Summary: A church social brings tragedy to Virginia City and the Ponderosa.
Word Count: 6,310
The Church Social
“Well, look who’s all gussied up, Adam,” Hoss exclaimed, as their younger brother, Joe, finally appeared in the living room.
Adam looked up and whistled. Joe blushed harder. “Aw, shut up,” he mumbled.
Ben, the boys’ father appeared from the kitchen, carrying a large covered hamper. “Good, ready at last? Then let’s get this hamper into the surrey and get going.”
Hoss scrambled to help his father, and they went out to the surrey. Ben got in, and lifted the reins, waiting until his sons were all mounted before he started the horse. It was a beautiful summer day, and the church social was taking place that afternoon. All the Cartwrights had dressed for it, but Joe was taking Laura Cummings, which was why he had dressed extra carefully.
Joe had dated Laura on and off for a while, but after their experience at the hands of a kidnapper earlier in the season, they had become close. Ben wondered how serious it was, but as Joe was conscious of his own good looks, the amount of time he spent getting ready didn’t necessarily have any bearing on how attracted he was to the girl in question.
It was a pleasant ride into town, and they went first to the meadow where the social was being held, and unloaded the hamper. Joe hitched Cochise beside his brothers’ horses, and then claimed the surrey to go and collect Laura.
She was waiting for him on the porch of her family’s home, dressed in a pretty pink summer dress. Joe hopped down, and smiled. “You look lovely, Laura,” he said, and gave her the small box of candy he’d bought.
Laura thanked Joe, and accepted his help getting into the surrey. Laura wasn’t normally a buggy type girl, preferring to dress in breeches and ride astride, scandalising the whole of Virginia City in the process. Joe, who was somewhat of a free spirit himself, didn’t mind in the least. Now, he was intrigued by the clash of Laura’s glorious Titian hair with the pink on her dress and bonnet. It was an unusual effect, but not at all unpleasant.
There were the usual games for the children, and the adults stood around in groups talking, or, like Joe, walking in the shade, or by the river. Laura’s folks were there, and kept a discreet eye on the young couple. Laura was their only child, and they were slightly wary of any young man who took an interest in her. Joe had impeccable manners when he chose, and went out of his way to charm her parents. Joe’s natural charm was a formidable weapon anyway, but when he exerted himself, it was almost overwhelming. Mr and Mrs Cummings had soon thawed towards Joe.
Joe spread a rug on the ground, and set out the small picnic Hop Sing had made up for him. Laura had sampled Hop Sing’s cooking before, and ate with none of the bird-like appetite which some of Joe’s previous girlfriends’ had had. It was Laura’s very naturalness that made her so attractive to Joe. They sat close together and laughed at nothing.
Adam and Hoss sat with their father, and watched the world going by. They mostly watched Joe. “What do you think?” Adam asked.
“Well, I dunno, Adam. That’s a real pretty little filly Joe’s got there. Nice family, they like Joe real well. He ain’t said nothin’ to me. What d’you think?” Hoss scratched his head.
Adam shrugged. “He’s said nothing to me, either,” he admitted. “It might be serious.”
“Serious?” Hoss scoffed. “Joe, gettin’ serious? Don’t he always get moody when he’s serious?”
Adam laughed. “Hoss, how can you tell? Joe’s moody all the time.”
A smile split Hoss’s face. “Naw, I meant real moody. Off his food, snappin’ at everyone. That kind of moody.”
Ben was now listening, and he laughed with Adam as Hoss dug himself deeper into the hole. “Hoss,” Adam chortled, “that’s Joe every day!”
“He’s not that bad,” Ben said, but he was still laughing.
Oblivious of his family, Joe packed away the remains of the picnic, and offered Laura his arm as they strolled away from the crowd, towards the shade of the trees by the river. As soon as they were out of immediate sight, Joe stopped Laura and gently kissed her. She kissed him back with enthusiasm. So it was rather a shock when 4-year-old Ellie Watkins collided with them.
