Authors: Anna Murray
en with flesh wounds, many
looking suspiciously self-inflicted, lined up for treatment at the makeshift
surgery next to the Mineral Creek bunkhouse.
“Is it always this busy?” Hannah
asked Jed. As she finished bandaging one cowboy another stepped forward.
“No,” he threw back, “but then
again I don’t often bring a comely assistant.”
“Oh, Doctor, you do go on,” Hannah
played along, joking for the benefit of the men in line. They rewarded her
feminine voice and performance with hearty laughter.
“You’re no trouble,” Jed loudly
proclaimed. He grinned and winked, “Cal Easton will pay for the extra bandages.”
He waved the next man on. “What ails you, Rusty?”
The man turned his hat in his
hands as he glanced at Hannah. “Why don’t you take Buster afore me? He’s saddle
sore, and I can wait for the lady doc to check out my arm.”
“Your arm can cool it’s swelling
right here,” Jed quipped, and he pushed Rusty’s shoulders down, forcing him to sit
on a hard stump. “Besides, you don’t have an old steer’s chance with the lady.
Three of your cow punching pals have already asked her to the Friday social.”
Crestfallen, but not ready to give
up, Rusty ambled on. “Bart’s bragging on how she rubbed a poultice on his bee
sting. He says she’s got the right touch with her hands on his neck.”
Jed’s eyes narrowed. He flashed a
glare at his assistant, who was blushing and shrugging. “Well, it looks like next
time she’ll strangle him,” he quipped.
In fact, he’d make sure of it, he
thought, as his mind wandered to thinking about Hannah’s hands massaging the
painful knot growing in his neck, while watching a sunset on a far off horizon
with her. Then he imagined her head leaning against his shoulder as they swayed
to and fro in the carriage on the ride home.
He studied the object of his reverie.
His brow was etched with concern, because she was pale and favoring her right
leg. Sweat beaded above her upper lip. “Doctor Hannah,” he called out.
“Sit down and rest.
I’ll finish up with these last two men.”
Her shoulders slumped in relief,
and she slowly nodded. Hannah moved over to the bunkhouse porch and lit on a
Jed was packing his bag when the
chuck wagon, driven by Old Sam, the cook, came into the yard.
Old Sam’s face was white as his
“Doc! There’s been a bad
Hannah got to him first, as the
wagon halted just ten feet from her position on the slanted porch.
“I’ve got it,” she shouted out,
Old Sam stammered. “D-Dan was
riding ahead of me when his horse threw him. He was so close I couldn’t swerve,
and the c-cart ran over him.”
Hannah scrambled into the wagon
bed and began to undress the injured man, but when she pulled at his belt he
came apart at the waist.
expression on her face was horrific as Jed came up beside her.
“Close your eyes.”
She didn’t obey. “I’m doing my
job,” her voice quavered.
He wished he could spare her the
sight of the man’s severed trunk.
“Let’s make him comfortable.”
Jed reached into his bag,
and together they gave the man a large dose of morphine. His eyes fluttered
open, his gaze vacant. After he lost consciousness Hannah continued to talk to
him as if he were still there, assuring him she’d write to his family.
Dan had withered away, and Hannah
stepped back. Jed and Old Sam covered his body with a tarp.
By then other men had crowded
around in a silent mass, and Cal Easton had been summoned. The tragedy left
them bereft of words, but those who could speak cursed. The young wrangler
As there was nothing left to do, Jed
helped Hannah to the carriage in a bid to hasten their separation from the
scene of the tragedy
She pressed a shoulder into his
side, her warmth seeping through his shirt.
“I’m sorry you had to handle that
She shook her head and moved a
hand to cover his lips. He felt the gentleness of her touch. “It’s what the job
is,” she said quietly, “every body has a story, if a doctor takes the time to
listen. The tales might be drama and tragedy, or an adventure or ballad, or
even a fairy tale with a moral to be learnt.”
He sighed. She was right, but that
didn’t lessen his need to ease her, as he felt compelled to comfort anyone who suffered
physical or mental anguish. He pulled a blanket from behind the seat and
brought it up to cover her shoulders, but it could only protect her from the
chill of early evening, not the bitter gale of loss of life.
