PROLOGUE – NARRATTED BY NELL
Rainy Sunday afternoons often have a ‘What to do today? What to do today?’ dreary quality.
Do you not find that?
No? Oh. Well, I find that.
There are, of course, lots of useful things I could get on with.
I could write that long overdue letter to Caroline McMahon.
I could – yawn – mend the tear in my lace fichu. I should. It is not fair to leave it for Mary. She’s a housemaid not a lady’s maid. She has enough to do. I should do it myself. But – yawn. Maybe I’ll just never wear it again.
I could fish out my notes on that unusual complex fracture I set and, now the patient is unquestionably on the mend, turn them into a journal article.
I could even please my Aunt by, for a change, spending time in a way she thinks suitable for a young lady and practising my music.
I could – even should – do any of the above.
What I should NOT do, is spend the afternoon curled in the window seat watching raindrops run down the glass and brooding over Joshua Smith.
Brooding over ANY man is undoubtedly absurd and immature and a great waste of time. It is the kind of behaviour I once smiled at, indulgently, when I saw other women succumb. Without ever putting my opinion into words, even inside my head, I considered the proper scheme of things was for men to brood, unrequitedly, over ME.
And, if fretting over any man is foolish, fretting over Joshua Smith is verging on the ridiculous!
IF I am going to day dream about romance and proposals and first kisses and bridal gowns and – and wedding nights, I should EITHER choose an eligible possibility for the supporting role, OR descend entirely into fantasy and let Mr. Darcy or D’Artagnan writhe with passion at my feet and beg for a single touch from my hand.
Letting Joshua Smith fill my thoughts is so…so SILLY.
There is no future in it at all. He is completely ineligible for so many reasons.
I know nothing about him.
He has no steady job – let alone a proper profession. He does not even have an unsteady job.
He is not a gentleman. That is – he is not what Aunt Miriam would call a gentleman.
He is not …I pad around this in my mind…what I would define as a moral man.
He has no education. No – that is unfair. No man who is naturally clever, curious and reads widely has NO education. But, you know what I mean.
He left weeks ago.
He left weeks ago, without saying a proper goodbye, without leaving any way of contacting him, without even – though I am sure you appreciate this is not the aspect which occupies me most – paying my bill!
He left without – without SAYING anything. I mean saying anything to suggest he is interested in me. Unless you count…
No. No. He never said anything. Not really.
Probably he WASN’T interested.
Probably? Or…definitely? He hasn’t written and he knows where I am – so …definitely?
Those last few reasons why my brooding is a waste of time are so depressing I feel my throat tighten up. I am certainly NOT going to snivel about him! Never. Never. Never. I am NOT! I get up, take a really deep breath – NOT a sniff – just a really, really deep intake of breath that might sound like a sniff to the uninformed – and stride off to look out those fracture notes. I am not going to think about him any more.
If I can’t have Joshua Smith – who I don’t want anyway, because – because – well, just BECAUSE! Anyway, I don’t think about him any more – remember.
If I can’t have him, I will have the pleasure of – possibly – seeing my name in print in a distinguished – well, fairly distinguished – medical journal. Or at any rate, most of my name. Because even if I am silly enough to have wasted an hour thinking about his eyes …and voice…and the way he…
Even if I am THAT silly, I am not silly enough to plan to send in my contribution to the accumulated knowledge of the scientific community spelling out the fact I am a woman. That is not just silly – that is plain dumb.
No. Dr. H.E.A. Meredith M.D. will be perfectly truthful and allow the editors to picture a recently qualified (true), highly enthusiastic (true), gifted (modesty aside and just between us – true), young fellow (Ah ha! Not true but their fault for presuming!) at the start of a promising career (fingers crossed!).
AND, when Mister Joshua Smith reads it – THAT will show him…
Except he is hardly likely to read it, is he?
And – if he did, by the time it gets published (fingers crossed again) he probably won’t remember my name, even if I HAD included the ‘Helen’.
