Sunset, Colorado – May, 1880
Willie Morse tugged the cap down low on his forehead. With luck nobody would recognize him. Lately, luck had been a scarce commodity. Sometimes, in his more sober moments—which were less frequent day by day—he reprimanded himself for his foolish attempts at gambling. When he’d first come to stay in the town of Sunset, he’d actually thought to make a living of sorts at the gaming tables. Instead, he’d only lost what little he’d once had. Now, he mostly stayed drunk, living in the blissful world of solace and sweet oblivion that whiskey brought. He really didn’t care all that much about money any more, really had little use for it. Begging, borrowing, and on occasion, stealing provided him the subsistence he needed.
No, money had little value. What mattered were the basic necessities that supported life. Whiskey. Food. An occasional bath to wash off the stink that settled on him like ticks on a coon hound, and most of all, a pillow beneath his head when he closed his eyes for the night—wherever that happened to be.
A good pillow, Willie often thought, was a source of comfort, a guard against the bad dreams and wicked nightmares that had plagued him in the months since his father’s disappearance.
Of course, he did his best not to dwell on the past and the awful truths he’d learned about his father, but that didn’t stop others from thinking on it. Nor did it stop folks from judging Willie by his old man’s actions.
He couldn’t take it anymore. Even those little creature comforts that had sustained him in recent months had ceased to have meaning. Except for one particular little craving.
Still a bit unsteady on his feet from the previous night’s spree, he wrapped his hands around the railing as he staggered up the front steps to the mercantile. When he reached the wooden porch, he squared his shoulders as best he could, took a deep breath, then pushed open the door and slithered inside.
He’d lost quite a bit of weight. Not having regular meals had quickly reduced his once bulky frame to one of more normal proportions. Along with the ratty old clothes, the dirty tweed cap he’d purloined from a British fellow with an odd-sounding accent, and the scuffed boots with the soles worn thin, he looked nothing like the Willie Morse of days gone by. He squinted. Nobody in the store so much as gave him a second glance.
Keeping close to the far wall, he edged his way past the displays of canned tomatoes and fancy tins of oranges, past the dry goods, and on past the shelves stocked high with boots, hats, ropes, nails, and sundry other items a fellow might have need to buy. A prudent shop-keeper, Asa Taylor offered a wide variety of merchandise for his customers.
But Willie had no need for any of it. His sights were set on the big barrel at the back of the store. He kept his head down and spoke to no one. Already his mouth was watering for the taste. He sidled up alongside the wide oaken barrel and leaned against it. One big hand snaked downward.
“Damn it, Willie, get your hands out of the pickle barrel. You’ve got no intentions of paying for what you take, and don’t tell me otherwise.”
He whirled around and looked up into the uncompromising glint of Sheriff Caleb Bryant’s cold, dark eyes.
“A man’s got to eat.” Willie fished a green pickle from the barrel. As he bit off a chunk of the tasty treat, footsteps clattered across the wooden floor.
“Sheriff Bryant, you’ve got to do something about that man.” The proprietor, a tall and gaunt fellow, shook a bony finger at the lawman. Beside him stood his plump, moon-faced wife. She shook her finger, too, for good measure.
“That’s right, Sheriff,” she declared. “Every day he comes in here and pilfers whatever he can lay hands on before we catch him and shoo him out. Either you arrest him,” Martha Taylor said in a strident voice, “or I’m going to the mayor to make an official complaint. Against you,” she added, jabbing a fleshy finger at the tin star on the lawman’s chest. “If we’re going to have a sheriff, we deserve one who’s going to make sure folks uphold the laws. Now, I’ll grant you that stealing a pickle probably doesn’t seem like a serious crime, and it’s certainly not a hanging offense, but—”
Old Asa stepped up and placed a hand on his short, stout wife’s shoulder. His eyes bore down on Willie. “See what you’ve done? You’ve got her all wound up now.” He nodded toward the barrel. “Just get your hands out and go. We’d appreciate it if you not come back.”
