Valentine Angel, page 1
Gail L. Jenner
Valentine Angel by Gail L. Jenner
Copyright© 2015 Gail L. Jenner
Cover Design Livia Reasoner
Prairie Rose Publications
All rights reserved.
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“Thank goodness, the rain finally let up!” Mary said, raising the curtain and peering outside.
Sarah agreed. “You think Samuel will make it across the river before the preacher arrives? He’s supposed to come through any day now.”
Mary returned to the settee. “If I know Samuel, he’ll figure it out. He’s not going to miss tying the knot, especially with Valentine’s Day fast approaching. He waited a long time for you to say yes.”
Sarah laughed. “He has been patient, hasn’t he?”
Mary smiled at her younger sister. She was so pretty, she’d been pursued by almost every man in Cedar Junction, even a couple of elderly widowers, but she’d been reluctant to step out with any of them. Of course, she fell for Samuel Williams the moment she met him, but for some reason, hesitated when he first proposed.
Papa’s death had changed all that, though. Sam had been there when Papa fell from the top of their second-story house; he’d been there to carry him in and doctor him, although there was little they could do to stop the bleeding. He’d been there all through the night as Papa gasped his last, and he was there to hold Sarah as she wept uncontrollably for hours afterward.
Mary reached out for Sarah’s folded hands. “Come on, now. We have a meal to prepare for that handsome man of yours,” she said. “You can fret while you peel potatoes. He does like roast beef and mashed potatoes, right?”
Sarah smiled. “It’s his favorite and you know it.”
Mary pulled her sister to her feet. “So let me get the kindling and I’ll kick the fire up. You get supper started. The roast will need to cook for a couple of hours, which means keeping the woodpile going.”
“Thanks, Mary,” said Sarah. “You’re always so sensible.”
Mary shrugged. “Ah, yes, sensible, practical Mary.”
Sarah smiled. “You know what I mean. I just don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I know. I feel the same about you. Now, go, and get started on supper.”
Mary slipped out the back door and ran to the woodshed. The rain was falling heavily again, drenching her before she reached the shelter. Stamping her feet and shaking her head, she picked up Papa’s axe and headed to the stack of sapling wood Samuel and Papa had cut last February.
Just then she heard a cry, and she stopped, heart pounding. “Who’s there?” she asked. She bit her lip and raised her axe. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”
It was more a whimper than a cry, but it came from the far side of the shed. She rushed to the stack of wood and immediately spotted a man lying on his side, his face hidden by the wood piled high in front of him.
He groaned and whispered, “Help me…”
Mary dragged the axe along as she squeezed between the shed wall and the stacked wood. She dropped to her knees when she reached the man’s side. Turning him over, she looked into his face. Contorted with pain, eyes closed, he was no one she recognized. She sighed: at least it wasn’t Samuel. But he was in bad shape, whoever he was.
“Hold on,” she said, checking him over. Blood oozed from a wound on his thigh and another on his shoulder. It was then she saw the badge. She leaned closer. “I’m gonna get some help. I’ll be right back.”
She ran back through the rain to the house. “Sarah, come quick! I need you!”
Not waiting for a response, Mary headed back to the woodshed. She knew Sarah would follow.
“What’s happened?” cried Sarah as she dashed into the shed.
“Help me,” Mary said. “It’s a sheriff or deputy. I don’t know, but he’s been shot.”
“Oh, Lord,” moaned Sarah when she saw the fallen man stuck behind the woodpile, his boots all that protruded from the narrow space. “How are we ever going to get him out of there?”
“We’ll have to move the wood, that’s all,” returned Mary. “Come on. Put those dainty fingers to work.”
As they threw off the chunks of firewood, Mary leaned over periodically and whispered, “Hang on, mister. We’re doing the best we can.” It took almost half an hour to move the wood so that they could reach him.
Finally, they rolled the semi-conscious man out into the middle of the woodshed.
“Now what?” asked Sarah.
“Let’s get him to his feet,” said Mary. “There’s two of us. We can do it. Raise him up on that side and I’ll lift this side. Easy, now,” she murmured when the man groaned loudly. “Sorry, mister, no help for it.”
The rain had stopped and a bit of sun protruded from the heavy cloud cover by the time they got the man to the front porch, but everything was drenched and mucky as they half-dragged him up the steps.
Mary leaned over and opened the door then kicked it wide with her muddy boot. “Into Papa’s room,” she said, feeling the man’s weight growing heavier and heavier. His face was void of expression now, and she wondered if they might have just written his death sentence by their actions.
Sarah glanced at her. “I just hope he survives. What if he dies on us?”
Mary snapped, “We won’t let him die.”
Papa’s room was a small room adjacent to the kitchen. It had been the old kitchen lean-to before Papa built the girls a newer, roomier kitchen space. It was small and damp, having been closed off after Papa’s death.
“Okay,” Mary directed, and together the girls got the man onto the narrow cot Papa had used for more than ten years. The man half fell to the floor as they tried to lay him across the bed.
