Bonds of Steel (by Kenda)

Summary:  Missing Scene From The Episode The Iron Box
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:    9700


The first thing I saw as my horse rounded the corner of the building was Nick crouched on his knees with our brother Heath cradled in his arms.  Nick’s been a formidable personality since the day he was born.  It’s rare to see fear openly displayed on his face.  But that night I saw nothing less than pure terror in his eyes as he brushed a hand through Heath’s hair while attempting to beg our brother to consciousness by calling into his ear, “Heath!  Heath!”  over and over again.

I jumped from my mount and ran toward them.  I needed no explanation regarding what had happened since I’d left the grounds nine hours earlier.  The iron box Heath’s lower body was hidden within told the story.

My brothers had been wrongfully imprisoned by a crooked sheriff who was in cahoots with a local cattleman and the prison warden.  The cattleman, Harlan McGowan, had himself a nice deal worked out.  He accused innocent men of bogus crimes that got them arrested and sent to a work camp.  A work camp that, conveniently enough, provided labor on his thousands of acres of property.  The man was quite wealthy and paid  Sheriff LeRoy Bonds and Warden Charles Risley lucratively for their silence.  Nick and Heath’s only crime had been to buy a bull from McGowan.  He told them he was out of receipt pads, that they could go ahead and take the animal without a bill of sale in their possession.  Unfortunately, he didn’t tell them he planned to report the animal as stolen within five minutes of them leaving his ranch.

I was lucky to discover where my brothers were three days after the arrests.  I arrived at the prison at four o’clock the next afternoon, just as the work detail was returning.  Nick was helping Heath off the wagon when I caught sight of them.  Heath’s right leg was badly burned.  I found out later that  happened the night of the arrest when he’d rolled into the camp fire during the struggle with the sheriff’s men.  The leg hadn’t been treated by a doctor, nor had the torn skin on his back where a whip had been lashed across it twenty-five times two days earlier.  The first thing Nick said to me when I reached them was, “He’s very sick, Jarrod.”

Very sick was right.  I helped Nick support our brother by holding onto Heath’s left biceps.  He was wearing a shirt, but even so I could feel the heat radiating from his body.  He didn’t say a word to me the entire time Nick and I talked.  When I told Heath to hang on, that I’d be back with the circuit judge as soon as I could, he looked at me through fever-glazed eyes and nodded his head.  Nonetheless, I was left uncertain as to if he really knew what I had said, or if he even knew who I was.

Aside from Judge Bentley, a U.S. marshal, and eight deputies, I had the foresight to bring a doctor back to the prison with me.  I knelt down by Heath’s side and took the burden of his limp body from Nick who moved out of the way to make room for Doctor Keltin.

“Everything’s going to be all right, Heath.”  I spoke with far more assurance to my semi-conscious sibling than I was feeling.  “I brought a doctor. He’ll have you back on your feet in no time.”

As the doctor unfastened the latch on his medical bag I wondered if there was an ounce of truth to what I’d just said to Heath.  He was so hot just touching him was like placing your hand on top of a cook stove. Being a lawyer I well knew what happened to a man who was locked in one of those iron boxes.  If left inside long enough his skin could literally burn as though he’d been working under a desert sun all day.  His tongue became so swollen he couldn’t talk.  What little saliva he could work up he’d be unable to swallow.  Eventually his body temperature would rise to the point that brain damage could occur.  For the past year I’d been on a state committee that was fighting for humane treatment of the men and women in our prison system.  The iron box was one of the things I was working hard to outlaw.

I looked up at Nick.  “How long has he been in this thing?”

“They put him in it no more than ten minutes after you left.”

“Dammit, Nick!  I told you not to antagonize Risley!”

“I didn’t antagonize him!  I didn’t do a thing but get Heath settled on his bunk.  They came to get us for dinner right after that.  The guards told me I could leave Heath there to rest.  That I could bring food for him.  Right then I should have known it was a trap of some sort!  When they brought us back to the cabin he was gone.  Risley popped his head in then and gloated like a weasel when he told me where Heath was.”

I looked down at the man whose upper body I was supporting for the doctor.  If I hadn’t come on prison property demanding to see my siblings would they have left Heath alone?  I thought I was doing Nick and Heath a favor by letting Risley know I was a lawyer and was well aware he’d falsely imprisoned my brothers.  Now I realized what a foolish mistake that had been.

Nick must have been able to read the expression on my face.

“Jarrod, don’t.  It wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m sorry,”  I said to both Heath and Nick at the same time.  And I was sorry.  Sorry that I had yelled at Nick for something he didn’t cause in the first place, and sorry that my presence had only brought Heath further problems.

“Jarrod, look,….”

Before Nick could finish his sentence the doctor interrupted us.

“Gentlemen, let’s not waste time worrying about who’s to blame for what.  Right now your brother needs your help if he’s going to live through the remainder of the night.”

As deputies swarmed the area rounding up Risley and the prison guards Nick crouched down so he was level with me and the physician.

“What are you saying, doc?”

“I’m saying this man is gravely ill.  First and foremost we have to get him cooled off.  His body temperature is dangerously high.”  Doctor Keltin looked at Nick.  “You, Mr. Barkley, take his legs.”   He turned to me.   “And you, Mr. Barkley, grab him under the shoulders.”

“I’m Jarrod,”  I said in an attempt to alleviate the confusion.  “That Mr. Barkley is my younger brother Nick.”  I looked down at the man in my arms.  “And this man is a younger brother to both of us.  Heath.”

The doctor nodded.  “Okay then, Jarrod, you take Heath’s upper body like I said.  Nick, you carry him by draping his knees over your arms.  Whatever you do be careful of that burnt leg.”

“I will.”

