Summary: The story of Heath and the Grizzly. In this story Jarrod is 33, Nick is 29 and Heath is 25, Leah and Tom are deceased and Heath has lived with the Barkleys for one year.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 4973
“Heath, dear, I do hope you will be home in time for supper tonight. With Audra in Denver, Jarrod in San Francisco and Nick on the cattle drive I miss your presence at the table even more than ever.”
Heath smiled at his mother. In the past year with his family he had learned how much she hated the absence of her children, especially during meal times. All of the hands had been needed on the drive, leaving Heath to perform all of the ranch chores by himself, heck, even Silas was away visiting relatives. Heath didn’t really mind being left behind since the decision was made according to Victoria’s wishes. She had wanted to spend time alone with the young man she had come to love as a son. In the past three weeks they had passed many an evening in each other’s company. Heath was always honored to awake in the morning, after one of their late night discussions, on the divan in Victoria’s room and find her sitting quietly, watching and waiting for his eyes to open. Each time was the same, she had somehow managed to remove his boots and belt without waking him and he was warmly encased within a thick, heavy quilt. Heath had opened up to this woman, confiding many things to her he had never told anyone else.
“I promise to be home and cleaned up by the time supper is ready.”
“Wonderful. What are your plans for the day?”
“I still need to finish repairing part of the fence in the south pasture, I should be done by noon. Afterwards I’ll ride to the north ridge and check the bear traps. Believe it or not that is all I need to do today.” Victoria followed him to the front door, planting a kiss on his cheek before he walked out.
After a quick bite for dinner Victoria headed into Stockton. Her first stop and main priority was the telegraph office. She was pleased to discover wires from all three of her traveling children. Audra was fine and enjoying her stay with family friends. Jarrod’s telegram stated he would be riding back with Nick and the hands since his court case had ended earlier than expected. Nick’s wire was brief as usual, informing her he would arrive home on the 21st. In just one more day all of her sons would be home and Audra would be home by the end of the week. As Victoria visited the dress shop and picked up several items at the general store her joy was replaced with a feeling of dread, the very feeling she would get when one of her children became injured or ill. On the ride home she decided she was being silly. The Collins’ would have notified her if anything had happened to Audra and Nick or Jarrod would have done the same if the other had been hurt or fallen ill. She didn’t consider Heath. He had been hurt several times since coming to live with them and she had never before sensed his pain. She assumed this feeling was reserved for biological children and began in the womb. She would always regret how wrong she was in her assumption.
Heath awoke slowly, pain coursing through his head and right leg. Gradually he recalled the events leading up to his current situation. The fence repair had filled his entire morning. Afterwards he rode to the north ridge and, finding a shady spot, stopped to eat the sandwich his mother had fixed for him. He finished the sandwich and decided to check the bear traps on foot. It had been a long ride to the ridge and he was tired of sitting in the saddle. He neared the dense thicket of bushes where the last trap was located. Lost in his thoughts of a warm bath and quiet evening with his mother, he silently approached the area. It all happened suddenly, the large grizzly attacked so quickly his gun barely cleared leather before the animal was on him. The gun flew from his hand on impact, as he fell backward the bear sank its teeth into his right thigh. His scream was cut short when the back of his head slammed into a rock, darkness had enveloped him.
Heath silently cursed himself; he should have ridden Charger. The horse would have detected the grizzly, forewarning him one was in the area. Failing to do that, he should have made some noise. He knew better than to be quiet in an area where bears were known to frequent. If he had been making noise, any noise, most likely the bear would have been long gone before he got to it. Instead he placed himself in an extremely dangerous situation: facing a startled and angry grizzly bear.
Heath’s right leg was on fire. His hand felt the damage and it was severe. His outside thigh was missing a large chuck of flesh and another sizable portion of flesh was torn away from the calf. He could also feel the puncture wounds left by the teeth from his ankle to his hip. He was positive the ankle was broken.
Heath hefted himself into an upright position and, by doing so, made his second mistake of the day. He had just enough time to realize he should have remained still until he determined if the grizzly was still about before the bear was once again viciously attacking him, ripping and tearing with teeth and claws. Heath was able to curl into a tight ball on his left side, protecting his vital organs by denying the bear access to his chest and belly. He used his right arm and hand to protect his head and neck. He bit through his lip in a desperate struggle not to scream aloud when the bear took several swipes at his backside, attempting to slice his groin area. A trick used by bears to see if their prey is still alive. Although the bear failed to reach Heath’s groin, the attempt left deep lacerations on the back of his thighs and buttocks. To Heath the attack seemed to last a lifetime. Eventually unconsciousness overtook him.
