|An Angel on Earth, Part 1|
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 Big Valley-Touched By An Angel Crossover Story|
The two women sat atop their horses on a distant hill that rose high above the surrounding ground. Using the tip of one finger Monica nudged the brim of her cowboy hat further back on her forehead. Even here, on California's range, her Irish brogue came through loud and clear.
"I feel just like John Wayne, Tess."
The plump black woman eyed her friend. "John Wayne?"
"Oh yes." The young angel swung her right arm in a circle high above her head as though she was getting ready to toss a rope. "I can see the doggies right in front of me."
"Calves, Tess. Little cows. Wee ones that need to be returned to the herd."
"I know what doggies are, Angel Girl. And would you put your arm down. You look like Phil Jackson signaling Michael Jordan to make a basket."
"Now that was a fun assignment."
"By virtue of the fact that it didn't involve me sittin' my big old butt on a horse, I'd have to agree."
"Aw, Tess, what's wrong? Don't you like Noah?"
"I like Noah just fine. It's this horse I'm not too fond of."
"Tess, that's your horse's name. Noah."
"Oh. Well,...I suppose that makes sense since the Noah I'm acquainted with does have a soft spot for animals. But I'd sure like to get a hold of the man who first decided these creatures made for good transportation, 'cause to tell you the truth, Angel Girl, this here horse ain't near as comfortable as those plush leather seats in my red convertible."
"Then why aren't we using it?"
"Because we've gone back in time, child. Mr. Ford hasn't invented the automobile yet, which explains our current means of travel."
"How exciting. Am I going to ride the range? Be a rootin' tootin' cowgirl? Maybe tour with a Wild West show?"
"None of the above. Your role is to guide another angel through his first assignment."
"I don't know. I haven't been told all the details yet. But there," Tess pointed to a flat piece of ground far below them, "there goes the young man who will become the focus of our work."
"He's a cowboy."
"He surely is."
"And a handsome one at that; riding a fine horse and wearing a beautiful coat. The sign of a man who spares no expense."
"Don't let looks deceive you, Angel Girl. This one had a humble beginning and he's never forgotten where he came from. He has no doubts that if all he now possesses was taken from him tomorrow, he wouldn't suffer for a moment provided he still has his family by his side."
"He sounds like a man who knows what really matters in this world. Why does he need us?"
"Although Heath Barkley,...."
"Is that his name?"
"Heath Barkley. Ah, a strong name of the Scottish highlands it is. And because of that I'd venture to say he's a strong man."
"If by a strong man you mean Mr. Barkley has lived through his fair share of trials and come out a victor, you're correct, Angel Girl. But this time,...well this time,.."
Seemingly from nowhere another rider joined the pair. Monica turned in the saddle to greet her blond colleague.
"Andrew, what are you doing here?"
The Angel Of Death shrugged his shoulders. "God will reveal that to all of us in due time, Monica, including me. However; I've been told I'll be assisting many people in making the final journey into their Father's loving arms."
"Including Heath Barkley?"
The handsome angel nodded as he looked at the lone rider below. "Yes. Including Heath Barkley."Chapter 1
Heath's horse trotted underneath him. According to the calendar it was early spring, but patches of snow still clung to the ground. The cowboy used the reins to guide the animal around the slick spots that remained from the icy rain that had fallen a week ago. The slate gray sky was flat and lifeless, belaying any signs of green grass and tree buds. A chilly wind blew across the desolate hillside making it feel more like January than April.
Heath used one gloved hand to pull his fur-lined collar closer around his neck. The expensive sheepskin coat had been a Christmas present from the woman he now called mother. Three years had passed since he'd first come to live with his father's family. He thought back to the bitter, angry man he'd been when he'd arrived. and how a tiny, regal lady had changed him.
Victoria Barkley didn't have to accept him. After all, Heath was the product of her husband's extramarital affair. Granted, by virtue of that Victoria's sons and daughter were Heath's half-siblings, but when he'd come to the Barkley ranch that day in January of 1876 it hadn't been with the intention of forming a bond with this family he didn't know. Heath was ashamed now, to acknowledge he'd come to claim what was his. He'd grown up poor, the illegitimate child of a young woman who had worked hard all her short life to provide for him and raise him right. His mother, Leah Thomson, had been beautiful woman. A woman who could have gone far in this world had she not given birth out of wedlock and then been forced to make a living for herself and her child in a small town that offered few prospects to a person of her position. Ironically enough, Leah and Victoria shared an identical build and similar features.
It was Victoria who stopped Heath from leaving three years earlier. After all the uproar with the railroad was over Nick handed him a bank draft for more money than he'd ever seen in his life. Heath would have ridden away that day with that draft in his pocket and never seen his siblings again had it not been for Victoria's challenge. He was headed for the door when she appeared seemingly out of nowhere and spoke in a quiet tone of steel.
"You're angry with your father, young man, and I don't blame you. I'm angry with him, too. But it will do neither of us any good to harbor ill-will against a man who is incapable of defending himself. If Tom were alive, perhaps he'd have an explanation for us, but he's dead and it's quite possible we'll never have any answers. We both have to learn to live with that fact, Heath."
Heath turned around and stared at the woman across the wide foyer. When he'd arrived at the ranch five days earlier he'd never given Tom Barkley's widow a thought. Never considered what his appearance would do to a woman who had assumed her husband had been faithful to her throughout twenty-eight years of marriage. Ever since Heath had come to discover who his father was he'd felt only hate for the wealthy rancher. He'd never thought further as to what the news of his existence would do to the wife and children Tom Barkley had left behind.
The blond man saw the hurt in Victoria's eyes that day. But he also saw an inner strength not unlike the strength he'd seen in his own mother's eyes when he was a child.
"The only way you can really get to know your father now is by getting to know Jarrod, Nick, Audra, and Eugene. By getting to know your brothers and sister."
Heath didn't reply, not certain what it was the woman was proposing.
She saw his confusion and gave him a soft smile. "You can stay here, Heath. For as long as you'd like. Whether it be a day, a week, a year,.. or for much longer than that, you owe this to yourself. I sense the hatred that's inside you slices deep into your heart. Let the boys and Audra help you see another side of the man who is father to all of you."
Heath stood in that foyer unable to move. Staying at the Barkley ranch had been the last thing on his mind. He hadn't been in residence a week, yet he and Nick already had a strong dislike for one another. Nick made it no secret he was anxious to see Heath go. The blond man wasn't sure how the rest of his siblings felt, but if nothing else Heath knew they were shocked and hurt, and blamed him for the desecration of their father's memory no matter how true his story might be.
Victoria seemed able to read his thoughts. Or maybe he was more like his half-brothers than he knew, meaning she could discern the fleeting emotions on his face.
"It won't be easy, I can promise you that. Tom was a well-respected man in this valley. There will be many people who doubt your word. Doubt that you are who you say you are. But myself, I've never worried about what other people say, and after the hard life you've been forced to live I'm willing to bet you don't put much stock in the gossip of others either. As far as your brothers and sister go," Victoria shrugged her shoulders, "it will take time for them to accept you. Maybe they never will. Or maybe you'll never come to accept them."
After a long pause Heath spoke for the first time. "Jarrod, Audra, and Eugene,...I guess I could give it a try with them. But Nick,...well Nick and I haven't exactly hit it off."
Heath thought he saw a twinkle in Victoria's eyes as a slight smile danced around her lips. "You hate each other."
Heath nodded, hiding his own smile. "That's pretty much the size of it."
Victoria raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps the two of you are more alike than you know."
"You both have the Barkley temper."
Heath had no answer for the woman, but then he got the impression she didn't expect one.
"So what will it be?"
Heath thought a long moment before replying. He hadn't admitted fear to anyone, not even himself, since he was a child. Not when he was eight and worked far beneath the earth in Strawberry's mines, not when he was sixteen and left home for places unknown, not when he was seventeen and fighting Reb soldiers, nor when he spent eight months in atrocious conditions in a POW camp, nor when he was scouting Apaches for a wagon train, or was the deputy sheriff in the town of Jubilee. But in truth what Victoria Barkley was proposing to him was scarier than all those other things combined. He already felt so out of place. How would he ever fit in with the brothers and sister who had grown up with everything he'd grown up without? Would they go on resenting him for hurting their mother and soiling their father's name, or would they slowly get to know him? And even if they did get to know each other, would they come to like him, and him them? Maybe it would be easier to just leave. After all, he did get what he came for, the portion of Tom Barkley's wealth that was his birth right.
And that's when his mother's face came to mind. Leah Thomson had always been so brave and strong no matter how difficult things became. She'd never run from anything. Not even the narrow minded attitudes of a small town, nor the malicious gossip she was the focal point of because she'd birthed an illegitimate child and then kept him, as opposed to sending him off to an orphanage when he was no more than hours old. Heath knew his mother would be ashamed of him if she saw how he'd conducted himself the last five days. She'd remind him that she'd raised him better than that. That she hadn't raised him to hurt good people. To hurt people who had nothing to do with his pain. And she'd remind him that above all else, she'd always taught him to be an honorable man and to never feel sorry for himself. Because his mother taught him all those lessons, Heath was well aware of what she'd want him to do now.
"I,...I guess I'll stay on a while. If that's okay with you."
"I wouldn't have asked you to if it wasn't."
Heath nodded and turned toward the door. He was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. All he wanted to do was lie down on his bunk in the ten-man bunk house where he'd been put up the first day he'd ridden onto the property under the guise of ranch hand.
"Where are you going?" Victoria asked.
"To the bunkhouse."
"Good idea. Get your things together, then come back here. I'll be waiting."
"And please quit calling me ma'am. It makes me feel like an old woman. You may call me Victoria if you'd like."
"Ummm,...thank you. But why do you want me to come back in here with my stuff?"
"Because I need to show you to your room. And you look tired. Nicholas has been working you like a dog ever since you arrived. Perhaps you'd like to take a nap before dinner."
If Heath was understanding the woman correctly she was proposing that he sleep in her home and share dinner with her family. The thought of it unnerved him.
"No,...I'll,...I'll just stay with the other men. I,..."
Victoria's voice held no room for argument. "Heath, your Tom's son just like Jarrod, Nick, and Eugene are his sons. For as long as you choose to stay on the ranch then this house is just as much yours as it is theirs. Now please get your things so you have a chance to rest before dinner."
Heath hesitated, then finally nodded his consent. If he was going to become a part of his new family perhaps plunging right in was the only way. He didn't say a word when he took the bank draft out of his pocket and handed it to Victoria, nor did he see the smile on her face when he walked away from her that afternoon, but he felt it.
That same smile had been bestowed on Heath many times during the intervening years. It held the same amount of warmth and love when given to him as it did when it was given to his half siblings. Heath still found it remarkable that this woman, who had every reason to hate him, had grown to love him as much as she did her own children and never hesitated to call him son.
Heath coaxed his horse up the steep hill. At the top he would come to a road. From there the forty additional miles he needed to travel to reach home could be covered at a faster pace. The tools in his saddle bags clanged together. He'd been gone from the ranch house for three weeks. With spring came the opportunity to pasture the cattle farther from the main buildings. They needed new grass and alfalfa to grow fat for the fall market. Since November they'd been kept in the pastures close to home so they could seek shelter from the snows and rains of winter in the many lean-to buildings the Barkleys had scattered about. Plus the closer the animals were to the ranch the easier it was to feed and water them should the winter be so harsh that the ground was covered with snow and the running streams covered with ice.
