Authors: Callie Hutton
Dr. Bennett placed the lifeless child on the ground and examined him. The child’s skin was pale white, an almost pasty color. He looked up at Sarah with tired compassion. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Boyle, but your boy’s gone.”
Sarah’s knees buckled and Davis caught her. He held the sobbing mother, rocking her back and forth. After a while, he slowly walked her back to her wagon. Rising from his spot on a tree stump, Buck took her from Davis, a knowing sorrow etched on his face, tears standing in his eyes. The doctor laid the now silent child on a small table scattered with the remains of the family’s meal.
With a sense of renewed vigor, Davis returned to his wagon. The cooling cloths weren’t doing anything for Emma, and he wasn’t about to lose the wife he’d just gained. He couldn’t get her to stay awake long enough to take much of the tea, which had sat for days on the wagon floor.
Undressing her down to her chemise and drawers, he lifted her seemingly weightless body, and carried her from the wagon. He strode a short distance to a small creek, to either cure or kill her. Saying a silent prayer, he eased her into the stream, and splashed the cool, clear water over her body.
“Are you crazy, Davis?” Ezra raced up to the edge of the creek. “You’re gonna kill that girl.”
“I refuse to sit by and watch Emma burn up with fever until she dies like little Stephen. I have to bring her fever down.” His heart pounding with fear and anger, Davis smoothed the cool water over her arms and legs. Realizing he left the wagon with nothing to cover her, he asked Ezra to get a blanket from the wagon. When he returned clutching a red and blue patchwork quilt, Davis pulled Emma out of the water and wrapped her in the blanket and carried her back to the wagon.
In the wagon he stripped off the still unconscious Emma’s underclothes, dried her, and dressed her in a clean nightgown. Then he wrapped her in another blanket and laid her down.
Overcome with exhaustion from nights of little sleep, he lay alongside her, and pulled her body against his chest, wrapping her in the cocoon of his arms.
The next time Davis opened his eyes it was dark, but the shadow of flickering campfires played against the canvas of the wagon. He touched Emma’s face with the back of his hand. She felt a bit cooler, and a fine sheen of sweat covered her face. The fever had broken. He sat up, running his hand down his face, and took a deep breath. Maybe he wouldn’t lose his wife after all.
He left her long enough to start a campfire and put on coffee. His nimble fingers rolled a cigarette while he waited. As he bent over the fire to check the coffee, a soft voice called from the wagon.
He hurried over and climbed in. Emma had her eyes open for the first time in days. “I’m so thirsty. Can you get me a cup of water?”
Davis broke into a huge grin. “Sure can, darlin’. Are you feeling a bit better?”
Emma nodded her head, but frowned. “I don’t feel so hot anymore, but my throat is sore and my head aches. What happened to me?”
“You’ve been sick, as well as many of the others. Dr. Bennett thinks y’all have influenza. But now that your fever’s broken, you may be on your way to healing.” While he spoke, Davis pawed through one of the boxes and pulled out a cup. He dipped it into the water barrel and placed it at Emma’s lips. He held her head as she drank thirstily. Then he coaxed some of the cool tea into her mouth.
“Do you think you can eat a little something, honey?”
“No, my stomach’s a bit queasy. Maybe later.” She closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
Davis sat for some time just watching Emma. After having lost his mother and sister in such a terrible way, he swore he would never allow himself to feel so deeply for anyone again.
His initial attraction to the woman when he first arrived at her wagon all busted up, turned into something else after spending these weeks with her. Now that they were married, and she was truly his wife, he found his feelings ran deeper than he’d expected.
Her soft brown curly hair lay in tangles around her head. He was so intent on getting her fever down, he hadn't bothered with brushing her hair. Once she was awake again, he would offer to do that for her.
He sighed, pulled up the blanket covering her, and left the wagon. Six or seven wagons down he found Dr. Bennett. Of the twenty or so passengers who had come down with the influenza, three had died. Besides little Stephen, another young baby and an older woman had succumbed to the disease.
