With so few men left aboard there was no question about him returning to his usual duties as soon as possible. He was moving stiffly, hindered by layers of dressing and the pain, but he could stand and walk so there was no reason for him to remain in the sickbay.
He had thought he knew what pain had meant, what it felt like. In the mills and mines where he had grown up you learned to work through any injury and illness or would find yourself turned out on the street soon enough.
This shouldn’t be any different and yet it was. Not just the pain but the humiliation as well, the pitiful looks from his messmates and the way Billy would neither speak to nor look at him.
Today he had woken up for his shift dizzy and out of breath and the pain worse than ever before. Food did nothing to help and he had to stop several times even during the most menial tasks.
The captain had ordered to caulk most of the hatches and doorways to the outside shut to keep the warmth inside. Darlington had sent him to do the work unsupervised since it was an enormous task that would require weeks if not months of labour.
With so few men remaining aboard the ship was less humid than before and maybe that was why he couldn’t stop shivering as he set out to caulk the hatches on the higher deck. Breakfast was sitting heavy in his stomach, making him feel nauseous on top of the dizziness.
He was trying to breathe deeply but his heart was racing in his chest and the ship’s heavy tilt made him feel disorientated. When he caught himself, he noticed that the tar on his brush had dried already and he needed to start anew.
Bending down put strain on his wounds and he had to bite his lip to keep from crying out. It was laughable that he had ever assumed he knew what pain was before this.
Raising his arm towards the hatch wasn’t any easier. It was as if his whole body had been lashed, pain spiking through him with every movement of every muscle. He managed two strokes before it became too much.
The brush fell from his hand and clattered to the floor, the noise sounding unnaturally loud in his ears. He leaned heavily against the walls, trying to ignore the pain as he wrapped his arms around himself to warm up. Why was it so cold on the ship all of a sudden?
“Mr. Hickey?” It was Hartnell, standing in the door, looking worried. “Are you feeling well?”
He answered, trying to dismiss Hartnell’s concern but the words didn’t come out properly as if his tongue had turned to lead.
Hartnell crossed the distance between them and grabbed his arm. “I’ll bring you to Doctor MacDonald.”
He tried to protest, but the words wouldn’t come and the ship’s floors seemed to move under his feet when he tried to walk. Hartnell put one of his arms around his waist and carried more than dragged him from the room.
Billy had seen neither hide nor hair of Cornelius for the whole day and worried him. On a ship with less than twenty men it was almost impossible not to come across each other regularly. And sure, the lack of men meant additional duties for both of them but still, something wasn’t right.
He tried not to let it distract him when he served the meals for the officers together with Jopson but he knew something had happened when Cornelius didn’t show up for the evening meal either.
“…Darlington’s not going to be happy about that.” Billy only caught the tail end of the conversation between Hartnell and Armitage as he sat down next to them.
“Mr. Hickey is ill”, Hartnell replied, a concerned look on his face. “Doctor MacDonald said that his wounds probably got infected.”
Billy paused with his spoon halfway to his mouth.
“Maybe he’s just trying to get out of work”, Armitage scoffed.
Hartnell shook his head. “You didn’t see him. You couldn’t fake being sick like that. And he wouldn’t have fooled Doctor MacDonald.”
Armitage shrugged as if he wasn’t too certain about that and Billy remembered to continue eating. “It’s serious?” He asked Hartnell.
“Very”, Hartnell replied. “I was in the med bay earlier to see if he needed anything and he was feverish. You couldn’t even talk to him.”
Billy’s heart plummeted inside his chest. He had seen Cornelius this morning and he had seemed fine. Of course, Billy knew from experience how quickly a fever could take someone. During their last conversation he had laughed at Cornelius, had mocked him for his ambitions and misunderstanding of the captain’s actions. Should those really be the last words he ever spoke to Cornelius?
He hastily ate his food and quickly told Jopson where he was going before heading to the infirmary. At the moment only two men where there: Private Heather and Cornelius.
Doctor MacDonald didn’t seem surprised to see him. It was nothing unusual that friends would visit each other but he and Cornelius hadn’t spoken a word in months.
“It’s good you came”, Doctor MacDonald said with a gentle voice and a grim face.
