HE CAME INTO THEIR lives during the last ragged days of a Montana winter.
It was the time of year when the country got to looking bleak and tired from the cold. The snow lay in yellowed clumps like old candle wax, the cottonwoods cracked and popped in the raw air, and spring was still more a memory than a promise.
That Sunday morning, the day he came, Rachel Yoder hadn’t wanted to get out of bed. She lay beneath the heavy quilt, her gaze on the window that framed a gray sky. She listened to the creak of the wind-battered walls and felt bruised with a weariness that had settled and gone bone deep.
She lay there and listened to Benjo stoking up the fire in the kitchen: the clatter of a stove lid, the rattle of kindling in the woodbox, the scrape of the ash shovel. Then the house fell quiet and she knew he was staring at her closed door, wondering why she wasn’t up yet, fretting about it.
She swung her legs onto the floor, shuddering at the cold blast of air that billowed up under her nightrail from the bare pine boards. She dressed without bothering to light the lamp. As she did every morning, she put on a plain dark brown bodice and skirts and a plain black apron. Over her shoulders she draped a black triangular shawl, whose two
long ends crossed over her breasts and pinned around her waist. Her fingers were clumsy with the cold, and she had a hard time pushing the thick blanket pins through the stiff wool. Yet it was the Plain and narrow way to use no hooks and eyes or buttons. The women of the Plain People had always fastened their clothes with pins and they always would.
She did her hair last. It was thick and long, curling down to her hips, and it had the color of polished mahogany. Or so the only man who’d ever seen it let down had once told her. A soft smile touched her lips at the memory. Polished mahogany, he had said. And this from the mouth of a man who’d been born into the Plain life and known no other, and surely never looked upon mahogany, polished or dull, in all of his days. Oh, Ben.
He’d always loved her hair and so she had to be careful not to let it be her vanity. Pulling it back, she twisted it into a knot, then covered it completely with her Kapp, a starched white cambric prayer cap. She had to feel with her fingers for the cap’s stiff middle pleat to be sure it was centered on her head. They’d never had any mirrors, not in this house or the house she’d grown up in.
The warmth of the kitchen beckoned, yet she paused in the cold and murky light of the dawn to stare out the curtainless window. A stand of jack pines along the hill in back of the river had died during the winter and was now the color of old rust. Clouds draped over the shoulders of the buttes, leaden with the threat of more snow. “Come on, spring,” she whispered. “Please hurry.”
She lowered her head, laying it against the cold glass pane. Here she was wishing for spring, but with spring came the lambing time and more than a month’s worth of worry and toil.
And this spring she’d have to live it on her own.
“Oh, Ben,” she said again, this time aloud.
She pressed her lips together against her weakness. Her husband knew a better life now, the eternal life, warm and safe in God’s bosom and the glory of heaven. It was selfish of her to miss him. If only for the sake of their son, she had to find the courage to surrender to God’s will.
She pushed away from the window and made herself smile as she pulled open her bedroom door and stepped into the warmth and yellow light of the kitchen.
Benjo stood at the table, pouring coffee beans into the mill. At the click of the latch his hand jerked, and beans scattered across the brown oilcloth. His eyes, too bright, fastened hard on her face.
“Mem? Why are you up suh—suh—so late? Are you fuh—fuh—fuh . . .” He clenched his teeth together as his throat worked to expel the word that was stuck somewhere between his head and his tongue.
Doc Henry said that if her boy was ever going to get over his stuttering, she had to quit finishing his sentences for him and let him do his own battling with the words. But she did ache to watch him struggle like this, so much that sometimes she couldn’t bear it.
She shook her head as she came up to him, saying, “I’m only feeling a little lazy is all.” Gently she brushed the hair out of his eyes. She hardly had to reach down to do so anymore, he was getting that big. He would be ten years old come summer. Before long he would be growing past her.
The days, how they could flow one into the other without your noticing. Somehow winter, no matter what, turned into spring, and the lambs came and the hay was cut and the wool was sheared and the ewes were mated and then the lambs came again. You got up in the morning and
put on the clothes of your grandmother, you went to the preaching and sang the hymns your grandfather once sang, and your faith was their faith and would be the faith of your children’s children. It was this—the way the days flowed like a river into the ocean of years—that she’d always loved about the Plain life. Time’s passing became a comfort. The sweet sameness of it, the slow and steady sureness of time passing.
“I expect we got ourselves a bunch of hungry woollies out there,” she said, her throat tight with a wistful sadness. “Why, folk can likely hear their bleating clear over in the next country. You’d best get started with hitching up the hay sled, while I see to our own empty bellies. We’re going to be late for the preaching as ’tis.” She ruffled his hair again. “And I’m feeling fine, our Benjo. Truly, I am.”
