To Have And To Hold….Memories (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6000


Ben Cartwright stood by the door of the Telegraph Office in Placerville with the slip of paper in his hand. Without being totally aware of the fact that he had done so, he stretched out his back and shoulders as though he had to iron out so many creases that were knotting up the muscles; then, having done this, he sighed and returned to the counter.

“Anything to return, Mr. Cartwright?” Phil asked, scratching his head with the stump of pencil and looking earnestly into Ben’s face. After all, Ben Cartwright was an influential man in Nevada and Phil was as anxious to please as any man there in Placerville.

“No thanks, Phil, this is just fine. The boys know I’ll be back tomorrow,” Ben replied slowly as he folded the paper in half so that it fitted neatly into his shirt pocket. “Thanks for sending out for me and giving me this message.”

“I thought it was important, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Well, you were right, as it happens.” Ben smiled at the younger man. “It confirms that Adam has secured an important contract and it’s all been signed, sealed and delivered for my homecoming tomorrow. I can just go over and see Mr. Foley to confirm it with him now.”

Phil nodded, more pleased that Ben had deigned to spend a few minutes talking to him than at the news Ben was sharing with him. High finance, contracts and such meant nothing to Phil. His life was a simple one and he preferred to keep it that way. Less complications, he would tell his wife when she was urging him to seek promotion.

Phil licked the blunt nib of his stubby pencil and prepared to attend to his next customer who, upon passing Ben Cartwright, afforded him a nod of the head before reaching the counter.

Ben tipped his hat politely and walked slowly out of the Telegraph Office. He paused a moment and surveyed the blue sky, the lazy puffs of cloud, and the buildings opposite. Placerville was growing. He stretched his back and shoulders again, felt better for it, and prepared to cross the road.

“Ben?”

He paused, turned and greeted the man who was approaching him. The two men shook hands warmly as Jake Foley asked Ben if he had received any news from his sons.

“Yes, I’ve just received confirmation of the contract having been agreed. I was just on my way to see you and discuss it with you, Jake.”

“That’s excellent news, just what we needed to hear,” Jake cried, refraining from slapping Ben on the back as he would other business associates, for there was something about the way Ben held himself that made Jake feel that such an action would be considered rather presumptuous. “How about coming over to the saloon and celebrating? There are a few details I want to discuss with you before you leave for Virginia City.”

“Excellent idea, Jake. I was about to suggest it myself.” Ben smiled, and Jake was awarded the sight of Ben’s black eyes sparkling and the attractive mouth parting in a wide and generous smile. Jake was further impressed when Ben took hold of his elbow and proceeded to cross the street with him as though they were old friends. Had Ben been a presidential candidate, he would have won a vote there and then.

*****

Buck side-stepped a wagon and tossed his head regally as he bore his master out of the town. Ben was pleased with the way this had gone with Foley. The man was intelligent and had a sharp eye for business; he was also prudent and unusually honest. Ben did wonder how long the man would last out in a business where the predominant quality leaned as far from honesty as possible. But the man suited Ben and fitted all the requirements that the rancher, an honest man himself, could have looked for in a business associate located away from Virginia City.

Foley was pleased with the whole affair and sighed with pleasurable relief upon seeing Ben ride out of town. He had been longing for over an hour to get back to his wife and tell her the good news. Things could only get better now, and he couldn’t help but rub his hands with delight at the thought.

“Foley? Was that Ben Cartwright who just rode out of here?”

Jake turned to see Doctor Carter walking towards him with a rather apprehensive look on his face and his eyes looking dark shadowed and heavy. “Yes, it was. Is anything wrong?”

“How was he when you saw him? Was he alright?” Carter asked, looking keenly into Foley’s face as though for some sign to indicate that anything the man said in answer could be construed as doubtful.

“He was perfectly fine. Actually, Dr Carter, I…”

“He was perfectly healthy then? No complaints about anything at all? Did he mention stopping over at the Lockey’s homestead last night?”

