(Sequel to The Crown Conspiracy)
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
“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.
Dr. Merar rapped on the door of the Barkley mansion early the following morning. The doctor had asked Sheriff Fred Madden to ride out to the ranch with him.
There was no doubt in the doctor’s mind that a crime had been committed the previous evening. Howard Merar returned to his office after treating Heath and scoured every medical text in his library for information on datura poisoning. His research revealed the poison took effect fairly quickly following its ingestion. Someone had poisoned Heath during the party. There were no other calls for the doctor’s services during the night. It was apparent that Heath was the sole victim of the crime. What crime? This morning the doctor would know the answer: murder or attempted murder.
Silas answered the door. Concern and fatigue seemed to have deepened the creases in his face. There were dark circles beneath the caring, walnut-colored eyes.
“Good morning, Doctor. Morning, Sheriff Madden. Please come in.”
“How is my patient?”
“About the same, Dr. Merar. That boy had a bad night!”
Howard breathed a sigh of relief. At least he still had a patient. “I expected that he would, Silas. Would you please take the Sheriff into the study? We will both need to speak with the family after I examine Heath.”
“Silas tells me that it’s been a long night.” Howard Merar only had to look at the faces of the weary family to know that it had been.
“You can say that again!” Nick said.
“I’d consider that something of an understatement, Howard.” Jarrod added.
“Good morning, Howard.” Victoria rose slowly from the chair beside Heath’s bed.
The long night had taken the greatest toll on her. She had looked absolutely radiant at last evening’s celebration but now her face was shadowed with pain. Victoria had worked tirelessly throughout the night to keep Heath’s fever down. The pain in her heart was far worse than the ache of her tired muscles. She had watched her son battle the demons of his terrible hallucinations throughout the night. No sooner than Heath would drift off in exhaustion from one torment, he would jolt awake in the throes of another horrific vision.
Heath had just drifted off and was resting quietly for the moment. Victoria hoped Howard’s examination would not awaken him.
The doctor placed his black bag on the bedside table and removed his stethoscope. He laid the stethoscope on the bed beside Heath and pulled out his gold pocket watch. Dr. Merar slipped two fingers under the cloth restraint, timed Heath’s pulse, and returned the watch to his pocket. He lifted the cool cloth off Heath’s forehead and replaced it with the palm of his hand. As the doctor lifted Heath’s eyelids with his thumb, Heath moaned and turned his head away.
Nick held his breath for a moment and glanced over at Jarrod. Jarrod stood with his arms folded on his chest. When his eyes met Nick’s, he just shrugged and crossed his fingers.
Dr. Merar listened over Heath’s chest with the stethoscope and then moved it down over his abdomen. Howard hung the stethoscope around his neck and pressed his fingers firmly into Heath’s belly. As soon as the doctor began to palpate his abdomen, Heath’s body stiffened and his eyes flew open.
* * * * * * * *
“You’re the boy who liked the box so much, ain’t ya?” The Carterson guard’s lips curled into a cruel smile. “Well, we got another one we want you to visit.”
The other three guards laughed wickedly. The four guards gripped Heath by his wrists and ankles and carried him toward the box.
In the dark, wooden crate was a bed of old blankets where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bedbugs had been allowed to multiply.
Heath tried to twist out of the grip of the prison guards, but it was useless. The guards stripped him of his shirt and shoved him into the box.
“Go on in and meet our friends!”
Immediately the hungry bedbugs assaulted Heath, crawling onto him from the walls or falling off the ceiling. Thousands of tiny teeth sank into his flesh.
At first Heath waged war with them furiously. He wrung and twisted his body in an attempt to crush them beneath him or against the walls. After several minutes he weakened and let them drink his blood.
“Please…” Heath’s agonized eyes searched the four guards’ faces for some hint of sympathy, some sign of humanity.
“Please,” he whispered, “let me out of here.”
* * * * * * * *
Dr. Merar watched his first datura hallucination with a morbid fascination.
“Have they all been this bad?” he asked.
Victoria had covered her face with her hands.
“This bad or worse.” Nick’s tone was matter-of-fact.
“I tried to warn you. But I must say, even knowing what to expect doesn’t make it any easier to watch.”
Howard grasped Victoria’s small wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. He took them gently in his own and looked into her moist gray eyes.
