Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 3500
The rattler appearing on the path shaking its forceful warning and Charger reacting violently, rearing up on his back legs was almost simultaneous. The pitch from his stallion was swift and yet the trip to the ground almost seemed surreal, like he was floating, falling in slow motion. The sudden stop at the end of it erased all doubt that his predicament was no dream.
Heath squeezed his eyes shut hard, trying to make the sudden burst of white hot light in front of his eyes dissipate. His head had slammed down hard onto the dry clay ground and now he felt like it would fairly split in two. His air deprived lungs whooshed out a sharp cough, but the trauma was not allowing them to readily fill up again. Inhaling in short puffs, the fallen cowboy was able to take in just enough air to keep from passing out.
For a moment, he couldn’t remember why his trusty steed had thrown him. So unlike Charger, he thought. A steady, fast cutting horse. The best in the Valley. Out of the ordinary for the ol’ boy to toss me like that, he mused, still measuring his breaths. The fireworks in his head had abated somewhat as he tried moving his eyes to get his bearings. That was a mistake. A burst of diamonds and stars exploded in front of his eyes again, making him dizzy and sick to his stomach.
Then he heard it! The ominous shake of the serpent’s tail. It was close. Too close. Struggling to bust through the throbbing pain marching across his eyes and wrapping itself tight around his head, Heath peeled his eyes upward and back, groaning deeply as another sharp pain assaulted his temples. Still trying to catch his wind, the blond cowboy grunted as he exerted himself to lift his head and shoulders off the ground enough to get a better picture of what he was up against. He clenched his jaw and blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to clear the haze that was hindering his sight.
Suddenly Heath’s heart slammed into his throat. He broke out in a cold fear-laden sweat as he honed in on his adversary passing mere inches from his face and neck. The snake continued its downward descent, skimming past his left shoulder, slithering down the length of his well-muscled arm. Past his gun holster and trailing past his thigh. Just as the reptile slid past Heath’s knee, a splitting pain hammered inside his head leaving him breathless. It was in that moment that the snake, feeling threatened, went into a defensive mode. Heath Barkley’s scream of pain and terror echoed off the rocks above him and rolled around the canyon walls surrounding him. The snake sunk its mature fangs deep past the leather of Heath’s boot and into the soft flesh of his lower calf.
Nick stiffened and reined in Coco sharply to a stop. He sat ramrod straight in the saddle. He and his younger brother had been attempting to catch a herd of wild horses that had been spotted in a box canyon just east of the Barkley ranch. A stallion and his harem of three mares had thus far eluded capture. Nick’s features were stone sharp and alert as he sat tall trying to discern in which direction he had heard the scream that he knew instinctively was that of his brother. Swiftly jerking Coco’s reins to the right, Nick spurred his mount forward. The scream, Heath’s scream had come from the far side of the canyon.
Nick had ridden about 200 yards and had just turned a corner beside a towering rock mass. His countenance paled when suddenly up ahead, he saw Heath’s horse, Charger, prancing nervously and nickering anxiously. His eyes fell onto his brother nearby, thrown to the ground, unmoving.
Nick’s distressed heart wrenching cry ricocheted off of the rock canyon walls and hung for a moment in the stillness of the day and then disappeared. Bile rose into his throat and panic nearly won him over as he could clearly see the distinct pattern of a large California Rattle Snake slither away from the body of his brother and into the cool rock crevices where it would remain unmolested.
Nick sat momentarily frozen in the saddle, a sick feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. Seeing the last flick of the rattler’s tail as it disappeared into the rocks worked to galvanize Nick into action. The dark-haired cowboy quickly rode over to where Charger, with ears set straight and alert, nervously pawed the ground, tossing his head and neighing uneasily. Nick knew that Coco wouldn’t bolt if his companion Charger was near, so dropping the reins of his horse and grabbing his canteen, Nick lit out of the saddle, hurrying to where his blond brother lay sprawled on his back, motionless, his face contorted in pain.
“Heath!” Nicked squatted down near the ground and looked onto his brother’s face, afraid to think how badly he might be hurt.
Heath struggled to open his eyes. Besides the pain that assailed his eyes and head, Heath could feel swelling beginning to manifest itself by the tightness of his left boot. It was steadily squeezing his leg in a vise-like grip, causing it to throb painfully, as the poisonous venom was attempting its deadly journey through his bloodstream.
