Authors: Anna Murray
, Copyright 2011, by Renee Murray. All rights
reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
whatsoever, without written permission except in the case of brief quotations
embodied in critical articles or reviews.
The characters and events
portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity
to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the
Wounded Colt, Montana Territory
as I shouting in my sleep again?
Jed Rutherford had woken from his insistent nightmare, shaking and
drowning in sweat,
his heart pounding
like artillery fire. The dark terror of
the dream writhed in his belly:
prisoner-of-war stepped over the deadline -- a boundary etched into the dirt to
form a prison without bars. Jed's heart was lodged in his throat as he watched helplessly when the gray
ran across, chasing the cap that had flown off his head. The mental lapse carried grave consequence.
A shot pierced the camp
air as a Union guard discharged his weapon, and
there was nothing Jed could do for the
screaming soldier. The man was sliding to hell on a broken back.
Now clawing his way to a dry patch of
crumpled sheet like a desperate man searching for shelter in a storm, Jed
grunted and pulled one bronzed arm across a clammy brow while the other one trawled
the nightstand for a grain of morphine. He needed the drug badly. Indeed, his sanity
hung on the fact that it would soon be burning in his veins.
As always after such an episode, Jed battled against the sweltering
fear riding an undercurrent of anger, his sorry state made all the greater by recent events: A measles epidemic had ripped across
the valley, not a week after his partner abandoned him. Jed was doctoring solo in this prairie-dog town shot into the depths of nowhere. Sickness and death surrounded him; his battlefront-frayed nerves
were constant reminder of the years stolen from his life . . . never to be regained.
These days Jed felt twice his age of
thirty-one. Outwardly he appeared a young, handsome man, but the demons had tattered his spirit, and hidden disfigurement ebbed and flowed with the magma of loathing and
The weary doctor stared at the whitewashed
ceiling and consoled himself with the certainty that the good citizens of Wounded
Colt didn’t know, or even suspect, the truth: Their medicine man hadn’t come all
the way back from the war. Memories ran short in the territories, and after all, he’d served as a surgeon,
a soldier, and thus his affliction
couldn’t be the shellshock of the unwashed masses. Little did they realize, the horrors reserved
for men of Jed’s noble station wore on like one endless battle: Unchecked
bleeding from gaping wounds, amputations done without proper anesthesia,
infections. The recent measles outbreak had rekindled a dark stalking dread, and the panic swept over him in rising waves, too much like the old past terrors when most men in his care succumbed to common diseases like dysentery, typhoid, diphtheria, and measles.
Jed figured hell couldn’t be worse than the
loss and deprivation he'd witnessed during those years. At Antietam the bodies
lay so thick he could walk across the battlefield without touching the ground. Men
ripped at their clothing to find their wounds, probing and praying it wasn’t a
gut shot. Volunteer nurses held the suffering boys’ hands as they called out for their mamas. No matter how many times he told
himself he wasn’t to blame, he couldn’t forget the suffering and his damned
mortal limitations. None of it was his fault. Severe supply shortages had reduced
Jed to desperate measures like covering wounds with corn leaf bandages, ripped from nearby stalks on the battlefield,
until Clara Barton or the sanitation commission arrived with a creaking wagonload of medical supplies.
After the war ended Jed’s nightmares had continued, running to limbs and bodies
piled up like cordwood. Phantom blood ran deep enough to drown
a man’s faith in humanity.
It wasn't his fault,
he told himself again.
Jed shoved the opiate into his mouth and
quickly downed it with one gulp of tepid water from the tin cup he kept at
his bedside. As the drug began to take hold he felt relief. Memories were chased back to
the edge of awareness.
Jed's addiction had started
innocently enough, with drinking, which was easy to cover because the Union surgeons
controlled the whiskey supply, but Jed had faded into experimentation with ether,
and then the opiates. Hell, he thought, most of the surgeons in the outfit ended up, at the
least, heavy drinkers. The weakest among them desperately put rifles to their
He wasn't to blame.
Then, shortly after the war ended, Wounded
Colt’s aging doctor requested help. At the time, Jed was at the Indiana Medical College,
taking training recommended by his Minnesota friend, Mayo. “For you, this is a
chance to make a new start,” his mentor had assured him. As there was nothing holding him
back, Jed answered Doctor Chandler’s call and hauled his angry and irritable
self to Montana territory.
It was a journey he’d taken with few reservations,
but on the rare days Jed was being honest he’d admit he’d broken one promise.
Lord, Mariah was a treasure.
Her gentle smile, soft
laughter and loving words had waited for him to come home after Lee’s surrender.
Even now he chastised himself, for his inability to overcome his bitterness
enough to pen a proper letter to his betrothed. How could he explain to
such innocence that his youthful dreams were an early casualty of the war, abandoned
to cruel, harsh reality? No, he could not, and he could never be the husband she deserved. After all, a trail
of broken hearts and betrayals followed the war, and she’d someday
come to understand. Perhaps her brother, Carl, who had served on the front
lines, would explain to her the infirmities of war.
Jed’s parents were also baffled by his behavior, and they wrote as much
in their letters, but he was never able to summon the courage to tell them: The
boy they raised was dead. They’d surely fear the son he’d become.
Jed had buried his feelings with his dead
patients. He’d left his better self on a battlefield, and what remained was a
broken man, living in the shadow of lingering depression.
