I'm Missouri Mary Mahoney. Now you might think that's a nickname, much like "Big Nose" Kate, paramour of Doc Holliday or "Calamity" Jane, long time friend and maybe short time lover of Bill Hickok. But it's not. "Missouri" is my given name, and I can show it to you written in my father's hand in the big family Bible.
You see, my family was part of a wagon train traveling from the east, bound for Colorado, but the morning the train was supposed to break camp on the outskirts of Independence, my mother went into labor, three months early, and my family had to remain behind while the rest of the wagons moved on. My family, on that April morning in 1843, consisted of my mother Mary, my father August, and my four year old sister, Frances Anne. That's the way the day began. By nightfall, the family—and our lives—had changed forever. Frances Anne now had a baby sister—that would be me—and a baby brother, August, junior. Sadly, she no longer had a mother, just a very distraught father who had no idea what to do with a toddler and two tiny, squalling newborn babies.
Dodge City, Kansas
It was suppertime, and Dodge City's only restaurant was busy. I placed my order with the waiter and looked out the window. Not much of a town, I thought, but no matter. I would be leaving on the morning stage on the last leg of my journey to the Dakota Territory. My head was bent over a piping hot bowl of potato soup when the front door opened again, letting in a chill wind and a stunning, fashionably dressed redhead about my own age. As she stepped over the threshold, she glanced upward over her left shoulder and smiled intimately into the face of her companion, a giant of a man wearing the distinctive silver star of a United States Marshal on his chest. With his hand resting easily—possessively—against the small of her back, he ushered her to an empty table directly within my view. The man's height and easy manner reminded me of someone I once had known, but… I shook my head. It wasn't possible. Then he seated the lady and tossed his huge Stetson onto the empty chair, giving me a clear view of his handsome face.
Dear God! I knew him all right. Once, a long time ago, I had lain in those long arms, had known the warmth of his body, the strength of his character—and the vulnerability of his soul.
I shivered as the memory came back to me.
For what seemed like the hundredth time, I sponged sweat from the fevered body of the young corporal. He had been brought in two days ago, following the battle. His right leg was badly damaged by shellfire, and my father would amputate in the morning.
Such a shame, I thought, as I continued to wipe down the heated body. In another time, another place, perhaps that leg could be saved. But field hospital conditions did not allow for intricate and time-consuming procedures. Save a life, not a limb, was the unspoken motto.
As I again dabbed at his brow with the cooling water, he stirred slightly and mumbled, "Wha's your name?"
I smiled down at the handsome face, folded the rag onto his forehead and placed two fingers against the thready pulse at his wrist. "I'm Missouri."
He gave me a weak smile. "Fun…ny name."
"Yes, it is, and there's a story that goes with it. Maybe I'll tell you later."
His fingers closed around my hand. "Not later—now."
"Not now, corporal. You need to get some sleep, and I have two more rows of patients to see."
I laughed when he pouted. "All right, if you're still awake after I finish my rounds, I'll come in and talk with you for a bit. In the meantime, promise me you'll try to sleep."
He seemed satisfied with that and obediently closed his eyes.
Two hours passed before I worked my way back to the young corporal's tent. Since he was scheduled for early morning surgery, his cot had been moved to a private tent at the far end of the row. I lifted my lantern and looked again at the tag tied around his neck: Dillon, Matthew, the date of his birth—May 26, 1840—and a series of numbers that identified him as a soldier in the Union Army.
As quietly and as gently as I could, I again felt his pulse, noting that it was slower and steadier in sleep. He didn't feel as warm now, and I brushed the matted dark curls back from his forehead and turned to leave. But a surprisingly strong hand gripped the edge of my apron, holding me in place.
"M…zzouri," he slurred in a voice thick with pain and sleep.
"I'm right here, corporal—uh, Matt—I'm here. Go back to sleep now."
"Not yet…gotta…need you…promise me som'thin."
"Of course," I agreed all too readily.
"Leg…don't let them…taa…"
I swallowed hard. "Oh, Matt, I can't prom…"
"Please…I can't…don't want…live without it. Promise."
"Matt, I can't make you that promise, but I promise I will speak with the surgeon about it. I'm sorry, but that's the best I can do. Will you go back to sleep now?"
