That morning, Hannah padded downstairs ahead of Zach and Jesse to see if the coast was clear before she bade them to carry an unconscious Heath out to the wagon. They slid the senseless man in the back and covered his body with a blanket before Jesse flicked the horse at a steady trot.
Soon after, he arrived at the entrance of the condemned Midas mine. He looped his arms around Heath’s chest and dragged him bodily inside the main shaft where he laid him near a large boulder before leaving him out to die.
In the meantime, Dutton was handed a note, telling him that the killer he’s been so desperately tracking down was seeking refuge in the abandoned mine. He and his men mounted up and hightailed it in that direction.
While the bloodhounds were outstripping the wind, Heath slowly emerged from the comfort of a peaceful darkness to a pitchblack hostile dwelling. He blinked away the fog in his eyes as his vision gradually focused on a dim light glimmering a few feet in front of him. As he tried to lever himself up, he met with a stabbing pain that seared through him. Inhaling deeply, he applied pressure on the gunshot wound and with his right hand, gripped the boulder to hoist himself up. He managed to stagger to his wobbly legs, leaning against the rock as he coughed up the dust stuck in his parched throat, with each spasm blunting the edge of his pain. He licked his lips and swallowed hard to moisten his mouth. No sooner had he taken a step forward that his head began swirling, his stomach churned and his ears rang. He inhaled a lungful that prompted a coughing bout and a lancinating pang in his side. He scrunched his eyes together and gritted his teeth in an attempt to quell the smart before he slouched towards the light.
The more he drew closer to the light, the quicker his leaden step became. As he dragged his feet up to the entrance of the shaft, he could hear the distant thud of horse hooves. He squinted his eyes to make out the identity of the riders galloping towards him. They were such a welcoming sight that Heath’s addled mind couldn’t peg them as unfriendly.
His heart throbbed in his chest in anticipation of being rescued until gunfire erupted in his direction, chipping splinters of wood out of the boards nailed across the entrance. He quickly retreated into the pitch-darkness, now a shelter he sought with every fiber of his being. He struggled against dizziness constantly nudging him towards unconsciousness.
He could hear the crackling of the dry soil underneath Dutton’s footsteps as he groped his way down the shaft. Short-breathed and feeling faint, Heath dove down behind a tram, pasting his back against it as Dutton slowly made his way to him. His breaths came in short gasps, ones that he tried to stifle to avoid being spotted. He pressed his hand against his burning side as a wave of nausea washed over him.
As Dutton walked past him and further down the shaft, Heath dragged his weary body to the end of the tram. He gnarled his teeth to summon his last speck of strength into wheeling it down the shaft towards Dutton who was now making his way up. His efforts were to no avail as the tram was jammed on the rusted rails.
“Go ta hell ya son-of-a-bitch,” Dutton snarled malignantly as he leveled his gun at Heath’s head.
“No…w…wait!” Heath gasped, slowly raising a hand in front of him. “I…I’m Hea..He…Heath…Bar…Barkley.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“What’s his name?”
“Ni…Nic…Nick Bar…Barkley. Sh…should be in Mi….Midas,” Heath stuttered in a weak voice barely above a whisper. His head heavily swayed from side to side as he strived to keep above the surface. “Please…be..belie…believe me,” he wailed in a last desperate plea to get help.
“Why should I?”
“W…was…sh…sho….shot by the man who…who had the…the…Du..Dutton…Mi..mining pay roll. I…I…was bring…bringing it back in Mid…Midas wh…when I bla…blacked out.”
“Where’s the money now?”
“Don…don’t know. Two wom…women. Woke up in ro…room. Two women. Nor…Nora and…”
Heath nodded and breathed out, “Yes.”
Dutton bit his lower lip, dithering whether to swallow the agonizing man’s allegation that he was an innocent victim of a gross mistaken identity. He pushed the hammer back on his gun and thrust it inside the holster. “You’d better be telling me the truth or you’re a dead man.”
“Tr…truth. I sw…sw…swear.”
