6. Fearful Odds

June 1855

By Calico

 

 

 

“…An’, you hadta turn wagons inter – inter BOATS?”

 

“Not boats exactly – floats.  More like a raft,” explained Alex, flat on his back under his own, land-bound, wagon.  “…Not ALL the wagons, just a couple to take the people and goods across.  You use…” He stopped. A grubby tanned hand reached out.  “Claw hammer please, son.”  Hannibal passed the tool over.  “Thank you.  You see when you need to take wagons across fast water, what you do is…”

 

“But YOU…” interrupted Hannibal, lining his superbly sorted six inch nails and short tacks up even more perfectly straight for when they were needed, “…YOU didn’t help on the floatin’!  ‘Cos YOU was takin’ the rope across!”  Hannibal swelled in vicarious pride.  “YOU vol’teered!  An’ you swum ‘cross!  An’, an’ – it was fast!”

 

“Fast?!” Although Alex’s face was out of sight under the wagon, the deep voice was clearly currently emerging from a cheerful dimpled smile.  “Fast?! Hah!”

 

“Mother said it was fast!” Hannibal protested.  A thought struck him, he stood up on tiptoe – stretched, stretched – he could just see the track.  “Not comin’ yet,” he reported, as he plumped back down next to his prone father.  A sigh. He should enjoy helping to mend the tongue.  He WAS enjoying it, but… He did not know quite – ‘but what’. A little hand scratched at an armpit. He wriggled.  Another sigh.

 

“She’ll be a good long while yet,” Alex said, emerging into the sunlight to face his small son.  “Mrs. Bauer’s sewing bee’ll take most of the day.  We’ve got until nearly suppertime to do men’s stuff.  Remember?”

 

“Men’s stuff!” agreed Hannibal.  He liked that.

 

Alex lifted the hat to ruffle the dark hair. Usually Sarah took Hannibal with her when one of the ladies hosted a sewing bee.  However, Alex had only just returned from a second absence at the Fort, seeking work to pay for the farm’s seed.  He and Sarah suspected Hannibal’s extra persuasive arguments, to stay home and help like a proper big boy, arose partly out of having missed his father and partly out of a lingering worry he might go away again.  So, Alex had decided to have a day doing all the small chores which had built up and for which Hannibal could be allocated – vital and important – fetching, carrying, passing and holding tasks.  Men’s stuff!

 

Hannibal rubbed his eyes.  A quick glance at the sun, as if working out – ‘how much longer’ to lunchtime.  A third sigh.  A tiny crease appeared between Alex’s eyes. Hannibal was not quite his usual overflowing self.

 

“Are you tired, Hannibal?” asked Alex.  “Do you want to…?”

 

“I’m fine!” Hannibal assured him, sturdily.

 

Alex took a glance at his pocket watch and another quick look at Hannibal’s face.  They had not been out long and it was not all that hot.  Hannibal would certainly argue hard against any suggestion he needed something so babyish as a rest – he was a ’big boy’! –  and that would rather defeat the purpose.  Alex decided to finish the wagon repairs and then tell Hannibal it was his usual time for a mid-morning break.  Go in and find some quiet task inside, in the shade.  “Now…” he said, flattening himself and wriggling back under the wagon, “…I need a six inch nail.”

 

“Six inch nail,” echoed Hannibal, passing one.  Not one to forget anything, he returned to the interrupted story.  “So – this river you’se carried the rope ‘cross – wasn’t it fast?”

 

“Fast?!” Alex too, picked up where he had left off.  “Fast?!  Fast doesn’t begin to cover it!  It was a raging torrent!  As I fought against the mighty current…” Alex milked it.  “…expecting every moment to be dashed on the jagged rocks…the icy waters numbing my…” The story carried on.  And on.

 

“…Farfer,” Hannibal interrupted.

 

“Uh huh?”

 

“Didn’t that bit happen to Sinbad the Sailor?”

 

“Er…” Under the wagon a rueful grin creased Alex’s cheeks.

