Though he considered himself unfit for human company, Jack and the barn cats didn’t concur and worked their way in next to Joe, slipping into the snug cocoon of the hay-covered saddle blanket and his heavy barn jacket. The breathing and occasional stamping of the milk cow and the horses in their stalls eased him. This bit of his life was unmarred. Comforted by the company of the beasts, he slipped into exhausted sleep. Upon awakening to Ol’ Sal and her kittens purring, his spirits rose and he felt better about himself. He lay in his nest enjoying their company till he turned to settle back in for a few more minutes. Reaching up to feel slime in his hair, he found Ol’ Sal had rewarded him with the gift of a dead rat. He sprang up, flinging the nasty rat, startling Jack and set the kittens to every way, his reverie ended.
He dawdled as long as possible over the milking, spraying milk into the mouths of the dancing cats. Rosie’s waiting calf lunged at her when he released them in to the feedlot. When the little heifer had gorged on her mother’s milk, Joe separated them, letting the cow out to graze. Rosie ambled off without a care, leaving Baby Blossom bawling behind her. She’d be back lowing to be milked before sundown. Joe chuckled thinking he must have looked a fool getting rid of that rat. Tossing a clean towel over the milk, he passed out some hay and grain to the horses and opened the barn door to the corral, making sure the water troughs were full. After tossing a few ears of corn and watering the hogs, he could no longer delay going back into the cabin. If the kids had lived through the night, they’d need feeding, too. If the sick woman couldn’t nurse the baby, he’d have to feed her using the bottle and some of that canned milk the town had provided before booting them all out of town. The light was just breaking in the East on a cold, clear, windy West Texas day when he headed toward the house.
The fire was no more than embers. The small cabin reeked of urine, excrement, and fever. He dreaded looking, but saw the boy lying to one side of the woman who’d turned to face the wall. The child’s rapid breathing was shallow, snot crusted around his nostrils, his cheeks flaming pink. There was no doubt about the scarlet fever. He’d come uncovered and must have been near frozen in his sodden clothes. Joe hastily covered him and turned to make up the fire before investigating further. He’d have to get some food into the child and get him into a clean, warm bed to have any hope of saving the him. He took care not to disturb the others as he heated water and looked for something to serve as clean bedding and clothes should the woman and girl be alive. Living alone, he’d never bothered with the niceties of bed-linens, settling for a simple straw-filled tick and a couple of quilts. From the fetid smell, it was clear this one would have to be boiled and re-stuffed. While the water heated, he brought a load of hay from the barn, along with his old barn coat and a couple of the cleaner burlap bags. He pulled a couple of ancient quilts from a shelf, not even wondering what hand might have made them. He’d often thought of tossing the ragged bedding, but was glad now his housekeeping had been lax.
In readiness for the tasks ahead of him, he opened the parcels, finding a baby bottle, four flannel gowns, a few cans of peaches, some crackers, two bars of soap, in addition to several cans of peaches, canned milk, a bottle of Dr. Marvel’s Wonder Tonic, two rough towels, and the bolt of flannel. In a moment of tenderness, someone had added a couple of peppermint sticks. He warmed a pain of milk, poured some water into a wash pan, and laid out the towels and soap. He tore off a few strips of flannel to use for diapers. For now, that would have to do.