Synopsis: An epidemic strikes Virginia City, and the Ponderosa.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 13,280
Author’s Note: “Plague” is based on a Little House on the Prairie episode by the same name. I’ve basically taken this LHOP episode and turned it into a Bonanza story. For those readers who have seen the original LHOP episode, you’ll recognize many of the same scenes and elements, just re-written in a Bonanza setting.
Guiding his wagon slowly through the hills, the peddler smiled as he chucked the horse on. He was pleased with himself, feeling he had made a smart deal. He had gotten the cornmeal from the mill that was closing for almost nothing. In fact, they practically gave the grain to him. And now he was selling the cornmeal to people in and around Virginia City for a tidy profit.
The peddler had no set route. Each day he simply unlocked the storage shed and loaded the wagon. Then he drove in whatever direction he fancied. Some days he went north, some days he went south. It didn’t seem to matter. Whatever direction he went, he always found some people interested in buying one or more of his sacks. He stopped at both the big ranches and the small homesteads. He visited the mines and the cabins in the hills. And at almost every one, he made a sale.
Once again, the peddler smiled when he thought of the storage shed. No one had any idea that his grain was stored there. The building behind the warehouse hadn’t been used in a long time. Most people thought it was empty or full of old tools, if they thought about it at all. No need to pay money for space in a warehouse when you can secretly use something for free. The peddler even got a lock that looked old and rusty to put on the door. Everyone would think that no one had used the building in years.
Wiping his brow, the peddler was surprised at how damp his face was. He felt warm, almost hot, and he knew he was sweating. He was surprised because the day was cool. He also felt the dull throb of a headache coming on. The peddler shrugged off the headache. He figured he was just tired. He had been working hard, traveling around for almost a week selling the cornmeal. He promised himself a day off. Maybe tomorrow or the next day. After all, he didn’t have much of the cornmeal left. The wagon hit a rut, jolting the peddler, and he winced. His headache was getting worse, and his shoulders felt stiff and sore. Yes, the peddler thought to himself, I’ll take a day off. Tomorrow I’ll simply stay in bed.
“Hey, Pa, do you mind if I take the day off and do some hunting?” asked Joe Cartwright as he slid into his seat at the breakfast table. “I saw some deer tracks up on Willow Ridge yesterday. It’s been awhile since we’ve had fresh venison.”
Ben Cartwright looked up from his plate of eggs and bacon. “Did you get those fences fixed in the south pasture?” he asked.
“Yep, all done,” Joe confirmed with a nod. “And I fixed the corral, stacked the hay, and checked the line shacks. I’m all caught up.”
“You’ve been a busy little beaver, haven’t you,” observed Adam Cartwright with a smile as he sipped his coffee.
“Well, I really want to go hunting,” Joe admitted. “I haven’t had a chance to go after deer in a long time.”
“Since you seem to have all your work done, you can go,” agreed Ben, giving his son permission with a nod. “But just one day. I don’t want you turning this into a week-long expedition. You be ready to go back to work tomorrow.”
“I promise,” said Joe solemnly. But the twinkle in his eye belied his solemn face. He turned to his brother Hoss. “Hey, Hoss, you want to come with me?”
Hoss finished chewing the toast in his mouth before answering. “I’d sure like to, little brother,” replied Hoss, with regret. “But I got a full day of work. I’ve got to take those wagon wheels into Virginia City to be fixed, and I told Hop Sing I’d pick up some supplies while I was there.”
“That’s too bad,” Joe said, shrugging his shoulders a bit. Then he grinned. “But I guess you’ll force yourself to eat some of that venison I bring home.”
“Well, I guess I will,” agreed Hoss, grinning back at his younger brother. “Of course, that’s only if you actually manage to hit something.”
“Hoss, when you’re in town, I need you to go to the bank for me,” Ben informed his middle son. “And stop by to see if there’s any mail.”
“Pa, that’ll take me all day,” complained Hoss.
“Probably,” agreed Ben, unmoved by Hoss’ complaint.
“Don’t worry, big brother,” said Joe with a grin. “I’ll have some nice fresh venison waiting for you when you get home.”
Joe rode his horse slowly up the trail to Willow Ridge, his eyes on the ground, searching for tracks. He knew the deer trail cut in several directions, and Joe was looking for the freshest signs. He had a vision of a big buck in his mind, and he could almost taste the roasted venison that Hop Sing would cook.
Hearing a strange noise, Joe looked up. The land around him seemed deserted. He heard the noise again and recognized it as the jingle of harness. Joe wondered who could be driving a wagon up here. There only a few small farms in the area, and they were several miles away. Joe looked around, searching for the source of the noise. He frowned as he saw a wagon moving slowly across the meadow below the ridge. The driver of the wagon was slumped over in the seat, and the horses seemed to be walking aimlessly through the tall grass.
“C’mon Cooch,” Joe said to his pinto as he lightly kicked the horse forward. “We’d better check this out.”
It took several minutes for Joe to ride down the hill and several more minutes for him to catch up with the wagon. Riding up to the front of the wagon, he reached down and grabbed the harness. A quick tug on the leather brought the horses to a stop. Joe slid off his pinto and walked back to wagon.
“Mr. Perkins!” Joe cried in alarm as he looked up into the seat. “What’s wrong?”
Fred Perkins was slumped over in the driver’s seat. Joe could see he looked pale, and the tell-tale red spots of high fever were visible on his cheeks. Joe also could see the beads of sweat covering the man’s face.
At first, Perkins didn’t seem to hear Joe. Then he stirred himself and looked up. “Joe…” whispered the man in a raspy voice. He shook his head as if trying to clear it. “Joe, help me.”
“What’s wrong?” asked Joe again, his concern growing. Perkins was an older man, probably in his sixties. He and his wife lived on a small farm a few miles from the meadow. The farm wasn’t large, but it produced enough to give Perkins and his wife a good living.
“Joe, Mabel’s sick,” croaked Perkins. “She’s real sick. I’m trying to get her to the doctor in Virginia City. I didn’t want to leave her alone.”
Looking into the back of the wagon, Joe saw a woman in her sixties covered with a blanket. The woman was pale and feverish also, and she seemed to be shivering.
Turning back to the wagon seat, Joe asked with concern, “How long has she been sick?”
“Came down with a fever about two days ago,” replied Perkins. “I thought it would pass, but it’s getting worse.” The older man suddenly slumped forward in the wagon seat.
“You don’t look so good yourself,” declared Joe, trying not to sound alarmed. He climbed up in the wagon seat. “Let me help you into the back of the wagon.”
Perkins roused himself again. “No, no,” he replied. “I’ll be all right. I just need to get Mabel to the doctor. Joe, you have to help me.”
“All right,” agreed Joe. “Let me tie my horse.” Joe climbed down from the seat and led his horse to the back of wagon. He quickly tied the reins of the pinto to the metal ring jutting out of the wood. As he tied his horse, Joe looked into the wagon again. Mabel Perkins was still shivering, and he could hear her moaning softly. Joe wondered if he should do something to help the woman. But even as he wondered, he knew there was little he could do. The best thing would be to get the Perkins to Doctor Martin in Virginia City as soon as possible.
Slapping his horse lightly as he walked around the animal, Joe went to the front of the wagon and climbed up onto the seat again. Perkins didn’t seem to notice as Joe slipped the reins from his hands. Joe looked at the farmer with concern, then snapped the reins to start the horses. Glancing at Perkins again, he snapped the reins harder, urging the horses to greater speed.
The streets of Virginia City were practically deserted as Joe pulled the wagon to a halt in front of Doctor Martin’s office. He looked around quickly, but didn’t see anyone he knew. With a shrug, Joe jumped off the wagon seat and rushed into the office.
“Doc! Doc!” yelled Joe as he pushed open the office door. “Doc, you here?” Standing still in the middle of the office, he listened for an answer. The only sound Joe heard was the ticking of a clock on the wall.
“Must be out on a call,” muttered Joe. He chewed his lip, wondering what to do. He knew Mabel Perkins was very sick, and Fred wasn’t much better. And Joe had no idea where the doctor might be.
Walking quickly out of the office, Joe returned to the wagon. “The doc’s not here,” he called up to Perkins. “I’m going to take Mrs. Perkins in. Then I’ll come back out and help you.” Joe reached into the back of the wagon, pulled the woman wrapped in blankets toward him and then gathered the woman in his arms.
