Courage to Care
 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

June, 1890
Onboard the Chicago & North Western Railway

     After three years in New York , newly wed Rachel Wilson had her medical diploma in her suitcase, her husband beside her, and a revolver at her head. 
     The man behind her holding the gun leaned forward. A suede hat rode low on his forehead, shadowing his face. His ragged mustache quivered as he whispered in her husband’s ear loud enough so she could hear, “Do as I say, and the lady lives.” The threat came on a breath ripe with whiskey and cigars.
     Except for her eyes, which strained to see more of the assailant, Rachel sat motionless in the stifling confines of the passenger car. Perspiration crawled down her back. The oppressive heat sucked the moisture from her mouth, turning her cry for help into a mousey squeak. She drew in another breath.
     His hand, reeking of tobacco, cupped her mouth.  “I wouldn’t.”
     She nodded, and the noxious odor slid from her face.
     Upon boarding, she had suggested to Gabe they sit near the back of the car so they could exit quickly when the train pulled into a station. Now she wished she hadn’t. The nearest passenger sat four rows in front of them.
     Gabe squeezed her arm. His steady, blue eyes and composed voice offered reassurance. “Okay, anything you want,” he said, speaking over his shoulder. “Just don’t hurt her.”
     The man thrust a small sack into Gabe’s lap. “Get their money and jewelry and make it quick.” When Gabe started forward, the robber grabbed her husband’s arm. “Cross me and she’s dead.”
     Gabe worked his way forward, his sandy hair falling across his brow as he bent to explain the crisis. One-by-one passengers reacted with raised eyebrows and opened mouths, followed by a quick glance to the back of the car before surrendering their cash, rings, and necklaces. When he approached the last passenger, a burly man in buckskins, her captor stepped into the aisle and pulled her in front of him.
     “Hurry up. We’re coming into Chicago .”
     Gabe rushed back, holding out the bulging bag. All eyes turned in her direction.
     “Far enough,” the gunman said. “Sit down.” He reached out and snatched the stolen goods.
     Rachel looked up at a tailored white shirt and small black tie, not at all what she expected. Except for a few stains on the brim of his hat, nothing about his attire suggested a rough life. Her opinion changed when she caught the scent of body odor and stale perfume that oozed from his unlaundered vest. “Please, he’s done what you said. Let us go.”
      He answered with a grunt. Using her as a shield, he stepped backwards toward the exit.
     I’ve got to do something.  Maybe if I faint… With the barrel of the revolver pressed against the base of her skull, she prayed no one would attempt to play hero. “I’m dizzy,” she muttered, “…can’t stand.” She swayed against him. Instead of catching her, he moved aside.
     “Oh,” she cried and grabbed the back of a seat.
     As she regained her balance, something whizzed past her head. Thump! Coins and jewelry bounced like metal raindrops against the iron floor and scattered beneath the seats. The robber fell through the rear door onto a narrow platform separating the car from the caboose. His revolver slid across against the deck and clanked into the guardrail. His face twisted in agony. The handle of a hunting knife protruded from his chest.
     People spilled into the isle. A man screamed for the conductor. Someone shouted for a doctor. Passengers stumbled over one another trying to get a better look.
     “Are you okay?” Gabe called out to her.
     “Yes,” she said, gathering her wits, knowing she had to help the man. As she scrambled to his side and pried his fingers from the weapon, a robust voice bellowed over the bedlam.
      “Let the doctor pass.” The conductor had entered from the forward car and was pushing his way through the crowd. “Do what you can, Doc,” he said to a well-dressed man beside him. The conductor tugged at his vest which rode high on his bulbous belly and threw out his chest. “You,” he said, pointing to one of the men. “Pick up what he stole.” His eyes narrowed, and he glared at the passengers. “I don’t want any problems. Claim only what’s yours.” He spread his hands and gestured to the crowd. “Give the doctor room.” The conductor picked up the revolver and grabbed Rachel by the arm. “You too, Miss.” He pulled her away from the victim.
     “But I--”
     “Get your hands off her,” Gabe shouted. “She’s a doctor.”
     The conductor’s jaw dropped and a dumbfounded expression crossed his face. “I…uh--”
     “She accepts your apology,” Gabe snapped through tight lips. “Now let her do her job.”
     The male doctor motioned for her to join him. “Please, I had no idea. I’m Nicholas Behrens.”
