Authors: Anna Murray
ohn Hawkins prayed to his God for
forgiveness every day, yet Wounded Colt’s hotelkeeper had nothing to show for
his sin atonement efforts but a load of heartbreak and a head of prematurely
Hawkins had kept gritty secrets from
his wife and friends. His guilt festered, and now he was convinced: God sent
Hannah Sutton to Wounded Colt to be his permanently erected gallows. As if her
brother’s grave, next to his stillborn son’s plot in the cemetery, wasn’t
enough of a reminder. His tithing and aid to the poor hadn’t been sufficient
penance; he’d been punished through his wife’s inability to bear a live child.
No, none of it was enough, he thought. Now
Doctor Hannah Sutton would preside over Nelda’s confinement and the birth! Was she
just another instrument of revenge for the crimes of his youth?
John Hawkins climbed down from his
wall of worry to check a miner into the hotel. He took the man’s money and
glanced at Nelda, who was cleaning and refilling kerosene lamps. It was a chore
he avoided, because the smell triggered powerful, unbearable memories.
His thundering trepidation grew alongside
Nelda’s growing waistline, but there was no rain to quench the blistering heat
of it. He felt as helpless as the biblical Job.
John reminded himself: He a kid
when he’d been hired on at Jack Dullen’s ranch, a few miles outside of town. At
fifteen, he was eager to please the boss, and anxious for cowboy adventures,
even when Dullen turned out to be an ambitious tyrant.
Jack Dullen had a way of
manipulating the squarest of men, of making them see things his way, especially
when they didn’t want to follow along. Johnny Hawkins had trusted most people,
especially those who held land and authority, but he thought he knew how to
spot a phony schemer.
When he coveted his neighbor’s
land, Dullen tried to buy him out.
refused the bid, and Dullen decided to make trouble for the man. On a clear,
starry night he ordered John and Garrett, another young cowpuncher, to set fire
to Sutton’s barn.
It was to be kept between them,
and nobody intended for anybody to get hurt, but hell’s bells, there were kids
in the barn! It was late and the only sounds were the brays from animals within
the structure. If he’d known the Sutton kids played and bedded down in there he
wouldn’t have gone near the place!
He and Garrett splashed the
kerosene and set a roaring blaze to the side facing away from the house. They
fled back to the ranch, and no one was the wiser, except maybe Cal Easton.
Easton was a busybody, who didn’t trust the law that Dullen had installed in
the town at the time.
Dullen’s evil had been perpetrated
for greed’s sake; for pete’s sake, the man was wealthy beyond most folk’s
reasonable measure. John searched in desperation for something pure and
redeeming to remove the black spot from his soul, but the anger never left him.
He fled the ranch and wandered for a long spell. Meanwhile, the bereaved Sutton
family went back east. Garrett drowned in a supposed accident, but John knew
better, as he’d thought about going down that same path to avoid living with
Dullen surrounded himself with
protectors while he continued his rampages, and eventually he was killed after
he raided the Easton place and kidnapped Cal Easton’s wife, Sarah. In fact, Sarah
Easton shot Jack Dullen, flat out killing him after she broke free of the ropes
binding her. For her act in ridding the territory of the vilest rattler, she held
a special place in John’s heart. She owned the courage to do what he should
Now John Hawkins felt like the
last buffalo standing, as he was the only man who knew the truth about the fire
at the Sutton place. He’d take it to his grave, and likely sooner than later,
for it was killing him from the inside out.
Months after Dullen’s death,
John’s uncle Clyde passed on and left him a cash inheritance, so he came back
to Wounded Colt, bought the hotel, and made a go of it.
John’s wife, Nelda Rose, was the abandoned
daughter of a Swedish boy and an Irish Catholic girl. When her mother became
pregnant her father forbade her marriage to her lover because he was Lutheran,
and a minister and his wife adopted Nelda. By the time John met Nelda Rose he
was successful in his business. He could have made a marriage with a higher
class woman, but he chose Nelda, because she was, at once, his healing light
and penance. Over the years he’d grown close to Nelda, who was cheerful and had
low expectations for her life. Nelda worked hard to please him, was a good cook,
and never refused him in the bedroom. Most days he felt he didn’t deserve her.
She’d been eager to start a
family, but their efforts brought only heartache, and hope dimmed. The business
thrived, and they blindly plodded along.
And now Hannah had come to town,
and lately he had to force himself out of bed to go to work. His heart was
breaking all over again while holding onto the slimmest thread of hope.
heard Jed’s footsteps below in the early dawn, and it set her thoughts cascading
like a waterfall after a snow melt.
She wasn’t going to leave. He needed her.
She’d read about, heard, and seen
this horror that afflicted men engaged in war. Back in Ohio she’d met a man
who’d gone deaf when the soldier next to him was killed in battle, even though
he himself had not been wounded in any part of his body. Others were afflicted
with paralysis, the “exhausted heart”, and the night terrors that stalked them
for years after their battlefield experiences. Some killed themselves in shame,
while others went to live in the soldier’s homes, after the public outcry over the
number of insane soldiers wandering about the countryside.
