Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 7100
“Let’s git this herd home, boys!”
Nick Barkley was ecstatic about how well they had wheeled and dealed in Modesto and how they were now on their way home to Stockton with the finest herd of cattle this side of Sacramento.
Making good time, thanks to Nick’s hurried pace, the dark haired cowboy along with his brother Heath and their hired men came upon a rise that set them up looking over the peaceful valley below. Stockton and home would be about a days ride from there.
Darkness was close to setting in. Noting the surroundings good for making camp, Nick stopped the men’s trek for the day and all went to work of setting up temporary sleeping quarters. Cook fires were started and bedrolls put down. Soon the smell of beans and bacon were permeating the air.
“Beans!” came a snort from Nick as he threw up his hands. “What I’d like is a big steak. Oh, and a BIG baked potato,” he added.
“I don’t know Nick. Beans aren’t so bad,” Heath said as he turned his attention to his own plate. “If you want, I’ll take your share. I’m as hungry as a horse”, Heath said in a teasing way to his older brother, knowing how much Nick disliked “trail” grub. Realizing that there would be no steak forthcoming, Nick grumbled back, resigned to the fact that at least the beans Heath seemed to savor so much would be good gut fill, though not very tasty.
It had been a tiring day rounding up the cattle at the auction. By the time the men had eaten and set out their gear for the night, it was time to turn in. Only a few harmonicas could be heard as the campfire died down and the men drifted off into their own thoughts of getting back home and then sleep.
Road weary, Heath too, settled into his bed on the ground, knowing that lying under the stars would lull his tired body to sleep with ease. As he did every night since discovering his true roots, Heath Barkley contemplated his humble beginnings to present day, thankful, oh so thankful, that he was part of a loving warm family and that at last, though it had taken Nick an especially long time, he was accepted. He belonged. A hard days work and sleep were sweet for the young cowboy.
In seemingly an instant, night turned to dawn. In a dream, the sky showed color as the molested spider scurried up Heath Barkley’s back and spilled her venom into his neck. With only foggy awareness, the blond cowboy’s hand rose to the back of his head to brush her away.
Heath’s slumber was broken to the thundering voice of his brother waking the men to grab some grub and be ready to hit the trail.
“Heath! Times a wastin’, boy! Let’s git a move on. We’ve got a lot of miles to cover today to get home before dark.” Nick crouched to shake a muscular shoulder of the groggy Heath, before moving on down the camp making sure his loud booming voice was heard by all and that he was seeing action amongst the men.
With eyes still pasted shut with sleep, Heath slowly rolled over and started to sit up. His eyes flew open wide as he felt a sharp knife-like pain shooting through his neck, up his head and across his eyes. Grabbing the back of his neck, he pinched hard while biting his lower lip to keep from crying out. Tentatively, Heath eased himself onto his back willing the stabbing spasms to lessen and leave. Eventually, the hard throbbing subsided to a less intrusive dull ache and slowly ever so slowly he was able to maneuver himself into a sitting position.
Boy howdy, what was THAT about, he wondered as he heaved himself upwards, finally being able to stand though great pains shooting through his legs seemed to take over, almost causing him to topple. Bringing his palms to his face, Heath dug them into his aching eyes hoping to alleviate the awful pain that threatened to break through once again to his head. Squeezing his eyes shut once more, he tried desperately to clear his head.
With deliberate movement, Heath started putting his gear together for the rest of the journey home. Maybe some coffee and food would help. Running a strong hand through his hair and back across his neck, his hand stopped abruptly at the base of his skull where his fingers rested on 2 small, warm to the touch, welts. Must have had the granddaddy of mosquitoes dining on me last night, he thought to himself as he moved along slowly to the breakfast line concentrating heavily on each step that threatened to drive him to the ground.
The newest Barkley’s tentative steps did not go unnoticed by big brother. Nick had just loaded up his plate and turned to see Heath approaching the men in line. Arching an eyebrow, he studied his younger brother for a moment trying to dismiss the faint alarm that arose in his chest. Something just didn’t look right, but he couldn’t put a finger on what. Was he sick or just tired? Swaggering over, Nick planted his hand on Heath’s shoulder.
“Well, don’t you look the picture of good rest! What’s the matter brother? Not enough shut-eye? I know! It was those BEANS,” boomed Nick. “Wretched things they are!”
