Following a hard day mending downed fences, Heath and Nick rode back to the main house, hoping to catch a nap before supper. Bathed in sweat from the sweltering heat, they lazily slid down their respective mounts in the barnyard and took turns dousing their heads under the water pump.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhh that feels good!” Nick exhaled in a shuddering breath as the cold water sent a ripple of tingling goose bumps.
“Boy Howdy Nick! I’m plumb tuckered out. I think I’m gonna crash out for a week!” He wiped the drops of water off his brow on his shirt sleeve.
“I hear ya, Heath. So I take it yar gonna miss out on Silas’s roast duck tonight.” Nick asked teasingly with an eyebrow arched in a question mark.
“Did you say roast duck?” Heath queried, his mind already relishing his favourite meal
“Yeah.” Nick broke into a wide smug. “So, wake ya up at seven?”
“Make it six thirty,” Heath said with an elfish lopsided grin.
Nick clapped Heath on the back. “Come on, let’s get that prutty lit’le head of yours some beauty sleep.”
They entered through the kitchen door to take a whiff of the titillating aroma emanating from the half-cooked bird Silas had taken out of the oven to baste.
“Silas that’s a mite fine lookin’ bird ya got there,” Heath commented as he hovered his nose over the roast to breathe in a satisfying whiff to last him until supper time. He then felt a yawn coming on.
“Come on, sleepy head. Time to hit the hay!” Nick grabbed Heath by the back of the belt to pry him away from the intoxicating aroma.
Jarrod arrived at the house about thirty minutes later. He entered through the front door and found Victoria and Audra in the living room, busy crocheting a quilt.
“Mother, Audra,” he greeted as he placed his briefcase on the table and walked to the liquor decanter to fix himself a sherry.
“Jarrod, how did it go with the judge?” Victoria asked expectantly.
“He’s throwing the case out of court. There’s not enough evidence against my client.” He turned to her and raised his glass triumphantly.
“That’s good news,” Victoria congratulated with a kiss on his cheek.
“Are Nick and Heath home?”
“They’re upstairs taking a nap before supper.”
He put his sherry glass down and reached inside his breast pocket. “I received this urgent telegram this afternoon. It’s from Colin Murdoch, the super intendant of the Barkley Sierra. He said they’ve had a few dubious blasts in the past week that the new man we hired as his assistant is passing off as accidents.”
“But he doesn’t think they are.”
“No and he’s asked us to come investigate. That’s what I want to talk to Nick and Heath about. I can’t go for I have to leave for San Francisco tomorrow.”
All heads turned to the foyer as they heard the familiar stomp marching down the stairs.
“Brother Nick, just the man I wanted to see.”
“What did I do?”
“Not what did, it’s what you’re going to do.”
Nick joined Jarrod at the bar to pour himself a jigger of whiskey. “It won’t get me in trouble, will it?” Nick asked on a slightly sarcastic tone.
Jarrod produced the wire. “Colin Murdoch sent us the wire. Apparently there’s serious trouble brewing down at the Sierra.”
“What kind of trouble?” Nick took a sip of his drink while he gave the wire a cursory look.
“He’s not sure but he suspects someone’s is blasting where they shouldn’t. His assistant is dismissing the occurrences as mere accidents in which three men have been injured in the past week alone.”
“The Molly McGuires again?” Nick surmised with exasperation.
“No he believes it’s someone on the outside creating havoc within the work place. He’d like us to ride over there and investigate. I thought maybe you and Heath could go since I have to be in San Francisco.”
“Yeah, sure. We’ll head on over there tomorrow. We can’t have that. One accident, maybe. But three in a week that’s unacceptable.”
Early the next morning, Heath and Nick geared up for their trip to Greenwoods, packing the bare essentials for half a day on the trail.
With dust eating away at their clothes, the two bone-weary men headed straight for the hotel to rent rooms, then moseyed on down to the saloon to quench their thirsts before they marched up to the Barkley Sierra main office to meet with Murdoch.
“We’ve had another unfortunate incident late this morning. One of the new men apparently set the charges too high. He damn nearly blew the entire mountain down.”
“Who was he?” Nick asked.
“His name’s Peterson. Hired him last week. I checked his background. Clean as a whistle,” Murdoch explained as he handed the roster over to Nick.
“How many new men did ya hire recently?” Heath queried.
“Nearly a dozen. All last week. Why?”
“Ain’t it peculiar the accidents started after ya signed ‘em on?” Heath pointed out with an arched eyebrow.
“I thought of it. But two of those new men number among the injured.”
“Those could be legit.”
“Would the men be dissatisfied with the working conditions and they’re rebelling somehow?” Nick surmised inquisitively.
“I never heard anyone complaining. There’s no threat of a strike either.”
Nick bit his upper lip as he studied the list of employees. “I don’t see any familiar names on this here list. What about you, Heath?” He handed the roster over to his brother.
“If it’s anyone hell bent on revenge against the Barkleys, I reckon he won’t used his own name.” Heath nevertheless gave the list a cursory look. “D’you know who caused these alleged accidents?”
“Nobody would admit liability for the first three.”
“This Peterson fella, is he still on the payroll?” Nick asked.
“Yes sir, mister Barkley. We agreed to give him another chance,” Murdoch informed sheepishly, slightly lowering his eyes to avoid making direct contact with Nick’s glare.
“WE? Who’s we?”
“The new assistant you hired, Al Trenton. He’s the one passing those blasts as accidents.”
“I see.” Nick turned to Heath. “Brother, why don’t you and me have a lit’le talk with these men?” Nick spoke with thick cynicism.
