|An Angel on Earth, Part 2|
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.
|Chapters 10 - 17|
Jim Garver walked to the bunkhouse door. He stepped outside and looked down the road that led to Stockton. Not a soul was on it, not even a distant dust cloud rose to indicate a rider coming.
Pete Garver joined his brother. "See anything?" "Nothing. I thought Doc Sheridan would be here by now."
"I did, too. But you know how things go when an epidemic hits a town. He's probably got his hands full."
"Him not showin' up here yet has gotta mean the quinine hasn't come in."
"That's what I figured." Pete looked at the mansion. "I wonder how Heath's doing?"
The lanky Jim spit in the dirt. "Who gives a rat's ass."
"Well, I don't care and you shouldn't either. It's because of him that Billy's sick."
"Come on, Jim, we don't know that."
"Whatta ya' mean we don't know that! Of course we know it! Heath's the first one on the ranch to get sick so that means he's infected everyone else."
"And what? The bastard's gone and brought the sickness here, that's what. If Billy dies it'll be his fault."
"I thought you liked Heath. As a matter of fact just last week you said you'd never worked for a better boss or one who knew so much about horses."
"Never mind what I said last week. Billy bein' sick changes all that."
"You can be just as stubborn and unreasonable as Pa when you put your mind to it, you know that?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You lose all sight of your common sense. You get angry over stuff you got no call to get riled about."
"And you're not riled about Billy?"
"I'm worried about Billy if that's what your askin'. But I don't blame Heath for him bein' sick."
"Well, maybe you should."
Jim turned on one heel and reentered the building. Pete watched his brother walk to Billy's bedside. He let out a heavy sigh as he looked through the screen door. They'd done a good job of transforming the bunkhouse into an infirmary. Every surface had been scrubbed before fresh linens had been put on the beds. Jessybell was keeping a table stacked with clean towels and sheets. Even Phillip and some of the other hands were pitching in to help her keep up on the enormous amount of laundry that was being generated.
At Nick's orders the two men who cooked for the hands kept chicken soup simmering on the stove for those who were ill. Silas had brought out loaves of fresh bread as well. Pete couldn't imagine what more the Barkley family could do that wasn't already being done. Every couple hours Nick or Jarrod would come out to the infirmary to see how the sick men were. Why Jarrod had even carried soiled linens back to the house on several trips. Despite Jim's feelings, Pete knew how lucky they were to be employed by people like the Barkleys at a time such as this. On any other ranch Billy wouldn't have stood a chance for survival. Aside from Billy, five other men had fallen ill. There was a wrangler fifty four years old by the name of Fred whom Pete didn't think would last more than a couple days. Then there was Joe, a man in his early thirties who had just started working for the Barkleys in March. He had a wife and four children who lived in a rented house in Stockton. Pete knew Joe had to be going out of his mind with worry for his family. His oldest kid was only seven. Because they were quarantined there was no way to get word to Joe's wife that he was sick. At least not until Doctor Sheridan came out.
The other men who were sick were all in their twenties. Pete's eyes fell to Jeb Galloway. The cowboy with the raven curls was beginning to run a temperature. His face had a red flush to it that made Jeb look like he'd been out in the sun too long, and when he coughed he sound like a fog horn. Billy wasn't in much better shape. He'd started coughing so hard shortly after dawn that Pete was certain he'd choke himself to death. That spell had finally passed, but Pete was well aware more like it were to come.
The cowboy squinted. Was that a buggy coming? He waited until the object crested the last hill then smiled.
"Hey, Jim! Fellas! The doc's coming!"
No cheers went up, but the smiles that lit the faces of the men who were taking care of the sick spoke of their relief.
Finally, Jim Garver thought as he ran a cold cloth over his baby brother's fiery face. Help is finally here.
"Doctor Sheridan is here, Mr. Jarrod."
"Thank you, Silas."
Jarrod entered the hall and walked to his mother's room. He knocked on the door, calling softly, "Mother?"
The lawyer heard his mother moving across the floor. The thirty minutes she'd spent in the bathtub followed by the breakfast she'd eaten had helped her appearance a little, but she still looked drawn and tired. Jarrod doubted if she'd gotten more than two hours of sleep since this ordeal had begun.
"Jake's here. He's with Heath now."
Victoria nodded and followed her son to Nick's room. She smiled at Silas who hovered in the background.
Jarrod and Nick lifted Heath from his pillows. Jake spent a long time listening to Heath's lungs with first his stethoscope, and then by placing his ear directly against the blond's back. No one missed the slight shake of Jake's head as he straightened, nor the small frown that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
With Jarrod and Nick still supporting Heath the doctor perched on the edge of the mattress.
"Heath? Heath, it's Jake Sheridan. Heath, I want you to open your eyes for me."
Victoria saw Heath's eyes move beneath his lids as though he was trying to obey Jake's command, but the effort appeared to be too much for him.
"Heath!" Jake reached out and flicked his fingers against Heath's right cheek. "Heath, come on! I need you to wake up for me." When that action didn't produce any results Jake stood and gave Heath a resounding slap.
Jake barely glanced at Heath's sister. "Audra, I had to do it. It's important that we wake him up." The doctor looked at Jarrod and Nick. "How long has he been unresponsive like this?"
"He fell asleep around seven last night," Nick said. "Then at one-thirty this morning his temperature started to rise again and he had a hard time breathing. That's why we brought him in here. Mother had us hold him over a kettle of steam. He calmed down just as the sun was coming up."
"And he's been like this ever since?"
"Well,...yeah. But I thought he was sleeping."
"He's far more unconscious than he is asleep, Nick."
The doctor turned his attention back to Heath. Another slap finally caused Heath's eyes to open halfway.
"Heath!" Jake called, when the cowboy couldn't seem to focus on anyone or anything. "Heath!"
Jake looked at Nick. "You try." The doctor scampered around the bed, switching places with Nick.
The dark headed man sat on the edge of the bed and grasped Heath's upper arms. His tone was both loud and firm.
"Heath! Heath, come on, wake up! Heath, it's Nick! Come on now, it's past time we got the day started!"
Heath's right hand reached for the distant voice he recognized. He felt someone take the questing hand in a firm grip and knew by the calluses on the palm he should be able to put a name to the voice, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't.
"Heath, open your eyes! Open your eyes for me! Heath!"
Jake's soft voice made a sharp contrast to Nick's loud one.
"Okay, okay, that's enough, Nick. You've done the best you could." With Jarrod's help the doctor eased Heath back to the pillows. Jake walked over to his bag and took out a thin black case. He opened it and removed a thermometer. He shook it hard four times, then returned to Heath's side. He placed the thermometer under Heath's tongue and ordered, "Heath, I want you to hold that thermometer in place until I take it out."
Whether Heath really understood the doctor no one knew, but he didn't fight the foreign object in his mouth either.
For the next three minutes Jake kept one eye on his pocket watch and one eye on his patient. He didn't even have a chance to read the instrument before Nick was asking, "What's it say? How high's his temperature?"
"Too high. One hundred four point eight which explains why he's having a difficult time responding to us." The doctor passed the delicate tool off to Audra. "I have rubbing alcohol in my bag, Audra. Pour some in a shot glass and put the thermometer in it please."
Silas hurried from the room to get the requested shot glass. By the time he returned the doctor was mixing powdered quinine in a cup of water. Jarrod and Nick held Heath up again while Jake placed the cup to his mouth.
"Heath, I want you to drink this. Here, let me,..." Before Jake could finish his sentence Heath's eyes popped open and a fist flew up. If Nick hadn't been anticipating what was going to happen next the precious quinine would have ended up on the floor.
Amidst Heath's incoherent cries Jarrod and Nick struggled to keep him in bed. Audra rescued the quinine from the doctor as Jake was drawn into the fray.
Victoria rushed to soak a towel in water. She wrung it out and moved to the bed. She placed the cold towel on Heath's forehead. No matter how hard he tried to move out of her reach she stayed with him. Silas was right there to help. Just as soon as the heat from Heath's fever caused the towel to lose its effectiveness Silas placed a fresh one in Victoria's hands. They worked together in silent rhythm handing towels back and forth, until Heath finally started to calm down. With the three men still holding onto Heath, Victoria indicated for Audra to give her the cup of medicine. The Barkley matriarch sat on the mattress. She continued to wipe Heath's face with a towel while talking quietly.
"Heath, it's Mother. Sweetheart, the only thing in this cup is water mixed with quinine. No one's trying to hurt you, son. You need to drink this. It'll help bring your fever down. Come on now, don't fight us. Drink this for me, Heath. Please, honey, drink it."
Audra wondered if the cold towels had finally brought Heath's temperature down to a point where he was no longer lost in a world of delirium or if he, like everyone else in the room, had heard the tears in Victoria's voice. Whatever the reason didn't matter. Audra was simply grateful that Heath allowed their mother to lift the cup to his mouth and was willing to drink from it until it was empty.
Heath sagged into the pillows as Victoria handed the cup off to Silas. The black man filled it with cold water, but try as she might Victoria couldn't get Heath to take another drink.
Jake released his grip on Heath. Jarrod and Nick did the same. The doctor began gathering up his things.
"Jarrod, Nick, I'll help you move Heath back to his own room. I'm sure the steam helped him last night, but it's too hot in here for him now. I'll leave enough quinine for one more dose. Silas, if you could get me a clean cup please, I'll pour it into there."
"Yes, Doctor. I can do that."
"One more dose?" Nick questioned as Silas left the room. "Why can't you just leave the whole bottle?"
Jake snapped his bag closed and turned from where he was standing by the tall dresser. "Because I've got three dozen people in town who are just as sick as Heath and a limited supply of quinine. I have no choice but to ration it, Nick."
"Well then, send for more. I'll give you whatever money you need,..."
"I have sent for more. But this epidemic is turning out to be wide-spread up and down the state. The medical board has wired back east to have more shipped but,..."
"But by the time it gets here Heath could be dead!"
Jake's eyes flashed both his weariness and anger at his inability to stop a disease that would take many lives. "By the time it gets here a lot of people could be dead! Now you have to face the fact that I'm doing the best I can. Believe me, Nick, I know your brother is very ill. And believe me, too, when I say I wish I could do more. But I can't. I have to be fair to everyone. You know that."
Jarrod laid a calming hand on Nick's shoulder. "Yes, Jake, we know that. Now rather than focusing on what we can't do, what more can we do to help Heath?"
"Aside from getting him out of this room and trying to control his temperature, I have one last idea."
"I'm going to leave a bottle of sulfur with you. If he starts to choke again and can't breathe like you described happening last night, then you put hot coals in a pan and sprinkle four healthy tablespoons of sulfur over them. Now you'll need to wear a flannel cloth tied over your own noses and mouths to protect yourselves from the fumes. When you're ready you'll have to hold Heath over the pan. He's not going to like it. He's not going to like it one bit, but the fumes will cause him to vomit which will bring up the mucus. It's hardly a pretty way to get someone to cough, but I've been told it can save a patient's life."
"We're not worried about pretty," Victoria assured. "Whatever we have to do for Heath we will."
Victoria wasn't sure why she saw a new kind of respect shining from Jake's eyes when he looked at her and smiled. "I realize that, Mrs. Barkley." The three men carried Heath to his room. Jake shook one dose of quinine into a cup and told the family when it should next be administered, then left behind a small bottle of sulfur.
"I don't know when I'll be back." The doctor picked up his bag and turned for the door. "I hope you understand."
"We do, Jake," Victoria nodded. "It's bad, isn't it? In town I mean."
"Yes, Ma'am, it's bad. Unfortunately probably not as bad as it's going to get. Oh, Reverend Dyer wanted me to tell you he's including Heath in his prayers. He's been a big help to me. He's allowing the church to be used as an infirmary among other things."
"William's a good man," Victoria acknowledged. "Please let him know I appreciate his prayers for Heath and that I don't want him riding out here to see us. He should stay in town and offer whatever he can in the way of assistance to you and the people there."
"I'll make sure he gets the message, Mrs. Barkley."
"We've got half a dozen sick men in a bunkhouse," Nick said. "I'd like you to look at them before you head back to town."
"Lead the way."
Jake's examination of the sick ranch hands was quick but thorough. As he stood to leave he complimented the Barkley brothers on the makeshift infirmary.
"You've done everything correct out here from keeping it clean, to having plenty of water on hand, to having your cooks provide soup and bread. I'll leave two bottles of sulfur here. Have your hands use it for the sick men in the same I described for Heath. Other than that, it looks like everyone is doing all they can."
Jim Garver rose from his brother's bedside. He joined Jake and the Barkleys by the door.
"What about quinine, Doc?"
"I'm sorry, but right now I'm being forced to ration what little quinine I received."
"Okay, fine. So ration some out to these men in here."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Garver, but I can't do that."
"What do you mean you can't do that?"
"I have to distribute the quinine to those people who are the sickest right at this moment."
"These men are sick! My brother is sick!"
"I understand that, Sir, but I have people in town who are sicker. Heath Barkley is sicker. I have no choice but,....."
"Do you mean to tell me that Heath is getting quinine and my brother isn't? Do you,..."
"Heath is desperately ill, Mr. Garver."
"But Billy's ill, too."
"Not as ill as Heath."
Nick attempted to calm the man by placing an arm around his shoulders. "Hey, Jim, come on now. Jarrod and I are gonna do everything we can to see that Doctor Sheridan gets more quinine. We'll wire everyone we know between here and Boston. It's possible we'll have a shipment headed our way by tonight."
"And what if that doesn't happen? What does that mean for Billy and the rest of these men! Heath gets medicine but they don't? Is that the way it's going to be?"
"Jim, no," Jarrod assured, "that's not the way it's going to be. Doctor Sheridan has already explained the reasoning behind rationing the quinine. Heath didn't get any special favors or privileges."
"Like hell he didn't! If he wasn't a Barkley he'd be suffering like everyone else! I don't understand it! Why do you care so much? He's only your half brother. Only half a Barkley! Only,..."
Nick took a step forward. "Jim, that's enough now. I know you're upset about Billy so I'll overlook that last remark. But,... "I don't care if you overlook it or not because it's true! If Heath was still Heath Thomson, instead of Heath Barkley, he'd be layin' out here in this bunkhouse goin' without quinine just like Billy is!"
Jarrod managed to get a firm grip on Nick just as Pete Garver appeared and managed to get a firm grip on Jim. The two men struggled against their siblings until a weak voice caused everyone to turn toward a bunk in the corner. Billy Garver struggled to prop himself on his elbows.
"Jim,.......Jimmy, don't." The young man used a shaking hand to wipe at the sweat that ran into his eyes. "Don't start a fight o,...over me. Nick,....Nick's doin' all he can. I know that. Please,....."
Jim hesitated a long moment, then allowed his body to relax within his brother's grip. He gave Nick a final glare before shaking himself free of Pete and crossing to Billy's side.
Jarrod released Nick. Pete's gaze took in both men.
"I'm sorry. Jim,...well, Jim's really upset about Billy. He didn't mean what he said."
Nick simply nodded while Jarrod reached out to squeeze Pete's shoulder.
"We understand. And like Nick said, we'll do all we can to get more quinine here as soon as possible."
"I know you will. Thanks."
Pete nodded to the cowboy on the bunk next to Billy. "Doc, Joe's wife rents a house in Stockton. Can you get word to her that he's sick?"
"Sure. What's the last name?"
"Does he have children?"
"Yeah. Four of 'em. Two boys and two girls."
Jake turned away so his voice wouldn't carry throughout the room. "I see."
"What?" Pete asked. "Whatta ya' mean by that?"
Nick and Jarrod had already guessed what Doctor Sheridan was about to say, but then by looking at Pete's face they knew he had guessed it as well.
"The Edmonds children are very ill."
"All four of them?"
"Three of them so far. But I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the youngest boy is sick as well."
For a few seconds the only sounds that could be heard was that of the barking coughs that seemed to travel from bunk to bunk. Pete stole a look at Joe Edmonds who appeared to be sleeping.
