A Walk at Dusk, “Heartsick,” part 10

Ely nodded and followed Edward Smith into the house. They all, Ezra included, walked slowly up the stairs following David’s father, who seemed immense in the pale shadows of the interior lamps, with his face lit up by the burning tobacco in his pipe.

Edward paused outside Michael’s bedroom, and Ely entered. David’s mother was sitting in a chair near the bed. A candle on a table lit her tear-stained face, but she stood as Ely entered. The doctor bowed swiftly and kneeled by the bed. He ran his hand over Michael’s forehead, which was dotted with beads of sweat, and pulled back the drenched sheets, revealing a pale chest that rose and fell with shallow, labored breaths.

“It’s a high fever,” Ely said. “What have you tried to bring it down?”

David’s mother remained silent.

Ely took her in for a moment, as if sizing her up. “Can you send for two buckets of water and a sponge?”

David’s mother shook her head, as if just coming too, nodded, then shuffled past Edward, David, and Ezra. David slid past his father and into the room. He noticed as he did so, Ezra still was clutching his arm.

Ely withdrew from his bag what looked like a long, narrow trumpet. He placed the bell on Michael’s chest and put his ear to the small end, moving up and down with Michael’s breathing. He lifted Michael’s hands and looked at the palms. Ely sighed.

“What is it, doc?” Edward said.

“Scarlett fever for sure,” Edward said. “He’s old to come down with it this bad, but the signs are there.” The doctor picked up Michael’s head and felt around his neck. “His neck isn’t swelling, which is good, but his heart has a murmur, which is very bad.”

“What do you mean?” David said.

“The infection has settled in his heart, which will damage it. I’m hearing the blood leaking between his heart chambers already. If he recovers,” Ely looked at Edward for a moment. “When he recovers, he’ll be much weaker. Much more prone to being tired.”

“I see,” Edward said. “What are his chances?”

Ely sighed again. “I think he also has consumption.” Edward at this made an audible growl. “His lungs sound fluidous as well. Once consumption takes a bad turn, it usually means a life of progressive health loss. I’m very sorry to give you such an opinion, Ed.”

“For whatever faults I may find in you, good doctor, dishonesty was never among them, though I think you still paint a rosier picture than you ought to, yes?” Edward said.

“Yes sir,” Ely said. “I’m sorry; it looks bad to be this ill. Scarlett fever isn’t usually deadly, but with the bout of consumption, I am very worried.”

“So we all are. Now the question remains as to what we can do for him.”

“A sponge bath to start,” Ely said. “That will help lower the fever.” He walked over and opened a window. “Keep fresh air blowing on him, and water him down with the sponge often. Help me get him on his side.”

David hurried over and helped lean Michael over, so his red face hung over the side of the bed. Immediately the boy took a deep breath and started coughing.

His mother entered and cried out, running over to the bed. “What are you doing? You’re making him cough, and in such a state.”

Edward quickly pulled her back. “Julia! Get some sense about you.”

“The coughing is good,” Ely said. “It will clear his lungs and let him breathe easier. Do you have the water?”

David’s mother nodded. Under Ely’s direction, she wetted him down with the sponge. Michael took a few sprawling breaths and opened his eyes. He looked around briefly, seemingly aware but unconcerned by the doctor, then endured another fit of coughing.

Ely took a bottle out of his bag and handed it to David’s mother. She leaned over to examine it in the dim light.

“It’s a tincture of opium with a few other things,” Ely said. “It will help with the cough but don’t give it to him until he can be roused enough to drink, and then of course first have him drink as much as possible. One tablespoon to start.”

Ely nodded slightly to David as he passed, and David followed him out, followed by Ezra. Inside the room, David watched for a moment as his mother continued to wipe water over the coughing Michael. When he turned back, he saw his father standing near to Ely with his head resting on his large knuckles. The doctor was talking softly.

“The boy’s heart will likely never serve him the way it should for his age. Once the Scarlett fever breaks, we’ll know better if it really is consumption.”

“What do we do if it is?” Edward said.

Ely took a deep breath. “There’s not much we can do. I’ve heard drier climates can prolong the onset of the worst parts of the disease. Living in Texas – West Texas, that is – might improve things.”

“We can’t move,” Edward said. “There’s too much we’ve built up here.”

“Maybe not you,” Ely said. “But Michael could, if his health improves a bit. The western territories are mostly desert.”

“I’ll consider looking into it,” Edward said.

“I don’t think you need to give me anything,” Ely said. “I’d have come if you didn’t have a dime.”

“I know, but I have dimes for me and for those that don’t. Let me pay you for your time, and the return, if you’re willing to come back,” Edward said.

Ely nodded. “Of course, I’ll be back in two days. I’ll have David here make a note of his progress and take it over to me tomorrow. If needed, I’ll come back.  Alas, but there is nothing else to do tonight.”

Edward clapped him on the shoulder and led him back down the stairs. David stood at the landing watching the two men descend. He felt another squeeze from Ezra, and turned to see tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.

“I joke too much,” she said.

“No, you don’t,” David said, and led her down the stairs.

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