When I set out to write Murphy’s Rainbow, my first problem was how to get Kate to the middle of Wyoming. The obvious answer, to me anyway, was the Oregon Trail. So Kate and Bryan Murphy were on their way to start a new life in Oregon on what was probably the last wagon train to travel the Oregon Trail. The transcontinental railroad was completed later that year and made the wagon trains mostly obsolete.
Then I had to do away with Kate’s husband, Bryan. Shouldn’t be a problem. They were on the Oregon Tail where hundreds of people “met the elephant” (the pioneer euphemism for died) every year. There were so many choices, typhoid fever, dysentery, pneumonia, accidents, the list seemed endless. It had to be something very quick so they wouldn’t have time to prepare, there had to be a reason for the wagon train to leave Kate behind, and it had to be something that Kate could be exposed to without catching it.
The answer? Cholera. It is caused by contaminated water, so if Kate didn’t drink the same water, she wouldn’t catch it. Cholera can kill in a matter of hours, and since they didn’t know what caused it back in 1869, people were pretty squeamish about it. Leaving the Murphys behind was not out of line at all. The symptoms include vomiting, severe diarrhea, dehydration, skin cool to the touch, and shallow or hurried breathing. In the final stages, the eyes appear sunken and dehydration is so severe that the body, especially the face, hands and feet, appear wasted.
You know, I never had time to get to know Bryan Murphy, he was gone by page five, but whenever I read that scene I get tears in my eyes!
Wyoming Territory 1869
Cholera! For Katharine Murphy, it had become a living, breathing entity, a dark creature of the night that sucked the life from Bryan’s body. It hardly mattered that the wagon train had gone on without them, or that the single candle burning near at hand was almost gone. Bryan Murphy was dying, and they both knew it.
“Katie?” Bryan’s voice was thin and raspy as he fought the painful cramps.
Folding his cold, dry hand into hers, Katharine swallowed the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “I’m here, Bry. Don’t try to talk. Just rest now.”
“I have eternity to rest.” His face was pinched and gray, the brilliant green eyes, once so full of life, now looked sunken and defeated. “Go to your Uncle Matthew in Denver.” He shook his head weakly as she started to protest. “I know, Katie. But he loves you, and he’ll keep you safe until you decide what to do with your life.”
“Without you, I have no life.”
“Here, now. That doesn’t sound like the Katie McAnespie I married for her courage!” Bryan lifted his free hand and traced the line of her cheek. “Remember, every storm has a rainbow and—”
“And there’s a pot of gold at the end of it,” she finished for him. “There won’t be one this time, Bry.”
“You’re a fighter, Katie. You’ll find a way to go on, and you’ll find that pot of gold.” He gazed at her as though memorizing her features. “My beautiful Irish rose.” His hand slipped from her cheek and fell back to the bed. “I love you, Katie.”
“I love you, too,” Katharine whispered, but it was too late. She was alone.
* * * *
The sun was well up in the sky before Katharine finished digging the grave. The hole yawned at her feet, the raw earth stark against the green of the prairie. She lifted her head as a movement to the west caught her eye. It was a single rider coming toward her at an easy lope. From the loose-limbed way he sat in the saddle, it could only be Sam Perkins, a scout from the wagon train.
When he reached her, he swung down from his horse and stared at the freshly-dug grave. At last he cleared his throat. “I’m right sorry about your husband, Mrs. Murphy. Reckon I can bury him for you.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Katharine merely nodded. She had already bathed Bryan and wrapped him in their wedding quilt. There was nothing more she could do. In silent agony, she watched as Sam placed the man she loved in his final resting place and began the grim task of filling in the grave. Wincing as the clods of dirt struck the body below, Katharine reminded herself repeatedly that Bryan could no longer feel, that he was beyond pain.
At last the job was finished, and Sam gave her a look of sympathy. “If you know some words to say, best do it now.”