Her heart ached in a sweet way this time as she watched the relief ease his face. His step was light as he went to the door, snatching up his gum boots from in front of the stove and his coat and hat from off the wall spike. His father had been a big, strapping man with black eyes and hair and a thick, chest-slapping beard. Benjo took after her: small-boned and slender even for his years, gray eyes. Mahogany hair.
He had left the door open behind him, and winter came into the kitchen on a gust of stale wind. “Mem?” he called out from the porch stoop, where he’d sat down to pull on his boots. He craned his head around to look at her, his eyes happy. “Why is it shuh—shuh—sheep’re always eating?”
This time she had no trouble smiling. Benjo and his impossible questions. “I couldn’t say for sure, but I suppose it takes a powerful lot of grass and hay to make all that wool.”
“And all that shuh—sheep p-poop.” He hooted a laugh as he jumped up, stomping his heels down into the boots.
He pumped his arms and leaped off the step into the yard, splattering icy mud all over her porch.
His shrill whistle cut through the air. MacDuff, their brown and white herding collie, burst out of the willow brakes that lined the creek. The dog made a beeline for Benjo, jumping onto his chest and nearly knocking him down. Rachel shut the door on the sound of the boy’s shrieking laughter and MacDuff’s barking. She smiled as she leaned against the door a moment, her head back and her shoulders flat against the rough-hewn pine.
The burp of the coffeepot sent her flying to the stove. Judas, she’d have to hurry with breakfast if they were going to make it to the preaching without being unforgivably late. They met for worship every other Sunday, all the Plain People who homesteaded this high mountain valley. Short of mortal sickness no one ever missed a preaching.
The hot lard sputtered and popped as she laid a thick slab of cornmeal mush into the fry pan. She cracked the window open a bit to fan out the smoke. The mush sizzled, the wind moaned along the sill, and from out in the pasture she heard the sheepherder’s traditional call: “O-vee! O-vee!”
She glanced out the window. Benjo was having trouble coaxing the band of pregnant ewes out from beneath the shelter of the cottonwoods and into the feeding paddock. The silly animals milled in a stubborn bunch. With their long bony noses and wide eyes staring out of ruffs of gray wool, they looked from this distance like a bevy of spooked owls.
Just then Benjo stopped flapping his arms at the sheep and stood still. His head was up and slightly tilted, his gaze focused on the distance, and something about him in that moment pierced Rachel’s heart. Poised still and alert beneath the cottonwoods, he suddenly seemed his father in every way.
She stepped up to the window, the pan of sizzling mush forgotten in her hand. Her breath fogged the glass and she had to wipe it clear. That was when she saw him, too, the stranger walking across their wild hay meadow. An outsider, wearing a long black duster and a black hat. Headed toward them.
There wasn’t anything particularly threatening about him, yet her fingers gripped tight the handle of the fry pan. A gust of wind rattled the windowpanes, and she shivered.
HE WALKED IN A lolling, floppy kind of way, like a whiskified man whose legs were no longer on speaking terms with his head. No one ever walked in these parts. It was too empty a place for a body to go anywhere without a buggy or a horse. And a man on foot, so most of the outsiders believed, was no man at all.
Rachel left the warmth of the house and met Benjo in the yard. They both watched the stranger come, making his slow, staggering way right at them. “Maybe he’s a drummer whose wagon has broken down,” she said. MacDuff, still guarding the sheep beneath the cottonwoods, stood stiff-legged, a growl rumbling deep in his throat. “Or maybe he’s a cowhand whose pony’s pulled up lame.”
The snow in the meadow had been blown into waves by the winter wind and frozen over and over by winter days and nights. Although the wind was blowing shrill now, she could hear the crunch of his boots as they broke through the ice crust.
He stumbled onto one knee. The wind caught his black duster, making it billow so that he looked like a crow, wings spread for flight, silhouetted against a pewter sky. He
lurched to his feet again, and left a streak of bright wet red on the waxy yellow of the old snow.
“He’s huh—huh—huh—!” Benjo cried, but Rachel had already lifted her skirts and was running.
The stranger’s foot caught in a crest of ice and he went sprawling, and this time he didn’t get back up. Rachel fell to her knees beside him so abruptly that Benjo, following at her heels, almost ran into her. Blood seeped into the snow in a spreading circle around them.
She laid a hand on the stranger’s shoulder. The man recoiled at her touch, rearing onto his knees and flinging up his head. She saw utter terror well in his eyes before they fluttered closed and he slid again to the ground in a heap of black cloth and red blood.
The pool of blood had grown larger. The whole lower half of his black linen duster was wet and shiny with it. Bright red footprints led from the meadow back into the stand of pines from where he had come.