Carrying Mabel Perkins, Joe walked into the office once more, and, without hesitation, toward a small bedroom at the back of the building. The door was partially open, and Joe kicked it wide. He carried Mrs. Perkins to a bed near the door and laid her gently on it. Standing over the bed for a minute, Joe wondered what to do next. Then he bent down and slid the quilt on which Mrs. Perkins was laying from under her. Joe pulled the quilt up over the woman, covering her while she was still wrapped in the blankets. He figured keeping her warm was the best thing. As soon as Mrs. Perkins seemed sufficiently settled, Joe went to get her husband.
Fred Perkins had already climbed down from the wagon seat when Joe returned outside; he was leaning against the wagon, as if he didn’t have the strength to walk. Joe put his arm around the man’s waist and led him slowly into the doctor’s office. He guided Perkins to the same bedroom where he had taken his wife, leading the man to a second bed in the room, and helping him into it. Joe also covered Perkins with a quilt.
Standing in the middle of the room, Joe looked at the two sick people. He knew he couldn’t just leave them; he had to do something to help them. Joe peeled off his jacket and threw it on a chair sitting against the wall, then took off his hat and tossed it on top of the jacket. Rolling up his sleeves, Joe left the room.
Looking around the doctor’s office, Joe tried to decide what to do next. He saw a small washbasin sitting on a table; several white towels lay folded by the bowl. Joe walked over to the table and picked up the washbasin and towels. He knew there was a pump in the kitchen that brought cool water into the office. As Joe headed toward the kitchen, he glanced anxiously at the door. “Doc,” he said aloud. “You’d better get here fast. Because if the Perkins have to rely on me to help them, they’re in a heap of trouble.”
Doctor Martin pulled his buggy to a halt in front of his office, and quickly climbed out. He glanced curiously at the wagon and horse parked near the office, but the doctor didn’t stop to wonder about them. He figured he would find out soon enough who needed his help.
Pushing open the door and entering the seemingly empty office, the doctor frowned and then called out, “Who’s there?” Doctor Martin was surprised to see Joe Cartwright come out of the bedroom. Joe had a towel in his hand, and the relief was evident on his face.
“Doc, am I glad to see you,” declared Joe.
“What’s wrong?” asked the doctor with alarm. “Is it your Pa or your brothers?”
“No,” replied Joe with a shake of his head. “I found the Perkins up on Willow Ridge.
Mrs. Perkins is real sick, and her husband was trying to get her to town. Only he’s pretty sick himself.”
A look of concern crossed Doctor Martin’s face. He rushed past Joe and into the bedroom.
Fred Perkins and his wife lay on their beds with covers pulled up to their chins. Both had a damp towel laid across their foreheads. Fred Perkins was shivering and moaning softly. His wife lay deathly still.
“I didn’t know what to do,” explained Joe from the doorway as he watched the doctor examining Fred Perkins. “I tried to keep them warm, and I put cool compresses on them.”
Giving Joe a distracted nod, the doctor continued to examine Perkins. Suddenly, he pulled the covers back, and tore open the man’s shirt. “Oh no!” muttered the doctor in dismay as he looked at the rash on Perkins’ chest.
“What is it, doc?” asked Joe in alarm.
Doctor Martin turned to Joe. “Typhus.”
Joe swallowed hard. “Are you sure?” he asked in a shaky voice.
“I’m sure,” answered the doctor. “The rash is the tell-tale sign.” He shook his head. “I just got back from the Watson ranch. Millie Watson died of typhus this morning.”
“The Watson place?” repeated Joe with a frown. “That’s way on the other side of the lake, miles from the Perkins’ place.”
“I know,” said Doctor Martin. He shook his head again. “Two cases so far apart…I’m afraid this won’t be the last of it. I think it’s only the beginning.”
“How does typhus spread?” asked Joe, his fear growing.
“Mostly from fleas,” explained the doctor. “The fleas pick up the disease from infected rats, and then spread it to humans.”
“Rats?” said Joe. “Where do you think it’s coming from?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Doctor Martin. “It could be coming from anywhere.” The doctor looked up. “Joe, I’m going to need your help.”
“Anything,” replied Joe.
“I want you to go to the door and see if you can find somebody on the street. Tell them to go to Roy Coffee’s office and bring the sheriff here,” ordered the doctor.
“I’ll go get him myself,” offered Joe. He walked across the room, and reached for his hat on the chair.
“No, Joe!” cried the doctor, rushing to Joe. He grabbed the young man by the arm. “Joe, you can’t go out there.”
“Why not?” asked Joe in confusion.
Doctor Martin hesitated before answering. “Joe, you’ve been exposed to the typhus,” he explained as gently as possible. “You could be a carrier.”
Joe’s eyes widen in fear.
“Joe, you can’t have any contact with anyone,” continued the doctor. “You can’t go back to the Ponderosa. You can’t take that chance.”
His eyes still wide, Joe swallowed hard. “I’ll….I’ll stay here,” he agreed. “Do whatever I can to help.”
“Good,” said the doctor. He looked around the bedroom. “We’ll have to move the Perkins and set up a hospital someplace. Someplace out of town.”
“We could use the schoolhouse,” suggested Joe. “That’s outside of town.”
“That’s a good idea,” acknowledged the doctor with a nod of his head. “Now go see if you can find someone to get Roy Coffee. When Roy gets here, don’t let him in the office. Tell him what’s going on, and tell him to spread the word that everyone should go home and stay there. Tell him we’ll use the schoolhouse as a hospital. Anyone who gets sick should be brought to the school.”
“All right,” said Joe, his voice still sounding shaky.
“And tell Roy we’re going to need plenty of blankets,” added the doctor. He thought for a minute. “And mattresses, and buckets. We’ll need cold water, too.”
“There’s a well by the schoolhouse,” advised Joe. “The water in there is plenty cold.”
“Good,” said the doctor. “We’re probably going to need it. We’re also going to need some big cauldrons to boil the blankets.” Doctor Martin looked back to the bed where Mabel Perkins lay. “And shovels, Joe. Tell Roy we’ll need shovels.”
Joe’s eyes widened again. He nodded and once more swallowed the lump that seemed to be forming in his throat
As Joe turned to leave, the doctor stopped him again. “Joe, remember, don’t let Roy into the office,” cautioned Martin. “And don’t get too close to him.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe nodded his understanding. He looked at Mabel Perkins on the bed, and then back to the doctor. Joe cleared his throat. “I’ll…uh, I’ll go see who I can find,” said Joe, his voice quivering. Moving quickly, he left the room.
Doctor Martin stared after Joe for a minute, his eyes full of sorrow. Then he shook his head and turned back to the Perkins
Hoss trudged up the small rise at the edge of town toward the schoolhouse, his face showing the puzzlement he felt. He wondered if the fellow who had tracked him down at the bank got the message wrong. The message was that Joe wanted Hoss to meet him at the schoolhouse right away. Hoss shook his head in confusion. Joe wasn’t in town; he was up on Willow Ridge hunting deer. And even if he was in town, why would he want Hoss to meet him at the schoolhouse? Hoss had tried to ask his questions of the messenger, but the man had simply given Hoss the information and walked away.
Something was going on; Hoss could see that. He saw Roy Coffee and two other fellows wearing deputy badges going up to people in the street and talking with them. Whatever they said must have frightened those folks. As soon as the sheriff finished speaking his piece, everyone seemed to grow pale and a look of terror crossed their faces before they rushed away. Hoss never did catch up with anyone to find out what was going on. He promised himself that he would hunt down Sheriff Coffee as soon as he checked out this crazy message.
As Hoss neared the schoolhouse, he could see a figure drawing water from the well in front of the building. Hoss’ puzzlement turned to surprise. Even from a distance, he recognized his brother Joe.
“Joe!” called Hoss as he approached the school. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?”
Dropping the water bucket in his hand, Joe turned quickly. “Hoss, stay there!” shouted Joe. “Don’t come any closer.”
Hoss stopped at the edge of the school yard, more confused than ever. He also was becoming alarmed. “What’s wrong?” Hoss called again in an uneasy voice.