The doctor moved out of our way.  “On the count of three, gentlemen.  One, two, three.”

When the man said “three” Nick and I lifted Heath from the dirt.  If we were causing him any pain he didn’t indicate it which worried me more than if he would have let out a blood-curdling scream.

Doctor Keltin looked around a moment then directed us to the house that had been occupied by Risley.  Nick was somewhat familiar with it.  We carried Heath through the immaculate office, Nick leading the way to a flight of stairs.

“I think there’s a couple bedrooms up there.”

The doctor grabbed a lamp off Risley’s desk and charged ahead of us.  “Yes, yes!  Come on, gentlemen, up the stairs and to your left.  There’s a big room right here with a double bed.”

By the time we entered the room the doctor had the bed turned down.  The sheets were clean, crisp and sparkling white.  I could easily guess the prisoners on laundry duty were made to change Risley’s bed on a daily basis.

A voice shouted from below.  “Mr. Barkley!  The judge wanted me to find out if there’s anything you need for your brother!”

I looked at Doctor Keltin.

“Tell him cold water and plenty of it.  Buckets of it straight from the ell.  Also two pans of warm water so I can clean his back and leg.  I assume one of those buildings out there houses laundry.  Tell him we need clean cloths of some sort.  Towels would fit the bill perfectly, or sheets cut into squares about three feet by three feet in size.  Anything at all that we can use to wipe your brother down with.”

I relayed the message to the deputy below.  He nodded and smiled.

“I know some former prison guards who are looking for ways to be useful.  I’ll get them right on it.”

The doctor dug in his bag.  He handed Nick a pair of scissors.  “Pull Heath’s boots off then cut away his pants and shirt.”

“His pants?  But the pant leg where he’s burnt is already gone.”

“I realize that.  But we need to get the rest of those clothes off him.   Whatever we can do to aid in bringing his body temperature down must be done and done quickly.”

Nick nodded his head and grabbed the heel of Heath’s right boot.  I grabbed the left one.

The doctor had set the lamp on the bedside table when he walked in the room.  He crossed to the maple dresser and lit the lamp that resided there as well.  He spread items from his bag on top of the dresser while I undid Heath’s belt buckle and worked the belt through his pant loops.

By the time we had Heath laying naked on the bed the bucket brigade arrived.  Four buckets of water were brought into the room along with a stack of towels various sizes.  The deputy who had hailed me from the bottom of the stairs poked his head in the door.

“I have one of the men working on warming that water right now, doc.  I assume you don’t want it so hot you can’t put your hands in it.”

“Correct.  I need to be able to use it when the time comes.  Have the man take it off the stove short of a boil.  Tell him to pour it in two pans and cover them with lids so the water stays warm.”

“I’ll do that.  We’ll bring everything up when it’s ready.”

 The deputy disappeared down the stairs again.  The doctor directed Nick and me to the buckets.

“Jarrod, you grab a bucket and a towel and start sponging down the right side of Heath’s body.  Nick, you do the same on his left.”

We did as the man instructed.  I soaked another towel in the frigid water and laid it across Heath’s forehead.  His eyes opened a mere slit at my touch.  I smiled down at him.

“Hey, brother Heath.”

I hoped he’d recognize the phrase and therefore identify me as the speaker.  I was four and a half when Nick was born.  For whatever reason I referred to my new baby brother as ‘Brother Nick’, as though it was his proper name.  Or as my father was often fond of teasing, as though he was a monk.  As we’d grown into a adulthood it was a phrase I still occasionally used with both Nick and my youngest brother Gene.  Heath had been with us for a little over a year now.  I couldn’t ever recall having referred to him in such a manner.  That night I decided it was well past time he knew just what an important place he had in my heart.  A place that held just as much room and love for him as it did for Nick, Eugene and Audra.

I saw him mouth ‘Jarrod’ though no sound came out.

“Yes, it’s me, Heath.  It’s Jarrod.  You’re going to be fine.  I’ve got a doctor here who’s tending to you.  Nick’s here, too.”

Though his eyes remained more closed than open I saw him searching the room.  Again his mouth moved, forming the word ‘Nick’ this time.

“I’m here, Heath,”  Nick laid a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m right beside you.  You close your eyes now and rest.  You’ll feel better when you wake up.”

He finally pushed out a hoarse word we could hear.

“Hot.”

“I know you’re hot.”  Nick dipped his towel in water and ran it over Heath’s face and neck.  “Jarrod and I are working on bringing your temperature down.  Relax now.  Rest.”

Through split, dry lips he mumbled,  “Water?”

Nick looked up at the doctor.  “Can I give him a drink?”

“You can try.”  The man turned from his medical bag.  “Go down to the kitchen and get a glass.  If he can’t drink from it we’ll simply squeeze some water into his mouth from a clean cloth.”

Nick nodded his head and sprinted from the room.  I continued to sponge Heath off while Nick rummaged in the kitchen.  I heard the squeak of the pump at the kitchen sink, then Nick thundering up the stairs.

He entered the room with a glass that was half full.  He resumed his position on the side of the bed opposite me.  I slid a hand behind Heath’s head and lifted just enough so his lips touched the glass Nick held.

Nick slowly tipped the goblet.  “Heath, here’s the water you asked for.”

I could tell Heath was trying to drink the liquid, but whether he was too weak, or his lips too dry, or his tongue too swollen, I wasn’t certain.  Water dribbled out the corners of his mouth and fell to the pillow.  He was angry with himself for not being able to swallow it. He moved his head back and forth in my hands while pounding a weak fist against the mattress and making a growling noise deep in his throat.

“No, no,”  I soothed.  “Don’t get upset.  It’s okay.  We’ll try something else.”