“Victoria, I do have some very good news for you this morning.” he said. “In every case of datura poisoning that I’ve read about, if the patient survived the first twelve hours, he went on to recover completely.”
Victoria squeezed her eyes shut and said a silent prayer. “And thank you, too, Howard.” The tears that streamed down Victoria’s cheeks were tears of relief.
“How much longer will he hallucinate, Doc?”
“The worst of the hallucinations are over after the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, Nick. His fever should begin to abate over the same time frame. Remember that the British soldiers I told you about were ill for six or seven days. I didn’t hear any bowel sounds this morning, so Heath’s gut is still paralyzed. Once more of the poison is out of his system and that problem is resolved, I’ll allow him to be given some sedation. That will give him a rest and give everyone else one as well.”
“Then we’ll just hunker down for a long week.” Nick said.
“I’m afraid so.” The doctor shook his head. “A little ‘tincture of time’ is the only cure for what ails Heath.”
The doctor packed his stethoscope back in his bag. “Fred Madden is waiting downstairs.” he said. “I felt it best to bring him out to the ranch with me this morning in case…” The doctor paused.
“Heath had died from the poison.” Victoria finished the thought.
“Yes, Victoria.” Howard said. “I am quite certain that Heath was deliberately poisoned by someone at the party. There were no other victims.”
The faces of close friends and neighbors who had attended the celebration flashed through Victoria’s mind. Their accolades and words of heartfelt appreciation echoed in her mind. Her mind could not conceive that any of the farmers could do this thing. Hurt her son? Hurt them all? Not after all the Barkley family had sacrificed and risked for them!
Victoria sank slowly back into the chair, her small shoulders slumped. “Who could do such a thing?” Her voice cracked with emotion.
“That’s what I hope Fred will be able to find out. I’ll be back in the morning, Victoria.”
Victoria remained at Heath’s side while Nick and Jarrod accompanied Dr. Merar down the stairway.
Sheriff Madden rose from the deep leather chair when the Barkley brothers and Dr. Merar entered the study.
“Thanks for coming out, Fred.” Jarrod said.
“I just wish it wasn’t under these circumstances, Jarrod. Morning, Nick.” The sheriff nodded a greeting. “The doc filled me in on the way out here. How’s Heath this morning?”
“Howard says we still have some hard days ahead but that Heath is going to recover.”
“Glad to hear it.” The sheriff turned his attention to Dr. Merar. “So what’s the verdict, Doc? Are you still convinced Heath was poisoned?”
“More than ever!” the doctor stated emphatically.
“Are you sure he couldn’t have gotten into something out on the range earlier in the day?”
“Fred, I told you I am certain of the poison Heath was exposed to. Datura takes effect in approximately one hour.”
“Then that means…” Fred hesitated.
“I know what it means.” The doctor said sadly.
“Alright, then.” The sheriff took a deep breath. “Did either of you boys see anything suspicious at the party last night? Was anybody acting strangely around Heath?”
Nick shook his head. “I didn’t see one thing out of line all night.”
Nick’s voice was tinged with bitter irony. “This whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me! Every man and woman at that party last night was a friend. The Barkleys fought for those people! Heath wasn’t in this Valley twenty-four hours before he stood shoulder to shoulder with those men and fought against the railroad. Hell, he practically wiped out that gang of outlaws single-handed. They were all over him last night, thanking him for what he had done…” Nick snorted sarcastically. “He got so uncomfortable with all the attention that he excused himself to get a glass of punch and snuck outside for a while.”
“Nick, that’s it!” Jarrod snapped his fingers. An analytical mind was working feverishly behind his cool blue eyes. “Nick, did you drink any punch last night?”
“Sure, I did.” Nick shrugged.
“Was it spiked?”
“No, Jarrod. You know there’s an unspoken rule about Barkley parties. No one spikes our punch except me! And I didn’t…”
“I walked outside while Heath was in the garden.” Jarrod was pacing the study now. “He had left his punch glass sitting on the railing. We stood out by the gazebo and talked a while. When we walked back to the house, he picked up the glass and took a couple of swallows. I remember him coughing and grimacing as if it tasted bitter. Heath told me he thought the punch had been spiked.”
“The time interval would fit.” Howard said.