Katharine stared numbly at the mound. From somewhere inside came the Lord’s Prayer. Softly, she repeated the words, adding a few of her own at the end. “And please take my Bryan into your heart and keep him safe.” With one last look, she turned away.
Avoiding her eyes, Sam twisted his hat in his hands. “If you want to collect a few things, I’ll take you to that little town I saw two or three miles back.”
Again Katharine nodded, unsurprised that he hadn’t offered to escort her west to the wagon train. Those so-called good people had already turned their backs on the Murphys. Other than Sam, only one man had shown any concern for them by offering Katharine a revolver for protection from the riffraff who roamed the prairie. Refusing to accept money from the contaminated wagon, he had taken the team of oxen as payment. At the time, Katharine had been too worried about Bryan to think of anything else. Now she wondered if greed rather than compassion might have been the man’s motivation.
She made an awkward bundle out of her extra dress, hairbrush, nightgown, and clean underwear. Then she dug to the bottom of the trunk to retrieve the stocking that held what was left of their life savings. It wasn’t much—only a single twenty-dollar gold piece—but she wasn’t about to risk someone coming along and stealing it before she could get back for the rest of her belongings.
Thrusting the sock into the center of her clothing, Katharine considered taking the handgun. No, it would only add to the already cumbersome load. She hid it in the trunk and climbed down from the back of the wagon. Her milk cow, Suzette, was already tied to Sam’s saddle horn.
“If you’ll give me a hand with the chicken crate, I’ll be ready.”
“Chicken crate! Are you crazy?”
“I can’t just leave them out here, can I?”
“Look, Mrs. Murphy, I’ve only got one horse. There’s no room for a crate.”
“Oh.” Katharine looked abashed as she glanced at the horse. Then her face lit up. “How about if I stick them in a flour sack? I really hate to lose them after bringing them all this way.”
Sam started to say something, then seemed to change his mind and gave her a curt nod instead. Though the four birds complained loudly at such rough treatment, they were soon sacked up and tied to the horse.
Sam hoisted her onto the saddle and handed her the reins. “Hang onto these while I take one more look around.”
Recognizing the signs of a man who had already been pushed too far, Katharine was afraid to tell him she didn’t have the faintest idea how to control a horse. Not sure what else to do, she talked in a soothing voice to the animal, complimenting him on what a wonderful creature he was. Apparently the horse was not immune to flattery, for he stood perfectly still until Sam returned a few minutes later.
Katharine barely had time to wonder what she was supposed to do before Sam swung up behind the saddle and reached around her to take the reins. Without a word, he prodded the horse into motion, and they took off at a jarring pace.
Katharine contemplated the possibility that Sam had lost his mind. As the chickens squawked in terror, she turned to see how Suzette was faring. The sight that met her eyes wiped out every other thought. A thick cloud of black smoke was pouring from both ends of her wagon.
“Nooooo!” she screamed, twisting out of Sam’s grasp. She hit the ground, stumbled, then struggled frantically to her feet and started to run, her breath coming in gasping sobs. She was still a long way from the burning wagon when Sam caught up with her. Wrapping his long arms around her, he restrained her, though she fought him with every ounce of strength she had.
“It had to be done,” he said. “That wagon was full of cholera.”
“I thought you came back to help us,” she cried, beating his chest with her fists. “But you just wanted to make sure we didn’t catch up to the wagon train.”
“No, that’s not true. I came to do what I could for you both.” He lifted his head to stare at the wagon now engulfed in flame. “I had no choice. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry! Everything I owned was in that wagon.”
“I know,” he whispered, patting her back clumsily. “I know.”
He let her cry, holding her tightly until the last sob finally died away. “Reckon we best get a move on,” he said at last.
Pulling away from him, Katharine gazed first at the new grave and then at the smoldering ruins of the wagon. “Might as well,” she said dully. “There’s nothing left here.”
The trip was accomplished in almost total silence. Sam tried several times to start a conversation but eventually gave up when he got no response. Even the chickens were subdued, lulled by the darkness inside the sack.