"How do I tell him?"
"But he'll ask me. As soon as he knows you've been here he'll ask me if I gave you a message for his wife."
"Then tell him you did. For now that's all he needs to know."
"Mr. Garver, at the moment there's nothing your friend can do for his family. Though none of us like this fact, the spread of diphtheria is not yet something modern medicine can prevent or control. Therefore, it's best to give a patient nothing but hope and encouragement. Any words to the contrary can produce devastating results."
Pete looked from Joe to Billy. He finally nodded before joining Jim at Billy's bedside.
Jarrod turned to the physician. "Jake, if you've got just one more minute to spare I'll write out a list of every person I can think of my family is acquainted with who might be able to get a shipment of quinine here."
Jake couldn't help but smile. "Considering how many people the Barkleys know I'd better spare you two minutes."
"That you had." Jarrod returned with a smile of his own.
The lawyer exited the bunkhouse and headed for the barn, Jake at his heels. Nick kept a pad of paper and pencil on a shelf out there where the ranch hands recorded the supplies that were needed on a weekly basis. Jarrod's script was still neat despite writing quickly and while leaning his paper against a barn wall for support.
"There's just no possible way you can leave some of that quinine here for the sick men?" Jarrod questioned as he wrote. "Not even one dose for each of them?"
"Jarrod, no. I'm sorry. I wasn't lying to Jim Garver when I told him Heath isn't getting preferential treatment. I don't do business that way."
"I didn't mean to imply any less. It's simply that,..." Jarrod let his sentence trail off unfinished.
"That you're in-between a rock and a hard place, is that it?"
"Aptly put, Jake. Very aptly, put."
"Look, Jarrod, I understand that I've just given medicine to Heath that I've had to refuse to give your hired hands. But again, I have no choice but to ration what little I received. The bottom line is, Heath is sicker than the men in the bunkhouse. Maybe two days from now that won't be true, but with an epidemic of this magnitude I can't worry about two days from now."
Jarrod paused in the act of writing and made eye contact with the younger man. "Will Heath even be alive two days from now?"
"I don't know. But,..."
"It would be best to prepare your mother and Audra for the worst."
It took Jarrod a moment to regain his concentration. When the lawyer started writing again Jake saw a slight tremor to his hand that hadn't been present earlier.
Five minutes later Doctor Sheridan was on his way back to Stockton with a list that included the names of four United States Senators, two renowned Boston physicians, three wealthy Philadelphia businessmen, and two Harvard University professors. Jake had no idea if any of these people could be of help, but if nothing else just knowing everyone on Jarrod's list would soon receive a wire with a desperate plea for assistance brought comfort to the young man. At least he didn't feel quite as alone as he had just a few hours earlier. As if Stockton had been cut off by the outside world and was in danger of losing a large amount of her citizens by forces beyond anyone's control.
Which, Jake supposed as he slapped a short whip against his horse's rump in an effort to speed up the buggy, was all too true.
"There's no need for that, Jeb. Lay back down."
"No,..." The man turned his head to cough. When he could speak again he faced Nick and motioned for him to sit beside him. "No, I'm fine. It feels good to sit up for a little while. It's easier to breathe."
Nick saw the signs in Jeb he'd seen out on the range just two days earlier with Heath. Smoky gray circles under his eyes, pale skin, a twinge of red streaks on his cheeks. The same twinge of red that Nick hadn't realized was the beginning of a fever when he'd noticed it on Heath while they ate their noon meal on Monday.
As if he was reading Nick's mind, Jeb asked, "How's Heath?"
"He's doin' okay. He'll be fine. Just fine."
A crooked grin touched Jeb's lips. "Don't lie to me, Nick."
"Heath always says,..." another coughing spasm interrupted the young man for a moment. "Heath always says you can't look a person in the eye when you fib."
Nick tried to act the part of put out older brother. "Oh he does now, does he?"
"Yep. And you wouldn't look me in the eye just now so I know you're lyin'. Heath's not okay."
Nick rubbed his palms over the thighs of his pants. This time his eyes met Jeb's. "No, Jeb. No, Heath's not okay. He's,...he's pretty bad off right now."
"He'll pull through, Nick. I know he will. Heath,...well him and I have gotten to be pretty good friends these last couple years."
"I know that. And I appreciate how you looked past everyone's prejudices regarding Heath and helped show the other men what a good guy he is."
"Don't thank me, Nick. Friendships,...well they just happen. And because Heath's my friend I know he hasn't always had an easy life. He don't talk much about it, never says nothin' in a way that would make a person think he wants anyone to feel sorry for him or anything."
"No. Heath's got too much pride for that."
"That's some of it. But some of it,...well, I don't reckon he really looks back on his growin' up years and thinks of them as all that bad. He has a lot of good memories of his mother and the home she made for him. I guess maybe her love kinda makes up for everything else in Heath's mind."
Nick gave a thoughtful nod. "Heath doesn't talk to me about his mother very often, but I imagine you're right."
"Anyway, what I wanted to tell you is that Heath's made it through a lot of rough spots in his life. He'll make it through this one, too."
"I know that, Jeb." Nick smiled while patting the young man's leg. "Now come on, let me help you get settled back down on this bunk. You want a glass of water? Some soup maybe?"
The cowboy shook his head as Nick helped him ease to a reclining position.
He fought to keep his eyes open. "No. No, I don't need anything. Thanks for offerin' though."
No, you don't need anything but quinine. Nick looked around the room. You and everyone else in this building. And we have one dose for Heath. One dose. Will one dose really make that much difference in the long run? Could that make the difference between life and death for Heath, or life and death for someone in here? But Heath is sicker than these men. Even Jake says so.
As Nick walked out into the sunlight he wished for the wisdom of King Solomon while praying for a shipment of quinine to arrive on the next train.
The Barkleys worked in shifts that afternoon and evening. Like the day before they took turns at Heath's bedside, taking their meals at the dining room table, and getting some rest. The normal exuberance that was a part of Victoria's household by virtue of the personalities that lived there was missing. If Jarrod wasn't helping with Heath then he was sitting at his father's desk in the study attempting to do paperwork. But more often than not Victoria found him staring out the big windows that overlooked the ranch yard with deep worry lines creasing the skin of his forehead. Audra no longer bounded throughout the house as though she didn't have a care in the world. Gone was that beautiful smile her father had loved so much and the teasing remarks she would normally toss to one of her brothers at the drop of a hat. And Nick,...well, if Nick wasn't sitting with Heath, or outside tending to the animals, or checking on their sick employees, then he wandered aimlessly from room to room. Victoria knew he was barely eating or sleeping. Even when Nick went to his bedroom to rest his mother would hear him pacing the floor or tossing and turning on the mattress; getting up, then lying back down, getting up, then lying back down; this cycle of torment repeating itself for hours at a time.
It was ten o'clock that night when Victoria took over at Heath's bedside. She found Nick standing at a window, staring out at the moonless night. She walked up behind her son and placed her hands on his upper arms.
"Nick?" The cowboy turned his head just enough to look down at his mother. He gave her a weary smile and voiced a quiet, "Hi."
"How have things been?"
Nick's eyes traveled to his brother. Victoria felt, as well as saw, her son shrug his shoulders.
"About the same as they've been ever since Jake left. I've tried to get Heath to eat a couple times, but he's too out of it to understand what I want him to do. Jarrod stopped in a little while ago and helped me force some soup down his throat, but in the end I think we did more harm than good."
"It caused him to him choke," the woman guessed.
"Yeah. He got to coughing so hard I thought he was gonna,...well, let's just say we won't be doing that again."
Victoria patted a soft hand against Nick's back before releasing him. She walked over to the nightstand and straightened the items sitting on top of it. Nick returned to staring out at the darkness while his mother added fresh water to a bowl, refolded the clean towels that had been knocked askew, gathered up the wet towels, and covered the soup that had now turned cold. Victoria set the pot of soup on Heath's dresser. She bent and picked up the sweat-soaked linens Nick had taken off the bed at some point. She folded them, laid the damp towels on top of them, then stacked everything outside Heath's door for Jessybell or Silas to gather. Victoria tried to lighten the mood when she stepped back into the room.
"We haven't seen this much laundry since Audra and Eugene were both in diapers."
Nick didn't even crack a smile, nor did he face his mother when he spoke.
"Speaking of Gene, the next time Jake's out here do you think we should have him telegram Gene about what's happening? About Heath being sick?"
Victoria didn't say what she was thinking. That by the time Gene got the telegram the crisis would be over and Heath would either be on the road to recovery or would be dead. If the latter turned out to be the case Gene and his wife, Anna, would never be able to arrive in time for the funeral.
"I think the best course of action is for me to write Gene and Anna a letter at the end of the week."
Nick turned. "End of the week?"
Victoria did no more than nod her head. In that instant she could see Nick understood what she was saying. By the end of the week they'd know one way or another if Heath was going to be alive to see another day.
"I,...yeah, I guess we might as well wait. I don't suppose it makes much difference either way. It's not like Gene's gonna be able to get here if,...if Heath,....if..."
Nick didn't have the heart to finish his sentence.
"Regardless of how far away he is, Gene would want to be here if he knew, Nick, and that's what counts."
The cowboy nodded and once again moved to gaze out at the velvet sky.
"Honey, why don't you try to get some sleep."
When her son didn't answer Victoria crossed the room and placed a hand on his back. "Nick?"
"I,...I didn't realize until this week how much I've come to depend on him."
"I know you do, sweetheart. We have a big operation. Heath has been a great help to you since he came to us."
"No,.....I don't mean that. The work. I mean,....I,...I guess ever since I was a kid I knew Jarrod would never be interested in running the ranch day after day. And by the time Gene was no more than nine or ten I knew he would never be interested in running the ranch either. But that didn't really matter to me because there was Father. I knew Father and I would work together for years to come. But then Father died, and even though I never said anything, I was,....lonely I guess you'd call it. I missed him. His laugh, his smile,...I missed just having another Barkley to turn to for an opinion on a sick animal, or for his thoughts on a string of horses I wanted to buy. I missed having someone by my side that I could trust with my life. Heath,....Heath's given me back all those things. I didn't just wake up one morning and realize that. It took a long time. Maybe even a couple years. But it's like his presence has made me whole again. Has made running this ranch a joy again. I always wanted one of my brothers to be my partner. Years ago I thought that dream had died when I realized Eugene was meant for other things in this world just like Jarrod." Nick shook his head as he looked at his sick brother. "Who would have ever thought it? The day he rode on this ranch and told me who he was,....jeez, who would have thought it?" "None of us," Victoria smiled. "Not that night, and not for many nights to come. But God answers our prayers in very unexpected ways sometimes, Nick. I suppose you could say Heath's arrival helped start the mending of the heartache you'd been carrying around inside you since the day your father died."
"Yeah." Nick pulled his mother to his chest. "Yeah, I suppose you could say that. If he,...."
Victoria craned her head to look up at her son. His cheeks and chin were shadowed by beard stubble and dark circles ringed his eyes. In that regard he didn't look any different from the sick man in the bed.
Nick's voice was no more than a whisper. "If Heath,...if he,....I don't know if I can bury my partner again. I don't know if I have it in me."
Victoria wanted to assure her son that without a doubt he possessed the strength he needed to face whatever life brought his way. But right now she knew any words she said would be lost on him, so she settled for wrapping her arms around his waist and holding him as tightly as she could. Nick clung to his mother a long moment, then released her without speaking. He paused for a second as he passed Heath's bed. He reached down and laid a hand on his brother's shoulder.
"Good night, Mo. I'll be back in to check on you a little later."
Victoria smiled at the nickname. She'd asked Heath once if it bothered him to have Nick call him that. The blond man had tossed her a crooked grin and said simply, "It beats being called 'boy.' Now that I hated."
Without looking at his mother Nick shuffled out of the room.
Victoria turned the oil lamp to the softest glow possible then sat in the chair next to Heath's bed. Though she doubted anyone was getting a restful night's sleep the house was quiet. She heard Nick cross from the bathroom to his bedroom, then heard the slight squeak of his mattress as he laid down. When Heath started coughing she got up and closed his door. She moved back to her chair and sat by helplessly as the powerful spasms brought him off his pillows. There wasn't much she could do to help him other than hold onto his shoulders to keep him from falling out of bed. When the fit passed he slumped back to the pillows without ever having opened his eyes. Victoria called his name, but he didn't respond to her. She felt his face and realized his temperature was on the rise. She thought about giving him the last of the quinine, but decided to try to control the fever with cold compresses first. The quinine might be needed more as the night wore on than it was needed right now.
Victoria sponged the warm body. The wet towel moved from Heath's forehead, to his cheeks, to his neck, to his shoulders, and finally ran over his chest. Time and time again the woman repeated this routine that she could now do in her sleep.
Twenty minutes later Victoria left the room for fresh water and warm soup. Even though she closed Heath's door behind her Victoria could hear him coughing all the way in the kitchen. By the look on Silas's face when he appeared from his bedroom down the back hall Victoria knew he could hear Heath as well. The black man didn't say word as he took the pitcher from Victoria and filled it with cold water. The woman got a deep bowl from the cabinet, found a tin lid that would fit it, then placed both items on a small plate. She took the quilted pot holder Silas handed her and lifted the lid on the soup he'd left warming on the stove. She cocked an eyebrow at her house servant.
"Beef vegetable soup? Now, Silas, I know Heath didn't eat all the chicken soup you made Tuesday morning."
"No, Ma'am. He hasn't hardly been eatin' a morsel of anything. But Mr. Heath loves my beef vegetable soup. He tells me so every time I make it. I thought maybe he'd eat some of it for us."
"It was very kind of you to go to the extra work on Heath's behalf. I know how busy both you and Jessy have been since he got sick. I don't know what we would have done without the two of you."
"Me and Jessy don't mind none, Mrs. Barkley. Not one bit we don't. Besides, I haven't had much cookin' to do 'cause not a one of you is eatin' more than a baby bird. Why I put leftovers in front of Mr. Nick two nights in a row now and he hasn't even noticed."
"About the only thing Nick's going to take notice of is the day Doctor Sheridan pronounces Heath well and fit."
"And that day will come, Ma'am. I know it will. With as hard as we're all prayin' it just has to."
Victoria patted Silas's hand. He carried the pitcher of water up the stairs while she carried the soup. Silas replenished the water in the bowl then lingered a moment to see if Victoria needed any further assistance. The woman assured him she had everything under control.
"You look tired, Silas. Go on back to bed."
Silas nodded. He paused for a moment beside Heath. The blond man's face was flushed and dark circles like bruises were sunk deep beneath his eyes. Silas rested a hand on the cowboy's shoulder.
"Heath, it's your old friend Silas. I want you to eat all the soup Mrs. Barkley brought for you. It's beef vegetable. I diced carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes in it just the way you like it. I made 'em real small so you can even swallow 'em if it's easier for you."
Heath's eyes fluttered open. Victoria immediately noticed the glassy quality that broadcast the severity of his illness and fever. Silas spoke to Heath again, but the blond man didn't attempt to focus on him. Silas waited a few more seconds, then gave Heath's shoulder a squeeze before leaving the room. The old man shut the bedroom door then stopped in the hallway long enough to retrieve the dirty linens and say another prayer.
Victoria set the soup on the nightstand, then strained to pull Heath forward and rest his upper body against her shoulder. She worked around his limp weight, straightening his pile of pillows with one hand while holding onto his slick shoulders with the other. When she laid him back against the pillows he was almost sitting straight up.
Heath couldn't recall ever experiencing a stranger day. Opening his eyes, something he'd always done automatically, now took all the concentration he could muster. And even then, more often than not he failed. It seemed to Heath as though someone was always moving him; carrying him from one room to another, rolling him from his right side to his left, trying to get him to walk to God knows where. He remembered two men being on either side of him attempting to bear his weight. He had no idea who they were, or what they wanted of him, or where they were taking him, and then his legs gave out from underneath him. The next thing Heath knew he was back in bed and being encouraged to make use of a chamber pot so maybe he'd told one of the men he needed to go to the bathroom, but if he did voice any such thing he didn't remember doing so.