The doctor stepped over to the bed.  “Tilt his head back, Jarrod.  That will force his mouth open.  Nick, you squeeze some water in like I mentioned before.  Not too much because he might not be able to swallow.  The last thing he needs is to choke and cough.”

With help from Doctor Keltin we employed this method.  Though the small amount of water Nick got down Heath’s throat certainly wouldn’t combat dehydration, it seemed to bring some relief to our brother.  In a few moments I felt his body relax in my hands.  His eyes slid shut as he slipped into a deeper state of semi-consciousness.

The doctor grabbed a towel and soaked it in water.  For the next hour he worked along with Nick and me in our efforts to bring Heath’s body temperature to somewhere near normal.  The three of us barely took notice when, in the midst of all this, an armed deputy led two prison guards in the room who were carrying bowls covered with tin lids.

I was dipping my towel in water again when someone knocked on the open door.

“Jarrod?”

I turned to see Judge Bentley standing there.

“If I could talk to you for just a moment please.”

“Yes, judge.”

I pushed myself to a standing position, ignoring my stiff knees and sore back.  I wrung the excess water from my towel and placed it on Heath’s forehead.  I looked across the bed at Nick.

“I’ll be right back.”

Nick nodded as I turned for the door.

“How’s your brother?”  Edward Bentley asked.

I stepped into the hall and shut the door all but a crack.  I had no idea how much of what was being said around him Heath was hearing and understanding.

“Not good.  Doctor Keltin said we’re in for several hours of touch and go yet before we know for certain whether or not he’ll pull through.  If nothing else we have managed to bring his body temperature down considerably.  The doc’s getting ready to take care of his back and leg right now.”

“What about brain damage from the heat inside that iron box?”

I looked in through the small opening of the door.  Heath was laying so lifeless on the bed.  He hadn’t said anything since he’d requested water from us over an hour earlier.

“We don’t know yet, Edward.  He does seem to realize Nick and I are in the room with him.  And he did say the words ‘hot’ and ‘thirsty.’   But until he becomes far more lucid than he has been there’s just no way of knowing for certain.”

“I’m sorry, Jarrod.”

I knew the man meant he was sorry that my brother was so ill and there was little anyone could do for him.

I nodded my head with thanks in response to the judge’s sympathy.

“I’m getting ready to ride back to town with the marshal and two of his deputies.  We’ve placed Risley and his guards under arrest.  They’ll be coming with us.  The remainder of the deputies will stay here and take charge of the camp for the time being.  I’ll be naming a temporary warden later today.”

“What about the men who are imprisoned here?  If Nick and Heath were falsely accused of a crime surely some of the others have been as well.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more.  I’ll be heading an investigative team that will start work within forty-eight hours.  Every man’s sentence will be reviewed.  Every man’s background will be gone over with a fine tooth comb.   Obviously I don’t want to release anyone who may well be serving time for a crime he did commit, but neither do I want to keep any man here who was simply a victim of fraudulent circumstances like your brothers were.”

“Thanks, Edward.”  I held out my hand.  “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your assistance.  If we hadn’t gotten here when we did,……..well if we hadn’t gotten here when we did I doubt I would have found Heath alive.”

The judge shook my hand.  “Don’t mention it.”

“I assume I’ll be hearing from you again at some point in the near future?”

“Yes.  You and Nick will most certainly be subpoenaed to testify against Charles Risley.”

“And Heath as well.”

If the judge found my words overly optimistic he didn’t show it.

“Yes.  Heath as well.”

“I can assure you, Edward, that will be one day my brothers and I will look forward to.”

“I quite imagine it will be.”  The judge placed his hat on his head and turned for the stairs.  “Wire me as soon as you know anything good,…..or otherwise, concerning Heath.”

“I will.”

 I waited until the man stepped off the last stair before entering the bedroom.  A washstand complete with pitcher and bowl stood against the north wall.  The doctor had placed the pitcher and bowl on floor for the time being and was pulling the table close to the bed.

“Jarrod, pick up those two basins of water and set them on this table please.”

I did as the man asked.  He removed the tin lids that had been keeping the water warm.  He took a bar of soap out of his bag and removed the heavy brown wrapping.

“We’re going to take care of Heath’s back first.  I’ll wash it off with warm water, then wash it again with antibacterial soap, then wash it again without the soap.”

“Anti,……what did you say?”  Nick asked.

“Antibacterial.  In other words the ingredients in it kill any germs that might cause infection.  It’s something very new to the medical community and often scoffed at by the most learned of men.  But I was a doctor in the Union Army.  I saw first hand what devestation germs can bring to the human body.    I’ve used soap like this with other patients and had favorable results.  It works far better than liniment and doesn’t sting or burn.”

The doctor looked at me.  “Jarrod, get a handful of those washcloths we haven’t used yet.”

I crossed to the dresser and did as the man instructed.  He reached down and pulled the bed sheet up to the middle of Heath’s stomach.

“I think your brother’s temperature has come down to the point that we can allow him some dignity.”  Keltin looked from me to Nick.  “Now I need one of you to sit on the edge of the bed and lift Heath.  I want you to lean his upper body onto yours, resting his head on your shoulder.”

“I’ll do it,”  Nick said before I could form a reply.  And if I had gotten the chance to reply I would have volunteered Nick for the job anyway.  He’d been uncharacteristically quiet during the past hour.  I knew he was upset and blaming himself for every bit of pain that had been inflicted on Heath.  I thought it would do him good to be physically close to our brother.  If Heath didn’t make it,……well if Heath didn’t make it at least Nick would find solace in knowing he’d offered all of himself he could right up until the very end.

Nick slipped his hands under Heath’s arms.  When he lifted I supported Heath’s head and neck.  When we got him settled against Nick’s body I turned Heath’s head so he was facing away from Nick.  I knew it would be easier for him to breath if his nose wasn’t against Nick’s shirt collar.

