|Angels and Broken Hearts|
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.
|A sad ending to this alternate world story.|
Victoria couldn't help thinking how appropriate the weather was considering the task she was about to embark upon. It had been three long and hellish days since the gunmen hired by the railroad had killed her husband of 31 years. And Heath..........everyone had spent sleepless nights imagining and wondering what had happened to the boy. That mystery had been solved just an hour earlier when one of the gunmen not involved in the ambush had ridden onto the ranch and told them where Heath's body could be found. Tomorrow would have been his 18th birthday and instead they would be burying him.
Victoria closed her eyes, letting the images of Heath and Tom flood her mind. Heath had been twelve years old when he came to live with them. It had taken some time before the boy learned to trust and feel comfortable with his family, especially with her. She had seen the longing to reach out to her in his light blue eyes but, as he later confided in her, he was afraid she resented his existence and would reject his need for a mother's comfort at the lowest point in his life. Eventually the walls came down and they formed a mother and son bond as strong as she shared with Nick and Jarrod. Now she was faced with the death of her son; a loving, caring, quiet and sensitive boy who had died too soon and so needlessly.
As she viewed the overcast sky and drizzling rain through the window she couldn't help but shed tears. It was so unfair to Tom, Heath and the entire family. How would, could her heart ever recover from the blow of losing both her husband and son at one time? Tom had been such a vital part of not only his family and ranch but also the whole valley and Heath was just starting to grow into the man he would have become. She smiled through her tears as she pictured an awkward and gangly boy, all legs and feet, on the verge of manhood; such a promising future that he was robbed of ever experiencing.
Each of her other children were suffering through their sorrow in their own distinct ways. Jarrod had become the man of the house and, though he was making decisions wisely, he had retreated into a shell of invincible armor where it appeared he was in complete control when in truth he was coming apart at the seams. She wished Jarrod would allow himself to weep for his father and brother or even scream and yell his frustration and anger. Nick was allowing his anger to show but was keeping his sorrow in tight check. Audra seemed to be the only one of her children who was taking a healthy approach to the loss of Tom and Heath by not only venting her anger but also crying for a father and brother whose lives had been so brutally taken from her.
Jarrod and Nick had both protested when she announced she would be going with them and the sheriff to recover Heath's body but she would not be swayed from her decision. As difficult as she knew it would be to see how her youngest son's body had been carelessly thrown aside she felt she owed it to him to be there. It would be her last chance to offer him a mother's presence and love. Her gaze locked on the heavens and silently she spoke to her husband. Please, hold our boy every once in a while Tom. Always remind him how much he is loved. Oh, how I fear his last moments were filled with terror. I wonder if he called out for me. Please, let him know just how precious he is to all of us and how much our lives are enriched for knowing him. Her thoughts were interrupted by Nick's voice, uncharacteristically soft and gentle.
"Mother, the horses are ready and the sheriff is waiting." She offered a prayer to Heath before walking out into the cold rain. We are coming to bring you home, son. Soon you will be able to rest in peace. Never forget I love you and I already miss you and your father so much that my heart is breaking.
The drizzling rain had grown into an out and out downpour and the ground under the horses' hoofs became soggy. The party of riders was each totally alone with his or her thoughts as they rode to their destination; no one would even entertain the thought of turning back. Heath was out there and they fully well intended to bring his body home tonight, no matter what.
Victoria concentrated on each of her sons. Jarrod's normally calm demeanor was now filled with a visible rage boiling just under the surface. Nick was abnormally quiet. She knew he was struggling to deal with the deaths of a father he admired and idolized and a brother he loved deeply.
She recalled how difficult Heath's first days had been with Nick. Nick had been furious with Tom for his unfaithfulness and Heath had been the target of his anger. Of all the family members, Nick was the one Heath desperately longed to please and be friends with but Nick held him at arms length. Although Nick never physically attacked Heath his obvious disdain and hurtful words had cut the boy deeply.
It took a lashing out at Tom to release the anger inside of Nick and allow him to become more than just a brother to Heath but a best friend. Tom had instigated the confrontation, directing Nick's pent up emotions where they belonged. Afterwards Nick worked to mend the damage he had done to his relationship with Heath. He had always wanted a little brother and, thankfully, Heath was willing to forgive and forget the words and slights he had suffered from Nick to be that awestruck little brother.
Over the last six years the two boys had grown so close that they were nearly inseparable. She knew the hurt Nick was experiencing by Heath's death would never completely heal. She could only hope he would learn how to remember their brief time together with happiness and fondness.
As they neared the place where Heath was murdered they unconsciously slowed their horses. Even though they wanted to bring his body home for proper burial, none of them was looking forward to what they would see.
