Authors: LaVyrle Spencer
"Are you able to sit up, Mr. Melcher?"
"I don't know. I think so." He raised his head but grunted, so she crossed the room quickly and touched his lapel, saying, "Save your energy for now. I shall be right back." She returned shortly, bearing pitcher and bowl, towel and washcloth, and a bar of soap balanced across a glass of bubbling water. When she had set things down, she stood beside him, saying, "Now, let's get your jacket off."
The whole thing was done so slickly that David Melcher later wondered how she'd accomplished it. She managed to remove his jacket, vest, and shirt and wash his upper half with a minimum of embarrassment to either of them. She held the bowl while he rinsed his mouth with the soda water, then she helped him don his nightshirt before removing his trousers from beneath it. All the while she chatted, putting them both at ease. She said she would rub flour into his suit jacket and let it sit for a few hours, and by the time she hung it on the line and beat the flour from it with her rug-beater, it would be as fresh as a daisy. He'd never heard of such a thing! Furthermore, he wasn't used to a woman fussing over him this way. Her voice flowed sweetly while she attended him, easing him through what would otherwise have been a sticky situation had she been less talkative or less efficient.
"It seems you have become something of a local hero, Mr. Melcher," she noted, giving him only the beginnings of a smile.
"I don't feel much like a hero. I feel like a fool, ending up stretched out here with a toe shot off."
"The townspeople have a great interest in our new railroad and wouldn't like to see it jeopardized in any way. You've saved it from its first serious mishap. That's nothing to feel foolish about. It is also something which the town won't forget soon, Me Melcher."
"My name is David." But when he would have caught her eye she averted hers.
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you, though I regret the circumstances, on your behalf. From where do you hail, Mr. Melcher?"
When she used his surname he felt put in his place and colored slightly. "I'm from back East." He watched her precise movements and suddenly asked, "Are you a nurse, Miss Abigail?"
"No, sir, I'm not."
"Well, you should be. You're very efficient and gentle."
At last she beamed. "Why, thank you, Mr. Melcher. I take that as one of the nicest things you could say, under the circumstances. Are you hungry?"
"Yes, I don't remember when I ate last."
"You've been through an ordeal, I'm sure, that you'll be long in forgetting. Perhaps the right food will make your stay here seem shorter and your bad memories disappear the faster."
Her speech was as refined as her manners, he thought, watching her move about the room gathering his discarded clothing, stacking the toilet articles to carry away. He felt secure and cared for as she saw to his needs, and he wondered if this was how it felt to be a husband.
"I'll see to your suit after I prepare your breakfast. Oh! I forgot to comb your hair." She had stopped halfway out the door.
"I can do that myself."
"Have you a comb?"
"Not that I can reach."
"Then take the one from my apron pocket."
She came back and raised her laden arms so he could get at the comb. His hesitation before reaching to take it told her things about him that a thousand words could not tell. David Melcher, she could see, was a gentleman. Everything about him pleased her, and she later found herself inexplicably buoyant and humming while she worked in the kitchen preparing his meal. Perhaps she even felt the slightest bit wifely as she delivered the tray of bacon, eggs, and coffee, and wished she could stay and visit. But she had yet another patient needing her attention.
At the bedroom doorway downstairs, she hesitated, gazing at the stranger on her bed. Just the fact that he was a criminal was disquieting, though he remained unconscious, unable to harm her in any way. His beard was coal black, as were his moustache and hair, but his skin, since last night, had taken on the color of tallow. Coming fully into the room, she studied him more closely. There was a sheen of sweat on his bare chest and arms, and she reached out tentatively to touch him, finding his body radiating an unhealthy inner heat.
Quickly she fetched a bowl of vinegar water and sponged his face, neck, arms, and chest, as far as his waist, where the sheet stopped, then left the cool compresses on his brow in an effort to bring down his fever. She knew she must check his wound, but at the thought her palms went damp. She held her breath and gingerly lifted a corner of the sheet. Flames shot through her body at the sight of his nakedness. Her years of caring for an incontinent father had done nothing to prepare her for this! With a shaky hand she lay the sheet at an angle across his stomach, his genitals, and left leg, then fetched two firm bolsters to boost up his right knee. She snipped away the gauze bindings, but the bandages stuck to his skin, so next she mixed vinegar water with saltpeter and applied the dripping compresses to loosen the cotton from his wounds. The shot had hit him very high on the inner thigh, which had been firm before the bullet did its dirty work. But now, when the bangage fell free, she saw that the wound had begun bleeding again. One look and she knew she had her work cut out if he wasn't to bleed to death.
