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Authors: Victoria McKernan

The Devil's Paintbox (9 page)

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
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“Thanks, Doc,” Aiden said. “That was real nice.”

Carlos felt the coat pockets.

“Where's my medicine?”

Aiden said, “It's not there. It's not your own coat, Doc.”

“I need my medicine.”

“Hold on, I'll find it for you.”

“Joby?” Maddy nudged the sleeping man. “Joby—wake up. The piano's busted and Doc has a chill. I think you need to see to him.”

People were gathering their children and blankets and starting toward their wagons. Clouds drifted over the moon
and the fire burned low. Joby sat up and swiped his hand sleepily across his face.

“Huh—what's wrong?”

“The piano broke,” Maddy said. “And Doc Carlos took a chill.”

Joby clambered to his feet.

“Joby? Where's my medicine?”

“Take him home,” Maddy said. “There's embers enough for a kettle here; I'll bring you some tea.”

“Come on, Doc,” Joby said gently. “The medicine's in the cart. Come on, I'll get it for you.” He swooped one long arm around Doc Carlos and easily lifted him off the bench.

arlos and Joby had camped away from the others, as they usually did. The little cart looked especially lonely tonight. As Maddy approached, she could see that something was terribly wrong, even in the dim yellow glow of her lantern. Doc Carlos lay on the ground, his whole body twitching like some wounded animal.

“Miss Maddy, please help!” Joby cried.

Maddy heard violent retching sounds and ran over.

“Push him over, Joby, on his side.” She knelt down, took Carlos's head in her hands and held it so he wouldn't choke. His shoulders convulsed and his stomach heaved, but nothing came out except some thin spittle.

“It's the poison,” Joby said. He looked about to cry. Carlos flung out one arm and tried to push Maddy away.

“Hush, it's all right,” Maddy said softly. Carlos's hair was soaked with sweat, his skin cold and clammy.

“Go away,” he gasped.

“Miss Maddy brought you some tea, Doc,” Joby said, pulling him up.

“I don't want tea,” Carlos mumbled. He leaned back against the cart wheel and shut his eyes. Joby clumsily tried to pull a blanket up around his shoulders.

“There's no more medicine,” Joby said. “I been putting water in the jug, like Doc said to. But he just took more and
more of it. Then he came back just now and finished all of it up. You think he's got poisoned?”

“Doc Carlos—are you poisoned?” Maddy shook his shoulder. “Joby, will you go fetch Mrs. True? The reverend's wife?”

“No,” Carlos said weakly. “I'm not poisoned. Don't fetch anybody.” He wiped his mouth on the edge of the blanket. “I'm fine. I'm not going to die.” He was shaking like a man just pulled from under the ice. Joby looked at Maddy his eyes wide with fear.

“Do you have any sugar or honey?” she asked.

“Yes, I think—somewhere.” Joby looked vaguely at the cart.

“Think, Joby. Which box is it in?”

He seemed panicked and about to cry. “I wasn't always stupid this way.”

“I know.” Maddy patted his hand. “I mean, you're not stupid.”

“Maddy?” Aiden's shadow appeared at the edge of the dim lamplight.

“I'm here.” Maddy stood up.

“Is everything all right?”

“Doc Carlos has a fever is all.” She came over to his side. “I'm just going to sit with him and Joby awhile.”

“Okay” Aiden said. “Can I do something?”

“Can you go ask Mrs. True for some sugar, please?” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Tell her it's for the doc, who's feeling poorly. Say that his medicine is gone and ask what else she suggests for the way he is.” She gave him a look and Aiden thought for a second that she wasn't his little sister anymore, but a grown woman with knowing and secrets.

“And Doc took a chill,” she added. “It would be awfully nice to have a little fire over here. There is some wood still, isn't there?”

“I'll clear a place,” Joby said eagerly. He got a shovel and quickly chopped away a patch in the grass. Aiden came back a few minutes later with a shovelful of embers and the last bits of broken furniture. Marguerite came with him. She stood in the shadows and beckoned Maddy They whispered together as Joby and Aiden built a small fire.

“Is he very ill?” Marguerite asked.

“I don't know. He says he won't die.”

They could see Carlos gripping a spoke of a cart wheel like a drowning man holding on to a rope.

“Go back to our wagon, Maddy. I can stay with him.”

“No, he's mad already that I'm here. Doesn't want anyone near but Joby, only Joby's afraid to be all alone with him. He ran out of the medicine. What should I do?”

“It isn't your charge to tend him.”

“He tended Aiden when he was sick,” Maddy replied. “And Joby's been a friend to us.”

“Very well, then.” Marguerite handed her a paper cone of sugar, then took off her cloak and put it around Maddy's shoulders, for the night was getting cool. “The shaking and retching will come and go,” she whispered. “But it will be his mind that needs comfort as much as his body. He may see things—like in fever dreams. Talk to him, or read to him. I'll bring you the
Atlas of the World.”
She hesitated. “Perhaps you might stay with the happier nations, though,” she suggested. “Switzerland, maybe; avoid the Aztecs and headhunters and such.”