“Niiiiiiick,” Heath’s mouth was cotton spitting dry and his voice betrayed him by sounding forth in only a raspy whisper.
“Hang on, boy. Here’s some water. Sip slowly. Slowly.” Nick lifted the canteen to Heath’s lips but the pain in Heath’s head was too intense, not allowing him to take in much of the water offered.
Nick leaned in closer to his blond brother so that Heath could focus on him and know he was safe. Nick had not discovered the evidence of snakebite as of yet as he had started at the blonde’s head and was steadily working down his body searching for injuries. The large bump on the back of Heath’s head was already prominent. He tried to question Heath as to what had happened as he used his strong, rough worked hands to gently examine the fallen man for broken bones and other injuries. Heath was fading. Nick had not yet noticed the bulging around the opening of Heath’s left boot.
“Where are you hurt, boy?” Though it had only been seconds since he began examining his brother, to Nick it seemed like hours. He was becoming frantic. “Focus on me Heath,” Nick pleaded. “Tell me where you’re hurt.”
Nick’s blood turned to ice when sweeping his eyes over Heath’s body he saw the telltale signs. Nick didn’t need his hands to know what had happened. His eyes told him the whole story. He could plainly see the now massive swelling around the opening of Heath’s tan boot.
“Damn!” Nick swore under his breath. His mind worked furiously to discern the best way to deal with this potentially deadly situation. A ray of hope shined for the black leather clad cowboy when it dawned on him that though the swelling was great, bulging over the boot, he could see that the boot was actually acting as a tourniquet, keeping the poison trapped and stationary. If the pressure was released now, the poison would race through Heath’s body and undoubtedly move straight to his heart and brain, most likely proving fatal in the end.
With haste, Nick removed his bandanna from around his neck. He knew he had to get the boot off and yet maintain a steady pressure to keep the poison at bay. Next it was pertinent to draw out as much of the venom as possible before finally cauterizing the wound. He had to do all that and then see that he got his brother home for real medical treatment in a timely manner. He quickly rolled the bandanna into a long strip. Nick glanced down at Heath’s gun belt and sighed in relief. There was Heath’s knife in its sheath. Rarely was the blond found without his trusty knife. Heath possessed deadly accurate aim with the weapon. That skill had more than once in the past year saved the young cowboy’s life. Nick reached for the knife and laid it by his side. He would have to work fast but first he would have to have everything ready. Reaching into his own pocket, he pulled out a match. Emptying a shell from his own pistol he loosened the casing, preparing it for what he knew he had to do.
Nick moved quickly into position, ready to cut the leather boot off of his brother. One straight slice did the job. The boot dropped off of Heath’s foot and into the dirt. Nick blanched at the sight of the two fang marks in Heath’s leg, but time did not permit him to consider it for long. Using his brother’s knife, Nick carefully scored the wound and using his mouth, he sucked the poison from Heath’s leg, spitting it out upon the dusty earth. Nick was starting to sweat profusely as he knew what needed to be done next. Cauterizing the wound would be his best hope for preventing the spread of the venom. He wasn’t looking forward to the task. Taking the bullet of which he had loosened the casing, he now removed the shell completely, allowing the flammable powder to coat the wound area that had been cut. Nick’s hands shook as he lit the match he had pulled from his shirt pocket and lit it to the powder. Heath flinched and cried out trying to grab his injured leg. Nick held him tight and spoke to him in a way he hoped would be a comfort to his brother. The powder meeting the flame made a hissing sound as it licked Heath’s skin, sealing it against further infection. Next with swift fingers, Nick quickly fashioned the bandanna around the base of the wound and tied it firmly. All this accomplished in a matter of seconds.
Heath’s color didn’t look too good and though he was conscious, there was no way to tell how long he would stay that way. Nick knew he needed to get his brother home as quickly as possible.