Back in the kitchen she spooned alum into an iron frying pan, shaking it over the hot range until it smoked and darkened. She sprinkled the burnt alum liberally onto a fresh piece of gauze, but when she hurried back to the bedroom with the poultice, she stood horrified, gaping at the blood of this nameless train robber as it welled in the bullet hole then ran the short distance into the shallow valley of his groin, where coarse hair caught and held it.
How long she stood staring at the raw wound and the collecting blood she did not know. But suddenly it was as if someone had shot her instead of him. Her body jerked as if from the recoil, and once again she was frantically bathing, staunching, praying. In the hours which followed, she fought against time as a mortal enemy. Realizing that he must soon eat… or die… she beat a piece of steak with a mallet and put it into salt water to steep into beef tea. But he kept bleeding and she began to doubt that he'd live to drink it. Remembering her Grandmother McKenzie saying they'd packed arrow wounds with dried ergot, she next made a poultice of the powdery rye fungus and applied it. Feeling the man's dark, wide brow, she realized it had not cooled, so she swabbed him with alcohol. But when she stopped sponging, he immediately grew hot again. The fever, she realized, must be fought from within rather than without. She scoured her mind and found yet another possibility.
Wild gingerroot tea!
But when she brought the ginger tea back to him, he lay as still as death, and the first spoonful dribbled from his lips, rolled past his ear, and stained the pillowcase a weak brown. She tried again to force another spoonful into his mouth, succeeding only in making him cough.
"Drink it! Drink it!" she willed the unconscious man almost in an angry whisper. But it was no use; he'd choke if she forced the tea into his mouth this way.
She pressed her knuckles to her teeth, despairing, near tears. Suddenly she had an inspiration and ran through her house like a demented being, flew out the back door, and found Rob Nelson playing in his backyard next door.
"Robert!" she bellowed, and Rob jumped to stand at attention. Never in his life had he seen Miss Abigail look so bedeviled or raise her voice that way.
"Yes, ma'am?" he gulped, wide-eyed.
Miss Abigail grabbed him by the shoulders so tight she like to break his bones. "Robert, run fast up to the livery stable and ask Mr. Perkins for a handful of straw. Clean straw, do you understand? And run like your tail's on fire!" Then she gave Rob a push that nearly put him on his nose.
"Yes, ma'am," the amazed boy called, scuttling away as fast as his legs would carry him.
It seemed to Miss Abigail that hours passed while she paced feverishly, waiting. When Rob returned, she grabbed the straw without so much as a thank you, ran into her house, and slammed the screen in the boy's face.
Leaning over the robber's dark face, she tipped up his chin and forced two fingers into his mouth. His tongue was ominously hot and dry. But the straw was too flimsy, she could see after several unsuccessful attempts to get it down his throat. Harried, she scoured her mind, wasting precious minutes until she found an answer. Cattails! She plucked one from a dried bouquet in the parlor, reamed the pith from its center with a knitting needle, and—hardening her resolve—lifted the dark chin again, pried open his mouth with her fingers, and rammed the cattail down his throat, half gagging herself at what she was doing to him.
But it worked! It was a small success, but it made her hopeful: the ginger tea went down smoothly. With not a thought for delicacy, Miss Abigail filled her mouth again and again, and shot the tea into him, but as she was removing the straw from his mouth, some reflex in him decided to work and he swallowed, clamping down unknowingly upon her two fingers. She yelped and straightened up in a pained, arching snap, pulling her fingers free to find the skin broken between the first and second knuckles of both.
Immediately she stuck them in her mouth and sucked, only to find a trace of his saliva on them. An outlaw! she thought, and yanked a clean handkerchief from within her sleeve, fastidiously wiping her tongue and fingers dry. But staring at his unconscious face, she felt her own flood with heat and her heart thrum from something she did not understand.
Realizing it was near noon, she left the man to prepare David Melcher's tray. When she brought it to his doorway, Melcher's jaw dropped.
