Dammit, it’s starting again. This horrible headache … the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. So thirsty … and the light … the light’s hurting my eyes again. Thank God, that’s the station up ahead, I can’t stay on this horse another minute. “Whoa! Good girl, Lightning. Steady.”

“Lemme get them reins for you, Lou. Lou? You all right?”

Why can’t I catch my breath? Please, don’t let me get sick in front of all of them, if I can just get to the bunkhouse. “Jimmy - -“

“Lou!”

The sun’s so bright. Everything’s so hot, so confusing. But Jimmy’s here … he’s holding me. He’ll take care of me…

“Jimmy, carry her into the bunkhouse. I’ll see to her.”

Rachel looks worried. “She’s burning up with fever, these clothes are soaked with sweat. You boys leave me with her, I’m going to get her changed. Get a bucket of ice and some water and cloths, an’ bring ‘em to the porch and leave ‘em. Now get!”

“Rachel, I’m sick.”

When Rachel smiles, she looks like Ma did sometimes, the same look in her eyes …

“I can see that, honey - what on earth? Honey, how long you had this rash?”

Just like Ma … she’s worried about me …

“Lou, stay with me. Where’d this rash come from? Lou?”

She’s getting up to go somewhere … the door. That light again, it’s blinding me …

“Get the doctor here right away.”

No - no doctors - I can’t let a doctor see me here - “Rachel, no.” My voice sounds strange, far away, weak…

“Lay down, honey. I’m sorry, I know you don’t want the doctor knowing your secret, but …”

“I don’t need a doctor. I won’t see him if you bring him here - I won’t.”

The sheet hurts, my skin feels like fire and sandpaper at the same time, but I don’t want a doctor, not now, not ever. It’s just a rash, a fever, it goes away in a few days, usually.

“Okay, honey, just … just go to sleep, then. We’ll talk about this when you wake up.”

No we won’t, Rachel. I won’t give away my secret by goin’ to the doctor, for something that’ll pass in a couple days . . .

~ * ~ * ~

I didn’t know anything could be as embarrassing as this doctor checking me … down there. Thank God that’s over and I can get dressed…

“Well, doc … what’s the matter with me?”

“Son, I’m gonna have to ask you a few questions first.”

“Okay.”

“You been to any whores lately, son? The truth now.”

“No! Of course not, I don’t -“

“That’ll do. How about any ladies who aren’t professionals?”

What’s he getting at, anyway? “Just one, a girl I was … with, last time was about a month ago.”

“No other women?”

“No, what’s this got to do with … with what I got?”

“Just, you need to talk to any women you been with, son. You’ve contracted syphilis from one of them.”

“That’s impossible.” Lou wouldn’t do that to me. She might not have loved me enough to marry me, but she wouldn’t keep something like that from me. She wouldn’t.

“I’m sorry, son, but that’s classic syphilis chancres you got there, and the other symptoms fit too. I’d say you contracted it within the last couple months. The young lady might not know she has it, so you should talk to her, let her know she shouldn’t … well, be with anybody else, understand? And that goes for you too.”

Syphilis. Even I know what that means. Sickness, insanity, death. Loving her did this to me. She did this to me.

“I’m sorry, son. But there are some treatments that can sometimes help, if you’re newly infected.”

“My first time with her was maybe two months ago. She’s the only one.”

“Well, it’s good you got to me early. You stand a chance, then. The standard treatment is mercury, applied right to the affected areas. Here’s an ointment containing that. And there’s some success being reported with the use of potassium iodide. I’ll give you that too.”

“Will this cure me, then?”

“I can’t promise that, son, and I can’t promise you won’t flare up again in the future. Those symptoms will go away on their own in a few days or weeks, either way. Then, even if you aren’t cured, you’ll go into a latent phase. That could last for a year, up to thirty or more years, before … “

Before. Before you get sicker, go crazy. Die.

“So I won’t know if I’m cured.”