Hannah placed her hand over his as
he searched for the right words to ease the pain and the powerful image of a
dying cowboy. Offering comfort had come so easily hundreds of times before, but
now his efforts came up empty.
Awkwardly he took her hand and
wove his fingers through hers. She had small fingers, but they were powerful.
He’d seen her work at bandaging and splinting, and she was strong enough to
hold down a man twice her size.
Touching her hand gave him comfort,
comfort he shouldn’t take from a woman. The skin beneath his fingers was soft
and smooth and he reminded himself he had no right to it, and he was only
easing her distress.
After a few minutes of silence Jed
removed his hand and took up the reins.
“You all right, partner?”
Her chin fell to her chest. “Good
enough. Thank you.” She did not look him in the eye, but gazed out at the
They rode home in silence, and he
wondered if she’d be able to sleep.
He’d have trouble nodding off, but he’d ease in with his drugs. She
would not, and that made her, he reluctantly admitted to himself, a stronger
And after she left him he’d go
back to going home alone. There’d be no one to ride beside him in the carriage,
no one sweet to share his home. The solitude of his life had been easily dismissed
until she’d arrived; now loneliness struck him with depressing force. Sharing
meals, discussing cases, and watching the light flicker in her eyes when she
smiled – these were simple pleasures he’d miss immensely.
In this moment of despair and sadness
he had a partner to share it, and that made all the difference.
Jed slapped the horse to go
faster, to outrun the feeling and to get home sooner so he could find
consolation in the morphine hidden behind the books on the shelf.
ed unhitched the mare and brushed her down in the
stable behind the house. His hands were shaky; he needed his self-medication.
Jed hated this weakness, this dependency, but he’d find comfort soon, and then
he’d forget his personal failings while he drifted in the velvet haze.
Hannah had gone on up to the house to start supper, and now Jed walked
briskly to the door. He paused and knocked lightly before he entered, made an
excuse to visit the surgery as he passed her in the kitchen, and headed for his
stash. He swallowed the opiate, taking care to hide the bottle behind several books
before walking back to join Hannah.
was tired and dusty. “I found mail on the doorstep, one for me and the rest for
you,” she motioned to letters stacked on the table.
picked up the mail and opened the letter on top. It was from his friend, Doctor
I write you with pleasure
that I am well, and hope you are the same.
Doctor Sutton should have
arrived by this time. You have no doubt enjoyed her quick mind, easy
disposition, and pleasant manner in all things, in spite of her coming from a
hard place. She had other offers and proposals from colleagues here, so you are
fortunate to have contracted her.
But enough about an angel: Life
goes on and I am looking for a hire to teach surgery. If you know of a
candidate, please inform.
set aside the letter and pinched the bridge of his nose.
She’d had opportunities to team with
other doctors? What were the “proposals” Cole made mention of?
Marriage? Why hadn’t she taken them?
Instead, she’d chosen the mail-order assignation with a man she’d never
laid eyes on. His eyes wandered to the object of his ruminations. Hannah was
perched quietly near the window, catching the oblique setting sunlight while reading
her own letter.
leaned her head against the wall. “Mother and Father want to come for a visit
when I get settled.”
gazed out the window. “I’ll be here another month, waiting on Nelda Rose’s
birthing, but after that . . .” her voice trailed off.
“You can stay longer,” he bit off before he thought about it.
brightened. “I was thinking the same thing. A six-month posting is common for a
new doctor to gain experience.”
“Yes. It’s reasonable.” He didn’t know why he was making excuses to keep
her close to him. Why was he frustrated and delighted at the same time?
“Thank you, Doctor Rutherford. I appreciate the opportunity.”
waved a hand in the air. It must be the morphine clouding his judgment. He
bristled at the mere hint it might be tearing down the wall between them.
Hannah rose and set the table for supper. Then she ladled beans and pork
from a pot. She sliced bread, delivered it on a blue plate, and, as was her
habit, she waited for him to commence eating before she picked up her fork.
wondered about the “hard place” Cole indicated she came from in the letter, and
how it created a strong, steadfast, and determined woman.
. . . your family news was good?”
“Oh, yes, Mother and Father are fine.”
