Summary: As the best man at his friends’ wedding, Joe is unable to foresee the tragedy ahead.
Word Count: 8886
“I’m flattered,” Joe told Mike Golding. “I’d love to be your best man.”
“That’s great, Joe,” Mike responded, pumping Joe’s hand enthusiastically. “Joanna will be so pleased.”
“When is the wedding to be?” Joe asked, smiling.
“Three weeks,” Mike answered. “The last Saturday in August.” He grinned again, on a high. “I can’t believe she said yes.”
“I can’t believe her father said yes,” Joe jibed. “He ran me off with a shotgun!”
“I don’t blame him!” Mike laughed, knowing perfectly well the story wasn’t true. “Why would anyone want you married to their daughter? Why, you belong to the girl-of-the-week club!”
Both young men laughed. Joe Cartwright had met Mike when the latter moved to Virginia City with his parents in Joe’s last year at school. The two boys had hit it off from the word go and had spent that last summer of Joe’s nominal childhood fishing and talking and getting into scrapes. However, unlike Joe, Mike had wanted to continue his education, and went off to school back east. He had opted to study medicine and had returned to Virginia City, as an assistant to Paul Martin, only six months before.
Joe had been delighted at his friend’s return. Mike’s grades had been so good that he’d had his pick of places to work, and Joe had been sure that he would chose New York, Boston or even San Francisco to work in. They had kept up a regular correspondence over all the years, despite Adam’s disparaging remarks at the beginning of the separation and Joe was thrilled when Mike wrote and said he would be coming home.
On the very first week Mike was back in town, there was a dance. Mike went along at Joe’s urging, and there Joe introduced him to Joanna. Joanna had been the year below them at school, and Mike remembered her with long dark pigtails and puppy fat. However, Joanna had grown into a beauty and her shining dark hair and dark eyes had half the boys in town entranced. She and Joe had gone out, but their friendship had never warmed into passion, and their few attempts at kissing had reduced them both to hysterical laughter and they decided to remain friends only.
The same could not be said for Mike and Joanna, though. One look at each other, and they were smitten. They began going out that very evening and it was apparent to anyone with eyes that they were deeply in love. Joe had looked on proudly. But he hadn’t been expecting them to marry so quickly, or to be asked to be the best man.
“Have you got somewhere to live?” Joe asked, knowing that Mike had been living in a rooming house.
“Sure have,” Mike reported, proudly. “Joanna and I have bought a house on the edge of town. It’s been empty for a while, and I picked it up for a song.”
“Good,” Joe responded, as a frisson of discomfort rippled down his spine. He wasn’t sure which house Mike was talking about, but he hoped it wasn’t the one he was thinking about.
“Belonged to people called Watson,” Mike rattled on, oblivious to Joe’s sudden stillness. “It’s been empty for over a year, and it needs decorated real bad, so Joanna tells me.”
Swallowing down the nausea that rose in his throat, Joe just smiled. He couldn’t tell his friend that he had nearly died in that house, and that two other people had died there. “Want help decorating?” Joe asked, wondering if he could bear to go in the door, if his offer was accepted.
“The more the merrier!” Mike exclaimed. “I’m doing some painting tonight, can you come?”
“Of course,” Joe assured him, and hoped he spoke the truth.
“Hi, Joe,” Hoss called, as Joe rode into the yard. He was shoeing horses, and he tapped the last nail into the shoe he was fitting and put down the horse’s foot. Straightening with a groan, he eyed Joe closely. “What’s wrong with ya?” he asked.
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Joe retorted, his eyes flashing. “What makes you think there’s something wrong with me?”
“Yer manner,” Hoss responded bluntly. “Bitin’ my head off, an’ not sayin’ hello.” He eyed Joe critically, as Joe just sat there on his horse. “Somethin’ happen while you was in town?”
“Not in the way you mean,” Joe returned, and dismounted. He led Cochise over to the hitching rail and looped his rein around it. “Mike and Joanna are getting married,” he went on, avoiding Hoss’ eyes, “and they’ve asked me to be the best man.”
Joe couldn’t have sounded more depressed if he’d announced that his best friend had just died. Hoss frowned. “Ain’t cha pleased for ‘em?” he asked, puzzled. “You done introduced them, after all.”
“Of course I’m, pleased!” Joe snapped, looking more annoyed by the second. “Why wouldn’t I be pleased?”
“I dunno,” Hoss replied. “But ya don’ look very pleased.”
“I’m fine!” Joe said, shortly and stalked off towards the house.
“Ain’t cha gonna put away yer pony?” Hoss asked.
“No,” came the answer. “I’m going out again after supper.” Joe didn’t look back, he just continued walking.
Patting the pinto on the neck, Hoss muttered, “No luck, Cooch.” He led the horse he’d been shoeing into the corral and turned it loose, wondering all the time just what it was about the up-coming wedding that was getting Joe all riled up.
“Is that you, Joe?” Ben asked, coming from the kitchen. He was pretty sure the answer would be yes, as neither of his other sons slammed doors in quite the same way as Joe.
“Yes,” Joe replied. He was taking off his jacket and gun belt. His hat already hung on a peg. “Hi, Pa.”
“Hi, yourself,” Ben answered. “How was your day?”
“Fine,” Joe replied, making an effort to calm himself. He didn’t want Ben suspecting there was something wrong. “Mike and Joanna are getting married and want me to be the best man.”
