Jesse Eads read the truth in old Doc Baker’s eyes the moment he stepped out of his son’s bedchamber. Outside, the wind howled like a predator, blowing snow into head-high, icy drifts. He pulled his threadbare jacket closer and wrapped his arms round himself. He could no more quell his trembling than the worrisome wind.
He’d pretty much known the truth before Doc went in but there had been hope then.
“Are you sure, Doc? Nothing else you can do?” This last came out as barely a squeak and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He searched the doctor’s face for any sign.
“I’m sorry, Jesse,’ Doc answered, fidgeting with his battered, black hat. “The medicine’s just not working.”
“I’ve made him as comfortable as I can,” Doc Baker said. “some laudanum to keep him quiet and help with the pain…”
“Yes, comfortable,” Jesse answered. “We should try to make him comfortable. Will you leave the bottle?” He was hard-pressed to hide the trembling now, though he tried.
“Of course I will. You might take a bit yourself. It’ll help you rest.”
Doc rooted in his worn, leather bag for a moment and produced a small glass bottle stoppered with a cork.
“Rest?” Confusion clouded Jesse’s eyes. “Rest now? How long does he have?”
“Jesse,” Doc answered weakly, “You have to take care of yourself—“
“I’ll stay with him,” Jesse said. He couldn’t bring himself to say the words ‘til the end’.
“Get the hell out of here,” Jesse suggested. “Now.” His voice was tight, his mouth dry. “Take the black and white pig on your way out. I reckon that will settle my debt.”
Doc had been out here half a dozen times in a fort-night. Little Lucy had been the first to come down with Consumption. Baby Lucy lingered for days before she passed. He’d come twice more to see Jesse’s wife, Caroline, who was half-mad with grief already and succumbed quickly. And now Nathanial...
Jesse stared straight ahead while the doctor gathered his belongings and saw himself to the front door.
Why? Why them and not me? Jesse wondered. They’d all had such high hopes when they’d rolled into town a year ago in a wagon piled high with their personal belongings, the milk cow tied to the back. A new town, teeming with excitement--a fresh start. If he’d only stayed in Massachusetts they might still be alive now. If he hadn’t been blinded by the chance to own more land, make more money… If only he could take all of this back—he’d give anything. Anything at all.
Alone again, he did the only thing he knew how to do at this point. He got down on his knees and prayed to Holy God above to spare his son. He prayed and he pleaded and he begged. He offered up himself and all his worldly goods. He repented every sinful thing he ever did and every errant thought he’d ever had. Jesse Eads prayed like there was no tomorrow. And the entire time he prayed, he knew that he was right about that.
He never intended to go to sleep, but his God had other plans. Hours later, the fire mere embers now in the hearth, he awoke to the sound of his young son’s raspy screams. Bolting upright, he realized he’d not been there to light the lantern! Nathanial had always been afraid of the dark.
“It’s okay, Son,” he shouted. “Papa’s coming!”
“Papa?” Nathanial cried. “It’s dark, Papa, and I’m scared.” His voice crackled like thin, dry paper as he struggled to push the sound out of his fever-burnt throat.
Jesse had been lying on the cold floor for a long time and as he rose, the muscles in his thigh seized up. He bit down hard on his upper lip and half dragged the useless leg across the floor. It took him only a moment to cross the room, his heart thundering in his chest, but that moment seemed to take forever. How could he have forgotten? How could he have fallen asleep?
He fumbled for the matches and the lantern on the chest beside the bed. And then he knew. The absence of sound roared through his head. Nathanial wasn’t wheezing. His chest, which for days had labored intensely to draw minute breaths of air through heavy, fluid-soaked lungs, lay still. His eyes wide open, unshed tears puddling in them like dew on the windows of his newly-gone soul.
Jesse cried out in anger and frustration, cursing the god that had abandoned him.
Thirteen days later, Jesse buried his last reason for living in the tomb he’d special ordered from the stone-mason south of Goshen. It had cost him the cow and one of the horses from his team, but he didn’t care. If that was the price for having a piece of glass installed into the rock casing, then so be it.
There was no funeral; no formal goodbye. Who’d have come? Consumption is contagious; far better to be alone in this. He knelt before his son’s final resting place and made a solemn promise.
“You’ll never have to be in the dark again, Son. Ever. You have my word on that.” He’d have to trust to the moon and stars to help out in this, but the window would allow for some light at all times. Plus it was facing east, so every morning when the sun rose, it would shine for his Nathanial. He kissed his hand and lay his fingers on the small, glass pane. Then, sighing, he rose and mounted his horse.
Jesse Eads made one final stop on his way out of town. Reining his horse in, he dismounted and climbed the steps to the homestead one more time. As he wandered from room to room (he was in no particular hurry—no place specific that he wanted to go…), he straightened the bedclothes and opened all the curtains. Caroline would have liked that.
Dusk was fast approaching as Jesse lit the lantern in Nathanial’s room. Damn the darkness! He dashed the lantern against the chest, breaking the glass, and tossed the flaming thing onto Nathanial’s coverlet. Without prejudice, the hungry fire consumed both the bedding that Caroline had stitched by hand and the hateful bacteria that had stole the reason behind it.
And then Jesse Eads walked calmly out of the house, mounted his horse and left town: no family, no wagon piled high, no cow tied behind. He’d lost everything; not the least of which was hope.