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The Lady and the Mountain Call
Table of Contents
The Lady and the Mountain Call
Check out other books by Misty M. Beller Mountain Dreams Series:
About the Author
Mountain Dreams Series
Misty M. Beller
Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Phillipians 3:13b-14 (KJV)
~ ~ ~
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February 4th, 1879
Mountains near Butte, Montana Territory
SHE WAS GOING to lose both her feet. And maybe her life, too, if he didn’t do something quick.
Bryan Donaghue nudged his horse faster to close the distance as the tiny shrew of a woman tromped through six inches of snow on the far side of the clearing wearing no shoes and only short sleeves. She was by the edge of the woods, a basket in one hand, the other clutching a rooster tight to her side. From this distance, it looked like the bird pecked steadily at her arm, but he couldn’t make out what she prattled on to the animal as she walked. She didn’t seem bothered by the blood oozing down her wrinkled hand.
“Mrs. Scott?” He called across the thirty or so feet separating them.
She paused to look up. “Yep?”
As he reined his horse to a stop, a movement above her head grabbed his attention. In the tree. The branches shifted. Not the branches—an animal, long and lean. The perfect mottled brown to hide among the leafless limbs.
A mountain lion.
Heart pounding, he reached for his rifle and pulled it from the scabbard on the saddle, not taking his focus from the predator. Just like the animal never took its beady eyes from its prey.
He didn’t dare cry out to the woman. Any movement could make the cat strike. Instead, he cocked the Winchester and raised it to his shoulder, sighting down the barrel.
“What ya need?” Mrs. Scott turned and started toward him.
The cougar raised onto its all fours, tensing to leap.
He pulled the trigger, sending a prayer heavenward that his aim would hold true against the gun’s recoil.
A blast rent the air, then a terrific scream.
The animal soared from the tree. It didn’t quite land on the woman, but only a few feet separated them.
Bryan pumped the rifle’s lever and aimed again. The cat writhed on the ground, then seemed to regain its footing, again setting its sights on the woman.
Bryan squeezed the trigger a second time. The explosion ricocheted through the clearing.
The mountain lion slumped to the ground, motionless, as an eerie silence took over the area.
Bryan vaulted from his horse and lunged through the snow to meet the older woman. “Are you hurt, ma’am?” A glance at the cat showed a bloody patch where the second shot had done its job.
She turned to him, squinting against the sunlight’s reflection on ice. “What?” The rooster in her arms wiggled and pecked furiously at her restraining hand.
“Can I help you with that bird? What are you doing in this snow without shoes and a coat? We have to get you inside.”
She tilted her head, eyeing him as though he’d told her to stand on her head and recite the alphabet. “Why’d I wanna do that?”
Bryan reached for the bird. The poor woman’s arm was almost mutilated by its steady pecks. At her age, she stood a strong risk of infection from the open wound growing wider by the second.
Mrs. Scott pulled back, clutching the rooster tighter to her side. It responded with a squawk and pecked even faster.
“Ma’am, I’ll carry that rooster wherever you want me to take him. Just let me help.” And as soon as he wrested the bird from her, he had to get the old lady out of this snow. What little he could see of the skin on her feet shone a waxy pink. It’d be a miracle akin to raising Lazarus if she came out of this with all her toes intact.
With her wrinkled lips pinched so hard they disappeared, she finally extended the rooster to him. “I was on my way to the chopping block with this one. Gonna surprise your pa with a good stew tonight. Would you knock his head off for me, son?”
Bryan clutched the wriggling creature in both hands. “Yes, ma’am.” He turned away and took long strides toward the chicken shed.
The bird craned its neck to peck him.
“No you don’t.” Just like he’d done a hundred times with his mother’s chickens, Bryan gripped both legs and hung the animal upside down.
As he settled the rooster into the pen and secured the door behind it, his mind played through Mrs. Scott’s words. It sure sounded like she thought he was her son, not the doctor from the town five hours north. And didn’t she remember her husband had passed away two months before? He’d been worried about her mental state then. She’d seemed confused and forgetful. But nothing like this.