As Mary raised his legs and arranged them on the bed, she saw that the wound on his thigh had begun to bleed more profusely. “Get some rags, Sarah,” she said. She glanced up at the man’s face; in spite of his pallor, he was undeniably handsome, even under his scraggly beard and the dirt and grime. His hair was longer than was fashionable, hanging over his collar by at least an inch. “You’ve been on the trail, I’d say,” she whispered to him, “or on the run.”
Sarah returned with some rags as Mary went to work on the man’s leg. She tore his pant leg open to reveal the bloody wound. “A bullet,” she said.
“You sure?” whispered Sarah.
“Well,” returned Mary impatiently, “with a hole in his leg and one in his shoulder, I’d say they’d have to be bullet holes.”
“But we aren’t doctors,” said Sarah.
“No, but the doctor is in Denny Springs, and we don’t have any kind of rig for hauling him anywhere,” snapped Mary. “Thanks to Homer,” she added under her breath.
Mary dabbed at the blood until she’d cleared it away. “Mama used to make a poultice out of hot milk and bread, remember? If we had some yarrow, that could work, too. But we do have milk and bread. Heat it, Sarah, and break up some bits of bread. Wrap it up in some of your linen. And bring me Papa’s boning knife.”
Sarah stood for a moment, her eyes wide with fear. “Are you sure, Mary? You think you should go digging after a bullet?”
Mary sighed. “N
Sarah disappeared then and Mary heaved a sigh. The man had not stirred at all since they’d dragged him into the house. She studied his upper body, knowing that she’d have to tackle the wound on his shoulder next. At least it wasn’t bleeding, but his shirt was soaked in old blood, evidence that the bullet had done some damage.
“At least you’re unconscious,” she whispered. “Don’t know if I could do what needs doing if you were awake.”
When had he been shot, she wondered? She’d not seen a horse or heard any kind of commotion, which probably meant he had found his way into their woodshed on foot after being attacked. In the rain, she reminded herself.
She continued to press the wound to slow the flow of blood, but crimson oozed out from under the wad of rags she had piled onto the torn flesh. She glanced up at the man’s face and was, again, struck by his good looks. “Please don’t die,” she whispered. “With that badge, you can’t be an outlaw.”
Sarah returned with the knife and a small pot full of hot milk and bread.
Mary took the knife and studied the wound carefully. Sarah groaned when she pressed the tip into the narrow slit of flesh. “Turn away, Sarah. I don’t need you fainting on me.” Then, sucking in her breath and biting her lip, she dug fast and furiously. Her heart thumped wildly as she fought the panic that threatened to overtake her, and she prayed she was doing the right thing.
What if she killed him in her attempt to save his life?
Thankfully, the bullet was not too deep. “Okay, Sarah, give me the poultice.”
Moving closer, Sarah handed Mary the pot and a large wooden spoon. “I can’t believe you got it out,” she said, her voice almost breathless. She handed her a lacy petticoat as well as layers of cloth.
Mary looked down at the petticoat.
Sarah whispered, “I was afraid there might not be enough linen so I brought down Mother’s old petticoat. It should tear easily, don’t you think?”
Mary glanced up at her. “Maybe we won’t need it.”
“It’s all right,” said Sarah. “I don’t really need to wear it under my wedding dress, and we don’t have much else that will work for bandages. Most important, it’ll tear easily.”
Mary nodded. “True,” she said, “and it looks as if we’ll need some long strips to hold the poultice in place. I’m sorry, Sarah.”
Sarah tore the gauzy layers of material into long strips. “I think this man’s life is more important than a petticoat.”
Mary glanced up at her sister. “We’ll remind him of that when he recovers and finds himself decked out in Mama’s lacy undergarment.” She spooned some milk-soaked bread onto several squares of linen then placed the mess inside another couple of squares of cloth before pressing it against the still-bloody wound. The petticoat did tear easily and Sarah handed the strips to her, one at a time.
Mary wrapped the man’s leg securely and sat back, sighing audibly. “Okay, we’ve done what we can with that wound.”
Next, Mary tore the man’s shirt away from his shoulder, revealing his taut, well-muscled torso. She flushed, then quickly turned her attention on the wound. “It looks as if it’s sealed itself off,” she said.
“Is that a good thing?” Sarah asked.
“God only knows,” mumbled Mary. Like she did with the first bullet, she took Papa’s boning knife and began to dig. It came out more easily. She then made up another poultice and applied it to the injured area, this time wrapping the gauzy layers of petticoat around his chest.
When she was finished dressing the second wound, Mary sat back. She was exhausted. “That’s all we can do for now,” she said.
“I think you just saved his life,” said Sarah. “I know I couldn’t have done it.”
Mary looked up as she wiped her rain-soaked hair from her face. “I only did what needed doing. And if it’d been Samuel, I’m sure you’d have jumped right in,” she added with a smile.
Sarah nodded. “Yes, maybe then,” she said. “Oh, but I wish he’d get here soon. He could ride for the doctor.”