Heath wasn’t too pleased to hear the word “wretched” as he stood there trying to keep his head from falling off of his shoulders. Unaware of it, he was blinking his eyes rapidly, which of course Nick noticed along with his pale countenance. The last thing Heath wanted for Nick to see was any weakness in him and so as steadily as he could, replied back, “N..nothing’s wrong Nick. Just a little tired, I guess. I’ll be alright.”
“Okay then,” said Nick doubtfully. “You sure?”
Heath turned away from his rough and tough sibling, and concentrated on balancing his plate of food and mug of coffee. Wanting to be alone, Heath started off down the trail to the stream bed to find a flat boulder to rest his now aching feverish body. He didn’t want anyone, especially Nick, to fuss over him.
Trying to regulate his breathing, Heath was just settling down to eat when a pain as sharp as lightning seared through his neck and into his head causing his hands to fly to cushion the hurt and making his plate go clattering into the water below. A pain that crumpled his body to the ground all the while causing him to emit a scream that came deep from within his being and echo off the surrounding canyon walls. Darkness was swift to overpower the blond cowboy and unable to fight, Heath allowed oblivion to capture and overtake him.
Nick stiffened when he heard the terrible sound. “What the devil was that?” Even before the words were out of his mouth, Nick knew. He knew who that cry came from.
Heath! Oh my God! Where is he?
With every fiber of self -control he could muster, Nick quickly sensed that he’d need help finding his brother. The men had heard the scream too and were starting to scurry to help, but Nick, as calm as he could under the circumstances, ordered them to stay put with the herd and to have water and blankets ready. Calling over Mark Diamond, his foreman and boyhood friend, the two men headed off in the direction of the scream from a brother in distress.
“I think he’s down that way, by the water,” directed Nick, spurs jangling, as he skirted the rocks along the trail, heading down towards the stream.
“Heath! Heath! Where are you? It’s Nick! Answer me!”
No answer was forthcoming. Nick was starting to sweat. Why won’t he answer?
“Mark, you go downstream that way,” commanded Nick, pointing to the south, “and I’ll see if I can find him up this way,” turning northward. “Don’t go too far,” he cautioned. “He couldn’t have gone far and when we find him, it may take two of us to get him back to camp.” Just voicing the possible fate of his youngest brother caused Nick to visibly tremble.
Reaching the stream, Nick scampered up a rounded boulder to survey the scene. Suddenly his eyes lit upon something in the short distance. There behind a jutted out rock, he recognized Heath’s cream -colored hat. Craning his neck, Nick froze momentarily upon the discovery of the prone body of his youngest brother. Heath was laying still spread eagle on the stream’s shore with swirling icy water just reaching his ears and circulating around his head and shoulders.
“Mark! Over here! Hurry!” Nick’s order came forth from his mouth sharply as he fell to his brother’s side and swiftly scooped Heath’s head out of the rushing water. He was alive, but barely conscious. Nick shuddered to think, what if he had fallen further into the stream. He would have been drowned.
Mark arrived at the scene in moments and both men carried Heath to a more stable place on the stream’s shore. Nick, using his strong forearms, raised the blond cowboy’s upper body onto his own chest just in case any water had entered into Heath’s lungs. Nick tried firmly tapping Heath between his shoulder blades and calling his name into his ear to wake him out of his sleeplike state, but this only elicited wheezy moans. Heath seemed to be laboring for each breath.
Suddenly Nick’s eyes fell upon something on the back of his brother’s neck that sent chills coursing through his body. Two red welts with pinprick holes jumped out at him. He had seen this kind of bite before and it terrified him because he knew what it was and what the consequences could be. A poisonous spider bite could mean death to even a strong healthy man. Nick relayed his find to his friend.
“It’s a spider bite on his neck. Probably a Black Widow,” Nick said with new fear in his voice as he pointed to the area of Heath’s neck. “They can be deadly,” he whispered.
Mark was well aware of the danger they faced and knew that they must act quickly to save Nick’s fallen brother. “Nick, we’ve got to get him back to camp. The bite will need to be lanced. The quicker we do it, the better his chances. I think it would be easiest if we took him by each side and kind of carried him up the trail.” Nick agreed and balancing Heath between them, the men slowly made their way back up the sloped trail and made it back to where the camp was in fair time.