Victoria was worried, really worried. It wasn’t like Heath to break a promise. It was now an hour past their usual suppertime and he still hadn’t arrived home. No longer able to just wait Victoria changed into her riding clothes. Before leaving the house she wrote a note to Heath in case he returned while she was out looking for him.
The memory of her earlier dismissal of feeling something was wrong with one of her children haunted her as she headed out. She now knew with certainty Heath was the child whose pain she had been sensing since early afternoon. She intended to begin her search where Heath had started his day but found herself heading directly for the north ridge instead. Something deep inside told her that was where she would find him.
As she urged her horse into a gallop she prayed with all her might to be wrong. Maybe Charger had pulled up lame or thrown a shoe and Heath was having to walk the horse home. Her instincts told her this was just wishful thinking on her part.
Heath awoke again to a world filled with unimaginable pain. As bad as the first attack had been the second was even worse. After taking several moments to be absolutely sure the bear was gone Heath attempted to sit up. Pain shot up his right side and his right arm was useless. He finally managed to push himself up with his left arm. He used his left hand to assess the additional damage. The flesh on his right side was dangling in a flap and he could feel the exposed ribcage. He could also feel several broken ribs. The right arm from shoulder to fingers was a mangled mass of torn skin and broken bones. He had puncture wounds where the bear had clamped down on his torso, penetrating the right side of his lower belly and back and there was a large gaping laceration over his right shoulder blade. He didn’t need to feel of his buttocks and back of his thighs, he already knew the damage they had sustained.
Heath knew he was in trouble. Even without the weakness from blood loss there was no way he could walk with the injuries his right leg had suffered. He had a decision to make. His shirt was in tatters and he believed he could remove it to use for bleed control on his upper body. Most of the wounds on his leg were no longer bleeding. To do this meant his upper body would be largely uncovered and the evening air was briskly cool. Added to his current loss of blood and the physical and emotional trauma of his ordeal, the cool night air could lead to shock. He was surprised not to be in shock already. Heath chose to control the bleeding and, if he became too cold, he could always drape the shirt over himself later. After brushing away much of the dirt and leaves the bear had thrown over him from his wounds he covered them as best as he could with the shirt. Unable to continue sitting up any longer he laid back down. He fell asleep while praying for his mother to find him.
As Victoria rode toward the ridge she detected movement under a grove of trees. Upon moving closer she heard a horse blow and stamp a hoof. It was Charger but Heath was nowhere in sight. She snubbed Charger’s reins to her saddlehorn and continued riding the ridge, calling out to her son.
“HEATH? WHERE ARE YOU? ANSWER ME, SON.”
Heath jerked awake. He was shivering uncontrollably. Suddenly, from nearby, he heard someone calling to him. Through a fog of pain and cold he recognized his mother’s voice. His first attempt to respond came out in a hoarse, chattering whisper. He cleared his throat and managed to call out loud enough for her to hear.
“Mother, I’m over here.” Within seconds she was kneeling by his side.
“Oh, sweetheart, what happened?” His one word answer sent chills down her spine.
“Grizzly.” In the darkness she was unable to view the full extent of his injuries but she had come prepared. Quickly she retrieved her saddlebag and blanket roll. She took the lantern out from where it was safely ensconced in the blanket and using a match lit the wick. Victoria had never seen such gruesome wounds in her life, and she had seen many types of injuries over the years. She acted
quickly and calmly, pulling out clean bandages, a bottle of whiskey, a bar of soap and several washcloths. She retrieved their canteens and Heath’s blanket roll and began preparing to clean the wounds. Heath watched her in wonder and astonishment.
“How did you know?” Victoria paused briefly to meet his gaze.
“It’s hard to explain but sometimes a mother just knows…..feels when her child is in pain. I felt that for you so I brought these things just in case.” Victoria finished laying everything out and realized in her haste to begin the search she had forgotten to include a pair of scissors.
“Heath, is your knife in your pants or your saddlebag?”
“Saddlebag, why?” Victoria was already at Charger’s side, searching for the knife. She returned to kneel by Heath. She smiled at him while brushing her hand through his hair.
“You’re not going to like this but it WILL happen just the same. I’m going to cut your clothes off to treat your wounds.” She watched him frown and shake his head. “Heath, none of that. You know how much danger there is of infection if animal bites aren’t thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, DON’T YOU!” He reluctantly nodded his head, understanding it had to be done.
