‘Faith: It is an instinct that precludes all outward instructions’ – Henry Amiel
Nick was trampling up and down the hall, his spurs jingling with each stomp; Audra was standing by Heath’s bedroom door, gnawing anxiously at her nails while Victoria was sitting Amazon-like over the banister, her back resting against the newel post of the grand staircase with her arms folded on her chest. Her face registered little emotions as she awaited news on her son’s condition.
Her mind wandered back on that night, three days ago, when Heath returned home from a trip to Rosedale, hacking his lungs out. He was drenched to the skin, his body convulsing with shivers. Just when it seemed he had weathered the storm, the pneumonia struck back with a vengeance.
Victoria was drawn back to the present when Dr. Merar exited Heath’s room. The dejected man was riddled with questions the second he stepped out the door. He closed it and heaved a sigh fraught with hopelessness.
“I’m sorry, “ he said mournfully. “There’s no improvement. In fact, it’s worse.”
“Worse? What…what…do you mean worse?” Nick asked stutteringly, his faltering voice betraying an anguish he desperately tried to mask.
“His temperature’s up to 103 and his lungs are badly congested.”
“So, we put him in another ice bath,” Nick suggested matter-of-factly.
“It’s not going to do any good. Granted, it will bring down his fever for an hour or two, but it will only go up again once he’s out. The infection is spreading quickly and there’s nothing more I can do to stamp it out.”
“Wait! That’s it? You’re giving up?” Nick said on a crushingly implying tone that bordered on menace.
“Nick, I’m a doctor not a miracle worker,” the good doctor defended aggressively.
“Howard, how…” Victoria’s emotion-filled voice faltered at the thought of asking the dreaded question. Instead she closed her eyes and put a hand over her mouth.
Dr. Merar laid a hand on her shoulder and said regretfully, “ A few hours. I’m not expecting him to survive the night.”
She stifled a gasp of horror at his direct answer.
“You might be giving up, but I’m not!” Nick lashed out before hurtling down the stairs and out to the icehouse to drop a large block of ice into a burlap bag. He returned to the house, using the back door to avoid facing Dr. Merar who was offering his sincere sympathies to the two grieving women.
With a pick, Nick chipped the ice into the kitchen sink and tossed the chunks into a bucket. He breezed past Victoria on his way to Heath’s bedroom. He tried o ignore his brother’s labored breath and ghostly pale complexion to remain focus on the task at hand.
“Nick, what are you doing?” a bleary-eyed Victoria asked.
“I’m gonna plunge him in an ice bath to get his fever down and DON’T,” he angrily wagged a finger at her before she could argue or undermine his initiative, “talk me out of it! I won’t sit idly by and wait for him to heave his last breath. I will not let him go down without a fight.”
She ambled over to him and put her hands on his shoulders, her eyes filled with admiration at his determination. With an acquiescent smile, she asked, “Can I help?”
“Thanks, Mother. Yes you can help me strew the chipped ice over him, after which we’ll wrap him up in a quilt.”
While Victoria busied herself sprinkling the ice onto the sheet covering Heath’s fever-ridden body, Nick wrapped a towel over his brother’s head in the form of a cowl to prevent the ice from singeing his skin. He struggled to turn a deaf ear to his brother’s wheezing as he helped his mother strew the rest of the ice before bundling Heath up in the quilt.
Victoria offered to fetch more ice while Nick sat beside Heath on the bed, his back resting against the headboard. He tucked the edges of the quilt underneath his brother’s shoulders and adjusted the towel over his head before he ran his hand across his forehead. He winced at the fever burning right through his skin.
“I’m here, Heath. Right beside you, Brother. We’ll get through this together. You fight now, ya hear? The Barkley men are sturdy. They can overcome anything.”
Evening wore into night, Nick remained wide awake by Heath’s side, while Victoria had dozed off in an armchair. As he felt Heath’s forehead for signs of a dwindling fever, Heath started to retch, choking on his phlegm. The strangled cough startled Victoria awake. She sprung to her feet and sat on the edge of the bed.
Keeping his wits about him, Nick quickly pulled Heath into a sitting position. He put one hand on his chest while he kneaded his other fist in his back. “Come on, Heath! Cough it up!” he egged on, now slamming his fist in the small of Heath’s back.
Victoria tilted her head to peer at Heath’s flushed face, his mouth wide open, trying to suck in a breath that was denied access down in obstructed airway.
