“If you want to kick the tiger in his ass, you’d better have a plan for dealing with his teeth.” - Tom Clancy
Jarrod tapped Heath on the shoulder and motioned over to Nick. He was making his way along the bountiful hors d’ oeuvre table. His brothers watched in amusement as he piled his small plate precariously high with an assortment of finger food. Nick didn’t notice his brothers ease up behind him as he made it to the end of the table. Just as Nick turned around, Heath deftly took the plate out of his hand without toppling the little mountain of food.
“Boy howdy, Nick. You ought to be in a circus doing balancing acts! Thanks, Big Brother.” Heath started eating off the top of the pile and offered Jarrod a sampling.
Nick glared at them. “Yeah, it’s just like you two to let me do all the work!”
“We’re trying to save you work, Nick!” Heath said between mouthfuls.
“That’s right.” Jarrod added. “We’re not sure Dr. Merar would approve of you carrying around such a heavy plate.”
“Uh-huh. Well, Heath here needs to learn to fix his own plate and don’t you have a speech to make?” Nick said pointedly to Jarrod.
Jarrod smiled. “All in good time, Brother Nick. I’m going to give the folks a little time to enjoy themselves and socialize before the formal announcement.”
“You oughta be mingling with the crowd too, Nick.” Heath offered. “You might just start a new hairstyle fad with that reverse Mohawk of yours!”
“That ain’t funny, Heath!”
“Not if you don’t think so.” Heath smirked.
“Gimme my plate back, Boy!” Nick growled. “Before you end up starting a ‘no front teeth’ fad!”
Jarrod chuckled and wagged his finger at his younger brothers. “You boys play nice! Now if you’ll both excuse me, I see someone I want to speak to.”
Jarrod worked his way through the crowd to the middle-aged woman in the company of a silver-haired man.
Nettie Sample’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Jarrod!” she exclaimed as the two embraced warmly.
“It’s good to have you back in the valley, Nettie. This is where you belong.”
“Thank you, Jarrod. Your telegram arrived while I was still visiting with my sister in Utah before returning to Virginia. I’m glad I left behind her address! I decided to return as soon as I received the telegram saying how promising the appeal was going. It does feel right, Jarrod. I believe this is what Frank would have wanted. Abe has been a big help in getting me and the children resettled.”
“That’s very neighborly of you, Abe.” Jarrod shook his old friend’s hand. “As always, it’s good to see you too.”
“Thank you, Jarrod.” Abe smiled: a genuine smile Jarrod had not seen in recent weeks. “Our farms adjoin so it’s been no trouble at all to help Nettie and the children out. Actually, they’ve been real good company for me. So you might just say it’s been my pleasure.”
Nettie dropped her eyes and smiled sheepishly.
“Looks like you’ve got all the help you need, Nettie. But if there is anything we can do for you, please let Mother or myself know. I heard Mother say she was planning on stopping by in a day or so.”
“Thank you, Jarrod. We are working our way over to speak with her now.”
“Wonderful.” Jarrod kissed her cheek lightly and shook Abe’s hand again. “Well, I suppose it is about time for my announcement.”
Jarrod strode over to the small platform that had been erected at the far-end of the room with a smile on his face. He liked the way Nettie had said ‘we’ and ‘our’. It held the hint of a sweet beginning. She and Abe had much in common. They were both good-hearted, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people. Perhaps this was the dawn of a brighter day for them both.
The string quartet ceased playing when Jarrod walked onto the platform. The musicians stepped off the platform and left the stage to the host. Every eye in the room was riveted on the handsome lawyer.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! On behalf of the Barkley family I would like to welcome you all to our home this evening. As you all know, for the last several weeks I have been in Sacramento working diligently to resolve the land claim dispute between yourselves and the Coastal and Western Railroad.”
Jarrod pulled a folded document from his coat pocket. “Before I read this final ruling, I believe it is appropriate that we take a moment to remember. We should remember and honor those who gave their lives for this just cause. These individuals made the supreme and ultimate sacrifice. For when a man or woman sacrifices their life, they sacrifice all that they are, all that they would have been, all that they love, all that they have, and all the promise and fulfillment that the future held for them. Each life was precious!”