“That’s wonderful news!” exclaimed Ben. “When’s the wedding?” He clapped Joe on the shoulder, grinning broadly.
Responding to his father’s enthusiasm, Joe found himself gradually relaxing. “At the end of August,” Joe replied. “In three weeks.”
“Have they somewhere to live?”
“Yeah,” Joe replied, vaguely, his unease returning. “Mike’s bought a place and I’m going over tonight to help paint. That’s ok, isn’t it, Pa?”
As he had hoped, asking for permission when it wasn’t needed diverted Ben from asking where Mike and Joanna’s house was. “Of course it is, Joe! You don’t need to ask me that!” He gave Joe a nudge. “What a pity you aren’t so keen to use a paint brush round here!”
Grinning, Joe went upstairs to wash for supper. Once out of Ben’s sight, his grin faded and the bad memories crowded in once more. Joe wondered how on earth he was going to get through the evening ahead.
Supper was a meal best forgotten, Joe thought, as he mounted Cochise amidst a barrage of comments about his willingness to work for someone other than the family. He had borne the comments as best he could, and had mostly kept his temper, although he had been on the verge of thumping Adam when Ben had stopped a particularly relentless line of teasing from his older brother. However, all that had prevented them from discovering that Joe was sweating profusely and starting to shake.
As he rode into town, Joe felt increasingly unwell. At one point, he had to stop and vomit behind a bush. That temporarily removed the leaden feel from his stomach and he remounted and rode on, determined he was going to overcome his feelings.
When he arrived at the house, he stood for a moment, by the fence, looking at the place. The house was neglected, the garden growing high with weeds. Resolutely, Joe opened the gate and walked towards the house. His feet felt like lead, and the path seemed very long, but eventually he stood before the door.
It opened before he could knock and Mike stood there, grinning. “It’s about time!” he chided, playfully. He had a streak of paint decorating his hair. “I thought you’d decided to stay at home. Come on in! The more the merrier.”
Stepping reluctantly over the threshold, Joe saw for the first time that there were a couple of other young men in the house already, and he smiled, relieved to know that it wouldn’t be just him and Mike. There was less chance of Mike noticing his unease in a crowd. As it happened, Joe needn’t have worried, for the painting soon turned into the kind of riotous evening that would have made all their parents wince, had the men been seen. Someone had brought beer, and they drank thirstily while applying the paint with more enthusiasm than accuracy. Joe soon forgot his worries. It was late when he rode home, liberally splattered with paint and more than a little drunk.
“I thought it was the walls you were meant to be painting?” Adam asked, sarcastically as Joe appeared for breakfast the next morning rather pale and tired, and still streaked with paint.
“Shut up!” Joe growled, for he wasn’t in the mood for Adam’s jibes this early in the morning.
“Are you hung over?” Adam wanted to know.
“No,” Joe snapped, and helped himself to bacon and eggs. “I’m just tired, if you must know. We worked later than I expected last night.”
“Sure you did,” Adam teased and Joe threw him another black look. Oblivious to Joe’s displeasure, Adam asked, “So which house has Mike bought?”
There was a pause, as Joe slowly chewed his bacon. Finally, realizing that he couldn’t put off answering any longer, he avoided everyone’s eyes as he muttered, “The Watson’s.”
Even without looking up, Joe could feel his family’s eyes on him. He kept his own gaze firmly on his plate. He didn’t want to see what they were all thinking. The only person who had come out of that time unscathed was Hoss, who had saved Joe’s life. Joe didn’t want to see the memories darken each of their eyes; he’d had enough problems dealing with his own memories the previous evening.
Gazing at Joe, Hoss nodded. Now he knew what had been biting at Joe the previous afternoon. It all made sense. “You okay with that, Shortshanks?” he asked, quietly.
“I am now,” Joe replied, honestly, risking looking up. “There were a few of us there last night, and the ghosts have been laid to rest – so far.” He looked at Ben. “But I haven’t been upstairs. I might not be able to go.”
“Mike’s your friend, Joe,” Ben told him. “He’ll understand.”
Swallowing tears at the love and understanding in his father’s voice, Joe nodded and tried a watery smile. A few minutes later, they rose to go to work, leaving Ben alone at the table. Adam’s teasing had stopped of its own volition, and Joe got more leeway that day than he usually did. Ben stared unseeing at the chair where Joe had been sitting. He was proud of his son’s courage, but slightly dismayed that Joe had been unable to discuss it with him. Shaking himself out of the reverie, Ben went to tackle the day’s work. At least now, the house where Joe had suffered so much would provide good memories to overtake the bad.
Time marched on swiftly towards the wedding. Ben suggested Joe get a new suit, and told him he would pay for it. Joe agreed with alacrity, and went to town to order it the very next day. Adam had raised an eyebrow at Ben, but said nothing, knowing why Ben was doing this.
The house painting continued most evenings. Joe helped out when he could, but they were busy with haying as well, and most nights he was too tired to do anything other than fall into bed. However, on the Friday the week before the wedding, he again turned up to help with painting and found Mike there alone.
“How’s the haying?” Mike asked, clapping Joe on the shoulder. “No injuries yet? Joe, you’re slipping!” It was Doc Martin’s standing joke that Joe always got sick at haying time.
“Ah, leave off!” Joe shot back, grinning. “Just because you have a cushy job.” He looked around. The house looked fresh and clean and someone had tackled the wilderness that had been the garden. “How’s the painting?”
