By the time Joe pulled his mules to the door to unload his wagon, it was sleeting. His life had never looked more hopeless as he brushed the icy hay from the tattered quilt covering the children’s burning faces. Though it was unchristian, he’d half-hoped to find them already dead from the fever, solving the problem of their care.
He struggled to get them into the cold cabin where he heard the scurrying of a rat. “Damn it all. I got to bring the barn cat in.”
Laying them gently on his bed and covering them, he was able to rouse each enough to get a bit of water down. Setting the cup to the side, he moved on to the fireplace to uncover the banked ashes, put a stick or two next to the backlog, rekindling the fire. At least they wouldn’t die of thirst of cold. It angered him to feel pity for them. That’s all he could do for them for the moment.
He hurried in with the provisions, the pathetic mercy the town had shown, leaving to get his horses tended, milk the cow and tend the stock. Finishing his tasks, he miserably returned to the burden of the sick children fate had forced upon him. Upon entering the cabin, the sight meeting his eyes nearly undid him. A filthy, battered woman dressed in rags studied the little girl. God in Heaven! Would this nightmare never end? Had he buried the woman alive and now she’d scratched out of her grave?
Mutely, the woman clutched the child to her bosom protectively as though she thought he might put the two of them back in the grave.
“Oh my God. I thought you were dead!” This did nothing to set her at her ease. Shamed, he turned his back mumbling. “Poor wretch. What she must be thinking?” Shame at having buried her, then trying to get rid of her sick children shamed him, bringing him lower than he’d ever been before. I don’t know why I didn’t leave it alone when it was good enough. He fled from the cabin and made his way to the barn, tossed some hay on a saddle blanket settled in to try to get some sleep. Jack, his dog, and the barn cats settled in next to him, glad of the unexpected company. He lay awake a long time, thinking of the girl who’d made him want a wife in the first place.