Each spring, before the cattle were turned out to roam as far from the main ranch as they desired, someone had to check the fence lines on all the boundaries to make certain they were in good condition. It was a lonely job, and often a cold one if the warm winds of March were slow in coming as they were this year. Nick and Heath had drawn straws for the job, and for the second year in a row Heath lost. He wasn't so certain Nick hadn't rigged the game somehow, but after some good natured teasing thrown his older brother's way Heath packed his bedroll, accepted the food Silas readied for him, and loaded his saddle bags with the necessary equipment. Heath Barkley had never been afraid of work, and while sleeping outside for three weeks during the fussy month of April might be considered a hardship by some, Heath considered it a Sunday picnic when compared to the time he'd spent in Carterson Prison during the war.
Heath thought of his family and how much he missed them as he softly plunked the heels of his boots into his horse's sides. It was amusing, in an ironic sort of way, that he was lonely for the very people he had been so belligerent to when he first arrived. But Jarrod had grown to be a trusted advisor and respected friend. At eight years older than Heath, Jarrod was the kind of big brother Heath had dreamed of having as a little boy.
Audra, well once Audra had forgiven Heath for the upset he'd caused they'd quickly formed a bond that wasn't easily penetrated. Heath wasn't really sure why that was so. In large part he attributed it to Audra's kind heart. The young woman couldn't stand to see another person treated like an outcast, and Lord knows Heath had spent much of his life playing that role. With five years separating them he and Audra were closer in age than she was to either Jarrod or Nick, who were thirteen and nine years her senior, so maybe that had something to do with their bond as well. All Heath knew for certain was that somewhere along the line he and Audra had become companions who enjoyed a nightly game of cards or checkers, or a long horseback ride on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Eugene he wasn't as close to as he was the rest of his siblings, but not because of any discord that existed between them. Gene had been a college student back when Heath first arrived, so other than summer break and two weeks at Christmas time Heath rarely saw him. After Gene graduated from Berkeley with a degree in animal husbandry, he'd accepted a position at a university in England where he'd brought his knowledge of veterinary medicine and American ranching techniques to the British. He had a great love for the British Isles and last August he'd married the daughter of one of his English colleagues. In truth the family doubted the young man would ever live in the States again, which was why Victoria and Audra were making plans for an annual voyage abroad.
Heath had to shake his head and smile when he thought of Nick. Victoria Barkley had been right about the temper the two men shared, though Nick was quicker to anger than Heath, and was the one who more often than not went off 'half-cocked' as Jarrod liked to say. God knows the two of them, Nick and Heath, had butted heads like a couple of stubborn rams throughout the first year Heath was with the family. But on the other hand, within a few days of Victoria having extended her invitation to Heath, it became apparent Nick was not going to allow anyone to speak ill of him. How many fist fights Nick got into on his behalf Heath didn't know, but by the end of that first year they'd grown to be best friends. They still butted heads occasionally, and every so often got into a good old-fashioned shouting match, but despite all that they worked side by side each day to run the ranch. Because of that work, and through it their constant contact, their friendship had come to be so strong that an outsider would have assumed they'd grown up together just like most brothers do. If Heath had ever told any of those outside observers how young his relationship with Nick really was, or told about its rocky start, they never would have believed him.
Heath felt the ground level out beneath him as Charger crested the hill. The dirt road now lay before them. He looked up at the sky, but without the sun it was hard to tell what time it was. He pulled his watch out of his coat pocket and flicked the button that would allow the cover to pop up. Three-thirty. With the cloud cover as it was he would roughly have two more hours of light by which to travel by. He'd go a little farther, then rest his horse for a few minutes. Now that he was on the final leg of his journey he was anxious to make it home. If the weather held and he wasn't pelted by any rain or snow he should arrive at the ranch within forty-eight hours.
The blond man looked up the road. A wagon was pulled over to the side, a man crouched beside its back wheel.
"So much for gettin' home within the next couple of days," Heath muttered. He urged Charger forward causing the animal to break into a cross between a trot and a run. When they came along side the wagon Heath pulled back on the reins.
"Howdy. Need some help?"
The man looked up, the brim of his hat shading a weathered face.
"Only if you got a miracle in them saddle bags, mister."
Heath swung off his horse and looped the reins around one of the wagon's wooden slats. He smiled at the little girl sitting in the back of the wagon amidst boxes of groceries and supplies, then tipped his hat to the woman perched on the wagon's seat cradling a well-wrapped infant in her arms.
"A miracle?" Heath questioned, crouching beside the man.
"The axle broke. Slipped right outta the wheel there, see. I got some wood amongst the supplies I bought in town today, but my tools are at home and that's four miles away. I can't hardly leave my wife and children here by themselves, it'll be dark fore I get back. But my Caroline's sick with a bad cold. I hate to make her walk that far."
The little girl with the blond braids, whom Heath estimated to be seven years old, coughed into her hands. "I'm okay, Papa. Really I am. I can walk if I have to."
Heath smiled at the child with the bright blue eyes. He reached out a hand and tweaked her nose. "Well, Miss Caroline, I don't think that'll be necessary. I do believe this is your lucky day."
Heath undid the leather strap on one of his saddle bags while talking to Caroline's father. "I've been riding the range fixing fence line. I've got about every tool in these two saddle bags a man can think of. If you'll grab the wood you said you have we can get to work."
"Well, thank you, Sir," the man said. "That's mighty kind of you."
"No need to thank me. Nor to call me sir. The name's Heath Barkley."
The man held out a hand to Heath. "Will. Will Atkins."
While Mr. Atkins got the wood he needed Heath pulled his gloves off and tucked them underneath his saddle. He reached in the saddle bags and pulled out a hammer, chisel, and nails. He then dipped deep in a coat pocket and came up with two squares of chocolate wrapped in gold paper. He held the candy out to Caroline.
"Here, Miss Caroline. I told you it was your lucky day."
"For me?" The little girl scooted across the wagon floor on her knees.
"Yep, for you. My little sister, who's almost as pretty as you, slipped those in my pocket when I left home three weeks ago. She knows how much I love chocolate."
"It's chocolate?" The youngster marveled. "Real chocolate?"
Heath knew just how the child felt. When he was a boy real chocolate was a treat he rarely experienced. His mother couldn't afford such luxuries. The penny candies he occasionally received were of the hard variety like peppermints or butter rums. When Audra had found that out, and found out what a passion he had for chocolate, she never ceased to take the opportunity to surprise him with a pocketful of Godiva's imported all the way from New York City.
"Oh, Mr. Barkley, please take those back," Mrs. Atkins said. "Caroline doesn't need them. Chocolate is so expensive. They're yours."
"No, no. I've had my fill. If I eat anymore of it my sister will have to sew me a new pair of pants." Heath winked at Caroline. "And if you've ever seen the result of Audra's sewing you'd know I'd end up with a pair of pants that has three legs."
The child giggled, then coughed until she was red in the face. When the tight, unproductive spasm passed she turned to her mother. "Please, Ma, can I eat one piece now?"
"Well, if Mr. Barkley insists that you have it then yes, you may eat one piece now. But give me the other one and we'll save it for your after supper treat." The child handed her mother one piece of candy then carefully unwrapped the other. She folded the gold paper and tucked it in her coat pocket. It was so pretty. Maybe she'd find something to wrap with it someday. A present of some sort for her baby brother, Clint William. Caroline took small licks of the solid square of milk chocolate, making it last as long as she could.
Within thirty minutes Heath and Will had the wagon fixed. Heath turned to put his tools away.
"That should do you, Mr. Atkins. I wouldn't take this wagon too far from home until you've had a chance to put a new axle in there, but I think it'll hold for now."
"Thank you, Mr. Barkley. I appreciate your help. And I'm sorry about delaying you."
"No problem there. My horse needed the rest anyway. I'll ride along with you until you turn off for home."
"Would you come for supper, Mr. Barkley?" Mrs. Atkins called down from her perch. "It won't be anything fancy, but I left some stew simmering over the coals before we set out for Laton this morning."
Heath knew Laton was a town of about four hundred people three miles behind them and over the next ridge. It had been years since he'd been there, and though he could have rented a room at the Laton Hotel and ridden out each morning to do the necessary work on the fences, he'd chosen not to simply because it added extra miles to each day's journey.
"No, thank you, Ma'am. I'd like to press on. I'm hoping to be home within the next couple days."
"I understand." The woman turned, careful not to jostle the sleeping baby boy she was still holding. "Caroline, thank Mr. Barkley for his help and for the chocolate."
The little girl got on her knees and scooted to the wagon's side once again. She wrapped her arms around Heath's neck and gave him a cold kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Mr. Barkley." She turned her head away and coughed into her bare hands. When she could speak again she added, "The candy was the most wonderful thing I've ever tasted."
"I'm glad to hear that, Miss Caroline."
The child ran her hands over the warm fur of Heath's coat collar and then down the soft tan hide of the sleeves. "Oooh, it's so beautiful and soft. Where'd you get it?"
"My mother gave it to me for Christmas."
"Wow! Both the chocolates and this pretty coat. Your family must love you a lot, Mr. Barkley."
Heath laughed. "Well now, Miss Caroline, I guess they do at that."
Heath gently tugged on one braid, then untied Charger from the wagon. He swung himself up in the saddle and rode along side the family until they parted ways with him two and a half miles down the road.
"We'll be fine from here, Mr. Barkley," Will assured. "Even if I do have trouble now we're within a quarter mile of home. Caroline can ride on my back if need be."
Heath nodded and said a final goodbye. With a wave and wink to Caroline he kicked his horse in the sides and headed off at a trot.
The little girl watched until Heath was out of sight. She curled up in the straw her papa had put in the wagon's bed that morning for her comfort, and wrapped her coat closer to her body.
"Ma, I don't feel good."
Mrs. Atkins glanced over her shoulder. "The chocolate Mr. Barkley gave you must be churning in your tummy."
"No, my tummy's fine. I'm hot and cold both at the same time and my chest hurts."
Ellen Atkins twisted in her seat and laid a hand on her daughter's forehead. She turned to her husband. "Will, she's hot. Really hot."
Will swatted the horses with the reins. "I'll hurry us on home so you can get some stew in her and get her to bed." He glanced at his wife's pinched features. "Now don't be frettin' so. She just has a cold."
Ellen smiled down at her little girl. The child's face was suddenly flushed and her eyes overly bright. She hoped to God her husband was right. She hoped all Caroline had was a cold. Just a good old fashioned cold.
No one was around when Heath stalled his horse at ten o'clock on Monday night. That didn't surprise him, by this time most of the ranch hands were done for the day. About the only people you found in the big barn this late was either him or Nick.
The blond man stretched, putting a hand to the small of his back. It had been a long time since he'd spent three weeks in the saddle. He relieved his horse of the burdens of saddle, blanket, saddle bags, and rifle sheath, then led the gelding to his stall. He brushed the animal down before filling his feed pan and water trough.
"There you go, Charger," Heath rubbed the bay's nose. "You look like you're comfortable for the night meaning I can now get comfortable for the night."
The house was dark when Heath approached with his rifle clutched loosely in his right hand, and his saddle bags slung over his left shoulder. He swore he'd seen lights on when he'd ridden up the lane a half hour earlier, but maybe everyone had gone to bed since then. They knew to expect him home sometime this week, but of course they wouldn't have been able to predict the exact day and time of his return.
