Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
"Soul to Keep"
Kitty gripped the buggy reins tightly in her damp palms and anxiously urged her friend, "Hold on, Doc. It won't be long now." She peered ahead, thankful for the light of the full October moon, glowing orange and hanging low over the horizon. Her heart leapt when she sighted the structure she'd remembered passing four days before on their way out to the Sweetwood place. "There's an abandoned cabin just up the road here. We'll stop for a spell."
Doc didn't answer her. He sat beside Kitty in the jostling buggy, hunched over, sweating, leaning heavily against her shoulder. Kitty's blood ran cold at the thought of what could happen to him. Maybe what happened to the youngest Sweetwood child. She prayed that wasn't so.
Kitty had gone with Doc out to the Sweetwood farm to be his nurse when he'd received word that three of the six children in the family had taken ill with a terrible fever. Kitty had watched Doc work furiously to save those children for thirty-six hours straight with no sleep. Six-year-old twins Caroline and Carmela had pulled through, thanks to plenty of quinine and constant care. But the baby of the family, ten-month-old Emma who had captured Kitty's heart with her wide, shining blue eyes and soft, blond, fuzzy ringlets, had succumbed to the fever in the middle of the night. They'd buried little Emma Sweetwood the next morning in a tiny homemade coffin Doc had pieced together from scraps of wood he'd found out back of the barn.
It was one of the most sorrowful things Kitty had ever been forced to witness, laying that little girl in the cold ground, wrapped in her small, hand-pieced yellow quilt. Doc was taking the loss hard, sure, but Emma's mother Ophelia, was utterly devastated. She sat over the child's resting place, mounded up with rocks to keep away the predators, all through the day and into the crisp autumn evening. Kitty had hardly been able to pull her away from the baby's graveside to come inside at night, shivering with the cold. "I can't leave her outside…" Ophelia wept. "…cold and alone in the dark… My sweet baby…" Kitty cried along with her and tried to get the inconsolable woman to eat to no avail, putting the woman to bed and holding her hand until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
And throughout it all, the child's grandmother, wizened old Eula Sweetwood, furrowed complexion baked by years spent beneath a harsh prairie sun, watched with eyes that missed nothing. Eula sat in the rocker by the fire, her arthritic, gnarled hands lying useless in her lap, shaking her gray head while muttering, "Nothing good…nothing good will come…" Her watery gaze pierced Kitty's. "…when the heart cannot let go." Those faded, knowing eyes made Kitty shiver.
She and Doc had only reluctantly left the home to return to Dodge when the children's father, Silas Sweetwood, returned from the silver mines. Fourteen-year-old Sammie had ridden the family mule to fetch their pa when the sickness got bad. It was a terrible sight that greeted poor Silas when he returned home.
Kitty hadn't felt right leaving Ophelia, who was suffering the loss of her precious babe so keenly, but she knew in her heart there was nothing more she could do to help. She reckoned that only time and the loving care of her remaining family could heal Mrs. Sweetwood's broken heart.
And poor Doc looked so drained. He was worrying her, the way he looked at her sadly with his sunken eyes and drawn expression. He was exhausted, and they had a very long, tiring drive back to Dodge in Doc's buggy. She just knew he'd feel better once he had a warm meal and plenty of sleep in a proper bed. Then, she promised herself, when he was well rested, they would come back out here again to check on the Sweetwood family, sorrowfully reduced in size by one small, sweet, golden-haired babe.
Unfortunately, Doc had fallen ill with alarming haste on the trip back to Dodge. And she wasn't sure how proper the bed would be in this old, dilapidated shack. But it was better than nothing, under the circumstances. "Whoa!" Kitty called to the horse, pulling up hard on the reins as they reached the abandoned cabin. "Doc?" She put her arm around his shoulders and her hand on his hot cheek. "Doc? You're burning up. Can you hear me?" He peered at her through slitted, glassy eyes and mumbled unintelligibly. Kitty's heart sank down to the pit of her stomach.
She tied off the leather reins, quickly hitched up her heavy skirts, and jumped down from the buggy, grabbing Doc's black bag as an afterthought. "I'll be right back."
Through the darkness, a lone wolf's howl hauntingly pierced the silent night. Every hair on the back of her neck stood on end as she drew in a quick, panicked breath. Desperately hoping that wolf was farther away than it sounded, she shivered, thinking the animal seemed to be so very close, right across that open field… Kitty steeled her nerves. She had to get Doc inside so he could get some rest and she could get some quinine into him. She had to get that fever down. Wolf or no wolf. And they'd be safe from predators once they were inside.