Standing by the well, Joe didn’t answer for a minute, then took a deep breath. “I was up on Willow Ridge hunting,” he explained in a loud voice. “I saw a wagon in the meadow below. The horses seemed to be just wandering through the meadow so I thought I’d better check on it. I found Fred Perkins and his wife in the wagon. They were both pretty sick.” Joe looked away for a minute and then turned back to Hoss. “They have typhus.”
“Typhus!” exclaimed Hoss in horror.
“Doc Martin says there’s been some other cases,” Joe went on. “He thinks there’s going to be more. We’re setting up a hospital here.” Joe swallowed hard. “Tell Pa I won’t be coming home for awhile. I’ve been exposed. I can’t come home. I can’t take the chance,” he finished in a trembling voice.
Hoss stared at his brother, too shocked to say anything.
“I’ll stay here and help the doc,” continued Joe. “He’ll need help if there’s more cases.”
“I’ll come help, too,” offered Hoss, taking a step toward the schoolhouse.
“NO!” shouted Joe in a panicky voice, holding up hand. Hoss stopped in his tracks.
“No, Hoss,” Joe said again, his voice calmer. “You’ve got to get home. Warn Pa and Adam. Tell them to keep all the hands on the Ponderosa. Tell them to warn the other ranches, and ask them to keep their hands away from town. Doc Martin is hoping to keep everyone isolated. He’s hoping that might keep the typhus from spreading.”
Unsure what to do, Hoss hesitated. He knew Joe’s orders made sense, but he hated the thought of leaving his brother alone in the makeshift hospital. Hoss studied Joe standing by the well. He looked so young and vulnerable to Hoss, much younger than his actual age of 22. Maybe it was being near the schoolhouse that made Joe look like just a kid. Hoss swallowed hard. He knew typhus was a deadly disease, and anyone who came down with it had a good chance of dying.
“Maybe I ought to stay,” suggested Hoss, taking a step forward once more. “I can send someone else to the Ponderosa.”
“No, Hoss, you have to get to the ranch,” insisted Joe in a firm voice. “There’s no one else. Roy Coffee is going to shut down the town pretty soon. Won’t let anyone come in or go out. You’ve got to leave now. You’ve got to warn Pa and Adam.”
Frowning, Hoss didn’t answer for a minute. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. “I’ll go.” He stared hard at Joe. “You take care of yourself, little brother,” he added, his voice filled with both concern and affection.
“Don’t worry about me,” Joe called back, giving his brother a shaky smile. “I’ll be fine. I’m too mean to get sick.”
Hoss tried to smile back but his effort was a poor one. “Do you need anything?” he asked.
“No, not now,” replied Joe, shaking his head. “The doctor is setting up things inside. I was just getting some water so we could start boiling it.” Joe smiled again. “I can’t do much but I can boil water.”
“Yeah,” agreed Hoss. “Doc Martin doesn’t know what a lousy nursemaid he’s getting with you.” He stood silent for a minute. Hoss couldn’t think of anything else to say, but he was reluctant to leave.
“You’d better get going before you get trapped in town,” urged Joe.
Nodding, Hoss tried to figure out how to put his jumbled thoughts into words. Finally, he just said, “Take care, Joe.”
Turning, Hoss started walking down the path toward town. Joe watched his brother leave, his eyes glued to the bulky frame going down the track. Joe watched until Hoss was out of sight. Then he turned and picked up the bucket.
Hoss drove the buckboard filled with supplies into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house, but Hoss gave no thought to unloading the wagon. As soon as he pulled the horses to a halt, he climbed down from the driver’s seat and hurried into the house.
Sitting at his desk, Ben was writing some figures in a ledger while Adam stood by with a paper in his hand, reading the numbers to his father. Both men looked up in surprise when they saw Hoss come into the house.
“You home already?” asked Adam. “You must have raced through that list that Pa gave you.”
“I didn’t get the banking done, and I didn’t pick up the mail,” replied Hoss. His voice and face were dead serious.
“Why not?” asked Ben with a frown.
“Pa, there’s trouble in town, big trouble,” Hoss explained. “A couple of cases of typhus showed up. Doc Martin thinks there’s going to be more.”
“Typhus!” exclaimed Adam in alarm.
“Yeah,” said Hoss. “Sheriff Coffee is shutting down the town. Won’t let anyone in or out. He wants us to keep all the hands on the Ponderosa, and warn the other ranches around here to do the same. The doc’s hoping that keeping everyone close to home will stop the disease from spreading.”
The frown on Ben’s face showed his concern. “He’s may be right,” agreed Ben, but then he shook his head. “I’ve seen typhus epidemics, though. They’re hard to stop unless you know the source. Does the doctor know where the disease is coming from?”
“I only talked a minute with Roy as I was leaving town,” Hoss answered. “He said he don’t know where it’s coming from. He was going to start looking, though, as soon as he had the town as buttoned up.”
Nodding, Ben turned to Adam. “We’ll finish this later. You ride out and tell the men with the herd to stay out there.” He turned to Hoss next. “You ride up to the lumber camp, and tell the men there to do the same thing. As soon as Joe gets back, we can decide who’s going to ride to what ranches.”
Almost wincing at his father’s last sentence, Hoss looked away uncomfortably. “Pa, Joe ain’t coming home,” he said slowly. “At least, not for awhile.”
“Why not?” asked Ben.
“When he was hunting out on Willow Ridge, he came across the Perkins in a wagon,” answered Hoss. “He took them into town.” Hoss looked down for a moment, then raised his eyes. “Pa, they had typhus.”
“What!” exclaimed Ben, jumping to his feet.
“The doc says Joe has been exposed to it,” continued Hoss. “He don’t want Joe to come home. He’s afraid Joe will give it to the rest of us.”
“Just where is Joe?” asked Adam, his voice filled with concern.
“The doc has set up a hospital in the school,” Hoss replied. “Joe’s going to stay there.”
“I’ve got to get to town,” announced Ben, walking around the end of the desk.
Putting up his hand, Hoss stopped his father. “Pa, you can’t go into town,” he stated firmly. “I was practically the last one the sheriff let leave. He’s got men guarding all the roads. He’s not going to let anyone in or out.”
“I don’t care!” snapped Ben. “I’ve got to get to Joe.”
“Pa, there’s nothing you can do to help Joe right now,” said Adam, trying to calm his father. “I’m sure he’s going to be fine. The best thing we can do is what Roy asked us to do. We’ve got to keep our hands on the Ponderosa, and warn the other ranches.”
Ben stared at Adam almost in disbelief. “But…” he started to say. Then he stopped and his shoulders sagged. “You’re right, Adam,” Ben agreed reluctantly. He turned to Hoss. “Did you see Joe?”
“I saw him, Pa. He looked all right,” Hoss assured his father.
“You didn’t get too close to him, did you?” asked Adam with concern.
“No,” answered Hoss with a shake of his head. “I stood on the edge of the school yard. Joe was up by the well. He was drawing some water to take inside.”
Taking a deep breath, Ben looked at his sons. “You two get saddle up,” he ordered them. “Adam, you warn the men out by the herd, then head for the ranches to the west. Hoss, you ride up to the timber camp, then swing by the ranches to the north. I’ll head east, then south.”
Both Adam and Hoss nodded, and then walked toward the front door. Ben watched his older sons leave. Then he closed his eyes and prayed for his youngest son.
Joe spread some more blankets over the mattresses on the floor of the school. The desks had been shoved aside and piled in the corner, making room for about twenty mattresses. Joe hoped they wouldn’t need any more than that. In fact, he hoped twenty would be too many. But in his heart, Joe knew that hope was false. In addition to the Perkins, there were already four other people lying on mattresses on the floor. It seemed like every time he turned around, he heard a wagon pulling up to the schoolhouse. There was only one way in and out of the schoolhouse, and for that, Joe was grateful. Things would be a lot more complicated if he had to keep an eye on more than one door.
Hearing footsteps, Joe turned to the door. He hadn’t heard a wagon; he thought he must have missed the sound. Joe hurried to the front of the building, rushing to help whoever the new arrivals might be. He was surprised when he opened the door.
“Molly!” exclaimed Joe. “Are you sick?”