Joe let go of Laura and tried to catch Ellie as she bounced off them and fell backwards. He didn’t quite make it, and Ellie burst into tears. Joe knelt next to her and picked her up. “Are you hurt, Ellie?” he asked.
Ellie shook her head, but her sobs didn’t settle. Joe stroked her head, and it felt warm to him. It was very hot that day, and if the child had been running around a lot, she was bound to be warm.
Laura petted the child, too, and she looked at Joe. “She’s hot,” Laura said, in an undertone.
“I know,” Joe answered. “We’d better get her back to her mother.”
Laura nodded, and followed Joe as he set off back towards the main group, carrying the child. Ellie’s sobs subsided, and she snuggled into Joe’s neck, one sticky little hand twined into the curls at the back of his neck.
“How do you do it, Joe?” Laura teased him. ”That’s another woman you’ve got eating out of your hand.”
“Natural talent,” Joe said, modestly, and laughed when Laura dug her elbow into his ribs.
They found Mrs Watkins quite easily, and Joe returned the sleepy little girl to her mother. “She feels a bit hot,” Joe said.
Mrs Watkins felt Ellie’s forehead. “So she does,” she said, sounding a little concerned. “Well, that’s children for you.” She smiled up at Joe. “Thank you for bringing her back, both of you.”
Joe and Laura strolled away. “Do kids get sick that often?” Joe asked.
“I have no idea,” Laura answered. “You’re good with children, Joe.”
Joe smiled at her, and her answering smile made Joe want to kiss her again, but he knew it wasn’t the done thing in public. “I like kids,” he said. “I’d like to have some, one day.”
“One day,” Laura agreed. “But not yet.”
The next week passed in a blur of work for the Cartwrights. Chores on a ranch never go away. The heat wave continued, making every job that little bit harder. The house was stuffy, despite all the doors and windows being open, and even at night, the temperature didn’t drop enough to make sleep comfortable. Inevitably, tempers frayed.
The ground was tinder dry, and all knew that the tiniest spark from a fire could set the whole Ponderosa ablaze. Daily, they checked for smoke, and prayed for rain. When the rain finally came, it came in spectacular fashion, with thunder and lightning. Still the family watched anxiously, as lightning caused more forest fires than anything else. But the dousing rains soon put that fear to rest.
Joe sat at the dining table with his family having supper. He felt out of sorts, but blamed the heat and humidity. Even with the rain, the temperature hadn’t dropped noticeably. He picked at his food, listening with half an ear to Adam’s description of his trip to town. But he took notice when Adam said, “Joe, remember the little Watkins girl? You said she wasn’t all that well the day of the social?”
“Ellie? Yes, I remember. What about her?”
“Well, I’m sorry to say she died yesterday.”
“Died? What happened?” Joe was surprised, but all knew that life was more precarious for the young.
“She had chickenpox, and died of the complications,” Adam said. “It seems its doing the rounds. Paul said a number of the children have it.” Paul was Paul Martin, Virginia City’s doctor.
“That’s too bad,” Joe said, sympathetically. He went back to picking at his food.
“Did you say chickenpox, Adam?” Ben asked, and something in his tone drew all eyes to him.
“Yes, Sir. Why?” Adam cocked an eyebrow at his father.
“Oh, nothing,” Ben replied, with a carelessness that didn’t quite ring true. He changed the subject promptly, and the matter was dropped.
But later, when the boys were in bed, Ben found himself staring into the fire. Adam and Hoss had both had the chickenpox when they were young. They’d caught it while travelling with the wagon train. Hoss had been only a matter of weeks old. He and Inger had both been awake for several nights on the trot, caring for the two little boys. But Joe had never had it. Somehow, he’d always been absent from school when it had gone round. Ben rubbed his face. He needed to talk to Paul. Somewhere, he thought he’d heard that it was more dangerous for adults to get the disease. He had to know for sure. Joe’s behaviour with his food hadn’t gone unnoticed, but it didn’t mean anything. Joe was often picky. He had to speak to Paul
Ben rode into town the next day, sidestepping questions about why he needed to go. Paul Martin was in his office when Ben appeared. “Ben! What are you doing here? Has something happened to one of the boys?”