Kitty pulled the latchstring, and the heavy, weathered wooden plank door unwillingly groaned on its rusty hinges, like a long-neglected gate to an ancient mausoleum. The unpleasant sound beckoned unhappy childhood memories of visiting her mother's crypt in St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, of weeping and wailing for loved ones who couldn't be saved. Of unutterable longing for those who can never return to you.
She started from her mournful reverie when something softly touched her face. Kitty shrank back and gasped, then realized it was only a dusty cobweb, spun in the unused doorway. She brushed it away, and hoped the spider who weaved it wasn't at that moment crawling infinitesimally through her hair.
The light of the full moon didn't penetrate far into the room, so Kitty had to wait until her eyes adjusted to the gray illumination. She could smell the cold, damp earth floor beneath her feet before she could see it, and it brought to mind the discordant odor of a fresh dug grave on Boot Hill. Shapes of furniture, long since abandoned by its owner, lay scattered about the room, ghostly remnants of a past life. Why was this cabin deserted, she wondered? Was the owner serving a life sentence in a dank prison somewhere for an unspeakable crime? Or did he die a slow, horrible death from disease? Oh, poor Doc…
Her heart beat faster in her chest and she quickly looked around for a lamp. She spotted a candleholder with a half-burned beeswax candle in the middle of a rickety table. Matches… There were several matches scattered nearby. With fumbling fingers in the dark, she tried striking them, but two broke, one after another, and none would light. Swearing, Kitty then remembered the bag she'd set on the table.
She opened Doc's ubiquitous black leather case, but couldn't make out the contents within its inky interior. She lugged it to a nearby window, anemic moonlight streaming through, and rummaged around until she located a tin of matches. She struck one and listened to the satisfying hiss as it burned.
Hastily, she bent to light the candle wick, and went to examine the bed, no bigger than a cot, really, wondering if, in fact, it was still usable. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be intact and sturdy enough. The dusty blankets and pillow were thoroughly shaken and closely checked for any unwelcome creatures. When it was as clean and comfortable as she could make it, she dusted off her hands and hurried outside to fetch her desperately sick friend.
Doc was still slumped over in the seat. She spoke soothingly, "I've gotta get you inside, Doc. Can you walk a little ways? It's not far. I'll help you." Gently, Kitty touched his face, trying to rouse him. "Come on, Doc, I've got you." She placed his hand on her shoulder for support and helped him half-climb, half-stumble down out of the buggy, holding onto him the best she possibly could. Struggling with the weight of a full grown man on her shoulders, she managed to get him through the door and into the house, praying they wouldn't both fall in a heap.
She backed him up to the bed, and they both sat down heavily. Shrugging his arm from around her neck, she carefully removed his suit coat and battered hat. After easing his head gently back onto the pillow, she caressed his cheek and damp forehead, murmuring, "It'll be all right, Doc. I'll take care of you now." She tugged off his scuffed boots one by one and set them beside the bed on the dirt floor. Tenderly, she lifted his stocking feet onto the bed and draped a wool blanket over him.
Resting her hands on her hips, she heaved a tired sigh and wiped her perspiring forehead with the back of her hand. In spite of the cool evening air, her face was flushed with the effort of getting Doc inside and settled. She hadn't realized until now how exhausted she was. Her lower back ached and her head was beginning to throb. But her only worry for now was Doc.
The first order of business was getting some quinine down him. Kitty often helped Doc nurse his patients, and she was very familiar with the dose he gave full grown men with a fever. Digging in his bag by the candlelight, she poured the correct amount into a measuring glass and sat beside Doc on the bed. She slipped an arm around his shoulders to support him and held the glass to his lips. "Doc, you gotta take this," she urged him.
He opened his eyes, just a bit, and looked up at her, face drawn and flushed with fever.
"Open up, Curly. Drink this so you'll get better. For me…please?"
"Just…" His voice was the faintest whisper, and she had to lean close to hear him, so that her hair brushed his hot cheek. "Just…for you." He swallowed it down with trembling lips, and tenderly she wiped a drop from the corner of his mouth with her thumb. Leaning over to kiss his forehead, her chest tightened when she felt the heat of his fever against her skin. She loosened his string tie and collar button.
"Rest now, Doc. And I'll go out to the well and get you some water." She laid her hand on his arm. "Plenty of liquids. Isn't that what you always say?"
She detected a ghost of a smile on his lips, patting him before she went to fetch a bucket out of the kitchen, turning it upside down and shaking it thoroughly. Kitty put her hand on the latch and took a deep breath before pulling the door open. She sincerely hoped that wolf was far away by now.