Dutton bent over to pull Heath up by the front of his shirt. He flung Heath’s arm around his neck and wrapped his arm around his waist to assist him out of the mine. No sooner had they started up towards the light that a rumbling noise prompted Dutton to hasten the pace, notwithstanding Heath’s cries of agony.
“Come on! We gotta getta of here!” Dutton yelled, urging Heath onward.
Nick was arriving on the scene as the men standing outside stepped back from the mine seconds before a giant cloud of billowing dust engulfed the entrance.
Nick leapt off his horse and dashed over to them. “Anyone inside?”
“Yeah. Dutton and one of the killers we’ve been after.”
“That’s no killer, he’s my brother,” Nick snarled furiously before hurling himself blindly into the dark hole of settling dust.
Dutton was momentarily dazed by the fallen debris, but quickly regained his bearings. He staggered to his feet and brushed himself off, coughing and spitting the dust out of his mouth. He scanned around for Heath. “Barkley?” he shouted, his eyes darting around maniacally until they widened in horror at the arm protruding from under a beam. He dropped to his knees to grope Heath’s wrist for a pulse just as Nick reached them.
“Barkley! Your brother’s under there.”
“He’s alive,” Dutton informed. “We need to get those beams off him.”
Nick and Dutton each grabbed an end of one beam and gave a loud grunt as they lifted it off Heath’s mangled body. As they started for the second beam laying heavily across his legs, Heath moaned in pain.
“Heath!” Nick removed his glove and gently tapped his brother on the cheek.
Heath’s eyelids fluttered before he opened his eyes a slit. “N…Ni…Nick?” he heaved out.
“Yeah, I’m here. Don’t worry. We’ll get you out.”
Nick and Dutton proceeded to remove the beam when Heath’s body stiffened and he cried out in agony, “Stooooooooooooop! Please, stop!”
“Oh damn! Barkley, take a look at this,” Dutton called Nick’s attention to a large wood fragment sticking out of the beam, which was deeply embedded into Heath’s thigh. “We can’t move that beam without tearing his leg apart.”
With blood pounding at his throat, Nick rapidly assessed the situation. “Awright. Dutton, you get your men to fetch the town doctor. Make sure he brings morphine. Bring back some water and a large knife in my saddlebag.”
“Right.” Dutton heaved himself up and hurried out of the mine.
Nick laid down on one elbow next to Heath. “It’s gonna be awright, Heath. Doc will give ya some morphine so you won’t feel a thing.” He took his Stetson and propped it against the back of Heath’s head as pillow.
“H…how d’…d’ya found me?”
“Hannah Kendall. She told me where you were,” Nick informed as he removed his jacket and spread it over Heath’s chest.
Heath nodded weakly and closed his eyes. Nick untied his neck cloth and began wiping the dirt off Heath’s face that he saw distorting in pain.
“What is it?”
“My…my side. Been…been shot.”
Nick looked down at Heath’s abdomen and peered wild-eyed at the amount of blood soaking through the bandage. “Oh, my God,” Nick mumbled dolefully underneath his breath.
Dutton returned with a canteen of water and Nick’s knife. “My men are going into town to fetch the doctor and hitch up a wagon.”
“Good. Hope they get back here fast. He’s not looking good.” Nick imbued his bandana with water and dabbed at Heath’s flushed cheeks and sweat-glistened forehead. “He’s burning up. No doubt there’s an infection setting in that bullet wound.”
“He told me he’s been shot by the man who robbed and killed my messenger. Says he caught him with the stolen money.”
“That was last night. The Kendall women must have been hiding him all this time.”
“They were hiding him from me. I thought for sure he was that other killer. Came close to gunning him down. In a way they did your brother a favor.”
“I don’t know. She did leave him with a bullet in his side.”
“Shuuuuuuuuuuuu Heath, take it easy. Won’t be long now.”
“I know it does,” Nick gulped, choking on his emotions. “Hang on,” he soothed with a gentle stroke Heath’s hair. Nick glanced up at Dutton with a glare in his eyes. “I don’t want him to be the twenty-sixth grave of Midas,” He said on an implying tone.