He turned to face Mrs. Scott. Somehow he’d have to explain why he’d shoved the rooster back in the shed instead of knocking its head off like she’d asked. But his first priority was to get her inside so he could tend her frostbite and bleeding hand.
But the yard was empty.
“Mrs. Scott?” He scanned the snowy expanse between the cabin and outbuildings.
Too many footprints marred the ground to tell which ones were most recently hers. And they were footprints—made by bare feet—not sturdy, warm boots. Not even moccasins sewn from the furs her mountain man son supplied them with. Bryan hadn’t met the man, but the Scotts said he stopped by a couple times a year. Did he have any idea yet about his father’s death or his mother’s mental state?
Scuffling sounds drifted from the house, so Bryan headed that way at a jog.
After a quick detour to grab his saddle pack from where Cloud stood quietly, he vaulted onto the porch. He tapped the snow from his boots, then knocked on the door and pushed it open with his knuckles.
Mrs. Scott stood by the stove, stirring something in a big pot. “I’ve got water boiling for supper. You think you could go clean me that ol’ rooster?”
“Um, maybe.” Bryan stepped inside the dark room. The scant bit of sunlight filtering through the single dirty window was the only thing that lit the place. No fire in the hearth, but on the opposite side of the room, a few red embers showed around the edge of the cook stove’s door. “Mrs. Scott, can I take a look at that hand? You’re still bleeding a good bit.”
She frowned down at her hand clutching the spoon. Blood oozed down its wooden handle into whatever she was stirring. He swallowed against the bile churning in his stomach. No matter what she offered him to eat, there was no chance he’d accept.
Her gaze lifted to his, and the creases in her brow furrowed even deeper. Was she trying to remember who he was? Or how she’d been injured?
He stepped closer. “I’m Doc Bryan, ma’am. From Butte. I just stopped by to check on you. Can you sit in this chair and let me tend your wounds?” He slipped a hand around her arm, and she allowed him to lead her to one of the ladder-back chairs around the table. He had to breathe through his mouth to fight against the human stench that emanated from her.
The bleeding at her hand didn’t seem eager to slow, probably due to her age and the thinness of her papery skin. Cayenne powder did the trick though, and he soon had it cleaned and wrapped tight.
Next her feet. He dropped to his knees and studied the pale, waxy skin. He tentatively touched the right foot. His own fingers were cool, which made it even easier to feel the warmth radiating from her feet. Not good. That warmth was probably the tissues breaking down after being frozen.
He glanced up at the stove. Lord, let that really be water she was heating. He found a bowl on the counter that looked mostly clean, and poured liquid from the pot. Only a slight reddish tinge colored it. This would do to rewarm her. The temperature felt about right, too.
When he dipped her left foot into the bowl, she tried to pull it back out. “Ain’t no need to fuss about me, son. My feet are jest fine. Let me up an’ I’ll pour ya a cup of yer Mum’s good coffee.”
Bryan pressed a hand to her forearm to hold her still. “Please, Mrs. Scott. We need to rewarm your feet to stop any more damage from the cold.”
It took all the patience he possessed, and most of his charm, but he finally convinced the woman to relax and let him work on her feet. About five minutes into the rewarming process, the older woman took up moaning and rocking in her chair. The pain had to be intense. She didn’t voice a complaint though, despite the mottling of blue and purple as her skin came to life.
By the time he had her feet wrapped in bandages and a blanket settled around the rest of her body, tears coursed down Mrs. Scott’s lined face.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Those feet are going to be hurting for a few days.” The pain was actually a good sign, meant maybe not all the tissue would die. He settled into the chair beside her, leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, and gave his most earnest doctor expression. “You need to wear boots and a coat any time you’re outside in the winter. Can you do that for me?”
The woman’s eyes drifted to half-mast, as though she didn’t have the strength to hold them open. Or maybe she just didn’t want to listen—or couldn’t.