“The Lockey’s?” Jake blinked and scratched his head. “No, never said nothing about them. I think he stayed at the hotel.”

“Hmmm, it’s just that…well…no….” Carter dithered, heaved a sigh and shook his head.

“Should I send someone after him, Dr Carter? I mean, if you think there’s any reason…”

“No, it’s alright, Foley. I’m sure you’d have noticed if there was anything wrong. Yes, I’m sure you would have done. Anyway, he’s headed for Virginia City, isn’t he? The doctor there should be able to handle it – not that there’ll be anything to handle, of course. No, of course there won’t be …” Mumbling beneath his breath, the doctor turned away and ambled back the way he had come, then he paused and turned back to Jake Foley, “I can’t stop as I have to see about something urgent that has come up.” He waved a hand, turned and hurried away.

Jake Foley watched Carter as he scurried over to his buggy. A fat man with a pale waxy complexion, and rather diffident in his manner, a manner that Jake found patronizing and that had successfully robbed him of the good mood he had been feeling before the doctor had arrived. He watched as the buggy lurched to one side to accommodate Carter and then shook his head as he thought, not for the first time, that it really was a case of ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

Jake turned to look down the road to see how far Ben had progressed and noticed that the horse and its rider had now disappeared from sight. After a moment’s thought upon the matter and having reached a decision, Jake turned away and hurried to his own horse. He mounted and headed towards his home and waiting wife. As his thoughts lingered on what he was going to tell her, all anxieties about Ben Cartwright and the Doctor slipped right out of his mind.

*****

Ben had ridden some distance from town and was deep in thoughts of his own when he became aware of the fact that the niggling headache he had been experiencing in town throughout the day had suddenly become a pounding pain that encircled his skull as though in an iron band that was slowly tightening and squeezing his temples so that when he looked up at the sky everything blurred and his eyes involuntarily closed to avoid the light.

He slowed Buck from a gentle canter to a walking pace, the reins loose in one hand while he rubbed his eyes and temples for a while, flexed his back and shoulders, and fumbled for his water canteen. As he gulped down water, he realized that he was really feeling very unwell, and that the desire to get to a bed and sleep was so overwhelming that he would have been grateful to have fallen out of the saddle there and then and curl up upon the grassy bank beside the road.

He sprinkled some of the water upon his face and made the mistake of shaking his head, only to experience such pain that he had to put a hand to his eyes and press his fingers against his temples in an effort to ease it.

He resealed the canteen and urged Buck to continue at a canter. He had planned to camp at the usual location that he and the boys had used on many an occasion during their visits to Placerville. The evening was going to be a pleasant one, with nothing to disturb him. He assured himself that once he had made camp and eaten something he would feel much better.

He rode on some, while all the time feeling increasingly worse. He began to shiver, he felt hot and then cold, his head was pounding and then there was the impulse to dismount before he was sick. Having succeeded in getting out of the saddle before vomiting into a bush, he had to lean against a tree trunk for some moments to recover himself. Apart from the weakness that had washed over him, there was the terrible feeling of shame that came with having actually thrown up over the shrub. He found himself feeling singularly grateful that he was unaccompanied at the time.

He realized he could go no further on horseback and it was only by sheer will power that he was able to unsaddle his horse and remove Buck’s bridle. He had a vague memory of getting his blanket unrolled and grabbing the canteen before he curled himself into it and struggled to sleep.

*****

Somewhere far off in the darkness an owl hooted. There was the sound of his horse moving, rubbing against some shrubs, a hoof striking against a stone. Leaves rustled and a coyote warbled a howl up at the moon. Ben was aware of these things as though they were miles upon miles away. His fever was now raging out of control, and pain racked his body. He groped for the canteen but had no power in his hand to remove the stopper; he fumbled, dropped it, groaned and slipped back into his feverish sleep.

“Have to get back home. Boys will worry,” he mumbled and rolled over onto his side. “Get home…”

“You need to rest now.” A cool hand touched his brow and the voice was gentle, a soft breath whispered past his ear. “Dear Ben, can’t you see that you’re not well enough to travel just yet.”

