March 1874 Colorado Territory
Warned by the clatter of breaking glass, Luke Mason flung himself from his saddle. Seconds later the sound of a gunshot reached his ears. The bullet splintered a branch behind his head. He pulled his pistol and rolled toward the protection of a large pine tree.
Crazy Sally wasn’t so crazy after all. Her ravings during the past week about strange smells and noises didn’t come from an overactive imagination but from the cabin in front of him.
The strong odor of cooking mash proved the presence of a working still inside. Luke stood and peeked from behind the tree. A shadow passed in front of a window followed by more shattering glass and clanging. A string of curses drifted toward him as two men argued. Time to establish some kind of communication with those inside.
“Hello in the cabin!” Silence. “This is Deputy Mason. I’d like to come in and talk.”
Two quick, successive shots were his answer. Luke fired back and moved to another tree to get closer. A bullet landed a foot over his head. Chips of bark pelted his hat. Luke took a deep breath and plunged toward a boulder as he fired several rounds. A thin stream of smoke drifted skyward from the cabin.
Luke hunkered down and reloaded as he prepared to dash toward the structure. He couldn’t believe they would burn their still on purpose. The fire must have started by accident or else they were planning their escape.
With a tug on his hat, Luke spun around ready to make his move. The thunder of horses’ hooves and wagon wheels coming down the trail made him freeze. He squatted lower and waited.
Luke gaped at the stagecoach coming around the bend. He always thought the driver was a few spokes shy of a sturdy wheel, but now it was stamped as fact in his mind. Why would Frank drive this far off the main road? Luke stalled his attack, hoping the stage would hurry past. A feminine voice called for the driver to stop. Disbelief and the first spark of anger coursed through him when Frank obeyed.
The coach stopped between him and the cabin. Luke heard the click of the door latch, and he jumped from his shelter and lunged toward the stage. He slammed the door shut and heard a gasp as it thumped against the person inside.
Luke craned his neck to see the driver. “What are you doing, Frank? Get out of here!”
“The lady said—”
“I don’t care what the lady said.” Luke glanced in the window of the carriage. The young woman inside sat slack-jawed, rubbing her elbow. Some hair had come loose from her bun and bonnet and hung in tangled curls along the sides of her face. Her eyes were wide, possibly from fear, but she also looked outraged…and pretty.
Luke tore his gaze away and slapped the side of the coach. “Get moving, Frank.”
The woman slid to the window. “But sir, I can help if someone’s hurt. That’s why—”
Luke stuck his face through the window. She leaned back and put her hand to her mouth.
“You haven’t helped. You’ve hindered.” He stepped toward Frank. “Get her out of here.”
Frank gave a shrill whistle and slapped the reins against the rumps of the horses. Luke used the moving coach to get closer to the cabin. He ducked behind a tree and peeked around the side. Flames licked out of the structure’s windows.
Luke ran toward the rear. The back door hung open. The absence of horses lent proof to his assumption that the men were gone. He shoved his pistol into his holster, then turned and glared in the direction the stagecoach had disappeared. He hoped the young woman didn’t plan to get off in Rockdale. He didn’t think he could handle any more of her type of help.
Rachel Garrett’s heart pounded and nerves tingled as her eager eyes took in the sights. She stuck her head out the stagecoach window and received a face full of dust. She ducked back inside and laughed as she coughed and sputtered. Well, that’s one way to be greeted into my new home.
The incident didn’t quash her excitement. Nothing could, although she had to push away the memory of tears falling down her mother’s cheeks as she said good-bye to her parents. Rachel clung to the knowledge that her arrival marked the beginning of her new lifework, the fulfillment of a dream, and the end of the trouble that had haunted her the last four months.
She wiped her face and swatted at the dust on her coat. The fine powder clung much like the cloying scent of excrement from the cattle outside the coach. Rachel waited for the stream of cows and cowboys to pass before she dared peek out again. She’d never been farther west than her home in Missouri, and everything she saw held her spellbound, from the plains of Kansas to her first glimpse of the glorious Rocky Mountains.