“How’s your wife holding up, Davis? I hear you took the bull by the horns and dumped her into the creek.” He smiled tiredly as Davis approached him outside the MacGregor’s wagon with three sick children in it.
“Better, thanks. The cold water brought her fever down, and she drank some water. She’s back asleep now. How’s everyone else doing?”
“Twenty-seven are sick. With one hundred or so people on this trip, it amazes me that only a handful caught this. There haven’t been any new cases in the last day, so I’m hoping this is it. You make sure you wash your hands after dealing with Emma. We’re starting to suspect clean hands help if you’re around sick people.”
Dr. Bennett and Davis continued down the row, checking each wagon. The doctor offered the same advice: to cool the patient off, make sure they drank plenty of water, and washed their own hands. That last bit of advice was scorned by some who thought clean hands had nothing to do with it, but most listened to the doctor, anxious to keep the sickness from spreading.
“I spoke with Ezra, and it seems we’re only several days away from Fort Laramie,” Dr. Bennett said. “There will be another doctor there, but I’m hoping we’ve seen the worst of this outbreak now. As there seems to be no new cases, I’m advising him to start out. I think recuperation will be much easier at the fort.”
Davis stopped and stuck his hands in his back pockets. Nodding at the doctor, he said, “Makes sense. I’m going on back now to check on Emma again. Is there anything I should be giving her besides the water?”
“Try to make a broth out of some beef jerky and see if she’ll hold that down. If not, just keep up with the water. And don’t be disappointed if her fever comes back again. That happens a lot with this, and nighttime seems to make it happen more. Good luck, son.” Dr. Bennett walked off, rubbing the back of his neck.
Emma lay in the wagon as it made its way toward Fort Laramie. Davis had told her the illness count had held steady at twenty-seven, with four more deaths. Ezra and Jeb decided to bury the dead before they left for Fort Laramie, so it was a sad journey from the camp to the fort.
The few trips outside the wagon left Emma feeling weak and breathless. Davis did the best he could with taking care of her and the animals. Several of the women brought over meals to them twice a day.
During the time she had spent recovering, she thought a great deal about her future. This was the first time she had been so sick without her parents close by. Davis had done well, but she still felt homesick. Indiana wasn’t far from her thoughts. She had learned not to speak too much of it to her husband, though, who would grow impatient with her when she did. Thoughts of him seemed to make him appear, and she smiled as he stuck his head in the back of the wagon.
“Hi, darlin’, how ya feeling?” He leaned his forearms on the back of the wagon looking pretty worn out and tired himself. He obviously hadn’t shaved in a few days, and his clothes looked like they hadn’t been changed, either.
“I’m feeling better. I think I would like to get up and walk around for a while today.” She raised herself up on her elbows, and then back down when the wagon started to spin.
“Um, I don’t know, I think you’re still a little weak. We should reach Fort Laramie sometime tomorrow afternoon. I’ll help you out of the wagon once we get there, and maybe have the fort doctor take a look at you.”
“Dr. Bennett looked at me a number of times. There’s no need for another doctor to do the same thing.” She sounded a bit grumpy which brought a chuckle from Davis.
“Okay, darlin’. I don’t want to upset you. We’re starting up again in a little bit. I’ll bring some rice with broth that Abigail sent over. She said it would help strengthen you.”
“Oh, and a cup of water, too.” No matter how much she drank, Emma seemed to always be thirsty.
When he returned with her meal, she asked about the others who were sick. As she ate, he told her of the deaths, and upon hearing about little Stephen, she cried out.
“He was such a little boy,” she moaned, “poor Sarah and Buck, how are they holding up?”
“Sarah was real bad there for a while.” Davis ran his hands through his hair. “But she seemed a little better the last time we spoke. She was asking about you. Strange, but Stephen was the only one in her family who came down with the influenza.”