Victoria recalled the conversation with the gunman. He told them he had overheard the men responsible bragging about what they had done. Bragging about ambushing and killing Tom was horrible enough but how could any man be proud of murdering an innocent boy?
The man had hesitated to tell her the details of Heath's death but she had demanded he tell her everything, a demand she regretted when his story was finished.
Tom and Heath had headed out on Saturday morning to go fishing. Once a month Tom spent time alone with each of his children and last Saturday had been set aside for Heath. But, unknown to her husband and son, they were not alone. The railroad's hired gunmen had followed them and struck before they had even reached the pond.
Tom had been shot three times; each individual shot would have been enough to have accomplished its purpose. From what the man had told her Heath had witnessed his father's murder and had managed to wound one of the gunmen when he returned fire. Apparently realizing he stood no chance in a gun battle against five experienced killers he attempted to outrun them. In the ensuing chase Heath's horse was shot out from under him and that is when the torture began.
Heath had barely risen to his feet when the man he had wounded barreled his horse into and over his body. The man was angry that a wet-behind-the-ears boy had shot him and he intended to teach the boy a lesson before killing him.
The other men had stood by and watched her son's ordeal, laughing and encouraging Heath's tormentor. Heath was beaten into unconsciousness with fists, feet, a whip and even a dead tree branch. The gunman then dragged his body to the edge of the ridge and pushed him over the side. All five men had watched his body tumble to the bottom. Before leaving the wounded gunman had stood on top of the ridge and nonchalantly fired five bullets at her son's still form.
Upon reaching the ridge everyone fanned out and began to search for Heath. It wasn't long before the sheriff signaled his discovery by firing three shots into the air.
Everyone raced to where the sheriff sat his horse, looking down to the bottom of the ridge. As Victoria viewed Heath's still and lifeless body her heart sank ever lower. The evidence of his death overwhelmed her.
In total silence Jarrod and Nick began to make their descent to the bottom of the ridge. Heath was their brother and they believed it was their duty and right to be allowed to retrieve his body alone, even Victoria remained behind. She knew that her two sons wanted time alone with their brother. To be able to say goodbye and I love you without intrusion by outsiders. It was to be a moment shared between brothers and even she was not welcome.
Victoria held her breath as Jarrod and Nick gingerly picked their way down the steep and treacherous slope. She didn't draw a breath again until they were safely at the bottom. She watched as they dismounted, walked to Heath's body and kneeled beside the brother they loved so dearly. With the utmost care they gently turned him over and looked at each other. Suddenly Nick jumped to his feet and yelled up the slope.
"MOTHER, WE NEED YOU DOWN HERE!" He said nothing more as he returned to Heath's side. Victoria felt a surge of hope: surely her youngest son was still alive, why else would Jarrod and Nick need her to come down? She fought the urge to hurl herself and her horse down the slope, instead maintaining a steady and careful descent. Upon gaining the firm, level ground at the bottom of the ridge Nick hurried over to help her off her horse.
"Nick, is he...." Nick's excited voice cut her off.
"He's still alive, Mother. I don't know how but he's still alive." Victoria ran the remaining distance to where Heath lay. Jarrod was trying to determine exactly how badly injured Heath was when she kneeled beside them.
His appearance frightened her. He was deathly pale and barely recognizable. Both his face and torso were swollen, bruised and bloody from the beating he had taken. Each breath he drew was labored and wheezing. Jarrod was still removing his clothing with Nick's help when her impatient hands began to roam over his battered body. With each injury her hands detected her hopes began to sink.
Either from being run over by the horse or tumbling down the slope both lower legs, his right upper leg and his left arm were broken. The break to his left lower leg was open with the bone sticking out of the wound. She could feel several broken ribs. His entire body was covered with bruises and lacerations with a particularly nasty, deep and long laceration to the back of his head. On top of these injuries his body was extremely cold from exposure to the weather.
Victoria used water from her canteen and the remains of Heath's undershirt to clean the mud from his body in order to locate the bullet wounds. He had taken two bullets each in his lower left belly and his left shoulder. The fifth bullet had struck the left side of his pelvis between his groin and hip. She knew that if any arteries or major organs had been struck Heath would not still be alive. Victoria leaned close to his ear and whispered encouragement to him.
"Hang in there, son. We'll get you home I promise but you have to keep fighting." She wasn't sure if her words were able to penetrate his unconsciousness but she knew if they did it would provide him comfort to know she was with him.
Nick had already sent one of the hands to town for Dr. Merar. Because of the dangerous terrain the men were forced to traverse the ridge until they found a safer place to bring the wagon down. In the meantime Victoria, Jarrod and Nick did all they could to stabilize Heath's broken bones and keep him warm.
