It was 1938 and Walton's Mountain was in the grip of the harshest winter they'd seen in many a year – the snow lay thick against the cold, hard ground, layer upon layer of compressed snowflake and ice glistened in the pale light of each new dawn, and the residents awoke in every new morning to a fresh blanket of crisp, white snow, the previous days footprints reset by a carpet of freshly fallen fairy. Naked branches tremored in the icy breeze, and as the forest slept, wild flowers patiently bided their time until spring arrived – at such a time when they would flower again. The youngest members of the Walton family were all still safely tucked up warm in bed. John and Zeb, already washed and dressed for the day, were outside setting up the mill for the hard day's work ahead of them, and Olivia and Ester were busy making breakfast, ready for when the six hungry children finally emerged. Warm smells drifted throughout the family home – delicious smells of bread baking, porridge – thick and milky – being stirred on the stove, and of pine being worked and sanded in the saw mill.
Mary Ellen had been living with Curt now for just over a year, and their first months living together had been good. John Boy had moved his bed into the shed to be closer to his work with the printing press – where he could work until late into the evening undisturbed, and rise early without disturbing the rest of the family – and so the house was now quitter than it had once been in yesteryear but still as rich with love as it had always been.
Olivia smiled as she watched her eldest son enter through the front door – and Ester started to lay the table for breakfast. John and Zebulon weren't too far behind and the children quickly followed as the smell of cooking drifted upstairs and quickly permeated throughout the four small bedrooms. For half an hour every morning the Walton kitchen was a hive of activity; joyous laughter and the petty squabbles over bowls of porridge, sugar and milk which family breakfasts are ultimately all about, and with give rise to further screams of laughter, as the bread was buttered, the milk was poured and this simple but ample spread set the family up for the day.
Like every other family in the county this was the Walton's regular morning routine, even in the absence of a loved one nothing about it had ever really changed – and nothing should have been any different about it on this particular morning.
On this day however Olivia couldn't help but notice that whilst the rest of her family were busy tucking into porridge and thick slabs of bread smothered with butter and sweet jam, there was one member who seemed unusually quiet – John Boy wasn't eating. He shifted his slice of bread awkwardly from one slice of his plate to the other, nibbling only around the edges of the golden brown crust and rubbing the stray smears of jam from the saucer with his finger. He coughed a little and as he did Olivia noticed her son's complexion – slightly paler than usual. She frowned.
"John Boy, are you alright?" She asked. "You're looking a little peaky."
"Oh, I'm fine momma." He did his best to reassure her. "I'm just not very hungry that's all."
But Olivia could always tell when there was something wrong with one of her family.
"Are you sure?" She reached out a gentle hand to feel her son's forehead, palm outstretched as she brushed back his fringe, and felt the heat radiating from the flesh beneath. "You're very warm." She observed.
"I'm sure momma." He sipped at his cold goat's milk slowly and smiled at her as she felt his flushed cheeks with the back of her hand. "It's just a slight cold that's all."
He took a final, pacifying bite of bread, chewing it reluctantly before turning to look at Ben, who was already on his second bowl of porridge and third slice of bread and butter. John Boy swallowed hard.
"Ben," He asked, "I've got a lot of work to do with the printing press today, do you think you'd mind helping me when you get home from school?"
"Sure thing John Boy." His younger brother smiled as he wiped his mouth and sticky fingers on his napkin, before jumping up from the table and rallying the rest of his younger brothers and sisters who were all still hungrily tucking into what was left of the bread and the jam, having already polished off the remainder of the porridge. "Which reminds me, we'd better get a move on, else we'll be late. Come on you lot."
"John Boy." Olivia called after him as he got up to follow his five siblings from the table, still coughing slightly and rubbing his chest and the back of his stiff neck with a clammy palm. He turned back to look at his mother as she spoke and smiled meekly.
"Yes momma?" He asked.
"I don't want you sleeping in that shed in this weather," She expressed anxiously, "especially with that cold. I'll make Mary Ellen's bed up in your room for you."
"And I'll pop over to Ike's and get you some menthol to rub on your chest." Grandma added. "You can never be too careful, especially with this time of year."
"Oh, there's no need to go to any trouble." John Boy faltered, looking from his mother to his grandmother reassuringly with a slight shake of his head, and rubbing at his temples with an uncomfortable grimace. "I'm alright, it's just a cold."
His throat was dry and sore, his head throbbed, and his chest ached – the cold milk had made the back of his throat sting, and the fresh bread in his stomach and the smells of baking and the delicious food which would normally have made his mouth water, and left him ravenous with hunger for his mother's wholesome home cooked meals, had left his stomach churning and him feeling slightly nauseous on this particular morning – but still he didn't want to worry his family unnecessarily.
Instead he painted on a smile, forced himself to think of the day's work ahead, and did his best to brush off the way he was feeling – it was after all the season of sickness, he wasn't the first person to get a cold in winter, and he certainly wouldn't be the last.
In the meantime he had a lot of work to do, and he certainly couldn't afford to take a day off from the paper, no matter how cold it might be outside, and what anybody might say.