“No, I’m not sick,” declared Molly Gibbons. She was a tall, thin woman, with a no-nonsense look about her. Her dark hair was streaked with gray, and tied neatly in a bun at the back of her head. Her face was lined with wrinkles, clearing showing her fifty plus years of living in the rough Nevada territory. She wore a simple print dress and carried a small sack. “A tough old bird like me is too ornery to get sick.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Joe in alarm. “Didn’t you hear about the typhus?”
“I heard,” replied Molly briskly. “And I figured you and the doctor could use some help.”
Doctor Martin looked up from the floor. He had been kneeling next to Fred Perkins, trying to force some medicine into the sick man. “Molly,” said the doctor. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Molly. “You two are going to need all the help you can get. I’ve done my share of nursing in my time.” Molly turned to Joe. “Here’s some fixings for some broth,” she explained, handing Joe the sack. “You put that over there by the stove.” She turned back to the doctor. “Now, what do you want me to do?”
Both Joe and Doctor Martin stared at the woman for a minute. Then the doctor shook his head. “Molly, you’re really something,” he remarked.
“Yes, I am,” agreed Molly with a wry smile. “Just don’t tell me what.” Then she turned to Joe. “What are you doing just standing here? We got work to do,” she said brusquely.
With a grin on his face, Joe straightened his shoulders. For the first time all day, his sense of dread lifted. “Why don’t I put this sack over by the stove,” suggested Joe with twinkle in his eye.
“You do that,” replied Molly gruffly. Then her face softened. “It’s going to be all right, Joe,” she added softly. “You’ll see. Everything is going to be fine.”
His face growing serious again, Joe nodded an agreement he didn’t really believe. He had a feeling it was going to be a long time before everything was all right again.
Riding at a brisk pace, Ben guided his horse down the road to Virginia City. He had warned the ranches east and south of the Ponderosa, taking care not to get too close to anyone. But instead of heading home, Ben rode toward the town. He had to see Joe, had to see for himself that his son was all right.
Ben wasn’t surprised to be stopped on the road before he got to town. A barricade of wagons blocked his way, and four men with rifles ordered him to stop. He had listened as the men warned him about the typhus epidemic, and had nodded his head as they strongly suggested he head for home. But Ben had no intention of going home. He simply turned his horse and headed back up the trail a bit. Ben rode less than a mile before turning his horse again. This time he guided the animal to the west, giving the town a wide berth. Ben was determined to get to his son. If he couldn’t get to Joe by going through town, he would simply go around it.
When he reached the schoolhouse, Ben was surprised to see a wagon blocking the path. He hadn’t counted on being stopped so close to his destination. The wagon had been pulled across the track at its narrowest part; thick stands of trees on either side made it impossible for someone to ride around the barrier. Three men with rifles stood behind the wagon. Ben recognized one of the men. And the man recognized Ben.
“Hold up there, Ben,” shouted Sheriff Roy Coffee. “You can’t go any further. The doc’s using the school has a hospital. We’ve got typhus up there.”
“I know, Roy,” replied Ben. “But Joe’s in there. I’ve got to get to him.”
“Joe’s all right,” the sheriff assured his old friend. “I saw him a little while ago.”
“Roy, please,” begged Ben. “I’ve got to see him. I’ve got to see for myself that he’s all right.”
Chewing his lip, Roy Coffee thought for a moment. He knew how Ben felt about his boys, how strong the bonds were between the father and his sons. And he could understand Ben’s need to check on Joe himself. Roy had felt the same need. That’s why he assigned himself a post near the schoolhouse. He had made sure he was someplace where he could keep an eye on Joe.
“Ben, you can’t go near the school,” insisted Roy. “I can’t take the chance of you catching the typhus. We need men like you to help us now. If you get sick, I believe it would just about tear this town apart.”
“Roy, please,” pleaded Ben, his voice growing more desperate. “I promise I’ll stop at the edge of the yard. I won’t go near the schoolhouse. I just want to see Joe. I promise I won’t go near him.”
Roy hesitated, then nodded. “All right, Ben,” agreed the sheriff reluctantly. “You give me your promise that you’ll stop at the end of the path, I’ll let you through. I’m going to be watching, though. You try to go near the school, and I’ll stop you.”
“Thank you, Roy,” said Ben, the relief in his voice evident.
Rolling the wagon a few feet, Roy and the other men created an opening, giving Ben enough room to guide his horse around the wagon. Ben walked his horse slowly up the path. As he had promised the sheriff, Ben halted when he reached the end of the track. He dismounted and tied the reins to a tree limb. Then he took a step forward, stopping at the edge of the yard. He stood where he could be seen from the schoolhouse…and where he could clearly see the school.
“Joe!” shouted Ben in a loud voice. “Joe, can you hear me?”
Waiting impatiently, Ben’s eyes were fixed on the door of the school. He was just about to shout again when the door opened and Joe stepped out onto the small porch at the front of the school.
“Pa, don’ come any closer!” cried Joe in a frantic voice. “Stay where you are! There’s typhus here.”
“I know, son,” said Ben in a loud voice. “Hoss told us. But I had to see for myself that you were all right.”
“I’m all right,” called Joe.
Narrowing his eyes a bit, Ben studied his son. It was difficult to tell from a distance, but he couldn’t see any sign of fever or sickness in Joe. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Have many cases turned up?” asked Ben.
“Yeah,” answered Joe in a discouraged tone. “We’ve got about ten people inside, and more are showing up all the time. Some people are being brought in by their kinfolk. The doc’s making the families go right back home and telling them to stay there. Bill Wilson is making the rounds with a wagon, warning people and picking up any sick ones he finds. Bill said he had typhus about ten years ago, so he’s not worried about getting it again.”
Concerned that the disease seemed to be spreading, Ben frowned. “Do you need anything?” he called to his son.
“No,” replied Joe with a shake of his head. “At least not right now. The doc seems to have everything he needs. Molly Gibbons showed up a little while ago to help.” Joe grinned. “Molly is pretty good at giving orders and getting things organized.”
“I’ll get she is,” agreed Ben with an answering grin. Then his face turned serious. “Joe, you take care of yourself. Get as much rest as you can.”
“I will, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “Don’t worry.”
Reluctant to let his son out of his sight, Ben simply stood and stared intently at Joe.
Felling the same, Joe returned his father’s gaze. Finally, he looked away. “I’d better get inside,” Joe said reluctantly. He turned to re-enter the school but stopped when he heard Ben call his name.
“Joe,” shouted Ben again. He waited until Joe turned and was looking straight at him. “I love you, son,” Ben called softly.
Nodding uncomfortably at his father’s show of affection, Joe replied quickly. “Me too.” He glanced down and then back at Ben. “Take care of Adam and Hoss,” Joe added. Then he walked quickly into the school.
Standing at the edge of the school yard for another minute, Ben stared at the door that had closed behind his son. Reluctantly, he turned and mounted his horse.
Riding the short distance down the path, Ben stopped by the wagon. The three men near the wagon were turned toward the school. They had seen and heard everything. All three had a sympathetic expression on their face as they looked at Ben.
“Thank you, Roy,” Ben said gratefully as the men rolled the wagon aside again. He glanced over his shoulder toward the school. “I want to come back again tomorrow,” added Ben. “I promise I’ll stop at the top of the path again.”
The sheriff looked thoughtful for a minute. He didn’t like the idea of Ben getting so close to the school, but he had a feeling he would have a hard time stopping his friend from coming back. “All right, Ben,” agreed Roy. “I’ll pass the word that you can come through. But I want your promise that you’ll go no closer than the end of the path. You’ve got to give me your word that you won’t go near the school.”
“I promise,” replied Ben. He shook his head. “Joe said they have ten cases of typhus up there already.”
“Yeah,” acknowledged Roy. “And that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the people up there now live pretty close to town. Once the word spreads to outer ranches and farms about the hospital, I think there will be a lot more.”
“Roy, where’s it coming from?” asked Ben earnestly. “Do you have any idea of the source?”
“No, I don’t,” admitted the sheriff. “I’ve got men checking out every warehouse in town. They’re also checking deserted buildings and any place else that there might be rats. They’ve got orders to shoot any rats on sight.”
“But it’s so widespread,” Ben pointed out. “It’s got to be coming from someplace other than just in town.”
“I think so, too,” Roy agreed. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “But I don’t know where else to look. I’m hoping we’ll get lucky and find the source of the disease real quick.”
