The Silence (by Elayn)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8200


 

 

“Ok Nick, explain this to me again – we’re having fun, right?”  The sarcasm in Heath’s voice was just a little evident as he and Nick trudged through the black night and the pouring rain in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s.

“Well,”Nick sulked,” we should have been to the mine hours ago.  How was I to know there’d be a little bit of bad weather?”

“A little bit of bad weather?!  Boy howdy, brother, that’s like saying Jesse James is a naughty little boy.” Heath was now muttering to himself, something about fools not knowing when to stay in out of the rain and this being the last time he’d listen to Nick about a nice little ride up to see the new stamp mill.

 “What are you muttering about – speak up boy”.

“Uh, nuthin – What’s that up ahead?”

“Hey, that’s it, ain’t she a beauty?  Biggest stamp mill in the Sierras, nothing like it – not even over on the Comstock”, Nick proudly boasted.

“Now explain to me again Nick, what with mine output down and the problems we’ve been having with water in the tunnels, why a brand spanking new, danged expensive mill the size of Texas is a good thing?”

“The problem with you Heath, is you’ve got no imagination.  Right now we’re having to haul the ore 15 miles to the nearest mill.  Do the math boy.  With the mill on site, we can crush the rock right here, and save ourselves time and money”.

“But Nick, the mine’s output is down.  That’s a fact.  Whether the mill is here or in Chicago, if the high-grade ore ain’t there it sure ain’t gonna matter where the mill is”, Heath explained reasonably.

Nick gave his brother an exasperated look.  “Like I told you Heath boy, you gotta think like a mogul.  Where would old Leland Stanford be if he’d  a thought small?”  This mill will make the difference for the mine – in one day we’ll be able to crush ten times the amount of rock it used to take us two weeks to do, cause of the hauling time and that small 15 stamp mill down at Fraser’s Crossing.”

“Nick – for crying out loud, this is a 100 stamp mill, you’ll have to hire on 100 extra miners just to keep the ore coming out fast enough to keep up with it!”

“Nope, your wrong Heath, that’s the beauty of it.  I’ve hired a new explosives expert – he’s perfected a new technique with nitro and’ll be able to get the rock out more than twice as fast as now.”

“Boy howdy, Nick, now I know you’ve lost whatever good sense the good Lord may have given you.  What the…..

“Knock it off Heath, this guy’s the best.  He was the top mining engineer over in Wales.  Took a low grade tin mine and made it the country’s top producer.  I checked him out thorough – this guy really knows his stuff.”

“Ok, ok Nick, I give up.  Let’s just get out of this rain.  Right now all I want is a dry night’s sleep.  You can show me your new toys tomorrow.”  Where’s that mine office?”  Under his breath, Heath again started muttering…”We coulda stayed in a nice dry room in town, looked like a nice saloon, maybe found a game – but no, Nick’s here’s gotta see it now, couldn’t wait till morning – fool brother – probably played in mud puddles when he was a kid…”

Nick pulled off his water-drenched hat, whacked Heath across the back and gave his brother a big grin.  “This is gonna be a winner Heath, you’ll see.”

With that the boys pulled the horses into the small corral/lean-to next to the mine office, took care of Coco and Charger and stumbled exhausted into the office where they struggled out of their soaked clothes and both noticed at the same time – one cot.   Heath glanced out the window.  “Nick, how come you let Coco out of the corral, he asked?”

Nick turned his head, “Huh, what are you talking about.”  That was all the time Heath needed to fall into the cot and pull the blanket over his head, “Sorry Nick, I musta been mistaken”, he grinned up at his brother peaking out from under the covers.

Nick looked down at his brother and smiling, just shook his head.  “Hell Heath, enjoy it.  I’m in too good a mood to fight you for it.”  He pulled a couple of blankets down off a shelf and hunkered down to get comfy with the floor.  “Tomorrow you’ll see – this mine’ll be the envy of em all.”

Heath woke a little before sunrise.  He groaned; nature was calling and that meant getting up from his warm covers and going outside.  He stepped over his snoring brother, grabbed his boots and damp britches and quietly went outside.  Well, at least the rain has stopped, he thought.  Relieving himself, he stared over at the mill.  In the gathering light it looked even bigger than last night.  “Oh well, I’m up, might as well mosy over and take a closer look at this monstrosity of Nick’s,” he said to himself.  He pulled on his britches and boots and wandered over to the mill.  It was enormous.  He stared up and up in wonder at the thing.  Nick was right, the thing was a marvel.  Heath shook his head and whistled.  I sure hope Nick’s right about this he thought.  Heath stepped back to get a better look up at mill.  An owl, maybe startled by the noise, or maybe just on it’s way home from a night of hunting swooped down from the mill structure.  The suddenness of the large bird startled Heath and he inadvertently took another step backwards while at the same time starting to laugh at the silliness of a grown man being spooked by a dumb bird – until..he realized his boot hadn’t connected with firm ground.  He was …falling?  What the devil?

