Summary: I always found it painful to watch that one scene in “The Iron Box” and wondered what did it take for someone like the very proud Nick Barkley to humiliate himself in an attempt to save his brother’s life. This is The Iron Box as seen from Nick’s point of view.
Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 1750
A buying trip, how many have we been on together? I don’t rightly know; too many to count I suspect. It sure started out like all the other trips we’ve been on. Heath and me had been on the trail for a week, maybe a week and a half on a cattle buying trip. We saw some fine breeding stock, but none finer than the one at McGowan’s spread. Got a good deal too, fair deal or so I thought, paid out three hundred dollars in gold. The man claimed he didn’t have a bill of sale to sign over to us. Heath said, “Any paper would do with your name on it.” Damnit, should have insisted, but I was too anxious to get back on the trail. Still had a ways to go. Wanted to get to Brazos. We were both looking forward to taking a long hot bath, good food, and sleeping in a bed after almost two weeks on the trail.
We had camped for the night, it was Heath’s turn to get the food, but we were both too dog tired to bother trapping anything, instead Heath fried up some of his awful beans. What I wouldn’t give now to be there again eating that disgusting bean concoction of his then here looking at that evil contraption. What devil thought of that?! My God, my brother! I’m supposed to keep him safe; we look out for one another. Please God, if only I could trade places with him! My God…, my brother! Sweet Jesus! I gotta get him out of there!
“What kind of man are you?! That’s your brother in there and you don’t care!”
“Don’t! …Don’t you ever say that to me again!”
Gotta wait for Jarrod; I gotta listen to my big brother. He’s always complaining I go off half cocked and make things worse. I can’t make things worse for Heath; I could kill him if I did. I need to wait. Need patience… I need patience…
“That’s the way you’ve always done it! Nick Barkley going off on a tangent!”
How many times have I heard Pappy say that to me? But not this time. Too dangerous. It will only go worse for Heath. I can’t let myself put my little brother in any more danger than he already is. Please God have mercy! Please God protect him! I can’t! This is the best I can do for him. Wait, wait. Patience. Not one to have patience, not me. If only I could trade places with him! Take his pain away! He’s suffered so much already! How much can a man take? Heath’s a strong man, he’ll make it! He’s gotta make it! Please God, please I’m begging you, Sweet Jesus, take care of him!
“We gotta wait for Jarrod to get back.”
“All right, but while you’re waiting, your brother, he could die!”
I’m holding on, holding on to the rage inside of me. I swear I am so angry I could bend these bars with my bare hands, but what good will that do? Heath? Did I hear him? Was that his voice, oh my God, yes it was! He’s calling my name! I can hear him.
“Nick, help me!”
No, no, it’s in my head, that’s not Heath, it’s in my head. He’s not calling me, no. Heath, he slipped into unconsciousness, that’s what he did. He’s sleeping. Nothing much you can do it that box. He’s sleeping, yes, that’s it! I must think of him sleeping. God is good, made him go to sleep so he couldn’t feel the pain! Yes. God is good, He did that for him! He did it for me. Please! Wait for Jarrod, gotta wait for Jarrod…
If I concentrate I can take his pain away; yeah, I can do it, I can take his pain on me. Come on, little brother, give it to me; I can take it for ya. I’m strong ya know. I feel the heat, blistering heat, the kind that burns a man’s insides. Parched, swollen tongue, the sweat pouring down, it so hot it becomes cold, I can feel the chill, making me shiver. I’ll feel it for ya Heath! I’ll feel it for ya. You don’t have to little brother, give it me, I can take it all for ya. Come on, give it to me, come on…
“Three, seven, zero! Three, seven, zero! You hearing me boy! THREE, SEVEN, ZERO! The Captain wants to see ya! Get movin’! Look alive!”
Risley wants to see me, maybe…
“You look tired. Sit down.”