Jarrod’s eyes misted as he declared solemnly. “We must never forget those who died! Those who died six years ago: Nathan Green. Jack Larabie. George Latimer. Louis Raines. Paul Steele. Joshua Polk. Duffy Vaughn. Luke Widmer. Vernon Stiles. Dwayne Parker. Henry Sample. And… Thomas J. Barkley. Those who died defending the Sample’s farm: Alton Stubbs. Dennis Jones. Jeffrey Smith. John Martin. Kent Greeley. Frank Sample. And those who died most recently: Otis Carter. Clement Morrison. Eliza Worth. Abraham Worth, Jr. Let us observe a moment of silence in honor of these fine individuals – may God rest their souls.”
Every head in the room was bowed. Some praying. Others were weeping silently. Each remembered those who had died in their own way.
Jarrod’s voice finally brought the crowd back to the present moment. “Now, without further ado, I will get on to the reason you were all invited here this evening. As you know, I filed an appeal with the appellate court and Judge Matheson reviewed my brief. He offered Coastal and Western the option of settling the dispute in arbitration. Judge Matheson more than hinted that his court would not be for sale at any price and that if the full appeal were to proceed, the body of evidence was heavily weighted in favor of the farmers. The railroad’s lawyer, Abner Kirkland, agreed to arbitration on behalf of Coastal and Western. The judge acted as arbiter and the terms of the settlement are as follows…”
Jarrod unfolded the legal document. “I’ll skip all the ‘whereas’ and ‘wherefores’ and get to the heart of the matter. The disputed Coastal and Western Railroad grant lands were found to have been legally purchased by and the sole property of the farmers!”
The room erupted in applause. Loud whoops of joy rattled the chandelier and caromed off the walls. There were tears of joy as neighbor embraced neighbor in celebration.
“Just a minute!” Jarrod raised his hand to quiet the audience. “The judge also found that it is the overriding interest of the citizenry to have a route of public passage between the state’s cities. Therefore, the railroad has been granted a legal right-of-way that will consist of a twenty-foot wide strip of land for its use to lay tracks through the valley to Los Angeles. Railroad surveyors will plot the route and those of you who are affected will be compensated for your strip of land at fair market value.”
“Sounds good to me!” one of the farmers shouted. “Los Angeles will be one more large market where we can sell our produce and fruits!”
“Then this means it is really over, Jarrod?” Siegfried Swenson could hardly believe his ears.
“Yes, Sieg. It’s really over!” said the man of the hour as he stepped down into the exuberant throng.
Later, Jarrod slipped over to the French doors that opened into the garden. He wanted to step out under the stars for just a moment and reflect on what this day would have meant to his father. Jarrod noticed a punch glass sitting on the railing and then spied his youngest brother standing alone near the gazebo. He strolled out into the garden and stood beside the blond.
“I found I could use a bit of air myself, Brother Heath. I saw you getting mobbed a bit yourself in there.”
“Yeah.” Heath sighed. “Folks kept coming around wanting to thank me for stopping that gang of outlaws. I’m not used to that kind of attention. I figured if I stepped out here, they’d join that flock around you.”
“Congratulations are one thing…” Jarrod mused. “But then the talk turned into practically drafting me to run for the State Senate!”
“Well, there’s one way to beat a draft…” Heath drawled.
“What’s that?” Jarrod eyed his brother suspiciously.
“Volunteer.” Heath smiled.
“So you think I’d make a good politician?”
“No. I think you’d make a good Senator because your guiding principles are far above partisan politics. They are as timeless as those stars up there. You will always do what is good and just.”
There were times when Heath said or did something that was so like Tom Barkley that it was almost like being in his presence again. Every member of the family had experienced it. This was one of those times and its intensity left Jarrod speechless.
After a few minutes, Heath spoke. “We’d better get back inside and make an appearance. Or at least you’d better! They may be in there planning out your whole campaign right now.”
They walked back toward the house. “What you need is a catchy campaign slogan!” Heath teased. “Something like ‘Tippecanoe and Jarrod too!’ ‘A Pappy in every pot!’ or…”
Jarrod laughed and slapped his little brother on the back. “If I ever decide to run for office, Brother Heath, I’ll definitely put you in charge of that area!”
Heath picked up his punch glass as they walked past the railing and took a swallow. He coughed as it burned going down.
“Are you okay?” Jarrod asked.
