5. A lot of people came and sat by Cochran's bed in that last week, but he was so befogged with fevers he could not be sure which conversations were true and which were delirium. Once he thought Al stood over him, cursing as if he could rule Cochran's lungs as he did the camp, clearing them of the rot by sheer force of will, or dint of sound. Another time it seemed to him he tried to push Trixie and Jewel from his side, railing at them for risking contagion; and that Trixie's face first hardened and then filled with understanding, and she took Jewel in her arms and with effort pulled her away.
They must not have left altogether, though, for cups were from time to time brought to his lips and wet cloths to his temples; and when he was aware enough to notice his bedding, it was not so soiled as the sheets of a man dying alone ought to be. Sol would sit beside Trixie at times, holding her hand. He was glad to see that. He woke once to find the sheriff watching him stolidly, something burning in his gaze as if, like Al, he wished he could take on the disease by physical force, and he almost smiled at the sight.
Merrick was a frequent visitor, sneezing and tearful, yet jotting down notes.
"You're not writing me up," Doc whispered to the newspaperman, who blew his nose on a rather florid handkerchief.
"Whether you like it or not," he said gently, "as the only doctor in camp, your illness is news, important news."
"You mean my death," snapped Cochran, with an effort that cost him two full minutes of coughing; but he had to admit the man was not wrong. He was still gasping for breath when he felt a hand grasp his. Trying to push him back, he opened his eyes to see Merrick, handkerchief to mouth but keeping a firm grip on his fingers.
"I know you're concerned about contagion, doctor, but I would take some small risk at least, to shake your hand." Though his voice was muffled by the handkerchief, the quaver in it was audible, and Doc's resolve weakened enough to squeeze his hand briefly, before he let go and gestured the other man away.
In the end, when the final agony came, Mose Manuel was the one in the room, his bulk supported by two chairs drawn up to the bed. His moon face had been looming at the window for a few days - ashamed or afraid to come in until it was plain the last chance was at hand. It had been... a day? two days? - he was no longer sure - since Cochran had been able to speak. He'd been dozing, occasionally waking to cough, but flat on his back as he was, his sunken chest was scarcely able to draw a little air to his clogged lungs. Scrabbling frantically at Mose's arm he sought to pull himself upright; and his visitor seemed to understand, for he slid a massive hand beneath Cochran's shoulders and lifted him to a sitting position, keeping his arm around him for support.
Propped up thus, the breaths came a little easier; and there was a dull kind of comfort in resting against the fat man's chest like an infant held by its nurse.
If only the behemoth wouldn't sob so:
"Why're folks always dyin' that ain't deservin' of it?"
Doc would have given all his remaining minutes of life to have his voice back for ten seconds. It's all right, Mose. Dying isn't something you only get one run at. But the words were a hoarse unintelligible rattle when he tried to utter them, and their only effect was to make Mose clutch him tighter to his bosom.
A part of Cochran rustled with dry laughter at the realization that his last sight in this world was to be Mose's doughy face tilted over him and twitching with grief.
Then that thought, too, faded, and something deeper than sleep took him.