He hit the ground hard, his feet hitting first but coming out from under him and his back and head slamming into the hard stone surface.  The impact knocked the breath right out of him and he literally saw stars swirling before his eyes.  He struggled to get his breath and shook his head thinking that would clear away the dizziness.  He knew what must have happened, he’d stupidly stumbled into one of the ore storage pits.  Boy howdy, would Nick ever give him grief over this.  Heath could just hear Nick now.  “Walking around with your head in the clouds boy – did the big, bad bird scare you?”.  He started to sit up –  if the walls would just stop spinning he’d get up and climb out of here, Nick need never know about this dumb stunt.  Nope the spinning walls seemed to wind themselves up even faster and now he was feeling queasy.  Maybe I’ll just close my eyes for a second, give my head a chance to clear, he thought as he unceremoniously drifted into unconsciousness.

“Hey mister, whatcha think your doing?”  The mine foreman poked his boot into Nick.  “Wake up will ya, where do you think you are anyway?”  Nick growled and rolled over looking up at the man.  “Oh, Mr. Barkley, I didn’t know it was you.  What are you doing sleeping on the floor, cot to soft for you?”

“That cot’s a might small to be sharing with my brother, don’t you think?”

“What brother?”, he foreman asked with a confused look on his face.

Nick rolled over and sat up staring at the cot.  “Now where the heck did he wander off  to”, Nick asked?

“Where did who wander off to?”

“My brother Heath.  He came up with me to see the mill.  He musta gone outside.”

“Didn’t see no one unusual out there.  The morning shift starts in 15 minutes – only men I seen out there are mine.”

“Well, he must be poking around here somewhere.  He better get back in time to see that mill start operating.  I want him to see for himself what this baby can do.”

“Well, Mr. Barkley, he better get here quick, the men are starting her up now.  She’s amazing, you can’t believe the power she’s got.”

Nick quickly dressed and followed the foreman outside.  Where the devil had Heath gotten off  to?  If that brother of his missed this… we’ll surely as soon as that stamp mill started up, Heath would hear it and show up to see it in action.

“Hear Mr. Barkley, you’d better put these in your ears.”  The foreman handed Nick some wooden earplugs.  “The noise really is something you can’t imagine.”

Nick popped the plugs into his ears and followed the foreman, at the same time glancing around for some sign of Heath.

Heath opened eyes, trying to get them to focus on something.  Musta passed out, he realized.  Not only was his head pounding, his stomach was doing flip-flops.  He pushed himself to his knees and promptly threw up.  Damn, he thought.  Its not enough that I fall in a hole now I’ve gotten sick on myself like some kind of baby.  This day was definitely not off to a good start.  He cautiously tried getting up.

“There Mr. Barkley, look right up there, here she comes.”

BLAM!  Even through the earplugs, the sound was overpowering.  The ground shook as the stamp pulverized the ore below it.

In the hole, not 10 feet from the stamp the noise was unbearable.  Heath held his hands over his ears and screamed in pain.  BLAM! BLAM!  Again and again the stamp pounded down.  The pain was more than Heath could stand.  He cried as he pushed against his ears trying to stop the noise.  Then suddenly silence.

BLAM!  The stamp fell one last time on the ore.  Nick was impressed.  In less than five minutes there was even more ore to process than even he’d figured on.  But dammit where was Heath?

Nick followed the foreman over to take a closer look.  He noticed a commotion next to the stamp.  Several men were looking down into an ore pit and pointing.  I wonder what that’s all about, he thought?  He strolled over to get a closer look.  “No.  Oh my God, Heath!”  His brother was on his elbows and knees, his hands over his ears.  “Heath! Heath! What happened?!”  Heath didn’t look up.  One of the miners had a rope; Nick lowered himself over the edge.  “Heath, what the hell happened, how did you get down here?”  Heath still didn’t look up at him.  Nick kneeled down and put a hand on Heath’s shoulder.  Startled Heath groggily turned his head and looked up at Nick.  “Heath,” Nick asked gently, “are you all right, what happened here?”  Heath just stared at Nick, a scared and confused look on his face.  “What Nick, I can’t hear you.  Nick I can’t hear anything.”  Heath’s voice was scared, a little panicked.  He looked into Nick’s eyes.  “Nick what’s wrong with me?  I can’t hear anything”.  Nick was scared too.  What had he done?  This was all his fault.  Heath had questioned the logic of this monster machine and now look.  Something terrible had happened to his brother.  What did he mean he couldn’t hear?  Surely, it was just momentary.  And how did he get down here anyway?  Why had no one checked before starting up the stamp mill?  Why hadn’t he – he’d just assumed Heath had wandered off somewhere.  “Heath”, Nick spoke slowly and a little louder (somehow thinking it would help), “what do you mean you can’t hear me?  Take your hands off your ears, let me see.”  He pulled at Heath’s hands.  There was a trickle of blood coming from each ear.  He took Heath’s head in his hands.  He felt a swollen lump at the back of his head.  “Heath, did you fall?”  Heath, just looked pitifully at Nick and didn’t respond.