“No, but I need to ask you something, Paul,” Ben said, sitting down. “Its about the chickenpox.” He baldly stated his worries, and wasn’t re-assured by Paul’s face. “So its true.”
“Yes, I’m afraid it is, Ben,” Paul said. “Which of the boys hasn’t had it?”
Ben looked up, and Paul had his answer in Ben’s eyes, even before he spoke the single name. “Joe.”
Two days later, Joe felt worse than he had for a long while. His head ached, his bones ached and he was running a slight temperature. Typically, he said nothing to anyone, but ate even less at breakfast than usual. Ben watched covertly. He knew that if he asked Joe outright how he was feeling, the short answer would be ‘fine’. Whenever Joe was asked about his health, the answer was ‘fine’. Now that Joe was older, it was more difficult to ask his brothers to keep a discreet eye on him. Ben sighed, and Joe took that as a sign that he was lingering too long over his breakfast. “I’m goin’,” he said, belligerently, and pushed his chair back from the table.
“Hold on, son,” Ben protested. “I didn’t mean anything by that sigh. I guess I was just thinking about all the things I have to do today.” Joe paused and looked at his father. “That doesn’t excuse your bad manners, of course,” Ben added.
“Sorry, Pa,” Joe said. He knew his father wanted an explanation. “I just feel a bit off colour.” He instantly looked surprised, and Ben realised that he hadn’t meant to blurt out the truth like that.
“Well, if you feel any worse, then come home.”
“Yes, Sir,” Joe said, and went to strap on his gun.
When Joe returned to the ranch later that afternoon, still feeling unwell, he was surprised to see the Cummings’ buggy in the yard. He hitched Cochise to the rail, and went inside. Laura’s father was there, and he looked very grim. “Joseph,” he said, in greeting.
“Mr Cummings,” Joe returned. “What’s wrong?”
Ben almost groaned, for he knew how sensitive Joe was, how quick to pick up on an atmosphere. He’d hoped to tell Joe himself, but Cummings beat him to it. “Joe, Laura is very ill, and she would like you to visit.”
Joe lost colour. “What’s wrong with her?” he asked.
“We’re not sure. A general fever. She’s been asking for you. Please, will you ride in and see her?” Fear for his only child made Cummings’ voice quiver.
“Of course,” Joe replied. “Just give me a minute.” He cast a glance at his father, who nodded, and Joe hastily went to wash and change. Within 5 minutes, he was following the buggy into town.
Laura was indeed very ill. Her face was flushed with fever, and she coughed often. Joe sat by the bed, and took her hand, talking to her, but Laura barely knew he was there. Once or twice, she focused on him and smiled faintly, but then her eyes would be off, gazing aimlessly around the room, and she moaned. Joe was quite relieved when her mother suggested it was time for him to go.
Riding home, Joe wondered what Laura had caught. He had seen fever before, and it always unsettled him. Joe wiped the sweat off his forehead a couple of times, and gulped down the water in his canteen without being aware of it. It was only when the canteen was empty that Joe realised how hot he was.
It was dusk, and a cooler breeze was finally blowing through the trees. Joe shivered slightly, and it occurred to him how miserable he felt. He stopped Cochise by a stream, and slid from the saddle to drink. The water was cool, and Joe drank and drank, and then remembered to refill his canteen. When he stood up again, his legs felt shaky, and he was disconcerted to find that he couldn’t mount Cochise with his usual neat sideways leap. Twice he tried, and finally put his foot in the stirrup to mount the conventional way.