“I’ve just got the attic room to paint,” Mike said, heading upstairs as though reminded. “But the rest is done.” He kept up a constant stream of talk as he led the way upstairs, showing Joe his handiwork, oblivious to his friend’s discomfort. It was only when he led the way up the last flight of stairs and threw open the attic door that Joe could no longer cope.
Gasping for breath, Joe collapsed to his knees. Dimly, he heard Mike calling his name, but he couldn’t have responded if his life depended on it. He felt Mike’s arm under his, dragging him downstairs and outside into the fresh air. Gradually, Joe’s breathing came back under control and he was able to look into his friend’s concerned face. “Thanks,” he gasped.
“What was that, Joe?” Mike asked, taking his pulse with a professional air. “What happened?”
Reluctantly, but knowing he owed his friend the truth, Joe told him the story of Lucy and her obsessive love for him. He kept it to his own and his family’s troubles; there was no point telling Mike that two people had died in there.
“No wonder you collapsed,” Mike breathed, when Joe fell silent. “I’m sorry, Joe.”
“It’s not your fault,” Joe told him, feeling better now. “No reason why you should know.” He straightened up and got to his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Mike replied. “There’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Joe. I’m surprised you were able to come into the house at all.” He eyed his friend, and seeing Joe looked better, he ventured a joke. “But if you are going to collapse, it’s always better to do it when there’s a doctor around!”
Joe laughed. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll buy you a beer.”
The morning of the wedding dawned warm and sunny. Joe dressed carefully in his new suit and headed downstairs. The rest of the Cartwrights had been invited to the wedding as well, and they were also dressed up. Joe left before his family to go and join Mike, who was leaving from the house, where he had been living for a few days now. Joe felt almost comfortable going there now.
He found Mike in a state of excited nerves. “How do I look?” he asked, checking himself in the hall mirror once more. He tweaked at his string tie, which promptly came undone.
Grinning, Joe re-tied his tie for him and brushed a minute speck of lint from his shoulder. “You look like a doctor,” Joe told him. “All you need is your bag.” As Mike glanced round for it with a distracted air, Joe patted his shoulder again. “Mike, I was joking. All you need to give me are the rings.”
“Rings; right.” Mike fished about in his pocket until he found the two ring boxes and handed them over to Joe, who tucked them safely away. He was impressed that Mike was wearing a wedding ring, as most men didn’t bother.
“Let’s go,” Joe suggested, and they went out to the buggy which Joe had brought. It only took a few minutes to arrive at the church and the minister greeted them at the door and led them to the front of the church.
The guests had mostly arrived, and Joe found himself exchanging grins with his family and various other friends. Mike looked quite calm now that they had arrived. Joe checked again that he had the rings and they waited.
The organist struck up, and the doors opened to admit Joanna. Joe heard Mike catch his breath and could quite understand why. Joanna was dressed in pale pink silk, with a full veil and carried a bunch of roses. Her dark coloring was set off beautifully by the dress and she looked radiant. All the way up the aisle, her eyes were locked on her groom and Joe felt a pang of envy. He wished he could find a girl who looked at him that way.
They stepped up to the altar, and Joe smiled at the young woman who was bridesmaid. He knew her slightly, and together they joined the bride and groom.
And so they were married. Later, Joe could recall only fragments of the wedding. He heard Mike’s low, clear voice repeating his vows, then Joanna’s voice, husky with unshed tears as she recited, “In sickness and in health, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto me.” Joe handed over the rings without the interminable fumbling that some best men seemed to find so funny and then it seemed to him that he was signing the register, and the service was over.
The reception afterwards at the home of Joanna’s parents was great fun. The food and drink was plentiful and there was a lot of laughter. Joe claimed the traditional best man’s kiss from the bride, who threw her arms round him exuberantly.
“We did it, Joe!” she exclaimed. “We got married.”
“About time too,” Joe scolded. “You’ve been breaking hearts around here for far too long!”
“Me?” she gasped, amused by his effrontery. “What about you? All those poor girls in the church wondering which of them is going to drag you to the altar.”
Rolling his eyes, Joe shook his head. “They weren’t there to look at me,” he insisted. “They were there to see your dress and be jealous.”
“When are you going to get married, Joe?” Joanna asked.
“When I find a girl to love,” Joe replied. “I can’t predict when that will be, as well you know.”
“And in the meantime, he’ll keep up his membership in the girl-of-the-week club,” Mike put in, coming over to put his arm round his new wife’s waist possessively. “Are you flirting with my wife, Joe?” he went on, grinning.
“No, I don’t think I’d call it flirting,” Joe answered, in a pensive tone. “Not unless flirting includes talking about when I’m going to get married.”
“I’m sure the fathers of Virginia City will bless the day it happens,” Mike assured him.
“Thanks a lot!” Joe replied, but he couldn’t keep his face straight. They all burst out laughing.
Later, as he drove home, Joe thought back over the day. It had been one he would remember for a long time. He’d driven Mike and Joanna to their new home that evening and laughed as Mike insisted on carrying Joanna over the threshold, despite her protests. He had wished them both a good night and driven off, despite their attempts to persuade him to come in. They were starting their new life together, and didn’t need him there.
The family was home before him, as he’d known they would be. A hand came to take the buggy horses, which suited Joe just fine. He’d drunk more than enough that day to make falling straight into bed a pleasant thought.