The men, to Nick’s relief, had several blankets ready as Nick and Mark eased Heath to a soft cushion of blankets on the hard dirt. Heath’s breaths were coming in gasps and his eyes blinked rapidly behind the closed lids.
“He’s awfully warm, Nick,” observed Mark. “It might have been a blessing that we found him with his head in the water. It might have saved him. It kept him cool. Now we’ll have to do the same. We need to get that fever under control.”
“Right,” agreed Nick. “You men over there”, he barked. “Fetch some water in buckets and get it over here. Also, gather up any towels or cloth you can find for compresses and hurry it up.”
The men scrambled to gather the needed supplies as Nick and Mark gently stripped Heath down to minimal decency.
With his chest heaving, the blond cowboy was trying with all his might to rise above the dark endlessness that was fighting to take him under. The pain now in his stomach was so excruciating that the easiest thing to do would have been to let himself slip into unconsciousness but somewhere, Heath’s survival instinct had kicked in and in his foggy state, he knew he couldn’t give in. He had to fight with all his might to stay awake.
Through heavy eyelids opened just in slits, Heath was able to see the daylight and see fuzzy forms hovering above him. Sensing that one of the foggy moving shapes must be his brother, Heath tried to form words but through parched lips and swollen tongue, his thick words were almost inaudible. “N-nick….H-hot…thir-thirsty.”
Nick had heard his brother’s words but correctly ascertained that it would be dangerous to assist him to drink from a cup for fear of him choking. Instead Nick continued to sponge water onto Heath’s face, arms, chest and belly allowing some to spill into his mouth in a very regulated manner.
“Hang on Heath! You’re very sick now so try to rest. We’re going to help you,” soothed Nick as he wrapped another cold cloth around Heath’s neck. Heath sucked in his breath sharply as the pain in his stomach seemed to shoot through his whole body.
“Heath!” Nick was alarmed “Where’s the pain? Can you tell me?” “P-pain.” Heath tried to swallow but only managed to gag. “H-here.” A shaky hand traveled to his abdomen and then fell limp. Heath had lost his fight for consciousness and slipped into fevered nothingness.
“Let’s get to that lancing”, Nick said as he pulled a small hunting knife from its sheath and thought to himself, God I hope it’s not too late.
“Any one of you men have a flask? I’ll need to douse this.” he said pointing to his knife, “The best we can do under the circumstances to counter infection.”
“I’ve got one in my pack,” volunteered one of the hands as he rose to get the medicinal liquid.
“We’ll need hot water,” Nick directed. Soon the water was on hand.
Plunging the knife first into the water and then pouring the whiskey from the flask over it, Nick prepared to make his cut.
“Careful of the tendons,” warned Mark. “A quick upward cut will do the most good. Sever a tendon and he’ll bleed to death.”
Positioning the knife just below the inflamed bite, Nick sucked in his breath and gritted his teeth. He was skilled at cutting out rattlesnake bites and bleeding the venom but the time he’d done that was on an ankle, which didn’t bleed nearly as much as a head or neck wound. That was about 6 months ago. Matter of fact, it was Heath’s ankle to be exact. The unsuspecting cowboy had stepped into the snake’s sleeping quarters while repairing some downed fence on the range.
Well, I’ve cut you once brother and you survived. Let’s do it again, he thought to himself as he made his short deep cut.
Heath flinched away from the blade and moaned.
“Hold him still now,” Nick commanded Mark and the other two men restraining Heath.
Blood bubbled up through the wound Nick had made. Leaning down over his brother, Nick put his mouth over the cut and sucked out the blood and immediately spat it out upon the ground. Heath whimpered from the pressure and pain inflicted on him. Nick took his mouth to Heath’s neck one more time, praying that he wasn’t too late in the treatment as he expelled the poisoned blood in an involuntary gag.
“Okay. That’s the best I can do. Let’s hope that it’s good enough,” he said as he took a clean hot compress and bandaged it over the open sore.
Nick stood up a little shakily, thankful that Heath had been under during the whole operation but knew he must have been just at the surface for him to cry out in pain.
“You’ve just gotta pull through this, little brother,” Nick whispered. You’ve just got to.”
“He’s gonna need a doctor, Nick”, Mark stated with concern. “His fever is still high and that pain in his gut, that’s not good.”
“Yeah, I know,” nodded Nick in agreement. We’ve got about 6 hours of riding time to Stockton. We’ll put him in the wagon and have to monitor him closely.”