Sometime during the afternoon the features of these people who were attending him grew into a foggy blur. At times he could identify the blue of someone's eyes, or recognize the gray in a shirt, but it was as if those splashes of color had been painted on nameless, faceless ghosts, and it scared him.
The woman was back now though. He wasn't frightened of her. Her touch was always cool against his hot skin and she never pounded on his back like that loud man did. He tried to bring her face into focus as she spooned soup to his mouth. He didn't feel like eating. Nothing had any taste, and when he swallowed it felt like he had jagged pieces of broken glass sticking to the insides of his throat. But she wanted him to try. He could hear her saying it over and over again, "Try for me, Heath. Please, sweetheart, try to eat a little something." So he did try because for some reason he knew he never wanted to disappoint her. When he started to cough and upset the soup bowl in the process she didn't even get angry. She jumped up as though she was worried the hot soup would burn him. He felt the liquid splatter his naked chest and shoulders, but he was already hot so really, what harm could it do?
Victoria moved quickly to mop up the spilled soup. She used a damp cloth to clean the mess off Heath. He hadn't even flinched when the scalding liquid hit his bare skin, and showed no reaction now as Victoria dabbed at the angry red blotches on his chest. The woman surveyed for further damage. She didn't see any spills on the sheet that covered Heath from the waist down, nor on the pillow cases. She exchanged the towel she was using for a new one. She dipped it in water, wrung it out, and wiped it over Heath's face. His eyes were only half open but Victoria saw them trying to follow her every move. She reseated herself and smiled at the blond man.
"Are you feeling a little better, sweetheart?"
Heath didn't answer her, but that didn't stop Victoria from keeping up a steady stream of soft chatter.
"Jake was here to see you this morning. He said you're going to be just fine. Nick's been taking care of Charger so you don't need to worry about him. I'm going to write Eugene and Anna a letter on Saturday. What would you like me to tell them for you? Audra's been,..."
Right in the middle of Victoria's sentence a word was whispered in a voice so raspy and inaudible she almost didn't hear it.
"What, sweetheart? What did you say?"
"Yes, Heath. Mother's here. I'm right here with you."
Heath struggled to push himself off his pillows. He strained to see the woman's face while Victoria's hands held him firm.
"No, Heath. No. You lie still. You can't get out of bed unless Jarrod or Nick are in here with you. Do you want me to get one of them?"
"Yes, honey. I'm here."
Heath laid back against the pillows like she wanted him to. He'd do anything for her. Anything. He fished with his right hand until he came in contact with hers. He grasped the fine-boned hand and gave it a weak squeeze.
"Mama. Mama, I'm so happy you're here."
It was then that Victoria realized Heath thought she was Leah. She opened her mouth to gently correct him, but when a smile of pure joy lit his flushed face she didn't have the heart to say anything other than, "I'm glad I'm here, too, Heath."
Heath's sentences formed in long, drawn out gasps as he tried to get enough air to speak. Victoria patiently allowed him to finish each thought.
"I've missed you, Mama."
"I know you have, honey. And I've missed you, too."
"I'm sorry,....there's lots of things I'm sorry for."
"Heath, shush. There's nothing you need to apologize for."
"I gave you so much trouble,...when I was a teenager. I gave you so much grief. I shouldn't,...shouldn't have done that."
Victoria answered in the exact way she thought Leah might have if she was really here and having this conversation with her son.
"You were a boy, Heath. Just a boy. A boy who had to become a man far too soon. A boy who started working when he was only six years old in order to help his mother make ends meet. You have nothing to be sorry for, son."
Heath seemed to lose his focus on both the conversation and Victoria for a moment. His eyes traveled the room until they came to rest on a far corner. Heath stared so intently for such a long time Victoria turned to look herself. But as she already knew, there was nothing there except a wooden coat rack that held two leather vests, Heath's gun belt, saddle bags, and hat.
Heath shook his head several times as though he was firmly telling someone no. Then he turned to face Victoria once more.
"Mama, I don't want to leave here."
"And I don't want you to leave here either, sweetheart."
"No,...I mean,....no, I can't go with you. Not now. Nick,....Nick needs my help."
"Of course he does. Nick's counts on you in more ways than any us can imagine. I understand that."
"I,...I like it here, Mama. I like it here a lot."
Victoria slipped out of her role a moment when she answered with, "And we like having you here, Heath."
"I call her mother." "Pardon me?"
"I call her....Mrs. Barkley,...I call her mother now. I....I've thought about that a lot. Worried about it some. I,...I don't want it to make you sad, Mama."
"Oh, honey, no. No, it doesn't make me sad. All of us, every single one of us, will have many people in our lifetimes we grow to love. What we call them doesn't matter. Just because you've found your father's family doesn't mean you'll ever forget me. I know that, Heath. Besides, no mother can stand the thought of her child being alone in this world no matter how old that child might be."
Heath rubbed his thumb over Victoria's hand. "She's good to me, Mama. So good. She always has been. Since the day I came here. She's not highfalutin like some of them rich folks we knew in Strawberry. She's nice,.....and down to earth,.....and fun,.....gentle,...real gentle,...but tougher than a wildcat when she needs to be. But most of all,....she's just special to me. I hope that's okay with you. I hope I done right by you, Mama, where Mrs. Barkley is concerned."
Victoria could barely speak around her tears. She bent and kissed the man's forehead. "Yes, Heath, you've done right by me."
By the time Victoria straightened, the exhausted man was asleep. For that she was glad. She didn't want Heath to see her cry.
"He's not ready to let go, Tess. That's why he shook his head at us."
"No, Angel Girl, by far he's not ready to let go."
"Heath Barkley, he's a fighter he is. And so bull headed, as I believe the expression goes."
"Yes, when it comes to hanging onto something he loves that's so."
"Though I guess all humans love life. If they could only fully comprehend the beauty of God's heaven they wouldn't so stubbornly cling to their earthly forms."
"It's not life Mr. Barkley loves, Monica."
"Not in the sense that he's not willing to give his life up if that's God command. He loves this place, that woman sitting next to him, the home she's made for him, the brothers and sister he found here. It's his family he loves. That's what Heath Barkley clings to."
"Oh, Tess, sometimes it's hard to be an angel. I know where Mr. Barkley is going is so much better than where he is, but it also pains me to think of how his passing will hurt his family."
"Heath Barkley is going somewhere, Angel Girl, but not quite the place you think."
"Come along now. We need to get a move on ourselves. We have a lot of work to do before he arrives."
"Why Mr. Barkley of course."
"Never you mind. You just trust in the Lord and follow me."
Monica gave one last glance to the sick man on the bed and the crying woman sitting beside him. She shrugged her shoulders and said softly, "See you later, Heath Barkley," before turning to follow Tess out of the room.
Women's intuition told Victoria that Heath's deep slumber was the calm before the storm. When her oldest son took over for her at one o'clock Thursday morning she cautioned, "Don't leave his side, Jarrod. Not even for the briefest of seconds."
Victoria took up the recent habits of her sons that night and didn't bother to change out of her clothes when she laid down on her bed. The worries and stress of the week finally caught up with her. Five minutes after her head hit the pillow Victoria was asleep.
Two hours later the sound of running footsteps woke the woman. She heard Jarrod's voice as he rushed past her room.
"He can't breathe, Nick! He's worse than he was last night. Much worse."
Victoria jumped to the floor. She dashed into Heath's room and found him sitting up in bed with his eyes wide open, frantically trying to draw in air. He clawed at his chest and throat as though he could tear away whatever obstruction was making it impossible to breathe.
At first Victoria thought Heath was fighting his brothers as they grabbed his flailing body and pulled him out of bed, but then she realized he was getting so little air that he was actually fighting to survive.
Nick positioned Heath on his hands and knees, then wrapped one strong arm around his waist. While Jarrod helped hold Heath, Nick made a fist and slammed it between the blond's shoulder blades. Victoria winced at the sound. She could only imagine how much it hurt considering Nick was hitting the exact spot that was already bruised and tender from the previous night. Nick's fist rose and fell again and again with no positive results. Jarrod looked up at his brother. Victoria heard the fear in his voice when he shouted, "His lips are turning blue, Nick!"
What would have been a violent beating under any other circumstances went on with Nick now yelling, "Breathe, Heath! Dammit, you breathe! Cough! Do you hear me? Cough! I said cough! Don't you dare give up on me, Heath! Cough! Come on now, cough!"
Audra ran into the room only to have Victoria shove the bottle of sulfur in her hands.
"Audra, get this ready just like Jake told us. Layer a pan with hot coals. I'll be right down with something we can use to cover our faces."
While the terrified Audra raced for the kitchen Victoria headed for the linen closet. She grabbed a flannel sheet, stopped in her room and got pair of scissors from her sewing basket, then dashed down the back stairs. Audra used metal tines to put glowing coals in a shallow pan while Victoria cut big triangles from the red and white checkered cloth. The woman tied one of the makeshift bandannas around her daughter's face and the other around her own. She handed Audra the two remaining bandannas and an empty pan.
"Here, you take these things upstairs. Tie the cloths around your brothers' faces."
Audra hurried off to do as her mother ordered. Victoria got a tablespoon from the cutlery drawer and poured the sulfur onto it, then sprinkled it over the hot coals. She repeated this action three more times until the smell of burning, rotten eggs brought tears to her eyes.
The woman used what was left of the flannel sheet to wrap around the hot pan. She carried it up the stairs, rushed down the hall and entered Heath's room.
Nick was filling the air with colorful words he normally reserved for the barn while still pounding on his brother's back.
If the situation hadn't been so grave Victoria might have laughed. She caught a brief glimpse of herself in the dresser mirror, then looked at her children. They all wore the bandannas now, their faces completely covered below their eyes. Nick wasn't wearing a shirt, Jarrod's shirt was open and he was minus his socks, and Audra was in her nightgown and robe. They looked like a band of misfit bank robbers. Heath must have thought so, too, because at his first sight of his family he bucked against Nick and tried to crawl for the door.
Heath's blocked air passages didn't allow him to get too far. Jarrod caught him by the ankle and with Nick's help pulled him back. Heath fought and kicked which only made him wheeze harder. Victoria was sure his heart would explode inside his chest if he didn't get some air soon.
"Hold him like you were before!" The woman shouted over the mayhem. "Get him on his hands and knees! Put his head over this pan!"
Jarrod and Nick grappled their brother back to that position. Nick pushed Heath's head toward the floor until his face was no more than six inches above the pan of smoldering sulfur.
It took all the two men's combined strength to hold Heath there. He fought like an enraged bull, but he couldn't shake the brothers whose bodies were draped atop his, nor could he wrench his head from Nick's firm grasp.
As the first wave of sulfur hit Heath full in the face he gagged. Victoria never thought she'd heard a more awful sound; gagging that gave way to choking whenever Heath tried to vomit. For one, long, heart clutching moment Victoria thought they'd lost him. Heath's entire body went rigid and an attempted gulp for air ended in a strangled gasp. But then it happened. He started vomiting and couldn't stop. Victoria signaled for Audra to hold the empty pan under Heath's mouth. They caught as much of the stuff as they could before Victoria pushed the pan away so Heath would once again be breathing in the sulfur. This action was repeated five times, but Heath still couldn't take in even the smallest gulp of air. Victoria knew exactly what was wrong. With Heath's head still hanging toward the floor she shoved her right hand down his throat. As his gag reflex kicked in again to expel the foreign object she grabbed whatever she could and pulled. Strings of thick, yellow mucus came out as Heath threw up. Victoria didn't think twice about doing this again. A mother did what she had to in order to save her child's life.
The second time produced the same results. Mucus coated Victoria's tiny hand but she still wasn't getting what she was looking for. She tried again, this time shoving her hand farther back than she previously had. When she felt the rounded plug of knotted secretions she shouted, "Hit him on the back, Nick! Hit him on the back! Audra, hold the sulfur as close to his nose as you can get it!" When Victoria's hand finally appeared she brought with it the long, thick plug the disease caused to form that ultimately choked its victim to death.
Heath vomited one last time, then everyone heard the gulp of air that made it down his throat. He collapsed sideways, falling onto the floor in a tangled heap with his brothers. Sweat ran down his face, strands of mucus along with flecks of half digested vegetables clung to his chin, his lips were still tinged blue, he was more unconscious than conscious, but he was breathing. He was breathing, and every bedraggled Barkley in the room sent up a silent cheer.
Jarrod patted Heath's leg as he slid out from beneath him. "Good job, Heath. Good job." Nick leaned forward and rested his head in the middle of Heath's back, right on the very spot his fist had been pounding only seconds before. Tears of relief ran down Audra's cheeks as she bent to wipe Heath's mouth with a wet towel, while Victoria placed the hand that was still clean on the side of his face. She recalled her stepson's words from a few hours earlier when he told her he didn't want to leave. Softly she promised, "You're not going anywhere, Heath Barkley. You're not going anywhere but right where you already are."
Nick blotted a wet cloth over Heath's chest. Victoria was perched on the opposite side of the bed wiping Heath's face and hairline down with her own wet cloth. The dark headed cowboy looked at his mother.
"I thought we were past the worst of it earlier this morning when we were finally able to help him breathe."
"I thought we were, too. It looks to me as though his fever's trying to break, but for some reason his body's not allowing it to reach its peak."
Nick nodded his understanding. He knew with any illness that brought on a high fever it was common for the patient to literally sweat the fever out prior to a turning point for the good.
"Maybe he's not letting it."
Victoria and Nick glanced up at Jarrod. The lawyer entered the room carrying a pitcher of fresh cold water. As he filled the bowl by his mother's elbow Nick asked, "Whatta ya' mean, maybe he's not letting it?"
"Heath's been doing nothing but fighting this illness since Monday night, and each one of us has continuously encouraged him to do just that. Maybe right now he needs our permission to allow himself to let the illness rage. Maybe he needs our permission to allow himself to be sick."
Victoria had to admit Jarrod's words made sense. She had no doubt the last thing Heath would ever want to do was inconvenience his family. Victoria also knew, without Heath ever having told her, that he would never forgive himself if he thought he let her down or disappointed her in any way.
Without making further comment to her sons Victoria placed a hand on the side of Heath's face. She turned his head until their eyes met. Though Heath's eyes were glazed and unfocused, Victoria looked directly into them and spoke in a stern voice that hid both her worry and fatigue.
"Heath, it's Mother. You listen to me and you listen good. It's okay to quit fighting, son. I don't want you to resist any longer. You let nature take its course now. Your fever's going to climb even higher, but that's all right. That's what I want it to do. That's what you need to let it do."
Victoria repeated her words as she continued to wipe Heath's brow. Within twenty minutes it was apparent the blond man's temperature was inching upward. Jarrod and Nick exchanged raised eyebrows. Had their mother's words really penetrated Heath's subconscious, or was the perspiration beading on his lower lip and forehead a mere coincidence?
The family's relief at this turn of events was short lived. Within minutes Heath's fever climbed so high that he was once again lost in the dark world of people and images they couldn't see. He swung his fists and kicked his legs as he tried to break the hold his brothers had on his thrashing body.
"No! No! Let me go! You won't do that to me again, Bentell! I'll kill you! Someday I'll kill you, you sonuvabitch!"
Heath fought with out-of-control fury as he tried to slay the demons of Carterson Prison that he'd so successfully kept buried from his family all these years. The man screamed and hollered and swore until the air turned blue. Victoria knew her normally soft-spoken Heath would be mortified if he was ever told of the obscenities he'd let fly in front of her and Audra. Heath kicked and twisted and withered in an attempt to free himself from the hands that pinned his shoulders to the mattress and the ones that clamped down on his ankles until it felt like they were once again encased in steel shackles. Even with these restraints the blond man's chest still heaved like he was running a race with a speeding train. He bucked his torso from the bed again and again. It was all Nick and Jarrod could do to hold onto their combative sibling.