The doctor dipped a washcloth in the warm water.  Heath flinched and moaned when it was applied to his back.  I hurried around to the side of the bed Nick was sitting on.  I placed a hand on Heath’s head and bent to talk in his ear.

“I know it hurts, Heath, but the doctor has to clean the cuts on your back.”

I was surprised when he gave a slight nod at my words.  His left hand rose, blindly searching the space around him.  It took me a moment to realize what he wanted.  I reached out and grasped it, encasing the palm in mine.  His other hand traveled up Nick’s back.  The movement stopped when he was able to clutch a healthy chunk of shirt material in his fingers.  Nick patted one bare shoulder while running his other hand through Heath’s hair.

“Yeah, Heath, Jarrod and I are here.  We’re here, brother.  We’re not going anywhere.  We’re here.”

Twenty minutes later the doctor was finished with Heath’s back.

“There.  Everything looks good and clean.  If we’re lucky no infection will set in.”

The man moved to Heath’s leg.  He rolled the sheet away from the injury and looked up at Nick.

“How many days ago did he burn this?”

“Four.”

Doctor Keltin shook his head.  “I’ll warn you right now this is going to be tough on him.  Some of the material from his pant leg is melted right into the skin.  I’m going to have to get it out of there before I attempt further treatment.”

Nick tightened his grip on Heath.  “Let’s get it over with then.”

The man pulled a pair of tweezers from his bag.

“Nick, you and Jarrod can lay him back down on the bed.  He doesn’t have to be sitting up for this.”

“No,”  Nick’s response was swift and tight.  “I’ll hold him.”

The doctor looked at me.  I nodded my head, indicating to the man that we wanted to leave Heath as he was.

 “Jarrod, you come around to this side of the bed and hold the lamp down here for me.  I need more light than what I have.”

I gave Heath’s hand a squeeze before releasing it and resting it on the mattress.  I took the lamp off the dresser while the doctor grabbed a chair from the corner by the window.   He sat down with me crouched next to him.

I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to study Heath’s leg yet, but what I saw made me wonder how he’d lasted this long without treatment.  The flesh from the knee to the middle of his shin was black, a combination of infection and the soot from the camp fire.

Doctor Keltin started by gently washing the leg.  He was careful not to apply much pressure, but even so I saw Heath shift in Nick’s arms as though he was trying to pull away from whatever was causing him pain.

By the time the doctor was done some of the black had given way to bright red.  The burned skin looked angry and hot, but at least that was a vast improvement over the lifeless color of death from a few minutes earlier.

“That’s good,”  the man murmured as he peered at Heath’s leg.  “That’s very good.”

Nick looked down as best he could.  “What’s good?”

“Blisters are forming.  That’s a sign of healing.  I’m not going to pop them.  We’ll let nature take its course where they’re concerned.  However; I do see three pieces of material we have to get out of there.  New skin is already trying to grow around them.”

“Won’t it just push them out?”  Nick asked.

“It’ll try, but the odds it will be successful are slim.  Regardless, that’s not a chance we want to take.  He could end up with an infection that will cost him the leg.”

“You’re right,”  I assured.  “That’s not a chance we want to take.”

The tweezers were poised in the doctor’s hand.  He glanced up at Nick.  “You hold on to him good and tight because I guarantee you he’s going to fight both of us on this.”

“I’ve got him.”

The doctor hesitated further.  He looked over his shoulder at me.

“Jarrod, pull that washstand closer to me and set the lamp on it.  I think I’d better have you down here at the end of the bed holding onto your brother’s leg so he doesn’t jerk it away.”

I did as the doctor requested.  When I got to the end of the bed I placed one hand on Heath’s ankle and the other on his thigh.  I could feel him stiffen when my grip tightened.

“Ready, gentlemen?”

“Yes,”  I responded.

“Just do it,”  Nick urged.

 Heath’s hands clutched the back of Nick’s shirt when the doctor’s probing began.  He tried to lift his head from Nick’s shoulder, but Nick held it there.

“No, Heath, no,”  Nick whispered.  “Don’t move.  I know it hurts but don’t fight us.  Jarrod and I are still here with you.”

Doctor Keltin’s tweezers got a good grip on one piece of material.  Without any preamble he jerked it free of the surrounding skin.  Heath cried out and tried to yank his leg from my grip.  Both Nick and Heath are strong men, their muscles honed from the hard physical labor they do on the ranch day after day.  Despite Heath’s weakened condition I had to hold on for all I was worth.

“Hurry,”  I told the doctor.  “Let’s finish this up.”

The man nodded.  His tweezers snared another piece of material and ripped it free.  Again Heath cried out and again Nick tried to soothe him.

The remaining strip of pant leg wasn’t so cooperative.  The doctor had to probe and prod to get it to come loose one tiny piece at a time.

Heath was quiet through this portion of the procedure.  I thought he’d lost consciousness and would have been thankful if he had.  But then I saw his head move on Nick’s shoulder. And saw his hands squeeze Nick’s shirt until the knuckles turned white.  And watched his spine hunch when the tweezers dug again.  And felt his thigh muscles twitch in convulsive rhythm beneath my hand.

The sky turned from black to slate grey while the doctor worked.  I knew dawn should be breaking and heard a rumble of thunder in the distance.  When the first raindrops splashed against the window Doctor Keltin laid his tweezers down.  He wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt then patted Heath’s thigh.

“The worst is over, gentlemen.  I’ll wash the leg off then dress it with ointment.  I’m not going to bandage it at the moment.  We won’t worry about doing that for several days.  Not until he’s able to get up and around.”