Turning to one of his best ranch hands, he directed, “Sam, I want you to take charge of the men and the cattle.” Addressing his foreman, “Mark, you ride in the wagon with me. I get the feeling when this cowboy comes around he’s not going to be none too docile. We’re gonna have a fight on our hands to keep him still and calm.”
“Sure thing, Nick,” Mark replied as he went fixing up the wagon to be as comfortable as possible for the long journey.
Nick crouched down to change the damp cloths his brother was layered in hoping the cold moisture would somehow break the fever that had a tight grip on him. As Nick reached to put new compresses on Heath’s stomach and chest, the fallen man began to toss and moan. To hear his blond brother in so much obvious pain was almost too much for Nick to bear.
“Heath, I’m right here,” he said with his voice breaking. I know you’re hurting brother. We’re going to take you home. We’ve got a nice soft spot in the wagon for you. Hang in there. We’re gonna get you home and to the doctor.”
Heath was trying to swim to the surface of consciousness but as soon as he was about to rise to the top, great stabbing pains through his stomach and up his neck drove him to seek relief by willing his body to sink again into the safe arena of oblivion but this time the sweet deep sleep was not forthcoming. Fighting for every breath, the pain was unrelenting.
Searching out his brother with eyes barely open, Heath managed a whisper, “Nick, I-I’m gonna…gonna be s-sick.”
Nick reaction was swift. His muscular arms quickly lifted Heath’s upper body to rest over his shoulder so that the blond wouldn’t gag and choke on the contents of his stomach. Nick grimaced and held his brother tight as Heath convulsed in great shuddering loud heaves to release the poison from his body. Coughing and trying to catch his breath, Heath felt like he was strangling. Reality was spinning out of his reach as he once again was dumped into a pit of darkness. Nick felt a hollow numbness as he cleaned up and applied new cool cloths to his sibling. He watched with a haunted look as Heath’s chest rose in fits and starts. Would they make it home in time? Could Heath hold out that long? “Oh God, help him,” Nick begged out loud as he fell protectively over Heath’s hot trembling body. “Fight Heath, fight,” he whispered in his ear. “Don’t give up.”
Mark touched Nick’s arm as he knelt down beside him. “We need to move as soon as possible to get him treatment. You’ve done your best, no doubt, of getting most of the poison out of him but he needs help and the faster we get to Stockton the better for him,” Mark concluded quietly, looking down at Nick’s sick brother. “Ya want me to load up and move the men?”
“Yeah,” Nick breathed out as he raked his hand through his hair.
Standing up slowly, Nick soaked his array of cloths in a bucket of cold water and returned to Heath to apply fresh coolness to his body. Heath was still quivering and fighting for breath in shaky gasps. The coolness of the swaddling appeared to wake him or at least it caused him to open his eyes. Looking at him, Nick was alarmed to see that Heath’s eyes were glazed and had nothing less than panic painted in them. Nick attempted to prompt a response from his brother by tapping his cheek and whispering his name in his ear. “Heath! Heath!” The only response was Heath coughing as he struggled to catch his breath. The terror remained in the blond man’s eyes. Nick watched as Heath’s back arched, his face twisted in pain. Nick’s brother’s stomach tightened as he battled for every breath of air to fill his lungs.
“God help him,” Nick whispered bowing his head and feeling the unfamiliar feeling of helplessness.
“We’re ready Nick,” Mark informed his boss. “I’ll help you carry him and we’ll get him as comfortable as possible.”
“Right,” whispered Nick as he glanced down once more at his suffering brother. “We’ve got to make him comfortable.”
Supporting Heath upright between them, the two men carried him to the wagon and then boosted him up to two sets of waiting arms. Nick hopped up into the back of the wagon and eased his trembling blond brother in amongst blankets and bedrolls. Heath was crimson with fever. He was barely conscious.
“Move the team out,” came the order from Nick.
The wheels started to move as the wagon caught the pull of the horses.
“No! Where are you t-taking me? N-no more.” Nick looked sharply at Heath as his brother struggled, trying desperately to pull away from the hands that held him, all the while trying to catch his breath.
“No more hurt. I-I’m hurtin’. Please make it stop. D-don’t hurt me any more,” he whimpered with pure terror in his weak voice.