“Benjo,” she said, her voice croaking. The boy jerked and took a step back. “Benjo, you must ride into town and fetch Doctor Henry.”
She turned on her knees and reached up to grasp the boy by the shoulders. “Benjo . . .”
His eyes were wild, and he swung his head back and forth, hard. “Cuh—cuh—cuh—”
She gave him a little shake. “Yes, you can. He knows you, so you won’t need to talk. You can write it down for him.”
Benjo’s wide gray eyes stared back at her, his face skewed up with fear. It was always an ordeal for a boy with his Plain dress and his Plain ways to go into town, to go among the outsiders. Most often they merely stared and whispered
behind their hands, but sometimes they were cruel. To a skinny Plain boy who choked on his words, they were almost always cruel.
She gripped him by the neck, nearly knocking off his hat. “Benjo, you must. The man is dying.” She spun him around and pushed him toward the yard. “Go on, now. Go!”
The man was dying. She couldn’t imagine why he wasn’t already dead, with the blood he had lost, was still losing. She needed to get him into the house. Out of the cold wind and off the icy ground where he would die surely, and soon.
She tried to lift him and couldn’t. She grasped him by the arms and dragged him, then saw the river of fresh red blood pour out from beneath him, and stopped.
She heard the suck and plop of hooves in mud and looked over her shoulder. Benjo had just come out of the barn, riding their old draft horse bareback. He stared at her a moment, then nudged the mare’s rounded sides with his heels and slapped her on the rump with his hat. The horse snorted and broke into a trot, clattering over the corduroy bridge that spanned the creek and heading up the road to town, following the wagon wheel tracks left in the snow.
Rachel scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed it in the stranger’s still, white face. He groaned and stirred. She slapped him on the cheek hard, then slapped him again harder. “Wake up, you. Wake up!”
He woke up, partly. Enough to push himself half onto his knees again. She saw that his right arm was broken, and bound up roughly in a sling made from a man’s black silk neckcloth.
She laid his other arm over her shoulder and grasped him around the waist, and somehow got him onto his feet. “We’re going to walk to the house now,” she said, though
she doubted he heard her. The wind blew hard, buffeting them. His breath came in ragged gasps.
They crunched through the crusty snow, wrapped up arm in arm, so close his beard-roughened cheek scraped hers and his hair whipped at her eyes. The butt of the rifle he carried in a saddle scabbard over his shoulder kept banging her on the head. The revolver holstered at his hip gouged her in the side. Her nostrils were choked with the smell of him, the smell of his blood.
SHE MANAGED TO JERK the quilt off her bed before they fell into it, still locked together in their strange embrace. She stiffened, rigid beneath his weight, terrified that he had just died on her, that she was lying beneath a dead man. She bucked and heaved against his chest, and flung him onto his back. A bright red stain had already begun to spread on her muslin sheets.
If he was still bleeding so, he wasn’t dead yet. His face was a gravestone white, though, his eyes closed and sunk deep in their sockets. Livid welts marked his cheek where she had slapped him.
He lay awkwardly on the rifle scabbard, and she had to struggle against his weight to pull it out from beneath him. She spread open his blood-wet duster. His worldly clothes, once dandy fine, were now so blood-soaked she had to spend precious seconds trying to discover where he was hurt. She ripped open his bloody vest and shirt.
He had a bullet hole in his left side.
The hole was small and black and pulsed blood with his breathing. She made a thick pad out of a huck towel and pressed it to the wound, leaning against it hard with the heels of her hands. She did this until her arms began to
tremble with exhaustion. But when she lifted the pad she saw that, while the bleeding might have slowed some, it hadn’t stopped.
She ran from the room, banged out the door and into the yard. The wind whipped her skirts and slapped the strings of her prayer cap against her neck. She frightened the chickens that scratched in the straw by the barn, scattering them in a squawking cloud of flapping wings and molting feathers. She pulled open the barn door and was struck in the face with the pungent smells of cow and chicken and sheep, sheep, sheep. Smells that were so much a part of her life that she seldom noticed them. But this time nausea rose in her throat and she coughed, retching.
It was the blood. He’d been covered with so much blood. She squeezed her eyes shut and all she saw was blood.
She gathered up all the cobwebs she could find, thinking that if Ben were alive there wouldn’t have been so many. She wanted Ben alive, to take care of the man who was dying in their bed.
She brought the sticky cobwebs back to the house cradled in her apron where the wind couldn’t snatch them away. She was almost afraid to go into the bedroom, sure that he’d have died while she was gone. But he hadn’t. He lay in a dreadful stillness, though, and his blood now dripped onto the bare pine floor.