Nearly thirty minutes later, Dr. Schaeffer was guided down the shaft to the semi-conscious man whose life was rapidly ebbing away. He checked his eyes and took his pulse before examining the angle of the splinter sticking in Heath’s thigh. “We’re definitely going to have saw that splinter off the beam and leave it inside the thigh until I can surgically remove it; otherwise we might sever an artery and he’ll bleed to death within minutes.” He reached into his medical bag for a flask of morphine and syringe and prepared the injection. “Roll up his sleeve,” he instructed Nick, before administering the solution. “We’ll give it a couple of minutes for the drug to take effect before we cut that piece of wood.”
Nick leaned back on his bent legs and wiped the sweat off his brows.
“How long ago this happened?” The doctor asked as he ran his hand across Heath’s forehead.
“About an hour ago.”
The doctor shook his head in puzzlement. “I don’t understand. He’s already burning up with fever.”
“He was shot last night.”
Nick pointed to the bloody area. “It’s pretty bad.”
“Was the bullet removed?”
“I don’t think so.”
“That explains the fever.” Dr. Schaeffer raised Heath’s eyelids to check the pupillary reflex. His eyes were rolling back into his head, a clear indication that the morphine was starting to take effect. “What’s his name?” he asked of Nick.
The doctor leaned closer to Heath’s face. “Heath, can you hear me? Do you feel any pain?” he asked the dazed patient as he pressed against his wound.
Heath licked his lips as his head swayed heavily from side to side. The doctor’s voice barely pierced through the haze he was happily engulfed in.
“I think we can begin now.”
Nick took the knife and sawed the splinter off the beam, all the while keeping an eye on his brother for any sign of a painful reaction. When the work was done. Nick and Dutton gingerly carried Heath out of the mine with the doctor holding the splinter firmly in place. They laid him on a bed of blankets in the back of the wagon. Nick remained by Heath’s side with the doctor, while Dutton and one of his men took the front seat and flicked the horse at a steady amble, heedful not to joggle the wagon.
When they arrived in town, Nick and Dutton carried the moribund man inside the doctor’s office, with Dr. Shaeffer carefully keeping the splinter as immobile as possible. They laid Heath down on the examining table. The doctor steadied the fragment before cutting away his trousers. Nick helped by ripping Heath’s shirt to shreds to ease the task of having to remove it off his back.
“Do you need me for anything, Doctor?” Dutton asked, gulping with disgust at the substantial amount of blood pouring out of the now fully exposed wound.
“No. I think Mister Barkley and I can handle from here. Thank you.”
“I’ll be at the saloon,” Dutton told Nick who distractedly waved him off as he concentrated on stripping Heath of his clothes.
“Seeing how my nurse isn’t here, I’m going to require your help.”
“Anything, Doc,” Nick volunteered.
Shaeffer took a bed sheet and spread it over Heath’s lower legs. He then grabbed another to cover the hips, leaving the thigh exposed with the splinter sticking out. “One question: can you stand the sight of blood?”
“Yeah,” Nick answered rather unconvincingly, dreading that the question implied a far greater amount of blood then he’d been accustomed of handling.
“Okay. I’ll give it to you straight: I’m about to perform two delicate surgeries on your brother with the plain instruments I have at my disposal. He’s extremely weak from the loss of blood and fever, but I don’t have a choice; I need to remove the splinter and clean the wound, then I’ll have to extract the bullet and drain the infection. He could die during either operation,” he explained matter-of-factly, without mincing words or taking the careworn brother’s feelings into account as there was no time to nurse grievances. “I want you as solid as a rock during surgery for your brother’s sake. Now, take a deep breath and exhale slowly.”
Nick took a lungful of air and exhaled it in a sustained breath.
“Okay.” The doctor scooted a chair over to the table next to Nick. “Roll up your sleeve and sit on that chair. I need to infuse your brother a few liters of blood before I proceed with the operation.”
Dutton headed down to the saloon where he met with his men. He marched over to the bar and ordered a whiskey. Zach glanced at Hannah who nodded her approval to serve the drink. She noticed a few smudges of blood on Dutton’s shirt as he leaned his elbow against the counter.