However, the family had other plans and when he went in, he found Ben had poured him a glass of brandy. Taking it, they had a toast to the new bride and groom. Sitting down on the settee and taking off his jacket, Joe stretched. “It was a good day,” he said.
“A very good day,” Ben agreed. “You handled your duties like a veteran, Joe.”
“So he should,” Adam remarked. “He’s done it often enough.”
“One o’ these days, Shortshanks, you’re gonna make it up the aisle for real,” Hiss joked. “An’ when you git there, you’ll be a-huntin’ in your pockets for the ring!” He laughed and so did everyone else.
“Well, I’m going to bed,” Joe announced, draining his glass. “See you in the morning, all.”
Life fell back into its usual pattern. Haying was long over, and round-up was on the horizon. Joe was busy breaking a string of horses to fill an army contract. Originally, Adam had been going to help him, but Adam had become involved in bidding for a timber contract, and Joe soon found he was doing the work by and large alone. That didn’t bother him. He could work at his own pace, and not have to put up with Adam’s fussing when he took a particularly bad spill.
He was also schooling a mare for Mike to give to Joanna. Mike himself had a big sorrel that he had bought from the Ponderosa when he returned home, and said he preferred it to driving a buggy, like Paul Martin did. Joanna was an expert horsewoman, too, and asked her new husband if she could get a horse of her own. Mike was only too quick to give Joanna what she wanted, and Joe was busy working the horse.
Every few weeks, an invitation would come for Joe to dine with the newly weds, and he would go along and they would have a fun evening. Joanna sang, and played the piano, and she and Mike and Joe would reminisce about their days at school, and Mike would tell funny stories about his teachers at university. When there were dances, Joe and his ‘girl of the week’ would double date with Mike and Joanna. It was one of the most settled periods of Joe’s life that Ben could ever remember.
Round-up came and went and the herd fetched a good price at market. Joe returned to finish the last of the horse-breaking. Adam and Hoss were supervising the tree felling for the timber contract, and Ben decided to treat himself to a day or two of sitting about the house doing nothing much at all.
The accident happened as Joe went to bridle the last of the horses he was finishing schooling. He had Joanna’s horse already in town, ready for Mike to give to her when he was ready. This was the last of the army mounts, and was an ugly, wall-eyed Appaloosa. It had proved difficult to break and Joe wasn’t looking forward to schooling it much.
Standing at the left side of the horse, Joe took the cheek-pieces of the bridle in this right hand and put the bit flat on his left hand. Wrapping his right arm under the horse’s head, with his hand over its nose, he began to coax the brute into opening its mouth and accepting the bit.
There were always some horses that didn’t like to take the bit, however, gently it was introduced to them, and this was one of those beasts. It kept its teeth gritted until Joe, his patience running out, stuck his left thumb into the corner of its mouth to gently open the jaw.
Quick as a flash, the appaloosa tore its head from Joe’s grasp and bit him heavily on the ball of his thumb. Its teeth ripped flesh away and Joe let out a startled cry. The horse, startled itself, reared. Joe ducked hastily out of the way. But that wasn’t enough for this horse. Teeth bared, it went after Joe, who dived towards the rails of the corral to escape. His last minute swerve prevented the horse ploughing him down, but the horse’s shoulder struck his hip and Joe lost his footing, crashing headlong into the rails.
For several minutes, he was dazed; not unconscious, but dizzy and mostly unaware of his surroundings. Then everything came back into focus, and he found the hands crowded round him debating the best way to help him.
“I’m all right,” Joe told them, although blood was flowing freely from his hand. When he touched his throbbing head, he discovered that it was bleeding too.
“You need to see the doc,” one of the hands insisted, and Joe couldn’t argue.
“I’ll ride into town,” Joe agreed. “You go and tell my Pa and say that I’ll probably stay the night in town.”
“Sure thing, Joe,” he nodded and headed off to do just that. Joe got to his feet and mounted stiffly, his bleeding hand wrapped in a bandanna.
The doctor’s surgery was empty and the door locked. Sighing, for he was tired and sore, Joe mounted Cochise again and rode out to Mike’s house, not knowing where else to go. He could hunt high and low for either of the doctors, and not find them. But at least Mike would go home eventually.
“Joe!” Joanna exclaimed as she opened the door. “What happened? Come in and sit down at once.”
“I’m sorry to bother you, Jo,” he said, truthfully. “But I couldn’t find Mike or Paul and I didn’t want to go all the way home again.” He didn’t say that, in all honesty, he wasn’t sure if he could ride home again.
“Don’t be silly, sit down,” Joanna ordered. She ushered him into the kitchen, where something on the stove smelt good. As she put water on to boil, Joe realized that Joanna didn’t look very well.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Smiling brightly, which fooled Joe not at all, Joanna nodded. “I just have a sore throat,” she admitted. “I had a friend here, passing though on her way to San Francisco, and we talked too much.”
“When was she here?” Joe asked, making conversation. He just wanted to lie down somewhere.
“The day before yesterday,” Joanna replied, coming over with rolls of bandage and a bottle of anti-septic. She coughed slightly, and Joe took her hand. Her skin was hot to the touch and slick with sweat.
“Jo, you aren’t well,” he said, concerned. “Look, I’ll go home and I’ll see Mike another time.”
“I’m fine,” Joanna protested. “Besides, we haven’t seen you for ages. Look, I’ll clean up your hand and you can tell me all the news.”
Reluctantly, for Joe thought she’d be better off in bed, he allowed her to clean his wounds while he told her about the cattle drives.