“If Heath left his glass outside on the railing then someone other than the folks inside the house could have slipped something into it.” Nick observed.
“That’s exactly what I’m thinking, Nick. None of those farmers has any reason to want Heath dead. But leaving his glass unattended outside could have given someone else the opportunity to poison it. Someone with a motive.”
“Do you have any idea who that would be?” Fred asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do!”
Jarrod had everyone’s full attention. “Nick just provided us with the answer, gentlemen. Heath has given only one man reason to hate him since his arrival to the Valley.”
“Crown.” Nick breathed the name with contempt.
“Why would Crown risk murdering Heath now?” Fred asked reasonably. “Coastal and Western has what it wanted. The railroad can now go through the Valley to Los Angeles.”
“Perhaps this isn’t about the railroad anymore. Perhaps this is personal.” A pensive expression came over Jarrod’s face. “Nick said Heath ‘practically wiped out’ that gang of outlaws. As I recall, there was one member of the gang that escaped.”
“That’s right, Jarrod.” Fred said. “Billy and I picked up his trail leaving that burned out cabin, but we lost it on the ridge.”
“Headed back toward Stockton?”
“I guess from where we lost the tracks he could have been.”
“Heath thought the missing gang member had been injured in the explosion. Then he saw an injured man in Crown’s private railcar when it left Stockton.” Jarrod said.
“Yeah,” Nick added. “Heath told me the man’s face was completely covered in bandages.”
“I didn’t treat anyone for burns.” Howard said.
“Crown would have never allowed the man to be treated in Stockton. My guess is Crown has access to a very discreet physician in San Francisco. Someone who is already ethically compromised.” Jarrod mused.
Dr. Merar pondered what he knew of his various colleagues in San Francisco for a moment. “I know just the man Crown would use.” he said. “The name is Dr. David Allen. He’s a disgrace to the entire profession. Rumor has it that he’s nothing more than a licensed opium dealer. He gives out narcotics like candy and once his patients are hooked, they must pay his price to get more.”
“Howard, do you think this Dr. Allen would sell narcotic to a perfectly healthy San Francisco police detective?” Jarrod smiled as a plan was coming together in his mind.
Dr. Merar smiled back. “As long as the detective didn’t show his badge… and showed Allen the money instead.”
“You plan to entrap this crooked doctor, arrest him and then squeeze him for information?” Fred asked. “And if you can find the injured man and tie him to Crown…”
“I’ll kill Crown with my bare hands.” Nick seethed through gritted teeth.
“You won’t have to, Nick.” Jarrod said. “If I can directly link Crown to that gang of murderers, the State will do it for you. If I leave now with Fred and Howard, I can be on the ten a.m. train to San Francisco.”
Jarrod hesitated as he eyed Nick with concern. The long laceration on the crown of Nick’s head was not completely healed. But the bruising around the injury had faded from black-and-blue to a faint greenish yellow. The strip of hair that Dr. Merar had shaved away was starting to grow back in. But with Audra still in Boston, that would leave only Mother and Nick to…
“Go, Jarrod!” Nick had read his mind. “I’ll explain everything to Mother. We’ll be fine.”
Victoria had learned in the past twenty-four hours to be thankful for even the smallest blessing, the smallest sign of encouragement.
This was one such moment of respite. Heath was allowing her to give him water from the cup she held without resistance. He sipped the cup slowly and it was taking him quite a while to finish it. Victoria didn’t mind at all as she patiently helped him to empty the cup.
One cup of water without a fight.
Victoria stroked his face with loving tenderness. “That was very good, Son.” she said.
Heath stared at the ceiling, impassive to her ministrations.
Victoria relished in this moment that he was letting her touch him. Heath’s pulse had not jumped, his breathing was steady, and not a tremor had passed through his muscular body.
“Hey, did he finish that whole cup?” Nick asked as he strode through the bedroom door.
“He certainly did!” Victoria turned and smiled at her middle son. Nick placed an arm around her shoulders as they both took pleasure in the small victory.
* * * * * * * *
“Philip?” Heath’s voice was hoarse. “Where are you?”
The entire unit was pinned down under the withering blaze of Confederate firepower. Heath and the other boy had taken refuge behind a small earthen embankment.
