A visitor in the night
September 15, 1879
I hope this finds you and Father as well as we are at present. Adam is growing like a weed – I can’t believe he just had his seventh birthday – and I have the occasional patient here at the clinic. In a way I’m glad there aren’t more, as I can’t do much for the ones who really need a doctor, but when I’m working it feels as if Luke were here with me somehow.
It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been a year since his death. It still feels strange to walk by the office door and not see him at his desk. And yet, in some ways, it seems that he has been gone a long time. I try so hard to hold onto his memory, for myself and for Adam.
There is still no word on a new doctor, which isn’t surprising. Larkspur is small and out of the way, as well as being rough enough around the edges to put off most doctors and their families, and –
Enid Sutton dropped her pen at the sound of wagon wheels in the yard, barely audible over the rain pelting on the office window. A patient, after dark on a night like this, likely meant something serious. Something beyond her skills. As badly as she needed income, she wished whoever it was had just driven on to the nearest doctor.
When she answered the door, a man stepped in out of the dripping night with a little boy in his arms. The child looked to be about the same age as her Adam. As for the father, she might not have let him in if he’d been alone. He smelled of liquor, he hadn’t shaved in days, and the blond hair that straggled out from under his streaming hat looked none too clean. Enid knew most of the people in Larkspur by sight, but she’d never seen this man before. He must be from one of the homesteads outside of town.
“You the doctor’s wife?”
He sounded as rough as he looked. In the year she’d been here alone, it hadn’t occurred to Enid to feel intimidated by a patient. People here knew she was their only option for medical care other than the barber, and they treated her with respect, but this man frightened her.
“Yes, I’m Mrs. Sutton. What can I do for you?”
“I heard you’re doing the doctoring here now. My son’s sick. A couple of days ago he said he had a pain in his stomach, but it didn’t seem that bad. Yesterday he wanted to stay in bed, and today he has a fever. You got an idea what’s wrong with him?”
Malnutrition, food poisoning, parasites. All likely possibilities, by the look of the father. “Bring him through to the office and I’ll have a look.”
The man laid his son on the examining table, removed the boy’s jacket and shirt, then took off his own dripping hat. Enid got a glimpse of cold blue eyes before she leaned over the child. He wasn’t too feverish to focus on her. Enid gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
“My name is Enid Sutton. Can you tell me yours?”
“Hunter Ramsey,” he replied in a drowsy murmur.
“How old are you, Hunter?”
He certainly didn’t look malnourished or mistreated. No distended abdomen or other signs of worms. He’d be close to the same height as Adam, with no indications of rickets. On the other side of the table, his father watched Enid’s every move closely.
“Can you show me where it hurts?”
“Yeah, here.” Hunter laid his hand on the right side of his abdomen. When Enid pressed a little more firmly on the same spot, he clenched his teeth and bit back a cry. A knot formed in Enid’s stomach. His father glared at her.
“You sure you know what you’re doing?”
For the boy’s sake, Enid ignored him. “I’m sorry, Hunter. I had to do that to find out what’s wrong. I think I know. Your father and I are going to step outside and talk for a minute. We’ll be right back. You try to rest.”
The father followed her out of the office. The knot in Enid’s stomach grew painful. He wasn’t going to like what she had to say.
“Mr. Ramsey, I can’t be certain, but I’ve seen symptoms like your son’s before. I think Hunter has appendicitis. A small organ in his abdomen is infected. It isn’t common, but it can happen to anyone at any age. Has he eaten today?”
“No. He wouldn’t eat anything.”
“Good. If I’m right, and if his appendix isn’t removed as soon as possible, it could burst and Hunter could die.”
Mr. Ramsey’s face turned pale under his tan. In spite of his utter lack of manners, Enid couldn’t help feeling sorry for him as he stood there, fists clenched, looking as helpless as she felt.
“An operation? It’s a two hour drive to Woodrow Corners.”
“I know. I wouldn’t advise trying to get him there over that road. You stay here with Hunter. I’ll go wire Doctor Grant in Woodrow Corners to come here. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”
She hurried into her raincoat and ran, down her street and past the row of jerry-built wooden buildings on Main. They looked forlorn enough at the best of times, but now their dark windows reminded Enid of black eyes in ghostly faces. The only light came from the windows of the saloon and the telegraph office. The days were growing shorter, winter creeping closer. Enid shivered and ran faster. She wasn’t sure she could make it through another winter like last year’s, her first without Luke.