It was into the evening before Mike arrived back, and by then, Joe was frantic with worry. After bathing his wounds, Joanna had complained of feeling tired and had lain down for a rest on the settee. Then she fell into a sort of unconsciousness. Her breathing had become desperately tight and she seemed to have extreme difficulty in swallowing.
“Mike, thank goodness!” Joe exclaimed as he heard to door open.
“Joe?” Mike questioned, sounding exhausted. “I thought that was your hoarse. What are you…are you all right?”
“I’ll be okay, its Joanna. Hurry!” Joe was less concerned about himself by that time.
Kneeling by his wife’s side, Mike examined her closely, and his face grew grimmer by the second. Finally, he turned, his eyes meeting Joe’s, and Joe knew instantly that it wasn’t good news. “What is it?” he breathed, not wanting to hear the answer, but not able to bear the not knowing.
Tears suddenly filled Mike’s eyes, and Joe felt a corresponding dampness in his own, even without knowing what was wrong. “Mike?” he ventured, softly, suddenly scared.
“Its diphtheria,” Mike replied.
For a long time, Joe could only stare at Mike, struggling to assimilate the news. Joe had heard of diphtheria – who hadn’t? It had swept across America in a terrifying series of epidemics, and wherever it hit, people died. It was infectious Joe knew; very infectious.
“I’d better go home,” he murmured at last, unsure of what to say in the face of Mike’s immobility and grief.
That brought Mike back to life. “No!” he exclaimed. “You can’t do that! You might have been infected!” He got to his feet and clutched Joe’s arm. “You’d better stay here, Joe.” Shaking his head, Mike looked around, seeing the bowl of water on the table, along with the bandages. “Why are you here?” he asked, and blinked, seeing for the first time the gash on Joe’s head. “Sit down, Joe, you need attention.”
“But Joanna…” Joe protested, sitting as he’d been told to do. In truth, the shock of hearing what was wrong with Joanna and being told he couldn’t go home made him easier for Mike to treat.
“There’s nothing I can do for Joanna right now,” Mike admitted, struggling to keep calm. “I’ll see to you, then you can stay here with her while I go and tell Paul about this. It answers a lot of questions we’ve had about various people.” Working quietly, Mike tended to Joe’s minor hurts, then left to inform his boss of the outbreak of diphtheria. He took Joe’s horse to the livery stable on the way.
Left alone with the unconscious Joanna, Joe sat and gazed at her. He felt completely helpless and more than a little scared. He knew the statistics – one in ten people died of diphtheria. Would he ever see his family again?
By morning, the news was all over town. Paul Martin had got Roy to close off the town, so no one could get in or out and so spread the disease further. People were sickening rapidly, and Paul and Mike began to trace the sickness, trying to find out the source of the infection. By dint of careful questioning, the trail led back to the friend who had been visiting Joanna. Susan had been at school with Joe, Mike and Joanna, had married a man from the east and had only been home once or twice. Paul surmised that she must be a carrier of the disease and hurried to telegraph San Francisco, in the hopes that she could be found before the epidemic spread. Unfortunately, Susan had vanished before she reached the city by the bay, and she was never seen again.
In the meantime, word reached them of other townships that had outbreaks of diphtheria. They were also places where the stage had stopped.
Waiting at Mike’s house, Joe tended to Joanna as best he could. Her breathing was very labored, and Joe knew from Mike’s haggard face that he didn’t hold out much hope for her. He worried constantly about his family, fearing that Ben would insist on coming into town, to see for himself that Joe was all right. The thought that Ben might be exposed to this terrible disease was almost too much for him to bear.
There was also the nagging fear that he himself would become infected. Daily, as he did what he could for Joanna, Joe knew that he was risking his own life; knew that he’d risked it the first day he’d come to town. By then, Joanna was already sick and Joe, too, might already be infected. As he lay awake at night, Joe could see no future for himself at all.
“Mike! Come quick, Jo’s choking!” Joe shouted, fear in his voice.
Roused from his much-needed slumber, Mike was at his wife’s side in a heart beat. “It’s what I feared,” he whispered finally. “A membrane is closing off her air way. I’ll have to do a tracheotomy.”
“What’s that?” Joe asked, quietly. It was three days since he had arrived, and that morning, he didn’t feel well. His throat hurt, and he was running a slight temperature. He said nothing to Mike. It was plain to anyone with eyes that Mike, too, was ill.
“I cut a hole in her windpipe to allow her to breathe,” Mike informed him, trying to hide his shaking hands from his friend. “I’ve never done one on a living person before.” He glanced at Joe. “Can you help?”
“Yes,” Joe whispered, sure he couldn’t, but unable – or unwilling – to admit that.
It took all Joe’s fortitude to remain on his feet during the operation. He could hardly believe that this was necessary, but even he could tell that Joanna wouldn’t live if it wasn’t done. As Mike made the cut, Joe turned his eyes away, but he was needed to mop up the blood, and so he closed his mind to what he was doing, trying to keep this on a clinical level, and failing dismally.
Finally, Mike inserted the plug that would keep the wound open. Joanna’s breathing settled a lot and Joe began to feel more hopeful. Joanna had been out of it for days, but Joe wondered if this would set her on the road to recovery.
Slumping back, Mike looked totally drained. “You should get some rest,” Joe told him. “Joanna is resting more easily now.”
“I can’t rest,” Mike replied. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and burying his face in his hands. “There’s so much to do. I can’t leave it all to Paul.”