She poured turpentine into the bullet hole. He jerked at the sting of it, the skin of his belly shuddering, but he didn’t waken. She laid the webs over the wound and packed it with a clean compress, then backed away from the bed, and kept backing away until her legs nudged the seat of her rocking chair. She sat down slowly, her blood-stained hands lying palms-up in her lap. She shut her eyes, saw blood, and wrenched them open.
She lifted her head and for the first time really looked at the face of the outsider who lay on her bed.
He was young, no older than twenty-five, surely. His hair was the brown-black of fresh plowed earth, his skin milk pale, although that could have been from the loss of so much blood. He had arresting looks: high sculptured cheekbones, long narrow nose, wide-spaced eyes with thick, long lashes. She couldn’t remember the color of those eyes, only the pure and utter terror that had flooded them when she first touched him.
It was Mutter Anna Mary who had the healing touch. From her father’s grandmother Rachel had learned the healing lore, but the touch—that was a gift from God and so far He had not seen fit to give it to her. Her great-grandmother said the healing touch came simply of faith. Of opening one’s soul to the power of faith the way a sunflower unfurls its petals to the warmth and the light.
Rachel stood slowly and went back to the bed. She laid her hands on him the way she’d so often seen her great-grandmother do. She closed her eyes and imagined her soul opening like a flower, petals unfolding one by one, reaching, reaching, reaching for the sun.
His chest moved beneath her hands, a ragged rise and fall. She thought she could hear the rush and suck of his heart beating. Beating and beating, louder and louder, and she tried to imagine the life passing from her fingers, like a river pouring into the ocean, until she became part of the rush and suck of his heart.
But when she opened her eyes and looked down at his face, she saw the blue lips and pinched skin of coming death.
“COME ALONG THERE, YOU. Open up.”
Rachel pushed the rubber nipple between the outsider’s lips and tilted the kidney-shaped nursing bottle so that the milk would flow more easily down the feeding tube and into his mouth. “That’s it, that’s it,” she crooned. “Suckle now, suckle it all down like a good little Bobbli—”
She looked over her shoulder as if she’d just been caught doing something foolish. Judas, what was she thinking of, to speak such outlandish words, and to an outsider, no less? And she couldn’t imagine what had prompted her to do such a thing anyway, to try to feed him from a pap bottle as if he were a bum lamb.
Only it seemed she would have to do something to replace all the blood he’d lost or he would surely die. And she’d saved many an orphaned lamb in just this way, by feeding it a mixture of milk, water, and molasses from a nursing bottle.
She was having as little success getting the outsider to cooperate, though, as she sometimes did with the bum lambs. Most of the milk leaked out the corners of his mouth and dribbled down his chin.
She was sitting beside him on her big white iron bed. She swung her legs up and leaned against the acorn-spooled rails of the headboard. Struggling against the dead weight of him, she rolled and lifted him up against her, then cradled his head to her chest. She felt him stir a little beneath her hands. And when she rubbed his throat like she did to the lambs, to get them to suckle, she felt him groan. When she put the rubber nipple to his mouth, he drank from it hungrily.
She laid her hand against his cheek, pressing him even closer to her, and lowered her head, resting her own cheek against the softness of his hair.
SHE WAS OUT IN the yard, waiting, when Benjo came back with the doctor.
The phaeton lurched over the frozen ruts in the road, swaying on its high wheels. It pulled abreast of her, and she caught her image mirrored in the shiny black lacquer. She was startled to see her prayer cap askew and straggles of loose hair flying about in the wind. A streak of dried blood slashed across her cheek like Indian war paint.
“Whoa, now!” Doctor Lucas Henry called out, pulling on the reins. He gripped the crown of his beaver bowler, and his tawny mustache curled around a lopsided smile. As usual, the whiskey shine was bright on his face.
“How there, Mrs. Yoder.” He slurred the words, but then she’d always thought he enjoyed for pure mischief’s sake putting on a show of wicked drunkenness, especially before someone who was Plain. “It sure is blowing something fierce this morning,” he said. “A body needs two hands and a pot of glue to hold down the hair on his head.”
Benjo rode up alongside the buggy. She searched his face. He was pale and a faint line creased his forehead, but his eyes shone more with excitement now than with fear. It was at him that she smiled, so he would know how pleased with him she was, though she said only: “Those poor woollies still haven’t been fed yet.”
The boy’s wide-eyed gaze jerked to the house, then back to her. When she said nothing more, he pulled the mare’s head around and headed for the barn.
The doctor swept his hat off his head and bent over at the waist in an exaggerated bow. “And a pleasure it is to exchange a howdy with you, too, Mrs. Yoder.”
His words and actions flustered her. It wasn’t the Plain
way to speak empty phrases on coming and going, and she never knew quite what to do when an outsider chose to practice such manners on her. She settled for nodding her head at him.