Heath shut the big front door as quietly as he could. He knew the house well enough to make his way to the round table that sat to his left. He laid his rifle and saddle bags down, being careful not to knock over the vase of flowers residing in the center of the table.
The man wondered if there was any leftovers from dinner hiding somewhere in the kitchen. Hot food, a hot bath, and a warm bed all sounded so appealing he didn't know which he wanted to seek out first.
Heath fished around in his coat pocket for a match stick. Oil lamps were mounted on various spots of the walls, all he had to do was find one and then he'd have some light. He glanced toward the stairs that led to the bedrooms, but no lights came from above. Everyone must be asleep like he'd suspected.
The blond man was just about to strike his match when he felt two soft hands cover his eyes.
"Welcome home, sweetheart!"
Before Heath could turn around lamps were lit all around him. Jarrod stood in one corner of the parlor, Nick in another. Silas was in the foyer, having lit that lamp for the family.
The black man bustled off toward the kitchen. "I'll get Mr. Heath's dinner, Mrs. Barkley. And cake and coffee for everyone."
Heath felt his brothers clap him on the back as his mother hugged him.
"Welcome home, Heath," came Jarrod's quiet voice from his left shoulder.
"Welcome home, little brother!" Nick boomed from his right. "And I'd better not find out you hightailed it to San Francisco instead of riding the range like you were supposed to be doing."
Heath half turned from within the confines of Victoria's arms. "Don't you worry none along those lines. I was riding the range even though I've got a sneakin'' suspicion it was you who was supposed to be doin' that job."
"Me? Hey now, you lost fair and square."
"Oh yeah," Heath nodded. "I know first hand just how fair and square Nick Barkley can be."
The teasing went on as Heath tried to disengage himself from Victoria's grasp. "Mother, you don't wanna do that. I'm in bad need of a bath. Your clothes are gonna smell like three weeks worth of trail dust."
Heath felt the petite woman's lips brush his cheek. "Oh, I don't care what my clothes end up smelling like. I'm just so happy to see you. We've missed you so."
Heath returned the kiss with one of his own. "I've missed all of you, too."
From the dining room Silas called, "Mr. Heath's supper is on the table!"
Nick looked at Jarrod and winked. "Come on, Jarrod. If we beat Heath there we can eat again."
"Sounds good to me."
"Oh, you two, stop teasing your brother," Victoria scolded the departing men. "Besides, after Heath's eaten we'll all have a slice of celebration cake."
"Celebration cake?" Heath questioned. "What are we celebratin'?"
Audra slipped up behind Heath to give him a backwards hug. "Your return. And it's chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Your favorite. As a big welcome home from all of us."
Heath moved so he could wrap his arms around both women. "Well I sure wasn't expectin' this. As a matter of fact I thought all of you had gone to bed."
"That's what we wanted you to think," Audra smiled. "We've been watching for you since Sunday night. When Nick saw you ride up we waited until you went in the barn then blew out all the lamps." The young woman put a hand in Heath's coat pocket. "And speaking of chocolate did you find the surprises I sent along with you?"
"Every single one of them." Heath kissed his sister's temple in appreciation. "And I ate 'em all but the last two. Those I gave to a pretty little gal I ran across on the trail."
Audra raised an eyebrow and looked across Heath's body at her mother. "A pretty little gal, huh? And you had to give her my chocolates to convince her of your charm?"
Heath laughed. "No, not exactly. Miss Caroline Atkins was a little young for courtin', Sis. She couldn't have been more than six years old. Seven tops. Her family's wagon had broken down. I stopped and helped her father repair it. Your chocolates made her day."
"Then I'll have to surprise you with more some time soon. But for now we'd better get you in the dining room before Nick eats your supper, and polishes off that cake to boot."
"Yes," Victoria agreed. "We'd better do that. And while we're eating I'll have Silas draw you a hot bath and turn down your bed."
Heath kissed the woman's cheek. "You spoil me too much."
Victoria squeezed the man's arm. "None of my children can ever possibly be too spoiled by their mother."
A warm feeling coursed through Heath's insides at Victoria's words and at the thought of this little party that had been put together in honor of his homecoming.
Caroline had been right. His family loved him a lot. Chapter 2
The weekend following Heath's return spring was finally toying with the valley. The sun shone brightly and the temperatures warmed to a comfortable seventy degrees. The Barkley family attended services at the Congregational Church in Stockton just like they did every Sunday. Their Sunday family meal would be in the evening, a habit that had started long ago when the Jarrod and Nick had reached courting age and didn't always want to return to the ranch with their parents after the service let out at noon.
Victoria said goodbye to her offspring on the church steps. Jarrod was going to put in a few hours at his office that afternoon while Audra was being squired to lunch by a handsome suitor. Exactly what Nick and Heath were doing Victoria didn't know, but she imagined it involved the two young women with the big picnic basket she'd seen them walk off the church grounds with.
Garland Manner and his wife Opal stopped to talk to Victoria as the three of them awaited their turn to shake hands with the minister.
"I see you're alone today, Victoria," Garland said. "Perhaps you'd like to join Opal and me for dinner at our place."
"Thank you for the offer, but I think I'll go home and read a book I started the other day. It's not often I have the house to myself. Besides, the children will start reappearing about five this afternoon. They know I expect all of them to be gathered around the table for Sunday supper promptly at six-thirty."
The Manners' nodded their understanding. They'd been among the group of young couples who'd come west from Philadelphia with Tom and Victoria. None of them had been over twenty-two back then, and none of them had children though several, like Victoria and Opal, had been in the early stages of pregnancy. Now those that were still alive were all pushing sixty or beyond, and as hard as it was for Victoria to believe all the offspring they'd beget were grown and many had offspring of their own.
"Did you hear about the outbreak of diphtheria over at Laton?" Opal asked.
"My goodness no. Diphtheria? Are you certain?"
"That's what Doctor Sheridan was wired yesterday from the health department in San Francisco. The whole town's been quarantined. No one's allowed to enter or leave."
Victoria moved ahead as the line progressed. "When did all this take place?"
"Just in the last few days I'm told."
"Oh those poor people," Victoria sympathized. She couldn't help but say a silent prayer of thanks for the health of her own children. The last time a diphtheria epidemic went through Stockton the older boys were teenagers, Audra a little girl of four years old, and Eugene a toddler. She and Tom knew how fortunate they'd been. Their teenagers had been old enough and strong enough to withstand the hardships of the disease. It was only by the grace of God, and a plentiful supply of quinine, that Audra and Eugene survived. Others hadn't been so lucky, many children had died that spring.
Victoria thought of Tommy, the son who had been her first born. He was so happy and healthy one day, then a cold and runny nose turned into the measles. He'd passed away just a year after they'd arrived in the valley, at the tender age of eight months. Victoria, a young mother of only nineteen years old and so far from her family, had never thought she'd get over the heartache. But ten months later Jarrod arrived and slowly but surely the pain of Tommy's death receded, only to return at times like this when she was told of an epidemic that claimed the young or feeble.
Opal clutched her Bible to her chest and fiddled with the black lace gloves on her hands. "The information Doctor Sheridan received said this is a particularly strong strain. Brought on by all these cold rains we've been having some say. Anyway, even adults are being hit hard. Grown men are dying from it if you can believe that. They say no one is safe except for those who have had it before."
Victoria nodded, thankful that she and her children would fall into the category of those who were immune to the disease. She'd had it as a child, as had most people she knew of.
"Well Laton's fifty miles away," Garland stated. "And if they've got the town under quarantine already then spread of the disease is unlikely. Now, ladies, let's not mar our day of rest any further with unpleasant talk."
Victoria didn't bother to remind Garland that all it took was one traveler coming into contact with an infected person for the disease to spread far beyond Laton's borders before anyone knew what was happening. Because of that knowledge she offered up a prayer for the people of Stockton. As she watched children frolic in the church yard she hoped with all her heart the deadly disease didn't work its way here.
Two weeks later May was in full swing and so was the Barkley ranch. Heath and Nick worked fourteen hour days moving cattle to greener pastures. Victoria and Audra looked after the mares that were foaling while taking over chores such as cleaning stalls and keeping the tack room in order. Victoria Barkley might be a wealthy woman, but that wealth was born from years of sweat and toil. Even at this stage in her life it wasn't beneath her to roll up her sleeves and pitch in when all the men were busy elsewhere.
The family didn't see much of Jarrod during those weeks either. He was involved in a case that had him working long hours in his Stockton office. When the weekends came he shed his suit in favor of ranching attire and joined his younger brothers on the range.
Victoria feigned shock when she entered the dining room on a Friday morning.
"My goodness, are all these children mine?" She teased as she took in the two dark heads of Jarrod and Nick, and the two blond heads of Heath and Audra. "It's been so long since I've seen all of you in one place at the same time that I'd forgotten how many of you there are."
Jarrod smiled as he took a drink of hot coffee. His mother was right. They'd been coming and going at such odd hours lately that a meal together, regardless of what time of the day it was, had become a thing of the past. But this time of year that phenomenon wasn't unusual. It would last well into the June branding season, then things would slow down a bit until roundup came in mid-August.
As soon as Victoria took her seat Silas appeared carrying a plate heaped high with scrambled eggs. He handed it to the family matriarch.
"Be careful with that, Mrs. Barkley. It's hot. I'll be back with the bacon and toast in a minute."
"Thank you, Silas."
Victoria scooped some eggs on her plate, then passed it to Audra who sat on her right. She looked to her left at Heath and Nick.
"What gives us the pleasure of having you two at the breakfast table this morning? The last few weeks you've both been up and gone before the rooster's had a chance to crow."
Nick answered his mother while Heath turned away to sneeze.
"We drove the last of the cattle out of the upper pastures yesterday afternoon. We're ahead of schedule so we'll start doing some branding today, but I figured the men needed to rest a bit considering the hours we've been keeping. I told everyone we'd meet at the east gate at eight-thirty."
Nick took the platter of eggs Jarrod passed him and filled his plate. He held it out to his blond brother, but had to wait while Heath turned, covered his mouth and nose, and sneezed two more times.
"Heath," Victoria questioned, "are you catching a cold?"
"No," the man shook his head. He took the eggs from his brother and put some on his plate before setting the platter down in the middle of the table. "I think those wild flowers that are bloomin' right now are botherin' me. I must be allergic to them."
Nick reached over, clapping his brother on the back. "That's right, it's just an allergy. No one gets to be sick this time of year. Not even the boss's assistant."
Heath's tone was layered in heavy sarcasm. "Boss's assistant, huh?" He covered his mouth and gave a harsh cough before he could continue. "I'll keep that comment in mind the next time you try to sweet talk me into brushing Coco down so you can come in and eat supper while it's still hot."
"Nick," Audra scolded, "you shouldn't do that to Heath after you've both put in a long day."
"Why do you always stick up for him? Why don't you stick up for me every so often?"
"Because you pull the same mean tricks on Heath that you used to pull on me when I was a little girl."
Heath started to chuckle, but the sound ended in a coughing spasm. When he could talk again he said, "Don't worry, Sis. I think I can handle mean old Nick here."
"Why does everyone think I'm mean? People are always accusing me of that and I just don't get it."
"Well now, from a lawyer's point of view let me explain a few things to you, Nicholas, old buddy. Perhaps if you didn't rig games of chance, like drawing for straws for instance, you wouldn't find yourself with fore said reputation.
