See more Riley’s Ramblings in Andi’s Attic >>
June 1878, Fort Laramie, Wyoming
It wasn’t until we were at Fort Laramie a full year that Pa finally told me that Mama was completely cured with what had been ailing her all those years when I stayed with Uncle Sid on the Circle C ranch. Pa said Mama had consumption, or like some people called it, the White Plague. Pa said it’s real name was tuberculosis. I remember when he told me . . .
Spring, 1873, The Presidio, San Francisco
I was about seven. Pa pulled me up on his lap one day and said, “Mama is sick, so your Uncle Sid is going to take care of you for a few months. He bosses a big ranch in the valley called the Circle C. He says it’s a fine place for a boy to live and work.” Then he winked. “You’ll like it.”
Pa was right (I learned later). I did like the Circle C! But at the time I was scared. Even though Pa said the words in a cheerful way, his eyes were grave, and my stomach turned into a knot. “Will Mama . . . d-die?” I asked in a tiny voice. I shot a furtive glance in the corner of our residence at the Presidio. Mama lay on her bed coughing quietly. She looked so white and weak. She had lain in bed for three weeks now, growing weaker and sicker. It made my heart thrum in a scary way. Don’t let her die, God, I prayed nearly every night.
“Of course not!” Pa said and tossed me up in the air. “It’s just that Mama must have absolute quiet and lie still. The more rest she gives her lungs, the faster they will heal. You are a good boy, Riley, but not even you can be so quiet and still all day long. And I have a big job to do, which takes me and my troop away for days at a time. So, I can’t be here to care for you, either. It’s better if you can live in fresh air and sunshine, and run and play outside and”–he chuckled–“ride.”
My eyes opened wide and my heart seemed to skip a beat. “Ride?”
“Yes, Son. You will bring your own horse to the Circle C, a big black gelding I bought just the other day. You can name him whatever you like. He’s yours.”
Mama’s sickness flew to the back of my mind at the news. Now that I’m older, I know Pa did that on purpose so I wouldn’t cry when I had to leave Mama. My head was stuffed full of names and what I’d do on my own horse. I’d ridden all of the army’s horses at the Presidio, and not even the orneriest old jughead could throw me. They could crow hop, buck, or twirl in a circle and I stuck like a burr. Pa’s men said the soldiers had “never seen the like for such a tadpole.” They meant me cuz I wasn’t very big for my age back then. I named my new black gelding Midnight, which Pa agreed was a fine name.
Then he got down to business. Pa said that some people sick with consumption went to stay at a sanatorium (whatever that was), but Mama begged to stay where Pa could see her more often. She did not want to be sent away to Europe, where these facilities were popular. It would only depress and worry her to be so far from Pa, which was something the doctor said she must not do.
So Mama planned to stay in the Presidio’s hospital in a room by herself, where she would get plenty of care and not spread the infection to others. She would be moved as soon as I left. I tiptoed over to her bed on my last morning. “Mama?” I whispered. “I’m leaving.” My eyes stung. Pa was looking out the window. The young woman, Helena, taking care of Mama hovered, and I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted to talk to Mama alone. I glared at her when Mama wasn’t looking. She sighed and left.
Mama opened her eyes and reached out a long, pale hand. “Be good for your Uncle Sid,” she whispered. “He’s a good man, and he wrote that he’s looking forward to you joining him on the ranch. You’re a big boy and can pull your weight, can’t you, Son?”
“Yes, Mama,” I promised past the lump in my throat. “I’ll work hard. I’ll do whatever Uncle Sid tells me.”
Mama squeezed my hands. “I know you will. He also told me the Carters have a little girl just about your age. She might make a nice playmate for you when you are not working.”
I wrinkled my nose. I preferred to ride and chum around with the other soldiers’ boys at the Presidio. Girls did silly things like giggle too much and play with dolls and tea parties. But I said, “Yes, Mama. I’m sure she will be fine.” I didn’t want to give Mama any worries right now.
“You will have a break from school until you come home,” Mama went on, coughing. She covered her mouth with a handkerchief and paused her words. She looked completely worn out from just this little bit of talking. “Sid won’t impose on the Carters to haul you back and forth to town for school, even though their older daughter attends. I suppose you can catch up when you return.”
This was a piece of excellent news. I didn’t care much for school, but my teachers said (I overheard them) that I was “smart as a whip” and was reading way beyond my years. It would be nice to work outside with the horses and with the Circle C cook and Uncle Sid and not be cooped up inside a hot, stuffy classroom. Yippee-ki-yay!