As the coach entered Rockdale, Rachel craned her neck, hoping for a glimpse of the building where she would spend most of her time. The town looked bigger than she expected, and she wanted to see it all. While many of the buildings they passed gleamed with new lumber, some structures looked rough, as though left over from the earlier years and kept patched together. The bleak sight caused her to wonder about the proprietors. Another bout of apprehension struck, but she tamped it down. Her teacher and mentor, Dr. Freeman, assured her he was sending her to the best town and doctor in the west.
They left a small church behind. Rachel’s gaze remained fixed on the whitewashed spire long after the rest of the building faded from view. Once she left the doctor’s office, she would make it a point to go back and meet the pastor. Maybe he could use someone to help out around the place when she wasn’t working. The surroundings lacked flowers and shrubs, minor touches that would make it welcoming to strangers like her. She learned while away at nursing school that no matter where she was, she would always feel at home in church.
The sound of clanging brought her attention back to the scene in front of her. They passed by a livery and other buildings. A general store flashed past, as well as a hotel and eatery. Several women bustled down the boardwalk, and men lingered outside the feed and hardware store. Rachel held fast to her seat, wishing the coachman would slow down so she could take in more of the scenery.
As though the driver read her thoughts, the stagecoach slowed and then stopped in front of the depot. Within seconds, he opened the door and held out a dirty, calloused hand to help her step onto the platform. She smiled and thanked the man, then looked down the street to see what she’d missed.
Music from a couple saloons in the middle of town drifted toward her. She knew they were inevitable, but it didn’t mean she had to like that they appeared in every settlement. They tended to keep people in her profession quite busy. Thankfully, the sheriff’s office stood nearby to help keep most of the ruckus to a minimum.
Rachel scanned the street looking for her new place of employment. Dr. Barnes wrote that his main office stood next to the barbershop. She looked the direction they’d come, but didn’t recall seeing a barbershop. She took a couple steps before her travel bag rushed past her head and hit the ground in front of her feet. Dust billowed up around her skirt bottom.
“Sorry, ma’am.” The driver didn’t look a bit sorry as he shrugged. “Watch the head and feet, little lady. Your trunk’s coming next.”
Rachel backed up to wait for her trunk to descend in the same manner as her bag.
“Hold up, Frank.”
A young man appeared from the shipping office next door and hurried across the boardwalk toward them. He climbed on the back rail of the coach and helped the driver ease the heavy chest onto the platform. When he straightened, he tipped his hat and smiled as if helping damsels in distress were an everyday occurrence.
The young man wiped his palm on his trousers before offering his hand. “Afternoon, Miss. I’m Chad Baxter.”
Rachel examined Mr. Baxter’s face as she shook his hand. Merriment danced in his brown eyes as well as a hint of interest.
“Thank you, Mr. Baxter.”
“Oh, come now.” He placed his other hand over hers, and she gave a gentle tug to pull her hand free. Mr. Baxter allowed it, though his expression let it be known he wasn’t used to rejection. He tucked his fingers into his pockets and leaned toward her.
“Mr. Baxter is my father’s name. Call me Chad, Miss…” Chad raised his eyebrows.
Rachel studied him a little longer. He seemed harmless enough, like a young pup eager for attention. “Rachel Garrett.”
He grinned and rocked back on his heels. “Ah, Miss Garrett. I hope you’ll call me Chad. I wouldn’t want things too formal between us.”
Rachel held her even expression although she was intrigued. Her mother had been right. People were more forward in the west. Funny. Their bold ways didn’t startle her as much as she expected it should. She fought the laughter that bubbled inside her at Chad’s boyish attempt at charm.
Chad tapped the trunk with the toe of his boot. “Do I dare assume this means you’ll be staying in town awhile?”
“Chad?” An older gentleman stepped out of the shipping office and walked toward them. She could see where the young man received his good looks. “Is my son being a pest, Miss?”
“Not at all. I think he was welcoming me to town in his own unique way.”
The man’s brows rose. “Unique, huh? Well, knowing Chad, that’s a mighty diplomatic way to put it.” He held out his hand. “Richard Baxter. Welcome to Rockdale.” His handshake was brief but courteous as he looked her in the eye. “Can my son and I help you with this trunk?”
