Buried Treasure (by Sandi)

Summary: This story is a continuation of the aired Big Valley episode The Lost Treasure.  It picks up where Heath, Nick and Jarrod are out in a dry drought affected pasture and Heath is dousing for water.  Nick is skeptical of this method for finding water and tells Heath so.
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6100


“How in blazes did I let myself get into this situation?”  Nick grumbled to himself as his pick tore into the dry, hard San Joaquin valley soil with a vengeance.  “You’d think I would have learned by now that that little brother of mine has a mean streak a mile wide.”  The pick fell to the earth once more, the cowboy’s monologue continued.  “Nick Barkley, you’re a fool, that’s what you are.  Why don’t ya just pack it up and go home?”  The lanky dark-haired rancher hit the ground once more, noting for the first time that he had made some progress in his fight with the stubborn ground.  Nick stopped his labors for a moment and rested his weight on the handle of his pick.  Taking his bandanna from around his neck, he wiped the sweat from his face, running the cloth over his head and across the back of his neck and then retying it securely so that it adorned his neck once more.  “Why?”  Switching from pick to shovel, Nick continued on with his conversation with himself.  “Because I can’t pass up a challenge, that’s why.  That boy thinks he’s really got me this time.  Well, I’m here to prove him wrong, even if I have to dig to China to do it.  I might kill myself wrangling with this blasted hard ground but I’m gonna show him that there just ain’t no way you can wave a peach tree twig over the earth and say there’s water underneath.  No way!  I’m gonna dig this hole and ol’ Heath will just have to eat crow when I show him that we’ve got a well but it ain’t got no water in it.  Fool wives tale that water dousing business.  Who does he think he’s foolin’?”  Nick looked over the ground in which he’d been working.  To his surprise, the ground was now soft and supple.  Despite himself, Nick snorted out loud as his thoughts continued.  “Who does he think he’s foolin’?  Me, that’s who.  That boy has plumb snookered me this time, that’s what he’s done.  That boy always could pull one over on me.  ‘Course you’ll never hear me admitting that to anyone within yelling distance and that’s a fact.”

The sun was just starting to drop in the western sky when Nick found himself in a sizeable hole and determined that he’d dug far enough for the day.  Besides, to dig any further without shoring could prove to be a dangerous and foolhardy undertaking.  Nick looked up to the sky where just the faintest hint of stars was beginning to twinkle their presence.  The dark-haired cowboy gave one more stomp to the ground with a large booted right foot and was startled when his foot sunk into the soil up to his ankle.  Nick instinctively pushed into the ground with his left foot hoping to release his stuck right foot but this only resulted in the both feet being now sunk in ankle deep and seemingly stuck fast.  “What the devil?”   Nick again tried to lift his right foot but it was as if his boot being sucked into the ground underneath.  “Now wait just a minute here.  Wait!  What the blazes is going on?”  Nick tried again to release his right foot from the moist soil.  He was about to sit down in the dirt and pull his feet out of the mire when he suddenly felt his body plummet downward, being pulled further into the hole.  It was as if the ground had a life of its own and was swiftly swallowing Nick Barkley into its depths.  Nick struggled to free himself but stopped writhing when the ground halted mid swallow at the cowboy’s waist.

*****

 “Boy howdy, is that Chicken Creole I smell, Silas?”  Heath bounded down the stairs, buttoning his cuffs as he went, his hair still damp from his long soak in the tub.

 “It shore is, Mistah Heath.  I thought that since I had the fresh meat, I’d treat Mistah Nick to his favorite meal.  Supper will be ready in about a half an hour.”

 Heath sniffed the air again appreciatively.  “Smells delicious.  Oh, and speaking of Nick, have you seen him come in yet?”

 “No, Mistah Heath.  I shorely hasn’t.”  Silas moved toward the kitchen but tossed over as he left. “He be in soon though.  I never knowd Mistah Nick to miss a supper.”

 Heath was left alone, standing at the foot of the grand staircase.  He began to feel a twinge of worry.  Or was it guilt?  Heath glanced over towards the long windows in the sitting room to his right.  The western sun, still strong with brightness, was looming at that stage where if a man looked straight ahead, he could be blinded by its brilliance. Heath blinked and looked away but not before he noticed the shimmers of heat that danced just above the parched ground.  What if the pull of the dousing rod he had felt had only been imagined?  God knows he wanted that rod to work, but in his strong desire to prove his method right, could he have imagined its power?  Surely Nick wouldn’t have stayed with such an arduous task if it was all for naught.  Surely his brother would know when he was licked and come home.  Heath’s eyes fell upon the grandfather clock that rested tucked against a wall with only the swaying of its sweeping pendulum to say that it was alive.  6:45.