“How…how bad is it?”
“His fever is very high I’m afraid and he lost consciousness earlier.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Billy asked before thinking about it.
“The cold compresses need to be changed if you’re looking for a task but I fear his fate is up to God now.” MacDonald patted his back. “Do you know how to do that?”
Billy nodded. “We had a quarantine station when I was in West Africa.”
“It will be good for him not to be alone with his last burdens,” Doctor MacDonald said as he led Billy to Cornelius’ sick bed.
To be mindful of his injuries from the lashing he was lying on his stomach, head turned to the side, calves and arms wrapped with wet cloth. The rag on his forehead had fallen off, dislodged by the writhing Cornelius was doing, caught deep in fever dreams.
Billy had seen all of this before and yet the image was hard to bear.
“I’ll leave him to you”, Doctor MacDonald said and squeezed his shoulder.
A bowl of ice water had been left on the table and Billy took the rag, soaked it and wrung it out before placing it back on Cornelius’ forehead. His body gave an involuntary shiver to jerk away from the coldness and his skin was burning up under Billy’s fingertips.
He unwrapped the cloth from Cornelius’ arms and legs and did the same with them, ignoring the incoherent sounds of protest that spilled from his mouth. The few times he opened his eyes they were distant and clouded. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t here on the ship.
When he was done, Billy took a chair and sat down next to Cornelius’ bed. Perhaps he should return to his duties, there was nothing more for him to do here, but he remembered Doctor MacDonald’s words. Cornelius did not deserve to die alone.
A part of Billy blamed himself for the situation. Maybe if he hadn’t mocked Cornelius as thoroughly as he had, he wouldn’t have gone off on this mad quest to capture the Esquie girl. And the captain wouldn’t have punished him for abandoning his post.
He vividly remembered the moment of the lashing when Cornelius’ blood had splattered onto his hand. It had been so overt; it had seemed like a sign from god that he was responsible for Cornelius’ punishment. That was why he had stayed anyway.
What would Irving say if he saw him now, tending to the man he had accused of forcing him when nothing could have been further from the truth. A coward’s move maybe but as much as Billy wished it could have been different, he didn’t regret his choice. It had been necessary at the time.
He only regretted the consequences.
He was feeling so hot that he couldn’t concentrate. Had someone called his name? No, that wasn’t his name, or was it? It felt wrong.
He struggled to open his eyes; lids heavy like lead. The world was blurred, hazy. Something cool was put on his forehead but it barely made a difference against the blazing heat that seemed to consume him from the inside out.
He knew that voice. He knew he had longed to hear it even if it was calling him by the wrong name. Why was it calling him by the wrong name? He wanted to ask but nothing more than a dry gasp came over his lips.
“I’m here, Cornelius. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
Billy. He remembered now. The voice belonged to Billy. Red curls twisting around his fingertips, blue eyes like the summer sky when he smiled. He tried to reach out to him but he was too weak.
“Stay with me Cornelius, just for a little bit.” Billy sounded so sad. He wanted to do what Billy was asking of him but the heat was stifling and he was so tired. The darkness tempted him with the promise of a long, deep rest.
“Cornelius, please.” There was something he wanted to tell Billy, something he had wanted to say months ago but he couldn’t and fell back into the soft darkness.
When he woke up, Billy could hear the ship’s bells ring. He must have fallen asleep at Cornelius’ bedside at some point but no one had come to call him to his duties. The whole med bay was dark and quiet safe for a few lanterns burning and the pained whimpers from Cornelius’ mouth.
Billy wanted to change the bandages again but noticed that the water was no longer cold. Getting fresh ice would hardly be a problem even if he had to go on deck to get it. He took the bowl and grabbed his coat as he walked past his cabin.
Hodgson was the officer on watch but he simply nodded at Billy when he saluted him and didn’t ask what he was doing on deck in the middle of the night. Even with a full complement, the news that Billy was sitting vigil at Cornelius’ bedside would have already made the rounds.
It was cold and Billy hurried with his task. Back down below he did not bother to drop his coat back at his cabin and instead took it to the infirmary with him, rolling it up in a corner. He quickly soaked the cloth around Cornelius’ arms and legs but when he turned to change the rag on his forehead, Cornelius suddenly grabbed his wrist with surprising strength.
