Synopsis: A college pledging prank goes wrong for Eugene, bringing all of his family to his aid.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 2,440
‘It was a dark and stormy night’1. Oh, wrong story. I think not. It was indeed a dark and stormy night as Jarrod sat reading Paul Clifford in his room. But he wasn’t at the Barkley ranch. Come to think of it, none of the Barkleys were at the Barkley Ranch. They were all here in the suite of rooms Jarrod had booked when he received an urgent telegram from the Dean at Stanford. Seems college life hadn’t changed that much since Jarrod attended college. But then again maybe it had.
Pranks were still pulled and fraternities still had pledges. That leads us to why the entire family was in this suite. Eugene, it seems, had decided to pledge to a fraternity. Seems this year the pledges had to spend the night in a haunted house. The old Wilkerson place at the edge of town was the chosen location. The six young pledges were to spend the night in this decrepit, rotting, falling down structure. Those boys already in the fraternity set it up with thread, ropes and pulleys so that doors and windows would seemingly open and close by themselves. If the plebes made it through the night without running back to the dormitory, they would become members of the fraternity.
Everything seemed to be going well. The fraternity brothers had five of the six young men so scared they practically huddled together in the front room. Since it had been dark, windy and cold that Saturday before Halloween, one of the five boys decided to light a fire in the fireplace.
The sixth young man, Eugene, just didn’t believe in ghosts. Further, having an older brother who’d been a member of the same fraternity twelve years before, he knew the types of tricks that were played on the wannabe members. He overheard Jarrod and Nick talking late one night near the end of August. The older brothers’ conversation had been about the return to college of their baby brother. It didn’t matter that Eugene was old enough to go to college — that he was the youngest of five children and the fourth boy — he was the baby brother.
So where was I, oh, yes, I remember. One of the five scared boys decided to light the fireplace. Gene, well, ‘he’d had him enough,’ as his brother Nick would say. He was determined to put an end to the shenanigans that were going on. He was on the second floor looking into how the windows and doors were being opened and closed by unseen people. That’s when one of the boys, a pampered lad from a very wealthy family in San Francisco who’d never had to light a fire before, decided to do just that. John Applegate the 3rd put dried leaves that had been blown through the half opened door into the fireplace. Then he took the remains of a small table and piled those on top of the leaves. He took a match from his pocket and set the leaves afire. He didn’t check to make sure the chimney still worked or that the flue was open. He didn’t do anything to prevent the high winds from whipping up the flames.
As the five boys got comfortable around the fire, they heard another crash and a cry of pain. Then they heard Eugene call for help. He had stepped on what had felt to be firm flooring, but as he shifted his weight to try out his next step, the floor gave way and he wound up trapped with his leg through the floor. The five other young men went together to help him. No one stayed to keep watch over the fire. As they went up the rickety stairs, the door was blown open by a particularly strong gust of wind. The small fire roared to a life of its own, fuelled by the wind and the remains of the varnish on the small table.
Upstairs, the five freed Eugene, and as they began to help him down the stairs, their way was blocked by the fire roaring out of control below. The members of the fraternity, from their places hiding among the trees and bushes of the once beautiful garden, stood for a moment in horror. They quickly gathered their wits and set about rescuing their pledges. One young man, Scott Lawson, took charge. He ordered one young man to go to the neighbors to get help; another was sent to the police and fire station three blocks away. The rest set about gathering their remaining ropes and Scott himself climbed a tree that would put him on the second floor balcony. He tied a rope to his waist and carefully went in search of the pledges he could hear coughing.
Eugene, not one to sit around waiting for rescue, had started herding the boys towards the balcony. When he saw Scott, he insisted those not helping him hurry on out of the blazing building. Scott helped the uninjured find their way to the tree. While they were climbing down, he fashioned a simple, crude harness with which to lower Eugene. Just before Eugene’s feet touched the ground the balcony started to collapse and Scott jumped to the branches of the tree dropping Eugene the last three feet. Scott scrambled down to safety. By this time, the neighbors, the police and the fire brigade had arrived. There was nothing they could do to save the structure, and once assured that everyone was out, set up a bucket brigade to douse the surrounding landscape and keep the fire contained to the one structure.
The boys were all taken to the police station and then the hospital. Wires were sent to their parents and a messenger to the dean.
Hence, the Barkley family arrived to take care of the injured Eugene. By the time, they arrived on the morning train, nerves were frayed from worry and tempers flared from anger that the youngest could be so irresponsible.
Victoria was the first in the hospital room of her youngest child. “Eugene, you had us so worried. Are you all right? How bad is your leg?”
Nick entered the room in with a rant. “Eugene, of all the stupid things to do. It’s bad enough you were in that old house, but to start a fire. What in the name of God were you thinking? Never mind, you obviously weren’t.”
Jarrod interrupted with, “Nick, this is a hospital; keep your voice down.” The tone of his voice left no room for doubt about how angry he really was.
Heath entered with his sister on his arm. “Eugene, why don’t you tell us what really happened. I’m sure you didn’t start the fire, did you?”
Audra simply stood there staring at the sibling closest to her own age with tears of relief running down her face. She and Gene had been close growing up, just like Jarrod and Nick had been close because they were close in age. The gap between the two pairs of siblings was filled a year and a half ago by their blond brother Heath. Finally she found her voice. “Are you really ok, Gene?”