He probably never gives me a passing thought.
Not that I care.
As I explained earlier, I have better things to think about.
My notes spread out tidily; I pull a fresh sheet of paper towards me and make a start.
Five minutes in – I hear hoof beats out on the drive.
Hope surging, heart pounding, I dart to the window…could it be…could it…?
No. Of course it couldn’t.
This is ridiculous. I have been like a cat on hot bricks ever since he left and it is RIDICULOUS!
This time, I mean it – I really mean it! I am going to get a grip and forget him.
I return to my desk, pick up my pen and…
I go back to thinking about him. Thinking about the first time we met.
CHAPTER ONE – NARRATTED BY NELL
It was raining then too. It was the small hours of the morning and…
No. A little background first. I was sleeping over at the surgery – which I often do during the week to save the drive back to Aunt Miriam’s place – BUT, this time was different, because it was the week Dr. Coopers always takes his family for a vacation in Saint Louis. He attends the conference, then he comes back leaving Martha and the children to visit with her mother for a month. SO, I was staying over without the Coopers being in the house. Since that morning, I was THE Doctor in town. Not the junior Doctor allowing the Cooper practice to expand and offer a novel service for female patients who might like to confide in a woman. Not the junior Doctor for patients under the age of fourteen. THE Doctor. For a whole week! So what if the big city hospitals didn’t want to hire a woman – even though she’d graduated ahead of…
Well, never mind that. I was in charge! AND, I was going to show just how good I really was. I was jubilant! I pushed to the back of my mind the disheartening fact that for the past dozen years Dr. Coopers had taken a week away in April leaving no one in charge and that the town had managed to survive with Doctor Ellison twenty miles away in Clear Springs to call upon in case of emergency. I was itching for a nice little outbreak of – of – something not too painful, obscure enough to be a mystery to anyone who had not recently committed the most up to date medical texts available to memory and – curable!
What I got, his knocking and calls dragging me from sleep in the small hours of a wet, wet, night was Joshua Smith half helping, half carrying his injured friend from where he had him draped across his horse.
And when I saw so much blood, all the bombast went out of me like a pricked balloon. I had enough pride to hide it – but I was scared stiff.
TWO MONTHS EARLIER
“Is the doctor home, ma’am?”
“I am the doctor…NO! Try not to move the joint…I’ll steady it – you take the weight.”
“Knew there’d like as not be a doctor in a town this size…Saw the nameplate…Is he here?”
“On three – keep his hip still as you can as we move back – I AM the doctor – One, two, THREE. I said STEADY! Slow – Slow – Through here – Mind the door doesn’t catch him – Can you take the full weight while I use one arm to clear…?”
A nod. He watches me sweep aside the items on the table.
“On here – wait – I’ll try and – That’s it. Go turn up the lamps.” Light fills the room, I draw back my hands from the leg I had tried so hard to keep level; they are bloody.
He kept quiet while we carried his friend in. Now he repeats, “The sooner the doctor can get to him the better, ma’am…”
“I am the doctor.”
It is the third time, but – I think – the first time he truly hears it.
“Listen, ma’am, I can see you’re trying to help but he’s hurt real bad, took a bullet…and he needs…”
Fear of failure, fear for the patient stretched out in front of me, every breath rasping painfully in his throat makes me snap; NOT the doubts of a man frightened for his friend that I can be telling the truth. To be fair, it might not be just my being female worrying him. Wrapped in my thick flannel dressing gown, hair in plaits for the night, face shiny with cold cream – I assuredly do not look the part. I have one of those round, snub-nosed faces making me appear as if I still belong in the schoolroom until I get my hair pinned up and an ‘I’m a professional’ starched blouse buttoned around my throat.
“Look! Either let me treat him – or, here’s an idea – throw him back over his horse and ride twenty miles south to the next town where the doctor shaves and wears trousers, meanwhile – I’LL go back to my nice, warm, dry bed. Know what? Plan B sounds good to me. Close the door on your way out!”