The doctor sat in the buggy, looking like a gaudy bird in his green and blue plaid woolen greatcoat, his lean face ruddy from the wind, his eyes laughing at her. “You keep on chattering like a demented magpie,” he said, “and you’re liable to wear out my ears.”
He stared down at her a moment longer, then heaved a deep sigh. He wrapped the reins around the brake handle, picked up his black bag, and swung out of the buggy. With one foot still on the booster and one on the ground, he wobbled and almost fell.
Beneath the drooping curve of his mustache, the doctor’s mouth pulled into another crooked smile, this one with a touch of meanness in it. “Well, hellfire and brimstone. There’s no call to go looking down that disapproving nose at me.” He tapped her nose with his finger. “Because while I’m hardly what you would call church-sober, neither am I gutter-drunk. What you could say I am is somewhat pleasantly skunked. Or rather you would say it, if you ever found the proper use for that tongue your Lord gave you. Well, my dear Plain Rachel? What do you think God gave you a tongue for if it wasn’t to use it?”
She wasn’t sure quite what he meant by most of the blasphemous nonsense he was always spewing. Like his smile it wasn’t a kindness, though, she was sure of that much. And she met his outsider’s animosity in the way the Plain People always did: by turning silently away from it. She started for the house, leaving him to follow.
“Your boy,” he said, falling into step beside her, his stride long-legged and only a little wavery now, “managed to
communicate to me in his unique way that you’ve had trouble come a-calling in the form of a devil, a demon, a prince of darkness . . . an incubus, perhaps?” He tried to wiggle his brows at her. “Dressed all in black and leaving bloody footprints in the snow.”
“He’s not a devil, he’s one of you outsiders, and he’s been gunshot—”
“Hallelujah, she speaks!” he exclaimed, flinging out his arms with such exuberance that he staggered. He smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. He shrugged. “So, how bad off is he?”
“He’ll die of it, I should think. I bathed the wound with turpentine and packed it with cobwebs. And I fed him from a pap bottle, the same as I do my bum lambs, to make up for all the blood he’s lost.”
She held the door open for the doctor. He paused next to her on the threshold, tall and slender, and so close she could have counted the fine lines that cracked the glazed skin of his face. The smell of whiskey oozed from him, sour as old sweat.
His eyes were golden-brown and full of mockery. “What a wonder you are, Plain Rachel. The very soul of ingenuity and efficiency and so much charity you have, too, for a dying sinner. Indeed, it’s a wonder you didn’t manage to resurrect the poor bastard all by your lonesome.”
She spoke the truth that was in her heart, because that was the only way she knew how to be. “I did try to heal him,” she said. “I laid my hands on him and I reached out to the Lord. But the Lord didn’t answer because my faith wasn’t strong enough.”
His gaze fell away from hers, and his mustache pulled down at one corner. His voice was serious for once. “No? But then whose faith ever is?”
As they stepped into the kitchen, the hot air from the cookstove and the smells of fried mush and blood hit them in the face. She waited while the doctor shrugged out of his greatcoat and then his frock coat and hung them both on the spike by the cookstove, along with his hat. She was relieved to see that his movements had sharpened. Perhaps he wasn’t as inebriated with the Devil’s brew as he had seemed.
He unfastened the pearl and gold links from his cuffs, slipped them into the pocket of his maroon brocade vest, and began to roll up his shirtsleeves. His dress was always flashy as a strutting gamecock, but today his high stiff wing collar was yellowed at the edges with dried sweat, and his gray silk tie hung loose about his neck. His fair hair, which he usually wore parted in the middle and slicked down with pomade, looked as if he’d been thrusting his fingers through it again and again.
He washed his hands at the slop stone and then went without asking into her bedroom. He knew where to go because he had been there once before, on the day he had brought home Ben’s lifeless body.
There hadn’t been anything he could do on that day, though, for a man the outsiders had hanged.
“I DON’T KNOW HOW he still lives,” Rachel said.
The doctor had removed the compress and was studying the wound. The hole in the stranger’s side continued to seep blood. Lampshine glinted off the blood and off the pale hair on the doctor’s bare forearms.
“During the Sioux wars I saw men punctured with more holes than a pie safe,” he said. He’d taken an instrument from his black bag and was probing the wound. “Yet they clung to life. One wonders why, in defiance of sense and science
and damn good manners, they bothered. . . . The bullet’s bounced off a rib and lodged in his spleen. I’ll need hot water and more light.”
She hurried to fetch the water from the cookstove reservoir. She came back to find Doc Henry standing at the dying man’s bedside with his head thrown back, a silver flask to his lips, his gullet rippling with his hearty swallows.