Though Heath was no longer trying to fight us I continued to hold onto his leg while the doctor finished his ministrations.  When Keltin was done he stood.  He pushed the washstand out of the way and crossed to the dresser.  He began gathering up everything he’d use through the long night.  He washed each item off, dried them with a clean towel, then put them back in the bag one by one.

I rounded the bed.  Heath’s head still rested on Nick’s shoulder.  He’d been silent and motionless for almost a half hour, I expected to see his eyes closed.

“Oh, Heath,”  I murmured when I caught sight of him.

“What?”  Nick asked.  He strained to see what I was looking at.

My eyes met Nick’s.  “I thought he was unconscious.”

“I thought he was, too.  He’s not?”

“No.”  I grabbed one of the washcloths we’d used earlier and dipped it in water that was still cool.

“What’s going on?”  Nick tried to look over the back of Heath’s head.

“What are you doing, Jarrod?”

“He’s bitten his lower lip so hard it’s bleeding.  He’s got a nosebleed, too.”

At my words Nick’s head came to rest against Heath’s.  He rubbed Heath’s shoulder while I dabbed at the blood on his chin, then pressed the cloth against his nose.  Heath’s eyes were open the entire time I worked, but remained unfocused with a glazed sheen about them.

The doctor left the room while I was putting a halt to  Heath’s nose bleed.  When he returned he had a pillow in his hand.  He lifted Heath’s burnt leg just enough to slip the pillow under his knee.  As Nick and I eased Heath back to a reclining position Doctor Keltin pulled a blanket up from the bottom of the bed.  Heath’s body temperature was no longer a concern.  Shock from the pain he’d endured was.

Heath shivered.   Nick covered him with both the sheet and the blanket.

“We’ll push these back from his leg.”  Doctor Keltin adjusted the covers so the burnt area of Heath’s leg was left outside them.  “The air will do the burn good.”

Heath shivered again.  His eyes were still glassy, the lids heavy with exhaustion. Those eyes shifted from Nick to me.  I laid a hand on his arm while Nick rested one on top of his head.  I smiled down at him.

“You rest now.”

Nick tried to muster a smile as well.  He ran his hand through Heath’s hair.  “Get some sleep, brother.”

Whether our soft words lulled Heath to sleep, or whether his body just didn’t have the strength to stay awake any longer I don’t know.  His eyes slid closed and within seconds his breathing was soft and even.

The rain started to come down in earnest while the doctor packed the remainder of his bag.  He picked it up by the handles and turned to face us.

“Nick, I assume there might be other men on this compound who are in need of medical attention?”

“Yeah.  Several as a matter of fact.  There’s a so-called doctor here, but when Heath went to see him about his leg he found the guy passed out with an empty whiskey bottle in his hands.”

“Then I’ll set up office at the infirmary for the next few hours.  If Heath’s condition changes for the worse come and get me.  Otherwise just let him sleep.  When he wakes up give him all the water he’ll drink.  If he keeps that down then we’ll try some broth later in the day.”

Nick eased himself off the mattress.  “Will he be okay now?  Will he pull through?”

“Mind you, I’m not giving any guarantees, but I’m feeling positive that he’s passed through the worst of it.  Just watch and see that his temperature doesn’t rise again.  If it does, start sponging him down immediately.”

“What about brain damage?”  I asked.

“Until he’s fully awake I just don’t know.  It’s a good sign that he seems to recognized both of you and that he was able to respond correctly to anything we asked of him.  But until he’s forced to form complete sentences, forced to voice his needs or answer questions, your guess is as good as mine.  Being his brothers I suspect the two of you know him better than just about anyone.  You should immediately notice if something’s off-kilter with his speech or actions.”

Neither Nick nor I had any response to the doctor’s words.  I think we were both busy saying a silent prayer right about then.

I reached in my wallet and pulled out a wad of bills without bothering to count them.  I knew I was carrying several hundred dollars in cash.  Though it was far more than a small town doctor was used to being paid the man’s services had been worth every penny.

“Mr. Barkley,……Jarrod, I can’t accept this.  Why there’s,……”

“I don’t care how much is there, Doctor.  I want you take it.  You didn’t know me from Adam yet you were willing to get out of your bed in the middle of the night to ride out here with me.  Now you’re willing to stay and treat those men out on that compound.  I appreciate your help.  Without it Heath would be dead.”

“But I’m a doctor. Helping people is what I do.”

I smiled at the man and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “And I’m a lawyer.  Debating with people is what I do.”

“Yeah, doc,”  Nick chimed in,  “and most people who debate with him generally lose.  Therefore I’d advise you to take that money and run.”

“If the two of you insist.”  Doctor Keltin reluctantly pocketed the money.  “I’ll be back in to check on Heath later today.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

“Thanks, doc.”

After the doctor walked out Nick and I straightened up the room.  I left the chair beside the bed, intending to make use of it.

“There’s a bed in the room across the hall,”  I told my brother.  “You look like you’re ready to drop.  Go lie down and get some sleep.   I’ll call you if anything changes with Heath.”

Nick ignored me.  He stood looking down at Heath.  Lightening cracked outside the window and I had to strain to hear Nick’s words when he spoke.

“He must feel like I abandoned him.”

“Heath?”

“Yeah.”

“What makes you say that?”

Nick spun around.  “Because when they whipped him I didn’t stop them!  I wanted to, but the other men told me they’d just make it harder on Heath if I did.  That the whipping would go on that much longer.”

“I’m sure they were correct.”

“And then when they took him and locked him in that damn box I didn’t stop them.”

“You said you weren’t there when they came and got him.”

“I wasn’t!  But dammit, Jarrod, I didn’t get him out until nine hours later!”

“Not because you didn’t want to though.”

“Of course I wanted to!  They brought me to this house.  Downstairs to Risley’s office!  I told him to name his price.  That I’d pay him anything, anything he asked if he’d only let Heath out of there.”

