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Forgotten Killer
Book Nine of the New Spearfish Lake Series
Wes Boyd
©2013, ©2015

Chapter 20

It was getting close to dark before Garth’s kids and Helga finished with their first of three shots of the Salk vaccine. As soon as they were done, Garth again used Ursula’s car to take them back out to the club. In spite of the vaccine, which he knew took a while before it became fully effective, he had to satisfy himself with dropping them off and coming back to town. He would have very much liked to spend some time there with them. In spite of everything, he enjoyed his time at the club, mostly because his family was there. Summers were much too short, especially in the North Country of Spearfish Lake, and he knew very well that the weather that made the club so enjoyable would be ending by the time he dared to be out there with his family again.

Maybe next year, he thought. Maybe he could just take some time off and spend it, uninterrupted, with his family. One of the good things about the place was that not many people were willing to interrupt him with bank business there.

It was after dark when he got back to the big house on Point Drive, to find Phil Gravengood there. “I decided I’m still not ready to go home yet, either,” Phil said. “Maybe I’ll be ready to take the risk in a few days, but for now I’d just as soon batch it with you.”

“Might as well,” Garth agreed. “I figure I’m going to be batching it until about the time school starts.”

“Have you had dinner yet?”

“No, I got in line for the vaccinations late, and I just dropped off the family. I thought I’d take a look and see if there might be something edible around here.”

“I thought that might be what happened,” Phil agreed. “I took a swing by Ellsberg’s Market, and they had some pretty good sirloins on sale. We still have the grill here from the other night when the scouts were still here, and I know there’s some charcoal left. You want to join me?”

“You talked me into it. I have to admit, that’s something I’d never dare to do when Helga is here.”

“You sure put up with a lot with her, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do,” he replied, remembering the argument he’d had with Helga a few hours ago. It was about as close as he’d ever come to drawing the line with her, and it hadn’t been a pleasant experience. “But for the most part, it’s been worth it.”

They grilled the steaks outside of course, and ate at the picnic table – Garth wasn’t willing to risk the smell of meat in the house, even if Helga wouldn’t be home for weeks. Garth and Phil ate them slowly in the dying light of the day, along with a couple excellent German beers. “Something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Phil said. “I got a telegram earlier that the Rathburn kid’s funeral is tomorrow afternoon. I can’t make up my mind whether to fly down for it or what. I mean, I think I ought to be there, but I don’t know. I really don’t want to go alone. Would you like to fly down there with me? It’s in Clayburg, and that’s much too far to drive.”

“I feel like I ought to go,” Garth said. “We did our best for that kid. It’s just that our best just wasn’t good enough. If it turns out they don’t need me at the hospital, I’ll go with you.”

Early the next morning Garth went over to the hospital, just to check in. “We’re holding our own,” Dr. Luce told him. “We released one of those kids brought in from the inoculation line yesterday. I’m thinking he’ll be OK, but I told the parents to check in with us every day until we know for sure. The Perkins kid is a little better, if anything. I don’t think we’ll see very many new patients today after Harold did such a thorough screening yesterday, but in a day or two some new cases might surface.”

Garth asked him if he thought they could get along without him, since he was considering flying down to the Rathburn kid’s funeral.

“You might as well go and take our best wishes along with you,” Dr. Luce said. “We’ve had several volunteers come out to help after yesterday, and I suspect the vaccinations contributed to that. Penny can supervise everyone, so we ought to be in good shape.”

“All right,” Garth replied. “I’ll check in after I get back, just in case you need me.”

Garth went back home and told Phil that he’d go along on the flight. The two of them dressed fairly nicely, leaving their suit jackets on hangers, and drove the Buick out to the airport. In a few minutes they were in the air, heading down to Clayburg.

Jim Blanchard had been alerted by wire that they were coming, and he drove out to the town’s small airstrip to meet them. “I’m glad you could come,” he said. “It’s been a little tough down here the last couple of days.”

“Are you going to continue the canoe trip?” Garth asked.

“I would like to, but there’s just not time enough for it now. I’d have to take another week off work and I don’t have it to take. The general opinion is that everyone wants to do it next year instead in honor of Bob.”

“Let me know, and I’ll do what I can to help. You can leave the canoes at my place, or come up to get them whenever you can. It doesn’t matter to me.”

“I think maybe I’ll see if I can get up there sometime in the next couple of weeks with a canoe trailer,” Jim told him. “I don’t think we’re going to try a canoe trip by rail again. It barely worked this time and the railroads are dropping mixed service as quickly as they can.”

They continued talking about canoe trips past, present, and future all the way to the funeral home – it was a way to avoid talking about the tragedy this one had become.