*****

Nick bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut against the sun’s glare.  He was facing direct west and the sun’s brightness was hitting him straight on.  He looked down and considered his present position.  His body was stuck solid it seemed, in mire that covered him from boot to belly. At least, he thought as his hands patted the ground around him, I’ve got my arms and hands-free.  Looking for something to help him out of his predicament, his eyes fixed on his shovel about an arms length away.  Well, almost.  Using his upper body strength, Nick thrust forward, his trunk elongated and his arms stretched out with fingers extended.  Not enough.  The shovel lay mere fractions of an inch from his grasp.  “Blast it!”  He tried stretching out again, his long fingers reaching, grasping.  It was no use.  The shovel was so close and yet impossibly far.  In his frustration, Nick hit the ground with both his palms.  Immediately he felt the ground under him and around him shift.  As if in the mouth of a large snake, Nick felt more of his body being swallowed into the ground.  The hungry earth squeezed around his breastbone and mid back, finally leaving him stuck fast in its jaws.

 Nick was not the sort of man to lend himself to fear but at this moment, the dark-haired cowboy was scared.  Really scared.  His head tossed from side to side.  Short breaths with audible pants of panic displayed themselves.  Nick’s heart began to race.  His mind tried to focus on a solution.  He began a monologue to himself, hoping that his own voice would still his own disquieting thoughts.  “Slow breaths now, Nick. Try to breathe easy.   You’ve got to focus and take it slow.  Don’t panic.  You can’t panic.  You’re not breathing efficient.  Calm down.  You’re gonna get out of this.  There has to be a way.”   The earth was squeezing his diaphragm, making it almost impossible to take the cleansing deep breaths he so desperately needed.  Nick’s head began to buzz and he was becoming dizzy, almost nauseous. Air.  He needed precious air but the ground was unwilling to accommodate. He thought for a moment if he could call out for help, someone would come.  Good sense quickly intervened when Nick realized that if he hollered for help, that could make him sink further, and besides, he didn’t think he’d be able to gather the air needed for a good bellow.  He finally came to the conclusion that the only way he would survive this is to stand still and not do anything at all.  He dared to gaze into the descending sun.  Surely his family would realize he was late and come looking for him.  “You’ve been in rougher spots before.  Hang on tight.  You’ll be okay,” he assured himself. “Breathe easy, that’s the way.”

*****

The family all sat down at 7:00 to enjoy the delicious meal that had been prepared.  As her family gathered, Victoria looked around her table and frowned.  “Where’s Nick?” she asked.  “Didn’t he come in with you?”  She directed her gaze and her question to her blond rancher son.

 “Well, not exactly, Mother.”  Heath unconsciously squirmed in his seat.  Although he was a grown man, being questioned by the grand Matriarch was always a bit daunting.  And besides, Heath was really beginning to worry that something was wrong and that Nick was in trouble.  His attention was quickly thrust back to his Mother when Victoria in a quiet yet no-nonsense voice continued her inquiry. “Precisely what do you mean when you say, ‘Well, not exactly, Mother’?  Heath, are you not telling me something?”

Heath quickly looked to Jarrod, seated to his left and at the other head of the table, for support.  Jarrod attempted to come to his brother’s defense.  “Well, you see, Mother, Heath here was out with Nick in Spring Meadow staking out positions to dig some new wells.  I saw them together as I was on my way home from Stockton.  I thought I’d check in on my brothers to see if they are working hard or hardly working.”  Jarrod chuckled but seeing the stern look from his Mother, he quickly sobered again and continued.  “I must say, what I saw as I pulled up on ol’ Jingo was a puzzle.  There Heath was with what looked to be a pronged twig from a peach tree, holding it outstretched straight in front of him.  There my brother was walking across the field with this crazy twig thrust out in front of him.  It really was quite comical if not baffling.  Well, Nick soon let me in on the gag.  He explained to me that our youngest brother had finally gone plain loco and that Heath was claiming if you set a twig out in front of you, closed your eyes and walked straight ahead, if there was water in the ground, a sort of pull would start on the twig and that would tell you where to dig for water.”

