve come to depend on him.”
“I know you do, sweetheart. We have a big operation. Heath has been a great help to you since he came to us.”
“No...I don’t mean that. The work. I mean...I...I guess ever since I was a kid I knew Jarrod would never be interested in running the ranch day after day. And by the time Gene was no more than nine or ten I knew he would never be interested in running the ranch either. But that didn’t really matter to me because there was Father. I knew Father and I would work together for years to come. But then Father died, and even though I never said anything, I was...lonely I guess you’d call it. I missed him. His laugh, his smile...I missed just having another Barkley to turn to for an opinion on a sick animal, or for his thoughts on a string of horses I wanted to buy. I missed having someone by my side that I could trust with my life. Heath...Heath’s given me back all those things. I didn’t just wake up one morning and realize that. It took a long time. Maybe even a couple years. But it’s like his presence has made me whole again. Has made running this ranch a joy again. I always wanted one of my brothers to be my partner. Years ago I thought that dream had died when I realized Eugene was meant for other things in this world just like Jarrod.” Nick shook his head as he looked at his sick brother. “Who would have ever thought it? The day he rode on this ranch and told me who he was...jeez, who would have thought it?”
“None of us,” Victoria smiled. “Not that night, and not for many nights to come. But God answers our prayers in very unexpected ways sometimes, Nick. I suppose you could say Heath’s arrival helped start the mending of the heartache you’d been carrying around inside you since the day your father died.”
“Yeah.” Nick pulled his mother to his chest. “Yeah, I suppose you could say that. If he...”
Victoria craned her head to look up at her son. His cheeks and chin were shadowed by beard stubble and dark circles ringed his eyes. In that regard he didn’t look any different from the sick man in the bed.
Nick’s voice was no more than a whisper. “If Heath...if he...I don’t know if I can bury my partner again. I don’t know if I have it in me.”
Victoria wanted to assure her son that without a doubt he possessed the strength he needed to face whatever life brought his way. But right now she knew any words she said would be lost on him, so she settled for wrapping her arms around his waist and holding him as tightly as she could. Nick clung to his mother a long moment, then released her without speaking. He paused for a second as he passed Heath’s bed. He reached down and laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Good night, Mo. I’ll be back in to check on you a little later.”
Victoria smiled at the nickname. She’d asked Heath once if it bothered him to have Nick call him that. The blond man had tossed her a crooked grin and said simply, “It beats being called ‘boy.’ Now that I hated.”
Without looking at his mother Nick shuffled out of the room.
Victoria turned the oil lamp to the softest glow possible then sat in the chair next to Heath’s bed. Though she doubted anyone was getting a restful night’s sleep the house was quiet. She heard Nick cross from the bathroom to his bedroom, then heard the slight squeak of his mattress as he laid down. When Heath started coughing she got up and closed his door. She moved back to her chair and sat by helplessly as the powerful spasms brought him off his pillows. There wasn’t much she could do to help him other than hold onto his shoulders to keep him from falling out of bed. When the fit passed he slumped back to the pillows without ever having opened his eyes. Victoria called his name, but he didn’t respond to her. She felt his face and realized his temperature was on the rise. She thought about giving him the last of the quinine, but decided to try to control the fever with cold compresses first. The quinine might be needed more as the night wore on than it was needed right now.
Victoria sponged the warm body. The wet towel moved from Heath’s forehead, to his cheeks, to his neck, to his shoulders, and finally ran over his chest. Time and time again the woman repeated this routine that she could now do in her sleep.
Twenty minutes later Victoria left the room for fresh water and warm soup. Even though she closed Heath’s door behind her Victoria could hear him coughing all the way in the kitchen. By the look on Silas’s face when he appeared from his bedroom down the back hall Victoria knew he could hear Heath as well. The black man didn’t say word as he took the pitcher from Victoria and filled it with cold water. The woman got a deep bowl from the cabinet, found a tin lid that would fit it, then placed both items on a small plate. She took the quilted potholder Silas handed her and lifted the lid on the soup he’d left warming on the stove. She cocked an eyebrow at her house servant.
“Beef vegetable soup? Now, Silas, I know Heath didn’t eat all the chicken soup you made Tuesday morning.”
“No, ma’am. He hasn’t hardly been eatin’ a morsel of anything. But Mr. Heath loves my beef vegetable soup. He tells me so every time I make it. I thought maybe he’d eat some of it for us.”
“It was very kind of you to go to the extra work on Heath’s behalf. I know how busy both you and Jessy have been since he got sick. I don’t know what we would have done without the two of you.”