“Elizabeth? Is that you? Is it?”

“Oh Ben, who else would it be now?” Her fingers touched his lips, “Is Adam well?”

“Adam? Yes, yes, he’s well. Oh Liz, I miss you so much. You would be so proud of your son.”

“I told you our baby would be a boy, didn’t I? As tall as yourself and the trees that grow around our home.”

“Our home?” He sighed and reached out for her hand. It seemed to him that her fingers curled around his own, and her hand was cool, soft, against his own dry calloused one.

“You did build it, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Elizabeth. A grand house. Adam and I – oh, Lizabeth, I wish you had been with us. I missed you so much.”

“Tell me more about Adam. Is he a good man? Is he intelligent and kind?”

“Yes, my sweet Elizabeth, yes, he’s a good, kind man. He loves to read. He must have got that from you…”

“And you.” She laughed softly, and her black hair trembled upon her shoulders, black curls that he reached out to touch.

“He writes poetry as well as reads it. He went to college …” His voice trembled and he closed his eyes, “It near broke my heart when he left home. I feared I would never see him again.”

“But he came back, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he came back, with his head full of ideas and dreams. Sometimes he reminds me of a wild horse, tamed but …”

“But?” she whispered.

“Straining at the reins and longing to be free.” A shiver trickled over his body. He was aware of perspiration soaking through his clothing, spiking his hair, making the skin of his face crawl as though there were ants crawling over him.

“Try to sleep, darling. You’ll wake up and feel stronger.”

“I can’t sleep.” He moaned and turned his head away from the sight of her. “I must be dreaming. I must be …”

“Dreams and memories are always there whenever you need them, Ben. Isn’t that what you always used to tell me? Darling Ben, sleep now.”

“I can’t…”

“Hush. Close your eyes. Try and sleep.”

“You won’t go?” he whispered tentatively and reached out for her hand again, for it seemed to him as though it had slipped away.

“I won’t go away, dearest Ben,” she whispered, and it was as though her kiss was a soft exhalation upon his cheek.

*****

He kept his eyes closed and it seemed as though he had slept, although he couldn’t bear to open them. He could hear singing — a clear fresh young voice that sang a song in a language he did not understand but which he knew he had heard before at some time during his life. He listened for a while until it stopped. Disappointed, he opened his eyes and looked up.

“Dear Ben.” The pale blonde woman smiled down at him; her eyes were as blue as cornflowers and her face as fresh and bright as a child’s as her lips parted in a laugh that was teasing and happy.

“Inger?” He closed his eyes again, reopened them and saw her face leaning close down to his own, as though she had to feast her own eyes upon him to believe she were really seeing him after all.

“Yes, yes, it is I, Ben; it is Inger.” There was that lovely lilt to her voice, that funny sweet endearing voice that had captured his heart so long ago. He raised his hand to touch her cheek and she drew away,

“Ben, Ben, you ’ave been not vell at all, and there is so much I want to know. You need to sleep, dear Ben.”

“Elizabeth said I should sleep,” he whispered and oh yes, he was tired, so doggedly tired. “I must sleep.”

“Yes, you must, Ben.” She looked at him with concern, and shook her head as though admonishing him for not taking proper care of himself. “Is my son well? Has Hoss grown to be a big man?”

“Yes, Inger, he’s grown to be a big man in every way possible. He’s big in heart as well as in strength; he’s like you, my dear sweet Inger, so like you. He brings home injured creatures, cares for … for those who can’t help themselves. He’s a good, good man, Inger. You would be so proud of him.”

“Not like Gunther?”

“Oh no, nothing like Gunther. Nothing at all like him.”

“Are you proud of him, my Ben?”

“Yes, more than I could say, Hoss is like our rock, Inger, our rock.”

“It’s good then, isn’t it, that he is so strong and a good man?”