He couldn’t do it. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t get into the saddle. He began to lead Cochise towards home, but his legs were too weary to hold him, and he slumped to his knees. After a while, Joe realised that he would never get home under his own steam. The water he had drunk lay uneasily in his stomach, and he was shaking. Fever was clouding his thinking, but he had enough presence of mind to give Cochise a slap on the rump, and send him home.
Ben heard the horse trotting into the yard, and crossed to the door. He was expecting a downcast Joe, not an empty saddle. “Adam, Hoss!” he called. He caught Cochise, and felt him. No signs of injury, and not sweating. It was unlikely that Joe had come unseated, unless he was hurt. As his sons appeared, Ben said, “Quick, hitch the team to the backboard. Joe must be hurt.”
It didn’t take them long to find Joe, and Ben sent Hoss flying into town for the doctor. Joe was lying by the side of the road, burning with fever. Ben and Adam got him into the back of the buckboard, and gently brought him home. They took him up to his room, and swiftly stripped off his clothes, and fitted him into a nightshirt. Joe was unconscious throughout, but revived when Ben began to bathe his head with cool water.
“Pa. Is Cochise all right?”
“Yes, son, Cochise is fine.” Ben looked into the fevered depths of Joe’s green eyes, and knew that he had caught chickenpox. He looked intently for the first spots, and saw one on Joe’s neck. By the time Paul Martin arrived, nearly an hour later, Joe was covered.
Paul had spent quite some time examining Joe, and now he gathered the Cartwrights together and broke the bad news. “Joe has the chickenpox,” he confirmed. “Laura Cummings has it, too. You have to expect a very high fever, and probably pneumonia, too. For some reason, adults with this disease often get pneumonia. You must prevent Joe from scratching the spots, or he will end up very badly scarred. The spots should crust over in 4 or 5 days. With luck, the fever should go then, too, but it may linger for a few more days. If Joe does come down with pneumonia, the cough may linger for weeks after he’s physically recovered from the spots.”
Adam shook his head. “But, its just chickenpox,” he said. “We both had it as kids. You talk like its really serious.”
“It is really serious,” Paul said. “This is a particularly virulent strain. Ellie Watkins died, as you know. Its unusual for a child to die, but it does happen. Adults are more likely to die from chickenpox, especially when they are Joe and Laura’s ages. I don’t know why.”
“Joe could die?” Hoss gasped.
“Its possible,” Paul said, hating to say the words, but knowing that shielding them from the truth would be asking for trouble.
Hoss sat down heavily and put his face in his hands. Adam, scarcely less shaken than his brother, sat beside him and put his arms round him. Ben patted Hoss on the shoulder, but he was looking at Paul. “What can we do for Joe?”
“He mustn’t be left alone. We have to bandage up his hands so that he can’t scratch. You must try and keep on top of his fever. Keep his fluid levels up, and try and get some nourishment into him. The spots may even be in his mouth, which will make eating uncomfortable for him. If so, plenty of cool water, and clear broth.”
Ben nodded. “All right, we can do that, Paul.”
Paul nodded, and led the way back to Joe’s bedside.
Ben took the first shift, and spent the evening putting cloths on Joe’s hot forehead. Joe’s hands were bandaged, but he tried to scratch even so. Paul had been horrified to find spots on Joe’s eyelids, and had gently bound up his eyes, so that there was less chance of them being popped. Joe’s temperature was sky high. Paul said it was 102 when he checked, and told them to expect it to go higher.
Joe muttered something, and Ben once again caught his hand as it neared his face. Joe was asleep, but delirious. He spoke often, and Ben heard his own name, that of his brothers, and Cochise. After a while, he heard Laura’s name, and wondered how she was. He knew what her parents were facing, and prayed that she would be spared.
Adam came in later, and told Ben to go to bed. Hoss was already asleep, preparing to take over from Adam in the early hours of the morning. Ben was reluctant to go, and gently stroked the damp, tangled curls of his youngest son, before leaning down to gently kiss him. “If anything happens, wake me at once,” he instructed Adam, needlessly.