“Right behind ya, Nick.”
“Trenton isn’t here today, but Peterson’s on shift down in the mines. Come, I’ll take you there.”
Nick and Heath followed Murdoch to the entrance of the mine. Just as he was guiding them down the shaft, a man came up to them.
“Murdoch, can we see ya for a sec.?”
“Yeah sure.” He turned to Nick and Heath. “You go ahead Barkleys. Peterson’s working down shaft number 2.”
The three men parted ways.
A few feet ahead, Peterson was setting the final charge of dynamite as instructed. The second he lit the fuse he made a mad dash toward the exit. He stopped dead in his tracks, halfway up the shaft, at the sound of spurs jingling. With wild eyes, he scrambled for shelter. He hid behind a cart just as the Barkley brothers were marching toward him. He waited until they were out of sight before tearing along to escape the imminent blast.
The force of the implosion shook the ground for yards around, luring the town citizens to the streets. Some faces registered fear, others puzzlement at the enigmatic deflagration.
“I think it came from the Barkley mines, over there,” one man indicated to the curious onlookers.
“Let’s go see.”
As the dozen men neared their destination, their hearts leapt to their throats at the thick cloud of dust still billowing out of the entrance. They hastened the pace inside but found the main tunnel blocked by a massive pile of rocks.
“Dave, you and Jack go back to town to the general store to get picks and shovels, Ask for more volunteers to help us dig through this tunnel,” John, the blacksmith, ordered between coughs.
As the team toiled their way through a heap of rocks, way down shaft number 2, the dust was barely settling when Nick groaned awake. Every muscle in his mangled body screamed in agony. His face wrinkled at the excruciating stab of pain shooting up and down his left arm. He tried lifting his right arm, but felt it buried underneath a pile of stones. Inhaling deeply to summon his strength, he yelled in pain at the cracked rib that scratched his lung. He laboured to suppress a cough for fear it might blunt the edge of his agony and exacerbate his injury. Instead, he tried to slide his arm free by pulling upward. He exhaled a triumphant sigh at a feat that nearly drained him whole. His leaden eyelids fluttered before he managed to pry them open. His breath quickened and his heart started hammering against his chest, sending the blood pounding to his throat as his glassy eyes met pitch darkness. Much as he blinked to adjust the focus, the same black picture appeared before him.
He gingerly ran his hand across his abdomen to feel for any sensitive spot that might indicate internal haemorrhage. Thankfully the tenderness elicited by his touch was not severe. With his right elbow, he heaved himself into a sitting position, wincing at the smart radiating through his broken left arm. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, enough for him to discern the glimmer of a lantern lying at his feet. He extended his right arm, stretching his fingers to grab the coveted object. He rummaged through his shirt pocket for a match that he struck against a rock to ignite the lantern.
An involuntary spasm brought on a cough that elicited excruciating pain. He paused briefly for the crisis to pass before he proceeded to wriggle his legs free from underneath a beam that rested against two boulders. It was merely inches above his limbs, thus allowing him enough room to pull them out.
His last efforts having sapped another ounce of his energy, Nick remained still for a few seconds before he started his search for his brother.
“Heath,” he rasped out, coughing at the dust raking his parched throat. “Heath, where are you?” Silence was his only reply, chilling him to the marrow. “Heath! Come on! Talk to me!”
Using his right elbow as leverage, he started to crawl over the debris. He would stop to bring the lantern up before he resumed his arduous crusade. He was overcome by an icy clutch of dread when he sensed a void; his connection with Heath was no longer there. The smell of death permeated the foul air, poisoning his tortured mind as he ploughed on.
“Heath for God’s sake, answer me! Where are ya, boy?” he called out, his breath rasping in his lungs.
He groped every inch of the ground as he dragged his maimed form up to a wall of rocks obstructing the back entrance. He stopped when his fingers came to rest upon a soft warm matter. He brought the lantern up to the spot and squinted at what appeared to be a human hand. His breath caught in his throat as his petrified expression took sight of the blue chambray sleeve.
“Heath!” Nick’s shout elicited a coughing bout that hurled him into the throes of agony. “Hold on brother, I’ll get ya out.” His breath was blunting the edge of a pain that escaladed by the minute. He put the lantern down on the ground and positioned himself on his right side to better remove the rubbles smothering his brother. Keeping his fractured arm alongside his body, he pushed and pulled at the stones and large pieces of wood with every ounce of strength he had left.
He gagged and dry heaved at the grisly sight he uncovered. Using his teeth, he removed his glove and paused momentarily to swallow the bile rising to his throat. He shut his eyes in a silent prayer as he slowly reached for Heath’s neck.
“Oh thank God,” he sighed with great relief at the faint pulse. He pressed his ear against his moribund brother’s chest, squeezing his eyes tightly to channel his concentration on the shallow breaths.
He painfully hoisted himself up in a sitting position and pulled at his neck cloth. Turning to Heath to dab the blood oozing from a gash above his left eyebrow, a searing throb shot through his broken left arm. Gnarling at the heightening smart, Nick ripped the edge of his shirt to fashion a makeshift sling for the annoying broken limb.
Once his arm was secured in the sling, he busied himself at stemming the blood exuding from all lacerations covering Heath’s body. His own mangled shell was beginning to wilt under the strain of having to keep alert. Worn to a frazzle, he allowed his sagging eyelids to close briefly. Darkness drew closer, beguiling his agonized mind to relinquish his hold on a world of pain and to surrender his soul. He snapped back to reality when his head bobbed forward.