“No, I’m afraid not. But coming in here when it’s still active, you got a shot. Just remember to tell the young lady, son. I know you’re probably angry, but if she contracted it recently she might respond to treatment too. And either way, she needs to know to keep this from happening again, to some other fella.”

The office seems a lot smaller now than it did when I came in here. My life is hanging on these two little bottles; and then, what kind of life will it be. I can’t be with any women, can’t have any children. God, my heart’s racing …

“Son, you have to take it easy. Just go home, use the treatment, and maybe things will work out.”

The sun’s bright and cheery overhead, folks are laughing outside. But my whole life just dwindled down to a “maybe.” The air’s fresh out here but I still can’t breathe right, don’t know if I ever will again.

~ * ~ * ~

Kid jumped down off Katie, wincing a little, and handed the reins to Ike willingly. "Thanks, Ike," he muttered, walking slowly toward the bunkhouse.

"You're walking a little stiff there, Kid. What happened, you take a fall?" Noah asked, curiously.

The others looked at each other mystified when Kid ignored Noah, and stomped up toward the bunkhouse.

"Kid, you okay?" Cody asked, from the porch step where he was whittling. "You look a little under the weather."

"I been better. When's Lou due back from her ride?"

"Any minute, why?"

"None of your business," Kid snapped, continuing on to the bunkhouse, where he flung himself down on the bunk.

"Guess he told me," Cody muttered.

"Well, it probably ain't your business why he wants to talk to Lou," Jimmy pointed out. He laid the bridle he was working on across the paddock fence, and dusted off his hands. "Thought the two of them had called it quits, wonder what he's got on his mind now."

"Somethin's dogging him, pretty hard," Noah said, a little worried. "Well, here she comes."

Lou dropped out of her saddle and handed her own reins to Ike. Her face looked tired and drawn, and her eyes were squinting painfully as they so often did in the sun. "Long ride," she said, her throat hoarse. "I'm turning in for a bit."

"Kid was looking for you, he's in there too. Looked like he had something on his mind," Noah warned her. "Seemed upset."

"What else is new," she mumbled, heading toward the bunkhouse, an irritable look on her face.

When she came in, she saw him lying on the bed, glaring openly at her, and shut the door with a slight thud. "I hear you're looking for me," she said. "What's the problem?"

Kid swung his legs over the side of his bunk and stood up, slowly, and walked up to her deliberately. Looking her over with contempt in his eyes, he jerked his head. "Just wanted to tell you to go see a doctor, if you haven't already."

"What are you talkin' about?"

"You don't know?"

"No, Kid, I don't know. For the second time, what are you talking about?"

"You were with somebody else, Lou. I know it."

She turned scarlet. "I don’t know what you’re talking about - or what business is it of yours now anyway."

"Oh, it's my business, because he gave you a little present, and you gave it to me."

Lou stared at him, completely baffled. "Present? I don't understand."

He stared at her, hard, for a moment, then dropped his gaze, realizing. "You didn't know," he muttered. "I'm sorry. I should have known you wouldn't ..."

"Wouldn't what?" Lou was frightened by his expression, and he took her by the shoulders and guided her to sit down in a chair. He was quiet a moment, frightening her even more, before he spoke, reluctantly.

"Lou, I have syphilis. The doctor in Blue Creek confirmed it. I haven't been with anybody else but you, ever. So that means you gave it to me."

"You're sick?" she answered stupidly.

"Yes, I have the symptoms, and ... and they're not very nice, either," Kid said heavily. "And the longer you have it, the worse it gets," he continued, unsteadily. "When do you think you might have caught it, Lou? Have you had any symptoms?"

“I . . . I heard of syphilis . . . but I don’t know what the symptoms are.”

“Guess you need to go to the doctor and find out.”

Her face lit up with shame and fear. “I can’t do that, Kid. I’d rather die than go to a doctor and tell him this,” she wept.