“Nick, a man like that,…….a man who’s motivated by evil can’t be bought.”

“Oh, he could be bought all right.”

“What do you mean?”

“He wanted me to beg, Jarrod.  He demanded that I get down on my hands and knees and beg him to let Heath out.”

I didn’t say anything.  I knew ounce for ounce Nick Barkley had more pride than any three men put together.  Now I understood why he’d been taking this so hard.  Why he was blaming himself for Heath’s physical condition.   He hadn’t been able to force himself to do as Risley asked.

“Nick, it’s okay.  No one has the right to ask a man to beg simply for the sake of humiliating him.”

“You think I didn’t do it?”

“Well, I,….”

“Would you have done it?”

I didn’t answer.

“Jarrod, if the circumstances were exactly the same.  If you knew Heath was locked out in that box under the hot sun and you were told you had to beg for his life, would you?”

There was no point in being dishonest.  Nick would have caught me in the lie before three words were out of my mouth.

“Yes, I would have.  But that doesn’t make me right and you wrong.  It just makes us two different men.  We don’t approach life from the same angle.”

“And if it had been you or me in that box and Heath was asked to beg for our lives do you think he would have?”

When it came to pride Heath was probably an even match for Nick.  Yet he was a much calmer personality.  Someone who didn’t let his temper overrule his common sense as Nick was often prone to doing.

Nick pinned me with a hard gaze.  “Jarrod, do you think Heath would have?”

Slowly, I nodded my head.  “Yes, Nick, I think Heath would have.  But again, his personality is so different from yours it’s like comparing apples to oranges.   You can’t blame yourself for being the man you are.”

Nick turned away from me.  He briefly laid a hand on Heath’s shoulder then adjusted the covers.

“You know, Jarrod, life is strange.  Eighteen months ago we didn’t even know this brother of ours existed.  When he first came to the ranch and told us who he was I was so damn mad at him I could have knocked his teeth down his throat.”

I smiled.  “If I remember correctly you tried.”

“Yeah, I did.  Good thing for Heath he packs a punch with as much gusto as mine.”  Nick moved to the window and watched the rainfall.  “I don’t know for certain when things started to change.  When it began to feel like he’d lived with us all his life.  All I know is it didn’t take long.  And no matter how much I tried to dislike him I couldn’t.  How the hell can you dislike someone who works like a mule and always has a smile on his face to boot?  How can you dislike someone who came to your family under the most adverse of circumstances yet within days of arriving pledged his loyalty to you?  How can you dislike someone who spent his childhood being called a bastard because of your father’s actions?  How can you dislike a brother who grew up with nothing, absolutely nothing to the point he sometimes went to bed hungry, while you yourself grew up with so much?   How can you dislike someone who so openly respects and loves your mother as if she were his own?  How can you dislike,…..”

I heard the tears choking Nick’s voice that forced him to pause and take a shuddering breath.

“How can you dislike someone who only asks one thing of you?  To be accepted as your brother.  To be accepted as a part of the family he rightfully belongs to.”

“Nick, come on.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.  The important thing right now is that Heath’s okay.  He’s going to be fine.  I know he is.”

Nick turned to face me.  A tear spilled over one eye and snaked a crooked path down his unshaven cheek.

“I did it, Jarrod.  I begged Risley.  I got down on my hands and knees just like he told me to and I begged that sonuvabitch for Heath’s life.  I begged him to let Heath out of that box.  And he laughed at me.  He just laughed at me like a crazy man.  Then later,……after they dragged me kicking and cursing back to the cabin, Risley stood outside that box and told Heath that I could have saved him.  That I refused to beg for his life.  That I told Risley Heath wasn’t worth begging for.”

I crossed the room and took Nick in my arms.  “Nick, it’s okay.  It’s all right.”

“No, Jarrod, it’s not all right.  Maybe if it had been anyone but Heath,…..you or Gene,…….I would know that neither of you would ever believe something like that.  But Heath,……”

“I know.”  I raised a hand and placed it on the back of his head.  “I know.”

And I did know.  He didn’t have to say any more for me to understand.  Though we didn’t think of him as such, Heath was our half-brother.  He’d fought hard to become a member of the Barkley family and to gain Nick’s acceptance.  Long after Mother, Audra, Gene, and myself were warming to Heath, Nick was still fighting this man whose only crime was to show up on our doorstep as living proof of an extramarital affair our deceased father had engaged in.  Nick had worshipped Tom Barkley.  It was hard for him to see our father’s image tarnished.  For several months after Heath came to us Nick unjustly blamed him for that.

Nick gathered his emotions and pulled away from me. He wiped a dirty shirt sleeve across his eyes.

“Do you think Heath knows?”

I gave Nick the most honest answer I could.  “I think Heath knows you love him if that’s what you’re asking me.  I believe he knows you love him as much as you love me, and Audra, and Eugene.”

“Sometimes my temper gets the best of me and I say some nasty things to him.”

I chuckled.  “Nick, at various times you say nasty things to all your siblings.  Believe me, none of us takes you too seriously.  Heath least of all.”

“You really think so?”

“Yes, I really think so.  It’s funny, but Heath knows how to handle you better than any of us.  Even Mother’s commented about that.  When you’re up in arms, ranting and raving like a wild man, Heath just sits back and watches you with this twinkle in his eyes.  Like he’s getting the biggest kick out of the show you’re putting on.  Most people run and hide when you get like that, fearful of your wrath.  But not Heath.  He never has.  Not from the first day he met you.  He simply waits out your temper.  And when you’re calm again he acts as though the upset never happened.”

Nick looked down at the sleeping man.  “There’s a bond that’s formed between us this last year and a half that I never imagined would have existed.”