 “I’ve seen it work before, Mother.”  Heath said.

 “Oh yes.  Water dousing.”  Victoria replied knowingly.  “Your father used to use that method for finding water in extreme draught.”

 “I didn’t know that,” said Jarrod.

 “Did it work?” Heath asked.

“Indeed it did.  The water was often down deep but dousing proved useful many times when a well had to be dug and the men weren’t sure where to start digging.”

“See?  It DOES work!”  Heath was freshly enthused, momentarily forgetting the time and the darkening sky.  “I felt a pull on the dousing rod today.  It wasn’t made up.  Nick didn’t put much stock in it, you’re right Jarrod, but he must have agreed that I was onto something because you saw him yourself.  When I said ‘get the pick’, he rose to the challenge and started diggin’.  I would have thought he’d have watched the sun though and had the good sense to come in by this time.”  Heath stole a glance out the dining room window. The blond cowboy was feeling a strange of dread.  “Maybe he just got carried away,” Heath said softly with a hint of apprehension that did not go unnoticed.

“Do you think he got into some trouble?” asked Audra, she also starting to worry for her older brother.

Hearing his little sister’s unsteady worried voice sealed Heath’s decision as he was debating with himself whether or not to ride out and find Nick or let his brother find his own way home.  If Nick was really involved in his newfound project, Heath knew his older brother would not appreciate being namby- pambied and coaxed home by his worrywart sibling.

 “I hope not, sis, but just in case, maybe it would be best if I take a quick ride out to where I left him and see if I can get him to let off for the day for some of this fine Chicken Creole here.”  Heath rose from the table.  He walked over to his mother and kissed her on the cheek.  “I’m sure he’s alright, Mother, but just to be sure.  I won’t be long.”

*****

Nick had long ago lost feeling in his toes, but his legs seemed to make up for that by cramping excruciatingly.  Nick moaned from pain and from not getting enough air.  He had dropped a few more inches and the damp earth around him held him in a deadly vice grip.  Nick, through his haze of consciousness, knew that time was running out for him if he didn’t get help soon.  Just a few more inches and the earth would swallow him completely.  Not being a strictly religious man, Nick now found himself pleading with God to save his life.  “Please God.  Please hellllppppp me.”  The energy that it took to utter those few words seemed to take a lot out of the desperate man.  He was so sleepy.  Everything now seemed so surreal.  Was it just a bad dream, all of it?  He was convinced that if he were to fall asleep now, he would not wake up again.  Pulling a memory from his foggy brain, Nick recalled Heath telling him about his own ordeal.  How the axle had broken on their wagon when he and Mother were headed up to the family’s spring lodge.   Nick shuddered remembering Heath tell how he was pinned under that blasted wagon for hours until Mother had come with help.  Heath had told him that the weight of the wagon sitting almost on his chest was both smothering and terrifying.  That he thought his lungs would burst and how he had forced himself to stay awake, doing so by talking out loud of his brothers and then finally singing.

 A chuckle escaped out of Nick’s mouth, despite his dire situation.  Heath singing, he thought to himself.  Now that’s enough to put anyone to sleep.  “Lidddle brrrrrother can’t hollllld a note worsssalll the tea in Chhhhina,” Nick mumbled drowsily.  But maybe that’s what helped that boy to stay alive until Mother came with help, he recollected.  Maybe.  Nick tried to think of some songs he knew.

 “Oh, g..g…give me a home… .(pant)… . where the, the, the Buffalo roammmmm
Where the dee…deer and the…. (pant)….. Antelope playyy;
Where n..n..never is heard a dis…(pant)..couraging word,
And the sky is…(pant)…. not clouded all day.

 A home!………..(pant)…….. A home!
Where the Deer and the Antelope…..ppplay,
Where sssseldom is heard…..(pant)….. a discouraging word,
And the ssssky is not clouded all day.”*

*****

Heath headed out to the yard where he first called on Bunkhouse 3 to ask for assistance in his late night ride.  Soon he had gathered up Brice Daniels, Scott Lane, Charlie Collins, Rusty Gibbons and the Barkley’s trusted old Foreman, Duke McCall.  He filled the men in on what he knew.  For all he knew, they’d be riding out to Spring Meadow for nothing ‘cept to rile up ol’ Nick, who, once given to a job, was hard pressed not to quit until the chore was finished.  “Let’s hope that’s all we do —  make him beller.  Better than finding real trouble.”  Heath had instructed the men to meet him at the front gate to the entrance of the ranch in a half hour’s time.  He advised them to have a wagon ready to roll too.  That time would give the men time to saddle up and it would give him time to gather the oil lanterns, water, blankets and bandages…just in case.

