As the frontier town’s midwife, settlers looked to Caty for more than just birthing babies. They looked to her to break fevers, clean wounds and ward off infection, in a time when a scratch from a rusty nail could mean losing a leg or a prolonged, uncomfortable death.
She was tending her herb garden behind her small clapboard house when one of the men from the railroad’s work crew came running down the street and nearly fell face-first into the dirt as he came to an abrupt halt in front of her. “Mrs. Campbell, we need your help - the forward crew was attacked by a pack of Cheyenne braves.”
Caty was immediately on her feet and following the scruffy railroad worker as he rapidly filled in the story - in broad daylight, the group of braves attacked the railroad workers, firing arrows from their horses and swinging axes as they dismounted or were thrown from their mounts. When soldiers from the nearby fort, sent to protect the forward line of the railway, fired back, many fled, yet more were cut down by the military’s firepower.
“Bloody savages,” the worker muttered, spitting on the road.
“The railroad is carving into their home, running right through sacred land,” Caty said. “They are protecting their way of life.”
The worker grunted.
“And Mr. Kelly, if you spit in front of me one more time I’ll split your lip open.”
Kelly muttered an apology as Caty swept up the boardwalk and into the town’s clinic, which was little more than a tent with cots. “Where are the wounded?” she asked, looking around the small room at the empty beds.
Another rail worker stepped from behind a divider, which was simply a sheet hung from clothesline above their heads. “Dead,” he said. “Only one wounded.”
Caty pulled back the sheet to see the railway company’s foreman sitting slouched on the wooden examining table, his face waxy and damp with sweat, an arrow protruding from his left shoulder. A trail of blood soaked the coarse blue cloth of his shirt.
She unbuttoned his shirt, using a knife offered from the other man to cut away the cloth from the arrow. “I tried pulling it out, but I think it’s stuck,” he said. His pale blue eyes looked up at her from behind a curtain of dark hair falling around his face.
Caty said nothing, her green eyes wide as her fingers pressed into the punctured flesh around the arrow’s entry point. He winced, letting out a low grunt, as he gripped the table while his wounded arm lay slack in his lap. Without looking up, Caty said to the worker still standing at the table, “Mr. Hopkins, would you please get me a bottle of whiskey from the saloon? If I remember correctly from the last time I stitched up Mr. White it’s his preferred means of pain medication.”
Alone, Mr. White touched Caty’s hand. “I’m sorry to bring this to you again,” he said. Their eyes held for a brief moment, before Caty returned to her prodding, sliding the arrow back into his shoulder until she met resistance.
“I’ve come to expect this from you, Mitchell. Riding into the fight when everyone else rides the opposite direction.”
Hopkins returned with the bottle, which Caty opened and poured a little on the wound. She handed the bottle to Mitchell, who took a swig, and then another. Caty put her hands on her hips and sighed, looking from Hopkins to Mitchell. With the bottle halfway to his mouth, he set it back on the table on which he still sat.
Caty brushed his dark hair, flecked with grey, from his face as his brows knitted in an unspoken question. Her fingers trailed down the side of his face, unshaven. She leaned in, and breathed in his scent of soap and sweat, as she placed her lips on his, wrapping naturally around his lower lip. His short beard was rough against her porcelain skin. As the kiss naturally broke, Caty’s green eyes waited for his blue ones to open. “I’m sorry,” she said.
His head inclined slightly in confusion as Caty gripped the arrow and thrust it through his shoulder, the point snapping through the flesh to break through to the other side.
Hopkins jumped back in surprise as Mitchell let out a howl, his good hand still wrapped around the whiskey bottle. He slammed it on the table, slouched forward into Caty’s arms as his chest heaved, trying to get his breath back. “Jesus Christ, woman,” he grunted.
While Mitchell continued to pull from the bottle, she set to work snapping off the arrowhead, disinfecting the wound as best she could with iodine before pulling the arrow’s shaft from his shoulder, with more care than before. She bound his wound as Mitchell fell further into a pain and alcohol-induced fog. Hopkins helped her transfer Mitchell to one of the empty cots for the night, where he fell into an uneasy sleep.
After washing her hands, Caty unrolled the sleeves of her pale blue dress, re-buttoning the cuffs around her slender wrists. She poured herself a small dram of whiskey, which she carried to the chair sat beside Mitchell’s bed. In the candlelight, she wiped the sweat from his brow and watched his chest steadily rise and fall.
As light returned to the sky and the birds woke up chirping, Caty brushed a stray hair from her face, tucking the auburn lock behind her ear. She slid from her chair to the edge of the bed, placing the back of her hand on Mitchell’s forehead. She smiled slightly, looking down at his sleeping face. That was his first sight as his eyes slowly opened.
“Good morning,” she murmured.
His smile was weak but it stretched to his eyes. He took her hand with his good one and kissed its palm. “I’m afraid you might have to make a habit of this.”
“Of what? Stitching you up?”
His eyes lowered. “Of waking me up in my bed.”
Caty’s smiled widened, and she placed her head on his chest, listening to his heart beat steadily. His arms held her fast until he once again dozed off. Caty sat up and tucked his arms safely into the cot. She kissed his forehead as she stood, listening for the steady rhythm of his breath as she lingered over him. She began to clear away the dirty rags and water bowls from the side table only when she was satisfied that he slept comfortably.