“Yeah.” Heath said as he took another swallow and grimaced. “Tastes like somebody spiked the punch with some kind of stump-hole whiskey.”
The swarthy-skinned, raven-haired man watched the blond put the glass to his lips from his unseen hiding place. Carlo Lucci bared his teeth as his disfigured face twisted into the grotesque semblance of a smile.
It had been a wonderful evening. Judging from the high spirits of everyone in the room, it could hardly have gone better. Even the news that Coastal and Western had been granted a right-of-way had not diminished the jubilation. Relief, that the costly years long struggle had finally ended, permeated the room.
Victoria spent nearly an hour working her way through the delighted throng. Neighbor after neighbor voiced their appreciation for the Barkley family’s support and sacrifice in the long and difficult battle.
Victoria smiled radiantly at the praise expressed for her eldest son’s legal expertise. In the end, the Rule of Law and justice had prevailed in no small measure because of Jarrod’s dogged perseverance. It came as no surprise to Victoria that these same people would want a man like her son to represent their interests in Sacramento.
When Jarrod had chosen Law as a profession, Tom had predicted that events might one day lead Jarrod into the arena of public service.
“Politicians who will pander to the people while seeking only to further their own self-interests and careers are a dime a dozen. People are just naturally drawn to the kind of man who will steadfastly champion what is right! Mark my word; Jarrod will prove himself to be that kind of man in the courtroom. That is the kind of man everyone wants representing them, be it in the courtroom or in their government.” Tom’s words of long ago were indeed proving prophetic.
Victoria had mixed feelings about Jarrod’s entry into politics. Election to public office would mean even more time spent away from home and family. Of course, Victoria would leave the ultimate decision to Jarrod. She would be supportive whichever path he chose to take.
Victoria smiled as she watched her eldest and youngest sons slip back into the room. It was no surprise to her that Heath would have sought to escape the crowd for a while in the solitude of the garden. It was his habit to remain on the peripheries of social gatherings and the attention shown to him by the grateful farmers would have been quite discomforting. And despite Jarrod’s out-going personality and ease with people, she understood his need for a moment of solitary reflection tonight as well.
Victoria’s eyes welled with pride. The torch had been passed from the father to his three sons and each in his own way had proven himself a worthy successor. She strolled over to her sons.
“Jarrod, given the hour and the long rides ahead of them tonight, our guests are about ready to make their leave. Would you like to join me in the foyer to wish them a ‘goodnight’?”
“I’d be honored to, Lovely Lady! That is, of course, unless Heath wants to do the honors.” Jarrod couldn’t help but throw in a little good-natured jibe.
Heath just rolled his eyes.
“When Heath hosts a party, then it will be his duty to see to his guests.” Victoria said as she gently let her youngest son off the hook.
“Thanks, Mother.” Heath smiled. “After all, it’s Jarrod who’s gonna need experience working crowds. Too bad there are no babies here he could practice kissing.”
“And you can occupy yourself working on my campaign slogan!” Jarrod chuckled as he offered Victoria his arm and led her to the foyer.
As the crowd was dissipating, Nick strolled over to stand by his blond brother’s side.
“Quite a night, wouldn’t you say?”
Heath didn’t answer right away, but appeared more intent on tugging at his collar with his index and middle fingers.
“What’s the matter, Boy? Got your tie too tight?” Nick’s brow furrowed. “Or should I say MY tie? You just be sure and put that tie right back where you got it! It’s one of my favorites. I swear, between you and Jarrod…”
“Does it seem hot in here to you, Nick?” Heath turned to face his brother. His voice seemed a bit raspy and there was no mistaking the flush that had spread over Heath’s cheeks.
“Not particularly.” Nick eyed his brother suspiciously. “What’s wrong? You feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Heath tugged at the collar again. “I guess… I guess I just need to get out of this suit. I think I’ll head on upstairs, Nick.”
“Alright.” Nick said. “I’ll come up and see you as soon as the last of the guests leave.”
“To see if I’m really okay, Nurse Nick?”
“No, Little Brother, to get my tie!” Nick teased.
Heath smiled. “I’ll save you the trouble and leave it on your bed.”
Nick watched his brother climb the stairs. That’s just fine Boy, he thought, but I plan to check on you anyway!
When the last of the guests had departed for home, Victoria and Jarrod walked into the parlor arm-in-arm. Victoria thought it odd that Nick was alone.