They hunched down together, immobilized by the hail of bullets whizzing over their heads. The day was hot, but Heath knew it would be suicide to dash for the cover of the nearby trees.
The scorching sun tore through his tan and burned Heath’s body. Heath had lost his canteen in the confusion of the battle. Philip had been willing to share his water.
Philip was a new recruit. This was the first real action the sixteen year-old had seen. Heath was already a seasoned veteran.
“Don’t panic.” Heath reminded him. “Just be still and keep your head down. Reinforcements are on the way.”
Now the boy was gone!
A cannonball gouged a large hole in the earth not twenty feet from where Heath lay. A dirt and dust-filled shower rained down on him.
“Philip, get down! The Rebs have brought in heavy artillery!” Heath cried.
There was the flash and explosion of the distant row of Confederate cannons. The air whined as the balls flew toward their targets.
“Philip!” Heath caught sight of the terrified boy running erratically across the battlefield. Heath jumped up. He had to catch the boy and get him to cover.
As Heath tried to overtake his young friend, death rained down from the sky.
Cries and screams erupted all around him. Torn bodies and guns with bayonets flew into the air. The battlefield was strewn with the broken and bloody bodies of Union infantrymen, torn apart and scattered like debris.
As the dust began to clear, Heath caught sight of Philip. He lay on the ground twisted and bloody, his face contorted with his final pain.
Heath felt sickened by the stench of death that was everywhere. He knelt by Philip’s side and wept at the senselessness and tragedy of it all.
* * * * * * * *
“He’s back in the war again.” Victoria shook her head sadly.
“I know, Mother.” Nick said gently.
Victoria’s heart had broken each time she witnessed Heath reliving some traumatic experience in his mind. Many of the horrific scenes seemed to have arisen out of the wartime era.
“He was just a boy!” she said. “I’d give everything I own to have had him living safely with us here at the ranch.”
“I know you would.” Nick pulled her into a closer embrace. “You look tired, Mother. You’ve taken your shift and Jarrod’s. I’m going to take over now.” He placed a kiss on her silver hair.
“I’ve been wondering how things are going in San Francisco.”
“Me, too. Maybe we’ll get a telegram from Jarrod tomorrow. I know one thing though…” Nick said with confidence. “If there’s anybody who can get to the bottom of this, it’s Jarrod!”
Victoria reached over and ran her fingers through Heath’s hair. “It’s about time to replace the cooling cloths.”
“I can handle it, Mother.”
“Alright, Nicholas, I’ll go. But call me if you need anything or begin to get a headache.”
“My head is fine, Mother. Go get some rest.”
* * * * * * * *
Carlo Lucci had continued to keep a secret watch on the house. He knew from the doctor’s comings and goings and no sign of an upcoming funeral that the bastard had survived the poisoning.
Two things that Lucci kept on his person at all times were a stiletto knife and a vial containing a lethal dose of poison.
He had originally planned to slip his stiletto between the blond’s ribs. But the events at the cabin had led him to be wary of the muscular cowboy. Even caught off-guard and unarmed, the blond may have proven to be a formidable opponent.
When the opportunity had presented itself to use the poison instead, Carlo seized it. There was nothing better than a clean kill with no risk to himself.
It was an unfortunate turn of events that the town doctor was in attendance at the party. But it would only be a temporary setback.
Carlo reached into his jacket and caressed the stiletto’s handle.
Carlo Lucci took a measure of satisfaction in the fact that while the previous confrontation with Heath Barkley had left Carlo permanently scarred, the next encounter would leave the bastard permanently dead.
Dr. Merar was pleased to see signs of progress in his patient. Heath’s temperature was coming down and his dilated pupils were showing a tiny rim of blue.
“Good!” Howard said as he finished listening over Heath’s abdomen. “I’m beginning to hear some rumbles and gurgling in there.” He patted Heath’s stomach.
“By tomorrow morning the hallucination phase should be over.” the doctor stated.
“Howard, I recall you saying that the victims of this particular poison had no memory of their hallucinations.”
“That’s correct, Victoria. Heath will have complete amnesia of the entire period of the poisoning. He will not remember the final stage of the illness either. It is what’s referred to as the ‘disorientation and loss of equilibrium phase’. This phase will last for three or four days and then Heath will be back to his old self. Just think of it like a prolonged period of alcohol intoxication.”