“Mrs. Scott. Did you hear me? I’m hoping I won’t have to amputate this time, but if you walk barefoot in the snow again, you might lose both your feet. It’s very dangerous to go out in the snow without shoes.”
A soft snore drifted from her.
Bryan sank back into his chair. What was he going to do with this woman? He sure couldn’t leave her here to fend for herself. Dementia was obviously taking a quick hold on her mind. Where was her son in all this?
O’Hennessy, the closest neighbor, had said he would come by to check her when he could. But the man lived over an hour away, and he was already caring for the herd of cattle Mr. Scott’s death had left behind.
Nope, there was no choice but to take her down the mountain and back to town. They could stop by O’Hennessey’s on the way and ask the man to come gather the chickens and any other animals left here. And he could leave a note for Mrs. Scott’s son. Maybe someone in town would know how to reach the man.
~ ~ ~
THE WOMAN SCREAMED just like a mountain lion.
Bryan clamped his jaw tight and tried not to squeeze Mrs. Scott’s frail arms as he did his best to lead her to the wagon. “We’re just going to make a little visit to town.”
“Noooooooooo…” The howl would have scared off a bear if it weren’t the dead of winter. Might have even woken a few from hibernation. “You’re not going to take me.” She writhed in his arms, twisting and scratching like a wild cat.
He pulled her closer, trying to instill a sense of protection with his touch. “It’s all right, Mrs. Sc— Ow!” Sharp teeth pierced the skin of his unprotected hands. He jerked back.
She tore from his grip and ran like a jackrabbit toward the house.
As he took off after her, one boot slipped on an icy porch step, and he scrambled to catch his balance. It was just the lead the woman needed, because by the time he reached the door, she’d slammed it shut.
“Mrs. Scott?” He pounded on the door. The construction was solid, maybe a double thickness of wood. And it felt like she braced it with a metal rod. It’d not be easy to break through. “I just want to take you to the doctor’s clinic for a few days until your wounds heal.”
“You’ll not be stealin’ me away from my Quinn. He’ll find you and hurt you somethin’ fierce if you even try.”
Bryan let out a long breath. What was he to do now? Break down the door or shatter the window? The woman obviously thought she was being kidnapped. And even if he did find a way to get her out of the cabin, he’d have to use chloroform on the trip to town. That really would be a kidnapping, even if it were for her own good.
He turned and scanned the yard. The Scotts’ farm horses stood patiently hitched to the wagon where he’d left them, Cloud tied to the back of the conveyance.
Maybe he could find someone in town who knew the woman. Someone who’d be willing to stay up here for a week or two to nurse her until her son could be located.
Surely the neighbor would be willing to come check her tomorrow. By the next day, Bryan could have a nurse sent up.
As it was, he couldn’t stay any longer himself. Claire had been expecting him back two days before and was probably pacing the floor from worry by now. And the baby. How much had little Amanda grown in these five days he’d been gone? She’d just started holding her head up in the last week. And that smile she’d gifted him with the last time he held her…
Yep, it was time to go home.
February 5th, 1879
Butte, Montana Territory
“I’M SURE HE’LL be back today, Claire.” Cathleen Donaghue watched her sister-in-law pace to the window again and peer out at the dreary, snow-covered town. Claire and Bryan’s home had been built on the outskirts of Butte, making it feel slightly removed from the business of the city. “Bryan’s probably just delayed with a patient, but he’ll come as soon as he can.”
Claire turned troubled eyes to Cathleen. “He’s never been two days late from a trip to the mountains, though.”
The infant propped on Cathleen’s shoulder let out a squawk and started rooting toward her neck. She bobbed with her little niece and rubbed her back. “Go feed this girl before dinner’s ready. I need to help with the food.”
As Cathleen handed little Amanda to her worried mother, she sent up another prayer for Bryan’s safety. Her brother was stubborn at times, but he usually had the good sense required to stay safe on the icy mountain trails. If only he weren’t always so focused on the needs of his patients. He was going to give his poor wife an apoplexy one of these days.