“Did Heath go upstairs already?”
“Yes, Mother. He said something about needing to get out of his suit.”
Victoria smiled. “Well, your brother is not one to stay in formal attire any longer than is absolutely necessary.”
Nick shook his head. “I suppose… It just seemed to be something more than just that. I figure I’ll go look in on him.”
Victoria’s senses went on heightened alert. “What do you mean ‘something more’? Is Heath ill? He seemed fine earlier.” Nick seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to Heath. Victoria could not rationally explain it, but she wasn’t about to disregard it either.
“Well…” Nick replied. “He acted like the room was getting uncomfortably hot all of a sudden. It seemed comfortable in here to me. The thing was it looked like he was getting all flushed. That’s why I thought I’d check on him.”
Victoria held up her hand. “I’ll check on him myself right now. He’d better not be trying to hide a fever!” She turned with the satin skirt of her gown in hand and hurried from the room.
Jarrod let out a low whistle. “Brother Heath is going to have to learn there are some things you never try to get past Mother! Think we ought to go on up and intercede on his behalf?”
“Not just yet, Jarrod. I say let’s leave him to Mother for just five minutes. It’ll serve him right for making fun of my hair!”
The bemused looks on the brothers’ faces turned to bewilderment and shock as they heard their mother’s panicked cries from the top of the stairs.
“JARROD! NICK! Come quickly! Please!” Victoria cried frantically and rushed back into Heath’s room.
The brothers raced up the stairs possessed with the dreadful certainty that something was terribly wrong. Despite his recent convalescence, Nick bolted up the stairway with Jarrod into their brother’s room. The sight before them momentarily stopped them both cold.
Heath lay on his side on the floor near the foot of his bed. His coat and shirt had been torn off and were strewn on the bedroom floor. Heath’s back was to the door and Victoria was on her knees in front of him.
“Heath? Heath?” One hand cupped his face as her other shook his shoulder.
Heath lay as still as a stone.
Looking at his mother’s stricken face, the incomprehensible thought raced through Jarrod’s mind that Heath was dead.
Nick was the first to break through the shock of the scene and rush to his brother’s side. Nick went to his knees and pulled Heath into his arms. Holding his limp brother, Nick laid a hand on Heath’s chest and felt for his heartbeat. Nick held his breath and tried to still the trembling in his own fingertips. He sighed with relief as he felt the rapid staccato pounding.
“Heath!” Nick whispered hoarsely through the tightness clutching at his throat. Heath writhed in his arms and drew a deep gasping breath. His eyes were open, but glazed, with pupils so dilated that his blue irises had transformed into two round black pools.
“Let’s get him on the bed, Nick.” Jarrod said. “Then I’ll ride out and catch Dr. Merar. He was one of the last guests to leave the party tonight.”
Nick and Jarrod carefully lifted their brother and moved him onto his bed. Heath didn’t stir.
Jarrod started for the door. “Dr. Merar can’t have gotten far.” he tried to assure his mother.
Victoria shifted her gaze from her ailing son for a moment. “Bring Howard back quickly!” she implored.
“I will, Mother!” Jarrod rushed out to retrieve the doctor.
Silas appeared in the doorway. “Mrs. Barkley? What can I be getting that the doctor might need?” he asked haltingly, casting a worried eye toward the young man he had taken into his own heart.
“Get a basin of cold water and some cloths, Silas!” Victoria instructed.
“That’s all I know to do until Howard gets here.” Victoria said helplessly to Nick as she felt Heath’s forehead again.
“He’s burning up!” She shook her head in confusion. “I just don’t understand this, Nick. He seemed perfectly fine a half hour ago.”
“I know, Mother. I know.” Nick felt equally confused and helpless.
“The doc will be here soon and turn whatever this thing is around.” Nick tried to sound confident to comfort his mother, but both sensed this unknown malady was stealing Heath away with amazing speed.
Silas returned with the basin of water and the cloths. Victoria and Nick began to bathe Heath’s face, neck and upper body with the cold water. The temperature of his hot, flushed, dry skin seemed to be rising by the minute.
It began with the faintest of tremors. Victoria and Nick watched helplessly as every muscle beneath Heath’s skin began to twitch erratically as if something alien and sinister crawled just beneath the surface. An uncontrolled, uncoordinated wave of muscle contractions swept over Heath’s body.