“Me and Jessy don’t mind none, Mrs. Barkley. Not one bit we don’t. Besides, I haven’t had much cookin’ to do ‘cause not a one of you is eatin’ more than a baby bird. Why I put leftovers in front of Mr. Nick two nights in a row now and he hasn’t even noticed.”
“About the only thing Nick’s going to take notice of is the day Doctor Sheridan pronounces Heath well and fit.”
“And that day will come, ma’am. I know it will. With as hard as we’re all prayin’ it just has to.”
Victoria patted Silas’s hand. He carried the pitcher of water up the stairs while she carried the soup. Silas replenished the water in the bowl then lingered a moment to see if Victoria needed any further assistance. The woman assured him she had everything under control.
“You look tired, Silas. Go on back to bed.”
Silas nodded. He paused for a moment beside Heath. The blond man’s face was flushed and dark circles like bruises were sunk deep beneath his eyes. Silas rested a hand on the cowboy’s shoulder.
“Heath, it’s your old friend Silas. I want you to eat all the soup Mrs. Barkley brought for you. It’s beef vegetable. I diced carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes in it just the way you like it. I made ‘em real small so you can even swallow ‘em if it’s easier for you.”
Heath’s eyes fluttered open. Victoria immediately noticed the glassy quality that broadcast the severity of his illness and fever. Silas spoke to Heath again, but the blond man didn’t attempt to focus on him. Silas waited a few more seconds, then gave Heath’s shoulder a squeeze before leaving the room. The old man shut the bedroom door then stopped in the hallway long enough to retrieve the dirty linens and say another prayer.
Victoria set the soup on the nightstand, then strained to pull Heath forward and rest his upper body against her shoulder. She worked around his limp weight, straightening his pile of pillows with one hand while holding onto his slick shoulders with the other. When she laid him back against the pillows he was almost sitting straight up.
Heath couldn’t recall ever experiencing a stranger day. Opening his eyes, something he’d always done automatically, now took all the concentration he could muster. And even then, more often than not he failed. It seemed to Heath as though someone was always moving him; carrying him from one room to another, rolling him from his right side to his left, trying to get him to walk to God knows where. He remembered two men being on either side of him attempting to bear his weight. He had no idea who they were, or what they wanted of him, or where they were taking him, and then his legs gave out from underneath him. The next thing Heath knew he was back in bed and being encouraged to make use of a chamber pot so maybe he’d told one of the men he needed to go to the bathroom, but if he did voice any such thing he didn’t remember doing so.
Sometime during the afternoon the features of these people who were attending him grew into a foggy blur. At times he could identify the blue of someone’s eyes, or recognize the gray in a shirt, but it was as if those splashes of color had been painted on nameless, faceless ghosts, and it scared him.
The woman was back now though. He wasn’t frightened of her. Her touch was always cool against his hot skin and she never pounded on his back like that loud man did. He tried to bring her face into focus as she spooned soup to his mouth. He didn’t feel like eating. Nothing had any taste, and when he swallowed it felt like he had jagged pieces of broken glass sticking to the insides of his throat. But she wanted him to try. He could hear her saying it over and over again, “Try for me, Heath. Please, sweetheart, try to eat a little something.” So he did try because for some reason he knew he never wanted to disappoint her. When he started to cough and upset the soup bowl in the process she didn’t even get angry. She jumped up as though she was worried the hot soup would burn him. He felt the liquid splatter his naked chest and shoulders, but he was already hot so really, what harm could it do?
Victoria moved quickly to mop up the spilled soup. She used a damp cloth to clean the mess off Heath. He hadn’t even flinched when the scalding liquid hit his bare skin, and showed no reaction now as Victoria dabbed at the angry red blotches on his chest.
The woman surveyed for further damage. She didn’t see any spills on the sheet that covered Heath from the waist down, or on the pillowcases. She exchanged the towel she was using for a new one. She dipped it in water, wrung it out, and wiped it over Heath’s face. His eyes were only half open but Victoria saw them trying to follow her every move. She reseated herself and smiled at the blond man.
“Are you feeling a little better, sweetheart?”
Heath didn’t answer her, but that didn’t stop Victoria from keeping up a steady stream of soft chatter.
“Jake was here to see you this morning. He said you’re going to be just fine. Nick’s been taking care of Charger so you don’t need to worry about him. I’m going to write Eugene and Anna a letter on Saturday. What would you like me to tell them for you? Audra’s been--”
Right in the middle of Victoria’s sentence a word was whispered in a voice so raspy and inaudible she almost didn’t hear it.
“What, sweetheart? What did you say?”
“Yes, Heath. Mother’s here. I’m right here with you.”
Heath struggled to push himself off his pillows. He strained to see the woman’s face while Victoria’s hands held him firm.
“No, Heath. No. You lie still. You can’t get out of bed unless Jarrod or Nick are in here with you. Do you want me to get one of them?”