Joe tossed restlessly through the early part of the night. He woke briefly about midnight, and Adam soothed his fears, and explained about the bandages on his eyes, but he wasn’t sure how much Joe actually absorbed. When Hoss came through to relieve Adam about 3am, Joe’s temperature was spiking again.
Together, Adam and Hoss packed him in ice, and bathed his head gently. Joe moaned with pain, and frantically tired to rip the bandages from his hands. He partially succeeded, and Hoss held Joe’s arm while Adam retied the bandage. Finally, Joe’s temperature fell, and the brothers changed the bedclothes before Adam finally went to his bed.
Little changed over the next few days. Joe’s lungs became congested, and he began to cough relentlessly. Paul came out every day, and advised that Joe be propped up on pillows to aid his breathing. Joe had spots everywhere; in his mouth, up his nose, on his genitals. There was barely a pinhead’s space between them. On the third day, Paul diagnosed pneumonia.
Joe had been battling for breath for several hours, and his wheezing was extremely distressing for all the family. Ben had aged a decade, and could hardly be persuaded to leave his son’s bedside for more than a few minutes at a time. Adam and Hoss were looking after things on the ranch as best they could, while still taking their turns watching over Joe. Paul was almost as concerned for the rest of the family’s health as he was for Joe’s. But his admonitions to rest fell on deaf ears.
On the fourth day, Laura died.
Ben looked at Paul with sorrow in his dark brown eyes. “No, no, she can’t be.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. Laura died early this morning. She couldn’t fight off the pneumonia; it was just too much for her. Her funeral is tomorrow.” Paul put his hand on Ben’s shoulder, lending him some much needed strength. Laura was younger than Joe by four years.
Ben finally raised his head. “Have you told the boys?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Paul admitted. “I thought I should tell you first. I’ll do it on my way out.”
“No,” Ben said. “I’ll tell them.” He rubbed his eyes wearily and looked back at Joe. For the moment, Joe’s temperature was slightly down, and he was resting, an all too rare occurrence. Getting Joe to take any nourishment was very difficult, due to the pain caused by the spots on his mouth, and he had visibly lost weight, as his body used up the little stored fat it had to fight the disease which invaded it.
Paul listened to Joe’s chest. “He’s no worse, which is a good sign. I don’t expect his fever to break yet, but the spots are beginning to crust over.” He removed the bandages from Joe’s eyes and examined the spots there. “They are beginning to heal, too. I’ll put the bandages back on, just in case.” He completed his task without ever waking Joe. “Just keep doing what you’re doing, and pray that he pulls through.”
Ben shook his head. “Paul, I’m praying so often that the Ponderosa may yet become a church!”
Laura’s funeral was a painful experience. Her parents were distraught. Ben, Adam and Hoss were all there, leaving Hop Sing sitting with Joe. Ben recognised Mrs Watkins, also dressed in mourning, and remembered that it was but a few days since she had buried Ellie. Here and there in the crowd were other parents who were facing the same nightmare that Ben was. The strain of varicella that had hit Virginia City was a particularly virulent one, and there were several families newly moved into the town from the country, where they hadn’t been exposed to the virus. There were so few children in school that the teacher had closed it.
The service was short but moving. Afterwards, Ben moved to shake hands with the Cummings. Mrs Cummings grasped his hand. “How is Joe?” she asked, wiping away the tears with a black lacy handkerchief. “Please tell me he’s going to be all right?”
Ben fought back his own tears. “We don’t know yet,” he replied, anxious to get home. “I’m so sorry about Laura. She was a lovely girl.”
Mrs Watkins burst out into fresh tears. “I had such hopes of she and Joe getting…” She couldn’t go on, but Ben knew which word she had been unable to say – married.
Ben patted her arm, but couldn’t think of another word to say. Adam came to his rescue. “Pa, we’d better be getting back to Joe,” and Mrs Watkins immediately gave each member of the family a hug, and let them leave.