 The sky was completely darkened, less the stars that shone and to Heath’s relief, an almost full moon, when he and his men arrived in the vicinity of Spring Meadow.  In the darkness, the landscape can play tricks on a man.  Even with lanterns lit, it was still disorientating, as this area of Barkley land was abundant with rolling hills and sloping dales.  In the nighttime, the hills looked all alike and the dales were mirror images of each other.  Heath knew that he had left Nick in a flat basin of pastureland but in the darkness, he couldn’t discern the exact location.  The “meadow”, as they called it, was vast and wide.

*****

 “Caaaaan’t hold on muuuuuch longer.  Too sleeeeeepy.  Getting weak.”  Nick’s numbed mind was slowly giving in to what would be the easiest thing to do.  “Sleeeeeeep.  Gotta sleep.  Can’t breathe.  Tooooo tired to fight.”  Finally succumbing to the bliss of the unconscious, Nick gave in to the desire of his body.  His eyes closed.  His head fell forward in a slump.

****

Heath and his men scoured the Meadow, lanterns held high.  He should know where he had left Nick.  Where he himself was earlier in the day with his dousing rod.  The night plays tricks on a man.  Heath felt lost and was growing more and more frantic in his search for his brother, his friend.  The men with him, including Duke McCall, who knew the land like the back of his hand, were stumped.  Just then Heath thought he heard the nicker of a horse, not theirs.  Heath raised his hand to silence the men with him, straining to hear.  There it was again.  Even Heath’s stallion, Charger, had heard the nicker this time and pricked up his ears as he heard the familiar call.  “It came from that way.”  Heath pointed to his right and pushed Charger into a gallop, his own oil lantern swinging to and fro in his left hand to light his way.

 Suddenly he was there!  How could he have forgotten this place?  It was so obvious.  Night plays tricks on a man.  Makes him forget.  Turns him around.  Heath halted Charger close to Coco who was nervously pawing at the ground, swishing his tail and tossing his head from side to side, neighing almost mournfully.  Heath leapt off his horse and dashed ahead, stopping abruptly after a dozen steps or so in front of a fair size hole in the ground.  He moved his lantern down closer to the hole.  Heath’s heart slammed into his chest as his light made the unmistakable discovery of Nick Barkley, mired in a hole, and sunk into the earth up to his chest, his head slumped forward.  Nick wasn’t moving.

 “You men, over here!”  Heath fell to the ground and lay stretched out with his head in the hole as he called to his brother.  “Nick!  Nick, it’s me Heath.  We’re gonna getcha out, Nick.  Don’t you worry.  You’re gonna be all right big brother.  You’ve just gotta hang in there just a little bit longer.”  No noticeable movement from the trapped man sent chills up Heath’s spine.  What if it was too late?  What if Nick was dead?  No!  I can’t let that happen, Heath screamed in his mind.  He’s alive.  He’s got to be alive!

 Heath’s men were on hand at once.  Heath knew what needed to be done.  He quickly organized the men.  “Brice!  Go for the doc!  Take an extra lantern and watch your tracks so you can get back here with Doc Merar.”  Brice was quick to obey.  The other hands including Duke scurried quickly to do Heath’s bidding.  A strong rope was fetched, and quickly knotted into a slip and secured around Heath’s waist so that he could be lowered into the hole.  Once down there, Heath would secure Nick with himself and the men could pull them both out of the hole.

 Heath looked into the pit once more and pondered.  It wasn’t the depth of the hole that worried him.  No, it was the earth that seemed to have Nick tight in its grip that unsettled him.  It seemed almost like quicksand and Heath knew from seeing first hand, a man, a good friend of his, die from being pulled in and swallowed up by the treacherous ground of the desert after a flood.  There wasn’t a thing he could do about it.  He and Jake Haskins were riding alone that night, trying to move when the sun had set and the cool breezes swept over the barren landscape.  They had seen a freak storm come up the day before and had sheltered under tarps and bedrolls.  It was about 4:00 in the morning when the two men had stopped to rest their horses.  Dawn had not yet ascended.  Jake had wandered a few feet away, looking for scrub for a fire.  Heath was tending his mount when he heard the wail of a terror-stricken man.  He whirled to find that Jake was slowly sinking into the ground, flailing and struggling to extract himself from the hungry ground.  Heath had acted quickly and had come to his friend’s aid but his actions were an exercise in futility.  Even using his horse to pull, he couldn’t save his friend.  Working feverishly through the rising scorching sun, Heath’s strength and ability were eventually for naught.  The earth proved to be the enemy that day and the victor.  Jake Haskins disappeared from sight for the last time just as the sun was at it’s blazing highest on Thursday, September 5th, 1870.