"See," Heath used his fork as a pointer, "I knew it. I knew it all along."
"You knew what all along, smart guy? You didn't know anything. If Mr. Big Mouth Lawyer at the end of the table there would have kept his trap shut you'd have never been the wiser."
Silas came back with the toast and bacon while Victoria's children were still engaged in their playful teasing. She didn't attempt to put an end to their fun, as a matter of fact it had been so long since they'd eaten a meal together she actually enjoyed listening to their bickering.
When Saturday night came so did the weekly dance in Stockton. Jarrod and Nick stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for Audra and Heath. Victoria looked on from the parlor.
"Well, well, well, but don't my sons look handsome."
Nick fiddled with the string tie at his neck. "We might look handsome, Mother," he turned and yelled up the stairs, "but if Audra doesn't get a move on no one else is likely to notice!"
"I'm coming! I'm coming!"
The young woman swept down the stairs in a sea of billowing pink taffeta. Her golden hair was off her shoulders, held against the back of her head by a large pearl clasp.
Jarrod kissed his sister's cheek. "And you were worth the wait, sweetheart. No doubt Nick and I will have to police your every move tonight for fear of unwanted suitors throwing themselves at your feet."
"You say that as if you don't already police my every move each time we go to one of these dances."
Nick gave his sister a kiss as well. "That's the prerogative of being a big brother. And speaking of brothers, where's Heath?" Nick looked up the stairway again and thundered, Heath! Heath, come on! We're ready to go!"
"Nick, shush," Audra placed a silencing hand against Nick's mouth. "Heath's asleep."
"Asleep?" Nick glanced at the foyer's Grandfather clock. "It's only quarter after seven."
"I know it, but he must be tired. I knocked on his door and when he didn't answer I peeked my head in. He's sprawled out on his bed sound asleep still wearing his boots and gun belt."
Nick's brows scrunched together in what his family recognized as a sign of concern. "Those allergies of his are really giving him a hard time. All he did today was sneeze and cough."
Victoria looked up from her open book. "Has he complained about not feeling well?"
"No. Not to me he hasn't."
"No," Jarrod echoed, "he hasn't said a word to me either."
Audra shook her head in reply to her mother's question, then added, "But you know Heath, he never complains."
Victoria silently acknowledged her daughter's words. Even now, three years into Heath's stay with them, Victoria wasn't sure if Heath simply wasn't a complainer by nature, or if he still felt the need not to inconvenience any of them. If he still felt he was indebted to Victoria and her children for taking him in. That thought often bothered the woman, but the few times she'd tried to discuss it with Heath he'd assured her it wasn't so.
"Yes," Victoria muttered, "you're right, dear. Heath never complains, does he?" She shook herself out of her revere and smiled. "Well, you three go on without him. If he's so tired he's already sleeping then he has no business being at a dance tonight anyway."
"Don't wait up," Nick called as he gathered his sister under one arm. "We'll probably stop for supper afterwards."
"I won't wait up," Victoria assured with a smile, knowing it would be one in the morning or after before her three party goers returned.
The door shut behind the trio and Victoria heard the carriage pull away from the house. She read another ten minutes, then marked her page and set her book on a table top. She stood and made her way to the kitchen. Saturday evening was Silas and Jessybell's night off unless the Barkleys were hosting a party. Victoria enjoyed cooking for her family this one evening of the week, or like tonight when her children had other plans, simply making a small meal for herself.
Victoria stirred the potato chowder she had simmering on the cast iron stove. She added squares of cheese she'd sliced earlier to the hot soup. While she waited for the cheese to melt she headed for the back stairs that led from the kitchen to the bedrooms above.
The white headed woman softly walked down the long hallway, her skirts swishing around her legs. Like Audra had done, she lightly knocked on Heath's closed bedroom door. When he didn't answer she knocked again and called softly, "Heath? Heath, are you awake?", to no avail.
Feeling confident she wasn't going to walk in on Heath undressing, Victoria entered the room. He was still lying fully clothed on his bed, and like Audra had described, his leather gun belt was hooked around his waist minus its Colt .45 which sat on the dresser.
Victoria kept her steps light as she walked around her son's bed. The window was open, the evening breeze raising goose bumps on her flesh. She reached through the billowing curtains and slid the window shut, then moved to the closet to pull an extra blanket off the shelf. When she turned around Heath was propped up on his elbows, looking at her through heavily lidded eyes.
"I hope I didn't wake you," the woman apologized. "I was trying to be quiet, but the window was open and I didn't think you should have the breeze blowing on you."
"No, you didn't wake me," Heath rasped around a raw, inflamed throat. "I need to get up anyway. I have to get ready for the dance."
"I hate to break the news to you, but your ride left without you."
"What time is it?"
"Quarter to eight."
"Quarter to eight? And here I was only gonna lie down for a couple minutes."
"Well, I'd say you've been lying down for closer to a couple hours. But that's all right, you evidently needed the rest." Victoria put the blanket back where she'd found it, then turned to face her son. "How are you feeling?"
"Are you sure? You sound like you have a sore throat."
Heath lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "It doesn't really bother me."
The woman walked over and perched on the edge of Heath's bed. She reached a hand out and laid it on his forehead. "You feel a little warm. I think those allergies you've been claiming you have are actually a cold."
"We'd better get some food into you, then you can come back up here and get a good night's sleep. How's that sound?"
Heath smiled. "You sure you want to spend your Saturday night with me? No doubt you've had better offers."
"I can't think of a one. And yes, kind sir, I'd love to spend my Saturday night with you." Victoria patted Heath's knee. "Go wash up then come down to the kitchen. I made a pot of potato chowder and Silas left a warm loaf of bread in the oven. We can slice it and spread it with the butter Jessybell churned this morning."
"That sounds like an offer I can't refuse."
Victoria stood and placed a kiss on the top of Heath's head. If he noticed her hand lingered on his cheek as though she was trying to gauge his temperature he didn't comment on it.
"Good," the tiny woman said as she moved to exit the room. "Because I don't invite just any man to grace my table on a Saturday night."
Heath heard Victoria descending the back stairs. He stood to remove his gun belt, grabbing onto the edge of the bedpost when he found himself swaying back and forth. He waited until the room stopped spinning, then completed the task at hand and headed for the bathroom down the hall. He put the plug in the sink's drain then turned on the cold water faucet. When the deep basin was three quarters full the blond man dunked his hot face all the way in. He hadn't told Victoria how rotten he was really feeling. His throat burned liked he'd gulped a gallon of whiskey in one swallow, and every time he coughed it felt like he was breaking a rib. In addition to that his head was so congested he was forced to breathe through his mouth, and every joint in his body ached. But what was the point in voicing his misery? He'd lived through worse in his life.
Heath released the drain then reached for his towel. He dried his face and hands before hanging the damp towel back on the rack. A coughing spasm caused him to clutch his chest, but when it passed he stood up straight and walked out of the room.
After all, there was nothing wrong with him a bowl of potato chowder, a quiet conversation with Victoria, and a night's sleep wouldn't cure.
Victoria could hear conversation coming from the dining room as she descended the stairs the next morning. She laid her Bible and hat on the foyer table as she passed through.
Jarrod and Audra were dressed for church as well. They sat at the table talking and laughing about their evening out while waiting for the rest of the family to join them for breakfast.
Audra looked up when a kiss brushed her cheek.
"Good morning, Mother."
"Good morning, dear."
The woman moved to the end of the table and repeated her actions with Jarrod.
"Good morning, son."
As Victoria rounded the table Nick entered from the kitchen. His dusty work clothes indicated he'd been in the barn preparing the buggy and horses for the trip to church. He gave his mother a quick peck on the cheek while making a bee-line for his chair.
"Good morning, Nick. And put that piece of toast down. Silas is still carrying food to the table and we haven't said grace yet."
Nick dropped the toast to his plate. "Yes, Ma'am."
Victoria unfolded the linen napkin that lay on her plate and spread it over her lap. "The three of you must have been dancing till dawn. I didn't hear you come in."
"Not until dawn," Audra said, while Silas carried in a platter of pancakes and another of sausage links. "Though we were out later than we planned to be thanks to Nick."
Victoria raised an eyebrow. "Nick?"
Jarrod's eyes twinkled. "Yes, Brother Nick was bent on getting a date with Rebekah Warner. Said he wasn't going to leave the dance until he accomplished that feat."
"Well bravo for you, Nick," Victoria smiled. "You always have possessed your father's perseverance."
"For all the good it did me."
Victoria caught sight of the smiles dancing on Jarrod's and Audra's faces. She looked at her middle son. "What do you mean?"
"As it turns out the only member of the Barkley family Rebekah is interested in is Heath," Nick grumbled. "She kept wanting to know where he was and if I thought he'd be at next Saturday's dance."
Victoria was forced to hide her own smile. There was no doubt Heath was a handsome man and quite popular with the local ladies. His soft-spoken nature and that shy, vulnerable demeanor he often displayed made him even more endearing to the female sex. Something Victoria knew Nick, by virtue of being a man, would never understand.
Nick's unsuccessful bid for Rebekah Warner's attention was forgotten in the face of breakfast. "Speaking of Heath, where is he? I'm not going to wait all morning for him. I'm starving."
"You don't have to wait. He's sleeping yet."
"Sleeping? For chriss...."
"Sorry, Mother. As I was about to say, for goodness sake he was sleeping when we left last night."
"Yes, he was. But he woke up shortly before eight and joined me for supper. Nonetheless he seems to have a bad cold. He's running a fever so I told him I wanted him to rest today."
"Do you think we should have Doc Sheridan come out and take a look at him?"
Victoria couldn't help but smile. Not a minute earlier Nick was grumbling about Rebekah Warner choosing Heath over him, but now that he knew his brother was sick the concern in his voice was plain to hear. In so many ways she regretted that the two men hadn't grown up together. She had no doubt they would have been inseparable had they known one another as children. But the past was the past, and not something she had the power to change. Not even for the one who would have benefited most from those changes, - Heath.
"No, I don't think Jake needs to pay Heath a visit. It's just a spring cold. I'm sure he'll be better in a day or two." Victoria held out her right hand to Audra and her left to Nick. "Now let's say grace so we can eat our breakfast while it's still warm."
At one o'clock that afternoon the buggy traveled down the long lane that led to the main house. Nick's horse was tied behind the buggy, content to trot along at a leisurely pace befitting a Sunday when the apple blossoms were just beginning to bud. Jarrod had been invited to dine at the home of a local judge while Audra had gone to lunch with a group of friends.
Nick sat beside his mother in the buggy. He steered the horse through the big front gates and toward the barn. Just as he pulled back on the reins Heath stepped out into the sunshine with a curry brush in his right hand.
"Well, now," Nick boomed, "there he is! Finally decided to get your lazy carcass out of bed, huh?"
Heath was used to Nick's teasing and in a nasally tone drawled, "Yep, somethin' like that."
The blond man held out his left hand to Victoria. She grasped it and allowed Heath to guide her out of the unsteady buggy.
Victoria studied this man whom she thought of as a son. As far as she was concerned he still looked tired and feverish. When he turned away to cough she could hear the congestion in his lungs.
"Are you sure you should be out here? I told you to rest today."
"I'm fine. Besides, I'm not workin' too hard. I'd hate to take that pleasure away from Nick."
Nick jammed Heath's hat down on his head. "I'm sure you would."
Heath walked around and untied Coco from the back of the buggy. When the animal was free Nick led the horse pulling the buggy toward the carriage house.