A quarter hour later, Cathleen stepped back out of the kitchen, leading her boisterous one-year-old nephew, William. Her sisters-in-law seemed to have the food preparations well under control. “I guess we’ll occupy ourselves out here, huh, mister?” She eyed the neat stack of toys in the corner. “Let’s see if we can find the animals?”
The stomp of boots on the porch jerked her attention to the door. Was that her other brother and the minister, coming in from the church? They’d all planned to meet here for lunch. Bryan was supposed to have been a part of the lunch gathering, but he’d have to make it home first.
The door pushed open, and in stepped the weary traveler, her eldest brother Bryan. He was bundled in his winter coat and pushed the fur-lined hood off as he stepped into the room.
“It’s about time you showed up.” Cathleen offered a smile to soften the sassy words. “Claire was about to go looking for you.”
He eased out a long sigh as he unfastened the button closures on his coat. “Got held up at the Scott ranch. Poor Mrs. Scott’s dementia is getting bad. Had to treat her for frostbite and severe chicken pecking before I could leave. Got too late to make it down the mountain last night, so I had to wait until today.”
“Bryan?” Claire appeared in the bedroom doorway, relief flooding her voice. A blanket was wrapped around her front and draped across her shoulders.
His hands dropped from his buttons with two still to go as his gaze found his wife’s. In three steps he crossed the room and took her in his arms.
“You’re home.” Claire snuggled into his embrace as a muffled complaint drifted from under the blanket in her arms.
Cathleen turned away from the tender scene, as much to squelch the yearning in her chest as to give them privacy. Both her brothers had found such happiness here. It was good to see. Good to have helped these past three months as their families grew. But the baby was older and maybe now “Aunt Cathy” wasn’t needed so much anymore. Maybe it was time to move on.
Would she ever have a family of her own? According to Dad and her two big brothers, no suitor had ever been acceptable. Not that she’d pushed hard for any particular man. She’d never thought herself picky, but shouldn’t a girl feel…something…for a prospective husband? Shouldn’t there be some kind of spark?
Pushing those thoughts aside, she carried William to the toys and settled cross-legged on the floor. She tried to snuggle him in her lap as she pulled out the carved animal collection, but the restless toddler would have none of it. So she let him loose and exclaimed over each animal he showed her.
But between the cows and horses and ducks, she couldn’t stop her mind from wandering. Should she go back home to Boston? It was only February, so there weren’t likely to be ships traveling the Missouri River yet. The water could even be frozen for all she knew. She’d have to talk through it with her brothers to see if there was another way back across the country.
Mum and Dad might be ready for some help again. Her brothers and their capable wives certainly had things under control here.
More footsteps sounded on the porch, and in tromped Alex, her other brother, and Marcus, the preacher. The family was all here. Time to enjoy them while she could.
~ ~ ~
“THE CHICKEN WAS doing what?” Cathleen studied Bryan’s face, as a surge of concern swept through her. A glance at their middle sibling, Alex, showed that his face mirrored her own emotions. Why was an elderly woman living alone up in those rough mountains?
After a pleasant lunch, mothers and babes had all settled in for a nap, so Cathleen had a rare moment to enjoy just her two brothers. But the story Bryan shared was anything but enjoyable.
Bryan’s mouth pinched. “It pecked quite a hole in her hand. The skin was too thin for stitches. Bled like a head wound, though. That certainly wasn’t the worst of it. No telling how long she’d been out in the snow without shoes or a coat, nothing more than a thin cotton calico, as far as I could tell.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, leaving it standing in spikes.
“So what’d you do?”
“Shot the mountain lion first, then got her inside and doctored as best I could.” As Bryan told the tale of how he tried to convince the woman to come down the mountain with him, he put enough of a humorous spin to his efforts to bring on a chuckle from Alex. But Cathleen couldn’t push away the images her mind conjured of a frail old woman—like great-aunt Arlene had been—half frozen to death and bleeding, alone in a remote mountain cabin.
She gripped the arms of her chair and scooted to the edge. The urge to do something to help swelled inside her. “She doesn’t have any family left?”