He nodded, and I again turned to leave. And, again, his grasp on my skirt stopped me. "Stay."
"I can't stay, Matt. You have sleeping to do, and I have reports to complete."
"Don't wan…be alone. Please?" His voice was a quiet plea. I watched one long arm sweep the narrow cot, and I understood what he was suggesting.
I knew I shouldn't do it—knew it was wrong. And I knew my father was in the lantern-lit tent on the other side of the field, completing his own reports before catching a few hours of sleep and preparing for yet another grueling day of surgery.
But he looked so young, so vulnerable that, in spite of my better judgment, I wedged myself onto the narrow strip of canvas and lay down beside him. His left arm wrapped around me instantly, and we lay together with no thought of sex or passion, just comfort and caring in a world turned suddenly upside down for both of us.
"Name…story…tell me," he mumbled.
And so, on a cramped army cot in the middle of hell, I lay in a man's arms for the first time and told him the story of my name and my life—all twenty years of it.
With the death of his wife and the birth of his babies, my father did the only thing he could think of. He packed up the soft cotton baby things my mother had sewn, Frances Anne's extra dress, pinafore and undergarments, and drove our wagon into town. There he found the local doctor and left us and the family Bible with him. He left his big gray draft horse, too, and a few family trinkets, as payment for our keep. Then he turned his wagon around and caught up with the rest of the train somewhere along the trail west.
Dr. Oliver Mahoney was a kindly man who had just celebrated his fortieth birthday. He and his wife had been in a loving, but childless, marriage for twenty years, and three abandoned children were considered, at least by Violet Mahoney, a blessing bestowed on them by God above. The good doctor, so the story goes, was a bit less enthusiastic at the prospect of having fatherhood abruptly thrust upon him, but Violet, who also worked as his nurse, was adamant, saying that it was her arms into which my brother and I had been handed, and, therefore, it was she who would determine our destiny.
The first order of business, of course, was to find a wet nurse, or nurses, for us. Apparently this was accomplished with little difficulty, and Augie and I thrived on a combination of sustenance from our nurses and love from the Mahoneys. Frances Anne, too, quickly adjusted to her surroundings, playing with her old doll on the new swing in the back yard and singing the little nursery rhymes that Violet taught her. Memories of her birth mother and father and life in Altoona, Pennsylvania, soon faded into nothingness. Augie and I, of course, did not know a single day without the Mahoney's loving presence, and on our first birthday we, along with our big sister, were legally adopted by the kindly doctor and his wife. In the family Bible, on the line below the ones where my father had, within hours of each other, recorded the birth of his twins and the death of his wife, was a notation written in Oliver Mahoney's precise old-school penmanship:
Adopted by Oliver and Violet Mahoney this tenth day of April, 1844, Independence, Missouri.
And so I officially became the daughter of a doctor and his nurse, and my fate and future were sealed. While my brother and sister were playing outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, I spent every waking moment in my father's office, playing quietly in a corner, reveling in the smells of cough syrup and chloroform, "treating" my dolls, and, most likely, making a general nuisance of myself. By the time I was eleven or twelve, tales of Florence Nightingale's exploits in the Crimea filled our newspapers and fueled my young imagination. I knew for certain I wanted to grow up to be just like "the lady with the lamp."
Convinced that I was serious about nursing, Oliver and Violet Mahoney trained me, beginning with rolling bandages and teaching me the names of the various instruments and their use. The minute my schoolwork was finished each evening, I would pull out my father's heavy medical books, reading more and more intricate material on the finer points of disease, the cause and the cure. I seemed to have a knack for all things medical, and I was a quick study. One of the proudest moments of my life was the day my father asked me to lay out the instruments he would need to perform an emergency appendectomy on a young boy. With the confidence of brash youth, I quickly gathered the instruments and laid them out, in precise order, on a clean white cloth, then stepped back and lifted my eyes to his and my mother's faces. Their smiles of pride and approval were the only accolades I would ever need. I had just turned fourteen.