 

A distant sound caught Hannibal’s sharp ears, diverting him from tales ancient and modern.  He stood up, on tiptoes…peered into the dust-hazed distance.

 

“…Mother’s comin’,” he chirped.

 

Alex slithered out.  “I don’t think so, son…” he began.

 

“’Tis!  Look!”

 

Alex stood up, shaded his eyes against the sun.  Still far very far away, but – yes.

“My apologies, Hannibal,” he said.  “You’re right!” Hannibal’s small hand slipped into his large one, as he began to walk towards the approaching Sarah.

 

A worried frown creased Alex’s brow.  Was something wrong?  Sarah must have set off back home almost as soon as she had arrived in town.  Seconds later he watched the racing figure trip, fall flat in the dirt and right herself, before continuing her frantic, flailing path.

 

Something was wrong.  Very wrong.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“Get away from him!  Get away from him!”

 

Some part of Sarah knew that even if she were closer, Alex could not hear her.  Her mind was screaming with all her might, but hardly any sound came from her mouth.   She gasped, lungs burning with pain.

 

As soon as she had reached Mrs. Bauer’s place she had been met, not by the usual circle of welcoming smiles and feminine gossip, but by anxious faces of a couple of town-based ladies.

 

“Have you heard the news, Mrs. Heyes?  Worrying isn’t it?”

 

No.  Sarah would not describe what she had felt as ‘worry’. It had been gut wrenching, overwhelming fear. Shaming. Robbing her of all dignity.

 

It had made her scream frantic denials in her neighbour’s astonished and affronted face.  It had turned her around and sent her tearing out of that house without a civil – without even a coherent word.  It had sent her, stumbling and panting for breath, from Larson Creek.  It had kept her thin body running the whole way back until…

 

“Get away from him!  Get away from him!”

 

Alex was quickening his stride, as he began to see her state.  But he still had Hannibal clinging to him.

 

“No!! NO!!” Her throat burned with the effort.  Still she ran.  “Take your hands off him!!”

 

In reach at last, she dragged Hannibal bodily away from his astonished father.

 

“Get away from him! Get into the house…” The words clashed and disappeared in heaving gasps.  Sarah pulled at her uncomprehending and frightened son.  “Go into the house…” she tried to say.  Even through her terror, she tried to summon up a smile when she saw his scared face.  “Please, Hannibal,” her hands pushing him away, “Go back to the house.” Still nothing understandable actually came out.

 

“Hannibal,” said Alex, switching on his ‘don’t argue’ voice, “go back to the house.”  Whatever the problem, Hannibal should not be watching this.  The brown eyes were full of confusion, the bottom lip was already wobbling.  “Go NOW!”  Alex, too, tried for a comforting smile.  “Nothing to worry about, son.  Your mother and I will follow you in.  You get the cookies out, huh?  But…” firm voice again,  “go in NOW!”

 

The little figure trailed away.  A half-resentful, half-scared look was thrown over a shoulder.  As the head turned back, Alex watched a small shirt sleeve drag across a disconsolate little nose.

 

Sarah watched too.  Held herself until Hannibal was out of hearing.  Then, gasping at Alex, “There’s a smallpox outbreak at the Fort. The Williams’ children are already sick! Don’t you SEE?” she raged, “It doesn’t matter that WE’RE inoculated! You could have carried it back! You…You…” Tears of sheer terror made the words an almost meaningless babble. “If he catches it…” Small fists beat at Alex’s chest. Beat and beat and beat, bruising herself as well as him, until Alex caught her hands, caught all of her up in his arms. Held her tight until the sobs subsided. “…If he…If he…” She could not even say it. “Why did you go NEAR him? WHY?” Even through her panic she knew she was being unfair. How could Alex have known the Fort was incubating smallpox? Through the rushing sounds in her head she heard Alex calming her. Hannibal seemed fine. No reason to fear the worst. He was shushing her the way he had through the bad dreams. Through the phantom crying.  After…

 

“C’mon, Sarah,” Still holding her. His lips in her hair.  “C’mon.  We have to go back.  He’s frightened.”  A large handkerchief was produced.  “C’mon.  Blow…”

 

Sarah mopped herself up.  Summoning a smile, she walked, hand in hand with Alex, back to the cabin. They found Hannibal, shirt hoisted, scratching at a rash.