“Mike,” Joe began, troubled, but he got no further. There was a sudden choking noise, and Joanna’s breathing stopped.
For a frozen second, neither of them moved, then Mike was working frantically on Joanna, breathing through the pipe and pumping frantically at her chest. But there was nothing he could do. The disease had proved too strong for Joanna and she was gone.
“NO!” Mike cried, the sound torn from his throat. “Don’t leave me, Jo!” he begged her. “Don’t die, not now!” He dropped his head onto her body and began to sob piteously.
Stunned by the swiftness of her demise, Joe just stood. He clasped his hand onto Mike’s shoulder, but he was sure he friend didn’t know he was there. Turning, Joe made his slow way through to the other room, giving Mike the only thing he could – privacy. Standing at the window, looking out, Joe wept for the loss of his friend’s life.
“There’s nothing we can do but wait!” Adam exclaimed. “Pa, I’m as worried as you, but we can’t get into Virginia City and Joe can’t get out!”
“Is that supposed to comfort me?” Ben demanded angrily. He was beside himself with worry and had been since he’d heard Joe had gone to the doctor a few days before. He had ridden to town the next day and had been turned back, told of the outbreak of diphtheria. It was the not knowing that was worst. Ben didn’t know if Joe was ill, or even still alive. He wouldn’t know until the outbreak had been contained and they were able to go into town.
“No, of course not,” Adam replied. “But there’s nothing we can do. I know it’s dreadful, but would it help Joe if you went in and caught it?”
“No,” Ben grunted, knowing Adam was right, but resenting his son’s logic just the same.
“Look at it this way, Pa,” Hoss suggested. “If’n he’s stayin’ wi’ Mike, he’s in the right place, ain’t’ he?”
“I know,” Ben agreed. But he also knew that there was very little Mike could do, and there was as much chance of Mike contracting the disease as there was of Joe getting it. “I just wish there was some way we could find out.”
“So do we,” Hoss agreed, softly, and they stood there, united by their worry and fear.
“She was expecting our first child, did you know?” Mike asked Joe, many hours later. They sat together in the front room, where they didn’t have to see the place where Joanna had died. Joe had gone and got the undertaker, who came to the house wearing something over his face to prevent himself from catching the disease. Joe hoped it would work; but there was no guarantee. The undertaker had told Joe that there had been over 20 deaths so far and wood and nails were becoming scarce.
“No, I didn’t,” Joe replied, startled. “I’m so sorry.” He knew that Joanna had longed for their baby, because she had told him so several times.
“A spring baby,” Mike muttered, talking mostly to himself. He poured some more whiskey into the glass in front of Joe. “Come on, Joe, drink up.”
“I don’t think you should drink any more,” Joe suggested gently. “What if someone comes to the door needing you?” The whiskey he had drunk sat uneasily in Joe’s stomach and made his head swim.
“They’re not gonna do that!” Mike insisted. “I’m sick, Joe. So are you. We’ve both got it. We’re both going to die.”
“Don’t say that,” Joe denied.
“Ah, come on, we both know its true,” Mike asserted. “I’m too sick to work. I’d be passing it on to people. Why shouldn’t I get drunk? It might take the pain away.” He took a big swig of his drink. “Come on, while you can still drink anything.” Joe silently downed the whiskey.
“D’you know,” Mike said, after a long period of silence, “that a woman I once treated told me that epidemics were nature’s way of keeping the population down?” He gave a drunken laugh, but didn’t sound amused. “Honestly. She told me that only poor people caught diseases that killed, because being poor meant they weren’t as good as you or I, who have a bit of money.”
“That’s lousy,” Joe muttered.
“I refused to treat her after that,” Mike went on. He gave another abrupt, humorless laugh. “She died from the influenza, you know. I wonder if that meant she was really a poor person in disguise.” He took another slug of the whiskey. On top of exhaustion, grief and illness, and on an empty stomach, Mike was becoming drunk really quickly.
More silence. It seemed to them both indecent that the sun was shining outside when Joanna lay dead in a coffin, buried in a mass grave, because there wasn’t enough time or people to dig individual graves. Joe said no more as Mike continued to drink the whiskey. He could see the fever in his friend’s eyes, and the grief. He thought oblivion would be the best thing for him, even if it did come out of a bottle. Joe’s throat ached and he just wanted to lie down somewhere and sleep, but whenever he shut his eyes, all he could see was Joanna dying right there in front of him.
At long last, Mike passed out, and Joe laid him tenderly on the sofa and covered him with a blanket. Mike’s temperature was raging, and Joe wearily did as he had been taught for fevers and got some cool water and a cloth and began to bathe his head.
Over the next 24 hours, that seemed to Joe to be all he did. Mike never roused again properly, and Joe did what he could for him. Through all that time, he never saw another soul. Everyone knew the young doctor had diphtheria and they kept their distance. Joe couldn’t blame them. He thought, had their situations been reversed, that he might have kept his distance, too.
Exhaustion finally claimed Joe and he fell into a deep sleep on the couch in the front room. His temperature was way up, and his thumb throbbed with every beat of his heart. Joe had almost forgotten about the injuries he’d had which had brought him into town, but he had finally realized that his thumb was infected. Lying on the couch, Joe wondered vaguely if he was going to get lockjaw on top of diphtheria. The thought didn’t disturb him much.