     “Rachel Wilson,” she said, gazing into ebony eyes shadowed by long, thick lashes. Her colleague had a smooth, olive complexion, flawless except for a small scar on his upper lip. She guessed him to be about twenty-five, a couple of years younger than Gabe.
     The doctor removed his suit coat and rolled it into a pillow.
     “Can you hear me?” he asked the patient. His deep, baritone voice rumbled over the roar of the engine.
     Half-conscious, the man responded with a moan then his body convulsed into violent shaking.
      “He’s in shock,” she said, “and from the rattle in his chest, I’d say his lungs are filling with blood.”
      “I agree, but if we remove the knife, he’ll bleed to death.” Doctor Behrens indicated his prognosis with a shake of his head.
      “Good,” a gravely voice yelled. “He got what he deserved. That’s my knife, and I say yank it out.”
      She exchanged glances with the man in buckskins. “Thank you for saving my life, but I don’t wish him to suffer any more.”
      “Why? He didn’t care about you. Couda’ blown your brains all over this car.”
      “But he didn’t. I took an oath to save lives, not take them,” she said, applying pressure around the hilt. Blood seeped through her fingers.
     “You heard the lady.” Doctor Behrens placed his hand on hers. “Guess that’s the way it’s going to be.”
      As their hands pressed against the dying man’s chest, delaying the inevitable, the wheels screeched against the rails, and the train rolled to a stop. Two long blasts by the engineer signaled their arrival in Chicago .
      “He’s gone,” she said, unable to detect a pulse in the victim’s neck.
      The conductor nodded. “I’ll notify the authorities.” He turned to the curious onlookers, standing a few seats up the aisle. “It’s over, folks. Please exit the coach at the other end.”
     “Now can I have my knife?” the man in buckskins asked.
     “Not till the police get here.” The conductor looked at her and Doctor Behrens. “They’ll want a statement from both of you.” He lifted a gold fob and glanced at his pocket watch. “Eleven o’clock.  It’ll be at least an hour before we can get underway. There’s a restaurant in the terminal next to the waiting area.  If you’d like, I can have the detective meet you there.”
     “Thank you,” Gabe said, coming to Rachel’s side and helping her to her feet.
     “Doctor Behrens, this is my husband Gabe Wilson.”
     “Please, call me Nicholas. I’d shake your hand, Mr. Wilson, but under the circumstances, that’s not such a good idea.”
     “And call me Gabe. Looks like both of you could use some soap and water.”
     “Don’t forget your coat,” Rachel said as she stepped past the deceased.
     Nicholas glanced at his bloody hands.
     “Here, let me.” Gabe unrolled the coat and draped it over his arm. “I’ll hold on to it for you.”
     In the terminal, Rachel located a room designated for ladies only. The room provided mirrors and water for washing, but not much else.  As she scrubbed her hands, the water turned crimson and disappeared down a drain, leaving a metallic smell in her nostrils. After checking her dress for bloodstains, she rejoined Gabe who accompanied her to the privies behind the station. She found the conditions as deplorable as the facilities provided in the caboose. Once again, she returned to the terminal and washed. By the time she and Gabe arrived at the restaurant, Nicholas was waiting out front.
     “Thanks,” he said, taking his coat from Gabe. He put it on and smoothed the lapels.
     She couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the two men--Gabe, blonde hair and blue eyes; Nicholas, dark hair and eyes that seemed to hold mysteries in their inky depths. Nicholas stood a good two inches taller than Gabe who measured close to six feet.
     The noise in the waiting room faded when the restaurant’s thick doors closed behind them. After the excitement and mayhem on the train, she welcomed the quiet. A male diner was the only other person in the restaurant, perhaps because of the early hour. According to the marquee outside, lunch wasn’t to be served until noon, and it was only a little after eleven. Nicholas suggested a table in the center of the room under a brass and crystal chandelier lit with candles.
     “This is nice,” she said, running her hand across the white, linen table cloth.
     “I’m sure they have pastries available. What would you like?” Gabe asked when the waiter approached.
     “I’m really not hungry.” The image of the knife in the man’s chest and the blood pool at her feet remained fresh in her mind. “A cup of coffee will do fine.”
     “I’ll have the same,” Nicholas said.
     Gabe took her hand in his. “Make that three.”
     She had learned to read her husband’s expressions. The purposeful curl of his lips didn’t fool her. His furrowed brow and the way he patted her hand told her he was still worrying over the attack. She loved how he cared for her.