She was amazed by the careful and tender handling Jarrod and Nick gave Heath when they carried him to the wagon, you would have thought they were walking on eggshells. Victoria and Jarrod climbed in the back with Heath while Nick took the reins and started for home.
Victoria placed all her faith in the fact that since Heath had fought this long and hard to stay alive he must have an incredible will to live and would not give up easily. She understood that she could still lose her son and knew that if he survived his recovery would be lengthy.
It took them nearly two hours to arrive home and Dr. Merar was already waiting. Heath was rushed to his room where the doctor began his examination and treatment of Heath's injuries.
For once Victoria was grateful for Heath's lingering unconsciousness as Howard set his broken bones and sutured the lacerations that required stitches to heal. At least the boy was spared that pain.
The removal of the bullets in his belly, shoulder and pelvic area was gruesome and Howard left the wounds open to be cleaned and disinfected daily. He informed the family that he believed Heath's individual injuries would heal but that was to be the last good news they would hear for quite some time.
Heath's ragged, struggling and wheezing breaths only increased Victoria's fear and concern as she recalled Dr. Merar's cautionary words. Heath's injuries were severe enough on their own but the pneumonia that had taken a firm and deathly grip on his lungs was threatening to take him away from her. All they could do, besides pray, was force fluids into him.
No matter whether it was sustained during the beating or tumbling down the slope, Heath's brain had suffered a severe concussion. The lingering unconsciousness it was causing made the task of getting fluids into him difficult. This was accomplished in minuscule amounts by soaking a washcloth in water and squeezing the hydration he so desperately needed into his mouth drop by precious drop. At the same time Victoria had to gently rub his throat to encourage him to swallow.
The first few hours had been dedicated to rewarming his dangerously cold body. The elation brought by the success of their efforts quickly vanished when he began running a raging fever. They had struggled to bring his temperature back down with repeated bathing of his burning body. Thankfully, his temperature had fallen and, although he still had a slight fever, it was under control.
She listened as he fought for each breath and watched with growing fear as his abdominal and neck muscles began to strain in their efforts to assist with his breathing. For the first time since finding her son she began to have serious doubts about his survival.
The days stretched into weeks but Heath continued his valiant fight to stay alive. He had regained consciousness six days after they had brought him home. The small slivers of blue peeking out between his swollen eyelids had overjoyed Victoria. He had attempted to speak but his continued battle to draw each breath prevented it. She had smiled and softly reassured him. Her soothing voice eased his fear and, with the aid of laudanum, he had fallen into a deep sleep.
Each day since had been filled with moments of brief joy and utter terror for the family. For nearly a two-week period Heath's breathing would appear to improve only to stop suddenly. Each time this happened the family would barely reach his side when he would just as suddenly inhale deeply and continue his fight for air. Victoria had feared these episodes were a signal to the end but eventually they had stopped occurring completely and Heath's respirations became less and less labored until he was able to breath without struggle.
"Victoria I have to honestly say I didn't expect the boy to live but he seems to be recovering remarkably well considering all he has suffered. I can only attribute this miracle to your wonderful care."
"No, Howard, it wasn't just my care. I believe Heath's incredible inner strength, determination and, forgive me, his stubborn cussedness are more responsible for his recovery than anything I have done." Howard chuckled at Victoria's response.
"You just may be right, Victoria. I believe he is past the worse now but it will be a long time before he is fully recovered. I suggest three more weeks of bed rest and confinement followed by limited and closely monitored household activities. I will re-evaluate him at that time to decide if he is ready for outdoor activities. Good day, Victoria."
"Thank you, Howard." Howard tipped his hat and walked out the door.
Victoria thought back on his comment; Heath's recovery up to now had truly been a miracle, even if it had taken seven months to get this far. Her son shouldn't have survived and most people, given the same injuries and illness, wouldn't have but she believed more than just her care and Heath's will was responsible. She hadn't told Howard but she honestly felt two angels had acted on Heath's behalf. Two stubborn and unrelenting angels who surely must have convinced God that Heath still had many great and wonderful things to accomplish here on earth.
The next three weeks flew by and in no time Heath was making forays downstairs. Victoria was initially relieved by his total compliance with no outdoor activities but his lack of rebellion against the confinement began to worry her. Normally Heath would be chomping at the bit to get outside but now he seemed to care less if he ever received permission to walk out in the sunshine again.
Victoria was slightly concerned that he was so pitifully thin that even she was able to catch him and prevent him from falling when his weakness caused him to falter. However, she believed that an increase in physical activity would restore his voracious appetite. Unfortunately this proved not to be the case, he would only pick at the food on his plate and continued to lose weight at an alarming rate. It all came to a boil one evening at supper as Victoria pressed Heath to eat.