The sound of the bugle alerted the emigrants the wagons were on the move again. Davis took the empty bowl from Emma.
“I have to get out of the wagon for at least a minute. I, um, I ah, have to go to the bushes.” Heat rose in her face.
“Sweetheart, everyone else is in their wagons, so I’m the only one around to take you this time.” Since her illness had begun, all her other visits were accompanied by one of the women.
Her face growing hotter, Emma grabbed her wrap. There wasn’t any choice at this point. All the water she was continually drinking had to go somewhere. Davis climbed up and helped her into her wrap and slowly lifted her down from the wagon. Still a little lightheaded, she hung onto his waist as he walked her over to an area not in view of the passing wagons. Mortified beyond belief, Emma had to hold onto Davis’s hand while she took care of her business. He pulled her up when she finished, and with one arm around her and the other lifting up her chin, he looked straight into her tearful eyes.
“Honey, I don’t want you feeling bad about this. It can’t be helped, and I’m your husband now.” He pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. “Come on, let’s get you back into the wagon.”
“The government purchased Fort Laramie in eighteen hundred, forty-nine, as an outpost to protect and also supply travelers along the emigrant trails. It’s about seven hundred or so miles from Independence, right there at the joining of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers.” Davis pointed to the area where the outpost sat.
Emma sat alongside him on the wooden wagon seat as he explained a bit of the fort’s history as they grew closer. She’d expected to see walls to fortify the camp. However, as he further explained, Fort Laramie was an
fort, surrounded by teepees set up by the Plains Indians. But the welcoming sight of army uniforms and the American flag comforted her, but also aroused nostalgic emotions, and thoughts of what she’d left behind in Indiana.
She continued to feel weak, but somewhat better and looked forward to stopping for a couple of days and visiting the supply store. Her initial fright at seeing so many Indians walking around quickly left her by the sight of all the soldiers.
Davis brought the wagon to a halt and immediately tended to the animals. Emma crawled into the back of the wagon, splashed water on her face, and pinned up her long braid. Tying her bonnet ribbons under her chin, she was ready to join the world again. Davis came back and helped her out of the wagon.
“Very busy place, this fort.” Davis grinned as he reached for her.
“Oh, it looks wonderful to me. It’s amazing to see the teepees, I never expected them to be so close to the fort.”
“The Indians like being near the fort because the Army trades for the meat they kill, and their women and children are protected while the men are out hunting.” He took her arm in his and they slowly strolled toward the main building of the fort.
“We’ll need to visit the supply store.” Emma looked around, breathless with excitement. “I need to restock some things, and I’m just dying to see what else they have there.” She turned to him. “I have money Peter received when he sold the farm.”
Davis shook his head, his lips tight. “Forget that money. Put it aside. If we need supplies, or if you need anything for yourself, I’ll give you money.”
She drew back, staring at him. “Don’t be silly. Why shouldn’t I use my own money?”
“Emma.” His tone brooked no argument. “I am your husband, and I will feed and clothe you. Now I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
Outside the store’s entrance sat piles of furniture, trunks, and household items previous emigrants had left behind to lighten their load for the difficult trip over the mountains. The inside of the building was small and dark. Emma spotted some things she could surely use, but aware of the weight of their own wagon sadly passed them by.
Davis struck up a conversation with one of the soldiers while she studied the supply of goods the store had to offer. She approached the soldier behind the counter and just as she began to speak a voice behind her called out. “Emma!”
She turned, but the darkness of the store kept her from seeing who spoke. She glanced over to where she last saw Davis, and he was still there. Hurried footsteps headed in her direction.
“Emma Thorpe!” the voice called out again. All of a sudden strong hands grabbed her waist and swung her in a circle. Then the man gave her a huge kiss, right on the lips.
“Emma, what are you doing out here, so far from home?” With the light from the door behind him, she still couldn’t make out his face, and put her hands on his chest to put a little distance between them. Just then she saw Davis out of the corner of her eye.