"After all he's been through how the hell does he still have this kinda strength?" Nick demanded of no one in particular.
Audra and Victoria tried to calm Heath down with soothing words and cold towels, but to no avail.
"We've gotta have some help!" Nick shouted over his brother's screams. "We've gotta get him in the tub again or he's gonna have a heart attack on us!"
Victoria recalled Jake's words about the heart problems diphtheria could bring on. One look at the thrashing Heath told her Nick was correct, they had to do something and do it quick. She turned to her daughter.
"Audra, tell Silas to fill the tub with cold water, then run and get Phillip! Have him bring some men in to help your brothers with Heath!"
Audra raced from the room without saying a word. She didn't even care that she was barefoot and still in her nightgown and robe as she dashed down the back steps. She called instructions to Silas as she flew through the kitchen. As soon as her feet hit the dirt of the ranch yard she was yelling Phillip's name.
In his mind's eye Heath could see the bodies piled up awaiting burial in the large pit behind the prison. He was still mourning for his friends, screaming their names while trying to break his brothers' grasps, when Phillip rushed into the room with two burly men at his heels.
Victoria never thought twice about what Heath's reaction would be if he knew she was the one who stripped his pajama pants from his body. Nor did she care about what his reaction would be if he had been aware that his sister jogged by his side holding his hand as he was carried stark naked to the bathroom by his brothers, Phillip, and the hired men.
Silas stepped out to the hallway as the struggling Heath was plopped into the cold water. With that feat accomplished, Audra and the hired men stepped into the hall as well. The bathroom could only hold so many people, and for the time being Victoria, Jarrod, Nick, and Phillip seemed to have things under control.
Audra assisted Jessybell in changing the sheets on Heath's bed. The young woman could barely hold back her tears as Heath's incoherent cries continued to echo off the bathroom walls. The black woman reached across the bed and took the girl's hand.
"He's gonna be okay, Miss Audra. That ole' fever has just gotta work it's way outta him. But once it does Mr. Heath is gonna be okay. Jessy's prayin' for him right as we speak."
Audra gave the woman a soft smile as she brushed away her tears. "I know you are, Jessy, and so am I. Believe me, so am I."
"Get the quinine."
Victoria could easily imagine the array of objections that were running through Nick's head. With only one dose of the medicine left, and not knowing if more would come, when do you make the decision to use it?
"Nick, we have no choice. Get it please."
Jarrod took over Nick's spot by Heath's upper body. As Nick passed the two cowboys in the hall he tossed a terse, "I'm gonna need your help in there when I get back," over his shoulder.
Audra and Jessybell watched the man make quick work of mixing up the medicine. When another cry from Heath punctuated Nick's dash from the room Jessybell fell to her knees and began to pray aloud. For a moment Audra stood transfixed, then followed suit. The black house servant wrapped her chubby hand around Audra. She squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her head.
"Oh precious Lord Jesus, we ask that you lay your healin' hand upon our Heath."
Jessy repeated the words over and over until Audra's voice joined hers in an open plea for Heath's survival.
Swirling colors of green, blue, gray, and red, and heads that had no bodies floated in front of Heath. Names he thought he'd long forgotten came to his tongue as he remembered each and every man that died while he was in Carterson Prison. Somehow now he was back in Carterson and the guards were making him drink something he didn't want, but when he tried to turn his head away four hands the size of beef steaks held it in place. A cup was put to Heath's lips as his neck was forced backwards and he was commanded to drink by the loud, dark one. He wanted to spit the vile stuff out, but the loud one must have realized that because he held Heath's mouth closed and yelled at him to swallow. He tried to bite the loud one next, but all he got for his efforts was a firm smack on the nose like a naughty puppy receives for chewing his master's slippers and a stern, "Stop it, Heath! Don't you dare do that again."
The loud one took control once more, and with the help of the guards got the rest of the liquid down Heath's throat. Heath smacked his fists in the water, moaning a heartsick, "no, no, no," ashamed he allowed these men to once again get the better of him as they'd done so many times in the past.
With gallant effort Victoria hid her distress over the scene that was playing out. She couldn't bear the thought of Heath dying without realizing his family was with him. She couldn't bear the thought of this young man going to his grave with his mind trapped in Carterson Prison.
As she returned to pouring water over Heath's head she repeated a soft maternal litany. "Ssssh, Heath. Ssssh, sweetheart, you're okay. You're at home with Mother, Jarrod, Nick, and Audra. You're fine, honey. No one's going to hurt you. You're fine, Heath. You're fine, sweetie. Mother's here. Jarrod's here. Nick's here. You're fine, honey. You're fine."
The woman's voice was back; soft and reassuring. Heath's fear melted away with the gentle caresses he felt on the side of his face. Her words were jumbled and made no sense, but her tone came through loud and clear. He had nothing to be afraid of. She'd protect him. She wouldn't let anyone hurt him. He was safe. Soon Heath felt the fire within begin to burn low. He was floating in a cool lake with the water gently lapping his chest and shoulders. There had to be a delicate waterfall above him because the refreshing liquid washed through his hair and trickled down the sides of his face.
Thirty minutes later Heath's unfocused eyes finally slid closed. Nick could actually see his brother's fever-stressed body dissolve into a state of complete relaxation. The blond man turned his head in Nick's hands, gave a heavy sigh, and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
Heath never felt himself being lifted from the water. Nor was he aware of Victoria and Jarrod drying him off with two large bath towels. Nor was he aware of being wrapped in a thick quilt and carried back to his room. Nor was he aware of his brothers dressing him in a clean pair of pajama pants. Nor was he aware of Audra pulling the blankets up to his shoulders. Nor was he aware of the kiss Victoria placed on his forehead as she settled him against his pillows.
But whether Heath was aware of the gentle ministrations or not didn't matter. At least not to his family. What mattered was that God had spared Heath's life. As Victoria watched her son sleep all she could do was pray that God would spare the lives of all the others this dreaded disease would touch before it left Stockton. Deep in her heart the woman knew this wasn't to be, but she could pray.
Yes, she could pray.
Heath slept the next twenty-two hours without waking. That occurrence didn't alarm or surprise Victoria, who was well-aware of how utterly exhausted he must be. When he finally woke shortly before noon on Friday Heath was groggy and unsure of his surroundings. He acted as if he'd been heavily dosed with laudanum, or so Nick later remarked to his family. Without saying a word Heath allowed Nick to help him use the chamber pot, then allowed Victoria to feed him half a bowl of Silas's vegetable soup. Within seconds of taking the last spoonful Heath promptly returned to a soundless slumber.
When Friday afternoon came and the Barkleys saw no sign of Jake Sheridan they knew that spoke of how bad things were in Stockton. They also knew that meant no shipment of quinine had arrived. By now the count of ill ranch hands had risen to fourteen. Despite their own exhaustion, Nick and Jarrod assisted in the bunkhouse-infirmary for most of that day.
That evening at seven the Barkleys, save for Heath, gathered together around the dining room table for the first time since Sunday night. Audra had just been sitting with her blond brother and assured her family it appeared as though Heath would sleep far into the night without waking.
Given the circumstances of the epidemic the conversation around Victoria's table was hardly what one would call lively. Nonetheless, it was nice to share a meal again though the matriarch found herself frequently glancing at Heath's empty chair. Yes, Heath was by far the quietest of Tom's children, but what he brought to the family Victoria couldn't put into words. All she knew was that meal time would be a little lonely until Heath was strong enough to sit amongst them once again. Dessert had barely been eaten before Jarrod stood and stretched.
"Family, I apologize for making my leave at such an early hour, but I'm beyond tired. I'm heading up for bed. I'll stop in and check on Heath as I pass his room."
Victoria accepted Jarrod's kiss on her cheek. He followed suit with Audra, then patted Nick's shoulder as he passed.
Audra stood as well. "I'm going to take a short ride on Charger before it gets dark. I promised Heath I would."
Victoria looked up at her daughter. To the best of her knowledge Heath hadn't said a word to anyone during the little time he was awake today.
"Did he ask you to?"
"No, but I'm sure he wants me to. You know how he spoils that horse. Charger hasn't gotten any exercise since Monday."
Victoria smiled. "You're right, Heath does spoil that horse. You go ahead then provided Nick thinks it's okay."
"Sure, that's fine," Nick picked up the silver coffee pot and refilled his cup. "Heath's got Charger so gentle a two year old could ride him. So in that case Audra shouldn't have any trouble handling him either."
Audra lightly cuffed the top of Nick's head as she passed. "Very funny, big brother. I'll be back before the sun sets."
Nick was just putting a second piece of cake on his plate while Victoria refilled her own coffee cup, when an unearthly scream filled the twilight. With barely a breath drawn in-between the screams came again and again. It was only then that Victoria could make out the words.
"Billy! Billy! No, Billy, no! Billy, no! No, you can't be dead! Billy! Oh my God, Billy! No! Noooooooooo!"
Nick jumped from his chair. He pounded through the foyer, threw open the door, and ran across the ranch yard to the infirmary. Victoria jumped from her own chair and dashed up the stairs. She flew into Heath's room and closed both his windows. She didn't know why she also pulled the shades and drew the curtains. Shutting the windows alone kept the heart-wrenching wailing from being heard.
With trembling hands Victoria turned and faced the man lying on the bed. Heath was still sleeping soundly. The grief of the outside world had been unable to penetrate the healing rest his body so desperately craved.
Long after Jim Garver's mournful cries for his dead brother came to an end Victoria remained by Heath's bedside. Though he seemed unaware of the hand she continuously stroked through his hair, that action brought her great comfort. When Heath woke just after dawn on Saturday morning he was weak but lucid. With both the shades and curtains pulled it took him a moment to bring Victoria's face into focus. He saw her turn away from him and for a fleeting second was certain she brushed at tears, but he must have been wrong about that last fact because when she faced him again she was smiling.
"How are you feeling, sweetheart?"
Heath was surprised at how sore his throat was; it felt as though he'd swallowed a flaming torch like he'd seen a man do one time at a carnival side show. His voice was raspy, too, as though he'd been screaming for hours on end.
"I'm okay. Kinda confused though. Seems like I can't tell day from night anymore. I never had a cold knock me down like this."
Victoria fought to bite back her tears. Since there was no light on in the room she hoped Heath wouldn't notice the moisture that once again pooled in her eyes. When Heath hiked himself up on one elbow and peered into her face Victoria knew that hope wasn't to be. "Mother, why are you crying?"
The woman laid a hand on the side of Heath's face. "I'm just so happy, sweetheart. Just so happy that you're feeling better."
Heath seemed satisfied with that answer. At his mother's urging he laid back against his pillows.
Victoria stood and gave her son a bright smile that belayed all she was feeling inside. "I'll go fix you a breakfast tray. Any requests?"
"How about a big ole' steak, and three eggs, and biscuits, and gravy, and,...."
Victoria bent and took Heath's face in her hands. She placed a kiss on his forehead. "Oh you and your teasing. I swear you're worse than Nick. If I bring you those foods for your first solid meal since Monday we'll both be wearing them five minutes after they go down. How about porridge, plain toast, and weak tea to start with?"
Heath wrinkled his nose. "Tea?"
The woman laughed knowing how much both Nick and Heath hated tea.
"How about orange juice instead?" Heath bargained.
Though Victoria wasn't sure orange juice was such a good idea either, she didn't have the heart to turn her son down. It was so good to hear him make any type of request for food that she was willing to give it a try.
"All right, orange juice it is. Albeit watered down orange juice, but orange juice nonetheless."
Victoria fluffed Heath's pillows, straightened his blankets, then headed for the door. She felt him gently snag her wrist before she could get out of his reach. When she turned to face him he asked, "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes, Heath, I'm fine. Now if you want that meal I promised you'd better let go of me."
Heath gave Victoria a final smile then released her. He settled into his pillows and closed his eyes as his mother walked out of the room.
It wasn't until Victoria was in the hallway and had the door closed that she allowed her tears to surface once more. She leaned back against the wall and bit her lower lip to keep from crying.
Oh, Lord, how will we ever tell him? How will we ever tell him that Jeb Galloway died just three hours ago, and that before this is over so many more are bound to follow?
Victoria gathered the strength she'd worn like a cloak of armor for as long as she could remember. Just as quickly as her despair came she pushed it aside.
There's no point in worrying about it today. He'll be confined to bed for at least two more weeks, and who knows how long it will be after that before he's able to return to working outside amongst the men. Heath's not strong enough to handle the truth behind his illness right now. Jake said no shocks or upsets. Maybe by the time we have to tell him there's been a diphtheria epidemic,.....well maybe by then things will have calmed down both here and in Stockton. Oh, Lord, please. Please. Heath can never know. Somehow you've got to make certain he never realizes he's the one who carried it here. Oh, Lord, please, for my son. Please just do this one thing for the son who has already suffered so much in this life.
As she silently treaded the back stairs to the kitchen Victoria feared she was clinging to false hope, but for now that's all she had.
By Monday morning five more Barkley ranch hands had passed away bringing the total to seven. In Stockton the death toll had risen every hour from the moment Gracie died, but Jake Sheridan had stopped counting the deceased long ago. The young doctor thought he'd feel relief when the large supply of quinine finally arrived at eight o'clock on Monday night, but as he looked across the street at the cemetery with its row after row of freshly dug graves all Jake felt was mind-numbing despair.
The Barkleys were just rising from the breakfast table on Tuesday morning when Doctor Sheridan's buggy pulled in the ranch yard. Victoria opened the door before the man had a chance to knock. By Jake's appearance alone the family could easily discern the devastation taking place in Stockton. The doctor's black suit coat had long been shed, as had his string tie. His white shirt and dark pants were wrinkled in a way that spoke of having been slept in and his head was minus his hat. Tufts of walnut colored hair sprung from his scalp as though he'd raked a weary hand through the thick mass many times in the past week. The whites of his hazel eyes were streaked red, and beard stubble circled his chin and upper lip.
Just like Victoria and her children could draw conclusions based on Jake's appearance, he could draw a few of his own based on theirs. No longer were Nick and Jarrod half dressed as they had been the last time Jake was out here, and both were minus the anxious expressions they worked so hard at hiding from their mother and sister. Unlike Jake, the beard stubble the brothers had been sporting on Wednesday was gone as well. Gone too, were the unshed tears in Audra's eyes and the grim lines around Mrs. Barkley's mouth that had clearly broadcast her fear for Heath.
For the first time in five days Jake smiled. "Just by the looks on your faces I'd venture to guess Heath is on the road to recovery."
Nick nodded his head. "We had a heck of a rocky time with him for about ten hours on Thursday. Thought for sure we were gonna lose him before all was said and done, but he pulled through, Jake. He pulled through."
Victoria turned to her daughter. "Audra, while I take Jake upstairs to see Heath please ask Silas to fix him some breakfast."
"No, Mrs. Barkley, that's not necessary. I came out only long enough to see Heath and your hired men, drop off a case of quinine, and head back to town."
Victoria put her hands on her hips. "Young man, when was the last time you ate a decent meal?"
"A decent meal. Something other than a cold sandwich wolfed down in-between seeing patients?"
"I don't know. Last Monday evening I suppose."
"That was over a week ago, Jacob, and you look like you've lost ten pounds since then. I promise we won't delay you. By the time you're done examining Heath your breakfast will be on the table."
Jarrod smiled when he saw the doctor was about to voice another protest. "There's no point in arguing with her, Jake. Once Mother has decided someone needs a decent meal the discussion is over."
"Well,...if you insist. But it'll have to be quick."
"I'll go tell Silas right now," Audra said. "And I'll offer him my help, too. Between the two of us it won't take long to scramble some eggs, fix some toast, and make a pot of fresh coffee."