Hannah knew many people who were
put out of their wits, exhausted by extreme fear, and she understood: She’d been
broken after the fire, suffering from nightmares of conflagration, and loss of
appetite. Her family moved back to Ohio to put distance between her and the
terrible event, and eventually she’d been able to leave most of it behind.
Yes, Jed Rutherford needed her.
She could close her eyes and imagine distracting him from his fears, just as
her parents and community had done for her as she recovered from her burns.
Time and rest were important, but she must also change the ground beneath his
feet to bring him back to humanity. Restoring roots and hope to the weary was
work to consume a nation; everyone was trying to restore the normal after years
of collective insanity.
She decided Jed would be her personal
contribution to the cause; it would take a toll on her.
But that was why she was a doctor,
wasn’t it? Yes, her mission was to restore the health of body
Hannah rose and pulled her
trousers on before fussing with her shortened skirt. If she hurried, and the
clinic had few patients this morning, she’d have time to finish her latest painting.
She skipped down the stairs with a
tentative smile and a new purpose.
They barely had time for coffee
before patients lined up at the door.
Hannah had a surprise for Jed that
day, as she’d hung her first painting in the room the night before, while he
was out at the weekly card game she’d convinced Roy Easton to arrange, with
Watkins and Farrell, at the general store. She’d worked Roy to recruit Jed to
the base ball team.
It turned out Jed had a surprise
for Hannah as well. As they entered the room her eyes latched onto a curtain
partition in the surgery. Jed had fashioned it so they could treat two patients
at a time.
There was little time for mutual
praise as Jed entered the room with Mrs. Hudson and her colicky baby. His eyes
lit briefly on Hannah’s masterpiece. The crying child eyed the pastels of
wildflowers – yellows, pinks, and lavenders – and she quieted.
“It’s lovely,” Jed remarked, “and
it seems to have a soothing effect on this patient.” He doled out one of his
Hannah was thrilled, but she
pushed the feeling down. “Thank you. It covers the cracks. I like the curtain.
When we treat patients they’ll have a bit more privacy.”
Mrs. Hudson moved closer to the
painting and cooed, “pretty colors, Audrey, pretty, pretty.”
Little Audrey stretched out a
chubby hand and touched a violet flower.
Mrs. Hudson flashed her grey eyes
at Rutherford. “This place needed a woman’s touch. Doctor Hannah, where did you
purchase such a lovely picture?”
Jed cleared his throat. “Doctor
Sutton is the artist.” There was a prideful note in his voice.
“Oooh, you’re talented.”
She winked at Doctor Rutherford. “She’s
He didn’t reply, but shuffled to a
table and waved an arm. “Set Audrey here. Let’s have a look in her ears.”
Hannah retreated to the kitchen
where the next patient was waiting. She was pleasantly surprised to see Nelda
“Nelda! How are you?”
She laughed and her cheeks
glowed with the fullness of her pregnancy.
Hannah grinned. “A good sign.”
Nelda’s mouth turned down. “My
tummy hurts. It burns from there to my throat. Is the baby all right?”
“You feel it kicking, don’t you?”
“All the time!”
Hannah’s eyes danced. “That’s
good. Your stomach hurts because there’s not enough space for the growing baby
and the food you eat. Try eating smaller meals, and drink more water. Stop
drinking coffee. Drink warm milk with honey instead.”
“The baby isn’t harmed?”
“No. The baby’s fine. I have
something else for you. Come with me.” Hannah led Nelda into the surgery, where
she sat her down on an oak chair. Hannah scanned the row of crocks under the
windowsill, found the one she wanted, opened it, and breathed in the odorous
assault of peppermint leaves.
spooned a cup into a paper bag and added ginger from another tin. She turned
and handed the mixture to Nelda. “Make a tea from these leaves to sip twice a
Nelda Rose took the package, and
heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank you, Doctor Hannah.”
As they walked back to the kitchen
Nelda caught sight of the new painting.
“That’s beautiful! I’d love one
like that to hang in the hotel lobby.”
“You’re in luck. I have another
She gasped. “You made it?”
Hannah pulled her work in progress from
behind the door.
“Would you like
Nelda’s eyes rolled over the
bright green rolling hills and blue sky. “Oh my, yes, but I don’t think I have
enough to pay you for it and the doctoring,” Nelda ruefully replied. A thick
silence permeated the space between them.
Hannah whispered. “Might I trade
you for three suppers at the hotel for Doctor Rutherford and myself?”
Nelda’s face lit up.
“It’s a deal! About time you two stepped
out together.” She winked.
Hannah ignored Nelda’s smug
matchmaking joy, and she held out a hand to shake on their business
transaction. “OK, then.”
“John is going to love this,”
Nelda gushed as she admired the canvas. “I recognize that old tree! I heard a
story about the place -- there was a farm there, but part of it burned and the
people living there left.”
Hannah wondered how she recognized
the location. Except for the unusual tree, the landscape could have been any
piece of prairie. “Oh, I just liked the tree and the sunset lingering over the
grass there. I’ll have it finished by Saturday. How about I bring it over when
we come for supper?”
“Perfect. Thank you again, Doctor
Nelda waved as she
lumbered out the door.
“You’re welcome, Nelda.”