“You’ve got blood on your shirt, Mister. You hurt?” she observed on a tone bordering on sarcasm.
“It’s not mine. I was given a message that read that the other gunman we were looking for was hiding in the Midas mines.”
Dutton drained his whiskey and beckoned Zach to pour him another glassful. “No. That was Barkley’s brother. He’d apparently been shot last night and collapsed in the street. Said he woke up in a room with two women.” He turned to Hannah with a leer. “Anybody you know?”
Hannah gripped the side of the counter and glowered at Dutton. “We didn’t know he was Heath Barkley when we found him. We thought he was…”
“The other cutthroat we were after, yes I know. Why were you harboring him? What was he to you?”
She stepped up to him and gave him a level stare. “A hero. A reason to get back at you for the twenty-five graves of Midas. An accident that should never have happened if you’d secured those shafts.”
“Well the new owner I’m sure will see that it never happens again. I’m selling my share. I’m gonna ask Barkley if he wants to buy me out.”
“You’re cowering out.”
“I don’t wanna have anything to do with you people ever again.”
“What if Barkley won’t deal with you?”
“He will,” Dutton answered confidently before quaffing his drink. “ You give the payroll to Barkley; he’s at the doctor’s with his brother.”
“How’s Heath?” Nora asked anxiously as she came down the stairs.
“There was another cave-in at the mine.” Dutton paused briefly before continuing on a solemn tone. “He’s dying.” He turned to the swinging doors, beckoning his men to follow.
Hannah grasped Nora’s arm as she was rushing out the door. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To Dr. Shaeffer’s office to see Heath.”
“Not now, Nora.”
“But Hannah, they might need my help.”
“I doubt it.”
“Don’t you want to know how he is?”
“You heard Dutton?”
“I want to see for myself.” Nora wrenched her arm free from her sister’s grip and made a mad dash down the street with Hannah on her heels.
Nora irrupted into the office just as Nick was exiting the examining room , leaving the doctor alone to prep up the patient for surgery.
“Mister Barkley, how’s your brother?” Nora asked expectantly.
“You’ve got the gall to ask about him after your nearly left him bleed to death?” Nick snarled at the two stunned women.
“Mister, don’t you vent your anger on my sister. If anyone’s to blame it’s me. She tried to convince me to get him to a doctor,” Hannah explained acridly with a spasm of irritation crossing her face.
“WHY DIDN’T YA?” Nick spat between clenched teeth.
“Because we didn’t know he was your brother! At the time, we all believed he was one of the men who killed the Dutton messenger. If we’d got him to Dr. Shaeffer, he wouldn’t have hesitated in turning him to Dutton and he’d be dead!” She defended angrily, grinding out the words between clenched teeth.
“My sister’s right, Mister Barkley,” Nora agreed.
Dr. Shaeffer loomed in the doorway. “I’m ready for you Mister Barkley.”
“Doctor Shaeffer, is there anything I can do to help?” Nora asked.
“I could use a nurse to assist me.”
“Alright you two, go wash your hands with soap, twice. Then don’t touch anything.”
Nick and Nora walked inside the examining room to follow the doctor’s instructions. Nora glanced at Heath briefly before Nick nudged her towards the washing basin. The doctor drew the curtains on Hannah who sat in the outer room. He walked over to the counter to dunk his instruments in a bowl filled with antiseptic.
Heath mumbled unintelligible words as he slowly emerged from a morphine-induced haze. Nick moved over to him. “Heath?”
Heath slowly tilted his head towards the droning sound of Nick’s voice. “Nick?” he breathed out.
“Hurts,” he lamented, his brows furrowing deeply.
“Don’t worry, won’t be for long. Doc will fix ya up real good.”
Heath nodded feebly and licked his lips. The doctor approached him with a cloth imbued with a few drops of chloroform that he applied over his nose and mouth, after which he handed Nick a syringe filled with the anesthetic.
“Stand by to trickle a few drops at first sign of discomfort. I’ll tell you when.”