“I’ve…I’ve gottta…gotta stay awaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…” His voice tailed off when the bewitching dark shadows enfolded him once more. He was swaying on the verge of the abyss when a faint moan yanked him off the edge. A gasp caught in his throat at the sight of the flickering eyelids. “Heath!” He brushed his hand gingerly against his brother’s cold cheek.
His whey-faced brother responded with another muffled moan.
“Heath, I’m here,” Nick panted through gritted teeth.
“N….Ni…Niiiiiiiiiiiiiick,” Heath breathed out in a voice barely above a whisper. He opened his eyes a slit and blinked to establish focus. “Nick…..d…dark.”
“I know. We’re trapped in the mine. All I remember was walking down the shaft and then…nothing.”
“Ca….can’t ya light a torch or sumptin’?”
Heath’s question threw a scare into Nick who suspected that his brother might be blinded. He waved the lantern a few inches above Heath’s face to witness the terrorized look in his vacant blue eyes that failed to acknowledge the light.
“I…I couldn’t find any,” Nick pretended to allay his brother’s torment.
“Nick, my…my legs. Can’t…can’t move my legs.”
“That’s ‘cause they’re pinned…’ he coughed, “’neath a beam,” he strained to finished the sentence in the same breath.
“Yeah, fine.” Nick licked his parched lips and caught his breath to elaborate on his thought. “A few cracked ribs, tender belly and a busted arm, nuthin’ much.”
A small chuckle managed to squeeze through Heath’s lips. The vibration triggered a wave of nauseas that caused him to retch. As he began choking on his vomit, Nick acted swiftly by slightly elevating Heath’s head and tilting it to the right to allow him to empty the content of his stomach. Nick’s eyes widened in horror at the frothy blood that was expelled, which was evidence of internal haemorrhage.
Once the crisis passed, Nick eased Heath’s head onto his lap and wiped the smudges of vomit dripping in the corner of his brother’s mouth. “You’ll be awright, Little Brother. They gonna find us soon” Nick tried to sound reassuring, though Heath could sense differently in the solemn tone.
Outside the mine, the able-bodied men were able to gouge a hole in the rocks, one big enough for them to squeeze inside the pitch-dark main shaft. They lit lanterns and made their way down the first tunnel where they stumbled upon Peterson’s body lying sprawled on the ground.
The self-proclaimed leader of the pack hunched down beside the twisted form to search for a pulse. “This one’s alive!” He beckoned two men over. “Charlie, John…get this one here to Doc Stanley on the double.”
The two men grabbed a hold of the limp body and carried it outside the mine.
“You men,” he gestured to four others, “You head down number two shaft. The rest of you, come with me.”
The foul air triggered coughing bouts that urged them to pull their bandanas over their faces. They plodded on, striding debris along the way until their terrorized eyes met with a gory hecatomb: the ground was strewn with mutilated bodies, some emitting faint moans of pain, others lying deathly still underneath rubbles and heavy wooden beams.
With eyes peeled and ears cocked to the tinniest movement or rumble, the volunteers toiled away at removing the hindering debris to free the victims from their death traps.
“Murdoch!” One man shouted with glee when the old buzzard grunted his way out of his stone coffin. He held out a hand to assist him to his wobbly legs. “You awright Murdoch?”
“Yeah,” he rasped out, coughing the dust out of his mouth.
“Here, take some water.”
Murdoch grabbed the canteen offered and greedily quaffed half its content. “Thanks.” He handed the deerskin container back to the volunteer, wiping his mouth dry against the back of his sleeve before he lurched on toward the light to breathe in a invigorating draught of fresh air.
Once his lungs were satisfied, he strode back inside to assist the do-gooders in their strenuous task.
“The Barkley brothers, did you find them?” Murdoch questioned one of the men.
“No, not yet.”
“They were heading down number two when the blast occurred.”
“That’s where the blow hit full force.” The worker informed grimly with a rueful shake of the head. “I doubt they survived the impact.”
As the men laboured to dig holes through the rock, Nick and Heath struggled to remain awake. Nick’s back was propped against a boulder with his kid brother’s torso resting against his chest, head leaning on his right shoulder. Nick’s arm was folded around Heath’s waist to hold his sluggish body in an upright position, one he found was easing his little brother’s wheezing.
Nick’s drooping eyelids were wagging war against his obstinacy to keep alert. His addled mind was ready to forfeit when Heath’s head started slumping forward. He tossed his head back and tugged at his brother’s waist.
“Hey Little Brother, you still with me?” Nick heaved out, his breath rasping in his burning lungs that were desperately seeking an oxygen supply depleting by the minute. When his query failed to get an answer, Nick reached for Heath’s chin to give it a light nudge. “Hey Heath, stay awake!”
Heath gave a feeble moan.
“Heath come on,” Nick breathed out and took another wheezy intake of air to finish his thought. “We need to keep awake here.” In a subconscious gesture, Nick began to rub his brother’s stomach, which elicited a pain that Heath was quick to exhibit with a contorted face and a groan.
“S’kay.” Heath gasped out. As the pangs gradually ebbed away, Heath eased his head back onto Nick’s shoulders. “Where are they Nick?”
“Don’t ya worry, Heath. They’re coming.” Nick tried to project confidence in a voice that only betrayed his true emotions.
“Bet…better be soon. Can…can’t hold on much…much longer.” Heath confided with his last full breath before he started to hack his lungs out.
Nick’s chest tightened at the throes of agony his little brother was plunged into. He wished to end his torment, but dared not evoke God’s help for fear he might take him away. “Heath, ya hang on. Ya’ve gotta stay with me, Little Brother. I need ya to keep me company in this hell hole or I won’t make it either,” Nick chided as an icy clutch of dread gripped his heart at the thought of his brother dying in his arms.
