Category: The Big Valley
Word Count: 2140
Jarrod Barkley made one last futile attempt to move and only broke off when the pain from his trapped leg became absolutely unbearable. He leaned back against the shifting bank of earth and shook the sweat from his eyes. It was bitterly cold, but the effort to free himself had made him sweat profusely. He felt lonely and afraid and another emotion coursed strongly through him too. Bitter fury, all self-directed made him so angry that he trembled and could barely breathe. Stupid, he thought, of all the stupid, stupid things to do! All his life he had criticized his hot-headed brother Nick for his impulsive actions, now I’ve been a bigger fool than either of my stubborn brothers Nick or Heath could ever be!
“Jarrod, that’s foolishness!” Jarrod had never heard Heath voice his opinion so forcefully, yet he paid it no heed. Should have listened! Should at least have heard him out. But, no; after all those years telling Nick to think, I don’t! Some example I’ve set.
“Heath, I understand,” Jarrod angrily tried to placate him, “but I still think I need to do this. I’m going.”
Heath hooked his arm as he turned to leave. “Hold up a minute! I don’t agree with you; just don’t think you’re going about it right. But I don’t think it’s safe for ya to go alone, either. I’ll come along with ya.”
“I need to leave now. I can’t wait for you to get ready.”
Heath picked up his saddle bags. “No need to wait; I’m already packed.”
Jarrod had to smile at his brother’s foresight, though it had shot his excuse to pieces. “What about Nick? He’s expecting you to take care of the ranch while he’s gone.”
“He’s due back today. I left a note with Mother at the ranch. He’ll understand.”
“Well, you’ve just ruined all my excuses. I want to go alone. I am going alone.”
Heath smirked as only he could. “The only place I’m gonna let you go alone right now is the latrine, and even then I’ll be guarding the door. Nope; you’re going with me or not at all. AND I have orders from Mother that I can make sure you do as I say.”
“And how do you aim to do that, little brother?” Jarrod asked wryly. Heath leaned back against the desk in Jarrod’s office and put his hand to his chin, rubbing it thoughtfully.
“Let’s just say that over the years I’ve picked up a few ways to stop a body without really doin’ any harm, and, yes, Mother knows exactly what I mean.”
The corner of Jarrod’s mouth turned up. “Alright; I get the picture,” he acquiesced.
Should’ve not gone at all. Why wouldn’t I let him talk some sense into me? And where is he now? I don’t know and he might not, either. “God, this hurts!” he cried aloud. Heath wasn’t in great shape when I last saw him. Face bruised, ribs hurt, back acting up again. And it’s all my fault. What animal am I to have not fought? Why didn’t I fight?
Stay awake, man! Think! There’s got to be some way out of this mess. Okay; what do I know? I’ll be dehydrated soon. God I wish Nick or Heath were here! They’d know what to do. Or Mother and Audra!
Oh God! Breath, Jarrod, breathe! Deep breaths, yes it hurts me but I must. Slow deep breaths will calm me down. Alright. Alright. There we go. We? Steady yourself, man. How did I get here? I obviously have time to spare. Is this a here, or a there? Is it an anywhere?
“What is it, Nick?” Victoria asked concernedly. “What trouble plagues him? You didn’t see Jarrod before, Nick. He wasn’t thinking clearly. He’s so, so troubled.”
“He’ll be alright, Mother. He’ll come out fine. I know it.”
Victoria placed her hand over Nick’s on her shoulder and continued to wait.
It was dark now. The day’s heat had vanished and the wind blew in a coldness that made him shiver and shake. Dawn was nearing again. Frantically Jarrod twisted about, clutching at anything and everything, but there was nothing, nothing at all. Not even the sand seemed tangible anymore. His thoughts went wild.
God, I’m never gonna get out of here! I won’t make it! What’ll they say? Died of natural causes. HA! That’s the truth––got myself into this, my natural compulsion to get in and fix things. Now I can’t fix anything. How will they deal with it? Maybe I’ll even get a statue like the one of Father. Wouldn’t that be funny? He dies fighting against evil and I die fighting against common sense. And here I am, always purported to be the sensible one. But do you see Nick like this? And he goes off half-cock all the time. My senselessness is going to kill me. This area’s so deserted and I’m so very hot. GOD, it’s so hot! How did I get myself here?
Jarrod, I know you care a great deal for Suzie,” Victoria began, “but he is her uncle and he can take her wherever he wishes. It’s the law.” He knew it was true, but he would have none of it.
“I can’t let him do it! She’s just a five year old girl––I can’t let that animal have her! I was her father’s friend. I promised to look after her. I can’t let this happen.” His tone was angry and determined and somehow both warm and cold, as if he was bound to do it but it was a privilege. “I’m stopping in town to pick up supplies and be on my way. Goodbye, Mother.” He kissed her softly on the cheek and turned to leave.
“Jarrod, at least take someone with you!”
“No. I’m doing this alone.
Well, that idea hadn’t worked; Heath came anyway and off they went, towards the desert. Heath wouldn’t let them go through it; apparently he was familiar with the area and kept them just at the edge, It frustrated Jarrod to take the long route, which he considered a waste of time. Unfortunately for him, his brother had inherited more Barkley stubbornness than he had. If he hadn’t been so angry he would have laughed over that tidbit. If I hadn’t been so angry I would’ve done a lotta things differently.