"Where's everyone else?"
Victoria worked her white gloves off her hands. "Jarrod was invited to Judge Faber's home, and Audra went to The Stockton House for lunch. Nick tried his best to get Rebekah Warner to go on a picnic with him, but she wouldn't take him up on the offer."
"Oh, she wouldn't, would she?"
"No, she wouldn't!" Nick shouted from the nearby building. "As a matter of fact she was more concerned with you than me! Wanted to know if she could bring you some of her chicken noodle soup! She thought that might make you feel better!" Nick walked out of the carriage house leading the untethered horse toward the barn. "I told her you were fine. That you have the constitution of an ox."
"See. So what do you need her chicken soup for?"
"I don't," Heath shrugged, while tugging on Coco's reins and falling into step beside his brohter. "But maybe if you'd been smart enough to tell her I do need her soup, then Miss Rebekah Warner would have been payin' the Barkley ranch a visit this afternoon. You know, Nick, for your sake I woulda' pretended I was too sick to see Miss Warner. Then you coulda' had her all to yourself on this lovely spring Sunday."
Victoria heard Heath's laugh drift out of the barn. She laughed with him when Nick stopped and turned. The indignation on his face was plain to see.
"Mother! How come he always does that to me?"
"Does what, dear?"
"Bests me like that?"
"Perhaps if you didn't tease him so much, and set him up to lose when the two of you draw straws, he wouldn't have reason to."
Nick smiled and gave his mother a kiss. "You know all my secrets don't you?"
"Most of them, Nicholas. Most of them."
Victoria turned toward the house while Nick followed Heath into the barn. When Heath was stricken by a coughing spasm so fierce it took his breath away the woman heard Nick order, "Get yourself into that house and climb back in bed. You've got no business being out here."
If someone didn't know Nick as well as Victoria did they would have thought he was angry with his sibling. But Victoria could hear right through the gruffness in his tone.
Nick wasn't angry. Far from it. He was worried.
There's no need to be so upset, Nick, the woman thought as she entered the house. We're just not used to Heath being sick, that's all. In the three years he's been with us he's never been ill before. Like you said, he's got the constitution of an ox. Just like Tom did. The children and I could be flat on our backs with colds or the flu and Tom never got sick. Heath's exactly like his father in that respect. Given another day or two of rest and pampering he'll be fine.
The family gathered around the supper table at six-thirty that evening. By seven-thirty the meal was over and everyone had scattered. Jarrod was in the study doing paperwork, Heath and Audra were playing checkers in the parlor, and Nick was in the tack room mending a saddle.
While Jessybell wiped off the table and straightened the chairs Victoria carried the last of the dishes to the kitchen.
"Mrs. Barkley, you shouldn't be doing that," Silas scolded. "It's my job. You go on and relax now. Go to the parlor and play the winner of that checker game."
"Oh, Silas, I've been relaxing all afternoon. I can certainly carry the last of the dishes in for you."
Victoria looked around the black man's shoulder. "Whose plate is that? The one that looks like it hasn't been touched."
Silas didn't have to turn to know which dinner plate Victoria was talking about.
"That's Mr. Heath's plate, Ma'am. He's hardly touched a morsel of food all day. I couldn't get him to eat any breakfast even though I kept pancakes and sausages warming on the stove for him like you asked me to. And he didn't eat any lunch neither. I offered to heat him up some of your soup but he said he wasn't hungry. It's not like Mr. Heath not to eat, Ma'am. He and Mr. Nick work hard. They always have big appetites."
"Yes, Silas, they do." The woman stared at the full plate a moment longer. "Please keep me informed of Heath's eating habits over the next couple of days."
"Is Mr. Heath sick?"
"He has a bad cold." Victoria smiled at the black man who'd been a runaway slave. He'd come to the Barkley ranch begging for work when Nick was five years old. He'd been a loyal and beloved employee ever since that time. "It's nothing to worry about. He'll be fine in a few days. I just want to make sure he's eating properly, that's all."
Silas smiled back at the woman. Nothing occurred in this household he didn't know about. "You love that boy a lot, don't you, Mrs. Barkley? Just like he was one of your own. I respect you for that, Ma'am. If you don't mind me saying so, there's not many women who would have done for Mr. Heath what you have. Probably nary a one."
"The circumstances surrounding Heath's birth aren't his fault, Silas. They never have been. Maybe you're right. Maybe a lot of women in my same position wouldn't have done for Heath what I have. But the love I give him is returned to me tenfold, don't you think?"
"Oh yes, Mrs. Barkley. It's apparent to anyone who watches like I do. Mr. Heath loves you, Ma'am. He loves you with all his heart he does. Just like you were his own mother."
"Then it only makes sense that I love him like he was one of my own children."
"Mr. Barkley would be proud of you, Ma'am. He always said you were his strength and inspiration. I know he looks down from heaven and smiles 'cause of all you've done for Mr. Heath."
Victoria didn't know why she felt a sudden urge to cry. "I just wish he could have known his son, Silas. Tom missed out on so much by not knowing Heath, and Heath missed out on so much by not knowing Tom."
"That's for sure, Ma'am. Mr. Barkley, he was an angel on earth."
"Yes, he was, Silas."
The woman headed for the parlor, thinking of the one and only love of her life. Certainly he'd made one very large mistake in judgment he'd silently taken to his grave, but Victoria had no doubt that mistake had weighed heavily on his heart from the day he left Strawberry until the day he died. His regrets had come through clearly in the letter he'd written Leah Thomson so many years ago now. Therefore it was the other things, the good things about Tom, that Victoria chose to keep close to her heart. Those good things were why she was able to respond so positively to Silas's words.
Tom, you'd be so proud of the three grown men you held in your arms just minutes after they were born. Who would have ever thought our three baby boys would go so far in life? Our oldest Jarrod, a successful lawyer whose opinion and services are greatly valued. Our middle son Nick, the man who makes the Barkley ranch more profitable as each year goes by. And baby Eugene, as we still used to call him long after he had grown into a boy, a professor now at a prestigious college in England of all places. And of course I didn't forget your little girl. Our beloved Audra, - your princess. She's young, and full of vinegar, too beautiful for her own good, and has her whole life ahead of her. Then there's Heath, the son you never knew. Ironically enough the only one of your boys who takes after your side of the family in both features and coloring. The son who reminds me so much of you when we came to this valley. Everyone back home said you were crazy. Your father scoffed and declared you a fool for packing up your young pregnant wife and taking her clear across the country to homestead a ranch of all things. "What do you know about ranching, Thomas?" your father shouted at the top of his lungs when you broke the news to him. "This is the damnedest idea I've ever heard of!" But like your Heath, you were too headstrong and stubborn for your own good But capable, oh so very capable of fulfilling any dream you set your mind on. You didn't know the meaning of the word can't, and though Heath may not realize it, neither does he.
Victoria watched from afar as Audra laughed over some teasing barb Heath tossed her way while he wiped the checker board clean. As the woman walked into the parlor to join her daughter and stepson, she couldn't help but think;
The Lord surely does work in mysterious ways.Chapter 4
Nick and Heath were up before dawn on Monday morning. By the time the rest of the Barkleys gathered around the breakfast table the two men were gone.
Victoria looked up when Silas walked in bearing a basket of muffins.
"Did Heath eat before he left this morning?"
"I don't know, Mrs. Barkley. Mr. Heath and Mr. Nick were gone even before I got up. There's food missing from the kitchen though, so I expect they packed themselves a bag."
Jarrod reached for a blueberry muffin and the butter. "What's the matter? Isn't Heath eating?"
"No. Or at least he wasn't yesterday. But if he rode out with Nick this morning then he must be feeling better."
"I heard him coughing a lot during the night." Audra took the basket of muffins Jarrod passed to her. "He sounded terrible. Like he was choking."
Victoria nodded. "I heard him as well. I got up at two o'clock and looked to see if we had any more of that cough syrup Doctor Sheridan left with us last winter when we were all passing around that chest cold. All of us except Heath that is. But I didn't find any, so we must have finished it off. I went to the kitchen and brewed him some tea with honey, but when I took it into his room he was sound asleep. I hated to wake him so I just left him be."
"He was sleeping through that?" Audra asked. "I can't believe he wasn't coughing himself awake. He sounded horrible. Almost croupy."
"I know. But evidently it didn't disturb him. Which was probably just as well. He needs the rest."
"In that case I hope Heath has the sense to tell Nick when he's had enough today," Jarrod commented while taking a sip of coffee. "You know how Nick is when there's work to be done. He tends to be rather short-sighted."
"Yes, he does. But then so does Heath."
"That's true," Jarrod agreed with his mother. "Neither one of them is afraid of hard work."
"No they're not. And neither are the rest of us. As your father was fond of saying, this ranch was built with Barkley sweat. So while you go off and run the Barkley Law Office, Audra and I will be occupied with the mares that are foaling."
"Sounds like you ladies will be just as busy as my brothers."
Victoria smiled as she reached for a muffin. "That we will, Jarrod. That we will."
The warm spring air shifted that afternoon. Currents coming down from Canada turned the day dark and dreary. A light mist fell causing bone-chilling moisture to soak into everyone's clothes, though that didn't prompt Nick Barkley to call a halt to the working day. Because the temperature was pushing seventy degrees when he and Heath had left home that morning both Nick and his brother were underdressed for the present conditions. Nick ignored the discomfort, there was no time to send someone back to the ranch house for warmer clothing. Besides, when they returned Silas would have a hot supper and a warm fire waiting. That thought alone was enough to sustain Nick.
The men were rounding up young cattle that hadn't been branded last summer. Nick didn't want to wait until June to mark these animals, another few weeks of growing just meant they'd be that much harder to handle.
Nick and Heath cut their horses in and out of the herd. If they spotted a cow or steer without a brand they threw out their ropes, lassoing it around the neck.
Heath wiped a shaking hand over his brow. The cold rain felt good and made him miserable both at the same time. He was so hot that the drops pelting his face brought relief from the fire burning inside him. Yet he felt so sick with this annoying head cold that his wet clothing only made him more uncomfortable.
"Heath!" Nick bellowed. "Heath! What the hell is your problem? Another one just ran by you! You missed it dammit! Now go on! Get that rope around its neck!"
Heath kicked his horse in the sides. Charger ran after the fleeing cow, Heath half standing in the stirrups. When he was along side the little heifer Heath twirled his rope a few times and tossed it. The rope hit the ground limp and empty.
"Oh for God's sake!" Nick yelled. "You're not good for a damn thing today! I should have left you home with Mother and Audra!"
Heath had long ago learned to ignore Nick's temper, and along with it Nick's impetuous mouth. He knew his brother was just as tired and cold as he was. Nick's words were nothing but a reflection of that. Nonetheless, Heath had pride just like any other man. He didn't appreciate being talked to like a twelve year old city boy who was getting in the way. Especially when he knew he was the equal of Nick Barkley when it came to handling a herd of cattle.
The blond man ignored the dizzy spell that threatened to spill him from his horse. He reeled in his rope, got it ready, and took off after the next cow he saw. The rope flew through the air and slipped cleanly around the cow's neck. Heath jumped off Charger and wrestled the animal to the ground. In-between his coughs he heard, "That's more like it," as Nick rode on by.
It was eleven o'clock that night before an exhausted Nick and Heath rode into the Barkley barn. The men's wet clothing clung to their bodies while rain water dripped from the brim of their hats. Nick climbed off Coco with a groan.