Jake's stomach rumbled at Audra's words. "I have to admit that does sound like an offer I can't refuse. I'll take you up on it, Mrs. Barkley, Audra. Thank you."
Audra scampered off to the kitchen while Victoria and the men headed up the stairs. Victoria filled Jake in on Heath's condition as they climbed.
"Heath ate breakfast about six this morning and fell asleep again shortly thereafter. He's got his days and nights mixed up at this point, but overall that doesn't matter too much because he's averaging eighteen hours of sleep out of every twenty-four."
"That's to be expected. Aside from food, it's the best thing for him to tell you the truth."
The shades were pulled in Heath's room to keep out the morning sun. Nick walked over and lit the bedside lamp for the doctor.
Jake's examination didn't last more than five minutes. Despite the stethoscope that was placed on Heath's chest and the fingers that curled around his wrist to take his pulse, the blond man never woke up. Jake didn't appear to be concerned about that, as a matter of fact he seemed to find it normal. The doctor shut his medical bag and rose from the chair. He extinguished the lamp, then motioned for Victoria and her sons to follow him out of the room. When everyone was in the hallway Nick closed Heath's door.
Jake smiled at Nick's impatience. He urged the family to move a little farther down the hall so their voices wouldn't wake Heath.
"He's fine, Nick. His temperature feels normal to my touch and his color is good considering all he's been through. He still has a lot of congestion in his chest, but that's not out of the ordinary at this point. Does he have a productive cough?"
"Yes," Victoria replied. "It doesn't sound tight and harsh any longer like it did last week."
"Good. And how about his appetite? Has he been eating well?"
Again Victoria answered the man. "I've been giving him four to five small meals a day, but yes, he's eating well. So far I've limited him to soups, scrambled eggs, pudding, soft foods such as that. I wanted to wait until you saw him before trying anything heavier." "As long as he's having no trouble digesting what you've just listed then I'd say it's all right to gradually reintroduce him to a normal diet. Until he's able to be more active stay away from fried foods and heavy meals like a Barkley T-bone steak with all the trimmings, but other than that anything else is fine."
Jake paused a moment to go over his mental check list. "Have you had him out of bed recently?"
"Yeah," Nick nodded. "Ever since Saturday morning Jarrod or I have been walkin' him to the bathroom several times a day. I helped him shave on Sunday and then helped him climb into the tub." The cowboy grinned. "Even though he didn't exactly appreciate my assistance with that last chore, or the fact that I insisted on sittin' in there with him until he was finished."
"I don't imagine he did. Nonetheless, it was wise of you to stay. He's too weak right now to be left alone in a bathtub full of water."
"That's what I told the stubborn fool. I figured with Heath's luck he'd pass out, smack his head on the porcelain, and drown before any of us found him."
"If I hadn't treated Heath for so many injuries in the past two years, Nick, I'd be inclined to say you're exaggerating. But knowing your brother the way I do, I doubt you could be more correct."
Victoria and Jarrod chuckled over the exchange between the men and the truth behind their words. After the levity passed the doctor directed the conversation back to Heath's care.
"Because we want to keep the risk of Heath contracting pneumonia to a minimum I'm going to have you increase his activity level. Jarrod and Nick, with your help I want him to walk the length of this hallway once, from front stairs to back, three times a day. You can start this today right after he's had lunch. As he continues to grow stronger you can increase the frequency of the walks. I hope to be back to examine him again later this week or early next. At that time I'll decide if those walks can include going up and down the stairs and touring the lower portion of the house. Other than that, he's to be in bed for the remainder of this week and all of next. As I told you the first night I was here; no shocks, no upsets, and please keep your household as quiet and calm as possible."
Jarrod cocked an amused eyebrow at Nick.
"What?" The cowboy asked.
"Our household quiet and calm with Nick around? Mother, I think we'll be forced to send Nicholas on a lengthy cattle buying trip before Heath's pronounced fit."
"Hey, I can be quiet and calm when I have to be."
Victoria patted Nick's arm. "Of course you can, dear. At least if you really set your mind to it you can."
Before Nick could ask his mother what she meant by that Jake spoke again.
"Has Heath complained about muscle aches, a persistent headache, or joint pain?"
"No," Victoria said.
"Not to me," Jarrod replied.
"No," Nick answered, "though he really seemed to enjoy soaking in that hot tub of water the other day."
"Well, I can just about guarantee you that's because every muscle and joint he possesses hurts. No doubt he has a dull headache, too. This is all an after-effect of the strain the disease and the high fever puts on the body. There's not much you can do for him other than see if he wants to soak in the tub every day, or even a couple times a day if it brings him relief. I'll leave you some aspirin powder, Mrs. Barkley. There's instructions on the bottle in regards to how to mix it with water and how often to administer it. That should help limit Heath's pain until it eventually leaves him for good."
"And how long will that be?" Nick asked.
"Another week, maybe ten days at the most."
Nick shook his head. "Heath should have told us he's hurting."
"Nick, you know by now he's not going to," Jarrod said. "There's no point in being angry at yourself for not realizing he's in pain, and there's no point in being angry at Heath for not saying anything about it."
"I agree," Jake said. "By virtue of our individual personalities, how we handle illness and pain differs with each one of us. I don't want you having words with Heath over this, Nick. At least not right now. Remember, no upsets."
"Yeah, yeah, I remember. But can I have words with him over it about two months down the road?"
"Sure," Jake smiled. "If you think it will do you any good that is."
"Probably won't. But every so often I like the satisfaction of butting my head with ole' Silent Sam in there."
Victoria smiled at Nick's words. Considering how uncertain things were just one week ago in regards to Heath's health, it was wonderful to have life slowly getting back to normal.
Jake looked at the family. "Any other questions?"
"Only one," Victoria replied. "As soon as Heath's feeling better he's going to be asking me at least twenty times a day when he can return to work. What do I tell him?"
"As far as returning to work in terms of a full day of physical labor, my guess right now would be one month."
"One month?" Nick groaned. "Oh my Lord he'll drive us all crazy by then."
"Heath's not a good patient I take it?"
Victoria shook her head. "For a man who's normally so quiet, and as laid back as a rug as Nick would say; no. He's an absolutely rotten patient."
"He'd drive a nun to cuss like a drunken sailor, Doc," Nick added.
"I see. In that case I'll caution against making him any promises where returning to work is concerned. But I will offer this hope. If Heath is doing well at the end of his two week convalescence period then I'll allow him to do things like paper work for the ranch here in the house, and maybe,.....and I do mean maybe, he can do some light work in the barn or tack room. However; I'd advise against telling him that right now. If his physical condition isn't what I expect it to be at that time then he's not going anywhere but right back to bed."
Victoria voiced her own thoughts, as well as those of her sons. "I couldn't agree more, Jake."
The woman led the doctor to the front stairs with Jarrod and Nick following. Before they got halfway down Jake could smell eggs, bacon, and fresh coffee. Audra stepped into the foyer.
"Mother, we have Doctor Sheridan's breakfast on the table. And I made enough coffee for everyone."
A heaping plate of scrambled eggs was waiting for Jake where Heath normally sat. The doctor appreciated the good food and pleasant company, but didn't allow himself to linger. He wanted to examine the sick men in the bunkhouse, get the first doses of quinine administered, then be on his way back to Stockton. The man rose to follow Jarrod and Nick outside.
"Mrs. Barkley, Audra, thank you for the meal. Tell Silas I said thank you as well."
"I'll be sure to do that." Victoria stood to walk with the men to the door while Audra cleared the table. "And the next time you stop out try to plan your visit for the supper hour. We'll more than welcome your company at our table again."
"I appreciate the offer, Ma'am. And believe me, there's nothing this bachelor doctor would love more than another one of Silas's good meals, but right now I can't promise when I'll return."
Jarrod had no trouble deciphering what the doctor meant. "How are things in town, Jake? How many have we lost?"
"Sixty at last count. It may be twice that before the epidemic runs its course."
Victoria brought a hand to her mouth.
Sixty people. Sixty people. Oh, Lord, have mercy on their souls.
The woman looked up when she realized Nick had called her name twice. He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. No doubt his thoughts mirrored hers.
"Jarrod and I are taking Jake to the bunkhouse."
Victoria smiled at Jake and once again thanked him for coming. She cautioned him to get some rest and to eat three square meals a day which made him smile in return. The woman watched as Nick took the crate of quinine out of the back of Jake's buggy. Her eyes followed the men as they crossed the ranch yard. When they disappeared around the corner of the barn she shut the door.
Victoria didn't even hesitate before turning for the stairs. She suddenly felt an overpowering urge to check on Heath. That now familiar need had taken up residence within the woman during recent days whenever the terrible toll of this disease weighed too heavy on her mind.
When Jake had given all the medical care possible he repacked his bag and stepped outside, Nick and Jarrod at his heels. The men walked twenty feet from the building before speaking.
"How many have died?" Jake asked.
"Five between Friday night and yesterday. Young Billy Garver was the first. After that,.....well after that the others seemed to go down hill fast." Nick said. "How about the ones who are left? Will they make it?"
"I don't know. A few of them are pretty bad off, but now that the quinine's here their chances of survival have increased somewhat."
Jarrod squinted as the morning sun assaulted his eyes. "Can we expect anyone else to get sick yet?"
"It's a possibility, though if none of your other men show signs of illness by the end of the week then I'd say the worst of the disease is past."
"When will the quarantine be lifted?" Nick questioned.
"A lot of that depends on how quickly the epidemic moves through Stockton. I'd say it will be in effect at least one more week, if not two. I should be able to give you a definite answer when I come out here again to see Heath."
"Fair enough." Nick held his hand out to the doctor. "Thanks, Jake. For everything."
Jarrod shook hands with the man next. "Jake, thank you."
The Barkleys walked the doctor to his buggy. Jake was just about to climb in when Jim Garver approached. The man was hollow-eyed and unshaven. Like Jake, locks of his sandy hair stuck out in five different directions.
"Doc," the man nodded in solemn greeting.
"My brother Billy died, Doc. He died on Friday night."
"Yes, I know. Nick told me. I'm sorry, Mr. Garver. I wish I could have done more."
"You could have."
"You gave Billy's medicine to Heath! You gave the quinine to that half a Barkley instead of to my brother! My brother who had two parents who loved him! Two parents united in holy matrimony like God meant for it to be! Two parents who'll be broken hearted when the letter arrives tellin' them he's gone! It's not fair! It's not fair, do you hear me! Heath don't have no one! His ma's dead and everyone knows his pa never cared about him! Hell, old man Barkley went to his grave without ever knowin' about Heath! He can call Mrs. Barkley Mother, but she ain't, ya' know! She ain't his ma no matter what Heath or anyone else says! And them,..." Jim waved a hand at Jarrod and Nick. "They're just his half brothers. It ain't like Heath means to them what Billy meant to me! How can he? Huh? You tell me that! How can you feel that kinda love for a brother you didn't grow up with in the first place?"
Jarrod threw an arm out to keep the smoldering Nick from ripping Jim Garver apart. He stepped in front of his hot-tempered sibling, though in truth the fury that burned inside the lawyer was no less hot than the fury burning within Nick.
Jarrod's jaw was clenched so tight Jake was surprised he could speak.
"Jim, I'm going to overlook what you've just said about my family,....my entire family, because I understand you're in deep mourning for Billy, and therefore may not be thinking clearly. Believe me when I tell you that we're all grieving for your brother and feel great sorrow over your loss. However; that loss doesn't entitle you to slander my father, my mother, or my brother Heath. What goes on behind that door," Jarrod pointed to the big oak door that led into the mansion, "is none of your business. If you have an opinion about any member of my family you damn well better keep it to yourself if you want to continue to be employed here. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Jim's eyes traveled from Jarrod to Nick. He wasn't afraid of them. Not any of them. He wished Jarrod would step aside and let Nick take a swing at him. At least then Jim would have an excuse to unleash his wrath on the very people who had caused Billy's death because of their misguided loyalty to a bastard brother. "I'll repeat myself one last time, Jim. Do you understand what I'm saying?'
Before Jim Garver had a chance to tell Jarrod Barkley to go to hell Pete came running across the ranch yard. He had no idea what was transpiring, but from the looks on everyone's faces, and Nick's clenched fists, the cowboy could easily imagine what words had been spewed from Jim's mouth. "Jim! Jimmy!" Pete placed a hand on his brother's back. "Jimmy, come on. We've got work to do. I need your help out by the corral."
Jim stepped beyond his brother's reach, gave Jarrod and Nick one last glare, then headed for the barn.
When Jim was out of hearing range Pete turned to the Barkley brothers. "I'm sorry about whatever he said. Jim's not a bad guy. Not at all. It's just that he's really torn up over Billy's passing. He's eleven years older than Billy. Right after Bill was born our mother took sick. She was bedridden for an entire year. Pa worked on the Donavon ranch over by Sacramento back then so he couldn't stay home to help Ma. Jimmy had to drop out of school to run the household and take care of Billy. I was six. I could help out some, but not to the extent Jimmy could. I guess you could say he became Billy's second mother during that year. Ever since that time Jim's had a soft spot for Bill. I suppose he even looked upon him as more of a son than a brother."
"I'm sure you're right," Jarrod agreed. The lawyer compared Jim Garver's situation with his own when thinking of the often paternal-like relationship he had with both Audra and Eugene because of the large number of years that separated them, then add to that the death of their father when the two youngest Barkleys were still teenagers. Nick spoke for the first time since Jim had confronted them. "Look, Pete, you know how much I value both you and Jim. You've been with us a good number of years now and are two of my best workers. Billy was rapidly following in your footsteps. I thought the world of the boy. He was a great kid with a promising future. His loss is being felt by both myself and my family. But you make it clear to Jim that I won't tolerate any more comments about Heath like the ones he made just a few minutes ago. I don't want to fire Jim, but I will if he doesn't keep his mouth shut."
"I understand, Nick. I can't say as I blame you for takin' that position either. Heath's your brother. That fact alone means you gotta stand by him. And stand up for him when he can't stand up for himself like right now 'cause he's sick. I'll talk to Jimmy. I promise I'll make him see that none of this is Heath's fault." "I hope you can do that, Pete."
Pete turned and watched his brother stomp around the corner of the barn.
He shook his head in quiet dispair and mumbled, "I hope I can too, Nick. I hope I can, too."
Keeping Heath in bed that first week of his recovery wasn't much of a challenge for Victoria. Although she would have never admitted it to Heath, she was even a little disappointed he didn't give her a run for her money in that regard. On a more serious note, she knew his compliance with the doctor's rules spoke of just how exhausted and weak the diphtheria had left him. He slept the bulk of each day away. When he was awake he was content to sit propped up against his pillows and play checkers, crazy eights, dominos, or cribbage with Audra. He walked the length of the upstairs hallway three times a day with either Jarrod or Nick by his side just like Jake said he should, but he never asked to venture to other parts of the house. Which again, Victoria knew spoke volumes about how he was feeling.
When supper came to an end each evening that week Jarrod and Nick would invariably wander up to Heath's room and take over the entertainment duties from their sister. A poker game would soon be underway which Heath nearly always won, followed by a long bull session that Nick referred to as 'man talk.' What exactly 'man talk' was, Victoria didn't know. Though she soon came to realize it was often heavily laced with female names followed by wicked laughter and then an urgent, "Ssssh! Mother's coming!" which might be voiced by any of the three males depending on who heard her coming up the stairs. For the most part Heath thought he was doing a good job of hiding his physical discomforts from his family that week. Well, hiding them from everyone but Victoria that is. Somehow she knew. While they ate lunch together in his room on Thursday she commented, "It's unlike you not to attempt to sneak out of the house on me at least once when you've been ordered to stay in bed."