Bryan’s mouth sobered, and worry lines took their usual place at the corners of his eyes. “We buried her husband two months ago. They have a son, but he’s some kind of wild, mountain man. O’Hennessy is the nearest neighbor, about an hour’s ride east, but he doesn’t know how to find the son. I’m hoping someone here in town does.”
An image of a wild-eyed man formed in her mind, full beard matching the fur hanging from his clothing. Maybe missing a tooth or two. Poor Mrs. Scott. Even if her son showed up, how could a man like that do anything to help her condition?
Bryan leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he studied Alex. “Think there’s a nurse we can send up there in the next couple days?”
Alex frowned. “The nurses we’ve used before are all married women. Most with children. There’s no way they could leave town to go half a day’s ride into the mountains.” He squinted. “Maybe Mrs. Walker if she took her twins with her.”
Bryan shook his head. “I’d hate to see what those twins would do to this woman’s nerves. She didn’t know who I was most of the time. Thought I was her son, I think. And she didn’t seem to remember her husband had passed either.”
As Cathleen watched the volley between her brothers, an idea took shape in her mind. Leaving the poor woman up there alone even another day was unacceptable. She cleared her throat to get their attention. “I can care for her.”
Alex frowned. “You can’t stay alone in the mountains.”
She fought down a flare of frustration. “Of course, I can. And I wouldn’t be alone, I’d be helping Mrs. Scott. You were just talking about sending a woman up there with a pair of five-year-old twins. You think I’d be worse off than her?”
“Cathy, I don’t think you understand what the conditions are like in those mountain homesteads.” Alex set his coffee on the side table. “It’s primitive in the worst way. There’s danger from all kinds of wild animals. No stores to shop at like you’re accustomed to. You have to make do with the food and supplies on hand, or else make your own. And the creeks are probably frozen over, so who knows where she’s getting water from. Some of the mountain trails are impassible when it snows. What if you were stranded up there and needed help? It’s nothing like the life you were used to back home. Not even half as civilized as it is here in Butte.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. Alex had been smelling to much chloroform if he thought the words civilized and Butte should be used in the same sentence.
But she’d done just fine adjusting to life here in this rough, western mining town, where they didn’t have decent baking supplies and not enough of a fabric selection to clothe a pauper. And she’d do just as well in the mountains. She’d read books about primitive life. What she didn’t know, Mrs. Scott could probably remember. How hard could it be to clean a rooster for supper?
She turned to Bryan and gave him one of those looks he should remember well. The one that said she’d made up her mind but would give him a little bit of time to get used to the idea. “Think about it, Bryan. The woman’s obviously in a bad way. And your wife doesn’t need me so much around here anymore. I can ride up first thing tomorrow. Whenever her son can be found, he can take over. But until then, I’m needed. There’s no one else for the job.”
Bryan let out a longsuffering sigh. “Cathy, don’t be pigheaded about this.”
She leaned back in her chair. She was pretty sure she’d made her point, but if Bryan didn’t come around by dinnertime, he’d find out what pigheaded looked like. Somewhere, even now, a woman wandered around in the mountains—hurt, confused, and maybe even dying. That simply wouldn’t do.
Cathleen Donaghue didn’t turn her back on someone in need.
~ ~ ~
“SO I’LL LEAVE in the morning to go care for Mrs. Scott?” Cathleen set a plate of dried apple pie on the table in front of Bryan that evening, then another before Claire. They’d just finished dinner, and the darkness outside made Claire’s kitchen feel like a cozy haven. She loved the round dark wood table in the center of the room, large enough for several families to gather around.
But now it was just the three of them—four, if you counted little Amanda whom Claire nursed while they talked.
“What do you mean?” Claire looked up, her fork hovering over the pie crust.
Cathleen started to answer, but Bryan spoke first.
“Cathy, I really don’t think that’s a good idea.” Bryan looked like he might be considering whether physical restraint would be necessary. He’d obviously read her earlier determination. Perhaps he thought he might ship her back home to Boston, no matter if the river was frozen or not.