Finally, Nick tore his attention away from his brother and started barking orders.  “Someone get a doctor out here!  You and you, get a litter, help me get my brother outta this hole!”  To Heath, he still spoke gently, “hang on Heath, you’re gonna be ok.”

Heath tried to keep his eyes focused on Nick.  In his muddled brain, he thought  “if I watch him close enough surely I’ll hear what he’s saying, I’ve just got to focus”.  But he couldn’t focus, the walls were swimming, and he felt sick again.  He knew he was going to be sick but couldn’t stop it.  He tried to turn his head, but Nick reached out to hold him by the shoulders as he threw up.  How embarrassing. He hadn’t thrown up on anyone since he was seven years old and had the flu so bad.  “I’m sorry Nick, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”  Weird not to be able to hear yourself he thought distractedly.  I just need to close my eyes again for a second.  Walls spinning again, wish they’d stop….he passed out in his brother’s arms.

They got Heath settled in on the cot in the mine office. Nick wasn’t at all patient about waiting for the doctor to arrive.  He alternated between pacing back and forth from the cot to the door where he looked impatiently down the road for the doctor.

“What the hell’s keeping him? It’s been almost an hour!, Nick complained loudly to anyone within hearing distance.

“Yes, but last night’s rains made a mess of the road, the doctors’ probably having a difficult time getting up here,” the foreman explained patiently.

Well, send someone else out for him, I don’t care what you have to do, just get the guy out here will ya!”

Yes, Sir Mr. Barkley, I’ll go out myself.

Wait, see over there, here he comes now.

Nick returned to Heath’s side.  His brother was conscious but seemed a little disoriented and groggy.  “Nick?”

Nick sat on the edge of the cot facing Heath.  He nodded to let him know he’d heard him.

“Nick, I don’t know how to explain it–I can’t hear a thing but still there’s this ringing kinda sound in my ears.”  Heath moved his hands to his ears and kind of whacked on them with his open palms as if to clear them.  Nick took Heath’s hands in his and pulled them down shaking his head.  “No Heath, don’t do that, it can’t be good for you.”

“You’re quite right, beating oneself is seldom helpful.  Hello, I’m Doctor Thayer”.  Nick looked over as the doctor entered the office.

Nick stood up and extended his hand – “Nick Barkley. This is my brother Heath”; he indicated pointing to the cot.  He can’t hear doc, he fell, I think, and that damn stamp mill, well he was too close, it’s all my fault, and he’s thrown up, says his ears are ringing, but like I said he can’t hear.”

“Ok Mr. Barkley,” the doctor cut Nick’s rambling off. “Let me have a look at him, we’ll see what we can find out.”

“Hi doc,” Heath gave the doctor a small, weak smile.  Nick could see that Heath was trying to be positive but he couldn’t hide the scared look in his eyes.

While the doctor examined Heath, he asked Nick exactly what had happened.  Nick told the doctor what he knew, finishing with, “I guess he fell in the pit somehow, you can see he hit his head.  And he was just too close to that damn mill and now he can’t hear.  Why is that doc?  When will it clear up?  It will clear up won’t it?”

“Hang on boy, let’s just take one thing at a time”, the doctor admonished Nick.  The doctor looked around the office and took paper and a fountain pen from the foreman’s desk.  Sitting down next to Heath, he wrote, Can you tell me exactly what happened?  He showed the paper to Heath who struggled to focus on the blurred words.

Dang thought Nick, why didn’t I think of that?

Heath went through the whole story; from the owl, to getting sick, to the horrendous pain the noise had caused him.  Listening to his brother Nick felt horrible.  Just look what he had caused.  That stupid machine he’d bragged on and on about had made his brother deaf.  Deaf.  That was the first time he’d put a name to it.  But that’s what it was, wasn’t it?  His brother was deaf and it was his fault.

The doctor wrote, Can you hear anything at all?  Heath read the question and looked back at the doctor thinking, “stupid question, if I could hear you we wouldn’t need these notes would we?  But, he simply answered that no he could hear no sounds at all, not even his own voice.  He also told the doctor again about the ringing in his ears which really wasn’t a sound but more like an annoying, discomforting feeling.

The doctor turned his attention to Nick who was standing looking miserably at Heath.

“Well doc? Nick began.

“Most of your brother’s vital signs are positive.  His pupils are fine, he’s not running a fever and his breathing is regular.  All those signs would indicate nothing more serious than a mild concussion.  However, the fact that he threw up is a sign of a contusion or bruise on the brain or of a skull fracture.  He hasn’t been sick or lost consciousness in over an hour though.  Those are positive signs too, as is the fact that he can remember what happened to him.”

“But what about his ears?” Nick questioned the doctor.

“I believe two things have happened here.  Your brother is either suffering from a concussion or a skull fracture caused from the fall.  In addition, the noise from the stamp mill or even possibly the fall itself caused your brother’s eardrums to perforate.”  Seeing Nick’s puzzled look he went on, “What I mean is his eardrums have probably ruptured.”