“That’s just foolish, Lou. The doctor in Blue Creek that I went to, he was a nice fella. I’ll take you there tonight, you gotta get this taken care of while there’s still time. And you have to tell . . . Jimmy, if he’s the one,” he finished lamely. “He probably doesn’t know either. Maybe he got it from that Sarah woman, or from one of Grace’s girls that time he was workin’ there.”

“I didn’t sleep with Jimmy,” she snapped angrily.

“Lou, can you spare us this? You got this from somebody, and you need to tell whoever it was, so he doesn’t make anybody else sick. But that’s up to you. Now get back on your horse, you’re going to Blue Creek to see the doctor.”

“I won’t go. I won’t let a man look at me or touch me - “

“You’re awful particular all of a sudden. You can lay down with two different men, but you can’t let a doctor look at you for five minutes?” he said, irritated. “Suit yourself, you made your bed, go ahead and lie it if you’ve a mind to.”

He opened the door and started out past the other boys, who looked up, surprised, as Lou stormed from the bunkhouse and followed him down the steps, grabbing at his arm and turning him toward her.

“I didn’t choose the other time. I was forced,” she shouted at him. At the comprehension and sadness that registered on his face, her anger ebbed, and the other boys discreetly melted away, leaving the two alone in front of the bunkhouse.

“He took everything from me,” she whispered, bitterly. “My childhood. Bein’ able to be a woman. Now my life. And . . . and your life, too.”

A chill went through him. He managed to raise his arms and put them around her. They were joined in a new way now, sharing more than their memories of first love. They shared a death sentence growing out of those seemingly precious moments.

So what was the point of blame, of anger? Those emotions he’d felt as he walked up the steps to confront her now were drifting away and resignation was settling in. They were both victims, and he’d had enough of life’s unfairness to know railing against it did no good. He sighed and reminded her, “You still got to go to the doctor. I’ll take you and stay in the room with you, if you’re afraid. I’ll . . . stand by you.”

~ * ~ * ~

The doctor visit was endured and survived. Neither of them had active symptoms now, but the doctor explained that this state of affairs could last weeks or years or decades, without reassurance that the disease was gone. And he advised Lou never to bear a child, since syphilis can be passed from mother to child.

They rode home silently, each lost in thought, the trip home even longer it seemed than the one to the doctor’s office. Kid wondered idly why that was.

As the corral loomed up ahead, Lou felt her heart tighten when she saw the new foals tottering along after their mothers.

Kid suddenly pulled at her reins, stopping Lightning in his tracks.

“Kid, we gotta get back to work,” she protested dully.

“Why?”

She glanced at him. “Because we still got jobs, remember?”

“So what.”

“Kid, you can’t just give up on life. You heard the doctor,” Lou tried to reason with him. “We may have years left, we got to go on living just the same as before.”

“That’s just what I’m not going to do,” Kid said insistently. “We may have years left, we may not. There may not be time for sitting around, wasting.”

Something strange was in his voice. Not despair. Realization, sudden insight, yes; but despair, no. Lou recognized the ring of epiphany in his tone, saw it in his eyes. “What are you getting at?” she asked, something like hope creeping into her own heart.

He took her hand in his, earnestly, like he always used to, and she smiled a little even through her troubles.

“I just realized, is all. Most folks don’t live each day like it might be their last, because they got themselves convinced they got all the time in the world. We just got hit upside the head with the same thing that’s true for everybody, but ‘specially us now. Life’s . . . well, life’s -“

“Short,” she finished glumly.

“Yeah. So we should grab it by the scruff of the neck and live it, every day, like it’s the last one we’ll ever wake up to.”

Unbidden tears filled her eyes, anger and discontent her heart. “There’s a lot of things we’ll never get to live now.” She looked over at the paddock again with a pain that felt like searing fire in her soul.

“I know,” he comforted. “And it isn’t fair. But it’s how it is. It don’t mean life’s not still worth living, if we just have the courage.”

She puckered her brow in that way that he’d always loved, and asked, dubiously, “What do you have in mind?”

He turned her horse around and pointed into the sunset, at the wide unknown.

“Let’s see the rest of it.”

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