“Heath,” grunted Nick between his teeth as he worked to keep his brother from bolting, amazed by the sick man’s strength. “Lie still! No one’s gonna hurt you. You’re safe. It’s Nick. Heath, you’re safe.”
“So hot. My leg! N-need doctor for my leg,” Heath moaned, reaching instinctively to cover his right calf and knee, his face twisted in agony.
“Your leg? Heath, there’s nothing wrong with your leg,” Nick said as he tried to reason with his delirious sibling.
“No more pain. Nick, he said I could see the doctor today. Gotta tend my l-leg.”
“He? Who’s ‘he’,” Nick questioned with a brow raised.
Biting his lip, hoping to subdue the pain he was feeling, Heath attempted to answer but failed. Trying again with his chest heaving, he panted out the vile name.
“RIZELY?” Nick exclaimed, seeing where his brother’s delirium had taken him. He was reliving that pig Rizely’s prison!
Wincing, Nick hunkered down closer to Heath trying to reassure him that he was just in a terrible nightmare. Nick realized with horror that in his delusional state, Heath really believed he was back in the sweatbox that almost claimed his life about 6 months ago.
Nick tried desperately to get through to his brother. To get through to him that Rizely and his men had no control over him. Try as he might, the hold would not be broken. Heath continued to relive that terrible ordeal as the swaying motion of their wagon took them closer to Stockton
“W-why is this hap-happening? N-Nick, get me outta th-this box! Gotta, gotta find the key. Can’t can’t hold on m-much longer,” Heath rasped out. “Can’t breathe. Hot. W-water. Help m-me. Someone, s-someone help me.”
The blond cowboy continued to put up a fight as though fending off real foes and Nick felt his own strength waning as Heath’s fever and delirium seemed to give him the strength of a fit man with an adrenalin rush.
“Mark! Bring some canteens back here,” Nick grunted to his foreman as he wrestled to keep Heath still. Along with the water came an extra set of strong arms to help Nick subdue the struggling Heath. Frantic to pull Heath out of his torment, Nick dispensed with the cloths and applied the contents of one of the canteens directly to Heath’s face, neck and chest. Heath moaned loudly as he sucked in a ragged breath. Nick looked on with relief as his brother’s eyes at last flickered and tried to focus.
Blinking and trying to awaken, Heath was confused as to his surroundings. He rolled his head from side to side, seeking out his older brother.
“Nick,” he managed a whisper as he reached for his sleeve, “Where are we?”
Heath wasn’t sure if he was still trapped in the sweatbox or had been freed. His fever still had enough of a toehold that Heath remained dazed and unsure of where he really was. Running his tongue over the top of his cracked lips, he felt water on his face that now tasted salty as it absorbed into his flushed skin.
Nick, weak from exhaustion and relief, released his restraining grip on his brother and sagged his tired body down next to him. He allowed his hand to rest upon the top of Heath’s head and let it travel down over Heath’s forehead, cheek and neck, checking for his temperature. Though the fever had not left him, it wasn’t raging as it had been 3 hours ago at the beginning of their journey. They were halfway home. Heath’s breathing, though improved somewhat, was still labored as the poison inside him battled to spin its last deadly web.
“Brother, you don’t know how happy I am to have you back with us again,” Nick said, his voice heavy with emotion. “You’re safe, Heath. You’ve had a nasty bite. Seems a spider decided to have the back of your neck for its supper. You’re gonna be okay, boy.”
Not quite convinced that he was out of Rizely’s prison, Heath looked questioningly at Nick as he struggled to speak. “F-free? Where-where are we,” he asked repeating his earlier inquiry. Nick brought his hands up to cup Heath’s flushed face and looked straight into his blue glazed eyes. “Heath, we’re going home. Smell the air! We’ve got a bunch of cattle following us. Remember the auction and your big brother’s brilliant bit of wheeling and dealing?” Nick was hoping his words were getting through. “You are free of him, Heath. FREE! No more Rizely. You can forget that place. You will NEVER go there again.”
In Heath’s fogged mind, he wanted to believe his brother’s words but was still unsure. The young cowboy tried to lift his head to see for himself that what his brother said was true but with a groan, Heath quickly realized his head was too heavy to lift far and sunk down once more into the soft blankets on the floor of the wagon. It was only when Heath brought his hand down to tentatively cover his leg and found that it was in the last stages of healing was he convinced that he really was free of the nightmare that had been a terrible reality those few months ago.