Nick looked stricken.  “You mean his ears are busted and he’ll never hear again?”

“No, no Mr. Barkley.  There is a very good chance that this is just a temporary condition.  Usually when a person is deafened or their hearing is impaired due to a traumatic type event like an explosion their eardrums will heal spontaneously within a week or two.”

“But, you said there’s a good CHANCE this is temporary.  Does that mean it might be permanent”? Nick asked, the worry still evident in his voice.

“There’s a lot we don’t know and really can’t tell.  The larger the rupture, the greater the hearing loss usually is.  Some perforations can take several months to heal and if either the explosion or the impact from the fall disrupted the bones in his ear that could affect when or if his hearing returns.”

“So what you’re saying is, this might be permanent?”

“What I’m saying Mr. Barkley, is, that it is just too soon to know.  Right now, what is important is keeping him quiet and watching him closely for the next few days.  If he has a contusion or a skull fracture then his hearing loss is the least of his worries.”

Let’s just take it one day at a time.  I’d normally suggest a patient in his condition not be moved, but this is really an unacceptable situation here with the dust, commotion and noise of that mill. You should make him comfortable in a wagon and bring him into town, the hotel will make a much preferable and certainly more restful environment.”

“And unfortunately Mr. Barkley I was on my way out of town when I was summoned here.  I have pressing business in Yuba City and won’t be back for several days.  I will explain to you exactly what you need to do to look after your brother. If there is an emergency you can send for my wife, she is a quite competent nurse.”

Heath watched this ongoing dialogue between Nick and the doctor. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?  When will I be able to hear again.”

They both turned back to Heath.  Nick patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, while the doctor wrote out – Your eardrums are likely ruptured and you have what could be a serious concussion.  Hopefully you’ll be completely recovered in a week or two.  Your brother will be moving you into town.  You are to stay in bed and do exactly as he says, ok?

A week or two? That sure sounded like a long time Heath thought.  But as long as I know this isn’t going to last I can deal with it.  And depending on Nick to write things down – oh yeah, that’d work out real well wouldn’t it Heath chuckled to himself. For the first time in hours he felt a little better, both in spirit and in body.

The doctor spent some time explaining to Nick that it was ok to let Heath sleep but that he should wake him every couple of hours for the first day or two and check to make sure everything was ok.  He showed him how to take and count a pulse and assess pupils and breathing and temperature. And he made sure that Nick knew what symptoms should concern him and which ones not to worry about.  He finished up by putting a small bit of gauze in each of Heath’s ears and explaining to both of them that the ears shouldn’t get wet and should be protected from dust and dirt to avoid possible infection.  The doctor then took his leave of the brothers.

Later than afternoon, Heath was settled into bed in the hotel.  Nick had insisted on the finest room in the place.  Heath felt tired and was still a little fuzzy.  He noticed that Nick seemed uncomfortable.  His brother seemed to be avoiding him.  No that wasn’t really quite right.  Nick certainly was hovering and fussing over him even more than Audra would have.  It was something else, something he couldn’t quite figure.  He looked up at his brother.  That was it, it was like Nick wouldn’t quite meet his gaze.  Whenever Heath looked at Nick, Nick would get this uncomfortable look in his eyes and would look off somewhere else.  Strange Heath thought, I wonder if he’s angry with me?   Well this stunt was a doozy, no doubt about it.  I seem to be getting laid up a lot lately.  He’s probably annoyed that this is delaying the new procedures he wants to get in place up at the mill.

“Nick?” Heath tried pushing himself up in bed.

Nick was there in a second, pushing him back down onto the mattress and shaking his head at him.

“Nick, I’m going to be fine.  I know you want to be out at the mill, you never even got a chance to talk to that explosives guy.  Why don’t you go on back out there?”

Nick couldn’t believe it.  How could Heath think he’d ever want to see that place again.  It was only because of that stupid mill that Heath was in this fix now.

“No way Heath, I’m staying right here.  You should get some sleep now, that’s what the doctor said.”  Realizing his brother didn’t understand a word he was saying he gently pushed Heath back on the pillows and reached over to the table and turned down the lamp.  “Sleep”, he mouthed to him.

“Ok, ok, Nick, whatever you say”.  Heath closed his eyes and was soon asleep.

“Dangit Nick.  You keep telling me to get some sleep and then as soon as I do you wake me up and start poking at me and writing me these blame fool questions.  Of course I know my name and yes, I still know what year it is.  For crying out loud just let me get a good night’s sleep.”

It had been 36 hours since the accident.  Nick was following the doctor’s orders and waking Heath every two hours.  By now they were both exhausted from a lack of any good, consistent rest.   Nick had had a tray sent up from the hotel’s restaurant.  He was having ham and eggs while Heath picked at his porridge.  It did look pretty disgusting Nick agreed.  But a big breakfast of meat and eggs just didn’t seem right.