“A very good man.” He sighed. He saw the smile on her face, and it was as though the sun shone upon her blonde hair for she shimmered, shimmered before his very eyes.

“Sleep now. Grow well and strong,” she whispered and he thought he heard her singing as he closed his eyes.

*****

He had to vomit. There was nothing else he could do, for his body acted in its natural way to reject what it no longer required. Once the vomiting was over, he felt that lethargic weakness shiver its way through him making him curl into as close an imitation of the fetal position that was possible for a man of his size.

“Adam? Adam?” His throat was burning, “Water. Son, get me some water.”

A dark-eyed face peered down at him and lips mouthed a question. He saw black curls trembling upon a smooth, golden tanned brow. The child looked like he was going to cry as he uttered the one word, “Pa?”

Ben groaned and rolled onto his back. There was the thought that lay trapped in the back of his mind that he had to get home. He had to get his horse and, come what may, he had to get home. He had promised Adam to be home that night and he would bring a new book. A book of stories. It was for Adam, wasn’t it? Perhaps it was for Hoss after all, because it was a storybook full of pictures about animals. So it was for Hoss after all and he whispered his son’s name. “Hoss?”

“Yes, Pa?”

A smiling face, blond curls, and brilliant blue eyes, lips rosy pink parted in a smile. “Yes, Pa?”

“I got a book for you, son.”

“A book?” The blue eyes blinked and a confused look drifted over the child’s face. “You said you was gonna brung me a horse.”

“A horse? Yes, of course, Adam was having the book and Little Joe …”

“I’m here, Pa.” A giggle came close to his ear, then a face peered into his own. “Pa, you ain’t getting no better, are you?”

“I’m just tired. Did I fall off my horse?” Ben whispered, forcing the words through a throat that was so sore it seemed to be on fire.

“No, Pa, you was just sick.”

“Sick?” Ben groaned and rolled onto his side to vomit some more.

“Don’t worry,” a woman’s soft voice told him. He opened his eyes to see Marie shaking her head at him. “You always say that to the boys when they’re sick after all, don’t you? Don’t worry. You must be so tired, darling?”

“I am, but I promised the boys I’d be home tomorrow. I must get on my feet, Marie.”

“I know, I know,” she said soothingly, and put out her hand. “Lean on me and I’ll try and get you on your feet.”

“No, I’m too heavy. Marie, why are you here?”

“Because you wanted me, of course. What a silly question?” She laughed and tilted her head in that coquettish way she had about her that he loved so much. “You wanted me to be here, so I came. Here I am.” She stood before him, tall and graceful, slim and elegant.

“Are the boys home?”

“Yes, waiting for you. You said you would be home tomorrow, after all.”

“I shall be; I don’t break promises, you know that.” He reached out for her but she shook her head and moved away,

“I know, darling. I know.”

“Better find that horse.”

“He’s quite nearby.” She leaned forward; her hands cupped his face within the chalice she formed, and she kissed him gently. “Don’t forget I love you.”

“I want you back.”

“I didn’t want to go.” Her hands caressed his face and her hazel eyes filled with tears. He saw them shine in her eyes, spike her long lashes, and then spill over upon her cheeks, dripping down slowly, slowly, until they dropped and splashed upon his face.

“Then don’t go now, stay here with me.”

*****

Ben opened his eyes.

“Marie?” he whispered.

“Hush. It’s alright, you’re alright. You’ve been ill but you will be alright,” said a voice that he did not know.

“I’m sorry but…”

A cool cloth wiped gently around his face and neck, and water was slowly dripped between his parched lips so that it trickled down his burning throat.

“Just sleep,” the voice said.

“Yes,” Ben whispered, “Sleep.” He sighed; his eyes were heavy. The eyelids closed. “Sleep…”

He reached out a hand and Elizabeth turned to smile at him. Her fingers touched his.

“To have and to hold, from this day forwards, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” he whispered.

“To have and to hold,” she said. Her dark long-lashed eyes were fixed upon his face and he could see the love shining there. “Dreams and memories, always there, forever and forever. Amen.”