“Oh my God…” Victoria breathed just as her son was about to be swept away in the fury of a full-blown convulsion.
In an instant, Nick was on top of Heath, as if to put him in a tight wrestling hold. Nick wrapped his arms around his brother to pin Heath’s arms to his sides. Nick could feel his brother writhe and buck beneath him as the various muscles contracted violently and then relaxed involuntarily. Nick used his own body weight to keep his brother from flailing wildly and hurting himself further while in the grips of the convulsion.
For several agonizing minutes, all Nick could do was hold on tight. Like a mirror image of its own beginning, the convulsion ran its course and receded back into the former faint tremors. Nick felt his brother’s body finally relax and go still beneath him. Too still.
Nick released his hold on Heath and pushed himself to a seated position on the edge of the bed. He was relieved to see the rise and fall of his brother’s chest. The violent convulsion had made Heath’s breathing pattern irregular and uncertain. The breaths came uneven and shallow, but for now at least they were there.
“Let’s keep trying to cool him, Nick.” Victoria took up the fight with the cold cloths again. Had the high fever caused Heath to convulse? She did not know, but she silently wondered if he could survive another.
Victoria listened to her middle son’s one-sided conversation. Nick tended to talk in times of anxiety and stress while his blond brother was just the opposite.
“Come on, Boy… you can beat this thing! Doc’s gonna be here soon. Just hang on, Heath!”
The sound of the front door closing and hurried footsteps coming up the stairway was a relief to them both.
Dr. Merar entered the room opening his black bag as he neared the bed. Jarrod was at his heels. The doctor placed the bag on the nightstand and removed his stethoscope and watch. Victoria and Nick stepped back out of the way.
“Jarrod tells me Heath became ill just after the party ended. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
“That’s right, Howard. Heath’s temperature is terribly high and he just convulsed!” Victoria’s voice was filled with concern and her gray eyes were clouded with dread and confusion.
Howard timed Heath’s rapid pulse with his watch. He slipped the watch into his pocket and listened for a moment to his patient’s shallow breathing through the stethoscope. The doctor then felt the burning forehead and finally lifted Heath’s eyelids with his thumbs.
“My Lord…” the doctor’s eyes widened with sudden shock and recognition. He was certain enough of the diagnosis to begin moving quickly and barking out orders.
“Jarrod! Nick! Sit Heath up! Victoria, put an empty basin in his lap!” The doctor rummaged through his bag and pulled out a brown bottle.
Jarrod and Nick held Heath steady as Dr. Merar tipped his head back and forced several large swallows of the medicine down the limp blond.
Dr. Merar replaced the cork in the medicine bottle. “Syrup of Ipecac.” he said solemnly. “Lean him forward when he starts to retch!”
Nick and Jarrod leaned Heath forward as the Ipecac began to produce its desired effect. Heath’s stomach muscles seemed to contract more forcefully with every breath until he vomited the contents of his stomach into the basin. Even after his stomach was empty, Heath continued to dry heave until the effect of the emetic had run its course. Victoria plumped Heath’s pillows as Jarrod and Nick laid him back.
“The only question now is whether he expelled enough of the poison in time.” Dr. Merar sighed as he placed the half-empty bottle back in his bag.
“POISON?” Nick’s incredulous voice posed the question first.
“Are you certain, Howard?” Victoria could hardly believe the diagnosis either.
“I estimate Heath ingested the poison during the last hour or so.” Dr. Merar stated emphatically.
“Ingested?” Nick shook his head. “How can that be? Heath has this stunt he likes to pull on me at parties. As soon as I fix a plate, or cut myself a piece of cake, he swoops in and takes it! He did it tonight and started eating my food. But the thing is, this time I took it back from him. Doc, I ate off that plate, too! He never bothered to fix one for himself once Jarrod began his speech.”
Jarrod thought back on how Heath enjoyed aggravating Nick with this particular ploy. “Nick’s right, Howard. Heath offered me a sampling off Nick’s plate as well.”
