“Mrs. Anderson?” He took a few steps into what was obviously the parlor of a woman who liked roses. The walls were papered with a pattern of large overblown roses; someone had stitched a circlet of roses on the footstool, and the china vase that stood on a small table was decorated with a perfect red rosebud. No one was in the room. Remembering the empty street and store, Mark wondered if the women of the town might be engaged in a quilting bee or some other female pursuit.
And then he heard it: a painful cough and an even more alarming shrill cry. Following the sounds through the dining room and kitchen, he found himself in a small room. The stacks of canned goods lining one wall would have made him call it a storage room, were it not for the presence of an oak rocking chair and a laundry basket lined with soft blankets. Bemused by the unexpected furnishings, Mark stared at the most beautiful young woman he’d ever seen, a woman who was cradling a desperately ill child.
He guessed her to be in her midtwenties, perhaps a year or two less than his own twenty-six. With hair as golden as a ripe ear of corn and eyes as deep a blue as the Wyoming sky, her face would have been one to fuel a man’s dreams were it not for the panic that drained it of all color. Where was Widow Anderson, and why wasn’t she helping her boarder care for this child? The baby’s face was alarmingly red, and the cough that wracked its body tore at Mark’s heart.
“Help me!” the woman cried, her eyes moving frantically from Mark to the child in her arms. “Help my baby! She can’t breathe.” Though the woman’s voice was shrill with fear, Mark detected a slight accent, as if English were her second language.
“Where’s the doctor?” Mark had learned a thing or two about emergency care during his travels, but he was no substitute for a trained physician.
“He’s gone. Everyone’s gone.”
That left Mark, and judging from the baby’s labored breathing and the peculiar cough, there was no time to lose. “Where’s your vinegar?”
The woman stared at him as if he’d lost his senses but gestured toward a jug on the floor.
“Your daughter needs vinegar steam.” As he’d traveled, Mark had seen the difference humidity made. While some claimed that the desert cured many ailments, there were other problems, including coughs like this, that benefited from extremely moist environments. “I’m going to boil water and make a tent for you.”
The mother appeared confused, as if she’d never heard of a steam tent. It didn’t matter. That was the only thing Mark knew to do when someone had trouble breathing. If his suppositions were correct and this was croup, the vinegar would relieve the congestion or whatever it was that was causing the horrible cough and the labored breathing. “I’ll call you when I’m ready,” he promised. “Just hold your baby.”
Though the woman’s lips moved, no sound came out, and Mark suspected she was praying. That couldn’t hurt, but a doctor would be better.
He hurried back into the kitchen and looked around. Thank goodness the kettle was filled with water. He’d need more, but this would get them started. While he waited for the water to boil, he searched for a tub to hold it and something to serve as the tent. Though he’d hoped for blankets, the pile of sheets that he found on the floor in the laundry room would have to do. He’d use the kitchen worktable as his platform.
“All right. Bring your daughter into the kitchen,” Mark said when he’d arranged everything. He pointed toward the stool he’d placed next to the table. “I want you to sit here and hold her over the water. Keep her face as close to the steam as you can.” When the woman was settled, he draped the sheet over her and the baby. Though the pungent smell of vinegar filled the room, he didn’t know whether he had added enough. Only time would tell. “I’ll start more water heating.”
Mark lost count of the number of times he emptied the tub and refilled it with steaming water. Each time he worked the handle on the old pump, he hoped it would remain attached, for there was no time to repair it today. Each time he placed another piece of wood inside the stove, he hoped it would be the last one he needed, for the supply was dwindling. And each time he pulled back the sheets to empty and refill the tub, he looked at the child, searching for a sign that the treatment was working.
It was odd. He ought to be tired. Even before he’d arrived in Easton, it had been a long day, for he’d left well before dawn and had ridden hard to reach the small town. But now he felt no fatigue, nothing but the sensation that he was more alive than he’d been in years, perhaps ever.
Though the mother said little, Mark saw the lines on her face begin to ease as the afternoon passed. She had noticed what he had, that the coughing spells seemed less frequent and less intense. It was perhaps an hour later that the woman smiled. “She’s breathing normally,” she said, pushing the now-soggy sheets aside. She rose and held the child in her arms, this time cradling her rather than suspending her over the tub. The baby’s face was still rosy, but the alarming flush had faded. “I don’t know how to thank you,” the mother said, her voice husky with emotion. “You were the answer to prayer.”
Mark blinked. It was the first time anyone had called him the answer to anything, especially prayer.