The coughing started up again late one afternoon. A blood orange sun was setting over the dusty fields of rural Kansas as a gentle breeze carried off the last of the warm autumn air. Baby Jo – Josephine Krugs, as it was written on the thick, yellowish birth certificate Pa had traveled half a day to the county offices to get – had just turned two years old last month when she was struck with a terrible coughing sickness.
The first time Doc Yeoman had been sent for, he arrived just after lunch. He was a quiet, tidy man; the sort of man who didn’t spare any of his focus for small talk when there was a job to be done, and whose fingernails were always short and clean. Despite his focused demeanor, he was exceedingly gentle with Baby Jo as he knelt to listen to her lungs and check her temperature. When he was done, he sat back on his heels and looked at Ma and Pa.
“She isn’t running a fever and her lungs sound clear. My best guess is irritation from the dust. Try to keep her indoors and hang some damp rags over the windows.” He spoke in a slow, but clipped voice. “Now, about the bill…” he continued as he stood. Ma and Pa exchanged a look; money had been tight this season. The choking dust had overpowered most of the precious few corn seeds they had been able to afford, and the rent on their plot of land was coming due. Money was always tight.
Doc Yeoman continued, speaking plainly, “I know this season has been rough on all the farmers in this area, so you just pay me what you can, when you can.” Pa started to protest as Doc put away his instruments, but Doc simply held up his hand. He wouldn’t hear any more of it.
Two weeks on, the damp rags had been helping, but one night the coughing started up again. Drifting up from Baby Jo’s crib, the tinny, rattling coughs filled the one-room farmhouse day and night, with only a few hours rest in between. At night, Ma always got up to comfort her, cradling the child near her breast while cursing the “godfersaken dust coatin’ everything” and singing a barely audible lullaby her own mother had sung to her. Baby Jo never cried. She only ever coughed, or sat watching her mama with wide brown eyes as she went about the housework.
This night, Ma gently bounced the child on her hip and sighed relief as Baby Jo finally stopped coughing. Her relief lasted only a minute, as Ma realized something was wrong. Jo’s skin was hot and her eyes were half-closed and glazed over. Ma screamed, and suddenly Jo started crying. It was a hollow, mournful cry, betraying a harsh pain. Ma ran over the low bed by the kitchen and shook a slumbering Pa by the shoulder.
“Jo’s not right!” she exclaimed, her voice rising with fear. “Call for the doctor, quickly!” Pa sat up, taking a precious moment to rub the sleep from his eyes before Ma’s words and the sound of Baby Jo’s crying hit him. He scrambled for his boots, lacing them up faster than he ever had and pulling on his threadbare work shirt as he rushed out the door.
Pa was already thirty feet from the porch before the screen door slammed shut behind him. The full moon lit the cool ground as he pounded down the dirt road to town, a mile and a half away. Ma watched him disappear over the gentle hill before returning inside with her baby.
Somewhere between forty-five minutes and an eternity later, the sound of a horse furiously galloping towards the house, drifted in the screen door. Ma rushed out to the porch to see Pa and Doc Yeoman dismounting from a tired looking bay mare. Wordlessly, the two men strode up to the porch. Wringing her hands, Ma said to them both,
“She’s stopped coughin’ and now it’s worse!”
“Show me.” he said calmly, gesturing at the door. Ma ushered the two men inside and the screen door banged shut behind them. The doctor removed his coat and hat, hanging them on the hook by the door before taking his bag and approaching the bed where Baby Jo lay.
“Let’s give the good doctor some more light.” Pa said with a gentle squeeze to Ma’s elbow. Ma nodded, turning to the small table where a lone hurricane lantern stood, guarding a dim flame. As Ma turned the up the wick, the dancing flame threw a flickering shadow across the door.
At this moment, unseen by any of the people huddled around the quiet child, the screen door opened very slightly and a third man entered the house. He was old and thin and his wrinkled black suit contrasted sharply with the paper white skin of his face and hands. His wide black hat made an imposing shadow from the lantern flame as he silently walked up to the group. He remained unnoticed as he peered over Doc’s shoulder, watching him place the back of his rough, clean hand on the fitful child’s forehead.
The silent man reached into his pocket and pulled out something small. Turning back towards the door, he paused at the hook by the door before slipping the object into a pocket of the doctor’s coat. Noiselessly as he came in, the silent man opened the door and stepped into the night.
By Jo’s cribside, Ma was squeezing Pa’s hand with worry. Doc Yeoman retrieved jar from his bag and a harsh, medicinal odor filled the room as he removed the lid. The doctor swabbed a small amount of the powerful-smelling ointment on his index finger and gently rubbed it on the wailing child’s chest. He handed the jar to Ma.
“Rub this on her chest every few hours, it should help.” Ma nodded wordlessly, taking the jar. “Now, it’s late, and I need to call on the Beechson homestead in the morning.”
He stepped towards the door, removing his hat and coat from their peg. As he put the coat around himself, the doctor said to Pa,
“Call me if there is any change, I don’t like the sound of that cryi-” he stopped mid-word as his hand found its way into the coat pocket. A fraction of a second passed, and he composed himself. “You know where I am.” Doc quickly stepped outside, the screen door banging behind him.
He walked hastily into the cool night air; the chilling wails of Baby Jo’s crying could still be heard from the house. As he was untying the tired bay mare from the hitching post, a pale man in a wrinkled black suit and broad hat stepped out from behind the animal. Doc felt his face flush and for a moment he only stared. He dropped the reins and took a step toward the dark man,
“Aren’t you ever satisfied?” Doc stared hard at the man, who simply held up his hands with the palms facing Doc.
“You know the rules, just as well as I” said the pale man in a baritone that sounded like thick oil gliding down a windowpane. Doc grimaced and pulled the object from his pocket, and looked at it. It was a small silver coin. “What was in the jar?” The pale man asked.
“None of your concern. And you can stuff your rules.” Doc spat. “And your damned coin.”
“We both know that’s not possible.” The man said, a sympathetic expression crossing his face. The faint sound of Baby Jo’s crying split the silence between them. Doc looked at the house, and lowered his outstretched hand.
“Right now?” Doc asked the man, who gave a small nod. Doc looked at the coin in his hand, turning it over and over like a monk with his prayer beads. One side of the coin was plain silver, glinting in the moonlight. The other was marked with an “X” etched into the surface. He took a deep breath and flicked the coin into the air with his thumb. Doc watched the silver piece arcing high overhead almost in slow motion, its own faint ringing sound mixing with the infant’s wails from the small house.
After an eternity, the coin landed with a soft ‘pat’. Slowly and at the same time, both men leaned down to see the coin’s visible face. Doc felt a sharp knot in his stomach as the small “X” twinkled at him from the dirt. He looked up, and saw the pale man slowly walking back towards the house, holding his broad hat in hand.
Staring away from the house, Doc Yeoman heard the screen door bang. Then, the only sound was gentle autumn breeze.