They were silent on the ride home, as they had been on the ride in. Laura’s death had come as a shock to them. It made them even more fearful for Joe, and Ben had been in two minds about attending the funeral.
It had been Adam who convinced him to go. “We have to go to represent Joe,” he said. “I don’t know how serious Joe and Laura were, but they were going steady before she died, and it would look bad if none of us were there.”
“Joe doesn’t even know she’s gone,” Ben said. Joe had been delirious for days. He took water and broth from Ben only, fighting off Adam and Hoss. Sometimes, Hop Sing would manage to coax him into a few mouthfuls, clucking away in Chinese. Joe was the only member of the family who knew more than a few words of Hop Sing’s language. But generally, Ben was the only one who could persuade his son to take anything.
Paul was there when they arrived home. He looked exhausted. The outbreak of chickenpox was slowly turning into a mini epidemic among the children and young folk. Ben, after checking on Joe, asked after the other victims, and was relieved to hear that most of them showed signs of pulling through. One or two, like Joe, still hovered between life and death.
Joe’s spots had crusted over, and his temperature, though still high, was less than it had been. But the pneumonia was the biggest problem. Joe’s chest was so tight, he could barely breathe. Paul was now keeping him sedated, so that he was still, and not fighting against his body’s needs. He was propped up on nearly every pillow in the house. Paul had Hop Sing bring up a brazier, and they kept a kettle boiling all the time, in the hope the steam would lessen the phlegm on Joe’s chest. Paul had given him what medicine he could, but it was up to Joe now. His body would either have the necessary reserves to fight off the pneumonia, or he would die.
Ben looked down at Joe, and prayed some more that his son would be spared. Next to Joe’s bed was a photo of his mother, and to Ben, it seemed like they were keeping vigil together over their beloved child. As hard as his wives deaths had been on Ben, he knew the death of his son – any of his sons – would be even harder. Ben had a great faith in God, and knew that he could never hope to understand what God had decreed for him, but he still prayed that Joe’s life be spared.
It was day seven. Ben had lost track of what day it actually was, and couldn’t have told anyone the date, even if his life had depended upon it. It was simply day seven of Joe’s illness, and although it seemed impossible, Joe’s chest seemed even more congested and his temperature spiked again.
Adam and Hoss were sent running for ice, and they stripped Joe, and packed the ice around him. Joe moaned and tried to fight them off, and Ben took that as a good sign. Paul had decided to stop sedating Joe, and see what would happen. Once or twice, Joe’s eyes opened. Although he was still delirious, it relieved Ben to be able to see his son’s eyes, after so many days when they were bandaged up.
After what seemed like days, but was only hours, Joe’s fever broke in a sudden drenching sweat. Within moments, he was shivering helplessly, and he spoke the first words he had said in many days. “Pa, cold.”
Ben soothed Joe, as he lifted him from the bed, so that Adam and Hoss could change the sheets. Joe’s breath still wheezed in his chest, and the hacking cough he’d developed all but shook him apart. He nestled in his father’s arms, and looked blearily at the tired face above him. “Pa,” he whispered. “Sick long?”
“A few days, Joe. But you’re beginning to get better. We’ll get a mustard poultice for your chest, and that’ll help you breathe. Don’t worry about anything, just concentrate on getting well.” Ben smiled down at his son. It seemed as if Joe was recovering at last.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. Joe still had to fight off the pneumonia, and that was a battle he hadn’t quite won. His temperature rose again. Ben applied the poultice to his chest, and the added warmth from the goose grease, mustard and brown paper seemed to ease his chest slightly. Hoss came back from checking the herd with handfuls of pine needles, which he put onto the brazier. The pungent, clean smell of the pines soon filled the room, and Ben saw that the scent had cleared Joe’s nose, making breathing easier. It had the added benefit of removing the smell of sickness from the room.
When Paul Martin came the next day – day nine – he declared that Joe was over the worst, and would recover. His temperature was completely normal, his chest was easing, and the spots were healing up. “It’ll be weeks before you feel anything like you old self,” he warned Joe, and was delighted when Joe rolled his eyes in disgust. He laughed. “Now I know you’re on the mend!” he declared.