No, won’t show weakness to this bastard. Won’t show anger, it’s what he wants, won’t give him the satisfaction. Steady Nick, calm, stay calm. Heath….I’m taking his pain away. I’ve got ya boy; big brother’s got ya. Can you feel me with you? I’m holding you; I’m taking your pain away, Heath.
“Aren’t ya going to ask me about five, nine, seven?”
He’s my brother, my blood, not numbers. You turn him into numbers, he’s a human being, better than you or I could ever be! You filth from hell! You don’t know my brother. He’s kind and he’s good and you’re not fit to lick his muddy boots, you bastard!
“Five, nine, seven. That’s a man you have out in that sweat box. Heath Barkley, not a bunch of numbers.”
I can feel my strength draining out of me, so weak, need to hold myself together for my brother. I’m using all of it to hold myself. For Heath, I gotta do it to save Heath, anything to save him, anything. I gotcha little brother, I gotcha! Can you feel me holding you Heath? I got ya, won’t let you go Boy, I won’t let ya go!
“Aren’t ya going to ask me about him?”
“Would it do any good?”
“Still full of your of your own pride aren’t you? Well that doesn’t surprise me; I know you well enough by now.”
“We’re even. I’ve killed enough corn pigs in my time to know enough about you.”
“You want to kill me?”
“And given the opportunity you’ll try.”
“Well in view of this situation, I say the distance between the intent and the deed may prove an impossible journey for you.”
“I’ll work it out.”
“Oh really? How?”
“I don’t know, …yet.”
“Oh yes, patience, patience; the way of the intelligent man. Wait until you’re free and pick your own time. Meanwhile of course, Five, Nine, Seven will be dead. At this very moment I warrant his flesh is being burnt raw. His tongue is so swollen that it chokes him. No doubt he is gradually losing his sanity that explains the mumbled sounds, the incoherent noises…”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?! TELL ME! What kind of a price does it take to buy you? Anything you want. Any price, but just let him out of there!”
“There is one thing I might accept.”
“Now, you said anything. You really care that much for him?”
“Money, nah, that’s really not quite so rare a commodity. But your dignity. Your precious Barkley dignity, now that does command a value. Now what is the price of your brother’s life? What is the only thing? The only thing that will take that key to the sweat box and give it to you! That is simple, very simple. Your dignity.”
“Will you beg? …Will you beg?! …From a man you hate! Will you get down on your hands and knees and beg?!”
“Men don’t beg.”
He’s mad! He plain mad! He wants me to beg, to get down on my knees and beg…I can’t… I can’t…
Heath! Think of Heath, he needs me; I can’t let him down, never! I won’t let him down. I owe him. How many times has he….What is the matter with you Nick! He would do it for you! If it’s what this crazy bastard wants… if this is the price I have to pay then I’ll pay it! No price is too high to save my brother, even Nick Barkley’s dignity. No price is too high, no price is too high, no price is too high, no price is too high….
I hear laughter, a mad man’s laughter. I’ll kill him! I swear with the last bit of strength I have I’ll kill him!
“Get him out of here!”
They had to pull me off him. I never hated anyone as much as I hated that miserable excuse for a human being. I could have happily killed him with my bare hands. It was the only picture I had in my head as they dragged me away kicking: my hands around his rotten neck. Squeezing the life’s breath out of him! But when they threw me on the barracks’s floor my strength was gone. I had nothing to give. He took it all! That bastard! He took it all!
I made a feeble attempt to plan an escape, just me and Heath. I needed to get Heath out of there. It was all I had left. If it was the last thing on earth I was ever going to do, it was to put what little energy I had to getting my little brother out of that hell hole.
I wanted to scream out his name but I had no strength. None. Exhaustion was my only friend. I couldn’t get into my bunk; I slept on the filthy floor where they dropped me. It was what I deserved. I failed him! I failed my brother. Dear God, he’s going to die and it’s my fault! It’s all my fault….it’s all my fault…. it’s… all…my…fault….
I failed … Heath.