He devised at strategy designed to keep them both awake while waiting for the rescue to show up.
“Say, did I ever tell ya ‘bout the time Jarrod tried…tried to bust a bronco?”
“Jarrod? Do tell.” A flicker of a smile brushed across Heath’s lips as he pictured the sight of his well-groomed brother on an ornery stallion.
“He was ‘bout twelve and he’d set his cap on a bay that Father and the men had just captured. One morning ‘fore everyone was up, he crept out of the house and went to the corral. Figuring it easy to bust a wild mustang, he jumped on the horse’s back and gripped the mane. Not five seconds later, he was thrown against the fence.”
“Yeah. Believe it or not, Jarrod brushed himself off and leapt on the stallion’s back once more. Same results. He landed hard on his caboose. He cursed and tried again and again, until he broke his arm. That was it!”
“How…how d’ya know that?” Heath managed to ask between shallow pants.
“’Cause I was standing by my window admiring his style. I never told him I caught the whole scene. When he came into the house, he pretended to have taken a bad fall.” Nick coughed out a small chuckle at the memory. “Crazy man. Could’ve broken his neck.”
Heath became restless at an increasing searing pain in his abdomen. He wiggled to find a more comfortable position, but only succeeded in triggering a coughing bout, shortly followed by a deafening retching sound that gripped Nick’s guts. He slightly elevated Heath’s head and titled sideways until the vomiting stopped. Thereafter, he eased it back against his shoulders and ran a hand through the sun-kissed blond hair matted with dirt and blood, his heart throbbing down his throat at the feel of the multiple gashes, which, thankfully, had begun to form scabs.
“Ni…Nick…I can’t…can’t hold on much longer,” Heath lamented. The effort of the last heave had sapped the strength he needed to keep awake. His wheezing grew more sibilant; his eyes rolled into his heavy head as it bobbed forward.
Nick joggled him. “Hey! Stay with me, Heath! Ya hear me?”
“Wan…wanna sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep,” Heath’s voice tailed off as he surrendered to darkness.
“Heath, don’t do that, dammit! Ya gotta stay awake.” Nick was desperate to prevent his brother from falling into the dark abyss where he would be lost forever. Much as the thought of inflicting deliberate pain to his brother repulsed him, Nick poked Heath in the ribs to draw him back to the surface. He was rewarded by a groan.
“Nick, lem...lemme sleep,” Heath’s imploring tone tore Nick’s heart to pieces, but he knew they both had to keep their heads above water, however strenuous the struggle.
“Heath, come on Brother, talk to me. Tell me ‘bout your mother and your aunt Rachel. F…fond memories. Ya must have some.” Nick did a bit of facial yoga to maintain control over his sagging eyelids. He felt a tingly sensation creeping up his throat, but swallowed it down to avoid eliciting a coughing fit that would disturb his brother leaning against his chest.
A reminiscent smile tugged at Heath’s lips as his dull mind allowed him to travel back to his mama’s freshly baked apple pies. “I…I remember my mama’s apple pies. Sh…she’d make the best in town,” Heath said proudly.
“Yeah? Better than Mother’s?” Nick challenged amicably.
“Well, I…I guess the competition’s…fierce.”
“Go on. I wanna hear more.”
As Nick continued listening to his kid brother’s fond remembrance of his childhood years, the volunteers hammered away at the thick solid wall of rock separating them from the dying brothers.
“How far are you?” Murdoch asked.
“We ain’t making much headway, Murdoch” One of the men informed grimly, dropping his pick to take a much needed respite. “That wall of rocks must be ten feet thick if not more. I’d say anyone on the other side must be dead and buried. We ain’t gonna find them alive.” He shook his head dejectedly and wiped the glistening sheen of sweat off his brow.
“You don’t know these boys like I do, John. If anyone could have survived that blast, it’s Nick and Heath,” Murdoch stated flatly with a conviction that conveyed hope in some men.
“Murdoch, be realistic. It’s obvious the blast came from down that shaft. It must have hit them full force. I don’t think they even saw it coming.”
Murdoch stepped up to the sceptical man and threw him a withering glare. “Until we found them, alive or dead, we keep digging,” he said scathingly without leaving room for argument. “I’m not forcing you to stay. You can leave if you think it’s a worthless cause, but I won’t give up on them.”
Questioning stares roved from one face to the other to solicit mutual support. Finally all eyes turned to Murdoch and heads nodded in agreement.
“Thanks,” Murdoch heaved with relief.
Two hours had elapsed since the devastating blast. As the men ground away in the tunnel, Nick and Heath were reaching the end of their physical tether. The lack of oxygen had smothered the flame in the lantern, leaving the two brothers gasping for the last remaining speck of air they could draw in their festering lungs.
“Ni,..Nick,” Heath breathed out in a whisper.
Heath gasped in a breath. “I…can’t do it an...anymore,”
“Don…don’t give up. We’re almost there,” Nick rasped out.
“Can’t,” Heath exhaled before his head slumped sideways.
Nick’s body shook with sobs as he tightened his grip around his brother’s limp form. Tears stung his eyes and began streaming down his cheeks and he, himself, resigned to his fate. He leaned his head on top of Heath’s. “Hold on, Little Brother. I’m coming with you.” He conceded defeat to his heavy-lidded eyes and allowed the darkness to enfold him in order to join his kid brother on his final journey.
Minutes later, the men broke through the last layer of rocks and reached the brother’s crypt.
“There they are!” shouted one of the men.
