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A Shenandoah Family Christmas | Chapter One

Chapter One

“Come on, sweet girl, take a sip of water.” Rebecca Reed held the teaspoon against Felicity’s lips. Although the baby burned with fever, she turned her head away, refusing the water.

Less than two months ago, they’d celebrated Felicity’s first birthday. Now, Rebecca feared her precious girl had contracted a serious case of influenza. For two days, she’d lain limp and despondent, her temperature reduced only with cold compresses and body wraps.

People died from influenza. Lots of people. Rebecca shuddered. She’d grown up untouched by fatal illnesses or the fear of contagious disease. Life in 1777 was so very different from everything she’d lived before she’d unknowingly entered the time portal in her now-husband’s ship, Shenandoah. In this time that was now her present, the colonists were battling Britain for their freedom. Disease and poverty ran rampant and soldiers died every day, victims of starvation, sickness, and freezing temperatures. Rebecca had known all this was going to happen, but she never thought her family might be, or would be, one of the casualties.

Shaking off the thought, Rebecca plunged the damp cloth into the pail of frigid stream water with melting chunks of ice Ben had brought upstairs a half hour ago. She wrung out the excess, then pressed the cloth to Felicity’s neck for a minute. Her temperature had to be close to 103, possibly higher. The cloth warmed almost instantly.

She turned over the beige fabric and placed the cooler side on her daughter’s forehead. Felicity barely moaned, her body wilted from hours of infection.

What Rebecca wouldn’t give for a bottle of children’s ibuprofen, a digital thermometer, and a prescription for Tamiflu. But that was a lifetime ago. Medicine, at least the kind she’d grown up with, wasn’t an option. Herbal treatments, ice baths from the nearly frozen-over stream, and vigilant care were her only options.

Rebecca attempted to give Felicity another sip of feverfew tea she’d boiled and let come to room temperature. The liquid merely dribbled down the side of her sweet little face. Swallowing back sobs, Rebecca rocked Felicity against her chest. “Lord, we need Your healing touch. Please deliver Felicity. Please don’t take my little girl.”

God was close to the sick and brokenhearted. How many times had Rebecca read those verses? Today, she needed to feel Him in the room, next to her, with Felicity. The swag of pine branches and red bow adorning the window reminded her that Christmas was coming. Felicity was too young to understand the holiday’s importance, but Rebecca couldn’t bear to think about Christmas arriving with Felicity still sick . . . or worse.

She kissed her baby on the cheek, then rose and carried her back to the crib. Last week, when General George Washington sent orders that Ben was to sail south before the weekend, Rebecca had moved the crib into the cozy spare room. Ben couldn’t afford to get sick. A fire burned in the hearth of the room that would one day be Felicity’s, and any sisters she might have. Rebecca positioned her in the crib nearer the far wall.

She gingerly lowered Felicity to the bed, which Ben had lined with sailcloth to protect the mattress during the cooling sessions. If only her baby girl would stir, resisting the separation from her mama. She didn’t. Her fourteen-month-old body didn’t react. Not so much as one finger reached out.

Another sob built in Rebecca’s throat. She fought against the sadness and fear. She would cry later, after Felicity was better, after this nightmare was over.

Determined to beat whatever ailed her daughter, Rebecca dunked a sheet into the cold water, and then covered Felicity. The goal was to bring her fever down and keep it down. She had halved two large onions and put them on rags around the crib. Whether it was an old wives’ tale or not, many women swore by sliced onions for guarding against germs. Rebecca would do all she could. She couldn’t fail Felicity. Nothing else mattered.

She glanced out the window. The diminishing light of the setting sun signified the dark days of winter and gave Rebecca an uncomfortable twist in her stomach. She moved across the small room and lit the oil lamp. She needed light—and hope.

Sitting in the rocking chair next to Felicity’s crib, Rebecca began singing the nursery rhymes of her childhood. The songs filled her with sweet memories of her mother and grandmother. She willed Felicity to hear her. How she longed to see her daughter rock from side to side, smiling as her mama sang to her.

“Rebecca!” Ben burst through the door. “I need to see Felicity.”

Startled, Rebecca jumped to her feet. “What’s wrong?”

“Let me examine Felicity first, then I shall explain.”

Her husband, Captain Benjamin Reed, was a kind and loving man, and also a man of detail. He ran a tight ship, missed little, and had earned the respect of his crew and fellow patriots. Feeling their daughter’s forehead, opening her mouth and examining her lips, Ben shook his head.

A new grip of fear crushed Rebecca’s heart. “What is it?”

“My love, I believe our daughter has smallpox.”

“No!” Rebecca wobbled, her body folding in on itself as the news delivered a brutal blow to her mind and body. Smallpox . . .

The dreaded disease that claimed thousands of victims over the last year, the scourge that Rebecca had taken such care to protect her daughter from—how could it have happened? It wasn’t possible for her to be sick. It just couldn’t be!

“How do you know? How can you be so sure?”

Ben drew a cloth from the bucket of ice water near the crib and laid it on Felicity’s head. “I sent notice to the crew that we were to sail to Delaware Bay to bring supplies to our troops who would winter at Valley Forge. A messenger arrived at the docks an hour ago with a note from William’s father. Upon discovering I was not present, the stable lad gave the note to Jonah, who arrived moments hence with the missive. William is covered in pox, severely ill, and in isolation.”

Rebecca gasped. Ben’s first mate, William Barton, was such a strong, rugged young man, she couldn’t imagine him sick. Felicity had looked so small in his arms the last time he visited—

“William was here two weeks ago. He played with Felicity. He—” Rebecca couldn’t finish her sentence, couldn’t say aloud what her mind did not want to hear.

“Aye, my love. It seems that the day after he returned from our meeting, William broke out in the rash.  I remember how tired he looked, but I made no inquiry as to his health. William has never been one to complain. He made no mention of a fever or feeling ill.”

Rebecca shuddered. William was the Barton’s only son, the oldest of five children. “Is Jonah downstairs? I want to write Mrs. Barton a letter.”

Ben shook his head. “I sent my brother on his way immediately, telling him that our darling Felicity had been ill and that I now feared she could have smallpox.”

Running a finger along Felicity’s forehead, Rebecca felt for any sign of the telltale bumps. Nothing. Maybe it was simply the flu. The flu was bad enough, but nothing compared to smallpox. There was hope. “Is anyone else sick?”

“Nay.” Ben kissed Rebecca’s cheek, and then gently pried open Felicity’s lips to check her gums more thoroughly. No spots. Easing a finger between her gums, Ben opened Felicity’s mouth. No spots.

“Nothing,” Rebecca said, the relief

Ben cupped her chin and looked into Rebecca’s eyes. “I do not wish to give you false hope, Becca. We must be prepared for the worst. In the coming days, the course of the disease will reveal itself. Or it will not.”

Smallpox.

What if Ben was right? What if William died? What if that dreaded disease had its grip on her daughter?

Ben wrapped his strong arms around them, and began to pray. Rebecca buried her face in the crux of Felicity’s neck and listened to her husband call upon the Lord.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies . . .”

 

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