     “So where is home?” Nicholas asked.
     “Lizard Creek,” Gabe said.
     “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of the place.”
     Rachel smiled. “You’re not alone. It’s a little community in the foothills of the Cascades, near Tacoma .”
     “How long have you been practicing?” Nicholas said, moving his napkin aside.
     “Actually, I just finished medical school. I suppose you could say the deceased was my first patient. Not a good start, huh?”
     “There was nothing anyone could do for him,” Nicholas said.
     “Doesn’t make me feel any better.”
     “And it shouldn’t. Losing a patient is never easy, no matter the circumstances. Will you be alone in your practice?”
     “No, the doctor in Lizard Creek is elderly and has offered me a partnership. His facilities are small, but we’re hoping to expand.”
     “Where do you call home?” Gabe asked.
     “I’m originally from New York but have lived in Chicago for the past several years. I share office space with a couple of doctors a few blocks from here.”
     “Gabe’s from New York , too. He worked as an editor at his father’s newspaper until he gave it up to follow his dream to teach.”
     “Best thing I ever did,” Gabe said, “or I never would have met Rachel.”
     She rubbed the sleeve of his coat and swelled with pride.
     The waiter arrived with their coffee. While they sipped the savory brew, Nicholas asked more about Lizard Creek, and she sensed a yearning in his interest.
     “The northwest is a big and beautiful place. There’s always room for more doctors. Have you ever thought about moving?” she asked.
     “More than a few times,” he said, “but family obligations make moving impossible.  Perhaps one day I’ll find my way out there and give you some competition.” He grinned.
     The doors to the restaurant opened, ushering in the noise of the waiting room along with a short, pudgy man. His bald head glistened in the candlelight. After looking around, he approached their table. “I’m Detective Marcus Pennington,” he said, pulling back his lapel and exposing a badge pinned to his vest. The conductor said I’d find you here.”
     Following a brief round of introductions, the detective asked to hear their account of the incident on the train. Gabe went first, followed by Rachel then Nicholas. Detective Pennington listened and took notes. Once again, he verified their names, thanked them for their cooperation, and said they were free to go.
     “I’d better find out when the train is scheduled to depart. Would you keep an eye on Rachel for me?” Gabe asked Nicholas.
     “It would be my pleasure.” He took another sip of coffee and eyed her over the rim of his cup. “I envy you. Here I have the latest equipment and supplies, but those things are not the true measure of a doctor. I can’t imagine what all you’ll face. I must say the unknown intrigues me. Having lived in New York , you know what life is like in a big city. Can you blame me for dreaming of fresh mountain air and snow covered peaks?”
     “Like I said, there’s plenty of room for new doctors.”
     Gabe rushed into the restaurant. “The train’s leaving in ten minutes. We need to get aboard.”
     The three of them hurried through the crowd and onto the platform where Nicholas and Gabe shook hands.
     “I wish you both a safe journey home,” Nicholas said. “Next time you travel east to see your father, maybe you’ll find time to visit with me.” He paused, his eyes lingering on Rachel. “Gabe, would you mind if I write to you and Rachel? I’d like to hear more about your life in the west, and I could keep Rachel abreast of the latest treatments and medicines.”
     “We’d love to hear from you,” Gabe said. “Address your letter in care of Lizard Creek , Washington . It’ll get to us.”
     The engineer sounded the whistle, and the conductor shouted, “All aboard.”
     After another round of hurried goodbyes, Gabe helped her up the metal steps. They shuffled down the aisle to the only remaining seats--two vacant rows at the rear of the car. At least no one sat behind them. In St. Paul , when they changed trains for the final leg of the journey, she would make sure to board the Northern Pacific early and surround herself with passengers.
     The train lurched forward. Smoke bellowed from the iron horse and engulfed the station in a white cloud, swallowing up their new-found friend.
     She leaned over and glanced at the spot where the gunman died. The freshly mopped floor gleamed. “We’ll have quite a story to tell when we get home,” she said. “Let’s hope nothing else happens.”
     Gabe hiked an eyebrow. “Hope? I’d be more inclined to pray. They don’t call it the Wild West for nothing.”

     

 

 



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