Jed lifted his head and gazed at the early morning sun
streaks angling through the faded blue, wind-blown bedroom curtain.
twittered. Roosters crowed. A horse whinnied.
When Jed listened to the sounds of
prairie life he knew this post in Wounded Colt suited him. A frontier town
overlooked a man’s debts -- especially a doctor’s vices. Wounded Colt needed
him as much as he needed it. After all, the town wandered at the crossroads of
two dangerous livelihoods: Mining and ranching. A doctor was a valued citizen,
and not only did the prairie town hold the advantage of dismissing any
indiscretions, but a professional man lacking a wife was accepted without
question. Without a doubt, Wounded Colt had enticed Jed the way an oasis lured
a thirsty traveller in the desert.
In the year since he’d arrived,
the practice had grown. At first Jed was frustrated with the quackery and
outdated methods of his practice colleague, Chandler. Oh, he’d made progress in
educating the man, but then the old doc decided to split the practice, giving
Jed the more populous area around Wounded Colt, while Chandler moved to the
other side of the valley. Chandler deemed it a practical decision. Separated, they
could cover more territory, yet Jed couldn’t help but wonder if his own bouts
of anxiety and irritability had pushed Chandler over the edge. The prickly old porcupine’s
quills had spiked up more than once over Jed’s morphine habit.
Chandler’s departure left Jed with
a new problem: He could no longer rely on his partner to cover his backside when
he had a fitful night or foggy lapses in concentration.
Absorbed in contemplation betrayed
by a furrow etched deep in his brow, Jed hauled himself up in the bed, pressing
smooth, strong hands over his rumpled shirt and wool pants. Feeling the sting
of shame creep into his stomach, he swung his weary limbs over the side, rose,
and walked, wooden-legged, to his swivel chair at the writing desk. Jed hesitated
only briefly before he gripped a pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and addressed a
request to his colleague at Indiana Medical College.
hope this letter finds you, your colleagues, and your students well. I am fine,
but Wounded Colt grows quickly, and I have need of an assistant surgeon to
commence work straight away. I can offer lodging and forty-five dollars a
month. I respect your discretion in choosing a suitable candidate.
Jedediah A. Rutherford
Jed’s bloodshot eyes danced across
the scrawl as he checked his spelling. Satisfied, he blotted and signed the
letter, reached into a drawer, and pulled out an envelope. Then he loped over
to his bed, leaned across it, and recovered his boots from the side near the
window, where they’d fallen when his exhausted body hit the hay the previous
evening. He sat and tugged them on and ran a hand over the stubble covering his
jaw. He decided he’d shave when he got back from his errand.
After a few moments Jed checked to
make sure the ink was dry. Satisfied with his correspondence, he folded it into
the envelope and walked down the stairs, past the bright examining room, and
into the street.
The doctor’s little clapboard
house wore the dubious distinction of being the last on the edge of town. The
location provided him privacy, and a healthy walk to the Main Street. Jed loved
his quiet surgery and home; the place billowed with air whenever he opened the
windows. This was vital, it was the key to good health. Jed’s patients recovered
more quickly when exposed to clean, crisp breezes.
On this spring day Jed’s long,
purposeful stride ate up the dirt; his thick brown hair flew from his blue eyes
and angular face as he made for Watkin’s General Store.
His walk took him by the jail, and
Roy Easton, the town sheriff, paced back and forth on the boardwalk. Jed quickened
his step and saluted him stiffly.
The sheriff touched his hat brim
and squinted. He’d recognized Jed at a hundred paces; Roy Easton was one of the
few tall men who could face Jed straight on. “Rutherford,” he snapped. “What
good fortune brings your path across mine today?”
“Posting a letter. I’m sending for
a mail-order doc to join my practice.” He slowed his pace but kept walking.
“You don’t say?” Easton grimaced. “About
time you had assistance.”
“We’re down to three with measles,
but I don’t want to go it alone the next time. I’m on my way to check on Hunt’s
brood after I stop at Watkins.” He smiled tightly.
“Good luck.” The sheriff settled a
hand on his wide gun belt.
“Right. Give my best to your
brother, Cal, and his wife, Sarah.” Jed called back as he strode further away
and out of conversation distance. It paid to be cautious around Roy Easton. A
former cowboy and the silent partner at the Mineral Creek ranch, Easton was the
one man in town who likely knew of Jed’s weakness, and it was downright
uncomfortable to dwell on the possibility. Easton hadn’t fought in the War
Between the States, but as a lawman he’d been down the trail and back. There
wasn’t much that escaped his notice. It was even possible he suspected what
sparked the letter. Jed had come close to losing a patient, due to being tired
and stretched like a deer hide at the tanning. He barely dodged botching the
case; the man had hung on in spite of him arriving late to the blood-letting.
Cold, hard reality crashed into
Jed. He was on the path to oblivion, and it was his duty to deal straight on
with his condition.
As he neared Watkins, Jed shoved a
hand into his duster pocket. He fingered a surgical knife he found inside, and pushing
the store door open with his shoulder, he strode over the plank floor. The
place was empty but for Watkins obsessively wiping a rag over the counter. He
glanced up, noting the condition of Jed’s cambric shirt, and grunted.
“Doc. Can I steer you to buying
new shirts?” He continued his cleaning.
Jed wagged his head back and
forth. “I have a letter to send.”