I do not mean it, of course. He knows that. I do not look up for a second from the scissors cutting off the sodden boots; my knuckles shine white with the effort of shearing through leather, trying desperately not to move the foot, because if I move his foot the muscles in the injured leg and hip will shift too and then…
After a second of silence, the voice holds a note of apology, as he says, “I’ll stick with Plan A, ma’am.” A filthy – though finely-shaped – hand reaches over and gently takes the scissors. “It don’t take a doctor to do this. I’ll strip him – you get what you need.”
I go roll up my sleeves, pull on a clean apron, tie up my hair in a linen square, scrub my hands rinsing with dilute carbolic acid, gather instruments, spray them with more carbolic, pick up the chloroform and the mask.
“Bring all those lamps closer. Set the mirrors you see behind them to throw extra light on the wound. That’s right. Good.” I am back at the table, now. “Did you say, took a bullet? What happened?”
Hesitation, then, “We was bushwhacked, ma’am. Leastways, I guess that must be what happened. My horse got spooked by the gunfire; I was thrown, knocked out. When I came round – he was…”
A groan from the patient, “Haze. HAZE!” He moves. He MUSTN’T move.
“NO! Don’t remove that. Strip all round it – that’s right. I’ll take over.” I nod over at the back boiler. “The water in there will be good and hot – if you could…”
He is already ladling water into pitchers. Good.
I raise my eyes from the sticky cloth over the wound and look at him, properly, for the first time. “Did you put on this tourniquet – no – stupid question, of course you did. I think you saved your friend’s life.”
A pair of brown eyes, bleak with anxiety, meet mine. He is right. This life is not saved yet.
It will not be saved at all if he keeps moving.
“What’s his name?”
“Er – Jones. Thaddeus Jones.”
“Mister Jones, if you can hear me, try and lie still…”
“Yes, everything seems in a haze – that’s because you’ve lost a lot of blood and are in pain.” I do not think he CAN hear and understand me, but … ‘Always reassure the patient.’
“Mister Jones, I’m about to clean up this wound. But first – I’m going to anaesthetise you. When I put this mask over your face – try and breathe steadily.”
I put a pad into the mask – add the standard adult male dose of chloroform. No – he must be near six foot and well built, I add a couple more drops. The blue eyes look panic-stricken above the white of the lint as I hold it over mouth and nose. I smile, pat his shoulder, try and look soothing as I can. He has nothing left to struggle with anyhow.
“There he goes!”
“Anything I can do, ma’am?”
“Yes – but clean up first. Throw HIS clothes, your jacket – your scarf thing – the hat,” I look him up and down, he is filthy, but I can hardly ask him to strip to the skin, “…Throw as much top layer as you can out into the passage, put on an apron, cover your hair, then scrub your hands the way you saw me do. Scrub hard.”
“You reckon I’m crawling with Mister Louis Pasteur’s famous germs, huh, ma’am?” A rueful grin, despite his anxiety, “…I suspect you’re right.”
A quick smile back. He may be grubby, but he is intelligent – he reads more than dime novels, headlines and advertisements; AND, he is, again, understanding and following my rapid instructions before I even finish speaking.
“I can’t turn this into the Massachusetts General Hospital Ether Dome, but we can try not to make it worse than it has to be – good. See the clock on the wall? Every fifteen minutes – as well as anything else I ask you to do – I want you to add another two drops of chloroform to the pad. Any change to his breathing – call me to look. I’d like to be able to forget having to check the time…”
“You concentrate on the leg, ma’am – I can cover fifteen minute gaps…”
“Good. For now, take these…when I tell you to grip, you grip and hold the tension – but, DON’T pull.”
I start easing material from bloody, tattered flesh, cutting it free – or swilling with hot water with a little carbolic to un-stick the clotted blood.
“Left – tension left – now right – now…” I need more directions. “Er – diagonally toward the – er – that’s right. Good.”