"Heath, please eat something. You will never regain your strength if you continue to just push your food around your plate without eating any of it." Heath lethargically lifted his head to look at her but still did not eat anything. Nick's fear for his brother caused him to lose his temper.
"All right, boy, we are all worried by how much weight you're losing so you are not leaving this table until you clean every last morsel from your plate, even if I have to feed it to you." Victoria watched her two mule headed sons lock gazes and wait each other out. Eventually Heath's weakness and exhaustion caused him to give in and he began spooning food into his mouth. She had no idea at the time the sorrow that was about to overtake their lives.
Heath had retired to his bedroom immediately after finishing his meal. Victoria could not understand her youngest son's melancholy but knew he was harboring some deep and hurtful emotions that he needed to share. When she opened his door her thoughts about how to get her son to start talking were erased by the sound of Heath retching.
She was horrified by the amount of frothy blood mixed in with the vomitus. She ran to his door and yelled for Nick to ride for the doctor and returned to his side. When the vomiting ceased she cleaned him up and gently eased him onto the bed. She listened to the all too familiar wheezing as his chest rose and fell and waited for the doctor to arrive.
Dr. Merar requested Jarrod and Nick's presence before he would relate his findings. Victoria would never be able to shake the images and words from her mind as they stood in the hallway and listened to Howard's prediction.
"I'm afraid the pneumonia has returned and is far more advanced than before. I suggest everyone use this time with Heath wisely." Although he knew what the doctor meant Nick couldn't help asking for clarification.
"What exactly are you saying, Doc?" Howard sighed deeply before answering.
"Heath is dying. At the most he only has a day or two to live. There is nothing any of us can do to prevent it. We can only try to make him more comfortable with medication." Victoria, Jarrod and Nick stood in stunned silence.
Victoria silently raged at God. Dying, my boy is dying. He is literally drowning in his own fluids. Why? Why give us hope and let us believe he was recovering only to take him away? What purpose has prolonging his suffering served? Damn you, for deciding to take him now.
Heath awoke in the early morning hours to see his mother and brothers beside him. Audra had been in the room earlier but had been sent to bed several hours ago. Each breath he took was painful and he knew the end was near but not before he spoke with his mother. He reached for her and struggled to sit up. She helped him gain a seated position and wrapped her arms around him as he leaned into her comforting embrace. His voice was weak as he struggled to speak each word.
"I'm sorry, Mother." She wiped the tears running down his face.
"For what, dear?"
"For not saving Father. I should have reacted quicker. Please forgive me." She began to rock him back and forth.
"Sweetheart, those men were experienced killers. There was nothing you could have done to stop them. There was nothing anyone could have done."
"But if I had never come here, Father would not have been out there that day. He died because of a stupid fishing trip."
"No, Heath, he died because he was standing up for the underdog and, if he could, he would tell you that even his death was worth every second he spent with you. You are dear to all of us and every day we have had with you has been precious." Heath's breathing became even more labored.
"Thank you, Mother. I love you. I love all of you." Victoria knew that Heath wasn't just thanking her for her words but for so much more: sitting with him anytime he was ill or injured, helping with his studies, her hugs and kisses, her compassion and understanding, listening when he needed to talk, not condemning his mother and most of all for accepting and loving him not like a son but because in her eyes he is her son.
"You're so welcome, son."
"I'm scared to die."
"Everyone is scared to die, sweetheart, but your brothers, sister and I will help you begin the journey." Heath had turned his face to the window and suddenly she felt the tension leave his body and noticed his breathing ease.
"Do you see them, Mother?" Victoria's gaze followed his to the window.
"See what, sweetheart?"
"The angels. There are two of them. I think they are here to take me away." Victoria brushed the tears from her cheeks and hugged Heath tighter as she replied.
"Yes, sweetheart, I can't see them but I'm sure those angels are Tom and Leah. We can only be with you at the start of your journey but they are here to see you to the end. Don't be afraid, they are your guardian angels." Jarrod had retrieved Audra and now they, along with Nick, were kneeling by their mother and brother and were lovingly holding onto Heath's hands. Victoria stroked his cheek as his eyes slowly closed.
"I love you, son. We all love you. Never forget that." His siblings' voices joined his mother's in sending him toward the angels.
"We love you, Heath. We will always love you. You will always be with us in our hearts. Go to the angels. We can't keep you any longer, you belong with them now." As Victoria felt Heath's spirit leave his body she realized the reason he had not died before; he had needed to rid himself of the guilt over his father's death and they had all needed to tell him exactly how much of an impact he had on their lives. The angels were setting him free by leading him home and she could now begin the process of allowing her heart to heal. Victoria whispered one last favor to her son's angels.
"Embrace him, hold him tight, Tom and Leah, and ease his fears. Please, guide him safely over."