And also, as promised, Blood on the Saddle.
o bury me not on the lonesome prairie
In the end, Christine spends the night in her own bed with Leonard McCoy stretched out on the floor, sodden hat tucked beneath his head. She doesn’t sleep, but listens to his breathing, deep and steady in the darkness. She lies awake until dawn. She rises in the gray light and has packed her threadbare carpet bag before the sun is even properly up. Christine eases the door open slightly, but the wooden hinges groan. She winces at the sound, overloud in the thick silence. McCoy, this strange man two arm’s lengths from her rumpled bed, starts in his sleep and rolls to one side. He flings his arm out and his hand brushes her ankle. His fingers feel cold even through the fabric of her skirt. Christine can feel his fleeting touch like a brand as she all but runs to the sheriff’s office.
Jimmy is already there and looks like he got as much sleep as she did. He scrubs a hand through his morning beard as Christine explains about the doctor. He doesn’t say much, never does before his cup of boiled coffee, just takes her valise and leads her out to his cart. He hitches his bay and grumbles that he’s not running a hack service, and not to get any ideas. Christine doesn’t even think to question where Jimmy’s taking her. All she can hear are the slow breathes of McCoy instead of the gentle snoring of her father. Jimmy helps her up and coaxes the bay into a trot.
Miles later, Christine hops down in front of the Sutter homestead. Jimmy yawns and says he’ll return with a chuckwagon of supplies before noon. He’s off before Christine can thank him, dusting whirling in the cart’s wake. Christine stares at the sunrise from the decrepit porch. The night fog has burned off and the sun glows pink on the horizon. A whip of wind slams into her and she totters, exhaustion hitting her like a sucker punch. She pushes the door open without knocking. The Sutters had long since abandoned this place once Lawrence Sutter used up his lungs in the mines. Last Christine heard, they were in Oregon Territory. She likes to think they’re well. The cabin was in good shape, just dusty and barren, the iron stove and heavy table the only furnishings. She braces her back against an empty wall and dozes until voices wake her.
Jimmy brings more than food in the wagon. Monty Scott and his apprentice, a Russian boy, unload chairs and linens, mismatched dishes and pans, carrying them past a groggy Christine. In a whirl of activity, the men hurry back and forth until the room was filled with the town’s finest cast-offs. Trailing behind the chuckwagon is the boniest nag Christine had ever laid eyes on. Bartered from Sulu along with saddle and tackle, it is, as Jimmy sweetly puts it, a gift from South Pass for her father’s years of service. Christine is not accustomed to accepting charity and her eyes burn as she smiles her thanks. Soon enough, they are gone and Christine is alone. She sits at the table, now heaped with supplies and tools, all the pieces to build a life here, a thousand miles from any life Christine had imagined as a girl. The sunlight streams through the filthy windows, throwing patterns on the floorboards like storm clouds.
Christine wakes early and rides the nag. She knows should ride into town. The corral fence needs mending. The well walls are crumbling. The shutters stick. The roof leaks. But hired men cost money and Christine slept in an abandoned bed on borrowed sheets all night, and she might be many things, but she is not a beggar. So she rides east, into the sun, until the outline of the poxhouse appears silhouetted against the sky.
The poxhouse looms on the open plain, a white-washed two story with a wrap-around porch. Christine ties the nag up to a hitching post and brushes at the dust on her skirts. The scent of iodine and wood polish washes over her as she enters. Her father hated this place. He preferred to treat all his patients out of his apartments and loathed making the weekly trek out of town. Christine expected silence, the hush of the sickroom, and so when a harried-looking McCoy nearly runs her over, she is understandably surprised.
The front hall is a bustle of activity between patients ferrying armloads of towels and trays of food to and fro and McCoy barking orders, Christine fights the urge to press back against the wall and slip out. She pushes back her sleeves and seizes a stack of gauze rolls. McCoy breaks off mid-instruction and stares at her, a point of stillness in the whirl of motion. He instinctively reaches up to tip his hat and when he finds nothing, pushes his hair off his forehead.
“Ma’am,” he says and turns to instruct someone on the new location of the medicine closet. When he turns back, Christine has acquired a tray of suture needles and clean pillow cases. McCoy opens his mouth, then closes it. Then reaches out to empty her arms, then pulls back. He breathes deeply and steps aside, muttering, “Top of the stairs on your left.” And he disappears into the sea of bodies.
It’s hours before Christine sees McCoy again. After stocking the linen closets, Christine starts checking dressings and mixing tonics. A fire in one of the north mine tunnels have a number of men in with burns and Christine has her hands full. She can’t remember the last time she felt like this, busy and happy and useful. By the time she’s back downstairs, Christine feels like she’s glowing. Then the front door slams open and Harold Hansen stumbles in, a bloody mess, and the feeling is gone.
Harold collapses in a heap and Christine is on the floor beside him before she can think. She strips away the bloodied shirt, searching for the wound. “Bullet to the side.” McCoy’s voice comes from Christine’s right. She doesn’t blink, just makes room beside her. He gathers Harold up and carries him to an empty pallet. Christine follows.
She’d assisted her father before, but not like this, like they had four hands between one mind. She knows logically that there are others around them, men shouting and cursing, but Christine’s world has narrowed to the body before her and the rasp of McCoy’s instructions.
Eventually the blood stops flowing and Harold goes still under her hands, the slow pull of his breathing soothing Christine’s nerves. He’s asleep or in shock, Christine neither knows nor cares because now it’s she who can’t catch her breath. She glances down at her trembling hands. There are bright slicks of blood all the way up to her elbows.
Christine bolts down the porch steps and past the waiting horses. She trips and stumbles to the hand pump. The cold water stings as she scrubs her arms with her apron, rough passes until her skin glows pink. The water pools at her feet, swirling into the dust.
Suddenly, there are hands on her shoulders, her arms, stilling and steadying her. McCoy turns her around and Christine prepares to push him away. But he doesn’t try to hold her or hush her. He doesn’t coddle or cajole. He merely holds her arms and squeezes. “Breathe deep,” he says and she does, the dusty air making her head spin. He cocks his head to one side and nods. “You did good in there.”
Christine speaks without thinking. “I did well, not good.” She winces, but he laughs.
“You did well, then.” Christine has stopped shaking, but McCoy hasn’t moved his hands. There’s a shout of laughter behind them as a cluster of miners hitch up a wagon. McCoy steps back and Christine tells herself she’s relieved. He coughs and rubs the back of his neck. “You’re at the old Sutter place?”
“Yes.” Christine eyes the group of miners, who eye her right back.
“That heap’s not fit to live in. I don’t know what the sheriff was thinking putting you way out here.”
The men are whispering now. Christine frowns. “That may be, but I’ve got nowhere else to go, Doctor.” Now it’s McCoy who winces. “I’d rather have a leaky roof over my head than no roof at all.” She curtsies and feels absurd. McCoy nods instead of bowing and escorts her to her horse.
Christine swings herself into the saddle before McCoy can offer to help. He stares at her too directly, like before, like she’s one of her father’s reference books, something to be studied and absorbed. Without a word, he slips on e hand under the hem of her skirts. She bites off a gasp, and then feels him tugging the stirrup cinch. He smoothes a palm over the horse’s side, long strokes that steady the animal. “I’ll be by tomorrow to look at that roof,” he says and slaps the horse’s flank.
Christine surges forward toward the setting sun, her pulse drowned out in the pounding hoof beats