He lowered the flask, wiped his mouth with his wrist, and saw her. He flushed just like Benjo did when she caught him with his fingers in the sugar tin.
She set the water pail and an enamel basin on the floor with a loud clatter and a splash, then left. This time when she came back with the peg lamp, he was making a production out of laying his surgical instruments on the bedside table. But his eyes, when they looked up at her, were too bright and his hands trembled.
She stuck the peg lamp in a candle socket above the headboard. She adjusted the screw and turned back to the bed just as Doc Henry dropped the stranger’s leather cartridge belt and holster into her arms. His words came at her on a gust of whiskey breath: “You’d better put this up where—”
The weight of the belt surprised her. She juggled it in her hands, and the revolver slid out of its greasy holster and hit the floor. Something smacked into the wall, spitting splinters. The air itself seemed to explode with smoke and flame, and Rachel screamed.
She looked down at the floor as if hell itself had opened up beneath her feet. In truth, she could smell the sulfur smoke of hell, and the roar of its terrible fires smothered her ears.
Cursing under his breath, Doc Henry stooped over and picked up the pistol. She watched, stiff with fear, her ears
still ringing, while he emptied it of its remaining cartridges.
He held the gun out to her, and he was actually laughing. “I was going to tell you to put the damn thing up where we won’t trip over it and shoot ourselves stone dead.”
She stared down at the revolver. So black and cold it was, like some terrible dead thing. She couldn’t bring herself to touch it. He huffed an impatient grunt and took the gunbelt back from her. He looked around the room, his gaze falling on the wardrobe of rough unpainted knotty pine. Ben had built it for her with his own hands the first year they were married—even though it was breaking the rules for a man’s wife to have such a thing when it was the Plain way to hang your clothes on wall hooks instead.
“An oiled holster and a doctored trigger,” the doctor was saying, as he turned the revolver over and over in his hands. Rachel stepped back, afraid it would somehow fire again, even without bullets. “What a dangerous hombre you’ve brought into your saintly home, Mrs. Yoder.” He gestured at the wardrobe as if to say: “May I?” She nodded.
Her finger shook as she pointed to the corner behind her spindle-backed rocker, where she had set the stranger’s rifle scabbard. “There’s another,” she said.
He put both firearms into the wardrobe. But when he went back to the bed, she saw that there was still another, a small one tucked into a shoulder holster that hung beneath the stranger’s left armpit. The doctor seemed pleased to tell her it was a belly gun. Further exploration showed the man had tucked into a sheath in his boot a bowie knife, which Doc Henry called an Arkansas toothpick.
“Yup, this bum lamb of yours is sure enough a real desperado,” he drawled, putting these weapons with the others. The latch to the wardrobe door made a startlingly loud click in the quiet room as he shut it. “He’s packing enough hardware
to outfit Custer’s army.” He glanced sideways at her, mocking laughter in his eyes. She wasn’t sure if the laughter was meant for her or the dangerous desperado.
They undressed him then together, she and Doctor Henry. They undressed him down to the skin. He was built lean and strong, with long shanks and a deep muscled chest, a taut flat belly, and the maleness of him lying heavy against the dark hair between his legs.
She glanced up to catch the doctor’s eyes watching her, laughing at her again. And though it wasn’t like her at all, she blushed.
One of the doctor’s pale eyebrows lifted and his mouth curled slightly. “There’s nothing wrong in admiring God’s handiwork, Plain Rachel.”
He was still wearing that faint smile as he took a pair of spectacles from his vest pocket. He polished the lenses with a white handkerchief, over and over, then hooked the temples one at a time behind his ears. He seemed to be moving so slowly suddenly, like a man swimming under water. In the tense quiet Rachel could hear the moan of the wind, the tick of the tin-cased clock in the kitchen. The ragged breathing of the man in the bed.
Doc Henry’s long fingers slipped into the pocket of his striped pants and curled around the neck of the silver flask. She caught his wrist before he could lift the flask to his mouth.
The sinews and flesh beneath her fingers tightened. “Getting that bullet out is going to be trickier than braiding a mule’s tail,” he said. “I’ll need just a little nip or two to settle my nerves—”
“You’ve already had enough nips to settle your nerves into a stupor.”
He stared at her with bleary eyes a moment longer, then
pulled his wrist from her grasp. But he slid the flask back in his pocket. “I believe I liked you better, Rachel my dear, when you were the tongueless wonder.” He sighed deeply, looking down at the wounded man. “Pity I haven’t chloroform along with me to settle him into a stupor. But then he’s already so far under, just the shock of cutting into him is liable to kill him anyway.”