I peal away the last remaining piece of cloth, stiff with dried blood. My heart sinks. I look up. Once again, his eyes meet mine. He may not appreciate every separate anatomical danger I have already mentally listed, but he knows enough to recognise – this is bad.
A silence. When I speak, the years of training pay off. I look calm. I act calm. I sound calm. If only I were calm.
“Clearly what we have here is an ingress wound to the right of the upper femur. However …”
Yes, I really do sound that pompous.
“…The oblique angle of entry suggests that the bullet is located towards …”
What can I say? It’s a gift.
“Rather than proceed through the upper thigh, the optimal route might be to make first incision through the pelvic area …”
Or not. Either way, can I ever complete this extraction without severing the femoral artery? And if I do, will my efforts to prevent bleeding to death cripple him forever by moving the bullet through half a dozen key nerves. Probably. Unless, of course, I actually am as good a Doctor as I would have you – and everyone else – believe.
Good – and dang lucky.
“… You have a second regular task. Each time the chloroform is refreshed, mist the air over where I’m working with the carbolic spray…”
“Hold this steady.”
It seems only minutes, but he drips chloroform onto the mask, so it must be over quarter of an hour before Joshua Smith speaks again.
“Never seen a bullet so deep,” he breathes.
“Did you SEE how I raised the muscle to allow me to slant the instruments beneath it obliquely to avoid…?” I realise my delighted crow of triumph is both premature and out of place. It was good though! I – me – I was good! I clear my throat and return to ‘calm professional’. “Hold this. Keep it perfectly upright.”
Silence. Without me asking he takes a fresh piece of lint and wipes my brow to stop sweat dropping onto the bloody mess below.
“Thank you.” I do not look up. I am concentrating on angling around a ligament.
“You sure do have a steady hand, ma’am.”
“So do you, Mister…?” All this time and I haven’t asked his name.
“Smith, Joshua Smith.”
“So do you, Mister Smith.”
Silence. The air stinks of blood mingled with carbolic mist.
“Ma’am, may I know your name?”
“Is he gonna make it, Miss Meredith?”
“Doctor Meredith. He’s young, he’s strong. If no infection sets in …” I meet his eyes.
“Yes. Mister Smith?”
“When he heals up – and after watching you work, I sure do believe he will…”
A pause. “Yes?” I prompt.
Another pause. His voice when he continues is gruff. “Will he be…Will he still walk okay?”
IF he heals up, I would settle for ‘walk at all’.
No. That is not true. I will not, NOT give way to an ‘if’, and I will NOT settle.
“There’s a risk of lameness,” I say. That is almost a lie of omission. “There’s a risk of losing the use of the leg.”
Joshua Smith stares at the still face under the lint mask.
“I’m used to thinking in terms of odds, ma’am. Can you give me odds?”
I blow out a breath. We avoid giving odds. We hate giving odds. No one ever really wants to hear anyway. What they want is something to translate as ‘it will be fine’. I am about to deliver a ‘difficult to calculate’ avoidance, when I meet his eyes. A fleeting, pleading look. He is not asking for the usual reassurance. He really, really DOES want me to pick a number.
“Er…” I pause, calculate.
“Is it …?”
“Shush! I’m multiplying through variables.”
He blinks, but he shuts up.
“I’d say close to a twenty percent chance of losing all use. About a fifty-fifty chance of some residual lameness.” Pause. I think math. “With a circa fifteen percent margin of error,” I add, conscientiously.
Another pause. The dark brows knit together.
“Shush! I’m multiplying through how much I can trim the odds because you’re just too dang ornery to fail.”
“I said hold it STEADY!”
“Out of my light. MOVE!”
“IF and WHEN I want to you get in my way like a great blundering ox – but WITHOUT the mental capacity usually present in the bovine family, I’ll tell you!”