As Dr. Shaeffer began to cut his way through the flesh, Heath moaned. He then instructed Nick to dribbled two drops of chloroform onto the cloth to further anesthetize the patient. He waited a few seconds before he proceeded with the delicate task. Nora was holding the splinter firmly in place with one hand and dabbing the excess of blood with the other.
“I was afraid of that.”
“What?” Nick asked with great concern.
“The tip of the splinter is embedded near the femoral artery. I’m going to have to clamp the artery as a precautionary measure, just in case I rupture it while trying to remove the piece of wood.”
Nick exhaled a shuddering breath and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Now Nora, I want you to hold that splinter very still when I ligate the artery.”
“Alright.” She steadied herself before nodding to the doctor to proceed.
Hannah returned to the hotel while the hours wore on. Nearly three hours later, both wounds were sutured up. Nick removed the chloroform-drenched cloth from Heath’s face and listened to his respiration.
“He’s barely breathing,” Nick observed .
“That’s normal after anesthesia,” he assured the careworn brother. He removed the bed sheets off Heath’s body and asked Nora to spread a warm blanket over him. She bent over and kissed Heath on the forehead, flinching at the burning skin against her lips.
“Now it’s up to him.”
“If you don’t mind Doctor, I’d like to stay with him.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Mister Barkley. Your brother is extremely weak, he doesn’t have much fighting left in him, so I expect you to provide it for him.”
“What do you mean?” Nick asked a bit muddled.
“Talk to him. Will him back. Give him the strength he needs to get through this. He needs to know he’s not alone in his struggle. You appear to be very fond of your brother.”
“He’s my hero, Doc.”
“It shows,” he smiled at the weary man and tapped him on the shoulder before nudging Nora to follow him out of the room. “Let’s leave him alone with his brother.”
Late in the evening, Nick had dozed off in the chair with his head pillowed on his arm, unaware that Heath was slowly emerging from unconsciousness. He blinked open his glassy eyes that roved around the room before traveling down to his right where they came to rest upon a tuft of slick dark hair. A weak smile tugged at his parched lips as he identified its owner. He faintly nudged Nick awake with his elbow. “Hey.”
Nick’s head sprung up. He nearly whooped with glee at the glinting blue eyes gazing at him. “Hey, welcome back,” Nick enthused with an elated smile.
“Was…was I gone long?” Heath exhaled in a single breath.
“Just a few hours. Seemed like days to me.” He patted Heath on the shoulder. “How d’ya feel?”
“That’s to be expected. But you’re gonna be alright.”
The doctor walked into the room with Nora. “We heard some chatting in here.” He approached the table “Well, young man, you gave us quite a scare. Nice of you to join us. I’m Dr. Schaeffer.”
“Hey Doc, how many holes do I have?” Heath joked.
“Only two.” The doctor ran his hand across Heath’s forehead. “Fever’s gone down. That a good sign that the infection is draining nicely.” He took the glass of water that Nora handed him. “Here, drink some of that water.” Nick raised Heath’s head slightly as the doctor brought the rim to the patient’s lips.” Easy now. Not too fast.”
As Nick eased his heavy head back onto the pillow, he caught sight of Nora standing shyly in the background. He beckoned her over with a smile. “What’s your name?”
Her steps faltered as she glanced at Nick for permission to fraternize with his brother. He sighed and gave her an approving nod.
“Nora. Thanks for taking care of me.”
“Uh…but I didn’t…”
“Yeah. It’s a good thing she and her sister were there,” Nick quickly interjected before she could divulge more than a weary Heath needed to know at the moment.
“What about Dutton?”
“He’s gone,” Nora informed proudly to the stunned brothers.
“I don’t know. He said to give you the payroll and that he’d be in touch about selling you his share of the mines.”
“What d’ya think, Heath? Should we buy him out?”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Heath breathed out with drooping eyelids. “That’ll give us an excuse to come back more often,” Heath said with a meaningful smile directed at Nora.
Nick caught the exchange of beaming gazes and rolled his eyes in exasperation. He sighed and turned to the doctor. “He’s gonna be alright,”
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