“That doesn’t alter my diagnosis, Jarrod.” Howard glanced down at his patient. “This particular poison has a classic presentation. Even though I’ve only read of it in medical texts, I would know datura poisoning anywhere. There are only a few poisons with such well-documented and sordid histories. Shakespeare alluded to datura, as did Homer. Its leaves and berries are quite toxic and can cause delirium, convulsions and death. That’s exactly what the Scots ‘prescribed’ for the Danish army that invaded their homeland. At a truce meeting, the Scottish hosts gave the Danes the juice of datura berries mixed with wine. The invaders were nearly exterminated! Why even our own common name – jimson weed – is a corruption of ‘Jamestown weed’, so named after British soldiers sent to Jamestown to quell Bacon’s Rebellion failed after being fed the leaves of the plant. Those who survived were terribly ill for about a week and claimed afterward to have no memory of that entire period.”
“Then it is survivable?” Victoria asked hopefully.
Dr. Merar nodded. “Yes, Victoria, it is. But as I said before, it depends on the dose left in Heath’s body.” The doctor cautioned them. “As little as one-half teaspoon of crushed seeds is enough to cause complete delirium followed by days of disorientation and loss of equilibrium. Even a smaller dose than that will cause an illness that is quite miserable! ‘Dry as a bone, red as a beet, hot as a hare, blind as a bat, and mad as a hatter.’ Datura has even inspired a little saying that describes its effects on the victim.”
“Blind?” Jarrod’s eyes widened in surprise.
“If Heath survives, the effects will only be temporary.” Howard said as he again removed the stethoscope from his bag.
“If he survives? Doc, isn’t there something else you can do?” Nick’s voice had softened and his eyes were pleading.
“No, Nick.” the doctor said gently. “Timely use of the Ipecac was the only hope.”
Howard listened again to Heath’s rapid heartbeat and then listened carefully over Heath’s abdomen. He frowned and shook his head.
“What is it, Howard?” Victoria caught the doctor’s concerned look.
“Nothing.” he said softly.
Victoria placed her hand over her chest. “For a moment there I thought you had heard something…”
“No, Victoria.” Howard interrupted. “I meant I heard nothing! That’s another side effect of this damnable poison. It can paralyze the gut and effectively halt its own elimination. I was afraid of this. That is why I said whatever we didn’t get out of Heath with the Ipecac will run its course now.”
Howard replaced his stethoscope, snapped the bag shut and turned to face the worried family.
“All I can do now is try to prepare you for what lies ahead. Remember that little saying? ‘Dry as a bone.’ Heath’s mouth and throat will become parched and dry. He will be extremely thirsty, but it will be very difficult for him to swallow or speak. But you must get fluids in him as best you can, even if it is only a few drops at a time! ‘Red as a beet’ and ‘hot as a hare.’ Have Silas keep cold cloths and ice at the ready in this room. Keeping Heath’s temperature down will be a battle, but it must be done or he may experience another convulsion. ‘Blind as a bat.’ Heath won’t be able to focus on you at all and light will be very painful to his eyes in their dilated state. You must keep the lights dimmed in this room. The darkness may also keep him less agitated. I haven’t told you the worst. ‘Mad as a hatter.’ Datura causes complete delirium and hallucinations of the worst sort. This is followed by days of disorientation. I suggest you tie him down once the hallucinations begin. As miserable as this will be for Heath, it’s going to be terrible for you all as well.”
The doctor placed a comforting hand on Victoria’s shoulder. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said gently. “Since we don’t know how Heath came to be exposed to the datura and there were many other guests here tonight, I’d better head back to town. My services may be needed elsewhere.”
Victoria squared her small shoulders. “Thank you, Howard.”
“I’ll see Howard out.” Jarrod offered. “And I’ll tell Silas to bring the things we’ll be needing up here.”
Jarrod and Dr. Merar walked in silence to the front door. Jarrod opened the door for the doctor to make his leave. Howard donned his hat and turned to Jarrod, his brown eyes sympathetic.
“Jarrod, when I told your mother that these hallucinations are of the worst sort, I meant just that! The accounts I’ve read describe them as visual or auditory or both. They are violent, tormented hallucinations. No one knows why, but visions of insects are common. I suggest that you tie Heath down securely, Jarrod, spread-eagle to the bedposts. Do it for his safety as well as Victoria’s.”
As the doctor departed into the night, Jarrod closed the door and cast a worried eye toward the upstairs bedroom.
“Yes, Mr. Jarrod!” Silas hurried out from the kitchen.