 Come on, Heath, he chided himself.  Snap out of it.  This is not the desert, this is not quicksand and you are not alone.  You’ll get him out.  With help, you’ll get Nick out.

 Heath tested the rope tied around him for strength.  “Okay,” he indicated with a nod and gritted teeth.  “Let ‘er down.”

 The blond rancher was let down into the hole slowly and cautiously.  He used his strong muscular legs to brace himself against the hole’s dirt walls and to keep from falling fast into the miry pit below.  Time.  Too much time was slipping away as Heath’s heightened awareness of his brother’s dire predicament assailed his mind.  Inch by inch, Heath was lowered closer and closer to his unconscious brother.

 “Give me some slack on that rope.  Bring a light closer in.  That’s it.  Down just a little more, a lit….tle more.  Hold it!”  The strong men holding the rope held true.  Heath prayed that their combined strength would hold out once he had the rope around both himself and Nick.  “Bring me over a little to the right.  More.  Okay!  Enough!  Slack now.  Hold ‘er steady now.  Stop there.  I think we’re there.  I’ll holler when we’re ready to come up.”

 Heath hovered just above the mud and Nick.  His brother was not moving but Heath could see the slight rise and fall of Nick’s chest.  Carefully maneuvering himself and the rope that held him, Heath took advantage of the slack in the line.  He quickly fashioned a large loop and tossed it toward Nick hitting his mark true the first time.  Now the loop was over Nick’s head.  Heath used his feet to kick off against a wall of the hole.  That pushed him closer to his brother. If he worked fast, he could lift Nick’s arms and move the loop under them.  He breathed a prayer of thanks that Nick’s arms hadn’t been pinned under.  He shuddered to think how he would have managed to free his brother if that had been the case.  Through divine intervention or Heath wasn’t sure just what, but he got the rope to snuggle securely under Nick’s arms.  All Heath had to do was to position himself behind Nick so that he could clasp his brother mid-section in a sort of reverse bear hug.  After some trial and error, Heath and Nick were ready to be hauled up.

 “Ya ready up there?”  Heath hollered up.  Okayyyy….. PULL!!”

 Heath could hear the strain and creak of the rope as it tightened and struggled to do its job.  He could hear the roar of his men yelling, “PULL!  PULL” almost like a chant.  Heath felt the coarse rope cinch around his mid-back and he grimaced as the rope bit sharp into his flesh.  Nick stayed pushed tight against him.  Despite the men’s efforts, at first nothing happened.  Nick, too, felt the harsh tension of the rope. He was awakened as the rope dug into his armpits and he felt the ground fight for his body.  Disoriented, Nick at first struggled, believing that he was again being sucked down further into the earth.

 “Nick!”  Heath spoke softly and reassuringly.  “You’re safe.  You’re gonna be all right.  Hold still now.  I’ve got ya, brother.  We’re gonna get ya out of here.  Just simmer down now, y’hear?  Hold on to the rope so it don’t cut ya.  That’s it.”

 Nick shook his head, trying to clear the clouds that had camped there.  The comforting voice of his brother soothed him and slowly his body nestled into Heath’s as he relaxed, almost again unconscious, knowing he was in safe hands.