Silently – just in my head. Please work. Please. Please, please work. Don’t let him die. He’s got a whole life in front of him. Please work.
The rattle of steel on steel as, at last, I drop a scarlet soaked bullet into the waiting tray.
“Ma’am. His breathing’s changed.”
I step up to the head. Check him. “Right. We reduce the Chloroform. From now on you…” On I go with my instructions.
I pause for a moment, push back one of the blond curls. “Come on Mister Jones. Work with us. Your friend Joshua – and me – we’re really trying, here. We both know you can make it. Come on.”
The dark eyes meet mine. “Can he hear you?”
“Probably not, but…” I give a half smile. “We don’t know, do we? It can’t hurt.”
I go back to my position.
Very low, I hear him murmur. “C’mon, Kid. You gotta make it. If you don’t do it for me – it’s not like you to disappoint a lady.”
CHAPTER TWO – NARRATTED BY NELL
I am at suture stage; nose inches from the wound, almost pop-eyed with the effort of keeping the stitches tiny. I do NOT want to leave him with a scar that pulls and twists just beneath his groin. BUT, as the procedure draws to a close, my mind stops racing fearfully over what comes next. Exultation bubbles inside me like – like – like a great big bubbling thing!
“Did you see the way I traversed the ligaments? AND, did you see me loop under the…? I knew I could do it! I KNEW it! Ha! Women aren’t suited to the pressures of surgery, aren’t they? Ha! HA! I’d like to see that pompous ass of a…
Wait until I tell…As soon as he recovers I’m going to write this up and…”
I make the mistake of listening to myself. I do not clap a hand over my mouth because both are fully occupied. But I do clamp my lips shut. I risk a tiny glance at the man assisting me. “Sorry. That wasn’t supposed to be out loud. Sorry.” Pause. My cheeks are warm. I wish I did not blush so easily. It is such a – a silly habit – so childish. If only I could grow out of it. Embarrassed, I ask, “Was it all out loud?”
“Yup.” A pair of dimples appear. “Ma’am, you just carry on! The more you pat yourself on the back, the happier I am! That means it went real well, huh?”
“I have the best assistant anyone could wish for. You should congratulate yourself too, Mister Smith.”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. I plan to get right on that…”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut.
Some of my remarks of the past couple of hours come back to me. I once thought the irascible abuse flowing from the lips of the senior surgeons towards students was, if not an act, a shade over-dramatising the tension they were under. Perhaps not.
“Did I call you a brainless ox earlier?”
“You kinda skirted round the brainless part, but – uh huh.”
“I owe you an apolo…”
“You don’t owe me nothing, ma’am.”
“Doctor Meredith. Yes, Mister Smith.”
“Do you have a first name?”
“I do indeed.”
I do not look up, but I allow one eyebrow to rise. Pause. He does not ask. I hear myself say, “It’s Helen.”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut.
Then, a knocking on the front door; half tentative. The sound of the door opening – again, tentative. A soft call, pitched NOT to wake anyone fast asleep upstairs, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Is everything okay here?” Then, much louder – our visitor has seen the piles of clothing strewn in the passageway and the light blazing from under this door – “What the Sam Hill? Mizz Meredith? NELL!” Rapid footsteps. I recognise the voice. Of course! Hours have passed. Eventually a dutiful deputy was bound to do a circuit of the town and see two strange horses – still saddled, blood on one coat – tethered outside the surgery. Mister Smith turns to face the door. His hand moves to a spot beside his right thigh – why? Did he mean to reach for his gun? It seems an overreaction – but perhaps being robbed earlier makes him twitchy. His weapon is outside with the rest of his gear anyhow.
“DON’T let him come in!” I order. I do not want additional dirt – or even another human being – in the room before I cover the wound. Before I finish the sentence, the door flies open and the bulky figure of Noah Lawson fills the gap. He has HIS gun drawn. I doubt dear old Noah would even dream of shooting at an unarmed man. Mister Smith does NOT know this, so it shows considerable coolness – and just a touch of the ‘greater love hath no man…’ spirit – that he walks towards the gun to bar the way, on my instructions.