Nick left Heath to rest for a moment as he brought both Coco and Charger in close. Getting Heath up on Coco so that Nick could ride behind and hold on to him would be a challenge. But Nick recalled in his mind with a ghost of a grin that he’d done this before so he knew he could pull it off again. “Come on boy. Let’s get you home. Using his powerful body, Nick, with Heath not helping much, managed after three or four tries to settle the blond atop of Coco’s saddle. With Charger’s reins firmly in one hand, Nick, himself, settled behind Heath, holding Coco’s reins in the other hand, his strong arms held Heath securely against his chest, who by now, was beginning to run a good fever and was starting to see things in his own private world of delirium.
Nick started off towards the ranch, holding on to Heath and listening to the blond ramble on about wild horses, sunrises and women. Nick was thankful that Heath’s fevered state wasn’t taking him back to another time in the young man’s life. To a place that had been real and terrible, often playing itself out again when the blond was sick or fighting infection. More times than not, the fevered delirium causing Heath to become combative and violent. Usually he would become trapped in a nightmare about that wretched prison camp, Carterson, he had been sent to when he was but a boy of 16 or he would be running from his Uncle Matt, who took pleasure in beating the young child if only because Heath was without a father. Nick was thankful for the gentler even humorous dialogues coming from his brother as they got closer and closer to home.
“Nnnnick, did I ever tell ya about Kkkkatie Sue? What a woman! Thhhhhose pink lips and that figure. And those hhhhhands. Boy howdy, what those hands cccccould do,” Heath slurred, a sloppy grin on his face.
Nick’s eyes rolled behind his brother’s blond head. “Yeah, well I’d not be tellin’ Mother about Katie Sue, boy, iff’n you know what’s good for ya. You might get a sample of Mother’s wooden spoon across your backside.”
“Mother don’t kkkkknow ‘bout Katie Sue,” Heath giggled. “Don’t sssssink she’d approve. Blonde, blue eyes and about those pink lips…. Pink. Pink and orange. Pink orange and purple. God’s finger, sssssunrises are. Ssssseen lots o’ sunrises. Always an early riser, I guess. Mama, mama useta get up early too and we’d watch the ssssssssun come up together.
“I’m sure you enjoyed those times with your mama, Heath,” Nick commented, shifting his weight slightly to better secure his brother.
“Yesssssss, it was wunnnnnerfullllll.” Heath’s head began to loll and fall forward, shifting Nick’s balance.
“Come on Heath; lay your head back against my chest. Attaboy. We’re almost home now.”
“Home. Home on the rrrrrrrrange!” Heath was tickled by his own singing and started to sing louder. “Where the deerrrrrrrr and the antelope play.”
“Oh for crimony sakes, Heath. That sounds terrible,” Nick declared. “You’re giving my ears a headache.”
“Whazza matter, big brovver? Dontcha like my singin’? Where seldom is heard, a discouragin’ wwwwwword…”
Nick answered with a snort, “Don’t give up your day job boy. I don’t think the world is ready for an off key delirious cowpoke singing roundup songs. Look! There’s the house now.”
“Wanna go to sleep, Nick. Will you sing me a song so I can go to sleep? Mama always sung to me. My mama, she had a shhhweet shhhweet voice. I miss herrrrrrrrr.”
“Yes, Heath I know you miss your mama. I’m sorry about that and no! I will not sing to you. Hang in there just a little bit more. You’re gonna be in your own bed soon.”
“’Kay Nick. I’m awright. I can ride. Gotta break that bunch of wild cccccritters we got in the corral.”
“Heath! You’re not going anywhere except to bed where the doc can have a look atcha, you understand me, boy?”
“S’okay, Nick. I’m awright.”
“Sure ya are boy,” Nick replied as he came up to the front door of the Barkley mansion. Nick spotted Jim Wright, one of their ranch hands coming from the barn. “Jim!” He hollered. “Ride out for Doc Merar quick! Heath’s been hurt. Hurry!”
Jim immediately recognized the seriousness of the situation, seeing Heath barely hanging on to his seat and Nick struggling to keep him upright.
“Right away, Mr. Barkley.” Jim ran back to the barn and was soon on his horse racing to town to get the doctor.
Victoria had been just coming down the grand staircase when she heard the commotion outside. She had caught the words, Doc Merar and hurry. Her heart skipped a beat. Someone had been hurt.
Hurrying to the door, she opened it wide and saw just as Nick and Ciego were balancing Heath between them. From her vantage point she could see that her blond son was barely coherent and very flushed.