Willie’s face screwed up. His mouth puckered.
“Hold on.” Asa went to the cash drawer, opened it, and dug out a few copper coins. “If you’re in need of help, say the word. That’s all you have to do, not steal. I’m more than willing to help a man out when he’s down on his luck. Now, don’t make me regret doing this.” He handed the coins to the disheveled man. “It’s a sorrowful thing, Willie, to see you this way.”
Willie flung the pennies to the ground. “Don’t insult me, old man. I don’t want anything from you.”
Even before he got all of the words out, Sheriff Bryant grabbed his shirt collar. “That’s enough. No call for you to act like a jackass. I’m arresting you.”
“For what?” Willie jerked away. Though not nearly as tall as Caleb Bryant, and despite the pounds he’d shed, he was thicker built, more solid. He could still throw a good punch. He sucked in a breath and resisted the temptation to land a fist in the lawman’s face.
“Public drunkenness. You know I don’t allow that in my town.”
“This isn’t your town, and for your information, I’m not drunk. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He tugged the cap down again, drew himself up, and did his damnedest to walk a straight line from the pickle barrel to the door.
Passing by a pretty, dark-haired girl, he winced, then set his mouth in a scowl.
“What you looking at?”
She drew back. Willie wanted to think it was his imposing presence that warned her to step away, but he knew more likely it was his foul breath and the stench of his clothes. Sure enough, the girl’s pert nose wrinkled.
Willie lifted his head and marched onward.
“Now that’s plumb pitiful,” a soft voice said. He knew it was the pretty girl, but at the moment he was too far gone to give a damn what she thought of him.
* * * *
Hattie Mae Richards clamped a hand over her mouth. Her face must be beet red judging by the heat emanating from her cheeks.
“I shouldn’t have said that.” She lowered her gaze. She’d been brought up better and knew a decent young girl never uttered such unkind words aloud. A truly good girl would never even think such awful things.
“Don’t go apologizing,” Old Asa told her. “Never wrong to speak the truth, Miss Richards.”
She lowered her gaze. “It is the truth, and that’s the real shame of it.” But she had better things to do than waste her time thinking about a stinking drunk, especially one who’d been born to a life of wealth and privilege. Although she’d never been formally introduced to William Howard Morse, Jr., she knew quite well who he was.
She knew, of course, that he’d been through some rough times in the past few months, at least, that’s what people said. Exactly what had happened, Hattie didn’t know, and it wasn’t her place to pry. Her friend, Emily Sue, just shook her head when the subject came up and refused to divulge anything more. The whole sorry state of affairs was best forgotten, she’d insisted.
All the same, to Hattie’s mind, personal misfortune offered no excuse for bad behavior. Life dealt blows to many folks. She could attest to that from her own experience. She, however, had not become a wastrel or drunkard. If anything, hardships, disappointments, and the undeniable unfairness of life should be seen as sources of strength, not justification for defeat.
“What was it you were needing, dear?” Martha Taylor waddled over to Hattie. The sweet old woman’s usual smile had returned. So had the pleasantness in her voice.
Hattie blinked, pushed aside her philosophical musings, and quickly loosened the drawstrings of her reticule. “Dr. Kellerman sent me over to give this to you.” She pulled out a hand-written list and shook it open. “He said you probably wouldn’t have the items in inventory but thought perhaps you could pick them up the next time you go to Denver. They’re supplies for the hospital.” She spoke the final word with reverence.
To become a nurse and provide care to the ailing meant everything to Hattie now. She marveled at how greatly her life had changed. Only a few months before, she’d been shut away in a dreary little room at Miss Brundage’s Female Academy, working diligently to earn her teaching credentials. But she knew she didn’t have the temperament for it. She could never have handled a rowdy classroom.
When Emily Sue—her friend and former roommate—mentioned that Dr. Kellerman was opening a hospital in Sunset, Hattie realized at once that nursing was her true calling. She immediately applied to train with him and was on the next stage to Sunset after receiving acceptance. Hattie adored the big, bear-like Abner Kellerman with his deep voice and friendly manner, as well as his lovely wife, Charlotte. They had taken her into their home and made her feel welcome.