The fight. He’d been wrong then. That dirty little saloon in that dirty little town on the edge of that dirty, stinking, prison of a desert that was to be his funeral pyre, burning him slowly while the buzzards looked greedily on.
Jarrod didn’t know the exact details of the fight, but he thought it involved a man trying to take liberties with the little senorita barkeep. Heath could’ve handled that fine — saddle-weary and all — except that evil likes company. He still managed to get them both, but not without damage. His lip and knuckles were bleeding, his face was gaining new colors, his ribs hurt like the dickens, and he’d been in the unfortunate position of being shoved into the wall, aggravating an old back injury. And while all this was happening, Jarrod was counting the shots to bottled, blissful unawares –– scotch, if one could call it that. Heath straightened up gingerly, grabbed his beer, and walked over to Jarrod’s table in the dark back corner but didn’t say a word. That was worse than the chewing out Jarrod had expected. Not even a mention of it; just moving on, accepting that where Nick would’ve stepped in and evened the odds, Jarrod had sat there. And not only did Heath not talk about it, he acted as if it was a non-issue.
“Damn it, Heath!” he said in an angry whisper, “can’t you yell at me or punch me or something?”
Jarrod was incredulous. “The man asks why. Ha! You just took on two men alone while I sat here and let you do it. Nick wouldn’ta done that and I shouldn’t have, either.”
“Oh,” came the thoughtful reply.
“Why don’t you yell at me?”
Heath was silent for a long moment. “Well, I guess I understand what you’re going through.”
“How could you?”
“I was a very angry man for a couple years, Jarrod, and not for too different a reason.”
“Yes; he was part of it.
“The other part?”
“Let’s just say I understand both you and little Suzie’s positions right now.”
“I didn’t rea––”
“Don’t bother with that. What’s important now is little Suzie. How about we head over to the inn an’ leave in the mornin’?”
“Suits me.” He got up and started to walk when he noticed Heath hadn’t left his chair. Jarrod extended his arm wordlessly and Heath pulled himself up with a grimace, nodding his thanks before they walked out. Inside the room, Jarrod tried to convince Heath to sleep on one of the cots with its thin mattress, but lost the battle, with his brother insisting the floor was better if he wanted to be able to mount a horse the next day. Heath’s back didn’t improve much over night and Jarrod rode out towards the desert without him. No more skirting the edges; he was going straight through.
He didn’t remember how he got there, but his leg was pinned beneath a rock and no one was around. Heath would look, but sand tracks don’t stick when the wind blows.
Jarrod started to feel a sensation of coldness. The winds were still, the sun still shone, his throat still parched, yet he was cooler. Is this how you die in the desert? Thank God for small mercies. Baked and cooled before being eaten. I tried, Suzie; I did. But it wasn’t enough. Not enough. Never enough. I hope someone helps you sometime. Wish it could be me…….
His eyes closed and he welcomed the sleep that came to him. And he rested in the cool, dark peace.
“His fever’s broken!” Victoria exclaimed aloud though she was the only other one in the room. Nick came bursting through the door.
“What is it, Mother?!”
“Jarrod––his fever broke!” Nick picked Victoria up like a rag doll and swung her around before putting her upright and on the ground abruptly. “Sorry, Mother.”
“That’s fine. Now, go wash up. Supper will be ready soon and we’ll let him sleep.”
He opened his eyes and slowly turned his head, taking in his surroundings.
“You’re awake!” Heath said cheerily.
Jarrod was surprised to find himself in his bedroom. “H-how’d I get here?”
Heath grinned from the chair next to the bed. “I broughtcha, silly. Don’t you r’member?”
Jarrod shook his head. “Thought I was dead.”
“Did ya then. Well, you’re not, though you were tottering at the crossroads for a while there.”
“Huh? Never mind. I, uh, I’m…”
“A little confused? Like what happened an’ what didn’t? I gotcha. Hold on a minute and we’ll see what we can do about that.”
Jarrod noticed the slight stiffness in Heath’s movement as he left the room. Was that from…..?
Heath peaked his head in the door. “Jarrod, would you mind sitting up? Here, let me help.” He walked in. “How about a shave? I’ll do it.”
Jarrod was completely bewildered. “Can I trust you?”
“Probably not, but whatever I do to your face I promised not to slit your throat.”
Jarrod smiled his consent and Heath did a fairly decent job shaving him, too. “Hey, lets get you in your robe or something. I’ll get it. Now, you just sit tight and I’ll take care of it.”
“How did I get here?”
“I answered…Oh, you mean from your world of delirium to your bedroom? Working too hard. I’d say that fever’s been buildin’ in ya for a while. Shouldn’ta gone takin’ off like that.”
“What day is it?”
Jarrod did a mental calculation. “How’d we get back so soon?”
“Ya know, you’re great in the courtroom, but you don’t pay too close attention to directions when you’re preoccupied.” Jarrod smiled knowingly at Heath. “Now, you just wait here and I’ve got some people who’d like to see you.” Heath left and returned with Victoria, Nick and Audra. “Look who’s up,” he told them.
“I guess I should offer an apology. I was way outta line––”
“Enough of that, Jarrod,” Victoria bristled. “We all understood, not to mention that you were overworking yourself. But that can wait. You’ve got some rest coming up and I have a playmate for you.”
Heath, who had disappeared, came into the room again with a six-year-old red-head holding his hand. “We’ve started filling out guardianship papers for you for––”
“Suzie! Come here, girlie!” She ran to his bed and they embraced.