At the funeral home, they met Bob’s parents, Mike and Ruth Rathburn, for the first time. They were still very tearful; Bob had been an only child, and he was going to be missed. “We want to thank you for all you tried to do for Bob,” Mike told Garth and Phil after being introduced. “We appreciate that you did your best for him.”

The funeral was a somber occasion, featuring a lot of Boy Scouts in full uniform, not just the kids who had been on the trip. The boys actually served as pallbearers – they knew they were going to be missing a friend, and it was easy to see it hurt them, too.

After the formalities, Jim drove them back out to the town’s airstrip, which didn’t have fuel service; Phil got the Stinson going, and they flew a few miles to another town, which did have it. “You know,” Phil said as they got back in the plane. “If it weren’t for the fact that I make it a firm rule to never fly after drinking, I could really stand a beer right now.”

“I could too,” Garth agreed, “and when we get back to Spearfish Lake, there are still some cold bottles in my refrigerator.”

“Talked me into it.”

It was noisy enough in the Stinson that there wasn’t much talking while in the air. When they got back, they put the plane away and drove back over to the big house, stopping at Ellsberg’s Market on the way to get some more steaks. Garth made a quick phone call to the hospital, where Peggy told them that nothing much had changed, except for the fact that the Perkins boy was showing a little bit more improvement, and that Gail was coming around.

With that out of the way, Garth and Phil got out of their suits and into casual clothes, then plopped down in lawn chairs in the shade in front of the house. “You know,” Phil said. “I know we both lost friends in the war, and it hurt. Maybe it was just the fact that it was a war, but today just wasn’t the same. I never really knew that boy, but from everything everybody said, he was a good one.”

“His folks are really hurting,” Garth shook his head. “It struck me that they put a lot of time and effort into raising the boy and felt they had done a really good job of it. Then something like this comes along out of the middle of nowhere, and bang! All the work and the hope is gone. It doesn’t make sense, Phil. I guess it doesn’t have to make sense, but there it is. You’re right, I lost friends in the war, and worse, I lost people I commanded. But, when you get right down to it, that doesn’t make any sense at all, either.”

“I can at least tell myself that I made a difference with what I did, just like you,” Phil said. “But it doesn’t help that kid’s parents any. I sure hope they can pull themselves together.”

“I do too, Phil. I don’t know what more we can do, but at least we did a little bit to help them. The one thing that keeps crossing my mind is that maybe, with this Salk vaccine, the end of polio is in sight.”

“Yeah, there is that. It doesn’t help the Bob Rathburns of this world it’s already killed, but maybe it’ll save a few others.”

Garth sat there thinking about it for a moment. “If this vaccine works as well as everyone hopes, it ought to knock polio back pretty far. There’s even talk of eradicating the disease, maybe not soon, but eventually. I hope it does, because I never want to see it killing or crippling a kid again. I’ve seen enough of it already.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Phil agreed. “But the heck of it is, if it isn’t this, it’ll be something else. I seem to recall that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. We’ve seen those, Garth, and I think they will always be with us in one form or another. We just have to beat them one at a time when we can.”

“You know, that’s a really depressing thought when you stop to think about it.”

“Yeah, but I’m right and you know it. Like I said, Garth, there’ll always be something.”

*   *   *

Things slowly got back to normal in Spearfish Lake over the course of the rest of the month. Garth spent a few more days at the hospital, but none as long as that dreadful Saturday before the vaccine arrived. By the time the next week was drawing to an end, Garth figured that enough people had the polio vaccine that he could dare to go back to work at the bank. As luck would have it, there really hadn’t been enough come up to have made a few days absence a problem. Just to be on the safe side, he left his family out at the club for the rest of the summer, except to bring them to town for the booster shots. It still hurt to be separated from them, but nothing like it had hurt to be separated from Helga and Carrie during the war.

He was still exceptionally leery about exposing his family any more than necessary. Even though the Rathburn kid had only spent a few minutes in the back seat of the Buick, he was reluctant to let his own kids inside. Just about that time, Brian Hephner at the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge dealer in town got a couple of new 1956 model year Chrysler 300s in, and that set Garth to thinking. He usually switched between the dealers in town with each car purchase, and it was time to go to Hephner, anyway, so he traded in the Buick on a new blue Chrysler 300, so there was never the need to risk his kids in the Buick again.

About the same time, Phil went back to staying with his family. He might have stretched it out a few more days, but Rose, Larry, and Mark had all had the Salk vaccine as well, so he figured the possibilities were much reduced.