Not once had she regretted her impetuous decision.
Mrs. Taylor perused the list and nodded. “We’ll be making a trip tomorrow, won’t we, Asa?” She turned to her husband who nodded, then with a smile, she tucked the supply list into the pocket of her apron. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“No, thank you. I’d better be getting back.” Hattie straightened her shoulders. “I have a lot of studying to do. There’s so much to learn about caring for patients, passing out medications, and keeping careful records.” Pride was a horrible sin, but Hattie couldn’t help but feel her heart swell each time she thought of the tremendous faith the good doctor had placed in her. She meant to become the most knowledgeable and efficient nurse possible. “I’ll tell the Kellermans that you’re going to Denver—”
From the roadway in front of the store, shouts and cries rose up. A shrill whinny rent the air, followed by an awful crashing noise. The mercantile itself shuddered and shook as every man, woman, and child rushed outside to see what had happened. Asa Taylor and his wife pushed their way through the door along with the others, leaving Hattie standing alone, her mouth open, her sentence still unfinished.
Gathering her wits, she closed her mouth and raced toward the door. Even before she stepped out into the afternoon light, she knew there’d been an accident, and she could probably guess who was involved.
“Is anyone hurt?” she called out as she tried to squeeze through the crowd of onlookers who stood gawking at the scene. Nobody moved. “Please, let me through.” I’m a nurse. As much as she wished she could say those words, they would be untrue. She was not a nurse, only a hopeful young girl learning the profession. “Please, move aside.” Hattie pushed her way through to the front, then gasped to see Willie in the middle of the road, surrounded by the shattered remains of a freight wagon. Several crates had fallen and broken open, spilling out their contents—a flock of chickens. The noisy birds squawked and flapped as a couple young boys chased them along Main Street.
Doing her best to remember her training, Hattie quickly assessed the situation. The delivery driver had apparently swerved and run into a water trough, but he’d hit Willie, too. The young man lay unmoving, covered with blood, his clothes ripped to shreds. The lower leg of his torn trousers flapped open to reveal a huge, ugly gash, one so deep the shin bone showed. His skin had a deathly gray pallor. His eyes were closed.
For all she knew, he might already be dead, but for pity’s sake, why wasn’t anyone trying to help?
“Damned drunk. Serves him right. Wasn’t your fault, Jed.” A knot of men formed around the badly-shaken driver to offer assurance, while a scrawny adolescent patted the horses’ necks to calm them. Nobody seemed to care what happened to the injured man lying motionless in the street.
Hattie raced forward, knelt beside Willie, and bent her ear close to his mouth. A slight breath touched her cheek. “He’s alive.” Her heart beat a frantic rhythm. She placed a hand at his neck but couldn’t be sure whether or not she felt a pulse. “I’ll get Dr. Kellerman.”
In the midst of the noise, confusion, and clucking hens, Sheriff Bryant appeared. His call for order quieted the crowd, but the fowl paid him no mind. “Shoo those chickens away and get a cart over here. We’re going to need a couple strong men to move him.” He gestured toward Willie.
“Don’t know why you’re bothering.” A broad-shouldered farmer stepped forward, glanced down at the stricken young man, and shook his head. “Fellow probably ain’t going to make it, and no great loss if he don’t. I reckon he’s better off dead.”
“Miss Richards.” The sheriff held a hand out toward Hattie, then helped her to her feet when she grasped hold of it. “Go on. Tell Abner we’ve got a serious injury here. Better tell him to set up his operating table.”
Hattie gulped and looked once more at Willie. She’d never seen so much blood before, and now, somehow it was covering her, too. Praying her legs wouldn’t give out before she reached Dr. Kellerman, she broke into a run. Behind her, grudging voices grumbled and complained.
Shocked by their callous remarks, she fought back tears and wondered how people could be so cruel. She didn’t much like him either, but she’d do her best to save him. Drunk or not, Willie Morse didn’t deserve to die.
