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.
The morning dragged. At ten o'clock a quiet dread settled. Victoria's rational mind told her all would be well. Hickson was a cold-blooded killer. Oddly, it was that very cold-bloodedness she was relying on. Hickson had his money. He wouldn't fight for nothing, for no gain. Still, it was her fervent hope that Hickson had slipped out of town without ever seeing Heath. She had completely forgotten about Ranse Kendall...
At ten-thirty, she thought, it's too soon for him to be back. An hour's ride, at least. The same at eleven. At noon she thought, he's out looking for Hickson and not finding him. Perhaps he'd ride north all day, looking and not finding. He would come home tonight, tired, frustrated, uncertain...
No, he would not. Heath, like his father, like his brothers, had his own stubborn, unshakeable sense of right and wrong. He would go after Hickson until he caught him and had a chance to stop him. Perhaps Hickson would listen to Heath where he'd ignored her, ignored Audra. Perhaps with his wallet stuffed with cash he'd agree to give up his killing waysat least along enough to convince Heath.
No. Again she heard Hickson's cold, cold voice. "Everybody kills...That's what I call profit." Hickson's spirit was already dead. He might be puzzled by a man of Heath's integrity. But he wouldn't be swayed.
At one o'clock the table was set for dinner, but Silas was in the kitchen, brooding. Victoria walked out into the corral. Nick had just ridden in. "Don't suppose he's back yet," Nick said with a forced cheerfulness. "Didn't see Charger in the stable."
"No," Victoria said quietly. "He's not back yet." They found themselves both looking north, straining to see the first glimpse of a familiar rider.
Jarrod joined them. "I thought you'd gone into town," Victoria said.
"The work can wait. I wasn't in the mood."
Audra ran out. "I saw all the places set for dinneroh, isn't he back yet?"
"No," Victoria said again.
"He could be looking for Hickson," Jarrod said. "He probably missed him this morning."
"Or Charger's come up lame and he's walking home. Remember that time he had to walk all the way from Spring Meadow? Had blisters for a week."
"Remember," Audra said hopefully, "Just a week ago we were talking just like this. And Heath came home safe and sound."
"No," Victoria said, "he didn't come home safe. He came home with Vern Hickson."
A week ago there had been many reasons he could have been late. All plausible. Yet the truth had been worsehe had been delayed saving Vern Hickson's life. Today, though, there was really only one reason for him being late. They all knew it, felt it, but superstitiously hesitated to voice it.
At last, Victoria said, "Nick. Hitch up a wagon. We'll"
"No," Jarrod said quickly. "I'll go with Nick. You stay here, just in case. If we miss him, send out of the hands out."
"If Heath comes back, we'll send a brass band after you." Audra tried to smile.
"Bring him home." Victoria said. Her voice was flat and toneless.
He'd managed to get up on Charger. Proud of that. To be fair, Charger'd helped. Good patient Charger. The rapid gunfire ha made him nervous, as did the smell of blood and the money blowing in the hot little dry wind. But he stood still for Heath's bumbling attempts to mount. Charger trotted homeward.
Home, he thought. Get home. Not that it would help. He'd been shot beforepretty bad, even, once or twice. Not like this. Maybe it was the difference between being shot with a rifle. Ole Ranse had been loaded for bear. Who knew old Ranse was such a good shot? He'd seen men shot like this in the war. Ole Ranse's bear load had punched a hole the size of a small fist. Gut shot. In the war men died from holes like this. They didn't always go quick, though. Much as he wanted to make it home, that thought didn't help.
And now Charger wasn't helping either. Spooked by the lack of a firm, familiar touch on the reins, smelling blood, he was half-cantering in panic. Hard to handle a seventeen-hander when you're trying to stop up a hole that size. He'd lost one rein getting on. He couldn't quite remember what to do with the other one. He tried once or twice to check Charger with his heels, but he'd done it clumsily and Charger darted forward, faster, surprised by the sharp bite of the spurs.
He fell off. Luckily he fell clear, both feet free of the stirrups. Might have hurt a little, specially considering how fast Charger was going, but, really, a little tumble in the dirt the least of his problems. Charger stopped and trotted back to within a few feet. There he stood, uncertain as to whether he should go on home on his own or wait for his master to finally get off the ground. Not like him to lie around in the middle of the day. Charger pawed the ground and whinnied nervously, but he stayed.
Well, he thought. Been to some bad places but this probably the worst. Rather be back under that wagon. That was bad luck. This was pure foolishness. This is what an overgrown sense of morality gets you, he thought. Gut shot. He'd stopped ole Vern, for sure. Shot clean through the heart. Good shot, that was. Course, a man who prided himself on such close work probably wasn't much of a shot.