Charlie Holton, the telegraph operator, nodding over a penny dreadful, almost fell out of his chair when she burst in on him. “Charlie, I need you to wire Dr. Grant. It’s urgent. I’ve got a very sick child on my hands.”
“Adam? What – ”
“No, it’s not Adam.” Enid grabbed the note pad and pencil on Charlie’s desk. Emergency. Child with appendicitis. Needs surgery. She handed the note to Charlie. “Hurry.”
Enid prayed while they waited for a response. Ten minutes later, it came – from Dr. Grant’s wife. Doctor out until morning. Try Cedar.
Cedar. An hour further away. Charlie sent off the wire while Enid stood by, willing the telegraph to start tapping. Would little Hunter Ramsey be another life lost because she didn’t have the skills to save him? She’d thought she’d learned to accept her limitations. Apparently she was wrong.
Ten minutes went by, then twenty. She couldn’t leave the boy and his father alone any longer. “Thanks Charlie, Keep trying Dr. Wentworth. I’d better get back to the clinic.”
She found Mr. Ramsey sitting by Hunter, looking ready to hit someone. “What took you so long?”
Enid checked Hunter’s pulse, laid a hand on his forehead. No better, perhaps a little worse. “I tried Dr. Grant. He’s out on a case. Then I tried Dr. Wentworth in Cedar. Charlie’s still waiting for a reply.”
Mr. Ramsey rose from his chair. For an instant Enid thought he was going to strike her, he looked so desperate, but he brushed by her without a word. The front door banged shut behind him.
Perhaps he’d gone to get the boy’s mother. Enid took his place in the chair beside the examining table. Hunter was in obvious pain, but no trace of tears showed on his flushed face.
“Mrs. Sutton, do you have kids?”
She took his hand. “Yes, I have a little boy just about your age. His name is Adam. You must know him from school.”
“I don’t go to school.” Hunter frowned, reminding her strongly of his father. “Are you a doctor? I never heard of a lady doctor.”
“No. My husband was a doctor and I used to help him, but he passed away. We’re going to get a doctor to come here to help you.” Enid brushed his fine blond hair back from his forehead. Would his next question be “Am I going to die?” If so, what would she say to him?
“Now you should be quiet, Hunter. Try to sleep if you can. I’m sure your father will be back soon.”
He closed his eyes, but he was likely in too much pain to sleep. Enid fought back tears of frustration. It could easily be Adam lying there, with her powerless to help him. Why had Luke chosen to settle in such a forsaken place? Little more than one main street and a handful of homesteads scattered through fifty-odd square miles of foothills and river valley. A general store, a blacksmith, a harness shop, a Northwest Mounted Police post and a saloon. The place would grow, as Luke had believed, but that would take years. A surge of anger banished Enid’s tears as quickly as they’d arisen.
Luke, it isn’t fair. It just isn’t fair.
The front door banged. Hunter’s father hurried into the office with Ed Barnes, Larkspur’s lawyer, in tow. He and Luke had been good friends. Ed was an easy-going man who took most things in stride, but right now he looked as amazed at being there as Enid was to see him.
“Hello, Ed. What – ”
Mr. Ramsey cut her off. “He’s here as a witness. Mrs. Sutton, you have to do this operation.”
“Me?” Enid’s mouth fell open in shock. She herded the two men out of the office and down the hall to the kitchen. Was Adam still asleep? Fortunately he’d grown used to patients showing up at night while his father was alive.
“Mr. Ramsey, that’s completely out of the question. What are you thinking? You know I’m not a doctor, let alone a surgeon. I can’t even be absolutely certain what’s wrong with Hunter. If I’m wrong, or if I bungle things, he could very well die.”
Mr. Ramsey took a step toward her and raised his voice to a shout. “He might die before morning if you don’t do it.”
Ed stepped between them. “Galen, keep your voice down. Hunter will hear you.”
Galen. Enid hadn’t thought to ask his full name before. He lowered his voice to an angry hiss.
“Get out of the way, Ed. What do you think I’m going to do? Look, Mrs. Sutton, you have Charlie Blake’s word that you tried to reach a doctor. You have a lawyer here as a witness that you’ve explained the risks to me. You helped your husband with surgeries. I’ve heard that around town. Did you ever help him with this one?”
“Yes, but – ”
“Then you tell me. Is the risk of waiting worse than the risk of doing the operation?”