“I will.” Maddy nodded. “Joby, will you walk Mrs. True back to her wagon?”

“Thank you, Joby.” Marguerite held out her elbow and Joby took hold of it in a clumsy escort. “Come wake me if you need anything at all.”

Maddy went back to the fire. She tapped the lump of hard brown sugar against the side of the enamel mug to break off a bit, poured the hot tea over it and added a little cool water so it wouldn't burn him.

He took a sip, coughed, then drank it thirstily.

“Sweet tea is good after purging so,” she said.

His shaking eased a little. He looked around, as if suddenly confused. “Where are we?”

“On our way west; Colorado now.”


“Well—for a new life there. You know that.”

“Yes. I know.” He looked at his clothing as if he didn't quite trust her and there might be clues. Then he stared at the fire. “Is that the piano?” he asked.

Maddy saw one of the carved legs just catching the flame, the varnish bubbling up in little blisters.

“Yes. I'm sorry,” she said.

He blinked a few times and seemed to come back to himself. “Where's Joby?”

“He'll be back shortly.” Maddy's own hand was shaking as she poured some more tea in the mug. It was awful to see him like this. “Tell me, how did you learn to play the piano so nice?” she asked, hoping to get his mind on a happier subject, as Marguerite had suggested. “Did you have a piano in your parlor?”

“My parlor?” He blinked and stared at the little fire. “No. In the lobby of the hotel where I lived.”

“You lived in a hotel? In New York? Tell me all about it,” Maddy said eagerly. “Were there chandeliers?”

“Yes.” His eyes got a little more normal and he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “In the lobby.”

“And velvet draperies with braided cords and silken tassels especially fine?” She blushed. That was from a magazine advertisement that had stuck in her head since she was six years old:
silken tassels especially fine.

“I don't know. Yes, I suppose, in the guest rooms.” Carlos coughed. “We lived in the basement.”

“The basement?” Maddy was disappointed but tried not to let it show. “Oh.”

“Yes. My father was the hotel doctor.”

“Oh, well!” She brightened. “That's—illustrious!”


“It means—”

“I know what it means. There was nothing illustrious about it,” he said stiffly. He swallowed the last of the tea, then swiped his finger in the mug to scoop up the undis-solved sugar at the bottom. “He was there to take care of the whores and tend the drunken businessmen passed out in the hallways. He gave abortions to their mistresses and nursed their wives off laudanum. Do you know what laudanum is?”



“What they smoke in China? In opium dens?”


“There's a picture in my book—”

Atlas of the World.
Yes, your bible.” Carlos pulled the
blanket tighter around his shoulders and wiped his forehead again. The sweet tea had eased his shaking. “Opium is a drug, a soporific. Mixed with alcohol it's called laudanum. Lovely stuff, until you come to need it and can't get it and— well, this is what happens.”

“How long will you be sick?”

“The worst should pass by morning.”

“Can it be eased somehow?”

“Yes. Go away and leave me alone.”

“I'm not tired. And I want to be a doctor; I should learn these things.”

Carlos laughed. “You can't be a doctor.”

“Why not?”

“You're a girl.” His voice was dismissive and sharp, and Maddy bristled.

“Were you always so hateful?” she snapped.

Carlos startled at her response. He looked away and rubbed a hand over his eyes, then finally spoke so softly she could barely hear him. “No. I'm sorry.”

“I know it was an awful time you've been through—”

“You don't know anything!” The cruel tone was back.

“No.” Maddy stared at him hard. “I don't know war and men getting exploded and all. But I buried my mother and my father, two brothers, one sister and two little babies. I just spent the whole winter freezing and starving to death and thinking of ways to kill myself so my brother wouldn't have to do it, so don't you dare say what I know or don't about awful!”

Carlos stared at her, then scrambled away and vomited again. Maddy heard the crunch of boots approaching and fell silent. Joby had returned. He saw Carlos kneeling off in the dirt and helped him back to the campfire.

“You look much better, Doc,” he said unconvincingly. He handed Maddy the
Atlas of the World.

“Thank you, Joby” Maddy took the book and roughly yanked it open. “We're going to read about Switzerland now.” Her eyes were full of tears. She brushed them away. “To ease your sickness.”

She pulled the lantern closer and opened the book on her lap. “ ‘Switzerland abounds in mountains.’ “ She took a deep breath and steadied her voice. “ ‘By reason of which she has become known as the playground of the world. Her scenery— great glaciers and deep, wooded valleys, is unsurpassed by that of any similar area on the face of the globe. …’ “

iden walked a slow patrol around the sleeping camp and went back to Jackson's wagon. The Kansas boys were playing cards by the flickering light of a nail-punch lantern. Buck and the widower leaned against the wagon tailgate, smoking their pipes. Jackson was sound asleep, snoring like a buffalo. Aiden took his canteen off the hook and had a drink of water. He looked toward Doc Carlos's wagon in the distance, where the tiny campfire flickered. Buck followed his gaze.

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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