Nick smiled. “So Doc, you’re saying that for the next three or four days, my little brother is going to be several sheets to the wind?”
“Yes, Nick, and probably the blankets and pillowcases too. I certainly hope this boy tends to be a ‘happy’ drunk.”
The doctor pulled a bottle out of his bag. “In any event, I am satisfied enough with Heath’s improvement that I am comfortable with giving him sedation. If Heath begins to have another hallucination, give him two tablespoons of this medicine. He needs a night of undisturbed rest more than anything else right now.”
The doctor snapped the black bag shut. “See you folks in a couple of days.”
* * * * * * * *
Carlo Lucci stood obscured among the trees beyond the front gates of the Barkley mansion. He watched the doctor’s buggy exit through the gates and head back to town.
Lucci sneered. This would be the last time the bastard would need a doctor’s services. It would be the undertaker the Barkley family would be sending for come morning. If things went as planned, dawn would find Carlo well along on his journey east.
This was the first and only time Carlo had defied a direct order from Jacob Crown. After a doctor had treated Carlo’s burns, Jonathan Hoak had left him alone to recover in some two-bit hotel. Hoak had also left Lucci with ample cash and explicit instructions from Crown to return to New York City. And return he would, right after he fulfilled his vow of vengeance.
In some perverted way, Carlo was glad Heath Barkley had survived the poison. His one regret had been that the bastard had not known death was coming or from whence it came.
Lucci wanted the bastard to look on his face as Lucci drove the stiletto into his heart. The last thing Heath Barkley would ever see would be Carlo’s grotesque face: twisted in ecstasy as he savored the blond’s pain and reveled in his passing.
* * * * * * * *
Faintly Heath could hear the distant rhythmic rumblings of the mountain. She groaned and shuddered as she prepared to close the deep wound that had been chiseled in her side.
He had worked the mines long enough to immediately recognize the sound. The low droning rumble grew ever louder as Heath grabbed the lantern and dashed for the mine entrance. He dropped the lantern when his eyes caught the sun’s illumination streaming down the mineshaft. He thought for a moment he’d make it out until the tunnel’s ceiling suddenly collapsed in a heap of rock and splintered timbers.
When the primal rumblings had subsided, Heath found that he was pinned beneath the debris. His eyes ached, opened wide to penetrate the darkness.
“Help! Mine cave-in! Help me!” He called to no one there.
Heath could smell the pungent rocks and he reached out to touch the mine’s damp walls. The totality of the darkness lay so thick about him that Heath could feel it. A cool draft passed over him, blowing a silken cobweb across his face. The mountain bled drops of its own blood into his mouth.
Heath could sense some presence other than himself just before he drifted off into an abyss of nothingness.
* * * * * * * *
“I’m glad that we could spare him the horror of that one.” Victoria said as she sat the spoon and the medicine bottle on the bedside table.
“I know, Mother.” Nick took a deep breath. “He’s out of that rotten mineshaft now. I hope the doc was right, and this will be the last hallucination.” Nick stroked his sleeping brother’s hair. “Looks like he’s out for the night, but I’m gonna sit with him anyway. Why don’t you go on to bed and get some sleep, Mother?”
Victoria felt the waning heat in the blond’s cheeks and then turned to Nick. She kissed him on the cheek. “Good night, Son.”
“Good night, Mother.” Nick said.
* * * * * * * *
The night turned chilly, as the last of the sun’s warmth was gone. Carlo Lucci lurked in the darkness, his back pressed against the Barkley’s barn.
Lucci had thoroughly cased the house the night before. On the front of the house, he had noted the faint smudge of light coming from a second-story window for two consecutive nights. Heath Barkley’s room, no doubt. Carlo could just imagine the family keeping their all-night vigils. Keeping the lamps dim so as not to hurt the bastard’s eyes.
While Lucci had seen light emanating from other rooms on the front of the mansion, the windows that he watched now on the rear side had remained dark. It was an unoccupied room, he reasoned, and almost directly across from the bastard’s room.
Carlo chuckled softly. Luck was definitely with him tonight! The empty second-floor room had large windows that opened out to a small balcony. A sturdy trellis stood against the mansion’s wall just beyond the balcony. He would use the trellis to climb up to the little balcony. For a career criminal like Carlo Lucci, getting into the room from there would present no problem. Once there he would crack the door open ever so slightly and wait in the darkness, wait for his chance to be alone with the bastard.