Enid’s mind whirled. Charlie could walk in at any moment with the message that Dr. Wentworth was on his way. She could be completely wrong in her diagnosis. Even if she was right, Hunter might be able to safely wait until tomorrow.
Ed let out a deep sigh. “Enid, as Luke’s friend and yours, I have to tell you. If you do this and anything goes wrong, you could be charged with manslaughter.”
Enid tasted bile. Adam had already lost his father. What would it do to him if he lost her as well? “Mr. Ramsey, where is Hunter’s mother? She should have a say in this.”
“She died three years ago. Are you going to answer my question?”
Oh, Lord. How could she have been so blunt? A minute ago, she’d been afraid of the man. Now she wanted to reach out, comfort him somehow. But she couldn’t, any more than she could help his son.
“I’m truly sorry.” She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Mr. Ramsey, I can’t answer your question. I only know that if I operate and something goes wrong, I would never forgive myself.”
“If you don’t and Hunter dies, could you forgive yourself?”
That stung. The man had no idea what he was asking of her. “Mr. Ramsey, you’re being unfair. Have you ever taken responsibility for another person’s life?”
“Then what do you think gives you the right to ask me to do so? If you hadn’t waited so long to bring Hunter in, there would be plenty of time to get a doctor here. And the answer to your question is yes. As difficult as it would be, I’d know that I’d done the responsible thing.”
She hadn’t managed to keep her voice down. Mr. Ramsey’s voice rose again in response. “If that was your son lying in there instead of mine, would you do the responsible thing?”
Another question Enid couldn’t answer. She glanced at the clock over the stove. “It’s nine o’clock. If we don’t hear from Dr. Wentworth in half an hour, we’ll re-evaluate things then. Ed, can you stay? I’d appreciate it. I want a witness to everything that’s said and done here tonight. Mr. Ramsey, you might as well go sit with Hunter. Come and get me if there’s any change.”
Perhaps what she’d said to him about responsibility and bringing Hunter in earlier had made an impression. Mr. Ramsey left the room quietly. Enid and Ed sat at the table to wait. Ed wore his grave lawyer expression, but underneath it she saw real concern and caring.
“You aren’t seriously considering doing this, are you, Enid?”
The only sounds in the kitchen were the rain on the window and the remorseless ticking of the clock, every tick putting Hunter in deeper danger. Could she make Ed understand what she was thinking?
“If we wait till morning the boy will probably die. If I operate, his chances might be just a little better. I didn’t only marry a doctor, I was raised by one. I helped my father in his practice for several years before I was married. That man has no one but his son. We have that in common, at least. Do you know anything about him?”
Ed shook his head. “Not much. His wife – Naomi was her name – died in childbirth, along with the baby. I took care of some paperwork for him at the time. I don’t think I’ve seen him since. He doesn’t come to town often.” Ed steepled his hands on the table and leaned toward her. “You know you were right in what you said, Enid. This isn’t your responsibility. You’ve got Adam to think of.”
“I know.” Enid took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to release her frustration. The worst of it was, there was nothing and no one she could blame. Mr. Ramsey, whatever his faults, was obviously a caring father. No doubt, like most people here, he had little money. Many in his position wouldn’t have brought the boy in at all. “Ed, I couldn’t answer his question. If it were Adam in Hunter’s place I don’t know what I’d do.”
“You wouldn’t operate on your own child.”
“Maybe not.” Enid didn’t mean to complain, knew this was no time to show weakness, but the words seemed to say themselves. “Ed, I shouldn’t still be here. There’s no future for me and Adam here. I’ve only stayed because I didn’t want to uproot him so soon after losing his father. The town needs a real doctor.”
Ed reached out, laid a hand over hers. “You’ve done more than anyone here could have expected of you, Enid. I admire you for staying this long. When you leave, where will you go?”
“Home to Winnipeg, probably, to my parents.” Her only choice, really. They asked her in every letter when she’d be coming home. Adam could go to a better school, she could find something to do and save the money she had left for Adam’s future education. So why did it feel like a retreat, an admission of failure? “Ed, will you help me spread the word that I’m looking to sell this place?”
He nodded. “Of course. If there’s anything else I can do, just let me know. We’ll be sorry to lose you.”
The half hour flew by far too quickly. No Charlie came running in out of the rain with a message. At nine thirty, Mr. Ramsey returned to the kitchen. A different Mr. Ramsey. He looked sunk in guilt. Perhaps he really had taken what Enid said to heart.
“What are you going to do?”