At that point, two older gentlemen walked into the room. The one was obviously the doctor. He cleared his throat. “What is going on in here? There are entirely too many people in this room. Only family is allowed in here.” When no one moved, he looked around and found the person who seemed to be the mother. “Are you Mrs. Barkley?” At her nod he added, “I need everyone who is not family to leave this room immediately.”
Victoria glared at him. When no one moved, he started to push his way to her side.
“Mrs. Barkley, I must protest. Eugene’s friends can see him later.” He glared at her two blond children.
Jarrod found his voice and stated in his best don’t mess with me lawyer’s voice. “Doctor, my family and I only wanted to assure ourselves that our youngest sibling was truly not in mortal danger from his injuries.” He turned to his youngest sibling reclined on the bed. “What happens to you when you’re out of that bed may put you in mortal danger if you don’t have a really good explanation for worrying us all so.” Jarrod put special emphasis on the words family, sibling and mortal danger.
Eugene blanched and hung his head. “I’m sorry I worried you all….”
He was interrupted by the other gentlemen that had walked in the room with the doctor. “I’m Lt. Briggs, Am I to understand you are all family?” Receiving nods, and in some cases glares, he continued. “I think I need to fill you in on some facts before any of you take the young man to task.” He glared at Nick and to a lesser extent Jarrod. “Please come with me to the waiting area while the doctor checks over young Mr. Barkley once more.” He led them to a nearby sitting area, and once they were all situated, started his explanation of the events of the previous evening. He told them about the initiation, the fire, and the rescue of the young men. He told them how Eugene kept his head and, in spite of being injured, herded the young men with him to safety. How, even though he was injured, was one of the last to leave the burning structure. When he was done, he stared around at the family of the young hero. The two dark haired men wore expressions of shame.
Just then, another young man a year or two older then Eugene joined them. “Mr. Barkley?” he questioned. Three heads turned to look at him and three sets of eyes of varying shades from cornflower to dark blue and hazel turned his way. He unconsciously took a step back. “Yes?” “Yeah,” and a grunt of acknowledgement reached his ears. “You must be Eugene’s brothers. You all came?” he asked with a touch of awe and a bit of wistfulness. Receiving curt nods, he continued. “This is all my fault. I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to light a fire in such a decrepit building. I never meant for anyone to get hurt. I guess I should have warned them not too.” His words stopped and he stood there head bowed for a moment. “Please don’t blame Eugene. It wasn’t his fault.”
Jarrod walked over to the young man, “What’s your name young man?” he asked in his best Pappy understands and forgives voice.
“Scott Lawson, sir.” He looked Jarrod in the eye when he spoke.
“Well, young Mr. Lawson, it takes a man to admit when he’s wrong and to stand up for a friend. I think since everyone is safe thanks to Eugene and your efforts, I can forgive you. But if you haven’t already, I think you need to apologize to the others who almost lost their lives.”
Scott nodded and looked down. Then he looked up at Mrs. Barkley. “Ma’am, I really didn’t mean for any of this to happen. It never has before and this is what is usually done to initiate new members. But I assure you while I’m here, this fraternity will never do anything like this again and I’ll do my best to see the other fraternities don’t either.” He turned to the doctor as he joined the group. “Is Eugene going to be ok, Sir?”
The doctor regarded the young man. He smiled and replied, “Yes, I was just coming to tell his family that I am releasing him to their care. I heard your statement to Mrs. Barkley. I also heard Counselor Barkley’s words to you. He’s right, you know.”
Scott looked down, then he looked around the area at all the family. “Eugene’s lucky to have so many people who love him.”
Audra approached Scott. “Are you saying, Scott, that your family didn’t come to see if you were all right?”
Scott hung his head again. “Yes,” he practically whispered. “Only my father came. My brother, sisters and mother didn’t bother to make the journey from the other side of town. Father told me he didn’t want to see me until Christmas and I better be ready to work all of Christmas break to make up for the damages he paid.”
Jarrod broke in, “Scott, is your father here?” Receiving a negative shake of the head, he asked, “Is your father Judge Lawson?” He got another shake of the head, yes this time. “Let me speak with him. I don’t think he should have paid the fine from what I’ve heard. Is the father of the boy who started the fire here?”
The police lieutenant spoke up. “Yes, He’s here he’s claiming his boy wouldn’t have started the fire if weren’t so cold and windy. Seems to me he didn’t teach his boy how to build a fire or to watch it, especially when it’s windy. I tried to refuse the money from Judge Lawson.”
Jarrod smiled at Scott and the lieutenant. “I’ll talk to him,” he assured.
That was this morning. After the family got to the hotel room and had Eugene tucked up in bed in the room he and Jarrod were sharing, Jarrod went to talk to Judge Lawson, accompanied by Scott and Lt. Briggs. He resolved the issue between the Judge and his son and extended an invitation for Scott to visit the Barkley ranch during part of the Christmas break. Which Scott took them up on.
Now Jarrod was tired and trying to relax and settle his brain before he too turned in for the night. He looked at the recumbent figure on the bed on the other side of the room. He bowed his head and gave silent thanks, before quietly stealing across the room and drawing the blankets up over his little brother’s shoulder. He kissed him on the forehead, something he would rarely be allowed to do if the young man was awake. He smiled and returned to his bed. Turning the lights down low, he realized that today was Halloween.
“Happy Halloween, young man,” he whispered to his sleeping brother. Then he went to sleep. It was still stormy outside but inside it was quiet warm and full of the light of love and brotherhood and family.
Happy Halloween everyone!
1 Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton at the beginning of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford.