Los Olivos, California, 1882
The road was muddy as usual in the late Spring with a hint of more rain in the evening’s darkness. The trees still held drops from the last downpour and shook them off when the wind blew. My open buggy was no protection as my sodden trousers and jacket proved.
Betsy, my old horse, plodded along as tired as I, her head drooping like mine. She turned off the main road onto an almost-hidden one. Hidden if you didn’t know where it was. That’s the way Hank wanted it.
Along the right side was a breakfront of trees, all tall and sturdy. On my left, fields of grass and bushes, untilled and unowned. The road wasn’t much more than a cow path with two deep ruts. But it had a promise of comfort at the end of it, closer than going home, that’s what old Betsy was thinking and I didn’t signal her otherwise.
Hank and his daughter, Mary, lived alone. He stopped going into town five years ago. Mary was the one who fetched what they needed. His sudden seclusion was talked about in town with various explanations–a man of mystery, someone with a hidden past. As many reasons given as there were people to speak them. Not that folk had a lot of time for gossiping, nor was Hank a person they gossiped most about.
I was the only one who saw him on a regular basis. Like this evening, coming back from a patient.
Before the house came into sight, Betsy stopped. I must’ve been dozing. It took me a minute to take in the situation. We weren’t at the house yet, so why did she stop? I reached to pick up the reins and that’s when I saw a figure lying on the road. I immediately grabbed my bag and hopped down.
Young man, early twenties, I guessed. Bullet wound in his back, on the left side just above the belt line. Feeling the front of him, it looked like the bullet had passed through. He was sopping wet, ice cold, and was about as white as anybody can get. White, about to turn blue. How long had he lain there?
He was no lightweight but I finally got him into the buggy. I tucked a blanket around him, climbed on the seat, and urged Betsy forward. I hoped the wounds wouldn’t open with the jostling on the rutted road.
The road ended at the house. One of the hunting dogs barked, but the other four just ran around the buggy and Betsy, their tails wagging.
Hank came out first, lantern held high, knowing it was me beforehand. When he saw another figure in the buggy, he half turned to his daughter and said, “Git back in the house, girl!”
“Help me with him, Hank, he’s lost a lot of blood.”
“I ain’t havin’ no stranger in my house.”
“If you don’t help me this minute, we’re both going to be accused of murder.”
Even in the poor light I could see that hit him like a blow. I hadn’t meant to say it quite that way. He hurriedly set the lantern on the porch and stumbled down the two steps in his haste. I thought together we’d get him into the house, but before I could move, Hank picked him up and carried him in. The strength of the man!
He called to Mary, told her what to do, but she was already ahead of him. A spare bedroom off the main room was where we went. I had slept there often.
First, he laid the boy on an old blanket on the floor, for he was muddy and bloody. The snowy white of the linens and colorful patchwork quilt kept their pristineness.
“Get something for bandages, Mary.” I pulled up his shirt. The wounds weren’t bleeding. Good. “Do you have something warm, ! can put on him?”
Mary set down the ewer she’d filled with hot water next to the basin on the marble-topped stand. I used a cloth to wipe around the wounds, taking care not to disturb nature’s sealing.
She came back with some good soft cotton material and scissors. I set to bandaging him up. Hank came in, shooed her out and shut the door. He pulled off the boy’s clothes, washing him as best he could, and rubbing his arms and legs with a coarse towel. I checked him thoroughly but the gunshot wound was the main part of it. He also had bruises, probably from falling off his horse.
We dressed him in a nightshirt, pulled stockings on his feet then lifted him onto the bed. I covered him with the sheet and quilt.
We worked in silence. Hank was a taciturn man, no nonsense, and knew what to do in these circumstances.
The boy’s clothing consisted of cambric shirt, brown corduroy trousers and good boots. Nothing in his pockets. I shrugged. Highway robbery came to mind. This stranger was luckier than the other two. They’d been shot in the back. Found dead.
Hank came back with a copper warming pan filled with embers, wrapped another towel around it and stuck it next to the boy’s feet.
At the moment, that was all we could do for him. We left the door open.
“Come on, doc, have a little stew,” Mary said. “It’s nice and hot.” The table was set with steaming bowls and bread fresh out of the oven. She put down coffee for both of us as we went to the table. The smells set my mouth to watering.
“Found him down your road a bit,” I said between mouthfuls and in answer to Hank’s question.
Everything was so good. Much better than my bachelor’s dinner any night. To survive, I knew just what homes to stop to eat at, where I could bed down for the night. Or where I just went in, did the patching up and got out as fast as possible.
Here was like the home I never had, as a boy or an adult, and as close as I’d get to having a family.