Rachel glanced down the street. “I’m supposed to be staying in a small house near Dr. Barnes’s home.”
“Oh, so you’re the new nurse we’ve heard so much about,” Chad said. “I expected someone much…”
“Older?” Rachel said.
Pink blotches stained his tanned cheeks.
“I can see I have more training to do.” Richard put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “And that you’re more than capable of keeping him in his place. If you can wait, I’ll have Chad deliver your trunk for you after work. Doc’s house is two streets over on the left. It’s the big white one with black shutters. You can’t miss it. His office,” Mr. Baxter gestured the opposite direction with his thumb, “is halfway down and across the street.”
“You’re very kind, Mr. Baxter. Thank you.”
“Not a problem.” Richard squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Chad, those crates aren’t moving themselves.” He turned back to her. “Nice meeting you, ah—”
“Rachel,” Chad said, his gaze never leaving her face. “Rachel Garrett.”
Richard winked at her and bowed slightly at the waist. “Miss Garrett.”
Chad gave her a sheepish grin, stooped to pick up her trunk, and followed his father into the office.
Rachel stared after them, unable to wipe the smile from her face as she grabbed her carpetbag and headed down the boardwalk. Maybe their manners were less polished compared to those of her friends back home, but such friendliness was endearing, and she was already beginning to feel at home.
She passed the hardware store and met the stares of the men sitting on the benches as she offered a greeting. She nodded and smiled to the women who gazed at her through the dress shop window next door, hoping they would one day become friends. She hurried past the swinging doors of the saloon, her gaze locked on the white sign boasting Dr. Barnes’s name. She wasn’t supposed to start work for three more days, but hunger to see the office and love for her work carried her feet across the dirt street and up the steps.
She glanced through the window of the barbershop next door. Men waiting their turn sat chatting, their feet dangling off the bottom rung of wooden stools, some with newspapers held high. What did the men do for a living and how would they fit into her new life? A sign propped inside the grimy window informed her the shop doubled as a dentist office. The dark stains on the floor circling the spittoon caused a shudder to run through her. She sent up a silent prayer that she’d never have trouble with her teeth.
Screams assaulted her ears before she reached the doctor’s door. She hesitated, then grabbed the knob and held tight as the shouts from inside the office intensified. The nameplate nailed to the door read Jim Barnes, M.D. Dr. Freeman proclaimed Dr. Barnes was one of the best. She prayed he was right.
Another shriek from inside made her take a deep breath, turn the knob, and enter. The man standing closest to her yelled that his wife was about to have a baby and the doctor needed to come right away. Next to the man, a woman held a young boy with blood streaming from his nose. His tears made clean tracks down his grimy face. Another man pounded on a doorframe, begging for the doctor’s help, though he didn’t look hurt. Others with no visible signs of ill-health occupied the few chairs lining a wall.
Rachel peered through the doorway that led into the examining area. Before moving that direction, she instructed the young mother to tip her son’s head back and handed her a small white towel off a nearby washstand.
“Just gently pinch his nostrils closed.”
She edged toward the examining room and around the man beating on the frame. The sight of numerous shiny instruments made her pause. Doctor Barnes had spared no expense on his office equipment. Was his practice that lucrative or did the money come from another source? Either way, the tools would make her job easier.
A man bent over a padded examining table. A woman stood next to him.Did the doctor find a replacement nurse before I could get here? A scruffy-looking man stood at the end of the table wringing an already mangled hat. The patient on the table bellowed and tried to sit up.
The doctor, with his sleeves rolled up, stood over him and pushed him back down. “Lay still, Walt. You’re only making it worse.”
The doctor beckoned toward the man with the hat. “Hold him down, Patch. I gotta put him under so I can fix this leg.”
Patch clamped his hat on his head and leaned down to press on the patient’s shoulders. The injured man fought against him.
Rachel dropped her travel bag in a corner and approached the doctor. The patient he worked on writhed in pain. Rachel glanced at his leg, bent at an awkward angle below the knee.
The doctor didn’t look up as he grabbed the uninjured leg swinging toward his head. “Yes?”