Nick shushed his brother to lie still and reached for a canteen. “Do you think you can manage a sip of water?” Propping Heath’s head, Nick held the canteen to his lips. Heath managed two small swallows before the poison in his stomach caused him to cough and drove his body into a rigid spasm of pain. Moaning, Heath retreated to a vertical position bringing his legs up into a curled clutch with his arms, willing the pain in his gut to subside.
“Okay now, that’s fine,” Nick soothed. “You did just fine. We’ll take it jus a little at a time. You’ll be okay.” He reassured Heath all the while trying to believe his own words of solace.
Nick studied his younger brother, as Heath’s eyes grew heavy once again. This time it was a healing deep sleep that overtook him. Nick was quick to notice that for the first time since they’d started home, though the body tremors were still evident, Heath’s breathing seemed less forced and more even.
Nick struggled to his feet, trying to keep his balance with the swaying wagon. Stretching his cramped muscles, he went about methodically replacing the damp rags that served to cool his brother’s body temperature, praying that he had truly seen an improvement in Heath’s condition for the better.
“Nick, why don’t you grab a blanket and get some rest. I can keep an eye on him,” Mark offered as he crouched down beside the two men.
“No,” Nick said in a tired voice that cracked when he spoke, declining his friend’s offer. “He’ll be looking for me when he wakes up.”
“Okay Nick,” said Mark recognizing that there was no arguing with his boss. “I’m going to stop the team to rest the horses and cattle. There’s a clearing up ahead and a stream. You stay with him and I’ll get you together some grub.”
“Thanks Mark,” Nick breathed through his teeth gratefully and leaned over to check Heath’s fever. Heath stirred and muttered something unintelligible but went on sleeping.
Mark brought Nick some food, which consisted mainly of jerky and coffee with an offer of some beans from the night before. Nick declined the latter and leaned his head back against the side of the wagon nibbling on his jerky. Finishing his coffee, the dark haired cowboy yawned and set his hat over his eyes. Soon he had dozed off.
About an hour passed when Nick was jolted awake. Heath was gagging and trying to roll himself over, so as not to be sick on himself. Nick was quick to maneuver his sibling into a position close to sitting up. Taking the pail Mark handed back to him, Nick held Heath steady as Heath spilled what little he had in his stomach into the vessel. The heaves and gags produced little. Still Nick continued to support Heath’s shaking body. Speaking soothingly, Nick reassured him that the vomiting would get the poison out as quick as anything. Heath groaned and labored to expel the remaining venom leaving him damp with perspiration and trembling.
Exhausted, Heath let his head drop against Nick’s chest. The blond cowboy’s blue eyes quickly grew heavy and closed out reality as he once again fell into deep slumber. Nick studied his brother and noted with a sigh of hope that though it still had a ragged edge, Heath’s breathing seemed better than an hour ago. His tremors were still apparent but not as racking as before. For the first time since they broke camp this morning, Nick allowed himself to think that Heath was strong enough to pull through this ordeal.
Home was a mere two hours away. The best thing for Heath would be to sleep right through the remainder of the journey. Nick arms felt like pins and needles were sticking him as he disengaged himself out from under Heath’s upper body. Ignoring the sensation, Nick repositioned Heath amongst the blankets and stood up a little shakily on his feet and moved to the front of the wagon to confer with his foreman.
“How is he,” Mark asked in a concerned voice.
“I think he’ll pull through,” Nick reported in a low tone. He’s sleeping now. We should be in Stockton in say, two hours or so. I sure hope Doc Merar didn’t pick today to deliver a baby or go fishin’.”
Mark grinned at Nick and shook his head. “I don’t think the Doc picks the time when the babies come.”
“Yeah well, you know what I mean,” Nick muttered, catching his friend’s tone, knowing he was being teased.
The two men fell into a comfortable silence as the wheels of their wagon rolled along the dirt road and the horses clip clipped along the trail.
A fork in the road told them that Stockton was near. Only two more miles would bring them to their destination. Horses, wagon, cattle and men veered right at the fork and continued down a road that soon made way to a larger thoroughfare and at long last, they were riding on Stockton’s main street. While most of the team moved out of town towards the Barkley ranch, Nick, Heath and Mark remained with the wagon. Guiding the horses into the middle of town, they pulled up beneath the town doctor’s shingle.