Heath's eyes met his stepmother's. In that moment he could easily read her concern for him. He knew she wanted him to open up to her and be honest about how he was feeling, but that's just not the type of man he was. This same aspect of his personality had driven his own mother to distraction the few times he'd been ill as a child. The blond man simply winked at Victoria as he swallowed the last of his milk. "I kinda figured you deserved a break from havin' to keep an eye me. I get the feelin' I've kept everyone a little too close to home this past week or so."
Victoria was well aware Heath's words were an invitation to explain why Jarrod wasn't going to his Stockton office each morning, or why Nick wasn't venturing farther than the ranch yard, or why Audra hadn't gone for her weekly visit to the Mission Orphanage on Tuesday. But Victoria wasn't about to budge from her conviction that Heath be protected from what was occurring outside the house. As she rose to take away his lunch tray she kissed him on the top of the head and said nothing other than, "Personally, I like having my children close to home. It brings me great comfort to see all of you here safe and sound each night." Heath knew he was expected to take a nap after Victoria left his room. Not that he minded too much at this point in time. He'd found just a walk up and down the hall with one of his brothers, or a thirty minute checker game with Audra, or a lunch time conversation with his mother like the one he'd just had, left him feeling like he could sleep for several hours. As the man turned on his side and nestled beneath his covers his eyes wandered to the partially open window. Usually Victoria shut the shades in the afternoon to keep the sun out so he could sleep, but today he'd asked her not to.
It seemed as though he'd been trapped in darkness for so long that it was nice to look outside and see the upper half of the bright red barn. Heath sat up a little more and was able to view a portion of the ranch yard. He thought it was odd that he saw almost no activity going on below. Usually at this time of day men were working horses in the corral and coming and going to get new work orders from Nick or Phillip. Another thing Heath noticed was that he hadn't seen a wagon pull out of the yard all week bound for Stockton, or anywhere else for that matter. Nor did any neighboring ranchers stop by to consult with Nick about some issue or the other. That event was almost unheard of. The outside world seemed quiet in an eerie sort of way. The stillness reminded Heath of a January day when you knew a big storm was brewing. Once the animals were taken care of the wise man didn't wander too far from his home, but rather took advantage of a rare day when little work could get done and the best thing you could do was sit near a warm fire and count your blessings with your family close by. But it wasn't January, three days ago the calendar had turned to June. And in June the Barkley ranch bustled with activity. Or at least it always had up until this week.
The blond cowboy finally gave up on looking out the window to once again settle on his side in bed. When he coughed every muscle in his body ached. He thought back over the past ten days, but in truth, most of them were a blur. He'd been told by Victoria that his lack of memory was nothing to worry about and was simply caused by the high fever he'd been running. He supposed that was true enough. After all, why would she lie to him? But still, he couldn't recall ever being this sick with a cold before, or with any type of illness for that matter. While Heath might not be lucky when it came to injuries, he'd always been lucky when it came to those common maladies like measles, mumps, chicken pox, and influenza. If he got sick at all, it was generally with what a doctor referred to as a 'light case.' This time he must have gotten a 'heavy case' because boy howdy, he felt like someone had tossed him from the hay mow and then stomped on him several times for good measure.
A few of the vague memories Heath carried with him from when his illness was at its peak surfaced at the forefront of his mind. He recalled being held down by guards from Carterson Prison, though now he was certain those guards were actually his brothers. He smiled when he thought of 'the loud one.' No doubt that was how his fever-addled mind had appropriately labeled Nick. He recalled laying in something cold that he thought at the time was a mountain lake, but had come to realize was probably nothing other than the Barkley bathtub. Nick had forced him to drink some kind of god-awful bitter medicine then, he was sure of it. Not that Nick would admit it when Heath had asked him. Or at least not in so many words. Nick just grinned while pointing a finger at him and saying, "You ever try to bite me again, Mo, and you'll be one sorry Barkley."
Heath's other memory of that day included the soothing voice of a woman telling him he was going to be fine while at the same time cool water cascaded over his head. He hoped to God that memory was a false one and Victoria hadn't been sitting in the bathroom with him while he was laid out in all his naked glory for the whole wide world to see, but his modesty would never allow him to ask. He supposed if Mother was actually with him, sooner or later Nick would find reason to tease him about it and then he'd know for certain. All Heath could do was offer up a silent prayer in that regard. Lord, just don't let him bring it up at the dinner table in front of everyone. He can rib me all he wants when we're out on the trail together, alone in the barn, spending the night in one of the line shacks, but not at the dinner table with Mother and Audra sittin' right there. Please, not at the dinner table.
Heath shifted in bed again, momentarily forgetting about the mass of bruises in the center of his back. When they came in contact with his pillows he had to swallow a yelp of pain. He wondered if anyone would have told him about the black and blue splotches if he hadn't caught sight of them in the bathroom mirror the other morning. Nick got a funny look on his face when Heath wondered out loud how he'd come to look like he'd been in a brawl, then said, "You were having kind of a hard time coughing."
As Nick helped Heath climb in a steaming tub of water Heath replied, "This is what you do to someone who's havin' a hard time coughin'? Boy howdy, Nick, I'd hate to see what you'd do to someone who was choking to death."
Nick turned away then so Heath could no longer see his face. He didn't stay in the bathroom with Heath that day and talk nonstop about whatever came to his mind like he'd done on previous days. Instead he left the room with a quick, "Call me when you're ready to get out," tossed over his shoulder. Heath wondered if he'd said something wrong, but when Nick returned thirty minutes later he seemed like his old self so Heath let the subject of his bruises drop.
Try as he might Heath could recall very little else since riding home from the range that rainy Monday night almost two weeks in the past now. He wondered if he'd ever really know what had transpired in the time since then, but before he could ponder that further he fell asleep.
"Jake," Nick nodded as Audra rose to retrieve coffee cups for her brothers. "How are things in town?"
"Calming down finally. I plan to lift all quarantines on Wednesday morning."
Nick reached for the coffee pot and filled the cup his sister set in front of him. "Good, 'cause we're running low on supplies."
Jarrod stirred two teaspoons of sugar into his coffee and asked in a low voice, "How many did we lose, Jake?"
"Between the area ranches and Stockton; one hundred and thirty-three."
Nick's mouth formed a grim line. "Make that one thirty-five. Two more of our men died on Wednesday."
Victoria laid a hand atop the doctor's. "Is it over, Jacob?"
"I believe so. At least the worst of it. At this point I don't expect to lose anyone else I'm tending. Jarrod, that quinine your friend shipped us was literally a life-saver. The number I quoted could have easily been three times as high without it."
Jarrod's 'friend' was actually an old family friend. Thatcher Hillman Livingston was one of the richest and most influential men in Philadelphia and had been Tom Barkley's best boyhood pal. Mr. Livingston's contacts were vast and far reaching. How he managed to get his hands on the volume of quinine that was shipped to Stockton Jarrod didn't know and he didn't care. He did know he'd forever be in Thatcher's debt and would be sending him a note of thanks along with a large check just as soon as the quarantine was lifted and mail service resumed.
Heath was awake for Jake's visit that day. The doctor shooed everyone out of the room this time so he could give Heath a more thorough exam than he had on Tuesday. Twenty minutes later he rejoined the Barkley family in the parlor. He wasn't surprised when Nick was the first to jump from his chair.
"He's fine, Nick. Progressing just as I hoped he would. His congestion is clearing up and he looks like he's putting on some of the weight he lost. I take it his appetite continues to increase?"
"Yes," Victoria nodded.
"Good. Now as far as next week goes, on Monday let's begin to broaden his horizons. Those walks he's taking up and down the hallway can extend to this part of the house. As a matter of fact I don't see why he can't join you at the table for meals starting Monday as well." Before the smiles around Jake could get too broad he held up a warning hand, "However; that doesn't mean he still needs anything other than rest and quiet. Heath will be surprised to discover just how much that little bit of activity tires him."
"So he has to go right back to bed after he eats?" Audra asked. "I don't think he'll like that one bit."
"Audra's right," Victoria said. "If you give Heath that much freedom I'm going to have quite a time getting him to return to bed."
"He doesn't necessarily have to return to bed I don't suppose. Provided you can keep the main floor quiet and free of visitors then he can take up residence on the couch."
Victoria nodded while formulating a plan in her mind. Audra could entertain Heath with games in the mornings much the way she had been this week, only those activities could take place right here in the parlor in order to give Heath a new view of the world. Then after lunch Victoria would insist he nap the afternoon away in his room where he wouldn't be disturbed. When supper ended he could join his brothers in the study where they could engage in a game of cards or 'man talk', provided Heath was willing to recline on the sofa in there and call it a night at an early hour. If nothing else this should enable Victoria to keep her patient happy, while also keeping him under her watchful eye.
"Has he given you any problems about the bed rest issue this week?" Jake asked.
"No. None at all. Which only indicates to me how much this has taken out of him."
The doctor offered a ray of hope. "Next week will be different. He'll start to feel a little better, a little stronger, each day. But nonetheless he'll be far from ready to engage in anymore than I've already mapped out. Therefore I think your challenge with keeping Heath occupied will begin, Mrs. Barkley."
"Don't worry, Jacob, I'm ready to meet that challenge head on."
Jake smiled at the tiny but formidable woman. "I'm sure you are, Ma'am. I know I wouldn't want to be in Heath's shoes if he gets it in his head to disobey your rules."
"Based on past experience, I wouldn't want to be in Heath's shoes either," Jarrod said as he stood to take Jake outside to the infirmary.
Nick stood as well and cupped his rear end with his hands. "I'll second that. I've felt Mother's wooden spoon one too many times over the years not to know that heeding her rules is something a smart cowboy does."
The family laughed at Nick's antics as the men walked outside. Audra moved to hug her mother.
"I'm so happy Heath's going to be okay. Before long he'll be back on his feet and everything will return to normal."
Victoria returned her daughter's hug but didn't have the heart to say what she was thinking.
No, Audra, everything won't return to normal. At least not for a long time. One hundred and thirty-five people are dead. One hundred and thirty-five men, women, and children have lost their lives all because Heath stopped to help a family repair a broken wagon. One good deed. One good deed that I wish to God had gone undone.
It didn't take the Barkleys long to fall into a new routine on Monday. Everyone silently rejoiced over Heath's return to the breakfast table. Heath himself was rejoicing over the fact that he was fully dressed for the first time in two weeks and not laying flat on his back in bed. It wasn't until Jarrod and Nick rose to leave the table that Heath commented on Jarrod's choice of clothing.
"You don't look like you're going to do any lawyerin' today, counselor."
Jarrod's eyes flicked to his mother before settling on Heath. "That's because I'm not, Brother Heath. I'm between cases right now and got all caught up on my paperwork while you were ill. Since Nicholas can't stand to see anyone idle for more than twenty-four hours, he twisted my arm into giving him a hand around here for a few days. I plan to return to my office later in the week."
Heath seemed to find Jarrod's explanation within reason because he said no more. The men made their leave. Nick kissed his mother and sister before bidding his younger brother goodbye.
"See you at lunch, Heath."
Jarrod kissed both the women as well, then patted Heath on the back as he followed Nick to the door. "See you later, Heath."
Heath's eyes tracked his brothers' movements. Even though he could no longer see them, he could imagine them standing in the front foyer putting on their gun belts and hats. When the door closed Victoria pointed a stern finger at her remaining son.
"Don't even think it."
A tiny smile touched the corners of the blond man's mouth. "Think what?"
"About how you're going to get out that door and follow your brothers without me seeing you."
"No Ma'am what?"
Heath rose and gave Victoria a kiss of his own. "No, Ma'am, I won't let you see me."
"Heath Morgan Barkley!"
"I'm just kidding, Mother."
Victoria gave Heath her best maternal glare when she replied, "You'd better be."
Audra held out a hand to her brother. "Come on, Heath, let's go to the parlor. I've got a fun morning planned for us."
It was all Victoria could do not to laugh at the expression on Heath's face. He looked just like Eugene had as a boy whenever Audra forced him to play house with her baby dolls. The woman watched as Audra made Heath comfortable on the sofa. She put two pillows behind his back and covered him with a light blanket despite his protests that he didn't need one. Within five minutes they were setting up the checker board while arguing over who was going to use the black pieces versus who would use red.
Victoria sighed as she listened to the playful squabbling and poured herself one last cup of coffee. She had a feeling it was going to be a long week. She could only hope that by next Monday Heath would at least be given permission to perform light duties in the barn and tack room.
When Nick and Jarrod stood to go outside Victoria nodded to Heath. His head was resting in his palm and he was sound asleep.
Nick walked over and laid his hands on Heath's back. He lightly rubbed up and down his brother's spine. "Come on, Mo, let's get you up to bed."
When Heath didn't immediately awaken Nick tried again with a bit more volume. "Heath. Heath, come on! Let me help you up to bed before Jarrod and I go back outside."
Heath blinked several times, then looked around the table with an expression that said the last hour was a blank to him. His words were slightly slurred when he asked, "What timez it?"
"Almost one what?"
Jarrod and Nick couldn't help but laugh at their brother's confusion.
"Almost one o'clock. In the afternoon. And past your beddy-bye time by the looks of things. Now say good night to Mother and Audra so I can get you upstairs."
Heath did no more than wave a tired hand at the two women, then allowed Nick to take his elbow and walk with him to the upper level. Jarrod followed his brothers in the event Nick needed his assistance.
When the men were out of earshot Audra turned to her mother. "Is Heath okay? Should I go get Doctor Sheridan?"
"Heath's fine, sweetheart. The morning simply took a lot out of him."
"But all he did was lay on the couch and play a few games."
"Audra, you have to keep in mind just how sick Heath was not even two weeks ago yet. An illness like that depletes the body. It will take him a while to get his strength back. Remember how much he was sleeping last Monday?"
"Well by Saturday that time had been cut in half. And on Tuesday when he took his first walk up and down the hallway Nick had to take him into Jarrod's room to rest for a minute before they could make the return trip. Remember that?"
"Yes. It scared me." "It scared me, too. But by Friday Heath was making that trip all by himself several times in a row. So you watch and see, by the end of the week he'll have overcome a good deal of the fatigue that's plaguing him today."
"I suppose you're right."
Victoria patted her daughter's arm. "I know I'm right. Now come on, I need some help in my rose garden. It hasn't gotten any attention for two weeks. The sunshine and hard work will do us both good."
Audra couldn't disagree with her mother on that point. Victoria hadn't stepped out of the house since Heath got sick, and Audra had only done so to take a few short rides on Charger. An afternoon spent in the rose garden underneath the June sun would feel wonderful.
Jim staggered out of the empty bunkhouse he quartered in to what had been the infirmary. Of the fourteen Barkley hired hands who had fallen ill nine died. Nine. And yet that bastard Heath lived. Sometimes there was just no justice in this world as far as Jim was concerned.
The cowboy had no idea why he felt the need to visit the place where Billy had taken his final breath. There weren't any men left there. Those that had survived the disease were now strong enough to be recovering in their own bunks. Maybe Jim just needed to say a last goodbye. Maybe he just needed, for one last time, to run his hands over the bunk where Billy had laid suffering. Maybe he just needed to hug Billy's pillow to his chest just like he'd hugged Billy right before he passed on.
Jim stopped when he came to the screen door and took a step sideways. Silas and Jessybell were in the building stripping the beds of their blankets and sheets. It was too late to mourn Billy a final time. The bunk where he'd died was already barren of anything but its mattress.
The man swiped at his tears with an angry hand. He leaned back against the building, wanting to do nothing more than scream until he had no voice left. When Jim finally managed to calm himself he focused on the conversation coming from within.
"Tis a powerful shame what happened here," Jessybell was saying to her husband. "So many good men gone. But 'twas the Lord's will. Sweet Jesus, 'twas the Lord's will and we musn't question what He sees fit to do."
As was often the case, Silas kept silent while his talkative wife rattled on.