It wasn’t as convenient as a pair of scissors but luckily Heath kept his knife sharp. In a matter of minutes Victoria had him completely stripped. Fighting the fear his wounds caused her, she immediately set to work. Using damp washcloths and the soap she scrubbed them clean then poured whiskey over them for disinfectant. Heath was hard put to remain still as she treated his injuries. His moans and occasional yelps brought tears to her eyes. She covered his wounds with the bandages, knowing it was best not to tightly bind them because the risk of infection would require them to be repeatedly cleaned and disinfected. The next thing was to warm him up. She had helped him roll onto his left side in order to treat the wounds on his backside and, when she finished, he started to roll back over.
“Sweetheart, just stay on your side for a moment longer.” Heath obeyed without question and
Victoria placed his blanket under him.
“Okay, now roll onto your back.” She folded each side over him and placed her blanket on top, tucking the sides underneath his body.
“I will have to repeat this process every few hours but for now just rest, Heath.” He closed his eyes and fell asleep while his mother gently massaged his belly. Soon as his slow, even breathing indicated he was sound asleep Victoria gathered wood and made a campfire on each side of them. Satisfied with the warmth the two fires provided she snuggled next to her son for a couple of hour’s rest before starting all over again.
As the night wore on Heath’s condition worsened. When awake his breathing was shallow to accommodate for the searing pain of his broken ribs but when asleep his breathing would become labored. He barely roused half the time when she would retreat his injuries. Inevitably he began running a fever which she fought with cool cloths placed on his forehead and neck, under his armpits and on either side of his groin. In the early morning hours she was awakened by the feel of his belly heaving under her hand and had just enough time to roll him onto his left side before he vomited.
“I’m feeling kinda poorly, Mama.” Since he said mama and not mother, Victoria thought he was delirious and believed she was Leah until his next statement told her he was very aware of whom she was.
“Oh Mama, I’ll let you explain this one to Nick. I can just hear him now, fussing about how I always wind up hurt.” This tease made her laugh as she watched him offer her a weak smile.
“Don’t worry, Mama. No matter what happens, everything will be all right.” Victoria fought back her
tears and lovingly caressed his cheek.
“Of course everything will be all right, dear, especially you. Leah doesn’t want you with her in Heaven just yet and I certainly don’t want you to leave me now. You don’t want to incur the wrath of both your mamas, do you? So you just fight to stay with me, you hear?”
“Yes, Mama. I’ll try, I promise I’ll try.” Victoria wasn’t sure if it was the pain or the fever or some similarity between how she and Leah handled a crisis that was causing him to call her mama but the word fell on her ears like a beautiful piece of music and warmed her heart. Once again Victoria uncovered her son’s battered body and began tending to his wounds. When finished she sent another prayer heavenward and uttered a solemn vow to Leah and Tom.
“I swear upon my life to do everything within my power to keep this precious boy of ours alive, for he belongs to all three of us now.”
Jarrod and Nick arrived home in the early afternoon to find an empty house, which did nothing to ease the tension they had both been experiencing all day. They had chosen to push ahead of the hands, foregoing the regular rest stops the others took. They both felt an overwhelming but unexplainable sense of urgency that they were needed at home. Nick’s frustration exploded.
“NOW WHERE IN THE DEVIL ARE MOTHER AND HEATH? I SENT THEM A WIRE SAYING WE WOULD BE HOME TODAY.”
“I don’t know, Nick. I am surprised Mother isn’t here to greet us, though.”
“Well, I’ll check upstairs. Maybe Mother is taking a nap.” Nick halted at the foot of the stairs; the tension in Jarrod’s voice made his hairs stand on end.
“Hold up, Nick. Here’s a note from Mother to Heath. It says if he returns while she is gone to stay put. She apparently was leaving to search for him, starting in the south pasture and, if she didn’t find him there, she would ride on to the north ridge.”
“It’s dated last night shortly before seven.” Nick was already running for the door.
“LET’S GO.” Jarrod was right on Nick’s heels. As he started to mount his horse he changed his mind.
“Nick, help me hitch a team to the wagon. If Heath has been hurt he may not be able to ride.”
“Good idea. Let’s hurry.” Before pulling out Nick tossed several blankets and a pillow into the back of the wagon. Jarrod started to take the road leading to the south pasture.
“No, Jarrod. If something has happened to Heath it would have occurred on the ridge. I’m sure of it.” Jarrod hesitated only briefly before nodding his head and turning the team in the direction of the north ridge.
As the morning stretched into the afternoon Victoria’s apprehension grew. She was positive Jarrod and Nick would find her note and come looking for them but it could be dark before they even arrived at the ranch. She knew Heath might not survive another night exposed to the elements.