There was a knock on the door.  Nick got up to answer it, Heath watching him to see what was happening.  “Dr. Thayer.  I thought you weren’t going to be back till tomorrow, come on in,” Nick invited.

“How’s he been?”  the doctor questioned Nick as he entered the room.

“Pretty disgusted with me I think,” Nick shook his head in exasperation.  “He’s tired of me waking him up, he won’t even look at my questions, and now he wants my breakfast instead of the porridge and milk.”

The doctor looked down at the bowl.  “I don’t think I blame him there”, the doctor said, setting the bowl aside.

“But, doc, he still can’t hear a thing.  He did say the ringing stopped though.”

The doctor checked Heath’s eyes and ears and listened to his breathing.  “It looks like it was just a concussion after all, he’s looking a lot better today.  And like I said Mr. Barkley, don’t worry too much about his hearing, it’s still early.  There’s no obvious sign of any infection.  Just give it some time.”

“Hey doc, will you tell this brother of mine that I’d be ok if he’d just quit waking me up and poking at me every few minutes.  I’m afraid to fall asleep anymore, cause I know the next thing I’m going to see is his ugly face leering over me,” Heath smiled at the doctor and gave a friendly glare at Nick.

“It looks to me as if you could both use some uninterrupted sleep”, the doctor told Nick.  “It’s been enough time, right now I suggest you both get as much sleep as you need.  You’re looking worse than your brother, the doctor admonished Nick.  “I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon.  If everything checks out then there’s no reason to keep you all here any longer.  I’d prefer he travel by train or buggy, and I wouldn’t suggest anything too strenuous for the next week or so.  If his hearing doesn’t improve in the next couple of weeks, you can check with your own doctor.   But truthfully, there’s nothing that any of us can do to speed up that process.

The doctor again left the two boys alone.  “Well Nick, what did he say?”  People talking around him and not to him, it was really getting frustrating Heath thought.  Nick wrote out,  He said you can sleep just as along as you want.   Nick also pushed his plate of ham and eggs at Heath and indicated he should eat it too.  This Heath did greedily, while Nick also wrote out, And he said your ears would just take a little longer to heal up – we’ll head home day after tomorrow if your up to it.  

“Home?  Don’t you still have business up to the mill,” Heath questioned.  There it was again, that uncomfortable look he kept seeing in Nick.  What was his problem?  Heath just couldn’t figure out what was causing his brother to look so morose.

Nick just shook his head and wandered over to look out the window.  He looked up towards the mill and mine – you could see the dust the stamp mill kicked up from here.  I don’t know how Heath can ever forgive me he thought, I know I sure can’t forgive myself.  He stood a long time staring out at the mine, lost in his own thoughts.

By the time he turned back, Heath had already finished up the breakfast and was fast asleep.  Nick went in to the adjoining room leaving the door open between the two rooms.  He hadn’t bothered coming in here before, he was afraid if he lied down on the bed he’d fall asleep and forget to check on his brother.  He was exhausted, he hadn’t slept at all in the last 36 hours.  Just sat in the chair next to Heath’s bed watching over him and of course he couldn’t get this feeling of guilt out of his mind – and why should he, he thought glumly.

Nick sat down on the bed, meaning to pull off his boots and vest.  But the bed was soft and he was asleep before he could even pull down the covers.

When Nick awoke, he found a blanket covering him.  He pushed it off and stood up.  His boots were on the floor by the bed.  Funny, he thought, I don’t remember taking those off.  He checked his watch.  8 o’clock.  Wow, he must have slept close to 9 hours. I better go check on Heath.

The door between the two rooms was shut.  Huh, I wonder how that happened.  He entered Heath’s room and – he wasn’t there.  Damn!  I knew I shouldn’t have gone to sleep, he probably woke up and couldn’t find me, if he wandered off disoriented and confused, oh hell Nick, you can’t do anything right, where could he be?  Nick was out the door and down the hall, yelling for his brother not even realizing the futility of that effort.  As he started down the stairs he almost ran into Heath coming up them.

“Heath, thank god, where have you been?”  Nick took hold of his brother’s arms.  Heath looked up at his brother and grinned,  “Boy howdy Nick I never seen anyone sleep like you.  Didn’t know a body could sleep for 20 hours.”  Heath had a towel draped over his shoulder and his hair was damp.  “I’ve just had a bath, looks like you could use one too,”  he said wrinkling up his nose at Nick.

20 hours!  Good god, had he really slept almost around the clock.  Well, Heath seemed ok enough.  A bath did sound good.  “Where is this bath,” he asked his brother?  Seeing Heath’s blank stare he pointed at the towel and then pointed downstairs.  “Oh the bath? It’s downstairs and around back.  Why don’t you meet me in the restaurant when you’re done?  I’m hungry enough to eat Audra’s cooking but saw steak and eggs on the menu down there.”

Nick nodded at Heath, and headed on downstairs.