Well, he thought. Proved Vern wasn't such a bad guy after all. Unfortunately Ranse Kendall turned out to be a worse one. Lying in ambush like a thief. Not sportin at all. Proof was nice, but it came at a foolish price. And no one'd ever know. Three dead men. Poor sheriff would ever work it out. Brave Heath Barkley, our hero. Stoppin that mad-dog killertwo mad-dog killers! Stopping one with his gut. Not so smart.
In a minute, he thought, he'd pull himself together and get back on that horse. Done it once, could do it again. But just lifting his head was so hard. Need to rest up a bit. Damn sun was so bright. Didn't like to close his eyes, even though the white-hot sky was doing slow rolls and pivots. Eyes closed, it was to much like already being dead. Lost the hat, too, somewhere. Lost reins, lost hat, lost everything. He tried shading his eyes with his handarm was heavier than a beer barrelbut his hands were sticky-red. Could smell the raw, irony smell of his own blood well enough, thank you very much, without bringing it so close. When the black birds started wheeling overhead he would close his eyes.
He wondered what time it was. Had a watch somewhere. If he could remember he'd look. How long before they got worried, come looking? Soon, he thought, soon. Sun was right over his eyes, must be noon. Soon noon, noon soon. Just stay awake a little longer. Soon. Soon he'd get back up on that horse. Or someone'd come. Soon.
It was not yet ten-thirty, and he was much farther from home that he thought.
Nick drove the North road with a reckless fury. Jarrod, holding on for dear life, said, "Nick, if you don't slow down you'll overturn this wagon, and what good would that do?"
Nick slowed a little. "I can't believe we let him go. Shoulda hog-tied him and thrown him in the cellar."
"You couldn't keep him in the cellar forever."
"He'd have gotten over it."
"I'm not so sure. Admit it, Nick, we both know why he went. And we both know we might have done the same."
"Peaches to be picked. Hay to be mowed. All those cattleever notice how Heath always gets in trouble when there's a passel of work? I oughta bust
him" Nick stopped short. "God, I didn't mean that."
"I know, Nick." The heat was merciless. The road rose imperceptibly towards high country, but here it was relentlessly flat, hot, dry. You had the impression you could see forever. But eyes played tricks... "Nick. Up there. Is that Charger?"
At this distance the horse was barely a speck. But what else would a horse be doing up herea riderless horse? Nick whipped up the team.
Charger recognized his stablemates and trotted towards them. Nick pulled up the team and jumped down. Charger was quivering, fearful. Riderless.
"Where is he, boy?" And then he saw, flat out on the ground. At first Nick ran, but then he slowed, afraid of what he'd find.
Heath's shirt was stiff with dark dried blood. At least he wasn't still bleeding. Of course he wasn't bleeding, he was dead.
Then Heath stirred, opened his eyes. Nick dropped to his knees beside him, overcome with relief. Jarrod came up, but Heath couldn't see him. "Nick," he said carefully. His voice was rusty, thick. "Home. Notnot die. Out here."
"Don't be silly," Nick said roughly. "I've seen you worse. You've seen me worse. We'll patch you up just fine."
Heath licked his lips. It didn't help, but he managed to say, "Nick, it's bad. It's bad."
Nick looked back at Jarrod, his eyes hot. "Go for the sheriff, Jarrod. I want Hickson dead. By God"
"Nick!" Jarrod snapped. "I'll go for the doctor. The sheriff can wait. You get him home."
Heath was nearly Nick's size, but rage and fear made the weight seem nothing. He laid his brother in the wagon as Jarrod jumped on Charger and turned him toward town.
At the house relief was checked by the need for action. They got him up the stairs. Victoria felt her heart sink when she saw the damage, but she drew a deep breath and went on. Water to heat, towels to find. Where was that damned doctor? She did her best to make him comfortable. He roused long enough to gulp down some water. A few minutes later he sicked it back up.
Scanlon finally arrived. Poor Matt; he wanted to retire, but so far no other doctor had been found to replace him. Victoria caught herself looking at those faintly trembling hands. Scanlon gingerly probed the wound, front and back, and pronounced himself satisfied that the bullet had passed through. At last he packed the wound with lint and bandaged it. "Victoria?"
Victoria followed him out, as did Jarrod and Nick. Audra stayed with Heath.
