"Through here," the doctor announced, marching into the bedroom. "Open those curtains, man – I need some light in here!"
The room seemed to echo to the tearing noises coming from Joe's throat. As daylight flooded in, Ben had to stifle an exclamation of horror. His son was struggling for every breath, his chest heaving with the effort of dragging sufficient air into his lungs. Fever raged through Joe's body, which was searing hot to the touch and his hair was damp and unkempt with sweat.
"I'm here, Joe. Pa's here. You're going to be fine." Despite his brave words, Ben gave the doctor an imploring look as he began his examination. Joe looked so young and vulnerable, so thin and frail that it scarcely seemed possible his body could withstand this onslaught.
"Get some water boiling – we need to help his breathing," David Maris said in a low voice. "We've got a fight on our hands here."
"Joe knows how to fight." Adam stood in the doorway, his arms folded across his chest and an implacable expression on his face. "You just tell us what you need, Doctor."
"He's a stubborn little cuss," Hoss added fondly, stroking Joe's hair with a gentle hand. "Never got the hang of turning down a challenge."
"Never does things in moderation either," Adam said in a gruff voice. He took hold of Joe's hand and winced. "That's one heck of a fever he's got going there."
"Then we'd better get to work," David informed him, taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. His patient's heart and pulse were far too fast for comfort and the first priority was to try to reduce that fever and alleviate his breathing difficulties. Stella directed Hoss to the well, where he hauled up buckets of icy cold-water and steeped cloths in them, while Ben eased Joe up into a sitting position, in a desperate attempt to help his breathing. David added menthol crystals to a bowl of boiling water and hoped that the cleansing steam would open up Joe's bronchial passages.
"He really is very ill, you know," he said in an undertone to Ben, not wishing to give any false hope to the man.
"I know." With a tender gesture, Ben stroked back Joe's hair, and briefly hugged his son to is chest, trying vainly to impart a little of his own strength into his son. "Don't give up on him, though. Let him fight."
David regarded the older man gravely. "I'll do everything I can," he assured him. "But it's up to Joe."
"I know." Ben relaxed against the headboard of the bed, still propping Joe up over the aromatic bowl. He smiled up at the doctor. "Don't let appearances deceive you. In many ways, Joe is the strongest man I know. As the youngest of three boys, he has constantly fought to assert his place in family life and he's earned himself a reputation as the best bronco-buster this side of the Sierras."
David looked at the ridges of muscle that delineated Joe's abdomen and patted Ben on the shoulder. "You've got a fine boy there, Mr Cartwright."
Still, the elevated heart rate and frenetic pulse continued to worry him, even as Joe's breathing gradually relaxed and he stopped coughing up bloodstained mucus. There was a limit to the endurance of the body and David feared that Joe was reaching that point. There were only two remedies left at his disposal: the drastic treatment of cupping, or the less invasive but equally traumatic method of applying tincture of camphor in a fomentation. Weighing up the risks, David decided to try the camphor first of all.
Joe drew in his deep draught of air as the camphor plaster was applied directly over his heart. For an agonising period, he did not seem to breath at all, and then he exhaled with force and drew another gulp of air back down into his lungs. His face briefly suffused with colour as the treatment started to work and David began to feel slightly more positive. But the improvement was short-lived.
Ben looked down at Joe, lying prone in his arms and wondered how much more he could ask of him. Were these brief hours enough? How much longer could he ask his son to wage this battle? How could a father ever gather up the strength and courage to give his son permission to die?
The fear stood out starkly on his face. "I don't want him to suffer any more." It was just past midnight, the very dead of the night and the chill winds that blew in through the cracks in the windowpanes sent a shiver up his spine. "Perhaps we should let him go." He looked up to Adam and Hoss for confirmation and was startled to see the expressions of their faces.
"Give him a chance," Adam pleaded, remembering the frail baby of over twenty years ago, who had grown into such a vibrant young man. He had lost Joe once and could not begin to contemplate losing him again. There were some things in life that were worth fighting for and Adam was resolved to see this engagement through to the conclusion.
"Joe's surprised us just about every day he's been on this earth," Hoss added. He sat down beside Ben and gently pulled Joe's unresisting body into his arms. "Don't give up on him Pa, please?"
David looked at the family and decided to try one last remedy. Cupping had fallen out favour amongst the medical profession, but it was the last weapon left at this disposal. There was something about Joe that struck him as desperately gallant, and David resolved to do everything in his power to help the young man win his fight.
Stella produced a metal cup, and watched as David poured a measure of pure alcohol into it.
"Hold onto him," he warned, and Adam positioned himself across Joe's legs, while Hoss and Ben stationed themselves on either side of his limp body, leaning him forward, so that his back was exposed.
"First do no harm." The words of Hippocrates rang clearly in David's head as he struck a Lucifer and applied the flame to the liquid, which bust into fire. Quickly inverting the beaker, he clamped it to the upper lobe of Joe's left lung and tried to block out the agonised roar of pain.