“I know.  Heath and I have formed a bond like that, too.  Heath and Audra have as well.  And though Gene has been away at school during most of the time Heath’s been with us, I’ve seen friendship growing between them.  Mother commented to me some months ago that Heath makes her think of Father in that regard.  She said he’s a hard man not to like.  A hard man not to love.  In most families various siblings grow close for different reasons, but it’s rare that one is close to all his or her brothers and sisters.  I see that rarity in Heath.  He seems to have found common ground with all of us.”

“I’ve noticed that, too.  I know I’m not very close to Gene simply because of the years that separate us.”

I nodded my understanding.  Eugene and Audra had always been close. They’re less than two years apart in age and had been inseparable playmates as children just like Nick and I had been.  For whatever reason we all seemed to be close to Audra.  I’ve always attributed that to the fact she’s the only girl in the family.  But by virtue of the years separating us neither Nick nor I had formed the type of brotherly bond with Gene that we had with each other, and that we now shared with Heath.

I reached out and patted Nick’s shoulder as thunder rattled the window pane.

“Nicholas, go to bed now.  Heath’s going to be fine.  When he wakes up,……when he wakes up you can have whatever discussion with him you deem necessary.”

“Sure.  Yeah.  I suppose I can.”

His words were flat and I could easily detect what he left unspoken.  It wasn’t easy for a man like Nick Barkley to talk about his feelings.  As much as he wanted to tell Heath the things he’d just said to me, I doubted that he ever would.

I gave Nick’s shoulder a final squeeze.  “Even if you can’t talk to him it makes no difference.  As I told you earlier, he knows, Nick.  He knows.”

“I hope you’re right.”  Nick looked down at our slumbering brother one last time.  “I hope to God you’re right.”

Nick gave me a small smile as he passed.  I heard the bed springs creak in the next room, then the sound of his boots dropping to the floor.

I could only imagine how good that mattress must have felt to his exhausted body.

I pulled the chair closer to Heath’s bed and sat down.  I laid a light hand on his forehead.  I couldn’t detect any fever, as a matter of fact his skin was cool to my touch.  I made certain he was covered everywhere but the burnt section of his leg.  Satisfied I’d done all for Heath that I could I leaned back in my chair.  Sometime that day I’d have to wire Mother and Audra.  I decided I’d wait until I knew more about Heath’s physical condition.  For the time being I stared out at the rain.  It looked like we were in for a real soaker.  The water was falling in sheets.  Lightning streaked the sky at regular intervals and thunder caused the floorboards beneath my chair to quake.

Over the sounds of the storm I heard Nick’s snores coming from the next room.  Without realizing it my head began to fall toward my chest.  Within minutes I joined my brothers in dreamland.

*****

A clap of lightning made me jump in my chair.  Sleep hung heavy on my brain.  I looked around the room trying to get my bearings.  When my eyes landed on Heath the past eighteen hours flooded back to me.

Rain continued to fall.  I lifted my right hip and reached for my pocket watch.  I flicked the lid open.  It was five minutes to ten which meant I’d been asleep three hours.

Lightning flashed again.  And though with it came thunder Heath went on sleeping, undisturbed by the ruckus outside the house.  I placed my palm on his forehead, then slid the hand down to rest against the side of his face.  As near as I could gauge his body temperature felt normal.  Since five hours had now passed since we’d been sponging him down I assumed this was a good sign.  Unless an infection set in any of his wounds I was doubtful his temperature would rise again.

I rotated my neck from side to side.  I had a kink in one shoulder and the small of my back ached when I stood.  I stifled a groan as I shuffled to the window.  I saw one of the deputies taking two men to the infirmary so I knew Doctor Keltin was still on the grounds.

By the time I walked out of the room my muscles were loosening up.  I shut the door three-quarters of the way then stepped across the hall.

Nick was sleeping on his side which explained why the snoring had stopped.  He hadn’t bothered to turn the bedcovers down or remove any clothing other than his boots.  I left him undisturbed and turned for the stairs.

I rummaged around the kitchen looking for coffee.  When I found some I stoked the fire in the belly of the cook stove.  A coffee pot was setting on the back burner.  I rinsed it out with fresh water from the pump then refilled it.  While the water heated I searched for anything else Nick and I might be willing to call breakfast.

Based on what Nick had told me Charles Risley didn’t believe hard labor and full stomachs went hand in hand.   While Risley didn’t partake in that philosophy for his prisoners he certainly partook in it for himself.  I found fresh eggs, cheese, butter, and bread in the kitchen.  I was also willing to bet that the small building behind the warden’s office was a smokehouse filled with slabs of bacon, sausages, and a side of beef.

I located pans, plates and silverware next.  As soon as Nick was awake I was going to fix him the kind of meal he hadn’t enjoyed since he and Heath had left home on their cattle buying trip two weeks earlier.

While I waited for the coffee water to come to a boil I headed for the front door.  I wanted to ask one of the deputies to take inventory of the food in the smokehouse.  If there wasn’t enough to give all the men on the compound a decent meal before the day ended then I was going to send someone to the general store in town for provisions.  I’d given Doctor Keltin the last of the money in my wallet, but I had three hundred dollars in my saddle bags.

My hand had just touched the knob when a terrified shout came from the second floor.  Then another.  And another.  By the time I’d crossed Risley’s office I knew the cries were coming from Heath.  By the time my foot hit the second step I could make out the words he was yelling.

“Nick!  Nick!”  he screamed again and again.

I was halfway up the stairs when Nick flew across the hall.  With one hand he smacked the door open and disappeared in the room.

