He awoke at dawn with a splitting headache and a stinging sore throat. His body was a dead mass of lead as he tried to sit in his bed. He let out two consecutive sneezes, each one hammering dozens of nail into his pounding head that he buried deep in his hands to deaden the pain. He had a bad case of the sniffles; each snuffle tickled his nasal hair, which triggered another sneeze that he tried to stifle with a hand over his mouth, but wind up blowing through his nose instead.
He dragged himself out of bed and slipped on his working clothes. A fainting spell seized him on his way down the stairs. He staggered backwards and gripped the handrail to steady himself. Taking a deep breath, he recovered his bearings and headed down to the kitchen to get an early breakfast before helping Nick with the spring plowing.
“Good Morning, Silas,” he greeted nasally.
“Good morning, Mister Heath.” Heath’s haggard expression was an undeniable sign that he had fallen prey to the flu epidemic currently sweeping the valley. “ Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah. Why d’ya ask?”
“Pardon me for saying so but you look rather the worse for wear.”
Heath sighed and started massaging his swollen eyes. “I do feel rotten, but don’t ya breathe a word to anyone, especially my mother or she’s gonna drown me in her herbal tea. I hate that dishwater. I’m gonna pick myself up so they won’t see nothing.”
Silas gave a light chuckle, which Heath didn’t find very amusing. “Not a word, Mister Heath. You can count on old Silas.”
“Thanks.” Heath crossed his arms on the table and pillowed his throbbing head on it.
Minutes later, Nick thundered down the backstairs and before he could bellow a single word, Silas shushed him with a finger on his lips, motioning to the sleeping Heath.
“Something wrong with him?” Nick asked worriedly in a voice just above a whisper.
Silas merely shook his head and shrugged, but the glaring concern in his eyes betrayed him.
Nick padded up to Heath and slid his hand on his forehead. “He feels a little warm to me.”
Head lifted his head up and blinked to focus on Nick standing akimbo beside him. “Good morning, Nick.”
“Huh uh, what’s so great about it?”
Heath’s smile swiftly faded as he turned to Silas with a withering glare. “Silas, you tattletale!”
“He didn’t say anything,” Nick chimed in before Silas could defend himself. “He didn’t have to. It’s written all over your face.” He grabbed a hold of Heath’s arm and pulled him to his feet. “Come on! You’re going back upstairs to your room. Don’t wanna any sick brother tagging along.”
“Nick, I’m okay. I’m just tired.”
“Being worn out doesn’t come with a fever. Now come on!” he yanked Heath’s arm but met with resistance on his brother’s part. “If you come peacefully, I won’t tell Mother.”
“Won’t tell Mother what?” Victoria asked as she came through the door.
“What’s going on, boys?” she probed with her squinting eyes darting from one pale-faced son to the other, Heath’s sallow complexion catching her attention. “Heath, are you feeling okay?” she asked with great concern, walking over to him to place a hand on his brow.
“I’m, I’m fine, Mother,” he faltered when a chill coursed through his body.
“No you’re not! You have a fever. You are going up to your room this instant.”
“Aw Mother,” Heath whined.
“Don’t you ‘aw Mother’ me. Go on!” she slapped him on his behind, “Upstairs!”
Heath glowered at Nick who was delighting in his predicament. “I’ll get ya for this.”
“Me? What did I do?” Nick asked innocently.
“Nick, could you ask one of the men to ride into town for Doctor Merar?”
“Right away, Mother.”
“And Silas, would you be so kind to prepared some herbal tea?”
“Yes Mrs. Barkley.”
“Not that dishwater, Mother!” Heath griped. “Please, have pity on me!” he continued on a beseeching tone.
Nick broke into a cackle the second Victoria and Heath disappeared out of sight. “Heath’s in trouble,” he said teasingly, winking at Silas as he crossed to the back door to head outside.
Upstairs, Heath continued his lament, dragging his feet that exerted a breaking force as they neared his bedroom. Victoria was relentless. She wrapped her arm around Heath’s shoulders to steer him inside. She went up to the bed to fluff up his pillows and ordered him to undress.
“I’m going downstairs to get your tea. When I get back I want you under those covers, young man. I mean it!” Her angry scowl sent chills down Heath’s spine.
She walked back to the door. Before leaving, she left Heath with this warning, “Don’t attempt to sneak out of this room or I’ll have Nick chase after you, is that understood?”
“Yes Mother,” he gulped nervously.
As soon as Victoria closed the door, he removed his boots and shed his shirt and trousers, all the while cursing his cold, wandering how he became ill to begin with. He crawled into bed and as he adjusted the covers, he heard a rap on the door. “Come in.”
Nick poked his head in. “Are you decent?”
“Not exactly but I don’t have a choice, do I?” Heath complained with a snuffle. “Nick, ya gotta get me outta here.”
“Why are you complaining? You get to spend a whole day lounging around doing nothing. It’s like a holiday. No busting chops out on the range.”
“I’d rather be out there roughing it than in here drowning in Mother’s herbal tea.” He saw Nick’s face crease up with suppressed laughter. “Don’t scoff, I’m serious!”
“You know why you got that miserable cold, don’t ya?”
“What about her?”
“You kissed her, didn’t ya?”
Heath began squirming underneath the covers, slightly embarrassed by Nick’s personal question. “Maybe.”
“You and about ten other guys who came down with the a case of the flu within three days of being sweet on her.”
“There’s an outbreak in the valley, Nick.”
“Yeah and she started it!”
“What about you? I thought ya liked her too?”
“Na! She’s not my type.”
“Turned ya down, didn’t she?” Heath teased once he latched on his brother’s uneasiness.
Victoria returned to the bedroom with a cup of steaming tea. “Nick, did you sent one of the hands to get Doctor Merar?”
“Yeah. Ciego offered to go since he had to ride into town anyway to pick up supplies.”
“Good.” She walked over to the bed and poised herself on the edge of the mattress to hand over the cup to Heath whose face frowned in disgust, which triggered another chuckle out of Nick.
Heath signed with annoyance. “Mother get him outta here or I’ll jump down his throat.”
“Fine, fine, fine. I’m going.”
“Bless you, Little Brother.”
“Get out!” he cough.
Heath’s symptoms were indicative of an onset of flu. Doctor Merar prescribed bed rest and plenty of liquids for the next twenty-four hours. He suggested to Victoria to apply a mustard plaster on her son’s chest and make him drink warm milk mixed with honey to ease the coughing. He gave her a flask of powdered aspirin, instructing her to dilute it in water before giving it to Heath in the event of a rise in his temperature.
The warm milk plunged Heath into a deep slumber. He slept peacefully into late afternoon.