The doctor’s hand shook only a little as he picked up a scalpel from the bedside table and pressed the blade of it against the stranger’s pale skin. Blood welled and the flesh gaped, and it was Rachel who had to look away.
She heard the soft clinks of metal on wood as the doctor laid down the knife and picked up another of his gruesome instruments. She could hear his breathing and her own, and the clock ticking and the wind blowing.
The stranger groaned, and to Rachel’s shock the doctor actually huffed a soft laugh. “Feel that, do you, dear heart?” he crooned. “That’s good, that’s good—as long as you’re suffering, you’re still living.” The gunshot man groaned again and jerked violently. “Dammit, don’t stand there like a fence post, woman. Hold him down.”
Rachel leaned over the bed and gripped the stranger’s shoulders. His flesh was cold and hard and slick beneath her hands. The doctor probed and dug at the bloody wound. Rachel drew in a deep breath and swallowed. A bead of sweat trickled down from beneath her prayer cap and ran along her neck.
The doctor pushed out a grunt between his pursed lips. He straightened and held the bullet, pinched between a pair of long silver tweezers, up to the light. “A forty-four-forty,” he said. “Probably fired from a Winchester. See where it’s slightly flattened at one end—that’s where it struck the rib.”
He dropped the bullet into the basin of bloody water. “You’re looking kind of peckish there, Plain Rachel. I expect you could be using some of the Devil’s brew now yourself, huh? Well, to serve you right I’m not giving you any. And don’t you go fainting on me just yet either. We’ve work still to do.”
He had her help him sew up the hole in the man’s flesh, made by a bullet and enlarged by his doctor’s knife. “Suturing” he called it, which he did with a curved silver needle that wasn’t unlike the carpet needle Mutter Anna Mary used. Once, Rachel had helped her great-grandmother stitch up her brother Levi after he’d sliced open his calf with a sickle during the haying. She hadn’t been at all queasy then, but now the sweat clung cold to the roots of her hair beneath her prayer cap. Her stomach felt like a knotted fist.
Doc Henry dressed the wound and then took a look at the man’s broken arm. The doctor’s hands no longer trembled. Maybe he was feeling surer of himself, she thought, and no longer needing the whiskey.
He made a clucking noise with his tongue and shook his head. “An oblique compound fracture of the radius, and it looks as if the blamed fool tried to set it himself. Your bum lamb sure does fancy himself a tough one.”
Rachel thought that surely it would take a lot of courage to set your own broken arm. She wondered if it had happened before or after he’d been shot, and who had shot him, and why, and what had been behind that wild terror she’d seen in his eyes. But then, she had so many wonderings about him, this outsider who had come staggering across her hay meadow and leaving his bloody footprints in the snow.
ALL THE WAY THROUGH the clay-chinked cottonwood logs of her house Rachel could hear the terrible gagging, choking sounds that came from the yard. Doctor Lucas Henry throwing up the whiskey that had soured in his belly, and trying to throw off the fear that made his hands shake and his smile a little mean at times.
She sat in her spindle-backed rocker, her own hands folded in her lap and her gaze on the young man in her white iron bed. They had bound up his broken arm in a sheet of surgeon’s plaster, cleaned the blood off him, and dressed him in one of Ben’s old nightshirts. She thought his eyes no longer looked so sunken into the bones of his face. A tiny blush of color touched his lips.
She heard the squeal of the yard pump handle and then the gushing splash of water. Doc Henry cleaning himself up now.
The man on the bed lay in utter stillness, but she thought she could see the throb of the pulse in his throat. She thought that if she listened hard enough she would be able to hear the rush and suck of his heart.
A sound at the door made her look up. Doc Henry leaned against the jamb, his worldly elegance decayed, his clothes stained and water dripping from the ends of his mussed hair. A cigarette drooped from one corner of his mouth. The cigarette and his mustache lifted together with his lopsided smile. “Well, and aren’t you just a-sitting there looking as pleased with yourself as a pig in pokeweed.”
She was so pleased she beamed a smile back at him. “He’s going to live,” she said.
The doctor raised one shoulder in a careless shrug. “For today.” He drew deeply on the cigarette, squinting at her through a haze of smoke. “Wild boys like him don’t make old bones. That last bullet gets them all in the end.”
He didn’t sound as if he cared much that a “last bullet” would get his patient in the end. He was a strange man, was Doctor Lucas Henry. She supposed she knew him better than she’d ever known an outsider, and yet of course she really knew him not at all. One afternoon last spring she had sat in this very chair, beside this bed, holding the hand of her dead husband, and Doc Henry had stayed with her for a time, talking to her. He had stayed because he’d sensed somehow that she—she who had always so loved silence and being alone—could no longer bear either.