She believed between the two of them Heath could get in the back of a wagon but there was no way he could mount Charger let alone ride him, even with her assistance. The problem was she didn’t dare leave him alone to ride to the ranch for a wagon. By this point Heath was frequently unconscious and so weak when awake he would be unable to use the rifle to defend himself if the bear returned. All Victoria could do was pray the boys would find them soon.
Victoria was exhausted. She had just completed disinfecting the wounds and replacing cool washcloths on his body to keep the fever down. Heath was unconscious and she had been forced to manhandle him to turn his body. She rested her head over his heart and fell asleep.
Victoria bolted upright, confused by the terror in her heart. She fearfully examined her son, breathing a sigh of relief to see he was still alive. Now what had….THE HORSES! They were milling nervously, pawing the ground and snorting. Suddenly they began to rear in panic. Victoria grabbed the rifle and surveyed the surrounding area. Heath stirred and struggled to sit up. Victoria placed a hand on his shoulder, gently but firmly pushing him down.
“Lie still, sweetheart.” Her voice was barely above a whisper as she continued to scan their surroundings. Her heart leaped into her throat when the bear charged into the open with a roar of rage. It was too close; she would only get one chance. She took careful aim and slowly squeezed the trigger.
Jarrod and Nick approached the ridge. Nick cupped his hands around his mouth to call out to his mother and brother but the sound of panicked horses stopped him cold. He and Jarrod glanced at each other seconds before hearing a roar followed by a single rifle shot.
“MY GOD, THAT’S A BEAR. HURRY, JARROD.” The screaming of frightened horses was deafening. They were near and Jarrod whipped the team into a run. Nick had his rifle ready; praying the aim of whoever took the shot had been true.
The scene that greeted them was horrific. Their brother was lying barely conscious on the ground, obviously gravely injured. Their mother was trying to calm the two frightened horses and a large grizzly bear was lying dead just four feet from their brother, a well-placed bullet hole between it’s eyes.
Nick ran over to assist his mother. Once the horses were calmed down they joined Jarrod by Heath’s side. Victoria related the grizzly’s attack on their brother and showed them his wounds. Heath gripped each of their hands in turn with a strength that gave them hope he would survive his injuries.
Both of his older brothers had to steel themselves against Heath’s agonized screams as they lifted and carried him to the wagon. They gently laid him on the bed of blankets Victoria had prepared and helped her cover him with several more. Victoria lifted his head, placed the pillow underneath and eased his head onto it. She settled next to his left side, ready to continue her battle against his fever and offer him the comfort of her presence and soothing voice on the trip home. Nick tied his mother’s horse to the back of the wagon and swung onto Charger’s back. He glanced at Heath and Victoria then gazed intensely into Jarrod’s eyes.
“I’ll ride for the doctor and meet you at the house. Take good care of our baby brother, Jarrod. Get him home alive.”
“I’ll do my best, Nick.”
“Suppose that’s all I can ask for.” Nick nodded his head to Jarrod, took another glance at Heath and, digging his heels into Charger’s sides, headed off at a gallop.
Jarrod climbed into the wagon, picked up the reins and began the journey home. The trip was
extremely arduous, no matter how slow he went Heath would still scream in pain at the slightest bump. Emotionally Jarrod was a wreck as he listened to his brother’s anguished cries and his mother’s voice cooing softly. Jarrod hunched his shoulders and squeezed his eyes shut as Heath repeatedly cried out to their mother while writhing and thrashing in pain.
“MAMA…MAMA…MAMA…MAMA.” Over and over again between moans of pain Heath called out to Victoria. Jarrod had originally thought it would be easier staying with Heath than riding for the doctor, not knowing how his brother was faring. He now knew how wrong he had been; it would have been much more preferable not being witness to his youngest brother’s terrible suffering.
Due to their slow progress to accommodate for Heath’s condition, Nick was already pacing impatiently by the front door when the wagon pulled up to the house. He allowed himself a fleeting smile upon hearing Heath’s moans; at least the boy was still alive. One look at Jarrod’s pale, drawn face was all he needed to understand how emotionally exacting the trip had been. Once again their ears were filled with Heath’s screams as they carried him into the house. Victoria swept past them and rushed up the stairs to the bathroom. They followed her with Dr. Merar close behind. Victoria already had the tub filling up and they placed Heath in the cool water. Between the four of them Heath’s wounds were thoroughly cleaned and his entire body bathed in record time. The tub was drained and they carefully dried him off.