"If I was to be a woman of weak faith I'd be a wonderin' why God allowed Mr. Heath to come 'cross dat little Caroline Atkins. She was already sick, yez she was. But Mr. Heath, he didn't know dat. How could he? And then little Caroline, she gits Mr. Heath sick, and then Mr. Heath, well he comes home and gets lots of others sick. Tis a terrible thing this diphtheria sickness. Terrible. So many people die. One hundred and thirty-five I hear Doctor Sheridan tell Mizz Barkley."
"Hush, woman!" Silas ordered as he stripped another bed. "Don't you go talkin' about none of this. Do you hear me? None of it. Mrs. Barkley says my Heath isn't ever to know that Miss Caroline died, or about the sickness she had, or how he brought it back with him. You wasn't here when Heath came to the Barkleys, Jessy. You didn't see how the people in this valley treated him. They were downright cruel, and it hurt him. He never said a word to no one about it, but I could tell. It hurt him bad. That's why this can't ever be spoke of again. Never! That poor boy still gets grief from some of the folks 'cause he wasn't born to Mrs. Barkley. Lord knows he sure don't need no more."
Jim Garver pushed himself away from the building.
I knew it! All along I knew it was Heath who got everyone sick. The bastard! The son-of-a-bitchin' bastard. He'll pay for Billy's death. He'll goddamn pay!
The man stomped into the house without knocking. He knew Jarrod and Nick were gone. He'd seen them ride away after the noon meal. As far as where Mrs. Barkley and Audra were, Jim didn't know and he didn't care. He looked around. He'd been in the house a few times though never on the second story. He charged up the stairs intending to do a room by room search. In the end a search wasn't necessary. The door of the first room the man came to was closed. Jim had no doubt who he'd find on the other side.
Heath woke with a start when his bedroom door banged against the wall. The window shades had been pulled making it difficult to discern who was standing in the hall. The blond man propped himself up on his elbows and squinted into the shadows.
Heath never had a chance to defend himself. The intruder flew across the room and landed on top of him with fists flying. As Heath tried to ward off the blows that pummeled his face he recognized Jim Garver's voice.
"You bastard! You no good dirty bastard! It's because of you Billy's dead! You brought it here!"
Heath got enough of a grip on the man's wrists to hold his fists at bay. He tried to buck Jim's body from the bed, but because of his recent illness didn't have the strength.
"What the hell are you talking about, Garver? What's gotten into you?"
"What am I talking about? I'll tell you what I'm talking about!" The enraged man tore his arms from Heath's grasp. He pounded Heath's face in time to his words. "Some kid named Caroline Atkins! She had diphtheria and she gave it to you! Now she's dead and you brought it here! You brought it here and killed a hundred and thirty-five people including my brother Billy and your pal Jeb Galloway! There wasn't enough quinine to go around! When Doc Sheridan brought it out he gave it to you! To you and no one else! That's why Billy died! That's why Jeb died! That's why Chuck died! That's why Mac died! That why,...."
Heath's mind couldn't absorb what he was hearing. As the crazed roll call of the dead continued he blocked out Jim Garver's shouts. He didn't try to defend himself from the fists battering his face. Nor did he try to make a run for the door when he felt Jim lift him from the bed.
Heath sailed through the air. He didn't even care when the back of his skull came in fierce contact with a sharp corner of his dresser. To the contrary, he welcomed the blinding pain, - the pain and the darkness that came with it.
As Heath slumped to the floor the last conscious wish he made was for death to claim his miserable soul.
At five o'clock that afternoon Silas and Jessybell began preparations for the evening meal. Jarrod and Nick were still working somewhere on the ranch, while Victoria and Audra continued to toil in the rose garden. Silas hadn't seen hide nor hair of Heath since entering the house an hour earlier, so assumed he was still up in his room asleep.
Jessybell stood at the kitchen sink washing the beans she'd just picked in the garden. Her husband sat at the table peeling potatoes over a deep pan. As usual, Jessybell was rattling on a mile a minute concerning things Silas couldn't give a fig about. He tuned his wife out and daydreamed about the days when this kitchen had been quiet and all his own.
The black man cocked his head. He thought he heard a hollow 'thud' coming from above. He listened harder, but the noise didn't come again. Or at least if it did it was drowned out by Jessybell's chatter.
Silas returned to his task throwing an occasional, "Uh huh," and "Is that so?" in his wife's direction when he deemed it appropriate. This time when a loud clatter sounded they both heard it. Jessybell swiveled while wiping her ebony hands on her apron.
"Lord have mercy, what waz dat?"
"I don't rightly know. It sounded like someone fallin' down some of these here back stairs. Like boot heels bangin' against the wood."
Silas stood and walked across the kitchen floor. Before he made it the first step Heath staggered into view.
For several long seconds the black man was frozen in place. Heath's face was a mass of blood and torn flesh. His left eye was swollen half-shut and his lower lip was ballooned to twice its normal size. He had a deep gash above his right eye and another along the right side of his nose. Blood ran freely from both places, staining the collar of his blue shirt red and making it difficult to discern if there were other wounds or not.
"Oh my Lord,....." Silas ran for the man who was groping a bloody hand for the railing and looked like he was about to take a head-long tumble to the floor. "Jessy, run and get Mrs. Barkley! She's in the rose garden! Go, woman! Run!"
Jessybell ran from the kitchen as fast as her round body would take her. Her ample bosoms bounced against her chin as she chugged through the parlor and out the French doors screaming, "Mizz Barkley! Mizz Barkley! Come quick! Oh, Ma'am, hurry! Hurry! It's Mr. Heath! It's Mr. Heath!"
Victoria and Audra had been examining a perfect red rose when the first hysterical cries reached their ears. Silas's wife was known to be on the excitable side, so when Jessybell first appeared on the back veranda waving her hands while jumping up and down it was all they could do to keep from laughing. Their merriment turned to panic; however, when they were finally able to discern what she was saying.
"It's Mr. Heath! Precious Lord Jesus in Heaven it's Mr. Heath!"
Victoria ran for the woman with Audra at her heels.
"What, Jessy? What is it? What's wrong with Heath?"
Jessybell had no idea how to explain Heath's condition because, short of him having gotten caught in a cattle stampede while taking his afternoon nap, there was no way to describe the injuries she had seen.
The black woman grabbed Victoria's hand. "Juz come with me! He be in the kitchen with Silas! Juz come with me and hurry!"
The three women retraced the same path through the house Jessybell had taken moments earlier. Victoria gasped at her first sight of the blond man's face.
"Heath! Oh, Heath, what happened?"
Heath had somehow managed to struggle against Silas and make it to the bottom stair. He was still fighting the black man, trying to push his way past his old friend as though he was intent on getting out the door.
Victoria joined in the fray. She got her hands on Heath's shoulders and tried to urge him to a sitting position on the stairs.
"Heath! Heath, stop it! Heath, it's Mother and Silas! I want you to sit! Sit down, Heath!"
Despite his swollen eye and hazy vision Heath knew exactly who was trying to get him to sit. He ignored his mother's directives as he swam for the door.
"Let me go! Leave me alone! Let me go! Do you hear me? Let me go!"
Thinking Heath had somehow taken a terrible fall and was now suffering a serious head injury Victoria turned to her daughter. "Go find your brothers! They're checking fence lines by the Diamond River boundary! If you spot any of the other men before you get that far send them in here!"
Audra flew from the room without answering her mother. She didn't even make it to the parlor before Jarrod and Nick walked in the front door.
The two men were laughing when they entered the house. As Jarrod was putting his gun belt and hat on the foyer table he held up a hand.
"Be quiet a minute, Nick. Listen."
"Listen to what?"
"Don't you hear it?"
Distant shouts drifted to both brothers' ears.
"It sounds like it's coming from the kitchen," Jarrod said.
Nick tossed his hat on the table. "Yeah, it does." The dark headed cowboy took a couple steps forward. When he turned back to face Jarrod the lawyer could clearly see the puzzlement that furrowed Nick's brow. "I think that's Heath."
At just that moment Audra exploded into the room.
"Thank God you're back! Come on, we need your help!"
"Help with what?"
The men took off running at their sister's side.
"What's goin' on?"
"I don't know, but his face is covered with blood, and he's fighting Mother and Silas, and he's trying to get out the door, and,..."
By now Nick and Jarrod had passed their sister. The men's first assumption as they entered the kitchen was similar to Victoria's; that Heath had somehow fallen and injured himself. But then they saw him focus on their mother and heard the words that followed.
"Why did you lie to me? Why didn't you tell me I had diphtheria? Why didn't you tell me about Caroline,....and Billy,.....and Jeb, and all the others? Why? You told me from the very first day you asked me to stay here that I could trust you! You said you'd never lie to me!"
"Heath," Victoria held out her hands to her blood covered son. "Heath, please. Please calm down. Let us help you first and then we'll talk."
"No! I don't wanna talk! And most of all, god dammit, I don't want your help!"
Heath's exit might have been a dramatic one had he not passed out as soon as he stepped around Victoria. Jarrod and Nick rushed to catch him. As one they lowered him to the kitchen floor.
The two men ran their hands over their brother's body. When they could find no broken bones Nick looked up at his mother. In a voice that was both calm and reassuring he said, "I think because of all the blood it looks worse than it is. Jarrod and I'll carry him to his room. You and Audra bring some cold water and towels. Between the four of us we'll have him patched up in no time."
Victoria nodded her head but didn't move. After her sons had gotten Heath upstairs, and after Audra had joined them with the requested towels and water, Victoria lurched for the kitchen table. Jessybell saw her mistress begin to fall and grabbed the woman's thin shoulders. She helped Victoria to a chair. When Jessybell was sure Victoria wasn't going to faint dead away on her she wet a towel with water straight from the pump and crooned soft words while holding it against Victoria's forehead.
Silas assessed the situation then went to the cabinet where the Godfrey's Liniment was kept.
"You just sit here for a few minutes, Mrs. Barkley. I'll help take care of Mr. Heath."
Victoria couldn't even find the words to thank the black man. She felt Jessybell's pudgy hand pat her shoulder.
"It'll be all right, Ma'am. Everything's gonna be all right, juz you wait and see."
Victoria sat there recalling the pain-filled words Heath had shouted at her.
You told me from the very first day you asked me to stay here that I could trust you! You said you'd never lie to me!"
The woman slid the cold towel down over her eyes. She didn't want Jessybell to see her cry.
Heath sat in the over-stuffed easy chair in his bedroom with his head tilted back, face to the ceiling. Jarrod and Nick had been forced to put him in this spot when they'd carried him in and discovered vomit all over the bed. They'd removed Heath's boots and blood soaked shirt the moment they sat him down. With Audra's help the men began the task of cleaning their brother's battered face. Silas soon joined them. It was the sting of the liniment against his many cuts that finally brought Heath to consciousness.
Heath stared at the white ceiling, refusing to make eye contact with his siblings. He was sick of people hovering over him, sick of people fussing over him, sick of people removing his clothes without his permission, and just plain sick inside whenever Jim Garver's words returned to echo within his pounding skull.
Heath's eyes tracked Audra's movements as she stripped his bed of the soiled linens. He had no idea how long he'd been unconscious after the beating, but as soon as he'd come to he'd staggered away from the dresser, collapsed on the bed, and thrown up until there was nothing left in his stomach. At any other time Heath would have been embarrassed to have his sister cleaning up such a mess and would have protested her doing so without his help, but right at the moment, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't find it in his soul to give a damn.
When Heath had no more cuts that needed dousing Silas patted his shoulder and left the room. Audra finished putting fresh linens on the bed, then made her leave as well. Heath felt her kiss on his right temple, but didn't react to it in any way that indicated to the woman he even knew she was there.
It wasn't until Audra was gone that anyone spoke directly to Heath. Jarrod stood over him. He reached a hand behind Heath's neck and gently lifted his head from the back of the chair.
"Heath, look at me. How many fingers am I holding up?"
When Heath didn't answer a small note of panic rose in the lawyer's voice.
"Heath? Come on. How many fingers? Heath, can you hear me?"
Heath grabbed Jarrod's hand and yanked it aside.
"I can hear you just fine."
"Then why didn't you answer?"
When Heath again made no reply Jarrod looked at Nick who shrugged. The lawyer tried again.
"Can you see okay?"
Heath's voice was tight, his words sharp and terse. "Yes, Jarrod, I'm sure. I'm seein' a lot things plain as day right about now."
When Heath fell silent once more Jarrod waited him out for one full minute. When still no words were forthcoming he turned to Nick.
"Come on. Help me get him back to bed."
Heath wrestled his arms from his brothers' grasps. "Dammit! I said no!"
"Now look, Heath,...."
Heath glared up at Nick. "No. You look. Why did you do it, Nick?"
"Why did I do what?"
"Why did you give me the quinine?"
"Why did I,....because you were sick, that's why!"
"Why to me and not to Billy, or Jeb, or any of the other men who work for us who were sick, too?"
Jarrod crouched in front of Heath and placed a solicitous hand on his knee.
"Heath, I don't know how you came by your information, but judging by the looks of you I can take a pretty good guess. Jim Garver was up here this afternoon, wasn't he?"
"It doesn't matter who was up here. I asked Nick a question I want an answer to."
Nick kept silent and let Jarrod continue to speak.
"Heath, if in fact Jim did pay you a visit then you only heard one side of the story. Jake Sheridan had no quinine in stock when you first became ill. When he did get a shipment two days later it was a small one. He had no choice but to ration the quinine he gave each patient. By then you were the most critical. There were other people in Stockton who were very bad off as well. The men here who had fallen ill weren't that sick yet. Jake had no other alternative but to forego giving them quinine and wait until another shipment came in last Monday."
"Why didn't you give mine to them? Why didn't you give mine to Billy and Jeb, or anyone one else who needed it?"
Victoria spoke from the doorway. "That wasn't an acceptable alternative."
Heath looked past his brothers, addressing his question to his stepmother. "Why not?"
"Jarrod already told you why not," the woman stated as she entered the room. "You were Jake's most critically ill patient at that time. If you're angry because you think you received special treatment for no other reason than your last name is Barkley, then get that notion right out of your head."
Heath struggled to his feet. He did a good job of pretending the room wasn't doing a wild spin in front of him.
"If I'm angry it's because I was lied to! Because every time I asked someone why I was so sick I kept getting told I had a bad cold! I'm angry because Nick forced medicine down my throat I would have refused if someone had just told me what was goin' on!"
"Oh for crying out loud!" Nick spat. "You were so delirious we coulda' told you Charger learned to do a rain dance and you woulda been lookin' out the window for the coming storm! You were so delirious I coulda' had you believing you were married and the father of twelve and you'd have been rattling off the names of your kids. You were so delirious that we coulda' told you the house was on fire and you would have simply smiled and said, 'That's nice.' "
"Heath," Jarrod attempted to reason when Nick's tirade came to an end, "what Nick is trying to say in his own colorful way is that you weren't capable of making any decisions regarding your health. You were that sick."
"Well I don't recall giving anyone permission to make those decisions for me!"
As she watched Heath sway back and forth Victoria came to the end of her patience. "You gave that permission, young man, the day you joined this family."
Heath's eyes locked with Victoria's. "That might be so. But I damn well didn't give you permission to lie to me."
Nick took a step forward. "Heath, before this goes any farther I'll remind you who you're talking to. I won't have my mother spoken to in that manner."
Heath glared at his brother as best he could through one swollen eye and one that still had dried blood on the lashes.
So the line in the sand has finally been drawn. It's taken three years for how they really feel to come out, but when push comes to shove she's not my mother. She's not my mother and I'm living here simply because she's too soft hearted and generous to do any less for her husband's bastard kid.
If the blond man had only voiced his thoughts Nick would have set him straight. What he'd said to Heath he would have said to any of his siblings if they'd used that same tone with Victoria.
But Heath didn't voice his thoughts because he'd learned years ago that it was harder for someone to hurt you if you didn't lay yourself wide open by exposing your hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities. Better to be like a turtle in its shell than a faithful puppy dog waiting for a pat on the head or a kick in the hind-end depending on your master's mood.