By now the other girls in my class were noticing boys—flirting shyly with them from behind textbooks and passing notes at lunch. As for me, oh, I noticed them, too. I noticed the slight downward slope of a shoulder, indicating possible scoliosis. I noticed the sometimes wheezy breathing after a footrace, a possible sign of asthma. And I noticed the protruding Adam's apple, the emerging acne, the squeaking and deepening voices, indicating the various stages of puberty. I poured over anatomy charts, intrigued by what I was seeing and learning about the human body, both male and female.
On my sixteenth birthday, with war clouds threatening in the east, my parents presented me with both a link to my past and the key to my future. Among the few trinkets my birth father had handed over to the Mahoneys was an intricately carved tortoise shell hair comb that had belonged to my mother. This they gave to me with the pronouncement that I was a young lady now, a young lady ready to put up her hair, let down her skirts, and prepare for her future. The other gift they gave me was an application to one of the most prestigious teaching hospitals in the country and the promise that, if my passion for nursing continued, when I finished school at the end of the year, they would consent to my going to St. Louis, a distance of 250 miles, to train at the sprawling red brick complex known simply as Polyclinic Hospital.
With my training in St. Louis complete, I returned to my parents' home and to my father's medical practice, which now included not only his office and small surgery, but also an adjacent six bed infirmary. My mother worked almost exclusively in the office, while the infirmary was my domain, with my father dividing his time between the two.
Of course, the increasing likelihood of war was an ever-present peril, and when the first shots were finally fired at Fort Sumter, both the north and the south put out a call for doctors and nurses to volunteer for duty. I leaped at the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my childhood idol, Florence Nightingale, and, in spite of my mother's objections and my father's almost sixty years, he chose to go with me.
Matt was so quiet, so still, I suspected he had drifted off during my story. "You asleep?" I whispered.
His arm tightened around me. "No, jus…listening."
"Okay, but I won't bore you any longer. So, you see, my name is simply an accident of geography, named for the place of my birth. When the war talk got heated, it was suggested that, for safety's sake, I might want to use Mary, my middle name, instead of my given one, but I've never been a coward, and I wasn't about to hide from my own name."
I felt his fingers move through my hair. "Comb?"
"Oh, it's there. I always wear it. You'll get to see it come daylight."
"'K…gonna…sleep now. Stay?"
"Yes, Matt. I'll stay right here." I wriggled myself into a more comfortable position and draped an arm across his chest.
It seemed I had no more than closed my eyes when reveille resounded across the field. I started and groaned as I attempted to push my aching muscles into an upright position. Matt jerked awake, too. "S'right," he muttered, again tightening his arm around me.
"It's dawn. I need to leave. The stretcher-bearers will be here to get you soon, and I have to prepare for surgery. And…I need to speak with my father."
I almost laughed as his pain-wracked eyes widened in surprise. "Your father?"
"Yes." I nodded. "My father is the camp surgeon."
"Wha…what are you…going tell him?"
"I have no idea," I replied. I brushed a hand through his tousled curls and slipped out of the tent in search of my father. As I trudged across the red clay field, I tried to formulate the words that would persuade him to save the young corporal's leg.
My father greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and a sharp, "Where have you been, daughter? I was expecting you an hour ago."
"I'm sorry, Papa. I…I was with a young corporal. He's your first patient this morning."
My father was blunt. "And were you with him all night, too? I looked for you about three, but your bed was empty."
I drew in a deep breath. "Yes, Papa, I was with him. Matt Dillon's his name, and he…well, he was restless and lonely."
"We're…they're…all restless and lonely, Missouri. It's part of the price of war."
I ignored his statement and plunged ahead. "He's…well, he has an air about him that tells me he's going to be someone important some day—after this war is over. But he needs a chance, Papa. I've been taking care of him since he was brought in, and his leg…it's badly damaged, but the wound appears clean. I don't see any signs of infection, so the need to amputate a limb to save a life really doesn't apply here."
"Ah, Missouri, I fear you're allowing your heart to rule your head." He handed me a cup of hot coffee and gave me a pointed look. "Are you in love with this soldier?"
"I…I'm not sure, Papa. But that doesn't matter right now. I've been thinking about our methods—the prescribed protocol—for a long time. Look at these men. Half of them are barely older than I am, many are younger. We work to save them, but at what cost? We cut off a limb and send them back to their families—the lucky ones—or to an institution where they learn to live again as half the person they used to be. It isn't right. I walked down to the pit this morning. That mound of body parts—hands and arms, feet and legs—it made me sick!
"It makes us all sick, honey. But that's the way it is."
"But it doesn't have to be that way. There are arms and legs that we could be saving. Can't we try to save not just lives, but whole men, too? Whole men who can return home to their factories and farms, to their families and sweethearts as they were before the war? Not every one of them, of course, but surely some of them have a chance to return home as whole men. Please, Papa, please, let's try with this one—with Matt Dillon—and see what happens."
"My dear, I appreciate your faith in me. But even if I do have the skill to resect the damaged tendons and ligaments, and if he does survive the surgery, he'll require skilled nursing, Missouri, and a lot more time than we can afford to devote to any one patient."
"I can do it, Papa." I lifted my chin. "I'm sure you won't deny that I'm a skilled nurse, and I can arrange my schedule so that I can spend the time with him as well as with my other patients. Think of the medical breakthrough this will be if it works!"
"And if it doesn't? Then what?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But it will work, Papa, I know it will!"
For an entire day after his surgery, Matt lay quiet and unresponsive, and I spent every moment I could spare with him. I edged the low canvas stool closer to the head of his cot and once again felt his pulse. It was a little slow, but steady—a good sign. His forehead felt warm, but not overly so—another good sign.
He stirred. "Zzouri?" His voice was weak, but he was calling the name he had given me.
"I'm right here, Matt. How do you feel?"
"Leg…can't feel…" His voice drifted off.
I took his hand in mine and moved it down his thigh as far as his long arm could reach. "Your leg's fine, Matt. Or it will be. It's right there. My father didn't cut it off."
He gave me a lop-sided smile then, and a stray tear seeped from beneath his long lashes. "Thanks," he muttered before falling back to sleep.
I tended to my other patients and returned to Matt's tent sometime later. His sleep seemed natural, no longer induced by fever or morphine. As I leaned over him, he caught my hand in his.
"Comb…you said…see it in daylight."
I was shocked. I had forgotten that brief exchange, but, through everything, he had remembered it! I turned my head to give him a better view of the old tortoise shell comb anchored into my upswept hair.
"Pretty," he whispered and again fell back to sleep.
My father was right; taking care of Matt required time and skill. The wound needed to be cleaned and the dressings changed several times each day. Also, I needed to get him up and moving about, taking him on short, painful walks around the camp, exercising his leg muscles to keep them from atrophying. Between working with him and caring for my other two rows of patients, I was exhausted, and each night after making my final rounds I would slip into his tent to curl up next to him on the narrow canvas cot for a few hours of blessed sleep.
More than once I felt my father's eye on me as I went about my duties in the surgical tent, but the wise old man never said a word—until the day he announced that Corporal Dillon, along with several others, would be transferred out of camp the next day.
"But that isn't fair. I'm the one who's been taking care of him, and of Corporal Perkins, too. And Jessie and Nedra have been doing a fine job with the other men." I actually stomped my foot in anger and frustration. "Why should we have to give them up? We've brought them this far. We should be able to see them through to recovery."
"Listen to me, Missouri. You, Jessie and Nedra have done yeoman's work with these soldiers, but a battlefield hospital is no longer the place for them. Hell, it's not the place for any of us! These boys are well enough to move on. And the credit for that goes to the three of you. There's a small pocket of Mennonite families over in Chattanooga who refuse to bear arms or otherwise involve themselves in fighting this war, but they have opened their homes as convalescent centers for wounded soldiers of both sides. I'm sending these boys to them."
As I turned away, muttering under my breath, I felt my father's hand clamp down hard on my shoulder. "I know how you feel, daughter. I was young and in love once, too. But surely you wouldn't deny your corporal, or any other human, the chance to sleep in a real bed, to bathe in clean water and to eat fresh meat and vegetables. These men will recover much faster in those conditions." His voice softened, and his touch turned gentle. "This isn't to punish you, honey, it's to help them." I nodded and twisted away from his hand. My head knew he was right, but that did nothing to placate my aching heart.
That night I slipped into Matt's tent for the last time. "I hear you're leaving us in the morning," I said in what I hoped was a normal voice.