She plopped into her chair at the table and leaned forward. “You know this is the only way, Bryan. And besides, it actually makes sense. I’m not needed here anymore.” She motioned toward Claire and the baby. “Claire has everything under control. But Mrs. Scott is injured and alone. I’ll only stay there until her son comes to take over, then I’ll be right back here, safe and sound where you won’t have to worry about me.”
“I do still need you, Cathleen.” Claire’s voice held a hint of a motherly tone. “I don’t know what we would have done these past few months without you. There’s some days it seems Amanda thinks you’re her mother and I’m the auntie.”
Cathleen couldn’t help a smile at her sweet sister-in-law and the baby. Claire had such a charitable personality and had become a dear friend through these past months. Surely she could understand why she had to help Mrs. Scott.
She turned back to her over-protective brother. “Just let me try it, Bryan. If things don’t work out, I’ll come back to Butte straightaway.”
As he looked at her, his brown eyes turned liquid. Pleading. “Cathy, if I let you go up there and something happens, Dad would have me brought before the Inquisition. You know he sent you here into my care. They can’t handle losing another daughter.”
A stab of familiar pain tightened her chest. None of their family had been the same after her big sister, Britt, died at the tender age of eight. The last thing she wanted to do was bring that kind of grief on her parents. But this was entirely different. Britt had a lung condition from birth, and it had only been a matter of time until she succumbed. Cathleen was strong and capable, and a feeble old lady needed her somewhere in those mountains.
She gave Bryan her most earnest expression. “I’ll be careful. If there’s any hint of danger, I’ll come right back. Maybe I can even get Mrs. Scott to come with me.”
Releasing a long breath, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “All right. But let the record state that I do not agree that this is a good idea.”
The relief that flowed through her left behind a solid sense of rightness as she squeezed her brother’s big, calloused hand. She was fulfilling her calling.
Lord, help me help Mrs. Scott.
AS THEY RODE INTO THE little mountain clearing, Cathleen took in the sight of the log cabin with smoke drifting up through a stovepipe in the roof. A porch spanned the front of the building, and an outhouse peeked out from behind. A low lean-to on the side of the house held a thin layer of firewood, but the covering hadn’t done much to protect the wood from the snow. Only the logs on one end had the white powder brushed from their surface.
Bryan reined his horse to a stop in front of the house, and her own mount followed suit. He dismounted, and Cathleen scanned the cabin again while she waited for his assistance. She’d only ridden side-saddle during all her years in Boston, but a few trips into the countryside around Butte had taught her how to ride astride. And the five hours they’d been on the trail this morning had certainly finished the job. Between the cold and the length of time in the same position, she couldn’t feel her feet. There was a good chance they might not support her weight once she asked it of them.
Bryan gripped her waist and lowered her to the ground, and she clutched the saddle as needles stabbed her ankles. A flicker in the window to the left of the door caught her attention, offering a welcome distraction from the prickles. The panes were covered with some kind of solid fabric, but a corner of the material had definitely moved.
“Let’s get inside.” She turned a smile on her brother as she loosened one hand from its death-grip on the saddle.
He tied both horses to the rail on the front porch. “We’ll see what we’re up against first. Then I’ll come back out and settle these two and get the supplies unloaded.”
They ascended the steps, and Bryan slid his coat hood from his head, then knocked on the door. Cathleen glanced behind her at the view from the porch. She caught her breath. Through a break in the trees, a distant mountain peak rose high above them, majestic with its snowy cap and regal bearing. “Look, Bryan.”
But before he could obey, the cabin door opened, letting out a rush of warm, stale air. Cathleen turned toward the opening and shared her brightest smile with the gray-haired woman who peered out.
“Mrs. Scott. It’s Doc Bryan from town. How are you today, ma’am?”
She squinted at them, still half-hiding behind the door frame. Only one hand showed, and from the lack of a scar, it must not be the injured one. “Oh. Just fine.” The hesitation in her voice sounded like she couldn’t quite place him, even though he’d just said his name and had visited only a couple days before.