 

“Mother.” Flushed face. Over-bright eyes. The beginnings of a whine, “…I feels ba.a.ad!”

 

Sarah glanced up, terrified, at Alex.  She saw the blood drain from his face, felt the blood drain from her own. The room spun. Sarah felt Alex’s arms support her, as her knees buckled.  She kept her face composed though.  Her shame at having scared her own son with that display of terror was almost as deep as her fear of …

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

In front of Hannibal, Sarah managed a calm front. She got him to bed. Bathed his face. Told cheerful stories. Made soothing noises about soon feeling better. She tried not to think.  She would NOT think.  She would NOT think while she was nursing.  Not about… She would concentrate only on doing the right thing.  She would not let her mind wander to…No!  She would fill her mind with practical tasks!  Those thoughts…those…They could wait.  She would have time enough to think those thoughts if… If he… No!

 

The sound of the door snapped her head around.  It was Alex, returning from his ride for the Doctor.

 

Undertone to Sarah, pressing her hand, “He’ll be here soon as he can.  I met Nathanial on the same errand.  Esther is showing symptoms too…They’re not sure about Jed…” Cheerful tone for Hannibal, “You’ll be right as rain in no time, son. Do you want to hear about when Sinbad was sick? He was covered in spots…More spots than a leopard…”

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

Only when Hannibal finally fell asleep did Sarah fully yield once more to the terror. She took herself out of the house – out of hearing range.  Alex steadied her head while she vomited. Over and over till she was dry heaving and crying half in fear, half in pain. He held her close, while she poured out her racing thoughts.

 

“Eight in ten, Alex! Eight in ten children that catch smallpox …” She could not bring herself to say ‘die’. Not another small grave. Please. Not Hannibal.  “WHY did you…?”

 

She bit it back.  She had seen the stricken look in Alex’s eyes earlier.  He already blamed himself.  She clung on more tightly.  It was NOT Alex’s fault.  She would NOT let herself think that.

 

The suppressed anxieties tumbled out.  “Even if he lives… It’s a chance he’ll be blind.” She tried to stop herself trembling. It felt as if the very ground under her feet quivered. Then, she realised it was not her shaking. It was Alex.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

The next thirty-six hours were a nightmare for Sarah. Acting calm in front of Hannibal.  And – she WAS calm in front of him.  Not a quiver.  Not a single tear.  Sneaking out to the barn while he slept, so she could curl into a whimpering ball of fear. Head pressed against her knees. Rocking. Arms wrapped over her ears to block out the … Rocking. Hands pulling her arms SO tight her knuckles shone white. Rocking. Trying to not to let Alex guess she was hearing …

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

“…General Hannibal reached up and put his hand on Sarus’ mighty wrinkled brow!  The thick grey skin felt hot!  Too hot!

‘Sarus,’ said General Hannibal, ‘…I think you are sick.  I don’t think you should climb any further up the mountains today!’

Sarus shook his mighty head.  They could not stop!  They had to get over the Alps!  He was a brave War Elephant!  Sarus tried to stop his mighty ears drooping …”

 

“I feel ba-a-ad!” Hannibal interrupted.

 

“I know, Darling,” soothed Sarah, changing the cool cloth on his forehead.  “…Try to lie still.  There’s my good, brave boy.” She gave the small, spotty hand a squeeze.  “…Doctor Wallace will be here again very soon.  He’ll make you feel better.”

 

A scarlet and damp little face scowled.  “You’se said THAT, yesterday!  I feels BAD!” Didn’t his mother understand?  He needed to feel better, NOW!

 

“Soon, Darling.”  His forehead was kissed.  “Sarus did his very best not to look sick.  They HAD to get over the Alps.  But… Oh dear, he DID feel bad!”

 

“Like me!”