John and Murdoch squeezed themselves through the narrow opening, after which the men widened the hole with their picks and shovels.
Murdoch dove to his knees beside the enlaced brothers and groped Nick’s neck for a pulse.
“I don’t think this one is.” John said ruefully, though he continued to feel Heath’s neck until he found a fleeting palpable beat. “He’s still with us…barely.”
“Let’s get them out of here NOW!” Murdoch shouted the order to the other men who swiftly came to lend a hand with the delicate task of moving the mangled victims out of the shaft.
Once outside the mine, Nick and Heath were laid down gingerly on a backboard and carried down the street to the doctor’s office under the horrified stares of the town people.
“Two more, Doc” Murdoch said breathlessly as he and John carried Heath to the examining room, while two other volunteers settled Nick on a bed in an adjacent room.
“This one’s worse off,” Murdoch said, motioning to Heath on the table.
The doctor handed a pair of scissors to Murdoch. “Help me cut him out of his clothes.
The extend of the injuries revealed itself as both men gradually sliced their way through Heath’s tattered garments. Dr. Stanley tossed the shreds in a corner of the room and spread a sheet over the bloody shell. He then waved everyone out of the room, save for his nurse who assisted him.
“Ellie, see to the other man, will you?” the doctor instructed his nurse without lifting his eyes off his patient.
Murdoch left the doctor’s office to go recover his countenance. He leaned against a pole where he heaved out a long drawn-out sigh.
John moved over to him and clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey Murdoch, we got them all out, including the Barkley brothers. You were right; they’re tough boys.”
“They’re out of the woods yet. By the looks of ‘em I don’t think they gonna survive the night.” He rubbed his stinging eyes before he turned to head down the street.
“Where ya going?”
“To the telegraph office. I got to wire their kinfolk.” With eyes downcast and slumped shoulders, Murdoch plodded down the street with a guilty conscience. His heart welled up with pain as he pictured Mrs. Barkley’s agonized expression at the news of her sons knocking on death door.
Somewhere in a soft heathery meadow, Nick was drawn to the gentle gurgling sound of water cascading down like a bridal veil in a small stream. He was relieved to find Heath, sitting underneath a tree with his eyes closed and a blissful grin hanging on his ears as he revelled in the moment.
“There you are, Little Brother. Been looking all over for ya.”
Heath slowly lifted his eyelids and stretched out his limbs with a moan of pleasure. “I’ve been waiting for ya. Take a seat,” Heath invited Nick to sit beside him.
Nick walked over to the apple-laden tree, picking one juicy red fruit before he seated himself against the trunk by his kid brother who continued to breathe in heady draughts of fresh air. “What is this place?”
“Paradise. Ain’t it great, Nick? You feel like stayin’ forever.”
Nick marvelled at the perfect symmetry of his apple before he crunched a bite to savour its sweet nectar. He leaned his head back against the trunk to drink in the beauty of the scenery displaying before him. Then it hit him like a bullet to the gut. “Heath, what are we doing here?” He turned to his brother with a terrorized expression. “We’re dead, aren’t we?”
With his eyes closed, Heath flashed a lopsided grin. “We should be, but we’re not…yet. They’re workin’ at keepin’ us alive down there.” He slowly swivelled his head toward Nick and pried open one eye after the other. “We’re granted a three-day reprieve to sample this place and see if we wanna make it our dwelling for good.”
“I knew it was too good to be true.”
“It is real, Nick. We ain’t dreamin’ this. Think about it; no more pain, no more worries, all the cares of the world simply vanish.” He turned to the gurgling brook and suspired, “I’m thinkin’ of stayin’.” Heath could feel Nick’s worried frown staring down the back of his neck.
“You’re not serious, Heath?”
“I am,” Heath lowered his eyes briefly before he willed them to meet his brother’s confusion. “I’m tired, Nick. Tired of fightin’, tired of losin’, tired of just livin’ on borrowed time.” Heath gauged Nick’s reaction to his decision and was happy to see a smile flicker on big brother’s lips.
“I’m tired too, Heath. One thing’s for sure; there ain’t no way I’m going back without ya.” Nick conveyed his assurance through a warm smile that filled Heath’s heart with delight.
As the afternoon wore into evening, both brothers’ condition remained critical. They were settled in the same room with a nurse in permanent attendance for the two moribund patients, while the doctor tended to the other miners injured in the blast.
The next morning, Murdoch met with Victoria and Audra’s stagecoach as it pulled in front of the town hotel. He led the two women down to the doctor’s office where they bumped into Peterson limping out the door with the aid of a cane.
Victoria’s widened in shock at the man’s face. “John Barrett? What are you doing here?” Victoria spoke with brutal detachment, her voice dripping with spite at the man she recognized as the former ranch hand who once attempted to Heath’s life.
“Mrs Barkley, his name is Peterson, Tom Peterson,” Murdoch corrected.
“How dare you use my husband’s name!” Victoria spoke with bitter resentment, her scorching glare melting Barrett’s unyielding look. She stepped up to him with nostrils flaring in suppressed fury. “I’d better not find out you had any part in this,” she warned with seething eyes.
She took Audra’s arm and entered the office. Peterson was hobbling down the boardwalk with his face lighting in bitter triumph when he felt a grip on his arm.
“Not so fast, Peterson or should I say, John Barrett,” the sheriff sneered at the man who recognized him as former Barkley ranch employee Terrence Matthews. “Yeah, you know me, don’t ya Barrett? You should, we worked together for a month. I couldn’t place your smug when ya first showed up in town a while back, but thanks to Mrs. Barkley, now I do.”