"It's bad," Scanlon said simply. "He's lost a lot of blood. And that woundVictoria, there's nothing I can do. The best we can do is wait and hope. He's a strong man, he might pull through somehow."
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Nick said.
"No, Nick, I can't. Laudanum to help the pain. Liquids if he can take them. Rest. And wait. I'm so sorry, Victoria. I'll stop by again this evening."
"What for?" Nick muttered. Then he remembered Hickson. "I'm going to fetch the sheriff."
"I'll go with you," Jarrod said.
Jarrod and Nick returned with the sheriff around suppertime. All three looked grim. "How is he, Victoria?" Fred asked.
"Too early to tell."
"Can he talk? Tell me what happened?"
Victoria was surprised. "I don't think so, Fred. Not tonight. Whatever for?"
Nick said through clenched teeth, "The sheriff seems to think a crime has been committed."
"A crime? What do you mean? Fred, you know what Vern Hickson is!"
"Was," Fred said. "He's dead. So's Ranse Kendall."
"Found both of them out on the North road. Can't tell what happened."
"What you can tell," Nick snarled, "is that my brother's the only one who got shot in the back."
"Nick." Fred raised a hand. "I'm not saying a crime's been committed. Or if there was, it was Heath's doing. But I've got two dead men and I need to know what happened."
Jarrod was thoughtful. "Ranse would have been pretty angry about Hickson pulling out."
Fred said carefully, "We don't know that Ranse hired Hickson."
"Fred, even you can't be that blind. A dozen people heard Kendall make threats against Heath. And Hickson himself admitted he was here to see
Kendall on business. And we know Hickson had only one business."
"True, Jarrod, but..."
"What might have happened was that Heath stumbled into a confrontation between Ranse Kendall and Vern Hickson. For all we know those two had a meeting planned. We know Hickson wasn't planning to see Heath."
Fred shook his head. "Your brother went to pick a fight with Hickson, Jarrod. You don't have to tell me that."
"It looked to me," Nick said, controlling his anger, "as if Ranse Kendall was laying in wait. If anyone's guilty, it's Ranse. Remember, Heath's the one that was shot in the back."
"All right, Nick, I'm not going to argue with you tonight. It's just that, you know, Heath's been in his share of trouble. At some point it starts to look bad."
"Trouble!" Nick exploded. "None that he went looking for. What are you hinting, Fred? You know Heath had not choice about Roy Kendall."
"Victoria, I'm sorry to have disturbed you. I hope everything turns out all right. But do me a favor. Don't talk to Heath about this before I have a chance."
"Afraid we'll taint his testimony, sheriff?" Jarrod said with a hint of a jeer.
Fred left without further words for any of them. Each of them was thinking: now what?
At first, it seemed as if Heath would pull through easily. Even without the laudanum he slept, though restlessly. Scanlon came by after supper and pronounced himself satisfied, though he did not alter his original gloomy prediction. But Heath's fever began to rise, and it would not break. By night fall of the following day he was sinking.
Scanlon shook his head. "Infection. There's nothing I can do. I'm truly sorry, Victoria. Although..."
"What?" She was ready to grasp at any straw.
"There's a new doctor in San Francisco. Just back from Europe. A surgeon. Already done some amazing things. There's something else, I can't remember..."
"Could he help?"
"I don't know. I just know I can't, Victoria. The name is Carroll, I think. At St. Mark's Charity Hospital, is what I heard. Maybe you could try him."
Scanlon stayed, although he could do nothing. Nick rode hell-for-leather into town. An hour later there was a response:
Arrive 6 a.m. Please meet train. A. Carroll.
Jarrod offered to go into town to meet the train. It was a grim, overcast morning, with dawn struggling to break through heavy clouds. The train going through at 6 a.m. was usually just freight, no passengers, though a few could ride. Only a woman got off. Jarrod realized the doctor had missed the train. There would be no other train until noon. By then Jarrod realized he'd been foolishly banking on this new doctor.
The woman was tall. She wore a long, narrow duster. Its broad cuffs and narrowed waist were the only feminine notes on plain garment. Her hat was also black and utilitarian. She carried a small leather satchel in one hand and a carpetbag in the other. "Are you Mr. Barkley, by any chance?" she asked.
"Yes, I am." Jarrod's puzzlement showed.
She switched the satchel to her left hand and offered her right. "I'm Anna Carroll. You wired for me."
Realization dawned. "Youyou're the doctor."
"I'm not Saint Nick with a Christmas stocking. Yes, Mr. Barkley, I'm the doctor. I believe there is some urgency involved? Perhaps we should be going."
The End of Part 1