“Miss Olivia! Miss Olivia! It’s the new doctor, ma’am, he needs you!”
Blacksmith Haskell Jarvis was winded from his breakneck ride from town. Both he and his Percheron sent great clouds of steam billowing into the chilly morning, while the neighboring Connally dog continued to bark at the disturbance.
“He needs me? For what?” Any and all charitable thoughts Olivia Plummer had tried to muster toward Tristan’s new medical doctor vanished in an instant. Dressed in his Boston finery, Harvard-educated Dr. Ethan Gray had caused nothing but trouble since his arrival earlier in the week, challenging her healing practice with a vehemence that made her head spin. Why, within minutes of his arrival, Dr. Gray had insisted on seeing her credentials, when all she’d done was set poor Claude Harker’s broken leg. And then, in front of a large number of her townspeople, he’d ordered Marshal Irvin Briggs to arrest her—for practicing medicine without a license. The nerve of the man, she thought angrily.
Olivia—and her granny, Adeline Esmond, before her—had always taken her long hours and exhausting workload seriously. Delivering babies, mixing concoctions, nursing the sick, and laying out the dead were as much a part of Olivia’s life as the simple act of breathing.
Now this stranger had come and threatened all that.
“He don’t . . . want your help, ma’am,” the plainspoken blacksmith emphasized sympathetically, as if he had been following her train of thought, “but he needs it real bad. His hand’s cut wide open, and he’s makin’ quite a puddle.”
“The wound is that severe?”
At the news, her aggravation cooled. Her agitated feelings toward the tall, arrogant newcomer would have to wait. Mentally, she ran through the supplies in her bag, making a note to take extra rolls of the linen sponges she and young Susan Connally had boiled clean last week. She carried a supply of needles and silk thread wherever she went, for sewing people’s cuts and wounds was something she did with frequency.
“Give me a few moments to get what I need, Mr. Jarvis. Would you saddle Pete for me?”
“Eh,” he said, shaking his head, “I think you’d better just ride with me, Miss Olivia. The doctor . . . he wasn’t lookin’ too good.”
“I’ll hurry,” she called over her shoulder, already reaching for what she needed.
It seemed like no time at all before Haskell Jarvis’s powerful horse whisked them the three-quarter mile from Olivia’s snug cabin to the main street of their little northeastern Colorado prairie town. Over the years, Olivia had been transported in more precarious and uncomfortable positions than the one in which she now rode, but even so, she held tightly to the blacksmith’s coat. Her saddlebag had been secured by the man intent on delivering her in record time.
As they rounded the corner of Walnut Street, Olivia saw that outside the doctor’s building—formerly Elmer Beverly’s insurance agency—a group of townsmen engaged in hushed, intent conversation. A lone wagon, half loaded with boxes and tarp-covered items, sat in the street, ignored.
“Miss Olivia!” The serious-minded attorney, Warren Hawley, broke away from the group of men and hailed her arrival. His movements were hasty, his manner nervous. “The tailgate . . . it just gave way and almost lopped off Dr. Gray’s hand. I told him we’d unload his things for him, but he insisted on helping . . . and now . . .”
No doubt the attorney’s pride at having engaged such a finely educated physician to care for the people of their town had been dealt a serious blow by this turn of events. That he felt responsible for the accident was plain to see, and in his haste to help her dismount from the giant beast, he nearly caused her injury as well.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he apologized in misery after she’d caught her balance. “This morning has not been good at all.” Taking a deep breath, he looked down at his feet. “And after what happened in town the other day, I didn’t know if you’d come.”
“I’ve never chosen those I’ll tend and those I won’t, Mr. Hawley,” she replied with some effort, thinking of the unpleasant interchange she’d had with the new physician upon his arrival. “You should know by now that if someone needs help, they’ll get my best efforts. The question is, will Dr. Gray accept my care?”
The attorney’s words, already rapid, accelerated, as did his nervousness. His voice dropped, meant for her ears alone. “You’re every bit as good a healer as your Granny Esmond was, Olivia, and everyone in Tristan is mighty grateful for the hard work you do for us. I’ve been running advertisements for doctors in Eastern papers for years—you know that. No one ever expected we’d actually get a taker.”