Nick was struggling with Heath when I arrived.  Heath was sitting up in bed, his eyes filled with terror, yet fixed and glazed.  Whatever he was seeing wasn’t occurring in this room.  He had a grip on Nick’s arms just as steadfastly as Nick had a grip on his shoulders.  They fought against one another, Heath shouting Nick’s name as he tried to combat his way out of bed.

I joined the fray.  Two of us holding onto Heath only made him fight harder.  In his weakened state he was no match for us, but that message wasn’t penetrating the nightmare he was trapped in.  He bucked and struggled and clawed.  He flailed his legs until I was afraid he’d hurt the one with the burn.

“Heath!”  I shouted over his cries.  “Heath, calm down!  Heath!”

Nick’s voice joined mine.

“Heath!  Heath, it’s Nick!  Heath, I’m right here!  Heath, stop it!  Stop it dammit, you’ll hurt yourself!  Heath!”

Whether Nick’s final shout of “Heath!”  was what brought him back to us, or whether it was when Nick took Heath’s upper torso and pressed it firmly to the side of his body, I’m not certain.  All I know is just when I was beginning to think we needed Doctor Keltin’s help the cries for Nick stopped.

I could feel Heath’s muscles go lax underneath my hands.  He was sweating and panting for breath, but at that point we were all sweating and panting for breath.  He blinked his eyes several times and slowly I began to see signs of lucidness.  I wondered if he remembered anything that occurred since Nick had gotten him out of that box nine hours earlier.  I realized he probably had no idea where he was.

“Heath, we’re still on the prison grounds but everything’s fine.  Risley’s been arrested and a U.S. marshal has been put in charge.”  I grabbed another blanket off the end of the bed as I talked.  I wrapped it around his back and shoulders while Nick straightened the blankets on the front of Heath’s body the best he could using one hand.  “You’re in a bedroom in the house Risley used.  You’ve been seen by a doctor.  He said after a few days of rest you’ll be back to giving Nick a hard time.”

A tiny smile played on his mouth at my words.

“Are you okay now?”  I asked.

Heath’s eyes closed for a second and he nodded his head.  He brought his left hand from underneath the blankets and latched onto Nick’s arm.  Nick eased to a sitting position on the edge of the bed.  As soon he got settled Heath leaned his upper body into Nick’s side.  He stared at the far wall, not making eye contact with either one of us.  When his silence lengthened I asked, “Heath, can I get you anything?  A glass of water?”

Again he didn’t verbally reply, but he nodded his head yes from where it rested against Nick’s biceps.

I could see the worry in Nick’s eyes when he looked over Heath’s body at me.  I knew he was wondering the exact thing I was.  Had Heath incurred some type of brain damage that was preventing him from talking to us?

For now I simply gave Heath’s shoulder a pat and told both my brothers,  “I’ll be right back with that water.”

When I returned to the room with glass in hand Heath was sitting just as I’d left him.  By the grip he still had on Nick’s arm it was apparent he had no intention of releasing our sibling.

Heath didn’t try to take the glass from me.  He allowed me to hold it to his mouth and tip it so he could drink.  Within seconds he’d drained it dry of the cold liquid.

“Do you want more?”

At least this time he replied to my question.

“Not right now.  Thanks.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

He spotted his shredded clothes in one corner of the room.  I imagine that was the first time he realized he was naked underneath those covers.  I saw a teasing smile light his eyes. His voice was quiet and hoarse, but it was music to my ears.

“Boy howdy, I sure hope one of you fellas has enough money on you to buy me some pants before we have to leave this place.”

Nick and I couldn’t help it, we started to laugh.  I think that’s when we knew for certain he was going to be okay.  That expression, ‘boy howdy’, was one Heath used frequently and one the entire family loved to tease him about.  I knew employing it now was Heath’s way of letting us know he was going to weather this storm.

“Don’t worry about that,”  I turned and set the empty glass on the dresser. “I’ve got plenty of money to buy you whatever clothing you need before we hit the trail for home.”

He nodded his head at my words.  I saw the smile leave his eyes as a more somber expression settled on his face.  He didn’t look at either one of us when he said softly,  “I thought you were in that box.”

“What?”  Nick asked.

“I thought you were in that iron box.  I guess I was dreaming it.  I was trying to get you out but I couldn’t find the key.”

I was surprised when I saw Nick turn his face just enough so he could place a kiss on the top of Heath’s head.

“Yeah, you were dreaming it.  It was just a dream.  That’s not what happened, Heath.  I’m fine.”

The time had come for Nick to talk about those feelings with Heath he had poured out to me earlier in the morning.  The time had come for me to leave the room so he could do it.

“Listen, Nick, I’m going to let Doctor Keltin know Heath’s awake.  I’m sure he’ll want to check on him before he heads back to town.  Then I’ll see what I can make us for breakfast.  If the doctor says it’s okay for Heath to have something then I’ll cook for him, too.”

“All right.”

I patted Heath on the shoulder.  “I’ll be back in a little while.”

Though his right hand was still encased in blankets he brought it up.  I took it and squeezed it through the quilts.

“Thanks, Jarrod.”

Like Nick had done, I bent and kissed the top of his head.  “You don’t need to thank me for anything until I show up with a pair of underwear and pants for you.”

“I’ll definitely thank you on that day.”

I smiled.  “I’m sure you will, brother Heath.”

I left the room but admit to standing in the hallway and eavesdropping a few minutes.  Just as I knew it would be, it was difficult for Nick to talk about his feelings.  But despite a few long pauses and convoluted phrases, he finally managed to convey to Heath what an important place he had in Nick’s life.

I heard Heath assure Nick he never believed a word Risley said when the warden stood outside the iron box and gloated that Nick wouldn’t beg for Heath’s life. And that’s when I realized no iron box could break the bonds of steel Heath had formed with his new family.

Nor break the bonds of steel Heath’s new family had formed with him.

***The End***

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