 The men above them struggled and wrestled the rope that held the two brothers.  Heath’s arms began to ache as he clutched on to Nick, trying to do his part to free him from his mud prison.  Minutes trickled by and no notable progress had been made to extract Nick from the mire.  Heath could feel his strength begin to wane.   Suddenly his mind flashed back to that time in the desert with his friend Jake.  Heath tried to shake that tragic moment out of his memory.  “Not gonna let it happen again.  I can’t.  Oh God, I can’t!”   The muscles in Heath’s arms began to quiver.  Sweat ran freely down the cowboy’s face and rivulets of perspiration ran down his back.  The men above them continued to toil.  Heath squeezed his eyes shut as sweat ran into his eyes with a salty sting.  Just when it all seemed fruitless and Heath was spiraling into despair, the efforts of the men began to pay off.  Heath watched through glazed eyes, his muscles in his arms and legs screaming for relief.  Nick’s body began to slowly slide out of his abyss.  First his abdomen and then his hips, thighs, knees, calves and finally his feet.  As more of Nick appeared, Heath became again fortified and strong, gripping Nick tighter as he held him fast for their final ascent out of Nick’s mud hole.  The men above hurried to be in position to help Heath and then Nick out of the hole.  Strong hands worked swiftly to remove the rope from around both men.  Nick was laid to rest on a blanket provided.  Heath, with shaky legs, crouched beside his brother and though exhausted himself, he ministered to Nick, trying to bring him out his shocked stupor.

 “Nick!  Nick!”  Heath gently but firmly slapped Nick’s cheek.  Slowly Nick opened his confused hazel eyes.  He wasn’t at al sure where he was and fought Heath as his younger brother tended to him.

 “Stop it Nick.  It’s me, Heath.”  Just then a quick reflex from Nick landed hard against Heath’s jaw.  Ignoring the pain that was wickedly sharp, Heath found Nick’s fists and held them fast with his own strong hands.  “Nick, it’s Heath.  You’re out of that hole.  You’re safe.”

Heath continued to cradle Nick, warming him with the friction of his own large calloused hands.  Rubbing first Nick’s feet and legs, he then moved to Nick’s arms and hands, Heath tried to stem the trembling and quiet the chattering teeth of his brother.  Nick seemed to be in shock and only half cognizant of his surroundings.  While one moment he would lie peaceful, allowing Heath to minister to him, the next moment Nick would become agitated and struggle to evade Heath’s caring touch.   Heath was trying to keep Nick still with the help of two of their men when someone shouted out, “Doc’s comin’!”

 Upon hearing the news that the doctor had arrived, almost immediately Heath felt the adrenalin that had been pumping through his body leave him.  Never had he felt so tired.  His own breathing became shallow and he involuntarily rested his heavy head on Nick’s chest.  The men now turned their attention to Heath, fetching a blanket and something soft for him to lay his head on.  Doctor Merar hurried to the two fallen brothers.  He first looked at Nick, who looked in obvious distress and then to Heath, who was now too exhausted to respond to the doctor’s questions.  The men present tried to fill in as best as possible.  Doctor Merar let Heath rest as he tended to Nick and caught the story of how Heath had gone down into the pit before them to rescue his brother.  The doctor shone his lantern on Nick to ascertain his condition.  The light, he found, wasn’t all that necessary, as the sun had begun to rise in the east.  Dawn was upon them.

 Although it appeared that Nick was disorientated and confused, the doctor pronounced him in fair health considering the circumstances.  Doctor Merar spoke to Duke McCall, who would be most trustworthy to carry out his suggestions and orders.  “What we’re seeing here is mostly shock.  You men, along with Heath, did the right thing in getting Nick warm as soon as possible.  I don’t think we’ll have to worry about hypothermia or frostbite. The weather has been hot so the earth most likely retained that heat somewhat even in the cool of the night.  If this would have been winter, the prognosis here may have been grimmer.  As it is, I think if you get him home and in his own bed and get some food into him, he should show improvement and might even be wanting to be up and about in a few days.”

 The good doctor turned his attention to the blond brother.  He listened to Heath’s heart and lungs and studied the movement of his pupils.  After his examination, he covered Heath securely with a blanket.  Heath hadn’t stirred during the whole examination.

“Well doc?”  Duke wanted to know the score. “He really took a beating down in that hole,” he stated.

“I see that,” the doctor confirmed.  “I see you have a wagon.  That’s good.  We need to get both of these boys home and into bed.  Heath looks to have some nasty rope burns across his mid back.  Soap and water and some of that liniment Victoria favors ought to help.  Other than deep fatigue, I think he’ll be all right.  The quicker we get them in the wagon and home, the better.”

 The men were quick to prepare the wagon and the brothers for transport. As the men with Dr. Merar’s assistance, carefully moved Nick and then Heath to the wagon, Duke chanced to peer into Nick’s hole.  What he saw made him take a second look.