Pa came over just then. “Mama needs to rest, Riley. Kiss her cheek good-bye and let’s be on our way.” I obeyed and whispered in Mama’s ear. “Get well soon. Maybe I’ll be home for Christmas and you’ll be fit as a fiddle.” I liked that saying, fit as a fiddle, and had heard Sergeant Myers say it just the other day.
“I love you, Riley,” Mama said, holding me as tightly as her weak arms could.
“I love you too, Mama.” Then I smiled and reached for Pa’s hand. I kept looking behind my shoulder as Pa led me out of Mama’s room, thorough the front room, and out the door into a sunny spring day. Instead of traveling to the railway station in a rig and tying Midnight up, Pa and I rode side by side. I felt mighty big for my britches when we trotted past the Presidio’s schoolhouse. It was first recess, and more than one boy gave me an envious look. “Bye, ya’all!” I hollered loud enough for Miss Jenkins, the schoolmarm, to hear. She poked her chubby, wrinkled face out the door and blew me a kiss. The rest of the kids hooted then went back to their ball games and jump ropes.
When we were settled in the railroad car and Midnight was safely secured in a cattle car, I asked Pa the question that was burning on my seven-year-old mind. “What’s consumption, Pa?”
He sighed and gave me the truth. After he told me everything the doctors had told him, I knew deep in my heart that I would be staying at the Circle C ranch longer than just a few months. My heart dropped like a stone to my belly. I forgot that I was a big boy of seven years old. I scooted closer to Pa and he held me on his lap, just like when I was little. I curled up and didn’t want him to let go. Not ever.
What is Tuberculosis?
Tuberculosis (consumption, the White Plague, wasting disease) is a serious and contagious bacterial infection that mostly invades the lungs. Another reason Riley had to go to the Circle C was so he did not become infected from his mother. Anyone could catch it. When an infected person sneezed or coughed, thousands of germs sprayed into the air.
Why was it called “consumption” in the past? The infected person lost weight, and it appeared as if the disease was consuming him. Tuberculosis (TB) has existed for thousands of years and was always shrouded in fear and mystery. And why not? There was no definitive cure and nobody knew about bacteria and infections. It wasn’t until 1882, when Dr. Koch investigated even deeper the sputum (spit) of TB patients and discovered the culprit–a bacillus-shaped bacteria. Even then, there was no immediate cure. People with TB took a long, long time to either recover or–more often–to die.
There were many theories about how to cure TB. One was “taking the prairie cure.” Maybe less damp weather would help the lungs. Other doctors believed the heart was working too hard, so if the patient were removed to a higher elevation and less atmospheric pressure, they would be cured. Others believed that giving the patient complete rest, good food, and no activity would rest the lungs and allow them to heal.
None of these worked all that well except the last one. Time, rest, healthy food, and an active immune system were the only hope (and slim at that) of a person’s recovery. Sometimes, it took months to finally leave the bed for just a few minutes. Then a few hours. TB patients had a long road to recovery. In Riley’s case, his mother became well enough to visit Riley the Christmas of 1874 when he was eight years old. It had been a year and a half since he had seen his mother. Mrs. Prescott stayed at the Circle C in her own room and rested, but it was plain to see that she would need more time before the Prescotts could go back to being together as a family, so Uncle Sid took his sister back to the Presidio without Riley.
Riley had arrived at the Circle C ranch during the spring of 1873 after just turning seven in January. He left the ranch in December of 1876, and would turn eleven years old in January 1877. He lived on the Circle C for almost three years, a lifetime for a boy.
In the end, the Prescotts’ patience paid off. Riley’s mother recovered completely, which was a rare and joyous result in the 1800s, when a quarter of the adult population of Europe was dying of TB.
There are two kinds of TB–latent (hidden and inactive) and active. In the “latent” form, the TB bacteria hangs out in the lungs but never becomes a threat unless the patient’s immune system is weakened. When Mrs. M was a child, people were given a “tine” test. This was a 4-pronged test that they poked you with on the inside of your arm between the wrist and the elbow. After a few days, you checked the 4 tiny pokes. If you saw nothing but 4 teensy holes, it was all good!
However, if a lot of redness developed around the 4 pokes (see the image), it meant you had been exposed to TB at some point. It did not mean you had TB, only that you had been exposed and might have TB hiding out in your lungs. Most people with “latent” (hidden) TB carry it all their lives with no harm, plus these people are not contagious.
Active TB, on the other hand, requires a long course of antibiotics. Active TB is a very resistant bacteria and quite contagious. Years ago, to everyone’s surprise, Mrs. M’s sister-in-law had a routine TB test for some reason or another, and she came out positive. And active. Eeks! She took antibiotics for a very long time. Who knows if her TB went into hiding after all that? Here are a couple of posters from the early 20th century.