Olivia nodded while the blacksmith handed her the saddlebag. Hawley’s words were true enough, she knew, yet the warm greeting she had anticipated giving Dr. Gray had been thrown back in her face in the midst of his welcoming ceremony . . . before the population of the entire town. Deep in her heart, she had been naive enough to hope for a peaceful coexistence, perhaps even some type of partnership, with the new physician.
“That you, Livvie?” Marshal Briggs’s voice boomed from inside the open door of Dr. Gray’s office. “Bring your stitchin’ and get on in here!”
Hurrying up the blood-splattered stairs into the building, she noticed that counters and shelves lined walls that had previously been bare, but there was no time to investigate the boxes and fascinating items covering their surfaces.
“Back here,” Briggs said, motioning from the hallway at the rear wall of the large front room. “We got him up on the table for you.”
The marshal—a man in his early thirties with the bluster of a bear but who, in truth, reminded Olivia of an overgrown bear cub—led her to what she guessed was a modern examination room. Momentarily, she marveled at its refinement and the amount of equipment. Had she known the doctor was so well-stocked, she needn’t have bothered bringing her bag.
Her patient lay upon a grand and most complicated-looking table of padded leather. With the turn of a wheel or twist of a lever, it appeared, adjustments could be made to raise or lower any part of a person’s body. Olivia had never seen such a piece of engineering and couldn’t fathom how much coin it must have taken to purchase.
Dr. Ethan Gray’s face was bleached of color, but his dark eyes remained sharp. Dermot Johnson, Tristan’s deputy marshal, held a makeshift tourniquet over the affected wrist with one hand and a wad of clean cotton cloth over the doctor’s hand with the other.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Miss Olivia.” The deputy’s expression of relief was profound. Beneath his stylish forelock, his face was nearly as pale as the wounded man’s.
“Thank you, Mr. Johnson. You have done the doctor a great service, indeed,” she praised the quiet deputy, not eager to reenter conversation with the physician. The bleeding was well controlled at present, a good sign.
“I didn’t . . . well, he told me what to do, ma’am.”
“And you did well. Would you be so kind as to fetch me some boiled water? I’ll take over for you.” Setting down her bag, she slipped into the seat vacated by the young lawman. Without glancing up, she knew Dr. Gray’s brown eyes took in her every movement.
“You must know I don’t want you here,” the physician said, but with less vigor than at their first meeting.
“I’m sure not,” she agreed mildly, determined to do her job and get back home as quickly as possible. After delivering Cora Skeever of her first baby during the wee hours, she hadn’t returned home until nearly first light. Gently she removed the bloodstained cloth from his palm and loosened the tourniquet a small bit.
“What are you—ow! What . . . do you think . . . you’re . . . doing?” The weak but supercilious demand came as she studied the injury. Blood welled up from the end of the wound over his thumb; the cut appeared to be much deeper and more jagged than the remainder of the slice running diagonally across the back of his hand.
“Merely seeing to your injury,” she replied, periodically blotting the flow of blood while she assessed how she might best repair the splayed edges of flesh.
“God help me.” He closed his eyes, looking as though he was restraining himself from saying more.
“He will if you ask. And if you don’t, I’ll ask him for you.” She looked full into the doctor’s face, but his eyes remained closed and he shook his head.
Taking the opportunity to study his countenance, she grudgingly decided he was nice-looking enough . . . and much less threatening without that crackling, intelligent gaze trained upon her. A neat, trimmed blond mustache complemented a slightly crooked nose, arched brows, and thick blond hair. Her gaze dipped, and she took in a strong-looking set of shoulders. A few golden strands of hair escaped from the loosened collar of his white shirt.
“She heals. She prays. She walks on water.”
Glancing up, she saw Dr. Gray’s gaze upon her and she flushed.
“I . . . beg your pardon?” In addition to belittling her practice, he now mocked her faith? Granny Esmond had taught her that not praying for those she tended was doing only half a job.
“I have to admit, you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. I’ve heard nothing but your praises sung since I arrived.”
“Why are you so hostile toward me?” Renewed anger tightened her voice.
“Because I’ve spent my entire career fighting people like you—” His body strained upward as he tried to make his point.
“People like me? You don’t even know me!”