Mary nodded. She didn’t relish the idea of having to walk ten miles to the nearest doctor. Especially if the rain returned.
Sarah collected the leftover fabric and rags, including the blood-soaked ones, while Mary rearranged the bedding to cover the man and his exposed flesh. They’d have to dig out some of Papa’s old clothing since she hadn’t been able to salvage much of the man’s.
Sarah entered with a steaming cup of tea. “Thought you could use something to warm you,” she said.
Mary nodded. “Thank you. I hope I did do the right thing,” she whispered, suddenly fearful that her ministrations might have endangered the man’s life even further. “We better pray he survives,” she said as she raised the cup to her parched lips.
“You didn’t have a choice,” said Sarah then, setting her teacup on the old milking stool that had served as Papa’s side table. An oil lamp was the only other item in the room. “Shall we bring in a chair? We can take turns sitting with him.”
“Thanks. I’ll sit. You finish that supper. Hopefully Sam will be here before nightfall, and he’ll know what to do next.”
“Okay,” said Sarah. She returned with a narrow ladder-back chair. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me. Just holler.”
“I will,” smiled Mary, “although I don’t think I have anything to worry about from this fellow. I sure wish we knew who he was and what happened,” she added.
“Did you check his pockets?” Sarah asked.
Mary looked up. “Never thought of that.” Carefully, gently, she felt around for something that might give them a clue as to his identity. The only thing she found was a handbill, folded over in his rear pants pocket. It was wet and limp. “It’s a Wanted poster,” she said and held it up for Sarah. “For a man named…Billy Sykes…but it’s smeared from the rain. Can’t make out a face at all,” she added, frowning. “So he must really be a lawman—”
“Do you think this Billy shot him?”
“Possibly,” said Mary. “It says ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive’.”
“Does that mean he’ll still be looking to finish him off? Maybe follow him here?” Sarah asked.
Mary turned her gaze back on the man stretched across her father’s bed. “I don’t know,” she said, turning the thought around in her brain. “But we might want to think about being careful, just in case—” Her words trailed off as she considered what this event might have unleashed. Two women, alone, outside of town by ten miles. “Find Papa’s shotgun and pistol,” she said, her eyes still on the man’s grizzled face. “And all the ammunition you can.”
Sarah whimpered. “You think somebody will really come after him?”
Mary heaved a sigh. “I don’t know, Sarah, but do it. Now. Else you sit down here and I’ll go gather them up.”
“No, no, I’ll go.”
The sound of Sarah’s boots going up the stairs was the only sound Mary heard, but her heart had started to beat rapidly and filled her ears with a thump-thumping that seemed to drown out every other sound. The notion that someone might come here, after this man, was a chilling thought. That meant she and Sarah could be in danger.
She moved into the kitchen and looked around. The small window was easily locked and shuttered from inside, as was the back door. Unfortunately, the windows in the front parlor lacked shutters. Papa had never gotten around to installing them.
Mary locked the front door and pulled the thin curtains across the windows. Hopefully this was only a precaution, she told herself. No need to really worry.
Jake stirred, but his body was like a twisted piece of iron. Unmovable. And the pain radiating through his limbs and chest stabbed like a hot poker. He couldn’t determine where he hurt most; he just hurt—everywhere.
He rolled his eyes upwa
Where was he? He remembered…what? He remembered falling back, and over, into a streambed. Was that it?
He tried to speak, but his words were hardly audible. It was as if he were in a tunnel…deep tunnel. He tried again to speak, to call out. Was there someone here? Anywhere?
He tried to raise his head. Moving it slightly to the right, he caught sight of someone entering the room. He worked the fingers of his left hand and managed to lift them toward the ceiling. Once more, he tried to speak. “Help me—”
A woman suddenly appeared at his side, her eyes wide with—relief? “Oh, mister, are we glad you’re still alive!”
He wanted to laugh. Yes, he was glad, too.
She leaned over and then he saw the tears in her eyes. Her smile was broad and radiated warmth, her eyes coffee brown—large, round, and heavy-lashed. “Hello,” she whispered. “Welcome to our home. I’m Mary Hastings.”
“Uh—Jake,” he said, his voice gravelly and rough.
She laughed. “Good. You can talk, too.”
He tried to smile. It felt good to hear this woman’s voice and see her smile. He inhaled her scent. It reminded him of lilacs.
She slipped a hand under his head just enough to raise his pillow. “Better?”
He tried the smile again. It seemed to work better this time. “Water?”
“Oh, of course,” she said. She repositioned him on the pillow then jumped up, returning almost immediately with a cup of water. “Fresh from the spring this morning,” she said, and helped him to a sitting position.
“Aghhh,” he moaned. His entire left side felt as if it were pinned down, and the pain from the top of his shoulder to his ankle continued to burn.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said and lowered him so that he could drink without slopping it all over himself. “Small sips,” she said. “I don’t know if you can handle too much yet.”
She helped him back against the pillow.
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