“DON’T come in, Deputy Lawson,” I call. My eyes are riveted back on my task.
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. So close. So nearly done.
“What the SAM HILL?” Noah does say that a lot. “What the Sam Hill is goin’ on?”
At the same time Mister Smith is keeping his voice persuasive and reasonable, “I gotta ask you to step back, Deputy. It may look bad, but you can see the lady is perfectly fine…”
Look bad? What…? Oh! It had not occurred to me before, but I realise what the Deputy’s first glance will have shown. Discarded male clothes out in the passageway. Me in my dressing gown having spent the entire night shut in a room with a barefoot stranger wearing nothing but his long-johns.
“Step back please, Deputy,” still avoiding any tone that might sound confrontational. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just the mud on your boots and the dust on your coat the Doctor’s objecting to.”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut.
Noah does step back. He holsters his gun too. While not running any risk of being mistaken for an intellectual, he is no fool. His second and third glances tell him that whatever IS going on here, it is neither threatening nor improper.
“Who ARE you, fella?”
“His name is Joshua Smith. This is Thaddeus Jones. Last night they were robbed…” A qualm strikes me. “Bushshacked DOES mean robbed?”
“Bush-whacked,” he corrects me. “Uh huh.”
“They were robbed and Mister Jones was shot. Mister Smith brought him into town looking for a Doctor.”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut.
“Did you notice, Deputy – I said ALL that without moving my lips?” says Joshua Smith.
Hey! Is he making fun of me?
“Whoever you are fella, you sure got Nellie dang straight. She never was one to let a fella speak!”
Hey! Just because he and my uncle were boys together does not mean he can behave as if he dangled me as a baby …
Well, actually I suppose it DOES mean that. Drat!
With great dignity, to show I am above such teasing – though he KNOWS I hate being called Nellie! – I say, “In half an hour I’ll be finished. If you can come back and get cleaned up, we could use help moving the patient to a bed. Meanwhile, will you take Mister Smith and Mister Jones’ horses over to the livery? I’m sure they’d be very grateful. And, Mister Smith will want to stay with his friend – indeed, Mister Jones will need constant nursing and I have other patients, so he’ll have to stay. Then, when the sheriff comes on duty ask him to come over and take…”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut.
“Oh,” light laugh. Why does Joshua Smith suddenly sound nervous? “There’s no need for that, ma’am.”
“Don’t be foolish. The sooner those horses get a good meal and inside a warm, dry stall…”
“No. I mean – there’s no need to bother the sheriff. I didn’t get any kind of look at those bushwhackers and they’ll probably be in the next county by…”
“I’ll rouse up the sheriff right away,” says Noah, ignoring this. “‘Course, we won’t be able to do much ’til full light…”
“So, let him sleep. No need to rouse up Sheriff – er…?” The brown eyes look a question.
“Sheriff Bill Fraser,” supplies Noah.
“Sheriff Bill Fraser?” Smith repeats, thoughtfully.
“You know him?”
“No. No I don’t think I ever heard of a Sheriff Bill Fraser. There won’t be much I can tell him – but, naturally, I wanna co-operate to the fullest with the law. Just may as well let the sun come up first, huh?”
Suture. Tie. Cut. Suture. Tie. Cut. Last one! Suture. Tie. Cut. Finished!
“Mister Smith, please come hold this dressing in place while I bandage.” I give Noah a ‘thank you and good-bye’ smile.
“Uh huh,” grunts Noah. “I’ll go see to the horses.” A pause. “You’ll be staying here then, Smith?”
“Sure. Until Jones can be moved.”
“Nell – you oughta – I oughta go tell…”
“I am NOT going home and if you think Aunt Miriam will come here – Pfffttt!”