Heath had slept through the last of the ride but was starting to come around as Nick bent down beside him. Heath’s legs were burning something fierce and the cowboy was convinced that someone had laid a heavy weight on his stomach. His fever was down though and when his eyes flickered open, he knew he was lying in a wagon and not in some swirling nightmare.
“Now you wake up after all the work of getting us here is done,” Nick teased, looking down at his fair-haired sibling. “How ya feelin’ Heath,” he asked in a more serious tone.
“I’ve felt better,” Heath answered, still not finding strength in his voice. “But I’ve also felt a lot worse.” Reaching up, Heath’s hand wrapped around Nick’s arm and gave it a weak squeeze.
“You hold on right there, ya hear? I’ll get the Doc. You’re gonna be alright,” Nick said as his fingers circled around his brother’s grasp.
Vaulting from the wagon, Nick nearly stumbled as his stiff limbs reacted to the hours of being bent in a crouch. Straightening, he ignored the tingling that eventually left once he got some circulation going to his legs. Making the four steps up to the doctor’s office in two, he banged his way into the outer room transmitting his voice in a way that brought Dr. Merar out of his office in a hurry.
“Nick! Nick! What is it? Are you hurt,” the doctor asked in true concern.
“Doc, we need your help. It’s Heath. We just got into town. Last night while we were on the trail, something bit him. It must have happened while he was asleep. It was a Black Widow, I’m pretty sure of it. Bein’ out in the open, we tried to treat him as best we could but doc, he got awfully sick. I tried to extract as much of the venom as I could but he’s still had a bad time of it. He seems to be coming around now but he needs some lookin’ after. Please come,” Nick urged almost pulling the doctor down the steps.
Dr. Merar stepped up to the side of the wagon to see Heath flushed and in obvious pain but the doctor was quick to note that fever was not raging out of control in the man. Hoisting himself up into the wagon, Doctor Merar bent over the patient and discerned Heath’s temperature by laying his hand over his forehead and then moving it down to the side of Heath’s neck. Heath tried to lie still while the doctor performed his examination, but the feeling of heaviness on his stomach and the burning in his limbs made him wince involuntarily.
“How are you doing son,” asked the kindly doctor.
“I’m, I’m alright,” answered Heath in a strained voice, not wanting to be fussed over.
“Sure you are, son. Thanks to your brother’s good bit of doctoring,” the doctor directed his words to Nick, “it looks like you’ll be just right fine,” addressing Heath once more. “But you’re hurting now aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Heath exhaled. “A little.”
“Where does it hurt, Heath,” the doctor gently prodded.
“My, my legs. They feel like they’re on fire.” Resting his hand on his abdomen, “My gut feels, feels like a bull’s sitting on it.”
“Where were you bitten?”
“Bitten? I don’t, don’t understand. Did something bite me? R-rabid?” Heath momentarily flashed back to when he and Nick had been on the trail and a wolf had bitten Nick. Heath squeezed his eyes shut to block out the memory of almost losing his brother and how Nick had disappeared afterwards. He didn’t even know if Nick was alive for almost 2 months.
With the fever he had been running, Nick wasn’t surprised that Heath had no memory of the events before falling into the stream. Dr. Merar looked questioningly at Nick. “Does he know what happened to him?”
Nick answered in the negative. “We found him head up in a stream near our camp. He was unconscious. That’s when we discovered the punctures on the back of his neck. See there,” pointing to the red-lanced area of his brother’s nape. He’s been delirious a good part of the way here, though he did get some good sleep in during the past couple of hours. It’s only now that he has some sense to him.”
Looking down he addressed his brother by reassuring him that he hadn’t been bitten by anything rabid.
“Just a little ol’ spider,” Nick said lightly tousling Heath’s blond hair.
Heath felt the light touch in somewhat of a dream state as sleep once again beckoned. Even so, Nick’s tender touch served to comfort him as he allowed slumber to enshroud him once again.
Dr. Merar concluded his examination and advised Nick that for Heath, his best medicine would be sleep and lots of it.
“As for the abdominal pain,” the Doctor continued, “it will diminish in time as well, as the burning sensation in his limbs. I’ll give you something that he can take for the pain. Make sure he gets plenty of water. With rest and fluids, he should regain his strength in a couple of days. You’ve worked through the worst of it, and did a mighty fine job I might add,” he said, patting Nick on the shoulder. “He should be just fine. I’ll ride out to the ranch tomorrow and look in on him. Here let me get you that medicine.”