In the end, the lost look in the eyes of Hunter’s father decided her. “Ed, the easy thing would be to wait. Maybe that’s the right thing, too, but I can’t do it. I want you to go find Nelson Hughes. I know, I know,” at Ed’s astonished look, “Nelson looks like he was born shuffling papers and emptying slop pails at the police post, but he was a medic for the Confederate army during what he calls ‘the late unpleasantness’. He helped Luke once or twice when I couldn’t, and he can assist me. He’s probably at the saloon, but it’s early. He’s likely still sober. I’ll start getting things ready.”
Ed hesitated, looked like he wanted to protest, but Enid gave him her most determined look. He left the kitchen. Enid washed her hands, then dipped a potful of hot water from the tank on the stove and set it on to boil. Luke’s surgical kit was still in the drawer of the office cabinet, where he’d always kept it. She retrieved the case, opened it and paused, looking at the shining row of scalpels, clamps and forceps.
Luke, this isn’t right. I shouldn’t have to do this. I should be helping you do it. She blinked back tears. It would help no one if she fell apart now.
She’d once asked Luke how he’d felt before his first surgery, and he’d told her that it wasn’t really a first, it was the final step in the learning process. Hadn’t she been through much of the same process, though she didn’t have a degree to prove it?
She took the instruments to the kitchen. Ten minutes later they were boiled and ready. A fresh package of sterile gauze and the bottle of sutures in spirit was ready in the office. Mr. Ramsey was there with Hunter. Ed returned with Nelson Hughes, who seemed sober enough.
“Ed said you needed my help.”
“Yes. Nelson, I have to operate on Hunter Ramsey, and I need an assistant.”
Nelson shrugged and rolled up his sleeves. “All right. It’s been a while, but I’ll do my best.”
He stood there waiting. Enid raised her eyebrows and nodded toward the kitchen sink. “Wash your hands, Nelson. Things have changed in fifteen years. Cleanliness is essential.”
Back in the office, she leaned over Hunter. He was barely conscious, but he looked at her when she touched his cheek. “Hunter, can you hear me?”
“Good. Hunter, you need an operation to get better.”
“I know. Pa told me.”
“We’re going to make you go to sleep, so you won’t feel anything, I promise. And when you wake up, you’re going to feel a lot better.”
She wasn’t sure he’d understood her, but he nodded. Nelson had the chloroform mask ready. Now to deal with Hunter’s father.
“Mr. Ramsey, you and Ed can wait in the kitchen. We’ll let you know as soon as we’re finished.”
His mouth set in a stubborn line. “I’m not leaving this room.”
She threw her shoulders back, raised her chin and stared him down. “Yes you are. I’m not touching Hunter until you do. Go on.”
He stalked out of the office to join Ed in the kitchen. Enid shut the door after him, rinsed her hands with alcohol solution and put on a clean apron. When she stood over Hunter with Luke’s scalpel in her hand, she closed her eyes for a moment.
All right, Luke. Stay with me.
He did. Her hand trembled, then steadied when the scalpel blade touched Hunter’s skin. It was as if she stood outside herself, watching. Yes, there it was – the appendix, swollen and inflamed, but still intact. She’d been right, and it wasn’t too late.
That feeling of being an observer stayed with her while she removed the appendix and closed the incision. It wasn’t until she’d taken off her apron and washed her hands again that Enid’s knees buckled. She dropped into the desk chair and took deep breaths to keep from being sick. Nelson moved around the room, cleaning up and collecting the used instruments, humming tunelessly under his breath. The few times Enid had seen him, he’d seemed to take life as more or less a joke. Perhaps that was how he survived his day to day existence at the police post.
He set the instruments in the sink and joined her. “You have a knack, Mrs. Sutton. I’ve seen qualified surgeons do worse work.”
Enid reached for a clean towel from the shelf above the desk and wiped her sweating face. “Nelson, I’m just glad it’s well over.”
Nelson grinned at her. “So am I. I surely wouldn’t have chosen Ramsey’s kid for a first patient. We’ve dealt with him over at the jail a couple of times, and he’s no bargain.” He rolled down his shirt sleeves and glanced across the room at the window. “Filthy night. Well, it doesn’t look like you need me any longer, so I’ll be going.”
Enid stayed where she was, still not sure that her legs would carry her. A minute later, Mr. Ramsey and Ed stepped in. She held a finger to her lips.