* * * *
The procession bearing Willie’s near-lifeless body—and followed by a few straggling Rhode Island Reds—reached Dr. Kellerman’s hospital only moments after Hattie’s frantic arrival. She’d blurted out news of the accident, recited as many details as she could recall, and already the physician had set to work preparing his operating table.
“Where is Mrs. Kellerman?” Hattie pressed her hands to her aching sides, struggling to catch her breath. “If you’ll tell me where she is…”
The man shook his head. “No time for that. She’s off visiting the grandchildren.” His attention turned then to the open doorway and the injured man. “What happened to him?” he asked as he began his examination.
“Damned fool stepped right out in front of Jed’s wagon. Lucky he didn’t get himself killed.”
“Maybe that’s what he was trying to do.” Abner let out a long breath. “Get him on the table. I’ll do what I can for him.” But instead, his eyes focused on Hattie. “Wash up, Miss Richards. I’ll need your assistance.”
“I can’t help you.” Her heart pounded. “I haven’t been properly trained for surgery yet.” Pushing her way toward the door, she drew in a deep breath. The noise and confusion assailed her, making her dizzy. “I’ll go for your wife, sir, she’ll be able—”
“I’ve told you, there isn’t time enough. Now, listen to what I say, and do exactly as I tell you.”
“Yes, sir.” One hand on the door, Hattie froze. Slowly, she turned, her gaze falling upon the operating table where Willie lay, barely conscious. “He will live, won’t he?”
“Can’t say whether he will or won’t.”
After motioning for the crowd—and the chickens—to step back, Dr. Kellerman closed the door. He worked quickly, moving about the small room, unrolling bandages, and gathering bottles of dark glass, the contents of which were a mystery to Hattie. He laid out an array of gleaming metal instruments.
“I told you to wash your hands.”
“Yes, sir.” She watched as he poured hot water over his own hands and scrubbed with a thick bar of lye soap. When he stepped away from the sink, she followed the same procedure.
In one of his first teaching sessions, he’d stressed the importance of cleanliness in the medical practice. Many doctors scoffed at the idea of unseen germs causing infections or disease, but Dr. Kellerman believed strongly in the theory and was certain he’d someday be proved correct.
“We’ll have to use ether.” The doctor’s eyes studied her closely. “It’s safe when used properly but can kill if too much is administered. Don’t question what I tell you, Miss Richards. Do as I say, and do it without hesitation.” His expression softened. “You’ll be all right.”
“Yes, of course.” Although she couldn’t recall a time when she’d ever been so nervous, she resolved at once to do whatever was asked of her. A life was at stake.
She listened with care as instructions were given.
“Sponge. Towel.” She recited the words aloud as she gathered the items together. Hattie glanced at her mentor and nodded. “Three inches from the nostrils. Thirty seconds.” Miraculously, her hands obeyed each command. As she repeated the words and phrases, her voice seemed to come from somewhere far away, as though her mind was no longer in her body, as though she were no longer there. Shy, insecure Hattie Mae Richards had somehow disappeared to be replaced by a calm, strong-willed young woman of courage and duty.
Dr. Kellerman took his place and set to work. His gnarled fingers reached from one instrument to the next, flying quickly and efficiently.
“Yes, sir. Clamps.”
Hattie’s hands moved swiftly, too, doing the doctor’s bidding. Sutures, gauze, another drop of ether. She questioned nothing and did as she was told.
At last, the surgery was finished.
“Is it over, sir? Is that all you need from me?” Hattie looked up, grateful to have made it through the ordeal. When Dr. Kellerman nodded, a gasp of air rushed from her lungs. Her body began to shake from tip to toe. Bursting into tears, she fled from the room.
She had done it, yes, but she wasn’t sure she could ever do it again.
Thoughts flooded her brain. Each time she closed her eyes she saw the image of the skillful physician cleaning the wound, cutting into Willie’s flesh and repairing the torn, jagged edges. She saw the blood again. She saw the twitch of Willie’s eyelids as he succumbed to the vapors and slipped into a deep, deep sleep.