As he slept, he dreamt of a huge fire, keeping him warm on a cold night. He could hear the flames crackling and the warmth of the fire and thought that he was home at last. His throat ached and he coughed miserably, the cough further lacerating the rawness of his throat.
Looking down at Joe Cartwright, Paul Martin shook his head. “He’s pretty badly off,” he told the men with him. “Let’s get him down to the saloon with the others.”
“Sure, doc,” one of the men responded and between them, he and his companions carefully lifted Joe and carried him away. Paul watched them for a moment, before turning back to the burning remains of Mike and Joanna’s house.
The first tendrils of smoke had been seen quite by chance, and by the time rescuers got there, the house was well ablaze. Joe had been found unconscious but coughing in the front room, and Mike had been found dead in the kitchen. From where he was lying, it seemed Mike had been trying to poke up the stove, and the fire had somehow escaped, setting the house ablaze. Watching it burn, Paul wasn’t sorry the house wasn’t going to be saved. Far too many bad things had happened there for anyone to want to live there.
The fire brigade, or what was left of them, did what they could to keep the fire under control, but by the time the flames were out, the house was a ruin. Long before then, Paul Martin had returned to the vigil he was keeping over the remaining sick in town. Isolating the community had done its job and the infection was no longer spreading. But the death toll was high, with very few families untouched by the tragedy.
When the town was back to ‘normal’, the school role had more than halved. Some families were wiped out all together; others had lost fathers, mothers, children, grandparents. The disease had hit rich and poor alike. There was no church man to see to the burials, as the minister had succumbed almost at once. Houses, empty of the people who had once lived there, were torn apart to make coffins. It was many years before the town recovered completely.
“Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”
Rising from his desk, Ben hurried to the door, frowning, wondering why Charlie was shouting for him with such urgency in his voice. “What is it, Charlie?” he asked, coming into the yard, where Charlie was dismounting from his sweating horse.
“Virginia City’s open again, sir,” he panted. “I seen them take down the barricades this morning’. I bin havin’ the place watched from a distance, an’ the roads is open again!”
“Saddle the horses,” Ben ordered, his heart in his throat. “Adam! Hoss!” He hurried back to the house calling for his sons.
“What is it?” Adam asked. He and Hoss were still at the breakfast table, putting off for as long as possible starting work for the day. Everyone in the house was tired, for worrying about Joe had deprived them all of sleep. They had heard the shouts, but weren’t sure they were ready to face yet another crisis.
“Virginia City’s open again,” Ben told them. “Come on, we’ve got to find Joe.”
For a heartbeat, neither Adam nor Hoss moved. Then they jumped to their feet and hurried to strap on their gun belts, and snatched up their hats. They were outside and mounted without having said a word, and they galloped to town as fast as their horses could carry them.
The town did not look quite the way they remembered it. It had only been 6 days since they had last been there, but the streets were quiet and the stores were shut. The few people who were on the streets seemed terrified of contact.
Arriving at the sheriff’s office, Ben was relieved to discover that Roy Coffee had survived the outbreak. “No, I weren’t ill,” he confided to Ben. “I were down-right lucky, Ben, I can tell ya.”
“Have you seen Joe?” Ben asked, urgently.
“No,” Roy replied. “I’m right sorry, Ben, but I ain’t. Have ya tried the saloon? Paul was takin’ people there, last I heard. The Silver Dollar.” He looked round their worried faces. “I sure hope the boy’s all right, Ben.”
“Thanks, Roy,” Ben said, and hurried back out to his horse.
The saloon was a little distance up the road and they could easily have walked it. But, although they were eager to see Joe, there was a growing dread in their hearts, and they did anything that would use up those few moments until they found out his fate.
The Silver Dollar was deserted. Looking around, they could see where tables had been moved to become make-shift beds, but there was no one there. Swallowing down disappointment, Ben looked at his sons. “Guess we should try Paul’s,” he suggested and Adam and Hoss nodded. Ben wondered briefly if he was as pale as they were, then decided he didn’t want to know.
Once more they mounted up and rode slowly down the street. There didn’t appear to be any signs of life in Paul Martin’s office, either, when they got there. Ben opened the door and they went slowly into the outer office. He stood, irresolute for a moment, before opening the door to the inner office and going in.
The first person he saw was Paul Martin, sound asleep at his desk, his head cradled on his arms. For one horrid moment, Ben thought he was dead, but then he saw the steady rise and fall of his back, and heard a snore.
Relieved, he hurried over and shook his somnolent friend. “Paul! Paul!”
“Huh?” Paul raised his head, and wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Oh, Ben, it’s you.” He yawned mightily and scrubbed his hands over his face. “What time is it?”
“I have no idea,” Ben responded. “Paul, where is Joe?”
“Joe?” Paul repeated, as though he didn’t know who Joe was.
“He was coming to see you or Mike, and was going to stay in town. Is he here? Is he all right? Paul, tell me!” Ben’s anguish was plain to see. A cold hand was squeezing his heart.
By now, Paul was properly awake. “He’s here, Ben,” he replied. Ben almost fainted with relief. “Come on, I’ll take you to him.” He got wearily to his feet and led the way through the door that led to his private quarters. “Do you know about Joanna and Mike?” he asked, quietly and Ben shook his head.
“What about them?” he asked, trepidation once more in his heart.
“They both died,” Paul reported, grief in his voice. “Joanna was one of the first to die. Mike died in a fire in their house.”
“A fire?” Ben gasped. “How?”