 

“Even mighty war elephants have to stop when they feel sick.  Poor Sarus.  He felt hot.  And cross.  And itchy.  And – poor Sarus needed to scratch!  He knew he should NOT scratch …but it was so tempting.  He picked up a good stout stick in his powerful trunk…”

 

“Mother?”

 

“Yes, Darling?”

 

“What’s I got?”

 

Sarah slid one hand under her apron.  There it clenched so tight she felt her nails dig into her palm.  Tighter still. Tight enough for the pain to distract part of her mind.

 

“Doctor Wallace isn’t quite sure yet, Darling,” she said.  That was true, in so far as it was what Doctor Wallace had told them.  Sarah did not believe him.  It was smallpox.  The Doctor knew – just as she did.  He knew and did not like to say.  Because – the odds were – Hannibal would …No!  NO!  Those thoughts had to be saved for the barn.  NO!

 

But they WERE the facts.  Out of Hannibal AND Esther AND Jed AND, since the update from Doctor Wallace, Beth too – the odds were – maybe one child would live.  One.  If they were lucky.  Two would be spared if they really beat the odds.   Please.  Please.  Please.  If we don’t beat the odds, let the ONE be… NO!  NO! NO!

 

Sarah flushed scarlet.  Fear is so, so cruel.  It strips off the thin layer of civilisation.  THAT thought – the underside, the animal side, the purely selfish side of instinctive maternal love – ‘take Elizabeth’s babies – not mine!’  THAT thought was not even for the barn!  NO!

 

Hannibal watched the blood rush into his mother’s face.  The comforting smile never left her mouth.

“I’se got somethin’ real bad?” he checked.

 

“No, Darling,” she lied.  An offended invalid scowled at her in chagrin.  He was REAL sick!  “…Well,” amended Sarah, realising her mistake.  “It is pretty bad and you’re being SO brave – but, you will feel better soon.”

 

“I’m REAL sick – an’ REAL brave,” summed up Hannibal.  He fidgeted in discomfort.  “G’wan,” he gave permission.  “Sawus was sc’atchin’ – but – I’m NOT to sc’atch.”

 

“Sarus felt a tickle in his trunk.  He was going to sneeze.  The mighty trunk wrinkled up.  The end twitched and wriggled.

 

‘Ahhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh…’ said Sarus.

 

General Hannibal moved out of the way.  EVERYONE moved out of the way!  No one wanted to be on the receiving end of an elephant sneeze!

 

‘Ahhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh…’ said Sarus.  His trunk…”

 

The sound of running – no, sprinting – boots.  At a distance.  Closer, closer.  Clattering on the porch.  Sarah rose to her feet, as Alex burst through the door.  The anxiety was gone from the brown eyes.

“Doctor Wallace is here,” he gasped, “It’s – it’s…” his tanned hand pressed at the stitch in his side, “It’s chicken-pox!” Gasp.  “Definite!  Only chicken-pox!”

 

He wasn’t quick enough this time to catch Sarah, as her knees gave way and she collapsed amidst a flounce of apron, skirt and petticoats on the floor.  The relief had knocked the breath out of her exhausted body like a punch.  Gasping as much as Alex, she tried to speak – found herself laughing – tried to get up – failed.  Her tired limbs shook like frail leaves.  Sarah plumped back down, still struggling between laughter and…

 

“’S’not funny!” protested Hannibal from his ‘downstairs for nursing’ sickbed.  “An’ – an’…” the accusing look moved to his father, “S’not ONLY chicka-pox!  Chicka-pox sounds like a proper, proper Dis-EEEeese!” Hint of satisfaction under the plaintive whine.  “I’se PROPER sick!”

 

“Yes. Yes, Hannibal.  Of course you are!” Sarah managed as, for the first time since her race from Larson Creek, she wept in front of her single surviving son. Wept for sheer joy.

 

—oooOOOooo—

 

 

Notes:

The deadlier form of smallpox variola major killed c. 80% of children under five infected.  Roughly a third of survivors became blind.  

 

Massachusetts (which Alex and Sarah left in 1846) was the first state to require vaccination.  It brought in the start of compulsory inoculation for smallpox in 1843.

 

 

 

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