“Billy.” His sounded raspy. “Billy, I…”
He trailed off, his eyes were clear and despite the hoarseness of his voice, his words weren’t slurred. Billy had seen this before, back in West Africa, a lucid moment before either death or recovery.
“Billy – “Cornelius’ breath was coming faster and faster. This exertion didn’t do him any good, took strength from him that he desperately needed.
“It’s alright, Cornelius,” Billy tried to reassure him so he would let go.
“You’re the only thing that makes all of this bearable. I swore I would never feel this way about someone else. It doesn’t well. And yet here you are, Billy. Why? Why did you…Why did…why….”
Cornelius hand loosened its grip as he slipped back into unconsciousness but his words couldn’t have hurt more. Was this really how he was feeling about Billy or was that just the fever talking? And what was Billy supposed to do with such a confession?
To distract himself he took longer than he needed to soak the rag in water and wring it out before he placed it on Cornelius’ forehead. The fever was unbroken as far as he could tell.
The ship’s bells rang and he heard steps coming from the door. He expected Doctor MacDonald but instead it was Lieutenant Irving.
Billy got up to his feet and saluted immediately. “Sir.”
“I did not expect you here, Mr. Gibson”, Irving said, looking from him to Cornelius.
“I…” Billy tried to think of an excuse. “Doctor MacDonald said it was in God’s hands. I do not think anyone deserves to die alone, was I wrong, sir?”
“No”, Irving replied with a brief smile. “Your compassion does you credit.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I will pray for God’s mercy,” Irving said and Billy wasn’t quite sure if that meant he would pray for Cornelius’ survival or his death.
There was nothing left to do for him but pray either. Knowing that Irving had the watch, he dared to take Cornelius’ hand into his, holding on tight. Billy had never been particularly devout but tonight he prayed with a ferventness that surprised him. He nodded off here and there for a few moments but mostly he was too scared to fall asleep. In the morning Doctor MacDonald returned and Billy slipped his hand from Cornelius’ one.
He hoped for good news but Doctor MacDonald only shook his head. “He’s holding on but he’s not improving. There is only so long a body can endure this before failing.”
“I’d like to stay.”
“Of course,” Doctor MacDonald gave him a gentle smile. “Mr. Armitage usually comes with breakfast for private Heather. I’ll ask him to bring you something, too.”
Regaining consciousness was a chore. He hadn’t felt this exhausted since he had been turned out from the mines for being too tall to do the work they hired children to do there, but to small and weak to do a man’s job.
He was in a bed, not his hammock, so it seemed he was back in the infirmary but he couldn’t remember who or what had brought him here. The last thing he did remember was Darlington telling him to caulk some hatches on the upper deck shut.
Someone nearby was turning the pages of a book, the sound clear and fresh in the quietness of the med bay. Damp cloth was wrapped around his arms and legs and one piece lay across his forehead. Slowly he opened his eyes and that alone felt difficult enough.
Billy was slumped in a chair next to his bed, head in his hand and looking as exhausted as he felt. What was he doing here? They hadn’t talked in months, why would Billy suddenly come to sit at his bedside?
A vague memory resurfaced of Billy calling his name, of Billy’s hands touching him as he changed the bandages but that had to be a dream. The Billy he knew would’ve never risked coming here. And yet Billy was sitting right there, fast asleep and just out of reach.
There had to be a reasonable explanation for all of this. Perhaps Billy had been ordered to assist Doctor MacDonald or something like that. There was no way he would be here out of his own volition.
Billy stirred, eyes blinking rapidly and they were just as blue as he remembered. The sky over Oahu must look like this, he thought as his eyes met Billy’s.
“You’re awake.” For a moment Billy smiled and it made his breath catch in his throat. “I should get Doctor MacDonald.”
“Billy”, he tried to say but the word wouldn’t make it over his parched lips.
As quick as lightening Billy was gone.
Doctor MacDonald came, pronouncing him on the road of recovery, but Billy did not return.
Not today, not the next day and when he was released from the infirmary, it was as if he had never been there in the first place because Billy still wouldn’t speak to or look at him.
But he remembered Billy’s smile.