"Miss Abigail! What's happened to you?"
She looked down to find flecks of blood strewn across her breasts from beating the steak, maybe even some from the body of the man downstairs. Raising a hand to her hair, she found it scattered like wind-whipped grass. As her arm went up, a large wet ring of sweat came into view beneath the underarm of the trim blue blouse which had looked so impeccable this morning. Too, there were those two bloody tooth marks on her fingers, but those she hid in the folds of her skirt.
Gracious! she thought, I hadn't realized! I simply hadn't realized!
"Miss Abigail, are you all right?"
"I'm quite all right, really, Mr. Melcher. I've been trying to save a man's life, and believe me, at this point I think I'd be grateful to see him with enough strength to try to harm me."
Melcher's face went hard. "He's still alive, then?"
It was all David Melcher could do to refrain from snapping, "Too bad!"
Miss Abigail sensed his disapproval, but saw how he made an effort to submerge his anger, which was altogether justifiable, considering the man downstairs had done Mr. Melcher out of a big toe. "Just don't overdo it. I don't think you're used to such hard work. I shouldn't want you becoming ill over the care of a common thief."
An undeniable warmth came at his words, and she replied, "Don't worry about me, Mr. Melcher. I am here to worry about you."
Which is just what she did when he'd finished eating. She brought his shaving gear and held the mirror for him while he performed the ritual. She studied him surreptitiously, the gentle mouth and straight nose, strong chin with no cleft, no dimples. But it was his eyes she liked best. They were pale brown and very boyish, especially when he smiled. He looked up and she dropped her eyes. But when he tended his chore again, swiveling his head this way and that, his jaw jutting forward and the cords of his neck standing out, it made the pulse beat low in her stomach. Without warning came the memory of the robber's sharper features, thicker neck and longer, darker face. Forbidding countenance, she thought, compared to the inviting face of David Melcher.
"The robber wears a moustache," she observed.
All the gentleness left David Melcher's face. "Typical!" he snapped.
"It certainly is! The most infamous outlaws in history wore them!"
She lowered the mirror, rose, and twisted her hands together, sorry to have angered him.
"I can see that you don't like to speak of him, so why don't you just forget he's down there and think about getting yourself better? Doctor Dougherty said I should change the bandage on your foot and apply some ointment if it gives you pain."
"It's feeling better all the time. Don't bother."
Rebuffed, she turned quickly to leave, sorry to have riled him by talking about the robber, especially after Mr. Melcher had been so complimentary over the fried steak and potatoes and the fresh linen napkin on the tray. She could see there was going to be friction in this house if the criminal managed to live. Yet she'd taken on the job of nursing him, and she was bound to give it her best.
Returning to the downstairs bedroom, she found he'd moved his right hand—it now lay across his stomach. She studied its long, lean fingers, curled slightly, the shading of hair upon its narrows, and saw what appeared to be a smear of dirt on it. Edging closer, she looked again. What she had taken for dirt was actually a black and blue mark in the distinct shape of a boot heel. Carefully picking up the injured hand by the wrist, she laid it back down at his side. But when it touched the sheet, he rolled slightly, protectively cradling it in his good left hand as if it pained him. Instinctively she pressed him onto his back, her hands seeming ridiculously minuscule upon his powerful chest. But he fell back as before, subdued and still again.
It was hard to tell if the hand was broken, but just in case, she padded a small piece of wood, fit it into his palm, and bound it, winding gauze strips up and around his hairy wrist, crossing them over the thumb until any broken bones could not easily be shifted. She noticed as she worked that his hands were clean, the nails well tended, the palms callused.
Checking his forehead again, she found it somewhat cooled but still hotter than it should be. Thinking back wearily to yesterday when she'd set out for town and a job at Culpepper's, she thought how little she'd suspected she'd end up with a job like this instead. Perhaps Culpepper's would have been preferable after all, she thought tiredly, slogging back to the kitchen for cotton and alcohol again. She looked around in dismay at the room: pieces of torn rags and gauze everywhere; used wet lumps of cotton in bowls; vinegar cruet, salt bowl, herb bags, scissors, dirty dishes everywhere; blood splatters on the wall and the highboy, and the stench of burnt alum hanging sickeningly over everything.