“What d’ya want Matthews?”
“Just to ask ya a few questions regarding the unfortunate accidents that have occurred at the Sierra.” The sheriff’’s voice was thick with a sarcasm that chilled Barrett to the marrow.
“Ya ain’t got no proof,” Barrett defended aggressively as he was being shoved down the street to the sheriff’s office.
“I wouldn’t gamble on that.”
Dr. Stanley’s nurse was exiting the brothers’ room with a washbowl when she saw the two women enter the waiting area. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I’m Victoria Barkley and,” she motioned to Audra standing to her left, “this is my daughter Audra.”
“Of course Mrs Barkley. Just a moment.” The nurse went to the examining room where the doctor was sterilizing his instruments. “Dr. Stanley, Mrs Barkley is here.”
He heaved out a heavy sigh and nodded in acknowledgment. “Tell her I’ll be right out.
The nurse returned to the waiting room while the doctor took a few seconds to collect his thoughts. As he dried his hands on a towel, his mind strived to find the right words to describe the sons’ condition without conveying his belief of hopelessness to the distraught mother.
“Mrs. Barkley? I’m Doctor Stanley.” He extended his arm to shake her hand.
“This my daughter Audra.”
“Miss Barkley,” he acknowledged with a nod.
“Where are my sons?”
“Follow me.” He ushered the two women in the room where the brothers were lying unconscious. With hands on her shoulders, he steered Victoria towards Nick while Audra moved to the next bed. She stifled a gasp of horror with a hand over her mouth as she took in the pitiful sight of her blond brother.
“Nick’s labored breaths are the result of a cracked rib that scratched the surface of his left lung. He has three fractured ribs, all of which I managed to stabilize to avoid further complication. He suffered a compound fracture in the left arm and a serious head concussion. The fact that he hasn’t regained consciousness could be a sign of brain damage. Also his liver is a bit tender. His body was covered with lacerations and deep gashes that I disinfected and sutured. Right now we’re monitoring his condition for any rise in temperature that would indicate the onset of an infection.”
With tears in her eyes, she stepped closer to the bed to gaze at his bruised face, hoping that her stare could will him back to consciousness. “What about Heath?” she asked without unfastening her eyes from her son.
“He’s still alive, that in itself is a miracle.”
She looked up at the doctor who stood with a forlorn expression etched on his face. She turned to the adjacent bed where Heath lay supine. Contrary to Nick’s, his respiration came in shallow pants. His brow, crimson cheeks and upper chest were covered with a glistening sheet of sweat, evidence that the battered body was waging war against an invading infection.
“His body temperature is hovering at an abominable 104. If it keeps rising we’ll have to plunge him into an ice bath. Without sounding cruel Mrs. Barkley, I’m praying that your son meets his maker soon.”
Appalled, she jerked her head towards the bearer of bad tidings and threw him a withering look.
“I can’t begin the list the number of injures he sustained. Like I said, it’s a miracle he survived thus far.
“I won’t let you give up on my son, Dr. Stanley,” Victoria’s crisp tone took the doctor aback, quickly making him swallow the words he so readily spoke. “Heath Barkley is no quitter and I will not allow you to speak of death around him, is that understood?”
“Yes ma’am,” he gulped. “I was just stating the hard facts.”
“I know but from now on I would appreciate your keeping your personal reflections to yourself.”
The doctor bowed his head in repentance.
“Can we move them closer together?”
“How do you mean?”
“I want my sons to sense each other’s presence. They share a special connection which I’m sure will help them draw strength from one another.”
The doctor gave his approval to Victoria’s suggestion and helped her shift Heath’s bed next to Nick’s. Gently, she lifted Heath’s hand to lay in the palm of Nick’s hand to establish a physical link between the two brothers.
Heath turned his head toward the angelic voice calling his name. “Mama?” He rose to his feet and slowly edged up to the figure in white, his heartbeat increased with every step he took towards his mother. He fell into her welcoming arms and hugged her with all of his might, feeling a warmth that up until now he could only recall in a memory.
She disengaged the soul-stirring embrace to gaze into her son’s gleaming blue eyes. “Heath, my golden child. It’s so good to hold you again,” she cried with a gentle hand stroking his cheek.
“Mama, I’ve missed you so much,” Heath’s voice quavered with emotion. His bottom lip trembled and his heart throbbed at his neck at the feel of her feathery touch against his skin.
Nick’s heart brimmed over with joy at the happy reunion. He faded in the background to give mother and son some privacy.
Heath turned to the sheepish Nick and led Leah towards him. “Mama, this is Nick. My big brother Nick, “ Heath said proudly with eyes shining with admiration.
Leah stepped over to the dark-haired cowboy and cupped his head in her hands. “I know. The man who’s being taking good care of my boy.”
“I try,” Nick said with a chuckle. “You have no idea how good it feels to finally meet you, ma’am.”
“Please, call me Leah.”
“Heath’s told me so much about you.”
“There is someone who would like to see you, Nick. You too, Heath”
Both men cocked their heads and arched one eyebrow inquisitively. She put a hand on their shoulders and turned them to face their father.
“Welcome sons.” Tom greeted with a smile.
“Father?” Nick’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of his hero standing majestically by the apple tree. His steps faltered at the thought of running to a mirage that would vanish as he neared it.
“Go on Nick,” Leah encouraged. “He’s real.”
Nick walked up to his father, stopping a few feet in front of him in order to study every feature before he bolted the remaining steps to fling his arms around him. Tears gushed to his eyes as he held Tom in a powerful clench. “Father.” Nick’s voice cracked with sobs, his body shivered with emotions as he stood, enlaced in his father’s arms.
