Hearty shepherds pie and biscuits were in the warming oven waiting for me. I only needed to pour boiling water from the kettle and steep the tea. Mrs. Crawford was an efficient housekeeper.
A knock on the door broke the silence, and I rose reluctantly, not wanting to interrupt my simple meal.
“Doc, it’s Ma.” The gangly youth stood on my stoop, fumbling with his hat. “Sumpin’s wrong. Babe won’t come.” Luke’s face flushed crimson in the waning light.
After a quick glance at the grey sky, I turned back to finish my steaming tea, then grabbed my own hat, scarf, and greatcoat.
“Let’s go, son.”
Together, we readied my horse, and I lashed my bag to the saddle. Snow already lay inches deep, and the wind was driving it into misshapen drifts and mounds. I’d never seen snow like it before I came here, used as I was to the heavy slush of Glasgow, dirty from coal and carriage wheels within hours. These pristine crystals eddying across the prairie were a wonder, a malignant and magnificent wonder.
“How long, do you know?”
“This mornin’. The midwife, she’s worrit.”
Day’s light was gone; our only source of illumination was the gleaming blanket of snow. Luke led the way, turning eastward, following a slight, winding depression. Occasionally, we passed a distorted willow, splayed into a grotesque shape.
Maybe it was a gust of swirling snow in my eyes, certainly it was carelessness, but I missed the warning shadow in the snow. Unable to rein back my horse in time, I fell, plunging through the thin veil into the glacial water of the creek flowing beneath.
The frigid waters closed over me, numbing and shocking. Miraculously, I was dragged from the creek by the boy. I shivered uncontrollably, unable to talk or move. Luke wrenched my sodden greatcoat from me, shrugging me into his dry jacket. Then, with the same amazing strength, he heaved me into his saddle, then mounted, wrapping his arms around me for warmth. Leading my horse, we set out again.
“Doc, stay awake!” A dozen times, a hundred times, I heard Luke’s voice in my ear.
It seemed an eternity before we reached a farmhouse, not Luke’s, but the Bailey’s.
Hollering from the yard brought Mr. Bailey running with a lantern. Carefully, we were pulled down and taken into the warmth, where the children were scuttled off to the loft. They curiously peered down into my frosted face, with my blue lips and glassy eyes. Wasting no time, the elder Baileys began to peel off my stiffened clothes. Barely coherent and knowing my desperate need, I began to stammer.
“Bottles. Warm water.”
I was tucked into bed beneath homey quilts, the heated bottles strategically placed against me. Mrs. Bailey spooned tea between my chattering teeth; I’ve no idea what weed or herb it contained, but I was in no position to challenge her remedy. Still shivering, I resisted the darkness of fatal sleep.
Eventually, pale dawn crept through the tiny window. I must have dozed, safely then, and I thrashed my thawed limbs. The bottles seemed filled with boiling water, and I cried for Mrs. Bailey to remove them immediately. She touched my brow with her chilled hand.
“He’s burnin’ up,” she exclaimed.
I was sponged with cool water, but the fire raged on. I dreamed of the croft in Scotland where I had lived, the highlands, and the University in Glasgow. I was tossed on the waves of the Atlantic, felt the salty spray on my face, then fell again and again into the frozen creek.
During lucid moments, I tried to direct the Baileys to my bag and the blessed bottle of laudanum. Instead, Mrs. Bailey continued to give me tea laced with honey, and sometimes, mercifully, something stronger.
Finally, choking, I could not draw air into my congested chest any more. Mrs. Bailey held up a goose feather, stripped of its fringe, except for a tuft at the end. Opening my mouth, she slid the feather down my throat, twisted, and pulled out the offending phlegm.
I recovered in the following days, benefitting from Mrs. Bailey’s convalescent diet of teas, gruels, and soups.
Happily, Luke’s new brother had turned himself around and had been born without my help.
It was a humbling experience for me, to be healed by a farmwife. I, with my modern University training, and she, with her simple prairie ways.
Very humbling, indeed.
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