“Elizabeth.” He sighed and her fingers drifted away from his as though all he had held onto was mist and nothing else.

*****

“Drink this,” a voice commanded as a strong arm encircled around his back and carefully raised him into a sitting position. “Drink it slowly.”

Ben Cartwright swayed slightly but the person against whom he leaned did not waver an inch. He drank what he was given and opened his eyes as the potion slowly slid down his throat. “Thank you.” He looked intently at the woman’s face, and she smiled down at him. “Thank you very much. I’m very grateful to you.”

“You must be feeling very weak, Mr. Cartwright. I’m sorry I can’t give you anything to eat just now. I tried to give you something this morning but you were very sick as a result. The Doctor recommends we leave it until tomorrow. In the meantime, he’s left this for you to have. It’s to help settle things down, and get rid of any fever than may be hanging around.”

“The Doctor? Doctor Martin?” Ben mumbled, struggling to recognize the face that kindly looked down at him.

“No, no, I meant Doctor Carter. You’re in Placerville, Mr. Cartwright.”

“But I thought I’d left for home?”

“You had,” a more familiar voice said, and Jake Foley stepped into his line of vision. “But sometime during the day I heard that a family you had visited — the Lockeys — had been ill. Dr Carter seemed concerned about you so I hitched the buggy and came looking for you.”

“He found you a good few hours drive from town, Mr. Cartwright. You were really very ill so he brought you home in the buggy. Your horse is safe. Jake took him to the livery stables.”

“How long have I been here?” Ben asked, settling back, with some relief, against the pillows of the bed.

“Three days since Jake brought you home.” Julia Foley smiled at him, a pleasant warm smile and as honest as her husband who was now standing behind her.

“I sent a cable to your sons, told them you were here,” Jake said solemnly. “They would have been concerned.”

“Yes, yes, they would be,” Ben agreed, and he closed his eyes in relief. “I remember now. I was riding pass this homestead and realized that my canteen was empty. There was a young couple, two children…” He paused and raised an arm to cover his face, as he tried to recall them, feature by feature. “Are they – were they ill, too?”

“Yes. They were all ill except the baby. Mrs. Lockey is recovering very well, and her husband appears to be doing well. The eldest child has not recovered.” Julia sighed, and shook her head sadly. “It happens,” was all she could bring herself to say.

“Yes,” Ben whispered. “Yes, it happens.”

“Dr Carter kept them quarantined. He said it was influenza. Since I returned with you, Mr. Cartwright, there have been several other families ill with it. The doctor says there isn’t much one can do except let it run its course.” Jake sighed and looked at his wife, who smiled up at him and took hold of his hand. “But you’re well on the road to recovery, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben smiled wanly, and said nothing. He wanted to say that he wished he were still on the road home, but felt it would have been ungrateful of him to do so. He closed his eyes and relaxed against the pillows. Slowly he succumbed to their comfort and warmth, and as he slipped into sleep, he realized that he was no longer in pain, no longer suffering.

*****

When Ben next opened his eyes, the room was in near darkness. He could hear the whisper of curtains drifting back and forth across the carpet as the breeze from the window caught at them. There was a flicker of light from an oil lamp which had been set upon a small side table and beside that, sitting in a chair reading a book, was a familiar figure. Ben opened his mouth to speak, and then remembered those whom he had recently seen and spoken too during the course of his illness. He waited to see whether or not this was really the person he thought it to be or yet another comforting hallucination.

As though sensing that the man in the bed was now awake, the young man in the chair put the book aside and stood up to approach the bed. “Hello, Pa.”

The even tones of his eldest son quickened Ben’s heart and he reached out with his hand to reassure himself that this was real flesh and blood that spoke to him.

Adam smiled gently, took the proffered hand in his own, and sighed. “You had us pretty scared for a while, Pa. None of us were sure if you would pull through.”

“I…I guess I’m not so easy to kill off,” Ben replied, surprised at how weak his voice sounded. “What was wrong with me?”