"I'll be so damn glad to get out of these wet clothes, soak in the tub, eat a hot meal, and hit the sheets that it's not even funny. How about you?"
Heath slid from his horse because he didn't have the strength to dismount any other way. He rested his head against Charger's neck and tried in vain to draw in a deep breath of air.
Nick turned when he didn't get an answer from his brother. "Heath? I said how about you?"
The man coughed, then pushed himself away from the gelding. "How about me what?"
"I said it's going to feel good to get out of these wet clothes and eat a hot meal. Don't you think so?"
"Yeah. Yeah, sure."
Nick looked at his brother with concern. The gas lanterns in the barn revealed dark circles under Heath's eyes and features pinched by the exertion of coughing. Nick walked over and took Charger's reins.
"I'll take care of your horse. You go in and take first dibs on the bathtub. I won't even make you draw straws for it tonight."
Heath shot Nick a small smile. "Thanks." Nick had no doubt his sibling was sick. He'd never known Heath to leave Charger's care to anyone else. A cowboy always fed, watered and bedded his horse before seeing to his own needs. It wasn't like Heath to allow anyone to do those duties for him.
"I'm sorry about today."
"Sorry about what?"
"For losing my temper and jumping all over you. You should have told me you felt lousy. I would have sent you back here."
"So why didn't you say something?"
"Because we had work to do. And because I'm not that sick. It's just a cold. I've lived through worse."
Nick silently acknowledged that his half brother had lived through worse. Despite Nick's rough and tumble ways, his life experiences no where near matched the struggles and trials Heath had been through prior to coming to the Barkley ranch.
"Well go on inside and get out of those wet clothes. It's not often I let someone else have first chance at the bathtub. You better take advantage of my sweet nature."
"Sweet nature," Heath scoffed, despite his inflamed throat. "That'll be the day."
"You keep talkin' to your big brother with such a smart tongue and you just might convince me to change my mind."
"Then I guess I'd better get goin' and make use of that hot water."
"Yeah, boy, you'd better."
Nick watched Heath shuffle out of the barn, his shoulders slumped with exhaustion. The dark headed man crossed to the doorway and kept an eye on his sibling until he saw Heath pass under the gas lamp standing by the kitchen door. He saw light spill out of the kitchen when the door was opened, then just as quickly saw it recede when the door was closed. Satisfied his brother had made it to the house Nick turned to curry the horses.
Heath barely glanced at the kettle of chicken and dumplings Silas had left warming on top of the stove. He stifled his coughs as he climbed the back stairs. The house was quiet, indicating to the blond man Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod had retired for the night.
Heath grabbed the wooden railing, steadying himself. He watched the hallway spin around him before he regained his bearings. A wave of heat assaulted his body, taking away the appeal of the hot bath Nick had promised.
The blond man headed to his room. He hung his hat and gun belt on the rack behind the door. He crossed to his nightstand and lit the lamp, then moved to his dresser. He pulled out a pair of the white muslin pajama pants Jessybell kept all the Barkley men supplied with. Another dizzy spell forced Heath to sit on the edge of his bed while he peeled off his wet clothing. He was so tired, and his hands were shaking so badly, and his chest ached so much, that for just a moment Heath wondered if he could get the job done by himself. If it wasn't for the fact that his clothes were soaked clear through he would have been tempted to climb in bed wearing them. His numb fingers kept slipping off the his shirt buttons, and they didn't have much more success at unbuckling his belt. Heath tried to breathe a sigh of relief when he was finally undressed, but only ended up coughing until black spots danced in front of his eyes. When the spell passed he tied the loose fitting pajama pants at his waist, then scooped up the dirty clothes he'd dropped to the floor. He padded barefoot down the hall to the bathroom. Without making a sound he closed the door to the luxurious room. He crossed to the tub and turned the gold faucet marked Hot. He slid to his knees and took as deep of a breath as he could. The feverish man didn't welcome the heat from the steam, but the hot moisture did make it easier to breathe. He allowed his lungs to drink in whatever relief they could. He stayed like that, his upper body hanging over the lip of the sparkling tub, until another wave of dizziness sent him reeling sideways. He caught himself before he hit the marble floor. Fire burned from his toes to his face. For a brief moment he pondered soaking in cool water, but knew he didn't have the energy to climb in the deep tub, let alone to get back out of it.
Heath shut the water off and pushed himself to his feet. He deposited his dirty clothes in the woven hamper Jessybell would empty the next day. He ran cold water in the sink and washed his face, neck, and upper body. After being out in the chilly rain all afternoon and evening he knew the frigid water shouldn't feel so good, but the thought of getting near anything warm only made him feel sicker.
Heath glanced at the tub while turning to exit the room. The hot water that could now flow so freely through the pipes was kept that way by use of a holding tank attached to the side of the kitchen stove. This latest invention in the way of indoor plumbing was a wondrous luxury, the only drawback being that the availability of a warm bath was limited to what was in the tank until Silas refilled it in the morning. Since Heath had made use of very little water, he knew that meant his brother could refill the tub several times over if he chose to do so.
Oh well, tonight it's Nick who will appreciate my good nature.
Nick Barkley never gave the empty bathroom a second thought when he entered the silent house thirty minutes later. He assumed Heath had been too tired to linger in the tub.
Nick ate supper alone in the kitchen at midnight, not wondering why Heath didn't join him. Again, Nick surmised his brother had been too tired to wait for him so had eaten after his bath, then turned in for the night.
Nick toured the downstairs before going up to bed. He blew out the lamps in the parlor and foyer his mother had left on for him and Heath, and shut the damper on the fireplace. By feel alone he climbed up the wide staircase. When he passed Heath's room he heard his brother coughing, but since there was no light shining from beneath the door decided not to disturb the man.
Regardless of how much work we have to do he's going to stay right here in bed tomorrow even if Mother and Audra have to sit on him to accomplish that. This cold of his has hung on long enough. He's not going to get better unless he spends a couple days in bed. I wish he didn't think he always has to prove himself to me.
As Nick moved on down the hall to his own room his final thought was, And I wish I knew how to tell him that.
Heath's eyes popped open. The room was pitch black, and he was so hot it felt like he was lying in the dessert in the middle of July. The rats were crawling on him, chewing on his feet and getting tangled in his hair. He knew this place. He knew it! He didn't know how, but he was in Carterson Prison again. He was in Carterson Prison and he had to get out! He had to escape! They weren't going to treat him like that again. They weren't going to torture him, or deprive him of food and water. Water! He was so thirsty. All he wanted was a drink of water and they knew it. They knew it and they were keeping it from him.
Heath rolled off sweat-soaked sheets. He swayed back and forth, then staggered for the door. In his mind he saw iron bars. He grasped the knob and pulled.
They forgot! They forgot to lock it! I've got to get out while they're not watching.
Heath lurched into the hallway. His delirious brain didn't see the brocaded love seat or tall vase of flowers that sat beside it. Instead he saw a dirt floor covered with rodent droppings and heard the groans and cries of a thousand sick and dying soldiers.
Gotta get out! Gotta help them. Help my friends. Gotta get someone to help me save them!
The dark hall blurred in front of Heath. He lurched sideways, thrusting his palm to the wall for support. He was so dizzy. His legs would hardly hold him up and the muscles in his arms were twitching. He knew they weren't feeding him. They wanted him weak. They wanted him weak so they could keep him captive here with the rest of his comrades.
The blond man staggered forward. In his current state he didn't realize the stairway was in front of him. He swayed, took a step, grabbed for the railing, lost his balance, and tumbled head over heels to the foyer far below.
Victoria Barkley shot up in bed. She couldn't identify the noise that woke her from a sound sleep and set her heart racing, but whatever the series of thumps were she realized they woke the rest of the house, too. She could hear Nick jump out of bed from his room across the hall, and if she wasn't mistaken Jarrod's door was already opening.
The white haired woman threw on her robe and rushed from her room. She was met by Audra who was still belting her own robe.
"Mother, what was that noise? It sounded like someone was breaking into the house."
Before Victoria could reply Jarrod came around the corner. At the same time Nick ran from his room. Both men held guns in their right hands and lamps in their left. Neither one of them had taken the time to dress in anything other than they'd put on when going to bed, the same type of pajama pants Heath was wearing.
"You two stay here," Nick ordered in a whisper. "Jarrod and I'll check things out."
Victoria nodded, her eyes unconsciously traveling to the room that was closest to the stairway. Heath's room. His door was open meaning he must already be downstairs. Before Victoria could point that out to her sons Jarrod took note of it. He tapped Nick on the shoulder as they passed their brother's room and indicated to the dark interior. The woman saw Nick nod. She took this silent communication to mean he understood Heath was already on the main floor and very likely armed with a loaded revolver. Obviously the Barkley men didn't want to end up shooting each other by accident.
Victoria placed her body in front of Audra's. She had no idea what the men would find when they got downstairs, but if she needed to push Audra back in the master bedroom and lock the door she would. She kept a rifle in there. She'd use it to protect her daughter if forced.
But no band of marauders had invaded Victoria Barkley's home that night. She heard Nick's cry of "Heath!" then, "Mother! Audra! Get down here!"
Jarrod was setting the lamps on the foyer table as the two women raced for the stairs. Victoria was momentarily startled by the sight of the bare chested man crumpled on the floor below.
"Heath!" She flew down the stairs, Audra at her heels. "Oh my Lord, Heath!"
Victoria crouched by her son. Without even touching him she knew he was burning with fever. His cheeks were stained ruby red and sweat ran freely from his hair line down his temples. She barely noticed Silas rush into the room.
Jarrod looked up from his crouched position on the right side of Heath's body. "Silas, wake Phillip! Tell him Heath's sick and we need Doctor Sheridan as fast as he can get him here!"
"Yes, Mr. Jarrod. I'll tell him!"
Silas ran out the door and headed for the foreman's house next to the barn. Jessybell arrived with a cloth that had been soaked with ice cold water from the pump in the kitchen.
"Here, Mizz. Barkley. Sponge him off with this. I'll run upstairs and git his bed ready. With the fever he's got ain't no doubt his sheets is soaked clean through."
Victoria ran the cold cloth over Heath's face. Nick was on his knees beside Jarrod. He flicked three fingers against a fiery cheek and urged, "Heath! Heath, come on! Wake up! Heath, come on! Wake up now! Heath!"
Nick gingerly moved his brother's head from side to side. His hand encountered a bump at the crown, but came away free of blood. He looked from Jarrod to their mother and Audra.
"He's got a bump on his head, but it's not bad enough to knock him unconscious like this. I think the fever's causing that."
"Mother, this can't just be a cold, can it?" Audra rubbed a hand over her brother's bare arm. Even this minimal contact scorched her skin. "He's so hot."
Victoria watched with sickening certainty when Heath's body was wracked by a coughing spasm that left him gasping for air. She remembered the time long ago when this same frightening cough dominated her household. Then she remembered the recent words of Opal Manner.
Did you hear about the outbreak of diphtheria over at Laton? Even grown men are dying from it.
"Nick, Jarrod, get behind him! Prop him up against your chests! He can't get enough air like this."
"Mother?" Audra spoke her fear in that one question.
The woman glanced at her daughter while helping her sons get Heath in a sitting position. "No, Audra, he doesn't have a cold."
"Then what is it?"
"I think...," Victoria faltered.