His patient hollered and almost rolled off the table. Rachel moved to his head and stood next to Patch. She grabbed the mask and ether from the small stand next to the table, placed the mask over the patient’s face, and administered the ether. In moments, the man fell unconscious. The doctor looked up. Rachel couldn’t tell if the expression on his face was shock or anger.
She pointed toward the patient’s leg. “I suggest you get started. He won’t stay unconscious long.”
“Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m just putting into practice some of what Dr. Freeman taught me.”
Dr. Barnes glanced at her as a slow grin spread across his face. “How is that old pain maker?”
“As ornery as ever. He sends his regards.” She eyed the other woman who had tears running down her cheeks, then turned back and applied another drop of ether. “I believe I’m your new nurse, Rachel Garrett. Would you like me to help you here or get to work out in the waiting room?”
The doctor gave her a look of relief. “Do you know how to deliver a baby?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Go with Henry there. His wife is having a baby and needs help. Give Mrs. Cagle the ether. She can take over that job. My medical bag is behind my desk in the next room. It should have everything you’ll need. When you’re finished there, come on back.”
A look of relief crossed Henry’s face as he whirled and headed out the door without waiting for her. Rachel skirted through the waiting patients to get the bag, then rushed out the door and ran into what felt like a wall. Her arms were gripped in a firm grasp. She pushed away. When she opened her eyes, a shiny badge met her gaze. She looked up into the scowling face of the deputy she’d met earlier. His intense eyes, much like before, made him all the more intimidating.
“You?” His brows rose then folded into a scowl. “You all right?”
“Ah, yes, fine.”
“Excuse me.” He brushed past her and continued down the boardwalk. He seemed in a mighty big hurry. He’d be handsome if he smiled.
Rachel spun at Henry’s voice. He took her by the arm and pulled her toward his wagon. She discovered what a sack of feed felt like after Henry all but threw her onto the seat. He scrambled up next to her, grabbed the reins, and gave them a hardy flick. Rachel shoved the doctor’s medical bag between her feet as the horse and wagon picked up speed. She needed both hands to hold on if she wanted to remain in the seat.
“Uh, the doctor said your name was Henry?”
“Can I ask your last name?”
Henry glanced at her. “Moeller. Henry Moeller. My wife’s name is Patricia. She was screaming like she’d been shot when I left. I hated leaving her, but I was too scared to stay. It’s our first young’un, ya know.”
Rachel wanted to look around for the cork that unplugged Henry’s mouth.
“I got a lump in my gut the minute she told me she was with child. That knot’s been growing right along with her own belly till I thought I’d be sick.” Henry veered the horse onto a narrow path. “Then when her pains started this morning, I swear I felt ’em too.”
“What has you so upset, Mr. Moeller?”
Henry looked at her as though she were daft. Or maybe he questioned her ability to deal with the task that lay ahead.
“Well, how’m I supposed to know if I’ll be a good pa? I don’t know what to do with a young’un. Them squallers don’t come out talking, ya know.”
Rachel patted him on the back. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Anyone this concerned is bound to be a good father.”
Henry brought the horse to a stop in front of a small, unpainted cabin. The weathered boards holding up the sagging roof were ill-fitting, as though patched together from discarded odds and ends. How long had the cabin been standing—and how much longer would it continue to stand?
Henry jumped down and pulled her from the seat. He held on to her hand and dragged her toward the door. She wrested her hand from his grip and rushed back for the doctor’s bag, then gestured for Henry to lead the way. She quickened her pace to keep up with him.
The kitchen, dining, and living area, all contained in one large room, were clean. Shelves lined two walls near the cookstove arranged with pots, pans, and various foods. A crude but functional table sat in the middle of the room surrounded by four small, simple benches. Two well-used, overstuffed chairs were placed near the fireplace with a table and lamp sitting between them. The only item that looked new was the handcrafted cradle positioned near a door at the back of the cabin.
Henry cleared his throat then opened the door and disappeared through it. She rushed to follow.
Three lamps lit the room. The labor pains must have started before daylight. One lamp ran low on oil. A sheen of perspiration and damp strands of hair clung to the forehead of the woman writhing in the bed. One blanket lay in a tangle on the floor.