“And if you don’t?” asked Ben.
Roy looked away and didn’t answer.
Turning his horse, Ben guided it around the end of the wagon. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he called as he rode down the path.
Hoss paced nervously in front of the fireplace, his boots scraping the floor as he walked. Adam sat in the blue chair near the stairs, pretending to read a book. He was just as anxious as Hoss, but Adam tried to hide his concern.
Finally, Adam looked up from the book. “Will you settle down?” he demanded in an exasperated voice. “Pa will be home soon.”
“Ain’t you worried, Adam?” asked Hoss. “Pa should have been back two hours ago. You don’t think something happened to him, do you?”
“Pa’s a big boy,” said Adam in a soothing voice. “He can take care of himself.”
“I don’t like it,” Hoss declared. “With all this sickness around and Joe…” Hoss stopped, unable to talk about Joe. “I don’t like it,” he finished in a defiant voice.
“If he’s not home in an hour, I’ll go with you to look for him,” Adam promised. “In the meantime, why don’t you just settle down.”
Hoss started to say something but stopped when he heard footsteps on the porch. “Finally,” said Hoss in relief. He walked toward the door.
Closing his book, Adam sat back in the chair. He tried not to show that his relief was just as great as Hoss’.
“Pa, where have you been?” asked Hoss with a frown as Ben pushed open the door and walked in the house.
Ben smiled briefly at Hoss’ question. He couldn’t count the times he had asked the same thing of his sons. His smile faded, though, when he thought about where he had been. “I went to see Joe,” explained Ben briefly.
Adam jumped to his feet. “Pa!” he said. “You didn’t get close to him, did you?”
“No,” answered Ben, as he removed his hat and coat and hung them on the peg near the door. “Joe stayed on the porch of the school, and I stayed across the yard.”
“How did you get through?” asked Hoss. “I thought the town was shut down.”
“Roy let me through,” admitted Ben, as he unbuckled his gun belt and rolled the leather into a ball.
“How is Joe?” asked Adam with concern as he watched his father.
“He’s all right,” Ben answered. “Or as all right as he can be, under the circumstances.” He shook his head. “He not sick. But this is going to be hard on him. Very hard,” added Ben. “He’s only a boy. He shouldn’t have to see…what he’s going to see.”
“Pa, Joe’s a tough kid,” said Hoss, trying to reassure his father. “He’ll come through this. He’ll be all right.”
“I hope so,” replied Ben in a voice filled with worry. “I hope so.”
Over the next four days, more people were brought to the school. Bill Wilson seemed to be finding them everywhere. No one section of the territory had more victims of the typhus than another. There was no clue as to where the disease was coming from.
Twenty-two people were laying on mattresses on the floor the schoolhouse. Molly and Doctor Martin did the bulk of the nursing while Joe took care of the other things. He chopped wood for the fire, and boiled blankets in water. He drew bucket after bucket of cold water from the well. And Joe did one more thing – the thing he hated the most. Joe buried the dead.
Mabel Perkins was the first to die. Doctor Martin didn’t seem surprised. He merely told Joe she would have to be buried as soon as possible. Joe wrapped Mabel in some blankets. He carried her to field behind the school and found a nice spot at the edge of the woods. After he buried Mabel, Joe stood over the grave and said a prayer in halting words. He wanted to give her in death as much dignity and respect as the woman had held in life.
The next day, Joe buried Fred Perkins next to his wife. Perkin’s death seemed to surprise the doctor; he had thought Fred was improving. But sometime during the day, Perkins had realized his wife had died and the will to live seemed to seep out of him. By morning, Perkins was dead. As he buried the farmer next to his wife, Joe said a prayer that the two would be side by side in eternity also.
Joe helped with the patients as best he could, but Hoss was right — Joe wasn’t much of a nurse. He mainly changed the cold compresses and brought cups of water. He fed broth to anyone who could swallow it. He even tried his hand at making some broth, but after his first attempt, Molly banned him from ever doing it again. Joe had to admit that the watery soup he made wasn’t very appetizing.
There was one patient that Joe gave special attention to. He constantly checked on little Tommy Mullaney. Joe wasn’t sure why he felt so drawn to the ten-year-old. Maybe because, with his dark hair and thick lashes, the boy reminded Joe of himself at that age. Or maybe it was because Tommy was trying to be so brave in his illness. Whatever the reason, Joe hovered around the boy whenever he could.
On the fifth morning, Joe was fixing the blankets around a shivering man when he heard Tommy calling him weakly. Joe quickly finished his task and rushed to the boy. “Tommy, do you need something?” Joe asked.
“Could…could I have some water?” whispered Tommy in raspy voice.
“Sure,” agreed Joe. He walked over and picked up a tin cup from a stack next to a large water barrel. Joe dipped it into the barrel and then carried the dripping cup back to Tommy.
“Here you go,” Joe said softly as he knelt on the floor next to the boy. He lifted Tommy’s head and held the cup to the boy’s lips. Tommy drank greedily, then lay back down on the mattress.
“How are you feeling?” Joe asked the boy, brushing a lock of hair from his forehead. Joe could feel the heat of the fever with his hand. Tommy’s pale face with beaded with sweat, and two red fever spots stood out on his cheeks.
“Not so good,” admitted Tommy. “My head hurts.” The boy looked at Joe with his big brown eyes. “Joe,” he whispered. “I’m scared.”
For a moment, Joe looked away. Then he turned back to the boy, giving the youngster what he hoped was a smile. “Don’t be scared, Tommy,” said Joe in a soothing voice. “You’re going to be all right.”
“It’s not me I’m scared for,” explained Tommy. “It’s my Ma. If I die, what’s going to happen to her? Who’ll look after her?”
Looking across the room, Joe could see Tommy’s mother on another mattress. She was shivering with fever. Joe turned back to Tommy. “Don’t worry,” he assured the boy. “You’re going to be around for a long time. You and your Ma will be home soon.”
“I’m not worried about me,” insisted Tommy. “But Ma….Before Pa died, he told me to look out for her.”
Joe’s heart ached at the little boy’s concern for his mother. “You’ll be there,” he promised the boy. Joe only hoped he was right.
“I gotta get better,” murmured Tommy as his eyes started to close. “I want to make Ma some corn bread. We bought a whole sack of corn meal.” The boy shivered a bit, then fell into a deep sleep. Joe brushed Tommy’s head with his hand, and pulled the blanket over the boy’s shoulders. Joe looked up to see Molly watching him. Her eyes were blinking back tears.
Joe stood quickly. “I’ll get some more water,” he mumbled, not looking at Molly. Joe grabbed a bucket from near the water barrel and rushed past Molly to the door.
Sniffing a bit, Molly wiped her eyes. Then, with a determined look, she went to the stove and began making some more broth.
Ben visited the school every day. He kept his promise and stayed at the edge of the yard as he called to Joe, but he waited anxiously each time until Joe appeared on the porch. The visits were brief, mostly cut short by his son. Joe didn’t seem to know what to say to his father. It was as if Ben represented some other life for Joe, one he no longer knew.
For over a week, Ben and his two older sons had been trying to figure out the source of the disease. They checked abandoned farms and old barns for miles around. None of them were surprised that their search was turning out to be fruitless. They were convinced that the source of the disease was somewhere in Virginia City. It was the only explanation for so many people becoming ill. The Cartwrights were frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t get into Virginia City to help the search there. Roy Coffee had assured Ben that he was checking every possible building. Ben was sure Roy was doing his best, but the sheriff had a lot on his hands. Coffee wanted to protect the town, but Ben’s motives were stronger. Ben wanted to protect his son.
In addition, Ben wanted to help his son at the schoolhouse anyway he could. During each visit, he asked Joe if they needed anything. At first, Joe said no. But as more patients arrived, Joe began to ask for additional blankets, more food or extra towels. Ben made sure he filled each request the next day.
On his eighth trip to the schoolhouse, Ben was driving a buckboard instead of riding a horse. Blankets were piled high in the back of the buckboard. He guided the wagon to the edge of the school yard, then pulled it to a halt. Ben climbed down out of the driver’s seat and grabbed the blankets from the back of the buckboard, carrying them across the yard, almost to the schoolhouse. When he was as close as he dared to go, Ben laid the blankets on the ground. Walking back to the buckboard, he grabbed a small package, an oblong object wrapped in cloth. Ben carried the package to the blankets, and laid it on top. Then he walked back to the buckboard once more.