 “Well I’ll be damned,” he exclaimed under his breath.  He quickly called over to the men who were not moving the brothers.  “Rusty!  Scott!  Over here.”  The two men hurried over to their Foreman.

 “What’s the matter?”

 “Looky in that hole.  D’you see what I see?”

 Both men cautiously looked into the pit, both thinking secretly that another body was down there.  What they saw sparked light in both men’s eyes.

 “That ain’t water we see is it?”  Rusty asked, not believing what he was seeing.

 “Well if it ain’t water, it’s an awful convincing mirage.”  Duke answered with new brightness in his voice.

 “Whoopee!  He done it, Duke!”  Scott began jumping up and down and fairly dancing a jig.  “Nick done found a water hole.  I can’t believe that this ol’ dry ground would have any water ‘neath it.  Whoopee!”

 Duke and the men with him could hardly contain themselves.  They ran over to the wagon where Nick and Heath were settled in ready for the ride home.  Heath seemed to be mumbling in his exhausted slumber and lightly tossing about.   Nick kept deliriously hollering for his boots.  Admittedly, he had no boots on, for they had been sucked into the mire and pulled off when Heath had hauled him up.  Rusty and Scott, in their enthusiasm, leaped up on the wagon, jarring its precious cargo inside.  The fierce jostling brought Heath to wakefulness and seemed to quiet Nick’s bellering.

 Scott in his enthusiasm, momentarily forgetting that his bosses needed rest, shouted for all to hear,  “Heath!  Nick!  There’s water in that hole!  Nick, you plumb found a spring!”

 Heath shook himself more awake, not sure of what he’d just heard.  “Water?”  He asked uncertainly.

 “You betcha,” Scott affirmed.  “Nick dug a whopper of a well, and that’s a fact.”

 Nick, in the outer recesses of his mind, discerned excitement in his surroundings.  He inwardly worked to shake himself out of his present stupor.  Finally he managed to emerge into reality.  “Wh…what’s goin’ on here?” he asked groggily.  Nick tried to sit up, only to be gently pushed down onto the blanketed floor of the wagon.

 “Settle down, Nick.  You need to lay quiet,” Dr. Merar counseled.

 Scott, despite the doctor’s advice for him to lower his voice, gathered in closer to Nick who was trying to comprehend it all.  “That hole you dug, Nick.  It’s got water in it!  Enough for the whole meadow!  You did it boss.  You found a virtual geyser,” Scott exaggerated.  Heath had found enough strength to prop himself up on his elbow so that he could look at Nick’s reaction to this wonderful news.

 “But I…..” Nick looked over to his blond brother next to him.  “Scotty, I didn’t find that water,” he stated, slightly choking up.  Nick laid a trembling hand on Heath’s shoulder.  He continued in a quiet emotional voice.  “My brother found that water.  Found it with that blasted peach tree twig.”  Looking into Heath’s sapphire eyes with his own hazel ones, Nick said with directness, aimed only for his beloved blond brother, “Anytime you have a hankerin’ to go waving a twig around over the ground in the future little brother, you can bet I’ll be right there waving my own, right there with you.  It was you, Heath, who found that water.  You and that….that peach tree twig.  You saved this meadow and our cattle that graze in it.”  Drawing a shaky breath, feeling so tired, Nick concluded.  I only dug the hole.  You are the real hero.  You and that silly twig.”

 Heath couldn’t help but crack a tired half smile as his hand found his brother’s shoulder and squeezed it affectionately.  “Without your pick, Nick, we would’ve never known what was down there now would we?  I just waved my twig,” he said modestly.  “You did the real work and I’m not ashamed to say, you done a right fine job of diggin’ that there hole, even if it ‘bout swallowed you whole.”

 The wagon started to move, taking the two brothers home to be tended to and to heal.  True to the good doctor’s word, two days later Nick was up hollerin’ that he was gonna grow roots if he stayed in bed another minute. Heath, who was usually averse to being pampered in any way, allowed his mother to swab his rope burns with her burning liniment and afterwards he fell into a healing sleep that carried him through the day and into the late next evening.

 That summer proved to be prosperous for the Barkleys, despite the drought that continued into late summer and early Fall, finally breaking with a powerful storm the swept through Central California, causing flash floods in some areas.  Stockton’s levies held through the welcomed wet season and Nick and Heath again worked as one to bring their cattle to higher ground, working shoulder to shoulder, treasuring each other’s company and singing their harmonious cattle call.

***The End***

*Original” text by Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

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