Joe was soon taking an interest in things again, although he slept a great deal. Ben and Hop Sing contrived to feed him whenever he was awake, so that Joe could start to regain some of the weight he’d lost. To begin with, Joe could only tolerate liquids, and Hop Sing spent hours in the kitchen, concocting new soups to tempt Joe’s jaded appetite.
As Paul had predicted, the cough lingered. Joe was so weak, he could barely turn himself in bed. As he recovered enough to stay awake, he found it frustrating to have to rely on his family to help him do something as simple as sit up. On day sixteen of his illness, Joe was able to eat his first solid food.
Time resumed its normal course. Joe was still confined to bed, although chafing more every day. Ben, Adam and Hoss gradually eased back into the normal pattern of work for the ranch. Paul Martin still called regularly, but his visits were down to every three days, not every other day.
It was on one of Paul’s visits that Joe finally asked, “What was wrong with me?”
Paul looked at Ben for a moment, but answered readily enough, “You had the chickenpox.”
Joe frowned. “How did I catch them?”
“Probably from Ellie Watkins,” Paul said, having done a little research for himself in the last few weeks. “She had spots coming out the afternoon of the church social. Mrs Watkins told me that you carried Ellie back to her. That was probably enough. Laura likely caught them then, too.”
Ben winced, as he had deliberately not mentioned Laura. Joe had not asked for her, and Ben had decided to say nothing until Joe asked.
Joe hadn’t noticed Ben’s discomfort. “How is Laura?” he asked.
Paul hesitated. “Joe, Laura died over two weeks ago,” he said, gently.
The light went out of Joe’s face like a candle being snuffed out. For long seconds, his uncomprehending eyes were fixed on Paul’s face, and then tears came to drown those emerald depths. Ben automatically reached for Joe, and cradled him to his chest. Tears poured down Joe’s face, but he never made a sound. Ben didn’t try to say anything. Parents told their children that everything would be all right, but Ben knew from experience that everything was not all right for Joe. All he could offer was the comfort of his presence.
Joe finally drew a huge, sobbing breath, and lifted a weak hand to wipe his tears away. “Why did Laura die, and not me?” he asked, brokenly.
“Only God can answer that, Joe,” Ben said, gently.
Joe gently disentangled himself from his father’s arms and lay back, exhausted by his emotions. He was so caught up in the misery of his thoughts that he never heard Paul leave. Ben sat with Joe for a while, not talking, just being there. Joe eventually fell asleep.
When he woke again, it was dark and a low lamp glowed softly in the room. Joe looked round, and saw Adam sitting sleeping in a chair. “Adam?” Joe whispered, and his brother stirred.
“Are you all right, Joe? Do you want anything?” Adam asked, moving to sit on the edge of his bed.
“Water, please,” he said, and gratefully sipped the water that Adam gave him. “Adam, you knew about Laura, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I knew about Laura,” Adam answered, cautiously, wondering where Joe was headed with this.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?” Joe asked, plaintively. “Surely I had a right to know?” He wiped away a betraying tear.
Adam took Joe’s hand. “You weren’t ready to hear about it sooner, buddy,” he said, his rich voice full of love and compassion. “You were barely hanging onto life yourself, Joe. Do you know how close you came to dying? Paul didn’t think you were going to pull through.”
Joe’s eyes were riveted to his brother’s face. “I was ill for quite a long time, wasn’t I?”
“Yes,” Adam answered, readily. “Nearly three weeks. Its been five weeks since the church social.”
Joe was stunned. It seemed to him that the social had been just the previous week. “But, I still don’t understand why I didn’t ask about Laura sooner,” he persisted. “I hadn’t forgotten about her, so why didn’t I ask for her?”