The Doctor was soon back with a bottle of liquid that Heath was to take twice a day or when the pain was intense. Nick uncorked the bottle, took a whiff and immediately wrinkled his nose “Agh! Hey doc, you sure this stuff is safe? Smells like that snake bite repellent we’ve got in our barn.”
“Absolutely the best pain killer I have. Perfectly safe,” the Doctor assured the dark haired cowboy.
After seeing that his brother was bundled up again in blankets and bedrolls, Nick turned to the Doctor once more. “Thanks Doc,” Nick said with sincerity. “We’ll get him home and up into bed.” Nick clasped the good Doctor’s hand. “Thanks again.”
Nick along with Mark Diamond turned the team around and headed home.
Victoria was there to meet Nick and Mark as Mark brought the team to a halt in front of the grand mansion. She had been informed of the situation with Heath by one of the hands that had driven the new cattle into their corrals.
“Nick! How is he? What did the Doctor say,” Victoria questioned her middle son with a worried mother’s concern.
“Well,” Nick reported as he stepped off the wagon. “Doc seems to think he’ll be as good as new in a couple of days providing he gets lots of sleep and plenty of fluids. I got some medicine here,” Nick showed his mother the bottle, “that should help with any pain he has.”
Victoria seemed satisfied with Nick’s statement and came around to the back of the wagon where Nick and Mark were pulling Heath in the gentlest way into an upright position. Heath was awake but was finding it difficult to hold himself up so that he wouldn’t topple. The blond man was used to moving with good bodily strength. He was unaccustomed to the physical weakness that now wanted to lay claim to him.
“Come on little brother. Ya gotta give us some help here. Mark and I are beat,” Nick grunted wearily maneuvering his sibling off of the wagon. “Do ya think you can try to stand?”
A few more pulls and heaves found Heath wrapped in a blanket and supported between Nick and his foreman. “Boy howdy Nick,” Heath groaned. “Who put those 100 pound sandbags on my legs?” The best he could do was to remain vertical as Nick and Mark half carried and half walked him into the house and up the stairs to a waiting turned down bed.
“Now you just get yourself into that bed and start getting better, you hear me boy,” admonished Nick.
“You’ve got it big brother,” said Heath sleepily. “Only could you please do me a favor before you leave?”
“Shoot,” Nick answered.
“Can you get me a pair of sleepin’ pants? They’re in my-my top drawer.” Heath yawned. “Somehow I’ve lost my pants on this trip.”
Nick laughed out loud at the thought of Heath wondering where his britches got to as he rummaged through his brothers bureau and came up with a pair of muslin sleep pants that Heath favored for night time.
“What’s so funny?” Heath asked barely able to keep his eyes open.
“Well, I guess it would be quite a shock to wake up and find yourself on the floor of a wagon rolling down the trail in, uh, let’s just say, a state of undress,” Nick snickered as he helped Heath into the pants. “But you see, brother, you were runnin’ a fever and well, you were so hot and uh, well, we thought it best to…”
Nick looked up to see that Heath was completely oblivious to what he was saying. The exhausted cowboy was sleeping in a way that Nick hadn’t seen since this whole ordeal began. Heath’s sleep seemed relaxed with soft and even breaths. Touching Heath’s forehead, Nick let his hand travel down his brother’s face and to the side of his neck. His skin was cool to touch.
A knock came on the door as Victoria entered the room. Nick stood up and crossed the room to his mother. “He’s gonna be fine. Oh, a little bullheaded maybe about taking that medicine but then, well, you know how he is mother. We might have to tie him to the bed for the next couple of days and pump that water into him like the doc ordered but he’s a strong one that cowboy.” Nick voiced with grateful emotion.
“I know you’re right, son,” Victoria said as she stepped over to give Nick a hug. Walking over to where Heath lay, she straightened the quilt and leaned over and placed a peck on her blond son’s head as she ran her hand through his hair. Directing her comment to Nick again, Victoria straightened and turned to face her middle son once more. “You took care of him and brought him home safe. That’s what brothers are for. You take care of each other. For that, this mother is most grateful and I know,” nodding her head towards the sleeping Heath, “that he is too.”