Mister Smith understands the problem but tactfully pretends to be deaf and keeps his eyes on the bandages. I take a couple of breaths. This nonsense can be so frustrating!
Noah decides to leave that argument for someone else to pursue.
He has half closed the door, when something occurs to him. “Er – Smith.” He’s embarrassed to mention it, but Noah is far from well off. “The livery stable – they don’t offer credit to strangers. It’s pay up front.”
“I was robbed last night and,” Mister Smith gives a rueful look down at himself, “…Do I look as if I have a wallet on me?”
“Tell them to send the bill to me,” I say.
Noah grunts another ‘uh huh’ and leaves. By this time, dawn is lightening the sky. It is morning.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he says. “My horse thanks you too.”
“I’ll just add it to your bill from me.”
“Cut this tape please. Yes, Mister Smith.”
“You do know I’ve no money. Neither has Jones. We can’t pay. Leastways, we’ll pay when we can – but I can’t say it’ll be real soon.” Pause. “I can’t promise it’ll be ever.”
“That’s it! Hand me the scissors! I’m taking out the stitches and putting the bullet back!” I glance up. “You do know that was a joke? I’ll trust you.”
He sounds rather touched when he says again, “Thank you, ma’am.”
LATER THAT MORNING
“So, what happened?” asks Bill Fraser.
I don’t think much of his question. Tchah! Far too open.
“Where did the incident take place?” I substitute. “We need to know the scene of the crime.” You see, I have read that the five best friends of a detective are, ‘Where, Why, Who, When and How?’ Or – were they the five best friends of a journalist? I must look that up.
Mister Smith half shrugs and, watching the sheriff warily, scratches his unshaven chin to indicate thought.
Maybe if I come at it from another angle. “Did you see where the bush-whackers came from?”
The Sheriff clearly thinks Joshua Smith leaves a lot to be desired as a coherent witness. He has a point. But…
“Remember, Mister Smith was rendered unconscious. I found a severe oedema – probably caused by the impact of a flat object at high speed here,” I indicate the spot on my own skull, matching the place on Mister Smith’s head I dressed – despite protests he was fine – after we, with Noah’s help, settled Mister Jones in bed, “…On the parietal region.”
“My horse threw me. Guess I hit my head on a rock,” paraphrases Mister Smith.
“Such an injury could result in partial amnesia of the…” Idea! “Maybe we could do a re-enactment!” I have read about them! They are one of the most modern… “We could…”
“Doctor Meredith,” interrupts the sherriff. “Does Smith’s injury affect his tongue?”
“Then please – let him use it.”
“Where were you when you got jumped, Smith?”
“Musta been a good ten miles west of here – though, every mile seemed a hundred to me with Jones slung across that horse, so maybe it was closer?” More uncertainly, “There was a rise to the East…curving into a ridge.”
The sheriff unfurls a map.
“Could it have been…?”
“Do you think it was here?” I point. “Below Armstrong Ridge?” I bet I am right!
Fraser frowns. “Doctor Meredith, if you could move your head out of the way and your hand off the map, that might make it easier for Smith to see.”
Huh! If he does not want my help – it is his loss. I gather up what I actually came for and make for the door. Slowly. I am not inquisitive you understand, I simply remember my Aunt’s oft-repeated injunctions that a lady always moves with elegant grace.
“It coulda been here – below Armstrong Ridge,” says Smith, deadpan. He catches my eye for a fleeting moment – twinkling amusement. He is not silently laughing AT me though, he is laughing with me.
“So you musta been coming from Teme Valley?”
The shadow of a hesitation before Joshua Smith’s “Uh huh.”
“And you didn’t get a look at any of ’em?”
“I just heard gunfire, saw figures move in the trees – maybe three or four, next thing,” he mimes a blow to the head, “Thwack and,” a tapered finger indicates the spinning of fast-approaching unconsciousness. “…All I was seeing was stars.”
I am about to close the door behind me, when the sheriff calls, “Doctor Meredith.”
I scamper back.