“We don’t know, Ben. Joe was rescued from the front room, but he’d inhaled a lot of smoke and he hasn’t been at all well. He had diphtheria, too, but a mild case. Unfortunately, he also had an infection from a bite injury and his fever only broke last night. But he’s going to be all right, Ben.” Paul opened a door and stood aside.
There, lying in the bed, was Joe. His face was very pale and he was so still that for a moment, despite Paul’s words, Ben feared the worst. He was across the room in an instant, touching Joe’s head tenderly, murmuring his son’s name over and over again, tears of relief and gladness pouring down his face.
Joe stirred, and opened his eyes. For a moment, he gazed disbelievingly at Ben and then he was in his father’s arms, and Adam and Hoss were crowding close, too, all needing to touch Joe, to reassure themselves that he was warm, breathing – alive.
Watching for a moment, Paul felt tears pricking behind his eyes. Quietly, he closed the door and left them alone.
“You’ll need to give him a long time to recover,” Paul remarked as he took Joe’s pulse later that morning. “Getting up too quickly after diphtheria can cause a relapse, even paralysis. Do you hear me, Joe?” he added, in a threatening tone.
“I hear ya,” Joe replied. “What makes you think I want to get up?” He could barely lift his head from the pillow.
“I know you,” Paul returned, bluntly, and Joe grinned.
“Okay, doc, I hear what you’re saying,” he capitulated. Joe turned his eyes to his father. “And it didn’t reach the ranch, Pa?”
“No, Joe nobody out with us was sick,” Ben assured him. He still sat by Joe’s bed, touching his son constantly, reassuring himself that the lost boy was truly there. “But we were worried about you.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, remorsefully. “I wanted to come home, but Mike wouldn’t let me.” A spasm of grief crossed his face, and Adam looked away, to give Joe what privacy he could. Hoss gazed unseeing out of the window. “Mike’s dead, isn’t he?” Joe whispered.
It was the first time he’d asked, and to Paul, that told him Joe was on the mend at last. Before, Joe had been too sick to ask anything, and since he had wakened that morning, he had spoken very little, content just to be with his family.
“Yes, he is,” Paul replied, quietly. His own grief for Mike was still close to the surface.
“The diphtheria,” Joe stated. “Both he and Joanna.”
“Mike didn’t die from the diphtheria,” Paul corrected him softly. “Mike died in the fire that destroyed his house. We pulled you out in the nick of time, Joe.”
“A fire?” Joe repeated numbly. He frowned, clearly thinking hard.
“What is it, Joe?” Ben questioned, his thumb making comforting circles on the inside of Joe’s arm.
“I dreamt about a fire,” Joe told him. “I could feel the heat, and it made me cough.”
“Good thing it did make you cough,” Paul interjected. “That was how we knew you were there, Joe.”
Gazing at Paul for a minute, Joe’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. Embarrassed, Paul turned away and let Ben minister to his youngest. But when he heard the words Joe sobbed out, he turned back, his own eyes awash with tears, too. In fact, at Joe’s words, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “Joanna was pregnant,” he confided, and the pain and grief became too much and Joe sobbed uncontrollably in Ben’s arms.
Exhaustion finally claimed him and Joe fell asleep once more, secure in his father’s grasp. Ben laid him gently back onto his pillows and looked round at the others. “Why?” he asked.
Nobody had an answer.
The Joe they brought home a day or so later wasn’t quite the same Joe that had ridden into town the week before. He was, of course, recovering from a serious illness, but he was also grieving for two people, his friends, that he had been unable to help.
For several weeks, Joe was sober, and took things easily as he had been instructed to do. As his natural strength and vitality crept back, Joe was allowed to go further afield and as he rode around the ranch and saw the cycle of life preparing to renew itself once more, he began to recover spiritually as well as physically.
There was a change in Joe. His close brush with death had showed him that he was mortal after all, and for a time, it dampened his natural ebullience. But as the winter settled in, something in the air seemed to buoy him up and his enthusiasm returned. His unique high pitched giggle was heard round the house once more, and never more than on the day of the first deep snowfall of winter. His aim with the snowball was as deadly as ever, and Adam was his first, and preferred, victim.
As Christmas approached, Ben sensed that Joe had done his grieving and made his peace with the fact that he had lived and his friends had died. That one, unanswerable question – why? – no longer kept him awake at nights, for he had learned that there was no answer to it. Things happened in God’s own time, and were beyond the understanding of mere human minds. He had grieved for his friends, but life was for living, and Joe had always had a deep love of life. Mike and Joanna had had several months of intense happiness, Joe reasoned. Who was to say what the future held for them? Joanna might have died in childbed, as many women did. The baby might have died – life was uncertain at the best of times. But it was comforting to know that they had been as happy together as two people could possibly be.
This realization had allowed Joe to move on with his life, and he had stumbled over an explanation of it to Ben one evening. Ben had fully understood. He didn’t think the dead would begrudge the living their life. To go around constantly mourning would not bring back the dead. It would just make the mourner sad. Life was too precious to waste it in regrets for something that could not be changed. Ben was relieved that Joe had been able to see this for himself.
Of course there was a change in Joe, Ben thought, watching as his sons had a fierce snowball fight in the yard. He was amused as Adam the aloof threw snowballs with all the fervor and passion of his youngest brother. Nobody could go through an experience like that and not mature. But in essence, Joe was the same – impulsive, loving, infuriating and dependable.
He was Joe.