Be Careful What You Wish For–Part 6

(previous)

It was a sign that the toxin was wearing down their little bodies when nobody wanted to play cards that afternoon. Instead, they all remained in bed while Josie read to them from the one book they’d sacrificed for the sickroom. Meanwhile, Tim snuck off again for Sandy’s room, this time for a much-needed appointment with a washtub.

After what seemed like an eternity of reading, Josie lay Treasure Island aside. Ellis was asleep again already, for which Josie was thankful, as that seemed to indicate his condition hadn’t worsened. Sandy was quietly playing Cat’s Cradle with his little sister. The twins beckoned her over to their bed.

“Josie?” Logan’s voice was so hoarse she had to lean in to hear him. “This morning, when you were talking with Dr. Tim about Europe? We woke up partway through your conversation.”

“It’s okay. It wasn’t very personal.” Thank goodness you didn’t wake up the day before.

“It’s not that,” Lewis broke in. “When you asked him if he’d had diphtheria? His answer came out mostly black—he was lying.”

“He was what?”

“Well, maybe not lying,” Logan clarified, “but he was definitely trying to mislead you.”

Heart pounding, Josie rushed from the room and burst into Sandy’s room without knocking. The door banged open against the wall. Tim was standing shirtless in front of the small washstand mirror, dark hair curling damply, shaving cream spread over half his face and razor in hand. He swung around at her dramatic entrance, brown eyes wide.

Without preamble, she demanded, “Answer me plainly—have you ever had diphtheria yourself?”

“Oh, that,” was his mild answer and he turned back around to continue shaving. “No, I have not.”

“But you said you were very familiar with it!”

“I am. I’ve lost far more patients to it than I care to admit. But so far I’ve escaped catching it myself.” He calmly finished and wiped his face, then shrugged into one of Grandda’s shirts that Gran had sent upstairs for his use. “How did you figure out that bit of information? The twins?”

“I’m not saying,” she told him, arms folded angrily. Almost immediately though she dropped them to her sides, feeling horribly helpless, and afraid. “But what’s to stop you from catching it this time? Isn’t diphtheria more dangerous the older you get?”

In the mirror’s reflection she could see him visibly wince. “Just how old do you think I am?”

“Um . . .”

“I’m not that much older than you, Josie. Remember? A little more than eight years is all that separates us: you’re eighteen now and I won’t be twenty-seven until December.” He sighed and returned to her original question. “But yes, there is indeed the possibility that I could catch it this time. Yes, I could even die from it, though I’ve a strong constitution, so it’s highly unlikely.”

He finished buttoning the shirt and tugged his suspender straps up and over his shoulders, then put on his glasses once more and turned to face her. “But whether I could die or not doesn’t matter. All that matters is I am the doctor, and those are my patients, and they are depending on me to be there for them.”

With that he walked past her and out the door.

Josie twisted about to stare after him. His words had triggered a memory of Will and Jeb, arguing over what it meant to be a hero. Back and forth they had gone, until Josie, fed up with them both, said, “Why don’t you just ask Papa?”

Papa’s answer had surprised them all. “How can you spot a true hero? He’s the one that keeps going, even when he’s terrified, even when he might die, because he knows people are depending on him.”

Could a simple country doctor be considered a hero? Maybe his actions were not as openly dramatic as her cousin’s cowboy, or her father and uncle, for that matter. But here he was, confronting the possibility of death without hesitation. In fact, facing possible death in the sickroom was likely a common occurrence for him.

And perhaps that is why he is so often sober and serious, a little voice rebuked her.

How blind I have been.

 

 

Wednesday, September 2
Day 7

Downstairs the clock chimed eleven. Josie sat hunched over on a stool by Ellis’s bed, holding his hand, softly urging him to go to sleep. Today had found the others all starting to improve, even little Maggie. But not Ellis. Feverish with vomiting that exacerbated his swollen throat, unable to take food or medicine, he’d grown weaker and weaker. That evening they’d removed him from the main sickroom, and now her cousin lay in his own bed, breath rasping in and out erratically, each one a struggle to take.

With her free hand she carefully wiped a dribble of foul, bloody discharge from his nose and mouth.

“Infection’s set in,” Tim had said soberly when that’d first appeared.

“What can we do?” she’d asked in return.

“Flush the nasal cavity with chamomile and creosote. That’ll give some temporary relief.”

“Anything else?”

“Pray.”

Pray. She was doing a lot of that right now. Her cousin’s tossing about had finally eased. Was he finally asleep? Laying the hot, dry hand on the shallowly rising chest, she waited. In and out. Rattle and gasp. Yes. He was asleep. But in the fitful candlelight, his face had taken on a look she remembered far too well.

She couldn’t sit there another moment; she rushed from the room only to plow headlong into Tim’s sturdy form.

“Josie, what’s wrong?”

She spun away from him, collapsing against her closed door with a tiny sob. Sliding down its length, she ended on the floor, knees drawn up to her chest and her face buried in her hands.

“Jo?”

It was the way he said her name, voice so tender and worried, that nearly made her lose control. Stay strong, she told herself. Everyone always says how strong Katja was, how in control she was. If she could do it, so can you. You must.

But I’m not Katja! Josie wanted to scream, even as she managed to hold in her tears.

She shook her head. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I’m just very tired.”

“It’s Ellis, isn’t it? You’re fine working with the others, but his condition has hit you especially hard. Why?”

“Isn’t it enough to know he’s dying?”

“It’s more than that.”

Behind her closed eyes, Josie could still see Linnie’s swollen face and blue-tinged lips. She could still hear her last, weak breaths.

She pulled her hands from her face and opened tear-hazed eyes to instead stare blindly at nothing. In a voice barely above a whisper she told him, “I was ten when my sister Caroline, Will’s twin, died of diphtheria.”

Tim sat down heavily beside her and took her hand in his, but said nothing.

“We all had it, all five of us and half the servants’ kids. Mama spread herself too thin trying to save everyone. She couldn’t. She tried. Oh heavens, how she fought, but Linnie had never been very strong, had always had a weak heart. Mama collapsed. Papa had to carry her away. I was already getting better. I held my sister’s hand until she was gone.”

His voice was unsteady as he asked, “You knew exactly what could happen, and yet you still volunteered to stay?”

She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “You had to have help, and I was the logical one to do it.” A harsh laugh. “Lordy. That sounds like something Katja would say. See, I told you I was over-tired, otherwise I’d not be spouting such nonsense.”

But something about the memory was tugging at her mind. Mama. She’d performed some sort of surgery on Will, and collapsed after doing the same for Linnie. “His throat,” Josie muttered. “Mama cut a hole in Will’s throat for him to breathe through.”

“So that’s where the boy got that scar,” Tim murmured as if to himself. “I’ve always thought that’s what it looked like, but I never considered a Healer would resort to using one.” Louder, he said, “It’s called a tracheotomy. I’ve done several before, but the surgery isn’t always successful.”

Obviously, since it didn’t save Linnie, Josie thought darkly.

As if he’d heard her, Tim sighed, a heavy, tired sound. “I prefer intubation, but that requires a special apparatus, one I do not have access to. Which leaves the tracheotomy. Problem is, while it’s not a difficult operation, things can go wrong very quickly, especially since it’s obvious he has a significant infection already present. That’s why I’ve put it off so long, hoping that by some miracle Ellis will pull through on his own.” By the dim moonlight she could just see his face harden. “But if there’s no miracle by morning, I will have to do it anyway.”

 

(next)