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Smallpox (Short Story No. 27)
These short stories will be part of the sequel to my novel The Lady Who Loved Bones. Any suggestions for improvement or for future stories are welcome.
Black Wolf chose not to enter Helena. He was apprehensive about the possible reaction of the citizens, thinking that shots likely would be fired at first sight of his Arapaho. Instead, he sent Bent Feather to find Sheriff Baxter and his group that included the two Pinkerton agents, Helen James and Bob Wells, Robert Barnes, editor of the Helena Herald, the snake charmer Princess Takuhatahime, a giant snake named Beezelbub, and several others.
It didn’t take Bent Feather long to find them and he led the group back to Black Wolf’s camp. Upon arriving, Hannah and Sweet Water warmly embraced Sheriff Baxter, also known as Shorty. “We have history,” Shorty said. “Hannah, in our last conversation, just before you boarded the Victoria, you said you would miss me. That’s not a banana in my pocket. I’m happy to see you.”
Hannah slapped Shorty and muttered, “Same old, same old.”
Sweet Water whispered, “Me no believe that Shorty is sheriff.”
“It’s true,” Shorty responded, “and being sheriff has its benefits. He smirked at Princess Takuhatahime and she smiled back. “How are you, Sweet Water?” he inquired. “I remember the time you embarrassed me by getting the jump on me and taking my gun and tying me up. I’d like to jump you in return.” Princess Takuhatahime gave him a look to kill.
“I’m not doing all that good,” Sweet Water responded. “I’ve been feeling poorly for a few days. Fever, headaches, pain all over, vomiting and sick to my stomach.”
Shorty looked Sweet Water over closely, or as close as he could get without worrying about her cutting off his head like she did to the outlaw Johnny Blackfoot. Shorty observed, “You have a rash on your face, hands, and feet.”
“How long have you had the rashes?” Hannah inquired. “I just noticed them.”
Sweet Water replied, “I must have just gotten them, I guess. Nobody noticed them before.”
Black Wolf now looked concerned. “Yup,” Shorty said solemnly, “it could be smallpox. That’s how it starts. We need a doctor to take a look at her.”
Bob Wells offered, “I’ll ride into Helena and fetch Doc Eberlin.” The others nodded in agreement.
A couple hours later Wells returned with Doc Eberlin, and he quickly confirmed everyone’s worst fears.”
“What can you do for her?” Shorty asked.
“Dunno,” Doc Eberlin replied. “It takes about a month after the initial infection, which is caused by a person with the variola major virus coughing on you or from contaminated clothing or bedding, for the disease to run its course. The patient either dies or survives and is left with deep scars or pockmarks on the face and body. The rashes Sweet Water has will likely spread across her whole body and get larger, becoming pustular lesions. The lesions that look like blisters itch until they scab, dry up, and fall off.”
“Smallpox is called ‘rotting face’ by some,” Shorty noted. “It would be a shame if Sweet Water’s beautiful face is scarred.”
“I would rather die,” Sweet Water said softly.
“What can you do for her, Doc?” Hannah asked.
Doc Eberlin responded, “I have brought with me some medicine that can possibly prevent or modify the severity of smallpox. I will administer it to Sweet Water. Everyone else here should get it also. The virus could have been spread to any of you by being coughed on or by contaminated clothing or bedding.”
Pinkerton agent Helen James added, “I’ve also done research on smallpox, at a hospital in Chicago while I was there attending the Pinkerton Detective School. Did you know that in 1562 Queen Elizabeth of England, 29 years old at the time, survived a smallpox attack, but it left her bald with permanent very bad facial scars? Queen Mary II of England died from smallpox at the age of 32 years.”
“What was the treatment for smallpox back in those days?” Bob Wells asked.
Doc Eberlin responded, “Thomas Sydenham, a well-known 17th century physician, prescribed bloodletting, induction of vomiting, and administration of enemas in order to keep the inflammation of the blood within due bounds. Edward Jenner, who died in 1823, seduced a milkmaid who had blisters from cowpox, which after experimentation inspired him to write Inquiry into the Variolae vaccinae known as the Cow Pox.”
“I heared that people started growing cow parts after being injected with that cowpox stuff,” Shorty suggested.
Black Wolf said bitterly, “The white man intentionally gave us this disease. The U. S. Army intentionally sent contaminated blankets to my people the Arapaho, and to the Lakota, and to the Cheyenne, and to the Crow, and to the others. The white man sent the smallpox up the Missouri River on steamboat.”
After some of those present reacted skeptically, Robert Barnes agreed. “That’s true. I’ve done a lot of research on the matter. In the spring of 1837, an American Fur Company steamboat, the St. Peter’s, carried infected people and cargo to Indians along the Missouri River. The steamboat was travelling from St. Louis to Fort Union. At Fort Clark, smallpox was detected. Several deck hands died. They allegedly had interacted in a sexual manner with Indian women along the way. An American Fur Company clerk showed visible signs of the disease. A doctor at Fort Union performed inoculations. Pus from the clerk’s skin eruptions were used to inoculate around three dozen Indians. Unfortunately, most of them died after suffering severely. So many died that at Fort Union, the stench could be smelt at a distance of several hundred yards, and bodies were buried in large pits or tossed into the river.”
Doc Eberlin was about to inject Sweet Water with a needle when Black Wolf vehemently protested. “No! I do not want my daughter to be stuck with that needle with your white man’s medicine. Or my braves. Go find High Eagle and the winyanktehca!” he roared at Bent Feather.
“Who is High Eagle and what is this winyanktehca?” a confused Shorty asked.
“High Eagle is Ogala medicine man,” Sweet Water answered. “The winkte is two-souled person.” Sweet Water pulled Shorty close and whispered in his ear.
“Oh!” Shorty exclaimed, “like our Pinkerton agent Miss Helen, also known as Pinky.”