“Hunter should be fine. I was right. His appendix was dangerously close to bursting, but it’s been removed. Now we have to watch for infection, but we took all the precautions we could.”
The relief that swept over Mr. Ramsey changed his face completely. His eyes no longer looked stone cold. Why he wouldn’t be a bad looking man if he cleaned himself up.
“Well…that’s….When will he wake up?”
Enid wiped her damp palms on her skirt. A smile rose from deep inside her, warming her through and through. “Any time now. When he does, he’ll be in some pain. I’ll give him something to help with that. You can sit with him.”
A few minutes later, the boy started to stir. Enid leaned over him. “It’s all over, Hunter. How do you feel?”
“I feel sick and my stomach hurts.” Still groggy, he lowed a hand to his abdomen. Enid caught it before he could touch his wound.
“I know. You’ll feel better soon, I promise.”
His father stood, ran a hand through Hunter’s hair. “I’m right here, son. You did just fine.”
The look that passed between them spoke volumes about their closeness. Enid spread a blanket over the boy. The night had grown cool.
“Yes, you did. Now I’m going to give you something to help your pain.”
Hunter grimaced at his dose of laudanum, but he swallowed it and soon drifted into sleep. Enid got Mr. Ramsey to carry him to the small bedroom she kept for patients. Only two or three had ever stayed there, none since Luke’s death, but Enid kept it swept and dusted and the bedding fresh.
Hunter didn’t wake as she settled him in bed. Looking at his father, she saw tired smudges under his eyes. She guessed the last couple of days had been nearly as hard on him as on his son.
“Come to the kitchen, Mr. Ramsey. We need to talk.”
Enid put on a pot of coffee. She had nothing baked in the house – she’d planned to set bread this evening, before Hunter’s case intervened – but there was half of a pot of soup in the pantry. She hadn’t felt like eating when she fed Adam. Now she was famished, and Mr. Ramsey must be, too.
He scraped back a chair and sat at the table. He looked as out of place and uncomfortable as he no doubt felt. Enid put the soup on to heat and sat across from him.
We’ve dealt with him at the jail, and he’s a handful. No, she definitely wouldn’t have chosen this man’s son as her first surgical patient – but if she’d had to choose a patient to survive, it might have been Hunter. She suspected he was all that kept his father human. And now, the delicate matter of payment had to be discussed. Injure his pride, and she wouldn’t put it past him to snatch his son out of his bed and take him home immediately.
“Mr. Ramsey –“
“Call me Galen. Nobody calls me mister.” His voice took on a defiant tone. “Look, Mrs. Sutton, I don’t know how or when I’m going to be able to pay you, but I will pay you. I promise you that. I could give you beef for the winter if you’d be willing to wait until butchering time.”
“I won’t be here by butchering time. I’m trying to sell the house, and as soon as I do I’ll be going to Winnipeg to my parents.” A saving inspiration came to her. “I have an idea. Things have gotten a bit behind around here since my husband’s passing. You could pay me by doing some work for me. Hunter needs to stay here for a week to ten days anyway. He needs to be kept quiet and watched for signs of infection, and you’ll want to be close to him. You could sleep in the barn loft.”
His eyes turned cold. “I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Sutton, but Hunter belongs at home.”
Enid took a firm hold on her temper. The last place Hunter belonged right now was in a drafty homestead cabin that probably got cleaned once in a blue moon, if that often. “I appreciate how you feel, Mr. Ramsey. You’re his father and you want him home, but it really would be safest for Hunter to stay here.”
Elbows on the table, he leaned forward and glared at her. “You don’t think I can look after my son?”
Enid held his gaze, kept her voice low and patient. “I don’t mean that all. I only mean that it wouldn’t be wise to move him anywhere so soon after surgery. And you have a bill to pay.”
After a few seconds’ tense silence, he nodded. “All right, but get this straight. You saved my boy’s life and I’m grateful, but he’s my responsibility and no one else’s. There’ve been people here in town that have forgotten that from time to time. Don’t make the mistake of being one of them.”
So that was it. He must be stretched to the limit, looking after a child so young and running a homestead at the same time, and he obviously knew it. Enid knew that feeling, trying to be both mother and father to Adam. Hunter’s father had probably taken well-meant suggestions as criticism, just as she had.
“Mr. Ramsey, I think you’re forgetting something. I have a son, too. Now have some coffee. Soup will be ready in a few minutes. There’s plenty of hay in the loft and I’ll get you a couple of quilts. You have a day’s work ahead of you tomorrow.”