Lucci had seen the lawyer leave the previous morning. That leaves only the two, he thought. They would tend to the bastard in shifts. But they’d have to eat; they’d have to relieve themselves. They wouldn’t be with the bastard every minute.
Lucci would be hiding in the darkness, watching and listening for whoever stayed with the bastard tonight to leave even for a few minutes.
Even a few minutes were longer than he’d need.
* * * * * * * *
Nick pulled his stocking feet down off Heath’s bed, stood up from his chair, and stretched wearily. He slipped a single finger beneath each of Heath’s restraints to make sure they were just loose enough to allow blood circulation.
The room was cool. No fire had been lit in the fireplace because of Heath’s high temperature. Heath was still sleeping soundly, so Nick decided to go get an extra blanket from his own room. He thought it unlikely that Heath might awaken and need him, but Nick decided to leave Heath’s bedroom door wide open anyway.
Nick padded quietly down the hall to his bedroom. He picked up the blanket that lay folded on the end of his bed. Nick turned to leave when his eyes came to rest on the navy blue tie lying on his dresser. He dropped the blanket on the floor as he was suddenly overcome by a frantic impulse to return to Heath’s side.
After this night, Nick would never cease to believe in his mysteriously forewarning instinct in regard to Heath.
* * * * * * * *
How nice of them to have the bastard tied spread-eagle on the bed, Carlo Lucci thought. How easy this would make things. His long, narrow, sharp-tipped stiletto was perfect for the job.
Carlo would stab Heath near the top of his abdomen, just below the sternum, with the handle almost flat against Heath’s stomach at an extreme angle. He would shove the stiletto leftward to the hilt and wiggle it. The stiletto would make just a small entry slit, but it would do great damage to the heart. He wouldn’t even have to worry about going between ribs.
There only remained one final detail. Lucci realized it was wisdom to simply do the deed as quickly as possible and slip back into the night. But Lucci wanted the bastard to see him. Carlo would lock stares with the bastard one last time. He would watch the life leave those arrogant sky-blue eyes. Heath Barkley’s final vision would be of Carlo Lucci’s grotesquely scarred face and cobra-like obsidian eyes.
Lucci glanced back at the open door. He saw no one and heard nothing. He grabbed the bastard’s shoulder and shook him. Heath did not respond. Lucci shook Heath even harder without response. Open your eyes bastard, Lucci’s mind screamed! He slapped Heath’s cheek as hard as he dared. Heath moaned softly and began to stir.
Nick moved with cat-like quickness to Heath’s door. His hazel eyes filled with a terrible rage.
A man stood over his brother’s bed. The left side of his face was horribly disfigured from burns. The scars extended from his temple down across the cheek all the way to the jaw line. The scar’s contraction pulled up the upper lip and bared the man’s teeth. The dim lamplight played on the long stiletto as if a drop of water slid down its blade.
Nick’s two long strides and leap were a blur as he drove Lucci into the floor like a tiger on its prey. He hit Lucci with the full force of his body and both men rolled across the floor. Out of the tangle, Nick was on his feet first but Lucci had managed to keep his knife in hand.
Lucci scrambled to his feet while keeping the tip of the stiletto pointed at his muscular adversary. Carlo had only killed by surprise or cunning, never in hand-to-hand combat. Even though it was Carlo who was armed, he saw no fear in the hazel eyes. There was a predatory gleam in the eyes of the man who stalked him, poised to attack. The dark assassin had become the hunted.
Carlo slashed wildly at the dark-haired cowboy. Moving with the nimbleness of a big cat, Nick evaded the gleaming blade as it slashed the air inches from his chest.
Carlo felt an iron grip on the hand that held the knife, even as he felt another close on his throat. Carlo strained against the relentless pressure from the powerful arms as suddenly his feet went out from under him when Nick hooked his leg around him.
As both men went down, Nick drove Carlo’s own knife deep into his heart. Carlo gasped his last breath, his vision narrowing to a dim and closing hole that encased only the face of Nick Barkley.
“Nick! I heard a commotion…” Victoria stopped mid-sentence. Nick stood over the body of a man who lay face-up with a knife embedded in his chest.