“I knew dozens like you in Boston. Poorly trained. Illiterate. Incompetent. The sick and wounded deserve better than to—”
“Shall we just call it a day then?” she interrupted, fury churning in the base of her stomach. Locking her gaze with his, she fought a childish desire to shout that she could too read. Never before had she met anyone who had spoken to her in such a way.
“That’s about enough, you two,” Briggs barked from the doorway, bearing a steaming pot of water. “Gray, as I see it, you ain’t got much of a choice about matters. Either Miss Olivia sews you up or I do.”
Olivia remained silent, waiting for the doctor’s reply, the thrumming of her pulse loud in her ears.
Breaking eye contact with her, Dr. Gray stared at the ceiling. “As I seem to be left with no choice, you may as well go ahead.”
“I was hopin’ all that book learnin’ translated to good sense.” Briggs poured water from the heavy pot into a basin. “I’ll keep the hot water comin’, Livvie,” he added on his way out the door. “I know how much you like.” A moment later, she heard the clatter of the stove being stoked.
“Dr. Gray,” Olivia said, addressing her patient, “are you able to hold the dressing over your hand while I prepare my things?”
“For what purpose do you use so much boiled water?” came the challenging response. “And just what ‘things’ do you intend to use?” In one motion, he pushed himself upright. With his left hand, he took hold of the cloth over his right, flinching at the movement. “Slide that table over here in front of me.”
It shouldn’t surprise her that he hadn’t said please. Without a word, Olivia did as he asked, incredulous that he’d asked her for what purpose she used boiled water. Did the man know nothing of cleanliness? Granny Esmond had taught her to boil everything she used. She scanned his general appearance. Other than the mess the blood had made, he didn’t seem ill kempt or carry a bad odor.
Working quickly, she rolled up her sleeves. No sense in prolonging this experience; the sooner it was over, the better. Spreading out the contents of her saddlebag on the table her patient had just vacated, she selected the items she would use, at the same time sensing Dr. Gray’s hawklike vigilance.
“What are you doing now?”
She bit back an exasperated sigh. “Washing my hands. See?” As she moved toward the basin of water, she held aloft the bar of strong soap that was always found with her belongings. Dirt and blood might have their place in Boston sickrooms, but not here in Tristan. Granny Esmond had insisted on cleanliness at all times, especially with respect to open wounds and childbearing.
“Oh.” He sounded disgruntled. “Well, you’ll need carbolic acid solution. In that cupboard over there—”
“I brought my own.”
“You . . . brought your own?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” There was only so much provocation she could bear. Whirling to face him, she intended to give him a piece of her mind. But when her gaze lit upon the blond-haired stranger, her words of criticism died upon her lips. She saw a manly, determined face, but behind the features she read both pain and fear.
Shame on you, Olivia, she berated herself, turning back to her hand-washing. As obnoxious as he’s been, he’s still a man the Lord has placed in your hands for healing. There will be another day for having words with him. Today is a day to hold your tongue . . . and your temper.
“Sewing flesh isn’t the same as stitching a sampler, you know.” Choosing not to follow up on his previous offensive, he attacked from a new direction.
Nor is it a whole lot different, Doctor. “Do you mind if I use this small basin here?” she asked, not waiting for an answer. She dipped it into the steaming water and moistened one of her clean linens. “I prefer quilting,” she remarked, stepping over to her patient. After letting the cloth cool slightly, she began washing blood from his arm.
What would he know? Suppressing another sigh, she worked in silence, determined not to let his jibes get to her. Having had the last word, the physician was also content to remain quiet. Once his arm was cleansed, she liberally applied carbolic acid solution from his elbow to his fingertips. Needle, silk, forceps, and scissors followed in carbolic as well. Placing a clean towel beneath his hand, she sat down opposite her patient and prepared to work.
“Wait,” he commanded, studying the wound. He pointed with his left index finger. “Start on the deep end, right here.”
She nodded, taking heart from the fact that she had already decided to begin at that same place. It also had not escaped her attention that he had moved from the opinion that she would not lay a finger on him to accepting that she would be the one repairing his injury. Sponging the blood continuing to well up from the area, she glanced at him before making the first stitch.
“Just suture, Miss Plummer. If anything for pain needs to be administered, it will be of my choosing and my prescription.”