Heath groped for the arm of the chair and sank back to the well-cushioned seat.
"Jarrod, I said get out. All of you." The blond man turned his head so he was staring out the window, his face in profile to his family. "Please."
Nick opened his mouth to voice a final protest, but Victoria shook her head at him. With a wave of her hand she motioned her sons from the room. She had no doubt Heath knew she was standing in the doorway looking at him, but when several minutes passed in which he didn't say a word or turn his attention from the window, Victoria left and closed the door behind her.
Victoria crossed in front of Heath and sat on the edge of his bed. She looked at him a long time before asking, "How are you feeling?"
"By Wednesday the quarantine will be lifted. Jarrod's returning to his office then. I'm going to have him send Jake out here to see you."
Heath's eyes finally met his stepmother's. "I don't need Jake to see me. I told you, I'm fine."
"Have you looked in a mirror recently?"
"Then perhaps you should."
"I've been beat up worse than this. When you're the town bastard it happens. As a matter of fact you get used to it after a while. No point in you frettin' none."
Victoria hadn't heard Heath talk like this since the first few months he'd come to live with them. But now all that old anger was back in full force. And underneath, buried deep and kept well hidden, she could hear the hurt and the shame, too.
"Heath, I told you some years ago that's old history. It's in the past. Long in the past. Leave it where it belongs, son."
"Funny thing about old history. Some people just like to make sure I relive it over and over. No matter how much you want it to be in the past, it just doesn't seem to want to stay there."
Heath stood on shaky legs. Victoria moved to help him but he shrugged her off.
"I'm tired. I wanna go to bed now."
"I'll send Nick up to,..."
"No! I already told you I'm fine."
Victoria watched as the man stumbled for the bed. She was certain he would pass out before he got there, but somehow he made it to the mattress with his eyes still open.
Heath didn't bother to turn down the bed covers, he simply laid on top of the spread. Of course Victoria didn't expect him to remove his pants with her in the room, but she got the impression he had no intention of doing so anyway. She crossed to the closet and pulled out a blanket. She spread it over the top of him without either one of them exchanging a word. She picked up the tray of food from the dresser and headed for the door. Right before she closed it she said, "Whether you like it or not one of us will be checking on you several times throughout the night. I suspect you have a concussion at the very least."
Considering his head felt like it was in a vice Heath suspected that as well. But he didn't acknowledge that fact to Victoria, nor did he make a reply to her words because truthfully, it made little difference to him if he slipped into a coma sometime before the new day dawned. Actually, death would be a blessing.
Jarrod was standing in front of the fireplace in the study brooding over the afternoon's events, and where exactly Audra was Nick didn't know. All the better. He didn't need her to alert Jarrod of his actions. The dark headed man didn't bother to grab his gun belt from the foyer table. He could kill Jim Garver with his bare hands just as easily as with a revolver.
Nick marched out the front door. The sun had just fallen, but there was still enough light left in the western sky to see by. Nick had just stepped off the veranda when he caught sight of a man crossing the ranch yard. Pete's saddle bags were slung over his right shoulder and he carried a bed roll under his left arm. Nick met him half way.
"Nick," the man nodded in greeting.
"Pete. Where's Jim?"
"Heath told you?"
"Not exactly, but we guessed. But then that wasn't too difficult to do considering his face looks like it was put through a meat grinder."
"I'm sorry, Nick. Until an hour ago I had no idea. Then Jimmy,...well I finally got it out of him. He never showed up on work detail this afternoon so I had a sick feeling in my gut that he was up to no good."
"Where is he?"
"Gone. I sent him packing."
Nick heaved a sigh and allowed his shoulders to relax. As much as he wanted to beat Jim Garver to a pulp he supposed this was for the best. If nothing else Nick's actions wouldn't lay any further worries on his mother's heart.
"I'm leavin' too, Nick."
"You don't have to do that. You still have a job here if you want it."
"Thank you. After what Jimmy's done I really appreciate it. But he's my brother, just like Heath is yours. I gotta stand by him and be there for him if he needs me."
"Where will you go?"
"I already sent Jim on ahead for our folk's place. I figured we'd stay with them a few weeks and try to help 'em through the grief Billy's death is bound to cause 'em. Because we haven't been able to get to town to mail a letter yet they don't know. I suppose it's best if they hear it right from us anyway. Then, after that, we'll look for ranchin' work again I expect. Hell, it's all we know how to do."
"And you're good at it. Both of you."
"Thanks. I will make you one promise, Nick."
"When we look for work it'll be far away from here. I think it would be best if Jim and Heath never cross paths again."
"I think that would be for the best, too. Not only had Jim better never cross paths with Heath again, but he'd better never cross them with me either."
Pete couldn't help but toss his boss a grin. "I know. Why do you think I sent the fool on outta here before I came to talk to you?"
Nick grinned in return and held out his hand. "Pete, take care. And good luck."
"Thank you. For everything. Tell Mrs. Barkley, Jarrod and Audra I said thank you as well. I know all of you did everything you could for Billy. And tell Heath I said goodbye and that I'm sorry for what Jim did to him."
With that Pete Garver turned and disappeared into the fading light. Nick stood where he was until he heard horse's hooves riding away from the ranch. He wasn't surprised when he felt a hand reach out to rest on his shoulder.
Nick moved his head just enough so that he could see Jarrod out of the corner of his eye. "You heard?"
"And I'm glad Jim's gone. That's one less problem for us,....and Heath, to have to deal with."
"No doubt you're right on that account, Jarrod." Nick walked away from his brother as he headed back to the house. Jarrod barely heard his final words.
"But how many more Jim Garver's will Heath encounter before this is all over?"
Jarrod stood outside until darkness completely enveloped him. When he returned to the house he still had no answer for Nick.
Heath didn't put an appearance in at the breakfast table that morning. Victoria hoped that meant he was sleeping. She'd stopped in his room on her way to the main floor and found him turned on his side with his back to the door. She'd called his name in a voice just above a whisper, but he didn't answer. She left not knowing for certain if he was finally asleep, or simply feigning sleep in order to get her to leave.
The abundant breakfast Silas prepared was wasted on the Barkleys that day. Nick poked at his eggs until he'd made such a mess of the yolks that he eventually pushed his plate aside.
"So what?" Victoria asked her volatile son.
"So what do we do about Heath today?"
"What would you have us do about him?"
"Make him talk."
Victoria, Jarrod and Audra exchanged smiles at Nick's exasperation. The woman returned her attention to her second son.
"Nicholas, by now I think you've learned that Heath will only talk when he's good and ready. Certainly not on my schedule, and definitely not on yours."
"And that means what? We just let him sit up there by himself all day?"
"No. As soon as he's awake he's going to come down here and resume the routine we started yesterday. He'll eat breakfast, then Audra will entertain him in the parlor this morning. If he's not too tired prior to lunch I'll allow him to sit on the swing with me out by the rose garden. This afternoon he'll rest in his room, and this evening you two will entertain him just like we had planned prior to yesterday's,....disturbance."
"What if he refuses?"
"It's simply not going to be allowed."
Nick cocked a skeptical eyebrow at his mother.
"He has to rejoin the world whether he wants to or not, Nick. If we let him cut himself off from us, from those who love him, he may never recover. For today we'll carry on as though nothing happened. If Heath doesn't want to talk about it then we'll respect that. Tomorrow, when Jarrod returns to Stockton, I'm going to have him send Jake out here. After that we'll have a better idea how to go forward with helping Heath recover from both his illness and the beating, as well as recover emotionally from all he's discovered."
Based on their mother's words the Barkley offspring knew she must have been awake most of the night thinking this through. Jarrod was willing to bet all of them were. When no one voiced any objections, or offered any other ideas, the lawyer knew they were in agreement with their mother's plan.
Unfortunately no one had checked with Heath about that plan. He waited until thirty minutes after he saw his brothers ride out of the ranch yard, then walked down the stairs fully dressed wearing his gun belt and carrying his hat.
Victoria had just been headed up to check on him. She put her hands on her hips as he stepped onto the foyer floor.
"And just where do you think you're going, Heath Barkley?"
"Back to work."
"Back to work!"
"Heath, when Jake was here on Friday he said it would be at least one month before you could return to work. Now with this beating you've suffered that timeline may be pushed even farther back."
"Well, I guess like a lotta of other things around here lately no one told me that. So since I didn't know I've made my own timeline."
As Heath brushed past Victoria she reached out and shagged his arm. He turned to look at her.
"Heath, please! Listen to me. The reason Jake said you must have two weeks of bed rest is because diphtheria can cause life-threatening heart problems if you return to any activities before your body has had a chance to recover."
Heath freed himself and headed for the door. Though he mumbled the words as he walked out of the house, Victoria heard them.
"I don't care. I really don't care."
Heath's eyes flicked to his stepmother's. She could easily see the exhaustion ringing them. And now, after an entire day doing God knows what, the bruises on his face were even more pronounced than they had been that morning.
Victoria got the impression her son was going to head up the stairway without speaking to her if he thought she'd allow him to get away with it. She wouldn't. She stood and walked to the foyer.
"Your brothers and sister are out looking for you."
"Why?" Victoria's tone clearly spoke of how ridiculous she thought Heath's question was.
"It's not like I've never put a full day of work in around this ranch before. No one ever came lookin' for me then."
"Perhaps that's because you never put a full day of work in when you were actually supposed to be in bed." The woman softened her tone. "They were worried about you, Heath. I was worried about you. When Nick almost wore a hole in the floor with his pacing Jarrod suggested they try and find you. Nick wanted Audra stay with me but she wouldn't hear of it."
"Well I'm sorry if I caused so much upset. But you can tell everyone I was takin' care of myself for a lotta years before I came here. I expect I still know how to do that without my brothers and sister playin' nursemaid."
"I'm tired. I'm going to bed."
"Not without supper you're not."
"Look, I,...." Heath squelched his words before his tone grew any sharper. He was angry at Victoria, furious at her as a matter of fact, but he didn't mean to sound disrespectful. She'd done too much for him over the years for him to ever intentionally hurt her.
The woman seemed to read Heath's thoughts. She ended their discussion by saying simply, "Your supper is in the oven. Please eat it before you go to bed."
Heath gave a tight nod. He walked to the kitchen and did as Victoria requested. He was too tired to eat much, but he did down a few bites of the beef stew and fresh bread Silas had left warming for him. He'd barely made it through the day of checking fence lines in a pasture far from the house. He'd been forced to climb off Charger several times and lay down in the tall grass for a nap. Whether Heath really felt like eating or not, the man knew he needed something in his stomach in order to work again tomorrow.
The cowboy bypassed the bowl of cherry cobbler that sat on the table covered with a tin lid. He drank a second glass of milk, carried his dishes to the sink, then headed up the back stairs to his room without ever returning to the parlor to say goodnight to Victoria.
Audra caught the front door before Nick could slam it. Victoria looked up from where she'd been sitting in her chair staring into the fireplace. The three young people walked into the parlor.
"Well?" Nick asked.
Audra sat on the couch. "Is he all right?"
"He looks utterly exhausted, but other than that yes, I believe he's fine."
Jarrod walked over to the table and poured himself and Nick a shot of whiskey. "Where is he now?"
"In his room. Sleeping I suppose. Or maybe staring at the wall. I really don't know."
Nick poured his drink down his throat, then held his glass out to Jarrod for a refill. "Did he eat supper?"
"Yes. Though judging by what was left in the pot he didn't eat much."
"Did he say where he was all day?"
"No, and to tell you the truth I didn't ask. I assume he was working somewhere on the ranch. Or at least that's what he indicated to me during one portion of our very brief conversation."
Jarrod exchanged concerned glances with his siblings. So far their mother hadn't taken her eyes from the fireplace that on this June night held no fire. "Mother? Are you okay?"
"Yes, Jarrod, I'm fine. It's just that,..." the woman finally looked up into the faces of her children. "I guess I'm at a loss as to know how to help Heath through this. I was foolish enough to think that when the time was right, if I was the one to tell him he had diphtheria and that Jeb and some of the other men had passed away, he'd be okay with it. That he'd accept the news, understand why we chose to keep it from him until he was well on the road to recovery, mourn the loss of his friends, but be able to get on with his life."
"And he would have been had Jim Garver not charged into his room yesterday afternoon," Nick said.
Victoria pondered this, then thought back over the words Heath had shouted at her in the kitchen the previous day.
"How did Garver know about Caroline Atkins?"
"Pardon me?" Nick asked his mother.
"Caroline Atkins. How did Jim Garver know about her? Yesterday afternoon in the kitchen Heath specifically asked me why I hadn't told him about Caroline. With all the other upsets that occurred thereafter I never thought about that until now."
"I don't know," Nick shrugged his shoulders. "But Garver didn't hear it from me. I haven't said a word about the Atkins family to anyone."
"Me neither," Audra said.
"Nor I," Jarrod stated.
"If Garver knew about Caroline then it's a fair assumption to make that he knew, or at least surmised, Heath carried the disease here," Victoria said as she thought out loud. "I realize Heath is upset because we didn't tell him he had diphtheria, nor tell him about the deaths of Billy, Jeb, and the others. I realize he's upset because he feels guilty that he was given quinine and they weren't. But now I'm also beginning to realize that Jim Garver may have told Heath everything we didn't want him to know. Everything we were hoping he'd never have to discover."
"But how could Garver have found out?"
"I don't know, Nick. I just don't know."
Silas never stepped out of the dining room. He turned around with the tray of sandwiches he was carrying and scurried back to the kitchen. He fell to a chair and covered his face with his hands.
"Oh, Lord, what have we done? What have we done to my poor Heath?"
"Silas! What brings you in here at this late hour?"
"Mrs. Barkley,....Ma'am,.....I need to speak to you."
The black man stood in front of the matriarch ringing his hands. In all the years he'd worked for Victoria she could never recall seeing him this uneasy.
"Silas, sit down. What's wrong?"
Silas perched himself on the edge of the sofa. Victoria was patient with him and didn't urge the man to begin talking until he was ready. Silas took one final deep internal breath before starting.
"Mrs. Barkley, I was bringing you all sandwiches earlier and heard what you said when you wondered how Mr. Garver knew about little Caroline Atkins. Ma'am,...." the black man paused and swallowed hard. "Ma'am, I think it was me and Jessy that told him."
"You and Jessy? Silas, how?"
"We were changin' the bedding in the bunkhouse yesterday afternoon like you asked us to. Jessy, she was rattlin' on like she does. You know that woman, she couldn't keep quiet even if someone offered her money to. She was talkin' about Mr. Heath and wonderin' why God allowed him to meet up with little Caroline,....and oh, Mrs. Barkley, I'm afraid she said too much. But it was only me and Jessy. I didn't know anyone else was nearby. I even told her to hush and reminded her that you said it wasn't to be spoken of. Jessy shut up about it then, honest she did. She didn't mean no harm, Ma'am. A little while after that I was carryin' sheets to the laundry tub. I saw Mr. Garver crossin' the ranch yard. He musta' been listening outside the door. We didn't know he was there, Mrs. Barkley. Truly we didn't."
Victoria reached over and took the black man's hand in hers. "I know you didn't, Silas."
"We'll leave first thing in the morning."
"Yes, Ma'am. I know you won't want us stayin' after all the trouble we caused."
"Oh, Silas, you and Jessy didn't cause any trouble. And you're not going anywhere. Heath,.....well I'm beginning to realize now that Heath would have found out sooner or later. The truth always has a way of surfacing whether we want it to or not. You'd think a woman my age would have long ago accepted that fact."
"You only did what you thought was right, Ma'am. Because you love that boy so. You didn't want him all tore up inside over something that's not his fault. You didn't want him hurt. There's nothin' wrong with that, Mrs. Barkley."
Victoria squeezed the old man's hand as she thought of another man laying upstairs in his bed quite likely wide awake and mentally punishing himself.
"I suppose you're right, Silas. Unfortunately, I don't think Heath sees it quite that way."