A week had streamed by since Nick’s brutal death. He’d been the victim of a sadistic murder to which Heath was a reluctant witness. Hand and foot bound to a tree, his head held back with a knife to the throat, he had been impelled to watch the russlers torture and kill his brother, and knew the same fate awaited him.
The last bloodcurdling scream emitted before Nick died ripped Heath to shreds, tearing at his soul and plunging him in a state of catatonia. As the men began submitting him to the same barbaric treatment, she sheriff’s posse showed up with Jarrod and Duke in tow.
Aside from a few scrapes and two broken ribs, Heath was given a clean bill of health. The physical wounds healed within the week, but the emotional ones lingered. He was dead to the world, having sunk into a slough of despond. The nights were plagued with neurotic nightmares that would jolt the entire household awake, until the daybreak when the stillness would once again settled within in.
The first rays of dawn’s early light beamed through the window of Heath’s bedroom to stir him awake. Instead of jumping into his clothes for another day of hard work, Heath remained in bed and stared vacantly at the ceiling. Victoria gave him a sponge bath and shaved him while Audra tried to feed some solid food into him but to no avail. Heath would push the food back out with his tongue the minute it was spoonfed into his mouth. The scolding fell on deaf ear as Heath refused to acknowledge anyone like he had for the past week.
In mid afternoon, Dr. Merar came by to check on Heath’s progress.
“Any change this morning, Victoria?”
“No, aside from the fact that he started refusing to drink water. It keeps dribbling down his chin.”
“That’s not good. He can go days without food but he’ll die without water.”
“Howard, we’ve tried everything. We can’t reach him.”
Merar cupped Heath’s head and gently tilted it towards him. “Heath, can you hear me? Listen to me, son. . . this has gone long enough. You need nourishment to maintain your strength. If you don’t eat or drink, you’ll die. Do you understand me?”
Heath blinked heavily before closing his eyes. Dr. Merar shook his head lightly to force his eyes open. “No, you don’t! You stay with me, now.” Heath drooping eyelids shut despite the doctor’s efforts.
The despairing man shook his head and stood up to face the family. “We’re running out of time. He’s extremely weak, heartbeat is irregular and his breathing’s shallow. I’m afraid he’s slipping away and there isn’t a thing I can do to prevent him from sinking further.”
After the doctor’s departure, Victoria wandered into Nick’s room. With tears pearling down her cheeks, she knelt by the bed, flattened her hands over her mouth and pleaded with the dearly departed, “Please Nick, if you can hear me, help your brother. I don’t want to lose another son.”
Heath was momentarily left alone in his room when he heard a booming gruff voice thunder in his dull mind. “Heath! Come on Boy! Rise and shine!”
Heath slowly blinked open his leaden eyelids, allowing his vacuous stare to tarry on the ceiling above before he let the curtain of darkness drop once more.
“Heath for God’s sake! This is a working ranch. Can’t have you lolling in bed all day! Come on, get up!”
The imperious tone goaded Heath to reopen his eyes. He darted the room in search of a face to match the bark he recognized as Nick’s. “N. . . Nick?” he stuttered feebly. “Is that you?”
“Yeah of course it’s me! Get up!”
“I. . . ca. . . can’t.”
“Course you can. I won’t have no brother of mine waste a day in bed. The ranch won’t run itself. Come on now! Get up and get your clothes on. Got something to show you.”
Heath squished his eyes together to squeeze the humor out in order to establish a sharp focus on the brother he’d prayed to be reunited with. “N. . .Nick I can’t see you.”
“Do as I say. Get your clothes on and follow me.” Heath felt a sudden surge of energy as he hauled himself out of bed. He shook the dizziness out of his head as he slouched to the closet to pull his shirt and trousers off the hanger. He shuffled back to the bed and flopped down on the mattress to dress. After putting on his boots, he followed the voice out of the room and down the stairs. He staggered outside and trudged wearily along an aimless path on which he was guided spiritually by the inner voice.
“Whe. . . where are you taking me?” Heath questioned Nick’s spirit that kept needling him.
“Come on. Just a couple of more feet.”
About half a mile later, Heath collapsed from exhaustion, drained of the last speck of energy he’d summoned for the trek. His forehead dripped with sweat and his breath rasped in his lungs. Unbeknownst to him, Nick had led him to the scene of the gruesome murder to have him purge his mind of the demons dwelling within, who were eating away at his heart and dragging him under before his time.
“Heath, get up!” the voice ordered him.
“C. . . can’t. Too tired,” he breathed out between gasps.
“Turn to your right.”
Heath dropped his head to the right. The blood drained from his face as his terror-filled eyes caught sight of the severed ropes that once bound his hands and feet to the tree, hurling him to the night of the ghoulish murder. The trauma sent shock waves throughout his stiffened body. He slowly raised his arms to his chest, his clenched fists digging into his flesh as torrents of tears began gushing out of his terrorized eyes.
“Listen to me, Heath.”
“Why. . . why did you bring m. . . me here?”
“Because I want you to face the truth once and for all,” the voice chided.
“I let those men kill you.”
“No you didn’t. See those ropes? Look at them!”
“Look at them!” the voice screamed at his mind. “You were held captive, a knife was pressed against your throat. You were powerless in stopping the butchery. It’s not your fault, dammit! You are not responsible for what happened.”
“I am,” Heath whimpered.
“No you are not!” the voice spat out. “You must let go of the guilt, Heath. It’s eating you alive.”
Heath began to choke as his heartbeat grew sporadic.
“Don’t let those demons drag you under. Fight them off! Drive them out of you! I will not have you die on the family, you hear me?”