“Because you couldn’t spare the energy to either grieve or rejoice. You were living from breath to breath, and after you began to recover, you were asleep most of the time. You’ve lost a lot of weight, Joe, and your body was consuming itself from the inside, to stay alive. When you are only a breath or two away from death, instinct makes you concentrate on only your own survival. Do you understand?” Adam watched Joe intently, hoping he’d found the right words.
“Yes, I think so.” The tears were falling unheeded now. “I must be getting better, then, because I’m grieving now.”
“Joe, can I ask you something?”
“Yes, we were close, Adam. Was I in love with her?” Joe wiped his eyes. “Maybe. I liked her a lot. She was so natural. We had fun together. But it was too soon to say anything else. I think maybe Laura was in love with me. We just never talked about it.”
Adam smiled. “How did you know I was going to ask you that, Shortshanks?”
Joe produced a shaky smile of his own. “You and Hoss must have been talking about us. Hoss and I talk about your affairs, and you and I talk about Hoss’s affairs. What else were you likely to ask me?”
Adam laughed. “You are getting better! Cheek is a sure sign!”
Joe laughed, too, but it brought on a coughing fit. When Joe had caught his breath again, he gave Adam a serious look. “Adam, when I’m well enough, will you take me to Laura’s grave?”
“Of course,” Adam answered. He hugged his brother close, and said a quiet prayer of thanks that Joe had survived this devastating illness. He and Joe were often at odds, but they loved each other, nonetheless.
Joe yawned, and Adam tucked him in again, and within moments, Joe was asleep. Adam sat awake for a while, thinking about what Joe had said. Once, Joe imagined himself in love with every pretty girl he went out with. Now, he knew love took a little longer to grow, and it told Adam that Joe was also growing up.
Joe stood by Laura’s grave, and dropped the flowers he carried onto it. He was still weak and pale, but each day brought returning strength. It had been a month since his late night chat with Adam, and he was finally strong enough to ride the buggy into Virginia City. Paul thought it might be another month before he was fit to start gentle work. Joe was still underweight, but his face was finally filling out.
Adam stood nearby, holding his hat in his hand. “I guess we’ll never know, Laura,” Joe said, quietly. “But we had good times, didn’t we? I’ll never forget you.”
Joe turned away from the grave, and beyond Adam’s shoulder, he saw Mr and Mrs Cummings approaching. He stood still, waiting for them to reach him. Mrs Cummings swept Joe into her arms and wept. Joe could feel his own eyes fill with tears.
After a few moments, she let him go, and wiped her eyes. “I’m so glad you are all right, Joe,” she said. “Laura spoke about you while she was ill, you know.” She glanced at Adam, who stepped back a few paces. “Laura hoped that one day you might be married. She spoke about the fun you both had. I know she was a bit of a hoyden, but I could never break her spirit by forcing her to be something she wasn’t.” A sob shook her, and Joe took her hand. “Joe, we’ll never know what might have been, and dwelling on it doesn’t help. But I’m so pleased that she found happiness with a young man who liked her for what she was, and didn’t expect her to change.”
“Laura was very special to me, Mrs Cummings,” Joe said softly.
“I want you to have this,” Mrs Cummings said, opening her reticule, and giving Joe a small piece of tissue paper.
He took it, and opened it, and found a small gold locket. He had often seen Laura wearing it. “Open it,” Mr Cummings urged, and Joe worked the clasp. Inside were tintypes of Joe and Laura.
“I can’t keep that,” Joe protested, his heart aching anew with the evidence that Laura did indeed love him.
“We want you to have it,” Mr Cummings insisted. “It seems only right that you have something of Laura’s to remember her by. You were important to her.” He shook Joe’s hand, and they left.
Adam came back to Joe’s side, and wondered what to say. Joe looked at Adam. There were still tears in his eyes, and tear tracks on his face. But he looked happier, somehow. Adam tried a tentative smile, and got Joe’s brilliant grin in response.
“Let’s go home, Adam,” he said. “I still have some recovering to do – for Laura’s sake.”