“Joe!” called Ben as he stood against the wagon. “Joe! I brought the blankets you wanted.” Ben waited, his heart in his throat. He knew it would be a few minutes before Joe would come out. Ben watched the door anxiously. Each time he came, each time he called Joe’s name, he worried that this would be the time that Joe wouldn’t be able to answer.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Ben watched as the door opened and Joe emerged from the school. Joe acknowledged his father with a brief nod. Then he walked slowly toward the blankets. Joe stopped when he saw the small packet on top of the blankets. He looked at Ben with a puzzled expression.
“Hop Sing sent you some bread,” explained Ben. “It’s fresh. He made it this morning.”
Reaching down, Joe picked up the packet. He pulled open the cloth and looked at the bread. Joe took a few steps back and leaned against the side of the building. Breaking off a piece from the loaf, he started nibbling on it.
“You look tired, Joe,” said Ben with concern. Joe’s shirt was wrinkled and stained. The shadow of a beard covered the lower part of Joe’s face. Dark circles rimmed Joe’s eyes.
“Yeah, I’m tired,” agreed Joe, still nibbling on the bread. He looked off into the distance. “I buried another one this morning, Pa,” Joe told his father, his voice full of discouragement. “That was number seven.”
“Who was it?” asked Ben with a frown.
“It wasn’t anyone we knew,” replied Joe. “He was an old prospector. Bill found him on the side of the road. He died before he could tell us his name.” Joe looked down. “I couldn’t even put his name on the marker,” he added in a choked voice.
“Joe, you’re doing everything you can,” said Ben.
“Yeah sure,” answered Joe in a low voice. He nibbled on the bread again.
“Joe, you have to be strong,” Ben urged his son. “This will be all over soon.”
Turning to look at his father, Joe’s eyes glistened with tears. “When?” Joe shouted in an angry voice. “When is it going to be over, Pa? It’s been over a week. Roy Coffee told Doc Martin this morning they still don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“Joe, we’re checking every place we can think of,” declared Ben. “We’ll find it. We’ll find the source, I promise you.”
“It could be anywhere,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “That prospector — Bill found him near the foot of the mountains. Tommy Mullaney and his mother live down by the river. How can they all be sick?”
“Beth Mullaney is here?” asked Ben in a shocked voice.
Joe nodded. “She drove herself and Tommy here a few days ago.” He looked away. “They’re both pretty sick.”
“I don’t know the answer, Joe,” admitted Ben. “I just know we’re going to keep looking.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. He sniffed and wiped the back of his hand across his nose. “How many more are going to die while you’re looking?”
Ben stood silent. He had no answer for his son.
The door to the school opened again, and Doctor Martin walked out onto the porch. The doctor rubbed his eyes, a gesture that showed how tired he was. He looked around and saw Joe leaning against the schoolhouse. “Joe, we need those blankets.”
Looking up at the doctor, Joe gave a short nod. He walked over to the blankets and scooped them up off the ground. Joe started toward the schoolhouse, then stopped, turning back to face Ben. “Tell Hop Sing I said thanks for the bread,” Joe said briefly. Then he walked past the doctor and into the building.
Doctor Martin started to follow Joe but stopped when Ben called to him.
“Doc, how bad is it?” asked Ben. “Are things getting any better?”
Shaking his head, the doctor replied in a tired voice, “No, Ben, things aren’t any better. If we don’t find the source of the typhus soon, there’s no telling how many people we might lose.”
“We’ll keep looking,” Ben promised. He hesitated, then added, “Doc, do me a favor, will you? Keep an eye on Joe for me.”
Doctor Martin smiled briefly. “You know I will, Ben,” he answered.
Ben watched the doctor enter the schoolhouse and close the door. Then he took a deep breath and climbed back onto the buckboard.
All the way back to the Ponderosa, Ben’s mind searched for an answer to the source of the disease. He mentally reviewed building after building, but each one he pictured had been thoroughly searched. He tried to think of a way the disease could have been spread over such a wide area, but he had no answers.
When Adam and Hoss walked in to the house, Ben was sitting in his favorite red chair, staring into the fireplace. His mind still searching for answers, he barely noticed his sons.
“Pa, did you see Joe today?” Hoss asked anxiously as he walked across the room.
Looking up, Ben answered, “Yes, I saw him.” He gave a long look to Hoss and then at Adam who had come to stand near his brother. “I’m worried about him.”
“Why?” asked Hoss in alarm. “He ain’t sick, is he?”
“No, he’s not sick,” Ben assured him. “It’s just that I’ve never seen him so low.”
“Pa, it’s got to be hard on him,” Adam pointed out. “But he’ll bounce back.”
“I hope so, Adam,” replied Ben in a worried voice. “He’s surrounded by so much sickness, so much death. I don’t know if he’s going to be able handle it.”
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Hoss.
“We can find out where the typhus is coming from,” declared Ben in a grim voice. He turned to look into the fire. “The only problem is that no one knows where it’s coming from.”
Just then, Hop Sing walked into the living room. “Mr. Cartwright,” he announced softly. “Lunch ready.”
Looking up at the cook, Ben nodded. He never felt less like eating in his life. But he knew missing dinner wouldn’t help the situation any. Ben pulled himself to his feet. “All right,” he said. He looked at Adam and Hoss. “Let’s eat.”
As the Cartwrights walked to the dining room table and sat down, each of them was painfully aware of the empty chair at the table. Hop Sing scurried to the kitchen, and returned carrying plates and dishes. He set them on the table.
“Hop Sing, where’s the bread?” asked Hoss.
“No bread,” answered Hop Sing. “Hop Sing use last of flour to make bread for Little Joe. No flour left.”
“I thought you bought a whole sack of cornmeal last week,” countered Adam with a frown. “Is that gone already?”
“Cornmeal no good,” replied Hop Sing. “Hop Sing can not use. Hop Sing bury it.”
“Bury it?” said Ben in surprise. “Why did you do that?”
“Corn meal have bugs,” explained Hop Sing. “Not want bugs in house.”
“Bugs?” asked Adam with a sudden interest. “Why kind of bugs?”
“Fleas,” said Hop Sing.
The three Cartwrights looked at each other. It was as if each of them had a sudden revelation, all at the same time.
“Hop Sing, where did you buy that cornmeal?” asked Hoss.
“Hop Sing buy from wagon,” the cook answered. “Man drive up to house. Sell corn meal to Hop Sing cheap. Only later, Hop Sing find it no good.”
“Who was the man?” Adam asked in an urgent voice. “Have you ever seen him before?”
“Hop Sing not know him,” replied the cook, obviously puzzled by the questions. “Not know who he is.” Giving a shrug, Hop Sing walked back into the kitchen.
“Pa, that’s the answer,” said Adam in an excited voice. “The cornmeal. Someone is selling cornmeal that has fleas in it. Fleas that are infected with typhus. That’s why the disease is spread so widely. Whoever it is, he’s driving around in a wagon full of infected cornmeal.”
“Yes, but who Adam?” asked Ben. “Who could it be?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Adam, getting up from the table. “But I’m going to start asking around. Somebody who bought the cornmeal must know who he is.”
Ben jumped to his feet. “Saddle my horse. I’m going with you.”
Joe slept in brief snatches, grabbing his rest whenever he could. He was curled up in a corner, sound asleep, as the afternoon sun started its downward track in the sky. Doctor Martin was kneeling next to a man wrapped in a blanket on the other side of the room. The doctor held his stethoscope to the man’s chest. Then he reached down and pulled the blanket over the man’s face.
Getting to his feet, the doctor looked around and saw Joe sleeping in the far corner. As Molly walked over to the doctor and handed him a cup of coffee, Doctor Martin nodded his thanks. “Better wake Joe,” said the doctor as he sipped his coffee.
Molly looked over to where Joe was sleeping. “Do we have to?” she asked softly. “Couldn’t we let him rest for a bit longer?”
Shaking his head regretfully, the doctor answered, “Molly, you know we can’t.”