Rachel shed her heavy coat, draped it across a scratched wooden chair, and sat beside her. She felt for a temperature with one hand while checking Mrs. Moeller’s pulse with the other. Behind her, Henry paced the room like a caged animal.
“Mr. Moeller, would you get some clean towels? I could also use some warm water for washing.”
Henry scurried from the room.
“He’s been fussing over me since I told him about the baby,” Mrs. Moeller said. “Now I can’t get him to stand still.” The last word came out in a grunt as pain gripped her.
“Do you know about how far apart the contractions have been coming?”
Mrs. Moeller looked at her in confusion.
“How often do your pains come?”
“Every—few—minutes.” The woman clutched at the sheets and moaned through the pain.
A sound behind her made Rachel turn in time to see Henry’s knees buckle. She pushed the chair toward him, grabbed the towels from his arms, and turned back to his wife.
The laboring woman panted. “Henry…where’s the warm water?”
Henry jumped to his feet and ran from the room. Moments later, he returned with a steaming pot and poured some into the washbasin. He flopped back down on the chair, and Rachel scrubbed her hands clean, then turned back to his wife.
“My name is Rachel Garrett, and I’m the doctor’s new nurse.”
Mrs. Moeller eyed her from the bed, her brow wrinkled. “How old are ya?”
“Old enough to have assisted in many births. In fact, this is my favorite part of the job. I delivered twins not two months ago. Now, I’m going to lift the covers and examine you.”
Rachel rolled the blanket and sheet back and went to work. Henry slipped out of the room, peeking in from time to time at his wife. Rachel lost track of how many minutes went by before she held a new baby girl in her arms. The newest Moeller let out a lusty squall to announce her arrival.
Henry appeared in the doorway and then moved to hover behind Rachel while she cleaned the infant. He reached out and touched the tiny toes, then stepped beside Rachel and stroked the miniature hands of his daughter.
“Henry.” Mrs. Moeller laughed. “I’m over here, Henry. You remember me, don’t you?”
He sent a sheepish look at Rachel before heading toward the bed. He sat beside his wife, enfolded her in his arms, and gave her a smacking kiss on her cheek.
“Ya done good, woman.”
Rachel continued cleaning the baby, and soft ringlets of downy hair appeared. The cute rosebud mouth opened and then pursed when Rachel ran her finger along the bottom lip. She couldn’t help but smile before kissing the tiny forehead.
After wrapping the baby in a blanket that Henry pulled from a small chest near the bed, Rachel placed the infant in her mother’s waiting arms. Henry sat beside his wife and stared at his daughter’s tiny face. Rachel enjoyed the tender scene.
With Henry’s help, she exchanged the soiled bedding with clean sheets. She perched in the chair Henry had vacated and watched the family. He must have forgotten she had no way back into town. She waited several minutes and then cleared her throat. The young couple looked up at her.
“I must get back to town.”
“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Moeller turned to her husband. “Give her a ride back, Henry. Then be sure to stop by the store and tell Granny. The news is sure to spread through town by morning about our new little Elizabeth.”
Henry fidgeted on the bed as if he wanted nothing to do with leaving. His wife patted his arm. “I’ll be fine, dear. Just hurry on back.” She turned to Rachel. “Thank you so much for your help, Rachel. I have no doubt the doctor will be pleased with you as his new nurse.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Moeller. I’m sure the doctor will be out soon to examine you both to make sure everything’s fine.”
Mrs. Moeller struggled to sit and put her hand on Rachel’s arm. “Please, call me Tricia. Mrs. Moeller makes me feel so old.”
Rachel couldn’t resist taking one more look at the sleeping infant. She caressed the baby’s cheek, then donned her coat and bid Tricia good-bye.
Henry opened the front door, but this time he allowed Rachel to precede him. She stepped out, only to bump into a chest and have her arm grasped for the second time that day. Again, she found herself staring at the deputy’s shiny badge.
“Are you Rachel Garrett?”
Rachel looked up into that same handsome, scowling face. “Yes.”
“You have to come with me.”
He took the medical bag from her hand and pulled her toward a waiting buggy.