Joe surged upwards with a strength and ferocity that took everyone by surprise. David struggled to hold the burning hot cup in place as the young man fought valiantly against the burning torture. With a gasp of pure agony, Joe let himself lapse into unconsciousness.
David removed the cup and gazed soulfully at the large blister that was forming. "Once again," he stated bleakly, and poured another measure of alcohol into the cup. This time he applied it to the right lung. The results were disconcertingly familiar. Adam had never known a man to scream in agony, even while he was unconscious, but Joe's suffering seared its way into his very being. Once the blisters were lanced, David dressed them and lay Joe gently back down onto the mattress.
"He's a brave boy. You should be very proud of him." He had done everything in his power, used every ounce of his knowledge and skill, and yet was it enough? David walked into the refreshing night air and let the sea breeze wash over him, just wishing it could absolve the feelings of remorse.
Stella sat by the stove in the kitchen, rocking slowly back and forth, marvelling at the events of the previous days. Joe had given her back her life, she was free at last, but at what cost? Was it worth it? Her tears dripped down unbidden, hot and salty, merging with the sea air, splattering off the flagstones at her feet.
"You boys get some rest," Ben commanded, in tones that left no room for manoeuvre. "I'll wake you if I need you."
Two wan faces nodded at him, tacitly acknowledging the deeper meaning. Hollow footsteps rung out across the stone floor, hesitating for an instant as they craved one last glimpse.
"Sweet dreams, Joe."
The door closed and Ben was left alone with his son. Deeply unconscious, lost in another world where pain could not touch him, the lines of pain were erased from Joe's face. Ben pulled a chair close to the bedside and settled down to a lonely vigil.
"Papa?" A pure treble voice, sweet and clear, with all the innocence of untouched youth. "Where's Mama gone?"
"She's in heaven now, with God and Jesus. They're looking after her."
A puzzled look spread across his son's face. "Doesn't she miss me?"
"She misses you very much, Joe. As much as you miss her."
The little boy considered this carefully. "Will I see her again, Papa?" Joe climbed into his father's lap, snuggled in closely and slipped his thumb into his mouth.
"One day, Joe, one day. You'll see Mama in heaven." Ben savoured the closeness, the unquestioning love given so whole-heartedly.
Joe reached up and kissed his father. "Don't worry, Papa. I won't ever leave you. I promise."
How do you ever learn to say goodbye? How can you learn to walk down a road that takes you away from all you hold dear and never once look back?
Ben struggled against the irony of having recovered his son, only to let him go again. He had done all that he could, even down to sparing his two older sons the agony of seeing their brother die. His bitterness was fresh and green, blooming unbidden, watered by his tears and fed by his unrepentant sorrow. There was no worse situation, he was pitched past grief and could only sit by his son's bedside, watching and waiting and praying.
"Pa? Are you asleep?"
"I'm here Joe. I'm right here." How could he sleep when his son needed him?
Joe turned his face towards the east window, where the faint early light of a summer dawn cast a warm glow upon his face. "I knew you'd come. I knew you wouldn't leave me."
Ben placed a tentative hand upon Joe's chest: the fever was gone; he was no longer struggling for breath and his heart felt slow and sure. "You rest, Joe. I'll be here when you wake up."
Joy had come with the morning. A new day brought with itself new hope and a continued reason to keep living.
High on the cliffs west of Crescent City, a sight was soon designated for a new lighthouse, a beacon to guide the unwary away from the treacherous rocks of St George's Reef. Ben Cartwright made a handsome donation to the fund, but all the family felt they had to make another more personal contribution. Adam came up with the perfect solution: a cairn, overlooking the Dragon's Teeth rocks, where the Brother Jonathan lay in pieces on the bottom of the ocean. The families of the survivors were each invited to place a stone, in eternal memory of their loved ones, imbuing the base rocks with love, repentance and hope. It gave them a memorial, a place to grieve, somewhere to say goodbye.
Long afterwards, when most people had forgotten the tragedy, Stella would still walk out each week to the cairn and remember the events of that eventful July. Deep within the heart of the cairn, Joe had placed a piece of paper, echoing the prayer he had said while drifting helplessly at sea. On her visits, Stella would repeat the words: "Oh Star of the Sea, help me… succour me in this my necessity."
Life was very different now, so much sweeter, but the memories had a poignant undertone too. As the winds whipped her hair, and pressed her skirts close around her legs, Stella let her thought run back to those turbulent days, knowing that a part of her soul lay buried within the rocks of the cairn. Smiling at the memories, she linked her arm into her husband's and let David guide her back home. Above all, only three things were really important in life: faith, hope and charity. Stella had experienced all three and treasured each one.
Note: The steamship Brother Jonathan sank on 30 August 1865. Only seventeen souls were saved, while over 200 people died. It remains the United States of America's worst peace-time maritime disaster and is commemorated by a memorial park in Crescent City.
In 1993, the wreck was located and over $500,000 in bullion, gold and silver coins recovered.