Hard Mercy – Chapter 2

Caleb is unconscious, and Ellie and I speak in low whispers.

“We need to get him to a doctor,” she says.

“I agree, but he’s too weak to ride. I doubt he can even stand up.”

“Can’t we make some sort of pallet and drag him to town on it?”

“We can, but it won’t be very comfortable being drug along, especially if the town’s very far away.”

“Caleb says it’s not too far. I think we should at least try. I’m scared, Joseph. I’m scared for Caleb’s life. I’m scared about how he and I are going to raise a family if he loses his arm. I’m scared about what Momma and Daddy are going to say. I’m scared about so many things that all I can do right now is focus on the next step in front of me, and that step is finding a doctor.”

“Okay. Let’s build a pallet then,” I tell her. I don’t mention that I’m growing concerned about our parents and siblings. I had been so consumed with catching the villain and making him pay that I’d completely forgotten about them. They were undoubtedly awakened by the rifle shot, and then saw me ride away bareback on our one and only horse. So at this point, my parents are missing their two oldest children, their horse, and the only gun in the camp, and they still have no idea why. If Ellie is scared, then they are doubly so, but when I see the pain in Ellie’s face as she looks at Caleb, I keep silent.

As I look around the cabin for materials to make the pallet, I notice the hole in the wall from the rifle, and it gives me an idea. I grab the iron poker that has cooled down by now and head outside.

Using the poker, I carefully pry the damaged board from the side of the cabin. The board has a perfectly round hole on one end from the bullet. Maybe I can run a rope through this hole and secure the other end to the saddle on Caleb’s bay. I pry several more boards loose and shoot holes in each of them. The noise brings Ellie running out of the cabin.

“Joseph, what are you doing? You’re disturbing Caleb’s rest.”

“Carpentry work,” I answer.

I show her the holes in the boards and explain how it will give me a way to attach the makeshift pallet to the saddle. She looks doubtful, but leaves me to my work and goes back to Caleb.

By the time I finish making the pallet, not to mention watering and brushing down the horses, it is well past midday. Now I am really worried about my family, but I say nothing.

Ellie has managed to get Caleb to eat a little of the smoked meat he had stored in his saddlebags and to drink some broth. He still looks pale and weak, and I worry that he may have an infection.

I’ve heard my father say that during the War Between the States, more men died from infections than anything else. He was just a boy at the time and had helped carry messages and do odd jobs for the Union side. He would meet men who had small injuries—the type they would shrug off and their buddies would tease them about—but then the wounds would turn red and inflamed, and small blisters would form around the edges. The men would run high fevers and begin to talk nonsense, or they’d slip into a deep sleep full of desperate gasping breaths until they finally exhausted themselves and fell silent forever.

“Caleb,” I say. “Just lie still and let Ellie and me do the work. We are going to carry your cot outside.”

Ellie lifts one end of the cot and I get the other. Caleb is pretty solid, so we have to stop and rest every few feet. It reminds me of something my father always says about life’s problems. He says that whenever we encounter a problem in life, we tend to tell God, “God, I’ll take one end of this problem if you’ll grab the other and help me move it out of the way.” We struggle this way through every difficulty, but our problems keep getting bigger and bigger until they eventually get so big, we can no longer lift our end. Then we tell God, “God, you’ll have to take care of this one on your own, because I’m not going to be much help.” It is at that moment, according to my father, that we truly begin to understand the nature of God and to really trust Him for the first time.

Unfortunately, my father is full of this type of impractical thinking. It is the kind of thinking that leads a man to wander the West with a wagonload of children and not so much as a six-shooter at his side. It certainly isn’t helping me right now. Right now, all I have is Ellie on the other end, and she’s about to give out.

“Not much further,” I reassure her once we make it onto the porch.

We decide to break the legs off the cot and place the bed portion of it on top of the pallet I’ve created. That way Caleb doesn’t have to exert himself very much, although he does get jostled around quite a bit as we remove the legs from the cot with him still on it.

Once Caleb and his bed are secured in place, I decide to ride ahead on the family horse and scout the smoothest route. Ellie tucks her petticoat underneath her and climbs into the saddle of Caleb’s horse. She will follow behind, slowly pulling the pallet.

“You ready, Ellie?” I ask.

“I think so.”

“How about you, Caleb?”

Caleb nods and gives a grim smile. I can tell he is hurting, but he doesn’t look nearly as pale as he did earlier. Maybe it’s the sunshine.

By the time I reach the outskirts of town, the sun is already starting to go down. I circle back to tell Ellie and Caleb that we’re almost there.

“Ellie, I’m going to go on into town and locate the doctor. You keep riding in slow. Once I’ve found the doc, I’ll come back and guide you straight to him. That way Caleb won’t spend a whole lot of time sitting in the middle of the street with people gawking.”

“That’s a good idea, especially since I’m down to my petticoat. I wouldn’t want people gawking at me, either.”

“Oh, right,” I say. I hadn’t given it much thought, but not only was her skirt missing, but her petticoat was bunched up in such a way that you could see her thighs just above the knees. It’s not the kind of thing a brother would notice unless it’s pointed out to him, but I’m sure Caleb would have thought of it, if he were in any condition to do so. And Momma? She would have had a fit.

I turn my horse toward town. “I’ll hurry,” I reassure her.

As I approach, I notice a stable and a corral on the edge of town. There is a cowboy trying to break a horse while several of his friends look on shouting and laughing. He is quickly tossed off and stomps over to his friends cursing and spitting out dirt.

“Any of you fellows know where to find a doctor?” I ask.

“I ain’t hurt that bad,” says the cowboy, brushing himself off. His friends break out in another round of laughter.

“It’s for a friend of mine,” I say. “He’s been shot.”

That quiets them down briefly. “In that case,” says one of them, “You can find the doctor’s office about midway through town, next to the Sherriff’s.”

“Thank you,” I say, tipping my hat. “Much obliged.”

“You’re welcome, but I don’t think he’s around. I heard that he headed south earlier today to check on a fever outbreak at one of the big ranches. He may be back tomorrow, but I can’t say for sure.”

“Oh,” I say.

“You might check with the apothecary, though. He’s probably still open and may be able to help you. His place is just across the street from the doctor’s.”

“Again, much obliged,” I say. As I turn to go, I notice that the horse is still kicking its hind legs high in the air, even though the rider is long gone.

“That must be one tough horse to break,” I say. “It’s still kicking.”

“Oh, we ain’t breaking it. That horse was likely broke long ago. We’re just having some fun.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well,” explains the dust-covered cowboy, “If you want a horse to kick, you just lasso him where it counts, climb on board, and then cinch things down nice and tight.”

That is when I notice the small rope hanging between the hind legs of the still kicking horse.

“I can’t believe you would do that to your own horse,” I say.

“Oh, he ain’t my horse,” the cowboy answers.

“We don’t know whose horse it is,” adds one of his friends.

They all begin to hoot and holler, except the fellow who had been so helpful.

“Listen,” that one says, looking uncomfortable, “why don’t I take you to the apothecary myself?” Leaving the others behind, we head on into town together.

<< Back to Chapter 1. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Read Chapter 3 >>

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