“Bring him up this way,” she directed, holding in her own panic until Heath was settled in a bed. She knew that Nick would explain things as soon as they could get Heath comfortable.
While they hurried to strip the blond down to a bare minimum, and get him tucked in, Nick explained about the snakebite. While he was explaining,
Heath, still feverish, announced groggily that he wasn’t feeling so good and that he thought he was going to be sick. Nick, with lightning speed, reach his long arm under Heath’s bed and produced a clean chamber pot just in time. Heath spilled the contents of his stomach with hard drawn out heaves. Victoria summoned Silas to bring cool wet cloths. She worked to cool his temperature until the doctor arrived.
Silas escorted the doctor up the stairs and turned towards Heath’s bedroom. Entering, Victoria immediately rose to greet him and to allow him room to examine the patient.
Nick went over everything he knew about what had happened and told the good doctor what had been done up until the present time.
“You did just the right thing, Nick,” the doctor said, nodding his approval. “If you hadn’t drained the wound and cauterized it right away, I don’t believe your brother would have made it home alive.”
Victoria’s audible gasp filled the room. Nick went over and put his arm around her comfortingly.
Dr. Merar removed some instruments from his bag and used one to look into Heath’s eyes. He closely examined the now rather large contusion on the back of Heath’s head.
Finishing his examination, the doctor began to put his instruments back into his bag. He turned to Heath’s two waiting family members. “It appears he has a moderate concussion. He’ll be dizzy and perhaps nauseous for a few days. He might even experience blackouts. While it will be a hard thing, Victoria, I must insist that you keep Heath in bed for at least a full week. He must not move about. The lump on the back of his head needs to have time to heal as do any internal head trauma he may have suffered. I know it won’t be easy. I know how stubborn this young man can be, but it will be the best thing for him to get past this. As for the snake bite,” Dr. Merar continued, “The poison seems to have been much minimized due to the fact that the snake bit through Heath’s boot first, and then the boot actually acted as needed pressure, confining the poison to just his leg. Like I said though, it was Nick’s fast action that really saved him. You did a hard job out there and I congratulate you for saving your brother’s life.”
Nick’s deep tan turned a rosy red as he modestly acknowledged the doctor’s praises. “I just did what I had to do doc. Anyone would have done the same.”
“Well, I don’t know about everyone, Nick, but I’m sure I won’t be the only one thanking you once he feels more himself,” the doctor replied, looking down as Heath slumbered, his face still flushed with fever but he was resting comfortably. “There’s nothing more we can really do with the bite itself except for this salve I’ll leave with you to keep the skin supple. The poison has been demoted to a low moderate risk. Watch his temperature and give him plenty of fluids. Rest is the best thing for him. I can’t stress that enough.”
“I’ll give you some medicine for pain, though knowing this stubborn child of yours, Victoria, I doubt he’ll take it. Otherwise, it will just be a matter of time before Heath is feeling better and up on his feet again. And remember, I want to see him in bed for a full week!”
“I’ll see to it, doc, even if I have to hogtie him,” Nick said with a grin playing on his lips.
“See that you do,” the doctor said with a wink. He knew that the family would be hard pressed for the next week to keep the active Heath Barkley confined to bed. He wished them all well and said he’d check back on the patient in two days. With that he left the ranch and headed back to town.
Victoria looked up the staircase as she and Nick stood in the foyer after escorting the doctor to the door, each holding on to one another. Nick noticed his mother’s worried look.
“Oh don’t worry, Mother. You heard the doctor. The worst is over. Heath is strong. He’s suffered worst than this. He’ll be okay.”
Victoria smiled weakly as she looked up at her tall dark-haired son. “I know he will, Nick. It’s just that I hate to see any of my children sick or injured and Heath seems to get more than his fair share. In a couple of days, I can just bet he’s gonna be as grouchy as a bear with a sore paw. You up to a good temper tantrum or two from your youngest brother?”
“Told ya I’d hogtie him to the bed if need be.”
Victoria couldn’t help the hearty laugh that came forth from the depth of her being. “And you’d do it too, wouldn’t ya?”
Nick smiled a big toothy grin. “What do you think?”
Arm in arm they ascended the curving staircase to check in on the golden haired cowboy whom they called brother and son.