“I’m glad to hear it. I’d like to introduce you to my sister, Miss Cathleen Donaghue.” Bryan touched her elbow, and Cathleen stepped forward.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Scott.”
The woman turned confused eyes on Cathleen but didn’t say anything.
Bryan cleared his throat. “Would you mind if we come in for a minute?”
Mrs. Scott turned her attention back to him slowly, as if she struggled to keep up with what was happening. “I suppose.” Shuffling backward, she pulled the door wide and hobbled toward the stove. “I’ll put some coffee on to warm you. Quinn should be back anytime now.”
Cathleen glanced at Bryan and mouthed the husband? Bryan had only referred to the man as Mr. Scott when he’d shared his knowledge of the family on their long ride up.
He nodded, mouth pinched. Looking up at the older woman, he raised his voice a bit louder than usual. “No need for coffee, ma’am. But I’d like to check your injuries from the other day. Can we sit here at the table?”
Cathleen reached to unfasten the buttons on her coat. Bryan had said not to trust anything the woman cooked, so that must be his way of skirting the topic. Hot coffee would be perfect right now, though.
She scanned the dark room around them. What she’d thought was a cloth curtain over the window now looked like some kind of animal skin. An elaborate beadwork design spanned the edges, and fringe hung from the bottom. Other skins lined the walls, some with the fur intact, others more like buckskin. A large fur hung over the fireplace, a striking brown and tan spotted pattern marking the hair. She’d seen the men in Butte wear buckskins on occasion, but never furs like these. And she’d never seen so many hides in one place.
Noises from the stove snagged her attention, and she glanced over as Mrs. Scott shifted pots around on its surface. There didn’t seem to be a reason behind her actions though. She just slid a pan here, then another where the first had been, finally sliding the first pot to a new burner.
A wash of sympathy slid through Cathleen, and she stopped unfastening her coat to step forward. “Here, Mrs. Scott. How about if I make coffee while you let the doctor check your bandage.” She slipped a hand around the woman’s thin shoulders. There was even less substance there than her brown wool dress made it appear.
The woman allowed Cathleen to guide her to a chair at the table, and Bryan settled into the one beside it. She raised the bandaged arm to the table’s surface. The cloth that had surely been white when Bryan put it on two days ago was now a speckled brown with splashes of darker colors that could have been blood—or some other substance Cathleen didn’t want to consider. The smells of human odors tinged the air around the older woman.
She turned to the stove as Bryan started his ministrations. Now for coffee. One of the pots did hold what looked to be water. The other two were empty. Should she trust the water here? She scanned the work counter, then peered into the dry sink. A bucket on the floor looked like it also held water, although the liquid there had bits of food particles floating in it. It was possible they were food, but she wasn’t about to chance it.
With a glance back at the pair, she picked up the bucket handle and squared her shoulders. “I’m going to get fresh water.”
Bryan peered so intently under Mrs. Scott’s bandage, he only murmured “All right” when she passed.
Cathleen pulled her coat tighter around herself as she stepped out the door into the whipping wind. She should have grabbed her gloves on the way out. Next time, she’d remember.
She scanned the yard for a well. A barn stood about thirty feet to the left, and beside it a shed of some kind. Maybe a chicken house, judging by the noises emanating from the wooden plank siding. She stepped down the porch stairs and patted their horses as she made her way around them. Another small building behind the house must be the outhouse. So where was the well?
Something Bryan had said flickered through her mind. Sometimes these mountain farms used streams instead of digging wells. It made sense if the ground underneath was mostly rock. She scanned the area again. No sign of a stream in the clearing. But there was a trail of footprints in the snow leading toward the trees on one side. She headed that direction.
~ ~ ~
IT WAS OVER an hour later by the time Cathleen had located an icy stream, steeped the coffee, and fixed a simple meal of boiled potatoes and some kind of jerked meat she found in the root cellar. She hadn’t taken time to unpack the supplies she and Bryan brought, but there was no doubt they’d come in handy later.