Tom pulled away from the embrace and glanced at Heath over Nick’s shoulder. Nick turned around and beckoned his little brother over with a smile. He frowned at the faltering steps Heath was taking towards the man that his heart held at arms’ length.
“Go on, Heath.” Leah nudged her son forward. “He’s a beautiful man. He gave me you.”
Nick willingly stepped aside to leave room for his brother to meet his father for the very first time. Heath inched up to the bearded man, not sure of what to do. He felt an increasing urge to hug him, though his heart was aching not to accept him. The images of his wretched childhood mirrored in the patriarch’s eyes.
“Forgive me, son,” was all that Heath needed to hear to drop his armour and fall into his father’s arms.
“Father,” Heath’s whisper jarred Victoria out of her thoughts. She stopped dabbing at the beads of sweat on his forehead to lean closer to his face.
“Heath! Can you hear me, son? I’m here with you.” She called out to the doctor who hurried into the room to check Heath’s vital signs.
“He whispered something, I couldn’t tell. It was a mumble.”
Dr. Stanley took his stethoscope to Heath’s chest to study his heartbeat. With a wince, he shook his head negatively. “ I’m sorry. There’s no improvement. It could have been a heavy sigh you heard.”
“No. It was a word.” Victoria defended adamantly.
“He said: father,” Audra chimed in. “I heard him say: father.” She looked at Victoria with an terrorized expression. “Mother, he’s with Father. My God! He dying,” she wailed hysterically. “He’s leaving with Father.”
Victoria sprung to her feet and gripped Audra’s shoulders to shake her out of her delirium. “Audra, stop this! Your brother is merely dreaming.”
She closed her eyes and nodded.
“He’s not leaving us. He’s with Nick and your father, perhaps, but he’s still here, breathing and fighting.”
When Audra simmered down, Victoria resumed her seat by Heath’s bed. She dunked another washcloth into the washbowl and wrung it dry of its excess water before applying it to her son’s forehead. “You fight, son. I want to see those beautiful blue eyes shining again. Nick is holding his own and I expect no less from you.” She leaned closer to Heath’s face and whispered, “Come back to us, Heath.”
“She’s talking to you, Heath,” Leah said smilingly.
“I know,” Heath answered with a lump in his throat. He closed his eyes to feel the gentle words caress his soul. “How can I make her understand that I wish to stay here?”
“Do you really?”
“Course I do!” Heath’s reply was curt with a grain of indignation. “I wanna stay with ya, Mama.”
“What about your mother? How do you think your death is going to affect her? She loves you as if she had borne you in her womb. I couldn’t be happier that you found this incredible woman. Have you thought of what it would do to her should you decide to leave this earth before it’s your time?”
“B’fore it’s my time?” Heath’s stunned expression faded into a catatonic stare. “HE’s sendin’ me back, ain’t he? I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Leah stepped up to Heath and clasped his hands. “Yes you do. However you can’t make a hasty decision based solely on what YOU want.” She accented the word to make him see the error of his ways. “Son, I’ve never known you to put your needs ahead of others, especially your family’s.” She placed her hand against his chest. “Your heart is speaking to you. Listen to it.”
On the third day, the brothers’ conditions deteriorated. Heath was bathed in ice to bring down his temperature, while Nick was at the grip of an infection that the doctor was unable to drain fast enough.
Hope was waning, but Victoria refused to give up on her sons.
The time was winding down for Nick and Heath to reach a decision on their fate. Troubled by his dilemma, Heath sought Nick who was straddled on a wooden fence, a straw clenched between his teeth. His mind was absorbed by the boundless bluegrass meadow softly flowered like a Monet canvas. Its beauty mesmerized him to the level of being deaf to the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Heath! I tell, ya I can’t describe the feeling this place gives me. It’s rejuvenating. Now I understand why ya wanna stay here.”
Heath looked downcast at his feet. “I ain’t so sure anymore.”
Nick’s beaming smile faded into a frown. “What are ya talking about, Heath?”
“My mother pointed up sum’thin’ important to me. I was puttin’ my needs ahead of others and I ain’t never done that in my life. It’s selfish and I won’t abide by it.” He lifted his eyes to meet Nick’s. “I’m goin’ back.”
“For Mother, Audra, Jarrod. I hate what this’ll do to them if we stay here.”
“They’ll survive. Mother has Father’s death.”
“It ain’t the same, Nick. I remember when my Aunt Rachel died, I didn’t feel the same pain as I did when my mama passed. They’re family, Nick. We can’t do that to ‘em.”
“But ya can do that to me?” Nick’s crushing tone took Heath aback.
“What d’ya mean?” Heath asked, perplexed.
“You know what’s waiting for ya down there. You’ll be blind and crippled,” Nick summed up matter-of-factly.
“Only for a short spell.”
“Yeah, You know that here, but back there ya’ll freak out when the doc’ll tell ya it could be permanent. How d’ya think that’ll make me feel, to see ya day in and day out pinned down to a bed, not knowing if it’s sun up or sun down. D’ya really wanna put me through that? Talk about selfishness!” Nick’s dark, smouldering eyes were belying a deep fear of losing his brother to a life of pain and mental anguish.
Tom appeared behind Heath. “It’s time, boys.”
Heath lowered his eyes while Nick looked at his father over his brother’s shoulder. Heath turned to Tom with a heavy heart and saw his mother walking up to him and drape her arm over his.
“I’m not going,” Nick said sternly, making Heath stop in his track.