Obedient to a fault, Olivia sent the curved needle on its course. Down, in, across, up. She heard his sharp intake of air as the instrument exited his flesh, trailing its runner of silk thread. In a deft set of movements, she tied the knot, cut the stitch, and blotted the wound. Repeating the process twice more, she effected good control over the worst of the oozing.
“Time to loosen the tourniquet a bit more. How are you holding up, Dr. Gray?” she inquired, taking a moment to check his expression. She couldn’t have been more surprised at his last several seconds of silence.
“I’m . . . I’m fine.” His voice sounded hoarse, as though it were stuck in his throat, and a sheen of perspiration coated his face. Despite this, he had the vigor to complain. “You tie your sutures all wrong. I’ll be lucky if they hold. If you were my student, I’d make you do them over.”
“Why, I’d be happy to do them over.” Picking up the scissors, she called his bluff. “It’ll take me just a moment to cut these out.”
“No . . . no! Those first three will do, I suppose, but I want you to follow my instructions for the next.”
Though the motions weren’t second nature, Olivia was surprised at how easily she was able to tie the next several sutures using Dr. Gray’s technique. His instructions were distinct and simple to follow, which was remarkable given that the stitchery was being performed upon his person.
“Why did you come to Tristan?” she asked, once the greater portion of the wound was closed.
“Right this minute, I couldn’t give you one good reason.”
“Not even one?” Her lips curved ruefully at his assertion. “You realize that, for weeks now, people have been wondering why a highfalutin Boston medical doctor would want to come to our town. Denver and Leadville have been drawing all kinds, understandably, but not small towns. Most wagers were that you were putting out to pasture.”
His eyes widened at her candor; then he sighed. “I can assure you I have no intentions of grazing, Miss Plummer. I came here because I wanted to. . . . What was your bet?”
“About me. Did you think me deaf, blind, and toothless, as well?”
“I . . . didn’t give your age much thought. I was more concerned with how we would—”
“Well, well, well. If it ain’t some morning. Mortal enemies cozied right up together,” announced Marshal Briggs, who also doubled as Tristan’s newspaper publisher. As he stood in the doorway, running his fingers over his chin, Olivia knew he was thinking up cover lines. His use of the English language, as common as the everyday man’s when he was upset or agitated, could at other times be a schoolmarm’s delight. “It’s been a strange few days. To my way of thinking, you two have raised the biggest uproar in this little town ever since . . . ever since I don’t know when. But you know what?”
“What’s that, Marshal?” Olivia asked, not comfortable with the speculative look on the lawman’s face. He strode over to the table and studied Dr. Gray’s hand.
“Folks are all up in arms about ‘Miss Olivia and Dr. Gray,’ and I’m going to have an extra page of newsprint this week to prove it. Now correct me if I’m wrong: you aren’t going to be doing much of anything with that hand out of commission, are you, Doc?”
“I’m sure I can—”
“And you’ve been wanting to see more of the townspeople . . . get yourself established?”
“Now, pretend you’re the marshal, and one day, out of the blue, your peaceful town has been turned on its ear. It’s gotten so bad that a man can’t even step foot out his door without someone spouting one opinion or another. Dr. Gray this. Miss Olivia that. Then one morning you walk into a room and see the answer to all your problems sitting right in front of your face.”
“What are you getting at?” Wary, the physician straightened in his seat.
“Yessir, it warms the very cockles of my heart to see you two working together so harmonious, and I’m thinking we’re just going to make this a permanent state of affairs . . . for the time being, anyway.”
“But we aren’t—,” Olivia began, aghast.
“Oh yes you are,” Briggs stated with a decisive nod, “and you’re going to continue to do so till this cut is healed. I’ll make it plain: your hands will be the doc’s hands, Livvie, for as long as I say. You will see patients together, make calls together, and above all, you will learn to get along.”
Olivia thought she’d stopped breathing upon hearing the marshal’s pronouncement. She was to serve as Dr. Gray’s assistant? Just like that? What about her own patients? These problems in town were not her fault; she had been willing to work with the man from the get-go. He was the one who had started all the trouble!
There was no way she was going to submit to such a ridiculous set of circumstances—no way at all. She opened her mouth to speak, but her patient was the first to recover his tongue. As sparks snapped in his eyes, she was relieved to see they actually agreed about something.