“The Doctor here says it was influenza. There’s been quite a major outbreak of it in town. Once we got the cable through, we told Paul Martin and he’s doing all he can to make sure there isn’t any such problem in Virginia City. Mr. and Mrs. Foley have really been very good, Pa. They sent us a cable as soon as they got you back here. I dread to think what would have happened to you had Mr. Foley not decided to ride out and find out for sure whether or not you had been affected.”

“It was…it was a strange experience,” Ben replied and closed his eyes, while a slow smile drifted over his lips. “I wasn’t alone.”

“What did you say, Pa?” Adam leaned forward in order to catch the words, but Ben’s voice was too low, too thin.

“Are Hoss and Joe here with you?”

“You didn’t think they would hang back at the Ponderosa with you ill here, did you? Yes, they’re here. Both asleep, I should think.”

“Good, that’s good. I’m glad you’re all here,” Ben replied quietly, “Can I have some water?”

Adam helped his father into a sitting position in order for him to drink the water, and it surprised him to realize just how weak Ben actually was, for the big man sagged against his son and leaned against him as though he had no strength in his own body at all. For some moments, Ben remained with his head against his son’s chest, the steady beat of Adam’s heart resonating comfortingly and reassuringly. Then with a sigh, Ben indicated that he wished to get some sleep.

The even sound of his father’s breathing having assured Adam that his father was asleep; Adam left the room, closing the door softly behind him. He turned as Hoss approached, bearing a candlestick in one hand, the flame of which danced in the melting tallow

“How’s Pa?”

“Sleeping. Dr Carter said that would be all he would want to do for a while.”

Hoss nodded. He put his hand on the door handle in order to push it open but Adam restrained him by placing a gentle hand on his brother’s chest. “Let him be. You need sleep too, Hoss. Influenza isn’t exactly a respecter of people, and you’re tired enough as it is.”

“I’d like to sit with Pa, though, Adam. Shucks, Joe and me have fair run our feet off running around town helping out the folk around here. This fever sure is spreading through the town fast. I doubt if that Doctor knows how to tackle it right. He seems all at odds with himself, don’t he?”

“Well, we just have to face the facts here, Hoss. There just aren’t enough doctors in the territory. People are flooding in here, bringing all kind of disease with them but …” He shrugged and then smiled at his brother. “Try and sleep, Hoss.”

“Yeah, and you too,” Hoss replied, gently pushing his brother aside and opening the door to the room in which his father slept.

Adam nodded and smiled. He made his way to the kitchen where Mrs. Foley had left some food and coffee for them. He was not surprised when he found Joe wandering in to join him, yawning widely, and a candlestick in his hand. This Joe placed on the table; he pulled out a chair, sat down, and ran his fingers through his hair.

“I looked in on Pa…” Joe muttered, accepting the mug of coffee Adam had poured out. “He’s sleeping. Hoss shooed me away. He’s like a mother hen at times.” Joe smiled sleepily and stirred sugar into his coffee. “I thought Pa wasn’t going to make it. I’m mighty glad that Mr. Foley cabled us so soon after he found Pa.”

“They’re good people,” Adam replied. He pulled out a chair to sit opposite his brother. “Could be quite a few people who won’t come out of this as well as Pa.”

“You’re right, Adam. Hoss and I worked along with some of the folk in town today while you were with Pa, and I don’t think some of them are going to pull through.”

Adam sighed heavily, and shook his head. “Then we can only thank God for keeping Pa safe.” He picked up his mug and then glanced over at his brother. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. Just tired. It frightened me when I saw how ill Pa was, and then seeing the people in town made me realize how close we were to losing him. Adam?”

“Huh?”

“Did Mrs. Foley say anything to you about Pa?”

“What about him?”

“She said that before we got here he was talking a lot to…to…well…she wasn’t sure to whom, except that they seemed mighty real to Pa. She said that he was speaking to them as though they were people he loved.”