“You have just the sister? No brothers?”
hesitated and her face tightened.
buttered a piece of bread.
Hannah had never
revealed much about her family, and he’d seen only one small tintype of her
parents -- earnest looking people with a haunting sadness in their eyes. She’d
mentioned that her father was successful in his business, and it was no doubt
one reason he’d been capable of exerting pressure in gaining his gifted
daughter entrance to medical college. With no sons, perhaps it was up to Hannah
to succeed in making a profession.
Something about this nagged at Jed. There was more, something grittier,
something disquieting. Hannah was holding back. She avoided relationships with
men, but it was just as well, because he’d be the first to step into her snare.
They ate in comfortable silence,
and when finished he rose and helped to clear the dishes. Then he took the
large cast iron pot out to the porch and filled it with water. He hauled it
back and set it on the stove.
“What are you doing?” she asked when he
went out again and hauled a hip tub into the kitchen.
“The doctor is ordering a bath,”
he grunted. “You can go first, and I’ll follow.”
“That’s . . .
thoughtful. I’d, I’d like a bath. I-I
like water.” She smiled brightly.
“Trail dirt,” he explained, and he
returned her smile.
“Oh, yes! I tasted it every time I
licked my dry lips on the ride back.”
He laughed. “Get used to it. The
warm water will also soothe your twisted ankle.”
“It’s already much improved.” To
show him how much she skipped to the sink and collected soap. She pulled a
towel from the shelf above.
Jed had a feeling she was
downplaying the pain, but he said nothing. Instead he moved around her as she
worked at the sink. He lifted the hot water from the stove and poured it into
the tub. Then he disappeared onto the porch, and moments later he returned,
hauling cool water to mix in.
He dipped a hand into the bath.
“It’s just right. I’ll wait in the parlor.”
Jed lit a lantern and strode from
the room, taking the rest of his mail and the town newspaper. In the sitting
room, Jed lit a second lamp and settled himself on the horsehair sofa. The
house was quiet in the twilight, and after a while he heard a splash as Hannah
immersed herself in the tub.
“You all right?”
“Yes, thank you, it’s very nice,”
she called back with childlike glee.
Jed scanned the headlines but had
trouble focusing on the words in the articles, owing to the contented sighs and
moans emanating from the kitchen. Instead of reading he imagined Hannah running
the soap up and down the white skin of her arms and shoulders, shoulders with loose
chestnut hair caressing them.
He had a nagging suspicion, and he
couldn’t help himself. He had to confirm his blind diagnosis. Tiptoeing to the
arch separating the kitchen from the hallway, he peered into the dim light.
Hannah’s wet head, was tipped back, her eyes shut as she savored the warmth of
her bath. The lavender-permeated the moist air, heated by the stove, settled
like a warm blanket around him. Jed breathed in the sensual scene, with a
careful, deep breath, so as not to be discovered.
As his mouth watered inexplicably,
Hannah rose and stepped out of the tub. Jed took in a heart-slamming view, as
his eyes travelled down her torso:
White shoulders, firm breasts, flat abdomen, and a small waist curved
into lovely hips. His lust and arousal drove him to stare openly, and his gaze
might have stopped at the place of most interest to a man who hadn’t had a
woman in two years, but something oddly misshapen caught his eye further down,
on her legs.
His mouth opened slightly when he saw the
scars trickling down the front of her left thigh and leg, like melted candlewax.
Jed swallowed and rubbed the back
of his hand across his mouth to suppress a choke. Hannah’s secret stood naked
in the glimmering twilight, her mysteries stripped in the blink of an eye: Her
fear of fire, her frantic reaction when he’d attempted to lift her skirt during
his cursory examination earlier that day, and the curious way she avoided
attention from men. Her childhood trauma was raw and heart-wrenching, and she
or someone else -- likely her parents -- had turned what they perceived to be a
lack of wholeness into a contradictory sentence of limitation and liberation.
The one thing she seemingly wasn’t allowed, marriage, had freed her to pursue
what other women were denied: Education and profession.
Like him, she was permanently
scarred, but she carried it silently, and with dignity. Thinking about her
strength and humility, coupled with the burning desire in his groin, Jed felt shame.
As he had no way to stop this bleeding, he hurried back to the parlor.