As they ate at the kitchen table, she and Bryan tried to draw Mrs. Scott into conversation. The woman downed the food like she hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks.
Which she probably hadn’t.
A fresh bandage wrapped her left hand, although the smell of human odor still clung to her. As soon as Bryan left, they’d be looking for a bath tub.
“The bandages weren’t on her feet anymore.” Bryan spoke in a low, conversational tone. Cathleen still wasn’t sure whether Mrs. Scott had trouble hearing or just struggled to focus on the conversation. A glance at the woman showed her intent on gathering a soft potato onto her spoon.
She looked back at her brother as he continued. “But the right sole had blistered, so I rewrapped it. They seem to be giving her a bit of pain still. I hope that lessens in the next few days, but we’ll see.”
“What should I do to help?”
“Keep her warm. I wouldn’t make her walk too much, especially until that blister goes away. Propping her feet should help, and maybe soak them in warm water.” He shrugged. “That’s about all you can do. I’ll leave a stronger medicine to use if the pain gets bad, but I’d save it for a last resort. Willow bark would be easier on her system. You have a full kit of herbals in the supplies we brought.”
Cathleen nodded. In his apothecary shop, Dad had taught them all to use herbs whenever possible instead of the medical tonics. Too many questionable ingredients in the man-made stuff, and often the most plentiful was a substantial dose of alcohol.
Bryan turned to the older woman and raised his voice a bit. “Mrs. Scott, would it be all right if my sister stays with you for a while? She can help around the farm until you’re feeling better.”
The older woman looked up at Bryan, her eyes sharpening more than they had yet. Then she glanced at Cathleen and her expression softened. “I feel fine, but if she needs a place to stay, she’s welcome. Quinn and me always have a shelter ready for one o’ God’s lambs.”
Cathleen returned her smile. If she had to pretend to be a charity case for the woman to accept her, she could do that. “Thank you, ma’am.”
~ ~ ~
“I’M NOT SURE I should leave you here, Cathy.”
Cathleen stroked the wooly neck of her brother’s horse with one hand while shading her eyes with the other so she could look up at him. “Don’t worry. Mrs. Scott and I will get along just fine.”
He scanned the cabin again, then met her gaze. “I don’t think she realizes you’ll be staying more than a few days.”
She offered a sad smile. “I have a feeling one day is the same as the next to her. I don’t know how she’s managed on her own this long.” She tapped his knee. “It’ll be good, the two of us here together. She needs me, and I need a new project.”
With a sigh, his shoulders slumped. “The horse I rented from the livery is in the barn. If anything happens or you’re worried in the least, come back home.”
Poor Bryan. He couldn’t help but worry. It was how he showed his love. She patted his knee again. “I will, big brother. Now get home before your wife starts pacing the parlor again.”
His face twisted into a silly half-smile. The kind only a love-struck man could produce. Then he sobered. “Take care, Cathy. Please.”
As he rode away, Cathleen stepped onto the porch and watched until he disappeared around a stand of trees. Then she turned toward the front door. Her heart was lighter than it had been in months as she stepped inside to begin her work.
It may not be easy to live this far away from town, but there was a need to fill here. And she was the right person for the job.
~ ~ ~
REUBEN SCOTT RAN a hand over his mare’s bulging side. She should still have another couple months to go, but this foal was growing quickly. He stroked his way up her shoulder and neck to rub the favorite spot behind her ears. “How’re you feelin’, girl?”
The mare turned to nuzzle his free hand, and Reuben deepened the scratching. She was a good horse, had been a good companion through the winter. And with the weather colder and the snow deeper than he could ever remember it, companions had been scarce. The elements had driven much of the game to lower mountains, which meant Akecheta and his small band of Crow Indians had followed. Taking away Reuben’s primary source of human interaction.
With a final pat, he turned away from the mare. “I have work to do, girl. Can’t stand around all day.”
Reuben stepped into his little cabin and whistled. “You ready to work, North?”
The huge mound of white fur lying in front of the cook stove moved. A black nose appeared, then a pink tongue lolling underneath.