Had he felt anything? Surely not. The thought brought a bit of comfort.
An hour later, Hattie Mae sat alone on the porch that wrapped around the hospital—an old two-story residence purchased and refurbished by Abner and Charlotte Kellerman. From the outside it appeared a cheerful, inviting residence. On the inside, the hushed atmosphere and the pungent smell of antiseptic and various medications made its true function immediately apparent. It was the first—and only—hospital in the town of Sunset.
After all the hubbub of the awful accident, the afternoon seemed oddly quiet. Most folks were probably gathering around either the Red Mule saloon or Taylor’s Mercantile to talk about the day’s events. A few of them, she guessed, would probably be betting on the outcome, taking odds as to whether or not young Mr. Morse would survive.
Hattie’s hands still trembled. She sucked in great gulps of air in an attempt to calm herself. Somehow, she’d done it all correctly, had kept her head, choked back the fear building inside of her, and she’d performed a valuable service, but Lord knew, she hoped she never had to do it again. She had no desire to be a surgical assistant. Her role was supposed to be that of a kind and gentle caretaker, an angel of mercy who could soothe a fevered brow, smile away aches and pains, and attend to the comforts of the ill.
The door opened. Hattie glanced over her shoulder, smiling as the doctor stepped out onto the porch to join her. He still wore his blood-stained jacket. The sight of it made her wince.
“He’s sleeping quite soundly.” Dr. Kellerman nodded his head in the general direction of the room where Willie lay. He placed a hand on Hattie’s shoulder. “You did well, Miss Richards. If he pulls through, he’ll have you to thank for helping save his life.”
“I only did what you asked.” She cocked her head. “You said if he pulls through…” Hesitant to speak her thoughts, she bit her lip. “He might still die. That’s what you’re saying.”
“We do our best, but a lot depends upon the patient. I’m not sure this fellow’s got the will to live.” He hesitated, as if he were chewing on his thoughts. “The next few days will tell the tale. The wound itself could have been worse. He’s a lucky man. There wasn’t any damage to the artery, and miraculously, no broken bones. There’s still danger of infection, though.”
“Will he be in much pain?”
“Am I to give him laudanum?”
“Only in small doses, and only if the pain is unbearable.”
“How long will he require care?”
“He’ll need someone to sit with him for the next twenty-four hours. He’ll probably be here several weeks.” He got to his feet. “I’ll send word to his mother in Denver. As far as I know, Willie’s got no place of his own to stay.”
“I’ve heard he’s been sleeping at the livery most nights.” Hattie thought again of Willie’s privileged background as the son of a federal judge. Truly sad to see how low he’d fallen.
“Or sleeping it off in the back room at the Red Mule.” Dr. Kellerman wore a woeful expression. “That’s what drink does to a man.”
Hattie wondered again at the circumstances behind Willie’s wretched existence. His father had been accused of some wrong-doing, she recalled, but she didn’t know the particulars. None of her business, she told herself, biting her lip to keep from blurting out her questions.
When Dr. Kellerman cleared his throat, she looked up at him. “Yes, sir?” She knew the sound always presaged something of importance.
“Seems today turned out to be a test for you, Miss Richards. You rose to the occasion. Nursing is a profession that requires a number of different skills, not the least of which is the ability to follow directions. You did well.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Have you ever considered attending a nursing college?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have the resources. Besides, I’m quite happy here, Dr. Kellerman.”
“I’m pleased to have you, Hattie.”
She basked in the warmth of his words. How good it felt to be accepted, to feel as though she had finally found a place where she belonged. Even more, to have found a role in life which she could perhaps fulfill. Of course, she could not truly take any credit.
If she could provide comfort to the sick or soothe a hurting soul, it was only because the Lord had seen fit to give her the gifts of compassion and caring. She prayed she might use her gifts well.
Thank you for visiting. I hope you’ve enjoyed this opening chapter from “No Regrets”.