Adam leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “It isn’t unusual for people with high fever to become delirious. Perhaps he was having a fever dream.”

“Do you think he was speaking to our mothers?”

“He could have been,” Adam replied slowly. “Dreams and memories can become very real at times like these.”

“I sometimes dream of my Ma.” Joe looked down at the table and traced a pattern with his finger on the wooden surface. “They seem so real at times that it comes as a shock when I wake up and realize that she isn’t with us anymore.”

“I know,” Adam said quietly with a nod of his dark head. He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I know.”

They said nothing more but allowed their thoughts to meander down those private lanes in our minds where loved ones never die, where hopes are realized and dreams fulfilled. They didn’t need to speak as they shared their supper together, those moments together. Silence at such times is a compliment to one’s companion as each is assured that words are not necessary to ensure the affection one has for the other.

They made their way to the room they were sharing, and as they passed the door of their father’s room, the sound of Hoss’ snoring reverberated through the wood. The brother’s shared a smile as they closed the door of their room and shut out the sounds.

*****

Paul Martin stepped into the Ponderosa with some trepidation. Fear that the illness would spread to Virginia City had been a real anxiety. With the mass of people crowded in the town, and some parts of the town being far from sanitary due to overcrowding and discarded filth, he knew that had it taken hold it would have been as difficult to contain as a forest fire.

Ben Cartwright rose to his feet with his usual warm smile of welcome, and it didn’t take Paul the time it took him to pass from the door to the settee to appreciate the fact that Ben Cartwright was fit and well. Coffee was called for and Hop Sing bustled out with a tray loaded down with the necessary refreshments which he set down on the table before them.

“How are you feeling, Ben?” Paul felt compelled to ask as the rancher poured out the coffee and handed him a cup.

“I’m well, thank you, Paul.”

“And the boys?”

“All well too. I was worried that they could become ill as they were helping with the sick in town for several days. It was rather sobering to realize how vulnerable our towns are, Paul, when this kind of illness strikes. There just aren’t enough doctors.”

“I know.” Paul’s face darkened and he shook his head. “I’ve written to various hospitals and Medical Boards for assistance, but…” He sighed and sipped his coffee before glancing at the other man with anxiety etched on his face. “At the end of the day, there just are not enough willing men prepared to give up a comfortable practice back East to come out here and face the difficulties there are. Frontier life is all very well when written in novels, but in real life …”

“In real life it, just needs an epidemic like the one I’ve just experienced to realize how easily our townships can be wiped out.”

“Were there many fatalities?”

“Too many. But thankfully it won’t affect Placerville too severely,” Ben said. His mind trawled back to those days when he had come so close to death. “It’s odd. One anticipates death from a gunshot, a fall from a horse, all those myriad of things that could befall any one of us out here in this wonderful new world of ours, but we forget that it could also come by means of something as insidious as this fever.”

“It’s happened before in mankind’s history, Ben. How did you find Doctor Carter?”

“Not the most capable man to have in a crisis,” Ben replied with a smile. “He was not too sure how to deal with it, hoped if he ignored it then it would go away, and when it didn’t… well, by that time it had spread. But he knuckled down to the task and did the best he could in the end.”

Paul nodded and got to his feet. He shook Ben’s hand, and after a few more words, he left. Ben heard the sound of the buggy leaving the yard as he himself walked to his study and sat down at the desk.

From the drawer of his desk, he withdrew three silver framed pictures upon which he fixed his gaze for some time. Three women looked back at him through the glass and each one of them he remembered just as he had seen them only a short while ago.

How real they had been then, how close and how tangible. Their eyes had been alive, their sweet perfumes had filled his mind, their gentle words had comforted and soothed him. He stared hard into the immobile features, the dead eyes, the soulless smiles and remembered that once their love had filled his whole life. He shook his head, and then one by one, replaced them in the desk. He closed the drawer.

“Thank you, my loves, thank you,” he whispered as he turned the key in the lock of the drawer in which their pictures nestled side by side.

***The End***

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