Later that evening, Dr. Thayer stopped by.  He declared Heath fit to travel.  He told Nick he’d been up to the mine earlier that day.  Two men had been injured and one had died in an accident with the lift that was taking them down into the tunnels.  He told Nick about his trip earlier that week to Yuba City and the big hydraulicking operation they had down there.  It was the doctor’s thought that although hydraulic mining had its drawbacks it was infinitely safer to the miners themselves.  No tunnels, no shoring, no explosives;  just a big water cannon and large sluices to carry the water and debris down to the river below.

The doctor’s words got Nick to thinking.  The next morning after hiring  a buggy and tying  Coco and Charger to the back (against Heath’s protests that he was fine to ride) they headed out of town.  Heath wanted to know why they were heading due west when the ranch was to the southwest.

Now how am I going to write notes and drive thought Nick.  He stopped the buggy just long enough to write out , Want to stop in Yuba City first  and then drove on.  Heath just shrugged, it seemed to him that Nick hated to take the time to write anything out so they just drove on in silence.  And of course the silence made Nick think that Heath was upset with him so he just got quieter too feeling guilty all over again.

Yuba City was a booming town, all the hustle and bustle of a town on the rise.  The reason was the big hydraulic mine outside of town at the Malakoff Diggins.  Invented in the 1850s by a canvas maker and a tin smith the whole idea of hydraulicking as it was called was incredibly simple.  A big canvas hose with a large nozzle, a seemingly endless supply of water from the rivers, streams and even snow melt of the Sierras and all you had to do was wash down the sides of the mountain,  freeing up the gold that was hidden in the ancient river beds trapped beneath the sediments along the ridges.  Send it down a series of sluices and separate out the heavier gold and that was all there was to it.  Accessing these ancient rivers by the standard means of tunnels and shoring was both expensive and dangerous.  The Barkley mining operations hadn’t switched to hydraulics because of opposition from the valley’s farmers.  Washing that much material down to the rivers below inevitably caused the farm lands to flood and the rivers to become unnavigable.  But if it saved lives Nick thought perhaps it was worth it.  The accident at the mill certainly wasn’t the first mining accident to strike the Barkley family.  They had narrowly avoided tragedy a number of times in the past few years.  It was about time the Barkley’s get with the program and switch over to hydraulics Nick rationalized.

Heath and Nick sat in the buggy and watched the spectacle before them.  The hoses or monitors as they were called, had nozzles just under a foot across and discharged almost 15,000 gallons of water per minute in a single stream with a nozzle pressure of over 200 pounds per square inch.  That water shot hundreds of feet high washing down as much as 7,000 cubic yards of material in a day.

“God awful site”, Heath said shaking his head.  “I sure hate these things.”  Nick just looked at Heath.  How can he think that he wondered, not only was it economical – it cost less to run this whole operation than the new mill had cost them, it was obviously a lot safer too.

They stayed the night in Yuba City, having dinner with the mine owner.  Nick and the owner talked through dinner.  Heath, feeling left out, walked around town for a while and went on back up to his room.  He had stopped in the saloon for a drink.  There seemed to be several good poker games going on and a group of saloon girls and miners were singing around the piano.  Heath kind of felt like an outsider, watching the scenes unfold, as if from a great distance.  It was a strange feeling, one he didn’t like but was slowly getting all too used to.  He’d gone back to his room.

By the time Nick came back, Heath was asleep.  The next morning they headed south for Stockton, the rest of the trip even quieter than before.

*****

“But Jarrod, it’s been two weeks.  The doc said his hearing should have returned by now,” said Nick as he relaxed in the billiard room.

“Nick, I know.  But, you’re eating yourself up over this.  I don’t understand.  Heath seems to be handling this better than you.  And you did say the doctor told you these types of cases can sometimes take considerably longer.  You can’t lose hope.  For Heath’s sake at least you need to stay positive.”

“Positive!”  What the hell’s there to be positive about?  Heath is deaf, because of me I might add.  And you can see how it’s changed him.”

“First of all Nick, what’s happened to Heath was an accident, nothing more.  Heath doesn’t blame you and it’s time you quit beating yourself up over it.  As far as Heath being changed, well I’ve noticed that too.  He seems to be drawing more and more into himself.”  ..   “Why hello Mother, Audra.  I didn’t hear you come in.”

Victoria put her arm around Nick’s waist.  “Jarrod is right Nick.  You must stop blaming yourself for what has happened to Heath.”  Nick started to respond and Victoria put up one finger to stop him.  “You know Nick, he may not be able to hear but he certainly can tell that your behavior around him has changed since the accident.  You don’t meet his gaze, and you are obviously uncomfortable trying to communicate with him.

“That’s right Nick,” said Audra.  “This morning at breakfast he was asking you about the upcoming cattle drive and you just brushed him off.  I believe he thinks you’re angry with him for something.”

Nick looked crestfallen.  “Angry? Of course I’m not angry.  It’s just that, well I don’t know, a cattle drive is pretty rough.  I just wasn’t sure he was up to it, that’s all.”

