Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep
"If I Should Die"
A short distance from the house, she sighted the well, and, thankfully, it appeared as though it still had a serviceable rope and bucket. Peering carefully about the shadowy yard first, Kitty hurried to the small wooden structure and released the bucket. She nervously examined her surroundings as she lowered the rope over the groaning pulley, watching for suspicious signs of movement in the surrounding bushes. Within the shadows of the branches of an ancient cottonwood tree, a pair of glowing eyes steadily met her gaze, and she gasped in fright. But the animal blinked once and took flight, a Great Horned Owl whose nocturnal hunt for fresh meat she had interrupted. The powerful bird swept away on silent wings, and Kitty breathed a shaky sigh of relief.
But no sooner had she chided herself for being so jittery than a wolf's eerie howl once more penetrated the dark night, from directly over the hill. Kitty's spine tingled as this time his sinister call was answered. A second wolf, its haunting howl even closer than the first, sounded from the opposite direction. Her heart flew to her throat and her pulse quickened once more. She quickly drew the water out of the well and dumped it in her bucket, then scurried to the buggy. She blindly felt around the floorboard for the shotgun she knew Doc always carried with him on lengthy house calls. Her fingers clamped down on the cold steel of the barrel, and she silently thanked Doc for his uncommonly good sense.
Snatching up the shotgun in one hand and hauling her heavy bucket of water in the other, she rushed for the safety of the cabin, the howls of the wolves in the near distance dogging her steps and snapping figuratively at her heels. Bolting inside, she frantically backed against the door, shutting it hard. Water sloshed heedlessly onto the dirt below as she set her bucket on the floor with a thump. She breathed heavily with fright as she clutched Doc's shotgun to her chest, attempting to calm herself. Why, those were nothing but a couple of overgrown house pets, she scolded herself. You oughta be ashamed for gettin' yourself so worked up. She blew a wayward curl out of her eyes and wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, then went about her business.
Kitty built a small fire in the fireplace, just big enough to draw the damp chill out of the room. But slithering from beneath the kindling, to Kitty's horror, she discovered a fairly healthy-sized blacksnake. Its wicked hissing, darting forked tongue and writhing, scaly body sent shivers down her spine and a screech from her throat. She unceremoniously chased the serpent out the door with a broom.
And through the entire ruckus, Doc hadn't roused. It frightened her to think of how sick he must be. When she looked at his face, it was hard not to recall baby Emma's face, right before she died. No, Kitty reproved herself, you musn't think that way. Doc would be just fine. He had to be.
Kitty had managed to get some water down him and fretted about the fact that there was no food to be found anywhere. Doc needed a good beef broth to keep his strength up, but she had to content herself with keeping him dosed faithfully with quinine at the appointed intervals and bathing his face and neck with cool water often to try and bring the terrible fever down.
Finally, she allowed herself the luxury of resting in a creaky old rocking chair at the foot of Doc's bed, close to the warmth of the fire. Kitty couldn't help but wish Matt were here with her. He would've come in awful handy when that slithering snake crawled out from under the woodpile. She wondered what Matt was doing right now, and if he was worried about her yet. He was well aware she had gone to help Doc but didn't know exactly when they'd return. Matt probably wouldn't realize anything was amiss for quite some time yet. So Kitty figured she was on her own. She just prayed she could pull Doc through.
She had no idea what time it was. The wee hours of the morning, she supposed. As she sat and rocked, exhaustion set in and her eyelids began drifting closed. She didn't want to fall asleep. She had to stay awake in case Doc needed her. Glancing at the bed where he lay, she wondered who else had slept there. Idly speculating about who else might have borrowed this deserted cabin, she tried not to think about all the outlaws and cutthroats who sometimes frequented these parts.
Kitty's eyes flew open wide when there was an unexpected knock at the door. Who on earth? And at this hour! Her heart began to race as she pondered the possibilities. She eased up out of the chair and soundlessly picked up Doc's shotgun from the table.
"Who's there?" she called.
No answer. Only crickets singing their dirge in the dead of night.
Then again the mysterious knock sounded. More insistent this time.
"I said, 'Who's there?'" she called, more loudly this time. She hoisted the gun to her shoulder and stood between Doc's bed and the door.
Not a sound. No voices. No footsteps. No rustling. Still, no answer. The only sound she heard now was the wood crackling in the fireplace. Even the crickets had stopped their mournful lamentation. Stone dead silence.
Kitty stood alert, every nerve strained, the barrel of the gun aimed directly at the door. Just then, the wholly unnatural yet unmistakable sound of a small baby wailing shattered the unsettling stillness. Kitty jerked in surprise. The noise made every hair of her flesh bristle. The infant's cry began to move away from the door and slowly round the corner of the house. Kitty's pulse pounded in her ears and her hands trembled as she held the gun. She could hear it plainly through the walls as it wended its way slowly about the dilapidated house. This was not natural. Something was not right here. Kitty turned, holding her breath, and followed the eerie wailing, listened for an eternity to the plaintive sound. She turned, ears straining, facing the sound as it went around, eyes open wide in terror. It made one complete circle around the building where she and Doc were sheltering for the night. Then…silence. The unearthly disturbance had ceased just as suddenly as it had begun. Shaking, her knees gave out and she lowered herself into the rocking chair at the foot of Doc's bed, gun in hand, trying to steady her heart rate, to slow her erratic breathing.
Doc suddenly opened his eyes wide and spoke in a low, hoarse voice, heavy with exhaustion, "…little Emma…" He looked piercingly at Kitty. "…she was here …"
"What?" Kitty whispered, her voice tremulous. Her heart raced at the peculiar look in Doc's eye, but at that moment, she could sense it. No…she could scent it. Or was it her imagination? A faint scent hanging in the air, of sweet, soft, new skin and milk and clean, sun-drenched cotton diapers… The scent that had clung to the youngest Sweetwood child when Kitty held her close. When she touched her lips to those golden curls. Was Doc right?
Doc mumbled, "…her mother…set her free." His eyes drifted closed, he heaved a great sigh, and was still.
Kitty dropped the gun with a clatter onto the table and rushed to his bedside. "Doc!" She clutched his shoulders. "Doc! Speak to me!" She placed her hands on his face and her mouth dropped open in surprise. He was cool to the touch. His body was covered in cool perspiration. His fever had broken, and he was sleeping soundly. "Oh, Doc…" Tears of fear and anxiety and relief streaked her cheeks as she kissed his dear old forehead. Kitty wiped his face with a damp cloth and tucked the ragged blanket in around him.
She settled herself back in her chair, still trembling, her mind a jumble, to speculate at all that had occurred that black autumn night. Her skin prickled at the notion that Doc claimed it was Emma's spirit who had been outside the house…and that Doc's fever had broken with her appearance. Kitty's ancient rocker steadily creaked in time to the rhythmic breathing coming from Doc's bed. She hugged herself and shivered, but she knew Doc was gonna be alright.