"And none too soon, either. I need to get out of here, get moving, get my strength back. I'm sure gonna miss you, though."
I turned my head to hide the tears welling in my eyes, but I wasn't quick enough. "Come here," he said softly and stretched out a long arm.
Suddenly shy, I slowly approached the cot, and he pulled me down next to him. His fingers reached for the comb in my hair, and, for the first time, he worked it loose, allowing my long, chestnut colored hair to tumble across my back and shoulders. "I can never thank you enough for what you did for me, Zzouri." Instead of sliding to the edge of the cot as he usually did so that I could lie down next to him, he pulled me on top of him and held me close against his body, his big hand stroking my back.
He must have noticed that I was trembling, but he misunderstood the reason for it. "It's all right. Don't worry, I'm not going to try anything."
I summoned every ounce of courage I possessed and whispered, "I…I wouldn't try to stop you if you did."
He grinned. "Ah, Zzouri, don't think I'm not tempted, but I can't do that—not to you."
"What's…what's wrong with me?" I asked through my tears.
"There's nothing wrong with you, absolutely nothing. But your first time should be special, not here in the mud with an injured and penniless soldier. You deserve so much better than that—better than me. I can't take advantage of you that way."
"But, but you wouldn't be taking advantage if…if I wanted…"
"No, Zzouri. I'd hate myself for doing that to you, and you…well, eventually you'd come to hate me, too. So, let's just go to sleep, same as we have every other night, and tomorrow we can look each other in the eye and say our good-byes with no regrets."
In the morning, moving slowly and painfully on wobbly crutches, he led me to the shade and relative privacy of a huge oak tree and tipped my face up to his. "I'll never forget you, Zzouri. Have a good life."
"I'll never forget you, either, Matt. Take care of yourself."
His mouth was soft and warm on mine, and his kiss was gentle. Then he brushed a strand of hair from my face and was gone.
Dodge City, Kansas
I dawdled as long as possible over my soup, crushing the crackers into tiny crumbs and stirring them languidly into the ever-cooling liquid. I poured a second cup of coffee from the blue china pot and sipped it as slowly as possible. I was contemplating ordering a slice of apple pie to prolong my supper, when the marshal folded his blue and white checked napkin onto the table, said a few words to his companion, and rose from his seat. I watched him walk with a barely discernable limp to the other side of the restaurant, lean over and speak to two young men who might have been brothers. Local cowboys, I presumed.
He returned to his seat via a different route, one that took him directly behind my own chair. I felt his presence and a slight swish of air as he passed. And then he paused.
"Hello, Zzouri." His voice was every bit as low and rich as I remembered.
My heart pounded as I looked up—way up—into eyes that were clear and blue and no longer filled with pain. "Hello, Matt. I wasn't sure you'd remember me."
"How could I forget you, Zzouri? I thought it was you, but when I walked behind you and saw the comb…well, then I knew for sure."
I felt my face flush scarlet as I recalled the last time we had seen each other, and I cast about for a safe topic of conversation. "You're looking much healthier than the last time I saw you. How have you been?"
"I've been good, Zzouri, real good. How 'bout yourself? What are you doing in Dodge?"
"Just stopping over. Tomorrow I'll be heading up to Dakota Territory. There's an outbreak of smallpox among the Sioux, and they have need for medical personnel, and…well, for now, I'm it."
"That's a pretty dangerous combination, isn't it—smallpox and the Sioux?"
"I've never been afraid of a challenge, Matt." I looked him straight in the eye. "You should know that as well as anyone."
I was both relieved and thrilled to hear him laugh out loud. "Oh, I do, Zzouri, I do."
Then he turned and motioned to the redhead, who rose from her seat and approached the table. "Kitty, I'd like you to meet Missouri Mary Mahoney. She's the reason I'm standing and walking on two legs today. Missouri, this is Kitty Russell."
She smiled. "I'm pleased to meet you, Missouri. Matt's told me all about you, and I, too, am grateful for everything you did for him." I watched her tuck her hand possessively through his arm. "I know from experience he isn't an easy patient, so I'm sure you had your hands full."
"Oh, I kept him pretty well sedated. He was meek as a lamb," I replied as I smiled back, wondering if he had, indeed, told the redhead all about me.