In spite of the Salk vaccine, polio wasn’t done leaving its mark on Spearfish Lake. As Dr. Luce had predicted, there were still some cases out there that hadn’t been detected during the screenings at the mass inoculations, or possibly in some cases where the vaccine hadn’t taken hold – there was no way of telling. The number of patients steadily rose at the hospital over the next couple of weeks, until the staff and the volunteers had a total of thirteen in the building at the same time – just about all they could handle.

All three of the wooden lungs were in use for a period of two weeks, not always with the same patients in them. Brent Clark and his crew of helpers were ready to put another one together, and promised they could now build one in six hours, but Dr. Luce said they might have enough to get by, and he expected he’d have some warning if another one was needed.

Alice Bell wasn’t doing very well, he’d been told. The worst of the pain and the muscle spasms had passed, but they’d left a lot of paralysis in their wake, and she was having great difficulty overcoming them. She was pretty determined to overcome her problems, but it was going very slowly, and in quiet moments both Dr. Luce and Penny told Garth that they doubted she’d make a full recovery.

But there were some successes, too. While Garth didn’t spend a great deal of time at the hospital, he kept a finger on what was going on there, especially with the kids who had been there in the early days of the outbreak. He was told, for example, that Gail was slowly being weaned off of the cob job ventilator, mostly by adjusting the stroke of the pressure relief valve so it wasn’t supplying her as much help in the breathing. Her nerves were slowly making new pathways, and little by little she was able to breathe on her own. “A few more days and we may be able to keep her out of it completely,” Dr. Luce told him happily.

One morning, while Garth was working at his desk, he had a call from Penny Luce at the hospital. “Garth!” she said excitedly. “You’ll never guess what happened!”

“What? Gail is off the ventilator?”

“Not yet but pretty soon. But you know we’d figured that Betsy Toivo was going to have fairly serious paralysis, right?”

“That’s what Herman was telling me the other day.”

“It was looking pretty hopeless to the rest of us,” she said. “But a little before dawn this morning, I found her on the floor, lying in a puddle of urine. She said she was sorry she’d wet the floor.”

“What happened?”

“She knew she had to go potty so she got out of bed without telling anyone and walked most of the way to the bathroom! She walked, Garth! She couldn’t make it all the way, but she walked! She’s going to make it!”

“That’s wonderful news,” he agreed. “Typical Finn, I guess. Even at her age, too hardheaded to take no for an answer.”

“Oh, yes. We’re so happy around here today! Even Tommy Perkins is coming around. Slowly, but he’s coming around. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s going to make it, too.”

“You know, Penny, it’s real good to hear you’re winning one.”

“We’re winning more than one. We haven’t lost a polio patient here yet except for the Rathburn boy, and he really wasn’t ours to lose. I don’t think we’re going to lose any of them now!”

“That’s good news,” he said. “Please, give Herman my congratulations and take some for yourself. You helped just as much as he did.”

“Oh, I sure will. We were talking about it with Harold Brege this morning. We think things are backing off enough here that maybe Herman can get his practice going.”

“Well, that’s good news, too. I’ll bet that Herman is really looking forward to sniffles and broken arms instead of fighting polio.”

“He is, and so am I. I can see I’ll have to do rehabilitation on some of these kids for some time yet, but I’m not going to mind sniffles and broken arms myself.”

After talking for a while longer with a rather exuberant Penny – and she had every right to be exuberant – Garth hung up the phone and stared out into the bank. It wasn’t all that busy; people were there making deposits and withdrawals and doing their regular banking business. By now it was late August, not long before Labor Day, and the heat of the first part of the month had backed off a lot. Soon the chill winds of winter would come and blow away the last of the threat of polio that had seemed so severe only a few weeks before. Things weren’t quite all the way back to normal in Spearfish Lake yet, but they were getting there.

He glanced out through the front window, at a beautiful late summer day outside. Although he had things to do, he knew that this weather was too good to last. Maybe he’d better take advantage of it while he could. It didn’t take him long to make up his mind. “Bernice,” he told his secretary. “I’m going to get out of here for the rest of the day. This is too nice a day to lose. I’ll probably be in tomorrow, but maybe not.”

“Going out to the club, huh? There’s a part of me that would like to be going out there with you, but I’ll admit, only a part of me.”

“You either like it or you don’t,” he smiled.

Garth went out, got in the Chrysler, and soon was on the state road heading to the club. Other than brief trips out there for the sake of inoculations, he hadn’t been there much in almost a month.

For once, he didn’t find Helga laying out in the sun working on her tan. She was busy inside the cottage, beginning the project of packing things up and closing things down for the oncoming winter. “So what is it that brings you out here today?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing in particular,” he said. “I thought I’d spend a little time with my family. There won’t be many more days like this before fall gets here.”

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To be continued . . .

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