Victoria had the covers on Heath’s bed turned down by the time Jarrod and Nick entered cradling his body. They laid him on his left side and Dr. Merar began his examination with Victoria’s assistance. Nick positioned himself at Heath’s head, maintaining eye contact and a constant stream of one-sided conversation. Jarrod kneeled next to Nick and tightly held Heath’s left hand in both of his. Dr. Merar probed and closely examined each wound, impressed with how well Victoria had managed to tend them given the circumstances.
“Victoria, I’m amazed with the care you were able to give these wounds. So far I see no indication of infection anywhere. I’m going to wait until late tomorrow afternoon before closing them. That will be 48 hours after the attack and, if there are still no signs of infection, it will be safe to stitch him up. Right now I’m going to set that ankle and the bones in his arm.” Heath silently suffered through the setting of his broken bones and, with the aid of laudanum, fell into a deep sleep. Jarrod showed Dr. Merar to a guestroom and quickly returned to his brother’s room. The family remained by Heath’s side throughout the night.
Heath’s wounds still showed no signs of infection by the following afternoon so Dr. Merar began the complicated task of closing them. He started by laying the large flap of skin over the ribs in place and stitching it closed. Next he sutured the deep lacerations located on Heath’s right shoulder blade, back of his head, buttocks and the back of his thighs and the multitude of lacerations covering his right arm. Lastly he securely bound the broken ribs. Nick became concerned when he realized the doctor was finished.
“What about all those puncture wounds and his thigh and calf, doc?”
“It’s best to allow the punctures to heal from the inside out. I checked his belly over closely and felt no rigidity or distention, so no internal organs are damaged. Just clean and disinfect them several times a day. As for the large portions of missing flesh from the thigh and calf, nothing can be done other than what I’ve instructed for the puncture wounds. Keep them covered with bandages but do not bind them. They will have to heal on their own, from the inside out, same as the punctures. Unfortunately this will leave very ugly scars with a portion of flesh always missing, creating a crater like hole at each site. His leg will never look like it did before but at least it will return to normal function. If I pull the wounds together and suture them the tissue underneath will not heal properly because of how deep and extensive the damage is. It would lead to a pronounced limp or possibly rob him use of the leg entirely.” Dr. Merar kneeled down in Heath’s line of sight.
“You are an incredibly strong young man to have survived the injuries you received, Heath. You’ve come this far so don’t allow impatience and stubbornness to take it all away. I want you to take my advice to heart, if you start walking too soon you risk not only having a limp for the rest of your life but also losing your leg to amputation. As slow as the process will be you must allow these wounds to heal completely. You are looking at a good three to four months of confinement, Heath, and probably an additional two months before I will give you permission to return to your ranching duties. I know this sounds unbearable to a normally active young man but the alternative is a lifetime of pain or dragging around a stump. So, no walking and no ranch work until further notice.” Dr. Merar patted Heath’s left arm and stood up.
“I promise to stay put, doc, even if it kills me.” Nick couldn’t resist adding his two cents worth.
“That’s right, besides there’s no way you could tolerate sitting in the saddle with a butt full of stitches.”
“NICHOLAS JOHNATHAN BARKLEY!” The laughter that filled the room was due to Nick’s sheepish expression to his mother’s admonishment as much as to his astute observation.
“Victoria, because of how deep the lacerations are I won’t remove the sutures for at least two weeks. You can still submerse him in the tub to clean the wounds and bathe him. As a matter of fact, I recommend doing so twice a day with four separate cleansings in between. Go ahead and let him sleep through the night but keep a close watch for any signs of infection or an escalating fever. Send for me immediately if you notice either of these. His current elevated temperature is to be expected and is acceptable.”
“I will Howard and thank you very much.”
“No need to thank me, Victoria.”
Heath was true to his word and, though he was almost driven insane by the inactivity and boredom, he followed his mother and Dr. Merar’s orders without rebellion or complaint. It was a full seven months before Heath was able to return to his previous lifestyle. His right leg was not pretty to look at if he wasn’t wearing his pants but the missing portions of flesh were unnoticeable otherwise. His gait was normal and the leg had nearly as much strength as before the attack. Those horror filled hours had brought about one permanent change: when they were alone Heath, forever and always, continued to call Victoria “Mama”.
Heath spent many nights during his recovery listening to Victoria, Jarrod and Nick recount how they had instinctively known he was hurt and where to find him. He was pleased but not surprised, a couple of months before the attack he had begun experiencing the same sensations for them. The fact that they could now sense his thoughts and emotions, even from afar, made him truly feel like a member of the family. Growing up he had always had this heightened awareness for Leah, Rachel and Hannah. He had no idea if it had a name or not but he liked to think of it as being tuned in to the people you love.