Most of what he’d said that day had been merely words to fill the empty corners of the room, but some of it she’d heard and remembered. He’d been born the same year and month and very day as she, to her a wondrous happenstance that made her feel strangely linked with him, as if two souls who’d begun the journey of life together ought to have a special care for one another along the way. And which made him thirty-four. Everyone in Montana had left a home behind somewhere, and his had been in Virginia. She could often hear the echoes of that place in his speech. For a time he’d done his doctoring in the U.S. Cavalry.
Those things he had told her about himself, and one other thing she’d only felt. He was a man apart from the world, but not out of choice as she was. Rather it was as if the world had locked him out, or shunned him, or he believed that it had. His was a bleak and lonely soul.
She watched him now as he pulled the silver flask from his pocket and drank deeply. “Strictly for medicinal purposes,” he said, mocking himself this time. “Merely replacing some of the vital fluids I just lost.” He gestured at the bed with the flask. “The very thing that must be done with our desperado here. The nursing bottle was a fine idea—see if you can get him to take it again, along with as much
beef broth as you can force down him. And after a couple of days, when he’s stronger, give him some of that god-awful sweet rhubarb wine you Plain People make.”
She nodded, and then the full sense of what he’d said struck her. “But I thought you would be taking him back into town with you?”
“Not unless you want to undo all our good work.”
She crossed her arms, gripping her elbows. “But . . .”
“Change the dressing often—I’ll leave you plenty of alum. And for mercy’s sake, don’t clean the wound with turpentine again. He doesn’t need blistering on top of everything else. I’ll give you some carbolic acid instead. And make him stay quiet. He can’t afford to start bleeding again.”
The doctor pushed himself off the doorjamb. He held all of himself gingerly, but especially his head, as if he feared it might fall off if he moved too abruptly. He went to the bed and picked up the stranger’s wrist to feel his pulse. The stranger’s hand, Rachel saw, was long and fine-boned, with fingers so slender they looked almost as delicate as a girl’s.
But then the doctor’s own long fingers slid down to grip the man’s hand, and he turned it over almost roughly. “Have a good look at that, Plain Rachel. All pretty and smooth on the outside and a pure mess on the inside. Somebody’s worked this boy brutally hard for a time in his life. And look at this finger. It takes hours of shooting practice to put a callus like that on your trigger finger.”
He laid the scarred and callused hand on the bed, gentle now, brushing the back of it with his fingers. “He’s got shackle scars on his ankles, and someone’s taken a whip to his back—those are the sort of marks a spell in prison leaves on a man. He probably killed his first man about the time he was weaned and he’s been riding the owl-hoot trail ever since.”
His touch again oddly gentle, he smoothed the dark hair off the stranger’s pale forehead. “So will he thank you for saving him, I wonder? And I wonder why you even bothered, for he’s already caught fast in the Devil’s clutches. Isn’t that what you believe?” His gaze lifted to hers. His face was stark with something, some inner torment she couldn’t begin to fathom. “You people who are so sure that only you are saved, for you alone are the chosen of God?”
She shook her head at him. Strangely, she wanted to brush the dripping wet hair back out of his eyes, to touch him with that same soothing gentleness with which he’d touched the wounded man. “No one can be sure of salvation. We can only yield to God’s eternal will and hope things turn out for the best.”
He stared at her hard with a frown between his eyes, as if she were a puzzle he was trying to piece together. She had always thought that he was one of the few outsiders who looked at the Plain People and saw beyond their long beards and prayer caps and clothes that belonged to the last century. What he saw was the peace in their hearts, she supposed, and it both frightened and drew him.
He made a sudden jerking motion now with his shoulders, as if throwing off the weight of his thoughts, and he laughed. “Knowing how rarely things ever turn out for the best, I reckon hell’s got to be a mighty jumping place, then.”
He moved abruptly away from the bed and began to pack up his instruments. Except to tell her that he would be back in a day or two to check on his patient, he said nothing more. Rachel too was silent. She no longer looked at the outsider sleeping in her bed, the man who had a callus on his trigger finger and whip marks on his back.
She went with Doctor Henry out into the yard. The wind, raw and cold, twisted her skirts around her legs and
snapped at the long tails of his greatcoat. She was surprised to see Benjo still on the hay sled, feeding the ewes, for it seemed that hours surely must have passed.
At his buggy Doctor Henry turned and looked back to the house. Lampshine spilled from her bedroom window in a soft yellow pool on the mud-splattered snow.
“That boy in there . . .” he said. “He might be handsome as a July morning, but he’s also probably mean enough to whip his weight in wildcats when he’s not half dead.” He brushed the backs of his fingers against her cheek, touching her gently in the way that he had touched the stranger. “Have a care, Plain Rachel. The powers of darkness really do sometimes prevail.”