“We’ll need a steady supply of ice and cold water in Heath’s room tonight.”
“Right away, Mr. Jarrod!” Silas turned to hurry off on his errand.
“Wait, Silas. Bring four long strips of strong cloth as well.” Jarrod knew Dr. Merar’s unpleasant recommendation was in his brother’s best interest.
Jarrod turned and trudged up the stairs wearily. The evening that had begun with such joy and optimism had quickly turned into a nightmare. Jarrod hesitated in the doorway and took in the scene with sadness.
Victoria was refilling a basin with fresh cold water from a pitcher. Nick sat on the edge of Heath’s bed attempting to coax a sip of water past the blond’s lips. The flush of Heath’s skin had intensified in the short time Jarrod had been outside the room and he knew the fever inside his younger brother must be raging higher as well.
In the “holding cell” there was neither ventilation nor a window. There were at least three prisoners for each square yard of floor space when Heath was shoved in. It was here that he would wait his turn to be “questioned”. The prisoners’ body heat and breathing raised the temperature well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the tightly packed cell. The Carterson guards were in no hurry. The men had been fed a salty gruel that morning and would get neither water nor fresh air.
Heath learned firsthand the depravity that was Carterson when he saw the results on his fellow prisoners. If someone was hauled out for interrogation, someone else was thrown back in: beaten up, bloody and broken. The appearance and stories of these broken men were more persuasive than any threat from the guards.
What did they expect to learn from him? He knew nothing of the Union Army’s next move. But Bentell must believe he had information that could be valuable to the Confederacy. And that’s all that really mattered.
“If you got any information, just tell them, Boy!” a broken man whispered before Heath was led away.
“You can’t get new teeth!” one who had already lost them nodded to him.
“Hang on to your health, Boy. You just might survive this camp and see your mama again.” another with common sense urged him.
You don’t understand, Heath wanted to tell them. Only my conscience and my spirit are precious to me now. It is only the unbroken in spirit that will truly survive Carterson no matter what shape the body is in. Heath knew their intentions were good. The older men only wanted to see the young boy spared the physical cruelties they had suffered.
Heath had learned from those who had suffered that they might whip the skin off a man’s back till it bled and then oil it with turpentine. Or they could give you a salt-water douche in the throat and leave you in the box for a day to be tormented by heat and thirst. This was obviously what the Confederate guard holding the glass to his lips had in mind for him.
Heath saw his chance and he took it.
The scene that unfolded before him momentarily stunned Jarrod. Heath’s left hand moved with surprising quickness as he knocked the glass from Nick’s grasp.
“Wha…?” Nick’s eyes instinctively followed the short flight of the glass until it shattered in pieces on the floor.
Victoria spun around at the sound of shattering glass just in time to witness Heath’s hands closing around Nick’s throat in a vise-like grip. “HEATH! NO!” she screamed.
The sudden attack sent Nick sprawling to the floor on his back. The blond’s grip didn’t slacken for an instant as he landed straddle his brother’s midsection. Nick grabbed his brother’s wrists in a vain attempt to break the chokehold.
Jarrod jumped into the struggle. “Heath, let go… Let go!” Jarrod groaned as he pried loose a strong right hand from Nick’s throat. Nick had not gotten the left under control before Heath had ripped open the front of Nick’s crisp white dress shirt. They pinned Heath against the side of the bed. The blond’s head slumped to his chest. The short struggle had exhausted him.
“Heath, it’s me.” Nick whispered hoarsely. “I was just trying to give you a drink of…”
Heath lifted his chin from his heaving chest and looked right through Nick. Heath’s widely dilated pupils could bring nothing into focus, but the image of the cruel Carterson guard was sharp and clear in his mind. Heath’s face contorted in rage. “You’d force brine down my throat and leave me to cook in that box!” he rasped. “I won’t tell you anything. You or Ben…” The blond head slumped again.
It was then that Silas appeared in the doorway with the necessary items.
“Help us get him back on the bed, Silas.” Jarrod ordered. “Bring those ties!”
The three men laid the once again limp blond in the center of the bed. They tethered Heath securely by his wrists and ankles to the four posts of the bed. He stirred just as they finished the task and tugged weakly at his restraints.
“Gonna… whip me… now?” Heath slurred as he sought to focus on Nick’s face. “Car… son… scum…” The hollowed out eyes closed again.