“Ever seen him before?” I asked them.
Hank’s features were tight as though he was thinking of something sour. “You think he was coming here?”
“Doubt it. He probably just stumbled on the road and was following it.” I knew it was what Hank wanted to hear. More’n likely it was true.
“How’d he get shot?” Hank’s voice was gruff, not liking any of this. If he hadn’t been eating such good food, he’d be growling.
“You know as much as I do,” I said.
The rest of the meal we ate in silence. I checked my patient then joined Hank by the fire and lit my pipe. “His color is coming back.”
“I’ve got some broth simmering. Is he awake yet?” said Mary.
I shook my head.
Didn’t matter if it was a hurt sparrow or a hurt man, she was ready to take care of it. Knew she’d already been to the barn to see to Betsy. Probably the reason my old horse headed down the lane.
Since the boy had my usual place of repose, Hank gave me his bed and he put a bedroll for himself before the fire.
I got up a couple of times during the night to check on my patient. He hadn’t moved but he was warming up and breathing normally. Ah, the recuperative powers of the young!
Hank was awake both times, sitting in his chair, pipe in his mouth, blue tin coffee cup in hand. He just nodded to me and went back to staring into the flames. I knew how he felt about strangers and he wasn’t taking too kindly to having one under his roof.
I slept much later than I expected to. Chalk it up to the thick curtains over the window that kept out the morning light. I hurriedly washed my face and combed my hair, looking at the old man who stared back at me from the oval, wood-framed mirror. The sun and wind had made their impressions on my face. Thinking of old made me think of my young patient.
Good smells of pancakes and maple syrup greeted me. Hank was where I’d seen him last. I guess he wasn’t leaving the stranger alone in his house–with his daughter. That’s the look that was on his face.
“He’s been babbling a bit,” said Mary. “He’s taken a little broth.” Her cheeks had a mite more color than usual. Another patient of hers on the mend.
Passing through the kitchen, I went in to see him. He was still lying flat. I took a look at his bandages. No blood. His eyes followed me as though I was the one who had shot him.
“I’m a Doc,” I said. “Found you up the road a bit.” I asked him a few questions about how he felt and was pleased with his answers.
“Why don’t you tell me who you are and what happened,” I said.
“My name’s Johnny Bell,” he answered. He looked at me, like that might mean something. “I was just riding through, looking for work. I heard the crack of the
rifle, but that’s all I remember. When I came to everything I had was gone–horse, gun, money. I started looking for a farm house. That’s all I remember.” He looked past me and I turned.
Hank stood in the doorway leaning in with his hands on either side of the door frame.
“Seems there’s been a lot of highway robberies here of late,” I said, speaking the truth. “Sounds like you were their pickins for the day.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t sound too sure that I was right.
I asked him a few more questions about how he came to be in this area, but got no better answers than the ones he’d first given me. I knew Hank wanted those questions asked, and how he wasn’t satisfied with the answers, but there it was.
When he was about recovered, almost a month later, he started helping Hank and Mary around the place a little. Hank still wanted him gone. Nothing to do with the manners of the boy for I could see he’d been brought up right and proper.
I got him out of there as soon as was reasonable. Fixed him up with a job in the hardware store. Clem Enderley who owned the store was laid up with a messy break of his left leg. He could still do a lot of things but he needed someone with two good legs.
Dr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com
Johnny worked out well. Clem took a shine to the boy. Seems most folks did. Hank would’ve too, under other circumstances.
Right from that first week in town, Johnny came with me out to Hank’s place, always asking first if he could. Maybe not to see Hank especially, but he didn’t show that it was for any other reason than to help them out a bit. Trying to repay them for their hospitality. He’d even bring out stuff from the store that he’d bought. Hank still wasn’t too fond of having the boy around, number one, nor of him doing things on the farm, number two. Hank was still wary of him.
The boy had something on his mind, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea as to what it was. There wasn’t anything crooked about him and he wasn’t a thief, but he was hiding something. He didn’t just come to Los Olivos by chance.
I didn’t want any of my friends getting hurt. Since I was the one who brought them all together, I wanted to follow up on my instincts. Since he came over to my cabin frequently in the evening, I had the opportunity to find out what he was up to, what his hidden past was.
He never drank too much so there was no way to get him drunk and talking. I figured I knew him as well as anyone so I asked him a few questions.
“Are you married?”
“No, sir,” he said.
“Taken a shine to Mary, have you?”
“Well, sir, she’s a very nice young lady.”
“Yes, yes, but are you thinking about courting her maybe setting up housekeeping?”
“Well, no,” he said, and fidgeted about a bit, then he left early that night.