“Nick, his lips are turning blue. He can’t breathe.”
“Mother, stick your fingers down his throat and pluck at the mucus. Get it out! HURRY!” he shouted to whip her into action.
She followed her frantic son’s instructions. When Heath still struggled for breath, she reached deeper down the throat and managed to unclog the airway. The ensuing sucking sound gave her the cardiac thump she needed to jump start her heart. Heath gasped in a few more breaths before coughing out more phlegm, which, much to Nick’s and Victoria’s relief, wasn’t tinged with blood.
“That’s it, Heath…let it all out, Brother. You’re doing fine,” Nick emboldened by rubbing his hand on Heath’s back. When the worse of the crisis passed, Nick eased Heath against his chest, resting his head gingerly on his shoulder. Victoria dabbed at the slimy saliva dribbling down Heath’s chin as Nick felt his brow.
“Mother, I think the fever’s down a bit.”
She placed her hand on Heath’s forehead, then on his cheeks. “He does feel less warm.”
“That ice’s melting. Let’s remove it and get him in dry sheets. We’ll see how he holds up.”
Nick slid from underneath Heath and eased him down on the bed. He momentarily gazed at his slumbering brother, sending a silent prayer to the heavens above for sparing his life so far, before he buckled down to the task of cleaning the bed of the melting remnants of ice.
Nick lifted Heath in his arms long enough for Victoria to spread fresh bed linen. Again, Nick eased his limp brother against his chest to allow for easier breathing.
“Mother, why don’t you go lie down in your room? We’ll be okay. I think the worse is behind us.”
“I don’t want to leave you alone, Nick.”
“I’m no alone,” he motioned to Heath, “I’ve got the kid to keep me company.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know, but I’ll be alright. I’ll shout if I need your help. I’m good at that,” he said on a teasing tone, throwing her a reassuring wink.
She smiled and kissed Nick’s forehead before crossing to the door. She glanced back at her sons and locked eyes with Nick’s. “I’ll come back in a couple of hours. If he should…”
“You’ll know,” he sighed heavily, not wanting to entertain that very thought.
Nick leaned back against the headboard and looked heavenwards. “God, Nick Barkley here. Remember me? I don’t ask for much ‘cause I figure I’ve got everything pretty much under control. I do need your help with this one. I can’t do it alone. I don’t want to give up on the little brother you sent my way two years ago. He moved heaven and earth to prove who he was and to get me to accept him.” He paused to breathe away the rush of tears threatening to spurt out. “God, I love him more than my life. Please don’t take him away from me. He and me have so much more to share.” He snuffled back a tear. “Heck, this is a working ranch! He’s my partner. I need him to share in the workload,” he joked to wash down the emotions caught in his throat. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. “I just need him,” he whispered on an imploring tone.
The dawn was slowly mantling over in the sky, allowing the first rays of light to filter through pink-tinged clouds and into Heath’s bedroom. Careworn Nick struggled against exhaustion to keep awake, and babbled on to Heath about life on the ranch prior to his arrival.
“Matthew Campbell, now that was some wrangler,” he mused. “Hot-headed with short-fused temper. There wasn’t a wild bronco he couldn’t bust. Man, I loved that kid. He worked for us for nearly a year before his folks moved back to Boston. Boston!” he snorted with disgust. “What’s a rancher to do in a big city like Boston? Rope lamp posts?” Nick sighed. “Well, he…” he clipped his words when he heard a feeble moan. “Heath? You there, brother?”
Heath gasped in a wheezy breath. “Shhhhhaddup, Niiiiiiick,” he exhaled, then gulped in another breath to finish his sentence. “Got headachhhhhh….” Heath’s voice trailed off when he slipped back into the Land of Nod.
Nick felt Heath’s forehead and heaved a long drawn-out sigh of relief at the absence of a fever. He looked up and mouthed the word ‘thank you.’
Fifteen minutes later, Victoria appeared in the doorway.
Nick put his finger to his lips to shush her. “Be quiet. The kid’s got a headache,” he whispered with a serene expression etched on his face.
She padded up to the bed and touched Heath’s forehead. “Fever’s broken,” she whispered. “What do you mean by a headache?”
“He told me. Apparently I was talking his ears off.”
“He told you?”
“Yeah, Mother.” With a heart welling up with emotions, Nick reached for her hand and squeezed it tight. “He told me.”
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