"Mother?" Nick questioned. Now that he had Heath resting against him Nick could feel the heat radiating from the man's body. He didn't know how high Heath's temperature was, but he knew it had to be well over one hundred degrees. He watched the blond man's body buck and twist as Heath struggled to take in air.
Victoria looked from the frightened eyes of her daughter to those of Nick and Jarrod. She swallowed hard and spoke in a voice so quiet her children almost couldn't hear her.
"I think your brother has diphtheria."
Before her clan could react, Victoria stood and took charge.
"Jarrod, Nick, carry Heath up to bed. Audra, fill two pitchers with cold water. I'll get some towels from the linen closet. We've got to get his fever down."
"But, Mother, if he's got diphtheria,...."
"Audra, he's young and he's strong. He'll be fine."
Victoria watched as Jarrod grasped Heath under his arms and Nick took the lower portion of his legs. Together they rose and started up the stairs. Victoria turned, offering a hand to her daughter. She pulled Audra to her feet and gave her a brave smile.
"He'll be fine. I promise. Now you hurry and get that water."
Despite Victoria's confident words Audra could see the distress on her mother's face. On impulse she reached out and pulled the woman to her.
"You're right. He'll be fine. After all, Heath never gets sick."
Victoria blinked back her tears. "No, sweetie, Heath never gets sick, does he." Chapter 5
Jarrod stood with a foot propped on the fireplace hearth while Nick paced the parlor floor. The women sat on the sofa casting anxious glances up the stairway.
"What's going on?" Nick grumbled. "What's taking Jake so long? He's been with Heath for close to an hour. When are we going to know something?"
This was the fourth time Nick had asked these questions. His family had long ago quit answering him and instead watched as his pacing increased with each turn he made. Both Nick and Jarrod had exchanged their pajama bottoms for a pair of trousers. In all the mayhem Jarrod had managed to fasten three buttons on the shirt he'd thrown on, while Nick simply left his shirt hanging open. The women had yet to dress in more than they'd been wearing when they'd first entered the hallway after hearing Heath fall.
Victoria and Audra jumped to their feet when they heard a bedroom door open. Nick's pacing came to an abrupt halt and Jarrod's foot dropped to the floor.
Nick rushed to the dark headed doctor, meeting him at the bottom stair.
"How is he, Jake?"
"Nick, let's go in the parlor and sit down." The young physician placed his bag on the foyer table as he passed. "All of you sit down, please. We have several things to discuss."
Jarrod joined his mother and sister on the sofa while Nick perched on the edge of a chair. Doctor Sheridan stood in front of the worried family.
"As you suspected, Mrs. Barkley, Heath definitely has diphtheria."
The young doctor held up a hand. "In a minute, Nick." He turned his attention back to the family matriarch. "Mrs. Barkley, what about you and the rest of your family? Have all of you had the disease?"
Everyone knew why the doctor asked that question. Diphtheria was highly contagious and more often than not fatal.
"Yes. An epidemic went through Stockton when Jarrod and Nick were seventeen and thirteen. They contracted it, as did Audra who was four years old at the time, and Eugene who was two and a half. As for me, I had it when I was eight."
"Mmmm, that's highly unusual."
"What's highly unusual?" Jarrod asked.
"That you, Jarrod, as well as Nick, Gene, and Audra, would have gotten sick during that epidemic, but Heath didn't. That's almost unheard of in a family. Usually if one child gets it he or she ends up spreading it to all the siblings."
Doctor Sheridan had come from the East coast to set up practice in Stockton just one year earlier. He'd taken over for the cherished Doctor Merar who had passed away. Therefore it was possible Jake didn't know Heath wasn't Victoria's biological son, nor that he'd joined his father's family long after he'd reached adulthood.
Jarrod caught the stricken look on his mother's face, as though she was blaming herself for something she had no control over. He quickly stepped in and answered the doctor for her.
"No, Jake, Heath didn't get sick at that time." A small smile touched Jarrod's lips. "He's like our father was in that respect. When the rest of us take to our beds ill, whatever germ is in the household seems to pass Heath by."
The physician merely nodded. "Some people are lucky that way. Unfortunately Heath's luck has run out." The man's eyes traveled from one family member to the other. "He's very sick. As you probably know, it's unusual for diphtheria to present much danger to strong, healthy men in the prime of their life like Heath is. However; this strain of the disease seems to be particularly virulent."
"What are you saying here?" Nick came to his feet, shock making his movement slow and laborious. "That Heath's going to die?"
The doctor was evasive when he answered. "I'm saying he's ill, Nick. Gravely ill. Has he been working hard lately?"
"Has he been working hard? Jake, this is a ten thousand acre ranch! Of course he's been working hard!"
"Nicholas," Victoria ordered, "calm down."
The woman was well aware Nick's anger was a direct result of the blame he was placing on himself for Heath's condition. She could almost hear the words that were churning in his head.
If only I'd insisted he stay in bed. If only I hadn't let him ride out with me. If only he hadn't been in the rain all afternoon and evening. If only I'd check on him before I turned in for the night.
The doctor realized the source of Nick's outburst as well. "Nick, I didn't ask that question in an attempt to blame anyone for anything. I know this is a working ranch. I'm simply trying to get a feel for why your brother is so weak he barely has the strength to cough. I have to report all of this to the state medical board as soon as I get back to town. By answering my questions you'll give me a better idea what to tell them. In other words, is this strain of diphtheria stronger than was first reported, or is Heath's condition aggravated by long working days combined with little rest."
Victoria took over the conversation. "Heath did work a full day with Nick and the other men today. But I made him rest on Sunday. I thought he was coming down with a bad cold."
"And he didn't complain of his chest feeling tight, or any difficulty when attempting to draw in a deep breath, nor mention the high temperature he had to have been running today?"
"No," Nick shook his head. "No, he didn't say a word about any of that. I just knew when we got home tonight he was bone tired. Like Mother, I thought he simply had a bad cold."
"Well, it's more than a cold. Though how he picked it up I don't know. Right now the only town in the area that I'm aware is under quarantine for diphtheria is Laton. Has Heath been there in recent weeks?"
"No," Nick said. "He was out riding the range a few weeks ago fixing fence lines and was probably within five miles of there, but he never actually visited the town."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes, I'm certain. I asked him if he'd stayed in the Laton Hotel a few nights instead of sleeping outside. He told me he never went near Laton the whole while he was gone. Nor any town for that matter."
"Then it's beyond me how he came in contact with it," Jake stated. "From what I've been told the disease started with a family by the name of Atkins. They'd been visiting relatives in Oregon in early April. Diphtheria ran rampant through some settlements up there this spring. Evidently the family was unwittingly exposed to it. Both their children, an infant boy named Clint, and a little girl named Caroline, died from it."
Audra looked at her mother in shock. The young woman could hear Heath's words almost as plain as if he was standing in front of her saying them again.
Miss Caroline Atkins was a little young for datin', Sis. She couldn't have been more than six years old. Seven tops. Her family's wagon had broken down. I stopped and helped her father repair it. Your chocolates made her day.
"Mother, those are,...."
Victoria silenced her daughter with a subtle shake of her head. She turned to the doctor. "What about other people in Stockton? Is anyone else sick?"
"Up until an hour ago I would have told you no, that there only seems to be the start of a spring cold going around. But now I've had a change of mind." The man gave a heavy sigh, knowing how difficult this would be for the family to hear. "I've seen four children and two adults in the past three days with a chesty cough not unlike Heath's. They aren't as sick as he is yet, but no doubt they will be soon." The man looked from Nick, to Jarrod, to Audra, and finally to Victoria. "I'm sorry. You know what this means."
"Yes." Jarrod gave a slow nod of his head. "It means that Heath was the one who brought the disease to Stockton."
"That's what it means. However; no one will hear that from me. In the first place there's no point in anyone knowing. What's done is done. Heath certainly wasn't aware he'd come into contact with someone who was infected. And in the second place he's got enough of an uphill road to travel. If he recovers,...well I won't lie to you. No town experiences a diphtheria epidemic without people losing their lives. If Heath survives he doesn't need to be burdened with guilt that's not his to bear."
"Thank you, Jacob," Victoria said. "Your discretion means a lot to all of us."
"You're welcome. And speaking of recovery, if,...when Heath gets to that point two weeks of bed rest is a must. Other than short walks to the bathroom, or up and down the hallway, he'll need complete quiet and no shocks, worries about the ranch, or bad news of any kind. There's a high risk of permanent heart damage associated with diphtheria if those necessities are ignored."
Victoria nodded. "I'll see to it your orders are followed to the letter."
The doctor flicked his head toward the upper story. "Silas and Jessybell are with him now. They've both assured me they've had the disease. You'll need to check with your ranch hands, of course, to determine who might be in danger of contracting it. I hope all of you realize I have no choice but to put the entire ranch under quarantine."
"Yes," Victoria agreed, "we realize that."
"In the meantime what can we do for Heath?" Nick asked.
"Nothing much but keep him as cool and comfortable as possible. At the times when he's lucid it's important to get food and water in him. Chicken or beef broth with some noodles or finely diced potatoes will do the job, maybe a slice of bread if he'll eat it. I've already told Silas that. The way you've got him propped up against those three pillows is good. It might not hurt to add a fourth one directly between his shoulder blades. He'll be able to breathe easier and cough more productively if he's not flat on his back."
The doctor motioned for Nick to stand.
"If he's struggling to breathe and sounds like he's choking, Nick and Jarrod can do this to help him out." The man turned Nick so his back was to his family. With an the doctor took the heel of his right palm and with an upward motion smacked it against the middle Nick's back. "Striking him like this, between his shoulder blades, will help force the mucus up. If he gets really bad the two of you, Jarrod and Nick, will have to work together. Get Heath positioned so he's seated on the edge of his bed, then one of you lean his upper body over your forearms while the other one hits his back."
Victoria nodded her understanding. "My husband and I did that with Audra when she had the disease. Of course she was so small Tom was able to balance her on his arm with her head hanging toward the floor while at the same time hitting her back."
"It's the same concept with Heath," the doctor stated. "You want to get him positioned so his body can more easily bring up the phlegm. And since you've been through this before with your other children, Mrs. Barkley, you know pots of steam in the room are of benefit, too. The steam helps to clear the bronchial passages and lungs of the thick mucus the disease causes to form. But the down fall to that is it makes the room warm which can drive up the patient's fever. You'll have to use your own judgment in that regard."
"What about quinine?" Victoria asked. The precious drug didn't cure diphtheria, but it worked wonders at reducing a high fever. Victoria was well aware of how important that factor could be. If Heath's body didn't have to war with his rising temperature he'd have more strength to use for combating the deadly disease that would quickly take its toll on him.
"I'm going to wire San Francisco tonight and see if I can get a supply in on the next train."
"You mean you don't have any at your office?" Nick's voice rose. "What kind of a doctor are you?"
"Nick," Jarrod scolded. "That's enough."
Jake graciously ignored Nick's tone. "No, Nick, I don't have any quinine. Two weeks ago I was instructed by the medical board to ship what I had to Laton."
The cowboy crossed to the fireplace and raked a frustrated hand through his hair. "Well, that's great! Just great. My brother, my brother who never gets sick, is in need of some medicine one of the few times in his life and it's not available to him."
"Nick, I'll do the best I can to get quinine here as soon as possible. You know that."
The man sighed and laid his forehead against the fireplace mantel. "Yeah, Jake, I know that. And I'm sorry for blowing up at you. I'm just,...I'm worried about Heath."