“Nick, he’s just fine, “ Victoria reproached.  “The cattle drive will be good for you both.  Heath needs to start feeling like a useful part of this family again and you need to let go of this guilt you’re carrying around.”

“And who knows,” added Jarrod, “maybe his hearing will return during the drive.”  “Another ten days may be all it takes.  Although I’m not sure which would be worse, to have the first thing he hears be bawling calves or your shall we say, melodious voice, dear brother.”

Nick grinned and reached over and yanked Jarrod’s tie loose.

“All right children, enough of that.” Victoria smiled at her two oldest boys, “Nick, why don’t you go find Heath and tell him about the drive?”

“And while you’re at it tell him he owes me a rematch,” Jarrod said as he chose a pool cue from the rack.

*****

“Jarrod, you’re late.  Sit down, Silas will bring you a plate,” Victoria greeted her eldest son as he entered the dinning room.

Jarrod kissed his mother and sister and took his place at the table.  “I stopped at the telegraph office.  There was a message from Nick and Heath.”  The women looked at him expectantly.  “The drive went fine.  They’ll be taking the train back from Bakersfield the day after tomorrow.”   But shaking his head to their unspoken question he said, “No, his hearing is still no better.”

Dinner was quiet, as they were all lost in their own thoughts.  “Maybe he should see another doctor, perhaps a specialist?” Victoria asked looking up at Jarrod.

“Perhaps mother, but Dr. Merar did check with that doctor in Philadelphia remember?  He agreed that there is nothing to be done but wait and see what time brings.

“Yes, I suppose you’re right.  I just wish there was something we could do.”

*****

Their first night back from the drive the family was gathered in the billiards room.  Audra and Heath played cards while Nick and Jarrod played pool.  Victoria sat watching her children.

“I don’t know Jarrod,”  Nick answered his brother.  “The drive went all right I guess.  After the first few days Heath insisted on taking night guard.  I think it was hard for him to be in camp, especially in the evenings, with the other drovers talking and singing and joking around.  He kept pretty much to himself.”

“I’ve given that a lot of thought,” Jarrod said stopping to chalk his pool cue.  “When I was blind, well it was an awful time.  But, the blindness – it never separated me from my family.  Being blind separates you from things.  Being deaf.  Well, it seems like being deaf separates you from people.  Somehow that seems much worse.    You know though, I’ve had an idea but we should talk it over with Heath first.  He should be the one to make the decision.”

Nick looked at Jarrod questioningly, as Jarrod put down the pool cue and went over to Heath.  He tapped him on the shoulder and wrote him a note indicating they all needed to talk.  Nick and Victoria joined them around the couch.

Jarrod spoke to his family as he wrote for Heath.  “When I was stationed in Washington during the war, Congress passed a bill authorizing the first college in the United States specifically for the deaf.  It was based on a school started by a Mr. Galludet in the early 1800s in Connecticut I believe.  Even though the union was completely preoccupied by the war, Congress felt that this school was important enough to see that it was chartered and opened there in 1864.  I attended a reception honoring the occasion and met the school’s founder.  I know that over the years a number of schools for the deaf have opened up around the country.  There is one nearby in Berkley.  These schools have excellent reputations and teach a type of language that is spoken with the hands to help the deaf communicate.”

Heath, finishing reading Jarrod’s note, cut him off.  “Now wait a minute Jarrod.  I’m not going to be deaf forever.  I know it’s taking longer than I’d hoped, but the doctor did say it would be temporary.”  He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as his family.

Jarrod continued writing and speaking.  “I agree Heath, your hearing could come back any time.  But until it does wouldn’t it be better to learn a way to communicate with others without having to depend on written notes?” Jarrod asked reasonably.  He continued, “Instead of just sitting around waiting for your hearing to return let’s do something to make it easier right now.  It will be easy to get used to having your hearing back.  Right now is when we need some help.”

“But I don’t need to learn this hand language thing.  I know how to talk just fine.”

“Heath, it’s more for us than for you.  I’ve seen this sign language as it’s called.  It gives us a better way to communicate with you.  And, it’s quicker and more convenient than trying to write notes like this” Jarrod added.

“Oh Heath, let’s try it,” Audra added, taking the paper from Jarrod.  “And anyway, you’ll be doing Nick a favor, he never was much for writing – too much like school work, huh?” she smiled mischievously up at her big brother.

Nick gave his sister a withering look but agreed with the rest, “I say we give this thing a try.”  Nick noticed they were all staring at him.  “What? What did I say?” he asked looking confused.

“Nothing dear,” Victoria added, giving Nick a small smile and shaking her head.  “It’s just that once again you didn’t think to write it down for Heath.  I think this sign language was probably invented just for you.”

Everyone looked at Heath.  This was to be his call.

“Ok, I’m willing to give it a try if you all are” he told them, although he still sounded a little reluctant.

“Good,”  Jarrod wrote.  “I’ll set it up.”

