On the second night of Nick's fever, nine-year-old Jarrod Barkley lay in his bed and could not close his eyes. Mother left no light at his bedside. He was getting older, no need for such childish things as night lights.
He lay awake with his eyes wide open, not knowing how to close them. If he did, he couldn't be certain Nick would still be there when he awoke. His little brother couldn't die as long as Jarrod was awake to guard him.
Another string of coughing, hard and labored, reached him from the other bedroom, the sick room. Mother and Father decided it best to keep Jarrod away. No need for two sick boys.
Jarrod knew what sore throats and fevers often led to...he'd been to the funerals, and the illnesses that led them there all began as Nick's had, with a cough and a complaint and then to the sick bed where they never got up again.
The third day of Nick's fever began much like the other two. Both of his parents were distracted and staying as close to Nick as possible to care for him. On this morning, Jarrod heard Mother and Father talking in their bedroom. The door was open so he wandered in.
"The doctor said it will take time," Mother was saying.
"We don't have much time."
"Mother," Jarrod said.
But she didn't hear. "We have to believe he knows what's best!" she continued to Father.
"He's not as strong as he was before."
Jarrod backed away, not wanting to hear anymore. Just as he got near the door, something stood out, something new. A shiny black saddle on a stand. He was drawn to it.
"It's for your brother," Father snapped. "Don't touch it."
Jarrod lowered the hand that had raised to caress the fine leather. Father glared at him.
"Tom," Mother said quietly. "He won't hurt it."
"It belongs to Nick!" Father said firmly.
Jarrod looked to his mother, but found only sorrow there. She looked as if she wanted to reach out to him, to say something, but Jarrod didn't give her the chance. He turned and ran from the room.
On the third night of Nick's fever, dinner was a lonely affair with hardly any words being said and with one parent needed in the sick room, it was not a time for both parents to be at the table together. Jarrod found it especially hard eating dinner with Father present. His face was stern and sullen and his mind was focused on something so acute, that Jarrod feared disturbing him with even the slightest movement or word. He sat straight and ate only small bites.
Silas was extra attentive. "Finish your plate now," he said softly to the boy. "I have some hot apple pie waitin' just for you."
Jarrod smiled, but didn't feel it. He couldn't even taste his food anymore.
"Silas," Father said gruffly. "Make more coffee. We have another long night ahead of us."
"Yes sir, Mr. Barkley," Silas replied with a nod. He placed his hand on Jarrod's shoulder, a warm, paternal gesture. When Jarrod looked up, there was understanding in his brown eyes. Jarrod, feeling bolstered by the gesture, switched his gaze to Father who was so distant that he didn't notice Jarrod at all.
Later, when Father was in Nick's room, and Mother was asleep, Jarrod crept into his parent's room and he took the small leather saddle from the stand, knowing full well the risk of a real hiding he was taking.
When he brought it into his own room, he sat on the bed. There he looked at it a long time. Nick's saddle-a fine one that needed his name.
With a steady and sure hand, Jarrod reached into the bedside table and withdrew his pocket knife. He took a deep breath and slowly, deliberately, he carved deeply into the leather. A permanent etch to keep his little brother in this world.
On the fourth morning of the fever, Jarrod sat in the hall on the floor in front of his bedroom door, not wanting to go far from his brother. He preferred waiting, just waiting in the hall where he could see Nick's room.
"Boy, go outside," Father said when he walked by. "You need some air."
Jarrod followed him with his gaze, anger built up enough that he forgot who he was when he said it. "No! I won't go outside. I'm staying right here until I can talk to Nick."
Father stopped, his shoulders went rigid. To Jarrod it seemed he had stopped time itself. No one spoke to Thomas Barkley that way, especially not his 9-year-old son. Jarrod readied himself to be hauled up by the arm and dragged to the leather strap. But Father turned and gazed at him and for once his eyes had softened. "What did you say to me?"
It wasn't a command, it was more of an incredulous attempt at understanding. An awakening of sorts. Father came back to him and knelt until they were almost eye to eye. "What did you say to me, Jarrod?"
It was the first time he'd said his name since Nick became so ill. Nick was all he thought about. Until now.
"I said," he started, but needed to clear his throat. "I said...I want to see Nick." His eyes filled with tears, and he was angry about that too. What man ever cried?
Father's gaze dropped from Jarrod's eyes and he seemed at a loss. "Your brother's sick, Jarrod. We don't know..." his voice trailed off. His eyes lifted again to Jarrod's and strength returned briefly. "We don't know when he'll be well again."
"Could he die?"
Father pressed a hand to his eyes and Jarrod saw he couldn't speak, he was sobbing.
Jarrod did the only thing he knew to do. He hugged his father fiercely.
Father returned the hug and held him for a long time. "I'm sorry," he said.
That evening, Father allowed Jarrod to stay up as long as he wanted to stay up and even let him wait by Nick's door for as long as he needed to be there. He did get a glimpse now and then of his brother when the door opened and closed as caregivers came in and out. Long after night had fallen, Jarrod found himself sliding into sleep and into his mother's arms. "Come to bed, Jarrod," she murmured. "You will see Nick when you wake up in the morning."
Jarrod rubbed his eyes as Mother led him to his room. "Is he better?"
"Yes," Mother said with a hitch in her voice. "His fever has finally broken."
Mother lit a lamp in his room and she guided him to his bed. "Climb up, young man," she said.
Jarrod did as he was told and climbed into the feather bed gratefully. "Is he really better, Mother?"
Mother saw the saddle in the chair by his bed and ran her fingers over the carving. "He really is."
Jarrod felt a flush rise to his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Mother. I just thought it should have his name on it."
"It's beautiful, Jarrod. Just beautiful." She leaned over and kissed him goodnight.
He rose early with the sun just peeking into his bedroom window. He threw off the covers, snatched up the saddle and went to Nick's room. He pushed the door open not too slowly or quietly. "Nick?"
The dark head turned a little when Jarrod approached one side of the bed. "What?" Nick creaked, but a smile appeared.
"Look what's waiting for you when you're better." Jarrod hefted the saddle so Nick could see. "Got your name on it and everything."
Nick gazed at the saddle, his brows furrowed and a stern frown set in. "I don't want anybody on it but me," he said.
"Nobody." Jarrod replied. "I'll make sure of it."
Later, Jarrod had the saddle back in his room. He rummaged through his desk and found the small jar of white paint he used when he built his models. He opened it up, dipped the brush into the paint and completed the rest of the words. After he was finished, pride set in.
He read the words aloud.
"Nick age 6. Private KEEP OFF!"