“Yes, honey. I’m here.”
Heath lay back against the pillows like she wanted him to. He’d do anything for her. Anything. He fished with his right hand until he came in contact with hers. He grasped the fine-boned hand and gave it a weak squeeze.
“Mama. Mama, I’m so happy you’re here.”
It was then that Victoria realized Heath thought she was Leah. She opened her mouth to gently correct him, but when a smile of pure joy lit his flushed face she didn’t have the heart to say anything other than, “I’m glad I’m here, too, Heath.”
Heath’s sentences formed in long, drawn out gasps as he tried to get enough air to speak. Victoria patiently allowed him to finish each thought.
“I’ve missed you, Mama.”
“I know you have, honey. And I’ve missed you, too.”
“I’m sorry...there’s lots of things I’m sorry for.”
“Heath, shush. There’s nothing you need to apologize for.”
“I gave you so much trouble...when I was a teenager. I gave you so much grief. I shouldn’t...shouldn’t have done that.”
Victoria answered in the exact way she thought Leah might have if she was really here and having this conversation with her son.
“You were a boy, Heath. Just a boy. A boy who had to become a man far too soon. A boy who started working when he was only six years old in order to help his mother make ends meet. You have nothing to be sorry for, son.”
Heath seemed to lose his focus on both the conversation and Victoria for a moment. His eyes traveled the room until they came to rest on a far corner. Heath stared so intently for such a long time Victoria turned to look herself. But as she already knew, there was nothing there except a wooden coat rack that held two leather vests, Heath’s gun belt, saddlebags, and hat.
Heath shook his head several times as though he was firmly telling someone no. Then he turned to face Victoria once more.
“Mama, I don’t want to leave here.”
“And I don’t want you to leave here either, sweetheart.”
“No...I mean...no, I can’t go with you. Not now. Nick...Nick needs my help.”
“Of course he does. Nick’s counts on you in more ways than any us can imagine. I understand that.”
“I...I like it here, Mama. I like it here a lot.”
Victoria slipped out of her role a moment when she answered with, “And we like having you here, Heath.”
“I call her mother.”
“I call her...Mrs. Barkley...I call her mother now. I...I’ve thought about that a lot. Worried about it some. I...I don’t want it to make you sad, Mama.”
“Oh, honey, no. No, it doesn’t make me sad. All of us, every single one of us, will have many people in our lifetimes we grow to love. What we call them doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve found your father’s family doesn’t mean you’ll ever forget me. I know that, Heath. Besides, no mother can stand the thought of her child being alone in this world no matter how old that child might be.”
Heath rubbed his thumb over Victoria’s hand. “She’s good to me, Mama. So good. She always has been. Since the day I came here. She’s not highfalutin like some of them rich folks we knew in Strawberry. She’s nice...and down to earth...and fun...gentle...real gentle...but tougher than a wildcat when she needs to be. But most of all...she’s just special to me. I hope that’s okay with you. I hope I done right by you, Mama, where Mrs. Barkley is concerned.”
Victoria could barely speak around her tears. She bent and kissed the man’s forehead. “Yes, Heath, you’ve done right by me.”
By the time Victoria straightened, the exhausted man was asleep. For that she was glad. She didn’t want Heath to see her cry.
Monica stood in front of Heath’s coat rack with Tess standing next to her.
“He’s not ready to let go, Tess. That’s why he shook his head at us.”
“No, Angel Girl, by far he’s not ready to let go.”
“Heath Barkley, he’s a fighter he is. And so bull headed, as I believe the expression goes.”
“Yes, when it comes to hanging onto something he loves that’s so.”
“Though I guess all humans love life. If they could only fully comprehend the beauty of God’s heaven they wouldn’t so stubbornly cling to their earthly forms.”
“It’s not life Mr. Barkley loves, Monica.”
“Not in the sense that he’s not willing to give his life up if that’s God command. He loves this place, that woman sitting next to him, the home she’s made for him, the brothers and sister he found here. It’s his family he loves. That’s what Heath Barkley clings to.”
“Oh, Tess, sometimes it’s hard to be an angel. I know where Mr. Barkley is going is so much better than where he is, but it also pains me to think of how his passing will hurt his family.”
“Heath Barkley is going somewhere, Angel Girl, but not quite the place you think.”
“Come along now. We need to get a move on ourselves. We have a lot of work to do before he arrives.”
“Why Mr. Barkley of course.”
“Never you mind. You just trust in the Lord and follow me.”
Monica gave one last glance to the sick man on the bed and the crying woman sitting beside him. She shrugged her shoulders and said softly, “See you later, Heath Barkley,” before turning to follow Tess out of the room.