Nodding, Molly gave Doctor Martin a sad look. “How’s Tommy Mullaney doing?” she asked abruptly.
The doctor shrugged. “About the same,” he replied. “Why?”
Turning her gaze on Joe, Molly stated, “Tommy has to make it. He has to.” She looked back to the doctor. “I don’t think Joe could dig that grave.”
The doctor nodded his understanding. “You wake Joe,” he said. “I’ll go check on Tommy.”
An hour later, Joe walked back into the schoolhouse. He put the shovel by the door, where he could find it when he needed it again. And Joe knew he was going to need it again. He saw Molly standing at the stove, stirring broth in a pot. He could tell she was watching him; he saw the worry in her eyes. Joe didn’t try to pretend anymore. He looked back at her, the discouragement evident on his face as he walked slowly toward the stove.
“Joe, why don’t you see if you can get Tommy to take some of this broth,” suggested Molly in a soft voice.
Standing silently by the stove, Joe watched Molly spooned some of the broth into a mug. As she handed the cup to Joe, her eyes stared into his face, as if trying to will a response from the young man. But Joe said nothing as he took the mug from her. They both had given up on the trite phrases and words of false encouragement a long time ago. And Joe had no words to describe what he was really feeling.
Walking slowly, Joe made his way to the mattress on which Tommy was laying. The boy was asleep. Joe debated whether to wake him but decided Tommy needed nourishment as much as rest. He reached down and gently shook the boy.
Stirring a bit on the mattress, Tommy opened his eyes and gave Joe a dull look.
“Hey, Tommy,” said Joe. “I’ve got some broth for you. Do you think you can drink some of this for me?” Tommy nodded a bit. Joe helped the boy sit up, and supported Tommy’s back as he held the cup to the boy’s lips. Tommy sipped the broth slowly.
“You’re looking better,” lied Joe. In reality, Tommy looked like a very sick little boy to Joe. “You’ll be back making home making that corn bread for your Ma real soon.”
Tommy didn’t answer; he just continued to sip the broth.
“You know, you’re one up on me,” continued Joe with an encouraging smile. “I can’t make corn bread. I don’t know how.”
Tommy looked at Joe in surprise. “You don’t?” said the little boy in tired voice. “It’s easy.”
“You’ll have to show me how when you get better,” Joe declared as he watched Tommy sip more of the broth.
“We’ll have to get some good cornmeal,” mumbled the boy. “That last stuff Ma bought had fleas in it.”
Joe froze. “What?” he said in a stunned voice. “Tommy, are you sure? Are you sure there were fleas in it?”
“Yeah,” Tommy confirmed in a weak voice. “Ma didn’t want to throw it out, though.” Tommy pushed the cup away. “I’m tired.” The boy laid back down on the mattress.
Joe jumped to his feet. “Doc!” he shouted. “I think I know where it’s coming from!”
Doctor Martin was bending over a patient. He stood and turned when he heard Joe’s shout. “What are you talking about?” he asked with a frown.
Hurrying over to the doctor, Joe explained in an excited voice, “The typhus. You said fleas carry it, right? Tommy just told me his mother bought some cornmeal that had fleas in it.”
“Fred Perkins bought a load of cornmeal two weeks ago,” Molly chimed in, coming up to the men. “Mabel told me about it. She said Fred was so pleased because he got it cheap.”
“Did she say who she bought it from?” the doctor asked.
Molly closed her eyes and tried to remember. “No,” she admitted, shaking her head.
“Doc, if we can find out who’s selling that cornmeal, we can find out what the source of the typhus is,” insisted Joe. “I’m going to go talk to Roy Coffee.” Joe rushed to the door of the schoolhouse.
“Joe! Wait!” shouted Doctor Martin.
Ignoring the doctor, Joe rushed out of the schoolhouse. He ran across the school yard, heading toward the path. He was only about half way across the yard when a shot rang out. A bullet bounced in the dirt a few feet in front of Joe. He skidded to a halt.
“Hold it right there,” a voice shouted from down the path. “You get back in that building.”
Joe looked but he couldn’t see who had fired the shot. “I have to talk to Sheriff Coffee right away,” Joe yelled. “It’s important.”
“Sheriff ain’t here,” the voice called back. “Now you get back in that school.”
“Then send for him!” shouted Joe in a frantic voice. “I have to talk with him.”
“I don’t know where he is,” the voice replied. “You got ten seconds. You get back into the school, or we’re going to start shooting. We’re not going to take a chance on you spreading that disease.”
Standing in the middle of the school yard, Joe balled his fists in anger. Another shot hit the dirt a few feet in front of him. He turned and ran back into the school.
Doctor Martin and Molly were waiting for him by the door. “Joe, I tried to tell you,” said the doctor. “They won’t let you out.”
“But I know where the typhus is coming from,” insisted Joe. “I have to tell someone.”
He pushed past the doctor and raced over to the corner of the school. Reaching down, he pulled his holster from the floor. Joe started buckling the gunbelt around his hips.
“Joe, what do you think you’re doing?” demanded Molly as she walked over to him.
“I’m going to tell Roy Coffee about the cornmeal,” stated Joe in a determined voice. “I’ll fight my way out of here if I have to.”
“Joe, they won’t let you out,” said Molly. “They’ll kill you.”
“I don’t care,” declared Joe. “I’ve got to try.”
Molly grabbed Joe’s arm. “Joe, getting yourself killed won’t accomplish anything. It won’t stop the typhus. All it will do is cause a lot of grief to a lot of people.”
Joe stared at Molly. “But I’ve got to do something,” he argued.
“You can,” she assured him. “Tomorrow. Your Pa will be here tomorrow and you can tell him. He’ll tell Roy and they’ll find out where the cornmeal is coming from. All you have to do is wait until tomorrow.”
Looking around the school, Joe replied softly, “Tomorrow. How many more people will be sick by tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” answered Molly. “But I do know that you getting yourself shot isn’t going to help them. Now take off the gunbelt and give it to me.”
For a moment, Joe just looked at Molly. He knew what she was saying was true, but he wanted so desperately to tell someone about the cornmeal. Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His shoulders sagged in discouragement. Slowly, Joe reached down to unbuckle the gunbelt. Without a word, he handed it to Molly.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Molly took the holster from Joe. “I’m going to put this away,” she told him in a soft voice. “You go get some rest.”
As Molly walked across the room, Joe turned away. He didn’t bother to look to see what she did with the gunbelt. Slumping down on to the floor, Joe sat with his back against the wall, his knees bent and head down. The Joe wrapped his arms around his head and cried.
Hoss, Adam and Ben met at the big oak tree growing next to the Virginia City road. Each man had ridden in a different direction from the Ponderosa. The plan had been for each to visit as many places as possible in an hour, and then meet at the oak tree. They were sure that at least one of them would be able to find out who was selling the cornmeal by then.
Adam was waiting on his horse near the tree as Ben and Hoss rode up. “Paddy McPherson,” announced Adam without preamble as the other two approached.
“That’s the same name we got,” replied Ben. “Did anyone know where he was storing the cornmeal?”
“No,” said Adam, shaking his head. “Everyone had the same story. Paddy drove up in his wagon and sold them some of the cornmeal. He was selling it cheap. That’s why so many people bought it.”
“We still don’t know where the cornmeal is,” admitted Ben in a frustrated voice. “No one I talked with knew where he was keeping it. And no one has seen Paddy in three or four days.”
“This doesn’t solve the problem,” acknowledged Adam, his voice echoing his father’s frustration. “Knowing who doesn’t help us if we don’t know where.”
Hoss looked thoughtful. “Pa, if Paddy has been riding around with a wagon full of infected cornmeal, ain’t it likely he’s took sick?”
Adam and Ben looked at each other. “The school!” exclaimed Ben. “I bet Paddy’s in the school.”
“It’s worth checking out,” Adam agreed.
“I’m going to ride to the schoolhouse,” Ben told his sons. “You two round up some men and start spreading the word about the cornmeal. Tell people to get rid of it. Bury it, burn it or whatever, but get rid of it.”
“We’ll meet you at the schoolhouse,” said Hoss.
Nodding, Ben turned his horse and kicked it into a gallop.
Forty minutes later, Ben was urging his horse up the path to the school. He reined his horse to a stop near the wagon blocking the path. “Let me through,” he shouted. “I have to get up to the schoolhouse.”