Heath! Victoria’s frantic eyes drank in the sight of him. He slept peacefully with not even a dream penetrating his world.
* * * * * * * *
Nick stepped out to the banister when he heard the front door close.
Jarrod stood in the foyer, briefcase in hand, in the presence of a tall dark-haired stranger. He looked up to the second-floor and smiled. “Good morning, Brother Nick!”
Victoria hurried out of Heath’s room and joined Nick.
“Good morning, Mother!”
“Jarrod! It’s so good to have you home! And I see you’ve brought a visitor.” Victoria took Nick’s arm and they hurried down the stairway.
Jarrod embraced his mother and gave her a tender kiss on the cheek. He shook Nick’s hand warmly.
“Mother, Nick, this is Michael Davis from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. He traveled to Stockton with me to hand over some depositions to Judge Sullivan.”
“Welcome to our home, Mr. Davis.” Victoria said as she offered her hand.
“Thank you, Mrs. Barkley.” Mike Davis shook her hand and then shook Nick’s extended hand as well.
Jarrod’s expression became grave. “We now know the identity of the final member of the outlaw gang. His name is Carlo Lucci.”
“His name WAS Carlo Lucci.” Nick’s voice was hard-edged.
“What?” Jarrod and Mike Davis looked at Nick in surprise.
“He broke in the house last night and tried to kill Heath. Don’t worry…” Nick added quickly when he saw Jarrod’s eyes widen with apprehension. “Heath is fine. I killed that monster before he got the chance to hurt Heath any more than he already had.”
Jarrod let out the breath he had unconsciously been holding. “Let’s step into the gunroom. There is some other news that I want to share with you both.”
“Would anyone care for a drink?” Nick asked as they gathered in the gunroom. The others declined and Nick strolled to the bar to pour one for himself.
There was a thinly concealed excitement in Jarrod’s demeanor and everyone remained standing as he spoke.
“My trip to San Francisco was more fruitful than I dared hope. Dr. Merar’s tip led us straight to the corrupt doctor who had treated Carlo Lucci. The San Francisco Police detectives did not have to apply much pressure on him before he identified Jonathan Hoak as the man who accompanied Lucci. An arrest warrant was issued for Hoak and he was arrested the same evening.”
“My office gave Hoak the option of being charged as an accomplice to the murders or telling everything he knew and getting the lesser charges of accessory before and after the fact.” Mike Davis said. “We ended up wringing information out of Hoak like water from a wet rag!”
“Then Hoak admitted that it was Jacob Crown who hired that gang of murderers?” Nick slammed his drained shot glass down on the bar.
“He did indeed, Nick.” Jarrod said. “You were right all along.”
“There’s more.” Jarrod looked at Nick and then fastened on his mother’s gray eyes. “Jonathan Hoak also admitted to being present when Crown hired Father’s assassin.” He saw her body begin to tremble and tears began to well in her expressive eyes.
Jarrod took her hand. “The statute of limitations for murder never runs out. In Law, there exists a principle that is embodied in the phrase: ‘qui facit per alium, facit per se’ – he who does a thing by the agency of another, does it himself. Judge Sullivan is reading over the depositions that Mike delivered to him. By this afternoon, the judge will have issued indictments for multiple counts of murder against Jacob Crown, beginning with Father’s!”
Nick gazed heavenward and raised clenched fists. Victoria collapsed against Jarrod’s chest. He held her tenderly as she cried tears of release.
For years after her husband’s murder, Victoria had hated. She had hated with a passion and intensity that threatened to consume her very soul. Her hate had not been for the man who pulled the trigger. No, that man was long dead. The overwhelming hatred was reserved for the man who was ultimately responsible for the crime: Jacob Crown! It had seemed as though Tom Barkley’s murderer would continue to live in opulence unpunished, beyond the reach of the law. She finally accepted that not all who deserve judgment and condemnation receive it. At least, not in this world. One day, Jacob Crown would stand before a Judge who could not be bought, who was all knowing and perfect in His judgments. This realization freed her of that consuming hatred. And yet, there had been a portion of her grief that could find no closure.
“Thank you, Son.” Victoria whispered in his ear as she regained her composure.
“You’re welcome, Mother!” Jarrod’s own eyes were moist. He wiped the lingering tears from her cheeks with his thumbs.