Scene 4:  Train Station, Stockton

“Her name is Emily McGwire,” Jarrod told his family as they waited for the afternoon train from San Francisco.  The director of the California School for the Deaf highly recommended her.  Said she was one of their very best teachers, and since the school just let out for summer recess she was available to come here” Jarrod finished.  Audra wrote out what Jarrod had been saying for Heath.

Jarrod continued, “I saw Eugene right before I left the city.  He said he was curious so he stopped in to visit the school.  He met Miss McGwire briefly and seemed to think she was wonderful.  Although I think it had more to do with the young woman’s looks than her teaching ability if I was reading our little brother right.”

The train pulled in and they all moved forward on the platform.  A young woman made her way towards them smiling brightly.  “You must be the Barkley’s.  I’m Emily McGwire.  Eugene described you all very well.”  They all watched fascinated as she made gestures with her hands as she spoke to them.  All except for Nick who couldn’t take his eyes off her face.  My god, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen he thought.  And in that moment he knew, he just knew that this was the woman he’d marry.

Victoria extended her hand to the young woman.  “Miss McGwire, we are all delighted to meet you.  These are my sons Jarrod, Nick and Heath and my daughter Audra.  It sounds as if you’ve already met my youngest Eugene.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I think he wanted to check up on me.  Wanted to make sure I was good enough to teach his family.  I believe he very much wanted to be here but is getting ready for final examinations at the university.  I set him up with an instructor at my school so he can learn sign language at the same time as the rest of you.  Although I don’t believe he seemed happy with the arrangement.  Mr. Dawes is an excellent instructor though. I’m sure he’ll be just as satisfied with him as he would be with me.”

“Not likely,” muttered Nick.

“What was that Nicholas?” Victoria asked her son giving him an amused look.  Nick at least had the good sense to look a little embarrassed.

“May I help you with your bags Miss McGwire?” Nick asked, offering his arm to the lady.

“Absolutely, Mr. Barkley, and you must call me Emily,” she replied.

“Nick, my name is Nick.”

“Nicholas I think your mother said.  I think I much prefer the longer version if you don’t mind,” she smiled up at him with green eyes that Nick thought he could drown in.

Audra leaned over to Jarrod and whispered, “I don’t think he’d mind if she wanted to call him Rover”.  Jarrod responded, “I know just what you mean little sister.”

Emily spent the next month with the Barkley’s.  As time went on Heath seemed more resigned to his situation.  Plus learning this new language kept everybody busy.  Even Silas and some of the hands seemed eager to learn.  Of course with the hands it probably had more to do with Emily’s looks than their actual interest in sign language thought Nick.  But it was obvious to everyone that Emily only had eyes for Nick.  When not instructing she and Nick were inseparable.  Victoria was happy.  She had never seen Nick happier and it was obvious the young woman felt the same way.  She was beginning to feel as if Emily was her daughter, and she looked forward to her joining their family.

*****

Victoria smiled contentedly watching her family.  It was an animated scene.  Everyone talking and gesturing at once.  The conversation from dinner had spilled over into the billiards room.  Nick was still pushing for Barkley Enterprises to embrace hydraulic mining.  Audra and Heath were completely opposed and were certainly letting Nick know it.  It was good to see Heath so involved in family life once again.  Oh, certainly none of them were perfect in the use of this sign language but they had learned enough – along with finger spelling when they couldn’t remember the sign for a word or phrase, to get along and even have a quite active conversation she noted happily.  She wasn’t sure how she felt about hydraulic mining.  It certainly seemed harsh to the land, but for now she was content to watch her family, her whole family, conversing so easily together.

It seemed the conversation had now taken a new turn.  Heath and Nick were discussing the cattle branding that would start tomorrow morning.  They were all laughing as Nick made the sign for cow; each hand was in a Y shape with the thumb and little fingers out and the three middle fingers folded down.  His thumbs were at his temples and he flicked his wrists forward a few times (like horns).  He apparently didn’t know the sign for branding but that didn’t stop him from making a somewhat graphic one up.  Emily corrected him and showed him the proper sign.  Nick smiled broadly at Emily taking her by the hands.  “I’m sure glad you decided to stay here and open your own school,” he said.

“She had to brother Nick, she’s got a full time job just working with you,” Jarrod smiled fondly at Nick.  Nick grinned right back at him, “Why do you think I play dumb, I’m not letting her go anywhere.  A man’s wife needs to live in the same town as him don’t you think?”  Emily smiled warmly up at Nick.

“Oh, how exciting, a wedding!  I can’t wait.”  Audra took over Emily plying her with questions about dresses and cakes and flowers while all the boys looked on.  Heath signed a congratulations to his brother.

Heath looked genuinely happy, Victoria thought.  Her greatest hope was that Heath’s hearing would return.  But he and the rest of them were learning to cope.  She watched as Emily caught Nick’s eye before Audra led her from the room.  Her right hand was pointed up at chest level, palm out and middle and index finger down.  The sign for I love you.  That was right Victoria thought, love – it’s what had always kept this family together and what would continue to do so.

***The End***

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