“How long until Jones comes round?”
“Not long. BUT, if you mean – when can you question him,” I consider. “Not today, not tomorrow – then I’ll see.”
The sheriff looks at me for a moment. A nod indicates that while he reserves the right to snub me as an interviewer of witnesses, when it comes to medical decisions, he will bow to my judgement.
A flick of his eyes indicates I may leave.
I leave. Slowly. (Grace, always grace.)
“Why d’you reckon they took your money but left your horses? Seems…”
“I’d only be guessing, Sheriff…”
Back in my bedroom – well, my ex-bedroom, so conveniently on the ground floor, I’ll move into the Coopers’ room upstairs – I go lay a hand on Mister Jones’ brow. Hmmm. I need to order extra ice, just in case. The breathing is steady enough. Good. I begin a list of instructions for Mister Smith to follow.
I suffer a sudden bout of borborygmus, (or, in case your Greek is rusty, my tummy rumbles.)
I am STARVING. Where is Mrs…? Oh! Drat! The clock tells me it is way too early to expect the Coopers’ daily help to arrive. Still, it is not as though I am incapable. Maybe I could make myself some… I run over my list of culinary capabilities. It does not take long. Maybe toast? I can do toast. I learnt at university. All those evenings we few women spent gorging ourselves on toast and cocoa and putting the world to rights until the small hours. Maybe a boiled egg? Not both! That would simply divide my attention and be asking for a charcoal incident. Maybe Mister Smith would like toast too? Or a boiled egg? We could have bread and butter with the egg – that is easy. I’ll wait until the sheriff leaves, then offer.
A tap at the door. “Ma’am.”
I step into the passageway. “He’s still unconscious, Sheriff. And, even if he weren’t…”
“No, no.” He waves away my concern. “Until you tell me he’s fit to be questioned…Nah. There’s something else on my mind. It’s Ann.”
Ann? His niece. My best female friend in the town. No, make that my best friend, period.
“What with her husband bein’ away – and her bein’ – y’know…” He gestures.
“In the family way…” he euphemises.
I see where this is going.
“How can I do my job – and it IS my job – if I am constantly hedged around with chaperone rules? This is not a church social. This is a…” I am only joining my stomach in a little grumbling. Bill Fraser knows that.
“Who mentioned chaperones? It’s just, though Ann never says anything; I think she feels nervous on her own…”
Ann?! Nervous?! She is about as nervous as I am! (Er – you do realise that is ‘not nervous at all’? Good.)
“I wondered if you’d do me a favour and ask her to stay. You like Ann,” he presses on.
Like her? I love Ann. Love her like a sister.
“Wouldn’t she be a help – nursing Jones? You’ve often said she’s…”
Yes, yes. I’m not denying she would be helpful.
“It only means her moving about across town…wouldn’t interrupt her work…wouldn’t interrupt yours…”
I think rapidly. Pick your battles. Sharing a room with Ann, having long giggling chats, as we brush our hair and get ready for bed – that is fine with me. Better than fine. AND, however much I protest, I know perfectly well I DO need a chaperone if Mister Smith is staying in the house.
Oh, I do not mean for a second I expect him to offer me any discourtesy.
The short-term pleasure of metaphorically stamping my foot and refusing to play by the ‘double standard’ is just not worth it. I need to save my flouting of society’s rules for things that matter. To risk invoking ‘moral turpitude’ sanctions to spend a night with a stranger – without even having the intention of indulging in compensatory sexual impropriety is silly. No, more than silly, it is plain stupid.
“I would love to have Ann visit,” I say. “Would you ask if she’ll come?”
“She says she’ll bring her things over lunchtime…” He has the grace to blush, as I raise a teasing eyebrow.
I put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you. Hey…” I sniff hard. “Is that – frying bacon?”
“I showed Smith where the kitchen was. Told him I was sure you wouldn’t mind if…”
I am already trotting in a porcine direction. He can cook!