“What about Jacob Crown?” Nick asked.
“Jacob Crown is traveling back from St. Louis to California as we speak.” Mike said. “When I have those warrants in hand, I’ll have him arrested as soon as he crosses the state line! Of course, he’ll be tried here in Stockton where the murders occurred.”
“But you wouldn’t necessarily have to arrest Crown as soon as he crossed the state line, would you Mike?”
“What are you getting at, Jarrod?” Mike asked.
“I understand that Crown is returning for a celebration the Coastal and Western Railroad Board of Directors are throwing in his honor at Hannibal Jordan’s mansion.”
Mike Davis smiled. “You are a wicked man, Counselor! I guess that’s why I like working with you so much.”
“That’s one plan I can get behind, too, Jarrod!” Nick beamed.
“Then it’s settled.” Jarrod smiled with satisfaction as well. “How is Heath, Mother?” he asked.
“He’s sleeping.” Victoria said. “But Howard believes the hallucinations are all behind him and Heath is now going into the final stage of the illness.”
“Drunk as a skunk for three or four days.” Nick added and shook his head. “The rest of this week is gonna be anything but dull.”
“Mike, if you’ll excuse us. I want to go see my brother.”
Jarrod took his mother’s arm and escorted her up the stairway. All three paused for a moment of grateful reflection as they watched the blond resting quietly on the bed.
Nick lifted the damp cloth and felt of Heath’s forehead. “Hey!” He broke into a smile. “I think his temperature is back to normal.”
Heath opened his eyes slowly. They were blue again. “Mornin.” He blinked drowsily.
“Do you know who I am?” Nick asked.
“Course I do, Nick.” I ain’t that drunk, Heath thought. “Only man I ever saw with a reverse Mohawk.”
“You got no room to be talking, Boy. Your hair looks like it’s been combed with a pillow.” Nick grumbled good-naturedly.
Heath blinked again and brought another familiar face into focus.
“Pappy!” He raised one eyebrow. “Boy howdy, I told ya that punch was spiked!”
Jarrod moved closer to his younger brother and reached out and tousled the blond hair.
“It certainly was, Brother Heath.”
When Heath was back to normal, the family would tell him the true nature of the events that had transpired. All the terrible details that Heath thankfully would not recall, they would never share with him.
“Throw your hat in the ring, Jarrod. I got your campaign slogan.”
Jarrod knew he’d probably regret it, but he asked anyway. “Which is?”
“Vote for Jarrod Barkley. Attorney-At-Law. Finest two people if there ever was one!”
“Ah… well… ah, maybe we could work on that a little more, Heath.”
“Sounded good to me.” Nick deadpanned.
“Good morning, Mother.” Heath’s eyes twinkled with delight when she stepped into view.
Victoria cupped Heath’s face in her hands and gazed lovingly into his eyes.
“Good morning, Sweetheart.”
“I’m a little bit drunk.” he whispered a confession.
“I love you anyway, Heath Barkley.” She whispered back and brushed his lips with a tender kiss.
Heath tried to give his mother a hug and realized that his arms were bound. “What’s this?” He looked over the four-point bindings in confusion.
Heath relaxed his head back into the pillow and smiled. “Nick! Turn me loose, Big Brother! I promise I’ll never steal another bow-tie!”
Jarrod chuckled at the sincerity of the blond’s declaration. “I’ve never heard a guilty party sound more genuinely remorseful, Nick.”
Nick started to loose the bindings and then he stepped back and crossed his arms. He grinned at Jarrod and winked.
“I’ll only let you go, Little Brother, if you promise you won’t make fun of my hair!”
“I won’t make fun of my hair!” Heath repeated with beguiling blue eyes and a crooked smile.
For a man used to all the trappings of wealth and power, the Stockton jail was a rude awakening.
The damning testimony of Heath Barkley and Jonathan Hoak left the outcome of the trial in little doubt. Not one politician or Coastal and Western official attended the trial. The renegade railroad baron was abandoned by all to his fate.
The ruthless man that had been so callous and merciless in regard to the lives of others pleaded for the mercy of the Court to spare his own. As he was led to the scaffold, Crown revealed the depth of his own cowardice.
Jacob Crown died, the people of the Valley said, in the way that he deserved.