Jarrod laid a comforting hand on his brother’s back. “Are you alright, Nick?”
“Yeah.” Nick nodded and took a long shuddering breath. His wounded hazel eyes never left his stricken brother.
“Nicholas.” Victoria said gently. “Why don’t you go change your clothes?”
Nick fingered his torn shirt absently. “Alright.” He said simply and left the room.
Victoria sensed the conflicting emotions within Jarrod. “Go ahead.” she said. “Heath can’t break those ties and Silas is here with me.” She gestured to the houseman cleaning up the broken glass.
Nick stood beside his bed in the spacious, ornate bedroom. He had removed his tuxedo jacket when something on the bed caught his eye. The borrowed tie lay folded neatly on his pillow.
“Looks like you landed on some of that broken glass, Brother Nick.” Jarrod said softly, noting scattered small crimson stains on the back of Nick’s shirt.
“I hadn’t noticed.” Nick said as he reached out and tenderly stroked the navy blue tie. “He borrowed this to wear tonight. I told him to put it right back where he got it. Returning this tie was probably the last thing he did before that poison hit him.”
“He’s not himself, Nick. You heard what Dr. Merar said.”
Nick waved his hand in exasperation. “I know he can’t really see me, Jarrod! I understand that he’s gonna be delirious… I just thought that somewhere, somewhere deep down he’d know me. Feel me. Here.” Nick’s hand came to rest over his heart.
“Nick, he may not recognize any of us, even Mother. It’s going to be hardest on her to see Heath in the grips of some terrible hallucination and be unable to comfort him.” Jarrod took a deep breath. “But Heath is going to pull through… and we’ll get through this as well. Nick, we’ll get our brother back!”
Nick gave his brother a nod and a half-smile.
“Come on then.” Jarrod said. “Grab another shirt and let’s go to the bathroom. I’ll put some liniment on those cuts.”
The desert was furnace hot. His head pounded from the heat of the relentless sun and his flesh felt as if it were on fire. Heath tried to move and became aware of the bindings that held him fast. Four stakes had been driven deep into the desert floor and he was pinioned spread-eagle between them.
How had he come to be here like this? The landscape appeared desolate and sparse, primitive, as if men had never disturbed it. But someone had…
Yumas! His mind reeled as the recollection returned. The short cut across the desert to the silver strike. Gil left. Willie was dead. The Yumas must have come back and left him here to die like this for trespassing their territory.
It was hard to believe that anyone could make their home in this desert. Heath’s thirst was intense. His lips were dried and cracked. Fatigue and carelessness had led to his capture.
The dry wind moved grains of sand along the parched, cracked desert floor. The world of insects and reptiles that can live within the sand and craggy rock jungle sprang to life. They mocked him with their freedom, leaving a labyrinth of lacey trails and tiny etchings around him.
Heath became aware of other movement. The glare of the hot sun burning his eyes made him squint. But he had seen her! Yes, he was sure it was a woman. A Yuma woman hovered over him, touching his body.
Heath’s breathing quickened and he squeezed his eyes shut. What was the Yuma doing? His mind fought to make sense of her activities. Heath’s concentration seemed to falter from exhaustion and pain. Yes, there was pain: a deep, burning pain in his belly.
In that moment he knew! His mind reeled again as the memory surged into his consciousness.
He’d found the body of an unfortunate prospector while scouting Apaches for a wagon train. The man had been staked out just like Heath was. The prospector had a three-inch incision on his bare stomach. The Apache had reached in with a finger, pulled out a bit of intestine and then slid a small stick under the exposed loop of bowel to make sure it didn’t slip back into the abdomen. A tasty morsel for a coyote or carrion bird to begin its feast on while the prospector watched.
“Nooooo!” Heath could hear the echo of his own scream ricocheting off a thousand desert walls and canyons.
Jarrod and Nick were making their way back to Heath’s room when they heard his anguished cry.
“Mother, what’s wrong?” Nick asked as they burst into the room.
Victoria shook her head. “I don’t know. I was laying some cold cloths across his chest and stomach when suddenly…”
“You… get away… from me… and stay away!” Heath growled slowly, his voice strained from the intensity of his emotion.
Victoria’s eyes welled with tears. “Heath, I’ve got to… I have to keep your fever down.”
He never heard her words.