Heath turned his head toward his brother with an imploring look that tore Nick’s heart to shreds. He gulped in the lump in his throat and sniffed back his tears, all the while keeping his unwavering gaze on his little brother he hoped would change his mind about returning to his world of pain.
“I can’t force ya to come with me, Nick. But I have a feeling I’m gonna need yar strength down there. Be sure to give it to me when I call on ya.”
Nick’s tears gushed out of his eyes and he beseeched, “Dammit, don’t do this.”
As soon as Heath disappeared into a mist, Nick crumbled to his knees and buried his head in his hands. “I can’t. I just can’t do this.” Nick bawled while he rocked his sob-racked body.
Victoria and Audra were dosing off in chairs close to the patients’ beds when a mumble started them awake. Victoria bent closer to Heath who was cocooned in ice. She brushed her hand across his forehead. “Heath,” she coaxed in a whisper.
“M….mo…moth…ther?” came the weak quavering reply.
“Yes, I’m here, Heath.” Victoria could hardly contain her emotions at the fluttering eyelids that sought her voice.
Audra stood behind Victoria to peer at her brother struggling to open his eyes. “Heath, come on! You can do it!”
“Audra, go get the doctor.”
Audra rushed out of the room to do as her mother instructed while Victoria strengthened her hold on Heath’s hand to provide a beacon for the lost man to find his way back.
“He’s here. In the next bed. He’s holding your left hand, Heath. Feel it.”
Heath gave a light squeeze to the lifeline his brother provided until now. He felt him slipping away. “Nick…don’t…don’t go. Ne…need ya.”
Victoria turned her attention to her dark-haired son and gasped in horror when she realized he’d stopped breathing. “Oh no, Nick!” she shouted and she lunged at him to shake the life back into him. “Nicholas, don’t leave us,” she pleaded frantically.
The doctor rushed to her to pry her hands away from her dead son.
“No! Don’t let him die! Please!”
“Ni…Nick. Need…need ya.” Heath mumbled feebly when his eyes met a world of darkness.
Nick gasped in a sustained breath when his soul dived back into his battered shell. “Heath!” he exhaled loudly, his right hand squeezing his little brother’s. His eyes darted the room maniacally. “Heath?”
“Nick, Heath is here. Lying in the next bed.” Victoria touched her son’s flushed cheek and tilted his head gingerly to the right. “ See! He’s here.”
“Easy son. Breathe slowly,” Dr Stanley instructed his frantic patient as he tried to listen to his heart with the stethoscope.
“I’m here, Heath. I won’t leave ya, Brother.” He turned back to his mother and winced in pain. “God it hurts, Mother.”
Victoria stared pleadingly at the doctor. “I’ll give him something for the pain,” he said smilingly to alleviate the mother’s anguish.
She placed her hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp of joy as he brushed back a lock of damp hair hanging on Nick’s forehead. “Welcome back, son.”
“Mother!” Audra drew Victoria’s attention to Heath who was staring blankly at the ceiling. “Something’s wrong with Heath.”
“Heath?” She leaned in to scrutinize Heath’s fixed stare. “What is it?”
“I…I…I can’t...can’t see.” Heath’s breath quickened at the veil of darkness enfolding him. He wrung Nick’s hand. “Nick!”
“I’m right here,” he responded with a tug at his hand. “I’m right here, Little Brother.”
The doctor returned with a syringe of morphine that he injected into Nick’s arm. “This will take the pain away.”
“Doctor, my son says he can’t see.”
Dr. Stanley disposed of the syringe in a basin before he turned to his second patient to study the pupillary response. “I assume it’s a result of the head concussion.”
“Is it permanent?”
“It’s too early to tell, Mrs. Barkley.” He touched Heath’s forehead and smiled at the dwindling fever. “His fever’s coming down. I think we can remove him from his ice bath.”
Victoria and Audra offered to help with the task of sweeping the melting chunks of ice off the bed. The nurse brought in fresh linen and began picking up the ice strewn on the floor that she tossed in a washbowl to dispose of it outside. Heath’s weakened body could offer little assistance to the pair of hands working at making him more comfortable. His eyebrows knitted with worried at the absence of feeling in his legs.
“What is it, Heath?”
“My legs,” he gulped in a breath. “I…I can’t feel ‘em.”
Both Victoria’s and Audra’s heads jerked up at the doctor who raised his eyebrow in suspicion and proceeded to prick the patient’s lower limbs.
“Heath, you tell me if you feel this. “ With a blunt needle, Dr. Stanley pricked Heath’s big toe. He looked up at Heath to gauge his reaction. He then worked his way down to the little toe, obtaining the same vacant expression in Heath’s eyes.
“There is a great amount of swelling in his back, which is most likely causing the paralysis. And no, I don’t know if it’s permanent. At this point, we can be thankful that your son’s is alive. He has a guardian angel watching over him, that’s for sure.”
Victoria smiled thoughtfully as she turned to Nick lost in opium-induced daze. “Yes he does. And I suspect he has more than one,” she finished with a look heavenwards.
In the following days, Jarrod found enough evidence to prosecute Barrett and Trenton for attempted murder. The jury rendered a verdict of guilty and the two men were sentenced to twenty years in San Quentin State Prison.
Months passed. As written in the stars, Heath’s condition improved. He regained the use of his legs a month before he began experiencing flashes of light. Nick stood by his side through thick and thin, keeping a vigil during the nights of fitful slumbers and providing a constant guidance during hard days of rehabilitation.
Although the brothers never recalled their heavenly journey, they were nevertheless left with a new respect for each other, one that straightened their bond and deepened their brotherly love.
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