March 4, 1848. My whole world has ended. How I shall bear up, God alone knows. Mama, Papa, Toby—all gone with the fever. My only hope is that I shall be next. Oh, glorious childhood, over. How shall I fill this void when my heart lies broken?
Thud . . . thud . . . thud. The dirt clods rebounding off three fresh graves claimed the attention of a young woman as she fought the wind whipping her skirts into a sodden mass. Each bite of the shovel resonated in the pain pounding her eyes; each hollow thud shamed the wind howling overhead. Beneath the naked branches of a giant elm, a pair of burly Irish gravediggers eyed her uncertainly then doffed their caps and waited, arms pressed against the hickory handles of their shovels.
The wind carried a muffled shout. “Mary, come on.”
Her cousin Philip waited impatiently, his hands struggling to hold her mare as it struggled against its traces. When crashing thunder followed a second later, the mare reared; its eyes wild and fear-crazed. In a stupor, Mary Rodgers watched Philip wrap his silk scarf around the horse’s eyes and murmur in its ear, calming it. A fat raindrop fell on her outstretched hand and she walked blindly toward the horse and buggy, her skirts twisting in the gathering wind
“Mary, there’s nothing you can do for them now. They’re gone. Let the men finish.” Philip reached to support her, tenderness belying his harsh words.
Mary peered over her shoulder at the gravediggers and focused her tear-swollen eyes on her cousin. “Oh, Philip, I’ve been so selfish. I didn’t think. They’ll get soaked and it’ll be my fault.” It was hard to know whose soaking she cried for: her mother’s, her father’s, Toby’s or the men’s.
Silence rode between them like an uninvited visitor. When Philip pulled into a circular drive and leaped from the buggy, Mary saw the two-story clapboard house as though for the first time: gingerbread trim framing lace-curtained windows and an ornate brass knocker that her mother had carried from Philadelphia as a bride. Each fixture seemed strangely new, detached from the family who had once claimed it.
“We should have left a lamp burning,” she said.
“Maybe the woodstove will still have embers.”
She followed Philip inside and turned when she heard a raspy nickering behind her. Her mare was still hitched to her father’s surrey, rain matting its mane while mud ran down its forelocks. When she could speak, her voice seemed little more than a croak. “Philip—the buggy.”
Philip had already found a hook for his rumpled overcoat and was bent over, removing his overshoes. He tried to mask his chagrin with a cough. “Sorry, I forgot.”
Forgot? Anger seared her insides. Maybe he could forget, but this day would be etched into her memory forever.
“Never mind,” she called over her shoulder. “I’m already soaked.”
She returned to the yard, glad for the chilblains in her sodden toes that matched the numbness in her brain. She jerked the reins and started toward the barn where pickets of the old fence were barely visible in the fading light. She saw her father’s cattle standing in a tight huddle against the driving rain. She made out the forms of the huge oxen that Philip had unyoked from his wagon a few days earlier. Thank God he had stopped to say good-bye on his way west. If it weren’t for his help she might have worked herself into her own grave by now.
“Poor beasties,” she crooned “You’re so eager to start for the Oregon Country. Probably no more so than Philip. I know he thinks his westering journey is a distant dream now, but we’ll have to think of something. Soon.” Dropping a bucket of oats into the feeding bin for the horse, she closed her eyes and relived the events of the past five days.
Her brother Toby had spotted the Conestoga wagon hidden in the thicket alongside the lane and had came bouncing in with mud all over his boots, full of fifteen-year-old zeal over the new friend he’d met. Her mother had gone over the next morning with preserved peaches and a ham, wanting to find out about the family who seemed to have neither childbirth nor slippery roads to justify their camping alongside the public road. Indeed, as Ruthie Rodgers reported to her husband Henry that night, she was fearful they might be hiding a case of illness. But even knowing the situation, she persisted in aiding the strangers, as one after another, they succumbed to the influenza they had brought with them. The townspeople were already wary and worn from their own illnesses and they spared little sympathy for the outsiders. After the last member of the little family died and was hastily interred in the cemetery, Toby and Henry saw to the burning of the wagon and all its contents. They led the mules into a nearby river, scrubbed them, and took them to auction to repay the township for the costs of burial.
“Just like that, an entire family wiped from the face of the earth,” Mary muttered aloud to her horse, nose-deep in the oat crib. “But they deserved what they got for the misery they caused us.”
Three days later the first signs of sickness showed up in their own farmhouse. First Toby then her mother came down with the nausea, chills and racking fever that sent Mary begging for help. When none arrived, she donned the cotton gloves she used to prune the roses, wrapped her father’s clean handkerchief around her face and set to doing what she could. She wanted to put her mother and Toby in one room so she could better care for them, but her father was adamant; he slept each night beside his Ruthie, cradling her in his arms until he caught the sickness as well.