The men behind the wagon looked at each other uncertainly. “I don’t know if we should,” replied one of the men.
Ben looked at the men with a puzzled expression. “You know Roy Coffee said I was allowed to go through. You let me through this morning.”
“Yeah,” countered one of the men. “But that was before your kid tried to break out.”
“Joe tried to break out?” said Ben. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the man. “He was shouting something about needing to talk to the sheriff.”
“Did he tell you why?” asked Ben.
“No,” said one of the men. “We didn’t give him a chance. We took a couple of shots at him, and that drove him back into the school. Pete’s up there in the woods, making sure he don’t try to break out again.”
“You what!” shouted Ben in outrage. “You shot at him!”
“We didn’t hit him or anything,” protested another of the men defensively. “We just discouraged him a little.”
His fury barely checked, Ben looked at the men by the wagon. “Let me through,” he ordered in an angry voice. “I promise you I’m not going to help my son leave. I wouldn’t put him anywhere near some fools who would shoot at him.”
The three men looked at each other one. None of them were willing to face down an angry Ben Cartwright. The men hurriedly moved the wagon.
Urging his horse up the path to the edge of the school yard, Ben pulled the animal to an abrupt halt. He jumped off his horse, and stepped forward into the yard.
“Joe!” Ben shouted. “Joe! Can you hear me! I have to talk with you right away!”
Expecting to wait a few minutes for Joe as usual, Ben was surprised when the door opened almost right away and Joe rushed out onto the porch.
“Pa!” Joe yelled. “I found out where it’s coming from. It’s in the cornmeal.”
“We found out the same thing,” Ben called back. “A fellow named Paddy McPherson has been selling it all over the territory. Only we don’t know where his supply is. And we can’t find McPherson.”
Molly stepped out from behind Joe. “Paddy McPherson?” she said. “A peddler?” Molly frowned. “I think he’s inside. I think he’s the fellow Bill Wilson brought in day before yesterday.”
Stunned, Joe looked at Molly. “Where is he?” Joe demanded. “Show me which one he is.”
Molly led Joe into the schoolhouse. Doctor Martin stood watching as Molly showed Joe to a mattress back in the corner of the room. A man with reddish blonde hair lay on the mattress, shivering with fever. Joe reached down and shook the man.
“Wake up,” barked Joe. “Wake up. Are you Paddy McPherson?”
The man looked up at Joe. “What?”
“Are you Paddy McPherson?” Joe asked again.
“Yessss,” answered McPherson with chattering teeth. He turned on his side and looked as if he might go back to sleep.
Grabbing the peddler by the front of his shirt, Joe pulled him up. “Listen to me,” said Joe in an angry voice. “Where’s the cornmeal?”
“What?” McPherson asked, sounding confused.
“The cornmeal,” Joe repeated, shaking the man. “Where is it?”
McPherson appeared to be having a hard time understanding Joe’s question. “What do you want?”
Joe felt like he wanted to hit the man, but he knew that was pointless. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “Paddy, the cornmeal,” said Joe slowly. “Where did you store the cornmeal?”
Paddy finally understood Joe’s question. “The shed,” he mumbled. “The shed.”
“Where is the shed?” asked Joe.
Paddy frowned as if Joe had asked him a strange question. “Bbbbehind the warehouse,” answered Paddy, his teeth chattering. “On the outside of town. Behind the old warehouse.”
Dropping Paddy back to the mattress, Joe stood and rushed to the door.
“Pa!” Joe shouted. “It’s in a shed behind the old warehouse, just outside of town.”
Ben nodded and ran back to his horse.
An hour later, four men stood around the old shed, watching it burn. Hoss and Adam had caught up with Ben as he was leaving the schoolhouse. The three of them forced their way into town, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to stop them. They had raced to the sheriff’s office to find Roy Coffee. The Cartwrights’ frantic pounding on the locked door woke the sheriff from an exhausted sleep.
When Roy heard what Ben had to say, he grabbed a rifle and headed to the edge of town, followed by the three Cartwrights. Roy blew the lock off the shed with one shot, and pulled the door open. He took a quick look inside, then slammed the door shut. The expression on Roy’s face told the Cartwrights that they had found where the diseased rats were hiding.
Now the four men watched as the shed burned. Each man had a gun ready, and they promptly shot any of the rats that tried to escape the fire. Once the shed was burned to ashes, Adam and Hoss grabbed some boards. They picked up the carcasses of the rats scattered around the building with the boards and threw them into the ashes. Then they burned them.
Two weeks later, Ben once again rode up the path to the schoolhouse. This time, no wagon blocked his way, and Ben didn’t stop at the top of the track. He rode directly to the building, leading a pinto horse behind him. Ben stopped his horse by the porch and dismounted. He tied the horses to the porch rail, then started up the steps.
Molly met him at the door. “Hello, Ben,” she greeted him with a smile.
“Hello, Molly,” replied Ben, tipping his hat. “You going home today, too?”
“Yes, I am,” Molly acknowledged. “We’ve cleaned and disinfected every inch of this place twice. The kids will still be smelling it when they come back to school next month.”
“Well, thank goodness they’re going to be able to come back to school,” said Ben.
“We were lucky, Ben,” agreed Molly with a sober face. “Of the ten people who died, none were children. Even little Tommy Mullaney got well, and he was the sickest of the bunch.” Molly smiled. “That Tommy is quite a kid. The last thing he did before he left with his Ma was sit down and explain to Joe how to make corn bread.”
Ben looked off into the distance. “Ten people,” he murmured sadly. “Ten people who shouldn’t have died.”
“Well, nine of them shouldn’t have died,” declared Molly in a tart voice. “I’m not so sure about Paddy McPherson. He’s the one who brought the plague to Virginia City.”
“He didn’t mean to, Molly,” said Ben in a gentle voice.
“No, I guess he didn’t,” agreed Molly. “Doc and I worked real hard to try and save him but he was just too sick. I guess because he was around the typhus the longest or something.” Molly looked down. “That was the last grave Joe had to dig.”
“This town owes you a great deal,” said Ben. “We’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
“Bah!” Molly dismissed Ben’s praise in a brisk voice. “I didn’t have anything else to do. I sure didn’t want to just sit around when there was work to be done.” Molly looked at Ben, and her face softened. “It’s you Cartwrights this town has to thank. If it wasn’t for you, there’s no telling how many would have died. I don’t think Roy would have ever found that shed on his own.”
“Well, everyone played a part,” said Ben, shrugging off Molly’s admiration. He looked toward the door. “Joe inside?”
“Yes, he is,” asserted Molly with a smile. She stepped aside so Ben could enter the school.
“Hello, Ben,” Doctor Martin greeted his old friend at the door. “Here to pick up Joe?”
“Yes,” said Ben. “Where is he?”
“Over there,” replied the doctor, pointing to the far end of the room.
As Ben looked across the room, his face went pale. Joe was lying on his side on a mattress, his back to his father. A thick blanket covered him.
“Doc!” exclaimed Ben in alarm. “He’s not….”
“No, he’s not sick,” interrupted the doctor. “Just asleep. This is the first decent rest he’s had in almost three weeks. I didn’t have the heart to wake him.”
Ben let out a sigh of relief.
“You know, Ben, I’m sorry for what Joe had to go through,” added Doctor Martin. “But I’m glad he was here. We couldn’t have managed without him.”
“Joe’s a good boy,” Ben agreed.
“No, Ben,” said the doctor shaking his head. “He’s not a boy any more. Not after what he saw and he did. I don’t think any of us will ever call him a boy again.”
Ben stared at the doctor. Then he nodded his head slowly. “You’re right.”
Slapping Ben lightly on the shoulder, the doctor suggested with a smile, “Why don’t you take your son home?”
Slowly, Ben walked across the room to the mattress on which Joe was sleeping. He knelt down next to his son. For a minute, he just stared at Joe, the first time in weeks he had been able to get close to his boy. Ben pushed a stray lock of hair off Joe’s forehead. Then he shook Joe gently.
Stirring on the mattress, Joe opened his eyes. He blinked in surprise to see his father kneeling next to him. “Pa?” said Joe in a sleepy voice. “What time is it?”
“It’s time to go home, son,” answered Ben.