"I realize that. Apology accepted."
The doctor turned for his medical bag. The Barkley family followed him to the foyer.
"If the disease runs its normal course it will peak in three to four days. Until then the best thing you can do is try to keep Heath's fever down and try to get him to cough as often and as much as possible. Eventually that will become more and more difficult for him. His chest will get tighter, his breathing more restricted, and it'll be harder for him to expel the phlegm. If the quinine arrives there will at least be a good measure of hope."
"But will you get it soon enough to do Heath any good?" Jarrod asked.
"Only time will tell, Jarrod." The man felt so inadequate as he looked at the faces before him. He focused on Nick, by far the most emotionally upset of the group. Or at least the one who was openly showing his distress. "Nick, Heath was mumbling your name when I was up there. Why don't you take the first shift with your brother. Send Silas and Jessybell to bed. The rest of you go back to bed as well. You'll have to take turns sitting with Heath from now until his condition turns for,...for the good or the bad. As things worsen you might find it will take two or three of you to work with him. For the time being those of you who are not pressed into service need to get some sleep and need to make certain you're eating."
The doctor picked up his bag. "I'll see myself out. I've got a lot of work to do before the epidemic hits in full force. I'll try to stop here again in the next twenty-four hours. Sooner if I get my hands on some quinine."
Jarrod reached in his pants pocket and pulled out five twenty dollar bills. "Jake, thanks for coming. We appreciate everything you've done so far."
"I haven't done much, Jarrod. Certainly not enough to warrant this kind of payment."
"Take it, Jake," Victoria insisted. "It will help offset the fact that a lot of people you treat in the coming weeks won't be able to pay you anything. If nothing else put it toward medicine for some sick little boy or girl. That's,..." Victoria swallowed hard, "that's what Heath would want you to do with it."
The man nodded his head. One hundred dollars would buy a lot of quinine provided the medicine was available to purchase. "It will certainly come in handy for that."
A long silence prevailed in the house after the front door closed behind the doctor. Jarrod waited until he heard the carriage drive away before confronting his mother and sister.
"Okay, you two. What's going on? What do you know about Heath and this disease that Nick and I don't?"
Victoria looked at her daughter before turning to face her sons. "I didn't want Audra to say anything in front of Jake, but when he mentioned the Atkins family,.....the little girl named Caroline?"
"Yes?" Nick prompted.
"The night Heath returned from the range, after you and Jarrod had gone into the dining room, he told Audra and me that he'd stopped to help a family with a broken wagon axle. The family,...the family's name was Atkins. He spoke of,..." the woman turned away to hide her tears, "he spoke of a little girl named Caroline whom he'd given the last of the chocolates Audra had put in his pocket."
"Mother, don't." Nick stepped forward and took his mother in his arms. "Don't cry. Please don't cry. He'll be all right. I know he'll be all right."
Victoria leaned into her son's chest a long moment, then gathered her emotions and pushed herself away from him.
"He can't ever know," Victoria told her children. "About little Caroline Atkins, about the fact that he contracted the disease from her, and most of all that he carried it back here to Stockton. You know what that will do to him. You know what a big heart he has. He'll never forgive himself if he finds out. And like Jake said, no one else needs to know either. The people of this valley,...so many of them gave Heath a hard time when he first arrived here. So many of them were quick to judge him before getting to know him. Some still do. I won't see him subjected to that type of pain again."
Victoria's children nodded their understanding. Everything she'd said was true. The words she'd just shared with them would never be spoken of to anyone, and most of all not to Heath.
Silas interrupted the family moment. "Mr. Nick, Mr. Heath is calling for you again like he was before when the doctor was with him. But this time he seems awfully upset, like he's got something important he wants to tell you. Me and Jessy can't calm him down."
Without a word Nick turned and took the stairs two at a time, Silas at his heels.
Jarrod did his best to give his mother and sister a confident smile. "If Heath's upset Nick might need my help. Why don't the two of you try to get some sleep like Jake suggested."
"No, Jarrod, I need to be with him."
"Mother, we all need to be with him. But Jake was correct when he said we have to rest and eat. None of us will do Heath any good if we wear ourselves out. You know as well as I do that we've got several long days ahead of us. Right now Heath needs Nick. And if he's upset to the point that he tries to get out of bed then he needs me as well." The lawyer placed a kiss on his mother's forehead, then did the same to his sister. "Before this is all over Heath will need both of you, too. You know that. So, please, get what sleep you can tonight. If Heath calms down and Nick can handle things by himself then I'm going to catch a few hours of sleep myself."
Victoria gave a reluctant nod. Despite the wisdom behind Jarrod's words her mother's heart still ached to comfort the sick child in her household.
Jarrod dashed up the stairs. Victoria took Audra by the hand and followed in his footsteps. They met Silas and Jessybell coming down.
"Mr. Nick says me and Jessy should go on to bed, Mrs. Barkley. Is that all right with you?"
"Yes, Silas. Both of you go back to bed. And thank you for staying with Heath while Doctor Sheridan talked to us."
"Was no problem, Ma'am. No problem at all."
"That boy is bad sick, Mizz Barkley," Jessybell's brown eyes filled with tears. "So bad sick. Me and Silas, we'll say a special prayer for him."
"Thank you, Jessy." Victoria looked toward Heath's open door. "I'm sure we'll all be saying a special prayer for Heath tonight."
When the women reached the upper story Victoria shooed Audra toward her bedroom. "You do as Jarrod says and get some sleep."
"What about you, Mother?"
"I'll be doing the same in just a few minutes."
"If anything....if anything changes with Heath during the night you'll have one of the boys wake me, won't you?"
Victoria squeezed her daughter's hand. "Yes, sweetheart, if anything changes someone will come get you."
Audra kissed her mother's cheek. She walked down the long hallway, pausing a moment in front of Heath's open door before continuing the journey to her room.
Victoria paused in front of Heath's door as well. The room was bathed in dim light from the lamp that sat on the table to the right of his bed. Nick was sitting on the edge of the mattress sponging his brother's face with a cold damp cloth. Jarrod had pulled the only chair in the room over to the left side of Heath's bed and was perched on the end of it, pinning the blond's shoulders against the pillows.
"It's okay, Heath," Nick said. "It's okay. We got it all taken care of, remember? We caught the last of the young heifers that needed to be branded."
"No, no," Heath mumbled. His eyes were barely open yet he struggled against Jarrod's hands. "Work to do. Lots work."
"Heath, there's no more work to do tonight." Jarrod forced his brother's upper body back against the pillows. "It's late, Heath. It's late and you need to rest. You need to sleep. We'll talk about work in the morning."
For a few brief seconds Victoria saw Heath's eyes open wide. But even in that short time period she could tell his mind wasn't in the room with his brothers.
"No. Work. Gotta lotta work needs doin'. Nick,.......Nick doesn't like,.....slackers. Can't,....slack."
Nick had to swallow hard before he could form an answer. "Heath, there's no more work that needs doing. We're done for the day. You're not,....you're not slacking. It's Nick, Heath. It's Nick and I'm telling you I want you to rest. Do you hear me? I want you to calm down and get some sleep." Nick dipped his cloth in the basin of cold water Jessybell had left on the nightstand. He wrung it out, then wiped it over Heath's face and neck. "Just calm down now. Everything's okay. You and I got all the work done. You go to sleep now. Go to sleep."
If Victoria hadn't been standing in the doorway she wouldn't have recognized the calm, soothing tone of voice as belonging to her volatile, hot-tempered Nick. Though she knew a tender soul resided deep within her second born, it was only on rare occasions that he allowed it to surface.
Whether Nick's words penetrated Heath's fever-addled brain, or whether he was simply too exhausted to fight his brothers any longer Victoria didn't know. She watched as his body relaxed and he sank back against his pillows. For a moment she could almost make herself believe he'd passed through the worst of the crisis and had now fallen into a healing sleep. That hope was quickly dashed when a series of harsh coughs lifted his upper body from the bed. Nick grasped Heath's shoulders and turned him sideways until the blond man's head hung over the edge of the mattress. The positioning seemed to help, within seconds Heath's cough became productive as the phlegm moved more freely through his system.
Jarrod scooted around the bed and grabbed a clean towel from the stack Jessybell had left setting on Heath's dresser. He crouched in-between his brothers, holding the towel to Heath's mouth.
"Go ahead, Heath, cough. Cough it up. No, don't swallow it, cough it up. I've got a towel in my hands. It's right here by your mouth. Go ahead and spit everything out, I'll take care of the rest."
Victoria watched as one of Nick's hands rubbed up and down Heath's bare back. and one of Jarrod's came to rest on the top of his head. Both of them spoke softly, each encouraging their brother to continue coughing.
The woman couldn't help but feel so proud of these two men she had raised. By observing the actions in this room one would never guess Heath hadn't been born into this family and brought up on the Barkley ranch his entire life. Once the initial upset of his arrival had passed Victoria's children accepted Heath with open arms, and from that moment forward never hesitated to call him brother or share with him all that was theirs by virtue of their last name being Barkley.
But then to Heath's credit he was an easy man to love. Victoria was sure he'd deny it if she told him it was so, nonetheless it was true. Yes, to a large extent he'd lived on the wild side of life from the time he was sixteen until he came to them three years earlier at the age of twenty-four, but he wasn't nearly as rough around the edges or uncultured as he perceived himself to be. He cared deeply about others and possessed an endearing vulnerability borne from the cruel words and teasing inflicted upon him since he was little boy. He was the child of an unwed mother and grew up in a small town. Victoria could only imagine how many times he'd been called a bastard, or humiliated by some schoolmate who jeered and asked him where his daddy was. As Victoria watched her sons settle Heath back into bed she recalled the words of the black woman, Hannah, who had been Leah Thomson's friend and who'd helped Leah raise Heath.
Miss Leah was a good woman. A kind-hearted woman with a gentle soul. Lord knows she had more than her fair share of trials in this life. But Heath,.......Heath was her joy. He was her joy and she loved that sweet boy so. Oh, how she loved him.
Victoria forced herself to head for her room. Her sons had everything under control and Jarrod was right, she needed to get some rest before it was her turn to sit with Heath.
As she entered her bedroom the woman said a silent prayer.
Dear Lord, watch over Heath tonight. Please, Lord, watch over him. You know I love him like he was one of my own. I don't understand why You allowed him to suffer like he did when he was a child, or why You never allowed Tom to know of Heath's existence, but I believe You had a purpose. Maybe things wouldn't have worked out had Heath come to us when he was still a boy, or as a teenager shortly before Tom died. I quit questioning Your wisdom in this matter a long time ago, Lord. But I do know that You brought a troubled, angry young man into this home for a reason. Not only did he need us, but as it turns out we needed him. When he laughs it's like having Tom in the house again. When he talks it's like hearing Tom talk. And when his smiles it's like seeing Tom smile. Please don't take that joy away from me again.
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.
"Sssssh," 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 little longer."
"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 no where 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 you?"
"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 night."
"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 friends."
"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 children."
"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 him."
"I hope you're right, Jarrod." Victoria patted her son's left hand before returning to Heath's bedside. "I hope you're right." Chapter 7
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 diphtheria?"
"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' coon hounds 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 himself, 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 school boy 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 day dreaming 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 wash cloth 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 or 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. Chapter 8
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 school yard. 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 Whitcomb."
"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 night gown 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.